Alisha Westerman
 

Fiction

Homr and Argus

In the center of the circular hall, the young man stood to the left of the pianist­, tall and slightly bent back at the hips.  He played the violin loosely and comfortably, without a touch of stiffness.  In his simple concentration, he didn’t glance at guests or gaze at the ornamental arrangements of colored glass balls and pine boughs on the walls, but kept his eyes on the ground.  The pianist, whose own shabby appearance arguably lost him potential private playing engagements, had suggested the boy keep his eyes down so as not to put off guests. 

Argus had first seen Homr play three years ago at the entrance to Rosemist Park.  He had noticed that the boy’s eyes wandered until they found a comfortable place in their sockets and fixed themselves there, one brow arched in concentration.  Argus anticipated that this habit would be off putting to an audience.  They wouldn’t have a clue that the boy was almost blind.

At the first intermission, the two left their instruments and retreated to the edge of the room.  Homr accepted a glass of punch and Argus a claret.

“How many people would you say are here?” asked Homr.

“Two hundred or so.”

“I guessed more.

They stood, sipping, both averting their eyes from guests.

“That voice I keep hearing…”

“The host.”

“I thought so.  Mr. Swish…?”

“Swishmitzen.  The inventor.”

“That’s it.  He’s pleased?”

“Seems so.”

“What’s that rattling?”  They watched Swish happily hover from conversation to conversation, like a big clumsy moth.  He carried a cup at his side, which had a few ice cubes in it, and at times he would rattle this enthusiastically, like someone playing a lucky game of parchessi.

“Yes, he seems very pleased.  He’ll want to meet you.”

 

Homr was an orphan who lived at a boys’ home, and Argus had done nothing to help him find his way in the adult world, other than to seek to develop the boy’s only means of income.  At first, he would come to Rosemist to listen and suggest improvements.  As the boy’s playing improved, Argus would wait for passersby, then plunk a few coins into his cup and loudly pronounce, “Very good.”

Thank you, sir,” the boy would say with a dip of his head, and he would begin his next song with a flourish of energy, which caused those strolling to pause for a listen.  Argus couldn’t tell and didn’t assume whether this was the boy’s innocent gratitude or he had caught on to the pianist’s timing with his praise.  

When the Homr could get through a piece without errors, the pianist would then critique his tempos, thwacking a palm with a rolled up newspaper to lead him, but always trailing off if park visitors strolled by.  When the tempos improved, he made suggestions as to brightness and volume.  The young violinist received all criticism openly and gratefully.

Finally, Argus began puzzling out with the best sequence of songs to hold listeners’ interest.  He then booked their first engagement and invited Homr, to rehearse with piano at his small flat a few blocks away.

Homr enjoyed the second half of the performance, because he had relaxed.  He liked to imagine where listeners’ minds wandered to.  It helped him to hear a rustling or a cough, something he could ascribe to an individual.  He didn’t expect them to be focused on the music.  In fact, he assumed their thoughts wandered, as it did his, to personal concerns.  A man’s cough might mean he was remembering a favor he must reluctantly beg of someone.  It could be something happy, too.  Homr doubted if Argus’s thoughts dwelled anywhere but the music; his thoughts seemed to rest so comfortably there.  If, after gazing out over the park or out a window, Argus began to say something, Homr was always surprised that it was about precisely what they were practicing and not some other random thought, which would have seemed more natural at the moment. 

After the performance, the two packed their notes and again moved to the side of the room, knowing that any good performer promptly gets out of the limelight when a performance is done.

“The crab smells good,” said Homr.

“Some kind of salad there, and asparagus and toasts.  We’ll see what we can take with us. 

“The host…”

“Coming this way.”

Homer lifted his eyes as he heard the voice, half-smiling in pretend recognition.

“Good night, the two of you!  You did a blessed job.”

“Glad it pleases,” said Argus.  “This is Homr.”

“Young man,” said Swish, “your presence was perfect for this occasion, as I knew it would be the moment I heard you in the park so many months ago.”

“Thank you, sir,” he said, and turn to Argus as Swish gave his attention to a woman tugging at his sleeve.

“He was at the park?”

“Yes.  He approached me afterwards about the party.”

Swish moved away a short distance, and Homr heard the happy rattle of his cup of ice.  He felt too warm.  “So, you didn’t answer an advertisement in the paper for party music?”

“I did not.  But he did place an ad.”

“What for?”

“For you, actually.”  Argus finished a second claret and set the glass on an alcove in the wall.  A waiter breezed by and plucked it up. 

Homr stood still, smelling the whiff of tobacco that followed the waiter.  Argus regarded him with cautiousness.  “He knew about you for some time, because, you see, your violin once belonged to him.”

“But I’ve had it for ten years.”

“Ten years ago he donated it to the charity.  Turns out he attached something to it, inside.”

“Attached something?”  Homr’s fingers scooted anxiously along the edge of the sound holes of his violin. 

Argus bent to watch, scrutinizing the violin.  “I myself have looked for it, but couldn’t find anything.  He claims it’s still there.”

“You never told me.  Is the violin still mine, or is he taking it back?”

 “It’s for you, Homr.”  Swish’s voice emerged from the conversational din and settled like an umbrella.  Homr felt a pressure at his ears, as if everything but the host’s voice was squeezed out.  He regarded the tall, oval-skulled man curiously, instinctively drawn to the happiness he exuded.  “What is it?”

