eighteen little heads

Omega and I crept across the dimly lit room, then stood intrigued before the AVC. Its mantel, two meters long, held eighteen smiling little heads, some with shoulders and upper torsos, others had complete bodies—heads, feet, and everything in between. Several of the heads belonged to the same people, at different ages, as we would soon discover. Toward the right end of the mantel was a group of five, seated around a tiny table scattered with dishes and food: an old, white-haired woman, slightly hunched forward, a middle-aged man, with buzzed blond hair, holding a glass out above the table, a woman with hazel green eyes and short red hair, a boy perhaps my age, eleven, and a little girl, possibly seven or eight years old. All five had their eyes turned on Omega and me, and judging from the expressions on their faces, I could only assume they were happy to see us.

Omega raised her hand toward the head on the left end of the mantel. A man, who appeared to be in the final decade of his cycle, and the woman next to him, followed her hand with their eyes. Omega swiped her hand through the two heads.

“Hello,” the first head said.

We both jumped.

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you,” the same head, that of the old man, said. “My name is Awkley.” The man smiled, blinked, and nodded.

Omega stared slack-jawed at the head. “Is it a book?” she whispered.

“Yes,” the head said.

“No, no, no,” one of the heads to the right of it said. I didn’t catch which one.

I glance from the first head to the next, a woman, apparently an older version of the red headed woman at the table. Without turning, I said, “They’re not real.”

“Well, obviously,” Omega said.

“How are you doing?” the second head said.

I leaned in close for a better look.

“Welcome to our house,” the old woman’s head added, “My name is Ketley. And you are?”

“What?”

“Now that’s a pleasant name.”

Omega and I looked at each other.

“And you are?” The old woman smiled at Omega.

I turned back to the holo head and said, “Not ‘what’ … Z. My name is Z.”

“Zeee?”

“Yes, Z, and this is Omega.”

“Oh mega,” the third head, a man with unruly gray eyebrows and slightly pointy ears, said.

“What is your name?” Omega said.

“Murse,” the head said, smiling and raising its left brow independent of its right. “I don’t believe we’ve met before, have we?”

“How do you do that?” I said.

“This?” It raised its right brow and lowered its left.

“I mean talk. I mean, how do you … I mean, like real people talk?”

Omega shoved her hand into Murse’s head. “You’re just holograms.”

“And you are not?” the head to the right of Murse said. It was the head of a beautiful woman, whose age was impossible to determine – between thirty and forty would have been my guess. She had blond hair, like Omega had back then, in her youth, so light it was nearly white. I had to look hard to see she had eyelashes and eyebrows. Her eyes were so beautiful, I found it hard to move on.

“We’re real,” Omega said, “see?” She gave me a firm nudge.

“So you are,” the pretty head said.

Clunk! “No more real than we are, Em.” The man at the tiny table had set his glass down. A little of whatever was in it splashed out onto the table top. “See?” He gave the little girl sitting next to him a nudge.

“Father.”

“Awkley, you don’t need to kill the children to make your point,” the younger lady at the table said.

“You’re Ketley, right?” I said.

She turned to me with a puzzled look on her tiny face. “I used to be like that,” she said, “always forgetting names, sometimes seconds after being introduced. It’s all right, you’re young, don’t worry about it, you’ll learn. Yes, Ketley, a kettle version of Awkley The Awkward.”

“You used to live here?” Omega said.

Half the little heads spoke in unison. “We still do.” The other half were shaking their heads, no.

I gave a quick study of the various faces on the mantel and realized there were three each of Ketley and Awkley, and the young woman next to the young man at the far right end bore a striking resemblance to the little girl at the table, whereas the male at that end was an older version of the boy at the table. There were five other faces, three men and two women, who had watched, smiling steadily and blinking, but had, to this point, remained silent. I said, “Omega just wants to know if you’re a book about the people who lived here?”

