This issue features
photograph by Javier Manrique Salinas,
fiction in Spanish by Jose Luis Cubillo,
photograph by Kapyos,
poetry by MAC,
fiction by Alan Rifkin, and
poetry by Philip Wexler
Javier Manrique Salinas
Copyright © Javier Manrique Salinas.
José Luis Cubillo
Me había aficionado a los "Reality Show". Lo que más deseaba después de un cansado y aburrido día de trabajo limpiando casas, era sentarme en el salón de la mía en mi sillón favorito frente a la tele con algo para cenar y una manta aterciopelada sobre las piernas a ver uno de ellos.
Me los conocía todos. Cada día de la semana había alguno en una u otra cadena y a veces incluso dos o tres en el mismo horario. Entonces pasaba por ellos con el mando a distancia para seguirlos a la vez. No tenía ninguno favorito. Me gustaba mucho el de los lunes, "Arrepiéntete". Se trataba de personas que a causa de la estrecha convivencia que se produce con la familia los fines de semana, habían cometido en un arrebato alguna locura. Desde el programa pedían perdón a la persona perjudicada y trataban de reconciliarse. Siempre resultaba entrañable.
También me gustaban mucho el de los jueves y el de los viernes. El de los jueves se titulaba "Cuéntalo aunque no lo sepa". Algunas personas lanzaban mensajes a otras que no se atrevían a decirlos personalmente. Me sorprendía la cantidad de sentimientos que llevamos dentro sin que encontremos nunca el momento de sacarlos. El de los viernes era sorprendente de verdad. Se titulaba "En algún sitio estará". Se basaba en personas que buscaban a otras cuyo rastro, por azar de la vida, habían perdido hacía tiempo. Eran familiares, parejas, amigos, socios de algún negocio. Por mucha imaginación que pusiera una nunca llegaba a sospechar los caminos por los que la vida conduce a las personas.
En las pausas de la publicidad aprovechaba para ir al baño. Hasta ese momento aguantaba todo lo que podía para no perder detalle. Un día, allí en el baño, escuché unos murmullos y me asusté. Venían de lejos pero se oían como si estuvieran sobre mí, al otro lado del ventanuco que veía reflejado en el espejo desde el retrete. Parecía que dos personas estuvieran fuera hablando suspendidas en el aire en el hueco interior del edificio. Desde luego aquello era por completo imposible. No obstante me sorprendió y me intrigaba tanto que tuve la tentación de abrir el ventanuco para comprobar que en efecto no era lo que parecía. Sólo me retuvo el miedo que siempre me había producido. Sabía que enfrente no había más que otro igual perteneciente a la vivienda del vecino -jamás lo encontré abierto aunque llevaba poco tiempo viviendo allí-, y hacia arriba y hacia abajo perdiéndose en la oscuridad entre suciedad y malos olores otros semejantes pertenecientes al resto de las viviendas también permanentemente cerrados como sellando no se sabía qué vergüenzas. De repente, antes de que me decidiera, los murmullos desaparecieron con el mismo misterio con el que habían surgido.
Pasaron unos días cuando en otra pausa publicitaria de otro programa volví a escuchar las voces. Esta vez eran gritos. Una mujer reprendía a un hombre con violencia. Estaba muy enfadada y se despachaba a gusto con él. El hombre, por su parte, apenas se defendía. Su voz nunca sobresalía por encima de la voz de la mujer y se dejaba oír sólo de vez en cuando, por breves segundos, con apenas tiempo y fuerza para replicar, aceptando la bronca sumiso, igual que alguien que a punto de ahogarse, ya agotado, hace los últimos esfuerzos sin ningún convencimiento por mantener la cabeza fuera del agua.
Los argumentos no se entendían y sólo se oía un barullo de gritos. Tenía curiosidad por saber en qué quedaba aquella discusión, pero la sintonía del programa que estaba viendo comenzaba a sonar y me marché. Una madre estaba a punto de aceptar a su hija, cual hija pródiga, que se había marchado de casa muy joven con un hombre que no la convenía. Con el tiempo el hombre llegó a abandonarla con malas maneras confirmando los vaticinios de su madre. Ahora la hija regresaba consciente de su error y arrepentida para satisfacción de la madre. Mientras contemplaba este encuentro no se me iban de la cabeza aquellas voces que oía en el cuarto de baño procedentes de no sabía muy bien dónde.
Al día siguiente no me pude resistir a regresar al baño sobre la hora en la que había escuchado las voces los días anteriores. El silencio era absoluto. Hice tiempo poniéndome pequeñas tareas como limpiar un poco o colocar los objetos de aseo. Mi espera se vio recompensada unos minutos más tarde cuando volví a oír una nueva discusión, esta vez más violenta si cabe que la del día anterior y en la que tanto el hombre como la mujer pugnaban por gritar cada uno más alto que el otro. Seguía sin entender nada, pero entre alguna que otra palabra suelta que sobresalía del guirigay de la pelea deduje que el hombre estaba harto de que la mujer le hiciera continuamente todo tipo de reproches y la amenazaba con marcharse. Ella, muy al contrario de lamentarlo, seguía humillándole diciéndole que era un inútil y le desafiaba a marcharse porque no creía que fuera capaz. Así estuvieron un tiempo hasta que llegaron a un punto límite y el hombre, en un último arranque de valor, se marchó. La mujer pareció celebrarlo y le advirtió que no volviera más. Se quedaba, decía, más descansada que si hubiera parido.
