Thursday, November 5, 2020

Trump Memorandum to the United States Supreme Court

Subject:  Counting Votes Against Me is a Total and Complete Fraud

Date: November 6, 2020

RE:  Donald J Trump and Michael Pence VS Counting Votes In Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia (but not in Nevada and Arizona, please)

To My Supreme Court:

As you know, it's easy to win (we're always winning, winning, winning), but it's very hard for me to lose; so all Democrat votes that might make me lose, after I was already ahead by such a great number of votes, should be thrown out and are the greatest fraud ever against the American people.  Plus, I told everyone we already won and Melania has ordered her inaugural ball gown (you should see it), and the invitations have gone to the printers so the counting has to STOP!  They should never have been counted after I was in the lead.  I was like way ahead, but can you believe it, they didn't stop counting?  What happened? All these votes magically appeared at 5am.  They found all these votes. Wisconsin....I don't know.  Nobody knows where they came from.  It's like the testing.  I told them, I said, stop testing and the China Virus will go away, it will just disappear.  I looked at the numbers in Pennsylvania and I said, Wow, Wow that's a lot, because when you add in North Carolina which--and there's a lot of life in Georgia and people who love their president.  So you know we have to stop it.

Free and fair elections, they say. It's so unfair to me.  Because there's counting.  They're basically unfair, like the Russia witch hunt and the fake nyews.   And the counting.  So much counting. They go on and on and on.  The Biden fraud, this is them:  They count everything. They got toilet paper stuck to their shoe, that's a ballot.  Hey, there's something on that one.  That's for Biden.  Count it.  It's true. Totally happened in Philadelphia.  Truckloads of Democrat toilet paper ballots.  There's no way I didn't win. So this is what you do.  You go One Two Three Four-- and you know what comes next (even my people know what comes next.  I love my people)  So you don't have to keep counting.  It's enough counting.  So you stop it. And we won as far as I'm concerned.  Did you know we won Texas and O-Hi-O by 8.1 points. Great victories and everybody said, they have to call it for you, Mr. President; you won everybody said; but what happened to the election?  They stopped the election and kept counting--finding Democrat votes.  That's what somebody said. They can't catch up; how can they catch up?  Impossible, so stop the counting.  I said, my judges will stop the counting.

They knew they couldn't win so they said, "Let's go to court", I predicted it, so I am taking them to your very amazing supreme courtroom to throw out all the illegal fraudulent Biden votes.

P.S.  Remember that I appointed three of you.

P.P.S. to Amy (this is another perfect memo; hint hint)


Friday, April 10, 2020

The Man from Ambivalence (paid for by the Skip Flincher for President campaign)

(Tense gloomy music plays) Born to an existential philosopher and circus palm reader in a little town called Ambivalence, Texas, Skip Flincher learned early on that nothing in this world is certain.  Though his mother left town with a trapeze star and his father jumped to his death from the Ambivalence Bridge shortly thereafter, Skip would overcome childhood tragedy and turn his uncertain world into a political world view that would one day almost transform his community and the entire state of Texas.   Whether it was proposing tough gun regulations in the state house and then casting the deciding vote against them, or running on a progressive platform only to disavow it the day before an election, Skip Flincher has lived his life on the principle of what he calls his 'Then again, maybe I won't' vision for America.  (Music becomes more ambiguously hopeful) Now, he wants to do for America what he almost did for Texas:  Maybecare for all, quasi criminal justice reform, creating a choose-your-own-ending immigration policy, a greenish new deal, a semi-living wage, supporting a woman's right to agonize about choosing, getting dark money out of politics to a certain extent, moderately rebuilding infrastructure, and supreme court coin flips on close and controversial decisions.   The man from a little town called Ambivalence doesn't want to solve our most difficult problems, he wants to revel in the impossibility of solving them, and he thinks (but he's not sure) the world may be a better place without solutions.

(Homespun country music plays)  Cut to tobacco spitting Ambivalence High School baseball Coach Judd Tyler:  Why I remember one year when Skip's son Jesse was on the state championship team.  There was Skip in the stands, cheering like mad for the other team when his son struck out to end the game.  (short clip of son walking away dejected and teary eyed as his father celebrates in the stands).  Heather Flincher:  It was a real tough lessen for Jesse that day, learnin' that something impossible and unthinkable, like your own daddy rooting against you, could happen. (Symphonic music with proud feeling and serious import plays).  You know, learning that life was just a lot of horrible uncertain and unexpected events happening over and over again.  But Skip's a man of principle, and he believes in uncertainty and that's why he'll probably make an okay President.  And you know Jesse got over it, eventually, and has grown up to be a terrific young man and one of his dad's biggest supporters: (camera catches Jesse violently shredding  and stomping on something.  He turns, looking guilty and surprised, then smiles, holds up on one of his father's Skip It! posters and gives a big thumbs up).

While some politicians continue to make promises they can't keep, and others have visions for a better America that will never be, Skip Flincher is the man who believes he isn't so sure America wants a better future.  (Inspirational coda plays) Cut to Skip at a lectern speaking at a rally:  "For it is the daily uncertainty and terror of the unknown that is the engine of innovation and entrepreneurship,  the next big cure, the next big cure for cancer that fails but turns out to cure male pattern baldness instead, yes, this could be the time we might make the world and our over-rated country a less terrible place to live"

I'm Skip Flincher and I am definitely going to regret this message.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

BERNIE BASH Coming Soon to Xbox 360

Get ready for Political Action!  Chase the old Jewish Socialist Democrat all over the Electoral Map and see if you can earn your Moderate Bona Fides while attempting to bring Crazy Bernie down.  Earn points for learning the liberal media talking points in Pundit Land "How is he going to pay for that", "Trump is licking his chops", "Medicare for All will never pass."  "He'll kill the down ballot", "He's a Castro fan boy", "He's unelectable", then take your bonus pundit points buy the weapon of your choice (but only the one you can afford)--Pete's Pea Shooter,  Klobuchar's Klub, Warren's Woman Wand, Joe's Javelin, Blumberg's Bazooka, Steyer's Stun Gun, Moderator's Machete, or Media Mega Mace--and take aim during Democratic Demolition Debate night.  Blood, Bleating and Blather rules as the also rans take turns bludgeoning the front runner.  Guaranteed to make Crazy Bernie unelectable and unrecognizable.  Then go participate in your state's Carcass Caucus or vote in a primary.  Just think of any mainstream position--I love Israel, rejoin the Paris Accord, we'll never be a socialist country, let's just fix Obamacare, anything including the words bi-partisan support, I want to keep my junk insurance, I believe in markets--and presto the magic ballot will choose the safest candidate.  Finally, you'll wake up as a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, where Bernie will be drawn, quartered and immolated by Tom Perez and the DNC with state of the art HD graphics.  On the final night, use your remaining points to create a CGI dream candidate of incremental change (well, the one you can afford). Combine your favorite celeb with your candidate of choice and come up with a President-to-be only an American Idol could love.  Can your CGI candidate win in November?   


