M is for Mission

This is what Gladys thought as she waited to do her act. (Her thoughts have been translated into standard sentence form in order to make them more comprehensible to non-Gladys entities.)

Life is so strange and I don’t know why we don’t say this more often instead of comments about the weather. Not that we have to be emotional about it; it can be casual. “Hey how are ya? Boy life is some weird shit.” “Weird enough for ya?” “It might get weirder tomorrow.” “Okay well I’ll be sure to bring an umbrella.” And then we’ll both make that laugh you make when you are speaking out of your own asshole through a smile.

I do a good job at it – living I mean, sometimes. Sometimes when I succeed at basic human interactions I feel the need to reward myself. I let myself eat two soft-baked oatmeal squares instead of one, compulsively, then maybe three: I can’t stop because I need something in my mouth to plug the awesome rush of pleasure I feel at having fooled the outside world once again. They think I’m normal. They think I’m – 

When I hand the DMV employee my license that proves I exist; when I say, “Thank you” when someone holds the door open for me; when I say “How much does a haircut cost at this establishment?” and weigh the number against what I know of the world and nod and accept the coming transaction and later press the right buttons on the card machine to take my invisible money. When I do these things without pulling my lips over my gums or asking strangers for reactions to the latest natural disaster or hopping up and down with this excess of passion I feel at unusual moments I’ve done it; I’m safe; I’ve kept up the ruse for just another day another dollar.

Some days I feel less tied to this body then others. Sometimes I feel like I might fly off, fly right into someone else or a window or a plastic chair. But they don’t know that. And they don’t know how long I stared at my shit this morning, with a kind of pride in its odor, before flushing it down the hole in the ground with a cup full of water. Ubania is different. But I guess I could get used to it because you can get used to anything – why do we even have running shoes, for example? In Apocalypto the Mayan people (were they Mayan?) did all the running without shoes on. I think.

But that was what they were used to because there wasn’t any asphalt back then, or it was still tucked under the ground somewhere, waiting to be invented by a man from Kansas. Waiting to be discovered. As if asphalt were under the earth all along; as if asphalt were the natural state of things and nowadays with the sprawl it is finally conquering the grass and soil and water that once ran rampant over it like whoever killed all the Mayans ran rampant on them. Or were the Mayans the ones who just left? They just left. They just got up and quit the game. Well, somebody did, anyway. People quit the game all the time. Just this second someone is.

Sometimes I catch myself making a face, a face that says, I am having a thought; I am having a feeling; I am utterly confused by how unlikely language is, or how impossibly plastic it is that there are people who know just how to start and operate a community college, for example, because it is a tradition that has been handed down. If you tried to start a community college from scratch it would be a disaster.

It might also be a miracle, going ahead without the instructions, but miracles are disasters; they disturb the order, like children do. And the fact that there is a handbook, that there are people who devote their lives to being specialists in starting community colleges is a testament, ultimately, to the great bee hive we have made of humanity, and a sign no less impressive than the great cathedrals, really.

Sometimes I catch myself making that face, is my point, and I have to snap out of it and put on one of the normal faces before someone asks me What’s going on in there partner?

We know how to start a community college much better than we know how to raise children, I mean universally, or on average, I’d say. 

Sometimes God gets into my throat and tries to come out through my eyes. Sometimes the baby inside me eats everything and wants more as it divides, doubles 1  2  4  8, dividing me and my self (now that I’ve reconciled with my self after the shadow Waldorf incident), and now I am 2 – not equal parts, not halves like with John, but 2 all the same, and she-he in the belly has and will always have more of my self than I will ever again, the self in me dwindles as the belly grows, and the child will carrying that part of my self, skin my self’s knees, lose my self’s teeth, drag my self in the dirt saying relax Mom only dorks wear helmets.

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I see motherhood in an instant. I mean that I will have to be prepared for all of it at once, and I cannot imagine how I will have the energy and strength and wisdom to be all things to a toddler and a teenager and a post-millennial twentysome who lives in my basement all NOW, at the same time. But that is the calling; that is all the apples in the seed. Because after all it only took a second to begin, it only took a touch, his hit mine and pow shazam off to the great babyrace.

In that second that is my impending maternity is all of my son’s life; yes, he will be a son, even I can feel that, I don’t need Jude to interpret my dream after all.

Oh I want a pickle.

Please God stay in my throat and let me hear you when I speak to my son. Please give me the right things to say when the tubes come out of his sickly little arms like they did in the dream when he asks me the hard questions about life like “Mommy, did you remember to close the garage door?”

The trouble is I’ve closed the garage door so many times, God, that when I drive away, in that moment of quotidian self-doubt two blocks from home, I try to remember if I closed it, try to visualize, but that day’s memory is crowded in on by so many other identical days’ memories – the garage door closing in snow in rain in sun in dark winter months when I go to the store before the light comes out that I don’t know. The door might be wide open and I personally don’t mind but John doesn’t want to have to buy a new TV, I know, if it happens again, not that he gets a vote anymore on whether I put the door up or down.

So the chemicals will be dripping into Albert’s blood to kill him, because his name is Albert and he will die, and all I will be able to say is “I don’t know honey. Memory’s not a real thing. Memory is just a thing Mommy made up one day when she was trying to explain to you what it means to think you must be the same person every time you wake up or breathe.”

There’s a bird in my throat now.

Or there will be, a bird, a hummingbird, without your stillness, God, without your patience of silence, who else could be wise enough to give us no answers never answers not a shred of a clue of an answer, and I will say instead these things to my child, to my poor motherless child who will grow up idealizing his in absentia father, bastard, this weirdness will flutter out of my mouth at 60 beats a second – no, it must be more than that – sweet sugar water my heart beats and so much for wisdom.

One time I went walking and the sky was two blues and there were trees with leaves but rain had made the summer cool for a stolen evening and I saw a cop car with its blues flashing. It came up behind a car far down the block where I was walking and the two cars stayed there, both partially eclipsing each other’s radical lights, and the blue with a white sticker center, the blue I thought I would die when I got there, I thought that was it. It had been a good day, a day to point up to the sky and wag your finger like a football player and this seemed the end, I was ready. But I passed the cars and saw the blue dancing seizure from behind me now sprayed onto the trunk of a tree and a metal street sign a riot and I heard in my head

Stay alive.

Stay alive.

Stay alive.

The children eat tin but their stomachs will be iron.

Here you can’t walk at night because someone might blow up too close to you before you can spot them and run in the other direction.

“Ladies and gentleman, may I present the woman who loves and hates at the same time!”

Gladys stepped onto the stage. A picture of John descended, dangled on some fishing line. The crowd hushed.

Gladys looked at John’s image. And she loved him.

Gladys looked at John’s image. And she hated him.

She didn’t chicken out; she didn’t alternate these two things. She performed them both deeply and with commitment, and she performed them at exactly the same time, at all times, because to her marriage too was only one instant, all of it at once, and she was in it, she was in it.

It was a big hit, the act.

L is for Lingering

There was a flight of stairs and he, whoever he was, was trying to get down it. But something was wrong. John wanted to look down at himself but his gaze was fixed on the door at the bottom of the stairs, which was white and so could be seen even in the semi-darkness. There was a thumping sound, and a lurch forward. And a thumping sound, and a lurch forward. And then John woke up.

Or was woken, rather, by Gladys’s six girlfriends invading his tent.

“Gladys doesn’t have girlfriends,” he said, but this was lost on them as they pinned him down with a Dutch wife while they heated the wax and sipped white sangria.

They asked him questions without a proper response, like “What did you do with your love?” and they waxed off a section of body hair for every dissatisfaction. He gnawed on the Dutch wife for comfort.

When his body was bald they told him tales of other men Gladys had sweated through dorm room love with, which was bad, and then when those ran out they told him tales of her love for himself, which was worse. Then they read him passages from The Golden Notebook. Then they performed scene studies from Girls.

He begged them to stop and they said, “Did you think you wouldn’t have to pay penance in order to get our girl back? Did you think there would be no heavy lifting involved?”

“But I don’t want to get your girl back,” he said. “At least I don’t know if I do and if I don’t know you can’t know.”

“Oh come on, John.”

“Don’t make us laugh.”

“You need her.”

“Your story doesn’t get told if it isn’t next to hers.”

“I don’t want her back,” he said, and it stopped them for a moment. It surprised him too. “I don’t. You don’t know. It’s not just me. You can’t know the truth between two people unless you’re one of them,” he said.

This stirred them back to anger.

“What kind of rationalization is that?”

“Yeah, who are you, Woody Allen?”

“No, I am.”

Woody Allen was now in the tent, and the sight of him so enraged the GladysBacchae that they shattered the sangria glasses and gnashed their teeth. They would have committed a felony then and there but after all tomorrow was Monday and they had work in the morning so instead they away from that mandead place, screaming about how now they could never watch Annie Hall again.

“Thanks,” said John.

“I didn’t intend to help you,” Woody said. “I was here for a sorry test and I heard the sounds of women and wax so naturally I was intrigued.” He shrugged.

John knew about the sorry tests. Noah, who was the true holder of the title Sorriest Man Alive, would sit quietly with a person for a moment, hold his or her hand, look into the eyes, and then smile and walk away. Based on his verdict, the person’s name was added either to the Sorry or Not Sorry list. These lists were going to be used, John wasn’t entirely sure how, when the end of days started.

“Did you pass the test?”

“He said my movies did. Which is about as good, in my book.”

There was nothing to say for a moment.

“The heart wants what it wants,” John said.

“Who said that?”

“You did.”

“Which movie?”

“In real life.”

“Oh.”

Woody then took out a scrap of paper and wrote the line down to remember for later.

“Do you still believe it?”

Woody was a little miffed by the question. “Kid,” he said, “I knew I wanted to be able to close the door when I wanted to close the door. With the crazy lady we shall not name, that eventually became too hard. So I started over with some fresh Play-Doh. The crazy lady said that my new Play-Doh is mentally challenged and afraid of men, but she is only bitter because I have been able to shape my new Play-Doh into a house with doors that close and lock when I choose. The worst of it, from the crazy perspective, is that the Play-Doh, and I, are happy. Play-Doh can be happy too you know.”

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He pulled a handful of locks out of his pockets. “For your tent if you want,” he said, shrugged, and set them down. “I have to go. The Knicks are playing.”

“No they’re not.”

But Woody was gone. John had five more minutes before he had to get up. He looked at the Dutch wife with unexpected longing. The Dutch wife seemed ambivalent.

That day John joined Noah on his inspection of the grounds. Close to the wall that was to hold back the sea were a number of gated communities. The gated communities, full of inhabitants prescreened for their sorriness, were building their walls higher and higher out of bricks in case Noah’s wall didn’t hold out. Down the road a bit from those communities were much smaller gated communities, of only a few houses per unit, and they were also building higher walls, of sticks. Farther down from that were the smallest gated communities. These were each filled with just one person, building higher and higher walls of mud around themselves. It was here they found Linda Hunt, who was nearly finished with her wall, being as short as she is.

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“But why?” John asked.

“It’s no picnic being Linda Hunt,” Linda Hunt said. “You know I won an Oscar. But did you know I had to play a Eurasian dwarf to do it? A MALE Eurasian dwarf. Opposite MEL GIBSON. And now I get some roles playing judges and other cretins but there are only so many Law and Orders in the world, and it’s hard to parlay them into a reason to keep facing the slings and arrows of female-male Eurasian dwarfdom. And don’t think I’m taking the easy way out, pinching myself off here like the mug you make at a ceramics class you had a Groupon for and wanted to take your boyfriend but you broke up first. Yes, I may get the benefits of being CEO of my own private Idaho so to speak; I may get to drink this entire cask of Amontillado by myself, but I also have to be my own policeman and fireman and garbage collector and meteorologist. I’m a whole village now. You’re looking at the Linda Hunt Village. It takes a village to raise a child, you know, but you have to be able to keep all the Mel Gibsons and rising sea levels out of the village and this is the only foolproof way. Not that I’m pregnant but what are you doing tonight?”

Noah gently steered John away.

All over their were little CEOs of little villages, and from the looks of some of the shifty-eyed rich folks peering out from behind their brick curtains, some of the big villages could splinter at any moment.

“John,” said Noah, “I’m sorry we’re having to keep you a little in the dark about operations for the moment. But this thing is sensitive and we’re still waiting for your test results to come back from the lab.”

