Monday, April 22, 2019

Red Herring
            As he was hauling in the gill net and shaking herring onto the floor of the jon boat, he saw it like a light below the water coming in with the net.  With the next haul and shake of the net it fell, flipping and bouncing indignantly just like the others, except it stood out, scarlet, atop the silver mass of fish.  He grabbed it quickly and turned to his cousin.  “Joey, check this out!”
            “Whoa, what is that a goldfish?”
“It looks like a herring.  You see this Uncle Joe?” he said holding the fish higher so his uncle, smoking a cigarette back by the outboard, could see.  The uncle only replied with an uninterested “Yeah” and continued smoking.
“But why’s it red?” Phil asked.  “I never seen that before.”
“Yeah, I seen it,” his uncle said, slowly assuming a sage-like countenance.  “Thems one of the red phase, pigment things.  It happens.”  He nodded and exhaled smoke, but then it seemed his uncle remembered his true role.  “Now are you gonna get them fish in the fuckin’ box or jerk off all day with that thing?”
“Well, do I put it in here with the others or?”  He motioned towards the truncated dock barrel in the center of the boat where they tossed the herring.  His uncle paused and said, “No.  Throw’em in the chink bag.”
For the previous two years, he had helped his uncle and cousin during the spring herring run. The uncle decided he could make some extra money with herring when he dubiously procured some gill nets.  Phil earned five dollars a trip while they filled the barrel with herring, but he had no idea where his uncle sold them or how much was earned.   The bycatch (the other fish that were unintended, illegal, or out of season) were kept over the side of the boat in a grain bag weighted with a brick, so if any conservation officers came by the rope could be cut and the bag would simply disappear.  The bag would be left on shore upriver before they took the boat out at the launch because the Encon guys would wait there often, hidden with binoculars.  Later, they would drive down a pitted, mucky track and pick up the bag.  His uncle would then sell the bass, sturgeon, walleye, decapitated turtles, and anything else ensnared to the Chinese restaurant on the main drag.  His uncle was an outdoorsman only in the literal sense of the term: he was a man who spent time out of doors.
Phil looked at the fish jerking in his hand with sea-run strength, not slow and muscular like a freshwater pike, but with quick, sputtering movements.  It had the large eye and broad iridescent scales of a herring, but it was a glorious scarlet tip to tail.
“Phil, maybe you can make a wish on it.”
He looked from the fish to his cousin Joey.  “Huh?”
“Ain’t there a chinko story like that?” the uncle said, blowing smoke.
“I think it was,” Joey said.  “Some guy catches a magic fish and it gives him wishes or something.  We read it in class, in elementary school.”
Phil seemed to remember it, at least sensed the idea of it.  A magic fish.  Gives wishes.  “Did he kill it or let it go?”  Phil asked his cousin.
“Well, why would it give him wishes if he killed it?”  Joey laughed.
“Put it in the fuckin’ bag and let’s get going,” his uncle Joe shouted.  “And get them good ones off the bottom of the boat.”
Phil leaned over and pulled in the weighted sack.  As he loosened the top, he made a silent, secret pact with the fish and returned it to the water where it darted unceremoniously downward into the blackened river.  He closed the bag and returned it without anyone noticing anything.  His uncle never brought up the missing fish after selling the contents of the sack, probably because he forgot about the scarlet anomaly, eagerly taking his cash and going into the smoky bar right next door to the restaurant.
Phil Durant was seventeen years old at that time.  He lived alone with his mother in the bottom flat of a two-family house.  His cousin Joey was his best friend and they both worked in the produce department of the local Shop Rite.  They were quite similar in many respects, but Phil would not graduate from high school on time with Joey because he had trouble with the English Regent’s examination.  Also, Joey had a father and Phil did not, and depending on perspective, Phil may have been better off for that.
They spent their time that year with weekdays in school, weekend nights at beer and weed parties in the woods.  Joey had inherited some of his father’s qualities as a creative profiteer, so on weekend days they would check on his line of metal snap traps.  They ran up creek and all the way down to its mouth at the main river.  Phil enjoyed the hikes and the time outside, scrambling over boulders and slogging through the marsh, but hoped the traps would be empty when they encountered them.  If they weren’t empty, he hoped the animals were dead because Joey would dispatch the living with his knife.  Phil asked him once if he felt bad and Joey said, “Nah.  It’s fine.  Maybe sometimes.  But my dad can get me three bucks for a muskrat fur and four for a mink!”
The weekend after Phil released the herring, a kid at school invited them to a house party.  That it was indoors rather than on soggy couches around a bonfire smoking with plastic was appealing, but Phil was ecstatic when he realized Ellie Hansen from his science class would be there.
At the party, she smiled at Phil and it gave him a weird feeling in his stomach.  Later, they ended up in the pink bedroom of the host’s little sister. Phil lay with his head resting on her smooth stomach, inhaling the powdery odor of her skin, while she caressed his scalp lightly with her nails.  He found himself nodding off, so relaxed, and said, “You know, I made a wish this would happen.”
“Oh yeah?”  She leaned forward, arched her eyebrows and then leaned back on the pillow.
“Well, sort of.  Last weekend I threw back this weird red fish instead of bagging it.  And when I did, I kinda hoped this would happen.  With you, I mean.”  He turned his head to look in her eyes.
She chuckled.  “You made a wish on a fish for me?”
“I guess I did.”
“Well, what a good boy you are,” she cooed as she pulled his face to hers.
Phil and Ellie were together for seven years after that night.
As a fiddlehead pushes through leaf mulch, rises, unfurls and expands, so Phil matured.  When Joey graduated and Phil was finished with school, they both landed summer jobs with the city’s department of public works.  Joey’s dad drove a garbage truck for the city and got them in.  They maintained parks, mowing lawns and weeding beds.  They pried up asphalt and dug holes for faulty sewer lines.  They removed fallen tree limbs and jackhammered sidewalks, and eventually, they were taken on as permanent hires in sanitation.  The work was good, the pay was good, Ellie was good, and life was good.
