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JennaGlatzer
05-22-2005, 08:40 AM
Congrats to our Stupendous Six for making it to week 5. Your next assignment has arrived.

This week's theme is:

HOPE.

In 1,400 words or fewer, give us a story that will leave us with a feeling of hope.

As usual, it may be fiction or nonfiction, poetry or short story, etc.

Deadline: Sunday, May 29th, 11:59 p.m. ET.

Good luck!

DJP
05-27-2005, 12:30 AM
A Letter Long Overdue

Dear Dad,

I’ve tried to write this letter so many times but I haven’t had the courage to finish it. I can’t wait any longer. I feel like we have a good relationship. We talk on the phone, visit when we can, say ‘I love you’ and mean it. You make me feel special and loved and I know you’ll watch out for me. I’m definitely Daddy’s Little Girl, even though I’m a grown woman with a husband and kids of my own.

You’ve taught me so many things. I have lots of treasured memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. We learned patience together. Remember the day I wanted to learn how to braid? We collected every piece of binder twine on the farm and braided that huge mile long rope. I don’t think you ever used it for anything; it hung in the garage for years. But, I’ll never forget working on that together, I think we braided all afternoon.

You taught me to appreciate nature. I smile thinking of those early mornings on the lake with the mist still rising off the water, laughing together and trying to catch the elusive walleye. Oh Daddy, I love you so much. I can still feel your hand holding mine as we scoured the fields for frogs, hoping the fish would find them appealing.

Painful things jump into my mind sometimes. No life is without them. I remember how ashamed I felt when one of my friends asked if you were hammered all the time. Please don’t stop reading this; I need you to know that I’m not ashamed anymore. All I am now is scared. Dad, please know in your heart that we all love you, we’re here for you and we want to help you. We want to help you live. I need my girls to know how wonderful you are, to know the man I know. Soon they’ll be big enough to start asking questions like why’s Grandpa acting funny, why’s Grandpa drinking so much? I’m not sure what to tell them.

I used to be so angry. I thought you could just quit drinking and everything would be great. I didn’t know anything about addictions or disease; I only knew that the liquid in those bottles turned my Daddy into a man that I didn’t like. But don’t get me wrong. You raised me well and I had a happy childhood. I think that every teenager will find something to hate about his or her parents, you just provided me with an easy target.

Sometimes you talk about when you’ll die. I don’t like hearing you say that and I feel like you imagine you don’t have much time left. I know you have health problems but I’ve seen you fight against them and you’re gaining ground. Lifetime habits can seem impossible to break, but I know your will is strong. I need you to take care of yourself. You’ve always told me to take care of number one because if I didn’t, who would? Why can’t you follow your own advice? I’ve seen you crippled by gout to the point of crawling, yet you don’t stop abusing your body. If whiskey and beer are bad for gout I guess rum will be the poison of choice. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but I just don’t understand. If you need someone to help you Daddy, I will.

If you can’t do it for you, think of your precious grandkids. You want to teach them how to spit and swear, how to fish and squeal tires. Remember how you felt walking me down the aisle? I have an amazing picture of us dancing, trying to hold back the tears in our eyes. Imagine seeing your son walk his little girl down the aisle. And you know what Dad? You deserve that. You are an awesome man, and you have so much love to share. I asked you not to drink on my wedding day and you honoured that. No matter how many friends pestered you, you didn’t give in, and I respect you for that.

Now that I’m a parent, I can really appreciate so many things you did for me. You taught me that little kids are important people, too. I loved having the phone at my level when we went to work in the shop. I’m sure your big buddies thought you were cracked when they could barely dial the phone; it was hung so low. I knew I was important to you when you did special things like that for me. I’ll never forget racing to town to get my second new tricycle of the day after my first one met a quick end under your truck. You always let me help, you always included me and I learned that I’m important.

Now I want to teach you that you are important. You matter to me and to the rest of the family. You’ve changed the subject when I’ve brought up alcoholism, you don’t want to talk about it. Just because something’s been a part of your life for so long doesn’t mean it can’t be changed. There’s nothing to be scared of Dad, you’ve got nothing to lose by trying or by asking for help, and you’ve got so much to gain.

