The Critic

         Whiskers, come down from there, Walter Whipple snaps. 

         He is tying his Mulberry plaid bowtie in his dresser mirror, while listening to Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. The tempo is just beginning to pick up; and although the antique Victor Talking Machine produces a ghostly, scratchy sound through its oversized, external horn, which distracts from those fine, crisp notes in the orchestral piece, this is when he focuses in on the music in his bedroom. Still, for all that, he cannot just sit there, and smile daintily at his own balding, jowly face, while his Dragon Li, Whiskers, sneaks up to the top shelf of his Qing armoire to tease his snarly, caged rat. Whiskers has his hunting instinct, to be sure; but the mischievous look in his eyes suggests that he knows better than to be climbing up to that iron cage.

         Walter returns his gaze to the mirror. His Mulberry plaid bowtie must be tied just so. Culture must prevail somewhere in this world, after all. Let all the other men roam about the streets without jackets and ties. Let them remain all too ignorant of nail files and whisker tweezers. They simply show themselves to be the riff-raff, uncivilized, uncouth, Half-Breeds or Mongoloids, Obama voters.

         The rat squeals. It is the irritating sound of sharp nails dragging down an old blackboard. 

         Walter tries not to turn away from the mirror. He has tied the very same bowtie every day for over a half century, and yet he still needs to focus on this next loop and pull as if he has never done this task before. It does not help that all that time his fingers have been fat thumbs, for all intent and purposes. Like many fat men, he is strangely graceful on foot, probably because he has had to be more conscious of his walk while lugging considerable weight around his soft midsection. Nevertheless, his fingers are little more than unwieldy, thick stubs. He can grip the handle of an axe just fine; but otherwise, the small and pretty things with which typically he surrounds himself tend to fall through his fingers.

         What is that sign found beside breakables in ‘mom and pop’ stores? Here it is: ‘Pretty to look at, lovely to hold; should you break it, consider it sold.’ On the whole, it is a rather smarmy message; and yet Walter concedes that it is an apt description of his life. He has paid so much for the life that fell through his fingers. He has lost so much for the lives that he could not keep near and dear. Yes, he wallows in more than his share of maudlin, Victorian pathos; but in his mind, anyway, he more than makes up for this self-indulgence by keeping alive all the tried and true proprieties of yesteryear. Indeed, he may be a crybaby in a Mulberry plaid bowtie; but at least he keeps culture on life support.

         After all, who else but Walter Whipple knows nowadays that food should be delivered to ones mouth on the backside of ones fork? A bite of cooked meat should never be stabbed. It has been hunted and slaughtered already, no doubt by burly blue-collar types with dirt under their fingernails. It is not going to get up and walk off the plate. Therefore, it need not be cornered and stabbed back into the grave.

         And who else but Walter Whipple knows nowadays that, when finished, a well-bred man always puts his supper knife with the blade facing outward upon the upper right portion of his plate? Invariably, even waiters in fine restaurants will ask him if he is done, when he has placed his supper knife just so; and true to his higher station, he will refuse to answer. If the plebeians cannot catch on to this small and simple exercise in etiquette, then he will not lower himself by answering them. Better not to cast ones pearls before swine, after all, is it not?

         The world cannot rise to the level of his demand. It is the swimming pool that is never filled no matter how much water is pumped into it. Surely, he can stand over that pool all day, and watch with his discerning eye how water flows out from the hose and into the pool; but the water level will never be such that he will feel that it is proper for him to disrobe and to skinny dip (not that he is of a mind to skinny dip anyway, given his pasty walrus appearance when nude).

         God forbid, then, that he should not rise to the level of his own demand; and so he struggles not to turn away from the mirror at this most delicate time.

         Whiskers hisses. The iron cage shakes, as the squealing rat scurries about its small space. 

         Notwithstanding his determination otherwise, Walter looks at his cat on the top shelf of the armoire. Whiskers is standing upon his hind legs and against the front of the small, iron cage, while stabbing inside with his right front paw.

         Walter inserts the bowtie into the wrong loop. The bowtie unravels, and it parachutes onto his lap like colorful cloth confetti.

         His blubbery face turns crimson red in a matter of seconds. He lowers his head, and pounds his fists on the dresser. 

         Whiskers, scat! Walter screams towards his cat in a voice that is actually not loud enough to be heard over the Victor Talking Machine. 

         Walter grimaces in equal parts anger and shame. He is peeved at his cat, but he is also ashamed at his thin, soft, vaguely effeminate voice. The doctors have assured him that he has no physical ailment. It is all in his head, they will say in that cold and analytical manner peculiar to doctors and morticians. So he is supposed to give money to a New York Jew shrink for the privilege of lying on his couch and recounting his dreams for fifty minutes. That will be a snowy day in hell. Better that he pursues his own remedies: Drink before guests arrive, for he can speak at a more or less normal volume when plastered (though allegedly he whines and elongates his vowels like Truman Capote, when he is the fifth or sixth sheet to the wind); Go to ‘Dream Boys,’ and order the bitch to show some skin before the end of the song. 

         Whiskers either does not hear him, or ignores him. Walter finds his stash of silver dollars beside his rouge. He takes one of the coins (not all that easy to do, since the thick stubs he calls ‘fingers’ pushes them around better than they pick one of them up), and tosses it towards Whisker’s back. 

         It is a direct hit. Apparently, Walter’s pitching arm is just fine.

         Whiskers screams more from surprise than pain. He falls to the floor and looks back at his owner as if to scream out: What is your problem, you fat fuck?

         Let that be a lesson to you, Walter says with a devilish grin. Ta-Ta!

         Walter wiggles his fingers together just an inch or so beneath his nose as he says ‘ta-ta.’ That is his gesture when offering up a verbal exclamation point.

         Whiskers is not impressed. He shoots up his tail in a mad huff, and strolls off. He will be fine again the next time his owner gives him his kibble; but until then, he will be a creepy pair of green eyes staring out from inside a tight spot.

         Walter has to start all over again with his Mulberry plaid bowtie. 

         Nevertheless, he is in a better mood than before. He truly loves his four-legged partner in crime, and he does not want to imagine how he will go on the day Whiskers leaves him for wherever dead cats roam into eternity. Still, in his experience, there is little pleasure in love. There is patience, loyalty, and then heartbreak; grey moments that finally sink into blackness; never the splurge of bright colors and sweet smells that call to mind a particularly happy run across a delightful spring garden. 

         There is pleasure, though, in winning the round. Wherever Whiskers may be right now, he is licking his paw in the slow and solemn manner of the beaten boxer. Only losers lick their wounds. The winners get to laugh and to feel good about themselves, even if only for a moment. This accounts for Walter’s queer, and vaguely unsettling, chuckle and grin, while again fiddling with that bowtie.

         He finishes his bowtie easily enough this time. He loves how ‘old school’ he looks in the white shirt and bowtie. Sometimes, late at night, before taking to his bed, he will sit before this same mirror, while still wearing this shirt and bowtie ensemble. He will turn off the gas to his antique lamp, and light a large candle in its place. The billowy light from that candle casts queer, disorienting shadows on the mirror; and he fancies himself a ghost in an impeccable bowtie sifting in and out of the past. Whatever pleasure he experiences in ‘winning the round,’ or ‘pulling the fast one,’ is nothing in comparison to his feeling when in the thralls of his ghost fancy. The moment does not last, of course; and the let down afterwards is far greater, and longer lasting, than the spurt of happiness.  Still, like a junkie who should know better, he fancies himself a pretty ghost on most nights, before removing his gentleman’s clothing in favor of his nightshirt.

         In the Hall of the Mountain King transitions from only string instruments to horns and drums. The full orchestra is now on display, even if it sounds much too much like a ghostly howl when played on that Victor. 

         Walter breaks into a wide smile. He taps his dresser in time with his left hand, while administering rouge to his cheeks with his right. He scans the right side of his dresser mirror for the reflection of his favorite mannequin. 

         In the past, Rexford Muldoon would not have been so hard to find amidst all the creative mayhem in his boudoir. The tall, thin, plastic man with the fine physique, pointed nose, and upturned chin had been at the foot of the old bed. Walter would turn Rexford before going to bed each night, so that that pretty, albino white model looked over him as he dreamt. Otherwise, Walter permitted Rexford to stare at himself in the dresser mirror. Even our playthings should be allowed opportunities for narcissistic self-indulgence, should they not?

         All fine and good, except that earlier today Walter had had to move him, in order to make room at the foot of the bed for an indoor tree and jungle gym he had purchased for Whiskers. Maybe, if the Dragon Li spends his hours on end climbing up and down its trunk and branches, then he will leave Walter’s half a dozen or so caged rats alone. The operative phrase here is ‘or so,’ since Walter does not remember how many caged rats are spread about the Victorian, even though he feeds them and replaces their water bowls each day. Regardless, he does not want any of them to turn into dead clumps of rat fur and blood before he is done with them.   

         Ah, there is Rexford beside the grand piano. He looks like the handsome, late night singer about ready to croon for the fair swans. Just so long as he has an eye only for the ‘fairest swan’ in this boudoir, Rexford’s showmanship is fine for now. Maybe, someday, Water will feel an urge to move Rexford back to the foot of his old bed; but, until then, he will catch Rexford’s glimpses as the time allows and, in return, blow kisses back to his adorable plastic man by his piano.

         Walter decides that his fat face is colorful enough. He pushes himself up from the dresser. As always, he moves in the lumbering manner of an old man. Now, with his hair receding, and his eyebrows scraggly and grey, he can remark in all honesty that his years finally have caught up to his weight. Not only does he move like a geezer, he actually is one. 

         He moans from the stiffness in his joints. He shakes the diabetic tingle in his left foot, until he gets some sensation down there.

         Then, like with an old car, his motor gets its second wind; and he strolls over to his closet with the speed and the grace of an athletic man half his age. Precisely because he recovers so well, he senses that he is far from his physical death. Too bad, really, since he would not mind becoming an actual ghost in an ‘old school’ bowtie, haunting whomever buys his Victorian from his estate, and travelling back to the finer gentlemen’s clubs now lost to history.

         Walter does not search through his closet very long. Most of his pants are interchangeable: Oversized, checkered, golf pants; the kind Gerald Ford would have worn, if he had had the body of William Howard Taft. 

         Notwithstanding the ‘big and tall’ size of his pants, Walter stuffs himself into his trousers, like sausage meat into sheepskin. The act of putting on his big pants feels obscene, in a way; and he has to fancy waddling into a cold shower, in order to restrain himself from getting a bit too hot and cozy under his collar.

         He cannot move as freely with his tight pants on, which of course is why around the Victorian he normally only wears loose boxer shorts below his white shirt and plaid bowtie. For all his stodginess and propriety beyond his Victorian, he is actually fairly bohemian inside its walls. He moves about his clutter like a half sleeping, gentle giant; except for when something goes wrong, his baby fat cheeks turn crimson red, and he ends up throwing his fist into a wall, or kicking Whiskers. The violent, volcanic eruptions die fast enough that he can fancy the rest of the time that he is a calm master of the memories spread about his lair.

         Walter takes one more look at himself in the dresser mirror. There is not much hair left, but he still demands that it be as perfect as everything else. He really is a ‘Martha Stewart’ when it comes to his appearance; and so with dear, old Martha prodding him inside his mind, he finds his dark comb on the dresser. He combs his hair to the side to cover over a bald spot. He also combs his very thin, straight-line mustache downward, so as to sweep away his loosened hairs.

         The caged rat squeals. Walter half expects to see Whiskers up to his old tricks; but, in fact, the rat is alone.

         Walter reaches into the bottom drawer of his dresser. He removes a big handful of pellets. Smells like dried shit to him, probably to those caged rats as well; but regardless, the rats always devour the pellets without hesitation.

         Walter never gets too close when feeding the rats. He tosses in the dried pellets from a few feet away, and removes and returns the water bowl with the aid of long, rusted tongs. He and his rats are not on the best of terms, after all.

         If the choice is feast or famine, then choose the feast, Walter mutters to the squealing rat, while tossing pellets into the iron cage. 

         Walter thinks a moment. He decides that that is a particularly funny line on his part, and so he breaks into a fit of laughter. Walter’s laugh sounds like a wheezy asthmatic clearing out his sinuses. It is Felix Unger in the thralls of one of his many anxiety attacks. 

         Even more like a cartoon, Walter’s midsection ripples up and down; and, unconsciously, he rubs at his bellybutton. Sometimes, he is the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Other times, the laugh is so out of control that the grin on his face widens into a maniacal grimace. On those occasions, he is the Joke, or a skeleton man.

         The laugh passes, and Walter notes the glaring, green eyes by his feet. It is Whiskers, of course, sneaking out of his hiding place, and testing the waters with his master. If looks could kill, then Walter would be stumbling backwards just now, for the kindest way to describe the Dragon Li’s expression is snarly on the verge of murderous. 

         Fortunately, Walter keeps kibble in each of his pants’ pockets, just for a feline fit like this one. He tosses the kibble to the floor before the approaching cat. He watches the scene before him with a knowing smirk on his face. 

         Whiskers stops, sniffs, and then indulges. He does not purr when finished with the feast, but neither does he continue on his warpath. He just looks up at his master as if to say, ‘Okay, fat boy, we can have a truce, but only for now…’

         Don’t go down on a fur ball, while I’m out, Walter says pleasantly to the cat, before turning on his heels, and stepping out the bedroom door. 

*   *   *

         Walter grabs his bowler hat, cashmere scarf, and overcoat at the bottom of the creaking staircase. He senses Whiskers glaring down at him from the top.

         No matter, Walter thinks. Whiskers can glare all he wants. I am the man on the prowl this evening. 

         Even though it is balmy outside, Walter wraps the scarf around his flabby neck (though in such a way as not to cover his bowtie), buttons up his overcoat (again in such a way as not to cover his bowtie), and tops it all with his bowler. He feels like a pig stuffed into a cozy oven, but that does not dissuade him the least. After all, who else but Walter Whipple understands the cultural import of the dashing man about town? Who else appreciates our appetite for living icons so well as to maintain the tradition even on nights such as this one?

         Walter opens the front door. The hinges scream in pain. The staircase is still creaking behind him. Indeed, the entire Victorian sounds and smells cranky just now. This makes sense in a way, since what is any old and creepy Victorian on the banks of the Manchester River without its old and creepy master? It is an insipid, haunted house without a ghost; that is what it is. It is all talk without a punch to back it up. 

         Walter stares into the purple red sky. The sun will have fallen under the western horizon completely in another five minutes; but for now, that universe spreading out from his eyesight seems suspended in time. It is a sentient life in its own right. It cannot decide if it anticipates with hope or dreads in fright the coming of the night. 

         Walter does not allow any such indecision in his mind. He is dressing the part, and so he sees no reason to fear the night before him. He will scream this evening, and then he will gorge on beef and wine at Belvedere’s (though with a keen sense of higher etiquette at his fingertips, he will never resemble a Viking in a mead hall, thank you very much). 

         Tonight is my chocolate covered oyster for the taking, Walter thinks with a sly grin, while he grabs his walking stick and closes the huge door behind him.

         Stepping down from the porch, he senses that the Victorian already is an ugly, cold corpse fading into the shadows. He hears the rumbling river water no further than fifty feet behind his back wall. Otherwise, everything outside is as still and lonely as a solitary body left overnight in a morgue. 

         Walter walks alongside his flower garden to his automobile parked closer to the gate. He taps his walking stick rhythmically, and hums In the Hall of the Mountain King. He fancies himself the conductor. The colorful flowers shivering in the early evening wind are his musical players. The trees comprising three of his four perimeter lines (the fourth being the Manchester River) also move with the wind, though with considerably more depth and grace. Together, these old, heavy trees constitute the fourth wall. As such, when walking alongside his vast garden at dusk, Walter is both critic and composer of his own orchestral pit. He is not surprised to see the flowers shiver and the trees bow, as he passes them.

         His automobile is a restored, all black, 1931 Marmon Model 16. The fifth tire rests on the sleek fender just passed the front passenger door. The quickly fading sunlight sparkles off all five hubcaps in such a way as to suggest that the car does not rest on gravel, so much as it floats on dreamy dusk light. It is able to drive on the roads, to be sure; but even more so, and in the mind of its only driver, it is a portal to a simpler, fancied past. For Walter, driving that Marmon along the scenic routes is much like staring into the dresser mirror before going to bed. There are moments of surreal, ghostly beauty, when he really is able to believe that white privilege, blue blooded aristocracy, musical performances in the den after supper, polite discourse, proper etiquette, and chaste mothers (a baby is delivered by a stork, as every good boy knows), indeed all the idealized accouterments of the first few decades of the twentieth century somehow live again in the here and now. It is like the past bleeds through the present; and, if only for a moment, loses the present altogether in the background. Surely, like with the mirror, this is a fleeting experience; but for Walter, it is everything he lives for in a world otherwise coarsened into filthy rat fur by our modern times.

         Walter squeezes into his automobile. He is forced to take off his bowler. Otherwise, the low roof would flatten it into a pancake. Removing his hat is his one gesture to practicality when behind the wheel. In all other regards, Walter is careful to maintain what he presumes is his dashing appearance and behavior while driving his Marmon no faster than 35 MPH down the curvy road into town.

