Alex Bernstein

 

Alex Bernstein is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work has appeared at Corvus, BluePrintReview, Hobo Pancakes, Gi60, The Rumpus, The Big Jewel, MonkeyBicycle, Yankee Pot Roast, Swink, and PopImage, among others.  Please visit him at www.promonmars.com.

Come Home Soon (Issue 37.)

The Smoking Lounge (Issue 23.)

The 22 (Issue 19.)

Come Home Soon (June, 2012. Issue 37.)

Often I wake up in the middle of the night with tremendous anxiety. I feel like the family is much larger - there are more kids and something is wrong. But who's in charge? Where is the leader of the family? The parent? The father? Meaning my father - not me. But then I remember - in a flash - I'm the senior person here - the Daddy. But I panic even more. Why? What's wrong? Is everyone okay? And then I remember - it's just us. Just me and Jake and Kit. (And my mom half the time.) And that's it. Everyone's fine. The anxiety passes. For a couple days, anyway.

The house is a mess. I try to keep it straight but I'm fighting against my base instincts. I know I have to do laundry, give Kit baths. I know I could let my mom do it. But it's not right. No, I just have to regimen myself. Do it. Must be what it's like to be divorced - except I can't date on the side. Not that I'd have the energy to.

***

Jake sits in his room, playing guitar, brooding. Do Not Disturb, Please.

"Did you write something for her again?"

"I'm sending her a disc." He holds up a cd. "It's just some stuff I did. It's not so good. She'll probably like it."

***

Kit screams out in the middle of the night, hysterical.

"Daddy! Daddy!"

I get in bed with him. Guess I'm not the only one with anxiety.

"It's okay. Shh. Shh."

"Is Mommy home?"

"No, honey. Not yet."

"When's Mommy coming home?"

"In a few weeks. Maybe January."

"She'll be home at Christmas?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"It's not her turn. They have to take turns and it's someone else's turn. They need her."

He's trembles and starts crying again.

"Shhh…"

I spend the rest of the night in his little bed, cramped against the wall. In the morning I plunk down Advil. I've been plunking down Advil day after day for the past six weeks. I'm sure I'm developing an ulcer.

Just a few more hours. Sunny, sunny Florida. We're all packed. Just pick up the kids, get 'em on a plane. Then my folks can take over for a while. And I can sleep for days.

***

My phone vibrates in my pocket.

"Mom? I'm in a meeting. Can I call you - "

"What's wrong?" asks Bruce.

"My day care called her. Kit's running a fever. Shit. Shit. She just got off the plane in Florida."

I talk into the phone. "No - don't come back. That's crazy. We'll be fine. Mom! Don't be stupid! We're fine! Look -
I'll get him! I'll call you later."

I hang up. Bruce looks at me hang dog, pityingly.

"I know your Mom's been staying with you."

"We were all going down to their place in Boca Raton. She flew down this morning. The kids and I are flying down tonight. I gotta go, Bruce. I'm sorry."

"Go! Go. Do whatever you have to, Mike."

"I'm sorry."

"No big deal!"

"I should just quit, Bruce. I just - it's too crazy - I'm not getting anything done. I'm not being effective."

"Mike. You're doing fine. It's the holidays. Don't worry about it. Do what you need to do."

***

In the car. I've checked in with day care. They're giving him Advil. We're all taking Advil. I call Nelson.

"What's the update?"

"Mike! Hey. Good to hear from you!"

"What've you got?"

"Well, here's the thing - there's a group - a coalition of families - they started with a petition but they're talking about a lawsuit against the military. Looks like we could get - I dunno - six - seven families involved."

"Just six or seven? That's it?!"

"That's pretty good, Mike. Not everyone wants to make this as public as you do."

"What if we go to the press?"

"Well, I wouldn't do that."

"Why not?"

"Well, it can work for you or it can work against you. And if it works against you - it can kill you."

"What does that mean?"

"The last thing you want is for them to paint a picture of Maggie as someone who's trying to get out of the system."

"She shouldn't be in the system!"

"I know that, but - "

"She finished her tour three months ago, Nelson! She did 18 months! She finished! Her obligation's over! She doesn't owe them anything! She's not some fucking deserter!"

" I know that, Mike. I'm not talking about you or me, here. But some people could take it as - as favoritism - on the government's part. Why single her out? Move her to the head of the line?"

"She's got two kids! She's got a fucking four-year-old!"

"I know, Mike. But some of the other mothers over there don't even have a Mike Olsen waiting back at home. Some of the kids are being raised by grandparents, neighbors, foster parents - if you're lucky, maybe somebody'll be sympathetic. But it might not go that way. I've looked into this, Mike. I'm just being honest with you."

"Look - just do whatever you need to do. Okay? Do whatever it takes."

"You bet. Let me make some calls. Call some of these other families. See what's up."

"Great. Great. You do that."

"Mike, listen. Y'know - there are other people out there - women - even a few men - who are in the same position as you. Support groups? Might help to find out who they are and - "

"Yeah. Thanks. I'm already in three support groups. Not to mention taking my kids to soccer and guitar tutoring and trying to keep my fucking job at the same time. But thanks for the suggestion. Just get my wife back for me, please?"

"I'll make those calls. Have a happy holiday, Mike."

"You too."

***

I pick up Kit in the school office. He's beet red, miserable, being rocked back and forth by Miss Kelly, a cute twenty-something in a daycare sweatshirt with red and green Christmas pins hanging off her chest like ornaments. Tears streak down Kit's face. He reaches out to me. He's burning up.

"Is Mommy home?"

"No, honey. Shh. Everything's fine. We're going home."

"I gave him the Advil," says Kelly. "Call me if you need anything."

