Chestnut Street

By Mitchell Waldman

On the street where I grew up people didn’t live so much as they died. Big deaths, little deaths. Nate Wasserman — father of Bobby, Joe and Arnold, who I babysat once, who jumped me, stole my glasses, and hid them from me — he was the first to go. A jeweler, he was ambushed on a trip to Jamaica, gunned down in an alleyway behind his hotel. When they found his body, the jewels he’d been carrying were long gone. He was the man who lit fireworks in his backyard every Fourth of July. My parents didn’t approve. They shook their heads and said it wasn’t safe, kids lost their hands doing stuff like that. To us kids, though, he was a folk hero. He’d brought fireworks to Chestnut Street. His death was one of our most dramatic.

It was a small inconspicuous street, with a cul-de-sac at the end so you could turn around, but the death and cancer rates on it were spectacular. People said there used to be a swamp where the street is, and they’d filled it in with something, made it liveable. Now people are saying there might have been dioxin in the fill, that they’re going to have to shut the whole area down, make it something like a ghost town.

It was a peaceful little suburban street, not a lot of noise on it, unless we were playing football, complete with passing patterns behind parked cars.

Our football games were orchestrated by an older kid, Jack Baylor, who went just by “Baylor” and had an authentic, professional NFL football that he’d caught in the stands during one of the Bears games. He always played quarterback and his team always won. He could really whip a football. The question was whether any of us could catch it.

He had short legs, but could outrun any of us. With his index finger, he would map out each of our passing patterns on another boy’s back. “Okay, Sam,” he would say, “go straight out about five steps, then hook back, like this, behind that blue Impala and then out again.” We’d watch, careful students, as he diagrammed our paths.

Baylor’s father got lung cancer when Baylor was eighteen, when we were all too big to play football on the street anymore. And, by then, he was already in college, studying to be whatever he would become.

We usually played our games strictly on the straight part of the street, never venturing into the cul-de-sac, where the Reisers lived. They were sort of an odd bunch, I don’t really remember why now, maybe just because they were quiet. Nobody really knew them, none of the three boys played football in the fall, or baseball in the summer, or basketball in the spring, just after the thaw, like the rest of us. They kept to themselves. Andrew was in my sister Dana’s grade. He was always bringing bugs to school, threatening to throw them down girls’ backs. His older brother, Jeremiah, was a studious sort, into science and blowing things up.

Andrew was the wild one. One day he was playing with three other boys by the railroad tracks, about a half mile from Chestnut Street. He was only thirteen. They were down by the tracks, drinking whiskey from a flask one of the boys had snuck from his father’s bar. It started like that, only then Andrew made his dare. At least, that’s how one of the other boys, Mark McConnell, told it afterwards. They didn’t have the guts, Andrew said, to lay right down on the tracks while the train was approaching. “Oh yeah!” the others had replied vehemently. Boys in our neighborhood always took dares seriously, although with this one, Mark McConnell admitted, he was a little shaky. Even so, they’d waited together for the 4:45 freight. It was right on time. At 4:43 they heard its whistle, felt the tracks’ vibrations. It was then that Andrew had calmly laid down. The other boys, looking at one another, followed his example. “Now, the one of us who stays down the longest is the real man. The rest of you are all pussy shits. Right?”

“Right,” the others replied, less vehemently this time.

As it turned out, Andrew won the dare, hands down. His body was so mangled the coroner had to examine his molars to make a positive ID.

We had neighbors we didn’t get along with, the Forrests. They didn’t die or even get cancer, although sometimes we wished they would. There was a strip of bushes between our houses which our fathers had planted together.

They had two girls and we had two boys and a girl. The Forrest girls were fairly homely, all knee bones and elbows, with not much else on them. For years our parents wouldn’t talk to their parents. I think it all started when the younger Forrest girl, Becky, who was in my sister’s grade, pushed Dana off her bike and then wouldn’t apologize. Some nonsense like that. And, from there, things just started to escalate. It got so ridiculous that one day we came out of the house amazed, my brother, Will, and me, to find the bushes between our houses half cut. Not just one half of the bushes cut, but all of them cut, but only halfway in. That didn’t make Will or me particularly happy. We had other things to do with our Saturdays — bicycle trips to take with the guys to the lagoons, where we would pretend to fish (we never caught anything), trips to the Magic Castle Miniature Golf Course, where on one of the holes an elevator actually took your ball all the way up a small model of the Empire State Building and then spit it out again. But seeing those hedges halfway cut like that, even though they looked sort of wacky, looked okay to us, we knew our dad would blow a gasket and have us out there all day with his electric hedge trimmer to level them off, fuming behind us, supervising as Will and I took turns on the ladder with the instant digit remover. But that was the sort of thing the Forrests did. They wouldn’t have thought to ask us for help. No, Mr. Forrest would just get out there himself and start hacking halfway in. I guess the feud was too well under way by then.

For the rest of our years of growing up and, as far as I know, for the next twenty years, my parents and the Forrests didn’t talk to each other. Their houses no more than twenty feet apart, driveways side by side.

But a couple of years after I left for college, Mr. Forrest started talking to me. I’m not sure why exactly, but he did. I’d pull in the driveway with my sky blue Mustang and he’d look up from his front yard gardening, smile, walk over to me, and ask me how I was doing. The first time it shocked the hell out of me, this guy that never said boo to us, never even looked at us, all of the sudden being friendly.

I went into the house with my vinyl suitcase and asked my mom and dad if they and the Forrests had started talking to each other again. “No,” my mom said, wiping her hands on her apron, “Why?”

            “Because he just shook my hand and asked me how I’ve been.”

My mom gaped at me for a moment. Then she regained her composure and smiled at my dad, who was sitting at the kitchen table, reading his newspaper. “Well, how’s about that, Bernie?”

“How’s about what?” he said, looking up from behind his thick glasses, which magnified his eyeballs, made his stare seem even twice as large.

“So Sam, did he ask you if you want to take Becky out on the town?”

“Oh, Bernard, stop. He was just trying to be friendly to our little Sammy. Now that he’s all grown up.” She came over to me and hugged me too tight, for too long. I let her though, knowing I only had to put up with it for breaks and summer vacations. I could see the top of her head as she squeezed. It seemed that the taller I got, the more she shrunk. That’s how life goes, I guess. We all shrink in the end.

There was another family next to the Reisers, down at the end of the block, that we didn’t know too well. Their kids had grown up before we all had, so the parents were a little older. She had the big C though, the mother. I don’t know what kind it was, but she didn’t last long.

Marty Hoffman lived across the street and down two houses from us. He was Will’s friend more than mine. They were in the same grade, a year ahead of me. Will, Marty, and David Bender from down the street were like a team back then. They were always together. Bender was the guy whose front tooth I knocked out, tagging him too hard during a pickup game of football in the driveway by our bus stop. He was a thin little guy and I was big for my age. I gave him a little shove and he went flying, face first into the garage door. After that he was running home, hand over his face, blood running through his fingers. But I figure it was all for the better, destiny maybe. If it wasn’t for me, Bender might never have become a dentist.

 Marty Hoffman became a lawyer. As a kid, he was straight-laced, and slightly overweight. I was shocked when I saw him years later at college. We both went to the same school out in the middle of the cornfields of central Illinois. On a bad day, when the wind was blowing just right, the perfume of cow manure pervaded the campus. When I saw him, Hoffman was on the Quad. He was more than thin — he looked like one of those Holocaust victims you see in all the old pictures from World War II. His hair was a frizzy black mess, little curls springing out here and there, a two days growth of stubble on his face. But it was the eyes that gave him away, the glassy stare — he was an obvious pothead.

He went on to become a very successful lawyer, down in Miami, specializing in real estate, I believe.

It wasn’t until Hoffman and I had both grown up and gone away that Mr. Hoffman got the big C back on Chestnut Street. Nobody really thought about it much, that it might have had something to do with our street. It was just what was happening to people nowadays.

My mom got it, too. And my brother, Will, even though he no longer lived there at the time. They both got it within a year of each other, varying forms of lymphoma.