         Time for a Hot Toddy, Walter always chimes when revving up the motor.

         He pulls out of the carport. He drives down the rest of the gravel road to the gate. One of his few conceits to modern times is that he has had installed a device that automatically opens the gate only for his Marmon. Any visitors have to pull that ornamented gate open and shut with no aid but their elbow grease; and, oh, how funny it is to watch the little, old ladies slip and slide on the mud when endeavoring to leave their calling cards for him during a horrid rainstorm.

*   *   *

         Walter hunches over his steering wheel. He squints his eyes, so that he is able to make out whatever may be up ahead. He knows that he should wear his glasses, but he could not find anything even remotely ‘old school’ when he last went to LensCrafters. Thus, he uses his updated prescription glasses at home in emergency situations; but for the most part, and certainly when he is going out to one of his regular haunts in town, he keeps his glasses hidden behind the rat pellets in his dresser drawer. 

         Most of the time it does not matter. He drives no faster than 35 MPH on the two-lane country highway. When the highway dips into the interstate closer to Beverly, he stays in the right lane. Sometimes, an asshole (most likely one of those ‘Beaners’ with an ‘Obama Driver’s License,’ Walter invariably thinks) will blink his lights into his rearview mirror, or honk at him, or pass him while giving him the finger, because he is so damned slow. None of that fazes Walter, then or in retrospect. As he is prone to chime on those occasions: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names from lowlife, mongrel, Jew boy, faggot, sheep lover, Demon-crats like you will never hurt me. Ta-Ta!’

         Tonight, his poor eyesight matters. The highway that runs alongside the sprawling Manchester River Park (and on which Claire Bruner will park her tiny, yellow, Volkswagen Bug later that same night so as not to be detected by David Trent and his hillbilly buddy) is undergoing roadwork over the next seven miles. There is a detour road that bypasses the roadwork before dipping back into the highway. Walter should have seen the ‘detour’ sign, and turned onto that road.

         Sure enough, Walter is no more than a mile passed the sign, when out of the blue there are tactical lights reflected off his rearview mirror. There is also a short siren, no more than a single ‘whoop’ sound, and then a deep, masculine voice heard over a loudspeaker. 

         Pull over to the curb, the officer commands.

         Oh, how original, Walter snickers. 

         Walter feels his rage boiling up from his bowels. If he could see his face, then no doubt he would see two crimson red cheeks and cartoon steam coming out from his ears. His hands grip the steering wheel so tightly that he imagines the device breaking into multiple pieces and falling onto his lap. 

         Still, for all his righteous indignation, he is sensible enough to know that the cops always mean business. He pulls over to the curb, wipes a bead of cold sweat off his high brow, and taps the steering wheel with his right index finger.

         The cop steps out of his patrol car. He is a tall, well built, athletic man. His handcuffs jingle loudly against his flat board waist. His legs seem to be the size of tree trunks, though that may be Walter’s imagination. Dusk is long gone by now, and the moon has yet to ascend high enough in the dark sky to provide much in the way of illumination.

         Because everything is so dark out there, Walter is not able to discern the cop’s race until the cop is only a couple of steps away from his window. 

         Oh, splendid, a jigaboo, Walter mutters. Probably a faggot, too…

         The black cop gestures for Walter to lower his window. Walter complies, though the very idea of a ‘Negro’ telling him what to do makes his stomach boil and twist into knots all at the same time. 

         The black cop bends forward, so that his strong, angular face practically fills the space. Strangely, even though it is dark outside, the cop is wearing big, thick sunglasses. He looks and acts like an android straight off the old assembly line in The Terminator

         License and Registration, the cop says in a monotone. 

         The cop’s face does not move at all. His lips barely move. Nevertheless, Walter senses that his hidden, dark eyes are scanning every inch of his interior.

         Probably never saw anything so respectable, Walter thinks, while digging into his glove compartment to retrieve his license and registration. The monkey boys in the hood do not even know how to use utensils and napkins; so my fine, clean features must be like an alien spaceship to one of them. God, I hope that his lower lip is not so huge that he ends up drooling all over my waxed leather…

         Walter is about to launch into a mental rant, when he stumbles upon the license and registration. He hands the papers to the cop, sits back in his chair, and stares at the vague shadows beyond his headlights. He knows that he needs to relax, lest he give this monkey mooch a reason to detain him longer out here on the side of the highway.

         What Walter resents most is that in ‘the good, old days’ no one would be so quirky as even to imagine a jigaboo cop, let alone actually to put a badge on his chest. Somehow, in the past several decades, the world flipped on its head; and now, what is decent is obscenity, and what is natural is perversion. What a crock! Makes a good man want to puke, but for the fact that puke is impossible to scrub and to wash out of a good shirt. 

         The cop gives him a warning. He directs him back to the cutoff. 

         Walter barely hears him. In his ears, the cop’s voice sounds like a bunch of monkey grunts. God, how embarrassing it is that he needs to nod and to say ‘yes, sir’ repeatedly to this make believe officer of the law.

         Except he is not a ‘make believe’ officer of the law, Walter thinks with a sigh. And that is because this is not 1931, or even 1961, but 2015. Moreover, no matter how hard I insist, in fact the past is not bleeding through the present. In this time and place, there is no ghost man, no Marmon floating on dreamy dusk light, no candlelight casting surreal shadows on an antique dresser mirror. Just hardnosed reality exists out here on this highway.

         The cop returns to his patrol car. Walter starts up his Marmon, and goes back towards that cutoff road. The illusion has been broken. He should call it a night, because what starts off this bad is not likely to improve in a second reel.

         But he does not such thing. Instead, he turns right at the cutoff.

         He sees the moon up ahead. It is singing to him, as if a voice in a dream.

         Perhaps, it is that mythological Siren, drawing him into the jagged rocks, and offering him in return the promise of a love that will never fall through his fingers. Or, perhaps, it is that self-destructive impulse that exists in all men to some degree, but that flares more intensely in him than in most others. No way to tell which; but what matters really is that the illusion is gone, trampled and squished underfoot by a jackbooted black cop; and yet here he is driving down the cutoff road, and wondering if indeed he will arrive at ‘Dream Boys’ in time.

*   *   *

         An hour passes, and Walter remains more than a little peeved about that jigaboo cop having the utter gall to pull him over and to give him a warning. He thinks about what the world must be coming to when this kind of thing can and does happen even here in the good, ol’ U.S.A. Perhaps, it is inevitable that the Goths storm the gates and pull the respectable people out of their finer homes.

         Walter can tell from the sheer number of taillights that he is driving into the heart of the City of Beverly now. He pays little attention to the details, for he drives largely on autopilot until he turns onto Memphis Street. 

         Now, Memphis really should be a pedestrian alleyway. It is too narrow to allow for two automobiles to pass one another; and at a few frightening points, a driver can roll down his window and touch the crumbling, brick building to his left. Still, for whatever reasons, the city fathers have yet to convert this street into a pedestrian alleyway; and so cars routinely plug up the pipes, while going from the heart of the city to the dilapidated, fogged in wharf at the bitter end.

         Closer to the heart of the city, Memphis features urban lofts, nightclubs; even the infamous ‘Memphis Street Books and Novelties,’ which is only open by appointment and twice had been the scene of a murder. Closer to the wharf, it gets a lot seedier. Saloons and brothels reign. Derelicts appear suddenly in the headlights of oncoming cars, like ghosts illuminated briefly before disappearing back into the fog. What sounds like wretched screams burst out from under old and rusted manhole covers. The screams probably have something to do with a release of air pressure in the elaborate underground sewer; but with the hatred in the eyes of the derelicts this close to the wharf, or the manipulative grins on the faces of the whores this close to the disorienting river fog, the mind sweeps away from rational explanations to consider the possibility of murder or torture somewhere in the shadows. Indeed, as Memphis ends at a parking lot beside an old, rickety, water scarred pier, there is no other feeling in the moonlit fog but cold, heartless murder. Perhaps, that is the fascination with this part of town. Still, even the psychopaths feel a shiver down their spines when strolling to the end of the pier. Whether it be the riverboat foghorns wailing out from the dark shadows, or the grainy shit smell gurgling out from the depths of the enormous Manchester River, there are enough insipid sounds and smells along the moonlit pier to inspire a quickened step even among the cold and hardened wharf men.

         Walter walks with considerable speed and grace down the pier. He is one of the regulars down here, though of course he would deny as such if anyone in ‘polite society’ ever questioned him along those lines. Every man has his secret life; some much more so than others; and Walter is as capable of the long cloak and the drawn curtain as anyone else.

         Walter taps his walking stick against the waterlogged pier beams. Walter is not wearing dark sunglasses, and he is moving with too much confidence and speed; but, nevertheless, his hope is that someone at a distance will determine that he is blind. Feigning blindness is as close as he will get to wearing a mask, since, of course, a real mask must obscure his rouge cheeks and thin mustache.

         Walter stops before a tall, narrow, ramshackle building on the very edge of the pier. Over the years, the building has been beaten ugly (though devotees would say that the stained, exterior walls, foggy windows, and loosened or torn shingles are not indications of ugliness so much as character); and yet, beneath the flashing ‘Dream Boys’ neon sign, and washed in the light of the silver moon reflected off the Manchester River, there remains the skeletal shell of the old, much beloved (and equally much despised) ‘Clams and Cunts.’

         The ‘Clams and Cunts’ had served the best clam chowder in the city for a number of generations, but that had not been the reason for its reputation as ‘a place to go before kicking the bucket’ (popular restaurant tagline during the 1950s). It had been the only place in town to serve moonshine during the 1920s (the next closest speakeasy had been the London House down Manchester way). It had its own ghost (an old whore washerwoman, who had died while doing the dishes, and who would go on to scare some of the roughnecks who dined there by, for example, tossing a half shaker of pepper into a bowl of clam chowder or spiking the house beer with something that sure smelled and tasted like urine). It had been the site of several bar fights that ended in untimely deaths; and on Christmas Day 1947, it had been the site of a fierce turf war between a gang of Whites and a gang of Puerto Ricans. There are different accounts of which side won that knife and knuckles battle, though several customers swore years later that a new menu addition called ‘San Juan Soup’ had been so salty and chunky as to make it all too clear where the missing Puerto Rican gangsters had ended up. The police chief ate the final bowl of ‘San Juan Soup’ on the anniversary of the race riot. Then the creepy owner, Hans Schultz, removed it from the menu.

         Throughout much of its storied history, the eatery at the end of the pier had been known as ‘Clams.’ The townsfolk added ‘and Cunts’ when the hookers in the backrooms started to pass on the clap along with their parting winks and air kisses. That had been about the time of hippies and free love. Hans Schultz had had no love for the ‘longhaired Commies;’ but he would keep them around, so long as they cut him into their drug deals. Before long, ‘Clams and Cunts’ all but gave up the restaurant business, and instead became a den of druggies and deviants. The townsfolk grumbled, the cops conducted their vice raids, and the sleazy Hans Schultz died under suspicious circumstances. The city boarded it up before his skin turned blue, and then sold it for dimes on the dollar years later.

         Sure, this ramshackle building has a largely uncouth, blue-collar history. Its clientele, then and now, consists of the kind of sewer rat people that Walter disdains. Nevertheless, it is a place that continues to be touched by its history. Indeed, it is much more alive in its past, whether real or fancied, than in what it purports to be today. Like the Marmon, then, it is a portal; and when Walter steps up to Oz the Ticket Boy, and taps his walking stick, he is a time traveller.

         Oz the Ticket Boy is a cute automaton from the late 1890s. Inside, Oz is an elaborate configuration of springs and pulleys. Outside, he is a heart stealer no older than nineteen or twenty. His freckled, redheaded face vaguely calls to mind Howdy Doody, and yet strangely this does not detract from his overall sex appeal. Walter is not the only customer to feel an achy throb inside his trousers when a ticket rolls out from between Oz’s smirking lips, like a receipt out from an ATM. Most of the customers reach up and grab the ticket; but Walter always stands upon his tiptoes, and removes the ticket with his own teeth. In this way, he almost kisses the boy behind the ticket booth, before the boy winks back at him, drops his chin to his chest, and switches off.

         I’d like to see you in your Buster Browns someday, Walter remarks in his best rendition of a Mae West voice, after spitting the ticket from his mouth and into his right palm. 

         Oz the Ticket Boy does not respond. When he switches off, he is Lazarus in the tomb before Christ Jesus arrives. He will come to life again, but only for the ‘right voice’ (the sheep know their shepherd, the Good Book reminds us on several occasions). In this case, the ‘right voice’ is always the next man in line.

         Walter steps closer to the front door. Red light shines through the foggy window beside that door. It is actually no more than a nightlight inside, but out here the illumination mixes into the fog to create a surreal, magnifying cage of light. For Walter, and probably for most other customers, this cage of light into which they must walk in order to get inside is the actual portal. Before the soft red light, Walter is walking on a dingy pier beside a polluted Manchester River. Beyond the soft light, Walter is chained to a wall, while screaming out for skin. Out here, Walter is nimble, but ultimately so weak in voice and in spirit he has to follow the order of a jigaboo cop. In there, there is no such thing as a Negro, let alone one that can boss him around. Even more importantly, in there he can find his voice, his roar; and when he lets loose, no man now alive can stop him.

         Walter checks his ticket in the cage of light. Besides general admission, he had paid extra to get a private show with the ‘Restless Wrangler.’ The saliva had smeared much of the print, and yet the ‘Restless Wrangler’ stands out still.

         Walter hands his slimy ticket to the doorman. They make no eye contact with one another. Indeed, so far as Walter can remember, he has never looked directly into the face of the doorman. It is only because of his peripheral vision that he knows that that doorman is a tall, beefy, bearded hunk in a fisherman’s slick and yellow boots. Obviously, his outfit is a costume, probably intended as an homage to the stocky deep sea fishermen, who used to drive their vessels up the Manchester River from the coast harbor for the moonshine and the hookers they could find at ‘Clams.’ Those hunks had been tough bastards with saltwater in their veins. Walter does not know if this guy is anywhere near as tough. Most likely not, but Walter indulges the fantasy anyway. He is here, after all, to slip back into an idealized past, even though this past is so different from the clean and coiffed figures that predominate in his family tree. 

         Apart from the nightlight, the foyer is dark. He can make out in shadows the classic ship steering wheel on the wall in front of him, various ship tools on the right wall, and tonight’s specials scrawled on a blackboard on the left wall. There is not enough illumination from that nightlight for him or anyone else to be able to read the blackboard. No matter, since the specials have not changed in about a decade. Moreover, most people come for a bowl of clam chowder; a couple of beers, and a sex show upstairs. They do not need a blackboard to tell them what is in store; and if they actually get so drunk that they cannot recall their agendas, the staff will take them to their sex show appointments on time.

         Walter walks passed the ship steering wheel and through a door of loose, hanging beads. The beads are more Woodstock than Nantucket; but no matter, for Walter is in too deep not to continue with his graceful steps into a past that the rest of the world, for the most part, has relegated into fiction or forgotten. He cannot imagine anything at all getting in the way of himself and his illusion. 

         The restaurant is a dingy room with sawdust on the floor, blood stains on the walls, and skulls on round, rickety, wooden tables. Each skull is open in the back, like the person had died from a blow to the back of his head. Because of the hour, there is a lit candle inside each of these skulls. Soft light flickers out from behind the oversized eye sockets. While an observer can determine easily enough that the candle is the source of this light, his subconscious mind begins to wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, this flickering light indicates that sentience that survives death. After all, stare long enough into the flickering light, and in time you will sense the deliberate rhythm behind what seems at first to be just erratic light pulses. Then, stare long enough at the skull itself. Can you see the skull grin actually widening into a hostile grimace? Do you not understand that if you stare even longer, you will start to hear the skull speaking in your addled mind? The past is a collection of ghosts, dead things that move and speak; and, true to his conviction that he has stepped into a kind of portal (not literal time travel, Walter concedes, but imagination unleashed because of everything he is going to sense in here and upstairs with his ‘Restless Wrangler’), Walter invites the dead things, the skulls, the automatons, to be his companions this evening.

         For all of Walter’s interest in the skulls, the automatons, even the naked boy dolls in clenched nooses hanging from the rafters, he really can do without those swishy boys in identical skinny leg jeans, open collared ruffled shirts, and sailor caps. They are faggots, obviously; but the way they flap their hands next to their faces when talking is so ‘put on,’ in Walter’s mind, as to be altogether infuriating. Maybe, the salty shit smell is not the Manchester River, but rather a collective memory of when Lot’s wife had been recast as a pillar of salt. This is outlandish, until one comes to the conclusion that ‘Dream Boys’ now is ripe for the same punishment inflicted upon Sodom and Gomorrah.

         Walter takes a seat at one of the tables. He sets his walking stick and his bowler aside, pops his knuckles, and picks up the skull centerpiece. The skull is a bit too warm for Walter to be able to handle it comfortably. Nevertheless, he raises the skull up to his face, and stares into the eye sockets.

         Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Walter mutters.

         What’s your poison tonight? One of the swishy boys says to Walter. 

