COOL by Jonathan Lowe

Short StoryFreddie sat alone on the curb, waiting for Eddie but thinking about his girlfriend. Under a cone of yellow light, he used the last of the kitchen matches he’d stuck inside the cellophane of the generic brand he smoked to light up a cigarette. Only half conscious of it, he let the final match burn down to his fingers before he flicked it away into the night. At thirty-three, Cherry was four years older than him, but pretty like a model is pretty. Possessing long, slender legs and curly dirty blonde hair, Cherry always dressed stylish and sexy.  When he’d met her at a party two months prior, she’d worn a denim skirt and silk blouse, with green calf-high boots and black leggings. And even her name had sounded luscious. Like April, Candy, Summer, or Violet.  Men had names like Butch, Dick, Brad, and Joe. Or Freddie, which was no better. The Freddies and Eddies and Charlies of the world were never called Baby.
    Hey, Baby.
    Cherry liked to be called that, although she couldn’t have a baby anymore, after her miscarriage.  Which meant that giving her some of the other things she wanted–on a progressively larger scale–had been the only way to prevent her from walking out, like she had with other men.
    And time was running out once again.
    Where was Eddie? he wondered. Late again, his friend had probably stopped by the lanes to wrangle a bet, and stayed to roll a few frames or shoot a few racks. Fast Eddie was stuck in the present moment, ready for whatever was going down, with no conception of tomorrow. So would he understand this? Had he ever been in love? It wasn’t important, Freddie decided. Eddie was just a ride. Let him keep his opinions to himself, for once. Cherry was all that mattered tonight, as she had every night of the sixty he’d spent with her.
    When a beat-up black Chevy Impala suddenly lumbered around the near corner, eclipsing the distant line of neon bar signs, Freddie got to his feet in anticipation. Then, like a defective hearse rolling under a spotlight, Eddie’s car invaded the space where his toes had been. He noted that the Impala idled hot, while rumbling an out-of-tune Blues note in a base key. Nonetheless, the grin stitched on his friend’s impish face indicated that this was music to his ears.
    “About time.” Freddie gripped the chrome handle, and let the door swing wide open under its own gravity.  He slid into the seat on top of something, before he realized it, and reached beneath him to find a black school composition notebook.
    “Never ya mind that,” Eddie said, trying to nab the thing from his hands. But Freddie held it back, and looked down at it.  It was one of those bound notebooks by Mead, with tiny blotches of white like galaxies from the Twilight Zone, and a bar code in the lower right. Oddly, Freddie imagined a huge barcode floating somewhere out in the stars, a light year wide, like God had moved elsewhere and the universe was now for sale. He opened the book, and saw rows of amounts and dates printed by hand in both pen and pencil.
    “You keeping records now?” he asked.
    Eddie gave him a half smile in reply, then pulled away from the curb. He shot out his right hand to snatch the notebook, tossing it in the back seat. Then he took each of the three audiobooks Freddie retrieved from under his feet, one at a time, and tossed them back, too: BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE by Ben Mezrich, MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis, and LOADED DICE by James Swain. “Wanna tell me where we’re goin’ now? Across the riverbed, ya said?”
    Eddie resembled actor Willem DaFoe, but in an early incarnation, years before Auto Focus. For as long as Freddie had known him, Eddie had never worked for anyone other than himself. Of course, due to his problem with authority, Eddie wouldn’t have been able to cut it on some assembly line. Or even at Sudzo, the full service the car wash where Freddie had worked full time for two years. “Yeah,” Freddie replied, “under the rail bridge on Fourth, over to Grand, then you just make a right, and it’s a couple blocks to the Kelsey Arms apartment complex.”
    “Whas the score?” Eddie wanted to know, and gave him a quick look while holding out one hand to bum a cigarette.
    “It’s Cherry,” Freddie said, then added, “you wouldn’t understand.”
    Eddie chuckled at that, and stuck the proffered cigarette in his mouth, letting it dangle and bob as he talked, waiting for the car lighter to heat up. “Understand the attraction? I do that, kiddo. Trust me.” A low-rider car passed, the guy in the passenger seat eying them both as gangster rap music gifted the late urban landscape with magic fingers of vibration. In the fading wake, Eddie added, “Although I don’t see her attraction to you.”
    “Anger,” Freddie said, ignoring the comment. “It’s like they’re stuck in rage, frustration. Or maybe it’s all an act to look cool.”
    Eddie lifted a finger toward the car ahead of them. “Ya mean. . .”
    Freddie covered Eddie’s right hand briefly with his left.  “Don’t do that. They might think it’s the wrong finger.”
    Eddie used the hand to retrieve the cigarette lighter, which now glowed red. Cherry red. “Hell, didn’t ya see the rims on that car? They ain’t the shootin’ type. They wanna be on stage, cool breeze. Except that act has run its course. Tell me about yours. Thas the one I’m wonderin’ about.”
    “It’s no act,” Freddie declared.
    “What, you in love?”
    “Like I said, you wouldn’t understand.” He looked out the side window, his eyes spontaneously tracking the laundromat, the gas station, the liquor store, the–
    “Well, thas just super,” Eddie said. “If I was a bettin’ man, and I am, I’d say yer just runnin’ scared tonight. Kinda like runnin’ numbers the first time. Except for you, the numbers ain’t there, buddy. There’s no percentage in it.”
    “What do you mean?”
    Eddie took a draw, then tapped ashes out the window. “You looked in a mirror lately? Go ahead. An’ don’t get me wrong, yer a nice guy, but she ain’t hardly yer type, my man. An’ this is comin’ from a friend goes back to high school.”  Another draw, another quick tap. “Woman like her, way she looks. . . she wants someone with the folding green. Understand that?”
    Freddie stuck a hand deep into his pocket, then jerked out the wad of bills there.  All hundreds.  “You mean like this? Watch the road.”
    Eddie slowed and pulled to the curb, looking intrigued now, his grin changing into something else.  The Impala’s engine became a subdued rumble, filling the silence between them.  Eddie’s voice, when it finally returned, sounded hesitant. “You buyin’ her a car, so you can get yer Camero back? Ya know she’s already hung dice from the mirror, right? Or maybe you just wanna buy her a Gucci handbag, or something ta go in it?”
    “What are you saying?  What do you know?”
    “What do I know?  Not enough, obviously, or I’d know where ya got that.”
    “Overtime.  Been saving it.”
    “Really?  Ironic, if it ain’t for a car, what with you workin’ the car wash, an’ her drivin’ yer wheels.” He paused. “What yer doin’ tonight . . . it is illegal, right? Like playin’ the numbers?”
    Freddie frowned, considering it. “I suppose I have to tell you. You being the driver.”
    Eddie nodded mechanically. “Me bein’ yer friend.”