“A bookmark.”  Homr waited for more.  Swish set down his cup of melting ice.  The same waiter breezed by and picked it up.  “Have you ever swum?”

Homr hesitated, wondering if incredibly good fortune might weigh upon his answer.  He saw that Argus had gone for the crab salad, and felt momentarily desperate and irrationally inadequate.  “Well, in the park fountain, sir.”

“That pigeon’s bath?  Brave of you.  With my new invention, it won’t matter if you can swim. 

“Oh?”  Homr breathed a sigh of relief.  For what, he didn’t know. 

“That’s right.  My underwater safe makes swimming a snap.  Come right away, and bring the violin.”  Swish strode towards the nearest of three arches that led out of the room.  He did not look back.

Homr looked once more at Argus, who was trying to pick up broiled asparagus with small clawed tongs.  He backed up a few steps, turned and followed Swish.

 

* * *

 

I don’t know how the violin capsized.  It was just before the moon set that the waves had gotten bigger and bigger until my bow was of no help in steering or paddling.  Finally, I crawled over and tied Argus to the neck, gripped his hand in mine and gave us up to mercies of the midnight blue rolls and tilts.

Now the pink of sunrise qued up in the east, but not softly.  The light was garish and reflected metallically on the water as I struggled to turn the violin back over.  If I couldn’t get completely inside, I could at least flop over the top and paddle with the shrinking swells toward the nearest shore.  In the hazy distance were several islands.  But whenever I got a good grip, a wave would send the violin spinning out of control like a canoe I had once seen in a comic.  Argus, still secured with the rope, bobbed at half speed, fanning out in a little arc around me.  Meanwhile, the shadow of a huge shark glided repeatedly beneath us, wiggling ominously.  What kept me from panicking was that it was only a shadow, and not an actual shark.  I’m not sure how it was done, but it was clever.  I drew a quick and vague connection to Plato’s Republic, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to ponder it.  I’d have to ask Swish about it, if I ever saw him again. 

Finally, I righted the boat and began sorting out the things I had saved from the Swish.  I draped my white concert shirt over Argus’s shoulders.  The sun began to warm me.  The 18k gold bangles, and rings, cool to the touch and flecked with drops of water, I slipped onto the fingers and wrists of Argus.  I lay down and ate my orange.  While I browned in the heat, Argus sat there stiffly with everything drying on him.  He was a little leathery but not rotting—preserved by the salt, I guessed.  The early sunlight matured into heat…

When Swish had mentioned an underwater safe, I could only imagine it was something he had invented for a magician to use on stage.  What he actually led me to was a huge steel vault.  Before he opened the door, he stopped at a series of shelves the door swung open, there was a wall of water, behaving just like a wall.  He pushed me in just as it began to cave over us.

 

Pretty tile work, hibiscus bushes. That’s the first thing I noticed of a sun-dappled little village as I sloshed to shore.  Pink and green paper streamers wove around trunks of coconut trees.  I could smell an artificial sweetness coming from many of the windows and porches.  Like bottles of flavouring for coffee.  I never understood how someone could have a taste for that. 

A few people came close when they saw me, and a café owner wrapped a fluffy yellow towel around me.  I could feel more eyes watching, from behind siesta shutters.  I must have looked a mess.  I had lost my comb. 

What would happen to Argus? I asked.  He was a good friend, and I didn’t want him locked up in some cold morgue.  Could we just let him stretch out on one of the beach chairs?  The hostess of a small eatery said that was fine.  She wore a long pale blue dress and looked very nice in it.  She introduced herself.

She served me fried octopus in a basket lined with wax paper.  The basket slid nicely across the white tile counter.  There were no stools so I stood and ate.  Her gift of food entitled her to ask me a few curious questions, which I answered as best I could while I spread out my surviving treasures, piece by sentimental piece.

Where had I come from?  What was I doing with a mummy?  I explained that Argus was only deceased but a few days, I was sure.  Although, I was finding it difficult to gauge time again I noticed.  On the boat, I had an acute sense of every hour and when it passed, not that I had a way to check.  It was just something I could feel in my chest.  Was I boring her? 

Not at all, she said.  Even now, she said, someone was borrowing a printing press in the next town over to issue a special edition of the paper featuring my story.  Would I please mention to the reporter that I had my recovery meal at Fancy’s Place?  I was welcome to sleep in the hammock out back. 

She waited for me to respond to all of this.  I suddenly felt very thirsty.  How much salt had she put on the fried octopus?  Enough to serve eight, I think. 

I said I needed to learn how far off course I had gone, and then I would patch together my trip as best I could.  This had to happen soon, especially because of my now stiff friend.  We both watched him, unmoving in the shade.  For a moment I felt very much at fault and I wanted to go shed a few tears near him. 

As if she had just remembered, she said there was talk of a parade.  I had to stay at least for that, she said.  No, my clothes were a mess.  I was in no shape to be presented to anyone, I said with enough scorn to conceal my excitement.  I would have to find the barber, right after my nap.  I wondered if he would cut Argus’s hair too.  I had always heard that people’s hair grows after they pass on.

 

Over the course of the evening I learned that everyone in the town was diabetic, which explained the sickly sweet smells.  Newer residents were still weaning themselves from sweets entirely, using artificial flavorings.  One community guideline states no type of sweets should be consumed, said the café owner.  He had long sad eyebrows, which got sadder as he told me this, then arced high.  But with tomorrow’s festivities requiring picnic treats, they were permitted to make sweets.  He had been so anticipating making a chocolate cake. 