         Walter is taken by surprise, but he does not put the skull down. Instead, with obvious disdain, he responds to the waiter without removing his eyes from the eye sockets. 

         Clam and Jack, Walter snarls.

         Walter means ‘clam chowder spiked with whiskey.’ The swishy boy does not need any further explanation. Most of the lost souls who come in and out of this joint want to spike their clam chowder with something. Jack Daniels is not much of a beast in comparison to the many other untamed spirits splashed into their clam chowder upon request. 

         The swishy boy walks away. His butt squeaks in his skinny leg jeans; and at once, Walter feels his gorge rise. 

The squeak-squeak-squeak of a faggot’s walk hits below the belt, Walter thinks, while putting Yorick back on the table.

Walter tips his chair back, and folds his fat fingers upon his belly. He has contempt for the half dozen or so tight butts in skinny leg jeans strolling about the restaurant. The waiters outnumber the patrons two to one tonight, and yet all of them make a point of wiggling their hips up and down the rows of rickety, round tables. It is as if they have nothing else to do when the burden is light or nonexistent, but to go on autopilot. Because they are faggots, autopilot means ‘swishing their butts.’ If they had been Flo in Mel’s Diner, autopilot would have meant ‘chewing a wad of gum.’ If they had been the prissy puke maître d over at Belvedere’s, autopilot would have meant ‘arching their eyebrows, twinkling their noses, and glaring for hours on end.’ How lame is it that they fall back to their safe zones without even trying to be extra specialfor the patrons who are ultimately the ones putting food on their tables and paying their rent? How is it that so few manservants nowadays will go the extra mile for their masters? The skulls, the automatons, the lynched boy dolls, they are totally what they are at all times; and the look in their eyes (or eye sockets) always says to Walter: ‘We are so happy to serve you, the King of the Past, the Chronicler of Dead Things.’ The tight butts squeaking inside those skinny leg jeans say nothing of the sort…

Walter allows the stream of consciousness to continue on its own. He has put down the swishy boys so much over the years as to be bored already by the exercise. The task of a critic is to find a new target for his old lines.

The swishy boy delivers the bowl of clam chowder spiked by whiskey. He grins, like he is in on the joke or something. Walter wants to rip that grin off of his freckled face and to dip it into his soup. Let that stupid boy know what it is really like to stand naked before judging eyes. And indeed he will be naked, for a boy unable to hide his lazy and contemptible self behind his grinning lips and his pretend wit is then and there really naked, cold, and alone up on the stage.

Walter enjoys the first bowl of ‘Clam and Jack.’ He feels that the second bowl is just okay. He barely notices the third bowl at all. He wants to vomit by the time he finishes off his fourth one. That is how whiskey progresses through his veins. What gives us pleasure in small amounts sickens us in larger amounts; and if that does not indicate how far we are removed from the Garden of Eden, and so forced to realize the more we exert, the less we obtain, then it is rather hard to imagine what will? Walter certainly makes the mental association, since he had had so much Bible training in his formative years. Thus, while sick in his stomach after finishing the fourth bowl, even more so he is overcome by a high wave of melancholy. The sadness sweeps over him; and though his mind and his heart are able to swim back up to the surface, he is left with a doughy, sweaty face, a couple of bloodshot eyes, and a vague disenchantment about what may have been versus what really is. Life, indeed, is cruel for a man so often left to ponder without distraction his strange and sordid mind. The beast is distracted, for there is always a predator in the shadows ready to pounce. The man has no such luck. His comfortable, indeed privileged, life offers few distractions.

Then, another person steps into the restaurant. Walter cannot make him out that well, because of how dark it is in here. What he sees, though, sets his heart ablaze, for the man appears to be wearing a cowboy shirt, a pair of clean and pressed Wranglers, and a pair of leather boots ready to hit the dance floor.

Is that the Restless Wrangler? Is that the denim I have licked just before he strips to his bare ass? Is that the crotch he never shoves in my face, but that I glimpse now and then in the mirror while he struts his stuff to a cowboy song?

Impossible to tell for sure; but, anyway, he is surely a distraction.

Moreover, unlike the swishy boys down here, the Restless Wrangler gives me everything he has, Walter thinks, while a queer, contented grin forms upon his face. That boy knows how to serve! He understands servitude, a knowledge that had been common in the past, but is now largely forgotten among the poor whites and the coloreds. Watching how he responds to my command, the awful roar of my voice unleashed, is sort of like stepping into Gone with the Wind, or The Birth of a Nation, and actually living out the past in the present day world.

Walter watches the Restless Wrangler walk across the restaurant. Is that really the Restless Wrangler? Truth be told, Walter cannot say for sure, because it is so dark, and frankly he has only glimpsed his face at an angle in the mirror upstairs two or three times. Nevertheless, he so much wants that man to be his distraction for the evening that he chooses to believe that it is so. 

Every crybaby knows that if he insists long and hard enough, then he will get what he wants. Walter does not want to think of himself as a crybaby. He is the dashing man about town, after all. Still, as he zeroes in on the tight butt of that Restless Wrangler, he allows one sloppy tear to zigzag down his left cheek.

*   *   *

         Walter has had his fill of clam chowder. He catches the eye of the swishy boy, and mimes downing a shot of whiskey. He wipes the tear off his left cheek only to drop three more by the time the boy returns with a shot glass on a tray.

         Walter grabs the shot glass without taking his bloodshot eyes away from that tight rear end. The Restless Wrangler likely would have left the restaurant by now, except that he has been pulled into a conversation with two waiters. It is apparent that Walter is not his only fan. Walter hopes those waiters suffer an agonizing death; but in the meantime, he admits that it is good that they are in pursuit of the same bubble butt, since they have stopped the Restless Wrangler and thus, by chance, given Walter more time to enjoy one of life’s perfections.

         Walter takes his poison like a man. He grips the edge of his table, as the fire burns down his throat and into his stomach. His eyes bulge, and there is no doubt in his mind that in another second or two they are going to pounce out of his eye sockets and make two distinct splats on the table. What a crying shame thus, for how can he stare, if his beautiful eyes turn into runny eggs and blood?

         The horror passes, and Walter allows the front legs of his chair to return to the floor. He folds his hands in prayer, and uses them to prop up his buttery, flakey jowls. He sighs like a lovesick schoolboy, never allowing his eyes to sway even a moment from the tight denim, and imagining briefly that, indeed, there is no longer a modern day world.

         There is no modern day world, because Walter is a soft and pretty boy in the care of his ailing grandmother. He is on the cusp of seventeen. He is staring out his bedroom window; and though he knows that the whole world awaits him with open arms out there, his heart longs only for the moment he sees his older brother step out of the cab, open the gate, and walk the long driveway to their home. Lucius will be coming home from college today, and he will be wearing…

         Skintight Wranglers, cowboy denim wrapped around a bubble butt, like a Christmas gift wrapped so tightly the boy can see that gift inside before he rips it open. Wrapped so tightly, the boy practically can lick it with his red tongue…

         Would you like another shot of fortune? The swishy boy asks.

         That breaks the illusion, and once more Walter is sitting in ‘Dream Boys’ on a dark and dismal night in 2015. Walter is a sixty-two year old gentleman, a dashing man about town, a white man who insists upon his white privilege even if the rest of the world seems embarrassed by the very idea, a cultured man for whom Miss Manners is a kind of High Priestess and Interpreter of Divine Oracles.

         Another shot of fortune, Walter grumbles. Since when do we imagine wit among the peasants? And from the lips of a faggot sailor boy to boot?

         The swishy boy does not respond. He just favors his patron with a broad, dumb smile, while gently tapping his right hip with his tray.

         Walter watches the Restless Wrangler conversing with the two waiters. It is too far for him to read their lips, let alone to hear anything. Someone makes a joke or an acerbic comment, because one of the waiters reacts suddenly with what looks like a nervous chuckle. What matters is that the Restless Wrangler is all cool all the time. He never even cracks a smile, so far as Walter can tell. He is the strong, silent type; apparently, the same as he acts during his stage show upstairs. This excites Walter considerably, though he is careful not to show any pleasure on his face, because this means that, when Walter makes the Restless Wrangler pull down his jeans, the Restless Wrangler is surrendering for real. In actuality, after all, the strong, silent type never pretends to surrender, as that would be too much against his underlying personality. He must be beaten down for real, bitch slapped hard, before he will fly a white flag over his proud head.

         Walter sees the swishy boy standing beside him still. Walter caves on the question of having another drink. He mimes downing a shot, and the boy leaves for the bar on the other side of the restaurant. 

         It only takes Walter a few seconds to mime downing a shot; but when he refocuses his eyes on the object of his passion, the Restless Wrangler is already stepping out a side door that leads to the pier. Maybe, he is going out to smoke a cigarette. That makes sense, for it is all but impossible to imagine the classic cowboy not dangling a smoke from his lips when staring you down raw and cold.

         Walter sips the next shot of whiskey, and the one that follows closely on the heels of that one, since he does not want to fall flat on his back and to pass out. Moreover, his flesh has been jolted enough by his queasy lovesickness; and he does not want to be a blithering idiot when the swishy boy later approaches him, takes him by the hand, and escorts him into the ‘Old West’ space upstairs.

         Where I can revisit a dream, Walter mutters. Revisit, and conquer on my terms, no matter what the lower class naysayers out there have to say about it.

*   *   *

         No one else remains in the dining area, when the swishy boy steps out of the kitchen. He is dangling still his tray by his right side. He stops a moment to wink knowingly across the room at the fat man. 

         Then, without ever abandoning his insipid grin, he walks down to the fat man, lifts the fat man at his left elbow, and escorts him to the narrow, winding staircase in the far right corner of the restaurant. Walter accompanies the boy without reservation, though there is no longer a contented, lovesick expression upon his face. For the most part, there is no expression on Walter’s face, but a vague resignation; like he knows he is about to be disappointed, and just hopes that it will be over quick enough.

         Why the change? Perhaps, the liquor has something to do with it. Walter is generally melancholic; and so when inebriated, his feelings are more inclined to turn southbound. But there is something else going on here. That something else is considerably darker and crueler than the adverse effects of alcohol on a depressed, old man. Walter is in no condition to think rationally (hell, he would not be able to put one foot in front of the other, but for the swishy boy holding up his left elbow); but deep down he senses that this darkness, this cruelty, has little to do with alcohol and most everything to do with the past really, maybe irrevocably, setting aside the present. 

         Of course, the past setting aside the present is precisely what Walter has wanted, perhaps since his first conscious thought, most definitely since the day that Lucius returned from college. Nevertheless, it is said that we must beware what we wish for because we may get it. Walter wants the past. He is being led into it; and yet, as the failing light of reason gives way to the ghoulish shadows cast by the skull lights, he cannot help but to see that the idealized past never had been so ideal. In fact, all along even the most splendid memories had been marred by sordid details, like a photograph flayed on the edges from the start. There had been the lies, the manipulations, the family secrets wielded as sharp daggers; and though all that dreck had been swept under the rug in the passage of time, the ghoulish skull light, the sweaty, little hand on Walter’s left elbow, the smell of salt and piss in the air, all those sensations have combined to draw that old dreck out from under the rug. Yes, Walter is getting his past; but with so much dinginess about him, the past will not be what he really wants it to be.

         Walter is out of breath when he reaches the second floor. That staircase is a killer under normal conditions; but with so much alcohol in his system, and melancholy pulling down on his heart, it is more like a medieval torture device. It does not kill him; so much as it hurts him. He is the walking wounded, maybe a disillusioned soldier about to enter into a battlefield for which he has neither the heart nor the soul for yet another round. If he had anything left in him just then, he would have said ‘no thanks,’ returned to his Marmon, and driven back to his bed. Nevertheless, as the Good Book reminds us, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Thus, without any noticeable hesitation, Walter waddles into the ‘Old West’ room, sits on the satin pillow against the far wall, and sheds one silent, pathetic tear as the swishy boy clasps his wrists to the rusted wall chain.

         Walter looks down at his belly. He looks about nine months pregnant. He cannot recall when he had been three or six months pregnant, just a bit chunky around the midsection, rather than a beach ball ready to plop out of his muddy asshole (man vagina) and to pop on the floor behind his heels. Logically, he had been thinner before he grew fatter; but if so, that part of his life eludes him at this moment. For all intent and purposes, he has been always an obese asshole.

         I’m not an asshole, Walter mutters. Never have been. Those faggots out there, they’re the assholes. Packing the fudge, that’s their sordid, little game…

         Walter pulls against his chains. He grimaces in pain, as the clasp tightens against his wrists. 

         Their ball and chain, Walter mutters, as he settles back against the wall.

         Walter does not recall seeing the swishy boy exit stage left, though that is what he must have done. Moreover, he does not recall the swishy boy taking off his overcoat and his scarf (the walking stick and the bowler having been set aside when he sat at his table), though that too is what he must have done. His white shirt has popped a button; and without his overcoat covering over his fat belly, he can see his flabby skin pushing through the open space in his shirt. His flesh looks like the Blob squeezing through a vent. Not the kind of flesh goo one would expect of ‘a dashing man about town;’ but with the surreal shadows cast by the overhead lamp, the past made manifest in its beauty, but also in its sick and downcast colors, there is no way for Walter then to deny the obvious. He is a sick, fat fuck; and he is about to be disappointed.

         No, ‘disappointed’ is too small a word. He is about to be ambushed by an ugly thing in his past. Ambushed, and left for dead, while chained to this wall…

         Walter starts to squirm even before the unseen disc jockey (no doubt the uniformed rat boy behind a curtain pulling the levers and pumping the pedal to create the illusion of an all powerful Wizard of Oz) switches on the music. How futile! How pitiful! And yet Walter yanks and twists his wrists every which way to try to get away before they unleash the monster.

         The unseen disc jockey switches on the music. Walter does not recognize it, though he has a vague sense that it is the kind of tune that inspires jigaboos to get off their black asses and to stomp their bare feet around the bonfire. His ailing grandmother used to call this shit ‘the pickaninny jig.’ For Walter, this is ‘Little Black Sambo’ music. Regardless of what it is called, it is a cruel affront, an intentional attack on his race, his heritage, even his higher character. First, he is pulled over by an ape wearing a policeman’s badge. Now, he is compelled to listen to this jungle fever tune. What next are they going to throw onto him?

         In fact, Walter is listening to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ In his frenzied, disoriented mind, it is traditional, African chant music broken now and then by angry rat squeals (Michael Jackson howling at a higher octave). It is an assault, pure and simple, and he is as infuriated as he is sickened by this perverse show.

         Tired of squirming, and despondent from rage, Walter leans back against the wall, and cries like a spoiled baby. He looks about the room through his fat, syrupy tears. It is hard to make out the details, but he is sure that even the old bordello room that he has come to know so well has been changed. Maybe, the walls are a different shade of red; or maybe, the fringe has been updated. How maddening! When it is perfect, why not leave it well enough alone? Is there not one refuge left the gentleman, apart from the dismal sanctity of his own home?

         Walter brightens a brief moment, when a cowboy slips into the room. He is the same guy Walter had seen from a distance in the restaurant. Perhaps, as Walter had decided earlier, he is the Restless Wrangler.

         Howdy sweetheart, the cowboy chimes in a pitifully bad western accent.

         Okay, so he is not Meryl Streep, Walter thinks. 

         Except it is worse than that, and Walter knows it. The Restless Wrangler never calls him ‘sweetheart.’ He calls him ‘sweetie,’ not just most of the time, but all of the time.

         You are not the Restless Wrangler; Walter tries to scream out.

         But of course he cannot. His soft, high, effeminate voice is even weaker now than normal; and with that damned jigaboo music blaring out from behind the wall opposite him, he cannot be heard at all. He has never felt more pitiful than this moment, not even when Lucius finally looked him straight in the eye…

         Walter feels more pitiful now for one simple reason. When Lucius finally looked him straight in the eye, and said what he said, Walter had had it in him, not then, but later, to respond. Nonetheless, Walter knows that he has no such strength in him now. He will never respond to this imposter. He will take it raw and hard in the crotch tonight, and then he will waddle back to his bed with no more resolve than to choke on his lame tears.

         The imposter proceeds with his cowboy dance. It is more jive than Texas Two-Step; but even worse, the imposter faces Walter the whole time. What the fuck? Everyone knows that the Restless Wrangler never faces the man in chains.

         My bros call me Colonel Sanders, ‘cause I’m packing a big drumstick, the imposter says, while thrusting his crotch just inches away from Walter’s mouth.

         My bros? Walter thinks. Since when do cowboys talk like ghetto darkies? They talk like ghetto darkies when they want to bury me. Dig a hole in the mud somewhere, and kick me into that hole, while I am still breathing. And why are they so vicious? They are animals, and they resent that I am a white gentleman who knows how to eat properly with a fork. Envy conjures the devil. Mad envy…

         So what do you want me to do, sweetheart? The imposter asks in his silly hayseed accent.

         Walter knows the drill. He is supposed to order him to take it off. ‘Show me some skin, bitch,’ or words to that effect…

         Except that Walter will not play along with this charade. It is bad enough to be raped. It is worse to put on a fake smile and to pretend you loved it. If he has even an ounce of pride left in his soul, then he will not respond to the man.

