|A Miracle of Degree
by J. (Channing) Wells
© J. (Channing) Wells -- all rights reserved
"Jesus god, Murph..."
The briefest of pauses.
"Jesus god, Murph, what am I gonna do now?" The young Dalmatian's voice is wavering on the edge of hysteria again.
Murphy Donham, proprietor, Murphy's Booksellers, est. 1984, Provider of Wisdom and Part-Time Jobs; Full-Time Spiritual Guru, Wellspring of Stability, All-Around Nosy Bastard and Father Figure; Stubborn, Bull-Headed testament to the power of Self-Righteousness...
That Murphy Donham... shakes his head.
"I try to keep a respectable store, here, Michael. And I don't appreciate it when my employees can't control their own language..."
"Fuck the language, Murph! Nobody's here to hear it!" Definitely hysteria, now. "Do you see any fucking customers, Murph? Huh?"
Murphy stands there, stoically. Michael presses on.
"You know why you got no fucking customers, Murph? Can you maybe, think of a single fucking reason?"
Murphy tenses his jaw muscles. Still nothing from him.
"Couldn't be that you've got a fucking SCAB on sta-"
"Michael!" Murphy shifts into stern and commanding. The old man has a hell of a presence when he turns it on. Michael shuts up, a bit lamely. A pause.
"That's better. You gotta keep ahold of yourself, lad. It's all a matter of self-control." Michael somewhat sullenly meets his gaze. "Yes, I'm keeping you on staff, lad. Most folks in this town might not do the same in my situation. The least you could do is show a little bit of gratitude."
Michael shuffles one foot. "Sorry, Murph."
"It's all right, Michael. Y've been through a lot. But that doesn't mean I'm going to expect any less of you from this day forward."
Michael sneers weakly, but his heart's not in it. Murph continues, unabated.
"The customers will come back eventually, Michael, inasmuch as they ever did. Ithaca's a pretty cloistered little city, even with the University, and we don't much care for radical changes. But if I'm forced to close the shop just because I choose to keep one of my best employees on staff regardless of what he looks like, then by hooey, I think I want to be out of business."
Michael doesn't respond. There's not much to say, actually. He looks around the bookshop, at the years of accumulated knowledge.
"You know," he says, finally, "Life really sucks sometimes."
Murphy just smiles and shakes his head. "You've managed to live through a potentially fatal disease and you come out on the other end with an attitude like that?"
"Don't patronize me, Murph."
"You deserve some patronizing, the way you've been acting of late."
Michael growls. "Wonderful, Murph. Tell me how good a mood I'm supposed to be in again. And don't give me all of the 'Life is a Miracle' shit. I've had my share already. Life is not a fucking miracle. I'fact," he says, "I'm hard pressed to find any fucking miracles at all nowadays."
"Now, lad," says Murph, looking at him over one shoulder as he goes over to one of the shelves, "out of all the load of damnfool things that've ever come out of your mouth, that one right there has to be just about the damnfoolest."
Michael sighs, perceiving that Murphy's gone into "wisdom dispenser" mode again. He takes the bait anyway. "All right. Why is that so goddamned stupid?"
"Because, lad," says Murph, turning around, eyes gleaming, "Miracles are all around. Everywhere ye look. Look here." He shows Michael his find from the collection. "Carlyle. One of the great ones. A little bit fruity at times, but he had some good thoughts. And one of the best of them was this: If I were to reach up into the sky right now and touch the sun, that'd be a miracle, right?"
Michael nods, playing along.
"And so," he says, walking over to where Michael is standing, "If I were to reach out and do this..." He grasps Michael lightly on the shoulder. "If I were to stretch out my arm and touch someone here with me in the same room, then that's also a miracle. It's all a question of degree."
Michael nods, slightly. "You know, Murph, that's actually pretty dumb, when you really think about it."
Murphy laughs this time. "Michael, Michael, Michael. I'm never going to get this through to you, am I."
"Not if you can't come up with any better examples than that."
Murphy smiles a true corner-of-the-mouth smile. "All right, then. How 'bout something more concrete. Would you think it was a miracle if I told you an old lifelong bachelor like myself could finally manage to fall in love?"
This time Michael is really taken aback. "Murph!" He says, finally. "You're dating somebody?"
Murphy simply smiles, looking more wistful than Michael has ever seen him. "No, lad. No, this was eight, nine-odd years back. I was still pretty old then, too."
"Who?" Says Michael, still desperately trying to come to terms with the picture of old Murph actually dating a woman. It's proving to be a particularly difficult picture to reconcile with reality. "Where's she now? You aren't still seeing her behind my back, are you?"
Murph shakes his head. "No, lad. No. She... erm. She and I... erm... well." Murphy hedges, looking increasingly uncomfortable. He takes a deep breath.
He trails off and turns away. Michael stands there for a time, uneasily, worried about what he's tapped into here.
With his back to him, Murph suddenly says, "Michael?"
"I'm going to be taking the rest of the day off. I trust you know the place well enough to handle it by yourself. Just ring up the purchases, don't bother with the cataloguing project or anything like that, all right?" There is a strange, halting quaver in Murphy's voice.
Michael is dumbfounded. Finally, he manages to stammer out an affirmative.
"Good." Says Murph, his back still turned. A bit stiffly he walks towards the back stairs leading to his makeshift apartment on the second floor. Michael watches him go.
Then, he cautiously takes a few steps forward to where Murphy had stood moments before and crouches down, one clawed finger inspecting the floor.
There, sitting innocently on the well-waxed wooden floorboard, is a single, beaded teardrop.
"What is an Empty Space? Seems like a silly question, I guess. Old Man Webster would probably say that an empty space is, by some definition, 'a specific physical area containing nothing.' But there is a definite trap here that theatre people need to be aware of. Let me make quite clear that there is a universe of difference between 'Nothing' and 'Emptiness.' 'Nothing' is just that. Nothing. Absolute entropy. No motive force, no drive, no energy, no life. 'Emptiness,' on the other hand, is quite different. There are borders to 'Emptiness.' When you conceptualize an Empty Space, you're creating a vacuum. And, as any elementary physics major will tell you, when you create a vacuum, nature is just dying to fill it with something. A director who decides to cast for a show has just created hundreds of Empty Spaces: roles to be filled, sets to be planned and built, costumes to be created. The sum total of this is a lot of potential energy. Creation of an Empty Space is not simply an act of negation. What it is is the forging of an imbalance, a pressure gradient, a difference. And it is through this difference that life is created.
"I don't know a whole hell of a lot about biology. But someone told me this, once, and it kind of stuck with me: your average nerve cell maintains itself at a constant electrical difference of about negative seventy millivolts. This is not something that happens naturally. In fact, the nerve cell is working constantly to create this imbalance. Why? Because it's waiting. Waiting for one little spark to come along to throw open the gates and bring positive ions flooding in with a great surge of nervous life. This is how we live, ladies and gentlemen. This flow of energy is the reason that we can think, feel, breathe, speak, work, play, hurt, heal, create, destroy, exist. It all has to do with the creation... and the filling... of Empty Spaces."
One of these days, I'm going to write a play about my life. And it's going to suck, because, frankly, I can't write worth shit. Not a big concern. It's not as though it would be terribly interesting to the general theatre-going populace anyway. It would be written for an audience of one (me) and would never be performed on stage. I don't have a title for it, and some of the members of my "dream cast" are already dead. But I'm still going to write it.
All in all, it would be a play about a fairly average guy. In the age of SCABS, "average" has taken on a new meaning, so I hope that I'm not stretching the definition overmuch to include a big humanoid dog therein. A six-foot-tall Dalmatian, to be precise, walking the line between... what? Good and Evil? That's far too dramatic. There have been very few times I've ever done something that really truly fit either of those categories. No, the best I can say is that it would be about a man walking a line between sympathy and antipathy, pulling some of his fellow souls close and pushing others away, who eventually, at the end-all-be-all, would be forced to consider that the sum total of his life had been a losing struggle against mediocrity.
But looking back on it all, he could occasionally, just occasionally, catch a teasing glimpse of something far more.
And this is how it would begin:
Setting. A hospital room. Ithaca, Kansas.
Time. Approaching the end of the Golden Years. A long time ago. It seems.
At Rise: Near-Darkness and Silence. Dim illumination from the ambient lights of the nighttime city as they seep through the thin industrial-standard curtains. There is a bed, and a chair. In the chair is a woman, JENNY. She sleeps in an uncomfortable posture after having dropped from sheer exhaustion many hours previous. In the bed, tangled in a mass of twisted bedclothes, is MICHAEL, whimpering softly in his sleep. He is a crumpled figure, in the throes of a hideous disease that has taken his body and twisted it like modeling clay in the hands of some adolescent god. He looks sorta like a Dalmatian. This scene for a moment. Then, the door swings open and a searing wedge of cold light from the hospital corridor beyond illuminates a figure. This is MURPHY, Michael's boss. MURPHY is only two generations away from Ireland and is distinguished in a way that only grey-haired Irish booksellers can be. In this light, he looks like an angel, holy and terrible to behold.
Light. My eyelids squirm in an attempt to keep it out. I don't want to be awake.
At the moment, my conscious life can be summed up in a simple set of equations: Awake = Hurts like hell. Asleep = Doesn't hurt like hell. That's as far as my cognition takes me.
Ergo, I resolutely try to go back to sleep. The fever-dreams are weird as all get out, but it's better than this hospital shit. I've just about succeeded at it again when a voice sparks through my brain.
"Michael." A twinge of emotion somewhere in there. I can't place it.
There is a groan as tired synapses spring into action. Several heartbeats thud by before I finally croak out, "Murph?" My voice sounds like rust flakes and paint thinner, and it hurts my throat as it comes out.
"Good to see you awake, me boyo."
"Shut the fucking light off, Murph."
"Light's not on, Michael. You're just seeing the light from the hall."
"Whatever the fuck it is, Murph, shut it the hell off." My rancor is not particularly terrible. I'm having a hard time speaking at all, much less putting emotion into it. Everything feels wrong. Murphy silently complies and closes the door, washing me in darkness again. Murphy waits, silently.
"What are you doing here?" I ask, weakly. "What time is it?"
"Past normal visiting hours. I... I couldn't sleep, as such. Needed to come in here and see if you were all right."
"So. I'm sitting here in a hospital... I think I feel an I.V. Is that right?"
"I'm sitting here in a hospital with a fucking I.V. in and you're asking me if I'm 'all right.' I think that by definition of my current situation, I am not 'all right.'" It is a long sentence, and I foolishly try to put sarcasm in it. It ends in coughing.
"Calm down, Michael. You'll break something there."
I realize that there is one fundamental gap in my world-view at the moment.
"Murphy, what the fuck am I doing in a hospital? Where's Jenny?"
"She's asleep. Poor gehl, she's been 'ere all day. You best be quiet, else you'll wake her."
"You didn't answer my first question, Murph." Meanwhile, I'm searching around in my own memory and drawing blanks. Something's very wrong here...
"I know, lad. I know."
"You still aren't answering me, here."
"Murphy, you're really starting to piss me off."
Murphy bites his lip. He is just dimly visible in the light from the window. Damn it, what the hell is wrong with me, here... I itch all over, for one thing. Something's the matter with my eyes as well, and... goddamn it, Murph, tell me why I'm here...
"You want a mirror?"
All right. I've played the game for long enough. I owe Murphy a lot, but sometimes, you just have to yell at people. "Why the hell would I want a mirror?" In a nearby chair a dark shape stirs. Jenny.
"It might help explain things." Murphy glances uneasily at my restive girlfriend but says nothing.
"Crissakes, Murph. I don't need a fucking mirror. Either tell me what's wrong or I seriously tax myself by trying to get up and look at the chart on the end of the bed."
"So, ye want the official opinion, then?" Murphy has a note of restraint in his voice. He always gets pissed off when he thinks I'm being too "vulgar" for my own good. Screw it. I have the right to be vulgar. I also have the right to the "official" opinion. I inform Murphy as such, perhaps louder than I should. Jenny stirs in her sleep, again. Murphy sighs in that aggravating "more-tolerant-than-thou" way and goes to the end of the bed.
"All-righty-then. 'Patient: Michael Woodrow Bix. Male. Twenty-five years old.'"
"I know that part."
He just glares at me. "'Cause of referral: Patient Complains of High-Grade Fever and Severe Flu-Like Symptoms. Lapse of Consciousness. Preliminary Diagnosis: Complications of positive M.F.V. infection. Further Symptoms: Cranio-Facial Abnormalities, Abnormal Dentition, Abnormal Keratin Structure at the-"
At the three letters "M.F.V." something shatters inside me. Murphy's voice drones on. If I were paying attention, I would probably be hearing a lot of useful and edifying information, but I can't be listening at the moment because my brain is gone. Blackness lurks at the corners of my vision and blissful unconsciousness tries to claim me again. I struggle against it, wrest my brain back into focus. I see Jenny stir. She's almost awake. I interrupt Murph about halfway through the extensive symptoms list and say, "Murph?"
He stops. "Lad?"
"Get me the fucking mirror."
He wordlessly complies, thankfully abstaining from smartass remarks. I take it and look, far too quickly. I should have given myself time to think about it, to put my psychological guard up. As it is, it catches me completely prone.
A long moment passes.
From somewhere in my throat comes a feeble whimper. A dog's whimper.
The noise finally wakes Jenny.
She looks. She, too, is more-or-less unprepared.
The look of ghasted shock on her face is louder than any scream could ever be.
And Murphy stands there helplessly, watching.
This instant, the instant that I see Jenny's face, is the longest instant of my life. It has to be.
Even today, close to four years later, it's still going on.
Night. Near-darkness. My face feels damp, but clean. Tonight's makeup is off, and praistetagod, it'll never have to go on again. Of course that means I'm out of a job, but hey. The way things are looking now, that doesn't have to be a permanent condition. The Theatre will take me back whenever I'm ready to return. Meanwhile, I'm back in my home city, here in beautiful Pennsylvania. I've just finished a high-profile show to rave reviews. I've got my name in with the bigs. I've got offers. I can afford to be choosy about my roles from here on in. I can finally buy that motorcycle I've always wanted. I've got cash in my pocket, a new suit of clothes on my back, a starring role on my resume...
And a terrible empty feeling way, way deep down...
...as I sit here in a dark, red, theatre lobby long after everyone else has gone otherwheres, bathed in the picture-window light of a snowywhite heartless moon frozen high above to the dome of the sky.
"C'mon, Dreah. Be there this time..."
I wait. Three-and-a-half rings, always. I need her, tonight...
"Hello, You've reached Andrea's Place. I was going to quote something Shakespearean just to be cutesy here, but you wouldn't believe how hard it is to find something appropriate. Anyway. I'm off touring with the ASC and probably will be for... well... I don't know how long, so if you're into uncertainty, please leave a message at the beep and I may or may not get back to you in a reasonable amount of time."
My world poises, once again, on an edge, as the silent hiss of the running recorder on the ancient tape-only answering machine that I have come to know so well over the past year and a half dutifully takes notes on the nothingness on my end of the line.
I can see it now. "Hey, Dreah! It's been a hell of a long time since I've seen or spoken to you or gotten, indeed, any clues as to your continuing existence whatsoever. I mean, it's obvious that you're not checking your machine while you're away, which, I mean, is okay, I understand and all, it's just that... well..."
"It's just that there's quite a bit I want to say here, and..."
It's really not the kind of message that I want to leave. Not tonight.
"There's quite a bit I want to say here..."
