Fiction

The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble Hearted Women – a work in progress

“I’m not who you think I am, you know.”

I looked at the woman sitting across from me, the woman I had known for twenty years, the woman whose family shared Christmases with mine, the woman who had been my best friend for as long as I’d known her.

“What? Like you’re a spy or something?” I laughed and took a rather large gulp of the bland Beaujolais I had ordered because she had ordered one. For years she had drunk nothing but tepid Pinot, never cold. I would have to drop ice cubes into my Pinot when we drank in her kitchen or at the picnic table in her backyard. It was just what we did. And she always drank Pinot. But about a year ago she switched to Sauvignon Blanc.

That was when I first suspected she might not be who I thought she was.

And now tonight? Another new wine. Which was why her comment had me suddenly on edge. That and the fact that I had been counseling her for over a year now, ever since the time I asked her straight out if she was having an affair. “Why do you think that?” she had said, taking a deep sip of the Sauvignon Blanc, holding her nose in the glass longer than is proper. “You don’t drink Sauvignon Blanc.” And it was chilled.

Counseling isn’t quite the right word, but I’m not really sure how else to put our weekly get-togethers. She was having an affair, and I listened to her all giddy and glowing, telling me how wonderful it was to suddenly “feel something” again. And “he treats me like a princess.” I wanted to gag at that one, but she was happy, so I kept my reflexes in tact.

She was my best friend. Her marriage was what I and everyone else had thought was solid, friendly, perhaps a bit uneven in intellect, but a good marriage. A boring marriage. A marriage.

I had divorced after thirty years, but my marriage probably should have ended before it even started. My husband and I liked each other, but passion was something I had only ever felt once before in my life, and I knew I would never, ever feel that again. So I got married. My husband was nice enough.

She laughed. “No. I’m not a spy.”

We had been talking about her plans, the plans that she and her paramour were making to divorce their respective spouses. Paramour sounds way more sexy than the guy deserved. He was by his own admission a serial adulterer and had had “hundreds” of affairs throughout the thirty-five years he and his wife had been married. “His wife’s a real bitch,” my friend was fond of saying. “The only way he could stay married to her was to have affairs.”

I remember when she had first told me that, along about the time she first confessed to having the affair, I thought my friend was foolish and naïve. I had been on the receiving end of a serial adulterer’s attention a couple of times and knew most of the lines. I swear, they must have “The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble-Hearted Women.” Chapter One? “My Wife’s a Bitch.”

The problem with me is that I am a flaming feminist. When someone calls a woman a bitch, my first response is to ask “Why?” Not “Why?” as in Why do you think that, but “Why?” as in What’s the reason she’s bitchy? There’s usually a reason. No woman is bitchy just for bitchy’s sake. So I would barrel down a list of questions hoping to answer the question of “Why?”

How did you show your wife you loved her, when you did love her?

What is your wife’s favorite color?

How many times a week did you make dinner?

Did you arrange your kids’ after school schedules?

Your wife works a full-time job. What is her boss’s name?

Right. So his wife was a bitch and that was enough to excuse him his affairs. But what was my friend’s excuse? “I’m bored.” Yeah. Marriage can be boring. “He’s just not smart enough.” Yeah, I’ll give her that one, too. I always wondered what she and her husband had to talk about besides the kids and the house and the cars. “He’s not good at sex.” Bingo.

When you’re in your mid-fifties and your kids have left the house and you are staring at another, oh, twenty-five years with a man you really have no feelings for, what do you do? Do you survive on memories of your shared history, or do you become putty in the hands of a man who is an expert at making a woman feel like a princess?

Right.

I am a feminist. I said that already. I’m a modern woman. Fairly smart. And I’ve never considered myself to be naïve when it comes to the ways of the world. But maybe my expectations are too high. My thought has always been that if you are in a marriage that you are not satisfied with you do one of two things. You either tell your spouse you are unhappy and want out, or you tell your spouse you are unhappy and you are going to seek happiness outside of the marriage. You ask for your spouses blessing to philander. Some spouses are okay with that last one. Really, I think that last one is kind of an unspoken agreement in many marriages, in most marriages.

“He’s had affairs the entire time he’s been married and his wife doesn’t have a clue,” my friend had said. Really? Doubtful. She knows. She might wish or hope or long for a better marriage, for love, but a bird in the hand and all that.

“She knows,” I had said. “She just puts up with it. It’s an unspoken agreement between them. He gets to sleep around and she has a nice place to live. The family stays intact.”

My friend did not like that.

“Well, not for long.” She half smiled at me over her glass. “We’re going to get married.” This had been when she switched wines the first time. “We’re going to wait for the weddings to be over, and then we’re each getting a divorce. He’s going to buy the house from his wife and we’re going to live there. But first, right after I tell Mike, he’s going to take me away, to Europe.” She had said all of this without taking a breath. “He’s going to treat me like a princess.”

I was losing control of my gag reflexes.

Her son and his daughter were both getting married the following summer, a year from when she and I first spoke about this.

“He wants me to tell Mike first and then he’ll tell his wife.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. This was freaking Chapter 10 of the serial adulterers handbook. He skipped all of the chapters in between. Ass.

“Why does he want you to do that?” I knew damn well why he wanted her to do that.

“He’s afraid I’ll back out. But I won’t. I love him so much.”

I drained my glass.

“So, you’re going to tell Mike you want a divorce before he tells his wife he wants a divorce in order to prove your love for him?”

“Yes. He’s so afraid that I’ll back out. But I won’t. I love him so much.”

“Yeah. You already said that.”

Chapter 10 in “The Serial Adulterer’s Guide to Attracting Feeble-Hearted Women” is all about manipulation. You see, serial adulterer’s don’t serial adulterate because they want sex. Well, they do want sex, but not just sex. They want control. They want to control a woman’s affections, emotions. They want the feeble-hearted woman’s every thought to be about them. Which is why they are a serial adulterer, why they have to have affairs with many different women, repeating the process over and over again. No one can hold that much focus on someone else for that long without beginning to want more for themselves. Eventually even the feeble-hearted woman realizes that she is being short-changed emotionally. Chapter 2 in the book outlines the importance of treating the feeble-hearted woman as a princess, the ‘blinding them with love’ effect. Give them the kind of attention they don’t get at home. Show them a sophistication their spouses lack. Promise them the world. In my friend’s case, it was promise her Europe.

“I’m going to tell Mike I want a divorce and then we are leaving immediately for Europe. He’s going to show me the world.”

Right.

“So you’re just going to drop the bomb and leave?”

“Yes. He says it’s the best way. We don’t need to stay for the fallout.”

That’s the second time I wondered if she wasn’t who I thought she was.

“That’s kind of unrealistic, don’t you think?” I was trying to get her head out of the clouds. She seemed to be lacking oxygen. “Not to mention unkind?”

“I don’t want to hurt Mike,” she seemed almost genuine, “but there’s no other way.”

“Yeah, there is.” Now the humanist in me was rising up. “You stay for the fallout. You stay to clean up the pieces. You do the hard work you need to do to get what you want. You face the person you are hurting and you help them through it. And another thing …”

I was on a roll.

“… when does he tell his wife that he wants a divorce?”

She looked at her fingers tracing the outline of her glass on the table. “When we get back from Europe.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” The couple at the next table stopped their conversation and stared at me. “Sorry,” I said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I repeated, perhaps even a bit more loudly than I had the first time. “You are being freaking manipulated! Don’t you see that? He’s making you ask for a divorce first but he has, and I guarantee it, no intention whatsoever of leaving his wife. Nada. Zilch. If he wanted to divorce her he would have done it long ago. Don’t you see that?”

“I know. I know,” she said, her head leaning towards me across the table. “But I’m different, he said. He’s never felt this way before me. I’m different from all of the others. He said.”

Crap. Chapter 6. Tell the Feeble-Hearted Woman about all of your other affairs – Build trust! You’ve confided in her your deepest darkest secrets! And once you’ve hooked her with the truth, explain how lucky you are to have finally found HER, the one you have been looking for after all these years, the love of your life. Tell her “It’s fate!”

Crap and double-crap.

“Listen,” she said. “I know it might not work out. I know he might be … lying to me. But I don’t think he is. He loves me. He does. And I love him. And even if it only lasts for a while, at least I’ve had this time with him. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Right. Talk to me again in a year from now, when you’re divorced, single, and no longer a princess. The future is always bright when you’re in love, even when you know it’s not.

I was fighting a losing battle, so I listened to her tell of fairy tales weekends in the City and early morning rendezvous before work with only the occasional reminders from me to “Be careful.”

“I’m not who you think I am.”

“And you’re not a spy.”

“I’m not naïve,” she said pointedly. “I know what I’m doing.” She waited for me to talk. I had nothing to say. “I have had affairs the entire time I was married.”

I tried to keep my eyes their normal size but it was either have wide eyes or upset the couple at the next table with a very loud “What the fuck?”

“You know Zack?” Yeah, I knew Zack. He was an old friend of hers. His wife had died in a ‘home accident,’ having fallen down the stairs and broken her neck. I didn’t like Zack. “I’ve been having an affair with him since I was 13.” She smiled. “He was my first.”

I swear her face was changing in front of my eyes. Her eyes were narrow. Her smile was … sly.

“And there were others. Lots of others.”

