Ann Marie Byrd
We exploded out the aluminum storm door to icy freedom. A cluster of cooing feathers flew to the rooftops before we crossed the threshold. Hilda Dog hit the sidewalk first and chased any dawdling pigeons. My grandmother’s snowy backyard had lured us from her kitchen, heated to tropical temps and filled with aromas foreshadowing the day’s pastries, called kuchens (koo kens). I loved her apple and cinnamon kuchens. Rows of glazed sliced apples atop a sweet pastry, or butter-crumb cake sprinkled with cinnamon and confectioner’s sugar.
“I get the good shovel,” Patrick said, and I grabbed the old rusty one. We thumped down the two gray steps to the snow covered, birdseed-littered sidewalk. Hilda sprang through the drifts as if a giant trampoline stretched beneath her. The pigeons, interrupted from their feeding, looked down and chided us with their oh-ooo-ers. Too bad, because we were on a mission. Grandma had asked my brother and me to shovel her backyard pathways.
Flurries fell as Patrick cleared past the frozen birdbath in the garden with sleeping tulips, irises, daffodils and hyacinths. They’d bloom at Easter, fragrant and bright, demanding attention after their hibernation. Patrick moved in an arc towards the garbage can shed. I shoveled past the coop where Grandpa kept his homing pigeons, and followed the rope clotheslines to the back gate. In summer the white sheets, shirts and underwear would flap in the lazy breeze.
Scrape, toss. Scrape, toss. Almost there. I straightened and stretched, listening to my brother’s efforts though the garage blocked my view. I tossed my shovel onto the snow and ran toward the house. A few of the pigeons had returned to their seeds but scattered at my approach. Let’s make angels, I called. Patrick threw his shovel and hustled over. We tipped backwards under lacy snowflakes and swept our legs and arms as fast as we could. No angel was ever perfect because standing up left footprints at its base.
“My angel is neater than yours.” I looked at him. “Your cheeks are really red.”
“Let’s climb onto the garage.”
At 39 my brother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. I flew across the country to help his wife Pam care for him. She pulled the car to the curb a block from their house.
“He wants me to prepare you for how he looks.”
“He can’t eat, so he’s lost a lot of weight.”
“He’s a marathon runner. How much weight does he have to lose?”
We dashed to the garage, which conjured up secrecy and danger. Puffing cloudy breaths we scrambled up a few fence slats, boosted onto the shed’s roof, and hoisted ourselves to the garage’s flat roof. I stood lookout because we weren’t allowed up there. The roof was old, the weight of the snow caused stress, we might fall, blah, blah, blah. But all that lovely, untouched snow waited for our boot prints. I proved a poor lookout because I couldn’t resist the pure landscape. My red boots with fur trim danced out flowers and mazes and angels—until the kitchen door opened and an adult’s voice called.
“Pat and Annie—are you on the roof?”
Silence. God wouldn’t want us to lie.
“Get down right away. You know you’re not supposed to be up there. It’s dangerous.”
OK. OK. OK. Hilda must have betrayed us, parading at the base of the garage, waiting for us to return from outer space. Of course, snow makes tracking easy.
We moved slowly, stopping when the adult disappeared after a few freezing seconds. The warning gave us precious seconds to obey. We turned and ran to the far side of the garage overlooking the alley. Can heaven be better than this? The snowplow had pushed mountains of snow along the alley’s sides. “Geronimo” we yelled and leapt into thin air, from roof to mountain, an action more forbidden than the garage. I was Sir Edmund Hillary. I was King Kong. I was the Snow Queen. My kingdom stretched as far as I could see from our majestic perch, up and down the alley. Our feet sank knee deep into our mountain as we struggled down to street level.
We took him to the emergency room the night I arrived. They cut him chest to abdomen, found more than they bargained for, and performed a colostomy. I spent my nights on a cot in his hospital room, telling stories and singing songs from our childhood.
We started our lives sleeping in the same room—he was thirteen months older—and ended it the same way.
He went to their bungalow to die and Pam and I divvied up chores. She cleaned and dressed his incision, and I changed his colostomy bag. The bag irked him and he said, “It’s a good thing I’m dying soon because there’s no way I’d put up with this.”
I found lilacs at a flower market one day and rushed them to him because lilacs had surrounded and filled our long-ago home. In all his years in San Diego, he’d never seen lilacs. Their fragrance spread through the room. He said, “I feel like I’m six again.”
We played King of the Mountain, a hallowed rite where whichever one of us scaled the summit first could give a victorious crow. I was rarely King, and Patrick defended his perch by pushing me off his mountain. On a bad day I might lose a boot or mitten and Patrick wouldn’t give it back until I cried. Or he’d rub snow in my face.
“I’m telling,” I flung at him as I unlatched the back gate and ran to the house. With freezing tears, fogged glasses, and courtroom drama, I gave an accounting of his sins while being helped out of my gear. He’d trail in and face a lecture about the shamefulness of bullying his little sister.
Balance restored, we’d shuck our snow-caked pants, jackets, hats, boots and gloves, placing them on or near the too-hot-to-touch radiators. Five minutes later, wrapped in warm robes and thick socks, we’d nestle at the kitchen table lapping hot tea loaded with milk and sugar and devouring warm apple and cinnamon kuchen. Quick eye contact and a conspiratorial nod. They would never know about our invincibility.
