A Piece of Work

By Dan Brotzel

i.

An exhausting evening out with Trish in The Calf and Plough. She has freckles, I notice. I don’t really like freckles.

Trish is having troubles with her on-off boyfriend Rob. Rob treats her like shit, she says. He takes her for granted. ‘One minute, he’s all into it, knocking at my door at midnight with a bottle of wine,’ she says, with a hint of that West Country twang I got rid of long ago. ‘Then he’s off at dawn, and I don’t hear from him for weeks at a time.’

‘Have you asked him where you stand?’ I say, grateful for a line I heard on daytime TV that very morning.

‘I’ve tried. He just says, we don’t have to give it a name. Or some such.’

‘Hmm. It’s almost as if Rob only ever comes round when he wants a shag.’

‘Oh shut up, you,’ says Trish, pushing me playfully but actually quite hard. ‘It’s just coz of his parents. He was really hurt when they split up.’

Trish seems to think that I’m joking about Rob, but I was just making what seems to me an obvious inference.

‘You can talk, Matt, you big old dog,’ she says. ‘How many have you got on the go now?’ 

‘Three in play and another five potentials,’ I say.

‘You probably could too, if you wanted,’ she says, apparently determined not to take anything I say at face value. ‘You’re going to break a few hearts in this parish, you know.’

‘Well, there aren’t many eligible blokes, but there seems to be a glut of needy young women,’ I say. ‘Not to mention all the affluent widows and widowers. I’m bound to clean up.’ 

‘Sarcastic sod,’ she says, laughing again. 

By closing time, Trish has run through the Rob saga a further three times. It’s basically the same account each time, with a few additional details: gifts he’s given her, promises he’s broken, things he likes doing in bed, more things she said that he didn’t respond to.

‘Rob’s on to a winner,’ I try again. ‘He gets ready sex when he wants it, with someone who’s always prepared to make excuses for his failure to commit.’

‘Oh stop it,’ says Trish. ‘He’s not like that. You should see these texts he sends me. I know he wouldn’t see anyone else.’

I know about the texts. I helped him write some of them. I also know about the things he likes.

When it’s time to split, Trish leans over and gives me a big wet kiss on the cheek. Her freckles loom in at me, and I’m subjected to a big rancid blast of cider breath. It’s no wonder I don’t drink.

‘Thanks for letting me get all that out, mate,’ she says. ‘I feel so much better now.’

‘No worries,’ I say. ‘See you at Choir.’

‘It’s great that we’ve got each other again, isn’t it?’ she says, as her Dad’s car approaches. ‘Someone that knows you inside out. Someone you can say anything to.’

‘You don’t know the slightest thing about me,’ I say.

‘Oh you,’ she laughs, and punches me again.

‘Hello Matt!’ waves Trish’s Dad cheerily. He seems nice. He doesn’t for example slur You’re a fucking piece of work into the dark, as he bolts the little attic door shut on me for another night.

After Trish leaves, I unlock my bike and cycle down to the lorry park by the ring road. I find a man there who bangs my head against a car door and gives me what for. It is a convincing performance and I decide to spare his life.

ii.

‘Matthew, would you come here a minute?’

‘Coming!’ I say, as brightly as I can. I throw my Bible down on the sofa, where it stays splayed open at the Book of Jeremiah.

‘Could you just give this a read-through for me?’

Nicholas is hunched as always over his PC, pecking away at another of his life-affirming takes on contemporary politics. He is a profoundly Whiggish writer, a cut-price Pollyanna who can take the blackest situation – fatal bushfire, devastating plane crash, ethnic oppression – and find a silver lining to console his audience of worried Christians, whom I imagine, like him, sitting in their little cottages wringing their hands at the Radio 4 news in their identikit M&S outfits. All wishing, no doubt, they had the courage to take in a refugee, only, you know, the box room still needs a proper clear-out and the neighbours might not understand.

‘It’s good,’ I say, leaning closely over him with an arm on his shoulder, in a way that I know makes his breath quicken. ‘I love the bit where you compare Christ to a bottle of hand sanitiser.’

‘Oh good, good,’ he smiles, sitting back, removing his specs and sucking on one plastic arm – a gesture, I have learned, that means he is feeling very pleased with himself. ‘I was worried you might think I was going too far.’

‘Absolutely not, Nicholas! It’s the best bit.’ Nicholas has an extraordinary talent for finding things to compare Christ to, usually in a way that he thinks gives his work a refreshing contemporaneity. In the last few months since he hired me to be his editorial assistant, Christ has variously appeared in his columns and radio talks as a cricket bat, a lightning rod, a respected trading partner and even as the ultimate bingeworthy box-set.

‘Please,’ he says. ‘Call me Nick.’

My role is to be a sounding board, to provide praise and validation, but if my judgements are to be credible, I know they cannot be 100% positive.

‘Only one thing,’ I say.

‘Yes?’

‘That quote from the Psalms at the end there. It’s a bit hackneyed, isn’t it – a bit obvious?’

‘Yeeees,’ he says.

‘How about that one from Jeremiah: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster.’

He is silent a moment, and I have no idea what he is thinking. I keep my arm on his shoulder.

‘Oh yes! In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. That’s brilliant!’ he says, clapping his hands in delight. I return my gaze to the screen and pretend not to notice as he steals a glance in my direction.

‘Quite a piece of work,’ he smiles to himself. His expression, I know, is one of naked admiration.

iii.

After Choir, we younger ones go for a quick drink in the Calf and Plough. (Or the Blade and Bastard, as I like to call it.)

Trish has alerted me to rumours that Becky has a thing for me. She is not the only one, of course, and I have done my best to keep them all interested with some carefully rationed parcels of attention. Now, on returning from the loo, I discover that somehow Becky and I are the only two left in the bar.

‘They’ve all gone, it seems,’ says Becky, with embarrassing transparency. She is, I suppose, the sort of woman that many men might find attractive. Her expression could be read as kind, and I see that her eyes cannot lie. She has petite ears and rather large teeth, not alas a combination I have ever cared for. (Though I suppose the opposite combination would also have its drawbacks.)

‘I’ll walk you home,’ I say.

We stroll the long way round, like lovers are supposed to, and I make sure that we saunter and meander and tell stories and share jokes. When we reach the door of her flat, she asks if I’d like to come in for a coffee.

‘No thanks,’ I say. ‘I never touch caffeine after 11am.’

She touches my arm lightly and I sense that I have misread her meaning. There are those born only to give, and it is my duty to accept their offerings in good part.

‘Do you have any sparkling water?’

The power of my words often surprises me, for she leans up to me and flings two arms around my neck. As we kiss, I can sense her body trembling, and for a moment I feel a tremendous, aching hollowness. A space, I suppose, where pity might go.

Twenty minutes later, she is leaning heavily across me on the sofa and the necessaries are well under way. There is the usual confusion of textures and odours, sensations and sounds. I am wondering why I’m here until I spot a photo on a cupboard.

‘Who is this striking woman?’ I say, picking up a framed photo of a glamorous older lady in some sort of ballgown.

‘Oh that’s my gran. You must have seen her around church. Myra – she does the flowers.’

Indeed I have.

‘So,’ says Becky a little later, with terrifying predictability. ‘Perhaps we could see each other again?’

‘I’d love to,’ I say. ‘How about three weeks on Thursday?’

iv.

‘Matthew,’ he says.

‘Yes Nicholas?’

‘Nick. Please.’

‘Sorry. Nick.’

‘There’s something I want to show you.’ He’s been smiling away to himself all morning, and now we are about to discover his ‘secret’. ‘Would you mind stepping this way, sir?’ This comic formality is his way of expressing affection. (I do not mock him for this specifically; it is one more way than I have.)

I follow Nicholas into his little pantry and out through the door beyond, which he now holds open for me. It is, as I well know, the door that leads to the neat little grannexe that housed his mum right up until her long-overdue death a year or so ago. (I only met her a few times, but it never went well; I would have liked to have done more to hasten her departure.)

‘I’ve been thinking about your money troubles and accommodation issues and so forth,’ he is saying now, although I am not really listening; I’m just watching the key he keeps twirling in his fingers. ‘You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me in my work. And so I can’t help thinking that it’d make more sense all round if you were to… move in here.’

I put my hands over my mouth and count to ten, as planned.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ I say, as planned.

‘Think nothing of it, old boy!’ he beams.

‘Those dreadful beige curtains will have to go, though.’ This was not planned, and I sense from Nicholas’ expression that I have committed some sort of error. But it is an error that is not hard to rectify, especially once I start touching him in an intimate place and enjoy the rare spectacle of the great commentator at a loss for words.

‘Well Matthew,’ he says, picking himself up off the floor at last. ‘I did not expect that.’

‘Please,’ I say. ‘Call me Matt.’

But he never does.

v.

I find I am becoming more and more active in the church. It began in the Choir, which is where I reconnected with Trish again, years after we used to hang out together at school. For some reason I have joined the Youth Team and become the Youth Liaison on the Parish Council, which is how I first got to know Nicholas. Through Trish, I met Rob (though Trish does not know this) and Becky too, and through Becky I found a connection to Myra. There are plenty of other assets, some in play and some as yet to be activated. They’re all on the spreadsheet, awaiting their turn. It’s password-protected of course, along with my poems.

It’s well-known in the parish that I now lodge with Nicholas, but he is keen to keep our relationship discreet for now, as there are many who still have fond memories of his wife and might be troubled, he says, by this change of direction so late in life. I encourage this view, since it occurs to me that Becky might be troubled by it too, and possibly Myra and a few others. Such complexities show why a spreadsheet is so useful.

Father Martin is a great ally. He and I have got to know each other well. To Nicholas’ great pleasure, I have decided to put myself forward for holy orders. Father Martin has to approve my application, and we’ve begun a series of chats to ‘explore my call to the diaconate’. I can’t help feeling all this will be a formality. I do so much around the church, I’m already the vicar’s right-hand man. ‘You have an enormous heart for service,’ he’s always telling me, as he eyes my pecs. I do sometimes wonder if he isn’t a little besotted. People often are.

Trish expresses surprise at all this. She says she just doesn’t remember me ever being very religious at school. I’m not of course. But it’s a wonderful way to make valuable connections and unearth new potentials.

‘I don’t remember you ever having much of a thing for priests and Jesus and all that,’ she says.

‘I’m very interested in Jesus,’ I say. ‘We can learn a lot from him.’

‘I think that’s the idea,’ she laughs.

I am indeed interested in Jesus. Also his father. I like how he gets people to do all sorts of stuff against their will – and then they just worship him for it.   

vi.

I am just updating my spreadsheet – adding a new row for another girlfriend of Becky’s – when Nicholas calls out to me. I drop his phone into an empty vase and head into the study.

‘Take a look at this,’ he says. ‘How does it sound?’

Following our weekend in the Cotswolds, my friendship with Matthew has taken off in a completely new and unexpected direction. I know now that we are meant to be together, and that I am about to embark on a wonderful and quite unprecedented new chapter in my life. This is not a decision I have taken lightly, and Matthew and I continue to discuss future plans and details. But I can say with confidence that I now know where the rest of my life is heading, and I have never been happier.

‘I’m not sure the Anglican Herald will print that,’ I say. 

‘You mistake my intention, sir!’ says Nicholas, chuckling fondly. ‘This is to Bob.’

I put my hand over my mouth and count again. Twelve beats seems about right this time. Bob is Nicholas’ best friend. He was the best man at Nicholas’ wedding to Diane. He also did the honours when they divorced three years ago – ‘more in sorrow than anger’, as Nicholas always puts it. (I met Diane once. It didn’t go well.)

NB: Bob is Nicholas’ solicitor.

‘This is so exasperating,’ says Nicholas now. ‘I can’t find my phone again.’

‘Oh Nicholas,’ I say. ‘This is becoming quite a habit, isn’t it?’ And then I say, quietly and for the first time: ‘Darling.’

He looks up at me and smiles.

‘Thank the Lord I have you,’ he says.

‘I’ll always be here,’ I say.

‘I shall have no other gods before you,’ Nicholas says. He has the arm of his specs in his mouth again.