Jesus. “Did you sleep with Bill?” My ex had revealed his own strayings from our marriage vows (what a joke) but sleeping with my best friend he had not mentioned.

“No.” She laughed. I wasn’t sure I believed her.

“You see,” she looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if she was searching for the right words or doing it for dramatic effect. “It’s just something that I do. I’ve always done it. It’s who I am.” She looked at me. “It’s who he is.”

The paramour. I was beginning to feel sorry for him. “Does he know?”

“Yes. We are alike in so many ways.”

I was a feminist. This equality should have made me happy.

“You see, he’s afraid I won’t divorce Mike because I’ll be tired of him.” She leaned into me again. “He is afraid that he is going to loose me.”

“Will he?”

“He might.” Blithe.

I sat there wondering, not about her and what she’d done, but how after twenty years I didn’t know this about her, I didn’t pick up on this. That she hadn’t shared it with me pissed me off; it felt like lying. It felt worse than when I discovered my husband had also been a serial adulterer. She was my friend. How was it that I was so naïve not to have seen it?

Who else had I misjudged in all my years? Who else was lying to me? What ideas, what philosophies did I misconstrue? What beliefs did I hold so dear that were not what I thought they were?

Perhaps I wasn’t the person I thought I was, either.

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Fiction

Light and Air

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Winter 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 4

 
“It’s snowing.” Lisa pulled the moth-eaten fur throw up to her nose and the wool hat low over her forehead, her eyes the only sign of life under the thick pile of blankets that covered her on the narrow bed.

She coughed, the sound of her affliction echoing into the darkness, prompting a hacking reply from one of the other patients in the line of sufferers on the long sleeping porches of the sanatorium. It was a call and response that would repeat throughout the night, one to the other, as if to ask I’m still alive. Are you?

“Did you hear me, Evie?” She coughed again. “It’s Christmas Eve, and it’s snowing.”

Snow whispered through the pines and in the distance a train whistle blew at the crossing in Bloomfield.

“You okay, Evie?” When her friend didn’t respond, Lisa turned toward the soft wheezing coming from the bed next to hers. “Evie? You’re not coughing. You need to cough.”

Evie’s shallow breathing sounded as if it was scraping the edges of her lungs. “I’m okay, Lisa,” she said, exhaling through a thin, forced cough. “I love snow.”

“Me, too.” Lisa put her head back on the pillow and stared at the large flakes flitting through the lamplight. “I remember a time when I was little and it snowed for days and days and days. We couldn’t even see out of –” Without thinking, she placed a hand on her chest as if it would stop the racking that had become a part of her, the cough that ruled her existence.

Evie’s wheezing got louder. “You okay?” It was now her turn to worry, turning her head on the pillow toward Lisa.

“Yes,” Lisa said between spasms.

Rumors of new medicines that might treat their misery passed from patient to patient in whispered breaths, voices quiet so as not to disturb their cranky lungs or tempt the irascible future. They hoped for some tangible relief, something other than the tired mantra of light and air, something other than sleeping outside on frigid nights in the dead of winter to keep their lungs open, their hearts beating. But it was 1942 and medical research was focused on the war – on support of the troops who had recently been called to the Pacific; the troops who were fighting for freedom.

And dying.

“Come get in bed with me,” said Evie. “Tell me about last Christmas again.”

Lisa didn’t want to remember last Christmas. She didn’t want to remember Johnny.

“Please, Lisa.” Evie often begged Lisa to tell her stories about her life, her family, her Johnny. When Lisa asked Evie to tell a story, however, Evie would simply say, “I have no stories to tell.” Lisa knew only that Evie was the daughter of a woman who had borne her late in life and a father who ran off shortly thereafter. Evie’s eighteen years had evidently been as cold as the bed she was now confined to.

“Okay, Evie,” Lisa said. “I’ll get in bed with you. Are you ready?”

“Ready,” Evie wheezed. She put her hand on the edge of the stack of blankets that covered her, ready to pull them back to let Lisa in.

Lisa took a shallow breath and held it. She pulled back her own blankets, got out of bed, quickly tucked the blankets back in to hold whatever warmth that might remain, then rushed into Evie’s bed. Evie pulled the blankets tightly around their thin, tired bodies. Lisa released her breath in a long trumpeting growl. Despite trying to contain it within the blankets, the sound reverberated into the night.

Evie put her arm around Lisa. “Shhh,” she said, patting Lisa’s back. “Shhh.” It was a gesture of kindness, a well-worn habit, appreciated even for the placebo it was. “Shhh,” Evie repeated. “Think about the snow,” she said, her words soft, muted, woven through wheezes. “Think about the light. Think about the air.”

Lisa’s chest relaxed as the spasms waned. “Light and air,” she repeated. “Someday, Evie, I’m going to sit in a house at high noon, close all the windows and curtains, and do nothing but rejoice in the dark and mustiness.” She attempted a half-hearted giggle, not wanting to wake the monster that lay in wait at the bottom of her lungs. “Light and air will be the death of me, Evie.”

“Light and air,” Evie whispered, “will be the death of me, Lisa, not you. You are strong. You will survive.”

“Shhh, Evie. You will survive.” Lisa raised her head and looked into Evie’s eyes. “You will survive, Evie. And you’ll come to my house for Christmas. And you’ll skate on the lake.”

“And dream of Johnny?”

Lisa put her head back on the pillow. “Yes. You will dream of your own Johnny.”

“Lisa,” Evie whispered. “Tell me again about last Christmas. Tell me about you and Johnny.”

“Oh, Evie.” Lisa closed her eyes, her hand still holding her chest, still over her heart. “I don’t know if I can talk right now,” she said. Another cough born in the depths of her lungs struggled and came to the surface. Others responded from down the line, a pied piper of coughs, followed by hacking and sputters, a harrowing tune of sickness, despair. I’m alive. I’m still alive. Are you?

“Christmas,” Lisa said. Christmas Eve was always the most special night of the year for Lisa. Her Aunt Regina would make the drive from Springfield, bringing gifts galore. Lisa loved Aunt Regina, a spinster, a professor at the college in Holyoke, the only one in the family who went to college. “You’ll certainly go to college,” she had said to Lisa, as if there was any doubt about Lisa’s future.

Lisa’s father would play the old upright piano in the living room and everyone would sing tunelessly but with fervor, the joy and the spirit of the songs far outweighing the embarrassment of singing off-key.

And the food. The Lidestri family was pure Italian, despite the fact that Lisa’s mother’s maiden name was O’Hare; the Italians had overwhelmed Lisa’s mother, the quiet Irish girl, taking her in and making her one of their own. Lisa’s mother learned to cook at her mother-in-law Rosa’s side. “You shouda been born Italian,” Rosa had said. “You cooka soo good!”

And she did. Starting early in the day, they would celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, one fish following another. There would be scungilli and calamari, swordfish and anchovies, in casseroles and on pasta, or laid neatly on a plate with a tiny serving fork.

And the pasta. Baked with tomatoes, or freshly pressed and cut into strips, served only with a hint of olive oil and basil.

And the cookies and pastries that the women in the family started baking in November, kept hidden in the back of dark closets until they were ceremoniously presented after the sun went down on Christmas Eve.

And midnight mass, which was really at eleven and the entire family was home, gathered around the kitchen table by midnight. Midnight, when they would raise and clink glasses of Cynar to celebrate cousin Nate’s Christmas birthday with a hearty song whose lyrics ´Hooray for Nathan for he’s a horse´s ass!´ had a story attached to it that would be told with guffaws of laughter every year, as if the story hadn’t been told a thousand times before.

“Tell me about last Christmas,” Evie quietly reminded Lisa.

“It was Christmas day,” Lisa started. “Nana Rosa was cooking in the kitchen and Mom was cleaning up wrapping paper in the living room. The boys –”

“Joey and Anthony.”

“Joey and Anthony. They were doing chores out in the barn.”

“Because chores need to be done everyday, even holidays,” Evie said, her words coming out between uneven breaths.

“Right.” Lisa thought of her younger brothers in the barn, throwing frozen cow patties at each other like baseballs, playing king of the mountain on the hay stacked to the rafters, tussling and rolling around in the snow.

“Lisa?”

“Right, Evie. I’m okay.”

Evie put a finger on Lisa’s lips. “Let me tell it,” she said. “And then Johnny drove his car up the road to your house. You could see it in the distance; you watched him from the kitchen window, weaving back and forth on the slippery road.”

Lisa brushed Evie’s finger off her mouth. “Right.”

“And you grabbed your Mom’s jacket and ran outside.”

“I did.”

“And he skidded to a stop, almost hitting the house.”

“Who’s telling this story?”

“Me. It’s my story now.” Evie shifted a bit in the bed. They had all learned to move in ways that would release the energy from a laugh without causing their lungs to convulse. It was only laughter that required this, though; sadness required no movement at all.

Lisa smiled. “It might as well be your story, I’ve told it to you so many times you know it by heart.”

“I can see it all so clearly in my mind.”

“Then keep going. Keep telling your story.”

“His car skids to a stop. He opens the door and jumps out, runs to you. He smiles. And you think he is so handsome in his new uniform. And the hat! He looks so … manly.” Evie held the blanket over her mouth to contain a phlegmy giggle, her girlish nod to Johnny’s manliness. “Then, he reaches in his pocket and takes out a small box. He smiles at you again, opens the box, and takes out the ring.”

