Volcano


In the westernmost part of the African nation of Cameroon lies Lake Nyos.

As lakes go, Nyos is not all that large, a bit less than four hundred acres. It is an expanse of still water surrounded by fertile green hills, occupying a crater on the side of an inactive—mostly inactive—volcano, the water held in place by a natural dam of old lava. To all appearances, this is a peaceful, green place.

Far beneath Nyos, however, lies another lake, this one of molten rock, a survivor of the days when volcanoes reared fiery heads, and the region was racked by earthquakes and eruptions. Gases rising from that crucible gradually work their way up through fifty miles of solid rock to the surface, where they escape one prison only to be trapped again, this time by the weight of the lake on top of them. The carbon dioxide escaping from the magma below has accumulated for eons, with hundreds of thousands of tons of gas slowly becoming trapped in the cold waters of the deep lake bottom.

On the 21st of August, 1986, Lake Nyos undergoes something called a “lake overturn.” There is no warning. People are eating their evening meal, socializing, talking about the day just ended, the day to come. Children are being readied for bed. Cattle have been rounded up and penned in their corrals, safe for the night from predators or thieves. The routines of all the days up to this one have created an almost irresistible flow of normalcy, of repetition, of life.

As darkness falls, something happens out on the lake: a landslide, a minor tremor, or maybe simply rainwater washing off the hills on the other side … The initial trigger is insignificant, something perfectly trivial that will never be identified.

The effect is anything but trivial. A vast reservoir of CO2-saturated water, long trapped under tremendous pressure, explodes to the surface, erupting like the gas escaping a bottle of soda when the cap pops off. As thick and silent and deadly as a lava flow, the carbon dioxide gas billows outward from the lake, settling onto the surrounding countryside, burying the cattle dozing in their corrals, the mothers putting away the supper dishes, the children climbing into bed. More than 1,700 people die, having suffocated in moments. At least 3,500 cattle won’t see the next sunrise.

Survivors will report hallucinations, along with feelings of crushing, inhuman despair.

On the day Dolly Latham loses her mind, her daughters Annie, Lulie, and Theresa are thirteen, ten, and seven, respectively. Her husband Judah is at home enjoying a three-day lull between jobs with Lowry & Sons Construction, and he is babysitting the girls while their mother goes grocery shopping. He wants to keep Ronnie home with him, too, but Dolly balks. She knows that Judah loves his only son, but she also knows that his greatest desire is to mold the child in his own image, and Dolly is determined to prevent that. One Judah, she feels, is more than enough.

Dolly and the giggling two-year-old sail up and down the aisles of the Wayland Springs Piggly Wiggly, looking at this and that, dropping some items into the cart, putting others back on the shelf.

Breakfast cereal is getting to be so expensive! she thinks, picking up a box of store-brand cornflakes instead of the colorful frosted cereal the girls prefer. The cheaper peanut butter is nothing but sugar and salt—but it’s cheaper. She picks up a bag of apples marked down to half price, knowing that most of the apples will be bruised and browning. She’ll chop them up and use them in muffins or something, maybe make applesauce.

By the time she reaches the checkout line, she is exhausted and dispirited, and even Ronnie has slumped into a fitful doze, perched in his seat on the cart.

Money woes are not a new thing in the Latham household, but lately, they’ve become harder to ignore. Judah’s carpentry skills are in demand: he’s good at what he does; he makes a good living, always has, but Dolly’s household allowance is still what it was when Annie was a toddler, and expenses have just gone up and up. She would work, but even if she could find someone to take care of the kids, Judah would never allow it. In his eyes, a wife who works is telling the world about a husband who is failing in his responsibilities. Judah never seems to do without anything, but then, as he likes to remind her whenever the subject comes up, it’s his money. Do his other women have to struggle like this? she thinks bitterly.

As she and her child take their place in the checkout line, Ronnie wakes up with a tiny snort that makes her laugh. When their turn comes, the cashier, an older woman she has known for years, greets them with a smile.

“He just gets more precious every week,” the clerk says, making a funny face at Ronnie as she starts ringing up Dolly’s purchases.

“He just grows and grows,” Dolly says, touching his cheek.

The items pass over the scanner one by one, and Dolly grows apprehensive. “I have coupons,” she says after a minute, watching the running total climb. She glances over at the sacker, a pimply-faced boy, the son of one of her old schoolmates. He might as well be on another planet. He is not the least bit interested in Dolly’s financial problems.

“We’ll do those after we get everything checked,” the cashier says.

Even with the coupons, Dolly discovers that she is short. The woman in line behind her looks away as Dolly picks through her folder of coupons. Dolly detects the sweet, nauseating odor of pity, and her cheeks burn, red and blotchy.

“I have to have flour,” she says, her frustration starting to show in her voice. “The price has gone up, and you didn’t use the coupon.”

On the cart, Ronnie is picking up on the darkening mood. He sits with his thumb and forefinger in his mouth, his eyes wide, no longer laughing.

“That one’s expired, honey.” The clerk pushes aside half the brightly colored scraps. “Those are all out of date. They won’t let me take expired coupons.” She looks over the items that have been checked in. “Maybe if we put back the shampoo and the tuna fish.”

Even without those items, Dolly’s total is still more than she can pay. The woman in line behind her clears her throat. Dolly doesn’t know her name, but her face is familiar. They probably attend the same church; their kids go to the same schools.

“I’d be happy to pitch in for the shampoo and the tuna,” she offers. “I’ll bet that little boy loves his tuna sandwiches.”

Dolly could have dismissed rudeness, impatience—almost anything but kindness. Sympathy. Pity. She thanks the woman but refuses her offer. She turns and lifts a five-pound bag of flour, considers it gravely for a moment, then raises it over her head. With a grunt, she slams the fragile package down onto the conveyor belt. A tremendous cloud of white dust rises, and Dolly, like a goddess of the volcano, wreathed in the smoke of a great burning, begins picking up items one by one and smashing them onto the counter and onto the floor at her feet. Each crash elicits a grunt of satisfaction, and when a bottle of salad dressing shatters on the chrome edge of the counter, spraying oil and vinegar and garlic and “authentic Italian spices” all over her, her son, the rack of tabloids and soap opera magazines, the display of lip-balms and chewing gum, and the cash register, her laughter rings out, full and rich. Plastic containers merely bounce and roll away, but glass shatters and cardboard rips asunder, and soon, there is a swamp of mayonnaise and jelly and pickles and oatmeal and spaghetti sauce at her feet.

Ronnie stares, astonished and unafraid at first, but soon begins to cry. The cashier has slipped away and stands with a huddle of onlookers a few yards off, waving her hands and calling out soothing words like someone trying to calm a panicked steer. A muffled voice calls for a manager over the speaker system, but the rage and delight have swept Dolly away, and the manager would have to be a brave man indeed to confront her.

When Dolly has completely cleared the counter of items, she pauses, panting, her mouth black in the floury ghost-white mask of her face. She looks around, grinning, the blood of her ancestors surging in her veins, hot and relentless as lava, and then she reaches down and lifts Ronnie out of the cart. He is dusted with flour, sprayed with condiments and crumbs, and his tears have traced paths down his cheeks to his mouth, but he laughs when his mother smiles at him. Holding him in her arms, she steps over the mess and, with infinite dignity, she walks out the front door, head high, eyes blazing. Triumphant.

By the time Dolly pulls into the driveway at home, Judah has been informed of the incident and has gone to the supermarket to pay for the damage and collect his wife, not knowing that she has already left the scene. When he comes home, Ronnie is clean and pink in his little striped overalls, and he and Lulie are giggling over the cartoon animals in a picture book on the living room floor while Annie and Theresa play a card game of their own invention at the coffee table. Their mother, he is informed, has gone to the grocery store in White Mill and will be back in an hour.

For dinner, there is meatball soup and baked potatoes. Dolly is relaxed and gracious. She tells her husband that the prices are better at the White Mill A&P and that she will start going there regularly. Judah believes that’s a good idea.

Nothing more is said on the topic.

# # #

The Late Blonde

A short story by David Lee Holcomb


The dead blonde in the babydoll nightie was fast becoming a nuisance.

Danny Zickell struggled to keep his mind on his playing, watching the apparition sashay among the tables. She was mouthing the lyrics to “I Surrender Dear,” her eyes half closed in what she undoubtedly believed was an expression of soulful concentration, while the ostrich-feather trim of her outfit swayed gently in counterpoint to the music.

Under any other circumstances, Danny would have been happy to look at Emily DuCaine all night long: she was five-five, curvy and blonde, with the kind of big, blue eyes that made you feel like you were the only man in the world. Silky Maloney had undoubtedly thought he was the only man in Emily’s world right up until he caught her sharing a sweet little love nest with a trombone player on the fourth floor of the Olympia Hotel.

“Together Forever,” read the inscription on the gold lighter Rick Doyle bought Emily for her twenty-second birthday. Truer words have never been spoken. Ever since that sultry June night, the young lovers occupied matching oil drums buried side by side in the mud at the bottom of the Pautasquot River. These days, the lighter sat on a shelf in Danny’s apartment, a reminder of what love can do to you if you’re not careful.

Silky’s goons rolled Emily and Rick off the North Bay Bridge eighty-four years ago last summer. You’d think that whatever it was the silly woman needed to say after all this time, it could have waited until Danny finished his solo.

“I’m sorry, Laurel. I got distracted.” Danny dragged the swab through the body of his saxophone, trying to ignore his unwelcome visitor. Emily had wandered over to the piano to stand half in and half out of the bench, passing her dainty paws over the keys, pretending to play, the tip of her tongue caught between her teeth, a delicate frown wrinkling her brows.

“No shit, Sherlock. For a minute there, you looked like you’d seen a ghost.” The stocky little bandleader thumbed down the latches on her trumpet case with a brisk double clack that made Danny wince. “Listen, baby, if you can’t stay with the program, at least learn some new riffs. You played that same Michael Brecker thing three times tonight. The crowd in this place may be dumb as rocks when it comes to music, but it doesn’t take a degree from Juilliard to know when the guy on stage is just phoning it in.” She stood, hefting the antique case, and reached over to pat the saxophonist on the shoulder. “You got three days before we come back here,” she said. “Get your personal shit out of the way before then.”

