The Grass – by JEFFREY ZABLE

The grass is always browner on your side of the street
in which you peer though a blind in your front window
onto a street of angry people who resent that you’re still alive
and won’t give them your house so they no longer have to pay rent
in a city that doesn’t care.

The grass is always browner on your side of the street
in which television is your only companion,
the news always bleak,
your dreams pervaded with scenes of suicide
and millions of ways to die if you walk out the door
into the darkness of life as you fear it.

The grass is always browner on your side of the street
as you let go of the blind and shuffle back into bed,
the grass that’s always browner growing over you
until you’re completely invisible.

***

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***Jeffrey Zable is a teacher and conga drummer who plays Afro-Cuban folkloric music
for dance classes and Rumbas around the San Francisco Bay Area. His poetry, fiction, and
non-fiction have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and anthologies beginning
in the mid 70’s. Recent writing in Revolution John, Serving House Journal, Kairos, Tigershark,
Unscooped Bagel, Dead King, Ink In Thirds, DogPlotz, Beachwood Review, and many others.
He’s dedicating all of his current writing to two of his favorite poets who recently passed away:
Mark Strand and Russell Edson.***

 

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Vanishing Act – by STEPHEN BAILY

VANISHING ACT

I opened my eyes. It had been pitch dark when I closed them and the daylight surprised me. With the sleeve of my coat I had to wipe the fog off the window to make out the trooper rapping on it.

 

You okay in there?”

Cold but yeah. The car died on us.”

Us?”

 

I followed his gaze to my left. Seth was gone from behind the wheel. I twisted my head around and he wasnt in the backseat either.

 

He was here when I dozed off.”

Who?”

My brother.”

 

The trooper straightened up and glanced around. In the frozen fields stretching away from the road toward Canada, nothing but stubble was in sight.

 

Let me see your license.”

I dont drive.”

Some other ID then.”

 

All I had in my wallet was my draft card, which he was a long time studying.

 

Youre pretty far from home. Where you headed?”

Walpoleville.”

You in school there?”

My brother is.”

All right. Stay put while I run your name.”

 

I was telling myself to get a gripthat they couldnt possibly be after me yetwhen he returned from his cruiser.

 

I called for a tow, but the truck cant get here for a while, so come on, Ill drop you in town at the garage.”

What about my brother?”

My guess is well pass him on the way.”

 

He was right. Wed gone maybe a mile when I saw Seth trudging along the shoulder. Because I was in the caged back of the cruiser, he thought I was under arrest.

 

In the drafty garage on Main Street, it was barely warmer than outside. The vending machine was on the fritz and the only thing to sit on was a backless bench. An out-of-date pinup calendar was stuck to the cinder-block wall opposite the bench, next to a poster on which the flag was flapping over an injunction to love it or leave it. When the car finally showed up, the garageman laughed at the shape it was in and didnt even bother to raise the hood.

 

Tell you what. Ill take it off your hands for scrap and knock off half the towing charge.”

 

As it happened, the Greyhound station was just down the street. A bus for Montreal was leaving in half an hour and he waited with me till it started boarding.

 

Sorry I couldnt get you there.”

You tried.”

You sure you really want to do this?”

 

I heaved my duffel bag into the baggage compartment.

 

No way Im buying it for those bastards.”

***

Baily

STEPHEN BAILY is the author of three novels, ten plays, and short stories that have appeared in some twenty-five journals. His novel “Markus Klyner, MD, FBI” is available as a Kindle e-book at https://www.amazon.com/Markus-Klyner-FBI-Stephen-Baily-ebook/dp/B006QAM7Q8

*featured image courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito*

Whistling in the Dark – by SUSAN C. INGRAM

Whistling in the Dark

Susan C. Ingram

 

I walk the labyrinth[1] today. Shining white path in a field of green. A green not so green as grass but more like a blue-green sea. Shining white path on a blue-green sea. The sea, its color, its infinite rhythm. I used to go to the sea when I was confused. When I needed to steady myself. The breeze through my hair. The wind.

Now I go to the labyrinth. The sea, now, so far away sometimes I forget its color. The sound of life. Smell the smell of the living and the dead. When I have a riddle in my life I go to the labyrinth. Step onto the shining path[2] and place my trust in its infinite. I have a riddle today. [3] I step onto the path. Into the labyrinth. And hope that as I walk the seven circuits that my riddle is solved.[4]

  • ••

Dear ——–                         Friday, February 8, 1963

Thank you for writing! Your lovely letter left me feeling much better.

This hospital is one of the finest. I haven’t given up hope and I feel that this is the right place to get well. I am having all kinds of tests, and they have a very well equipped Hobby Shop where I’m learning to knit. The food is excellent but they don’t serve meat since it is associated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

I miss you terribly, but I’m trying to be optimistic. I’ve dumped the whole sickness in God’s hands and hope and pray for the best. My doctor here is very well trained and I have confidence in him.

Please give my children a love pat for me when you see them.

All My Love,                          Harding Sanitarium

—- —                              443 E. Granville Road

XOX                                   Worthington, Ohio[5]

  • ••

            I watch the path. My mind goes white. The crickets are chirping deep in the bushes. What riddle today? How old am I? or What will the next year bring? or What color were Bonnie’s eyes? or What color were mine. Before. The crickets sound like music. A chorus. No. A symphony of tiny fiddlers. It’s almost spring and the fiddlers are out and I remember. Danny Boy and Down by the Sally Gardens and the Fields of Athenry. No Man’s Land. And the dead boy.

Green her eyes were green. But not at first. They were blue at first like the clearest Hawaiian beach blue. Her pupils like circles of black volcanic Hawaiian sand against the blue sea. But they changed. We were so young we didn’t know all babies’ eyes are blue. At first. They changed, like everything. Like every thing changed. One day I looked down at her all wrapped in the white white towel after her bath and they had changed. Green. Not green green like the grass. But blue and green. Like the sea.

  • ••

Dear ——–                         Friday, April 5, 1963

I miss you, ——–. Wish we could have our old telephone chats.

My psychiatrist says that he thinks Nick needs help. This has been a terrible experience and God was my safety valve. Every time I think I can’t bear it any longer, I start to silently pray. Nick has filed suit for custody of our children. It was a complete surprise to me as I thought that Nick was beginning to realize his mistake. I talked over the phone to him yesterday and asked him “why.” He said that he had to protect his rights!  He said that I might take them from him!

——–, he said that I was a secret (excessive)[6] drinker in the petition. He knows that is a lie! I hope that God reaches Nick in time to stop this. He has changed so much. Please keep on praying for us.

If you see my children please give them a hug and kiss for me. To me they are very precious

All My Love and Devotion,             Harding Sanitarium

—- —                              443 E. Granville Road

XOX                                   Worthington, Ohio

  • ••

            I’m walking very slowly.[7] I don’t like to finish too soon. Before I figure out my riddle. Sometimes the short switchbacks make me dizzy. I prefer the long sweeping ones that take you to the other side of the labyrinth. That’s where my mind is clearest.

His eyes were black like the sand left after the volcano. But no blue sea surrounded the pupils. Only more black. They didn’t reflect anything. When I looked into Bonnie’s eyes sometimes I could see myself, my own eyes smiling down on her. But his eyes. I would get lost in them sometimes. Staring. Trying to see something there besides the darkness. Infinite dark. It was as if he knew.

Oh. Someone’s coming. I don’t like it when I have to walk the labyrinth with someone else.[8] I can’t think then. Forget what I had started out with. What riddle today? My birthday is next week. St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps they’ll let me have a beer with my corned beef and cabbage.

  • ••

Dear ——–                         Thursday, May 2, 1963

Thank you Honey for your vote of confidence in me. I need all the help I can get. As you have surmised I am broken-hearted.

Dr. ——- said that Nick needed professional help. Nick has two personalities, one is charming & the other is tyrannical. I was always trying to please him & when I couldn’t I’d feel that I should try harder. I had been so undermined that I had doubts about my abilities, character & worth. His own mother warned me to stand up to him, but I loved him so much I couldn’t fight him.

The end of the world came and passed for me. Now I’m building a new life and I want my children. They are the best thing that ever happened to me.

My lawyer here said that he felt Nick was trying to drive me to suicide. Nick even said I was suicidal in the petition. I admit that I’d rather die than be confined in an asylum for the rest of my life, but I feel suicide is a sin. God put me here for a reason and I hope that when I die (a natural death) that I will have made, in some small measure, the world a better place because I had lived.

Dear ——–, I can feel your hand extended in friendship. And it helps. It helps a lot! I wish we could sit & talk and talk and talk.

Please remember the children and me in your prayers.

All My Love and Devotion,             Harding Sanitarium

—- —                              443 E. Granville Road

XOX                                   Worthington, Ohio

  • ••

I’m at the center of the labyrinth now. I can breathe here. I’ll let my mind rest and let that other person go away. I’ll stay here in the center until she goes away. [9]

The fiddlers were playing. St. Patrick’s Day. I was having a beer with my corned beef and cabbage. Nick was having whiskey with his. Too much whiskey. It was our first night out since he said he wanted to reconcile. We were still living apart. There was a ceili band and dancing. We couldn’t talk. Not because of the loud music, but because there was nothing to say. We didn’t stay very late. Nick said he was OK to drive. He seemed so. He dropped me off and then went to pick up Bonnie and the boy from the babysitter on his way home.

The person is in the center of the labyrinth with me now. She’s stopped and is standing with her head bowed. Her eyes are closed. I close my eyes against the white and the blue green. I try to think of the sea. But there is only black now. Like his eyes. His eyes where I never saw my reflection.

  • ••

Author’s Note:

On the subject of infinite black. Of black with no reflection. Of the blackness referred to glancingly here, there is an experience one has when one finds oneself in the presence of that kind of blackness. Blackness so absolute that the concepts of space, time and dimension vanish and everything one knows about physics and the world simply melts away in an instant. And suddenly one feels a primal fear, against all reason, of what’s out there lurking in the dark. A fear that is as old as the universe itself. And as infinite.

I was working in Hollywood in 1983 as a camera assistant trainee. We were rotated through the camera departments of all the major studios in town. Paramount, Universal, Warner Bros. I was working the swing shift at Warners. Four a.m. to noon. I worked alone until the morning shift came in about eight a.m. The darkroom was huge. In the old days it had been busy day and night handling dozens of movies and television shows.

