Cold as Ice

I was talking with my mama about her sciatica when Craig interrupted.

“Excuse me, Julia, but I was listening to the TV news and they say there’s a real bad storm coming through.”

My husband spoke with the quiet urgency he reserved for minor catastrophes. In Craig’s mind, such catastrophes occurred every couple of days. To be fair, his worries were rarely unfounded. It was simply necessary to apply another layer of questioning to distinguish the skinned knees from the broken arms.

“Is the storm going to be up here in Spartanburg, or is it heading towards Atlanta?” I asked.

“Maybe both. It sounds like it’s gonna hit Atlanta pretty hard. They think it might turn into ice.”

It was never wise to downplay the seriousness of Craig’s pronouncements. I thought the weather people were being overly cautious, as usual. The last time they’d predicted a major winter storm, it had turned out to be forty degrees and sunny. You’d think that here in the bright new year of 1973, they’d have figured out how to predict the weather. You’d be wrong.

“I know we weren’t planning on driving back until tonight, but I think we should play it safe and leave now,” my husband continued.

I looked at Mama. She gave me a small, regretful smile. She knew that if we didn’t leave, Craig was going to be checking the weather all afternoon and giving us increasingly dire reports.

“Okay, honey,” I said. “I understand. We don’t want to be on the road during an ice storm. You go pull Kathy away from her coloring book and tell her to get her things together. I’ll fold up our clothes and pack.”

When Craig had left the room, I gave Mama a quick hug. “Sorry we’re leaving early,” I whispered.

“He may not be wrong, Julia,” Mama whispered back. “I heard about the storm, too.”

“Et tu, Brute?” I said, regretting it immediately. Mama kept the smile on her face, but I couldn’t miss the puzzlement behind it. She was an intelligent woman, but hadn’t read much in the way of literature. She favored Reader’s Digest.

“That’s Latin and it means you’re probably right,” I explained, mistranslating to her advantage. “This was just a weekend trip anyway. We’ll be back soon.”

* * *

Kathy didn’t want to leave her Granny’s house. She and Mama had a bond that pleased me greatly. Kathy was only six, but she was already determined to learn all of her grandmother’s cooking secrets. She would get up on a footstool and stand side by side with her Granny at the old gas stove, diligently measuring and stirring and tasting. They looked like intensely serious scientists but they made the kitchen smell better than any lab. I was glad they had had a chance to prepare dinner for us the previous evening, since tonight’s meal would be a fast food disappointment somewhere on the highway back to Atlanta.

“Bye, Granny,” Kathy said. “I don’t want to leave but Dad is scared.”

Craig cringed slightly at this characterization. “I’m cautious, honey. That’s different.”

We started saying our Southern goodbyes and finally made it into the car twenty minutes later. Craig found his way onto I-85 under a brilliant blue sky the color of summer. I thought about turning on the air conditioner as a joke but decided against it.

We drove in silence along the deadening monotony of the interstate. Kathy had her coloring books and an immunity to car sickness, so we didn’t have to worry about entertaining her. I was thinking how Mama seemed to age more between our visits in recent years. Craig was probably thinking about his ice storm that was going to start any minute. Any minute, I tell you! I pressed my lips together to avoid a chuckle I would need to explain.

Two hours later, the sky was turning grey. I was glad I had kept my jokes in check. My husband wasn’t an I-told-you-so kind of guy, but I never wanted to be in a situation where such a person could embarrass me.

Craig was looking anxiously at the sky through the windshield. “I know we need food, but we have to get back on the road real quick. Let’s just get some burgers.” He took the next exit, where a no-name hamburger place had a sign prominently displayed. The burgers tasted like meat-flavored placemats with a little ketchup spilled on them, but they were filling. We returned to the car with a speed that earned a small smile from our chief worrier.

“All right, that food was terrible, but it’s better than being stuck on the highway freezing to death or skidding off the road,” Craig said. “Only an hour until we’re home.” He edged the car slightly over the speed limit; an unusual and daring act by his standards.

It had started to rain by the time we pulled into our driveway. I conceded that my husband’s caution might have been merited. We unloaded the car in the shelter of the garage and hauled our belongings into the house.

Once we had settled in, I turned on the TV. The weathermen on all three stations were saying that this storm could be a really bad one. They warned us not to go outside and especially not to drive. Craig couldn’t hide his proud smile. It was actually kind of cute.

We put Kathy to bed and turned in for the night not long afterwards. The storm had an eerie and distinctive sound: not the gentle wash of rain, or even the slushy gravel of sleet, but a sharp, insistent patter like an enormous bucket of ants being poured slowly onto glass. The unnatural sound was disconcerting, but we eventually passed into sleep.

* * *

There was a thunderous crack. A thud. A sizzling noise from a Frankenstein movie. Craig and I sat upright at the same moment.

“Mom! Dad!” Kathy cried from her bedroom.

I reached towards my reading lamp and tried to turn it on. Nothing. I picked up the flashlight that my husband had (of course) put on the bedside table before we went to sleep. I clicked it on and a yellowish circle of light spread across the far wall of our bedroom. Craig grabbed his own flashlight and we went to find Kathy.

She was crying when we got there. “What happened? What happened?”

“Sounded like a tree broke and fell over,” said Craig. “Might have landed on the power lines, by the sound of it. And by the fact that our lights are out.”

We carefully made our way down the stairs. At the bottom, we stopped to peer out the front windows. Dim orange sparks from fallen power lines illuminated a large tree that had toppled across our lawn. The power lines were still flailing weakly.

“It’s gonna get cold pretty fast,” Craig said crisply. “We need to get a fire going in the fireplace.” This was a night when pedantic Boy Scout preparedness would finally earn the respect it craved.

We entered the den. I thoughtlessly flicked the light switch and hoped that my husband hadn’t seen me.

Craig aimed his flashlight towards the pile of wood he had stacked carefully next to the fireplace. “I’ll get the fire started. In the meantime, Julia, could you go grab some blankets and pillows? We’ll need to sleep in here tonight.” I nodded, then said yes out loud in case he hadn’t seen my head nodding in the gloom.

Kathy stayed with her father to learn the intricacies of lighting a fire. I gathered our makeshift bedding from upstairs and brought it into the den. Craig was nursing a small flame when I returned, and by the time the blankets were laid out, a respectable fire was burning and the fire screen was in place.

My husband and daughter smiled at each other. They were enjoying the adventure. I was just tired. It was a curiously old-fashioned feeling to have glowing warmth in front of me while chilly darkness ruled the rest of the house. I would have been terrible as a pioneer woman. Give me central heating.

The couch was too far from the fireplace for me, so I offered it to Craig. Kathy and I huddled in our blankets on the floor near the fire and tried to sleep. The musical crackle of the flames was comforting, but outside, we could hear branches creaking and occasionally snapping as the ice storm continued.

* * *

The woodpecker wouldn’t go away. Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. It was trying to peck its way through the ice. Why was it so loud? I didn’t understand.

I rolled over and my face got cold. I opened my eyes and realized I had turned away from the fire. At least I had escaped from that woodpecker dream.

Knock knock knock knock knock.

Someone was knocking, insistently and repeatedly.

Craig stirred. “Is that someone at the door?”

The five sharp knocks were repeated.

“Guess so,” I said. “Let’s go see who it is. Maybe it’s workers from Georgia Power.”

We left Kathy asleep in the den and went to the front door. I checked my watch: four in the morning. Not my preferred time for houseguests.

I shone my flashlight through the window. A man and a woman about my age were standing on the front porch looking miserable. The man was shivering violently. I worried that Craig might be overly suspicious of strangers even under such circumstances, but he unlocked the door without hesitation.

“Can we help you?” he asked kindly.

“Please, please, may we come in?” said the woman in a shaking voice. “A tree fell on our house. A good part of the roof was destroyed. There’s ice and freezing rain everywhere. We can’t stay there.”

The man gave a shaky nod. “Please. It’s awful over there.”

“How terrible,” I said. “Y’all come right on in.”

“We have a fire going in the den,” said Craig. “Where do you live?” I wasn’t sure whether that question was neighborly or suspicious.

“We just moved into the house through the woods back there,” the woman said. “I’m Linda Barfield and this is my husband Jay. We saw some light through your windows so we came on over.”

“We’re Julia and Craig Walker,” I said. “Our daughter Kathy is sleeping in front of the fire.”

We went into the den. Kathy was still asleep.

“Lordy, that feels good,” said Jay heartily as he moved close to the fire.

His voice awakened Kathy. “Why are these people here?” she asked.

“Honey, these are our neighbors and they’re going to stay with us tonight,” I told her. “Their house got hurt real bad by the ice storm. It’s all right; just go back to sleep.”

“Okay,” said Kathy. She rolled over and was out within seconds. Kids.

“Thank you so much for helping us,” whispered Linda. “Do you have some place we can just lie down? The past hour has been devastating for us.”

“Let me get you some pillows and blankets out of the guest room,” I offered. “We’re all sleeping in here because it’s the only warm place in the house.”

I left the Barfields with Craig. I was afraid he might be having second thoughts about letting them in. He’s not paranoid but he can be annoyingly vigilant. It helped that their story made sense: we had heard that the Dalrymples sold their house recently, but we had no idea who bought it. Now we knew. Unless Jay and Linda were really space aliens from planet Zilmar and this was their first step in world domination. Please don’t repeat that to my husband.

I returned to the den with the bedding for our guests. Craig offered the chilly couch to Linda, who accepted it without hesitation. The two men joined Kathy and me on the floor in front of the fire. Craig had added an extra log to make sure we stayed warm. I felt safe and cozy and pleased to be a Samaritan. Sleep came easily. Maybe I could be a pioneer woman after all.

* * *

We hadn’t bothered to set an alarm clock. School had already been canceled the night before, and Craig wasn’t going to try to drive in to work. We had a couple of battery-powered radios to listen to news and weather, so we weren’t completely cut off. Craig had stockpiled enough batteries to power an office building, so our flashlights and radios were going to be fine.

I was awakened by the sound of one of those radios. I opened my eyes and was surprised to see my husband still asleep next to me. I sat up. It was barely past sunrise; the sky outside was pale grey.

Linda and Jay were sitting on the couch listening to the radio. They looked at me sheepishly.

“Sorry; we didn’t mean to wake you,” Jay said.

“We wanted to call for help, but your phone is out,” said Linda. There was a chiding undertone that suggested this was somehow our fault.

“Could you please take the radio into another room? My husband and daughter are still asleep.”

“Oh, we’ll be done in a minute,” Jay said. “We just wanted to get an update on the storm.”

I admitted to myself that I also wanted to hear the update. The highlights were dire: “One of the worst ice storms in Atlanta history…Widespread power and telephone outages…Roads are extremely hazardous…Stay inside except in an emergency.”

Jay flicked off the radio. “I’m sorry that we woke you up. We haven’t been able to sleep. Please go back to sleep if you can.”

I could, and I did.

* * *

The next time I awakened, it was much brighter outside. Kathy and Craig were just starting to stir. The Barfields were sitting on the couch, contentedly sipping from large mugs.

“Coffee,” Linda smiled. “We found a jar of instant on your shelf, so we heated some water in a saucepan over the fire. Hope that was all right.”

“We have plenty of coffee,” I answered. “I’m going to grab a little breakfast myself.”

“Me too, Mom,” said Kathy. “I’m hungry. I want some cereal.”

We went into the kitchen. Kathy pulled her favorite bowl out of a drawer and filled it with a generous helping of Quisp cereal. I opened the refrigerator, momentarily startled by the dim interior. Should have thought to put the food in the garage to keep it cool, I thought. We’ll do that after breakfast.

I reached for the lone remaining carton of milk and was startled to find it almost empty. I flipped open the cardboard spout and stared inside the carton.

“We used some milk in our coffee,” said Jay, who had come up behind me. “We left a little in the carton for the next person.”

I poured the remaining teaspoon of tepid milk onto Kathy’s cereal.

“I need more milk, Mom,” Kathy complained.

“That’s all there is, honey,” I said. “Jay, I wish that you and Linda had thought to ask before you used the milk. Now Kathy has to eat dry cereal.”

“The milk was getting ready to spoil, anyway,” said Linda, who had entered the kitchen. “You should have put it outside to keep it colder.”

“You used a lot of milk,” I said. “And you didn’t ask.”

“We always like a good amount of milk in our coffee,” Jay said. “What’s the big deal? You already said it was okay for us to be drinking the coffee.”

“You didn’t ask about that in advance, either. As it happens, that turned out to be all right. Using up Kathy’s milk was not. Please ask next time.”

“Well, excuse us for our horrible error,” said Linda, in a voice that oozed sarcasm. “It’s almost as bad as having a tree fall on your house.”

Craig spoke up. “Look, we’re sorry about your house and we’re glad to offer you shelter. But the radio says this ice storm has shut down the city and we might be trapped here for a couple of days. We’ll share what we have, but you can’t go plundering our reserves.”

“All right,” Linda assented. “We understand.” She turned to Jay and rolled her eyes. She thought I didn’t see her, but I did.

* * *

After an odd, cold breakfast, we bundled up and prepared to check out the results of the storm. Craig had already been outside to chip some ice off the stairs, and the five of us now trundled down the steps like Arctic explorers. We stopped at the bottom and took a moment to survey the landscape.

“Be careful, everyone. It’s plenty slippery out here,” Craig warned.

“Oh my God, you’re kidding,” said Jay.

My husband refused to take the bait and remained silent.

Our yard was beautiful in a deeply unsettling way. Everything had been painted with a thick coat of clear, gleaming ice. The driveway was a glassy sheet. Icicles drooled down from every branch, every leaf. I reached out to an oval ligustrum leaf glazed with ice and pulled off the frozen coating in a single piece. The image of the leaf was clear in the ice, like a fossil, and the icicle dangling from the oval made it look like a musical note.

Jay slipped and fell. My infinitely patient husband reached out a hand, but Jay ignored it and stood up on his own, after a struggle.

“It’s terrible out here,” he said. “Linda, let’s go back inside.”

His wife nodded and they returned to the house, climbing the steps with care.

Craig and Kathy and I continued to explore. Kathy found her favorite red ball coated with ice and laughed delightedly. The pond behind the house was an ice age spectacle: lovely and glistening; frozen and dead. Despite its appearance, I knew the ice on the pond wasn’t especially thick. The temperature had been above freezing the previous week.

Footing was treacherous everywhere. I found myself clutching at the air for balance more than once. As we walked around the corner of the house, Kathy slipped for the second time. She fell gently but she’d had enough.

“It’s too slippery to be fun,” she complained. “I like snow a lot better. Can we go back inside now?”

We gingerly made our way back to the house. In the den, Linda and Jay were relaxing with some books they had chosen from our overflowing bookshelves.

