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Past Winners

2016
Jonathan Tel
The Human Phonograph
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Jonathan Tel is a former quantum physicist with a Ph.D from Stanford University. He has lived and written in Tokyo, Beijing, Jerusalem, Berlin and San Francisco.

He is a previous shortlistee for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, in 2014 for “The Shoe King of Shanghai. He won the 2015 V.S. Pritchett Story Award and was a finalist for the 2015 Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize for “The Seduction of a Provincial Accountant” and “Year of the Panda” respectively. This story, “The Human Phonograph”, won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The four stories are extracting from an unpublished collection relating to financial corruption in contemporary China entitled “Scratching the Head of Chairman Mao.”

2015
Yiyun Li
A Sheltered Woman
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Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

2014
Adam Johnson
Nirvana
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Adam is Associate Professor of English at Stanford University. A Whiting Writers Award winner, his work has appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Playboy, GQ, The New York Times and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of two short story collections – Emporium, and Fortune Smiles, which won the 2015 National Book Award – and two novels - Parasites Like Us, and The Orphan Master’s Son, which received the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. His books have been translated into twenty-nine languages. Johnson was a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. 

2013
Junot Diaz
Miss Lora
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Junot Díaz is the author of Drown (1997) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. His most recent publication (in which ‘Miss Lora’ appears) is This Is How You Lose Her (2012), a collection of linked narratives about love told through the lives of New Jersey Dominicans, as they struggle to find a point where their two worlds meet. He is the recipient of a PEN/Malamud Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Born in Santo Domingo, Díaz is also a professor at MIT.

2012
Kevin Barry
Beer Trip to Llandudno
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As well as winning the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in 2012, Irish-born Kevin Barry was longlisted for the prize in 2011. His first short story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms (Stinging Fly Press), was published in 2007 and was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His first novel, City Of Bohane, was published in 2011 was shortlisted for both the Costa First Novel Award and the Hughes and Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and won the 2013 Impac Award. His second novel, Dark Lies the Island, was published in 2012, and his third novel, Beatlebone, won the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize. Kevin’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story, and Best European Fiction 2011 among others and his plays have been produced in Ireland and the US.

2011
Anthony Doerr
The Deep
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Anthony Doerr was born in Cleveland, USA in 1973. A short story writer and novelist, he has won four O Henry Prizes, the Rome Prize, the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship. Doerr also writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe. He currently lives in Boise, Idaho. His most recent novel, All the Light We Cannot See, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

2010
CK Stead
Last Man's Season
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CK Stead is New Zealand most celebrated modern writer and the author of 35 books – including novels, short story collections, essay collections, poetry collections and works of literary criticism. One of his novels, Smith’s Dream, provided the basis for the film Sleeping Dogs, starring Sam Neil; this became the first New Zealand film released in the United States. Mansfield: A Novel was a finalist for the 2005 Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize and received a commendation in the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the South East Asia and South Pacific region. Stead was born in Auckland and for much of his career he was Professor of English at the University of Auckland, retiring in 1986 to write full-time. He received a CBE in 1985 and was admitted into the highest honour New Zealand can bestow, the Order of New Zealand, in 2007. His most recent novel, Risk (MacLehose Press), was published in 2012.

JONATHAN TEL / The Human Phonograph

And as a figure in reflective helmet and articulated suit half-walks half-floats over the unreal surface she make-believes he is her husband, and the moon itself could perfectly well be Qinghai province for all anybody could tell, and one of the other translators, one who specializes in English, says Mr. Armstrong is saying, ‘A small step for man, a large step for man’ and she shades her eyes with her hands so nobody can see her cry.
It has been seven years.

There are thoughts that cannot be spoken but can only be sung.

The summons comes in the form of a telegram to the secretary of her work unit. She has a week in which to pack.

They met in 1961 when she was a senior majoring in Russian at the Foreign Studies University and he was finishing his PhD in geology. They married and less than a year later he received the order. He was being sent to the far northwest to investigate a certain terrain — as much as he could say. He would remain there indefinitely. She was forbidden to accompany him. As if he were being sent into exile, or they both were, but it was presented as a reward, an opportunity to Serve the People… And in October 1964, Year of the Dragon, Mao proclaimed that China has the Bomb.

There is a photograph (it will not be made public till years later, after his death, and by then she will be back in Beijing) of scientists in identical suits raising their clenched left fists in a loyalty salute, on an open plain, under a bright sun. He is third from the left, over-exposed. Posed, of course. In reality they would have been cowering in a shelter, plugs in their ears and goggles over their eyes, while the earth shuddered.

The Bomb is a defense against the Soviet Union, and the irony is they helped us make it in the first place. As a schoolgirl she was taught to honor our fraternal ally. The class sang ‘Katyusha’ and ‘My Land’. By the time she went to university Russian was the language of the enemy. We understand them in order to defeat them.

Once a week she sends a letter to the base’s deliberately bland address: Factory 221, Mining Area 210, Qinghai. He replies when he can. He is forbidden to describe his work; he is forbidden even to describe the rocks beneath his feet. He writes about the weather. Today the temperature dropped to -20º. We are keeping warm in our goose down coats. (He is thinking of putting his arms around her, warming her!) … Today is a typical summer day, which is about the same temperature as spring in Beijing. (Here in the city the heat is oppressive … He is thinking of spring!)

Let the long gray boulevards of Beijing be memorials to themselves. Already the herds of cyclists, blurry on their Phoenixes and their Forevers, creak like ghosts. It is the final morning. In the courtyard of her collective housing the children are playing a game in which they hide, making themselves as silent and invisible as possible. She is permitted to take one suitcase.

July 28th, 1969.

She sets out from Beijing railway station, and it is a five-day journey to Lanzhou in Gansu province. From there she is transferred to a special military train that goes to Qinghai. Everyone else is male and in uniform. The windows of the cars are shuttered so the passing land cannot be seen. She might as well be blind. If only she’d brought a novel or poetry… but she didn’t dare take any book apart from the Chairman’s thoughts. By day she sweats; by night she huddles under her quilt. She listens. The engine’s rhythmic clanking and energetic shushing. Sometimes for no apparent reason the train pauses for hours. The burble of a river. A dog’s bark. A bleating and a human shout… And on the eighth morning she wakes and she is the only passenger in her car, and she hears and feels the shift as she is shunted onto a track leading to the secret base, and that afternoon at last her doors are opened and here she is.

Grassland, stretching forever. A shocking blue sky. Squat cement buildings that look as if they were put up yesterday and will crumble tomorrow. Soldiers in a chain unload crates from the train and transfer them to parked trucks, each man passing his burden to the next man along.

She is being observed by a thin, hatless man in canvas army shoes and a creased blue suit. His face is sunburnt. He says her full name, as if approaching a stranger. His voice is strained, yet he has an unexpected air of authority.

Not to be outdone in formality, she greets him — prefacing his name with the salutation ‘Comrade’.

He scarcely resembles the photo of him that she carries everywhere, next to her identity card.

She has changed too. Who’s to say that she isn’t an impostor herself?

Seven years.

They get into an open-framed vehicle, and a sergeant drives them. Her husband behaves like a considerate stranger. Is she hot? Is she cold? No and no. Is she tired from the journey? She is. Would she like some water? Not really, but she replies she is thirsty, to be polite, and he raises a flask in a camouflage cover, and she sips, her lip touching where his lip has been. A sparrow hawk wheels high above them.

The vehicle brakes sharply; husband and wife are jolted against each other. This is the married quarters, he says. And before she can ask her question, he answers it, You are the only civilian wife.

He leads her in. A small room, which she could use as a study, if she likes, and another room with little more than a bed in it. The sergeant deposits her suitcase, and leaves them.

They look slightly past each other.

He draws the improvised curtain — blackout cloth suspended from a string.

The dry air will crack your lips, he says. It is advisable to wear lipstick at all times.

Lipstick ? Lipstick is bourgeois deviationism; it hasn’t been obtainable in Beijing for years.

He points with his foot at a cardboard box containing steel tubes of lipstick, that resemble bullets. Hundreds of tubes. Enough for a lifetime of red lips.

They sit on the bed, at opposite ends. They had nine months of married life until he was exiled; they addressed each other as old wifey and old hubby, playing at marriage.

She unscrews a tube, and applies it, wriggling her lips and pouting to spread the redness evenly. It tastes like perfumed machine oil, and perhaps it is.

He undresses her.

His fingers consider her, inscribing target areas on her skin.

For the first year or so after he left, she dreamed of him every night, and she would wake to the astonishment of his absence. And then, gradually, like stars in an urban dawn, he faded out of her dreams.

She has no specific memory of making love to him; it wasn’t something separate from their life: it was their life.

He has her lie down; her head is where feet would normally be. Eyes closed, she watches him through her nostrils. Qinghai stretches from the great saltwater lake in the south to the plateau on the Tibetan border. The geologist sets out on an exploratory trip. He ex amines her, investigates her, takes a core sample… and as Qinghai thrashes and screams, she is a tiny figure within the province of herself… she is cast back to Beijing, to her desk at the Institute, with its precious window looking out to the north — but this version of the city is ecstatic, distorted: instead of a flat street with cyclists, there is a broad highway lifted high in the air along with extra highways looping around, all rich with candy-colored cars, and instead of a vista of a horizontal apartment building, glittery towers stretch up into a misty heaven, and passersby dressed in bright wisps stare back, not seeing her…

Once again she is the terrain of Qinghai… She yearns for impossible Beijing… She is a wife on a hard bed, a husband’s weight holding her where she is.

*****

The following morning she reports to her job, the one he found for her. She is not here as a wife (there is no such category) but as essential technical support. She has a chair and a desk of her own, army issue, with the characters for ‘librarian’ painted in red on the underside. The collection is excellent. The textbooks are mostly in Russian, from the 1950s. In the geology section she ,notices a much-thumbed Classification and Identification of Metamorphic Rocks by the great Davidovitch himself, who taught her husband. Also there are journals, and preprints; there are blueprints and technical specifications with Cyrillic markings; there is a file of secret photographs of Soviet installations. And she is astonished to find, on an open stack, an entire bookshelf loaded with classic literature: Tang dynasty poems, in which the male author speaks in a female voice; the erotic novellas of Li Yu; Pu Songling’s horror stories, composed in the decadence of the Ming dynasty… Foreign books too, in several languages: English, French, German… and yes, her beloved Russian; here is Pushkin (once she was Tatiana, besotted with Evgeny) and Gogol and Dostoevsky… How did these books find their way here? And how come they’re still permitted? Anywhere else in China, anybody caught reading these would be denounced. So she learns that Factory 221 is not like anywhere else in China. Ringed with barbed wire and guarded by T-59 tanks, it is the securest of prisons and paradoxically it has the most freedom. The Cultural Revolution does not apply here. The scientists are privileged exceptions — more valuable than giant pandas. They are supplied with their special diet, whatever is needed to nourish their rare brains.

Men wander in and find excuses to chat with her. So you’re the librarian, they say, you’re just what we need. There are a handful of other women here, scientists in their own right. When they come into the library they avoid her, or abbreviate their conversations. The library here is not hushed like those at the Institute or the university; men smile at her and reminisce about the heroic era in the early history of the base, when the scientists lived in army tents and survived on mutton and barley buns…

A fluid dynamicist, Jin, reminisces about the 1950s Mao and Stalin shook hands, and behold the Friendship Hotel in Beijing (Hotel Druzhba) was filled with Soviet advisors. Jin was friends with Vanyushin, whom he jokingly nicknamed Wang Yuqin; they went on long walks together, and talked about poetry. Then Mao quarreled with Stalin, and all the advisors had to leave. Jin is short with poor teeth; he shows her a photograph of himself and Vanyushin, a tall blond man, in the Temple of Heaven.

That evening there is a concert in the dining room. Under the portrait of Mao, a physicist plays Chopin. Followed by a string quartet — the violinists are mathematicians, the viola is an electrical engineer, and the cellist with his shock of white hair studied at Harvard in the 1930s, and brought nuclear chemistry to China. Afterward, drinks are served. Not alcohol, of course, which is forbidden on the base, but an instant sour plum juice made from a powder dissolved in water.

The name of the first Bomb test was Operation Qilin. The qilin is a mythical creature with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse and a single horn. And indeed there is just such a creature, rather bedraggled, created by a taxidermist, just inside the main entrance to the dining room. To the scientists it is so familiar they pay it no special attention: there’s a scarf on the horn and somebody’s coat is draped over its haunch. According to legend, if you burn the horn (what is it really — an antelope’s?) like a torch, you will see the future. The qilin is said to manifest only in the reign of a benevolent emperor.

She is an object of fascination. Perhaps one day she too will become as unremarkable as this qilin.

How come her husband is not more fascinated? Or say that he is, but he doesn’t show it. That night, in their bedroom, he brushes his teeth and makes love to her. Soon he goes to sleep, flat on his back, his arms at his side. There is a little red on his chin and nose — lipstick transferred from her lips. He does not snore. His eyelids do not flicker. He does not exclude her from the bed, but there is no natural way to arrange her body next to his either. A not very married man.

This goes on for weeks. Nothing is the matter, exactly. He mentions that he is not in the best of health, but he seems fit enough. Most of the scientists are a little overweight (the food is not tasty but plentiful) but he remains skinny, no matter how much he consumes.

He has secrets, of course. There are things he cannot even whisper in bed.

And then he tells her he’s going on an expedition. He’ll be leaving at dawn, and will be back before dusk. The privilege of geology. Nobody else is allowed to go off-base. He’ll be exploring possible sites for… But already he’s said too much.

She gets up early and sees him off. He’s driving a Soviet motorcycle, a Ural M-72, a vintage model from the war. In the sidecar is his assistant, a short dark man, locally recruited, named Chodrak, or, in Chinese, Kuohui. The assistant carries a rock-hammer. Her husband fastens his goggles, the engine roars, and away the men go.

She spends the day in the library stacks, arranging the books. There is rumored to be a cat that roams the base, a wild creature named by the physicists ‘Schrödinger’. Pussy, pussy, pussy… she whispers.

He returns after midnight. What happened? she asks, and he offers some explanation that is not quite an explanation, how there was a delay in a mountain pass… There’s more work to be done; he’ll have to go back soon. He has a blaze of pale dust on his forehead, and seems both weaker and more excited, feverish. You should take care of yourself, she says, is there anything I can do for you? But all he wants now is her body. Despite his tiredness he must have her. She keeps her eyes open this time, and sees the thin, sunburnt man caressing her, and she feels that somehow he is cheating on her even as he makes love to her, until finally she closes her eyes, and sees again that impossible Beijing with its luminous billboards and hears a throbbing music unlike any that exists in real life, a rhythmic skeleton of a song bedecked with a jangle of rhymes.

Can I come with you on your next trip? she asks him, the following morning.

No.

Why not?

You don’t have permission. Besides, there’s only room for one passenger in the sidecar.

But why can’t I be your assistant, instead of Chodrak? You could train me. How difficult can it be?

You’re needed at the library.

I’m needed with you.

She touches his narrow chest. His bony ribs.

He changes into everyday clothes.

I’ll be going on an expedition again next week…

You mean, I can come with? I can come with or I cannot come with? What do I have to learn? Teach me, old hubby.

He scratches his chest. He says, Sing for me.

What?

Sing me a song. Any song.

A weird request. Music? From her? He knows perfectly well she has no voice. Well, if her husband wants her to sing, then sing she must. What, then? There are those songs she’s heard over and over again, played through the loudspeakers at the Institute: ‘Rely on the Helmsman While Sailing the Sea’… ‘The Red Army Crosses a Thousand Mountains and Ten Thousand Rivers, Yearning for a Moment Of Rest’… But surely he’d prefer something more personal. It’s not as if they ever had a song that was their song. Unlike other courting couples, they never listened to jazz together, back when it was permitted; they never went ballroom dancing. She chooses something she was taught in Russian class, ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen.’ Yo heave ho. Once more, once more again, still once more. Yo heave ho…

He lowers his gaze. He says with conviction, No, you do not have the talent to be my assistant.

Over the following weeks he, accompanied by Chodrak, goes on several expeditions. Sometimes he even stays away overnight. Always he comes back weaker and yet refreshed; always he insists on making love to her immediately. What could she complain about? He is attentive, considerate, and he obviously finds her physically attractive. Yet he is not quite present, like a dissatisfied ghost.

In early September for the first time there is frost on the ground. The winter is about to begin: a poor season for a geologist. That afternoon he leads her into his laboratory. It is a sectioned-off portion of what had once been a hangar, high with an angled ceiling, and with no natural light. The storage bins are repurposed from ammunition containers. An array of scoops and picks and chisels and pry-bars hang upside-down like bats. She sits on a stool next to a polarizing microscope, her head bowed as if imitating its posture. The assistant is in the corner, squatting, removing rock samples from a bin and sorting them.

Her husband addresses her as if delivering an ethnographic lecture. He describes the varied peoples of Qinghai: those of Han Chinese, Mongolian and (a glance at Chodrak) Tibetan descent, as well as indigenous tribes such as the Tu (whose language is related to Mongolian but whose customs are similar to Tibetans’) and the Sala who are Muslim.

What’s this to do with geology, she thinks.

The peoples interact, he says, they influence each other. In the course of my exploration, I encounter peasants. We exchange food and drink. They give me directions. They understand the earth on which they live.

He adds, Sometimes they sing.

What?

The men and the women, they sing to each other.

Folksong? Is this what you mean?

Yes.

Like the songs we were taught in school?

Not like the songs we were taught in school. It’s called Hua’er. A man sings it to a woman, a woman sings it to a man. They keep it up all night long. He confesses, I cannot sing myself. I have no memory for music. But my assistant, I call him The Human Phonograph.

He raises a finger, like a conductor.

Chodrak — without getting up, without adjusting his squat, without any change of expression — sings. His dark face is as opaque as ever. She cannot understand the words (whatever language this is, it’s not Chinese), but the tune is remarkable, soaring and tumbling like the mountains of Qinghai. It does not last long. In silence he continues sorting rocks.

The conductor raises his finger again.

Once again The Human Phonograph produces the same song, identical in every regard to his first performance. There are some odd pauses, places where he seems slightly out of tune, and she realizes these too are identical to his original rendition. Rather as when the Party reconstructed a schoolhouse in Hunan province where Mao studied as a young man, they restored the original crack in the roof through which rain dripped, and included a stuffed rat on the floor — so we should know what he went through, what made him who he is.

Silence again. Now she speaks out.

I want to hear it.

The song repeats a third time, precisely as before, with all the peaks and valleys.

In the middle of a bar, she barks, Stop!

The song stops.

Continue!

The song resumes from where it left off, and completes itself.

Her husband says, It’s a Sala song. Which he translates: The red morningstar lily is blossoming; it blooms radiantly. The young woman is ravishing; she has gorgeous eyebrows.

He says, The way it works, the first half of a Hua’er song is a description. The second half is an explanation. He looks down at his feet. I made something of a study of these songs, while you were away in Beijing. My hobby, you see.

This is the nearest he’s come to telling her he loves her, that he missed her. And he was taking a risk for her sake too. Hua’er is surely illegal — bourgeois sentiment. The peasants are so isolated they don’t understand it’s against the law. But her husband knows. That’s why he can’t record them in any way except via The Human Phonograph. And Chodrak too, wouldn’t he be at risk? Might he betray his master? But he is too simple, too ignorant, to be aware of any danger.

Her husband signals The Human Phonograph, and a different song is heard. This time it’s in a Chinese dialect, which she can follow. For so long the thick grass has grown on the cliff; I could not cut it as the sickle is blunt. For so long I have been in love with my girl; I could not tell her as I am shy.

That night in bed, in the dark, she draws him to her. They lie side by side, and he tells her about his early days at Factory 221. How tough it was at first, the primitive conditions. But we had comradeship, everyone was in it together! He talks about the other geologists on his team, men like Four Eyes, and Badger, and Quartz, and Uncle Xu

The names mean nothing to her; they’re not here now. She asks what happened to them.

Ah, they’re gone.

She hears the tension in his voice.

What is he implying? That they were dismissed? Were they denounced and punished in some way? Were they accused of being counter- revolutionaries?

He clarifies, They got sick.

And…?

They’re dead.

She realizes that the reason for his promotion, the reason he has the power to bring her here, is not because he is especially brilliant, but because he is the senior surviving geologist.

How come? she says, guessing the horrible answer even as she asks the Question.

The usual thing.

What usual thing?

We observed Operation Qilin. We were too close. There was dust everywhere.

And you?

I’m lucky. The doctors say I could live for years.

Everyone waited for the lunar landing, in the lecture hall of the Institute. The English translator elucidated Mr. Armstrong’s name; with his finger in the air he sketched the characters for arm and strong. And what about Mr. Aldrin, somebody asked, is his name auspicious too? But his name, like most names, signifies nothing, neither good nor bad.

She hears his slow breathing. He’s fallen asleep. It wouldn’t be right to wake him, and she can’t sleep herself. She drifts along the edge, not quite dreaming… a snow-capped mountain… a mushroom cloud… a creature with the body of a man up to the neck and in place of a head the horn of an old-fashioned phonograph…

She wakes in the night. A sense of doom; and she recalls what her husband told her. What was she dreaming of? Not of him, so in that sense she was unfaithful.

Her dream is adapted from a story in Collected Works of Anton Chekhov, Volume II, which she’s been reading in the library. It is about a bashful officer in the Tsarist army who is invited to a social gathering in a villa. He wanders into a dark room. A woman, supposing he’s someone else, kisses him… They never meet again.

In her dream version, she is the woman from that story. She is having an illicit affair. By mistake she kisses the shy, whiskery fellow… She is shocked; then repulsed; then, struck by her own power, goes in search of the original man she intended to kiss.

What a sadist the author is! It’s just a story; the author can give it any ending he wants. Let the hero meet an entirely suitable woman and they fall in love and they live happily ever after. But once it’s published, the ending can no longer be changed. When Chekhov wrote The Kiss, he was dying of tuberculosis. She understands him but does not forgive him.

*****

He takes a turn for the worse. That September is the last time they make love, the last time he goes out on a geological expedition. He suffers during the long harsh winter; an oxygen cylinder hisses behind their bed. He is transferred to the base hospital.