I would set up about a half-dozen film magazines to download the exposed film out of and upload fresh film into. Once everything was set, I’d turn out the lights and a red light would come on outside, so no one would come in while I was loading film. I had never been in such a large space in complete and utter blackness. And silence. Alone. After a few minutes I began to doubt what I knew was there – walls, a floor, a ceiling. The bustling studio beyond where the door used to be. The sensation was so convincing that I felt that when I had to take a step over to the next magazine on the counter, that the floor would drop away and I would fall into another dimension. Disappear. Because in such total blackness it’s easy to believe that the world doesn’t exist. Can’t exist without light.

I am a realist. A pragmatist, atheist, cynic, skeptic and yet also an optimist. But it was during those long nights in the darkroom at Warner Bros. Studio where I learned to whistle in the dark.

 

[1] See James Truitt, “About the Labyrinth,” Oak Crest, 2009, p. 1. “A labyrinth is not a maze; you can’t get lost in it; it is not a riddle or a problem to be solved. From the entrance a path leads to the center; you return from the center by the same path.”

[2] Ibid. p.2. “A labyrinth may be described as a “walking meditation.” Known to have existed over thousands of years and among cultures around the world, they can be found in a variety of sizes, shapes and materials. The use of labyrinths has meaning across all belief systems and faith traditions.”

[3] “…a labyrinth walk may help with making a decision, or dealing with stress.

[4]  “Having said that, it is not a magic pill that solves all your problems, and can’t be approached with a demand for particular results. It is a living experience that asks us to be open and ready to receive. It is this attitude that empowers a labyrinth experience in our lives.”

[5] These are actual letters given to me by ——– ——. They are part of a year-long correspondence between her and her friend —- — ——. Actual names have been deleted. Names that do appear have been changed.

[6] This word was added later by the letter writer and squeezed in above and between secret and drinker with an arrow indicating where it should go. Parentheses are mine.

[7] Truitt, “Walking the Labyrinth,” p.1 Oak Crest, 2009. “There is no right or wrong way to walk a labyrinth. The experience is different for each person, each time. Be open to whatever your walk brings you.”

[8] Ibid. p. 2. Share the path with anyone coming toward you. Step aside and then step back on the path. People also walk different speeds; feel free to pass or let someone pass.”

[9] Truitt, “Walking the Labyrinth,” Oak Crest, 2009, p.2 “Stay at the center, as long as you like, in quiet reflection. When you are ready, return by the same path. Your return walk is also part of the labyrinth experience – use it to continue in your reflection and meditation.”

***

IngramPic

Author’s note: The story is based on actual correspondence between my mother and a woman who is now deceased. The woman was institutionalized at the time. And while the letters are based on real letters, the story is fiction.

Formerly a film-industry camera assistant, then journalist, Susan Ingram is currently an editorial manager at a well-known wine journal. Stories from her (as-yet-unpublished) novel, “The Troubled Times,” including “Six Forty One,” and “Una: June 1941” were finalists in Glimmer Train’s March/April 2016 Fiction Open and January 2014 Very Short Fiction Award. Another of her stories, “Three Little Things,” from her memoir-in-progress, “Film/Addict,” made Top 25 in Glimmer Train’s July 2015 Very Short Fiction Award. She has been published in Jersey Devil Press and Seltzerzine. Susan holds an MA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in the Baltimore suburbs with her two cats, Baine and Mack.

 

The Futility of Individuality – by MICHAEL MARROTTI

The Futility Of Individuality

Maybe I
should cut
my hair to
accommodate
the American
standard

Remove my
tattoos and
pick a
political
party
I’m sure
that’ll make
a difference

Get a pair
of sneaks
that cost
more than
forty dollars

Speak like
they speak
Do as
they do

Discard
my sense
of logic
to fully
embrace
the
absurdity
of this
moronic
country

I’ve been told
there’s benefits
in conformity
Walking the
same line
like a zombie
starving for
a brain
could be
rewarding

Thinking for
myself is
tiresome
and being a
one man army
has only
resulted
in failure

I’ve been losing
everyday but
at least I’m
losing my way

***

IMAG0009_1

Michael Marrotti is an author from Pittsburgh using words instead of violence to mitigate the suffering of life in a callous world of redundancy. His primary goal is to help other people. He considers poetry to be a form of philanthropy. When he’s not writing, he’s volunteering at the Light Of Life homeless shelter on a weekly basis. If you appreciate the man’s work, please check out his blog:www.thoughtsofapoeticmind.blogspot.com for his latest poetry and short stories.

The Value of Change – by DOMINGO CARRION

The Value of Change

 

“Youngin!” I heard a voice call out to me.

“Hey, youngin!” he called out again, in a raspy voice.

I decided to turn around. The man was a tad taller than me, with a lanky frame.

His eyes were dark brown and wide open, like a lemur who’s been surprised. His cheekbones were strong and sharp, the dawning sun casting shadows, causing them to stand out even more.  

Normally, my awareness would go up when approached by a random man. Let’s just say I’ve had my fair share of moments growing up where being called out didn’t start or end well.  

I had just seen him asking for change from a man pulling out of the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, in a yellow BMW. He called out to me while my friends and I were about to walk inside. My friends acted as if they didn’t hear him and calmly proceeded to enter. A breezy winter afternoon around 5:30pm; mid-January and it was already getting dark. It wasn’t too cold, but the blood rushed to my fingers, and the wind chill could be felt through my pullover hoodie.

I never got the guy’s name, he had on all black boots, denim jeans, a black hoodie, and a Chicago Bulls fitted cap.

I could tell he’d been outside for a while, maybe a half hour or so, the spaces in between his thumb and index fingers dried up, the skin beginning to crack. He had a dark chocolate complexion that made it more visible.

Nothing about him made me think he was homeless.

I would have known; I see them almost everyday, usually the same ones. They often had a pungent smell of the city streets, leaving their worn and battered clothes with an aroma I can only compare to morning breath.  Hygiene was not a priority; nor was appearance, only signifying the sense of struggle they were in. This man smelled of fresh linen and rosemary, his teeth shone like new piano keys, and there was a sense of awareness that made me feel more open to his approach.

       

He had been asking the man in the yellow beamer for 50 cents. The beamer was a dark mustard yellow with black rims, I thought to myself

 

“Why disrupt the elegance of an already beautiful car with such an awful color?”

          

While I walked past, I saw them talking.

The man in the car did not roll his window down all the way; about three inches at most. He was also a fairer skinned male; all I could see was the top of his burgundy tie and the navy blue button up he had on. He grinned at the man as if to say, “What, do I look like I’d be giving you 50 cents?”

He could have been a teacher, doctor, lawyer, or maybe even a Dunkin’ Donuts manager, who knew?  

What I did know was he didn’t give him 50 cents.

At first I wasn’t going to answer to “youngin,” but I had been pretty mindful of the fact that I shaved that morning. How could I blame him? I’m always told I look younger than I am.

“Hey, man, I just wanted to ask you if you had 50 cents I could borrow?”  he asked.

My biggest issue with giving change was that I always had to pull my wallet out. I never kept loose money in my pockets. It could be any amount of change; and there it was making my wallet big and lumpy.  I know I said I wouldn’t mention a previous time like this, but at this point it’s all I thought about.

 It was the middle of July and the humidity in the air made the surface of my skin stick like a slug.  I was walking a female friend of mine, Anna, home late at night.  She was making fun of how I was walking to prevent my shorts from sticking to my legs.

“You look like a lost penguin.”

“At least I don’t have webbed feet and a beak,” I teased

“Well you smell li-” she paused as a man approached us who had been sitting on a ledge by a house off to the right.

“You got two dollars?” he asked me.

“No I don’t,” I replied.

  He walked past her, directly to me, so I signaled for her to keep walking.

 I was only a freshman in high school at the time, and all I had on me was my phone. He was a dark heavy- set male with alcohol fresh on his breath.  After I told him I didn’t, he continued to insist on asking.

“Do you have two dollars I can borrow?”

“No I don’t have anything.”

 He heavily inhaled before speaking in this low-pitch monotone voice, exhaling afterward, while he  proceeded to put his right hand on my left shoulder. We never stopped making eye contact. A man standing at about 6 ft with a stare that pierced the soul, one I could feel and only felt before from the eyes of men who have taken lives.

His grip tightened, as if to intimidate me.  

The street light highlighted the sweat that slowly dripped off of each fold on his forehead, sliding into each crevasse and out again.  A dim, unsettling orange masked the area around us, the closed convenience store “open” sign to our right flickered on and off and it hummed at each light; not a soul in sight. The sound of each breath followed by an unsettling silence.  Heart pacing, as we glared at one another, refusing to show him the fear I felt.

“I really need this two dollars. I’m gonna die tonight and I don’t care about anything. I’ma have to take you with me,” he said while pointing at the sky with his right hand then placing it back on his waist.

He pulled up his shirt revealing the handle of a gun.  A quick glimpse caught my eye as the silver lining of the polished handle had cast my reflection, partially seen from my peripheral.  I thought to myself, All this for two dollars?

I don’t know why but I stayed calm, looking at him and his right shoulder for any movement.

“I’m gonna die and I don’t care what I have to do.”

“I ain’t got nothing man, only my phone,” I replied.

 He looked annoyed, sucking his teeth as he shook his head. Out of the blue almost spontaneously he started ranting about how he had someone looking for him and how he needed the money he owed them, that he’d be dead if he didn’t. Completely lost but less afraid than I had been previously, the weight on my shoulder seemed to get lighter.

“I’m gonna die tonight and there’s nothing I can do. I’m sorry I’d…” And then his hands came together as if he were praying.

“Doing this isn’t going to help you; I’d have given you the money if I had it.” I cautiously replied.

 Anna had continued walking and was waiting for me at the next block. She didn’t have a phone, but luckily I continued calmly talking to the guy and got out of what could have been a situation where I’d lost my life.

I’ll never know why, but when he finally let me go, I asked what his name was.

“They call me beef.”

 I wanted to laugh, but I knew that’d be a horrible decision , so I kept it in my head.

 

The irony of it all was that a few months later I’d run into him again. I used to smoke Marijuana in high school, and being that I was underage, no store vendor wanted to sell me a Dutch Master.  

I tried about 5 stores with no luck. I walked out of the last liquor store I knew I could’ve gotten one, about ten feet from where the incident happened. A heavy set man walked up to me and said,“They ain’t sell you a Dutch?”

“Nah man this some Bullshit.” I replied, annoyed.

“I got you.” I gave him the money and he went in and bought it for me.

“That’s some shit man, it’s just a Dutch,” he said while coming out.

 After handing it to me he told me something that made me freeze in place.

“My Names Beef,” he said.

 My eyes widened as he continued to tell me where he lived; told me if I ever needed some bud I could go to him.  I was too shocked to pay attention to the address and just thanked him and left.  

