The Ghost in the Library

GhostInTheLibrary

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Charis Himeda

I.

Summer semester was over, but Sarah Marks was headed to the library. It was a perfect morning, hot under the steel-blue sky, cool in the shade of the polymer towers, but Sarah paid no attention to the weather. She walked quickly, past Frisbee-throwers and sunbathers on the trim grass of the quad, past the occasional abstracted prof and clusters of students giddy with newfound freedom.

No one noticed her as she went by, a slight form skirting the edges of their awareness. This was partly due to her own devices; she had discovered that unsolicited attention was usually more troublesome than flattering, so even on this warm day, her dress was conservative—a long-sleeved cotton blouse and a grey skirt. These served the additional purpose of making her look older than she was. Her slim figure melted into the shadows of the trees; only her hair marked her— it streamed in the wake of her passing, and when she emerged from the wooded path into the open field, it shone in the sun like polished obsidian.

The architecture of Westhall University was typical of most colleges, except for its main library, which was built of granite and brownstone in the Romanesque style. Next to the crystal polymer edifices that graced the campus, the library would have looked like a stodgy, brown-suited matron among sleek young girls. It managed to escape this indignity by being situated at the far end of a field flanked by sparse woods. Sarah admired it as she always did, feeling the sort of fondness a lover of history feels for a rare artifact. As she hurried up the steps to the entrance, she paused to run a hand over the stone wall, taking comfort from its sunbaked warmth, its unpredictable roughness. Too much was smooth and glossed over these days.

She hurried through the double doors of carved oak, then put her face to the Eyedentifier in the foyer. Once the retinal scan was complete, the inner doors slid open and Sarah entered the deserted main floor, pleased at the cool and unaccustomed silence. She crossed the marble lobby and seated herself at one of the computer kiosks along the west wall. Choosing from the main menu, she selected “Guided Tour” and then, under “Guide,” she chose “Dr. James Hazelton.”

“You again?” said a voice behind her, and Sarah swung around to face it. A man who looked to be in his mid-twenties, brown-haired and blue-eyed, had walked out from the psychology rows, shaking his head at her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this? It isn’t even raining today!”

Sarah laughed. “If I only studied on rainy days, I’d have flunked out by now,” she said.

“Oh, are you here to study?” he asked. “Then I won’t trouble you further…” And he walked back into the row of microchips. Sarah ran after him.

“What’s gotten into you?” she asked. “Have you forgotten that you’re a public servant?”

“If only I could,” he said, smiling at her. “What’s on the menu for today?”

“The Witch Trials,” she said. “I’m taking Anthropology 230: A History of the Dark Arts, and I want to get a head start.”

“A History of the Dark Arts?” He stared at her in mock astonishment. “Isn’t that a bit fluffy for a nanobiology major? Or are you trying to branch out, maybe get accepted into a sorority?”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Everyone has to take one of the experimental courses.”

“The Witch Trials…” he mused. “Salem in 1692, or Salt Lake City in 2112?”

“Salem,” she replied.

“All right,” he said, gesturing with one hand toward the towering ranks of stored information. “This way!”

He led her past the psychology and sociology rows, and into the history stacks. Each narrow black rectangle lining the shelves was a microchip representing a single volume, a tiny computer capable of storing and releasing information independent of the others. These microchips made up the bulk of the library’s offerings. Anyone who preferred the oldfashioned comfort of books was out of luck. Unless, of course, he or she wished to obtain the necessary permit, don a pair of gloves, and endure the stifling, low-oxygen conditions of the vaults where they were kept. Sarah had never known what it was like to curl up in an armchair on a rainy day with a musty volume of Tolkien or London or Bradbury, but she was fascinated by books all the same. The few times she had seen them, standing at attention like sentinels of a forgotten past—fat and slim, short and tall, all of them bearing cracked or faded bindings and yellowed pages—she had felt a dim sense of regret. But there was no denying the appeal and utility of the microchips. They were space-efficient, impervious to the ravages of time, and loaded with so many accessory programs that she had never fully explored any of them. As to why they were stacked in rows… it was as if people wanted the feel of a twentieth century library, even without the books.

Of course, she could peruse the stacks alone, activating the chips herself, but then she would miss out on all the advantages of a guided tour… she laughed as ahead of her, her companion’s dress changed from his standard brown suit to colorful African robes, to the uniform of a Belgian merchant fleet officer, to fifteenth century Chinese armor, to the bright skirts and bracelets of a feast day in the Dominican Republic, and on and on through a whirlwind of clashing colors and styles. He could activate the visual aspects of the microchips at will, and delighted in doing so at a dizzying pace. She always tried to count the different costumes, but once he quickened his stride, she gave it up. After a final flourish of changes, he came to a grinding halt near the far end of the row.

“Here we are. United States history… Salem Witch Trials… 652231–652243. Would you like the Visual Summary?”

“Skip it,” she said impatiently. He knew she hated the Visual Summary, one of the few accessory programs that was a waste of time. If she wanted to watch actors and actresses prance around in a parody of history, she’d rent an old movie.

His face took on a sly look. “Are you up for a trip down the Rabbit Hole?”

Sarah hesitated a moment, temptation warring with responsibility. She really did want to get a head start on the course.

“Maybe not today,” she said. He looked disappointed, and she knew why. The Rabbit Hole was the closest thing to freedom he had. Oh, why not, she thought. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too late to do some real studying. It was still summer, after all.

“Come to think of it,” she said, “after sharing a room with my older sister, I know something of the Dark Arts already. Let’s go!”

“You’re the boss,” he said, but she knew he was pleased. She followed him out of the stacks to an empty conference room, where they locked the door behind them. She waited in the darkness until she saw the curtain, visible as a faint ripple, a silvery disturbance of the air in front of her. She stepped forward and into a green valley wreathed in mist.

The Rabbit Hole was their pet name for something he had discovered only two weeks ago—a back-door entrance to a program hidden from the standard user. Creating virtual depictions in the real world (many holographic changes of clothing, for example) was old technology, but James had found that the opposite was also possible—creating a real depiction of oneself in the virtual world. As he explained it to Sarah, one could enter a holographic representation of the place and time described in each of the library’s microchip volumes. After embarking on several reconnaissance missions with a campus squirrel, and determining that the experimental animal could not be pierced by virtual spears and arrows, drowned by virtual rivers, or dashed to pieces on virtual rocks, he had finally agreed to let her come. Only two weeks, and already they had scaled the Egyptian pyramids and wandered through the gardens of Babylon, sailed to the Lone Islands on board the Dawn Treader, and listened to the sound of Merlin’s harp as he lay trapped in his crystal cave.

Later that evening, a man and a young girl appeared in a conference room on the main floor of the Westhall University Library. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were glowing. He smiled to see her so happy, but his face was strained, burdened. They walked back to the kiosks at the entrance. They said goodbye. Then she typed a command on the keyboard and sighed as the hologram that was James Hazelton disappeared into thin air.

II.

It was a shame they hadn’t just let him die, thought the hologram, alone and formless once more. Although the original holograms—human representations of an artificial intelligence—were used by companies and government agencies around the world, most public institutions had adopted the use of Guides—holograms based on the complete genetic information of men and women who had once lived. The idea was that such programs would be more genuinely human than their fictional counterparts; library patrons, for instance, could interact with them as they would with real librarians, without taxpayers having to shell out for salaries.

Usually the Guides were chosen on the basis of their fame or accomplishments in life. James Hazelton hadn’t been particularly famous or accomplished—he’d been a history professor who had achieved small-town notoriety in the late twenty- second century for his books on the wars of the Middle East. Because he had lived and worked in Westhall, Massachusetts until his death at the age of 58, the residents of Westhall decided to honor him by making him a Library Guide. They promptly put in a petition, which then got mired in the endless red tape of the city’s computers. It was another fifty years before the sequence of his genome and the most recent neural map of his brain were finally fed into the holographic program, and the Guide labeled “Dr. James Hazelton” on the University Library main page was born. His physical age had been set at 25, close to that of the students who made up the bulk of the library’s users.

As far as the hologram himself was concerned, there was no discontinuity between his old life and his new. When he was first activated, he had been frantic and disoriented, calling for Alice, wondering where he was and why he was suddenly out of bed. The program mediators had tried to calm him. They had explained the situation to him, apologized for the delay (which he was not aware of ), and congratulated him on being chosen for such a prestigious position. Of course, he had known about the Guides (had even used several of them himself ), and after the initial shock of his death had subsided, he gradually became accustomed to his new role.

It was strange, he thought, pacing the aisles of his mind, to be an old man trapped in the body—even the non-corporeal body—of a young man. Although there were times when he felt less like a man at all, and more like a collection of sorts, a library within a library. He had nearly sixty years of memories at his disposal, and if there was one advantage to being a hologram, it was the unnatural clarity and ease of their recollection. He could unearth memories of his earliest childhood, his days at school, his work, his family… not the faded images his brain used to dredge up, but the crystal-clear events themselves, with every associated emotion in all its original intensity.

Each memory, he thought, was really a map, a map with distinct features—sensory, emotional, intellectual—integrated in a multidimensional picture. It was natural that such pictures became distorted over the course of a lifetime, chipped and marred through disuse or manipulation, and he was delighted to find that his memories were now in mint condition. He could only take physical shape when someone activated him, but this didn’t trouble him. During his off-hours, he existed in a world of the mind, needless of sleep, entertained by remembrances of his past. If he had never met Sarah, he might never have realized that anything was wrong.

But he had met her.

He had materialized one day to find a girl waiting for him—a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. She was standing by one of the kiosks, looking around nervously.

“Do you need a Guide?” he asked, approaching her. “I’d be happy to assist you.”

“Yes,” she said. “I mean… that would be great.”

“You look a little young to be a student here,” he observed, cocking one eyebrow. “Are you a child prodigy?”