A few years later Joseph Sr., went to prison.  The Department of Conservation placed some decoy deer in the middle of a farm field and waited at night in a sting operation.  Joe drove darkly out into the field, put his truck in park, prepped his rifle and blasted his spotlights.  He fired four shots, emptying his clip.  Cursing, he ejected it and flipped it over, as he had another duct taped to it. He inserted the new clip and fired the next four rounds.  The deer had not moved from either the sound or from being struck (which they were not.)  He pulled the rifle away from his face and stared at the motionless deer.  He paused and thought.  Then he heard a bull horn ordering him to drop his weapon.  When his truck was searched, there was an unregistered handgun and a substantial amount of cocaine.  Joey was distraught at his father’s bad luck, but benefitted by gaining his father’s position in the driver’s seat.
The boys had settled into life as most young men do, like their fathers before them, although Joey was less mercenary than his own.  They worked hard mornings, took good lunches, and rolled through afternoons.  They spent most evenings at Joe Sr.’s old haunt next to the Chinese restaurant, Uncle Ben’s, where they ate hot dogs with Ben’s “famous” meat sauce and drank Miller.  The bar flagrantly profited from gambling.  The bartender was the city’s largest bookie and on Friday and Saturday nights the dining area was filled with round felt poker tables. Phil had never been a gambler and was safe from the trappings of Uncle Ben’s until the spring of 1989 when he was 24.
Now left to their own devices, early May on the Hudson had changed from working season to recreation season for the boys.  The jon that was Joey’s father’s was now his and was used for herring still, but the herring were caught with fishing poles and were bait to catch the migrating striped bass amongst them.  Smoking their own cigarettes on a sunny Saturday and hauling up a thirty pound striper was more satisfying than making five dollars hauling nets in cold rain.  Ellie would marinate the heavy fish steaks in Italian dressing and they would grill up beautifully.  She would be so happy when he came home with a striper, he began to associate it with a bountiful future.
On a Saturday when the lilacs were beginning to bloom, they were out beneath the immense expanse of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and were jigging up some herring for bait.  Phil released his bail and let his weighted rig sink to the bottom.  When it hit, he clicked the bail and began to bounce the weight on the river floor.  Within a minute he felt the familiar spastic tug of herring.  He reeled in smoothly and slowly hoping other fish would bite the additional hooks on the rig.  One time, Joey got five fish into the boat at once.  At the surface he saw he had multiple fish and quickly lifted the rod and dropped them into the boat, and to his amazement, bouncing and flipping amongst three silver herring was another red one.  “Holy fucking shit,” he said.
Joey turned, began to gape but then caught himself.  “Another one?  We haven’t seen one of them in a while.”
“We only seen one.  Like ten years ago.”
“Naw.  I think we seen others.  Anyway, they’re around.  It’s that red DNA thing or whatever.  There’s not alotta them but they’re there.”  He took a drag from his cigarette and exhaled as he looked up at the bottom of the bridge.  Phil grabbed the wriggling fish and looked at it closely.  It was just like the last one, a completely normal, wide-eyed, large-scaled herring, but a brilliant scarlet.  It was uncanny and he wondered if it was the very same fish from before.  Joey saw him rapt.  “You should put that out on a line.  They say stripers can see’em better cause o’the color.”
“Yeah…”  He thought of catching a giant striper with this lucky fish and Ellie’s excitement upon his return with a record breaker.  He began to think of their bountiful future together: they had discussed marriage and buying their own house.  If this fish was lucky, he thought, it could net him a great catch.  He didn’t believe the first one was lucky, but it turned out his wish did come true.  So did he really want a big striper or did he want something more?  He wanted a home and prosperity for Ellie and himself.  Killing the fish might destroy that and who says red fish attract predators more than silver ones?  “Oops!” he said as the fish hit the water and shuttled itself into the darkness.  He caught no stripers that day, but when he stopped by Ellie’s he told her they should try to get their own house by the next year and she kissed him on his neck.  Soon after, they opened a joint savings account and squirreled away as much money as they could.
Everyone in town was familiar with the baddest man on the planet.  Iron Mike was Kevin Rooney’s boy and had lived and trained in town for years.  Phil had seen him frequently out running and he made Phil feel physically nervous.  The man was a legend and was world champion at 20 years old.  He made a lot of money and a lot of people made money on him.  Many people in Uncle Ben’s did as well.
One summer night, Phil had drunk too much and he broke his no gambling rule and bet $500 on Tyson while at Ben’s.  The odds were 1-10 as at that point the champ had thirty-six wins and zero losses, so when Tyson destroyed Williams in the first round, the payoff was only $50.  But it was free money because no one could ever beat Tyson.  That $50 went, along with the original $500 to where it came from: his shared account with Ellie.  They were saving well that year and would have enough for a downpayment on a house by the following spring.  That fall, Phil bet and won on the World Series and again that winter on the Super Bowl.  He didn’t tell Ellie, but he put his winnings directly into their savings account.  He knew she would get angry for taking those risks.  He joked to Joey about the magic fish, but part of him, deep inside, attributed some of his luck to that May occurrence.
On February 11, 1990, Phil was turning 25.  Ellie was working and he was celebrating at Ben’s.  He had lived the best year of his life.  Work was good, life was good, and Ellie and he were going to get a house soon.  Brimming with happiness and confidence, he drank and laughed with Joey and others in the bar.  It just so happened that on Phil’s birthday that year, Tyson had his next match.  The only sure thing in the world was a win for Magic Mike.  It was just a matter if he’d knock out Douglas in the first round.  The book was stacked for Tyson even more for this fight.  The champ was 37-0 and Douglas was relatively unknown.  He was bigger and had 12 inches of reach on Tyson, but no one thought he had a chance.  Except for the bartender at Uncle Ben’s, Jay Hunter.
“One to fifteen?” Joey asked after finding the odds.  “I heard people got it up to thirty?”
