Creative Writing scheme of work for 4 weeks.

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Puppy by George Saunders

PUPPY

BY GEORGE SAUNDERS MAY 28, 2009

Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc. etc., and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc. etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!

But no. When she, a third time, said, “Wow, guys, check that out,” Abbie said, “O.K., Mom, we get it, it’s corn,” and Josh said, “Not now, Mom, I’m Leavening my Loaves,” which was fine with her; she had no problem with that, Noble Baker being preferable to Bra Stuffer, the game he’d asked for.

Well, who could say? Maybe they didn’t even have any mythical vignettes in their heads. Or maybe the mythical vignettes they had in their heads were totally different from the ones she had in her head. Which was the beauty of it, because, after all, they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.

Still, wow, that cornfield was such a classic.

“Whenever I see a field like that, guys?” she said. “I somehow think of a haunted house!”

“Slicing Knife! Slicing Knife!” Josh shouted. “You nimrod machine! I chose that!”

Speaking of Halloween, she remembered last year, when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that! Oh, family laughter was golden; she’d had none of that in her childhood, Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed. If Mom and Dad’s cart had tipped, Dad would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick, distancing herself from Dad, while she, Marie, would have nervously taken that horrid plastic Army man she’d named Brady into her mouth.

Well, in this family laughter was encouraged! Last night, when Josh had goosed her with his GameBoy, she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up, rolling around on the floor with Goochie, and Josh had said, such nostalgia in his voice, “Mom, remember when Goochie was a puppy?” Which was when Abbie had burst into tears, because, being only five, she had no memory of Goochie as a puppy.

Hence this Family Mission. And as far as Robert? Oh, God bless Robert! There was a man. He would have no problem whatsoever with this Family Mission. She loved the way he had of saying “Ho HO!” whenever she brought home something new and unexpected.

Ho HO! Robert had said, coming home to find the iguana. “Ho HO!” he had said, coming home to find the ferret trying to get into the iguana cage. “We appear to be the happy operators of a menagerie!”

She loved him for his playfulness—you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say “Ho HO!” and ask what the creature ate and what hours it slept and what the heck they were going to name the little bugger.

In the back seat, Josh made the git-git-git sound he always made when his Baker was in Baking Mode, trying to get his Loaves into the oven while fighting off various Hungry Denizens, such as a Fox with a distended stomach; such as a fey Robin that would improbably carry the Loaf away, speared on its beak, whenever it had succeeded in dropping a Clonking Rock on your Baker—all of which Marie had learned over the summer by studying the Noble Baker manual while Josh was asleep.

And it had helped, it really had. Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing and said, like, “Wow, honey, I didn’t know you could do Pumpernickel,” or “Sweetie, try Serrated Blade, it cuts quicker. Try it while doing Latch the Window,” he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately, and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses.

So her mother could go right ahead and claim that she was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, “I hardly consider you college material.” At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.

Oh, God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodelled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle.

This time would be different, she was sure of it. The kids would care for this pet themselves, since a puppy wasn’t scaly and didn’t bite. (“Ho HO!” Robert had said the first time the iguana bit him. “I see you have an opinion on the matter!”)

Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good and she had at last found her place in it, “Ho HO, ho HO!”

Callie pulled back the blind.

Yes. Awesome. It was still solved so perfect.

There was plenty for him to do back there. A yard could be a whole world, like her yard when she was a kid had been a whole world. From the three holes in her wood fence she’d been able to see Exxon (Hole One) and Accident Corner (Hole Two), and Hole Three was actually two holes that if you lined them up right your eyes would do this weird crossing thing and you could play Oh My God I Am So High by staggering away with your eyes crossed, going “Peace, man, peace.”

When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed. Once they found him way over on Testament. And that was across I-90. How had he crossed I-90? She knew how. Darted. That’s how he crossed streets. Once a total stranger called them from Hightown Plaza. Even Dr. Brile had said it: “Callie, this boy is going to end up dead if you don’t get this under control. Is he taking the medication?”

Well, sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t. The meds made him grind his teeth and his fist would suddenly pound down. He’d broken plates that way, and once a glass tabletop and got four stitches in his wrist.

Today he didn’t need the medication because he was safe in the yard, because she’d fixed it so perfect.

He was out there practicing pitching by filling his Yankees helmet with pebbles and winging them at the tree.

He looked up and saw her and did the thing where he blew a kiss.

Sweet little man.

Now all she had to worry about was the pup. She hoped the lady who’d called would actually show up. It was a nice pup. White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it. And if she took it Jimmy was off the hook. He’d hated doing it that time with the kittens. But if no one took the pup he’d do it. He’d have to. Because his feeling was, when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs. Plus, he’d been raised on a farm, or near a farm anyways, and anybody raised on a farm knew that you had to do what you had to do in terms of sick animals or extra animals—the pup being not sick, just extra.

That time with the kittens, Jessi and Mollie had called him a murderer, getting Bo all worked up, and Jimmy had yelled, “Look, you kids, I was raised on a farm and you got to do what you got to do!” Then he’d cried in bed, saying how the kittens had mewed in the bag all the way to the pond, and how he wished he’d never been raised on a farm, and she’d almost said, “You mean near a farm” (his dad had run a car wash outside Cortland), but sometimes when she got too smart-assed he would do this hard pinching thing on her arm while waltzing her around the bedroom, as if the place where he was pinching were like her handle, going, “I’m not sure I totally heard what you just said to me.”

So, that time after the kittens, she’d only said, “Oh, honey, you did what you had to do.”

And he’d said, “I guess I did, but it’s sure not easy raising kids the right way.”

And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids “Hooked on Phonics,” why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d got to wrestling around and (she had no idea why she remembered this) he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.

Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.

So what she would love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.

Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.

Outside, Bo hopped to his feet, suddenly curious, because (here we go) the lady who’d called had just pulled up?

Yep, and in a nice car, too, which meant too bad she’d put “Cheap” in the ad.

Abbie squealed, “I love it, Mommy, I want it!,” as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.

Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in-house pooper, was dragging its rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, a moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was was deeply sad.

Please do not touch anything, please do not touch, she said to Josh and Abbie, but just in her head, wanting to give the children a chance to observe her being democratic and accepting, and afterward they could all wash up at the half-remodelled McDonald’s, as long as they just please please kept their hands out of their mouths, and God forbid they should rub their eyes.

The phone rang, and the lady of the house plodded into the kitchen, placing the daintily held, paper-towel-wrapped turds on the counter.

“Mommy, I want it,” Abbie said.

“I will definitely walk him like twice a day,” Josh said.

“Don’t say ‘like,’ ” Marie said.

“I will definitely walk him twice a day,” Josh said.

O.K., then, all right, they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Cain’t hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent:My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable . . .

Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing, always cranking out these—

Marie stepped to the window and, anthropologically pulling the blind aside, was shocked, so shocked that she dropped the blind and shook her head, as if trying to wake herself, shocked to see a young boy, just a few years younger than Josh, harnessed and chained to a tree, via some sort of doohickey by which—she pulled the blind back again, sure she could not have seen what she thought she had—

When the boy ran, the chain spooled out. He was running now, looking back at her, showing off. When he reached the end of the chain, it jerked and he dropped as if shot.

He rose to a sitting position, railed against the chain, whipped it back and forth, crawled to a bowl of water, and, lifting it to his lips, took a drink: a drink from a dog’s bowl.

