Lies of Tenderness by Stephen Volk

BLOG & EXTRACT:

The Creatures That Make Us Human

My new, wide-ranging, collection of stories, Lies of Tenderness, was not written with an overarching theme in mind—though it might well have one; they were all written by the same author, after all (and I try to eke out a common thread in my Story Notes)—but the book is said to contain 17 tales that explore “hidden truths and secret wishes, the paths not taken, and the creatures that make us human”.

With that last, potent, phrase in mind. I’d like to talk about one story in particular, called “A Meeting at Knossos”. It was the very last to be written, in late 2021, and last to be added to the volume, jettisoning another that didn’t quite fit.

I have been fascinated by the Minotaur for as long as I can remember. It’s always struck me as the archetypal monster story and I could never understand why it hadn’t ever, to my knowledge, been exploited in cinema. I first pitched The Minotaur as a film idea to Milton Subotsky (the producer of the classic Amicus horror and fantasy films) way back in the

1970s when I first came to London. I thought you could update the Greek myth, much as Hammer had done with The Gorgon, by setting it in their beloved mitteleuropean world of 19th Century gothic. Subotsky was far from convinced, so that was that.

More recently, visual influences rather than literary ones brought it to the front of my mind. I think it’s exceptionally hard to draw or sculpt a human figure with a bull’s head and make it work, let alone have it embody the horror and pity imbued in the legend. The artist Beth Carter succeeds in this brilliantly, and her Sitting Minotaur and Minotaur Reading are direct catalysts for this story, even though I know that such artists as Michael Ayrton and, obviously, Picasso, have been obsessed by the character before.

The double idea that Daedalus not only created the labyrinth but fathered Icarus sparked me to put pen to paper. I had no idea where the meeting of the fallen Icarus and the freed Minotaur would lead, but it turned out to be about someone who has the chance of redemption—of change—but the question is, are they capable of making it?

I admit, I set out wanting wanted to save the poor creature and rehabilitate the monster. Like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, I thought, he was damaged not so much by an accident of birth but by the way he’d been treated. Some of this was, I’m sure, influenced by my reading of The DevilYou Know by Dr Gwen Adshead and Eileen Home. Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist who has worked on the rehabilitation of violent offenders at Broadmoor hospital. I was struck when she described such patients as having been “witness to a trauma; the trauma which is their own life”.

That could be said to be the autobiography of my Minotaur—a retelling that I hope releases the age-old monster to be interpreted in a new way. Even if the outcome of the story didn’t go the way I was expecting . . .

Extract from

“A Meeting at Knossos”

I followed the string, hand over hand, until I emerged from the belly of the earth. The scent of sea lavender and the tang of bergamot tickled my nostrils and made them widen. Blinded, I

felt the sun on my fat, flat toes. It tickled the coarse hairs on my shin as I extended my left leg from my prison. They were as little accustomed to the light as I was.

            “Theseus, my love.”

That last word caught like a nut in the throat of a lark, its beautiful song curtailed in a knot of sudden abhorrence. I lowered my hands from my eyes, allowing them in slats to

endure the blaze of Helios, my grandfather, in the sky. My bull eyelashes fluttered.

A vision as though through water took form. I remembered water, vaguely. Not seen it for an age, other than the cavernous trickle tasting of iron and moss that had been my wine for too many days to count.

I took her first to be my mother, but no. Princess Ariadne, my half-sister. A pip when I’d last seen her. Elaborate hair, long dress, breasts exposed. Always the fashion-conscious one. Standing there with the ball of twine in her trembling fingers. Chest rising and falling in horror at the monster she beheld.

Hand over hand, I reached her.

She would have planted a kiss on the cheek of her lover, I was sure. But her half-brother? No.

I was not Theseus.

I was something else.

The Prince of Athens lay dead at the centre of the labyrinth.

He’d come to dispatch me, but I’d dispatched him. His club had snapped in two across my forearm. I remembered feeling his Adam’s apple jiggle against my palm. His neck had grown hot and pulpy. His shiny helmet had fallen off. So much for shiny helmets. He’d

crept up on a sleeping creature to murder it. Not very sportsmanlike.

I dropped the ball of twine at my feet. I had need of it no longer.

“Sister,” I breathed, as if my first breath.

The dagger fell from her fingers before I realised she had cut her neck from ear to ear.

I backed away so that she didn’t splash me, but it was a bit late for that. I watched her girlish frame crumble and her limbs thrash in a scarlet, widening pool under her. Then, after a while, she was still. I had seen many a dead maid before. It was not new to me. But it was a disappointment. I would have liked to have caught up on old times, after all the years that had passed, but she’d put paid to that, well and truly. I wasn’t sure what to do. There wasn’t much

I could do. So I knelt and lapped up the blood before it dried. No sense wasting it.

The taste reminded me of the time I nipped my mother’s breast with my teeth and got a slap for it. I could still feel the sting on my cheek. That was long before being confined to the bellowing dark. Back when I was loved, or thought I was.

Stepping over my sister, and with no destination in mind, I walked north, avoiding the Royal Road with its traffic and people. Crunched olives underfoot, juniper berries, thorns. Nothing smelled as strong as the fiery rot of the sun. My skin was unused to such attention, and oozed, and shone.

Half-cooked and half-exhausted—half most things—I reached the coast and took myself unto the waves, washing away the stuff that stained me. My sister reddened the surf. Poseidon hissed his thanks for the offering by means of the waves combing the sand then retreating.

Just as I turned back to face the beach I saw a strange shape adorning the rocks, so jagged I first took its inelegance to be the buffeted sail and mast of a wrecked ship. Yet it also resembled as much an arm stretching to the firmament.

What creature, then, was this?

I trod carefully closer.

White petals fluttered in the air about me. I caught one. Opened my fist. It was a feather. I snorted and let it off into the wind like a butterfly.

The thing had vast wings but I could not in all honesty call it a bird. And it had a man’s head and body but I could not in all honesty call it a man.

Whatever it was, it was dead, I was sure of that.

I leaned closer to see if the meat was fresh. Old habits die hard. I sniffed its pale cheek. Touched the long bones covered in feathers, thinking I might break off a piece.

The beast flexed its muscles with a rattling groan. The wing flapped out of my grasp.

I fell over backwards, bruising myself, and squatted silently on a rock formation for a while to see if it awakened.

I don’t know why I sat there, looking at its shape. Why did it interest me? Perhaps I thought it might metamorphose into a man. Or metamorphose into a bird. Either would have satisfied.

Neither happened, so I dragged it to the beach to prevent it being swept away by the tide. Why that mattered to me, I cannot say.

Only when I laid it flat did I see the straps and buckles that held the wings to its back. I loosened them and they came away in my hands. Not part of the creature itself but an attachment. Not of bone and flesh at all, but of wooden fronds jointed and planed

by human hands.

I peeled away the broken wings and tossed them into a feathery pile of cracked beeswax and leather, revealing a man, a youth, blood-soaked from his wounds.

I revealed you.

*

“A Meeting at Knossos” is one of 17 stories by Stephen Volk collected in Lies of Tenderness, available now from PS Publishing.

In stock and available to order.

We have some exciting news from one of the busiest editors in the business, the inimitable Stephen Jones, about an exciting new collaboration between him and the gang here at PS Towers. So take it away Steve . . .

PS Publishing presentsTowards the end of 2021, during one of our semi-regular phone conversations, Peter Crowther generously offered me a new, ongoing editing project with PS Publishing in the wake of my wish to finally bring our successful BEST NEW HORROR series to an end.

Although I thanked him for his kind offer, I explained to Pete that the combination of my advanced years and desire to slow down a bit more these days meant that I would prefer, instead, to concentrate just on those books that I really wanted to do.

But then I started thinking . . .

I have been involved in a number of publishing schemes over the years—not least, my own mainstream genre imprint, Raven Books, in the early 1990s—and there was always something that attracted me to the “branding” concept. It was while I was taking a short break on the Portuguese island of Madeira, off the northwest coast of Africa, earlier this year that an idea finally coalesced in my mind one morning while I was taking a shower.

I finally understood that I had already been doing a series of books for PS Publishing over the past couple of decades—but we just hadn’t realised it! So, upon my return, I pitched the idea to Pete, Nicky and Mike and, after some brief discussions, they enthusiastically embraced it.

And so Stephen Jones’ Masters of Horror Series was born!

I’m delighted to announce that the first title to carry the new masthead (created in collaboration with my design partner Michael Marshall Smith) is NEW SUPERNATURAL STORIES by Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe, which we will be launching at ChillerCon UK next weekend, being held in the seaside resort of Scarborough on the wild North Yorkshire coast.

I have known Lionel Fanthorpe (described as “The world’s most prolific writer in the genre” by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) for more than thirty years, and it was while corresponding with him last year about something else that I suggested the idea that we do a book together along the same lines as DEAD TROUBLE & OTHER GHOST STORIES, which I had done with Aidan Chambers for PS back in 2020.

Lionel and his long-time collaborator and wife Patricia were very open to the idea of working on such a collection but, instead of the “Best of” selection that I had initially proposed, they wanted to do a book of original stories. How could I possibly turn down a book of new material by one of the last surviving British pulp paperback authors of the 1950s and ’60s? Obviously, I couldn’t, and so we began working on the idea of a collection of stories very much in the theme and style of those that Lionel and Patricia had churned out for the legendary Badger Books all those years ago.

Randy Broecker—who had also worked on Aidan’s volume with me—quickly signed-on to the project as illustrator, and over the next year we put together NEW SUPERNATURAL STORIES—a tribute to that classic Badger series of anthologies that ran for more than 100 volumes between 1954 and 1967, and contained some of the most outlandish horror fiction ever published in the UK.