Laurel didn’t tack an or else onto that sentence, but she didn’t have to. Danny knew the score.

“I will. I promise.”

Laurel gave him a grim nod and headed down the steps to where the staff of Lizard’s Lounge was herding the last of the evening’s drinkers toward the door.

Danny watched her go and then turned to frown at Emily. The girl made a face at him and huffed—a purely symbolic gesture, seeing as how she hadn’t breathed air since 1940. Danny stood and glanced around to make sure he hadn’t left anything behind, then he pushed his shaggy blond hair out of his face and followed his boss out onto the street.

· · · 

Saxophone great Michael Brecker hadn’t even been born yet when the man who would one day become Danny Zickell met Emily DuCaine for the first time.

He had been a little taller then, a lot older, a skinny Black man who called himself Dan Ziccelli but was known to his friends as Zeke. Zeke played a mellow Buescher Aristocrat tenor with the house band at Silky’s Uptown. Light-skinned Zeke was passing for Italian to work in Silky’s all-white band—less of a challenge than one might think, given that he had lived and died in a rough neighborhood on the edge of Naples a lifetime or two ago and remembered enough of the dialect to convince the occasional skeptic. Silky Maloney’s fancy club, with all its mirrors and chrome and overdressed gangsters, was Zeke’s world now.

“Boys, this is Emily,” Silky announced on that Saturday night after Easter, just as the band was setting up. “Say hello, and then get back to work.” The petite blonde on his arm might have been Jean Harlow’s cute baby sister.

The musicians muttered, grunted, or swaggered depending on each personality, and Emily returned the round of greetings with a demure smile. While endearing, her wide-eyed, innocent manner didn’t quite jibe with her slinky backless cream-colored gown, her pink silk opera gloves, and that string of magnificent pearls, but none of the boys minded the contradiction. With a smug grin, Silky led her away to his private table up past the end of the bar.

Day-am,” Rick Doyle murmured, running his trombone slide up and down suggestively. Trouble hung in the air around Emily DuCaine like a spicy perfume, and Rick was obviously intoxicated by the scent. “How does a cold fish like Silky score a doll like that?”

“Money,” Zeke murmured back, checking through the night’s setlist.

“Money don’t keep a girl warm at night.”

“Did you see those pearls?” Zeke said without looking up. “Trinkets like that generate a lot of heat.”

“Hmph. Maybe. Still …”

The sax player glanced over at his movie-star-handsome bandmate and sighed. Rick was the sort of man who looked both ways before he stepped off the curb and then walked out in front of the bus anyway.

Please don’t do anything we’ll all regret, Ricky.” Zeke nodded toward a long-legged, auburn-haired waitress folding napkins at the end of the bar. “Isn’t Sheila enough trouble for you?”

Rick waggled his eyebrows. “There’s trouble, and then there’s trouble. I can handle Sheila.”

Meaningless banter, Zeke thought. Surely, even Rick isn’t that stupid.

· · ·

The late blonde had first appeared in Danny’s life—his current life, anyway—about a week ago, waiting on the front steps of his apartment building just as he was getting home from a gig. Glamorous women in evening gowns were not a common sight in his neighborhood, especially at one a.m. on a weeknight, but none of the passersby seemed to notice her. Danny stopped dead on the sidewalk for a long moment, staring, feeling immature and grubby and foolish, bashful in the presence of a beautiful woman. Then, all at once, memory kicked in—memory belonging to someone he used to be, a long, long time ago.

That dress. Those lips …

He was looking at Silky Maloney’s long-gone girlfriend, no doubt about it. Silky had been dead for forty years, and the woman standing on Danny’s steps had been fish food for twice that long, but there she was. The outfit she had on was the one she had been wearing when Danny—Zeke, in that life—first laid eyes on her. Everything except the pearls. Instead of pearls, her throat was now adorned with an ugly, bruised-looking abrasion that completely encircled her neck.

Emily followed Danny up to his apartment and wandered around looking at things while he put his horn away and hung up his jacket.

The tiny studio apartment was as bare and impersonal as a monk’s cell except for an antique console table that rested against the wall opposite the door to the balcony. The scarred top of the table was littered with strange bric-à-brac, such as:

… an age-yellowed pair of tickets for a Pan Am flight that left the ground at 9:05 one morning in 1953 only to return to it ten minutes later, coming down hard through the roof of a restaurant supply warehouse;

… a saxophone mouthpiece, tenor, its tip discolored by decades of boozy spit, its shank split from being stomped on;

… a set of keys, one of them broken in half;

… a fancy steak knife crusted with what might or might not have been rust;

… an antique medicine bottle, three inches tall, unlabeled, half full of a purple-black liquid that seemed to climb the sides of the bottle when the light hit it just right;

a dozen other things, equally insignificant and equally enigmatic. Little else in the apartment said anything about the occupant’s identity.

Emily fluttered her fingers over each object as if she were choosing something to buy. When she got to the dainty gold lighter, she stopped cold, frozen in mid-wiggle.

After a moment, she turned from the display to look at Danny expectantly as a cigarette unfolded from her gloved hand. Danny started to tell her that smoking wasn’t allowed in the building, then laughed, shaking his head. The smoke alarm wasn’t likely to react to a ghost cigarette, was it? He reached past her to pick up the lighter. There was no fluid in it, never had been, but he flicked it and held it out. The lighter was cold, inert, but when Emily leaned close, the reflection of a flame glittered in her blue eyes, and the cigarette ignited. She took a long drag, thanking him with a glance.

Danny turned to put the lighter back in its place, and suddenly, he was alone in the apartment. Nothing remained of his visitor but the faint smell of her cigarette.

After Emily’s appearance at Lizard’s Lounge on Saturday night, Danny didn’t see her again for the rest of the weekend. He hoped that she had moved on, drifting away to do the kinds of things dead people did in their spare time. On Monday, he bought groceries, dropped off his shirts at the cleaners, spent a pleasant couple of hours jamming with friends at their loft down by Fair Park, and then ate dinner at a little taqueria near his apartment. The kinds of things live people did in their spare time. Back home, he changed into a T-shirt and sweats and watched some TV. Around midnight, he turned off the television and strolled out onto his tiny balcony to listen to the noises the city made as it settled and cooled.

Somehow, he wasn’t even startled when Emily DuCaine stepped out of the shadows to stand next to him at the railing.

Tonight, the visitor was wearing a pale gray suit, topped by a hat that consisted of little more than a floppy bow pinned to her loose platinum curls, a scrap of veil puffing out from beneath it to overshadow her forehead. The suit was so severe in its cut that it could have served as a military uniform, yet it still managed to emphasize her tiny waist and her lush hips and bust, while the collar of the ruffled white blouse almost concealed the angry ligature marks around her throat.

“Hello, Emily.”

The late blonde glanced over with just the hint of a smile, and then she turned to look out over the warehouses and auto body shops that blanketed the landscape below. In the far distance, the running lights of a barge and its pusher boat glittered on dark water.

Emily’s gaze zeroed in on that glimpse of the river, and she tensed. She gestured toward it with a nod.

“The river?” Danny asked.

She didn’t respond to the question in his voice; she just stared, her blue eyes luminous in the dimness. He wondered whether she could actually hear anything he said. Did mere words have the power to cross the gap between them?

“The river,” Danny repeated. “Where you died. You and Rick.”

Emily sighed and brought her arms across her breasts as though she were cold, her eyes still fixed on the distant water.

“That gold lighter,” Danny said, pushing his hair back with both hands, babbling a little. “You saw it. Rick got it for you. He gave it to me to hold on to. He was afraid he’d lose it. He was going to give it to you that weekend, on your birthday, but …” He faltered.

But Silky murdered you both before that could happen, he thought.

Emily gazed at the river, holding herself. What did she see when she looked at the black water? Was she dead when Silky welded her into that barrel? Or did she regain consciousness in time to find her prison slowly filling with water as it sank? Was she facing eternity with the jagged shards of that memory tearing holes in her soul?

“Emily, I’m sorry about what happened to you.”

Without so much as a glance in his direction, she stepped back from the railing, out of the light from the street below, pulling her collar up around her jawline. When Danny turned to look for her, she was gone.

In the morning, after an uneasy night’s sleep, Danny sat down at his laptop with a mug of coffee and a mortal weariness that no amount of caffeine could address.

The things human beings will do to each other, he thought.

Online reporting of Emily’s return from the depths wasn’t hard to find: the body had only come to light a week ago. The news was still warm and juicy, even if the subject was not.

“Dredge Operators Make Gruesome Discovery” ran one headline. “Woman’s Body Found off Muddy Point Broadwalk” was another. “Shadow of the Past” was the Herald-Star’s more refined offering. The Investigator, adhering to its usual journalistic standards, titled its story “Babe in a Barrel at the Bottom of the Bay.” Apart from the Investigator, whose content was sealed behind a paywall and an age verification system, the other sources were readily accessible, and Danny was able to put together a rough overview of the circumstances:

On the morning of the day Emily first showed up on Danny’s doorstep, workers for the Pautasquot River Authority, dredging silt from the shipping channel a mile upstream from the North Bay Bridge, hauled a steel drum into the daylight. This was by no means an unusual occurrence—the mud at the bottom of the river was stiff with everything from construction debris to stripped motorcycles to old washing machines—but environmental regs required that containers of that type always be inspected for evidence of toxic waste. The PRA agent asked the workmen to cut open the barrel. Inconvenient but routine.

What they found was anything but routine. Human bodies did turn up in the river, as many as two dozen per year, but they were typically drowning victims, people who had driven off a bridge or gone down in a boating accident. In almost every case, the body was found because somebody was looking for it, usually within hours of entering the water. A human skeleton in a badly corroded oil drum was an item rare enough to justify a few headlines.

The clothing had long since disintegrated, but garter clips and fragments of a zipper, along with a distinctive diamond and sapphire ring, remained embedded in the sludge that half-filled the barrel. Dental records and the ring identified the skeletal remains as those of the daughter of a prominent Port Sebastian businessman, the young woman having been reported missing in the summer of 1940. The Herald-Star’s reporter noted dryly that foul play was now suspected. There was no mention of a second barrel.