“Hope it was okay to read your books,” Linda said. “Wanted to make sure we had permission.”

I smiled with an effort.

* * *

The day crept by at the speed of a frozen snail. The power and phone remained out. News reports on the radio warned us that conditions were not expected to improve any time soon. We resigned ourselves to another night with the ice and the Barfields.

For dinner, we had a camper’s meal of canned soup heated over the fire. Jay spotted a can of lobster bisque and wanted it for himself. I had to inform him, with insincere regret, that a cup of milk was required to prepare it. Craig turned his head to hide a grin.

Darkness settled in as we sat listlessly in the den. Linda’s profile was outlined by the fire. She had let down her guard in the dim light and looked terribly sad. I reminded myself about the fallen tree’s assault on her house and offered a conversational olive branch.

“So, Linda, where are you and Jay from originally?”

“Toccoa,” Linda answered. I waited for elaboration but none was forthcoming.

“Where is that exactly?” I asked. I knew nothing of the city beyond its name.

“Up north,” answered Jay. “Not far from Tallulah Falls, if you’ve ever heard of that.”

“Oh, yes,” said Craig. “We visited the gorge a couple of years ago. Beautiful.”

“Yes, it is,” Linda agreed.

The conversation fell over and died.

I tried again, “As I remember, the Dalrymples’ house is pretty big. Are y’all planning to start a family?”

“We’ve never wanted children,” said Linda dismissively.

The statement hung in the air for a moment.

“Why not?” asked Kathy, with genuine puzzlement.

Jay made an effort to answer gently. “Some grownups want to have kids and others don’t. Both are fine. You’ll make your own choice when you grow up.”

Kathy still looked confused.

“I’m sure your parents love you very much,” Jay added, using the same tone of voice as a fundamentalist saying that devotees of a heathen religion are nonetheless sincere in their beliefs.

Linda’s expression was hard and unfathomable.

I glanced at my watch and faked a yawn. “I’m kind of tired. Nothing much interesting to do, sitting around in the dark. Let’s turn in early and hope that things are better tomorrow.”

* * *

Nothing was better the next morning. No power, no phone, same ice.

I had slept very poorly. Our lives felt suspended. We were immobilized as firmly as those ice-covered leaves. The radio was our only link to the outside world, and it was a one-way connection.

We were listening to the latest news reports while eating our dismal breakfast. The announcer said that conditions were still wretched all the way into South Carolina.

“Is Granny okay?” asked Kathy.

Some parents lie to their children and say that everything is peaches and smiles. Craig and I don’t do that.

“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “I sure hope so. But we can’t call her and find out. I’m sure she’s thinking about us as well.” I didn’t tell Kathy that I kept imagining Mama sprawled on the ice with no one around to help her. Being honest with my daughter didn’t mean burdening her with my darkest worries.

Craig cleared his throat. “Julia, I’m going to try chipping some of the ice off the driveway. Maybe put down some salt as well. We want to be able to get out when the roads are clear.”

I suspected he was fantasizing about escaping from the Barfields.

“That sounds fine,” I said. “I’m so tired I’m gonna lie down again. I’ll try the couch this time.”

“Linda and I are exhausted as well,” Jay said. The darkness under his eyes confirmed his statement. “We’re just going to listen to the radio or read some more of your books.”

I was sure that Jay would return to our volume of Charles Addams cartoons. I had seen him look through it several times, but hadn’t heard him laugh even once.

Linda said nothing. She put her hand on her husband’s and looked up at me. She was making less of an effort to hide her feelings today, and her expression was deeply troubled. Her gaze made me uncomfortable and I looked away.

“Time for me to lie down,” I said. “Honey, have fun chipping that ice.”

The couch embraced me. I’d almost forgotten the comfort of a soft place to sleep.

* * *

Craig was shaking my shoulder.

“Julia, wake up. Where is Kathy?”

“I’m sure she’s around,” I mumbled, my eyes still closed. “Probably up in her room playing with her dolls, even though it’s cold.”

“No, she’s not there. And I can’t find the Barfields either.”

My eyes sprang open. “Where have you looked?”

“Everywhere in the house. I came back inside after finishing the driveway and there’s no one here except you. They must be outside somewhere.”

I sat up. “Linda and Jay hated it out there. Why would they go back?”

“I don’t know,” Craig said. His worried expression matched my own feelings, for once.

“Maybe Kathy got bored and asked to go outside, and the Barfields took her,” I suggested.

“I hope that’s all it is. Grab your coat and let’s go find them.”

I quickly pulled on my shoes and my jacket. Craig’s driveway work had been at the front of the house and he hadn’t seen anyone, so we went out the back door and headed into the icescape.

The hardened beauty of the yard appeared unchanged from the previous day. We rounded the corner of the garage and I felt a tearing in my heart.

Kathy was walking on the barely frozen water of the pond. She was padding towards her beloved red ball, which had somehow made it all the way out to the middle.

Jay and Linda Barfield were standing at the edge, watching.

“Kathy!” I screamed. “Stop!”

She waved. “Hi, Mom! This is fun!”

Linda and Jay turned around. Their faces were blank, affectless.

“Kathy, listen to me,” Craig called. “Walk back to the edge of the pond as gently as you can. Pretend like you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be and you don’t want anyone to hear you. Keep your feet flat on the ice.”

Our daughter grinned that big happy grin of a six-year-old; the kind you never associate with the possibility of imminent death. She obeyed her father’s instructions, walking with great care to the edge, complete with an oooh-I’m-being-so-quiet pantomime face.

We heard the ice crack. I had a vision of a child-size coffin.

But the frozen surface held. Kathy reached the edge of the pond and came walking, slipping across the icy ground towards us. We went to her with the same wobbly speed, reaching her at last. Everything of importance was in that moment of safe reunion, the crushing hugs and joyous tears and the dark specter of sidestepped horror.

My husband and I rose from the ground and faced our enemies.

“What were you doing?” asked Craig, with the venomous understatement he used in the most serious situations.

“We were just playing,” said Jay. His voice was toneless and he kept blinking his eyes slowly, as if he were having trouble focusing.

“And you let Kathy wander onto thin ice while following a ball that somehow got out to the middle of the pond,” Craig continued, with the same quiet ferocity.

“Everything’s fine now,” Linda said. The words were conciliatory but the disappointment in her voice was chilling.

I was about to say something when I saw a man working his way through the woods. He was coming from the direction of the Barfields’ house. Jay and Linda turned to see what I was looking at, relieved that something else had caught my attention.

The man emerged from the woods. He was a police officer.

“Excuse me, folks, we’ve been working around the clock trying to handle the worst problems caused by this storm. The phones are okay over on the next block, and someone called in that a tree had crushed a good part of that house back there. Do you know who owns it?”

“We do,” said Jay, putting his arm around his wife.

The officer’s face changed. “Sir, I’ve checked inside your house and I am so, so sorry for your loss.”

“We have insurance,” said Linda.

The officer looked at her kindly. “I don’t mean the house, ma’am. I mean the little girl.”

Silence.

“We never wanted children,” said Linda, her eyes bright.

Jay pulled her close. They stood there unmoving, burned-out ruins in the frozen landscape.

The officer spoke to us quietly. “I’ll deal with this sad business. There ain’t nothing worse than losing a child. You go back inside and take care of your own little girl.”

We turned away from the painful scene and returned to our house to await the inevitable thaw that would free us.

Carl Tait is a software engineer and author of two books for older children: Tales from Valdemere Castle and Lavinia’s Ghosts. He has also written a number of short stories for adults, all of which are set in Georgia, where he grew up. He currently resides in New York City with his wife and twin daughters.

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The Last Cruise of the Plague Year

Four Days Aboard the 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise, 2020

I stepped off the elevator and onto the pool deck, with the sense that I had crossed a sort of threshold. Here the scene was quaint, almost pastoral – a gathering of metalheads, all standing in the full glare of the sun, clad in denim and leather and band shirts with jagged typography. They played ping-pong and pickup games on the basketball court. They stood around on the mini-golf course charting a path through windmills and plastic castles. They ate ice cream cones and wandered the promenade, long hair billowing in the wind. Had it always been thus? Growing up, I considered the revelry of mosh pits and rock shows to be more Lord of the Flies than anything resembling a normal gathering of people. Yet, there we were. Whatever “metalhead” stereotypes still lingered in the popular imagination seemed wholly out of place here on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, soon to depart from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

At this point I had to wonder: was it weird to put a heavy metal festival on a cruise ship? When did metal – with its demonic imagery, sledgehammer guitar riffs, and ice-cream-headache screams – become paired with tropical destinations and sandy beaches? My fellow passengers appeared to be about my own age – late 20s to mid-40s, on average – and apparently unaware that we were no longer young. Maybe it was only a matter of time before someone packed us up on a cruise ship and sent us off to the Caribbean.

Off to my right, a shirtless guy covered in tattoos attempted to balance on a boogie board tethered to a wave pool, under the watchful supervision of the staff. Perhaps he was just limbering up for a long night of body surfing and mosh pits. He appeared to be having fun, at least. And maybe this was how it should be: sun shining across the visible universe, a warm breeze blowing in from the sea, imminent departure to somewhere in the tropics. Soon we would pull out of port and be on our way – all 3,000 metalheads, 62 bands, roadies, sound technicians and cruise ship staff. I leaned over the railing and considered ordering a drink with one of those tiny umbrellas in them. It seemed like the thing to do here. We were all in Margaritaville now, whether or not we ever intended to be.

*

It was, arguably, the last cruise of the plague year.

Looking back on it now, the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise seems almost unreal, like something my 16-year-old self would have dreamed up while sitting in algebra class. My memories of the event have organized themselves into a sort of shifting collage: a series of images and impressions, sights and sounds. I’m still trying to sift through it all, even now, in order to arrive at some deeper understanding.

At the time, though, it appeared a natural progression from the shows I’d been to in the past: bigger, louder, more ostentatious, more over-the-top. I had come with Jon, my longtime friend and concert-going companion, and his girlfriend Jenny, whom I had met attending the same master’s program at Portland State University. Jon and I had been going to shows together since high school. We were coming up now on two full decades of live music, bands and setlists, lineups and post-show tinnitus ringing into the night. It was not our first time on the metal cruise – we’d previously attended in 2018 and 2019 – but did seem to be the culmination of something, at least, even without a global pandemic to contend with. Live music has, for the immediate present, been cancelled. The three of us had planned on doing this every year until we died, or the cruise stopped running, or metal disappeared from our cultural milieu completely. At the time it was unclear which would come first. By now, of course, all three seem equally plausible.

*

I walked the promenade before departure, taking in the sights.

An air of almost delirious excitement pervaded the scene as throngs of metalheads milled about in their concert attire. A sea of black T-shirts crowded my visual field, sporting band logos of varying legibility, pentagrams, album artwork, and concert tour dates from ages past. Many wore “battle jackets” – denim vests customized with band logo patches sewn onto the fabric, creating a sort of dense, homemade collage. They all seemed to drift by like cryptic messages from the cultural subconscious, or maybe shades from some as-yet unknown circle of Dante’s Inferno.

Perhaps I was simply entering the early stages of a midlife crisis, but I began to look at my surroundings with fresh eyes. What, exactly, was this place?

I saw a man wearing a shirt reading, “BORN TO ROCK DRINK AND FUCK.”

I saw a shirt reading “HELL FUCKING YEAH.”

I saw shirts with messages like “GET DRUNK OR DIE” and “KILL THE KARDASHIANS.”

I saw the phrase “FUCK THIS SHIT” emblazoned on a hockey jersey.

I saw a man wearing a shirt that read, simply, “FUCK.”

In an article for Harper’s magazine, the poet Michael Robbins writes, “Satanism in metal…is just theater, a metaphor for nonconformity that affirms dark, creative energies that orthodox political-religious-scientific thought would repress.”1 The faux-nihilism displayed here appeared to be another reflection of this: a performative construct, a way to project an image of nonconformity to the rest of the world. So was it strange, then, that all of this was taking place on a luxury cruise liner owned by Royal Caribbean? Surely it suggested, at the very least, that metal’s rebellious stance to the status quo may be compromised somewhat by its endless drive for profit. My younger self might have used the word “sellout,” but now, pushing 40 – with a home and family and teaching career and an ever-growing collection of gray hairs sprouting along my temples – it was becoming increasingly difficult to say what that term even meant anymore. Maybe nothing at all.

*

The three of us wandered the ship from venue to venue, band to band. It was like every other concert festival I had attended for the past two decades, save one exception: the almost total lack of teenagers and twentysomethings onboard. Just about everyone here was a grown-ass adult on vacation. I found myself navigating a sort of “uncanny valley” between youth and old age, mosh pits and shuffleboard. I suppose that, should the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise one day be assigned to a circle of Dante’s Inferno, the first circle – “Limbo” – would be its true and proper place.

On day two, Jon and I found ourselves on the pool deck for Grave Digger, a hoary legacy act from time immemorial, tearing through a set of beefy, riff-heavy Germanic power metal as if the past three decades never happened. Whatever year it was on the mainland no longer mattered; up onstage it was 1986 all over again and would continue to be for the next 45 minutes. Old metal musicians, it turns out, do not seem to age like the rest of us. Rather, they acquire a certain “weathered” look not unlike ancient kings or petrified wood. Chris Boltendahl, the band’s original frontman, bestrode the stage in a battle vest of his own, featuring patches of Saxon, Judas Priest, Motorhead, AC/DC, and others. His hair, long and crimped and stark white, blew majestically in the wind. He had been doing this longer than I’d been alive. He may continue doing this forever. Did the music itself sustain him? Some sort of immutable essence found between the whammy bar solos and power chord riffs? Metal – like rock ‘n’ roll more generally – is predicated on a vague promise of eternal youth. It insists that whatever forces conspire to oppress us can be overcome by growing out our hair, tuning up a guitar, and cranking up the music to ear-splitting volumes.

“Metal doesn’t sound evil,” Michael Robbins tells us in the Harper’s piece. “Evil has no particular sound…What metal sounds like is the biggest rock and roll you’ve ever heard.” And maybe this does keep one young, in a sense. Maybe these guys were onto something all along.

*

Over the years I have come to realize that, despite the current makeup of its listeners, metal should still, first and foremost, be regarded as a youth phenomenon. Its imagery and rhetoric – to say nothing of its musical aesthetic – seems to tap into some dark corner of the adolescent psyche, that sort of limbic state between childhood and adulthood in which nothing is certain, yet everything feels possible. This mindset seems hardwired into the music. In his review of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, music critic Steve Huey writes, “Nearly every song on Master of Puppets deals with the fear of powerlessness…[yet] the band reigns triumphant through sheer force – of sound, of will, of malice.” It’s the space between these emotional registers – fear and aggression, powerlessness and triumph – that creates the tension and drama on which this music depends. No wonder, then, why so many of us gravitated toward heavy metal during our teenage years. In my own career as a high school teacher, I can see this dynamic play out every day in the lives of my students, whatever their musical preference.