“Keep in touch, promise me that,” Will said. This was something that the Will I knew as an adult would not ordinarily have said. He was an accountant, very much into making money. He and I had grown apart long before, and gone our separate ways. He’d never had time for the family. But, now he was lying in a hospital bed, undergoing daily radiation treatments. He could die. I’d come home, all the way from Austin, Texas, where I was going to Graduate School, to see him. (I rarely came home anymore — it was too damned far; it was one of the reasons I’d chosen Austin.)

“Please, please, keep in touch.”

“I will,” I said, choking on my words.

“Lying in this hospital here, like this, you realize what’s really important. I had a wild dream. Let me tell you about it. I saw God, Sam, even though you know I never really bought into that much. And the funny thing was he didn’t come as this old wise, white-bearded Santa-Claus type. He looked just like an ordinary guy. Actually, he looked a little like Mr. Forrest — you know, tall, big nose, losing his hair some. You know what he told me?”

I shook my head.

“Take care of your family. Those were his very words.”

I didn’t know what to say. At that time, before Will married Patsy, we — Dad, Mom, Dana and me — were his family.

In a year’s time, though, Will would be cured, happily back, immersed in his booming business of deductions and debit sheets, a regular money-making machine, ignoring the rest of us, once again. It was almost a relief.

By then Mom had gotten it. I’d come home (from Dallas, or I think it was Dallas then) to find my mom and brother sitting on the couch in our old living room (the living room which, as kids, we were never allowed to sit in) talking in some secret sort of code. They were having a regular conversation, one listing off the names of various medications, the other answering with the names of two or three others.

Very bizarre.

My mom came through it all right, too, although she lost most of her hair, went around for a time with a wig. When she decided to hang that up, it was a shock to see her hair coming in as gray bristles. Not that the length was a shock. It was more the color. She’d always dyed it before, Clairol # 54, Ash-Blonde.

My best friend got it. He lived on the street next to ours. His name was Stanley Fields. He went away to the Air Force just about the time I was going away to college. On my birthday — this was in my freshman year — I got a letter from him saying he’d gotten this intense headache and now they were saying he had a brain tumor.

All I could think at the time was, God, Stan’s going to die, and he’s never even been on a date, he’s never even gotten laid. Even with him being in the Air Force, it was something I was pretty sure of. Back in high school, when the two of us had gone, looking for something to do, we’d usually just end up at some restaurant, stuffing our faces, staring at the girls we knew we wouldn’t meet.

Once — I remember this now — once when he’d gotten a new BB-gun we went out in his backyard and hung a Playboy centerfold on a tree. This was on a summer day when his mom and dad were both at work. The closer we got to the intimate parts, the better the score.

I didn’t think it was all that funny, but he was laughing his head off, really enjoying himself, as we took our turns. I guess maybe there was some sort of aggression in there that I hadn’t really seen in Stan before.

Stan didn’t just keel over and die, though. His illness was agonizingly long for all of us. The tumor in his head was in a place they couldn’t operate without making hamburger meat out of his brain, nor could they really do much radiation without frying it, so he just sort of vegetated on medication, grew all puffy and pasty. He didn’t have a life anymore. I’d go over there and visit him, with this mutual friend of ours, Dennis Needleman. Dennis was always the one to coax me to go over there. I just tried to shy away from it, would always turn my head away as I drove past Stan’s house, afraid that his parents or brother would see me. Ashamed that I’d sort of cut him out of my life. But I was still living, going to school, meeting girls. My life was going forward and his had just sort of stopped before it had started.

I vividly remember the last time I saw him. His mind was going slowly. He couldn’t remember things anymore. His mother had made a plate of cookies, oatmeal I think. Dennis and I sat around the kitchen table, cookies in hand, while Mrs. Fields briefed us on Stanley’s condition. Dennis, a little guy with big energy, nodded his head, acting concerned, maybe acting a little too much — he was destined to be a salesman — hungrily wolfing down cookie after cookie, as Mrs. Fields told us about the tumor size and location, the medication and treatments Stan was on. “There’s not much they can do for him now, except make him feel comfortable.” It had been a couple of years since the whole thing with Stan had started and Mrs. Fields looked about twenty years older. She’d never seemed old before, a little on the heavy side perhaps, but she’d always looked youthful, pretty in the face. I didn’t like to look her in the eyes. She was the kind that could, would, if given the opportunity, challenge you directly. “Bob Hartfield doesn’t ever come around anymore,” she said, “even though he and Stan were in the band together, they were best friends.” It just added to my guilt. I hadn’t seen him in what, a year?  I couldn’t look her in the eyes. Suddenly, her hand was on my shoulder. “It’s nice to see you boys. I’m sure Stan will be glad to see you both again. Hold on, I’ll get him.”

The cookie tasted like chalk in my mouth. My stomach was gurgling like a washing machine. I wanted to bolt on out of there.

And when Stan came in the room, it was a shock. He’d grown even bigger and rounder than he’d been the last time I’d seen him. It was like his body was trying to reproduce itself, only both bodies were in the same skin. And he had that glazed expression on his face, and a thin line of drool coming down from the corner of his mouth (not that that should have been too much of a surprise — he’d always had a bit too much spit).

“Look who’s here to see you.” Mrs. Fields said. “Your friends have come to visit.”

He could hardly talk. He was obviously under the influence of some very strong drugs, but there was something else going on too. He couldn’t think, the tumor, as it grew, was taking over Stan’s life.

He sat down at the end of the table, lethargically, like something out of Night of the Living Dead.

“Have a cookie, Stanley. Here.” She reached out and placed one in his hand. He obediently took it and placed it in his mouth. But it sat there for a moment, like he didn’t know what to do with it.

“Chew, Stanley.”

He began to chew.

“So, how’s it goin’, buddy?” Dennis said, smiling, placing a hand on Stan’s shoulder. For all the times I despised the way Dennis put on his act, dealt with the world in his dishonest way, I envied him now, wished I could put on a face and be happy. But, it just didn’t work for me.

“I….” Stan uttered. “Okay, I guess.”

“They treating you all right? Keeping you busy?” Stan’s live-in nurse, Anna, who spoke little English, came into the kitchen for something just then. She said “Hello,” and then she was gone. Dennis, who always got to flappin’ about that, but never actually got any — no girl would take him seriously — got to flappin’ about Anna.

“Does she treat you right? Sneak up to your room at night? Huh? I’ll bet she makes you feel better old buddy, huh?”

“Dennis.” I said. He’d gone too far.

Suddenly, Stan looked across the table and stared at me.

“Who are you?” he said.

I didn’t say anything. Dennis looked at me, then leaned toward Stan, speaking too loud, like the problem was with his hearing.

“It’s Sam,” Dennis said. “You didn’t forget your old friend, Sam, did you?”

“Who?”

“Sam. Don’t you remember how the three of us used to run around the city, the good times we used to have?”

I didn’t really remember many good times, just bad times, sitting around wondering why all the other guys were getting all the girls, but if that’s the way Dennis wanted Stan to remember it….

“Sam,” Stan said, still staring at me, like his eyes forgot how to blink.

“That’s right, Sam,” Dennis said. “Your old buddy, your old pal.”

Suddenly, Stanley, this immovable mass, moved his hand out across the table to me. “Nice to meet you,” he said, meaning me to shake it. He was like a big dog.

Dennis gave me another look, then turned back to Stanley. “You don’t understand.”

I inhaled, took Stan’s hand in mine and shook it. “Nice to meet you, too,” I mumbled.

When Dennis caught up with me, I was past the slide, past the baseball diamond, sitting on one of the benches in the dark, remembering old baseball games.

“You can’t let it get to you,” he said.

“How can I not?”

“You still have your life. We just have to do the best we can for him, be his friend, while we can.”

“I can’t,” I said, looking out toward center field, remembering standing out there in my green and white uniform, the oversized baseball mitt on my hand. “I just can’t.”

“Think how you would feel.”

“I know, Dennis. You’re a good guy, for all your faults. You’re stronger than I am though. I just can’t do it anymore.”

And I didn’t. After that I would come home on my short trips, asking my parents for any news about Stan, but never took up my mom’s suggestions that I go and visit him. I couldn’t shake off that blank stare of his that time, the way he’d said “Who are you?,” as if ten years of growing up together had been wiped out, just like that.