Me preguntaba quién sería aquella pareja. Llevaba poco tiempo viviendo en la casa y no conocía a nadie. Podía preguntarle a la vecina, pero no tenía confianza y además seguro que pensaba que era una cotilla. Un día que llegaba a casa por la tarde después de trabajar escuché en el descansillo de arriba que se abría una puerta. Me entretuve en abrir la mía para hacer tiempo a ver qué ocurría. La puerta se cerró y alguien comenzó a bajar la escalera. Enseguida apareció en el tramo de mi descansillo una mujer algo mayor que yo, de unos 60 años, con el pelo ralo, gris. Bajaba despacio, como si le costara moverse, aunque era delgada y parecía bastante ligera. No la había visto nunca. Cuando pasó a mi altura me presenté como una nueva vecina pero la mujer apenas me hizo caso. Me miró con cierto mohín de que le importaba un pito y siguió escaleras abajo sin detenerse.
Esa misma noche me encerré en el cuarto de baño. La relación de esa pareja me tenía más interesada que cualquier suceso de los que veía en los "Reality Show", con el aliciente de que éste era en directo, se producía a escasos metros de mi propia casa y a sus protagonistas me los podía encontrar por la escalera.
Estuve mucho tiempo esperando. Cuando ya había colocado y descolocado todos los productos de aseo personal varias veces, había limpiado lo que ya estaba limpio y comenzaba a perder la esperanza de que ocurriera algo nuevo, ya a punto de marcharme decepcionada, se comenzaron a oír rumores. El hombre había regresado. La mujer, vengativa, le restregaba orgullosa su certeza de que volvería. Qué iba a hacer él sin ella, decía. Pero para su sorpresa el hombre sólo venía a recoger sus cosas. Ella no se lo creía. Él se marchaba definitivamente. Comenzaron a discutir, cada vez más violentamente. Por el hueco interior del edificio se precipitaba una cascada de insultos, golpes, carreras y un variado arrastrar de muebles. En ese escándalo se destacaban algunas frases por las que podía intuir que la mujer acusaba al hombre de ser un vago y vivir a su costa y el hombre a la mujer de estar medio loca y ser una alcohólica. Así estuvieron un buen rato hasta que el hombre se marchó definitivamente. La mujer, fuera de sí, le dijo que no volviera jamás. No pensaba abrirle la puerta ni aunque se lo pidiera de rodillas. Estaba segura de que no sobreviviría sin ella ni tres días y acabaría por regresar como un corderito a pedirle perdón.
Tardé tiempo en serenarme por lo que había escuchado. Me costaba coger el sueño y dormí mal. Unos días más tarde me encontré a la mujer en el portal. Ella venía de hacer la compra y de sus bolsas sobresalían varias botellas de alcohol. Para tirarle de la lengua le dije que unos días atrás me había parecido escuchar por el hueco interior del edificio una discusión de una pareja y le pregunté si ella sabía de algún matrimonio vecino que se llevara mal. Sorprendida me miró con unos grandes ojos y me contestó que me metiera en mis asuntos. Yo salía del portal y me di cuenta que cuando ella comenzaba a subir la escalera me echó una mirada. No sé por qué, pero en esa mirada vi que la mujer sabía que le había intentado tender una trampa.
Esa noche presentía que me aguardaban sorpresas en el cuarto de baño. Fui a la misma hora de siempre y al poco comencé a oír a la mujer, hablando casi en susurros, arrastrando las palabras como si le costara un gran esfuerzo expresarse. No había ningún rastro de la seguridad y la firmeza que mostraba cuando hablaba con el hombre. Se lamentaba precisamente de que él la hubiera abandonado. Se culpabilizaba y prometía que si volvía no le regañaría más y le trataría como a un rey. Al final se puso a llorar y estuvo un buen rato deshaciéndose en lágrimas hasta que poco a poco fui perdiéndola y acabé por escuchar sólo el agua de las cisternas bajando por las cañerías.
A partir de esa noche abandoné por completo los "Reality Show" y me encerraba en el cuarto de baño a la misma hora a escuchar a aquella mujer. Lo que ocurría cada día siempre era una sorpresa. A veces hablaba sin parar, como un torrente, fuerte y claro. Otras en cambio apenas era un murmullo. En alguna ocasión permaneció en silencio durante unos minutos, escuchando mi propio silencio. A lo largo de esos monólogos iba contando su vida y sus pensamientos. Había tenido una existencia plagada de privaciones y de errores a la hora de tomar decisiones que cambiaran el rumbo de su destino. Se prolongaban por tiempo indefinido que iba de unos pocos minutos a un par de horas. Su humor variaba de unos días a otros y a veces incluso en una misma sesión. Comenzaba triste, abatida, y según iba soltando su pena se iba animando. O bien comenzaba alegre y según se agotaba en su propia felicidad iba cobrando conciencia de su situación, de sus pérdidas, y comenzaba a ahogarse en su dolor. Pasaba con frecuencia de la suficiencia y la seguridad a la depresión más profunda. Hablaba para nadie, o para sí, o quizá, quién sabe, para mí.