.

Through the tunnel, and across the riverbed, they drove toward Grand, and made a left. “Wrong way,” Freddie said, and hooked a thumb in the opposite direction.
    “Need ta make a quick stop, first. Didn’t plan on being over here tonight. Just be a sec, okay?” Eddie pulled into a lot adjacent a sports bar, and killed the engine. The neon read SHOOTERS, but the S at the end of it flickered, and gave off an audible hiss. Eddie paused before getting out, and then spoke carefully, still considering his recent confession. “I think yer makin’ a mistake, Freddie. I really do.”
    “Don’t worry. They’ll explain the details to me.”
    “Will they? The devil’s in those details.” A longer silence between them. “Look. I know ya think you gotta do this thing. It’s just. . .”
    “What?”
    “It ain’t gonna turn out the way ya think. Cherry won’t love you ’cause of this, either. Never works that way. An’ I think ya know it, too.”
    Freddie turned away briefly, and closed his eyes tight against a brief throbbing there. “I know I can’t lose her. I know this is my one chance. Maybe my last chance. Our last chance.”
    “Ya think you know these things? Love is blind, my friend.”
    “You’re just a pessimist.”
    “A realist. I count my cards.”
    Freddie blinked open his eyes, like water had been thrown into them, and turned back to Eddie. “You never been in love,” he said, and with conviction.
    “How do ya know that?”
    “Life’s a ball game to you, is how. Numbers in a book. But what’s it mean, whether some jock makes another goal? What are you trying to win? You don’t even know.”
    Eddie digested that while looking up at the sputtering neon sign, spread out across the windscreen now like the title of a movie. At last, he sighed. “I suppose we do what we gotta do,” he said. “Maybe ya will get married. Maybe I’ll do the deed too. ‘Cept for me, my wife’ll give me a kid ta go with me to the ball games. We’ll sit there, too, like all the other dads and sons with the caps an’ the hot dogs. Just like my dad trained me. An’ sure, maybe, just like that, my kid’ll start bettin’ on this and that, an’ be watchin’ the tube an’ readin’ the sports page, just like you say. But ya know what? When the game’s on, buddy, there’s the thing ya don’t know. ‘Cause there’s no past or future to think then, see. An’ ya can be sure there’s always another game comin’ on soon.”
    Eddie got out, letting the door slam shut behind him.
    Freddie watched him go inside, and when he was out of sight, pondered the odds of what he intended succeeding, and whether he was really committed to Cherry. Or had he just been playing a game on himself, and on her? Had he merely pretended to care–like his own dad had–hoping it would lead to the real thing?  He wondered how it was for Cherry, too. Women were inscrutable creatures, not going from point A to point B, but dallying with G by way of Z. That they included or excluded you had nothing to do with your inherent worthiness, although they were hard wired to be attracted by worth, much like men were hard wired by shape, proportion, and look. So what was love, then, given these differences? There were no answers on a lonely night in the city, this far down the road. On a night like this, you were simply asked to place your bet and hope for the best.
.
The Kelsey Arms apartments loomed on the left, a horseshoe-shaped former motel made of concrete block, painted pale green and lit by upturned cones of greener light. Freddie finished the beer Eddie had given him in one long draw, and let the longneck slip between his knees onto the passenger side floor. Eddie hit his turn signal when he saw that an oncoming car was a cop car. Then, when the patrol car passed, Eddie made the turn too quick, not noticing the bump up onto the lot. As the Impala’s shock absorber bottomed out with a hollow thump and bounced, Freddie warned him: “Watch it now, okay?”
    “All right! Chill.”
    They parked next to an aging El Dorado. Eddie cut the engine, pulled out the key, and began to twirl the rabbit’s foot at the end of its chain. After a moment, Freddie said, “What are you doing?”
    “Waitin’ for you, Officer. Where’s the room?”
    Freddie pointed across the U of cracked asphalt and empty pool, in the direction of a stainless steel ice machine adjacent some facing apartment doors. “Over there, I think,” he said. “Number twenty ten.” Like our best year together. My recovery year.
    “Twenty-ten. Yer lucky number?”
    “I don’t believe in luck.”