***

Kit falls asleep in the car. At home, I put him to bed. I spend the next hour yelling at airline customer service reps who don't want to refund three plane tickets. I catch my reflection in the hall mirror. I'm as red as Kit. I desperately want to lose my shit and explode at someone - and no one's more deserving than inconsiderate airline customer service drones who are charging me more than $300 to reschedule a grand's worth of unused children's airline tickets. It might even be healthy to vent at this person. But I have to remind myself that I can't do that. I can't lose my cool. I have to get through this. Remain centered. It's just money. It's not important. This sucks, but I've been through worse than this. It's not a crisis. Not yet, anyway. And I still have to deal with other stuff. The presents I already sent on to Florida. Jake.

***

Jake comes in excited, bouncing off the wall.

"What's going on?! Where's Kit?"

"Jake. C'mere."

He looks at me. I don't have to say a word. And he knows and he's angry. Angry at me, at Maggie, at school, the world, the government. He's too smart. That's his problem. He's not blissfully ignorant like every other twelve-year-old in his class. When I was twelve my friends were stealing candy and cigarettes and hood ornaments. And they were just bored! You wouldn't even have prescribed them as dysfunctional back then. Jake is smart and creative and incredibly, incredibly angry. How dangerous a combination is that?

"Kit's got a fever," I say.

"God-dammit!"

"Jake - "

"It's not fair!"

"I know."

"How bad is he? Can he travel?"

"He's got a 102 degree fever."

"So, what does that mean?"

"It means we're staying home."

"Can I go by myself?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"You're twelve."

"Gramma can meet me at the gate. It's no big deal!"

"Jake - no. I want us all together over the holidays."

"We're not all together! We're never all together! Why should we start now?!"

He runs to his room, slams the door. He's right. Why should he suffer with me? Maybe I should let him go alone. He could take of himself. He's twelve - but he might as well be sixteen. Shit - I was alone on a plane when I was twelve. But that was the '70's. That was before you had to take off your shoes to get on an airplane.

No. No. Forget it. Not at an airport over the holidays. Where I'd have to let him out of my sight. I can't explain to Maggie that I let him get on a plane by himself. And I don't want us separated. He's just going to have to understand. I'll have to make it up to him.

I go in his room to try again. He's on his cell phone.

"Jake - I want to make this work for us, okay?"

He looks up at me with a mix of hate, resilience and pity. No one looks at me without pity, anymore. Not even my son.

"Danny says I can go with him and his family to Mt. Koda for the weekend. His Dad says if it's okay with you, they've got the extra room."

Shit. What can I say? At least it's supervised.

"You're all packed up for the beach!"

"I got out all my sweaters. I've got Danny's Dad on the phone!"

He hands me the phone.

"Phil? You don't have to - I know. You've really got the room?"

Jake looks at me, hopefully.

"You're sure it's not going to be too much for you? The two of them together? Uh huh?"

I nod at Jake, approvingly. He glows. At least that's something.

"I owe you, Phil. Thanks. Let me know what the cost is. I'll get you back. Merry Christmas."

I hang up.

"Thanks, Dad!"

"They're coming in an hour," I say. "You're going to miss your Mom's call."

He keeps packing. Tears start running down his face.

"I know. Tell her I miss her. A lot."

I hug him and he grabs me tightly.

"I know it's not your fault, Dad. I know it. But I gotta get outta here. I feel like I'm going crazy. I gotta do something. Get outta here - get my mind off it. Something. Something. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"I know, Jake. I know. You're right. You're completely right. It's the best thing. I wish I could go with you. It'll be good for you."

"Thanks, Dad. I love you, Dad."

"I love you, too, Jake."

"Maybe - if Kit gets better you guys could come meet us?"

"Yeah. Maybe.
An hour later and he's gone.

***

Kit wakes up, crying, but falls back asleep, thankfully. I'm exhausted. At 6:30 Maggie calls.

"Thought I'd call before you jumped on the plane!"

"No jumping tonight," I say. I tell her everything.

"I delivered a baby today," she says.

"Iraqi?"

"Half and half. One of our boys knocked up a townie."

"He do the right thing?"

"They got married in the clinic this morning. Birth is the only good thing that happens here."

"I feel sorry for the baby."

"Yeah. I feel sorry for all the kids here. And the soldiers. And the locals."

"And us," I remind her.

"There's people that have it worse than us, Mike."

Why does everyone feel the need to tell me that all the time?

"You wouldn't believe the way these people live. It's awful."

"You hear anything on your end?"

"They say they've requisitioned personnel, but - "

"They always say that."

"We got two new doctors this week."

"Anyone go home?"

"No. Not from here. It can't be much longer, Mike. It can't be."

"I miss you, honey. The kids miss you terribly."

"I know. I miss you, too. Mike, you're sure you're okay with Kit?"

"Yeah."

"I can't believe I missed both of them. Shit. Some fuckin' Christmas."

"Yeah."

"I'll call Sunday."

"Call Sunday night. Jake'll be home by then."

"You did the right thing, Mike. He needed it."

"Yeah."

"I love you."

"I love you, too, honey."

"Merry Christmas."

***

Kit sleeps across my lap as I watch "A Christmas Story." That's the one about the little kid who just wants a B-B gun for Christmas. I first saw that when Mags was pregnant with Jake and we were still living in our little apartment in Portland. Mag was in her third trimester and having a lot of pain. She fell asleep across my lap and I watched the movie with the sound off. A warm, uneventful moment. The kid in the movie opens up all his presents. No B-B gun. But the father says look in the back, over by the corner. And there it is - all wrapped up in a long box. He was hiding it the whole time. Good old Dad.

***

Three weeks ago, we were all watching TV - my mom, Jake and I. Kit was asleep. And a story comes on the news. Insurgents near Abu Ghraib have taken hostage an American doctor from the 118th Medical Battalion clinic. Maggie's clinic. And the hostage is a woman. The media, the American government won't release the name of the hostage. I spend all night on the phone talking to the military - what information do you have? What are they doing? Why can't you identify her? Just tell me if it's Maggie. Tell me if it's Jake and Kit's mother. All night long. Nothing. Nothing - until it's all over. No. No - don't worry. Rest easy. They've identified the body. It's okay. It's not her.

Not this time, anyway.