Cuando a partir de aquellas confesiones nos íbamos a cruzar bien en la escalera, en el portal o en la calle, la mujer siempre me esquivaba. Evitaba por todos los medios encontrarse conmigo. Hacía como que no me veía y cambiaba de dirección. Una noche no pude resistir más la curiosidad y decidí asomarme al hueco interior del edificio para comprobar de dónde venía aquella voz y por qué extraño fenómeno la escuchaba allí mismo aunque parecía venir de lejos. Me subí a la taza del retrete, abrí el ventanuco y asomé la cabeza. Apenas vi nada más que oscuridad. Debía auparme y sacar la cabeza al hueco para poder ver bien lo que había por arriba. Me estiré todo lo que pude pero el pie se me fue de su apoyo y caí al suelo con todos mis kilos quedando encajada entre el retrete y la pared. Sentí un vivísimo dolor en la pierna que tenía bajo el cuerpo; la otra había quedado hacia arriba por encima de la taza del water. No me podía mover. Me invadió el pánico. Presentí la muerte. Nadie sabía que estaba allí. Nadie me podía rescatar. Era fin de semana y hasta que no fuera dos días más tarde a asistir nadie me echaría en falta. Grité entonces. Grité todo lo que pude, desesperada, en un intento que sabía inútil por pedir ayuda hasta que agotada por el esfuerzo y anulada por el dolor de la pierna acabé por perder el sentido.
Me desperté en la cama de un hospital con la pierna enyesada. No sabía cómo había llegado allí. En un momento en el que entró una enfermera le pregunté. Al parecer una vecina con el pelo gris y ralo había oído mis gritos y llamó a la ambulancia. Había estado allí para ver cómo me encontraba. Acababa de marcharse.
Copyright © 2023 by José Luis Cubillo.
About the Author
José Luis Cubillo Fernández es un escritor español. Diplomado en Cinematografía (Guion y Dirección). Cuentos de su autoría han aparecido en revistas literarias en Estados Unidos, España, México, Colombia, Venezuela y Argentina, Guionista de "Nijinsky: Marriage With God”, premio al guión en el festival Global Motion Picture Awards (Estados Unidos, 2018), guión cinematográfico biográfico sobre el célebre bailarín ruso del primer cuarto del siglo pasado Vatzlav Nijisnky". Director de "elícula al estilo Jafar Panahi". homenaje al director Iraní Jafar Panahi y su película "Esto no es una película". Vea: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jos%C3%A9-luis-cubillo-fern%C3%A1ndez-1347a0/
Copyright © Kapyos.
Plant Leans Sunward
after Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Icarus, your mother
Kneeling in her summer garden
Long, heavy august tucked under her wings
The clothfolds of her back
Closes her mouth around a cigarette
Light aches at the corners of the boxsleeve
Some poor sucker.
She looks on as
Gristled mats of lung
Cling to each other
You once held a blackbird
In your hands and were afraid.
Hollow bones, laid close against the rough weight of your palms
And the small, indignant head
Its warmth shining beneath your thumbs,
Impossibly soft and willful as just-started rain
Morning was seeping in
Gentle as the body rises through itself
Gilding the fresh edges of your prayerbruised knees
Making everything too bright to touch
It startled you, Icarus
By resting for a moment in your valleyed hands
You held it towards the sky
Watched as it unfurled its body in the air
And almost wept
Your mother, kneeling in her garden
Tells you you were born in the first minute after dawn
(Love, you just couldn’t wait)
That she staggered with you,
So unutterably new, your lungs expanding into twin blooms of hydrangea
Barefoot and alone save just for you
Into the first cool murmurs of light
And every feather of grass held tears, for you;
When you were falling, Icarus
Your body was made of water.
The whites of your eyes opaque pearls of glass
As you found suddenly your shoulders bared to sky
Watchers saw the ocean reaching up
To cool your back
To work free the most delicate bones of your wrists,
Your knuckles, the coil of your spine
And then to take them, too
As lovingly as heat comes
To make the dry earth shift and curl with joy
And so, so tired
Ecstatic wild need and hunger
Electric body hum
Vertigoed cruel cut-tongue
Sweat pooled in the crease of your neck
The teething dog the jolt
Waking up from your dream of falling
The shock of sharpedge day—
Warmth on your eyelids,
God help you
In her garden
Returning, to a small patch of seawater,
The light which had been settled over you;
You startle it
By resting for a moment in the hollow of its chest
It holds you to the sky
And you unfurl your body
—She is a part of everything,
And all its wanting
Desperate to come closer to the sun
Copyright © 2023 by MAC.
About the Author
MAC is a newly published writer, unpublished reviewer of lesbian pulp fiction novellas, recreational whittler, and humane catch-and-release pest control organization whose work has previously appeared on refrigerator doors and repentant letters to scorned lovers. She is pursuing an English degree at Oberlin University.
1990: Double Parking at the St. Germain
from The Drift That Follows Will Be Gradual
The day I met the newcomer, he came budging four big boxes and a duffel up the ramp to the back door of the Wilshire-Plymouth meeting, stopping a couple times to straighten his back and wearing a look of industrious high hope. He had on a tan dress shirt and a bulky, wide-lapelled charcoal-colored suit jacket that implied he wanted to be seen as someone reformed. Equally at home on a yacht or in traffic court.
Of all the categories of people who depressed me that year, near the top of the list were underdogs who seemed a little too proud of what they’d been through. Jailbird preachers. Veterans with boom boxes hailing each other on my street, as if the whole world was already starting to be more theirs than mine.
I stared out the open back door. It looked more and more obvious that nobody was going to do the program thing and welcome him. Which meant no one except me was in enough emotional trouble to need to. That was depression—stunning you, always, with whatever sad truth you least could hold—and it took the air and the walls and the floor away.
“Are you the greeter, by any chance?” he said.
I wanted to be rude, the way certain people I admired could, people who were true to their depression. But to do that, I think you had to go all the way and give up hope. “I’m a greeter.”
“Ah,” he said. “I probably prefer that anyway.”
He had two voices, I would come to learn: a super bright, adolescent one and this other one, in a lower register, that was more of a slurry, private lament. Like someone confiding bad news to his dog.
“Would it be okay if I leave my boxes in the corner there?”