He spoke to me as if I’d never met him before.

How ironic, he once was shaking me down for 2 dollars and now, here he was helping me get what I wanted.  The universe was telling me something; and I didn’t realize it at that moment.

      

This was different, this man wasn’t drunk, or trying to intimidate me. He had told me he needed it for his bus ride home and that he had been asking people for over and hour.   I didn’t feel the same alertness as the time prior, so I pulled out my wallet containing only a dollar fifty.  I never carried around more then twenty or forty.

I handed him the two quarters.

“That guy was cheap.” he was talking about the guy in the car, while looking back at the spot, squinting his eyes and gritting his teeth.

“Don’t worry about him, man,” I said, hoping he’d understand not to hold a grudge, that there was no obligation for anyone to help him.

He opened his hand and began counting his total. He had mostly dimes.

“Thank you,” he replied, with an expression of relief. His face relaxed and his eyes opened.

“No problem, least I could do,” I said.

“I like that, that’s being a good Samaritan. God is going to bless you. I like your respect,” he’d said shortly after.

“You too, stay blessed,” I said.

He stood beside me, to my left, and gave me a quick embrace right below my shoulder with both arms. Then he started quickly walking toward the bus stop, thanking me as he did so.

 I went inside and my friends asked me what he wanted.

“Just some change to catch the bus,” I said. My one friend Joseph chuckled.

“He’s a grown ass man asking you for change?” he asked.

I ignored the comment and just chuckled to myself.

Usually when giving a man change with malicious intent, or for their cost of living, they’d stay in the same spot asking each person passing by for what I had already given them, zombies with an everlasting hunger for brains.

His immediate departure assured me that he just wanted to get home.  

I was glad I caught him when I did. He was so fed up and frustrated, as if he’d been denied a 100 times. Even the strongest minds can fall a victim to denial. 

Yea, maybe he used it for his daily uplift, a cigarette, drugs, or whatever it might have been; either way I feel as if I prevented him from going to an extreme.

I imagined myself in his position, how low I’d feel being a grown man asking for change, that I should have had myself.

The idea in and of itself helped me realize that a person in that position could cause major harm, not only to others, but to themselves as well.  

I honestly just hoped he’d make it home.

Everything we share with others holds value; some take it for granted, while others appreciate it.

I believe that if we give value that essence is taken with it.  I never give out of pity; I only give out of love for humanity.  

This man was told no maybe a hundred times, others thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, or just once even. We all have our limits; all I can do is remind people the value of change.

***

20160625_235852

Domingo J. Carrion born in Fajardo Puerto Rico and raised in the NJ & NY area. Portrays himself as an old soul with the imagination of a child, believing thay we can have everything in this world and still have nothing. He gets inspiration from friends, family, and acquaintances, both good and bad. His goal is to travel and become a journalist, with the intent to learn and understand that which makes us who we are. He writes short stories & poems.

Follow him on Instagram @d_carrion Facebook & Twitter @Lazy_Sunday
Contact him @ d.carrion1994@gmail.com

The Greek Tour (fm the Diary of Nero, 66-67 A.D.) – by ROBERT BOUCHERON

The Greek Tour

from the Diary of Nero, 66-67 A. D.

 

I am letting my hair grow long for my Greek tour. As a charioteer, I had it brushed up in front and short around the back, the style favored by professional racers. As an actor-singer-dancer on tour, I play the role of a citharode, in a long, un-belted gown and streaming hair. Besides, it’s unfair that only women should have long, flowing, gorgeous hair. They get to use cosmetics. Men can be glamorous with the right accessories.

At dinner today, I showed off my new look. Some guests from Greece begged me to sing, so I picked up my lyre and gave them a preview. They raved and made me do another number.

“You Greeks are the only ones with an ear for music,” I said. “Only you deserve me.”

*

Preparations for my tour are coming along. The company will be large, and I expect to be away for a year. There is so much to do. Phaon, the advisor for finance, is unsure.

“Given the hostility shown by some senators, may I suggest that you cancel the tour?”

“Recall your wits and put away sad fear!” I say, quoting Vergil. “The Roman people love me. The upper classes may want to assassinate me, but they can’t touch me if I’m not here. I can govern from outside Rome. Besides, why should King Tiridates be the only one who travels in style? I want to see the sights, and receive the glory that waits for me abroad. After quashing a conspiracy, Claudius led an expedition through Gaul to Britain, and he won a great victory. As an artist, I will conquer the east.”

“What about the autumn games? Can you bear to miss them?”

“We’ll leave Rome right after. By the time we return, Golden House will be ready.”

*

Finally, we are under way. I left my freedman Helius in charge, with power to confiscate, banish, and execute men of all ranks. Polyclitus will assist him as chief advisor. Nymphidius remains in Rome with part of the Praetorian Guard, while Tigellinus travels with me with two hundred of his best men. My dear wife Statilia is in the party, as is Calvia, the wardrobe mistress, and a contingent of dancing girls. My freedmen Epaphroditus, Pythagoras, Phoebus and others, staff for correspondence, my hairdresser, my astrologer, my voice coach Terpnus, other musicians, my fan club the Augustiani, a few senators, and the general Vespasian round out the entourage. With servants, cooks, wagon drivers, and hangers-on, we make quite an army, lumbering south through Latium.

Lovely though it is, we cannot linger. I am impatient to reach the land of Greece, the home of civilization. My destiny lies there, performing onstage.

*

From Brundisium, we crossed the Adriatic and landed on Corcyra. The first stop on our tour is Actium, for the games to celebrate the naval victory of my ancestor Augustus. Then we travel down to Corinth, which will be our base of operations. Destroyed over a century ago and rebuilt on Roman lines, Corinth is large and modern, centrally located, and able to host my entourage.

We are sending letters to all the Greek cities, inviting their best athletes and artists to participate, and changing the schedule of games. Normally held at four-year intervals and staggered, the games will all coincide next year so that I can compete. Religious scruples can be overcome. The Greeks are an accommodating people.

Our sea crossing took three days, as the company is so large and the weather was bad for early autumn. One of the ships carrying props and ornaments sank in the choppy waves. Calvia and her assistants are upset by the shipwreck, because some of the items were valuable. I am too excited to mind the loss of a few knick-knacks. At dinner, Calvia worried aloud.

“How will we replace the furs and feathers, not to mention the gilded items?”

“The fish will bring them back to me,” I said.

*

The envoy from Olympia arrived with no attendants, no gifts, and no attempt to charm. A leading citizen, he is a former athlete and conscious of his own past glory. Laconic to a fault, he waited for me to speak.

“In addition to taking part in the athletic contests, I will appear onstage.”

“The Olympic Games do not include music and drama. The town does not even have a theater.”

“In that case, as your friend and benefactor, I will institute new contests in the arts and construct a new theater to hold them.”

“Caesar’s generosity is well known.”

“Like my Amphitheater in Rome, it will be a wooden structure, so as to be ready in six months. Fortunately, my entourage includes an engineer, carpenters, and other craftsmen for the stage. I will send them off at once to Olympia with detailed drawings.”

“As you wish.”

*

We are still getting the kinks out of our concert program. The dance routines need work. While the musicians are playing their hearts out and producing the most wonderful sound effects, the dancing girls are tripping over their costumes and bumping into each other. They look like a flock of pigeons when you throw bread. I called them together and gave them a lecture.

“Practice, practice, practice! You must learn the steps and coordinate the arm movements and make it all look graceful. Or else! You cannot all be whipped, since the welts would look unattractive. But I promise you, if the next performance is no better, you will be decimated like army soldiers after a defeat. One tenth will be picked at random and punished.”

*

We presented our first concert in Greece as a kind of road show or preview. My troupe and I performed at Nicopolis in the Actian Games. The stadium was rebuilt and enlarged not long ago. It seats ten thousand, and so far as I could tell with my nearsighted eyes, it was filled. The singers traveling with me did well, and several Greek singers competed.

This was my first real competition. I’m adding to my repertoire, but for this debut I stuck to old standards like the “Hymn to Apollo” and “Niobe’s Lament.” A lyre string snapped, which threw me off so that I had to start over. Everyone agreed it wasn’t my fault, even the other contestants. Once I got the trembling under control, I sang superbly. My long hours of rehearsal paid off, or I was inspired by the occasion, or my personal appeal had some effect. The judges awarded me the first place in solo performance.

*

We are comfortably camped near Corinth, our winter quarters for the new conquest of Greece. There are no lodgings within the city walls large enough for us—not without displacing thousands of citizens—so we constructed our own city in the style of a Roman army camp. My pavilion is sumptuous, with acres of fabric and ingenious ways to raise and lower it.

In the spring, we sally forth for the Olympic Games, followed by the Isthmian Games here. Then in summer come the Nemean Games just to the south, and the Pythian Games at Delphi. It is a demanding schedule, but worthy of my talent. With months of rest and rehearsal, my troupe will deliver a performance worthy of Greece. It will be an artistic event without precedent. Meanwhile, we give concerts. I sing and perform dramatic recitations for invited guests.

“Your Greek is perfect,” they say, “but pronunciation here varies from what you learned as a boy in Italy. And the classic tragedies contain archaic words and obscure language, things that trip up the most accomplished speakers.”

A kind friend promises to coach me in the subtleties of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. His fee is reasonable. He calls my attention to the historic nature of this tour.

“Your appearance is a first in several ways. It is the first time a Roman has achieved artistic success in Greece. It is the first performance of your compositions abroad. And it is the first time the role of a king like Agamemnon or Oedipus has been played by a ruling monarch.”

*

People live well here, but no one entertains on the lavish scale of Nero. My dinner parties are the talk of the town. Opinions are mixed. With their proud memories of the Persian war centuries ago, some scoff at my “oriental luxury.” Others frankly admire my “splendor and magnificence.” We pump money into the local economy. The suppliers and merchants adore us. The landed aristocracy is not so sure. We combine Greek and Roman customs, and that confuses them.

A young man of exquisite taste, the son of a wealthy merchant, chides me for staying in camp. As beautiful as he is idle, he lies next to me at dinner and rattles on in Greek.

“Nero, I wonder at your inactivity. You ought to take your exceptional voice to Athens. Surely that capital of culture deserves a song.”

“Athenians who wish to can hear me in Corinth. My dinner table is open to all.”

“On the contrary,” he pouts, “you hoard the riches of your art.”

And so on. Privately, I am told that audiences in Athens are undiscriminating and rude.  Who knows what stunts they might pull if I appeared in public there?

