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fiction

The Belt by Jim Peterson

The Belt | By Jim Peterson

It stretched down the length of the closet door like an unrolled scroll.  The boy laid it across his palms, the gold buckle clinking slightly.  It had belonged to his father before he went off to the war from which he didn’t return.  Two of those who did had visited the house and told the boy that his father died bravely in battle.  They described some of the fighting for him, the hand to hand, how brutal it was.

His father used to wear the belt when he wasn’t working as a carpenter building the new houses in their rural county, or repairing the old ones.  He’d worn it when they went to town to buy supplies, when they hiked down to the river to fish, when they attended church on Sundays, though he never repeated the words of the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, nor did he sing the hymns from the worn hymnals, though the boy’s mother made up for it by singing loud enough for all three of them.  

When the preacher called for sinners to repent and walk down the aisle to salvation, the boy’s mother slid her elbow into his father’s side, but he remained so still and erect in the pew that the boy thought his father had left his body and flown to some ancient mission out in the forest that they sometimes explored together.  At these moments, the boy would study his father’s lean face, the creases around the mouth and closed eyes, the scoops and knolls of the bone structure under the skin, and the boy thought then what an amazing and strange landscape a human face is.  At night he sometimes had dreams that were journeys over the continent of his father’s face.  On the inside of the belt, his father had burned a message in his own code.  His father had been like that, mysterious, seeming to keep some private knowledge to himself.  He carried himself as a man who knows things.  Not like how to roof a house—though he knew that and many other such skills—but something he carried within him that words couldn’t touch.

The boy tried the belt on, but it was way too large for him, the long tongue of its excess hanging down.  Still, it felt right on his body.  He packed his backpack and crept out of the house and away from his mother and stepfather watching television in the den, believing the belt would lead him somehow to an adventure beyond his dull summer vacation.  He soon found the woods his father had loved half a mile from the house and followed a doe and two young bucks into the dark edge.  He tucked his father’s belt inside his pants so it wouldn’t catch on thorns.  After picking his way through for a mile or so, he found a trail, and decided to go wherever it led him.  When he took off his shoes and socks, waded across a knee-deep creek, and mounted the opposite bank, he felt that he’d passed into a different world where constant readiness was required.  He carefully put his socks and shoes back on, tying the laces into double knots, looking around alertly as if the very air might consume him.  He had enough food in his pack for three days, a pocketknife his stepfather had reluctantly given him for his birthday, a spoon he’d stolen from a kitchen drawer, and a small flashlight with a pack of spare batteries.  

Much later, when he re-discovered the belt in an old chest-of-drawers as a middle-aged man, it was too small, the tip of the tongue barely slipping through the buckle at his waist, the last hole far short of the prong.  He’d not realized he’d become physically a bigger man than his father.  He laid the belt out on his dresser, disappointed, wondering what to do with it.  For one thing, it was still beautiful, the leather for most of its length so dark it reminded him of the darkest chocolate.  Sewn into the front of the belt, surrounding the buckle, was leather of a lighter shade in the shape of narrow, serrated leaves, penetrating the darker scroll.  And then, burned into the rough inside hide of the belt, were thirty-seven symbols, indecipherable as letters or numbers.  The man marveled at his father’s imagination that could create so many unique forms.  He hung the belt behind all of his others out of sight so his wife wouldn’t see it and ask questions.  But one day, when she was devoting herself to many details of cleaning in the house, she did find it, and so he sat her down that night and told her the story of the belt.  He would have given the belt to his own son, but he had died of complications at birth, and his wife could have no more children.

On the first day in the woods, the boy came upon a bear in a great patch of berries.  A large male, he rocked back on his haunches and looked at the boy for a moment without fear or ill intention, then ambled off, a huge black cloud disintegrating into the forest.  The boy gorged himself on blueberries, listening to the bear’s slow progress through the underbrush.  One day he saw a female red wolf digging in pinestraw.  She stared at him with the steady fire of her eyes, then trotted off, head slung low, tongue flopping from the side of her mouth.  The boy went to the spot and found a footprint there, much larger than his own, a man’s, the tread of a boot sole recorded like a fossil in the hard clay.  Could it be his father’s?  No, the weather would have washed it away a long time ago.  Another day through a gap in the canopy the boy saw an eagle soaring high in the sky.  The eagle landed in the top of a nearby sycamore, male or female the boy couldn’t tell.  The boy felt that the bird was watching him as he passed beneath.  He kept looking back to catch sight of the eagle among the highest leaves, the fierce clench of its head, the cool witnessing of its black eye.  The forest was full of watching and listening.  The boy spent one whole day carving each of the thirty-seven symbols of his father’s belt into a different tree.  At last they meant something to him in the woods, though he couldn’t say exactly what it was, as if the unknowable nature of his father would linger there forever.  Or at least as long as those trees remained.

At night he ate his peanut butter sandwiches and oatmeal cookies, drank creek water from his canteen, and let the darkness come to him.  The forest canopy held back the light of stars and moon, and the darkness was almost complete.  He turned his flashlight on, and the trunks of trees stood around him like giant horses sleeping on their feet.  Would they ever wake up?  Would they stretch their legs and walk?  Were they protecting him, or oblivious to him?  He turned out the flashlight and listened to the creaking of limbs in the breeze sounding like the voices of whales he’d heard in a documentary on TV.  He listened to the calls of owls hunting, sometimes heard the whup-whup-whup of their wings among the limbs over his head.  