Her cheeks colored, but she looked straight at him and pulled up her sleeve so he could see the ID number on her wrist. “I am a student here,” she said, “but I’m new, and I thought I ought to take a Guided Tour… just to get started.”

He looked in her eyes, liking the combination of boldness and innocence in them, and smiled at her. She smiled back, and their friendship was born.

He had shown her the stacks, explained how to activate the chips, and she had been fascinated by the virtual programs linked to each volume. After the tour, she had asked if there were any books in the library, and he had taken her to the archives, where they gazed through the clear walls at the small collection of antiquity.

“My parents had a book once,” she said, her breath misting the crystal polymer wall. “It was just a paperback detective story, but they sold it to a big collector before I was old enough to read.”

He told her that books had been more readily available during his lifetime, and she looked a bit embarrassed at that, as if unwilling to acknowledge that he was not technically alive. He told her something about his life, how he had come to be here.

“It’s hard to believe you’re a hologram,” she marveled, casting an appreciative eye over him. “You could have some fun if I left you activated, you know… you could walk right through people… or run away. How far away from the library can you get?”

“I don’t know,” he said, frowning. The thought had never occurred to him.

“Do you ever get tired of being here?” she asked. “And showing college students the same things, day after day?”

“I was a history professor, remember?” he replied. “We never get tired of re-living the past.”

That had been over a year ago, and they had seen each other nearly every day since then. Sarah lived in one of the halls on campus, an easy walk from the library, and rain or snow didn’t stop her from coming. Sometimes their visits lasted only a few minutes, and sometimes they lasted half a day. Once he discovered the Rabbit Hole, they were no longer bound by the hours of the library, and they had spent a whole weekend in Tolkien’s Rivendell, wandering unseen amongst the elves and exploring the forests. Although her studies never suffered, he had other concerns.

She’s spending too much time here, he thought. In a fantasy world with a man who no longer exists. Still… he enjoyed her company too much to put a stop to it.

It was ironic that she was the source of both his greatest happiness and his greatest misery in this new, strange life. And why was that? What had she said or done to make him feel so empty, so hollow?

He didn’t know. He only knew that the time they spent together had begun to haunt him. That she haunted him. There was no denying she was beautiful, with the kind of beauty that asserts itself most strongly in solitary places, where one couldn’t help noticing the delicate bones of her hands, the graceful shape of her stride. Thinking of her now, he felt something tug at him. It wasn’t love—couldn’t be love—but it was a memory of love. In his mind’s perfect eye, he saw the pure lines of her face, her eyes alight with excitement, and he remembered Alice. And he wondered what cruel trick fate was playing him.

III.

“Sarah,” he said, as they sat in the grassy courtyard outside the library, watching swallows and chickadees alight on branches and disappear into the hot blue air, “wasn’t your family planning a trip to the West Coast this summer?”

She looked up guiltily. “Yeah,” she said.

“Well? Why didn’t you go?”

She shrugged, playing with the leaves on the ground, probably trying to come up with a plausible excuse. But she was a terrible liar, and they both knew it.

“I’d rather be here,” she said, finally. “Besides, now that we have the Rabbit Hole—”

“That’s no substitute for the real thing,” he told her. And I’m no substitute for a real person.

“Are you getting tired of me?” she asked teasingly, but he refused to be teased.

You will get tired of me before long,” he said. “No—” he said, as she opened her mouth to protest. “Listen to me. You may be quite advanced for your age in some ways, but you’re still very young. Your life has barely started.”

“Are you going to tell me to start spending time with some nice boy my own age?” she asked scornfully.

“Well, it’s bound to happen sooner or later,” he said. “You’ll graduate within the next two years, and then what? You can’t pretend you’ll still be coming here every morning to visit your holographic friend.”

She said nothing. He sighed and moved closer to where she sat, her skirts spread carelessly over the grass. They watched the restless birds circling, circling, never staying for long.

“James,” she said, at length, “what do you miss most about your old life?”

He glanced at her, but her face was hidden by a silk curtain of hair as she leaned forward to pluck a dead flower from the ground. Its petals were still white and perfect, but the stem had been gnawed, torn to shreds. Suddenly, the fluttering of the birds stilled, and the sky grew dark before the sun. He felt his image try to retreat back to its source, those dark paths he walked alone at night. For a moment the hologram flickered on the grass of the courtyard, wavering in the bright air like a reflection on water. And then he realized what it was that had been plaguing him.

“I miss very little about being alive,” he said. “I have memories of being starved for grilled hamburgers, fried chicken, eggs and bacon—but I’m never hungry now. I wish I was. I have memories of hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains, and waking up in my tent with sore legs and an aching back. Do I miss having sore muscles? I wish to hell I did! I remember the solid weight of wood in my hands and the lightness of feathers, I remember the feel of oiled leather and slick metal, cold glass and new-fallen snow, the warmth of a fire, the softness of skin—” He reached out a hand to her face before he caught himself, and she stared at him, wide-eyed. “But most of all, I remember what it was like to love someone,” he said in a low voice. “I remember what it was to be a creature of flesh and spirit, not numbers in a digital landscape.”

“What are you, then?” she asked. “A renegade computer program, and nothing more? Don’t tell me that, because I won’t believe it.”

“I’m your friend,” he said, after a long pause. “James Hazelton was your friend, though he never knew you.”

“I love you,” she said, in a voice almost too soft to be heard. But the days when he’d been hard of hearing were long ago, in another life.

“I can’t love you, Sarah,” he whispered. “I’m a hologram, remember? Think what you will, but those are the bare bones. Besides, I’m too old for you.”

“Nearly a hundred years too old,” she agreed, “yet you are who you are! James Hazelton may have died, but you are him—you have his genes, his memories, everything!”

“Don’t you understand?” he growled. “My soul left my body fifty years ago! I’m a ghost—a shell—a blueprint of a man.”

She looked at him uncertainly, as if for the first time considering him, not as a man whose life has been extended, but as one who has been robbed of something essential. Then her face fell and she turned away. He put an arm around her, unable to help himself, but it met no resistance, falling through flesh and bone as if through mist.

“It would have been better if we’d never met,” she said bitterly. “You were happier then, weren’t you?”

“No,” he said. “Before I met you, I was a slave and I didn’t even know it. What’s the good of life without the capacity to live it? My soul is at peace somewhere… I want this echo of myself to be at peace, too.”

He looked at her then—in the youthful intensity of her grief, and the promise of comfort and greatness that surrounded her like a redeeming cloak. In his mind, he kissed her goodbye. And then he told her what she had to do.

When Sarah left the library that night, she was not alone. There was a microdisk stowed carefully away in the locket around her neck. Before she left, James had told her how to erase his program from the library’s database.

“You’re lucky I’m not a famous astronaut,” he’d said, “or you’d have to travel to every public institution in the country to do away with me!”

She hadn’t been able to laugh.

“Promise me,” he’d said, his eyes both commanding and begging her. She had fulfilled that promise, but she’d also done something else. She had downloaded his program onto one of her own disks before erasing it from the system. Tucked away in the darkness of the locket, cut off from any hard drive, she supposed he was unconscious. Still alive, all his information intact, but sleeping. And that was good, because she needed time to think.

Summer was lingering that year, and the night was mellow and quiet. Sarah walked at a fraction of her normal pace, meandering slowly over the dark field. By the time she reached her hall, normal dining hours were over. Shunning her room (and her talkative roommate), she headed instinctively for her second-favorite place on campus—the hill on which the science halls were perched like slender crystal flowers.

Sarah liked this hill for many reasons, not the least of which was the privacy afforded by the heavy foliage. She was not the only one who enjoyed a little privacy, and as she moved away from the halls and into the woods, she heard murmurings and laughter behind the leaves. Climbing to the top of the rise, she stood facing east, looking out over her known world. From this vantage point, the university lay like a phosphorescent city, eldritch lights swimming in a sea of darkness. She thought of James leaning over the rail of The Invincible, calling to her in excitement, and the sight of those lights illuminating the deep with their billowing, pulsing brightness. Then the lights sprouted flames, and the flames were trembling and dancing together, and hot tears were running down her face. She wiped them away and clutched the locket on its chain. She remembered what he had said—that his soul was gone, that he was no more than a blueprint of a man. But she couldn’t make herself believe it, she wouldn’t believe it. If he was nothing but a blueprint, then how could she feel the way she did? His intelligence, his emotions, his warm humor… they were all real, the product of his life experiences and those densely packed bundles of DNA in his cells. What difference did it make if those things—his genes and his memories—were housed in a computer instead of a living creature? If she could fall in love with that—not the man masked in flesh and blood, but the man with his mask removed—then how could his soul be missing? And if it was… then what good was a soul anyway?

You may think you want to die, she thought angrily, but I can’t kill you. Be damned if I will. She’d go back to the library tomorrow and activate him and tell him all this. She would convince him, make him see that she was right. But as her anger faded, the bitter knowledge that he didn’t love her rose to replace it. And what was worse, what cut all her fine arguments short, was her memory of the look on his face—the look of a man who has lost something irretrievable and infinitely precious, something on which everything else hinges.

Had she thought it was a warm summer night? It was cold as late autumn. The breeze whispering through the trees was an empty voice; the stars were merciless and far away, nothing to pray to, nothing to wish upon. Even the buildings below were strange—pale, tentacled creatures lost in fog. Nothing was warm, nothing was familiar; there was no comfort to be found anywhere in the world on this night. Sarah unclenched the locket and turned it gently in the palm of her hand, knowing that she had to choose one way or the other… and either way, she would lose.

IV.

Three days later, she was on a bus—an old-fashioned, six-wheeled bus that still served the rural areas of western Massachusetts—looking out on the trackless countryside. The locket was still around her neck; the disk within it had been reduced to shards. She sat motionless, eyes fixed on the endless fields and rambling stone walls beyond the window.