Containing fifteen brand-new stories—with titles like ‘The Trail of the Werebeast’, ‘The Terror Below the Sea’, ‘The Poltergeist Peril’, ‘The Way of the Warlock’ and ‘Below the Coffin Lid’—all written by Lionel and Patricia in the inimitable Badger Books-style, NEW SUPERNATURAL STORIES also contains an extensive historical Foreword by me, an original Introduction by the authors, and an interview with Lionel by paperback expert Justin Marriott. Randy Brocker has also not only illustrated every story in the book with one of his incredibly detailed full-page artworks, but also contributed numerous heading and filler illustrations to create a fully-realised picture-book homage to those classic pulp-paperbacks of old!

Here’s just a teaser of what to expect:

            Tristan and Jennifer Carey had retired to a beautiful historic cottage on the outskirts of Brodinnick. Their nearest neighbours were two hundred metres away, and they loved the quiet life of the beautiful Cornish countryside.

            It was well after midnight when their door was forced off its hinges and the thing made its way inside. Despite being in his late seventies, Tristan fought with all his remaining strength to protect the wife he had loved for more than half a century. However, the thing that had proved too strong for a powerful martial arts expert like Lowen Gryffyn tore the gallant old man to pieces and began to devour him.

            Jennifer became hysterical as she tried to defend the man she had loved so much for so long. Again and again, she struck at the monstrous thing with the walking stick that always stood propped beside her bed, but it had no effect.

            Then the monster threw Tristan’s body aside and attacked Jennifer. She screamed in agony and collapsed to the floor, only half-conscious.

We had hoped that Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe would be joining us for the launch of the trade paperback edition of NEW SUPERNATURAL STORIES at ChillerCon UK next weekend—they certainly wanted to be there, but with the various changes in the event dates due to COVID restrictions, they are now unfortunately unable to attend. However, I will be at the convention all weekend and will be signing the book at the PS launch event on Friday evening. So do please come along, have a chat, and get your copy autographed. And for those who want copies additionally signed by Lionel, Patricia and Randy, then we will also be issuing a 100-copy slipcased hardcover edition with alternate cover artwork. As usual, see the PS website for pre-order information.

But wait—as they say in the infomercials—that’s not all! The next book to carry the Stephen Jones’ Masters of Horror Series banner will be the eagerly-awaited updated and revised trade paperback edition of R. Chetwynd-Hayes’ centenary celebration collection, GASLIGHT, GHOSTS & GHOULS, which should be with us any day now, along with forthcoming reprints of several volumes by and about Basil Copper, which will also feature the new appellation. Meanwhile, looking even further ahead into next year, we will not only be bringing out a new collection of horror stories by one of America’s most esteemed writers of science fiction, but also celebrating two landmark anniversaries in horror literature and movies with a couple of remarkable projects, about which we will be revealing more in future Newsletters.

What was that I said to Pete about slowing down a bit now . . .?

Anyway, while I still have strength in my fingers to sign, I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible in Scarborough next weekend. Don’t be shy—come over and say hello, ask me any questions you want, and buy as many books as your luggage will hold. Don’t worry—I don’t bite . . . Much.

Keepsakes

KEEPSAKES

For Kathleen Crowther

The man stared at me, checking me over.

He looked like he’d been made by a poorly coordinated kid who got bored easy and had no sense of design. He was carrying about thirty pounds more than he should, stood around six foot in shoes, and his general demeanor was a complex mixture of hard and soft, aggression and compassion, warmth and coolness. His disarming and yet authoritative air probably made people forgive him almost anything. Almost.

The face itself was straight from Sesame Street, shaped over time by fist, blackjack, occasional knives and razors, and other assorted objects. It was a thick wedge of tan skin-colored modeling clay with two bushy, almost-Neanderthal brows—a bullet had burned a gap in the right one—and large green-brown eyes, bordered by lines and underscored with overnight bags. Right now, the eyes were narrowed tightly, appraising me. This was a cautious man.

Above the eyes was a thick tuft of sagebrush hair, cut unfashionably short and so black it was almost purple. On one cheek was a small dark circle that looked like stubble missed by the morning razor. It was actually a healed-over bullet hole. Below it, and to the side, his lips looked like they were welded together so they’d never smile. But that was just a pose, and one of many. Perfectly on cue, he allowed a small smile. This was not a man to do what was expected of him.

He wore a brown Polo shirt beneath a light green tweed sport coat, beige canvas pants, and a pair of lace-up sensible brogue shoes, thick-soled and bearing the soft look that shoe leather can only get over years of painstaking cleaning and polishing. He lifted one leg so that the sock became exposed. It was bright yellow with green vertical flashes. This man was not a slave to fashion.

We’d known each other a long time, him and me. I was used to him, familiar with his ways and always comfortable with his decisions. I bent down and hoisted up my travel bag. He did the same. He also copied me when I checked my side pocket for my car keys, my inside pocket for my wallet, and my holster for my .38. What else does any man need?

I checked behind me in the room to see if I’d left anything. I hadn’t. I turned back in time to see him turning back from checking his room. It looked a lot like mine. He looked a lot like me. I had one advantage, though: when I looked at him, I saw only what I wanted to see. When he looked at me, he saw the truth.

But we did have one very important thing in common. Our mom loved us. And we loved our mom.

It was only three weeks since Easter, but already the threat of New York summer hung heavy in the air; its muggy ninety-degree days sending out an advance guard of thin wispy tendrils of heat, snaking along the sidewalks by the delis and the art shops, and in the park beside the bushes and around the band shell.

I felt a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The excitement came from leaving the city for a few days, the apprehension from spending those few days with my mom. When I looked at him, I saw that the guy in the mirror showed only the apprehension, carved deep in a long line across his forehead. As I watched, he relaxed. Gave me a smile that said, It’ll be okay. Maybe it would. I took a final look around the apartment and walked out, slamming the door. Hard.

Out in the street, my Toyota waited breathless, ready to move. I threw in my bag and my jacket, unclipped my holster and tossed it onto the passenger seat, climbed in behind the wheel. We set off, man and machine—both sluggish at first—heading for Broadway and parts beyond.

It was one of those days when I wished I had a convertible, but I made the Toyota into the next best thing and rolled down all the windows. The finishing touch was a cassette of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons…all I needed now was Alan Alda sitting beside me, and we’d be fine.

Broadway parallels the Hudson River and, if you ever want to go north out of New York, it’s the best route of escape…straight, colorful, and interesting. I crossed the Harlem into the Bronx, drove past Cortland Park into Yonkers and the start of Westchester County. Somewhere over left of me, fortunes were being made and lost, and reputations manipulated, along the lush tees of St. Andrews. Golf had never been a game I could come to terms with, but it ranked second against big business. Maybe the two of them deserved each other.

Along the way, Broadway changed its name a few times—Albany Post Road and U.S. 9 being the most common—but it was always Broadway to me. The Toyota had got its wind now, and it gulped both the oncoming countrified air and the endless blacktop with impressive ease. I leaned my arm out of the window and enjoyed the flattening landscape and the lush compositions of Vivaldi as we moved through small towns whose names ended with ‘on-Hudson,’ then Hastings, Ardsley, and Croton, and over the Tappan Zee Bridge and into whimsical Tarrytown, onetime home of Washington Irving.

From there into Ossining where, glancing across at the ghost town of Sing Sing, I turned down the sound to see if I could hear the spectral echoes of metal mugs on steel bars that so characterized the old prison-break movies. But there was only wind and the smells of defeat, failure, and incarceration.

Before long, following State 9D, we drifted through Garrison, Boscobel and Cold Sprint. For old times’ sakes, I stopped the car in Cold Sprint and, amid the heady perfume of roses—maybe more imagined than real—I thought of Mom and Dad and, more recently, of Philippa Tamidge and Rodney Millerchap. I made a mental note to bring Ella Thornley out here sometime. When I got back to the car, I had butterflies in my stomach.

Back on the road, we rejoined U.S. 9 into Rhinebeck before branching off onto State 9G, less traffic, nearer the river and air redolent with the smell of apples. I stopped at a little road stand and bought a bag from a towheaded kid, dressed in faded denims and sporting the biggest booger of dried snot on his top lip that I’d ever seen. “You ought to see about getting that amputated,” I said. Who needed Alan Alda?

“Huh?” he said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I told him, taking the apples. I held out a five-dollar bill and he snatched it, keeping his eyes on me all the time. Those same eyes looked set to fall right out of his head when I waved away his offer of change. Koko Tate, Big Spender.

Munching my McIntosh, I drove on through Hudson itself, switched to State 9J to keep next to the river, and onward to Kinderhook, Resselaer, and the dusty state capital, Albany. Out of Albany and into Troy—where, sparing a thought for Herman Melville, I bellowed “Thar she blows!” out of the window, scaring an old man, who was busy scything his lawn, out of any growing he still had left to do—we took U.S. 4 back over the Hudson into Waterford and across the Mohawk to Cohoes. By this time, the butterflies in my stomach had put on boots and were busy working out to Michael Jackson.

Crescent Road followed the Mohawk through Crescent, Vischer Ferry and Rexford, then it became State 146 and took us on into Niskayuna and Schenectady.

Our destination.

Schenectady is home to two formidable institutions: General Electric’s research and development center and my mom.

Although New York’s heartland is generally considered to begin west of the industrial triangle of Albany, Troy, and Schenectady, north of the Catskills and south of the Adirondacks, there’s still a lot of small-town soul in Schenectady itself…along with some of the prettiest picket-fenced smallholdings you’ll see this side of a Rockwell calendar or the pages of an old Archie comic book. Eleanor Alice Tate lived at one of them, 421 Fenimore Street.