“Wow, I honestly don’t know. I mean, I guess they’re fine.” Wouldn’t it have been smarter of him not to ask?
“I can’t seem to throw away books. It either shows what a big brain or what a pea brain I am. Hang on a second.”
He went and fished his AA Big Book from the top of one of his boxes just as someone called, “Meeting time!”
I couldn’t resist cracking, “Those aren’t all Big Books, are they?”
An awkward second passed, but then his smile wised up. “Right! That would be pretty good.” And suddenly, miraculously, we seemed to be giggling together, our shoulders shaking all the way to the chairs.
“Where are you moving from, anyway? Or to?”
“I’m going to share about that,” he whispered, and the meeting gavel struck.
The fact was, I had an interesting track record back then of turning the people I was supposed to be helping into my rescuers. This was in my downward spiral after Dell, the girl-wonder rock critic for The LA Daily News. She used to dictate concert reviews to the copy desk by pay phone while I kissed her up and down her neck—nevermore! A year later, she had decided to look into applying to law schools, with me in tow. But I was so clearly the junior partner in this plan it freaked me out, not to mention that whenever she was chasing any new ambition, she stopped wanting sex. My shocking response—in what the program called Contrary Action—had been to break up and get a solo apartment. I enlisted Rodney, my sponsee, to help me move, and watched him wobble with my queen-sized mattress across his back all the way across the parking lot to where my Mazda was; he managed one hand free to rake at the hatchback lid, my mattress slowly, slowly pinning him to the asphalt. Since that day, I had no longer been his sponsor.
Then there’d been the truck driver whose newlywed daughter, who lived in Mid-Wilshire, wouldn’t let him stay on her couch during a stopover. He taught me a reconciliation prayer from a strange church pamphlet he’d picked up, about releasing all the errors of my life (“Miracles do nothing, they merely undo what never was real…”), and I prayed it—experimentally, one foot in the canoe, partly to make him think that, for a glamorous underground freelance writer from LA, I was also interestingly earnest. Pretending, ironically, to be the lost child that I actually was. But keeping one foot safely back on shore, feeling those two worlds touch.
By the time he got himself called on, the meeting had gone on forever, and he made a little performance out of lowering his raised hand and rubbing out the soreness in his shoulder. He waited for the nervous laughter in the room to die out completely, prologue to his opening silence.
“I’m grateful to be sober this day,” he said, and here he turned, quite dramatically, to face me. “Grateful to have made a new sober friend.” I had already been hunched forward staring at the floor, so I decided it made some sense to stay that way.
“Who are you?” came the group’s sour rejoinder.
“Wade,” he said. “I’m Wade and I’m an alcoholic.”
He’d arrived three days before on a bus from Denver, he said, because sobriety is full of surprises, another one being the fact that he now found himself needing to ask for a place to sleep—just two more nights while he waited for the all-clear on a room at the St. Germain Residential Apartments around the corner. It was only on the direction of his sponsor, back in Colorado, that Wade had agreed to float this humiliating request to the universe.
“And now I guess I have,” he concluded—wrapping up to what sounded like healthy applause, even with a possibly adoring, murmuring backflow. A former Rolling Stones promoter leaned on his cane with eyes shut, snoring. A soap opera actress in joggers, flawless except for a jaw that always looked to me like she was sucking on a martini olive, nodded toward Wade and whispered, Welcome.
In our own row, a Lou Reed figure in shades lay back in his chair, marking himself off limits.
In fact, hardly any men risked looking in our direction at all, aside from the meeting’s elders—who, as everybody knew, were exempt from the kind of front-line duty that included housing homeless visitors—and they were mostly laughing and nudging each other at the beauty of this sudden match: Jeffrey and Wade, Wade and Jeffrey.
From one row back, the famous actor Michael Hardaway said, “Is this perfect or what?” and roughly massaged the back of my neck.
This same Michael Hardaway, back when I was new, had practically jumped from his convertible downtown—I’d been on my way to traffic court, come to think of it— to yell hello to me, celebrity to nobody. I could barely believe he had the same disease as me.
“I wonder if all those AA movie stars are more emotionally evolved beings than other people, and that’s what made them such talented actors in the first place.” I aired this mystery to Wade—he was either a very thoughtful listener, or he had no idea what I meant. We were in my car heading to Los Feliz, the tops of palm trees listing in the haze. He had his thick suit coat folded in his lap, and, depressed though I was, I could imagine the two of us passing for world travelers. Hollywood always felt forgiving to outcasts that way. Nobody had to believe that what they saw was the finished version of you.
I managed to tell him the sad tale of my adorable rock critic, and to brag about my monthly sports column at LA Style, through all of which Wade seemed entertained—or, as I said, just lost.
“What about you?” I said. “What’s your story? What’s your dream?”
“College.” It appeared to be the simplest question he’d been asked in a long time. “College, but not yet.”
“Really? What comes first?”
“What comes first.” If he didn’t look so suddenly panicked, as if the tallest palm tree was about to crash onto our roof, he would have sounded menacing. “What comes first is study skills. After God and recovery, I mean. I know, this is all as simple as breathing to someone like you.”
“Oh, don’t be so sure,” I said.
“My father had an exterminator company—the most I figured I’d ever be was his dispatcher—but my Navy recruiting officer, he was like a father. He showed me Mortimer Gadwell’s series on education and he put volume one in my hand and said, ‘Read me the beginning.’ So I turned to page one, but the guy was all shaking his head like, Hopeless! He made me go back and read him the copyright page.”
I smirked to make sure Wade knew that I didn’t like stories with punch lines.