Dennis’ brother died, too. Dennis’ family lived three blocks from us. I was at their house when they were sitting shivah. Dennis said it would be all right, but I wasn’t sure. I told Mrs. Needleman how sorry I was, even though I never really knew Dennis’ brother much. It seemed to bother me, though, more than Dennis. He was joking around, laughing when we went up to his room, like nothing was different. He and his brother hadn’t gotten along too well, I guess.

Ned had thought Dennis was a little twerp, which he was. I put up with him more than anything, the way he’d walk right up to girls at the mall and start trying to pick them up. It was all pretty embarrassing, and after we were leaving, the girls would always be laughing. But he tried to be a good friend, once let me sleep in his basement when I came home from college, had gotten into a fight at this party, and was too wrecked to go home. And another time he’d had a surprise birthday party for me, only no one showed up except my college roommate, Paul, and these two twins who I used to work with at Walgreens when we were kids. Now that was embarrassing. In the end, Paul and me just went out to the bars together to celebrate. Very depressing. Another time, when I was out of school, had a job at a toy store, and Dennis had a job doing something at a downtown hotel, selling convention space, I guess, he set me up with this girl who worked there. She was real thin — had only cheese crackers and Diet Coke for lunch — with a pretty smile. She was black, lived on the Southside, where I’d always been taught a white guy shouldn’t be caught alone at night. I’d moved out of the house then, had my own place, and she said she’d come over to see my place. I think she was afraid what the people in her neighborhood would think. Anyway, she never showed, she stood me up.

The problem with Dennis was he was always putting on, trying too hard to get everyone to like him.

We lost touch, though, after a while. It was inevitable, I guess.

A couple of years later I heard that Stan died. I heard it from my parents. I didn’t go to the funeral.

They’re shutting up Stan’s house, too. They’re making four square blocks of people who’ve spent their lives there pack up and leave. My mom and dad. Where will they go? They’re calling it a disaster area. Tell me about it. And soon it will be gone for good, they’ll tear it all down and the federal boys will come in with their weird beekeeper outfits, walk around the rubble with their fancy detectors and take soil samples, just like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin the first time they landed on the moon.

Okay, it’s a disaster area, it’ll be in all the papers in screaming headlines. But all I’ll think about then is my friend, Stan, staring, just staring at me with those watery eyes, and asking, “Who are you?”

Editor’s note: This story previously appeared in Red Fez (2011) and in the story collection Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart (also 2011). 


Mitchell Waldman’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including  The MacGuffin, Fictive Dream, Corvus Review, The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart, and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com).

Nearer, My Dog, to Thee

By Tom Probasco

I reach my hand back

to touch you,

but you’re just out

of reach,

though not,

of course,

sight.

But maybe this

is how

the awful separation

begins.

I’m trying to keep time,

trying

to keep this time

from running downhill,

running downhill

into the rushing river.

Tom Probasco has had poems published in INPRINT (Indianapolis Free University Writers’ Center), the first volume of Indiannual (Writers’ Center of Indianapolis), and the Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, and in addition to writing the occasional poem, he plays harmonica in the Indianapolis band, True North.

Newtons

By Tom Probasco

“Newton was a mutant,”

my textbook read.

A star so far outshining

the brightest of the brightest bred.

Was there ever a mutant Neanderthal,

an author of some brilliant design

way beyond its place and time

of which remains no trace at all?

Perhaps there’s a Newton or two today.

Persons with unimaginable sense.

Or are things now too densefor anyone ever to convincingly say?

Tom Probasco has had poems published in INPRINT (Indianapolis Free University Writers’ Center), the first volume of Indiannual (Writers’ Center of Indianapolis), and the Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, and in addition to writing the occasional poem, he plays harmonica in two Indianapolis bands, The Full Benefits Band and True North.

Winter

By AE Lanuza Franken

“Before the snow falls,”

He says,

He wants a little more meat on his bones.

So, he eats,

White cherry cola slushies from Speedway 

That his younger daughter happily buys for him,

Big Macs that his too American daughter 

Started requesting at too early an age,

Noodles that his wife doesn’t understand why he likes so much, 

But that she gratefully cooks.

Maybe, he hopes, they will give him the long life

That the doctors do not foresee.

Despite his best efforts,

He is able to finish only

Half the slushie,

Half the Big Mac,

Half the bowl of noodles.

The snow is still falling,

When he decides to leave us.

And at that very moment,

I feel my desire to live a long life

Diminish

By exactly half.

Born in Chicago, raised in Dolton, and currently residing in Munster, AE Lanuza Franken has learned how life dirties and bloodies your hands, but with some soap, water, and consideration, each moment is a new one.

Oh Lord I See with My Beating Heart

By David Dephy

It is due to the fact that we, people do not betray

one another, but ourselves and we betray our vocation.

We betray our ideals and very often we are very well

aware of it… I see with my beating heart…

I see that much is demanded from me, but  not much

is forgiven to me… I should respect other people’s faults

and opinions as my own ones… I see with my beating heart

and poetry is such enormous concept, it can’t be only

my personal matter… And if I realize by what means

I want to be special, then I’ll understand who and what 

I am in reality… Yes, I see with my beating heart

I see—every word is alive and that we are alive too

as long as we understand one another and also that if

in our inner world and in this multi language dictionary

of the mankind survive the words such as Freedom,

then the world will also survive. Yes, I see with my

beating heartand for me this is the mission of creations

and of mine as a poet’s justification for existence. I am

the verse of Lord, like someone else or no one.

My every breath is a letter and I am writing

all my loving, let me do this forever.

I only want to know what’s going on here

when the moon drips down bedding heavy behind

hearing the wolf’s voice who is singing or crying

and the back of the reality’s body all shadowy lined

with the imaginary part of noise—of silence,

with my breath—with my beating heart.

Yet, more I am silent—more I am audible.

Yet, I am the reason—I am the focus of the universe’s

heart that makes me possible, because I stood on the water,

Yes, I stood on the water in my dream, the bamboo stalk was

swaying, I wish you were with me when the stork flew up.

David Dephy is a trilingual Georgian/American poet, novelist, essayist, performer, multimedia artist and painter. An active participant in the American and international poetry and artistic scenes, such as PEN World Voices, 92Y Poetry Center, Voices of Poetry, Long Island Poetry Listings, New York Public Library, Starr Bar Poetry Series, Columbia University – School of the Arts in the City of New York, Bowery Poetry Club which named him a Literature Luminary. His poetry has been published all over the world by the many literary magazines. He lives and works in New York City.

