Hamilton Stone Review #27
Nathan Leslie, Fiction Editor
“Un descanso, por favor!” Elizabeth gasped. A rest, for God’s sake.
An American woman, in midlife and freshly divorced, she had shed the constraints of New Jersey and left the known world for Guatemala. Booted and clad entirely in exploration khaki (even her close-cropped hair was khaki!), she clambered up a steep trail after her native guide, gulping in air woefully deficient in oxygen. At well over ten thousand feet, the atmosphere made up in frigidity for what it lacked in sustenance.
The guide—his name was Álvaro, he’d informed her at the outset with a jauntiness that implied that the very name was a source of self-satisfaction—was half her age at most. He sprang up the trail like a goat, his long black ponytail swinging behind him. Her words brought him to a halt.
“But of course!” The guide sat down upon a boulder placed serendipitously next to the trail, not far from a brook that gurgled amongst precipitous pines. He patted the rock’s flat surface beside him. “You’re tired. Sit!”
He flashed her a winning smile. His white teeth blazed in a face as smooth and copper as a Mayan god. He called her tú. She called him usted, adhering with rigor to the formal you.
She declined the invitation to sit next to him, choosing instead a moss-covered embankment by the stream. Fog enveloped them, damping all sound except for the brook dropping into a small, dark pool, and Elizabeth’s rasping breath. The guide took two bottles of water out of his knapsack and handed one to her. “Here,” he said. “Refresh yourself.” Again the overly intimate tú. “You must not drink from the mountain.”
His voice radiated. . . . what? It was a delicate question. Concern, Elizabeth decided. That was it, professional concern for the tourist in his care. He'd come recommended by the hotel. She had confidence in him.
“I never drink ground water,” she said, wanting to make the rules clear. Not even in the comparatively safe temperate zones. Certainly not here, where the ground oozed amoebae, giardia, malaria, dengue, and other diseases too gruesome to ponder.
“You don’t understand,” her guide reproached her, raising knowing brows over his obsidian eyes. A silver stud flashed in the nostril of his regal Indian nose. The piercing, the ponytail, the lion’s claw necklace—was he the member of a drug gang? Surely not, so far from civilization, eight hours of rough road from the capital, in this remote sierra tucked in the western edge of the country, climbing La Torre, the region’s highest mountain. “Nature here is pure,” he said with authority. “The dangers of La Torre come from its evil spirits.”
“Ah yes.” Elizabeth pegged him: the superstitious native. Harmless enough to a woman like herself, well educated, armed with facts.
“I’ll tell you a story about a man from La Ventosa.” He removed food supplies from his pack—a bunch of miniature bananas, a plastic bag of crisp orange cheese doodles, fresh baked rolls—and laid them out in a seductive array. He and Elizabeth had left the village before day, ascending in the bitter dawn, sunrise breaking over them like a rose-foamed wave, before the obliterating clouds of the rainy season descended. After hours of hiking they were hungry. Elizabeth took one of the bananas. It was tiny and swelling with promised sweetness, but its tough skin resisted penetration, and she was forced to rip into it with her teeth. He watched her intently.
“This man of La Ventosa, down there,” the guide continued, pointing with his lips into the swirling mist below them, toward what, if it had been visible, would have been a cluster of adobe huts in a wide, bleak plain, “was up this way last year, gathering fatwood.” Another gesture with the lips—how thick and elastic they were!—toward the scarred trunks of the pines around them, where the dark bark had been slashed by machetes to reveal the red flesh of the tree, dripping with resin. “We use the fatwood to light our hearth fires.”
“Yes. I know,” Elizabeth said. Although recently arrived on the bus from the capital, she liked to believe that she knew far more about his village than the youth imagined.
He fixed her with the practiced flicker of a smile. “In this cold climate, there’s never enough fire. Well. The man came upon a pool—perhaps this one beside us, it's not known—a fresh pool filled to the brim with cold, clean water. The man, a simple campesino, stooped to drink. The sun was out that day, and he was hot from his work. That’s what physical labor will do.” Despite the piercing chill of the fog, Álvaro had cast off his jacket. “Gazing down into the pool, it was deeper than he had at first glance suspected, he saw in its glassy depths a large armadillo. Imagine! Like this!”
He lifted his hands to indicate the size of the creature. His thick arms extended from a black tee shirt. Elizabeth’s eyes followed the arms, sliding over muscles that appeared powerful and tensed, and rested on his hands, his long fingers surprisingly refined for someone who worked outdoors. A sudden heat coursed over her, jangling nerve endings throughout her body. She cursed silently, shook off her fleece, and raised her eyes to his. She could tell that he had seen the flush in her cheeks.
“What?” she said. “Pardon. I didn’t understand.” She blamed a momentary failure of her Spanish.
He repeated. “The campesino lifted the creature out of the pool. A whole armadillo, a delicacy—enough meat to feed a family. It was still fresh, just drowned, the peasant assumed, and preserved in the icy water. The man took the armadillo home to his wife, who made a soup from it, with potatoes and tomatoes and wild greens from the mountains. So rich! The flavors enhanced by the country air.” Álvaro moistened his lips with his tongue, as if he could taste the soup. Elizabeth, watching, felt her own mouth water. “The whole family feasted—the man and his wife and their four little ones, and the man’s sister-in-law and her children, and one ancient grandmother. How happy they must have been when their bellies were full!”
He stopped to peel a tiny banana and slip it into his mouth, savoring the taste with eyes half closed. Elizabeth took an orange doodle and bit into it with a crunch. Its salty tang was comfortingly artificial. “Have you ever eaten the armadillo?” the young man asked.
“Heavens no.” Elizabeth pictured the gleaming aisles of her supermarket, the meat plastic-wrapped and labeled with assurances of its hormonal purity. Armadillo indeed!
“You should. It’s very sweet, very tender. Like so much that grows in the country.” He said this with worldliness, as though he’d sampled the cuisine of many cities, or as though he had introduced many a jaded foreigner to earthy pleasures.
“Maybe we should go on,” she said, glancing up the formidable trail.
“In a minute. There’s no hurry. We’re near the summit, and from there it’s an easy stroll across the altiplano, and back down to the village before night. It’s better to cool off before we climb again.” He moved down from his boulder to crouch next to her, to reach behind her and plunge both hands into the waterhole. “See how clean it looks.” She twisted around to gaze into the depths of the pool, at his refracted hands disturbing the water. He cupped his hands and raised them to splash the water over his bare arms. The heat had left her, and she shivered. He dried his arms with a bandana, which he proffered to her.
“Do you want to wash up?”
Her fingers were orange from the doodles. She dipped them into the pool. It was achingly cold. She rubbed her hands together and withdrew them, shaking off the water. He dangled the bandana until she took it and dried her hands.