“What do you think of Gadwell, anyway?” he asked. “Or Bennett J. Fields? Pendegrass?”
Three stupendous misses.
“This is just for two nights,” I reminded him.
Outside my building, I risked getting a parking ticket so we could unload our cargo, feeding a two-hour meter and hoping I’d remember to come back.
“It’s only one room,” I said, raising the hatchback. “And I might have to cut things short to leave town on an assignment.” This was an outright lie. “I guess I’m giving you my list. Most importantly, I’m all about quiet writing space in the mornings.”
“Totally. I admire your discipline.” Wade grunted as he placed a second box on the pavement on top of the first. “I’ll go to the morning meeting anyway.”
When my building’s elevator opened at the third floor, the depression ambushed me again. It was like some kind of chloroform—I had to excuse myself while I stood there bent and gasping. You could see Wade take on the guilt, and you could see him try to deflect it. “If my sponsor didn’t keep reminding me to accept help—” His eyes had begun welling with tears.
“I know. I’m sure it will be a good thing for me,” I said, straightening up slowly and fumbling for my key.
“I told my sponsor, only if it helps the other guy too. I insisted!”
I said, with unintentional hilarity, “I appreciate the favor,” and somehow, for a second, we were laughing again.
The first thing was to give him my one extra bedroll, which I finally found under my bed, but I had to look everyplace else for it first. It was nearing sundown. Wade lay down in the corner, his box tower beside him as a nightstand. My studio apartment had never looked so small. I ate a frozen Stouffer’s dinner and offered to make him one too, but he refused, holding up a traffic-stopping palm. He did go outside, once, to have a cigarette.
When he came back, he began his nightly reading. (First book out: You Can Be a Scholar, which had cassette tapes attached in a pouch.) I did some reading too, because I thought I should—Jayne Anne Phillips, and a book on Zen whose cover I liked having on my coffee table in case of female visitors, because it had a sparse and sensual design that I thought made the place seem open-aired or languid. Around nine, seeing he wasn’t slowing down, I turned out all the lights—maybe I had a rude side after all.
I heard the cover of his book close, a leathery thud. “I was at the end of a paragraph anyway. Although it was a really interesting paragraph.” Pause. “You’d be interested. I should let you sleep.”
“No.” I took a fortifying breath. “I’m curious.”
“All right.” I saw his silhouette rise up against the window. “Actually, it kind of pertains to you.”
“Pertains to me?”
“I mean, it totally pertains to you!” His voice brimmed. “It’s about ‘The Raven,’ which is a very important poem—did the word poetry come from Poe, incidentally? No, of course not. At any rate, Poe apparently boasted that he wrote his poem by a process of totally mathematical induction. He deduced that if the best poem is the most profound, and the most profound subjects known to man are death and beauty, then the ultimate poem should consider as its theme the death of beauty. And then keep, you know, harkening to it. As in the refrain, ‘Nevermore.’ Is that incredible? You used that word yourself, earlier, in the car.”
“I don’t think I’d have said ‘Nevermore.’”
“Some other poetic word then? ‘Alas’?”
“The point is,” I said, “as far as that goes, someone could claim everything we write is about the death of beauty. Since all of life is heading that direction. I don’t know how remarkable this is.”
“So, would you say the ideal sports column is really about death?”
Before I could venture another answer in the dark, his gotcha laugh cut me off. “Maybe you should reread Poe,” he said. Then came a click! and his reopened book was brightened by a tiny penlight.
“Oh. Go ahead. By all means,” I said, and curled myself into a ball.
Going to bed with major depression could feel like you were wearing a vest made of dynamite sticks, and every thought was a burning match. In the dark, I felt surrounded by Wade’s hoary, obsolete philosophers, whom I envisioned dressed in clown collars, getting ready to haunt my dreams, or forcing me to watch old sitcoms and die drunk in the apartment.
“Will we wake up in time, do you think?” Wade said. “So, I can bus to the seven o’clock meeting?”
“You ought to be fine with the east-facing window,” I said, pulling the topsheet up over my shoulders. I had given him half my day. Maybe having the most meager allotment of generosity to share with others made me, in some respect, a saintlier giver than people who were born with more—like homeopathy, with the smallest dose producing the greatest recovery—this was profound, I might work it into the sports column, if I could just articulate it, if I could see the precise bicycle it was riding on, which was when I realized I’d already been asleep for a couple of hours.
In the darkness, Wade was snoring lightly.
In the amplified calm of being the last person awake, I got up and walked toward the window, where I gazed outside all alone. I heard a neighbor’s bathroom fan whirr on and off; my car stood, ticketed, in the metered lot below. The coast felt clear for a minute, although who ever knew from what. I felt proprietary and proud that Wade was safe asleep.
The next morning, I got straight to it, the hum of my electric typewriter rattling my card-table desk. “I wish I had your discipline,” was all Wade said, putting on his suit coat.
In maybe half an hour I’d passed the magic dateline from pretending to work on my column to actually working. But when I got up from the desk to stretch, I had a vision of Wade soaking up the attention at the morning meeting, Wade being cooed over by all the same people who used to coo over me, and it upset me. As the working adult in this domestic arrangement, I felt shortchanged. I tried to remind myself that Wade had put himself in a place of terrifying limbo. Even when he smiled, he had looked near crying.
But when he got back hours later, no sooner did he shed his suit coat and unlace his shoes than I let it be known that I, too, needed a meeting. It was getting dark, which reinforced my righteousness.
If he was less than happy about being carted off to a second meeting in one day, Wade didn’t show it. He washed under his arms with a green bar of cheap soap from his duffel, while I set my phone machine to answer, only this got me wondering. “The St. Germain—you gave them my number so they can reach you, right?”
