Short Stories

Checking Out

Checking Out


“How much longer now?” she asked.

I looked down at my watch, “Not much, I think.”

“Do you ever find it sad? The Fall, I mean?”

“I do,” I admitted.

“The fecundity?” she inquired. “Wait, no. I hate this misremembering; the opposite of fecundity. Falls always make me feel sad. Too many things waning at once.”

“I guess that’s it,” I agreed. I put my hand on the park bench between us. She lay her right hand in my left and grasped it, her half-gloves allowing me to touch only her cold finger tips.

She looked around at the thinning canopy above us, leaves abandoning their high perches to continue their existence among the rest of the fallen. It was colder than usual for mid-October and she had bundled up. The gloves matched her beret and over-sized muffler which was wrapped twice around her neck and stuffed into her coat. A gift I had purchased four winters ago.

A cold wind was howling up forty-second street from the Hudson, through the glass and steel and concrete canyons, spinning off into dervishes wherever it found an opening. This morning, we were seated in one such opening, facing the hawk wind. She had wanted to come to this park, her favorite, on this gloriously drab morning. Bryant park is where she had learned her life. Reading, listening, smelling; watching the people all around her. During the first year she’d been allowed to come here alone, her fourteen year old self was absorbed into the soil of Tara right here on one of these benches. She’d sweated under the same summer sun with Paul on Arrakis and been frightened in the gloaming of Salem’s Lot.

We met here when she was making her rounds with Breakfast of Champions. I chose a bench across from her and paid more attention to her than the copy of Hot Water Music I’d checked out until working up my nerve, offering to buy her a hot cocoa at the cafe. Hot cocoa in the summer. I smile now at how suave I was.

“What are you doing later?” she asked, her wane smile curling up just enough to reveal those famous dimples.

I considered the question for a moment, gripped her hand, “I think I’m going to be bogged down in bureaucratic paperwork and making phone calls.”

Her eyes were glassy and I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold wind. “You really need to find something better to do with your free time.” Her words came as whimsy on a breeze. “If I were you, I’d check out that new book by Olen Steinhauer. Lindsey said it was very well written.”

“She didn’t qualify it?” I said with a wry grin.

A low laugh escaped her. “No. She didn’t add, ‘for a spy novel’.”

“You think she’s lightening up?” I asked hopefully. We’d often wondered from where she’d gotten her pretentiousness.

“Getting older changes people in certain respects,” she said. “Maybe she’s unpuckered her butt enough to admit that good writing is just good writing, no matter the genre.”

“That would be a change for the better,” I agreed.

Her tone changing to serious for a moment, she said,“You’ll need to be nicer to her, at least in the short term.” Lightening up again, she finished, “She’ll need you, whether she likes it or not.”

I asked, “And what about me? Will I need her?”

She released my hand and gave my knee a push, “Her? No. You’ll be fine here,” she said hooking her thumb over her shoulder at the public library. “You’re adjusted enough. ‘For everything there is a season,’ and so on. You know how this dance goes.” She smiled wanly again.

A chill ran up the back of my neck and my body tightened in defense against the cold wind. Flipping the collar of my tweed jacket up in hopeful defense, I asked her, “Would you like a hot cocoa or maybe we can take a walk around the park one last time?”

She stomped her shoes on the cobble stones beneath her. “I can’t feel my feet,” she said looking down. “How about some cocoa, like when we met?”

A word caught in my throat as she looked at me. She saw my look but did not turn away. She held my gaze a long moment and then said, “What did you check out that first day we met?”

“Bukowski,” I said almost automatically, “Hot Water Music.”

“That one really defined him,” she said.

I nodded in agreement. “He was an exquisite mess.”

To this, she nodded in reply, then, “For some people, when it takes them longer to find their voice, its stronger. For him, it was unshakeable. The pain of looking for it seemed to infuse his voice with such clarity and originality.” Her voice had taken on a dreamy quality now. “What was I reading that first day?”

“Vonnegut,” I said. “Breakfast of Champions.”

As if this were a surprise to her, she exclaimed, “Awwww… Poor old Dwayne Hoover, can’t tell fact from fiction. I love that novel.” Then she sat up straighter, “And here we are, ‘on a planet which is dying fast.” Then she added, “I can’t feel my feet,” as if for the first time, “can you get me a hot cocoa like when we first met?”

I tried smiling but it and my chin began to quiver so I gave up on the attempt and instead inhaled deeply as I stood, widening my eyes to prevent the tears from coming. “Of course,” I replied. “With a splash of milk and marshmallows?”

“Of course,” she repeated in a mock baritone. Then she held out her hand. Upon my grasping hers with mine, she said, “You were always my favorite, know that.” Her green eyes twinkled in a promise of mischief as the hint of a smile graced her face again, “I love you.”

I gave her hand a squeeze and managed, “I’ll be right back,” and, “I love you,” before turning toward the cafe.