“No,” the second of the five silent heads, a man of maybe thirty, with a large forehead, and a receding hairline, said, “we’re just visiting. Though I suppose we visit here a lot. I’m Vosraque, and this is my little Puddin’ Pie, Tum.”

“Oh, shut up, ass wipe!” Tum said. “You’re supposed to treat me like a lady, not some cheap dessert!” She turned from her mate to Omega. “Don’t be a fool. Don’t get linked to a man who describes you in edible terms. They do that to make up for their lack of sophistication.” She then turned to me and winked. “Vos Dear, would you just look at this. Isn’t he adorable?” Her dark eyebrows did a quick series of pushups. “Oooo, bumba, bumba.”

“Sweetie Tums, you’re making Awkley’s new guests uncomfortable.”

“Oh, Honey Buns,” she mocked. “Sugar Turd …” She crossed her eyes and pretended to choke. “I am about this close to puking!”

“Muffin Dear,” Vosraque croons, “they can’t see how close you mean. They can’t see your hands.”

“Muffin Dear?”

“Come on you two,” the male head, to the left of Vosraque said. “You’re going to leave them with the wrong impression.”

“What? That my mate has no class, no backbone, and you have no sense of humor?” Tum turned to me, then Omega, and back to me. She appeared puzzled. “Speaking of no sense of humor … What is with you two?”

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a stray sheep

It of course sounded unlikely, perhaps even impossible, yet the boys’ father had always lived under a stringent rule of integrity. They had never had cause to doubt him, and being they were so strictly forbidden to go beyond ‘the locked door,’ they had no way of testing his word. What choice did they have, but to have faith and fear the cellar? Hadn’t they, after all, heard on numerous past occasions the curious noises in the night? Wasn’t it likely the noises came from below? From Uncle Lu?

Regardless of the weak bits of rationale he devised in support of his father’s account, Jack suffered from something which could only be interpreted as a doubt—the very thing his father had warned him against—the weakness, the flaw which could someday land him in that terrible void beneath the house—the very thing he struggled to believe in.

***

The days that followed passed without incident. Approaching the middle of summer, the days became warm and dry. The boys rode their bicycles down the sidewalk to a small, city park, not far from their house. They sat in the grass under a shade tree watching a man throwing a Frisbee to his dog.

“Do you remember father talking about Uncle Lu when we were little?”

“Yeah, I think,” Judas said.

“I don’t.” Jack’s eyes drifted down to the clover near his feet. “Well, maybe. But I don’t remember what he said about him. Do you?”

“I remember him once saying that he was crazy, and mean … and he cooked one of his own kids alive.”

“You do not.”

“It was a long time ago, but I remember.”

“Well, why isn’t he in jail then? That’s murder. Or in the crazy hospital?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was something else he said, but that’s what I remember.”

“And you believe it?”

“If that’s what father said, then yeah.”

“You don’t even know. You believe something you probably just imagined.”

“I don’t know. All I know is, we have a crazy uncle locked up in the cellar. I don’t plan on ever going down there. Do you?”

“But doesn’t it seem odd … I mean, the whole thing. Does father have him chained up or something? And how does he eat? You think father takes food down to him every day?”

“When we’re at school. And at night, when we’re asleep.”

“What about the time we went up north, that funeral? We were gone for—“

“It doesn’t matter! Father says he’s down there. I know he’s down there. Father would never lie.” Judas produced an impatient huff. “We shouldn’t even be talking about him.”

“What about Pucer? What’s that?”

Judas’s eyes jerked back over his shoulder for an instant, and then turned back to his brother. “I’d be very careful saying that if I was you.”

“Pucer Holflapper.” Jack said the name loud enough for the man with the dog to hear. The kids playing on a nearby set of swings might have heard, too, were they listening.

“Sheez, Jack,” Judas whispered, “you’re going to get us both killed. I’m serious.”

“All right, all right.” He looked at his brother and crossed his eyes. “What if I just whispered it? Pucer Dwain Holflapper.”