One night there was a storm, and though it was summer and the weather mild, the boy shivered in the heavy rain.  When lightning struck a nearby tree, the flash of light and explosion of thunder were so strong they transported him into a silent, deep place inside himself, where he sat so still in the pew next to his father he thought he would never move again, hyper-sensitive though to the congregation around him, the slightest adjustments of their bodies, a cough, a subtle amen, the words coming from the pulpit like wind chimes, or the knocking of a tree on the window.  Then, he suddenly felt the current pouring through his body, an intensity that stretched the boundaries of every cell, and yet he was aware of no pain.  He withdrew into the dark place inside like repelling down into a well.  He became less and less of himself going down until he curled up at the bottom like smoke, and then not even that.  If time passed, it was none of his concern.  If there was light at the top of the well, it didn’t enter his eyes.  If somewhere his mother and stepfather were worried about him, he didn’t care.  They would just have to get over it.  The darkness and silence and emptiness descended on him with a weight unlike anything he’d ever known.  But this weight felt good, felt like a warm, heavy blanket covering everything.  The boy rested.  He would have been happy if it lasted forever.  The thirty-seven symbols of his father’s belt slowly appeared like glowing embers in the wall of the well around him.  He had no mind left with which to interpret their meanings.  They just existed, the alphabet maybe of a language that had never formed.  He had plenty of time, so he studied each one as if it held the secret of the universe.  Without words, how does meaning arise, and yet he felt it and knew it.  And when he knew that he knew it, each symbol crawled slowly up the wall of the well until it disappeared somewhere up there in the night sky.  And then, slowly, the boy felt himself become a cold body curled up on the dusty floor of a dried up well.  A crow’s call drew him up the tunnel of the well and deposited him in a bright, clear morning.  He lay on the pinestraw floor of the woods.  His eyes were dry and covered with the crust of the deepest sleep he’d ever known.  He was still drenched from the rain but no longer cold, and his body hummed with a relic of the current.

One day the boy stumbled out of the trees into the sunlight of a dirt road.  A farmer in a pickup truck gave the boy a ride home, only a few miles away after all. His mother despaired of his thinness, hugged him and cried and didn’t let go of him once for a whole week.  The first chance he got, his stepfather whipped the boy with his father’s belt and made him vow never to hurt his mother like that again.  The boy bears the marks on his scrawny old legs to this day, the remnants of his father’s code catching fire on his skin and swelling into his whole body when lightning comes close.

The boy who became a man and now an old man sometimes thought he could hear those symbols crawling out of the woods and toward the house in the dry leaves of fall. Over the years, he whittled each of the symbols into freestanding forms, which he would have given to his son, but which now lay randomly about the house, saying and not saying whatever it was his father knew and that he knew but could not speak.  He could feel it when he sat on the porch with his wife in the evening after work.  When he lay down in bed those first moments before falling asleep, he felt it.  There were days when he felt it constantly, that presence for which he had no name, because he knew it wasn’t his father, but rather the understanding of his father, that lived in the still continent of his face.

About the Author:

Jim Peterson has published a novel and seven poetry collections, most recently The Horse Who Bears Me Away from Red Hen Press.  His collection of short stories, The Sadness of Whirlwinds, will be published by Red Hen late in 2021.  The two stories of his in The Good Life Review will be included in that collection.  He retired as Coordinator of Creative Writing at Randolph College in 2013 and remains on the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Omaha MFA Program in Creative Writing.   He lives with his charismatic Corgi, Mama Kilya, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Categories
fiction

Go Get the Gun by Jim Peterson

Go Get the Gun | By Jim Peterson

“Go get the gun,” Martha said.  

I put down the book I was reading.  “What?” I said.  

“The gun! Go get it.  Hurry!”  

I looked around the living room.  Everything was quiet.  I looked at my wife sitting in her favorite recliner with her favorite lamp bestowing light to the pages of a book by her favorite author.  She was looking at me with big eyes over the top of the book.  

“Well,” she said, “what are you waiting for?”  

“But I don’t hear anything,” I said.  

“Are you going to let the fact that you are deaf keep you from protecting me?” she said.  

“I’m not deaf, Martha.  I’m hearing you just fine, for example.”  

“Well, something must be wrong with you,” she said.  

“I’m not going to grab the gun every time you imagine a bad guy is trying to break in.”  

“I’m not imagining.  I heard something.”  

“It’s those books you read,” I said, “with all those deranged killers.  That stuff gets into your head, Martha, and makes you paranoid.”  

She just glared at me.  After a moment or two, she lifted her book again.  At last, peace was restored.  Sometimes I just had to reason with Martha.  After thirty years of marriage, I had learned that reason usually won the day.  

I looked out the window just beyond where Martha was sitting.  It was pitch black out there.  I could hear the wind blowing in the nearby trees.  That must have been what Martha heard.  That must also explain why the street lights were out, though I admit that absence of light was a bit strange.  I sighed and went back to reading my own book.  

I was getting into a good part when Martha said, “I want a divorce.”  

I looked at her and she was glaring at me again.  This time her eyes were narrow and hard.  “Martha,” I said, “We’ve been together for thirty years.  You do not want a divorce.”  

“Yes, I do,” she said, “you don’t take care of me any more.  You don’t believe anything I say.  You always have to be right.  You don’t even protect me anymore.  A rapist could come through that door, and you would just let him have me!” 

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” I said, “and you know it isn’t true.  I would gladly die for you if that’s what is called for.”  

“Prove it,” she said.  

“What?” I said, “you want me to die?”  

“No, I want you to go get that gun and make sure no one is trying to break in.  I’m really frightened.  Can’t you tell?”  

I took off my reading glasses and put on my far-sighted glasses.  She came into better focus.  Yes, I could now see that she was trembling.  Her eyes were glassy with fear.  “But Martha,” I said, “it’s dangerous to run around with a loaded gun unless you really need it,” I said.  

“If you don’t get the gun, then I want that divorce.  I’m tired of being so scared all the time.”  

“When are you afraid?” I asked.  

“All the time!” she shouted. “I tell you and you ignore me.  I’m tired of it.”  

“I can’t believe you would leave me because I don’t carry a gun around all the time,” I said.  

“There are other reasons,” she said. “Do you want me to list them for you?”  