Danny supposed that the recovery of the body had somehow liberated Emily’s wraith to come looking for him. No, not for him, for anybody she knew. After eighty-four years, the odds were slim that she’d find someone who had known her in life. Even Ziquel had died twice during that time.

Danny sighed, staring at the black and white photo—a high school portrait—that accompanied the Herald-Star article. A pretty girl, her hair blonde but not yet the startling platinum it would become a few years later. A silly, sweet spoiled face, the face of a child who had never faced adversity, who had never been hurt. Somebody’s little princess. Danny’s chest ached with a pain that went back much further than eight decades.

I can’t fix human nature, he thought, but maybe I can do something for Emily DuCaine.

He tossed back the rest of his coffee and went to get dressed.

· · ·

Zeke had known from the beginning that keeping Rick out of trouble was going to be a challenge; even so, he was deeply disappointed when the young idiot started carrying on with Silky’s girl and then lying about it.

“C’mon, Zeke. Why would I do something like that? I haven’t laid a finger on Emily. We just happened to run into each other at Blubaum’s one day and had a cup of coffee.”

So many lies. With all the practice he’s getting, you’d think he’d be better at it, Zeke thought. He felt tired, old. “Sheila saw you together at Customs Avenue Park.”

Rick’s face hardened. “We weren’t together; we were just both at the park. Sheila should learn to mind her own goddam business.”

“I thought you were her business.”

“Not if she’s going around spying on me.”

Zeke counted to ten, keeping his expression neutral. “Maybe Sheila just happened to be at the park at the same time you were. Is that any harder to believe than your story of accidentally running into Emily there? Sheila only lives six blocks away. Emily DuCaine lives all the way out in Linden.”

“Not Sheila’s business,” Rick said, his voice tight, a warning in the tone. “Not yours, either.”

Zeke nodded briefly and then slid his sax case under the stage. He clipped his horn onto the neckstrap and walked to his chair without another word.

The leader and male vocalist of the house band at Silky’s was an elegant dark-haired man with a pencil mustache and the long, expressive face of a silent film star. Toby Burns had been born Tobiah Bernstein in Odessa, but his parents had changed his name when they arrived in London in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, while the boy was still in his teens. Burns came to the US a few years later, working as a singer and nightclub host in various locations in and around Port Sebastian until Silky Maloney offered him a job in his new club. No one truly believed the biography he peddled—that of a Presbyterian Scotsman—but it was a useful fiction for all concerned and was never challenged. He had a smooth baritone voice that didn’t exactly light up the stage but didn’t irritate anybody, either, and he had been working at Silky’s since the club opened. The female vocalist was a surprisingly talented woman named Janet Laine, who claimed to be thirty-five even though she was the mother of a twenty-three-year-old daughter who worked for the phone company and dated the club’s head waiter. Janet only worked a couple of weekends a month; most nights, Burns occupied the spotlight.

He called the group to order, the lights gleaming on his brilliantined hair.

“Bob? Would you care to join the rest of us? Call was for fifteen minutes ago. Louie, please tell me you’re not chewing gum on my stage. Zeke, did you sleep in that shirt?” He scanned the group and sighed. “Never mind. I guess we have to make do with what we’ve got.”

This was a ritual, nothing more. The chaffing was intended to wake the musicians up and get them focused. Sometimes, it even worked.

“Bob, if you’re feeling musical, perhaps you could give us an A.”

The first song Burns called was “All of Me,” which was usually a crowd-pleaser, but tonight, for some reason, it fell flat. The drummer rushed the tempo, the horns dragged behind, and the bass player lost a string ten bars into the first chorus.

It wasn’t just the band, though. The whole club was off-kilter that night. The bar ran out of the good gin, and the rotgut the bartenders substituted had the customers ready to burn the place down by eleven o’clock. Silky was in a bad mood from the moment he walked through the door, and Emily left halfway through the evening, complaining of a headache, squired by one of Silky’s henchmen. The crowd couldn’t decide whether they wanted to dance or cry into their booze, and every song Burns called for was the wrong choice. The trumpeter flubbed a solo in “Cherokee” so badly that even the audience noticed, and Burns counted the band into a rendition of “Lullaby of Broadway” that was so ponderous it might well have served the purpose that the title implied. 

At closing time, as the musicians packed up, groaning and gossiping, Rick pulled Zeke aside.

“Look, I’m sorry. I had no right to talk to you like that. I know you meant well.”

Zeke nodded, accepting the apology, but still conflicted. “S’okay.”

Rick took a deep breath, clearly bucking himself up to say more. “I need a favor,” he finally blurted.

“Of course you do,” Zeke said, disappointed. He focused his attention on cleaning his horn.

“Come on, don’t be like that,” Rick wheedled. Glancing around, he reached into his pocket and pulled out something that was almost entirely hidden by his hand. “I want you to hang onto this for me,” he said. “I know I’ll leave it somewhere or send it to the cleaners with my pants or something else stupid like that.”

He passed the object over, and Zeke held it up in his long fingers. It was a gold lighter, a fancy little toy that must have cost Rick a month’s wages. He quickly tucked the lighter into his jacket pocket.

“Jesus. I’m guessing this isn’t for Sheila.”

“Just hold it for me till Friday, right?” Rick said. “Keep it safe; don’t show it to anybody. I’ll take it back before the early set.”

“This thing is a bomb, you know that, don’t you? It’s gonna blow up in your face.”

“Friday. Until then, you can forget it exists. Thanks, Zeke.” Looking ridiculously furtive, Rick finished putting away his trombone and slipped out.

The lighter sitting in Zeke’s pocket felt like ten pounds of TNT. He packed up and followed Rick out the door, grateful to put the evening behind him.

It was the last time he would see Rick Doyle alive.

· · ·

By Danny Zickell’s time, all that remained of the old North Bay Bridge was a concrete abutment that ran for almost half a mile along the shore, serving as a retaining wall for a small waterfront park. A wide flight of steps led from the park down to a concrete ledge that ran for several hundred yards in either direction. This ledge, called the “Broadwalk,” was separated from the water by a steel fence and adorned with wrought-iron-and-wood benches at intervals along its otherwise stark length.

In the winter and spring, icy breezes crossed the river to scour the Broadwalk with sparkling knives, and in summer and fall, the sun trapped in the concrete surfaces could melt lead. When Danny descended the steps, he found a few strollers, elderly people apparently unaffected by the lingering heat, passing up and down the walkway, checking their fitness trackers every few paces.

Emily DuCaine’s steel sarcophagus had been pulled from the mud very near the eastern—downstream—end of the Broadwalk. Sweating, Danny walked to the last bench and sat down to look out over the water, flapping his shirt to cool himself, waiting for ideas or inspiration, holding his hair back out of his eyes with his other hand.

They went off the bridge up there, opposite the steps, he thought, peering into the glittering sunlight. According to the news reports, Emily’s body was discovered about here. Danny frowned out at the water, but there was nothing to suggest exactly where the barrel had been found. Twenty yards from shore, they said. Over there where the riprap ends.

A movement caught his eye, a flash of white. A young woman was tucking her hair under a ruffled white rubber cap, standing on the tumbled rocks and concrete debris that protected the Broadwalk from the river’s occasional excesses. Her bare arms and legs were not much darker than her old-fashioned white one-piece.

Danny stared as she turned and waved in his direction. He looked around, but none of the half-dozen or so elderly strollers taking their exercise on the Broadwalk seemed to notice the swimmer.

Nobody swam in the Pautasquot River, certainly not this close to the port. The riverbank was reinforced with a belt of concrete construction debris, spiky with rebar. The water was filthy with fuel and oil from the port, and the currents were impossible to chart. A few foolhardy swimmers died every summer, challenging the river and losing.

Danny stood up and moved to the fence. “Hey! You shouldn’t be out there!” he called out.

The woman smiled, and he realized who she was. Even at that distance, disguised by the cap, there was no mistaking that face. She turned and dove neatly into the water.

Emily.

A small pleasure boat cruised by, but the wake rolled over the swimmer without seeming to affect her. She traveled smoothly, with a relaxed, even stroke, until she had passed into the deep channel, at which point all Danny could see was a dot of white. She stopped and remained where she was, treading water for a long count of ten, then dove for another long count. When she re-emerged, she was facing the shore. She waved again, dove again, and although Danny waited for almost an hour, she never reappeared.

These days, in this life, the being known in ancient times as Ziquel wore the identity of scruffy and nervous Danny Zickell, a graceless small-town boy with none of the weary dignity of two lifetimes ago when Emily DuCaine came into his life and left hers. Instead of Zeke Ziccelli’s tight pepper-and-salt curls, clipped at Mr. Louie’s barbershop every other Thursday, his hair was now a dust-blonde shag, desperately in need of professional attention; instead of the tall, lean body he had worn on the stage at Silky’s Uptown eighty years ago, today’s Lizard’s Lounge sax man was of barely average height, lumpy, and inelegant. He was amazed that Emily could recognize him across years and lifetimes, but who knew what she saw when she turned those big blue eyes his way? What did the physical shell mean to someone who no longer wore one?

Or to someone who has worn so many? he thought.

He returned to his apartment and showered, then threw himself onto the sofa and sorted through his options.

Emily DuCaine. Eighty-four years gone, and she’s still making guys do stupid things.

He couldn’t just walk away. You don’t hide from the dead by changing your email address. The only way to escape her would be to help her, to bring a proper end to her story. But how? Her body—what there was of it—had already been grieved over and cremated by her brother’s grandchildren. What was there still to do?

Even as he framed the question, he knew the answer. Free Rick, of course.

Rick Doyle’s body was still buried in the mud at the bottom of the Pautasquot estuary. Danny, swept away by the tragic romance of the story, was certain that Emily wanted him to liberate her lover from his prison, to bring his remains up into the light and air. What he was supposed to do with the body once he had it was anybody’s guess, but he’d burn that bridge when he came to it. He hauled himself off the sofa with a grunt and went looking for his phone.

