Category Archives: free read

“The Man in the Gorilla Suit”

evolution Photo credit: bigfatnapoleon

 

The man in the gorilla suit never misses Fridays. At least we believe it’s a man, and we think it’s a suit. He sometimes comes other days of the week too, though never Mondays.

The man in the gorilla suit never comes Mondays.

Kevon, the packing lead, finds the man in the gorilla suit annoying. Kevon says the man, or at least the suit, stinks. I say we all get a little ripe by shift’s end. I do admit to having taken Migs, as we call the man in the gorilla suit, aside and spraying him with Dove Body Mist once or twice, but Kevon shouldn’t complain; Migs packs a lot of orders for him.

Migs doesn’t spend as much time in my area. Squeezing through merchandise stacks to pick orders is a cumbersome task for a man in a gorilla suit. My pickers like Migs, but he slows us down when we’re trying to get batches of last-minute orders filled, which always seems the case Friday night. Migs still helps my line though, tidying up and what-not, when he can.

I’m the picking lead. My name is Loretta. I’m standing at the head of my lines, ripping orders, shoving totes down steel rollers. The rollers ring, echoing through canyons of racks.

From this spot I have a clear view to Kevon’s area. Industrial bags bloated with Styrofoam peanuts float above his packing stations. Packers load boxes with merchandise and fill them out with the peanuts. Then they tape the boxes and attach packing slips. Migs is doing that now, and he’s a sight. Packing peanuts are stuck all over his fur. Kevon has plenty of packers tonight: two per station. Kevon glides around his area now, checking that his people have boxes, tape, whatever they need. His arms and legs, as always, are constant motion. No matter what he does, he always reminds me of a outfielder racing to get under a fly ball and pull it back from the fence.

I pick up my walkie-talkie. Kevon’s not far away, but the rollers, and the plastic totes crashing into each other, are too loud to shout above.

¿Qué quieres?” answers Kevon. Many packers come from Latin America; Kevon has picked up Spanish, which we aren’t supposed use, per company policy, but he doesn’t care. He just wants orders out the door, and sometimes he forgets who he’s talking to. I do understand some Spanish phrases. My maiden name was Rincón, after all, though I never went back to my maiden name.

I envy Kevon’s bilingualism, though it would make no difference in my job. Order pickers, immigrant or native-born, all speak English. Here, on second shift, many are community-college kids, in class by day and studying who-knows-when. New temps are assigned to pick or pack based on a reading test. It doesn’t matter how well or poorly a potential temp reads in general, just how well he or she tests compared to others applying the same day. If we need four new pickers and five new packers, then the top four scorers become pickers.

“Give me somebody,” I radio to Kevon.

“Can’t spare anyone.”

“You have Migs. We’re backed up. Give me Dante. Or Noi.”

“No way. You can take Albert if you want.”

Albert was seventy. My pickers would trample poor Albert.

Carol then,” I say, hoping to split the difference. Carol is neither fast nor slow.

“Done. Never radio me again.” Kevon breaks off and disappears behind some stacks. He radios back a moment later. “Lorrrretta?”

“What?”

“You still love me, right?”

I roll my eyes. “Yes, of course, Kevon.”

“Dante’s coming over.”

That’s Kevon: first he says he won’t help you, can’t help you, and then he helps you.

Kevon had been a community-college kid once. He had started for me as a picker … six years ago? He was twenty-three then. I know because he’s thirty years younger than me (my birthday’s coming up Monday) and we celebrated Kevon’s twenty-ninth with cake last Friday. Migs broke everyone up by getting frosting mooshed all over his snout. Kevon had almost smiled.

Once he got the lead job, Kevon quit college. He started six-sigma certification here, which would have gotten him into management, but the classes bored him. He would rather fret, strutting up and down the lines night after night. Didn’t he want more? Didn’t he fear getting trapped?

Dante comes over. “Did you see Migsy?” he asks, grabbing some order sheets. “Got peanut all over him!”

I smile. It is funny, but nevertheless I have an urge to go pick Styrofoam bits off the man in the gorilla suit.

Over the next hour, we catch up. I shut down one line so half my crew can go to lunch. It’s dinner time, but they call it lunch here, no matter the shift.

The packers near Migs are also scheduled for first lunch. Kevon goes too. One of us stays on the floor at all times, so he and I switch off. After the packers leave, Migs looks up, right, then left, to discover he’s alone. His great shoulders sag.

Noticing me, he jumps, then lopes over. Finding a broom he circles me, sweeping the concrete. “Thank you, Migs,” I say, “but there’s nothing to sweep.” He looks at the clean floor and scratches his head. “Rrruh!” he grunts, then puts the broom away. He looks at a stack of empty totes, then places his hands on it. “Rruh?”

The stacks are getting low. “Yes,” I say. “You may go collect the empties from the other side.”

He scampers away. He comes back twenty-five minutes later, as the first group returns from lunch. He’s pushing a dozen tote stacks before him, each stack six-feet high.

“Migs, we’ll never use that many!”

He shrugs and goes back to packing.

At the same moment, Kevon comes toward me for the hand-off. He passes Migs, giving him a dirty look. Migs shields his head with one arm, then scurries away in a pretense of fear.

“Why, Kevon?” I ask.

“I don’t care for visual humor.”

“What’s the harm?”

“Have a good lunch,” says Kevon. “There’s cupcakes.”

I go into the break room and stand in line to microwave my stuffed peppers. I used to make my own, but it’s too much trouble for one, so I bring Stouffer’s now. They taste fine.

What’s left of the cupcakes Kevin mentioned lie in long caterer’s boxes. The cupcakes have orange, yellow, or lime-colored smiley-faces on them. I ask the crew if it’s someone’s birthday or anniversary, but no one seems to know where the cupcakes came from. They look good but I don’t take one. I want to make sure everyone gets a chance. After microwaving my lunch I go into the offices. Kevon and I are allowed to eat in the managers’ offices, empty at this hour, so we can read our email. I mostly get newsletters and departmental cc’s, but I have to check in case there’s something important. They sometimes forget us.

I scroll through my inbox as I eat. There’s one announcing inventory control classes on site, free, beginning next month. Though Kevon is already cc’d, I forward it to him. Maybe if I pester him enough he will take advantage. Twenty-nine seems young, but it isn’t.

I delete until white appears at the bottom of the window. The last email surprises me:

From: Peg Strange, Human Resources

To: Department Heads, Managers, Supervisors

Cc: Leads

Subject: Animal-costumed individual on shop floor.

Due to insurance concerns, OSHA regulations, union contract negotiations, Department of Homeland Security -issued guidelines, and in compliance with company policy, the individual wearing an animal (gorilla) costume is not allowed on the order fulfillment floor during regular business hours (or after business hours) or elsewhere on the premises during or after business hours. This includes the parking lot.