“That’s fine.”

“Is it? Tell me something, John.”

… “What?”

“Just tell me something.”

“Oh. Well. One time I shaved, and something distracted me and I didn’t rinse all the hair down the sink. I mean I didn’t rinse any of it down.

JG2 33“I was living with, I was in college at the time, see, and well my roommate’s sister was coming to stay with us that day, and a few hours later she arrived, and went to the bathroom, and screamed, cause there were all my dark hairs plastered against the plaster. And she came out, and they had seen me – oh, that’s the other part – they had both seen me unshaved before, and shaved now. I mean it was clear what had happened. They looked at me, expectantly. And I just said, well…and I blamed it on our other roommate, who was kind of a loser. I wish I hadn’t done that.”

“That’s more regret than sorry.”

“I’m not sure I know what this sorry thing is then.”

“I know.” And that was all John saw of him for the day.

That night John had the second episode of the same dream. He was advancing down a flight of stairs, headed for the white door, shadowed by that thumping for some reason. Again he tried to look down at himself, and then he was woken up by Gladys’s six brothers. Undaunted by the locks on the tent, they had simply ripped the thing apart.

“Gladys doesn’t have brothers,” he said, but this was lost on them as they forced John to take keg stands of their nasty homebrew.

“Why did you marry our sister if you weren’t going to support her child? Why did you inSEMINATE our sister if you weren’t – ”

John tried to explain that no matter what he told them it wouldn’t be true, not completely; it couldn’t possibly be an accurate recreation of the reality of the past. He tried to say there was no truth in reconstructing the past, not even personal truth because no one could remember it long enough or write it down clear enough for it to actually be real. He tried to explain the truth was a wife and all we have is Dutch wives but they did not know what a Dutch wife was and would likely not have accepted the metaphor even if they had.

They got him so wasted on the vinegar swill that he was easily led to the Linda Hunt Village, and didn’t even protest as they packed him in mud not far from her door (now permanently closed). It wasn’t until they were gone that he began to realize he’d been buried alive.

This had happened to him before, and recently. On his New Year’s trip to Alaska he had visited the bus where Alexander Supertramp, aka Christopher McCandless, had ended his journey into the wild. Gladys was supposed to have gone with him. He had watched a number of E. M. Forster movies with her as a trade, but obviously that didn’t work out. So he went by himself and only took rice (when in Rome) and it snowed sure enough and he was stuck and starving when one morning – or night, since one was like the other – someone clawed through the snow.

A haggard-looking man, not unlike himself, with a sack of rice. “I watched both Bridget Jones movies to get here,” he told John, “but my wife ran off with a cardboard cutout of Colin Firth instead.”

So they stayed and it snowed and they starved until a sorrowed-looking young woman dug them out. “I listened to six Ani DiFranco live double albums,” she said. “Then she told me I wasn’t normcore enough. Or too normcore. I DON’T EVEN KNOW.”

They huddled together and agreed that John was the worst of all three of them and they sucked their hard rice pellets but there was no peace, as more and more poor unfortunate souls kept scrabbling through the snow before anyone could die or even get a good psychosis going.

So John set off on his own again and went up to the Grizzly Maze where Timothy Treadwell had died at the hands of the creatures he loved, and also let his ladyfriend be eaten in the process. Treadwell was a self-proclaimed user and loser before he met the grizzlies, the communion with whom gave him something to live for. John figured the choice between a life’s meaning and a quick death wasn’t one to sneeze at.

He had forgotten that bears hibernate, of course.

When he finally dug through into an actual grizzly den, Mr. Chocolate, a Treadwell favorite, raised his head sleepily. John thought, Here we go! Life!

But Mr. Chocolate just went back to sleep. In fact all the bears – Tabitha, Rowdy, Sargeant Brown, even the evil Bear 141 himself – smelled something on the Lake man that made them pity him, which made them ignore him, because grizzly bears ain’t got time for pity.

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John ate some raw salmon, made a few cave paintings of Gladys, and went home.

Suddenly, the mud around John began to crumble as giggles filled the air around him. He found himself blinking into the flashlights of a group of rainbow children.

“Oh, sorry,” their Mom-ish ringleader said. “We’re looking for 276 schoolgirls, and you’re not any schoolgirls.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“No no, it’s better that you aren’t. For you I mean.”

The children pulled John out of his cocoon.

“You’re Mia Farrow,” he said.

She smiled. “I’m me.” She produced a bag of juice boxes for the kids. She let John have one too. Hawaiian Punch.

“These are your children. You just keep getting more and more.”

“Being able to take care of someone is a special blessing.”

“But. I’m sorry this may be the live burial that’s making me so uncharacteristically blunt: Don’t you think it might be a pathological need you have? You help others to help yourself? Or to avoid helping yourself?”

“Maybe,” Mia Farrow said, before taking a crayon out of the hand of a small girl. “We don’t eat that,” she reminded. “I don’t have a lot of time to sit and think about those things. If I wrote a screenplay a year they would probably all be the same. Moses,” she said to a boy, “we ask before touching, don’t we?”

“Can I touch you?” Moses asked. John somewhat reluctantly nodded. Moses touched his hand, too shy to hold it.

“They would all be about taking care, my screenplays, and that’s a story pleasantly exhausting to live and perfectly boring to tell. We should get going.”

Just then a bulldozer beeped its way over. From the looks of it the intention of the driver was to barricade John and/or anyone else into personal vaults. For their own good, of course.

“I think what you’re doing is wrong,” Mia Farrow said to the bulldozer and to the bulldozer’s driver. Bulldozers almost always don’t work without drivers.

“Man is not an island!” Mia said. The dozer wasn’t stopping. She turned to John. She held up a sign. It said, #itdoesn’ttakeavillage.

He said, “What does it take?”

She said, ” – ”

The bulldozer went right over her. John pushed the children out of the way and the children pushed John out of the way and somehow they all pushed each other out of the way except for Mia Farrow and the bulldozer went on.

John got down on his knees to try to dig her out, but Moses said, “Can I touch you?”

John, distracted, said, “Fine,” so Moses put his hand on John’s shoulder and said, “It is okay. This is how she wanted to go.”

“THIS is how she wanted to go?”

Moses smiled. The children left to take care of themselves.

“John!” Linda Hunt called to him from inside her village. “You need to get out of here!”

“Why? I mean other than the obvious reasons, like torture.” His body hair was growing back and it was itchy as SIN.

“Because you’re not sorry, and when Noah finds out – ”

“How do you know I’m not sorry?”

“I ran the tests. I tried to delay the results coming back as long as I could.”

“I don’t know, Linda Hunt, I feel pretty sorry.”

“You might feel sorry, but Noah’s talking about being sorry. I can feel like a firefighter whenever I’m confronted with a towering inferno or the impulse to save cats and babies, but if I don’t train and listen and practice the acts that go along, well, would you want me between you and a fire?”

“I’d want anyone between me and a fire.”

“HA HA old man!”

“Why does Noah get to decide? What makes him so sorry?”

“The flood of course. It was only his family saved, remember.”

“Aha! That’s survivor guilt! That’s not sorry.”

“I haven’t finished. Only his family was saved. Which means his descendants are responsible for everything that’s happened since then.”

“Huh.”

“And he figures it’s been a bit more bad than good.”

“Well, the Inquisition and stuff, balanced against the pyramids – ”

“Slaves built the pyramids.”

“Yeah okay. I can see how owning all of human history could make you sorry.”

“Yes. But you are not sorry, John. You are something else.”

“What am I?”

“Sad.”

“Oh well FINE. Thank you SO MUCH for that ENLIGHTENING diagnosis. I’m so glad I came to the edge of the WORLD or wherever the hell we are – listen just leave me out of your walls and villages and boats, alright? I don’t want to be in on or near them anyway.”

“Who said anything about a boat?” Linda Hunt said. John was gone. “He can’t possibly know about the boat,” she said to herself.

John walked home. It took a while.

The first thing he noticed, upon turning onto his street, was a trashcan on top of his car again. This was the straw that broke the even-toed ungulate’s back. John took the trashcan from the roof of his car and threw it into the window of the house opposite. The window shattered. A moment. A light switched on. A man stepped out of the broken window. He had large eyes, a bathrobe, and wild steely hair.

“Thank you!” he said.

“Why?”

“But of course, because if you throw something away, you can’t get it back unless someone gives it back to you. Them’s the rules.”

“But why did you throw this away if you wanted it back?”

The man cocked his head. “Oh,” he said. “Pity. I thought you understood.” And then he picked up his trash and walked back through his window.

John climbed into bed and fell into a quick sleep. He was coming down the steps to the white door, thumping, but the thumping was doubled this time, like a thump and its equally thumping echo. He woke up from a knock on his door. His white door. He opened it. A female form stood there, holding a cluster of envelopes and magazines. He looked down at the anchor where her right foot should be. He looked up at the stairs she had climbed down.

“You’re Paloma Palumbo,” he said, in almost a whisper, like a child caught making fun.

JK is for Just Kid-ing

Gladys was still creating her act and had not made her stage debut yet when the Ubanian Emperor arrived one day to take her to lunch. After serving two soggy Waldorf salads, his attendants were ordered away.

“Is that because you’re afraid of them exploding on the food?”

“No. It is because I want you alone.”

Gladys noticed something about the way he said no. It’s almost as if his no had an extra and unpronounced ‘n’ on the end.

“You have maybe guessed who I am?” he said, allowing his real fake accent to thicken over his fake fake one.

“Well, I guess you’re the Ubanian Emperor, but it’s not really a fair game since you told me.”

“There is not something familiar about me?”

Gladys did admit to herself, with whom she was getting along nicely these days, that there was something a little familiar about the eyes.

“I have to tell you. I am not really blue. This is paint.”

“Yes, I know that. All Ubanians are painted.”

“Yes, but I am painted painted. I mean I do not paint myself because I am Ubanian pretending to come from the sea. I paint myself pretending to be Ubanian pretending to come from the sea.”

“I have no idea what’s happening.”

“My name is Jean.”

“Jean?”

“Oui. I come a secret agent working on behalf of the King of France.”

“I thought France had a president.”

“It does. The king has been in exile for hundreds of years now. You see, madame, Louis Seize was never executed. He was spirited away at the last minute when, en route to his beheading, he sneezed.”

Here Jean paused, for effect.

“When you sneeze, of course, it is the body’s attempt to free itself of the soul. The soul is a disgusting thing which clouds the body. The body is naturally good. It expels waste. It fights infection. It does not shove several eskimo pies into its mouth in a fit of loneliness.”

“That’s true.”

“So the king sneezed and his trusty advisor sucked in all of the air and fluid coming out of his nose at exactly the right moment, thus gurgitating his soul.

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“His advisor then had a son, who had a son, and so on. Meanwhile Napoleon and the other pretenders assumed rule of the land, but the one true royal line is quite intact, and we loyal subjects eager await the moment when the heir may emerge to the throne. But that day is not yet. You see, before he was not killed, the His Majesty Louis XVI became obsessed with life in the way that only a king may. The guillotine loomed and he began to dine seven times a day, with five enemas in between. He ordered in exotic birds and mimicked their melodies. He hired an army of perfumiers to present him with every scent known to the imagination. He slept only for two and two quarters hours a night. He used to invite giant fat women into his bedchamber simply to smother him with their enormous aliveness. He paid for royal expeditions to the ends of the earth in order to find the origin of life, which he thought might bring him some comfort in the face of the chaos that swirled around Paris. Perhaps if he knew where we came from and what we came for he could face the wicked truth of revolution. Well. Roughly one hundred and eighty years after his failed execution, we found it.”

He gestured to the air around him.

“This tiny democratic republic with a nice stretch of prime oceanfront real estate. It also has many mountains with very deep dark caves. It was here, on an expedition financed by the heir of Louis XVI, that evidence was discovered of the first human beings as we know them. Evidence much older than that found at the Ngorogoro Crater and other false origin points. Much celebration was had that day in the halls of the king. We prepared a great festival to honor the occasion, and to reveal that it was the exiled French monarchy which had made such a thing possible. To be the chairwoman of such a fete, we invited Miss Loretta Lynn. We thought the first lady of American country music would be a good fit since she crawled out of the dark mines of Kentucky and humans crawled out of the netherparts of Ubania. As you now know, this was a terrible mistake.”

He took Gladys’s hands across the table.