Bernie Bash contains violence not suitable for under age gamers; must be over 18 to play; those convicted of a crime, not in possession of a voter ID card, or currently on a voter purge list in Wisconsin, Florida or Georgia prohibited. Game may be rigged. You can play but you cannot win.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Postcards from the Deregulatory Edge in the Trump Administration

Penalties for Drug Company Overcharging
  1. Penalties for Drug Company Overcharging
    A rule setting maximum drug prices and penalties for entities in the 340B drug pricing program. Section 340B of the Public Health Services Act allows certain covered entities to purchase pharmaceutical drugs at discounted prices to reach certain eligible patients. When a drug manufacturer enters a 340B pricing agreement with HHS, it agrees to keep the price of drugs below certain ceiling prices, or else pay a penalty. This rule establishes the 340B ceiling prices and the penalties drug manufacturers would pay for exceeding them.

    The rule was set to go into effect on March 6, 2017, but on January 20, 2017, the president issued a regulatory freeze, delaying the effective date to March 21, 2017. On May 19, 2017, the rule was delayed until October 1, 2017, and on September 29, 2017, it was delayed again until July 1, 2018. On May 7, 2018, HHS proposed to further delay the rule to July 1, 2019, which was finalized on June 5, 2018.
The upshot is that the President does not want these drug price discounts to go into effect.  The regulation would place price ceilings on pharmaceuticals that enter into a 340B pricing agreement.  What this delay means is higher prescription drug prices, and no penalty for the drug companies for charging above the ceiling prices.  You won't hear about that on
Fox News or at a Trump rally.

Trump screws the consumer and protects the drug companies.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule
  1. Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule
    A rule requiring communities to analyze racial residential segregation and submit plans to reverse it as a condition of receiving federal housing aid.

  2. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 calls on federal agencies with activities related to housing and urban development to administer their programs "in a manner affirmatively to further the purposes of" the Fair Housing Act. The Obama administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule in July 2015, fulfilling the unmet mandate of the Fair Housing Act. The rule requires any community receiving block-grant funding from HUD to complete a comprehensive Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) to analyze its housing stock and come up with a plan for addressing patterns of segregation and discrimination.

    On January 5, 2018, HUD Secretary Ben Carson issued a notice stating that HUD would immediately stop reviewing plans that had been submitted but not yet accepted, and that participating jurisdictions now had until October 31, 2020 to submit their assessments. (Previously, municipalities were implementing the rule in a rolling fashion, largely based on where they were in their local planning cycles.) On May 8, 2018, the National Fair Housing Alliance sued HUD for illegally suspending the AFFH Rule, which New York State joined on May 14, 2018.

    On May 23, 2018, HUD issued a series of three Federal Register notices. First, HUD announced it would be withdrawing the Local Government Assessment Tool, which was designed to help local governments to complete their AFHs. Second, HUD reminded local governments of their obligations to conduct "analyses of impediments" to fair housing choice, which were required before the AFFH Rule went into effect, but which were generally not submitted or reviewed by HUD. Third, HUD withdrew the January 5, 2018 notice. Taken together, these notices effectively nullify the AFFH Rule: With no assessment tool, there can be no AFH, and by extension the rule cannot be implemented. On June 5, 2018, several states and cities filed an amicus brief opposing HUD's decision to withdraw the assessment tool, and New York State moved to intervene in support of the National Fair Housing Alliance's lawsuit.
What does it mean, Uncle Ben?  Well, the actions taken by HUD Secretary Carson nullify the AFFH rule.  So patterns of segregation and discrimination cannot be identified or addressed.  The unmet mandate of the 1968 Fair Housing Act will remain unmet and patterns of racial discrimination and segregation in housing can go on as it had since Jim Crow.   It fits in with the President's past pattern of housing discrimination in New York during the 1970's when he and daddy dearest were landlords.  Now he has Uncle Ben doing his dirty work for him.

Title IX Sexual Assault Regulations
In Rulemaking
  1. –  Not finalized
    –  Not in effect
    Title IX Sexual Assault Regulations
    A rule establishing sexual assault rules at schools that receive federal funding.
    Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funding including institutions of higher education and elementary and secondary schools. Upon rescinding two Obama-era Title IX guidelines on September 22, 2017, Education Secretary Betsy Devos had promised that she would introduce new Title IX regulations. On January 25, 2018, three victims' and women's rights groups filed suit against the the Department of Education (DoEd) for withdrawing the Obama-era guidance. Subsequently, on November 16, 2018, DoEd promulgated Title IX regulations, which were then published in the Federal Register for notice and comment on November 29, 2018.

    Citing Supreme Court precedent, the new regulations narrow the definition of sexual harassment in light of clarity, defining it as "unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the school's education program or activity." Obama-era guidelines define it as "unwelcome conduct of sexual nature." The new regulations also narrow the circumstances when schools are obligated to respond to an incident to when the school has "actual knowledge" of sexual harassment. This "actual knowledge" clause requires the accuser to officially report to an individual who has authority to institute corrective measures. Additionally, the incident must have taken place within the school's 'own programs or activities.'

    The proposed regulations would hold schools responsible under Title IX only when their response to sexual harassment complaints is "clearly unreasonable in light of known circumstances." Nonetheless, they would be required to investigate and respond meaningfully to every formal complaint and maintain supportive measures for victims regardless of whether a complaint was filed officially or not.

    Finally, regarding the investigation of incidents, the regulations lays out certain due process protections. Investigations would be based on a presumption of innocence for the accused, and schools would be allowed to choose the evidentiary standard between a "preponderance of evidence" or "clear and convincing evidence" in holding accused students responsible. Institutions of higher education will be expected to conduct live hearings, and cross-examination would be allowed by advisers and attorneys. 'Rape shield protections' would be extended to victims, preventing the examiners from inquiring about the victims' sexual history. Final determinations would have to be made by third-party individuals not conducting the investigation

    The notice and comment period for this rule was open until 28 January, 2019. The DoEd then extended the comment period until January 30. It then reopened the comment period for one day on February 15 due to technical issues on the Federal eRulemaking Portal.

While sexual harassment can run both ways, #MeToo has shown us how overwhelmingly men are in positions of authority and thus perpetrate the vast majority of sexual harassment cases.  So it's an interesting pattern to see a woman making the reporting and criteria for sexual harassment more difficult on college campuses and a black man making it easier for racial segregation and discrimination in housing to continue.  Historically these people are called collaborators.

The new rules proposed by DeVos are somewhat nuanced and require some examination to understand their potential effect.  On the one hand, the bar for what constitutes sexual harassment has been raised significantly and the definition of sexual harassment hangs on an interpretation of what "effectively denies a person equal access to the school's education program or activity".  It also makes it easier for schools to avoid responsibility for their lack of response to a sexual harassment claim, as in the case where a victim did not report it to the appropriate person: an official report to someone with the authority to institute corrective measures.  You wonder if this new guidance is adopted how well advertised it will be regarding the official making of a complaint.  Given how under-reported sexual harassment is historically, it is easily forseeable that the DeVos language will put a chill on the reporting of harassment and will allow more of the less severe, but still troubling, forms of harassment to fly under the radar.  Also, schools would be given the choice of evidentiary standard between "preponderance of evidence" or "clear and convincing evidence" in holding accused students responbsible.

On the other hand, the due process and presumed innocence of the accused harasser is one of the positives.  Another is that rape shield protections would be in place for victims, preventing inquiries into the victim's sexual history.

