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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Birds and Beatles


by Rick Bailey

     I’m reading a New Yorker article about Paul McCartney at the breakfast table one morning. At the top of the page there’s a black and white photo of him and John Lennon, circa 1965. It’s the year, the caption tells us, of Help! and Rubber Soul.
     My wife and I are leaving for Italy in a week. I’ve been downloading stuff to my Kindle to read while we’re away. I’ve got enough to last me quite a while, some novels (a few trashy ones, a few edifying ones), Clive James’ Poetry Notebook, a bunch of articles from the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New Republic. (I guess I’m keeping it New this spring.) When language fatigue sets in over there, and I know it will, with the constant strain of trying to listen very fast to decode flights of Italian, it’s a pleasure to lie down in silence and read in my own language.
     “Photo by David Bailey,” I say to my wife. Our son’s name. “How about that?”
     “What?”
     “This article about Paul McCartney. It has a photo by David Bailey.”
     Hmmm.
     I give her a minute, then ask, “Who’s your favorite Beatle?” 
     “Don’t start.” 
      She’s reading a book called Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth Century Mediterranean World. The bibliography is forty pages. Good lord.
     “Are you taking that thing on the plane?”
     “Maybe.” She pushes a small taste of eggs onto her espresso spoon.
     “It’s a brick.”
     “Jesuits,” she says. “I love the Jesuits.”
     I hum a few bars of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Two pals and I turn sixty-four within a few months of each other this year. I’ve suggested, more than a few times, that we should have a “when I’m sixty-four party” sometime this summer, to celebrate ourselves.

     Later this day I will drive ninety minutes north to visit my old friend Brian. His caretaker Sheila has told me he’s not quite himself. Listening to music in the car, piped from my iPhone into the radio, I make a mental note of oldies I’d like to play for him. “I’ve Got Friday on My Mind,” by the Easybeats; Cyrcle’s “It’s a Turn Down Day”; The Beatles’ “Dr. Robert,” so we can hear that scratchy guitar and lush chorus. I’d like to see him react to the organ solo in Bonnie Raitt’s “We Used to Rule the World.” In the car I play the music loud, today even louder than usual. I know I probably shouldn’t. My wife and kids tell me I’m getting a little deaf. (A little?) These days the car and treadmill are the only places I listen to music. I can’t help myself. I want it loud.
     He’ll be sitting in his wheelchair at the kitchen table, his back to the doorway I walk through. I rehearse the scene in the mind. “Remember this?” Sitting across from him, I’ll play part of a song. I’ll wait to see the look of recognition, watch him travel back in time. “How about this?”  When my mother was sick and I made this drive, I listened to podcasts, for reflection and for laughs. For these visits, I want bang and bash. I want nostalgia.

     We bought every Beatle album as soon as it hit the store. This was, of course, back in the vinyl days. The first three or four lps, in mono, cost less than five dollars. We took them home, put them on the turntable, and sat down to listen. It was “close listening,” almost like the close reading of a poem advocated by the New Critics. In the front bedroom of Brian’s house on 3rd Street, we sat on the floor and played the records over and over, holding the album covers, like holy objects, in our laps. There was a photo or two to look at; on the back, a song list. You listened, and you looked. “Meet the Beatles,” headshots of four young guys in partial shadow; twelve songs, the longest of which was “I Saw Her Standing There” (2:50), the shortest, incredibly short by today’s standards, “Little Child” (1:46), produced by George Martin, for Capitol Records.
     Years later, my kids went totally digital. They bought CDs and queued up the songs they wanted to hear. On some CDs they listened to only one or two songs; that was it. Back in the vinyl days, we listened to the whole album, every track all the way through, even the songs we didn’t particularly like. Ringo singing “Act Naturally.” Really? To lift the needle, move it to the song you liked, and set it down, aiming for the barely visible gap between tracks, was to risk scratching the record.
     A scratch would last forever. That was the thing about vinyl.
     And now it’s back.
     I have purist friends who could explain why vinyl is better: the sound profiles you get in analog are richer, far superior to the sterile precision of digital. I guess I get that. I’m still kind of an analog guy. I look at the clock and say “a quarter to” and “a little after,” it bothers me that soon kids will no longer be able to decode the face of a clock and tell time, the way many of them will never learn to write in cursive. I remember moving the needle to tune in an AM radio station in the car. I like a speedometer needle. I go about seventy mph (not sixty-seven) when I drive up to visit Brian.
     I should ask him, What do you think about the vinyl craze these days?
     I know what he would say.
     Who gives a fuck?   

     He’s sitting in his wheelchair with his back to the door. The dogs bark when I walk in. There are seven of them. It takes a minute to calm them down. Brian gives me a crooked smile and says, “How the hell are you?” It’s his usual greeting. He has a full beard, a lot more salt than pepper, and he’s wearing a hat. It occurs to me that in all the recent pictures of him I’ve seen, he has that hat on. When I ask him how the hell he’s doing, he turns his head and points to his hair, slate gray, wisps of what’s left of it hanging down. It’s the radiation, he says.
     I figure we’ll get a few basics out of the way, before getting down to basics.
     Sleep?
     He says he sleeps just fine.
     Appetite?
     He says he’s an eating machine.
     Pain?
     Not even a headache. If the doctor didn’t tell him he was sick, he wouldn’t even know it.
     I ask if he’s ever had a beard before.
     Couple times.
     He’s sixty-four years old, a September birthday, a year older than me. Three months ago Sheila organized a benefit. It went from noon to nine at the Elks Club bar in Bay City, all music all the time, played by over forty years of musician friends in the area. Brian packed the place.
     I tell him I’m thinking about a “when I’m sixty-four party” for me and a few pals this summer. What does he think?
     Yup.
     Next to the kitchen table, a tv set displays weekday afternoon programming. He watches it while I ask more questions, about his sister, son, nephew, a pal we call Easy Eddie. I’m thinking about my song list when he wonders, Hey, what’re we going to eat?

     In this New Yorker article, published in 2007, Paul McCartney confesses to dyeing his hair. He also confesses to being freaked out about actually being sixty-four. “The thought is somewhat horrifying,” he tells the interviewer. “It’s like ‘Well, no, this can’t be me.’” The article is contemporaneous with the release of an album called “Memory Almost Full,” which the interviewer describes as “up-tempo rock songs … tinged with melancholy.” I know the album. When it came out, I listened to thirty seconds of each track at the iTunes Store, bought one song, “Dance Tonight,” for $1.29, and downloaded it. It’s a jaunty piece with a kazoo solo in the bridge.
     The writer mentions the famous deaths: Lennon, Harrison, Linda.
     McCartney, I learn, was sixteen when he wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
     When Brian and I were that age, we had begun to realize we were not going to be the next Lennon and McCartney. We had written exactly one song together, called “If I Could Dream,” which some years later he managed to get recorded with a band he was in, graciously crediting “Bailey and Bennett” in parentheses beneath the song title as the composers.
    