“Yes,” said Lisa. “It is a beautiful ring.” With her thumb, she touches the ring he put on her finger that day, last Christmas, a finger now so thin from disease that she has to wrap yarn around it to keep the ring from falling off.

“And then he kissed you.”

The monster in Lisa’s lungs roared; her knees bent to her chest. Evie kept her arms tightly wrapped around Lisa until slowly her breathing returned to what was their new normal. Shallow, raspy, difficult.

“What’s that?” Evie lifted her head at the sound of bells jingling in the distance.

“It’s Santa Claus, Evie.” Lisa could barely speak.

“Really?”

“Yes, and he’s going to stop right here and ask us if we want to hop into his sleigh and go live with him at the North Pole.”

“Oh.” Evie was quiet for a moment. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Living at the North Pole, I mean.”

“Evie. You´re eighteen. You know there’s no such thing.”

“Oh, I know, Lisa. But just imagine. Christmas all the time. Presents and cookies….”

“And elves. Don’t forget the elves.”

“I know you think I’m childish, but it would be Heaven,” Evie’s sigh was like the low notes on a harmonica.

“Heaven.” Lisa touched Johnny’s ring.

The sound of the jingling bells became louder, jangling to the beat of a horses trot.

“It’s not Santa, Evie. It’s the farmer on the other side of the big fence. He must have a sleigh.” The sound of the sleigh bells crescendoed, then faded.

The wind picked up. Heavy snow filtered through the thin screens on the sleeping porch, dusting the foot of their blankets.

“Tell me about kissing Johnny,” Evie whispered.

“You’re telling the story. You tell it.”

“No,” said Evie. “I can’t tell it the way you do. Please. Tell me what it’s like to be kissed.”

Lisa put her lips next to Evie’s ear so she could whisper. She was tired, and her breathing was rough. And talking about Johnny was hard.

“He put his arms around me, pulling me so close I could feel his heart beating right next to mine.” She took a shallow breath, and another. “He looked at me so … I felt like he could read my thoughts.” She smiled. “I think he did, because then he put his lips on mine.” Lisa sunk deeper under the blankets and pulled them over the back of her head, keeping her face exposed to the night air. “I’m so cold. You’re not warm enough,” she said to Evie.

“I’m sorry about Johnny,” Evie said. She turned and put her arms around Lisa, pulling her as close as she could, sharing what little warmth she had with her friend.

Someone down the line coughed and moaned loudly. You okay? A cough was the only response.

“Tell me about Heaven, Lisa.”

“I don’t know anything about Heaven, Evie.” Lisa turned her head, her eyes wide open, caught by a single star visible through a break in the clouds.

“Do you think it’s like the North Pole?”

Lisa shivered. “Yes. It’s just like the North Pole.”

Evie coughed. “Everyone is happy in Heaven. That’s what they say, right?”

“That’s what they say.” Lisa hunkered further down beneath the covers.

The farmer in his sleigh made another go around the pasture, the slow rhythm of the bells ushering in the darkest part of the night.

“Don’t worry about Heaven.” Lisa coughed.

“I’m not worried about Heaven. I like thinking about it. It makes me less afraid if I think about what it might be like ….” Evie’s words struggled out from between rattling wheezes. “Heaven’s going to be warm, hot, like sitting by a roaring fireplace in the dead of winter, the dead of winter ….”

From down the line of common sufferers, a deep raspy voice began to sing. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…” only to be choked off by a ghastly breath and cavernous cough.

Another picked up the refrain. “And never brought to mind.”

Then another. “Should auld acquaintance….”

“Be forgot….”

“And days of auld lang syne.”

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Fiction

The Tractor and the Plough

Fiction at Every Day Fiction – September 2014

The tractor loved the plough. He loved how she trailed along behind him, cutting deep furrows in their wake. He loved how the dirt would separate and fold over itself as her narrow pointed tip dug deep, dug deep the rows for seeding. He loved that she was strong and yet her foreshare left a dainty little streak in the middle of the line. But it was more than that. It was the way they worked together, his forward effort dragging her industriously behind him. Without her, he was power without purpose.

The tractor loved how the plough needed him, needed him in a way different from any of the other implements on the farm, the wagons, the combine, the waterers and tillers, the seeders and harrow — oh, the harrow. He was fond of the harrow, but she was shallow.

The tractor would back up to the plough, her hitch raised and then lowered into place, connected. She trembled as his engine revved, his clutch released, the sudden pull forward, her wild jerking response an answer to her calling. Together they would ride into sunlit fields or through rain drenched pastures to where their work waited for them.

Though she had sprung from a lowly hoe, the plough was proud of her heritage. She was an agricultural goddess, turning the soil to bring nutrients to the surface, lifting the sod up and over her mouldboard, leaving the rows open for seeding. The plough knew her true beauty lay in what the fields would ultimately yield in her wake. She also knew that without her tractor’s power — his gears, the power of his driveshaft — her purpose was unmet. And for that, the plough loved the tractor.

Though the winters were long and lonely, the plough survived the long still months on hope. She brightened as daylight came earlier and the sun set later, knowing the cold metal of her share would once again be made hot from friction as it was drawn through the earth by her tractor. So she waited patiently for months, while the fields were barren. But come spring! In spring she came alive again as she followed her tractor. Together they would leave their mark on the field, and from their work together would come the corn and the hay.

Their love was grounded in a dependency as deep as the furrows they ploughed, a dependency that grew into a desire as full as the harvest bounty. They were as dependent upon each other for their purpose as were the water and wheel, the wind and mill, the heart and soul.

But then the seasons changed, and he didn’t come. The days grew longer, and he didn’t come. And the years went by, and he didn’t come. Her mouldboard rusted. Her foreshare became dull.

At her lowest, when she seemed nothing more than an old rusted antique, something to be laughed at for its simplicity of function, the door to the barn opened. Gloved hands pulled and shimmied her wheels from the ruts that had formed beneath her where she had settled into them over the years. She cringed at the scraping of metal on metal as she was clumsily connected to a shining blue truck. It was strange to be hitched again, but stranger still not to be hitched to her tractor.

The blue truck pulled her down the dirt road, her shares raised and useless. They passed by the field she had once so proudly tilled. In place of the long rows of corn and wheat, however, sat large boxes sitting in circles that went against the grain.

They drove far behind the boxes to a pond she remembered ploughing around every year as she prepared the sod for radiant August sunflowers. Ploughing in circles had been a joy, a break from their earnest row-by-row work. But now, the pond was dry, filled instead with the skeletons of rusted tools and equipment. And there he was, amidst the decay, her tractor.

The plough was unhitched and pushed into the tangled pile. She rested next to her tractor, his paint faded, his engine quiet.

A few days later, a large truck came and with magnet enabled lifted the tractor and the plough onto a flatbed, drove to a scrap yard, and dumped them in line for the compacter. Pressured blocks slowly coupled the two pieces of machinery, but more than just at ball and hitch as they had been coupled so many times before. Once separate, their tired bodies writhed gracefully into one sleek, rigid and strong steel block.

And soon, soon thereafter the two who had depended upon each other so deeply and with a desire so strong, the two whose combined purpose was seen in the harvest year after bountiful year, were reborn. They now cruised as one up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu forming the high-strength steel B-pillars within a gleaming red Tesla. And their purpose? Pure joy.

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Fiction

The Chatauqua

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Fall 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 3

Mom threw a package of Lady Diapers on the kitchen table. “Okay, girls. Suit up.”

I froze. My eyes darted from my mother to the plastic underpants.

“Chop-chop.” She snapped her fingers twice and shoved the package toward me. “Suit up.”

My younger sister, Mel, walked into the room, her eyes glazed over from a marathon day of gaming.

“What’s up?” Mel rubbed her eyes with the backs of her thumbs. I pointed at the Lady Diapers. She picked them up, read the label, and handed them to Mom. “Sorry,” she said. “Must be rough getting old.” Mel turned and opened the fridge.

“They’re not for her, idiot!” I waved them in Mel’s face. “They’re for us!”

She looked at me and then at Mom. “I don’t have a problem with that.” She hesitated. “You know.” She pointed at her crotch. “That.”

“No, darling.” Mom laughed. “They’re not for you for that.” She ripped open the package. “They’re for all of us to wear, for the ride.” She held one out to me. “I’m not stopping for anything ´til we get there.”

Mel’s eyes widened. “´Til we get where?”

“There,” Mom said. “There.”

“Oh, no.” I put my head in my hands. “We’re not going there again, are we?”

“Where?” Mel´s thumbs started to work an invisible game controller, her anxiety beginning to kick in.

“We’re going on a Chatauqua!” Mom clapped her hands in glee. The lamp on the sideboard turned on.

“A Cha-what?”

“A Chatauqua,” I groaned. “It´s something she read about in a book a thousand years ago. We went on a friggin´ Chatauqua right after she and dad divorced.”

“I was three when they divorced,” Mel said.

I smiled. “Remember the horsey and the hamburgers?” I pulled out one of Mel´s recurring nightmares. She turned white as a sheet. “Yeah,” I said. “That was the end of that Chatauqua.”

Mom took Mel’s face in her hands, scrunching my sister´s cheeks together. “Oh, you’ll love it. We´ll drive and drive and we won’t stop until we get there.” Mom kissed her on her wrinkled nose.