And yet metal doesn’t speak to us on an intellectual level at all, really, but viscerally, through sheer sonic force. Whatever this music has been trying to tell me for the past twenty years seems to lie somewhere between the whammy bar solos and the blastbeats, the twin-guitar harmonies and furious tempos, sent out like radio signals traveling through space.

*

All through the night the metalheads roamed the corridors of the ship, the casino and the sports bar, the pubs and eateries up and down the promenade. It was strange: these days I often observed myself from a distance, even while navigating the present moment. Was this a natural shift in perspective that came with age? Or did it indicate, rather, a growing self-consciousness toward my place in all of this? It was difficult to say.

At least the night was still young.

I wandered over to Studio B at about 1:30am to see Origin, whose listed performance promised something called “The World’s Biggest Heavy Metal Pillow Fight.” Upon entering the venue, I encountered a scene that could have been lifted directly from the last triptych of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: a dense crowd of people had assembled near the stage – maybe 50, maybe 100 – for the sole purpose of pummelling each other with pillows in a sort of gleeful, reckless frenzy. The band specialized in a type of hyper-technical, abrasive grindcore – a sound that, to the uninitiated, might resemble that of a lawnmower connected to a PA speaker played at 200 beats per minute. It certainly fit the general mood of the evening.

It’s hard to say what conclusions could be drawn here. The scene invoked images of Medieval battles, melee combat, and Thomas Hobbes’s “war of all against all,” ostensibly from a time when humanity lived free and wild in a state of nature, without rules or laws or social order. A time before civilization itself. I whipped out my phone to take a video for posterity. The whole thing felt like some sort of cautionary tale whose true meaning remained opaque to us.

At some point a mattress appeared. Where had it come from? How could it have gotten all the way across the ship and down here without detection? No matter: the mattress circulated the periphery of the mosh pit for a time, then was laid horizontally long enough for some brave soul to hop aboard and ride it to the front barricades. Meanwhile the pillows continued their relentless assault; stuffing lay everywhere about our feet. Small tufts of airborne fuzz floated beneath the lights and disappeared into the darkness.

What lessons could be learned from witnessing such a scene? Where, in all of this, could wisdom be found?

Jason Keyser, the band’s frontman, paused between songs to address the crowd.

“Fuckin’ beautiful,” he told us, practically swelling with pride. “They should have sent a poet.”

*

By day four the cruise had taken a toll on all of us: the lack of sleep and adequate rest, the endless series of bands, the sheer quantity of booze. Time ceased to have any real meaning, save for scheduling one band after another in four different locations for 20 hours at a stretch. I had also been fighting off some kind of upper respiratory head-and-chest cold, complete with a deep and rattling cough. Not the coronavirus, from what I understand, but one of the lesser viruses found on cruise ships – what members of the 70K Facebook group routinely cited as “boat SARS” and “boat plague,” which seemed to make the rounds every year. Jon himself contracted some sort of nasty virus in 2018, leaving him incapacitated and snoring on the couch during most of day four with a cup of tea and a pile of crumpled Kleenexes strewn about the cabin.

Anyway.

By about 9:00am, the scene in the Windjammer was pretty much what you’d expect: a crowd of people, all experiencing the same collective hangover, carrying plates stacked with eggs, bacon, potatoes, melons, bagels, danishes, breakfast cereals and fried things in varying shades of brown. The staff filled and refilled massive tankards of coffee that seemed to be emptied just as quickly. For some time—it was unclear how long—a staff member had been stationed at the entrance of the Windjammer with what appeared to be an entire gallon of hand sanitizer attached to a hand pump, ready to be deployed the moment someone stepped through the door. He stood guard, ever watchful and alert, squirting a sizable glob into the palms of anyone entering the cafe. I wondered if I should be offended. Then I glanced around at my fellow passengers—all of whom seemed to be in various stages of alcohol poisoning—sporting band T-shirts with jagged logos, pentagrams, Viking and corpse and demon imagery, some in homemade denim “battle jackets” covered in band patches, pins, studs, spikes, and metal components that gleamed in the morning sun. Everyone was fresh from the mosh pits, dehydrated, sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, mostly unshowered. I suppose that, given the state of things, a little extra hand sanitizer couldn’t hurt.

The three of us sat at a round table near the edge of the dining room.

“So it’s day four,” Jon said. “And you know what that means.”

“Yup,” I said. “It’s costume day.” Costumes had somehow become tradition on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise for reasons that remained unclear. Plucked seemingly at random from the pop culture dreamscape, they tended to filter in gradually during the first two nights – a Pikachu here, a video game character there – and reached a kind of critical mass by the end of day four.

“So the question is, will the crab-man be back? Will the mosh pits again be filled with giant, inflatable Pikachus?”

“The possibilities are endless.”

Today also included a series of special events, such as the All Star Super Jam, the Belly Flop Contest on the pool deck, and metal karaoke until dawn.

“So,” I said, squinting down at the program, “It says here that Michael Schenker is playing guitar on UFO’s “Doctor Doctor” in the All Star Super Jam. But he actually wrote the song, back in 1974. So what’s that, exactly?”

“Well, it’s certainly not a cover,” said Jenny. “I don’t think that counts.”

“He even played it last night with his new band, Michael Schenker Fest.”

“I mean, it is his birthday,” Jon replied. “I think they’re just letting him do whatever he wants.” Which turned out to be true: Michael Schenker, guitar legend of UFO and Scorpions fame, was turning 65 that day. And yet he did seem to retain a certain youthful aura. Whatever the reason, he appeared to be aging much slower than the rest of us.

We finished marking our schedules, creating a rudimentary map of how we planned to spend the next 16 hours of our lives. Ahead of us the ocean lay shimmering and blue and receding forever into the distance. At some point I had to wonder: what will this music mean to us, or to anyone, after the ice caps have melted and rising sea levels have claimed our coastal cities? I imagined the deep-sea divers of the future sifting through the ruins of our time, dredging up whatever remains of our Iron Maiden tour shirts and Cannibal Corpse hoodies, our Darkthrone and Slayer albums, our Flying V guitars and Marshall amplifiers corroded and silent beneath the sea. Perhaps they, the people of the future, would examine these artifacts and wonder what kind of people we were, what kind of music we created in our image.

I sipped my coffee and stared out to nowhere in particular.

“You know,” Jon said, after a moment, “It makes this whole thing just a bit more surreal that when you look out over the edge of the ship, there’s literally nothing around.”

*

I recall day four as winding up to some kind of climax, some peak-cruise moment just over the horizon. It all passed by like some kind of vivid, lucid dream. Add to this the constant choppy waters and high winds rocking the boat, as well as my worsening head-and-chest cold (I was currently being held upright by a combination of DayQuil, ibuprofen, Emergen-C packets, and coffee from the Windjammer, more or less in that order), and the whole thing began to take on a certain dreamy, surreal quality that was difficult to shake. But I was not quite dead yet, I decided, and continued on.

I passed Cthulhu Girl on the promenade, whom I recalled from 2019, she having spent the duration of that cruise wearing a baby blue Cthulhu onesie (complete with tendrils) to every show. She was wearing the Cthulhu costume again this year, but now with a long white lab coat and a lobster pincer replacing her left hand. I saw a guy in a full-body banana suit making a dash to the mosh pit during Toxik’s set in the Royal Theater; in the Star lounge, meanwhile, as Incantation ripped through a pummeling set of old-school death metal, I watched an elderly woman in a King Diamond shirt and Coke-bottle glasses merge into the crowd holding a Bud Light. Who was she? The grandmother of one of the band members? A general fan of the music? A premonition, perhaps, like the Ghost of Christmas Future?

Pressing questions, all.

I returned to the cabin at some point for a quick breather between bands. I opened the sliding glass door and looked out to sea, sipping from a tumbler of smuggled bourbon as the sun set over the water. By now I had watched people bodysurf in four different venues of varying sizes, had myself lifted shoes and limbs and sweaty torsos to the front barricades. I had seen a grown man in a Pikachu costume headbanging in a crowd, one wearing a giant pink bunny suit running through a mosh pit, and another wearing the flag of Norway as a T-shirt, a plastic Viking helmet atop his head, drinking two beers at once.

It had been a long day.

I leaned over the railing and watched the waves sparkle into infinity. It seemed to go on forever: a world without end. I could think back to the time I was sixteen, fifteen. Twelve. I remembered first hearing the chugging power chord riffs, the shredding solos and harmonized guitar trellises sounding sharp as razor wire, played with almost manic speed and power. This music taught us how to “rebel” at the age of 15, but had nothing to say about what to do at, say, 36, or 40, or 50. It was never clear what was supposed to happen when we reached our parents’ age, who we were supposed to be, how we were supposed to live our lives. On this point metal was – and is – notably silent.

So what’s next? The question no longer feels hypothetical. I write this from my home in Portland, Oregon, sheltering in place amid a global pandemic. These days I take long walks down the footpaths of my neighborhood, staying six feet apart from the nearest person. I pace the kitchen and play music through a Bluetooth travel speaker and wait for the world to return to normal. It allows time for reflection, for looking back on the bands Jon and I have seen over the past two decades, the concert festivals and mosh pits, the almost visceral connection I’ve felt to this music since I discovered Metallica at the age of 12. Whatever keeps me coming back seems inextricably tied to those adolescent years, to that feeling of being stretched between worlds for the first time. Our own world, meanwhile, remains in stasis, its ordinary rhythms suspended, and I can’t help but notice a faint echo of my past in all of this. It’s almost enough to make me feel young again.

1“Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives: A Poet’s Guide to Metal.” Harper’s, May 2014.

Kevin Hadsell is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. His work appears in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Portland State Vanguard, and Euphemism, a literary journal produced by Illinois State University.

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The Nine Lives Of Mr. Snuggles

The woman behind the front desk snapped her gum at Linda’s entrance, but didn’t look up from the phone in her hand. Linda didn’t bother to say hello, a habit long since abandoned. The woman behind the desk, for her part, had never even put in the effort. To be fair, Linda came like clockwork every week. Wednesday 4 PM. Her visits locked in as part of both women’s routines, but it still bothered her. The two women were close to the same age, both in their mid-fifties, so Linda held the woman to the same standards in which she held herself. Good money paid for the place, not Linda’s money, but perfectly good money nonetheless. The least they could do was greet visitors.

The decoration of the nursing home’s lobby was spartan and mostly bare, but the walls were freshly painted and the nooks and crannies were kept well-dusted. A large decorative piece of hammered brass hung on one wall, interconnecting swirls. A vase of fresh flowers sat on a shelf, daisies, bright yellow eyes fringed by white petals. Minus the less than attentive doorkeeper, it gave the sense that it was not a bad place, but also not one with too many frills.

The woman behind the desk snapped her gum again. Linda walked through the lobby and entered the maze of memorized hallways which led to Tatie Martha’s room. The hallway carpet was thin, clean, and durable. The whole place stank of chemical cleaners, medication, and a slight undertone of urine. The first two rooms she passed were the sitting room and the dining room, French doors pulled open. The decoration closely resembled that of a mid-line hotel. The head nurse, her name was Boggs, was leaning over and helping an old man with a puzzle. The old man breathed through a tube in his nostrils and he sat as a building with its top floors slowly collapsing into those below. A floating red balloon was tied to his chair. Nurse Boggs, seeing Linda walk by, rose and moved to follow.

“Mrs. Dubois?”

Linda stopped and turned. The head nurse was a large woman. Not fat, just bulky. Big arms and shoulders pressing against the confines of her scrubs. Perfectly formed for lifting and carrying. Despite her bulk she was light on her feet. Gliding across the ugly carpet in her bright red Crocs.

“Yes?”

“Mrs. Dubois. I assume you are on your way to visit your aunt.”

“Yes.”

Linda wanted to state that there certainly wasn’t anyone else she had any interest in visiting, but did not. Nurse Boggs was a humorless woman.

“Good. I wanted to catch you before you saw her. Mr. Snuggles died last night.”

Linda bit her lower lip. Mr. Snuggles was Tatie Martha’s cat, or apparently, had been her cat. A big elderly Maine coon who had spent most of his time lying in the bathroom sink, meowing at anyone who entered until they gave in and ran the water on him. Mr. Snuggles had been the compromise when it had come time to move Tatie Martha into the nursing home. It had been an expensive compromise, but in Linda’s mind, well worth it.

“When did he die?”

The head nurse’s face betrayed no emotion.

“We found him this morning when she was at breakfast and we were cleaning the room. He was dead on the bed.”

“I see.”

“He was an old cat.”

“Yes, I know.”

“She doesn’t know that he’s dead yet.”

The two women stared at each other for a moment. Nurse Boggs stank of cigarettes and canned air freshener.

“Beg pardon?”

“Your aunt, she doesn’t know that Mr. Snuggles is dead.”

Linda squeezed at a tight spot on her shoulder.

“Why haven’t you told her?”

“Union contract says we don’t have to tell her. We already deal with enough without delivering your bad news on top of it.”

“I see.”

“She won’t quit asking about that cat.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Okay then.”

Linda turned and started down the hall. Nurse Boggs’ voice carried after her.

“Mrs. Dubois?”

Linda turned back.

“Yes.”

“What would you like us to do with it?”

“Do with what?”

“The cat?”

Linda twisted the wedding ring on her finger. She gave herself a moment before she spoke.

“The dead cat?”

“Yes. Mr. Snuggles.”

“You want to know what to do with a dead cat?”

“Yes.”

“It’s dead. Just throw it in the dumpster.”

“Okay. Just checking. People often do all sorts of weird things with their pets. Get them cremated, pressed into diamonds, all sorts of crazy things. I have a cousin who does that kind of work. Eighty bucks just for yours, forty if it gets done with a bunch and you’re okay with just getting an equivalent amount of ash.”

“A bunch, like a bunch of pets all at once?”

“Yes, whatever gets brought in that day.”

“Just throw it in the trash.”

“Okay, just checking, she really loved that cat.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I’ll leave you to it then.”

The head nurse turned and stalked back to helping the old man with his puzzle. Linda turned and headed further into the maze. Tatie Martha’s room was on the end of the west hall. Most of the doors were closed, names neatly written on each. The door three up from Tatie Martha’s was open. A dresser had been shoved across the opening, blocking the bottom two-thirds. A distinguished gray-haired gentleman stood behind the dresser in freshly ironed pajamas, the creases perfectly straight and razor sharp, a broom held at the ready.

“Halt, who goes there?”

Linda moved herself towards the far side of the hall and sidled past.

“Just me, Mr. Martin, Linda Dubois.”