By David Winfield Norman
Winding, roiling sleeping goes Haukur Mallow through the glass. Big and virid, he watches out against the antihelio white earth that sprawls around him in entombed fjords, cold scale backs of ancient sloths. How chained they look, niveous and whited, deep in night. His windows cloud up from green gasses as he sits distilled in the foam of vegetation that blooms around him.
The house rises out of the land like a prophet, some iced phenakism soaking the leeched sun. One would expect it to draw a pilgrimage, great beacon as it is. But the starkness makes its grandeur even more illusory than the wilted vaulting, like aged fingers. It sits as a last dissenter against the arctic, the walls coming up around it. These mountains, they stand against it as a synod, ice-worn cardinals looming piously, their shattering presence sucking out the fires enclosed in its glass walls. The only remaining wood is in the skeletal frame, this star, and the northern wall.
Haukur has had the idea to turn this dilapidated place, a boil rising from the molting ground, into a greenhouse. The roads have moved him farther away each year, a glib anti-erosion that pushes the dark, lecherous ice up and up. Reykjavik is building a wall against the tundra, the abominable pools of earth boiled up in tar as changing and hot as the crawling and transmundane hand of the pipelines, their shells greedily hording the ivory of this big, elephantine land. What goes through them passes quickly enough that it can be completely forgotten.
Further removed from the frantic buildings of the city, he turns himself against it in vanity. He has clouded visions of the ‘New Eden.’ The tapered faces of his flowers, the pawpaw trees and their bulbous scrota faintly stare out as the wave of ice cliffs up each day. The plants have eaten and overwhelmed his furniture; they burst in a singular convulsion like a grass whipping in a clearing surrounded by tigers. The tigers of the arctic prowl slowly before the ninguid men who watch them, always standing, glacial faces of the mountains that see all the world. Haukur sees them, and leans against a hydrangea bush as he sees them steal the last flicker of sun.
His work has run the toxins out of his skin; they sit dying the tiles and wood floors. He feels the same as when he emerges from a long time in the steam room, white and exhilarated. Across the floor lie hammers, splinters like a Roman mosaic. In corners he watches the interior reflections puffing smoke at one another like two carved mouths face-to-face in a cathedral wall. Slowly, he stands up and paces the grassed chamber.
He has taken care to gather none of the plants natural to here, none of the flowers that come out of the snow like beaten animals. The things here are the strangest entities he could order, pernicious vines and shoots, their cacophony rising above the hissing of the snake underneath. They gar and tug at him as he moves among their berried, flowered and horned bodies. Something breaths from these types of plants, the thing which has blown winds over big, balmy whales of islands and wound them to hurricanes. He regrets that hurricanes never reach here. There is something in a cyclonic movement that moves his mind; when he still lived in Reykjavik he would imagine the hundreds of people leaving their docile homes in the night as being a mass that turned and turned up the butte like a whirlwind, and that would be what finally permitted him to leave. He lived in a selfish isolation, from which he has moved to one transparent, and therefore absent, a ghost of an existence removed from everything else.
The sun is gone and it will not come again for eighteen hours. Its breath hums at Haukur’s eyelids, and he holds himself in the brief coldness. In the dark he is alone in himself, he thinks up frightening pictures like shadows from a fire, and so he opens his eyes. The aloneness is now palpable; with months in this place behind him, he understands that no one is anywhere near him. The coldness leaves no shadows for him around the big, leafy room and its glass coat. He sees only dimensions of gray and blue as his eyes morph in the dark like a cold-blooded animal. He cannot picture the shape of another person; in his mind they are all gray and blue biomorphic figures, flexible and wailing, while he is still an absent presence.
The plants and their growing seep into him as he wades amongst them, the first night he is spending here. Before, he drove back to town in the evenings, hunching quickly through the streets and into a hotel before the sky turned from aquamarine to a staring blue, a holy blue. It is the same blue that he sees occupying the men and women he remembers, how they looked on it benevolently and it them, a private ocean whose waves never touched him. And so he thought them insidious, viral. A water that moved everything with it without some attention to life. Haukur has built a house where there is only life.
The growing makes a noise like rattles as the warmth returns to Haukur’s body. He feels ferns crawling towards him in the dark, sensing his involuntary heat. In his amentia they have crawled about him and built strange, delitescent cataclysms, factories gilded and driven by some liquid alchemy they have concealed. They go about their business, green and pink devils, dancing but only their wlatsome shadow of dance is perceptible to Haukur. He is only beginning to notice these fits he has, moving in and out of certain understanding of space, and suddenly it frightens him to be so sure that he is mountained away here. He left other people because of his inability to react to them. As he pictures them so they were to him, creatures. Each day was a march in the zoo unarmed and uncaged. He was never hurt – mostly treated as some odd object on a mantel.
He passes from the big glass neck of the house to the one room with a wooden wall, the coldest place in the house because its density absorbs the outside air, barely acknowledging the sun, while maintaining a ceiling of reflected light, and it stands thick, away from the mountains. This room is the darkest of all, whelved in an ice of space that sinks and laps slowly in and around, the air bulbous and toothless. Haukur stares at the wall, so sacral in its dissention, its holy gray wood exposed. He watches its veins like a mandala. They do not move for him. They are staunch as the threatening mountains outside, who linger still, glaring.