The line was short and I was on my way back to the bench within minutes. Approaching her from behind, I could tell. Her head lolled to the right, as if I was still seated next to her and she’d decided to nap on my shoulder. I felt the paper cup in my hand lose its structural integrity before I noticed the grip I had on it. As I slackened my grip on the cup, my knees followed suit and I barely made it back to the bench before collapsing next to her. My weight shook the bench causing her head to roll forward onto her chin.

As I raised her head, I noticed that her clear green eyes that a moment ago held the flicker of mischief were already glazing over with a milky whiteness. The pain squatting on my heart rose and knotted painfully below my Adam’s apple. Silver slivers stabbed the inside of my forehead as I held back the tears and my nose began to run. Placing my arm around her, I lay her head on my shoulder and reached in my pocket for my cell phone and dialed 911.

Suicide is a crime and the police would be dispatched. Her note, outlining her intentions and motivations, was in her purse as was the bottle of pills she’d used. Lindsey was my next call after hanging up on the 911 operator. She would not approve, pretensions be damned, of her mother choosing an aristocrat’s death. But she was. An aristocrat.


Home Burial

Home Burial

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: ‘What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.’
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: ‘What is it you see,’
Mounting until she cowered under him.
‘I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.’
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, ‘Oh,’ and again, ‘Oh.’
‘What is it—what?’ she said.
                                          ‘Just that I see.’
‘You don’t,’ she challenged. ‘Tell me what it is.’
‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound—’
                             ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.’
‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
‘There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’
‘You don’t know how to ask it.’
                                              ‘Help me, then.’
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
‘My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.’
She moved the latch a little. ‘Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied—’
‘There you go sneering now!’
                                           ‘I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.’
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!’
‘There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!’
You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you—’
‘If—you—do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go?  First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force.  I will!—’
-Robert Frost
Facts I argue

On Benedict; the great, not the traitor

The French claim him as well as the Americans but, to whichever country Santayana may belong, his words are for us all . This is an excerpt from, “American Religion” by George Santayana. His is an almost poetic analysis of the Ethics of the great Benedict Spinoza. What follows is one of my favorite passages about one of my favorite thinkers. Spinoza is said to have invented the atheist’s god. For this, he was excommunicated from the Jewish religion. And for good measure, the Catholics excommunicated him as well.

Spinoza believed that religion’s purpose was to explain the divine, not to create illogical dogma that would cause logical people to turn their backs on the very concept of religion. His logical, dare I say scientific, analyses of Medieval philosophies and their shortcomings forever put an end to such philosophies’ importance to humanity. His work is claimed to have directly influenced those responsible for the Enlightenment. He argued against the division created by Descartes between the mind and the body, though his point of view has not prevailed and the West has been suffering under the ills that logically flow from an adherence to Cartesian dualism for more than three hundred years.

Spinoza came to know. In knowing, he found solace; and love. If what follows does not make sense the first reading through, read it again. It’s point is fairly simple: harmony with existence creates a love for existence. Harmony is two-fold, physical and mental. When in the presence of such a truth, even if the truth threatens your life, you love your existence because you are in harmony with your existence. You are in harmony with the Universe when  knowing your place in the bigger picture and your love becomes, thereby, Universal. Truth is, then, Spinoza’s path to god, not faith. He was excommunicated because his god was an immanent god, not a humanistic one. As Santayana put it:


“Here we touch the crown of Spinoza’s philosophy, that intellectual love of God in which the spirit was to be ultimately reconciled with universal power and universal truth. This love brings to consciousness a harmony intrinsic to existence; not an alleged harmony such as may be posited in religions or philosophies resting on faith, but a harmony which, as far as it goes, is actual and patent. In the realm of matter, this harmony is measured by the degree of adjustment, conformity, and cooperation which the part may have attended in the whole; in a word, it is measured by health. In the realm of truth, the same natural harmony extends as far as do capacity and pleasure in understanding the truth; so that besides health we may possess knowledge. And this is no passive union, no dead peace; the spirit rejoices it; for the spirit, being, according to Spinoza, an essential concomitant of all existence, shares the movement, the actuosa essentia of the universe; so that we necessarily love health and knowledge, and love the things in which health and knowledge are found. Insofar as omnificient power endows us with health, we necessarily love that power whose total movement makes for our own perfection; and insofar as we are able to understand the truth, we necessarily love the themes of an intense and unclouded vision, in which our imaginative faculty reaches its perfect function.

Of this religion of health and understanding Spinoza is a sublime prophet. By overcoming all human weaknesses, even when they seem kindly or noble, and by honoring power and truth, even if they should slay him, he entered into the sanctuary of an unruffled superhuman wisdom, and declared himself supremely happy, not because the world as he conceived it was flattering to his heart, but because the gravity of his heart disdained all flatteries, and with a sacrificial prophetic boldness uncovered and relished his destiny, however tragic his destiny might be. And presently peace descended; this keen scientific air seemed alone fit to breathe, and only this high tragedy worthy of a heroic and manly breast. Indeed the truth is a great cathartic and wonderfully relieves the vital distress of existence. We stand as on a mountaintop, and the spectacle, so out of scale with all our petty troubles, silences and overpowers the heart, expanding it for a moment into boundless sympathy with the universe.”