The old man blinked his milky eyes and squinted.

“Of course, Mrs. Dubois. Be careful out there. The last patrol hasn’t reported in yet.”

“I will, Mr. Martin.”

Mr. Martin relaxed and put the broom on his shoulder, standing more erect than many younger men. Linda moved past, down to the end of the hall. Tatie Martha’s name tag was written in a flowery cursive with flowers made of tissue taped to either side. Linda knocked on the door.

“It’s open.”

The voice was gravelly and sounded similar to someone speaking with a large marshmallow in their mouth. Linda opened the door. The apartment was not large. A small sitting area with a loveseat and chair facing a TV. A tiny kitchenette with a two-burner stovetop and a mini-fridge. An open doorway leading back to the bedroom and bathroom. A large painting, dark with age and grime, hung on one wall. A telephone and a few personal knickknacks sat on two end tables. Tatie Martha sat in the chair, watching the TV. At Linda and Roger’s wedding she had been spry and thin, wine glass in hand, dancing with the younger men, laughing at their reddening faces as she whispered in their ears. That had been thirty years ago. The woman sitting in the chair was gaunt and decidedly crone-like. Skin hanging off bones. Gray half-combed hair hanging down to her shoulders. Tatie Martha wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“Linda, how good to see you.”

Linda hurriedly closed the door behind her.

“Tatie, you’re topless.”

The old woman looked down at herself and then went back to watching the TV.

“They put wires in my shirt.”

“Tatie, what are you talking about?”

“The wires. The wires in my shirt. You know, so they know when I get out of bed.”

“Tatie, that was only in the hospital.”

Tatie Martha had toppled over in the hallway a month ago, which had earned her a stay in the hospital for a of couple of days. Tatie Martha, a widow for over forty years, had never been one to ask for help. Though unsteady on her feet, she had balked at the doctor’s orders to have a nurse help her use the restroom. The result had been a gown wired with electronics to tell the doctors when she moved. Tatie Martha had not been pleased.

“Are you sure, dear?”

“Yes, Tatie, just in the hospital.”

Linda went into the bedroom and got a shirt out of the closet. She took it back into the main room and showed Tatie Martha the back and front.

“See, no wires.”

“Show me the back again.”

Tatie Martha leaned in close and studied the shirt carefully, then demanded to see the front again and studied it as well. Finally satisfied, she allowed Linda to help her put the shirt on, but insisted on buttoning it herself. Settled, Tatie Martha turned off the TV and got unsteadily to her feet.

“Damn idiot box. Suck the life out of you if you let it.”

Linda kept her mouth shut. Tatie Martha had never been much of a reader, and aside from social activities put on by the home, Linda doubted she did much but watch the TV. Tatie Martha gesticulated with her bony hand.

“Do you want some tea, dear?”

“Thank you. I can get it.”

“Nonsense. Nonsense.”

Tatie Martha gestured for Linda to sit down and shuffled her way slowly to the counter of the kitchenette. Linda sat on the edge of the loveseat, her limbs as tense as a spooked deer, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice. The old woman put a kettle of water on one of the electric burners and pulled a box of teabags out of the cupboard.

“How is Roger, dear?”

Tatie Martha always asked about Roger. Tatie Martha adored Roger, or at least she adored the younger version of him that had gotten stuck into her head. Roger used to come by to visit every now and again, sometimes with Linda, and sometimes by himself, but then had stopped nine months ago. He had come alone and found himself talking to a woman, who though she answered every question, was obviously very confused. When he had gone to use the toilet Tatie Martha had called the nurse to report that there was a strange man in her bathroom. Roger had quit coming after that. When Linda bothered him about it, he had said he really didn’t see the point. Tatie Martha never forgot Linda, though to be fair, it might have been more of a function of repetitiveness rather than any kind of special bond.

“Roger is fine, Tatie, he sends his love. He’s quite busy.”

“That boy, always up to something. If I was him, I wouldn’t work so hard if I had a wife like you at home.”

Linda didn’t answer, she just sat, twisting her wedding ring on her finger. The ring felt too big. Linda found herself repeatedly checking to make sure it didn’t fall off. Tatie Martha hummed to herself as the kettle began to boil. She steeped the tea and poured it into two cups she pulled from the cupboard.

“That idiot box. I’ll tell you, the things I see on it, and to think that Philip Foss once called me uncouth. There’s nothing I ever did half of what you see on that thing.”

Linda smiled politely. She had no idea who Philip Foss was.

“Milk, dear?”

“Thank you.”

Tatie Martha shuffled back over with a tea saucer firmly clenched in each hand. With each step hot tea slopped out onto the saucers. Linda rose and took the saucers, and then handed one back when the old woman had gotten herself settled. Tatie Martha had left the burner on, but Linda ignored it. They were made to automatically shut off after fifteen minutes. A prudent safety precaution given the number of meals burnt to a crisp in the waning days of Tatie Martha living in her own house. The two sat quietly and sipped their tea.

“So how are things going, Tatie?”

“Oh, as fine as can be expected. I’m very old, you know.”

“Yes, Tatie, nearly ninety.”

“The nurses tell me they’ll have a big party. Quite a milestone. You’ll have to come of course.”

“Of course I’ll be there.”

“Probably the usual. You know, cake, ice cream. You have to give people here something to look forward to, something to live for, otherwise they’ll just up and die you know. Of course we’ll have to get a party hat for Mr. Snuggles.”

Linda looked down at her tea. Tatie Martha did not seem to notice.

“He’ll look so handsome, a big cat like him in a party hat. We’ll have to get lots of pictures.”

Tatie Martha finished her tea and put the saucer on the side table.

“I’m not sure where the big brute is right now. He was still asleep on my bed when I went to breakfast, but he was gone by the time I got back.”

The old woman gave a lecherous wink.

“Probably out carousing. He’s still fairly roguish for such an old cat.”

Linda took a deep breath and let it out. Her hands were shaking so she balled them into fists and willed them unsuccessfully to stop.

“Tatie?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I have to tell you something.”

“What is it, dear?”

“Mr. Snuggles is dead. He passed away last night.”

“What?”

“The nurses found him dead on your bed this morning when they came in to clean the room.”

The old woman turned away and stared at the blank TV screen. Her jaw worked back and forth and a muscle in her cheek twitched. A couple of tears fell, and then the old woman bawled like a child. She curled over herself as best as her arthritic joints would let her, held her knees, and bawled. Wet eyes. Snotty nose. The works. Linda had never seen anything like it before.

“Mr. Snuggles…my dear little kitty…Mr. Snuggles.”

Linda laid her hand on Tatie Martha’s back. She got Kleenexes so the old woman could blow her nose. The old woman didn’t stop crying. Not for a moment. Not even when the nurses came to take her for dinner at 5:30 PM. Tatie Martha tried to compose herself, but she just kept sobbing. The nurses were insistent that she go eat. Nurse Boggs had Tatie Martha in her strong grip.

“There, there, dear. We’ll get a little food in you. It will help you feel better.”

Linda thought about trying to stop them, but after watching Tatie Martha cry for an hour, she was out of ideas. Linda had never seen Tatie Martha show so much emotion about anything. The door shut and the room fell into silence. Linda washed and dried the teacups in the small sink, put them away, and drove home. Roger wasn’t home. A message on her phone told her that he had to work late. Linda had two glasses of wine at dinner instead of the usual one.
 

The flowers in the lobby needed water. When Linda came into the nursing home she tried to mention as much to the woman at the front desk. The woman at least had the grace to take her eyes off her phone for a minute, but it was only to look at the vase and then stare at Linda until she walked away. The old man in the sitting area was still working on his puzzle, wheezing through the hissing hose in his nose. Linda took a step far enough in to try and see what the puzzle was. Most of the outside was complete and about a third of the interior. Something with hot air balloons. Every movement by the old man was sure and careful. He eyed the pieces until he saw what he wanted, then picked one up and put it in its place. He never lifted a piece unless he knew where it was supposed to go.

The hallway down to Tatie Martha’s room was quiet. Mr. Martin’s door was open as it always was. The dresser was gone. Farther in a barricade had been built using various chairs and end tables. The center of the barricade was an old overstuffed flower print couch with the seats facing inward. Mr. Martin was crouched on the cushions, his broom pointed over the top of the back of the couch. His normally immaculate pajamas were badly out of order, and Linda could see the whites all around his pupils. Linda glanced in the room, hesitated, and started to go by.

“Get down, you damn fool!”

The yell made Linda jump. She scurried down the hall, her heart racing, to get herself out of the way. At Tatie Martha’s door she paused to compose and prepare herself. It had been a week. Surely things were okay by now. Linda knocked.

“It’s open.”

Linda opened the door. The old woman was sitting in her chair watching television.

“Linda, how good to see you.”

“How are you doing, Tatie?”

“Very good, thank you for asking. Please, sit down.”

Tatie Martha motioned for Linda to sit down on the loveseat. Linda did so gratefully, pulling her skirt to keep it from getting rumpled. Tatie Martha turned off the TV.

“This idiot box. What a waste of time. You wouldn’t believe the things you see on it. Some of the things would turn even old Philip Foss’s face red, I’ll tell you that much.”

Linda smiled.

“How is Roger, dear?”

Linda’s fists involuntarily clenched her skirt. When she noticed she nervously smoothed it with her hands. Tatie Martha didn’t seem to notice.

“He’s fine. He wanted to be here, but he had to work.”

“Oh that scamp. He’s always working too hard. What’s the point of working if one isn’t going to enjoy life.”

“Yes.”

“Would you like some tea, dear?”

“I can get it.”

“Nonsense, you stay right there.”

They chatted about the weather while Tatie Martha made the tea. Linda tried not to watch her too closely. If Tatie Martha noticed Linda watching her too closely, waiting for her to burn herself, she got very cranky. Linda mostly watched from the corner of her eye and occasionally looked out the window. There was a nice middle-aged elm in view. The leaf-covered branches swayed in the breeze. Tatie Martha shuffled back with the cups and saucers. Linda got up to help her. The two women sat down to enjoy their tea.

“Well, Tatie, you seem better this week.”

“Thank you, dear. Better than what?”

“Than how I left you last week. You know, when I told you about Mr. Snuggles.”

Tatie Martha put her cup and saucer down on the end table and pulled a blanket onto her waist. At the mention of Mr. Snuggles her attention, normally scattered, coalesced onto Linda.

“What about Mr. Snuggles?”

Linda felt a pit deep in her stomach. Her mouth moved of its own volition.

“When we talked about how Mr. Snuggles had died.”

“Mr. Snuggles is dead?”

The voice sounded small, almost childlike. Someone speaking from a much farther distance away. Linda reached forward and put her hand on the old woman’s blanket-covered knee.

“Tatie, he died last week.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“I did tell you.”

“Oh God.”

Tatie Martha collapsed into sobs, her head as close to her knees as she could get it, her back wracked by heavy phlegmy blubbering. The crying was every bit as bad as last time. The old woman drowning in a sea of escaping emotion. Tatie Martha wouldn’t stop crying. Linda did her best to comfort her, but it did little and soon collapsed into handing over Kleenexes and studying the large painting hanging on the wall. It was of a shepherd trying to force his flock into a small shed in the middle of a severe snowstorm. One hand held his hat, the other a crook outstretched to force the last of the sheep in. It looked warm inside the shed. The frame was finely made, dark and polished, with swirls and sweeps.

Tatie Martha cried until the nurses came to take her for dinner at 5:30 PM. The nurses insisted she go eat. She was still weeping when Nurse Boggs lifted her with her big hands, cooing as they moved her along while the shepherd with his crook watched.

“There, there, dear. We’ll get a little food in you. It will help you feel better.”

Linda gave the head nurse a dirty look for not warning her. Nurse Boggs ignored it. The door closed and the room fell into silence. Linda washed and dried the teacups in the small sink, put them away, and drove home. Roger wasn’t home again. There was another message that he would have to work late. Linda ate dinner, drank two glasses of wine, thought about a third, and compromised with a half. She then had a quick frustrated cry and went to bed.
 

The flowers in the lobby were visibly drooping. Nurse Boggs was waiting for Linda when she came inside. The head nurse’s big arms were crossed in front of her. Slabs of flesh, tense and obviously agitated. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand which she held out the moment Linda walked in the door.

“Mrs. Dubois, we need to talk.”

Linda took the piece of paper. It appeared to be a flyer with handwritten flowery cursive letters. A photograph of a large old gray Maine coon had been pasted in the center beneath the words, Missing Cat. Linda heard a slight snort behind her. She turned her head and looked at the woman behind the front desk. The woman didn’t look up from her phone, but Linda could almost swear that she saw a ghost of a smile on her lips.

“Mrs. Dubois?”

Linda returned her focus to the bulky woman before her.

“Yes?”

“This is something we need to take care of.”

“It’s just a poster.”

“She’s put several up throughout the center.”

Linda looked at the poster again. It was kind of funny. Almost like something a child would make. She smiled to herself. Nurse Boggs wasn’t smiling.

“Mrs. Dubois, things like this can upset the patients. This is a situation we need you take care of.”

“I don’t know what you want me to do. I’ve already told her twice.”

“She is your aunt. We need you to take care of this. If we try and take them down she gets very upset.”

Mr. Martin marched by the lobby door. His pajamas were parade ground pressed and his broomstick was placed perfectly on his shoulder. The old man’s slippers flopped with every step. Seeing Nurse Boggs, Mr. Martin did an about-face, came to attention, and shot the head nurse a perfunctory salute.

“Still no sign of the missing cat, ma’am, but we’ll keep up the search.”

Nurse Boggs glowered. Another quiet snort came from the woman behind the front desk. Mr. Martin stayed at attention, waiting for his salute, but after a few heartbeats gave up, made a quarter-turn, and marched off down the hallway. Nurse Boggs leaned in close to Linda, her jaw clenched, her breath reeking of menthols.

“Just take care of it.”

Nurse Boggs turned and stalked after Mr. Martin. Linda carefully folded the flyer and put it in her purse. There were more. One in the sitting room where the old man with the hoses in his nose did his puzzle, one in the dining room, and one on Tatie Martha’s door. Tatie Martha must have run out of good pictures of Mr. Snuggles. The flyer on her door did not include a photograph, but rather a rough sketch of the big cat, which Linda had to admit didn’t look half-bad. In the lobby it had been a little funny. Outside Tatie Martha’s door it wasn’t funny at all. Linda took a deep breath and let it out. She took a second. No time like the present. Linda knocked on the door.

“It’s open.”

Linda opened the door. Tatie Martha was sitting in her chair, scribbling on a piece of paper on top of a hardback book on her lap. The television was turned off. Linda closed the door and the old woman looked up.

“Linda, how nice to see you.”

“Hello Tatie.”

“How’s Roger, dear?”