Like what, Bix? That you can't stand the thought of never seeing her again? That you'd trade all these dreams about your stupid hypothetical motorcycle and everything else you own in the whole fucking world to be with her tonight? That she means more to you than any other single being in the known universe?
Like, "Andrea, I...
I shake my head. Not a good day for such thoughts. Not at all.
The phone machine hisses silently, seconds upon seconds of silence busily writing themselves in magnetic particle-script within the machine that is my only connection to a woman whose presence was the only thing that had ever, ever, soothed the long, aching hurt of that last moment in the bathroom with... Jenny... and had ever allowed me to get even this far.
Seconds upon seconds of silence.
And then, slowly, I place one arm across the bulk of the pay telephone, let the other one hang listlessly at my side, and gently and solemnly bang my head three or four times against the unyielding metal.
This for a moment.
"Michael?" Says a small voice from very nearby.
I sigh again, slightly, forehead pressed against the cold steel of the pay telephone.
"Eppie." I say. "How long have you been watching?"
Eppie shrugs and swings her foot idly back and forth across the deep, scarlet carpeting. "While, now." She pauses for the briefest of moments. "You gonna be coming to the cast party?"
I do not respond.
"Roger promised me he'd do the thing with the beer cans again." She says, as if enticing me. "An' we're gonna have a replay of the Great American 'Sunday in the Park with George' Hearts-and-Other-Assorted-Brainless-Card-Games Tournament. Mister Barlow wanted a re-match with me, at least, he said."
I still do not respond. Eppie inclines her long, equine head at me in her best I'm-a-cute-little-teenage-girl-so-you-best-do-whatever-I-say look. "An' so, we'd all kinda be worried if you, like, weren't there or something..."
I shake my head. That's Eppie.
Hepzibah Friedmann. The world's biggest flirt and the darling of the entire cast. We all spoil her rotten. But it's not our fault. You see, Eppie holds this strange sort of power over adult human creatures, sort of like a cross between mental domination and pathological slave-mentality-devotion. She has presence in a big, bad way, and what's more, she's got the kind of talent-driven skill at age twelve-or-so that I'm still trying to perfect in my own craft.
Eppie signed on with the show a few months back. She was the daughter of a relative of a friend, or something. Yes. No. No, what it was is that one of Mister Barlow's cousins back in the City apparently had this thing about providing a temporary home for hard-to-place children from local orphanages, and when Molly Kindersly (our "Louise" for the entire run of the show thus far) had to bow out of the tour for a priori concerns, it was made known that there was a certain girl within Barlow's own family with a mind for the stage and the talent to match. And since the cast for SitPwG already contained more than the usual number of SCABS...
Let it never be said that the Theatre isn't a political beast, in its own way. Sometimes, it's all a question of who you know. Phil proved that to me, at least, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Anyway. Point being is that Eppie never really had a real home. And upon coming down with SCABS right smack out of an early bout of puberty, her chances of beneficent adoption by anyone other than people like the Friedmanns dropped to nearly nil. The Friedmanns are still looking for a good, stable home for her, last time I talked to them. Nice family, by the way.
And meanwhile, she is a child of the Stage. Tutored daily in the wings. Homework at night on the makeup table. Days and nights of childhood, breathing in the potent atmosphere of the Theatre. God. How lucky can one kid get. I would have given my right eye and half the duration of my childhood to do what Eppie is now doing. Sure, it's not for everyone... but over the course of the many months that we've been on the road with her, it has become patently clear to all of us that it's certainly for Eppie.
In fact, were it not for the simple reality that a year or two ago a mutant virus from outer space twisted her young form into the semblance of a half-human half-American Buckeye Mule, I would say she's the one of the luckiest kids in the whole wide world.
"So...?" Says Eppie, impatiently.
"Eppie..." I say, with the kind of good-natured fed-up-ish-ness that she's come to expect from the lot of us. "I... can't. Not tonight. We've already had the official final-full-house-closing party. And the back-in-the-city-where-we-started-after-all-this-time party. And the here-we-are-almost-done-with-this-sucker party. Exactly how many of these are you going to bug me to attend?"
"But this is the laaaaaaaaaaaast one! The last chance you'll have to see any of them!"
"Not likely, Ep." I counter. "We're still a minority in the business, us SCAB's. I've got a feeling I'll be working with some of these same people again. We're gonna gravitate to the same shows with the same sympathetic directors. Hell, Barlow's actually thinking of officially advertising WCR as a pro-SCAB non-discriminational theatre company. He invited me back to audition for Jacob in 'Tenebra Suite.'"
"Good part." Says Eppie, sagely.
"Kind of." I say. "A little too typecast-y for my tastes."
"Hum." Says Eppie. And then, brightly, "So. Speaking of you coming to the cast party, are you going to?"
"We weren't speaking of that." I say, wryly.
"I was." Says Eppie, grinning broadly. And, of course, that's the important thing, right, kiddo? Right...
"Eppie." I say, massaging my forehead with one hand. "No."
Eppie's lower lip creeps ever so-slightly forward. "Well then." She says. "Guess I'm not going either."
"Why not." I say, flatly.
"No-one else is here! I was counting on you to take me!"
"Well," I say blandly, studying the decor, "That's sort of your problem, isn't it."
"Hmpth." She says. And then there is a moment's silence.
"Look. I'll take you there. Then I'm going home. Right? You shouldn't be out this late anyway."
"S'okay." She says. "I got permission from Temporary Mom and Temporary Dad. Just so long as I stay with either you or Mister Barlow, I'm fine aaaaaaaaalllll night. Mom and Dad Friedmann know how these sorts of parties can go." She winks suggestively at me. "And, since I'll be having so much fun, they wouldn't dream of keeping me home."
"Wonderful." I say, ignoring the obvious implication again. "You know, the one thing that I will fault your parents for is their entirely misplaced trust in Theatre People. If you were even the tiniest bit the innocent that you make yourself out to be, I'd be worried that we're ruining you. As it is, I don't know exactly who to worry about."
"Silly monkey." She says.
"Be that as it may." I say. "I take you to the party. And then you're Barlow's. Capice?"
She blinks at me innocently. "Of course."
I frown. "You're not going to try and snooker me into going to the party again, are you?"
"Bix." She says, sounding hurt. "The thought hadn't even crossed my mind."
"Wow!" Says Eppie. "Great party, huh, Bix?"
"Mmrph." I say.
Ep spontaneously laughs. "Hey, remember that one thing Mister Wanderer did?"
"All too well." I say, groggily.
"That was cool." She says.
"Cool is one way to describe it." I say, lightly, as we walk quietly through the night streets, cresting and riding pools of sodium light from the high-above streetlamps. Must keep to the light, in the evening city. Always keep to the light. The moths and mosquitos and us.
"Remember when I beat your pants off in Polish Three-Crib Shabbatch?" She says.
"Yup." I say, my voice dabbing concernedly at the face of my wounded pride with a washcloth.
"That was cool too." She says.
"Uh huh." I say.
"You want any of this back?" She asks, holding my former money out to me. I hiss at her.
"Eppie, put that away. It's bad enough we're walking outside at night without you flashing twenty-spots around."
"Sorry." She says, chastely. She puts it away. We walk for a while in silence.
"You could have stayed, you know. The night is still young." I say, with a dramatic gesture
She shrugs. "I wannidta stick with you. You were gonna be alone all night otherwise. It woulda ruined my evening."
"But not your appetite, I reckon."
"I'm an herbivore." She says, simply. "I graze."
"No." I say. "Grazing implies that you eat a moderate amount of food over the course of an extended period of time. You, on the other hand, eat an unbelievable amount of food right off the bat, and then you continue to do so over the course of an extended period of time."
She punches me lightly on the arm. My point.
Step after step, another block of the distance passes beneath our feet. Eppie's subtly irregular gait still proceeds tirelessly; I passingly note once again the faintest of limps in her left leg. A product of asymmetry in her bout with SCABS, I'm presuming.
The winds swirl, and Eppie pulls her leather jacket a little closer around her. Strange weather for the time of year. It almost feels like March out. Signs and portents. The gathering of the winds. I idly find myself wondering if I'm approaching some form of turning point here.
"So." Says Eppie. "What are we gonna Do for the rest of the night?"
I yawn. "Eppie, you're free stay up and read or watch vid-feed for 's long as you like. You can just shack out in my room, and we'll walk you back to the Friedmann's tomorrow. I'm afraid that there's not much that I've got that you probably haven't seen, but if you're bored, you know who to blame for that." I swallow, and bat away a low-flying moth. "As for me, I am going to sleep. It's been a long day for us reasonably sane people."
"Okay." She says, pleasantly.
"AND THEN!!!" Bellows my dearest Eppie, the Earl of Northumberland. "'The Prince KILLETH Percy!'"
I just stand there.
"Come on." She says, invitingly.
I poke her with my yardstick.
Instantly, she collapses. "O Harry!" she cries. "Thou hast robbed me of my youth! / I better bear the loss of brittle life / than those proud titles thou hast won of me." Eppie consults my Signet Classic Shakespeare from mid-death-throe. "They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh!"
"Well." I say, the yardstick hanging in my limp grasp like some variety of fish. "They'd almost have to have, wouldn't they."
"Shaddup." Sayeth Hotspur. "But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life, time's fool, / And time, that takes survey of all the world, / Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy / But that the earthy and cold hand of death / Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust, / And food for..." She coughs, mimicking the spitting out of blood, or something else similarly unpleasant. "And food for..."
"For worms, Brave Percy." I say, picking up the next line. "Fare thee well, great heart, yadda yadda, yadda yadda, but not rememb'red in thy epitaph. Great. So. Can we be about done with the Battle of Shrewsbury now?"
Eppie glares at me for skipping over Prince Hal's soliloquy, but chooses not to call me on it. "Not yet. We have to do the Falstaff scene. Where's that bottle?"
"You broke it." I comment. "When you were trying to do that two-sword-waving-around thing that you were convinced that Lord Douglas should do before killing Blunt. 'Member?"
"Oh, yeah." Says Eppie.
"You're just damn lucky that Carl downstairs is a reasonably tolerant sorta guy." I say.
"Ain't I, though?" Says Eppie, beaming. "Otherwise, it would be next to impossible to stage the entire Fifth Act of Henry IV, Part One in this dinky little apartment without him calling the cops on us."
"Mm hm." I say.
"So. No bottle." Says Eppie.
"Nope." I say.
"It's not the same without the prop." She says.
"Fine!" I say. "Let's just skip it and cut to the chase. Okay. Falstaff does his thing, then we have Henry Bolingbroke and Hal talking about the aftermath and... then...
Eppie flips some pages. "Then we're done."
"Finally." I say.
"Onwards to Part Two!" Says Eppie.
"No." I say.
"Poot." Says Eppie. "So what now?"
"Sleep?" I suggest, with a sort of pitiful and helpless tone to my voice.
"Naw." Says Ep, paging wildly through my Shakespeare text. "Something... cool."
I close my eyes. "Eppie, you do realize, of course, that we've already exhausted a good chunk of "Bill's Greatest Hits," what with the Hamlet thing and the The Taming of the Shrew and the... you know, the Scottish one, and the thing from King Lear... and if that weren't enough, we've been treated to a lovely halftime show of Eppie giving broad interpretation to two of the Sonnets..."
"It's fun." She says, as though this were an empirical fact.
"Mm hm." I say. "Why don't you go do something cheerful. Like Titus Andronicus."
Eppie looks up at me. "Is that a cool one?"
I shrug, and wander over, blinking the sleep from my eyes for what must be the fourteenth time this evening. "Not really. It's Early Bill, and he doesn't yet have the maturity that he gains for the later works."
"Here we are." Says Eppie. "Page 306. What's this underlined part here?"
I frown, curiously. Writing? In one of Murph's books? Impossible... The man had too much respect for his children to go around scribbling in them...
I sure as hell didn't make those marks, though. And looking more closely at them, they do look as though they might have come from one of Murph's damned difficult-to-read Very Hard #4 pencils.
With Eppie looking on, I scrutinize the words...
MARCUS: Now is a time to storm; why art thou still?
TITUS: Ha, ha, ha!
MARCUS: Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.
TITUS: Why, I have not another tear to shed...
This from a guy who's just realized that he's been tricked into killing most of his sons, and has just found his loving daughter violated, horribly maimed, and left for dead. Like I said, cheerful play. Good for children. Builds character.
Still staring at the words and trying to make sense of the incalculably strange presence of their penciled emphasis, I nearly do not hear Eppie as she asks, "So. Who's 'Murphy Donham'?"
"The guy I got this book from. He owns a little shop back in Ithaca, Kansas. I used to work for him." I turn to look at her. "Why?"
Eppie holds up a small, extremely thinly folded packet of paper. "This thing here had his name on the outside."
I frown. "Where'd you get that?"
"Stuck in the binding."
I take it from her and begin working out how the fold works. Good old Murph. Always a bad one for cramming little notes to himself in his books and then not remembering where he put them. He was always such an absent-minded old bastard. I figure out the logic behind the fold and idly work the kinks out of the thin papers. You know, I think to myself, it's really been too long since I've seen hi--
I notice the first few words. I do a double-take.
"What?" Says Eppie. She scoots over, intent upon seeing the pages. "What?" She repeats.
I shush her and wave her off, my attention utterly focused.
I read the first few paragraphs in their entirety, heedless of Eppie's protesting, pausing only occasionally to breathe. And then, in wonderment, I flip through to the last page and peruse that.
And then, settling my wildly fluttering heart in my breast, I carefully fold the papers back into their original shape.
Then, I turn to Eppie.
I can't help but look at her. For quite some time.
"...what...?" Says Eppie, cautiously, after a time.
"Nothing." I say. "Or everything. I'm not sure."
"Tell me!" She says, growing impatient.
"I will, Eppie. I will." I breathe deeply of the stuffy, cloistered air. "But right now, I am walking you back to the party. And you are going to stay with Mister Barlow tonight."
"Why?" She asks, seeming more genuinely confused than put out.
"I'll... tell you tomorrow." I say. "Tonight, I've got a lot of thinking to do."
"Oo...kay..." Says Eppie.
"Don't worry." I say. "It's nothing dangerous or anything. But what I need you to do right now is to go back down to the foyer. Wait for me there. 'Kay?"
"Good kid." I say.
Eppie goes, looking strangely back at me as she exits. Maybe I deserve the strange look, maybe I don't. But...
One last time, I unfold the papers and glance at the last few lines...
The Journey of a Thousand Miles...
Century Park. Seven A.M. On a bench beneath the statue of, inexplicably, Prince Henry the Navigator. God knows why there's a statue of a famous Portugese naval patron sitting here in the middle of Century Park. There just is. The plaque was probably ripped off several years ago by vandals, or maybe I just never took the time to look for one. Doesn't really matter in the end. But if that doesn't, hard to say, at the end-all-be-all, what does.
"Ready?" Says Eppie, fiddling with the straps on a ludicrous-looking plastic concoction that you might possibly recognize as a motorcyclist's helmet for an equine skull only if you had been told to expect such a thing beforehand.
"Almost." I say, leaning back and breathing the warming Summer-tide air into my nostrils. My eyes are half-shut, I guess. It's just that kind of day.
This for a moment. Then, Eppie almost audibly glares at me.
"Well?" She says.
"Mm hm?" I say, lazily.
"What are we doing here?"
"Preparing." I say.