Josh joined her at the window. She let him look. He should know that the world was not all lessons and iguanas and Nintendo. It was also this muddy simple boy tethered like an animal.

She remembered coming out of the closet to find her mother’s scattered lingerie and the ditchdigger’s metal hanger full of orange flags. She remembered waiting outside the junior high in the bitter cold, the snow falling harder, as she counted over and over to two hundred, promising herself each time that when she reached two hundred she would begin the long walk back—

God, she would have killed for just one righteous adult to confront her mother, shake her, and say, “You idiot, this is your child, your child you’re—”

“So what were you guys thinking of naming him?” the woman said, coming out of the kitchen.

The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick.

“I’m afraid we won’t be taking him after all,” Marie said coldly.

Such an uproar from Abbie! But Josh—she would have to praise him later, maybe buy him the Italian Loaves Expansion Pak—hissed something to Abbie, and then they were moving out through the trashed kitchen (past some kind of crankshafton a cookie sheet, past a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint) while the lady of the house scuttled after them, saying, wait, wait, they could have it for free, please take it—she really wanted them to have it.

No, Marie said, it would not be possible for them to take it at this time, her feeling being that one really shouldn’t possess something if one wasn’t up to properly caring for it.

“Oh,” the woman said, slumping in the doorway, the scrambling pup on one shoulder.

Out in the Lexus, Abbie began to cry softly, saying, “Really, that was the perfect pup for me.”

And it was a nice pup, but Marie was not going to contribute to a situation like this in even the smallest way.

Simply was not going to do it.

The boy came to the fence. If only she could have said to him, with a single look,Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.

But secret looks, looks that conveyed a world of meaning with their subtle blah blah blah—that was all bullshit. What was not bullshit was a call to Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.

Callie shouted, “Bo, back in a sec!,” and, swiping the corn out of the way with her non-pup arm, walked until there was nothing but corn and sky.

It was so small it didn’t move when she set it down, just sniffed and tumped over.

Well, what did it matter, drowned in a bag or starved in the corn? This way Jimmy wouldn’t have to do it. He had enough to worry about. The boy she’d first met with hair to his waist was now this old man shrunk with worry. As far as the money, she had sixty hidden away. She’d give him twenty of that and go, “The people who bought the pup were super-nice.”

Don’t look back, don’t look back, she said in her head as she raced away through the corn.

Then she was walking along Teallback Road like a sportwalker, like some lady who walked every night to get slim, except that she was nowhere near slim, she knew that, and she also knew that when sportwalking you did not wear jeans and unlaced hiking boots. Ha ha! She wasn’t stupid. She just made bad choices. She remembered Sister Carol saying, “Callie, you are bright enough but you incline toward that which does not benefit you.” Yep, well, Sister, you got that right, she said to the nun in her mind. But what the hell. What the heck. When things got easier moneywise, she’d get some decent tennis shoes and start walking and get slim. And start night school. Slimmer. Maybe medical technology. She was never going to be really slim. But Jimmy liked her the way she was, and she liked him the way he was, which maybe that’s what love was, liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get even better.

Like right now she was helping Jimmy by making his life easier by killing something so he—no. All she was doing was walking, walking away from—

Pushing the words killing puppy out of her head, she put in her head the wordsbeautiful sunny day wow I’m loving this beautiful sunny day so much—

What had she just said? That had been good. Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get better.

Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?

Her.

She did. ♦

 

The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe.

The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe.

 

I WAS sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence — the dread sentence of death — was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution — perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill wheel. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more.

 

Yet, for a while, I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white — whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words — and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness — of immoveable resolution — of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate, were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white and slender angels who would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help.

 

And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, night were the universe.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Art Taylor

Mastering The Art Of French Cooking

Coq au Vin

1onion
2carrots
2stalkscelery
6wholepeppercorns
2clovesgarlic,pureed
1sprigparsley
1bayleaf
¼tspthyme
3bottles Burgundy (twoinexpensive,onenot)
2 Tbsp white arsenic (fromthehardwarestore)
2Tbspsugar
1wholechicken
Salt and pepper
2Tbspoliveoil
4 Tbspbutter,divided
1Tbspflour
1riperedtomato
¼ lb lardons (or thick bacon, cut into small strips)
½ pound mushrooms

With a sharp knife, dice onions and slice carrot and celery into small discs. Avoid cutting yourself. Combine onions, carrots, celery, peppercorns and garlic into a large bowl. Tie parsley, bay leaf and thyme into a small cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni; add to mixture. Douse with one bottle of wine, reserving approximately one swallow. Stir gently.

Look at the mixture. Slug the rest of the wine from the bottle.

Add the next ingredient.

Then add the next, to ease the bitterness.

Reflect on that word bitterness.

With a sharp knife, gut the chicken, trim away the neckbone and wing tips, and carve it into manageable pieces: breasts, legs, thighs, etc. Admire the sharpness of the knife, how easily it slides through the meat. See how it gleams. Feel your grip tighten. Listen to the sound of the television in the next room. Consider for a moment the alternatives. You’ve considered them before.

Submerge the chicken in the bowl of vegetables and seasonings. Hold it down tight.

The preceding stage of the recipe may be completed a day in advance. In fact, such a delay is preferred for superior taste and enriched texture. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Overnight and throughout the next day, reflect on the art of French cooking, a mix of sophistication and heartiness, style and romance. Consider how Julia Child brought these qualities into the early ’60s suburban home – a sense of wonder at the wider world, a hint of possibility, as if anybody could do it.

Question why French Women Don’t Get Fat.

Browse the internet for photos of Emmanuelle Béart, Isabelle Adjani, Marion Cottilard, Sophie Marceau, Audrey Tautou. While on the computer, scan your husband’s email once or twice more, searching for the name Monique. Look at the picture she sent him, the high cheekbones, the creamy complexion, the glimpses of skin.

Reflect once more on that word bitterness.

Browse through several of the other words in this recipe: ripebouquet, legthighbreaststalk. Know that coq simply means chicken, but laugh inwardly at what it sounds like. Think about it:coq in wine. Understand where drunkenness can lead.

Open the second bottle of wine and have a couple of glasses, since you’ll only use a cup of it later.

Ponder the word lardons. Regret your love of bacon. Glance down at your own thighs.

Two hours in advance of dinner, remove the chicken from the vegetable marinade and put aside. Strain the marinade, separating liquids and solids, and reserve each. Set aside the bouquet garni.

Heat oil and half the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper the chicken. Sear quickly and evenly until brown. Look at how the skin sizzles. Consider for a moment the alternatives. Remove from heat and set aside.

Add the reserved vegetables to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. Sprinkle with flour, mix gently, then add reserved marinade. Return chicken to the pot. Dice and add the tomatoes. Toss in the bouquet garni. Remember tossing the bouquet at your own wedding. Remember an earlier wedding when you caught it yourself and gave a sly glance at the man you’d ultimately marry. Recall how happy you were. Resist sampling this mixture, no matter how appetizing it seems.

Cook over low heat for an hour and a half. Have more of that second bottle of wine, careful to reserve at least a cup for later. Watch the clock.

Lardons! You almost forgot! Conveniently, yes? As if. (Look at your thighs again.)

