Picasso’s Gift

People take a lot of pictures. As if they can only enjoy a trip if their memories are rendered two-dimensional. Each picture shows them facing away from the very thing they were there to see, to visually represent that life is always happening right behind them. The pictures themselves become proprietary. It’s not good enough to get a copy from the person on vacation with you. Another picture of the same exact thing must be taken with your camera.

Cody watched an elderly man balance seven cameras as his brood swarmed around Pablo Picasso’s gift to Chicago. At least three generations of this old guy’s family were represented in front of what looked to Cody like a giant horse with one eyeball that contained two pupils. That this horse also had wings and exposed ribs just made it even more surreal. They lined up at its base, and then, like in some existential ballet, they all turned in unison to stare at the old man as he pointed the first camera. The Picasso looked like a monster sneaking up behind them. They couldn’t be happier.

Cody’s normal lunch bench, which sat in the shade of the federal building, was taken by an obese black woman in a leopard print dress. Her legs poured out of her dress like rich dark chocolate into green sequined high heels. Her stop sign colored lipstick was the exact same shade as her toenails. And somewhat irrationally, she appeared to be flipping through a high school yearbook. Was it her child’s? Or had she dug out her own to read what everyone had written on their last day of class?

Cody picked white bread from between his back teeth with his pinky nail as the old man switched to the next camera.
“We have to get one with you, Grandpa!” a woman exclaimed. Some of the floppy little kids had to be hers, but she didn’t have that birthing body that most women get as a gift for continuing the human race. She was thin on top with perky breasts in a low-cut turquoise blouse. Her blue jeans were wrapped tightly around her slender thighs.

Cody wrapped the rest of his sandwich in foil and jammed it into his brown bag. The new shirts that the union had given all of the valets scratched at his back again so he figured it was time to go. If he kept moving, he didn’t notice it as much.

“Excuse me,” the woman in the turquoise shirt said. “Would you mind taking our picture?” A couple of the kids rolled their eyes, clearly through with the charade.

“I don’t need to be in the picture,” the old man said. He looked directly at Cody and it was clear he didn’t trust him. Cameras were slung across his shoulders like rifles.

The woman looked at Cody so piercingly that he acquiesced without realizing it. He pulled off his True Blue Parking vest and stuffed it into his back pocket where it hung behind him like a tail. He turned his valet cap around so the brim was resting on his neck. It was a mix between a beret and a baseball cap, and it was ridiculous enough that Cody looked cool in it.

The old man didn’t want to relinquish any of the cameras. His milky white eyes bore into Cody’s as if they could obliterate him. “I don’t mind,” Cody said.

The woman in the turquoise shirt grabbed one of the kids by the arm and pulled him off the statue. “Hurry up, Dad. The kids are getting hungry.” And as if she knew what the old man was thinking, she followed it up with, “Just give him my camera.”

Without ever saying a word to Cody, the old man unslung an expensive digital camera from his shoulder. He handed it to Cody and waddled away to join his clan. The woman in the turquoise shirt cuddled up next to a man in a suit while a little girl pulled at his pant leg.

Cody looked through the camera just as the old man got into place. They all smiled at him as if they truly liked him. As if they were going to invite him out to dinner later. Or back to their hotel rooms.

“Can you see the statue behind us?” she called out to him and he saw the line of her teeth behind her lips. The soft pink of her tongue.

He tilted the camera up to reveal the entire statue behind them, the orange color muted by the overcast afternoon. The entire family was stacked in the bottom of the frame.

“Do you know how to use the camera?”

“No problem,” Cody said just as the woman in the leopard print dress entered the frame. She was tearing pages out of the high school yearbook and tossing them under the Picasso as if she was feeding it. Cody turned slightly and zoomed in on her face. He could stare at her for years and never know what she was thinking. Up close, he could see that her lipstick had been hastily applied, smudged along the edges of her lips. She closed her eyes each time she ripped out a page.

“Smile!” Cody yelled to the family as he waited for the woman in the leopard print dress to tear out another page. He could almost hear the family’s cheeks tightening, their teeth flashing.

The woman in the leopard print dress squeezed her eyes shut so hard that the bridge of her nose wrinkled. She tugged out another page; as if by removing it she was erasing a painful memory.

And then Cody snapped the picture.

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Josh Denslow lives in Dripping Springs, Texas with five dogs, three cats, two rabbits and a hot wife.  His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Clock, A cappella Zoo, Storyglossia, Upstreet and Twelve Stories, among others.