I remember standing on your feet and walking together across the kitchen. We always ended up giggling and laughing. We called it walking to Grandmas' house. I didn’t need your strength to cross the floor, but it was so much fun doing it together. If you need me Dad, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. Most of life is better if it’s shared.

With so much love,
Your Daughter
p.s. If you want to, you can do it. I believe in that, and in you.

firehorse
05-28-2005, 08:21 AM
“Are you insane?” I heard my friend Tom, his voice rising at the end of the sentence, his ever-so-slightly sibilant “s” dragging out ‘insane’. I could see his eyebrows raised above those tortoiseshell coke-bottle glasses, that familiar look of incredulity. “I mean, it’s very sweet of you, but… are you insane?”

Thing is, Tom died in January 1991. This was April 2003.

I was standing on a circular patch of grass outside the Finch subway station, the sole wearer of sweats and sneakers amongst a few dozen lithe bodies in Sugoi cycling shorts and Shimano toe-clip shoes. This was my first training ride for the 2003 Friends for Life Bike Rally, a six-day, 660-kilometre trek from Toronto to Montreal that would raise nearly half a million dollars for the Toronto People with AIDS Coalition.

A blond, tanned man gathered everyone round. “This is just a warmup,” he said. “35km. Shouldn’t take more than an hour.”

What the hell am I doing here?

Golden Boy was already out of sight, an acid-trip trail of brightly-coloured jerseys on expensive bikes behind him. By the time I picked up my Kona hybrid and made it out of the parking lot, I was exhausted.

I thought of all the reasons I couldn’t do the ride:

I'm out of shape.
The heat will give me migraines.
I refuse to wear Spandex.
I never finish anything.
I suck.

I pictured Tom rolling his eyes. "You're crazy." I took that as a dare. I had to do it:

Between 1989 and 1991, my three best friends died from AIDS. Before Tom, there was Ray, a swaggering, sexy man who survived a year longer than his doctors predicted. In between was Michael, Ray’s partner, a slight man who was justifiably pessimistic. They were 35, 32 and 29, respectively, and their deaths shattered my heart.

After Ray died, I inherited the braided copper bracelet he always wore, the one Michael bought him during Carnivale in Rio one year. Before the first training ride, I wrapped the bracelet tightly around the handlebars for visual and visceral motivation.


When I arrived back at the subway, nearly three hours after I’d left, I could barely walk. Maybe I should find another way to contribute.

No.

The next week’s training ride was 43km. Well-meaning veterans gave me advice:

“Gear down when you’re going up hills.”
“Gear up when you’re going down hills.”
“You really should get toe clips.”
“Stand up.”
“Sit down.”

It never became easy. The first 20km were always hell. I began to accept that and force myself through it anyway. I tried not to care about being so slow that everyone else was finished before I hit the halfway mark.


I ripped out an Adidas ad from a running magazine. It read:

The Seven Stages of Marathon
1. Ritual
2. Shock
3. Denial
4. Isolation
5. Despair
6. Affirmation
7. Renewal

When I was in stages 4 and 5, I looked at the bracelet and thought of Ray, Tom and Michael. I remembered sitting with them one night at a local greasy spoon.

“Some day, there will be a million people with AIDS and the government will have to do something about it,” Tom said.

Michael, the Eeyore of the group, turned to me. “Some day, Sarah, you’ll think back on this night, and we’ll all be dead.”


The distances increased every weekend – 50km, 75, 100. I wasn’t the slowest any more, but I still cherished my time alone. As I rode through the countryside, I talked to horses, cows, sheep and goats - and, of course, to the boys.

One Saturday, I took off by myself for what had become a familiar, easy ride to Oakville, 30km along the edge of the lake. I felt good, so I kept going to Burlington, another 35km – all downhill. By then it was well over 90 degrees; my swollen feet were bursting out of my shoes, and I realized I still faced roughly 60km of uphill riding. I focused on what I’d learned about hills: don’t look up, and just keep pedaling. One rotation at a time.