This is not new policy, but clarifies existing policy.

The individual is not an employee or sub-contractor. The individual does not have I.D. and has never been explicitly granted access to our staff and premises. No one remembers how or when this individual first appeared. We do not know who this individual is, where this individual comes from, nor where this individual vanishes, like a specter, into the night.

We realize this individual has become a beloved figure in our workplace; therefore this clarification will not take effect until second shift ends tonight. Please take a moment to stop by and wish the individual in the animal costume well. There will be cupcakes in the break room :)

Peg Strange, Vice President, Human Resources.

I print the email, take the page from the tray, and fold it over. Then I leave the office, and call Kevon on the walkie-talkie.

“—¿Qué qui—”

“Meet me in the front,” I say.

Kevon must have caught something in my voice, because he trots toward me, brow tight. “What?” he asks.

I shove the email, planting it in the center of his chest.

He looks at me, stunned. He unfolds it and reads. Without blinking he says, “Loretta, I didn’t do this.”

“Migs annoys you. You always say so.”

“Everybody annoys me, but I wouldn’t complain to …” Looking again at the email, he laughs. “… Peg Strange in Human Resources. I don’t even know people upstairs.”

I snatch the paper. “You should know people upstairs! Do you want to be on the floor all your life? You should have reported Migs. He’s against policy. You might as well have got something for it. You’re acting stupid! Stupid!”

“Hey, hey!” says Kevon. “That’s enough!”

I realize I’m hitting him on the arm with the email.

Then we’re both stunned; we hear a deep harsh, “RRRuh!”

Migs is standing close. All work on the floor has stopped. The crew is staring, open-mouthed, as we fight.

Migs waddles closer.

When he reaches us, he takes my hand and Kevon’s, clasping them together between his paws. He shakes them once, twice. Then he twists his head left and right. He looks at me. “Rruh!”

“All right.” I say. “We won’t fight.”

He turns to Kevon. “Rrruh!”

Kevon nods.

Satisfied, the man in the gorilla suit exhales. He turns to the shop floor, regards the people, the lines, the stacks of totes. Then he turns to me, looks at the paper still in my hand, and shrugs.

“You already know?” I ask.

He nods.

I straighten myself.

The man in the gorilla suit sets his arms akimbo and looks at his feet. He scratches his head. He nods again, this time to himself. “Rrruh,” he says, and turns toward the nearest door. I want to grab him, pull him back, we have hours before the shift ends, but he moves away from me with such noble resolve that I stop myself. He deserves dignity in his departure.

He reaches the door and opens it. It should be armed, but the alarm doesn’t go off. Someone must have forgotten.

He steps outside, the door falls shut, and he is gone.

The pickers and packers whisper amongst themselves. They don’t realize what has happened yet. Kevon claps once, sharply. Not smiling, he yells. “Get the lines moving!”

Orders have backed up. We have fallen behind, but work resumes, and soon the ringing of steel rollers crushes the silence. I put the email away.

Before returning to my place I go to the exit to set the alarm. I peek out into the parking lot. It’s dark. Migs is nowhere, though, reasonably, he couldn’t have gotten far.

Alarm set, I return to the line. My pickers send questioning gazes. After we catch up I’ll explain. I’ll try to do a better job than the email did. We have other things we can look forward to. The weekend’s coming. Then on Monday there will be birthday cake.

The man in the gorilla suit never came Mondays anyway.

“The Common Knight”

In a crowded market, the excellent, newish online magazine Persistent Visions is publishing innovative work on a weekly basis, at no charge to you, the voracious reader of short stories. Last year I had the privilege of having my story “Mayastray” appear there.

But did you know that story has a companion piece? (No, you didn’t, because I’m telling you only now.) A similar premise but a much different outcome—because it involves a very different sort of person. It didn’t know I was writing companion pieces at the time, I tend to find certain stories are linked only after I’ve finished them. At 1500 words, here it is.

Man before the darkness

Photo credit: rolffimages

The Common Knight

Matt never paid attention to other people on the bus. Anyone normal rarely did, and certainly not at this time of the commute. Not at 7:20 PM. At this time of the commute, some seats remained open. But not so many that weirdos had the opportunity to interfere with tired commuters or single one out. Sometimes Matt worked as late as ten, and then it became him and the weirdos on the bus. But now the bus held a happy medium: not too crowded, and not empty enough to cause anyone to pay him too much attention. Matt was a weirdo magnet.

If he happened, some summer evening, to be sitting in a group of four or six in an outside café, every wandering street schizophrenic would zero in on him. He always got the seat on the plane next to the man so uncomfortable in his own skin that not only did he want to chat non-stop, he needed to chat non-stop. The saloon crank with the solutions to everything wrong with this country always took the stool next to Matt’s. Every woman he dated turned out jealous and crazy, so his relationships proved short and distant—though not especially painful.

Healthy people, sane people, ordinary people stayed away from Matt. He just didn’t know why. And this night, this particular 7:20 PM commute, it happened again. He could not hide.

Matt chose a seat near the front and opened the ereader app on his phone. However, he had made a mistake. He’d taken a seat reserved for wheelchair access, so, at the very next stop, he had to rise and make way for a passenger who needed it.

Somehow the bus had filled up more than he’d thought it had, leaving him with two choices. Stand in the relatively spacious area by the rear-door exit, or take a seat in the back row. The back row had room for four to sit across, but only one person sat there now: a woman with a weathered face and matted hair, wearing what looked like an entire set of drapes (perhaps bluish or purple, they were too filthy to tell) wrapped around herself. She occupied the middle of the long seat row, staring straight ahead.

Matt elected to stand by the rear-door exit. It did no good. The robed woman turned her head slightly. Once she noticed Matt she continued to look at him. It had happened again.

He, at first, ignored her, swiping quickly through the pages of the novel he was reading but without retaining any of the words.

The bus hit the expressway and immediately slowed to a crawl. Traffic still hadn’t cleared, even at this relatively late hour. That meant the commute—which, in the mornings, took about half an hour from the moment he left home around six, might well stretch to at least three times that long. The woman appeared ready to stare at him the whole way.

Matt scrolled back about ten percent of the way in his novel. It was volume seven of the series, and it didn’t hold his interest like the others—especially now with the disturbing gaze of the weirdo upon him.

The first couple volumes had been great, and he’d heard that the series picked up life again around book ten, which was written from notes left after Donald Barger, author of this planned twelve-volume epic, The Autumn Land, had died. The first volume, Rogue’s Glory had been good enough, but the second, Lady, Crown, and Godspawns was spectacular.