I thought about that—my balding head, my thickening middle, my two glasses of whiskey every night, my cousin James who was always stopping by and staying for a week.  Then I thought about Martha’s blueberry pie, her beef stew, the long walks we took together, her warm body in the bed, her IRA that had grown substantially over the years.  

I decided to get up and go get the gun.  Just then, I heard a crashing sound.  Martha screamed but remained in her chair, holding her book against her chest as if it would protect her.  I proceeded back to the bedroom where I had hidden the gun and a box of bullets buried under some of my shirts in a drawer.  Martha had followed me so closely I thought we had become one four-legged creature.  I could feel her breath on my neck, her voice in my ear.  I carefully loaded the 38’s into chambers of the revolver and snapped it shut.  

Shaking, Martha gripped my arm like she might try to tear it off.  As one, we slowly trundled up the hallway.  We checked and secured the front door, the back door, and the side door.  There was one more door, in the basement.  We heard another crash, and it was definitely coming from down there.  We slowly made our four-legged way down the stairs.  I flipped the light switch, but the basement light had apparently burned out.  Martha pulled out her cell phone and turned on its light.  Everything appeared in order: the pool table, the futon, the table and chairs.  

We made our way over to the door that opened onto a patio.  Martha pressed her phone to a window pane in the door, and outside we saw something on the patio thrashing.  I stared and stared, trying to bring it into focus.  And then I saw it.  A badly wounded deer trying to stand up in a slippery pool of its own blood.  It had been trying to get into our house.  But why?  I turned the lock and opened the door.  

“Be careful,” Martha said in my ear.  

I carefully pushed open the screen door.  Martha remembered the patio light, switched it on, and light flooded the scene.  It was a doe, and her eyes were big, black circles.  She thrashed, but she couldn’t get up.  One of her front legs was twisted and obviously broken.  She was bleeding from a hole in her shoulder.  The anguished guttural of fear broke from her throat.  I didn’t hesitate.  I walked up close to her, raised my gun, and shot her once in the head.  The blast carried its message across the neighborhood.  She dropped to the patio bricks immediately, spasm’d a time or two, and died.  

A thin trail of white smoke flowed out of her body and drifted into the trees.  I had been present at other deaths, but I’d never seen anything like that before.  Somewhere in the nearby woods, a hunter was probably looking for her.  The wind was worse than I had realized, throwing the heads of trees around like crazed toys.  

“I’m so glad you had the gun,” Martha said behind me.  “It was suffering terribly,” she said.  

I turned to her.  She was crying.  

“I don’t want to divorce you,” she said.  

I didn’t want to divorce her either, and said so.  I realized I was crying too, trembling with a fear I couldn’t name.  We held on to each other for a while.  Then we went back inside, leaving the deer in darkness.  

I unloaded the gun and left it on the table.  It could take care of itself for the rest of the night.  Martha and I took care of each other. 

About the Author:

Jim Peterson has published a novel and seven poetry collections, most recently The Horse Who Bears Me Away from Red Hen Press.  His collection of short stories, The Sadness of Whirlwinds, will be published by Red Hen late in 2021.  The two stories of his in The Good Life Review will be included in that collection.  He retired as Coordinator of Creative Writing at Randolph College in 2013 and remains on the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Omaha MFA Program in Creative Writing.   He lives with his charismatic Corgi, Mama Kilya, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Categories
fiction

Apotropaic by Kendall Klym

Apotropaic | By Kendall Klym

I sit shirtless before a long row of cottonwoods at the park. On my headphones, I listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht—if you don’t know it, it’s really passionate. A minute or two into the string sextet, I spot a slender man in a pair of white shorts taking off his shirt. He spreads his blanket just far enough away to make conversation a strain. He glances at me, and when I look back, he turns away. After smoothing the edges of his buffalo plaid coverlet, he retrieves a bottle of water and a book from his bag. I silently admire his sculpted shoulders and well-developed quads. Then I notice his book: The Sorrows of Young Werther, English translation. As he reads, he mouths some of the words, and every now and then, he goes back a page. I close my eyes and imagine him a professor of literature at the small private college outside of town. Wearing a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, he faces a classroom full of deadpan expressions, heads turned downward and thumbs beating out text messages, as he explains why young men reacted to Goethe’s masterpiece by killing themselves. When I open my eyes, the man in the white shorts and his buffalo plaid coverlet are gone. 

The next four days are cold and rainy, so instead of going to the park, I romanticize my man in the white shorts, button-down shirt, and khaki pants. Not only a professor of literature but also an aspiring poet, he’s waiting for me to make the first move. And when I do, he will speak to me in iambic pentameter, make love with the intensity of a spondee. That’s if I ever see him again. Still entranced, I go to the library and check out a copy of Young Werther and mouth some of the words. When I get to the part about suicide, I close the book and return it to the library. I remember why I changed my major from English to Museum Studies.

On Saturday, the temps warm up, and the sun comes out, so I go to the park. Despite the nice weather, the place is mostly deserted, not like 20 years ago, when sex aps didn’t exist. The few men I see on a regular basis are either too old or too young. The young ones wear baggy sweats or shorts beyond the knee and like to jog or walk with mean-looking dogs. It’s as if they’re trying to prove how macho they are in the midst of looking for other men. The old ones I try not to judge. After all, I’m headed in that direction. I find my place before the cottonwoods—leaves looking rough around the edges now that summer is nearly over. I strip down to a white Speedo. While smearing sunscreen on my face, I see an out-of-shape man approaching from the left. At least a decade older than I, the man drops his blanket next to mine. I scowl and look away. When he strips down to a pink thong, I put on my shorts, get up, and start walking. That’s when I see my poet-teacher, this time in a pair of black shorts, sitting on his blanket. Refusing to waste time, I set my blanket a few feet from his and sit down. 