1898: Nothing will be Done

By Weining Wang

One

I put down the pen and closed the book. I had just finished my final paper. It was about the Hundred Days Reforms–one of the biggest attempts at social reform in late Qing dynasty China. At the end of the 19th century, in order to save the Chinese nation from peril and find a new way for the country to go forward, a lot of westernization group leaders wanted to get help from western countries. Some minsters began to learn new technologies from Europe; some educators still held fast to Chinese traditional culture, especially Confucian theory. Ultimately, their efforts were unsuccessful. As the failure of these social reforms, many reformers were killed, and the group leaders (such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao) were exiled to western countries. The title of the thesis is “All Roads Lead to Rome: A New Explanation of Confucianism and Social Reforms in Early Modern China.”I really wanted to explore the reasons why these social reforms were unsuccessful. My back and arms had gotten sore from hunching over my computer and books for six months. It was two o’clock in the morning in Chicago. It felt like one of the most relaxed nights this year, and I was too tired to take a shower. Rather than recording these boring historical documents and continuing to do researches about Kang Youwei, one of the most famous reformers in the late 19th century, I could not wait to visit my new neighbor– the duke of Zhou. Chinese people always said, “to have a long talk with the duke of Zhou,” which means have a great sleep.I had no idea what time it was. I opened my sleepy eyes and was shocked by the yelling of an old man:“There are so many places we have never been to. There are also many ideas we need to do. If you had a second chance to restart your life, what would you expect to do?”Hearing what he yelled, I felt a cold shudder ran through my body. Before I could get up, he seized me by the collar. He glanced at the candle’s warm light and the soft, mellow moonlight outside my dorm room and smiled: “Young man, tell me why you are so interested in me!” “Where am I? Who are you?” I asked two questions back. After putting on my glasses, I could see him more clearly: he was wearing a strange black uniform, a pair of sunglasses, and leather shoes. At first glance, he was just an ordinary man. However, he wore his hair in pigtails! His clothes were indeed simple, but his hair betrayed him. That was the typical hairstyle for Chinese scholars in the late Qing dynasty.“I am the main character in this essay! As you might have guessed, my family name is Kang. Let me tell you… I really do not want to hurt you. I am living in your paper! I just want to play a game for my life.”“How could I believe what you say?”“You may see this…” Mr. Kang showed a complete family tree. The book was old, yellow, and faded. The original copy of the incomplete family tree was kept in the Peking museum. The other part of the family tree had not yet been discovered. “Eh… ok, I believe you, but… just play a game? Mr. Kang, that means, you would take it all back if you could. Is that right? I am afraid what happened before will happen again. To be honest, I do not have any power to restart your life or change the course of history.” “No, you can! You can use the divination. The Book of Changes is about divination! We will find a wormhole.” His voice was trembling with emotion. “So… you just want to know what would have happened if the social reforms were successful?”“That is incorrect!” He shook his head, “You need to rewrite your essay. I will be saved!” I tried my best to finish the process. I said, “I’m not very skilled with it, so it might be best if you could teach me.” Mr. Kang answered, “In the article, ‘Explaining the Trigrams ‘Shuo gua’,’ in the Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching,’ the writer wrote, ‘In the distant past, the way the sage made the changes is as follows: he was mysteriously assisted by the gods and so initiated the use of yarrow stalks. He made heaven three and earth two and so provided the numbers with a basis. He observed the changes between yin and yang and so established the trigrams.’”“We can use these–” Mr. Kang said, as he offered me fifty yarrow stalks and detailed instructions. “Using yarrow stalks as a tool, we could find a mathematical formula describing the distances of the gods from real life. This formula would provide some instructions to the practice of divination.”I closed my eyes and mused, “The King Wén of the Zhou was an outstanding and generous immortal person in the ancient world, who created a number of magic arts in his lifetime. He tried his best to teach his students all about his skills and special magic arts without reservations, such as eight Hexagrams and judgment. Please give me an answer, please!”After a while, I heard a voice, “Open your eyes and see what you are doing.”I wondered if someone was talking to me. But I only found a small pool of water. Mr. Kang said, “This is Fu Xi. According to the historical records, he was the first of the Three Sages in ancient China and established the Eight Trigrams and The Book of Changes!” He continued, “Fu Xi had a person’s head and a snake’s body. That is why you would only find a pool of water.”  The result of the divination was the Treading hexagram履 (Hexagram X page 321). The hexagram was divided into two parts: The outer trigram is Qian乾 and the inner trigram is Dui兌. That is one of the most powerful characters in the Book of Changes. It is able to bring endless power and solve many questions in the universe. In the Book of Changes, it says: Stepping On the Tiger’s Tail. Not bitten. Fortune. The Yielding Steps on the Firm. Joy, Gaudium. Lake Resonates with Heaven, Qian, Creative Energy. Stepping on the Tiger’s Tail, Not bitten. The Fifth Line is Firm, Centered and True. It Steps Into the Place Of Supreme Sovereign.There is No failure, Nullum malum. There is Bright Light. On the Image of the Hexagram Heaven above Lake, Coelum supra lacum. The True Gentleman Distinguishes high from low, Steadies the Aspirations Of the Folk.From the Great Treatise Stepping. Foundation of Inner Strength, Perfection of Harmony, Of a life Lived in Harmony.“What do you mean?”Mr. Kang asked. “You already know… the facts of history cannot be changed.” I continued, “the social reform was unsuccessful. That’s true! Nobody could change it. Ever since you left, many things changed and happened. However, no matter what happened, history will remember and show that it was a great and important social reform in early modern China. In the Book of Changes, the scholar wrote, ‘Bright Light. On the Image of the Hexagram, Heaven above Lake, Coelum supra lacum, The True Gentleman, Distinguishes high from low,’ For example, Ding Xilin is a famous comedy writer, he is especially well-known for his dramas, such as The Wasp, Oppression, and Miaofeng Mountain. In the drama Oppression, he states that a young man rented a room from an old lady. He had already paid the deposit for his room. But after learning that he was a single man, the lady went back on what she had said and returned back his money. It shows that Chinese people used to do not accept new ideas and they continued to obey the old rules. We need you, we need yours! ”“No! Shut up! Shut up!” Mr. Kang seemed to be crazy.  “I will not fail! Remember, I will not fail!” He shouted, “And you’re a liar!”When I woke up again it was the next morning. No one believed my experience until now. “Where is Mr. Kang? Can I believe the result of the divination? I was just dreaming, right?”Or I just made it up!                                                                                                 