“The time is ripe again for monarchy. It is a dark age and the people are afraid. There is too much noise and gridlock in democracy for the safety and certainty that can only be provided by l’etat c’est moi. When there is peace in Ubania, the King of France will take the credit and use the positive PR to reclaim the throne.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I believe you have a unique role to play in restoring order.”

“Oh, my role! Yes, it’s coming along. I’m not sure it’s all that exciting, but Agatha says it’ll do.”

“I do not mean the circus.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“I mean your womb.”

“Oh. Well, my womb currently has no vacancies at the moment.”

“Yes, but it shows off wonderfully how full of life you are, in the literal and figurative sense.”

“I’m glad you think it’s wonderful.”

“The man who has been inside you does not agree?”

“Is it that obvious? I’m sorry. It’s hard to be somewhere where everything reminds me of him. Everything has a memory tied to it here.”

“Here? In Ubania? Like what?”

“That tree out there.”

“What about it?”

“John and I have a tree outside our window.”

“Like that one?”

“No, it’s a different kind of tree.” She smiled softly. “I hope his fingernails get pulled off one by one.” She laughed. “I’m sorry I’m going on and on about my husband and I hear when you’re having sexual tension with a stranger you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Ah, you hear this?”

“In books and films and the like. Songs. John believes there is only one perfectly executed love song, and that it’s ‘You’re the One,’ the version by The Vogues from 1965. I don’t understand it because the verses are about how sweet the love is, and it’s in present tense, but the chorus is about how much he longs for and misses her. Are they together or not? It’s a confusion that is never fully resolved and in fact ‘miss’ is the last word of the song. So. That says a lot about John I guess. And me since I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.”

“I’d hate to think we haven’t had a perfectly executed love song since nineteen hundred and sixty-five.”

“We have. The perfectly executed love song is growing inside me. Right now it’s just a line, a single line that gets stuck in your brain, but it’s going to be a full symphony so complex you’ll forget more of it than you remember no matter how hard you try.”

“Well, I do not mind that you speak so much of your husband. What is the alternative? You do not tell me what is on your heart? We speak of rain the park and other things?”

“The rain the park and other things! See, I think that’s a perfect love song.”

JG2 29

“I thought you might. The story of a girl who slips in through your eyes and infects your very brain. A girl who just has that je ne sais quoi. You cannot explain it. You need to be around her. You want to live a hundred lives and learn her a hundred times.”

“I think there must be as many perfect love songs as there are teenagers on the planet at any given moment.”

Jean reached down and plucked a blossom from one of the many bouquets gracing the table. He put the flower in her hair.

She blushed. “Look you’re a very nice Frenchman and I’m sure you saw this coming I certainly did but it might be better if I stay a pregnant woman etched on a Greek vase to you. What I mean is an idea in your head.”

“Do not be afraid of life.”

“Oh I’m not. I love life. I want life to continue forever.”

Just then, everything went dark.

“Whoa,” Gladys said. “Did I do that?”

“Ah, this is the Ubanian sunset. You must have missed it on the other days. There is no twilight here, due to our particular geographical location and the extremity of the mountaintops. The sun beats on until poof, gone. I think this must have contributed to early man’s sense of good and evil.”

He lit a candle.

“I shall have you taken back. And then, tomorrow, allow me to call on you. There is something I must show you.”

“Jean. You’re the King of France, aren’t you?”

And he did that French thing, where he answered and did not answer.

Back at Saints HQ, Ubanian Lisa was just wheeling in Alex.

“Look Gladys!” Alex called to her. “They painted me blue because I’m so skinny! They thought it was because I was a starving Ubanian and not because I’m blessed.”

“How, nice!”

“I think I’m really getting along with them. Lisa even taught me some Ubanian slang. Here. Tell me something that’s really obviously true.”

“Alright. Well, it sure is hot here.”

“No duh!”

Alex and Ubanian Lisa laughed and high-fived.

“It means like no kidding. All the cool kids are saying it.”

“Interesting!”

“Wow I laughed so hard today some of my teeth are loose.” She began to root in her mouth.

Agatha came close. “Have you had your communion wafer today, honey?”

“No, I divvied it up for some kids at the government school because their teacher blew himself up in front of them and I felt bad.” She pulled out a tooth. “Oo, that’s a big one. Wheel me to bed, Agatha!”

Agatha began to wheel her off.

“You think the tooth fairy comes if it fell out from malnutrition?” Alex asked.

“If she does she must be one busy bitch.”

And they were gone. Ubanian Lisa smiled shyly at Gladys. “Sorry about the slang.”

“Oh don’t be sorry. Kids will be kids.”

“I mean sorry it is so lame. The satellite signal has to bounce in and out of many caves to get to us here. So by the time we see the TV it is many years old.”

“I see.”

JG2 31“In the same way it takes years for the light of a star to get to you and many stars we see are already out but we don’t know yet.”

“That’s true.”

“You seem uneasy around me. Is it because you are afraid you will accidentally do something racist?”

“I guess it is. I’ve never had a Ubanian friend before.”

“That is fine. Please come and sit down with me and have a semi-long semi-important chat. Girl talk. If you are going to help us you must know us.”

“I’d love to do that.”

They sat side by side.

“My father did not paint a totally accurate picture for you,” Ubanian Lisa said, then looked around suspiciously. “Do not tell him this. I am secretly a Sissy.”

“Oh!”

“He has given you a twisted approximation of our faith. We believe in Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn because she is fake. We renounce Loretta Lynn as Loretta Lynn because she is real. How much better that Sissy Spacek could embody the feelings of someone who was not herself? This is empathy.”

“That’s what you believe in? Empathy?”

“Above all else.”

“You kill people in the name of empathy?”

Ubanian Lisa made the eekamakajagoogoo gesture.

“Oh. Ee-ka…”

“Eekamakajagoogoo. Half a bucket of yes – ”

“Fifty cents of no.”

“Yes. Sometimes it is hardest to empathize with those closest to us.”

“I know what you mean. I, my act in the, show is I. Well, I love my husband and hate him at the same time.”

“Ah. You are living eekamakajagoogoo.”

“I guess I am.”

“Very special. You and Loretta Lynn have this in common.”

“Oh really?”

“Oh yes! Do you not know of her difficult marriage to Doolittle Lynn, so nicknamed because of his special talent to avoid work? Ah my god! What a love story. But a hard love. Like yours must be. Does your husband beat you?”

“Oh, no.”

“Does he throw the food you make him to the dogs?”

“No, he’s allergic. To dogs, not food.”

“Has he slept with your brother’s wife?”

“No.”

“Your son’s girlfriend?”

“No.”

“Did he run off when you were pregnant and get syphilis from another women and make love to her in the house he was building for you?”

“That has not happened yet, no.”

“Doolittle did all of these things to Loretta and more.”

“Well, you know marriage troubles are really relative. You know what they say, every happy family is exactly the same, every unhappy one is its own Picasso of grief.”

“Yes, I have heard that.”

“Did Loretta and Doolittle ever sort of, level off?”

“Level off?”

“Did it ever get easier?”

“Oh no. Worse. Every time he pledged to not be bad and then was bad again, can you not see how it must have been the pain of all the times before combined, re-added, doubled onto her shoulders? He drank so much they had to cut little pieces of his body off one at a time because they were too full of poison. But Loretta Lynn stayed to the end and held his stumpy little body as he died.”

JG2 30“Why? I mean, has she, do you know why?”

“She herself only fully knew why after his death. She said that life with him was hard, but life without him was harder. Somehow her body knew this when her soul didn’t, and her body kept them together.”

“That’s nice.”

“I think it is because her body could not hear the difference in two sounds. Doolittle, for short they called him Doo. Doo she called him always. D-o with an extra o. And I think the ears heard Doo, and the brain thought both of his face and of doing. Do, do, do, and the extra O, for extra doing. Extra effort. Extra trying in the face of hardness. Over and over she heard it, it seeped into her skin, it was a part of her purest self.”

Gladys nodded. “Yeah. I should have married a man named Peace.”

“Yes, or Doubleorgasm.”

They laughed.

“I hope you will be good for us, Saint Gladys.”

“I’m not – ”

“We say we understand eekamakajagoogoo, but I think we have forgotten the real meaning. Which is what you do. You live life which is both love-hate, not too much one or the other. I think my people are like those stars I said. We are already burned out even though you can still see us. You can remind us. Show us the way back to balance of light and dark. Or else a new fire will spark in us and we will kill each other again.”

She touched Gladys’s hand. There was an explosion nearby. Ubanian Lisa checked herself, first, to see if it was her. No one really knew how sad you had to be to pop, so no one never knew it wasn’t them until they knew it wasn’t them.

Some of it had sprayed onto Gladys’s face.

“That one was close.”

“Yeah.” She wiped her eyes.

I is for Irradiate

This one begins in the middle not of the story but of John. In the middle of John was the loss of his parents. It was the center of his onion, the nougat of his Snickers. They weren’t dead, unless they were, but he had lost them one day without warning.

It happened like this. One day while courting John brought Gladys to meet the folks. You had to pass through several gates and go over a few moats and answer some culturally biased SAT questions about pocket squares and marmalade before you got clearance to the cul-de-sac, and once the lovebirds made it through, John saw the house was gone.

Gladys looked at John before she opened her door, thinking maybe he needed a moment or something. They had already listened to “At This Point In My Life” three times on the trip over, but.

“It’s gone,” John said.

Gladys looked at the house. “Well you know what they say: you can’t go home again. Come on, the apple dumplings are getting cold.”

“But the house is gone.” He pointed.

“That house?” She pointed.

They got out of the car. John said there was no house and Gladys said there was one. John threw a rock to prove his point and it went through his parents’ bay window.

Gladys rang the doorbell, even after John’s father had come out through the garage to see about the hooligans. She believed in making a good impression.

John didn’t see his father, or hear anything more than a slight hiss, as air out of a balloon. This left Gladys to her own devices, which she found rude but handled as she had handled the Tracy Chapman hat trick.

“I’m Gladys. I’m the woman for your son,” she said, “and these are apple dumplings. And the window was broken by a community college student who then ran away in glee.”

“Hellfire!” the old man said. “Was it one from the suburb campus or the inner city?”

“He looked inner city, but not in a race way.”

“No, race has nothing to do with it. Well, we’ll have to change the questions if it’s getting that easy. Maybe something about cufflinks.” He shook Gladys’s hand. “Where’s John?”

John was standing right next to him. They couldn’t even smell each other’s bay rum cologne.

“I think I know what’s going on here. But first you need to let me in so I can put these dumplings down they’re really very heavy.”

Gladys explained to John’s parents, as John sat on what looked to him like a pile of air but was really a loveseat, about how West Indies people couldn’t at first see Columbus’s ships because they were so far removed from their possible frames of reference.

JG2 24

“It’s called perceptual blindness,” Gladys said. “And it happens when the thing in front of you is so impossible your brain can’t even process it.”

“It’s also a load of hooey,” the old man said.

The old lady said, “Maybe we can find another word for hooey to use with this nice young woman we just met.”

“It probably is,” Gladys said, “more indicative of the ego of the Western invaders than the schemas of the noble savage, but I think today we’ve proven that its opposite is not a load of hooey.” Gladys served herself another apple dumpling. “You three,” she said, mouth full, pointing from John to his parents, “can’t see each other because you’re too UNimpossible.”

“So, too possible, is what you’re saying.”

“Yes, John, you could also call it too possible but I like mine better. You’ve seen each other so much, and heard each other so much, that now you’re blind to it.”

“Oh! Is that similar to the reason why so many car accidents happen within ten miles of the house?”

John turned to Gladys. “Did my mother just ask if this is similar to why so many car accidents happen within ten miles of the house?”

“She did! Did you hear her?”

“No, she just always brings that up if it’s in any way possibly relevant. She wants us to be careful.”

“Tell him that includes me too! I know I’m no ace driver like…like, oh, what’s that fellow’s name…the one in the movie with that girl from the soap I don’t watch…”

“Tell her she’s thinking of Keanu Reeves and making a reference to Speed but she always forgets that it’s Sandra Bullock who’s the one driving the bus.”

“Well I didn’t see it.”