First I do a scandalised look, and then I do ‘secretly delighted’. Nicholas smiles at me cravenly.

‘When did you last brush your teeth?’ I say. ‘You stink.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ he says, and hurries away to the bathroom.


vii.

Trish is not sure if me dating Becky is such a good idea.

‘She’s not really in your league,’ says Trish. ‘You’re studying for a Masters,’ she says. ‘She’s more of a babies-and-baking kind of girl.’

‘I like babies,’ I say. ‘Though I couldn’t eat a whole one.’ Trish slaps me. ‘I’ve seen you do this before,’ she says. ‘You like to be around people that make you look clever.’

‘I am clever,’ I say.

‘You know what I mean. You always want to be the one with the intellectual put-downs.’

‘Becky is a lovely girl,’ I say. ‘I’m meeting the whole family on Sunday.’

‘Well, I’d be keeping a close eye on you, if I was her.’

‘“If I were her,” I say.

‘What?’

‘The subjunctive.’

She gives me a funny look, as if she’s uneasily aware that she’s become the butt of a joke she doesn’t understand. It is a feeling I once knew, before I made the world my punchline.

‘I’m really looking forward to meeting Becky’s people,’ I say. ‘Especially Myra.’

‘What is it about you and Myra?’ she says. ‘You’re always mentioning her.’

I have this answer ready. ‘Becky is really close to her,’ I say. ‘I need to get her gran on side.’

‘Wow,’ says Trish. ‘This sounds serious! Perhaps she’ll make an honest man of you yet.’

‘I’m the most honest person I know,’ I say.

Later that night, as the village bathes in the unpolluted skies of a full moon, I rise from my place next to Nicholas (a man who could sleep through a bombing raid) and let two men in to the grannexe. I explain that I have sinned and need to do urgent penance. They understand, as they are paid to, and I take my carefully defined punishment like a man.

viii.

I am about to head into Myra’s for another Sunday lunch with her and Becky when I receive a text from Nicholas.

‘Have you seen my credit cards?’

‘Try under your keyboard,’ I say, fingering his plastic.

‘OK. Keep feeling dizzy,’ is his satisfactory reply.

Myra is 82 but she has, I tell her when Becky leaves the room, the heart and soul of a much younger woman. I tell her how beautiful she is, and how I cannot understand why she is on her own.

‘Just haven’t found the right chap, not since my Clive passed,’ she says, with a sad nod at the jumble of silver-framed pics that clutter up her sideboard, all showing her in various poses and settings with a cheery-looking bald man with a silver moustache. Then she nods at the ceiling. ‘Anyway. It’s all in His hands,’ she says. ‘My will is His will.’

Her walls, I notice, are dotted with crucifixes and devotional texts and photos of Myra and Clive standing next to various men of the cloth.

Now she catches my eye. ‘Becky is a lucky young woman,’ she says gravely.

‘The man who could woo and win your precious heart would be a lucky man indeed,’ I say. I worry for a moment I have overdone it, but I have forgotten the bottle of prosecco I brought along, half of which has already descended into her gullet.

She blushes and simpers and smiles and looks at the floor all at once. Then she says something that sounds like ooaammhhh. It is hard to spell but easy to interpret, even for me.

ix.

Nicholas’s behaviour, I confess to Father Martin, is becoming steadily more erratic. It’s hard to know with certainty how things will progress, it’s not as if you can look these things up. (The idea that one can delete one’s search history is a transparent fiction, of course.)

Nicholas keeps losing things, forgetting things. His speech is slow and repetitive. Some mornings he can barely drag himself out of bed. It seems obvious to me, I tell Bob, that he is suffering from some sort of as-yet-undiagnosed neurological deficit.

One evening, I stay on for supper at Father Martin’s. I confide in him my worries – I tell stories of the delirium, the mood swings, the violent outbursts. The falls. Father Martin is such a good listener that I end up tearfully confessing my fear that Nicholas has a severe alcohol issue.

‘Poor Matthew,’ says Father Martin, with a fierce arm around me. ‘It’s not exactly the ideal engagement gift, is it?’

‘In sickness and in health,’ I say with a sad smile.

Father Martin says, ‘You’re very brave, Matthew.’

‘Till death us do part.’

x.

Now Trish knows that Nicholas and I are engaged, and she wants answers. When did I know I was gay? It’s the first she’s heard of it. Why did I string Becky along for so long? How can men be so heartless, taking what they want from someone and then just pissing off at the very moment that the other person has let them into their hearts?

‘Are we talking about Rob again?’ I can’t help asking, and am rewarded with yet another shove.

‘I’m sorry,’ I hear myself saying. ‘I know you want some answers, and you deserve them.’ The thing with Nicholas comes from a part of me that I’ve always tried to repress, I tell her. But this is a union of heart and soul, and mind, and with Nicholas I have at last had to acknowledge my true feelings, my true self. I tell her that it all goes hand in hand, somehow, with the growth of my faith. My friendship with Becky – and yes, other women – was a desperate attempt to deny my true nature.

‘So: Are you saying you’re gay now?’ she demands. ‘That you’ve never been straight?’

‘You’re drinking rather a lot tonight,’ I say. ‘I get enough of that at home.’

‘Oh.’ She eyes her cider guiltily. ‘Is Nicholas still…??’ she asks, her face a picture of concern.

‘Yes,’ I nod sadly. ‘I’m working on it, but old habits…’

I open the crisps. I bring my own, as they don’t have prawn cocktail in the Axe and Foetus and it’s the only flavour I eat.

‘Anyway, it’s not a question of gay or straight,’ I add. ‘It’s about your relationship with an individual person.’

Then I tell Trish that she is the only person in the world that I can really confide in, and that her friendship means everything to me, and that Rob is a prize dick for not appreciating what he had with her. That she is such an amazing person she can have anyone she wants, and that I’m sure it won’t be long before she finds someone who is worthy of her.

Trish blushes on cue. Then she hugs me, and all that.

No. It’s not about gay or straight, I reflect later as I lie in a crumpled heap in a diesel-tinged puddle in the lorry park. It’s about those who define reality – and those who submit to it.

God gets it.

xii.

A visit from Bob and from Diane, who has driven 76 miles to be here. I believe they are attempting some sort of intervention.

Nicholas slumps in his chair, silent as instructed. I wait on him hand and foot, as always, but cannot/do not prevent the empty Bells bottle slipping out of his dressing gown.

‘Are you sure you’re really up to all this, Matthew?’ says Diane. ‘Nicholas seems to need a lot of care right now.’

‘Matthew’s all I need,’ says Nicholas, on cue.

‘And now I understand you’re studying for the priesthood too, as well as editing Nicholas’ book and completing your masters?’

‘You mean Musings Against the Backcloth of Eternity? I’d hardly call it a book.’

Diane looks at me sharply, and I imagine her suddenly disappeared.

‘I see it as more an ongoing conversation between a questing soul and its saviour than a mere book,’ I add smoothly. (I don’t mention that I wrote most of that twaddle anyway. My favourite section is called ‘The Lord is my air bridge’.)

‘And what about your parish duties?’ says Bob. ‘Visiting the sick and hospitals, and so forth. I gather you’ve taken on Whiteoaks Care Home too. How will you fit it all in?’

‘Attending to the elderly and the infirm: it’ll be good practice for married life.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, look at him.’ Nicholas is now lolling almost sideways in his chair, dribbling and babbling, like a man who has been innocently ingesting a small amount of a toxic substance in his hot milk every night for several weeks.

Diane feigns shock, but I know lots about her from Nicholas.

Later, I step lightly to the closed pantry door, where Diane and Bob are conferring in a low murmur.

‘Something just isn’t right,’ she says. ‘How can Nicholas have just declined like that?’

‘It’s certainly very sad,’ says Bob. ‘But at least he has a full-time carer now, in a sense, someone who obviously means a great deal to Nick.’

Please just tell me he hasn’t signed over the house.’

Silence.

‘Bob? Bob?

‘You know I can’t comment on that,’ I hear Bob say.

The ensuing silence is broken only by Diane swearing very quietly but forcefully.

‘Look at this kitchen,’ says Diane, clinking things. ‘There are bottles everywhere. It reeks of spirits.’

‘It is very sad,’ says Bob again. ‘I just don’t remember him ever being such a big drinker.’

‘I was married to Nick for 23 years,’ says Diane. ‘And one thing I know for sure about my ex-husband is that he couldn’t stand the taste of whisky-’

I open the door fully so they can see me, holding a pack of antiseptic wipes, and togged up in Marigolds and a wipeable apron.

The pair of them look around, like a couple of children caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

‘And did you ever know this about him, Diane?’ I lift up my top and show off some of my choicest cuts and bruises. They are both suitably appalled.

I take a hand from each of them, so that we are joined in a little circle of concern. ‘I know it’s not really him, when it happens,’ I say. ‘That’s what I tell myself.’

Diane sobs. ‘He’s not the man I know,’ she says.

‘Me either,’ I reply sadly. ‘But we must put all this in His hands. Perhaps… we could all say a prayer?’

Bob and Diane bow their heads obediently, and I scrutinise his bald spot and a little patch of eczema behind her left ear, as I invoke some of the words that Father Martin used with me the other night.

Listen, Lord, to our prayer; hear our cries for help. We call to you in times of trouble, because you answer my prayers.

Psalms. A little obvious and hackneyed, perhaps, but it seems to do the trick, for Bob at least. But I notice that Diane’s eyes – eyes that live 76 miles away, by the sea – do not stay closed as we pray.

x.

Myra is touched by the way I look after Nicholas. She comes round on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon with one of her lovely lemon drizzle cakes or a plate of her delicious chocolate and peanut cookies.

‘I daren’t ask you for the recipe,’ I say coquettishly.

‘Oooh no!’ she laughs. ‘That one goes with me to the grave.’

We sit by his bed – Nicholas rarely gets up now – and we talk of this and of that. In her company I develop the story of Gabrielle, my half-sister, and our crowdfunding project. She has a rare liver disorder and requires specialist treatment. In Israel, I add.

‘The Holy Land!’ she says, marvelling.

‘Yes,’ I say quietly. There is no need to add that this treatment would be very expensive.

One week, Myra arrives to find me sitting in a deep prayerful trance by Nicholas’ bedside. A bottle lies under his pillow. Nicholas does not move.

At the funeral, I give a faultless eulogy, loosely adapted from one I ghost-wrote for Nicholas’ ex-father-in-law. Afterwards, so many parishioners come up to tell me that I am ‘brave’, a usage that has always confused me. Only the weak can be brave.

Outside the church, Nicholas’ relatives huddle together in the rain, trying to draw strength from each other. They acknowledge me with nods and handshakes and muted smiles. Only Diane stands aloof, eyeing me coldly across the coffin. A 76-mile stare. I can’t help thinking how fitting it would be if she were to fall into the hole beside dear old Nick.

Grief is a terrible vice, cloying and narcissistic. The sniffs and moans appal me. I maintain a dignified silence, head bowed at all times. Black becomes me.

At the graveside, Myra holds my hand for the first time. That’s one for the spreadsheet.

Xi

I like to spend my weekends round Myra’s, helping out with the house and the garden. There are always lawns to mow, bonfires to build, pictures to put up, white goods to drag out and clean behind. Things that involve a bit of heavy lifting or the climbing of a stepladder.

Myra is endlessly grateful. It’s nothing, I say – just another way I can serve the Lord, by lending a hand to one of His most faithful servants. It’s amazing what you can do with a bit of elbow grease and a few power tools.

Myra hates phoning companies and ‘being passed from pillar to post like some sort of leper’, as she puts it. She says she can only get through the waiting by quietly reciting her favourite bits of The Book of Common Prayer.

I say I’m happy to help.

On the six-month anniversary of Nicholas’ death, I find myself dialling for her again, this time to help her divert some funds from an ISA into a crowdfunding account for Gabrielle. We agree it’s probably easier just to transfer the sum to me first.

I do the phoning and the waiting and the chitchat, and then when I’ve got hold of the right account executive at last, I pass over the handset and discreetly retire. It is not for me to intrude on such conversations, though I can’t help catching the phrases ‘sometimes you just want to do a bit of good for someone’ and ‘withdraw it all please’.