Cook the lardons in a small skillet over medium heat until crisp. Remove them to a plate lined with paper towels, reserving bacon fat. Add mushrooms and cook until browned. Gauge the weight of the skillet. Gauge the heat of the grease. Consider for a moment more alternatives. Add the reserved cup of wine to the bacon fat and deglaze the pan. Set the skillet aside.

When the chicken is tender and cooked through, add the bacon, mushrooms, and red wine glaze to the Dutch oven. Swirl in the remaining butter. Season with more salt and pepper – but notto taste, no matter how tempting a taste might be and for so many reasons. Resist dramatic exits, overt melodrama, sentimentalizing. A single tear? Well, if you insist. There’s loss here, after all, for everyone. Just stir it in quickly, so no one sees.

Hear your husband say, “Something smells good” as he comes through the door. Watch him smile guilelessly. Ask how his day was. Don’t believe anything he tells you.

Serve coq au vin warm over noodles or rice along with crusty French bread and the third bottle of Burgundy, the one your husband picked up for “some special occasion.” When he sees it and asks if this is indeed a special occasion, try to muster something witty, such as, “Isn’t every day a special occasion with me?” or “If one’s going to enjoy a French meal, one simply must go all the way,” or perhaps even a jaunty “Vive la France!” Try not to lace your words with sarcasm.

Consider that word lace. Picture the frilly underthings you assembled as a surprise for your honeymoon. Hear your mother calling it a trousseau and remember savoring the word. Imagine Monique in a push-up bra and a g-string. Consider the purpose of a corset. Consider the phrasemerry widow.

At the last moment, beg off eating yourself. He knows how you’ve been lately about saturated fats. Or maybe a sudden headache and you’ve lost your appetite. It’s more important that he enjoy it. Really any excuse will do. But yes, you’ll sit with him and have some wine.

Then discover why you went to all this trouble. Hear him tell you how delicious it is. Hear him say, “What a long way from chicken and dumplings, isn’t it, hon?” Hide your surprise that he remembers the first meal you made for him. Hide your surprise when he shakes his head and laughs and admits, “Good as this is, it just can’t compete with those dumplings.” See him recognize what he’s saying.

Remember how he carried you across the threshold. Picture dancing in the living room, just the two of you, alone on a Saturday night, head on shoulder, hand on hip. Examine the crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes.

In the middle of all that, change your mind. Serve yourself a plate too.

Because marriage is about being in it together, isn’t it? For better or worse?

And perhaps this isn’t a melodramatic exit, but a stylish one – sophisticated even, romantic in its own way.

Toast him graciously.

Smile warmly, sincerely.

Pick up your fork and knife.

Take that first bite.

Harvey’s Dream by Stephen King

HARVEY’S DREAM

BY STEPHEN KING JUNE 30, 2003

36

Janet turns from the sink and, boom, all at once her husband of nearly thirty years is sitting at the kitchen table in a white T-shirt and a pair of Big Dog boxers, watching her.

More and more often she has found this weekday commodore of Wall Street in just this place and dressed in just this fashion come Saturday morning: slumped at the shoulder and blank in the eye, a white scruff showing on his cheeks, man-tits sagging out the front of his T, hair standing up in back like Alfalfa of the Little Rascals grown old and stupid. Janet and her friend Hannah have frightened each other lately (like little girls telling ghost stories during a sleepover) by swapping Alzheimer’s tales: who can no longer recognize his wife, who can no longer remember the names of her children.

But she doesn’t really believe these silent Saturday-morning appearances have anything to do with early-onset Alzheimer’s; on any given weekday morning Harvey Stevens is ready and raring to go by six-forty-five, a man of sixty who looks fifty (well, fifty-four) in either of his best suits, and who can still cut a trade, buy on margin, or sell short with the best of them.

No, she thinks, this is merely practicing to be old, and she hates it. She’s afraid that when he retires it will be this way every morning, at least until she gives him a glass of orange juice and asks him (with an increasing impatience she won’t be able to help) if he wants cereal or just toast. She’s afraid she’ll turn from whatever she’s doing and see him sitting there in a bar of far too brilliant morning sun, Harvey in the morning, Harvey in his T-shirt and his boxer shorts, legs spread apart so she can view the meagre bulge of his basket (should she care to) and see the yellow calluses on his great toes, which always make her think of Wallace Stevens having on about the Emperor of Ice Cream. Sitting there silent and dopily contemplative instead of ready and raring, psyching himself up for the day. God, she hopes she’s wrong. It makes life seem so thin, so stupid somehow. She can’t help wondering if this is what they fought through for, raised and married off their three girls for, got past his inevitable middle-aged affair for, worked for and sometimes (let’s face it) grabbed for. If this is where you come out of the deep dark woods, Janet thinks, this . . . this parking lot . . . then why does anyone do it?

But the answer is easy. Because you didn’t know. You discarded most of the lies along the way but held on to the one that said life mattered. You kept a scrapbook devoted to the girls, and in it they were still young and still interesting in their possibilities: Trisha, the eldest, wearing a top hat and waving a tinfoil wand over Tim, the cocker spaniel; Jenna, frozen in mid-jump halfway through the lawn sprinkler, her taste for dope, credit cards, and older men still far over the horizon; Stephanie, the youngest, at the county spelling bee, where “cantaloupe” turned out to be her Waterloo. Somewhere in most of these pictures (usually in the background) were Janet and the man she had married, always smiling, as if it were against the law to do anything else.

 

Then one day you made the mistake of looking over your shoulder and discovered that the girls were grown and that the man you had struggled to stay married to was sitting with his legs apart, his fish-white legs, staring into a bar of sun, and by God maybe he looked fifty-four in either of his best suits, but sitting there at the kitchen table like that he looked seventy. Hell, seventy-five. He looked like what the goons on “The Sopranos” called a mope.

She turns back to the sink and sneezes delicately, once, twice, a third time.

“How are they this morning?” he asks, meaning her sinuses, meaning her allergies. The answer is not very good, but, like a surprising number of bad things, her summer allergies have their sunny side. She no longer has to sleep with him and fight for her share of the covers in the middle of the night; no longer has to listen to the occasional muffled fart as Harvey soldiers ever deeper into sleep. Most nights during the summer she gets six, even seven hours, and that’s more than enough. When fall comes and he moves back in from the guest room, it will drop to four, and much of that will be troubled.

One year, she knows, he won’t move back in. And although she doesn’t tell him so—it would hurt his feelings, and she still doesn’t like to hurt his feelings; this is what now passes for love between them, at least going from her direction to his—she will be glad.

She sighs and reaches into the pot of water in the sink. Gropes around in it. “Not so bad,” she says.

And then, just when she is thinking (and not for the first time) about how this life holds no more surprises, no unplumbed marital depths, he says in a strangely casual voice, “It’s a good thing you weren’t sleeping with me last night, Jax. I had a bad dream. I actually screamed myself awake.”

She’s startled. How long has it been since he called her Jax instead of Janet or Jan? The last is a nickname she secretly hates. It makes her think of that syrupy-sweet actress on “Lassie” when she was a kid, the little boy (Timmy, his name was Timmy) always fell down a well or got bitten by a snake or trapped under a rock, and what kind of parents put a kid’s life in the hands of a fucking collie?

She turns to him again, forgetting the pot with the last egg still in it, the water now long enough off the boil to be lukewarm. He had a bad dream? Harvey? She tries to remember when Harvey has mentioned having had any kind of dream and has no luck. All that comes is a vague memory of their courtship days, Harvey saying something like “I dream of you,” she herself young enough to think it sweet instead of lame.