Aphasia

Aphasia Illustration Jennifer Falkner Every time I open my mouth I offend someone.  At the very least, I make them uneasy.  The accident, which stole my memories of all the days surrounding it, stole my voice as well.  My normal voice.  The one that matched up with a thirty-seven year old white woman from Ottawa.  Now I open my mouth and the strange jumbled sounds normally heard on a busy Saturday morning on Somerset Street ripple against my teeth and choke my tongue into new shapes.  I promise that if I ask you directions or thank you for change at the cash register and the voice of an eighty year old Chinese woman with only pidgin English at her disposal comes out, I am not making fun of you.  Or of ancient Chinese women.  Or even myself.  You will have to take my word for it.

It doesn’t help that my husband actually is Chinese.  His grandparents were born in Beijing and emigrated to Canada over fifty years ago.  Our children inherited their looks almost entirely from his side of the family.  On family outings I am the odd one out, the towering blonde monster, generally mistaken as the nanny.  Ben, my husband, now looks at me with a pained expression when I speak, as if to ask why I would do this to him.  My children are baffled.  When I call Ben at work through his secretary, or call my own colleagues to find out how things are going in my absence, I get hung up on.  They suspect prank calls.

Even this is bearable.  It’s the in-laws that I dread.  They are coming for Sunday brunch.  It is Ben’s birthday and this will be our first family celebration since the accident.  My mother-in-law, Lily, has never thought of me without mild disdain pulling at her mouth, as if she were sucking on one of  Tim’s Sour Patch Kids.  Ben’s father, Peter, rarely speaks, though he does it is staccato sharp and loud like a drill sergeant.  I never know if he is angry or not and so generally tiptoe around anything he says.  Perhaps he was hit on the head too, years ago, and woke up with rifle fire ejecting from his mouth instead of regular speech.  The kids adore him, they’re not afraid at all.  Ben will have tried to prepare Lily and Peter; I hope it will be enough.  Surely a family as multi-lingual as ours – the kids were sent off to Chinese school on Saturday mornings when they were younger and Ben and I are as fluent in French as our civil service jobs require us to be –  can reconcile itself to the multi-accented as well?

If I make dim sum on Sunday, would it be the final outrage?

When they arrive, crowding in the front hall like ducks chasing a toddler at the park for her breadcrumbs, I smile, kiss and am kissed without saying a word.

Brunch is waffles, bacon, eggs, toast, fruit, orange juice.  For once I can concentrate on the food during a family event and not feel constrained to make awkward conversation with Lily and Peter.  I am just pouring myself a second mimosa – an untold luxury – and swatting my son’s fingers away from the bottle of wine, while Ben without missing a beat pours him a glass of plain orange juice.  He is nodding along to his father’s monologue.  It’s all share prices and Nasdaq and bubbles and I have only the vaguest sense of what it all means, though Ben seems to make cogent enough replies.  Seeing him in conversation like this with his dad always makes me unreasonably proud.

***

Ben didn’t come to the hospital until three hours after the accident.  He had been difficult to reach with meetings all morning, each in a different Sparks Street government office.  The cell phone dutifully dropped into his pants pocket was as useless as an eraser stub since he had forgotten to charge it the night before.  His secretary was finally able to anticipate his route and left an urgent message with the commissionaire in the lobby of the McKenzie building.

I had been unconscious since the paramedics pulled me from the car, whose back end crumpled like aluminium foil upon impact – so Kiera told me later.  She had cut out the picture of the crash from the newspaper.  I could never have known about Ben’s long absence, it wasn’t really important, he probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see me anyway.  But he felt compelled to confess it almost as soon as I woke up three days later.  He was like a child fervently confessing this transgression in order to receive some reassurance of love and forgiveness.

I stroked his hair as he held my hand and the little old Chinese woman said, “Iss arright, Ben.”

***

Lily announces to the room that she saw Tara Hsu in Holt Renfrew last week.  Tara Hsu made a small fortune with Corel before the dotcoms flared out and now she is quite the entrepreneur, seeding smaller companies with her capital and having astonishing successes with all of them.  She was also Ben’s girlfriend in university.  They even came to some of my basketball games together.  My team made it to the nationals in that year.

“She looked fantastic, didn’t she, Peter?  Tara certainly looks after herself.”  This with a sidelong look at me, though in my pink cashmere twin set and the pearls Ben gave me on our last anniversay, I don’t think I’m looking half bad.  The small cuts from the shattered windshield that peppered my forehead, cheek and chin have nearly disappeared and strategically applied foundation finished the job.