I retreat to Myra’s guest room, which I have made into my study, and to my personal poetry. Myra is not an easy rhyme, but with a rap-like intonation the words starts to flow…

Myra
I’ll build you a pyre
To set you on fire

As you turn to ash
I’ll burn through your cash


It’s a little different to the verse I present her with that night.

Myra, you have set me on fire
With righteous passion;
Holy beauty; I am wholly yours.
I yearn for your embrace,
For the sunlight in your face —
The exquisite surrender
Of a heart full of grace.

Xii

Myra has doubts. Her intimates are worried for her. The age gap, the finances, the business with Nicholas that some in the village will continue to mither on about. A call from Diane that she will not discuss.

‘I understand,’ I say. I’m supposed to be going away that weekend, on a Bible Studies course for Anglican ordinands at a residential centre run by the diocese.

‘Let us pray,’ I say, and she smiles and bows her head. I head off to the guest room, where I’ve got all my books out, to fetch my missal.

‘Oh my God! Myra!’

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t believe it!’

She heads as fast as her arthritis will allow into the guest room, where a series of large, slightly cursive letters, written in the ash of Ash Wednesday, spell out a message across the far wall and window.

M + M: BELOVED SERVANTS

BLESSED UNION

LOVE AND SERVE ALWAYS

‘M & M!’ says Myra, breathless and ecstatic. ‘You don’t think…’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s the chocolates.’ I do not say this, though I very much want to.   

That night, a Friday, Myra takes me to her bed for the first time. She is surprisingly directive and I happily follow her lead. I have learnt a lot about what people want, and what to do when, but it is refreshing when someone like Myra – with the impatience of age – just lays it out for you. Afterwards I lie with my head on her bosom, and I wonder if this is what mothers and children do, albeit no mother I ever knew.

‘Well. I did not expect that,’ she says. ‘Not at my age.’

‘My bride and my queen,’ I say, and I feel a deep heaving sigh beneath me. I think about the strength in frailty, and the beauty in disgust, and how in the morning the letters will have gone, and the possibilities before me are so many that I almost swoon.

I bring us both cocoa in bed, and make sure Myra drinks all hers. I have a long drive before me. Seventy-six miles.

xiii

Despite what I say to people, I am not one for visions as a rule. But recently I dreamt of a woman who lived in a wooden house by the sea. And in my dream I betook her to the very top of a cliff, and smote her with kindness, and lay her down with her dead head overhanging the sea. And I made a hole through her skull, from one temple right through to the other, so that her blood flowed straight out pure and true, and lost itself in the green waters far below.

I was not able to follow my vision to the letter. But I like to think, out there on the moor, with my axe and my power saw, that I was true to its spirit. Visions are good, but proper Ordinance Survey-backed research is your true friend, every time. 

I think if Diane could have her time again, she would probably not have opened her front door to me. She would probably not have got in the car. She would probably have started struggling sooner, or called for help while there was still a chance that people might hear.

But I told her that I needed her to be happy with what was happening. She was the person everyone looked up to. Myra, like Nicholas before her, trusted her judgement implicitly. I apologised for the lateness of the hour, but I realised that I too needed her blessing. I just wanted to go for a drive and talk things through. And if I couldn’t convince Diane of my good faith, I would gladly withdraw from the parish and the village altogether. I would bow to her wisdom, her powers of discernment.

I was humble. And Diane, in spite of everything – in spite of herself – was flattered. 

When I arrive home, Myra is still in bed, as she should be. She has slept through it all. I slip in beside her just as the light of a new day starts to peep beneath the curtains, and fall into the deep sleep of the just. In the morning, delighted to find me there, she brings me a tea in bed. I tell her how well I slept, and how happy I am to be here. 

‘What about your training course?’ says Myra.

‘I couldn’t bear to be away from you,’ I say. ‘I can learn more about grace and the living faith here.’

This is almost too much for her. ‘Bless me, father,’ she says breathlessly, and – though technically I’m not allowed to do this yet – I slice a cross through the air, up and down, and left to right. Myra makes the sign of the cross too, and her whole face settles into an expression of devout calm. It is powerful magic.

I think about the day, three weeks hence, when we shall go to the cathedral and the bishop will lay his hands on me, and I shall be ushered into the inner circle of the ordained.

Forgiving sinners, healing the sick, saving souls, casting out demons, bestowing holiness with the wave of a hand…

I open my laptop and I start a new poem.

Diana the huntress
I penetrate your fortress
Lady Di, your time to die

To be or not to be
There was no question. 

What a piece of work is this man.
How like a god.

+++

HMP Bedward, August 2019

Hi Jill

Thanks again so much for agreeing to take a look at this.

Just to recap the background: Matthew Manston remains on remand here at Bedward, awaiting proceedings at the Central Criminal Court on two counts of Murder, one of Attempted, and various Attempting to perverts.

Following the granting of an expedited exhumation licence, full post-mortem forensics were carried out on the body of Nicholas Roy. The discovery of the (partial) remains of Diane Harkness will of course be familiar to you from TV and tabloids. 

The alleged crimes apparently only came to light as a result of extensive informal surveillance carried out by two of the defendant’s former friends, Rebecca Winstrop and Patricia Wright. Courageous and resourceful stuff, by all accounts.

As discussed, the judge has requested a more detailed psychological evaluation, and I’d very much value a second opinion – specifically yours! – at this point. I think a good place to start are these extracts from the defendant’s diary, which he stored on his laptop and regularly updated over a period of almost seven years. These extracts cover the period March 30, 2016 to February 12, 2018.

Do give me a shout if you have any questions. Perhaps I could give you a call in a week or so when you’ve had time to digest?

All the very best – and thanks again Jill!

Robert Steveny

Head of Forensic Psychology, HMP Bedword

PS Despite the weight of media opprobrium to which he has been subject, I have to say Manston has conducted himself as a model prisoner at all times. He has been helping a number of other prisoners to develop their literacy skills, and has been on hand to offer support and guidance to two prisoners – and one prison officer! – experiencing spiritual distress. All in all, he is a charming resident, and we will miss him.

About the Author: Dan’s debut collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone Press. He is also co-author of a forthcoming comic novel about an eccentric writers’ group, Work in Progress (Unbound). His stories have featured in numerous competition lists and publications, and received both Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.  

Coping for Tomorrow

By Angelo Lorenzo

It was a Saturday night when Giselle felt a new episode coming. Her heart slammed in her chest, trying to rip its way out as if it had a mind of its own. She tried to take deep breaths, but a certain pressure gripped her throat. A call for help would be vital, and she would do anything to have someone to talk to right now.

She rose from her bed and darted toward the window. She swung the panes out and let the breeze in. Deep breaths from the cooler air outside helped ease the tension. For a while, she stood there, trying to avoid the thoughts that made her worry. The panic attack was unsolicited, but current facts about the pandemic were hard to ignore.

The Coronavirus flu, as sources said, was lethal, and it exempted no one from catching it. It had been a month since the world was asked to stay home. Although she was safe under her parents’ wing this summer, she was having a hard time managing her paralyzing anxiety. How could this not be a natural reaction when, around the world, the virus was spreading at a rapid pace? Numbers of positive cases doubled every week in April as she’d seen and heard on the news, and there’s no telling whether this was slowing down any time soon. Everyone was vulnerable.

Standing by the open window, she saw the tinted panes glinting with the glow of the streetlamps below. The sight was a good distraction, a respite from the surge of thoughts that troubled her. When her breathing returned to normal, she thought she heard music.

 “How are you holding up?” A young man stood up from a stool on the terrace across her house. They were facing each other. The guitar he held with both hands caught her attention. Its brown wooden board gleamed with its varnished surface and the silvery metallic strings.

“Conrad?”

He smiled, revealing braces that shone, complementing the glee in his face.

She remembered the last time their eyes met. He had that same smile. They had grown up together, had gone to the same school. But years of not seeing him again had left her wishing and wondering how he’d be in a time like this. She remembered the Conrad who had the potential to easily win over people’s hearts with his performances at campus events, where intermission numbers from parent-teacher conferences to programs during the school’s founding anniversary had him strumming his guitar behind a microphone stand onstage. Whether it was an original composition or a cover of a Jackson Five hit, Conrad had known how music could easily relate to people. She, on the other hand, had grown fond of the comfort she found in solace. After all, she believed books would never leave her like people would.

She remembered way back when he used to play his guitar on that terrace. This was the Conrad she knew. But he wasn’t there to catch her attention or to play for all the neighbors to hear. He used to spend his time there, usually before bed, alone but with music as his company. She had asked him about it once during one of the bicycle rides around the neighborhood one afternoon many years ago. He said practice made him feel good.

She snapped out of the flashes of memories. But she forgot what he asked a moment ago. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that?”

“Can’t sleep?” he asked instead. His brows narrowed. He had asked that before. Many times. Perhaps every time she had opened her window to hear him play. At this time of the evening, she had her gaze fixed on him. Seeing every detail — from his black close-cropped hairstyle to his glistening eyes — brought back the same feeling she had every time she’d seen him before. Only this time, he was just older than she had last seen him up close. She knew this wasn’t a dream, and she couldn’t deny that a reunion like this made her feel better.

 She ran her fingers through her hair all the way to her shoulders where it ended. She felt the strands dampened with sweat.

Conrad smiled and strummed his guitar. “You don’t mind if I play, do you?”

She shook her head. “You don’t mind if anyone listens anyway.”

He shrugged and tilted his head to one side. He closed his eyes just as she did, and the music began. It was one of the same songs he had played before. And she started humming, recalling the lyrics of that song he used to love so much.

Emotions could betray people. She had known from the many times they would trigger another reaction. She knew better than getting stuck. So she opened her eyes and closed the window before she could think twice.

 Later that night, she took a peek through the window to see if he was still there. All the terrace had instead was an empty space. She sat on the corner of her bed and, with the beam of the moon, gazed over the scar on her knee. Like an inkblot, it had darkened with age. She still couldn’t forget that one afternoon when she had fallen off her bicycle. He had been there with her.

The next day, Giselle was plucking malunggay leaves on the counter of their kitchen while her mother was stirring the heated contents in the pot on their stove. Plucking didn’t require much effort as the leaves, shaped like the curves of a clover leaf, detached easily. This mundane task eased her mind just as sweeping the floors and wiping tables did.

Her father was at their dining table next to their kitchen. His eyes fixed on the laptop screen. His ears were covered with a headset. He had been on a virtual meeting with his clients since morning. They needed to inquire about their insurance policies as the pandemic was projected to affect the economy and inflict not only sickness but a stream of global crises. Businesses were at a standstill, and lives were at stake. She knew he was not meant to be disturbed.

The appetizing salty scent of pork cuts boiling in broth wafted in the air, mingling with ginger and bundled lemon grass. The brewing fragrance had always uplifted Giselle, who grew up with her mother’s sumptuous dishes. Pour in the malunggay leaves and the meal would be complete.

“Is everything okay, Giselle?” her mother asked.

“Oh, it’s nothing.

“You seem so silent lately. What’s bothering you?”

 She sighed. “I just thought about Conrad.”

“Well, that’s something new,” her mother said. Like Giselle, she was a tall woman with long sinewy limbs. Maybe it was maintaining a distinct fashion even while at home — with a ruffled floral overall duster — that gave out her slender figure. “You don’t usually want to talk about him. But it’s good that you remember.”

“Well, it’s not really a big deal,” Giselle said.

“Why isn’t it? You two used to be so close.”

 “Yeah, sure. I don’t see how that changes anything.”

 “Are you feeling okay?” Her mother ceased her stirring and looked at her with raised eyebrows.

 “No, Ma. I just-…” she sighed. She didn’t want to be interrogated. She felt her heartbeat rising again. She dropped the malunggay stem into the bowl.

“You know I can’t hear you when you’re mumbling,” her mother said. “You can always tell me if there’s something bothering you.”

 Giselle didn’t want to ruin lunch with an argument.

“I’m fine, Ma. You don’t have to worry about me. Now can we please continue with the cooking?” She pushed the bowl containing the malunggay leaves, showing that she was done. Her mother pointed at the stem in the bowl. Giselle picked it up and bent the green supple stem with her fingers.