She visits, and lies to him, as a wife should. She says, The doctors inform me you are getting better.

She thinks of Emperor Qin Shihuang, who was so determined to live forever that he took an elixir of immortality which contained mercury, and so brought about his own death.

As she does her work now there is a hush about her, appropriate for a librarian. Her calligraphy, The earth is mutable; the sea becomes a mulberry orchard (from Mao’s ‘The People’s Army Captures Nanjing’), has pride of place in the exhibition in the dining room.

He feels better, and then not better. In the spring he loses the ability to speak. He cannot communicate in any way.

Is he capable of seeing me? she asks a doctor.

No.

Can he hear me?

Possibly.

June 18th, 1970. Her husband is in a private room. There is another bed, not made up. She lies down on it, parallel to her husband.

His oxygen cylinder hiccups.

She was a girl gripping her grandmother’s hand when the ancient wall around Beijing was demolished. She gazed through the refractions of dust at the naked, vulnerable city; swarms of volunteers took the rubble away.

I have brought you a gift, she says.

Chodrak is standing between them, facing neither. Impassive as ever, the

Human Phonograph sings.

Come to the orchard if you would like to taste the cherries; there are thousands of summer flowers blooming. Do not be sad because we are parting; in a few days we will meet.

She sees the figure in the middle — Kuohui, whatever he goes by. From this angle, he could be almost any man in a peaked cap, a dark blue jacket. His eyebrows meet in the middle. She reaches out. Between finger and thumb she rubs the cheap ‘patriotic wool’ of his jacket. She lifts a pocket flap; the concealed button is off-white.

She thinks of her husband, as he was on their wedding night.

She does not withdraw her touch.

Come to the orchard … he sings again.

She feels the warmth of the man, close by her face.

She shuts her eyes and enters her fabulous Beijing: she does not see a panorama of the steel-and-glass metropolis now, but rather a vast deep pit with many yellow-hatted workers swarming in and about it – where the foundations are to be established for the tallest of towers, that shall one day be built. And, playing in the background like film music, there is Hua’er. She hears another song… a third song… a fourth… in what might be Tibetan or Mongolian, Sala or Tu… any of the numerous languages she does not know.

*****

Colonel Li is sympathetic but unrelenting. It is impossible for her to stay at Factory 221.

She understands. She expected nothing else. There is no place for a single female non-scientist here.

She thinks of the legendary Peach Blossom Spring — the paradise that a fisherman once found by chance; he continued on his journey, and could never find it again.

She is given a week to pack.

On August 21st 1970 she is sent away. She is the passenger in a Fenghuang automobile, and she leaves along with other government vehicles. The convoy follows an indirect route across Qinghai, stopping at several military bases around Xining and a mining camp near Golmud. Through the rolled-up windows she sees the great saltwater lake, so vast it appears to be an ocean. She sees a mountain range to the north… She identifies geological features (her husband taught her this skill): pillow lava and basalt; also greenish serpentites and spilites: the ophiolites that prove this plateau was once an ocean floor, lifted up by subduction. Resting her hand on her belly she senses the motion within. She sees a flock of mountain sheep. She sees antelope who flee from the noise of the vehicles. She sees a distant shambling figure that might be a bear or a human. She sees a woman milking a yak, and wiping a little milk on her face, to whiten it. And at one point, along the pass that leads through to Gansu from where she will catch her train to Beijing, she sees a gathering of young people in traditional clothing; the women are carrying black umbrellas against the sun. The men and women pair off. She cannot hear through her window, but she supposes that each man is singing to his woman, and each woman to her man.

Jonathan Tel’s published books include a story collection about Israelis and Palestinians, Arafat’s Elephant, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award; a novel, Freud’s Alphabet, and The Beijing of Possibilities, a story sequence that unfolds in contemporary China, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award. Tel was a finalist for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize in 2014, and the winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li

THE new mother, groggy from a nap, sat at the table as though she did not grasp why she had been summoned. Perhaps she never would, Auntie Mei thought. On the placemat sat a bowl of soybean-and-pig’s-foot soup that Auntie Mei had cooked, as she had for many new mothers before this one. Many, however, was not exact. In her interviews with potential employers, Auntie Mei always gave the precise number of families she had worked for: a hundred and twenty-six when she interviewed with her current employer, a hundred and thirty-one babies altogether. The families’ contact information, the dates she had worked for them, their babies’ names and birthdays—these she had recorded in a palm-size notebook, which had twice fallen apart and been taped back together. Years ago, Auntie Mei had bought it at a garage sale in Moline, Illinois. She had liked the picture of flowers on the cover, purple and yellow, unmelted snow surrounding the chaste petals. She had liked the price of the notebook, too: five cents. When she handed a dime to the child with the cash box on his lap, she asked if there was another notebook she could buy, so that he would not have to give her any change; the boy looked perplexed and said no. It was greed that had made her ask, but when the memory came back—it often did when she took the notebook out of her suitcase for another interview — Auntie Mei would laugh at herself: why on earth had she wanted two notebooks, when there’s not enough life to fill one?

The mother sat still, not touching the spoon, until teardrops fell into the steaming soup.

“Now, now,” Auntie Mei said. She was pushing herself and the baby in a new rocking chair — back and forth, back and forth, the squeaking less noticeable than yesterday. I wonder who’s enjoying the rocking more, she said to herself: the chair, whose job is to rock until it breaks apart, or you, whose life is being rocked away? And which one of you will meet your demise first? Auntie Mei had long ago accepted that she had, despite her best intentions, become one of those people who talk to themselves when the world is not listening. At least she took care not to let the words slip out.

“I don’t like this soup,” said the mother, who surely had a Chinese name but had asked Auntie Mei to call her Chanel. Auntie Mei, however, called every mother Baby’s Ma, and every infant Baby. It was simple that way, one set of clients easily replaced by the next.

“It’s not for you to like,” Auntie Mei said. The soup had simmered all morning and had thickened to a milky white. She would never have touched it herself, but it was the best recipe for breast-feeding mothers. “You eat it for Baby.”

“Why do I have to eat for him?” Chanel said. She was skinny, though it had been only five days since the delivery.

“Why, indeed,” Auntie Mei said, laughing. “Where else do you think your milk comes from?”

“I’m not a cow.”

I would rather you were a cow, Auntie Mei thought. But she merely threatened gently that there was always the option of formula. Auntie Mei wouldn’t mind that, but most people hired her for her expertise in taking care of newborns and breast-feeding mothers.

The young woman started to sob. Really, Auntie Mei thought, she had never seen anyone so unfit to be a mother as this little creature.

“I think I have postpartum depression,” Chanel said when her tears had stopped.

Some fancy term the young woman had picked up.

“My great-grandmother hanged herself when my grandfather was three days old. People said she’d fallen under the spell of some passing ghost, but this is what I think.” Using her iPhone as a mirror, Chanel checked her face and pressed her puffy eyelids with a finger. “She had postpartum depression.”

Auntie Mei stopped rocking and snuggled the infant closer. At once his head started bumping against her bosom. “Don’t speak nonsense,” she said sternly.

“I’m only explaining what postpartum depression is.”

“Your problem is that you’re not eating. Nobody would be happy if they were in your shoes.”

“Nobody,” Chanel said glumly, “could possibly be in my shoes. Do you know what I dreamed last night?”

“No.”

“Take a guess.”

“In our village, we say it’s bad luck to guess someone else’s dreams,” Auntie Mei said. Only ghosts entered and left people’s minds freely.

“I dreamed that I flushed Baby down the toilet.”

“Oh. I wouldn’t have guessed that even if I’d tried.”

“That’s the problem. Nobody knows how I feel,” Chanel said, and started to weep again.

Auntie Mei sniffed under the child’s blanket, paying no heed to the fresh tears. “Baby needs a diaper change,” she announced, knowing that, given some time, Chanel would acquiesce: a mother is a mother, even if she speaks of flushing her child down the drain.

Auntie Mei had worked as a live-in nanny for newborns and their mothers for eleven years. As a rule, she moved out of the family’s house the day a baby turned a month old, unless — though this rarely happened — she was between jobs, which was never more than a few days. Many families would have been glad to pay her extra for another week, or another month; some even offered a longer term, but Auntie Mei always declined: she worked as a first-month nanny, whose duties, toward both the mother and the infant, were different from those of a regular nanny. Once in a while, she was approached by previous employers to care for their second child. The thought of facing a child who had once been an infant in her arms led to lost sleep; she agreed only when there was no other option, and she treated the older children as though they were empty air.

Between bouts of sobbing, Chanel said she did not understand why her husband couldn’t take a few days off. The previous day he had left for Shenzhen on a business trip. “What right does he have to leave me alone with his son?”

Alone? Auntie Mei squinted at Baby’s eyebrows, knitted so tight that the skin in between took on a tinge of yellow. Your pa is working hard so your ma can stay home and call me nobody. The Year of the Snake, an inauspicious one to give birth in, had been slow for Auntie Mei; otherwise, she would’ve had better options. She had not liked the couple when she met them; unlike most expectant parents, they had both looked distracted, and asked few questions before offering her the position. They were about to entrust their baby to a stranger, Auntie Mei had wanted to remind them, but neither seemed worried. Perhaps they had gathered enough references? Auntie Mei did have a reputation as a gold-medal nanny. Her employers were the lucky ones, to have had a good education in China and, later, America, and to have become professionals in the Bay Area: lawyers, doctors, V.C.s, engineers — no matter, they still needed an experienced Chinese nanny for their American-born babies. Many families lined her up months before their babies were born.

Baby, cleaned and swaddled, seemed satisfied, so Auntie Mei left him on the changing table and looked out the window, enjoying, as she always did, a view that did not belong to her. Between an azalea bush and a slate path, there was a man-made pond, which hosted an assortment of goldfish and lily pads. Before he left, the husband had asked Auntie Mei to feed the fish and refill the pond. Eighteen hundred gallons a year, he had informed her, calculating the expense. She would have refused the additional responsibilities if not for his readiness to pay her an extra twenty dollars each day.

A statue of an egret, balanced on one leg, stood in the water, its neck curved into a question mark. Auntie Mei thought about the man who had made the sculpture. Of course, it could have been a woman, but Auntie Mei refused to accept that possibility. She liked to believe that it was men who made beautiful and useless things like the egret. Let him be a lonely man, beyond the reach of any fiendish woman.

Baby started to wiggle. Don’t you stir before your ma finishes her soup, Auntie Mei warned in a whisper, though in vain. The egret, startled, took off with an unhurried elegance, its single squawk stunning Auntie Mei and then making her laugh. For sure, you’re getting old and forgetful: there was no such statue yesterday. Auntie Mei picked up Baby and went into the yard. There were fewer goldfish now, but at least some had escaped the egret’s raid. All the same, she would have to tell Chanel about the loss. You think you have a problem with postpartum depression? Think of the goldfish, living one day in a paradise pond and the next day going to Heaven in the stomach of a passing egret.

Auntie Mei believed in strict routines for every baby and mother in her charge. For the first week, she fed the mother six meals a day, with three snacks in between; from the second week on, it was four meals and two snacks. The baby was to be nursed every two hours during the day, and every three or four hours at night. She let the parents decide whether the crib was kept in their bedroom or in the nursery, but she would not allow it in her bedroom. No, this was not for her convenience, she explained to them; there was simply no reason for a baby to be close to someone who was there for only a month.

“But it’s impossible to eat so much. People are different,” Chanel said the next day. Less weepy at the moment, she was curled up on the sofa, a pair of heating pads on her chest: Auntie Mei had not been impressed with the young woman’s milk production.

You can be as different as you want after I leave, Auntie Mei thought as she bathed Baby; your son can grow into a lopsided squash and I won’t care a bit. But no mother or baby could deviate just yet. The reason people hired a first-month nanny, Auntie Mei told Chanel, was to make sure that things went correctly, not differently.

“But did you follow this schedule when you had your children? I bet you didn’t.”

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t, only because I didn’t have children.”

“Not even one?”

“You didn’t specify a nanny who had her own children.”

“But why would you . . . why did you choose this line of work?”

Why indeed. “Sometimes a job chooses you,” Auntie Mei said. Ha, who knew she could be so profound?

“But you must love children, then?”

Oh, no, no, not this one or that one; not any of them. “Does a bricklayer love his bricks?” Auntie Mei asked. “Does the dishwasher repairman love the dishwashers?” That morning, a man had come to look at Chanel’s malfunctioning dishwasher. It had taken him only twenty minutes of poking, but the bill was a hundred dollars, as much as a whole day’s wages for Auntie Mei.

“Auntie, that’s not a good argument.”

“My job doesn’t require me to argue well. If I could argue, I’d have become a lawyer, like your husband, no?”

Chanel made a mirthless laughing sound. Despite her self-diagnosed depression, she seemed to enjoy talking with Auntie Mei more than most mothers, who talked to her about their babies and their breast-feeding but otherwise had little interest in her.

Auntie Mei put Baby on the sofa next to Chanel, who was unwilling to make room. “Now, let’s look into this milk situation,” Auntie Mei said, rubbing her hands until they were warm before removing the heating pads. Chanel cried out in pain.

“I haven’t even touched you.”

Look at your eyes, Auntie Mei wanted to say. Not even a good plumber could fix such a leak.

“I don’t want to nurse this thing anymore,” Chanel said.

This thing? “He’s your son.”

“His father’s, too. Why can’t he be here to help?”

“Men don’t make milk.”

Chanel laughed, despite her tears. “No. The only thing they make is money.”

“You’re lucky to have found one who makes money. Not all of them do, you know.”

Chanel dried her eyes carefully with the inside of her pajama sleeve. “Auntie, are you married?”

“Once,” Auntie Mei said.

“What happened? Did you divorce him?”

“He died,” Auntie Mei said. She had, every day of her marriage, wished that her husband would stop being part of her life, though not in so absolute a manner. Now, years later, she still felt responsible for his death, as though it were she, and not a group of teen-agers, who had accosted him that night. Why didn’t you just let them take the money? Sometimes Auntie Mei scolded him when she tired of talking to herself. Thirty-five dollars for a life, three months short of fifty-two.

“Was he much older than you?”

“Older, yes, but not too old.”

“My husband is twenty-eight years older than I am,” Chanel said. “I bet you didn’t guess that.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Is it that I look old or that he looks young?”

“You look like a good match.”

“Still, he’ll probably die before me, right? Women live longer than men, and he’s had a head start.”

So you, too, are eager to be freed. Let me tell you, it’s bad enough when a wish like that doesn’t come true, but, if it ever does, that’s when you know that living is a most disappointing business: the world is not a bright place to start with, but a senseless wish granted senselessly makes it much dimmer. “Don’t speak nonsense,” Auntie Mei said.

“I’m only stating the truth. How did your husband die? Was it a heart attack?”

“You could say that,” Auntie Mei said, and before Chanel could ask more questions Auntie Mei grabbed one of her erring breasts. Chanel gasped and then screamed. Auntie Mei did not let go until she’d given the breast a forceful massage. When she reached for the other breast, Chanel screamed louder but did not change her position, for fear of crushing Baby, perhaps.

Afterward, Auntie Mei brought a warm towel. “Go,” Chanel said. “I don’t want you here anymore.”

“But who’ll take care of you?”

“I don’t need anyone to take care of me.” Chanel stood up and belted her robe.

“And Baby?”

“Bad luck for him.”

Chanel walked to the staircase, her back defiantly rigid. Auntie Mei picked up Baby, his weight as insignificant as the emotions — sadness, anger, or dismay — that she should feel on his behalf. Rather, Auntie Mei was in awe of the young woman. That is how, Auntie Mei said to herself, a mother orphans a child.

***

Baby, six days old that day, was weaned from his mother’s breast. Auntie Mei was now the sole person to provide him with food and care and — this she did not want to admit even to herself — love. Chanel stayed in her bedroom and watched Chinese television dramas all afternoon. Once in a while, she came downstairs for water, and spoke to Auntie Mei as though the old woman and the infant were poor relations: there was the inconvenience of having them to stay, and yet there was relief that they did not have to be entertained.

The dishwasher repairman returned in the evening. He reminded Auntie Mei that his name was Paul. As though she were so old that she could forget it in a day, she thought. Earlier, she had told him about the thieving egret, and he had promised to come back and fix the problem.

“You’re sure the bird won’t be killed,” Auntie Mei said as she watched Paul rig some wires above the pond.

“Try it yourself,” Paul said, flipping the battery switch.

Auntie Mei placed her palm on the crisscrossed wires. “I feel nothing.”

“Good. If you felt something, I’d be putting your life at risk. Then you could sue me.”

“But how does it work?”

“Let’s hope the egret is more sensitive than you are,” Paul said. “Call me if it doesn’t work. I won’t charge you again.”

Auntie Mei felt doubtful, but her questioning silence did not stop him from admiring his own invention. Nothing, he said, is too difficult for a thinking man. When he put away his tools he lingered on, and she could see that there was no reason for him to hurry home. He had grown up in Vietnam, he told Auntie Mei, and had come to America thirty-seven years ago. He was widowed, with three grown children, and none of them had given him a grandchild, or the hope of one. His two sisters, both living in New York and both younger, had beaten him at becoming grandparents.

The same old story: they all had to come from somewhere, and they all accumulated people along the way. Auntie Mei could see the unfolding of Paul’s life: he’d work his days away till he was too old to be useful, then his children would deposit him in a facility and visit on his birthday and on holidays. Auntie Mei, herself an untethered woman, felt superior to him. She raised Baby’s tiny fist as Paul was leaving. “Say bye-bye to Grandpa Paul.”

Auntie Mei turned and looked up at the house. Chanel was leaning on the windowsill of her second-floor bedroom. “Is he going to electrocute the egret?” she called down.

“He said it would only zap the bird. To teach it a lesson.”

“You know what I hate about people? They like to say, ‘That will teach you a lesson.’ But what’s the point of a lesson? There’s no makeup exam when you fail something in life.”

It was October, and the evening air from the Bay had a chill to it. Auntie Mei had nothing to say except to warn Chanel not to catch a cold.

“Who cares?”

“Maybe your parents do.”

Chanel made a dismissive noise.

“Or your husband.”

“Ha. He just e-mailed and told me he had to stay for another ten days,” Chanel said. “You know what I think he’s doing right now? Sleeping with a woman, or more than one.”

Auntie Mei did not reply. It was her policy not to disparage an employer behind his back. But when she entered the house Chanel was already in the living room. “I think you should know he’s not the kind of person you thought he was.”

“I don’t think he’s any kind of person at all,” Auntie Mei said.

“You never say a bad word about him,” Chanel said.

Not a good word, either.

“He had a wife and two children before.”

You think a man, any man, would remain a bachelor until he meets you? Auntie Mei put the slip of paper with Paul’s number in her pocket.

“Did that man leave you his number?” Chanel said. “Is he courting you?”

“Him? Half of him, if not more, is already in the coffin.”

“Men chase after women until the last moment,” Chanel said. “Auntie, don’t fall for him. No man is to be trusted.”

Auntie Mei sighed. “If Baby’s Pa is not coming home, who’s going to shop for groceries?”

The man of the house postponed his return; Chanel refused to have anything to do with Baby. Against her rules, Auntie Mei moved his crib into her bedroom; against her rules, too, she took on the responsibility of grocery shopping.

“Do you suppose people will think we’re the grandparents of this baby?” Paul asked after inching the car into a tight spot between two S.U.V.s.

Could it be that he had agreed to drive and help with shopping for a reason other than the money Auntie Mei had promised him? “Nobody,” she said, handing a list to Paul, “will think anything. Baby and I will wait here in the car.”

“You’re not coming in?”

“He’s a brand-new baby. You think I would bring him into a store with a bunch of refrigerators?”

“You should’ve left him home, then.”

With whom? Auntie Mei worried that, had she left Baby home, he would be gone from the world when she returned, though this fear she would not share with Paul. She explained that Baby’s Ma suffered from postpartum depression and was in no shape to take care of him.

“You should’ve just given me the shopping list,” Paul said.

What if you ran off with the money without delivering the groceries? she thought, though it was unfair of her. There were men she knew she could trust, including, even, her dead husband.

On the drive back, Paul asked if the egret had returned. She hadn’t noticed, Auntie Mei replied. She wondered if she would have an opportunity to see the bird be taught its lesson: she had only twenty-two days left. Twenty-two days, and then the next family would pluck her out of here, egret or no egret. Auntie Mei turned to look at Baby, who was asleep in the car seat. “What will become of you then?” she said.

“Me?” Paul asked.

“Not you. Baby.”

“Why do you worry? He’ll have a good life. Better than mine. Better than yours, for sure.”

“You don’t know my life to say that,” Auntie Mei said.

“I can imagine. You should find someone. This is not a good life for you, going from one house to another and never settling down.”

“What’s wrong with that? I don’t pay rent. I don’t have to buy my own food.”

“What’s the point of making money if you don’t spend it?” Paul said. “I’m at least saving money for my future grandchildren.”

“What I do with my money,” Auntie Mei said, “is none of your business. Now, please pay attention to the road.”

Paul, chastened into a rare silence, drove on, the slowest car on the freeway. Perhaps he’d meant well, but there were plenty of well-meaning men, and she was one of those women who made such men suffer. If Paul wanted to hear stories, she could tell him one or two, and spare him any hope of winning her affection. But where would she start? With the man she had married without any intention of loving and had wished into an early grave, or with the father she had not met because her mother had made his absolute absence a condition of her birth? Or perhaps she should start with her grandmother, who vanished from her own daughter’s crib side one day, only to show up twenty-five years later when her husband was dying from a wasting illness. The disappearance would have made sense had Auntie Mei’s grandfather been a villain, but he had been a kind man, and had raised his daughter alone, clinging to the hope that his wife, having left without a word, would return.

Auntie Mei’s grandmother had not gone far: all those years, she had stayed in the same village, living with another man, hiding in his attic during the day, sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night for a change of air. Nobody was able to understand why she had not gone on hiding until after her husband’s death. She explained that it was her wifely duty to see her husband off properly Auntie Mei’s mother, newly married and with a prospering business as a seamstress, was said to have accepted one parent’s return and the other’s death with equanimity, but the next year, pregnant with her first and only child, she made her husband leave by threatening to drink a bottle of DDT.