Two 

From that day on, I told myself that I could erase the memory of that midnight and never tried to get in touch with Mr. Kang again. However, I was sometimes late for class because of the insomnia. In order to continue my studies and finish my undergraduate degree, I occasionally had to take some sleeping pills.  Several weeks later, my professor Daniel told me to come to his office, which was very serious for me. What I had done wrong? I was so afraid that I took my best friend with me. My professor sat in his office; Professor Daniel Youd was known to us Chinese students as a Chinese expert and was a firm protector of traditional culture.  “You just need to fix some mistakes in this paper. The structure and logic is beautiful and you gave a very creative conclusion. We can try to find a journal to publish it.” He said, smiling kindly.  He helped me to fix up my article sentence by sentence, and then we talked about the ideas expressed in this essay, which were discovered from Mr. Kang’s life experiences. Finally, my teacher told me to retype it with the changes and give it to him next week.My own writing especially developed because of my teacher, and I got very good grades and improved my confidence. In truth, if my teacher had not helped me, I would not have made progress. About three month later, I published this article in a famous undergraduate journal and decided to become a scholar in the future.I got very excited when I heard the great news. I had a big celebration party with my professors, scholars, and CHIN 280 classmates that night. My professors invited two hundred and twenty new friends to visit an art exhibition in an old museum where we later had a big meal together. When I visited the gallery, an air-conditioned breeze blew on my face. The old buildings made me feel like I had traveled back in time one hundred years. As the most famous main hall of the three major buildings at Beloit College, the Wright Art Museum is commonly known as the old stone wall. By the end of the party, most of my friends had already gone. The big yard in front of the gallery grew strangely quiet. Suddenly, two men came in and said, “Sorry, we are late. I was caught in a traffic jam!” They showed their invitations to an organizer and he let them in. “Congratulations! You published your work!” One of the men held out his right hand in friendship. He was wearing a big ill-fitting black dust-coat, a pair of sunglasses, and a mask. I could not quite see who he was. “Sorry, I do not know… Who are you? Can you take off your mask? I did not remember that I send a invitation to you? Do… I…?” I shuttered.“You pretend not to know me? Are you serious? I think we have met before… You could not have published your essay without me!” He had a creepy smile on his face and joked. “This is a private conversation, it is not your business.” He gestured for waiters to go out, and then another man sat down on the chair near me. I was recognized that he was wearing an animal mask, a big hat, and a pair of boots. The first old man yelled suddenly, taking off his sunglasses. My eyes bulged in surprise when I saw his face.“Don’t move! You know… I am Mr. Kang! I have told you before– I will not fail!” He said to himself, grinding his teeth. “Don’t be afraid! We really do not want to hurt you. You are a great student, right? …Even though you are just an undergraduate, you could publish your work. Very nice! We just need a chance to re-take our social reforms.” The other man said. “Who are you, then?” I asked.I was scared out of my body when the other man took of his animal mask! He did not have a head on his neck!I could not keep the tears in my eyes. My voice trembled, “Although I cannot  see your face, I still remembered your name! You are Tan Sitong, right? In order to let more people to take part in the social reforms and learn new ideas from western countries, you decided to give up a valuable chance to save your own life. You are a great hero in our hearts!” He recalled, “In 1895, as a result of political defeat, the Qing government was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding Taiwan to Japan. The Qing government rulers allowed the Japanese to build factories in the new treaty ports. Within this context, a lot of social reformers– such as my friend Kang Youwei, my teacher Liang Qichao, and I– began to change Chinese society by using “Ti” and “Yong” statements. For me, “Ti” means traditional Chinese Confucian classics. “Yong” not only means new technologies, ideas, and cultures from western countries, but also the western theoretical system. I believed that my work “Ren Xue” would let more people accept new ideas and expose the bondage of the old rules which would emancipate people from feudal ethics because they would learn about modern life.”“Do you know… the social reform was unsuccessful?” I asked.“Yes, Mr. Kang wrote to me, telling me that you were interested in the Reform Movement of 1898 and the Book of Changes. The Book of Changes is about divination and magic power. We really need your help!” Mr. Tan said. “And you know… the Japanese Meiji emperor made a social reform with some Japanese social reformers from the 1860s to the 1890s. This social reform was very successful!” Mr. Kang said, “That is why we need your emergency help to save the emperor Guangxu!”“But I told you before, I do not have any power to…”“That is fine… We believe in the power of heaven!”I tried my best to finish these processes again and repeat five times. According to the information on the Book of Changes, the different laying style of fifty yarrow stalks is used to represent different elements in the world. Finally, I recognized my mind producing the same result from the completely different calculations. That is impossible! What a coincidence!Because their results are the same, I could use two different kinds of  explanations to express it. The result of the divination was the Incomplete hexagram (HexagramL XIV page 1137). The hexagram was divided into two parts: The outer trigram is Li離 and the inner trigram is Kan坎. That is one of the worst characters in the Book of Changes. The King Wen of Zhou had mentioned that choosing this hexagram was their worst sage. In the Book of Changes, it says: JUDGMENT Fortune. The little fox, When almost across, Gets his tail wet. There is No Profit, Nulla convenientia. On the Judgment The Yielding is Centered, Fortune. The little fox, When almost across, When not quite past Center, Wets his tail; He cannot continue to Completion. Positions are not Apt, But Firm and Yielding Resonate. On the Image of the Hexagram Fire above Water, Ignis supra aquam. The True Gentleman Distinguishes things carefully, Each in its proper abode.“What do you mean this time?” Mr. Kang asked.“We do not need to try it again… I am so sorry… There are so many things that we cannot recover. This is your ming (fate).” I said, “You can see, ‘Fire above Water, Ignis supra aquam. The True Gentleman, Distinguishes things carefully, Each in its proper abode.’ The fire is over the water. However, we do not have enough water to put out fires.” “That means we are now very close to making a great social reform. We just failed in the last moment.” Mr. Tan bemoaned. “Heaven! You are destroying me!” Mr. Tan cried into the sky.  “No! We still have other chances!” Mr. Kang growled at me. “Did you remember… my work Ta T’ung Shu?” Mr. Kang continued, “I wrote, ‘The sage-King Confucius, who was of godlike perception, in early (times) took thought (of this problem), and grieved over it. Therefore he set up the law of the Three Governments and the Three Ages: following (the age of) disorder, (the world) will change to (the ages, first) of Increasing Peace-and Equality, (and finally), of complete Peace-and-equality; following the Age of Little Peace-and-Happiness, (the world) will advance to (the Age of) one world.’ There are three different ages during ancient times. There will be another way to explain this hexagram.”Mr. Kang said, “for our first meeting, you practiced consulting the Yijing, which you call the ‘Book of Wisdom.’ For our second meeting, you will consult the Yijing again. This time, however, you will compare the ‘Book of Wisdom’ with the ‘Bronze Age Oracle.’” “Can you help me to check it again? This is our last chance. We need to make it!” Mr. Tan implored. “Where can I find the second explanation in so short a time?” Finally, the last page of the Book of Changes was burned. However, I found some words from Mr. Kang’s family tree. It said:sacrifice Received.The little fox Almost across Gets his tail wet.No Profit.“Yes! You can see, we can kill an animal as a sacrifice. And then we will have a chance to remake a new social reform.” Mr. Kang’s voice was urgent and eager. “No! That is incorrect! You see, ‘no profit.’ That means we did not have a chance.” Mr. Tan said. “In order to let the Guangxu emperor have some power, we used to get some help from the minister Yuan Shikai. He sold us out. Could I use the divination to kill him?” Mr. Kang asked. “No, we could not do that.” I responded.Then Mr. Kang asked me, “from 1870 to 1895, the southern fleet was destroyed by French forces. In January 1985, Japanese forces destroyed the Northern fleet at Weihaiwei. 100 days reform was destroyed by the empress Dowager Cixi and many conservative Mandarin Officials. Could I save the Guangxu emperor by using the divination?”“No, we could not do that.”“At least, may I have another chance to let Mr. Tan find his head?”“No, I am so sorry.”There was a long silence, and Mr. Kang’s face looked tired and depressed. He murmured, “I have a request, but I cannot speak out of shame.”I smiled, “Please don’t hesitate to ask me if you have some questions!”“Can I use the divination by myself? I just want to have another chance to do the social reform.”“Of course…”“But I cannot hold the yarrow stalks! I have been dead, you know.” His eyes widened and took on a fierce look. Suddenly, the chilly wind reminded me of my body!“Can I… can I borrow your body?”“No! Don’t even dream about it! Holy shit!”But what if I lose control over myself?My hand, oh my lord… Come on… What are you doing? What are my hands doing? I felt my blood uncontrollably harden against his invasion of my body and soul. I began to do the divination… No! He began to do the divination. The result of the divination was the “gu蠱” hexagram . The hexagram was divided into two parts: The outer trigram is gen艮 and the inner trigram is Xun巽. The “gu” hexagram literally means a lot of insects in the tree, and we could interpret this to know there are many traitor ministers in the late Qing dynasty. These insects would eat the trees, just like traitor ministers would waste the country’s resources. These insects were worn as symbolic of bad things. In the Book of Changes, page 443, it says:Supreme Fortune.It Profits To cross a Great Stream,Magnum flumen. Three days before,Three days after,The first day, Jia. The Firm Is above,The Yielding Is below.Wind is halted.Supreme Fortune.All-under-Heaven Is well governed.A Great Stream is crossed,An enterprise of moment Undertaken. Each ending is A commencement.This is The Movement of Heaven.Mr. Kang wanted to say something, but he could not muster it.The sun was aging. The ocean was drying up. After a while, we heard a voice,“Give up or ashes?”“OK. I give up. Everything is destined.” Mr. Kang replied with a strange smile. If there was ever a moment when I could promise that I heard death songs exploding in my mind, it was this second. At this moment, Mr. Kang suddenly caught a yarrow stalk and chewed it up. He ate it! Mr. Kang and Mr. Tan suddenly disappeared, with his mouth full of blood.I got faint!When I woke up again it was the next morning. My mum said, “you got drunk last night! Just a nightmare!”But I only found forty-nine yarrow stalks on my table! All of my classmates lost one yarrow stalk last night! What happened? What will happen next?

Weining Wang is a Senior student at Beloit College, WI, where he is majoring in interdisciplinary studies–East Asian Studies.He submitted his Beijing flavor fiction “The Old Snack Shop” for publication to journal The Sucarnochee Review, a famous undergraduate publication by the University of West Alabama. He was informed that it was been published and printed this year(2021). He translated eight poems from the Tang dynasty and published them in the Equinox, a journal of contemporary literature at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. His artworks, “Nose_Paper” and “Star_Canvas” have also been selected for publication in this year’s issue of the Equinox. His Chinese-style artworks, “Fire and Ocean,” “Black and White,” and “Great wall” have also been accepted for publication in this year’s edition of Long River Review, an annual literary journal of art and literature staffed by undergraduates at the University of Connecticut.      

Sea Wall

By Joseph E. Redding

Rozga, in time, would confront him; Michael knew that. The idle gossip  overheard at Staley’s Grocery confirmed as much. While Michael wouldn’t admit to hiding, he had changed his daily routines to lessen the real estate developer’s opportunities. Each weekday he abandoned springtime chores by mid-afternoon to be at his desk, writing a never completed letter to his grandson Ricky, as the Mazda RX-7 crept past on the last leg of a Chicago commute. On weekends, just after dawn, Michael took to Irish Lake in his discolored pontoon boat, returning only when the sun burned low into the south shore, vigilant to avoid a chain-rattling wake against a pier that had grown soft like a dried sponge. During the dodge and weave, Michael resolved to directly and curtly respond to the short 41-year-old man with a thick waist. So on a Saturday, when brisk winds and light rain made the lake non-navigable and left Michael to putter about in the garage, Michael blurted, “Why do we need an association?” before Rozga said a word.  