By the time I hit the Toronto city line, my feet were burning and blistered. I stopped at a corner store and bought two bags of ice. I hobbled over to the streetcar stop, hoisted my bike up, along with the bags of ice, and slumped into a double seat. I placed one bag of ice across each foot. Cold had never felt so good. The ice melted and trickled down the grooves of the streetcar floor. I began crying – uncontrollable sobs of exhaustion and defeat.


A month before we left for Montreal, I went for an early-evening spin in Sunnybrook Park. With trees on one side and the river on the other, I felt blissful, invincible.

Suddenly I was sliding down the stony river bank on my left hip, knees twisted and bike in the air – still attached to my feet. A racer had run me off the path, coming around a blind curve. My cycling shorts were shredded. My arm was gashed. I dusted myself off, a little dazed, and calculated: I was still 15km from home. Walking wasn’t an option. I got up and kept going.

Five minutes later, I veered to avoid a young boy on a tricycle, and again I went flying. Again I landed full-force on my left leg.

This time, it was harder to get back on the bike, but I didn’t have a choice. After washing out my wounds with water from my Camelbak, I cycled very, very slowly. Everything seemed surreal and a bit out of sync.


Every day, I decided not to go through with the ride, and every day, I looked at the bracelet and committed to it again. Even as I was packing my camping gear into the two small Rubbermaid bins I’d been assigned, gathering maps for the routes and signing medical releases, I quit - again and again. Once I realized that my stuff was going to Montreal, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

On the second day of the ride, an hour from the lunch point, a searing poker bore into the side of my knee. For the first time, I understood the phrase blinding pain: I couldn’t see. I stopped. I stretched. I gulped down Advil and Tylenol, but nothing helped, so I pedaled the next 20 kilometres using only my right leg. I had to ride in a van the rest of the way to the campground. I bawled – exhausted, anguished and feeling like a failure.

Through massage and ice, my knee held up until the fifth day, when I was soaring through the Thousand Islands, keeping up with the middle of the pack. It was heaven. Until the pain returned with a suddenness that made me shriek.

I pulled over and lifted my left leg onto a park bench. I began screaming at my knee like some kind of overzealous coach. “Come on! You can’t bail now! You have to start working! Get it together!”

Then I tried cajoling, “You’ve come so far, you’ve helped me so much. Just a few more kilometres, just one more day. You can do it. I know you can. Please?”

“Sarah,” I heard Tom say, “Do you realize you’re talking to your knee?”

At the next check-in point, the team doctor pulled me from the ride, explaining that I’d probably been injured back in Sunnybrook Park. Medically speaking, I shouldn’t have been on the ride at all. I was to stay off my bike for the next three to six months.

So I didn’t make it the full way. That was disappointing. But I made it 500km on a torn meniscus. I learned that I’m capable of far more than I ever imagined. I can do anything, as long as I approach my goals in small increments and don't think about the hill ahead. There may be forces outside my control that shape the outcome, but as long as I don’t quit, I won’t fail.

As for how I managed the 500 klicks? The bracelet. And the boys.

jdkiggins
05-29-2005, 03:00 AM
Without Hope There Is No Life
by Joanne D. Kiggins


I sit exhausted staring at the full moon smiling down at me through the window of the room that was mine as a child. I feel like that child again; gently tiptoeing around all the old familiar creaks in the floor so Mom won’t hear me. The days are full of nurses, therapy, medicines, inhalers, cooking, cleaning, loud television shows and repeated conversations about my mom’s childhood and mine. It's only in the late night hours after she’s in bed and quiet early morning before she’s awake when I can do what I love most—write.

Writing has never been difficult for me. Until now. Now, it’s difficult to concentrate. I find myself reminiscing; thinking how I tried so hard to get my first manuscript published so my parents could see my name on a book. Getting my book published was never about the money and my parents have seen my name in print numerous times. It was about seeing the glint in my dad’s eye when I’d done something to make him proud. A glint that always beamed, “That’s my daughter.” It was about seeing the smile on my mom’s face and feeling her arms wrap around me with love and pride.

I wrote the dedication first: To my parents, who have always been there for me. Thank you for giving me life.