Auntie Mei had been raised by two mythic women. The villagers had shunned the two women, but they had welcomed the girl as one of them. Behind closed doors, they had told her about her grandfather and her father, and in their eyes she had seen their fearful disapproval of her elders: her pale-skinned grandmother, unused to daylight after years of darkness, had carried on her nocturnal habits, cooking and knitting for her daughter and granddaughter in the middle of the night; her mother, eating barely enough, had slowly starved herself to death, yet she never tired of watching, with an unblinking intensity, her daughter eat.

Auntie Mei had not thought of leaving home until the two women died, her mother first, and then her grandmother. They had been sheltered from worldly reproach by their peculiarities when alive; in death, they took with them their habitat, and left nothing to anchor Auntie Mei. A marriage offer, arranged by the distant cousin of a man in Queens, New York, had been accepted without hesitation: in a new country, her grandmother and her mother would cease to be legendary. Auntie Mei had not told her husband about them; he would not have been interested, in any case—silly good man, wanting only a hardworking woman to share a solid life. Auntie Mei turned to look at Paul. Perhaps he was not so different from her husband, her father, her grandfather, or even the man her grandmother had lived with for years but never returned to after the death of Auntie Mei’s grandfather: ordinary happiness, uncomplicated by the women in their lives, was their due.

“You think, by any chance, you’ll be free tomorrow afternoon?” Paul asked when he’d parked the car in front of Chanel’s house.

“I work all day, as you know.”

“You could bring Baby, like you did today.”

“To where?”

Paul said that there was this man who played chess every Sunday afternoon at East-West Plaza Park. Paul wanted to take a walk with Auntie Mei and Baby nearby.

Auntie Mei laughed. “Why, so he’ll get distracted and lose the game?”

“I want him to think I’ve done better than him.”

Better how? With a borrowed lady friend pushing a borrowed grandson in a stroller? “Who is he?”

“Nobody important. I haven’t talked to him for twenty-seven years.”

He couldn’t even lie well. “And you still think he’d fall for your trick?”

“I know him.”

Auntie Mei wondered if knowing someone — a friend, an enemy — was like never letting that person out of one’s sight. Being known, then, must not be far from being imprisoned by someone else’s thought. In that sense, her grandmother and her mother had been fortunate: no one could claim to have known them, not even Auntie Mei. When she was younger, she had seen no point in understanding them, as she had been told they were beyond apprehension. After their deaths, they had become abstract. Not knowing them, Auntie Mei, too, had the good fortune of not wanting to know anyone who came after: her husband; her co-workers at various Chinese restaurants during her yearlong migration from New York to San Francisco; the babies and the mothers she took care of, who had become only recorded names in her notebook. “I’d say let it go,” Auntie Mei told Paul. “What kind of grudge is worthy of twenty-seven years?”

Paul sighed. “If I tell you the story, you’ll understand.”

“Please,” Auntie Mei said. “Don’t tell me any story.”

From the second-floor landing, Chanel watched Paul put the groceries in the refrigerator and Auntie Mei warm up a bottle of formula. Only after he’d left did Chanel call down to ask how their date had gone. Auntie Mei held Baby in the rocking chair; the joy of watching him eat was enough of a compensation for his mother’s being a nuisance.

Chanel came downstairs and sat on the sofa. “I saw you pull up. You stayed in the car for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t know an old man could be so romantic.”

Auntie Mei thought of taking Baby into her bedroom, but this was not her house, and she knew that Chanel, in a mood to talk, would follow her. When Auntie Mei remained quiet, Chanel said that her husband had called earlier, and she had told him that his son had gone out to witness a couple carry on a sunset affair.

You should walk out right this minute, Auntie Mei said to herself, but her body settled into the rhythm of the rocking chair, back and forth, back and forth.

“Are you angry, Auntie?”

“What did your husband say?”

“He was upset, of course, and I told him that’s what he gets for not coming home.”

What’s stopping you from leaving? Auntie Mei asked herself. You want to believe you’re staying for Baby, don’t you?

“You should be happy for me that he’s upset,” Chanel said. “Or at least happy for Baby, no?”

I’m happy that, like everyone else, you’ll all become the past soon.

“Why are you so quiet, Auntie? I’m sorry I’m such a pain, but I don’t have a friend here, and you’ve been nice to me. Would you please take care of me and Baby?”

“You’re paying me,” Auntie Mei said. “So of course I’ll take care of you.”

“Will you be able to stay on after this month?” Chanel asked. “I’ll pay double.”

“I don’t work as a regular nanny.”

“But what would we do without you, Auntie?”

Don’t let this young woman’s sweet voice deceive you, Auntie Mei warned herself: you’re not irreplaceable — not for her, not for Baby, not for anyone. Still, Auntie Mei fancied for a moment that she could watch Baby grow — a few months, a year, two years. “When is Baby’s Pa coming home?”

“He’ll come home when he comes.”

Auntie Mei cleaned Baby’s face with the corner of a towel.

“I know what you’re thinking — that I didn’t choose the right man. Do you want to know how I came to marry someone so old and irresponsible?”

“I don’t, as a matter of fact.”

All the same, they told Auntie Mei stories, not heeding her protests. The man who played chess every Sunday afternoon came from the same village as Paul’s wife, and had long ago been pointed out to him by her as a potentially better husband. Perhaps she had said it only once, out of an impulse to sting Paul, or perhaps she had tormented him for years with her approval of a former suitor. Paul did not say, and Auntie Mei did not ask. Instead, he had measured his career against the man’s: Paul had become a real professional; the man had stayed a laborer.

An enemy could be as eternally close as a friend; a feud could make two men brothers for life. Fortunate are those for whom everyone can be turned into a stranger, Auntie Mei thought, but this wisdom she did not share with Paul. He had wanted her only to listen, and she had obliged him.

Chanel, giving more details, and making Auntie Mei blush at times, was a better storyteller. She had slept with an older married man to punish her father, who had himself pursued a young woman, in this case one of Chanel’s college classmates. The pregnancy was meant to punish her father, too, but also the man, who, like her father, had cheated on his wife. “He didn’t know who I was at first. I made up a story so that he thought I was one of those girls he could sleep with and then pay off,” Chanel had said. “But then he realized he had no choice but to marry me. My father has enough connections to destroy his business.”

Had she not thought how this would make her mother feel? Auntie Mei asked. Why should she? Chanel replied. A woman who could not keep the heart of her man was not a good model for a daughter.

Auntie Mei did not understand their logic: Chanel’s depraved; Paul’s unbending. What a world you’ve been born into, Auntie Mei said to Baby now. It was past midnight, the lamp in her bedroom turned off. The night-light of swimming ocean animals on the crib streaked Baby’s face blue and orange. There must have been a time when her mother had sat with her by candlelight, or else her grandmother might have been there in the darkness. What kind of future had they wished for her? She had been brought up in two worlds: the world of her grandmother and her mother, and that of everyone else; each world had sheltered her from the other, and to lose one was to be turned, against her wish, into a permanent resident of the other.

Auntie Mei came from a line of women who could not understand themselves, and in not knowing themselves they had derailed their men and orphaned their children. At least Auntie Mei had had the sense not to have a child, though sometimes, during a sleepless night like this one, she entertained the thought of slipping away with a baby she could love. The world was vast; there had to be a place for a woman to raise a child as she wished.

The babies — a hundred and thirty-one of them, and their parents, trusting yet vigilant — had protected Auntie Mei from herself. But who was going to protect her now? Not this baby, who was as defenseless as the others, yet she must protect him. From whom, though: his parents, who had no place for him in their hearts, or Auntie Mei, who had begun to imagine his life beyond the one month allocated to her?

See, this is what you get for sitting up and muddling your head. Soon you’ll become a tiresome oldster like Paul, or a lonely woman like Chanel, telling stories to any available ear. You can go on talking and thinking about your mother and your grandmother and all those women before them, but the problem is, you don’t know them. If knowing someone makes that person stay with you forever, not knowing someone does the same trick: death does not take the dead away; it only makes them grow more deeply into you.

No one would be able to stop her if she picked up Baby and walked out the door. She could turn herself into her grandmother, for whom sleep had become optional in the end; she could turn herself into her mother, too, eating little because it was Baby who needed nourishment. She could become a fugitive from this world that had kept her for too long, but this urge, coming as it often did in waves, no longer frightened her, as it had years ago. She was getting older, more forgetful, yet she was also closer to comprehending the danger of being herself. She had, unlike her mother and her grandmother, talked herself into being a woman with an ordinary fate. When she moved on to the next place, she would leave no mystery or damage behind; no one in this world would be disturbed by having known her.

Nirvana by Adam Johnson

It’s late, and I can’t sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the President because we often talk in whispers. I know the whisper sound is really just my wife Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.

My sleep problem is this: when I close my eyes, I keep visualising my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralysed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though try convincing Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the sores, and there was something about the way she stared at the bed’s safety rail. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds.

But she doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from me to help her do it when the time comes.

I rise and go to her. She’s not listening to Nirvana yet — she saves it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.

“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.”

Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.

“I heard it, too,” she says.

Next to her voice remote is a half-smoked joint. I light it, hold it to her lips.

“How’s the weather in there?” I ask her.

“Windy,” she says.

Windy is better than hail or lightning, or god forbid, flooding, which is the sensation she felt when her lungs were just starting to work again. But there are different kinds of wind.

I ask, “Windy, like a whistle through window screens, or windy like the rattle of storm shutters?”

“A strong breeze, hissy and buffeting,” she says, “like a microphone in the wind.”

Charlotte hates being stoned, but she says it quiets the inside of her. She has Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which her immune system attacks the insulation around her nerves. When the brain sends signals to the body, the impulses ground out before they can be received. A billion nerves inside her send signals that go everywhere, nowhere. This is the ninth month, a month at the edge of the medical literature. It’s a place where the doctors no longer feel qualified to tell us whether Charlotte’s nerves will begin to regenerate or whether she will be stuck like this forever.

She exhales, coughing. Her right arm twitches, which means her brain has attempted to tell her arm to rise and cover the mouth.

She tokes again. Through the smoke she says, “I’m worried.”

“What about?”

“You.”

“You’re worried about me?”

“I want you to stop talking to the President,” she says. “It’s time to accept reality.”

I try to be light-hearted. “The President’s the one who talks to me.”

“Then stop listening. He’s gone. When your time comes, you’re supposed to fall silent.”

I nod, but she doesn’t understand. Stuck in this bed, having sworn off TV, she’s probably the only person in America who didn’t see the assassination. If she’d beheld the look in the President’s eyes when his life was taken, she’d understand why I talk to him late at night. If she could leave this room and feel the nation trying to grieve, she’d know why I reanimated the Commander in Chief and brought him back to life.

“Concerning my conversations with the President,” I say, “I’d just point out that you spend half your life listening to Nirvana, whose songs are from a guy who blew his brains out.”

Charlotte tilts her head and looks at me like I’m a stranger. “Kurt Cobain took the pain of his life and made it into something that mattered. What did the President leave behind? Uncertainties, emptiness, a thousand rocks to overturn.”

She talks like that when she’s high. I tap out the joint and lift her headphones.

“Ready for your Nirvana?” I ask.

She looks at the window. “That sound, I hear it again,” she says.

At the window, I peer out into darkness. It’s a normal Palo Alto night — blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden. Then I notice it, right before my eyes, a small black drone, hovering. Its tiny servos swivel to regard me. Real quick, I snatch the drone out of the air and pull it inside. I close the window and curtains, then study the thing: its shell is made of black foil, stretched over tiny struts, like the bones of a bat’s wing. Behind a propeller of clear cellophane, a tiny infra-red engine throbs with warmth.

“Now will you listen to me?” Charlotte asks. “Now will you stop this President business?”

“It’s too late for that,” I tell her and release the drone. As if blind, it bumbles around the room. Is it autonomous? Has someone been operating it, someone watching our house?

“Play music,” Charlotte tells her voice remote.

Closing her eyes, she waits for me to place the headphones on her ears, where she will hear Kurt Cobain come to life once more.

I wake later in the night. The drone has somehow turned itself on and is hovering above me, mapping my body with a beam of red light. I toss a sweater over it, dropping it to the floor. After making sure Charlotte’s asleep, I pull out my iProjector, turn it on, and the President appears in three dimensions, his torso life-sized in an amber glow.

He greets me with a smile. “It’s good to be back in Palo Alto,” he says.

My algorithm has accessed the iProjector’s GPS chip and searched the President’s database for location references. This one came from a commencement address he gave at Stanford back when he was a senator.

“Mister President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again, but I have more questions.”

He looks into the distance, contemplative. “Shoot,” he says.

I move into his line of sight but can’t get him to look me in the eye. That’s one of the design problems I ran across.

“Did I make a mistake in creating you?” I ask. “In releasing you to the world? My wife says that you’re keeping people from mourning, that this you keeps us from accepting that the real you is gone.”

The President rubs the stubble on his chin.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” he says.

Which is eerie, because that’s a line he’d spoken on 60 Minutes, a moment when he expressed regret for legalising drones for civilian use.

“Do you know that I’m the one who made you?” I ask.

“We are all born free,” he says. “And no person may traffic in another.”

“But you weren’t born,” I tell him. “I wrote an algorithm, based on the Linux operating kernel. You’re an open-source search engine married to a dialogue bot and a video compiler. The program scours the web and archives a person’s images and videos and data — everything you say, you’ve said before.”

For the first time, the President falls silent.

I ask, “Do you know that you’re…that you’ve died?”

The President doesn’t hesitate.

“The end of life is another kind of freedom,” he says.

The assassination flashes in my eyes. I’ve seen the video so many times — the motorcade slowly crawls along while the President, on foot, parades past the barricaded crowds. Someone in the throng catches the President’s eye. The President turns, lifts a hand in greeting. Then a bullet strikes him in the abdomen. The impact bends him forward, his eyes lift to confront the shooter. A look of recognition settles into the President’s gaze before he takes the second shot in the face. They put him on a machine for a few days, but the end had already come.

I glance at Charlotte, asleep. “Mister President,” I whisper, “did you and the First Lady ever talk about…worst scenarios?”

I wonder if the First Lady was the one to turn off the machine.

The President smiles. “The First Lady and I have a wonderful relationship. We share everything.”

“But were there agreements? Did you two make a plan?”

His voice lowers, becomes sonorous. “Are you asking about the bonds of matrimony?”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“In this regard,” he says, “our only duty is to be of service, in any way we can.”

My mind ponders the ways in which I might have to be of service to Charlotte.

The President then looks into the distance, like a flag is waving there.

“I’m the President of the United States,” he says, “and I approved this message.”

That’s when I know our conversation is over. But when I reach to turn off the iProjector, the President looks me squarely in the eye, a coincidence of perspective, I guess.

“Seek your inner resolve,” he tells me.

Can you tell a story that doesn’t begin, it’s just suddenly happening? The woman you love gets the flu. Her fingers tingle, her legs go rubbery. What finally gets her to the hospital is the need to pee. She’s dying to pee, but the paralysis has begun: the bladder can no longer hear the brain. After an ER doc inserts a Foley catheter, you learn new words — axon, areflexia, ascending peripheral polyneuropathy.

Charlotte says she’s filled with “noise”. Inside her is a “storm”.

The doctor has a big needle. He tells Charlotte to get on the gurney. Charlotte’s scared to get on the gurney. She’s scared she won’t ever get up again. “Please, honey,” you say. “Get on the gurney.” Soon, you behold the glycerin glow of your wife’s spinal fluid. And she’s right. She doesn’t get up again.

Next comes plasmapheresis, then high-dose immunoglobulin therapy.

The doctors mention, casually, the word ventilator.

Charlotte’s mother arrives. She brings her cello. She’s an expert on the siege of Leningrad. She’s written a book on the topic. When Charlotte’s coma is induced, her mother fills the neuro ward with the saddest sounds ever conceived. For days, there is nothing but the swish of vent baffles, the trill of vital monitors and Shostakovich, Shostakovich, Shostakovich.

Two months of physical therapy in Santa Clara. Here are dunk tanks, sonar stimulators, exoskeletal treadmills. Charlotte becomes the person in the room who makes the victims of other afflictions feel better about their fates. She doesn’t make progress. The doctors don’t call her a “soldier” or a “champ” or a “trooper”.

Still to be described are tests, tantrums and treatments. To come are the discoveries of Kurt Cobain and marijuana. Of these times, there is only one moment I must relate. It was a normal night. I was beside Charlotte in the mechanical bed, holding up her magazine.

She said, “You don’t know how bad I want to get out of this bed.”

Her voice was quiet, uninflected. She’d said similar things a thousand times.

“I’d do anything to escape,” she said.

I flipped the page and laughed at a picture whose caption read, “Stars are just like us!”

“But I could never do that to you,” she said.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“What are you talking about, what’s going through your head?”

I turned to look at her. She was inches away.

“Except for how it would hurt you,” she said. “I would get away.”

“Get away where?”

“From here.”

Neither of us had spoken of the promise since the night it was exacted. I’d tried to pretend the promise didn’t exist, but it existed.

“Face it, you’re stuck with me,” I said, forcing a smile. “We’re fated to be together. And soon you’ll be better, things will be normal again.”

“My entire life is this pillow.”

“That’s not true. You’ve got your friends and family. And you’ve got technology. The whole world is at your fingertips.”

By friends I meant her nurses and physical therapists. By family, I meant her distant and brooding mother. It didn’t matter: Charlotte was too disengaged to even point out her non-functional fingers and their non-feeling tips.

She rolled her head and stared at the safety rail.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I would never do that to you.”

In the morning, I massage Charlotte’s legs and feet. It’s our routine.

“Let’s wake up,” I tell her toes. “It’s time to start dancing.”

“Look who’s Mister Brightside,” she says. “You must have been talking to the President. Isn’t that why you talk to him, to get all inspired?”

I rub her Achilles tendon. Last week, Charlotte failed a big test, the DTRE, which measures deep tendon response and signals the beginning of recovery. “Don’t worry,” the doctor told us. “I know of another patient that also took nine months to respond, and he managed a full recovery.” I asked if we could contact this patient, to know what he went through, to help us see what’s ahead. The doctor informed us this patient was attended to in France, in the year 1918.

After the doctor left, I went into the garage and started making the President. A psychologist would probably say the reason I created him had to do with the promise I made Charlotte and the fact that the President also had a relationship with the person who took his life. But it’s simpler than that: I just needed to save somebody, and with the President, it didn’t matter that it was too late.

I tap Charlotte’s patella but there’s no response. “Any pain?” I ask.

“So what did the President say?”

I articulate the plantar fascia. “How about this?”

“I saw the iProjector,” she says. “I know you talked to him.”

It’s going to be one of her bad days, I can tell.

“Let me guess,” Charlotte says. “The President told you to move to the South Pacific to take up painting. That’s inspiring, isn’t it?”

I don’t say anything.

“You’d take me with you, right?” she asks. “I could be your assistant. I’d hold your palette in my teeth. If you need a model, I specialise in reclining nudes.”

“If you must know,” I tell her, “the President told me to locate my inner resolve.”

“Inner resolve,” she says, “I could use some help tracking down mine.”

“You have more resolve than anyone I know,” I tell her.

“Jesus you’re sunny. Don’t you know what’s going on? Don’t you see that I’m about to spend the rest of my life like this?”

“Pace yourself, darling. The day’s only a couple minutes old.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m supposed to have reached a stage of enlightened acceptance or something. You think I like it that the only person I have to get mad at is you? I know it’s not right — you’re the one thing I love in this world.”

“You love Kurt Cobain.”

“He’s dead.”

We hear Hector, the morning nurse, pull up outside.

“Promise me something,” she says.

“No,” I tell her.

“Come on. If you do, I’ll release you from the other promise.”

I shake my head. She doesn’t mean it — she’ll never release me.

She says, “Just agree to talk straight with me. You don’t have to be fake and optimistic. It doesn’t help.”

“I am optimistic.”

“You shouldn’t be,” she says. “Pretending, that’s what killed Kurt Cobain.”

I think it was the shotgun he pointed at his head, but I don’t say that.

I only know one line from Nirvana. I karaoke it to Charlotte:

“With the lights on,” I sing, “she’s less dangerous.”

She rolls her eyes. “You got it wrong,” she says. But she smiles.

I try to encourage this. “What, I don’t get points for trying?”

“You don’t hear that?” Charlotte asks.

“Hear what?”

“That’s the sound of me clapping.”

“I give up,” I say.

“Bed, incline,” Charlotte says. Her torso slowly rises. It’s time to start her day.

I take the 101 Freeway toward Mountain View, where I write code at a company called Reputation Curator. Basically the company threatens Yelpers and Facebookers to retract negative comments about dodgy lawyers and dentists. I was hired to write a program that would sweep the web to construct client profiles. Creating the President was an easy step from there.

In the vehicle next to me is a woman with her iProjector on the passenger seat, and she’s having an animated discussion with the President as she drives. At the next overpass, I see an older black man in a tan jacket, looking down at the traffic. Standing next to him is the President. They’re not speaking, just standing together, watching the cars go by.

I shift to automatic and dart into the Google lane, where I let go of the wheel and sign on to the web for the first time since I released the President a week ago. I discover that 14 million people have downloaded the President. I also have 700 new messages. The first is from the dude who started Facebook, and it is not spam — he wants to buy me a chimichanga and talk about the future. The latest message is from Charlotte: “I don’t mean to be mean,” she writes. “I lost my feeling, remember? I’ll get it back. I’m trying, I really am.”

I see the President again, on the lawn of a Korean church. I understand that he is a ghost that will haunt us until our nation comes to grips with what’s happened: that he is gone, that he has been stolen from us, that it’s irreversible. And I’m not an idiot. I know what’s being stolen from me, slowly and irrevocably, before my eyes. I know that late at night I should be going to Charlotte instead of the President.