“Stop it.”

“Shit, Judas, you think he hears every little thing we say? Maybe we’d better not even think Pucer … Oops.” He slapped a hand over his mouth. “Sorry, I said the P word again. When we get home, I’ll gargle with Liquid Plumber. That should fix it, don’t you think?”

Judas pushed himself up from the ground.

“Where’re you going?”

“Home.” He hopped on his bike, and started peddling away. “I don’t want to end up in the cellar with you.”

“But he really can’t hear us here.”

His brother said nothing more, just kept on going.

A few moments later, Jack got to his feet, walked his bike over to the swings and let it fall to the ground. He plopped down in the one and only unoccupied swing, pushed off, then started pumping himself higher and higher.

“Hey.”

He turned toward the swing next to him and only then realized it was his neighbor, Lanny.

“You’re Jack, right?”

“Hi, yeah. I didn’t … I uh …”

“Wasn’t that your brother? Jim? Jake!”

“Judas.”

She began dragging her feet, bringing herself to a stop. “Yeah.” She glanced toward his bicycle lying in the grass, and then at Jack as he swung past. “Don’t you think it’s a bit weird that we live next to each other … and we never talk?”

Jack dug his heels into the sand beneath the swing, slowing down, bringing himself to a stop. Without looking at Lanny, he said, “It wasn’t me, you know? I don’t know why … well, I kinda do. My father didn’t like you guys.”

“You kinda do?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “I guess it was all the cussing.”

“Well, fuck that shit.”

Jack turned. Lanny gave him a smile. “Yeah,” he said, “fuck that shit.”

“I remember your dad used to be kind of mean to you guys.”

He turned. “What?”

“I don’t mean, mean, but I guess … strict, you know?”

Jack swayed from side to side in his swing. “Really?”

“Stricter than most dads.”

He’d tried, in the past, comparing his father to others, but had never arrived at anything conclusive. His opinions kept shifting as his father seemed to shift. “He’s all right, as long as you aren’t bad.” He stopped swaying and kicked at the grass bordering the sand below him.

“Maybe that’s the same as any dad,” she said.

“I’ve met a few I’d gladly trade for.” His eyes became briefly entangled with hers before he managed to pull them away.

“Remember when Frank and I had to apologize for cussing … out on the front porch? Remember?”

“Ohhh … yeah.” He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”

“It doesn’t matter. That was a long time ago, and it wasn’t your fault.”

“It was stupid.”

She chuckled. “It was.”

“Yeah, well, that’s my father.”

“What’s he do?”

“What’s he do?

“Yeah. What’s he do for a living?”

“I’m not exactly sure.”

She gave him a curious look. “You don’t know what your dad does?”

“Well … he writes.”

“Writes?”

“Books.”

“Story books?”

“No, books, like … I don’t know what kind they are.”

“Oh.” She became quiet, thoughtful, then, “How come you don’t go to the same school as everyone else?”

He searched for a safe, acceptable answer. “I don’t know.” But he did know.

“A friend of mine told me you’re special. I told her I didn’t think so, though.”

“Huh?”

“You’re not, are you?”

“Special?”

“You don’t look like it … or talk like it.”

“What?”

“Well, where do you go to school?”

“Academy for the Past.”

“Oooo… that place is scary.”

“I don’t think it’s scary. My father always said that public schools are scary. This is my last year there, though. The Academy doesn’t take kids past the seventh grade. I’ll have to go to public school then.”

“Is it true, they spank you if you don’t do your homework?”

“Yeah, I guess. But everyone does their homework. They don’t do that in public school?”

“You can sue them for it.”

“Do you like it?”

She turned and gave Jack a twisted face. “Being spanked?”

“No! The school.”

She snorted—“Just kidding.”—then laughed. “It’s OK, I guess. I like some of it, but not all of it. I hate history. I hate Mr. Sadler. Ugh!”

“Well, if I go to public school, maybe I’ll see you there.”

