Monday, August 24, 2009

I moved

Come and see the *beautifully illustrated* version at http://tommctighe.posterous.com/.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Maggie

When there was no food, Maggie would leave empty boxes and cartons in the fridge and on the shelves so it would look like there was food. When she went down the hall the floor creaked beneath her. The radiator hissed. She stood by the window. There was no moon. She went to the sink, poured and drank three glasses of water, pulled her robe close, and returned to bed.

Wade was awake. She settled into his arms, and he began to kiss her neck and shoulders. Their lovemaking had become noiseless after the baby came. Now any amount of quiet time in the apartment was priceless. Wade was no day at the circus, Maggie thought, but the magic wasn’t gone. They moved together with an absolute familiarity, the result of five years of nights together in the same bed. Maggie was happy with this kind of slow magic. She loved Wade.

About a month before, though, something had begun to happen whenever they made love. It evolved so slowly, so naturally, that it in no way seemed abnormal to Maggie now. As they began, her mind would slowly slip away from Wade, and she would fantasize. It came upon her involuntarily, and she never felt guilty enough to tell Wade about it.

These fantasies always started without detail, just a fuzzy outline of grays. But they soon came into sharp focus. A man. He was usually young and always well-dressed. His shirt was white and crisply ironed, with a smart bow tie knotted tightly beneath his starched collar. Her mind quickly filled in the rest, like a painting in progress--the black pants, the polished patent leather shoes--this part was often the same. The man’s face was never flushed. He was never breathing heavily. He always stood straight and tall, with a capable attentiveness, a pleasant smile animating his pleasant lips. He delivered his words in a clean baritone that made Maggie shiver:

“Good evening, Madam. Are you ready to order?”

Now everything sped up. Excitement bubbled through her, sometimes spilling out in an odd giggle that surprised her and Wade both. It was the laugh of a girl without a care. She would pour over the menu while wonderful smells wafted out from the kitchen, and soon the food would be all around her: garden-fresh vegetables in a light vinaigrette, complex sauces, the smoky smell of a grill, of basil, delicate textures, pink and golden, garlic, hash browns with black pepper, caramelized onion, peas, thick wedges of watermelon, juicy pears, tangy pickles ... the waiter brought it all, anything Maggie wanted.

Tonight the service was divine. Sometime during the second course, the baby woke up crying. Maggie held Wade close and folded her lips in over her teeth and bit them. The waiter had brought the dessert tray. She quickly sampled a little of everything: cupcakes, coconut ice cream, strawberries, carrot cake with white frosting, butterscotch...“Cheesecake!” breathed Maggie.

They lay together in the dark vacuum, holding onto the feeling. “What’s that you said?” whispered Wade, after a moment. Maggie just opened her eyes and gazed at the ceiling. Then she rolled back the covers, went out, and got the baby.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gretel

Gretel snatched off her clip-on earrings, pulled her hair back in a tight bun, and buttoned up her white blouse, concealing the black Scorpions T-shirt she had bought the day before. She left the phone booth and headed through the blowing leaves toward the bakery. God, I’m fourteen, she thought. What good is living in America if you can’t dress like an American?

From the minute Gretel got off the plane last fall, her Aunt Marjorie had watched her like a hawk. Marjorie always said, “A pretty peach is easily bruised-—so I handle you with care.” Gretel had to laugh at that. It was sweet. But Marjorie simply couldn’t be everywhere all the time.

Marjorie managed the Strudel Haus, and had gotten Gretel a summer job there. Since Gretel worked the counter, she didn’t have to be in until eight, but up until last week, Marjorie made her wake up and go in with her at five anyway. It took endless wheedling, but Gretel had finally convinced Marjorie to let her start walking to work by herself--it was only twelve blocks! Marjorie bought them each a cell phone and said, “Well ... Okay.”

It had been a struggle, living with Marjorie, but Missy had given Gretel hope. Missy was a lifeguard at the Rec Center, where Gretel took swimming lessons. After only a few short weeks, Missy had won Marjorie’s complete trust. She could be incredibly polite and mature when she wanted to be, but underneath she was actually just ordinary--and she knew something about boys.

Gretel tucked in her shirt and turned the corner, and saw Marjorie waiting out front as usual. Gretel liked Marjorie, even though she was a worrier. Like Gretel, Marjorie didn’t have much of a chin, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Her eyes always seemed to have a little light behind them. Gretel liked working at the bakery. Her hands were constantly busy, but her mind was often free to wander.

Today she thought of yesterday. While wrapping muffins for the day-old shelf, she replayed the events that led up to her first kiss and lingered on the memories of the county fair: the crowds of strangers; the music, like a soundtrack; the orange lights strung along the Midway; the wind, the dust; and the warm evening air that smelled both sweet and spicy.