When my dad passed away, I changed the dedication to: For my dad, who didn’t live to see it published; and for my mom, who did.

Because I knew I was running out of time, I began a final edit on my manuscript in September 2004; pushing myself to get at least five to ten pages edited a day in between trips to Mom’s house to take her meals. I didn’t begin that edit soon enough. I anticipated moving in with Mom one day, but I didn’t expect it would come as quickly as it did.

As I sit here staring at the moon smiling at me, I cry because I miss my home, my companion, my dog, and my life. Then I realized this is my life; a life centered around my parents, as theirs had been centered around me.

My name will not be on a book anytime soon and I’m fine with that. My parents won’t purchase it and I won’t see the glint in my dad’s eye or receive that warm loving hug of pride from my mom. TIME GOES ON will be in print one day, but now, life is more important.

I selfishly cherish this time with Mom, and selfishly continue to grab each spare moment to write, because I trust my parents will help celebrate my accomplishments, even if it is from up above.

BlueTexas
05-29-2005, 10:08 AM
1393 Words.

Beyond Twilight

The room darkened until only slits of sunlight escaped the edge of the window shade. Holding the hand of the woman next to her, June closed her eyes and listened to the soft, smooth tones of David’s voice.

William Haskins
05-30-2005, 06:46 AM
The Days of Radio Silence



by



William Haskins


They came for me at daybreak in a blur of stomping boot heels, shattered glass and orders barked through Chem-Bio masks. I leapt from my bed and cowered in the corner, shielding my head with my arms to ward off the hail of truncheon blows. I wailed like a child and my bowels turned to liquid.

The age of the hero was over.

One of the soldiers ripped off my shirt and fashioned it into a crude mask over my mouth and nose before shoving me out the door. The sunrise was a pale yellow orb behind the curtain of ash and smoke, and I held my breath all the way to the truck.

It was the first time I had been out of the neighborhood since martial law was declared. That small maze of brick and steel had become my entire world as, one by one, newspapers, television, radio and the Internet had all disappeared—an ever-shrinking circle of communication until I was afraid to even speak to my neighbors.

The gunshots and helicopters, the screams from revenge killings and the distended bellies of starving children—these became my news.

The truck weaved recklessly through abandoned cars, and I stared straight ahead, my captors flanking me, their breath hollow and mechanical under their masks. As we neared the freeway, I turned, perhaps by habit, to the park where I had played as a child.

To my astonishment, a little girl was swinging, her yellow sundress splashed like paint against the scorched earth. I wanted to see her eyes, to know what wonders they could still behold, but as she lifted her head, I saw only the horrible insect-face of the gas mask.

The city was dead-zone of fire-gutted buildings and toppled stone. Soldiers patrolled every corner, and choppers hovered like birds of prey. Dogs ran loose in the streets, one nipping at the skull of a corpse hanging upside-down from a street sign, a sign reading “Traitor!” affixed to his chest with a knife.

As we drove through a gate between rolls of concertina wire, and I knew I had passed into the mouth of Hell.


*****


The room was empty except for two chairs on either side of a table, upon which sat a cardboard box. The soldier pushed me inside and ordered me to sit with my back to the door. I could feel him standing behind me, and I snuck a cautious look over my shoulder. He raised his rifle. “Turn around.”

A few minutes later, I heard the door open. A slight man moved into my field of vision and calmly sat down opposite me. His eyes were pale-blue and severe behind wireless spectacles.

“Do you know why we’ve brought you here?”

Fear gripped my brain and paralyzed my throat. I couldn’t answer.

His eyes narrowed, and he shifted his gaze over my shoulder to the guard.

I felt the cold kiss of metal against my neck and an electric shock pulsed through my body. I stiffened in my chair and screamed, and the taste of batteries filled my mouth.

My interrogator slid his chair back and stood up.

“Any pain you experience here will be of your own making,” he said. “I will not tolerate insolence. I’ll ask you again: Do you know why we’ve brought you here?”

I shook my head.

He picked up the box and dumped out its contents. Books slid across the surface of the table, some coming to rest splayed open like dead birds. “Do you recognize these?”