Wade froze. “That wouldn’t be—you know—dangerous? Letting them know that I’m in transit?”
“Writing down a phone number doesn’t do that! Whose number did you put on the application?”
It was awful, the way he began to moan. “Ahhhh! The mistakes!”
“Come on, Wade. It’s only one mistake that I know of. Did you give them some other number?”
“They said we’d do that after they get the place cleaned. But yes,” he said, “I hear you, and like I said, you have experience that I don’t. I should call right away and give them a number. Instead of dropping by after the place is cleaned. That’s what you’re saying.”
“I guess I’d have thought you’d already done that.”
“The management office closed at three,” he said. He stood there a prolonged time. “It’s moot. We’re making you late now.”
But in the car, nothing felt resolved.
“There’s no point wallowing in this,” I told him. “You said it yourself.”
“I could at least have left them a voicemail.”
I swerved into a service station, scraping change from the ashtray. “Which we’re doing. We’re doing that right now.”
By the air and water bay, I eavesdropped while Wade recited within the booth: “Yes, this is for Mr. Elkins, on the vacant room?” It was not a bad beginning, I felt, and you could hear his confidence grow with each line. “This is Wade, from the other day, just staying in range. I’m expecting to arrive around—”
He shot me a don’t-blow-this look. I don’t know how you ask for a ride with your eyes, but he did.
“Ten tomorrow. If anything changes, the management can reach me at this number—” Already I’d pressed my reporter’s notepad against the glass, and he read the scribbled digits in perfect stride—a little tremulous, but no worse than other people’s outdoor voices might sound with traffic going by.
At the AA meeting, Wade seemed transformed, evangelical—a ballroom butterfly in a disaster zone. This was a co-ed group in Chinatown, heavy with newcomers. Whoever wasn’t in the emotional barrel was trying to get laid. A dazed-looking single mom with a bicycle helmet, off Ritalin just a couple of months, was talking with crazed intensity to a very nervous film editor who always wore stovepipe Levi’s and a letterman’s jacket. When she drifted away, Wade seized the other’s arm. “Are you giving that chick a ride home, or what?”
“Well, I mean, she’s got her bike,” the editor began.
“Oh, Lord, her eyes, the way she looked at you? And she doesn’t wear makeup or nothing!” Wade must have jived like this with buddies back in Denver.
But everyone knew this woman had some kind of processing disorder, and that the editor was stuck on his (happily remarried) ex-wife. Not the love note again, people whispered, whenever he unfolded it from his pocket during the sharing portion of the meeting. Half the room got up to fill their coffee.
“If she knew how he felt about her, she’d come back,” Wade opined later, smoking at the curb. Four of us were piling in to my car, because, don’t ask how, I’d been elected to give a lift to both the grieving film editor and the spellbound mom, with her bicycle jackknifed into my trunk. The bungeed hatchback bounced happily while we all debated the chances one had for remarrying one’s happily remarried ex-wife. My position was straightforward: It was a poor bet. You got seemingly unending chances with women, until you got your last, and then not one chance more.
The grieving film editor agreed.
The bicycle mom said, “Right on.”
It felt less hurtful if we all ganged up on Wade in sport.
But Wade pushed back. “A love letter like that? From a woman? Come on.” For a woman, Wade claimed, such private admiration was rarer even than sex, or words to that effect.
“Jeez, a little sexist?” I howled. I was probably showing off to the bicycle woman.
“Oh?” Wade said. “Have you ever gotten a letter like that?”
“I didn’t have to. I peeked at a diary entry like that.” Although this possibly bolstered his point, not mine.
The car was quiet except for some dying laughter. Through the open windows, the night air only intensified Wade’s scent of Irish Spring soap and Marlboro menthols, a mixture that felt specifically concocted to reawaken my depression. I would not have been shocked to hear that Wade had sprinkled himself with bathroom cleanser.
“Well, then you need to get that back too,” Wade said.
“It’ll be the beige building on the right,” said the bicycle mom.
Watching Wade get out of the car to help the Letterman with the bicycle, I remembered what manipulation that old girlfriend was capable of—how she’d moved to LA from Boston uninvited and then made herself permanent. Then the angry person she became.
“He’s walking her to the door,” Wade said, climbing in again.
He withdrew a cigarette and tapped it against my glove compartment.
“Could you please not?” I asked, adding, to make clear I was no tobacco prude, “I used to smoke three packs a day. She used to air out the room every hour when I was writing. The diary girl.”
“Actually, this was before Dell.”
“Sweet Jesus. Has anyone ever been as lucky as you?”
“Trust me, you’d have known this match was temporary. We had issues.”
“Such as her airing out your studio too frequently.”
“There were issues, Wade. Which I really didn’t need to think about until it was all or nothing.”
“Like she pressured you to get married?”
“Only silently,” I said. I was saying too much. “I mean, she waited a few weeks for me to do the right thing.”
He waited a long time for me to say more, and then it looked like he made a few false starts at leveling with me about something. He put the cigarette back in his pocket.
“I wonder if they’re going inside,” I asked, straining for a look at the letterman in the dark.
Wade was very solemn. “All right then. Did you name the unborn child?”
This was all my fault. “We never got that far.”
Wade nodded and then said, as if writing a prescription, “There’s a radio host named John Parker on The Fish. He’s big on this subject. Your child’s soul can’t be at peace. It can’t be released from limbo until it’s got a proper name.”
“How about ‘Mortimer Gladwell’?”
“I’m sorry if I stepped on your toes,” Wade said.