Clearly the mimosa has gone to my head.  “Iss a pity she’s not your daughter-in-raw, isn’t it, Riry?” says the Chinese woman in my mouth, who turns out to be just as acerbic as unlikable as Ben’s mother.

The silence in the kitchen is swift and thick as soup.  Tim smirks; I send him a look and he slopes off to the living room.  I see Ben redden, glance at me and just as quickly look away.

“You remember, mom, what I told you about Gillian’s condition?”

“Oh yes,” she says vaguely, still staring at me, as if surprised that something so offensive should remain so long in her sight.  “Cerebral something?”
“Cerebral vasculitis.”

“Can’t anything be done?” she asked, with a mou of distaste.

***

“The important thing to remember is that the accident caused pressure on the speech centres of the brain, which in turn altered her intonation, tongue placement and timing.  It’s only our perception that she sounds Chinese.  She could have just as easily woken up sounding like the Swedish Chef.”

“But she didn’t, Dr. Toohey, she woke up sounding like this.”  Ben gestured towards me helplessly.  I said nothing in my own defence.  In the first days after I woke up, I was too frightened by the ludicrous sounds I made to talk much.  “Maybe talking like the Swedish Chef would be less – insulting somehow.”  I think he looked at me apologetically.  Or maybe I just hope that he did.

“Not to the Swedes, perhaps.  I understand this is difficult, Mr. Wong, and I can’t offer any assurances on this one.  She might wake up tomorrow sounding like her old self or it might take years of intensive speech therapy.”

***

Tim is unable to take the Chinese woman inhabiting his mother’s body seriously when I nag at him to clean his room or get off the computer and do his homework.  Ben is forced to stand behind me as my more authoritative echo.  But Kiera has taken my defection from normal speech particularly hard.  She is only home for a month – I was on my way to the train station to pick her up when the accident happened – but now she never speaks to me if an answer might be required.  She’d rather ask Ben to pass the salad down the table than risk me saying “you’re welcome” to her “thank you.”  Ben has become the children’s intermediary for most things or Kiera will leave a note on my pillow or by the coffee pot, complete with a blank space for an answer and a pen placed neatly across the page.  It’s bad enough having our relationship constantly misinterpreted by strangers – my athletic build and European features next to her delicate raven-haired grace hardly speak of a mother-daughter tie to most people – something I’ve become almost used to over the years.  But now I can see her wince with embarrassment in front of her friends when I enter the room in case I open my mouth.  It’s obvious how keenly she’s looking forward to returning to Montreal and ballet school next week.  And I hate that I’m looking forward to it, too.  My fifteen year old girl, whom I hardly ever see.  She is absent from brunch.

***

Peter interjects, “Lily, remember what your mother did to lose her accent?  Could that work here?”

I want to interrupt: I don’t have an accent, I have a brain injury, but a sound from the open window distracts me.  The low growling moan of a cat warning an intruder off its territory.  It sounds close, maybe it is even visible from the window.  I can see something small and grey on the driveway.  I wish I were out there.  When the summer light has completely faded, the kids are in bed and the neighbours have finished mowing lawns and walking dogs, I love to run up and down the driveway, dribbling, practising layups, shooting into the basket Ben nailed above the garage door when we first moved in.

“What do you think, Gillian?” Ben asks.

“She hasn’t even been listening.  If she doesn’t even want to try -”

Ignoring his mother’s querulous tone, Ben explains to me his grandmother’s method of ridding herself of her accent when she first emigrated to Vancouver.   He has that pleading look in his eyes, that Come on, Gillian, just try it this time look.    But I don’t want to give up my afternoons for the rest of my leave from work to reciting Shakespeare alongside Scofield or Barrymore until my diction is Queen’s English perfect, like Lily’s mother did, playing her records thin in the attempt.  I certainly don’t want to do it under Lily’s strict benevolence.

***

I remove the cotton candy twin set and cashmere slacks, replacing them with grey sweatpants and Ben’s old Star Trek t-shirt.  Live long and prosper with a giant hand giving Spock’s unmistakable greeting.  Lily and Peter are making their farewells to the children while I change, so I linger for awhile, not wanting to endure any more one-sided conversation with them.  Lying on the bed, my head on Ben’s pillow, I breathe in the scent of his aftershave clinging to the sheets.

Two car doors slam in rapid succession and I slip down to the driveway just as their SUV turns the corner.