    “Well, twenty-three was lucky for Michael Jordan.”
    “Luck had nothing to do with that, either.”
    Eddie huffed his amusement, getting out. Then started to cross the span. In a sudden and inexplicable panic, Freddie scrambled out after him. Catching up, he stopped Eddie beside the pool’s low fence, where a small sign on the gate read, OUT OF ORDER.
    “Wait,” he said, and grabbed at Eddie’s forearm.
    “What, ya got second thoughts now, Reverend?”
    Freddie turned toward the cracked lime green depression beside them, and stared down into the shadowed deep end, which was the only area of the lot hidden from the floodlight on the roof beyond it.  “I don’t know,” he said. He put one hand behind his head, and looked straight up, searching for stars, impossibly high and faint above the light pollution. But the sky too would not be fathomed, and he felt abandoned by it.  “I don’t know,” he repeated. “Don’t know what else I’m. . . supposed to do.”
    “Well,” Eddie reminded him, “ya said they’d explain it to ya, didn’t you?”
    “No, I mean–”
    “I know what ya mean. An’ I been tryin’ to tell ya, you should go in with me instead. The odds are on my side, man. I’ll double whatever ya got in a week.  Promise.”
    “But that wouldn’t be enough. And I’m not a betting man.”
    “Sure ya are! We all are. Some fools just don’t know it.” Eddie stepped closer, lowering his voice to a whisper, as if someone might want to overhear, and Eddie was there to protect him from the embarrassment.  “Come on, man. Why ya doin’ this to yourself? Two months? Ya don’t even know her, trust me. Just stop right here. Okay? Just say, ‘hell with it.’ Say it. An’ then just walk away. That’s all ya need to do. Can ya do that?”
    “You don’t understand. That’s what I’ve always done. Walk away. It’s why she’s gonna walk out on me, too. Just like my dad walked out on my mom.”
    Eddie started to reply, but squinted into his eyes then, and saw something there. Something he’d seen before, like in the eyes of true believers. Dropping his arm instead, Eddie shook his head, cocked his chin, and then took his own turn at studying the shadows at the bottom of the pool.
    At that, Freddie sighed and said, “Eddie, I’m sorry, man, but listen. . . you ever considered that God or fate is watching all this? Waiting to see what we’ll do?  I mean, ‘cause it’s the one thing He can’t control, right? Or chooses not to. Call it free will, if you can believe in that. Or maybe you think I’m nuts, and it’s all chance. Shit. Don’t you feel the power we got here?  Or is this really all just a crap shoot to you?”
    Eddie didn’t reply. He just stood there, resigned to it now, staring down as though in a trance. Maybe he’d been thinking of a final pitch before they knocked on the door, but that idea was history now.  Something in Eddie’s eyes, this time. In the glare of the floodlight, he looked like a man who’d just lost another bet and knew it.
    “Look,” Freddie consoled him, now. “This is what Cherry wants more than anything, I’m sure of it. And these people, they can help. It may not be legal, but it’s certainly moral. This baby’s only six months old, and the mother is even here to approve the sale. Black market or not, what’s it matter? We’ll give it a good home, and get out of this limbo we’re in. I don’t know how yet, but we’ll make it work, you’ll see. You should be happy for us. You can even be the kid’s godfather, if you want. Take him to your ball games.”
    As though wanting to get it over with, Eddie approached the door marked 2010, under the portico and out of the glare. He turned to see Freddie open the stainless flap of the adjacent ice machine, and reach in for an ice donut, which he rubbed against his temple briefly.
    “Here,” Freddie said, offering the melting ball. “Try to be cool, like him, okay?” Freddie hooked a thumb at the ice machine, smiled, then closed his now empty hand into a fist, and knocked on the door behind Eddie’s head. Three times, for luck.
    Eddie looped the ice in an underhand pitch so that it arced and dropped into the pool, like a dead comet into a black hole. He was left looking out at the lot beyond Freddie’s shoulder, and at the last moment saw a car parked there that he hadn’t noticed before, due to the glare. It was a blue two-tone Camero. Dice hung from the rear view mirror. As the apartment door opened, even before he’d turned to see who answered, he smiled back at Freddie.
    “Cool,” was all he said.
                                      