But when I’m with her, there’s a membrane my mind places between us to protect me from the tremor in her voice, from the pulse in her desiccated wrists. Driving now, I think how she has started turning toward the wall even before the last song on the Nirvana album is over, that soon, even headphones and marijuana will cease to work. My off-ramp ahead is blurry, and I realise there are tears in my eyes. I drive right past my exit. I just let the Google lane carry me away.

In the garage, I decide to get to the bottom of this drone business. I dock the drone to a bank of drives and use some slave code to parse its drive. I burn through its firewall, and then reinitialise. Turns out the little guy speaks Google, so I synch it to a pair of Android glasses. I install a new OS, reboot, and like that, the drone is mine. Wearing the clear glasses, I roll my eyes and the drone — lithe and liquid — does a backflip.

Inside the house, I find Charlotte suspended in a sling from the Hoyer lift, which has been rolled to the window so she can see outside. She’s wearing old yoga tights, and she smells of the cedar oil her massage therapist rubs her with. I go to her and open the window.

“You read my mind,” she says and breathes the fresh air.

I put the glasses on her, and it takes her eyes a minute of flashing around before the drone lifts from my hands. A grand smile crosses her face as she puts it through its paces — hovering, rotating, swivelling the camera’s servos. And then the drone is off. I watch it cross the lawn, veer around the compost piles, then head for the community garden. It floats down the rows, and I can see the distant drone inspecting the blossoms of summer squash, tracking watermelons by their umbilical stems. When she makes it to her plot, she gasps.

“My roses,” she says. “They’re still there. Someone’s been taking care of them.”

“I wouldn’t let your roses die,” I tell her.

She has the drone inspect every bloom. Carefully, she manoeuvres it through the bright petals, brushing against the blossoms, then shuttles it home again. Suddenly it’s hovering before us. Charlotte leans slightly forward and sniffs the drone. “I never thought I’d smell my roses again,” she says, her face flush with hope and amazement and suddenly the tears are streaming.

She regards me. “I want to have a baby,” she says.

“A baby?”

“It’s been nine months. I could have had one already. I could’ve been doing something useful this whole time.”

“But your illness,” I say. “We don’t know what’s ahead.”

She closes her eyes like she’s hugging something, like she’s holding some dear truth.

“With a baby, I’d have something to show for all this. I’d have a reason. At the least, I’d have something to leave behind.”

“You can’t talk like that,” I tell her. “We’ve talked about you not talking like this.”

But she won’t listen to me, she won’t open her eyes.

All she says is, “And I want to start tonight.”

Later, I carry the iProjector out back to the gardening shed. Here, in the gold of afternoon light, the President rises and comes to life. He adjusts his collar, cuffs, runs his thumb down a black lapel as if he exists only in the moment before a camera will broadcast him live to the world.

“Mister President,” I say. “I’m sorry to bother you again.”

“Nonsense,” he tells me. “I serve at the pleasure of the people.”

“Do you remember me?” I ask. “Do you remember the problems I’ve been talking to you about?”

“Perennial is the nature of the problems that plague man. Particular is the voice with which they call to each of us.”

“My problem today is of a personal nature,” I say.

“Then I place this conversation under the seal.”

“I haven’t made love to my wife in a long time.”

He holds up a hand to halt me. He smiles in a knowing, fatherly way.

“Times of doubt,” he tells me, “are inherent in the compact of civil union.”

“My question is about children. Would you have still brought yours into the world, knowing that only one of you might be around to raise them?”

“Single parenting places too much strain on today’s families,” he says. “That’s why I’m introducing legislation that will reduce the burden on our hard-working parents.”

“What about your children? Do you miss them?”

“My mind goes to them constantly. Being away is the greatest of the sacrifices of the office.”

In the shed, suspended dust makes his spectre glitter and swirl. It makes him look like he is cutting out, like he will leave at any moment.

“When it’s all finally over,” I ask, “where is it that we go?”

“I’m no preacher,” the President says, “but I believe we go where we are called.”

“Where were you called to? Where is it that you are?”

“Don’t we all try to locate ourselves among the pillars of uncommon knowledge?”

“You don’t know where you are, do you?” I ask the President.

“I’m sure my opponent would like you to believe that.”

“It’s okay,” I say, more to myself. “I didn’t expect you to know.”

“I know exactly where I am,” the President says. Then, in a voice that sounds pieced from many scraps, he adds, “I’m currently positioned at three seven point four four north by one two two point one four west.”

I think he’s done. I wait for him to say Good night and God bless America. Instead, he reaches out to touch my chest. “I have heard that you have made much personal sacrifice,” he says. “And I’m told that your sense of duty is strong.”

I don’t think I agree, but I say, “Yes sir.”

His glowing hand clasps my shoulder, and it doesn’t matter that I can’t feel it.

“Then this medal that I affix to your uniform is much more than a piece of silver. It is a symbol of how much you have given, not just in armed struggle and not just in service to your nation. It marks you forever as one who can be counted upon, as one who in times of need will lift up and carry those who have fallen.” Proudly, he stares into the empty space above my shoulder. He says, “Now return home to your wife, soldier, and start a new chapter of life.”

When darkness falls, I go to Charlotte. The night nurse has placed her in a negligee. Charlotte lowers the bed as I approach. The electric motor is the only sound in the room.

“I’m ovulating,” she announces. “I can feel it.”

“You can feel it?”

“I don’t need to feel it,” she says. “I just know.”

She’s strangely calm.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“Sure.”

I steady myself on the safety rail that separates us.

She asks, “Do you want some oral sex first?”

I shake my head.

“Come join me, then,” she says.

I start to climb on the bed — she stops me.

“Hey, Sunshine,” she says. “Take off your clothes.”

I can’t remember the last time she called me that.

“Oh, yeah,” I say and unbutton my shirt, unzip my jeans. When I drop my underwear, I feel weirdly naked. I swing a leg up, then kind of lie on her.

A look of contentment crosses her face. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve looked into your eyes.”

Her body is narrow but warm. I don’t know where to put my hands.

“Do you want to pull down my panties?”

I sit up and begin work them off. I see the scar from the femoral stent. When I heft her legs, there are the bedsores we’ve been fighting.

“Remember our trip to Mexico,” she asks, “when we made love on top of that pyramid? It was like we were in the past and the future at the same time. I kind of feel that now.”

“You’re not high, are you?” I ask.

“What? Like I’d have to be stoned to recall the first time we talked about having a baby?”

When I have her panties off and her legs hooked, I pause. It takes all my focus to get an erection, and then I can’t believe I have one. I see the moment coldly, distant, the way a drone would see it. Here’s my wife: paralysed, invalid, insensate, and though everything’s the opposite of erotic, I am poised above her, completely hard.

“I’m wet, aren’t I?” Charlotte asks. “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”

I do remember the pyramid. The stone was cold, the staircase steep. The past to me was a week of Charlotte in Mayan dresses, cooing at every baby she came across. Having sex under jungle stars, I tried to imagine the future: a faceless someone conceived on a sacrificial altar. I finished early and tried to shake it off. I focused only on all those steps we had to make it down in the dark.

“I think I feel something,” she says. “You’re inside me, right? Because I’m pretty sure I can feel it.”

Here I enter my wife and begin our lovemaking. I try to focus on the notion that if this works, Charlotte will be safe, that for nine months she’d let no harm come to her, and maybe she’s right, maybe the baby will stimulate something and recovery will begin.

Charlotte smiles. It’s brittle, but it’s a smile. “How’s this for finding the silver lining,” she says. “I won’t have to feel the pain of childbirth.”

This makes me wonder if a paralysed woman can push out a baby, or does she get the scalpel, and if so, is there anaesthesia, and suddenly my body is at the edge of not cooperating.

“Hey, are you here?” she asks. “I’m trying to get you to smile.”

“I just need to focus for a minute,” I tell her.

“I can tell you’re not really into this,” she says. “I can tell you’re still hung up on the idea I’m going to do something drastic to myself, right? Just because I talk about crazy stuff doesn’t mean I’m going to do anything.”

I say, “Then why would you make me promise to help you do it?”

The promise came early, in the beginning, just before the ventilator. She had a vomiting reflex that lasted for hours. Imagine endless dry heaves while you’re paralysed. The doctors finally gave her narcotics. Drugged, dead-limbed and vomiting, that’s when it hit her that her body was no longer hers. I was holding her hair, keeping it out of the basin. She was panting between heaves.

She said, “Promise me that when I tell you to make it stop, you’ll make it stop.”

“Make what stop?” I asked.

She retched, long and cord-rattling. I knew what she meant.

“It won’t come to that,” I said.

She tried to say something but retched again.

“I promise,” I said.

Now, in her mechanical bed, her negligee straps slipping off her shoulders, Charlotte says, “It’s hard for you to understand, I know. But the idea that there’s a way out, it’s what allows me to keep going. I’d never take it. You believe me, don’t you?”

“I hate that promise, I hate that you made me make it.”

“I’d never do it, and I’d never make you help.”

“Then release me,” I tell her.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t”

I decide to just shut it all out and keep going. I’m losing my erection, and my mind wonders what will happen if I go soft, but I shut it out and keep going, pounding on Charlotte until I can barely feel anything. From the bedside table, the drone turns itself on and rises, hovering. It flashes my forehead with its green laser, as if what I’m feeling is that easy to determine, as if my emotion has a name. Is the drone spying on me, feeling sympathy or executing old code? I wonder if the drone’s OS reverted to a previous version or if it’s in some kind of autonomous mode. Or it could be that someone hacked the Android glasses, or maybe…that’s when I look down and see Charlotte is crying.

I stop.

“No, don’t,” she says. “Keep going.”

She’s not crying hard, but they are fat, lamenting tears.

“We can try again tomorrow,” I tell her.

“No, I’m okay,” she says. “Just keep going and do something for me, would you?”

“Alright.”

“Put the headphones on me.”

“You mean, while we’re doing it?”

“Music on,” she says. From the headphones on her bedside table, Nirvana starts to hum.

“I know I’m doing it all wrong,” I say. “It’s been a long time, and…”

“It’s not you,” she says. “I just need my music. Just put them on me.”

“Why do you need Nirvana? What is it to you?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head.

“What is it with this Kurt Cobain?” I say. “What’s your deal with him?”

I grab her wrists and pin them down, but she can’t feel it.

“Why do you have to have this music? What’s wrong with you?” I demand. “Just tell me what it is that’s wrong with you.”

The drone follows me to the garage, where it wanders the walls, looking for a way out. I turn on a computer and download one of these Nirvana albums. I play the whole thing, sitting there in the dark. This Kurt Cobain sings about being stupid and dumb and unwanted. In one song he says that Jesus doesn’t want him for a sunbeam. In another, he says he wants milk and laxatives along with cherry-flavoured antacids. He has a song called All Apologies, but he never actually apologises. He doesn’t even say what he did wrong.

The drone, having found no escape, comes to me and hovers silently. I must look pretty pathetic because the drone takes my temperature.

I lift the remote for the garage door opener. “Is this what you want?” I ask. “If I let you go, are you going to come back?”

The drone silently hums, impassive atop its column of warm air.

I press the button. The drone waits until the garage door is all the way up. Then it snaps a photograph of me and zooms off into the Palo Alto night.

I stand and breathe the air, which is cool and smells of flowers. Down the street, I spot the glowing eyes of our cat. I call his name but he doesn’t come. I gave him to a friend a couple blocks away, and for a few weeks the cat returned at night to visit me. Not any more. This feeling of being in proximity to something that’s lost to you, it seems like my whole life right now. It’s a feeling Charlotte would understand if she’d just talk to the President. But he’s not the one she needs to speak to, I suddenly understand that. I return to my computer bench and fire up a bank of screens. I stare into their blue glow and get to work. It takes me hours, most of the night, before I’m done.

It’s almost dawn when I go to Charlotte. The room is dark, and I can only see her outline. “Bed, incline,” I say, and she starts to rise. She wakes and stares at me but says nothing. Her face has that lack of expression that comes after it’s been through every emotion.

I set the iProjector in her lap. She hates the thing but says nothing. She only tilts her head a little, like she’s sad for me. Then I turn it on.

Kurt Cobain appears before her, clad in a bathrobe and composed of soft blue light.

Charlotte inhales. “Oh my god,” she murmurs.

She looks at me. “Is it him?”

I nod.

She marvels at him.

“What do I say?” she asks. “Can he talk?”

I don’t answer.

Kurt Cobain’s hair is in his face. Shifting her gaze, Charlotte tries to look into his eyes. While the President couldn’t quite find your eyes, Kurt is purposefully avoiding them.

“I can’t believe how young you are,” Charlotte tells him. “You’re just a boy.”

Kurt mumbles, “I’m old.”

“Are you really here?” she asks.

“Here we are now,” he sings. “Entertain us.”

His voice is rough and hard lived. It’s some kind of proof of life to Charlotte.

Charlotte looks at me, filled with wonder. “I thought he was gone,” she says. “I can’t believe he’s really here.”

Kurt shrugs. “I only appreciate things when they’re gone,” he says.

Charlotte looks stricken.

“I recognise that line,” she says to me. “That’s a line from his suicide note. How does he know that? Has he already written it, does he know what he’s going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. This isn’t my conversation to have. I back away toward the door, and just as I’m leaving, I hear her start talking to him.

“Don’t do what you’re thinking about doing,” she pleads with him. “You don’t know how special you are, you don’t know how much you matter to me,” she says, carefully, like she’s talking to a child. “Please don’t take yourself from me. You can’t do that to me.”

She leans toward Kurt Cobain, like she wants to throw her arms around him and hold him, like she’s forgotten that her arms don’t work and there’s no him to embrace.

Miss Lora by Junot Diaz

Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her—how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care. I’d fuck her.

You’d fuck anything, someone jeered.

And he had given that someone the eye. You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.

Your brother. Dead from the cancer, and sometimes you still felt a fulgurating sadness over it, even though he really was a super asshole at the end. He didn’t die easy at all. Those last months, he just steady kept trying to run away. He’d be caught trying to hail a cab outside Beth Israel or walking down some Newark street in his greens. Once he conned an ex-girlfriend into driving him to California, but outside of Camden he started having convulsions and she called you in a panic. Was it some atavistic impulse to die alone, out of sight? Or was he just trying to fulfill something that had always been inside him? Why do you keep doing that? you asked, but he just laughed. Doing what?

In those last weeks, when he finally became too feeble to run away, he refused to talk to you or your mother. Didn’t utter a single word until he died. Your mother didn’t care. She loved him and prayed over him and talked to him like he was still O.K. But it wounded you, that stubborn silence. His last fucking days and he wouldn’t say a word. You’d ask him something straight up, How are you feeling today, and Rafa would turn his head. Like you all didn’t deserve an answer. Like no one did.

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That’s what happened with your girlfriend Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse, and your heart flew out of you.

That’s what happened with Miss Lora, too.

It was 1985. You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker. You were also convinced—like totally, utterly convinced—that the world was going to blow itself to pieces. Almost every night you had dreams that made the ones the President was having in “Dreamscape” look like pussy play. In your dreams the bombs were always going off, evaporating you while you walked, while you ate a chicken wing, while you rode the bus to school, while you fucked Paloma. You would wake up biting your own tongue in terror, the blood dribbling down your chin.

Someone should have medicated you.

Paloma thought you were being ridiculous. She didn’t want to hear about mutual assured destruction, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” We begin bombing in five minutes, SALT II, “The Day After,” “Threads,” “Red Dawn,” “WarGames,” Gamma World—any of it. She called you Mr. Depressing. And she didn’t need any more depressing than she had already. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four younger siblings and a disabled mom, and she was taking care of all of them. That and honors classes. She didn’t have time for anythingand mostly stayed with you, you suspected, because she felt bad about what had happened with your brother. It’s not like you ever spent much time together or had sex or anything. Only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason. I can’t, she said. I can’t make any mistakes. Why is sex with me a mistake, you demanded, but she just shook her head, pulled your hand out of her pants. Paloma was convinced that if she made any mistakes in the next two years, any mistakes at all, she would be stuck in that family of hers forever. That was her nightmare. Imagine if I don’t get in anywhere, she said. You’d still have me, you tried to reassure her, but Paloma looked at you like the apocalypse would be preferable.

So you talked about the coming apocalypse to whoever would listen—to your history teacher, who claimed he was building a survival cabin in the Poconos, to your boy who was stationed in Panama (in those days you still wrote letters), to your around-the-corner neighbor, Miss Lora. That was what connected you two at first. She listened. Better still, she had read “Alas, Babylon” and had seen part of “The Day After,” and both had scared her monga.

“The Day After” wasn’t scary, you complained. It was crap. You can’t survive an air burst by ducking under a dashboard.

Maybe it was a miracle, she said, playing.

A miracle? That was just dumbness. What you need to see is “Threads.” Now, that is some real shit.

I probably wouldn’t be able to stand it, she said. And then she put her hand on your shoulder.

People always touched you. You were used to it. You were an amateur weight lifter, something else you did to keep your mind off the shit of your life. You must have had a mutant gene somewhere in the DNA, because all the lifting had turned you into a goddam circus freak. Most of the time it didn’t bother you, the way girls and sometimes guys felt you up. But with Miss Lora you could tell something was different.

Miss Lora touched you, and you suddenly looked up and noticed how large her eyes were in her thin face, how long her lashes were, how one iris had more bronze in it than the other.

Of course you knew her; she lived in the building behind, taught over at Sayreville H.S. But it was only in the past months that she’d snapped into focus. There were a lot of these middle-aged single types in the neighborhood, shipwrecked by every kind of catastrophe, but she was one of the few who didn’t have children, who lived alone, who was still kinda young. Something must have happened, your mother speculated. In her mind, a woman with no child could be explained only by vast untrammelled calamity.

Maybe she just doesn’t like children.

Nobody likes children, your mother assured you. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them.

Miss Lora wasn’t anything exciting. There were about a thousand viejas in the neighborhood who were way hotter, like Mrs. del Orbe, whom your brother had fucked silly until her husband found out and moved the whole family away. Miss Lora was too skinny. Had no hips whatsoever. No breasts, either, no ass, even her hair failed to make the grade. She had her eyes, sure, but what she was most famous for in the neighborhood was her muscles. Not that she had huge ones like you—chick was just wiry like a motherfucker, every single fibre standing out in outlandish definition. Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub, and every summer she caused a serious commotion at the pool. Always in a bikini despite her curvelessness, the top stretching over these corded pectorals and the bottom cupping a rippling fan of haunch muscles. Always swimming underwater, the black waves of her hair flowing behind her like a school of eels. Always tanning herself (which none of the other women did) into the deep lacquered walnut of an old shoe. That woman needs to keep her clothes on, the mothers complained. She’s like a plastic bag full of worms. But who could take their eyes off her? Not you or your brother. The kids would ask her, Are you a bodybuilder, Miss Lora? and she would shake her head behind her paperback. Sorry, guys, I was just born this way.

After your brother died, she came over to the apartment a couple of times. She and your mother shared a common place, La Vega, where Miss Lora was born and where your mother had recuperated after the Guerra Civil. One full year living just behind the Casa Amarilla had made a vegana out of your mother. I still hear the Río Camú in my dreams, your mother said. Miss Lora nodded. I saw Juan Bosch once on our street when I was very young. They sat and talked about it to death. Every now and then she stopped you in the parking lot. How are you doing? How is your mother? And you never knew what to say. Your tongue was always swollen, raw, from being blown to atoms in your sleep.

Today you come back from a run to find her on the stoop, talking to la doña. Your mother calls you. Say hello to la profesora.

I’m sweaty, you protest.

Your mother flares. Who in carajo do you think you’re talking to? Say hello, coño, to la profesora.

Hello, profesora.

Hello, student.

She laughs and turns back to your mother’s conversation.

You don’t know why you’re so furious all of a sudden.

I could curl you, you say to her, flexing your arm.

And Miss Lora looks at you with a ridiculous grin. What in the world are you talking about? I’m the one who could pick you up.

She puts her hands on your waist and pretends to make the effort.

Your mother laughs thinly. But you can feel her watching the both of you.

When your mother confronted your brother about Mrs. del Orbe he didn’t deny it. What do you want, Ma? Se metío por mis ojos.

Por mis ojos my ass, she’d said. Tu te metiste por su culo.

That’s true, your brother admitted cheerily. Y por su boca.

And then your mother punched him, helpless with shame and fury, which only made him laugh.

It is the first time any girl ever wanted you. And so you sit with it. Let it roll around in the channels of your mind. This is nuts, you say to yourself. And later, absently, to Paloma. She doesn’t hear you. You don’t know what to do with the knowledge. You ain’t your brother, who would have run right over and put a rabo in Miss Lora. Even though you know, you’re scared you’re wrong. You’re scared she’d laugh at you.

So you try to keep your mind off her and the memory of her bikinis. You figure the bombs will fall before you get the chance to do shit. When they don’t fall, you bring her up to Paloma in a last-ditch effort, tell her la profesora has been after you. It feels very convincing, that lie.

That old fucking hag? That’sdisgusting.

You’re telling me, you say in forlorn tones.

That would be like fucking a stick, she says.

It would be, you confirm.

You better not fuck her, Paloma warns you after a pause.

What are you talking about?

I’m just telling you. Don’t fuck her. You know I’ll find out. You’re a terrible liar.

Don’t be a crazy person, you say, glaring. I’m not fucking anyone. Clearly.

That night, you are allowed to touch Paloma’s clit with the tip of your tongue, but that’s it. She holds your head back with the force of her whole life, and eventually you give up, demoralized.

It tasted, you write your boy in Panama, like beer.

You add an extra run to your workout, hoping it will cool your granos, but it doesn’t work. You have a couple of dreams where you are about to touch Miss Lora, but then the bomb blows N.Y.C. to kingdom come, and you watch the shock wave roll up, and then you wake, your tongue clamped firmly between your teeth.

And then you are coming back from Chicken Holiday with a four-piece meal, a drumstick in your mouth, and there she is, walking out of Pathmark, wrestling a pair of plastic bags. You consider bolting, but your brother’s law holds you in place. Never run. A law that he ultimately abrogated, but which you right now cannot. You ask meekly, You want help with that, Miss Lora?

She shakes her head. It’s my exercise for the day. You walk back together in silence, and then she says, When are you going to come by to show me that movie?

What movie?