A pair of wings, small, grey, sheared off from a body and edged with red lie on the driveway.  They are right in front of the garage door and impossible to miss as I fetch the basketball from inside.  They are unfolded, open, like a prayer.  Of the bird’s body there is no sign, there are no drops of blood on the concrete, no stray feathers caught in the weedy cracks.  It is as if the wings fell from the sky.  A cat must be feasting nearby.  With a spade from the garage, I scrape up the remains and dump them in the bin.  Then I play twenty-one with myself, running up and down the driveway until the street lights come on and the sweat on my arms and the back of my neck starts to feel clammy.

***

“I was point guard in university.”  I write this underneath a note Kiera left on the pad by the bed.  Ben reads it over my shoulder.

“I know,” he says.  “You were so fast.”  Gently he reaches over and tears the paper from my hand, crumpling it into a ball.  He tosses it overhand into the wastepaper basket by the bedroom door.

“Two points!”

I tear another sheet from the pad and crumple it.  On my way to the basket, Ben tries to block me.  I feint one way, then the other and just as he tackles me to the bed I release it into the air.  It feels wide, but I don’t lift my head to check. Instead I turn into Ben’s shoulder and close my eyes.  The smell of his skin, his hand on the small of my back, my fingers trailing into his short black hair.  I hope here is a language we both understand.

“Gillian?”

“Mmmm?”

“Don’t talk, okay?”

Maybe not.

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Jennifer Falkner has fiction appearing in Paragon Journal and The Fringe and was a semi-finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars writing contest. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Nietzsche and the Horse

Since childhood, I had wandered Turin’s broad avenues. I was heavenbent, preaching pronouncements transcendent in their mumble-jumble, never to a  crowd, only myself, until that day a crowd of one gathered. I would learn this man visited Turin many more times than history records. But there’s more, a secret I buried to resurrect me long after I had reached the end of birth’s canal. Now I stand before you and speak as a man these words I recorded as a dog.

My listener dropped his suitcases. I had seen him before, every year or so. He seemed to me a refugee.

When I concluded my talk, he approached me and asked my name.

“I’m Barker, the town barker, a homeless dog unworthy of even of a good kick. Have you ever seen a dog smile?”

He looked back as if the past stood a few feet behind him. He said, “When I was young, they called me ‘little priest.’ Looking at you, my nickname nicks me less. Do you know who I am?”

I scratched my chin, staring at his beard just as I did every passing bosom.

“I’ve seen you but only as a stranger, as I see everyone.”

“Call me Nietzsche, but never mention my name to anyone. Tell no one my location nor that we’ve ever met. If I suspected you or anyone else recognized me, I’d speculate myself to death. You might be a spy hired by my sister to — anyway, lucky I found you.”

“‘Luck’ is never a word applied to my presence.”

“Nevertheless, you’ve given image to an idea of mine.”

“A dog with three legs, sir?”

He stepped back and raised a hand as if to slap me. “Don’t look for pity from me, least of all by thinking yourself a lame animal at the mercy of men. Come to my room, and leave your stinking self-denigration with that damned dog.”

Lacking all obligation, I followed him. His rooming house was directly across from the Piazza Carlo Alberta. We walked the stairs and down the hallway. He had locked his door, of course, having been gone some time. Inside, no clues revealed the nature of my new friend.

He sat and directed me to a spot not far from him, gesturing that I remain standing.

“Now preach to me, just as you were doing.”

I always spoke by instinct, using whatever came to mind. I had my techniques, of sorts, and a stage. But it’s not the stage that causes fright; it’s the audience. A true audience, I could only guess,  must resemble a pack of children and their vicious honesty, leashed by maturity, perhaps, but a single critical voice would cause all to unleash. How fortunate I had been! And now I had an audience and every reason to believe he needed no encouragement to bite.

He recognized my state of mind. “I’ve faced harsher audiences than you and told them exactly what they didn’t care to know. You’re merely telling me what I do want to know. Go ahead. Speak as a man, not a barking dog.”

“Water! Fire! I, Zoroaster, from Persia, never walked a foot to reach this verse. Solar birth, lunar death: What happens between? Look to me. Nothing at all, we think, but also everything, we think. Verily, we’re nothing of everything and everything of nothing. Everyman forgets this ‘every.’ Therein lies his envy.”

“Stop!”

Sweat poured between the fingers that covered his face, his brow constricted to the point of what must have been a migraine.

“From where,” he said, “did you steal the name Zoroaster?”

“Books, sir, and the less I understand them, the better for my purposes.”