None of the subsequent volumes had lived up to its promise though, and reading volume seven, Storm’s Sorcery, felt like as much of a job as his job, actually. Lady, Crown, and Godspawns had introduced a subplot (lasting several hundred pages) concerning two characters, Indigo Knight and The Common Knight, a matched pair that had warred in different guises for millennia. Indigo Knight—ruler of a country of shape-shifters—had killed The Common Knight many times. The Common Knight was an everyman, Lowborn, but rising to some illusory degree of prominence in each new incarnation. No matter how many times The Common Knight died, he rose again. To die again.

Every time The Common Knight rose, Indigo Knight sent shape-shifters and spies to seek him out—in the taverns, in the streets, on the highways—to tempt him into some cause, some service. The Common Knight always demurred. And, at the hand of Indigo Knight, died again. Though Indigo Knight never relented, both characters had been all but dropped in the later volumes.

When he learned that a new writer was taking over the series, Matt posted his wish on several Autumn Land forums that The Common Knight and Indigo Knight story arc be revisited. Rarely did anyone chime in to take up his cause. (Fake fans found The Common Knight arrogant and egotistical—and, at the same time, passive and ineffectual. The conventional wisdom maintained that his creation was a horrible misstep, a horrible failure at manufacturing a sympathetic character—but they were wrong; the Common Knight merely knew his own intrinsic worth and, as for being passive—there was simply nothing of significance given to him to do.)

But anyway, most readers were more interested in War of the Eleven Elven Princelings against the Dwarves of Forest Unfathomed. Or the promised Return of the Empress of the Solstice. All that would happen, of course, no matter who took up the series. The balance of harmony would be restored in the end and the wicked undone. That expectation was sure to be fulfilled. The extant ten volumes were fecund with dropped subplots and dead ends. It infuriated Matt, as it did many fans. If only he could have a conclusion to Common and Indigo however, Matt, at least, would forgive all the rest.

He realized he’d been tapping through pages again mindlessly. He moved the scroll bar on the app back the same ten percent with a sigh. He needed a new series.

Ebooks were a godsend to him. He could indulge his guilty pleasure. None of his work friends or other ordinary associates had any idea how many fantasy and science fiction novels he devoured. For all anyone knew he was texting or facebooking right now, like everyone else.

Since ebooks, no more shocked looks on those mornings when, after bringing a girl home from a bar, the girl—who had come home with Matt, the smooth, successful, young executive with the important-sounding title, Investor Brand Director, at Flippo.com—awoke to find herself in a bedroom imprisoned by walls stacked high with paperbacks, each one the thickness of a Scrabble dictionary—so thick many sported full portraits of characters or scenes from the novels, not only on the front and back covers, but on their spines.

That would be the girl’s first clue. She would then investigate deeper. The Atari classic console in the corner. The Ikea desk with a two-monitor setup and double-rowed surge protector which rested, not on the floor, but on the desktop, sprouting cables like Medusa’s head sprouted vipers.

There would be no need for her to look further. She was done, and she would escape quickly. She would never even find out that, at Flippo.com, Investor Brand Directors pulled down less than forty-six grand a year. But it all started with the disturbing number of paperbacks. So the phone app had helped with that. He’d put his dead-tree books in storage.

Matt exited Storm’s Sorcery and browsed through the title list in the app for something else. He had books on there he’d forgotten that he owned, let alone hadn’t read, but he wanted something new anyway.

Somewhere, somewhere, in all creation, something new had to exist.

Before he could shop for it, for some alternative, the crazy lady in the back of the bus stood up. She clanked. She threw back her folds of drapery. The drapery was not common purple, of course. Indigo. Beneath it, hence the clanking, she wore a suit of armor. It shined. She drew her broadsword. Passengers dived for the floor. Many screamed. She held the sword in both hands and rushed him.

The weathered face, the matted hair. She hadn’t bathed, certainly in days, and possibly in weeks. Indigo Knight was relentless and focused, after all. She never rested in her travels from realm to realm until she sighted The Common Knight again.

The Common Knight could run and run, but he could never escape Indigo in her many guises. Indigo sent out spies and minions to draw him in: the wandering panhandler, the chatty seatmate on a plane, the bar crank. But the spies, the minions, always failed. The Common Knight avoided, demurred, forced Indigo Knight again and again, in world after world, to appear in the flesh.

She swung her broadsword now. Tomorrow, Matt imagined, there would be a huge headline on local news sites: Sword Killer! Nightmare Commute! Something. But, of course, he could not say for sure, and he wouldn’t be around to find out. Not this time. Maybe someday. Maybe someday the story would come to an actual end. If someone invented a way to write it. Indigo Knight’s blade swept the air. Matt did not resist.

§

“Mayastray”

You can now read my story “Mayastray” for free at the very fine new speculative fiction magazine Persistent Visions — and view a beautiful illustration by Charlie Cody.

 

“Summon Up the Blood”

See the Elephant #2 is out now. It includes my short story “Summon Up the Blood”, as well as other stories by many fine authors. You can get it at places.

More stores:

MCP’s web store https://metaphyscialcircus.selz.com/item/571fea95cca9181988aafeae, (this benefits the publisher the most.)

“Borges, Yo!”

New-York Central Parkphoto credit: SergiyN

1a. (deleted.)

1b. My bench is London. Hyde Park. Hyde Park is also the setting of something else, some other piece, called “Running London,” which I will write later. Or not. Most things are unwritten, how could it not be so? For every final something, there exist many unwritten drafts in the nothing.

2. My 2 characters soon to arrive on my park bench in my imagination’s London, are the “Borges” of this story’s title and the persona “Marshall Mathers”—which is a persona created by another persona “Eminem.” Both were created by the real Mr. Mathers. But the real Mathers no more appears in this story than does the real Jorge Luis Borges. To steal 2 fictional constructs from their authors and sit them side by side has got to be—at least—considered a cheap trick, a meaningless stunt, or some third pejorative thing. It isn’t. It’s a reasonable method to examine the parallel conceits of two very different artists—who could not be more different at a glance—who certainly never heard of each other, and could scarcely be less interested in this exercise, each other, or yo, even if they had done.

3. That bit about “Running London” above? A lie. The other story I intend to write will be called “Under London” and my disguising the title somewhat was an attempt to hold something back, to preserve some creative magma for a later attempt at something. Never do this, never hold anything back, not if you’re me anyway, and haven’t got much to work with right now, let alone in a neutrino-splitting cat-duplicating theoretical future. But where was I?

2. (cont.) In fact the conceit of putting these two brilliantly wrought personas of their respective creators together on a park bench ala Borges’ own emblematic work “Borges y Yo” is so apt, I’m sure someone has thought of it before. If anyone has acted on this thought, I and my enterprise here are fucked.