The one you said is the real one. The nuclear-war movie.

Maybe if you were someone else you would have the discipline to duck the whole thing, but you are your father’s son and your brother’s brother. Two nights later, you are home and the silence in there is terrible and it seems like the same commercial for fixing tears in your car upholstery is on over and over again. You shower, shave, dress, pick up the tape.

I’ll be back.

Your mom is looking at your dress shoes. Where are you going?

Out.

It’s ten o’clock, she says, but you’re already out the door.

You knock on the door once, twice, and then she opens up. She is wearing sweats and a Howard T-shirt, and she tenses her forehead. Her eyes look like they belong on a giant’s face.

You don’t bother with the small talk. You just push up and kiss. She reaches around and shuts the door behind you.

Do you have a condom? (You are a worrier like that.)

Nope, she says, and you try to keep control, but you come in her anyway.

I’m really sorry, you say.

It’s O.K., she whispers, her hands on your back, keeping you from pulling out. Stay.

Her apartment is about the neatest place you’ve ever seen and, for its lack of Caribbean craziness, could be inhabited by a white person. On her walls she has a lot of pictures of her travels and her siblings, and they all seem incredibly happy and square. So you’re the rebel? you ask her, and she laughs. Something like that.

There are also pictures of some guys. A few you recognize from when you were younger, and about them you say nothing.

She is very quiet, very reserved while she fixes you a cheeseburger. Actually, I hate my family, she says, squashing the patty down with a spatula until the grease starts popping.

You wonder if she feels like you do. Like it might be love. You put on “Threads” for her. Get ready for some real shit, you say.

Get ready for me to hide, she responds, but you two only last an hour before she reaches over and takes off your glasses and kisses you.

I can’t, you say.

And just before she pops your rabo in her mouth she says, Really?

You try to think of Paloma, so exhausted that every morning she falls asleep on the ride to school. Paloma, who still found the energy to help you study for your S.A.T.s. Paloma, who didn’t give you any ass because she was terrified that if she got pregnant she wouldn’t abort it out of love for you and then her life would be over. You’re trying to think of her, but what you’re doing is holding Miss Lora’s tresses like reins and urging her head to keep its wonderful rhythm.

You really do have an excellent body, you say after you blow your load.

Why, thank you. She motions with her head. You want to go into the bedroom?

Even more photos. None of them will survive the nuclear blast, you are sure. Nor will this bedroom, whose window faces toward New York City. You tell her that. Well, we’ll just have to make do, she says. She gets naked like a pro, and once you start she closes her eyes and rolls her head around like it’s on a broken hinge. She clasps your shoulders with a nailed grip, and you know that afterward your back is going to look like it’s been whipped.

Then she kisses your chin.

Both your father and your brother were sucios. Shit, your father used to take you on his pussy runs, leave you in the car while he ran up into cribs to bone his girlfriends. Your brother was no better, boning girls in the bed next to yours. Sucios of the worst kind, and now it’s official: you are one, too. You’d hoped the gene had missed you, skipped a generation, but clearly you were kidding yourself. The blood always shows, you say to Paloma on the ride to school the next day. Yunior, she stirs from her doze, I don’t have time for your craziness, O.K.? You figure you can keep it to a onetime thing. But the next day you go right back. You sit gloomily in her kitchen while she fixes you another cheeseburger.

Are you going to be O.K.? she asks.

I don’t know.

It’s just supposed to be fun.

I have a girlfriend.

You told me, remember?

She puts the plate on your lap, regards you critically. You know you look like your brother. I’m sure people tell you that all the time.

Some people.

I couldn’t believe how good-looking he was. He knew it, too. It was like he never heard of a shirt.

This time you don’t even ask about the condom. You just come inside her. You are surprised at how pissed you are. But she kisses your face over and over, and it moves you. No one has ever done that. The girls you’ve boned were always ashamed afterward. And there was always panic. Someone heard. Fix the bed up. Open the windows. Here there is none of that.

Afterward, she sits up, her chest as unadorned as yours. So what else do you want to eat?

You try to be reasonable. You try to control yourself, to be smooth. But you’re at her apartment every fucking night. The one time you try to skip, you recant and end up slipping out of your apartment at three in the morning and knocking furtively on her door until she lets you in. You know I work, right? I know, you say, but I dreamed that something happened to you. It’s sweet of you to lie, she sighs, and even though she is falling asleep she lets you bone her straight in the ass. Fucking amazing, you keep saying for all four seconds it takes you to come. You have to pull my hair while you do it, she confides. That makes me shoot like a rocket.

It should be the greatest thing, so why are your dreams worse? Why is there more blood in the sink in the morning?

You learn a lot about her life. She came up in Santo Domingo with a doctor father who was crazy. Her mother left them for an Italian waiter, fled to Rome, and that was it for Pops. Always threatening to kill himself, and at least once a day she’d had to beg him not to, and that had messed her up but good. In her youth, she’d been a gymnast, and there was even talk of making the Olympic team, but then the coach stole the money and the D.R. had to cancel for that year. I’m not claiming I would have won, she says, but I could have done something. After that bullshit, she put on a foot of height and that was it for gymnastics. Then when she was eleven her father got a job in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and she and her three little siblings went with him. After six months he moved them in with a fat widow, una blanca asquerosa who hated Lora. She had no friends at all in school, and in ninth grade she slept with her history teacher. Ended up living in his house. His ex-wife was also a teacher at the school. You can only imagine what that was like. As soon as she graduated, she ran off with a quiet black boy to an Air Force base in Germany, but that hadn’t worked out, either. To this day, I think he was gay, she says. And finally, after trying to make it in Berlin, teaching, of all things, she came back to the States. She moved in with a Michigan girlfriend who had an apartment in the Terrace, dated a few guys, one of her ex’s old Air Force buddies who visited her on his leaves, a moreno with the sweetest disposition. When the girlfriend got married and moved away, Miss Lora kept the apartment and found a teaching job. Made a conscious effort to stop moving. It was an O.K. life, she says, showing you the pictures. All things considered.

She is always trying to get you to talk about your brother. It will help, she says.

What is there to say? He got cancer, he died.

Well, that’s a start.

She brings home college brochures from her school. She gives them to you with half the application filled out. You really need to get out of here.

Where? you ask her.

Go anywhere. Go to Alaska for all I care.

She sleeps with a mouth guard. And she covers her eyes with a mask.

If you have to leave, wait till I fall asleep, O.K.?

But after a few weeks it’s Please don’t go. And finally just: Stay.

And you do. At dawn, you slip out of her apartment and into your basement window. Your mother doesn’t have a fucking clue. In the old days, she used to know everything. She had that campesino radar. Now she is somewhere else. Her grief, tending to it, takes all her time.

You are scared stupid at what you are doing, but it is also exciting and makes you feel less lonely in the world. And you are sixteen, and you have a feeling that, now the Ass Engine has started, no force on the earth will ever stop it.

Then your abuelo catches something in the D.R., and your mother has to fly home. You’ll be fine, la doña says. Miss Lora said she’d look after you.

I can cook, Ma.

No, you can’t. And don’t bring that Puerto Rican girl in here. Do you understand?

You nod. You bring the Dominican woman in instead.

She squeals with delight when she sees the plastic-covered sofa and the wooden spoons hanging on the wall. You admit to feeling a little bad for your mother.

Of course you end up downstairs in your basement. Where your brother’s things are still in evidence. She goes right for his boxing gloves.

Please put those down.

She pushes them into her face, smelling them.

You can’t relax. You keep swearing that you hear your mother or Paloma at the door. It makes you stop every five minutes. It’s unsettling to wake up in your bed with her. She makes coffee and scrambled eggs and listens not to Radio Wado but to the “Morning Zoo,” and laughs at everything. It’s too strange. Paloma calls to see if you are going to school, and Miss Lora is walking around in a T-shirt, her flat skinny rump visible.

Then, your senior year, she gets a job at your high school. To say it is strange is to say nada. You see her in the halls, and your heart goes through you. That’s your neighbor? Paloma asks. God, she’s fucking looking at you. The old whore. At the school, the Spanish girls are the ones who give her trouble. They make fun of her accent, her clothes, her physique. They call her Miss Pat. She never complains about it—It’s a really great job, she says—but you see the nonsense first hand. That’s just the Spanish girls, though. The white girls love her to death. She takes over the gymnastics team. She brings the girls to dance programs for inspiration. And in no time they start winning. One day, outside the school, the gymnasts are egging her on and she does a back handspring that nearly staggers you with its perfection. It is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Naturally, Mr. Everson, the science teacher, falls all over her. He’s always falling over someone. For a while it was Paloma, until she threatened to report his ass. You see them laughing in the hallway; you see them having lunch in the teachers’ room.

Paloma doesn’t stop busting. They say Mr. Everson likes to put on dresses. You think she straps it on for him?

You girls are nuts.

She probably does strap it on.

It all makes you very tense. But it makes the sex even better.

A few times you see Mr. Everson’s car outside her apartment. Looks like Mr. Everson is in the hood, one of your boys laughs. You suddenly find yourself weak with fury. You think about fucking up his car. You think about knocking on the door. You think a thousand things. But you stay at home, lifting, until he leaves. When she opens the door, you stalk in without saying a word to her. The apartment reeks of cigarettes.

You smell like shit, you say.

You walk into her bedroom, but the bed is made.

Ay mi pobre, she laughs. No seas celoso.

But of course you are.

You graduate in June, and she is there with your mother, clapping. She is wearing a red dress, because you once told her it was your favorite color, and matching underwear underneath. Afterward, she drives you both to Perth Amboy for a Mexican dinner. Paloma can’t come along because her mother is sick. But you saw her at graduation.

I did it, Paloma says, cheesing.

I’m proud of you, you say. And then you add, uncharacteristically, You are an extraordinary young woman.

That summer, you and Paloma see each other maybe twice, and there are no more make-out sessions. Paloma’s already gone. In August, she leaves for the University of Delaware. You are not surprised when after about a week on campus she writes you a letter with the header “Moving On.” You don’t even bother finishing it. You think about driving all the way down there to talk to her, but you realize how hopeless that is. As might be expected, she never comes back.

You stay in the neighborhood. You land a job at Raritan River Steel. At first you have to fight the Pennsylvania hillbillies, but eventually you find your footing and they leave you alone. At night, you go to the bars with some of the other idiots who stuck around the neighborhood, get seriously faded, and show up at Miss Lora’s door with your dick in your hand. She’s still pushing the college thing, offers to pay all the admission fees, but your heart isn’t in it and you tell her, Not right now. Occasionally you two meet up in Perth Amboy, where people don’t know either of you. You have dinner like normal folks. You look too young for her, and it kills you when she touches you in public, but what can you do? She’s always happy to be out with you. You know this ain’t going to last, you tell her, and she nods. I just want what’s best for you. You try your damnedest to meet other girls, telling yourself they’ll help you transition, but you never meet anyone you really like.

Sometimes after you leave her apartment you walk out to the landfill where you and your brother played as children and sit on the swings. This is also the spot where Mr. del Orbe threatened to shoot your brother in the nuts. Go ahead, Rafa said, and then my brother here will shoot you in the pussy. Behind you in the distance hums New York City. The world, you tell yourself, will never end.

It takes a long time to get over it. To get used to a life without a Secret. Even after it’s behind you and you’ve blocked her completely, you’re still afraid you’ll slip back to it. At Rutgers, where you’ve finally landed, you date like crazy, and every time it doesn’t work out you’re convinced that you have trouble with girls your own age. Because of her.

You certainly never talk about it. Until senior year, when you meet the mujerón of your dreams, the one who leaves her moreno boyfriend to date you, who drives all your little chickies out of the coop. She’s the one you finally trust. The one you finally tell.

They should arrest that crazy bitch.

It wasn’t like that.

They should arrest her ass today.

Still, it is good to tell someone. In your heart you thought she would hate you—that they would all hate you.

I don’t hate you. Tú eres mi hombre, she says proudly.

When you two visit your mother she brings it up. Doña, es verdad que tu hijo taba rapando una vieja?

Your mother shakes her head in disgust. He’s just like his father and his brother.

Dominican men, right, doña?

These three are worse than the rest.

Afterward, she makes you walk past Miss Lora’s building. There is a light on.

I’m going to go have a word with her, the mujerón says.

Don’t. Please.

I’m going to go.

She bangs on the door.

Negra, please don’t.

Answer the door! she yells.

No one does.

You don’t speak to the mujerón for a few weeks after that. It’s one of your big breakups. But finally you’re both at a Tribe Called Quest show and she sees you dancing with another girl and she waves at you and that does it. You go up to where she’s seated with all her evil sorority sisters. She has shaved her head again.

Negra, you say.

She pulls you over to a corner. I’m sorry I got carried away. I just wanted to protect you.

You shake your head. She steps into your arms.

Graduation: it’s not a surprise to see her there. What surprises you is that you didn’t predict it. The instant before you and the mujerón join the procession you see Miss Lora standing alone in a red dress. She is finally starting to put on weight; it looks good on her. Afterward, you spot her walking alone across the lawn of Old Queens, carrying a mortarboard she picked up. Your mother grabbed one, too. Hung it up on her wall.

What happens is that in the end she moves away from London Terrace. Prices are going up. The Banglas and the Pakistanis are moving in. In a few years, your mother moves, too, up to the Bergenline.

Later, after you and the mujerón are over, you will type her name into the computer, but she never turns up. On one D.R. trip you drive up to La Vega and put her name out there. You show a picture, too, like a private eye. It is of the two of you, the one time you went to the beach. Both of you are smiling. Both of you blinked. ♦

Beer Trip to Llandudno by Kevin Barry

It was a pig of a day, as hot as we’d had, and we were down to our T-shirts taking off from Lime Street. This was a sight to behold — we were all of us biggish lads.

It was Real Ale Club’s July outing, a Saturday, and we’d had word of several good houses to be found in Llandudno. I was double-jobbing for Ale Club that year. I was in charge of publications and outings both. Which was controversial. “Rhyl… We’ll pass Rhyl, won’t we?”

This was Mo. “We’d have come over to Rhyl as kids,” said Mo. “Ferry and coach. I remember the rollercoasters.”

“Never past Prestatyn, me,” said Tom Neresford.

Tom N — so-called; there were three Toms in Ale Club — rubbed at his belly in a worried way. There was sympathy for that. We all knew stomach trouble for a bugger.

“Down on its luck’d be my guess,” said Everett Bell. “All these old North Wales resorts have suffered dreadfully, haven’t they? Whole mob’s gone off to bloody Laos on packages. Bloody Cambodia, bucket and spade.” Everett wasn’t inclined to take the happy view of things. Billy Stroud, the ex-Marxist, had nothing to offer about Llandudno. Billy was involved with his timetables.

“Two minutes and 50 seconds late taking off,” he said, as the train skirted the Toxteth estates. “This thing hits Llandudno for 1.55pm, I’m an exotic dancer.”

Aigburth station offered a clutch of young girls in their summer skimpies. Oiled flesh, unscarred tummies, and it wasn’t yet noon. We groaned under our breaths. We’d taken on a crate of Marston’s Old Familiar for the journey, 3.9% to volume. Outside, the estuary sulked away in terrific heat and Birkenhead shimmered across the water. Which wasn’t like Birkenhead. I opened my AA Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast and read from its entry on Llandudno: “A major resort of the North Wales coastline, it owes its well-planned streets and promenade to one Edward Mostyn, who, in the mid-19th century — ”

“Victorian effort,” said John Mosely. “Thought as much.” If there was a dad figure among us, it was Big John, with his know-it- all interruptions.

“Who in the mid 19th century,” I repeated, “laid out a new town on former marshland below…”

“They’ve built it on a marsh, have they?” said Everett Bell.

“TB,” said Billy Stroud. “Marshy environment was considered healthful.”

“Says here there’s water skiing available from Llandudno jetty.”

“That’ll be me,” said Mo, and we all laughed.

Hot as pigs, but companionable, and the train was in Cheshire quick enough. We had dark feelings about Cheshire that summer. At the North West Beer Festival, in the spring, the Cheshire crew had come over a shade cocky. Just because they were chocka with half-beam pubs in pretty villages. Warrington lads were fine. We could take the Salford lot even. But the Cheshire boys were arrogant and we sniffed as we passed through their country.

“A bloody suburb, essentially,” said Everett.

“Chester’s a regular shithole,” said Mo.

“But you’d have to allow Delamere Forest is a nice walk?” said Tom N. Eyebrows raised at this, Tom N not being an obvious forest walker.

“You been lately, Tom? Nice walk?”

Tom nodded, all sombre. “Was out for a Christmas tree actually,” he said.

This brought gales of laughter. It is strange what comes over as hilarious when hangovers are general. We had the windows open to circulate what breeze there was. Billy Stroud had an earpiece in for the radio news. He winced: “They’re saying it’ll hit 36.5,” he said. “Celsius.”

We sighed. We sipped. We made Wales quick enough and we raised our Marston’s to it. Better this than to be stuck in a garden listening to a missus. We meet as much as five nights of the week, more often six.

There are those who’d call us a bunch of sots but we don’t see ourselves like that. We see ourselves as hobbyists.

The train pulled into Flint and Tom N went on the platform to fetch in some beef’n’gravies from the Pie-o-Matic.

“Just the thing,” said Billy Stroud, as we sweated over our dripping punnets. “Cold stuff causes the body too much work, you feel worse. But a nice hot pie goes down a treat. Perverse, I know.

But they’re on the curries in Bombay, aren’t they?”

“Mumbai,” said Everett.

The train scooted along the fried coast. We made solid headway into the Marston’s. Mo was down a testicle since the spring. We’d called in at the Royal the night of his operation. We’d stopped at the Ship and Mitre on the way — they’d a handsome bitter from Clitheroe on guest tap. We needed the fortification: when Real Ale Club boys parade down hospital wards, we tend to draw worried glances from the whitecoats. We are shaped like those chaps in the warning illustrations on cardiac charts. We gathered around Mo and breathed a nice fog of bitter over the lad and we joshed him but gently.

“Sounding a little high-pitched, Mo?”

“Other lad’s going to be worked overtime.”

“Diseased bugger you’ll want in a glass jar, Mo. One for the mantelpiece.”

Love is a strong word, but. We were family to Mo when he was up the Royal having the bollock out. We passed Flint Castle and Everett Bell piped up.

“Richard the Second,” he said.

We raised eyebrows. We were no philistines at Ale Club, Merseyside branch. Everett nodded, pleased.

“This is where he was backed into a corner,” he said. “By Bolingbroke.”

“Boling who?”

“Bolingbroke, the usurper. Old Dick surrendered for a finish. At Flint Castle. Or that’s how Shakespeare had it.”

“There’s a contrary view, Ev?”

“Some say it was more likely Conwy but I’d be happy with the Bard’s read,” he said, narrowing his eyes, the matter closed.

“We’ll pass Conwy Castle in a bit, won’t we?”

I consulted my Illustrated AA.

“We’ll not,” I said. “But we may well catch a glimpse across the estuary from Llandudno Junction.”

There was a holiday air at the stations. Families piled on, the dads with papers, the mams with lotion, the kids with phones. The beer ran out by Abergele and this was frowned upon: poor planning. We were reduced to buying train beer, Worthingtons. Sourly we sipped and Everett came and had a go.

“Maybe if one man wasn’t in charge of outings and publications,” he said, “we wouldn’t be running dry halfways to Llandudno.”

“True, Everett,” I said, calmly, though I could feel the colour rising in my cheeks. “So if anyone cares to step up, I’ll happily step aside. From either or.”

“We need you on publications, kid,” said John Mosely. “You’re the man for the computers.”

Publications lately was indeed largely web-based. I maintained our site on a regular basis, posting beer-related news and links. I was also looking into online initiatives to attract the younger drinker.

“I’m happy on publications, John,” I said. “The debacle with the newsletter aside.”

Newsletter had been a disaster, I accepted that. The report on the Macclesfield outing had been printed upside down. Off-colour remarks had been made about a landlady in Everton, which should never have got past an editor’s eye, as the lady in question kept very fine pumps. It hadn’t been for want of editorial meetings. We’d had several, mostly down the Grapes of Wrath.

“So how’s about outings then?” I said, as the train swept by Colwyn Bay. “Where’s our volunteer there? Who’s for the step-up?”

Everett showed a palm to placate me.

“There’s nothin’ personal in this, lad,” he said.

“I know that, Ev.”

Ale Club outings were civilised events. They never got aggressive. Maudlin, yes, but never aggressive. Rhos-on-Sea; the Penrhyn sands. We knew Everett had been through a hard time. His old dad passed on and there’d been sticky business with the will. Ev would turn a mournful eye on us, at the bar of the Lion, in the snug of the Ship, and he’d say: “My brother got the house, my sister got the money, I got the manic depression.”

Black as his moods could be, as sharp as his tongue, Everett was tender. Train came around Little Ormes Head and Billy Stroud went off on one about Ceausescu.

“Longer it recedes in the mind’s eye,” he said, “the more like Romania seems the critical moment.”

“Apropos of, Bill?”

“Apropos my arse. As for Liverpool? Myth was piled upon myth, wasn’t it? They said Labour sent out termination notices to council workers by taxi. Never bloody happened! It was an anti-red smear!”

“Thatcher’s sick and old, Billy,” said John Mosely.

“Aye an’ her spawn’s all around us yet,” said Billy, and he broke into a broad smile, his humours mysteriously righted, his fun returned.

Looming, then, the shadow of Great Ormes Head, and beneath it a crescent swathe of bay, a beach, a prom, and terraces: here lay Llandudno.

“1.55pm,” said Everett. “On the nose.”

“Where’s our exotic dancer?” teased Mo.

Billy Stroud sadly raised his T-shirt above his man boobs. He put his arms above his head and gyrated slowly his vast belly and danced his way off the train. We lost weight in tears as we tumbled onto the platform.

“How much for a private session, miss?” called Tom N.

“Tenner for 20 minutes,” said Billy. “Fiver, I’ll stay the full half hour.”

We walked out of Llandudno station and plumb into a headbutt of heat.

“Blood and tar!” I cried. “We’ll be hittin’ the lagers!”