After many miles—a lifetime of watching the same flat-topped farmhouse appear and disappear, an eternity of watching corn ripen under the blue sky—she pulled the cord and waited as the bus ambled to a stop. Stepping out, she made her way down the road, dust clouds rising behind her. She turned down an unpaved lane leading to another farmhouse in the shade of a beech copse. Beyond, the path angled up a slight rise. And over the top of the knoll, nestled in a gentle, sloping valley, was a graveyard.
Sarah walked among it, taking her time, looking carefully at each inscription. The huge coffins and markers were overgrown with grass and wild rosebushes, and shaded by tall, ancient trees. None of the graves were fresh, some were unreadable, and a few had been reduced to formless mounds. Finally, she found it—a granite tombstone neatly inscribed:

James Hazelton
2145 – 2203

And next to it:

Alice Hazelton
2148 – 2231

She stared at his wife’s tombstone next to his, grey and mellow in the dappled light that filtered through the trees. He lived a whole life without you, she thought. A whole life. The knowledge struck her with sudden force, and she wondered how she could have been so silly as to think that she was his life, that her visits to the library and their holographic voyages together were the pinnacle of his existence. She laughed then—a sad, surprised little laugh. And she knelt down on the weedy ground and pulled the locket over her head. It flashed in a sudden shaft of sunlight, bright gold as the mallorn leaves on Cerin Amroth, then Sarah buried it in the earth above his grave.

If only I could have made you happy, she thought.

You made me as happy as you could, his voice replied. But I was broken; I was a clock in perfect working order that had lost its hands.

I’ll never love anyone again, she thought, and the sound of his laughter startled her to her feet.

You will, he said. And then he disappeared from her head, and only her heart remembered his voice.

 

Champagne and Balducci’s

Champagne

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

Real trees didn’t dance in kitchens or anywhere else, so what the hell was going on now? Just five feet away from Warren Lund, a scrawny redwood sapling pirouetted on root tips as though the New York City Ballet had opened a show in Fangorn Forest. The tree wiggled outstretched branches, split its lower trunk to form two timber legs and leaped in his direction.

Warren dodged sideways. The envelopes he held scattered like broken crackers tossed to pigeons. His shoulder hit the refrigerator hard. His dinner sack thumped against the floor. The tree vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke, as though on stage. A whiff of fresh evergreen lingered.

This prank had to be his roommate’s doing. Arlo, a dancer and magician, was warped. Okay, where had he hidden? The pantry?

But Arlo had boarded a plane three days ago, had even said not to call except in dire emergency. Arlo had too much on his plate to sneak back to Manhattan for a gag. Sweat dripped off the tip of Warren’s long, narrow nose. His damp T-shirt clung to his chest. Another poof and the kitchen filled with lemon-yellow vapor. Who—or what—would he find when the air cleared? Tolkien’s Treebeard or Harry Potter?

The smoke dissipated, revealing a gaunt figure hunched over a three-ring binder, sitting on a wooden stool. The man bore a deadpan expression, like a crafty poker player dealt four aces. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth and shed ashes on his black pants and V-necked sweater. Why, this was Warren’s boyhood idol—Bob Fosse.

No way Fosse could have stolen into Warren’s apartment. The renowned director, choreographer and Broadway icon had died over twenty years ago, in 1987. Ghosts—like dancing saplings—existed only in the realm of fantasy. Warren would figure out a reasonable explanation for all this… wouldn’t he?

He rubbed his sore shoulder and glanced at the clock. Two hours before midnight. He had gotten off work at nine, after an ordinary humid July day. Ordinary, that is, until he had returned home, fetched the mail and flipped on his kitchen light. Fosse glanced up, as though in rehearsal for Chicago or Damn Yankees.

“You call yourself a dancer?” Fosse said. “You’ll never land a job on a Broadway stage at the rate you’re going, other than to push a broom. You barely made the chorus of an off- Broadway flop.”

An unruly lock of Warren’s curly black hair hung in front of his eyes. He ought to defend himself but Fosse had pegged the problem. It was time to return to California and become an accountant. Meet the right woman. Get a life. Warren stammered a lame remark, more syllables of sounds than words.

“That’s not good enough.” Fosse peered over the top of his granny glasses and shifted position. “I want more.” A column of beige smoke oozed up from the base of the stool. The icon’s image faded.

A husky, melodious voice called out Warren’s name. What now? A thin young woman with long legs stood in the kitchen doorway, her right leg raised high in a vertical split, toes pointed and ankle at brow level. A maroon leotard and tights, as taut as skin, hugged her petite curves. Where had she come from? Thick cocoa-brown hair draped her shoulders with sensual waves.

“It’s been two weeks since you’ve gone for a jazz class and three since you’ve hit the gym,” she said, still perfectly balanced. “Bet you’d tear a muscle if you tried this.”

How did she know what he did or didn’t do? Warren pressed his back against the refrigerator, studying her wide blue-gray eyes. They looked soft enough to melt. The mixed fragrances of Christmas trees and expensive perfume wafted to his nose.

“Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“A space alien.” She morphed into a pulsing gelatinous mass—an enormous fluorescent green blob with three maraschino cherry eyes. “Remember when you were seventeen and auditioned for that academy? They told you to pretend to be a bowl of lime Jell-O. If only you’d quivered more.”

A pressure surged within Warren’s head and throttled his temples. The lime Jell-O blurred with the scattered envelopes on the floor. He sank to his knees. Something was seriously wrong. Drugs! Some street wacko could have dusted the mailbox with crack or methamphetamine. Verizon had disconnected Warren’s cell phone yesterday for nonpayment. He crawled toward the living room and Arlo’s land line telephone. What was the number for Poison Control? Or had the government discontinued that service? It didn’t matter. The phone was gone.

The Jello-O giggled with a musical sound and sprouted two maroon-clad legs. “I’m not really from outer space. Now, it’s your turn to do an improvisation.” She balanced on the balls of her feet and rocked from side-to-side, like a metronome on slow speed. “Pretend you’re a ripe avocado or a rotting pear.”

Warren, still on his hands and knees, parted his lips, unable to speak. Nobody knew about his recurring nightmare—being backstage at the Ambassador Theater on Forty- Ninth Street, dressed in an avocado costume with a jammed zipper. Gene Kelly always belted out “Singing in the Rain” from a lamppost in the audience. Fosse always shouted for Warren to get on stage and be a pear.

The mustard-yellow sofa with the flattened cushions drifted in and out of focus. Warren hadn’t eaten much since six in the morning. Food might help. He crawled back into the kitchen and enlisted the support of the stove to stand. The woman in maroon opened the cabinet under the sink and tossed his white plastic sack into the garbage.

“That’s my dinner,” Warren protested.

Was your dinner.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and extracted one of the eight-by-ten glossy photos Warren handed out at auditions. She scrunched her face, then turned the picture upside-down.

“Know what this headshot says about you?”

He stared at the lackluster image with the dark complexion, boxy jaw and phony smile. The faint crinkles below its eyes suggested an older age, maybe forty instead of twenty-eight. He massaged his throbbing temples. What was he supposed to reply? That he was black-and-white, tired, and worked for cheap?

“This man,” the woman said, “eats disgusting leftover falafel from a fast-food hole-in-the-wall and lets balsamic vinegar the color of crankcase oil dribble down his arms.” She tapped the tip of her first finger against the photograph.

“I happen to like balsamic on my falafel,” Warren said. “And what do you expect on my income? Champagne and caviar?”

There was nothing wrong with the occupational perk of free food, even if it came from a third-rate restaurant. Okay, he danced rotten. But what right had she to bust into the apartment and pick apart his entire life?

“I can’t afford crab cakes from Balducci’s,” he snapped.

His stomach gurgled as he pictured the wheels and pie-shaped wedges of pungent imported cheeses in Balducci’s. The crusts on the fresh loaves of bread always looked so crisp. A sharp bite might make them shatter.

“It’s time you improved your image and got a real job,” the woman said. Her eyes crinkled to disapproving little slits, like lopsided sections of miniature Venetian blinds. “You can’t mooch off Arlo forever.”

“You think I like living this way?” The warmth of mixed embarrassment and anger spread across Warren’s cheeks.

He glanced at a framed portrait of Arlo in the vestibule, taken by Jason Leigh, one of Manhattan’s finest photographers. Arlo could act, sing or dance his way across any stage as though he owned it. He had just left for a three-month gig in Las Vegas—had even arranged to lease a pricey mid-town apartment upon his return. The photo radiated the image of his growing success.

Warren sat on the vinyl floor and drew his knees toward his chest. What was he doing, carrying on an argument with some phantom dredged from the depths of his own screwed-up mind? He smelled evergreen and recalled an audition for a school play in the third grade. He had wanted the role of John Muir but had been cast as a redwood tree. His hands tensed.

The woman in maroon did a slow horizontal split and landed. She stretched her torso forward until her elbows pivoted against the floor. Her palms rested under her chin.

“Poor dear,” she said, “you were mortified. Muir was manly, the epitome of the rugged mountaineer. And you had to stand at the rear of the stage for twenty whole minutes, decked out in cheap cardboard and waving two funky plastic branches, while some overconfident creep you despised stole the show.”

“I’m dying.” Warren buried his face in his hands. “That’s the only explanation.”

“No, you’re not,” she said. “I abhor trite endings.”

The woman stood and snapped her fingers. She wore a black tuxedo now, complete with gold studs and a rose silk cummerbund. She slung a soiled dishtowel over one arm, with a grand gesture, and opened the refrigerator door.

“My stage name’s Velvet Skye. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Among other things, the specialty of the house includes champagne, caviar and crab cakes from Balducci’s.”

Velvet transferred a plaid liquor sack and a green-and-white shopping bag to the kitchen counter. Warren inventoried the array of delicacies—crispy Roman artichokes and chocolate torte, even buckwheat blinis for the Beluga. The food looked so good.