“He’s good, Tatie.”

Linda sat down on the loveseat. The old woman went back to working on her poster. It was another flyer with a hand-drawn picture of a large Maine coon. Linda’s hands wouldn’t quit shaking, so she latched them onto her knees. It couldn’t wait. Tatie Martha had to know.

“Tatie, the nurse wanted me to talk to you about the posters.”

Tatie Martha’s face went cross.

“Does that witch still want me to take them down? Mr. Snuggles is missing. I’m quite worried.”

“Tatie…”

“That woman is colder than Philip Foss’s wife.”

“Tatie. Mr. Snuggles is dead.”

“What? When?”

“Two weeks ago?”

Linda would have probably been better off waiting. The implosion was every bit as impressive as the two times before, only now it had the added impressiveness of longevity to its magnificence. The clock read 4:15 PM when Linda broke the news. Over the next hour and fifteen minutes the storm failed to subside even a little. Linda couldn’t fathom where Tatie Martha got the energy. She was a perpetual motion machine of anguish and despair. Linda sat through it as best she could. The shepherd in the painting stared down at her from his perch on the wall. His hand clenching his hat to his head to keep it from blowing off in the gale, the other guiding his frightened flock. Linda held onto the edge of the loveseat with one hand, and with the other held out Kleenexes.

Tatie Martha’s blubbering rose and fell, bringing and dashing hopes of it subsiding with deft swell swoops. The pile of dirty Kleenexes grew into a mountain. At 5:30 relief finally came. Nurse Boggs and another nurse entered and carried the still-weeping old woman out to dinner. Linda sat for about fifteen minutes, basking in the silence, and then left. The flyers were all gone. Linda caught sight of Tatie Martha in the dining hall, sitting at the end of one table, silently sobbing into her soup. Mr. Martin sat next to her, chattering away and happily slurping up the contents of his own bowl.

There was no message that night, but Linda knew Roger wasn’t going to be home at a reasonable hour. She made herself dinner and ate it alone in front of the TV. The three glasses of wine felt like a necessity.
 

The flowers were in desperate need of water. Several of them were noticeably hanging over the side of the vase, their bright yellow faces staring at the ground. Many of the white petals were curling back. The woman behind the front desk didn’t give them any notice. Linda went into the dining room and came back with a glass of water. She stared at the woman as she poured the water into the vase. The woman behind the front desk looked up for a moment, slipped a lock of hair behind her ear, and went back to staring at her phone. Linda took the glass back to the dining room. Her throat hurt, so she drank some water and then stood with her hands clenching white-knuckled to the edge of the sink. Stupid bitch. Why the hell was a woman like that allowed to work in a place like this?

Nurse Boggs came into the dining room. The scuffle of her bright red Crocs on the ugly carpet the only thing giving her away.

“Afternoon, Mrs. Dubois.”

Linda’s entire body tensed up. She slowly willed all of her muscles to release, and then turned towards the hulking form of the head nurse.

“Afternoon, Nurse Boggs.”

“Mrs. Dubois, I just thought I’d better tell you that we are still experiencing our little problem with your aunt.”

“The cat still.”

“Yes, Mrs. Dubois. Mr. Snuggles.”

Linda stared down at the head nurse’s Crocs, the woman’s white socks shining brightly from the holes in the foam resin. Linda took a deep breath and let it out.

“Thank you for letting me know.”

Nurse Boggs turned and walked out of the dining room. Linda’s jaw tightened and she shook her fists with frustration. Stupid bitch. Stupid good for nothing bitch. She couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t keep telling Tatie Martha about the damn dead cat. She just couldn’t. Not today. Not this week. If the old woman didn’t want to remember, then so be it. Linda could just play along. Linda took a few more deep breaths to calm herself down, and then headed down the hall.

Mr. Martin’s door was closed. It was the first time Linda could ever remember the door being closed. As she moved past a shadow flickered on the carpet, almost as if someone were lying on the floor, trying to stare through the crack underneath the door. Crazy ass old man. Linda stood in front of Tatie Martha’s door, clenched and unclenched her hands, put a smile on her face, and knocked.

“It’s open.”

It was the same as it was every week. Tatie Martha sitting in her chair, flicking off the TV as soon as Linda entered. The same complaints about the stupid idiot box. The same niceties in the exact same tone. A frozen world of déjà vu.

“How is Roger doing?”

“He’s still amongst the living.”

“Are you coming down with something. You sound a little hoarse.”

“No, I’m fine. Just strained my voice.”

Tatie Martha made the tea. Her slow unsteady movements raising the hairs on the back of Linda’s neck with every shuffling step. The two sat and chatted, Linda letting the older woman direct the conversation.

“It will be my ninetieth birthday soon. They tell me I’m going to have a big party.”

“I know, Tatie. I’m looking forward to it.”

“They’ll have cake and ice cream. Everyone will be there, even Mr. Snuggles. We’ll have to put him in a party hat. He’ll look so handsome.”

“Yes, Tatie. We’ll have to make sure to get some pictures.”

“That old scamp is somewhere carousing. I haven’t seen him all day. The nurses tell me he’s off entertaining some of the other residents. Isn’t that sweet of him?”

“Yes, Tatie.”

Linda kept her smile plastered on her face. She took the teacups and washed and dried them while Tatie Martha waxed about her favorite subject.

“That Mr. Snuggles, such a strange cat. Did I ever tell you, Linda, how I never had a cat before, but when he showed up begging for scraps, I just couldn’t turn him away.”

“Yes, Tatie.”

“Such a strange cat. He used to always hop in the shower with me. Can you believe it? Have you ever heard of a cat who likes water, Linda? Of course, I shut the bathroom door so he can’t do it now. The last thing a woman at my age needs is a fall in the tub, but sometimes I run the shower just for him. Can you believe it?”

“Yes, Tatie.”

“Do you remember when he got that piece of tape on his side? I swear, he was walking around just like Mr. Philip Foss at the company Christmas party.”

“Yes, Tatie.”

On and on it went. Linda found it difficult to look at Tatie Martha. She looked up at the painting on the wall. The shepherd seemed to be staring down at her with disapproval. She could almost see him shaking his head. Linda kept her eyes on her knees, or the arm of Tatie Martha’s chair.

“Dear, are you alright?”

“Yes, just tired.”

“Are you sure you’re not coming down with something? You sound so hoarse.”

“Yes, Tatie. I’m sure.”

The clock ticked over towards 5:30. Tatie Martha looked up at it and smiled.

“Look at the time. It’s almost time for dinner. This has been such a lovely visit.”

“Yes, Tatie, I better leave you to your dinner.”

“It was so good to see you.”

“I’ll see you next week.”

“Of course, hopefully you’ll be able to see Mr. Snuggles then.”

Linda rose. The shepherd glowered down at her. She moved to the door, paused, took a deep breath, and turned around.

“Tatie, there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What is it, dear?”

“It’s about Mr. Snuggles.”

“What about Mr. Snuggles?”

The jagged words caught in Linda’s already roughened throat. She swallowed them back down, and tried again.

“Well, you see…”

“Yes, dear?”

“Mr. Snuggles is dead. He died a couple of weeks ago.”

It was like a bomb going off. Tatie Martha’s eyes grew wide, the tears began to fall, and then the inevitable collapse. The nurses opened the door right as it began, a youngish nurse followed by Nurse Boggs. The youngish nurse froze in horror at the spectacle before her. Nurse Boggs tried to push the youngish nurse forward, but was thrown back by an anguished sob. The pair retreated into the hall and Linda hastily followed. Nurse Boggs had the youngish nurse by the arm and was hissing orders into her ear.

“Get the sedatives.”

Nurse Boggs gave the youngish nurse a healthy shove down the hallway and then turned towards Linda, her features ablaze with irritation. Linda, her face crimson and tears pouring down her face, rushed past in full flight. As she rushed past the sitting room the old man with the hose in his nose raised his head and watched her go by. The woman behind the front desk didn’t even look up. Out the door. To the car. Linda drove as if possessed. The car came to a halt ten blocks away and Linda laid her head onto the steering wheel and cried until a friendly policeman knocked on the window to make sure she was okay.

When Linda got home Roger was sitting on the couch watching television. He watched her come in with hangdog eyes. Linda went into the kitchen without a word and ate leftovers by herself.
 

The bright yellow centers had faded and the white petals were streaked with brown. Linda marched through the lobby without looking left or right. She had made her decision in the car. She wasn’t going to tell Tatie Martha about Mr. Snuggles. What was the point? If she was constantly going to forget, why did Linda have to keep putting her through the pain week after week? It wasn’t fair to either of them. She strode past the sitting room where the head nurse was helping the old man with the hose in his nose with his puzzle. It was a new one now. It looked like a Monet painting. Nurse Boggs straightened her back as Linda strode past.

“Mrs. Dubois?”

Linda didn’t stop.

“Not now.”

The head nurse hung back, a look of surprise on her face. The old man with the hose in his nose watched Linda stride past the open French doors, and then went back to his puzzle. Mr. Martin’s door was open, but there was no sign of the old man. Linda stopped and listened, wary of an unexpected surprise. One heartbeat. Two. Silence. Linda walked past and knocked on Tatie Martha’s door.

“It’s open.”

Tatie Martha in her chair. Comments about the idiot box. Offhand reference about Philip Foss, this one involving how no one on TV was ever dressed up and how Philip Foss was always immaculately dressed in a fine suit and vest with a perfectly knotted bow tie.

“How’s Roger?”

“Fine.”

“Still working hard?”

“Probably.”

“Oh, that nephew of mine. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

An offer for tea which Linda of course accepted. The old woman performing her usual shuffle, each step choreographed perfectly to the week before. Linda watched from the loveseat. The shepherd in the painting seemed to be glaring down at her. Linda glared back. When Tatie Martha returned with the tea Linda smiled at her. The old woman smiled back, showing the slowly wearing away teeth of the elderly.

“I’m going to have my ninetieth birthday soon.”

“Yes, Tatie.”

“It will be so exciting. I’m going to try to get Mr. Snuggles in a birthday hat.”

“Yes, Tatie.”

“Do you think he’ll wear one?”

“Probably.”

“He’s such a funny cat.”

The conversation drifted gently down the stream of thoughts. Linda could feel the shepherd in the painting staring lightning bolts down on her. Linda ignored him. She smiled. She laughed demurely. She did everything she was supposed to do.

“Linda dear, do you remember when Roger got me that laser pointer?”

“Yes, Tatie.”

“Oh what fun we had using it to play with Mr. Snuggles. The little scamp just couldn’t figure it out. Darting from one end of the room to the other. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in years.”

It had been years since Roger had brought the laser pointer. The clock made its way around with a beat that seemed to slow the farther along it went. 5:00. 5:15. 5:25. Tatie Martha noted the position of the hands and gave a smile.

“Oh look at the time. This has been such a wonderful visit. I hardly want it to end.”

“It will be dinner soon, Tatie.”

“Oh yes, of course. Even an old bag of bones like me needs to eat.”

The two women rose. Tatie Martha in a slow and shaky ascent. Linda easier, but with a weight on her shoulders. She could almost hear the shepherd in the painting screaming at her.

“Give me a hug, dear, before you leave.”

Linda embraced the old woman. She smelled of dust and Bengay. They released and Tatie Martha walked Linda to the door.

“Yes, such a nice visit. I look forward to next week.”

Linda opened the door. Mr. Martin was outside. He was partway through a pirouette to march back up the hall when he saw the two women. He came to attention and gave a smart salute. When his hand fell his mouth opened.

“Good to see you out and about, ma’am. I was very sorry to hear about the death of your cat a couple weeks ago.”

Collapse. Screams. Tears. The nurses came rushing down the hall. Linda didn’t even try to stay and comfort the old woman. She couldn’t do it anymore. She just couldn’t. That son of a bitch. Fucking Mr. Martin. That big mouth son of a bitch. She had been so close. It had been such a nice visit. Linda moved down the hall at a rapid pace. She kept her eyes pointed at her feet. She refused to look anyone in the eyes. Past the nurses and past the sitting room. The old man with the hose in his nose watched her go, shaking his head with disapproval. Through the lobby and out the door. To her car. Driving home. Straight home. Escaping. Running away. That stupid senile son of a bitch.

Roger wasn’t home when she got there. Linda didn’t bother with dinner. She sat in the kitchen and drank glass after glass until the wine bottle was empty. At midnight she heard his car in the drive. The sound of his key in the front door. She tipped the last of her glass down her gullet, and thus focused, headed forward to intercept his entrance.
 

The petals were falling. Half were already gone. Stiffened and curled they lay in a sickly white halo around the vase. Linda was late coming in. She had waited in her car around the corner until she saw Nurse Boggs come out the side door for her smoke. The big woman held the cigarette with a surprising daintiness for her size. A bear with a baby bird in its paw. The woman behind the front desk ignored her as she always did, though Linda could have sworn that she felt the woman’s eyes following her once her back was turned. They all watched her. The man with the hose in his nose. The nurses going about their business. Even Mr. Martin, sitting sedately on his couch, watching a fly buzz around his room. Linda ignored them all. She just couldn’t take it anymore. She just couldn’t handle it. If nobody liked how she was handling the situation, then they could deal with it. The hell with them. Linda knocked on Tatie Martha’s door.

“It’s open.”

It was a perfect copy of the day before. The scene unchanged. Everything in its place. Tatie Martha knew her lines by heart. Idiot box. Some random comment about Philip Foss. Who the hell was Philip Foss? The polite offer for tea. An offer to help declined. The same moments in the same order.

“How’s Roger?”

“He’s okay, I guess.”

The shepherd glared from his perch up on the wall. Linda ignored him, same as all the others. Tatie Martha brought back the tea and they sat and talked. For a moment, Linda held out the hope that the news had finally stuck, that Tatie Martha’s memory, wearing away with every cycle, like an overplayed cassette tape, had finally managed to retain this single kernel of knowledge. The hope was in vain. The old woman started in with her birthday. Her ninetieth birthday. It was a natural progression from there. Linda knew every part by heart. Mr. Snuggles would look good in a birthday hat. They would have to get some pictures. Where was Mr. Snuggles now? Probably just out carousing. You know how he is. Such a lively cat. He’ll probably be pawing at the door any moment now, wanting to get let back in. Linda’s hands began to shake so badly that she had to put her cup and saucer down on the end table and clutch her knees. She was tired. She was just so fucking tired.

“Such a funny cat. You know dear, he was always hopping in the shower with me. Mr. Snuggles just loves the water. I of course had to put a stop to it though. The nurses were worried that he’d trip me up and I’d fall. Plus, you know, my modesty.”

The old woman gave an exaggerated wink.

“Yes, Tatie.”