John wasn’t like his sister, who had married that Arkansas magnate straight out of college, and who lived far away and called when she could. John had lived close, career-hopping before he landed on his nuts, even spending a tortured mid-twenties sojourn in the family basement. He’d gone on family vacations which were little more than the three of them huddled against tidal waves of silence, rehashing the same thoughts and reminiscences out of a long-instilled fear of the raised voice or the curt comment, as if family could, in the course of a dinner, break, irreparably, like a Hummel knocked from a coffee table. Actually, Hummels are pretty sturdy, so it was more like a glass Hummel, not that there is such a thing, knocked from a coffee table and then curb-stomped.

It had all come to be too much, which of course means it had all come to be too little.

So Gladys acted as a kind of conversational middleman for the Lakes, confirming for one party what the other had said, the joke the other had told, the NPR tidbit tossed out, the family memory undusted. Memories of a time when time moved like a train through stations, toward a destination, instead of what it did now.

They passed through a series of Sundays and holidays in this fashion, until one day while John reclined on an invisible armchair, settling in with a beer for a post-dinner discussion of nothing, and noticed that Gladys, helping his mother wash invisible dishes, was beginning to get a little fuzzy around the edges. Of his vision.

He got up. “We have to leave,” he said, and took his lady by the arm. She found it rude and terribly exciting. John drove her to his old high school’s parking lot and they fucked in the back.

“What’s come over you?” she asked when it was over and “Smoke and Ashes” played softly on.

He inspected her face. “You’re clear again,” he said. “You’re clear.”

He started the car. “It’s them or you,” he said, and they never went back to the Lake house again.

One morning Gladys woke up and found breakfast in bed. “Nothing’s too good for my green-eyed girl,” John said, through the rose in his teeth. Gladys knew she had blue eyes, or brown on a bad day, but she decided to let this horse find its own way to the barn. John babbled at the water cooler that day about what it’s like to make love to a greeney, which he said was the proper term for it, and he stopped at JCPenney’s on the way home to get a green scarf, “To bring out your eyes.”

This went on in various incarnations, until Gladys drew the line when John brought home a snake, “To bring out your eyes.”

At that point she pulled him close to her and let him gaze into her irises, which hadn’t a speck of the emerald city.

“There now,” she said.

“So blue,” he said. It was like seeing her for the first time all over, which of course was the point.

Gladys caught on to the game and created her own strangeifying exercises. At a restaurant one night:

“I’ll have the…” a little wrinkle appeared in the space between her eyes, “stee-ahk?”

“The which?” The waitress looked up from her pad.

“The stee-ahk?”

The waitress looked where Gladys pointed.

“The steak?”

“Steak.”

“That’s it!” John said. “I knew it wasn’t stee-ahk.”

Gladys objected. “It doesn’t count if you know what something isn’t, only if you know what it is.” She patted his hand.

“She’s always telling me that.”

“You want the steak.”

“Yes. And am I correct in assuming that ‘steak’ is…of the cow?”

The waitress looked at John. Then back at Gladys.

“Steak is beef.”JG2 25

“And beef is cow?”

“Beef is cow.”

“Why don’t they call beef cow, and steak cow, I wonder aloud,” Gladys said.

John knew. “Well you can’t order a cow, dear, they’d bring you the whole thing.”

“I guess that’s it. Cow is the one that moos?”

“How do you want the steak?”

“On a plate.”

This could go on for some time.

Shortly before Gladys left John, he took her to a special all-night dentist.

“We want the cyanide teeth,” he told the receptionist. “The fake teeth you bite down and release the cyanide with. In case there’s a revolution and we’re on the wrong side of it. We watched 12 Years a Slave last weekend, see.” The receptionist was black, but not in a race way.

“That poor Patsey. The soap scene? Forget it. Death first. That’s what we said. That’s what we both said.”

John looked at Gladys to keep up the act, but she had a faraway look in her muddy brown eyes.

“You don’t want the cyanide tooth, babe?”

“I’m pregnant.”

There was an all-night abortionist next door. John made the crucial mistake of letting his eyes flit to the left, the direction of the establishment, as his first reaction to the news.

JG2 26

Gladys left. She left the dentist, and two and a half months later she left John, who got the tooth anyway. Because that shit with Patsey really was ridiculous.

John went from being in the middle to being at the beginning, which is what we’ll do too.

Mr. Hetherington was dead and the snow was gone. It had happened gradually and then suddenly, like the Baltimore Colts’ bolt for Indy, and the only evidence now was some rubble in major parking lots: mountains of plowed snow dwindled to heaps of black ash, stubbornly asking that the genocide of warmth not be forgotten, but forgotten it was because people forget, even when they’re not trying as hard as John. It’s one of people’s finer qualities, in terms of how to get up in the morning.

Sara worked for the true Sorriest Man Alive, an entity she was now taking John to meet.

“We thought you might be a threat at first,” Sara said, “copyright infringement and all. The nature of our work, well, we need to chase down anyone who might be claiming the title, sort of like Susan G. Komen does, but with more harsh interrogation techniques. Then it turned out you were just, well, sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Why don’t you want her to have the baby?”

“This is small talk? Is this small talk? Is this the Sorriest small talk ever or something?”

“It’s research.”

“What are you planning on doing with me?”

“Answer the question or I’ll have Linda Hunt zap you.”

Yes, it turns out that Sara’s rabbity companion, all this time, was actually Oscar-winner Linda Hunt, master of disguises, principal in Kindergarten Cop, and supporting star of NCIS: Los Angeles.

“Gee, I don’t know, do you want the different answers alphabetized or what? I mean have you read the latest report on climate change? The one that says we’re more fucked than we thought?”

“They all say that.”

“Exactly! EXACTLY.”

“She has read the report.”

The person who said those words was the Sorriest Man Alive. He was, perhaps not coincidentally, also the Oldest Man Alive. He had a staff and a beard and a cloak and all that. He spit into his palm and shook John’s hand. That’s just something he did.

“This is just something I do,” he said to John. “It’s a reminder. Memento diluvia.” He smiled. John fought the urge to wipe. “She’s read the report; all of us here have read the report. We read all the reports. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

“What are you doing?”

The old man took out an iPhone. “Siri, show John our work,” he said.

Siri displayed a picture:

JG2 27

“That’s our TURK, Siri, Jesus Fucking Christ every time.” The old man hit the phone in disgust. Sara took the phone away from him.

“What I would have shown you,” he looked darkly at the phone, “is a picture of the mighty wall we build.”

“A wall.”

“Yes.”

“To keep people out?”

“Not people.”

A pause.

“Okay, then what?”

A pause. He’s old, what are you gonna do.

“The sea.”

“The sea?”

“We’re building a wall to hold back the sea.”

John looked at Sara. She nodded. He looked at Linda Hunt. She farted. Then excused herself. He looked at the old man.

“Are you…?”

“My name is Noah.”

H is for Hazy

Step right up, step right down, we’re the saintliest show in town. Oh, a rhyme, please, please, I beg you it will be the last but it got your attention. We’re The Traveling Saints, folks, jazz hands sold separately, and have We. Got a Show. For you.

Yes you I’m talking to you right there. I’m talking to you about to go home to your life of quiet desperation, about to watch the family movie freeze-dried with a baked potato and then shuffle off your mortal coitus until work the next AM did you hit the snooze twice already YES. I’m talking to you who used to but doesn’t now dream into your pillow about hanging fifty pound weights from hooks in your nipples that only stay suspended by the power of Moloch. I’m talking to you who used to stay up late with a flashlight not touching yourself but touching pages, turning little bits of petrified tree in your hands because you can’t put it down because you can’t yet fathom a world without miracles.

Do you remember miracles, madam?

Gladys, sitting in the front row, nodded.

Well good! You’ll be happy to know each of our acts has performed not one, not two, but three of them. That’s what made them saints and that’s what brings them here to you, to rekindle a little impossible in your all too possible daily bread.

We’ve got Saint John Bosco and his man’s best friend Grigio to dazzle you with wonder.

Bosco appeared with his dog, Grigio. Bosco set a hula hoop on fire, and waited. Grigio sneezed.

We’ve got Saint Joseph of Cupertino, not the sharpest tool in the shed but prone to levitation.

Joseph waved. He did not levitate.

I say prone, he can’t do it at will. But stick around long enough, Miss, you’ll see at least one part of him rise up. Whoa! You know I think sometimes we forget there wasn’t no saint ever made without a little sinning first. Speaking of, I know you’re dying to get a look at our pride and joy, Alexandrina de Costa. Always a good girl, she jumped out of a window to avoid a rapist, little Alex did, and for thirteen years she’s been living on the Eucharist alone! Now how about that for a diet, madam? Fills you up though, come on out Alex!

Alex was wheeled to the front. She looked like someone who has lived for thirteen years on the Eucharist alone. To a drumroll, she ate another Eucharist. She waved and smiled, as well as she could.

Now I see you there sir with your Catholic rulebook – no she’s not a saint, she’s blessed, she’s three quarters of the way there bless her heart, but she’s waiting on one more miracle before she gets to be a headliner.

Alex was wheeled off.

And that leaves me, doesn’t it? The patron saint of fires and wet nurses and volcanic eruptions. That’s right little did you know you were gazing at Saint Agatha.

Here the host transformed into Saint Agatha: what we thought was a woman was a man; a man with tits.

I refused to be a whore, yes, I was raised right, and for that they, well they, don’t you know that they, they cut off my tits!

He took his tits off. They made little suction noises.

I’ve been the patron of the bread bakers ever since.

He bit a tit.

Would you like a tit, sir? Just a little tit? Titloaf for dinner again, honey!

Here the saints gathered for a dance finale. Sort of.

Folks we may not look like much but step inside and you’ll be dazzled by what we can do. Step inside and you’ll be shocked how quickly we can transport you back to the mindset you had as a child, you know, when you just…believed.

The Emperor of Ubania turned Gladys over to the Saints after the show. He bowed deeply first, and kissed her hand. Then Agatha took it.

“Come on, honey, if this is gonna work you gotta shake your moneymaker.”

They took a short walk to a nearby hovel. “Jude?” Agatha poked his head in. “Jude-o, we got someone we’d like you to meet.” He nudged Gladys. “Go ahead, girl. Tell him.”

“I’m…Gladys.”

Jude just blinked at her.

“She’s here to join the circus!” Alex was excited, and nearly lost her breath with it.

Jude looked at Gladys. He was ancient, and he had been pissed without breaks for about a hundred years. He moved his hands in elaborate gestures. It was his own language.

“She’s a homemaker,” Agatha said, by way of answer to his question.

Jude signed.

“No she didn’t retire, she, uh – ”

“I lost my home. My husband destroyed it.”

Jude signed.

“But what do you do?”

“He means as an act.”

Jude signed.

“He means as a miracle. Sorry Jude, but don’t slur your fingers.”

“I can cook three dishes pretty well, maybe not miraculously well, but. One is chicken parmesan. Maybe you can guess the other two. That could be fun. Oh, like the audience guesses what I’m cooking and if they’re right…it’s a miracle. Yay…”

Jude signed. Agatha translated. “Caesar salad and Hamburger Helper.”

“Okay it only took you one try. Hopefully you’re better at this than most people. Let’s see…I also have a tiny bit of experience in shadow hotels, and I killed someone once.”

Jude studied her. He signed.

“No Jude we didn’t tell her why you started the circus. You always tells it better and – ”

He started signing the story.

“Oh Lord: John you do it my eyes are tired.”

John stepped in, happy to be of service. He had a nice dramatic voice.

“Portugal. 1917. I was a child. October thirteenth, a Saturday. My father took me to a field, the Cova da Iria, because the children, the three children had said the lady would appear. They had all said this specific date, the lady would appear. The lady who had spoken to them. Our Lady of Sorrows. The mother of Christ.

“My father lifted me up onto his shoulders, and at the appointed hour, he turned, so that his back was to the sun. He was prouder than the faithful peasants, he said. He was a man of science.

JG2

“The ones who were there who were not me say that the sun did a dance for them. The sun changed its colors, it put on a radiant kaleidoscope coat. But this I did not see.

“The ones who were there who were not me say that the sweat dried right off of their clothes, in a flash, that the muddy ground grew hard and firm. But my father’s collar was still slick with the fruit of his exertion, and the ground was wet beneath our shadow.

“The Church declared it a miracle. O Milagre do Sol. My father told my mother they were all idiots. He said anyone who stares at the sun that long will see something because it will play the tricks on his eyes. But that night I wept and wept into my bedclothes, my mother’s lap, my hand. I knew that the miracle had passed us. I knew we were a blindspot to God, my father and I. And I knew that would mean terrible things for our family.”