“The crab cakes are cooked,” she said. “You don’t mind if we nuke them, do you?”

“That… that’s fine.”

He touched the neck of the bottle of chilled Mumm’s with the tip of his first finger. The vessel neither imploded nor vanished in a puff of smoke. He crinkled the edge of a paper wrapper. The wrapper seemed real, too.

“Set the table, or do I have to do everything?” Velvet laughed—a musical laugh, as clear as the tinkle of a glass bell. “Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in years.”

Warren pinched the skin on his forearm. Nothing worse than momentary discomfort resulted. He grabbed a sponge from under the sink and mopped off the gummy metal top of the nearby card table. He frowned, then rummaged through a drawer. A clean towel would have to do for a tablecloth. He washed two mismatched plates, some stainless steel utensils and a couple of ten-ounce plastic tumblers. Arlo hated to shop for housewares.

Warren folded paper towels for napkins. Blue-and-crimson lights flickered across them, like the images of flames in mirrors. He held linen now, not paper, and faced a mahogany table set with sterling silver, gold-rimmed champagne flutes and china. Velvet tilted each flute and filled the sparkling crystal with Mumm’s.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is the pattern on the Wedgwood too busy?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong.” He swallowed hard, as though trying to clear a lump of meat from a dry throat. Nothing was wrong at all, in a way.

Velvet spread caviar on several buckwheat pancakes the size of silver dollars. She added dollops of sour cream and slid one of the appetizers into his mouth. The mild tang of the blini and cream muted the stronger but pleasing flavors of salt and fish. Warren chewed in slow motion. She had just transformed paper into linen and metal into mahogany. What the hell was he really eating—stale raisin bran and lumpy outdated milk?

“Table setting’s a fake but the food’s real,” she said, as though she had read his mind. She licked her fingers and tapped her crystal flute against his. “Your tax dollars at work. I walked into Balducci’s and the nearest liquor store this afternoon, projected the persona of our dear mayor and charged this whole damn meal to the City.”

Warren chuckled. She was outrageous—totally, wonderfully outrageous. He broke into unrestrained guffaws. Velvet laughed with him, her eyes sparkling like sapphires reflecting shafts of sunlight. Perhaps he was eating raisin bran. He didn’t really care.

After dinner, he and Velvet stood by the open bedroom window, against the backdrop of a wrought iron railing and a graveyard for cigarette butts. They did cold readings of dialogues by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. She closed the book and grasped his hand. They sat on his futon and listened to the honks and brake squeals of taxis navigating a Manhattan summer’s night.

“The theater’s a mistress,” she said. “But…”

Warren didn’t hear the rest. She toyed with his curly black hair, twisting the longer strands around her slender fingers. He cupped his hands around her petite breasts, her skin softer than clouds.

They made love on Arlo’s double bed, dancing an ancient dance on white sheets as though every movement had been choreographed anew. Velvet was Eve, Juliet, Helen of Troy—then Delilah afire. She ignited her Samson until his strength was consumed. A warm breeze slipped through the window, too humid to evaporate sweat from sticky flesh. A phantom light from the outside world played on the ceiling. Warren stroked Velvet from her head to her toes, afraid she might vanish.

* * * * *

Warren awakened to the annoying pulse of his digital alarm clock. Daylight streamed through the window. Morning was here. Velvet wasn’t. He called for her several times. Perhaps she was hiding, playing another game. He checked under the bed and dug through the closet. Had she turned herself into a piece of clothing or an umbrella? Warren sniffed Arlo’s leather jacket and inspected a polished loafer.

He stumbled toward the kitchen. Where was she? He noticed the cabinet doors under the sink, ajar, and flung them open. The shopping bag from Balducci’s was tucked inside of the plastic garbage pail, beside the empty champagne bottle. The trash smelled of Christmas trees. The aroma faded. Warren slumped to the floor, cradled the pail in his arms and cried.

The telephone rang. Velvet? Warren scrambled to reach the phone, hoping to hear her laugh. The male voice on the other end was effeminate and unmistakable—his agent, Larry. Warren tried to conceal his disappointment.

“I just lined up an audition,” Larry said. “Next Friday morning at ten sharp.”

Warren opened a drawer and grabbed a pencil and pad. Of course, he wouldn’t get a private audition. He never did.

“Another cattle call?”

“One for blue ribbon stock,” Larry gloated. “We’re talking best of Fosse.”

The new restaging of Fosse’s most spectacular musical numbers? The show scheduled to open soon? The pace of Warren’s heartbeats quickened.

“You mean,” Warren said, “on Broadway?”
“Well, I don’t mean the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen, an unexpected slot turned up. Not principal, but good. I talked you up big, okay? Said Bob Fosse was your idol and you could dance his routines in your sleep. The Broadhurst at ten—no, nine-thirty’s safer. And, for godsakes, don’t let me down and dance sloppy, or my reputation’s dead meat.”

The phone call ended. This was the potential break—the big one—and Warren had skipped jazz class for two weeks and dropped his membership at the gym. His credit cards were maxed. His headshot looked stupid. An eighteen-wheel truck might as well flatten him right now. Warren pounded his fist on the counter and swore. His dream girl had just gone virtual unreality and now this.

Warren needed coffee. He brewed the last of the house blend he had filched from the restaurant. Flashbacks of Velvet blazed through his memory like fireworks in a cloudless night sky. Could even a wacked-out imagination create a fantasy that real? The weak coffee tasted lousy. He downed it anyway and decided to audition.

Warren piled his meager supply of cash on the kitchen table and found his checkbook. It would take money to make money. He hunted through Arlo’s closet and dresser drawers, unearthing a MasterCard, two fifties, seven tens and a dozen twenties. Arlo’s money went on the left side of the table. His own stayed on the right. Warren put on his leotard and sweats, stuffed thirty right-side dollars into his pocket and caught the subway uptown.

The dance studio occupied the third floor. He plunked down the fee on the registration table and signed in. The instructor was new. At least the guy wouldn’t make any cute remarks about why Warren kept missing class. Warren cut to the rear of the room to warm up muscles stiffened from neglect. The ninety-minute ordeal seemed endless.

* * * * *

The next morning, Warren felt like a hood ornament after a head-on collision. He soaked in a hot bath. It didn’t help. His dancing sucked. He’d totally blow the audition. Larry would dump his portfolio into the East River.

He mushed some stale raisin bran with water. Arlo’s portrait seemed to watch his every move. Arlo had said not to call except in an emergency, would go postal if Warren woke him up to beg for money. Warren slurped down breakfast. How could he afford new shots? He covered Arlo’s photo with a dishtowel and checked the listings of photographers in the phone book. His guts ached, as though two hands twisted them. He’d never stolen money before.

It was Sunday. After jazz class, Warren headed for the Jason Leigh Studio near Grand Central Station. The steel gate was open but the place looked dark. He prayed and turned the knob. The door creaked open.

The proprietor’s bell tinkled with an old-fashioned sound, straight out of a Forties flick. Warren stood motionless in the doorway. A balding man wearing narrow-rimmed glasses emerged from the back room. His tight black turtleneck and jeans accentuated his broad shoulders and flat gut. The diamond stud embedded in the lobe of his left ear glittered. The man matched Arlo’s vague description of Jason Leigh. He coughed as though he smoked too much and cleared his throat. An air-conditioning unit, wedged in a small window above the front door, rattled.

“I need a decent headshot,” Warren said. “At least two copies by Thursday night.”

“Are you kidding?” Jason flipped through the appointment book on the counter. “I can’t even guarantee a shoot by then.”

“You did as much for Arlo Brandon last year,” Warren said, unsure if the guy would wink or throw him out.

Jason’s gaze shifted, obviously scrutinizing Warren from head to toe. Warren fidgeted with the lower edge of his sweatshirt. He dug out Arlo’s credit card and two fifty-dollar bills.

“I’ve got an important audition Friday morning,” Warren said. “The shot I’ve got won’t do. And Arlo claims you’re the best photographer around.”

Jason removed his glasses and rubbed his right eye. He squinted at the lenses, then eradicated a smudge with a linen handkerchief. Would he agree?

“You just can’t charge something to somebody else’s account. I don’t know you from beans.”

Warren offered his California driver’s license. Maybe he should have phoned Arlo. Too late, now. The photographer studied the license in the light from a goose-necked lamp. He ran his finger across the hologram of Warren’s picture and the State of California seal. He inspected the two fifties. Probably thought they might be counterfeit. Jason smoothed back the thinning black hair on the sides of his head, then gestured toward the back room.

“Put on the white polo shirt at the front of the rack,” Jason said. “Let me do your makeup, though.” The air conditioner seemed to rattle louder. “If you’ve stolen that card—if you’re lying—you won’t perform for anyone in New York again. Understand?”

Warren understood all too well.

* * * * *

Warren returned to the photographer’s on Thursday at three o’clock. The studio was dark, its steel gate locked. Where was Jason? Warren needed those new shots for the audition tomorrow. He rattled the bars and pounded his fists against the sun-warmed metal. Two middle-aged women in chinos and floppy blouses walked by and stared.

“You don’t have to bust my place in,” a voice said.

Warren faced the photographer. Jason frowned, the skin on his forehead as rutted as a ploughed field. He set a small paper sack on the pavement and dug a single key out of the side pocket of his white Dockers.

“I skipped lunch to finish your pictures,” Jason said. “A man has to eat.”

Warren’s mouth froze in neutral gear. A taxi driver wearing a turban wove his cab through traffic, leaning on the horn. A pigeon flapped by and landed on a discarded donut. Was Warren the only New Yorker who didn’t express himself worth a damn or know where he was headed?

Jason rolled the gate aside. He motioned Warren over to the counter and disappeared into the back room. He emerged carrying several eight-by-ten glossy photos stacked on a sheet of white mounting board.