“I’m tellin’ ya.  I’m not goin’ any higher an at.  He could lose,”  Jay said.  He cracked two more bottles of Miller and put them on the bar in front of Phil and Joey.
“But he’s 37-0!” Phil exclaimed.  “Did you see what he did to Williams in the first round?  He crushed him.”
“I don’t know what you’re fuckin’ complainin’ bout anyway.  You bet on ‘em wit my odds you got a betta payout.”  Jay leaned forward and spoke confidingly.  “Rooney knows see.  The kids in shape but he’s fucked.  He’s runnin’ in Vegas doin’ all sortsa shit.  He ain’t focused.  His mom’s dead, D’Amato’s gone.  Rooney knows, see.”
“But he fired Rooney.”
“He fuckin’ knows, see?”
Phil considered the payout if Tyson lost, but remembered his luck and the purpose of these bets, which was to get money for their house.  The only sure thing in life was a Tyson win and that was guaranteed money.  He thought of the herring and bet the entire content of their account, $6,500, even though he knew, deep in his heart, he was going to lose it.
After the first round, Douglas was still standing and Phil became nervous.  “Alright, one round not so bad.  Wait for that uppercut in the second,” he said.
After the second round, Douglas was still standing and Joey said, “This is fuckin’ crazy.”
At the end of the eighth round, when Douglas was knocked down and got to his feet in a count of ten, Phil said, “Okay. Finally.  Let’s do it!”
In round ten, an uppercut snapped Tyson’s head back and was followed by four punishing head shots as he fell to the canvas.  When Tyson was disoriented, on his knees, trying to put his mouthguard back in and the fight was called, Phil could only say, “No,” while he began weeping.
He had never seen such rage and hatred in someone’s eyes before Ellie told him she never wanted to see him again.  Phil would never have a serious relationship after that.  He became a heavy drinker.  The next year his mother died and he stayed in the apartment alone.  Years passed.  He continued to work in the Department of Sanitation until he was forty-eight.  He went on disability when his right leg was badly crushed.
He developed the habits of a lonely old man.  He was balding.  He gained a lot of weight.  At noon every day, he would walk with his cane down to the park by the river.  He would sit on a bench and stare out at the water, looking up at the immensity of the Rip Van Winkle.  He’d enjoy watching the women running on the path and pet the occasional passing leashed dog.  He even kept dog treats in his jacket pocket.  When he got home at 1:30, Joey would come over for his lunch and they would drink beer and talk about football and hunting.  Joey had a house and a family by then and bought some acreage outside of Cairo for a hunting camp.  He and Phil would go up there during turkey season.  Even with his lame leg, Phil was at least able to lean back still against a tree and scrape a turkey call.  He had a nice time those seasons of hunting.  They would fish in the late spring as well.
In May of the year Phil would turn 59, he and Joey were out on the river for stripers.  Joey had a new boat, a big center console with a 100 horsepower engine.  While jigging up bait, Phil felt the familiar spastic tug of herring.  As he reeled in the fish, he saw the red flashing rise to the surface.  “Will ya look at that?” he said to Joey as he hoisted the fish over the gunwale.  
“Haven’t seen one of those in a while,” Joey said.
Phil removed it from the hook and held it in his hand.  It looked exactly like the other two.  “You think it’s the same one?”  
Joey laughed.  “Well kill this one and if you get another you know it’s not.”  
“I wish I could keep it.  You think they’d mount it over at Avery’s?  How much you think that’d be?”
“Greg ain’t gonna mount no herring.  It’s too small.  Waste of his time.”  Joey thought for a moment.  “Hey, you know my kid’s making some extra dough in school putting shit in lucite and selling it online.”
“Nah, he got the idea in some bio class.  He takes shit, like frogs and insects and he casts them in these clear plastic blocks.  Then he sells ‘em.  Makes some good money.  He’s back from school now ‘till Monday.  I’ll ask him to do the fish.  I bet he can.”
“That’d be great,” Phil said.
Waiting for the preserved fish to arrive that week, Phil thought a lot about the meaning of three.  Three times is the charm.  Three strikes you’re out.  The holy trinity.  Death comes in threes.  Three ring circus.  Ready, set, go.  The good, the bad, the ugly.  Three darts in a board.  He tried to find meaning in the fish.  Why him?  Was this last fish special?  Were the others?  As all thinking has its value, Phil mistakenly considered himself a poor thinker.  But that week he contemplated life, death, fate and purpose.  Without the refinement or jargon and with less articulation, he vaguely plumbed the same depths of philosophy as Schopenhauer and Kant.  He also drank a great deal and had to be helped back into his house by his neighbors twice.
“Will ya look at that?” Phil admired the encased fish.  “Will ya look at that?”  He held it at different angles to view it in the sunlight of his front room.  Joey had brought it wrapped in tissue paper in a small white box and the two friends sat together, Phil verging on ebullient.  
“Yeah, he did a pretty good job with it.  He’s been nettin’ a lotta small fish in the stream, even got some baby trout.  Tole ya, he’s making some good money.”
“How much I owe?” Phil said still smiling.
“Oh nothing.  Nah, nah, I took care of it.”  Joey watched his old friend carefully with the concern of a parent.  Phil was in bad shape.  His hands tremored, from under his denim shorts his legs were the color of uncooked sausage and an abrasion on his wrist had become a sore.
“Really?” Phil looked from the fish to Joey.  “Thanks, man.”
He kept the fish on his mantle between two framed photographs.  One was of his mother, a formal Sears portrait of her in her forties sitting primly in a maroon floral dress, with a bucolic horse farm backdrop.  The other was a picture of him and Ellie in their early twenties.  He was wearing a blue collared shirt and she a yellow sundress.  They were posing in an embrace, almost as if dancing, her cheek against his chest, her skin a healthy tan, delicate youthful nose, bewitching eyes.  He had the photo for years on his dresser, but now had no reason to fear displaying it proudly.  When Joey had first seen it on the mantle, he picked it up and said cheerily, “Hey, great picture.”