John looked at Gladys. “Now you say, what happened?”

“What happened?”

“My mother died giving birth to my little sister, rope in her mouth and a sweat broken over like the one the Blessed Virgin refused to evaporate from my father’s collar. My sister lived a joyless life, marrying a man who worked on a factory floor, living to see herself broken-veined and fat-ankled, outliving the love of her husband and even her son. The cigars of my father gave him the cancer that took his jaw and most of his tongue, then snaked into his belly and ate him from within. But these are just the common miseries of the poor. The true gem of our luckless ocean belongs to me. I have aged more slowly than Adam, lost my hearing and my voice and now speak only through signs, fit enough for one who failed to see The Sign when it was offered. I am cursed to roam over this blasted planet like the Wandering Jew, watching it eat itself through its own guts like God’s own worm did my father. There is no honest history of the human population that is not a catalog of horrors, and here I am sent to bring the milagre to as many as I can, in penance, a hopeless task.”

Jude took Gladys’s hand. He let it go. He signed.

“I think perhaps you are a martyr. A martyr does not need miracles. A martyr’s suffering is enough. What is your suffering?”

“Well I. I’m pregnant, obviously. Which is no picnic. But. My husband, like I said. He. He is the most wonderful man on the planet. And he told me to get rid of our baby. Because he doesn’t believe life is worth passing on. And global warming. So I left him. And now every piece of my skin burns for him. And now I also can’t bear to remember his face.”

The old man signed.

“There are some people who walk together, so that their feet begin to fall in time. Not because they were forced, like marching. But because it was meant to happen. Because it loved to happen.

“This is the force that moves the world. Right now it moves very slow. But if enough feet find the same rhythm, without forcing, without marching, but together, the sun will rise faster and faster until there is always sunlight, everywhere, all the time. That will be eternity. On earth as it is in heaven.”

He paused, and then moved his hands again.

“But this will never happen.”

The old man took Gladys’s face in both hands now. He looked into her eyes. He nodded. The Saints came marching in, and cheered.

G is for Go West Young Man

The name of the Jessica Chastain type was Sarah. But that wasn’t her real name; that was her alias. Her real name was Sara. But she didn’t tell John that.

“Actually Jessica Chastain is a Sarah type, not the other way around,” she said, when John described his first impression of her. She meant Sara, but John couldn’t hear that.

“I’m the real woman who went and found Osama Bin Laden. I had to. My organization had to know how sorry he was.”

“How sorry was he?”

“He was what we call not very sorry at all. That’s a technical term you’ll learn in time.”

“Frodo,” said Sara’s little rabbitman companion, who heretofore had been content to suck his juice box in the corner.

JG2 20

“That’s right. Frodo.” Sara shrugged. “He had the Lord of the Rings in his DVD collection. Osama, I mean, not Frodo. I don’t know what to think about that, personally. But I think he just wanted to know what the fuss was about. He had also directed his many children and grandchildren in many community theater productions for the compound. We know because we found all of his show t-shirts. Community theater people are suckers for t-shirts, even in the Middle East. That’s just universal.”

“What shows did he do?”

“Godspell, Nunsense, Steel Magnolias. Nothing too daring.”

“Well, give them time.”

JG2 21

“I would have, but then the Seals got involved, and they’re much less interested in being sorry. Now, I want to hear your story one more time and see if you change any of the details. If you do I’ll kill you.”

“I told you, it was all her idea.”

“What’s her name?”

“I don’t remember her name. She’s just this someone I went to high school with. I even, I heard her name like twenty times when I went down there, and I forgot it every time.”

“That happens.”

“Yeah. She knew my wife had left me because she got pregnant – not my wife, I mean yes my wife, not my friend: my wife is pregnant! I’m not changing details please don’t zap me again!”

The little guy had put down his juice box and approached with the cattle prod. Sara just waited.

“My wife is pregnant and I didn’t want the baby and let’s be honest I told her I didn’t want the baby, any baby, ever. And you know she used to punch holes in my condoms. I don’t mean poke. I mean punch. She used a hole punch. It wasn’t very stealthy. I think she wanted to be caught. And my money is she went off her birth control without telling me, probably without even telling herself. Anyway the gory details aren’t necessary but I don’t believe in having kids because, I don’t know, there’s nine million refugees out of Syria, how’s that for a late March morning rationale, just to pick one out of the ether.

“Now she’s gone, and I’m sorry about that. I am. Because among other things it makes me look very bad, which I am, of course, but, okay, I’m having a hard time here actually sorting out what I feel from what I have felt. What I mean is I want her to come back, but I don’t know if that’s just because I want to cling to the meaning I had in my life before – ”

“John? Where’s the Dayquil?”

Mr. Hetherington had been sprung from his chair after John proclaimed his innocence. He now shuffled back into the room, in his dad robe, and asked his question in a very stuffed up tone.

“It’s under the sink.”

“No it isn’t.”

“Then we have to go get some more.”

“Could you?”

“I’m a little tied up.”

“That’s good, John, that’s a good pun. Sara are you single?”

Mr. Hetherington could tell that she was Sara and not Sarah. Thirty years of teaching just does that to you.

Sara blushed a bit to go with her Jessica Chastain hair. “I’m not asking for John, he’s hopeless. I’m asking because I really want to see ‘Frozen’ and John won’t take me and I figured if you’re a single girl you’ve probably already gone and seen it either by yourself or with some sad lady group, but if you’ve got a boyfriend you probably haven’t been able to drag him to it so maybe you and I could go see a matinee if John gets off his ass and gets me some Dayquil.”

“I’m single, and I don’t think it’s in theaters anymore.”

Mr. Hetherington took that news hard. John couldn’t tell if the welling in the man’s eyes was from allergies or the general injustice of the world.

“That’s John Lake for you,” Mr. Hetherington said, and sneezed forcefully. He shuffled back out of the room. “I’m just going to go lie down and die!”

“Maybe you can settle something for us, Sara!” John called out so Mr. H. could hear. “And you,” he said to the little rabbitman. “Mr. Hetherington has a young gentleman caller, and so he’s trying not to be such a pain in the ass father figure. Now, sometimes we watch TV after dinner, and I notice Mr. H. nodding off. But he never admits it. He always snaps back awake and acts like he’s following the plot of The Good Wife which by the way did you see this week’s episode?”

“Crazy,” said rabbitman.

“Yeah! So my point is, if you’re trying to not be like a dad, just admit when you fall asleep! Just admit it old man! Right? Cause the denial thing is what dads do. Thoughts?”

“My dad used to be able to watch TV even in his sleep,” Sara said. “He’d be asleep and some big play would happen and he’d open his eyes and say, ‘Well they shouldn’t have put that lefthander in’ like he was watching the whole time.”

“Incredible. Is that what you do, Mr. H.? Can you see through your eyelids?”

There was no response.

“Just give him a second he’ll have some witty comeback. He’s gay.”

There was no response. Rabbitman came back into the room. He had slipped out unnoticed.

“That man is dead,” he said.

He wasn’t dead, in fact, but he had laid down to die. That hadn’t been just a witty gay punchline. When John got to him, he was very close.

“What’s going on?”

“Oh it’s the supercold,” Mr. Hetherington said, faintly. “You teach little kids for thirty years, your immune system gets stronger and stronger. But then so does the cold. Those kids are crucibles of chills and fever, little germ factories making more and more intricate seeds of sniffling.”

“But you haven’t taught in years.”

“No, but the seed was inside, morphing, growing.”

“I can get some Dayquil.”

“Dayquil only delays the inevitable, John, and I’m tired. I knew those children would be the death of me. But it’s not their fault, all the same. Do you understand that?”

“No.”

Mr. Hetherington nodded. “I know, you poor boy.”

“Do you want me to call your boyfriend?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend, John. That was something I made up to spend time with you.”

John took Mr. Hetherington’s hand.

“Why is this the crazy room, John? You never said.”

“Oh. We called it that when we were dating. You know Gladys, sometimes, sometimes her eyes turn into pebbles. I don’t know why, but they do. And when they do, when they did, she used to come in here and lie on the futon, and I would know, that she was…out of sorts. So I would come in and slip on banana peels, or play Tracy Chapman on my ukulele, or read her the unexpurgated letters of Winston Churchill, until her eyes turned back. That’s all.”

“That’s nice, John.” He looked into John’s eyes. “You know, in this story that’s being told, by you…you’re not giving yourself a fair shake. You’re like that. So I want to include, while I still can, that time you took Gladys to the city, when she’d never really been. And you did everything she wanted. You walked the big department store windows at one in the morning because she was too excited to sleep. You surprised her with those (expensive especially for a cheapskate like you) last minute tickets when the other plan failed and she said it was alright but you could see her lip tremble. You took her to that street fair where she bought the dress that got her noticed by the firemen and you didn’t even mind.”

“I did mind. It was hard, walking the streets of the city with a beautiful woman. It was hard in a way I’d never experienced before.”

“Why was it hard?”

“Because I was scared.”

“Okay.” He patted John’s hand. “Good.” He sighed. “I wish I could have seen ‘Frozen.’ Everyone’s talking about it. The new Disney renaissance.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Could you sing the song? Could you sing ‘Let it Go’?”

“I’ve never heard it, Mr. H., I don’t know how it goes.”

“I don’t either, so you can’t get it wrong.”

“What?”

“Make it up, John.”

John looked at Sara. She nodded. Rabbitman provided a beat.

“Uh. When I was just

A little girl

I would always hold so tight.

But now

I know

The end is just in sight.

So please take

My teddy bear

And all my other things.

Cause I know

I don’t need

Them where I am going

Let it go.

Let it go.

Let it go now let it go.

You did well.

For a spell.

Let it go now let it go.”

Mr. Hetherington tried to smile for John, but he knew that wasn’t nearly as good as hearing Adele Dazeem would have been.

John looked down at their hands. “I hate to bring this up right now, but…have I been exposed to the supercold?”

“Oh sure.”

“Dammit.”

“We all have, John. We’re all killed by children, one way or another.” Mr. Hetherington coughed one last time. The death rattle began to twitch.

“John,” he said, and John leaned close. “The future is in eggs.”

And then he died.

They were the only three at the funeral. This is not because his little rainbows and chickens had stopped caring about him, but only because, well, who keeps up with their kindergarten teacher? If you did, you may congratulate yourself here.

John gave the eulogy.

“Those of you who knew Mr. H., which isn’t any of you, will know that he wouldn’t want us to be happy today, or for a long time after this. He’d want us to wallow in his death. He’d want us to succumb to grief and lie on our couches and do nothing until we lost our jobs and the power company turned all the lights off and our muscles turned to fat. Because he loved life so, he’d want us to waste a bit of ours in his honor, and go around with our bodies smeared in blue paint, and roll among the empty peanut shells.”

He stepped down from the podium. Sara touched his shoulder. “There’s someone you need to meet,” she said. “It’s time.”

JG2 22

F is for Frost

“I’d rather you not go unless you must.”

The thought came to Gladys only as she burned through the center of the Earth, only after she no longer had the need to speak to herself because she became herself, and so could think again, and so remember.

Something an English teacher had said once about that line, the last in some poem, about how it contained no comma. Had there been a comma before unless, it would have been weaker. It would have been the qualification of someone backing off of her statement. This way, it was what it was. Don’t go unless you must. Unless you must go. But what is the definition of must? They never tell you these things in school.

If John had said this, she reasoned, without the comma, she would have stayed, because she didn’t know the definition of must so she couldn’t be sure she had to must go. But all he had given her was the comma itself, no sentence at all, and now here she was, tunneling through the core of things.

As she worked her way back up to the other side, her thoughts became flipped, so that the line now was

“Must you? Unless go not you: rather, would I.”

I would rather go.

And that’s when she broke through, into the air again.

In fact her momentum was such springing up out of the other side of the planet that she shot high up in the sky. Perhaps I’ll touch the moon, she thought, and felt something near to a kick inside of her, but instead she began to fall back down to the ground. The hole she had made opened wide for her, and she wondered if now she was stuck in equal and opposite reactions, and would spend the rest of her days falling through one side of the earth and then the other, but they never tell you these things in school.

Instead, the wind did what it could and knocked her off course, and instead of slingshotting back into her tunnel she landed on a Ubanian and killed him instantly.