         Come on, the imposter teases. Cat got your tongue?

         More like a rat, Walter thinks, but keeps his silence.

         The imposter does not try anymore to get the man in chains to speak. If the man in chains wants to sit there and to blubber like a retarded, mute baby, then so be it. He will just continue with his routine, show some skin at the end, leave the man in chains to his own devices, and punch out his time card. This is not Hamlet at the Globe Theater, after all.

         And that is exactly what happens. The imposter turns around at the last moment, so that he moons the man in chains, rather than exposes his dick. This turns out to be the only similarity with the Restless Wrangler. Most likely, there is a company policy against full frontal nudity, even if only for one split second.

         Walter is emotionally spent. He leans back, but he can find no rest until the clasp snaps off his wrists. Even then, he has to fight for whatever stale, hot air he can find. He is suffocating, as any creature ripped suddenly from his old, comfortable home is prone to do. The past is no longer a home, for behind that idealized gloss it is a domain of secrets and monsters. The present is no longer a home, for behind the comfort of modern life it is a domain of commoners and coloreds. The present can be encapsulated in this stark phrase: ‘No Gentlemen Need Apply.’ Evidently, that phrase applies even here, in this room, where the pretty dream of a white gentleman (a white gentleman with a lion’s roar) truly should prevail, but apparently no longer does. 

         What then can Walter make of this, but that his tormentor (His mind? His secret? Maybe, something else altogether) is out to get him and, so far at least, has the upper hand? What else can he do so close to the abyss, but shed what is left of his manhood in a brutal display of crybaby tears and crimson red cheeks?

         Except that he has no more tears to shed, at least for now. Also, his hot, red cheeks have faded already into the sickly pink color of a sigh. An aggressive chest pounding anguish is no longer in the cards.

         Walter leaves the ‘Old West’ room, ashamed, tired, and alone. He finds his overcoat and his scarf on the standing coatrack in the hall, as always. There is a complimentary mint in a bowl beside the coatrack. Again, that is the norm.

         Walter grabs his walking stick and his bowler downstairs. He tips his fine hat at the doorman without looking at his strange face. Again, that is the norm.

         But inside Walter is a jumble of nerves and fears. He steps into the night a vagabond; a homeless soul like all the other hunched shadows upon that pier.

         Not like the others, Walter insists. Not like them…

         And so he is quite careful to look away whenever he passes another lost soul sifting in and out of the moonlight. He prefers to think that he is alone and invisible in this night world. He can think of no other way to salvage his dignity.

*   *   *

         At around the same time that Walter squeezes into his Marmon, sets his walking stick and his bowler aside, and starts up the cranky engine, David Trent and Weed haul a near comatose Billy Ray Blaise into the Camaro. The moon has ascended high enough now that the entire scene is bathed in her luminescence. This lends a ghostly quality to the wounds, the dripping blood, the darting eyes on snarling faces, so that the drama seems to be playing itself out in a remote, still, fogged in graveyard; the kind of out of the way place and time that tricks the participants into thinking that their dark sins will go unnoticed long enough for them to bury the evidence.

         Walter does not have a near comatose body to bury. Rather, he only has his own melancholy, his fear that there is no longer and time and a place really meant for the likes of him, his anger that they are out to get him and, just now at least, have the upper hand.

         How does one bury depression, fear, and anger? In the stomach, which is like a hole in the ground come to think of it. Ask any fat man when he is drunk enough to be honest, and he will tell you that grave digging is his real vocation. He opens the graves, buries the caskets full of the food and the wine on which he has been gorging, and then shovels in the dirt by swallowing an antacid, and sipping on a glass of warm milk, before bedtime. The graveyard expands as far as the eye can see (or as far as the waistline of his trousers will allow), and the grave digger thus has plenty of soil out of which to open more graves tomorrow and the day following that one. 

         With this purpose in mind, Walter allows a sly grin to form on his face as he drives up Memphis and turns right on Kansas City Boulevard. The traffic here is still heavy, even though it is getting late, but that is not a problem. Walter is so excited by his plan of action that he drives fast enough now to keep up with the flow of traffic. Nobody honks at him. Nobody gives him the finger. He grins like a schoolboy handed a huge ice cream cone on the very first day of summer.

         Belvedere’s is an oasis of quaint English charm amidst sky rises and lofts in downtown Beverly. It is so out of place as to be defiant simply to the extent that it exists. Whether or not the owner has any such intentions, his restaurant nevertheless celebrates class privilege, smug grins, and old fashioned snobbery, while virtually all the other eateries downtown are much more in line with the secular, democratizing, lowest common denominator ethos of our times. There is a jacket requirement at Belvedere’s. The lady guests (certainly, there are no ‘customers’ at Belvedere’s, only much beloved ‘guests’) receive corsages upon surrendering their fur coats. The law requires that they seat non-white ‘guests’ upon request, and of course they would be ever so happy to do so; except that there is never a table available, it seems, when a man with a bit too much dark melatonin in his skin happens to stand before the maître d’s table. As for all of the other restaurants in town, they gave up jacket requirements sometime ago, have forgotten all about corsages, and have been known indeed to seat parties consisting of several races at the same table (hard to believe, but such is true).

         Walter drives up to the curb, and honks for the valet.

         A pudgy, pockmarked Mexican uniformed in a white wig, an ornamented, military, red coat, and a pair of knee high boots opens his door. Okay, the dark Mexican face does not help with the illusion. Nevertheless, Walter heard that it is actually illegal nowadays for anyone but a ‘beaner’ or a ‘sand nigger’ to park cars. Since nothing can be done about it, he manages to ignore the ethnicity of the valet, though of course he will not be tipping the heathen when he returns.

         The entrance is an English pond and garden, including a coterie of lovely black swans, dappled roses, perennials bordering cobblestone paths and make-believe Roman ruins, and fragrant shrubs whispering timeless nonsense into the late night breeze. All this vibrant, eclectic life is set apart from the downtown sidewalk by a white picket fence and gate overrun by intertwined ivy. 

         The fine dining restaurant rests atop a hill on the other side of the lovely garden. It is actually a large cottage transplanted in pieces from Norfolk over a century ago. It had been reassembled as a hideaway for the rich men, who then ran the City of Beverly and who desired a remote place in which to entertain as needed their many mistresses and courtesans. When the City of Beverly in time spread out to this area, the rich men took their wads of cash to the girls at that infamous London House downriver; and the owner turned Belvedere’s into what it is today. The restaurant opened its doors to the ‘finer people’ in the summer of 1956. The Beverly Times featured the grand opening most prominently in the society pages; and since then, Belvedere’s has been on the ‘bucket list’ for any local man able and willing to don a jacket for the occasion. 

         Walter’s ailing grandmother had come to know the restaurateur over the years as the charming, handsome caterer of the society brunches she attended each month. When her mysterious sickness finally confined her to her bedroom, where she would be ‘dying’ for the next twenty years, she called upon this fine man to cater the ladies’ lunches she hosted from her bed. He obliged her many whims, of course; but he scored extra points by always adding a detail that she herself had not considered. She would order the best caviar. He would serve it in open eggs plastered in fine gold. She would order the best bottle of wine. He would serve it and also pass around a scented vine from the vineyard in Alsace.

         Through the intercession of Walter’s ailing grandmother, the owner gave Walter a standing, weekly reservation. The subsequent owners have honored it, though at times begrudgingly; and in turn, Walter has been begrudging with his praise of the unique dining experience offered there. In part, this has reflected Walter’s more pugnacious temperament as his hairline has greyed and receded. But it is also demonstrably true that Belvedere’s is not what it used to be. It is an old lady still trying to dine out on the good looks that she had had about five decades ago. True, there is never an empty table; but, increasingly, that has to do with its legendary status and with its uniqueness among the few restaurants downtown that still provide a ‘fine dining’ experience. Like the past in general, it survives on spindly legs behind a pretty dress that is tearing at the seams. All looks fine from a distance; but get too close, and the dress looks like it is going to dematerialize in the next strong gust. Then, there will be nothing, but those spindly legs. Skeletal legs, really, crackling at the joints; while condescending, inebriated ‘guests’ meet at the coat closet to decide where else they should go now that Belvedere’s has shown herself to have all the grace of a dead woman.

         Walter opens the gate, and passes through the English garden. He glares at the black swans. Yes, they are an integral part of the scene; but in his mind, they are nasty buggers that waddle around like whores. Moreover, most people may not know this, but the black swans are not indigenous to England. Instead, they are transplants to England from Crocodile Dundee and his prison colony. It makes sense to Walter that something as black and floosy as a Mamie in heat is Australian in origin. He imagines feeding them Foster’s beer (a taste of the old country) and shattered glass; then, leaning on his stick, and watching the damn birds cough up blood and feathers. Now, that certainly will break the old blues.

         The fantasy passes, and Walter climbs up the three steps to the creaking porch. He reaches into his overcoat, removes a handkerchief, and dabs a bit of sweat off his forehead. Apparently, all that sobbing earlier had drained him dry not just in his tear ducts but in his gas reserves as well. He is sweating from his exhaustion more so than from the temperature, which is on the balmy side, but surely not uncomfortable. 

         He folds his handkerchief meticulously (checking under the porch light to make sure that it is a perfect square), removes his bowler, and prepares to tap on the doormat with his walking stick, when suddenly the door flies open. He is forced to step backwards to avoid a collision. He does not lose his balance, but his exertion adds a hot flush to his cheeks that cannot be all that appealing. He is so pissed he feels like snapping his stick over the head of the whore that just came through the door. He does no such thing, but he imagines steam shooting out from his large and ungainly ears. 

         ‘The whore that just came through the door’ is not a whore at all. She is Mrs. August Maplethorpe (no one seems to recall her actual first name, since no woman in society puts her actual first name before her husband’s surname until finally she has rid herself of the philandering bastard and taken half his estate and the pool boy in compensation), and as always this time of night (or fresh in the morning, for that matter) she is as pickled as the Irish poet who has lost his harp. She is dressed like a flapper in search of a score. Her cigarette holder is a vaguely obscene object what with the way it tilts up from her lips, and bristles at the end. It is always in her mouth, except for when she giggles or speaks in a ‘little girl’ voice that drives Walter up the wall. 

         Mrs. Maplethorpe stops dead in her tracks, gives Walter her ‘once over,’ removes her cigarette holder, and giggles inanely. There is a loopy look in her eyes, like maybe she is stoned. Of course, women in society should not indulge the same weed that a hayseed smokes with his beer. Rather, if she wants to be lost in the midnight haze, then she should drink or smoke something that lowly hayseed could never hope to afford. The fundamental problem with weed is its affordability. When the lowlife and the blue blood pass the same joint back and forth, you sense that, God forbid, the spirit of democracy is around the corner; and there is no greater sin than for a proper woman to kindle that horrid spirit.

         Nonetheless, Walter would not be surprised if Mrs. Maplethorpe indeed is as high as a kite. Leave it up to her to buck the tried and the true for no other reason than that she is rich enough to do so. 

         Wally, boy, you’re here, Mrs. Maplethorpe blurts in between her giggles.

         Walter seethes. His ailing grandmother never had called him ‘Wally.’ At the end, when she was slipping in and out of dementia, she came to regard him as her granddaughter (Oh, lovely, you must lose the weight. How do you expect ever to be with child, if your husband cannot find your little love nest?), but he continued to be ‘Walter’ in her eyes (Oh, how lucky you are! You are a girl with a man’s name). The reason is simple enough: ‘Wally’ is the kind of hokey name a paperboy has. There is a ‘Wally’ on every block of nondescript, middle class, tract homes. There is a ‘Wally’ somewhere earning his next leadership badge in the Boy Scouts. ‘Walter,’ on the other hand, reigns behind his gilded gate, and looks down on this or that homespun ‘Wally,’ like he would a bit of fast food on a plastic plate. To the end his ailing grandmother always kept that in her mind.

         What is even more disturbing is that she refers to him as a ‘boy.’ Walter Whipple and Mrs. Maplethorpe are about the same age. Walter acts his age, but Mrs. Maplethorpe skips about like she is late for the debutante ball. What right does she have to call him a ‘boy,’ when clearly he is the adult between the two of them? Why, her irreverence can make a grown man cry; and Walter is aware that he would be bawling just now, if he had not spent his tears earlier tonight.

         No one can call me a crybaby, Walter thinks, as he stomps his right foot onto the cottage porch and feels another rush of heat blistering his cheeks red. Sticks and stones may break my bones…

         But calling you a ‘crybaby’ will never hurt you; his ailing grandmother’s frail voice finishes the thought in the back of his mind. 

         Good evening, Mrs. Maplethorpe, Walter says with a pleasantly fake grin.

         We’re doing a ‘Downton Abbey’ marathon at Mrs. Blueberry’s cottage by the river, Mrs. Maplethorpe says excitedly. All the girls are invited…

         What does that mean? Walter thinks. Does she fancy me one of the girls?

         Isn’t that the show with Dame Maggie Smith? Walter asks, while widening his grin even more, and looking straight into Mrs. Maplethorpe’s loopy old eyes.

         The Countess, Mrs. Maplethorpe answers with good cheer.

         Well, the Dame also happens to be a card carrying Communist, and most likely a vegetarian as well, Walter comments with a devilish sparkle in his eyes.

         Mrs. Maplethorpe looks at him quizzically a while. She then decides that ‘Wally’ does not have a clue. Judging by the smell, he is plastered as well; and so she giggles, twinkles her nose, and bids the fat man adieu. Before he can say a word in response, she skips down the steps, and escapes into the warm night.

         Walter watches her depart. He snarls ‘ta-ta’ in her direction, while also wiggling his fingers beneath his nose (the bowler back on his head and the stick in between his gargantuan thighs, so that his fingers are free). That should put a hex on her, or at least make him feel so grand that he retains his insipid grin.

         Walter faces the door. He taps his walking stick upon the doormat. That tap is supposed to be soft and friendly, but Walter remains too pissed off to do much of anything then with a subtle touch. As a result, his walking stick sounds like a boot heel stabbed repeatedly into a frayed doormat; and he imagines the cold and pompous maître d wringing his hands and rolling his eyes in complete, unrestrained disgust. Even better, maybe the butt pirate in the dinner jacket is as frightened as he is incensed. Dismal half peckers like the maître d should be afraid of loud, stabbing noises, now and then, if only to balance the old scales.

         The door flies open. This time, Walter does not move backward in time. 

         Walter steps out from behind the door with a busted nose. The blood is no more than a thin, red tear slithering out his left nostril and onto his greased upper lip. He could wipe it away with his handkerchief, and no one would know that he had had a run in with the front door.

         But Walter will do no such thing. The blood gives him yet another reason to be pissed off; and for the time being, he frankly cannot conceive of a better state of mind. Who does not feel better after self-righteously putting down the schmuck that just happens to be in his way?

         The sourpuss maître d stands in the open doorway. His small hands brace the sides. His catlike face (ridiculous comb over, high forehead, thin mustache that, frankly, does not seem to care all that much about someday growing into a real man’s whiskers) appears twice as big as it actually is, likely from the fact that the maître d is in his war stance. The vein in the maître d’s neck looks like it is about to burst; and the very thought that this creep will fall straight to the floor from a fatal aneurism gives Walter one, small reason to smile in response.      

         How may I serve you? The maître d spits out each of the words.

         I am here to claim my reservation, Walter responds with a sick twinkle in his eyes that calls to mind a little boy twisting a screw into a near dead animal.

         The maître d calms down at once. Apparently, he has the upper hand for now in this game of cat and mouse. The reason is that he gets to say ‘no‘ here.

         My apologies, Mr. Whipple, but we seated another guest at your table. If you had called ahead of time to tell us you would be so late, then just maybe…

         Wait a minute; Walter interrupts him. What are you saying?

         The maître d lifts his nose. He is as incredulous as he is perturbed by this ‘little man’ with the bloody nose. Time to put this insufferable rat in his place.

         Walter steps back. He had been so sure in his mind that indeed he is the little boy with the screw in his hand. He wants to be pissed, because he senses vaguely that another big dose of self-righteous anger likely will turn the tables on this faggot maître d. Nonetheless, confused sadness feels much more real at this moment than anger, self-righteous or otherwise. It is as if the horrid anger had been all along no more than a thin, fibrous mask wrapped over his sadness. Now that the maître d has been able to say ‘no’ straight to his pudgy face, that mask has been torn apart.

         Mr. Whipple, what I am saying is that you are late; the maître de scoffs.

         Walter steps back again. He is at a loss for words; and, for a rather brief but terrifying moment, he forgets where he is. 

         But I’m the boy with the screw, Walter mutters.

         Yes, you are quite right, Mr. Whipple, the maître d continues. You are a boy. You must understand that we are a ‘fine dining experience,’ and the runts are as unwanted here as the riffraff…

         And the niggers, Walter thinks.

         So it is best that you go back home, the maître d says with the same big, demonic grin that Walter had had on his face just a moment before the ‘tables had been turned.’