 She didn’t want her parents to worry. But if there was one nightmare besides closed windows and dark rooms, it would have to be the collective sight of white sheets draping the mattress on a stretcher, the glint of a needle’s sharp tip beneath bright fluorescent lights, and the bottles of alcohol emitting nausea in the guise of sanitizing the air. The memory brought her back to when she was nine. The wheels of her bicycle had struck stones scattered on the road. Whoever put them there remained a mystery, but what happened afterwards was impossible to forget. Off she flew into the air before she landed on the rusted bars that covered the mouth of a canal between the sidewalk and the road. Little Conrad had been there too, but Giselle had to take the road alone, limping in their subdivision, screaming as the blood dripped off her open wound. She had wept, nearly losing her voice as they took her to the hospital’s emergency room.

She remembered the white tiles that covered the floor and the walls. White lights glared from the white ceiling. The green plastic curtains closed around her. Her mother’s hand holding her arm, caressing. It’s going to be okay. The lullaby didn’t help silence the mild weeping of a lady on the other side. Beyond the green curtain, she could imagine the lady on a stretcher like her. No, it was a woman, and those were tears of joy, her mother had explained later on. A baby was on their way.

Then there was a man who held a syringe. The word, tetanus felt strange in her ears as he explained what the shot was for.It was a word she could associate with another word she had learned growing up. Tenacious. The pandemic was tenacious, she would describe from the headlines she had been reading on her phone in present day. She didn’t want to get sick. She didn’t want to have a needle pinned deep into her skin, didn’t want the sting to last for days.  The sickness drains anyone dry, and treatment would always be given in the hospital. Ever since that accident, she had dreaded being confined to a hospital again.

She knew that happened years ago. She was well now, safe from all the harms that the accident had brought. She opened her eyes and sunlight streamed through her window, casting light around the blue walls in her room. It calmed her.

 She had spent the rest of the day doing chores to distract herself from reliving that memory. But three nights since Conrad played his music again on the terrace, she felt her body sinking into her bed. She heard her pulse throbbing in her temples. She pushed the sheets off with her clammy hands, and winced as she brought herself up. No more nightmares tonight. Her joints started to ache from her neck to her knees. She sat on the side of the bed and took in deep breaths before her pulse settled. She checked the time of her phone. It was half-past midnight.

 An hour later, she kept turning in her bed to find the right position. But whether she lay face-up or to her side, she couldn’t find a way to relax.                

She decided to do what worked before.

Through the window, music came in with the breeze. The acoustic was a fresh sound from the buzzing of the air-conditioner behind her. It was enough to calm her down.

She looked straight ahead, and there he was. Broad-shouldered in his white shirt, cradling the guitar on his lap as he sat on the same stool, Conrad was playing his music. His eyes were closed as if he was immersed in his element, unaware of the world around him.

She stood by her window and listened to him play. And when the tension eased, she closed the window, hoping that the episode would not come back sooner than expected.

There were a lot of reasons why people had to go separate ways and move on. It’s when circumstance sets them apart, or when choice dictates their actions. If only there had been enough closure to say goodbye…

Race towards home! She remembered him saying that fateful afternoon. Last one to reach there is a stinky loser.

For a nine-year-old, she had the whole world to prove.

She had felt the wind through her hair as they had increased their speed. Her hair waving behind her. The air whistling. She remembered their laughter, some squeals and giggles that defined joy that had no end. Danger only lurked in the pages of fairy tales. The race to the finish line could go on forever.

Then there were the stones scattered before them, gray like the road. The wheels squeaked on the rough surface. Palms wet with sweat slipped from the handle bars. She screamed. He screamed. He never talked to her again.

 Did she wish to talk to him again? After all these years, it had to take a pandemic to bring people together. What choice did others have but to let everyone know they care that they really do? Why do people have to go their separate ways? Why did she have to leave him there?

 The next night, she opened her window again and saw him leaning over the terrace railing. His guitar on the stool behind him.

“Aren’t you going to play your music tonight?” she asked, mildly a whisper.

 He smiled but kept his lips together. She remembered those cheeks that rippled in rosy tan whenever sunlight hit them. But tonight, the light of the moon made his face paler. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping instead?” he responded.

 She shook her head. “It’s hard to pretend that everything’s okay, Conrad,” she said. “It’s been years since it happened, and I still remember every detail. I know I should just let everything go. But I can’t forget you.”

 “Do you feel better when I’m here?” he asked.

“I’ve always wished… you were.”

What would he look like now that they were sixteen? She pictured him with close-cropped hair. Braces that he had always wished to have since some classmates in school would call him, Doc, and pretend to hold carrots to imitate the comical gesture of a cartoon character. And there was always his guitar, which was the only thing that kept reminding her of him.

“Conrad…”

He looked at her.

“I’ve missed you so much.”

He raised his hand to the side of his head, the exact spot where it had hit the rough road. Then he gestured a salute. “Whenever you need me…” He went back to his stool and held his guitar. Remembering him that way was a good distraction. But she knew it didn’t have to last. It was not a question of who was in a better place now. The world keeps going even for those who had seen loss right before their eyes. But everyone can grieve. There were those who remember. He was a memory, and she remembered.

As he played tonight, his image gradually receded. She saw all that was left over the dark and dusty terrace of the house that had long been emptied since his parents moved to another city. Dry leaves swept by the wind. Dust coating the rusty railing.

She closed the window and wrapped herself in the sheets of her bed. She hadn’t cried hard enough since she was nine and wounded. Heavy sobs released the tension, eased the pain. Tears could hydrate the soul. She remembered her mother’s words. Anything that’s bothering her… Will her father spare a little time to listen? Will her mother understand?

Despite all those cold nights, shallow breaths, recurring dreams, and thoughts about the world ending, she found herself breathing easily tonight. Nothing could last forever. If good things don’t, so do those that end them. She thought about tomorrow. There was still tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and she was with her family at their dining table. On the table, faint vapor swirled from the bowl of vegetable soup she and her mother had prepared for their lunch. While they were all seated with their plates set before them, the TV at the living room just beside their dining hall showed news about the cases concerning the pandemic. By this point, it had infected thousands in the country, and thousands more across the world.

“Dad?” she asked after setting her spoon on the edge of her plate.

  “Hm?” was all her father could say between chewing.

 “Is it okay if we turn the TV off?”

  “The news is important, Giselle.”

  She sighed. She couldn’t bear watching and listening to the rising number of cases.

  Before she could say anything else, she felt her mother’s hand on her back.

  “Is there anything wrong?” her mother asked.

 Perhaps this was her chance to be blunt about what she had been feeling lately. On the TV screen, she caught sight of a family in a commercial where they’re gathered together in their homes’ living room. The words, We heal as one, appeared below the scene.

 It took her a few moments to respond, but she wanted to believe that her parents would understand.

“I’ve not been feeling so good lately,” she finally said.

Her mother and father looked at her with concern in their faces. Her father laid his hand over her forehead. “Are you sick?”

 She shook her head. “It’s not that.”

Her father put his hand away, grabbed the remote, and switched the TV off. For a while, silence dominated their home. He gently shifted in his seat and faced her.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

Both of her parents were looking at her now, concern deep in their faces. She heaved a sigh. She pushed back her plate, and told them everything. She started with the panic attacks that disturbed her sleep and that particular traumatic moment on a bicycle ride back when she was nine. Then there was that memory of Conrad. Remembering him was her way of coping, and her parents began to understand everything she had told them.

Opening up to them had somehow eased the tension in her chest, as if the weight of the problem had gradually lifted off her. Then she found herself in her mother’s arms, and her father hugged her as well. “Don’t worry, my child, this won’t last forever,” her father said.

 She now understood that opening up to her loved ones whatever that concerned her was a good way to cope. The pandemic will not last forever, she believed, and if there was anything good that might come of it amidst all the sufferings it had caused, it would probably be the experience of being with her family again.

Later that night, she stood by her open window and saw the lights glowing from the streetlamps below. The neighborhood was silent save for the drone of frogs and crickets somewhere in the distance. But despite the darkness, the lights still shone. She thought about the many people who had to go through this trying time. Everyone has different experiences, but she believed all of this shall pass. Her father reassured her of it. Her mother encouraged her to share anything that’s troubling her. Whatever happens, she has her family.

Losing someone she cared about due to an accident was a pain she had to bear, but moving on was inevitable. After seeing Conrad’s limp body on the street where they had both fallen off their bicycles many years ago, she had been convincing herself that someday, he would return and they would see each other again. But accepting what happened was the first step to moving forward.

Conrad would still be in her memories just as the people who have passed on will remain in the hearts of their loved ones. She wondered about the many lives that the pandemic had claimed since it broke out earlier this year. Like the families of deceased loved ones, all that’s left of them were the memories. She would always remember Conrad with his guitar, his music, and his songs.

She went back to her room and pulled the window panes close. As she sat on the edge of her bed, she breathed calmly. She held onto the fact that, despite the night, a bright new day will always follow. She went to sleep with this thought in mind and let her dreams fill her with hope for better days ahead.

About the Author: Angelo Lorenzo (he/him) writes from Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. His works range from journalism to literature. His articles can be found on news media outlets such as the Philippine News Agency, Rappler, and Sunstar, among others. His short stories have been published by New Pop LitThe Elixir Magazine, and Marias and Sampaguitas, to name a few. He is currently taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan while assisting podcast producers in his full-time job, and interviewing passionate individuals in his YouTube channel

Two Poems by Michael Igoe

 Cheer Section

Way back in 1963

I remember when

My dad and Jesus,

with John Kennedy,

young Jack Kerouac,

on a hitchhiking spree.

They left town in a Rambler,

lived it up in plastic saloons,

those formica counter joints

what they wanted for roosts.

They entered dry good stores

where they all tried to boost.

Only Jesus smoked Kools,

discarding his spent packs

across the stinking desert.

In high top blue boots,

he strode into a motel

they call Mesa Springs.

After beers they join up

at an old drive-in movie

to watch King of Kings.

Starlite

They took time

to frame me up

as a meddling pauper.

They caught me laughing

tried to make me glum.

I am very much alive,

behind inanimate glass.

See through glass,

never disrespected.

You can glimpse,

a climate change.

The lion and the lamb

never wanted

to lie down together.

They told the assembled

they weren’t quite ready.

But we have their blessing,

in both their orphaned eyes.

About the Author: Michael Igoe is a neurodiverse city boy who used to live in Chicago and currently lives in Boston. He has had numerous works appear in journals online and in print, including: https://linktr.ee/derailleurpress, bookofmatcheslitmag.com , Spare Change News(Cambridge Ma), The Poets Of 2020 (Anthology), Avalanches In Poetry (Fevers Of The Mind Press), National Library Of Poetry Editor’s Choice Award 1997, and Feather Pen Blog best Poem 2020. You can find him on Twitter: @MichaelIgoe5. Urban Realism, Surrealism. He likes the night.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Two Poems by Jason de Koff

Road Trip

In the early morn of departure,
a misty coolness entices the sleepy,
to the warm harbor of car seats,
to reinstate their abbreviated slumber.

They weave amongst belts, doors, and seats,
heads bobbing to the road rhythms,
oscillating between,
the staccato beats of road work,
and expansion joint lullabies.

Waking later, the vacant stares,
admire the impressionist strokes,
of leaf and limb,
where colors deepen with elevation,
between twisted deciduous,
and tall pole pines.

The inner dryad,
imagines the mossy mattresses,
festooned with clusters of yarrow,
and the sunlight dapples,
of mid-afternoon senescence.

The acute-angled sun,
hints at evening adventures,
with new realms to be found,
and explored.

Largesse

Single steel blades,
cut parallel tracks,
across solid lake,
like northern Nasca lines.

Sweeping away the downy layer,
with windswept strides,
reveal multitudes of shiny spheres,
crystallized above the black beyond.

As if a slumbering beast,
might yield its time,
and seed the surface,
cracking the eggshell silence.

The crisp air brings craggy summits,
into hawk-eyed resolution,
occasionally blurred,
by foggy exhalations.

The quiet solitude,
beckons the mind to dream,
with the warmth of inner aspirations,
tempered only by the cold.