“Wash your mouth out with soap and water,” said John Mosely.

Big John rubbed his hands together and led the way — Big John was first over the top. He reminded us there was business to hand.

“We’re going to need a decision,” he said, “about the National Beer Scoring System.”

Here was kerfuffle. The NBSS, by long tradition, ranked a beer from nought-to-five. Nought was take-backable, a crime against the name of ale. One was barely drinkable, two so-so, three an eyebrow raised in mild appreciation. A four was an ale on top form, a good beer in proud nick. A five was angel’s tears but a seasoned drinker would rarely dish out a five, would over the course of a lifetime’s quaffing call no more than a handful of fives. Such was the NBSS, as was. However, Real Ale Club, Merseyside branch, had for some time felt that the system lacked subtlety. And one famous night, down Rigby’s, we came up with our own system – we marked from nought-to-ten. Finer gradations of purity were thus allowed for. The nuances of a beer were more properly considered. A certain hoppy tang, redolent of summer hedgerows, might elevate a brew from a seven to an eight. The mellow back-note born of a good oak casking might lift an ale again, and to the rare peaks of the nines. Billy Stroud had argued for decimal breakdown, for seven-point-fives and eight-point-fives — Billy would — but we had to draw a line somewhere. The national organisation responded badly. They sent stiff word down the email but we continued to forward our beer reports with markings on a nought to ten scale. There was talk now of us losing the charter. These were heady days.

“Stuff them is my view,” said Everett Bell.

“We’d lose a lot if we lost the charter,” said Mo. “Think about the festival invites. Think about the history of the branch.”

“Think about the bloody future!” cried Tom N. “We haven’t come up with a new system to be awkward. We’ve done it for the ale drinkers. We’ve done it for the ale makers!”

I felt a lump in my throat and I daresay I wasn’t alone.

“Ours is the better system,” said Everett. “This much we know.”

“You’re right,” said John Mosely, and this was the clincher, Big John’s call. “I say we score nought to 10.”

“If you lot are in, that’s good enough for me,” I said.

Six stout men linked arms on a hot Llandudno pavement. We rounded the turn onto the prom and our first port of call: the Heron Inn.

Which turned out to be an anti-climax. A nice house, lately refurbished, but mostly keg rubbish on the taps. The Heron did, however, do a Phoenix Tram Driver on cask, 3.8%, and we sat with six of same.

“I’ve had better Tram Drivers,” opened Mo.

“I’ve had worse,” countered Tom N.

“She has a nice delivery but I’d worry about her legs,” said Billy Stroud, shrewdly.

“You wouldn’t be having more than a couple,” said John Mosely.

“Not a skinful beer,” I concurred.

All eyes turned to Everett Bell. He held a hand aloft, wavered it. “A five would be generous, a six insane,” he said.

“Give her the five,” said Big John, dismissively.

I made the note. This was as smoothly as a beer was ever scored. There had been some world-historical ructions in our day. There was the time Billy Stroud and Mo hadn’t talked for a month over an eight handed out to a Belhaven Bombardier.

Alewards we followed our noses. We walked by the throng of the beach — the shrieks of the sun-crazed kids made our stomachs loop. We made towards the Prom View Hotel. We’d had word of a new landlord there an ale-fancier. It was dogs-dying-in-parked-cars weather. The Prom View’s ample lounge was a blessed reprieve. We had the place to ourselves, the rest of Llandudno apparently being content with summer, sea and life. John Mosely nodded towards a smashing row of hand pumps for the casks. Low whistles sounded. The landlord, hot-faced and jovial, came through from the hotel’s reception.

“Another tactic,” he said, “would be stay home and have a nice sauna.”

“Same difference,” sighed John Mosely.

“Could be looking at 37.2 now,” said the landlord, taking a flop of sweat from his brow.

Billy Stroud sensed a kindred spirit: “Gone up again, has it?”

“And up,” said the landlord. “My money’s on a 38 before we’re out.”

“Record won’t go,” said Billy.

“Nobody’s said record,” said the landlord. “We’re not going to see a 38.5, that’s for sure.”

“Brogdale in Kent,” said Billy. “August 10th, 2003.”

“2.05pm,” said the landlord. “I wasn’t five miles distant that same day.”

Billy was beaten.

“Loading a van for a divorced sister,” said the landlord, ramming home his advantage. “Lugging sofas in the piggin’ heat. And wardrobes!”

We bowed our heads to the man. “What’ll I fetch you, gents?”

A round of Cornish Lightning was requested.

“Taking the sun?” enquired the landlord.

“Taking the ale.”

“After me own heart,” he said. “Course ’round here, it’s lagers they’re after mostly. Bloody Welsh.”

“Can’t beat sense into them,” said John Mosely.

“If I could, I would,” said the landlord, and he danced as a young featherweight might, he raised his clammy dukes. Then he skipped and turned.

“I’ll pop along on my errands, boys,” he said. “There are rows to hoe and socks for the wash. You’d go through pair after pair in this weather.” He pinched his nostrils closed: what-a-pong.

“Soon as you’re ready for more, ring that bell and my good wife will oblige. So adieu, adieu…”

He skipped away. We raised eyes. The shade of the lounge was pleasant, the Cornish Lightning in decent nick.

“Call it a six?” said Tom N. Nervelessly we agreed. Talk was limited. We swallowed hungrily, quickly, and peered again towards the pumps.

“The Lancaster Bomber?”

“The Whitstable Mule?”

“How’s about that Mangan’s Organic?”

“I’d say the Lancaster all told.”

“Ring the bell, Everett,”

He did so, and a lively blonde, familiar with her 40s but nicely preserved, bounced through from reception. Our eyes went shyly down. She took a glass to shine as she waited our call. Type of lass who needs her hands occupied.

“Do you for, gents?” Irish, her accent.

“Round of the Lancaster, wasn’t it?” said Everett.

She squinted towards our table, counted the heads.

“Times six,” confirmed Everett.

The landlady squinted harder. She dropped the glass. It smashed to pieces on the floor.

“Maurice?” she said. It was Mo that froze, stared, softened.

“B-B-Barbara?” he said.

We watched as he rose and crossed to the bar. A man in a dream was Mo. We held our breaths as Mo and Barbara took each other’s hands over the counter. They were wordless for some moments, and then felt 10 eyes on them, for they giggled, and Barbara set blushing to the Lancasters. She must have spilled half again down the slops gully as she poured. I joined Everett to carry the ales to our table. Mo and Barbara went into a huddle down the far end of the counter. They were rapt.

Real Ale Club would not have marked Mo for a romancer.

“The quiet ones you watch,” said Tom N. “Maurice?”

“Mo? With a piece?” whispered Everett Bell.

“Could be they’re old family friends,” tried innocent Billy. “Or relations?”

Barbara was now slowly stroking Mo’s wrist.

“Four buggerin’ fishwives I’m sat with,” said John Mosely. “What are we to make of these Lancasters?”

We talked ale but were distracted. Our glances cut down the length of the bar. Mo and Barbara talked lowly, quickly, excitedly down there. She was moved by Mo, we could see that plain enough. Again and again she ran her fingers through her hair. Mo was gazing at her, all dreamy, and suddenly he’d got a thumb hooked in the belt-loop of his denims — Mr Suave. He didn’t so much as touch his ale.

Next, of course, the jaunty landlord arrived back on the scene.

“Oh Alvie!” she cried. “You’ll never guess!”

“Oh?” said the landlord, all the jauntiness instantly gone from him.

“This is Maurice!”

“Maurice?” he said. “You’re joking…”

It was polite handshakes then, and feigned interest in Mo on the landlord’s part, and a wee fat hand he slipped around the small of his wife’s back.

“We’ll be suppin’ up,” said John Mosely, sternly.

Mo had a last, whispered word with Barbara but her smile was fixed now and the landlord remained in close attendance. As we left, Mo looked back and raised his voice a note too loud. Desperate, he was.

“Barbara?”

We dragged him along. We’d had word of notable pork scratchings up the Mangy Otter.

“Do tell, Maurice,” said Tom N.

“Leave him be,” said John Mosely.

“An ex, that’s all,” said Mo.

And Llandudno was infernal. Families raged in the heat. All of the kids wept. The Otter was busyish when we sludged in. We settled on a round of St Austell Tributes from a meagre selection. Word had not been wrong on the quality of the scratchings. And the St Austell turned out to be in top form.

“I’d be thinking in terms of a seven,” said Everett Bell.

“Or a shade past that?” said John Mosely.

“You could be right on higher than sevens,” said Billy Stroud. “But surely we’re not calling it an eight?”

“Here we go,” I said.

“Now this,” said Billy Stroud, “is where your 7.5s would come in.”

“We’ve heard this song, Billy,” said John Mosely.

“He may not be wrong, John,” said Everett.

“Give him a 7.5,” said John Mosely, “and he’ll be wanting his 6.3s, his 8.6s. There’d be no bloody end to it!”

“Tell you what,” said Mo. “How about I catch up with you all a bit later? Where’s next on the list?”

We stared at the carpet. It had diamonds on and crisps ground into it. “Next up is the Crippled Ox on Burton Square,” I read from my print-out. “Then it’s Henderson’s on Old Parade.”

“See you at one or the other,” said Mo.

He threw back the dregs of his St Austell and was gone.

We decided on another at the Otter. There was a Whitstable Silver Star, 6.2% to volume, a regular stingo to settle our nerves.

“What’s the best you’ve ever had?” asked Tom N.

It’s a conversation that comes up again and again but it was a life-saver just then: it took our minds off Mo.

“Put a gun to my head,” said Big John, “and I don’t think I could look past the draught Bass I had with me dad in Peter Kavanagh’s. Sixteen years of age, Friday teatime, first wage slip in my arse pocket.”

“But was it the beer or the occasion, John?”

“How can you separate the two?” he said, and we all sighed.

“For depth? Legs? Back-note?” said Everett Bell. “I’d do well to ever best the Swain’s Anthem I downed a November Tuesday in Stockton-on-Tees, 19 and 87. 4.2% to volume. I was still in haulage at that time.”

“I’ve had an Anthem,” said Billy Stroud of this famously hard-to-find brew, “and I’d have to say I found it an unexceptional ale.”

Everett made a face. “So what’d be your all-time, Billy?”

The ex-Marxist knit his fingers atop the happy mound of his belly.

“Ridiculous question,” he said. “There is so much wonderful ale on this island. How is a sane man to separate a Pelham High Anglican from a Warburton’s Saxon Fiend? And we haven’t even mentioned the great Belgian tradition. Your Duvel’s hardly a dishwater. Then there’s the Czechs, the Poles, the Germans…”

“Gassy pop!” cried Big John, no fan of a German brew, of a German anything.

“Nonsense,” said Billy. “A Paulaner weissbier is a sensational sup on its day.”

“Where’d you think Mo’s headed?” Tom N cut in.

Everett groaned: “He’ll be away down the Prom View, won’t he? Big ape.”

“Mo a lady-killer?” said Tom. “There’s one for breaking news.”

“No harm if it meant he smartened himself up a bit,” said John.

“He has let himself go,” said Billy. “Since the testicle.”

“You’d plant spuds in those ears,” I said.

The Whitstables had us in fighting form. We were away up the Crippled Ox. We found there a Miner’s Slattern on cask. TV news showed sardine beaches and motorway chaos. There was an internet machine on the wall, a pound for ten minutes, and Billy Stroud went to consult the meteorological satellites. The Slattern set me pensive

Strange, I thought, how I myself had wound up a Real Ale Club stalwart — 1995, October, I’d found myself in motorway services outside Ormskirk having a screaming barny with the missus. We were moving back to her folks’ place in Northern Ireland. From dratted Leicester. We were heading for the ferry at Stranraer. At services, missus told me

I was an idle lardarse who had made her life hell and she never wanted to see me again. We’d only stopped off to fill the tyres. She gets in, slams the door, puts her foot down. Give her 10 minutes, I thought, she’ll calm down and turn back for me. Two hours later, I’m sat in an empty Chinese in services, weeping, and eating Szechuan beef. I call a taxi. Taxi comes. I says where are we, exactly? Bloke looks at me. He says Ormskirk direction.

I says what’s the nearest city of any size? Drop you in Liverpool for 20 quid, he says. He leaves me off downtown and

I look for a pub. Spot the Ship and Mitre and in I go. I find a stunning row of pumps. I call a Beaver Mild out of Devon.

“I wouldn’t,” says a bloke with a beard down the bar.

“Oh?”

“Try a Marston’s Old Familiar,” he says, and it turns out he’s Billy Stroud.

The same Billy turned from the internet machine at the Ox in Llandudno.

“37.9,” he said. “Bristol Airport, a shade after three. Flights delayed, tarmac melting.”

“Pig heat,” said Tom N.

“We won’t suffer much longer,” said Billy. “There’s a change due.”

“Might get a night’s sleep,” said Everett.

The hot nights were certainly a torment. Lying there with a sheet stuck to your belly. Thoughts coming loose, beer fumes rising, a manky arse. The city beyond the flat throbbing with summer. Usually I’d get up and have a cup of tea, watch some telly. Astrophysics on Beeb Two at four in the morning, news from the galaxies, and light already in the eastern sky. I’d dial the number in Northern Ireland and then hang up before they could answer. Mo arrived into the Ox like the ghost of Banquo. There were terrible scratch marks down his left cheek.

“A Slattern will set you right, kid,” said John Mosely, discretely, and he manoeuvred his big bones barwards.

Poor Mo was wordless as he stared into the ale that was put before him. Billy Stroud sneaked a time-out signal to Big John.

“We’d nearly give Henderson’s a miss,” agreed John.

“As well get back to known terrain,” said Everett.

We climbed the hot streets towards the station. We stocked up with some Cumberland Pedigrees, 3.4% to volume, always an easeful drop. The train was busy with daytrippers heading back. We sipped quietly. Mo looked half-dead as he slumped there but now and then he’d come up for a mouthful of his Pedigree.

“How’s it tasting, kiddo?” chanced Everett.

“Like a ten,” said Mo, and we all laughed. The flicker of his old humour reassured us. The sun descended on Colwyn Bay and there was young life everywhere. I’d only spoken to her once since Ormskirk. We had details to finalise, and she was happy to let it slip about her new bloke. Some twat called Stan.

“He’s emotionally spectacular,” she said.

“I’m sorry to hear it, love,” I said. “Given you’ve been through the wringer with me.”

“I mean in a good way!” she barked. “I mean in a calm way!”

We’d a bit of fun coming up the Dee estuary with the Welsh place names.

“Fy… feen… no. Fiiiif… non… fyff… non… growy?”

This was Tom N.

“Foy. Nonn. Grewey?” This was Everett’s approximation.

“Ffynnongroew,” said Billy Stroud, lilting it perfectly. “Simple. And this one coming up? Llannerch-y-mor.”

Pedigree came down my nose I laughed that hard.

“Young girl, beautiful,” said Mo. “Turn around and she’s 40 bloody three.”

“Leave it, Mo,” said Big John.

But he could not.

“She’s come over early in ’86. She’s living up top of the Central line, Theydon Bois. She’s working in a pub there, live-in, and ringing me from a phonebox. In Galway I’m in a phone box too — we have to arrange the times, eight o’clock on Tuesday, ten o’clock on Friday. It’s physical f***ing pain she’s not in town anymore. I’ll follow in the summer is the plan and I get there, Victoria coach station, six in the morning, 80 quid in my pocket. And she’s waiting for me there. We have an absolute dream of a month. We’re lying in the park. There’s a song out and we make it our song. ‘Oh to be in England, in the summertime, with my love, close to the edge’.”

“Art of Noise,” said Billy Stroud.

“Shut up, Billy!”

“Of course the next thing the summer’s over and I’ve a start with BT up here and she’s to follow on, October is the plan. We’re ringing from phoneboxes again, Tuesdays and Fridays but the second Friday the phone doesn’t ring. Next time I see her she’s 40 bloody three.”

Flint station we passed through, and then Connah’s Quay.

“Built up, this,” said Tom N. “There’s an Aldi, look? And that’s a new school, is it?”

“Which means you want to be keeping a good two hundred yards back,” said Big John.

We were horrified. Through a miscarriage of justice, plain as, Tom N had earlier in the year been placed on a sex register. Oh, the world is mad! Tom N is a placid, placid man.

We were all six of us quiet as the grave on the evening train then. It grew and built, it was horrible, the silence.

It was Everett at last that broke it; we were coming in for Helsby. Fair dues to Everett.

“Not like you, John,” he said.

Big John nodded. “I don’t know where that came from, Tom,” he said. “A bloody stupid thing to say.”

Tom N raised a palm in peace but there was no disguising the hurt that had gone in. I pulled away into myself. The turns the world takes — Tom dragged through the courts, Everett half mad, Mo all scratched up and one-balled, Big John jobless for 18 months. Billy Stroud was content, I suppose, in Billy’s own way. And there was me, shipwrecked in Liverpool. Funny, for a while, to see Penny Lane flagged up on the buses, but it wears off.

And then it was before us in a haze. Terrace rows we passed, out Speke way, with cook-outs on the patios. Tiny pockets of glassy laughter we heard through the open windows of the carriage. Families and what-have-you. We had the black hole of the night before us — it wanted filling. My grimmest duty as publications officer was the obits page of the newsletter. Too many had passed on at 44, at 46.

“I’m off outings,” I announced. “And I’m off bloody publications as well.”

“You did volunteer on both counts,” reminded Big John.

“It would leave us in an unfortunate position,” said Tom N.

“For my money, it’s been a very pleasant outing,” said Billy Stroud.

“We’ve supped some quality ale,” concurred Big John.

“We’ve had some cracking weather,” said Tom N.

“Llandudno is quite nice, really,” said Mo.

Around his scratch marks an angry bruising had seeped. We all looked at him with tremendous fondness.

“Tis nice,” said Everett Bell. “If you don’t run into a she-wolf.”

“If you haven’t gone 10 rounds with Edward bloody Scissorshands,” said John Mosely.

We came along the shabby grandeurs of the city. The look on Mo’s face then couldn’t be read as anything but happiness.

“Maurice,” teased Big John, “ is thinking of the rather interesting day he’s had.”

Mo shook his head.

“Thinking of days I had years back,” he said.

It has this effect, Liverpool. You’re not back in the place five minutes and you go sentimental as a famine ship. We piled off at Lime Street. There we go: six big blokes in the evening sun.

“There’s the Lion Tavern?” suggested Tom N.

“There’s always the Lion,” I agreed.

“They’ve a couple of Manx ales guesting at Rigby’s,” said Everett Bell.

“Let’s hope they’re an improvement on previous Manx efforts,” said Billy Stroud.

“There’s the Grapes?” tried Big John.

“There’s always the Grapes,” I agreed.

And alewards we went about the familiar streets. The town was in carnival: Tropic of Lancashire in a July swelter. It would not last. There was rain due in off the Irish Sea, and not for the first time.

The Deep by Anthony Doerr

Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, under-insulated boarding house populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.

Tom is four when he starts fainting. He’ll be rounding a corner, breathing hard, and the lights will go out. Mother will carry him indoors, set him on the armchair, and send someone for the doctor.

Atrial septal defect. Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. His heart will have to do three times the work. Lifespan of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Best if he doesn’t get excited.

Mother trains her voice into a whisper. Here you go, there you are, sweet little Tomcat. She moves Tom’s cot into an upstairs closet—no bright lights, no loud noises. Mornings she serves him a glass of buttermilk, then points him to the brooms or steel wool. Go slow, she’ll murmur. He scrubs the coal stove, sweeps the marble stoop. Every so often he peers up from his work and watches the face of the oldest boarder, Mr. Weems, as he troops downstairs, a fifty-year-old man hooded against the cold, off to descend in an elevator a thousand feet underground.

Tom imagines his descent, sporadic and dim lights passing and receding, cables rattling, a half-dozen other miners squeezed into the cage beside him, each thinking their own thoughts, men’s thoughts, sinking down into that city beneath the city where mules stand waiting and oil lamps burn in the walls and glittering rooms of salt recede into vast arcades beyond the farthest reaches of the light.

Sixteen, thinks Tom. Eighteen if I’m lucky.

***

School is a three-room shed as warm with the offspring of salt workers, coal workers, ironworkers. Irish kids, Polish kids, Armenian kids. To Mother the schoolyard seems a thousand acres of sizzling pandemonium. Don’t run, don’t fight, she whispers. No games. His first day, she pulls him out of class after an hour. Shhh, she says, and wraps her arms around his like ropes.

Tom seesaws in and out of the early grades. Sometimes she keeps him out of school for whole weeks at a time. By the time he’s ten, he’s in remedial everything. I’m trying, he stammers, but letters spin off pages and dash against the windows like snow. Dunce, the other boys declare, and to Tom that seems about right.

Tom sweeps, scrubs, scours the stoop with pumice one square-inch at a time. Slow as molasses in January, says Mr. Weems, but he winks at Tom when he says it.

Every day, all day, the salt finds its way in. It encrusts washbasins, settles on the rims of baseboards. It spills out of the boarders, too: from ears, boots, handkerchiefs. Furrows of glitter gather in the bedsheets: a daily lesson in insidiousness.

Start at the edges, then scrub out the center. Linens on Thursdays. Toilets on Fridays.

He’s twelve when Ms. Fredericks asks the children to give reports. Ruby Hornaday goes sixth. Ruby has flames for hair, Christmas for a birthday, and a drunk for a daddy. She’s one of two girls to make it to fourth grade.

She reads from notes in controlled terror. If you think the lake is big you should see the sea. It’s three quarters of Earth. And that’s just the surface. Someone throws a pencil. The creases on Ruby’s forehead sharpen. Land animals live on ground or in trees rats and worms and gulls and such. But sea animals they live everywhere they live in the waves and they live in mid water and they live in canyons six and a half miles down.

She passes around a red book. Inside are blocks of text and full-color photographic plates that make Tom’s heart boom in his ears. A blizzard of toothy minnows. A kingdom of purple corals. Five orange starfish cemented to a rock.

Ruby says, Detroit used to have palm trees and corals and seashells. Detroit used to be a sea three miles deep.