The image of Mr. Snuggles lying in the sink drifted up before Linda’s eyes. The cat’s giant gray body filling the space completely, meowing for her to turn the water on when she went to wash her hands. How many times had she lifted the bulk from the sink? How many times had she acquiesced? Mr. Snuggles would roll his eyes and head back and purr with ecstasy as the cold flow touched down, his entire body buzzing with purrs of contentment. If you lifted him out he would yowl loudly in complaint, sometimes even bat a hand with his paw, claws closed, just to show that he could. It had just been easier to give in. Easier to go along with the demands of the feline who commanded Tatie Martha’s heart. What was the right thing to do? What was the right thing to say? Tatie Martha wouldn’t shut up about the damn cat. Mr. Snuggles was the center of her tiny world. Linda settled her hands and changed the subject.

“Mr. Martin seemed subdued today. Is he on leave?”

“Mr. Martin? Oh yes. I think they sedated him. They had quite a brawl today. The nurses pushed past his barricade and he hit a couple with his broom. They felt the need to disarm him, so I guess the war is over.”

Tatie Martha leaned close conspiratorially.

“You know, dear, just between you and me, I don’t think he was ever even in the military. Some people’s minds are just cracked.”

The discussion floated from topic to topic. With every lull Linda filled the void. The weather. The news. The foibles of various relatives both alive and dead. Anything to keep Tatie Martha from her favorite subject. The time ticked by and the clock said 5:30. They made their goodbyes, Tatie Martha insisting on rising up to give her a bony hug. Linda cradled the back of the old woman’s head the way one would cradle a child’s. They broke away. Linda waited by the door for a second, listening to make sure nobody was there, and then left. She walked proudly down the hall. Any eyes that dared raise up to look at her, she stared down until they looked away. Mr. Martin, the nurses, the man with the hose in his nose, and even a cross-looking Nurse Boggs. Only the woman behind the desk avoided Linda’s challenging gaze, never once lifting her eyes from her phone as Linda strode past and out the door.

Roger was home when she got there. The two did not speak. He ate his dinner out in front of the TV and Linda ate hers in the kitchen. She didn’t drink any wine that night. She didn’t need it. Water was just fine. Cold and clear. She could see Mr. Snuggles in the sink when she filled the glass. Linda left her dirty dishes in the sink. If it bothered Roger, then he could wash them himself. She went upstairs and went to bed. She listened to the sounds of Roger making himself comfortable on the couch. It would be difficult, his back wasn’t as good as it used to be. Linda didn’t care. She drifted off to sleep with a deep sense of satisfaction.

The phone rang. The jangling bells echoed across the house. The first ring woke her up. The second snapped her towards reality. She lunged for the receiver, throwing herself across the covers. The bedroom phone was on Roger’s side of the bed.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Mrs. Dubois?”

“Who is this?”

“I’m calling about your aunt, Mrs. Dubois.”

Linda’s heart rate spiked. Nurse Boggs.

“Is she all right? Has something happened?”

“Her health is fine, Mrs. Dubois.”

The head nurse’s voice was a throaty growl. Linda glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand. 3:35 AM.

“What is it then?”

“It’s about the cat, Mrs. Dubois. She won’t quit asking about it. She’s convinced that he’s missing and she’s worked herself up into a frenzy about it.”

“Then tell her the damn cat is dead.”

“We are not here to do your dirty work for you, Mrs. Dubois. It’s in our contract.”

“God damn it.”

“Mrs. Dubois, if she doesn’t calm down we’re going to have to sedate her. She’s disturbing all the other residents.”

Linda took a deep breath in and let it out. She curled her knees to her chest and massaged her temples with her free hand.

“Let me talk to her.”

“I’ll transfer you to her room.”

The phone clicked and then clicked again. A beeping tone indicated that it was ringing. Someone picked up the phone and said something that Linda couldn’t hear. Tatie Martha’s cranky voice sounded on the other end.

“Who is it? Hello?”

“Tatie Martha?”

“Oh Linda, thank goodness you called. These damn nurses. Mr. Snuggles is missing and these damn nurses won’t do a thing about it.”

“Tatie.”

“I keep trying to tell them that he never stays out this late, but they just won’t do anything about it.”

“Tatie.”

“How am I supposed to sleep without him curled up next to me? How am I supposed to sleep knowing he’s out there scared?”

“Tatie.”

“What is it, dear?”

“Mr. Snuggles is dead. He died six weeks ago.”

Linda hung up the phone and unplugged it from the wall. If it rang downstairs it would be Roger’s problem. Linda lay back down, her body curled up in the fetal position. The couch squeaked downstairs. She could hear the steady nasally rasp of Roger’s gentle snoring, each blast blowing away the last of the self-satisfaction that she had felt earlier. Linda waited for sleep to come. When it failed to, she settled on a good cry instead.
 

There were no more winking yellow faces. The stems were turning brown. Only a few petals still hung on to life, white just on the tips. Linda arrived at 4:00, but she sat in the car until 4:30 when she finally gathered enough energy to rise and walk through the doors of the center. The woman behind the front desk didn’t watch her as she walked by. Nurse Boggs did not appear. Even the old man with hose in his nose was missing, his latest puzzle, a group of ducks on a pond, left unfinished. Mr. Martin’s door was still closed. All was quiet. Just the hum of air through the vents and Linda’s footsteps on the carpet. She felt small standing before Tatie Martha’s door. The viewpoint of an unwilling child, forced to go forward by the prodding hand of an unseen adult. Linda was tired. It felt like she hadn’t slept in days. Her eyes were puffy. Linda nervously twisted the ring on her finger. Circle after circle. Never ending. Sisyphus and his stone. A part of her hoped, but deep inside she knew she hoped in vain. She raised up her hand and knocked.

“It’s open.”

Tatie Martha sat in her chair watching television. She smiled as Linda entered, for a moment forgetting to keep her lips tight to hide her worn-out teeth. The old woman flipped off the TV.

“Linda dear, how good to see you. You wouldn’t believe some of the things on this idiot box today.”

Linda forced a smile back.

“How’s Roger, dear.”

“Busy, Tatie. Always busy.”

“Silly boy. Even Philip Foss knew how to relax.”

Linda released her hand from the wheel and let the ruts in the road take her where they would. Tatie Martha rose unsteadily and made the tea. Linda watched her while she worked. Tatie Martha had once had the most beautiful hands that Linda had ever seen. White and unmarked. Long supple fingers. They had fluttered about her, twin butterflies, when she spoke, highlighting and emphasizing every nuance and turn of phrase. Tatie Martha’s hands were old now. Swollen knuckles and creased joints. Dry skin, almost translucent. They didn’t flutter anymore when Tatie Martha spoke. She held them tight, unwilling to let them take wing. Unwilling to show the added wobble and tremble. It was only in the making of tea that they were unleashed. The flight was no longer smooth, no quick flitting about as before, but they were still beautiful. One could still see the old life buried beneath the ruined exterior, dancing to the melody of her voice.

Linda could see those hands as they were. She could see those hands giving her an envelope stuffed with five hundred dollars. Tatie Martha had given Roger and Linda two hundred for their wedding, but had given the five hundred just to Linda, in secret. The hands had held out the envelope and the eyes had given a sly wink as the painted red lips whispered in her ear. Things are always better when they aren’t an obligation. A woman has to watch out for herself in this world, even with a good one. It was a lot of money back then. Tatie Martha had always taken care of herself. Even when her husband was still alive.

Linda could see the hands opening the front door and wrapping her and Roger in a warm embrace before crimson lips kissed both of Linda’s cheeks and laughter filled her ear. Tatie Martha’s Christmas parties were still talked about within certain circles. A congregation of family, friends, acquaintances, business associates, and a few who had wandered in on their own, attracted by the joy permeating from the house. Tatie Martha would walk amongst her guests as though a goddess, a drink in one hand, dressed in fashions more out of style every year, but never seeming quite out of place. Tatie Martha sitting on the davenport that had been her mother’s under the painting of the shepherd that had been her father’s, laughing gaily through wine-stained teeth, playing Indian poker with her cousin, her garbageman, a local accountant of some note, and a stranger named Ron. The hands had danced as they gestured for Linda to join the fun.

Linda could see through tear-filled eyes the hands slicing the air with sharp authoritative cuts as Tatie Martha called Roger’s mother a shit-filled cunt after the latter dared to publicly call Linda a bitch in front of Roger’s entire family. Roger’s mother had never been warm to Linda. She had never believed that the woman who had married her son was ever good enough for him. Learning that the couple had absolutely no plans to ever have children had been the last straw in a long battle of a thousand cuts. Of course Roger had no interest in children, but his mother only saw it as further proof of the vile influence that his bride had over him. Roger’s family had shrunk back in awe of the monster that had been unleashed. Shocked into terrified silence by the assault of vocabulary that would have been called scandalous if it had not been so magnificent in its breadth and scope. Linda could still feel one of the hands resting protectively on her shoulder as Tatie Martha spit and snarled with the other. The outburst split the family, and things were not smoothed over until Tatie Martha agreed to give up her mother’s davenport. They had been beautiful hands.

Tatie Martha smiled and brought over the tea. Linda rose and helped her as she always did. The old woman resisted, but gladly gave up one of the saucers. They sat and talked as they always did. Linda letting Tatie Martha control the conversation. It went as Linda knew it would, down the well-carved stream bed. Mention of the upcoming ninetieth birthday party. Tatie Martha wanted red balloons. Her favorite color was red. Tales of the exploits of Mr. Snuggles. Questions of where the big cat might be. Linda felt tears in her eyes. The shepherd in the painting stared down at her. She knew her role in this macabre play. She knew her lines.

“Tatie, I have to tell you something.”

“What is it, dear?”

The explosion was just as bad as it always was. Linda braced herself, leaned into the wind, and stayed. She stayed through the howls, the blubbering chokes, and the snot and tears. She held the old woman and cried with her. Salty tears flowing down their faces and intermixing in puddles of anguish. She brought Kleenexes and water for them both. She stayed when the nurses came to take Tatie Martha to dinner, and though Nurse Boggs insisted that the old woman needed to eat, needed to stick to her routine, Linda refused to let them take her. Linda stayed until they were both wrung out and there were no more tears left in either.

It was 7:35. Tatie Martha was tired. Linda helped the old woman change into her nightgown and helped her into bed. Tatie Martha fell asleep almost immediately. Linda used the bathroom and blew her nose. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror, puffy-eyed with gray hair around her temples. Linda took a deep breath and walked out of the bathroom. Tatie Martha slept peacefully. The portrait of her late husband sat on the nightstand. Linda had never met the man. He had been long dead when she married Roger, and was rarely spoken of. Roger had described him as quiet and prone to nervous spells. The man in the black and white portrait was lightly boned, but sharply dressed with perfectly parted hair and a thin moustache gracing his upper lip which was curled partway in a bemused smile. He did not look nervous. The eyes were kind, and the portrait was set so they could lovingly watch the old woman sleep. Linda bit her lip and twisted the ring on her finger in circles. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes again. Linda turned out the lights and left.

Nobody was about in the nursing home. The halls were all quiet. The woman at the front desk was still in her place, but noticed Linda no more than the dying flowers as she headed out the door. Linda got into her car. 7:50. She had promised that she would give him until 9:00. Linda drove to a hotel bar, and though she had never done it before in her life, had a drink alone.
 

The flowers were dead. Completely and irrevocably dead. No color of life remained. No bright yellow, no white, and no green. Just brown. Nothing left but a fragile husk of what once had been. Linda strode in and passed the woman at the front desk as quickly as she could. Linda had been crying in the car. It had started the moment she had turned off the ignition. She knew she looked a mess. Nurse Boggs was helping the man with the hose in his nose with his puzzle. The head nurse looked up as Linda strode by the sitting room’s doorway. The head nurse made no move to intercept her. She just watched Linda move by. Mr. Martin’s door was open. The old man sat sideways on his couch, staring at the birds flitting through the branches of the elm. His shoulders were slumped and only the slow movement of his eyes gave any clue of the man still sitting within. Linda stopped and watched him for a second. Mr. Martin didn’t notice. What attention he had was reserved for the birds. Linda moved past and knocked on Tatie Martha’s door.

“It’s open.”

It was as it always was, a moment frozen in time, no longer a part of the world of the living.

“Linda, how good to see you. Please sit down. Just let me flip off this idiot box.”

Linda did as she was told. Her knees felt weak.

“How is Roger, dear?”

Linda felt her shoulders involuntarily rise. The diamond ring on her finger twinkled in the sunlight from the window.

“Okay, I guess.”

“That’s good. Tea, dear?”

“Sure.”

Tatie Martha rose to make the tea. The shepherd on the wall stared down at her, still battling the storm to save his flock from freezing. The old woman hummed some forgotten tune as she worked. Linda grasped for things to say, but found nothing in her cluttered mind. Searching. Seeking. Her eyes trailed across Tatie Martha’s tiny world until they fell upon the elm tree outside the window.

“Mr. Martin seems unusually quiet.”

Tatie Martha stopped humming.

“What’s that, dear?”

“I said Mr. Martin seems unusually quiet.”

Tatie Martha glanced at Linda for a moment, then went back to making the tea.

“Oh. They’ve got him doped to the gills with sedatives, poor man, he was making too much of a nuisance of himself.”

“It seems strange not seeing him marching around.”

“Yes.”

The branches of the elm tree swayed lightly in the breeze, knocking a few leaves off to go twirling to the ground. The tree was a mismatch of green, red, and gold. The sunlight from the window felt warm on her hand. The kettle whistled and Tatie Martha poured the tea. The old woman was shuffling her way over when Linda began to cry. At first it was only a couple of tears, but a few drops quickly turned into a torrent, and the full force of the storm unleashed with wracking sobs.

“Linda dear, what’s the matter?”

Linda couldn’t answer. Her entire being vibrated with the release. Guilt and shame swirling with all the rest. Tatie Martha put the two cups of tea on the end table, sat down on the loveseat next to Linda, and put a skinny frail arm over the younger woman’s shoulder.

“There, there, dear. There, there.”

“Oh Tatie…”

Linda’s words fell back with gulps of air moistened by snot and sinus drip. Tatie Martha held on, making comforting sounds in a quiet voice.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“Oh Tatie, he’s leaving me.”

“Who’s leaving you, dear?”

“Roger…Roger’s been having an affair with a woman half my age. He’s moved out. We’re getting a divorce.”

“That stupid son of a bitch.”

The sharp declaration rang through the room, shocking all else into silence. Linda sucked back the snot in her nose and wiped her still-flowing eyes.

“What?”

“Roger, dear. Stupid son of a bitch.”

“But Tatie…”

“Look at you, my dear. Look at who you are. Half your age, bah, any man who leaves you is an idiot. A damn fool.”

“But Tatie, he’s your nephew.”