I’ve memorized a variety of first lines, all of which I forget instantly when he turns and smiles. Both of us speak at the same time. I start to say something about the weather, and he tells me cops are cracking down on lewd behavior in the park. He says his name is Art. He asks if I’m hungry. I say yes, and he invites me to dinner at his house. I look into his eyes, which seem to say he’s sane and sincere, not a closeted homophobe waiting to get me in a room and bash the bones in my face while quoting Christian scripture. I accept the invitation. While I follow in my car, I notice he’s a careful, safe driver. 

Art lives alone in an impressive brick structure next to a big Catholic church in a nice part of town. While he opens a box of spaghetti, he asks me to go into the third cabinet on the left and select the sauce of my choice. He has four-cheese, marinara, and mushroom—all arranged in a perfect line, equidistant from each other and in alphabetical order. I’m impressed but slightly afraid that his tidiness is an indication of a hidden disorder, something that could turn Walt Whitman into Jeffrey Dahmer. After dinner, we cuddle on the living room floor. Art tells me he’s a nudist and asks if I mind if he takes off his clothes. I say that’s fine and do the same. In the midst of kissing Art, I notice a long black robe and some other garments hanging on a rack in a corner of the room. He notices me noticing and tells me he’s a Catholic priest. When I get home, I vomit spaghetti and sauce into the toilet. After brushing my teeth four times, I look online at the brand of sauce I had chosen and see it has anchovies, which I’m allergic to. I decide not to see Art again.

* * *

The weather turns cold, and I start going to First Fridays Art Walk a few blocks from where I work at the historical society. I meet someone I like. His voice has a homespun lilt, he’s a freelance artist, and his name is Sam—a real hottie in a white tee and jeans, that is, until he opens his mouth and flashes a set of yellow, brown, and black teeth. I try to overlook the negative, and we start to date, the slow way. We meet regularly at an art gallery or coffee house and chat for an hour or so. Then he says he has to go. Sometimes we take a walk. Hidden in parkas, we finally kiss on a frigid afternoon outside an old factory turned into lofts. No one seems to notice.

One night, I invite Sam to dinner. In the middle of the meal, he excuses himself and disappears into the bathroom. Over dessert, he tells me he has IBS, which causes discolorations in his teeth. I try to be supportive, offering to cook something that won’t irritate his bowels, but he says that food just does that to him. I tell him I’m determined to help and will use organic, non-GMO meats, grains, and vegetables to prepare a meal that will nourish and please. He says okay. The next time we get together, I make sauerbraten with quinoa salad, and he has the same reaction.

After that, we agree to downgrade to a platonic friendship. Within a month, I manage to perfect a concoction that fails to give Sam diarrhea: cream of rice with stewed prunes and 2-percent milk. I have no idea how I came up with the combo, but I’m glad I can help. 

In exchange for meals, Sam agrees to paint a mural of my ideal man, a boyfriend who will be all I could ever want. It takes a month for Sam to complete the project on a bare white wall in my partially furnished attic. To my specifications, the man in the mural is olive-skinned, has long black hair, and wears a golden loincloth. His body is slender and muscular. On the day that the mural is finished, I cook dinner, eat with Sam, and present him with a gift certificate to the art museum bookstore. When he leaves, I head up to the attic to spend time with my new boyfriend. I name him AVB, short for Acrylic Virtual Boyfriend. AVB looks a little out of place in my Queen Anne Victorian, circa 1902, but I don’t care. When the sun shines through the windows of the turret, his skin looks real, especially in the triangular area between the trapezius and clavicle. 

* * *

I start jotting down and acting out little scenarios I think of while AVB and I stand face-to-face. In one, which I call Scenario 3, I talk about stress-related issues at work and link them to aches and pains in various parts of my body. As the scene unfolds, I strip. I start out wearing multiple layers, so the encounter can last longer. During the striptease, AVB—I play his part, too—says exactly what he’s going to do to relieve my tension. Some of the conversation is super hot, and other parts are tender and sweet. On one occasion, I interrupt AVB in the middle of his description of how he plans to manipulate my calves and thighs and ask him what he needs from me to relieve his stress. When he tells me he wants to become three-dimensional, I get scared. Then I apologize for trying to make AVB human. 

* * *

After a rather intense conversation, in which I tell AVB about my inability to trust, I turn on the radio and learn of the mass shooting at a popular gay club in Orlando, Florida. My mind jumps back to October 1998, when I learned that a college student named Matthew Shepard was tortured and murdered by gay bashers in rural Wyoming. They had met at a bar. My stomach sinks. Sweat breaks out around my temples. My throat becomes so dry I rush downstairs to get a drink of water. When I return to the attic, I tell AVB I haven’t been to a club or bar in almost 20 years. Who decides who gets killed and who doesn’t? I ask. I’ve never stayed out past 1:30, which means I would have left before the shootings. AVB says I might have stayed late if I had met someone like him. I shake my head and try to imagine what it feels like to be dead. AVB’s loincloth suddenly looks dirty.

* * *

Sam invites me to a vigil for the 49 killed at the club, and I decline. When he asks why, I tell him I’m not up for it. Sam says no one’s really up for it, and I say there’s nothing I can offer the dead or their families or friends by attending a party or service or whatever. When Sam continues to probe, I mention the word schadenfreude—an expression that sums up my view of why some humans turn into barbarians: they get a rise out of other people’s pain. Sam says: This is not the time to get philosophical. Just go with me. I tell him no. I take a breath and make a prediction that someone will eventually come up with a theory that the Orlando shootings had nothing to do with homophobia, knowing full well that they did. Sam hangs up—for good, I think.

During the vigil, I clean out the closet facing the mural of AVB. First I take out all the junk from the people who sold me the house—boxes of broken Christmas ornaments, an old toaster with a frayed cord, and the rotting carcasses of three dead mice. When I rip out the faded pea-green shag rug, I accidentally pull up a couple floorboards. Putting on a pair of gloves to avoid splinters, I come across what I first think is a large dead rat. Upon closer inspection, I see that it’s a black elastic-sided ankle boot, quite scuffed, the elastic turning to powder when I finger it. Immediately I turn to AVB and ask if he knows its owner. For once the mural has nothing to say, its expression lifeless. 