"For what?" Says Eppie. "I mean, we got everything all stowed." She begins economically running through a mental list. "Week's worth of clothes for each of us. Toothbrushing stuff. Blankets and bedrolls. Hidden money. Assorted pharmaceuticals for motion-sickness and stuff. My... ahm..." She coughs. "My things."
I raise my head and look at her. Eppie's the only child in the known universe who feels the need to flaunt her feminine protection.
"Eppie." I say. "We've got everything packed."
"How's the cycle?" She asks.
I peer over at my wondrous machine. It's a BMW Classic Series Nine, absolutely and utterly top-of-the-line, a thinking man's bike, liquid class on two wheels, a fuel-injected endorphin rush that purrs contentedly like a placated jungle cat even when pushed to the redline. Storm grey with heavy black highlights and all the amenities, including (for the hell of it) a fully trans-digital zero-dis sound system which I will refer to, for the sake of brevity, as "the radio," although so pedestrian a term hardly befits such a fine specimen of Japanese ingenuity. Eastern electronics and European motorworks melded together into a dedicated motorist's wet dream.
"Lookin' good." I say, lazily.
"Perhaps someone is forgetting his SAFETY HELMET." She unabashedly kicks me.
"Ow." I note.
"Hurts, doesn't it." She says.
"Kind of." I say, frowning at my soon-to-be traveling companion.
"Imagine that on your head, except like fifty billion times worse." She says.
"Mm hm." I say, nonplussed.
"HELMET LAWS!!!" She thunders.
"Disability exception." I say. "Can't find one that fits. Love that altered bone-structure thang."
"Funny how I seem to be able to've."
I nod. "Yep. Funny."
Eppie stares. "I got two words for you, Mikey. As and Phalt."
"You'd know about the first one pretty well, at least, wouldn'tcha."
Eppie narrows her eyes and gives her Life Saver a determined suck. "Ya know, Bixie, sooner or later you're gonna know about both of 'em pretty damn well if you keep up with that attitude. Bucky-boy."
I take a moment and blink at her, inclining my head curiously and looking at Eppie, as though for the first time.
There's something familiar in the look. That look of head-shaking disappointment at my attitude...
Yes. Murph. For the first time, I can really see it. Despite the fact that SCABS has run Eppie's genetic code through the blender, there's some things that even the disease can't hide. There is no longer a question in my mind, if indeed there ever was.
"...What...?" Says Eppie, under the scrutiny. "Do I got lettuce in my teeth again?"
"No, no." I say, laughing slightly. "It's just... well..." I pause to collect myself. "You just... look... so much like your dad right now."
Eppie nods, silently. Then, "You two knew each other pretty well, din'tcha."
"Knew each other?" I say. "Hell, Eppie, we were like this!" I attempt to demonstrate this by crossing my fingers and shaking them emphatically. It just ends up looking stupid.
"So how come you haven't seen him in so long?"
"People... just naturally drift apart, Ep. I wanted to be an actor, and if I could have been a pro in dinky little rat's-ass Ithaca, Kansas, I prolly would've. But it's the coasts for us Thespians, kiddo. You know that."
"And you haven't called him."
I wring my hands a little bit. "He... doesn't own a phone. Anymore."
"And you haven't written him."
"Well... you know. First year out it was kind of tough all around, money-wise. There were just... better things to buy than postage stamps. And after that... well... correspondence inertia, I guess. Every letter would have to fully apologize for the length of time that it had been since last contact and so they kept getting put off, just making the apologies that'd be required more and more extensive, and... well... you know."
"And even though we're going to be coming to visit him, you still haven't written him."
"Eppie!" I say. "Quit it, okay? I have a very tricky relationship with Murph already, and it's only gonna be complicated by the fact that I'm carting back to him his only daughter after twelve years of separation. Just let me handle this how I see fit, all right?"
There is a pause. Then, under her breath, "You never told any of this stuff to the Friedmann's."
"I told them I had a lead on your biological parents. You said you were interested, and I told them I knew Murphy was interested."
"But you didn't tell them you didn't actually talk to him first."
"Eppie." I say, with a low growl on the period.
Eppie decides to cut out of the conversation at this point, and begins messing around with dad's old multi-functional Navy jackknife again to pass the time. I think she knows full well that, in lapsing into silence like so, she's making me feel like a heel for having brought it to this point at all. Manipulative little bitch.
I sigh. This isn't how I wanted this trip to start. But we might as well get some of the fights out of the way ASAP. Eppie and I are two individuals with personalities quite a bit too strong for our own collected goods. It's part and parcel of being an actor, sometimes.
I sit back and try to recapture the last dregs of the lazy, warm Summer morning. The first step of Zen. Begin with peace. Always with peace.
"I... ah..." Eppie hedges her way into my meditative calm. "You know that little plastic bit on your jack-knife?"
"The one I told you never to play with because you'd lose it and I couldn't possibly get a replacement because it was my father's and you can't possibly get replacement parts to have the same sentimental value as the originals?"
"You were playing with it."
"Yup." Says Eppie.
"You dropped it."
"Yup." Says Eppie, her hedging growing more profound.
"You dropped it where we can't possibly get it back."
"The sewer grate." She says, a grimace in her voice.
Begin with peace. Always with peace.
I breathe in. And breathe out.
"'S'okay. It's just plastic." I say. And with this determination, my eyes flicker open, and I stand, on the track of walking resolutely past the cement curb over to the motorcycle which will be the focus of my entire world for the days to come. Or rather, not. Not the focus. But the stepping-stone. Leading to countless thousands upon thousands of different foci, one after another.
Eppie follows me, strapping on her helmet. We mount, I start, and in a moment of poetic expression, I flick on the radio. Beyond the walls of the radio waves, the percussive opening thumps of Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" make themselves known. Perfect. My doggy muzzle breaks into a broad grin.
"You know," comments Eppie, patting my back in rhythm to the addictive beat, "when they talk about dying and being laid to rest an' stuff in this song?"
"Mm hm?" I say, surveying the beginnings of the road before me. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single furlong of black, sun-warmed tar, and personally, I can think of no greater paradise right now.
"They're talking about not wearing your helmet." Says Safety-Ep.
Begin with peace.
Always with peace.
"Shaddup, kid." I say. And we begin.
This Present Silence
We stop that night on a broad and lonely hill on the edge of civilization. The night is a dark one, but clear, one of those nights where if you stare hard enough into the blue-black sky, you get the feeling that you really could see forever. The stars are out in force, all of them, not just the bright ones you can see from the city. The BMW's motor is pleasantly warm; it's performed admirably all day, and we have stopped with a little bit of regret on my part, almost as though I would have liked to go all night. I'm getting bleary from the long travel, though, and my body's starting to tell me that it's been way too long since I've driven a cycle. I'm going to hurt like the dickens in the morning. Screw it. This is the most alive I've felt in years, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let achy muscles stop me.
This particular spot was Eppie's choice. She campaigned hard for it. I was thinking she might prefer a motel, but she seemed to be of my same mind in the area of sleeping out under the stars this evening. The reason, as I soon find out, that Eppie was so insistent on this particular spot, is that it's within viewing range of one of the new drive-in-movie complexes. Last I heard, these things had gone out in the 80's, and enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 10's before lapsing into obscurity again. Now they're back in. Society. Go fig. Anyway, save for advances in technology, the concept has remained pretty much the same. In the distance, larger-than-life (literally) movie stars flicker in 3D-IMAX across the horizon, engaged in a futuristic kick-boxing tournament for the future of the galaxy. It looks like one of the new Paul Chang action flicks. Eppie sits and watches, grossly entertained, munching on handfuls of the long grass as she might popcorn. I fiddle with the cycle's radio in an attempt to pick up the sound.
"Quit messing with it an' come an' watch the movie!" She says.
"I'm trying to get the sound, here." I reply.
"Forget about it. All it is is people beating the shit outta each other. We don't need sound."
"Eppie. Watch the language."
"You say it all the time," she quips.
"Yeah, well, you're not me," I counter lamely, and saunter over to where Eppie is sitting. I turn around a couple times without even thinking about it and sit down next to her. We watch in silence for a little while.
"Oof." She says, quietly, in response to a rather nasty kick to the gut, played out in utter noiselessness, of course.
"Yow." Our hero has, in defiance of everyday physics, broken somebody's skull with his own forehead. I try to imagine exactly what the sickening crunch would sound like in the minds of Hollywood sound-effect artists.
"You know," I say, "I'd really probably understand better exactly why they were beating the shit out of each other if I could hear the dialogue."
"Probably not." She rips up another handful of grass, eyes fixed on the distant movie. "Ouch." She adds, through her chewing.
"'So!'" says Eppie, suddenly. "'You wish to fight me, do you?!?" Her eyes are still glued on the movie. I grin at her.
"'That is why I am here making silly pre-fight postures at you, yes!'" I say, picking up the game.
"'Ah!'" says Eppie, deliberately making the words go out-of-sync with the character's moving lips. "'Now I remember you. You were that evil child who took my lunch money in third grade! And then you pushed me down the stairs!'"
"'Ha Ha!'" I say. "'Yes, Mister Chang. I see you remember me. I whipped your pathetic little hiney to a pulp at our first meeting, even without the hugely strong cybernetic arm that I now have! As soon as I get done with this insipid dialogue, I'm going to break you into snack-sized chunks!'"
"'Ah, yes, but you fail to realize that I have something you never will!'"
"'And that is?!?'"
A gratuitous camera angle occurs. Eppie picks up on it. "'A nice ass!'" We both dissolve into giggles as Paul Chang, Warrior of the Future, beats the shit out of yet another hapless extra. I smile at her. She's not looking at me, but who cares.
"Bix?" She says, after a while.
"You said my dad's a book-shop owner?"
"Mm hm. Retired now, though."
"What's... he like?"
I had dreaded this question from the moment we started out. I finger the several folded pages in my pocket, a bit nervously. For a second I consider giving her the entirety of the memoirs right here and now. Letting her read them for herself. Sort out her opinions from there. She's a big enough girl. After trying out the idea for a bit, I dismiss it. Best give it to her gradually.
"He's a good man." I say.
She seems unsatisfied. "...and...?"
"He... tried hard. To do what he thought was right. He really did, Eppie. And he loved you very much. Sorry. Loves you very much."
"Must not have loved me that much." She says, petulantly.
"He did." I say, somewhat more sharply than I'd intended to.
She doesn't respond for some time. Then, "Tell me."
I sigh. "Okay. I want you to promise me that you'll really think about what I'm telling you and not go making snap judgments, okay?"
"Because your father... well..."
I trail off. There's nothing I can say here that the story itself won't eventually cover. I refuse to make excuses for him, but somehow I am unwilling to assign him all blame, either. Which leaves me with nothing to say.
I decide to scrap it all and start over. "All right." And I begin. To tell her the story, as I know it. The same story I still can't come to terms with, the same story I wouldn't believe myself if I didn't have it right here in my pocket, scribed carefully in Murphy's crabbed old handwriting.
The story of her father.
Irina and Murphy, I
I suppose that in all matters such as this it's good to put down a bit of an introduction. God knows whether or not anyone else will ever read these pages, but if I'm going to spend the time sitting here recording everything that I am now feeling about Irina and my darling Hepzibah, I'm going to do it right. So. To begin at the beginning.
She was beautiful.
I want to write that, first and foremost, because that, I think, is the one thing that will remain with me from here onwards until the bitter end. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she was beautiful. Thin, pale, and blonde with eyes of the purest shade of coral-blue that I've ever seen. And it wasn't a wispy sort of beauty either. This was clearly a woman of strong Caucasian stock, whose mountain-dwelling ancestors were hacking a living out of the rocks when your great-grandfather's great-grandfather was just a wee little thing. Strength, honed and refined in the silver-forges of culture and class and pedigree. I believe truly that I loved her from the first moment I saw her, even though the rationalist in me even now scoffs at the idea. Perhaps it would have been a better situation all around if the rationalist in me would have done just a tiny bit more of the scoffing.
At any rate. This was how she appeared to me when she first appeared in my shop. She was wearing a beautiful Merino sweater and well-kept jeans of deep indigo. She had a satchel slung across her back, and she carried one of those new-fangled palm-top computers to boot.
She was alone in the shop, of course, looking and browsing about the stacks like any other patron. Occasionally, however, I would catch a glimpse of something, somehow, a bit different. The way she would sometimes take a moment out of her extensive searching and cross-referencing on the tiny computer to simply remove one of the volumes from its place on the shelves and flip through its pages, eyes closed. Breathing. And the way she would make certain that she placed it back in exactly the same place when she was done. A University student, I surmised at the time... but one who was quite a cut above the rest. One who didn't see books simply as tools, a means to an end, but as an art. In and unto themselves, independent even of the words therein. I recall casually wandering out from my position behind the cashier's stand and inspecting the stacks in the wake of her passage, and I remember being quite surprised that I could not perceive in my post hoc review which books she had been selecting. And this was not a matter of simply "misplaced" works, books where they should not be. The girl had actually returned the books to their precise depth on the shelves. It was as though they had never been touched.
A woman after my own heart.
Smiling softly to myself, I meandered closer to her position and delivered the typical "can I help you?" with what was, I admit, a considerably higher degree of sincerity than I typically use under these circumstances.
She turned to me, almost surprised, and then told me what she was looking for. Her voice, when it came, was a wonderful liquid Russian-flavored English exactly as beautiful as she was. Consider me a dirty old man in my thoughts by this point, if you will. You'd be nigh close to the mark. In my experience, most everyone in the world goes to their grave having experienced the joy of marriage at least once; I am, to this day, the exception that proves that rule. To all the rest, I was too obsessive, perhaps. Too lacking in ambition. Too tempermental. Too... perfectionistic. And as for me, I was ever waiting for the better to come along. I was fully forty years of age before I began to worry that maybe, I had been the one who had been wrong all this time.
At any rate. I have a profound appreciation for the nature of the woman. I must stress that I do believe that this is the case. I never intended disrespect to her, and I will ever maintain that my intentions, at least, were good.
"Excuse me." She said. "I am looking for a book. But I cannot remember the name it was that wrote it."
"Do you know the title?" I asked.
"Ah, yes. It is 'Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe.' I am performing a paper on it for my Literature class."
Almost before she was done with the sentence, I had gone and returned with the book in question. "Here we are, missus. George Eliot." I said. "I'm a bit surprised that your professor assigns you a book and then makes you gallumph to the old and secondhand shops to find it."
"Oh, no." She said. "Doctor Mulhaus ordered plenty of copies for the University Bookstore. But..." She trailed off, a faint flush creeping into her cheeks.
"But what?" I pressed.
"They... they aren't hardbound." She said, stroking the impeccably-kept canvas binding of the spine.
All I could do was smile.
"Anyway, I am surprised." She said. "Normally my program tells me what names there are, but this one, it was not having." She held up her computer. I knew the program she was using. One of those phooey-all "comprehensive" databases with a positively ludicrous number of boolean variables and search strings and all that hoo ha.
"Rubbish." I said. "You'd best to throw the damn thing away." Only afterwards, as is always the case, did I realize the bluntness of my words. But the girl didn't seem to mind. She actually seemed rather amused.
"Oh, I cannot. This computer was a gift from my father when I left Moscow."
"I dunna mean the computer." I said, the old brogue creeping in there yet again. "I mean the program."
"But what was wrong?" She asked.
I looked at the small screen. Then, my face lit up.
"There's your problem, missus." I gestured at the screen, and the girl followed my finger to the place where I was pointing.
"Gender." I said. "You entered 'Male.' Just goes to show what kind of damnfool a mind it takes to design one of these bits of wastefulness."