Days and months and then years passed.  As the mature fern that has weathered the first few fall frosts begins to blacken at the edges and become mottled with mildew, so went Phil’s vitality.  He still made his daily walks to the park, sitting on a bench near the river with the massive bridge in the distance.  He still enjoyed giving milk bones to puggles leashed to women in yoga pants.  He’d still amble home with his cane, stopping to catch his breath and ease the pain in his legs, have his lunch with Joey, and watch the sports channel alone in the afternoon.  Heavy drinking was part of his routine as well, paying the guy next door to stop and get him a bottle of vodka from the liquor store.  Often, if anyone had ever looked, he could be seen through his front window, standing, weaving slightly, staring dumbly at his mantle.  His prim mother.  Himself healthy.  Beautiful Ellie so vibrant and happy.  The fish between them, still brilliantly scarlet, its large eye staring lidless.  All eternally motionless.
On an arbitrary summer day Phil had a stroke.  Luckily, the upstairs tenant found him when she came to his back entryway to inquire if the postman had left a package.  The television inside was blaring, so she opened the door and there he was, in his recliner gasping and gesturing strangely.  He survived but was impacted badly enough that he had to live in a nursing home.  Even though his new residence was a good 45 minutes from his old one, Joey visited him most Thursday afternoons.  Phil had so much trouble speaking it almost didn’t seem worth trying, but he enjoyed his friend’s company and Joey did a great job of detailing the local news and happenings, especially the ludicrous statements made in Uncle Ben’s.  
After two months and it was clear he’d never return, Phil’s landlord wanted to clear out the apartment for a new tenant.  When he finally got in contact with Joey, he invited him to come over and take what he wanted, either for Phil or himself.  “I just gotta get someone in.  I got someone who can next week, but I need the place empty,” he said.  Phil was a tidy person and there was almost no clutter.  He had all the clothes he needed at the nursing home.  Joey gave Phil’s two shotguns and fishing pole to his son and brought the two mantle pictures to Phil, who expressed his gratitude and joy with a stammer and tearful, bulging eyes.
One Saturday, the fish ended up on a collapsible table in the driveway.  It was labeled for fifty cents and lay between a pack of cards and an aluminum cooking pot.  His recliner sold for fifteen dollars and his bed frame for ten.  Late that afternoon, when Phil’s landlord was ready to close up the garage sale, two boys came into the driveway and perused the meager leftovers.  One picked up the clear block and examined the fish inside.  The landlord said, “Take anything you want.  It’s all going in the garbage anyway,” as he shoved a camouflage jacket into an oversized trash bag.
“One fish...two fish!” he yelled as he hurled the block at his friend’s back.
“Aah!  You dick head!” the friend yelled laughing as it bounced from his shoulder blades.  He turned quickly and grabbed up the block to retaliate.
“One fish...two fish!”  After a few painful throws at each other, the game had morphed into throwing the fish to one another.  The trick was to get the fish as high in the air as possible while making the catch difficult, landing it near a fire hydrant, mailbox or bush.  The two were working their way home, throwing the fish as high as they could and laughing at collisions or admiring daring catches.  The block was now chipped on its corners and scuffed and the red fish would rocket upwards to the peak of its trajectory.  Before falling, it hung, suspended, the sunlight glinting on its scarlet scales and oversized, lidless eyes.
“One fish...two fish!”  The boys were on the bridge that crosses the creek and were testing one another by having the block land as closely to the opposite railing as possible.  Finally, one of them overestimated his skill and the fish fell over the railing, splashed into the deep creek and sunk out of sight.  “Aw shit,” one of them said.  They quickly decided to race each other to the post office where they would part ways, each heading to his own home for the night.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Pieter K┼▒rbisesser

During harvest season in the town of Chervale, one can understand the superstitions that have arisen to explain its agricultural fertility.  Fragrant concord grapes weigh on trellises, engorged gourds swell in the grasses, and McIntosh apples are collected in bushels.  It is a strangely quiet hamlet and one can almost hear, or at least sense, the fecundity of its soil.  Its richness has been known at least since the Palatines were granted asylum to settle there by the tribal mothers of the Haudenosaunee, who took pity on the hardships they had faced in Germany and then in the region of the Hudson River.  They were permitted to farm and live in that verdant valley.  The soil was known to be rich when the Palatines arrived, but old stories attribute its potency to a disaster that came long after that.
Who can say this fertility did not come from the blood of innocents that was spilled on the soil, that entire community slaughtered by angry Seneca and Mohawk working with the British?  Who can say that this abundant life is not the result of the death that inspired George Washington to have Sullivan scorch the earth behind the Iroquois fleeing to Canada, never to return?  Death begets life and life begets death.  Perhaps that is blood edged on the yellow maple leaves of fall.  Perhaps the exceptional darkness of the beetroot and sumac in this valley is truly sanguine.  The autumnal colors in the surrounding hills have here a more crimson hue than elsewhere, and at the right time of sunset, for a brief moment, all is illuminated in a roseate light.  Rational explanations of these phenomena are absent.
Pieter Van Kahler settled in Chervale with his wife several years after the massacre.  He and Sophia started a farm and were fairly self-sufficient.  The young couple grew mostly corn, potatoes and rutabaga.  They had an old horse and a young goat for milking.  They were neither prosperous nor poor.  He and his wife worked hard, but lived well.  And he adored her.
They expected to have children, but after a few years on the farm they did not, and it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Sophia, though wanting a child, accepted the concept of a childless life gracefully.  Over those few years, she gradually decided it was God’s plan, becoming somewhat relieved of the responsibility since work on the farm was exhausting and her poor Pieter would have had to do even more if she was busy with child.  She was too pure a person to think that the burden of child in addition to farm work would be a strain on herself.