He settled beside her on the mossy hummock, so close that their thighs touched, through the layers of khaki and denim. Elizabeth tensed, but there was no more room on the embankment for her to pull away. The pool was at their backs. They both looked out, across the trail, to where the mountainside dropped into cloud. Álvaro said, “Now you must hear of the danger that lurks in this water.”
“Only now?” She tried to make her tone joking. “Isn’t it a bit late?”
He chuckled, and rested his hand lightly on her leg, just above the knee. The gesture stunned her, but she didn’t push the hand away. It was flattering, in a way, considering that the youth was scarcely older than her son (a teenager safe with the ex-husband, in distant New Jersey). She pretended to ignore the hand, and the guide continued with his tale. “Only one family member did not partake of the armadillo soup. The man’s brother was away, on a journey into town. It was he who found them, on the day following the fateful meal, when he returned home. He found them all, from the old grandmother down to the littlest child, his own baby boy, every one of them stone dead.” He stopped speaking and stroked her thigh with one finger, idly.
“What did he do?” Elizabeth asked, as much to distract from the oddly pleasant hand on her thigh as to move the story along. He looked at her with the raised eyebrow again. Of equal height, they were shoulder to shoulder, and his face was alarmingly close.
“He called for the police. He believed they had all been murdered. The authorities came, but they could find no clues of a murderer, and no marks on any of the bodies.
It was the brother who found the shell and entrails from the armadillo, that his sister-in-law had put away for another use. The police opened the intestines of the armadillo, to discover remains of a poisonous snake. The armadillo had not drowned after all, and the deadly venom had spread throughout its flesh and blood.”
“You would think,” Elizabeth, looking away from him, observed tartly, “that a man of the country (hombre del campo, she loved its sound in Spanish, virile, mythic) would have known better than to eat carrion.”
“You would.” Álvaro’s hand moved up her thigh, and she swung around to give him a warning look. Again the obsidian gleam in his eyes. “The spirit of La Torre, its dueño, has the ability to confuse a person. For example, this water that looks so refreshing!” Snatching the bandana from her, twisting around, he dunked it in the pool. He wrung it out with a flourish, then pressed the damp cloth against her face, cupping her cheek. She froze for an expectant moment.
“There,” he said with evident satisfaction and took the cloth away. “Do you feel better? Rested?”
Rested? She searched among a catalogue of sensations—agitated, stimulated, repelled, attracted, horrified—none of them restful. He stood up, perhaps taking her silence for a yes. “Let’s go on. At the summit there’s a little hut, a rustic place, but cozy, and an old man who’ll sell us hot coffee.” He held out his hand to her, to help her to her feet, and she took it.
“The dueño, no doubt,” she mocked. She considered this a slippery word, translated as owner, or landlord, or old fashioned lord. “Who poisons the coffee.”
“No.” Álvaro smiled, pleased by her banter. “Just a paid guardian. The dueño is a spirit lord. He lives in a deep cave and only comes out on a white horse. If you see him he takes your soul.”
“I doubt I’ll see him,” Elizabeth said. After this, the conversation lapsed, as they were climbing again, and Elizabeth, for one, had to conserve her breath.
* * *
Rain pounding on the corrugated tin roof of the hut made a deafening thunder. Álvaro poured boiling (Elizabeth hoped) water into a chipped mug and stirred in instant coffee. How long, at 11,000 feet, does water have to boil to kill microorganisms, she wondered. Forty-five minutes? But, perhaps giardia was the least of her worries, considering what she’d just done. He placed the mug in her hands. “Drink,” he said. “It will be good for you.”
And what was in his tone? Concern, she decided. . .for the tourist in his care. She was inordinately grateful. He put more wood on the fire, which burned on an open hearth on the dirt floor, filling the hut with smoke. He had assured her when they arrived in the pelting rain, ducked into the structure—an ad hoc assemblage of boulders and rough wood and odd scraps leaning against the wind—and found that the old man was not at home, he had assured her that the guard was off gathering firewood, was sheltered somewhere, and would not return until the rain stopped. The fire had been banked, the coffee pot readied; a sign scrawled in English in pencil on cardboard propped against a stone wall read “Coffee—Self Servis, 1 Quetzal.”
“I know the guard,” Álvaro had said. “He would want us to make ourselves at home.” En nuestra casa. He had made the words inviting.
He had built up the fire. Chattering with cold she had peeled off her wet clothes, draped them on a bench in front of the fire to dry, and allowed him to warm her under the pile of blankets in the corner. It was all so easy, his skin smooth and soft, and quick. Restorative. And now, wrapped in a blanket, she waited for her clothes to dry, for the rain to stop, for the old man to return, for the spell to break and let the toxins in. Holding the mug in two hands she took a sip.
So Eve and I planned out our honeymoon. We bought our bus tickets. I keep them on my person. When I look at them now, I get this flash of black and white stills blocking out my vision. We had stuck pins in a map on the towns we planned to go through, like Syracuse and Orlando. That map went up in smoke, right along with Eve. She killed herself in the old-fashioned, detached garage out back where I painted and kept my paint and photography supplies. The chemicals must have speeded her end.
I've only gotten as far as Syracuse, but I'll be moving along again soon. My new friend, the Rev, has told me to write things down, which I'm trying to do. But I'm starting to feel more like painting, so shouldn't I do that? Or shoot some pictures? I'm asking you, Eve.
Eve never remembered her dreams. This severed her ties with everything she couldn't touch or have. This saved her from wanting what wasn't hers. She didn't, for instance, run after her father when he disappeared around the corner. It's a good thing, she used to say. She said things so that they sounded like song titles, and I would sometimes write them down on the back of a canvas.
On the day of her funeral, getting into my car, I stepped on something soft and furry–a rotting lemon and a squished bit of Eve's ludicrous birthday cake. She'd tried to be homey and make a special cake for me, but the icing tasted strongly of onions. I guess this refuse got to the curb by Eve tossing it out there, and on the day of her funeral I was stepping in it.
The Rev wants to hear all about Eve. I don't like how she says "episode," like Eve wasn't a real person, just some nobody people gossip about. As in: That birthday cake episode probably means when Eve was young she never had a birthday party. But the Rev did give me some new work boots, and it's October. She's giving me shelter, and counsel. The Rev seems kind of needy, always leaning in and touching my elbow. I'm not going to tell her Eve's real name (Eileen). I mean, I want to keep some of Eve just to myself.
When the Rev says Eve's name, I can't convince myself I'm not Death, personified. Like the Rev thinks that I've got a sickle in my pocket, or a trashy asp in my grimy backpack. I sure don't want the Rev to know how my nose would bleed when I'd find Eve in some kind of state, a silhouette of herself, half conscious amongst the hundreds of books she'd scattered about herself.