I pulled the Toyota up against her front lawn and turned off the engine. The car breathed a clink of relief and began to settle itself onto its chassis for a well-earned rest. I got out and stretched, winding my head around to bring some feeling back into my shoulders, breathing in the heady scent of roses and night stocks that wouldn’t even begin doing their real work until the sun went down and the air cooled off. Just as I was thinking of opening the back door and getting my jacket, the little old lady that used to protect Tweety and smack Sylvester with a broom walked out onto the step of the house, holding the screen door ajar with her shoulder and wiping her hands on a blue-and-yellow floral apron. Shielding her eyes with her right hand, she stared at me across the grass. “Koko?”

“Hi, Mom,” I shouted. The butterflies had tuned in to a metal-rock station. I walked toward her, the years falling away from me with every step, the sounds of the Toyota’s hot metal ticking behind me, the gentle breeze lifting the branches of a huge sycamore that probably looked down in the same benevolent way when the American Locomotive Company opened for business back in 1851. Two houses along, a guy in a Hawaiian shirt stopped mowing his lawn and leaned on the machine handle.

The smell of freshly cut grass drifted across and around me and, by the time I got up to her, I was fourteen years old, knees scuffed and hands dirty, looking behind her small frame for a sign of Dad standing in the doorway, rolled-up copy of The New York Times grasped firmly in one hand. But he didn’t appear. I hadn’t seen him—except in my dreams and one time during a scary hypnotism session with Jim Garnett—since 1972 when we’d laid him to rest in a small graveyard in Lawnswood where, on a still clear night, you could hear the shouts of kids reaching for the brass rings on the Palisades rides and smell the sweet, cloying drift of cotton candy.

My mom took hold of my arms and held me there, eyes moistening. Behind me, the guy in the shirt started up his mower. She shook her head, and when she spoke it was with a mixture of pride and loss, her voice shaky and unsure. “Koko,” she said, “it’s real good to see you.”

“You too, Mom,” I said, and I bent forward and hugged her to me and bit my lip to stop from crying, squeezing my eyes tightly closed and breathing in her smells so that I could call on them those times when I felt scared or lonely. She patted my back and shook her head again, pushing me back to arms’ length and taking another look. “My, but you’re so tall,” she said with just a hint of a smile.

“Six feet is all, Mom,” I said. “Same as ever.”

She nodded her head and then lifted a hand to tuck a strand of hair beneath a silver clip. “It’s me, I guess. Shrinking,” she said. Then, with a dismissive wave, “Go get your things, now. I’ve got hot blueberry muffins and a fresh pot of coffee.”

“Hot dog,” I said, immediately wondering where the words had come from and I jogged back, up through the years, to the disappointment of adulthood and the promise of decay and obsolescence offered by my slumbering Toyota.

As the afternoon drifted into early evening and the first night flies took to the airwaves, my mom and I brought each other up-to-date with news and stories, rediscovering each other again after long months of unnecessary separation.

I told her about “Lonesome” Pines—missing out the shooting—and Philippa Tamidge, and about the Bible murder and my trip down to Louisiana with Jeff Sandusky. She liked that story a lot, always having been partial to cats. I didn’t tell her about the little old ladies from last Christmas. Too close to home.

And as she stood at her sink, washing our plates and cups and staring out into the colors of the evening, I told her about Ella Thornley, and about how much she’d like her. My mom told me that Ella sounded just fine and that I had to bring her up to visit.

In her voice I could hear her silent prayers that God should keep me well and make me settle down and marry and, maybe, just so’s she could see them one time, bless me and this Ella Thornley with kids that could run bare-assed through the long grasses that she still thought existed off the main roads of New York City.

Sitting in Dad’s old chair, smoking a stale Pall Mall from a pack that Mom kept around for emergencies, I flicked through an old copy of Vogue. Mom turned on a side lamp and settled down into the chair next to me, picked up her sewing. I felt like I was in an off-Broadway play, maybe something by Arthur Miller, set back in the mid-Fifties.We were building up to moving into the second stage of our conversations when the knock on the door interrupted the thought flows.

“Just hold on a minute,” Mom said, straining out of the chair. “Now who could that be at this time?” she muttered, aside to me. I watched her walk to the door, arthritis pulling her knees outward, and wondered where all the time had gone.

She pulled the door open and gave a small yelp of delight. “Tyrone Daniels, what are you doing out here at this time?”

A tall, thin man in his late fifties ambled through into the living room, nodding to Mom and smiling over at me. “I couldn’t get out here until now, Eleanor, and I truly am sorry.”

Mom waved him nevermind.

“We had all manner of things going on today, and I did promise I’d get out here and talk to you about the missing hose and…” Tyrone Daniels let his voice drift and fixed his eyes on me the way any lawman would.

“This is my son, Koko,” Mom said grandly. “Koko, this is Tyrone.”

I nodded and held out a hand. “Tyrone, how you doing?”

He took it and shook it hard. “Doing just fine,” he said, “just fine.” He removed his hand and jammed it into his jacket pocket. “Koko you say?” he said to Mom.

“It’s short for Kokorian,” I explained over Mom’s nod. “Mom always wanted me to be a ballet dancer, but I never did make it.”

“Oh, Koko!” she said with a laugh, and struggled back to her chair, landing with a plump and a sigh into the cushions.

Tyrone Daniels gave out the kind of smile that people reserve for when they don’t know what the hell’s going on. I shook my head and waved him free.

“Sit down, Tyrone,” Mom said. She turned around to me and said, “Tyrone works out at the sheriff’s office.”

“Oh?” I said, like I hadn’t already guessed. The big man nodded and sat on the edge of a high-backed chair. “What you been doing, Mom? Not speeding again?”

Mom shook her head, allowed her beaming smile to spread still farther across her face, and pushed her glasses farther back on her nose.

“There’s been a whole spate of burglaries along this road, Mr. Tate,” he said.

“That’s Koko,” I corrected.

He smiled and gave a quick nod.

“Burglaries? You didn’t mention this to me, Mom.”

“Didn’t see that I needed to, Son. They didn’t get away with much at all, just some old hose I had curled up outside the back porch.”

“Any ideas on who was responsible?”

“Kids most likely,” Daniels said in an easy voice that covered up his strength and sharpness admirably. I was impressed. “Stole junk and bric-a-brac mostly,” he went on.“No offense, Eleanor.”

Mom shook her head and resumed her sewing. “None taken, Tyrone.”

“Junk? Like what?”

Well, your mom’s hose, some barbecue equipment—tools and the like, you know—a couple of garden pixies from Mrs. Berryman’s place…” Mom sniggered, and Tyrone shot her a glance before continuing. “A garden fork left out overnight…that kind of thing. Nothing important, but it’s just the fact that there’s someone prowling around that…well, it just causes some discomfort.”

“When was this, Mom?”

“Couple of nights ago, now. It’s not all that important, now, so stop your worrying,” she said, patting my arm.Then to Tyrone, “I’m really grateful you came around, Tyrone, but everything’s all right now Koko’s here.”

I flexed my muscles and put on one of my toughest expressions. “Koko Tate, scourge of pixie thieves!” He laughed dutifully.

“So what line of business you in?” he said, getting to his feet. “Seeing as how you didn’t make the Bolshoi.”

“Same as you,” I said, “but private.”

“A pee eye, huh.” He didn’t sound impressed. Nobody ever did. “How’s it pay?”

I shrugged. “I eat every other day and sleep at the Y on Saturdays. What was it the animals used to say on The Flintstones? ‘It’s a living!’”

“Yeah, right,” he said. He didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. He turned to my mom and gave her the big warm smile he had so successfully kept from me. “You let me know if you hear anything now, Eleanor,” he said, “and keep those doors locked.” Mom started to get out of the chair, but stopped when he placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “I’ll see myself out.” He turned around and walked to the door. “Good meeting you, Mr. Tate,” he said.

“You too, Tyrone,” I answered. I walked over to him, pulled open the door, and walked out onto the step with him. He paused and looked up into the steadily darkening sky. “Gonna be another hot one,” he said.

I followed his gaze…Fredric March and Spencer Tracy out on the front porch in Inherit The Wind. “Yep,” I said, fighting off the urge to hitch up my pants. “Looks that way.”

“You staying long?”

“Over the weekend,” I said. “Mother’s Day.”

“Right. My mom died few years back.” I nodded and just managed to stop from telling him I was sorry to hear that. “Well, gotta get along now.” He ambled off across the grass toward a waiting Dodge Rambler with its sides on. “Be seeing you.”

I waited until he got into his car and gave a wave as he pulled off. Somewhere up behind the nighttime clouds, a god that must’ve had a soft spot for Stephen Spielberg sent a meteor searing across the treetops on the other side of the road, flying high enough to make Toledo. Its trail flashed bright and then disappeared, leaving a dark scratch, like a kid’s uneven scrawl or an old woman’s signature, etched on the blackness.

When I looked down and turned around, the guy in the Hawaiian shirt was watching me, standing out on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I nodded to him. “Hello there.”

“Hello yourself,” he said. “You Ellie’s boy?”

“I guess so”—I laughed—“but ‘boy’ might be a bit ambitious.” I held out my hand and walked over to him. “Koko Tate,” I said.

He took the hand, limply, held if for a second or two, like it was a fresh dog turd, and then let it drop. “Jerry Parmenter. So how’s she doing?”

“My mom? She’s doing just fine far as I can make out. But maybe it’s me should be asking you.”

“Me? Hell, we never hardly see hide nor hair of Ellie. Keeps herself to herself,” he said, pulling on his cigarette. “And that’s just fine with me’s what I say.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded at me, as if to say it was a pity more folks along the street didn’t follow my mom’s example.

“Yeah,” I said, mainly because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and looked around at the street and my Toyota. “It sure is quiet along here.”