At this instant, the letterman climbed in.
“You need to do a naming ceremony for that child,” Wade informed me, slipping in his last word. To the letterman: “Where are we dropping you off, my friend? As if I’d know where anything is.”
“Maybe just as far as Western? My god, that girl is nuts!”
“Really? But those eyes,” said Wade.
“The eyes,” Letterman said. “I’ll give you that.”
“Do you have a candle at home to light?” Wade asked me. “I could help you with the ceremony.”
Before even committing to the idea, I had nodded yes, and now I was panicking, trying either to slow this train of events or speed through the inevitable. And then we were settled at my apartment, our faces lit from beneath in the glow of a yahrzeit candle—my grandmother’s, from Mount Sinai Mortuary, never used because I could never remember the date of her death.
Wade said a prayer for God’s will to be done, and then invited me to do this thing—to ask the child directly, ask my unborn child its name. I sat there. His very patience was jamming me up.
“I’ll go in the bathroom while you finish,” he offered.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I lifted the candle’s tall cylinder and tiptoed across the room. I closed the bathroom door behind me reverently, placed the candle on the faux marbled counter. Heard a chilly soothing hum in the building’s pipes.
How does someone’s haphazardness get him from where he’s been to the place he is now? While at the same time offering such strange currents of logic from the depths, flashes of a mermaid’s tail, suggesting none of this has been entirely random? If only I hadn’t always felt so helpless, the most extreme answers to life’s problems would not have has such strange appeal to me. I would not have had that lifelong apprehension that people like Wade might be right by sheer force of their simplicity. I was thinking like this and waiting, waiting for an unborn child to tell me his name.
Or hers. Her name or his? I hadn’t prepared for this question. And should I count Sylvie’s first, ectopic pregnancy?
“Wade?” I called through the bathroom door.
I opened it partway, heard his halting snore—and when I returned to my candle, time had seemed to speed up. You could just tell that whatever gap Wade had opened in the physics of this night was in danger of closing, that nothing now made as much sense as leaving the bathroom, exhausted, and climbing into bed.
Half in renunciation, and half not wanting to be the guy who never misses a chance to miss a chance, I made a sort of insurance toss at the problem, flinging the name of my father’s father in the direction of the past—hoping that whatever child it happened to strike was mine and Sylvie’s. But I was also making up my mind that I would never again allow myself to be needy with people like Wade, no matter how earnest and special they were. Because they were only going to end up being reminders of the unbearable times during which they showed up.
To explain Sylvie a bit more: She had a donkey laugh, which could relax the most insecure person in the world, and she hated her hips, a thing about her that I treasured, because something about being allowed to watch an obviously attractive girlfriend worry about her hips felt like the proof that you were grown up and living with a girlfriend. In the beginning we enjoyed watching television on hot summer nights by setting up lawn chairs outside and placing the TV set just inside the back door while we drank and drank.
But almost right away she started having symptoms. Such as: vaginal bleeding that is heavier or lighter than your normal period, and sharp or stabbing pain that varies in intensity, and a month or two later, fevers, chills and sweats. This was because, during my confident streak before she moved from Boston to try to make our relationship official, a series of edgy young women at Ports came on to me, one after the other, a miracle that at the time felt almost like a prank (they all knew each other, slightly), and I guess I decided that all that thoughtless liberty would be a memory I’d cherish, even in a sad way, when I got old, even with all of our innocent fighting about it, and that hasn’t been untrue either.
She needed to stay a couple of extra days in the UCLA hospital to get well said the male doctor, whom I remember explaining ectopic pregnancy in a tone I found accusatory, but Sylvie calmed me down by not liking him either, and to me the word sounded like mixing “exotic” and “tropical.” I had been looking through the tinted hospital windows to the Hollywood sign and thinking: you know, we should have been hiking—how ecstatic it could be some days to live in Los Angeles and to feel absolved from guilt or shame. I was remembering a canyon hike with a very pretty artist friend, someone that Sylvie knew about, who had decided never to have children herself, because she had a congenital partial blindness that she didn’t want to pass on. She could only see out of the sides of her eyes, this woman. She had waited in the street outside my building for me to get my hiking shoes, looking the wrong direction from me in order to see me, which felt silly enough to put us both in the same lighthearted mood. It was one of those days in LA when you feel like you have claim to the whole city precisely because you own none of it. I locked my front door behind me and said, genuinely at a loss, “Do we need—provisions?” It was like I suddenly wasn’t sure if we’d be gone for hours or days hiking up to the Hollywood sign. And we both started laughing so hard we could barely stand.
My son Philip was born three years after these events involving Wade, and in my case, three years older was not much. Nola, his mother—a former B-movie actress whose grandparents sold auto parts in Seal Beach—made me feel I was privileging her with my heritage when I named Philip for my father’s father. The fact that I’d previously given the same name away—to a child who, according to Wade, was thus freed to cavort around heaven—never rose up in my conscience as a more troubling mistake than any of countless others I’d made, at least not then.
What I can tell you is how gleamingly happy Philip seemed at age two and three—despite the premature birth, the night terrors, and the mild cerebral palsy. (He is 6’3” today, his hobbled gait only slightly evident, less cute in adulthood because one can see that it hampers him—that a great feeling of injustice hampers him.)
He seemed happy even when a vicious fight sent my wife, Nola, to her mom’s for good, leaving me to try to shield my son from the knowledge of how severed every happiness thereafter would feel. With depression coiled around my throat, I played with him in a mud-spattered backyard castle. We waved rusted water pistols, sailed boats in the pond of a sandbox lid. I hoisted the miracle of his body overhead, feeling his breath moist beneath his parka hood, inside which he kept disappearing to play peek-a-boo, while he yelled, “All gone, all gone!”