Mel shook mom´s wrists. “Where is there?”

“There is a mystical land of rainbows and unicorns,” I said, “where everyone is happy and there’s lobster every night for dinner.” I sat on a chair, tossing a Lady Diaper back and forth from hand to hand.

“Sounds like ´My Little Pony,´” Mel said. “What? Are we going to PonyCon?”

“PonyCon?” Mom’s eyes lit up. Rainbows and unicorns was exactly what she was looking for. “What’s PonyCon?”

“God, Mom,” Mel said. “It’s some lame convention where these geeky teenagers go to talk about their love of ´My Little Pony.´”

“Ponies?” I smiled. “Can you say ´horsey burgers?´”

Mel shot me a look. “We’re not going to PonyCon, Mom,” she said.

“Well,” Mom stuck out her chin. “We’re going somewhere. We’ll find out where when we get there.” She walked around the kitchen table, grabbed a diaper and swatted Mel with it. “Suit up.”

“Mom. It’s six o’clock. How far do you think we’re going to get tonight? Where the hell do you think we’re gonna go?” Normally, I leave the swearing to Mel, but at the age of eighteen an occasional ´hell´ let Mom know I meant business.

“Sweetie, don’t worry your pretty little head.” She walked toward the bathroom with the pants. “Leave the driving and the worrying to me.” She closed the bathroom door behind her.

Mel looked at me and then at the Lady Diapers. “You gonna put those on?”

I picked mine up. “I’d like to say no, but I have a feeling it might be best to wear it. God only knows what she´s thinking.”

“She’s not.”

“I know,” I said. “Besides, what´ll come first, the need to pee or get gas?” Mel frowned. “Our elusive destination, There, exists at the end of a tank of gas,” I said.

“What is this Chatauqua thing, anyway?” Mel´s thumbs were flying.

I stood up. “We get in the car and drive without a destination, just to see where we end up.”

“We’ll get lost.” Mel´s brow furrowed deeper.

“Well, that’s kind of the idea,” I said. “Only, if you have no destination, you can’t get lost. Right?”

Mel rolled her eyes. “If you don’t have a destination, why bother going anywhere?”

“For the ride,” Mom said, walking back into the kitchen. “For the ride.” She hugged Mel. “Sometimes, honey, it just helps to have a change of scenery.” Mom tugged at the plastic pants under her jeans and did a half squat, sticking her butt out behind her as far as she could. “Sometimes you just have to feel the wind in your hair, you know what I mean?” She stood, sliding her hands down her jeans to smooth them, and smiled.

Mel looked at Mom, then at me. “I guess it’s time to suit up.”

I smiled. “Yup. Let’s put these babies on.”

Mom loaded the car with bottled water and granola bars, but most of our sustenance would come after we arrived wherever it was we ended up. Although most of the time we were poster children for Whole Foods, road trips were Mom´s excuse to let go. “One burger isn´t going to kill you,” she would say. Mel, however, only ate the fish sandwiches, never having completely let go of the horsey burger nightmare.

“Shotgun,” I called, heading for the garage.

Mel groaned. “Okay, but at the first stop, we switch.” I laughed. She still didn´t get it. We weren´t going to stop.

Mel climbed into the back seat of the faded white 1982 Ford Country Squire station wagon Mom refused to get rid of. “I’ve had it longer than I had your father,” she said. “You don’t just get rid of something that reliable.” Thus its name – Old Reliable.

She turned the key, counted to three. Turned the key again. Counted to three. Turned the key again, and a plume of black smoke choked out of the tail pipe. “Bingo! We have lift off!”

I rammed the earbuds of my iTouch deep into my ears and turned the volume up as high as it would go. I peered into the backseat at Mel. She frantically thumbed her DS, the old headphones Dad gave her covering her ears. Despite our attempts, we both knew that we would have to suffer through Mom’s newest musical fascination.

As if on cue, Mom pressed play on the CD player she had installed under the ancient dashboard, filling Old Reliable from dash to liftgate with music. Yup, we´d be making our way through this Chatauqua with Josh Groban wailing in the background. “Perfect!” Mom was in heaven. Mel and I sunk deeper into our seats.

Putting the car in reverse, Mom backed Old Reliable out of the garage, shoved it into gear and headed down the long driveway.

The car stuttered to a stop before we reached the street. Evidently, Old Reliable was less enthusiastic about this trip than Mel and I were.

Mom turned the key again. “Come on, baby. Come on,” she pleaded. Old Reliable sputtered and choked, pinged and rattled. A soft, almost apologetic hissing under the hood was her last gasp. “Shoooooot.” Mom let the word out long and slow, like a balloon with a small hole in it. She leaned her head on the steering wheel.

Mel sat up straight. I turned off my iTouch. Josh Groban was the soundtrack to the death of our Chatauqua.

“It’s a sign from God.” Mom moaned.

“We don’t believe in God.” Mel was very black and white.

“I believe someone is screwing around with my life!” Mom pounded a fist on the dash, popping Josh Groban out of the CD player, stopping him in mid croon.

Mom opened the car door and walked back to the house. Mel and I sat in the car, in our Lady Diapers.

“Now what?” Mel always needed to know what was supposed to happen next.

I was at a loss. “I guess we’re not going anywhere.”

“I was just getting used to this whole stupid Chatauqua thing.”

“Me, too.” I opened the car door and started to follow Mom. I turned to Mel. “You coming?”

“In a minute.” She scrunched back into her seat.

When I got to the house, Mom was already upstairs in her bed, the TV on, watching a documentary on bees.

“You okay, Mom?”

“Did you know that honey bees can fly as far as six miles and go as fast as fifteen miles an hour?”

“Nope.” I sat down on the bed next to her. “Didn’t know that.”

She smiled at me. “That’s farther and faster than Old Reliable.”

“Maybe we can rent a car tomorrow?”

“No,” she sighed. “That’s too much work. Too much preparation. That’s not the point of a Chatauqua.”

“What is the point of a Chatauqua?”

She leaned back into her pillow. “Just … to go.” She closed her eyes.

Mom had just broken up with her latest boyfriend, one of a string of helpless middle-aged widowers she seemed to attract. Going on a Chatauqua probably meant she was rethinking her life.

I hugged her. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

“It’s okay, honey.” She rubbed my back. “Just a little restless is all. I’ll be okay in the morning.”

I walked back to the kitchen. Mel hurried through the door. “I have an idea,” she said. “Come with me!”

“Where?”

“Don’t ask questions. Just get a flashlight and come!” She grabbed one of the Lady Diapers still on the kitchen table and ran back out the door. I searched a drawer for a flashlight and followed her.

She ran to the car and got in the driver’s side. “Good.”

“What’s good?”

“Mom left the keys in the ignition.”

I had a sense of foreboding. “That’s good?”

“That’s great.” She fiddled with the key. The engine turned over, but then stalled.

Her face glowed in the dark as she held her iTouch close and fingered the touchscreen. “No,” she said, finger scrolling down the screen. “No. No. Yes! This one!”

“What are you doing?”

“What was your grade in science last year?”

“D. Why?”

“Yeah, well, mine was an A. I like to know how things work. How things are put together. What makes things do what they do?”

“I need a science lecture why?”

“You don’t need a science lecture.” She popped the latch, springing open the hood over the engine. She got out of the car and lifted the hood as far as it would go. “Here,” she said, slapping the Lady Diaper into my chest. “Hold onto this. And hold the light so I can see.”

“I don’t feel good about this.” I wasn´t at all sure what a thirteen year old science geek might be able to do to fix Old Reliable. I was sure, though, that whatever she did would probably kill one or both of us.

“Oh, don’t be a wuss.” She leaned the top half of her body deep into Old Reliable’s gaping maw. “Hand me the diaper!” Her voice echoed through the engine.

“What? Why?”

“Just hand me the diaper.” She extended her hand up and out of the engine, waving it at me blindly. “Trust me!”

“Jeezis.” I put the diaper in her hand.

“Duck tape,” she called. “In the glove box! Get it!”

“Jeez. Hold on!” I opened the car door, found the duck tape, and handed the roll to her.

Mel handed it back to me. “Rip a piece off. Gimme a foot.”

“A foot?”

“A foot! Twelve inches! Gimme a foot of duct tape!” Her feet lifted off the ground the deeper she sank into the engine, and she was batting them back and forth. She looked all-the-world like the last visible bits of a Great White´s meal, about to enter the first stage of digestion.

“Keep your shirt on.” I ripped a length of tape and handed it to her, pulling apart the pieces that kept sticking together.

“Okay.” Mel was mumbling.

“What?”

“Nothing. Talking to myself. Stuff it in there. Okay. Wrap it around. Around. Around.”

“How’s it going?”

“Almost there!”

“Almost where?” I fought the urge to ask her what it was she was doing with a Lady Diaper and duct tape. I might not be a whiz at science, but I was smart enough to know that no matter what she did the plastic pants would probably melt from the heat of the engine.

“Ha!” She shimmied herself out of Old Reliable and jumped to the ground. “Fixed!” She brushed her hands on her jeans as she walked to the driver’s side and got into the seat. “Please, God, let her start,” she said, eyes closed.

“We don’t believe in God.”

“I believe in anything or anyone that will get this car started.”