***

Four in the morning. I'm freezing. Still lying on the couch. Kit's still lying across me but the blanket's slipped onto the floor. Kit doesn't notice, but my teeth are chattering. I hear a door open. Someone's downstairs.

My heart beats like a trip hammer. Someone's in the house at four in the morning? The day before Christmas? A burglar? A neighbor? Jake? Maggie? The door to the TV room creaks open. I hold my breath, pretend to be asleep.

It's my Mom.

"Mom?" I whisper, not realizing how out of it I am.

"I caught the red eye back," she says.

"You didn't have to come back. You're ruining your holiday."

"It's not a holiday without you and the boys, Mike. C'mon. You two need to get to bed."

She picks up Kit, who curls up in her arms.

"I packed up the gifts and brought 'em back, too."

"Thanks, Mom," I say. "You're the best."

I watch her gently put Kit to bed. He's already improving, cooling down, breathing evenly. Who needs Florida?

I get into bed. Alone.

Things will work out. They always have. They always do.

She'll be home soon.

I just have to believe that.

Table of Contents

The Smoking Lounge (December 20, 2010. Issue 23.)

I am the fat chick and I live in the Smoking Lounge. It's the last day before Winter Break, snowing lightly, and I'm here in the Smoking Lounge, smoking. Skipping all my classes, having a good time of it. Funny that the school even has a Smoking Lounge. They don't have a "Getting Drunk" or a "Shooting Up" lounge. But they have this. My sweet little home away from home.

I am she-who-wields-the-Bic-lighter and all know it. My best friend, Cathy, is here. Like me, Cathy is also grossly unpopular. She does, however, have a mouth like a garbage disposal: a plus in my eyes. She hates most everyone in the school and has been knocked up twice (that I'm aware of). Otherwise, she has the soul (and pipes) of an angel.

The Lounge, itself, is a tiny outside walkway cramped between the cafeteria and northeast entrance to the school. Snowcapped boulders, a wire-mesh garbage can, and white and tan crimped cigarette butts decorates its edges. The nearest wall is the back entrance of the gym. And inside the gym the senior choir rehearses this year's Christmas concert. Pleasant, ambient choral sounds whisper from half-cracked open windows atop the gym walls.

Cathy hates the choir and most all seniors. Though she didn’t even try out, she thinks Mr. Fleischer, the music teacher, should have personally driven to her house – in a limo – and invited her to join the choir. Of course she would’ve said no. As much as she hates everyone, she also hates Mr. Fleischer.

Did I mention the tree?

Yes, there's a Christmas tree here in the Smoking Lounge.

"Where the fuck did that come from?"

"Dunno. I don’t think it’s the hall tree."

It's not as big as the one in the main hallway – or even as big as the three set up in the gym for the concert. But it's nicely decorated with lights and ornaments.

"Shit. Gives me the fuckin' creeps."

"A Christmas tree give you the creeps?"

"Yeah. I don't get five fuckin' inches of this whole school, except for right here - and I don't need a fuckin' tree in my personal space."

"I think it's kind of nice."

"Well, shit, you would. You're into all that holiday festive bullshit! And I wish they'd STOP SINGING THAT FUCKIN' GODDAMN MUSIC!"

Abruptly the music stops. We look at each other, surprised.

“Now, that’s service.”

Dale, in an overcoat, with snare drum dangling from his neck, comes out from the gym door. He pulls out a pack of Marlboros, fumbles for a cig. I light him.

"Where'd you steal the tree from?"

"Who cares?" says Cathy.

"’Zat the one from the front hall?"

"It's smaller," I say.

"Kinda cool, just sittin' there," says Dale.

"Gives me the fuckin' creeps," says Cathy.

"This is her space," I say.

"Shit, it's everybody's space," says Dale.

"No - it's my space," says Cathy.

"Yer goofy," says Dale throwing me a smile.

"Aren't you supposed to be practicing?" asks Cathy

"Fleischer got one of his spastic coughing fits."

Dale beats out "Little Drummer Boy" methodically on his drum then hammers it into the solo at the end of "Baba O'Reilly." Mr. Fleischer, still sputtering, pops his head out from the gym. Cathy and I hide our cigs. Dale throws his to the ground.

"Dale!" he calls. "Back in!"

Dale goes. Fleischer looks at the tree, at us.

"Is this one of mine?"

We stare at him, motionless.

"It had better not be one of mine!" he says, throwing a dirty look. And he disappears into the gym.

"Asswipe," says Cathy, pulling out a new cig. I light her.

"See?" she says. "They assume we stole the tree! Their tree! I can't even fuckin' breathe around here! Want some candy?"

She digs in her pocket and pulls out a Snickers bar. I shake my head. She eats.

I say no, but to be honest, I've got two bars in my left pocket. One partially ripped open. And I finger the chocolate, mindlessly, like a lucky rabbit's foot. I can feel the melted candy rubbing on my fingers and on the inside of my pocket, like greasy Playdoh or something. Better than eating it, right? I finger chocolate in one pocket, my lighter in the other. Ready for action.

Anyway, Cathy can afford the chocolate. She's got a few craters, but size-wise she’s perfect. Certainly not forty-five pounds overweight, like some of us. What I have going for me: balance. I know myself, my limitations. I don't need to be "loved" by some creep on the football team, just to give myself some bullshit sense of self-worth. I can manufacture that all by myself.

Barb and Susie - neat, attractive seniors - come out of the cafeteria and pass through the lounge. They whisper and giggle and smirk as they pass us.

"Y’got a fuckin' problem?!" calls Cathy.

Barb wants to keep walking, but tan, lithe Susie comes back and stares little Cathy down.

"I only said one word," says Susie holding up a single index finger. "Dirtbags."

Susie grins at Barb, who bites her lip. They turn - models on the catwalk - and wind down the path. Cathy burns.

"Fuck you! Y’fuckin' priss cunt bitch! Fuck your friends! Fuck your family! And fuck you, you fuckin' - "

"Nice tree!" calls Barb, and they disappear through the NE door.