“This is the real you,” he said. “I mean, if you ever grow up and calm down.”

Warren focused on the image of a soul in black and white. The eyes in the photo looked alert and sensual—almost alive. The lips were slightly parted, curved in a natural smile. The overall combination radiated artistic sensitivity… success.

“How can I ever thank you?” Warren’s tongue felt thick, as though he’d been drinking.

The photographer placed seven photos into a shallow nine-by-twelve-inch cardboard box. He rested his hand atop Warren’s, his palm warm.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jason said. His voice sounded genuine and kind. “You’re prettier than Arlo but you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Warren returned to the apartment. He left the box of photos on the living room sofa and hit the sack by nine. His brain chanted the photographer’s advice like a television set blaring an obnoxious commercial. Warren listened to the sounds of traffic for two hours. His leg muscles ached. He stumbled toward the kitchen to down his last three Advil.

One of his new headshots sat on the kitchen counter. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood as though spray-painted in position. The image of his eyes sparkled with an intense crimson light. Warren blinked. The light vanished. The room spun. He awakened in Arlo’s bed at sunrise. What the hell had happened the night before?

* * * * *

Warren arrived at the Broadhurst Theater at nine-thirteen. The shocking-pink lettering on a promotional poster challenged him from behind a brass-framed plate of glass: Sexy! Hot! Go! He stepped onto the green-and-white floor tiles in the foyer, his tongue daubed with a metallic taste. Apprehension always wacked his taste buds before an audition. He glanced up at a crystal chandelier, then entered the main theater and stretched his muscles to prepare for the test.

A thin, sandy-haired man with a clipboard set up a card table near the front row of seats. Warren signed a roster, filled out a card and placed his headshot on the table.

Eight other men arrived and registered, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Several limbered their legs. A chestnut-skinned man with a stubby ponytail stripped down to his black leotard and tights. He practiced the splits in the center aisle, his thighs taut, and his movements smoother than a Teflon-coated zipper.

“You look terriff, Barry,” a dancer with one pierced ear said, obviously trying to ease the surrounding competitive tension.

Warren’s stomach churned, as though he was about to drill his own teeth. The other guys all seemed to know each other. They probably attended classes together or had worked some of the same shows. Only one person in Warren’s jazz class was employed as a dancer—the instructor. Warren exercised his feet and calves with a therapeutic stretch band. These guys looked so damned professional. What chance had he to get the part?

A high-pitched feminine voice drew Warren’s attention. A willowy brunette in stretchy white slacks strode down the center aisle toward the stage, accompanied by a man in his forties, probably a choreographer. They sat in the second row of seats. The brunette crossed her legs. A teal polyester blouse clung to her flat chest. The man with the clipboard handed her the stack of glossy prints, then turned toward the assembled group. He rattled off a string of instructions for the dancers. Each would cross the stage one at a time for a warm-up, doing steps from “Steam Heat,” a Fifties showstopper—sexy, smooth, precise and classic Fosse.

Warren and the others lined up single file by height in the wing at stage right. At five-foot-eleven, he stood third from the rear of the line. He breathed in, mentally counting to four. He counted to four again and exhaled. If only Warren were two inches taller, he’d go last.

The first man in line, the Barry guy, danced across the stage sideways, on his knees, facing his audience of three. Both his hands clutched an imaginary bowler. His arms—and the hat that wasn’t—drew a large, continuous circle in the air as he moved. Warren could almost hear the click of an advancing locomotive’s wheel against steel rail. No way for Warren to beat that.

Barry reached the opposite wing, stood and gave his name. The second dancer crossed the stage. The third. The fourth… Warren’s turn arrived. His heart pounded like a lead drummer high on drugs. Then the image of Bob Fosse, clothed in black, appeared in the opposite wing. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice. Fosse pushed a derby down over his brow and gestured toward center stage.

“Get out there,” Fosse called. He took a long, hard drag on a fresh cigarette while he stubbed the butt of the previous one in a translucent bucket of sand. “Be me and give it all.”

The theater darkened. Beams from twin spotlights pierced the blackness. Their golden pools hit center stage and flared. Velvet posed statue-still in the far beam, her sequined crimson tuxedo glittering like a chain reaction of light.

Warren’s skin tingled at the sight of Velvet. Was she truly there? She faced him, her knees bent and legs apart. Her pelvis rocked with sensuous thrusts. The red bowler in her right hand accentuated the suggestive rhythm. Her eyes glistened, pupils sparkling like two ruby sequins.

“Come on,” Velvet called to him. “Get hot.”

She belted out one of yesterday’s songs, as though she could be heard and seen by all—as though her song resonated fresh and new. Even her verbal mechanical sound effects, her banging-on-the radiator clicks and steam hisses, swelled fresh and new.

Warren moved onto the stage—cool, slow, sharp and very Fosse. Velvet might vanish in a minute, but for now she was vibrant and real. The center spots blazed red. She switched the step. Warren did, too. He entered the crimson beam beside hers.

They danced side-by-side across the other half of the He stage, under the hot lights. The mingled odors of woman, sweat and redwood permeated Warren’s nose, mouth and mind. Just short of the wing, Warren called out his name, facing a standing ovation from the packed house that wasn’t. He was Fosse, Arlo Brandon, John Muir—everything he’d ever dreamed.

The rest of the audition simply happened. Nine male dancers faced their critical audience of three. No one actually told Warren, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” No one had to. Warren read the expression in the choreographer’s eyes. Barry would get the part.

* * * * *

Warren walked away from the Broadhurst, the pack containing his dance gear against his back. He let the hot, wet midday air numb his feelings as it sapped his strength. He passed a closed theater. A cardboard-and-newspaper bed blocked the boarded-up stage doors. Was that his fate?

A sidewalk vendor hawked rice and kabobs. The smells of grease and chicken nauseated Warren. Water flowed along hosed-down gutters. He purchased a bottle of Crystal Geyser and sat on the stairs leading to the subway downtown.

He should have hunched his shoulders more during the audition and snapped his fingers less. His movements should have been more angular and clear. Warren gulped down the cool water, as though the liquid might evaporate. He fished a subway token from his pocket, hoping Larry, his agent, wouldn’t call today.

The stifling underground station appeared unusually empty. Warren mopped his forehead and gazed down at the tracks, then into the blackness of the bore. He had stolen Arlo’s money, couldn’t pay it back. The rumble of an approaching train drew him closer to the edge of the platform. He could smell the stink of his own sweat. The rumble intensified. A yellow ball of light hung in the tunnel, like a coastal beacon in the fog. His left foot inched into the void.

“I abhor trite endings,” a voice said.

Startled, Warren teetered backwards to safety. The train emerged from the darkness. His heart pounded. What the hell had he almost done?

“The theater’s a mistress,” the voice said, “but she demands all and belongs to all.”

Warren recognized the voice now. The words and inflection were Velvet’s. The voice was his own. He boarded the train and slumped in an empty seat, struggling to solve the intangible puzzle of Velvet’s identity. A boom box thumped rap ten feet away. A swarm of squealing kids buzzed into the car at the next station and out, two stations later. The train picked up speed again and swayed. Who was she? His inner self or some sort of muse? Nothing made sense.

Warren stepped off the subway and climbed the stairs toward daylight. A humid draught hit his face and a sharp click caught his attention. A translucent image of Fosse, holding a leather case, stood on the sidewalk. The gaunt icon lit a cigarette, coughed, and opened the case.

“You almost killed yourself down there,” Fosse said. “If you really want to dare the Devil, do it right, the way I did.” He offered three plastic vials of pills in his outstretched palm. “Poppers, Dexamil, Seconal, everything you need.”

The world undulated around Warren, cold as a dead halibut packed in ice. A ruby-red neon arrow flickered across the street, pointing toward the parking lot below. He smelled evergreen, then dug his hands into his pants pockets and walked away from Fosse’s image.

* * * * *

The telephone rang an hour later in the apartment. Larry must be calling. Warren should admit failure and accept the consequences.

“I know you didn’t get the part,” Larry said. He sounded as wound-up as a coil of wire humming with electricity. “Hey, sit down if you aren’t already. Madison and Moore—that hot new ad agency—wants you to do a commercial.”

“What gives?” Warren hadn’t auditioned for any commercial in months.

“Christine Phillips—one of their managers called,” Larry said. “Her younger sister was at the audition this morning. Christine wants to meet you Monday at eleven and offer a contract. To do a wacky commercial for the next Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl?” Had he misheard?

“A beer commercial,” Larry gloated. “Something woodsy with a tree dancing a pseudo-Fosse routine. Christine’s sister swears you’d be perfect. Claims she saw you on stage and could even smell pines.”

Warren’s elementary school play. The message hit as though a giant sequoia had crashed-landed beside him. The whole blasted country would watch him dance—and he’d be a damned tree? What would they have him do, hand Mean Joe Green a can of carbonated sap? Warren stifled the urge to deliver a sarcastic quip.

“That’s fantastic,” Warren said. “What’s the address?”

Warren hung up the phone five minutes later and burst into unrestrained laughter. Life had typecast him as a tree. He pretended to wave two funky plastic branches at the choreographer, Barry Ryan and the brunette in the teal blouse. He did the splits, his arms raised in mock triumph.

“Warren Lund,” he announced, “a dancer who puts his best root forward. A redwood for all seasons.” He laughed a hard, bitter laugh. “The theater demands all and delivers squat.”

Warren inhaled the odor of an old wooden stage sprinkled with sawdust. Images of him and Velvet dancing “Steam Heat” flipped through his mind. He recalled his own voice reciting her words with her inflection. He turned a mental key. Velvet had known he wouldn’t get the Broadway part. She had inspired him to dance his best for the brunette—the Phillips woman. Had somehow convinced the brunette to hire him. Why hadn’t he seen the whole truth before? Velvet really was a muse yet so much more—a little bit of him, Fosse and Broadway.