She looked at me, genuinely confused. "I restricted the search to save time because I was sure I remembered that it was a man's name who wrote it...?" She frowned. "George Eliot?"
I shrugged. "Literary climate a' the time. 'Twas the old gehl's pen-name. People wunna take novels comin' from womenfolks seriously. Mary Ann Evans becomes George Eliot. So, as you see, we have Gender Confusions."
She chuckled slightly, then, and looked down at the book. "Thank you." She said. "I was about to have to go back to Doctor Mulhaus and ask questions, and then he would have had to explain everything to me. I am glad that I did not have to go through all that... Rubbish?"
I smiled. "Rubbish, yes. Tell me..." I said, curiously, "what exactly is it that you're writing about Silas Marner?"
"Oh." She said. "We are preparing an 'integration of critical commentary.' Many many different people writing about Silas Marner and we are integrating them and talking about the... validity... of their talking."
"Hm." I say.
The words that came next from my mouth will serve as some sort of testament as to the connection I felt with this young girl, even at this comparatively early stage.
"I... er... have something that might be... of help to you." I said. "I... er... have something... in my... ahm... personal stacks."
Her curiosity was piqued. I blathered on.
"Well, you see, twenty-some odd years ago, I was at this little bookshop-cafe that used to be downtown, went by some damnfool name that I can'a for the life of me remember. Not there anymore, I s'pect. Anyway..." I said, relaxing against one of the shelves, "I was sitting there on the second floor drinking a cup of coffee, when who d'ya suppose was sitting there but Susan Yang."
"The Susan Yang? Here in Ithaca?"
"Ayup." I said, with exaggerated modesty. "Aneeeway, what do you suppose she was reading but a paperback copy of this very work, just scrawling notes in the margins like she's famous for. I recognized 'er, we struck up a chat, and wouldn'tcha know it, she was jes' so tickled that I thought so highly of her commentaries tha' she offered me the copy she'd been scribbling in right then and there."
The girl's jaw dropped, ever so slightly, and I knew the magnitude of this event had not been lost on her.
"An unpublished Yang commentary?"
"Ayup." I said again.
I could see the literofanatical glint begin in her eyes. I recognized it on the dot. I've seen it in my own bathroom mirror often enough, after all.
"But... that..." She trailed off.
I smiled. "Care to take a gander at it?" I asked, mildly.
"Yes!" She said, gleamingly.
And so it went. To this day, I do believe that she's the only person I've let touch that damn thing save myself. And, God bless me, I actually went so far as to offer it to her. On a loan, of course. I wouldn't give the Yang commentary on Silas Marner away to anyone, not even her. But this simple gesture, I believe, now, looking back on it in retrospect, was the first time I had ever really, truly, trusted anyone with my Books. Really trusted them.
Her name, I would learn, was Irina.
Weeks passed. On into months. Irina stopped back into the shop a couple times in the first two weeks out. The next two weeks, she began showing up more frequently. Over the course of the next month, it became a regular occurrence. And after three, Irina became a fixture in my shop, stopping in almost daily on some academic errand or simply to talk between and after classes, sometimes far into the evening. She would browse the back room, the one I simply did not let people enter, long and far into the night, carefully picking through the ancient leatherbound first-runs and unique commentaries and one-of-a-kind works beneath the warm, dark brown illumination of the indirect light. Sometimes when the nights got very late I would call her out for some coffee (we never take coffee into the Back Room, no we do not...) and we would chat about her latest finds. All too frequently, she would be able to bring up a point about this or that commentary or this or that edition as it compared to this or that other edition that I myself had never even seen nor thought of. And she never brought the damn computer back into my shop, partially, I think, to humor me. And thus we passed our months.
Occasionally, she would even talk about herself. Her family. A pretty impressive line. Smart people. Irina's father was the founder and C.E.O. of the Muscovite branch of one of the world's foremost network computing corporations. Her mother was a physicist. And her brother had been one of the final human players ever to beat IBM's Deep Blue at its own infernal game. And Irina... well, she was a genius as well. I suppose, by some tests, so am I. Just goes to show how much use 'genius' is in this world.
And sometimes, during the very good, or the very bad times, the Bailey's would find its way into the coffee as well.
Like the night her roommate nearly killed herself in their shared bathroom with non-prescription sleep aids, and she spent all evening on into the morning crying onto my shoulder as we sat on the porch of the shop, waiting for the sunrise. Or the night that she scored the Beta Sig Scholarship of Merit award for an outstanding literary work, and I treated her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant. Or the time that...
There is a longer pause in that above break than can be suggested in a single line. I've gone to get the Bailey's again myself. It is needed sometimes.
Or the time that... she came to me... half-crying and half-laughing about a poor grade she got on her latest Lit paper for not acknowledging a critical source in her reference list on the simple grounds that her Doctor Mulhaus would not possibly believe from where it had come. (The unpublished Niedelmeyer Portfolio, if you must know.) That same time that we sat there long, long after close, letting the inertia of the alcohol build and build in our systems, Irina needing the release (a 'D' on a major thesis paper is not something a highly-driven honor student can take lightly) and me... needing...
And me, needing Irina. Let me not say that I have attempted to excuse myself, then.
It was cold that night, I remember. Very, very cold.
The sort of night where one suggests simply not walking home. The sort of night where you discover the colliding impracticality of arthritis and gallantry and the having of only one bed.
Neither of us knew what we were doing, that night. Maybe it was the Bailey's, or maybe it was just us doing what we would have done all along, or maybe it was some combination of the two. I must emphasize here that... it was... completely consentual. I would never... ever...
Another long pause taken in one line break, there.
That night was also notable for one more reason. It contained, somewhere in its depths, the biggest single unknowing lie that I have ever, ever spoken.
It was there, with us crowded in my very own bed, the faint drafts wafting over and cooling my perspiring brow, when I reached the tiny distance across my mattress to her small, now strangely-fragile form and uttered the words,
"Ssh. It's going to be all right."
Point of View
"'The Old Brantsvogel House.'" Reads Eppie, out loud. "'This site was home to one of the earliest Norwegian settlements in the area, having been established well previous to the 1800's, according to current historical estimates.'" She pauses. "You aren't Norwegian, are you, Bix?"
"No." I say, absently. "French and Irish."
"Hm." She says. "'This single-story wood and limestone building was home to the Brantsvogel family for seven generations. When the family finally abandoned this home to seek out a new life in the American West, this house was used as a parish hall for one of the local churches before the site was abandoned in 1920. It remained vacant for five decades before it was restored to its present condition and subsequently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1976.'"
"We're really lost, aren't we." She says.
"Just go look at the Scenic Overlook or something." I say, still scrutinizing the map, a completely unhelpful activity, considering that it was the goddamn map that got us in this position in the first place.
"We could have asked for directions back in Godknowswhere, Ohio, if you hadn't said you were absolutely sure that you knew how to get us back on track..."
"Look, it isn't my fault they drew the line wrong on the map."
"They didn't draw the line wrong, Bix. The highway people know where the roads go. It's their JOB."
"Doesn't mean they can't get screwed up." I say, my attention returning to the map.
Eppie turns her gaze back to the historical marker. "What's all this crap you hear about dogs and their phenomenal senses of direction? You know, like some family leaves their Cocker Spaniel behind while vacationing in the Yukon and the little guy makes it back home, crossing mountain an' stream an' all that?"
"All right." I say, a bit huffily. "You want to navigate, you go right ahead." I try to neatly fold the map up, get turned around, and eventually end up crumpling the damn thing into a ball and throwing it in her general direction. I then begin somewhat aggressively adjusting the fasteners for the luggage carriers.
Eppie goes over to the map, uncrumples it and smooths out the crinkles. "Okay." She says. "Last town we hit was what, again?"
"Drake." I say, sounding pissed off, although there's no real good reason to be.
"Okay." She says. "I think if we continue on through here, we should eventually hit I-71, and then we can-"
"No Interstates." I say.
She looks up at me. "Why not?"
"Because." I say, still fiddling with the fasteners. "You miss a lot if you go by Interstate. You just gloss over everything. Hell, you can't even stop for a breather except at an 'exit'. You can get a taste of the trip, but you'll never really have been anywhere but where you're going. And that's half the beauty of it."
"I see." She says. "How happy I am that we're doing it this way. I would have just died if we had gone all this way and not ever had a chance to see the Old Brantsvogel House, for example."
"Look." I say, turning on her, the growl creeping into my voice again. "Remember who's doing the driving, Capice?"
"Jawohl!" She says, snapping to mock attention. I snarl, snap at her, and turn away, wandering over to the convenient scenic overlook and peering huffily out over the glacially-scarred landscape.
After a moment I am aware of a presence behind me.
"It is pretty." Eppie says simply.
I nod, silently.
"I think I know where we messed up. We should be able to get back on the right road about twelve miles from here."
I nod, again.
"Sorry 'bout that, Eppie."
"S'okay." She says. I nod.
We remain there a moment longer. Finally, I turn back towards the cycle. "C'mon." I say. "Let's hope you got it right. God knows I've fucked it up so far."
"Don't feel bad." She says, as we walk. "Everybody's got stuff they're good at." She idly hands me a perfectly-folded highway map.
I look at her.
And then she takes off in a laughing sprint back to the cycle, in an attempt to avoid my swatting her one, but good.
The road goes ever on, and the heat continues unabated. It's already feeling like we've been on the road for weeks, although I know that this is not the case. I'm panting almost constantly. Yes, my tongue is hanging out a little bit. When the only sweat glands you have are at the pads of your hands and feet, you take whatever cooling you can get. Occasionally, I'm forced to splash myself with water from one of the bottles. Eppie doesn't have this problem; she's sweating, excuse me, like a horse. Equines have this thing about sweat. Sure it's making her uncomfortable, but at least it's keeping her relatively cool.
And the heat isn't my only problem, either...
The first flutters occur at about 9:45 A.M., and for a while I do not even realize what is happening. When I finally do, the realization hits me hard.
"Eppie," I say, my mouth dry, "I have to stop." I have little doubt that, underneath the fur, my face looks rather ashen. Perhaps she won't notice. Maybe I can cover for it.
"Whatever." She says, distractedly gnawing on a piece of gum she got from a machine in a gas station back in Waverly. Good. She doesn't realize anything's amiss. I just hope I can find a suitable spot before everything starts going to hell. Every time this happens, I have to seriously consider whether or not this might be it. The big one. The one that the doctors assure me won't happen but the one about which I still worry. It's not a pleasant thought. But so far, this time's no worse than any of the previous transient murmurs. I need to lay down, maybe get a drink... get out of the sun and the heat...
The highway streches on. I could pull over to the shoulder and just lay on the bank, but I'm loath to do so. It wouldn't be very safe, for one thing. Of course, driving a motorcycle at in-country speeds while in the midst of one of my happy-times isn't real high on the old personal safety list either, I might add.
The faint sick-feeling comes again, and the tingling. My heart flutters irregularly like a caged canary. Pretty soon, I'm just going to have to use the shoulder, but... Ah. A spot. I pull the BMW into a parking lot near a cluster of open shelters placed out here in the middle of nowhere as a sort of "rest stop." Quickly, I kick the stand down and begin half-walking, half-stumbling towards what looks like an antique manual well-pump standing under one of the structures. Eppie follows me. She's looking increasingly concerned. Something's noticeably wrong. She attempts to help me, but I wave her off.
After what feels like a walk of several hundred yards, we finally get to the pump. I collapse against the drinking spigot. "Eppie," I sputter, weakly, "pull the handle." She leaps up and grabs the end of the pump handle, bringing it down in a broad arc, and soon, after pumping it a few times, she has a trickle of water coming from the spigot. I lap at it. For a moment, I think I taste blood, and I am horrified that this might mean that I'm not going to make it through this one, but I soon realize that I'm just sensing the high iron content of the water, and I am vastly relieved. The insatiable worrier's greatest nightmare; a vague, currently non-life threatening condition with overly-dramatic symptoms associated with it...
After drinking as much as I feel capable of at the moment, Eppie helps me over to one of the nearby benches, and I lay there, panting quietly. Eppie looks very concerned.
"What's wrong?" She says, sounding worried.
"It's nothing." I say. "A bit of heat exhaustion. You know, no sweat glands. It'll pass soon enough. Then we can get back on the road."
She still looks unsatisfied. "You're hiding something."
"It's nothing, like I said." I begin rummaging through my jacket pockets for no better reason than to not have to look at her.
"Tell me." She demands.
"You'll laugh." I say, indistinctly.
She just stares at me. "No, I won't..."
"Okay." A quick swallow. "You remember back when we were playing in Newark and I had to drop out of the show for a couple weeks and catch up with y'all later?"
"Mm hm." Says Eppie, abstractly. "I remember the publicity people hyping up the fact that you weren't gonna be playing in order to sell more tickets. Lots of nice full houses." She grins, weakly, but her heart isn't in this one.
"Smart-ass." I say.
"Hey." She says, shrugging and gesturing broadly at her own almost affrontingly cute form. "What can I say?"
Then, "You're ducking the question."
"So I am." I say.
"What was it?" She asks.
"Heartworm." I say.
"What?" She says.
"Heartworm. Parasitical Cardiac-Muscle-Dwelling Organisms. Don't worry," I say, noting the look on her face, "they're all gone now. But my mom's family has always had this history of dicky heart, and I'm afraid it didn't do the old ticker much good to have little wormy-guys living in it for a while there."
"But..." she stammers, "people don't get that! It's a disease... for... erm..."
"Dogs." I say. My heartbeat is returning to its regular thud, my system already moving back to its normal patterns.
"Erm. Yeah." She says. She scratches in the dust with one foot.
"SCABS." I say. "Gotta love it."
"Don't they have medicine for that, though?"
"They have a preventative. There's a difference. They've got drugs to stop them from developing, but if you've already got them, it's a hell of a lot trickier. 'Course, I hadn't been taking my preventatives. Just one of those things that doesn't cross your mind 'til it's too late."
"You gonna be okay?" asks Eppie in a small voice.
"Oh, sure." I say, nonchalantly, with a confidence I do not feel. Naturally, I neglect to mention at this time that during the actual treatment for my little condition I was in very real danger of having all my niggling theological questions answered for me absolutely, once and for all. "It's just sometimes I get this way where I have to take a break. Lie down for a while. I get plenty of warning, and I never actually pass out or lose facility with my vehicle or anything, so most state DMV's don't have a problem with it. I'm gonna be just fine, Ep. Don't you go worrying now."
Eppie doesn't look convinced.
"Look. You're getting your underwear in a knot over me hypothetically just up and dying on you, now?"
"Isn't that a risk?"
"Eppie." I say, looking at her deeply from my supine position. "That's always a risk. You have to live your life accordingly. That's half the reason I'm here right now."
"What's the other half?" Asks Eppie.
"I'm trying to save a soul." I say, in as plain a fashion as I possibly can in order to ward off the demons of Melodrama. "Of a guy who deserved better."
Eppie nods, quietly, seemingly in understanding, but suddenly I am besieged by doubt.
Who exactly were you talking about, Michael?
I thought I knew who I was talking about when I first said that. I was sure I knew...
An inward sigh, and a mental shake. Must not let one's thoughts stray there. Must not.
I rise to one elbow on the bench, feeling much more like myself. "As long as we're stopped, I'll tell you more about your dad, if you like."
Eppie nods again, mind seemingly elsewhere. But even if she's not paying attention, there are other people who need to have this story told. Namely me.