      I come back from Mulligans with two bar burgers, mushrooms and mayo on his, and French fries. The dogs bark. Four or five of them eventually settle under the table. We eat our burgers, watch a little more tv, and I think again about my song list. Maybe I won’t play the songs after all. Who wants to listen music on a phone, anyway? In the kitchen it will sound like a cheap transistor radio.
      I say, “Hey, remember ‘It’s a Turn Down Day’”?
      He looks at the tv for a bit, then turns my way. “The Cyrcle,” he says. “They were a good band.”
     The show we’re listening to is called The Doctor. It’s talk. Two men, two women. One of the men is dressed like a doctor. They’re discussing castration as a way of punishing rapists. Or maybe it’s a preventative measure. The man dressed as a doctor explains that there is both surgical and chemical castration. The two women agree that, either way, it’s an extreme measure. They are both against it.
     I try another one: “Remember ‘I’ve Got Friday on My Mind’”?
     It takes a minute. He turns away from the tv and gives me a partial crooked smile and a nod. “Good song,” he says.
     I know the nod.
     Sheila says, “Getting tired, Brian?”
     It’s for me. Well, okay, I think, that’s enough.
     We sit together for a while longer, through the rest of my fries. Brian takes a bite or two from his burger, gazes at the tv. Before going to commercial, the doctor previews the next segment of the show. They’re going to talk about a woman’s cancer treatment. The woman on screen looks familiar.
     “Is that Bruce Jenner?” I say.
     Sheila says it’s not Bruce Jenner. It’s a real woman.
     “Goddam,” Brian says.
     We watch a few more minutes in silence. I get up to go. The dogs rouse and congregate around my feet. I tell Brian see you in a month or so, shake his hand, and lean down for a long hug. “You hang in there now,” I say. “I’ll be back the middle of next month.”
     He nods, says thanks for coming, Richard.
     “See you, right?”
     He nods. I’m pretty sure he nods.
     About the time I get to the freeway, which takes ten minutes or so, my iPhone shuffles to a favorite Beatle song. I play it loud and sing along: “You say you’ve seen certain wonders, and your bird can sing.” That would be another song to mention, on another visit.

     A few days later, my wife and I are upstairs packing. It’s mid morning. I’m tossing power cords for my phone and Kindle and laptop into a carry-on when I realize I’m not wearing any pants. What happened to my pants?
     “Have you seen my black sweater?” my wife says.
     When did I take off my pants? For a while now I’ve been walking into rooms only to find I can’t remember why I’m there. I’m used to that. Like tinnitus, it comes with age. Losing my pants is new.
     “Did you hear me?” my wife says.
     “I heard you.” I look around the room, feeling mild panic. No pants, anywhere. “Which black sweater?”  
     I stand there, marveling at this altered state. Then I remember: I took them off in the other room, in front of the closet, so I could try on another pair I had fitted a while back.
     “I’m losing it,” she says.
      There they are, the pants I tried on, in the carry-on. So the other ones are over there?
     “Can you hear anything I’m saying?” she says.
     “I hear you fine.”
     We’re all losing it.
     One of these days I’ll have to get my hearing checked. I sort of don’t want to know. I think about my parents growing old, my father and all his hearing aids. There were owls in the woods a half a mile away from their house. My parents almost always slept with a window open. For years they said they heard owls all night. One day my wife and I were up for a visit. When I asked about them, my mother said yes, the owls were still there. Then she added, “Your dad can’t hear them any more.” I think he took it in stride. What choice did he have? Still, it broke my heart.
     One day it will happen to me. I’ll wake up, look for my pants, and I won’t be able to hear the birds and the Beatles. I’ll have to remember to consider myself lucky.


Rick Bailey writes about family, food, travel, current events, what he reads and what he remembers. The University of Nebraska Press will publish a collection of his essays, American English, Italian Chocolate in summer 2017. He and his wife divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

From Snitch to Scab

by Richard LeBlond

I began my newspaper career as a snitch, age nine, in 1950. We lived on the northern edge of Portland, Oregon, only three blocks from the cut-over bottomlands between the city and the Columbia River. This intermittently flooded wasteland had been partially filled by railroad beds, stockyards, and disposal areas for industrial waste. To a boy of nine, it was a frontier with high potential for treasure (some of it toxic), and one afternoon I found it. Down at the foot of a railroad embankment were hundreds of advertising circulars all rolled up like small newspapers.

There was no value in the circulars themselves. The treasure lay in how they got there. They were supposed to have been delivered house to house by a boy on a bicycle. I figured he had tossed them like a dead body into the early morning miasma. Delivering advertising circulars was a coveted job, one of the few a child could legally do. I took home a piece of the evidence, and dad called the distributor. I was quickly rewarded with the miscreant’s job.

The circulars were supposed to be delivered in the early morning once a week. Some guy in a truck dumped a large bale of them on our front porch after midnight. Mom had to get up an hour before me to start rolling the hundreds of circulars so I could toss them on porches like the professional paperboys did. But even with her help there was not enough time to complete the deliveries before breakfast and school.

I wasn’t about to devote another morning to the task, let alone a precious afternoon, so it wasn’t long before I realized the practicality of the snitched-on boy’s method. I began to deliver to as many houses as time allowed, then hid the overburden in more secluded areas of the wasteland. The bodies were never found, so I continued distribution of the circulars to the local neighborhood and bottomlands until I finally got a job delivering real newspapers at age eleven.

(There is a parallel between the start of my newspaper career and the beginning for a politician—tear down the unscrupulous incumbent, then discover the job can’t be done by scruple alone. “Politics,” observed socialist Oscar Ameringer, “is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.”)

In the early 1950s, Portland had two dailies, the morning Oregonian and the evening Oregon Journal. My first newspaper job was delivering the Journal in late afternoon, after school. The paperboys gathered at the newspaper’s district distribution center, a sturdy shack at the back of a supermarket parking lot. We had to be there before the newspaper truck arrived, so there was always time to kill, and the favorite place to kill it was in the supermarket’s candy section. Our goal was to shoplift as many candy bars as possible under the ruse of the purchase of one or two. Once outside, we tallied and compared the sweet ephemera.

The nickel-and-dime thievery was of course perilous, and every now and then one of us was caught. But for my group of pre-teen boys in the early 1950s, shoplifting was only a risky option, not the beginning of a wasted life. Better behavior had to compete with peer pressure, unenlightened self-interest, and the inherent goodness of a Baby Ruth candy bar. Most importantly, shoplifting reduced the drawdown of wealth I was acquiring for a bicycle upgrade.