Overall, these changes represent a mixed bag.  There are loopholes for Universities to wiggle out of their responsibility and liability, and only time will tell whether the effect of these changes, should they be adopted, will discourage reporting of harassment, especially when the evidentiary standard is chosen by the university (one assumes based on the nature of the accusations) and only the most severe and pervasive examples of harassment meet the standard. 

Follow the link from the Brookings Institute to follow all of the Trump era deregulatory efforts.

Friday, December 13, 2019






            He is inside of her, half-immersed.  He pushes deeper and imagines he has filled the darkness.  He starts a rhythm; she syncopates it.  A feather sting gathers out of nowhere.  His wind kicks.  Fluid pulses; ebbs.

            Touch returns.  A breast in his palm; the shed skin of top sheet around his ankles.  He rests his weight on her.  The oscillating hum of a fan fills the space overhead where he has been.  She winds a leg around the harrow of his hip.  Dark smells drift out of them.




            He awakens, finished with the idea of sleep.  He pulls the bedroom curtain back.  The air in the loft is close, closer than gold street light flooding smoked glass windows.

            Outside on the fire escape, ranks of new air stir.  Iron slats groove his feet with the pain of gravity and a breeze cools his sweat.  Two beams of light from the Insurance Tower bridge the darkness over the skyline, while red lights blink on a hospital roof.

            I am a man of sorrows, he says.  It does not sound true.  A hand touches his shoulder and Mara says, come inside, Dane, you’re naked.




            Dane slips out the next night, wearing only blue jeans—no shoes to sound the hall, bare-chested to feel the air.  He walks the stairwell, where shuffles amplify and doors boom, touching the rail on his descent.  The parti-colored outline of a naked body soars, arms outstretched, up the wall between each landing, like a logo for the spirit of flight.

            On the street, a pattern of gold lights veers north, and in the downtown neon hums under clean post-moderns.  Dane steps onto the avenue.  A dark shining car slices the corner and roars past him.  He is not hit, but the near miss jolts his chest like a rupture.  He is spared by a clock’s tick, chance, helpless and ashamed as a lone man risen from the dead in a cemetery.

            A dog barks.  Somewhere between brick rows a bass beat drums.  He faces tenements.  Street talk jabbers like a foreign language in his head.  I must pass here once, or I will never be free of the shining car, my good fortune and shame.




            The project is dark except for two second-floor windows.  A woman sags in the frame of one, silhouetted, breasts hung low, resenting the light that exposes her.  She watches me.  The glow of white skin in the darkness.

            Dane does not see the men there addicted to the stoop until he is beside them.  One man leans, a hand visiting his genitals like a night watch, the other hunches, speaking words beyond his understanding.  They stare through him.

            Look at me.  I will walk under your shadow, only do not touch me.  They let him pass unharmed.




            Dane is at the gate when a dog rambles out of the shadow of the factory, snarl ragged.  He tells himself this must come to pass, yet he runs, bare feet slapping blacktop.  A stone pierces his heel.  He pulls up halt, hears the animal gain by huff and stride, and he leaps for the hood of a delivery truck.  Pit Bull splatters steel.  Dane clambers to the roof.

            He pries the stone out, rocks with the pain.  For the first time I am in danger; I have always been in danger.  He shucks off his jeans and dangles pant legs at snapping jaws. Teeth clamp.  He pulls and the dog lifts; he rocks and the dog caroms.  The arc swings wide.  He lets go and the dog sails away with blue jeans.  Dane leaps.  Pain rifles through marrow.  He hobbles to the factory door and closes out a growl.

            Dane stands pressed to the door, chest heaving.  I have escaped with the ease of a lie, a bruise on my heel.




            Night comes again.  He walks an angry neighborhood.  Curses muffle behind yellow windows like a cough behind a fist.  Streetlights flutter blue.  A wad of spit slaps the pavement near his feet.  It is not enough.  A man may dress against insults, but he is naked against violence.  Dane stops.  You spit at me, he says to the spitter.  No, says the man, you’s walkin’ where I spit.  Another man, built like smooth hard rubble, stands beside him.

            There is no way to prophesy pain, except for the readiness of fists.  He dreads rough hands, but he craves their justice.  Dane spits back at the spitter’s shoe.  The one built like rubble jacks him up by the arm pits.  It starts.  He shuts his eyes.  He is intent on the pain, not on his attackers, not on escape.  The blows shock him.  He feels their rhythm and a counter-rhythm of nausea, weightlessness.  His head snaps back; lightning shines behind his eyelids and his jaw explodes.  Something hard and ragged rolls like a pebble over his tongue.  He tastes blood, heaves, vomits on the ground.  They drop him and he folds into his own sour bile.

            The shadows of men retreat.  Curses fade like promises of love after passion, and he imagines he has borne the last beating.  I am a man of sorrows.  There is nothing to fear in this place; nothing worse.




            An hour has passed since Mara reached and the bed stretched out like silence, since she searched for Dane on the fire escape.  She feels the capacity of high ceilings to reverberate her fear.  She reasons it out again:  he couldn’t sleep; he needed something at an all-night store and didn’t want to wake me; he’ll be back any moment.  Unless…

            It comes eventually.  All this time I have been fortunate, deceived.  She rocks through the silence.  She calls hospitals, police.  Dane is nowhere. Thinking with his mind she follows him down the avenue, but cannot find an easy complication to delay him.

            Mara startles at the sound of scraping from the hallway.  Dane?  She flings the door wide.  A bloody man drags himself along the concrete.  Dane.  She knows his form.  There is too much blood and swelling to recognize his face.

            She dabs his puffy eyelids, begs him not to go walking in the night again.  He nods.  I am a man of sorrows.





            Dane pushes in.  Her anus fits like gloves a size too small.  Somehow he is erect in her, this garish woman.

What makes me immune to her seduction? he wondered, when he passed her on the street.  By what right do I refuse her commerce?

            Venetian blinds shadows slash on street lit walls, slant and twist around the room as cars pass.  Humid sheets and perfume cloys.  Maisy too flashy for your baby blues?  She smiles, gray teeth straining sour breath.  Come on now; you ain’t got to love me; just lay me and pay me.  She undresses and offers her deep brown body.  Bet a good boy like you never done this before.  He has not done this before.

            Dane rises high above her, his own body, as he comes.

            You been to Maisy’s black hole, now she’s gonna take you somewhere else.  From a cheap, sparkling purse she withdraws a syringe.  Not that, he says.  My magic rocks, her eyes go crazy-large. Don’t worry, Baby.  She heats up the rocks.  His arm is knotted off.  He makes a fist.  Needle moles under skin.  Just a little for you, Dane Baby.  That’ll get you off the ground.  She shoots full.

            But why you got to do this?  Maisy asks him while they’re floating high on light beam traffic.  To drain the cup, he says.  Dane Baby, you’re in my heaven.  A motel room, magic rocks and a gentle man like you.  Sufferin’?  That’s daylight, somewhere in your heaven. You understand how that works, sweet man?  She laughs.  What cup I got to drain to get me there?



            Mara rages.  Something like a growl accompanies her blows.  He does not resist her welcome, not even the damaging knee that brings him down.  It is morning and Dane is wasted.  A mop handle strikes his ribs and vertebrae.  He looks up and says, my father never beat me, with wonder in his voice.  Mara quits, drops the handle.  Short of killing him, she cannot stop it.  Why? she asks, her whole face trembling at the word.




            It is not enough.  He rumbles down the stairwell another night, past the colorful flying logo.  He knows that fear is human; it is nothing without a man.  How do you prepare to face a nothing, until it stands before you, named?  I won’t wait for you, he shouts into factory night, like a child who is always ‘it’ counting 48, 49, 100.  Here I come.  Yet, he cannot imagine what is waiting.  I am lulled by peace and safety.  Clean lies.

            He chooses no neighborhood, but three men smoking in the park.  They watch him approach, white as dreams, barefoot, slim.

            I know I am a stranger, he says, but if you will make me your enemy—

            They cock their heads; the man in the middle laughs.

            Dane says, Please, if you have it in you, do the worst to me; the worst you can imagine.

            That’s messed up, the middle man laughs like a loaded spring.  Shut up, J, the first man says.  He throws his cigarette down and licks his lower lip.  You want us to hurt you?

            Dane nods.

            So what do we do?

            I can’t say, but there is no limit.  I can’t even tell you if I should live.

            J spooks.  Count me out of this, he says, hands up.  The third man watches, slit-eyed.  Here? the first man asks.

            No, someplace safe.

            Safe, the third man echoes.

            Three days, Dane says.

            The first man exhales deeply and licks his lips.




            Mara hopes, not for Dane’s return, only for what the night and the city give back to her, something on this morning of the third day.  She leaves the door unlocked for him and goes to bed.  This time she cannot answer.

            She is awake when he comes in.  A syncopated, slow limp homeward.  Then no sound.  She goes out, numb and dutiful, finds him clinging to the wall.  He does not look at her.  She says nothing.  His torso is dark with grime and bruises and dried blood smeared like primer.  His back is striped.  He shakes from the effort of standing.

            In the bathroom, she fills the tub.  She takes his arm and sound drones out of his open mouth.  He smells of urine.  His hair is greasy, tarnished.

            She cuts his jeans away with scissors.  His legs and buttocks are pocked with burn scars; his genitalia razor slit.  She stands him in the tub.  His eyes bulge and his upper body muscles twitch.  He is lean as a starved dog.  She sponges him quickly to keep the healing scars from softening.  His face lights with pain as she sweeps his crack, and out of his mouth come words that sound to her like, we are healed.




            He walks.  Under a gold light pattern on the avenue.  Void of days.  Unfathomed night passing over him again with elements and viral strains, or the next slaughter involving guns, plutonium and reasons.

            The human logo, arms outstretched over night, soars across a billboard, flight willed from the beginning to the walls of caves, stairwells.  Not to human hands and feet.  I am a man of sorrows, Dane repeats the ancient prophecy.  What must I do to be saved?


The End

The Medium (fiction)

            When I see the sign in Clintonville--Sonora: Medium and Spiritual Advisor--swinging from a white hangman's post between Duda’s Street Rods and Muscle Cars and The Chicken Shack, I stop and turn the car around to read the rest of it.  I sit there for a minute wondering who in this low rent, barhopping, misdemeanor charge of a town would dangle a claim like that on Main Street.  I shift the lever to drive.  Who in Clintonville has the need to believe it, or the will to resist it?

            I pull a u-turn and drive on. 

            The air coming through the open window is dense, cool and humid.  It is light in my head, but it aches all along my windpipe and down into my chest as if I’d swallowed water the wrong way.  I turn right, off Main Street, go about a third of a mile and make a left across from Gall's Memorials--with its sign still advertising April Sale.  I pass into the dusk of a broad concrete overpass (Clintonville's best graffiti going dark on the walls--a fish, I think, big enough to be Jonah's whale) before a quick curve left and a sharp rise takes me up through the gates of Sacred Heart Cemetery.



            Norma's grave has no crab grass, yet, but I'm afraid the Parks Department will let everything go to seed.  Up on the hill, where grass is sparse and gaps fill in with pine needles, the older graves gather violets, clover and plantain out of pollen blown up from the fields and derelict lawns of Clintonville.  If anything, Norma would want violets (Every spring one shaded corner of our yard saturates with purple, like a blotter soaking up ink, a display she’d always forbidden me to violate), but crab grass is another story.  She'd be on her hands and knees, the way she was last Memorial day--dirt smudged across her forehead, white gloves making her fingers useless--snapping off wilds without getting the roots.  “The weeder,” she'd called out to me in sudden alarm, like she’d cut herself and needed a bandage to stop the blood.  She’d knelt there in the middle of the yard, as if stranded, looking around more and more often at the metastatic weeds, and she’d waited on all fours, head tilted in appeal for my word to release her. 

            "Forget about the weeding.  Come in and have some lunch," I called back to her through the screen on the kitchen window.

            Then, slowly, straightening her back, removing her gloves, finger by finger, brushing herself off in a fussy, exaggerated, time gathering way, and then bracing herself on the weed bucket, Norma rose to her feet.

            "I almost lost track of time," she said, bringing in the smell of grass and dirt with her.  She was out of breath, and a violent, almost purple flush soaked the little mounds of her cheeks.  I turned my back then and cut the sandwiches, feeling that dreadful purple spreading through my chest.  That was after the first surgery, when they didn't get it all.

            I take what I need from the trunk: trowel, watering can, a tray of purple violas (I should have planted bulbs last fall when they set the stone), two soft cloths and grass shears.  First, I clip the tall grass around the base, where the town’s tractor doesn’t cut.  The blades are oily-blue and sharp, making a decisive shfft when they close under the tumbling grass.  After that I plant the flowers in the neat rectangle of dirt.

            "Violaceae corsica.  I set them aside at the nursery," I say.  I don't say much more--a little mumble of approval, maybe, as I make the holes and plant the flowers, covering the roots with a trowel sweep and firming down the plants until the ground resists.  I water them and with what’s left I wash away the dried dirt and the tight, gritty feeling from my hands. 

            The warm, root-raw smell, recalls childhood Easter Sundays, days when I would go outside without a coat for the first time and feel naked, another downy chick in the sun swollen world of spring--weeks of pure season before steak barbeques corrupted the air.  Plain dirt resurrects those days like the dust of a pulverized crystal ball, a magic bound to visions of the past.

            I reach out for the watering can, as though it were a charm against slackness.  The grackle droppings on the top of Norma's marker are next to go.  I douse and soak three immense chalky white and black streaks, wipe them away with my cloth, slowly rubbing the entire stone down front and back, consonant and vowel, rough and polished, even down to the dried-on cocoa-like residue along the base.      

            It is almost dark by the time everything is back in the trunk.  I let a deep breath go for another day (an exercise like counting), expecting the heaviness of my nights on the exchange, but breathing in a flutter of nerves as I turn the ignition.



            I flip the headlights off as I corner the alley between Duda’s and The Chicken Shack.  It is dark and quiet, but up ahead floodlights shine on a wasteland of tire-rutted dirt and rusting cars.  I park at the edge of Duda's lot behind a Mach 1 set on blocks. 

            Across from the garage, outside the rim of light, a small cottage recedes behind giant overgrown lilac bushes.  Their fragrance hits me as I come up the flagstone walk.  Dim wavering light shines through twelve pane cottage windows.  I stop in the middle of the walk and read the sign hanging on a post like the one out on the street.  In the darkness, I press my face right up to it:



Medium and Spiritual Advisor

Speak with the dead



            For a moment the sign has the effect of a billboard directing me to someplace I will never go, of public invitations to tag and sidewalk sales that I will bypass without a look, of million dollar sweepstakes in money-green envelopes I will throw away unopened.  I turn away, but I don't leave.  I am leaving Norma behind there in the wavering light, her disembodied glow, abandoning her for reasons and good sense, while I go home to silent rooms.

            I turn again and grab the knocker like a fool and knock.  The sound makes my heart jump as though I am inside and Sonora is the one knocking in the night.

            The doorknob turns.  I thought I would at least hear footsteps.  Now I stand back a little and quickly fold my hands in front of me.  Her face is shadowed, as mine must be through eight inches of open door, until her right hand moves from behind the doorjamb and raises a slender candle to the night.  I'm staring at her and she must be scared, not only because she has narrowed the door crack, but also because she has spoken to me, saying what I'm not sure, and I haven't answered her.  She doesn't know that her sign and her name and the candle in her hand intimidate me.

            "Can I help you?" she asks, trying on impatience over her fear, in a rich slightly raspy voice, no gypsy accent--no mysterious 'I am Sonora, I have been waiting for you.'

            "I saw your sign; is it too late?  I'm sorry."

            "Well, that depends on what you want."

            A breeze combs the candle flame forward and back.  Her throat dims and lights up orange again.

            "I want to speak to someone."

            “Have they crossed over?"

            I nod and rub the side of my nose with my index finger.

            She cracks the door wider, looks around and up at the murky sky, as though for guidance, sniffs the air and then swings the door wide open.

            "No booze.  That’s a good sign," Sonora says, smiling, as though she knew I'd think she was consulting with the stars, and she motions with her head for me to enter.

            Her place is small.  The front room is no more than ten by fourteen.  There is nothing in the middle of the room.  Everything sits on the periphery--the white column candles on wrought iron stands, one in each corner, an ottoman, against the back wall, piled with huge square pillows, and a shrine on the far wall.  The shrine is built in three tiers, perhaps on crates, overlaid with richly colored fabric, twenty-five or thirty green and blue glass votive candles on the first tier, unframed photographs, rings and bracelets on the second, and on top bunches of pampas grass and peacock feathers propped against the wall, with small white bones scattered around them on the dark cloth.  There is a Persian rug on the open floor.

            "Take off your shoes," she says, moving past me, carrying the lamp off with her through a curtained doorway in the back wall.         

            In the time I take my shoes off and set them by the front door, she returns.  She takes two pillows from the ottoman, throws them down and motions for me to sit down in the middle of the floor.  She sits on the other pillow and sets the candle on the floor between us.  Her face has settled on me, registered itself now.  She is younger than Norma by seven or eight years.  Her hair is longer, lighter than Norma's chestnut.  Her face is relaxed, shaped elegantly, except for the nose, which is almost blunt with shadow (in daylight, perhaps, her face is not as I see it now), and her eyes are a dark color, giving her a calm expression--one moment serious and the next, with a slight twitch of her lips, amused.

            "Let me tell you a little about what I do," she begins.

            I feel free of expectation, blank as the moment of decision at a funhouse just before you hand the man your ticket and see the look on his face, the certainty that nothing in there is capable of scaring a two-year-old, nothing capable of capturing even the over-the-top specter of the facade.  All the same, there is little here--if only the name Sonora on her sign--that smacks of facade.  She is just a woman--no flowing occult garments, no crystal ball—only a woman in candlelight.

            "First of all, Mr.--"

            "I'm sorry.  Thornton.  Cliff Thornton."

            "First of all, Mr. Thornton," she says, "My name is Andre."  Then apologetically:  "I only use Sonora for the sign.  My late husband's name.  It brings people in."  Her mouth curls slyly.  "Everybody makes their deal with the devil.

            "The rest you can judge for yourself.  I channel spirits.  Nothing will appear in ghostly form for you.  Spirits have no form.  They don't necessarily shake chandeliers, move objects, or make wind.  The spirit will speak through me.  You may ask it anything you like."

            She says all this, even announces her fee, with the modesty of a good door-to-door demonstrator, as though offering goods that were tangible, beyond reproach, and a sale were just a matter of need. 

            My right leg falls asleep.  I shift, raising myself up on my hands and reposition my legs.

            "Who would you like to speak with?" Andre asks.

            "Look--" I begin.

            "How long have you been apart?" 

            "Ten months," I answer automatically.

            "Just ten months?" she asks.

            "Is that bad?"

            "Well, it's just that the one you wish to speak with may not have crossed over yet."

            "I didn't know there was a waiting period."

            "Then why did you wait," she says, one eyebrow twitching as if she regrets how her words have come across.

            A sting travels up my nose and into my eyes.  From now on I will answer only to the flame.

            "I don't--" I begin.  My eyes well up.

            Her hand reaches across the flame and rests on mine.

            I pull away and rise to my feet.

            I tell her why, blinking furiously.

            "I don't believe in spirits.  I'm sorry--"

            She, Sonora, Andre, the medium, still in her cross-legged sit, looks up at me, serious again, and says, "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean it the way it sounded.  I wasn't questioning your--devotion.  I only meant to ask why you came on this particular night."

            I look down at the candle on the floor and say nothing.

            Now she rises.  "Well, that's all there is to it, then."

            She shows me to the door.  I bend to pick up my shoes.  I carry them out with me into the dusty yard.

            "Clyde?" she calls after me.

            "Cliff."  I turn around.  She is leaning out of the doorway.

            "Cliff.  Have you ever been by yourself, you know, doing something--shopping, driving, anything--and felt her presence so strongly that you knew, absolutely knew, that she was there?"

            It flashes immediately: the morning I woke up, about a week before Christmas, and felt Norma's hand on my bare arm, heard her voice, like an echo in my own head, call my name so clearly that I answered her.

            "I'll light a candle for her.  What is her name?"

            "Norma," I say softly and turn away for good.

            She can light a thousand candles if it will help, but I can't exhume enough desire to bring her back, not against that last, long, death-defying week, not for whatever sweepstake-spirit- raffle is behind Sonora's curtained door.




            I say the same prayer every night--not exactly a Dear-God-in-heaven.  It is more like a flicker of conscious hope as I pull back the covers--that sleep will happen instantly.  I lay my head on the pillow facing out, and by a miracle, before I can even flip back the picture book of thought, learn its sweet, repetitious phrases, savor my idiot's lapping tongue of brain waves...

            I wake up out of a dream at about four a.m.  The whole thing took weeks, or so it seems on this side of sleep.  I want to remember all of it, every sacred moment, write it down and mark a red letter on my calendar, tell everyone I meet about it, like the story of my life.  I dreamed about Norma.

            She was in the cemetery pulling crabgrass by her tombstone.

            "Have you seen Mr. Gall," she asked, looking up.  She didn't spring to her feet and rush with tears of joy to embrace me.  All the emotion stuck in my throat.  I opened my mouth, told her how I loved and missed her, but no sounds came out.  I looked her over for any trace of the grave or of illness.

            "Look what he's done to the stone."  She pointed.

            I read the inscription out loud:  "She lived beyond the call of purple, because she never knew the difference between a grackle and a Brewer's black bird.”

            "That is the curse of the grackle," read another voice inside of my own voice.  "Unless she finds the sacred shrine of Norma, the grackles will continue to leave droppings on her grave."

            Then I was reading from a book in the voice of Mr. Gall (from Gall Memorials), and we were not at the cemetery at all, but in the sunny, mahogany paneled room of an old house:

            "How do the grackles know?" I asked.

            "They are much more intelligent than people think," Norma said, her eyes set in dismay, like the word dismay.  I could see it on the page I was reading.

            "They're smart because they've interbred with crows.  See how there is no purple in their feathers when the sunlight hits them?"  Gall raised a bony finger at the passing flock of bow tail grackles.  "But they have one weakness.  You can find the shrine by counting the number of droppings on the tombstone..."

            We were back in a cemetery--not the one in Clintonville, a secret burial place in the woods behind the old house--counting off a pace for every grackle dropping.  Suddenly, at the edge of the grove there was the shrine, all piled up with smooth, polished stones.  There was a candle, just blown out.  We could see the trail of smoke rising from the wick, and knew that someone had been there. 

            From a niche in the altar, a talking skeleton mask, with polished stones for eyes and teeth, told us that we had just missed Norma, the lady of the shrine.  But Gall, and the other Norma, who would not embrace me, and I all felt her presence.  I could see the dark hem of her cloak disappearing on the pages of the book that somebody was reading.




            About mid-morning at the nursery, while I think about the dream, snap yellow leaves off of the annuals, untangle the trailing ends of hanging fuchsias, on a high from balmy, soil rich, green house air--a customer at my shoulder asking timidly about the variety of tomato in an unmarked tray--I try to straighten out the problem of two Norma's by visualizing her face, to compare it with the face in my dream, but I cannot frame it, cannot see her face at all. 

            I don't know how long I stare, face blank as dawn, at beefsteak tomato plants, unable to think of a single word that means the same as the rosy, gathered flesh of the giant fruit, the violent flush in the little mounds of cheek I picture in my mind.  The woman stares back, open mouthed, on the verge of a suggestion, when I hear myself say, "Sweepstake."



            I hunt down an unopened bottle of Seagram’s, the only thing that ever helped Norma’s menstrual cramps, take it with me into my bath and drink it all.  I cap the empty pint and float it in the tub with me.  The belly of the bottle, like the hull of a rusty barge, runs aground over my waving chest hair seaweed in the Bay of Sternum.

            A photograph of Norma is on the edge of the tub, beside my head.  I left the nursery without a word, came right home when I couldn't picture her. 

            I've heard of people passing out drunk in their bathtubs and drowning, but I'm not that drunk, or even sleepy.  Everything is numb.  I can't tell if the water is hot or just warm.  Warm enough, because my cock is swelling.  I guide the empty bottle to the pass between my knees, unscrew it and try to force the head and shaft through the mouth and down the narrow neck, but it won't go.  The bottle starts to fill and sink.  I take up a rhythm with my hand, and eventually, after many minutes of thumb-cramping, monotonous, half-hearted pulling, I come, insensibly, as though I've had a shot of Novocain in my groin.

            Later, from the couch (I don't actually remember getting there, naked, damp, boozy, from the bathroom) I watch the happy occupied square of the TV screen--the electric, jangling shows (total winnings cash and prizes for the champion; a year's supply of consolation for the loser), and the low key, every day intrigue of the soaps--and I drift in and out of sleep, which feels best, cozy as a day years ago when I stayed home with flu, and also slept, Norma's light feet padding around me, a cherished sleep, through "One Life to Live” and “General Hospital”, somebody’s wedding and a confrontation, snipping entire scenes with the weight of my eyelids, both crucial and insipid dialogue, through the syndicated re-runs of shows with laugh tracks, until the staccato theme of the news at six--my Seagram's numb expired--jolts me, clear-headed, upright.




            I go a little bit earlier tonight, at sundown. 

            When I knew that I was going back, I panicked like a teenager trying to cover the whisky odor:  ablutions of Listerine, scourings with tooth paste, finally a hot shower to cleanse my pores, cold at the finish to close them off.  I even stopped at Cumberland Farms on the way to pick up spearmint gum.

            "You changed your mind," Andre says, leaning forward, her cheek pressed to the doorjamb.

            I haven't changed anything except my clothes.

            She lets me in, looking down at the mat inside the door.  I leave my shoes there.

            Andre leads me with a touch on the arm to her shrine.

            "There is Norma's flame.  Do you notice anything?"

            I shake my head, but amidst thirty milky, golden tongues of the wonder that is fire (matter feeding shape, movement, heat, light) I see true violet under the transparent other-lights that halo through and around her flame.  Andre doesn't tell me what she sees, either.

            "Sit with me," she says, again taking pillows from the ottoman.  I do what she tells me.  I feel myself going with her already, resting in the palms of her hands, absorbing my own silence, the private quality of dim light.  I will answer her questions, tell her everything she needs to know, close my eyes, wait and listen for her voice.  This is what she does.  I channel spirits...

             We sit facing each other, the candle between us in the center of the room.  I shift my pillow and the flame stutters.

            "Do you have anything of hers with you?" Andre asks softly, in a monotone.

            "I didn't know I--wait."

            In my wallet is the photograph I went home to look for when I lost her face.  I had freed the snapshot from its frame, trimmed it down and tucked it in a window slot.  It was taken at Plymouth Harbor almost three years ago.  Norma stands against the railing of the ferry, smiling self-consciously at something I'd said, nothing I can remember now, or just at having her picture taken in the sunlight with other people watching, a helpless ID-photo-look-this-way-and-smile expression.

            Andre leans forward, brings the photo down close to the flame.  I reach out to stop her.  She pulls back, looks up at me in disbelief.

            "I just want to see her.  Relax."  She lowers the photo again.

            "I'm sorry.  For a second I thought--"

            "She's beautiful."

            Andre looks up at me.  One eyebrow twitches for a moment as it did last night.

            "If people only understood that nothing is forever, not even separation; that nothing but fear and unbelief keeps them apart."  She clasps the picture between her hands, stretches her shoulders and head back.  Her eyes glisten.

            "Just believe and you can be with her again."

            She leans closer and reaches out to me around the flame.  I take her hands, close my eyes.  The photo comes between my left and her right palm like a blotter.  Perspiration starts to seep like condensation out of my right hand.

            For a long time there is quiet, no mystical alpha hum wavering from behind a curtain.  My mind goes black in the aimless focus that comes before a sleep.  I see or feel or read thoughts which pass back and forth like plates at a table or trays of potted hyacinths on sale over the counter at the nursery my trowel sinks again into the dirt for something buried and I pull up roots to plant the roots over the smell of dirt is a feeling that is passed over the counter in a tray of photographs of people in the tray shuffle photographs to find the one of Norma that was there before the photographs...


            The voice takes its volume out of the last note of silence and the now scattered ramblings of my mind, of which only a feeling, sweetness and loss, remains, and rises to the level of hearing.  Norma always called me Cliffy.  There is sudden light, female tension in her hands.  I don't dare open my eyes.

            "Yeh--"  My breath, as though long held, bursts, like a dog's at the teasing of a treat.

            "Cliffy, you're here."  In her voice is the shyness, almost surprise in it, like the last time she was lucid, when she looked at me and I just held her hand the whole day, held her before she slipped frightened into gibber and sleep.


            She squeezes my hands.  I want to throw my arms around her.

            "Norma," I say it again to be sure.  "It's you."

            "Yes, I'm here.  I've wanted to be with you...If I could have spared you any of this you know I would?"  Her voice rises in a question, as though I might doubt her.

            "I know, I know.  I've just missed you--God.  You don't know."  I laugh, but it aches.  I rub her knuckles, both hands, with my thumbs.

            "But you got here before it was too late."

            "Too late?"  I look right at the sound of her voice through my closed lids.

            "Something is about to change.  I don't know what or when, but it won't be long."

            "Is there anyone?"

            "I've been alone all this time," she says, plaintively.

            "Norma, if I'd known..."  I squeeze hard where I know there'll be no pain.

            "How could you know?"

            I listen to her voice and see her through the touch of her hands.

            "How long?"  I almost hold my breath.

            An uncertain pressure comes back along her fingers.

            "Will there be time to talk with you again?"

            "There'll be time.  Everything comes around in time.  You just have to wait."

            There is a long silence.  It stretches out to the meeting of our hands, the balance of our touch, like sudden strangeness or the chill after a good sweat.  I realize how little there is to say, both of us alone, one flesh the other spirit.  I reach back in my mind before the illness to the last untainted shared experience, but I cannot say the words, cannot say do you remember, not even to make her laugh or see her smile beneath my eyelids once more.  So I just say, "Smile for me, Norma?  I want to see you smile.  And tell me again that you're all right."

            "I am," she says, and I can hear the little glistening sound her lips make curling up over her teeth when she smiles.  I lift her hands up, bring them together over the flame and kiss them.

            A longer silence follows.  Her hands stop holding mine back.  I let them rest, press them once to the rug and draw my hands back into my lap.  After another minute I open my eyes.  Andre sits, face like stone, nose blunt, eyes in shadow. 

            Rising slowly, noiselessly so that I don't disturb her trance, one step over my pillow, I back away, like a hunter come across a sleeping lioness, and, with one eye on Andre--I don't want to speak to her, break this silence at all--I reach down for my shoes, turn the door handle, breath held. 

            The candles on the shrine cast a still, joyous light.  My movements hardly cause a flicker.  At the last moment I remember the money and leave it on the floor beside her sandals.




            A few minutes before noon, Marge Tolleson watches me from behind the greenhouse register, as suspicious of a ten-month widower in a hop-step-whistling mood as she is worried over an ten-month widower with a dragged-my-ass-here-so-I-wouldn't-shoot-myself demeanor, probably thinking about the morning talk show she has seen on the warning signs of suicide and wondering if she should mind her business, as she seldom does, or say something to me before it is too late: feel foolish now, or guilty after I'm dead.  Bless her heart, Marge looks out for me.

            "Well," she says, "This weather must agree with you Clifford."

            I can't hold back my smile, both for her mask and for my secret.  I want to tell her, everybody who has ears, to let them hear, but it would sound like I was going over the edge (or like a dream, the kind that falls apart when you try to tell it).

            "Yes,"  I tap the counter.  "It's perfect.  I'm going out now to eat lunch, if anybody--"

            The greenhouse door opens.  Andre walks in. 

            "If anybody needs me," I look quickly back to Marge with all my attention, "I'll be out under the trees."

            I walk by Andre--avoiding her eyes because I don't know how to look at her here, because Marge is watching--right through the door, like a high school boy flustered to rudeness, a crush of blood packed scarlet from my neck to my forehead.  I wait outside for a moment, my back to the door, expecting to hear it swing behind me.  When she doesn't follow me, I feel belief-shaken in this better-than-money-back guarantee against coincidence that I would not allow myself to believe in by staying inside and greeting her like my invited guest.


            It is a loose shade of spreading, tender bat-winged maple leaves, where I sit on a wooden crate, lunch bag unopened between my feet, where Andre tells me how she walked straight to the counter and asked Marge a question about transplanting shrubs.

            "'Oh, Mr. Thornton will know.  He just walked out the door.'"

            In the honest light of shade, Andre's hair is darker than I imagined under the polarized, filament lightning of candles.  Her nose is upturned slightly, not blunt (lopped off by last night's shadow), her face is pale, hardly made up at all, so that freckles can just be seen--the way the unopened buds of yellow hawkweed catch a trained eye gazing at a field--a simple landscape, almost blank, with so much depending on her mouth.

            "I'm sorry about leaving you there; I don't know what got into me," I tell her.

            "Well, it's my own fault showing up like this.  I should have known..."

            "Known what?"

            She looks up at me, gestures in an off-hand way, as if she shouldn't have to say it, as if she is here to bolster my fragility, tend a young shoot:  Sonora, medium and spiritual advisor, nurtures the faithless.

            "That it could be awkward for you."

            "Why should it be awkward for me?"

            Andre flinches.  Her arms fold into her breasts.

            "I'm sorry," I tell her.

            "It was a bad idea for me to come here."  Andre waves a hand over my anger and rudeness, and she gets up to go.

            "Why did you come here?"

            "You left this," she says pulling a paper rectangle out of her canvas shoulder bag.  "It seemed important to you."

            She hands me Norma's photograph, not face up or face down, but vertical between two scissored fingers, and she watches me, my eyes moving up and down from her watching to the angle of the photograph, the glossy time-stilled image on one side and the white backing crowded with blue penmanship, as if holding her breath.

            "Thank you."  I look up at her, put the photograph in my breast pocket without looking at it.  Lines relax in Andre's forehead, but her eyes make a wish on my pocket.  She turns to go.

            "Andre?"  The crisp edge of the photo pinches at my left nipple through my shirt.  "How did you find me here?"

            She turns around with that wry look, and one eyebrow taking off at the end like an upturned wing, as if she's going to say, 'I am Sonora, I speak with the dead to the lifeless, I seek out the skeptical; this is what I do', only this Andre is not the woman of shrines and voices of the once living.  Her arms, slender bridges to me, drop to her sides.  She looks down at the white crests of her feet, reaches into her breast pocket and slides out another rectangle of paper between her fingers.

            "My card."

            "It was with the money you left."

            I sit back, hands on my thighs, my legs turned out in a wide lax diamond, and laugh.

            "You really had me going (you could have pulled it off).  Are you hungry?" I ask, reaching for the brown bag.

            "Yes," she says.

            I motion for her to sit again on her crate.

            "Turkey and cheese?"

            I hand her a badly wrapped sandwich--cellophane ends matted in a lump at the center like a dead silken wad in the middle of a spider's web--turning it sideways, too late to cover my carelessness with fingers.

            "Nice job," she says, holding the sandwich out flat on her palms.

            "You weren't supposed to look at that.  Actually nobody was supposed to see that.  I usually eat alone."

            Andre's smile melts into a curious search of the nursery behind me.  Over her shoulder the rim of a grassy field nourishes on full sunshine, immutable as the tree that casts shade.

            "Nobody eats with you?"

            "I've always eaten alone.  Even before--"

            Andre takes a quick bite of her sandwich, stares at the place where she has bitten.

            "But sometimes, in the good weather, Norma would bring lunch down with her from Lund’s Deli downtown.  She worked at the bank right across the street.  You know the one in town."

            Andre nods.

            "Anyway, the sandwiches would all be wrapped just so in butcher’s paper.  I start out okay, with the bread in the center.  Then I start to fold, and well, no matter what--"

            "Don't make a case out of it.  I mean, who am I going to report you to?"

            We bite into our sandwiches.  It strikes us funny at the same time.

            Andre waves off my thought as she finishes her swallow.

            "Mm.  No.  Come on."  She touches the back of her free hand to her lips.  "Even with food in my mouth there's still room for my foot."

            "Look, it was funny.  You speak to the dead.  I haven't lost my sense of humor; and I don't fall apart at the mention of her name.  I don't talk about Norma much, but it doesn't mean I can't."

            Her eyes narrow.  Little wrinkles gather around them, adding warmth to her expression, the comfortable warmth of an afternoon in May.

            "Maybe it's time you did."

            "Maybe."  I smile down at the dirt, tilt the sandwich so that the edge where I've bitten lines up, more or less, with a snap of twig.  "You have a great voice.  Like this woman in a hair commercial I wait all evening for.  That's what she says, 'maybe it's time you did', about some shade of blonde.  I watch too much TV these days.  Anyway, once in a while I think, if I'm in town, that I see Norma, passing in a car, or in the checkout.  It's like her form is out there, inhabited by a completely different person, and she wouldn't recognize me if she looked right at me.  Is that ridiculous?"

            Andre shakes her head.  "It's natural.  In a way she is out there."

            A blackbird flies by, letting out its hackle of a call and a big white dropping over the field.  I smile, broadly, stupidly.

            "What?" she says.

            "Nothing.  I'm laughing at something else.  Bird shit."

            She looks up, feels the top of her head.

            "Don't tell me--"  Her face goes pink.

            "No, not on you.  You'd have felt this one believe me."

            I point at the field.

            "That happened to me once in grade school during recess," she admits, and I know she's remembering, feeling that warm white ooze soaking into her hair, because her face flushes. "Children are cruel.  I think that's why I never became a teacher.  I'm still mortified at the thought of being shat upon by birds and being alone in a room full of children."

            "What did you become?  I mean besides--"

            "A mystic?  Well, I'll tell you as soon as I know.  I got married at nineteen to Arturo.  Not the best idea, considering how much he drank.  It took twelve years--well let’s just say on the day he died I was praying for a way out.  One night he went out and never came back.  The police showed up at my door the next day to tell me Art had lost it in a car wreck."

            Andre takes a bite of turkey and cheese.  I remember the juice boxes in my lunch bag.  I hand her one.

            "Thanks," she says, sets the sandwich in her lap and strips the straw off, pokes it through the eye in the carton, sips.  "My Aunt Rise taught me to read palms and give séances.  She said I had the gift, told me stories about things I did when I was a child, things I can barely remember, but I never did anything with it until Art was gone.  I even wondered if my gift had something to do with his death, which was ridiculous I suppose.  But that was what got me thinking about reading palms and channeling spirits.  I had to do something.

            "It took a while to get it working.  Now, I think of it more as a kind of intuition.  I mean, it's not all supernatural.  You'd be surprised how much we pick up with our five natural senses, how much good observation can reveal about people.  Most people just don't bother to notice.  The difference is just being able to focus on all the energy that comes your way, sorting it out and reconstructing it in a sensible way.  Do you know what I'm saying?"

            I look down at the twig in the dust, as though somehow it's going to shelter me from her question.  I clear my throat.

            "I guess I never thought there was much of anything to it before.  Norma’s cancer forced me to rethink a lot of things.  Made me do some strange things too, like mourning her before she was gone and feeling relieved when she finally died.  To see it every day, eat and sleep with it, to watch her being metamorphosed into something else right before me—or at least I thought so, when really it was me who changed.  I lost her from the inside out.  I'm ashamed that I let her become cancer and death, because she was never that.  I wish I had always been strong enough to hold onto her through the anger and the terrible pain she endured."

             I keep going.  "Cancer is more a kind of knowledge than a disease.  I really thought I knew the ground, until I gave Norma up to it.  I always thought it was generous, but it takes more than it gives back."

            I reach down and pluck at some grass.  

            Andre looks to a place in the air where her truth is clearly written.  She says, "Art's death was a shock, but near the end I'd come to believe that to be free of him, either he or I would have to die.  And though I wanted to deny it, I was better off without him.  It's taken me five years to admit that, and worse even, knowing what you’ve lost, the fact that his death probably saved my life."

            "That’s part of the knowledge," I say.  "When life is hell, there’s no hope of heaven, because I can't say I’ve ever believed in any heaven but this life."  I look up through the leaves and branches to the bits of blue that make sky.

            Andre says, "I fell somewhere between heaven and hell.  I was left with a big house in Bolton, which I promptly sold, and an embarrassing sum from life insurance.  Though I haven't exactly been ambitious, I've been able to do what I please."

            "And you still use his name?" I say, and take the last bite of my sandwich.

            Andre looks up to consult her airborne Ouija, where she also seems to store her reasons.  "It's a mysterious name and I've always liked it.  And it's the one part of Arturo I've chosen to keep.  It's wrapped up with everything I know about life and death and the spaces between.  Why do you hold on to Norma?"

            "Because I can't live with her memory."

            "I thought you couldn't live without it."

            "I used to think that."


            The first things I notice are the grackle droppings on Norma’s head stone.  These two, one still slick as wet paint, the other chalky, crumbling, remind me absurdly of Pharaoh's dream of plenty and famine.  I think of an interpretation.  For me one is present, the other past.  'Will the dissolving past swallow up the present?' Pharaoh asks Joseph.  I wash them both away.  There's very little to do here.  The pansies are blooming strong and the grass is clipped.  I settle back on the ground, hands behind my head, warmed by the earth from below and the last hour of sunshine from above.

            "Norma," I say, but I don't feel anything in the wake, not silence, waiting, or pain, not even the desire to be heard.  I breathe deeply enough to feel air swirl through my lungs and rise like a column into my brain.  In the waning sunlight, robins hop, then stand rigid between the tombstones as if imitating the stillness of stone.  I don't feel Norma here at all.  Since the night I spoke to her, held her hands and saw her smile without seeing, I have been able to envision her the way she was before her illness (without the help of the photograph from Plymouth), but I am unable to speak to her or feel her anywhere in my midst, not even in the house, as though at once she had been restored to me and taken far beyond my reach.

            I take the photograph out of my breast pocket and read the writing on the back:  Norma & Cliffy, Plymouth, October ‘04.  I hear the voice from across the flame, "Cliffy?" and I remember Andre examining the photograph close to the lamp, then handing it back to me sideways, a subtle way of suggesting that I look at both sides.  I see now what she wanted me to see.  But, not a moment before she had brought Norma back from the other side and returned me safely from the foot of an abandoned, smoking shrine to the taste of shared sandwiches.  She was handing me a refund, taking down her irresistible, life-seducing sign, snuffing candles, sweeping away feathers, bones and pampas grass forever, and furnishing her empty room for living.


The End