                        -0-

Audiobooks

One Final Letter

University of ArizonaMy post office box had been thick with it all week.  Advertisements, election circulars, and assorted junk.  I folded Debra’s letter back into its pink envelope and dropped it absently into the trash with the rest.  Even though the message hadn’t contained the dramatic punctuation of my other mail, the tone was similar.  Instead of a plea for money or votes, this one was a plea for my time.  But since it was only her first letter to me in years, I suspected it might also be her last if I didn’t reply.  So the smile which hung on my face, long after reading and discarding it, was a mirthless one.  The kind of smile you offer in passing to strangers.
     I saw her the next day at the college library.  Although she didn’t see me, I could tell that the years had been generous to her.  Even from where I stood outside the employee lounge, I could see that her complexion, framed by short black hair, was as beautiful as ever.  And her figure was still as devastating too.  She was a survivor, all right.  There was never any doubt of that.  It was only the disguised urgency of her search for me that gave me a new understanding of her vanity and of how little rejection she had experienced.  So I reentered the lounge then–leaving the realm of Kafka and Eliot for the more immediate relevance of gossip, rumor, and an argument over the Arizona Wildcats.  And when I came out again, she was gone.
      It’s funny how most reactions seem ready-made before you ever face them.  You don’t even have to think about them, really.  Instinct dictates what you will do.  It’s ironic perhaps, like discarding Debra’s letter, but true.  
         I met Debra during my last year at the University. We were both journalism majors involved in student politics at the time.  I was the editorial director of the student paper, while she covered the nitty-gritty functions of the campus social scene. Although the long hours I put into my studies by day and at a local pizzeria at night left me physically and emotionally exhausted, I enjoyed the brief time we worked together Tuesday afternoons and evenings in that cramped office on the third floor of the Student Union building.  Because there was something unspoken between us there.  Call it a mixture of fantasy and lust which thrived on not being identified, but this fragile yet persistent euphoria was kept alive with subtle glances and adeptly timed smiles which were independent of the surface content of what was said.  It was like something assumed but hidden–an attraction which feared confrontation, and therefore became maddeningly stronger.  Not to the point of love, exactly.  Love is impossible to hide once it’s realized, I discovered.  No–what I felt was an unreal, all-enveloping warmth, not fire.  We both yearned toward that warmth, but somehow remained uncannily free of the flame.  And from being burned.
     The letters first started coming to my dorm near the beginning of December during my senior year.  Typed on purple stationery, the first was a short and rather stilted request to me me after work outside Gino’s on Wednesday night.  The signature at the bottom was simply “D.”  Debra and I hadn’t yet finished typing our segments for the latest biweekly installment of the school paper, so I assumed the rendezvous was strictly business.  Secretly, however, I began to wish otherwise, and spent the final hour or so of my shift either staring hypnotically into the ovens with something more than academic anticipation, or else peering abstractedly out the swinging kitchen doors at the rowdy college jocks ordering pitchers of draft and milling around the pinball machines Gino had backed against the wall.  After Gino chased the stragglers dormward, I remember waiting nervously out by my VW in the lot.  But Debra never showed.
     The next day I confronted her in the hall outside our interpretive criticism class, which a cavernous-faced Dr. Stapleton taught–we all agreed–with a certain “robust didacticism.”
     “Deb?”
     She turned around toward me slowly, giving her profile an excruciatingly irresistible appeal for my inspection.  But I didn’t lower my gaze for long.  Her brown eyes were riveting enough–and yes, she knew how to look at someone in such a way as to induce shock and guilt and desire all at once.
     “Oh. . .Brian,” she said, flashing her intimate, millisecond smile of recognition.
     “You didn’t come by last night,” I told her, “like you said.”
     “Like I said?”
     My heart shot up several floors at the bewilderment of her response, and beat wildly there in my throat and temples.  I fought it down as best I could, and in lieu of an awkward apology, unfolded the note in my coat pocket.
     “Then . . . you didn’t write this?”
     She read what was there and laughed.  “Of course not.”
     Still drunk with the stupidity of my assumption, I found, later in the afternoon, that a second letter had arrived in my box.  This one read:

      Dear Brian,
        I’m sorry about last night.  I was there but I couldn’t speak to you.  You don’t know how badly I wanted to, but what would I say?  The truth?  I love you, but I’m afraid.  So afraid of how you’ll accept this.  How could I make you believe that this might work?  Writing is easier than facing you.  Brian, I’m so confused and afraid.
                         –D.