Rozga answered with the confidence of a man who had closed thousands of real estate transactions. “Don’t you want to preserve our lake?” He smiled, mouth wide, gums revealed.

The south end of Irish Lake had always been a self-contained entity, eighteen lots boxed between a canal and the swamp off Little Barbee Lake.  When Michael took ownership of his slice, just as the surveyor’s ink dried, each lot was an amalgamation of woods, sandy shorefront, and a deed free of land use restrictions.  Since then, Indiana law evolved; now associations could bind all the lots in a specifically defined geographic location with an agreement between just half of the landowners. Citizens on the Barbee Chain of Lakes debated the value of such associations; exchanges that intensified after a developer backfilled the swamp off Little Barbee Lake and erected a gated community.

“Our lake?” Michael continued to tinker, stacking empty cases of Stroh’s Beer, bottles that he had meant to return to the depot last summer. “I’ve been here before Hitler invaded Poland.  How about you?”

Rozga’s smile lessened, his gums disappearing. But he was a man who knew persistence, more than anything else in life, increased the odds of getting what one wanted. “Well I wouldn’t say I just arrived; it’s been over three years since I bought the Heisler place, then your Cousin Bobby’s the next year.”  He maintained straight eye contact with Michael. “But, yes, my residency doesn’t go back to the Great War.” 

Ignoring the historical error, Michael corrected Bobby’s place on his genealogical tree with a slow, staccato, “cousin-in-law.” Michael’s bloodline wouldn’t surrender family property, even at twice the market value. True, Bobby had neglected the property; it fell to an uninhabitable cabin, even for a weekend stay. Repairs, however, became irrelevant after Rozga razed the structure and seeded the dirt imprint, erasure of any memory of the two bedroom, cinder-block cottage. The excavation failed to evoke sentimental deterrence: since then, two other owners, both on double lots, relinquished title to Rozga, increasing his Irish Lake portfolio to six lots.

Rozga apologized for his misclassification of Michael’s relations while holding out a booklet. The half-inch, spiral bound document lingered in the air for more than an uncomfortable moment before Michael snatched it away from the meaty fingers. Rozga offered no reaction, as if governing association applications were often exchanged this way. Rozga shuffled in anticipation of questions, backing away when none came.  But after retreating a few feet, he stopped and cleared his throat. “Things are changing, Mr. Sawyer.” Michael winced at the sound of his name, uttered from the mouth of a big city man who owned a third of his Eden. “With the Reagan Administration relaxing regulations, people have bold ideas on how to make money. Cottages are no longer just leisure. They’re business; a lucrative business if done without thinking of others. We can’t stop everyone, but this strip can be saved. It would be nice to have an original owner on board with us.”

Michael agreed to review the document, but when alone, tossed it atop of the refrigerator that hadn’t worked in a decade. To distract his chattering mind, he cleaned the cricket cage and replaced the nylon string on the fish basket, “Haven’t needed a governing organizationfor over forty years,” he muttered. “Suddenly it’s necessary?” Back in the day, when he and Bobby lived out of the garage while building their cottages, lot owners just talked things out; written documents weren’t needed. Of course that was before his wife passed and his son moved to Milwaukee and cowards like Bobby sold out.  By the end of the day, he had forgotten Rozga’s book and only remember it on Monday morning when the RX-7 sped past, kicking up dust on the gravel road, hell-bent for US 30.

The weather warmed and daily routines returned, like Marcie appearing with a fist full of Michael’s mail. A year ago, they had cut a deal: In exchange for the use of his year-old Ford Granada – a more dependable car than her rusting Mercury Marquis – she retrieved Michael’s mail from his post office box when she went into town. Michael, distracted by an oversized envelope a green logo, didn’t notice her slink off without comment, forgoing her habitual fifteen minute summary of changes happening in Warsaw.

Michael cut the envelope and wiggled loose a booklet bound by two brass fasteners. The accompanying letter, signed in bright blue ink by Chicago Attorney Frank Denny, addressed each lake homeowner:

Welcome to the South Irish Lake Governing Organization (SILGO), created to preserve the beauty of the south side of Irish Lake. The organization, founded last week when the Kosciusko Recorder accepted and recorded the application, is now a permanent covenant on the plat map. As a landowner in the geographical area defined in the application, your rights and responsibilities in the association are set forth in the enclosed bylaws. SILGO’s first order of business, as per these bylaws, is to elect a four man governing board. The election will occur on Flag Day at the Little Barbee Hotel. 

The letter continued, detailing the lot owners who signed to the application. Aside from Rozga’s six lots, the Howard family from Indianapolis and Marcie had agreed to this nonsense. Michael figured the Howards, who hadn’t used the two cabins in five years, hoped to increase the sale value, while Marcie had been hornswoggled by Rozga with the memory of her late father.

Michael nitpicked the bylaws, circling words and phrases he knew Rozga and his lawyers would utilze to control the area. When he tired of arguing against himself, he crossed the lawns to Marcie’s cottage.  She shoveled black dirt into a cedar planked box; an attempt to convert the sandy soil into a garden. “You read this?” He shook the bylaws towards her. Marcie continued to throw the soil as if she hadn’t heard him.  “One vote per lot and Rozga’s got six.  He should have just made himself King.”

“You should run.” Shovel planted, she leaned into the handle, resting her father’s oversized, worn work boot on the blade’s back edge.  “It’s a four man board, right?  I would support you.”

“I want no part of this.” He again shook the document. “This farce of an organization. He’s probably going to put up rental cabins.  Or Lord forbid, a hotel.” 

“Then why not run for the board?”  While her reasoning was sound, he would not legitimize this organization. Others could get political, but he bought his lot to avoid city life chaos. He had done so for forty years: First as a summer refuge from Fort Wayne on the weekends; then, after he retired, as his fulltime residence. His paradise would continue without forcing associations upon his neighbors.

Despite Michael’s one-man boycott, the election occurred. Results printed on thick SILGO stationery detailed that Rozga had not only been elected to the board, but with the most votes, gained chairmanship of it. Alfred Howard, along with Roy Sycamore – a chiropractor from South Bend with a two bedroom A-frame at the east end of the strip – had also been elected.

But when Michael saw the last board member, he dropped the letter. Marcie. “God save us all,” he muttered. Marcie’s father Jim, an engineer with Michael at the Taylor Street General Electric plant, had also been an original purchaser. He died from lung cancer fifteen years ago, receiving the terminal diagnosis months before retirement. Choosing the family lifetime option on his pension, he received lower monthly payments in exchange for the ability to pass those benefits to his only child upon his death. Marcie also inherited Jim’s cottage, with its faded siding and peeled window frames, which hugged the canal – the far west side of the SILGO jurisdiction. A year after Jim’s death, Marcie quit the cashier job at the Fort Wayne A&P and moved to the lake to enshrine her father’s name in the glory of the cabin.

“See you made the board,” Michael yelled out. He had hoped his voice would convey jocularity, but could tell he failed. She gave no reaction, turning the soil in her garden, fluffing it to rise above the barrier. “Must not have been much competition.”

“Certainly not from you.”  Her voice quivered and she swallowed hard to stabilize her vocal cords. “Can’t complain about something you didn’t do.” She returned to her garden and Michael slunk away.

The next day, a green rubber band secured SILGO’s meeting agenda to Michael’s door. He dropped it in the kindling bin on his way to the garage where he planned to add line to Ricky’s Zebco reel. But when Marcie and her dog Smokey paddled past in a canoe, surveying the shore with methodical strokes, he retrieved and re-read the agenda, catching the word “sea wall” in the middle of the twenty-three point list. Putting aside the tackle, he returned to the cottage, looking east out the bay window.  When the canoe returned, at the same gradual pace, he stomped over to Marcie’s cottage.

“What’s this sea wall thing?” Smokey nudged him and he gave the collie an absent pat on the head.  Marcie yanked the canoe ashore, etching a trail on the sand, but did not look at the agenda Michael extended.

“Can you give me a minute here Michael? I have to get Smoke his breakfast. Dad always said a hungry dog is a dangerous dog.”  She gave the canoe three strong tugs, then confortable the boat didn’t float, sauntered to her cottage. “Let’s get you fed Smoke.”