He hears a low, hissing sound from the basement. It strains high, and Hauker descends to seek it. The lower levels are racked with muck composting over itself, a bog chiseled into the frozen ground and hurtling in self-contained currents. It is rich with nutrients and with mushrooms. Inside the sound grows more shrill and loud until it resembles an unintelligible foreigner, and leaning over the gutted wood railing, Haukur sees a man writhing in the putrid slush. His head is bulbous, looking like an onion flooded up from the ground, or a mandrake root fattened in rotting soil. He hisses and spits, his arms half-sunk and his hands reaching up as if out of a cape in the mud. Haukur titters at the contrast of his effeminate hands, their winding, winding to spin some imaginary clock, and of his rather ugly and drooping face. The man raises his chest and neck in an echoing bellow that comes from somewhere beyond the ice.
“You are a burglar?” Haukur replies.
The man makes no isolatable reaction. The writhing soothes and grows along with the black muck tide, its acrid contents of fallen fruit laid to waste and spectral vines and leaves. Haukur can see the moon from a crevice in the boards above, shining through the glass, some enormous silver god-child, or mother. It clothes itself in a way which deceives its gender; it is true the wearing of veils has fallen out of fashion. But it watches in its guises, both the abundant light and the portent. Haukur sees its reflections of him in one of its million eyes. He silvers in the fecundating room, he watches the sliver bleed and toil the slosh.
The man distracts him out of the trance.
“Shut up,” Haukur says.
He goes back into the room with the wall. It has gracile arms of mirrors which reach sublimely into the empty center. They reflect coldness as Haukur surrounds himself with them, all deepened in their blue glass virginity. He looks lovingly at their icy lines, squares of mirrors stacked atop one another and reaching out in a round embrace. His placid legs bend slowly like the drifting of snow, permanent sand. The mirrors remain staunch and begin to stare down at him with high arched brows. From the ceiling, the glacial mountains. The vivid blueness of Haukur in the immaculate night is the caul of the godless.
He recalls the night the chain gang of telephones arrived outside his apartment in town. He opened the door and saw them, the old phones with cords, decades of them, held not by their plastic but by old iron chains, each garroted, stilly. He opened the door and could hear the convivial drunkenness at the bottom of the stairs. The night looked in on him, and it lowed at him. It spoke directly at him as no person does or did, with millions of eyes in odd places, and all welling golden bowels into him. He refused to lift any of the receivers.
He sees the same faces in the bigger night now that he saw then, the ones he thought of as judging, in his life-dreaming catatonia. When he would not look at the faces around him and they not at him, he decided to leave to where he would always be looked upon, by everything, even when he was not looking. Now he does not look at all. The knowing keeps him hunched and in constant, cold fear and judgment.
Slowly, the white drifts down a fjord with the dwaling lightness of an Ice Horse through the glass. It waves lithely, a playful turning of the earth, this land which is growing. Haukur is so consumed by his interior storms that it takes small moments like this for him to see through the veil of the eyes. He sees the thin, warm light from the bare edges of the towns, and fleetingly, the complimentary glow of the northern lights. It bellows spiritually, the true flow of mind in its own sea enveloping with warmth, knit in a trusting coral expansion, all around.
But Haukur turns away. The sound of the man in the bog returns, his mouth now frozen over but full of writhing and stifled groans. It becomes Haukur, and the dark rancid waters leech at the fossilizing foundation beams.
by Bryce Alister
You’re sitting at your dining-room table, a wide oval of stained oak, staring at your wife’s face as she speaks in a thin monotone voice, for what seems like ages, about her day at work. Theresa’s daughter, who she hasn’t seen in ten years, has come to visit her. Mister Ingram’s descended further into the muddled haze of dementia. A new resident, Angela, has had trouble making friends. You nod and smile, laugh when she does, but you’re not always sure how to respond. You’re having trouble distinguishing who you’re supposed to know, and who you’re not. Which turns are meant to be tragic, and which comic. Largely, you rely on her cues. You’ve had practice. Thankfully, her daily summary winds down into silence, as she turns her attention back to the flaccid roast beef on her plate.
You look over at Jonathan, prodding at his supper with his fork. He’s seven or eight. You get a feeling looking at him, his gap-toothed, naive grin; his small, dark eyes. It hits you when he tries to get close to you. When he wants you to pick him up, or push him on the swing in the back garden. His voice is grating, pleading, whining. You know it shouldn’t be. A father shouldn’t find his child’s voice so unbearable, should he? But then, he’s not really yours, is he? He sees you watching him, and you quickly set your stare back on the plate in front of you.
How long have you been going on like this, you wonder. A week? Two? You remember the first morning, when it started. You woke up, confused. Looking around, the room did not seem familiar. The thin, floral-print sheets with the frayed edges; the walls, covered in tacky family photos, all painted dead-grass-yellow; none of it clicked. You wondered whose house you’d mistakenly wandered into. You wondered who the woman was lying next to you in bed: had you slept with her? Did you know her? Sneaking out into the hallway, careful not to wake the woman up, you tried to stave off panic and get your head in order. It took three tries, three doors, to find the bathroom. You locked yourself in. Stared in the mirror. The face didn’t look familiar though. Your nose was too big and your chin was too weak and your eyes were too close together, but struggling to find a face to compare it to, the face you expected, you came up short. A knock at the door startled you, and she, the woman, called in:
You remembered a name: Harry Bracewell. She kept calling in: Harry? Harry? Who was she calling? Who is Harry Bracewell? You called back:
Yeah, just a minute.