*

Today I am twenty-nine years old. No longer a young man, I have put on weight. Some of my outfits are tight and must be altered. My physician Andromachus examines me. He pokes and prods, tickles and thumps, listens to the beating of my heart, and smells my breath. He pores over a urine sample.

“You are as sound as a drum,” he says. “May I suggest, though, that you moderate your eating and drinking. Every night is a party, and the wine flows freely. You can drink your companions under the table, Caesar, but should you? Drink less, and the morning headaches will improve. Apart from that, you are poised to enter the prime of life.”

*

I have mastered the art of delegation. Yet despite my top-notch staff, and strict instructions to reduce the gory details to a crisp executive summary, being on tour is much like business as usual. Messengers arrive and depart daily. Letters must be read and written, appointments made, supporters rewarded and miscreants punished. The empire grinds on, like a mill that never stops.

News comes from Judaea that the revolt is not winding down, but gathering strength. The rebels took control of Jerusalem in the summer. The twelfth legion marched from Syria to Judaea and besieged the city. Despite inferior numbers, the Jews met the Roman army in battle, forced them to retreat, and slaughtered the rear guard. They declared independence and minted their own coins.

This is a disaster and an insult to our prestige. My traveling council meets. We decide to send Vespasian to deal with the revolt. The general came with us for the pleasure of his company, but I also intended a reconnaissance mission to the Danube and beyond. The Black Sea region is of interest as a source of raw materials, food, and manpower. It could be new province.

Competent and trustworthy, Vespasian will sail to Caesarea, assess the situation on the ground, gather troops as needed, and move against the rebels. His son Titus will serve under him as a field commander.

*

Letters from Helius arrive from Rome. They include announcements for the new year, inauguration of magistrates, sacrifices on the Capitol, and budget figures—interminable lists of names and numbers. Helius ends his personal letter with a plea.

“The political situation is tenuous, Nero. I urge you to reconsider this tour of Greece, to return as soon as possible.”

We’ve only been away for three months. Helius is conscientious and lacks ambition, the ideal combination for a caretaker, which is why I chose him. He hears muttering, thinks it is political discontent and is afraid. I dictate a reply.

“You are right to keep me abreast of things in Rome, but wrong to suggest that I return. To cancel my tour would disappoint many people here. We have arranged the year’s schedule of games, given orders for lodging, food, transport and necessities, and invited thousands to attend. We have assembled an excellent program of entertainment. Rehearsals are going smoothly. I am in training. Even the dancing girls are getting whipped into shape. The show must go on!”

*

We move to Olympia for the games next month. I am nervous, but I feel that we are prepared. With rehearsals, athletic training, chariot practice, the design of sets and costumes, and poetic composition, I am busier than ever.

In all this bustle, I do not neglect Statilia. Producing an heir is vital, as everyone reminds me. I make regular visits to her pavilion, which she has arranged to resemble a garden house. For lack of fresh flowers, she strews dried petals, hangs garlands of ivy, sprays perfume, and so on.

“I’m a city girl at heart, Nero. You knew that when you married me. I adore gardens, and there’s nothing I like better than porticoes and peristyles on a hot summer day. But camping in a tent in winter makes me appreciate the comforts of home.”

“Spring is just around the corner, my dear. Shall we?”

Our conjugal embraces are businesslike. A compliment on her dress and hairstyle, a few minutes of passion, and I am on my way.

*

In Greece, I feel free. I enjoy my male companions without the hypocritical sneers of Roman society. We do what we like here. Petronius is no longer around to jot down names and sniff with disapproval.

Pythagoras is an old friend and an experienced pederast.  He has taught me an enormous amount. He uses me like a woman, and he makes me want it. He shows me how desirable I am.

On the other hand, Calvia has graciously surrendered a young servant named Sporus. A sweet, tender, slim, delicious boy, he bears an uncanny likeness to Poppaea. That is how he caught my attention. He lies on my couch at dinner. We snuggle and share tidbits. We drink from the same cup. If our lips touch or if our hands stray, no one bats an eye. We are all men here. In Greek style, the women dine separately, in their own quarters.

“It is a consolation to have you near me, Sporus,” I say. “You are a gift from Venus. If you were a woman, I would marry you.”

*

  The new theater in Olympia is wonderful. We rehearsed in it yesterday, and the first round in the singing competition took place today. Seeing the other singers backstage, I was anxious. To their faces, I showed respect and made ingratiating comments to win their favor. Behind their backs, I cut them to pieces.  Artists behave this way. I want them to think I know the business. Before my debut, I addressed the judges.

“Reverend sirs, I beg your indulgence. I have worked hard and done all that can be done to prepare. The outcome is in the hands of the gods. Being men of wisdom and experience, you will overlook any mishaps.”

One judge told me to take heart, but the others remained silent, which made me suspicious. I performed, followed all the rules, and made no serious mistakes. I ended on a sustained high note that is not strictly traditional. They were on the edge of their seats with surprise and pleasure. They voted, and I made it through the first round. Tomorrow the stakes are raised as we perform in public.

*

Today I listened carefully to the other singers from backstage. I heard wrong notes and poor phrasing, as if they made mistakes on purpose. I followed the advice of my voice coach Terpnus.

“You can always learn something, if only what not to do.”

My turn came last. When I walked onstage, I was so nervous that I dropped my lyre. One of my guards knelt to pick it up. As he handed it to me, I placed a hand firmly on his shoulder so he would remain kneeling. That way, the judges would think it was all for dramatic effect. I started to sing faster than I intended, realized I was running out of breath, and slowed down. I made this seem deliberate, as if the words were especially poignant. When I reached the last note, I held it as long as possible. This is my trademark. It’s a bit showy, but it demonstrates breath control. The judges conferred, then announced that I won first place, the crown of wild olive leaves. What a glorious victory!

*

The athletic contests concluded today with the chariot races, the most prestigious event and the one that draws the biggest crowd. Wealthy team owners from all over Greece compete, and they hire professional drivers. Whoever wins shares the glory between sponsor and driver. My case is unique in that I fill both roles.

I performed well in the racing trials for both two-horse and four-horse chariots. The judges advanced me to the finals. Before that, just to give it a try, I raced a ten-horse chariot. This is the supreme test of skill, and I pulled it off. The course was a straightaway, as turning would be impractical. The power of ten horses was exhilarating, something few mortals can ever know.

In the final race, I was in the second lap when my chariot hit a bump, or a wheel came loose, or one of the horses pulled. At any rate, I lost my balance and was thrown from the chariot. The judges stopped the race. The attendants dusted me off and put me back in the chariot. We all started again where we left off, but after one lap I felt dizzy and we had to stop again. The judges gathered to deliberate. While they were deliberating, I sent them a message.

“In addition to the new theater, I wish to donate 250,000 drachmas as a thank offering to Olympian Zeus.”

The judges conferred and issued a ruling.

“Since none of the teams finished the race, and since he was clearly ahead when unforeseen circumstances forced an end, we declare the winner to be Nero.”

I accepted the olive crown in a daze. The cheers of the crowd sounded oddly distant. Still, I won, and that is the important thing.

*

My love for Sporus is no secret among my entourage. We are like one big family here in Corinth. Tigellinus and others overheard my remark to the boy, that if he were a woman I would marry him. They put their heads together and dreamed up a delightful surprise.

Sporus is a little vain. They convinced him that the only way for him to stay fresh and lovely was to skip manhood. In other words, he should become a eunuch. Eunuchs are common in Asia and not unknown in Greece. Castration is a simple operation. He agreed, my physician did the honors, and the result is charming. With his blond hair and milk-white complexion, and without his male organs, Sporus is more like Poppaea than ever. I now call him Sabina, which was Poppaea’s second name.

Tigellinus went farther and staged a wedding ceremony for us. Today in the presence of witnesses, with my group of musicians playing and chanting “Hymen, o hymen!” we were married. Sabina wore a dress and veil provided by Calvia from the wardrobe. I wore a short saffron tunic, lots of bangles and my Olympic crown. The Augustiani performed the role of guests, murmuring “How adorable!” and “What a smart couple!” and bursting into applause at the right moment. Tigellinus played the father of the bride, provided the dowry, and sent us off on our honeymoon.

We are staying at a suburban villa lent by a rich Corinthian, a modest place with an elegant peristyle garden. Sabina and I are like two doves, continually billing and cooing. I giggle as I write this, deliriously happy, with Sabina fluttering behind me.

*

Walking near the port with some leading citizens, I notice surveyor flags in the ground. We are at the isthmus, the neck of land that separates the Corinthian Gulf from the Aegean Sea. It is three or four miles wide at the narrowest point. Julius Caesar thought of digging a canal here, and Caligula revived the idea, but nothing came of it. Knowing of my canal in Campania, the Corinthians want to show me the place. A spokesman explains the possibilities.

“A canal will benefit shipping from the Aegean to Italy. Ships must now sail around the Peloponnesus, exposed to the hazards of the southern capes. The canal will be safer and reduce travel time. It will benefit Corinth, already a prime commercial center, by funneling more trade through its territory. And it will add to your prestige as the sponsor.”

“Why don’t you dig this canal yourselves?”

“It is too large an undertaking for one city. No other city will cooperate with Corinth out of jealousy, certainly not Athens or Sparta. And superstition opposes a violation of nature, the joining of two seas by human effort. Some say the gods will punish anyone who alters their creation.”

The Corinthians do not labor under this misconception, and neither do I. I order my engineers to study the lay of the land and draw a plan for the new canal.

*

This morning, I inaugurate the Isthmian Canal. Emerging from a tent pitched on the site, I sing a hymn to Neptune and Amphitrite, then speak to the crowd.

“The success of this project will be due to myself and the Roman people. The senate took no vote. They really do not matter anymore. Greece is my second home, and the Greek people are as dear to me as my own.”

The procurator of Achaea hands me a golden spade, and I thrust it in the earth. An odd sound comes out of the ground, like a groan or rumble.

“A minor tremor,” the Greeks say, “frequent in this part of the world. Earthquakes sometimes make a noise but no movement.”

Unperturbed, I dig three more spadesful. By this time, the sun is hot, and I begin to sweat. I throw the spade aside. Hundreds of workers are lined up, waiting to begin. I give the signal.

*

The Isthmian Games took place on schedule, within sight of the canal excavation. Like the Olympic Games but on a smaller scale, they include athletic events and races, poetry recitations, a tragedy, and an art show, which allows the potters and painters to display their wares. I took part in the artistic events as a competitor, and in the athletic events as a judge. Wrestling and boxing are my favorites. I squat close enough to touch the nude athletes. I also like to watch them run and jump, but I can’t see as well. I raced my chariot, after making sure that it was repaired, in the premier event of the games.