So then, I wasn’t the original reason for tomorrow’s parade and festivities.  No he said, but assured me I was a welcome addition.  It felt, he said, as if I had been a part of it along. 

Charm and Scorn

“Hey, Ginger!”

Ginger Henley sat upright in bed, her long dark hair uncoiling off the pillow.  Her high, pale forehead crinkled.  She listened and heard crickets, then “Hey, doll!”

            She crawled over to the foot of the bed, tripping over her nightgown.  There was no curtain hanging over the paneled window.  Her mother must have forgotten to put them back up after today's laundry.  On the lawn stood a handsome young man stood, looking up at the second story.  His slicked hair shone bluish black in the moonlight.  He wore a beige slacks and velvety brown bucks.  It was Wallace Grunwald.  The Grunwald’s cabin was on the opposite side of the lake from the Henleys’.  He swayed a little. 

     “Hey, dreamer…” he rasped, in an attempt at a loud whisper.

      She reached for the brass pulls on the bottom of the window, slowly, quietly slid it open and leaned forward.

      “Wally! What on earth do you want?”  Ginger started. It was her older sister, Bridgette, hissing at Wallace from the next window over. Ginger shrunk back into the dark. Curlers full of Bridgette’s strawberry blonde hair framing the side of her face and her kelly green terrycloth robe wrapped tightly around her, breasts pressed unconsciously up against the sill.

    “Briiiiidgette, hey!  C’mon down?”

    “No, Wally!  I’d get in huge trouble!"

    “You wouldn’t either, and you know it.  You’re a pro!”

     She sighed impatiently.  "Did the others boys put you up to this?”

     “Naw, they're at the boathouse.” He scowled. “They’re a drag. I just went for a little midnight row.  I could take you back across with me.  We’d have the most fun.  Say, won’t you come down, pretty please?”

      “Not a chance, Wally.  Now leave this instant before you wake someone up.” Bridgette’s window slid firmly shut.  Wally slouched, turned and unsteadily made his way across the lawn, into the dark.  Ginger left her window open and crawled back under the covers.  She pulled her cotton nightgown down over her knees and smoothed her hair down to cover her neck and shoulders from the cool air.  She didn’t want to miss anything else that might happen.

            Just before she fell into a dream that she was tiptoeing across the lake holding a string of fish, she thought how strange it was, that she had mistakenly heard Wallace calling her name.  He probably didn’t even know her name.  He was six years older than her—the same age as Bridgette.  The two of them had gone to a few dances together that summer.  Ginger was 12, and it wouldn’t be until she was 16 that she’d allowed to attend the dances at the boathouse.

 

*                        *                        *

 

             “Doesn’t this place seem a little sad?”  asked Ginger.  The boathouse was hot inside, but the large paneled windows were cool to the touch.  She and Susanna Trudeau leaned their shoulders against the glass.  Everyone was dancing and seemed to be having a good time.  Lamplight glinting off varnished wood gave the place a warm glow, yet failed to brighten the mood.

             Susanna was gazing up at the red and black streamers draping the walls.  “I wonder where they got all this crepe paper.  If we had some of this crepe paper, we could do Man of La Mancha in the gazebo.” The gazebo was something her father had built in the back of their house, but that only she ever used.

            “I haven’t read that one,” said Ginger, patting her upper lip with a napkin.  The heat was never kind to her.

            “It's long.  We’ll get it from the library.  But you’ll have to be the one to check it out.

            “I haven’t renewed my card since last summer.”

            “Well I’m not done with Kon Tiki, and Grandmother only lets me take out one at a time.”

            “One at a time?  But you’re very responsible with books.

            “She says it’s unattractive to see a girl looking bookish.”

            “That’s silly.”

            “I know. ”

            Susanna was Ginger’s physical opposite.  Ginger, rounded and soft, seemed molded after a Renaissance portrait, while Susanna’s physique seemed to spring from a void - a modern, unprecedented archetype, like one of the stark bronze sculptures they had seen on the field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was lean and golden-skinned. Her mane of wild, tawny blonde hair sprang out in every direction and she seemed completely detached from it, as if she didn’t even know it was there. It complimented her deep, sleepy eyes which were somehow an unexpected shock of blue. Her family had  In addition to being beautiful enough to garner the praise of Ginger’s mother, Susanna was slow and unconsciously graceful, and nothing seemed to fluster her.  But what Ginger admired most about Susanna was her ability to quietly sum a person up in a sentence.

            “Bridgette looks well put together, as usual,” said Susana.

            Ginger’s sister had just arrived with Susanna's sister Abigail, wearing a pleated skirt of custard yellow and a pale green cashmere sweater.  “She only wears colors that look good with her hair,” said Ginger.  “Nobody will ever change her mind about that.”

            “I’d say she knows what she’s talking about,” said Susanna

            When Bridgette walked through the door, the smell of Old English mingling with Chanel No. 5 and baby powder made her want to turn around and walk out.  “Another boring party at this dusty old place. What a waste of lipstick.,” she said to Abigail.  She was about to suggest that they sneak back to the house and play poker in her father's study, but she relented when she saw Ginger wave and smiled at her from across the room.  "Their first dance. What darlings," she said.

            Just then Wallace Grunwald glided into her view and moved in for a peck on the cheek.  Priscilla cut out and headed to the punch table.  Bridgette didn’t blame her.  Wally always had you feeling unsettled and thirsty before long.

            “Hey, Sweepea,” he said.