Cathy attacks the tree: shakes it, kicks it, tears ornaments off and smashes them to the ground.

"Don't take it out on the tree - !"

" Shut up! Fuck you, Dutchy! Just - fuck you! Shit! Shit! Shit!"

And she disappears back into the cafeteria.

I step back, light up a new cig, take a lungful.

Did I mention that I've already lost three pounds?

No big deal. I’ve lost tremendous amounts of weight before. I can do it again. I just get sick of feeling this way, getting the looks. So, those are my gifts to myself this holiday: Willpower. An ounce of Grace. Peace on my Earth. (Good luck on yours.) And maybe a pair of black, big-ass Bose speakers.

Ms. Eiling, the guidance counselor, comes out for a smoke. She's thin, young, wiry, with weak eyes. But she's kind and doesn't condescend. She digs in her purse for a lighter. You know what I do.

"Thanks!" she laughs and we both smoke and stare at the tree.

"What a nice idea,” she says. “Putting a tree out here. What are you doing for Christmas, Dutchy?”

"Nothing. Working. Staying home with the fosters. You?"

"Oh, nothing, nothing. Getting divorced." She laughs, embarrassed.

"Oh - I'm so sorry."

"No, no - it's a good thing. Long time coming."

She listens, quietly, breathes deep from her cig.

"What's the music?"

"Senior choir."

"Who's coughing? Fleischer?"

I nod.

"Poor guy."

"Mm."

She finishes her smoke, tosses her butt in the trash can. (First one today!) She smiles at me.

"Come see me in the new year, Dutchy!"

And as she heads in the NE door, Mr. Lymon, the school principal comes out. I just manage to toss the butt behind me. He comes over, stares at the tree.

"Huh!" he says. "There really is a tree. How'd you get it out here?"

"Uhm. It was just here."

"Really? No idea where it came from?"

"No, sir."

"Hmh. Well, that's just plain we-eeird!" he says. "Don't you have class?"

"No, sir. Not for ten more minutes."

He studies me. Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

"Y'know, there's no smoking out here."

"Yes, sir. I know, sir."

"Good enough," he says, and disappears.

Maybe I should go in. Go home. Go somewhere. Anywhere.

A girl in whiteface comes out riding a unicycle. She wears black baggy pants and a white shirt with bright rainbow-colored suspenders. She cycles over to the tree and sizes it up. From behind her ear she withdraws a cigarette. She cycles over to me for a light. She nods appreciatively, smokes a bit, and then pulls out three red rubber balls and starts juggling. Unable to flick the cigarette, she alternately puffs and breathes, while catching and throwing, catching and throwing. She catches the balls, puts two of them away. She arches her head so that her cig points straight up in the air – and then balances the third red ball perfectly atop the lit cigarette. She holds her arms out straight - and hovers - balancing the ball on the cigarette, herself on the unicycle. Ta da.

I clap.

She pops the ball off the cig, bows, throws the butt to the ground, and rolls over it back and forth with her unicycle. She spins in a circle and cycles off to the gym.

Cathy returns, all cleaned up. She pulls a cig out of her pocket. I light her.

"Shit. Sorry I said, 'fuck you,' Dutchy. Sorry."

"Jeez, Cathy. It's fine."

"No, no - I'm sorry. Just so stupid of me. I'm on a new fucking pill and I don’t know - it's got me all fucked up. Sorry.” She looks at me. "You lose weight?"

"Three pounds."

"No shit?!"

I smile.

"Dutchy! Good for you! Damn! You look great!"

"You want your Christmas present?"

"What? You didn’t – sure – !"

"I'm wearing it."

"What?"

I remove the scarf from around my neck. It's long, textured wool. Itchy, uncomfortable. The way she likes it. She takes it, wraps it around her neck.

"Dutchy – shit – I didn't get you anything."

"Please. Merry Christmas."

Tears well in her eyes. She hugs me tightly. We step back, smoke, look at the tree. And I notice - it’s so quiet.

"No more music," I say.

Cathy smiles, takes a deep lungful. And she starts to sing, almost in a whisper.

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
'Till He appeared and the soul felt His worth

With her gravelly, throaty, already-semi-ruined-by-cigarettes voice, Cathy actually can sing better - more fully - than probably anyone in the choir, maybe anyone in town. But rarely, rarely does she sings for other people.

The thrill of hope, The weary world rejoices

And the doors to the gym creak open and choir heads peer out, curious, surprised. They gesture to one another. Come out. Come out. In black, angelic robes - they watch this strange animal making strange sounds. Twenty of them, thirty, thirty-five. And Cathy’s voice is loud now, vibrating, filling the air.

For yonder brings a new and glorious morn

Students, seniors, all classes, enemies, friends, people I've never met, teachers, Eiling, Fleischer, Lymon, all come out curious, listening, watching with the same wide-eyed wonder.

Fall on your knees
Oh, hear the angel's voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born

And Cathy, enraptured in song, barely registers her audience - that her quiet, personal moment has grown into a bona fide concert, in our little dirtbag Lounge with our pathetic little tree.

Oh night divine
Oh night, Oh night divine

She wakes to the sounds of clapping, whistling, hooting, loud and thunderous. "Bravo! Bravo!" shouts Mr. Fleischer.

Cathy smiles. But they don't stop. Surprised, she turns beet red, and waves to them like the Sweet Potato Queen.

"Alright! Back to class!” calls Lymon. “Everyone back to class!"

And almost everyone leaves. Mr. Fleischer hesitates, looks at Cathy - sees her - nods to her, approvingly. And then he disappears back into the gym.

And then it’s just me and Cathy, and the lightly falling snow.

And we pull out new cigs. And I light us up.

"Let's make gingerbread," says Cathy. "Tonight."

"Okay," I say. "Let’s."

Table of Contents

The 22 (July 20, 2010. Issue 19.)

Saturday, December 23. Motel 6 – Room 143.

72°

Jim Chase, 58, lanky with blonde crew cut, sits wrapped in a towel on his bed, talking on the room phone. The towel has holes in it. The air conditioner is loud and on high. Jim’s face is flush and he coughs incessantly.