(At the time, I was only interested in the money I was making, and gave no thought to the economic system newspaper delivery represents. We were little franchises. The newspapers themselves were actually being sold to the paperboys, not to the subscribers. Once a month the company handed us a bill, and we collected from the subscribers to pay it. The remainder was ours. Any account unpaid was the paperboy’s problem. He not only received no profit on those accounts, but had to pay the company for the papers he had delivered to the scofflaws. Yet even with the economic assistance of eleven-year-old boys, printed newspapers appear headed for oblivion.)

I became a newspaperman during my senior year of high school, when I discovered that calculus and girls couldn’t be studied at the same time. Getting girls to make out requires effort and focus when competition, pursuit, and anxiety are factored in. I abandoned my dream of becoming a geologist exploring for oil in Venezuela, and amended my curriculum by replacing lonely and cerebral calculus with a very sociable course in journalism. The journalism class was responsible for writing and publishing the school newspaper. I loved sports and got the plum job of sports editor, even though I wasn’t much of an athlete, breaking my arm the first time I tried to swing on rings.

One of my responsibilities after a varsity game was to call the Oregonian and the Oregon Journal to relate the score and a few highlights. That year our football team was very good, and I had kept track of statistics for each player. I began getting phone calls from the Oregonian reporter who covered high school athletics. He wanted those statistics for his weekly column. After a couple of months, he asked me if I would be interested in the most stupendous offer anyone had ever made to me: a one-night-a-week job as a bottom-rung copy writer at the downtown Oregonian building itself, in the exalted sports department.

At first, I just worked Friday evenings. That was game night. Several of us were there to answer phone calls from informants, record the scores and highlights, and write a two- or three-sentence account of the game. My literary career was airborne.

Following high school, I enrolled as a journalism major at Pacific University in Forest Grove, about thirty miles west of Portland. I kept working part-time for the Oregonian, adding Tuesday and Saturday nights to my schedule.

Thanks to the business world’s chronic cost cutting, I was about to get even more work. The newspapers had recently automated another part of the printing process, causing a seventy-five percent reduction in the number of workers needed among members of the Stereotypers Union. In November 1959, the stereotypers went on strike, and members of other unions refused to cross the picket lines.

Managers of both newspapers huddled in the Oregonian building and attempted to print their dailies with non-union help. Tempers flared when non-union workers crossed the picket lines. There were fights. A newspaper delivery van was blown up. Then the managing editor of the sports department called and asked me to be part of the non-union publishing team, with a full-time job. I crossed the picket line with a bodyguard: Dad. My career had entered the scab phase.

“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and Angels weep in Heaven, and the devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out.” – attributed to Jack London, probably erroneously.

Whoever wrote it, they were wrong about my having rotten principles. I had no principles, and no politics either, so by default was a Republican like my dad. I had been convinced that crossing the picket line was the right thing to do, even though I felt guilty for it. I continued crossing the line uneasily for another two years. (The strike lasted five years before the unions finally gave up.)

Every now and then, as I crossed the picket line, I would see the reporter who had recruited me from high school. He never spoke to me, but his gaze conveyed admonishment and deep disappointment. It is a gaze that still haunts me, and in my own mythology, it was the beginning of another way to view the world.


Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. Since 2014, his essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, High Country News, Compose, New Theory, Lowestoft Chronicle, Concis, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. His work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Deceptive

by James Hanna
         
Those who say the truth will set you free have probably never been polygraphed. I had the experience in my early thirties during a campaign of self-renewal, leading inevitably to the West Coast. After spending a decade as a counselor at the Indiana Penal Farm, a provincial Midwest prison, I felt like a bastard at a family reunion. Was it because I built on my education instead of boozing with good ol’ boy guards? I had attended a nearby state university under a blind assumption: the patented belief that a master’s degree would open the door to promotions. Sadly, the reverse proved true. Organizations will stigmatize overachievers as surely as they flag the fuckups. (If you doubt this, watch any season of Survivor.) And so I was deemed overqualified when I faced the promotion boards. One of the inmates summed it up well when I told him I was leaving. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. “Do it soon. You don’t need to be hanging around Podunk, Indiana.”      
          I relocated to the Golden State and submitted a job application to the Santa Clara Department of Corrections. California has always been an innovator in the field of criminal justice, so I was more than confident I would soon take my place among the learned elite. I applied for the position of deputy jailor, a menial job, but one from which I intended to soar like a butterfly shedding its cocoon. Before long, I would be devising programs, publishing in correctional journals, and initiating critical reforms.
          I reported to the Santa Clara Government Center to take the written test. The questions struck me as wholly redundant, and I scored in the high nineties. The oral interview, which took place at the Santa Clara County Jail, was also an effortless challenge. One of the board members, a plump correctional lieutenant with a goatee, simply shook his head. “Ten years as a counselor,” he said. “A master’s in criminology. And you want to work as a deputy jailor?” I told him I needed a change and he laughed. “I see,” he snorted. “Are ya gonna take up surfing?” The board gave me a ringing endorsement, which left me with one final obstacle. To wear the uniform of a deputy jailor, I would have to pass a polygraph examination.
          I received a letter from the Santa Clara Human Resources Department, instructing me to report to the Government Center, Room 101, to take the polygraph test. I was advised to allow three hours for the test and to bring a number two pencil. I chuckled at the irony of the location. Room 101—wasn’t that the chamber of horrors in Orwell’s 1984?  The place where aberrant Winston Smith was reduced to a quivering pulp? Convinced I would fare better than poor Winston, I showed up early on the day of the test.
          Armed with my number two pencil, I entered Room 101. The room was utterly barren except for a desk and a chair. No carpet cushioned the floor, no flowered plants scented the air, not even a requisite landscape painting hung from the drab green walls. Behind a second door, in what must have been the testing chamber, I could hear a couple of voices. Voices so strained and muffled that they seemed to belong to ghosts.  
          I sat by the desk and waited, my pencil as sharp as a tack. After ten minutes, the second door opened and I felt my muscles tense. The man who entered the room was so fleshless that he appeared to be carved from bone. His nose was sharp and hawkish, his smile was frozen in place, and a thick pair of horn-rimmed glasses expanded his muddy brown eyes. He looked at me incuriously and handed me a booklet. He smelled of cheap aftershave.
“Answer these questions, pardner,” he muttered. “Answer ’em truthfully.”
He vanished back into the testing room in a lingering wave of Old Spice.
I broke the seal to the booklet and began to read the questions. There were approximately two hundred of them and they made me feel like a freak. Have you ever exposed your anus or genitals for sexual gratification? Have you ever been married to two persons at the same time? Have you ever had sex with animals?
Indignant, I cruised through the questions and marked almost all of them no. Only a few gave me pause. Have you ever engaged in drug use? Well, I smoked pot a few times in college. And once I sampled a dab of meth. Better check yes, I decided. I don’t want to make the scrolls flutter.
Have you ever been referred to a collection agency? another question read. Once, I remembered. When I didn’t pay a medical bill because I had been overcharged. Do they really need to know that? I wondered. I gritted my teeth and marked the yes box.
Have you ever abused, struck, or injured any person under fifteen? I remembered spanking my toddler brother after he crapped on the living room rug. Did I have to put that down? I shrugged and checked the yes box once again.
You’ll be given a chance to explain your answers, the last section of the booklet advised. I signed and printed my name in this section, acknowledging the terms of the test. I then pocketed my pencil and waited for Ichabod Crane.
An hour passed. No one came. Has he forgotten me? I wondered. Eventually, the voices grew louder—they seemed to be at odds. “If you’ve stolen a car we’ll find out!” boomed Ichabod when the inner door finally opened. 
The woman who dashed across the room looked angry and harassed. “Do I look like a car thief?” she shouted back as she opened the door to the hallway. Glancing at me, she held her nose, then hurried from the room.
A practical soul may have seen this incident as a portent of pending doom. But my instincts were akin to Don Quixote, not savvy Sancho Panza. One less rival for the job, I thought as I rose from the chair. It was my turn now. I held my head high, like a bird drinking water, and entered the testing room.