Ms. Fredericks asks, Ruby, where did you get that book? but by then Tom is hardly breathing. See-through flowers with poison tentacles and fields of clams and pink spheres with a thousand needles on their backs. He tries to ask, Are these real? but quicksilver bubbles rise from his mouth and float up to the ceiling. When he goes over, the desk goes over with him.

***

The doctor says it’s best if Tom stays out of school and Mother agrees. Keep indoors, the doctor says. If you get excited, think of something blue. Mother lets him come downstairs for meals and chores only. Otherwise he’s to stay in his closet. We have to be more careful, Tomcat, she whispers, and sets her palm on his forehead.

Tom spends long hours on the floor beside his cot, assembling and reassembling the same jigsaw puzzle: a Swiss village. Five hundred pieces, nine of them missing. Sometimes Mr. Weems reads to Tom from adventure novels. They’re blasting a new vein down in the mines and in the lulls between Mr. Weems’s words, Tom can feel explosions reverberate up through a thousand feet of rock and shake the fragile pump in his chest.

He misses school. He misses the sky. He misses everything. When Mr. Weems is in the mine and Mother is downstairs, Tom often slips to the end of the hall and lifts aside the curtains and presses his forehead to the glass. Children run the snowy lanes and lights glow in the foundry windows and train cars trundle beneath elevated conduits. First-shift miners emerge from the mouth of the hauling elevator in groups of six and bring out cigarette cases from their overalls and strike matches and spill like little, salt-dusted insects out into the night, while the darker figures of the second-shift miners stamp their feet in the cold, waiting outside the cages for their turn in the pit.

In dreams he sees waving sea fans and milling schools of grouper and underwater shafts of light. He sees Ruby Hornaday push open the door of his closet. She’s wearing a copper diving helmet; she leans over his cot and puts the window of her helmet an inch from his face.

He wakes with a shock. Heat pools in his groin. He thinks, Blue, blue, blue.

***

One drizzly Saturday, the bell rings. When Tom opens the door, Ruby Hornaday is standing on the stoop in the rain.

Hello. Tom blinks a dozen times. Raindrops set a thousand intersecting circles upon the puddles in the road. Ruby holds up a jar: six black tadpoles squirm in an inch of water.

Seemed like you might be interested in water creatures.

Tom tries to answer, but the whole sky is rushing through the open door into his mouth.

You’re not going to faint again, are you?

Mr. Weems stumps into the foyer. Jesus, boy, she’s damp as a church, you got to invite a lady in.

Ruby stands on the tiles and drips. Mr. Weems grins. Tom mumbles, My heart.

Ruby holds out the jar. Keep ’em if you want. They’ll be frogs before long. Drops shine in her eyelashes. Rain glues her shirt to her clavicles. Well, that’s something, says Mr. Weems. He nudges Tom in the back. Isn’t it, Tom?

Tom is opening his mouth. He’s saying, Maybe I could— when Mother comes down the stairs in her big, black shoes. Trouble, hisses Mr. Weems.

Mother dumps the tadpoles in a ditch. Her face says she’s composing herself but her eyes say she’s going to wipe all this away. Mr. Weems leans over the dominoes and whispers, Mother’s as hard as a cobblestone but we’ll crack her, Tom, you wait.

Tom whispers, Ruby Hornaday, into the space above his cot. Ruby Hornaday. Ruby Hornaday. A strange and uncontainable joy inflates dangerously in his chest.

***

Mr. Weems initiates long conversations with Mother in the kitchen. Tom overhears scraps: Boy needs to move his legs. Boy should get some air.

Mother’s voice is a whip. He’s sick.

He’s alive! What’re you saving him for?

Mother consents to let Tom retrieve coal from the depot and tinned goods from the commissary. Tuesdays he’ll be allowed to walk to the butcher’s in Dearborn. Careful, Tomcat, don’t hurry.

Tom moves through the colony that first Tuesday with something close to rapture in his veins. Down the long gravel lanes, past pit cottages and surface mountains of blue and white salt, the warehouses like dark cathedrals, the hauling machines like demonic armatures. All around him the monumental industry of Detroit pounds and clangs. The boy tells himself he is a treasure hunter, a hero from one of Mr. Weems’s adventure stories, a knight on important errands, a spy behind enemy lines.

He keeps his hands in his pockets and his head down and his gait slow, but his soul charges ahead, weightless, jubilant, sparking through the gloom.

In May of that year, 1929, fourteen-year-old Tom is walking along the lane thinking spring happens whether you’re paying attention or not; it happens beneath the snow, beyond the walls—spring happens in the dark while you dream—when Ruby Hornaday steps out of the weeds.

She has a shriveled rubber hose coiled over her shoulder and a swim mask in one hand and a tire pump in the other. Need your help. Tom’s pulse soars.

I got to go to the butcher’s.

Your choice. Ruby turns to go. But really there is no choice at all.

She leads him west, away from the mine, through mounds of rusting machines. They hop a fence, cross a field gone to seed, and walk a quarter mile through pitch pines to a marsh where cattle egrets stand in the cattails like white flowers.

In my mouth, she says, and starts picking up rocks. Out my nose. You pump, Tom. Understand? In the green water two feet down Tom can make out the dim shapes of a few fish gliding through weedy enclaves.

Ruby pitches the far end of the hose into the water. With waxed cord she binds the other end to the pump. Then she fills her pockets with rocks. She wades out, looks back, says, You pump, and puts the hose into her mouth. The swim mask goes over her eyes; her face goes into the water.

The marsh closes over Ruby’s back, and the hose trends away from the bank. Tom begins to pump. The sky slides along overhead. Loops of garden hose float under the light out there, shifting now and then. Occasional bubbles rise, moving gradually farther out.

One minute, two minutes. Tom pumps. His heart does its fragile work. He should not be here. He should not be here while this skinny, spellbinding girl drowns herself in a marsh. If that’s what she’s doing. One of Mr. Weems’s similes comes to him: You’re trembling like a needle to the pole.

After four or five minutes underwater, Ruby comes up. A neon mat of algae clings to her hair, and her bare feet are great boots of mud. She pushes through the cattails. Strings of saliva hang off her chin. Her lips are blue. Tom feels dizzy. The sky turns to pue liquid.

Incredible, pants Ruby. Fucking incredible. She holds up her wet, rock-filled trousers with both hands, and looks at Tom through the wavy lens of her swim mask. His blood storms through its lightless tunnels.

He has to trot to make the butcher’s and get back home by noon. It is the first time Tom can remember permitting himself to run, and his legs feel like glass. At the end of the lane, a hundred yards from home, he stops and pants with the basket of meat in his arms and spits a pat of blood into the dandelions. Sweat soaks his shirt. Dragonflies dart and hover. Swallows inscribe letters across the sky. The street seems to ripple and fold and straighten itself out again.

Just a hundred yards more. He forces his heart to settle. Everything, Tom thinks, follows a path worn by those who have gone before: egrets, clouds, tadpoles. Everything everything everything.

***

The following Tuesday Ruby meets him at the end of the lane. And the Tuesday after that. They hop the fence, cross the field; she leads him places he’s never dreamed existed. Places where the structures of the saltworks become white mirages on the horizon, places where sunlight washes through groves of maples and makes the ground quiver with leaf-shadow. They peer into a foundry where shirtless men in masks pour molten iron from one vat into another; they climb a tailings pile where a lone sapling grows like a single hand thrust up from the underworld. Tom knows he’s risking everything—his freedom, Mother’s trust, even his life—but how can he stop? How can he say no? To say no to Ruby Hornaday would be to say no to the world.

Some Tuesdays Ruby brings along her red book with its images of corals and jellies and underwater volcanoes. She tells him that when she grows up she’ll go to parties where hostesses row guests offshore and everyone puts on special helmets to go for strolls along the sea bottom. She tells him she’ll be a diver who sinks herself a half mile into the sea in a steel ball with one window. In the basement of the ocean, she says, she’ll find a separate universe, a place made of lights: schools of fish glowing green, living galaxies wheeling through the black.

In the ocean, says Ruby, half the rocks are alive. Half the plants are animals.

They hold hands; they chew Indian gum. She stuffs his mind full of kelp forests and seascapes and dolphins. When I grow up, says Ruby, dreamily. When I grow up . . .

Four more times Ruby walks around beneath the surface of a Rouge River marsh while Tom stands on the bank working the pump. Four more times he watches her rise back out like a fever. Amphibian, she laughs. It means two lives.

Then Tom runs to the butcher’s and runs home, and his heart races, and spots spread like inkblots in front of his eyes. Sometimes in the afternoons, when he stands up from his chores, his vision slides away in violet streaks.

He sees the glowing white of the salt tunnels, the red of Ruby’s book, the orange of her hair—he imagines her all grown up, standing on the bow of a ship, and feels a core of lemon yellow light flaring brighter and brighter within him. It spills from the slats between his ribs, from between his teeth, from the pupils of his eyes.

He thinks: It is so much! So much!

***

So now you’re fifteen. And the doctor says sixteen?

Eighteen if I’m lucky.

Ruby turns her book over in her hands. What’s it like? To know you won’t get all the years you should?

I don’t feel so shortchanged when I’m with you, he wants to say but his voice breaks at short and the sentence fractures.

They kiss only that one time. It is clumsy. He shuts his eyes and leans in, but something shifts and Ruby is not where he expects her to be. Their teeth clash. When he opens his eyes, she is looking off to her left, smiling slightly, smelling of mud, and the thousand tiny blonde hairs on her upper lip catch the light.

***

The second-to-last time Tom and Ruby are together, on the last Tuesday of October, 1929, everything is strange. The hose leaks, Ruby is upset, a curtain has fallen somehow between them.

Go back, Ruby says. It’s probably noon already. You’ll be late. But she sounds as if she’s speaking to him through a tunnel. Freckles flow and bloom across her face. The light goes out of the marsh.

On the long path through the pitch pines it begins to rain. Tom makes it to the butcher’s and back home with the basket and the ground veal, but when he opens the door to Mother’s parlor the curtains blow inward. The chairs leave their places and come scraping toward him. The daylight thins to a pair of beams, waving back and forth and Mr. Weems passes in front of his eyes, but Tom hears no footsteps, no voices: only an internal rushing and the wet metronome of his exhalations. Suddenly he’s a diver staring through a thick, foggy window into a world of immense pressure. He’s walking around on the bottom of the sea. Mother’s lips say, Haven’t I given enough? Lord God, haven’t I tried? Then she’s gone.

In something deeper than a dream Tom walks the salt roads a thousand feet beneath the house. At first it’s all darkness, but after what might be a minute or a day or a year, he sees little flashes of green light out there in distant galleries, hundreds of feet away. Each flash initiates a chain reaction of further flashes beyond it, so that when he turns in a slow circle he can perceive great flowing signals of light in all directions, tunnels of green arcing out into the blackness—each flash glowing for only a moment before fading, but in that moment repeating everything that came before, everything that will come next.

***

He wakes to a deflated world. The newspapers are full of suicides; the price of gas has tripled. The miners whisper that the saltworks are in trouble.

Quart milk bottles sell for a dollar apiece. There’s no butter, hardly any meat. Fruit becomes a memory. Most nights Mother serves only cabbage and soda bread. And salt.

No more trips to the butcher; the butcher closes anyway. By November, Mother’s boarders are vanishing. Mr. Beeson goes first, then Mr. Fackler. Tom waits for Ruby to comes to the door but she doesn’t show. Images of her climb the undersides of his eyelids, and he rubs them away. Each morning he clambers out of his closet and carries his traitorous heart down to the kitchen like an egg.

***

The world is swallowing people like candy, boy, says Mr. Weems. No one is leaving addresses.

Mr. Hanson goes next, then Mr. Heathcock. By April the saltworks is operating only two days a week, and Mr. Weems, Mother, and Tom are alone at supper.

Sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Tom moves his few things into one of the empty boarders’ rooms on the first floor, and Mother doesn’t say a word. He thinks of Ruby Hornaday: her pale blue eyes, her loose flames of hair. Is she out there in the city, somewhere, right now? Or is she three thousand miles away? Then he sets his questions aside.

***

Mother catches a fever in 1932. It eats her from the inside. She still puts on her high-waisted dresses, ties on her apron. She still cooks every meal and presses Mr. Weems’s suit every Sunday. But within a month she has become somebody else, an empty demon in Mother’s clothes—perfectly upright at the table, eyes smoldering, nothing on her plate.

She has a way of putting her hand on Tom’s forehead while he works. Tom will be hauling coal or mending a pipe or sweeping the parlor, the sun cold and white behind the curtains, and Mother will appear from nowhere and put her icy palm over his eyebrows, and he’ll close his eyes and feel his heart tear just a little more.

Amphibian. It means two lives.

Mr. Weems is let go. He puts on his suit, packs up his dominoes, and leaves an address downtown.

I thought no one was leaving addresses.

You’re true as a map, Tom. True as the magnet to the iron. And tears spill from the old miner’s eyes.

One blue morning not long after that, for the first time in Tom’s memory, Mother is not at the stove when he enters the kitchen. He finds her upstairs sitting on her bed, fully dressed in her coat and shoes and with her rosary clutched to her chest. The room is spotless, the house wadded with silence.

Payments are due on the fifteenth. Her voice is ash. The flashing on the roof needs replacing. There’s ninety-one dollars in the dresser.

Mother.

Shhh, Tomcat, she hisses. Don’t get yourself worked up.

***

Tom manages two more payments. Then the bank comes for the house. He walks in a daze through blowing sleet to the end of the lane and turns right and staggers through the dry weeds till he finds the old path and walks beneath the creaking pitch pines to Ruby’s marsh. Ice has interlocked in the shallows, but the water in the center is as dark as molten pewter.

He stands there a long time. Into the gathering darkness he says, I’m still here, but where are you? His blood sloshes to and fro, and snow gathers in his eyelashes, and three ducks come spiraling out of the night and land silently on the water.

The next morning he walks past the padlocked gate of International Salt with fourteen dollars in his pocket. He rides the trackless trolley downtown for a nickel and gets off on Washington Boulevard. Between the buildings the sun comes up the color of steel, and Tom raises his face to it but feels no warmth at all. He passes catatonic drunks squatting on upturned crates, motionless as statues, and storefront after storefront of empty windows. In a diner a goitrous waitress brings him a cup of coffee with little shining disks of fat floating on top.

The streets are filled with faces, dull and wan, lean and hungry; none belong to Ruby. He drinks a second cup of coffee and eats a plate of eggs and toast. A woman emerges from a doorway and flings a pan out onto the sidewalk, and the wash water flashes in the light a moment before falling. In an alley a mule lies on its side, asleep or dead. Eventually the waitress says, You moving in? and Tom goes out. He walks slowly toward the address he’s copied and recopied onto a sheet of Mother’s writing paper. Frozen furrows of plowed snow are shored up against the buildings, and the little golden windows high above seem miles away.

It’s a boarding house. Mr. Weems is at a lopsided table playing dominoes by himself. He looks up, says, Holy shit sure as gravity, and spills his tea.

***

By a miracle Mr. Weems has a grandniece who manages the owl shift in the maternity ward at City General. Maternity is on the fourth floor. In the elevator Tom cannot tell if he is ascending or descending. The niece looks him up and down and checks his eyes and tongue for fever and hires him on the spot. World goes to hades but babies still get born, she says, and issues him white coveralls.

Rainy nights are the busiest. Full moons and holidays are tied for second. God forbid a rainy holiday with a full moon. Ten hours a night, six nights a week, Tom roves the halls with carts of laundry, taking soiled blankets and diapers down to the cellar, bringing clean blankets and diapers up. He brings up meals, brings down trays.

Doctors walk the rows of beds injecting expecting mothers with morphine and something called scopolamine that makes them forget. Sometimes there are screams. Sometimes Tom’s heart pounds for no reason he can identify. In the delivery rooms there’s always new blood on the tiles to replace the old blood Tom has just mopped away.

The halls are bright at every hour, but out the windows the darkness presses very close, and in the leanest hours of those nights Tom gets a sensation like the hospital is deep underwater, the floor rocking gently, the lights of neighboring buildings like glimmering schools of fish, the pressure of the sea all around.

***

He turns eighteen. Then nineteen. All the listless figures he sees: children humped around the hospital entrance, their eyes vacant with hunger; farmers pouring into the parks; families sleeping without cover—people for whom nothing left on earth could be surprising.

There are so many of them, as if somewhere out in the countryside great farms pump out thousands of ruined men every minute, as if the ones shuffling down the sidewalks are but fractions of the multitudes behind them.

And yet is there not goodness, too? Are people not helping one another in these ruined places? Tom splits his wages with Mr. Weems. He brings home discarded newspapers and wrestles his way through the words on the funny pages. He turns twenty, and Mr. Weems bakes a mushy pound cake full of eggshells and sets twenty matchsticks in it, and Tom blows them all out.

He faints at work: once in the elevator, twice in the big, pulsing laundry room in the basement. Mostly he’s able to hide it. But one night he faints in the hall outside the waiting room. A nurse named Fran hauls him into a closet. Can’t let them see you like that, she says, and wipes his face and he washes back into himself.

The closet is more than a closet. The air is warm, steamy; it smells like soap. On one wall is a two-basin sink; heat lamps are bolted to the undersides of the cabinets. Set in the opposite wall are two little doors.

Tom returns to the same chair in the corner of Fran’s room whenever he starts to feel dizzy. Three, four, occasionally ten times a night, he watches a nurse carry an utterly newborn baby through the little door on the left and deposit it on the counter in front of Fran.

She plucks off little knit caps and unwraps blankets. Their bodies are scarlet or imperial purple; they have tiny, bright red fingers, no eyebrows, no kneecaps, no expression except a constant, bewildered wince. Her voice is a whisper: Why here she is, there he goes, OK now, baby, just lift you here. Their wrists are the circumference of Tom’s pinkie.

Fran takes a new washcloth from a stack, dips it in warm water, and wipes every inch of the creature—ears, armpits, eyelids—washing away bits of placenta, dried blood, all the milky fluids that accompanied it into this world. Meanwhile the child stares up at her with blank, memorizing eyes, peering into the newness of all things. Knowing what? Only light and dark, only mother, only fluid.

Fran dries the baby and splays her fingers beneath its head and diapers it and tugs its hat back on. She whispers, Here you are, see what a good girl you are, down you go, and with one free hand lays out two new, crisp blankets, and binds the baby—wrap, wrap, turn—and sets her in a rolling bassinet for Tom to wheel into the nursery, where she’ll wait with the others beneath the lights like loaves of bread.

***

In a magazine Tom finds a color photograph of a three-hundred-year-old skeleton of a bowhead whale, stranded on a coastal plain in a place called Finland. He tears it out, studies it in the lamplight. See, he murmurs to Mr. Weems, how the flowers closest to it are brightest? See how the closest leaves are the darkest green?

***

Tom is twenty-one and fainting three times a week when, one Wednesday in January, he sees, among the drugged, dazed mothers in their rows of beds, the unmistakable face of Ruby Hornaday. Flaming orange hair, freckles sprayed across her cheeks, hands folded in her lap, and a thin gold wedding ring on her finger. The material of the ward ripples. Tom leans on the handle of his cart to keep from falling.

Blue, he whispers. Blue, blue, blue.

He retreats to his chair in the corner of Fran’s washing room and tries to suppress his heart. Any minute, he thinks, her baby will come through the door.

Two hours later, he pushes his cart into the post-delivery room, and Ruby is gone. Tom’s shift ends; he rides the elevator down. Outside, rain settles lightly on the city. The streetlights glow yellow. The early morning avenues are empty except for the occasional automobile, passing with a damp sigh. Tom steadies himself with a hand against the bricks and closes his eyes.

A police officer helps him home. All that day Tom lies on his stomach in his rented bed and recopies the letter until little suns burst behind his eyes. Deer Ruby, I saw you in the hospital and I saw your baby to. His eyes are viry prety. Fran sez later they will probly get blue. Mother is gone and I am lonely as the arctic see.

That night at the hospital Fran finds the address. Tom includes the photo of the whale skeleton from the magazine and sticks on an extra stamp for luck. He thinks: See how the flowers closest to it are brightest. See how the closest leaves are the darkest green.

***

He sleeps, pays his rent, walks the thirty-one blocks to work. He checks the mail every day. And winter pales and spring strengthens and Tom loses a little bit of hope.

One morning over breakfast, Mr. Weems looks at him and says, You ain’t even here, Tom. You got one foot across the river. You got to pull back to our side.

But that very day, it comes. Dear Tom, I liked hearing from you. It hasn’t been ten years but it feels like a thousand. I’m married, you probably guessed that. The baby is Arthur. Maybe his eyes will turn blue. They just might.

A bald president is on the stamp. The paper smells like paper, nothing more. Tom runs a finger beneath every word, sounding them out. Making sure he hasn’t missed anything.

***

I know your married and I dont want anything but happyness for you but maybe I can see you one time? We could meet at the acquareyem. If you dont rite back thats okay I no why.

Two more weeks. Dear Tom, I don’t want anything but happiness for you, too. How about next Tuesday? I’ll bring the baby, okay?

***

The next Tuesday, the first one in May, Tom leaves the hospital after his shift. His vision flickers at the edges, and he hears Mother’s voice: Be careful, Tomcat. It’s not worth the risk. He walks slowly to the end of the block and catches the first trolley to Belle Isle, where he steps off into a golden dawn.

There are few cars about, all parked, one a Ford with a huge present wrapped in yellow ribbon on the backseat. An old man with a crumpled face rakes the gravel paths. The sunlight hits the dew and sets the lawns aflame.

The face of the aquarium is Gothic and wrapped in vines. Tom finds a bench outside and waits for his pulse to steady. The reticulated glass roofs of the flower conservatory reflect a passing cloud. Eventually a man in overalls opens the gate, and Tom buys two tickets, then thinks about the baby and buys a third. He returns to the bench with the three tickets in his trembling fingers.

By eleven the sky is filled with a platinum haze and the island is busy. Men on bicycles crackle along the paths. A girl flies a yellow kite.

Tom?

Ruby Hornaday materializes before him—shoulders erect, hair newly short, pushing a chrome-and-canvas baby buggy. He stands quickly, and the park bleeds away and then restores itself.