He pulled again on the cigarette and threw it to the grass, ground it in with his foot, and blew out a cloud of smoke. “We were worried about her a while back, me and Doreen—Doreen’s my wife.”

I smiled. “Worried?”

“Yeah, she didn’t seem herself.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He pulled a bent-looking pack of Kools out of his shirt pocket and shook one out. I didn’t even know they still made menthol cigarettes. He put the cigarette in his mouth and said, “Walking around the lawn late at night, muttering…like she was talking to somebody.” He looked sheepish, embarrassed to be telling me this about my mother.

I glanced back at my mom’s house, saw the curtain twitch at the window. “How late is late?”

“This time, maybe a little later. I always come out ’round about now. For a smoke, you know. Doreen, she doesn’t like me smoking in the house.”

“She do it often?”

“Every night,” he said emphatically.

“When was the last time?”

He frowned. “Night before last, I think.”

“Well, I’m grateful for you telling me, Jerry. I don’t see how there’s a whole lot I can do about it, but I do appreciate you telling me.”

“Where’re you from…Koko?”

“New York City. Born and bred. Mom moved out a few years after Dad died.”

“You staying long?”

“Just over Mother’s Day, going back Monday morning.”

He threw the cigarette down on top of the first one, ground it in the same way. “Well, gotta be getting back. Only supposed to have the one.” He slapped the pack of Kools through his shirt pocket like a teenager checking his trusty Trojans. “You give her my best, now,” he said as he walked across the grass to his house.

“Will do,” I shouted after him. When I turned around, the curtain twitched again.

Back inside the house, Mom was making a fresh pot of coffee and there was a plate of cookies all laid out on the table. “Who was that?” she said.

“One of your neighbors, Jerry Parmenter.”

She sniffed her disapproval. “He’s new. Been here around four months, never speaks to me, neither him nor Doreen—she’s his wife.”

“I know.”

“You shake his hand?”

I laughed. “Like a dog’s paw.”

She joined in with the laughter. “He’s out there every single night, smoking those mint cigarettes.” She tutted and stirred the coffee. “You’d never catch anyone who was anyone smoking those things.”

Mom had always been the ad man’s dream come true. For most things, but particularly for cigarettes. She smoked Chesterfield because Ronald Reagan said he sent all his friends a box at Christmas and then Luckies when Marlene Dietrich advertised them in the early Fifties. It was Camel when John Wayne told the nation “It’s kind of gratifying to see that my cigarette is America’s choice, too,” then Philip Morris when Lucy Ball told everyone to “Call for Philip Morris.” She kept with Philip Morris right up until Lucy and Desi got their divorce, then switched back to Chesterfield when they advertised that they were actually air-softened and because the ads said that two out of every three smokers smoked them. Now she smoked hardly any at all, and she only bought what was cheapest in the store.

“He say anything about me?” She handed me a pot of steaming coffee that smelled strong enough to climb right out and walk around the floor.

I took the coffee and frowned, shook my head thoughtfully. “Oh, he said for me to give you his best.” I sipped.

“Mmmm.” She flopped into her chair and winced in pain.

“Bad?”

“They’re always bad around nighttime, honey. There’s not a single thing you can do about it.” She rubbed her swollen knee joints tenderly, and I felt suddenly sorry that she had to do it for herself. No one around to give her sympathy, show her affection, tell her she looked nice.

“You look great in that dress, Mom,” I said.

“This?!” She took hold of the collar like it was an old sooty rag, and laughed a short sharp snort. But deep down, I knew, she liked me saying that.

I never sleep late.

So it was a surprise to find it was almost ten o’clock when I came downstairs in the morning, the house silent and empty, a bowl and packet of Cheerios left out on the table for me. A note in Mom’s careful hand said she’d gone out to church and would be back around eleven-thirty.

The slowed-down country air had furred my head cogs and left me feeling thick, couldn’t-care-less, and young. I wandered around the rooms rediscovering pieces of my youth, all preserved just the way I remembered them. My heart ached with the memories and the silence. I felt like I was waiting for something to happen.

I went down to the Toyota and brought up the flowers and candies I’d bought before I left New York, put them out on the table so she’d see them as soon as she walked in the house. Then I decided to cut the grass. Out in the garage, jammed down behind the mower, is where I saw the hose. To one side of it were two brightly colored pixies that could have been identical twins. Behind an old washtub cabinet that I remembered Dad taking the mechanical guts out of, I found the pitchfork. Everything else was there, too. It seemed like I could solve cases without even trying.

By the time she got home, I’d finished the grass and used the telephone. The first thing I said to her when she walked in was, “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.” The second was, “Cute move stealing your own hose. The last person to suspect is a victim.”

Her mouth dropped open, then snapped shut. Years tumbled down out of the ceiling and landed squarely on her shoulders, bending her almost double by the time she’d made it to the chair.

I lifted the flowers and placed them on her lap, gave her a big kiss on the cheek, and knelt beside her. “You want to tell me about it?”

The world has a lot of sights that just take hold of your heart and wring the life right out of it. One of the worst of those is seeing your mom cry. Only seniority can truly console and when you get on up toward seventy years old, there’s not too many folks left around who qualify for the task. She sobbed and shook her head, holding onto her flowers like a mother with her baby. Which made an awful lot of sense.

“You feeling lonely out here?”

The tears subsided a little, and she nodded. “Very,” she said, making such a short simple word into a huge weight of despair.

“So you took the things to draw attention to yourself.”

She looked at me in horror. “No! I did no such thing. I didn’t want people to know it was me.”

I stroked her arm and shook my head. “No, I know you didn’t want people to know it was you, but, deep down, maybe you thought they’d find out. Then wonder why you did such a thing.”

“No, it wasn’t a cry for help, Son.” She gave the phrase a dose of disdain and licked her lips. “They were keepsakes.”

“Keepsakes?”

“Yes, mementos of life, I suppose.”

I watched her face, waiting for it to make some sense to me.

“The pixies and the barbecue things…they’re all things that people have, that people make a noise around. I guess I just wanted to bring some of that life inside.” Her face was bright now, animated with trying to make me see. “There’s no life around me anymore. Everything’s so still and so slow, everybody treats me so soft and gentle…I don’t want that, Koko. I remember the days when…when everything was so active around me.” Her eyes misted up again, and I held her hand tighter now. When she spoke again, it was so soft I almost couldn’t hear her. “I miss him so much, Son,” she said. “I get so lonely.”

“I know, Mom, I know.”

The knock came right before the door opened, and Tyrone Daniels stood there, a sky-gray Stetson Whippet clasped tightly in his hand, a big beaming Sunday smile on his face. When he saw Mom, his smile dropped.

“It’s okay, Tyrone,” I said, “she hates it when I give her things.”

Tyrone looked a little confused and cleared his throat. “I just came to say I got all the things back to their owners, Koko.”

I squeezed Mom’s hand twice. “Glad to hear it. You figure you’ll ever catch who left the stuff over in those bushes?”

He shook his head. “Kids. Like I said. Leastways nothing was broken.”

“Yeah, nothing was broken.” I stood up and moved toward the door.

“I just came around to thank you again, Koko,” he said, following me. “Seems like we country folks could learn a thing or two from you big city clickers.”

I smiled awkwardly and slowly pushed the screen door open.

“Well, you take care now, Eleanor,” he said over his shoulder, and I saw Mom’s eyes twinkle in surprise. “I’ll be in touch Monday or Tuesday. There’s a recital at the church on Thursday, thought you’d like to go. I’ll give you a call. Though you might be lonely when Koko goes back.”

Mom nodded in amazement.

I followed Tyrone outside where it had started to rain. I’d cut the grass just in time. Halfway down the path, he said, “How was I?”

“Don’t give up the day job.”

He sniggered.

“You laid on the country bumpkin act with a trowel,” I said. “And what the hell are city clickers?”

“Huh?”

Maybe he hadn’t laid it on all that much.

Waving him off, relishing the refreshing coolness of the rain on my head and shoulders, I felt undeniably good. The first warmth of the year’s summer. Mom would never know that I had told Tyrone Daniels the truth, told him what she’d done, and what I believed had caused her to do it. That was the real present right there. Real presents aren’t always things you can see or buy, like candies and flowers…they’re things you know, and things you do.

I turned around just in time to see the garish strains of a Hawaiian shirt disappear into Mom’s house.

When I got back inside, she was pouring hot water into three mugs. The cookies were already laid out on a plate, and Jerry Parmenter was halfway through his first Kool.

Before I got the chance to say anything, Mom said, “Jerry asked if he could duck in here for a cigarette. Doreen doesn’t like him smoking in the house.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“It’s raining,” Jerry Parmenter said.

“Yeah,” I said again.

“I told him it was okay to call in any time, particularly when it’s raining. I love the smell of tobacco.”

I looked across at the man with the dullest handshake this side of a cemetery and saw him wink at me. Some neighbors are like that. They don’t miss a trick. He’d seen Tyrone Daniels and me loading the things into Tyrone’s trunk, put two and two together.

Mom handed out the mugs of coffee and plopped into her chair. She looked as fresh as mountain air. “We’ll just drink this down, and then I’ll fix us some lunch,” she said, taking a sip.

“And I’ll just have another cigarette,” Jerry Parmenter said. “You want to try one of these?” he asked my mom, holding the pack of Kools out to her.

Mom reached for them and looked up at me with that old mischievous gleam. “Don’t mind if I do, thank you.”

Jerry Parmenter lifted his mug toward the ceiling. “Here’s to mothers…everywhere,” he announced.

Thornton Wilder…Edgar Lee Masters…Sherwood

Anderson…John Howland Spyker—eat your hearts out!