Warren rested his palms against the smooth vinyl floor. An ache of loneliness seared his mind and soul. The feeling retreated to the pit of his stomach and gnawed with the blunt teeth of emotional distress. Velvet didn’t belong to him and never could. She belonged to art, was the substance and illusion of theatrical art.

The front door opened with the sound of rushing wind. Velvet appeared in a puff of crimson stage smoke. The shopping bag she clutched bore the green-and-white Balducci’s logo. She uttered a strained giggle, then pinched her lips between her front teeth. Warren turned away. Should he order her to leave or beg her to stay?

“The theater could use a few good trees,” she said.

Velvet opened a bottle of champagne. The cork bounced off the kitchen ceiling. She jabbered about imported cheeses and beer commercials, her words all strung together, as though her voice were a recording played at high speed. She twisted a lock of her cocoa-brown hair around her slender fingers and laughed.

 

Old Boyfriends

OldBoyfriends

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Sue Lange

 

Funny how you can go through a whole day and not remember a bit of it. One minute you’re on the morning train, and the next you’re back at Grand Central during evening rush hour, waiting for the train to North White Plains.

Sarah Carla spotted the gate number just as the fleeting questions about where the day had gone entered her head. She passed the flits off as a human’s amazing ability to turn off their brain when its work day was as mind-numbing, tedious, boring, and mundane as Sarah Carla’s. There was a phenomenon associated with it; some sort of self-anesthetizing reaction to the dull world of the underutilized.

Sarah Carla, expert data input clerk and sometime telephone answerer, would be the first to tell you she was not underutilized. She had the fastest fingers in town. A pretty big statement in a city of seven million. Unfortunately, she got paid by the hour so her talent went unrecompensed fairly. Perhaps Jerome was right about her not reaching her potential. Perhaps he was right to fight with her about it. But did he have to leave over it? Anybody that left because their partner was unrecompensed fairly was not someone you wanted as a partner.

She spotted the gate number, 29, and turned from the boards to head across the floor past the information booth where gate 29 stood.

The commuter crunch was in full swing. Raincoats—the uniform outer wear of the modern-day office worker regardless of the weather—flocked toward the various gates and passages. The surging pool of brown khaki was no doubt overwhelming to inexperienced out-of-towners, but Sarah Carla and the 499,999 other day workers were well informed. They navigated past each other swiftly, avoiding mishaps. Briefcases and laptops slung along like nursery rhymes: all rhythm and purpose.

Sarah glanced at the big clock hanging above the balcony of the Palms where the less-pressed commuters stopped for a martini before heading home to supper and bed. Or maybe a group of visitors rested there to regain strength squandered on a day of manic shopping—the last New York minute before their holiday ended. Parcels and bags gathering underneath the little tables there attested to the latter.

The clock said 4:15, giving Sarah a good twenty-five m…

Just as Sarah returned her gaze from the dial to the ever-moving maze of rushing bodies wearing raincoats and carrying cases, a face materialized out of the crowd and brushed past her. Its owner wore a green and gold letter jacket, circa 1976, instead of the ubiquitous power raincoat.

Sarah gasped. Reggie Crown’s face had not changed a bit. She abruptly turned to watch Reggie’s passing varsity coat sink into the surrounding crowd. The sudden move on her part caused the man carrying the Dell immediately behind her to lose his timing. He stumbled into her for a brief second. Then, in a deft side step, he regained his composure and returned to the swing of the crowd and within seconds was halfway to gate 32. Sarah stood unmoving for a frozen moment before stepping forward to follow the green and gold.

“Reggie,” she called.

The jacket was by now heading around the corner to the main exit. She swam upstream to follow. She called again when she reached the corner and watched him looking for an opening in one of the twelve exit doors. He was the only one in the crowd trying to leave the building. The noise was such that he could not hear her calling. Soon he was out and now Sarah was in the same predicament he had just been in.

Pushing, elbowing, and glaring at the oncoming traffic, she made it to the exit doors as an old woman with a cane was also trying to exit. Everyone around the old lady had opened a path to let her by and Sarah saw her opening. She stepped through with an “I’m sorry,” to the doddering woman.

“Fuck off!” the old woman said.

“Thanks,” said Sarah, actually meaning it, because she was not paying the least bit of attention.

Reggie Crown crossed the street and headed into the Pershing Café just as the traffic light changed. Sarah ignored the red hand standing in for “Don’t Walk” and shot across the street, safe in the thirty seconds after the hand came up that the pedestrians would jaywalk against the light. Long before the thirty seconds were up, Sarah was inside the café and explaining to the hostess that she was looking for a friend in a green and gold high school bomber jacket.

“Cabletown?” the hostess asked.

“Yes,” Sarah answered seriously, as if Sarah actually needed to specify the one from Cabletown as opposed to the ones from Allentown, Syracuse, or Bumpfuck.

“Yes, he joined his friends in the far corner,” the hostess answered once she knew exactly which person Sarah was referring to. She pointed to the back where the riser was situated by floor-to-ceiling windows allowing patrons to sit and watch foot traffic outside.

Sarah collected her raincoat belt that had slipped to its last loop. She walked to the corner table where Reggie Crown was just settling in with three others. As she approached the table, the four turned and smiled to her as if they expected her. She kept her eyes on Reggie, though, and didn’t see the others: the crooked teeth and thick glasses with the tape holding the stem in place on bachelor #1, the white boy dreads of bachelor #2, and the innocent age of 15 of bachelor #3. She only had eyes for those of her high school sweetheart, Reggie Crown.

Reggie was not surprised to see Sarah Carla. He smiled in warm welcome, not taken aback in the least. He did not jump up in surprise and wonder for a few moments just how the hell she got here. He did not imagine himself back on the track practicing with coach Dander while his love sat in the bleachers, melting at the thought of a little hunt and pet after the drill.

“Reggie!” Sarah Carla held her arms out to embrace the unembraceable. “What are you doing here?”

Reggie remained seated and smiling. “Sarah, have a seat. We’re all here.”

Sarah’s wide smile slowly released into the shape of a “W” as in “What the…?” as she took in the other three bachelors. She looked from one unaged face of her youth to the next: Tom, her first boyfriend, still anticipating his sixteenth birthday and the expected driver’s license; Lance, the guitar-prone genius headed for the Billboard charts; Mike, her college boy and calculus compatriot. They sat smiling and looking exactly the way they had the day she’d left each of them for greener pastures a long time ago.

She froze and moved only her eyes from one ghost to the next. After several moments of confusion and perhaps a tinge of fright, she spoke: “You forgot Jerome.”

“Jerome’s not an ex,” Mike stated with the exactitude she would expect.

“As of last week, he is,” she said.

“Sit down, Sarah,” Reggie said. He stood to pull out the vacant seat between him and Mike.

“Uh,” Sarah faltered, her brain short-circuiting as she tried to force herself awake. She knew she was dreaming. “I’m going to miss my train,” she said.

“You’re going to take the late bus today. What will you be doing when you get home, anyway?” Reggie asked.

“That’s more important,” Lance added.

Sarah looked at him. His face had not lost its innocence yet. He hadn’t met with the crushing defeat of the music industry. He had not gone into insurance yet. He was still headed for the Grammies right here thirty years later. She stared with her mouth opened in wonder, her brows cinched together.

The four of them watched her and became impatient. Especially Tom, the youngest and a bit fidgety. “It’s your weekly confession,” he blurted. “Did you forget?”

“My weekly confession?” she turned to him now. “What are you talking about? And why do you bother shaving that little wispy thing?”

“Is that why you dumped me?” he asked.

“I dumped you?”

“Sarah, sit down, please,” Reggie pleaded in a not so much accommodating way as an annoyed way.

Sarah looked to him and realized she was stuck in either his dream or hers. Or in a hallucination or delusion.

“It’s not a dream,” Lance said.

“Or a hallucination,” Mike said.

“Or a delusion,” Tom said.

“It’s your weekly confession,” Reggie said.

“That’s what Tom said,” she answered as she looked again from one unchanged face to the next. She ended on Reggie. “And why should this weekly confession be any different than any other weekly confession?”

“It’s different because you meant it,” he answered.

“You sound like some lackey in human resources. Are you going to start in on the bullshit line? I won’t listen; it’s all just some company requirement to keep the psychologists off their back.”

“You’re wrong about that,” Mike jumped in. “It has been proven that people that go to church regularly and experience forgiveness of sins perform fifty percent better in their jobs. After all the tests and surveys were completed it was determined that out of all the things church offers, it’s the forgiveness of sins that really makes a difference.”

“Really,” Tom said.

“Better even than life after death,” Mike continued. “You’re a registered atheist and so have to resort to electronic confession to get equivalent relief.”

“And keep your job,” Tom added.

“It’s just snake oil,” Sarah said, looking straight at Mike.

“On the contrary,” he answered. He stood up and circled over to Tom to illustrate the theory behind the electronic confessional experience.

“Your brain harbors unresolved conflicts in your temporal cortex,” he said palming the top of Tom’s head, his brain. “These conflicts reside in the neurotransmitters stored in long-term memory in various and sundry synapses. They periodically release signals to the amygdala where tension, resentment, anger, self-pity, self-loathing emanate. These negative feelings will continue to affect your personality and sensitivity all your life unless prior conflicts are resolved. Forgiveness of sins resolves these conflicts. Every Sunday, true believers take advantage of the fact, go to church, and start with a clean slate Monday morning. You, being an atheist my dear,” he bowed towards Sarah, “must resort to technological means to achieve the same sort of release. You, my dear Sarah Carla, have been subjected to fMRI which detects just where your sins are residing. A tiny bit of dopamine via tyrosine injection—small and unnoticeable, yet highly effective—has been sent to your temporal cortex to induce hallucinations,” he gestured to the four at the table, “to affect a dredging up of your past sins stored in the cortex. We’ll get the ball rolling, extract a confession, and pretty soon forgiveness will set in.”