About the Author: Jason de Koff is an associate professor of agronomy and soil science at Tennessee State University.  He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife, Jaclyn, and his two daughters, Tegan and Maizie. He has published in a number of scientific journals, and has over 60 poems published or forthcoming in literary journals over the last year. 

Hard Hat in the Information Age

By John Kropf

When my father died, I couldn’t part with a hard hat that had belonged to him. It’s white with a ridge down the top center like the spine of a reptile or the midsagittal crest of a great ape. It has a short brim at the front with a sticker above reading Vulcan Materials Company with the tag line underneath, “Think Safety.”  The sticker is in the company’s colors: navy and deep gold, with a logo that looks like two chevrons, one inverted above the other.  At the end of his life, my father kept the hard hat in the trunk of his car, a gray Ford Crown Victoria. He would have last worn it in a work capacity in the mid-1980s.

My father served as a US Navy Corpsman at the end of WWII.  When he came home, he graduated from Wayne State University on the GI Bill, then went to work as a salesman for the Vulcan Materials company’s predecessor, Aluminum-Magnesium, in my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. The company smelted aluminum and other light metals, selling them to manufacturing companies across the Midwest to be forged into aircraft parts, engine blocks, lawn mowers, and light industrial products. As a salesman, he traveled to mid-sized cities with flinty sounding names like Benton Harbor, Gary, Ft. Wayne, Union City, Milwaukee, Jackson, Toledo, and Muncie.

My freshman year in high school, my father gave me a tour of the Sandusky foundry wearing the hat and hard-plastic safety goggles. I had to be outfitted with the same. He took on a business-like air of authority talking about the temperatures of the metals, the operation of the furnace, and the equipment needed to protect the men working in such hazardous conditions. He raised his voice to a yell to be heard over the din of the furnaces smelting aluminum at over 1,300 degrees.

The summer after my freshman year in college, my father arranged a summer job for me doing unskilled tasks in the plant. I wore my own hard hat and steel-toed shoes. Decades later, my memory still tingles when I recall the heat and grit of working in the foundry. The experience has stayed with me, giving me a respect for the hard work of manufacturing.  

My father had a theory at the end of his life, at the beginning of what we call “the Information Age.” He believed American companies that manufacture tangible things should be given tax breaks.  He felt the country had lost its ability to manufacture material goods like cars or machinery. Manufacturing had given him a job and allowed him to provide for his family and he mourned the country’s loss of such jobs. 

In 1986, the company sold off the metals division because it was unable to compete with cheaper metal manufacturers in an ever more globalized world, and my father was forced into early retirement.  He put the hard hat into the truck of that gray car of his and held on to it. He would have been nearly the same age I am as I write this—his late 50s. That’s a challenging time to get hired again — you’re too old and too expensive.  He moved into seasonal work as a tax preparer, working for the next 25 years for H&R Block. He enjoyed the tax work and never looked back.

In the 1990s the Sandusky plant was sold off, demolished, and the land was reclaimed to become a city park.

Today, I work as a lawyer as part of the Information Age economy, looking at laws and regulations that affect data.  Although he was grounded in the manufacturing age, my father had a strong grasp of what I did and was proud of it.  Still, I have this hard hat.  He told me to keep it. The hat sits in my workshop should I ever need it to make something tangible.

About the Author: John Kropf is a Washington, DC area attorney born and raised in Ohio. He has written a travel-adventure book, Unknown Sands: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country. He’s currently working on book, Color Capitol of the World, a family history of the American Crayon Company and its hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. 

Harry Pulls Up Weeds

By D.T. Robbins

Harry pulls up the weeds in his garden. The weeds keep suffocating the lavender flowers Harry has been trying to grow for the past few months. Harry pulls at the weeds with his good arm, the only one he has left, the one his ex-wife didn’t take in the divorce settlement. His right arm.

The weeds pull back. Harry goes underground. Harry screams, scared shitless. AAAGHHGHHARERLKARGAA*@$%*!!!!

Bye, Harry!

Hi, Harry!

Welcome to your new home. It isn’t much different from the world above except all the colors are inverted and capitalism is dead. Harry doesn’t mind at all. Harry tried capitalism, tried opening a convenience store in his previous world. It left him bankrupt and bored and divorced. Ugh. Bummsville, right? Yeah, Bummsville. That’s what he calls his old world. He doesn’t have a name for the new world yet. It’ll come in time, Harry thinks.

Harry finds an apartment cheap, much cheaper than he would have found back in Bummsville. Yay! This apartment has carpet that sways and tickles your toes. Spiders come at night and sing you to sleep if you want them to. The fridge is always stocked with Miller Lite and the bread never goes stale.

Harry finds a job as a taxidermist. They stuff everything here: wolves, cats, chickens, couches, pinecones, dead uncles, people in comas. Harry is good at stuffing things. It reminds him of how he dealt with his divorce back in Bummsville.

Harry’s neighbors smoke crystal meth and yell at each other all day. Uh oh. Harry’s neighbors put a roll of aluminum foil in their microwave, set the apartment complex on fire. Everyone runs out screaming and crying and dancing dances of mourning and sorrow. Harry straps his fridge to his back, barely makes it out alive. Worth it, he says. Free beer forever!

Harry has to move into a trailer park. None of these neighbors smoke crystal meth or scream at each other throughout the night. These neighbors are all part of a cult. They mostly keep to themselves, though they invite Harry to their weekly meetings. Harry says no thanks, he’s not religious. Is this what all those coexist bumper stickers were talking about back in Bummsville?

A tornado hits the park. It’s beautiful, made of glitter and laughter. Harry always wanted children. Harry cries as he watches all the trailers get destroyed. All except Harry’s.

Everyone moves in with Harry. All 350 cult members. Harry doesn’t mind so long as they stay the hell out of his beer and bread. No exceptions! Harry charges the cult ten pies a month to stay with him in his trailer. The cult calls him a slumlord, shits on his couch, moves out.

The cult secretary, Daphne, stays behind. Daphne bakes as many pies as Harry wants. Harry and Daphne fall madly in love. Daphne proposes to Harry with a diamond arm to replace the arm his ex-wife in Bummsville took from him in their divorce settlement. Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!

Daphne gets pregnant, gives birth to a fiddle leaf. The fiddle leaf becomes mayor of the trailer park. Crime goes down. Yay!

Harry and Daphne move to New Orleans, live in the French Quarter, eat beignets all day every day, hell fucking yes! Harry keeps taxiderming because he likes the quiet and now he has his diamond arm and can do the work doubletime. Harry becomes a world famous taxidermist, even gets his own television show. Congrats, Harry!

Daphne dies at the age of 256. Harry hasn’t aged a day. At Daphne’s funeral, Harry buries the diamond arm that she gave him when she proposed.

 Harry retires, becomes a carpenter. He knows nothing about carpentry. Harry builds his first house with his one good arm, the only one he has left. His right arm. The house is beautiful, made of sunshine and oak.

A thousand years go by. Harry sleeps through most of them. The fiddle leaf becomes president. The USA burns to the ground, killing everyone and everything, including Harry. All Americans return as ghosts. The USA is the only 100% ghost-occupied country in the world. Harry travels cross-country to see if he can find Daphne’s ghost. But she’s gone. Gone forever. Farewell, again, my love. Kiss kiss.

Harry comes home from his road trip, goes out into the yard, sees all the weeds that killed his lavender. Harry pulls up the weeds. The weeds pull back.

Bye, Harry!

Hi, Harry! Welcome to the after-afterlife.

Harry transforms into a mountain. He’s covered in lavender. The wind sounds like Daphne’s voice.  Harry watches the sun hang in suspended animation, almost and never setting for all eternity.

Author Bio: D.T. Robbins writes a whole bunch of shit. Find more at dtrobbins.com

X-Files on VHS

By Sheldon Birnie

The living room of Skeeter’s shack was lined with VHS tapes. Stacks of shit he’d taped off the TV. Wasn’t much else, apart from a couple ratty sofas, one of which doubled as his bed, and a coffee table covered with all you’d need to blaze.

Skeet had every season of X-Files, complete with commercials and the weather reports from the station down in North Dakota that aired the show in its prime. Had that fuckin’ poster of the UFO taped to the back of his door, too. That I WANT TO BELIEVE one. Got it off a rental shop up the Wheat City that was going outta business.

He kept them first three seasons next to the bank of old VCRs he had wired to the flatscreen that took up nearly a whole Reflectix-lined wall of the shack out back of his uncle’s taxidermy shop, behind the mound of broken antlers and the platoon of rusted Chevys.

 Seen those episodes over and over, whenever I’d drop by to pick up, or just smoke and kill one of those long winter evenings. Even if I knew just what was gonna happen during those 60 minutes, it beat drinking in the dirty old bar by the highway there, listening to Top 40 and the VLTs buzz. Or driving up and down them backroads through the darkness, waiting for something weirder than whatever Mulder and Scully was after to jump up outta the ditch.

Show went to shit when it switched to Sunday. That’s Skeeter’s position. Bald-ass albino freak, he’s big on episodes about the alligator man, the Jersey devil, that motherfucker who could stretch himself thin and sneak into cracks above doors to nibble on the livers of his victims. That spooky shit. Show lost its edge with all that conspiracy crap, he says. Tried getting too sexy.

But me, I could dig what Mulder was chasing. Dana and that deep state shit. Told Skeet he’s tripping, over and over and over again. You fuckin’ know the government’s hiding shit from us, bro.

Motherfucking Smoking Man himself, Skeeter’d just toast a bowl up into the resin caked 2L gravity. He’d take it down, hold up. Then fill the living room with that dank haze.

True that, he says, hacking. But don’t need no complicated conspiracy to do it. Shit. Most motherfuckers don’t want to believe nothing. Like those fucks over in the bar. Soaking up the piss. Fuckin’ tourists, going in debt to get the itch from the lake a week or two every summer. Fuckin’ happy knowing nothin but the sweet fuck all. Makes me wanna puke.

Bitter he may be, but Skeeter’s not wrong. ‘Bout that, anyways.

Not like me and you, Skeeter’d say, credits cutting into the opening of another episode. Me, I just nod. It’s not like me and Skeet was ever best friends or nothing. But in a way we was too. Not many people around here worth a half-a-shit. Or anywhere, I guess.

 Not like me and you, bud, he’d say. We know shit’s out there. Eh, bud?

Fuckin’ right it’s out there. All that weird shit and worse is out there waiting in the woods. Shit that show never even hinted at. When you stare up into the night sky long enough out here, away from the lights, nothing but woods and fields and bogs all around, you know you ain’t alone and you ain’t special. Hanging with a buddy, even one as fucked as Skeeter, blazing, watching old fuckin’ X-Files episodes beats staring out into that emptiness alone, that’s for sure. But nobody wants to talk about shit like that.

Better believe it, bud, I’ll tell Skeet. Believe it.

Sheldon Birnie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada who can be found online @badguybirnie

Probable Friends of the Pod

By Joe Neary

The morning begins with a now familiar knot-like ache in Alex’s upper back, immediately following his seeming to gasp himself awake, as if bursting up through the water’s surface, after holding in his breath for a childhood dare. Long, protruded breaths now, lying in an awkward position on his side, feeling his stomach press against his tight T-shirt, caught between his recently growing gut and his bed, a shirt corner stuck under his back. He feels old and sore, and suddenly understands how his 30ish-year-old assistant high school basketball coaches came to be the way they were—the squareness in the torso, love handles protruding at waist, and shoulders draped in flab. The awkwardly chunky calves, seeming to juggle in every direction as they made their way down the practice side courts, breathing heavy, sweat soaking their oversize cut-off shirts. He rolls out of bed, back still aching, shirt and boxers damp with sweat, and makes his way across the creaky wood floor in his apartment, and over to the bathroom.

Outside now, and walking along his lake-shored street, grungy remains under his feet: beer cans, receipts, cigarettes, fast food bags, and the occasional stray clump of vomit that he steps around—remnants of a Thursday night in Chicago. The buildings around him are mostly brick apartments, aging, yet recently renovated, a few Victorian homes sprinkled in, here and there, the lake a dark, cloudy blue to his left. He hears the grinding screech of the subway in the distance, like a knife sharpening, metal on metal, sparks of sound and heat showering outward, elements and industry meeting head on, releasing a propulsive energy. 