Pieter himself never belied his disappointment, because his disappointment was not so much that they didn’t have a child, but that he was worried about his wife’s happiness.  He believed that she must have felt inadequacy and shame since she was infertile, and he remained outwardly positive because he didn’t want her to suffer any more than she had.  He was incorrect in this thinking since they were childless due to his narrow urethra.  So, he stayed the strong and supportive husband and toiled side by side with her in the fields, and at times took the rifle and the horse for a few days and returned with venison and turkey.  They had meals of perch and potatoes, rabbit and rutabaga, and watched the sun set together, marveling quietly in those brief Chervale moments of roseate illumination that must have been God’s work.  Who else’s work could it be?
One autumn afternoon, Pieter was hunting a few miles from their farm when he spied a cotton tail a few yards ahead of him on the edge of a field.  He raised his rifle quietly and saw the rabbit down his sights as it raised its head, mouth munching, to look around.  When he shot, the animal somersaulted from the force of the bullet.  As he picked it up, fresh, warm blood dripped from the hole in the rabbit’s ribcage and onto Pieter’s boot.  He grabbed an exceptionally large leaf and broke it from its vine to wrap the rabbit before stuffing it in his game bag.  He realized this leaf had the same tactile, ciliate hairs of a squash plant and he investigated further.  He pushed, scraping through the immense tangle of vines and discovered a gigantic pumpkin, one larger than he had ever seen before.  It was sagged to the side like a rotting apple, but firm and fresh, a yellowish orange with a spattering of wart-like growths across its side.  It was the size of a small boulder and too large for him to carry.  He marveled at its size and shape.  Since it was impossible to transport, he found a sizable rock to break it apart.  After much trying, he returned home with a decent slab and many seeds that he was sure to plant in the spring.  That night his wife cooked the gourd’s flesh with butter and brandy, and the rabbit was delicious.
The following spring, Pieter planted his pumpkin seeds and watched them closely.  He marked the location of each cluster of buried seeds with colored sticks in a clearing behind their barn.  Eventually, only one sprout emerged and he was careful with his cultivation, fertilizing the already rich soil with the innards of fish and the offal of fowl.  To his credit, Pieter was an exceptional farmer, and he might have been referred to as a horticulturalist if there had been such a designation in those days.  When the orange flower buds began to yawn widely on their dark green stems, he was sure to hand pollinate each one.  When infant pumpkins began to swell on the vines, he chose the largest and healthiest one to save and pruned off the rest.  Useless branches of vine were cut away and soon his lone pumpkin began to grow exponentially through the season.  He did not let the growing of this pumpkin take him away from his regular work on the farm.  It was a pet project and he wanted to make it a gift to his wife, proving his capability as a farmer.  By late September it was more than twice the size of the pumpkin he found while hunting the year before.  When it was time to harvest, with the help of a neighbor and his mules, he hauled it to a strategic point in front of his house to present to his wife.  And she adored it.
The night he presented her the pumpkin, she was ecstatic.  When she saw it out from the brush and vines and so immense and prominent in the short grass in front of their home, her eyes went wide and she laughed with genuine surprise.  When she congratulated Pieter with a hug and a hard kiss to his cheek, she had a youthful blush he hadn’t seen in years.  Some of her hair was loose and hung like tendrils of silvery gold.  She even climbed up and sat on it laughing!  That night and during the following weeks there was so much intensity in passion Pieter was sure her problem was solved and she would have a child within the year.
The following winter was a long one.  They didn’t want for food as their stores were sufficient, but they endured a few blizzards and the snowpack was high.  Another storm at the end of March brought another two feet of snow and the rains of early April brought flooding to the region.  The creek at the back of their main field dammed with detritus and water inundated the property.  Their home was safe, but it took a long time for the water to recede and a longer time for the land to become farmable again, causing a late start to their season.  Stress began to show in Pieter’s normally cheerful eyes.  The length of the winter, the annoyance of the flood, the barrenness of his wife: all weighed on him heavily and he started thinking in that way that people do which is misguided and unhealthy.  He started to think he was being tested by some greater force and was failing. 
Many believe winter is the toughest season, but really it is spring.   Food stores are lower, yet the land is still barren and lifeless.  The trees are gray and empty and even though the air may be warming slightly, it is as cold as death.  That spring was even longer to Pieter than the previous winter and he spent a lot of time on his own wandering the countryside.  It was still too early to plant, so he’d wake just before dawn and walk and think.  Spring means another year of toil is coming.  Toil and work can be satisfying in its own right, but he began to ask himself: why?  Year after year, the same work, the same results and what?  Another year older, another year closer to death, another year of bloom and richness so it can just die and germinate again the next year, until one year he or his wife will simply be gone forever.  He lived the life of plants, the life of seasons and years and now that he was getting older, he was beginning to understand its futility.  He realized then that that was why he needed a child.  The child is the man regenerated.  The child is the reason.  He was being tested.  He knew suddenly that his purpose was to give his wife a child, to sow himself from her and he was not going to fail.  He was incorrect in this thinking because life does not have a purpose and he had a narrow urethra.
Eventually, the temperature became favorable, the cold rains slowed and they were able to resume the work and life they loved.  Pieter, though, had a plan.  He planted his pumpkin seeds again and would grow the largest pumpkin one had ever seen, and his wife, subsequently, would be even more fertile that fall than the previous year.  They had come so close and he had almost fixed her.  This harvest he would succeed.
He repeated his procedures from the previous year, marking the seed clusters and hand pollinating the pumpkin flowers.  He enriched the already potent soil with the chopped innards of fish and fowl even more than the previous year, and when the infant pumpkins finally began to grow he spared the largest and healthiest and pruned the others.  He carefully removed unhealthy leaves and daily saw to the maximum health of the overall plant.  But during this process there was more urgency than the year before.  His attention to the chosen pumpkin became intense, paranoiac.  Woodchucks and rabbits, which previously had been pests, were now malignant spirits which were shot, trapped and clubbed.  As time wore on, he worried about opossum, raccoon and deer at night.  He began to neglect his other duties and his wife as well.