We had no air conditioning, so in sweltering times Eve would go naked for days, practically. She had a reputation for scaring off burglars and children.
The day after the funeral Tim the news guy dropped by with a six pack. I'd never before set eyes on him. He was stunned to learn that I didn't have a television. Reggie, he shouted, last I checked this was 1973. That was over three months ago. The weather was still steamy. That same day I told Tim about my plan to visit those honeymoon destinations.
Tim's the one who told me about the conspiracy theories: pregnancies I didn't know about, and that question, was it really suicide?
Always a good question, I suppose. Or at least a good place to start.
I've found some of Eve's own words from the typewriter with the broken Z and have started to arrange them in an order and to record her days. Don't search for the film. It hasn't been made.
It feels absurd to defend my life with Eve. We didn't own much, so why all of a sudden is legal matrimony such a prize and virtue we missed out on? During those seven years I must have missed some secret message doused in fish oil, or hinted at in the extra firm handshake of the Universalist Unitarian organist who played at Eve's service. He played the medley of Beatles songs with a lot of heart. Not really Eve's kind of music but then again, she'd never been much of a churchgoer.
When the Rev presses me to talk about Eve, I talk about Tim. When I'm alone, I talk to Eve and ponder our chasm-like love. I remember all of my dreams about Eve, even out of character ones, like when she's pogo-sticking all the way into town. Mostly I wake up with the distinct impression we'd just had a raging fight about when the last time was we had gone on a picnic. Or habits of sewer rats. We only believe our lies, once we begin to tell them to others–her words, not mine.
A Man and a Fish
When Joseph Small awoke one curious morning, to the heavy sound of emptiness that swaddled the room like a thick blanket, he sat down alone at his breakfast table, in his customary way, having gone through his usual morning rituals, and knew it was not going to be an ordinary day.
It had nothing to do with the fact that, instead of the usual eggs and potatoes that appeared each day on his kitchen table, there turned up, instead, a whole, uncooked fish, sitting on his plate, partially wrapped up in parchment paper as if it had just arrived from the fishmonger, though its head remained uncovered and its tail lay flat and flaccid, and its dull, lifeless eyes stared at him menacingly as if it were his fault that the poor creature’s life had suddenly come to an end. Nor did it have anything to do with the slow, steady ticking of the grandfather clock which stood commandingly in the next room – a hand-crafted heirloom brought over from the old world that had been passed down for several generations and had ended up in his possession as the sole surviving member of his family– whose uninterrupted rhythm suddenly, and for no particular reason, reminded him of his own heartbeat which, he feared, did not seem to be beating at all.
No, it had to do with a certain something he was now feeling – a distinct sense of loss which manifested itself deep inside, a black hole that had been with him all his life and had been slowly growing, bigger and bigger, and seemed at once ready to swallow him up whole like a snake about to devour its prey.
“Anna!” he called out to the housemaid, though, as he thought about it, he had not seen her since the day before and was not quite sure what he wanted to ask in the first place. But there was no answer and, after two more attempts, he simply gave up.
Joseph Small stared at the mysterious fish with his dull, brown eyes and sighed. He waited, though for what, he could not say. He slowly tapped his finger against the hard surface of the table and, with each dull response, contemplated his inconsequential life. He lifted his fork, then placed it carefully back on the table – how, after all, was he to eat this preposterous fish? He heaved a breath – a breath that did not seem all that substantial as he did so – and released it as he contemplated the meaning of the deceased creature’s inexplicable appearance.
Joseph Alexander Small – son of Alexander William Small, whose father, Viljem Bartolomej Smolinski had immigrated from Europe and whose name had been transformed by the officious folks at Ellis Island in a half-hearted effort to assist with the assimilation process and who had settled in what was then just a burgeoning metropolis – Joseph Small, having recently turned an age that made him think about the finite nature of life, having no known existing relatives, who had never married, nor had had any desire to, whose life revolved around waking up, having breakfast, going to work and then returning to the same house he had lived in all his life – Joseph Small stared into the eyes of the angry dead fish as if he were staring into his own lifeless soul.
Not that he didn’t have his own sense of anger. Growing up, he had been scolded and scorned – beaten and berated by the nuns at the Catholic school he had attended as a child and made to feel insignificant and useless by his mother who, though born in America, still had shades of the old ways and believed that, to better serve her son, it was best to instill a sense of guilt and dread into his otherwise capricious head.
“The fear of God,” she would warn, staring sternly at him when he had done something mischievous or not to her liking, “is what will get you from this life to the next.”
“And,” she would add emphatically, just when he thought she had completed her merciless lesson, a severe smile vaguely appearing on her colorless, thin lips, “the fear of happiness will ensure your success.”
Joseph would go to his room, when she had completely finished – go to the room he shared with no one (for there had never been anyone to share it with) – would go and sulk and cry and wish – wish that he were dead – as dead as the door he had just closed to shut himself in. Success, it appeared, as he tried to console himself under the comforting covers, was very much in his future because happiness was something that managed to avoid him on a daily basis.
So Joseph grew up with few friends, belittled by those he came in contact with, ridiculed and badgered and made to feel as small and inconsequential as the name he bore. Even when he reached that age when childhood innocence begins to slip away and interest and appetite start to take hold, the girls he knew began to express their disdain for him. Disdain or ridicule, for Joseph could never tell what their intentions were or what it was they really felt for him.
Like Lucy O’Reilly with whom he would laugh and joke each day, before school and after, even risking the ire of the nuns during class. Lucy, with her pretty brown curls and plain cotton dress, who, after he had mustered up the strength to politely request an after-school get-together at the neighborhood ice cream parlor, decided, quite immediately and without any explanation, to never speak with him again. Or like those neighborhood girls he would try to avoid, who strutted down the street with their impudent smiles and mocking voices, pushing their curious baby carriage around as if it were a toy – why, he wondered, feeling always intimidated, feeling always as if he were being belittled, were they always wheeling it about and whose baby was it anyway? – who laughed at him as he passed and made him feel as if his lot in life was to simply be taunted and teased –“Hey Rocky,” they would shout, with just a touch of derision in their voices, “Rocky baby”—so much so that he wished there were some other way he could take to get to where he was going.
Or at least that’s what it seemed – life was filled with cruel people who somehow seemed to set their sights on him, and girls, it appeared, were the worst of all, so that what had been his last hope at forming relationships vanished like a wisp of vapor on the distant horizon.
Joseph remembered. He closed his eyes and watched his life go by, like a faded film, like a long, drawn-out melodrama whose end never seemed to come. Then, he looked straight at the lifeless fish and said:
“Well, my friend. It seems our destinies have crossed. What lessons do you have for me? And what words of condolence can I possibly conjure for you?”