Having run out of plastic wrap, Gretel left her daydream and the muffins and went to look for some more. She found a big commercial box, already opened, on the supply shelf. With effort, she hefted it up and headed back to her workbench. Coming around the dishwasher she slipped, and one end of the box went into the air. As it came down, the serrated edge cut across her left wrist like a violin bow, and Gretel’s mouth went dry as blood sprang up above her arm in a ghastly red fountain.

"Marjorie!" she managed to call, looking straight ahead, "Marjorie!"

Marjorie put the phone down, grabbed a towel from where it hung on the oven door, wrapped Gretel's wrist, and firmly held the girl's hand up, above her head, reassuring her all the while with a gentle stream of talk. When she saw that Gretel was sturdy on her feet and beginning to calm down, she said, "Keep the pressure on it and keep it above your heart. I'll get my car keys.” She moved swiftly away in her stooped-over fashion and returned sooner than Gretel had expected.

"You must really want a day off,” Marjorie joked as she knocked the big metal back door open with her shoulder. Glossy autumn sunshine colored the parking lot. Gretel's arm felt warm under the towel, and cool and sticky around it. As they drove out to the hospital, her mind settled back upon the events of yesterday.

Gretel and Missy were walking together. The sky was streaked with pink; time was running out. Gretel had her hooded sweatshirt on, with the hood up, although it was still quite warm. They decided to check out the arcade--an assortment of video games standing together under a blue tarp--to see if anyone they knew was still hanging around.

Gretel was filled with adrenaline. The day had been long and her body was tired, but the roller coaster was still on her mind. She had managed to avoid it all day, had gently steered Missy away from it, until finally Missy caught on and insisted they ride it together. But Gretel couldn't get herself to do it. It felt like when she was little and had tried to pull out a tooth that wasn't quite ready. In spite of the pain, she continued to command her fingers to pull, until they simply refused to obey. She lost her grip on the tooth, and then it was like her whole arm got too tired to hold itself up. Her body had resisted gently at first, but eventually declared a total mutiny against her brain.

In fact, getting on the roller coaster seemed like suicide, and her feet wouldn't let her get near it. Missy nagged her about it for awhile, said she had to face her fears. They bought donut holes, and Gretel spent her last twenty dollars on the Scorpions shirt. Eventually they found themselves in front of the arcade, so they went in to see who was around.

The machines flashed in the growing dark and their intermittent sounds mixed with the two pop songs that blared from opposite ends of the Midway. Missy found Dan, a guy from her grade, and latched onto him.

Gretel watched them talk for a minute, then stepped out from under the tarp and looked off down the Midway. Nothing stood between her and the roller coaster. Up on the elevated track, the cars had begun their ascent toward the final summit.

"Gretel.” She could hear the machinery straining as it pulled its load upward. "Gretel. Hey." She became aware of her legs, stiff with adrenaline, then the ground beneath her feet, and then the boy who had come up to stand beside her. "Gretel, I need some money. I'm out of quarters. You got any?"

She looked up--it was Cliff--and smiled. His tan was dark and even over his torso and he had on that leather string with the shark's tooth hanging from it.

Cliff was Dan's younger brother. He was a farm kid, and seemed more susceptible to the attractions of city-made things because of it--he loved machines. Gretel had seen him sit and tinker with the insides of a computer for hours while other kids watched TV. He was also a video game junkie. He'd been playing a new game since noon, he explained rapidly, but couldn’t get to the third level, where the alien king comes out.

"Gretel, if you have any money I can borrow I can pay you back double next week--"

"I only have tickets left,” Gretel said. Cliff glanced around a bit, but his obsession seemed to fade quickly, as if he accepted the fact that his streak was over. Gretel thought that was cool.

"So, what're you doing?" he asked, turning his attention to her. Gretel stared ahead. The roller coaster had just dropped its passengers over the top of the last hill, and they had all fallen together, giving out a single, thrilling scream. Now, some spent and some jubilant, they staggered out one by one through the turnstile, and Gretel strained to see their faces.

"I'm gonna ride that roller coaster,” she said, giving him a fierce grin.
"Haven't you yet?" Cliff asked.

"No," she answered. She glanced back at Missy and Dan. Missy leaned on the game, laughing, while Dan played. A cloud of dust blew past. "You can come if you want, for support,” Gretel said. Cliff shrugged and grinned. Gretel yelled at Missy: “Wait here. We’re gonna ride the Scream-a-tron!”

Gretel knew Cliff had been on the ride a hundred times, and now she'd have someone to steady her nerves. She tugged his arm, and they ran up and got in line. The smell of grilled sausages and something sweet hung in the air. She handed the carnie their tickets. “This’ll be great,” she said quietly.

Pushing through the turnstile, Gretel saw that several cars were open, so she had her choice. She knew enough to know she didn't want the first car, so she was a little relieved to see that the one farthest from it--the last car--was still available.