That’s how it began.  With each day, a new letter from this unknown and irritating benefactor of emotion–and every one a little more intimate.  Slowly the fear mentioned in the second letter began to subside as the strength of the feelings increased.  I started getting packages at my dorm too–even during the Christmas break when I stayed on campus and worked full time on the “wax” crew, buffing the administration’s hallways by day, and serving up pepperoni and sausage pizza to the faculty brats at night.  The gifts were small:  things like cassette tapes by my favorite, Spiro Gyra, and batches of homemade cookies.  Always, a note or letter detailed her thoughts or reminding me of how she’d spent the day with me on her mind.  But whether with a gift or not, all those letters had one thing in common.  They each contained the solitary petal of a rose.  “I’m sending you a bouquet one petal at a time,” she wrote.  I don’t know why, but I kept the letters.  Maybe they seemed so unbelievable. . .
     The first Tuesday after Christmas, Debra questioned me about my secret admirer.  She found it all endlessly amusing, and began a deliberate giggling at the mention of my predicament.  I told her what I knew about the girl, which wasn’t much.  She was a home economics major, 20 years old.  She was obviously shy, and liked classical “romantic” music.  Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky–that kind of thing.  When I mentioned that she also liked Italian food, Debra said, “Uh-oh!” and blew out her cheeks like a balloon.  Then she smiled that killer smile of hers and winked.  I took her advice and kept my eyes open for signs of someone watching me or following me.  Because “D” certainly did seem to know my whereabouts and what I was doing with my time.  She knew about Debra too, and seemed to become increasingly obsessed with our working relationship.  Soon after this she started writing about her poor grades, her lack of sleep, and how it might be best if she dropped out.
     Well, this news was too much.  I had to get a message to this girl somehow.  I resented the fact that she was forcing me to consider her feelings in my relationship to someone I felt physically attracted to, even though I hadn’t yet found the courage to make a move from where I was.  Unfortunately, however, I kept picturing myself in the dean of women’s office, asking Mrs. Pauli, “Could you, ah, tell me if there’s, well, someone at the school in the home economics department who’s flunking?  Incidentally, she, ah, likes Chopin’s Nocturnes and ravioli.”
     But that was when Debra got her letter.  She came over to my dorm to show it to me.  It was scrawled in black ink across an index card.

     Dear Miss Hollis,
       You must realize my feelings toward Brian.  I can’t tell you how much it would hurt me if he were hurt.  So I’m asking you, please, please not to encourage him.  You can have whoever you want, but you must give me a chance to talk to him first.  Please help me, and don’t let him know I’ve written you.  Please, until I can get the courage to talk to him.  –D.

     “So what do I do now?” I said, after reading her note.
     Debra looked at me in that way she always had, glancing down until she knew our eyes would meet.  She was sitting on my bunk bed with crossed legs, and I remember she was wearing plaid, wool kneehighs and a tight, gray sweater that day when she said those fateful words.
     “Why don’t we try going out together?”
     Strange how feelings can color the whole world for someone.  In just as many ways as there are people, mysterious influences distill their irony into anything from a magical exhilaration to a sense of terrible, imprisoned futility.
     From mid-January to mid-February, I dated Debra.  We went everywhere together, and she made me discover a side of myself I never knew existed.  A side both I and “D” were witness to for the first time.  Debra and I were very open about it from the start, and made a point of walking together often across the crowded campus.  We kissed passionately whenever we suspected we were being watched.  It tasted deliciously evil somehow too, that taboo against realizing our long dormant attraction.  Our favorite game even became guessing who “D” might be, and we looked for the most despondent faces eagerly, even after the letters stopped.  In a secret way, I believe I was grateful to “D” for giving me the excuse I needed.  Even though I felt–I knew–there was a very high wall between Debra and me.
     Then one night, into the last hour of Valentine’s Day, Debra waited excitedly for me outside my dorm with a box of roses.  I will never forget her face that night, getting back from Gino’s.  So beautiful it scared me.  But I kissed her anyway, losing myself in the unreal warmth of her lips just as I had many times lost myself, late at night, in the foreboding scent of her dark hair with a tie “D” had given me draped across the dorm room door.  A late night fog had drifted over the campus, and holding Debra firmly against my chest, I remember distinctly–even now–seeing two rows of halos converging above the street from the lurid arc light, ending in a hazy silver moon which hung in a low scud of cloud.  And Debra’s voice. . .
     “The funniest thing happened tonight,” she said, breaking free and picking up the open box of roses from the hood of my VW.
     “Tell me,” I said.
     “That girl ‘D’ came to my room with these,” she said, with a studied flippancy.  “Her name’s Darlene Gentry.  She was in your music appreciation class.”
     I couldn’t answer for a moment, and then I said, “What do you mean, was?”
     “She’s gone now.  All she wanted was to give you these flowers.  Only I think she was still chicken. . .can you beat that?”
     Debra was giggling when she told me about Darlene.  I can’t forget that part.  Even now.  It had all seemed like a game up to then, but then I knew her name, and suddenly I remembered her too:  She’d sat just two rows behind my all year–a quiet girl with long brown hair who wore granny glasses and demure clothing.  No one paid much attention to her.  She was a “generic” student–the kind you never notice unless she wasn’t there for a while.  Unreal somehow, and always in the background.  But I HAD wondered about her, and thinking about her again, I realized she hadn’t been to class at all those last few days.  Evidently she’d decided to leave school, and on the occasion of Valentine’s Day, when the dorms were raucous with parties, to risk exposure and rejection by confronting me.  Only the same thing had prevented her, because she took the flowers to Debra instead.  Debra, who thought the whole thing so absurdly amusing. . .
     Inside the box was her final letter.