         Walter recognizes the maître d’s grin as his own. Okay, so turn around is fair play in a game of ‘cat and mouse.’ Still, that fact does not change Walter’s feelings about all of this; and his feelings can be summed up in one horrendous cry that echoes in his mind as a dark mantra, but stays unvoiced: This is unfair!

         The maître d escorts Walter to the gate. He nods to the valet to retrieve Walter’s automobile. He stares squarely into Walter’s confused, blubbery eyes.

         Now, Mr. Whipple, you are welcome as a ‘guest,’ like any other, but the ‘standing reservation’ is over, the maître d says in an icy, calm tone. From now on, you will need to book a table like everyone else. Our next available table is one month from tonight. It is the table closest to the kitchen; so close, in fact, that you can hear the Mexicans gibbering in their native tongue while scrubbing the dishes. You probably will not like it as much as your previous table, but it is yours that night, if you give me the word. So Mr. Whipple, what is it going to be then? Fine dining within earshot of a half dozen Mexicans, or waiting for hell to freeze over so that you can book your previous table? Come now, speak to me…

         One of your waiters is a half-breed, Walter finally manages to comment, while he shifts from one foot to the other, as if a child in the principal’s office.

         I beg your pardon, the maître d responds.

         I believe his name is John, Walter continues. His name is as American as apple pie, but I can see a touch of the nigger in his eyes.

         Do you want to book the table by the kitchen, or not? The maître d asks irritably. There are hundreds on my waiting list who would be happy to have it.

         Walter taps his walking stick several times. A bit of life comes back into his eyes. He is not his normal, pugnacious self, to be sure; but neither is he the idiot who had had nothing to say, while the maître d assaulted him mercilessly.

         I shall not besmirch by own past, indeed my ancestral honor, by dining in an eatery that knowingly employs a half-breed outside the kitchen, Walter says with a peculiar grin on his face and a distant look in his eyes.

         What nonsense is this? The maître d asks incredulously.

         No nonsense; just the facts, Walter continues. Pink slip this John fellow, and I may book one of your tables. Keep him on your staff, and I’ll find another eatery more in keeping with my finer tastes. 

         The maître d is speechless. He does not know what to think, except that Mr. Whipple is a racist as well as a rat and, even more disturbingly, not playing with a full deck of cards. There are plenty of racists and rats in Belvedere’s on any given night; but none of them are loons, so far as he knows. He determines to keep it that way; and so he decides then and there that if ever this sick loon calls to book one of his tables, he will claim that all the tables are booked until sometime after the Second Coming. 

         Walter interprets the maître d’s speechlessness as fear. Ah, so the tables have been turned yet again. Time to go for the kill.

         And so with that thought in mind, Walter repeatedly pokes his left index finger into the maître d’s chest. Walter grins like a skull face and snarls: Ta-Ta!

         The valet returns with the Marmon. The maître de steps away, ostensibly to validate the valet ticket, but in reality to get the heck away from this insane man. The maître d is long gone, when Walter squeezes behind the wheel, grins back at the valet (though gives the Mexican in the Red Coat uniform no tip, lest the Mexican gets so uppity he imagines himself a white man), and leaves for his old riverside home. For as Dorothy said so long ago, there’s no place like home.

*   *   *

         Walter drives through his gate, and parks in his normal spot. 

         The moonlight adds a silvery hue to the night, but otherwise it is as dark as coal. Indeed, Walter feels like he is climbing down a mineshaft (or, perhaps, falling into a six foot deep grave), as he walks beside his garden. A subtle wind rustles the branches and the leaves; but rather than suggest the openness of an enormous landscape through which the winds can blow, the sound calls to mind the rustling of a woman’s (no, actually, a little boy’s) dress when she (actually, he) makes the world as small as possible by stepping into the closet. 

         Walter senses the world closing in on him. 

         The world is returning from college, and is closing in on him…

         Walter stops a moment at the steps to his porch. The Victorian really is a creepy façade what with its drooping exterior boards, half circle windows (eyes caught forever in that twilight between dreaming and seeing), tattered window curtains, and creaking porch boards. It is a cranky, ghoulish, old woman; ready either to moan when a breeze slices under its eaves or to chuckle when a much stronger wind rattles the rickety doorknob. Whatever the sound, it is aggressive and uninviting; so that a night visitor cannot but feel that his skin tightens, and his breath freezes, when he walks up from the garden to this dark death house.

         Of course, Walter is not a night visitor. He is the owner. Nonetheless, he feels that this house is as foreign to him as the rest of the world. The Victorian, after all, would have been Lucius’ if he had survived his ailing grandmother. No doubt, Lucius would have kept Walter, much as Walter keeps his rats; but floor boards would have creaked in sync with Lucius’ confident step, curtains would have fluttered when Lucius passed by them, even the mildew attached to most everything inside would have called to mind Lucius’ floral cologne more so than a dead swamp. Walter would have been a trapped ghost, if Lucius had survived long enough to make this sprawling house his own. 

         Lucius did not survive the summer he came home from college. Walter is the only owner and has been for decades, and yet he still senses that he is that trapped ghost. Walter gets his furloughs, but invariably the larger world presses him back into his cell; and back inside, guided by dim candlelight, and strolling about in his slippers, he is a prisoner with a soft voice and a light touch. He has his domain inside these walls, and yet he cannot seem to imprint his distinctive personality into its walls and carpets. He is the king, but he may as well be the anonymous, quiet janitor doing his chores in such a way as never to be noticed.

         Whiskers is standing on top of a ‘family room’ couch, staring out the big, rectangular window (the half circle windows are on the second and third floors) that is to the left of the front door, and rubbing his left paw into the mildewed couch fabric. His green eyes glisten in the moonlight. They are equally speaking out to him and remaining impenetrable. Perhaps, the closest comparison is the Oracle at Delphi. Whiskers’ eyes speak, but in such a way as to instill confusion and, finally, incomprehension on the part of the listener. Whether or not he is hostile, Whiskers’ fundamental inscrutability is such that he cannot but inspire a vague sense of dread wherever he goes. In that way, Whiskers is much more a brother to Walter than Lucius ever had been way back when. 

         Whiskers pounces off the couch, when he hears Walter fidgeting with the door key. He climbs about midway up the staircase; and then watches from up there as Walter waddles into the foyer, lights a candle, and removes his various articles of clothing. Usually, Walter only takes off his coat, scarf, hat, and stick before trundling up to his bed. This time, he strips down to his underwear, like he is literally trying to strip this awful night off of his skin. Whiskers appears to be unfazed; and yet, deep down, he smells the fear and the defeat behind how Walter slowly and meticulously undresses. He despises Walter’s weakness then.

         The green eyes look the same as always, and yet Walter can feel all that condemnation rippling out from the feline mind. Walter hisses at Whiskers as if to say to him: ‘Scat, you pussy fur muncher. You just don’t know the half of it.’

         Whiskers waits a moment. Perhaps, he wants to remind Walter then that Walter cannot compel him to do anything at all. Regardless, when enough time has passed, Whiskers arches his back as a sign of indignation; and then trots up the remainder of the staircase. Whiskers is soon lost in the shadows up there. It is as if simultaneously he is totally gone and is close enough to pounce, though one way or another Walter knows he’ll meet up with him again in the bedroom.

         Walter climbs the staircase, slowly, haggardly, his mind belabored by all the indignities he had had to suffer tonight on account of everyone else’s basic boorishness and insensitivity. How dare the real Restless Wrangler allow a sicko faggot deviant to take his role in the ‘Old West’ room! How dare the maître d, another faggot, come to think of it, treat him like he is a half-breed, or an out and out nigger! And then the jigaboo cop! Don’t forget the ape with the badge!

         The indignities scream out in his head, as if given voice by the fat broad in Viking horns at the end of the opera. Oh, how that fat lady has sung, indeed, not just for this night, but also for the rest of his life.

         Ah, what a maudlin, quintessentially Victorian overreaction it is to think that one bad night can cast its shadow upon all the rest. But if modern men are so boorish, so uncultured, so unmindful of those with pure pedigree, then what gives us any reason to be hopeful about the next day, or the next week, or the next five years, for that matter? Should we presume that, upon taking Rome, a triumphant army of Goths and Ghouls simply will march away and allow the one survivor his home and furnishings beside the river? Is it not much more probable that those sickos will pillage and plunder, until there is nothing left, but salt in the ground and ghostly wails in the wind? Walter knows the answers all too well to these questions, and so he can find no good reasons to hold his head up high.

         Walter removes Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King from his Victor Talking Machine. He fingers through his vinyl collection a while and then finds Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata. He puts it on the dusty turntable, stares at it a while, like he cannot figure out what to do next, and then switches it on. The slow, sad notes warble through the horn; but before they can be heard as clear and distinct sounds, they seem to sift into the moonlight. Walter does not hear the Moonlight Sonata; so much as he feels it coaxing one last tear from his eye.

*   *   *

         Somewhere in the darkness the slow, sad notes of the Moonlight Sonata, tranquil touches of despair on a heart far removed from love, fade into silence. There is simply the void; blackness spread out from every point to the farthest reach of the universe; and yet also, paradoxically, cramped, suffocating, like a little boy trapped in his own fears after the nightlight in his bedroom burns out.

         Then, so soft as to be felt before heard, there are the first few notes of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. It is the first whisper of morning into that cold and dead dreamscape; the barest breeze kissing the surface of silvery blue water, so that the smallest ripple breaks the reflection of endless purple sky on high; and then a leaf, opening its palm just enough to drop a tear of dew into a stew of shivering fog, and reaching up for the sunlight about to break free from darkness. There is hope in how the air freshens, in how the breeze shakes color into all the grey and dormant things of night; and yet this hope is fragile, light, capable so easily of being strangled back into its grave. The observer may love; but like an admirer of fine art stepping back from the painting on the wall, the observer must be careful not to interject himself into the scene…

         Don’t squeeze the Charmin, Whipple; the other sixth graders incessantly tease the pudgy and insecure Walter.

         It is 1965. The Negroes are stirring up more trouble in Selma. The British Invasion continues unabated. For twelve-year-old Walter Whipple, though, life is one of those strangely gerrymandered districts drawn up to guarantee victory for one side over another. His ‘life district’ consists of his ailing grandmother’s Victorian house and surrounding property, a thin stretch of highway alongside a bustling Manchester River, and a one-room schoolhouse on the other end of the highway. Whatever happens beyond this ‘life district’ is immaterial, unless and until that ‘world beyond’ gives the sixth graders within Mrs. Gretel’s one-room schoolhouse yet another weapon with which to humiliate the fat boy asthmatic who lives with his Granny. 

         The latest weapon is Charmin’s ‘Mr. Whipple’ television advertisements. The persnickety Mr. Whipple is forever reminding the happy housewives within his store not to squeeze the Charmin, though he himself indulges in this strange pleasure when the women have been turned away. 

         And so, of course, the bratty sixth graders within Mrs. Gretel’s one-room schoolhouse (half of whom will die in the humid jungles of Vietnam before they reach the ripe old age of nineteen) cannot go five minutes without poking fatso in the bellybutton and reminding him not to squeeze the Charmin. Walter does his utmost not to cry, since the teasing gets worse when the others realize just how much of a fag crybaby he is.

         Moreover, whenever he bawls like a fag crybaby, his throat tightens into a straw; and he has to grab for his aspirator. It is bad enough that his asthmatic attacks force him to stay alone, indoors, during Phys. Ed. every day. It is worse that he is the only asthmatic boy on the planet (or so he presumes) who has to use a pink aspirator. So there he is, the fag crybaby fat boy, sucking on a piece of plastic obviously intended for a girl. Can it get any worse, then, when even a few of the third and fourth graders join with the sixth graders in teasing the fat boy in the ruffled shirt and checkered trousers? Well, perhaps being a nigger is worse, Walter thinks, but he doubts it. Niggers, after all, cannot possibly know any better; whereas Walter knows that he deserves much better treatment and recognition on account of his bloodline going straight back to an Earl or a Duke in Norfolk. Thus, as much as the bullying saddens him, it angers him even more such that already the fat boy is developing the self-righteous mind of the critic.

         The critic who will not interject himself into the scene, not squeeze the Charmin, if you will, but who will gloat over the smallest missteps of those who do so; that man can be seen already in the teary eyes of a twelve-year-old boy just trying to survive one day at a time…

         Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 suddenly blossoms out from a single flute into a full orchestral wave of morning joy. It demands to be heard as well as felt. Like the sun completely escaped from behind the eastern horizon, it is a force that cannot be denied any longer, even though it some ways it is still as pretty and as delicate as before. The music, the warmth, the colors, the clarity of fog vanishing before the light of day, all these combine to draw Walter’s sad and restless mind away from when he had been twelve. There is an earlier time that merits attention, even if the memories are simpler and more scattered the closer we get to the birth canal…

         Yes, you may hug the swan, but do not squeeze it too hard now, Walter, my boy, Grandpa Henry says in his normal, jocular manner, while leaning on his outdoor, wooden chaise lounge and slurping his fourth or fifth Scotch and soda.

         It is 1957. So far as Walter knows, Negroes only can be found in the time and the place that his grandparents refer to as ‘Gone with the Wind.’ A mighty wind picked them all up one day, and threw them into that other place; hence, they are all ‘gone with the wind.’ As for the British Invasion, Walter cannot see anything so foreign coming over the horizon. He imagines dragons, trolls, even rat people with long whiskers and claws for fingers; but he has yet to imagine a ‘British’ anything. That is just as well. He has just enough monsters in his mind, such that he wants to keep the nightlight on when he goes to bed, but remains otherwise a happy boy open to the larger world. Add a few more monsters, and he will fear more than he embraces. That will happen in due time, and when it does this wide-open world in which he now plays will shrink into a cramped and claustrophobic hell. But now, today, with his Grandpa Henry happily instructing him on how to hug the docile, black swan beside the pond, the world is as wide and as serene as the clear, blue heavens above them. 

         Grandpa Henry reaches over to the phonograph beside him. He had been playing a ‘race record,’ while watching his grandson frolic with the black swans beside the pond. Like all good Australians, he knows that ‘Boongs’ are not men in any real sense. They are mud creatures, usually docile beggars, or shoeshine boys, but like any wild beast capable of going ape shit at any time. Still, for all that, they sure know how to make good music; and in Grandpa Henry’s opinion, ‘good music’ is the kind that gets ‘better’ when the listener is drunk off his ass on highballs. 

         That is all fine and good; but when his lovely wife, Eunice, is in earshot, the ‘race record’ has got to go. There is just too much Old Scotch Presbyterian blood in her (admittedly calmed down to some degree by that part of her blood that goes back to the Earl or the Duke in Norfolk) for her to hear anything good in ‘nigger music.’ For Eunice, the ‘pickaninny jig’ is the ‘devil’s two step,’ and there is nothing more to be said about that topic.

         Grandpa Henry hides the ‘race record’ under his chaise lounge, and puts on Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1. Eunice is fond of the music. She thinks that it has the soft and tranquil composition of a benign aristocrat looking over his domain. She is not nearly so happy with the composer, since he had died an unapologetic Unitarian; and we all know the Unitarians are closeted Jew lovers and Commies. Still, the music makes up for the man, like Christ Jesus makes up for the sins of all white men, Eunice thinks, whenever she hears the Peer Gynt.

         Walter is oblivious to all this race drama. Later, Grandma Eunice (a.k.a. his ‘ailing grandmother’) will drill it all so deep into his fragile soul that he will have no more capacity to see a man without first and foremost seeing his race. Today, though, he is a four-year-old boy hugging a black swan beside the pond; and at most he senses that his grandma is stronger than his grandpa. There are grownups that say that ‘she wears the pants in the family.’ Walter is not aware yet of that phrase, but he senses vaguely that there is something bad about the relationship. The natural order of things, somehow, is out of whack. This is not so much a concern as to prevent Walter from enjoying all that life has to give a four-year-old, healthy, precocious boy; but the seed has been planted already. As he grows older, more wide than tall, paler, asthmatic, that seed will sprout; and a vague sense that something is askew will grow into a firm conviction that Grandpa Henry in particular is weak, silly, and finally condemnable. 

         But that is in the future. For now, there is just a four-year-old, slim boy with mud on his knickers hugging a black swan. Walter loves all the black swans because they come from Grandpa Henry’s home country. ‘Australia’ looms very large in Walter’s young imagination. It will be brought down to size, and finally kicked into the gutter, by his Grandma Eunice; but like most everything else in a four-year-old boy’s life, that is so far in the future as not even just then to be intimated. Luckily for him, he makes the most of hugging that black swan, and smiling at his grandparents, for he will never know a kinder hour than that one.

*   *   *

         How strange, Walter thinks. The black swan’s feathers feel like the soft, fuzzy fur of my well-fed, spoiled Dragon Li. And so what is Whiskers doing here?

         Sophisticated thought for a four-year-old boy, even one as precocious as Walter had been back in 1957…

         Walter does not pursue the implication. He is more interested in smiling back at his grandparents. It has been a while since he has seen Grandpa Henry; and usually when Grandpa does make an appearance, he looks much like he did at the very end of his life, which is to say that he looks like a bloodied, bruised ghoul with mushy brain goo slithering out from a wound in the back of his head.