The Scream-a-tron delivered what its name had promised. Two hills and a few curves into the ride Gretel was ready to call it quits, and after the first big hill she balled herself up against Cliff and wrapped her arms around him. The two of them were lifted clear out of their seats on the descents, although Cliff did his best to keep them steady, bracing his big boots against the front of the car and pushing back hard against the seat, with one arm holding the safety bar and the other holding on to Gretel. During the last ascent to the final summit, Gretel became vaguely aware of a high, whimpering sound that accompanied each shallow breath she took. A tear ran down into her ear. Her heart galloped, and it felt like the whole world was hanging from her by a rope. Then the weight was gone, they were falling, and Gretel heard a new voice shrieking with the wind. Then it was over.

The car jerked to a stop. Gretel sat up quickly, but needed a minute to get her legs beneath her. On the way out she kept her head down and kind of felt her way through the turnstile. After a few shaky breaths, she realized that the danger had passed, but felt a hot rush of shame as scenes from her performance on the ride flared up in her memory.

Cliff examined his boots for a minute, then looked up at Gretel. "You did it,” he said. She saw his eyes were lit with admiration, and her embarrassment dissolved. Yeah, she did do it, she thought, she rode that bastard, and she would never have to do it again.

"Yeah, I guess I did do it,” she gloated softly. Her hood was down. She let it be. Cliff had his eyes on her teeth, and he smiled.

Gretel smiled back. The way he looked made her realize what she was to him--older, and fine--and she saw an opportunity to live up to his image of her, and to become that person. She gave him a bump with her hip, and he laughed quickly, and so she continued to nudge him along, until they found themselves under the roller coaster's steel framework. Then she put her arms under his and placed her open palms against his back. His face changed, and that made her more confident. She placed her lips on his, and his mouth opened softly. She gingerly pushed her tongue in past his braces, and there was a slight taste of cinnamon--then his tongue came back pushing past hers. It was all new and pleasant and it continued until Gretel felt something wet on her chin. She pulled away and wiped it with her sleeve, and Cliff wiped his with the back of his hand.

"That happens sometimes,” she said, and gave him a reassuring look. Cliff smiled back at her. His face was wide open, like he was lying in a field and looking up at a sky full of stars. As the last of the fair-goers headed for the main gate, a dangerous-looking group of older kids passed by, but in their place in the shadows, Gretel and Cliff went unnoticed.

***

Now she watched as the intern used a curved needle to stitch the grisly flap of skin back down over her wound, and listened as he pointed out the arteries and ligaments that ran down her wrist. It looked like she'd tried to kill herself.

The intern’s jokes and small talk faded. Gretel's mind turned to the bakery. I do a good job there, she thought. In a few weeks Stacy, one of the bakers, would be leaving. Gretel decided she would ask for her job.

Marjorie gave her a ride home. The sky was lit with purple and black. There's no one like you, Gretel sang, to herself. Under the snug white bandage it felt like the blood was still trying to pour out of her wrist.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Abel

Abel felt bad, but he held the thing with both hands. His fingers could feel its little ribs. Eric tipped the can, spilling some gas. The cat squirmed wildly, and Eric couldn’t get it lit. Then Abel lost it. It darted left and away, slipping under the old Buick. Abel looked at the older boy’s red freckles. “Sorry,” he said.

“Jeez, it’s gone now. What are we supposed to do now?” Eric asked glumly. His face was pinched and severe, like he’d just sucked a lemon. Abel lowered his eyes to the stained cement floor of the garage. He thought the big oil spot looked like a giant lake, but from up in an airplane. “Hey!” Abel said. “I’ve got my allowance and we could go up to Kapp’s and get some candy?”

“No way,” said Eric. The day was ruined. Eric left and Abel was alone. Abel wondered how fast the Buick used to be. It was a fixture in the garage, covered with out-of-season toys and junk and dust.

It was a windy day. The wind whistled in through a crack in the garage door. Abel found a spider web and went looking for something to put in there. One time he saw a great fight when he’d put a bee in a web. Far away, an ice cream truck played its tune. The cat came out from under the Buick and stood by the door at the back. His mom called, dragging out his name. Her voice carried over the whole neighborhood. “Yeah?” he said. She lowered her voice. “Come in and eat, honey.”

“I’m not hungry,” Abel said. He moved slowly toward the cat. The cat’s eyes widened. Her fur was matted and she stank of gasoline.

“Come on in, Abel. I made you a Wimpy--” Abel took up the cat, opened the door, and went around to the side of the house where the hose lay in a tangle. Eric is a jerk, he thought. I should kill him.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Carol

Even in the photograph that they used on the cover, you can see her tensing up, defensive, bracing for the criticism she knew was coming. She shouldn't have worn white. You have to be dark to look good in white, she thought, like that waitress at Peoney's -- or like Anne. They said it would bring out the color in her face; well, they were wrong. And the watch -- they said the watch would give her an air of authority. That’s me, that’s me, she thought, always watching the clock, always uptight.