As I sat by a desk where the polygraph was perched, my palms began to sweat. I felt more like a patient on life support than a pilgrim on a mission. A blood pressure cuff, plump with air, gripped my upper arm like a hall monitor; a couple of rubber tubes, also tightly inflated, hugged my chest and abdomen; and a pair of electrodes pinched two of my fingers like dime store rings. The cuff was to measure my heart rate, the tubes were to record my breathing, and the electrodes were to pick up whatever perspiration my fingers might produce.
I tried to chat with Ichabod, but his focus was on the machine. Clearly, he had no interest in whatever I had to say. “Answer the questions truthfully,” he mumbled. “Don’t be making stuff up.”
 Activating the polygraph, he asked me some baseline questions.
“Your name is James Hanna?”
“Yes,” I replied, and the scrolls began to nod.
 “Are you sitting down?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Have you got a bachelor’s degree?” he inquired.
“I have a master’s,” I said.
Ichabod shut off the polygraph as though he was swatting a fly. “That’s not what I asked you, pardner,” he muttered. “Stick to yes or no answers.”
 I felt familiar anger as he turned the machine back on. How many times was I going to be penalized for advancing my education?
“Have you ever stolen from an employer?” he asked.
“No,” I sarcastically said.
“Have you ever lied to someone who trusted you?”
“No,” I fibbed.
“Have you ever driven a car when you had too much to drink?”
I knew enough about polygraph tests to know that these were control questions. Who hasn’t taken a pen from work, lied to a friend, or driven a car after having a sip too many? I was expected to lie on these questions, which would provide a comparative response. If the scrolls fluttered less on the relevant questions, that meant I would pass the test.
“Ever committed a sex crime?” he asked.
“No,” I proudly replied.
“Ever been addicted to drugs or alcohol.”
“No,” I triumphantly chirped.
“Ever stolen an automobile?
“No,” I crowed with glee.
The questioning continued for another minute then he turned the polygraph off.
“How’d I do?”
He scratched his jaw. “The results are inconclusive.”
“What does inconclusive mean?”
He sighed. “Shall we try it again?”
He asked another series of questions, this time intermingling the control questions with the relevant ones. Whenever I was asked about job theft or drunk driving, I dug my fingernails into the palm of my free hand. If I spiked on the control questions, I reasoned, I would surely pass this damn test.
When the questioning was done, he turned off the machine and gave me the final verdict. “Deceptive,” he snapped.
I looked at him incredulously; I felt as though I had been slugged. “Just where was I deceptive?” I asked.
“Alcoholism, drug addiction, sex crimes, and car theft.”
“You’re kidding,” I stammered. “I’ve done all that? When would I have found time to go to work?”
He folded his arms then stared at me with the air of a hanging judge. “Ya may as well come clean, Tom Hemmings. Whaddya trying to hide?”
 “Nothing,” I snapped.
“Horse turds,” he answered. “Whaddya trying to hide?”
I knew my anger was showing when he opened the drawer to the desk. The drawer contained a handgun and several ammo clips. As I looked at the gun, he pushed the drawer shut; he was only warning me to calm down. But the sight of the weapon did not dissuade me from taking a shot of my own.
“Ask me if I killed John Kennedy,” I said. “I’d like to see the result.”
He looked at me so piously that I felt like a Salem witch. “Whaddya trying to hide?” he repeated. “Whaddya trying to hide?”
Arguing was useless; his mind was as closed as a tomb. What have I done to deserve this? I wondered. What is my unavowed crime? Whatever the sin, I would never forget that unforgiving gaze.
I unhooked myself from the tubes and wires. “Have a good day,” I said. I could feel his eyes boring into my back as I walked out of the room.
Only when I stood in the hallway did I feel the full weight of my anger. I had a crime coming to me, I reasoned, and vandalism would do.
I whipped out my number two pencil as though I were drawing a sword. And I scrawled a single word on the door to Room 101.

                                                   Deceptive



James Hanna worked as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department, where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit. His familiarity with criminal types has provided fodder for much of his writing. His debut novel, The Siege, depicts a hostage standoff in a penal facility. Call Me Pomeroy, James’ second book, chronicles the madcap tales of a street musician on parole who joins Occupy Oakland and its sister movements in England and France. Hanna’s stories and essays have appeared in many journals and have received three Pushcart nominations. Many of his stories are included his third book: A Second, Less Capable Head, which was designated a Distinguished Favorite by The Independent Press Awards. Hanna’s books are available on his Amazon Author Page