      Dearest Brian,
        Please forgive me for writing you again.  And please accept this bouquet instead of the many more letters I would send if I could, if it mattered.  When I play the Brahms, I seem to be with you now, as if you were here.  Although it’s painful, it must be enough to remember, to imagine you as happy as I’ve seen you.  Goodbye, then, with love, from no one.    –D.

     I left Debra standing by my car that night, and got on the phone.  Claiming to be a relative, I managed to dial through to the women’s dorm supervisor and ask about Darlene Gentry.  There was a long pause, maybe ten minutes, and then I was being questioned.  Darlene wasn’t at bed check and some of her things were gone.
     So that was the end of it, or almost the end.  When the announcement came of Darlene’s accidental death in Omaha two weeks later, I went out and purchased a copy of the Brahms first concerto we’d been studying in music appreciation class before she’d stopped attending.  And when I laid the needle of my roommate’s battered turntable–so used to blasting rock in those days–down onto the second section of that record, I too thought I glimpsed a soul.  One which might have loved sincerely–and been loved–but feared itself unworthy.  I also recognized and remembered that plaintive melody as one which had once, and has since, haunted me.
     Yet the girl whose image the music seemed to evoke was dead then.  Struck down by a speeding motorist on a straight stretch of road in the middle of a clear, cloudless day.  The driver couldn’t quite pass the breathalizer and claimed he never saw her step out, the report said.  Her step-parents had just returned from vacation, and didn’t even know she was in town.  And there was something else.  Something that makes me think it was no accident.
     Her phonograph had been left on.
     I can still see that sometimes too, in my dreams–the needle tracking endlessly against the center label.  And no one has had to tell me what was imprinted on that label–any more than I have to be reminded what a rose symbolizes.  Because I have a stack of letters in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and inside of each there is a pressed petal of that flower.
     But there’s one final letter to appraise–the one I threw away.  When that stack in my drawer was ten years old, this woman sent it to me as if something had changed between us.  As if what we shared was anything more than guilt.  Not legal guilt, of course.  I mean another kind.
     She said she’d missed me at the reunion, and when she asked around, discovered I was working right on campus, at the library.  She was in town for a full week, but already she’d been to the library several times to see me, and I was always out.  Would I have lunch with her or something?  There was so much to talk about.  Her divorce from Greg Elford, a former school quarterback, had just been finalized.  And she heard I was still single.  Now she just wanted to “make one of her old classmates jealous” before returning to the house she’d won in the settlement.  Jealous, she said, like we once did with that girl from Omaha. . .what was her name?
     I never answered Debra’s letter.  And the one time I walked by her on campus during the week of her stay, she didn’t seem to recognize me.  Although she might not have changed, perhaps I have.  Among other things, what I feel for her now isn’t fear or lust so much as pity.  Maybe because she was never afraid.  Maybe because, being dead inside, she had nothing to lose, and what you saw was all you got.  Whatever the reason, I saw that she was even more a stranger to me, and an accusing reminder that Darlene Gentry had been a stranger to everyone then.  Call it irony if you want to.   Or instinct.
     I saw someone wearing a tee shirt recently which read, proudly, PERHAPS YOU HAVE MISTAKEN ME FOR SOMEONE WHO GIVES A DAMN.  That could have been me in that tee shirt, ten years ago.
     And something told me there wouldn’t be enough time to make Debra understand.        
            -0-

.

Jonathan Lowe; originally published in Buffalo Spree)

(Composed by Sherry Hoffman, now deceased; Lyrics by Jonathan Lowe; apologies for sound quality:  recorded on cassette recorder at Ventana Canyon resort in Tucson in 1995.)

Sherry Hoffman

Wishing Star

Miranda, as I called her, and as I imagined her to be a chunk of some alien moon–old beyond estimation–weighed in at six and a half kilograms. A pint-sized alien, then, but impressive for the darkened scars along her side, suggesting she’d been a naughty child, given to fights. I was told she’d weighed more, much more, but that she’d decided on a crash diet as she entered the atmosphere at better than a mile a second. Impact in soft earth had prevented total vaporization, creating the four foot crater I’d discovered perilously near a tall saguaro cactus.