By mid-August, Sophia was beginning to be concerned for her husband.  He always seemed distracted and distressed, so much that they barely spoke.  When they worked together in the field he would look back over his shoulder towards the patch near the barn, muttering and exhaling dramatically.  She was concerned, but not worried.  This behavior was no different than her father’s, who barely spoke to her mother, unless he was enraged about something, and that wasn’t even speaking.  Pieter was a much better husband to her than her father was to her mother.  Pieter was kind and cared for her and if he was going through a period of difficulty, she would let him work through it as he always did.
As the pumpkin grew, so did his mania.  He weeded the patch constantly.  He fertilized the soil with horse manure and goat droppings, but that wasn’t enough for him.  The rich soil of Chervale and the nutrients from the flood were not enough for him, and neither were the putrescent innards of small animals.  He wanted that pumpkin to grow.  When his wife was absent he would dig cat holes around the plant and defecate in them.  Daily he hauled buckets of water from the creek and poured them carefully around and over the plant.  He would dip a broom in a water bucket and shake it all over the leaves, evenly coating them with droplets.  He put a layer of sand underneath the pumpkin to prevent rot.  He washed the pumpkin daily with a cloth, shining it and checking for insects.  There were none.
On a cool night in September, Sophia lay next to him in bed; her hair tumbled about her and her mouth slightly open as she slept.  He could not sleep, his mind consumed.  He saw moonlight on the floor of their room, he heard his wife’s light breath, he sensed the warmth of their blankets, but he felt only the xylem and phloem of the plant behind his barn.  He quietly got out of bed and went to the pumpkin.  It was immense by now, almost as tall as him with a uniform girth and it had a bluish hue in the moonlight.  He wrapped his arms around it and they barely encircled halfway.  He felt the cool skin against his cheek and pressed his entire naked body against the pumpkin, cleansing and cool, and he believed it felt him as well, his passion, ardor and heat.  This was his desire and potency, a physical manifestation of his virility and capability, and would be planted within his wife to be born again and anew, a son that was in fact himself to last beyond the seasons and years, an eternal regeneration.  When he presented her with this pumpkin, she herself would swell with desire and bear him himself.  Many nights he repeated this routine, finding himself fertilizing the soil with a most crucial and seminal substance.
He was losing weight and was haggard and unkempt.  He was neglecting the rest of the farm because he spent nights with the pumpkin and slept days.  No matter what Sophia tried, he would not pay attention to her.  The corn harvest was destroyed because of deer and crows, the horse needed shoeing, and the other fields were unkempt and haggard as he was.  She worked and worked, but could not keep up with the weeds and the growth from that mythical Chervale soil.  She kept the goat milked and did her best, but Pieter was practically catatonic during the day and essentially unresponsive at night.  But then the first frost hit right before the end of October and the pumpkin was ready.  He came into the bedroom the morning after that first frost, shivering and dirty, but he looked his wife in the eyes for the first time in months when he woke her.  She lay back against her pillow, searching his face as he smelled of vegetation, soil and rot.  He was wild-eyed and grinning broadly, bearing crooked yellow teeth streaked with brown.  He told her that in one more night all would be ready.  He curled up in bed and slept until that night.
The pumpkin beckoned.  Soil richer than coagulated blood, feeding and growing, swelling lust and burgeoning potency, the sky black, the moon white and the pumpkin blue: he crawled to its base.  On his knees sinking into the dark earth, he ran his hands across supple blue skin so cool, so cleansing.  Soon he was face down, prostrate, his arms encircling the base, fecund earth caressing his skin, seeping into self, xylem and phloem.  He felt the sticky scratch of the vines, hairy like spiders’ legs, twisting around his toes, the balls of his feet, tickling around his calves and the backs of his knees, tightening joyously on his throat and down around his armpits, grinding with that rich mud and squeezing him so tightly, his useless palms could only hold the base of the pumpkin.
The sun rose to a crisp fall morning.  Some leaves remained on the scarlet oaks, but by then the maples and elms were bare.  The cornfield was rippled with erratically broken stalks.  Sophia woke alone and saw no sign of her husband.  He had frightened her the morning before, but he did tell her that it was ready, whatever it was.  She assumed he was referring to the pumpkin and was glad the growing season was finally done with, although they would be in a predicament if the coming winter and spring were like the last.  Their farm, and subsequently, their stores, were in shambles.
The pumpkin was colossal in the morning sunshine.  It was five feet high and its girth twice that.  She marveled at its orange hue.  Pieter had sawn off the massive vines and arranged them in a gigantic wreath around its base, twining them in a complicated and beautiful braid, with some leaves acting as speckled ornaments.  Outside the wreath a saw had been dropped, its teeth glutted with vegetable matter, but there was no sign of her husband.  It really was a beautiful sight and she was glad her husband had succeeded so well at something he worked on, but she was relieved this whole ordeal was over.  Maybe now he could rest, or at least direct his energies in a better way.  But where was he?  As the day wore on, she convinced herself he had gone hunting, that he was to return in the afternoon with some rabbit and they would again have a wonderful dinner and watch the sunset together.  It had been so long since they enjoyed their life in that most essential of ways.
As evening approached he still hadn’t returned and she began to worry.  He had seemed so crazed the last time she saw him and his demeanor had switched so drastically and quickly.  She began to think that he wasn’t hunting rabbit, that something more sinister was afoot.  She fantasized about her old Pieter, the younger one, returning hopeful and happy with that slab of pumpkin she had cooked with butter and brandy.  She would see him enter with his game bag full and a slab of this new and most beautiful of pumpkins…but he wouldn’t cut this one up, for sure.  Then she remembered the saw, its teeth clogged with cellulose that was orange and yellow.