When I search a library database, I learn that concealed objects, particularly shoes and other footwear, are a remnant of British and Roman superstition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Shoes, boots, and slippers symbolize an attempt to be apotropaic, to possess the power to avert evil. People hid footwear in walls and between floors of their homes in order to ensure a good life. These items, an anthropologist says, are the one type of clothing that molds to an individual’s body; they express how a person moves, the way a person acts, who the person is. Shoes and boots symbolize the soul of a human being.

I try the boot and it fits. Then I close my eyes and take a few steps. I imagine a tall artist with dark wavy hair: a dropout from an obscure Catholic seminary—gay and alone, someone who spends hours looking at the backs of leaves, how they turn silvery when a summer thunderstorm is about to approach. Then he paints landscapes, mainly of trees with men in the background. My eyes still closed, I feel a sharp pain in my lower back, not unlike a kick. A moment later, I notice I’m standing a foot away from AVB, facing the opposite direction. I decide to break up with my virtual boyfriend. 

* * *

While trying to nap, I remember an old TV movie about a straight man who discovered a batch of love letters—addressed but never mailed—in a secret drawer of a nineteenth-century desk he bought at an antique shop. He mails the letters and begins receiving responses. He and his pen pal meet. It turns out that the man has fallen in love with a Victorian ghost. The ending, which I don’t remember other than the fact that there was a fire, was rather bleak. I decide to take a break from the attic. I call a colleague, who tells me about Nathaniel, a guy who specializes in something called spirit removal. At work the next day, my colleague gives me Nathaniel’s card, saying she has never met the man, but her neighbor, a woman with a poltergeist that used to remove the toilet paper from her upstairs bathroom, says he’s legit. Knowing that my house has no departed spirits other than my own, I call Nathaniel. When he answers the phone, I find myself tongue-tied. I’m not sure why, but if I could conjure up a ghost to fill the boot from the attic, my specter’s voice would sound exactly like that of Nathaniel—soft and sinuous, masculine but sensitive, the sort of voice you’d want to tell you goodnight on a winter evening, when you’re sick in bed with the flu. 

I need for someone to investigate my attic, I finally spit out. 

Nathaniel asks what sort of incidents I’ve experienced, and I tell him I’m not sure. 

Then I’m not sure I can help you, he says, still managing to keep the sensitivity in his voice. 

I tell him about the boot, but not the painting. 

Nathaniel clears his throat. I charge $50 an hour, one-hour minimum.

* * *

While waiting for Nathaniel to arrive on a dreary November afternoon, I reread a series of newspaper articles about the Orlando shootings. The papers are yellowed. In one, there’s a photo of a man in a loose tank top hugging another man. The hugger holds his left hand over his face, while the receiver of the hug buries his head in the hugger’s shoulder. A later article questions the economic impact of the shootings on the Orlando metro, especially its theme parks. A third article talks about how the shooter frequented gay clubs and social media sites, yet claimed allegiance to groups known for violence toward gays and lesbians and transgender people. 

The doorbell rings. Wearing a gray V-neck tee and tight vermillion jeans, Nathaniel introduces himself. All I can do is keep my jaw from dropping. After an uncomfortably long pause, in which the two of us stare, I offer to carry equipment up to the attic. Nathaniel lifts his eyebrows, and the creases in his forehead make him look sexier. 

No equipment, he says. I’m not that kind of ghost hunter. They charge a lot more than 50 an hour. I ask him how he does his job, and he tells me he’s a good listener. What I do is listen carefully with all my senses. Once I’ve identified the problem, we look at various options.

When we reach the attic, Nathaniel starts asking questions about the mural of AVB. I tell him about the kick and the events leading up to it. He says my entry into the closet after learning of the Orlando shootings is both melodramatic and trite. I agree. When I show Nathaniel the shoe, he says he wishes I had found the other. Polish them up, he says, and they’d look great with my Victorian coattails. When I ask him about the presence of a ghost, he tells me to paint over the mural and learn to get out more. Then he tells me there will be no charge for his services, if I let him rummage beneath my closet for the other shoe.

About the Author:

In addition to winning the Tartt First Fiction Award for Step Lightly, (Livingston Press, 2019), Dr. Kendall Klym has won numerous awards for his short stories, which have been published in literary journals including Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, and Fiction International. Klym is a three-time honorable mention winner of the Great American Fiction Contest and has won writing fellowships at the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and Monson Arts. Two of his stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A former professional ballet dancer, Klym holds a Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in Fiction Writing, from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. For six years, he taught English composition, American literature, and creative writing full time at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta; however, he considers the Midwest his home, particularly Kansas and Missouri.

Categories
fiction

Alice and Juno in Hell by Mary Duquette

Alice and Juno in Hell | By Mary Duquette

The first call came on Thursday over the landline. It rang ten minutes after Alice got home from her new job as Kitchen Assistant at Jacque’s. She sat in her apartment in front of the television set with her coat on and her feet stretched out over the ottoman and picked up the phone on the second ring.

“Hi, Alicia.” The voice was low and seductive – a kind of sepia tone, if it could have been a color, she thought. “What are you wearing?”

“My coat,” Alice said, fingering her collar.

“What else, Alicia?”

“Why…why do you keep calling me Alicia?”

“That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s Alice.”

“Alice?” The voice sounded puzzled.

“Yes. Like, in Wonderland.”

“Oh. I…”

“You must have the wrong number,” Alice said.

“Is this 328-5446?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I don’t know how I got the name wrong. I was so sure it said Alicia.” The voice sounded forlorn and flattened.

“How did you get this number?”

“The white pages.”

“You just called a random number from the white pages? To any old Alicia?”

“Yes. I know that sounds…”

“Desperate?”