I assess once more that she is indeed listening. And then...
"Okay." I say. And begin on the next chapter.
Irina and Murphy, II
Every small, overly-conservative college town has one, I imagine. A doctor who deals... under the tables. I do not mean this to say that our young Doctor Albright, straight out of medical school, was a bad man. He was very principled, in his own mind. And he had one of the most altruistic of agendas, I suppose, at its core.
Every small, overly-conservative town has a doctor whose... social policies do not agree with the norm of the community. Someone to perform those neccessities that crop up when human nature gets the better of good sense. After all, it always happens. The only thing that differs from community to community is how public it is. In the communities without people like Doctor Albright, for example, the same sort of thing takes place, just as it does in the most open and tolerant of communities. In the latter case, it occurs in clean, well-lit hospitals. In ours, it takes place in hidden rooms with Doctor Albright. And where there is no Doctor Albright, it still takes place. In those cases, it involves coat-hanger wire. And lots and lots of blood.
I do not approve of Doctor Albright. But I suppose I understand his reasonings. And whatever I feel about the man, there are certain times that some of us have need of people like him. This was one of those times. Irina needed it to be a secShe needed things paid in cash. Her parents still held her insurance policy, you understand...
I didn't want to call him. But I knew that I had to. To at least look at her.
Doctor Albright broke the news to me, second.
"Yep." Said Doctor Albright, attempting to keep his casual style in as sympathetic a voice as possible, all the while busy with adjusting his steel spectacles on his thin nose.
"Yep...?" I said, carefully, the dagger of that one syllable worming its way into my vitals.
He looked at me. "You brought me here to confirm or deny, yes?"
"But... I..." I trailed off, again. He looked squarely at me.
"Doctor," I said, somewhat abashedly, "what are... our options from this point on?"
"Well." Said the doctor, thankfully refraining from noting that the options from this point on were a pretty damn obvious set of choices. "The girl's legally an adult, and she's gotta make that choice for herself. But for your benefit, sir.." He paused and adjusted his spectacles again, seemingly out of nervous habit. "First off, I'm going to assume that, based on what I've been told by you and the girl about the specific situation, that there's no chance that the girl is going to keep the child, that is to say, all the way through to its raising."
"No." I said, quietly.
"Well..." Said Doctor Albright, "The way I see it, we've got one of two ways we can go. I have... contacts... who will be able to handle the child if she carries it to term. As long as no-one else ever gets access to her future gynaecological examinations, which is eminently possible, considering she's well on her way to living her own life now, no-one will ever have to know about it."
Doctor Albright practices his own brand of ethics. And he practices them with a very firm conviction.
I swallowed. "And, the other...?"
"Well, Mister Donham," said Albright, "the other option is to never allow the girl to reach term. The same stipulations as the first about gynaecological examinations, but we can probably do it with a lot less trouble and physical strai--"
"No." I said, reflexively.
Albright blinked mildly at me. "That is, of course, the girl's choice, Mister Donham."
"I won't let her." I said, my jaw quivering.
A small sigh escaped Albright's lips. "Mister Donham, my means are limited. If you want my professional opinion on these matters, I'd say that in the long run it would be--"
"Damn it," I said with deadly calm, "I've gotten your professional opinion already. I don't need you to tell it to me over and over and over again."
Albright nodded, then. "The girl wanted a few days to think it over. Let me urge you, sir..." He looked intently at me, then. "Let me urge you to think about this, and... really... keep the field as open for the girl's own decision as humanly possible. She looks up to you a lot, sir."
"I've instructed her to give me a call when she's made up her mind. In the meantime, I have given her, and I'll give you, the numbers of some professional counsellors in the ar--"
"I don't need them." I said, quietly.
"Perhaps you can just use the young woman's co--"
"I SAID, I DUN'NA NEED THEM!" I bellowed.
Albright nodded, then. "I'll be expecting your call."
And he left. After taking a moment to collect myself, I walked quietly back to the bedroom in the little flat above the bookshop. Long before I found her, I could hear the sound of her sobs.
When I finally arrived there, I found Irina kneeling by the edge of the bed, her face buried in one of the old eiderdown pillows. The thick feathers did nothing to muffle the ratcheting coughs that had come in the midst of her tears.
She raised her head. Her eyes were red and swollen from the tears, and shining vertical lines still streaked the contours of her high, aristocratic cheekbones.
"Murphy..." She said, through her tears. "What... should we do...?"
I first felt the world slipping away from me at that very moment. I felt myself grasping for psychological straws, looking for any means by which Irina... and I... could divine the truth. I thought of the words of Doctor Albright. And I thought of the words of my very own mother and father, dead and dust themselves for many decades now.
Silently, I knelt on the side of the bed opposite to Irina. I looked deeply at her. "Irina," I said, "I do not know."
Sobbing still, she nodded.
"What should I do?" She asked, then.
And the echoes of my mother and my father reverbrated up through my consciousness, sending me, in their own little way, their own messages from beyond the wall of the grave.
I reached out and touched Irina's hand. It was cold. But she did not pull it away.
"Pray." I said.
Still Life, with Blackbird
The sun rises over the broad Midwestern landscape, looking for all the world like a disc of molten copper, heating the thin ribbon of asphalt until the air above it shimmers. The daylight has not yet seen motorists on this particular stretch of highway, and the heat of the day makes the place seem all the more lonely.
At the very edge of the road lies a raccoon, quite dead, the last traces of evening dew still clinging to the rapidly tattering greyish coat. Save the insects and the occasional red-winged blackbird, it is the sole inhabitant of this area of highway. All through the night it has kept sightless watch over this stretch of landscape, all through to the coming of morning.
It is not a good place for a raccoon to be. Obviously, it wasn't the best choice of spot when the creature was alive, either, many hours ago. The impact has left the corpse relatively intact; the neck sits at an appalling angle, and one side of the face is severely abraded, but overall, it is still very much a recognizable shape, albeit sitting as it is in a stiff cartoon-like rigorous posture of death. It was probably a rather small car. Not that it makes any difference at this point. The still is unearthly and the heat is all about.
And then, from far off, a faint sussurrant noise that rapidly grows in volume. The heat-distorted image of a motorcycle appears, as a gradually-approaching speck in the distance...
"Raccoon." She says to me. Eppie's been entertaining herself by identifying the roadkill as we pass it. It's kind of a morbid game, but hey. The kid's bored. Let her have her fun. The whipping wind is already starting to give me a headache, and I'm hoping there's a place that serves breakfast in the next town so that I can get some food in me and maybe start fighting back.
"Oppossum." She says. I say, "Mm hm."
"Deer." She says. I say, "Mm hm."
"Family of cats." She says. I look. After a while, I say, "Mm hm."
"Wha-?" I look in the direction she's pointing.
She giggles. "Madeyalook."
"Funny, Eppie. Real cute."
She just snickers. I return my attention to the endless road ahead. After a time...
"Raccoon." I look. "Mm-"
The sun glints off a bit of metal nearby the small corpse. My eyes narrow. "Eppie, did you see something by-"
"Yeah!" She says. She's angling her head, trying to get a better view. It's harder for her without as much binocular vision, but she's doing okay. I slow the BMW to a stop about a hundred yards past it and circle back along the shoulder for a closer look.
The corpse sits there, one eye heavenward, the other more-or-less watching the road. It's wearing a chain around its neck. I crouch close, waving away flies. Eppie stays with the bike. The chain is an ordinary scuffed silver, the cheap variety. Dangling limply from it is a metal tag with a red emblem. A medical alert charm, the kind worn by people with epilepsy or dicky hearts, for example. I should probably get one, come think of it. Biting my lip, I gingerly inspect the inscription.
It bears the single word, "SCABS." There used to be more at one time, but it's been dragged across the asphalt and everything else but that has been effaced. Suddenly the little cadaver seems unspeakably horrible.
"Eppie, don't look." It's not as though the actual object has changed any, but a perception shift will do wonders. She senses something in my voice and complies. Carefully, I study the tag, looking for a name, a phone number to call, anything. No luck.
"We should bury him." Says Eppie, from the bike. She's caught on already. Sharp kid. I shake my head.
"What, here? We can't, Ep. Somebody's going to be missing him pretty soon, if they aren't already." I trail off, staring at the body. Suddenly, the act of talking itself seems pretty useless. Eppie comes to my rescue.
"Maybe we should call the police, or something?"
I nod but make no move. We stand there for some time staring at each other, a dog, a mule, a motorcycle and a dead raccoon, all sillouhetted against the brazen Midwestern sky.
"So you want us to come and investigate some animal that got killed along County V?" The cop on the other end of the line is getting impatient.
"No." I explain for the umpteenth time. "It's not just some animal. It's a person. A SCAB. He must have been in full 'morphic and got nailed by a car while crossing the road. Look, haven't you gotten any calls or anything? Somebody missing?"
"Can't say we have, mister. There's a lot of dead raccoons this time of year, by the way."
"This one was wearing a medical alert tag."
"That's the most identification you can give us?"
"Look," I exclaim, losing my patience again and drawing a few stares from the regular Denny's breakfast crowd, "We didn't take photographs, all right? There's a dead person out there on the road, just east of..." I pause and try to remember what town this is again. "Just east of Kilbourne. Okay?"
"Right, sir. Thanks for calling us. We'll get somebody on it." The laconic tone of voice hardly inspires confidence, but I don't push the issue.
"Thanks," I say, not meaning it. He hangs up.
Just another bit of roadkill... no different from the hundreds of others along that road...
I shake my head and return to my table. In the time it took me to deal with the police, Eppie's already ordered pancakes for herself and is now well on her way to finishing them. She also ordered juice. "Thanks for waiting for me," I say, sardonically. She ignores me. She's too hungry. The waitress comes around again, and I am halfway to ordering coffee before I remember the doctor's stipulations about caffeine. I settle for juice as well -- I need something to wash the damned preventative down, as, yes, it's that time of month again -- and almost as an afterthought I order a bagel. For some reason, my appetite is just not with me anymore. Eppie doesn't have that problem. She eats like a horse. Excuse the pun, please. Seriously, she's a growing kid, and she needs all the calories she can get. I try to keep my mind off what's waiting for the both of us at the end of this little expedition. I guess giving Eppie back to Murph is kind of out of the question. So she goes back to the Friedmann's. Where, eventually, some kind-hearted soul adopts her, some broad-minded person who can look past the painfully obvious burn-brand of Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome to see the wonderful person she is, way deep down... someone with a wonderful little house and a wife somewhere far, far away...
All of a sudden, I don't want to lose her.
I wait in silence, afraid to say anything. Eppie tirelessly continues to eat.
"Wha'd they say?"
"They said they're sending somebody to check on it."
She nods, apparently satisfied. I could have told her that it's not likely that anything will actually come of it, but why bother. The kid's got a rose-colored world view yet. I'm not going to be the one to shatter it.
"Bix?" She says, after a time.
"You did promise you'd tell me more about Dad."
And she's right. I did. "Not here, Ep."
She just looks at me petulantly. Her lower lip creeps forward...
"Oh, for god's sake, Eppie."
She immediately brightens.
And, gathering myself, my voice coming to me again and blending seamlessly into the pleasant morning-sounds of coffee and breakfast around me, I begin Act Three...
Irina and Murphy, III
It was many months later when we next called Doctor Albright, that is to say, after Irina and I phoned him to let him know that we would be keeping the child. He was disheartened, I could tell, but both Irina and I had prayed and studied and thought and meditated and we felt sure that we knew the way that things should go. All this time, I had been trying as best I could to keep expenses down by not calling Doctor Albright in when, unfortunately, he probably should have been called. But Irina joked at me, saying that women had been having children for ages and ages before there were Doctors to tell them how to do it, and they didn't even have handy guide-books with titles like "A Handbook for Home Natural Child Birth." Therefore, it was okay that I didn't have the money to pay Doctor Albright. It was also okay that she was no longer "attending" school, as such. Through a series of lies and half-truths I had convinced the Registrar's Office at Saint Ignacius U. that Irina had become home-ridden due to a non-threatening condition, and that she could still maintain her registration at school if I, her "uncle," would collect all her homework assignments and prepare and gather tapes from all her lectures. It cut into the time I could keep the shop open, but Irina needed to maintain her registration, or there would be evidence that something was wrong. The occasional voice-only phone call to her parents completed the charade, and I could see her brave struggle to keep her voice normal and sane over the course of each and every call. She cried to me afterwards, after every one. A lot. But we managed to keep the charade going for four whole months.
Until that day that we called Doctor Albright in.
We had to.
Doctor Albright met me in the back room of the shop. His normally unshakeable countenance was visibly, well, shaken, and he wasted no time in letting me know exactly why.
"Mister Donham." He said, the words coming quick and fast and sometimes crashing into one another. "I'm... er... I'm really getting to an area that's quite a bit out of my league here. Well. Let me be frank. This is an area that is so completely out of my league that I... ah... I really don't feel comfortable even making a statement about it."
"What's wrong?" I said, with a nasty tinge to my voice that had been placed there over months and months of far-too-much stress. The old ulcer had been acting up again, to boot, and, wouldn'tcha know it, I hadn't been seeing a doctor about that either. All of our money was going into keeping us... and the new child...
And now, this... gods, why did it have to happen, then...
"What's wrong, Mister Donham? What's wrong?" Albright was actually beginning to sputter a bit.
"Tha's what I asked you. You've got our promise of legal indemnity."
"Not holding me responsible for any damages that may incur for my professional advice is one thing, Mister Donham. But this... I mean... I can't even reliably guess as to what to do in this situation if you intend to keep in your current vein of thinking about this issue."
"GodDAMNIT, man, give us something, here!" My hands were shaking slightly, as I recall.
Albright swallowed once and wiped some perspiration from his brow with a pocket handkerchief. "Have you tried... a... ah... ahm..."
"Spit it out, man."
I turned away from him, disgustedly.
"Possibly one who specializes in Avian medicine?" Continued Albright, heedlessly.
"Look." I said, rounding on him. "That's a human being in there. An' we're not talking just in the philosophical domain, an' we're not talking just about Irina, are we. You said yourself that gross physical inspection of the fetus revealed that it was still progressing along normal lines of development. The child is normal. Healthy? Yes? That's what you said, was it?"
"Currently, yes!" Said Albright, his hands shaking a bit as well. "I mean, there's virtually no chance that the child will be affected directly by the M.F.V. while in the womb. The problem comes in that... well... the young woman's urogenital structure is changing by the moment. And right now, from what I know about SCABS, there's no way to predict even how much that it's going to change. Odds are the fetus will spontaneously abort well before full term anyway, Mister Donham. A single placentally incompatable change right now will kill the fetus, sir."
"Doctor Albright." I said, in a quiet growl, "we are going to bring this baby to term. If the child dies as a result of this Hell-spawn disease, then that is a regrettable occurrence. But we will not be a party to the murder of an innocent."
"Let me give you this to consider, then, sir." Said Albright. "The longer that this waits, the more danger that Irina will be in from the possible complications. Her life may be at risk here, sir. I shan't mince words with you anymore."
"And what about the baby's life? Tha'll be in pretty damn distinct danger if we carry through with what you're suggesting."
"Mister Donham." Says Albright, with a note of finality. "It is my personal, professional opinion that your choice of action in these matters is both irresponsible and extremely problematic to me. Irina's life is at stake here, sir. And I will make no bones about this fact: I will operate now, or as soon as humanly possible, or else I cannot be responsible for this case, and I want no further contact with it. My risks here have just gone through the roof, and it's only a matter of kindness that I offer you this right now. Otherwise, I cannot be party to this."