“So what? I can’t think my nephew is a fool? Listen to me, dear. This has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with him.”

Linda began to tear up again, but Tatie Martha grabbed her face and kept it from falling down.

“None of that now, dear.”

“But why, Tatie? Why?”

“Because he’s getting older. Because he’s scared. Because he thinks he’ll find the fountain of youth between that hussy’s legs. He’s weak, Linda. We all have our weaknesses. Me, you, Mr. Philip Foss, everyone. Hell, my husband, God bless his soul, loved to drink, he never raised his hand or his voice a day in his life, but the man didn’t care about anything he couldn’t pour inside him, including me. Mr. Martin wishes he had lived his life as someone else, a war hero instead of some boring old plumber. We all have our weaknesses.”

“What’s my weakness?”

“You’re a lovely woman, Linda, just such a lovely woman.”

Linda curled herself into Tatie Martha’s embrace. The old woman’s shoulder smelled of Bengay and cat hair. One old arm rubbed Linda’s back, while the other cradled the back of her head. Tatie Martha affectionately whispered in her ear.

“He’s just a stupid son of a bitch, dear. It’s all going to be all right. You’re a lovely woman. Such a lovely woman to visit an old woman like me every week in heaven’s waiting room. He’s just a stupid son of a bitch.”

Tatie Martha stroked Linda’s hair until she cried herself out. Linda leaned back from the embrace and turned away to wipe her eyes.

“Would a nip of brandy help, dear? I have a bit hidden away where the nurses can’t find it.”

Linda smiled a bit despite herself.

“No, thank you. I’m sorry about all this.”

“Sorry for what, dear, for not being Superwoman?”

Linda smiled again and blew her nose in a Kleenex from her pocket. She had brought extra. Tatie Martha gave an encouraging smile and put a gnarled hand on Linda’s knee.

“I’m just sorry that Mr. Snuggles isn’t here. Giving him a good stroke always helps me feel better.”

Linda blew her nose again. The tissue ripped between her nervous fingers.

“Oh Tatie, there’s something I have to tell you.”

“What is it, dear?”

“It’s Mr. Snuggles, Tatie. He died.”

The old woman looked past Linda and out the window at the tree swaying in the breeze. Her eyes teared up and Linda braced herself. A few tears rolled down the old woman’s cheeks, but nothing else came.

“Tatie, are you okay?”

Tatie Martha’s eyes refocused. She brushed a tear from her cheek. Her hand gave Linda’s a gentle shake.

“I’ll be all right, dear. Let’s just worry about you right now.”

The tea had gone cold. While Linda cleaned herself up in the bathroom, Tatie Martha made more. The two women drank and talked about nothing. At times both seemed to drift away, but they always found their way back to each other. When 5:30 rolled around Tatie Martha went to dinner and Linda went home. The house was quiet. Linda cried a little when she climbed into bed, but Tatie Martha’s voice floated in her head. Stupid son of a bitch. Such a lovely woman.
 

The flowers were gone. The vase, the fallen petals, everything. No evidence remained that they had ever existed. Linda walked through the front door, resigned to her fate. It had been a hectic week. The divorce was proceeding as well as could be expected. Roger wasn’t putting up a fight. Maybe he felt guilty, or maybe he just wanted to move on with his life. He was living with his younger woman. What would be the right word? Mistress? That didn’t feel right. If Roger was no longer married, then it was no longer an affair. Girlfriend? Bitch felt like the best choice, though to be fair, Linda had never met the woman. It didn’t really matter. Nothing could turn back the clock. Nothing could make the world the way it once was.

Linda had been dreading coming to visit all week. She knew what was going to happen. It had been the next morning when Nurse Boggs had called.

“Mrs. Dubois?”

“Yes?”

“This is Nurse Boggs, Mrs. Dubois, I’m calling concerning your aunt.”

“Is she okay?”

“She had a breakdown last night, Mrs. Dubois, during dinner.”

“Mr. Snuggles?”

“Yes, Mrs. Dubois, Mr. Snuggles.”

“She seemed all right when I left.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, Mrs. Dubois, but she became quite upset at dinner. The other residents were quite disturbed. We had to sedate her.”

“You had to sedate her?”

“Mrs. Dubois, this is starting to become quite the problem. It’s possible that maybe this center isn’t the right place for your aunt.”

Linda hadn’t known how to answer. It wasn’t really her problem. It was Roger and his sisters who handled Tatie Martha’s finances, not her. She was a nobody now, not even family. Just the last of the faithful, keeping vigil as the old woman floated towards the edge of her sanity. Linda didn’t know what to do. The ghost of Mr. Snuggles refused to leave. Like the divorce, there was nothing that could be done. Some things were just the way they were going to be.

One of the overhead lights in the lobby was close to burning out. The fluorescent bulb buzzed and flickered. The woman behind the front desk sat as she always did, head down, eyes locked on her phone. Bitch. How was a person like that allowed to work in such a place? The queen of a crumbling world, without a care in the world. Linda walked over to the desk and put her closed fists down on its dusty top.

“Excuse me?”

The woman glanced up, then went back to her phone.

“Excuse me?”

The words were louder and more drawn out. The woman behind the front desk took a deep breath, let it out, and put her phone down.

“What?”

“There’re no flowers.”

The woman behind the front desk shifted to look behind Linda at the empty spot where the flowers had been. She studied the spot for a few seconds and then refocused back on Linda.

“Yep.”

“Don’t you see that as a problem?”

The woman behind the front desk chewed on a thumbnail and spit a chunk onto the floor.

“No one’s mentioned it but you.”

The woman behind the front desk, with her eyebrows raised, waited. Linda, with her best attempt at piercing eyes, stared back, but broke first. With a huff, she shifted her gaze to the ground and took a step back.

“I’m sorry. I’ve had a tough week, but that’s no reason to take it out on you.”

The woman behind the front desk bit off another chunk of fingernail and spit it on the floor. Linda felt uncomfortable. She started to turn to head down the hall.

“Your aunt’s the one with the cat, right? Mr. Noodles?”

“Mr. Snuggles. He’s dead though.”

“No shit.”

The two women stared at each other for a moment. The woman behind the front desk reached down to open a drawer.

“I’ve got something for you.”

The woman opened the drawer and pulled out a wooden box, stained the color of cherry wood, with a brass clasp and hinges. She held it out and gestured for Linda to take it. Linda stepped forward and took the box in her hands. She could feel a weight inside. Engraved black letters adorned the lid. Mr. Snuggles.

“What is this?”

“What does it look like?”

Linda popped open the latch. Inside sat a Ziploc bag full of ash.

“We had a similar problem with my Dad when my Mom died. Had a hell of a time getting it to stick in his head.”

“Where did you get the ash?”

The woman behind the front desk gave a hint of a smile.

“Fireplace. Don’t worry, I picked all the burnt wood chunks out.”

Linda ran her finger across the plastic of the bag and closed the lid. The woman behind the front desk was already back on her phone.

“Will this work?”

The woman didn’t even bother to glance up.

“You got any other ideas?”

Linda turned and walked down the hall. The man with the hose in his nose was in the sitting room, still working on the duck puzzle. The old man stared at the pieces before him, found the one he wanted, and put it in its place. He felt Linda watching him, and turned his head and watched her back as she strode past.

Mr. Martin’s door was open, but there was no Mr. Martin to be seen. A younger nurse and Nurse Boggs were packing things in boxes. The couch was already gone.

“Where’s Mr. Martin?”

Nurse Boggs looked up, but gave the second nurse the eye when she stopped working as well. The second nurse bent back to the task.

“He died three days ago. Nobody bothered to get his stuff, so we’re packing it up so we can move a new resident in. Damn wait list must be half a mile long.”

“He seemed to be in such good shape.”

The head nurse shrugged.

“That’s the way it goes.”

Nurse Boggs went back to work. Linda moved on down the hall to Tatie Martha’s door. She held the box so tightly that the edges bit creases into her hands. She took a breath in, let it out, and knocked.

“It’s open.”

The old woman reacted as she always did. She screamed. She howled. She doubled herself over as best she could, clutching the cherry-wood-colored box in her once beautiful hands. Linda did the best she could, bringing Kleenexes, rubbing the old woman’s back, and saying the expected empathic words. The shepherd stared down from his painting, and Linda stared back for a while. The shepherd did not seem to mind. His attention was too focused on getting his flock in, out of the storm. The nurses came to take Tatie Martha to dinner, but Linda wouldn’t let them. Nurse Boggs let it go without a fight.

Linda stayed with Tatie Martha, waiting for the tempest to subside. Linda thought of Roger on their wedding day. How safe she had felt in his arms. How handsome he had looked in his tuxedo, smiling down at her as though she were the only woman in the world. She thought of Tatie Martha at the reception, lithe and vibrant, a glass of wine in her hand, insisting that all the young men dance with her, and laughing at their reddening faces as she whispered lewd comments into their ears. Tears spilled down Linda’s cheeks. The two women wept together, both mourning the lives that they could never get back, a world that could never be inhabited again.

Linda stayed with Tatie Martha until she cried herself out. Exhausted, the old woman let Linda help her get ready for bed, and fell asleep before her head even hit the pillow. Linda covered the aged form with a blanket, placed the cherry-wood-coloured box full of fireplace ashes on the end table next to Tatie Martha’s chair, and let herself out. Everything was dark and empty. When Linda got home, she poured herself a glass of wine, drank half, but dumped the remainder down the drain. Linda put on a jacket, went out to the backyard, sat in a lawn chair, and stared up at the stars for half the night.
 

Linda walked into the lobby with a vase of tulips and a package wrapped in tissue paper. With a smile on her lips she deposited the vase on the empty shelf and turned towards the woman sitting behind the front desk.

“Good morning.”

The woman gave a neutral grunt in response.

“I brought some fresh flowers.”

The woman glanced up for a moment, and then returned her attention to her phone.

“What do you want, a medal or something?”

Linda nervously twisted the spot on her finger where her ring had once been.

“I didn’t get a chance to say thank you last week.”

The woman behind the front desk looked up again, gave a half-smile and a nod, and went back to ignoring the world around her. Linda smiled again, turned, and walked down the hall. The man with the hose in his nose was in his usual place. He was still working on the ducks which were proving more difficult than normal. Nurse Boggs’ bulk leaned on the table next to him. The head nurse reached out, picked up a piece, and put it in its correct place. The old man smiled and gave the head nurse’s hand a congratulatory squeeze. Nurse Boggs smiled back. What had once been Mr. Martins’ door was closed. A new name was already written on it. Janice Boyer. Linda moved past without a second glance. She did not hesitate to knock on Tatie Martha’s door.

“It’s open.”

The room looked as it always looked. Tatie Martha sat in her chair watching the TV, which she switched off the moment Linda entered.

“Linda, how good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too, Tatie. I’ve brought something for you?”

“For me? My birthday isn’t for a few more weeks.”

“Just an early present.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t have.”

Linda pressed the package into Tatie Martha’s arthritic hands and sat down on the loveseat. The old woman smiling, gave the gift a gentle shake near her ear, licked her lips, and gently pulled open the tissue paper to reveal the framed picture hidden underneath. Tatie Martha let out a small squeal of delight.

“Oh, Mr. Snuggles. It’s wonderful. Simply wonderful.”

“I thought you’d like it, Tatie.”

The old woman held the picture close to get a good look at it, and then put it back on her lap. The two women’s eyes tracked across the room to the cherry-wood-colored box on the end table.

“He was such a funny cat, Linda. Just such a funny cat.”

“Yes, Tatie, he was a good cat.”

A few tears fell down Tatie Martha’s cheeks, but were quickly wiped away.

“Would you like some tea, dear?”

“Yes, thank you, but I can get it.”

Linda made to rise, but Tatie Martha waved her back.

“Nonsense. I might be old, but I can still make a cup of tea.”

The old woman shuffled over to the counter. Linda picked up the framed picture from where Tatie Martha had left it on her chair. It was a fine picture. The last photograph taken of Mr. Snuggles. The big gray Maine coon with a red party hat on his head. Linda stood and started looking around for a good place to put it. An idea popped in her head and she moved into the bedroom.

“Tatie, would you like me to put it on the nightstand?”

“What’s that, dear?”

“Would you like me to put the photo of Mr. Snuggles next to the portrait of your husband?”

“That’s not my husband, dear.”

Linda returned to the doorway. The kettle was starting to whistle. Tatie Martha pulled it off. The old woman was smiling to herself.

“You know, most people would say it isn’t proper, but when you get as old as me, worrying about such things just doesn’t seem as important.”

Tatie Martha poured the tea into the cups and shuffled her way back towards her chair.

“Who is it, Tatie?”

The old woman put the teacups down on the end table, settled herself into her chair, picked up her cup, took a drink, and gave out a sound of satisfaction. Linda walked over, sat down on the loveseat, and took a sip from her own cup of tea. The old woman studied the painting on the wall, her eyes tracing across the shepherd in the storm. For a moment she seemed cast adrift, floating between one time and another with no anchor to hold her back. Tatie Martha smiled and looked back at Linda.

“How is Roger, dear?”

Linda paused, unsure.

“Roger is fine, Tatie, he sends his love. He’s quite busy.”

Tatie Martha took another drink of tea.

“That boy, always up to something. If I were him, I wouldn’t work so hard if I had a wife like you at home.”

S. W. Campbell was born in Eastern Oregon. He currently resides in Portland, where he works as an economist and lives with a house plant named Morton. He has had numerous short stories published in various literary reviews. If you’d like to read more of his writing, check out his website: https://www.shawnwcampbell.com.

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Here I Am

The night before we left
            Iowa, we walked
                        to the cemetery.
You wanted to go all
            week because you’d read
                        about the black angel, that
she’d kill you, so you wanted
            to kiss her. You said we could write
                        about it because
all poems are about love
            and death you said and at
                        the cemetery we’d get both so okay,
here I am. What I’m trying
            to tell you: there
                        were lots of fireflies that night.
You tried and failed to catch one.
            The moon
                        was out and flattening
the grass; so much humidity
            I held in my arms like a tombstone.
                        When we got to the cemetery, walked
quietly around the gate, quiet,
            or the neighbors
                        might call the police, we found
the angel. You kissed
            her left knee, I kissed
                        nothing, someone started reading
a James Tate poem. I don’t remember its name
            but what I do
                        know is that, as we moved
around her feet, we were
            ghosts caught
                        in hushed
tradition, congregating summer after humid
                        summer night.