In the photograph, one arm, the arm with the watch, is folded protectively over her stomach. Her other arm is bent up, her elbow resting on the watch-arm's closed fist, her hand clutching a couple of wooden spoons -- it’s awful, really -- she shouldn't have let them pose her like that! She'd felt like a doll, in the worst sense, having them manipulate her limbs like that, and then to have it come out like this, so stiff, so posed. During the shoot she'd tried to collect all her discomfort and change it into confidence and beam it out of her eyes and into the camera and on into the world, into all the kitchens of Today's Vegetarians. But they'd done so many poses, she'd gotten tired, and now anyone who looked could see it plainly on the book's cover.

Ever since she'd decided to write, she'd kept a blue notebook with her at all times and prodigiously filled one after another. When she ran out of cookbook material, she’d just write anything at all, believing that if she ever stopped completely she might never start again. Because of this, her notebooks had become littered with diary entries, and so it was often painful, coming across these raw confessions, when it came time to condense her notebooks into manuscript form.

“Where is that girl?” she said out loud, picking up the wine and checking her watch. Then she got her notebook, went to the couch, and began scribbling:
Who I am: Carol. I live alone. I wrote a book, the acclaimed author of Today's Vegetarian. Defensive, American. Lots of trouble keeping pets alive. Sick cat, vet said raw hamburger is best. Vegetarianism. The shifting of beliefs. Middle age. Fed cat vegetarian diet--no connection to kitty AIDS. Wondering. No children. Only pets. All died. Of course, of course, but why is it so sad? Cat eats meat now. Now it’s the cat's life vs. the cow's life. Cat is not an herbivore, though, he is a descendant of the great cats, the saber-toothed tigers. It’s not my fault he’s sick. He needs positives. Psychology and food, comfort food, the placebo effect. When I was a girl a handful of Cool Whip seemed to break my fever. I got it out of the fridge, it “called” me, my body “craved” it. The body knows what it needs.
Colon cleanse. raw foods, blood type diet. In the book, I use milk and cheese in recipes, but not eggs. A moral line was drawn, but I always disliked eggs, so can that be claimed as a moral good? Of course not, no. But it worked, in the book, so it was a positive. Cat's body craving its comfort foods, wants milk? Wants meat? Cat's body knows what it needs?
It was too quiet and she could hear time passing. She wrote faster.
What is really known about vegetarianism? Hindus have been vegetarian forever, but what studies have been done? Can you compare two separate lives? Can you compare a vegetarian with a meat-eater? Too many factors, but what if vegetarianism lowers a vital but hard to measure attribute, like the ability to appreciate beauty or to feel love? What if I am missing out? What is important in life? To have a varied experience? Or to live spiritually? Does vegetarianism bring you closer to your senses, or maybe detach you from your senses? It’s all up to you what you make of these things. So everything is subjective? No, starving to death is not all in your head. What about the bond between an owner and a pet. Could I have made Jones sick, by being guilty or neurotic or something? Is a cat subjective? It will react to a placebo. There is a lot we don't understand, there is a lot we know, though.
She studied her own words as if they held an answer.
Theories change when new discoveries are made. If a cat reacts to a placebo, does that mean it has a soul? Is it subjective enough to create its own reality? What about kids? Are kids responsible for their own realities? Can we compare people to kids? Some people are immature late into life. Kids to pets? Why not? Could there be many classes of differently evolved people on the earth, only distinguishable on a psychic level? Could there be several levels of cats? Could this psychic evolutionary caste system extend beyond all species, all things? Could there be a person, cat, and rock that are more closely related than that same person, her sister, and their mother? Some say yes, others no. Does it matter what people say about something? Can we really study ourselves objectively? My cat is sick. It will die. They all do, of course. What to do? Cry. Maybe get another. Maybe not get another.

Carol threw down her pen and glanced across the page. Her writing had a lovely right-leaning slant, she thought. She'd always thought so.

Her mind turned back to the book. She hadn’t been ready to let go of the manuscript, had she? Yet she also felt she'd done all she could, given the deadline. And now the thing was done, she couldn’t touch it again, people would read it as it was.

The doorbell finally rang. She walked through the kitchen on the way and put on the tea kettle. Soon it will be over, she thought, and she let out a deep breath, and then let Anne in. Anne’s arms were full, and she was out of breath. Carol took the big white dress box from her and left her holding the ground beef. She opened the box and took out a green crushed velvet dress. This will get me through the evening, she thought. In the elegant dress, along with her rhinestone brooch, it wouldn’t matter if she was pale or tense or old, or heartbroken over her cat or about to throw up. It was a shallow ploy, but it always worked, and she knew it would get her through the book signing. As she put the dress aside, it occurred to her that Anne surely never had to connive like this.

“How is Jones?” asked Anne.

“The same,” Carol answered flatly. She was finished being polite to Anne; it was clear that it was a wasted effort. What did she know about life, or about loss? No, she reconsidered, that was all wrong.

“He’s just the same, dear, just the same,” she said, as a way of starting over, and turned toward the young woman. “He’s at the vet now. He stayed there last night. I wasn’t doing him any good here.”