“I just want some fresh towels sent up!” Jim says into the phone. “This is the third time I’ve called. How fucking difficult is it to just get some goddamn towels?! Thank you.”

Jim hangs up. Peripherally, a blue jay lands outside his motel room window. But Jim doesn't see the blue jay, because Jim has no peripheral vision; which is to say that if you came at him straight on, he’d see you fine, but if you approached him from the side, he wouldn’t even register you as existing. From the side, you would be the perfect, invisible ninja.

Jim grabs his obsolete 2003 Motorola cell phone and hits redial.

“Hi. It’s Jim again. I’m having car trouble. My goddamn rental actually seized on me this morning. Can you believe that? Yeah, they’re working on it, but I’m running about an hour late. No, they said they can’t get a replacement for three hours because of the holidays. But I’ll take a cab. No big – no – no, don’t do that – don’t do that – I can – you’re sure? Really? It’s no –”

Jim opens his laptop and hits the “on” button. Immediately: beep beep beep beep beep beep beep beep

“Oh – oh Jesus – Jesus! I just got this thing fixed two days ago. It’s my goddamn laptop – I’ve got a blue screen. This is not my goddamn morning!”

Jim hits the “on” button several times. Nothing happens. He opens and closes the cover. The beeping continues.

“Fuck,” he mumbles. “Fuck, fuck. Hold on –”

He shoves the laptop under a pillow. The beeping continues, muffled.

“Okay, fixed,” says Jim. “Look, I’ll take a cab. I – uh huh? You sure you don’t mind? Okay – alright – there’s a –”

He looks out the window.

“There’s a Charlie Brown’s across the street. Next to – Electronic Liquidators – yeah, on the 22. You know where it is? Great. You’re sure? It’s no big – no, that’s a big help. Thank you. Great. Thank you. See you.”

beep beep beep beep beep beep beep

***

Kenilworth, New Jersey. 210 Naomi Ave. Dan Morgan, 24, a cop, stands in the backyard of the Mohr residence. He holds Louis Mohr’s Marlin 44 mag rifle and writes out a court summons. Earlier that morning, Louis Mohr, 82, after reading his mail, went into his backyard and started firing the rifle into the shrubs against the back fence, putting bullet holes into his neighbor Jerry’s garage. Louis got off 12 shots before the police arrived. Ten minutes after that Louis’ daughter Kaye, 46, showed up.

“Danny,” says Kaye, “I am so, so sorry. I am so sorry. I promise you this will never, never happen again. I swear.”

“No problem, Kaye.”

“Why’s he taking my Marlin?! Gimme my fuckin’ Marlin!” says Louis.

“You get in the house and you stay there,” says Kaye to Louis.

***

Inside the house. Kaye reads the letter from Wachovia. Louis, on the couch, watches a bass fishing show on TV.

“Oh my god,” says Kaye.

“Goddamn deer,” mutters Louis.

“You haven't paid your mortgage in 21 months?!”

“Why should I? Won't change anything! Won't clear 'em out! Goddamn deer.”

“When were you gonna tell me about this?”

“Nothing to tell.”

“I swear to god, Dad. What were you thinking? You’re just gonna wait till the police come and lock you out?”

“It's not my fault! It's the goddamn –”

“This has nothing to do with deer, Dad. This has to do with you being fucking insane and making my life miserable! Why the fuck do you do this to me?!!”

“It's not me! It’s not my fault!”

“Who's your loan officer?”

“Who cares,” he mumbles.

Kaye shuffles through the papers, finds a foreclosure notice.

“Here. Okay. Oh – hey, Dad –”

She shows Louis the note.

“This is your loan officer?”
“Maybe.”

“Oh shit.”

***

Jim Chase, in blue Oxford shirt and blue slacks, walks from the Motel 6 to the edge of Route 22 with his beeping laptop under his arm and waits for the rushing traffic to pause. A pause comes and Jim darts to the center guardrail, climbs over, and waits for another break in traffic. After a moment, he dashes the rest of the way, and enters Electronic Liquidators, home of the Nerd Specialists.

73°

***

Louis Mohr's house. Kaye, on the phone, paces. Louis, on the couch, watches men prepare a bass fishing lure on TV.

“I'm calling about loan number 400029546,” says Kaye.

“I can help you,” says a woman with a slight southern lilt in her voice.

“This is Randi Saenz?”

“Yes, it is. Is this Mrs. Mohr?”

“This is – this is – Kaye Mohr. Louis Mohr's daughter.”

There's a pause on the other end of the line.

“Kaye Mohr – of Bound Brook?”

“That's right.”

“Kaye!”

“Randi? Randi Saenz?”

“Kaye! Kaye! Oh my god! Oh my god! Kaye Mohr! Oh my god!”

“Hi, Randi. How are you?”

“How are you!?”

“Okay. Good. You know – I –”

“Are you still in Bound Brook? Kaye Mercer, right?”

“No, no – just Kaye Mohr again.”

“Oh – I saw that – I saw you had that status change – when was it – June? Married and then –”

“Yeah. It's been a long year. Randi –”

“God – what is it – 35 years? I love those pictures you posted!”

“Yeah. I really don't go on as much as I used to –”

“Oh, you should, you should! I was on ten minutes ago! I love that talent night picture you posted with everyone in the back – and I've got that terrible scream –”

“Yes –”

“I was so ticklish! Still am!”

“Randi – I would love to catch up with you – but – could we just talk about my father's mortgage for a second?”

“Oh – oh – of course! Of course! Hold on – it's right – right in front of me.”

Louis shifts on the couch.

“Goddamn –”

“Oh – oh my,” says Randi. “You know he's gotten a final foreclosure letter?”

“Yes, I know. That’s why I’m calling. Randi, honestly, I just saw this today for the first time, ever. See, my father – he suffers from certain mental deficiencies –”
“The hell I do!”

“Shh!” says Kaye, swatting him.