Michael stormed off, miffed over the diet of that fleabag. He waited two hours – reading and rereading the agenda – before he returned. Marcie stained a pinewood sign that normally hung at the end of her drive; publication of the family name. She wiped her hands on her smock, put down her brush and tilted her head to read the agenda Michael thrust out. “Michael, I can’t talk about the agenda.”

“Says who?” Michael demanded.  “Nobody can stop you from talking about your own property.  This isn’t the Soviet Union.  At least not yet.”

“SILGO is registered with the County Recorder, so the open meeting law applies. Proper procedure must be followed; I can’t just go jabbering on. At least that’s what the chairman says.”

“Making everyone call him ‘The Chairman’ now?”  Marcie rolled her eyes, fueling Michael’s fire. “Does he wear a crown at these meetings?”

“Why do you hate SILGO so much, Michael? It’s only keeping the land like when you and dad bought it. It even has a cute name, like that county in Ireland. Get it, Irish Lake, Irish County?

“Oh for God’s sake, that’s County Sligo, not SILGO.” Marcie reddened, but Michael continued, now with a softer voice. “Listen, I’m not here to bash SILGO.  What’s done is done. But when I see items on the agenda for a sea wall, it starts smelling like Rozga is fixing to rent cabins or sell off to Chicago investors.”

Marcie scrunched her nose. “I don’t think so. He likes the place, probably for the same reasons we do. If anything he’ll leave those lots vacant for privacy.” Now Michael rolled his eyes. “I’m serious Michael.  I think he’s here to stay. But I’m sorry; I can’t talk about the agenda. I don’t want to get in trouble with the law. You’ll have to come to the meeting.”  She picked up the brush, adding, “You know, you could help. You’ve always been smart.” She resumed, the light brown stain seeping into the thin boards, darkening and preserving the etchings her father had cut two decades ago.

***

Despite an eighty person capacity, the Indiana Room in the Barbee Hotel held nineteen: the SILGO board members (minus Howard), five curious homeowners from connected lakes, and three trios of contractors. As Rozga finished roll call, the guests stirred, as if the ghosts rumored to haunt the old inn had disclosed themselves. Rather than acknowledge Michael, Rozga introduced the first agenda item and asked for, “comments, questions or concerns.” Hearing none, he requested a motion to approve the agenda item. The chiropractor motioned, Marcie seconded, and the “ayes” had it. Rozga repeated the process until the twelfth bullet point.

“Today, three companies are here to discuss seawalls.” He moved his arm across the room as if presenting an act on stage; each trio, in matching company shirts, gave timid nods.

Before Rozga’s arm completed the sweep, Michael stood and demanded to know if Irish Lake had, in fact, been transported to Ireland.  He scanned the room, daring an answer. When confident his point had been made, he growled, “We don’t live on the sea. We’re in the middle of Indiana.  Even a levee would be overkill, much less a cement wall.”

“A wall, in a maritime setting, doesn’t necessarily mean a straight-up, ninety degree structure, Mr. Sawyer.” If Michael’s question rattled Rozga, his voice did not betray him. “And it certainly doesn’t require concrete.”

“Don’t give me that a-wall-doesn’t-mean-a-wall rubbish. If you meant something else, you needed to put that on the agenda.” The bustle of the marina staff and fuel station customers at the lakeside hotel oozed through walls of the stilled room.

Rozga suggested the contractors educate the room, but none stirred. Then, a balding man in his late thirties, dark blue polo with a white “Chicago’s Shoreline Savers (™)” logo high upon his barrel chest, stated, “Perhaps if there is a specific question….”

Michael did not hesitate. “What alternatives are there to concrete walls?”  The three groups looked at each other, brows furled as Michael continued. “For over forty years the sloped Kentucky bluegrass lawns have been adequate. Why do I need a wall now?”

“I’m afraid I’ve been a bit unfair to our guests.” Rozga gave a wry smile to the contractors. “The board isn’t suggesting a seawall is the only option to preserve the shoreline; merely one we are exploring. Perhaps the agenda should have read, ‘stopping our eroding frontage.’ Fault lies solely with the chairman’s verbiage.”

“Well, Mr. Chairman, how about getting rid of basements as an alternative?” Seem like that’s a bigger concern than erosion. I can hear your dual sump pumps struggling against the spring thaw and rain.”

“It’s not the basements.” Rozga’s voice had gained a quickness and edge that Michael had not heard in previous encounters. “Structures without basements have also been experiencing water at their stoops.  Insurance companies are balking at renewing policies and I’m told chunks of shoreline, in uneven parts, have disappeared in areas of the lake’s shoreline.”

Michael had noticed on his own frontage the squall line of pebbles and worn shells just above the waterline had disappeared, usurped by widening and uneven crevices.  But he would not be silenced with his own thoughts. “What about removing cement driveways that rush rain to the lake rather than into the back canals? How about more trees rather than more outbuildings?  How about going back to holding tanks rather than mound systems that leech into the lake?  

Alternatives would be considered, Rozga promised, but the topic at hand was a sea wall. Michael sat down, not due to an interest in sea walls, but because his rant had left his 82-year-old legs wobbly. His strength returned during the three monotone presentations of sea wall costs, dependent upon individual shoreline characteristics, desired structures, and construction timelines.

The board tabled the topic until the Fourth of July weekend meeting, hoping  more lake owners would participate. In the interim, the chiropractor promised to solicit bids from contractors so the true cost of a wall could be determined.

Marcie tried to placate Michael that night as he groused, pointing out that it had just been a discussion and with nothing decided. “Not yet, but with six votes, Rozga can ramrod anything through.”

Marcie smiled. “Sounds like you’ll have to be the watchdog then – just like Woodward and Bernstein.”  Michael stomped home.

***

          On a late June day, where the cool morning air crackled with promises of summer heat, Michael confronted seventy-year-old Rex Hundley, owner of the Warsaw contracting company Thick as a Brick, Inc., demanding to know why Rex was on his property. After Rex presented identification, Michael inquired as to the necessity of a wall.

          “It’s not a wall, really,” Rex replied over Michael’s disgusted sigh, tired of receiving this answer. “Its layers of rock, on a thin burlap-like barrier, with large rocks on top like decorative frosting.”

          “What’s something like that cost?” Michael kept a good stare on Rex.

          “I suspect about $35 per shoreline foot.  I don’t see any surprises from this lake to raise the cost.”

          “You been doing this long?” Michael examined Rex’s Nike running shoes.

          Rex responded in a warm voice without a hint of resentment. “Only twelve years on the lakes.” Michael nodded a smug smile. “Of course, I spent twenty-five years trying to keep the Atlantic back in the intercostal waters. We never fully figured out that monster; walls are only a speed bump – you can slow erosion, but you can’t stop it.”  He smiled at Michael before he turned to the lake. “But, like I said, this lake, she’s a well-behaved beauty. We’ll save your shoreline well past the life of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.”

          Rex asked Michael to walk with him. As they crossed properties going east, Rex pointed out eroded areas, explaining that an unchecked lake can lose ten feet or more of shoreline within a generation.  Michael, without referencing Rozga’s ownership, asked about the appropriateness of the sloped cement drives.

          “I never recommend concrete around water.  It gets the water running too fast. I know you know the danger of fast moving water.” Michael swelled his chest.  “Slow water, over time, is just as destructive in its own right. And it’s a hidden danger, as it often it seems harmless. But concrete isn’t the end of the world. And the erosion here is coming from the lake, not the sources into it.”

          “Couldn’t each land owner just build their own wall?”

“Not effectively, since water finds the weakness, and could be catastrophic for those who don’t build.” Rex stopped to write some notes on his clipboard. “Plus, a long uniform structure, aesthetically, is really something to look at.”

The SILGO board met on July 6th in the donut room of Staley’s Grocery; the board deeming the Barbee Hotel venue overkill with the lack of participation. The only agenda item was the “shoreline preservation” and the sea wall proposals were shared. Three Chicago contractors submitted the highest bids; Thick As A Brick came in a tick above the low bid from Indianapolis. After acknowledging Howard’s absence, Rozga asked the board members to share their thoughts.  Sycamore voted to build a sea wall and use the lowest bid. Marcie voted for the wall as well, but suggested they use Thick As A Brick.  Rozga asked for Michael’s opinion.