 

Too Short A Death

By Peter Crowther

(From his up-and-coming collection from Cemetery Dance; THINGS I DIDNT KNOW MY FATHER KNEW)

Hey…hey!’ The man on the stage was trying to make himself hear, laughing while he was doing it and waving his hands conspiratorially, as though he were Billy Crystal in the Mr. Saturday Night movie. But the sound that he was trying to drown out was not the sound of people enjoying him but rather of them enjoying each other or their food or their drinks.

‘Yeah, Hillary Clinton.’ The man frowned and shook his hand as though he had picked up something that was too hot to hold. ‘You heard…you heard Bill wants six more secret service agents assigned to her, yeah? Well,’ he reasoned with a shrug, ‘after all, if anything happened to her, he’d have to become President.’

In humor terms, it was one step—a small one—up from Take my wife…please! but somebody let out a loud guffaw and David MacDonald turned around on his seat to see who it had been. At one of the tables over by the coat racks two men were laughing, but it was clearly not at Jack Rilla.

‘Thanks, Don,’ Jack Rilla shouted into his microphone. ‘My brother Don,’ he added for the audience’s benefit. ‘Nice boy.’

The man at the table—who was clearly no relation to the comedian—turned to face the stage and gave Jack Rilla the bird, receiving a warm burst of applause.

Macdonald had never enjoyed seeing somebody die on stage, so he turned back to his food.

He was enjoying the anonymity. All the effete photographers and the snot-nosed journos had gone, taken up their cameras and their tape recorders and walked. Gone back to the city.

He was no longer news. “The most innovative poet of his generation”, The New York Times had trilled, mentioning—in the 18-paragraph, front page lead devoted to his quest—the names of early pioneers such as William Carlos Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ezra Pound; Kenneth Fearing, to whom they attached the appellation “The Ring Lardner of American verse”; the so-called war poets, including Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro—the Pulitzer winner whose “Auto Wreck” had been widely (and wrongly!) cited as the inspiration behind MacDonald’s own “The Downer”, and even some of the Black Mountain College graduates, in particular Robert Creely and the college’s head honcho, Charles Olson. This latter ‘revelation’ enabled the hack responsible for the piece to tie it all back again to Williams and Pound, who, with their respective paeons “Patterson” and “Cantos”, were commonly regarded as being among the North Carolina college’s—and particularly Olson’s—chief inspirations.

A neat job, but, in the main, entirely wrong.

MacDonald loved e. e. cummings, born a generation after Williams but infinitely more eloquent in his embrace of nature and naturalness and, to the end, delightfully, whimsical. Similarly, he preferred Carl Sandburg—whose “Limited” he had used in its entirety (all six lines!) as the frontispiece to Walton Flats, a surreal and fabulous  (in the true sense of the word) novel-length tale of godhood and redemption which he had written in collaboration with Jimmy Lovegrove—to the Runyonesque Kenneth Fearing. And as for the “war poets”, Macdonald rated Randall Jarrell above all the others—Shapiro and his “V-Letter” included—even to the point of learning Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” when he was only twelve years old.

When it came to open verse, MacDonald settled for the Beats—Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in particular—over the inferior Black Mountain scribes, a fact which seemingly never ceased to amaze the self-styled poetry pundits. But it was their amazement that so astonished MacDonald, just as it astonished him now how nobody seemed to give credit to the “Harlem Renaissance” and the fine work produced in the field of poetry by the likes of Etheridge Knight (of course), plus forerunners of the stature of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and contempories such as Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. As much as anyone—if not more than, in many cases—these writers, in MacDonald’s opinion, were fundamental in recording the consciousness of a country at odds with itself, as he had gone to great pains to explain to a surprised David Letterman on live television a little over three years ago. Quoting the final few lines from Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa”—in which the poet comments on the patronizing of the whites—MacDonald took great relish in Letterman’s damp forehead.

Sitting at the bar, MacDonald recalled the piece.

‘…I really hope that no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.’

But the attention he had received in the press the following day was nothing to the coverage afforded his bold announcement that he was to forgo the novel on which he was working and, instead, go in search of Weldon Kees.

That was almost a year ago now.

The newspapers and the magazines had all followed: followed him to dry California towns, tracked him into the wastes of New Mexico, dogged his footsteps into the inhospitable Texas plains and now, back in the sleepy Nebraskan township of Beatrice, they had grown bored. After all, a fanatic is only of interest so long as she either looks like succeeding or looks like dying. Simple failure just isn’t news.

Now no flashbulbs flashed as he walked still another dust-blown, night-time Main Street in some godforsaken town, in its own way just one more boil on the fat backside of indulgence, a lazy, going-nowhere/seen-nothing grouping of weatherworn buildings and choked-up autos clustered around an obligatory general store and wooden-floored bar…with maybe a railroad track where no trains stopped any more thrown in for good measure.

Now no microphones were jammed between his mouth and some under- or overcooked indigenous delicacy as he continued his quest even through physical replenishment. Sometimes the questions had been more rewarding than the food. But the answers he gave were always the same, and the novelty had plain worn off.

Beatrice, Nebraska. A small, slow, company town lacerated by railroad tracks and gripped for eleven months of the year by permafrost or heat wave.

This was where he had started and, now, this was where it all ended. It was the latest—and, MacDonald now believed, the last—stop on this particular tour. Eleven months in the wilderness was enough for any man: Even Moses only spent forty days, for Crissakes.

Whitman’s America had come to a dead-end on the shores of the Pacific and, like the land itself, rolled lazily down to the waterline seeing only oblivion. MacDonald was tired. Tired of honky-tonk bars where he would search through a maze of good ol’ boys and raunchy women, rubbing against tattoos and beer bellies, straining to see and hear through cigarette smile and jukebox rhythms, carrying home with him the secondhand, hybrid musk of sweat and cheap perfume; tired of the revivalist espresso houses in the Village, where he would search through intense poets and poetesses, all wearing only dark colors and frowns, the de rigeur uniform. They, like him, searching, always searching.

He pushed the plate forward on the table, the meal unfinished. It had been a bean-bedecked and fat-congealed mush that maybe could have passed for gumbo if he’d been about 1,500 miles to the southwest. He wiped his mouth across a napkin from a pile on the corner of the bar, their edges yellowed with age, and noted the faded photograph of a town square with picket fences that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Archie comic book or a Rockwell painting. He’d walked through that town square—in reality, little more than a pause for breath between developments in what was merely a typical Nebraskan suburb—to get to the bar in which he was now sitting. There had been no sign of the picket fence.

Just like Rockwell himself, it was long gone. But he had seen from the swinging racks in the drugstore that Archie was still around, though his hair was longer now. Nothing stays the same forever. Maybe this town had been Rockwell once, but now it was Hopper, filled up with aimless people like Jack Rilla, the unfunny comedian, all living aimless lives, staring unsmiling out of seedy rooming house windows at the telegraph poles and their promise of distance.

Weldon Kees, where are you? he thought.

The bartender slouched over to him and lifted up the plate quizzically. ‘No good?’ he said, his jowls shaking to the movement of his mouth.

MacDonald frowned and shook his head, rubbing his stomach with both hands. ‘Au contraire,’ he said, effecting an English accent, ‘merely that you are too generous with your portions.’

The bartender narrowed his eyes. ‘Aw what?’

‘He said you gave him too much.’

MacDonald turned in the direction of the voice to see a man in his early forties chasing an olive around a highball glass with a tiny yellow, plastic sword. The man looked like a movie star from the late fifties/early sixties, like maybe Tony Curtis or someone like that. He wore a plaid sportscoat, oxford button-down with a red-and-green striped necktie, and black pants rucked up at the knees to preserve two of the sharpest creases MacDonald had ever seen. Covering his feet, which rested lazily on the rail of his stool, were a pair of heavily polished Scotch grain shoes and, within them, a pair of gaudy argyle socks. MacDonald’s eyes took it all in and then drifted back to the glass. There was no liquid in it. He hadn’t noticed the man before, but then he wouldn’t have. The bar was crowded to capacity, a good turnout for the amateur talent night promised on a rash of handbills pasted around the town.

The bartender nodded and, with another puzzled glance at MacDonald, he turned around and slid the plate across the serving hatch. ‘Empties!’ he shouted.

MacDonald swizzled the plastic palm tree in his club soda, twisted around on his seat and smiled. ‘Thanks. You want that freshened?’

The man turned to him and gave him a long, studied look, taking in MacDonald’s plain gray jacket and pants, green, soft-collared sport shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, and nodded. ‘Yeah, why not, thanks. Vodka martini. On the rocks. Thanks again.’

MacDonald raised his hand a few inches off the bar, and the bartender acknowledged with a short nod that looked more like a physical affliction.

‘You here for the competition?’

MacDonald took a long drink and put his own glass back onto the bar. ‘That’s right. You?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘But really only to enjoy the efforts of others. I’m actually a performer myself.’ The strange and self-knowing smile suggested hidden complexities in the statement.

MacDonald nodded and glanced at the stage, ignoring the opportunities to probe. At this stage of the journey he had had it with barroom confessions. Jack Rilla was telling a story about three men from different countries being sentenced to die…but being given a choice of the method of their execution. It was horrible.

‘How about you?’ the man said. ‘Are you a performer?’

‘There’s some that might say so,’ MacDonald replied, grateful to be able to turn away from what Jack Rilla was doing to stand-up comedy.

‘What do you do?’

‘I write poetry.’

‘That so?’ The interest seemed genuine.

MacDonald nodded again and drained his glass as a crackly fanfare of trumpets sounded across the PA system to signal the end of the comedian. Nobody seemed to be clapping.