She reached for the key, hesitant. “You better stand back,” she said, a bit too ominously for comfort. I backed away, then backed away some more.

“Okay,” she said. “On the count of three. One, two, three.” She turned the key.

The engine caught, turned over, roaring to life. Black smoke billowed out of the exhaust pipe, turned to white, and then became clear.

“Whooooooo hooooo!” Mel hit the steering wheel so hard that the CD player shut and Josh Groban once again filled the night air.

I hopped up and down, fist pumping the sky.

Mom came running down the driveway.

“What the hell?” she yelled. “What the holy hell?”

Mel jumped out of the driver’s seat. “I got her started, Ma! I got her started!”

Mom stood by the car, looking at Old Reliable as if it was a gift from the God she said she didn’t believe in. “How?”

“It was magic, Mom,” I said smiling. “Just go with it.” Who cared about the possibility of melting plastic pants? For now, we´d see how far believing in magic would get us.

“Sarah, go shut the lights off and lock the door!” Mom was laughing. “We’re going on a Chatauqua!”

I closed up the house, stopping before I shut the door. The rest of the Lady Diapers lay on the table. I picked them up, shoved them under my arm, and headed back down the driveway.

“So,” Mel said, as mom pointed Old Reliable down the road. “What say we change the name of this heap?”

“Change the name? To what? Why?”

“I’m thinking of a better name,” she said. “How about we call her Old Dependable.”

I laughed. Mom gave me a look.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you two, but I don’t care.” The window was down. Mom´s long, gray-streaked hair blew over the back of the seat. “We’re on a Chatauqua and we’re not stopping until we get there.”

“Are we really not gonna stop, I mean, to pee?” Mel shifted back and forth in her seat with a sound of rustling plastic.

Mom smiled and scooted her butt back and forth. I smiled and did the same. There we were, in our rustling plastic pants, heading who knows where.

“Not until we get there,” she said, as we drove off into the night. “Not until we got there.”

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Fiction

The First Lady Driver

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Fall 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 3

Although based on the life of Alice Huyler Ramsey, this scene is pure fiction. In 1909, Alice Ramsey, a 22 year old wife and mother, becomes the first woman to drive cross country, and she repeats the drive numerous times throughout her life. She is a woman after my own heart.

***

Alice Rumson ran her gloved hand over the dark green Maxwell’s fender and smiled at the older man standing by her. “It’s beautiful!”

“Great choice, Mr. Rumson!” The happy salesman pumped John’s hand. “Our finest model! You’ll never go back to a horse!”

“It’s not for me, Mr. Kelsey.” John rubbed his abused fingers and nodded at his young wife. “It’s for Alice.”

“Oh, John,” she turned to her husband, eyes bright. “Is this truly mine?”

He smiled, tapped his pipe gently in his palm. “Yes, Alice. It’s yours,” he said, talking around the pipe as he placed it between his teeth.

“Well, yes,” said Mr. Kelsey. “I’m sure she’ll enjoy riding in it.”

“Not riding, Mr. Kelsey,” Alice smiled demurely. “Driving.”

The salesman’s eyes lit up. “Driving?”

“You seem surprised.” She walked up to the man who was barely older than she and looked him in the eye. “It is the twentieth century now, Mr. Kelsey. Some women are no longer tied to the archaic notions of home and hearth.”

“Yes, well,” he said, offering a slight bow of the head. “You are the first such woman I have met.”

“Then I’m happy to make your acquaintance.” She held out her hand for him to shake.

He smiled, took her hand, and laughed. “And I yours.”

She circled the car slowly, tracing its curves and seams, brushing the back of her glove over the fragile glass of the headlamps. She stopped at the crank on the front of the car, leaned down and wrapped her fingers fully around its thick handle. Looking up at her husband, she winked. “Dare I?”

John laughed. “I’d wait till I had a proper lesson, if I were you.”

She ran to him and put her arms around his neck. “You’re right, of course, Darling,” she said, taking the pipe from his mouth and kissing him with abandon and seemingly little care of what the people around them might think.

She looked deeply into his eyes and the smile left her face. “You’ll get in trouble for this, won’t you, dear?”

“Trouble?”

“Oh, I am always bringing you trouble.” She leaned her head on his shoulder.

“Yes, you are always bringing me trouble,” he said. She looked up at him, a deep crease on her brow.

“My life was trouble free before I found you,” he said, putting his arms around her shoulders and holding her close. “My life was also free of happiness before I found you.” He brushed her hair with his lips. “You bring me such joy as I have never known.” He took her face in his hands. “And for that, I will suffer all the trouble in the world.”

A slow smile returned to her face. “It’s a motorcar, John. My very own motorcar.”

“Your very own.”

“I’ll share it with you.” Alice twirled out of John´s embrace and leaned against the door of the car, smiling.

“No!” He walked to where Alice stood. “No, dear. I know nothing about these mechanical carriages and I don’t wish to.” He waved a dismissive hand at the horseless beast. “I much prefer a horse who obeys the whip.”

“You are an old fogey,” she said softly.

“Married to a young woman with strange desires.”

He looked over her shoulder at the showroom filled with well-dressed but stodgy gentleman and a few of their equally dull wives. Alice followed his gaze thinking she stood out much like her beloved new motorcar would in a corral full of aging mares.

She removed a glove and slapped it loudly in her hand. “Well,” she said in a voice for all to hear. “I’m ready for my lesson, Mr. Kelsey.” All heads in the showroom turned to her.

John’s eyes widened above flushed cheeks as he put the pipe back in his mouth. Alice isn’t trouble, he thought, but she is a force to be reckoned with.

“You’re certainly not going to allow your daughter to drive.”

John turned to the man peering at him over rounded spectacles.

“She’s my wife,” John smiled, “not my daughter.” The man looked from Alice to John, raising his eyebrows.

“And it’s not up to me to allow her to do anything. She is perfectly capable of making her own decisions about what she is able to do.”

“Well.” The man turned to his wife, maneuvered his head under her wide brimmed hat and whispered in her ear. Her shoulders went from round to rigid the longer he spoke.

The woman turned to Alice, who sat in the driver’s seat of the Maxwell. “You should know your place,” the woman said, pushing tight blue gloves over her spindly fingers.

“I do know my place.” Alice pressed the plunger on the Klaxon horn, emitting an Ahooga! that knocked the woman back a pace onto her husband, her hat falling forward over her face.

“Dear! Dear!” The man struggled to keep his wife standing.

The woman shook her husband off, stood erect, adjusted her skirts and repositioned her hat. “Children today have no manners,” she said pointedly, turning in a huff.

Ahooga!

Alice laughed as she provided fanfare for the couple’s retreat.

“Child indeed,” Alice said, smiling at John.

John walked around the car to where she sat and gently closed the door, locking her in her seat at the steering wheel. “Trouble you are, my Dear. And trouble you will always be.”

“I know, Darling.” She pulled the skirt up over her knees and peered at her feet as she randomly depressed the peddles. “You will never hear the end of this, I’m certain, so I shall make myself scarce by driving and driving and driving.” She jiggled the gear shift. “No one will ever see me and I’ll no longer be a bother.”

She turned to him. “I’m sorry I’m a bother, John, but I am so eager to … ” She hesitated, looking him in the eyes. “…to live.”

John laid his hand gently over hers and turned to the salesman. “Mr. Kelsey?”

The salesman trotted over to the Rumsons. “Sir?”

John smiled at Alice. “It’s time we were on the road.” Alice squeezed John´s hand tightly.

Mr. Kelsey walked to where Alice sat in the car and smiled at her. “You’re going to love it, you know,” he said, his voice low. They were youthful conspirators, anxious to begin their roles in this new age of mobility.

She beamed. “I know.” She ran her hands over the controls in front of her. “There’s so much to learn.”

“Oh, but it’s easy, really!” He ran to the front of the showroom and opened the two hanging doors to the street. “I’ll have you driving like you were born to it!”

“I was born to it!” She sat straight in the seat, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear shift.

“I should drive it out onto the street, though,” he said.

“Mr. Kelsey.” Alice took the haughtiest tone she could conjure, which was difficult considering how unhaughty she felt. “It is my motorcar. I will drive it.”

He looked at John.

“Sorry, young man,” John said. “Once her mind is made up….”

Mr. Kelsey grabbed a pair of goggles, then another, and jumped into the passenger seat of the Maxwell. “Here,” he said, handing the extra pair of goggles to Alice. “Safety first.”

She giggled and pulled the goggles over her hair, positioning them on her eyes.

“You might want to fix your hair,” Mr. Kelsey whispered to her.

“My hair be damned!” she cried, causing a few of the more prim members of the crowd that had gathered around the Maxwell to gasp at her language. “Let’s drive, Mr. Kelsey!”

“Please, call me Caddy.” He motioned for a young man to turn the crank on the front of the car.

“And I’m Alice.” She laughed and shook his hand again, a more informal greeting of like-minded friends. “Call me Alice!”

The engine caught with a sputter and a cough, soon coming to a gentle rumbling idle. It was an odd sound of machinery, still uncommon to most ears, but for Alice it was a call to her soul.

“Ohhhh.” Alice took her hands off of the gently vibrating steering wheel and pushed her goggles up. “What power there is beneath my hands.”

“But you control the power, Alice,” Caddy whispered. “That is the joy of driving.”

“Are you sure you´re ready, Dear?” John stood next to Alice, his hand resting gently on her shoulder.