She burst out the door and ran calling his name.  She ran around the barn as the sun was descending behind the far hills.  She got to the pumpkin, breathing heavily and still calling for her husband, looking about, hoping he would emerge from the brush.  She saw the top of the pumpkin had been sawn off and then replaced like a cap fitted perfectly in place.  The stem was too far for her when she reached up to grab it.  She thought she heard someone behind her and whipped wildly around, but no one was there.  The milking stool!  She ran to the barn and grabbed the stool. She placed it at the base of the pumpkin.  The tip of the sun was just blinking behind the distant hills, and then began that haunting roseate illumination exclusive to the hamlet of Chervale.  She reached the stem and pulled with all her might and the top of the pumpkin came free from its setting.  She almost fell backwards as she let it fall to the ground.  The air was charged with radiant pink as she leaned forward and looked down through the hole to see her husband, writhing and squirming like a naked fetus in an orange amniotic fluid, smeared and bearded, bearing discolored teeth, looking at her with wide and wild eyes, and laughing maniacally.

Sunday, February 17, 2019


Paul Benson was 28 in 1998 when he got his first email address.  He was up late at his sister’s house drinking with her husband after a Saturday barbeque.  Their mother and the other guests had left a few hours earlier, and his sister Marie had stayed up a bit longer talking with them, distractedly, and occasionally getting up to clean bottles and plates from various perches in the house.  Eventually her husband Jason noticed she had been gone from the living room for a dubious stretch and found her leaning, eyes closed, motionless against the refrigerator, a half-empty heineken bottle in her hand.  He helped her to bed, drank what was left in the bottle and cracked two more before he went back to Paul on the couch.  He’d been eager to show Paul his new computer all evening, but had to wait out Marie. 
He grabbed one of the folding chairs positioned around the living room and placed it next to the one at his computer desk and turned to Paul.  “All right.  Let’s check this out,” he said in a bold whisper, with a quick glance at the carpeted stairway.
Paul was no Luddite, but he really had no use for a computer.  (It would be almost ten years before he got one and that would be rendered useless by a smartphone soon after.)  He worked as a landscaper since high school and had just started his own business a year and a half prior.  He had his own truck and a trailer and more than enough business, so much he needed to hire sometimes as many as three dirt-humpers for certain jobs.  He worked long hard days, often went to the local sports bar for burgers and beer, and went to bed before getting up at six the next morning.  He barely watched television and, as he saw it, had no time to “dick around on a computer.”
He was drunkenly impressed, though, as Paul energetically acted as his Virgil and guided him through the circles of late 1990’s internet smut.  There were so many pictures and websites, message boards and listservs, chat lists, list chats, site lists: he had no idea what Jason was talking about and really didn’t care.  But he liked Jason a lot and they had beer and lots of pictures of naked women, so he took his tour, often laughing at his brother-in-law’s absurd enthusiasm.
“If I was single like you are, man, I would clean up on here.”
“What do you mean?  I gotta piss.”  Paul started to get up.
“Wait!  I’m telling you, man.  On here, there’s like thousands.  They post pictures and shit and you can fuck’em.”
Paul let out a laugh and rose. “I don’t even got a fucking computer.  I ain’t gettin’ one either.  I gotta piss.”
He weaved slightly back and forth over the toilet, noticing the dried toothpaste stains on the sink and faucet, his sister’s hair entwining her round brush, the sweetness of the plug-in air freshener.  He wadded some toilet paper from the roll and carefully wiped away the drips he left on the seat, threw it into the bowl and flushed.  He went into the kitchen and took a few more bottles from the refrigerator, but paused to peel back some aluminum foil from a baking dish on the counter.  Marie’s special, the six-cheese-mac-and-cheese, was room temperature and wonderful as he forked away a nice crispy corner and shoveled it into his mouth.  When he got back, Jason was hunched over the keyboard and staring at the screen.
“What do you want as your email username?” he said, still staring straight ahead. 
“What?  No.”
“I’m telling you, man.  It’s easy.  I can do it right…”
“No.  I don’t need an email,” Paul interrupted.  “I don’t have a computer and this is cool and all, but I really don’t give a shit.  I don’t want one and I’ll never use it.”
“Listen.  You never have to use it.  I’ll just set it up for you and if you ever want to, you can.  You will thank me.  Believe me, you will.” 
Paul hesitated.
“You will thank me.
“Ah, what the hell.”
When Paul acquiesced and dropped into the metal folding chair, he half-listened to the email tutorial he was given.  When it came time to choose a name, Jason explained that most people used some form of their initials and birth year to be recognized and remembered by those who know them, but not their full names.  Usually, they used a kind of code name.  “Especially, if you use this on message boards and shit, you don’t want your real name out there,” he explained.  They ran through possibilities and had a good laugh.  He really liked Jason a lot.  It was a good night and although Paul knew he would never use it, he wrote down the email and password on the back of a business card in his wallet, the card where he kept important numbers such as his ATM password.
Two years later, Paul had grown in several respects.  His business had grown so well, he had to turn away work.  He landed several contracts with businesses, including 15 acres around a medium-sized mall, and hired two full timers who did most of the physical labor.  For larger jobs, he’d get some temporary dirt-humpers to help out his boys.  He spent most of his time supervising, meeting potential clients and giving estimates.  His bank account had grown.  In a little more than twelve months, he had quadrupled his income, took out a loan on a new truck, and was in the process of purchasing an A-frame house just a half mile from a lake.  Also, he had grown physically, from a lean but strong slope-shouldered boy in his twenties to a confident man beginning his thirties.  Less physically dirty and tired from his days, he started to care more about his appearance.  He kept his hair cut, bought nicer clothes.  He even started wearing a gold chain around his neck when he went to meet important clients or a bar on weekend nights.
The small city he lived near began to show small signs of growth as well, when the owners of his favorite sports bar took a chance and opened an Irish pub in a downtown that had seen nothing new for years.  It was a success, so crowded and busy that when another new place sprang up in a rehabilitated firehouse, he was quick to make that place his own.  He was not alone in his thinking since the parking lot and side streets would be crowded with shiny pickup trucks every Friday by 4:30. 