“Well. Yes.”

“It’s okay,” Alice said after a moment. “Listen, maybe you want to know what else I’m wearing, or something.”

“Sure.” The voice brightened.

“Okay.” Alice looked down at her clothes. “I’m wearing my tan jumper with a white t-shirt under, and black stockings with green sneakers, the lace-up kind. Oh, and under that, a pair of pink cotton underwear, and a white bra that fastens in the front.” She leaned further back in the chair. “I added the last part especially. I thought you’d appreciate that.”

“Yes. That’s good.”

“I’m about to make dinner,” Alice said. “I was thinking a meatball Stromboli. I might put on an apron for that. It’s a red apron, with ruffles at the bottom.”

“Can you take off all your clothes and just wear the apron?”

Alice paused. She looked down at her tan jumper, which had absorbed into the chair, the chair’s tan blandness blending into the beige carpet almost seamlessly, as if chair and carpet were one flat mass – an illusion she hadn’t noticed before. “It might get splattery,” she said slowly. “But, okay.” She stood up and took off her coat and slipped off her shoes and stockings and underwear. She put the phone on speaker.

***

A week later, he called a second time. She stood at the stove with the phone on speaker, naked except for a neat pinafore-type apron with the words, “Kiss the Cook,” scrawled on the front. The pinafore made her feel somewhat like a sexy French maid, sans feather duster – but it had a back, which really didn’t seem French-maid-ish at all.

“The mushrooms,” she said. “I’m going to slice them until they’re indecent. Strip them down.”

“How indecent? Really indecent?”

“Yes. So they’ve surrendered. So they’re laid out, ready but not ready, submitting. So they’re helpless. Do you like that?” She was becoming irrepressibly aroused. It was not what she had expected or intended but there she was. It occurred to her that she was losing her mind, being seduced by fungus. It was a kind of desperation that she’d rather do without. She pulled her shoulders back, shaking off the spell that had taken her over, a mushroom-spell causing her to forget the steps for the Bourguignon. She melted a pat of butter in a sauté pan and added the chopped mushrooms, stirring them vigorously. She placed the phone in front of her.

“A slap of butter is sizzling in a pan. A firm slap.”

“Tell me about the butter.”

“It’s creamy. Creamy and yellow and drenching the mushrooms. They’re sopping wet with it. Next, I’m going to take the Clafoutis out of the oven and spread cherries on top.”

“You’re going to spread them?”

“I’m going to spread them, lay them so the juice drips down the sides. So they’re lush and peaking, debased. Like nectar, like honeycomb. Bees buzzing around.”

“Dripping nectar…”

“It’s going to drip all over the sides and probably on the floor. It’s going to be a complete disaster. A five-star, ten alarm.”

Alice dipped her finger in the bowl of cherries and sucked it, the juice running down a corner of her mouth. The thought of him entered her head, his voice soft over the phone like his edges were smoothed over, and she lingered on the headiness of the smells, on the sweet liquor of cherry juice, and her breath caught as she held onto the edge of the kitchen island. She melted into the hard thickness of the laminate countertop, pressing her hips into it, opening her legs. She was as earthy as the mushrooms in the pan at that moment, rubbing herself into the cabinet handle, spread against it, the light from the hallway chandelier luminescent and the scent of dirt and sweetness and salt filled her as the motion of her hips quickened and dissolved.

“Alice?”

She waited until her breathing became regulated. “Yes. Same time next week?”

“Sure. What will it be?”

“I think soufflé,” she said, and wiped her hands on her apron.

***

The calls came weekly, sometimes twice a week. Alice found herself falling into a routine with him like he’d always been her lover, had always been the voice on the other end, but she still had no idea why he called her in the first place – why he had tried to call a girl named ‘Alicia.’ After three separate instances where she cooked a cassoulet, a gratin, and a pot-au-feu in the nude with aprons of various colors and styles, she finally brought it up.

“So, why Alicia?” she asked.

“Alicia is a trigger name for me.”

“What’s a trigger name?”

“A name that gets me horny.”

“Oh.” Alice felt oddly hurt. “Don’t you like Alice?”

“I do now.”

“What’s your name?”

 He was silent for a moment. “I’d rather not,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

“But I should call you something. What should I call you?”

He paused. “Call me Juno.”

“Juno. Okay. You can call me Alicia.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“That’s generous of you. But you know, I’d rather call you Alice.”

“Oh…” She didn’t know what to say, so she pulled off her shirt, and unhooked her bra. “I’m topless,” she said. “I have no top on.”

He breathed out. “What are you cooking?”

“I’m not cooking,” she said, and fell on the bed.

***

Alice often ate alone. Since Billy left, she’d eat in the kitchen, standing at the counter. Eating was irrelevant – necessary but trivial, a waste of a moment, when she could instead be watching “America’s Most Hilarious Bloopers,” or sleeping, or playing “Crossword Madness” on her phone. Eating brought a kind of relentless annoyance, like a whiny toddler pulling at her pant leg. It was petulant. She would have liked to kick it away.

Since Juno, though, she had a flicker, a sudden luminosity – in ways she’d never guessed. She cooked in nothing but aprons and sometimes her tall black boots, if she felt peppy. She braised, poached, roasted, sautéed, flambéed. She chopped, julienned, blended, pureed, whipped – appetizers, entrees, cocktails, desserts, the off-the-cuff amuse bouche. Juno’s soothing voice blossomed over the speaker on her phone, and she picked up a knife and slid it into celery stalks and sweet potatoes and plump, ripe olives stuffed with juicy garlic cloves. She inserted large forkfuls of crispy, tender Apple-Cinnamon Bostock into her mouth. She told him what kind of apron she had on, if it tied in back, if it had ruffles, if it covered her breasts in front, if it tied at the waist, or if it fell below her nipples – which was hazardous, particularly if she was cooking bacon. He liked it when her nipples were uncovered, so she managed it as much as possible, but sometimes she said they were showing even when they weren’t, so he’d be happy.