4. (deleted.)

5. (deleted.)

6a. A few other odds and ends. MS Word is making my life hell as it tries to help—deciding where my indents will be, thinking I am writing an outline because of the numbered paragraphs. I’m taking the numbered paragraph style from Delany, Samuel R. because I like it, it seems the right method to order these points I must make in order to communicate to the reader this episode to the best of my ability. It is, like any matter of style, a guess. When you encounter something funky in a story, you’ve got choices, one choice is to go with it—this is true of the writer as well as the reader.

6b. It is autumn, both in the world and in the false world of this episode I relate. The leaves in Hyde Park have turned, but not fallen. The sky is colorless. Borges in this story is old. Marshall Mathers in this story is young. Though the real Mathers is older now, I cannot imagine Eminem old, and though the world knows the young Borges, it’s the elderly, famoso figure I first met and hold forever in my mind; the man surprised to be famous: a poet, a former librarian, who in his sixties returns to the short story after decades of absence. He returns stronger, braver. Gone are the affectations of style, the showy absurdities in plot and theme. He simply tells it now: an old man named Borges sits on a park bench and, through the course of a conversation, discovers the young man sitting next to him is himself, many years earlier. Or perhaps he is the young Borges sitting next to an older self. He does not know which of him writes this tale and he tells us this, and then he is done.

7a. Today however, this autumn day, Borges is not in one of his stories, so he does not meet himself. Today he meets “Marshall Mathers”, who is not in Detroit, as he and his creator Marshall-who-is-also-Eminem would have expected. Eminem might be found in London, indeed any city in the world; he is famous everywhere, and rap is loved everywhere. Well, you might not find Eminem in Tehran. But you could certainly overhear his music anywhere—even Tehran—and no one should seriously doubt it.

7b. Eminem would be stunned to see “Marshall” outside Detroit, outside the clubs, the ugly streets, the shitty trailer parks of his childhood. He created “Marshall” to live in those core memories. Eminem takes on the world—the temptations and ridicule necessary to navigate the past—if one is to thrive in, not be crushed by, it. The world is an arena, the pop world, the world of fame—any world is an arena. An arena is where contests are held, and there is always one more contest. No matter how many you can win, there will always be one more, and nobody lasts forever. Eminem wants to keep “Marshall” safe from all that. “Marshall” is his innocence, and as long as he has “Marshall” he can’t completely lose his self.

8. Borges would like those concepts, and his ears would particularly prick up at the idea of the world as an arena. Or the world as any one thing, or anything as something else. A labyrinth, a rose, a tome in old Norse, they are each the world. The world itself is only that idea that is at once too great and to simple to hold in the mind by any method but metaphor. In one thing, everything. In everything, one thing.

9. “Borges” sits down at one end of the bench, and draws his wool lapels close. He wears a fine topcoat. The wool is Argentinean, but the workmanship is European; they do not exist without each other, and “Borges” contemplates that as a metaphor for his own career. He may use the thought sometime. Probably not, because there are better ones to devise.

10. “Marshall” sits down at the other end of the bench. He re-zips his coat to the top, folds his arms and pleasantly squeezes some of the air out of the puffy down. To Borges, Marshall —with his northern skin, his head of bleached hair poking forth from a white snowball of a coat—looks like an apparition, a phantasm of Wells perhaps, and as agreeably absurd. No. The ghost beside him evokes a mirth not often found in the works of those romanticists such as Wells or Verne whose chief literary passion lies in imagineering the future.

11. To Marshall, Borges looks like something out of another kind of fiction, an old movie on TNT maybe,—a guy like the guys who bankrolled Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. He wonders if the guy is rich. He has a cane. Rich people in movies carry canes. Then again, he is old. Maybe he needs the cane to walk. A cane is better than a walker. You see those old ladies, with their aluminum walkers, bus change clinking back and forth in the tray, and the walker’s legs taped up where the rubber footpads have cracked. Where’s the dignity in that? The old guy has dignity. How will I walk when I’m that age? Will I even get to that age? Will some kid see me and will I look like something in an old movie to him? That’s what I’ll be someday, an old man from an old movie—and that’s only if I’m lucky. Which I don’t expect to be. Marshall looks at Borges long and hard while he thinks this.

12. Borges looks back at Marshall, into the ice blue eyes,* surely the eyes of a poet of the Eddas would have been this blue, this clear. To be young again. But was I ever? What if I were this young man’s age today, would I find myself costumed as he is? If my world were not one of books, not one of my grandfather’s—the great general’s—history and legend. Not one of dusty southern twilights and Viennese snowfalls infinitely intermingling in memory. What if I were sneakers and televisions; internets and absent fathers? Would I then be Borges still? Would I then be me? Or is Borges something else? Something other than his memory. I have never believed that, yet I have always been a believer in the imagination, though a poor practitioner. If I, buy some alchemy – found myself compelled to trade places with this young man for one instant—would I, for that instant, retain semblance of myself? If I looked out at Borges from Nordic eyes, who would I see? A fellow—kinsman of sort—or a creature so alien as to defy comprehension?

13. And Marshall breaks the gaze in an instant, because he knows he and the old man are holding it a little. He knows in a flash they are thinking the same thought: who the fuck are you supposed to be anyway?

14. And they laugh. At first they laugh because of the awkwardness of the moment, and then they laugh at themselves for laughing and being embarrassed over nothing. And then they laugh because the other is laughing, and they laugh because it is truly singular to know two are thinking the same thought at the same time, and they look back at their own selves from the alien’s perspective.

15. As if in a mirror, they stop laughing and gulp and looking into the middle distance, still believing they are thinking the same thing, but how can either man know?

16. A few leaves fall as they sit there, contemplating that understanding—always stunning, no matter how often it is fleetingly grasped—that other people exist, independent of one’s self, going on and on, their own memories like fingers reaching out to their own pasts, their own dreams like fingers pulling their own futures near, all independent in one way, yet still capable of intersecting, winding around, turning, changing each other, like some (why not say it again, it is too late to make a pretense of originality now) like some labyrinth—but a living one; a labyrinth that builds itself.

17. “I should get back,” says Marshall, the first words spoken between the two men in an exchange, that after all, only lasted a moment, an exchange that, even as incidental encounters go, could fairly be argued never to have happened at all. Especially since neither man will permit himself to discuss it. Each man values his world of thoughts so highly that neither presumes to invade the world of the other. Instead, Marshall will want to find a place and a pen to write lyrics. Borges will want to find a place and a pen to write his own lines.

18. “I must go, as well.” says Borges.