“We've made several attempts to contact him,” says Randi.

“I know. I understand that, Randi,” says Kaye. “But honestly, anything I can do to make this go away would be really, incredibly –”

“I wish I could help you, Kaye, but the paperwork's done. We're all set to –”

“Randi – I could bring you a check right now. Right now! Seriously. You'd be the hero of the bank, Randi. I can bring you a check for the whole thing. We could make this all go away. Think of that.”

“Right now?”

“What's the balance? Twenty–one months? So, it's what –”

“Twenty–nine thousand, three hundred and forty–three dollars.”

Kaye takes a deep breath, swallows. She girds herself.

“Is that a problem?” says Randi.

“No – no – that’s fine,” says Kaye. She covers up the phone and sneers in Louis’ ear. “It’s just all the money I have in the fuckin’ world!” She returns to the phone. “That's perfect. Randi. Twenty–nine, three forty three. I can bring the whole thing in.”

“Well, I do have an appointment –”

“I’ll be there in one minute, Randi. We can wrap this whole thing up!”

“Oh – well, oh sure. Come on over!”

“Great! Randi – you're a peach!”

“Oh,” says Randi.

“What?” says Kaye.

“Oh – look at that.”

“What? What Randi?”

“I just flipped over to FB for a second –”

“Randi –”

“And you're not there.”
“Randi –”

“Did you – did you de–friend me, Kaye?”

“I –”

“You did. You de–friended me.”

“Randi – Randi – I don't – I don't do Facebook at all anymore – honestly – it's been such a long –”

“You posted a comment to Jill Krementz this morning. And there you are commenting on Bobby Meisner's bowling party picture. Huh.”

“Randi – please – I can be there in ten minutes. Maybe we can go get a bite to eat? Talk about camp. Please. For my Dad's sake –”

“Tick–ridden bastards,” says Louis.

“Just let me clear this up. Okay? Let me make everything good again. Please?”

Kaye waits.

“Oh. Sure. Sure. Of course,” says Randi. “Come in. Come in. We'll clear the whole thing right up.”

“Thank you! Thank you so much, Randi. I can't even tell you. I really really appreciate this.”

“No problem. See you soon.”

Kaye hangs up. She turns to Louis.

“Stay here and don’t move!” says Kaye, and she rushes out.

Louis grumbles, watches men fish on TV. The day’s mail on the stained coffee table stares at him, belligerent, makes him anxious, angry. And then he sees it. There, among the letters, that thing – that – that deer – the deer itself! – towering, wistful, doe–eyed, proud, challenging, boastful! That goddamn, goddamn – and – 25% off, this weekend only!

***

Jesus, 19, short and portly with thick sideburns and a nickel–sized stud in his earlobe taps a reset button on Jim's laptop. The beeping stops. He flips the laptop over and looks at Jim, boredly.

“She dead. Gotta get a new one.”

“Dead? I just got it fixed last week.”

Jesus shrugs.

“Dead.”

“Aren't you going to do a diagnostic?”

“Just did. She dead.”

“You just flipped it over.”

Jesus shrugs.

“I want a diagnostic. A full diagnostic,” says Jim.

“I know this model. Piece a shit. I know when she dead. And she dead.”

“You didn't do a full diagnostic!” Jim points to a nearby poster of a friendly, eager Caucasian Nerd Specialist holding up a sign for a World–Class, 12–Point Diagnostic.

“Don't need it.”

“I want to talk to a manager.”

“I'm the manager.”

Jim coughs incessantly. He stares, coldly, at Jesus. Jesus shifts, boredly.

“I just fixed this goddamn thing last week!” says Jim. “I put in a new RAID drive – whatever the fuck that is – for $400!”

“Should've bought new one.”

“It was fine yesterday!”

“Today, she dead.”

“Jesus Christ!” says Jim. “What the hell kind of nerd are you?! You don't even look like a nerd! Listen – I use Nerd Specialists in Albany – and those are quality nerds! If you think this is quality nerd service – your idea of nerd service is way under par!”

“Mm,” says Jesus.

Peripherally, a growing line of customers grunt and shift. But Jim sees none of them because he has no peripheral vision.

“I'll tell you what I want. I want that service!” Jim says pointing to the cheerful poster. “I want the goddamn, 12–step, world–class diagnostic everything! Full–on Nerd service!”

Jesus shrugs, sticks a sheet in front of Jim.

“Name, address, credit card, driver's license,” he says, handing Jim a pen.

“Whatever!” sneers Jim and he starts writing.

In the back room of Nerd Specialists – a place commercially trademarked “The Nerd Cave” – Toi, a 17 year–old with a McCartney haircut and enough eyebrow rings to hold a shower curtain, watches Jesus' hands dance across a keyboard.

“S'up?” says Toi.

“'Nother asshole,” says Jesus.

“Give you his driver's license?”

“Yup.”

“Assholes never learn,” says Toi.

***

Kaye Mohr stands outside the Westfield Wachovia branch, holding a small white envelope. She peers inside, taps on the glass door with a key. Inside, the bank is dark. She taps louder and louder, accidentally nicking the glass.

***

Charlie Brown's.

Jim Chase sits at a table with an outstanding view of the 22 and his Motel 6 across the street. He holds up a spoon and stares at his upside down reflection. He coughs. His untouched beer gets warmer.

74°

A large–boned, platinum blonde with a hefty set of worn, rubber band–bound folders stands over him.

“Jim Chase?” she says.

“Randi?” he says. He stands and shakes her hand. “Thanks for coming all the way out here!”

“No problem!”

She sits.

“Listen,” he says. “Al says you've taken over great for him – haven't missed a beat. How's he liking retirement?”

“A little too much! Never off the links!”

“Why should he – with this weather?! Jesus! Is it always this hot in December?!”

“No – no – it's a fluke –”

“Can I get you something to drink?” says a mysterious waitress.

“Well, I guess we’re being casual?” says Randi, grinning and eyeing Jim’s beer.

“Hell, it’s Saturday!” says Jim.