“Leave sense to me,” he said.

He showed me to his bedroom and insisted I lie down, as if I, not he, were ill. I required no rest and watched from the doorway. For six hours he wrote. He paused only to moan in a strange tone of euphoric misery.

When his face met the desk, it was I who led him to bed. Along the way, he repeated, “I’ve more to write.”

“Rest,” I said.

The next day, more of the same. I spoke my empty proverbs, negative nouns of no signification whatsoever. Then he would write, and then I would lead him to bed. This continued until the day he left.

“My friend,” he said, “I’ve packed your atoms, enough impressions for me to draw into coherence. Thus have you spoken, Zoroaster. Thank you.”

***

Much time passed before I would see him again. I resumed my usual practice, but I admit missed my audience. Otherwise, I awaited his return. I began to hear of his name. Now and again, a book he had authored appeared in a shop window. I would hurry inside, only to find his words meant as much to me as mine to anyone but him; I remained a three-legged dog despite his orders. Then, some time later, I saw another book of his: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Through the shop window, my reflection merged with the book.

Later that night, convergence of convergences, I watched him exit his rooming house towards the Piazza Carlo Alberta. He walked with the staggering drooling mania of a drunk. Just then, a man began flailing his horse and cursing the uselessness of his orders.

Nietzsche and I ran to the intersection of this event. I, unfit for words, much less action, stood and watched, but Nietzsche grabbed the man and shook him. Then he stroked the animal, weeping: Nietzsche, who inflicted far more pain upon himself than this horse had endured. He collapsed. I joined a few members of the crowd, and we carried Nietzsche to his room. I remember his words — “Leave your stinking self-denigration with that damned dog” — and I gained strength enough to insist all but myself leave the room at once.

Ailments descended upon him. He pulled me close and said, “All the words I’ve taken from your mouth, ingested and digested into my greatest book, written in honor to you but also dishonor — you understand, I know, I know — but the scribbles beneath, the mold from which I mined my gold, left my work prone to becoming your three-legged dog: Dogma, mother of all bitches! I’ve fed well historians, philosophers, biographers, devotees, charlatans, fascists! And they’ll wonder what a man like me would care about a horse. They’ll say I’d gone mad. But now I see that a horse makes mockery of men barking commands and by impatience driven to violence against that which proves them less than animals. A horse, or herd of sheep, rises above such men, if you can call them that. The horse had no choice in the matter. He deserves our pity for lacking our ability and yet — pity! A word foreign to me. Better one horse than a thousand half-men and their stupid power. Say not that I wrote for them! Run to that scene, cut that horse loose, and let him trod upon his underling. Then meet me back here.”

So I did. The horse reared above the crowd still gathered about it. When I returned, Nietzsche’s condition had worsened. He promised to kill the man harassing that horse, but he looked to have been murdering himself. Closer friends began to arrive, pushing me out, into the quickening stream.

Soon, he would die. That incident killed him, breaking the heart he thought he never wanted and shredding your posthumous diagnoses. You historians, philosophers, biographers, devotees, charlatans, fascists: Read these words I speak to you. A three-legged dog provides himself the missing limb from amongst the bones you buried. I return as man. Thus speaks Zarathustra.

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Despite attempts by psychiatrists to kill him, Paul A. Toth’s next major work, Airplane Novel, will still prove to be THE 9/11 novel. Airplane Novel (http://www.airplanenovel.com) departs in July 2011 from Raw Dog Screaming Press. Toth also records music under the untraceable pseudonym of TothMusik.

Those Cold Blue Eyes

Those Cold Blue Eyes by Matthew Dexter IllustrationMy baby sister adopted a Russian boy. “You know he’s different,” she told me over the phone. “One of those kids who inspire their parents to commit murder.” This is why she called me; decided it was a fine idea after more than a decade of ignoring my messages, never answering any of my letters; to help her manage this child who was spinning out of control. She’d become fearful, hesitant, the boy had become strange, reticent, and knowing my expertise in the military and CIA, she reached out just when I was wondering whether she had slipped over the edge of the earth.

I wrote down the address on a cocktail napkin as I sipped a Bloody Mary in a rundown tavern halfway across the country. Bit a chunk into the celery stick and sucked the lemon wedge. Thought she was in Florida, but it turns out she was out in California, living with a new husband, a lawyer apparently. He was working for the justice department or something significant, at least by the way she said it, important enough to impress me. Checked his profile and found that he had in fact worked for the federal government years earlier, until a couple of DUI citations led to his dismissal.