I hesitated—until I saw his eyes cut to the guard again. “I… I wrote them.”

“Very good,” he replied. “Now. I want you to tell me why you wrote them.

My mind raced, but I couldn’t remember why. I searched through the possible answers: money, fame, acceptance, ego-gratification…

Every one the truth. Every one a lie.

I heard the guard stepping toward me. I panicked and blurted out, “To make the world a better place.”

This seemed to fascinate my interrogator. “Tell me,” he said, “how a book makes the world a better place.”

I stared down at my shackled hands. “By improving the human condition.”

He sat back down. “Do you really believe the human condition can be improved?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Man is every bit as greedy and violent today as he’s always been,” he said. “It’s his instinct. No other species seeks to elevate itself from its nature.”

“We have art,” I said. “That’s what separates us from the animals.”

He took off his glasses, and his blues eyes grew a thousand degrees colder. “No. What separates us from the animals is our capacity to annihilate sixty million of our fellow species… in the blink of an eye.”

He put his glasses back on and stood up. “Art is a lie. We will no longer tolerate rebellion and moral corruption being peddled as a path to enlightenment. The days of your sedition and philosophical trickery are over.”

He circled the table and leaned over my shoulder. “You will help us usher in a new age of literature, one that teaches loyalty and obedience and the glory of work. You will give people hope.”

“That’s not hope,” I said. “That’s propaganda.”

He whipped his head toward the guard and, before I could react, electricity blinded me in white light.


****


I awoke in a cramped cell, alone and cold, my screams answered only by echoes off concrete walls.

On the cot lay a book: Neo-Social Realism: Literature After the Revolution. I picked it up and opened the cover. Inside were chapters with titles like The Poem as Anthem, Newspapers and State Unity and Fiction as a Tool of Indoctrination.

I closed it and never opened it again.

Each morning they brought me a loaf of bread and a bottle of water, along with a pen and pad of paper. And each night, when they returned and found the paper blank, they beat me without mercy.

I measured time by this violence until the beatings all ran together. Seasons changed, but I don’t know how many times. The floor of my cell was soon littered with pads of paper, nothing on them but the rust-colored smears of my own blood.

I rebelled by not even thinking about writing. After a while, I didn’t think at all. I pushed language, itself, from my mind until I lived in a haze of white noise, like a radio whose dial is stuck between stations.

I devolved into a numb and empty animal.


*****


This morning, I awoke to the sounds of gunfire and frantic screams, and felt the distinct physical sensation of smiling for the first time in months. I had no idea if the men overrunning the prison were my saviors or my assassins, and I no longer cared. I just wanted it to be over.

I heard footsteps and moved to the back of the cell. A soldier entered, his rifle leveled at me. I shut my eyes and a single gunshot rang out. When I opened them, the soldier was lying dead.

A man in street clothes peered into the cell.

“Let’s go!” he screamed, as he stepped over the body and grabbed my arm. I pulled away long enough to grab a pen and paper, and then was led through the carnage to a waiting car filled with Resistance fighters.

I was free.


*****


As I sat in the park this afternoon, words began to creep slowly back into my mind, marrying into phrases, then sentences and paragraphs, like seeds exploding through soil to bathe in a spring shower.

Like a radio dial finding its frequency with a voice sharp and clear.

I watched trucks deliver food to long lines of sunken-eyed mothers while civilian police, instead of soldiers, kept the peace in streets that were no longer a graveyard.

I touched the pen to paper and wrote for hours, as the children on the swing set laughed and squealed, their faces kissed by the breeze and warmed by the sun that watched over them from a cloudless sky.

trumancoyote
05-30-2005, 09:00 AM
And that’s when I found Tsutomu, dead at his desk with the thick fingers of his right hand lying in the crotch of a book.



Earlier that evening I had burnt myself in the bathtub. In one of those vain efforts to make an unexpected guest comfortable, Hisako, his wife, had refilled their ofuro with water so hot it’d make a lobster scream. Being the dumb American that I am, when I’d first dipped my foot in the tub, jerking it out immediately to find it swollen and red as an apple, I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. So I straddled the thing, my feet on either side of the four-by-four foot square tub, my hands balancing myself along the rim.