“Yes, Darling.” She put her hand on his. “I love you, John Rumson.” Alice held John´s gaze. “No one has ever been as lucky as I,” she whispered.

“I´ll be waiting here for you.” He put his hand under her chin and kissed her lightly. “I will always wait for you.”

“Ready, Alice?” Caddy Kelsey pulled the goggles over his eyes.

She smiled at John, kissed him again quickly, and put the goggles back on. “Ready, Caddy.”

She winked at John and put her hands on the wheel.

“Drive, Alice,” he smiled. “Drive.”

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Fiction

The Treachery of Images

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Summer 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 2

 

Sandra first saw one of John Henry Bascomb’s paintings at a gallery in SoHo. She was with her then-lover, Patrick, a man who was perfect in so many ways and never hesitated to remind her of it. But when she stood in front of The Lady Waits, a painting the size of a large envelope, and Patrick continued to jabber on about his newest acquisition, an abstract called Birth and Rebirth, which was nothing more than blue lines over red splotches, Sandra simply said, “Get lost, Patrick.” And he did.

Sandra got lost in Bascomb’s painting. A woman lying in bed, nude, full figured, flawed, but beautiful. Her lover lay over her, his stomach resting on hers. The colors were muted, their lips burnished, their cheeks flushed. He held one of her arms above her head, a glint in his dark eyes, the other hand gently cupping her breast. His smile teased. Her eyes were pleading, locked with his. It’s the eyes, thought Sandra.

But it wasn’t the eyes. It wasn’t one thing. It was the painting in its entirety. Sandra was pulled into the scene by the simple shading beneath the touch of a hand, a slight crease drawn under an eye, a tiny wrinkle telling the story of a life lived. It was art at its most powerful, a painting that stopped hearts.

Sandra looked around the gallery at the other three small Bascomb’s hanging there. A quiet group of women stood before each one. One woman sat on the ground in front of The Lady’s Pleasure, staring up at the spent couple in the painting, the Lady’s back close against her lover´s chest, his arm wrapped around her, holding her tightly, his chin resting on her wild hair, a hand again on her breast. Trust was the word that came to Sandra’s mind.

My Lady’s Laughter almost brought Sandra to tears. The couple, in a state of haphazard undress, sat on the floor in front of a fire, a deck of cards splayed out in front of them, the Lady laughing. She was holding up a card, showing it to her lover who had his hand on the button of his pants and feigned a look of playful alarm.

It was nothing deep. Nothing dramatic. Just … joy.

What was odd, Sandra thought, was that each of Bascomb´s ladies was different from the others, strikingly different. It wasn’t like Andrew Wyeth’s Helga, or Dali’s Gala. Bascomb’s ladies were numerous. Perhaps that was why so many women were attracted to his paintings — whoever you were, whatever you looked like, you could see yourself in one of Bascomb´s works.

Sandra had first heard about Bascomb from a friend, an artist in Maine. “Be prepared,” she had said. “His paintings are small, but there’s a lot more there than meets the eye.”

And that was it. Bascomb’s paintings were more than their subjects. If Sandra were to put it into words, she might say that what she was looking at was love in its purest form. But it was more than that. What she saw caused a visceral reaction; her heart slowed, her breathing deepened, she was overcome with both an incredible calm and an intense desire. When Sandra looked at a Bascomb, she suddenly wanted more. She wanted what Bascomb’s ladies had.

What Sandra saw in the Bascombs was indescribable, and that was a problem. Her job as a writer for The Journal was to describe it.

She went to her editor and friend, Marilyn, and had asked if she could write a profile of Bascomb. Marilyn had already known about his work. As the art editor, it was her job to know before everyone else who or what was the next big thing.

Marilyn had considered sending a more seasoned writer to interview him, but she hadn’t gotten to the top of her profession by ignoring the fact that if a writer isn’t passionate about their subject, the piece would be flat. The minute Sandra began talking about John Henry Bascomb, Marilyn knew the piece belonged to her. At this point in her career, Marilyn was supposed to assign articles, not write them. But if Sandra hadn’t asked to write the profile, Marilyn might have considered doing it herself. She, too, had seen the Bascombs.

Finding John Henry Bascomb was a problem. The brochure at the gallery was vague about where he lived, saying only that he “resides quietly among the beautiful rolling hills of New Jersey.” The gallery owner in SoHo told Sandra that Bascomb was not in charge of his affairs, and that “his family has made it pretty clear they don’t want publicity. If they get word I told you anything about him, they’ll pull his paintings.”

Marilyn pulled rank and called the gallery owner herself, promising free publicity for his gallery. He coughed up the number for the law firm that handled the sale of Bascomb’s paintings. Marilyn contacted the attorney. “Talk to his wife. She’s the one in charge,” he told Marilyn. “He’s at Gray Manor,” he said. “He’s been there a while. Three years.”

Gray Manor was known for the people who checked in to recover from the vagaries of life. Writers and rock stars, the famous and the infamous. “That’s a long time to be at Gray Manor,” Marilyn had said to Sandra as she handed her Bascomb’s wife’s telephone number. “Bascomb must have passed the point of no return.”

“But he still paints.” Sandra knew his most recent work, The Lady’s Gifts, the most erotic of the paintings of which she was aware, had been painted only a few months earlier.

“Evidently,” Marilyn sighed.

“There is something about his paintings, isn’t there?”

Marilyn had raised her eyebrows and nodded.

Bascomb’s wife was receptive to the idea of Sandra writing the profile as long as she could approve the piece before it was published. It also didn’t hurt to suggest that there could be a jump in the price of his paintings. “It will help pay his expenses,” Bascomb’s wife rationalized. Sandra arranged to meet her at Gray Manor to facilitate the interview. “You know he doesn’t speak,” Mrs. Bascomb said to Sandra. “He says only one thing.”

“What does he say?”

“Oh, I’ll let you find out when you meet him.”

John Henry Bascomb sat in front of an easel in the solarium on the ground floor of Gray Manor’s main building. Sandra was surprised by his appearance; she thought a man capable of such emotion would be more … dramatic. Late middle aged, average height, average build, glasses. No, thought Sandra, he was not dramatic in the least.

“We’ve set up a corner for him,” his doctor said, “with his easel and paints.”

Doctor Henderson was a striking woman, tall, mid-fifties, long gray hair pulled back in a wide barrette. She walked with Sandra to where Bascomb sat contemplating a blank canvas.

“He sits here for hours, sometimes just staring at the canvas, holding his paintbrush in his mouth. But then he’ll paint. He’ll be so engrossed he notices nothing around him. We know not to bring him his meal, not to rouse him, until he’s finished.”

Doctor Henderson turned and pointed to a door. “And this is where we store his work.”

She unlocked the door to a large closet and turned on a light. Hundreds of Bascomb’s small paintings were stacked vertically on metal shelves, a piece of masking tape underneath each section marked with a range of dates. “August to November 2011.” “September 2012.” “October 2013.”

“Wow.” Sandra walked into the closet. “These are all Bascomb’s?”

Doctor Henderson nodded.

“These are worth a fortune.” Sandra did quick calculations in her head, and even though math wasn’t her strong suit, she knew the paintings were probably worth a half million dollars.

“His family feels they are as safe here as anywhere.” Doctor Henderson looked over at Bascomb. “Once in a while he comes into the closet, takes a painting, and just sits with it.”

Sandra reached for a painting, then stopped. “May I?”

“Of course.” The doctor picked a painting from October 2013 and handed it to Sandra. “This one is remarkable, don’t you think?”

The painting was smaller than the others, not much larger than Sandra’s iPhone. But the image was clear. A man and a woman standing on a city street at night, snow swirling around them, locked in an embrace that made it difficult to tell where one body ended and the other began. The woman’s face was buried in the man’s chest, his arms holding her so tightly one could see the stretch of cloth over the tightened muscles in his arm. Again, as in the The Lady’s Pleasure, his chin rested on her head, his eyes were closed. Bascomb’s art was in the smallest of details. But this time, the feeling wasn’t of pleasure; it was pain, sadness, a sense of ending.

“Pretty powerful stuff. I’ve looked at this again and again.” Doctor Henderson laughed. “I’m almost addicted to it.”

“It seems so sad,” Sandra said, “but at the same time … I don’t know. The word that keeps coming to mind is ‘real.’”

“I’m sorry I’m late.” A small woman approached them. She was dressed in a simple blue sweater and form-fitting jeans, and her dark unruly hair was caught in a burnt orange ribbon at the base of her neck.

“Mrs. Bascomb. This is Ms. Miller, the reporter.” Although Doctor Henderson’s introduction was formal, there was an underlying warmth, an understanding between the two women.

Mrs. Bascomb smiled. Sandra held out her hand. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

“As long as you hold to our agreement, Ms. Miller, I have no problem with the interview.” Mrs. Bascomb reminded Sandra of someone, but she couldn´t place who it was.

“Would you like me to stay, Mrs. Bascomb?” Doctor Henderson asked.

“I would like it if you could,” Sandra interjected. “I might have some questions that need a medical explanation. If you have the time?”

Mrs. Bascomb nodded her agreement. “Fine with me.”

Doctor Henderson led them to a small sitting area on the side of the solarium opposite Bascomb’s corner. She motioned for them to sit. “We’ll be able to watch him as he paints, but we’ll be out of earshot.”