On the train now, he feels this energy with each chug, feels it rocking the cabin from side to side, his right hand grasping the rail bar above, arm looming over the top of two strangers bunched in front of him, like the branch of a creepy, bare oak tree hanging over two miserable picnickers, who are somehow chilly, yet overheated; claustrophobic, yet lonely; somehow engaged and interested in this wonky podcast episode, yet also appalled and disturbed—Wallace? Again? Isn’t this like the third interview you’ve had with him in like the past six weeks, and isn’t he polling in like seventh right now? Also, the guy is blatantly against Medicare for all, refuses to turn down PAC money, yet, somehow, you’re still hosting him again, and doing so in your typical, evasive, faux-woke tone. Maybe he’s projecting a bit now. The early-thirties-looking, suit-clad dude in front of him seems like a probable friend of the pod, and now that he turns his eyes downward, he notices a rolled-up copy of The Economist tucked in, and sticking out of, his glossy, fancy-lad satchel. Yeah … definitely projecting. The girl in front of him is wearing yoga pants and is diligently carrying a rolled-up yoga mat under her armpit, while she grasps the hanging plastic handle connected to the railing above. Her other hand is holding out her phone in front of her, some sort of Snapchat filter (it looks like the cat one from here) on her screen. Maybe not the world’s two most likely candidates for lefties.

The train whizzes along, the passengers continuing to flail, careening from side to side, as they hold on to the handles and railing above them. It’s a Friday, and he and Tim are supposed to have some plans tonight, maybe dinner and drinks in Wicker Park. This excites him, and he feels an urge to rush through the day. He looks up at the stop alert flashing across the screen overhanging the cabin. Three more stops to go.

Suddenly, he’s unable to hear the pod, a deep, soulful singing voice muffling their nasally quips, and he’s unable to smell the damp, trapped heat, mingled with hints of BO of before (the standard Chicago subway smell), and, instead, feels his nose, mouth, and every other orifice, clogged and battered and drenched in the putrid, decaying smell of death itself. He nearly throws up and loses his balance, at the same time, one hand now held over his mouth, and his other hand hanging by three fingers on the railing. For a minute he thinks he isn’t going to be able to hang on. Slanted halfway down now, one arm nearly touching the putrid floor beneath him, his eyes fixed on his outstretched hand, and those strained three fingers hanging on for dear life, Mufasa style. He feels forceful hands behind him, and, suddenly, he’s recovered his balance, and avoided the fall.

One hand still over his face, he awkwardly removes both of his earbuds with the other, turning to view the source of the now echoing onslaught of song filling the cabin. He sees a tattered old man with stringy white, waist-length hair, his senses locating stench and sound as coming from the same source, some primitive signals clicking within his mind/body continuum, genes and memes developed and passed on through the ages, through space and time, converging in on this instant, on his own awareness of this filthy old man, on his stench so strong that one can taste it, on his bellowing voice, hundreds of eyes now fixed on him, of… Destiny’s Child lyrics? The man rocks from side to side in smooth strokes, bare feet rhythmically caressing the dirty floor beneath him in salsa-like, arched-foot movements, snapping his fingers and continuing to belt out lyrics in a voice soulful enough to attain Beyonce’s approval. Alex looks around, and most of the other people in the cabin have their faces covered as well, a few brave (or maybe it’s just nostrily-challenged) folks simply smile and watch, some now joining in for backup vocals. He hears a high-pitched croon come from right in front of him, yoga mat girl now belting out lyrics as well, gyrating her hips in the process, and gaining several woots and onlookers.

The man finishes the song in its entirety, the cabin erupting in cheers, most of the passengers now acclimated to the stench–a process akin to driving through rural Ohio on a trip to Cedar Point: eventually, the manure-stench-buttressing windows roll back down, and the wind batters your face, the endless corn fields forming a horizon of optimism for the day you finally take on and survive Millennium Force. The train stops, and the old, barefoot man regally bows, then turns, walking off the train. Alex eyes the cabin’s location screen—one more stop to go—and places his earbuds back in.

Joe Neary is a graduate student and writing instructor at Bowling Green State University, and a contributing editor at Flyover Country.

Bobby Love Runs into an Old Friend

by Kevin Sterne

Bobby Love sat at the blackjack table of the Horseshoe Casino, a windowless affair on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. The cards were coming easy. He rubbed a hundred-dollar chip and a twenty-five-dollar chip together in his pocket. The most money he’d had in a while. He could never keep money on him from one city to the next but could always afford a drink and hand or two. Tonight, he was pulsing, felt in control. A month ago, he’d run a job for Chilo and had already burned through it on everything a man would need in Omaha, Lincoln, Lawrence, Columbia, and Des Moines. After this job was over—the mountains. Denver. He’d been in the grass too long. Chilo’s payout could keep him a while. Hide out, take it easy.

He was a vanishing man. A skill honed from childhood, from having followed his uncle to three different trailer parks in the southern half of the state, where the dust was thick, and the wind blew so much they called it tornado alley. He had known when his uncle was home, and he shouldn’t have been. And, during that time, he had slipped into the usual trouble a boy could get into.

The dealer dealt him a 7-2 off suit, normally a terrible hand in poker, but, for Love, a lucky one. He doubled his bet and the dealer turned over an Ace and Love took his chips.

If you feel tapped in, the cards come that way—something his uncle had said during one formative moment. He’d taught Bobby the basics of poker, if you could call them that. Cards, booze and women were Love’s weaknesses, like his uncle’s. He’d been strong enough to fight his uncle at seventeen and had been living on his own since.

The key to vanishing was timing. He frustrated himself by giving in to what kept him in a place too long, usually women, lately Honey. But right now, it was this current job for Chilo. He felt for the phone in his pocket, flipped it open. Nothing.

  The dealer dealt him two cards and Honey slid into the seat next to him.

“Not tonight, Honey.”

“But you’re on a heater.” She played with something in her purse. 

“Hasn’t anyone taught you about superstitions?” She kept playing with that purse.

“I never got to properly thank you for what you did.”

A few weeks back, this suit had called her a lot lizard and Love had followed him to the parking lot to talk. She’d called him a hero. But tonight, he was tired. And he was waiting on instructions.

“Sweetie. Dear. I love you but you’re breaking my concentration.”

“Oh please. Your concentration. Gimme a break.” She put her hand on his knee. He took it and folded her fingers over a chip.

“Next time.” He kissed her hand and walked away.

“When will that be?”

But he’d already disappeared.

And he felt pleased with himself for doing so. Focus, when he had it, came in spades. He half smiled as he walked into the atrium. He threw a quarter into the horseshoe fountain, to repay the good luck he’d used. He was heading to cash his chips when he saw Cat sitting at a slot machine. What were the odds? Before he could decide not to, he was already walking up to her. She looked up at him then back at her game. It was something with cherries and dice. She forced a half laugh and ignored him.

“Last time I saw you, you said you were done with casinos.”

“I said I didn’t like the smell of the men. You all wear too much cologne.” She finished her game and looked at him. He looked at her. She looked healthier; her skin had more color.

“It’s been a while.”

“I guess it has.”

Her face said hug me and push me at the same time and it always pulled him in. He wanted to ask if she was still dancing, how things were after her mom died. He wanted to know about that old Jeep. The Fentanyl. The hole in the wall, was it still there?

 “I just finished CNA school. Six months. I’m celebrating.” His eyes went wide. “A nurse now.” She had a glow. But Love was ready to leave, felt uncomfortable. She sensed this and pointed to his arm and said, “What you got there?”

“My winnings.” He grinned. She followed him to the cashier, said her celebrating was over and she hadn’t won anything. “I’m riding big right now,” he said.

“Better hope it lasts.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

He scribbled his name onto three pieces of paper, gave the cashier his real ID, complained that he was signing his life away. “Same old Bobby Love, making his money in casinos. But this time, you didn’t lose it.”

“I’m a changed man. I have one job to collect from and then I’m getting west.” She laughed. He gave her a good look. She had changed. “Nursing school?”

 Outside, the horizon was sucking away the last bit of blood orange from the sky. They stood under parking lot lights, with cattle fields all around them. Pearl millet, sorghum, cereal rye, short but hardy. It was just grass. “How’d you get here?”

 “I walked.” A ghostly tumbleweed brushed by them. Inside his car she leaned over him and he smelled lavender. Clouds of silt swirled around them. The wind howled. They were in the middle of a dust storm with nothing better to do. “Cat I can’t.” 

“What do you mean—”

He gently lifted her. “It’s this job.”

“You’re talking like the movies.”

“This one’s important.” And so, he told her. And, as he did, her expression changed.

  “Oh.”

  “Yeah.”

“Well. Where is he now?”

“I have him tied up in the trunk.”

About the Author

Kevin Sterne is a carpenter from Chicago and the author of the story collection All Must Go. He’s the winner of the 2020 Phoebe fiction contest. He’s currently working on his first novel.

Essential

by Megan Neary

                                                                  Danny wrapped his hand in a plastic to-go bag and cleaned the vomit out of the urinal. While he did, he mentally reviewed the night’s customers and tried to decide which idiot had gotten sick. There hadn’t been that many customers that night, it had been nothing like the night before when the place was packed with a sea of green t-shirts and speckled with several wasted office workers dressed in full-on leprechaun costumes. Now that had been a night. Sure, the customers were annoying as hell and totally tanked by noon, but man had he made money. He’d also gotten a black-eye breaking up a fight, but, still, all-in-all, it had been a great night. And now this shit. The place was closed and wouldn’t open again until god-knows-when. And he was fucked. Totally, completely fucked. 

    Danny scrubbed his hands until they were red, then finished closing up the bar. He triple-checked to be sure everything was turned off and locked up, he nailed plywood across the windows, then he stepped out into the quiet night and checked again to be sure the chain and padlock across the front door were secure. 

    His breath formed little clouds that he was continually walking through as he made his way toward his apartment. He felt the bulge of cash in his back pocket- a sad selection of small, damp bills- and wondered how long it would last. He was glad he’d had a good night on St. Patrick’s Day, but he’d been counting on that, had rent coming up and would have to pay it. So what the fuck was he going to do? Ted, who came to the bar most nights on his way home from the office, had told him he could probably get unemployment, or something, but of course Ted didn’t know he was paid in cash and was, as far as the customs agents who had let him into the country ten years ago were concerned, here for a week to visit his cousin. He remembered how afraid he’d been when they’d asked him, how it felt like they could see right through him, like they knew he had left Ireland and did not intend to go back, not ever. But he’d been careful, had only packed a single bag, hadn’t brought any photographs or mementos that might’ve made them think he’d stick around. And, in the end, they’d let him through. God, he remembered stepping onto the bus outside the airport and feeling that he’d made it, he’d really made it. 

    Within the week, after lying about his age and his vast hospitality experience, he’d scored a job pulling pints at O’Malley’s. And, when the owner learned he was still living in a shitty hostel in Greektown, he’d found him an apartment at a building his brother-in-law owned. All cash. He got paid in cash, left an envelope full of it in his landlord’s dropbox every month. 

    Ten years. Had he really worked at the same little bar for ten years? And what would he do now? He couldn’t turn around and get a job at a different bar, they were all closed. And the restaurants, too. He’d never been in a situation like this before, hadn’t been without work since he was fourteen. It was a terrible feeling. 

He got to his building and made his way up the dark, piss-smelling stairs to his apartment. He unlocked the door, but it stuck until he gave it a sharp kick. “Fuck,” he screamed as pain flooded his big toe. He limped into the apartment and grabbed a bottle of whiskey off the sticky counter and took a long swig before opening the cupboard and grabbing a bag of chips. He carried the chips and the whiskey and a can of coke from the fridge to the sagging orange couch. He turned on the TV and watched numbly as he ate chips by the handful, spilling crumbs all over his O’Malley’s t-shirt, and made his own whiskey and cokes by pouring booze and coke into his mouth at the same time, then swishing the concoction together in his puffed-out cheeks.  