            “Hi Wally.”

            “How’ve you been?  How was school for you this year?

            Bridgette smiled.  “You don’t care.”

            He frowned.  “That’s not true.”

            “Let me rephrase that.  You want to know if I’m going to drop out and be a wife.”

            Wally couldn’t help but laugh.  “Aw, I know you’re a smart girl.”

            “Good.  I’m glad you know that.”  She pinched his cheek.  He was a dear boy, and she had to admit to herself that it was only self-restraint that kept her from climbing out her window every once in awhile.  Daddy hadn't raised her to just wander off into the night with some boy.

          To Wallace, the old boathouse looked gloriously bygone and appropriately dark in the corners.  He was quickly counting the number of girls waiting to be taken to those dark corners when Bridgette had walked through the front doors with Abigail, who was a snob, in his opinion, although not as snobby as her beautiful sister Susanna.  Their mother had died when they were just kids and their father was overly protective and downright dour. 

            But Bridgette was one together chick.  Unfortunately, she was at that difficult point: just shy of a full-grown woman, too mature to play without feeling embarrassed. A tragedy. He headed her way. Every once in awhile he liked to remind her she could still have a little fun, which irked her.  Still, he considered it his duty.

             "When you going to show me something new?"  he asked after their pleasantries.

            “Kiss my ass. Wally.

            “I’d love to, with everyone watching,” he said with unsettling earnesty. “Afterparty here at midnight.  Milford’s got the keys.”

           Bridgette slapped him on the chest, flattening the striped petunia pinned to his lapel.  “I don’t play those games anymore.”

            “Yeah, you’ve really left us kids in the dust,” he said, bending his knees and stuffing his hands in his pockets.  He scuffed his shoe across the ground for added effect.  Somewhere nearby came the collective declaration of "Cheeeese" and a flash bulb popped, followed by giggles.  Bridgette tilted her head and seemed about to say something empathetic when, behind her right shoulder, Wallace saw a pale, moon-shaped face glowing at him from the darkness.  

            Bridgette knew where his eyes had darted; she could practically see Ginger’s glow reflecting off of his eyes.  She put her hand firmly on his shoulder, this time avoiding the petunia. 

  A perspiring, flabby young man with a camera siddled up to them.  "Good evening!  Will you pose for the Lakeside Summer Yearbook?"

    "Sure will," said Wallace, hugging Bridgette to him.  They smiled as the flash bulb popped.

    "You were saying?" asked Wallace.

    "Hmm?"  Bridgette's ears rang for a moment and her green eyes widened as the room dimmed. 

    "Don't what?" asked Wallace.

    "Don’t what? I don't know..." she squinted over at the table of refreshments. Punchbowl reflected the overhead lights as it wobbled like a disc.  "Excuse me, I've got to get something to drink."  Bridgette pushed her way to the punchbowl.  Wallace stepped aside and made his way to the moonfaced wallflower.

 

*            *            *

 

    Ginger lay on top of the covers.  Her breasts lifted with each inhale.  "Make up your minds," she groaned, and put down Man of La Mancha for the third time.  A flock of birds was making a racket out on the lake, bickering and fluttering from one side of the shore to the other.  She crawled to the foot of the bed and looked out the open window.  The moon was almost full.  She could see one bird being chased by several others across the water.  It squawked as the others reached out and pecked at its tail feathers.

    She half expected to see Wally come rowing out of the darkness, but it wasn't something she was hoping for. She wasn't looking forward to making a decision either way about tomorrow night’s invitation.  He had been so brisk about it.  But polite, too.  Maybe it was the clothes that intimidated her.  Whom was he trying to impress with all that grooming, anyway?  It was only summertime, and even she knew he had a job waiting for him in New York after graduation.   His severely sophisticated ways had her wondering if she herself was smart enough to keep his company.

 

*            *            *

 

    The living room floor of the Grunwald's summer cabin creaked as couples two-stepped to Don Cornell on the record player in the next room.  The walls of the indoor porch boasted two original Norman Rockwells.  Below one, Wallace sat perched sideways on a hand-carved rocking horse, nursing a port.

    "Cigarette?" asked a guest. She was a woman in her fifties with hair an unnatural shade of burgundy.  She had a faint accent.

      "I try to only do one at a time," said Wallace, holding up his glass and offering a smile.  She smiled back and lit up. God, she smoked like a riverboat kitchen fire.  What was the name?  Bismarck. 

    From a low, red chair in the corner, her stocky husband chuckled and raised his glass. Next to him, a yellow lamp draped with scarves cast shadows over the thick chenille quilt on the Windsor daybed where Mrs. Bismarck sat.  She was so short, the hem of her white slacks barely reached the bed's edge.  She flipped idly through an old magazine and hummed along to Don Cornell.

 

My life and my love, dear

Are yours to command

I stand here before you

My heart in my hand

 

    Wallace's parents had gone to bed shortly after coming home from the boathouse party and making introductions.  The Bismarcks had just arrived that day and were staying in the adjoining cottage.  Owned some German railcar company.  By this point, the rest of the guests were stoned, drunk, or asleep in the next room.  It wouldn’t be appropriate to put this off any longer.  Wallace moved to the bed.  Gardenia perfume came over him in a wave.

    Wallace positioned himself so Mr. Bismarck could see the both of them and helped the Missus out of her jacket.  Shirt on or off? he thought.  On.  But then, there were just her pumps to take off, and her pants.  He stalled, lifting a few strands of beads over her head slowly, lying them on the bed. They were a heavy, mottled amalgamation of burgundy, cream, purple and red.  A funereal palette.