She stopped knocking. Footsteps fell slowly away from the door. You were alone. Your stomach was knotted tightly. Memories came faintly drifting in, though you couldn’t say from where: Harry’s wife with the straw-blonde hair, Harry’s slow but happy son, Harry’s pointless job, Harry’s house with the tall bushes on Rochester Road. When you finally came out, shaking, you were scared out of your mind. You would be discovered. Whose life had you just interrupted? Was he a friend, a stranger, a victim? What had you done to him and why couldn’t you remember? Was the real Harry Bracewell in your house, somewhere halfway across the world, waking up to your life? Had the night taken you both away, and simply placed you back in the wrong boxes come morning? What would happen when you walked out into the hallway of Harry’s house and his wife saw you, standing in her husband’s place? You turned the corner, and saw her sitting at the breakfast counter in the kitchen.
But nothing happened.
She didn’t scream, didn’t kick, didn’t blink. She didn’t out you as an imposter or phone the police. She smiled at you, and poured you a cup of coffee. And as much as that confused you and frightened you, what you did was even worse. It turned your stomach to ice. You smiled back. You took the coffee. You wanted to scream, but you didn’t. You went on your way. You kissed Harry’s wife goodbye, went out to Harry’s car, and did Harry’s job. At the end of the day, you came back to Harry’s house. And so on and so forth.
So now, a week later, sitting here at the dining-room table, eating Harry’s supper, you think to yourself, as you often do: what can I say to these people? What can I tell these people who think they know who I am?
The Organ Man
by Emily Koss
The Organ Man opened his pink plastic eyes and looked around the room.
I’m lying! What a way to start a story. The Organ Man stood quietly on the piano, with his eyes closed. They’re always closed, obviously, but for some reason I always think he’s about to open them. I always tell myself, if he does open his eyes, I won’t be afraid. I picture myself being friendly to him, helping him with any confusion he might be having. And I would not stare rudely at all his tiny blue pulsating throat organs, or his lungs, or his anything.
I played a chord on the piano. I know he’s sleeping, maybe I am trying to wake him up a little. The Organ Man sighed. He didn’t wake up completely, though, and I put my hands back in my lap. (I’m lying again, I’m sorry.)
It’s a science classroom, that’s where the Organ Man lives. It’s cold outside, but warm in there, and dusty, and silent. The walls, the carpet, everything is dark brown. The light comes from a big picture window next to the piano, and the whole window is totally covered in bright green leaves off some ancient vine. Sometimes I wonder what’s out that window, but I never look. I know if I look it will be a parking lot. I go to that room a lot, to sleep and be quiet, but mostly for the Organ Man.
“I’m writing about you,” I told him this morning. “I’m trying to write about tranquility.”
I focused hard on his closed eyes.
The Organ Man sighed.
Marty realized his ears were ringing so loudly he couldn’t hear himself rustling under the blankets. He kicked his feet on the mattress and listened- nope. His ears were stuffed with a million shrill little buzzes. “A million shrill little buzzes,” Marty thinks to himself. “That’s a good way of putting it.” He shuffled around for a pen, came up with a purple hi-lighter. Shuffled some more, looking for a place on the sheet with no writing on it yet, and scribbled it down on the place where the pillow had been. “A million shrill little buzzes…5:00 am.”
Marty lay on his hundred year old mattress in his hundred year old bed, propped up on a pile of ink-stained pillows and floral-print covers. His bed was placed so that he was looking directly out what would have been his living room window. He watched the silent street sleep outside.
At about 9:00 the previous nights, and actually, the night before that, and the night before that, Marty had begun to realize. There had been some good realizations, but mostly bad ones- he realized he had yet again forgotten to cash his most recent paycheck, and that he still hadn’t managed to remind himself to go to confession. Then he realized, for the four hundredth time, that he needed to find himself a new church. Or just stop going altogether. He realized, then, that he HAD stopped going altogether. And that he had stopped doing everything altogether. As the realizations piled up and up, it eventually became obvious that there was nothing for Marty to do about them but lie in bed and wait.
And finally, the next morning, the realizations were drawing to a close. As he lay in his filthy bed and stared out his window, Marty realized that this was probably the four millionth time he had witnessed the entire birth of a morning. He always felt more intimate with the days he had known all the way through. I’ll wait until the sun is showing, he thought, and then I’ll be done for a while. He knew he would still be ready when his morning went off and turned into afternoon, and evening, and tonight, and he would be there, holding its hand, when it faded away into tomorrow. And with the first glow of the sun over the horizon, Marty excused himself and fell finally and heavily asleep.
Marty was a squatter in a house full of quiet movement. He loved it all, the mechanical-looking spiders of all sizes, the shadows of leaves and branches that fell through the open windows and shook and twinkled on the walls. The potted plants that grew. There were partially feral cats that wandered in and out of the house, and raccoons. Sometimes rain. Sometimes swarms of ants. Wrinkles deepened. Prints of paintings left from the previous owners caught more and more dust. And the warm, soft dry sunlight dedicatedly faded everything it could reach, and pushed the shadows slowly across their regular paths.
The restaurant where Marty worked was about four miles from his house. He walked to work, which was okay with him, because the uphill part was really the only good thing that ever happened to his poor neglected health. He was the pastry chef in the mornings, and sometimes came back later in the evening to wait tables.
Now we are stepping back a couple months, because something important happened then.