He was going to need help. Expensive help.

During the first thousand years of his punishment, the angel Ziquel learned to remember, to carry his memories from one human lifetime to the next—only to find, too late, that the weight of that knowledge drove him mad. Returning to sanity during his second millennium, he learned to forget, teaching himself to recall only the last few lifetimes in any detail, along with such useful facts as who and what he was and why this was happening to him, meanwhile consigning the rest to the mists of time. In the third millennium of his punishment, Ziquel learned about long-term investment. He amassed great wealth and found that he could, with proper planning, take it with him from one lifetime to the next. In the fourth millennium of his punishment, he found that unexplained wealth, while pleasant, was often inconvenient and occasionally dangerous. During the lifetimes of his fifth millennium of punishment, he learned how to be discreet.

Now, in the sixth millennium of his ten-thousand-year sentence, Ziquel had ceased to care much about material pleasures, but if he needed money, he knew where to get it. He was about to need some now. He sat down at his Formica-topped kitchen table to make some calls.

· · ·

On that second Friday in June, 1940, Rick didn’t show up for the early dinner show from six to eight-thirty and was still missing at nine o’clock when the band assembled for the second set. Silky came in late, just as the band was about to start, and settled onto his throne with a face that kept even his closest lieutenants silent and twitchy.

Burns bowed slightly toward his employer, then turned to face the band. “Get that goddam chair out of here,” he hissed, gesturing at Rick’s empty seat—then he quickly reversed himself. “No! Leave it. We don’t have time to rearrange the furniture.” He was visibly unsettled. Tradition dictated that an empty chair was left in place for a musician who had died, but otherwise, an unoccupied seat on the stage was bad luck. “That bastard better have a good excuse,” he muttered.

None of us noticed that Emily also had failed to put in an appearance.

· · ·

Douglas “Dino” Dinovitz was not what Danny had expected. He had assumed he’d be dealing with a big, rough river rat, all tough talk and tattoos, like the guys he saw hunting sunken treasure on the Discovery Channel, but Dinovitz looked more like an accountant who had been left out in the weather too long.

He frowned at Danny through his heavy, black-rimmed glasses.

“All right, Mr. Zickell. You say you want something fished out of the river. As it happens, I fish things out of the river for a living,” he said, twirling a pencil between bony brown fingers. “So far, so good. Past that, however, you’re being kind of evasive. No more bullshit, please. What, in twenty-five words or less, is it you want me to retrieve?”

Danny fidgeted. Putting his plans into concrete terms made him painfully aware of just how unlikely the whole situation sounded.

“It’s… It’s a barrel, a 55-gallon steel oil drum. You know the kind I mean,” he stammered.

Dinovitz poked his glasses back up his long beak of a nose. “Yes, I do. You can buy those on Amazon. They’re not worth more just because they’ve been in the water.”

“This one has a … has something inside. Something I want to recover.”

Dinovitz smiled. Each change in expression brought a new swath of fine wrinkles into action. Only the leathery expanse of his scalp was persistently smooth. “How long has it been in the water?” he asked, now tapping the pencil on the edge of his desk.

“It went off the Bay Bridge in June of 1940.”

“The Bay Bridge was built in 1979.”

“The old bridge. The one they tore down. Upstream.”

Dinovitz nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. It went off the old bridge. It didn’t jump, presumably.”

“Um, no. It was thrown off. A nightclub owner had it done.”

A chuckle. “Oh, for joy. Mobster stuff. Where’s Eliot Ness when you need him? Who else is looking for this thing?”

“Nobody. The only people besides me who even know the barrel exists are dead.”

Dinovitz’s eyebrows popped up, just clearing the tops of his glasses.

“You don’t say.”

“Yes. I mean … well, yes.” Any attempt at explaining Danny’s privileged knowledge would just tie the conversation in knots, so he didn’t try.

Dinovitz went back to twirling the pencil, gazing at Danny thoughtfully. After a time, he started doodling on the pad in front of him.

“The barrel should have washed out into the bay by now.”

“It didn’t.”

“And you know this how?”

Danny squirmed. “I just do,” he said.

“Shit. I guess you could be a whacko. Or you could know what you’re talking about. I make the odds about eighty-twenty in favor of whacko. I charge double for working the Twilight Zone.”

Danny grimaced, unable to reply to that. What could he possibly say that wouldn’t just reinforce the salvage man’s conviction that he was crazy?

“There were two barrels,” he said, finally. “One has been recovered. The … circumstances tell me where the other one is.”

“Jumpin’ Jehosaphat. That was just last week or the week before, right? ‘The Babe in the Bay,’ or some such shit. That’s your barrel?”

“One of them. I want to find the other one.”

“I’m guessing the second barrel isn’t full of old fryer oil, either.” Dinovitz grinned into Danny’s face. “Never mind. So, the Babe in the Bay has a friend. And you know where this second barrel is?”

“Approximately.”

Dinovitz leaned forward. “How approximately?”

“Within twenty yards or so, I think.”

“You think.”

Danny pushed his hair out of his face. “Look, Mr. Dinovitz; If I knew exactly, I wouldn’t need an expert.”

The weather-beaten little salvage operator spun his chair around and gestured at the enormous map of the lower Pautasquot River and its estuary that covered the wall behind his desk. “Show me.”

Danny came around the desk and stood peering at the map for a minute, then drew a small circle with his fingertip. “About there.”

Dinovitz nodded and made some notes on his pad. “Okay. The edge of the channel. It’ll have gone down into the deep water. Otherwise, the dredgers would have caught it when they found the other one. That’s a navigation lane, so we’ll need permits. Crew’ll be me and two guys. We’ll need half a day to locate, half a day to retrieve.” He turned the pad around to show Danny a dollar figure that made his eyes water.

“You’re kidding.”

Dinovitz’s narrow bookkeeper’s face tightened. “I never kid about money. That’s the price.”

“Half up front, half when we find the barrel?”

“You watch too much TV, bucko. The whole wad, up front, or you can take your story to some other motherfucker with a boat.”

For reasons he didn’t bother analyzing, Danny found the salvage operator’s obnoxious personality reassuring. After a few minutes of pro forma haggling, he agreed to the price. The only concession he extracted was that half the money would be paid now and the other half on the day of the dive. At the end of the interview, Danny paid the fee, and the two men shook hands.

The dive would take place in two weeks.

· · ·

The end of the evening wasn’t so much the orderly conclusion of the day’s activities as a slow disintegration, like an engine malfunctioning: gears spiraling off in different directions, belts flapping loose, forward motion interrupted. Burns stomped off the stage at the end of the last set, reappearing a minute later in his coat and hat. He stalked out the front door without a word to anyone.

Zeke packed his horn without cleaning it, anxiety churning in his gut, making him careless. He had walked with Death often enough during the countless lifetimes of his punishment that he could smell her scent if she were anywhere nearby: cloves, mothballs, vanilla, bitumen. The cloying perfume of ancient chemistry and sweet, terrible flowers. Her presence in the club was so overpowering that Zeke struggled to breathe. As he dragged on his coat and hurried to the door, he could almost feel her cool fingers caressing the back of his neck.

Out on the sidewalk, he took a few deep breaths and started walking. He peered into the first alley as he passed, his heart pounding.

The club’s old truck was parked next to the loading dock. A couple of the regular goons stood next to it, smoking and flipping pennies at the rats darting in and out of the trash cans. This was the truck the club’s employees used when they picked up kegs of beer, cases of wine and liquor—whatever Silky needed to move from one place to another. Tonight, the load consisted of nothing but a pair of metal barrels and a small pile of other oddments.

Among the items in that latter assortment were a trombone case and two or three cheap suitcases.

The blood was rushing in Zeke’s ears and his face felt hot, even though from the neck down he might have been immersed in ice water. He counted to ten, then to twenty, calming himself, then turned and walked back around to the front of the club where a couple of green and black taxicabs waited for the last drunken stragglers.

Zeke pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and showed it to the driver of the first cab he came to.

“Pretty,” the man said. “I got a few of those, too. Not as many as I’d like, though.”

“Get me where I need to go, and you can have this one for your collection,” Zeke told him.

“Hop in.”

Zeke shoved his sax case into the back seat and then folded himself in behind it.

“Where to?” the driver asked, catching his eye in the rear-view mirror.

“There’s a truck parked in the alley behind the club. I want to go wherever they’re headed.”

“Izzat so? I don’t guess you know where that is.”

“Not yet. Can you follow them? Without being too obvious about it?” Zeke felt foolish, as though he were playacting, pretending he was in a movie.

The cab driver laughed. “Maybe. I don’t want trouble.” He nodded toward the club. “‘Specially not with Silky.”

“Me, neither,” Zeke said.

The cabbie nodded. “Okay. Anything happens to make me nervous, it’s gonna cost you more. I got delicate nerves.”

“That’s fine. I’ll see to it that your nerves are looked after.”

Zeke’s nerves, while not delicate, were under a strain. When Silky walked out of the front door of the club, the musician flinched and hunkered down in the seat. The cabbie glanced back at him in the rear-view mirror with a grunt but said nothing. The tuxedoed club owner strolled over to his waiting car and bent down to speak to the chauffeur, then turned and walked around the corner of the building as the black Buick rolled away without him. A couple of minutes later, the truck nosed out of the alley; Silky and one of the goons in front, a second hired man riding in the back, snuggled up to the barrels.

“Showtime,” the cabbie said, wrestling his own vehicle into gear.

Silky’s truck wound its way into a riverfront district of warehouses and trucking companies, then turned onto the Bay Highway to drive out onto the North Bay Bridge. Zeke told the driver to take a detour before he got too close to his quarry.

“I’ll get out here,” he said once they were out of sight of the bridge.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Zeke handed the cabbie the ten plus another couple of singles.

“Your funeral,” the cabbie said with a shrug, tucking the money into his shirt pocket. “I don’t even like driving through this neighborhood. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be walking around here at this time of night. Not if I was a Eye-talian in a cheap tux, looking scared.”