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

TV Dads

by John Repp

One of the raising-a-kid pieties to which my wife and I felt most committed before our son’s birth went like this: “No Television ‘Til He’s Two.” Not for our child that mindlessness. He’d have engaged parents, not zombies slumped in front of a screen. He’d grow up with actual people using actual language, not an upholstered purple dinosaur singing idiotic songs. He’d make his own make-believe, and we’d help. Why, we’d scarcely miss the tube, what with all the exciting and educational adventures new parenthood would bring.
After all, we’d lived four thriving years in a valley that defeated all but a few of our occasional attempts—even my prayerful antenna adjustments during the late stages of the NBA playoffs—to attract a viewable picture from the one network affiliate whose signal reached us. Despite being confirmed addicts, we usually felt better off for the lack, but whenever conversation, music, and reading seemed too much like work, we fed our jones with rented videos. On those stupefied nights, we’d lie contented in the rural dark, the twenty-five-year-old set with the Flash Gordon remote flickering its soothing light into the living room.
Then, in a span of three hallucinatory weeks, we moved to the city; had a baby shower; piled up the baby supplies the shower hadn’t supplied; sterilized and stocked the baby’s room; ran up heart-palpitating sums of consumer debt to replace appliances, tweak the plumbing, and fix an electric service box that resembled something in a Tim Burton film; laid in two week’s worth of post-birth food; and, just past dawn on an unforgettable day, careened to the hospital, where, ninety minutes after his parents staggered into the birthing room, Dylan swooped out and screamed for the first thirty minutes of his life.
This proved a portent. For three months, he caterwauled, screeched, howled, and shrieked whenever he wasn’t asleep or making his daily, five-millisecond visit to the “quiet alert” state. “Day” and “night” lost all meaning. We shopped at 1:00 a.m., ate breakfast at noon and dinner at ten, began doing laundry long before dawn. We crawled toward sleep like castaways inching up an infinite pumice beach, only to realize again and again we’d landed on an island without fresh water or edible fruit. We tried every colic “cure” known to science or folklore, for a time resorting to a homeopathic concoction that stained our teeth green as it failed to calm the urge to toss The Beast into the nearest snowdrift.
I exaggerate, of course, but any veteran of colic would tell you I exaggerate only a little. Though teamwork, willpower, music, and near-despairing prayer helped most during our ninety-day trial in the wilderness, the gift Dylan’s grandparents made of a new Sony did provide some welcome sedation along the way. As hysteria ever-so-slowly gave way to occasional crankiness, we evolved an evening ritual that answered our needs for the next few years: Dinner at six; kitchen and Dylan clean-up until the Pennsylvania Lottery drawing at seven (the kid loves the jingle and the studio’s array of institutional blues and greens); Frasier and King of the Hill reruns; bed for everyone at eight.
Not only did an hour a day of non-cable television generate no guilt, cause our son no discernible harm, and intermittently relieve my wife of the baby’s simian demands, but, to my abashed surprise, it also provided me images of fatherhood resonant enough to appear now and then in a dream. I refer not to Hank Hill, the good-hearted, yet profoundly damaged protagonist of King of the Hill, the best animated television series this side of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, but to Martin Crane, Frasier and Niles Crane’s gruff, retired-cop father.
Though loneliness and self-deception bedevil the father as much as the sons, Martin displays several times during a typical Frasier episode his (and the show’s) saving graces: common sense, a talent for cutting to the chase, a willingness to laugh at his own flaws, and a clear-eyed love for offspring so hyper-cultured they may as well be aliens. “Why do you make everything so complicated?” he’ll say with a bemused shake of the head, and I chuckle as a lump rises to my throat. Almost to the day he died, I played Frasier/Niles to my father’s Martin countless times, usually taking his bemusement as reproach, his “I’m just a simple man” as self-pity when he was more likely so baffled with love and confusion there was nothing more to be said. It infuriates me and shames me and breaks my heart that nothing I could ever say—and, like the Crane boys, I said a lot—had any chance of changing how little we understood one another.
In my recurring dream, I’m Martin Crane’s son. We climb a steep, treeless hill covered by dead grass. The low, grayish-black clouds threaten snow. He’s a hundred yards or so ahead of me, half-hopping along with the help of his four-legged cane. Stumbling as I try to keep up, I’m so convinced “they’re” about to pounce I spin around every few steps to face “them.” Every time I do, I see nothing but the frozen slope behind us and the unmarked plain beyond. When I resume climbing, he’s further away, though just when I think I’ll never catch up—this happens over and over again—he turns and waves a “Come on! This is great!” wave, a crinkly, regular-guy grin brightening his face.
Each time I’ve had the dream, it ended with one of those waves, leaving me filled with love and longing and the desire that Dylan always look for me on his climb. I’ll wave him along, even the tiniest detail of my bearing telling him he can do it, it’s OK, despite the harm any “they” might try to do. I want both of us to live the Martin Crane philosophy: “Do you’re best. If you screw up, try to make it right, then move on. Learn to laugh at yourself. Let go of the past. And above all, have fun!”
That’s the dream, anyway, a far more demanding dream than No-TV-‘Til-He’s-Two, for this one means believing there’s a chance my son and I will love and understand one another, at least some of the time. It also means admitting my father and I may not have been the strangers I need to think we were. Large and dogged and mysterious, he did help me get here, after all, his callused hand reaching back for mine at the most unexpected moments.



A native of the Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, John Repp is a widely-published poet, fiction writer, essayist, and book critic. His latest book is Fat Jersey Blues, winner of the 2013 Akron Poetry Prize from the University of Akron Press.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Lost & Found

by Toti O’Brien                                                                             

   There is death, and there is untimely death. They are different. Twenty years after your passing I still wonder about the appropriateness of your early call. About its legitimacy. I think of these two decades apparently stolen from you—an expanse of days, weeks, months, inexorably attached, marching forward without hesitation. They did not stop and wait to see if you’d catch up, when you slipped off board. No. Time didn’t look back.
   I do. When I glance behind my shoulder I see an intricate, colorful landscape you might have enjoyed exploring . . . I wonder why you weren’t given a chance. Is there any ratio to life’s diverse spans? Any reason beyond erratic sentencing? Any justice?
   
   During your last summer, you became obsessed with the murder of a college student. I knew about it but I didn’t pay attention. I was too preoccupied by your illness, though I didn’t imagine how imminent the end was. Cancer was galloping, causing parts of you to break down in rapid succession. I was painfully aware my massage couldn’t soothe the aches in your disintegrating bones. Still, every day we went through the motions. You quietly complained. I massaged, then I asked if you felt better. A little, you said. You didn’t lie very well.
   Once, you asked me to give you a ride into town. Too weak, you couldn’t drive any more. But you needed a better radio in order to follow the news. Something your arm could hold up to your ear, in spite of its weariness. Something powerful, for you to capture each word.
   I was consternated by how fast your hearing had gone, by the fact you could no more enjoy music. But you had zero interest in music, or anything else. You only cared about that murder on campus, in our town’s oldest and most famous university. You were listening non-stop, eager for the next update.
   Curiosity wasn’t like you. Had my mind been in its normal state, I would have caught the incongruity. You could have been found with a book of poetry in hand—or art history—a good novel, perhaps—rather than the daily paper. Politics and crime had never been on your menu. But that summer I remember you muttering to yourself: “This is very important. Extremely. I need to understand.”
   Could the reason of your fascination have been not the crime (and the impenetrable mystery surrounding it) but the setting? You were a college professor. And you deemed your role precious, essential, almost sacred. Your devotion towards your students surpassed routine obligations. Now, while the news unfolded, it appeared as if faculty was involved. A department director was charged with obstructing the inquiry. Two teaching assistants would soon become the defendants.
   There was more. Your daughters were about to start college. Did you worry about them? Were you aware you might be leaving them soon?