19. The young man extends his hand and they shake, though the grip is different, a manner of handshake unknown to Borges, not at all difficult to learn, and much less formal somehow. “Good luck,” says Borges turned toward the fork in the path. And Marshall takes the other way, but not before saying, “Stay real.”
20. Borges contemplates the encounter, and every encounter he has had, and will have, living over and over again in the lines of his poems, the leaves of his books, the memories of a few friends, and (dare an old poet hope?) a few too-kind admirers.

21. Stay real. Interesting advice, he thinks with a smile.

22. I wonder … is it achievable?

23. (deleted.)

24. Hyde Park begins to dissolve behind our characters retreating backs. The men do not turn, or pause to notice this. Nothing is lost. Nothing that happened cannot be recreated at will. As a matter of fact, each time it is remembered it can be improved upon. The images crystallize, the epiphanies become more pronounced, and deeper. Neither man is finished living it, or will finish living it as long as the great world—call it rose, book, labyrinth, or any name you choose— keeps turning.

*****

*It may be that Marshall has brown eyes and wears blue contact lenses at times.

(This story originally appeared in 419 Memoirs & Other Strange Stories (2011) by Michael Canfield, available in ebook form at the usual places.)

“Time Flies At Elsinore”

 

Thanks for coming. Wow—the big four-oh. I mean, right? Who’d have thought. So here we are: H. and H. It’s been too long, man. There’s hardly anyone cool around here to hang with. What are you looking at?

Oh this.

Every year I write down my goals and put them up in an envelope—yes, this envelope—seal with wax, and stamp the seal with my princely signet. The following year I pour out a goblet of the best red, open up the envelope, and see how well I’ve done. Then, before retiring, I write a new list for the coming year. It’s my birthday tradition.

What’s that? Open it? Well of course I’m going to open it—though not yet. Are you in so large a hurry? Have you got another best friend’s birthday party to go to?

Oh, all right, all right, don’t apologize, I’m only kidding. Christ, it’s good to see you, Horatio. You look good. You look as good as a skull can look, I mean. Who’d have thought I would outlive you! I always supposed you’d be standing over me one day, bidding flights of angels sing me to my rest!

Hey, you know what this reminds me of? The time you and I found old Yorick’s skull in the graveyard, alas. You remember poor Yorick, the king, my father’s, jester? He’d borne me on his back a hundred—Oh, I’ve told you this one? All right, all right, I do tend to soliloquize; what is this, like my seventh? No, my seventh glass of wine, not my seventh soliloquy, smarty, and if I am going on a bit, cut me some slack, you’re not holding up your end of the conversation.

Soft! What was that! Listen, Horatio! That thumping! There it goes again!

Never mind. I know what it is: merely a knock within. Relax Horry; there hasn’t been a ghost around here in a decade. My Mom is pounding at this chamber door. She is throwing me a birthday supper, and I’m late. The meat is probably cold, but they can serve it for brunch tomorrow. We like leftovers, here. It’ll be fine. Let’s have another drop.

This vintage well-suits me.

So what’s up with you, Horatio? Seeing anyone?

No, I guess the dead don’t date. Well, it’s not much better being alive, I tell you. It’s impossible to divine what women want. I mean, am I the crazy one? I suppose it’s relative, as they say at university.

What? Who? Of course I haven’t seen gentle Guildenstern; no, nor gentle Rosencrantz neither; have you forgotten Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead? Surely, you remember the letter and the pirates and sailing to England and so forth? These ring no bell? Well it did get a little complicated there for awhile and much occurred offstage—so to speak.

No, what I mean is all the world’s a kind of stage …

Oh? Too far off book for your taste, Horry? As you like it; let us turn to my envelope now, while the room still but lightly spins.

I’ll just shove you closer to the candle so you can read along. All right, here we go. Break the wax, remove the paper, unfold, and reveal what lies ….

Ah, right. Six goals. We will take them in reverse order.

Sixth.

Lose twenty pounds.

I think I gained twenty. I’m so fat, Horatio. I hate it. You get to a point where wearing black doesn’t fool anybody and just becomes sad.

Fifth.

Start fencing again.

Well, that would have helped with the waistline, but I never got ‘round to it, either. Though if one’s too fat to fence, no one can prick you with a toison pip—a poison tip, I mean— try saying that five times fast after your seventh goblet. Okay, naught for two.

What next?

Four. Return to Wittenberg, finish degree. Shit.

Well, I mean, what is a degree but a piece of wood pulp?

They’re made of lambskin, you say? Nevertheless, the principle is the same. I do a lot of reading on my own; I don’t need a skin to prove anything.

Pressing on.

Three. Write, produce, and direct new play. And not another didactic little playlet aimed at an audience of one, but the full five acts this time. You know what my “Murder of Gonzago” adaptation lacked? Sympathetic characters ensuring broad appeal. Ah well, but what’s the point? You know what it’s like trying to capture an audience these days, with so many other distractions? Why even try to create? Naught for four. Next?

Two.

Fresh flowers for her grave.

Every day.

Okay, on this, I started well. Never missed a day, for at least the first two months. Things happen; life gets in the way; but I made the effort. Horatio, I tried. I’ll do better this year. I’ll do better. She deserved better from me.

Okay, that’s the list.

What’s that you say? I skipped one? I don’t think so.

Oh. Yeah.

First.

Avenge murder of noble father, parenthesis, kill Claudius, close parenthesis.

Well. What can I say? Work in progress.

Why are you looking at me like that?

You could be more supportive, Horatio. You used to be so good at validation. Would it hurt you to rattle off a bit of verse “we have heard the chimes and midnight, master —”? Nothing like that in the hollow of your cranium?

No, I suppose it isn’t.

We can’t change our natures friend. We can’t.

Full stop.

Tell you what I’m gonna do. Seeing as the bottle’s dry ….

No, not the wine bottle, though it does seem to be so as well; I am referring to the ink bottle. Rather than procure more ink and write out a new list, I am going to carry this list over. It’s a perfectly fine list of goals. I’m going to fold it right back up, and to economize further, stuff it right back in the same envelope. Okay … a little candle wax … and there. Done and done; good as new. If I get through ­­half this by birthday next, that will be a hell of an accomplishment, a hell of job of work.

What do you mean, “Hell is another name for Hades”? I know that.

I have a good feeling Horatio; forty will be my year.

I think I’ll wander over to another part of the castle now; see if there’s any birthday cake left. Mom works hard at throwing me swell parties, and I should at least make an appearance before it gets too late; she and Step-Dad bed early this time of year. It’s been fun catching up. We should do this more often.

No, I am not just saying that.

We should make the time.

However, if I’m to be honest, chum of my youth … well, you know what they say: tempus fugit.

Time flees, Horatio. Isn’t it a tragedy?