“Can you do a Mojito?” says Randi.

***

Fifteen minutes later. Randi pokes through the bottom of a cob salad. Her cell phone rings. She ignores it. Near Jim, sit the remains of a blood red
steak and a third beer. He pores through folders, property lists.

“Uh huh, uh huh…and this one’s –”

“East Brunswick. That’s the four bedroom, three–and–a–half bath. They cleared out a week ago.”

“Guy with the chainsaw?”

“It’s not as bad as everyone says. Two walls in the kitchen, a chandelier–thing, some drywall. We’ll have it spic–and–span in a week.”

“Uh huh,” Jim makes a notation on a ratty, dog–eared map. “These two are near each other, right? We can hit ‘em together –”

The waitress returns with Jim’s VISA card.

“I’m sorry, sir,” she says. “Your card was rejected. Do you have another?”

Randi’s cell phone rings. She ignores it.

***

Wachovia. Kaye leans up against the glass door, annoyed, sweating, fanning herself. She calls on her cell phone. No answer.

***

Charlie Brown’s.

The waitress returns Randi’s VISA card to her.

“I told you those aren’t my goddamn charges!” says Jim into his cell phone. “I was never in Texas! No – I need you to clear it off, now. Now!! I can’t wait three days! Lemme speak to your supervisor! You’re the supervisor? Christ!”

“Jim –” says Randi.

“Let me talk to your – your –”

“Jim, hang up. Hang up. It’s okay.”

He looks at her. She nods.

“It’s okay. I took care of it.”

“I – my card’s blocked for three goddamn –”

“I know.”

“Where’s the –”

“I took care of it. No big deal.”

“You expense that!” He says, coughing incessantly.

“I will,” she says.

Jim hangs up, looks out the window, and returns to the property lists.

“Kenilworth? Mohr?”

“Couldn’t work it out.”

Jim reads the notes.

“He was completely unresponsive…? He got the notices?”

“I have certified receipts. Follow–ups. It was 21 months.”

“Yeah. Mm. Veteran. Couldn’t work it out?”

He looks out the window.

“I did everything I could,” sighs Randi.

“Okay. Y’got the paperwork?”

Randi sets an official document before him. He signs.

“And the sheriff’ll be there – ?”

“Tuesday.”

***

Lord & Taylor.

Kaye Mohr drowns herself in shoes. She won't buy anything. She'll just look. Maybe try on a – oh hell, why shouldn't she buy anything!? Why shouldn't she baby herself!? It's the frigging holidays! It's not like she's in Manhattan spending $400 on some boutique brand! And red red red red red red red red red red red red red red red red red red looks so good on her perfect, little –

“Kaye!” says Jody Peerless from the Keystone Committee.

“I love those!” says Jody. “Those are so you!”

Shit shit shit.

“You think?”

“Absotively!” She holds up a pair of black pumps. “We're headed for the Caribbean in an hour – and I need a pair of dress shoes.”

Ten feet away, Mike and Jordan Peerless boredly lean on each other, transfixed by cell phone games.

“Those are nice,” says Kaye.

“Holiday plans?” says Jody

“Just me and dad.”

“No Tommy?”

“He's with his father skiing.”

“Not in this weather!”

“True.”

“Y'know,” says Jody, “I am so jealous. I wish I could trade places with you and do nothing! That would be Heaven!”

“Sure is,” says Kaye.

***

Charlie Brown’s.

Jim looks through property lists. Randi stares at him.

“Y’know,” says Randi, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you on Facebook.”

“Maplewood. Maplewood? Newark.”

“Okay – I know – I know that’s not a terribly professional thing to say – but we are being business casual! I know what you’re thinking. It’s a complete waste of time. But I’ll tell you – I’ve caught up with so many people I’ve known throughout my life – grade school, high school – and they’re there all the time!”

“Camden? Six houses in Camden? God.”

“It’s like a little museum of everyone you’ve ever known – all under glass. Like – like eBay – but with people instead of junk. Y’know what? Y’know what, Jim?”

Jim reads through properties.

“I have – and I say this not to brag – but because it’s true and I have to say it – today, I have 2,000 friends. Just this morning! 2,000! Okay, that’s it. I got it out of my system! Whew!”

Jim looks up, stares at her, blankly.

“I know. I know what you’re thinking! Those are like teenage numbers! I mean – I don’t know ‘em – know ‘em. Y’know? Most are just online folks, friends of friends of friends – and some of the folks I know better now than folks I knew in the first place. Y’know?! It’s like a little growing universe, a little planet all in one place. I love it.”

“Uh huh.”

“But I don’t do MySpace or anything like that,” says Randi. “That’s just stupid.”

“Okay,” says Jim.

“So…?” says Randi, leaning into him.

“Come on,” she says. “I told you. Come on. Give it up.”

“Uh,” says Jim.

“How many? I mean, if you don’t mind my – if it’s not too intrusive –”

“What?” says Jim.

“How many do you have?”

“How many what?” says Jim.

“Friends?”

“How many – ?”

“Friends do you have?”

Jim looks at her strangely.

“I've never counted,” says Jim.

Randi laughs a loud yowlp.

“You don't have to count! The number's counted right there for you!”

Jim says nothing, fidgets, looks at the maps. Randi’s eyes go wide.

“Oh my – oh my – you're in single digits, aren't you? That's it, isn't it?”

“Maybe if we stick to New Brunswick, and stay north of –”
“You know what I'll do? I’ll tell you what – I'll send a friend suggestion to some of the folks up in Albany, and in REO – there are so many people – you probably know half of them –” Randi pulls out her iPhone. “This'll just take a second.”

Jim watches her like a squirrel in a tree watching an approaching bulldozer.

“What’s that?” says Jim.

“This? My iPhone?” says Randi. “So what are you under? Chase? J. Chase? Jim Chase? You use another name? Do you have a picture?”

“Uh,” says Jim.

“Show me,” says Randi. She takes Jim's hand, and presses the phone firmly, warmly into his. She holds it there and stares at him. The large blue Facebook icon glows.