“I know, I can’t help it. I’ve got business here.” Zeke climbed out, hefting his instrument case.

“You want me to wait?” the cabbie asked him.

“No, I could be here all night,” Zeke replied. “I’ll be okay. Thanks, though.”

“Your funeral,” the driver said again, putting the car into gear.

It might well be, Zeke thought, watching the cab round the next corner and pass from view.

The truck was parked at the near end of the bridge, hugging the parapet. The terrified saxophone player crouched behind a stack of empty fruit crates in front of a warehouse a hundred yards away, shivering with fear. I’m too old for this, he thought.

One of the men climbed up onto the back, and another stood at the tailgate while a third remained near the open door of the truck. That third man lit a cigarette, and the flare of the lighter illuminated Silky Maloney’s big, handsome face and white scarf. The man up on the bed of the truck held up a suitcase. Silky nodded, and the man flung it out over the water. Zeke couldn’t hear the splash at that distance. Another suitcase and the trombone followed it. A moment later, a smaller bag sailed out into the darkness. Silky nodded again, flipping his cigarette butt out onto the pavement, where it lay smoldering like an angry red eye.

The men now wrestled the first of the two steel barrels back to the tailgate, and then down to the pavement. The clang echoed off the nearby warehouses and Silky snapped a curse. With an effort, the two men moved the barrel to the parapet, then up onto it, then over it.

This time, Zeke heard the splash.

The other barrel received the same treatment, but by the time the workmen had lifted it up onto the parapet, Zeke had turned to stagger away from the scene, his sax case clutched against his chest like a shield.

He didn’t hear the second splash, but he didn’t have to. Two blocks away, he staggered and threw up all over his shiny black shoes, the smell of camphor and dead gardenias filling his nostrils.

· · ·

Danny arrived at Muddy Point Marina promptly at seven-thirty in the morning. Dino Dinovitz met him on the dock with two assistants, both named Mike. Mike One was what Danny had been expecting all along: shaven-headed, heavily tattooed, and with at least a pound of stainless steel hardware embedded in his ears, his eyebrows, his nose, his cheek, and his nipples. Mike Two was a short, stocky man with a military crew cut and a stop-start way of moving and talking, condensing all activity into five-second bursts separated by intervals of total immobility. Dinovitz introduced everybody to everybody else and led the way onto the boat.

In the life immediately preceding this one, as Wall Street wunderkind Dan Sickle, Ziquel had spent quite a few weekends on clients’ yachts, wallowing in booze, cocaine, and sex; although he had learned a great deal on those outings, he had come away knowing nothing about the boats themselves. Working-class musician Danny Zickell had not been presented with such opportunities; he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he had been more than fifty feet from shore. To Danny, the boat was a strange and terrible machine that would have his life in its figurative hands for the next several hours. He meekly went where Dinovitz told him to go, did what Dinovitz told him to do, and sat down gratefully when Dinovitz told him to settle in and stay out of the way.

Mike Two piloted the boat away from the slip while Dinovitz and Mike One manhandled the cables and winches that occupied the rearmost spaces of the boat’s deck. When they reached the search area, Mike One allowed a package of equipment to drop into the water, trailing a braid of cable. The two Mikes communicated back and forth in a series of grunts and hand gestures, and Dinovitz came over to sit across from Danny.

“Okay, my young friend. If we find something, and it turns out to be what you think it is—no, shut up, don’t tell me what you think it is, I don’t want to know—I’ll have to notify the cops, first thing. I need to know what our story is. How did you know where to look?”

Danny had worked this out in his head the night before. He could stay very near the truth and still keep his secrets safe.

“I’m a saxophone player,” he said. “A few years ago, I bought a vintage horn from a junk shop in South Bay Docks. I got it fixed up, and that’s what I play. Along with the other stuff you always find in an old sax case, there was a sheet of paper with a kind of map drawn on it. It showed the old bridge and marked a spot near the south end with a note that said, ‘Emily and Rick went into the water here.’ I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when I heard about the barrel that turned up last week, the dead girl’s name being Emily …”

“Geez, loueez. You’re shelling out a lot of money on this little expedition. What’s in it for you?”

Danny shrugged. “I don’t know. I just felt like it was something I had to do.”

“All from a map you found in a junk shop. Do you really think the police will buy that malarky?”

“I don’t know what they’ll buy. It’s all I’ve got to sell.”

Dinovitz nodded, grinning. “Good answer.” He stood and called up to Mike Two.

“Anything?”

“Too much. The bottom here is covered in junk. It’ll be hard to pick out something like an oil drum in this mess.”

“Any possibles?”

“Yeah, a few.”

“Are you using some kind of radar?” Danny asked.

“Nah,” Dinovitz told him as he climbed up to squeeze into the cockpit with Mike Two. “We’ve got a couple of really bright lights and a camera down there. It’s like we’re giving the river a colonoscopy.”

Mike One left off fiddling with gear and climbed up to hang on the steps and peer at whatever Mike Two was showing Dinovitz.

“That right there,” the tattooed man said after a minute, pointing past his boss’s shoulder. “It’s hanging right on the edge of where the dredger came through. See it? Kinda sticking half out of the mud where it’s all been stirred up? I’ll bet you that’s our prize.”

Dinovitz nodded doubtfully. “Maybe. Rewind that a little bit, Mike. Go slow. Little more. There. I like that one better.” He slapped Mike Two on the shoulder. “Good job, Mike. I like having choices. Let’s take a closer look at all the likely candidates, and tomorrow we’ll go down and do some poking around.”

· · ·

Zeke packed quickly. There wasn’t that much that he had to take: his horn, some clothes, his good suit, an assortment of souvenirs of his past lives.

He would go to New York, start over.

Goddam it, Rick. You and that poor girl. So fucking stupid. 

He stuffed a pile of small items into the saxophone case alongside the horn and snapped the latches down, then opened it back up and scribbled on the back of a scrap of paper. He tucked that into the case and closed it.

Running away. The Watcher Ziquel. Brother to angels. One of the Twenty, the Sons of God. Yes, indeed: a power in heaven, once upon a time. Now a middle-aged mortal with a headache and watery eyes and snot running down his lip, unmanned by fear and disgust. 

A thousand lives, he thought; a thousand lives, and yet I still cling to each one so desperately. A thousand lives, and in none of them have I ever learned courage.

New York. He knew some people. There were always gigs for a reliable musician. He’d settle in, become invisible. Die quietly in his bed, twenty-seven years, three months, and five days from now. Be buried in the welcoming earth. 

I’m sorry, Rick. One day, I’ll make this good, I swear. One day.

The train would be pulling out in an hour. He took one last look around the apartment and hefted the saxophone and his suitcase. 

He left the key in the apartment door and headed out onto the street, heavily burdened.

· · ·

The second day of the search for Rick Doyle’s remains dawned warm and sunny, with a sky of such a heartbreaking blue that it seemed sacriligeous to be engaged in such a squalid task beneath its canopy.

“Mike will go down and check out each of the three sites we’ve tagged,” Dinovitz explained to Danny as the boat pulled away from the slip and out into the open water. “If and when he finds the barrel—or at least, a barrel, don’t fool yourself that yours is the only one in the river—he’ll strap a cable to it, and we’ll winch it up.” He peered over at the younger man. “You’re going to want to open it, I assume.”

“Yes.”

“Just checking. We’ll open it up on the spot so we can toss it back if it’s not our baby.”

Danny nodded. He was nervous, his stomach doing flip-flops, even though he wasn’t going to be the one down in the water. Mike One was caparisoned in a heavy suit, not skin-tight, but bulky and stiff, like a boiler suit made of leather. His mask covered his entire face, with a cowl covering his head. Not an inch of inked skin was showing anywhere.

“A river like this can be dangerous,” Dinovitz explained when Danny asked about the gear. “The water is loaded with pollution: bacteria, chemicals—even things like hormones and pharmaceuticals. There are also objects down there, chunks of construction debris, metal, you name it. You need a suit that can take a little punishment.”

When they reached the first site, Mike One didn’t just tumble into the water, as Danny had expected, but instead hooked his feet into the cage of webbing straps attached to a cable dangling from a stubby crane extending over the side of the boat. He checked himself over one last time, then gave a thumbs-up gesture. As the mechanism rumbled and Mike Two worked the controls, the cable began to play out, and Mike One descended into the murky waters of the Pautasquat River.

The first target proved to be a large water heater, its bottom completely dissolved away, a colony of zebra mussels occupying its interior.

The second target was a segment of galvanized steel drainage pipe.

The third target was partly buried, and Mike One had to use his hands to scrape away enough mud and algae to see what he was dealing with.

“It’s an oil drum,” Mike Two announced, tapping the headset he wore. “He’s attaching the cradle now.”

Dinovitz moved over to the winch controls, and when Mike Two gave him the signal, he started slowly reeling in the cable.

To Danny, it seemed as though hours passed before Mike One’s head popped above the surface. The entire boat rocked as the winch lifted the diver and the barrel out of the water and onto a steel mesh platform that ran partway along the side of the boat, just inches above the level of the water.

Most of the muck clinging to the barrel had washed off during the trip to the surface. Traces of green paint were visible, along with the letters “SPT.”

Silly Pampered Temptress? Danny thought, pushing his sweaty hair out of his eyes, his anxiety fizzing and popping in his head and his gut. Sinister Spiffy Thug? Stupid Perished Trombonist?

Dinovitz assisted Mike One up the ladder to the deck of the boat, then helped him climb out of the great mass of gear. By the time the diver was down to a blue Speedo, revealing acres of densely scribed artwork, Mike Two had come down from the cockpit, and the men laid the barrel down on its side and secured it with straps. Mike Two fetched a tool from somewhere, a thing like a massive flashlight with a disk-shaped blade attached to one end. He handed the device to Mike One, and the tattooed man turned it on and pressed it against the metal of the drum, just behind the end cap.

After a few minutes, the grinding, shrieking racket subsided. The blade had cut a neat slot into the barrel, about a foot long. The men rolled the barrel over, and Mike One cut an identical slot toward the other end. Air whistled in through the new slot while brown water gushed from the other, draining through the mesh of the platform to return to the river.