He woke with his cheek pressed against the empty chip bag and his head pounding. He walked the four steps to the little kitchen nook and started a pot of coffee and filled a big glass of water at the tap. He swallowed the glass in a few long gulps, then refilled it and took some Advil from the cupboard. He knocked back four, swallowed the rest of the water, poured the coffee into a red mug and carried it back to the orange couch where he drank it along with a short swig from the whiskey bottle. 

He spent the next week in much the same state, venturing out only to the corner store to buy food and booze. It was a depressing drunk. He’d been on benders before, but always they’d been filled with adventure, with buddies, with girls, now he just sat on his sad, sloping couch and drank himself blind. 

After a week, his cash was running dangerously low. So, he got himself off the couch, showered, shaved the sad, patchy excuse for a beard that had cropped up on his jawline and dressed in clean clothes. Then, he pulled out his phone and began to search for a job. 

Craigslist was full of sketchy ads looking for “quarantine companions” and scams promising to earn you one hundred thousand dollars a year if you’d just buy the two thousand dollar getting-started kit, but then he saw a posting seeking a babysitter, someone to keep an eye on the kids while their parents holed up in the home office, to help them with their online schoolwork, and to provide other “enriching” activities. They were offering cash. 

Danny fired together an email that consisted of lies and extreme exaggerations strung together with excessively formal and polite pleasantries, then returned to scanning the other postings. He scrolled past one seeking an egg donor and offering twenty thousand dollars for the right person and was momentarily jealous that he didn’t have any eggs to donate, but then he figured he’d probably freak out at the idea of a bunch of his kids running around who he’d never know. Beneath the egg donor ad there was one that said We’re Hiring NOW! So he clicked on it and read “We are not currently hiring, but would love for you to send us your resumes for when we can return to work.” He almost threw his phone across the room and he considered penning an angry email to let the poster of the Craigslist ad know he was an idiot, but he just decided to take a break from the job hunt instead. 

Danny got drunk and went to sleep.

In the morning, he got up and made his way to the corner store. He was walking with his head down, feeling decidedly hungover and downtrodden, so that he didn’t notice Mr. Jones sitting on a fold-up chair on his tiny front porch until it was too late.

“Danny,” he called, “come here, come here, I’ve got something important to tell you.”

Danny felt mild panic set in, but then he remembered, he had a trump card! “Sorry, Mr. Jones,” he said, “but I’m afraid I can’t ya know, social distancing and all.”

“Not to worry, not to worry,” called Mr. Jones, making a little clucking noise with his tongue, “I’ve measured it all out. You just stand right there beside the fence and I’ll call to you from here. It’s six feet and 2 inches, don’t you worry.”

“Alright, Mr. Jones,” Danny said, leaning his elbows on the grey fence and studying the old man with his big puffy winter coat pulled over his stooped shoulders and his extraordinarily lethargic mutt slobbering on his brown loafers. “What is it?”

“Pardon me?”

“You said you had something important to tell me.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” Mr. Jones said, making that clucking noise again, “of course I did, now, let’s see, where was I? Ah, yes, well, you remember how I told you about my water heater?”

“Yes,” Danny almost shouted, he was so eager to cut off a retelling of the story at the pass.

“Well, so, you remember, how my water heater had been acting up. I didn’t have a proper warm bath for three weeks. Or was it three and a half? Hmm, well, it started on a Tuesday, and,” he lost himself for a moment, counting his fingers again and again, “yes, that’s right, it was three weeks and two days. Well, like I said, I just couldn’t get hot water to save my life. And I called my landlord. Must’ve called him ten times. Let’s see, yes, I called him that first Monday, then again Wednesday, and,…”

The story went on and on. Danny zoned out completely and picked at the peeling paint on the grey  fence until he heard the old man say, “now, isn’t that just something?”

“Sure is, Mr. Jones,” Danny said, “good to see you, but I’m afraid I’ve got, uh,-” he remembered that work and most appointments were canceled and panicked, “stuff,” he blurted and took off at the fastest walk he could manage without breaking into a proper sprint.

Danny made it to the corner shop and bought cans of beef stew and chill, a bag of tortilla chips, and a handle of cheap vodka. The old woman, Valentina,  looked concerned as she rang him out. 

“You here a lot now,” she said.

Danny gave her a grin, “well, I just can’t stay away from you.”

He took the long way home to avoid Mr. Jones then heated up a can of chili and ate it with his chips. He put the vodka in the freezer and told himself he couldn’t open it until five so then he ended up watching the clock for hours until he could grab the bottle and make love to it on the orange couch. 

The next morning, he had an email telling him he seemed like a great fit for the babysitter position and asking him to come by that afternoon for an interview. 

He showered and shaved and dressed in black pants and a blue collared shirt, then typed the address into his phone and set off on a long walk. He could’ve taken a bus, but he’d begun to go a little mad from sitting around all the time and the sun was shining and the jury was still out on whether buses were disease breeding machines.. He was halfway to the address when the sky darkened and only a few blocks away when it opened up and poured a deluge of cold rain down on him. By the time he reached the hideously modern highrise, his jacket was soaked through and his hair was a plastered, dripping mess. He rang the buzzer and was granted admittance to the foyer, where he pulled off his coat and ran his hands through his hair before boarding the elevator and slowly climbing twenty stories. 

He found 20F and knocked. Through the door, he heard the sound of children screaming. After several minutes, a blonde woman in yoga attire opened the door. 

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“I’m Danny, I’m here for the interview.”

“The interview?”

“For babysitting.”

“You’re Danny?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Oh,” she said, like a tire deflating.

“Is something the matter?” Danny asked, wondering if she was disgusted by his obvious failure to remember an umbrella.

“No, no, not at all, it’s just, I thought Danny was short for, you know, Daniela.”

“I’m, uh, afraid not.”

“Well, I guess you’d better come in,” she said with another sigh and she walked into the apartment, leaving the door open behind her. Danny followed. 

The apartment was large and sunny and decorated in greyscale except for the purple yoga mat that sat in front of the massive TV and the toys of the three boys who were chasing each other and vaulting over the white couches and standing on the glass coffee table. 

“Please, have a seat,” the woman said, pointing to the chair beside her at the black kitchen table. 

Danny sat.

“So,” the woman went on, “tell me a little about yourself.”

Danny went on for several minutes with lies about his experience and expertise.

“I just love your accent,” the woman replied. 

There was a sudden sound of shattering followed quickly by a shout of, “it wasn’t me.” 

The woman put her head in her hands and groaned. “As you can see,” she said, “they are really missing the structure of school. That’s why I need someone to keep them on task.”

“You know,” Danny said, “I could start today.”

The woman studied him for a long, awkward moment, then sighed again, “alright,” she said, “alright.”

She called the boys into the kitchen and, after several minutes and ten repetitions of her call, they came, and she introduced Danny to Tucker, Kyle, and Wyatt. 

Then, she went into the other room and returned to her yoga while Danny faced his three new charges and remembered he had no idea what the fuck he was doing. 

For about an hour, they listened to him. Tucker and Kyle worked away on their online schoolwork and Wyatt colored beside them, but then they got bored and made a break for it, racing around the apartment again, Wyatt’s marker-covered hands posing a serious threat to the white couches he was forever trying to climb.

Danny tried to coax them, to appeal to their better nature, to pitch schoolwork as somehow appealing, all the while keeping his eye nervously on the bedroom door behind which their mother was napping. 

When she came out of the room, he smiled and said, “they did such a good job I decided they’d earned some free time.”

“Great,” she said and she brewed a pot of coffee then brought two mugs of it over to the table. They sat and drank their coffee while the children, finally tired out, watched television. 

“You know,” she said, “I think this quarantine is really going to be a good thing. I was just reading some articles about how nature is already doing so great now that the people are gone. Like, there’s dolphins in Italy again, which is just wonderful. And it’s great for families to have time together, you know, no interruptions. Really, I think this is just mother nature, doing her thang, you know. Reminding us that she’s in charge and, like, the world doesn’t need us.”

“Sure,” Danny said, “you know I always say the thing the world’s missing is more plagues.”

“Exactly. You know, there’s just too many people. And, we’re, like, this virus on the earth so now, like, the earth has a fever to fight us off.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“By the way, if you could be sure and wear a mask on your commute from now on, and leave your shoes outside the door, and, of course, wash your hands first thing when you come in, that’d be great.”

“Of course. You can’t be too careful.”

Danny lasted two weeks in that job before he was informed that the family was picking up and going off to their “summer place.” 

He was feeling bad as he walked through the light snow toward home. He was back where he’d started, he had no idea when the lockdown would end, and he hadn’t had a real conversation in weeks. 

He was hanging his head, wishing he were home already and also dreading the quiet, crushing loneliness of the place, when he saw a little golden retriever puppy darting toward him, dragging a blue leash in his wake. 

Danny stooped down and grabbed the leash and the dog stopped short, barking and nipping at his legs. He looked around, wondering where the dog had come from and what he was supposed to do now that he’d caught him, when he saw a woman in a blue coat running toward him. When she saw Danny holding the leash, she broke out into a grin. 

“Thank you,” she said when she reached them, “I tripped and he just took off.” She held up her scrapped hands as if to prove her story. 

“No problem,” Danny said, handing her the leash.

She smiled at him with a lovely, eye-reaching smile and suddenly he wanted to kiss her very much and to touch her long, dark hair. 

“I’m Danny, by the way.”

“Marcy,” she said, holding out her hand. 

They shook for an instant, but then she pulled her hand back, “sorry,” she said, “force of habit. Oh God,” she added, “I’m totally in your space right now.” She took several quick steps back.

“That’s alright,” Danny said, “I like sharing my space with you.”

“That’s, like, really not cool. It’s important to take social-distancing seriously.”

“Oh, yeah, of course, but, I mean, we already messed that up, so doesn’t that mean we might as well just go with it? We could be, uh, quarantine buddies.”

“Have you even been watching Dr. Fauci’s press conferences? Cuz, like, quarantine buddies are totally not a thing you’re supposed to have.”

“Sorry,” Danny muttered, “see ya, I guess,” and he walked past her and toward home. He felt that he had been cheated. Like, for God’s sake, everyone who’s ever seen a romcom would’ve guessed he’d end up with the girl whose puppy he caught. It was such an obvious conclusion that their whole relationship could’ve easily been summed up in a happy little montage. They’d hold hands as they walked through the zoo and an elephant would trumpet so loudly it made them jump then bend over laughing, they’d eat at a beautiful restaurant with white tablecloths and candles, they’d get stuck at the top of a ferris wheel and make out. But then he remembered all of that shit was now illegal and he tried to come up with a quarantine montage. They’d walk on opposite sides of the street, they’d buy ramen at the corner store and cook it on his ancient stove, they’d get plastered together on his sloping orange couch. Somehow, this montage didn’t have quite the same charm as the first one. 

When he got home, Danny again scanned Craigslist for a job. This time, he found a pizza place that was looking for a bike-riding delivery man. He didn’t have a bike, but he knew someone who did. He vacillated for a long while, struggling to convince himself that the certain suffering involved in getting the bike would be worth not starving. He still wasn’t totally convinced when he set off for Mr. Jones’ place the next morning.

Again, Mr. Jones sat on his tiny porch in his massive coat. 

“Good morning, Danny,” he called.

“Good morning, Mr. Jones,” Danny replied from his place beside the peeling grey fence.

“And a good morning it is, too,” Mr. Jones said, “really, a beautiful morning. Sure, it’s a bit chilly and there’s a thirty-two percent chance of rain, or was it thirty-one, oh, gee, I’ll check and get back to you, but, like I was saying, it sure is a beautiful morning. Sure, my allergies are actin’ up a bit and the squirrels are gettin’ a bit cheeky, you know, seem to think they own the place these days, but, like I said before, it is a beautiful morning.”

“Sure is, sure is,” Danny said, “so, the thing is, I’m applyin’ for a job deliverin’ pizzas, but I need a bike to do it and I remembered you’ve got that old blue bike in the yard there and, well, I was wonderin’ if there’s any way I could borrow it.”