“Maybe you’ll be in my class,” she said. “How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Oh, I’m thirteen.  Just had my birthday last week. That means you’ll probably be in the grade behind me.” She gave him a fake frown, followed by a quick, fake smile. “But I might still see you there, anyway. Will you say hi if you see me?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yeah. I’ll say hi too.”

Jack looked at his watch. “Crap! I gotta go.”

The father

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I went a wee, teeny, tiny bit overboard.”

Father?

“Shh!” A figure steps from the void, its identity largely hidden by the dark. “You’re thinking, Oh, oh, poor me. It was just a little—”

Father?

“Father?” the voice mocks. “Is there someone down here other than you and me?”

I … No.

“Well, I don’t feel like a father. Do I look like one?” It steps a little closer. Jack can just make out a pair of eyes, which look very much like his father’s, but the voice—not exactly a voice, but more like a vibration in the middle of his head. It varies, as though it’s coming from a variety of empty rooms. A voice, but not really a voice. A non-voice. “I know Pucer likes telling you, and that chicken-shit sibling of yours, that I’m your Uncle Lu. Maybe. But he exaggerates. You didn’t know that about your father, I know. He does … he exaggerates.” The eyes float up toward the ceiling, each one seemingly independent of the other, like a pair of tiny balloons.

You’re not Uncle Lu? Jack speaks, but his lips do not move.

“Oh, certainly. I didn’t mean to suggest your father is a liar. An exaggerator—not a liar.  For example, he makes me sound like a prick, as if I’m some kind of a bummer. I like to have fun on occasion, just like everyone else.”  The eyes drift farther and farther away, but the non-voice is still right there in the middle of his head. “Hey. What’s this I hear about you being naughty?”

I lied.

“No.”

I’m sorry I lied.

“Are you?”

I am sorry.

“Oh, perfect! You’ve discovered the magic word. You’re free!”

Jack attempts to move his arms and legs, but can’t.

“Uh … Perhaps I spoke impulsively. I so hoped …”

I took the letters from Father’s desk. I’ll never disobey him again. I swear. I promise!

“Not working. You know what I suspect the problem is? It hurts me to have to say this, but, well, it’s just … too late.” The eyes suddenly appear at his side. Jack has the impression that Uncle Lu is seated there to his right, like a parent visiting a child’s bedside. “You see, Jack, my dear nephew, you made a choice. Your father, out of his boundless love for you … Boundless love. Isn’t that poetic? Boundless love. Boundless stupidity. Boundless boundlessness.

Anyway, the point is, he gave you the power to choose. You’re aware of that, I’m sure. You’ve always had that power—a choice—free will, if you prefer. You chose to disrespect your father with lies and stealing and fornication and worship of other fathers. You little snip snap, you. You little piece of shit. You were warned. You were warned because you were so dearly loved. And now I have you … forever … eternity. Do you know eternity, Jack?” The eyes vanish.

“Eternity is not the tummy ache of a week without pizza and donuts.” The non-voice seems to come from below now. “It’s not a month or a year of pissing all over yourself. No. It’s not a hundred, or a thousand, or a million, or a google-boogle zillion such years.” A piggish snort comes from below. “Google-boogle? What?” And then a snicker. “Did I say that? Can you imagine that?  I don’t think so.” The voice drifts even lower, as though it is slowly sinking into the floor. “Oh, but don’t you worry about it. You’ll get the hang of it in time. The pain, the agony … You’ll get used to that. Perhaps in a few trillion years, you’ll become bored with it all. And then you’ll have the rest of eternity to … hang out.”

I’m so sorry. Jack listens, pushing back every thought and every worry in his head to make room for a reply. Uncle Lu?

No answer. Just the dark.