“We’ll drain the water out first,” Dinovitz explained to Danny. “Then Mike will cut one end cap off.”

Danny nodded. Since the barrel had risen from the water, he had drifted beyond anxiety and anticipation into a detached, dazed feeling. All he could do now was watch and wait as the process unfolded.

Slicing off the end of the barrel took a surprising amount of time, and the sun was almost directly overhead when Mike Two lifted the end cap away and set it aside, and the two Mikes levered the barrel upright.

Danny glanced over at Dinovitz just as Emily DuCaine moved up to the railing on the other side of the wiry little man. She didn’t look at Danny but instead stared down at the barrel as sunlight illuminated its contents for the first time in more than eight decades. She was wearing gray flannel trousers and a white blouse. A white straw hat shaded her face, and a smear of mud stained one of her sleeves. Her expression was hungry, eager. To Danny, she had never looked more real, more alive than she did at that moment.

“Go take a look,” Dinovitz told Danny, nudging him with his elbow. “It’s your prize.”

Danny looked at him, momentarily blank, then collected himself. He climbed carefully down the short ladder to the platform and stepped over to the barrel.

Sludge. A human skull perched atop a collapsed scaffolding. Mud. Rags. A hotel key on a metal fob with the number 410 engraved on it.

All the flesh had been nibbled away from the corpse, leaving nothing but water-stained bones and cartilage. Rick’s clothes had disintegrated, but bits and pieces still remained recognizable: the waistband of his trousers, the elastic from his boxer shorts, his belt and shoes, the collar of his shirt, and most of his jacket.

A glint of white showed through the remains of Rick’s jacket. Danny reached down, his stomach churning, and pulled a handful of dreams out into the sunight.

Emily’s pearls. 

Although his mind was clear as he held them up to the light, tears were blurring his vision. Zeke Ziccelli’s tears, waiting eighty-four years to finally fall, mourning the meaningless death of a friend.

“Whoa.” Mike One reached out and brushed away a viscous swag of algae with one finger. “They’re real, aren’t they,” he said.

Danny nodded. “I’m sure they are. They were Emily’s. I don’t know how Rick ended up with them.” He looked up to see Emily staring down, her eyes on the pearls.

“‘Rick’?” Dinovitz was frowning. “You know who this fucking guy is. You knew he would be here. You knew about the pearls.”

“No. The pearls are as big a surprise to me as they are to you.”

Dinovitz made a sour face. “Whatever, man.” He nodded toward Mike Two. “Let’s get this mess secured and head back to the marina. We’ll call the police when we dock. You,” he added, returning his attention to Danny, “can take that time to get your story straight. Once we dock, my job is done, and this is your show and yours alone. Capiche?”

Danny nodded, and Dinovitz moved away from the railing, out of sight. The two Mikes strapped the barrel to the platform and left Danny alone with Rick.

Not quite alone. As soon as the men were gone, Emily was at his elbow. She reached out for the pearls, and Danny automatically snatched them back. The girl’s pretty, vapid face became a mask of rage, and she made as if to claw his cheek.

“No one has ever refused you anything, have they?” he said. Emily’s beauty and poise had evaporated, leaving only a greedy little girl.

Danny held up the pearls, and she folded herself around them like a wisp of fog, then stood back. The wounds at her throat were gone, and pearls gleamed through the open collar of her blouse. She glanced once at the barrel and its sad contents, dismissing both, and vanished, giddy with delight.

Danny looked down at his hand, expecting to see nothing but mud and river slime, but he was still holding seventy-five pearls threaded onto a platinum chain hardly thicker than a strand of Emily DuCaine’s hair.

The police were reluctant to accept Danny’s explanations, but in the end, there was little else they could do. A murder had been committed, but presumably, everyone involved was long dead. There was absolutely no reason to suspect Danny Zickell of anything even remotely illegal. The case was closed, and the body was released to the next of kin, the granddaughter of Rick’s maternal aunt, a woman who had never heard of her cousin and who had no interest in getting involved in the whole sordid undertaking. She eagerly agreed to leave Rick’s final disposition up to Danny.

Richard Everett Doyle was laid to rest in a small cemetery near the river. There was no ceremony, and Danny Zickell was the only mourner at the graveside.

Zeke Ziccelli’s here, too, Danny thought, feeling his past self hovering close.

As the cheap casket was lowered into the ground, Danny watched for Emily, any sign of her, any indication that the end of the story mattered to her, but he watched in vain.

Danny left the cemetery and walked down to the river. He took the necklace out of his pocket and looked at it, then out at the murky water. For a moment, he thought about simply flinging the pearls back out into the river, but he knew that he owed it to his future selves to keep them. One more item for his gruesome collection. One more link between one life and the next.

One more reminder of what it means to be human.

# # #

Rimbaud

A short story by David Lee Holcomb


During the years I’ve lived in this city, the hotel at the corner of Centennial and Eleventh Avenue has been a Hyatt, a Marriott, and before both of those, something called the University Suites. Tonight, it is a Hilton. By Christmas, it will be a Best Western.

Someday, they’ll throw in the towel and tear the place down, but not until long after I’ve moved on. The old girl still has a couple of dances left in her; La Quinta and Holiday Inn have yet to take her out onto the floor.

It’s not a bad hotel, and its location is supremely visible, on one of the busiest intersections at that end of town, within walking distance of two hospitals. That said, it’s noisy, and the parking deck is impossible to get in and out of during rush hour.

The hotel has no restaurant, but there is a bar, a tiny place presided over on the weekends by a sixtyish woman with stiff blonde hair and an assortment of Qiana gowns in turquoise, spring green, pale apricot, and mauve. She calls herself Lady Tamara, and she plays the piano for two hours on Friday and Saturday and an hour on Sunday. Show tunes, pop songs arranged for baby grand, the occasional jazz standard. Guests sometimes get up and sing: lonely businessmen from Memphis or Detroit, or doctors traveling with their wives, convinced by a second-place trophy in the talent contest in high school that this is a good idea. Men get up to sing much more often than women.

It’s around nine o’clock, dark at this time of year, and I’m walking on the other side of the street, past a diner, a lawyer’s office, and a social services agency. A movement in a window on the seventh floor of the hotel catches my eye. Someone has knocked over a lamp, or they’ve taken the shade off. The bare bulb seems unnaturally bright, even at this distance.

A silhouette heaves against the harsh light. I am convinced that what I’m looking at is an animal of some kind, an antelope or a wildebeest, shaking its head and staring out at me. I stop dead in my tracks, gaping.

A moment later, the ears and horns give a mighty jerk, and the apparition resolves itself into a man struggling into a too-tight turtleneck sweater, the sleeves flapping over his head. I cross the street and enter the lobby.

I’m supposed to meet my friend Meg for a quiet drink, but when I walk into the bar, I find that half the people in the place are, to varying degrees, friends of mine. Meg shrugs helplessly and pats the empty chair to her left.

“Sorry about all this,” she says as I slip into my seat. The server, a young woman so unfailingly pleasant that she is almost certainly a serial killer in training, catches my eye, and I nod. The bartender puts a mug under the tap. They know me here.

“Quite the turnout. Somebody’s birthday?”

“Rehearsals,” a willowy redhead in black tells me. “We’re doing King Lear.” She grins. “I’m one of the bitch sisters.”

“You’ll be a natural,” I tell her.

An amateur theater group occupies what was once an auto-body repair shop a couple of blocks away. We all dabble, none of us seriously. I wave at the table. “You’re all in the play?”

A dark, stocky man with beautiful hair and a mustache that’s at least forty years out of date holds up his hands. “Not me. I just came down after work.”

Paolo. From Milan. A visiting resident at one of the hospitals. His clothes are impeccable, and his accent and his eyes are soft and seductive. Everyone wants him, no one has had him. Speculation is rife, but he just smiles.

I look around at the people sitting at the two tables, and I realize that I’ve been to bed with four of them. I even entered into ill-defined “relationships” with two of them for a few weeks each before drifting back out onto the buffet. Unlike Paolo, I have no secrets. I’m a dish that everyone samples sooner or later, but for real nutrition, they always order something else.

My drink arrives, and I take a sip as little Kenny, directly across the table from me, gives vent to a chirpy giggle. He is flirting with big, rangy Jim, an ex-marine attending the University on the G.I. Bill. Jim is an old-fashioned boy, native to Tulsa, repeatedly married and divorced, popular with women. The two men sit shoulder to shoulder, and Jim smiles at Kenny’s peculiar conversational gambits. I wonder what I’ve missed during the weeks I’ve been out of touch with everybody.

Meg looks puffy and hollow-eyed, and I wonder if she’s still having trouble with her boss.

“I feel as though I haven’t seen you in years,” she says, raising her voice over the noise in the crowded space.

“I know. I’m practically sleeping in the office these days.”

“The Project,” she says, and I nod. We all say it that way, capitalized. I work for a biotech firm called Paleogenetics. I have no idea what they’re actually doing. I’m a computer technician. From where I’m sitting, between Meg and Ken-doll-handsome Philip, who owns a boutique kitchenware shop just south of the flyover, I can look out the plate glass window and see the Paleogenetics sign on the roof of the building, all the way up at the top of the hill, mercury-argon tubing, vivid and dark, the blue of deep water in hot places. The office itself is very pleasant, with a few computers and a couple of impressive potted fig trees, but the real work goes on in a loft seven blocks south of here. That’s where I’ve been spending all my time, crawling around under desks and behind server racks.

“How’s life among the ambulance chasers?”

Meg grimaces. “Same old, same old, I guess. The client list is shrinking; the extravagant expense-account lunches are growing.”

“Your clients are taking their business elsewhere?”

“Dropping dead, actually. Looper inherited a lot of high-dollar clients from his dad, but they were old even then. We spend more time at funerals than in courtrooms.”

“Not much of a business model. Maybe it’s time to move on.”

She gives her head a quick shake, saying no, but then her mouth says, “Maybe.”

Somebody at another table says, very firmly, “In Atlanta. In Atlanta. No! In Atlanta!” Kenny sighs theatrically and burbles, “Oh, Hotlanta.”