“Oh, I suppose not,” Anne agreed, but it rubbed Carol the wrong way. Why am I pandering to this idiot? she thought. All she does is torture me with her dark hair and her healthy skin. She turned away, squeezing the dress box, but caught herself. “Would you like some tea, Anne?”

“Oh, I would,” said Anne, “It’s gotten cold,” she blinked, “out there.”

After Carol changed into the dress, they settled in to drink their tea on the couch. Anne smoothed her skirt. “That green goes great with your eyes. You’re really going to wow them tonight.”

“Oh, let’s not talk about that,” Carol said quickly. They were quiet. Carol leaned nearer, and looked at Anne’s cheekbones. “Anne, can I get your opinion on something?” she asked, confidentially. “I want to know, well, do you think I could have had anything to do with Jones getting sick?”

“Well, no --”

“What I mean is, there’s such a bond between an owner and a pet -- you know, maybe I -- am too neurotic and he picked up on that or something.”

“But Carol, you’re not neurotic! You’re --”

“Oh, I don’t know, Anne. I’ve had so many pets, and they’ve all died.”

“Yes,” Anne said steadily, touching Carol’s knee with an easy gesture of warmth, “but they all do -- they can’t live forever. You know that.”

“I suppose so, dear,” said Carol, looking away. She caught the dangling brooch. “I fed him only vegetarian food, Anne, his whole life.”

“Well, that was good.”

“No, no, no,” Carol said irritably. “Not good. Cats are not herbivores, Anne, cats are carnivores -- didn’t you know that? Descendants of the great cats, the saber-tooth tigers.” Anne’s face began to freeze. “They aren’t meant to eat vegetables, dear, they want milk. They want meat. That’s why you went all the way to the co-op to get that hamburger -- remember?”

Her voice had risen, and Anne began to shrink into the couch. Carol took a breath and lowered her voice, but didn’t let up. “You don’t think much of me, do you, Anne?” she asked quietly. “You don’t think I’m very grounded, do you? A little flaky, yeah? All this time,” she parodied Anne’s voice: “‘I work for that author, Carol Combs -- she’s a little flaky, but she pays me well.’ Is that it? You think I’m the type of person that would let my cat get sick in the name of some half-baked ideal, don’t you?” Now she half-hollered through her anger, blinking and shaking her head when a word wouldn’t come. “Like I don’t know what’s natural and what’s obviously unnatural? Do you think I’m one of those self-righteous flakes who can’t face up to the way things really are -- who would rather let their baby die than get it -- vaccinated?”

“No,” said Anne, looking down and smoothing her skirt.

Neither of them spoke as Anne drove Carol to the bookstore. Anne dropped Carol off in front, where she found a large crowd waiting for her. She greeted them warmly, said a few words about B vitamins, and then took a few questions. As she signed her books, she was funny, and gracious, and did her best to reach out to those who were nervous, letting them know with a friendly smile or a self-deprecating joke that there was nothing to be nervous about. She had blooms in her cheeks, which made the green of her dress come alive, and occasionally her brooch sparkled, despite the bookstore’s florescent light. Anne, still pale, busily arranged things and greeted Carol’s fans, although she must have guessed that she was fired.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Carl

I guess I was a pretty typical high school guyI didn’t really have any interests, except for girls. Megan Caulley, however, wasn’t typical of the beauties that distracted me from my high school studies. In my daydream world of deified Scandinavian girls, she stood a little shorter than average, with ordinary brown hair. Her face was nothing dramatic, either, but set within it were a pair of eyes that made me curious. They danced with cleverness, cunning, or mischief, depending on the day of the weekscaring off half the guys in school and attracting the rest.

During the first years of high school, she had had a few boyfriends, but as it turned out each of them ran with a different crowd, so she had no reputation. Without rumors or gossip to guide me, I was on my own. I began my investigation in art class one Friday, and we went out for an aimless drive in the country that weekend.

We had been dating a few weeks (well, I’d gotten her out on a handful of dates, although I really wasn’t sure if we were datingI was too afraid of sounding unsure to actually come out and ask her if we were), before I started to figure her out. Like most people who find themselves blessed (or burdened) with having many prospects to choose from, she had developed a technique for narrowing down her choices, and soon I became well acquainted with this technique.

I might get into her car, for instance, for a day trip to the river, and she’d have the classical station on, and tell me that she only listened to classical now, so we’d listen to classical music all day. I never could tell how much of her was really into classical now, and how much of her just wanted to see if I was flexible enough to put up with it. The next week, she couldn’t stand classicalshe said she only listened to classic rock, or country.

In someone else, this behavior would have irritated me, but Megan made it into an all-encompassing joke. Although it was kind of extreme, I didn’t begrudge her the game. She had a fairly large field to narrow, after all, and the harder she was to get along with, the better my chances would be, as fewer and fewer guys would be willing to put up with her.