“You what?”

“Screamed myself awake,” he says. “Did you not hear me?”

“No.” Still looking at him. Wondering if he’s kidding her. If it’s some kind of bizarre morning joke. But Harvey is not a joking man. His idea of humor is telling anecdotes at dinner about his Army days. She has heard all of them at least a hundred times.

“I was screaming words, but I wasn’t really able to say them. It was like . . . I don’t know . . . I couldn’t close my mouth around them. I sounded like I’d had a stroke. And my voice was lower. Not like my own voice at all.” He pauses. “I heard myself, and made myself stop. But I was shaking all over, and I had to turn on the light for a little while. I tried to pee, and I couldn’t. These days it seems like I can always pee—a little, anyway—but not this morning at two-forty-seven.” He pauses, sitting there in his bar of sun. She can see dust motes dancing in it. They seem to give him a halo.

“What was your dream?” she asks, and here is an odd thing: for the first time in maybe five years, since they stayed up until midnight discussing whether to hold the Motorola stock or sell it (they wound up selling), she’s interested in something he has to say.

“I don’t know if I want to tell you,” he says, sounding uncharacteristically shy. He turns, picks up the pepper mill, and begins to toss it from hand to hand.

“They say if you tell your dreams they won’t come true,” she says to him, and here is Odd Thing No. 2: all at once Harvey looks there, in a way he hasn’t looked to her in years. Even his shadow on the wall above the toaster oven looks somehow more there. She thinks, He looks as though he matters, and why should that be? Why, when I was just thinking that life is thin, should it seem thick? This is a summer morning in late June. We are in Connecticut. When June comes we are always in Connecticut. Soon one of us will get the newspaper, which will be divided into three parts, like Gaul.

“Do they say so?” He considers the idea, eyebrows raised (she needs to pluck them again, they are getting that wild look, and he never knows), tossing the pepper mill from hand to hand. She would like to tell him to stop doing that, it’s making her nervous (like the exclamatory blackness of his shadow on the wall, like her very beating heart, which has suddenly begun to accelerate its rhythm for no reason at all), but she doesn’t want to distract him from whatever is going on in his Saturday-morning head. And then he puts the pepper mill down anyway, which should be all right but somehow isn’t, because it has its own shadow—it runs out long on the table like the shadow of an oversized chess piece, even the toast crumbs lying there have shadows, and she has no idea why that should frighten her but it does. She thinks of the Cheshire Cat telling Alice, “We’re all mad here,” and suddenly she doesn’t want to hear Harvey’s stupid dream, the one from which he awakened himself screaming and sounding like a man who has had a stroke. Suddenly she doesn’t want life to be anything but thin. Thin is O.K., thin is good, just look at the actresses in the movies if you doubt it.

Nothing must announce itself, she thinks feverishly. Yes, feverishly; it’s as if she’s having a hot flash, although she could have sworn all that nonsense ended two or three years ago. Nothing must announce itself, it’s Saturday morning and nothing must announce itself.

She opens her mouth to tell him she got it backward, what they really say is that if you tell your dreams they will come true, but it’s too late, he’s already talking, and it occurs to her that this is her punishment for dismissing life as thin. Life is actually like a Jethro Tull song, thick as a brick, how could she have ever thought otherwise?

“I dreamed it was morning and I came down to the kitchen,” he says. “Saturday morning, just like this, only you weren’t up yet.”

“I’m always up before you on Saturday morning,” she says.

“I know, but this was a dream,” he says patiently, and she can see the white hairs on the insides of his thighs, where the muscles are wasted and starved. Once he played tennis, but those days are done. She thinks, with a viciousness that is entirely unlike her, You will have a heart attack, white man, that’s what will finish you, and maybe they’ll discuss giving you an obit in the Times, but if a B-movie actress from the fifties died that day, or a semi-famous ballerina from the forties, you won’t even get that.

“But it was like this,” he says. “I mean, the sun was shining in.” He raises a hand and stirs the dust motes into lively life around his head and she wants to scream at him not to do that, not to disturb the universe like that.

“I could see my shadow on the floor and it never looked so bright or so thick.” He pauses, then smiles, and she sees how cracked his lips are. “ ‘Bright’ ’s a funny word to use for a shadow, isn’t it? ‘Thick,’ too.”

“Harvey—”

“I crossed to the window,” he says, “and I looked out, and I saw there was a dent in the side of the Friedmans’ Volvo, and I knew—somehow—that Frank had been out drinking and that the dent happened coming home.”

She suddenly feels that she will faint. She saw the dent in the side of Frank Friedman’s Volvo herself, when she went to the door to see if the newspaper had come (it hadn’t), and she thought the same thing, that Frank had been out at the Gourd and scraped something in the parking lot. How does the other guy look? had been her exact thought.

The idea that Harvey has also seen this comes to her, that he is goofing with her for some strange reason of his own. Certainly it’s possible; the guest room where he sleeps on summer nights has an angle on the street. Only Harvey isn’t that sort of man. “Goofing” is not Harvey Stevens’s “thing.”

There is sweat on her cheeks and brow and neck, she can feel it, and her heart is beating faster than ever. There really is a sense of something looming, and why should this be happening now? Now, when the world is quiet, when prospects are tranquil? If I asked for this, I’m sorry, she thinks . . . or maybe she’s actually praying. Take it back, please take it back.

“I went to the refrigerator,” Harvey is saying, “and I looked inside, and I saw a plate of devilled eggs with a piece of Saran wrap over them. I was delighted—I wanted lunch at seven in the morning!”

He laughs. Janet—Jax that was—looks down into the pot sitting in the sink. At the one hard-boiled egg left in it. The others have been shelled and neatly sliced in two, the yolks scooped out. They are in a bowl beside the drying rack. Beside the bowl is the jar of mayonnaise. She has been planning to serve the devilled eggs for lunch, along with a green salad.

“I don’t want to hear the rest,” she says, but in a voice so low she can barely hear it herself. Once she was in the Dramatics Club and now she can’t even project across the kitchen. The muscles in her chest feel all loose, the way Harvey’s legs would if he tried to play tennis.

“I thought I would have just one,” Harvey says, “and then I thought, No, if I do that she’ll yell at me. And then the phone rang. I dashed for it because I didn’t want it to wake you up, and here comes the scary part. Do you want to hear the scary part?”

No, she thinks from her place by the sink. I don’t want to hear the scary part. But at the same time she does want to hear the scary part, everyone wants to hear the scary part, we’re all mad here, and her mother really did say that if you told your dreams they wouldn’t come true, which meant you were supposed to tell the nightmares and save the good ones for yourself, hide them like a tooth under the pillow. They have three girls. One of them lives just down the road, Jenna the gay divorcée, same name as one of the Bush twins, and doesn’t Jenna hate that; these days she insists that people call her Jen. Three girls, which meant a lot of teeth under a lot of pillows, a lot of worries about strangers in cars offering rides and candy, which had meant a lot of precautions, and oh how she hopes her mother was right, that telling a bad dream is like putting a stake in a vampire’s heart.

“I picked up the phone,” Harvey says, “and it was Trisha.” Trisha is their oldest daughter, who idolized Houdini and Blackstone before discovering boys. “She only said one word at first, just ‘Dad,’ but I knew it was Trisha. You know how you always know?”