Turning around so they could watch the small stage at the end of the adjoining room, they saw a fat man with a Stetson starting to announce the next act. By his side were two younger men holding guitars and shuffling nervously from one foot to the other. The fat man led the half-hearted applause and backed away to the edge of the stage. The duo took a minute or so to tune their instruments and then lurched uneasily into a nasal rendition of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’

MacDonald shook his head and held up the empty glass to the bartender, who had apparently forgotten them and had now taken to slouching against the back counter. ‘Refills over here,’ he shouted. The bartender lumbered over and refilled the glasses, all the while mouthing the words to the song. MacDonald took a sip of the soda.

‘Not too good, huh?’ the stranger said.

‘The service or the entertainment?’

The man jerked his head at the stage.

‘I’ve heard better,’ MacDonald said. ‘It’s probably safe to say that Dylan’ll sleep easy.’

The man smiled and nodded. ‘I knew a poet once,’ he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘Uh-huh.’ He lifted the glass and drained it in one perfectly fluid motion. MacDonald recognized the art of serious drinking…drinking purely to forget or to remember. He had watched somebody he used to know quite well doing just the same thing over a couple of years…watched him in a thousand bar mirrors. He called those his wilderness years. The man set the glass down again and cleared his throat. ‘What kind of poetry you write?’

‘Kind? It’s just poetry.’

‘The rhyming kind?’

MacDonald gave a half-nod. ‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘Depends on how I feel.’

The pair of troubadours finished up their first song, receiving a smattering of applause, and launched immediately into another. This one was their own. It showed.

MacDonald reached into his pocket and pulled out the plastic button. The number on it was 23. He looked at the board at the side of the stage: beneath the number 22 was a piece of wipe-off card bearing the legend Willis and Dobbs.

While Willis and Dobbs crooned about some truck driver whose wife had left him for another woman—modern times!—a small group of four men and two women chatted animatedly at the table right down in front of the stage. A tall spindle of metal stood proud in the table center and boasted the word JUDGES. They didn’t seem to be talking about Willis and Dobbs. Maybe it was just that they didn’t like country music.

Willis and Dobbs finished their song almost in unison and bowed while the audience applauded and whistled with relief. As the duo shuffled off the stage, the fat man with the Stetson shuffled on the other side, also applauding. As the fat man reached the microphone, MacDonald took another swig of the club soda and slid off his stool. ‘Wish me luck,’ he said to the stranger.

The man looked around. ‘You on now? Hey, break a leg,’ he said, slapping MacDonald on the arms as he walked past him.

The usual nervousness was there. It was always there. He made his way through the people standing up in the bar section and then walked down the two steps to the adjoining room where he threaded his way among the tables to the stage. All the time he walked he was memorizing the lines, though he knew them by heart. He reached the stage as the fat man told the audience to give a big hand to Davis MacDonald.  The timing was impeccable.

He walked over to the microphone and nodded to the room, raising his hand in greeting. ‘Hi there,’ he said.

A smattering of nods and waves and mumbled returns acknowledged him. The man at the bar had turned full around on his stool to watch him. He raised his glass—which MacDonald saw had been replenished—and nodded. MacDonald nodded back. Then he faced the audience and lifted one finger to his mouth.

As always, the silence was almost immediate. It flowed over and around the people sitting at the tables, flowed through and into them, touching their insides and calming their heads. The only way you could recite poetry and feel it—whether reading it yourself or listening to it being read by others—was to do it in silence. After all, whoever heard of a painter painting onto a canvas that already had something on it?

There were a few nervous shuffles as MacDonald paced from one side of the stage to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pants pocket. At last, satisfied that this was as good as it was going to get, he removed the micro-phone, pointed over the heads of the onlookers to some impossible distance, and began.

‘She’s down!

‘Like a wounded mammoth, her body sags

and, across the sidewalk,

in a shower of fabled jewels,

she spills the contents of her bags.

‘The empty street becomes alive

with do-gooders, tourists and passersby,

all holding breath.

Transfixed, and with mouths agape,

they see her features lighten under death

while, alongside,

the treasures once so richly cherished—

a loaf, some toothpaste, matches, relish—

lie discarded on the paving slabs.



‘And ooohs and aaahs, the silence stabs.

‘It takes some time but, action done,

the audience turns away its eye and,

with a thought as though of one.

thinks there one day goes I.’

On the final line, MacDonald turned his back on the audience, walked slowly back to the microphone stand and replaced the microphone. A smattering of applause broke out around the tables. MacDonald nodded and raised his hand, mouthing the words thank you, thank you. He caught sight of the man at the bar. He looked as though he had seen a ghost.

After ‘The Downer,’ MacDonald recited his ‘Ode To the City.’

‘Beneath the legends of the stars

the drunks cry out in a thousand bars

while pushers prowl in speeding cars...

civilization is never far in the city.

‘Bronchitic winos cough up more phlegm

to mouth the glassy teat again,

and venereal ladies stalk the concrete glens...

though love has long since left the city.



‘The neons wink cold, thoughtless lies,

to flood the dark and strain the eyes,

while the flasher opens wide his flies...

because nothing hides inside the city.’

MacDonald lifted the microphone from the stand again and walked across to the left of the stage.

‘Smoke-bred cancers maim the flesh,

the addict chokes his vein to strike the next

while the abortionist clears away the mess...

as all life dies within the city.


‘The dropouts pass around the joint

and the rapist hammers home his point,

but the suicide doth himself anoint

in the fetid, stagnant waters of the city.


‘The kidnapper pastes together a note

and then binds his charge with silken rope

while frantic parents give us hope...

which so long ago left the city.’

And now, as ever, the audience was his.

“In Mendaala When It Rains” came next, followed by “Dear Diary” and “Conversation”. Then MacDonald paused and, unfastening the top button of his sport shirt, sat down on the front edge of the stage. ‘I want to finish up now with a couple of poems written by a man I never met,’ he said, the words coming softly, ‘but who I feel I’ve known all of my life.’

‘This man stole from us. He stole something which we possessed without even realizing…something which we could never replace. The thing he took from us…was himself.’ He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it in a pile at his side. ‘On July twentieth, nineteen fifty-five, Harry Weldon Kees, one of your…’ he pointed, sweeping his outstretched arm across the audience, ‘…your town’s…most famous sons—disappeared from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

‘He left…he left many things behind him—not least a fifty-five Plymouth with the keys still in the ignition—but the worst things that he left were holes.’

The faces in the audience looked puzzled.

‘Those holes, ladies and gentlemen,’ MacDonald went on, ‘were the spaces that he would have filled with his poetry. Yes, he was a poet, Weldon Kees, and I’m here…here tonight, in Beatrice, Nebraska…his hometown…at the tail end of what has been almost a year-long search for him. Because, back in nineteen fifty-five, Weldon’s body was never found. And because there have been some stories that he is still alive…somewhere out there. And if that’s true, then I felt I had to find him.’ He stood up, shrugged, and said, ‘Well, I tried.’

‘Weldon…wherever you are…these are for you.’

Reciting from heart, as he did with all of his “readings”, Davis MacDonald recounted Kees’ “Aspects Of Robinson” and, to finish, “Late Evening Song”.

‘For a while

Let it be enough:

The responsive smile,

Through effort goes into it.

Across the warm room

Shared in candlelight,

This look beyond shame,

Possible now, at night,

Goes out to yours.

Hidden by day

And shaped by fires

Grown dead, gone gray,

That burned in other rooms I knew

Too long ago to mark.

It forms again. I look at you

Across those fires and the dark.’

‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen…thank you for listening to me.’ MacDonald replaced the microphone and ran from the stage, leaving tumultuous applause behind and around him.

When he got back to the bar and slumped onto his stool, he saw that the man next to him was nursing his drink in his hands and his head tilted back, staring into the long but narrow angled mirror above the bar. MacDonald followed his stare and saw it all then: the bar, the back of the bartender’s head as he moved by, the man’s highball glass, and himself staring. But there was no reflection of the man himself.

He turned around quickly, mouth open, to stare right into the man’s face and saw immediately that he had been crying.

‘I’m Robinson,’ he said. ‘A friend of Weldon Kees.’

MacDonald looked back at the mirror and shook his head. Then he looked back at the man and said, ‘How do you do that?’

‘You tell a good story in your poems,’ he said. ‘I have a story, also, though I’m no weaver of words like you and Harry.’

MacDonald slumped his elbows on the bar. ‘I think I need a drink.’

The man stood up and straightened his jacket. ‘Come on, you can have one back at my place.’

‘Is…is Weldon Kees still alive?’

‘No.’

‘Did he die that night?’ Did he jump off the bridge?’

The man shook his head. ‘Let’s go. I’ll explain on the way.’

When they left the bar, the sidewalks were wet and shiny, reflecting shimmering neon signs and window displays. As they walked, MacDonald could also see his own malformed shape in the puddles but not that of the man who walked beside him. ‘I think I’m going mad,’ he said.

The man gave out a short, sharp laugh. ‘No, you’re not.’

MacDonald turned to him and grabbed hold of the arm in the plaid jacket—

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch grain shoes,

Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down

The words of the poem he had just recited hit him suddenly and he pulled his hand back as though he had been burned. ‘How can you be Robinson? Robinson would have to be—’ He thought for a moment. He’d have to be around eighty or ninety years old.’

‘I’m actually much older even than that,’ the man said.

MacDonald looked down at the sidewalk, saw his reflection…alone. He pointed at the puddle. ‘And what about that?’

‘The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,

Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.’

He smiled and shrugged.

‘Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.’

‘What are you?’ MacDonald asked.

The man stared into MacDonald’s eyes for what seemed to be an eternity, so long

His own head turned with mine

And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes

That stopped my blood. His voice

Came at me like an echo in the dark.

that MacDonald thought he was not ever going to answer his question. The worst part of that was that, while he stared, he simply did not care. ‘I think you can guess,’ he said, suddenly, releasing MacDonald for his gaze.