A lot of men, mostly contractors, would crowd around the bar with booming voices and broad, yet controlled gestures.  Most of their shoulders were back as they nodded knowingly during conversations.  Two different sports channels were on televisions at either end of the bar, while a third was on the back wall running 24 hour news.  The bar was stocked with several pretty bartenders in their twenties and a few in their thirties.  They were very good at smiling through stupidity and had incredible endurance being called by name from the patrons, Paul thought.  He was also amazed how the bartenders knew many of the patrons’ names.  Although he himself enjoyed looking at them and their pleasant attention, he didn’t like the way the other men, guys in their forties and fifties, would simultaneously condescend and flirt with the bartenders and waitresses.  These guys had wives and kids, for sure.  Regardless of these minor annoyances, Paul would be there early every Friday, securing himself a spot at the bar, socializing, watching a muted game on television, and enjoying the scene as the place filled up with a happy hour crowd loaded with pretty women.
One Friday, he saw in the mirror a woman standing behind him trying to get to the bar.  He turned and moved his chair over to make some space for her and apologized.  Just then, the bartender looked at him to see if he needed anything and he motioned to the woman behind him.  She nodded to him politely and ordered a gin and tonic.  He smelled a light oakmoss perfume, much lighter than the occasionally heavy bouts of cologne he was used to in that establishment, and had a sense she was beautiful.  He noticed first her slender fingers and lightly manicured nails with a nude polish, on her wrist a classy, loose band.  They turned to each other and smiled and he immediately felt his life was going to get even better than it had been over the past year.  When she got her drink they exchanged another polite smile and she left to a tall table, joining two other women. 
He stayed in his spot for the next half hour, pretending to watch a Yankees/Boston game, but taking every chance to look at her.  She was chatting with her friends, and here and there, a random man would wander over to them.  At one point, an old acquaintance from Paul’s high school sat down next to him.  The guy was now an electrician and kept trying to buy him a shot of Jagermeister while complaining about health insurance.  While they sat and talked, Paul kept watching the woman with her friends in the mirror.  When the electrician was paying his bill, he added on a shot for Paul, gave him a hug and left, trudging towards the rear door.  The bartender brought the glass to Paul and she said, “What can I get you, honey?”  He was confused for a second, then realized she was speaking to the woman who had returned to his left. 
“Another gin and tonic, please.”
Her eyes were a lively, smart blue, and he thought, immediately, she had that kind kind of face, a face so friendly it’s familiar before you’ve met it.  She turned to him and they both smiled again, although this smile was longer and more sustained than polite.  When she got her drink and paid this time, she didn’t leave and he had the same feeling as before.  Without wasting any time he turned to her and said, “How’s it going tonight?” and they started talking.  After the initial, awkward pleasantries, they asked about each other’s work and then eventually their names.  Strangely, her name was Marie, just like his sister.  Then, they spoke on where they were from, along with some talk about television shows.
She was lovely.  She was smart and very quickly began teasing him here and there with an unearned familiarity that showed her confidence, but was so endearing he felt intoxicated by it.  He had been drinking beer for a while and that shot certainly affected him, but he felt elated at the ease of their progressing conversation.  She seemed a few years older than him and she worked in real estate.  She did mostly commercial work, but still dabbled in residential.  Her hair was expensive, he knew that, but had no other way of articulating it to himself, the same as her smart skirt and cream-colored blouse.  And she was interested in him?  Everything felt so right.
He’d had girlfriends, in the past, for about six months a piece, but they all wanted marriage and he had no interest in that.  He felt too young for a family and worked so much.  He knew then, though, this woman Marie was one for whom he had been waiting.  He needed to get her number and see her again.  He’d be careful and not push her to get together that night, she was there with her friends, even though they’d been ignored for a half hour.  He was doing so well, it was so natural, he did not want to screw it up.
Soon, one of the two friends came over to Marie and asked if she minded leaving, since the other two had to move on.  The friend smiled at Paul and they exchanged polite greetings.  Marie said she’d be over in a minute and the friend left.  Marie turned back to Paul and looked him full in the face.
“You know, I don’t know if you’d be interested, but I need someone reliable to prep and maintain a lot of the properties I am selling.  A lot of the time owners let the commercials go into neglect and that’s why they’re selling, so we always need a good landscaper to do some cleanup and spruce them up for sale.  What do you think?  Interested?”
He smelled light oakmoss, felt it was emanating from the dark waves in her blond hair.  Now he could get her number…
“Sure, can I have your number?”
She stopped with a sly look in her eyes; that teasing familiarity had evolved into flirtation.  “You think I’m going to just give out my number to some random landscaper in a bar?”
He had never been clever and his cleverness had been dulled by the alcohol, but even more by her beauty and cleverness.  “Uh, well isn’t this more like business?
She considered.  “Okay.  If this is business, let’s do business.”  She put her hand gently on his forearm.  “I’ll send you some pictures of a property I have now, and you send me back a list of what you would do to it with an estimate.  How’s that?”  She looked him in the eyes again with that lovely smile and removed her hand.
She reached deftly into her handbag, which he hadn’t even noticed was on her arm, and produced a small notebook and pen.  “What’s your email address?”  He thought, paused, and she said, “You don’t have one?”
“No, I do,” he quickly responded.  Buying himself a second, he said, “I just don’t use it that often.”  He had never used it and didn’t plan on it.  While he was pulling his wallet from his back pocket, she laughed. 
“You don’t know it?”
“I told you, I rarely use it, but I will now,” he said nervously, remembering it was a stupid name, stupid enough, but the whole internet thing was stupid, and she’d probably laugh when she saw it. And as he issued his important numbers card, he realized she wouldn’t laugh.
“Wait, can I give you a business card?”
“Does it have your email address?”
“Uh, no.”
“Well give me the card and I’ll write it on there.”
He handed her a fresh card.
“What’s the address?”
“This is a really stupid email name. And, as I said, I never use it.  My friend set up the account.”  He gave a nervous chuckle and handed her the important numbers card.
“Pussy blaster 1970 at yahoo dot com?  Really?”  He looked at her and chuckled again.  “That’s funny,” she said, but was no longer smiling.
She left with her friends and even though he checked that email for three months, every time he was at Marie and Jason’s, he never heard from her or saw her again.  
Draft 2/19