“Show me,” she whispers, and gets closer. “Show me your Facebook page. Please?”

***

Jim and Randi, carrying file folders, dodge traffic and get to the center divider of the 22. Jim helps Randi climb over the guardrail, and they cross to the other side.

75°

***

“AAAAAAH! AH! AH! AH!”

Randi, naked, heaving, writhes on sheer, rumpled Motel 6 bed sheets. Jim, naked, is atop her, behind her, under her, over her.

“AAAH! AAH!”

Ultra–sensitive, Randi screams every time Jim touches her. The noise gives Jim a migraine. Randi pants and sweats, raking his back with nicotine–stained fingers. He coughs, exhausted, out of breath.

“I can't believe,” she yells as he thrusts from behind, “you've never been on the internet! That's so exciting!!”

She screams again. Jim stares at a dusty painting on the motel room wall of Sioux warriors trying to kill an enormous bear.

***

Electronic Liquidators.

“Deer traps,” says Louis Mohr.

“Deer traps?” says Jesus.

“Yes, where are the fuckin’ deer traps?”

“The – the –”

“Want ‘em big, but not too heavy. Y'know?”

“Deer traps?”

“Yes. Right.”

“Don't sell deer traps,” says Jesus.

“The hell you don’t,” says Louis and holds out the circular from the mail. “25% off!”

“Oh...” says Jesus. “Hold on.”

He goes into The Nerd Cave and returns with a small, rectangular, orange box, labeled Deer Hunter Pro. He hands it to Louis.

“Cash or charge?” says Jesus.

“The hell is this?” says Louis.

“Just the game,” says Jesus. “Gotta buy the gun separate. That's where they get you.”

“I got the gun,” says Louis.

“Great. Then you're set.”

“I don't want this shit!” says Louis. “What else you got?

“On sale? Jewel Drop.”

“You got traps? Nets? Camouflage?”

“Uh...” says Jesus.

“Explosives?”

“Uh,” says Jesus.

Toi comes out.

“What's he need?” says Toi.

“Explosive and nets,” says Jesus.

“Huh,” says Toi.

***

66°

***

Motel 6

Jim Chase, in blue slacks, blue socks and blue Oxford shirt lies in fetal position on the bed.

“You should call the front desk,” Randi says from the bathroom. “Your towels have holes.”

She comes out dressed, prim and proper, picks up the maps and folders.

“Oh look! Look!” she says and goes to the window. She grins, gleefully, and heads out the front door.

***

Electronic Liquidators.

Louis Mohr comes out to the parking lot. Shrill honking grabs his attention. Traffic on the 22 has halted as a disoriented pack of white–tailed deer carefully leap the guardrail and cross the highway towards Electronic Liquidators.

“Mother of God,” whispers Louis.

On tiptoe, Louis darts to his pick–up truck, reaches into the bed, withdraws his Ruger's 44 detachable rotary rifle, scurries to the edge of the 22, and kneels down.

60°

***

Motel 6.

“Jim! Jim!” says Randi. “Come outside! So pretty! And they're hardly –”

CRACK!

CRACK! CRACK!!

“Randi?” says Jim.

***

Jim comes out on to the Motel 6 parking lot. Randi lies in a pool of blood, a gaping gunshot wound in her left shoulder. Maps, folders and signed, authorized documents lie in a puddle of red ooze.

At the 22, blocked cars honk and sirens blare from a huddle of police cars. Over by Electronic Liquidators, uniformed policemen wrestle Louis Mohr to the ground.

Jim, shocked, kneels by Randi, his mouth agape. Peripherally, the unmolested white–tailed deer lope past him through the Motel 6 parking lot, back towards the Watchung Mountains. But Jim doesn't see the deer, because he has no peripheral vision.

***

Overlook Hospital. Emergency waiting room.

54°

Jim Chase sits in a worn, blocky wooden chair. His hair is in disarray. Large splotches of dried blood cake his shirt. He stares at the floor.

“Jim?”

He looks up. A short, stout, out–of–breath man in damp, gray sweat clothes stands over him. Jim looks up and sees him. The man grabs Jim's hand and shakes it, furiously.

“Thank you so much!” he says. “Thank you for bringing her in!”

“Sure,” says Jim.

“You probably saved her life.”

“I –”

“How's she doing?”

“She's – she's – who are you?” says Jim.

“Harvey,” says Harvey.

Jim stares at him.

“Her husband,” says Harvey.

Jim nods.

“Nice to meet you,” says Jim.

***

Hospital hallway. Dan Morgan, the cop, and Kaye Mohr stand outside Louis Mohr's room. Inside the room, Louis Mohr sleeps, snoring loudly, his arm in a cast.

“He'll be fine,” says Dan. “He'll get a psychiatric evaluation and they'll give him probation. Trust me, it could've been worse.”

“He's not dangerous!” says Kaye.

Dan looks at her.

“Okay, when he's carrying a rifle, he's dangerous,” says Kaye. “But that's over! He's just a crazy old man – he –”

“Its fine, Kaye,” says Dan, pleasantly. “Don't worry. Everything'll be fine.”

***

Kaye goes to the emergency waiting room and sits. She sits in a worn, blocky wooden chair, and stares, exhausted, at the dilapidated orange and brown carpet. Next to her sits Jim, exhausted, staring at the carpet. They both breathe, tired, numb. Jim doesn't see Kaye. And Kaye doesn't see Jim either.

And nothing else happens.

“What a fucked–up day,” says Kaye.

Jim nods.

“I don't think a day can get more fucked–up,” says Jim.

Jim turns to see who's speaking. And Kaye turns towards him. They see each other. And they both breathe slowly and turn back to the carpet.

And an orderly stops and looks up and out through the large, glass overhead ceiling.

“Mmh!” says the orderly. “'Bout time!”

And Jim, Kaye, and the orderly stare up at the black, cool night sky and the beautiful, flickering white crystals pouring down upon them.
Snow.

41°

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