‘Oh, come on!’ MacDonald laughed. ‘A vampire? You’re telling me you’re a vampire?’

The man started to walk again. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘My kind go by many names. And, yes, vampire is one of them.’ MacDonald started after him, his mind ablaze with stanzas from Weldon Kees’ poetry.

The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone.

His act is over.

And

These are the rooms of Robinson.

Bleached, wan, and colorless this light, as though

All the blurred daybreaks of the spring

Found an asylum here, perhaps for Robinson alone.

And even

This sleep is from exhaustion, but his old desire

To die like this had known a lessening.

Now there is only this coldness that he has to wear.

But not in sleep.—Observant scholar, traveler,

Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave,

A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades,

A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué,

A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes—

All these are Robinsons in sleep, who mumbles as he turns,

‘There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize—

This city-nightmare-black—’

He wakes in sweat

To the terrible moonlight and what might be

Silence. It drones like wires far beyond the roofs,

And the long curtains blow into the room.

MacDonald suddenly realized that he was running…running to catch up with the man. But, while the man was only walking, MacDonald was getting no nearer to him. Good God, he thought, it’s true. All of it.

The man turned up some steps and stopped at the door of a house. As MacDonald reached the man, he stepped inside and waved for MacDonald to enter.

Inside, the house smelled of age and dirt. A narrow hallway gave onto some stairs and continued past two doors to a third door which was partly open. ‘I’ll get you that drink,’ the man said and he walked along the hall to the end door. MacDonald followed without saying a word.

The room was a kitchen. Dirty dishes that looked as though they had been that way for weeks were piled up in and beside the sink. In the center of the room, a wooden table with a worn Formica top was strewn with packets and opened cans. MacDonald saw several cockroaches scurrying in the spilled food.

The man opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Jim Beam and two glasses. He poured bourbon into the glasses and handed one to MacDonald. ‘I first met Harry back in 1943. He was writing for Time magazine and The Nation where he did an arts column.’ He pointed to a chair littered with newspapers. ‘Sit down.’ MacDonald sat and sipped his drink. The man continued with the story.

‘He was also doing some newsreel scripts for Paramount—he’d just done the one about the first atomic bomb tests—and he had recently taken up painting. He was as good at that as he was at anything, exhibiting with Willem de Kooning, Rothko—’ He paused and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry…are you acquainted with these names at all?’

MacDonald nodded.

‘Ah, good. Yes, with Rothko and Pollock—and he was holding a few one-man shows. So, I guess it’s fair to say that life for him was good.

‘I met him one night in Washington Square. I say one night when, actually, it was well into the early hours of the morning.’ He paused took a drink. ‘I was hunting.’

‘Hunting?’

‘Yes. I was out looking for food.’

‘Are we back to the vampire shtick now?’

The man ignored the tone and continued. ‘I usually arise in the early evening. If it’s too light outside, I stay indoors until the sun is about to set. Contrary to fable, we can exist in the sunlight although it hurts our eyes and causes headaches like your migraines. So we don’t do it. Not usually.

‘This particular evening, I had already fed upon a young woman down near Port Authority. She had arrived in town from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and she offered me herself for twenty dollars. That was a steep price for a prostitute back in 1943, I can tell you. But she was an attractive girl and she knew it. How could I refuse?

‘I killed her in an alley, and drank my fill.’ He drained his glass and waved it at MacDonald. ‘More?’

‘Huh? Oh, no. No more, thanks. I’m fine with this.’

The man turned around and poured himself another three fingers. ‘Always the truth is simpler than the fiction, don’t you find?’ he said as he turned back to face MacDonald. ‘The truth is that we do not have to hunt every night. A complete feed will sustain us for many days—sometimes a couple of weeks—before we start to grow hungry again. Vampires, as you call us, are not naturally aggressive…any more than humans, we hunt and kill merely to feed.’

‘Anyway…where was I? Ah, yes. When I met Harry—he was calling himself Harry back then, and I guess I just never lost the habit—when I met Harry, he was working on notes for his second book. He was walking through the Square where I was sitting. I was completely sated at this time, having—’ He waved his hand. ‘The girl and so on.’

MacDonald nodded and took a drink, eyeing the open door at his side.

‘Anyway, he sat down beside me and we started to talk. We talked about the city and the night—both of which I know well—and then he mentioned that he was a writer. I think that’s what Harry regarded himself as more than anything else: a writer.

‘And he asked me if I enjoyed reading. I told him not very much at all. Then he mentioned his poetry: Did I like poetry? I told him I really wasn’t qualified to comment on it. I did have some books, I told him, but, I said, frankly they might as well be filled with blank pages for all the good they are to me.

‘Sometime later, of course,’ he said, leaning forward from his place against the kitchen counter, ‘he wrote—in the first of what I came to regard as my poems—

The pages in the books are blank.

The books that Robinson has read.’

MacDonald took another drink and hiccupped. ‘Did he know…did he know that you were a, you know…?’

‘Not immediately. But, eventually, of course, yes.’ He took a drink and rubbed his hand against the glass. ‘We were…we were alike, you know. Alike in so many ways.’

‘Alike? How?’

‘Well, alienated. I suppose you could say that we were both outcasts from society. In those days I lived in New York.

‘I have, of course, lived in many places—I won’t bore you with the details: Harry covered some of them in his “Robinson At Home”…uncouth bearded figure; keen-eyed sniper; a beggar on the streets; confidant of popes—but when I lived in New York, it grew too hot for me in the summertime. I used to go up to Maine, to a little coastal village called Wells. Do you know it?’

MacDonald shook his head. Holding out his empty glass, he said, ‘I think I will have that refill now.’

The man took the glass. ‘Of course.’ He filled it to the brim and handed it back. ‘Harry didn’t like me going off in the summer. He said it made him feel lonely.’

‘Lonely? Were you both…were you living together at the time?’

‘Oh, gracious no. Harry was married—Ann was her name: nice girl, but entirely unable to cope with living with someone like Harry. And, of course, as he became more and more taken with my…shall we say, company, he became even less livable with.’ He sniggered. ‘Is there such a phrase as “livable with”?’

MacDonald shrugged why not? And took another drink. The man smiled in agreement. ‘So, Ann took more and more to drinking. In 1954 she went into the hospital and—oh, of course, by this time we were in San Francisco. Did I mention that? We moved across to the West Coast in 1950. Harry took up with some new friends—Phyllis Diller, the comedienne? And Kenneth Rexroth?’

MacDonald nodded to both names.

‘Wonderful poet. Ken Rexroth. Wonderful.’ He took a drink.

We moved out West because, as I say, Harry hated the summers in New York when I was away. You remember “Relating To Robinson?”

(But Robinson,

I knew, was out of town: he summers at a place in Maine,

Sometime on Fire Island, sometimes on the Cape,

Leaves town in June and comes back after Labor Day.)’

He laughed suddenly. ‘I tell you, I never—never—went to Fire Island. Or the Cape. That was Harry. He was just so pissed off with me for leaving him.’ He shook his head and stared down into the swirling brown liquid in his glass. ‘So pissed off,’ he said again, but quieter.

‘So—San Francisco. It was fine for a while, but Ann grew more and more restless. Harry had taken up playing jazz. He was good, too. Incredible man. So versatile. But our relationship—and the constraints placed upon it by his being married—was starting to take its toll. You see, Harry was growing older…I was not.

‘In 1953, he wrote ‘The lacerating effects of middle age are dreadful. God knows…what the routes along this particular terrain are, I wish I knew. The trick of repeating It can’t get any worse is certainly no good, when all the evidence points to quite the opposite.’ He shuffled around and lifted the bottle of Jim Beam. ‘You see,’ he said, flicking off the screw cap with his thumb, ‘I wanted Harry to let me taint him.’

‘Taint him? How do you mean?’ MacDonald watched the cap roll to a stop on the dirty floor. Its sides were flattened.

‘I mean…to make him like me.’

‘A vampire?’

‘A vampire. He would have had eternal life, you see. It doesn’t happen every time. Not every time we feed. That’s another thing the legends have got wrong. We only taint our victim if we allow our own saliva to enter the wound. Most times, we do not.

‘But, no, Harry wouldn’t hear of it. He said that life was too precious—which was a paradox of a thing for him to say—and he couldn’t face the prospect of hunting for his food. I told him that I would do all of that for him…but it was no use.’

MacDonald took a deep breath and asked the question he had wanted to ask for several minutes. ‘Were you lovers?’

The man’s eyes narrowed as he considered the question, and then he said, ‘Of a sort, yes. But not in the physical sense. We were soul mates, he and I. I had the information and the experiences of the millennia and Harry…Harry had the means to put them into words. Such beautiful words.’ He fell silent and, lifting the bottle to his mouth, took a long drink.

‘By the time 1955 was upon us, we both knew that we couldn’t carry on this way. In his poem ‘January,’ Harry wrote:

This wakening, this breath

No longer real, this deep

Darkness where we toss,

Cover a life at the last.’

And MacDonald added: ‘Sleep is too short a death.’

‘You know it?’ the man said, clearly amazed and apparently quite delighted.

‘I know them all.’

‘Of course, you would.

‘Well, that year, we decided that Harry would have to disappear. I suppose we had known it for some time. Harry had often toyed with the idea of his suicide—even before he met me. He kept a scrapbook of cuttings and notes, and a chronological list of writers who had killed themselves or simply disappeared. One of his favorites, you know, was Hart Crane. He threw himself off a ship.

‘Yes, I know. His poem ‘Voyages’ is one of my own favorites.’