* * * * *

Copyright © 2011 Michael Canfield

“Peas and Carrots”

Sophie. The script called her Sophie; and Sam the optimist, Sam traveler-without-cares, loved her since creation. Azure-eyed Sophie, orphaned country maid, as new in Vienna as the century was young; Sophie in chiffon frock of cobalt blue; her brown hair unadorned with silk ribbon, tied in plain linen.

Tonight, upon hearing him speak say, Pardon me, Fraulein, do you believe in fate? brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie would surely fall into his arms, her cheek upon his breast. His body, breath, and kisses would let her know that fears could no longer trouble love. For this alone had he been written: to rescue Sophie from Maximilian, and sweep her away forever. The invisible hand had scripted it and tonight he’d win her, though she did not even know his name.

The script actually named Sam “Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table.” Sam didn’t know, nor think it important, if anyone found him handsome. Still, he needed to call himself something, so he called himself Sam. Plain old Sam, and decided he ought to be from somewhere doing something so he became a Chicagoan wandering the capitols of Europe. He chose the name and place before the first evening, while tumbling in dreams of fabric and light: white and gold, cobalt blue, and azure.

The velvet curtain rose; applause broke the fourth wall and the mist, from the audience in the house invisible. Sam pushed a hand though his thick forelock, then brushed his worn but serviceable suit jacket. He drank cool air from a empty eggshell cup, then replaced it on its mark. He drummed fingers on yesterday’s Herald Tribune, then brought its double-fold to the iron table’s rim. He scuffled the sole of one loafer quietly over the warped boards. Footlights and spots imbued the darkness with midday sunbeam. He crossed his legs, refolded the newspaper, as again life began, the stage set for Vienna.

A happy half-dozen Viennese filled the outdoor cafe, sipping from eggshell cups, moving their lips, living the background of a June morning in 1901, in the city on the Danube.

A mustachioed waiter stood immobile. The moustache looked a real soup-strainer, and the waiter wore it with marked pride.

On cue, the waiter marched, making circles around the tables and serving. With an arm raised to balance a silver tray of cups and saucers, his red vest strained against gold buttons and barely contained his girth, exposing the white shirt underneath.

The waiter approached Sam’s table. “Peas and carrots?” he asked, and twirled the end of his moustache.

“Peas and carrots,” replied Sam. The scene required him, as the well as the waiter and the various Viennese, to move their lips, simulating small talk. Peas and carrots were lip-moving words, mouthed to be unheard in the house invisible. The waiter took Sam’s cup, lifting it to the tray with flourish, then spun away to serve another.

Upstage, a girl engaged a court of three devoted boys crowding one tiny table. The girl giggled through a story and the smitten boys clung to every syllable. “Peas and carrots. Peas and carrots!” she said. In another corner, a small old couple looked into each other’s eyes as if for the first time, aquiline noses almost touching, whispering soft peas and carrots to one another.

Sam turned over the newspaper, then folded it another way. He scanned the columns of solid black bars, thinking of his big moment. He’d speak to Sophie at the right time; not only with voice, but with eyes, and his blood’s longing.

Near Sam, a spot opened, bathing the unoccupied table center-stage in light.
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered left and crossed right. She gripped a small cloth handbag in white-knuckled hands. Eyes darting, she stepped further left, then right, searching the imaginary street.

Sophie rested on a chair’s edge at the table under the spot. She held the handbag in her lap, and kept looking each way, over one shoulder, then the other.

Sam turned the newspaper again, playing his part. He would have something to say soon. Beloved Sophie.

Maximilian entered, wearing white spats on shoes polished to a dazzle. He wore a felt hat cocked over his ear; and rested one hand in a coat pocket. His black eyes found Sophie while her search led her to look the other way. He reslanted his hat, dusted his lapels, then took a seat at the table.

Sophie turned. Seeing her lover and benefactor Maximilian suddenly there, she jumped, gripping the handbag tighter.

“Am I behind my time, button?” said Maximilian with a lopsided smile. “What’s time to us, anyhow? We’re free and in love, and in Vienna.”

She shook her head. “You gave me a start, is all.”

“Such a start that you cannot give me a kiss?”

“Nonsense,” she said.

He leaned, presenting a cheek, which she pecked.

“I would not have kept you waiting; I had to set a fellow straight in the street!” Maximilian’s head rocked with a liar’s fidget, even as he boomed words with a coward’s bravado.

“I think I shall leave you,” she said suddenly, trembling.

Maximilian made a frown, eyes still smiling. “You still haven’t forgiven me then, button. You will never leave me. We’re bound together. It’s destiny. Don’t fight it.”
“You’ve hurt me.”

“Without intent. I am only a man. Have you the book?”

Sophie hesitate before unsnapping the handbag. She finally reached in, removing a small notebook, bound in moleskin. “These are the words of my heart,” she told him. “I’ve shown them to no one, ever. I once believed I could show them to some man. A true and faithful man.”

Maximilian extended a hand, palm upturned. “Let’s see.”

“Are you a faithful man?”

The waiter spun to their table. Maximilian dismissed him, swiping air with a hand. Maximilian leaned toward Sophie.

“I have not been perfect. I have not claimed to be anything but flesh and blood. May not a man of mere flesh and blood see your untouched book?”

He reached and Sophie pulled the notebook to her bosom.

Sam, at his table, listening, clutched his newspaper tighter. Not yet he told himself. Be patient, be magnificent, bold, and prevail.

Maximilian slumped back, as if punched. “I see, then. You don’t love me. I expected as much.”

“Must you be cruel?” begged Sophie.

“I? You are the cruel one. My affection means so little to you, you will not even show me your occasional scribblings. Put the thing away, then.” He snapped his fingers to summon the waiter. He took a few coins and tossed them on the table. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He stood, turned heel, then stormed away.

Sophie leaped up, called after him, drawing the attention of other tables.

“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.

Sophie dropped the book, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”
Now, thought Sam, discarding the newspaper. He fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.

Sophie reached in the same beat, so that they touched it together. He met her dewed eyes, as he had met them many times in the dream-mist between existences.

“Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?” He caught her with words and eyes; Sophie his alone for one moment.

Maximilian, who had not left, but waited expectantly for Sophie to come running after him, now spoke to her from near stage left. “Come now, button,” and he held his arm out, crooked.

Sam and Sophie still gripped the notebook between them. Sam pleaded with his eyes — don’t go! Come away with me.

She pulled to notebook from him. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”

The blood rushed from his face in shame at the cloying, cliched inflection he’d given the line.

She crossed to Maximilian, taking his arm with hesitation. She always crossed to Maximilian, no matter what.

“There, button,” said Maximilian. “Am I so frightening?”