         Here, Grandpa looks like the best of health, even though his liver has to be screaming from all those highballs in the afternoon and beers after dark. He is wrinkled from too much tobacco and alcohol, but on him the marks appear to be ‘ruggedly handsome.’ Moreover, his eyes are as beautifully blue as they had been when he came out of his mother’s womb back in Sydney. He will have the same eyes still, when he stares blankly into his eternity just twelve years later.

         So why does Grandpa Henry give him the creeps right now? Walter knows the answer, but he would rather not say it. He is supposed to be four, after all; and even precocious boys that age are not supposed to know why some men are downright lecherous when they smile. They are not supposed to be able to read a sick and twisted memory in how a man squints his blue eyes. Surely, they are not supposed to see anything remotely effeminate in how he lets his pretty left hand (the right still clutching the stem of the Scotch and soda) dangle over the side of the chaise lounge. None of that should enter into his mind, for boys that age may intuit vaguely this or that, but are not supposed to know anything real about what happens when the door is clicked shut and the lights are turned off.

         Walter keeps staring, while Grandma Eunice stands behind the lounge as if the man of the house. She folds her arms before her chest, and stares at her Walter in a distant, regal manner. She never smiles; so much as she puckers her lips thoughtfully. After all, when a person (especially a woman) permits herself to experience unrestrained happiness, she makes herself vulnerable. A thinking woman is never caught off guard. A thinking woman stays a step ahead of all of the males in her charge. A thinking woman can deny everything, and then all at once thrust her dagger from behind the curtain. 

         All fine and good, but can a lecherous man and a thinking woman explain why the black swan’s feathers are like the fur of the cat he will not own until a half century later? For that matter, is there anything Walter can figure out just by looking into their faces? Or are they as impenetrable as his cat’s green eyes?

         The black swan squirms out from his arms. It flaps its damp wings, like it is trying to strip this awful experience off of its skin…

         What? The four-year-old Walter thinks without dropping his smile one bit then. Did the Restless Wrangler skip out on you, too?

         Strange thought for a four-year-old boy, but come to think of it not at all strange for the sixty-two year old version…

         Walter opens his eyes. He gasps for air, while kicking his legs against the tree and jungle gym set he had purchased for Whiskers. It takes a few seconds, but he finally manages to snatch some air into his lungs.

         Have to see Doc about my sleep apnea, Walters always mutters, while he is allowing his rapid breaths to settle back down to normal. Of course, he never does, since frankly he does not want to hear Doc deliver yet again his arrogant, over the top speech about how Walter needs to lose weight, and Walter needs to take up walking, and Walter needs to do this, and Walter needs to do that. If he has to hear that speech one more time, then God knows how he will respond to the Jew. He is likely to call him a ‘Marxist Kike’ to his face at the very least.

         Walter feels Whiskers walking over his huge belly and down to the space in between his legs. Obviously, he had been clutching Whiskers by his big chest, while sleeping on top of his comforter. When he had dreamt that a black swan had squirmed out from his embrace, in fact he had felt the cat doing the same.

         Nothing strange about that, he thinks. He just needs to prop his head up with another couple of pillows, so that he does not choke again in his sleep. He also should slip under the comforter. It is a warm, balmy night; but for the sake of propriety, he really should sleep in his bed, rather than over it. He may be a lifelong bachelor, but that does not mean that he lives in a silly bachelor’s pad.

         He pulls himself up and out of his bed. He does not switch on his lamp as he feels for the two extra pillows somewhere on the floor. Normally, he would, as a matter of course; but tonight, he does not want to be seen…

         Seen by whom precisely? Walter asks himself. Whiskers can see me quite well, whether I turn on the light or not. 

         And, sure enough, Walter sees the green eyes staring blankly at him now from the foot of the bed. 

         But, anyway, this is not about Whiskers; and he damn well knows it. This is about the fact that his older brother, Lucius, is coming back from college any minute now. Well, not now, even though it feels like now, but to be precise on a clear and sunny day about forty-six years ago.

         And Walter knows that when he props his head up on those extra pillows and swallows without water the Melatonin pill on the nightstand, within several minutes he will be yet again the fat, asthmatic, insecure boy on the cusp of his seventeenth year. He will be staring out this very same, old window. He will be grinning in anticipation of his brother returning from college. He will be back in that strange summer of 1968, when everything went right and wrong in his life.

*   *   *

         The black swans waddle onto the dirt path that leads from the front gate to the Victorian. This is strange. Normally, they stay on or near the pond off to the side. Perhaps, in their own way, they sense that something good is about to happen; and they do not want to miss out on this gift from on high.

         Walter glances at the black swans from his bedroom window, but for the most part he focuses on that front gate. There is no motion detector as of yet, so when Lucius gets out of the cab he will need to pull the gate open like all of the others. No matter, for unless Lucius has been packing on the pounds, while away at college, he will be as tall, svelte, and handsome as always. His reddish hair will glisten in the sunlight like the bloody edge of an axe. His grin will play on the anxieties of even the most casual of observers, as he proceeds to look as if he is thoughtfully engaged with something far away; something the rest of us cannot even hope to understand, let alone to master, but that he controls even then for his own purposes. Lucius is a strong, young man of twenty-two years; a natural leader who likely would do well as an Officer in Vietnam, if he had not procured every year his college deferment; but even more importantly than his physical strength and his leadership skills, he is the kind of man who suggests in virtually all that he does that he is in control of whatever space he may occupy at any given time. He takes after Grandma Eunice in so many ways, and for this reason principally she has been so much harder on him than Walter. After all, it is only logical that a dominant personality should never want to share the spoils of war with that equally dominant, younger, healthier pretender to the throne.

         For as long as he can recall, Walter either has been waiting for his older brother to return from someplace or another, or lamenting the fact that all too soon his older brother will be leaving. Walter thinks that this has something to do with the fact that he has no memory of their parents, while Lucius does. For Walter, the world is the gerrymandered ‘life district’ between home and school with a special emphasis on his bedroom and the garden pond. Grandma Eunice, though eager to show that she is boss even when unchallenged on this point, on the whole has had no need to tame Walter. It is like Water had been born with a bit in his mouth and a saddle on his back. On the other hand, Lucius’ memory of their parents is such that his world consists of their parents’ now abandoned home in California, all the ‘fly over’ states in between there and here, and too many other places to mention that have taken root in his imagination. Grandma Eunice had given up long ago trying to tame him. As a result, she sent Lucius to this or that private academy over the years; and, even more recently, pestered Lucius to pick a college far from home. In her mind, it is better that Lucius exit stage left as much as possible than that he stay on stage long enough to throw a monkey wrench into the orderly, machinelike world just beneath the surface.

         Walter hears a sickly, gurgling, choking sound that, no matter how often repeated, always manages to give him goose bumps. The sound bleeds down to his bedroom from the attic just above him. Up there, somewhere in that warm, dark, cobwebby room, Grandpa Henry is paying for all the highballs he downed. He is paying for the cigarettes, too, though it seems as if the liver will fail him before the lungs. He can smoke still his Winston cigarettes without coughing up a lung, but he cannot even sip a Foster’s (not officially sold yet in the good, old U.S.A., but nevertheless smuggled all the way up to the front gate by one of his loud and obnoxious ‘mates’ from the ‘old country’) without vomiting blood and pus all over his nightshirt. As a result, Grandpa Henry spends his hours up there smoking, gurgling, and crying. He still looks somewhat masculine when smoking on a Winston, but he is downright weak and pathetic when gurgling and crying. In those low moments, there is no pride left even in his baby blue eyes; and the unspoken sentiment around the house is that Grandpa Henry, indeed, would be better off choking to death than groveling as a shade of the man he used to be.

         Still, it is perhaps good that Grandpa Henry has lived long enough now to be able to say ‘goodbye’ to Lucius. Happy enough to be the second fiddle to his Scotch Presbyterian wife (though Walter never shakes the idea that that power exchange somehow is so unnatural as to be creepy), Grandpa Henry truly never had a problem with Lucius’ naturally dominant personality. If anything, then he seemed to find a perverse joy in the fact that Lucius remained a wild, bucking, potentially deadly bronco. 

         Lucius did not have similarly good feelings toward his grandfather. In the mold of his Grandma Eunice, he had learned early on to disdain weakness even when he had managed to subdue it to his own purposes. 

         Perhaps, somewhere beneath his glib smile, Lucius retains a filial love of the man who had defended him whenever Grandma Eunice’s vitriol went just a tad too far. No doubt, he had directed some of that viciousness onto himself on those occasions and, as a result, had suffered consequences the boys could not even imagine. Grandma Eunice could be very cold and vindictive, especially the few times her husband spoke out of turn. 

         And so, perhaps, just perhaps, Lucius will be able to love Grandpa Henry at the end; but deep down, Walter does not think so. We love what we respect; and we respect what is noble, composed, reserved in its masculinity. Certainly, Grandpa Henry exhibits none of those attributes now; and likely he never did in any great measure when, happy and handsome, he had stood among his fellows as a man with no scalps hanging from his belt, and no hunt looming before him.

         The sunlight fades. Tall spruce trees opposite the overgrown garden cast long shadows over the dirt driveway. Breezes twirl dead leaves this or that way in the slow and tired manner of a working stiff in the last hour of his shift. Even the black swans, once so obviously enthusiastic, meander drunkenly on the side of the dirt driveway. They do not return to the pond, but neither do they seem all that enthused one way or another about what may happen. 

         Then, as if in answer to a prayer (‘Watch what you pray for, because you may get it’), a yellow-checkered cab pulls off of the highway, and stops before the gate. Walter giggles, and presses his nose against the dirty glass. He cannot recall being this excited since the last Christmas he believed in Santa Claus. He beholds the gift, but even more so he relishes the miracle behind that gift; for, indeed, given the screaming fit that had erupted between Grandma Eunice and Lucius just before he had set out for college last Autumn, it is truly remarkable that Grandma Eunice has given Lucius the green light to return home and that, notwithstanding his considerable pride, he has accepted her kind gesture. Sure, the pressure cooker may blow up again; but in the meantime, Lucius is here to be closer to the only family he ever will have. Now, that is something, is it not?

         Apparently, Lucius has not been having seconds at the college cafeteria. He is as svelte as ever. Indeed, in Walter’s soft eyes, he is altogether beautiful.

         Lucius pays the cab driver, opens the front gate, and strolls slowly down the dirt driveway. In fact, Lucius is not wearing the tight cowboy denim that he had been wearing in Walter’s previous daydream. He is dressed in the shirt and the trousers of a preppy man about campus. His only concession to the 1960s is his confident swagger. He does not care a whit for leftist politics, but still he is comfortable in a world where people under thirty seem to rule. 

         Walter does not share the same confidence in young people. He realizes he needs a rather strong hand to guide his steps forward; and in his experience, Grandma Eunice, and a handful of her fellow society ladies, are the only adults able to rise to the occasion. Still, for all that, Walter believes in Lucius. He just knows that his older brother walks among grown men. He is proud of the fact a man under thirty really can and does command his own charmed life. Walter is pretty sure none of that power will rub onto him; and for that, ironically, he is pleased. After all, Walter is a follower; and he is happy enough to stay as such.

         Walter hears Grandma Eunice greet Lucius at the front door. As always, Grandma Eunice is formal to a fault. She is gracious, but in the kind of cold and distant manner that suggests the visitor is out of bounds simply in arriving upon her doorstep. An outsider may think that this means that Grandma Eunice views Lucius as one would a stranger. The mystical bonds of family have been broken, the outsider may figure. Love has been sacrificed at the altar of good manners; and on that altar the corpse of love abandoned will remain, cold, pungent, and grey. The outsider in fact would not be too far off the mark. Love is abandoned on that altar every day that Grandma Eunice rules the roost. Still, this does not mean that the mystical bonds of family have been broken. Love is not the only, or necessarily the best, glue that binds grandparents and grandsons, husbands and wives, siblings. Duty can be a more enduring bond; dark secrets, especially when perverted over time by imagination, even more enduring. It is said that a family that prays together, stays together; but Walter knows all too well that a family that fears the ramification of its own past stays together long after they have given up on prayers. ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you do not’ may not warm a soul, but it keeps families together long after the love is gone.

         Still, while that may explain the staid and formal conversation inside the living room downstairs, it does not describe Walter’s feelings for his brother. In this household, love is a kind of sacrilege; and yet Walter loves Lucius in a way that is more honest, raw, and compelling than anything else he feels or does. It is in virtue of his love for Lucius that his mind soars after hours passed the gate and out to that distant college. Of course, Walter has never observed a picture of that college, let alone of his brother’s accommodations; but his imagination, still so fertile in its innocence, fills in the gaps well enough. He seeshow Lucius hugs his pillow close to his chest, like a boy with his teddy bear. He knows how Lucius smiles in his sleep, especially when Lucius dreams of his little brother at home. He hears Lucius’ playful, childlike giggle, when Lucius awakens from the dream to sneak a chocolate covered ice cream bar out from his refrigerator. All the distance, the silence of silvery moonlight passing over the earth, the sense that everything is remote from everything else, all that passes away when, late at night, Walter allows his love for Lucius to roam freely about his young heart.

         Walter does not dress to go downstairs. On the contrary, he removes his day clothes and instead wears his oversized nightshirt and slippers. He sits upon the foot of his bed. Lucius will come up to him when it is time. He always does.

         Yes, Lucius will come up to me when it is time, Walter mutters…

         When it is time, because for everything there is a proper place and time.

         Walter awakens suddenly. He grabs at his chest. It is dark, for the silvery moonlight has fallen behind the tall spruce trees outside and yet to be replaced by the first hints of sunrise. This is the darkest moment; what the old timers’ in every tribe and tongue refer to as ‘the witching hour.’ If the dead have a mind to rise from their graves, perhaps to settle an old score, or perhaps to get their share of shits and giggles from scaring a pair of night stockings off a child or an old maid, then they will do so now. With the lights turned off, and the universe outside oppressive and still, there is nothing to distract the insomniac from the sound of claws scratching down the side of a bedroom wall, or the feel of frigid air blowing against his face, or the sight of a dark, shadowy something or other stepping out from inside the closet, only to lurch back inside after staring down the scared shitless child or old maid in bed. Most often, nothing of the sort will happen; and yet, even then, the insomniac is left with his mind, his soft dream fading back into the night, his tenuous grip on sanity shown to be unreal. In the witching hour, he is a madman, haunted by his loss, burdened by his sin, alone, so alone, unable even to cry out on account of the dead weight of despair. The witching hour seems eternal at the time; and, perhaps, in a way it is; but sleep returns, if not from mercy, then from sheer exhaustion.

         And so Walter manages to fall back asleep. He senses Whiskers staring at him from the foot of the bed, probably despising his weakness now, as long ago Walter had learned to despise his Grandpa Henry’s weakness…

         And not just his Grandpa Henry’s weakness; for his Grandpa Henry is not the only family member to give up his tortured ghost that summer…

         Walter does not dream the rest of the night. He does not need to do so, for Walter is close enough to kiss the hair on his ass. Lucius is the first and best of the ‘Restless Wranglers,’ the model for all the imitations that will follow. He is also the most loyal, even though dead almost half a century. He never passes on his show to a half-assed pretender, not when his little brother is shackled to a wall and sitting on a satin pillow. He is there from the first to the last beat of music; his ass moving to the rhythm of Walter’s heart; their love for each other a secret, when the bedroom door is closed and the gaslight is turned down low.

*   *   *

         The grandfather clock chimes ten times, as Walter scrubs the last bits of the Sandman out of his eyes, and waddles in his oversized, satin, dark burgundy red robe through the living room. He yawns into his hands, and stops a moment to take a look at the face of the grandfather clock. It is that famous moon face from Le Voyage dans la Lune, just before the earth rocket smashes into its eye.

         Grandma Eunice had hated it. She had considered any reference to films or to science fiction as hopelessly ‘middle class.’ Proper people read books that had been written before popular fiction (what Eunice usually referred to as ‘all that vulgar pulp’) had emerged in response to the near-universal literacy within the mid-nineteenth century. Proper people listened to classical music, although in a reserved, detached way that did not exhibit too much ‘enthusiasm’ for any one piece. The purpose of art is to quiet the soul, Eunice had said. It is a bottle of warm milk for babies or a hot toddy for adults. It is not meant to excite ‘silly and childish emotions,’ let alone to inspire the kind of wanderlust that leads to half-assed trips to the moon. Let the ‘middle class’ wage a space race with the Communists, she had said. The proper people will tend to their fragile gardens, snipping just a bit here, pulling just a bit there, while their skirts or their pants flutter listlessly in the late afternoon breeze. 

         Grandpa Henry won few arguments in the thirty years of marital bliss he shared with Eunice (his only marriage, though Eunice always suspected ‘a prior’ left behind when Henry emigrated to the U.S.A.; her second, after the beloved father of her only son died under mysterious circumstances out at sea); but, for whatever reason, he put his foot down, and kept it there, when it came to this grandfather clock. If it had been an heirloom, then his stubbornness might have made sense; but he had discovered it at a flea market one lazy afternoon down there where the hicks live just outside of Redwood Township. He had brought it home and had weathered the storm of his wife’s scathing disapproval.