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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North Haven

            for Ilana

The apples here
are all ripe and
singing beautiful

end of summer
it is not

July—having never

kissed the earth

I could not sing this
wisdom

still August
finds you everywhere

but here
among cattails
each morning I can

hardly bear to walk on the grass

beneath my neighbor’s apple tree
so I walk

to the grey mouth of the harbor in-

stead, insearch of you

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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What Is Essential

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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Beatification, Canonization

            Name us impossible. If
                        dead is prerequisite.
If woman is
                        things to bury
in the neighbor’s lawn—
                                    stained fingernails,
glass, a bag of flour.
            Peel away these stems,
                                                these leaves
& we’re closer. If girl is the dirt.
            This skin &
                        we’re already there.
            We press our hands in jam-jars
of litany,
                        wait for it to bleed
            & it’s:
                                    jam on fingers,
teeth, knees,
                        sweet, at least,
& we taste it—

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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Letter From the North Haven Ferry

It’s raining or we’re
crying—no one on the ferry’s met
but there’s something we love about passing
boats and passing each other so
I’ll go on believing in our essential difference
from the waves: our lack
of constancy. I cannot find you
through this overwhelming
paleness, white
space, this one of a hundred pink
lobster buoys. I’m not
surprised, exactly—
when deprived of ourselves
we notice ourselves, coat
collars turned up against
the cold. What are we
when put out here
on open sea, what are we
but eyes barely able
to see past the railing, what with the rain
falling that
dark, and that often.

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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Similar Twilights Are Seen on Earth

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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The Time of Our Actual Deaths

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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Other Living Things

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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At the Breakwater

            with lines from T. S. Eliot

I am thinking how my nerves
are bad tonight
, like heaving
water, wind-tossed, casting
reflections of the sky. I do not
want to ruin experience
with understanding, the ground
with the air, and so on.      Yes, bad
but by the water, early summer,
I think I might find the kind of
truth I’m looking for: limbs slowed
with sweat, hair wet, the sun
pressed against my face, I breathe
there, dumbly. Yes, I can
hold the ocean between my
palms. Yes, bad. Yes, I do not want
to pretend. Stay with me.

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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Villanelle in Which I Am Torn

I’m inventing a way to quantify love—
it’s the songs playing at pivotal relationship
moments. In the age of Spotify,
this music can resurface on demand,
and with it an auditory history. One flaw
in the method—a March
night, when, walking home down the middle
of the empty, 2 a.m. streets, there was no music playing

—now, by my method, this moment, lacking
music, doesn’t exist, your hand
in my hand an illusion. I’m inventing

a new theory of significance—
give me something to digitize

—even a car alarm would do, even white
noise. Sure, it might obscure our voices, but at least
we could put the night
on replay, send white noise pouring
into my hair, through the 2 a.m. streets, between
cars, between our hands, on repeat.

Isabel Prioleau lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She interns for The Adroit Journal, and you can find her most recent work in The Post and Courier. Isabel was an attendee of the 2018 Juniper Institute for Young Writers and the 2019 Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and is a member of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program’s 2020 cohort.

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Letter to Past Self

the tongue is wrapped in gold we
shed a little every time we speak.
trust me, these words are not trapped
in the heart, they flow through

the hands the bones the mouth. do not hide
in your mother’s shadow, wear it with pride,
you are more than a vessel of her words.
look, an entire dynasty within you: a dynasty

of fisherman sailing through your veins, of farmers
sprouting life through your skin, of poets painting
inside your lungs a night sky. reach for the field
of wilding words and beating earth inside.

trust me, one day these will all be yours to keep.
words strong enough to tear through the lines,
and burst into a flurry of stardust, enough
to shade the sky a new color. the tongue

is a start and an end, the inexorable period
and the space of possibilities that comes after.
do not be afraid when you dig up this river
inside of you. build a boat out of this tongue

and drink the sea of stars dry until they’re shining
through every single inch of your skin.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Tree of Jade

listen my child, do you hear the jade glistening inside,
at the crux of your heart, I’ve placed it there for you.
a sunken eye hardened from the bottom of the ocean.
I’ve woven you a silk robe to wrap your dreams in robes
so intrinsic even a needle cannot harm you. if you reach
the other side, plant the jade, its skin unfurling to tear into
a lychee tree, enough to sustain an entire generation,
children laugh with the kind of sweetness to fill a missing tooth,
the remaining teeth glazed into beacons refracting stories into tiny jewels
in the sky. under the tree, leaves can mend bruised light
and stitch torn skin. remember my child, when time chips
at the bark of your skin, dig your fingers into the scaled
shell, and pull out the dragon’s eye. bury it by the beach
where you first arrived. for every fleeing family to dress
their tongues in a new home, to call something their own,
the eye on the other side forever looking back.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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The Children First Learn to Drown

From 1887 up to the 1970s, thousands of Native American children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to boarding schools as a part of the government’s assimilation efforts.

at camp, the children first learn to drown
in their own bodies. some will arrange their bones
into a shrine, and mutter an ancient prayer learned
from nursery rhymes. bring only enough to remember,
to survive, but no more. hear white teeth men with one hand
on the gun, and one hand on the throat. the mother’s thumbs
pressed into the child’s cheeks, two dimples sunken
deeply like bullet wounds. to be saved, then, is to dull
every edge of the child’s bones and tongue, suited
with a new name they will know as the only one,
and recognize only a shadow in the mirror. the silence
after the gunshot means the mother lets go, means the child
is too young to know home. when the day breaks,
they will remember only in a language they do not speak
and watch their shadows, dark mane stretched before the plains,
break into wind towards a century unchaseable.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Revolutions That Don’t Translate

again I will mistake the grip of my hands
for a stranger’s, undressing before the mirror
as if saying this is all, my reflection seems
almost too small to be true. I will only
see my shadow when it’s too dark to see.
my secrets are only secrets in another language
I’ve been too ashamed to speak, words I protected
dearly as a fallen tooth now seem unreachable
as a distant star. again I am thinking of self-love,
we only call ourselves beautiful
when we stop believing so. for years I lived
under my skin, trying to strip myself of
every yellowed patch I could. blurred
mouth and brief hands, I longed to be
aestheticized, the exotic seashell you press
your ear against, I’ll say anything to be treasured
behind a glass shelf. I’ve been silent for too long.
at family gatherings, I would find a door
to hold my weight, and some distant relative
would speak to me in a language so foreign
I recognized only the sounds. it’s much easier
to enter a body than to exit one. once I crawled
headfirst into the ocean, away from the burning
city on the other side, the people were screaming
something I didn’t understand. but I swam,
America, I swam towards you with no way back,
with all my life.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Lost in Translation (Hunger)

ink is flooding everywhere from head to chest.
I lie quiet in these ship hands. stomach clawing
like goosebumps ready to tear open. maybe this is
a good thing, like the flock’s seasonal migration south
from winter-starved land, like the castaway’s lone will
to outlive a body. to feel hunger is to survive, to take all
we can to our mouths, until the cracks in our organs are
filled shut, ripping wider into an empty shadow. all the
stranded are filling their bellies with seawater to grow
thirstier, too much hunger and we starve ourselves in search
of more. two million years ago, a human built the first ship
to set foot beyond the horizon and dove headfirst into the distant sun.
two million years later, a couple rip through an entire sky’s
worth of feathers to crash into new land, hence me.

***

if you peek inside my cracked veins, you’ll see
an entire desert stretching across endlessly. I spent a lifetime
trying to bury the footsteps of family, scraping
my tongue clean of its rough accent, characters fluttering
in the air like torn flags. I cannot be trusted with a language.
I build a house from the words I’m left, and I burn it down the next day
shoveling charred names into the seasonal fire.

***

every migration ends where it began. the branching river
winding into itself endlessly. an entire generation of hunger
inherited. sometimes I would sit inside this body for days,
holding two languages in both hands like stones
and attempt to start a fire, only to chip away at
both cracked into shards. when I was seven,
a boy pushed me to the ground for my accent.
I wondered if this is what broken english looks like,
a mountainous tongue too rough for the wind,
a chipped tooth, a puzzle shard that fits nowhere.
to have a mother tongue is to be born for a language,
to be raised from a language, to be wanted by a language,
which is to say I have yet to find mine. but I promise,
if I ever find the shard, I’ll hold it close as a diamond,
as blood, until I wake up one day, the shard fully pressed into me.

***

I spent the entire day trying to dig up my past,
beneath hills of glinting sand shed from the night sky,
sinking my foot into old footsteps to retrace a way back.
two names, I’m stretching one into a longbow to shoot down
the stars and weave into a sail. the other I’ll mold into a horse to carry
me beyond the horizon, swirling mane caught in moonlight.
there is no alphabet in chinese, each overhanging character
a distant star. but fragment by fragment I’m connecting them
into a bridge leading to the ocean, to home.

***

I want a poem that sprouts wings from history, perched on backyard fences singing the same melody hummed by subterranean veins, a poem to release to the skies, a poem that rings from everywhere.

I want a poem for the revolutions, all the revolutions: of broken tongues and teeth, of fossilized footsteps, of night skies seeping into blood.

I want a poem from food menu items, a poem that simmers in mouths, dragon breath steaming through the cracks of teeth: lion head, eight treasures rice, buddha leaps wall.

I want a poem that splits the earth into arms flooding across seas, a poem to give my body to, a poem to stitch stomach wounds, but also to pry open, a poem that floods everywhere,
a poem that never ends until this body, no period but the period in the iris of eyes.

I write for hunger. I write from hunger. I write for a history forgotten and a history to be written. I write to reconcile two tongues, two names, hoping one day I can finally claim both as my own, the double helix stretched into one.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Instead Let Us Dream

instead, let us pray for good sleep.
imagine the tongue as a needle, thin
enough to pass through the skin, we lay
our heads back disturbing not even
the dust, the stars dancing chaotically
around us. let this be the only night
we remember, and let us wake to the sound
of birds, that can sound like an orphan’s cry
or a gunshot, depending on which ear
you suffocate. once I reached through
a dream to touch my father’s hands.
his face blurred & chest hollowed
from a landmine. today, I spend more time
washing my hands than any other part
of this body. I spend winters burning incense
and every old photograph I can find. I keep
his portrait on the opposite side of the bed,
closing the curtains to watch moonlight
snap like a bone. I want to strip away
every unbearable part, my thinning face
my foreign tongue that echoes his.
at times it seems impossible to remember
something this foreign.

still, let us pray for good sleep,
and may we forgive ourselves,
when this house burns again.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Concerning History

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Body Map

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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Aftermath

still, we are learning
            to play the tender chords
of our veins. last night, we woke
                        to find our names replaced

by the names of flowers
            under napalm skies, when
the others have already begun
                        plucking the ricochets of dawn

from charcoaled petals.
            I wanted to crawl. I wanted to crawl
with the might of every river
                        pulsing through my blood, to chew

on the bones of fallen sparrows
            and beg for flight. have I told you
about my father, how when he fell
                        he could feel every acre of the burnt

field on his ripened skin,
            the skin we praise for its potential, the heartbeat
alive with thunder sealed beneath.
                        even when I found the stars sealed shut by ash,

I dug through an entire field
            of bones to find an eye, for its glistening iris I held
against the sky, to reveal the husk
                        of every name passing through the tattered wind,

I slid all of them beneath my tongue
            to remember. this was even before the children
delivered by warplanes, when we waited for the dust
            to settle, yelling with the moon pouring down our throats,

and waited for the only mercy we knew
            when we cracked open the bomb’s shell
                        to find our bodies inside.

Spencer Chang is a writer from Taipei, Taiwan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rising Phoenix Review, Rabbit, Blue Marble Review, The Daphne Review, and elsewhere.

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flood

on this walk, i wait
for the blue evening to thumb itself into my bony hips like an old lover.
in the dark and ripped
open on the slush-snow,
a crushed rabbit regards me.
rounded like the beat-blink of a black eye; a bruised fruit, a pistol crack
of love.
i twitch. i furrow my brow.
i tremble like empty seed pods, fat, husky masses balled and brittle with longing.
the streets grow quieter; a vein is emptied out onto the sidewalk.
these days, my hands get cold quite easily—
            something about my inability to eat,
            my failure to keep myself alive in any meaningful manner.
            this metabolism is no match for my hunger.
would you like to hold them?

Anne Fu is a non-binary teenager from somewhere in southern Ontario. They enjoy showing empathy to small insects and have been published a couple of times before.

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daughter/tiger/tauter/tighter

baba cried the night we had to
leave. he is a good man, nearly
seven feet tall but wears the air
above him like he is asking for
forgiveness. the night before we
slip            out of this country, he
tells me why i should return.

                        bao bao, he rumbles, in the
                        darkness of my grandmother’s
                        bedroom. the knife of light on
                        the floor births me into
                        rectangular being. you should
                        not be ashamed.

i know well of the things he tells
me: dead rabbits and hung dogs,
chairman portraits on crumpled
dollar bills, dusty Mongolian
roads and dead vertical scripts in
the Gobi. my nomadsmen speak
and i do not understand; i must
tell them, with my own cracked-
skull voice, that i am not one of
them. that i am no more familiar
to them than the white-fleshed
fist            pressed against their
cheek.

                        when my cousins show me their
                        shrine, their pyramids of
                        oranges in blue bowls and
                        incense, i can only nod.
                        allegory, meet ancestor.

i do not know what to do with
myself when i watch him wipe
the tears away. inverted halo,
beijing crackles black judgement
on my turned back. i have never
seen a man as big as him weep. i
roll my suitcase down the
linoleum and try not to look
back.

Anne Fu is a non-binary teenager from somewhere in southern Ontario. They enjoy showing empathy to small insects and have been published a couple of times before.

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does the moon still exist if no one is looking?

i.
not this body, no. not this thin un-shape of a child
folded up like a switchblade, so close against the
crest of my neck. not these hairs standing up on
your skin, made upright by the charge between the
fizzing sky and ground. too small, too delicate,
too tense with their aching joints; i want to be
unwound, unspooled, snipped out of the
background and interrogated under bleeding
colour. there are so many ways to peel: grating the
skin off of a core, uncapping a matryoshka doll,
doffing a jacket when spring widows winter. there
are so many ways to unmask and expose, like
stripping the rind off of an orange.

 
ii.
you call me, late one night, while i am at the
payphone. i hear the rattling coin in the slot, then
your static-mouth voice. you croon, i do not. the
light tinges me sodium-orange, makes my veins
go green. oh God.

 
iii.
at night i nest in bathtubs, darkened so that i may
not bear witness to myself, and scrub my skin
clean with cut fingernails. in the mornings, i
smudge off the shell of an egg and press the damp
white to my lips. i imagine my body in mirrors,
singing like the edge of a glass cup, a jagged
linoleum hole where flesh has been allowed to
poke through, the mortar scraping at my nerves.
who is to say that i am not simply outgrowing this
frame the way a Josephine climbs out of its trellis?
who is to say i will not escape these bars to rasp at
the ground, that i am not still becoming?

Anne Fu is a non-binary teenager from somewhere in southern Ontario. They enjoy showing empathy to small insects and have been published a couple of times before.

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