And with that, Joseph Small smiled. And the dead fish smiled back, or so it seemed, to a man who had never really known a smile, had never really understood what it was like to stare into the depths of another’s soul and come back fully content, like someone dipping a bucket into a deep well and retrieving it as it overflowed with clear, pure water.
And then something extraordinary happened. Something even more astonishing than the sudden appearance of a freshly dead fish on his kitchen table, for the creature he had just spoken to and who, it seemed, had responded back, suddenly moved, wiggled its tail and twisted its head in a spasm of life, jumped up and out of the parchment paper it was shrouded in and floated gracefully into the air.
Joseph Small blinked his eyes. He leaned forward towards the empty plate that stared back blankly at him and then looked at the fish hovering over the table and asked himself if, perhaps, it was all just a dream. A figment of his imagination. A fantasy he had fabricated like he had done so many times throughout his lonely days as he tried to fill the void in his life with hope.
Joseph thought about this as he pondered the meaning of fish and life, of waking up each morning and going about one’s business, of this peculiar thing known as existence which, for so many years, he had experienced as if he were nonexistent at all, like a flimsy mesh or like a translucent film whose ghostly images came and went haphazardly. For there had been nothing meaningful in his life, nothing special in going to work each day, spending eight hours with his fellow workers – people he passed most of his time with but with whom he would never otherwise have a relationship – punching in cryptic commands on his keyboard and examining data that meant nothing, at least to him – nothing charming like he imagined his life might have been had he never been born in this particular time and place, had his ancestors decided to stay where they were, in a part of the world he had never been to but which seemed to him mysterious and magical, filled with legend and lore, unlike the mundane, monotonous metropolis he had somehow found himself in.
And then, just as suddenly, the fish looked briefly at him and said out loud in a voice that sounded all too familiar: “Hey Rocky.” And having uttered those words, it swiftly swam away.
Joseph jumped up from his chair. He rushed into the next room where he found the fish floating silently in still air, light and graceful, coyly observing him as if inviting him to follow, suspended gently beside the ancient grandfather clock whose ponderous ticking syncopated the all too familiar silence. And then, just as quickly, it turned its head and sped off, passed magically through the splintered walls, out, out to a place where Joseph imagined it might find a place to thrive – a lush lake, perhaps, or an ocean filled with other fishes.
Joseph grabbed his jacket and followed, instinctively adjusting his clothes to make sure they were just right (“appearance is everything,” his mother would say, “appearance makes a man or destroys him, if it is not just right”) and ran after the elusive fish, passing just as mysteriously through the walls and entering a maelstrom of muted light and muffled sound, coming at last to a dark, quiet place where nothing seemed to exist at all – not even the fish he had been pursuing.
Joseph looked around and asked himself: if life had been dull and meaningless where he had just come from, what could he possibly find different here in this void which seemed as colorless and drab?
Then, he tried to move, and each movement, it seemed, had a consequence that appeared to be beyond his control: when he wiggled his fingers, light pulsed in the void where he stood, and when he shifted his feet, the loud echoing of his footsteps permeated the quiet like thunderbolts from the sky.
This, he thought, must be what it means to impact the world. This, he concluded, must be the secret that had been missing all along, the magic answer to the question he had been asking all these years– what more could there possibly be to life? To his life? If the nuns from his childhood had insisted there was nothing beyond what was already there (“everything in God’s world,” they would say, “has already been determined, there is nothing new that man can possibly do or create”), he now saw that there were things that went beyond one’s cognition.
And so Joseph stood there in the dark, wiggling his fingers and stretching his toes, moving in all sort of contortions to see what effect he could have on this new world he had just entered, never once asking himself where he was or how he had gotten there or even where the angry dead fish had gone to now that it had led him to this incomprehensible place.
Sometime later – and there was no telling how long, for time seemed to stand still in this strange, indeterminable world, revealed itself merely in the thoughts that toggled tentatively in his head and emerged gradually into the air, echoing like distant bells in an ancient bell tower, like little ducks quacking in the midst of the night, whose every iteration interrupted the steep silence like the grandfather clock he had left behind –later, after he had wiggled and jumped, sat and sprang, bent and twirled, Joseph decided it was time to explore, to seek out the dead fish which had been responsible for his coming here and which had spoken to him in words he had not heard since the odd days of his late childhood.
“Hello?” he called out, tentatively, yet with just enough force to light up the darkness. “Hello? Are you there?”
Silence ensued, but then he heard it, soft yet distinct – the words he had heard just prior to his departure – “Rocky, Rocky baby” – tender and inviting, not at all derisive like what he recalled from his early youth –and the blackness lit up briefly and a gleaming tunnel of light emerged and, through it, he could see the fish with its bright flashy tail and its shimmering gills, hovering in nothingness and looking at him coyly as the words it spoke repeated themselves incessantly and fell all around him like gentle raindrops in a lush English garden.
Joseph began to tremble. He wanted to run, to hide, to escape back to the comfort of his familiar house, and his heart started to pound and his being seemed to collapse upon itself but he did not know the way back and, even if he could find it, was not quite sure how he would pass from this realm back to the one he had emerged from. So instead, he stood and waited – waited for what, he could not say, only that something significant surely would happen, just as his coming here had suddenly happened and eventually, when it did, he was certain he would be able to proceed.
And then it did. The darkness suddenly filled with a soft insubstantial glow, with just enough radiance for him to see ahead, and he slowly moved forward, inched his way towards the fish which was no longer in sight and arrived at last at the banks of a secret lake.
Joseph looked around, noticed an odd stillness in the air, a calm that resounded with tranquility such as he had never before heard: the trees swayed silently above him, and the lake water lapped noiselessly against the shallow shore. Birds flew quietly up in the sky: not a sound did they make, not a twit nor a tweet emerged from their sullen mouths nor even a soft fluttering from the flapping of their beating wings. Then, looking down, he saw his reflection shimmering in the water, a likeness which did not seem to be all that substantial and which gleamed elusively on the surface of the rippling lake.
“Hello?” he cried out once again, as he stared at himself, but the only answer was the deep, still quiet and the stark, lonely image of his likeness floating on the water like a flimsy veil.
Joseph Small waited, at the edge of the lake, waited silently as he stared at his reflection wavering in the water, for waiting had been the only thing he had ever known, waiting had been the constant companion to his long, negligible life. He waited for a sign. He waited for an indication of what he should do. He waited for the strange, little fish, which had, after all, been responsible for his being here, waited for it to reappear, to come back and reveal itself, tell him what he was supposed to do, tell him where he was and what the meaning of all this could be. Yet for all his waiting, he was left merely with his fragile reflection which stared back at him reproachfully from the deep, black water (“never depend on others,” his mother would say, “you have nothing but you and yourself to depend on in this world or you will only be disappointed”), accusing him, it seemed, of indifference and indecision, forcing him to confront a reality he had not wished to deal with since the day his mother had suddenly died.