I felt like I was in on the game, too, as long as I didn’t come out and call it what it was. In a way, our courtship was like a battle of wits, and having always held my own, I intended to hold my own in this case, too, and to do it with style. I began to poke subtle fun at Megan and at the whole game. For instance, after she had bitterly denied that she still liked ice skating, which I knew she still liked, it just so happened that Disney World on Ice came to town. I got tickets to the sold-out show and asked her if she wanted to go. She held out for a while, but then grudgingly agreed to come along, and as the lights went down I saw her forget about her little game and really enjoy herself.

I often wondered, though, what it was, underneath it all, that I was so attracted to. Well, it came down to three things, really: she was sincere, she had a sharp sense of humor, and she was interesting. Moreover, she was a challenge. I felt like I was running in a tough race, competing for a rare prize. After a few weeks, I started to see myself as an early favorite. I had met her parents (who were not very pleasant), and had been invited out to the farm.

It was a hot August day when I went out to help her with the horses. Her family lived on a small farm thirty minutes out of town, and since her older brother Bill had gone off to college, her parents were having a hard time keeping up with the chores. I was no strapping young manactually I was a rather thin guy, but I shoveled manure for five hours that day, filling a wheelbarrow and then pushing it over to a pile and dumping it.

At one point I saw Megan on the porch with her dad, explaining something to him, and looking out at me. He stood, stocky and compact, with his arms folded over his thick chest, eyes hidden in the shadow of his hat. It dawned on me, from the way they reacted when I waved, that this whole day on the farm was just another kind of trialshe was testing me, as usual, but now she was doing it openly. I got angry, slinging the manure around, talking to myselfI don’t know, I just felt, smallbut then I calmed down and realized that she wasn’t just playing with me, like a bug in a glass jar. Her testing meant I was in the runningthat I had a chance of being the one she eventually choseand here I was, out on the farm, and my chances were actually looking pretty good.

After the corrals were cleaned up, I had a snack and then mowed grass for four hours. It took any romantic notions I might have had about owning a farm right out of my head. I finishedsunburned and fed upbut also happy to have cleared another hurdle. Megan brought me a water bottle.

“Here you go, working man.” I had told her that as a kid my sole responsibility was to take out the trash, and that a lot of times I had managed to forget to do even that.

“Thanks,” I gasped, as I drank.

Then she added, “My mom and I are going in to get some movies. We’ll leave you here with dad.” I looked at her. “Don’t worry,” she said, tenderly, “you’ll think of something to talk about - you’re a very clever boy.” It felt like a kiss. “Your other option is to rescue Franz.”

I let my face drop in exasperated disbelief as she proceeded to tell me about a small doll she had as a kid, which her brother had thrown onto the roof of the barn. She pointed to where on the roof she thought the doll might be (most likely lodged in the rain gutter, she said), and then over to the forty-foot aluminum ladder that lay on its side next to the tool shed. Her eyes looked deeply into mine. In the scheme of things, this seemed to be important. But then she added casually, “That was ten years ago, though. He’s probably been carried off by birds by now. I’ll see you soon.”

A big pink dust cloud rose behind her car as she drove toward the highway, cutting in front of the sun. I put the lawnmower back into the tool shed. It was a lie. She had told me a lie. Somehow, though, it didn’t matter. The way she did it, it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Like she thought a lot of me for seeing that it wasn’t a big deal that she’d lied to me and I didn’t call her on it. Like I had gained some ground with her, by not upsetting the game even in the face of a plain lie.

It did bug me, actually, but I put it asideI would deal with it later. Right now I had a decision to make: was I supposed to get the ladder and try to go up there, following the charade through to its conclusion, or just forget it and go back up to the house and see if her dad wanted to play gin? I stooped and lifted an end of the ladder to test its weight. It was heavy as hell, but I figured that if I tried it from the middle I could haul it over to the barn.

Well, I did that, and after several attempts I got the son-of-a-bitch upright. At its full extension it rested just under the gutter. Forty feet into the sky for a game, I thought. But I would have the opportunity to call her on her lie. That would be worth it.

Halfway up, I noted that my life was in danger, that I could really get hurt if I fell. Why hadn’t I got the old man out here to spot me? The ladder bowed in toward the barn wall, but I had a fairly good footing dug into the sod, so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t slip out from under me. As long as it didn’t tip backward, I’d be fine. But even if I found nothing up there I realized I couldn’t really call Megan on her lieit had been ten years, after all. Even if the birds hadn’t carried Franz off, he’d most likely have decomposed. But whether or not there was a Franz, either way, she’d know that I had done itthat I’d taken her at her word. And then I’d tell her that I was through with all this nonsense and that she’d have to be straight with me from now on.

I neared the topmy anger had made my body tenseand suddenly I froze up. The ladder wavered under me, and I considered just carefully creeping back down to the ground. But it had become more about overcoming my fear of the climb than anything else, and so I stretched out and got a light grip on the edge of the gutter, then delicately lifted my left foot up to the ladder’s second-highest rung, following it as smoothly as possible with my right.