    Wallace wondered if her husband had to listen to chatter like this on a daily basis, or if she was just excited.  He was down to her underwear—floral print.  Her paunch balooned out beneath the tight waistband.  He set his empty glass down on the floor.

  At least he was drunk; otherwise he might have gagged.  He ducked down to work.  She uttered a throaty moan as he began to drag his tongue across the oblong opening and wrinkled clit.  

  This wasn't much different than most nights that the Grunwalds hosted at the cabin, but for the first time, Wallace found himself wondering what the chances were that the couple might simultaneously fall asleep and give him a chance to escape and do some thinking.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had just taken time to...

    A pop of bright white.  He looked up.  Arnold was grinning sheepishly, a camera propped up on his knee.  Wallace blinked in the momentary onset of darkness, shook his head, then ducked back down.

 

 *         *            *

    Ginger lay on top of the covers.  Her breasts lifted with each inhale.  "Make up your minds," she groaned, and put down Man of La Mancha for the third time.  A flock of birds was making a racket out on the lake, bickering and fluttering from one side of the shore to the other.  She crawled to the foot of the bed and looked out the open window.  The moon was almost full.  She could see one bird being chased by several others across the water.  It squawked as the others reached out and pecked at its tail feathers.

    She half expected to see Wally come rowing out of the darkness, but it wasn't something she was hoping for. She wasn't looking forward to making a decision either way about tomorrow night’s invitation.  He had been so brisk about it.  But polite, too.  Maybe it was the clothes that intimidated her.  Whom was he trying to impress with all that grooming, anyway?  It was only summertime, and even she knew he had a job waiting for him in New York after graduation.   His severely sophisticated ways had her wondering if she herself was smart enough to keep his company.

 

* * *

 

            At 5 am, thick dark clouds rolling across the sky covered up any chance of a clear morning.  A ways off from the cabin, a brindled boxer bounded into the choppy water, followed by a German Shepherd.  Behind them strode Wallace in grey striped pajamas.  He hastily rolled his pants halfway up his lean calves and waded into the water.

            The Boxer jumped after a water snake wiggling hurriedly away from them.   Wallace looked up at a spot in sky from where the clouds seemed to spiral out.  A branch of lightning crackled across his view. 

“Hey!  We had a deal!”  His torso heaved with the effort of each word.  “You said if I…” [a clap of thunder], then I could…” [another clap of thunder.]   The wind twisted his hair into his eyes and sent his unbuttoned shirt fluttering behind him like tattered wings.  Red scratch marks crossed his jaw, neck and chest.

        ALL TERMS HAVE BEEN MET, a voice thundered in his head.

        This was true.  His skin prickled with electricity.   He waded further out as choppy little waves soaked his pajamas to a dark grey.  Was this a real meeting, or another dream?  It was getting harder to tell between the two.  The anchoring effects of sleeping and meals were no help, since he often skipped both without noticing. 

"Everywhere I go, I feel cooped up, like I can't get a breath of air!" I can’t breathe.

     A gust of wind slapped the side of his face and he struggled to keep his balance.  It was dawning on him that making a deal with someone-- or something-- you couldn't see was never a good idea.  Why had he thought becoming a handler would be easy-- arrogance or stupidity? 

            It seemed like a natural progression from what he had always known; he had been introduced to the lake community’s discreet pastimes as a child.  His earliest memory of them was waking in the middle of the night to hoots and hollers coming from the living room.  A sheet hung in his doorway was lit with a confusing tangle of moving nude bodies projected onto it.  From somewhere in the next room a recording of moans and gasps accompanied the choreography.  Cigar smoke pressed in upon him. 

When he had peeked around the sheet, he saw an audience in the living room in various stages of undress, leisurely taking in the film.  As he squinted into the cone of light from the projector, they called out at him to move out of the way.  His father was among them.  His mother was sitting on the rug with her arm around man he didn’t recognize.  Frightened, he ran to her.  She had hugged him and sat him in her lap.  He fell asleep in her arms as the show went on.  For the first time, this memory made him want to wretch. It struck him: Maybe he had been mislead.  Maybe it wasn't his fault he was unhappy carrying out the peculiar plans of his superiors.  Thunder clapped again over his head.

If this storm was a dream, it sure felt real.  But when had it ever been this easy to talk to God, or the Devil or whomever?  When had it ever been this easy to negotiate?  "I changed my mind!" he shouted, with the conviction of someone wronged.  But he had no idea how true this was.

 

*                        *                        *

 

    The force behind the swirling clouds already knew this, and was displeased.  Wallace was such a well-packaged coordination of detail planning and execution—was so dependable, that he had been given just what he had asked for at an unusually early stage in his career.  Leadership.  Entitlement. He could preside over parties at the cabin.  He could lead the boys in the night circles.  He had every parent's permission to lure their daughters (or sons) out of bedroom windows.  He moved fluidly through day and night, equally at home in both.  Dark and light, eat, or not eat, sleep or not sleep.  It was all the same for him.

Also valuable was that he didn't even know the extent of his usefulness.  Why did he wear a striped flower or harass Ginger and Bridgette, for example?  He didn't find the Henley girl particularly attractive.  If asked, he might answer that he just felt like having a little fun.  He had no idea that the purpose of his behavior was to prime Ginger for more involved activities using the socialized compartment of her brain, and aggravate Bridgette's jealousy in order to fuel her lust for her own handler.  Meanwhile, he was completely curbed from having anything to do with Susanna, who was a more delicate case and to whom his advances may have caused great disruption.