“Ha!” Sarah said, taking the seat next to Reggie. “I’ve been going to Confession® every Wednesday since I signed onboard this meat-packing outfit. It’s never made any difference to me. I wake up just as disillusioned on Monday morning as I was on Friday night. I don’t buy it.”

“Then why are we here?” Lance asked. “How did I get here, looking as I do? As if I was still starry-eyed, pimply-assed, and slightly off-key? Why aren’t I interested in selling you some homeowners’?”

“I don’t own a home?” Sarah suggested.

“And how come I’m still fifteen?” Tom asked.

Faced with the obvious, Sarah did what was natural, she balked. “So I went to my weekly confessional requirement as mandated by Company policy and now you four are the result? How’d it happen? Takes a lot of dope to become four sizable blobs of protoplasm, even if your brains were never very developed.”

“So that’s why you dumped me for a jock,” Tom said.

“And me for a rock star,” Reggie said.

“And me for a genius,” Lance said.

“But why’d you leave me?” Mike asked. He walked from where he stood next to Tom and out in front of Sarah across the table.

Sarah pulled on her collar, tugging the clay bola at the front of her neck loose. “Can’t we get a waiter or something?” she said. “What’s wrong with the service here, I’m dry as a bone.”

“Why’d you leave me?” Mike asked, raising his voice to the point of emotion.

“Why am I on trial here?” Sarah asked. “Kids don’t form real relationships, they change boyfriends weekly. What do I have to make an accounting of?” She stood to go and tied her raincoat belt around her waist.

“You’re not on trial here,” Reggie said. “It’s your confession; you wanted us here.”

“That’s bullshit,” she said, looking directly at Mike. “Snake oil.”

Mike rolled his eyes. “You know it isn’t. The confessional samples your brain waves, analyzes the sin, dopes it around and voilá, Reggie Crown is meeting you in Grand Central, leading you to your final destination: the back table at the old Pershing Café. Waitress!” he held his forefinger up in the air, beckoning the server in the middle of the room.

The waitress came to the table balancing an empty drink tray on her right palm and said, “What can I get you?”

“The lady needs a drink,” Mike answered.

“I just want a… a Pellegrino,” Sarah said, retrieving her seat.

“And what else?” the waitress asked looking around the table at the bachelors.

They all shook their heads and cast their eyes down. “Nothing for us,” Reggie spoke for them all.

The waitress smiled tightly and walked away. For several moments no one said anything.

Sarah finally spoke. “Why now, why today? What’s different?”

“Why do you ask us?” Lance said.

“This is your scenario,” Mike added. He sat back down in his seat and fumbled with a table napkin, folding it into neat parallel thirds.

“I don’t know why, Mike,” Sarah said. “I don’t know why, truly. I wish I did. As for the confessional, I guess I wanted to apologize to all of you. I was unable to give you all you needed, what you deserved, or anything at all.”

“You said you loved me,” Tom said.

The table grew restless; they all knew what he meant.

“I lied,” she said. “I didn’t know what love is. Don’t now.”

“Oh, come on,” Lance jumped up. “No one knows. That’s a stupid excuse.”

“But it’s the truth and if you look back on it, you’ll realize you didn’t love me either. We were just trifling, not meaning anything, practicing for the big meltdown. For the day when the walls would come tumbling down. When we’d get hit by a ton of bricks. Nobody loved anybody!” She looked from one to the next as she worked through her rationalization.

“I loved you,” Mike remained slumped.

“Oh, please, Mike,” she said, almost disgusted. “We were still kids, big-brained, malformed, grown-up kids, waiting for the next thing.”

“I loved you and you knew it,” he said.

She inhaled and exhaled in a quiet burst, perceptible only to herself. “Why?” she asked.

“Because you were bright, excited, and exciting. Something that had never come along before. We went everywhere together. We were inseparable. I hung on your every breath, planned my whole life around you. And you knew it.”

“How could I know it?” she asked.

“Because I told you. And you knew it anyway.”

“You trying to make me feel guilty?”

Small laughs and chuckles gurgled simultaneously from all four bachelors.

“That’s the point,” Reggie on her left said. “You’re making you feel guilty.”

“Oh yeah, from the confessional,” she said. “Thing is, it’s not working.”

“It worked before you even stepped into that booth on 29th and Park,” Lance said. “We’re not here to dredge up the past and remind you of what you did; we’re here for forgiveness of sins.”

“I forgive you,” Sarah said.

The four stared at her with half-closed eyes. No one said a word.

Sarah looked at Tom and said, “Because Reggie was better looking.”

She looked at Reggie. “Because Lance was more edgy.”

She looked at Lance. “Because it was over.”

She slowly turned to Mike and inhaled deeply. She glanced at the three-fold napkin he’d been playing with. “It was too much,” she whispered.

Mike sat up stiffly. “What?”

Sarah leaned in towards him. “You were too much.”

When he didn’t react she repeated it louder: “Too much!” And then quieter: “I couldn’t breathe.”

“Because I loved you?”

“I guess. I don’t know. Love was not what I expected. There was this terrible disabling aspect.”

“Because I loved you too much?”

“That’s not love, Mike. That’s fear.”

“It was love, and you knew it.”

“I knew it wasn’t, but I could never tell you. It was so much easier to just run away.”

“So is that your confession?” Mike asked.

“What difference does it make?”

“You tell me.”

“Tell us,” the other three said together.

Silence again as she looked around from face to face.

“I handled it all wrong. All of it. All of you. I never explained. I didn’t know how. I don’t know now. I’m just very, very sorry.”

She hung her head and tried to gather an explanation, find an answer on the inside of her eyelids with eyes pinched shut.

“Ma’am, your seltzer,” the waitress was bringing her order. Sarah snapped her head up and looked at the waitress. “Ah,” she said. Without looking around the table, she knew they’d gone. They’d faded away once her confession had been completed.

“Thank you. I’ll take the check now,” she said.

She took a few sips of the Pellegrino which burned divinely in her throat, and then pulled a few bills out of her laptop outer pocket and dropped them onto the table. Gathering up her raincoat and laptop, she walked through the café and out into the 42nd street pedestrian traffic.

Across Park Avenue, the express bus for Westchester waited for the embarking commuters. It seemed about ready to take off so Sarah hollered “wait!” as she ran across the small distance from the café exit to the bus entrance.

Once inside the bus, she passed her commuter card over the reader and gained admittance to the seating area. With no surprise, and actually a little expectation, she moved to the one empty seat next to Harold, her husband—now ex—of three years.

Harold wore a brimmed hat of the style that would make sure the whole bus noticed. He nodded to her as she sat. Once she had made herself comfortable, he inhaled, gearing up for a spiel. Just as he was enunciating his first syllable, she cut him off.

“I have absolutely no remorse regarding you,” she said. “My confession does not include you. Everything I’ve ever needed to say to you has been said. So what the eff?”

Deflated, Harold closed his mouth and lost his energy. “Hello to you too,” he said.

“So what’s my crime?” she asked.

“No crime, don’t be so defensive. As you noted everything that needed to be said, has been said. A long time ago, I might add.”

“So why are you here?”

“For closure.”

“Oh, please,” she looked away, adjusted her laptop onto her lap.

“Now, now Sarah. Your confession conjured me as the one person that could best guide you forward. You’re all clean now, and vulnerable. You made your confession, that’s true. But you don’t know why yet.”

“So why you? I don’t even like you at this point.”

“Who better? You don’t like me, but you can trust me. We don’t have any secrets; our mutual hate makes us painfully honest. Who else would lay it out in the open for you?”

“Are you going to tell me how many hail Marys or acts of charity I have to commit for penance or something?”

“In a word? No. You just need a push in the right direction and all charity becomes your own.”

“Uh huh.”

“Why do you think Jerome wasn’t there?”

“Leave him out of this. He’s not hounding me so let’s leave well enough alone. I’ve had enough old boyfriends for the time being.”

“He’s not an old boyfriend, Sarah.” All levity had gone out of Harold’s voice. He had the seriousness of a teacher that’s getting to the grist and will leave no child behind.

“Have you spoken to him?” Sarah asked.

“No, have you?”

“Not since last week when he ditched me.”

“Why did he do that?”

“How should I know?”

“Oh, come on Sarah, you know full well why. You made him. You wanted him to.”

“I absolutely did not.”

“Why didn’t you want him to?”

“Because I…”

“Ah,” the bon vivant returned to Harold. His eyebrows lifted, he shrugged his shoulders. “So why are you here? In this city? On this bus?”

“I live here.”

“You ran here.”

“It’s a place.”

“You have a mechanical engineering degree from a half-way decent school, yet you do data input, the type of work a half-witted monkey could do. Why do you take the easy way out all the time? Why don’t you work for what you want?”

“It’s relaxing. You should try it sometime.”

“Why are your fingernails all chewed to the quick if you’re so relaxed?”

Sarah looked down at her hands resting on the top of the laptop. “What do you want, Harold?”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to leave me alone.”

“And so I shall,” Harold said. “For here is my stop.” He rose to go. The side door was already opening with the passengers queued up in the aisle. He latched onto the back of the line and at the door he turned to Sarah and said, “It’s okay to be wrong, you know, if that’s what you want.” The doors flapped shut behind him.

Sarah huffed after him as if her disgust would reach through the doors and remind him how annoying he was and how glad she was that at least she and he had no unfinished business.

* * * * *

Abruptly the lights went out and she found herself waking in the booth’s curtained darkness. The LEDs of the analyzer surrounding her blinked in the darkness. She felt woozy, disoriented. She barely remembered accepting the tyrosine-laced wafer proffered from the booth’s mechanical priest arm.