I was three and a half stories above the ground, easily the highest I’d ever climbed, with my belt buckle just below the level of the flat roof of the barnand there was Franz! I was surprised to find him so quickly, but under the sludge that filled the wide rain gutter from end to end, I plainly saw a bit of peach-colored rubber that could only be a doll’s head. It hadn’t been a lie! My mind reeled, trying to process this new information, but a sudden breeze made me get my bearings in a hurry.

I steadied myself. Then I reached out for the doll, and dug through the black soil until I had him in my hand. The ladder shifted sickeningly beneath me, as one of its footings sank a little deeper into the grass. My blood went cold, and I pushed up and rolled onto the roof in a panic. I waited to hear the ladder crash to the earth dramatically, but it remained standing, foolishlyand now I was stuck. The fact that the ladder didn’t even reach the gutter, that it was now dark, and that I was no old hand at this anyway, left me stranded up there on the roof.

In a short while the lights of Megan’s car came along the gravel road, and soon she and her parents were gathered below me.

Her dad shouted up, “What are you doing up there?” I explained that it had looked like the gutters needed cleaning, and that I had come up to see, and now I was stuck. They all stood around for a while, quietly arguing about what to do. Mr. Caully re-set the ladder, and I tried approaching it a few timesbackwards and on my bellybut it was too scary. After that I just peered down at them, holding Franz behind my back. Over her father’s protest, Megan eventually went in and called the fire department. I empathized with the old man; being a farmer meant doing things yourself, and he was clearly embarrassed by all this.

I had to hide Franz. At first I thought I’d just toss him off the far side of the barn, but then I reconsidered, thinking an animal might carry him off before I got to him. In a flash I decided to hide him up under the back of my T-shirt, which I tucked in. I left my flannel untucked, so it would hang loosely over the little hump. No one would know he was there.

The next time I looked down, Megan and Mrs. Caully were setting up a card table with coffeecake and milk for the firemen. The big hook-and-ladder soon made its appearance on the road, then came on down to the barn. The firemen treated me like a helpless kitten, and wanted to carry me down the ladder like a child, but I insisted that I could make it on my own. On the ground, Megan took me, safe at last, in her arms, and the firemen gathered around the coffeecake. I was humbled. It was clear that I owed her father an apology.

That night, alone in the guest room, I couldn’t sleep, so I switched on the lamp and took Franz out from under the bed. I had cleaned him up some, and he really looked pretty good for all that he’d gone through. Now I would get my reward, I thought. I tore the top off the box of Kleenex that sat on my nightstand, and nestled Franz inside, where the tissues provided a little bed for him. He looked like the precious relic he was. The box had a nice floral pattern, and I was able to fashion a tiny card out of a piece of its top. I found a blue ballpoint pen, and wrote:

Dear Megan,
I missed you.
Love,
Franz

I snuck upstairs without making a sound, but in the hall the floorboards creaked loudly, and downstairs the Caulleys’ old dog let out a single, piercing howl. Knowing Megan’s parents would soon be out of bed to investigate, I hurried into Megan’s room.

“What’s going on?” she murmured.

“I brought you something,” I said, and I motioned for her to conceal the box under her covers. Megan’s parents appeared in the doorway.

“What’s going on?” her mom asked sleepily.

The words came to me slowly. I said, “I just felt awful ... for everything, and wanted to apologize ... for everything. And to you two, too.”

Megan’s dad cleared his throat and looked down at the floor. “We know you, ah, meant well.”

“We’re just glad you’re safe, Carl,” said her mom.

***

I am now forty-three. Over the years, I have quit smoking, when Megan took up running; I have become a father, soon after she decided she wanted kids. At her urging, I went back to college and got a degree, and now I make pretty good money. We took over the little farm, and I’ve come to like it out here; I’ve learned to draw, to accompany her on the piano, and to like camping; I’ve even sung in public a few times. These days she’s on a health kick, so we do yoga every morning, and eat healthy.

In short, I have passed every test that Megan has come up with over the last 20 yearsand with flying colors. And while I know she’s not finished with me yetand never will be, that’s just MeganI don’t worry about it anymore. As time has passed, I think I’ve proven that I’m clever enough to handle Megan Caulley.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mr. Olson

Mr. Olson was one of those old, old men who had somehow retained his physical power despite the years. Past eighty, he was still often seen in his driveway, loading or unloading his pickup, or working in the yard with a shovel or a rake. But no one mistook him for a young man: his skin was colorless, his cheeks fell slightly inward, and his head was mostly bald, although it was inevitably covered with a weathered gray fishing hat.

In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Olson, still youthful at sixty-two, was a small round woman with pink cheeks. The pair would have been cause for comment, had they gone out on the town together or given the occasional dinner party. Looking at them was like seeing two photos side by side – one in black and white, the other in color.