****************************

More about Rodney Jones at: http://redadeptpublishing.com/rodney-jones/

Square food (a brief glimpse into the future)

Omega shoves a bite of saloosa into her mouth, then takes her fork, as she always has, and squares up the remaining food on her plate while she chews. I’ve sat here through a million meals watching her do this. I’ve never said anything, never asked or commented, but all of a sudden I have an urge to say, does it taste better? I won’t though. Obviously changing the shape of the food on your plate is not going to alter the flavor. Why ask a stupid question when you already know the answer? Because it’s humorous? And it would make her smile? Have I ever said anything that brought a smile to her lips?

She takes another bite, then makes a minor adjustment to the vegetables on her plate. I’d probably be accused of being unhelpful if I were to say something stupid, even something as contrived as:

“Harp once told me that square food isn’t as good for you as round.”

Omega looks up from her plate.

“He said it tastes better square, but it loses some of its vitamins,” I add.

“He said that?”

“No, I just made it up.”

She scrunches her brow, and cocks her head. “What?”

“I’m just trying to be unhelpful.”

“Why?”

“Like Tum.”

“The hologram?”

I shrug. “She was being humorous, you know?”

“Z, holograms are different than us.”

“Well, I know that. They have a sense of humor.”

“They are interesting to watch because they resemble people. But I find it hard to believe that the people they’re fashioned after behaved anything like they do. What Tum refers to as humor is really pointless nonsense.”

“Well then, what is humor?”

“Things that make you happy, I suppose.”

“Maybe pointless nonsense makes her happy.”

“This table and chairs would probably be laughing right now if they could,” she says.

I smile.

“What?” She throws her hands up.

I laugh.

“Why are you so happy?”

“What you said.”

“What I said?”

“The table and chairs … You were being humorous, weren’t you?”

Omega lets out an exasperated sigh. “I’m going to take my nap.”

Three days and three nights

It’s been a week now since our ‘rendezvous’.

Twenty-eight days?

Sneaking around requires some discretion, plus a trick or two—a ploy, a ruse. So, yes, we met, but not being one to kiss and tell…

I hadn’t seen O in over twelve years. So, we’re like, what, over twelve years older than we were? This was a huge concern for O, who was so certain I’d take one look at her, see she was now a decrepit old hag, or whatever, and tear out of the Motel 66 parking lot never to be heard from again. Was I harboring reservations about her advanced age? I wasn’t … not at all. I did admittedly add twelve years to my mental image of how I remembered her, and, even so, the picture I painted was still looking pretty good to me.

Another concern of O’s was that she’d be disfunctionally nervous at first. “We need to have a clear itinerary from the get go,” she said. “We need structure.”

So we came up with a step by step, detailed plan. We would first take our luggage and groceries up to the room, step in, then quickly out—for lunch and a drink, then a long walk in the park. And if that wasn’t enough to calm her, then, well, we’d go see a movie, and then another.

I left my house at 7:30, headed east on I-70, feeling good, cheerful, a bit excited—a four hour drive to the motel. As I got to within a half-hour of the place, it suddenly dawned on me that I’ve committed myself to a blind date—for three days and nights. What the fuck was I thinking?

I couldn’t find an answer to the question, so I drove on. I would have anyway … no matter what. We’d agreed to arrive at the same time, to avoid the torture of waiting for the world to end in a motel parking lot. Actually, I agreed to arrive first.

“If you’re not there when I get there,” she said, “I’ll turn around and head home… no ifs, ands, or buts.”

So I got there ten minutes early, checked in, took my stuff up to the room, then, with one minute left before her expected arrival, I went back out to my car to watch for her. Twenty-nine minutes later, I spotted a vehicle with West Virginia plates pulling in. I was warned beforehand not to approach her too enthusiastically, so I gave her a call to see if she might want to chat over the phone for a while before leaving her car—talk away some of the nervousness—ease into our meeting.

“Hi,” I said as gently and sweetly as I could manage.

“Are you going to help me get all this shit up to the room or just sit there and watch?” she said.