An afterimage of the flash remained virtually embossed on my retina long after her quaking light no longer stretched shadows over my body, and I imagined her years earlier passing Jupiter–that improbable swirl of methane storms across millions of miles of cold–deciding on the very trajectory which placed the meteor in my hands. When the paper took my picture holding it, they called her my pet rock. Nickel and iron, they said, that was not of this world. And somehow I understood from this that I could be happy. I felt, after Miranda, that it was possible. If only I could get my wish.

I’d been lying atop my sleeping bag in the desert sand when that elongated exclamation point–like the finger of God–drew across the heavens. Moments before the distant and resounding thud I’d been contemplating a past which had brought me from the East, emptied of all those signposts which might stabilize a young carpenter’s life, and prevent him from seeing the truth of his aloneness. I said many things to the reporters, but not these. I didn’t tell them much about myself at all. Because they didn’t ask about my thoughts in the desert on that night and the secret wish I had made, I stuck to those tangible facts which made nice human interest copy. As they took their photos I smiled like I’d seen men smile in magazines, and I knew already how the image of my face on newsprint would seem: as alien and masklike as a mannequin’s. I was, simply, a rock. Take away the rock and I was a loner, on my own, looking up at nothing–a stone for a pillow. Take away the microphone and my silence would be as the stars.

When I excused myself during the meeting in the lobby of the Arizona Daily Star there was a man who sang to me in the restroom. “When you wish upon a star,” the man confided, “your wishes travel much too far.”

I turned to ask the man what he meant, but he was gone.

They would all be gone, of course, in much the same way. Slipping out slightly embarrassed at my indecent lack of credentials, and for this being my one tenuous claim to fame. . . even the ones who wanted Miranda for their schools or their planetarium displays. Before that inevitable thinning, however, a miracle. A discovery more amazing than that the heavens had opened and Miranda streaked into my grasp, an angelic gift. A person whose presence I felt. Curious, shy: a girl who wanted to hold Miranda in her hands, to turn her round and round and feel her texture, her weight. And with a voice so amazed.

“Just imagine,” the girl exclaimed in the lobby, “how far it’s come.”

“It’s a she,” I replied at her puzzlement. “Miranda. That’s her name. That is. . . there’s a moon of Uranus with that name. I thought it fit.”

Her mouth formed an oh.

“I don’t know why,” I went on, “I just thought. . .”

I paused then, not remembering what I’d thought.

“Funny,” said the girl, “but my name is Miranda too.”

“No, it’s not.”

“I’ve only come as far as Vermont, though.”

I studied her, and felt no deception. I doubted as one always doubts a miracle, but seeing was believing.

“That’s a long way too,” I said, finally. “Relatively speaking.”

“What is?”

“Vermont.”

She smiled. It was a filling smile, like a door opening on a closed room.
Then there was one more door.

“Have you come here often, Mark?”

But no smile. We were sitting on a blanket, out beyond the park’s boundaries, surrounded by saguaro cactus, the only light that of stars. Almost an hour after she’d followed me over that winding road past the city lights, and now no meteors to break the desert silence.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

“Why?”

“Because you wanted to see one. A shooting star.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not.” I opened my duffel bag and withdrew my battered pair of 20-power binoculars.

“Really,” she said. “I’ve seen them before! In fact, I was outside the same night you were, and I might have seen the same one as you. It was very bright.” She looked down at her hands.

“I was going to show you,” I said, then. “Look. Look over there. West, at two o’clock. That cross. See the star at the top? It’s Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.”

“What about it?”

“It’s a thousand times brighter than our Sun.”

“No, it’s not.”

“But it’s over nine hundred light years away.”

Miranda thought about it, then she smiled.

“I’ll bet it’s bigger TOO,” she said.

I nodded. “But so far away.”

Now I could tell her about the Crab Nebula, that gaseous remnant of an exploding star in 1054. Maybe even discuss the origins of comets. Describe to her black holes and pulsars. I could mention what books I’d read on the subject. . . and then. . . and then how even as a child I’d go outside while my mother and father argued over money and bills inside. How I’d lay in the grass and look up at the stars and wonder if there were anyone up there looking back. Or if maybe it was all only emptiness, a mere chaos of unimaginable heat and cold, size and distance.

But I couldn’t tell her why I was here, now, thirty years old but feeling much older. I couldn’t tell her that, even if she wanted me to.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You really are, aren’t you?”

“But I’ve brought something else, just in case.”

I reopened my duffel bag again and took out the bottle rocket. I’d purchased it the same afternoon we’d met, when it occurred to me that miracles couldn’t be expected more than once in a lifetime. The fat lady in the red scarf in the shack with the painted black cat told him to light the thing and step back. It was that simple. When I did it Miranda stood up and clapped her hands.

“I love it, I love it!” she said, almost breathless, in the smoking dimness. I glimpsed her eyes, reflecting a sliver of low moon which itself reflected the hidden sun. After a long silence she wanted to know more about me–”who I was”–and I wanted to say, but couldn’t. The closest I could get was the distant memory of one morning, the first day of college.