Jim laughs into his drink, and I feel an inexplicable pang of jealousy. I’ve never slept with either of those two. Kenny’s out of the question, and my instincts tell me Jim is towing heavy baggage: those ex-wives maybe, or maybe a girlfriend who waits at home for him, angry and frustrated. Probably some kids.

“I went out with Looper weekend before last,” Meg says suddenly, in a low voice. I’m convinced I’ve heard wrong.

“You went out with who?”

“With whom. With Looper. He’s been so damned persistent. I figured maybe a good, hard look at the real me would shake him off.”

Meg has made her share of mistakes, but as a rule, she is clear-eyed and level-headed when it comes to men. Emotionally and socially, Looper is an accident waiting to happen.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“It is most certainly not a good idea.” She flares at me for an instant, then subsides; there’s a spark of anger but no fuel. “Every time I look around, Looper’s right there, a starved dog staring at me, begging for scraps. I go out for dinner or drinks or whatever with someone else, or even by myself, and when I get back to the car, there’s a text to remind me of a client meeting in three days or a voicemail asking if I’ve seen his briefcase.” She finishes the last sentence quickly and takes a slug of her cocktail. It’s something fruity, shades of yellow and orange; she has taken the umbrella out of the glass and picked it to bits, a neat pile of paper and delicate bamboo splinters next to her cell phone where it lies on the table, debris from a tiny Caribbean hurricane.

Once a race of big, bluff men known for their charisma and their thundering courtroom rhetoric, the Looper blood has thinned over the generations. The current scion is a handsome, helpless man of about forty-five, divorced, who has never presented a case before a jury. He’s a tweaker, a fiddler. Looper’s practice is rooted in minutiae, tiny laws and obscure usages that he knows nothing about but can rely on Meg to dig out and arrange for him like snacks on a plate.

An argument erupts between Cordelia and Goneril, egged on by the various Dukes and Earls, and conversation becomes impossible. Poor Paolo looks delectable, a lonely chocolate truffle tucked into a box of hard-shelled, brightly-colored Jordan almonds.

The server comes back with a fresh round of drinks, and as she leans past me, I catch a whiff of her scent: something lush and heavy, fecund and full. I turn in my chair and see that she is visibly pregnant. I start to say something to Meg, but the expression on her face kills my comment before it can leave my mouth.

Lady Tamara appears, as if from thin air, and gives us a dignified bow before settling in behind the piano and launching into a somewhat overwrought rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” She has tiny mirrors threaded into her hair, like rhinestones baked into a souffle, and they glitter and flash as she belabors the keys. Tonight’s dress is a remarkable shade of green, rich and dark, full of steamy shadows and satiny highlights, and she has a gloriosa lily pinned to her shoulder, a baroque splash of yellow and crimson.

Paolo starts a conversation with Meg, but she responds in distracted monosyllables, and by the time Lady Tamara has segued into “Eleanor Rigby,” the effort has withered and died.

As the song is ending, a short, stocky man with pepper-and-salt hair and a bewildered expression gets up and approaches the piano, bumping Meg’s chair as he passes. He consults briefly with Lady Tamara, and they launch into Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” The singer has a decent voice, but he stands unnaturally still as he sings: Nothing moves but his mouth and his round blue eyes, which follow the server everywhere.

“I have to get out of here,” Meg tells me, gripping my arm. “Do you mind?”

“Of course not.”

We climb to our feet, ducking, muttering apologies, trying to be invisible as we sidle between the tables.

Outside, Meg stands on the sidewalk absorbing the humid warmth of the fading Indian Summer, her posture tense. “Sorry,” she tells me. “About ninety percent of her song list makes my ears bleed.”

We start walking up the hill toward the roundabout, and only after a couple of blocks does she suggest a destination. “I missed lunch today,” she says. “Do you mind if we go to Coyote and get some rice or something?”

“Good idea. I’m hungry, too.”

There’s a short line at Coyote, but after fifteen minutes or so, we establish ourselves out on the steps of the architectural firm across the alley, styrofoam trays of fried rice and chicken satay in our laps. The name of the takeout restaurant is not Coyote, but that’s as close as any of us can get to the actual name, a Vietnamese word for some sort of parasitic plant with showy flowers.

“I wish I could just give it all up,” Meg says after a time.

“Give what up?”

She gestures. “Everything. All this. Run away to some godforsaken place in Africa or South America or the Dutch East Indies, wherever that is. Stop bathing. Drink too much. Become a gunrunner or a pirate or the mistress of a warlord in a hellhole where the fighting never stops.” She chews, swallows, then continues, “I could run a bar, sleeping with the hired help, pretty brown boys whose language I don’t understand. Or I could start a religion. Invent guidelines and timetables for the end of the world and preach them to my flock, a new apocalypse every week.”

I have no idea what to say to any of this. I try to make a joke.

“Looper would starve to death without you to run his life for him.”

Meg turns to stare at me for a moment, a look of such bleak distaste that I feel as though she has struck me. I look away, poking at my rice, looking for fragments of meat, looking for nuggets of egg, looking for a place to hide.

“Looper,” she says, finally, and then, “Looper.”

She had spoken as though the most recent incident was a one-off event, but she has gone out with Looper before, to a dinner with clients on one occasion and to a Chamber of Commerce event on another. Those are just the outings I know about.

The old man who lives halfway up the next street comes down to the roundabout, leading his ugly little dog. They appear suddenly from behind the ligustrum hedge that runs along that side of the steps. The man comes from Guatemala or El Salvador or someplace like that. Rumor has it that he’s a retired dictator or the disgraced leader of a religious cult. He scowls at us while his dog takes a shit in the middle of the sidewalk, and then they turn to totter back the way they came.

I glance over at Meg, and she is staring into space, oblivious.

The unseasonable warmth has triggered an anomalous blooming among the ligustrum. The conical clusters of tiny white flowers glimmer in the dim light, and the scent hangs in the air, heavy and tropical, sweet and corrupt, like gardenias in a whorehouse.

Meg has finished her rice and chicken, leaving parallel grooves in the styrofoam where she has scraped up the last bits of rice with her plastic fork. I take the container out of her hands, startling her, and stuff all our litter into the bin next to the door of the restaurant, passing from the smell of ligustrum and dogshit to the smell of garlic and fryer oil, then back again.

“Are you almost done with the Project?” Meg asks when I return to my seat on the step next to her.

“Not quite,” I reply. “Another month or two, maybe. Whatever it is they’re doing, it evolves as we go along, so I keep having to adapt to the changes. Maybe it’ll never be finished, I don’t know.”

“Job security.”

“There is that. Maybe I should throw it over and come with you to help you set up your outpost in the jungle.”

“Not much call for IT people in the wilds of Borneo or the Ethiopian back country.”

“No, that’s true. I could be your Grand Vizier, deciding who gets to talk to you and who doesn’t. If any Loopers turn up, I can have them covered with honey and staked out on the ant mound.”

Meg chuckles, then sighs heavily, theatrically. “Speaking of Looper, I guess I should get home. I’ve got an early day tomorrow. Would you like a lift?”

“No, that’s okay. It’s only four blocks, and it’s a nice night.” At that moment, a distant rumble of thunder rolls across the sky. “Not for much longer, though. I guess the weather is going to change whether we like it or not.”

“That’s true of so many things,” she says.

Meg pulls me into a hug. She smells of tequila and desperation, overlaid with the hot, over-sweet smell of the ligustrum.

“Stay in touch,” she says as we separate.

“How will I reach you out in the jungle?”

Poste restante,” she replies. “Once a week, I’ll have one of my pretty brown boys put on some pants and trot down to the village to check for mail.”

“I’ll remember not to say anything indiscreet in my letters, since they’ll almost certainly open them up and try to read them.”

“‘Indiscreet’. We don’t use that word enough,” Meg says. The Walk/Don’t Walk sign blinks green, and she gives me a quick peck on the cheek, then trots across the street and soon disappears from view.

She leaves behind the scent of flowers, beautiful and dangerous, the kinds of flowers that grow amid the mossy stones of crumbling temples, that bloom as red and white as last night’s virginity in ruined cities swamped by jungles, thriving only in those places where the rules no longer apply.

# # #

Prissy’s Mother

A short story by David Lee Holcomb


Prissy sat at the kitchen table, leafing through a Betty Crocker cookbook; her mother stood behind her, braiding Prissy’s silky blond hair.

Prissy: the name defined her. No one called “Prissy” by friends and foes alike could possibly be anything other than a high-strung, imperious, bratty child. Prissy was all these things and more, and she ruled the household into which she had been born with a relentless, whiny arrogance. She was not reading the cookbook, merely looking at the pictures, occasionally holding up the book to demand that her mother prepare this dessert or that casserole for dinner tomorrow night.

“Not this week, honey. You know we have all that chicken in the freezer…” When Prissy’s mother talked, you could hear the origins of Prissy’s whine. Less affected, more heartfelt, plowed deep into a personality already heavy with grievance, but still recognizable.

Prissy’s hair was a beautiful ash blond in color but of a texture more like that of spider silk than human hair. Prissy’s mother always kept the precious wisps carefully braided, pulled back so tightly that here and there, the scalp showed through in longitudinal pink streaks. If left to itself, the hair would quickly become tangled and matted, sometimes to such an extent that the knots would have to be cut apart with scissors. Two or three nights a week, Prissy’s mother spent a couple of hours carefully sorting out the long pale strands, twisting them into a single braid the thickness of a pencil.

This tableau in the tiny kitchen at eight-thirty in the evening—the supper dishes done, the kitchen floor mopped—was in one important way typical of life in Prissy’s home: Her father was nowhere in evidence.

Unlike Prissy’s mother, Prissy’s father did not whine or protest. He bore the tribulations of his life with silent, inscrutable fatalism. The two most prominent of these tribulations were, of course, Prissy and Prissy’s mother, so he generally sought what melancholy solace he could in a place other than the kitchen, which was and always had been their unassailable preserve.

On a night like this—cool, quiet, with the sunset’s afterglow still almost bright enough to read by, even at half past eight—he would slip out the back door after dinner and sit at the edge of his lawn in a webbed aluminum-tubing lawn chair, watching the neighbors in their back yards.