I clapped my phone shut, hopped from my car and stepped over to hers. She was bent over her back seat dragging her luggage toward the car door. She turned, gave me a brief, nervous glance, and then turned back to what she was doing.

OMG! Wow! Just like that! I remembered what it was that I had, all those years before, been drawn to, fascinated by, and frightened of. It was her, just as beautiful as I remembered. This woman really rocked my world—rattled my foundation.

I tingled with excitement as the elevator door closed before us—just O and I in a tiny six by six-foot box… alone… breathing, deep nervous breaths. (Elevator? OK, so maybe it wasn’t Motel 66.)

We put our stuff away, then threw each other quick glances.

“Do you want to go to lunch now?” I said.

“I’m not hungry,” she replied.

“I’m not either.” I looked down at the king-sized bed. Our bed. “Do you just want to sit and talk for a while?”

She glanced from me to the bed and back to me. “No.”

“OK.”

“Yes.” She lowered her butt to the bed, so close to the edge, it’s debatable whether she was really on it or not.

I scooted up to the middle of the backboard, piled a couple of pillows against it, and leaned back.

She took a deep breath, fidgeted, then suddenly got back to her feet. “Let’s go do something.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I offered.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

“Hold you,” I said.

She took a deep breath, then, a long moment later, let it go. “OK.”

The smell of love

(A composite story, created from the first two chapters of my novel, The Other Mr. Bax.)

Saturday, the twenty-fifth of September, Dana had gone to her mother’s house to help make pizzas. Roland walked the bike-path alone.

To his right was a small backyard orchard where hornets and bees busied themselves feeding off rotting windfalls. A stray gust of wind sent a cloud of leaves fluttering down from the trees. The autumn air carried hints of compost, mildew, burning leaves, and cider. Glancing toward the trees, to his right, Roland drew in a deep breath; the memory of a young girl running off toward the back entrance of a school building skipped along the edge of his mind. She seemed to have arrived on the scent of the wind, on the air’s coolness, its dryness, encouraged by the light, teased by the colors of the leaves, a particular brightness, the crispness of autumn, the season of love and loss. He scanned the scene before him as if he might catch a glimpse of her, but then stopped—the memory vanished, leaving not so much as a trace of her.

Another fall had arrived. A cold, dark winter would inevitably follow. Every year, about this time, these memories resurfaced. But these weren’t the same leaves he’d kicked through in the autumn of ‘63. And it wasn’t the same wind that then whispered through the branches of maples and elms lining the streets of the small, rural, Hoosier community he grew up in. Perhaps the catalyst for these memories was really nothing in particular, but a combination of many things.

 

Roland’s eyes shifted as he followed the carousel of distant events turning in his mind. A low vibration, like a hum, a moan, left his throat. The memories—most at best were vague, though some were as vivid as the day before: a farmhouse, his grandpa and grandma, the interior of a school bus, swings on a playground, Joyce Rubens—a mix of pain and disappointment, of wanting, and moments of joy. The key events were easy to recall—the big moments, the thrills. But the spaces in between, the ordinary everyday spaces, were hidden—lost among a million insignificant breaths.

An eddy of air shuffled leaves around the smooth asphalt surface of the path—a sound like TV static; they swirled about his feet, skittering like paper butterflies, and then quieted. He targeted a particularly crisp-looking leaf, crushing it beneath his foot.

 

He recalled the farmhouse his parents had rented on Mud Dauber Road, a night in the summer of 1961—he and his big brother, Keith, his sister, Kate, and baby brother, Brian, all lying on a pile of blankets spread out in the grass of the backyard, scanning the crystal-clear, moonless sky in search of a rare satellite or shooting star—those last few days before school.

Accustomed to a life of freedom, Roland was ill-prepared for its sudden denial once the classroom door shut on that first day. He was slower than most, adjusting to the rigid structure, but, like a broken pony, he came to accept it. The girl who sat at the desk directly in front of him unwittingly helped. She was far more interesting than the teacher squawking at the front of the classroom. Her name was Rebecca—the only name he could now recall from his first-grade class. His memory failed to produce even his teacher’s name—only Rebecca, only her first name, no face, only the braid of brown hair that persistently hung down her back.