Light diffused in Sam’s tears. Sophie, head bowed, allowed Maximilian to lead her off right. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese left their background tables to their own exits. Sam again took his seat. He refolded the newspaper and scanned the black print bars. Taking the beat, he looked toward Sophie’s exit, then to a vacant chair, then back again. The waiter passed through the empty cafe, silver tray pinned under an arm.

Darkness enveloped the stage, and the waiter stopped on his final mark to stand immobile. In the mist beyond the fourth wall, in the house invisible, applause smattered thinly.

Silence followed; the velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept again, dreaming fabric and light: gold and white, vermilion, and azure.

&&&

Sam awoke, feeling an invisible hand close his throat, an invisible foot press his chest. In the absences between performances, while he dreamed of Sophie, a change had come. The script rewrote, or unwrote, at will, with no concern for characters. Now the script had cut his line.
No matter. He would speak to Sophie with eyes and body, he still had those. He didn’t need words.

The velvet curtain rose; through the mist, from the house invisible, applause broke the fourth wall.

Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He sipped air and dust, then replaced the coffee cup on its mark. He drummed fingers over the newspaper, then brought it to table’s edge. Viennese filled the cafe. The mustachioed waiter spun through the tables.

“Peas and carrots,” said he when coming to Sam’s table.

“Peas and carrots,” Sam stammered, thinking, I must be ready, my eyes will speak for me now. I don’t need lines.

The waiter took the cup.Brown-haired, azure eyed Sophie entered, looked furtively around, sat on a chair’s edge. Soon, Maximilian sauntered in.

“Am I behind my time, button?”

In time she produced the moleskin notebook, saying, “These are the words of my heart.”
They argued over it, Sophie begged Maximilian not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.

Sophie leaped up, called him, drawing attention.

“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.

Sophie dropped the notebook, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”

Sam tossed away the newspaper and fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.

Sophie found it in the same beat. Sam met her dewed eyes. He took a breath where he would have once had words to speak: Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?

They held the notebook between them. He pleaded with
his eyes. Don’t go. Come with me. My eyes tell you I’m true.

Stay.

She took the notebook back. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”

Again. The blood rushed from his face. He understood: it isn’t the line; it’s me. I’m meant to fail.

The lights diffused. Sophie, head bowed, let Maximilian lead her off to her end. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese found their separate exits. Sam took his seat. He ignored the newspaper, and forgot, until too late, to follow Sophie’s exit, then look to a vacant chair. The waiter passed through the empty cafe to his mark, tray pinned under an arm.

Darkness took the stage, and the waiter stood immobile. From the invisible, applause trickled through the fourth wall.

The velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept, dreaming rope and cloth and heat: gold and white, vermilion, azure, and the indifference of the script.

&&&

The velvet curtain rose in silence before the mist-shrouded house invisible. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He lifted the coffee cup and replaced it on its mark, then fingered the newspaper. Viennese filled the tables and the mustachioed waiter spun through the cafe, coming to Sam.

“Peas and carrots?” He waited for Sam’s reply.

Sam held his tongue.

Perturbed, yet undaunted, the waiter reached for the cup.

A delicate nudge with the newspaper, and Sam moved the cup off its mark. The waiter’s hand grasped at empty air in the place the cup should have been. His jaw hardened.

You can’t see, can you, poor fool? We don’t matter, Sam tried to say. The words came out: “Peas and carrots.”

The waiter glared cross-eyed, turning purple. “Peas!” he hissed. He made a second pass, and Sam pushed the cup farther.

The waiter stamped a foot. Sam poked his tongue at the man, and winked.

The waiter circled to the other side of the table. At his third try for the cup, Sam seized it, dropping it into the newspaper, which he promptly rolled up. Then he clamped the newspaper to his chest, folding his arms across it.

“Peas! And! Carrots!” said the waiter in disgust. He stiffened. Marching back around, he bent formally, then pantomimed lifting a cup. He lowered the nonexistent cup to the tray with special flourish.

Gratified, he twisted a moustache corner. “Peas and carrots!” Tray aloft, he twirled away.
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered, furtive, sat at a chair’s edge. Maximilian sauntered in.

“Am I behind my time, button?”

They spoke their lines. She showed the moleskin notebook. “These are the words of my heart.”

He demanded it, she demurred to his disdain; she begged him not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.

Sophie jumped up. “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!” “Peasandcarrots,” murmured the people in the background. Sophie dropped the book and the handbag, spilling the latter’s contents. She knelt to retrieve them.

Sam let fall the rolled newspaper. The hidden cup shattered. He dropped to a knee, retrieving her notebook.

Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched it. He met her dewed eyes.

Maximilian called and she thanked Sam, intending he release the notebook as usual.

He didn’t release it. He held it fast. Sophie gave a start. She tugged at the book, panic in her eyes.

“Peas and carrots,” he said. Don’t go. Sophie wrenched and twisted the notebook. He let go.

She stumbled, but rose on cue. Inching away, hand to mouth, stunned, she didn’t notice she’d crossed to Maximilian until she trod his spats.

“There, button.” said Maximilian, “Am I so frightening?”

She took his arm, as always; he lead her away.

Sam sank into the chair. The paper had unrolled between his feet; the cup had broken in shards.

The waiter took a final turn through the cafe, stopping at Sam’s table. With extravagant movement, he bent down, gathering the cup shards onto the silver tray. When he had them all, he righted himself, becoming immobile on his mark when darkness took the stage and the curtain fell. Sam lay his head in weary arms.

Fabric and light, gold and white. Azure.

&&&

The velvet curtain rose; a few sprinkled coughs and then silence followed from the mist. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock for the last time. For during the hours between existences a decision had come, greater than the script. Beyond tonight, no more performances.

Sam slumped in his chair, everything lost at last. His hand weighed upon the newspaper. The lights rose.

The waiter made turns between the tables, twirling the end of his moustache.

“Peas and carrots,” he said to Sam in a tone warning there’d be no nonsense with displaced coffee cups this night! He did not wait for Sam to mumble his final peas and carrots, but seized the replacement cup, clanking it smartly down on the tray. He twirled off. Sam grimaced to himself, thinking he might even miss the fellow.

The others, at the other tables, in the background, murmured. “Peas and carrots.”

Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered in her frock, searched furtively, finally sat, handbag in both hands. No matter how faint, until tonight, he had still had hope.

No longer, Sam thought. Never again, to see her face, to hear her voice, to breath the same air as she.

Maximilian entered.”Am I behind my time, button?”

One always thinks there’ll be time enough.

“I think I shall leave you,” Sophie said in her turn.

“You never will,” Maximilian said rightly.

Maximilian demanded the moleskin notebook. Sophie refused. He threw a few coins on the table and stood. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He turned heel.
Don’t follow, Sam pleaded, twisting the newspaper. Don’t.