          “Other than we don’t build it?”  Sycamore looked at his watch.  “I don’t care who builds it.  It’s not necessary.”

          Rozga had the final say. “Well, I’m with Marcie.  Let build a wall and keep it homegrown. By unanimous vote, the motion to build a sea wall passes, and with a two to one vote, the Warsaw contractor is hired.”

          Two weeks later, Michael received an invoice from SILGO, payment due prior to the commencement of construction. Michael ignored it; a week later, Rozga came to his cottage.

          “How are you, Mr. Sawyer.” When Michael did not open the screen door, much less invite him in, Rozga skipped further small talk.  “You’re the last.”

          “Last what?”

          “To pay.” Rozga did not take his eyes off Michael. “You’re holding up the project.”

          “Suppose I don’t have it?” Michael took a bite of his sandwich that he had brought to the door and raised his eyebrows.

          “SILGO can finance you on a five-year note.”

          “Interest?”

          “Of course, we’re not a charity.”

          “Fourteen percent?”

          “That’s what the market calls for. At least it’s down from eighteen.”

          “Suppose I don’t want to pay or take your loan. Then what?  You got a strongman who breaks kneecaps?”

          “SILGO would pick up the shortage and file a lien on your property.” Michael tilted forward on his toes, waiting for Rozga to finish. “But we’d probably wait to enforce it until the property was transferred.”

          “Until I die then,” Michael snapped.

          “Sure.” Rozga hesitated, then added, “Or foreclosure, if the board votes that way.”

          “That’s what this is about, isn’t it. You getting my property.”

          “I don’t want your property, Mr. Sawyer. I want your cooperation.” Jaw tight, Rozga paused for more than a thoughtful second. “Look, I’m heading to Chicago tonight, but if you could let me know by week’s end what you’re going do, the board would appreciate it.”  He walked across the lawns without waiting for a retort.

“Why do you have to fight him, Michael,” Marcie asked later when she dropped off his mail. “You’ve got the money.”

“It’s not about the money.” He absently dusted empty 7-Up bottles, deteriorating white paint on the thick crafted glass that published Purdue’s past two decades of football schedules. “Why do I have to change? I’ve been here longer than he has.”

          “SILGO is just trying to preserve the area. Keep it like when you and dad bought your lots.”

          “Preserve? Seems to me that a nice flat, sandy beach always made this property attractive.”

          “You haven’t noticed the beach disappearing?” She walked to his shoreline and called back to him. “These willow roots weren’t always exposed.  You had to have noticed that when you put up the hammock.  You may not plan on being around at the end of the next decade, but there won’t be as much shoreline to pass onto Ricky.”

Michael had noted the willow roots, but hoped he had just been misremembering. After a restless sleep, he traveled into Warsaw. His accountant encouraged him to spend and take any action to drop his net worth below the $600,000 Federal estate tax exemption. “But I suppose if you want to give it to Ronald Reagan, we’ll have a parade for you for paying unnecessary taxes.” Michael stopped at the bank, transferred seven grand into his checking account before returning to the lake.

At dinnertime, Smokey howled at Michael until Marcie came to the door.  “I’ve got a check for the wall.” He held out the slip at the perforated edge.

“I can’t take that Michael.”  She dried her hands on a dishtowel. “That has to go directly to the chairman; he collects the money. But we’re glad you’re on board.” As Michael walked home, over his shoulder he saw Marcie dialing the screen porch wall phone. When the air began to release its moisture, he walked to the trailer park and dropped the envelope addressed to SILGO in the mailbox.

          The construction happened. A thin, black environmental barrier placed on the edge of the lake was immediately smothered by blankets of gravel, each layer of pebbles increasing in size. Large bright-gray, riprap stones, ferried by barge, topped the pile. Ruts caused by vehicles on the shoreline were filled and seeded. A seamless creation; a wall suddenly erected.

Even Michael had to admit, if only to himself, that the project had a pleasant feel. He noticed the admiration of passing pontoons on fall foliage tours, slowing to take in the long, single gray barrier that gave unity to the eighteen lots on the south end of Irish Lake. 

“Not so bad, hey?” Marcie yelled to Michael as he stood at the end of his dock, looking in at the wall.  “And all that energy you spent on stopping it.”

Michael walked past Marcie and mumbled that it looked, “okay.” She took up pace with him as he went toward the house, clearing her throat several times.  “Hey, Michael,” she finally asked. “When are you taking in your pier?”

“Why? Rozga got a rule about that too?”

“A photographer with Kosciusko County Living was impressed with the wall set behind the fall colors and wanted to do a feature on it, but only after all the piers are out.” She bit her thumbnail and looked down the shoreline. “Yours is the only one left.”

“Because I’m about the only one who stays the winter.”

“I stay the winter,” she said, corners of her mouth drooping.

“But you don’t have a pier.”

“Dad never wanted one.”

“Because he’d pull his boat up on the sand.  Couldn’t do that now, could he?”

 “We don’t have a boat with a motor anymore; just the canoe.” Marcie’s lip trembled. “I don’t know why you hate the wall, Michael. It’s uniquely yours, just like Rozga promised, right?”

“It is mine, isn’t it,” he said, more as a question than statement. To salve his guilt for maliciously using of the memory of her father, he added, “The dock guys are coming next week.”

Marcie gave a weak smile. “Ok. I’ll let the photographer know.” She shuffled back home over the lawns of those who had already winterized their cabins.

Dick’s Dock Service removed the pier while Michael was in Warsaw at the hardware store. A wave of melancholy rose inside his gut when he returned to the vacant water, the feeling he got every fall when the pier came out. Another year spent. Nothing he could do but wait for winter to come and fail before reconfiguring the pier.

At twilight, Marcie came to use the Granada to travel back into Warsaw.  “It wasn’t running too good this afternoon. I’ve got to take a look at it in the morning. You’ll have to take your own car.”

“Really? It ran great last week.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the catalytic converter. You don’t want to try to run into town on a bad one of those.”

Marcie was unsure what that was, but trusted Michael when it came to mechanical things, so she returned to her garage. When he could no longer hear tires crunching, Michael opened the Granada’s trunk.

He struggled to lift the gallon paint can over the trunk’s lip, scraping the “neon orange” label. He left the trunk open as planned to drag all five cans to the shoreline. With the can sloshing and bumping into his leg with each step, he pressed forward, his golden reflection laughing in the light of the waning moon.

Joseph E. Redding is constantly searching for his old self – the one before he discovered Doritos and Naked Threesome IPA. His wife Julie keeps him around, most likely only to help haul their three children around their community in Hales Corners, Wisconsin.  His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in periodicals that do not wish to be mentioned so each can remain underrated. 

Fifteen

By Thomas Feeny

Today, if I could

hungrily I would take him into

my huge hairy arms

in honest embrace

knowing far better than anyone

this alone is what he needed

Every damp night, sure as spring

he shows up

the long-gone boy

rot-faced and nearly blind

decked out in

cousins’ hand-me-downs

left to eat stale cake at

other people’s tables

Watching him balance stacks of

Boston Records, palm nickel tips

rub soot from his eyes

I die along with him

but they never got

to bury us

Hand in hand

when the rain comes

we have lived together

every hour since

After fifty years, Thomas Feeny is still teaching Italian and Spanish at North Carolina State University and, right now, spend whatever free time he has cheering for the Red Sox.

Mr. Dobie’s Desk

By Robert Okaji

Sitting at this desk, I wonder

whose words will emerge

from the stained wood,

its whorls and cracked surface

detailing a specific language

of the inert and precious.

Earlier I rapped the cistern

to verify water level,

and a week ago startled

a cottonmouth sunning its lengthy

self at the crossing. The door

just blew open, perhaps,

or a ghost wished to offer its

voice, neither malice

nor approval imbedded

in the gesture. History

shadows me despite my best

efforts. I walk, drink water,

write, think of friends left

behind or gone ahead,

reading between the grains

and dark spaces, looking for rain

in the blue, for light and benediction

and the secret poetry of furniture.

Robert Okaji is a displaced Texan seeking work in Indiana. He served without distinction in the U.S. Navy, no longer owns a bookstore, and once won a goat-catching contest. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in So It Goes, Buddhist Poetry Review, Genuine Gold and elsewhere.