    From across the lake in his study, Mr. Henley spat on the rug and checked his watch.  The first stage of the pills would be wearing off in the next few minutes, and the boy would sleep soundly until the coming evening.  He eased into the Eames, pressed his cold fingertips together and inhaled deeply. [make this scene a conversation with another person]

 

*            *            *

 

Casper Henley pushed her cart down the narrow aisle of Sunland Grocery.  She had already perused the boutique, the yarn store and the shoe shop.  Sunland was her last stop.  She had a half hour before Mr. Henley would pick her up on his way back from Golf. That left her 20 minutes to shop and 10 minutes to check her hair and makeup and be waiting out front.  They were meeting the Bismarcks at the shore just after lunch. 

There was a bus route that stopped right by the lake, but she preferred to wait for her husband.  She had stopped driving when they married; there were too many unpredictable variables and too many decisions to make at once.  She didn’t find grocery shopping to be like that, though you’d think it would be.  Somehow, at the market it was different.  She knew just what she wanted. 

She found herself in the cheese section.  Cheese was her favorite.  So many flavors and consistencies and shapes and sizes to choose from.  She didn’t eat much of it herself, to keep her figure, but the girls loved it and it seemed to add a little something to any dish. 

 

* * *

 

Sunday afternoon was balmy.

"Wallace Grunwald invited us to this party… thing tonight." said Ginger.  She, Susanna, Abigail and Bridgette were sunbathing on the dock.

    "Grunwald..." groaned Bridgette, rolling her eyes.  Abigail followed suit.

Ginger turned down Saturday Morning Tales of the Goldrush floating out from the transistor radio sitting next to her thigh.  “Well, I know I’m not supposed to like him, but he is nice.  So if you could just fill me in…”           

    Susanna leaned over and looked into the water.  "Good looking, decent manners, but isn't having fun unless he's carrying out some scheme.  Therefore, stay clear—Perch!  She dropped a frozen grape into the lake.  The perch shot up towards the sinking grape, then swerved away uninterested as the tiny globe wobbled downward.  "They hardly ever come up this far."

“She’s right,” said Bridgette.  “Where’s your common sense?  Daddy would not approve.  He’s just, oh, he’s just not worth the time!”

    Ginger thought a moment, tugging her floppy hat further out to cover her softly rounded shoulders, which were turning pink.  “The time?  You mean, like a date?” 

    Susana popped a grape in her mouth.  "But Bridgette, didn't you two date for a split second?" 

Bridgette wrinkled her nose.  “I’m not discussing it.  Abby, you want to go get lemon ices?”  The two of them rolled up their towels and headed down the dock.

    "They went out a few times,” said Ginger, watching them go, “but now she gets in a huff when his name comes up."

    "He’s small potatoes to Bridgette."

    "What do you mean?"

    "She's too sophisticated for him."

    "Yes, I guess you're right."

    "Did you finish La Mancha?"

"Barely.”  She turned the radio up again to the deep, smooth voice of an actor playing Black Bart, Gentleman Bandit, fondly giving an account of his favorite stagecoach robbery.  “Why don’t we do Black Bart?”

  Susanna scowled.  “I don't think we'll be allowed to use the gazebo tomorrow morning, after all.  My granmother’s planning a lunch with the terrible Grey Aunts, so they can all try to make me sit up straight and force some nasty little sandwiches down my throat.

    "You poor thing.  Why don't they just let you be?"

    "Grandmother wants to make sure I have marryable manners.”

    Ginger shook her head.  "But your mother’s not alone because of her manners.  It's not her fault your father died."

    "I know."  Susanna shrugged.

 

Somewhere down the shore, Mr. Henley sat beneath a patio umbrella with Mr. Bismarck.  The wives had scooted their chairs to the edge of the water and were chatting. 

“They’re not hard to come by,” Mr. Henley was saying as Mr. Bismarck grunted and nodded and wiggled his toes in the sand.  “We have plenty of his looks and stature, and find good use for them.  But he’s very dedicated, very thorough.  And that is why I’m concerned.”

“And his parents?”

“He has kept his role from them.  If they notice anything now, they probably assume it’s youthful fervor.” 

“Vell,” said Mrs. Bismarck, “He performed vell last night.  But.  If you’ll allow me to draw on Eastern teachings for a moment, three sets of seven does bring a zodiacal shift in all people.”

This was true, thought Mr. Henley.  He had seen it many times before and the indications were clear: general restlessness, bouts of mania, waves of disgust during routine practices.  It was like shower tiles falling off, one by one.  “You’re right, Mr. Bismarck.  The breakdown surprised me because we started him earlier than usual, and gave him additional programming beginning at age 13 to prevent just such a thing from happening. This age is key - very useful”

Mr. Bismarck shifted in his chair to escape the sun creeping over his red, flaky arm from above the umbrella.  “Yet.  At zis age, their fragmented consciousness inevitably attempts to mend itself.  It is unfortunate, and unavoidable.” 

Mr. Henley sighed.  So, the codes in his 22-year-old brain were beginning to deteriorate.  It couldn't be vanity.  No, this boy liked a job well done, no matter if the subject was attractive or haggard. 