Soon, he felt his heart sink. Soon, he felt his being shrink and curl, and he reached out angrily at his lifeless reflection, floating evasively on the water’s rim, sank to his knees and tried desperately to gather it up,, gather it into something he could touch and feel – a ball of anger, or any emotion he could muster that would make him sense, for once, that he was truly alive. But the reflection eluded him, stubbornly remained floating on the face of the water, furrowed and vague and utterly insensitive to his intangible feelings.
“This must be what it’s like to be dead to the world,” he thought. “This must be what it’s like to wake up and find that you have never been awake at all.”
Joseph stood up, calmly, slowly dried his hands against the nap of his pants, observed himself rippling in the cool, clear water, staring back still and emotionless as if he were the reflection and it the reality looking up and beyond towards the vast, vast universe.
Eventfully, the sun rose. Eventually, it climbed up from the depths of the glassy lake, scaled the wispy strands of clouds like the rungs of a rickety ladder, up up into the clear, azure realm of nothingness, searching for a place to rest, revealing itself in all its golden splendor, stopping merely to warm the world, to assure that its clarity had reached every nook and cranny of this dark, quiet place.
Joseph watched silently, stood and waited for the dead fish to return, wondered at the meaning of it all – at the purity of the lake water from which his reflection had suddenly vanished, at the distant occlusion of the elusive horizon, at the sound of the birds whose noisy chattering filled the air with silence, at the whereabouts of the little dead fish which had disappeared, at the meaning of trees which imbued the landscape with their hushed existence.
And Joseph wondered. He sat on a large rock at the side of the lake and pondered these things, until his mind was filled with peace, until his fingers and limbs relaxed, until the essence of his being became at last silent and still.
Then, in the far distance, on the vast, blue lake, appeared a speck: a tiny dot which gradually grew, bigger and bigger, approaching, at last, silent and slow. Joseph watched as the silent boat approached, gliding gently on the surface of the lake, and stopped quietly before him.
And Joseph knew instinctively what to do. Joseph Small, who had doubted everything throughout his meager life, who had always been guided by his well-intentioned mother, who had been told by the stringent nuns of his childhood exactly what to do in such circumstances, whose very existence had been defined by those around him – Joseph Small knew for once what was required at this very juncture of time and space, knew that the difference between being told and merely understanding was like that slender sliver of sunlight which determines the difference between night and day.
Joseph stepped onto the boat and sailed away. He watched the shore diminish in the distance, felt himself surrounded by nothingness, embraced its cool touch as it lightly caressed his skin and, looking down into the clear, still water, caught a brief glimpse of the fish which swam happily away.
“Rocky,” it called out. “Goodbye Rocky.”
And the trees became trees, and the birds flew like birds and filled the air with their birdlike song, and the lake remained still and calm and blue as lapis.
Joseph Small stood at the bow of the boat and waited and waited to awake.
“A man was here looking for you, Mark,” Pam Weeks said without looking away from her computer screen. “After you left last night.”
“Did he say what he wanted?” Mark Person was removing his jacket, hanging it on the coat tree.
“He asked if you worked here is all and when I said yes but you were out, he just thanked me and left.”
Mark Person worked in the admissions office at Hausner College, a small Presbyterian liberal arts college about an hour and a half from Washington in more-or-less rural Virginia, an assistant dean.
“What did he look like?”
Pam had a clear picture in her mind of the hulking figure with a pompadour and what appeared to be a cleft palate that had been surgically corrected, a baby face, paradoxically emphasized by a downy eye-brush mustache that shaded the harelip, but she also had trouble articulating exactly what she had seen. “Medium height,” she shrugged. He’d been wearing a cheap-looking wrinkled sports jacket with a plaid sort of pattern and a blue Oxford shirt, open at the throat to reveal the top of a white undershirt, but she didn’t know if Mark cared what the man had been wearing. Or that his ears had stuck out and he smelled of minty soap.
“He didn’t leave a name?”
“No.” Pam thought to mention the vaguely British or Australian accent, but she couldn’t decide which it was, so she held her tongue. Besides, it could have been a speech impediment owing to the cleft palate.
“Oh well,” Mark sighed, feeling vaguely ill at ease. Who would be looking for him? Pam’s vague description made the stranger seem threatening to him, as if he were going to be blindsided.
Mark Person entered his cubicle and logged on to his computer. Before getting down to the work that awaited him, he checked his e-mail account for The Cantwell Review, the online literary magazine he edited. His nemesis, George Clark, had sent him another e-mail. Clark was a rancorous community college professor/poet, self-styled “revolutionary,” whose poetry Person had rejected and who had subsequently taken to sending abusive, vaguely threatening e-mails. They came more and more infrequently, but they always sounded the same.
“I won’t even bother submitting anything to your journal since all you do is bask in the cleverness of your bon mots and your precious aperçus. How gutless you are, Person, serving the politically correct pablum to your establishment audience. When the revolution, comes, watch out. People like you will be the first to go.”
What the hell was this about bon mots and aperçus? And all at once Person wondered if his mysterious visitor had been none other than George Clark himself. Talk about an aperçu. From the past participle of the French apercevoir, to perceive, a clever insight.
What exactly was an apercu, anyway, Mark wondered. Was the observation that one appreciated the smell of one’s own shit, despite the general shittiness of shit, an aperçu? The word was onomatopoeic in a way – a delicate sound for a nuanced perception.
Mark poured himself a cup of coffee from the office Mr. Coffee coffeemaker and from a drawer in his desk retrieved the package he kept of Nature Valley granola nut clusters, his breakfast of choice. The package had already been opened and resealed. He’d always been amused by the message at the top of the package that said, “resealable for your lifestyle.” The hell? His “lifestyle”? And now he asked himself, is this an aperçu? Reading the fine print and being struck by the implications?
Or again, he wondered if when he had listened to “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” on his CD player coming to work this morning and was sure he heard John Lennon as the song faded away at the end sing “Baby, you’re a big fat Jew,” if that was an aperçu, something small he’d noticed – unless he’d just misheard the line. He’d have to Google this.
But an aperçu wasn't the written statement, was it? You inferred the aperçu from the written observation since it was an act of noticing, not of writing. Or was he nitpicking? Still, it seemed worth noting since reviewers and critics always alluded to alleged aperçus without pointing anything out in particular, and, like Clark, with something of a sneer, the way a Republican political observer uses the word “liberal,” with contempt. Baby, you’re a rich man, baby, you’re a rich man, baby you’re an aperçu …Maybe, like Person, they were just half in love with the word itself.