"But." I said.
(But you're the only doctor we can see.)
(But we need your advice.)
(But we can't do this by ourselves.)
Albright raised one eyebrow at me, his entire body trembling from the stress. "I need to know, Mister Donham."
I swallowed hard. And then, with the slowness of the winter, I said,
"Thank you, doctor. We will have no further need of you."
Doctor Albright looked as though he had just been slapped. He fumbled around, then, in his pocket, for one of his damned cards. "Here's the emergency line for the Ob/Gyn ward at the hospital. It will not be confidential, you understand, unless you have some other way of paying for it than the young woman's medical insurance."
"Then..." I said... "we will have no need of it."
"Murphy." Said Albright, using my given name for the first time. "I sympathize. I really, really do. You're attempting to keep things heading towards the best-case scenario here, and you think that, somehow, through sheer effort of will, you can make it so. But... and I tell you this as a person and not as a professional, sir... you may have to accept a one of your less-than-desireable outcomes in order to keep... something awful from happening. Which I assure you, you will regret far more than you would any of the others."
"Thank you, Doctor Albright. I recall saying at some time not too long ago that we'll have no further need of you."
Albright swallowed, with one final effort of will. "I should report this to someone in a position of authority."
"If you do," I said calmly, "you implicate yourself as well."
For a brief moment there was nothing but silence.
And then, without a word, Doctor Albright left again. For the last time.
I followed him a short distance out into the main shop, pausing a moment to soak up the potent atmosphere of knowledge that I had collected there over my forty-odd years of owning this store. Information. Information would be my weapons, now. My shield and my armour. For both of us. All three of us. Irina, myself, and the Baby.
Once finished with my meditations, I followed the trails I had come to know so well over the course of the past several months, all throughout my "Health" section, collecting every book that might possibly be of use. Home remedies for varied ailments. Gynaecology texts, sold to me some time ago by cash-ailing Health students. Any and every bit of information to serve as bricks and mortar for our fortress from the outside world.
And then, with a sick feeling, I went as well to the Zoology section. And collected books of a... similar nature.
Except for one. The Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds.
Carefully, I paged through the glossy, full-color plates until I found the one I was looking for. The Herring Gull.
I studied the picture for a long moment, then closed my eyes with a quiet, slow exhalation of breath.
And then, wearily, I trudged up to the
"I'm sorry, Eppie." I say, trembling slightly. We have not yet attracted the uneasy glances of our fellow breakfast patrons; all about our little bubble of darkness is trivial, happy conversation, much as one might expect from any normal group of people chatting at Denny's. "I... can't go on with this any more. Not right here."
Eppie looks at me, her eyes wide. The last remnants of her pancakes remain untouched on their plate, cementing away in their pools of rapidly-congealing syrup.
I reach for my waterglass, to steady my nerves, but I fumble mid-reach and it spills.
We both just sit there staring at the water as it creeps its way slowly across the crimson laminate surface of the table.
A Window Facing Upwards
One night away from Ithaca we get a room in a Best Western that we saw advertised along the highway. I would have liked to have made more progress today, had the weather, which had, up until that point, miraculously held out over the course of the trip, not finally decided to turn nasty on us. As the first big raindrops began splattering across the road, we decided to call it quits for the day in an unspoken mutual agreement. Eppie's been a little bit short with me today, and I think it's because she's getting anxious about meeting Murph. Her dad. I still can't quite come to grips with it, but when I finally see the both of them together I'm sure that everything will fall into place. I'm anxious as well. It's been years since I've seen Ithaca and my Alma Mater, Saint Ignacius U. Where this whole story began, so long ago.
My muscles are finally at the "seriously complaining" point, and I have to admit that the fact that the hotel in question advertised a hot tub and sauna in big letters on their billboard proved to be a major selling point. Thankfully, the check-in guy proved to be a remarkably enlightened fellow, and we didn't have to waste much time trying to convince him that we should be allowed to use the pool area despite our mutually-held "communicable" disease. Still, I'm sure there were complaints about it in the morning, and even though it wasn't technically a very busy night at the hotel, both of us found it rather sad that none of the other guests ever joined us for a swim that night.
So, after splurging on supper from the hotel restaurant, Eppie and I find ourselves alone on the pool deck. I'm sitting on one of the obligatory poolside chaise lounges, reading my paperback, and pointedly not using the Jacuzzi. I'd forgotten in selecting the hotel that people with heart conditions shouldn't indulge in hot tubs. I'm kind of pissed off, and eventually I'm probably going to throw caution to the wind and do it anyway, but for now, I'm choosing to be reasonable. Eppie's back-floating in the pool nearby, staring up at the rain-washed skylight above her, listening to the rhythmic patter of rain on plexiglass. She's thinking again, and I think I know what about.
"Bix?" She says, inevitably.
"Mm hm?" I say, setting down my paperback on a nearby table, preparing for what is to come.
"You said we're almost to Ithaca?"
"Should be there tomorrow afternoon, if the rain lets up."
There is silence for a little while. Eppie idly takes a mouthful of water and squirts it up towards the ceiling. I wait.
"You're not done with the story yet." She finally points out.
"I know." Good lord, she's just like her father. I never could stand up to either of them for long.
"So, this is, like, the last time we're really going to be able to talk before I meet him, right?"
She swims over to the side of the pool and folds her arms over the side. "So, shouldn't you finish it before I meet him, or something?"
I nod, slowly. "You really want to hear it, don't you."
"You started the story. You gotta finish it, now."
"You're right, Ep," I say, quietly. Stories have to be finished."
And, with a brief mental bucking-up in preparation of what will be the most difficult part for me as well, I begin to finish the story.
Irina and Murphy, IV
I... suppose there's little left to write here, except to tie up some loose ends.
That's not true. I don't know why I just wrote that. I don't know why I just wrote that at all.
I remember standing in Irina's bedroom. That is when I first start to recall. There are tubs of swiftly cooling hot water everywhere. And the noise is...
The noise is of an infant. A small, pink thing with a head still misshapen from its rigorous birth. It is... crying. Loud. Lustily. The books said it was a healthy baby's cry, that cry. A healthy baby. A healthy baby. A perfectly healthy baby
I am standing there and I don't know what to do. Books are laying all around me haphazardly, their spines broken from laying open, leaves down, on any flat surface that would support them. I would... never have done such a thing to books. I must have really needed to have those pages open for quick reference. I must have needed to sacrifice the strength of their backs for some... important reason...
I notice that the baby's... cord has been cut. I suppose that I must have done that. I'm not sure what it was connecting it to, though. One end was on the baby, and the other goes into this big dark red area where there is nothing but silence and not even the noise of breathing or anything like that to break the silence that there is.
There are lots and lots of books around Big books, small ones, lying on tables and nearby on the bed and the ones on the bed are covered in something that leaked out of the dark red splotch that I cannot see past
The baby is crying. Wailing. It hurts my ears. Hurts them.
I leave it where it lies, still crying. There was something I was supposed to do with powdered milk and a bottle or something but I don't remember what it was. Maybe one of the books will tell me.
No. This one is just a book about seagulls and other birds. I wonder why this one is here. It doesn't seem to fit in with the other books.
It should go back where it belongs. I pick it up and bring it back downstairs to the shuttered, closed, darkened shop and place it carefully, exactly, where it belongs.
I walk back upstairs. The baby is still crying. Crying and crying and crying and crying and crying and crying and
there are a LOT more books lying around here! This isn't the way to keep books!
I pick up a book and smooth its pages out where they got crumpled from laying face down on the little bedside table. There.
I pick up another, and another. This one is creased here, this one's spine is all out of whack with the rest of the pages... so... and this one's got a rip in it, gotta make a note of that on... this piece of paper here, to tape that sucker up.
An armload goes downstairs and all members are placed where they go. The baby is still crying. It's still crying. Goddamn it, it's still crying. Why is it crying? Maybe... it has to do with the milk sort of thing that I don't remember what it was supposed to be.
No matter. Must put the books away.
Load after load after load. This one is torn here. This one is folded here. This one is... soaked... with the blackish-red stuff, because it was the one nearest the point where the blackish-red thing is. No matter. Can't get that out, can we. Oh well. Make a note of it. Put it back on the shelf.
Load after load after...
The baby is still crying. I don't understand why the baby is still crying. The books are all put away, now. It shouldn't be... sad...
A valve, or something, far, far down in my mind closes shut. And... ever so gradually...
I begin to see...
Blood and feathers... everywhere...
The baby is crying.
The baby is crying.
The perfect, red-blue-pink baby is crying. The Perfect baby. Perfect in every little way. Down to its little toesy-woesies. Whole. Beautiful.
It's crying. Louder. And Louder. And Louder.
And the reddish-black part of my vision begins to resolve itself... into a shape...
A perfect baby. An imperfect... mother. A grossly, vastly imperfect mother. Something's wrong.
It's crying. and crying and crying and crying and CRYING and... and...
Slowly, I walk over to the small, low table upon which the baby is sitting.
The anger builds in me.
Perfect baby. Imperfect mother.
I take the child up in my large, weathered hands.
I lift it.
And I bring it down.
I hear that something is broken.
Good. Now there is no problem. Now, at least...
Casually, I leave the baby where it lies, screaming its anger and rage and pain, its left leg bent and twisted in a way that no leg should ever, ever be.
And I go downstairs to my telephone and thoughtlessly dial the emergency number only after taking a few minutes to remember what the emergency number is.
It rings, and someone picks up.
"Hello." I say. "You're already too late."
I've... looked what I have just written. And much as I'd like to crumple this whole thing up and start over now, I think I'm going to leave it as is. To... prove to myself that I can.
Now there's little more to tell.
Irina's body was shipped back to Moscow for burial there. Not... much else to say there. Her parents didn't... press charges. They weren't that kind of people.
And the baby was given to an American adoption agency. Irina's mother and father weren't that kind of people either. I do not know where she is or what she is currently doing or whether she would even forgive me if she knew what it was I had done to her, and I suppose that, for all practical purposes, I will never, never know.
The child's name is Hepzibah. A bureaucrat at the agency ignorant of the entire situation once phoned, to settle final issues, asked me what the child's name was.
And that was my one, wild moment of hope. Suddenly it all became oddly clear to me that the one thing I had to offer this childname 'Irina' was her mots name. d strong Chekhovian name. To me, in that one strange moment, that one fact explained it all. Chekhovian plays never turn out right. Someone, at the end-all, is always getting shot or committing suicide or getting killed in the war or somesuch. The hand of destiny. Working your life from the moment of your birth.
The only thing I could offer my daughter was the happiest name I could possibly think of.
Hepzibah. From Silas Marner. The book that had brought her mother to me. The one book whose sickeningly sweet ending had been turning the stomachs of restless literature students for decades upon decades.
But for my daughter, I wanted nothing less than the best.
I started to laugh, then. There was nothing else to do, nothing else I could possibly, ever, do. There were no more tears that could be shed. I was fresh out.
"'Hepzibah.'" I said, finally. "It's a Christian name. But you can call her 'Eppie' for short."
The bureaucrat barely acknowledged my words before hanging up. I think he sensed that there was something wrong and wanted to terminate our correspondence as quickly as possible. I do not know if he even got the right name down. But I'd like to believe that he did.
One year. My one year's anniversary. For a marriage that never even was and a tryst that almost certainly should not have been.
Irina is gone from me, never to return. And the daughter whose birth took her from me is also gone. And, so. I am sitting here alone in my fortress of words, of paper and leather and ink, and the emptiness gathers and clots around me and threatens to crush me with its magnificent depth.
It hurts me.
And I'm not sure which pains me the worse.
The fact that my love has now, finally, come to a place where no-one may ever again touch her...
Or the fact that my infant daughter, whom I never knew but to hurt, has passed to a place where I alone may never again touch her...
A Window Facing Upwards (II)
"So. That's it." I say, trembling slightly. "He named you Eppie, and I guess the Agency people kept it as that on your record. It's stayed with you ever since. That's how I recognized you from the narrative." That and the limp. But I don't say that right now.
Eppie is silent. Poor, poor kid. And I thought the telling of it was bad.
Wordlessly, she goes over to one of the ladders leading out of the pool. She struggles with it for a bit. Her feet aren't quite the right shape for the rungs, and her slight limp is hindering her again. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I think she might be favoring that leg a little more than usual. Most of the time, she's not thinking about it. She is tonight.
She approaches my chair.
"Y'wanna go in the hot tub?"
"Can't." I say, tersely. "Heart, remember?"
She nods. "You look really tired."
"Yeah." I say.
"It'd be fun." She says.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Ep. You've got your heart set on it now, dontcha."
She nods, in her horsey fashion, and then looks at me intently. There's something you must know, on the off-chance that I haven't made it abundantly clear to you already, about the way that Eppie 'begs' for something. There is nothing cute about it. No puppy-dog eyes, no drawn out 'Please'es, nothing like that. She just stares at you with this gaze filled with the simple, solid conviction that, eventually, she is going to get what she wants, and while you may hold out for a time, it will, in the end, be a losing battle on your behalf. My resistance is already crumbling.
"I don't know how you do it, kid," I say. Shaking my head all the way, I rise from the chair and accompany my surrogate daughter over to the Jacuzzi.
And then, as I peer into the swirling water, I say, "If I die here, it'll be all your fault." My voice sounds more exhausted than I believe it has ever sounded.
She looks at me. "Would it be worth it?"
A deep breath.
"I think so, tonight."
And as the rain from the steel-colored sky patters on the overhead glass, Eppie and I lower ourselves into the hot, swirling water, and, as we chat quietly about anything and everything at all, the collected weariness of the long road behind us, just for the moment, disappears without a trace.
And it was evening and it was morning. Another day. The rains have not ceased, and indeed, the thunder from without earlier this morning served Eppie and I better than any wake-up-call would have. Eppie refused to use the bathroom until the storm had passed ("You wanna fry yourself showering in an electrical storm, you go right ahead...") but at last, as the rumbling receded off into the distance, Eppie finally got moving (although still taking an inordinate amount of time, I might add. Teenage Girls: A Species Apart.) Once ready, we decided to make it an early start despite the light drizzle. We're on the brink here, and both of us are anxious to get the waiting over with, whatever the day may bring.
And so, we find ourselves on the last leg of the journey. The rain has revitalized the heat-scorched grass along the roadsides, and all is green as far as the eye can see, which in Kansas is pretty fricking far. The clouds have shifted from darkish grey to lightish grey, and the drizzle is almost imperceptible now. We've been silent all morning. Earlier, I flipped on the radio and hunted for a signal, anything to fill up the silence, but we're out in No Man's Land here, and there are no stations in range. It's hissing out soft static now, scanning vacantly through the channels on automatic and coming up with nothing. I don't feel like turning it off.
Mile after mile of flat green everythingness as far as the eye can see. Kansas.
Mile after mile after mile...
And then, suddenly, a noise jolts me from my road- hypnosis. A sound. Music.
The radio. We've found a signal. It's a quiet station, very soft and majestic. Probably something by Copland. Whatever it is, it means that civilization is close.
"Eppie--" I say, but I do not finish that thought, for ahead, the flatness is broken by a great, bowl-shaped valley into which the road descends. And deep within the valley, just barely visible at this distance through the haze, is the majestic bell-tower of Saint Ignacius University. Ithaca.