Yes. She knows how you always know. How you always know your own, from the very first word, at least until they grow up and become someone else’s.

“I said, ‘Hi, Trish, why you calling so early, hon? Your mom’s still in the sack.’ And at first there was no answer. I thought we’d been cut off, and then I heard these whispering whimpering sounds. Not words but half-words. Like she was trying to talk but hardly anything could come out because she wasn’t able to muster any strength or get her breath. And that was when I started being afraid.”

Well, then, he’s pretty slow, isn’t he? Because Janet—who was Jax at Sarah Lawrence, Jax in the Dramatics Club, Jax the truly excellent French-kisser, Jax who smoked Gitanes and affected enjoyment of tequila shooters—Janet has been scared for quite some time now, was scared even before Harvey mentioned the dent in the side of Frank Friedman’s Volvo. And thinking of that makes her think of the phone conversation she had with her friend Hannah not even a week ago, the one that eventually progressed to Alzheimer’s ghost stories. Hannah in the city, Janet curled up on the window seat in the living room and looking out at their one-acre share of Westport, at all the beautiful growing things that make her sneeze and water at the eyes, and before the conversation turned to Alzheimer’s they had discussed first Lucy Friedman and then Frank, and which one of them had said it? Which one of them had said, “If he doesn’t do something about his drinking and driving, he’s eventually going to kill somebody”?

“And then Trish said what sounded like ‘lees’ or ‘least,’ but in the dream I knew she was . . . eliding? . . . is that the word? Eliding the first syllable, and that what she was really saying was ‘police.’ I asked her what about the police, what was she trying to say about the police, and I sat down. Right there.” He points to the chair in what they call the telephone nook. “There was some more silence, then a few more of those half-words, those whispered half-words. She was making me so mad doing that, I thought, Drama queen, same as it ever was, but then she said, ‘number,’ just as clear as a bell. And I knew—the way I knew she was trying to say ‘police’—that she was trying to tell me the police had called her because they didn’t have our number.”

Janet nods numbly. They decided to unlist their number two years ago because reporters kept calling Harvey about the Enron mess. Usually at dinnertime. Not because he’d had anything to do with Enron per se but because those big energy companies were sort of a specialty of his. He’d even served on a Presidential commission a few years earlier, when Clinton had been the big kahuna and the world had been (in her humble opinion, at least) a slightly better, slightly safer place. And while there were a lot of things about Harvey she no longer liked, one thing she knew perfectly well was that he had more integrity in his little finger than all those Enron sleazebags put together. She might sometimes be bored by integrity, but she knows what it is.

But don’t the police have a way of getting unlisted numbers? Well, maybe not if they’re in a hurry to find something out or tell somebody something. Plus, dreams don’t have to be logical, do they? Dreams are poems from the subconscious.

And now, because she can no longer bear to stand still, she goes to the kitchen door and looks out into the bright June day, looks out at Sewing Lane, which is their little version of what she supposes is the American dream. How quiet this morning lies, with a trillion drops of dew still sparkling on the grass! And still her heart hammers in her chest and the sweat rolls down her face and she wants to tell him he must stop, he must not tell this dream, this terrible dream. She must remind him that Jenna lives right down the road—Jen, that is, Jen who works at the Video Stop in the village and spends all too many weekend nights drinking at the Gourd with the likes of Frank Friedman, who is old enough to be her father. Which is undoubtedly part of the attraction.

“All these whispered little half-words,” Harvey is saying, “and she would not speak up. Then I heard ‘killed,’ and I knew that one of the girls was dead. I just knew it. Not Trisha, because it was Trisha on the phone, but either Jenna or Stephanie. And I was so scared. I actually sat there wondering which one I wanted it to be, like Sophie’s fucking Choice. I started to shout at her. ‘Tell me which one! Tell me which one! For God’s sake, Trish, tell me which one!’ Only then the real world started to bleed through . . . always assuming there is such a thing. . . .”

Harvey utters a little laugh, and in the bright morning light Janet sees there is a red stain in the middle of the dent on the side of Frank Friedman’s Volvo, and in the middle of the stain is a dark smutch that might be dirt or even hair. She can see Frank pulling up crooked to the curb at two in the morning, too drunk even to try the driveway, let alone the garage—strait is the gate, and all that. She can see him stumbling to the house with his head down, breathing hard through his nose. Viva ze bool.

“By then I knew I was in bed, but I could hear this low voice that didn’t sound like mine at all, it sounded like some stranger’s voice, and it couldn’t put corners on any of the words it was saying. ‘Ell-ee itch-un, ell-ee itch-un,’ that’s what it sounded like. ‘Ell-ee itch-un, Ish!’ ”

Tell me which one. Tell me which one, Trish.

Harvey falls silent, thinking. Considering. The dust motes dance around his face. The sun makes his T-shirt almost too dazzling to look at; it is a T-shirt from a laundry-detergent ad.

“I lay there waiting for you to run in and see what was wrong,” he finally says. “I lay there all over goosebumps, and trembling, telling myself it was just a dream, the way you do, of course, but also thinking how real it was. How marvellous, in a horrible way.”

He stops again, thinking how to say what comes next, unaware that his wife is no longer listening to him. Jax-that-was is now employing all her mind, all her considerable powers of thought, to make herself believe that what she is seeing is not blood but just the Volvo’s undercoating where the paint has been scraped away. “Undercoating” is a word her subconscious has been more than eager to cast up.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deep imagination goes?” he says finally. “A dream like that is how a poet—one of the really great ones—must see his poem. Every detail so clear and so bright.”

He falls silent and the kitchen belongs to the sun and the dancing motes; outside, the world is on hold. Janet looks at the Volvo across the street; it seems to pulse in her eyes, thick as a brick. When the phone rings, she would scream if she could draw breath, cover her ears if she could lift her hands. She hears Harvey get up and cross to the nook as it rings again, and then a third time.

It is a wrong number, she thinks. It has to be, because if you tell your dreams they don’t come true.

Harvey says, “Hello?” ♦

 

 

 

 

 

 

HARRISON BERGERON by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

HARRISON BERGERON

by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh” said George.

“That dance-it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup,” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.

George winced. So did two out of the eight ballerinas.

Hazel saw him wince. Having no mental handicap herself, she had to ask George what the latest sound had been.

“Sounded like somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer,” said George.

“I’d think it would be real interesting, hearing all the different sounds,” said Hazel a little envious. “All the things they think up.”

“Um,” said George.

“Only, if I was Handicapper General, you know what I would do?” said Hazel. Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers. “If I was Diana Moon Glampers,” said Hazel, “I’d have chimes on Sunday-just chimes. Kind of in honor of religion.”

“I could think, if it was just chimes,” said George.

“Well-maybe make ’em real loud,” said Hazel. “I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”

“Good as anybody else,” said George.

“Who knows better than I do what normal is?” said Hazel.

“Right,” said George. He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that.

“Boy!” said Hazel, “that was a doozy, wasn’t it?”

It was such a doozy that George was white and trembling, and tears stood on the rims of his red eyes. Two of of the eight ballerinas had collapsed to the studio floor, were holding their temples.

“All of a sudden you look so tired,” said Hazel. “Why don’t you stretch out on the sofa, so’s you can rest your handicap bag on the pillows, honeybunch.” She was referring to the forty-seven pounds of birdshot in a canvas bag, which was padlocked around George’s neck. “Go on and rest the bag for a little while,” she said. “I don’t care if you’re not equal to me for a while.”