   She was twenty-two. The shot was so sudden, so silent, her friend thought Marta had simply passed out. She had dropped to the ground like a rag doll, like a string-less puppet. Then her girlfriend saw the small hole concealed by her thin blond hair. She started screaming. A passerby called for an ambulance. People rushed out from the adjacent building, hosting classrooms and offices of the school of Jurisprudence. The campus police arrived promptly. Marta was transported to a nearby polyclinic, where she died five days later. In fact, she was dead already, at least cerebrally. She never awoke from the coma into which she had instantaneously fallen.
   Her life came to an arrest a bit before noon, sun reaching the zenith, in a hallway trapped between massive buildings hosting some of the most praised academia of our town—including the Law Library. Marta was a law student herself, and a good one at that.
   A few steps and she would have entered the main plaza where Minerva stood—the university navel, hub, meeting point, main landmark—the statue of Athena, symbol of human wisdom and knowledge.
   Truth about Marta’s murder was never found.
*
   But this you don’t know. When you died at the end of November—seven months after the bullet was shot—the authorities were still in the dark about the murder of Marta. And I wonder if their speculations (in absence of tangible proofs) kept you occupied during the confinement of many hospital beds. Could you have guessed the case would remain unsolved? Could you have resigned to the gratuitousness of a severed life? I don’t know. You were a splendid researcher. One whose patience defied all frustration. One of those who dig until they find water, or gold.
   In spite of your inclination for humanities, you had been trained as an engineer. Unreflectively, you had followed your father’s directions. Young and docile, you had complied out of discipline and meekness. Then you had bitterly regretted your choice, yet developed excellent skills, specializing in earthquake prevention. You had taught for decades in the Architecture department of the college where Marta was killed. Your students adored you.
   Still, when mid-life crisis hit you, you gave your career a brisk turn. You pursued a totally different path, switching to the study of old monuments and ancient towns. You spent months questioning ruins until you understood how they were originally built, in order to remake their whole structure from the inside. A work of keen observation, fine detection, rigorous deduction. The new discipline you created for yourself, then scholarly formalized—founding an original school of thought—befitted you. You felt realized, fulfilled by your labor. Rapidly, your goals shifted from restoration to vulnerability. You focused on preventing the loss of architectural heritage—especially if belonging to endangered cultures.
   On your deathbed, you oscillated between awareness of the end and plans for the future. “It is very important,” you said—your eyes bright, animated. “Extremely.” You were talking of a book you wanted to write, one you had drafted already. About vulnerability.

   You must have read, of course, about the projectile. You might have seen pictures of the CAT scan. There is something haunting about how lead was split in eleven fragments, each acting like a tiny separate bomb. Like an earthquake, simultaneously and irreparably damaging many areas of the victim’s brain. Private Hiroshima. The shell, never found, became one of many controversial elements of the case. It should have fallen in the street, unless it were shot from far within the building, in which case it could have been recovered and then disposed of. But the inquiry firmly settled on a window partly obstructed by an air-conditioner. Thus, the shooter’s arm must have been stretched out to bypass the obstacle, and the shell must have necessarily dropped to the pavement. Like the gun, it was never located. 
   Firearms were discovered on campus—a variety of them. Some real, some modified toy guns. Some hidden and rusted, some in perfect shape. Some with shells trapped within. Indiscretions of improvised shooting parties—for fun, after work, in various facilities—reached the press. But the gun killing Marta wasn’t identified.
   The projectile might have exploded in small lethal shards, multiplying its destructive potential, because it was handcrafted, belonging to the amateurish arsenal the police was bringing to light. But homemade or manufactured is irrelevant. Brains are vulnerable anyway.
   Was the intriguing fauna of weapons—sprouting like mushrooms at the core of academia—preoccupying you? I wouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t ask. I was worried about you.

   Were you instead fascinated with the calculations—based on painstaking simulations, drawings, reconstructions—meant to determine the trajectory of the bullet, thus defining its probable point of origins? Everything conjured against credible results. Because Marta was hospitalized for five days, her wound had been dressed and had somehow healed. Therefore, during the autopsy it had been impossible to accurately assess its shape. In addition, no ballistic expert was present. Later, they had to be contented with the insufficient evidence of photographs.
   Also, establishing the posture of Marta’s head when she was hit was impossible. She was walking and animatedly talking with her friend. She might have lowered her eyes to avoid the sun—she was approaching the plaza. She might have looked up, turned back, shook her head for a yes or no.
   Certainly, she wasn’t shot at close range. Not from the street, which was empty. From the buildings, then. The projectile had entered above her left ear. Since she didn’t walk backward, it could only have come from the premises at her left. Jurisprudence.
   Straight left. Left and behind. Left and front. Same level. Higher. Higher still. Up high. Fifty windows. By all means, police experts tried to reduce such number. Frantic computations—is it what enthralled you? Were you trying to follow those desperate attempts, taking a maddening number of days, while fingerprints or other possible evidence faded away? After all, it was your field of expertise—calculating angles of incidence, fall trajectories, velocity, impact. Hadn’t you done just that for your entire life? All the Sanskrit must have been no more than a crossword to you. Did the puzzle keep you occupied? Did you form an opinion? Come to a conclusion?
   Buildings were live entities to you. You treated them like persons. You had feelings for them. You could perceive their soul. Did you foresee the absurdity? Twenty years later—past an endless trial neither acquitting nor condemning, settling out of despair for ambiguous compromise—the only ascertained culprit of the crime is the building.

   I told you the inquiry had focused on a particular window, one blocked by an air conditioner—on the basis of a chemical particle found on its sill, maybe a trace of gun powder, although the same residue, probably caused by pollution, was then found elsewhere. I mentioned how such a bulky item would have forced the shooter to lean far out of the window. Otherwise the bullet would have hit the appliance, crashed into the opposite wall, or gone upwards, ending god-knows-where after some kind of parabola. But it couldn’t have reached the street unless the shooter’s arm had bypassed the obstacle. Whoever killed Marta saw her, if the shot—as it was decided—came from that particular point. Yet the crime was judged unintentional, which could only be true if the shooter thought the pistol was empty. An old relic, a toy.

   You, of course, must have seen her picture. You must have known it by heart. I didn’t until twenty years later, when the months preceding your death briskly came to mind, and I dared taking a look at what I had previously ignored. Meaning, why you were so enthralled by a news item while you should have focused on your cancer, your pain, your imminent death.
   Her face startled me, changing my preexistent feelings.
   She was a casual victim—press, police, and law concurred on this topic. Her extraneousness to all sorts of troubles was stated beyond doubt (arbitrary as such conclusion might be). A plain girl, no-nonsense, a good student, not involved in politics. Her romantic life, straight-forward and pristine. Just a faithful boyfriend, no jealousy involved. No drugs. Thus, she was described. The shot being intended for her was out of the question. The projectile had accidentally met her. Those later accused of pulling the trigger didn’t know her, therefore couldn’t have premeditated her killing. She had never met them (arbitrary as such conclusion may be).
   These assumptions informed my perception of the events while I kept perusing the literature. A plethora of articles—even books—all regard the inquiry, trials, prosecutors, defendants, and witnesses. They comment about clumsiness and delays in the investigations, prosecutors’ irregular ways with the witnesses and following legal claims against the prosecutors, witnesses’ contradictions, reversals, obstructive behaviors, and sheer absence of evidence. They describe a public opinion split between those believing the defendants’ guilt and those swearing for their innocence, persuaded that a terrible error was being made. Medias found a mine of diamonds in the murder of a twenty-two-year-old, but the focus of all that clamor wasn’t Marta. Her life had very little to offer. In fact, nothing at all.
   Her face startled me. Something seemed wrong with the picture … the entire picture I mean. See, the girl staring from the papers is uncannily beautiful—her gaze almost disturbingly smart, deep, and pure. If her life was as unexceptional as reported, she wasn’t. Honestly, it is hard to believe she hadn’t been chosen. Or chased.