I slow the cycle to a stop. It's a country road. Nobody coming as far as the eye can see. This one singular moment that we are now experiencing is probably the most compelling reason I had for avoiding the Interstate Highway System. I want to take just a few moments to breathe the air and milk the instant for all it's worth.
And so we look down at the city, two pilgrims gazing upon the promised land. Shafts of light break through the thinning clouds above us, and the day's first glimpses of infinite blue become visible. Copland is exulting softly in the background. A poet's dream.
"Eppie." I say. "We're home."
"That's it?!?." She says through her grin, quite deliberately breaking the mood I was trying to create. "I was hoping for something a little bigger, after all this way."
All I can do is laugh, and I do so until my eyes water.
And then, with a wild whoop, I touch the gas and give the engine everything I can.
The One Missing Piece
I think I'd like to skip the next part.
I'll leave it to your imagination.
Go on. You can picture it. Picture Eppie and I, making our way with high hopes into the city of her birth, hearts singing with excitement and nerves jangling with unease. Picture our coming to Murphy's apartment and finding it quite vacant. Picture our rapidly growing anxiety as we search through phone directories for any mention of the man. Picture us visiting an antiseptic old nursing home on the outskirts of town. Picture us asking as to the whereabouts of one Murphy Donham, bookseller, now retired. Picture our faces when the otherwise-perky young attendant on duty at the desk assumes a mien of considerable sympathy as she tells us what exactly happened to Murphy Donham only a few spare weeks earlier. Picture Eppie, especially. Note the look of shock and disbelief. Picture us sitting there staring at the attendant for an endless minute and then wordlessly walking away back out to the parking lot, getting back on the motorcycle and driving away.
I knew you could do it.
How about this. Picture Eppie and I spending the remainder of the afternoon in a sort of lackluster daze as I show her around the city where I spent six long years of college, in a vain attempt to make the trip have been useful for some reason. Picture us visiting the public library and looking for individual volumes of Murphy's considerable collection, donated there when Murphy finally closed up shop some years back. Picture us looking on as a contracted worker installs a small brass plaque identifying one of the lounges as the "Murphy Donham Memorial Reading Room." Picture us rather quickly leaving that place, checking into a hotel and staying up until the nether hours of the morning staring vapidly at increasingly bizzare vid-feed programming. Picture us eventually lapsing into sleep where we sit, washed in the bluish light of the picture tube.
I'll let you envision that for yourself.
Me, I never want to think about it again.
And so I'm standing on the stage of the Helsing theatre, here at St.I-U. Except for it's not, really. I mean, it looks kind of like it, but something's a little bit different about it. Anyway, it's completely cleaned out, like a show has just been struck. It's my favorite way for theatres to be -- completely bare. As with all empty spaces, the sense of potential is almost frightening. There's no telling what'll fill it next. The stage lights are on full blast, but the house is utterly dark. I look around. Rather quickly, I recall that the last thing I remember is going to sleep in ttel with Eppie. So now I'm on stage. Therefore, I quickly surmise that I must be dreaming this. Usually, when I come to this realization in my dreams, I wake up soon afterwards. Tonight, it's not happening. So I wait. And then...
"Hullo, lad." A voice from the darkness before me. The sound of footsteps, and then Murphy climbs up into the light. There is something unearthly about him, even though nothing is overtly striking about his appearance itself. It's more in the carriage, the angle of the jaw. He's dressed exactly as I remember him on the last day that I saw him, when I left Ithaca for New York City, several long years ago.
"Murphy Donham, I presume." I say, mildly. "Why am I not surprised?"
"I'm a little put out. I thought ye'd be just a bit shocked."
"Nothing shocks me anymore." I say, quietly.
We pass a time under the hot lamps. Waiting.
"So what." I say at last.
"What?" He replies.
"What am I trying to tell myself, here? Dreaming this, I mean?"
"D'you have any unsettled issues in your mind at the moment, lad? Maybe that's what's doing it."
"Well, obviously I've got some unsettled issues." I say, shaking slightly, the faint red prickle building on the back of my neck again. Damn it. I... wanted my reunion with Murph, dream or no dream, to be right... at least pleasant... despite everything...
"Murphy Donham." I say, my voice practically seizing in my throat from its repression. "Why."
Murphy looks hurt. But... in a way... I have to do this.
"I've been defending you to her this whole trip, Murphy." I say. "Telling her how much you loved her. How you were just a guy making some bad choices in a situation beyond his control. But I have to know, Murph. How..." I gather my wits. "How... could you have?"
"You're talking about Eppie."
"I'm... talking about both of them. Murph... I don't know. In about fifteen different ways I wish I had never come across that damn thing. I've wished so..." I clench my teeth together. "I've wished so fucking hard at times that I never had to learn what I learned about you. I looked up to you, Murph. I needed you. You were my father. In so many ways. Dad was never anything for me, Murph. Not even when he was alive. He was weak, and simpering, and couldn't even hold his own against Mom half the time. You were the father I wanted. Strong. Calm. Unyielding. I thought I knew what kind of person I had in you. Beyond a shadow of a doubt."
I pause for breath, then continue. "Damn these dreams, Murph. Damn them all to hell. I don't want to be feeling this. I've been making excuses for you this whole time, Murph, because I wanted you to be right. I wanted you to be blameless. Because we're two of a kind, Murph. You and me both. And because if you were blameless for this whole..." I stagger, verbally. "This whole SHIT-FACED affair, then maybe, just maybe, I could be blameless too. For..." My voice creaks again. "...for what... happened to Jenny..."
With my eyes closed, I sweep the shattered fragments of myself together for one more breath.
"'Circumstances Beyond Our Control', right, Murph. They were the ones making the choices all along. Nothing we possibly could have done to see what was coming... and to... stop it... before it...
And then I break down, right there, on stage. As though I were made of no greater substance than dust and cobweb.
"Michael..." Says Murph moving towards me as if to comfort me.
"DON'T TOUCH ME!" I hack out, through my sobs. "Don't you EVEN touch me, Murph."
Murphy backs away.
"You selfish bastard." I say, gulping air inbetween my sobs. "You never cared for anyone but yourself. Ever. Not even now. Not even with your own fucking daughter. I mean, here I go abusing both Eppie and the kindness of the Friedmanns by practically kidnapping the kid and dragging her along on my smarmy little pilgrimage to the Heartland, all so that she could finally meet her real father, and you, you ungrateful shit, you have to go and die before I get a chance to do anything!"
"Sorry, lad. A massive coronary isn't something you can really control."
"It... just goes to show, though." I say, uncertainly, trying to come to a point. "Look, Murph, I can be guilty of the same thing, but at least I'm trying to recognize that!"
Murphy's face looks grey. "I cared for her. I cared for the both of them."
"Those..." I swallow. "Those were not the actions of a caring man, Murphy."
"I suppose you think I should have let Albright do his thing on her."
"Murphy..." I say. "I don't think it should ever have come to that point in the first place. You keep talking about how everything was fucking 'consentual' and how she was an 'adult' and could make her 'own choices.' Bullshit. You used her, Murph. You fucking used her. Her life was over the moment you..." I swallow my bile again. "The moment you took her to bed. It wouldn't have had to have been, Murphy. It was your fear and your shame that killed her. One fucking phone call to her parents would have done it. But you couldn't handle it. Couldja."
"All the choices were hers, Michael..." says Murphy, the anger growing in his voice as well.
"DAMN IT! I told you to SHUT UP about that! You hold her 'freedom of choice' up like a goddamn torch, as if perfect individual freedom is the fucking gold standard of true love. It isn't, Murph. What it is is a fucking cop-out, made up to look good. You had a responsibility to Irina. She was lost and scared and confused, Murph, and if you had been there to help her to be honest and admit to everyone what the two of you had done, she would have had the strength to. You could have gotten help. You wouldn't have had to go it alone. A decent hospital could've saved both of them, Murph."
Carefully, I pound my words into arrow-points.
"And Eppie's mother would still be alive right now."
Murphy flinches again.
"Why are you hanging around here?" I say. "Huh?"
Murphy does not respond.
"Did you ever ask ANYONE for forgiveness for this?" I say, trembling.
Murphy still does not respond.
"Did you even admit to yourself that you had even done a single thing wrong? By my count, you bastard, you ruined fully five lives that day, not including my ow-"
"You SHUT your BE-DAMNED mouth, sonny-boy. I only did what I thought in good conscience to be right."
"And that makes it okay, does it? Just because you were acting in 'good faith' at the time? Just because you believed you were in the right? That makes it all better, huh?"
"I would have liked to see you handling the same situation." Says Murph, bitterly.
There is a pause where we meet each other's gazes.
Then, I shake my head quietly and sigh, my wrath suddenly spent. "That's just it, Murph. I... probably would have done the same thing. The exact same fucking thing. We come from a long, long tradition of misogyny, Murph. You and me both. That doesn't make it any more right."
Murphy, again, does not respond, this time because there's probably little more that can be said. In the silence that follows, I continue.
"You never answered me, Murph. Why are you hanging around here?"
"You can't go. Can you. Because out there..." I gesture out to the abyssal darkness of the House. "Because out there you'd have to face all the pain that you've caused. And you can't do it."
Murphy clenches his jaw and turns away.
"You can still ask for forgiveness, Murph." I say, quietly.
"Do you?" He says, his voice thick.
"I'm not the one you have to ask." I say.
"Ye just said that I had 'ruined your life', sonny-boy. I hardly believe you sayin' that you're not begrudging me forgiveness after a statement like that."
"Yes." I say. "I do."
Murphy turns back around, and I see, for the first time, the sight of my boss, my patron, my mentor, my teacher... with tears in his eyes.
"I suppose..." He says, with shaking voice, "The next step is to do the same thing... out there." He raises one hand in an overly-casual gesture towards the darkness.
"I don't claim to understand this, Murph. You should know better than me."
He nods. "I think... then... that's the next step."
Murphy gathers himself, straightens his cardigan and bravely raises his chin, looking out into the dark.
"I'm... sorry for... making you come all that way."
"It wouldn't be the first time something in my life h's been for naught, Murph."
"I don't think you get it, Michael." He says. "It... it wasn't for naught. What about Eppie? What about you and Eppie? All the time you two spent togther... coming to know each other... you, you gloomy lummox, finally opening your heart up to someone..."
"Like it's really going to matter in the long run, Murph. It kind of never was a question that she would go live with you again, and me, I'm still an erratically-employed single male, no matter how much money I pretend that I can throw around. And that makes me a pretty piss-poor choice for adoptive parenthood. So Eppie's not gonna find her guiding star with either of us. She'll get snatched up, soon. I just get this horrible feeling. And then they'll cart her off to some far corner of the country, and then... I'll never..."
I trail off, unwilling to give voice to my thoughts. As if not saying it will make it not happen.
"Well, lad," says Murph, "Y'never know." And once more, there is nothing more to say. Murphy wavers on the edge of the darkness, still gathering his courage
"Murph?" I finally say.
"The agency wouldn't let me adopt her. I'm sure of it."
"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure she's okay, wherever she's going."
"I know, lad."
He smiles weakly, and nods. "I know you will."
With one deep, final breath, Murphy crests the threshold of the darkness.
At the last, I suddenly cry out.
He turns around.
"This is it, isn't it. Goodbye, I mean."
He nods. "For now."
I nod. Yet another brief moment of silence. Shakily, I raise my hand in a half-wave. He returns the gesture.
Murphy Donham walks into the shadows and is gone.
Full Circle (II)
And then, it's yet another day. The rain has finally passed, and in its wake has come much cooler weather. Eppie and I finally have a use for our jackets. The sky is cloudless, and a pleasant breeze blows out of the west. Good weather for riding. If this keeps up, the trip back will be a cinch. But for the moment, we're still in Ithaca. Oakfield Cemetery, to be precise.
It's a peaceful place which seems much farther away from the city than it actually is. Very green, with tall shady trees. Murphy was never much one for the great outdoors, but I think he'd appreciate the spot. We amble quietly through the green-dappled shadows, Eppie and I, my coat slung over one arm and my other arm around her shoulders. She's been awfully quiet. I don't blame her.
It takes us a long time to find the proper spot, but frankly, it doesn't much matter. The weather is lovely, and we're not on a schedule. We get lost and turned around no fewer than four times, and Eppie says that pretty soon we're going to have to ask for directions. She illustrates this by knocking on one of the larger tombstones and calling out, "Hello? Anybody home?" Okay. So it's not all that funny. Today, it doesn't matter. The laugh does both of us good.
Eventually, we find the spot. A tiny little plot near the west end of the grounds. "Sheesh," she says. "It's a miracle we even got to Kansas at all, the way you navigate."
"Just don't go eating the flowers," I counter. "I'm sure the groundskeepers don't need any help."
We stand there for some time, regarding the stone. It's simple. I'm sure he couldn't afford much. Not much more than a little marble plaque set into the ground. It's all the same in the end, though, I guess.
Eppie kneels in the well-mown grass and traces the inscription with one thick-nailed finger. The wind is whipping her ears about in a devastatingly cute fashion. I stand, watching her.
"You know," I say, after a time, "it's funny."
"What is?" Eppie looks up at me.
"This is where it all began. Kansas. The Heartland." I gesture grandly towards the horizon. "We're finally back."
She nods, but she's not quite understanding what I'm trying to say. Maybe it's me. I try again.
"Don't you think that, you know, it's kind of weird that we're here? I mean..." This isn't coming out right. "You know. All the times something could have gone wrong. You might not have signed on with the show in the first place. I might not have let you come home with me that night. You might never have found Murph's papers. I might not have done anything about them. You might have been gone by the time I tried." This just isn't working...
Eppie still looks at me.
"I mean, it was a hell of a set of coincidences, right?"
She blinks at me. "What's the matter?"
I make an agitated noise in the back of my throat. "I'm trying to find the right word, here."
"Instead of coincidence?"
She bites her lip, thinking. "Miracle?" She says, at last.
I snap my fingers and point at her. "Yes. Exactly. That's the word I needed." Something's fluttering at the edge of memory, but I can't place it. "A miracle, right. Except it wasn't really. A miracle would have been if we'd been in time to meet your dad before he passed away..."
She shakes her head, thoughtfully. "No... it was still a miracle." She seems to arrive at a conclusion. "It was just a little bit smaller than it could have been."
Bing. The memory is finally there.
"You know, Eppie," I say, slowly, "you sound a lot like your dad right now."
She stands, brushing the grass clippings from her jeans. "Huh?"
"It's something he said to me once. He was quoting some author or something. It went like this: If I were to reach up into the sky right now and touch the sun, that'd be a miracle, right?"
She nods, gamely.
"So if I reach out and do this..." I touch Eppie lightly on the shoulder. "If I touch you, then that's still a miracle. It's all a question of degree."
My hand does not leave her shoulder. We hold this position for some time.
And then, she smiles. "That's really kind of dumb, when you think about it."
I nod innocently, my muscles working overtime at not expressing any of the raw paternal emotion flooding through my brain. My heart is full, and for the moment, I am able to forget the worms that have lived therein. "I thought so too," I say. "But the sentiment is right."
She nods again.
And then, very simply, she moves under my arm and hugs me, resting her head lightly against my chest. "Eppie..." I breathe, but then I can say no more.
Once again, she has left me completely speechless.
Cliches and Aphorisms
I bring the BMW to a halt just outside the Friedmanns' house. The emotional trauma has finally passed, and, at least for the moment, I am quietly composed. I can't predict what I'm going to be like a few hours from now, but for the moment, I'm calm. I remove my helmet. God bless her, but the kid finally found one that fits me in one of the supply shops on the way home. I'm going to have to get a custom job made up for myself eventually, as this one is far from perfect in many different ways, but at least it fits me. It looks pretty silly, but hey, head protection is important.