It was pouring. Marty walked down Glendale Blvd. with his hands in his armpits and his hat perched on the back of his balding head. The rain babbled all around him, slapping the pavement and pattering onto the open, smiling faces of the leaves. Marty eavesdropped on its many friendly conversations, with the trees and the wind and the streetlights. “Pi ct a p a tat a pi ct ac ti p,” the rain said wetly in his ear, sneaking a long, cold finger down the back of his neck. “See, Marty, baby? Isn’t this better than being all by yourself in that miserable house?” It kissed his collarbones through his unbuttoned shirt. “Pat, pat,” responded his frozen feet.
So Marty arrived at Louie’s, slid in the door behind a slow middle-aged group. He hurried to the back, threw his coat on a chair in the corner.
“Sorry, Craig,” Marty mumbled to the fat entrée chef as he rushed past. His apron was already on, wet from the rain on the edges that stuck out under his coat.
“That’s alright, Marty, it’s been slow so far. Hey, your chocolate cake is already gone! It was gone hours ago!”
“I’ll make more tomorrow,” said Marty as he jogged out of the kitchen to his first table.
“Evening, ladies, how are we doing?”
He handed them menus, recited the specials, took an order for two decaf coffees. Now comes the part we are waiting for.
He walked to the back counter to get a glass dish of individually wrapped sugars and sweeteners. The one facing out of the dish happened to be a packet of C&H cane sugar, standing on its side so the H is on top. Marty glanced at it and his eyes froze in place.
The face of Jesus Christ was staring blankly out at him from the dark spots in the Hs.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” whispered Marty.
“Have you been here all along??”
Marty stared and waited for something to say. “Sooo…”
“So, what I think is that you could probably do some good with your baking,” says Jesus. “You know? Make people feel better when they eat it. Just do what feels right.”
“Uh, yeah, sure! Ok!…”
“Ok! Glad to hear it, Marty.”
Marty got two coffees, brought them to the table with sugar Jesus in his dish.
“Oh, thank you!” said the women. One grabbed Marty’s Jesus packet and ripped the bottom off, poured his contents into the steaming coffee. Marty watched, wide-eyed, as she took a sip. On the table, empty sugar Jesus winked.
Another grueling, sleepless night. Marty was on his side, crushed so his face was tucked into his blankets. His eyes stayed open, his face looked bored. He was counting shortcomings. His shitty job wandered across his mind, chewing grass, making little bleating noises. It sniffed at the bottom of that splintery wooden fence that is always printed on pajamas. Sniff. And it jumped! #28, I’m a waiter. I’m a squatter, those fucking raccoons, my terrible recipes, they all ambled up with a smug complacency. Hop! Over the fence. And another! Hop! Hop! Hop! #32, His fat gut. Hop! His failure as a member of society. Hop! As a healer. Hop! His total confusion as to what he was supposed to be doing about the sugar Jesus, hop hop hop!
“It’s hard to be you, Marty,” says Marty. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.” Marty closed his eyes. The sheep were running now, chased across his mind by the hundreds of others behind him, eagerly pushing for their turn to make themselves obvious to him. Hophophophophophophop.
Many, many hours later. Marty was recovering, exhausted, and his sheep were exhausted, too, cuddled together on their sides, dozing and sighing. Some were fast asleep, curled up in fluffy balls of bad decisions made in his 20s. They looked pretty harmless from this side. “I’m sorry, self,” Marty said. “I’m sorry I just let you sit through that. I should have intervened. I didn’t mean what I said.” He forgives himself. The hours pass.
And then Marty realizes! If he stares at the sheep for long enough, they begin to morph, slowly, subtly, almost beneath the surface. Their faces get pinker, their bellies get tighter, their little sheep nipples swell to three, four, five times their size. After an hour, they are totally bald, except for their heads, and two little sprouts on their shoulder blades. They get fatter and pinker, and the sprouts get longer and featheryer. And by the early morning hours, Marty is staring disbelievingly at a roomful of fat, pink angels, naked as those proverbial jaybirds, lying on top of each other and watching him.
“Good morning, Marty,” The angels say, in heavenly unison.
“Morning, ladies,” Marty says, wondering if they could tell his palms were sweating. He tried to sound casual and collected. “This certainly is a pleasant surprise!” The angels giggled and hid their faces in their neighbors ample, rosy stomachs. Marty catches the eye of a brunette in the middle of the pile and winks at her. She smiles so warmly he wonders if the girl on top of her can feel it. Sweet, coy, sexy little thing…
The brunette clears her throat. “Um. You’re having a vision right now.”
“I see that,” said Marty, and he smiles paternally. (He will take some time to think about this information, but it will not be now.)
“We’re here to tell you that you can cure people with your recipes.”
She continues, “I can help you, if you like. I mean.” She blushes. “I’m really excited to meet you.” Giggle.
The other angels begin to exchange looks, and one starts heading towards the open window.
“You know, maybe I could use some guidance, just until I get started…” Marty says.
The other angels are giggling to each other behind their hands, and flying out the window, one by one.
“Good! That’s really good.”
“How should I, you know, contact you?”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be back,” the angel says. They smile at each other some more.
“I should probably go now…”
“Nice meeting you,” says Marty.
“Ok. You too.” She heads towards the window. “You don’t have any other questions?”
Marty thinks. “What’s your name?”
She smiles pinkly, and Marty feels it warming the inside of his skin. “Gidget,” she says.