         A timekeeper! Eunice had said with unveiled disdain, when she observed the Negro that Henry had hired to carry the grandfather clock from the back of his pickup truck to the living room. 

         It is a Herschede, lovey, Henry had said then with a wistful sparkle in his eyes. Each is a one of a kind…

         I do not care if Prince George shat in it, while stuttering his way through the Book of Ecclesiastes, Eunice interrupted. Good people never heed the time. We never have to be anywhere at any particular hour. Only the ‘little people’ 

         Eunice could be quite vulgar herself whenever she tipped her first bottle of sherry before noon. Even then, though, she would be careful to enunciate all of her ‘toilet words’ with such an elitist tone as to sound altogether prim, as if a stodgy Minister reciting the Banns of Holy Matrimony. Walter first learned the voice of a critic just by hearing from upstairs how she swore from time to time.

         No doubt, lovey, it has had a storied past, Henry said distantly.

         I want it out of this house, Eunice responded, while she punctuated each of her words with a loud tap of her left foot upon her polished, hardwood floor.

         Henry looked Eunice straight in the face. He hardly ever did so; and as a result, she felt her first tingle of fear in God knew how long. Still, true to form, she returned his stare with her own.

         La Lune is not going anywhere, Henry whispered with not even a hint of trepidation in his voice. And you will learn to appreciate her. 

         Ah, so it is actually she, Eunice muttered with disdain.

         Henry did not respond, but Eunice knew that she had been beat; and so, without further adieu, she dropped the matter. No doubt, Eunice reaped more than her fair share of revenge over the years in matters that had nothing to do with the grandfather clock; but she never again said a wayward word about La Lune.Even when there was no one to hear what she might say under her breath just then, she never used a ‘toilet word’ in reference to this clock. Why all this respect for something she loathed? Impossible to say for sure, but Walter came to the conclusion in later years that her behavior had something to do with the fact that her husband had defeated her. La Lune symbolized her defeat, maybe even her mortality; and so she handled La Lune in the submissive manner of an old priestess who cleans and primps an evil goddess she cannot hope to control.

         You don’t scare me, Walter whispers into La Lune’s moon face. 

         Except, of course, that that is not true. His voice quivers a bit whenever he mentions La Lune, and often enough he has a nightmare where he is alone in a dark and empty room. There is nothing outside of this room. The whole of the universe has been compacted into this one solitary moment. Walter reclines on the cold floor, wearing nothing but his undershorts, and staring blankly up at a ceiling that he cannot see. The grandfather clock, unseen, but close enough to touch, starts to chime what Walter presumes is the midnight hour. He leans his big head upon his right arm and counts off the chimes: One, Two, Three, Four…

         Okay, this is not too bad, Walter thinks. Just six more numbers…

         Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Water counts, while he moves his big head along his right arm in an effort to be more comfortable when counting off his chimes.

         And ‘his chimes’ is the operative phrase here, is it not? He and this clock are all that remain of the universe. This is his time, as much as he is wearing a pair of his undershorts, and leaning his heavy head upon his right arm.

         Ten, Eleven, Twelve, Walter counts, and closes his eyes (not that he had seen anything when his eyes had been open) in expectation of silence. 

         But then there is another chime, then another, then another…

         This is impossible. Time only tolls so long; and then it is set aside, much like a metronome is turned off and put inside a drawer somewhere. But not this time, for this time, Walter’s time, just keeps tolling into eternity, each heavy, discordant bong getting that much closer to the end. Like an asymptotic curve, each bong gets that much closer to the axis, but remains infinitely removed, so that eternity is the absolute dread of getting closer to the darkness, but never in fact being consumed by that darkness. It is burning, but never being burnt. It is losing, but never feeling that closure of having lost and moving on. That time that tolls into eternity is the ghost that cannot be exorcised.

         Walter tries to lift his head from his arm. He is too winded to do much of anything of his own accord, though. Instead, he is a flat and blubbery pawn. An invisible hand (the hand of time?) presses down on him. 

         He squirms, but there is not enough room. He tries to breathe in, but he manages only to inhale the sweat on the palm of that invisible hand. He desires so much to scream, but his larynx slithers out the back of his throat. His head is crushing inward at the same time; and though there is no mirror reflecting back his appearance, he imagines his head is a rotten pumpkin crushed inward, first by a unseen hand, and now, increasingly, by an unseen bulldozer.

         There is a loud crackling sound. A pool of burgundy red blood pisses out the back of his head. It spreads like an Oriental fan across the cold floor, while his fat legs sputter involuntarily. 

         And through it all, the time tolls. One bong after another unto the end…

         Walter always awakens from that nightmare, while screaming, grasping for his larynx with one hand, and slamming his fist into the bed with the other. It always takes him a while to regain his bearings; and until then, he screams in agony whenever he hears anything. A bird chirping outside, a teakettle boiling, even Whiskers walking up and down the staircase, all these normally innocuous sounds in fact are the chimes of his grandfather clock. Time tolls into eternity…

         So Walter can say all he wants that he is not afraid, even grin glibly back at that moon face behind the glass shield; but the truth is that he is as afraid in his heart as Eunice had been all those years. Interesting, is it not, how we tend to hold onto our losses, our defeats, our daily reminders that, indeed, we have one less day to live than yesterday. Eunice had hid her fears behind her strong, stoic irascibility; Walter behind his weight and his quirkiness; but neither would ever throw La Lune into the Manchester River (along with all the other strange and sordid unforgiveable sins out there), even after Henry had died. It is as if in a way they had to hold onto what makes them sick, what makes them hate the world and themselves, and finally what makes them so spectacularly deranged.

         Walter steps away from the grandfather clock. He slips into the kitchen, pulls up a shade to give himself a bit of light, and opens the freezer. There is a stockpile of Haagen-Dazs products in there. In truth, he prefers Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, but everyone knows that Ben and Jerry are a couple of Commies from Vermont. They are likely faggots, too, what with their groovy beards. It is well known that faggots wear groovy beards, so as to hide the leering, old men just beneath the surface; or so Grandma Eunice had instructed Walter long ago.

         Walter normally goes for a chocolate bar this early in the morning; but it had been a long night for him, not just when asleep, but going all the way back to when that monkey man pulled him over. He needs something more potent to set his mind at ease than a chocolate bar. Therefore, he digs through his chest; and then he retrieves a full tub of Haagen-Dazs’ Chocolate Peanut Butter. He is careful to nestle the tub by his chest, like it is a newborn, while he searches in his refrigerator for his Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and his bag of marshmallows. He grabs a handful of loose M&Ms out of his utensil drawer beside his gas stove.

         He mixes this diabetic’s wet dream in a big bowl, while Whiskers slithers in and out of the tight space in between his ankles. Whiskers wants his food for the day; and under normal circumstances, Walter would shake some kibble into his bowl at this time. Nonetheless, this is not a normal day. This is the first day after that night; and Walter needs to regain at least a semblance of his former life before the ghost unleashed that night comes back to disrupt him yet again.

         And make no mistake about it. Everything that happened that night, the jigaboo cop pulling him over, the half-assed pretender dancing the wrong way, the maître d giving him the bum’s rush, and finally the trip down memory lane, all that shit happened, because the ghost has been unleashed. Walter truly has no idea as to why. He has been so good about keeping everything caged, all the rats over here, all the soup spoons over there, enough order in his house and in his life to make Miss Manners proud, if not his late grandma. Okay, so the dark, stinky kitchen is not as it should be. He has a utensil drawer full of loose candy, for example. He also has made some other concessions to modern life, such as the cable television in the family room. Still, compared to everyone else, he is buttoned up and squared away. So why is Lucius’ ghost making the rounds? Why haunt him, when he did everything Lucius wanted of him, even at the very end?

         Walter cannot answer his own questions; and, right now, he is still much too tired even to try. He grabs a huge soupspoon, and carries his bowl of sugar, cream, and fat into what used to be the formal sitting room off the foyer. Now, as a concession to modern life, it is a ‘family room’ featuring a cable television hookup, a table full of half-finished essays (his amateur take on acting and live theater dressed up with pretentious, pseudo-intellectual jargon to suggest that he has a greater academic pedigree than he has in fact), a stash of Doritos corn chips, in case he is too hungry to waddle all the way out to the kitchen, and an assortment of old National Geographic and Reader’s Digest magazines piled up against the far wall. Walter never reads the magazines, but he renews Eunice’s subscriptions every year, because Eunice had been such an avid reader. 

         Oh, and lest we forget, there is also a hunky, well endowed mannequin, who goes by the name of Clover Fist, and who stares at Walter from beside the cable television hookup. Clover Fist is not as sophisticated as Rexford Muldoon. The pouty look on Clover Fist’s face suggests ‘boy toy’ more so than ‘lover,’ so Clover Fist always will play second fiddle to the tall man upstairs. Nonetheless, though he does not say much, Clover Fist can rise to the occasion when Walter is in the mood. At the very least, he makes certain that Walter is never lonely, when Walter is sitting back in his Lazy Boy and munching on his ‘fat boy’ meals.

         Walter clicks on the television set. It is set to FOX News. If pressed, then he could not say precisely why he watches the network still. Oh, sure, it is a bit better than the other news networks. At least on FOX News there are no glaring indications that the news director is Che Guevara. Nevertheless, he is fed up to his wobbly chins with the extent to which the network goes to remain ‘fair and balanced.’ Enough with the equal time for libtards, Walter cracks whenever he sees Alan Colmes or Bob Beckel scaring the little children with their offsetting, on-air antics. Let them offer their Saul Alinsky inspired misdirection elsewhere.

         And don’t get me started on the blond bimbos on FOX News, Walter will think invariably after knocking down Colmes and Beckel in his mind. Since when does a woman have anything intelligent to state about politics or world events?

         And so Walter flips over to the Game Show Network. Ah, now Walter can smile, for up on the screen is Gene Rayburn hosting Match Game. The backdrop consists of psychedelic, pink swirls. The panelists look like they are as high as a kite. Gene is his normal, straight self, but everything else about the game show suggests peace, love, and groovy. Maybe, it is then the Summer of Love, 1967…

         Or, maybe, just maybe, it is then the year after love triumphs; the year after everyone ‘lives happily ever after;’ the year Lucius returns from college…

         That’s all it takes; and Walter is upstairs, sitting on the edge of his bed in a nightshirt, and waiting for Lucius to finish his supper with Grandma Eunice.

         He can smell the beef stroganoff. Eunice always adds more than a dab of rum to the gravy, and he can smell that as well. Usually, the acute smells mean that Walter is a hungry boy; but, notwithstanding how little he had eaten while waiting for his brother to return, he does not have an appetite for anything but his brother. He is an anxious boy on the cusp of seventeen twiddling his fingers.

         Finally, he hears labored footsteps on the staircase. Since there are two sets of footsteps, Walter concludes that Grandma Eunice and Lucius indeed are heading up to the attic to see what little remains of Grandpa Henry. Surely, his brother is not so reckless as to visit Walter when Eunice is nearly standing upon his heels. There is enough Whipple blood in Lucius for that mischievous devil to be tactful in keeping certain doors closed and bolted.

         Sure enough, the two sets of footsteps continue up to the attic. There is no other sound; and so Walter hears the creaking hinge of the old door opening into the attic, the insincere greetings, the tired questions posed by a tired man at the end of his cigarettes and booze. Even the uncomfortable pauses between the three of them seem to take on a sound. Maybe, this is just Walter’s strange imagination; but, regardless, the pauses sound like rats squealing in a cage. For indeed, in those pauses, it is all too clear just how trapped they are in the past sins and grudges. The past is the hot attic air, unveiled, unforgiven, smoldering the breathable air so as to replace it with something that stinks of old wine and cigarettes. The past is a dead thing up there; and yet it feeds the rats, excites them, in a way even allows them to enjoy the cages in which they are held. All those uncomfortable pauses up there are more perverse than anything that has or likely will happen in Walter’s bedroom when the Whipple Brothers are alone. 

         Grandpa Henry gurgles loudly, like he is going to vomit. Probably he had wanted to toast his grandson’s return from college. The poor man cannot even swallow a watered down Foster’s without vomiting up bile and blood. 

         The gurgle sound ascends to a higher pitch, so that it calls to mind then the quivering scream of a trumpet; a trumpet blown by an angel at the end, an apocalyptic black swan trumpeting the secrets, and lifting the veils…

         What was that? Walter mutters, while pulling away from his daydream to focus on something he may have heard. 

         He clicks off the television. He pushes the giant sundae bowl off his belly and onto the coffee table in front of his Lazy Boy. He drops his spoon full of ice cream unceremoniously into the huge bowl. Ice cream splatters onto the table.

         Whiskers meows. Walter waves the Dragon Li off with noticeable disgust.

         Walter walks over to the same sofa on which Whiskers had stared out the window the night before. Indeed, though not conscious of the fact, Walter now moves in a decidedly catlike manner. Moreover, there is the distant, unsettling serenity in his eyes that suggests the ulterior motive of the house cat. Walter is frightened, but even more so he is intrigued. He now approaches the window in the guise of prey, but he senses that in time he may be the predator in this odd affair. What odd affair? What is out there in fact? Or is this a game he is playing with himself in his own head, a dark mental masturbation fed by his sugar high?

         Walter stares into the garden. It is old, overgrown, wilder than tamed. It had been so beautiful, once upon a time; but the more he stares into that dark and twisted foliage, the more he wonders if in fact it ever had been tamed. He had encountered so many strange twists and turns when strolling to the pond as a child; so many monsters he imagined hiding beneath the shrubs; occasionally, pretty, happy elves poking up from behind the flowers. Oh, sure, much of that had been his imagination, but not all of it. He had built up the monsters within his mind, but there had been real monsters that had inspired his strange flights of fancy in the first place. Order, beauty, temperance, these may contain all or most of the savagery out there; but they cannot eradicate what lies just under the surface. That is the hard lesson that Grandma Eunice never had wanted to acknowledge. Walter does not want to acknowledge it, either; but the more he stares out this window, and senses the beast in nature, the more he believes he too is drawn to that savagery. 

         But if that is true, then bloodlust really is at the heart of Lucius’ death, not so much duty, nor loyalty to his brother’s request, but cold, raw bloodlust…

         Walter shakes that thought out of his mind. In so doing, he is no longer a cat staring out a window, but a creepy man consumed by fear. 

         Whiskers meows again. He punctuates this meow with a hiss. Clearly, he is an unhappy puss now that he is a whopping ten minutes passed his feed time. Oh, the insufferable cruelty of it all! 

         Walter does not hear his cat at all. He is much too absorbed with his old, overgrown garden. There is something in there, something pulling him outside.

         And so without any further thought on the matter, Walter walks over to the front door, and lets himself outside. Whiskers does not follow him. He is all too familiar with man’s capacity to go stir crazy every now and then, and when he sees the traits he stays back in the shadows. Best not to piss off the guy who pours kibble into your bowl.

         The air outside is hot, sweltering, claustrophobic, much as Walter thinks the air had been in the attic the day that Lucius came home. It is dead air. For that reason, it is not so much air that flows in and out of lungs; so much as it is air that haunts. Walter knows he cannot stay out here for long before he really goes as stir crazy as his cat senses he is already. 

         Walter wanders into the garden. Most of the paths that he had known as a boy are gone now. Nevertheless, as if drawn by a sixth sense (not actually his sixth sense, but rather the sixth sense of the angel or the beast moving the old, nicked chess pieces across the board), he meanders adroitly enough around the thorny bushes and the low hanging branches. He whistles Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, and he plasters an insidious, sly grin on his red face.

         Is he red because of the sun? Or is he red because he is wandering out to his big brother? Wandering out to the past, which is sepia toned in a faded, old photograph, but which is dark blood red when encountered by the imagination, what will the creepy, fat man find when he pulls aside the last of the branches?

         Well, in this case, the creepy, fat man rediscovers his pond. It is smaller and filthier than it had been decades ago, as the pond water slimes back into a crack in the earth somewhere and is replaced by pungent scum. It gurgles, too, as if to warn any child that may come out this way to find another oasis. In this state, the pond is a reminder of how far Walter has fallen from the day he held a black swan in his arms and smiled back at his grandparents. 

         Walter sighs. He had expected more than to see the sad condition of his pond. He is about to turn back, when he hears what sounds like the fast flutter of a bird’s wings. It seems to be coming from behind a line of tall, scraggly, old weeds along the opposite bank of the pond.

         Brother, Walter whispers in equal measures of fear and longing.

         Lucius does not come out from behind those weeds. What does come out from there, though, is no less miraculous. It is a solitary, black swan, beautiful in its form and feathers, but with knowing eyes that seem to chastise Walter. It is there apparently to judge him, and the cold shiver down his spine suggests at once that Walter does not want to be judged. 

         The black swan flutters through the air a few feet, and then lands on the pond. It folds its wings in and glides to about midway across the dirty water. In most every way, it is an idyllic image, like an impressionist painting here come to life. Only those knowing eyes add an undercurrent of darkness to this scene, but they are enough to consume Walter in a dread he had felt only partially in coming out here. Now, with those knowing eyes staring intently at Walter, he is dragged back to his worst moments of that summer so long ago.