The St. Germain Apartment Tower is stunningly restored nowadays, with high ceilings and trendy concrete floors, but in 1990s LA, it was more of a shell. Its furnished singles had fugly cream carpet and cheap linoleum and radiator heaters with dials that were drowned in white paint.
Even so, we looked like crashers heading in. I had to double-park in order to unload Wade’s boxes—dropping him temporarily by the main entrance with its burgundy awning. The whole edifice was built almost to the street. Finding no parking in the alley or anywhere else, I circled all the way back to double-park for a second time in five minutes, only to find that Wade was still standing exactly where I’d left him.
“I might feel better if you were with me.”
“That’s fine. Only let’s make a pact,” I said, looking up, “that one day one of us will own a hand truck.”
In the dusty, tiled lobby, arms full, I veered toward the desk, but Wade was marching straight past to an elevator, so I turned heel and followed him, perhaps unwisely. The desk clerk rose, in a manner I felt I’d foreseen if not caused, and when Wade looked over his shoulder to call out, “Hi again!” the clerk looked almost purified by sadness. In any case he did not seem alarmed.
The seventh-floor room, and there were only seven floors, had a writing desk and a Murphy bed, but no chairs. Across the mantle of a faux fireplace sat a clipboard holding blank rental forms. After Wade and I slid our boxes into the corner by the sole window, he closed the door and sat down on the cream carpet against a small built-in dish hutch, his arms locked tightly around his knees, like a cosmonaut.
“I’m double-parked,” I said, adding, “I think someone would get some good writing done here.”
“How much do you want to bet this all works out?” he said, in a tone that could only be described as good-natured despair.
“You didn’t even tell me it was the top floor!”
“Am I a lucky dude or what?”
I struggled to picture Wade becoming installed here, gathering the moss of a life to his form—attending city college, riding the elevator to his unit after a meeting. It was like the idea existed somewhere in the city’s past or thirty years into the future, but not today.
“Stay a little longer?” he begged. “Or see you at the meeting sometime?”
“You’ll get things squared away? With Mr. Elkins?”
He didn’t answer.
“I’m just afraid I’ll get towed,” I said again, backing toward the door, and that is when the desk clerk knocked and entered. I lingered long enough to hear him ask Wade if he might prefer to come back at 3 pm when Mr. Elkins would arrive, and I heard Wade allow that he might grab lunch at some point if it was safe to leave his boxes where they were. All the clerk would say was, “I guess that’s between you and Mr. Elkins.” Then it seemed the priority was my car.
I never heard anything of Wade after that. Though I can’t be positive Mr. Elkins had him removed. When I got outside, a police car approached, stopping my heart—first in fear for Wade, then for my car. Then it turned north harmlessly up Serrano. Inside, the clerk had returned to his desk. I stole one last view of the St. Germain as I drove away, my eyes scaling the façade, all the way to the top floor, where I tried to picture Wade unpacking his books in the smoggy light—the scene in my mind looked airy and elegant, yet also dated, with divans and potted plants. I wondered what other books he had stored inside his boxes. And were they all, too, about the death of beauty? I was a writer, and I’d never asked this?
To my right was the meeting hall where we’d met, and I drove past dreaming of my future bride.
Copyright © 2023 by Alan Rifkin.
About the Author
Alan Rifkin is a former longtime contributor to L.A. Weekly and Conde Nast’s Details who has also written for Premiere, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Black Clock, and The Quarterly, ed. Gordon Lish. His previous books include Signal Hill: Stories (City Lights, San Francisco) and Burdens by Water: An Unintended Memoir (Brown Paper Press). He also partnered with Jerry Burgan, cofounder of the Grammy-nominated band We Five, to write Wounds to Bind: A Memoir of the Folk-Rock Revolution (Rowman & Littlefield). He teaches fiction writing at California State University, Long Beach, and hosts The Last We Fake fiction podcast from Los Angeles. Visit: www.alanrifkin.com.
Alright, so you’ve heard it before
or knew it all along. I’m done
adapting, will hold my ground.
Resist and complain, but spare me
hysterics. I shouldn’t have met you
halfway. By giving in, I gave up
too much, but I’m through
compromising. Alright, so
I’ve cut the cord twice before
and then come back, hat in hand.
This time, I’ll make my sense
prevail. It’s time I take a stand
and make it stick. But don’t
storm off just yet or think
the worst of me. Alright?
I know a place. Let’s have a drink.
We can unwind. Who knows?
Is it too late to change my mind?
Copyright © 2023 by Philip Wexler.
They survive in imagination, suspended, half-
formed remnants of gauzy lives unpursued,
inaccessible as ever, incapable of bearing
fruit. Still, one dreams, visualizes
scenarios while bearing up under the barren
contemporary. It’s taxing to contend
with what’s at hand when contrasted
with the conjectural, but what choice
when one chokes from the irritation
of a lifetime tossing down jiggers of salt water
while that sipped but stoppered bottle of vintage
cabernet beckons from beyond reality’s reach.
Copyright © 2023 by Philip Wexler.
About the Author
Philip Wexler has some 200 magazine poem credits. His full-length poetry collections include The Sad Parade (prose poems), and The Burning Moustache, both published by Adelaide Books, The Lesser Light (Finishing Line Press), With Something Like Hope (Silver Bow Publishing) and I Would be the Purple (Kelsay Books). He also hosts Words out Loud, a hybrid in-person/remote monthly spoken word series in the Washington, DC area.