“Zis doesn’t mean he will quit functioning.  Not many are strong enough to break the codes, let alone physically remove zemselves from the environment.  But he’ll have to be tested.  How did he do with the pills ve gave him?”

“He’s still sleeping.  I haven’t ruled out giving you the other set for him.  But we’ll wait until after tonight.”

 

 *                        *                        *

 

    Ginger was awake when Wallace made his appearance, cooing at her from out in the dark.  She waved quietly from the open window, then sat up on the sill and swung her feet out.  She was barefoot, but Wallace could see that under her nightgown, she wore pedal pushers.  She reached her hand through the balcony railing at her left and pulled out what appeared to be a Persimmon Driver from between the railings.

    In a move braver than she thought she was capable of, Ginger hooked the golf club onto the balcony, held tightly to the grip and slipped off the windowsill.  The iron shaft twanged softly as it rapped against the railing and Ginger landed down on the grass.  "Ouch," she said, rubbing her hands together and standing up.

    "Atta girl, Ginger!"  Wallace said, gleefully squeezing her shoulders. He breathed in the scent of honeysuckle soap.  Ginger was shocked to see that his hair was uncombed and he was in a set of wrinkled pajamas.

Neither of them saw Bridgette standing at her bedroom window.  As she watched them set off towards the rowboat, Bridgette spat on the windowpane. She turned and walked out of her room, loosening the tie on her kelly green robe,

 

* * *

 

    "A little late, aren't you?" asked Milford, jingling his keys.  He wore a long scarlet cloak, along with the eleven other the boys who stood milling about near the stage. 

    "Aw, don't be miffed," said Wallace.  He held out his arms towards Ginger.  "Look who I brought! Ta-dahhhh!" 

Ginger felt childish.

    "We've been waiting nearly three quarters of an hour.  We're supposed to start at 12 o' clock, sharp."

   Wallace reached his arm around the taller boy's shoulders.  "Don't you get sick of it, Mil?  All the rules?"

    Milford looked down at him.  "What on earth are you wearing?  Where's your cloak?"

    "Aw, I forgot it at home."

    "Shall I to lead tonight's circle?  You seem a little... scattered."

    "No, thanks.  Gather round everyone!  Ginger, you stand here in the middle, and tie this around your eyes—no, I’ll tie it..."  The rest of the group came forward and took their places.

 

* * *

 

    Susanna hadn't planned on going to this stupid afterhours thing at the boathouse.  She hated all the secretive clique stuff.  They thought they were so mature.  Her parents’ gatherings would have made Wallace’s antics look like child’s play.  Susanna was an infant, at home with her nanny when her mother died in a train wreck, but her older sister Abby could describe to her in detail the bizarre rituals and unsettling characters that used to come around, both at their house and the summer cottage. 

Abby said that Grandmother was relieved when all the strange people she didn’t like in the first place stopped coming around.  Susanna herself had watched her mother fiercely declined advancements of any suitors, no matter how gentle they seemed or how many gifts they brought for her and her sister.  But she was still left with the houses, the social circle and some traditions, like summer at the lake. 

Although, Susanna and Abby had slipped through the cracks when it came to certain aspects of the lakeside circle.  The more private the activity, the more relieved they were to be excluded.  You could say they had caught a break.  But Abby really clung to some things Susanna couldn’t stand— mostly involving ridiculous beauty rituals and pointless chatter about pumps, pocketbooks and makeup.  It was occurring to her now that her older sister had to work harder at feeling normal.

And poor Ginger hadn’t an inkling what was in store for her.  In little ways, Susanna tried to drop hints, but she had to be careful—too much information could really set Ginger off and she might hurt herself.  Like Susanna, she had been born into a family who started their girls early.  If she couldn’t rescue her friend, maybe she could make enough of a scene to be sent away and Ginger might get to thinking. 

Susanna didn’t have much to lose. Summers had long ago gone from exciting to stiffling.  Letting boys use ugly costumes as an excuse to feel you up had lost its mystique.  Mother was still kind of trapped by it all because of the houses, and if she wanted to send Susanna off to boarding school to look good in front of the others, that was fine.  Then she could read whatever books she wanted, whenever she wanted. 

That was why she was stealing down the lakeside path towards the boathouse with the family’s new automatic flash camera, her jaw nervously working an extra large piece of chewing gum.  She was going to break up their pathetic little nightcircle and snap a few photos.  Maybe she could convince a good hearted newspaperman to pick up the story.  Her bright white tennis shoes padding quietly along the path looked like nimble little rabbit feet.

When she got to the boathouse, the lights were low and she could see the top of Ginger’s head in the middle.  Stupid girl was blindfolded.  But this didn’t look like how they normally do it.  The leader was nowhere to be seen.  She crouched down and peered through the bottom row of window panes.  Among the boys’ knees, she could see Wallace crawling towards Ginger.  He looked positively wild.

She slipped in through the unlocked door, crawled up on a table and when she thought she was holding the camera as steadily as she could, SNAP.

 

* * *

 

Ginger didn’t understand why she was blindfolded in the middle, or why everyone was wearing cloaks but it was sort of like group affirmation time at Mrs. Tillsdale’s ettiquete class.  The boys were acting awfully solemn and Wallace was being terribly enthusiastic.  He was calling out funny little nice things about her, like beautiful creature and divine being and something in Latin, and that he wanted them to just stop for a moment and think about her as a person. 

Then he said something that didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest.  He said “Fellas, c’mon fellas, she really doesn’t deserve that.” 