Now you might think that marrying someone twenty years older would entitle you to no end of stories and advice, based on the collected wisdom of your mate, but Mr. Olson wasn't much of a talker. In fact, for Mrs. Olson this was one of his most attractive qualities, since she came from a fairly quiet family herself. Yet Mr. Olson had a quiet that was deliberate, and bordered on a religious conviction. He thought that speech dishonored thoughts; or rather, that non-verbal communication was a much nobler form of expression.

Mr. Olson was a man of great emotion, however, and he made Mrs. Olson feel lucky to have him. Without words, and maybe in part due to their absence, he could bring to her that feeling of unconditional acceptance that all lovers crave. He had a way with gestures, both large and small.

She had a Schnauzer named Clarence that, for the most part, Mr. Olson just tolerated. Last summer, though, when the dog got sick, Mr. Olson spent two sleepless nights worrying and carefully nursing him back to health, and since then she had come home on occasion to find the two of them asleep together on the sofa. The sight always filled her with tenderness.

On the other hand, having outlived all his friends, Mr. Olson had developed a feeling of correctness that at times seemed like arrogance, as if he felt, "I have survived, so I am right.” It was a quality that sometimes disturbed their happy home.

The two usually spent their Sundays in the park with Clarence. But that spring Mrs. Olson's mother died, and after the funeral, a well-attended gathering of her mother’s dear friends, Mrs. Olson began to dress up and go off by herself on Sunday mornings, to the neighborhood church. She said it was just a way to feel closer to her mother now that she was gone, but in truth she also enjoyed the kind of easy, purposeless talk that always followed mass. Mr. Olson took it poorly – he had no room for religion, having suffered in a Jesuit boarding school in the thirties.

And so Mrs. Olson paid for her new association with the friendship of her husband; not all at once, but gradually. One day she realized that more than a week had gone by without a word passing between them. On its own, this wasn't so odd, but Mr. Olson had begun to deny her his non-verbal kindnesses as well – and it began to hurt Mrs. Olson's heart.

His displeasure was there in his face, a gloomy shadow of his silent responses to her everyday questions. His nod said Yes, but also said, You let me down. His shrug said I don’t know, and also said, I am not happy.

One Sunday morning, convinced that something had to change, Mrs. Olson decided to wear the special dress. The dress he had had made for her. The one she made sure she could always fit into. It was hand-embroidered with a beautiful pattern of red roses, which bloomed on an elegant black background. The dress meant a great deal to both of them. She took it off the hanger and put it on. On her way downstairs, she stopped in front of the mirror and toughened up a little to face him.

Downstairs, she found him holding Clarence and looking out the window. He looked over as she walked to the center of the room and raised an eyebrow in acknowledgment of the dress – she hadn't worn it for some time. She turned herself around slowly, and briefly extended her arms, and then she smiled at him and curtsied. Mr. Olson put Clarence down. A bitterness welled up from where his pride lay coiled inside him. He felt it was patronizing the way she thought she could use his heart to change his mind – to hell with that, he thought. He made his face calm, took a step toward her, then shrugged a shrug that answered "I don't give a damn" to every priest anywhere who ever dared to ask “Have you been saved?”

Mrs. Olson was crushed. The dress was them both, was their lives; it was the common face of their union that they showed to the world, and it was above the world, above their individual tastes, their individual concerns, even their individual beliefs. She saw him putting his resentment of the church above their love for each other, and it made her senseless with emotion. The room blurred. She took off the dress. She threw it in the kitchen trash. She went upstairs and put on the first thing she saw and then left for church crying.

Mr. Olson sat down on the sofa and stroked at his chin numbly; his anger was gone. He couldn't think of what this would all mean. He sat there for some time, and then went out to work, to see if he could begin to regain his balance. He went to the shed in back and got out the mower and wheeled it to the front yard. He bent and yanked the cord, looking forward to the solitude that the hammering engine always provided him. He pulled again. The engine wasn't catching. After a third try he checked the gas and the oil, but both reservoirs were full. The spark plugs were new. It occurred to him that he wasn't pulling hard enough. He bent and yanked the cord again and again, but he could not get the engine to turn over. He felt like a sick man struggling to open a bottle of pills. He sat down where he was in the grass, unbelieving, and his shoulders shook as he cried.

Returning from church, Mrs. Olson found him sitting on the front steps. The sight of him made her chest full again, but his peculiar aspect made the feeling less sharp. As she walked up the path, his expression made her stop, and he motioned for her to wait there. He went into the house, and returned shortly carrying a large bowl and a good clean towel. He led her the rest of the way to the front steps and sat her down there gently, as he crouched in front of her. He undid the buckles of her shoes, and she smiled, confused. As tenderly set her feet in the bowl, her smile broadened, and then she gasped as he lifted a large bottle of Chanel No. 5 out of the pocket of his overalls, and poured it over the tops of her feet. She heard the neighbor's rake across the street stop scraping, and then the pair of them laughed out loud for some time, as he washed her feet with the perfume.