Sophie jumped up, spilling the handbag’s contents. The moleskin notebook fell to the boards. She kneeled to gather her things. Sam dropped to a knee.

Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched the notebook. She avoided his eyes. His heart pounded. His heart. He tore the notebook from her hands.

Sophie fell back, dumbfounded. She reached for it, and he shoved it under his jacket.
“Mein Herr, I beg you … ”

He shook his head rapidly, and flushed. Viennese stirred from their background tables, whispering, “Peasandcarrots?”

Sam fumbled and bit his lip, tasting copper. “S … Sophie …” he said.

Sophie’s eyes grew large as a trapped doe’s.

The Viennese gawked and gasped. Maximilian waited for Sophie to take his arm, blinking in confusion. The waiter rushed in, tray tucked under an arm, and stood center stage, glowering.
“I must speak,” said Sam, expecting to be crushed. Expecting … not knowing what to expect.
No hand gripped his throat. The lights didn’t fail, and the curtain didn’t fall.

Sophie waited. “Then speak.”

He scarcely knew how to start, and feared he might revert to stammering out peas and carrots.
He tried to swallow, dry throat cracking. “Fraulein, I’m a small character, you’ve no reason to listen to me, but I’ve watched you night after night. Don’t go away with him, into misery, because the script says. He won’t make you happy.”

She smiled slightly. “Am I meant to be happy, then?”

“Yes!” He took the moleskin notebook from his coat, holding it forth. “You have this! This is your happiness! Keep it, don’t give it to him, or to anyone. Keep it. That’s all I want to tell you; and that I love you. You should be free.”

She held out a hand. “You have my property, Mein Herr.”

He hesitated. Maybe she’d take it, and run to Maximilian, keeping as best she could to the mangled plot. The notebook did belong to her, to do with as she wanted. “Reconsider,” he asked; but she said nothing, and so he gave it back.

Sophie opened it to the middle, then turned it around for Sam to see.

Blank.

She turned a leaf. Blank. Another, also blank. She turned leaf after leaf for him. All blank.
“See, Mein Herr? There’s nothing here. Only here … ” She gestured about the stage. “I have only my lines to mouth, my marks to hit. It’s a surface with nothing beneath. I must go with Maximilian. I will go with Maximilian. It’s in the script.”

She closed the book.

Sam lowered his head. She held a hand against his cheek, cool, against his overheated skin.
“Don’t think you’ve failed. You played a small part in a silly melodrama well, Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table. I’m written to see you once, wonder what might have been, and never forget you.”

Maximilian stood frozen, black eyes small and fixed. His chin trembled. He couldn’t move, he didn’t know how to behave without the script. None of them did.

“I’m going with him now, Handsome Stranger. As scripted.”

“Sam,” he whispered. “My name is Sam.”

“No, Mein Herr. You’re mistaken.”

“Call me Sam.”

“I cannot. You haven’t a name.”

“Indulge me; what harm will it do?”

“No harm. No good either. The play is over.”

“Call me Sam.”

She laughed at him, but kindly.

“You know you don’t have to follow the script, but it scares you.” said Sam. ” I want to tell you that’s all right.”

The smiled faded. “Without the script … What’ll happen?”

“Something will happen. Something unimagined.”

She looked at the notebook. “Something unwritten.” “To fill your notebook with. Listen! We’re speaking our own words; not lines in a script. I’m not supposed to have a name; but I do. I’m Sam. I come from Chicago. I’m — ”

“Sam,” she said. “From Chicago.”

“Peasandcarrots!” shouted the waiter.

The Viennese erupted. “Peasandcarrots! peasandcarrots!” they cried, flinging their hands in the air. Nothing could save the scene now. Chairs were knocked over, tables upturned. The waiter rushed about gathering cup shards, righting upended tables to no avail.

Maximilian projected, desperately trying to be heard over the din. “There, button. Am I so frightening?” Arm still extended, he cocked his head toward an imaginary, invisible Sophie of his own illusion, and exited.

The terrified peasandcarrots-ing Viennese ran off disappearing into the wings before anything could be done. The waiter, face purple, kept spinning through the wreckage. He glared at Sam as he turned.

“Have something to say to me?” said Sam.

“Peas and carrots!” shouted the waiter, and kept spinning.

Sophie and Sam let him go on, and stood toe to toe together. They clasp hands over the moleskin notebook, and looked into each other’s eyes.

“What next?” she asked.

“I kiss you, I think.”

He embraced her and they did kiss, pressing their whole lengths together. From the mist, in the house invisible, beyond the fourth wall, came some applause. Not much; very little in fact, but what of it? They were no longer a play. Only two people.

“Aren’t you frightened?”

“Terrified,” said Sam. “Come on.”

He led her to the the proscenium, to the precipice of the house invisible and the now silent mist.

“We can’t go there!”

“Who says we can’t? Him?” Sam pointed to the spinning waiter. “And we can’t stay here.” He took a breath. “Ready?”

“No!” she laughed. “Heavens no! Who are we anyway? Did a handsome man and a country maid ever do such things?”

“That’s not who we are. We’re Sophie and Sam. We’re … Hell, who knows!”

Still hand in hand, they took a long stride over the footlights, toward the house invisible. Sam steeled himself to jump. Just before his feet left the boards, he thought he might turn chicken and jump back for the safe stage; but Sophie didn’t, so he didn’t. He’d gotten her into this, he had to be at least as brave as she.

As one, Sophie and Sam leaped into the mist.

The waiter kept spinning. He spun alone on the stage through upended tables that no longer evoked a particular spring day in the city on the Danube in 1901, but that were just a rough pile of gypsum wood props again.

When he could spin no longer, he fell exhausted to one knee, holding his tray perpendicular to the floor, as a crutch. He stayed immobile, panting, watching the infinite, the mist-shrouded house invisible, where the errant pair had run to. When he regained his wind, he climbed to his feet, straightened his jacket, and crept near the proscenium.

He peered over, but saw little to interest him — though he thought he imagined children playing somewhere. It might have been that, but it might just as well have been rats scurrying in the aisles, or wind knocking around in the flyspaces. He looked left and right, then held the tin silver-plated tray out over the edge. Nothing happened to it, so twisting his torso, he flung the prop toward the invisible with all his might.

The tray, spinning like a new planet around its own center, disappeared in the enveloping mist. The waiter cupped an ear, expecting to discover a doomed clang as the tray succumbed to gravity. He waited a long time but heard nothing, nothing at all.

&
(Originally published in Realms of Fantasy, Feb 2005. Copyright Michael Canfield 2004. Photo by weatherbox: www.sxc.hu/profile/weatherbox).

 

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