I won first place in all the contests I entered. This shows how well my training has paid off, and how much the Greeks appreciate excellence. The crown for these games is a branch of pine, which is appropriate. Scrub pine is all that grows in the light, dry soil here.

During my dramatic presentation of “The Frenzy of Hercules,” an incident occurred. The part called for me to appear bound, due to a fit of madness. Iron shackles would be in bad taste, so I wore golden chains. My German guard, unfamiliar with the conventions of Greek tragedy, assumed that I was in trouble and rushed to my aid. I improvised an aside in Latin, so the guard would not kill the other actors. The audience liked my quick wit. They applauded so vigorously that I had to step forward, out of character, and ask them to let the play continue.

This is the same guard who was onstage when I played the role of the pregnant Canace. I wore a mask with the features of Poppaea, but he knew it was really me. With a pillow stuffed under my tunic and my long hair streaming loose, I was pretending to be in labor. Groaning and screaming in pain, I spread my legs and pressed my swollen stomach with my hands. This fellow, impressed by my acting but ignorant of Greek, asked what was happening. Another guard said: “Hush! The emperor is having a baby.”

*

Another letter from Helius in Rome urges me to abbreviate my Greek tour, and hurry home to deal with a political crisis. Again, he does not say what the crisis is, exactly. Does he have a misplaced sense of delicacy, a lack of evidence? I reply with a list of my prizes, my concert program, and a decree of thanks from the people of Corinth. My letter ends this way.

“However much you desire my speedy return, you ought to hope that I return victorious.”

*

We traveled up to Delphi for the Pythian Games last month. This was my chance to shine, as they are devoted to poetry and music, the arts dear to Apollo. I apply myself to the task, and I come away with several crowns of laurel. These sacred leaves are more precious to me than gold. I will treasure them always.

Naturally, I visit the famous shrine of Apollo and consult the oracle. By custom, great men make an offering. To show my magnificence, I vow 400,000 sesterces. The priests express their gratitude.

The young noble priestess called Pythia breathes the fumes that rise from the cleft in the earth. She enters a trance, sways and moans, then babbles in a low voice. She becomes louder and more distinct, but I can’t make out what she says. The priests explain that the words are verses, often obscure. They write as she utters, and they interpret as needed. In the end, they hand me this:

      “Hail, Caesar! Wings of eagles hover near,

      And yet beware the seventy-third year.”

The first line means that the Roman armies support me, with their eagle standards, or that victory will continue to follow me in Greece. The second line means that I will live to a ripe old age. No important person is seventy-three except Galba, whom I appointed governor of Spain.

*

“I hate you, Nero, because you are a senator,” my dear Vatinius says. He likes to tease.

My views on the senate are known to some. Today at dinner, I air them fully.

“Stuffed with conservative old men, corroded by special interests, and weighed down by archaic customs and procedural rules, it serves no useful purpose. It does not represent the people, and I cannot trust it to support the government. If all six hundred senators disappeared tomorrow, a tiresome burden would be lifted from the state.”

*

Tigellinus through his agents investigated the general Corbulo, under suspicion for disloyalty. Despite his success in Armenia and his long record of service, family connections linked him to plots against me. His sympathies lay with the old guard of the senate. Based on Tigellinus’s report, I summoned Corbulo to Greece for a conference. I did not give an agenda or give any hint of displeasure. He complied readily.

When his ship reached Corinth, my servant met him at the dock with a detachment of the guard and handed him a message. The message was an order to commit suicide. Then and there, Corbulo drew his sword and fell on it. All he said was one word in Greek: “Worthy!”

No one can say what he meant. Realizing that the game was over, did he see self-sacrifice as a worthy deed? Or since I outmaneuvered him, that I was a worthy opponent?

At any rate, Corbulo was sixty years old, born of noble ancestors, and a consul under Caligula. He was even related to me, since Caligula married his half-sister. Under Claudius, he commanded legions in lower Germany. He then became governor of Asia. He served me as governor of Syria, and he dealt with the Parthian invaders in Armenia. Pride was his downfall. Like a figure in tragedy, he formed a high opinion of himself, and the gods cut him down.

*

Helius writes from Rome urging me to come back, the third such letter. If a conspiracy is under way, he ought to give names, something to act on. Instead, he says this.

“You have made a clean sweep of the Greek festivals. You have won everlasting glory. Nothing remains to hold you there.”

“The delights of Corinth mean nothing to Helius,” my friends say. “He has never tasted the sweet savor of victory. If he is unpopular in Rome, he has only himself to blame. He put to death Sulpicius Camerinus and his son because of their ancestral name Pythicus. They refused to renounce it after your victory at the Pythian Games. Helius interpreted this as an insult, though you made no protest.”

*

Progress on the Isthmian Canal was disappointing, as few of the local population were inclined to work on it. I could not very well force them to volunteer or draft their servants, since they are my friends. So I wrote to Vespasian to send his Jewish prisoners to Corinth. Six thousand of them arrived a few days ago. We gave them shovels, picks and mattocks, and they are digging. They have barely made a dent.

Over dinner and wine, I encourage the free flow of ideas. We could move the capital from Rome to Greece. My Greek friends are enthusiastic over this. We could move our base of operations to Asia or Alexandria. Arguably, the empire’s center of gravity lies in the east, which is richer and more civilized. We could advance into Pontus, as I originally wanted, except that the generals are busy in Judaea. We could even visit Parthia as King Tiridates suggested. We are allies now after decades of war.

I am toying with a scheme to build a new city, perhaps on the site of Troy, or at the other end of the Hellespont, near Byzantium.

“The natural harbor there is superb,” the Greeks say.

*

Helius left Polyclitus in charge and made a flying trip to deliver his fourth message in person. Eyes bulging and out of breath, as if he had run the whole way from Rome to Corinth, he bursts into my pavilion.

“Nero, I got here in seven days. I will leave at once if you promise to return.”

“Relax, my good fellow. Why are you so worked up?”

He looks around at my entourage, seeing them for the first time, and is taken aback. We are all in makeup and costume, though no performance is scheduled. We pose languidly on couches, strum lyres, and nibble on fruit. Sabina presides as the queen of my court. As Helius realizes that she is really Sporus, he represses a shudder.

“How about a stroll?” I say.

Helius and I leave the company arm in arm, with the guard a few paces behind us. Helius explains the situation in Rome.

“A prolonged absence leads to discontent, which allows some opportunist to seize power. It can be anyone. We do not need a name. People worry about the grain supply, and there have been no entertainments for over a year. These two things only you can guarantee—bread and circuses. Without them, the people cease to love you.”

“Suppose you are right?” The air clears my head, and Helius makes me uneasy.

“Romans are fickle. They love promises. And out of sight is out of mind.”

“Indeed.”

“Do you remember the Piso conspiracy two years ago?”

“I do.” A wave of revulsion passes through me.

“On the other hand, Golden House has made great progress during the past year.”

“Ah, yes. My palace.”

“You must see it, occupy it, and live as you are meant to—as Nero!”

*

“My love for the Roman people is too strong to resist. My heart is with them—it pulls in my breast. I have dallied too long in a foreign country, and now I hasten home. I invite the Greeks to Corinth for a tearful farewell, a final performance, as we reenact the Isthmian Games held six months ago. On the last day of the festival, I will make a special announcement on the future of Greece. How lucky those who live here!”

That is the statement I made today. It was read aloud to the Corinthians and sent in letters to all the Greek cities. My entourage is taken by surprise, especially Tigellinus.

“I ought to be consulted on all matters.”

“You are my dearest friend and my favorite police chief. The head of my council is Doryphorus.”

Tigellinus swallows his disappointment, while others openly sulk. Sabina weeps becomingly, like a damsel in distress. I dab her cheeks with a napkin and whisper endearments. Helius looks away, embarrassed. After a late breakfast, he departs for a whirlwind gallop back to Rome.

*

The Isthmian Games are drawing to an end—again. Once again I have won all the crowns for first place in drama, poetry, singing, and chariot racing. Menecrates, Paris, Diodorus, and the other artists traveling with me did their best.

“We know when we are fairly beaten,” Terpnus says.

Attendance is good, though my longer programs fatigue some who are not used to the demands of art.  Fainting and spasm are reported. One elderly man was carried out of the theater lying flat, looking as dead as a corpse. I had to pause in the middle of a soliloquy until they were outside, then start all over from the beginning. My orchestra and corps de ballet performed as never before, the same program they have been doing all year. This goes to show that practice makes perfect.

*

Today, on the last day of the festival, I made a formal declaration to the province of Achaea. Representatives from all Greek cities were present, as well as visitors from Asia, Sicily, Italy and Egypt. I stood in the middle of the stadium, dressed in my purple cape spangled with gold stars.

“I hereby declare the province to be free, which is to say, exempt from tribute tax to Rome.”

This news elicited a roar of approval, a thunderstorm that lasted several minutes, as men of all ranks and ages leaped to their feet, clapped their hands and shouted. When I could be heard, I continued.

“Moreover, I hereby confer Roman citizenship on all the judges who served at Actium, Olympia, Nemea, Delphi, and especially Corinth. Their impartial decisions and admirable conduct earned them this mark of favor. Finally, I make grants of money to the host cities, to defray the expenses of the games and their kind hospitality to my imperial suite.”

This announcement brought another tempest of applause. I heard myself hailed as Apollo, Heracles, Orpheus, Dionysus, and Zeus the Liberator. The Greeks are an effusive people.

The wagons were already loaded, the musical instruments stowed, and the costumes packed. Our tents had been struck. Whatever scenery and paraphernalia we could not take home was thrown in an enormous heap and torched, like a funeral pyre. The plume of smoke mixed with the cloud of dust raised by our departing train.

***

Robert Boucheron

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, Hot Metal Bridge, Lowestoft Chronicle, New Haven Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Poydras Review, Short Fiction.

*Featured artwork courtesy of the brilliant artist, Toby Penney*

Sleeping Beauty – by MELISSA LIBBEY

Sleeping Beauty

 

The house is a war zone; minefields of clothing piles on the floor. Food left on the table, gathering flies. The smell reminds me of the town-dump. When we would drive past, I’d have to roll up my windows just to stop my eyes from watering.

She takes off my jacket and hangs it over the couch.

“Why don’t you and your brother go upstairs to play,” she says more than asks.

I hesitate; I watch her pull up a chair with her friend to the kitchen table.

They hold those red and white cans that make her breath smell weird. She smiles and encourages me to join the others. I’d rather stay by her side, but I walk to the stairs to join the boys in their bedroom.