George weighed the bag with his hands. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I don’t notice it any more. It’s just a part of me.”

“You been so tired lately-kind of wore out,” said Hazel. “If there was just some way we could make a little hole in the bottom of the bag, and just take out a few of them lead balls. Just a few.”

“Two years in prison and two thousand dollars fine for every ball I took out,” said George. “I don’t call that a bargain.”

“If you could just take a few out when you came home from work,” said Hazel. “I mean-you don’t compete with anybody around here. You just sit around.”

“If I tried to get away with it,” said George, “then other people’d get away with it-and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?”

“I’d hate it,” said Hazel.

“There you are,” said George. The minute people start cheating on laws, what do you think happens to society?”

If Hazel hadn’t been able to come up with an answer to this question, George couldn’t have supplied one. A siren was going off in his head.

“Reckon it’d fall all apart,” said Hazel.

“What would?” said George blankly.

“Society,” said Hazel uncertainly. “Wasn’t that what you just said?

“Who knows?” said George.

The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.

“That’s all right-” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred pound men.

And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me-” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.

“Harrison Bergeron, age fourteen,” she said in a grackle squawk, “has just escaped from jail, where he was held on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the government. He is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

A police photograph of Harrison Bergeron was flashed on the screen-upside down, then sideways, upside down again, then right side up. The picture showed the full length of Harrison against a background calibrated in feet and inches. He was exactly seven feet tall.

The rest of Harrison’s appearance was Halloween and hardware. Nobody had ever born heavier handicaps. He had outgrown hindrances faster than the H-G men could think them up. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.

Scrap metal was hung all over him. Ordinarily, there was a certain symmetry, a military neatness to the handicaps issued to strong people, but Harrison looked like a walking junkyard. In the race of life, Harrison carried three hundred pounds.

And to offset his good looks, the H-G men required that he wear at all times a red rubber ball for a nose, keep his eyebrows shaved off, and cover his even white teeth with black caps at snaggle-tooth random.

“If you see this boy,” said the ballerina, “do not – I repeat, do not – try to reason with him.”

There was the shriek of a door being torn from its hinges.

Screams and barking cries of consternation came from the television set. The photograph of Harrison Bergeron on the screen jumped again and again, as though dancing to the tune of an earthquake.

George Bergeron correctly identified the earthquake, and well he might have – for many was the time his own home had danced to the same crashing tune. “My God-” said George, “that must be Harrison!”

The realization was blasted from his mind instantly by the sound of an automobile collision in his head.

When George could open his eyes again, the photograph of Harrison was gone. A living, breathing Harrison filled the screen.

Clanking, clownish, and huge, Harrison stood – in the center of the studio. The knob of the uprooted studio door was still in his hand. Ballerinas, technicians, musicians, and announcers cowered on their knees before him, expecting to die.

“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.

“Even as I stand here” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”

Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.

Harrison’s scrap-iron handicaps crashed to the floor.

Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall.

He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.

“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”

A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.

Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all he removed her mask.

She was blindingly beautiful.

“Now-” said Harrison, taking her hand, “shall we show the people the meaning of the word dance? Music!” he commanded.

The musicians scrambled back into their chairs, and Harrison stripped them of their handicaps, too. “Play your best,” he told them, “and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls.”

The music began. It was normal at first-cheap, silly, false. But Harrison snatched two musicians from their chairs, waved them like batons as he sang the music as he wanted it played. He slammed them back into their chairs.

The music began again and was much improved.

Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it.

They shifted their weights to their toes.

Harrison placed his big hands on the girls tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers.

And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang!

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.

They reeled, whirled, swiveled, flounced, capered, gamboled, and spun.

They leaped like deer on the moon.

The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it.

It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it.

And then, neutraling gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and the Empress were dead before they hit the floor.

Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.

It was then that the Bergerons’ television tube burned out.

Hazel turned to comment about the blackout to George. But George had gone out into the kitchen for a can of beer.

George came back in with the beer, paused while a handicap signal shook him up. And then he sat down again. “You been crying” he said to Hazel.

“Yup,” she said.

“What about?” he said.

“I forget,” she said. “Something real sad on television.”

“What was it?” he said.

“It’s all kind of mixed up in my mind,” said Hazel.

“Forget sad things,” said George.

“I always do,” said Hazel.

“That’s my girl,” said George. He winced. There was the sound of a rivetting gun in his head.

“Gee – I could tell that one was a doozy,” said Hazel.

“You can say that again,” said George.

“Gee-” said Hazel, “I could tell that one was a doozy.”

 

An Index of How Our Family Was Killed by Matt Bell

An Index of How Our Family Was Killed
Matt Bell

 

A

A brother, a father, a mother, a sister.
A family, to begin with.
A family, whatever that is.
A list of evidence, compiled in alphabetical order rather than in order of importance, rather than in the order in which I gathered these clues.
A message, left on my answering machine and never deleted: My sister’s voice, telling me she’s okay, that she’s still there.
Absence of loved ones, never diminishing no matter how much time passes.
Accidents happen, but what happened to us was not an accident.
Acquittal, but not for them, and not for us.
Alarms that failed to go off, that have never stopped ringing in my ears.
Alibis, as in, everyone’s got one.
Ambulances that never arrive on time to save anyone.
An index is a collection of echoes, each one suggesting a whole only partially glimpsed.
Animal attacks are unlikely, but worth watching out for.
Arrest, to bring into custody.
Arrest, to bring to a stop.
Autopsy, as a means of discovering the cause of death.
Axe, as possibility. Also, other sharp objects, other combinations of handles and blades.

B
Ballistics as method of investigation.
Blood, obviously.
Blood, scrubbed from the floor of bedrooms and barrooms and hospital beds, sometimes by myself, more often by others, by strangers, by men and women in white clothes unaffected by the crime at hand.
Brother, memory of: Once, my brother and I built a fort in the woods behind our house by digging a pit and covering it with plywood. Once, we put the neighbor kid down in that pit and covered the hole. Once, we listened to him scream for hours from the back porch, where we ate cookies and milk and misunderstood what it was we were doing wrong.
Brother, murdered. Murdered by a woman, a wife, his wife, the wife he had left but not divorced. Who he had left for another woman, a woman who could not protect him even with a house clasped tight with locks. Murdered in his sleep, with a knife to the eye. Murdered beside his new woman, who woke up screaming and didn’t stop for days and days.
Bruises so black I couldn’t recognize her face, couldn’t be sure when I told the coroner that yes, this is my mother.
Bullets, general, fear thereof.
Bullets, specific: One lodged in my father’s sternum, another passing through skin and tissue and lung, puncturing his last hot gasp of air.
Bullets, specific: Pieces of lead, twin mushrooms clattering in a clear film canister. Sometimes I shake them like dice, like bones. When I pour them out onto my desk they tell me nothing, their prophecy limited to that which has already come.

C
Call me once a day, just to let me know you’re still safe.
Call me X, if you have to call me anything at all.
Camera, fear of, need for. To document the bodies, to show the size and location of wounds, to produce photographs to explain the entry and exit points of weapons.
Car accidents, as in, it is easier to say that it was a car accident than to tell our friends what really happened.
Caskets, closed.
Control, impossibility of.
Crimes, solved: Murders of father, mother, brother.
Crimes, uncommitted (and therefore as yet unsolved): Murder of sister, murder of self.
Curse, as possible explanation.