"Well." She says. "Thanks for the ride."
"No problem." I say. I wouldn't have missed this moment for the world, but I don't tell her that.
"Thanks for lunch, too." Fast-food Chinese. Eppie ordered something with bamboo in it. And water chestnuts. Yes, I'm obsessing over trivialities today, but when it feels for all the world like it very well might be the last time you ever see someone like Eppie, you want to remember it. The Friedmanns made me jokingly promise that if I took her out to lunch today I wouldn't just run off with her or something, and I don't think they realized exactly how close to the mark they were hitting when they said that.
"Mm hm." I say.
There is a world of things to say at the moment, and I can't bring myself to utter a single one. Each and every one of twelve hundred variations on the theme of "Don't Go." But I'm being a grown-up here, finally, at last.
Eppie swings her leg over and dismounts from the motorcycle, interrupting my train of thought. I almost ask her what she's doing, until I remember that her leaving is the reason that we're here.
"You do realize that if the Friedmanns and the Agency folks find somebody for me I'll ask them if you can come see me sometimes." Says Eppie, pulling her bag out of the right-side carrier.
"Mm hm." I say.
"Would you want to meet them?" Eppie asks, sensing the distress that I'm trying so hard to hide.
"I think that it might do more harm than good." I say. "I'll write, though."
"Yeah." Says Eppie. "We kinda know your track record on that sort of thing, though."
There is a deep, quiet hurt, somewhere in the area of my chest. "Please." I say, almost at-whisper.
"I'm sorry." Says Eppie, contritely. She's wearing her favorite shirt, the one with the little patchwork heart on it. I stare, memorizing every detail of her face, the carriage of her ears, the bristle of her mane, the way the reddish-brown hair makes a tight little swirl at her forehead. I want to get everything perfect. I wish I owned a camera. Funny the things you don't realize you'll need until it's too late.
My composure is slipping. Best not to let her see. C'mon, Bix, let's wrap this up, here...
I wave once, jauntily. "Bye."
She returns the wave. "Bye." She says. "Thanks for everything."
And she turns to go.
I rev the engine and pull away from the curb just in time. That's good, at least.
Eppie won't have to remember the look on my face.
The End of an Era
The Blind Pig Gin Mill. Only scance minutes later.
The last of the late-lunch regulars are there. Nobody greets me. I've got that look on my face again that suggests that greeting me might be a dangerous action. They'd be wrong, this time. I'm not in the mood for a fight. Struggling with my composure, I walk back to the pay-phones, plunk some coins into the slot and dial.
Ring. The tears well up in my eyes again.
C'mon, Dreah. I need you, this time... Damn it, be there...
I don't know what I'm going to say to her. But I just know that I can't be alone today.
I start making silly promises to local divinities. I'm at the point of desperation, here.
Wait a second. That was ring number four.
Five! Her machine didn't pick up! Which means...
Six!! Which means she must have shut it off, which means...
Which means she must have been home to change the settings on the machine! Trembling with anticipation, I wait... it doesn't matter now, even if she's not in, she will be again, soon. It's only a matter of waiting, now for the right time to re-establish contact.
Finally, something is working out ri-
"We're Sorry. The Number you have Dialed has been Disconnected. Please Try Again, or..."
Almost unconsciously, I slowly set the phone back down on its cradle, cutting off the annoyingly perky phone machine voice.
Then, I lean againt wall. It's not a choice.bod refuses to be upright. Slowly, I sink my way down to the floor.
Andrea gave me that number. And now it doesn't work.
And Dreah doesn't have a "listed" number. She never has. That's why she had to give it to me in the first place.
So she's gone, too. Everyone is. Jenny's dead. Mom and Dad, too. So is Murph. Andrea has just dropped off the face of the Earth. And Eppie...
I lay for a moment where I have fallen, a thin, crumpled, canine shape near the back hallway of a nondescript bar in a nameless city in a country as large as the sky.
Century Park. Sunset.
I'm lying on a bench beneath the statue of Prince Henry the Navigator. The same bench where I started this journey so many aeons ago. Except now, Eppie isn't here.
I've been lying here for some time now, watching the sun arc its way across the sky, and it is only that fearful orb's sluggish progression that has informed me that any time has passed here whatsoever. The grass is green and the sky is gold and the wind whips ever-so-slightly across my frame, tousling my ears and lifting my ever-present woolen longcoat from the rough wood of the bench-slats. It's still chilly out, again. Unusual weather for Summer. Signs and portents. My life walks in its own way, in its own small circles, and the ends are at the beginnings and the beginnings are at the ends and it's so hard to tell when one story starts and another story ends that I have given up even attempting to try.
I have been surveying this monument. Prince Henry does not see fit to return my gaze, his griorward-looking countenance fis it is on some eternally far-distant point on the horizon. A crock, of course. Prince Henry, from what I understand, never was much of a sailor. The nickname of "The Navigator" came only as reference to the vast percentage of Portugal's national budget that he allocated for naval exploration and whatnot during the heyday of the ship-going era. Again, I find myself wondering what exactly a statue of an obscure Portugese prince is doing here.
My idle wonderment falls into the vast, gaping vacuum of my mind, and as I have carefully cleared every single other thought away, my curiosity swells with the force of compulsion. It's best to be distracted here and now.
I rise from the bench and approach the statue, and with a little bit of searching, I am finally able to discover the plaque which I never had thought was there.
"This statue of Henry the Navigator (Prince of Portugal, 1394-1460), patron of the nautical arts and founder of many modern celestial navigation techniques, is dedicated to the spirit of Going Forth into the boundless unknown, wherever the Future may lead. Raised January the First, the Year of our Lord Two-Thousand and One with the generous support of the Chaplaincy of the United States Naval Forces."
The Navy chaplains. Dad's people. One more message from beyond the grave.
Wherever the future may lead.
"I'm sorry... um... dad." I say, my voice vague and unfocused and directed to nowhere and noone in particular. "I... know we didn't exactly part company on the best of terms. Hell, I didn't even want you as a father in the first place. But... I... um... I can't be alone tonight. I can't."
I pause to collect myself.
"Dad, I have to tell you where I've been these past few days. I've been on a trip. With a little girl named Eppie. I'm not sure why I went, exactly. I mean, I know why I said I was going. But in a way, it wasn't really the reason."
Another pause, blinking away the tears that build at the corners of my eyes. "I guess... I wanted to care for someone for once. To do something that meant something. And I wanted someone to care for me right back." The tears are almost there. "I'm going on thirty years old, dad. And I know that this is going to sound stupid... but I'm looking back at my life and I'm coming up with nothing so far. And guess I wanted to change that. Change it all."
Another shaky breath.
"But it didn't work, dad." I continue, at last, once again unsure about whom I'm speaking. "I never even got up the guts to tell her..."
I may or may not be crying. At this point, I don't even know anymore.
"...That I loved her."
And suddenly, there is an abrupt shift in my mental music.
A bridge. The chords thin and waver and wait breathlessly on the edge of... something. Just exactly like those endless, drawn-out points that you find in the better sorts of music that exist at the brink of the introduction of... something new. A new element to be introduced. An element that hasn't been present for a long, long time.
I can't describe the effect any better than that. It's as though the hithero-unheard mood music of my life has... modulated. Frowning in confusion, I look upwards.
Prince Henry is looking at something. I'm certain of it. Something standing there on the edge of vision, poised on the very rim of where the boundless unknown becomes the gloriously here and now.
I look up into Henry's inscrutable face for a moment with an expression of disbelief crossing my features.
And then... in the sound of one, distant voice, the symphony resolves itself and begins anew.
My already-aggrieved heart threatens to quit. Right there. Slowly, my head turns...
To see a slim, tomboyish figure wearing a light jacket and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap standing at the edge of the park proper, at the point where the grey becomes the green. And the words cram and rush into my throat and when I can hold them no more they pour from my lips in one, single, solitary name, a simple, singular-tense proper noun.
Somewhere in the background, Prince Henry watches as the quiet mood music plays ever on, but I will not swear to this, for the sum total of my world now consists only of the few square feet in which she stands, and somehow, through a miracle of physics, we traverse the distance between each other without ever consciously moving through the intervening space. I gather her into my arms as her smell fills my nostrils. My tail is wagging hard enough to create storms in China, but I don't give a fuck. Andrea's here.
It is the longest hug of my life thus far.
And after it is over...
"You came back." I plainly state, still in disbelief.
Andrea grins her best fallen-cherub grin. "Yeah. Fancy meeting you here." She says.
Once loosed, the rest of the words jostle for position in my mouth, bumping into each other in their plaintive rush. "But... I mean... how did you..."
"Find you?" She asks, smirking.
I nod, grateful for the chance to shut up.
"Asked around at the local SCABS bars. Guy at the last one said they had seen you this afternoon walking in this general direction. Simple detective work. I know how much y'enjoy a good walk in the park." She grins. "From there, it's only a matter of looking for the big six-foot-tall black-spotted dog-man. You're kind of... obtrusive, in a way, you know, Bix?"
I shake my head, laughing tremblingly to myself to keep myself sane. There's a lot of emotion here, but most of it is currently on back-order. "At least you can find me. You're a damn hard girl to locate, Dreah. What's with the lack of answering machine response? You and Wallace done with your thing yet?"
She nods. "We're done."
"So." I say. "How... ahm... how long are you here for?"
She smiles, sweetly. "For the forseeable future."
"Pardon." I say to Dreah, politely, "but I have to sit down."
"Be my guest."
I find another convenient bench and use it, just in time. Dreah sits down too, and although she is two feet away, the zone of her smell has enveloped me in its depths.
"What did you say... just then?"
"For the forseeable future." That grin again.
"That's... what I thought." I say. There are a thousand more things I want to say right now, but all my brain can come up with is, "Why?"
She looks at me. "Why... what?"
I swallow and select one of the options. "Why here? I mean... I thought New York was your bag."
Dreah sighs. "Okay. The monologue. New York isn't gonna cut it for my extended plans, anymore, Bix. We're looking at the end of an era, here. The theatre has been on a long, slow, downward spiral for a hell of a long time now, and the more I stay in this business, the more I'm convinced that the future of the Stage is not gonna be found on Broadway or in Hollywood. The classic venues of stage and screen are bloated, overwrought, expensive Roman Circuses where only the juggernauts, the Andrew Lloyd Webers and the Sam Shepards and the Mitch Friedrichs of the world can survive. It's the Deadly Theatre, Mike. Experimentation in art has gone down the toilet. Everyone's afraid of trying anything new to avoid throwing the backers and losing their shirts. It sucks, but it's there. And it's been pissing me off for a long time now."
"So..." I say.
"Don't you get it?" Sayeth the Divine Andrea. "The future of the Actor isn't in NYC. Broadway is a dinosaur, Mike, and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw the death of it in our very lifetimes. The only way the pro stage is gonna survive is regionalization, Michael. We, as actors and directors and techies and whatnot, need to start now, and prove to the world that we can do stuff here in our home cities that rival what you can see on Broadway, if not in budget, then in quality. And we need to start doing it everywhere if the performing arts are to survive as a profession into the next century."
"So..." I say again.
"This is me, Bix. SCABS Theatre! Cantcha' just see it? This whole city is swarming with talent. There's a fully-functioning SCAB-focused community troupe here in this city already. We have the resources, and they're the resources everyone else is too stupid and bigoted to use. That's why I'm here."
I nod quietly to myself. Normally, in any other situation of this magnitude, I would find myself overjoyed and overwhelmed. But right now, all I'm sensing is the simple, calm hand of destiny.
Andrea is about to continue with her diatribe on theatrical philosophy when I raise up a hand.
"Yes?" She says.
"Just nutshell this for me, Dreah. You're settling down here. Permanently, or as near to permanent as you can make it be."
"Looks like. I've got some leads already for some patrons that we might look--"
I raise my hand again. "And you're gonna be, you know, getting a house or something here and becoming respectable and such?"
"Ah... yes..." Says Andrea, frowning curiously.
"That's all I needed to know." I take a deep breath of the air of the gathering evening and half-close my eyes, knowing that, from here on in, everything will, must, fall into place. There are higher powers at work than me.
"Andrea." I say, quietly. "There's... a girl that I want you to meet."
Her confused frown becomes a half-smile. "What...?"
I smile. "It's nothing. I just get this feeling that you two are gonna get along famously."
Eppie is standing nearby. Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" is playing in the background. Eppie put it there, of course, in an attempt to dictate the mood of the moment. With Eppie, this type of thing happens. You get used to it, after a while.
Eppie is standing there, looking at us.
"Well?" She says, after a time.
Andrea laughs, nervously. Andrea is still being indoctrinated into the Way of Eppie and is foolishly attempting to give some small resistance to her most recent request. She will learn, too.
"Eppie... I mean..."
I just shake my head. "Dreah, it's pointless to even try and resist her. She's too cute."
"Thanks, Bix!" Says Eppie, brightly. And then, to Andrea, "I mean, come on! It should be obvious! It's the next logical step!"
"I... ah..." Andrea hedges, looking at me. I grin. She continues, even more uncertainly. "I don't think that'd be a good idea... I mean, at least, not right now, as such."
I shrug. "Why not?" I say.
"You tell 'er, Mike!" Says Eppie. "I couldn't believe you, of all people, would go all this way and not finish things." Eppie smiles brilliantly at me.
I look at Andrea. "I don't know what to say, here..."
"She isn't really giving us much choice in the matter, is she."
"Not in the slightest." I say.
"Well?" Says Eppie, tapping her foot impatiently.
I turn to Dreah again. "Just the once can't hurt."
"I... suppose not." Says Andrea.
"Well." I say.
Clumsily, uneasily, I saunter over to her in a way that I'm hoping looks remotely casual.
I place my hands on her shoulders.
It's never been something we've even discussed, even hinted at, in the past, but there's something about all the time we have spent apart that makes it all make perfect sense. It's very tentative, of course, and extremely awkward, but it happens. Eppie breaks into wild applause.
"Great!" She exclaims. "'Ah knew ya could do it."
I smile at her. "Thanks." I say. I note, idly, that I have not yet removed my hands from Andrea's shoulders, and that Dreah has not yet removed hers from my waist, either.
And... I guess that means that things are going exactly as planned. So far.
Andrea is here. In my arms.
Grumble all you wish about the old cliche that the end of one story is the beginning of a hundred others. It's true. Because there is a glorious hope in me, and that hope, given flesh in words, is that there will be, now, at this present moment, a breaking out of all the be-damned cycles. A removal of ourselves from the looping rings of darkness surrounding the man who was, in different ways, father to both Eppie and myself. A man that Eppie never knew and a man that I only believed that I did. And although I think that I can now, finally, honestly, forgive him...
And perhaps, along with him, myself...
...I am not certain that anything that I thought that I knew about my past will ever be the same, viewed in the light of... what I now know.
Which leaves me with the future. But that's okay. Because sometimes, that's all we ever have.
And at the last, quite coincidentally as Peter Gabriel is singing the line, "The Resolution / Of All The Fruitless Searches," I take the Divine Andrea and the similarly Divine Eppie into my arms. And as the music rises and swells, we stand there in our threesome, breathing each other's air, sharing each other's warmth and reveling in each other's existence.
And so on and so forth, into the night, all through to the coming of the dawn.
Fade to black.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org