The three women were quiet for a moment as Sandra opened the cover to her iPad.

“Mrs. Bascomb, your husband’s paintings seem to have a deep emotional impact on people. Has he always painted?”

“No. He only started painting about fifteen years ago.”

“Why did he start painting?”

“Therapy.”

“Oh?”

“Ms. Miller,” Mrs. Bascomb said. “My husband has been in and out of psychiatric therapy his entire adult life. He’s always been … unhappy.”

“What happened to him, Mrs. Bascomb? Why was he admitted to Gray Manor?”

Mrs. Bascomb smiled oddly, as if she expected Sandra would find what she was about to say funny. “He was found naked on the Amtrak between Baltimore and New York. Mumbling.” Her voice was flat, emotionless. But she continued to smile.

Sandra looked at her iPad, thinking she should write something. “Was there any indication before this that something was wrong?”

Doctor Henderson looked at Mrs. Bascomb and spoke. “Other than bouts of severe depression, his clinical history was fairly normal up to that point,” she said. “He was married, had children, he was highly respected in his career. He functioned at a very high level.”

“He only had one problem.” Mrs. Bascomb looked over at her husband.

“You don’t have to mention this,” Doctor Henderson said to her.

“I think it’s important for Ms. Miller to know. It might provide insight.” Mrs. Bascomb twisted the ring on her finger. “And depending on how well she writes the article, this information may or may not see the light of day. Right?” She looked at Sandra.

“Of course.”

“Ms. Miller, my husband was a notorious womanizer,” she said. “He had affairs, many, many affairs.”

“Many?” Sandra wasn’t sure what that meant. Three? Ten?

“Many,” was all Mrs. Bascomb would say.

“And you knew about this?” Sandra was incredulous.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, I knew quite a bit about each and every one.” Mrs. Bascomb emphasized the each and every. “And there were … this is off the record?”

“Of course.”

“Hundreds.”

“Hundreds?” Sandra could feel her face turning red.

Mrs. Bascomb looked down at her hands and twisted her wedding ring again.

The image Sandra had of Bascomb was suddenly altered. She was angry. Bascomb’s paintings were not simply pretty pictures. They had become personal to Sandra. They were personal to everyone who saw them. But now, there was a treachery in the images.

“Mrs. Bascomb, how could a man capable of painting such … emotion … be such a….” Although the term douchebag came to mind, Sandra had enough presence of mind to know it would be best not to say it. “What do you think he was looking for in these women?”

“You’ve seen his paintings, Ms. Miller. What do you think he was looking for?”

Sandra hadn’t thought much of what drove Bascomb’s art; all she knew was that when she looked at one of them, she felt alive, she felt passion. She felt what it must be like to be in love, and be loved.

“He was looking for what he was painting,” Sandra said after a moment. “He was looking for love?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Bascomb bit her lower lip. “I think that’s it.”

“I don’t buy that.” Sandra was losing perspective. It was no longer about his paintings; it was about the man, the emotion his paintings evoked in Sandra, and now she was confronted with the possibility that it was all a sham. “That’s what we’re all looking for. Why would he be somehow special in his search for love?”

Mrs. Bascomb looked at her husband. “Yes, why was he special?”

Doctor Henderson’s cell phone chirped, she checked it and stuffed it back in her pocket. “If you’ll excuse me?” She got up and left Sandra and Mrs. Bascomb alone.

Mrs. Bascomb turned back to Sandra. “At one point in his life,” she said, “he met a woman, and he fell in love….” Her voice trailed off.

“And?” Sandra assumed Bascomb’s presence at Gray Manor suggested his love story hadn’t had a happy ending. “What happened?”

“Here.” Mrs. Bascomb stood up suddenly. “Let me introduce you to him.”

They walked over to where Bascomb was painting.

Mrs. Bascomb put a finger under his chin and tilted his face toward hers. “Hello, John.” She kissed him lightly on his forehead, holding her lips there for a moment. Pulling away, she smiled at her husband. “Ms. Miller is here about your paintings,” she said, her finger lingering under his chin, her eyes locked with his.

The two women sat near Bascomb. He took the paintbrush out of his mouth, set the blank canvas on his knees and smiled at his wife. He turned to Sandra and sighed. “She broke my heart,” he said, his forehead creasing, his lips in a frown. He put his hand on Sandra’s knee. “She broke my heart,” he said again, staring deep into Sandra’s eyes.

The pain in his expression was haunting. Sandra held his look, feeling like a mother with a hurting child. Sandra put her hand over his. “I’m sorry,” was all she could think of to say.

Bascomb smiled at Sandra and pulled his hand from hers. He set the blank canvas on the easel, dipped his brush in a small jar of blue, and painted a thin line. “She broke my heart.” He tilted his head to one side, dipped his brush in red, adding another line.

“Who broke his heart?” Sandra spoke softly to Mrs. Bascomb.

Mrs. Bascomb was silent. Sandra sensed she had crossed some line. “I would like to understand what brought him here,” Sandra said. “What causes a man like him to –“

“Go mad?” Mrs. Bascomb looked at Sandra without expression. “Ms. Miller, my husband is as passionate as he is brilliant. He wants to believe that love exists. But, love and passion are emotions. They can’t be dissected. They aren’t rational. And ….” She hesitated and looked at her husband. “You can’t manipulate love.”

Only those you love, thought Sandra.

“Love can’t survive in a purely rational mind. There is a war going on inside my husband, Ms. Miller. It’s been quite a battle,” she said, “and he’s losing.

“He paints the ideal,” she continued, “even though he doesn’t believe it exists…anymore.

“Have you ever had someone put you on a pedestal, Ms. Miller? Has someone ever thought so highly of you it was impossible to live up to their expectations?”

Sandra shook her head. “No.”

Mrs. Bascomb smiled. “Lucky you. The air up there is rarefied. One doesn’t last long on a pedestal.”

“His perfect love fell off the pedestal?”

Mrs. Bascomb sighed. “It’s worse than that.” She was quiet for a moment.

Doctor Henderson returned with three bottles of water and handed one each to Sandra and Mrs. Bascomb. Sandra unscrewed the cap but held the bottle in her hand.

“He became angry,” Mrs. Bascomb continued. “He pushed her away. After all,” she said, “any woman who would want him probably wasn´t good enough for him. You know the idea, you wouldn’t want to join a club who would have you as a member.”

“That´s rather convoluted,” Sandra said flatly.

“Convoluted. Yes.” Mrs. Bascomb said.

“Then what did he do?”

“He continued his search for the ideal.”

“What did she do, this woman he put on a pedestal?”

“What would you do, Ms. Miller?”

Sandra was still holding the small painting of the sad couple in the snow. “I don’t know. I’ve never been on a pedestal.” Sandra put the painting down. “Why does he say she broke his heart if he is the one who pushed her away?”

John Henry Bascomb cleared his throat, leaned close to his painting and wiped his brush on a cloth.

“Looks like he’s almost finished,” said Doctor Henderson.

“Dr. Henderson,” Sandra said. “You see what’s in his paintings. It’s more than talent, more than the ability to capture form and light.”

“Yes,” she said. She took the painting of the couple from Sandra.

“There have been other artists whose work has a similar impact. When you read about them, the word ‘genius’ comes up. Is it genius?”

“It might be.” Doctor Henderson laughed. “What is genius, anyway? Great scientists, great thinkers, are great because they look at the world differently. Bascomb sees things in a way that most of us don’t, or can’t. His genius, if you want to call it that, is being able to express emotions, feelings …” she paused for a moment. “People connect to what he paints. What he does for us, Ms. Miller, is he gets us to feel.”

Sandra wondered what pain, what resolution, if any, Bascomb could find at the end of his paintbrush.

Mrs. Bascomb watched as her husband rubbed a cloth around the edges of his intricate painting. She turned to Sandra. “I ask you again. What would you do, Ms. Miller, if the man you loved had that kind of emotion within him?” She looked at her husband. “But loving him came at a high cost?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

Mrs. Bascomb smiled.

“You said that when he was found on the train, he was carrying a painting.”

“Yes.”

“What painting was he holding when he was on the train?”

Mrs. Bascomb raised her eyebrows and took a deep breath. “It’s in the closet?” she asked Doctor Henderson.

Doctor Henderson went to the closet, and returned, handing a painting to Sandra.

Bascomb had painted himself into the scene, only he was smiling, dancing, his arms around the Lady, her back arched, her head tilted back, face to the sky, laughing. The Lady´s hands were lightly draped around his neck. She was barefoot, her long skirt caught in mid-twirl. His foot was off the ground, toes bent back ready to step down, while the other turned out awkwardly in that moment critical to a perfect dance step. The background was blurred; the couple was in sharp focus.

“I don’t understand,” Sandra said finally. “This is beautiful. They look so happy. Why would he have this with him when he….” Sandra hesitated. “This is such a hopeful painting.”

“That’s what he doesn’t have, Ms. Miller.” Mrs. Bascomb watched her husband clean his brush. “When he was in Baltimore, when he was with yet another of his ideal ladies who fell from the heights, I think he must have realized…. He doesn’t have hope, Ms. Miller.”

“Mrs. Bascomb, who broke his heart?” Sandra felt this was the key to understanding what drove Bascomb mad.