Mark loved the little tail hanging off the c, its magical power to change the pronunciation from a “k” sound to an “s” sound. How powerful, how sexy, just like the word itself. Curaçao was another one, he reflected. From a Portuguese word meaning the state of becoming cured, referring to sailors who, after months at sea having contracted scurvy would eat the vitamin C-rich fruit of the island and become cured. As if that little tail hanging from the c could make cripples walk, restore sight to the blind.
“Is Mister Person in?”
Pam Weeks looked up at the hulking but gentle figure of the man who had come the day before. He still smelled of soap.
“I’m sorry!” she cried, “You just missed him again. Can I take your name and number and leave him a message to call you?”
“Oh, no, thank you, it’s quite all right. I’ll try another time,” the man said, blushing, already backing away.
“But if you’ll leave your name –”
But the man scurried out the door. Almost apologetic. Almost frightened.
“He was here again last night after you left,” Pam told Mark the next morning. “The man that was here asking to see you the other day.”
“And you didn’t get his name?”
“He didn’t say.”
“It wasn’t George Clark, was it? His name?”
“He wouldn’t tell me.”
“Wouldn’t tell you?” Person felt his paranoia start to tick like a geiger counter detecting radiation. “You asked his name and he wouldn’t tell you?”
She hesitated because Mark made it sound as though the man had refused, but it hadn’t been so much a refusal to tell as a reluctance to bother her. But all she said was, “Yes.”
A Google search told Mark Person that a rumor had been started that John Lennon had sung, “Baby you’re a rich fag Jew,” as a reference to Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager who died three months after the song was recorded. The lyrics really were sung,“Baby, you’re a rich man, too,” at least according to Google. So – he’d misheard the lyrics. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Person wondered: Could a mistake be an aperçu? He remembered the time he was on an airplane awaiting takeoff and the flight attendant referred to the two “accidents” over the wings. Hadn’t she meant “exits” over the wings? Had he misheard her? A Freudian slip – or an aperçu? The classical radio announcer introduces Pachelbel’s Canon in D major and Person hears “Taco Bell” – the fast food of classical music? Pachelbel’s “greatest hit,” indeed. But – an aperçu? Nah.
But finally, just this morning coming to work, Person could have sworn he heard the news announcer saying something about “the shoplifting industry.” But it turned out she’d said, “chocolate industry.” Not an aperçu; he was just going nuts. Then again, he might be confusing an aperçu altogether here. True, it was an immediate apprehension of something, in the sense of insight, more appreciative than analytical, an experience, but wasn’t it also the expression, the sketch? The insight shared? In the case of “Baby, you're a big fat Jew,” if it had been accurate, if he had heard it correctly, would the aperçu then be some comment on British anti-Semitism with regard to the Liverpudlian working class? Or some insightful commentary on the irreverent, inappropriate, embarrassing punk humor Lennon sometimes displayed?
So what were these aperçus that Clark had been referring to in The Cantwell Review? Maybe he should ask Clark to point them out. But no, just leave Clark out of it, hope he goes away, crawls back under his rock, turns his sneering attention elsewhere.
Was Person simply paranoid about this mysterious visitor who kept asking Pam if he were in? Person got so few visitors. Dean Connelly was the one who usually talked with prospective students. This wasn’t a student, was it? Pam had been vague but she clearly indicated that his visitor was a “man,” not a “kid,” which was how they usually referred to students. A parent? Unlikely. In the back of his mind, Person was sure this must be Clark. And he was sure Clark was packing a gun.
Pam Weeks walked across the campus to the parking lot, after work. She reflected that Jeremy would already be with his father and the house would be empty when she got home. She should take advantage of her freedom, but how? What should she do? In the two years since the divorce she had not been on a date. It wasn’t just that nobody had asked her, but she hadn’t felt inclined to seek the company of another male, either. Still, nobody had asked her, and yet, at 38 she was still reasonably attractive, worked at keeping her figure, colored her hair, wore make-up. But the idea of going out to a singles bar, alone, for instance, had no appeal. She was out of the mating and dating habit, had forgotten the rituals; after nine years of marriage, Pam hadn’t been in the market for over a decade.
As she approached her old blue Saturn, out of the corner of her eye Pam saw that man, the South African or whatever he was, the one who’d come by asking for Mark, sitting on a bench outside the library, and from the way he moved his head when she turned, she suspected he had been watching her and didn’t want to be caught at it, didn’t want her to know. Pam stifled an impulse to wave at him, but as she opened her car door, she became more aware of herself as a desirable female, and all at once it struck her that the man had not been coming into the admissions office in search of Mark Person at all. He had come to see her. Pam didn’t know whether to feel threatened or flattered, but from that slight, almost imperceptible movement of the head when he’d shifted his eyes away from her – which as good as said, “Okay, you’ve got the goods on me” – she knew beyond a doubt, a perception quick and incisive and without contradiction.
“You’re a laugh riot, Claude,” Arlene says. “D’you know that?”
What am I supposed to say? She’s taking another dig at me. If I say that that is only her opinion, she’ll sit there sullen in front of the plasma’s blue default screen for hours without a word while the floating Samsung logo bounces from side to side. She knows I can’t stand that sullenness, and she has this way of throwing it around so that it makes the house feel somehow damp. So I figure it’s better to just let her take an occasional jab, like for instance when I can’t get the plasma working. If she watches her show, the house is in harmony. So I just suck it up and keep fumbling back there hoping for the correct wire to find the correct access port or whatever.
Then she says, “Aw, poor Claudey,” and sits and chuckles while I struggle with just a ridiculous amount of wires. Wires that go from the plasma to the TiVo, from the Blu-Ray to the plasma, power cords, Surround Sound wiring, all of it so tangled and dusty that once something comes unplugged I can never figure out where it came from. But God help me, if I were to even mention her maybe taking a duster to that knot of wires occasionally, right away again with the sullenness and the damp. So here I am right in the thick of it because A) if I don’t get things moving in time she’ll miss her show and there’s no way on earth to paint a pretty picture of that consequence-wise, and 2) if I backtalk her about the digs and the sass, then it’s practically just as bad. I just hope for some minor miracle of wiring because there’s just no other way I’ll get through this evening emotionally intact.
“Just get a guy t’come in here. That way you can go back to doing what you do best,” she says, “sitting on your ass.”
There are four minutes to go before Police Beat comes on and I feel her counting down the seconds until Detective Mike Underwood begins his weekly crime solving, which seems to consist for the most part of cracking wise and flashing his teeth, capped like Chiclets at attractive women. The digs will surely be merciless tonight. She laughs againbutthen maybe thinking better of it she changes her tone and coos sweetly—she’s capable of great sweetness when that particular mood strikes her—“Claude honey, just come set down on the sofa with me and have a beer.” I wonder why this change. How will she turn this into a potshot? Her sweetness inevitably veers sharply into potshot territory, but when she turns it on I’m nevertheless helpless. A woman acting all sweet to you, desiring your proximity and perhaps even intimacy? What man is immune to that?