I lowered my butt in first, slowly, of course—it took five minutes—then sucked in a deep breath, covered my genitals with my right hand as though it would make a difference, and let myself drop with a sizzling ploomp.



It was so much sensation at once that I couldn’t concentrate on which part of my body hurt more; the collective scaldings cancelled one another out with a numb tingle, and I quickly acclimated to the heat of the bath.



Later, lying in a futon in the guest room, my muscles like butter and my skin a purpley tender crimson, I jumped when Hisako bound into the room to apologize for the heat of the water that she herself was unable to endure.



So much for being Roman in Rome… or rather, being Japanese in Japan, I thought, as my butthole throbbed angrily throughout the course of my slow descent into sleep.



But sleep didn’t last long.



When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot. My bully du jour would dunk my head in a toilet, his fingers grappling my hair and holding me beneath the surface of the water. When he’d let up, the sharp intake of breath and clearing of my vision was the very thing I felt as I mysteriously jerked from sleep that night in their guestroom.



Darkness swelled around me and I felt the urge to get up and walk around.



There was something I was supposed to find, I felt, but I didn’t know what.



I sat up and peeled of my sheets, peering around the room. It was empty aside from a mirror in the corner and a bottle of water that Hisako had left sweating on the tatami by my head. Its brand was Vulva, which I thought was funny—and she didn’t.



Some things are doomed to be lost in translation.



The house had a mossy smell at night; all old Japanese houses do. I think it has to do with moisture that collects in their straw mats, those aforementioned tatami, that gives the hair a heavy sort of over-ripeness.



I like the smell, so I made it my excuse to sneak: it was so natsukashii, so reminiscent of past innocence and happiness and sunshine—all those things that gain in potency with retrospection.



Tsutomu really wasn’t different as a corpse. I’d first met him and Hisako a year ago. I went to Hiroshima for the summer and they were my host family, more of a host couple, really, these two old Japanese people, 62, 65, with two children: one who was married with a kid on its way, and the younger one, a troublemaker, a warugaki, still working in a convenience store at the age of 31, who was given to over-indulging in what the Japanese call marifana.



Hisako and Tsutomu, I thought, worked well as a married couple. They were both composed brilliantly of the same stunning matter, but arranged differently.



Think of them as one of those analogy things from high school.



Hisako : Tsutomu :: Waxing Moon : Waning Moon



That is, Tsutomu was ice: rigid, lifeless, a quiet bookworm who spoke in a complex system of gentle nods and mutterings; and his wife, my Hisako, airy and hot, violent as steam—she is a rambunctious woman who loves to bicker for bickering’s sake. Their youngest son is her favorite, and mine, too.



Yes, that was about their relationship in its entirety, their own encapsulation of yin-yang perfection and balance—as far as I knew they were happy.



Slumped over his desk, there, limp as vegetables gone rotten, I almost expected to hear his acquiescent mumbly response to something that Hisako had pecked at him for, pointlessly for fun.



But he wasn’t moving. The moon peered sneakily through the window of his office, smearing his foldless eyes with a cold pallor—pulling them severely shut.



He was supposed to be on a business trip.



A poke from my middle finger did no more than leave a groove in his shirt. Because death’s calm reticence was so becoming of him, I didn’t really react, but accepted it with a quiet sort of solitary resignation, and then decided to tromp down the stairs to find Hisako and ask her what was up.



The paper door to her room was open, so I walked in. Hisako was sitting up in her futon, staring raptly at the television. It wasn’t on.



“Hisako, what’re you doing up so late?”



“Watching the television. Have you seen this show, Boy-san?” she said, motioning with a nod of her head at the black screen. Her back was turned to me. “Is from America, called Boy Meets World. This Coly boy so cute, I think, velly funny. I find him, uh—like you, Boy-san. So cute. I would like to see it in Engrish sometime. I think some jokes are not as funny in Japanese, huh.”



She turned from the TV and smiled at me. Her teeth are crooked as spilt rocks in her mouth, but they’re charming in their disarray; they add character to her sharp, thin eyes that bulge blackly with radiant deviance.