The bunk beds are trashed with action figures and video game cases. I sit on the floor in the corner.

When the oldest one notices me, he points at me.

He explains how I would be perfect because I am so small and light. He gestures for me to stand.

I cringe but I stand up and join them. W.W.E is on the TV and they are demonstrating the wrestling moves with a pillow.

But now they want to use me instead.

After what feels like hours of the Choke slam, The RKO and the Last Ride, I sit on the bed to watch the two boys and my little brother play a wrestling video game.

My arms are red and raw from being lifted and pulled. I’m tired and there is nothing for me to play with…so I decide to go downstairs.

As I walk down the stairs, I hear laughter.

I turn the corner into the kitchen and I see her head down on the table. Her eyes are closed and she doesn’t wake when I shake her. I see the white powder on her nose and the rest is covering the table. I look up and her friend is now laughing with what looks like her boyfriend who just got home from work.

He smiles at me. “She is taking a nap,” he says.

I tell them I want to go home; I want to go to bed.

He leads me into the living room and grabs a blanket off of the couch. He tells me to lie down before covering me with the blanket. The couch smells musty and old, bathed in cigarette smoke.

It’s hard to fall asleep at first because of the sounds coming from the kitchen.

But then I give into my tired eyes and drift off to sleep.

When I wake up, it’s still dark in the house.

There is a coldness running down my spine. It’s so quiet that it takes me a moment to realize that the coldness I feel is someone’s hand.

He is behind me. Lying with me on the couch, he has his hand up my shirt. He is rubbing my back. My breath quickens; I don’t know what to do. He is now stroking my hair, breathing it in. I decide to stay quiet.

This isn’t my home, maybe this is how it is here?

He isn’t hurting me, so I let it go. Now he is breathing hard and I feel something pushing up against my back. I feel the tears in my eyes but I hold them back. I just want to go home.

I decide that I will pretend to be sleeping beauty. As one of my favorite Disney movies I have seen it many times. The fair beauty with the yellow hair and red lips sleeps until she is awakened by true love’s kiss. I tell myself that I can sleep like her, too. I ignore the hand that is once again creeping up my back and I try to fall asleep.

Suddenly the lights are on and I hear yelling coming from the kitchen.

She runs over to the couch with a knife and tells him to get off of me.

“I swear to God that I will kill you if you ever touch her again!” she screams.

She pulls me off of the couch and grabs my jacket. After collecting my sleeping brother, we walk out into the cold night and drive home. That was the last time we ever went to that house and it was the last time it was ever spoken about.

***

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Melissa Libbey is a recent graduate with her MA in English and Writing Studies. She is also the first intern for Sick Lit Magazine. When she isn’t writing or reading, she can be found drinking wine while petting her dog. She has also been published on Thought Catalog, Kean Xchange and find her on Twitter: @Miss_Libbey16

*Featured artwork courtesy of the brilliance that is: Toby Penney*

King of Hearts – by SEBNEM SANDERS (S.E. SANDERS)

King of Hearts

Annoyed with the dismal news on the television, Joe grabbed the remote and switched it off. Tapping his fingers on the table of the hospital bed, he pondered on what to do next. Time warped and stretched infinitely in the ward, as various illnesses spread inside the bodies of the patients at the speed of light. Book or magazine?  Book, another life story to delve into. A temporary remedy to ignore his own one.

 

As he turned to the bedside table to browse the unread paperbacks, the bald head of a child appeared through the doorway. Big blue eyes, above a white mask covering the rest of his face, he peeked into the room.

 

“Hey, alien child, what are doing on my stage? Planning some kind of burglary?”

“I’m exploring the building.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be upstairs with the other alien kids?”

“I’m not an alien. I live here and you’re bald as well.”

 

“Well, I’m an actor in this House of Comedy. This is my make-up for the latest TV series, which is more popular than ER. The crew has gone for a coffee break, and we’re awaiting their return.”

Joe saw the hint of a smile in the child’s eyes, as the patient lying in the next bed began his routine moans and groans.

 

“Why does he make this noise? Is he hurting?”

“Not necessarily. He’s from another planet, doesn’t speak our language.”

“Can’t you teach him?”

“I tried, but he’s not very good with languages. By the way, my name is Joe, what’s yours?”

“Shadow, I’m the shadow of the boy upstairs. Actually, I’m there, but my shadow can show up anywhere I’d like to go.”

“So you’re unreal. Welcome to the setting of our show. The director didn’t say this episode included the part of an alien child. “

“Can I play?”

“Of course, you can, but I’m finding it hard to relate to your expression under that mask. Come close, I’ll improve your make-up.”

 

The child approached him, staring at the tubes attached to his hand and body, before gazing at the books and pens on the bedside table. Joe picked up a blue felt pen, and drew a clown’s mouth on the boy’s mask.

 

“There, you’re laughing now. That’s essential for a comedy. We can play until the guards come and get you. Not sure you’re allowed here.”

 

Nurse Alice stepped into the ward, rolling her eyes. “Billy, the fugitive. The doctor has told you many times not to wander into the other wards. Germs, remember? Come, I’ll take you upstairs.”

 

Billy sighed behind the laughing mask, and relented with a sideways glance at Joe.

“His name is Shadow, Alice. Listen, Shadow, next time you escape, bring some colourful felt pens, a drink and a pack of cigarettes. Any female actors will also be appreciated to join the show. Not enough girls around here.”

 

“You’re not supposed be smoking. You have the big C. I’ll see what I can do about the rest,” Shadow said, as Alice took his hand and dragged him out.

Alice returned with disapproval etched upon on her face. “You should have rung the bell, Joe. The leukaemia kids are not allowed direct contact with other patients. Billy has a habit of escaping, and it’s not good for him.”

 

“I worry about you, Alice in Woncologyland. We’re already infected with the disease. You should be the one wearing the mask. I think it would suit you, make you more mysterious.”

She laughed. “Come, Joe, it’s bathing time. Let’s get that gown off and make you nice and fresh. Groaner is the next in line.” She drew the curtain around the bed and began her task.

“Stop making passes at me, Alice. You can’t have my illegitimate child.”

“I’m not Garp’s mother and I don’t need a child from you. I already have one of my own.”

“I know. I was writing another screenplay, not original though. Just an evocative one.”

“Listen, if you want to talk to the children, you can see them in the garden, but you must wear a mask. Better than being cooped up here, all day. I’ll take you out in a wheel-chair. “

“Deal.”

On a sunny day, Alice wheeled Joe’s chair into the grounds where the children played. He held the stem of his drip as the contraption rolled along beside him. He’d already drawn a smiling mouth on his mask. Shadow came up to him, followed by a group of kids, all of them pale, their skin almost translucent.

 

“This is Flower,” he said, pointing to a shorter child.

“Nice to meet you, Flower. Now, line up here, so I can complete your make-up. Give me your names to inspire me. Felt pens, please, Shadow.”

Apart from the colours and the shapes of their eyes, but lacking eyebrows, eyelashes and hair on their heads, the masks they wore made them appear androgynous. Shadow gave him the box of pens and Joe set to work. Once the make-up session finished, he presented him with a small carton of orange juice and a short pencil.

 

“Your drink and cigarette,” he said, winking.

“Thank you, I thought you’d forgotten. I need a glass. Can’t have my drink out of a carton.”

 

Alice brought him a plastic glass and poured the juice. Joe lifted the mask from his mouth and took a sip. Placing the pencil between his lips, he drew a deep breath and exhaled.

 

“All set now, Gang. Shall we rob the blood bank and sell the loot to the vampires, or burgle the medicine cabinet, drug the nurses, and make our escape from here?”

 

“Escape!” they shouted in unison.

“Agreed. Those big smiles on your masks will fool the staff who will fail to see the vicious expressions concealed underneath.”

****

The next time Shadow escaped to the ward, Joe’s bed was empty. No sign of his books or papers on the bedside table. He tiptoed to Groaner’s side and poked him. “Where’s Joe?”

 

Groaner turned his head. A single tear rolled down his face as he muttered something incoherent.

 

Alice entered the room and put her hand on Shadow’s shoulder. “Joe had to go, Billy, but he left something for you.”

 

She produced a paper from her pocket and watched him read the note, written in multicoloured letters.

 

Hey Shadow, I’ve been offered a contract by a Hollywood producer and had to leave. Make sure you carry on with the show down here. Joe xxx      

-The End-

***

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Sebnem E. Sanders is a native of Istanbul, Turkey. Currently she lives on the Eastern shores of the Southern Aegean Sea where she dreams and writes Flash Fiction and Flash Poesy, as well as longer works of fiction. Her flash stories have been published on the Authonomy Blog,  The Drabble, and  Sick Lit Magazine. She has a completed manuscript, The Child of Heaven and two works in progress, The Child of Passion and The Lost Child.  Her collection of short and flash fiction stories, Ripples on the Pond, will be published this year. More information can be found at her website: https://sebnemsanders.wordpress.com/ where she publishes some of her work.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sebnemsanders

*Featured photo courtesy of Brian Michael Barbeito*

Purgatory – by SARA CODAIR

Purgatory

By Sara Codair

I’ve been climbing forever; higher and higher, never stopping.

My muscles scream for rest, but my feet keep pounding their funeral beat on the thin steel steps. It’s a song of revenge and repentance, of a life wasted by greed.

When I was a child, I used to chase Elsie Cole up the winding stairs at school. I’d poke her with a ruler and drop spiders in her hair. She’d scream and run and squeal, crying harder with each flight. Often, I’d chase her right up to the roof.

I didn’t stop until the day she threatened to jump.

I gasp. Chemicals slither across my tongue, down my throat and twine their serpentine bodies around my lungs, burning me inside with their vengeful venom.

As a young man, I managed a textile manufacturing facility. We engineered and fabricated military uniforms. I tried to save every penny I could;  I chose to buy fancy cars and vintage wine. I lied on my taxes. I ignored EPA regulations, dumped waste, spewed gas, didn’t care what I did to the world.

The only green I cared about was the green on my dollar bills.

Coughing, I want to collapse, curl up, shake and scream.

I know that to stop is to die, but I don’t care.

I just can’t keep going.

I tell my legs to stop moving and my lungs to stop hacking, but they keep going against my will. Something more powerful moves me forward, forcing me to endure the pain, to know what it is to not control my own body.

A marionette manipulated by a cruel master, I rip my shirt off as I run. My pants come next. Even as I trip, I keep pushing forward. Thorny vines twine around me. They creep inside every opening they find and make openings where there are none. Even as my body is being cut open and strangled, I can’t stop running.