Anyway, told her I would fly out and meet the boy. Didn’t know what I could offer. My only experience with Russians was placing electric cables on their genitals and watching the testicle smolder and then fry for refusing to offer espionage information. Hearing her tell me about how obstinate the boy has become brings it all back. The aroma of burning flesh fills me hairy nostrils as she thanks me. Since the wife left me, why should I even bother trimming my nose?

Last time I saw my sister she was shooting heroin into her veins, living in a Wisconsin trailer park with a construction worker twice her age named Bike Chain. Dad kicked her out of the house for stealing grocery money. Mom died of breast cancer a few years prior, which perhaps inspired April to start using hard drugs. Anyway, she told me she was a Mormon now living with this lawyer, a Mormon himself, and they tried for years to have kids but her ovaries were “burnt out or something.” So at first they tried to adopt a baby from China, but ended up with this Russian kid instead. Alexia was his name. Sounds like a girl’s name, if you ask me.

“Come quick, last night he picked up the kitchen knife and threatened to cut Harry’s fingers off.”

Harry sounded like a pathetic specimen of a man. Imagine: a grown man unable to control a seven year old child.

“Everything was fine when he was a baby, most beautiful child he was, but then something dark came into his eyes. It’s eating its way into his skull. Please hurry.”

Told her we’d work it out, get the kid some help, lock him up if need be.

“Thanks bro, I love you.”

“You too.”

Got drunk as a skunk on the plane out west. Delta Airlines flight attendant almost cut me off when I urinated in a plastic bottle. I’m handsome, so this prevented me from being arrested when we hit the tarmac. She folded a napkin with her name written in it: Lisa–with a bubbly heart over the “i” and tucked into my breast pocket.

“Call me tonight if you feel better,” she said.

Knew I’d never call her, but that number felt safe, strangely numbing in my shirt, comforting against my heart.

By the time I got to my motel the sun was setting. Holiday Inn logo was everywhere, like a spider that lays its eggs. Continental Breakfast menu was all I could focus on. Read it a couple times on the bed, tried to take off my clothes, but just feel asleep instead. Woke to the merciless orange sun peeling through the open curtains. Got up and closed them, pulling the poll shut with a frantic rush as I shielded my eyes from the luminous glory of a California morning in May. Had to get after April this afternoon, but decided a nap was the prescient thing to do.

Stupid maid woke me a couple hours later. Why do they always need to clean so early in the morning?

“Housekeeping,” she sings.

“Sleeping,” I said.

“Housekeeping,” she chants again, door swinging open. “Oh excuse me sir.”

The door closes and I’m wondering how I got naked and when, and why was a morning erection really necessary? I wait till it goes away, too tired to comply with its desire to be enchanted. My head is throbbing and the vacuum is running in the room next door. Somebody giggles in the hall, and I wonder if they’re talking about what the lovely Mexican lady saw a few moments earlier. Walking toward the evil door, grabbing the DO NOT DISTURB sign, I cover my member, open the cursed door, and place the paper hanger outside on the handle.

Giggles follow me inside. Pee in the bathroom and jump in the shower. Warm water covers my madness; my drunken stupor wears off as I scrub the grime from my middle-aged corpse. I feel dead, ten years older than I ever wanted to be. Wish I could have died in Afghanistan with my buddies; should have left my hairy cadaver on the battlefield outside of Helmand province. Turn off the faucet, grab a towel and run my hand across the steam in the mirror. Don’t recognize the face that peers back at me. It’s been years since I have.

My razor is old and nasty. The blade has turned yellow, brown crust had lodged itself in the base. It hurts and leaves razor burns. But that’s what I deserve: to struggle like the soldiers I deserted. Keep the medal of honor in my shaving bag. Reminds me of the men I served with, the warriors whose wives will walk the world without a husband. The American babies will never remember the faces of their fathers, only in photos.

Turn on Good Morning America and watch Diane Sawyer making an ass of herself, chopping celery while some pompous British chef fires up the grill for a pork chop stew. It looks good but I hate the confidence of these cooks from England. Who do they think they are anyway?

Feel like a new man with clean clothes. Leaving the room behind, sneak like a spider, creeping in silence so the maids don’t share another giggle. Click the door shut with not so much as a sound. Only wrinkle in my plan is the elevator. It’s on the top floor and I’m near the bottom. Watch a maid in blue uniform reach her arm out into the hall and grab a clipboard off her cart. Run past her into the stairwell at the end of the corridor. Giggles follow me downward like echoes. Feels like I’m drowning.