But then, the following year, while wandering the playground during recess, a girl Roland had not noticed before caught his eye.

He wandered off across the playground, to the opposite end, where two sets of swings patiently grazed like giant stick-figure horses with children swinging from their stirrups. Of the twelve swings, six per set, only one was available, and sitting in the swing to the left of it was Kathy Goodman, a girl he saw nearly every day—her desk being directly behind his. The other girl, the one to the right of the vacant swing, he’d not seen before.

Selma Elementary had twelve classrooms, two for each grade level, one through six, and allowed each level, one at a time, onto the playground. Roland was pretty well acquainted with the faces from the other class, but not this girl’s; he would not have forgotten hers. Framed by a pair of blond pigtails, hers was an exceptionally symmetrical face, painfully sweet, the epitome of innocence. He was instantly infatuated.

At first, he maintained an inconspicuous distance—the unknown girl, seemingly off in a world of her own, pumping her swing even higher—but then, finding it impossible to keep his eyes from her, he moved closer. The swing to her right remained motionless and empty, as though waiting in reserve for someone else. He hesitated. More than anything, he wanted to stare. He wanted to sear a picture of her onto the back of his mind, something he could possess. He fantasized having the power to stop time, imagined himself standing before her, invisible, where he might satisfy this thing, this urge to look and get closer yet—examine her eyes, her cheeks, her hair, her nose, her lips, and perhaps determine just what it was that compelled him to want this.

She caught him. He turned away—quick and obvious.

His reticent peeks, like smelling but not tasting, only fueled his hunger the more. Again he glanced her way; the swing to her right miraculously had not yet been claimed. It was now or never, he realized. He quickly scraped together enough courage to approach the empty swing, and sat. Then, pushing back as far as the chains would allow, he lifted his feet and began pumping. After a couple of self-conscious passes, he turned toward the girl flying by, an arm’s length away, swallowed, and with a most concise greeting, which nonetheless managed to feel unnatural and rushed, he split the universe in two. “Hi.”

The little girl threw a glance his way as she swung by. Did she hear? She may have returned his greeting, and the surrounding pandemonium interfered. Trusting that he somehow missed her response, he waited until she made another pass, swinging by from behind.

“Are you new here?” he said.

The girl leaned back, her legs stretched out before her, an elfish smile on her upside-down face, pigtails flapping to either side of it. She gave a reply, which could easily have meant “What’s it to you?” Roland, however, took it as an affirmative.

“Yeah?”

He pumped his swing to the same height as hers, finding himself as far out of sync as possible, her backside coming as he was going, and vice versa.

“What’s your name?” he asked, as they again scissored past each other.

“Joyce Rubens.”

He began dragging his feet, kicking up sand and dust with each pass. Bringing himself to a stop, he twisted his seat around, positioning himself to face her. From the toes of his shoes, he pushed himself back and forth, studying her through casual glances as she flew by—Joyce Rubens—back and forth.

 

Twenty-eight days:

The days remaining between now and our meeting.

I can’t remember the last time I saw her. I know it was before April of 2001 because that’s when I moved away. We’d known each other for about four years prior to that. She had only recently started working full-time at the art gallery where I worked, though I’d seen her occasionally before—an archivist, and a painter like everyone else. I don’t recall our first meeting, not at all. She was just another face in the crowd, I guess.

Were we introduced? I don’t remember. I do, however, remember the first time I was jarred into noticing her. Sparks flew… but not the pretty kind. Our relationship (I’m going to call her ‘O’ from here on.) started with a head-butt. O stepped into my office one afternoon, interrupting my immensely important work, whatever it may have been, and asked me to move some artwork for her. I just looked at her like, “What? You want me to take time from my exhaustively busy day to move a couple of paintings that you’re perfectly capable of handling yourself?”