I peek from behind the plasma and see how she’s patting the sofa cushion next to her, how it’s angled sharply downwards towards her ample thigh. When we first met I couldn’t get enough of her big thighs and behind. I could just fall into her. But soon those thighs and behind got bigger and turned imperial, annexing her stomach, her arms, ankles, throat. The backs of her hands even, knuckles indented like they were sewed down. Dimpled colonies of cellulite, joining together like sprawl.
Of course I don’t judge my wife by her physical shortcomings, although I badly want to reproach her for having let herself go so completely. But it’s not as if I don’t love her and don’t still, in a way, find her attractive because somewhere in there, when I look at her sometimes and she doesn’t notice I’m looking, I can see the old Arlene wanting to get out. Never slim, my Arlene, but healthy and blessed with real woman curves. But this? This figure, bright and imposing like a vein of marble? But I love her still and part of loving someone is accepting them for who they are.
“What about your show?” I ask.
Sometimes while asleep, breathing with wet difficulty, she’ll roll over like a slow landslide and pin me beneath her. I’m not strong enough to move her or agile enough to squirm free. All I can do is use the last of my breath to make a sound that barely wakes her, and even then it takes about a minute for her to work up the momentum necessary to roll over again. I realize I should’ve said something about her weight years ago.
“Donna’ll TiVo it,” she says. “Just come and set with me for a minute.”
In some ways her size is reassuring; in the way that mountains or planets are reassuring simply because they’re there and possess a mass greater than our own. Arlene has mass and gravity and so despite her potshots and my lessened libido, I’ve maintained my orbit around her. Perhaps simply out of inertia, but an orbit nonetheless.
I’m suspicious but I tramp over and fall easily down beside her, letting gravity lean me in. Her arm is heavy around my shoulders and its weight warms my reluctant heart. She produces a cold beer, where she gets it from I have no idea, and we sit there on the sofa with static hissing quietly from the Surround Sound and the blue glow of the plasma’s 48 inches fills our home for a moment with something akin to contentment.
I take the first sip of cold beer, which runs through me like a current, and she turns to me and puts her bright red mouth close to my ear and tells me that she wants a baby. Her breath is warm and moist on my ear and neck, and I can smell her perfume mingled with mouthwash and maple syrup. It smells not ungood, or more so to the point it’s familiar, it’s Arlene. The smell is a string of memory.
“A baby, Arlene?” I say. “Now?”
“Well, not exactly right this minute, mister,” she says, “but, you know, soon maybe, like foreseeably?”
“I mean,” I say, “at our age? Where’s this coming from?”
“Don’t you want a little one around here, Claude?” she asks. “A tiny critter scurrying around and calling you Papa? Wouldn’t that just beat all?”
For my part, I think about the downward spiral of our checking account and given the state of the economy the precarious nature of managing a travel agency, but Arlene has got her sweetness turned to max. And her lips flutter at my ear like silk butterflies, light and ticklish in a way that’s all but foreign to me at this point in our marriage but which soon enough has the intended result. She notices the tent in my khakis and tells me that she can see I’m not exactly opposed to the idea of the whole thing. She licks, honest to God she does, the entire side of my face and I can tell she’s been eating Sour Patch Kids on account of how rough her tongue is, but again this triggers something powerful in me and in a blink she’s the old Arlene again, curvy and inviting the way she was before our, for lack of a better term, coital drought set in. I set my beer down and turn to her with not a childrearing thought in my head and work my arms around her in search of a bra clasp.
It’s no small task getting my arms all the way around her, and soon she’s breathing like a bellows. On my third attempt with the bra she throws a leg over my lap and I feel the wooden frame of the couch gouging the backs of my knees. She’s moaning and breathing hard already, and whether this is her motor revving up or attributable more so to her poor health, it hardly matters to me right at this moment. We’re now a groping mass on the couch, her gravity pulling me inward faster and faster like some catastrophic comet impact. She’s quivering like crazy, and again, who can say if it’s sexual, like a prolonged shudder of desire, or just a slow anatomical fleshquake without an epicenter, the ripples circumnavigating lava lamp-like across her topography.
She pulls my polo over my head, saying all the while Claude Claude Claude, and fumbles for an ungodly amount of time with my belt buckle, but then near simultaneous with my victory over that bra clasp, my zipper is open and she’s got my little fellow in her hands squeezing like it’s a near-empty tube of Colgate, coaxing the last bit of paste to the top. Before her Spandex pants are even down she pulls me inside her. I lie there squirming astride her, kneading her, while her quivers turn into lazy convulsions. The moment is beautiful, bathed in the plasma’s blue light, and her hair is spread out on the sofa cushion like unconscious snakes. It’s been so long for us that this intimacy feels like something new and wonderful.
But now for some reason I stop thinking about the voluptuousness right in front of me, stop thinking about that sharp point that’s off in the distance somewhere, but plainly visible already, when all things in me come to their crisis, and I think instead about how a baby might be just the thing. How Arlene would think more about her own health and wellbeing out of a maternal desire to stick around long enough to see our child grow up. It would have to be a girl, I think. Claude Claude Claude, comes her refrain and the sharp point rushes that much closer. Our little princess would bring joy and light to every corner of this house, and we’d all three watch TV at night feeling the glow of familial joy and contentment. I’d be a patriarch and all that that implies. I see the generations stretching magnificently out ahead of us, a long row of adoring children, looking historically backwards but never knowing of the night on which it was all begat.
In this moment of beauty, of so many joys mingling right in front of my eyes, a future child already in the making, my wife’s wonderful sweetness having not turned into a potshot, I feel complete. I feel the way a man ought to, with things no longer deferred or beyond my grasp. And then suddenly there is the feeling of a rupture somewhere inside me, some dam now breaking and bold tides surging forth. But soon I can no longer move. From below, one of Arlene’s vast quivers knocks me to the floor and I lie there looking up as the ceiling fan turns in a wagon wheel’s blur, going now clockwise, now counter, and there’s Arlene looking down at me. I struggle to make a reassuring face, to say anything at all to her about our future happiness, but nothing comes. She looks down, holding her breasts in place with a forearm, and a drop of her sweat rolls down her chin and falls into my right eye. I look at her and think that I may be dying. That something vital has burst and that shortly all this will be gone.
This is more than I can stand because now Arlene will be alone. Who will fail to fix the TiVo and the plasma for her now? Her sullenness will fill our house, blocking the windows, drowning out the Surround Sound’s warm static. I won’t have given her a baby, something I should have done years ago, something to which she is surely entitled. She’ll have no satellite, her gravity will not have an object. Her future sadness is too much for me to bear. Maybe it’s for the best that I’ll be gone. I hear my heartbeat and it seems so far away, some diminishing drumbeat. Claude Claude Claude? She says with that sweetness to which no man is immune. Oh, it’ll be all right, Claudey. It’ll all be fine.