   It occurred to me you had lost a daughter about three decades earlier. You had just married—she was your first girl. Not yet three years old, she died of a rare, sudden, incurable illness. Sparse symptoms had started in late summer, but she lasted until the beginning of May. For nine months you struggled, trying all sorts of cures, bringing her into whatever clinic offered a fistful of hope. I remember you at the airport, coming back from the foreign town where she had finally passed—the doctors being unable to keep her destiny in check. You brought back a doll you gave me as a gift, a cute little nurse. You said your daughter had sent it.
   Nothing the nurse could do now. Not for your girl. But you brought it as a concluding memento. Did it mean something still could be fixed after someone dies? Or was she intended for prevention? To be aware of future vulnerabilities.
   It occurred to me that Marta died shortly after the date of your daughter’s passing. Had you observed the recurrence? You never talked about it. You had had four more daughters, a good marriage, a good life.
   I recalled a black and white picture of your little girl. I had found it between the pages of a journal I had left unattended. You might have put it there. Your child looked very smart, uncommonly beautiful. In the photo, her gaze has the same uncomfortable depth I saw in Marta’s. Is it just afterthought? Do these eyes seem to reflect the imponderable, just because we know they are irreversibly shut? Because they have seen their last vision? I am not sure.
   
   Once the crime scene was determined (in a quasi-random manner), the inquiry only had to find out who was behind the window at the crucial moment. Luckily, the timing had been properly documented. Initially, all denied having entered that particular room, that morning. But a telephone was inside it, near the door, from which calls had been dialed a minute after the shot. Getting ahold of the caller wasn’t hard. She was faculty, an assistant to the Department Head. The entire case started to take shape around this first witness as she slowly articulated her memories. Contradictory, vague. Then sharper. Convoluted, baroque. Then suddenly lucid. Like a Master of Ceremonies, the first witness named other witnesses in a non-linear progression, subject to rectifications, erasures, and changes. The new witnesses, as they came on stage from the wings, proceeded quite similarly. They also dug out of memory names, faces, events—a slow and complicated delivery, punctuated by dramatic reversals.
   The case, instead of unraveling, built itself. Strange construction—partly a maze, partly a castle of cards. Hocus-pocus.
   Two young teaching assistants were accused, one of the actual killing, the other of abetting. Both were promising scholars. They had no motive, but their alibis were confused and porous. Still no proof was found—they were judged upon witnesses’ declarations. They claimed innocence. All verdicts (the case was reopened a number of times) were unavoidably ambiguous, due to the inherent weakness of the inquiry. The case had poor foundations, flimsy structures. It reposed on mud. The defendants were found guilty each time, but charged with negligible penalties. A few years of prison for the shooter, then transformed into house arrest. Only house arrest for the accomplice.
   
   I am wondering if you were also trapped in the spider web, stilled by the unsolvable question. Did they do it or not? Are they criminals—those twenty-and-some who could be your students, your children, those well-bred middle class boys? Are they clear? Are we burning vampires? Are we sacrificing lambs? I wonder if you entered the maze, if you played the guessing game. If you did, you would have told no one. You would have kept your deductions for yourself.
   Twenty years later, I certainly brooded about it. Had I been called to be part of the jury in one of those trials, I should have necessarily formed an opinion. Based on facts? Facts were missing, still are. Based on what? If I look at pictures (the papers abounded with them) what do I see in the defendants’ eyes? Tough question.
   I am glad I wasn’t part of the jury. I am glad I missed the case altogether, in 1997. Because now it brought back—like an unwanted echo—a similar one I had followed in 1975. I was a teenager. It was spring. Together with other protesters I had sat in the courtroom and demonstrated in front of it, on occasion of the infamous Circeo massacre. Two girls from the outskirts were abducted by a trio of upper-class boys—very wealthy, a bit older—brought into one of their empty vacation houses, abused, and raped. One of them was killed, the other left in critical condition in the locked trunk of a car.
   I knew one of the boys by sight. Some of those rich guys hung on their pricey motorbikes in front of girls’ schools. They mated with girls of their own milieu, but didn’t disdain borrowing less fortunate ones for fun, or to make fun of them.
   The trial called attention both for gender and class-related issues. The accused were known for their extreme-right beliefs. Nazi. Nihilistic. Amoral. Deep contempt for their victims’ social status admittedly informed the crime, otherwise explained by machismo, bravado, and ennui. Guilt was proved without a doubt. The three got life, but two managed successful escapes. Interestingly, the defendants didn’t seem affected by the trial. Neither did they show remorse, nor attempt to justify themselves. Of course, claiming innocence was impossible, yet their supreme indifference was eerie and disquieting. As if what had occurred was irrelevant. As if the machinery of justice had befallen them by an unfortunate, unforeseen error. As if, truly, the trial didn’t regard them. I remember the guys’ faces, all over the news. I recall them quite well—their rubbery surface, vacuous impenetrability.
   
   Of course, the two crimes have nothing in common. Under certain angles, they are perfectly opposite. There, evidence was blatant. Here, facts vanish into thin air. Even the bullet hole goes unnoticed, until the CAT scan reveals what’s hiding in Marta’s brain. Yet there are subliminal echoes. For example, the difference of status between accused and victim. The gratuitousness also resonates—the appalling hypothesis that whoever killed did it for fun, toying with weapons in order to fill listless moments. To prove something, perhaps? Both cases seem to imply boys sharpening tools in hopes to become men, using innocuous girls as living targets. And the bold look on the perpetrators’ face—both for those claiming non-involvement, in Marta’s case (yet somehow unworried, uncaring of alibis), and for those impassively admitting their guilt, as if it were a minor annoyance.
   Looking in the eyes of Marta’s supposed killers isn’t recommended. Not a healthy exercise. I would not trust my impartiality. I wouldn’t dare casting a judgment. I’m sure you didn’t either.
   Did you blame the building? The school of Jurisprudence, the Law Library, the corridors through which maybe a shooter escaped, the bathrooms where a murderer might have flushed a weapon. Did you condemn those walls? You might have interrogated them, repeatedly. Ask every stone, brick, and tile.