“Did I really? All by myself?” Gladys asked when told of her victim’s fate. She sounded proud. Her thoughts were still a little turvy from the fall.

When the gravity of the situation set in, she was inconsolable, and asked to be sent straight from Ubanian Mercy Hospital (where they were icing her elbow, which she had bruised) to Ubanian Terror Prison.

“But that’s not how it works here,” the Ubanian nurse said. She was blue. Not emotionally. All Ubanians are blue.

But Gladys was insistent on due process, so they brought her to the Ubanian Emperor. “Oh la la,” he said, upon seeing her, then righted himself. “Welcome to Ubania, cradle of civilization. Here we say, paramamjambonjovi. This means, may the gods always sneeze upon your ancestors in the sky.”

“Thank you,” said Gladys.

“I have been told you are upset about having killed one of our people.”

“Yes. I fell on him.”

“Are you pregnant or just fat?”

“Pregnant. I’ve also put on a few pounds I think in addition to the pregnancy pounds. I don’t know how you count it but I haven’t been exercising much and I don’t want to blame it all on my bundle of joy.”

“Perhaps for that life to enter the world, someone had to leave first.”

“I don’t think that’s very fair.”

“Then you do not understand the word. This is fair. This is what fair looks like from here, at least, which is the same thing for all intents and purposes. What’s dead is dead. You might as well go on the best you can.”

“I think I should be punished. I believe in paying debts.”

“Very well.” The Emperor had her brought up to the throne, which was shaped like a giant squid. An attendant then pushed back Gladys’s right sleeve, exposing her forearm. The Emperor nodded, and her wrist was slapped.

“You may go.”

“That’s not enough.”

“It is more than so. You think you have taken a life. Although where you think you took it I cannot imagine. But what you have done, in fact, is taken one five thousandth of a life. Roughly speaking. We’d have to measure the dead man’s height to be sure. You see, foreign white lady, Ubanians do not hold the same amount of divine spark in their bodies as you do. When a Ubanian dies, it feels little more than a spider bite, even to his closest companions. No: in order for any effect to be had, for any punishment to be meted out, we have to be killed in droves. We have to bulldozed by giant waves. Driven to the point of extinction. And even then, nothing is guaranteed. After all, we are at this point presently.”

Just then, one of the Emperor’s attendants exploded. Gladys was splattered blue all over.

“Have dinner with me,” the Emperor said, by way of apology.

“I asked these two representatives of KEEP LIFE ALIVE to come and explain our little problem,” he said an hour later, over dinner. Two working-class Ubanians (you can tell by the shade of blue) looked on hungrily.

“Hello, madam white lady, and welcome to Through, the capital city of Ubania, the cradle of civilization,” the older one bowed deeply. “As we like to say, don’t just pass Through; stay a while!”

The younger Ubanian rolled her eyes.

“My daughter and I are indeed the sole employees of KEEP LIFE ALIVE. This is a non-profit business,” he said, “which is no surprise, as all business in Ubania is non-profit. Hee hee.”

The Emperor frowned.

“My name is Bookbaleekymadonna, which roughly translated means Ubanian Mike.”

“Hello.” Gladys performed the traditional Ubanian greeting she had learned, which is to rub your nose vigorously.

“And I am Ubanian Lisa,” the daughter said. “I do not even know my old world name as I have been corrupted by the gods of MTV and Brooke Shields blue jeans.”

“Ah ha. Are not children darling? Can I ask madam white lady, are you fat or just pregnant?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“Ah. Then you have an interest, I think in our work. The first thing you should know is, we are not blue. This is paint.”

“Oh.”

“We paint ourselves blues in order to remember that we stepped out of the water. We turned from strange fish creatures into strange walking creatures.”

An explosion is heard from the kitchen. A silence. A Ubanian maid entered. “The chef has blown up,” she said.

“Did she finish dessert first?” the Emperor asked.

“She blew up onto the dessert.”

“So…is that a yes or a no?”

Ubanians Mike and Lisa mumbled together. “What’s that?” Gladys asked.

“Ah, excuse me. We were pronouncing the word of the dead. Mainsytybonotheedge. This means, may the bright future he hopes for not be a crock of shit.”

“Mainsytybonotheedge.”

“Very good. We will now give you a brief history of the Ubanian Troubles.”

Ubanian Lisa fired up the projector.

JG2 16

“That is Loretta Lynn. She was a coal miner’s daughter. She issued forth from the black womb of the Earth, specifically Butcher Hollow aka Butcher Holler Kentucky, before becoming famous, touring to Ubania, and then going to live on the moon where she has continual sex with Neil Armstrong and controls the tides through her orgasms. From the brief period between Loretta Lynn’s visit to Ubania until late 1983, all was peaceful and tranquil in the country. The people were unified in their love for this woman who was so clearly vested with super powers. How else could she have fended off an abusive husband, rampant sexism, and Vietnam to become the celebrated duet partner of Conway Twitty?

“Then there was a film made of the life of Loretta Lynn. It came out in 1981 but did not reach Ubania until late 1983. It is called Coal Miner’s Daughter, after her autobiography which was originally written on stone tablets and is now available in paperback. Loretta Lynn was played by Sissy Spacek, even though Sissy Spacek looks more like Joni Mitchell than any other female singer songwriter. See?

JG2 17

 

“After the screening of the film at The D. W. Griffith Theater in downtown Through, there was general jubilation and glee. It was like our moon princess had returned to us in celluloid. We felt as the Jews must have felt when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with his stones to show them the way. We felt as the Muslims must have felt when their Mohammed fellow was saved by a spider. We all went across the street to Ubanian Sally’s Ice Cream Dream Station. This is where the trouble started. A small faction of the spectators began claiming that Sissy Spacek was a better Loretta Lynn than Loretta Lynn herself. They started calling themselves the Spaceks. The majority rushed to defend Loretta Lynn. They called themselves the Sissies, because they believe the Spaceks are Sissies. Which is to say gay.

JG2 18

“By gay I mean homosexual. It is our highest insult. I do not mean to offend you, but for us nothing could be worse. To be a gay man means you would not want to make the loving to Loretta Lynn, moon princess, and to be a gay woman means you would not want to get married and have children, as Loretta Lynn did at age thirteen.

“After the riot our people spent many years coming up with more and more inventive ways to kill each other. As a result there was no business or growth and we all have no money now. As a result life is very terrible. Now the Sissies and the Spaceks do not kill each other, as to die is to great a privilege. Instead, we one by one become so sad that we actually explode. This is making a really big mess. So we here at KEEP LIFE ALIVE are looking for ways to encourage people to not blow up but to find happiness in their sad dirty lives.”

JG2 19

Gladys had not touched her bloody dessert. “So this conflict all boils down to a white lady who set you all against each other?”

Ubanians Mike and Lisa looked at each other, and then made a gesture peculiar to the country.

“I am making this gesture, which my people call eekamakajagoogoo, which means, half a bucket of yes, fifty cents of no. Half a bucket she started it, fifty cents we were just looking for a good reason to hate and kill each other.”

“The point,” said the Emperor, “is that through my beneficence, KEEP LIFE ALIVE is funding a number of initiatives to raise morale. One involved bringing a circus in, a particularly unique circus, based as it were on the lives of various Catholic saints. We felt that the emphasis on the rewards of suffering might speak to our people. So far, it hasn’t. But you, I think, with you penchant for penance, might be just what the doctor ordered.”

“I don’t understand.”

The Emperor took a bite of cheesecake. “But you’re going to join the circus, of course.”

Gladys thought about this.

“Must I?” she asked. Not in a desperate or playful way, but with genuine curiosity about the word.

E is for Earth as it is in Heaven

“Are you going to be here long?” A woman with a wide face and the kind of hairdo you have done in a beauty shop that isn’t a chain had rolled down the window of her still-chugging car.

“No,” John said.

“Because we paid to have that spot cleaned out. So it’s just common courtesy – ”

“Well I just dug myself out over there and I needed a place to move to just to be sure I could actually get out – ”

“I have my parents here so we paid to have that spot cleaned.”

Indeed there was a sour-faced reptilian woman messing with a garbage bin nearby. She gave John a look. He swallowed the look down into his stomach acids and forced it to come back out as a smile. Can’t do that too many times without replenishing the juices.

“Are you going to be here long?”

John wanted to get into it with this wide car woman. He wanted to tell her that nobody owns the street no matter how much they pay one of the young men of color to spade up their snow. He wanted to get into it with her like one of those lady-on-lady aggression videos you see on youtube: the ladypunch one, or the rhubarb thief.

Actually what he really wanted to do was lean in, inhale the aroma of her fast food interior, and say, “Why are you still living? Because take it from me, as a man who’s seen all of Netflix and Hulu and is halfway through HBOGO, it doesn’t get much better than this, right here. There’s not ever going to be some movie coming out that’s going to finally solve everything. No new season of sitcom, or Super Bowl matchup, or Christmas morning will ever justify our existence. Now, my excuse for keeping my hat in the game is I’m still somewhat young and somewhat attractive and I can sit in my living room and drink my beer in peace and hold onto a subtle and maybe even unconscious hope that someday someone will discover me at a soda fountain and change my life into something out of the Liberace movie which by the way is fabulous. But you, I don’t know what you’re in it for. Maybe it’s the hope you’ll get a big tax return this year, or your number will finally come up in the lotto, or your husband will actually clean out the gutters this weekend. But I’d be happy to take you out for a cup of coffee and have you explain it to me. You see I’m a little worried that I’m not going to be here very long, as you so presciently asked.”

“I’m moving,” is all he said.

At least you didn’t apologize, he told himself.

He got in his car and drove the suburban streets, pinched now by snow fortifications left behind by several plowings without a melt. There was a spot open, with someone’s trash can in the middle of it. You can’t call fives on a patch of asphalt, John repeated to himself as he got out of his car and moved the trash, then slid himself unevenly into the icy spot. The climate change winter was really bringing out the heart of darkness in suburbanites.

“John! There’s an omelet in the fridge for you. I’m listening to indie music! I think I like it.” Mr. Hetherington was in the spare room. Regina Spektor Pandora wafted softly through the space between.

“Hey John do you want to see ‘Frozen’ tomorrow? Everyone gay is talking about ‘Frozen.'”

“I don’t want to see ‘Frozen.'”

“I think it might be nice for you to get out.”

“I just got a good spot on the street. I’m never getting out again.”

“But why did you dig the car out if you’re just going to – ”

“You made me dig the car out, Mr. Hetherington.”

“That sounds like an evasion of the real issue, John. Oo who is this?” The song had changed.

“Ingrid Michaelson.”

“Well she is just a little charmer isn’t she.”

“I’m going to bed.”

“There’s a matinee tomorrow at 2:10. We could go to The Cheesecake Factory first.”

“I’m going to bed, Mr. Hetherington.”

“Wait! Come and see my new digs.”

Mr. Hetherington was hanging up the class photo of each of his kindergarten classes from a thirty-seven year career.

“It’s so I feel more at home.”

All those smiling munchkins. John looked through the years not yet hung. Toward the end there was a definite shift in pigment.

“Did you switch schools?”

“Oh yeah I transferred to a place deep in the city. Really reenergized me, revitalized my craft. I’m very thankful for those little rainbows.”**

**Mr. Hetherington did not use the word rainbows. He used a word which we aren’t going to put here.

John took twice. “Your what now?”

“My rainbows.”

“Did they…ask you to call them that?”

JG2 11

“No of course not. I think they would have been quite offended. But whenever I thought about them, and how their opportunities in life had been so severely curtailed through no fault of their own, through their class or their genes or their lack of books in the house or the fact that they might be shot dead for listening to loud music in their own cars, well, whenever I thought of that, I had to call them rainbows, and believe that there was a reason for their inferior status, or else I would go mad. Which I did anyway, a few times in that first year, until I really accepted the system. My rainbows.”

He hammered into the wall.

“I guess that fits well enough,” John said, “after all this is the crazy room.”

“How’s that?”

“We call it the crazy room.”

“That’s lovely, John, you’ve gone and put me up in The Shining Suite. You might have mentioned.”

“No, it’s not crazy like talking to your finger. Not yet.”

“Then what’s the story? Ooo who is THIS piece of syrup on a stick?”

“This is Noah and the Whale.”

“Mmm. But it ought to be Jonah, oughtn’t it?”

“I’m going to bed.”