(Consider: What if Claude lives? How will their lives be different going forward? How long does it take him to forget this traumatic experience and fall back into a dull routine; how quickly do we forget to live the exceptional life that we swore we would, if only we would just survive? But maybe Claude does die. Maybe he dies just at the moment of his orgasm, as he sees Arlene looking up at him through fluttering lashes, her hands moving urgently over his upper body. When he realizes that he’s dying his regret for the things he never got around to doing comes on in sickening waves even as he slips away, already floating upwards, but then, seeing himself outside the scene and with a curious growing detachment, he passes a point of light heading downward and believes it is the child he’s just impregnated Arlene with, which now in this last moment makes him think that it has all been worthwhile. Perhaps this is a small consolation for him, and as he looks at Arlene for the last time, she is indescribably beautiful even in her fear and impending sadness and loneliness.)
She stole a roll of toilet paper. Then she returned it. Not immediately. First she tucked it into her backpack. She arranged her cardigan and scarf and book around it so that it would be disguised when she left the café.
It was an upmarket café. The food, Stella thought, was overpriced. She’d ordered a hot tea, very expensive for a teabag and hot water, though admittedly it was nicely presented. Stella sat with her tea for a long time. She’d come here to finish the book she was reading, a post war story she found too disturbing to read sitting at home by herself.
The Ladies Room at the café was also upmarket. Ultra modern sinks, where water cascaded down angled slabs of stone. A full wall of mirror facing blonde wood tables and padded stools - almost a boudoir - to arrange one’s hair and make-up.
In the toilet cubicle she saw a stack of toilet paper rolls. There for the taking, a temptation to all. That made her theft justifiable, she thought, especially given the price of the tea.
She’d deftly concealed the roll when she noticed, high up in the corner, a device which might have been a camera. She peered at it directly and intently. She wasn’t sure what it was, technology had never been her strong point. In any case it wasn’t directed at the cubicle she’d used so her transgression would not have been in its sights.
Nevertheless, with only slight hesitation, she retrieved the roll from her bag and replaced it on the stack. It would be extremely embarrassing to be stopped and searched on her way out. And she had an ample supply of toilet rolls at home.
Stella left the premises with a mixture of emotions. Part of her was pleased she’d done ‘the right thing’. Part of her recognized something new – satisfaction at having resisted taking what she could rationalize was her due. It was not only fear of being discovered that had prompted the return. She was aware of other emotions – not wanting to behave in that old way, as if she was a deprived person, a victim, when she wasn’t.
As a child Stella was deprived but she never stole. Her sister stole. Some of those misdemeanours Stella knew about at the time. Once her sister had spent the change left after buying the Sunday newspaper for their father. She’d lied as well, told him she’d lost the money. Then he’d found her chewing. Chewing gum was forbidden by their father. There was a big, ugly scene, and she was confined to the bedroom after school for over a week. Only when they were adults did Stella’s sister tell her that she had regularly stolen at school. She’d hidden the booty in her locker, not knowing what else to do with it. She claimed she’d had lockers full over the years.
Her sister felt deprived and felt she was a victim. She had an unhappy childhood. In contrast Stella had never felt sorry for herself. The truth was she couldn’t remember a great deal of her childhood.
Now let’s imagine a different story for Stella. She becomes skillful at stealing. She doesn’t steal things to hide in her locker. She steals what she doesn’t have, but wants.
She steals a piece of cake. A girl in her class brings wonderful lunches to school. Sandwiches of thinly sliced bread with thick fillings. Not the same filling every day either. Sliced meat with mustard and tomato and chopped parsley. And perhaps some sliced cheese or egg as well. Some fillings Stella does not even recognize. There’s always a generous serve of fruit, including the fanciest - cherries, strawberries, large juicy grapes. To top it off there’s a piece of cake. It is homemade cake, that’s plain to see. Plum or apricot cake with the fruit not only inside but decorating the top. Lemon cake with a layer of custard as well as cream. Rainbow cake with icing and walnuts.
One day Stella is in the hallway during recess. The door of the girl’s locker is ajar and Stella sees the lunch. She takes out the cake, closes the locker door, covers the cake with her scarf and with heart pounding all the while, looks right and left and right again. She walks to the furthermost corner of the yard, and with her back turned to everyone and everything she eats the cake. It is a rich chocolate cake with layers of jam and cream, topped with chocolate icing and glazed cherries. She doesn’t gulp it down, fearful of being discovered. She breaks off piece after piece and savours every mouthful. She uses the serviette, neatly packed with the cake, to wipe her lips and fingers. She’s enjoyed the cake and she got away with it. She intends to repeat the adventure.
Did satisfying her need make her happier than our first Stella?
Let’s make up a different tale for this young girl.
‘What are you doing over there?’ the teacher calls out as she walks towards Stella eating the stolen cake in the corner of the schoolyard. The teacher takes long strides. Stella cannot hide the cake. She holds it in trembling hand and says nothing.
‘Oh, you’re eating your cake.’
‘Yes, Miss,’ Stella replies.
Now she has lied as well as stolen and it worked. She feels she has a choice. To remain a ‘good girl’ as she’s been till now, or not. She chooses ‘not’.
Stella gravitates towards the badly behaved children in the class. Sometimes she skips school. She gets into trouble at home and at school and no one understands what has come over her. She is a changeling. Her life is not better than before, it’s different. She has a new way of walking and talking. She wears short skirts and tight t-shirts. She uses lipstick and mascara though she’s barely in her teens. She enjoys smoking cigarettes. She meets Tom who is a few years older than her. He enjoys drinking as well as smoking and introduces Stella to alcohol.
‘I have fun when I’m with you, Tom,’ Stella says as she snuggles up to Tom. ‘We’re good together, aren’t we?’
‘Yeah,’ says Tom.
It’s not long before Stella is pregnant and Tom leaves to find work elsewhere. She calls her baby Stella Louise. That has a nice ring to it and she’s never known a Stella Louise. ‘It’s an original name,’ she says, pleased with herself.
So what will become of Stella Louise? Will she be deprived and feel like a victim? Will she bring cake to school or will she steal it? Will she be tempted by a stack of toilet paper rolls or not? And if tempted, will she give in to the temptation?
As a writer I can give Stella Louise the life I want. I’ll give Stella Louise a charmed life. She was born with a happy disposition. She feels loved by her mother. They are like sisters, ‘good sisters’. She is content with the lunches Stella packs for her for school. Especially she loves the banana she has every day in her lunch, whatever the season.
And when she goes to the Ladies Room she does not even notice the stack of toilet paper rolls. Stella Louise goes straight to the mirror where she runs a comb through her hair and smiles at her image.