Have I explained what the Organ Man is? He’s a small plastic man, with no skin on his stomach, and plastic removable organs. The factory probably made him with his eyes closed to try to make the whole situation less unnervingly intimate. But the fact remains, we know him more thoroughly than we know anyone else, unless we’ve been inside their chest cavity, too.
“Remember I said I was writing about you?” That’s me, talking to him. I do that a lot, I guess. And then me trailing off, I do that a lot too.
The Organ Man opened one bleary eye and looked hard at me. The December sun through the windows was mind-numbingly warm. It was pushing so sure and so gentle through the glass and dust and leaves, and it landed so softly on the Organ Man’s shoulders, and I wanted more than anything to grab his plastic hand and shove together with him through the window and be gone.
Marty is walking home from work stealing flowers and fruits from various front lawns when he sees an almost familiar figure walking towards him. He is already in his neighborhood, so his figures it must be one of his neighbors and looks down at his feet. When he looks back up, he is 5 feet away from a smiling, wingless Gidget.
“Hey Marty.” Blush. “Can I walk you home?”
“Uh, yeah! Yeah of course! What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I just thought I would stop by and see how you’re doing.”
“How are you doing?”
“Good, really good!”
They walk and watch their feet.
“That’s a really cute little house,” Gidget says eventually, slowing down to look at it.
“Yeah, my coworker lives there!” says Marty. “His name is Craig. He’s a chef, too, but kind of higher up than me.”
“It’s a really nice house.” She turns her head to watch it as they walk past.
“This is my house,” says Marty carefully, many many blocks later. There are boards in the upstairs windows, and the front yard is waist-deep in dark green weeds.
“I know, I remember.”
“It’s not really mine…”
Marty stands awkwardly in front of his house for a while, then says “Well I have to get a little more flowers and stuff, if you want to walk around with me…”
“Yeah, I’d love to!”
A few blocks later, a mailman is power-walking down the driveway, looking at a pile of mail. He bumps into Gidget’s shoulder and looks up, surprised.
“Well, hey, Gidget! Sorry about that, I didn’t see you! How’ve you been!”
“Hey, Mitch! I’ve been doing pretty good, how about you?”
“Good, good, finally got the splint off my wrist, see?” he holds up his arm.
“Oh, Mitch, that’s excellent. You must be so relieved.”
Mitch shook his head. “You have no idea.”
Gidget smiled sympathetically.
“Well listen, Gidget, I gotta run. Great to see you!”
“Yeah, you too Mitch, take care.”
The mail truck putts off in the other direction.
“How do you know him?” asks Marty.
“I don’t!” Gidget looks proud. “That’s just what happens when people touch me.”
A woman getting into her minivan. She smiles quickly at Marty and Gidget over her shoulder. Gidget walks up briskly and touches her lightly on the back. The woman whips her head around.
“Gidget! Lord, I hardly recognized you!”
Marty stands, stupid with surprise, while the women catch up. Eventually the minivan excuses herself and drives off. Gidget gives Marty a look.
They walk on. Marty is thinking.
“What else can you do?”
Gidget blushes a hundred degrees and shoots Marty a nervous smile. Then she slides a warm hand onto the back of his neck.
Marty comes in his pants.
Marty sat watching a teenage boy sleep in his chair on the bus. He was on his way home form work, sitting loosely in his chair with his knees swaying to the motion of the bus’s movements. Marty watched him wheezing in his sleep, shifting pained expressions on his drooping eyebrows. He could smell him so strongly, smell different things going on inside his cool, dry skin. He was transfixed, he could see his tiny blue throat organs moving. In fact, he could see everything inside of him, because there was a huge, clean-cut hole in his sweatshirt and the skin on his stomach, and there were all his millions and millions of unbelievably complicated organs and tissues and bones. They all pulsed slowly, quietly, perfectly in tune with the motions of his breathing.
A man sitting next to the boy obliviously reached up and pulled the bell cord at what Marty realized was his stop. Marty kept staring into the boy while the man climbed off the bus, and the driver pulled the doors in and drove away. This boy. The rhythm of his heartbeat, the perfect symmetry of his lungs, the beautiful, calm peace that his different parts worked in, and the combination of all this with his calm, sleeping face…
The bus lumbered slowly through the rain, the seats around Marty emptied and filled and emptied. He had no idea where he was, and didn’t notice, and didn’t care.
With a start, the boy opened his eyes and reached up quickly to pull the bell cord. Marty began immediately to gather his things, already knowing he was going to follow him, already having decided that when he first saw him and saw what he had to offer. He could not explain how, but he knew that he was God, or Jesus, or someone, and he was going to tell him what came next.
He walked off the bus, and Marty realized with a burst of gratitude that skin on the boy’s back was missing, too. He watched his shoulder muscles sway as he followed him down the cold, wet sidewalk.
They walked and walked, past old weepy buildings and busy business offices. Eventually, they arrived in front of Sacred Heart, the catholic school. As Marty thought about this, the boy disappeared inside the front double doors. And when Marty tried to speed up and find him, a skinny freshman-looking girl stepped directly in front of him and then stopped walking. Marty stepped sideways impatiently, and then noticed that the girl was swaying on the spot. He had time only to reach his hands out towards her before she slumped forward and landed unconscious on the sidewalk.
Holy shit, thinks Marty. This is totally beyond me. I don’t know what the fuck to do about this!
He looked around frantically for a responsible adult, and found only staring high school students. They looked from the girl to Marty.