‘Harry’s, too,’ said the man. He sighed and continued. ‘And so we decided that he would jump—or appear to have jumped—from the Golden Gate Bridge. The day he did it was one year to the day since his official separation from Ann.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Mexico. Mexico City. He lived in Mexico—we lived in Mexico, I should say—very happily. We led as close to a normal life as we could—which was very close indeed.

‘Harry wrote poetry and short stories—many of them published under noms de plume—and we spent the nights together, talking. I would tell him of all the things that I had seen and experienced and Harry would put them into poems and stories.

‘Then, in 1987, a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner wrote that he had met Harry in a bar in Mexico City back in 1957.’

‘That was true, then, that story?’

The man nodded enthusiastically. ‘Every word. Absolutely true. The journalist was Peter Hamill.’

‘Harry was pretty zilched-out that night, I remember,’ the man said wistfully. ‘He’d been drinking Jack Daniel’s and then, because it was my night to hunt, he went off by himself—something he did very rarely—and polished off several bowls of marinated shrimp and most of a bottle of mescal. We thought nothing more about it until, like three decades later, for crissakes, the story appeared in the Examiner. Needless to say, we left Mexico City within a few days.’

‘Where did you go then?’

‘Oh, different places. Central America at first, but then Harry got to hankering for the States so we moved up to Texas.’ He took another drink from the bottle. ‘Then, when Harry’s health got really bad, we moved back to Beatrice.’

‘What was it? What was wrong with him?’

‘Cancer. He was riddled in the end. He died three weeks ago. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to cope.’

MacDonald didn’t know what to say.

‘Even in the final days, I begged him to reconsider. If he’d let me taint him, he could have conquered the cancer. Then we could have lived forever. But he wouldn’t.’ The man dropped the bottle and slid down the side of the counter to the floor. MacDonald jumped unsteadily from his chair and went to help him. He found a cloth by the side of the sink and ran cold water over it, flicking pieces of food and a couple of dead bugs into the sink. Then he rubbed the cloth over the man’s face.

‘I want…I want you to see him,’ he said. His voice was shaky and slurred.

‘See him? I thought you said he was dead?’

The man nodded. ‘He is.’

‘He’s dead and he’s still here? Here in the house?’

Another nod.

‘Where?’

‘Upstairs. In his room.’

MacDonald turned around and glanced back down the corridor towards the front door. Suddenly the smell of decay which permeated the house made sense. Kees had died three weeks ago. The weather was warm.

The man shuffled himself back up to a crouched position. ‘I…I want you to see him now.’

MacDonald took his arm and helped him up. ‘Okay, okay.’

‘C’mon, then, let’s go.’ The liquor was clearly having an effect. On MacDonald, it seemed to be having no effect at all. He felt as though he had never had a drink of alcohol in his entire life.

They staggered down the dark corridor to the foot of the stairs. ‘You sure you want to do this?’ MacDonald asked.

‘Sh—’ he belched loudly and hiccupped. ‘Sure. Harry’d want to meet you.’

They started up the stairs, swaying from side to side, MacDonald against the handrail and the man called Robinson buffeting against the wall.

At the top of the stairs, the smell was deeper and thicker. It was now pure decay.

‘Thish way,’ Robinson said, and he took off by himself along the narrow corridor toward the end room. He reached it with a thud and took two steps backward, stretching his right hand out toward the handle.

MacDonald ran forward. ‘Here, let me,’ he said, against his better judgment. Robinson stepped aside.

MacDonald took hold of the handle and turned it. His first impression was that the air that escaped from the ancient pyramids must have smelled like this, only milder. It stank. He lifted his hand to his mouth and swallowed the bile that was even then shooting up his throat. He pushed the door open and stepped into the room.

It was almost pitch-black. The curtains were drawn across the narrow window, but a small night-light glowed beside a wide bed that ran from the side wall into the room. In front of the bed and along to the side beneath the window, stretched a long desk strewn with huge piles of manuscripts and sheets of paper. On the table was a typewriter, a confusion of pens and pencils and erasers, a half-full—or half-empty—bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and an army of empty glasses, some upright and some on their sides.

On the bed itself was a body, though its resemblance to anything that might once have lived was tenuous. It was dark and wizened, and seemed to move and writhe where it lay. MacDonald realized that Harry Weldon Kees now provided a home for a multitude of insects and larvae.

The door clicked shut behind him.

MacDonald spun around and faced Robinson. ‘You…you’re not drunk,’ he said.

The man smiled. ‘Sorry. I’ve had what you might say was a lot of practice in holding my liquor.’ Then he opened a cupboard by his side. ‘I have a job for you.’

‘A…a job? What kind of job?’

‘I want you to kill me.’

MacDonald laughed and made a move toward the door. ‘What the hell is this…? I’m getting out—’

Robinson pushed him back and MacDonald stumbled against the bed, throwing his arm out to steady himself. MacDonald’s hand sank into something which seemed damp and clammy. He felt things pop under its weight. ‘Oh, Jesus!’ He jumped away from the bed and looked at his hand. It was covered in what looked leafmold. He shook it frantically. ‘Oh, God,’ he said. ‘Oh, Jesus…’

‘Here.’ Robinson reached into the open cupboard. He pulled out a flat-headed wooden hammer and handed it to MacDonald.

MacDonald took it and said, ‘Oh, Jesus!’

Then Robinson reached in again and pulled out a wooden pole, its end sharpened to a fine point.

MacDonald started to whimper.

‘Here. You’ll need this, too.’

‘No, I won’t.’

‘You—’

‘I’m not doing it. I’m not doing anything else, I’m getting out of this—’

Robinson took hold of MacDonald’s jacket, crumpled it in his fist, and pulled the man toward him. ‘You’ll do what I say you’ll do…if you do want to get out of here.’

MacDonald started shaking and stepped back, away from Robinson. The man had spoken right into his face, breathed right over him…but the smell had not been of Jim Beam, it had been of blood. Heavy and metallic. ‘Why? Why do you want me to do this? Why me?’

‘Because I want to sleep the long sleep. Because…because I’m lonely. And because you are here.’

‘Is…is there no other way?’

Robinson shook his head. ‘At least one of the legends is true. A stake through the heart. It’s the only way.’

MacDonald looked at Robinson and fought off looking around at the thing on the bed. ‘What if I don’t?’

‘I’ll kill you.’

It didn’t take long for them to get things organized. Robinson stretched out on the bed next to Weldon Kees and held the stake’s point above his chest with his left hand. With his right hand, he held the hand of the body by his side.

While he thought about trying to make a break for it, MacDonald heard Robinson sigh a long, deep sigh. ‘It feels funny,’ he said. ‘Funny to be lying here at last, lying here waiting to die.

‘I’ve come close a couple of times—well, more than a couple, I’d guess—but I’ve always managed to turn things to my advantage.’ He turned his head to Weldon Kees and smiled. ‘Old friend,’ he said softly. ‘You and me, forever now.’ He looked up at MacDonald, smiled at the man’s shaking hands around the shaft of the hammer. ‘You’ve no idea, have you?’ he said.

‘About what?’ MacDonald lowered the hammer, grateful for the pause.

‘Loneliness. The ache of ages spent completely alone. I thought that loneliness was all behind me. I thought Harry would eventually relent and let me taint him. But it was not to be. He even begged me not to bite him if he should slip into some kind of coma before the end. He said if I did, then he would never speak to me again.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t live without Harry’s words. I cannot live without his words. Death can only be release.’ He closed his eyes and shook the stake gently. ‘Do it. Do it now.’

MacDonald lifted the hammer high. As he started to bring it down, Robinson’s eyes opened and fixed upon him. ‘Burn us when you’re through.’

The hammer hit the stake squarely, as though MacDonald’s hand had been guided right to the very end. The pole went into the body hard and lodged in the mattress beneath it. Robinson’s body arched once, high in the air, and then slipped back.

MacDonald watched in fascination as the skin shriveled and pulled back, exposing teeth that looked nothing like what he expected a vampire’s teeth to look like. The eyeballs jellied in their sockets and sank back out of sight. The flesh and muscle atrophied, the bones powdered, and within seconds Robinson’s clothes sank back onto the dust. There was no blood.

As if in a daze, MacDonald put down the hammer and walked across to the desk. He lifted a pile of papers and scattered them about the desktop. He could not help himself. As he threw the sheets around, he tried to read some of the lines…some of the title pages. He started to cry.

He threw sheets onto the floor…high into the air, and watched them flutter onto the lone body on the bed. ‘Please…please, God, let me take just one sheet…’

In his head, amidst the confusion, he heard a voice he did not recognize. It was an old voice, but it sounded gently and wise. It said, Take one sheet, then…but only one.

MacDonald grabbed a sheet and jammed it into his sportscoat pocket. Then he picked up a book of matches, struck one, and ignited the whole book. He tossed it onto the scattered sheets, turned calmly around, and left the room.

The fire took longer to get going than he expected.

In the movies, the conflagration is always immediate. But here in reality, it took almost an hour. MacDonald watched it from across the street, watched the first flames reach up to the waiting curtains, watched the first glow in one of the downstairs rooms, smelled the first smoke-filled breeze blowing across the sidewalk.

Then it was done. And only then did MacDonald feel released from the power of Robinson’s eyes.

As he started back to the heart of Beatrice, a gentle rain began to fall. MacDonald pulled the crumpled sheet from his pocket and, in the occasional glow of the streetlights, started to read. It was a poem. A complete work captured on a single sheet of paper. It was called ‘Robinson At Rest.’ It began:

Robinson watching a movie, safe

In the darkness. The world outside spills by

Along sidewalks freshened by rain.

He says to the man by his side, ‘Is that clock correct?’

‘No,’ the answer comes. ‘It’s stopped

At last.’

And seventeen lines later it ended:

—Weldon Kees (1914-1993)