A dream woke him, a dream where he was himself but not himself. The mission of dream-John, he knew intuitively, was to reconquer Gladys, but he had to do it as someone else, since she was mad at him. So he had put on some kind of psychic dream disguise, though he still looked like himself. The seduction went well. They were on a bed, it felt like in a hotel, and all of a sudden Gladys said, “I know it’s you, love.” And they both started crying.

She spooned him from behind, just held him for what felt like, well, minutes, but good long ones. Then she said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

And he said, very quickly, “Yes.”

And then he had nothing to say. And then Noah’s whale came and carried them out of the flood. “Thank you,” Gladys whispered to its blowhole.

The morning.

The whirr of back tires spinning in the snow. The whine of a laptop waking up. John’s nose was filled with the smell of wasted gasoline, though the window was closed.

New file:

“Ways to Get Gladys Back”

1. Decide you actually don’t mind bringing a child into the world. Then try calling.

2. Perhaps the proper tense is “having brought.” ? How far along…?

3. Time machine. Go back and never have sex with Gladys Hulce.

4. Time machine option 2. Go back and have sex with Gladys Hulce and marry her but win her over first with your rational arguments against procreation.

4.

5. Are we sure we want Gladys back?

Close file, do not save. Check internet.

Mr. H. was in the kitchen making omelets. John called out to him.

“Laurence Olivier died of a heroin overdose.”

“Oh no!”

“He was the best.”

“He held the mirror, as twere, up to nature. I was so looking forward to seeing him in Transformers Five. But John come out here I want you to help me with this new phone I got so I can read this stuff for myself. I need to be cutting edge.”

John came to the kitchen.

“You know, Mr. H., I really hate the smell of eggs.”

“You do? You hate eggs?”

“I can eat them, but I can’t smell them. And sometimes I can’t look at them.”

“Well isn’t that special of you, John Lake. You could never just say simply no or yes to a thing. Do you like ketchup? I got some at the store yesterday because you don’t have any, like some kind of Frenchman or something, un-American. You live like a French bachelor, John: you’ve got an onion and wine in there and nothing else.”

“I like ketchup if it’s in a glass bottle. I don’t like it in the plastic bottle when it squirts out like some kind of diarrhea sound and when the crust forms around the nipple at the top.”

Mr. Hetherington just stood with his spatula arm cocked against his hip, letting John think about the twisted life path that brought him to this place of byzantine culinary prejudices.

“Well look don’t get your crusty nipples in a twist but I went ahead and got us tickets for the ‘Frozen’ matinee. You can even pick your seats out ahead of time did you know that? I got us seats in the handicapped row because with my knee I need the space. If anyone gives us a hard time I want you to act like you don’t speak English. That’s handicap enough.”

The car was still spinning in the snow outside. John twisted the blinds open: just to watch, not to help.

“What?” He peered onto the street, where his car was.

“What is it?”

John went to get his glasses. He looked out the window again. The garbage can he had moved for his parking spot was now perched atop the roof of his car.

John turned from the window, sat at the tiny table, and tried to interpret the message.

a) This car is trash.

b) Trash beats car.

c) Get this trash OUT OF HERE.

d) I see you.

e) Be my friend.

f) Burn in Hell, shitbag.

Mr. Hetherington slid a plate with an omelet on it in front of John. He squirted some ketchup from the plastic bottle. “No apologies,” he said.

Just then John’s phone rang. It was High School Someone.

“John! Hi! Is this a bad time?”

“I don’t know. They say every time has always made people think it was the worst time. Like the Gilded Age.”

HSS laughed. “Oh JOHN! So true, so true! Listen I’ll cut right to the bacon. As I said when we serendipitously had our little do-si-do, I’ve been working at Wife magazine, and we’re doing our big Valentine double issue, and I actually went ahead and nominated you for our new award.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, and then, well, it’s supposed to be kind of a blind voting process, so we didn’t call you, we just examined your Facebook page.”

“I have a Facebook page?”

“Guilty,” Mr. Hetherington raised his hand. “I wanted to try it out but I experimented on you first in case I did anything embarrassing like said I was interested in women.”

“And you WON, John, the editors flipped! They want you!”

“Want me how?”

“To be our covergirl! You’ve been voted The Sorriest Man Alive!”

There was a decided pause at both ends.

“I have to go.”

“There’s a stipend, John, to ease any social stigmatization, though I don’t mind telling you that I think this might be a VERY rewarding distinction for the man involved. Women sort of go head over heels for the hangdog type. It’s like a Sleepless in Seattle thing.”

“I don’t know what that means.” (He didn’t: John watched movies, but Gladys remembered them.)

“It means you could be a very busy boy once this thing runs. Or, should you be looking to reconcile, it will be great exposure – your missing wife is sure to hear about it, and then she can just look you up on Facebook!”

Another silence.

“How much is the stipend?”

Outside, John stared at his car, in his coat boots scarf and gloves. Then he stared at the trash can on top of the car. He could not bring himself to move either of them. He looked at the house facing this part of the street, waiting to see if anyone wanted to shuffle out of it, go ten rounds, and settle this thing like primates.

Then he walked to the train.

He was early for his photo shoot so he walked around central station. Gladys knew a secret passage to the subway that allowed you to avoid the crowd and thus minimize your chances of having a trash can placed on your head. John didn’t remember where it was, but he slowly walked down each of the main corridors looking. Halfway through the search he stepped into a shop and bought an overpriced Banana Nut energy bar. He received fifty cents in change from the subcontinental woman who rang him up. The bar did in fact taste remarkably like banana nut bread thanks to chemicals from a plant in New Jersey.

On the last corridor he found the passage again, and just as he turned a corner he saw an old white man hunched into a shepherd’s crook, holding out a styrofoam coffee cup.

The spirit of Gladys has guided me here, John thought, and left me with these fifty cents to give to him. He pulled the coins out of his pocket, feeling himself to be the best person alive for what he was about to do.

The weight of two quarters in the empty cup was such a shock that the man dropped his cup. John hesitated, unsure if it would be worse or better if he helped, and anyway the hunchback was close to the ground as it was. John said “Sorry” but because he had his earbuds in it came out “SORRY” as if he had not heard his own voice in years.

JG2 12 JG2 13

JG2 14John went into the park. He sat on a bench. There were no hunchbacks to give fifty cents to. There was a man covered in pigeons, but that seemed voluntary and potentially lucrative, so John paid him no mind. There was only a squirrel. John took a bill out of his wallet. He offered it to the squirrel. The squirrel stared at him.

JG2 15

 

 

 

“Don’t be proud,” John said.

 

 

 

On the commuter train back, the blonde woman who had taken the seat next to John asked the conductor if she could keep her ticket. It was a tentrip, with all ten punched out, but she wanted to keep it. Memories or something. The conductor smiled like he was head of the Polar Express. “It’s a fine ticket,” he said, “and you should be proud of it.” He gave it back to her.

She looked at the last punch. “What’s yours?” she said.

“They tell me it’s a goldfish, but I dunno.”

“Oh yes, of course, I see that now, it’s only that the two of them melded into one is all.”

Meanwhile a man was playing chess with his kid over the phone. The hits keep coming on the 9:00 off-peak.

Walking back John stopped in the store for dinner. He put his Fosters on the belt like two giant beer pellets. There was a on the wall showing the weather channel, but it was the forecast for Atlanta. “What do I care about Atlanta’s weather?” the cashier said. “Show me where I am!” The old lady in front of John joined in: “I talk to the TV too,” she admitted through a smile.

A moment of stranger joy, pure like an extract, like syrup tapped out of the tree. John wanted to add something, like, I masturbate in front of the TV too, but he couldn’t quite find the right wording. The old lady milked another laugh out of it, saying something everyone instantly forgot but laughed at, and then she left with her groceries.

“And how are you?” the cashier then said to John, with a tone as if they were old friends. As simple as that.

It was all John could do to make it past the Redbox and out the door. Oh God, he thought, how does this work? How do these things fit into the same existence? Goldfish and stranger joy and trash cans on cars and everything all at once all the time. Wife magazine.

Walking a still icy sidewalk not quite wide enough for two, a man in NY Jets sweats waited at a corner for John to pass him. “Thank you,” John said. “No problem,” the man said.

“Kiss me,” John said, but not aloud.

When he got home, Mr. Hetherington was tied to a chair. A woman, not unlike Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, and a small rabbitman, not unlike much at all, flanked him. The Chastain type held an object that resembled a cattle prod.

“I had to let them in, John, they said they were Fresh Direct. I love Fresh Direct.”

Chastain sized John up. “You don’t look so sorry,” she said.

John looked at himself. “Well, that’s your opinion.”

“Not when it’s a matter of fraud.” And then she zapped him.

Hard.

D is for Diurnal

Gladys, in Debra Winger bandana and coveralls, entered the office of the Guest Services Head Servicer.

“I told you not to wear that,” GSHS (pronounced “gishes”) said upon her arrival.

“I knew you weren’t serious.”

“Why do you know so much pop culture?”

“Everyone knows so much pop culture. It’s only that few people take the time and effort to know that they know it.”

“You mean we all have a vast library in our memories of all the media we’ve consumed over our lives – ”

“But few of us keep the card catalog current, yes.”

“And why do you?”

“Because I believe everything has a purpose. And if it doesn’t have one, like the fact that you watched Operation Dumbo Drop, you ought to give it one, like using it in a job interview.”

“Bring the elephant into the room, so to speak.”

“And acknowledge him.”

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“Do you need a purpose, Gladys Lake?”

“I am, at the moment, the human equivalent of Operation Dumbo Drop. I’m a purpose waiting to be had.”

GSHS nodded and leaned back in her very expensive ergonomic chair. “Have you ever jumped off of a very tall building?”

“No.”

“Come with me.”

GSHS led Gladys back through the hotel to the elevator bank in the lobby. She pressed the down arrow. When the ding happened and they stepped in, GSHS rapidly punched a secret combination of floor buttons and the whole panel lit up, then went black. The doors closed.

“What you’re about to see is completely confidential. If you leave my employment, you will have to sign a waiver that allows us to hit you in the head until you don’t remember your work here. You see, there’s a shadow Waldorf-Astoria.”

The ding happened and the doors opened again. But everything was upside down. Except to Gladys it was rightside up, because she too was upside down, only she didn’t know it. It’s a subtle process, turning upside down in an elevator car. It’s a little like when your ears pop as you go underwater in a subway car. But it’s also a little like throwing up.

“The Waldorf-Astoria is a place of leisure. It is a magical lotus land where people can pay for the privilege of luxury and loaf. And it can only exist by being balanced by the shadow Waldorf, where everything runs in opposite.”

They passed by the shadow concierge, whose job was to make your life less entertaining.

“How are you, shadow Bill?” GSHS asked as she past.

“I have no idea what you should do with yourself,” he replied.

GSHS took Gladys to the shadow break room, where a dozen young women were hard at work solving calculus problems. GSHS breezily told them to keep up the good work, then ushered Gladys into a small dark octagonal room.

Somebody sneezed. Then someone else sneezed. Then two people sneezed at the same time. GSHS flipped on her phone for illumination.

“This is Sneezing. Whenever anyone upstairs yawns, we balance it out down here.”

They also visited Sacrilege, where some intrepid employees pissed on Bibles and Korans anytime a hotel guest said his prayers, and Luck, where a team of ambivalent staff members found pennies when guests stubbed their toes, and stubbed toes when guests found pennies.

Finally, after Humor and Make-Up and Shitting (which was Gladys’s least favorite), they entered the shadow guest services office.

“There is at present no shadow-Me,” GSHS told Gladys. “The last one took the shadow elevator to the shadow top floor and jumped out of the shadow window.”

“Why?”

“To get to the other side, I expect. But it’s thrown the hotel off balance a bit. You may have noticed, for instance, that the Waldorf salads currently have cranberries in them.”

“Oh, I did notice,” Gladys said, “but I thought I ordered them that way.”

GSHS shook her head. “It’s a kind of minor chaos flaring up here and there. And I’d like you to help stamp it out.”

“What do I have to do?”

“You have to be my opposite. When I’m in the office, you’re in the shadow suite, which I can tell you has some very fine shadow bath salts. And when I’m in my suite, you’re here. It’s a big responsibility, but you’ll be a critical part of keeping this oasis up and running for the fine people up there who need it.”

“Like I used to be.”

“That’s right. It will also give you plenty of time to sort out whatever shadows you’ve got going on up there,” GSHS said, gesturing toward Gladys’s head.