Shadows, then, I told her: That first morning, when the world seemed heavy with expectation, the sky achingly blue, the future so promising for one whose mind danced with the rhythm of youth. Some days were meant to be remembered, I told her, and that had been a day of days.

Halfway through the telling she took my hand and squeezed it. For as much as I tried to keep it in check, she must have seen a telltale tear come in straining to remember that day in the way I really wanted, past all the pain of my parent’s accidental death, and even my dropping out to wander the world with only my hands to sustain me. As my father had taught repeatedly, if I was willing to work with my hands I’d always have food for my mouth.

My callused hands, strangely frozen in hers. Time alone had held such hands. And now?

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Stop saying that.”

“But I am.”

“Why?”

“Because you came out here for nothing. Not even a flash in the sky. Only a substitute. Like a memory.”

Into my embarrassment her face loomed closer, an oval resolved finally into identity. Her voice was consoling now, her words chosen carefully: “We think we’ll never forget, but we do,” she said. “How do you remember a feeling, exactly as it happened? You can’t. All you have are facts–bits of what you did, what happened. The reality no one understands is buried. Don’t you see?”

I nodded. “I made a wish, when I saw my shooting star,” I confessed. “I wished. . .you. . .into existence.”

“Me?”

I described the rooms to her, then. The studio apartments in Buffalo, in Jersey City, in Newport News. The tiny kitchenettes where over the past year I’d cooked tasteless frozen dinners, the droning rattle of the air conditioners as I tried to sleep over the laughter and television sounds next door. I told her about reading dog-earred novels late into the night until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. About dreams of falling, and waking up just before I hit bottom. I detailed the brief relationships formed out of fear or desperation. But I couldn’t tell her about downtown streets at night, and the bus stations, and the way the streetlights became an eerie green that made everything feel totally alien, lost. I couldn’t describe how the real world had vanished all together for me then, leaving only this substitute for people alone–always, even in the daylight then, alone.

I couldn’t.

I could only close my eyes and turn away. And when I opened my eyes again I was alone.

Three days later I was reading a discarded edition of the Star in a donut shop at the corner of a long block of restaurants. It was 10 AM and above me the shop’s circulating fan beat down, flapping the paper in my hands. My eyes tracked in the slanted morning light. But I didn’t see the ad.

A week later found me at the bus stop, sitting next to another discarded paper left in the blue cubicle which protected riders from the intense heat. This time the ad was in bold type, a giant arrow pointing at it from above. But just as I was about to read it, the bus came.

Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, I was scanning the classifieds for an apartment, and there it was. Not merely a print ad this time, but a photo. In the wide-angle image a girl held a roman candle at arm’s length, a bright blue ball of flame arching skyward over the parking lot in which she stood. To her left, out on the street, drivers either stared blankly or pretended not to see. And below the photo: MARK–WHERE ARE YOU? PLEASE CALL ME AT THE PAPER. I’M SORRY. –MIRANDA.

As I ran toward the phone booth, a strange sense of exhilaration seized me. The Star’s switchboard operator transferred my call to the Classified department.

“Star Classifieds, may I help you?”

“Miranda?”

“. . .Mark??”

That night I drove her to the planetarium and on the way told her that I’d left my other apartment and was staying at a motel for a while. I was trying to tell her all those things which “had no words for them so they never get said” when she touched my arm. I looked over to see that she was crying. Silently.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Not it’s not,” she replied.

“What do you mean?”

She told me about the men, then. The ones who had used her. She told me about grocery stores too, and libraries, and even singles bars–all of which had bred loneliness for one who disliked being left by men who fled back to their vampire’s caskets at dawn.

Then she told me why she’d left me that night:

“Your remember your wish?” she said. “The wish you made when you saw your shooting star?”

“What about it?”

“It’s the same wish I made when I saw it.”

We arrived at the planetarium, a massive dome looming up into the night sky. Wordlessly, I led her inside and we settled into the deeply cushioned interior seats, tilted back to afford a view of an arched ceiling on which were projected the images of stars, galaxies, and nebula. The program of the evening was a clinical study of the relative sizes of stellar objects. There was the sun, a yellow circle on the ceiling. The earth, a tiny blue dot beside it. Then a huge red circle projected over both, enough to cover a hundred suns. The red supergiant, Antares.

I took her hand on the way out.

“I want to show you something else,” I said.

“No more,” she whispered in reply. “I feel so small. So small I’m almost. . . dizzy.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay, now.”

I squeezed her hand, and then I pointed.

In the lobby was a new display, amid several others. On a freshly painted pedestal in the center was a meteorite, six and a half kilograms in weight, dark scars along one side.

“Now that,” I told her, with conviction, “is just a rock.”

-0-

Jonathan Lowe Originally published in Tucson Guide magazine.  Articles on astronomy in AZ 360, Tucson Weekly, Sky & Telescope, and Progressive Engineer.)

robotics