   When I moved a bit farther from your bed, to give someone else a chance, I switched from a side position to a frontal one. Accidentally, I lowered my gaze and I spotted the buckets. Until then I had concentrated on your face, your intermittent smiles, especially the words you proffered with great effort. Unbelieving, confused, shocked, I saw a mass of purple and brown percolating, slowly filling those containers. No, they weren’t excrements—I hoped so for a minute. I asked, later on. Those collapsing pieces were your intestines and liver—they were your organs, surrendering. At least this is what a nurse said to the uncouth relative. Clearly, everything could be said by then. You wouldn’t survive the night. You, of course, were spared the vision of your disintegration. It happened under cover. Did you sense it?
   Marta’s parents donated her organs, in order to respect a will she had previously expressed. You must have read it in the news. Her heart, liver, both of her kidneys, saved four lives. Her eyes granted two persons’ vision. Six in total.
   I am thinking of the little doll you brought back from Zurich after your daughter died. I remember you pulling it out of your pocket at the airport. I reflect, now, upon the kindness and care carried by your gesture. I remembered tears in your eyes, the crack in your voice. Uncle dear, what did you want to say? Please. Can something still be repaired after someone’s death?
   I remember when they pulled a sheet over your face, then they rolled the cot through the corridor. It was night. Relatives sat on metal chairs. The bulbs cast a green light. Farewell.

   Did you wonder, during the fall—you spent many weeks alone, sent like an uncomfortable parcel from hospital to clinic to hospital, all over Europe—why the witnesses of Marta’s murder (those who at the fatal moment where in the incriminated room, originally empty then filling up, slowly, like a Swiss clock animated by mechanic figurines) built their Byzantine soap opera? If the crime still screams for a motive, so do those conflicting memories, affirmed then denied, reaffirmed then denied again.
   Why would several people lie about something so grave? For grave reasons would be the obvious answer. Such as covering up their own guilt. Or the guilt of someone close. Someone powerful perhaps, capable of revenge. Only these kinds of reasons would explain incriminating scapegoats extraneous to the facts. Unless the scapegoats were the target of pointed retaliation, and thus had been damaged by design. Once again, no background justified such hypotheses. Yes—the testimonials were full of incongruities, repeatedly denied, then reaffirmed. But a purpose for the entire fabrication (if such) was never detected. It seemed aimless—a self-fed nightmare, pulling the dreamers ever deeper, adrift in a labyrinth, unable to backtrack and find a way out.
   The overall impression is that many had something to hide. Routine institutional corruption. Maybe each witness knew a fragment of uncomfortable truth. All started with a partial lie, then got lost in translation. Individual lies conflicted with one another, leading to more confusion. All feared all at some point. The compass needle went crazy, then it randomly stopped, pointing no matter where. As for a game of musical chairs, someone was left standing.
   Maybe a number of personnel and faculty were involved, each for some kind of irregularity. Those firearms circulating in the building might have been a minefield, implying serious responsibilities. Maybe all knew how Marta was killed. The institution then attempted to do what institutions do: shield itself, fight for its own survival, crushing a few unfortunate members au passage.

   Ask the stones.
   Isn’t it vertiginous? Someone shoots a bullet, hits a college student calmly strolling from one lesson to the next, on a sunny day. The sky is clear and cloudless. Whoever shot knows what happened.
   Let’s say it was an accident. A projectile escaped. The shooter didn’t even see where it went. Let’s say he or she was on the first floor, perhaps in a bathroom, and immediately ran to the street, dumped the gun, jumped on a bus, forgot. Hard to believe—wherever escaped, the killer would have learned about Marta’s death soon enough. Someone killed the girl and lived with it. If no one else, the murderer knows. Maybe the killer died, in which case also the truth is gone.
   Yet—isn’t it vertiginous—a perspective must exist, a vantage point, a location, from where all has been visible. The hand and the gun. The moment of taking aim. The trajectory of the bullet. Marta’s fall. The weapon disposal. The killer’s escape. A perspective exists from where these actions formed a readable pattern. It’s a matter of distance, of angle. Should the viewer have climbed on Minerva’s shoulders? Ask the statue. The university church’s dome could have been the spot. Ask the pigeons. Some walls, some roofs should have been removed in order to properly observe. Not unthinkable. Utilize vellum paper, trace dotted lines instead of solid ones.
   I remember when you told me about the Birds. What an ancient memory unburied. I was a little kid. What you said sounded like a fairy tale, your voice both enticing and dreamy while you explained about these students of yours, revolting against things I didn’t understand. You weren’t sure either … but I detected pride in your voice—admiration and a tinge of stronger emotion. Could it have been longing? Those students did things strange and amusing. For instance, they imitated birdcalls instead of talking. More exciting, once they climbed the very top of a dome, perching there for a long time, night and day. They had chosen a magnificent church in the very middle of town. I imagined them nestled in the heights, stars at reach, but I also imagined them running, arms extended, in harmonious formations. In my mind, I saw then coasting sidewalks, brushing facades, elegant, supple, wild. And I pictured them blue, head to toe. I was a young kid. It was nineteen sixty-eight. At the time when Marta was shot, the Birds were obsolete memories. No one perched nowhere. No human I mean. And I do not believe in gods.
   
   During your last summer, I had the chance to spend time with you, give you a daily massage good for nothing, maybe honoring the doll-nurse you brought me decades before. Sometimes I gave you a ride, or we had a talk, commenting about what was mostly on your mind. The murder of Marta Russo.
   In the fall, you frequently called me overseas, where I lived, from various countries where you were receiving useless treatment. You never sounded hopeless, always cheerful, as if just wanting to chat. Yet I slowly realized something was incongruous with your calls. You were sending a message. Time was narrowing. I should come.
  I kept postponing. Flying to see you in emergency meant I was admitting the end. I showed up eventually, and I caught your last twenty-four hours. Then I took a couple planes back—a long journey. I sat by the window and of course cried non-stop. I didn’t try holding it. Hours later, I noticed the landscape was visible. We had lost altitude while flying over Canada.
   I remember how intricate and beautiful the earth looked. Everything. Mountains, rivers, lakes, meadows. Streets, towns, hamlets. I remember how each fragment seemed to have fallen in place, carefully disposed, perfectly designed. A kind of peace came my way. Do you hear me?
   A kind of forgiveness.


   Marta Russo, a 22-year-old student of Law, was shot on May 9th, 1997, within the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.
   In the last years of his life, professor Antonino Giuffré devoted his rich academic and cultural experience to the preservation of historical architectural landmarks, especially ancient towns. His efforts were interrupted by his premature passing.




Toti O’Brien was born in Rome and lives in Los Angeles. Her work has most recently appeared in Lotus-Eaters, Masque & Spectacle, Feminine Inquiry, and Indiana Voices.