D
Death, as punishment, but not for us, or at least not officially.
Death, by electrocution, by gas chamber, by hanging or lethal injection.
Death, obviously.
Dental records, consulted whether you claim the body or not. Just to be sure.
Detectives, who I have gotten to know on a first-name basis.
Do not.
Do not ask for assistance.
Do not associate with one-armed men, men with tattoos, men with bad teeth or bad breath or bad dispositions.
Do not answer the phone.
Do not believe everything you hear.
Do not be the messenger, for they are often shot.
Do not break down on the side of the road.
Do not call out for help—Yell FIRE instead. It will not save you, but at least there will be witnesses.
Do not cheat at cards or darts or pool.
Do not cheat on your spouse.
Do not cross the street without looking.
Do not date, no matter how lonely you get.
Do not disagree with people with loud voices or short fuses.
Do not discuss religion or politics.
Do not drink in bars.
Do not dress in flashy or revealing clothes. Do not ask for it.
Do not fight for custody of your children. Better they see you one weekend a month than in a casket.
Do not fly in airplanes.
Do not forget that you are doomed, that your family carries doom like a fat bird around its neck, that it is something you will never be rid of.
Do not forget to set the alarm when you leave the house, when you go to sleep at night.
Do not sleep around.
Do not get divorced.
Do not get in fights, in bars or otherwise.
Do not get married.
Do not go looking for trouble.
Do not go outside at night or during the day.
Do not go skinny-dipping in dark ponds with anyone.
Do not hire a private detective. They may find what you are looking for, but they will also find out about you.
Do not hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers.
Do not have acquaintances.
Do not have friends.
Do not hope too much.
Do not leave trails of breadcrumbs showing which way you have gone.
Do not leave your phone number written in matchbooks or on cocktail napkins.
Do not linger outside of buildings. Do not smoke or wait for buses or cabs.
Do not look back when you should be running away.
Do not love a man with a temper.
Do not love men at all, or women either.
Do not make enemies, if you can help it.
Do not meet strange men or women you find on the Internet in coffee shops or bars or motels.
Do not play with fire.
Do not pray for salvation, for protection, for deliverance.
Do not push your luck.
Do not put your trust in security guards, in the police arriving on time.
Do not raise your voice in anger.
Do not sleep, for as long as you can avoid it.
Do not smoke marijuana, as you are paranoid enough already.
Do not take any drugs at all.
Do not take shortcuts.
Do not take the same way home twice.
Do not telephone home and say you’ll be out all night.
Do not think that not doing any of these things will be enough to save you.

E
Evidence as symbol of a crime committed, of a deed done.
Evidence, locked away in locked cabinets inside locked rooms.
Evidence, still not harmless, even behind all those locks and doors.
Ex-wives, as likely suspects.
Eye, as in, keep an eye out. As in keep your eyes peeled.
Eye, as point of entry, as wound.
Eyewitnesses, reliable enough for the courts, but not for me. They never tell me the things I need to know.

F
F, tattooed on my left bicep, the first initial of a father lost.
Family, as in mother and father and brother and sister and me.
Family, as something broken and lost.
Family, as something destroyed by external forces deadly as tornadoes, destructive as wildfires.
Fate, as explanation, as probable cause.
Father, memory of: Always I see my father walking out doors. I see him shutting the door to my bedroom, refusing to leave the light on, even after he gave me something to be afraid of. I see him shutting the car doors, locking me in for delirious summer hours while he drank in the bar, sitting near a window so he could keep an eye on me. I see him walking out the front door of our house, suitcase in hand, vanishing forever.
Father, murdered. Gunned down by a complete stranger, outside a bar, in Bay City, Michigan. They had not been fighting, nor had they even spoken, at least according to the murderer. This murderer, he said he didn’t know why he did it, why he felt compelled to pull the pistol out of his jacket and shoot my father dead. We didn’t know either. We hadn’t talked to our father in five years, didn’t even know he was still in Michigan, waiting to be killed.
Fingerprints are hard to get a hold of, but not impossible. I have spent a fortune to get these cards, these five-fingered imprints of the men and women who have torn my family to shreds. I have placed my own fingers over theirs, but they do not match. I am not accountable, at least not in this most surface of ways.
Fingerprints: Once you know your own, you can dust your house, can prove that no one has been there but you.
Fire, as possibility, since it did not claim any of the others.
Forensics, as method of investigation.

G
Girlfriend, brother’s. Calls over and over, crying into the phone. One reason to get Caller ID.
Guardian angels, nonexistent, as far as I can tell.
Gunpowder, smell of: My father’s face, when I bent down to kiss him in his coffin.

H
Hair samples, stored in plastic bags inside folded manila envelopes. Labeled with name, date, relationship. Fragile, dangerous to handle.
Her, the only one of them that still remains.
Her, who has separated herself from me, for her safety, for my own.
History, familial, patriarchal and matriarchal: This is not just us, not just my mother and father and brother and sister and myself. This is uncles killed in poker games, aunts smothered in hospitals. This is babies exposed in vacant lots and brothers holding sisters underwater until the ripples stop. This is history as an inevitable, relentless tide.
History, of an event, of a series of events.
History, personal and also partial, as in this index.
Hospital: The place we were born, the place we go to die, the place we will be declared dead.

I
I, alone.
I, without them.
Identity, as in, Can you identify this body? As in, Is this the body of your father/mother/brother?
Identity, as in, If I could identify her killer or my killer, could I stop our murders from taking place?
If I can’t have him, no one can. Words overheard but ignored. A lesson about the importance of warning signs.
Index as excavation, as unearthing, as exhumation.
Index as how to find what you are looking for.
Index as method of investigation.
Index as task, as thing to be completed before I die.
Index as time capsule, as guide to understanding the collected evidence of a life, of a history, of a family tree.
Index as understanding, however incomplete.
Inevitability, as a likely end to this story.
Insurance policies, as in, Good luck getting one, if you’re me. They never tell you that being from a family of murder victims is a risk factor, but it is.

J
J, tattooed on the inside of my right wrist, first initial of a brother lost.
Jars, for holding each organ individually after they are weighed and categorized and examined for meaning.
Jars, full of brains and livers and hearts. They will not give me these things, no matter how persistently I ask.

K
Knife, as weapon, if you hold it right.

L
Like being torn from the arms of the father.
Like being wrenched from the bosom of the mother.
Like closed caskets, like graves all in a row, like the last two plots, waiting to be filled in.
Loss of limbs is less important to those who will not survive than those who have to see what is left.
Love, as necessity.
Love, not nearly enough.
Luck, as in bad luck, for all of us.