Sorry I’m late, she says.

She’s dignified, slim. Two quick strokes for eyebrows, the same narrow nose. No makeup. No jewelry. Those pale blue eyes and that hair.

She cocks her head slightly. Look at you. All grown up.

I got tickets, he says.

How’s Mr. Weems?

Oh, he’s made of salt, he’ll live forever.

They start down the path between the rows of benches and the shining trees. Occasionally she takes his arm to steady him, though her touch only disorients him more.

I thought maybe you were far away, he says. I thought maybe you went to sea.

Ruby parks the buggy and lifts the baby to her chest—he’s wrapped in a blue afghan—and then they’re through the turnstile.

The aquarium is dim and damp and lined on both sides with glass-fronted tanks. Ferns hang from the ceiling, and little boys lean across the brass railings and press their noses to the glass. I think he likes it, Ruby says. Don’t you, baby? The boy’s eyes are wide open. Fish swim slow ellipses behind the glass.

They see translucent squid with corkscrew tails, sparkling pink octopi like floating lanterns, cowfish in blue and violet and gold. Iridescent green tiles gleam on the domed ceiling and throw wavering patterns of light across the floor.

In a circular pool at the very center of the building, dark shapes race back and forth in coordination. Jacks, Ruby murmurs. Aren’t they?

Tom blinks.

You’re pale, she says.

Tom shakes his head.

She helps him back out into the daylight, beneath the sky and the trees. The baby lies in the buggy sucking his fist, examining the sky with great intensity, and Ruby guides Tom to a bench.

Cars and trucks and a white limousine pass slowly along the white bridge, high over the river. The city glitters in the distance.

Thank you, says Tom.

For what?

For this.

How old are you now, Tom?

Twenty-one. Same as you. A breeze stirs the trees, and the leaves vibrate with light. Everything is radiant.

World goes to hades but babies still get born, whispers Tom.

Ruby peers into the buggy and adjusts something, and for a moment the back of her neck shows between her hair and collar. The sight of those two knobs of vertebrae, sheathed in her pale skin, fills Tom with a longing that cracks the lawns open. For a moment it seems Ruby is being slowly dragged away from him, as if he is a swimmer caught in a rip, and with every stroke the back of her neck recedes farther into the distance. Then she sits back, and the park heals over, and he can feel the bench become solid beneath him once more.

I used to think, Tom says, that I had to be careful with how much I lived. As if life was a pocketful of coins. You only got so much and you didn’t want to spend it all at once in one place.

Ruby looks at him. Her eyelashes whisk up and down.

But now I know life is the one thing in the world that never runs out. I might run out of mine, and you might run out of yours but the world will never run out of life. And we’re all very lucky to be part of something like that.

She holds his gaze. Some deserve more luck than they’ve gotten.

Tom shakes his head firmly. He closes his eyes. I’ve been lucky, too. I’ve been absolutely lucky.

The baby begins to fuss, a whine building to a cry. Ruby says, Hungry.

A trapdoor opens in the gravel between Tom’s feet, black as a keyhole, and he glances down at it.

You’ll be OK?

I’ll be OK.

Good-bye, Tom. She touches his forearm once, and then goes, pushing the buggy through the crowds. He watches her disappear in pieces: first her legs, then her hips, then her shoulders, and finally the back of her bright head.

And then Tom sits, hands in his lap, alive for one more day.

Last Season’s Man by CK Stead

Eighteen months ago, when Mario Ivanda’s obituary on the Kultura page of Zagreb’s Vjesnik spoke of him as “our supreme man of the theatre”, there were still some who wondered whether the phrase was meant in a tone of unequivocal enthusiasm; or was it to be read as meaning he was very good at a lot of things — writing, acting, directing, moviemaking— and fell just short of the best in all?

Had he moved up into that category of “supreme” just by outliving one or two of his contemporaries, and in particular Tomislav Buljan? Or was he truly one of the “greats”? Most, however, were impatient of all such equivocations.

We saw them as provincial, a flashback to the times when we Croatians lacked belief in our talents.

Now the last remaining equivocators seem to have fallen silent, and today, when Mario’s bronze statue was unveiled in the town woods close to Dubravkin Put, one heard nothing but good things about the man, and about his films and plays that are being shown in a week celebrating his lifetime’s achievement.

Springtime for Mario Ivanda! — the trees over his bronze head in full leaf, the market tables by the Zagreb railway station scarlet with strawberries. Will Judge Time confirm his place? Who knows, and why should we care? For those of us alive now in the new, liberated, self-confident Croatia, the matter is settled. Mario is “our very own Bergman”. He is “among the immortals”!

That, anyway, is what the Minister of Culture said to Mario’s widow after she had unveiled the statue and spoken briefly, with feeling and dignity, of the man and the writer as she remembered him in the final decade of his life. “The immortals,” she repeated, faintly amused perhaps at the extravagance, but certainly not displeased. “Thank you, Minister. I hope so.” It must be at least 20 years ago that Tomislav Buljan wrote his famous article “Last season’s man”, which Mario was sure was meant to end his career as a writer and kill him dead as a force in the theatre. And because it hit hard, even with a certain devilish and unarguable accuracy, it very nearly succeeded. Mario didn’t respond. He knew that self-defence would only draw more attention to the article, and that it was best to behave as if he hadn’t felt it, didn’t care about it, was indifferent, impervious.

Tomislav was 28 at the time, while Mario was already in his forties — not a great difference but enough for Tomislav to feel that he and his two or three closest associates were “the new wave” arriving to sweep away what was already “old fashioned” in the theatre. Tomislav was tall, wellbuilt, Byronically handsome and charming. Everyone loved him and talked about him. He was “in fashion” and could do no wrong. You saw him at book launches and art openings, and at BP, the jazz club which had become a meeting point for Zagreb’s intellectual community.

He was relaxed, smiling, witty, knowledgeable. If it seemed to Tomislav that someone, either in what he wrote for the theatre, or in what he did there as a director, was (as the deadly article said) “causing an obstruction in the fast lane”, then you had to listen. In the end you might disagree; but you could take it on trust that Tomislav would have acted without malice, in the interest of what he saw as progress and the greater good.

He was truly “a nice guy”. That he was also capable, not of malice, but of a certain critical ruthlessness amounting in effect to cruelty, took everyone by surprise. There were gasps; and then praise for his courage in telling the truth as he saw it.

But that was not as it seemed to Mario Ivanda. He thought a younger man was attempting to destroy him. His confidence was shaken. He was deeply hurt and full of rage. He imagined meeting Tomislav at a party and punching him in the mouth without warning; or going to his door and doing it.

And then there were dreams in which he seemed to be kicking him to death in a dark alley close to Zagreb’s Gavella Drama Theatre, where their two plays had been put on, one after the other, and where his rival had won superlative reviews for a work that seemed to Mario shallow and insignificant.

We are a small country with a tight intellectual community. If things go against you, as they did for Mario Ivanda, you can be left, like the chicken in the yard all the others turn against, your skin bleeding and feathers plucked. What made it worse was this occurred when Mario was going through the breakup of his second marriage. He was in need of a place of retreat and the support of a loving wife.

Before the article appeared, theatre people, those “in the know”, had been divided, some for Mario, others for Katarina. After it, the balance swung against Mario. It was as if he no longer had the protection, or the excuse, of his talent. He was just one more unfaithful husband (“a casting couch director” was the common gossip), and Katarina had been right to send him on his way.

She had kept the house and their two children, and changed the locks. He was out on the street with nowhere to go but the home of friends, a couple whose welcome was genuine but troubled, affected by the climate of the moment. And with the end of that marriage Mario had lost also the financial certainty of a wife who was a middle ranked civil servant, and whose income had given him freedom to take risks in the theatre. He needed security in his professional life and felt now there was none.

Mario had long since given up on the church, but at this time he used to go into a side chapel of the cathedral at unusual hours and light a candle, which he was always careful to pay for, in case the magic didn’t work, and which he would add to the forest of lights at the foot of the painting of the Virgin. On his knees there, his brow in his hands, he would pray for the death of his enemy. “Holy Mother, if you can make Tomislav’s decline long and painful, so much the better. But if I have not earned this bonus, if it must be sudden, a heart attack, a traffic accident, at least, I beg you, give me his death. And please, before his last moment, let him know that I, the rival he tried to destroy, live on, still writing. Let him go to Heaven if he has earned a place there, but let him know first, and beyond any doubt, of his earthly failure.”

It gave Mario comfort to make these appeals to the same image of the Virgin he had looked upon with awe as a child, and with a reverence borderingon lust in his teenage years. Now he was liberated from deep faith, and felt able to pray without worrying that such requests might be blasphemous. He would leave it to her to decide on the technical aspects of his petition. He could tell by the way her eyes looked down at him that she was listening, and he felt he could even joke with her, as with an old friend. “You can do it, Mary, love. I know you can. Please — just this once, for your loyal fan Mario? Give that bastard what he deserves, and make sure it hurts.”

His professional life continued, but for many months, a year, two years, he felt himself unsteady on his feet, precarious, threatened. Finally, by what all of us at today’s unveiling would agree was persistence and courage, he regained a place in Zagreb’s theatre world, but one that was still insecure. Reviews of his work were of the “on the one hand, but on the other” kind; and when he met and talked to people, even good friends, there was often something unspoken hovering between them — a cloud, a reservation, a faint aura of embarrassment.

And then the news came that Tomislav Buljan had cancer. It came, as you say in English, “from the horse’s mouth”. Tomislav himself had decided to “go public”. He wanted it known that he was “confronting this challenge head on, and determined to beat it”. He “hoped he might be an inspiration to other sufferers”.

There was a photo of him in Vjesnik, and one or two magazines ran stories about his current work and his plans for the future. He was interviewed on television. His wife and twin boys were pictured clustered around him. One article offered the piece he had written about Mario Ivanda as an example of his “fearlessness and integrity”, his “critical seriousness” and “utter devotion to telling it as he saw it” in everything pertaining to the theatre.

Mario made another visit to the Virgin. “Are you teasing me, Mother of God? Giving me my wish in a form that is itself a punishment?” He asked this because he believed that Tomislav was making the most of very little, that he was exploiting his health scare by making it public, and that he would go from “cancer sufferer” to “cancer survivor”, emerging with his halo enhanced, larger and brighter than ever.

“If this is my punishment,” Mario told the holy icon, “I deserve it, and accept it.” But he knew she would be able to see into his black, unforgiving heart, and that she would find there, in its darkest corner, a faint hope, as uncertain and wavering as the candle he had just placed at her altar, that she was not teasing at all; that his prayer was being answered in the affirmative.

After that first flurry of attention the news stories about Tomislav tapered away. There were months of silence; and meanwhile the uncertainty promoted in Mario a rush of creativity such as he had not experienced since his first days in the theatre. In less than a year he wrote two new plays and a television script. All were accepted.

One of the plays went straight into production in the Gavella; the other was “workshopped” at the national theatre in Split, with the prospect of full production later. The television script earned him a large cheque, with more promised when it was translated into German and produced by a company that had bought it in Vienna.

It must have been some time in 1990 that the news came — confirmed, denied, then confirmed again — that Tomislav Buljan’s battle was all but lost. Chemotherapy and radiation had both failed. Secondaries were spreading and his liver was affected. Death was still some way off, but tragically inevitable.

Tomislav’s dying was protracted. By now Croatia had declared its independence and we were coming under Serb attack in the Krajina.

The war, as it developed, occupied almost all our waking thoughts. Wasted, pale, coughing in a way that was hard to listen to, his lovely hair all gone and his youth and good looks destroyed, Tomislav appeared on television, and gave a “final” interview.

It was as if he was reluctant to leave, felt it an injustice that he should be required to, and an insult that so much attention should be paid to the war and so little to himself. He was no longer rational. Someone was to blame, someone should be made to answer for what was happening to him. He rambled, asserting that the whole medical event had been mishandled and misreported and that he intended to live many years. Then he wept. That was his last public appearance.

Meanwhile one of Mario’s new plays was produced. At first the reviews were positive but cautious, concentrating on performances rather than the play itself. But then an article by Zagreb’s most authoritative theatre critic appeared in Vjesnik. It hailed the play as something entirely new, not only for Mario Ivanda but for Croatia — “brilliantly new”, it said, “a step forward, out into the future, out into the unknown.” “It breathes the very air of this moment in our history,” the critic went on. “It is a work of Croatian genius.”

Ten days later Tomislav Buljan died.

The war was bitter. At its height Mario disappeared from Zagreb, and it was reported he had been involved in the fighting in Bosnia and in the Krajina; and later that he had been wounded, his arm broken, when Serb forces shelled Zadar from the hills above the town. He wrote of none of this; but there had always been an element of Croatian nationalism in his work, and now it seemed more obvious — something that should have been recognised and welcomed sooner. As peace returned, Mario re-established himself in the theatre, and was reinstated to his old place of respect and, gradually, of dominance. It was as though Tomislav Buljan’s article had never happened.

Mario lived alone now, saw his two children, a son and a daughter, regularly, was civil to, even friendly with, their mother, who, with a new, faithful and (it was said) rather boring partner, was inclined to retrospective forgiveness. In his private life Mario contrived to have asuccession of women friends, each of whom had to accept that he was not about to repeat for a third time the painful experiment of falling in love and marrying. He described himself as a serial monogamist but with a rapid turnover. He worked industriously and with a kind of stillness that was new.

He was in a state of expectation, “waiting” (as he explained it once to close friends) “for the blow to fall”. He had prayed to the Virgin, in whose powers he did not believe, requesting the painful death of his rival, and she had proved her powers by answering his prayer. This could not be right. It could not be the Justice of Heaven.

Sooner or later Herself would have to be even-handed. Something more must come — an unexpected reversal. During the war he had expected to die or, worse, to be maimed. It had made him fearless. Self-protection would not help. During the bombardment of Zadar, when walls had crashed around him, he had said to himself, “Ah, so here it is at last” — but had woken with only a broken arm and a headache.

He had a small apartment in Zadar, left to him by his mother. It was close to the sea, and he worked there alone, driving up to Zagreb in his little Skoda when required in the theatre. In spring and summer his day began at first light, when the swallows did their sudden chattering swoops across his terrace under its shallow roof and down into the gardens of vines and olives stretching away towards the harbour. The sun came up behind the houses and seemed to touch alight the farthest reaches of the sea. After breakfast he swam, or walked several kilometres along the seafront, and then settled to a long morning’s work. Lunch might be at home in his own kitchen, or in the town with friends and colleagues; then a siesta, and more work late in the afternoon.

Everything in his life was productive and orderly, as it had never been before. That peculiar stillness held. He did not feel safe. He worked, and he waited. Whatever form the blow was to take, he hoped he was ready for it. One morning, taking his walk towards the town, he saw a woman he recognised as Tomislav Buljan’s widow, Vesna, coming towards him. They passed within feet of one another. He was sure she knew him, and knew that he knew her. There was embarrassment on both sides. It happened again the next day. Clearly each had a routine which might put them together in this place at this time of the morning. He thought he should avoid her, but on the third day gave up a planned swim in order to see her again. He knew he should speak, tell her how sorry he was that Tomislav had been cut off so cruelly in what promised to be a brilliant career; sorry that she and the twins had sustained such a loss. But he could not say it; knew he would choke on the words — so they passed with flickers of recognition, each silent but seeming to give the other an opening to speak.

A week or two passed with no encounters, and then they found themselves in the same room at an art opening. Now Mario felt he must speak, but was prevented by something new. Each time he had passed her on those morning walks he had been struck not only by the recognition that she was a fine-looking young woman, but by the feeling, stronger each time, that he was in love with her. It hit him full force, as if he had been a very young man. His heart raced, his mouth went dry, he was breathless. He told himself this was nothing more than a fit of nerves, a panic attack, confusion brought on by the memory of what her late husband had written about him. But he didn’t believe it. He believed he was in love.

So, in that room full of bright paintings with french doors opening on to a green garden, he looked at Vesna Buljan and looked away… It was she who broke off her conversation and came towards him, blushing but holding out her hand.

“Mario Ivanda.”

“Mrs Buljan. Vesna. I should have spoken first. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about… So sorry that he…”

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry too.” And he felt that perhaps she was not just saying she was sorry Tomislav had died (though no doubt she was), but sorry he had written that terrible article.

Their talk was brief, and as soon as it was over Mario left the party and walked all the way back to his apartment. He had not felt such passion since the first and unrequited love of his youth. Much of the night he lay awake inventing brilliant things he would say to her which only morning would reveal were quite inappropriate. Just before first light he fell into a deep sleep from which he failed to wake when the swallows made their noisy early morning strafes across his terrace.

Two wretched days later he had to be in Zagreb, and there he found time to call on his friend the Virgin. He bought her a larger, more expensive candle, lit it and placed it where she could see it. “So this is my punishment, Holy Mother? I am to be in love with the wife of the man I killed. The woman I can never touch.”

Her smile as she looked down at him was faint, enigmatic, but he believed she was answering “Yes”. Her sense of humour was subtle, but the pain she was inflicting was real. On an impulse (so much now was impulse) he went into the confessional. After the usual preliminaries he said: “Father, it’s a long time since my last confession. No doubt I’ve committed many sins, but I’m here because I killed a man.”

Even through the heavy grille he felt the priest’s excitement. “How did you kill him, my son?” His voice was young.

“I prayed to the Virgin that he would die of a disease, and that is what happened.”

There was a sigh, perhaps of relief, more likely of disappointment. “You did not kill him, my son. Only God decides who dies and how they die.”

“But I prayed to the Virgin…”

“That has nothing to do with it.” The priest’s voice was noticeably impatient and had lost its authority.

Mario felt a rush of amusement. “Ah, father, if even you doubt her powers, who is there left to speak for them?”

In the weeks and months that followed, Mario’s work continued uninterrupted, but when he looked up from it, or moved away from his desk, the thought of Vesna Buljan was likely to return. He tried to avoid her, but saw her often enough to know that some other force within himself was contriving to ensure that they met. Once they had coffee together on the seafront and, thinking it might precipitate some kind of resolution, he told her that when they were together there was always an elephant in the room. She probably knew what he meant but waited for him to explain. “Last season’s man”, he said, using the name Tomislav had given him.

“I’m sorry,” she said, putting her hand over his on the table. “I was sorry at the time. I argued with him about it, but that was Tomislav. Once he had an idea, he carried it through. He was unstoppable. It must have been very painful.”

“I wanted him dead,” Mario said. And then in a rush that felt desperate, suicidal, “I prayed that he would die.”

She nodded. She was disconcerted, but managed to say, “I understand.”

It was this — not the almost 20-year gap in their ages, but the sense that he had killed her husband — which made it impossible for him to touch Vesna; to kiss her; to invite her home to his bed. He knew that his prayers to the Virgin, in whose powers he had no faith at all, had nothing to do with Tomislav’s death. But some intractable part of himself, some dark child in his psyche, believed quite the opposite. This dark child was Tomislav’s killer, coldly triumphant, and not yet satisfied. It was the dark child who now made him believe he was in love.

Mario was invited to London. One of his plays had been translated into English and was to be produced at the Donmar Warehouse. He was to watch and comment on rehearsals and to be present on the opening night. His English was only fair, but sufficient, and everything went well.

While there he went, when he could, to the RSC, in those days at the Barbican, and to the National Theatre. It was at the National he saw a production of Richard III, done in modern dress, with Richard as a military dictator.

Shakespeare was difficult, the language unfamiliar. Reading the play the night before he was to see it, Mario found the scene in which Richard successfully woos the wife of the prince he has murdered unbelievable. But in the theatre it came to life. It was powerful, full of the hero-villain’s daring.

Richard the crookback killer had the glamour of wickedness. It made Mario feel that nothing was impossible. When he returned to Zadar he sought Vesna out and did not find her. He had no address for her and her name was not in the phone book.

How strangely the powers that ruled his life were behaving. What if, having so to speak stumbled on her by chance, he should now fail to find her by design? He pursued more than one phantom Vesna along Kalelarga, and had to make embarrassed apologies.

When at last he saw her in her usual place on her morning walk along the seafront, his relief was so obvious she blinked in surprise, backing away and laughing as he rushed up to her.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he explained. “Will you have lunch with me? Or dinner?”

Two nights later they were lying together naked on his bed holding hands and staring at the ceiling. The sliding doors were open on to the terrace. The moon was silver on the olives and gold over the sea. He dozed, and woke when she said, “Why did it take you so long?”

“So long?”

“To ask me out. To invite me here.”

“I thought you’d think…” — he took a deep breath — “you might think it was because of Tomislav’s article. That it was just an act of revenge.”

She didn’t reply. Was that a thought he should not have aired? But she yawned and stretched, and he saw it had made no significant impression. “It might have been my revenge,” she said.

“On Tomislav? For what?”

“I don’t know. For dying. For leaving me all alone.”

He rolled over and, propped on one elbow, looked into her fine eyes, ran fingers through her tousled hair and kissed her.

So they settled into a life of living apart but together. Mario was happy, but still with the feeling that he was unsafe, that the story was not yet over. It was another year before they married. They spent the last decade of his life together, tranquil, orderly, fond, settled into that unfashionable but mysteriously powerful unit, a married couple. His death was sudden, a smoker’s heart attack (“Good,” he would have said. “Over quickly and no fuss”), and today, with the Minister of Culture’s tribute, and Vesna’s unveiling of the monument, he was duly celebrated, his place in our literary history acknowledged.

After the crowd had dispersed from Dubravkin Put I stood looking at him, now permanent in bronze against the spring-green background of the town woods. He was not far from the statue of Miroslav Krleza, in the same style, and a good likeness. I had known Mario many years. I and my wife were the couple who had opened our doors to him when his second marriage foundered. Bronze is bronze, but the shape of the head, its slight downward and sideways turn, and the sense the sculptor had imparted to the lean torso and limbs of someone whose movements must have had a certain grace and elegance — it was Mario as I had known him. I felt I was looking into his eyes, and into his soul.

“Old friend,” his effigy said, “you must know there is no Justice. That I am here and Tomislav is not is neither right nor wrong. The Universe is indifferent and does not love us. Everything is Chance.”

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