“Why are you doing this?” he asked one day while she simmered a Coq au vin. “Why are you talking to me?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, don’t you have a life? Don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“I had a husband.”

“Oh.” He was silent for a moment. “Divorced?”

“Separated. But, yes. Divorce is imminent.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, you know. Things.”

“No, I don’t. What things?”

Alice tied and untied her apron. “It’s of no consequence,” she said. “It doesn’t concern you.”

“I think it does.”

She picked up a wooden spoon from the counter and set it in a bowl. “And that,” she said, “is why trysts like this come to an end.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Too many questions,” she said. “I’m not happy with that. I don’t do questions like that.”

“I’m just trying to connect with you,” he said. “I want to know you.”

“Aha,” she said. “But, you see, I just want to have an orgasm.”

***

He called her Missy Chicken Legs. It was true she had skinny legs – but even so, the words hurt. He’d flick ice chips at her face. “Don’t blink,” he said. “I dare you not to blink. If you blink,” he said, “we do it my way.” She tried not to blink. She forced her eyes open. She imagined it was her superpower, the amazing non-blinking woman. But she had about as much control over that as she did over anything, as it turned out. She ended up being human, with reflexes and self-protective devices such as eyelids that opened and closed.

Billy’s “way” was to take out a belt and hit her with it. She hated belt nights. After, he cried and held her. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I don’t know why I hurt you. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Yes, you do,” she said, and he wept harder against her rigid shoulder, her raw bones, which felt brittle and unsubstantial. He fingered her hair and wove it between his knuckles, and she was numb, a gigantic nobody, his body on hers heavy like a child. He fell asleep, and she maneuvered him off her, ducked out from under his arms and curled up on the edge of the bed so he couldn’t touch her. He laughed in his sleep, and reached for her, and she skirted further away but he found her and pulled her to him again.

“Baby,” he said. “Baby. You’re a baby. You’re just a girl.” And he rolled his arms around her so tightly she couldn’t think about moving away and she felt his erection and prayed for an escape, even though she wasn’t sure if there was a god listening, or if there was even a god at all, and anyway, it didn’t matter because she couldn’t escape and he did it to her again, this time without the belt but with name-calling (the usual unimaginative diatribe he liked, bitch, slut) and tugging of hair and grabbing and pushing around – and after, further tears and assertions of remorse and she closed her mouth firmly against her teeth and her bones hardened against him once more.

“I want to see you,” Juno said. “Send me a picture.”

She brushed back her hair. “You wouldn’t like it.”

“Try me.”

“I’m too skinny.”

“I doubt it.”

“It’s too soon.”

“We’ve been doing this for almost two months. Don’t you want to see me?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t.”

“I think I love you,” he said. “I’ve never felt this way.”

The butter in the pan turned dark brown, a nutty fragrance navigating the room. “The butter is burning,” she said. She didn’t turn down the heat.

***

He texted her a picture – a sort of far-away shot of him sitting at a table, his arms crossed, smiling but not looking directly at the camera. He looked as if he had just seen someone enter the room and was pleasantly surprised. It was a dreamy expression, but also unsettled, like he was unprepared for something.

“I want you to have this,” he texted. “This is me at Humphrey’s Diner. I thought you’d like it, since I’m eating a cassoulet.” 

She looked at the picture. He was smiling, straight, white teeth. Mouth turned up at the corners. His hair was wavy and tucked behind his ears. He looked to be in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. He did not look as if he needed to have phone sex. He looked as if he could have had real sex.

She texted back, “Thanks.”

He called an hour later. “‘Thanks?’” he said. “That’s all you can say, is ‘thanks?’”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know – love the picture, I like your smile, great hair, nice cassoulet….”

“The cassoulet was nice.”

He laughed in a non-humorous, sarcastic way. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

“All right.”

“Question. How many women did you call before me? Two? Three? Fourteen?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Because it does. How many? Do you still call them? Or am I the only one?”

He was silent, which she took as an implication.

“Why do you do it, Juno?”

“Do what?”

“Why do you call women you don’t know and ask what they’re wearing? Why do you do that?”

“I don’t know.” His voice altered in tone, as if somehow released. “I’ve never been really close to anyone. I’ve never felt like I belonged anywhere. No one has ever really seen me. Not really. Is that what you wanted to hear? My sad story?”

“So, you call women you don’t know because no one’s ever really seen you?”

“Yes. No. You’re making it sound so…” He breathed out, an intimate sound she imagined on her skin. “Look, the fact is, most women don’t want to talk to me.” He sniffed. “You’re the only one who took a chance. You know? It means something.”

“The only thing it means,” she said, “is that I might be a supreme idiot. With a cataclysmic assortment of aprons. And too much time on my hands.”

“I like your aprons.”

“You’ve never even seen my aprons!” she yelled. “I could be wearing sweatpants, for all you know. I could be wearing a ski parka, or an evening gown with a feather boa and combat boots. I could be wearing a woolen nightie and a ratty beige cardigan, cooking franks and beans. I could be eighty years old, for Christ’s sake!”

“I don’t think you’re eighty years old.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I don’t care if you’re eighty years old. I love you.”

“I’m not eighty years old!”

“I knew it.”

She put her head in her hands. “I can’t do this anymore.”

“Please don’t say that.”

“I have to go.”

“Don’t go.”

She hung up. He didn’t call back.

***

A month went by, and he didn’t call. She sat by the window and looked out, imagining he was near, maybe peeking in her windows, maybe stalking her. Maybe trying to figure out a way to break in. She found herself wanting him to stalk her. She watched for signs of him up and down the street, but the only thing she saw was Mr. Jansson’s cat, Hercules, trot across the front yard and up the stairs, and a delivery man park near the corner and lift three packages from his truck, carrying them to the Wallace’s door, number 38. She felt like the guy in that Hitchcock movie, scrutinizing the comings and goings of everyone on the block – except he had witnessed a murder, whereas she was just surveying the festival of daily life that she did not partake in, a parade of errant felines and men in delivery uniforms with brown rectangular boxes and trucks that thundered like awakening monsters when the keys were turned.