It’s a fitting end, I suppose, since I’ve never been good at stopping. I didn’t stop kissing when girls told me to. I didn’t stop polluting when the government told me too. I didn’t stop driving when my son told me too.  Blinded by old age, I drove my corvette into a bus.

I can’t remember how long I’ve been climbing for, coughing for, screaming for and bleeding for.  I can’t remember what time is. I can’t remember what it feels like to live and love.

Did I ever live? Did I ever love?

All I know is the burning of exhaustion, of used up adrenaline.

Has it been days? Decades? Centuries?

Does it matter?

Everything below me is on fire; and I want to stop more than ever. I want to let the fire catch me, sear my skin from my body and choke my lungs until I am no more.

I understand now. It’s hell below me. It’s the only place I belong.

The vines loosen.

Finally, I’m allowed to rest, broken and bleeding on melting steel steps.

If I could go back and do things differently, I would. Not to avoid this fate, but because I know what it is to suffer, to run, to lose control. If I could do anything to spare those I hurt from this pain, I would. I would do anything and everything to spare them.

I can’t change time. There is no forgiveness for me.

Screams, explosions and gunshots echo in the distance.  My head spins. Darkness circles my vision.  

“I’m sorry,” I whisper over and over as I listen to the gnashing and snarling grow louder and louder.

“I’m sorry!” I shout as the fear grows. “If I knew what it was like, I never would have done it. Forgive me, if you can. Live, if you can! Be happy and strong to spite me.”

Flames lick my toes, sending fresh waves of agony coursing through my frayed nerves.

“This is it,” I say, sitting up to face the demons. “Take me. I’m one of you.”

But as I crawl forward, the flames recede. The snarling fades until I can’t hear it at all.

The darkness explodes with searing light that burns my sins away until we are no more.

Bliss.

I’m floating in bliss.

***

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Sara Codair writes because her brain is overcrowded with stories. If she doesn’t get them out, she fears her head will explode. When she isn’t making things up, she is teaching, binge reading fantasy novels or enjoying nature. She won second place in the Women on Writing Winter 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. Her other stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from After Lines, 101 Fiction, 101 Words, Foliate Oak, Centum Press, Sick Lit Magazine, Fantasy Crossing and Mash Stories. You can find her online at https://saracodair.com/

 

The Tale of the Costume Maker – by STEVE CARR

 

THE TALE OF THE COSTUME MAKER

 by

Steve Carr

 

His fingers are long and slender, pale as chalk dust, thin as icicles hanging from the bare branches of a dying bush. They move with certainty and speed as if they possess a life of their own, making stitch after stitch, sewing on endless numbers of sequins, threading through button holes, hemming, fastening, designing. When he sews he is proud of his hands, of their strength, shape and their dexterity.

He sits in the attic. It has been turned into a sewing room and reeks of dampness from minute leaks in the shingles. It also smells of stored clothes and old books, yellowed newspapers from World War II, old issues of Variety and Vanity Fair, rotting dolls, and stuffed animals, dirty and dusty from years of abandonment among the clutter. A bulb on a single wire hangs from the ceiling above where he sits, dangling just above his head. He can feel the heat of it on his scalp. A small square window that overlooks the alley is the only source of light. When he enters the attic, he turns the light switch on at the bottom of the attic stairs.

The chair on which he sits is very old – an antique. It is made of dark wood, with carvings on the legs of vines and grapes, hares and foxes. The back of the chair is solid, not upholstered or padded, with the last remains of a painting: a Disneyland-like castle atop a hill and horses parading on an open field. The painting is slowly fading, disappearing, being rubbed away by the slight movement of his back as he sews.

Each item he sews hangs on a hook and on the attic beams there are many hooks, each one strained with the weight of his creations: satin dresses, silk blouses, cotton shirts, scarves, tunics, skirts, jackets, capes and hats. There are boas made of ostrich feathers, arm-length gloves encrusted with fallalery, and embroidered masks of stiff linens. On some hooks there are ties made of dyed cloth from India, cummerbunds of colors of red, black and green, and vests with fringes and beads.

Boxes of cloth are stacked on top of old trunks, and Tupperware bowls filled with different colored rhinestones are neatly arranged on wood shelves. Bolts of cloth preserved in plastic are lined up along the railing at the top of the stairs. Feathers, zippers, decorative pins, medallions and belt buckles are spread out on a table, each in piles of their own. Beside his chair is the sewing basket. It is a small wicker basket, originally white, but turned gray with dust and age.

Beside the chair is the sewing machine, covered and not used since the winter of 2004. On a small table next to the chair where he sits is the pin cushion, a large stuffed felt tomato with needles of many sizes sticking from it. His threads are arranged in rows in a steamer trunk behind the chair. There are thousands of spools of threads of many colors, hues and thicknesses.

He only sews by hand. He is a maker of costumes and does nothing else.

*

Luis has been in the downstairs parlor waiting for the costume maker. He looks at himself in the full length mirror and temporarily sees what he wants to see: a handsome young man of twenty-four with night-black hair, even teeth with the whiteness of moonlight, and skin as smooth as a calm pond’s surface. But the image in the mirror fades before his eyes. There he is, nearing seventy, hair of china white, plastic-yellow teeth and skin wrinkled with lines from too many excesses: sun, alcohol, smoking, drugs, emotions.

Luis can only look at himself for a few seconds, then he turns away, disheartened and disgusted. He looks about the room and traces each object with his eyes, recalling that he had seen the faces of the porcelain figurines that fill the room. They are everywhere: on table tops, shelves and in glass cases and peeking from their perches on window sills between pulled back thick floral drapes. They are dead movie stars: Bela Lugosi, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power. Rudolph Valentino. Clara Bow. Lillian Gish. Mary Pickford. Theda Bara. Luis does not like them at first. The figurines have painted eyes, and each set of eyes stare at him, watching him as he waits. They give him the creeps, reminding him of a cemetery, adding to his discomfort.

When Mr. Shertzer comes into the room, Luis nearly jumps from the chair.

Mr. Shertzer is older than Luis – much older – but his age is hard to determine. His liquid eyes are penetrating and they look at Luis with an intensity that discomforts Luis even more. Mr. Shertzer is carrying a small tea set; a round porcelain tray decorated with small blue flowers and a matching teapot with two cups on saucers. He moves about preparing the tea on the small tray, pouring the tea into the cups, then sits opposite of Luis in one of the red velvet overstuffed armchairs. All this he does without taking his eyes from Luis, asking in rapid succession “sugar, milk, honey, a scone, butter?”

“When will he come down?” Luis sighs accepting a scone.

“My son is very busy,” Mr. Shertzer comments.

Luis nods in understanding. He knows of the costume maker’s skill and demand for his costumes. He  bites into the scone and wishes he had asked for butter, but is too intimidated to do so. The scone draws the moisture from his mouth and he half-chokes as he swallows a piece of it. He quickly sips some tea and can feel the redness of his cheeks.

Mr. Shertzer silently gums his scone, the pieces rolling about on his tongue like pebbles. Luis watches, a little fascinated, a little sickened. He turns his eyes again to the figurines. They are still watching him. Johnny Weissmuller. Ethel Barrymore. Norma Shearer. Rita Hayworth. Ruby Keeler. Luis scans the room, the figurines. He is looking for something, someone.

“So you’re going to a fancy ball?” Mr. Shertzer asks.

“Yes,” Luis Answers. “A costume ball.”

Mr. Shertzer nods. He covers the same ground as before. “My son is very busy.”

“Yes, I understand,” Luis replies. “I’m hoping he can fit me in. I’ve come well in advance.”

“Yes, I saw your letter. You have come well in advance,” Mr. Shertzer agrees. “We’ll see what my son can do for you.”

“Thank you,” Luis says as he again looks at the figurines as they look at him.

*

The window is but a small square, no bigger than a cereal box, offering a view onto the brick alleyway beside the house. On the other side of the alley is a tall fence and beyond that a yard that is not easy to see because of the trees along the fence. The house in that yard is hidden by tree trunks and branches, except in winter.

The costume maker stands at the window and watches as a cat moves across the alley. He watches the tiny white paws treading stealthily on the sun-heated red bricks. The cat seems to be in search of something, or stalking something – a bug, a string on a breeze, a sound from behind the fence. The cat goes around the fence and out of sight.

Holding the cloth in his hands, not looking at it, he continues to sew. Watching the alley, watching a piece of plastic garbage bag float down the bricks his hands move deftly, surely, along the seam he is mending. The cat appears again, attacks the plastic and holds it to the ground with two front paws, looks to see if there are any challengers to this kill. When the cat sees he is the lone victor it tires of the quarry and lets it go. Still watching the cat, the costume maker accidentally pricks his finger with the needle. He looks down at his right forefinger with surprise that there is a little drop of blood forming at its tip. The blood rises like a bubble and sits there forming a miniature red dome. The prick has him concerned. He has not done this for some time. He cannot remember the last time he pricked his finger. He looks out the window again and follows with half interest as both bag and cat disappear from viewing range.

He leaves the window and returns to his chair and unknowingly rubs against the back of the chair and wipes off the last of a horse’s mane, a wisp of brownish paint, forever erasing another horse from the pasture scene. The costume maker sits in the chair and watches as blood drips slowly from his finger onto the floor littered with scraps of material.

Placing the piece of cloth he was sewing beneath the chair, he then leans back and looks up at the bulb dangling above him. It is only inches away from his face but not bright enough to hurt his eyes as he reads the the fine print on its convex bottom: General Electric, 40W. He has not slept for several days, and now the weariness of wakefulness begins to overcome him. He closes his eyes and there, at the rim of his eyes, is the pain that has mostly been a simple ache. He reaches up with his right hand to rub his eyes, then remembers the pin prick, and lets his left hand do the rubbing.

Up through the floor, up from the ceiling beneath the floor, the three thuds of a broomstick vibrate through his feet, up his legs, his upper body and into his eyes. He opens his eyes and they return to the previous aching. He rises from the chair and goes to the stairs and descends.

*

“My son will be right down,” Mr. Shertzer says to Luis as he puts the broom back in the corner.

Luis looks up and sees the marks in the ceiling, red broom-handle paint particles, scratches in the ceiling paint, hairline cracks in the plaster. With unease Luis smiles at Mr. Shertzer, takes a sip of tea, and waits.

The door leading to the attic opens and Mr. Shertzer’s son emerges.

In the normal light of day, in this room with light streaming through the window, the costume maker is exceedingly handsome. His pale face is as clear as an unpainted porcelain figurine. He resembles Montgomery Clift or Paul Newman or Louis Jordan or none of them, or all of them all at once. His eyes react slowly to the light, as if he is waking from a dream – a dream of lazy, ethereal lovemaking.