There were no Prissys, no Prissy’s mothers, in any of those other yards. Voices were sometimes shrill, sometimes angry, often annoying, but they were never plaintive or pathetic, never wheedling, like a dentist’s drill veering into bone. He knew, on the other hand, that if by some miracle his wife or daughter were to come outside and speak loudly enough for their words to carry to someone else’s lawn, someone else’s lawn chair, the sound would travel on a breath of spiritual exhaustion so profound that birds would tumble from the air, and flowers would retreat into their buds in despair.

Prissy’s father, unlike her mother, still had a name. He was Michael, and he did not define himself by his relationship to his daughter—although even he thought of his wife as Prissy’s mother.

Michael worked as the business manager for a small corporate law firm, an undemanding job that he enjoyed. He spent his leisure hours puttering around in his yard, making small improvements in the house—any room but the kitchen—or working in his garage workshop on the architectural models that were his pride and joy. His wife, Prissy’s mother, called his models “dollhouses” and dismissed them with a roll of the eyes, but for him, they were the sole expression of a spirit that craved clean, sharp lines and precise definitions, the sweep and soar of buttresses, fine, tight angles.

Michael’s hobby was a fragile one, and another of his trials was the occasional intersection of his family with his true love. Prissy, although an undersized, delicate child, had destroyed more than one of her father’s fragile constructions with a careless gesture. The real damage, however, was usually inflicted by Prissy’s mother, whose weary regard could crush the charm of a plaster-and-balsa Italian villa as silently and inexorably as a layer of Vesuvian ash. Michael only worked in the garage when he knew his wife and child were out or occupied deeply enough in one of their joyless mother-daughter pursuits as to keep them out of his way.

Michael’s current project was his most ambitious yet. He had built a desert scene, four feet square, with real sand and tiny cactuses whittled from balsa wood and equipped with spines cut from a pig-bristle paintbrush and painstakingly glued into place. The cactus plants were correct in every detail, copied from photographs in the ancient Encyclopedia Britannica that occupied a shelf in the garage above his tools. He had sculpted the sand into shimmering scallops, cementing them into place with a quantity of Prissy’s mother’s White Rain hair spray.

Nestled into this setting was a hacienda, a main house and three outbuildings, constructed of balsa wood carefully coated with gesso, textured to resemble stucco. The house was square, with a tiled courtyard in the middle, and the outbuildings were clean stucco blocks grouped a short distance from the house. The courtyard featured a circular fountain, complete with a statue of the Virgin Mary. (The statue was just a cheap plastic figurine, but he had painted and distressed it to make it convincing.) This fountain was surrounded by beds of bougainvillea and chrysanthemums made of minute fragments of crepe paper or puffs of yarn glued to wire armatures. He had spent almost two weeks on the bougainvillea alone, arranging and rearranging the long, arching canes until no trace of artifice remained.

The house was two stories tall, both levels opening onto the courtyard through graceful galleries lined with hand-carved spiral pillars on each of the two floors, each pillar rising from a base shaped like a shallow bowl of fruit and surmounted by a capital composed of the feathers, heads, and feet of eagles.

The pillars, each carved from a length of doweling, had taken some fifty man-hours to create. He had been forced to discard nine pillars that had failed to live up to his standards, but those that remained were perfect in every detail. These were among his favorite features of the project so far.

The interiors of the rooms, all of which opened through the galleries onto the courtyard, were inaccessible, but Michael had cut tiny rectangles out of a remnant of Navajo-patterned fabric and laid the rugs just inside each door, ensuring that what little could be seen of each shadowed room was correctly detailed.

Prissy had come into the garage the previous week, against Michael’s standing orders, and waltzed a couple of her dolls around the courtyard, disturbing the flowerbeds and ripping up the tiles, which he had not yet glued into place. The few moments that he had been able to spend with his hobby in the days since had been fully occupied in simply repairing the damage, but tonight…

Tonight, he hoped to get on with the last phase of construction, to finish decorating one of the outbuildings, a chapel and its cemetery. He sat back in his chair, thinking ahead to the first steps of the evening’s work.

“Michael? Are you out there?” The voice of Prissy’s mother dragged itself through the kitchen window and out into the yard, a mangy, crippled thing. The feathery mimosas shuddered, and even the more robust four-o’clocks lost some of the gloss from their leaves.

“Yes, I’m here. What is it?”

“Will you try to remember to pick up some Woolite on your way home from work tomorrow?”

Michael sighed heavily, then shook himself, appalled at having given vent to a response more properly his wife’s.

“All right.”

“You won’t forget?” The tone suggested that of course he would forget, that he always forgot. Something would almost certainly prevent her rightful portion of Woolite from coming into her hands.

“I won’t forget.”

All the long, weary evening stretched ahead. There would have been any number of opportunities for Prissy’s mother to bring up the subject of Woolite without disturbing Michael’s quiet moment, but Woolite was merely the pretext; the point of the exercise was to allow Prissy’s mother to reassert the fact of her existence, to impose herself on what was dangerously close to being a Prissy’s-motherless interval in Michael’s evening.

The long, weary evening.

Still the long chapter led me on/Still the clock beside the bed/Heart-beat after heart-beat shed.

What was that? Oh, yes. Those were lines from a poem he had memorized so he could recite it to Maddalena Ponsati, frail and romantic, languid as a pre-Raphaelite princess. Maddalena was the only woman he could ever imagine moving, veiled and gentle, through one of his imaginary palaces, and he had courted her in slow, sedate stages.

From Miss Ponsati to Maddalena, from Maddalena to Maddie. Marriage, a house, a life together…

Then came the transition from Maddie to Prissy’s mother.

What had happened? Easy to blame Prissy, but hers was such a pinched, meager personality. Would she have had the presence, the emotional heft, to so completely transform another human being?

No. Prissy’s mother was simply a flame that had consumed all the oxygen available to it and then lingered on, pale and flickering, in the resulting bubble of vacuum.

Michael flung himself out of his chair. He was brooding, turning his comfortable suburban life into some operatic tragedy.

Prissy was Prissy, and Maddalena was … Prissy’s mother.

The garage was an orderly place, not spotless but organized and efficient. After turning on the lights, Michael paused in the doorway, inhaling the smells of glue and balsa-wood, paint and oil. Deep shelves along one wall held earlier projects: a mosque, a castle, a Tudor mansion, a Gothic cathedral, each centered in a bubble of clarity and peace.

The hacienda lay on his worktable, out in the middle of the floor, glowing pink and yellow in the overhead light.

The gravestones for the chapel cemetery had been completed, eight of them, and only awaited installation. The chapel itself still lacked the carved archway that would frame the door, and Michael still needed to hang the bells in the tiny belfry.

First, he would mount the chapel facade and place the monuments in the graveyard. Perhaps a few tiny flowers on the one grave that had not been covered by the yellow flocked fabric that so beautifully counterfeited dry turf.

As sometimes happened when he was deep into concentration, a slight headache began to develop behind Michael’s eyes as he worked. As always, he ignored it. The glittering pain had been with him for years, since Prissy was a baby, and he had come to accept it as he had learned to accept her. Something unpleasant that can’t be avoided, only eased to one side and ignored.

The work went well. In less than an hour he had placed the gravestones and gone on to mount the chapel facade. Covering the elaborate seams where the baroque facade met the flat structural face of the building was demanding work, and another hour passed before he felt it was time to move on and hang the tiny bells.

As he wiped plaster from his fingertips with an old flannel rag, Prissy’s mother opened the door that led from the house into the garage and announced that she was finished with Prissy’s hair and wouldn’t he like to come inside and watch some television with his wife and daughter?

“I’m right in the middle of something, honey. I’ll be in in just a bit.”

Prissy’s mother sighed, not her I’m-so-tired-and/or-unhappy-in-general sigh, but her I’m-so-tired-and/or-unhappy-with-you-specifically sigh.

“You know, we’ve hardly seen you all week. Your daughter is growing up thinking she has only one parent.”

She does have only one parent, Michael thought. He regretted his pettiness for a moment, but then reaction swept through him, so overwhelming that it bordered on panic.

“Please leave me alone,” he said, his tongue suddenly thick in his mouth.

Still the clock beside the bed/Heart-beat after heart-beat shed.

The headache had filled his skull and was rushing down into his chest and arms. “I’m very busy right now,” he said, struggling.

“Michael…”

He gasped, clutching at the edge of the table. The woman would not shut up; she would not go away. The sounds of surf suddenly overwhelmed his hearing, and a terrible and splendid brightness filled his eyes.

He blinked up at Prissy’s mother.

“The long chapter led me on!” he gasped, amazed.

Michael was buried on a Saturday, and on the Monday that followed, the man to whom Prissy’s mother had sold the contents of the garage would come to collect his prizes.

The intervening Sunday, however, was a long, quiet day, a heartbeat-after-heartbeat day. In the garage, no one had remembered to turn off the overhead light, and the warm yellow bulb shone down on the hacienda like the light of a perpetual noon.

The sun hardly seems to touch the woman as she emerges from the chapel swathed in rusty velvet and veiled with the black lace from behind which generations of women of her family have mourned the passing of their men. She walks across the dry grass of the yard to where one lone grave lies unclothed by the harsh yellow turf. She bends, graceful as a slender plant starved of water in this endless noontime, and deposits a bouquet of flowers on the grave: great bronze chrysanthemums and virulently pink bougainvillea from the courtyard. The thorns of the bougainvillea draw blood from her hand, darkening her gloves. One corner of her veil trails in the dust as she straightens and turns to consider the resting place next to this one, the merest suggestion of a mound, the grave of an infant.

She stands between the two graves, her head down, until a bell begins to ring in the chapel. As graceful and tragic as the sunset that never comes, she glides across the yard, across the courtyard, and into the dark, silent, empty rooms of the house.

# # #

[The poem Michael is remembering is “Chanel”, by Lawrence Durrell, From his Collected Poems, 1931-1974, edited by James A. Brigham, published by the Viking Press, 1980.]