“Shhhhhhhit,” Marty hissed under his breath. He dropped to his knees next to the girl, digging frantically in his pockets. What he hoped was that Gidget had slipped some magical something in there, and that this was his first test. What he came up with was a peanut butter cookie wrapped in a paper napkin that Marty had baked and then stolen from work. He had slipped some dried peach-leaf crumbles into it, to sneakily observe what effect it had had on Craig’s cold. The answer had been- no effect whatsoever. Marty was screwed.
He shoved a piece of the cookie into his mouth, and screamed for the kids to call an ambulance. None of them moved. He pulled her head up onto his lap and spit the cookie out into her mouth, and rubbed her neck until it was mostly down.
“What the fuck are you doing?” one of the kids asked, very quietly. Marty picked a random kid to glare at in response.
And as he chewed another piece of the cookie, the girl’s face twitched, and she opened her eyes. Marty choked in surprise, and stared wild-eyed at her as she stared wild-eyed at him.
“Shit!” he whispered at her.
She pushed herself up onto her hands quickly and stared at him some more. Marty handed her the rest of the cookie and took off running as fast as he could.
This is the house where Craig and his wife live with all their woodchick-chuck-children. Gidget stands on the welcome mat, longing hammering through her veins. Through the front window, she sees glimpses of Wife in the kitchen, cooking. Two pretty kids are running in and out of a blanket fort in the living room, in front of a fire burning energetically in the red-brick hearth. Craig sits in a loveseat, reading the newspaper. They’re all thinking about Rudolph and drinking Coca-Cola, and the spirit of
Christmas presents beams down on them from the top of the Christmas tree. Gidget stares and stares and stares.
“Gidget?” Marty asks the empty room for the nine millionth time since he got home. “I have something to tell you. I really need to talk to you.”
“Coming!” he hears finally, far off in the distance. He exhales heavily and drops onto the side of his bed.
Ten minutes later she is climbing in through his window. Marty is talking before she even has her legs in the room.
“I don’t know what happened! A little girl passed out, and I think I woke her up!”
“I heard about it! It was amazing!”
“How’d you hear about it?”
“She’s diabetic. Her name is Pat.”
“Oh. What do I do now?”
Gidget shrugs. “I guess we’ll see!”
Gidget is in front of Craig’s house for the third time since Marty showed it to her.
Tonight she makes a decision.
She marches up the steps to the front door, buzzing with excitement. Pushes the bell. The Wife Mother opens the door.
“Hi! Can I help you?”
Gidget shoves out her hand with a big smile, and the woman puts hers out. Gidget grabs it and shakes. The woman’s name is Charlotte.
“Gidget! Its so wonderful to see you, after all this time. I totally forgot you were coming, I haven’t even started dinner yet!”
Gidget smiles wider. “Oh, that’s alright, I’ll help you!”
“Alright, honey, come in, come in!”
Marty is drinking a beer on his front porch when a speaker clicks on somewhere in his ceiling.
“Hi, Marty. I was wondering if you wanted to have dinner with me? Meet me at the corner of Natick and Hollister!”
Marty is already standing up and walking inside to get his shoes.
Marty thinks, “I’ve never done a damn thing but wait.” A frustrating thought, but he thinks it happily. He’s in a mood to accept. Right now he is standing on the corner, that same old soggy sidewalk, and his smile is the palm-tree silhouettes thrashing in the wind. His temper is the glittering pollutants, and tonight is the savory-smelling rain.
And then a rosy voice registers in his cold damp ears. His thoughts trudge to catch up. Gidget? A Barbie-pink laugh sears through his brain. Marty whips himself around and there she is, standing in the golden frame of a cozy living room window. She’s wearing an apron. She’s baking. How wonderful. How telling and poetic. He moves closer.
She is in a chaotic kitchen with another woman. They are talking that melodic hen talk, and flour puffs up from their hands like wood smoke. Marty’s hot breath is fogging the glass.
Suddenly the other woman sees him and makes a friendly yelping noise. And gentle Gidget, she looks up and sees him, and smiles her sweet C&H smile. The yelping woman hurries to open the door.
“You must be Marty! Come on in!”
Marty glances over at nodding Gidget, and walks awkwardly towards the front steps. As he passes the woman in the doorway, she says “It’s such a funny coincidence that you are such good friends with Gidget! She’s been a family friend for ages!”
Marty does a double-take going past the living room. “Craig?!” he asks a water-balloon man in a loveseat. The man looks up from his newspaper. “Marty! Good to see you! Gidget’s in the kitchen. Can I get you something to drink? A beer? A coke?”
“A beer, thanks, Craig…”
Marty sips nervously while the women set up the food and Craig rounds up the kids. He snorts a giant gulp up his nose accidentally when the oldest walks into the dining
room. She freezes in the doorway and stares.
“Hey,” Marty says quietly. It’s the unconscious girl from the catholic school. She looks over at her parents, who are distractedly moving around the table and pulling out chairs. Gidget is watching intently.
“Hey,” says the girl, and she moves to a place at the table. She is silent for the entire dinner, and leaves immediately after she finishes eating.
“So how do you all know Gidget?” Marty asks after dinner, leaning back in his chair, feeling considerably more at ease, not to mention sneaky as all get-out. He slips a hand under the table and strokes her thigh luxuriously.
“She used to baby-sit for Izzy and Pat, about a million years ago, when she was still in graduate school.”
“Graduate school! I didn’t know that, Gidget!”