“Please retrieve card,” came the canned instruction. She registered its sound and slowly realized she needed to get her debit card back and return to work.

Tripping out of the booth on 29th and Park before fully regaining consciousness, she felt too queasy to face the data terminal. She collected her raincoat and her laptop and headed down to Grand Central. She thought about Jerome and the fight they’d had. He was pressuring her into checking into the city engineering gig. He worked in the mayor’s office and found out about a contract in the making for new city development—office buildings, parking garages. A lot of shit was going on. White Plains needed a gaggle of young, enthusiastic (read: cheap) engineers to pump up the design/inspection squad. He really wanted her to put in an app. She claimed as usual he wasn’t getting it; that she was fine where she was. He said, fine. She said, fine. He left. For good, he said.

In the station, the 1:00 p.m. crowd was nothing like that during commuter crunch. She easily found her gate, 11, and without any jarring ex-boyfriends to intercede, entered the train and lay down in the empty seat. Once the train got underway, she felt better and sat up.

On the other side of the river, the train exited the tunnel and made it out into the open. She watched the cityscape permute from tall housing projects to warehouses to six-floor borough residences to the suburbs with its single-family homes on sixth-acre lots interspersed with duplexes and cement walkways running between them. At Woodlawn she debarked along with the Irish-American contingent that lived there.

Walking the couple of blocks to her tiny back-room apartment, she thought of her past mistakes and personality flaws. As she neared her street, the self-absorption slowly strayed away. The sun had come out after an early afternoon shower and the air smelled fresh and invigorating. She thought of how lucky she was to be able to duck out of work on such a mad, great day. She began skipping, with the laptop swinging like a child’s lunch pail. She ran up the steps to her flat and flew into the kitchen, dropping the raincoat and laptop onto the table. She picked up the headset of her landline and punched in #1.

“Hello,” came from the end of the line.

“Jerome,” she said. “What are you doing home?”

“Sarah? Uh, well I was coming down to meet you.”

“But I’m home now and I was, uh, just thinking of coming over to your office.”

“But I’m not there.”

“I know, and that puts me in a quandary, because…”

“I just want you to forget the whole city job thing. It’s fine where you are. I just want you to be happy, and I…”

“…because I decided I needed to fill out an app anyway, and I’m…”

“…miss you, and I don’t want to…”

“…sorry, and I don’t want to…”

Together they said, ”break up.”

 

Here They Come

Here They Come

Photo from NASA Image Gallery

by Rob Balder

 

A thousand steely meters, measured stem to stern.
A crew of four aboard. Explore, report and learn.
A planet, sick with pain and root rot,
Shrinks to a blue dot.
Leaving the mess,
Leaving the nest,
Here they…

Yes, mankind heaved itself up, bar by bloody bar.
Now this clean machine will take them to a star.
But most of what it took to build her
Came from their killers,
Came from their wars,
Came from their core.
Here they come.
Oooh, I told you.
I told you this day would come.

We’ve seen a dozen like them crawl up from the clay,
And then destroy themselves. They always find a way.
And we’ve got too much work to miss them
In ten thousand systems
Here we design
Here we refine
But here they..

We hold the stuff of space and time at our command
They’re only animals, they’ll never understand
They’ll find the net of quantum tunnels
And build a McDonald’s.
Burgers and buns
At each shining sun.
Here they come.

Oooh, I told you.
I told you this day would come.

There’s no solution we could ever justify,
We know the answer like we know the end of pi.
And we see why
Peace solves all equations
Even invasions
Even the quark
Even the dark
Here they…

Tycoon, tyrant, diva, beggar, martyr, murderer, hero,
Loan shark, Walmart, Marco Polo, Mozart,
Archimedes, Auschwitz, Kingdom of the Mouse, it’s
Too soon to say that they’re a cancer.
They might be the answer.
Packing a gun,
Out of the slum,
Here they come.

Oooh, here they come.

 

Lives on Planets of Our Solar System

Lives on Planets in Our Solar Systemby William Boons

 

Mercury: Mass Production
dig for dark gray ores
androids manufacture
androids for conquest

Venus: Adaptation
pitch black
beneath opaque sulfuric acid clouds
un-scaled flagellated
kingdom of fish-beasts walk with
bioluminescence

Earth: New Trend 2100 A.D.
dated habit under blue sky
no longer give birth to their young
selves clone selves

Mars: Invisible
dive in red rivers
stain their feathers burgundy
mask another year

Jupiter: Romance of Four Kingdoms
red brown yellow white
four armies of viral beasts
warring for conquest

Saturn: Saturn’s Venus’s-Flytraps
air-float nymphs scraped off dead scales
metamorphose
winged carnivorous plants

Uranus: Spawning
green reptilian mermaids
nest emerald eggs
in jade riverbed

Neptune: Neo-Genesis
submerge and harbor
in turquoise acidic sea,
with red-boiled blood rushes
throughout embryonic veins,
a new life form on Neptune

Pluto: Deserted Species
through emptied ice-locked hills
circled abandoned globe
swarms of nanobees

 

Dear Cthulhu: Issue #17

DearCthulhuLogo

 

Dear Cthulhu,

I love cats. I think they are simply delicious and because of that I put up with them as pets. Having them around to barbecue whenever the mood strikes is worth putting up with the furballs, shedding, and changing the litter box. And I never have to worry about getting more. I don’t spay or neuter mine, so they make more. Plus, somebody’s cat is always having kittens and they are so grateful to me for taking them, nobody ever questions how many cats I have. That is until I met Kitty.

She bought the house I rent the first floor of. Turns out she loves cats and started paying attention to mine. I had to start making up names for them, but she caught me when I couldn’t remember the right names. I didn’t want to have trouble with either my landlord or the ASPCA, so I did the first thing I could think of to distract her—I slept with her.

She was very appreciative. Kitty is a tad overweight, if a tad equals about a hundred and fifty pounds. Now every time she asks questions about the cats, I sex her up. Truth be told, she’s damn good in bed. Plus, she took a hundred bucks off my rent and cooks for me, which is good and bad. The woman can cook but I can’t exactly hand her a kitty carcass to cook up. There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but the meat left behind still looks like a furless cat.

Last week I cooked up my last two kittens marsala style and they were scrumptious. Problem is Kitty noticed they were gone and wanted to start posting missing signs all over the neighborhood. I had to pop a Viagra and a cappuccino so I could keep going until she passed out from exhaustion. When she woke up I made up a story about a couple of nuns who were going door to door collecting kittens for the poor. She asked me what the name of the order was and I said they were the Sisters of Perpetual Petting and she gave me a look. She even looked them up on the internet. She obviously didn’t find anything. She wanted me to call the cops and report them as nun impersonators. It took me two hours and some creative uses for my kitchen mixer to distract her that time.

I’m having cravings and want to cook up some kitty, the cat not the girlfriend, but I’m not sure how to explain another disappearance. Should I try to catch one of the neighbor’s cats instead? Although I make sure mine get only the best food and I even milk feed them. Makes the meat much more tender. There might be an inferior taste and maybe even some disease in an outside cat. I’ve thought about moving, but I can’t get an apartment this size for this money anywhere near here and I kind of like Kitty and the things she does for and to me.

Any advice?

–Kitty Eater In Kansas

 

Dear Kansas,

Cthulhu shares your culinary tastes. In fact, consider picking up my new cookbook, 101 Ways To Skin and Prepare Felines. I admire you raising your own stock; I prefer free-range myself, both in humans and cats. Telling Kitty is obviously not an option if you want to keep your residence and procreation partner. Explain to her that you need some time to yourself. She will of course assume you are trying to dump her. You will assure her with much energetic intercourse that she is mistaken and that you simply need about two hours at 350 degrees, twice a week. Also tell her that you have not adopted the cats, that you are a foster owner taking care of them until good homes can be found so they do not have to stay in kill shelters. When a cat disappears, tell her it was adopted by a caring family. And use an extra-strength room deodorizer as the smell of cooked “care” is very distinctive. Wrap the bones and any leftovers in other garbage and take them to the dump yourself. You do not want her to be throwing something out and see a kitten skull staring back at her, although strung together they make a striking necklace.

 

 

Dear Cthulhu,

My wife told me recently she is pregnant with twins. It took her an hour to calm me down because I wanted to know who the father of the other kid was. She claims that I’m the father of both but that doesn’t make sense to me. Is she yanking my chain? I saw her talking to the mailman once and he shows up at the house almost every day, even when I’m at my construction job. I always thought it was suspicious, but my wife claims he goes to every house in the neighborhood. I tried to get the other husbands together to keep him off the block, but they all laughed at me. That happens a lot since I was hit in the head by that wrecking ball a few years back. Since I got out of that coma, people laugh at me a lot which is why I’m writing you. I figure you won’t be able to laugh at me in your column and you’ll level with me.

Did my wife cheat on me with some other guy? And do you think it was the mailman? And if she did, how do I tell which kid is mine cause I sure as hell ain’t gonna pay to raise some other guy’s brat.

–Hit In The Head In Hackensack

 

Dear Hit,

Cthulhu is very sad to inform you that you are right and your wife is wrong. Multiple births always involve more than one father. Don’t feel bad. It is something that the so-called experts conspire to keep secret from the masses. At least it is only twins. Imagine the night the women who have eight or nine offspring must have had. Without knowing your wife, Cthulhu would only be speculating on the identity of her other lover. You seem to be a very astute gentleman, so I think you should follow your gut feelings on the matter.

Have A Dark Day.

 

Dear Cthulhu welcomes letters and questions at DearCthulhu@dearcthulhu.com. All letters become the property of Dear Cthulhu and may be used in future columns. Dear Cthulhu is a work of fiction and satire and is © and ™ Patrick Thomas. All rights reserved. Anyone foolish enough to follow the advice does so at their own peril.