“Pizza. What a delicious food. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like pizza, do you? I tell ya, it sure is good. Did you know, when they first invented it the idea was to include the colors of the Italian flag? So they had the red sauce and the white cheese and the green parsley. You don’t see parsley on pizzas much these days, which is a real shame, if you ask me. I guess we should be glad England didn’t invent the pizza, though. I don’t know about you, but I really wouldn’t care for blueberries on my pie,” he paused to take a drink of water and Danny quickly cut in

“That’s very interesting, but, uh, as I was saying, to get the job I’d need to borrow the bike. Would that be alright with you?”

“Are you much of a biker? You know, when I was younger, I used to bike all over the place. We’d ride down to the lake and spend the whole day there. Those were the days, let me tell you. Children were unsupervised and free and, let me tell you, in my whole childhood only three of my friends died in perfectly preventable accidents so you can understand why I just don’t understand all the molly-coddling these days.”

“I, uh, I used to bike when I was a kid, too. I haven’t recently, though, because I don’t have a bike, but if I could just borrow yours-”

“You want to borrow my bike?”

“Yes, I mean, if you don’t mind.”

“But of course. Only, why didn’t you say so in the first place? Really, you must learn to come to the point. I always say, coming to the point is the most important thing, the absolutely essential thing…”

By the time Danny wheeled the bike out of Mr. Jones’ yard, he felt as physically ill as he used to while listening to his teacher lecture on the layers of the earth for the twelth time in as many days. 

He rode the bike to the pizza shop and stepped into the tiny, hot space. There were three empty tables on the linoleum floor in front of the counter where a tired-looking man was taking an order over the phone. Danny waited for him to hang up, mentally rehearsing his falsified resume. 

“What can I getchya?” the man asked as he hung up the phone. 

“I’m here to apply for the delivery job.”

“Have a seat over there, I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Danny sat for twenty minutes at a sticky table- which was somewhat miraculous- no customers had been allowed to eat in for weeks. Finally, the man came out from behind the counter, wiping his hands on his apron before reaching out to shake Danny’s, then wiping them again afterward- a full-proof way to stop the virus in its tracks, surely. 

“I’m Mike,” he said.

“Danny.”

“Nice to meet ya.”

“You too.”

“So, tell me why you want to work here.”

“Well, I’m just really passionate about good food and good service and I want to provide every customer with-”

“Cut the crap.”

“Excuse me?”
    “Why do you actually want to work here?”

“The bar I work at got shuttered.”

“That’s a damn shame.”

Danny nodded.

“Do you have any experience?”

Danny hesitated, worried Mike would see through him and tell him to cut the crap again, but in the end he went with his lies and informed him of his illustrious career as a bike delivery guy. 

“Alright,” Mike said, “you can start tomorrow.”

“There’s, uh, there’s one thing,” Danny said, growing nervous and fidgety, “I was, well I was wondering if maybe you’d be able to, just, keep me off the books?”

Mike studied him for a long minute before giving a little sigh and saying, “you’d better not be ICE or some shit.”

“No, no, I swear, it’s just, well, I’m supposed to be here on holiday.”

“Alright, alright, we can work something out. Most of your earnings will be in tips, anyway.”

“Great, thanks so much, I-”

The phone rang and Mike walked away to answer it.

Danny started work the next day. He met the cook, Mario, and quickly learned that he did pretty much everything while Mike leaned against the front counter and liked the photos of the many models he followed on Instagram. Mario had a thick Mexican accent and Danny had a thick Irish one, so they struggled a bit to communicate, but, just the same, they were soon fast friends, their relationship helped immeasurably by their shared interest in mocking Mike. Mike was just an insanely mockable guy. For one thing, he walked with a pronounced swagger that was forever causing him to bump into things in the restaurant’s tight quarters. For another, he flirted with every woman who came through the door and he did so quite badly. On Danny’s first day, he told a young woman who was picking up a to-go order, that he loved her dishwater blonde hair. The woman grabbed a handful of her hair and stared at it as she repeated in horror “dishwater blonde? Dishwater?” He gave another young woman free pizza every day and every day she told him she’d love to go out, but, of course, with the quarantine and everything… He also had a chip on his shoulder from having inherited the place from his father without inheriting any of his skill in the kitchen or his business acumen. So, mostly, he left everything up to Mario, but would randomly pull rank and give absurd orders “don’t forget to flip the pizza over half-way through,” he once shouted to Mario as he pulled beautiful pies out of the big wood-burning oven. “Of course, boss, of course,” Mario said, before covering his mouth and doing his best to turn his laugh into a cough. 

Danny enjoyed riding his bike through the eerily quiet streets, but he hated the process of actually handing off the pizza. For one thing, there was no consistency. At one house, he’d find a note asking him to take the envelope of cash from beneath the mat and leave the pizza at the door. At another, he’d be invited to stand inside the apartment while his customer spent fifteen minutes searching the couch cushions for crumpled, suspiciously damp, singles. 

He’d been working a week when he had his first encounter with Miss Rose. After Mario had taken her order, he sighed and shook his head, “sorry, my friend, you got a god bless youer.”

“What?”

“You see when you go.”

Danny parked his bike at the cast iron fence and walked up the steps to the blue front porch and rang the bell. After several long minutes an old woman in a pink silk nightgown and robe opened the door. 

“Good evening,” she said, reaching into her pocket for cash.

“Good evening,” Danny replied, handing her the pizza and reaching into his pouch for change. 

The woman took all of the change and shoved it back into her pocket. Danny hesitated for a second, maybe she’d just forgotten tip wasn’t included. 

She gave Danny another big, cold smile. “Thank you so much for your hard work,” she said, “I want you to know, I really appreciate it. I just can’t tell you enough how important you front-line workers are. God bless you.” And then she closed the door.

“Fuck,” Danny muttered to himself as he got on his bike and wondered if she thought saying nice things made up for not tipping, because it totally didn’t, he would’ve much rather been called an idiot and given a cool fifteen percent. 

At first, the people on the news told everyone to stop being such selfish bastards and leave the masks and gloves for the healthcare workers. Later, they told everyone to stop being such selfish bastards and wear masks and gloves everywhere. It was a strange sensation, to walk into the corner store with a mask on and not draw a single anxious glance. Danny imagined it must be a great time to be a stick-up artist. Hell, you were even encouraged to wear masks and gloves in the bank. 

And then, one day, the corner store was closed. Danny had never, not in the decade he’d lived down the road, seen the place closed for longer than a few hours, but now it was shuttered and, on a coffee-stained piece of paper taped to the inside of the door was a note that read: Closed due to illness. Be well. 

He walked on down the road to the next shop and bought a frozen pizza and a six pack, but he kept thinking back to the corner shop and the old woman who worked there. She’d never closed before, so it certainly didn’t seem likely she’d close for a cold. Did she have the virus, then? And, if so, who was looking after her? He knew she lived in the little apartment above the shop with that grey cat who was always trying to wrap himself around Danny’s feet and making him sneeze. 

Three days went by and still the store was closed. So, at the end of his shift, Danny got Mario to hook him up with a free pizza and rode over to the shop with it. He hesitated at the side door that led up to the overhead lodgings for a while. If she did have it, did he really want to expose himself? Was it any of his business? Wouldn’t she think it a bit creepy for him to just show up at her door? But he rang the bell anyway and waited a long while until a panting voice gasped into the intercom “yes?”

“It’s Danny,” he said, “I, uh, I go to your shop a lot.”

“I’m sorry, honey, we’re closed.”

“I know, it’s not- uh- I brought you a pizza.”

“A pizza?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, thanks, but, I’m sick, you’d better not come in.”

“I could set it outside your window, I’ll use the fire escape.”

“Thank you, love, that’s very kind.”

Danny held the pizza firmly beneath one arm as he hoisted himself onto the dumpster in the alley and pulled down the rain-slick ladder that led to the fire escape. Then, he climbed up it to the white lace curtain-framed window. He peered inside and saw Valentina looking back at him, her arms crossed over her fuzzy pink-robe-clad chest, her face older and thinner than he remembered it. He smiled and waved and she smiled and waved back. He set the pizza beside the window, waved again, and climbed down. 

The next day, he brought another pizza, as well as a bag full of groceries- Advil, toilet paper, canned soup. And he sat outside the window for a while while she sat on the other side and they yelled to each other, she told him she was just fine, would be up and at ’em in no time, but screaming it through the window set her to coughing again and it was a long while before the attack subsided. When it did, her face was wet with tears.

He began to visit her every day after work, to spend longer and longer stretches sitting on the hard, cold fire escape steps, peering through the window at the old woman who seemed to grow so much older every day. But, somehow, she always managed to make her way to the chair beside the window when she heard him knock upon it and she’d hold her little hand against the cold glass and he’d press his big one against it. 

They didn’t talk much, really. Mostly just sat beside each other with the glass between them. But there was something lovely about it so that Danny began to look forward to their evenings together like he used to look forward to a night off with money in his pocket. And he could tell she looked forward to his coming- she’d light up when she saw him, even if the light quickly faded when the first coughing fit came. He’d spend most of the evening trying to get her to smile again. He’d pull funny faces or press his nose against the glass like a little kid or, sometimes, he’d tell her stories. 

When he crashed his bike and showed up outside her window with a bunch of paper towels messily taped over the gash in his chin and a bag of frozen peas clutched to his bruised ribs, she threw her hands to her face in concern, but he smiled. “You’ll never believe what happened to me,” he said, “so, I was riding my bike, you know, just minding my own business, when, suddenly, totally out of nowhere, a banana peel appeared in my path, so, being the quick-thinker I am, I swerved to avoid it and, whatdya know, but from way up high in a skyscraper Wylie Coyote was dropping an anchor, so, of course, I had to swerve to avoid that, and then I saw that the path just totally stopped and I was about to plunge over the side of a cliff, so I slammed on my breaks and came to a stop just in time.”

Valentina laughed far more than his stupid joke deserved and said, so, how’d you end up getting hurt then, sounds like you avoid all the traps.”

“It’s just the darndest thing,” Danny said, “I turned around from the edge of the cliff and headed back toward safety and the chain slipped off my bike.” 

And then, on a pretty night, the first one that really felt like Spring, Danny climbed up the fire escape and knocked on the window and Valentina did not come. He waited a while, then knocked again. By the third time, he was growing a bit panicked. Maybe she was just asleep, probably he was being annoying, should just leave the pizza and let her rest, but he had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and when he had slammed and banged for a good ten minutes and still she didn’t come, he stood up and kicked in the window after estimating its size and resolving to replace it if he was just being paranoid. 

He draped his jacket over the sharp edges of glass left in the frame like he’d seen people do in movies and climbed in. 

He walked across the kitchen shouting, “don’t be afraid, it’s just Danny, I just wanted to make sure-” and he pushed open the bedroom door and he knew. She was dead. He ran to her bed and felt her cold hand through his glove. She looked so little lying there, wrapped up in half-a-dozen colorful blankets, surrounded by photos of the husband who had gone before her and the children who were locked in their own apartments across the country. 

He knelt beside her and held her hand for a long while and he cried until he could hardly breathe, only then realizing how much she had come to mean to him. 

When he got up, he called an ambulance and watched them load her onto a stretcher. 

When they were gone, he taped one of the many pizza boxes that were neatly stacked in the corner of her kitchen over the broken window, found the cat beneath the table and picked him up like a baby, then left. He walked home, trying not to touch anything, trying not to breathe, went into his apartment, threw his gloves and mask in the trash, took a long shower, stood beneath the water long after it had gone cold, didn’t know where his tears ended and the faucet’s began.

When he called Mike and told him he wouldn’t be able to work for a while, Mike said he’d expected more professionalism and reminded him two weeks’ notice was standard. Then he hung up. Danny pulled the cheap tequila from the freezer and settled onto the sloping orange sofa for a long, hard drunk. But then the cat crawled onto his chest and began to purr. Danny sneezed and rubbed at his itching eyes as he searched the cupboards for a can of tuna, the little grey cat constantly tripping him up as it wrapped around his feet.

Author Bio: Megan Neary is a Writer and Teacher living in Columbus, Ohio. She is also a contributing editor at Flyover Country. Her stories have been published in Rejection Letters and Near Window.