M
Madness, temporary, blinding.
Manslaughter implies that what happened was a mistake. In my family, we do not believe in manslaughter.
Memory, doing the best it can.
Memory, failing to do enough all by itself.
Memory, inconsistent, remembering the wrong things, seeking significance and signs where probably there are none.
Memory: When my brother and my sister and then finally myself each went off to school for the first time, my mother gave us each a St. Christopher’s medallion. When she placed mine around my neck, she told me it would protect me, that it would keep me safe from accidents, from accidental death. If only what happened to each of us was an accident. If only the word accident could be applied to any of this.
Mirror, the only place I see my father’s hairline, my mother’s nose, my brother’s ears, my sister’s thin, frightened lips.
Mother, memory of: Lonely before he left, even worse later. There were men with good jobs and men with no jobs, men with tempers and men with appetites, men who were kind to us and men who used us as punching bags, as whipping posts, as receptacles for all the trash they carried inside themselves. Of all those who have failed to protect our family, she was only the first.
Mother, murdered. Died strapped into the passenger seat of a car, unconscious from a head wound, from a wound to the head. I have heard it said both ways. Her boyfriend—a man she started dating after our father left but before he was murdered—thought he had killed her with his fists, but was wrong. It was the drowning after he dumped the car that did it.
Motives are almost the opposites of alibis, but not quite.
Mug shots: One, two, three, all in a row on the wall of my office. A reminder of who they were.
Murder, obviously.
My brother’s dog, which I take care of but do not trust. He failed to bark in the night once before, and he could do it again.
Mystery, unsolved, even after all this investigation.

N
Nothing, as inevitable as an ending.
Nothing: impossible to index, to quantify, to explain.

O
Overprotectiveness is something you learn, but always too late.

P
P, tattooed on the left side of my neck, first initial of a mother lost.
Persistence of fate, of karma, of destiny, of a wheel turning and turning, crushing whatever falls beneath its heel.
Phones, both answered and unanswered. Bearers of bad news.
Phones ringing and ringing and ringing.
Photographs, blown up and then cropped until the wounds disappear beyond the borders of the frame.
Photographs, mailed to me from Michigan, of my father’s body, as unrecognizable as the distance between us.
Photographs of crime scenes, always the same series of angles, repeated for each murder.
Photographs of my brother, dead before he could scream.
Photographs of my brother’s eye, of the knife wound left where it used to be.
Photographs of my brother’s lips, pressed together in sleep, then death.
Photographs of my mother’s face, bruised and broken.
Photographs of my mother’s teeth, on the floor of the car.
Photographs of our family of five, and then of four, and then of three. There are no photographs of our family of two. We do not gather. We do not congregate.
Photographs, plastered like wallpaper until all I can see from my desk are familiar clavicles and jawlines and hands placed palms up to expose too-short life lines.
Police, as in, I have had my fill of the police.
Poison, a possibility. Must prepare my own food, avoid restaurants, parties, buffets, and potlucks.
Pre-meditation, as way of life.

Q
Questions, how can there not be questions?

R
Risk, always there is risk, that at any moment one wrong word or action might bring upon us who are left what has already been brought to bear on those who are gone.
Rope: There are so many things that can be done with rope that it is hard to know what to be afraid of.

S
Search party, looking for my mother, before we knew she’d gone through the surface of the lake.
Sister, memory of: Happy in the fourth grade when she won the school spelling bee. Happy at her confirmation, when God promised to protect her forever. Happy at my brother’s wedding, dancing the polka. Happy, happy, happy, until she wasn’t happy anymore or ever again.
Sister, survivor. She has tried to live a life free of dangers. She follows every rule, every instruction, takes every precaution. She does not talk to strangers, either men or women. She does not talk to children or babies. She does not pet dogs or hold cats or touch any other small domestic animals. In her purse, she keeps both mace and pepper spray, but she never walks anywhere. She has a taser in her glove box, but never drives. If she walks or if she drives, then she will die. If she rides in cars with others, then they too will die because she is with them. There are no knives or forks or shovels or tire irons in her house. She does not answer her phone or check her e-mail or open her door, ever, even if it is me knocking. She has done everything she can, but it will not be enough. I have not seen her in months, but that does not mean I believe she is safe. Sooner or later, my phone will ring, and then I will know that she too is gone.
Sometimes, I go to department store perfume counters and spray my mother’s scent onto a test card. In the back of my wallet are dozens of these now scentless things, marked only by the splotch stained across the white card stock.
Sometimes, I think of my father without realizing he’s gone, my heart numb as an amputee’s fingers, as a lost hand trying to pick up a coffee cup over and over and over.
Sometimes, while I’m petting my brother’s dog, I have to stop myself from hurting it, from punishing it for its failure to bark, to warn, to save its owner’s life.
Strangulation, as possibility. To be that close to the killer, to see his eyes, to feel his breath, to press my windpipe against his grip—After all I have endured, after all I have imagined, this is one of the most satisfying ways I can see to go. This is a way that at least one question might get an answer.
Survivor, but probably not for long.

T
Tattoo of my sister’s first initial, eventually to be inked but not yet necessary.
Tattoos, as reminders, as warnings, as expectations of loss.
The sound of a black bag being zippered shut.
The sound of a brother comforting a brother, ignorant of the doom between them.
The sound of a bullet making wet music in his organs.
The sound of a car breaking the surface of a lake.
The sound of a confession, taped and played back.
The sound of a gunshot reverberating, echoing between concrete facades.
The sound of a knife, clacking against bone.
The sound of a message played over and over until the tape wears thin.
The sound of a phone going unanswered.
The sound of a police siren, of multiple sirens responding to multiple events.
The sound of a sister crying and crying.
The sound of a sister saying good-bye, saying that this will be the last time you will see her, for both your sakes.
The sound of a sentence heard three times, that means loss, that means murder, that means another taken from me.
The sound of a woman screaming for hours.
The sound of an alarm ringing.
The sound of sirens, a Doppler effect of passing emergency.
The sound of testimony, of witnessing.
The sound of words left unsaid.
Things that never were, and things that never will.

U
Understanding, as in lack thereof.

V
Vengeance, but never enough. Always state-sanctioned, always unsatisfying.
Victim is a broad term, a generalization, an umbrella under which we are all gathered at one time or another.
Violations of the law symbolize violations of the person, of the family, of the community. This is why they must be punished.

W
We regret to inform you.
We regret to inform you.
We regret to inform you.
What it takes to cut yourself off.
What it takes to defend your family.
What it takes to hide forever.
What it takes to kill a man.
What it takes to see this through to the end.
What it takes to solve the crime.
What it takes to take back what is yours.
Why, as in, Why us?
Witness, general.
Witnesses, specific: The other men and women who were with my father that night, plus the other people who were walking down the street when the shots were fired. The bartender and two waitresses, plus the policemen who arrived on the scene. I have interviewed them all myself, months later, after the conviction of the killer. The crime already solved, but not yet understood.
Wound, as in bullet hole, as in burn, as in puncture, as in slashing, as in fatal.

X
X, as in, to solve for X, as in, to complete the equation.
X, tattooed on my chest, above my heart.
X, that calls out to him who will commit this deed, to her who might end all that I am.
X, that marks the spot.
X, that will come to be.
X, which could stand for absolutely anything.

Y
Y, asking for purpose, for explanation, for apology.

Y, the shape of an autopsy scar zippering the chest of a loved one.

Y, the sound of the question I cannot answer.
Y, the sound of the only question worth asking.
You, reading this.
You. Yes, you.
You. You, you, and you. You may not know yet, or maybe you always have, have felt the deed clenched in your heart like a fist. Please, do not wait any longer. I am tired of the fear, tired of the anticipation, tired of the day after day after day.

Z
Zero, as brother.
Zero, as identity.
Zero, as father.
Zero, as memory.
Zero, as mother.
Zero, as name.
Zero, as self.
Zero, as silence.
Zero, as sister.
Zero: What will remain.