 

* * *

 

Milford didn’t much like the way this night’s gathering was going.  Wally Grunwald was not following protocol and acting suspiciously goofy.  It was just like him to think he was above the rules and try to pull some unjudicious prank.

Milton usually appreciated his wild ideas, but this crawling around on the floor, spouting Shakespearean nonsense about the female as a symbol, altogether acting like a pagan – he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and there was a good chance the kid might hurt himself.  So it wasn’t really a question of whether or not to tackle Wally, but when. 

 

* * *

 

Wallace felt he was just about to beautifully illustrate his point about Ginger when Mil lunged at him like some nut, a girl hollered somewhere and a flash went off directly at his eyes.  Instantly his forehead throbbed in pain.  Another flash went off and a the boys’ elongated shadows momentarily raked across the worn wooden floor.  He lost his balance and fell onto his side. The boys closed in.

He looked up.  What in the hell was wrong with him?  Here was everyone else, dressed for the occasion and he was without the flower for his lapel.  Had he really shown up without it? This was as bad as showing up for a Christmas party with no coat and no flask.

There must be something growing nearby that he could wear.  God, why hadn’t he planned ahead?  How had he even gotten here?  “Excuse me…” he pushed his way out of the circle.  “Oh, hello Susanna,” he said to the pretty blonde girl standing on the table.  He had never noticed how nice her legs were.  He would have to go on a walk with her sometime soon. ”We should go on a walk sometime.”

“Susanna!” called Ginger, taking off her blindfold.

Outside, Wallace kneeled down in the flowerbed, found the perfect purple geranium and shoveled it along with some soil into his pajama breast pocket. “Guys, girls,” he nodded to everyone, who had followed him outside, “I’ve got a date with a dame!”

“A date now?” asked Ginger, smoothing her hair where the bandanna had been tied at the back of her head.   

“A sweet gal,” said Wallace, backing down the hill towards the shore.  “I’d like for all you to meet her sometime,” he called from the darkness.  “Name’s Violet Bismarck.” 

Ginger gasped. That old lady?

They could hear the rowboat scraping across the sand as he shoved off.

Milford took one, long-legged step over to Ginger and slipped his hand into hers.  “Let me walk you home.”

“No, I will,” said Susanna, slinging the camera behind her hip and swiftly steering Ginger down the lakeside path. 

 

* * *

 

Bridgette had been panting and whining at the foot of her parents’ bedroom door for 20 minutes before her father opened it.  Her mother was in bed, deep in pill-induced beauty sleep.

“Oh, hello daddy,” said Bridgette brightly, smearing a few tears across her face with her hand.  “I hope I didn’t disturb you.”

Mr. Henley stooped down slightly.  “No dear.  I’m just up to check on something.” 

Bridgette closed her eyes as his cool fingers raked through her hair, which she had taken out of the curlers.  Then her eyes snapped back open at the distant sound of a great din out in front of the house. 

Her father pushed past her and moved quickly down the hall.

Out on the lawn, Susanna was shouting, “Mr. Hennnleyyyyy!  Sorry to bother you at an hour like this!  I know it’s quite inappropriate, but how do we really define appropriate these days?”  The front door opened and Mr. Henley stepped out onto the porch.  “I beg your pardon,” said Susanna, gathering her nerve, “but I found your precious daughter in the boat house tonight, about to get tousled by a bunch of boys.  I knew you’d be very upset, and rushed her right home.”

Mr. Henley looked at her coolly.  “Where is Wallace?”

“You mean her handler?  Losing his marbles somewhere out on the lake.  Can’t you hear him?”

Sure enough, Wallace’s bounced over the water and up to them in a hushed timbre.

 

Heart and soul I am yours.

Can't you see it my eyes?

Can't you hear it in my sighs?

I'm yours.

 

Bridgette pushed past her father and out onto the grass.  She picked up the bent golf club from the grass, lifted it over her head and ran at Ginger.  Susanna screamed, pushed Ginger down and caught the club on her left shoulder.  She fell back, stunned.  Bridgette stood above the both of them, her hair is messy curls, her robe opened to reveal a leopard print teddy neither of them had ever seen. 

“Ginger, why are you being such a… a disgrace?!  You’re going to shame Daddy!  And you,” she screamed at Susanna.  “You’re such a goddam nosy know-it-all, sticking your face where it doesn’t belong!  Go home, Nigger!”

“Bridgette.  That’s enough,” said Mr. Henley.  He had not moved from where he stood on the doorstep.  Bridgette dropped the golf club and marched into the house.  “Susanna, why don’t you head home.  I’m sure your father will be worried.  Ginger, come on inside.”

“But Daddy, Bridgette just hurt Susanna…” she reached out for her friend’s welted shoulder.

“I’m fine, Ginger.”  Susanna squeezed her friend’s hand.  “Let’s just see each other tomorrow, okay?” 

Ginger stood there dumbly for a moment.  Her bottom lip quivered.  “Your shoulder…” 

“I’m fine.  Tomorrow after lunch, we can do the play, or Black Bart, whatever you want.  Promise.”  Susanna picked her camera up off the grass and walked away.  Ginger couldn’t get her legs to move.  She looked at her father, who still stood in the doorway.  She could see Bridgette’s light on upstairs, and her own window wide open, without the curtain up still.  Wally’s voice again came floating over the lake. 

 

I'm yours,

Every kiss says I'm yours.

Take my lips and take my arms;

I'm a victim of your charms,

I'm yours.