There’s a yellow taxi waiting out front. It looks dirty, makes me want to find a rental car, but I’m already running late. The driver smells like pot roast–but not in a good way. Sitting on beaded seats the streets fly past, each one nicer than the next. He asks for the address again, and I tell him. Hungry, I regret not enjoying that complimentary Continental Breakfast in the lobby.

He pulls to a stop in front of a small yellow house with turquoise shutters. There’s even a little white picket fence out front separating the charming yard from the sidewalk. There’s a flowerbed around a maple tree, pink roses leading outside the path to the front door. All she used to know about gardening last we met was how to keep her grass fresh in her dorm room freezer in a plastic baggie with some orange peels. My sister has come a long way.

The door opens and a man approaches, wearing a nice gray suit, holding a briefcase. Harry, I presume. He holds out his hand. “Nice to meet you Raymond,” he says, “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“You too,” I lie.

His eyeglasses are extremely thick. It’s all I can focus on as we walk into the house. The yellow cab disappears and fresh bacon drifts into my unkempt nostrils.

“Welcome Ray,” she says, hugging me. The house smells funny. It’s not messy, not neat either, but disorderly nonetheless.

“Where’s the little monster?” I ask.

April looks at me funny, Harry giggles like the Mexican maid as a little boy crawls out from behind the sofa.

“This is Alexia,” my sister says. “Alexia, this is your uncle Ray. Can you say hello to Uncle Ray?”

He runs away into the living room and jumps back behind the coach.

“Be careful of that furniture Alexia,” Harry says softly, “this isn’t the Holiday Inn you know.”

“How was your flight?” she asks.

“Fine,” I lie, remembering the stewardess.

Her phone number is in my suitcase along with the dirty shirt and the bottle of urine.

“May I take your suitcase?” Harry asks.

“Oh no,” I say. “Want to do it myself.”

“Maybe you should bring it up to your room now. Will you show him the way Harry?”

“Of course, follow me Bub.”

The carpeted staircase strikes me as tacky, the pictures climbing the wall show a diagonal pictorial timeline of this Russian child my wife found. As a baby he looks happy, Harry holding him in his arms at the base of a Christmas tree full of colorful lights, the snow falling outside. As we get higher up the staircase Alexia is crying in many photos; biting toys in other ones. Near the top is a couple I can hardly recognize, a demonic expression that makes me stop a few steps from the landing.

“You okay?” Harry asks.

“Fine,” I lie.

Catch my breath and turn away from those cold blue eyes.

“This is your room,” he says, “in here with the toys.”

There are puppets with their heads ripped off, stuffed animals all naked, Muppets desecrated, strange crayoned drawings on the walls like peculiar hieroglyphics of a sadistic madman.

“Well, I need to get back to the office,” Harry says. “We’ll sit down for dinner and talk later. Just wanted to come home and have lunch. Thank you so much for what you’re doing here to help us.”

I nod, shake hands again, sit on the little bed in the corner, try to read into the strange symbols on the walls. What the hell could they mean?

“I’m cooking omelettes,” she yells.

Her voice echoes. A blender clicks on from below. I wonder what the maids must be doing? Thinking of the stewardess from yesterday; makes me want to jerk off. I grab the bunny but one of the eyes falls off as soon as I pull down my pants and place it against my cock.

“Hurry, it’s gonna be cold,” she yells.

“Coming,” I shout, throwing the bunny into the corner where it lands with its tail in the air.

Walking down the stairs, holding the banister with my eyes closed until I get closer to the bottom. Opening them, noticing Alexia standing with his arms crossed. Brushing past him, he follows as we enter the kitchen. I’m almost expecting the kid to give me a ninja kick to the back of the legs, but he doesn’t.

“Spanish omelettes,” April says. “I didn’t have the chance to go grocery shopping, so hope eggs is okay for lunch.”

“It’s fine,” I lie.

“After we eat I thought I might be able to sneak over to Wall-Mart, buy some steaks for later. Harry’s a whiz with the barbecue.”

“Sounds fine,” I say, swallowing organic tomatoes, olives, and diced onions; watching this delinquent foreigner out of the corner of my eyes.

“Then you and Alexia can have an opportunity to talk.”

He stares at me when she mentions his name, fork in his enormous mouth–a few seconds too long if you ask me. Thankful there are no knives at the table, I swallow my coffee, look around the kitchen for the liquor. Goddamn Mormons.