Luis rises, the teacup in hand, and smiles warmly.

“This is my son,” Mr. Shertzer announces.

Luis puts the teacup down on the tray and steps forward to shake the costume maker’s hand and grasps the offered right hand, looking at the handsome face, then staring at the hand he is holding. A small spot of blood transfers from the costume maker’s finger to Luis’ palm. Luis pulls away and stares at the spot of blood. It is shaped like a heart, a crimson bordered heart with no center.

“I’m sorry,” the costume maker states.

“It’s no problem,” Luis replies as he reluctantly wipes his hand on his expensive pants and removes the heart. In his hand is the remaining sensation of having shaken the costume maker’s hand: a strong, cold, thin hand, but strongly pulsing with life.

“You wanted a costume?”

Luis looks into the eyes of the costume maker and sees the strain, the weariness of a sheltered animal.

“If this is not a good time I can come back,” Luis says hesitantly, immediately regretting the offer.

“This is the only time,” Mr. Shertzer states. “My son is very busy.”

The costume maker moves about the room, his pale hands gliding over the figurines, touching their faces, lifting them, admiring them, setting them down with infinite gentleness. He holds them up to the light for Luis to see: Bette Davis as Jezebel. Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro. Mae West as Diamond Lil. Harpo Marx.

Luis does not really see the figurines, he only sees the costume maker.

“Do you see one you like?” Mr. Shertzer asks.

Luis shakes his head as Mr. Shertzer’s son lifts more figurines, one after another. Lovingly he holds them up: Greta Garbo as Camille, Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, Humphrey Bogart as Rick, Carmen Miranda . . .

“That’s it,” Luis laughs. “I’d like a costume like that one.”

“That a difficult and costly one to make,” Mr. Shertzer says. “Wouldn’t you like this one instead?” He holds up a Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.

“No, I like that one.” Luis points to the figurine being held by the costume maker. “It would be so much fun, don’t you think?”

The costume maker smiles and nods his head. “I will hand make every piece of fruit to go on the head dress.”

“You must go upstairs for a fitting,” says Mr. Shertzer. “My son will take you to the attic where he works.”

*

In the heat of the afternoon the attic’s aromas are intensified and Luis feels himself becoming intoxicated by the myriad of scents. He stands in front of a mirror while the costume maker retrieves his tape measure, pad and pencil. Luis looks into the mirror and there again, the young Luis looks back at him, smiling broadly.

“Here it is,” the costume maker announces, returning to Luis, and unrolls the cloth measuring tape. He begins measuring Luis: shoulder to floor, wrist to wrist, waist to floor, outside legs, ankles to hips.  “I’ll need you to take off your shirt and pants in order to measure your chest and inseams correctly.”

Luis looks into the mirror and the young Luis returns a pleased glance. He removes his shoes, pants and shirt, and stands in front of the mirror admiring his youthful physique, the definition of his muscles, the smoothness of his skin. He raises his arms and allows the tape measure to be put around his narrow waist, then around his muscled chest. As if it was expected of him, he impulsively turns and puts his arms around the costume maker and pulls him to him and kisses the costume maker hard and passionately.

There is no yielding by the costume maker, but neither is there resistance. He stands and accepts Luis’ kisses, Luis’ touch, without responding or denying Luis’ increasingly hungry searching with his mouth and hands. He looks over Luis’ shoulder, out the small window, and watches as a squirrel runs across the bricks in the alley being chased by the cat.

In the attic, naked among articles of clothing that fell from the hooks, Luis’ sweat mixes with the odors of decayed wood and yellow-paged magazines. He envelops and devours Mr. Shertzer’s son, making love to him, tracing every accessible inch of him with his hands and lips, wondering that any body of any man, young or old, should be so perfect in its smoothness. When he ejaculates he collapses alongside the still costume maker and cries.

*

The costume maker stands in the window and watches as the cat steps carefully as it makes its way across the top of the fence. The cat does not waver, or hesitate, but looks forward, moving slowly. He watches the cat while he sews another sequin on a small strawberry made for Carmen’s fruit-salad headdress.

About the attic, Carmen’s costume pieces – dress, cape, bananas, pineapple, turban, sashes, shoes – hang from different hooks. He has worked steadily for many days and nights on the costume without resting, without sleep. As he looks out the window he sees Luis walking up the alley. He knows that Luis will quietly enter through the back door and come up to the attic without disturbing Mr. Shertzer. Luis will want to make love, as he always does, and will collapse on the floor afterward, and cry.

The cat jumps from the fence onto the bricks and runs up to Luis. Luis picks up the cat and holds it close against his chest, rubbing its ears, stroking its sleek body.

The costume maker turns away from the window, away from the simple act of gentleness between Luis and the cat. He walks across the attic, thinking about Luis’ wrinkled face, and accidentally bumps against a steamer trunk. At his feet a chip of porcelain falls from his under his pants leg. He bends down and picks it up and holds it in his hand, examining it. There is no blood. He opens up a small wooden box and takes out a small bottle of glue, rolls up his pants leg, and glues the porcelain chip back onto his leg. He rolls down his pants leg as Luis walks up the attic stairs.

*

Luis walks the stairs slowly and tries to remember a time when climbing stairs didn’t cause his chest to hurt, his legs to ache, his breathing to change to a pattern of half-breaths and quarter-breaths. He was conscious of the fact he was walking, stepping upward, as if his body could no longer perform the stair climbing without his mind reminding him what to do next. He enters the the dim light of the attic and stops to rest, his eyes adjusting, searching for the costume maker. He half expects to hear voices of actors and actress, all passed on from this life, but not passed on at all. There are the voices of Olivia DeHaviland and William Holden. And also the voices of Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore. Luis sighs and with the sigh regains the steadiness of normal breathing. “Are you up here?” His own voice is tentative, whispery.

“I’m over here,” the costume maker answers. “I’m sewing your costume.”

Luis walks toward the the voice, around the wicker baskets full of cloth pieces, by the stacks of books on dress making and costume design, past a photograph of Edith Head tacked onto a column holding up a portion of the roof. On an old vanity dresser are stacks of photographs of film stars that he walks past, although the top one of a very young Joan Crawford momentarily catches his eye. He goes to the costume maker who is sitting in the rocker and kneels in front of him and places his head on the costume maker’s knees.

“Your costume is almost finished,” the costume maker states.

Luis turns his head and sees his own reflection in a large tin used for holding buttons. In the reflection he is young, and his wavy hair is being stroked by the competent, caring hands of Mr. Shertzer’s son.

“Go to the ball with me,” Luis says. “We will be the most handsome, the most fun of them all, you and I.” He looks up at the costume maker who is busily sewing. “I’m in love with you, so madly in love,” Luis says.

*

Mr. Shertzer is angry, so very angry that he walks back and forth across the room and can barely talk. He raises his very old hands and clasps them in front of him, above him, heavenward, and shakes his fists.

“My son is very happy making costumes,” he yells. “He doesn’t need to go to balls and parties. He has no need for all that frivolity.”

“It will be good for him,” Luis says calmly. “Besides, shouldn’t this be your son’s decision?”

Mr. Shertzer groans, a low guttural animal groan, and turns away, his hands now waving about in near rage, his right hand accidentally sweeping a figurine from a table top. Judy Garland, Dorothy, falls to the floor and shatters into little pieces. Dorothy’s hand painted head rolls beneath the sofa.

“I’m sorry,” Luis says, bending down to pick up the destroyed object. He finds it hard to move in the Carmen Miranda costume. Sequined bananas and apple sized strawberries are hanging in front of his eyes.

“Get up!” Mr. Shertzer shouts.

Luis stands as the attic door opens. The costume maker is dressed as Steve Reeves’ Hercules, a simple piece of cloth around his waist and thrown back over one shoulder. He is wearing leather sandals with straps that criss-cross around his legs up to his knees. Around his head is a circle of laurel leaves made of gold leaf and wire.

“Perfect,” Luis says gleefully clapping. “You’ll be the most beautiful man at the costume ball, and your costume is so simple.”

“We don’t match,” the costume maker says. “There is no connection between Carmen Miranda and Hercules.”

“I don’t care,” Luis says. “We don’t have to match.”

Mr. Shertzer wrings his hands and sits on the sofa holding a piece of Judy Garland. “Why are you doing this?” He says to his son. “Why go out now? You have so much work to do. So much is being left undone.”

His son looks back up the attic steps as if hearing something, or remembering something in a fleeting moment of recall. “I need to be out in the world just this once.”

“My car is out front,” Luis says. “We shouldn’t hesitate any longer or we’ll be late.”

Luis turns and sees his aged face staring back at him from a mirror with a golden frame decorated with carved putti and swans. He turns away and notices the figurines, all of them, are watching him, or seem to be.

Mr. Shertzer says nothing as his son and Luis leave the house, but sits in the overstuffed chair rolling Judy’s head around in the palm of his hand.

*

“I’m sorry, so very sorry,” Luis cries as he lays another porcelain fragment on the rug at Mr. Shertzer’s feet. “He was so beautiful, so very beautiful.”

Mr. Shertzer bends over and picks up a piece, his son’s right shoulder. “How could you let this happen?” He puts his son’s shoulder to his lips and gently, lovingly kisses it.

“I didn’t know he was so fragile,” Luis sobs. “I was up on the stage accepting the winning costume trophy. I looked down at the dance floor and your son was surrounded, being smothered by beautiful men, but none as beautiful as he was.”

“This is your fault,” Mr. Shertzer snaps angrily. “If you would have left him alone,  he would still be upstairs sewing.”

Luis puts the costume maker’s hands on the floor at Mr. Shertzer’s feet. “I was able to save these.”

“Where is his head? His torso? His genitals?” Mr. Shirtzer whispers in grief, staring at the lifeless hands.

“They broke him up and took him, the rest of him. I jumped from the stage, tearing my beautiful costume, and by the time I got to hm, these parts – shoulder, hands – were all that was left.”

“Sweet Jesus!” Mr. Shertzer covers his eyes and weeps.

Luis sees a drop of blood on the carpet at Mr. Shertzer’s feet, beside the right hand of the costume maker. It is a simple drop of blood, heart shaped with with a crimson border around a bright red center.

 -End-

***

 Steve Carr photo

 Steve Carr began his writing career as a military journalist and has had his short stories published in Literally Stories, The James White Review, The Northland Review: An International Journal, among others. His plays have been produced/staged in several American states including Arizona, Missouri and Ohio.

*Featured photo courtesy of artist Toby Penney*