Mrs. Bascomb smiled. “Ms. Miller,” she said. “Look closely at the picture you have in your hand.”

Sandra looked again at the delicate painting, at the joy on John Henry Bascomb’s face, and at the face of the Lady. And then Sandra looked at Mrs. Bascomb. “It’s you.”

Mrs. Bascomb raised her eyebrows and nodded.

“Oh.” It’s the eyes. “And The Lady Waits?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Bascomb.

“But the other paintings? The other women?”

“We all break his heart, Ms. Miller.” Mrs. Bascomb twisted the top off her bottle of water. “The pedestal he puts us on is too high. Too cold.” She twisted the cap on the bottle back and forth. “Too lonely.”

Bascomb scratched his forehead with the handle of his paintbrush. “She broke my heart,” he said, leaning close and scratching a thin line in the painting with the handle.

“I’m having trouble, Mrs. Bascomb, coming to terms with this man, this artist, whose paintings stir such emotion in me, and yet …”

“…and yet….” Mrs. Bascomb’s voice trailed off as she watched her husband clean his brush.

“…and yet you stayed married to him.” Sandra was angry. “He cheated on you — I don’t care how many reasons or explanations you can come up with –-“

“He didn’t cheat on you, Ms. Miller.” Mrs. Bascomb’s words cut straight to the core of Sandra’s anger.

Sandra closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Opening her eyes again, she said, “You didn’t leave him.”

“Oh, but I did leave him, Ms. Miller. Perhaps not physically. But I could no longer be one of his ladies. You see, Ms. Miller,” she said, “my heart was broken, too.”

Bascomb dropped his paintbrush on the floor. “Ahh.” He leaned over, once more wiped it on the cloth, and placed it neatly on the table beside him.

“Then why didn’t you leave him? Why do you stay?”

“Look at his paintings, Ms. Miller. What do you see?”

Sandra didn’t need to look at the Bascomb she was holding; she kept her eyes on Mrs. Bascomb. “Love.”

Mrs. Bascomb smiled. “So, I ask you again, what would you have done if you were me?”

John Henry Bascomb stood up and walked over to Sandra, handing her the small painting she had watched him create.

—-

Sandra’s laptop was open and the painting Mr. Bascomb had painted while she had watched that day, and that Mrs. Bascomb had given her, sat in a small frame on her desk. She touched her finger to the Lady’s face, her face. Bascomb had captured their moment together, Sandra seated next to him at his easel, his hand on her knee, her hand placed over his, her mouth shaped as if she was speaking. I’m sorry, she had said to him. But Sandra’s Bascomb was unfinished. Where Sandra was blues and greens, Bascomb was an outline, an empty figure, devoid of color.

John Henry Bascomb paints hope when he has none himself. He paints the passion that eludes him. And, he paints love….

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Fiction

The Promise

Fiction in Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review – Summer 2014, Vol. 8, Issue 2

 

She wandered the barren fields exhausted, every step an effort. She fought the suction that nearly pulled the ancient Wellingtons off of each foot as she slogged through the ankle deep mud.

Stopping to catch her breath, she railed at the fallow fields around her. “Where’s the promise of spring?” The sound of her voice dissipated without echo in the cold dry air. She strained to hear a response.

“If you scream at the top of your lungs,” and she was screaming, “and there’s no one around to hear you, does it matter?” The sound of her voice left a trail of cold mist behind it. She laughed. Evidently not, she thought.

She pulled her dead husband’s old barn jacket close around her. He had been a big man, and she was a small woman; the jacket could have wrapped around her two times. But she still wore it, zipped up to her chin and with one of his narrow ties around her waist as a cinch. Pulling the collar close around her neck, she held it tight against the wind.

Squinting, she scanned the late afternoon horizon.

“Stupid cow, bustin´ down the goddamn gate again.” Putting her head down into the wind, she walked on toward the sun. “Just stay in the goddamned barn. That’s all I ask.”

A rooster crowed behind her. She stopped and looked back at the barn in the distance, and at her house. The lights she had left on were beginning to brighten in the first floor windows as the afternoon light faded.

“I just want to go home.” She wiped a gloved hand roughly across her eyes, watery from the wind. “Damn cow.”

She turned and attempted to walk again toward the horizon, to the field at the top of the hill where she thought the errant cow might be. She tried to pull her boot out of the mud, but it was stuck hard this time. As she struggled to free it, her stocking foot shot out of the boot and landed forcefully in the muck.

“Damn it to hell!”

Wiggling her muddy toes, she jumped up and down inside her other boot, shaking the batter-like muck off of her sock, and tried to keep the foot high off the ground. She felt like one of the chickens in the yard when it used to be chased by Boo, her black Lab, waving her arms ridiculously around her like flapping wings, attempting to find her balance. But she didn’t. Instead, she fell full force into the cold mud on her hands and knees.

“Stupid cow.”

Pulling her hands up out of the mud, she sat back on her ankles, knees still firmly planted. She wiped her fingers on his jacket and then covered her face with her hands. “I can’t do this.” She inhaled deeply the clean scent of the fresh mud and smelled spring, life. Taking her hands from her face, she looked at her mud-encrusted fingers.
“´Where is the Life we have lost in the living?´” Her hands fell to her side at the thought of the long forgotten poem, her gaze slowly taking in the fallow hay field around her. “Huh, Mr. Eliot? Can you tell me that? Where is the life?”

Exhaling sharply, she stood. She put her muddied foot back into her boot, held onto the top of the boot with both hands, and pulled her booted foot out of the mud. She did the same with the other foot, bending and pulling each foot, up and down, forward by steps, until she found a row of matted hay to walk on.

At the top of the low hill that marked the horizon lay the cow.

“Oh, no.” She walked over to it, standing beside its bloated stomach. “Not you, too.”

She sank down and sat on the cow’s bony ribs.

“I hate spring,” she said, planting her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.

Wiggling herself between the ribs to get comfortable, she paused and looked at a star glimmering in the darkening eastern sky.

“I hate spring and you know it.” She shoved a foot between the cow’s front hooves and pushed them a little to the side. “Don’t try to tell me about the promise of new life. That’s crap.”

She angled her head as far back as she could to stare into the sky. “You always said I was too impatient for spring. Remember the year I yelled at the lettuce? ´Grow, dammit! Grow!” She chuckled. “You always said I was more into reaping than sowing.”

“But what´ve I got left to reap?” Evidently not much.

“You’re dead!” she yelled. The sound of her voice circled her, then was gone.

She sat quietly and stared at the sky

“Shut up,” she whispered. “I’m sitting here on a dead cow. You’re dead. I’m not going to listen to you. The only promise of spring is work, hard work.” Another star appeared in the east. “And being alone.”

She pulled her foot out of the boot and then shook it violently. Mud splattered across her face. “Crap. Why don’t I just up and die?” She spat mud.

Wiping her face with the collar of his jacket, she breathed deeply as it brushed by her nose. Holding the collar to her face for a moment, she then buried her head inside the jacket. “You’re in here, you know. It’s why I wear this stupid ugly jacket of yours.”

She coughed and lifted her head, tears sending muddy rivers down her cheeks. As she wiped the tears from her face with his sleeve, she looked west toward the horizon, the sun continuing its slow descent behind the hills.

“What am I going to do without you?” she asked the sky. “There’s no more promise.”

She rubbed her bare foot between her hands to warm it.

“I like winter. I like the cold. The dark. I liked that we could milk the cows and feed the chickens, get all the chores done early, and then sit by the fire looking at the seed catalog, or picking out dream tractors. I liked that.”

She flopped on her back, lying on the dead cow, resting halfway between night and day, watching as the sky in the east grew dark. The stars began to shimmer one by one as, east to west, the afternoon slowly turned to early evening.

“I can’t do spring by myself. You knew that.” Her voice was quiet. “Spring was yours. Mine was fall. We shared summer, though.” She smiled. “For forty years, we shared summer.”

Taking one of his handkerchiefs from his jacket pocket, she wiped her nose.

“And winter. I loved our winters.” She begged the stars and the sky for a return to winter, to the long warm nights together with his arms around her.

Still lying on the cow, she wrapped her arms tightly around herself, holding his jacket close, as the wind grew stronger and the sky blazed sundown in the west.

Quickly she sat up, watching the sun as it threatened to disappear.

“Where’s the goddamn promise of spring?” She yelled as the last sliver of sun disappeared.

“That’s right,” she said quietly. “Leave me here alone, again.”

She put the sock back on her foot and shoved it into the cold and muddy boot.

She stood, taking a determined swipe at the cow hair on the back of her pants. “It’s not like I can’t do this all on my own.”

Pulling his jacket around her again, she retied the cinch at her waist and trucked back through the dark field, trying to stay on the matted hay. The lights of the house were brighter now, her beacon. Her eyes slowly grew accustomed to the advancing darkness.

Walking past the barn toward the back porch of the house, she stopped suddenly. The lights from the kitchen made square patches in the yard, illuminating a sprouting daffodil, and the snow that was starting to fall in thick large clumps.

Pulling off her gloves, she shoved them into his deep pockets and then held out her arms, watching as each enormous flake turned to water in her hands.

“One last snow?” she whispered.

Raising her face to the sky, she smiled as the snow melted on her cheeks.

“I can do this,” she said. “Did you hear me? I can do this. I´ll do spring. I promise.”

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