“We’re really happy you joined us,” my sister says.

Alexia devours his omelette and jumps up from the table, runs outside. We watch him riding his bicycle in circles in the driveway.

“It’s been hard for him adjusting as he’s gotten older. Kids at school can be so harsh when you’re different.”

I nod, finish my coffee, watch her get up and clear the table. I offer to help her with the dishes but she won’t let me. I sit while she finishes rinsing the plates, glasses, frying pans. Alexia is still cycling in circles.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” she says.

I shake my head. She kisses me on the forehead.

“It’s great to see you again,” she says, leaving me alone in this demonic self-righteous house haunted by the pale demon in Corduroys.

As her Chrysler minivan pulls away the boy stops peddling. Looks at the window, and I wonder whether he can see me inside through the glare. He drops the bike on the driveway and walks toward the door with this horrid expression, as if he’s trapped between happiness and hellish psychosis. I’ve only seen that expression on enemy soldiers about to die. For some reason, I dive behind the couch, hiding from this pre-pubescent monster from eastern Europe as he busts down the door and screams his lungs out.

“What do you want from me?”

He’s crawled into a ball and we’re face to face, me and this creature that came from halfway across the world. His eyes so icy and large. He takes my hand and leads me to the side of the house. The sun makes me squint, but I trust him for some reason, this cretin with a tendency to terrify my sister and the mouse she married.

There’s a hole in the bottom of the wall leading under the house. I follow him, ducking, squeezing my neck and hips through the narrow opening. Sunlight streams through the one-inch spaces between the wooden floorboards, the ground is covered with dried-up feces and there’s a dead racoon in the corner. We go farther.

He opens another door, this one hidden so well I never knew it existed. We crawl beneath the house. It’s dark, so he lights a candle. It’s damp. The candle flickers. Inside is a collection of dead squirrels, raccoons–some skinned–others decapitated. There’s a bicycle built for two in the back. For some reason, we sit in this secret crawlspace, Indian style, listening to the wind whistling little Russian symphonies between the porous cinder blocks of my sister’s life.

“Let me stay here forever,” he says.

“Where?” I ask.

“Here with the animals,” he says.

He has an American accent. He could be my son. The candle goes out, and his eyes are all I can see. The sclerae so white, the stink of a skunk, interrupted only by the intermittent flicker of lashes, I wonder if the ice in his irises has escaped. Enchanted, till those great whites disappear back into the abyss of the ocean, as the room closes in, walls and ceiling and this Russian boy sitting on my lungs.

Try to find the little man, but unable to rise to my knees we struggle on the ground and the elfish assassin has complete control of his surroundings, floundering back and forth from wall to wall, a fish out of water. I grab his leg as a wrestler, Macho Man Randy Savage, a middle-aged man on a mission, but he smacks it with what I imagine is a dead animal. Want to kill him, but then the ceiling collapses with a thunderous explosion and the echo makes me wonder what doomed miners must have to go through in that ultimate moment when they know the end has come.

Alexia lights a match in the darkest corner, scratches against the silence and rising dust, the candle is placed on the dirt, my eyes adjust to a steel trap. He’s gotten another animal. The sound of music sets me strangely at ease: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2  plays in C Minor as he leans in and whispers into my ear.

“I come from a hunting family.”

I lie, “I come from a hunter family.”

We sit and listen to the music; all of Tchaikovsky’s classics. He skins a rabbit and tosses me the tail. It’s nice to be in the company of a soldier again. Captive, we become friends in our fox hole as the my sister shouts:

“Walt?”

He lowers the music.

“Alexia?”

He gestures to keep my mouth shut, and that’s exactly what I do, possessed by this dwarf nemesis from a foreign land. After a while he blows out the candle and opens the cage. I drag out the bicycle built for two, set it up on the sidewalk. We’re covered in dirt, evidence of a battle between nuclear-armed nations. April’s car is gone. He climbs on the back and we peddle down the street, toward the nearest bar.

“Can we be friends?” he asks.

“Already am,” I say.

We pull into this dump where a chubby prostitute sits in front and smokes a cigarette. She looks at the kid, then at me, then back at the kid. Then she goes back to smoking like she never noticed us. The door opens and a dangerous looking hostess asks if we’re coming inside.

“Five extra dollars for the kid,” she says.

I pay for her addiction, deliberate to look cool in front of Alexia.

“What’ll it be?” bartender asks.

“White Russian,” I tell him.

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Matthew Dexter lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Like the nomadic Pericú natives before him, he survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine.