Issue 128 — Joshua Bernstein and others
In this issue, work by
Alexandre Nodopaka, and
Milked, or, The Rise and Fall of Samuel Lipschitz, M.D.
“The civilization that produced homogenized milk will soon produce the homogenized man.” — J. Paul Getty, How to Be Rich
You should always distrust those who remain close with their high school friends. It means they’re either overly insulated, or they have something drastic to hide. In the case of Sam Lipschitz, it was both, yet I can’t help but stand in awe of him. After all, it isn’t every day that a man joins the ranks of the Fortune 500, FBI’s Most Wanted, and Parenting’s Top 10. He was wanted in four countries, indicted in three, but only charged in the end with embezzlement and fraud—minor offenses, really, when you consider the parties at stake: young women and children mainly, the bulk of them immigrants, all of them damaged for life. Suffice it to say I only knew him when he was younger, but even then I detected a certain spark in him, much as Wittgenstein may have noted when he once shared a classroom with a young Adolph Hitler. Of course, Hitler downed himself with a pill. Sam was given twelve months at Butner FCI, where, I’m told, he was surrounded by a grove of eucalyptus.
As for which of the allegations are true, I cannot definitively say. It is known that he produced a factory, which morphed into a sizable conglomerate, then a blue-chip stock, and then a well-traded public corporation, all the while turning out revenues from overworked, mishandled slaves—wage slaves, that is, who were every bit as immured as their antebellum counterparts. The scary part is that he thought he was doing something positive. “An Innovator in Human Nutrition,” “Saver of the Young,” “Father to Millions,” beamed the headlines. For a while, he might well have believed this hokum. My guess is that posing with Bono, doing ads with Angelina, or earning your own seat at the U.N. will change your self-conception, though in Sam’s case, it probably did not.
I’ll never forget the time in high school when we were discussing our upcoming prom. I, a well-repressed queer, was bringing my longtime girlfriend, who, as it were, may or may not have contracted mono from him previously. He and I were not exactly close, although our high school, Chicago Classical, was small enough that all of us got along well.
Sam said he still hadn’t settled on a date, since he had never, and would never, settle down long enough with a woman to undergo the normal rituals of courtship associated with such an event. At age seventeen, curiously pale, with an emerging mustache and gut, and sporting a woolen charcoal sweater and Birkenstock sandals, which he persistently wore, even in Chicago’s thick snow, he said to our group over lunch that he was considering bringing an escort.
“You know, a professional,” he explained. “It’s that or I start combing the middle school. It’s not like there’s much in this room.” He surveyed the cafeteria with his heavy-browed, dark, glinting eyes. Then his hand came to rest on his corned-beef-and-rye, which his mother assiduously made him each morning. “I like the idea of a woman who knows what she’s doing.”
Sam had never been popular, exactly, since he wasn’t athletic and was way too cynical for such contests. He also read Homer for fun. But he wasn’t exactly an outcast, either. The girls in our class had long given up berating him, even though he was verbally abusive, frequently remarked on their weight (often to their faces), and held them in roughly the same regard as his books—that is, something to peruse at night, possibly grow from, and discard when done. He hadn’t slept with many, or any, from what we knew, though he spoke with the air of a man who had sired a village.
“So you’re gonna get a hooker,” said Buzz, one of his friends, whose father had once been governor.
“I was thinking about it.”
“Dean Ehrlich will never allow it.”
“I’ll let him in on a pinch.”
“I think you should go with a young’un,” said Joel, another of our group, though it was never a well-defined clique.
“I’m thinking about it,” Sam said.
“That’s disgusting,” I offered. “Some of those girls barely read.”
“Well, you know what they say, John?” He glanced at me with those sweaty, dark, nicotined eyes. “If there’s grass on the field, play ball.” He shook his juice. The lunch period was ending. “Though I prefer this lovely lady named Suzanne. I saw an ad for her in the Reader. And hopefully, she’ll bring a few friends. If you’d like a bounce when I’m done ... ”
It turned out a prostitute wasn’t in the works for our friend. He did show up, however, with a blonde girl from middle school, Ellen O’Reilly, a visibly intoxicated seventh-grader, who wasn’t allowed in to the dance. Dean Ehrlich personally intervened. By this point, he and Sam had undergone so many altercations, both hostile and subdued, that they were on amicable terms, almost like a father and son. When Sam was suspended ten days for smoking pot in the senior lounge—actually, being found with a pipe; there was no evidence of his consumption, careful, as he was, to discard his waste and detox—the Dean invited him to spend most afternoons in his office, where Sam would sit dutifully, reading dog-eared copies of Virgil. Sometimes he’d glance up at the curious freshmen passing by, at which point the Dean would shut the door. They got on well together, the Dean and he. And when the Dean, a closeted homosexual, died of AIDS seven years later, Sam would incidentally and anonymously cover the cost of his funeral.
To say Sam was a capable student would be like saying the Pope was well-read. It was only part of his profession and minor in comparison to everything else he undertook. While most of us were playing junior varsity tennis, editing the yearbook, or drinking in basements, Sam was meeting Lou Reed. How he made the connection no one knew, but apparently he had written some fan mail, and the two met up once for Dim sum. Sam also formed a band at one point, which was appropriately called the Young’uns, but it soon dwindled after two of its members were found to be in possession of coke. Sam was not one of them, curiously. As for what he did with his afternoons, none could say for sure, though he was frequently seen roaming the grounds of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where, it was said, he gave spontaneous, self-guided tours, which might have included his home.
In our junior year, when we were required, however ignominiously, to complete eighty hours of community service, Sam volunteered at the Rehabilitation Institute, which was near his family’s apartment downtown. He spent most of his time in the fund-raising offices, which were always abandoned after dark. There, he’d settle into some isolated, top-floor cubicle, Dunhills in hand, and use the huge phone-set to dial erotic chat lines. That said, I did once see him talking to an emaciated, bedridden victim of a stroke, feeding him applesauce, and discussing the state of modern art.
Sam’s father was a nationally renowned surgeon on the faculty of Northwestern Memorial. The two or three times when I visited the apartment, which overlooked south Lakeshore Drive, I found the place dark and foreboding, much like the doctor himself. As with most surgeons, he had inordinate amounts of hair on his arms—a trait which Sam had inherited—a soft-spoken air, and a perpetual look of indifference about him, which probably wasn’t feigned. Sam had three older brothers, two of them half, all of whom lived far away, and two of whom were then practicing physicians in their own right. The mother, a well-meaning shrew of a woman, kept the place sterilely clean, and a mounted Andy Warhol presided from the living room wall, alongside a majestic but curtained view of Lake Michigan. The Warhol was a diptych of gaudy, printed Marilyn Monroes, and I couldn’t believe they owned it. I had seen it in books. Reproductions of it, anyways.
There were also early sketches of Chagall—doodles, truthfully—and even cruder scribblings of Picasso, all of which Sam pointed out. He took an immediate liking to me when I expressed interest in the works, since the rest of his friends were, as he put it, “quite ignorant.” Later, when he found out I became an art historian, he wrote me glowing letters of praise, the most recent of which arrived last month from his jail cell.
His bedroom contained walls full of books, a high-powered humidifier, and posters for late-Eighties bands, the names of which I’d never heard: Dead Milkmen, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers. Among the thousands of CD’s that he owned, all housed in walnut-shelved cases, the only one I recognized was Nevermind from Nirvana, a band whom he claimed to have discovered well before they were “hot.” His shelves were also freighted with dozens of obscure foreign films—mostly German horror—and fat Russian novels I couldn’t imagine he’d read. Ironically, and in spite of our school’s designation as “classical,” he was one of only four students in our year to study Latin, a language he insisted on taking, even though, it was said, he came close to failing each semester—apparently, he refused to study.
He graduated, like most of us, tenuously (he had to do some coursework that summer), and at our farewell party, which was held in somebody’s townhouse, he arrived with a thirty-year-old woman in a dark corporate suit. He claimed she was a cousin. He didn’t introduce her too much—he was already high—and disappeared before anyone could spray him with questions. I never saw him again.
You might have heard of the scandal that broke in 2009 involving the University of Illinois, which, I hasten to add, was our friend’s alma mater. It turned out—and I can’t say I was too shocked—that for quite some time, hundreds of students with “clout,” as the Chicago Tribune put it, had gained admission despite having “sub-par qualifications.” Sam’s G.P.A. could not have exceeded three—and doubtfully two. He was also suspended once, put on probation twice, and even temporarily dismissed after the debacle at prom. Somehow he was admitted, though who pulled the strings, none could say. He did tell me once that he’d earned a 1590 on his S.A.T.’s, which, for whatever reason, I’m inclined to believe.
In any case, his collegiate performance was rather lackluster, too, or so said his two high school friends, Joel and Buzz, who had accompanied him down to Champaign. All took up residence in a fraternity, from which Sam was later expelled. (The reasons for that are unclear). It is known that he graduated with distinction, having penned a thesis of some sort on neurochemical behavior, and then gained admission to a medical school of questionable repute in the Bahamas. Three years later, he was admitted to a psychiatric rotation at Northwestern Memorial. Evidently, he found the work uninspiring—or maybe he was just dreading the prospect of following his expected path. Either way, some time around age 27, he apparently left and absconded to the West Coast.
The story of the private school truant who snorts away his parents’ hard-earned savings has become something of a clich— in our culture, and I wish it described him, but his saga in Los Angeles was actually far more complex. As I mentioned, he kept in close touch with two of his friends, Buzz and Joel, both of whom would eventually join him in LA. Initially, and as it was later reported to me, Sam tried to break into Hollywood. That followed the predictable path: failed connections, missed opportunities, a brief jaunt in film school, and finally a part-time job working in porn. He made a go for a while as a well-regarded director in Van Nuys, though my guess is the internet hindered that effort, as it has so much of the trade.
Then he made a living selling pot. While not technically legal at that point, marijuana, from what I understand, enjoyed something of a gray status in California. He invested heavily in a growery, then manned it himself, apparently moving out to the Mendocino Hills. That operation got him nabbed, though he had backed himself up legally and only lost a sizable principal. It was said he had a wife and kid at this time, though they later disappeared from the picture. Sometime around 2008, Joel later reported, Sam contacted him about a “lucrative opportunity.” It was hit-or-miss, Joel explained, but afforded the chance for “incalculable” dividends, not to mention power and fame. And what was the opportunity for investment? I should let Joel explain.
Joel and I met for coffee in November at the Bourgeois Pig, a somber little nook in Chicago. Having returned to the city for Thanksgiving, it was the first time I had reconnected with anyone from high school, not to mention my folks, with whom I was on at best shaky terms.
Joel said that Sam had suggested calling me, although I didn’t remember having given either of them my number. Joel also said he had a favor to ask of me but didn’t say what.
When Joel arrived at the coffeehouse, which was smoky and eerily lit, he looked a bit like Conrad’s depiction of Jim: “An inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull,” except that his voice was depleted and his face looked thoroughly flushed. He ordered three shots of espresso and drank them down in four gulps. He also wore a powder-blue cardigan and said he was looking for work.
“Can’t help you there.” I explained that I was still eking out a living as an adjunct in Philly and only home visiting family. (I didn’t mention that my ex-boyfriend lived in Chicago, or that I had recently come out to my folks.)
Joel smiled wanly. “So, you read about Sam, didn’t you?”
“I saw a few tidbits. The Alumni Magazine didn’t exactly offer a report.”
“No, even though he’s been their cover story twice. Hypocrite fucks. Anyways, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you, but we should probably go somewhere else.”
I didn’t want to know, but why not?
At Corcoran’s, a dim Irish bar along Wells, Joel told me the saga more clearly, and I tried to extract what I could. I had already heard of Sam’s arrest, as well as the more glaring indictments, though the allegations of child abuse were new, as was the mention of arson.
“So I accepted his offer, the fuck, and came to L.A. I figured why not. It was better than building fake teeth”—Joel had worked briefly as a dental assistant—“and I still had something to prove. I thought, maybe we’ll get the band going, then he offered me this gig in his lab. I said, ‘What lab,’ and Sam said, ‘I got this new company brewing, and I’m looking for a laboratory manager. That should be you.’ We had taken Orgo together, and he knew I was smart. In fact, I did better than him on the MCAT’s, and he never would have sat for them had he not copied my tests. Anyways, he let me crash at his place in West Hollywood. It was this reeking two-bedroom, all covered with ash, and I guess his own daughter wasn’t legally allowed to visit him. He had a regular assortment of roommates—grad students, mainly—even a couple of girls, one of whom he may have fathered a kid with. I slept on the couch, which was fine. Most days, I’d get up around two, switch on the PlayStation, smoke a couple bowls, fry a steak, and then he said to me, ‘Joel, you remember why you came out here?’“
“I actually put on a tie. Sam spent all his days away from home, though where he’d been going, I didn’t know. Sam refused to disclose it. Then one afternoon, he took me to his workplace, which was this cruddy, brick warehouse out along Pico, right under the 405. It was all dripping and sheathed in asbestos. Plus, some homeless guy had left his shopping cart out front. The weirdest part was that, as Sam led me in with a flashlight, I noticed dozens of steel bunk beds had been arranged along the main floor. They were spring cots, like you’d see in the army. ‘Are you starting a shelter?’ I asked him. ‘Sort of,’ Sam replied. ‘A shelter of life.’
“I had no idea what he meant. With Sam, you never know. He was wearing a suit that day, too, not his normal, blue vintage one—you know, the frilled tux. This one was silk, tailored and lapelled, and he said he had an appointment downtown. But just as he was about to cut out, he said to me, ‘Joel, what do you know about kids?’”
“‘Kids?’ I said. ’Babies.’ ‘Nothing. That they like to shit and drink.’ ‘Exactly,’ said Sam. ‘That’s all they do. Shit and drink. Now the shitting part, that I can’t help. There’s nothing to do about that. But the drinking part, that’s where we will come in.’ ‘We?’ ‘You and I. Along with a couple investors.’ ‘What do you have in mind?’”
At this point, Joel paused, shuffled to the bar, and ordered a couple White Russians. He returned with the drinks, both black, and the cream in a small demitasse. “John,“ he asked me. “What do you know about milk?“
“Does the body good.”
“Exactly,” said Joel. “Do you know why?”
“Uh-huh.” Joel flexed his huge arm, which didn’t quite gel with his cardigan, and said, “Feel this.”
I did. “Impressive.”
“Whey protein—best thing you can take for the gym. Legal thing, that is. Builds pure muscle mass. Problem is not everyone needs it. Women don’t need it. Babies don’t need it. In fact, for them, it’s dangerous. That’s why they need mother’s milk, not cow’s. Breast milk is thinner, doesn’t have as much protein, or salts. It’s higher in iron, retinol, vitamins. Those are the things a baby needs.” He tilted the demitasse and ladled the milk in his glass. “Cream?”
“I don’t normally drink before noon.”
“And you call yourself an historian?” Joel let the vodka set in. His eyes slowly rounded. “So Sam had this brilliant idea. I say brilliant, because, well, at the time, it was netting us cash. He decided, why not market this breast milk? I mean, it’s essential for children, of which there’s no shortage in the world, and it can be put to all sorts of good uses.”
Joel cited statistics about the number of impoverished children who were dying, all the hapless premature babies, and the problems afflicting the third world, to which an “adequate supply of breast milk” could “offer some vital relief.” He smiled flaccidly. “At first, the goal was non-profit.”
“As it always is with Sam.”
Joel continued: “So I returned the next week to the Compound, as we called it, and found the place fully redone. It was completely rehabbed, freshly repainted and swept, and all the bunk beds were covered with these cream-colored, soft, cotton sheets. It looked like a hospital clinic, except there were mounted flat-screens everywhere, exercise bikes, rocking chairs, teacups, a playpen. The whole place was painted pink and stenciled with floral designs. There weren’t any windows, oddly (those had been sealed and draped), but all the basement cages had been stripped and replaced with these vast metal tanks, which later turned out to be coolers.
“It turned out Sam had snagged some investors, mainly friends of his father, a couple of whom were physicians, and they allowed Sam to remain in charge. He even hired a Chief Medical Officer, who was also on staff at UCLA, to oversee health. He was this creepy-looking guy, even creepier than Sam.” It was amazing to hear Joel say this. “He had long, auburn hair, dark, horn-rimmed glasses, always wore a suit and a vest. Like something out of a David Lynch film, except he was apparently an M.D., much like our friend, the C.E.O.
“Sam said he hadn’t yet decided on my role. I was tentatively made Assistant Lab Manager—I didn’t appreciate the downgrade—and Sam took me downstairs for a tour. All the while, he kept reciting more numbers. He was still wearing his suit, his tailored, lapelled one. Then he explained that last year, a women named Alicia Richman from northern Texas had made headlines for donating eleven thousand ounces of milk.
“‘That’s about 86 gallons,’ Sam said, fingering his cufflinks. ‘Now breast milk sells for about one to two-and-a-half bucks an ounce commercially, three to five if you’re buying from a bank. That means, just doing the math here, that good old Alicia would yield about fifty-five K if she were hooked up to a pump.’ Sam paused before an enormous, steel, black-hosed contraption, which vaguely resembled an oil rig and whose tubes were connected to an even bigger contraption running along the brick wall. His eyes almost sparkled. ‘By comparison, your average dairy cow nets about $2,500 in annual income, after you factor in feed.’ Then he threw me a copy of the Los Angeles Times, which was dated a couple months back. An article was circled on Page 12, which said human breast milk was facing a critical shortage. ‘I have more than an idea,’ Sam explained.
“I doubted him originally. I’ve heard more than a few harebrained schemes. Hell, you should hear why Sam got kicked out of ZBT. But here’s the funny part. Sam, for all of his years, seemed to have almost matured. That night, he drove me out to West Hollywood, where I even got to meet his ex-wife. She was cool, a bit large, not overweight, incredibly witty. You know, I heard she was also a shrink. Ph.D. in psychology, I guess. That’s how they met. And then Sam introduced me to his daughter. Man, that was a trip. Seeing Sam hold up his own little one. She looked exactly like him. Same crazy eyes and frizzy black hair. A little uglier, maybe. Certainly as determined. And loud. She kept crying the whole time, and Sam’s ex-wife started nursing her. Right there in front of me. Neither of them seemed the least bit embarrassed. ‘It’s the most beautiful thing,’ Sam said. Then he patted his ex-wife on the shoulder and kissed his daughter goodbye.
“That night at the Troubadour, Sam told me that the investments were in, and at that point it was just a matter of finding some ‘harvestable girls.’ And where would we go for that? Mexico. I’ll spare you the details of our trip. Suffice it to say, one can get in a lot of trouble in that country, and Sam repeatedly has. He’s on a first name base with a couple of officers—well south of T.J., down in the untouristed parts, out along Baja, and he came back with more than a few truckloads of women. I guess he had good connections from his days in Van Nuys. He said all of them were legal, technically. I wasn’t sure how. Anyways, nobody stopped us at the border, and we were driving a convoy of eight or ten vans. Sam also brought the medical doctor, as well as his communications officer, a pleasant Latina named Monique. She had an M.B.A. from Wharton, so I wasn’t too pissed when I found out what she was netting. And she was really nice with the women, speaking Spanish and all that—much nicer than Sam.
“We dropped the women off at The Compound, which Sam had had refitted once again. It was well-heated and stocked with supplies. There were forty-gallon, walk-in refrigerators, all brimming with salmon, asparagus, plums—even raw goat’s-rue and borage, which were used for tinctures and tea. Plus, the lighting was really soft, and the whole place smelled like lavender (we had oils piped through the A.C.). I’ll tell you, if you want anything done in this world, you need to have a person like Sam. He was personally invested. Didn’t even sleep at home.
“For the next three weeks, Sam lived with the women in the Compound, cooked all their meals, and went about his affairs from there. For complicated reasons—these I can’t explain—the place wasn’t wired for internet or even connected with a phone, so Sam had a couple of mules run his errands. You know, send faxes, get mail, run out to Trader Joe’s to buy vitamins, of which we consumed a lot. And he had me working on equipment. We got the place flowing really good. The women were hooked up by day two, and we let them roam about The Compound, gave them satin robes, plenty of rocking chairs to sit in. We let them order all their clothes from Hanna Andersson catalogues. Most had brought their babies along, and these were all housed in the nursery, which spanned a storeroom in the back. I tried my best not to go there—the fucking place stank—but Sam hired another physician, a partner of his dad, to oversee group pediatrics. He did stop by from time-to-time.
“So the women, or milkmaids, as we called ’em, they didn’t have it too bad. Mostly, they just sat around rocking, cradling their newborns. They spent six hours a day on the straps, and the whole time, they got to watch Lifetime. Sam had it shown on three screens, then the Oxygen Network, which they loved. Sometimes, he’d broadcast their soaps, but he said those were too stressful for the mothers, and he didn’t want to run any risks. He also let them talk, which he didn’t initially want to do. My job—I don’t know if you’d call it a job, since I was higher than a kite most the day”—Joel sipped his drink, then looked at me guardedly—“my job was to clean off the hoses, suction cups, pumps, and to constantly check on the generator, make sure it wasn’t overworked. Do you have any idea how much power is required to fuel a pump of that sort—an industrial-grade, high-suction milk machine? Let’s just say we couldn’t depend on the grid”.
“And that became a problem, too, because all sorts of technicians had to come in, and soon they started talking to the maids, which wasn’t allowed, due to trade secrecy. Plus Sam explained that any outside contact could make all the women too stressed. The fathers were allowed to visit from time-to-time—those who made it over—but only at carefully prescribed intervals, because he didn’t want to disrupt the flow of things. We even had a room for conjugal visits—that is, before the fire”.
“Well, pretty soon the maids started complaining. They said their hours were too long, their nipples were getting sore, the pumps weren’t suctioning correctly, their milk was too thin, or that their babies were getting enough sunlight. A couple were jaundiced, I think, so we bought a UV-H lamp. Anyways, we called in all sorts of mechanical support. A couple of investors bailed, and Sam had to replenish the funds with his own private capital, which is never a good move. We also needed someone to watch all the infants full-time. As a couple months passed, they were getting older. A few of them were starting to walk”.
“‘Where the hell are we gonna find a babysitter?’ Sam asked me. I said, ‘this is L.A. There are thousands.’ ‘I know. But it’s gotta be someone we trust’”.
“I never thought Buzz was a wonderful idea.” Joel was referring to the former governor’s son. “When we called him, he was working at a video store in Austin, and Sam invited him out. I backed him up. We said he could crash at our place. For which, I should add, I was now paying full rent, despite living on that rat-infested couch. Motherfucker wouldn’t even let me take his bed, not when he was out with his kid, not even when he was sleeping at The Compound, as he did almost every fucking night. Anyways, Buzz arrived, and he got the floor.”
Buzz, last time I had seen him on Facebook, wore a fu manchu mustache and had a metal bar rimming his throat.
“I said, ‘You know, Sam, maybe he’s not the best guy to watch kids.’ ‘He’ll be fine,’ Sam replied. ‘He loves kids. Hell, he’s practically one of them.’ In fact, Buzz was. We got him a truckload of toys, and he spent his days—and evenings, and nights—crawling on a mat with thirty-six of his new friends. Yeah, it was overwhelming at first, but he just stepped out to the alley occasionally—maybe twice a day—and baked himself quickly. Problem is he kept forgetting the code to the doors, or telling it to pizza guys, so Sam had to change it all the time. Eventually, he was great with the kids. The maids loved him, too. A little too much, in fact. It got to the point where none of them could nurse if Buzz wasn’t hanging around. Something about him—his mustache, I think—was comforting to everyone. And for a while, things were going great.
“Then one day, we got a knock at the door of The Compound. I figured it was the Feds, we were fucked. Of course, Sam had previously assured me that he had taken care of all of the licenses, and what we were doing was perfectly legal. We even had a lawyer on staff. The knock, it turned out, came from a couple of cowboys. Both were wearing mohair suits and white Stetsons. ’I’m sorry, gentleman. This is a private facility,’ said Ernesto, our security chief, squinting at the brightness outside. ‘I understand,’ said the taller one. ‘We’re just here to meet Sam.’ ‘Sam?’ ‘Your Chief Executive Officer’”.
“Ernesto looked back at the floor, where thirty-six milkmaids were rocking in synch, all entranced by the wisdom of Ellen. Above them, the white hoses pumped, and the base machine churned like some oversized, clear, cement mixer, emitting its constant hum. ‘I’m afraid he isn’t taking visitors.’ ‘Well, maybe this will change his mind.’ The cowboy handed Ernesto a business card and a crisp paper check, made out by the American Dairy Farmers’ Association, for sixty-five K. ‘A welcoming gesture,’ one said. ‘By the way,’ he said, peering inside the steel doorframe. ‘Sounds like you got a little one crying.’ ‘Wouldn’t know about that,’ Ernesto said, shutting the door. In fact, Sam had periodic infant crying-noises played in the background, over loudspeakers, to help stimulate the production. ‘Pendejos,’ said Ernesto, resetting the bar on the door.
“Later, Sam explained to me that the farmers were trying to buy him out. They knew the threat that he posed to them. And little did I know, at the time, our milk business was booming. Sam had graced the cover of nearly every major paper in the country. Our sales were through the roof, and two other factories had been set up in East Los Angeles, which Sam also oversaw. This is why Buzz and I had been seeing less of him lately”.
“Initially, I was sold on the merits of what we were doing. ‘Just one ounce,’ Sam explained to me, early one day at the Compound, while inspecting Rosita’s left breast, which was roughly the width of his palm and shrouded in leaves of white cabbage (it was said to have a soothing effect), ’can provide enough milk here to feed several preemies. That’s three lives saved with every squirt.’
“‘It will go to the hospitals,’ Sam assured me. And sure enough, he had contracted with a local biopharm, Prolactic, to fortify the milk and sell it directly to clinics. And we had nabbed hundreds of deals. The hospitals loved it, because it kept their preemies out of intensive care. Saved em about ten K a head, and they paid a fraction of that for the goop. Sam even got the insurance companies to kick in—or rather, Prolactic did”.
“The problem started coming with the supply. Prolactic couldn’t get enough. The milk banks were also resourceful, but those had to be screened more carefully, ‘not like our women,’ Sam said, winking brightly at Rosita. ‘And you know, when you start picking up girls off the street, who knows what they’ll bring: AIDS, hepatitis, the clap. Plus, who knows how long the milk’s been left out there? The investors want us,’ Sam explained to me, ‘but we’re just not churning out enough’”.
“‘So,’ Sam said, ‘I told the Board, “Our women are not cows. We can’t just fatten ’em.“’ He brushed Rosita’s left cheek. She smiled at him, tepidly. ‘“Yes, but what about our competitors?“ they asked me. “Don’t forget about market share, yield. This isn’t the nineties,“ they said. “We need to see revenues now.”’ Sam tapped the wall’s painted column, which was stenciled with daisies and cherubs floating through air. ‘These venture-capital-types just don’t understand. It’s about more than dollars and cents. We’re affirming the value of life’”.
“For whatever reason, relations soon soured with Prolactic, and Sam began to seek additional buyers. He started with artisan cheese. Apparently, some high-end caterer in Encino wanted to buy him out. ‘They could never afford us,’ Sam said. But they invested heavily. Soon Wolfgang Puck became intrigued, and he ushered in a new fad. Within a couple months, the maids could watch their output being melted on television, right in the hands of Rachel Ray and other celebrity chefs. All of them wanted fresh breast milk. It was impossible to put out enough. The problem was the company wasn’t anywhere close to meeting the market’s demand&dquo;.
“‘I’m raising our standards,’ Sam told the women one evening from his box in the pit. He was speaking into his headset, which was wired to the speakers overhead. ‘For six months I’ve coddled you. And I’ve had to. You’re all the most wonderful girls.’ Monique, our communications officer, translated for him. ‘And I know that the work here is hard.’ On the flatscreens sets behind him, Ellen was dancing. Sam had Ernesto shut her off. ‘Four hours of sleep isn’t much. But the time has come for us to move forward. Production has to expand. I’m upping your doses of Pitocin, and I need twenty ounces a day from each of you, without exception. Or I’m afraid you’ll have to go.’ ‘A donde?’ asked one maid in front. ‘Why, home,’ Sam explained, with a shrug.
“Nobody blinked. After that, output was doubled, but Sam hadn’t counted on the long-term effects of his demand. As any dairy farmer knows, overworking your stock will only get you to the fall. Sure enough, come October, a few maids began to bleed. Not overwhelmingly, but enough that the Chief Medical Officer raised his voice—more than a few times—and Marketing had him replaced. We thought about bringing in new girls, but that was ‘expensive and difficult to manage,’ Monique said one day at our executive meeting, which Sam, in all his magnanimity, had allowed me to attend.”
“‘We’re already making kefir,’ said our chief operations officer. This was at the Biltmore downtown. ‘Full supply of yogurt. Even the ice cream has sold. Americans can’t get enough of the Cherry Gobbler. Vanilla Mamilla’s through the roof, and the Japanese love BabyGaga. Even Lactation Salvation’s doing well. And that was before Bono’s campaign.’”
“‘So what’s the problem?’ Sam asked. ‘Is the market about to turn?’ ‘Samuel,’ Monique grimaced. ‘This is why you pay me top dollar.’ I didn’t doubt the two of them were boinking, even though her husband was the principal investor and assistant chairman of the board. ‘The problem,’ she explained, glancing at her soon-to-be-ex, who himself barely muttered Sam’s name, ‘is that the market’s clued in. They figure, why get the stuff from us when they can just visit the banks? They practically sell it for free there. And the FDA never checks.’ ‘Can we take care of that?’ Sam asked. ‘We’re already on it,’ said his lawyer, a weasely figure named Doug. ‘I’ve talked to the Regional Supervisor, and we’re playing Hillcrest next months. But these things always take a little time.’ ‘I see,’ Sam sighed. ‘What else?’”
“‘Well, there’s PeTA,’ said Monique. ‘What the fuck do they want?’ said Sam. ‘They’re threatening to alert the Department of Labor,’ she said. ‘Or maybe it’s Agriculture. I forget—’ ‘To what?’ ‘Working conditions. They say our treatment’s “inhumane.”’ ‘Inhumane!’ Sam gasped. ‘For fuck sake, I bought them forty-inch flatscreens. I make them cookies every evening.’ ‘Those cookies are laced, Sam.’ ‘With essential nutrients and vitamins. Tell PeTA to go fuck themselves.’“
“This was his first big mistake,“ Joel explained. “A couple weeks later, early one evening, the generator burst, a fire broke out, and we were up to our ankles in milk. Sam was trying to seal the hoses himself, and they were spraying everywhere, which fortunately helped with the fire. The women were screaming. Babies were floating. Buzz had to build a quick ark. You should see what he did with those cabbage leaves, not to mention all the onesies we owned.”
“Anyways, for two weeks, production ground to a halt. We managed to regroup and cut our losses, but there was still the problem of supply. The chefs began raiding the milk banks—using aliases, of course—and we had to take care of that.”
Joel leaned into the table. Outside the sooted pane, a few strollers pushed past along Wells. He took a sip of his tumbler (he’d since moved to scotch), which sweated in the afternoon light. “Now, what I’m about to tell you, I tell you as a friend, and I tell it in the greatest confidence. This didn’t come up at the trial. I’ve only told you about half of the story so far. I didn’t talk about our security procedures, or the Domperidone pills in the tea. I didn’t even mention our outreach in China, or our deals with Dakar and Sudan. In fact, Sam wanted to take us global—even from the start. We just weren’t producing the yield. So he turned to Ernesto, Buzz, and me.” Joel raised his fist to his mouth. He eyed the place watchfully. “We took care of the banks.”
Joel sipped his Chivas and coughed. “Yeah. Let’s just say the Mother’s Milk Bank of Southern California suffered from faulty wiring, and the police never knocked on our door.”
Joel shook his glass. “Ernesto served once with Mexico’s finest. And he’s not the kind who would talk. Neither are you, I gather.”
“Would it help you to know that I’m gay?”
“I figured as much.”
“Anyways, keep going,” I said, relieved to have that off my chest.
“So Buzz, he got a bit jittery. You know, being the Governor’s son. We had to ask him to leave. And he didn’t want to go, to be truthful, so Sam simply asked him, ’How much?’ Buzz looked at us flustered. We were in Sam’s apartment that night—the apartment that Sam had more or less permanently left. ‘I’m going to need a nondisclosure,’ Sam said. “What will it cost you to sign?’ Buzz pinched his throat-ring, around which he’d looped a couple chew rings. ‘Is that how you talk to a friend?’”
“The answer, it turned out, was about eight million and change. Although here’s the best part. After Sam wrote Buzz a check—for an undisclosed ‘service’—Buzz just tore the check up. Didn’t want it. Wanted no part of the operation, he said. He said he was going back to Austin, where he was going to make a clean start. ‘Seriously, you want three, I’ll give you three,’ Sam replied. ’I don’t want your milk money,’ said Buzz. ‘Then go. But know this,’ Sam whispered. ‘If anything is ever reported, anything at all, I have film of you and the boys.’ ‘What boys?’ ‘We have nursery cameras.’ ‘Jesus,’ I said, as Buzz left.
“Anyways, by this time, Sam was on the cover of every major magazine. You probably saw him on the news. The Katie Couric interview was my favorite—the way Sam assured her that it was natural to go through some pain. ‘It’s just part of being a mother,’ he said. He even quoted Psalms, something like, ‘Out of the mouth of babies and sucklings, God ordains strength.’
“Then Forbes made us Start-up of the Year. Angels began to invest—or should I say, threaten to take us over. Sam said we had to clean up our act. I was bought out—for about half the amount Buzz had rejected. I should have taken cash, but I settled for stocks and returns, which was about the stupidest thing I could have done. But I had just seen that Facebook movie, so I thought I shouldn’t cut out.
“Then one morning, when I woke in Sam’s apartment, I found a note on the table that said he would be back by six that day and that he didn’t want to see me again. ’Thanks for all your effort. Goodbye.’
“So, from what I heard, Sam began making major changes. All the Mexicans were axed—sent home in vans—and they were replaced with girls from Moldova. Most of them were late-teenagers and more than anxious to nurse. Plus they didn’t watch television, since they hadn’t been exposed to it as youths. And being post-Soviets, they were exactly anxious to strike.
“In any case, by this point, Buzz and I had reconciled. I flew to Austin to look the guy up. I wasn’t really close with anyone else, and I had enough funds coming in the shares that I could buy a new pad, settle down. At first, when I met Buzz at his doorstep, he nearly punched me in the throat. I bought him some drinks and we talked. A couple weeks later, we bought a flat out in Tarrytown together. Sweet place, private pool, terraced lawn. Then, get this, sometime around April, I was leaning back on a hammock, Buzz was afloat on his raft, and we heard this loud sputter overhead. It was like fucking Nam. All of a sudden, this ginormous bird comes fluttering out of the sky and plops itself down on our Bermuda grass lawn. It looked like Air Force One. I thought it was the fucking President at first. Out popped a couple of dudes in black suits. Turned out it was the Feds, and they wanted to have a ‘chat.’
“‘I don’t know anything,’ I told them. Buzz reiterated this, separately. Both of us insisted on talking to lawyers, which none of the suits plainly liked. Finally—this was at the Federal Building, downtown—this Asian chief says to me, ’I’ll be honest. We know you two aren’t behind this. We know what you’ve done, and we don’t frankly care. It’s nothing we can’t overlook. The man we want is Sam. And he doesn’t seem to be showing himself lately.‘ ’What do you mean?’ I asked.
“Apparently, Sam had caught word and skipped town. He had since fled to Vienna. Or that’s what the court records said. He was still collecting dividends, somehow, at his bank in the Caymans. The Feds tracked him down, and he was arrested in June.
“Naturally, I got cleaned out. Buzz did, as well. Buzz’s father still had connections in government and team of lawyers to wield. A few of them went to bat for us, but it cost us everything that we had.“
Joel’s own father, I knew, had also been a doctor, though he had long ago passed, and his mother was living in seclusion in Florida, probably unaware of his deeds.
“Neither of us was charged. We both turned state’s evidence, said what we knew—most of it anyways—and Sam was indicted on seventeen counts, including human trafficking. There were all sorts of celebrity amicus briefs, both for and against him. PeTA wanted him hung, but the organic trade groups, with whom he had long ago registered and made quite a few friends, said he was the victim. Gwyneth Paltrow spoke at his trial. Bono did, too. Sam had been a special representative to the World Health Organization, which tried to intervene where it could. I even heard the State of Cambodia, where I guess he was an honorary consul—or something like that—tried to grant him immunity. None of it worked, but he was only found guilty on a handful of charges, embezzlement, fraud, something else. Which was a victory for the kids, Bono said. As did Kofi Annan. In fact, today, they’re still using his products. Lactation Salvation was turned into bars, and it’s being distributed widely by UNICEF. Not that the jury much cared. They thought he was a manipulative bastard, especially when they saw all those photos of Rosita’s bloodied black teat. If only they knew about the fire—not to mention Buzz’s little fling with the kids. Anyways, John, all of this probably sounds ludicrous to you.“
I hadn’t yet sipped my drink.
“So the real reason I’m here,“ Joel explained, “aside from wanting to see you, is that I actually need your help. Sam’s request. He said you know a thing or two about art.”
“Yes, that’s technically my job,” I said.
“Okay, then he thought you might know what this means.“ Joel sighed dimly, surveying the tables at Corcoran’s: brunching DePaul students; a drunken news anchorman; a Japanese man nursing a flute of champagne. Chicago on a Saturday. “At the trial, before Sam was taken away, he handed me this.” Joel pulled out a compact disc album: Madonna’s Ray of Light.
I opened the obsolete thing. The jewel case was empty, minus the inserted back cover.
“The court seized the disc, wary of evidence,” Joel said. “They let me keep the case. And here’s the thing, as he was leaving the hearing, Sam whispered something to me. I’m not sure what he said, but I think it was”—Joel leaned down to the table, flexing his steroidal arms—“Epitome of a diva.”
Joel smiled. “I have no idea what it means. But I do know this: eight million dollars in stock transfers are missing.”
“The money he set aside for Buzz?”
“Yeah. Well, apparently he wasn’t as intent on fucking over his friend as we thought. He actually planned to pay him. Just never got around to it, I guess.”
“And the Feds never found it?”
“No trace. They scoured the Bahamas, casinos, his bank accounts in Seychelles. Sam was a well-wired man. He knew what he was doing. I mean, he had no fucking clue how to run a business operation, let alone a multinational breast milk conglomerate, but if there’s anything he did know, it’s how to hide a stash.”
“And so you think this disc-case holds the key to eight million dollars in funds?”
Joel looked around him. He pushed his glass. “I don’t know. I have to get going.”
“For all I know, the Feds are now listening.”
“Sit down,” I said, grabbing his arm, which didn’t have much effect.
He eyed me scornfully. “Look, if you ever find that money—I don’t know how—but if you should happen upon it—and Sam thought you would; he knew you were smart—do me a favor, okay?”
“What, share it with you?”
“No. I don’t want a damn cent. But help out Sam’s family. I think his wife and kid are half-starved. That fucker didn’t leave them a dime. Not like he would have, anyways.”
“It’s good to see you, Joel.”
“By the way, that whole thing about the fire?”
That night, I regrouped at Jack’s place, Jack being my longtime ex. He and I were no longer physical together, but we needed each other as friends. It’s hard to explain, but he and I had developed something of an emotional connection, which came to fruition once in the Northwestern Library, then gradually dwindled but never entirely dissolved. We would visit each other occasionally, mainly for solace and consolation. I didn’t share with him the details of my morning, but I put on Madonna’s “Ray of Light.”
Jack, who’s black and works as an archivist at Northwestern (where I completed my doctorate in Early Renaissance art), began bobbing his head back and forth, alongside me on his vintage, green camelback sofa. His place was a tastily furnished two-flat on Lawrence that, nursing a variety of addictions, he could barely afford. “I don’t understand what it is about queens and Madonna,” he said. Then he sipped his Riesling and sighed. Jack never drank wine, which I took as a sign that he was either committed to someone else, and therefore altered in his habits, or turning over a new leaf, neither of which boded well for my stay. “I can’t handle this honkey shit,” he continued.
He was at heart the same man. We cuddled, and I fell asleep in his arms.
Around midnight, possibly two, I was awoken by the clack of Jack slipping out the front door. He had obviously made other plans, about which he hadn’t cared to inform me. I couldn’t blame him. Burdened with a five-four teaching load—at two separate schools—and unable to afford a gym membership, I didn’t exactly resemble Brad Pitt.
Plus, I was drinking—I had barely spoken to my folks and couldn’t begin to deduce what they thought. I was supposed to come for dinner at their home tomorrow evening but had more or less resolved I’d back out.
I lay in bed a while, surveying the darkening space, the ignominious state in which I then found myself: hitting up an old friend for a bed, and possibly some life advice, assuming he’d give it. I hadn’t confessed to Joel that my so-called profession of historian involved teaching commas to semiliterate freshmen at Northeast Community College. And here I was, thirty-six years old, drunk beyond belief—I was never one to abstain—watching the stucco wall spin. I put on Madonna.
I sat up and slapped my face.
I played the song again. Impossible, I thought. He hadn’t left me eight million.
But I knew I had to look.
I called up Joel the next morning, sharply at nine. I had wanted to call at two a.m., when I had had this revelation, but it wouldn’t have done any good, because the Art Institute opened at ten. Groggily, Joel answered.
“Get the fuck down here.”
Ninety minutes later, which seemed an interminable length, I introduced Joel to Jack, and to Jack’s newest partner, a hulking and pimpled ex-lineman from Kenilworth, to whom I hadn’t exactly warmed (they had suggested at some point, possibly around six, when I was pacing around the kitchen like a madman, reciting “Ray of Light,” that I join them in their bed for some fun. As if I’d reduce myself to that. Okay, as if I’d tell Joel about it later).
I said we were just friends. Then, twenty minutes later, as we were barreling south on LSD (not the drug, woefully), I said, “When we get to the museum, we should go in separately. I’ll meet you at the Chinese Art.” The only reason I suggested it is that it’s the only part of the museum that’s reliably unvisited, and thus we’d know if we were being traced.
I met him beside a jade bowl, which was gorgeously glazed and of the late North Song Dynasty. Joel said it looked like a clam.
I always hated the Art Institute, not because of the crowds, which were always less daunting than New York’s, but the art, which, apart from the Eastern, was mostly the crowd-pleasing type. It made the Getty look tasteful.
When we determined that no one was following us—budding sleuths that we were—I directed him to the Northern European Wing, to the section on drawings and prints, which was predictably empty, as well.
“I don’t understand,” Joel said. “What the fuck does this have to do with Madonna?”
“You’ll see.” I led him down to the D—rers—a respectable assortment, I thought, given the abundance of Wyeths and Hoppers downstairs.
“There.” I pointed to the roughly four-by-six inch wood panel, which was modestly framed and featured a sun-lit, seated Madonna nursing a cherub-looking Christ. Huge slashes of light radiated out from the sun at her back, and Jesus was sucking her teat.
“What’s it mean?”
“Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun?”
“What?” Joel asked.
“You’re obviously not a fan of Madonna.”
I seized him by the shoulder. “It means we’re going to be rich.”
“How will we afford a flight to Vienna?” he asked me, driving to O’Hare.
“You have a credit card, right?”
“I’ve made more than a few bad investments in my time. This better not be one.”
“You’re talking to a professional historian,” I said, though of what, I couldn’t confidently say.
The flight over was long, and I didn’t care to explain it. I also worried that he could ditch out on me at any point. Not that I didn’t trust him, precisely. But he was paying for the trip.
Having eschewed sleep for twenty hours, we caught the train to downtown Vienna, then hopped the 3A bus to Albertina Station (if being an art historian can teach a person anything, it’s how to get around Europe on the cheap.) Finally, we arrived at the museum, which was fronted with columns and obscenely white, Romanesque walls.
Joel looked like he’d come from a war.
“Wake up,” I said. “You’ll be rich.”
Inside, we were accosted by Austrian guards. When they saw my Jewish surname, they paid their usual respect, as if marveling that I was alive. They even let us in ten minutes before closing, which I’ve never known an attendant to do.
We wound through the galleries, passing the Old Masters, the occasional Brueghel, even Goya being hounded by bats.
“Where are we going?” Joel asked me.
“The sleep of reason produces monsters,” I said.
Finally, we arrived at the D—rers. The woodcut shone like some radiating meteor.
“Didn’t we just see this?” asked Joel.
I’ll admit it resembled the one we had seen in Chicago. “No. Now tell me again, what did Sam tell you as they were leading him out of the court?”
“‘Epitome of a diva.’” As Joel said it, he noticed the inscription carved atop the oak panel.
“How’s your Latin?”
Joel did his best to recite it. “Epitome in divae parthenices mari ae historium ab Alberto D’vero.”
Dürer, I corrected him. “V’s pronounced like a U.”
“I took Spanish in high school.”
“Uh-huh. Do you know what it means?”
“Your stupid friend talked you into a flight?”
“Literally, it‘s ’An Epitome of the Story of the Divine Virgin Mary.’”
“So why would Sam bring us here?”
“That,” I said, “is a good question.” I surveyed the walls, which were oddly pastel-hued and had obviously been refashioned after Hitler left them in his wake. “Not sure.” I moved closer to the panel and studied the accompanying plaque. A stunted guard urged me back. “Danke schoen,” I replied. “Do me a favor,” I said to Joel. “I want you to walk over to the next hall.” They were having a Max Ernst retrospective, God help them. “And I want you to expose yourself. That, or do something obscene.”
“For eight million dollars, you can go to jail for a night.”
Reluctantly, he agreed. Clad in his Burberry parka and sagging blue jeans, he strutted into the adjoining gallery and proceeded to unclasp his belt. He watched me from afar. I nodded grimly. He was standing beside some surrealist painting of a horse, and frankly a little sprinkling of body fluid on it wouldn’t have done it much harm. He removed his dick. I also couldn’t help but noticing, as I often have, that for all of men’s efforts, weightlifting and girth rarely seem to correspond.
Trying to post bail for a suspect in Austria is extremely hard to do, especially when you have an out-of-date passport, thirty-seven dollars to your name, and no seeming ability to explain how you know the detained. “Second-cousin,” I finally mumbled.
Even worse, Joel was already on file with Interpol—leave it to the Feds—and the Austrians wouldn’t release him.
I had to leave him in-country. That was just as well, as I didn’t want to jeopardize the stash.
Earlier, as he was being arrested and summarily dragged from the museum by twelve guards half-his-age, all of whom were stronger, I might add, if only because standing in a museum for seven hours a day helps you anticipate these things and gives you incalculable strength (for two summers, I checked coats at the Met), I gently reached for the etching, tapped its wood frame, felt behind it with my hand, and came up with the clue I had sought. It was a museum postcard displaying D—rer’s Young Hare, a curio the museum guards, if they found it, would assume had been dropped and had somehow lodged in the frame. The postcard itself was unaltered, except for a short Latin verse and a number inscribed on the back: vos et irrumabo 94
Laughing, I immediately recognized the verse as the first line of Catullus 16: “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.” Irrumabo means “to suckle” in Latin, although it was a little bit coarser here.
I will sodomize you and face-fuck you
pussy Aurelius and catamite Furius
you who think, because my poems
are sensitive, that I have no shame.
I had read the work countless times, mainly as a freshman at Williams, holed up in my dorm, agonizing over my choice to study art, and, in fact, other boys, none of whom seemed to spur much imagining in me, or countenance the mysteries of life. Sam, for all his vileness and frat-boy masculinity, probably understood this despair, and it’s why we once saw eye-to-eye.
Back in Chicago, at Jack’s place, as he was grinding away in his room, I clicked on his laptop and Googled vos et irrumabo 94. Nothing came up, apart from the bawdy Latin poem. Then it occurred to me: 94 was the year we had graduated high school. It took a few minutes, but I clicked on Gmail and entered the following log-in name: cautullus94.
Sure enough, the name was taken. I tried a few passwords. Okay, more than a few. I was up half the night and had to switch computers when Google blocked out my IP. Opening up Jack’s lover’s laptop, and stealing a Wi-Fi signal from downstairs, I finally cracked it with a password that, in retrospect, should have been my first guess: MILK.
That’s right. 100% USDA approved. Inside the account was a message from Sam that was dated several years back:
Dear friend, if you have come this far, you have followed me correctly. I applaud you for that. Now there is one last challenge you must face. That is the one of Roman integrity. Surely, the hardest in life. As they say: “Sapiens omnia sua secum portat.”
This, I knew, meant, “A wise man takes everything he owns with himself,” meaning that all wealth is fleeting, but mental achievements remain, including, presumably, wisdom. Curious words, I thought, from a man wanted on four continents. The message continued: Nevertheless, should you seek to indulge your material fancies, here is the address you’ll need.
It listed a bank in the Caymans, a numbered passcode, and key. It didn’t take long for me to act. I copied down the info, deleted the message, and bade goodbye to Jack. He gave me a warm hug, one that was well-meaning, I thought. “Good luck with the rent,” I said.
Then at Art’s coffeehouse, which rented desktops for some awful rate, I transferred eight mil to my bank. It took twenty-four hours, as international banking requires. I slept at the Belmont Station entrance that night, and probably wasn’t, I would guess, the first doctorate in art to have done so. In the morning, having spent my last dime on a nuked egg-and-cheese, I closed my account at Chase. Naturally, one cannot readily withdraw eight million in cash, but I grabbed a few bearer bonds and cashed a few more for a flight.
In Los Angeles, I tried to find Sam’s ex-wife, though apparently she had been strenuously avoiding the media and nowhere listed her address. Finally, I reached Joel, who was furious with me when I called and managed to get through to his cell.
“A little prison is good for you,” I told him.
When I explained to him my plans, rather cryptically at that, he grudgingly offered her address.
I have always thought those who live in California harbor insupportable dreams. Like Titian, or some of the greats of Rococo. Men whose reach must necessarily exceed their grasps. I admire them for this and pity them the same.
Sam had erected a fortified estate atop Bel-Air. His home straddled the Stone Canyon foothills, like some storybook castle, except the place was all glass and surrounded by hedges and lawns. It was a Gehry house apparently, and had recently sold to some quirky inventor of spaceships and electric cars.
Sam’s wife and daughter, of course, inhabited a one-bedroom flat in one of the dicier parts of West Hollywood. It was in one of those lemon-colored, peeling, motel-style walkups that seemingly extend to infinity, balconied out front and featuring an interior view of a wall.
She was nice enough when I knocked. “The fuck do you want?”
“I’m John.“ I tried to speak with a lisp. I didn’t normally. This didn’t warm her. “I’m a friend of Sam’s.“
“Good for fucking you,” she snarled through the peephole. “How can I help you?”
“Sam’s friend Joel said you lived at this address, and you’ll have to excuse me for bothering you at this hour”—it was ten a.m., the sun a fat ball in sky—“but I have some important information to share.”
“If it’s about his funeral, I don’t want to hear.”
“Are we speaking of the deceased?”
“I thought you were providing the info.” I was still perched at her door. She hastily parted it, and I caught a glimpse of her couch, which was shrouded in plastic and looked like something she’d hastily dragged from Sam’s cell. Beside it was a sagging pine bookshelf, which was blooming with creepers and filled to the brim with the Standard Edition of Freud. “Can I come in?”
I glanced above the locked door-chain.
“Sam killed himself last night.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Who are you exactly?”
The door slammed in my face. Thirty seconds later, it reopened. She was wearing a peach-colored bathrobe and gripping her young daughter’s hand. “This is Rumina. Who did you say you were?”
I seated myself on the couch and helped myself to a plate of cold lettuce, which his ex-wife foisted on me after explaining her diet of late was “all raw.”
“I’m terribly sorry to hear about Samuel.” I still entertained visions of him swinging in his cell, having noosed himself with a shoelace. Or maybe just the ego he wore.
“Apparently, he was trying to escape.”
“I thought it was a low-security complex.”
“Do the guards carry guns?”
“Apparently they do. Anyways, I suspect he was plainly suicidal. He was set to get out in six weeks. His parole would have come through, I’m sure. But he was wanted by the MS-13. He owed them quite a bit. Plus, all his legal fees. His castle was foreclosed on. That’s what I heard. Anyways. I don’t really care. I’ve barely spoken to the fucker.” The tense she used wasn’t past.
“You’re sure he’s gone, then?”
“That’s what they said. I guess we won’t know until the coroner’s report is leaked.”
I wouldn’t have put it past Sam to fake his own death, although in this case, I doubted it, if only because he seemed not to have other plans. What else could a man set out for in life? He’d already met Warren Buffet, toured India with Bono, and fronted two Rose Bowl Parades. If he preferred cold and despondent anonymity, as the rest of us enjoy, he was certainly welcome to it. I doubt he had fled. He was probably lying stiff in the morgue. Even if he had paid off the guards and somehow forged his own death certificate, we would never see him again. Of that, I was sure.
“So what news do you bring?” she asked. Beside us, her daughter had clicked on a console. “She’s trying to distract herself with games. I was rather blunt about it when it happened. There’s no point in repressing,” she said, tying her hair in a bun. “I was up all night trying to explain it to her, and we were both in tears, to the extent people can grieve over a person like Sam.”
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
She eyed her daughter. “Yes.”
“Very well, then.” I returned the cigars to their case. “These are Cohibas.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“Sometimes, my dear, a cigar is just a cigar.” I crossed my legs on the sofa, which smelled far worse than a morgue.
“You’re talking to the wife of the deceased now — fruitcake?”
I thought she was calling me that, but she was actually offering me cake. “No, thanks. Listen, about Sam, there’s this little thing that he left.”
“Hold on one sec.” She rose and parted the blinds. Outside, television trucks were accruing, idling brightly on Westmount. I had passed a couple on my way in. “The grieving party,” she said. “I suppose the motherfucker’s folks will come, too. Anyways, what did you say he left?”
“Just a couple of cigars.”
He was always a better man than me. And I can always live with myself.
“And one more thing,” I said, turning, tossing my plate in the sink. “If Sam’s friend Joel calls, tell him I left for Vienna.”
With that, I caught the first flight out of L.A.X., intent on buying some art. I later sent her a check for a couple hundred grand—a consolation prize, call it. And a Warhol original, to the extent such things can exist.
As for the factory, I heard it later reopened under more favorable conditions. Rachel Ray still endorses it, and the place has gone global, but breast milk has lost its appeal. Perhaps a few more infants are healthy. That, at least, Sam would respect.
As for me, well, I won’t disclose my present locale, but suffice it to say that Joel and I are doing just fine. Our pool’s been replaced with a spa, and we’ve sworn off of dairy, at least of the human kind.
Copyright © 2019 by Joshua Bernstein.
About the Author
J. A. Bernstein is the author of a forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues, 2019), which won the A.W.P. Award Series and Hackney Prizes; and a forthcoming chapbook, Desert Castles (Southern Indiana Review, 2019), which won the Wilhelmus Prize. His creative prose has appeared in Shenandoah, Tin House (web), McSweeney’s (web), Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Chicago Quarterly, Tampa Review, Beloit Fiction, and other journals, and won the Gunyon Prize at Crab Orchard Review. A Chicago native, he is an assistant professor in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and the fiction editor of Tikkun.
The Fire Years
It’s been thirty years now, and the cry of an owl still has the power to jar me out of sleep and into the woods behind my house, where I pace back and forth thinking of fire.
I still don’t know why Len chose me. Before he was mutilated by flames, before he tore fearlessly through his mother’s burning house in search of his brother and emerged to fall face-first in the frost with the child in his arms, he spoke to me outside of our high school science lab exactly twice. The first time was in the fall of my freshman year, two weeks after my father was killed in an accident at the Morley Industrial Plant. My mother and I were in the Food Lion, shopping in a kind of blind haze, when my mother had a breakdown. She backed up into a towering display of canned soups and the crash as they tumbled to the floor was deafening. I was on my knees, frantically trying to collect them, when Len appeared out of nowhere and said, “I got it.” I ushered my mother out of the store while Len went on gathering the cans. The second time was a few weeks before the fire. In the parking lot he said to me, “You’ve never let me down,” after I’d offered to help him with an English assignment that was worrying him. I warmed it to my heart.
The fire happened in January of our junior year, when his mother fell asleep watching a soap opera with a cigarette in her hand. Four-year-old Johnny was playing with Legos in the kitchen. Len was out for a run in the frigid wind, and when he circled back, the windows of his mother’s bedroom had already blown out and monstrous black smoke was billowing through the apertures.
He vanished for the entirety of spring semester, the pitcher’s mound empty of him. Games were eerily quiet at the season’s beginning. Our teachers had told us he’d be in the hospital indefinitely, but I could not believe this, just as I could not register words like third degree, skin grafts, burn ward even as the weeks wore on and he did not reappear.
His mother had died in the fire. In May, Len and Johnny moved in with an aunt who apparently wasn’t much better. “Addict,” our future prom queen said in the cafeteria where I listened intently from the far end of the table. “My mom says the state’s gonna take them both away by the end of the year.” People were still talking about Len then, still seeing his cocky smile and hearing those witty outbursts that disrupted a dreary classroom as fireworks disrupted a blank night sky. But in the long months of summer, during which he appeared at no parties or movie theaters, not even the diner or the mall, I heard his name less and less. By the last week of August it was as though he’d died. Then he walked through the double doors the first day of fall semester and parted the sea with his face.
His locker was two over from mine. When he grappled with his combination and I saw him clearly under the fluorescent lights, the world dropped out from under me. The left side of his face was a moon now, deeply cratered and pocked, the flesh curling and pebbling along his jawline. His left eye was partly obscured by a knob of scar tissue and his mouth vanished into a recess of red. Half his hair was gone, revealing a tundra of pale, dead skin. He looked at me with his good eye and everyone else in the crowded hallway vanished for me. When he spoke, it was with a lisp that was intimate and shocking in its meekness: “I can’t remember my combination.”
“Thirty-two, thirty-four, eight,” I said faintly. I’d only watched his beautiful hands twirl out the numbers a thousand times.
His left arm, too, was mangled, scars descending like lightning from his sleeve to his knuckles. His fingers shook as he put in the combination.
“I’m so glad you’re all right,” I said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
He made a sound in his throat and got busy rummaging through his textbooks. His old friends and teammates trickled past and stared. Nobody said hello. I watched him process this. I knew it was only the beginning, that he was in for the most brutal year of his life. I think he knew it too.
“They don’t matter, you know,” I said.
He straightened up; last semester’s trigonometry book hooked under his good arm. “I can’t play baseball anymore,” he told me, his good eye briefly meeting mine again.
I was holding onto my locker for support, afraid I might cry. “Your arm?”
He touched his face. “My eye. My depth perception. It’s shot.”
“I’m sorry.” What else was there to say? The hallway was emptying. Len started to close his locker, then froze mid-motion. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to climb into that cold steel space and close the door behind him. Then his ravaged features hardened in a look of determination too old for his years, and he slammed the locker shut.
He spent the next six weeks in a monastic silence, navigating the halls with his head down. We didn’t share our lunch period, but I heard he sat alone, that Kimberley Lamar had said she couldn’t eat with his face anywhere near her and that he’d overheard this and left. He was a semester behind and so we had no classes together save Spanish, in which he sat with his mutilated side resolutely facing the windows. The freehand assignments he turned in were strange, almost like poetry, bewildering to our teacher who persistently avoided eye contact. He addressed himself to no one until the Monday after the Homecoming dance he hadn’t attended, when he came to my locker, focused on a point somewhere past my left shoulder, and said, “Look, I was wondering if you’d do something with me Friday night. You live on Shiloh Road, right? I don’t live far from you now. I could meet you at your place.”
Dumbfounded, I nodded.
“You sure? I just‐I was wondering if you’d go somewhere with me. In the hospital, something made me think of it and all last week I was wanting to ask if you’d come.” Before I could ponder this too deeply, he added, “Wear good shoes. We have to hike a little.”
And so began that haunted autumn, the season that has followed me all my life. That first Friday night with Len and every night we spent together thereafter took on the blue mist of a dream, forever shimmering in my memory. At twilight he met me on the lawn in front of my house and led me across the street to the wild stretch of forest behind Shiloh Road. These were good, clean woods, their needle-carpeted floors crisscrossed with deep streams and dappled with quartz boulders that shone wetly when the moon slid out from behind the clouds. The air was cold, the trees silent save for the occasional rustle of a squirrel. Len had been fishing in these woods since he was a kid, he told me; his father had taken him here years ago. The summer he was ten he found a secret route to the little rescue zoo out in the backcountry and made a habit of hiking out to the back fence to feed stale bread to the emus who paced the perimeter. I’d been there just once, back when my own father was still with us‐it was a funny place, planted on a cheap swatch of uneven land so far-flung from the cities as to be almost inaccessible to tourists, but somehow it stayed alive. Its animals all came from abusive owners, bankrupt farms, overcrowded shelters. All I could really recall of it was that it stank abominably.
“What made you think of it, in the hospital?” I dared to ask that first night as we trekked through the woods. Len had a flashlight sticking out of his back pocket and was swinging a plastic sack of Wonderbread in his right hand.
“I don’t know. I can’t really explain it.”
“Are we‐breaking in?”
“All we have to do is climb a fence, Liz. Trust me, they’re too poor for a security system. Their money is going to the animals, that’s it.”
I had other anxieties but chose not to voice them. We hiked on in silence for nearly an hour before Len whispered, “There it is‐the fence. Hear the emus?”
I stood still, listening. From the blue dark issued a low, throaty call that was like water burbling through a pipe. Len beckoned me closer and I saw the glint of the fence, the ostrich-like silhouette of the birds. “They won’t bother us,” he promised. He knelt down and cupped his good hand in his bad one to create a step for me. “Come on, you can get over.”
I wouldn’t have followed anyone else into such a place. A moment later, we were on the other side of the fence, moving through brush past the birds’ curious stares. We climbed over a second fence and stumbled onto a cement walkway that was lit every ten feet or so by spindly lamps. Beneath their amber glow Len’s profile was perfect, his former self momentarily restored, until he turned to face me. “I just like to visit awhile,” he said, and the phrase struck me as antiquated, something my grandmother would say. “Isn’t it good of them to keep lights on at night? It shows they mean it.”
Mean what, I wanted to ask, but didn’t.
In the eerie light I followed Len along the pathway. There was the familiar smell of manure and wet straw and animal hair, but I soon forgot it. Moonlight sparked off the silver wire of fences and gusts of cool wind careened down the surrounding mountains to riffle the duck pond to our right. I saw the white flutter of geese moving across the water, and a moment later, heard in the distance a resonant bawling from deep within some creature’s belly. It could have been anything.
“That’s Andy,” Len explained. “He’s a camel. He’s got a pen up on the hill. He just wants to make sure we know he’s there.”
He knew where he was going. He stopped at each pen or cage, speaking not to me but to the animals who clamored up from their repose or appeared phantom-like in the inky doorways of their barns at the sound of our footsteps. They were all damaged creatures, separated from the worlds they’d been born into for one reason or another. There were battered old horses and three-legged goats. There were llamas who limped, a lone lynx whose eyes glittered silver when she lifted her head. “Raised in captivity on the wrong food,” Len told me. “She almost died.” I didn’t ask how he knew this. A peacock shorn of both his feathers and his vanity attempted a proud strut when we approached his pen and then bowed his head, accepting Len’s gift of bread. The alpacas with their mops of hair and cockeyed looks made questioning sounds when Len spoke to them. “No, you don’t need to feel bad about that,” Len assured a chocolate-brown one whose right eye was sewn shut. “She doesn’t mind about your eye.” He reached through the fencing to ruffle the alpaca’s ear.
He introduced me to the white Pyrenees dogs who tended to the sheep, each of them abandoned by their original owners, and the five silver foxes who shared a wide cage on the opposite side of the walkway, on the edge of a narrow stream that sang softly against the night’s silence. Someone had laid a dead pine tree inside the cage, and three of the foxes slept in furry balls between the old branches. The other two blinked at us from their perch on a shelf. At the sound of Len’s voice, the palest one jumped down and came to the bars, where he let out a long, unearthly wail that rose and fell, rose and fell like a coyote’s. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Len crouched before the bars. “That’s enough,” he said pleasantly, scolding the fox as I used to scold my stuffed animals. “Come on now, it’s just silly.” Even through his lisp, I could hear a little of the old Len, the one who teased and flirted. I ached for him.
The fox met his gaze and let out another petulant wail that ended in a raspberry. This time, I laughed. “He’s great,” I said.
“His name’s Ingo.”
I had never touched a deer before save a dead one, back when my father was alive and occasionally hunted. Len showed me how to pet the fallow deer who walked up to the fence to meet us. “Come from the side, not from above,” he murmured, and the deer’s coat was not the buttery velvet I’d expected but coarser, more human somehow. She closed her eyes as I stroked her. Up on the hill, the camel let out another bellow that echoed through the blue woods around us.
“Her name is Tripod,” Len said, and I realized the deer was missing a back leg.
He took me to meet a gaggle of miniature donkeys, who padded clumsily out of their barn at the sound of our approach and brayed softly in the moonlight. They nosed the fence as we caressed their heads and ears. I had always loved donkeys for their hardiness, and I was about to tell Len this when he said, “You know much about donkeys? They’re thinkers. They’re like whales‐think about everything before they do it. That’s why they’re so slow. It’s not that they’re stubborn. They’re just thinking.” Then, lowering his voice as if to protect them, “I read that donkeys and elephants are the only animals on earth who commit suicide.”
“Why would they,” I began in horror, and he cut me off: “When they’re hopeless, when they get separated from the others or they’re mistreated to the point that they can’t take it anymore. Donkeys who were beaten and overworked have walked right into rivers to drown themselves.”
The old Len, star of the baseball team with girls hanging on his every word, wouldn’t have even known about something like this, much less spoken of it. But his good eye swam, and when he turned his moonlike face to the side, I saw that his mouth was trembling. With an effort he composed himself and fished out a piece of bread for the donkeys to share. “Not you guys, though,” he said to them. “You’re okay. You’ve got each other, and a good home. Yeah?”
At the far end of the loop was the rickety little visitors’ center alongside a barn where they kept birds and some of the smaller mammals. It was always locked, Len told me, but close by was a pen with a pair of hundred-year-old African tortoises. “Lotus and his wife Lou,” he said, taking my arm with his good hand. “I make sure I see them, every time.”
“How many times have you been here, Len?”
“I’m not sure. A lot since I got out.”
I followed him to the tortoises’ grassy pen, which was fenced in with more silver wire. In the shadows was a little green house and I could just make out the shape of a shell beneath it. “She’s sleeping,” Len said. “Husband’s awake, though. I think he keeps watch for her.”
My eyes adjusted and I saw him in all his glory, the hundred-year-old Lotus who studied us from the edge of the fence. Len knelt in the grass like a supplicant, and I followed suit. Even in the faint light the tortoise’s shell was a miracle of design. In it I saw intricate maps, ancient patterns that could have been painted on cave walls and then transformed into language. I thought of Milky Way spirals of tree rings going back a thousand years and then of a mountain spliced open, the striated layers of colored stone exposed to view. Looking first to Len for affirmation, I stretched out my hand and moved my fingers over the ridges of Lotus’ shell. The hair rose at the back of my neck again. “A hundred years,” I whispered. The tortoise crawled forward a little.
“I seen him in my dreams, at the hospital.” Len said this, then shook his head in wonderment. “That’s how my dad used to talk. I thought I got that out of my speech a long time ago. But I guess I was thinking about him, too, when I was in there.”
He laid his disfigured hand on Lotus’ back next to mine and looked sidelong at me. In a flash, I glimpsed his agony in the hospital, the endless weeks of silence as he lay unmoving and alone in the burn ward. Where had he traveled during those weeks? What had he seen? The wisdom in his good eye was like the elven light I’d read about in Tolkien’s novels, and I was suddenly ashamed to be there with him.
“I brought you something, friend,” he said to Lotus, taking his hand back. He had a head of lettuce at the bottom of the bread bag and I helped him to peel off the leaves. A year earlier, I would have said that the most beautiful sight on this earth was that of Len on the pitcher’s mound, drawing his arm through silken air to surrender the ball to its destiny, but now I revised myself: nothing rivaled this patience, this tenderness as he proffered lettuce leaves to the giant tortoise and held each one still until the creature had gnawed his gentle way through. “He knows not to bite,” Len said, a small smile playing at his ruined mouth. “Here. Try.”
I didn’t want the moment to end. And yet, as the minutes ticked by, I found myself wishing he’d rise and say it was time to start back. I had gotten past the zoo’s suffocating smell but the palpable grief of the place, all those tragic histories amassed in one lonely colony on the edge of nowhere, was beginning to weigh on me. Even these hallowed old tortoises with their majestic shells had been hurt or forsaken by someone. I didn’t want to know how they’d ended up here.
Finally, Len rose and held out his good hand for mine. There was a metal gate not far from the tortoises’ pen, high and difficult to climb, but he said it was a shortcut to our trail back and promised to help me over it. He made his own awkward way over the top and then waited to pull me down the opposite side. Half in his embrace a moment later, I felt the bumps and ridges of his burned arm and knew myself to be a fool. I’d wanted to escape the zoo’s oppressive gloom, but here was desolation lowering me to the ground and walking at my side. It would follow me all the way home.
We fell back into silence on the long hike home. Len helped me over fallen logs and through a patch of rhododendron, all the while keeping his flashlight trained on the ground ahead. Deep in the woods, a pair of owls called back and forth, their cries lifting on the October wind. We walked beneath this constellation of sound and I listened to Len listening. I wondered if he heard something soothing in their music, or if he was discomfited like me. The calls were too personal, too penetrating. I was certain that the owls had assessed my character in the space of a few minutes and found it inadequate.
“Would you go with me again sometime?” Len asked me when we reached my mother’s driveway.
It was nothing short of the biological imperative to survive that told me to say no. Three years of unrequited teenage love could not compete with a reflex that said, This is going to kill me; I want no part of it. I didn’t want to spend my nights with this solemn and inscrutable boy, wandering a refuge for the lost and broken. I wanted the baseball player who winked at girls and lounged against his locker door like a bored prince‐even if he never gave me a minute’s notice. I wanted daylight and books and bleachers. Already, I missed the knowable world.
I said, “Yes. How about Wednesday?”
Wednesdays and Fridays became our pattern, these two nights a week spent in the blue dark of the woods and along the amber-lit loop of the rescue zoo. I think Len would have gone every night had I agreed to it, and had he not felt responsible for Johnny, who was alone with their aunt whenever Len took off. The third night we went, my mother looked up from her TV dinner and said in that mournful way I’d come to despise, “Leaving again with that Len? You come back so late.” She was wrapped in one my father’s old sweaters.
“People go out,” I said to her, one hand on the doorknob.
“Teenagers go out.” She watched her sitcom for a moment and then said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when you leave for school. I still wish you’d just apply to the community college. You’d save money, you know, staying here two more years.”
I knew what she’d do‐watch more TV, go on working at the Ford dealership where she sat behind a window in the service bay and processed people’s work orders, and never otherwise leave the house. She’d been this way since the accident at the plant. I said, “Nothing’s happening til next fall, Mom,” to placate her. But her gaze had already returned to the television screen, where a woman leaned over a man lying motionless in a hospital bed.
I told no one what Len and I did those nights. I suppose there was no one to tell, and as time passed, it became more difficult to articulate even to myself what was happening out there.
We hiked through a thick, silvery fog our fourth or fifth time out and what I remember is Len’s shape in front of me as ghostly as a willow tree. The animals were quiet that night. Many of them stayed in their barns even at our approach and so we spent most of that evening with the tortoises, both of whom crawled out of their green house to meet us. I think that was the first night I asked myself why Len was doing this. There were obvious answers: here in the half-dark among the animals, there was no one to judge him, no one to stare in horror at his face or turn aside in embarrassment. He understood these abandoned creatures who’d been exiled from brighter lives into this place of fences and mud and dung. Their comradeship was only natural. What I couldn’t understand was why he’d asked me to be a part of this landscape.
He spoke rarely, and when he did, it was half to me, half to Lotus or one of the alpacas, his shattered face turned away. There was never a preamble. One night as we watched the silver foxes he said, “I’m a virgin, you know.”
“Me, too,” I said, startled.
“I’ve never been serious with anybody. My dad used to call that being a lady’s man. He’d say, ’don’t tie yourself up to one woman until you have no choice.’ Right in front of my mom.” A pause, then a short laugh. “I thought I had all kinds of time to figure that sort of thing out.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“I dreamed about a wedding once, one of those nights in the hospital,” he went on, and the palest fox, Ingo, let out a little wail. “It wasn’t mine. I was just watching, and I knew that was all I’d ever do. Watch like these guys do.” When Ingo bawled again, Len leaned forward and chided him in that warm, teasing tone I’d come to love. It was, I realized, the way my father used to talk to me when I was very small. “Silly,” he’d say when I cried over a broken toy or a missing blanket. “Come on, goof,” and he’d hop a stuffed rabbit across the floor toward me.
“What’s the matter,” Len asked softly, his twisted hand on my arm.
“Is there such a thing as a career making games for animals?” He said this, then tapped a stick against the bars. “They need more than a dead pine tree. They’re bored.”
Another night, were surprised to sight a couple of workers at the far end of the loop, unloading supplies from a pickup truck into the barn beside the visitors’ center. We crouched in the emus’ woods, listening to their voices echoing down the loop. They laughed a good deal and when one of the goats yammered at them, they called back in one voice, “No, Gus!”
“I’m pretty sure Gus is the brown one with the white spot on his head,” Len murmured. “He’s loud as shit.”
I stifled a giggle. The men finished their unloading and backed away from the complex, stopping to lock the main gate behind them. When the grinding of the truck’s tires against the pebbly road faded out, we stood up and made our way down to the donkeys’ pen. Len had a new treat for them‐a handful of carrots and some pears‐and they sniffed eagerly at him. We fed them and then stood there rubbing their hoary heads. Len seemed faraway, and when I asked him what he was thinking about, he said, “I’m glad my father left us.”
Blue, the smallest of the donkeys, contemplated Len as he munched his pear.
It was Len’s flawless right side that faced me when he continued, “There was this part of me that was glad about her, too. I’m not now, but I was. In the hospital.”
“My mother. I was glad she didn’t make it.” He spat out the words as if to get the taste out of his mouth. “She never took care of us, Liz. Sometimes I wished she’d disappear just like him. She was a drunk. I thought we’d be better off.”
“I never knew‐”
“Why would you?” He made a crooked smile. “I was so good at playing the hotshot.”
One of the alpacas in the next pen over asked a question in his throat.
“I only had time to get Johnny. I couldn’t get her,” Len called back in answer. “I couldn’t, Bill.”
“It’s miracle you saved him, Len‐”
His question hung in the air. Andy bellowed up on the ridge.
“It wasn’t a miracle,” Len said. “It was just real. It was the first thing I ever did that was real.”
I didn’t ask him what he meant. The old reflex told me I didn’t want to know. Instead I pointed out that the sheep had gathered at the fence behind us and were waiting for us as they were now wont to do. We fed them in silence until a light rain began. Then we returned to the woods and walked home beneath the constellation of owl cries, as we did every night. In my dreams that Friday I heard Len’s words repeated again and again until I woke in a chilled sweat. The question came to me in the pitch dark of my bedroom: would I have done it? Would I have run into the burning house?
The answer was a resounding no and this no hung from my neck like a cold brass locket the following Wednesday when we reentered the woods. I could feel it there against my sternum but would not touch it or open it. I wondered if Len could see it. That night as we made the rounds, I saw the animals differently. There was something in each one of them that shamed me so that I couldn’t even stretch out my hand to deliver the bread or lettuce we’d brought. In the Pyrenees was loyalty, an almost religious discipleship I had never known. In the donkeys, a staunch self-knowledge and an insistence on thinking each moment through. The alpacas were good-natured and curious and completely without vanity. The tortoises were devoted to each other. They’d witnessed a hundred years of human drama, they’d suffered abandonment and perhaps even abuse themselves and still they went on nibbling at our fingertips, gifting us their attention. That same night we stood absolutely still before the spectacle of the lynx leaping about with a new toy‐a hexagonal ball that bounced wildly and lit up when it struck ground‐her gorgeous frame twisting and twirling in the air below her cage’s metal roof in answer to music we couldn’t hear. Her joy was palpable, her energy electric. What I saw there was a creature making the best of her exile, as so many men and women had done in the dark chapters of history. For just a moment I was as Len must have been in the hospital, when extreme pain and potent medication had submerged him into uncharted waters: I saw myself in a war-torn city, in a prison, in a concentration camp, and finally in a burn ward, and I knew I would never last in such conditions. I knew I’d be the one to shrivel up in despair while others searched out those hexagons and found in them the stars of faith and forbearance.
“Maybe she doesn’t understand where she is,” I said weakly.
Halloween night fell on a Wednesday and it didn’t occur to me to find a costume or go door-to-door like the others did. We didn’t need to dress as ghosts because we already were ghosts, passing wordlessly though the woods and from pen to pen. It had only been four weeks and already this was beginning to feel like my real life, my true life, the daytime blurring at the edges. I can remember little of my classes that October; I recall a few secret smiles exchanged between the two of us at our lockers, and I see Len in our Spanish class, the day I answered a workbook question with the sentence “Los tortugas son antiguas.” He turned to face me‐showing us all his mauled face, full-on‐and smiled that crooked smile. He was haloed by the autumn sun streaming through the second-floor windows and what was left of his hair sparked in the yellow light.
Teachers and counselors handed me brochures for colleges, and I filed them into folders. Of course, I was still going; of course, this was still the plan. But my formerly vivid dreams of escape were for the time being as immaterial and lackluster as those trifold printouts with their photographs of clock towers and gymnasiums. In early November my mother commented with obvious relief that she hadn’t heard a word from me about college in weeks. “Better to stay right here,” she said again, stirring Hamburger Helper at our Formica counter. “You’ll see.” I was only half-listening. I was meeting Len that night, and even in my burgeoning unease, even with that locket weighing down my neck, I was interested in nothing else.
We hiked through oak leaves that had stained the boulders and fallen logs red and orange. The pile of them on the opposite side of the emus’ fence was so thick that we let ourselves fall right into them, Len laughing for the first time I could remember as he peeled them off his jacket. We went straight for the tortugas this time.
“Happy Halloween, guys,” Len said to them. “Trick-or-treat, fresh from Toby’s market.” He pushed a fistful of flowery kale through the fence.
“I made a costume for my cat when I was like six,” I said, the memory returning to me unbidden. “She wouldn’t wear it. I made them for everyone‐all my stuffed animals and dolls. It was a lot of work. I couldn’t stand the idea that one of them would get left out.” It was startling, the re-discovery of this childhood conscientiousness, like a marble or ring found in the pocket of an old coat.
Len gave me an amused, cockeyed look that was a lot like the alpacas’. “What kinds of costumes?”
“Weird stuff, out of whatever was around. I remember this bear I had was a playing card- I hung a pair of them around his neck with string. Another one, E.T., had an old lampshade on his head. I think my dad lent me his tool belt to turn R2-D2 into a carpenter.”
His laugh, so rare, thrilled through me.
“You still have all those guys?” he asked after a moment.
“No.” I cleared my throat. “I got rid of them all when I redid my room, freshman year. I got rid of a lot of things.”
He said nothing to this. We fed the tortoises in silence awhile. Then he said, “I wonder how these two ended up here in the first place.”
“You don’t know?” I was relieved.
“I have this fantasy,” he confessed. “I imagine that I’ll get a good job one day‐someone will hire me, right? I only ever thought about playing baseball, but I’m good at math. I could be an accountant or something. There are little businesses all through town that must need accountants. They can’t stop me, even looking like this, right? I’d be in an office, mostly away from people‐”
Forcefully I said, “No, they can’t‐”
“‐And after a few years I’ll come back here and buy them both. I’ll put them on a huge piece of land out here in Clinton where they can crawl all over the place and have their own pond and a creek. Tortoise Paradise.”
I should have hooted with pleasure; he only wanted me to share in his innocent fancy. But what I felt was another pang of guilt, and then, to my exquisite surprise, something like anger. His goodness infuriated me. Where was his raging resentment at what had happened to him? Where was the disgust and the hatred for God and all the rest of us? It was unbearable, his magnanimity, and it shames me even now that I said dryly, “That’s real sweet, Len.” Talking to him as though he were a child who’d voiced his dream to become an astronaut or the President.
He tore up some wet grass and offered it to Lotus. “It’s stupid. You don’t have to say it.” Then, “I could never do that, anyway, at least not for a long time. Johnny’s on me, now, you know. We won’t be here long. My aunt’s a mess. I’m what he’s got now.”
I was so ashamed, I couldn’t even look at him.
We went and talked with the Pyrenees, who were always grateful for our affection. One of them, Sam, had a scar above his left eye, and the other limped. Both stuck their heads and paws through the fencing to be stroked. They gave themselves entirely over to our attentions, yet somehow managed to keep one eye on their charges all the while. Their whiteness was spectral in the November night, the tiny beads of moisture in their fur sparkling like minute diamonds. When I looked into their dark eyes, I felt myself to be small and cowardly. I envied Len’s bravery and selflessness. I wanted to hate him for it, but I looked at his ruined face in a gash of moonlight and felt my pride collapse.
I glanced up into Len’s one good eye.
“You okay, honey?”
The word undid me. He sounded so old for his years, so wise. “Len,” I said, “It’s a good dream, buying the turtles. I want to help.” I thought that if I touched his face, I would feel the same ancient patterns whorling across Lotus’ back.
He grinned a little. “Aren’t you going away to college? You’re too smart to stay out here.” He gestured with his good arm, taking in the mountains behind the zoo. “What are you going to do in this place? Work at the Clinton library Start a farm?”
“Silly fox,” he said. “Enough. The alpacas are waiting.”
We didn’t talk much on Friday, when the animals were restless in the cold and seemed unusually needy. They called after us when we walked away and Len couldn’t bear this, so that in the end we spent half the night at the zoo, crouched before the fences with our hands musky and damp from the animals’ fur. I wasn’t worried about anyone coming after me; my mother took sleeping pills and was always out by ten. Len said nothing about his aunt, and I imagined her passed out on a couch, reeking of liquor or pot, as Johnny slept in the next room over.
Len had brought a backpack filled with apples. We lingered at the horses’ pen, passing the red globes through the fencing and making little tsk-tsk sounds in response to their nickering. Their silhouettes were wraithlike in the near darkness; clouds of mist made golden by the lanterns danced along their broad backs and in the tendrils of their manes. In the distant trees, birds called back and forth and there was the occasional crash of underbrush from a deer or bear. My breath was smoke when I said, “You told me awhile back that you thought about this place in the hospital. Why did you?”
He didn’t look at me. “I’d been here before.”
“When you were a kid?”
“Then too, but once a couple of years ago. Me and some of the guys on the team broke in. We were just being idiots. I don’t even know whose idea it was.”
“There was this other guy I saw a few times in the burn ward, this black man. They’d wheel him past me, and I couldn’t believe how fucked up he was. He was worse than me. This one morning‐they were taking him into another unit, and I heard him say, ‘who’s taking care of my horses?’ Then I fell asleep and I remembered.” He reached into the backpack for another apple. He still wouldn’t look at me. “We came in here that night and threw things at the animals. Rocks and whatever was lying around. I don’t know why. We had beer from somebody’s house, and we thought everything we did was funny. I remember something hitting one of them.” He gestured at the horses. “And I remember one of the alpacas running away, to the other side of the fence, and just watching us. I remember thinking it was like God was standing there, and all of a sudden I had to get out, I told them I’d heard a car coming up the back road and we had to get out.”
He did look at me then, squinting through the faint light. “You want to feed them some of these?”
I only half-heard him. I was thinking about my earlier conjectures about why he kept coming here. I’d thought it was simply a matter of misery loving company, and here he was, doing penance among animals who couldn’t possibly remember what he’d done here as a sixteen-year-old boy, much less hold it against him. I said, “These horses love you. So do the alpacas. They all do.”
He handed me an apple. “Give him one more. Careful he doesn’t chew your hand.”
The following Wednesday, when the leaves were beginning to blacken, we arrived at the zoo muddied and wet and shivering. Before a congregation of fallow deer, I told Len that I wanted to leave Clinton not just because I wanted a career but because I couldn’t bear my mother’s face. “Since he died,” I said, “she’s never been the same. She can’t get over it. I can’t stand it, can’t do anything about it. Sometimes I want to shake her.”
“It must be suffocating,” he said quietly. He was scratching behind Tripod’s ear. She blinked her appreciation, one hoof pawing the straw.
“Yes. Suffocating. That’s the word. It’s just‐I know I should be thinking of her, but all I want is to get away. For me.”
“You’re smart. You should leave, go to school, get a good job. No reason to feel guilty about that.”
“Are you sure?”
I told him more a few nights later. It was nothing I had planned on saying. It was all a revelation, a fumbling through unmapped passageways as we walked beneath the amber lights. Len held my left hand in his good one, squeezing it whenever I stopped to search out the words. I told him that I’d been cruel to my mother after my father died, as though it were somehow her fault, when the truth was that he was the one I hated in those first dark months. His death hadn’t exactly been an accident. He’d sensed the pressure building up behind a cap and he’d pushed another man out of harm’s way, killing himself in the process. I couldn’t forgive him for choosing a stranger over us, and when my mother began to hole up with his photographs and old clothes, I shut myself in my room and punished her, and went on punishing her for what came later‐our poverty, my bad clothes, the way the other girls ignored me at school. I punished her for her poor education and her lousy job by flaunting my straight-A’s and talking nonstop of college and independence. I stopped seeing her as my mother just as I stopped seeing Clinton as the home we’d once shared with my father. They were dead-end roads, stories that couldn’t possibly end well. What kind of person was I?
“Liz, stop,” Len said finally. We were kneeling before the tortoises’ pen again. “Listen. That’s all of us. Do you even remember what I was like‐before? No one has to tell me I was an asshole to everyone I knew.”
“Sure it is. Even you. I always knew you had a crush on me, so I used you. I got you to be my lab partner and fill out all those reports and do my English essays when I was too lazy. You weren’t the only one, either.”
I sat still.
“And there you were, coming to all my games anyway. I noticed.” He handed me a petal of lettuce to give to Lou, who was nudging the fence with her front leg. “I wanted to call you from the hospital and tell you I was sorry. But I couldn’t even pick up my arm.”
“It’s okay,” I managed. “It’s all right.”
It was beginning to rain. On the other side of the pond, the silver foxes began to cry out in harmony, and Andy hollered back at them.
“You’re the only one who ever really looks at me,” Len said. “Did you know that?” He let out an embarrassed little chortle. “You know how people make those pacts? Like, ‘if we’re not married to anyone in twenty years, we’ll find each other’? I’m sure you’ll be married in no time; you’ll find some college guy wherever you end up going when you graduate, and you’ll forget all about this. But we could say, maybe, thirty years.” When I didn’t respond, he misunderstood and tried again: “Forty?”
My throat was too tight for words, the locket cold against my chest. I put my arms around him and kissed the moon of his cheek. In his surprise Len mumbled into my hair, “We’ll have them marry us‐Lotus and Lou. They know all about long-term commitments. You okay with them instead of a minister?“
When we walked home in the rain, listening to the owls, I was afire with love and conviction. I felt that I’d stumbled upon the answer to everything and that from here on out there was no need to question life any further. Fierce in my conversion, I held Len’s destroyed hand and lifted it to my face to feel its truth against my skin.
“Friday?” he whispered at the end of my driveway.
“Friday,” I answered.
The prom queen’s prediction came true. The first week of December, the state took Len away, separating him from his little brother and disappearing them both forever. I tried to go on visiting the zoo at night that winter after he’d gone, but in time this stopped. The animals seemed to understand that he was gone. Their dreariness depressed me. Then it grew viciously cold, and it became harder and harder to will myself out the front door and into the frigid wind. I stayed in my room, returning to the studies I had almost deserted the semester before as snow flurried past my window. At night I slept as the bears slept, deeply and gratefully as the winter passed.
In March, college applications loomed on the horizon, and here at last was my chance to leave Tennessee and the dreary backwoods of my mother’s town. I attacked the paperwork in a kind of blind passion, the lines of print often running together. There was so much to do. When a nameless guilt threatened me, when I saw grief’s shadow pass over my mother’s face like a flock of birds, I reminded myself that necessity demanded my return to the land of the living. I had to be present. Len was gone, and I had to take care of myself now. How long could I linger in that blue realm with its specters and dreams, its tenuous truths like dandelions’ bones? My own words spoken in the ethereality of that place began to seem half-imagined.
It was only too easy to transition back to daylight, to focus my attentions on homework and grades and college research. I got my recommendation letters together and applied for scholarships and loans. I had decided on pre-law. I’m still not sure why. I suppose it sounded sophisticated to me, but really I had no particular passion for the field, or any field. I’d only ever wanted a way out of Clinton and into the larger, brighter existence I imagined other people enjoyed. And yet I wrote my essays convincingly enough, because a university in Illinois offered me a space.
For weeks I thought of nothing save the foreign city of Chicago that in my mind was a tumble of jewels spread out along the blue blanket of the Lake Michigan. I projected myself there and saw a smartly dressed young woman crossing a green courtyard with books tucked beneath her arm. Then she was moving down Michigan Avenue in a smart skirt-suit. She was adept and commanding, even a little contemptuous. She was prettier and better put-together than I was. She was the object of many men’s interest, and wealthy, too. I fell in love with this image and stretched out with it on the front porch where I basked in the sun, drunk on everything that lay so deliciously within reach. I pretended not to hear my mother pacing the floors or crying quietly in her room after I’d gone to bed. When I officially accepted Chicago’s offer in May, I completed the shift I’d begun back in December: Len had become as otherworldly to me as fog. The new life that unfurled for me that summer with the ironweed and the coneflower was the life I chose to call real.
And then came that second irruption of fire.
The last weekend in August, I packed for the journey to Illinois and then decided to make one last, nostalgic visit to my old haunts‐the library, the caf— where I sometimes did homework, the mall. What I really wanted was to broadcast my success to the old men and women who worked at these places. My last stop was the little produce market to say goodbye to Toby, the owner who’d been giving me orange slices to sample since I was a child. I boasted of my plans as I ate my last crescent of orange. “Chicago,” Toby said, amazed. He tested out the words as though they were exotic fruit he’d never sold before: “Pre-law, in Chicago. Can’t even imagine.” I tossed my hair a little. Then I was walking fast, my book satchel swinging from my shoulder and visions of this new life sleek and glimmering in my mind, the smudgy bell-hung door already opening of its own accord when I heard a woman over by the apples say, “Terrible fire. That poor zoo. They’d been there forever.”
Once again, every instinct told me that I wanted no part of this. But I stopped and asked. And later, I sat on the curb hunched over a newspaper and read about the fire that had destroyed the rescue zoo the night before. There was bad wiring in the visitor’s center, and the main building and barn had caught fire overnight. The flames spread throughout the compound. Horses trapped in their stables and donkeys huddled behind their fences burned to death. The birds were poisoned by smoke, the silver foxes charred in their cage. The sheep were incinerated, their Pyrenees protectors remaining with them to the end. A few of the alpacas made it, as did Andy the camel whose hilltop pen was beyond the fire’s reach. Near the bottom of the article it was mentioned that only the smaller of the two giant tortoises survived. Volunteers discovered that a section of the wire fencing around their pen was bent outward, as though the tortoise had powered right through it. The larger tortoise was found perished inside the pen, just beside the opening‐there was only the empty disc of his shell, blackened by fire.
Was it my own imagination, or was it Len’s voice telling me the truth? I saw instantly what had happened. Lotus, the “husband” as we’d once called him, had been the one to push back that fencing. Gathering all his ancient power he’d forced it out of the ground to create a passage for his smaller partner. Then he’d backed up to watch her make her desperate bid for life. They were slow movers; he knew there wouldn’t be time for his own escape.
I wept over the newspaper until the ink bled. There on the curb I saw Len at my side, shaking his head for shame that in so short a time I had come to forget what mattered most. In my head, I pleaded with him to forgive me. It’s all right, I imagined he said to me, his mangled hand curving over mine. Start again. And I did. I tucked the newspaper into my duffel bag with my clothes and notebooks. I carried it with me to college, to the beginning of my adult life, where nothing would happen as I had envisioned and where my choices would carve out a path that wandered, spurred, and circled back on itself many times, until at last it cut a straight line through the woods of vanity to the lights of this house where my husband and children sleep.
Sometimes I fear that any goodness in me is a night-blooming flower, forever doomed to fold at the first heat of daylight. How easy, how comfortable it is to shrink from the glare. And I do every day‐I run and hide, I shirk and lie, I miss the mark. But I have found that when life questions me most seriously, I answer well. I have a compass in me that never fails. It’s the memory of my moon-faced friend and of that haunted autumn, of a hundred-year-old tortoise who watched his partner inch across the grass into the safety of the woods even as he awaited his own slow burn, that finds north for me in times of darkness.
Oh, the precious and narrow gate such beings open for us, knowing that our rescue lies not in the moment of our survival but in what comes after, when we’ve crawled away unscathed from the fire and smoke to breathe in the pristine silence of the night. Here the owl cry is something we all understand, a word that once heard can never be expunged from memory no matter how hard we try‐the call to make ourselves worthy of the fallen, and never to be guilty of sleep again.
Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Genovise.
About the Author
Elizabeth Genovise earned her MFA at McNeese State University and was a 2016 O’ Henry Prize recipient. She has published short fiction in many literary journals, and her third collection of stories, Posing Nude for the Saints appeared in Texas Review Press. She teaches creative writing and literature in east Tennessee.
The Cross of Choice
The dogs are running a coon over on Flack Hill, and I can hear that Greyhound down shifting outside of Barlow, going into that long slow curve. My mama coughs loudly in that smelly back room where she is dying, her whole mind and body lost in meth dreams of sharp blades and raging fires. My daddy sits on the front porch and drinks half gallons of Kessler’s four-year-old whiskey and chases it with Busch Light. He thinks he will apply for a job at that box factory in Coletown next week is what he says. This time last month he was going to get a job at the Lowe’s in Bluff City, but that fell through when his cousin Delbert John, who was a nighttime manager, got busted for stealing lumber. It is always something with daddy- a pulled muscle in his back or a broken finger or a dead battery in that old Ford 150. He ain’t fooling nobody. He is just going to sit there in that aluminum lawn chair on the front porch, making up stories for everybody who stops by, telling them about his twenty six points against Beaver Dam in the district tournament in 1971 or that lottery ticket he lost which would have made him a millionaire. He will not move, right there in that aluminum chair until he shits out his liver. Nobody has to tell me that. You don’t have to be a prophet to see it happening right in front of you big as the sky.