“How do you know I’ve got shadows?”

“Every thirty-five seconds another one passes across your face. Which means someone upstairs is smiling, I hope, or else we’re all gone to hell, equilibrium-wise.”

“At least there’s a purpose to this feeling I’m feeling,” Gladys said.

“Exactly.”

“I have one question.”

“Shoot.”

“Is there a shadow obstetrician?”

GSHS’ eyes narrowed. “There will be, when the time comes.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Good, because I wasn’t kidding about hitting you in the head, and it isn’t pleasant.”

They shook hands, which is all you need to establish trust in the shadow world. Then GSHS went back upstairs, leaving Gladys alone.

GSHS went rightside up and back to her office, at which point Gladys felt herself compelled to go to the suite, which she found automatically, as if she had been born knowing. GSHS was on her feet, so Gladys decided to lie down, “just for a minute.”

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GSHS was almost always on her feet. Gladys was almost always on her back. GSHS was almost always doing something. Gladys, nothing. For a while, she was very good at doing nothing. She looked up at the ceiling and thought about her life. It seems to be true that the more you remember, the more you remember. The more you try to recall, the more you are able to. All kinds of things crept back into mind which, but for the shadow-world, would have never been turned into actual thoughts ever again.

For instance, when Gladys was young her mother once bought her a different kind of cookie at the grocery store. They were hard, chocolate cookies, and they were, believe it or not, to commemorate the Negro leagues from back in the day. It must have been a February promotion or something: Black History Month. Gladys’s mom had bought them because each box came with free baseball cards, and Gladys liked baseball cards. She did not like baseball. But the cards had a different appeal. Little frozen men in action. Statistics. It’s hard to say. Texture.

The back of the box also had fun facts about Negro league stars. That particular box of which Gladys eventually consumed all the contents contained tidbits featuring Satchel Paige, a famous pitcher.

Satchel Paige was so fast, one excited blurb went, that it is said he could turn off the light in his room and be in his bed before the room got dark.

This puzzled young Gladys, who tried it on numerous occasions, well into her adult life. She would have tried it again now except that GSHS always kept the lights on so Gladys’s eyes by now were like a cat’s, or like a pirate’s eyepatch eye.

“Did you know,” Gladys said to herself, “that pirates wore eyepatches to keep one eye accustomed to night vision, so that if they raided a ship at night they could slide the patch over to the other eye and be able to see?”

Yes, I did know that, herself said. But I’m not sure it’s true.

Gladys also thought about where the light goes when the light goes out. “There must be a shadow sun,” she said to herself, “that takes care of all the details, and balances who gets the brightness and who gets the shade.”

In fact, over the course of the next month or so, Gladys had so much time to consider this, in between bouts of drowsiness brought on by GSHS’ coffee habit, that she actually became the first person to figure out where “out” is, and what the light looks like there. But she had no one to tell but herself, and herself had stopped listening two weeks ago. There was also a bundle of cells, but it couldn’t hear yet.

“Herself might be dead,” Gladys said, not to herself. Meanwhile she was no closer to fixing her problems than she had been upstairs. “You can’t sort out your shadows when you live in a dark room.” And she felt herself would have complimented her on such a fine insight, and she hoped she’d remember it to tell herself later, on the other side perhaps.

It didn’t take long after that for Gladys to forget how to do nothing. I used to enjoy nothing. She knew that was true. There must have been rules, she thought, back when I knew how to do it. But I can’t think of them now.

She couldn’t think much, as it was a heavy tourist time for the Waldorf, with European families flooding in to capitalize on a weak dollar and GSHS constantly doing all the thinking her and Gladys’s binary stars could manage.

This is how nothing escaped Gladys. And when the last trace of nothing left her mind, when she no longer remembered nothing ever existed, she got up from the bed.

GSHS, in a meeting, suddenly collapsed to the floor. “Shit,” she said aloud, to everyone.

Gladys made her way to the shadow elevator, punched the top shadow button. The ding happened.

Outside the shadow penthouse window was an absence of wind and an absence of air. Gladys had to hold her breath and pinch her nose and close her eyes to stick her head into it, and then her whole body, and then she fell off completely.

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C is for Corinthians

Christ, it was cold. It had been cold before, but this seemed different. Winter had settled in, and there had really been no holiday. Only Alaska, to see a bus, and to see the grizzly man. That had proved about as expected.

To stay warm, John had joined an online dating website. Under “looking for” he chose “other,” and then wrote in “temporary wife.” He had tried to add “so as to not get rusty” but it was too many characters to fit in the box.

He didn’t know if Gladys was coming back, but before he met her it had been thirteen months since he’d had sex with anyone, and it had felt like a new virginity. So much so that on the day before their second date – the first being at the site of the accident – he was walking and passing a gas station with bright yellow and orange colors, and he thought maybe he didn’t remember how to do it correctly. And he laughed out loud, right there on the street as the people filled up their cars and the smell of gasoline.

Anyway, that rustiness was eventually sweetly and passionately dispelled after grapes and wine and hummus. But he knew this rustiness could lead him to be the kind of person whose death is only discovered after a neighbor notices the smell a week later.

So.

The first person who messaged him had the screenname UYourBestThing. “It’s from Beloved by Toni Morrison,” she explained in her e-epistle. “My book club read that last year and agreed that that line in general summed up the philosophy of a novel that espouses, really, a quite sophisticated and unique moral system.”

John was ready to delete the message. But she indented her paragraphs, and that was appealing.

“I actually came on here to see if I could find out if my daughters are on here but it said I couldn’t search for women unless I was a lesbian, so I became a lesbian. But then I could only search for other lesbians, and so far I have not found that any of my daughters is a lesbian. At least not one on here. But I message young women who look like them and send them little encouraging notes about how they are perfectly good enough and smart enough and useful enough on their own and do not need a man, or in their case a woman, or a man, perhaps, if they change their minds again after college.”

Apparently John’s profile was viewable to everyone, even lesbians, as the powers that were didn’t give him much of a shot. So UYourBest (which is what she called herself for short) came over to John’s on a Thursday afternoon to try out their temporary marriage.

“I see you still have your Christmas decorations up,” she said when she walked into the room.

What John had up was a picture of two penguins, which he had drawn with crayons and taped to the inside of his door, and an empty carton of eggnog that he’d put a Santa cap on and sometimes called “Elfie,” and sometimes conversed with.

JG2 5

“Me I had trouble figuring out when to put them up this year,” she said, “because Thanksgiving was so late. Did you know it was mathematically as late as it could be this year? Or maybe a day not as late as that, I don’t remember. But it was late. And you know I like to wait until after Thanksgiving, but I felt like everyone else had theirs up by the 15th and I didn’t want to be left out. So I figured I’d put up at least the lights. But as I was getting out the stepladder I felt like a fool, and I would have asked Denise if she thought it was too early, but I didn’t want her to laugh at me. Like, ‘There she goes, MFA in Poetry and can’t even decide to put up the decorations without consulting the neighbors, or her husband, quiet desperation, that.’ I don’t think so. And I could have asked Steve, but Steve doesn’t give a shit.”

JG2 7

“Steve never really celebrates holidays until they’re right on top of him, so I don’t count his vote. I could wait until the 24th and just put on a little Mannheim Steamroller and Steve would settle in with some egg nog and say, ‘Alright, it’s Christmas now!'”

She shook her head.

“He doesn’t know; he doesn’t notice. But it isn’t the noticing. It’s that even without noticing what people like me do to make the season special, even if you don’t care or hate it, you need us to do it so that it can seep into your brain day by day. Like little reminders, so that when the 24th rolls around it hasn’t snuck up on you: you didn’t miss it, you don’t feel like you missed it, like there was some great happy fun wonderful experience waiting for you only you missed it and now you have to wait until next year. Nobody wants that, I’m saying, but they don’t realize that you can’t not miss it if I don’t put these stupid ugly decorations out, even if you think they’re stupid and ugly. It’s a lot of work goes into other people not giving a shit, is what I’m saying. I don’t mind doing that work. Someone has to.”

She had run her fingers along the venetian blinds.

“These are just filthy.”

John and UYourBest looked at each other.

“Elfie says this will never work.”

UYourBest left.

“She was too much like us.”

The next woman didn’t like cleaning but she chewed too loud. Then some sister wives brought over a fourteen-year-old they wanted broken in. Her name was Siddalee, and she and John played some Scrabble but ultimately it was too much like babysitting, Siddalee said, and she didn’t feel she was expanding her skill set.

Then came Mr. Hetherington. Mr. Hetherington was Gladys’s kindergarten teacher. Well, not anymore.

“Brace yourself, John,” Mr. Hetherington said. “I’m gay now.”

John, who had not braced, nonetheless endured this news pretty well.

“That’s great, Mr. H.”

“Yes and I met a man through the internet. He’s a little younger than you. I don’t even need you to start: I’ve heard it all. I go through it myself every night, this May-December thing, oh God, do I have the stamina, do I have the calf support.”

“The calf support?”

“Young people walk everywhere. You don’t know how much young people walk until you aren’t one.”

Mr. Hetherington sat down next to Elfie. Elfie immediately warmed to the man.

“So this man, his name is Clint – oh my God, he has a cleft in his chin, I could bury a cashew there and die happy.”

This must be gay talk, John thought.

“But the point is I worry that he worries that I daddy him. And I want to prove to him that I can be with a young man and not daddy him. So I’d like to set up these nannycams around the house, if I could, so that I can later show him the evidence of my being a hot sexy non-paternal walking maniac.”

“Sure.”

That night Mr. Hetherington made them omelets for dinner. He wore Gladys’s apron, and tousled John’s hair as John ate his omelet. “Don’t worry John I’m doing this in a sexual manner not a fatherly manner.”

“That’s a relief.”

Mr. Hetherington sipped some white wine.

John said, “Won’t you eat yours?” Not because he cared, but because that was the polite thing to say.

“Oh no I hardly eat anymore. That’s another thing about old age: surprise! You turn into a bird. Peck at your food, hollow your bones, and in the morning you’re wide awake singing. Or coughing, at least.”

John tried to wash the dishes but Mr. Hetherington wouldn’t let him. “But I’m washing them in a sexual way,” he told Elfie.

Elfie had a camera in him now.

Outside the window the Vortex was raging. They called it the Vortex on TV at least. John, who had taken to reading the book of Job at least once a day, usually with his mini-wheats. He knew that was a little on the nose, so he balanced it out by reading Sherlock Holmes at lunch and Florence Henderson’s biography, which Mr. H. had brought, at dinner.

But tonight he was reminded of the whirlwind that finally arose to answer Job’s accusations.

JG2 6

John looked into the Vortex, to see if there might be a face there. In fact the snow blew in all directions, it did not fall, so that at any given moment, from a certain point of view, it might seem that it was snowing up and not down, that the Earth was giving back to the heavens some of their own shit. John opened the window again –

“Oh honey you’re a maniac keep that closed!”

– just to see if he could hear anything. Not that you can see sounds, he thought.

For Christmas, before she left, Gladys had gotten John some new earbuds. He knew because he found the gifts where she always hid them, which was in a garbage bag with a piece of paper taped on it that said NOT GIFTS FOR JOHN.

The new earbuds were much better than his last ones. His last ones were pink. He couldn’t remember why. He might have stolen them from a little girl, he said, and Gladys laughed. But the new ones looked like little hairdryers and they went into your ear smooth like butter, and after a long time of having shitty earbuds, now it sounded like the sound was actually in your head, coming from your head, starting in your head. Sometimes John thought if he considered this idea too much his head would explode.

The weathermen had said the Vortex was coming, and then it came. And now it was back. Job only had to put up with the motherfucking thing once. But that was unrealistic writing. Because the answerless answer never left, really.

That night, lying in bed next to Mr. Denny, John wondered about the voice in his head, and how he could hear that voice – the voice of his thoughts, that is. What does it mean to hear that voice, or to hear music in your head when you aren’t listening to it. In what sense is that a sound? Is that voice not born somehow of the wilderness, of the Vortex? So perhaps it would be that voice to really answer his accusations one day. Although he was no Job. As far as John was concerned, the question had nothing to do with why children died. That part was simple enough. The question was why they were born at all.

Mr. Denny instinctively and unconsciously snuggled against John. So John lay awake. Mr. H. snored, but even that was swallowed up by the great blanket of winter.