Every time I revisit that moment, a burning smell comes to mind—my eyebrows perhaps, singed by her searing glare. She left me with an unambiguous huff as she turned and walked out the door.

A short while later, another one of my female co-workers, one who I’d always gotten along exceptionally well with, came stomping into my office and barked, “Why are you being such an asshole?”

“Me?”

“You should know better. You should know that pregnant women aren’t supposed to do heavy lifting.”

“Uh… pregnant? Her? Really?”

I felt like such a turd after that. I couldn’t let it stand as it was—me, the heartless, son of a bitch asshole, and O, my poor pregnant victim. I had to somehow make it up to her. From then on, I would be her willing slave.

“Rodney, will you move this two thousand pound sculpture for me?”

“Yes, immediately.”

“Rodney, will you carry this half-empty shoebox down to the basement for me?”

“Certainly. Right away.”

“Rodney, would you please pick up my pencil for me?”

“Oh, my God! Of course I will.” I dropped to all fours and crawled under her desk to retrieve her pencil. And in this way O and I became friends, and eventually ‘good’ friends. We began going to lunch together, out for an occasional cup of coffee and a cookie, and at other times a quiet walk around the neighborhood. We talked, though I don’t recall the topics of our conversations. Perhaps they were too mundane to remember.

Then the baby came—a healthy boy.

Our friendship continued to grow. Though, I think there was something more, something deeper, beyond friendly, like some hardwired instinct stirring beneath the surface. I felt it, but refused to give it definition, the same as she. For the most part we ignored it.

Her baby became a toddler. She’d frequently bring him into the gallery where I’d spend hours entertaining him, giving him rides on my shoulders. He’d grasp my hair with his tiny fists, drool all over me, and giggle and laugh as I pranced from one end of the gallery to the other.

That thing, though, that undefined thing would not stop. Neither of us spoke of it, but I’m certain O was just as much aware of it as I. It was unsustainable and dangerous—a train, with a stuck throttle, headed for the edge of the world. I think she understood this better than I. Something had to be done to stop it. And then something was done. Perhaps she didn’t realize what she was doing; maybe it was subconscious. Whatever the case, she managed to shake things up so thoroughly and effectively that I refused to talk to her or acknowledge her presence for weeks afterwards. I don’t remember what it was she said, but I remember how my reaction left a persistent chill in the air. I think the entire gallery staff was aware of the quiet. Then suddenly and unexpectedly my wife died. My world turned inside out, upside down, twisted, shaken, beaten, tortured, and burned. Six months later, I moved away.

There’s a gap here of nearly twelve years between then and now, and a big, complicated story within it. Twelve years, which I might visit another time.

So, about two years ago, I was in O’s vicinity visiting my daughter who stayed behind when I left. While there, I found myself repeatedly thinking of O, wondering if she was still around and if she’d have a problem with me contacting her. I thought it’d be nice to go out for a coffee or, at the least, say hi—see how she’s doing. I found her address on line, the same address she had when I moved ten years earlier. I didn’t call. I wrote her a brief note and included my cellphone number, then drove over to her house and slipped it inside her door. Days passed. I got no response.

When I got home, I located her email address and sent her another note. Weeks later I got a reply: two short sentences followed by exclamation marks, which I mistook as a brush off. A bit disappointing. But, oh well… I let it go.

A year or so after that, I got a Linkedin message, one of those ‘you may know this person’ things. And there she was again. So I messaged her. Weeks went by. I mean, God, reconnecting with this woman seemed as complicated as landing a Chevy Astro Van on Mars. But I did it. Or perhaps we did it. It’s such a curious thing—as if whatever it was that we had long before resisted was still there, lying dormant, waiting. And now it seemed it was pulling us back together. So, anyway, we’ve decided to meet. Though, this time it’ll be under entirely different circumstances; there’s no longer reasons to resist.

Twenty-eight days…