She went to sleep, and he didn’t call, and she woke up and went to work and came home for lunch, and he didn’t call, and she watched “America’s Funniest Dating Moments,” and he didn’t call, and she went to see a movie – “Grand Flats,” about a Vegas tycoon in the 40s who lived and died alone – and sat by herself in the second to last row and ate popcorn with neon yellow butter, and he didn’t call, and two days went by and she walked through the grocery store searching for Thai red chili paste, and he didn’t call, and she cooked a whole chicken and some mashed potatoes, naked except for a purple apron that she had purchased online, with big fuchsia pockets and appliqued daisies, and he didn’t call. She ate a piece of chicken and one helping of potatoes, and gave the rest to her upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Harriman, who was a shut-in and visited by her daughter once a month, and he didn’t call.

She picked up the phone to call him zillions of times, and zillions of times she hung up.

She didn’t know his real name.

She dreamed about touching him.

She walked to Jacque’s one mid-afternoon, down Wentworth Avenue, and crossed at the park. The man ahead of her strolled between the muted lampposts on either side of the walkway, through the birches and sycamore – long black coat and black boots, wavy hair – and she hurried ahead, almost to his side. He turned, glancing back at her in profile, white beard and glasses, and she slowed and stopped. She found it difficult to breathe, and sat on a bench, her hands curled under on her lap. She wasn’t sure she would know him, anyway, if she saw him. The picture he sent could have been of anyone. He could have a white beard. He could have straight hair and a pinched, closed face. He could have one long braid trailing down his back.

The next day, she texted him a photo of herself. It was the best shot she could find – a sunshiny picture on her cousin’s boat last summer. She had a hat and sunglasses on, and she was smiling. Her legs were covered with a white caftan. She had on a rainbow scarf. She looked happy – that was why she chose it. She closed her eyes briefly and hit Send.

The phone rang five minutes later. She let it ring twice before answering.

“Can I see you?” was the first thing he said.

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Why not? Why?”

She cursed herself. She didn’t know why she had sent him the picture. It was a misrepresentation. She should have just dropped the whole thing. “You’ll be disappointed.”

“I’m telling you right now that I won’t.”

“You probably will.”

“I know your address. You’re listed in the white pages.”

She felt a lurch in her chest at the realization.

“I could come over right now. Do you think I won’t?”

She pressed her fingers together in her lap. “I have a new apron,” she said. Her voice sounded tinny and off-pitch.

“I want to see it in person.”

“It’s purple, with pockets. Wait, I’ll put it on.”

“I’ll come over and see it.”

“If you hold on a minute, I’ll bring the phone in the kitchen and make an etouffee. I’m going to sauté the onions until they’re…”

“Shh. I’m coming over.”

“I’ll be gone.” She hung up and sobbed briefly and ran to the window and looked out. It was raining, and the drops shingled down the glass in tiers.

***

The buzzer to the lobby rang. She had put on the purple apron and wore her blue and white slipper-socks. It rang again, and she stared at the “talk” button on the panel in the kitchen before pressing it.

“I’m here. Please let me in.”

She leaned on the wall. “Go home.”

“It’s just me. You know me.”

“No, I don’t,” she said. “That’s the point. And anyway, if you knew me, you’d know that I’m hard. I’m not happy. I’m not sunshiny. I’m a fossil. I said I was eighty. I meant it.”

“You’re pretty uninhibited on the phone. On the phone, you’re not a fossil.”

“The phone is safe. It’s detached. It’s Switzerland.”

“Have you heard of Orpheus and Eurydice?”

“I don’t know. Do they sell sectionals on TV?”

“No. So, the story goes, Orpheus comes to release his love, Eurydice, from Hades. The stipulation is, she has to walk behind him, and he can’t turn around to look at her or he’ll lose her forever.”

She was silent, her fingers grazing the buzzer.

“Alice?”

“Does he?”

“Does he what?”

“Does he look back at her?”

“Yes.”

“Does she turn to stone? Does she die?”

“She goes back to hell.”

“And what does he do?”

“He has to leave her behind.”

“Ah.” She smiled, but it wasn’t really a smile. “You see? Meeting in person is a bad idea. Very bad. Terrible things will happen. Rotten, terrible things.”

“I haven’t looked at you yet.”

“But you want to.” She gazed down at her slipper-socked toes. “I’m too skinny,” she said softly. “I’m sort of like a chicken.”

“I don’t mind,” he said. “I like chicken.”

She laughed and pressed her cheek against the wall. “Why did you tell me that story? About Orpheus? Why did you mention it, if whatshername ends up in hell? If he leaves her? What’s the point?”

“Because sometimes you have to take a chance. You might end up in hell, or you might escape hell, but you don’t really know, do you? And if you do go back to hell, at least you lived, at one point. At least you did something. You had your feet in the dirt. You felt a feeling. The sun shone hot on the top of your head. You did something.”

She counted the seconds, measured and fleeting. “What if it hurts?”

“What if it doesn’t?”

Her finger hovered over the buzzer. “You can’t look at me. If you do, I’ll shrink to nothing. I’ll disappear.”

“I’ll close my eyes.”

“Until I say.”

“Okay.”

“Promise.”

“I promise.”

“I made vichyssoise.” she said.

“My name is Julian,” he said.

She pressed the buzzer.

About the Author:

Mary Duquette holds an MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. Her short story, “Masterpieces,” was published in the anthology, Murder Ink 3, and poems, “My Affair with the Early Morning” and “Untitled” were published in Ginosko Literary Magazine. She has recently completed two novels, a short story collection, and a poetry collection. Mary is currently at work on another novel.