“Hisako, are you okay? Have you seen Tsutomu?”



“His older brother is cute too, I think. Velly handsome. But he’s not so silly as Coly and that is why I like Coly so much. Have you seen this?”



I knew something was wrong. She only speaks to me in English when she’s being roundabout, or lying.



My eyes began to water.



“Hisako, look at me. What happened to Tsutomu?” I asked, sitting by her side on the futon.



“And the prince—uh, principool? Is that how you say this? He’s so mean but—”



“Hisako! Stop. Please. What happened to Tsutomu?”



She looked at me again, then down at her lap. She began to rock slightly and stick her thumb between her teeth, biting down hard. A tear rolled down a wrinkle in her cheek.



“For forty year, Boy-san, I never leave this house. I cook and clean and read books, but there is no happiness in my heart.”



She switched to Japanese. “All my life I’ve wanted to go somewhere and do something fun—have an adventure! Get into trouble and work my own way out. I wanted to be beautiful and strong, have many lovers and be scary to men. Hisako! the breaker of hearts. Eater of men.



“But then I met a man so quiet and sweet, who loved me, who took care of me—took care of everything. Did everything. I could be free to do as I pleased while he was at work, but what did I do with it? I never told him that I wanted to work, too; to have my own money and buy my own things. I was quiet with those things, always telling polite lies and teasing truthfully about things that I knew he’d never take to heart. And he just smiled and nodded, and grunted his old-man grunt.



“And now look where I am. Look at me. Look at me—I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m nothing but a filthy old owl who watches television alone in the dark.”




*



Next day, we were on a smoking train that rittled and rattled around a grouping of steep hills, thick with sultry summer foliage. We were on our way to a shrine to honor Tsutomu, offer him up to the open palms of Shinto spirits that didn’t deal with death.



I don’t know why Hisako chose the shrine that she did: Izumo Taisha, the Grand Shrine of Rising Clouds. For one, Buddha’s the one that meddles with the dead in Japan, and second, this was a shrine of fertility—of birth and rebirth and sex.



She was off her rocker, but I took her, making her promise that she’d call the proper authorities when we returned to their skinny house. She agreed, but I didn’t trust her.



As the train trundled wildly throughout the countryside, fog thickened around us with each passing minute. I could feel Hisako’s disapproving scowl boring into the back of my skull as I puffed on a cigarette. It was the same look she gave me when I piped up at the ticket counter and requested a smoking care in the first place.



“You’re going to die, Boy-san.” She was talking about the cigarettes.



It was odd talking about this so casually, considering the night before.



“I’m going to die anyway, aren’t I?”



“No, no. You won’t. You can’t.” She gripped my forearm. “Promise me you won’t.”



“I can’t promise that. And you see, this way, death won’t be a surprise,” I began, motioning with my cigarette, “Most people just let death happen, and that’s the worst part about it. It’s indiscriminate, like a mosquito bite—random and careless—” I blew a perfectly round specter of a ring in her face, the continued: “But I’m bringing it on; taunting it. I know it’s coming and it won’t have to surprise me. Or you.”



“You’re not cute.”



To that, I turned my head and directed my attention toward the blur of trees, black, whipping their way in a line by the train. I peeked over every now and then, and I could tell she was only harping on me because she was interested. It was the way she stared, as though I was her television from the night before.



I did it; I know she wanted me to: “Try it,” handing a cigarette her way.”



A thin line of whitish smoke wrapped around her chin.



“You’re sick.”



But she kept on looking, so I kept on offering. And finally, she caved. Hisako took the cigarette gently from between my fingers and cradled it in between her own as if it were a cranky baby, the posture with which to hold it she had no idea.



She inhaled.



“Ack—” a cough, then, “Ick, Boy-san. Suusuu yo.”



Suusuu is a Japanese onomatopoeic expression that describes the unpleasant numbness one feels from ingesting mentholated medicine.



“Mazui,” she spit, thrusting it back at me.



Gross or not, she looked proud of herself. It was her first ascent into making a choice, and it had gone swimmingly.