“Oh yeah, poor Gidget worked her little butt off!”
Gidget gives Marty a sideways smile. He gives her thigh a pinch.
Marty leans back on the couch with his legs spread open, his left hand over the back rest, his right holding his beer up on his thigh. Gidget is there, wearing those thick, cozy socks, with her knees folded up against her in that way girls do when they’re content. Did I mention that it’s Christmastime? It’s Christmastime.
Gidget says to Marty, “You should cure Pat on Christmas.”
“Yeah. That would be cool.”
“You could make her a pie out of Christmas Trees and Coca Cola and Santa beards or something!”
“Oh, c’mon, baby, that’d be really cute!”
“Uh huh,” Marty says, but he’s thinking about it.
What is it about this girl, Marty jokes happily to himself, that has me so domesticated? He strolls the aisles of the grocery store slowly, smiling to himself like a crazy person. His arms are full of flour, butter, milk, eggs, chocolate, pineapple, rice noodles, chicken, et cetera. He is nearing the aisle with the sugar.
The loudspeaker cracks on. “Hi Marty,” says a warm peach-fuzz voice. Marty smirks towards the speaker.
“I just wanna say this is really sweet of you. You’re really awesome for doing this.”
“I know it, baby.”
Gidget giggles into the receiver. She is holding it too close to her mouth.
Marty is in the sugar aisle and the speaker clicks off.
And there he is, those deep blue eye sockets, meeting Marty’s little bird eyes so plainly, so evenly. Marty picks up the box.
“Artichokes,” says Jesus.
“Artichokes, dandelion, and grass.”
“That sounds disgusting.”
Jesus makes a thems-the-breaks noise.
Marty sticks the box in his armpit and heads towards the artichokes. “Any one in particular?”
Sugar Jesus is immune to sarcasm. “Whatever,” he answers cheerfully.
And finally Marty is plopping Sugar Jesus and all his booty down on the conveyor belt and patting himself down for money, the cashier is ringing him up with his most professional face, and Marty walks off into the night.
There is a tiny smile, dusted on all the surfaces of his whole sweet self. He’s vulnerable and happy, I can feel the sour want like bile flooding my insides. And I’m so tired, the sleep coming off him is perfect, it’s what I need, it’s all I need. I’m ready. I’m almost ready. I just need one more straw.
Twenty minutes later, Marty is in his bombed-out kitchen, cooking. The recently purchased ingredients are spread across the counter, spilled into the grout between the cracked tiles. The cupboards are all stiff and stale and empty. He has added the baking soda twice.
His timing is all off, the rhythm of his movements are clashing with the soft pulse of the house. In the next room, Gidget is lying in Marty’s inky bed, and the sheets are fluttering in the ripples of Marty’s agitated baking. She can hear him muttering and reacting, retracing his hesitant footsteps. Then she hears the cookie sheet slide into the oven. She is smiling.
“Baby, I-” says Marty in the doorway, wiping his floury hands on his apron. He inhales fast when he sees her.
It was raining hard that morning, and I walked into the room distractedly talking off wet layers. I can’t even tell you. I looked at the piano, and there he was. He was the Organ Man, alright, naked as the day he was born, which I guess it was. I know it, even though he had skin on his stomach. I know it. It was him. He was sitting on the piano bench, asleep with his head on his arms on the lid. He was breathing slowly, slowly. Not bald, anymore. Brown curls. Leg hair. Eyelashes.
I though to myself, I am cold, so he must be freezing. And I walked up to him, slowly. I can’t even tell you. I touched him on the shoulder, his skin was impossible, so smooth, and so warm. His neck, his back… I could feel his steady breathing under my hands. And when I put my hand in his palm, his fingers closed and held on.
I don’t know how I made myself do it, but I kissed him. On the spot right between the side of his nose and his cheek. And I swear to God, Jesus, and Mother Mary, the Organ Man opened his ocean blue eyes and looked right into mine.
Marty is sleeping on his back, snoring gently, taking up almost all of the bed. Gidget lays propped up on her hands, bored as hell, watching him and resisting the urge to kiss him awake.
She gives in a little, brushes her lips lightly against the corner of his mouth. Sleeping Marty snorts loudly and frowns in her direction.
Gidget rolls her eyes and clicks her tongue, then wriggles out of bed.
It’s a good thing she did, because when she steps into the kitchen, she sees that the cookies need to be taken out of the oven in two minutes. She sits on the counter and waits, then takes them out and lets them cool while she finds her sweater and checks her teeth in the cracked bathroom mirror.
She wraps the cookies in paper towels and lowers them into a brown paper bag. The she kisses Marty on the forehead and walks cheerfully down to Craig and Charlotte’s.
Charlotte gets back from the grocery store and finds a bag of ginger snaps on the porch. The note says, “Sugar-free, so Pat can have some too! Love from Marty and Gidget.”
And when Pat gets home from school, she does.
I wrapped the Organ Man in an old blanket I found in the Nurse’s office. Now we are walking, I’m not sure where. The sidewalk is cracked, and the buildings are old and tall. Old homeless birdmen are littering the street. They remind me of Flintstone birds, all bug eyes and bumpy heads and creeping purple veins. Dinosaur birdmen. I reach out my most bashful fingertips to the Organ Man’s blanket, and hang on like a pendant. These men, they are splatters of color on the porches and stoops. Now I’m beginning to see them everywhere. They make me feel like I haven’t learned a thing.