         Grandma Eunice kept La Lune after Grandpa Henry died, but she quickly got rid of those ‘filthy, diseased, nigger birds.’ Walter learned to hate them, as if he always had. The black swan here, then, is a reversal of Eunice’s edict, an undoing, really, of everything she had set out to preserve through her quixotic, maddening commitment to aristocratic order and superficial beauty. The black swan, though beautiful, is wild, untamed, and all too willing to pierce the dark veil that Walter had tied over his soul long before. The black swan sees, as if it is undressing the man in its eyesight, and contemplating every bit of his nudity.

         Walter feels hot air kiss his face. It is a portentous gesture, like that old-fashioned ‘kiss of death’ that goes back to Judas Iscariot. Apocalyptic, denying Christ Jesus before the third cock crows, hanging oneself from a tree in shame, the fires of judgment falling down on the Rock of Peter as much as on the Dark Man, everyone deemed to be chaff and then thrown into the flame. There is no class, no distinction, among the damned; and that fact, perhaps more than any other consideration, stabs Walter’s heart and twists the dagger. Walter recoils. He grasps at his heart, as if to make sure it is still ticking, and flees that scene.

         The black swan watches the creepy, fat man come unglued. Yes, it truly pierces the man’s soul; but it also remains dispassionate. The man may imagine it gloats; but in the bird’s mind, the man is too inconsequential for that victory to be sweet. Somehow, it senses that what really pushes the man off the deep end is the man’s dawning realization that, indeed, he is inconsequential before time and fate. The black swan can return, and there is nothing he can do about it. That more than anything else will conjure up the ghosts in the days to come.

*   *   *

         Walter stumbles back into his ‘family room.’ He eyes the melted sundae on his coffee table. He must have been outside longer than he had realized, for the sundae is little more than a pond of cream goo pockmarked by wild streaks of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup and M&Ms. The M&Ms look like eyeballs staring up at him from the pond surface. 

         Walter feels the vomit sliding up his throat. Usually, he can force it back into his overstretched bowels; but he knows damn well he will not succeed this time. He is still too nervous from what he had seen (or imagined) under the hot and glaring sun. He barely can lean upon the back of his Lazy Boy, let alone put his liquid misery back into the cell where it belongs. 

         He turns away from the Lazy Boy, and vomits onto his hardwood floor. If Grandma Eunice saw him now (She probably does, since Walter cannot imagine her ghost lingering anywhere else.), then she would have a hissy fit. He’d have to pull down his trousers, bend over, and count out loud in Latin the number of times she whacked him with her wooden spoon. For a run of the mill failure on his part, he would stop counting somewhere between viginti and triginta. Sick, warm vomit on one of her polished floors would warrant a number well passed quinquaginta. Vomit is hard to clean; and, even then, the smell lingers, like an old ghost that gets his jollies from making you feel a brief wave of nausea when you pass by the scene of the crime. 

         In a way, Walter would have preferred this scenario. He would feel that bristling fire on his ass for a week. He’d have to prop up his pillows, so that he sleeps on his side. He’d have to stand at the back of the one-room schoolhouse, so that he does not scream out in pain when pressing his ass onto his hard desk chair. But when it was over, then it was over. Certainly, Grandma Eunice never would mention the incident again, not because she was especially merciful, but because she did not want to acknowledge more than absolutely necessary that a boy born out from her noble line could be so common as to vomit all over her perfect floor. Regardless of her reason, Grandma Eunice would reapply the veil once the incident had passed, thus adding yet another hidden secret to the old and creepy Victorian on the banks of the Manchester River. 

         But Grandma Eunice is not here to do the honors. Moreover, Walter just cannot clean up his own mess as well as his grandma had way back when. Sure, he can get on his knees to scrub (though getting back up is not at all easy given the inflated tires around his midsection); and in time he can get rid of most of that bad smell. The operative word here is ‘most.’ Without that brutal, painful date with the wooden spoon, there is never any finality to the situation. There is still a smell weeks, months, years, indeed a lifetime later. Even if there is no one else who can smell that vomit after a while, he can smell it, and what else matters to the man so belabored by his own past failure?

         Nevertheless, what is done is done. Walter looks down at the vomit, and snarls. Then, with a huff, he waddles over to the kitchen. He gathers a sponge, a bucket of hot water, a bar of soap. He drinks a mouthful of brandy; probably not the best idea for a man suffering from the pangs of nausea, but in this case the brandy proves more helpful than not. It deadens his mind enough for him to leave behind La Lune,Lucius’ ghost, the black swan outside. Otherwise, Walter would be too burdened with his fear and confusion to do much more on the old floor than to smear the vomit across a greater surface. 

         Walter can feel Whiskers staring at him from midway up the staircase. It is a wonder Walter has not strangled the Dragon Li yet, given how damn creepy the cat can be when he stares through his green eyes at his weak-kneed owner. Nevertheless, Whiskers is like a brother to him, and Walter will be damned if in this lifetime anyway he commits fratricide.

         But you already have, a voice deep inside Walter’s mind whispers…

         A voice that sounds a lot like a rat squealing in a cage…

         Nonsense, Walter mutters. It was practically suicide…

         Oh, really? The voice asks. Are you certain about that?

         Walter does not respond. Instead, he breaks out of this unsettling stream of consciousness by looking back at Whiskers. Walter sees at once that the old, curmudgeonly Dragon Li is trying to hide fear beneath a mask of bellicosity. He would gloat, except that he too is consumed by the same debilitating fear, first in his heart, but now, increasingly, unintelligibly, in his bowels.

         Ready for kibble, you little pussy licker? Walter inquires.

         Whiskers meows, and runs down the steps to Walter’s shoes. Probably at this moment, Whiskers remains apprehensive. After all, Walter has exhibited to Whiskers the classic traits of a loon; and he has done nothing since to suggest a return to normal. Nevertheless, for all that, Whiskers’ survival instinct is much stronger; and so he puts aside his disgust for Walter’s goofiness, and purrs like a well-oiled locomotive. 

         Walter puts down his cleaning equipment, and returns to the kitchen. He shakes kibble into Whiskers’ bowl, adds more drinking water to his other bowl, and stands back to watch. Of course, Whiskers attacks the old kibble and water buffet with gusto; and Walter is able to grin sheepishly a moment…

         But only a moment, before the pungent smell of vomit snaps his face. He wiggles his fingers under his nose, and says ‘Ta-Ta’ in a tone that is deep, dark, and deranged. Perhaps, he thinks that ‘Ta-Ta’ is the same as Dorothy snapping her heels together in the Land of Oz. Regardless, while he is not whisked away, after wiggling his fat fingers, and saying ‘Ta-Ta,’ he feels a bit more composed.

         Walter scrubs the vomit away much better than he had expected. There is a smell still, and so he returns his cleaning equipment with a heavy heart and an even heavier pair of eyelids. 

         What do you say, you little pussy cum? Walter inquires, when he sees his Dragon Li eyeing him in the kitchen.

         Whiskers stretches, but otherwise remains as lazy as he normally is when digesting his kibble. 

         Cat got your tongue? Walter asks, and then laughs like a crazy ass hyena.

         Whiskers does not even bother to stretch. 

         Well, I say it is time for a midday nap, Walter comments, when his laugh ceases at once. Come, my old pussy, let us go upstairs, where the smoke rises…

         For all his feigned good humor, in fact Walter is starting to feel tired and cranky. He wonders about his ‘smoke’ reference. Perhaps, he has intuited what memory will play itself out in his next dream. Or perhaps, the reference has to do with ghosts. He always has conceived of ghosts as smoke arising up from the hardwood floor, taking on a distinct shape, and scaring the bejesus out of him. Either way, the reference suggests more fear and strain upstairs; and so it begs the question why Walter is so anxious to hit the pillow.

         Because there is just a touch of the Old Masochist in him? 

         Because he cannot outrun what fate may have in store for him, no more so than he could have left that jigaboo cop in his rearview mirror, or forced the real ‘Restless Wrangle’ to give him his normal skin show, or retained his special arrangement at Belvedere’s? If Grandma Eunice could not prevent one of those ‘nigger birds’ from returning to her spoiled pond, then what can he possibly do?

         Perhaps, he is as much a masochist as a realist. Perhaps, he embraces all that pain, as much as he is resigned to it.

         Walter waddles up his staircase. He really is in bad shape. 

         Whiskers stays with him a while. Then, bored with the slow, tired steps, he leaves his owner behind and pounces into the upstairs bedroom. 

         Actually, it is more accurate to say that Whiskers pounces into a wall of smoke. Walter is not yet asleep, and yet already he is dreaming of the night his big brother, Lucius, slipped into his bedroom with a joint in his pocket, and one of his patented mischievous grins on his glossy lips. It does not take long for the marijuana smoke to spread to every inch of Walter’s little boy bedroom. It also does not take long for the repartee between the two brothers (never so pretty or poignant as to be mistaken for Shakespeare, but at least intelligible) to slide into inarticulate giggles. Anyone listening would mistaken them for silly girls at a slumber party; and, indeed, this individual would not be too far off the mark.

         Walter is not even aware of the sly grin on his face. 

         He opens his bedroom door without being much aware of anything. 

         And so the dream takes hold of a weak mind, and casts her spells…

*   *   *

         Walter sways side to side, while sitting on the edge of his bed. He is like a tapping metronome, the beat consistent, the mind lost somewhere in the old, worn out routine. 

         And, indeed, ‘old, worn out routine’ is the best way to describe his time tonight with his older brother, Lucius. He had been on pins and needles all day, imagining what his brother would look like after a year at college, repeating to himself what he would say when his brother stepped into his room; but it turns out that visiting with Lucius is much like sliding into a comfortable pair of shoes kept near and dear in his closet the whole time. Lucius imparts very few details about his college experience. Perhaps, he is trying to shield his younger brother from the sordid reality of cheap alcohol and loose sorority girls; but deep down Walter does not really think that this is the case. Rather, he senses that Lucius, notwithstanding his mischievous eye, in fact has as little interest in the glorious and sordid world beyond the front gate as Walter does. Lucius puts on a decent show of youthful rebellion; but in the end he sees that this place is his destiny.

         So what matters, then, is what is here. All fine and good in theory, but it limits severely the conversation between the two brothers. After all, have they not said to one another over the years already all that can be said about living in this creepy Victorian house beside a river? Sometimes, they had spoken what needed to be said. More often, they had imparted this or that kernel of wisdom in the scared looks on their faces whenever something inside these creaky walls went wrong. God only knows that had happened more times than they desire to admit, even to one another. There is a reason they called their home a ‘horror house’ back in the day, and even now feel their spines tighten when they get a bit too close to the darker shadows of their imagination.

         And so it is best not to go down that sad path. Better to giggle like those aforementioned slumber party girls, while the pot smoke meanders lazily about the bedroom. Lucius inhales deeply, while blowing most of his good fortune out the window. Walter gets a contact high from that smoke that never manages to exit stage left. Together, they spend time, like a gambler does the last handful of cash in his pocket. ‘Let it ride’ is the toxin. ‘Devil may care’ is the outcome.

         Except that they are not nearly so rebellious. Lucius takes care to handle his joint in such a way as to point it out the open window. Walter senses a dark undercurrent, a sadness, even a despair that cannot be masked entirely by the giggles and the marijuana. As a result, he restrains himself from what might be called ‘complete abandon.’ He smiles gaily. His eyes dance merrily. His giggles seem to roll off of the fat on his midsection. Nevertheless, his strange ‘tapping metronome’ act is just too controlled, too forced, for him to be alive totally in the moment. No matter the silliness he senses still a shoe about to be dropped.         

         For that reason, Walter is not really surprised, as Lucius turns away from the open window and eyes his younger brother suspiciously. 

         Lucius smiles, but it is the kind of distant smile that suggests the sinister calculation of a shrew. Perhaps, Walter is reading that motivation into his older brother’s smile. Surely, there is no reason for Lucius to be a shrew when taking assessment of his own brother, is there?

         Grandpa is long in the tooth, Lucius remarks after a while. 

         Walter imagines a bucktoothed rat in a nightshirt. The rat clutches at a Winston, and puffs on it now and then. It really wants to slurp up some of that ‘freedom booze’ sloshing from side to side in a bucket out of reach; but though it tries, it cannot bend forward enough to get close. It squeals from equal parts anger and resignation; and for a moment, Walter thinks that it would be best if someone put the bucktoothed rat out of its misery. 

         Walter immediately hates himself for having entertained that thought. It is a dark, cruel, murderous fantasy. He squirms a moment, as if it is possible to force that dreadful thought out of his physical body.

         Lucius appears not to notice. He fixates on a picture in his mind instead.

         Do you remember when he used to watch us by the pond? Lucius asks. He would rest on a chaise lounge, smoke his cigarettes, drink his poison, and smile like he had nothing else on his mind…

         Walter remembers, but he finds it hard to believe that Lucius keeps near and dear his own precious memories of those times. The reason: Lucius usually is not around on those fine, summer days, when the sunrays at midday feel like they stretch from one horizon to the other. Lucius most likely is conjugating his Latin verbs at summer school; or if Grandma Eunice had been unsuccessful with her overarching plot of keeping Lucius away as much as possible, then Lucius is indoors doing whatever mindless chore she has seen fit to impose upon him. So, perhaps, this is a case of Lucius borrowing a memory from his younger brother, like Walter rummaging through Lucius’ clothes when Lucius is away at school. If so, then Walter should not be so uncomfortable with the idea. Brothers borrow from one another all the time, after all; and yet Walter feels sick and saddened by his brother’s ‘memory.’ Walter is guilt ridden, for it is terribly unfair that he has a distinct memory of the black swan when the brother he loves has nothing.

         He looked so free, but he wasn’t, Lucius continues without giving Walter a chance to respond. Grandma always had the leash on him…

         Lucius takes another puff upon his joint. He smiles widely, and chuckles.

         Remember how he’d bring out his jazz records? Lucius continues. Oh, he thought he was getting away with something. He’d put a nigger on his turntable and keep time by tapping his palm against the chaise lounge…

         Lucius taps his hand against the windowsill. He is reenacting a scene he cannot possibly remember from real life. The dreamy look on Lucius’ face right now suggests a young man incapable of deciphering fact from fantasy. Walter is scared for Lucius, but he is also envious of him. Escaping from the facts into an offbeat fantasy world, a dreamscape born, as much from his imagination as it is borrowed from other people’s memories, is the surest way to find a semblance of joy now and then. It is the reason Lucius has a swagger when he walks down the driveway, or grins like the Cheshire cat when he offers an off color joke, or mimics Jay Gatsby when he refers to his pudgy, little brother as his ‘Old Sport.’

         But Grandma knew every time, Lucius emphasizes.

         Lucius’ eyes grow big, like he sees Grandma Eunice yanking down on that leash the moment she hears Cab Calloway or Little Richard singing outside. The leash is long. For this reason, it takes a while before the invisible collar outside tightens. This is why Grandpa Henry can keep on smiling like a doofus, tapping his palm on his chaise lounge, and urging his grandson to catch the black swan. Later, though, when Grandpa Henry is back inside, and behind closed doors, all that bigoted violence flowing through the leash finally catches up with him. He gets what is owed him. After all, in every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, is there not? There is a balancing of the scales, no? A kick in the shins to remind us that, no matter how far we roam, we never roam far from home…

         But Grandma knew every time, Walter thinks with trepidation.

         Walter apparently does not hide his fear as well as he had presumed. He still smiles like a drunken sailor on leave; but Lucius sees something in Walter’s expression that briefly pulls him out of his own daydream.

         You’re thinking if Grandma can hear the jazz then she can smell the pot, Lucius remarks with a devious grin. 

         Walter tries to speak, but cannot. This is not strange. In fact, he seldom manages more than a few words in his late night ‘discussions’ with his brother. Lucius meanders in and out of his monologues, for the most part; and Walter is happy enough to nod or to chuckle, depending upon what the speech demands at that moment. Now, in Walter’s imagination, they talk back and forth openly, freely, before the Sandman drags them kicking and screaming into bed; but, in this matter, he is as much a dreamer as his brother. He believes what he wants to believe, not necessarily what is; and his ability to do so has served him well.

         Eunice is swimming in her cognac right now, Lucius comments derisively.

         Walter is taken aback. He does not recall his brother ever before calling her ‘Eunice’ without ‘Grandma’ before her name. Lucius in essence is speaking of her as an equal. The breakdown in the parental-child relationship perplexes, then frightens, Walter to such an extent that he almost flees his own bedroom; but in the end, he does not. He loves his brother. He desires to stay by his side.

         That does not mean she cannot smell us, Walter mutters after a while.

         Like a tigress her cubs, Lucius chuckles. Okay, so she can smell the best pot this side of Beverly. She is not going to do anything about it tonight. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week. Most likely, she’ll wait until we no longer suspect or fear anything at all. Then, she’ll swat us over the back of our heads, balancing the scales, turning wrong into right, like the magic from her spinning wheel turning yarn to gold. Don’t you understand, Old Sport? We males are the caged beasts. The females are the jailers. The iron bars all around us are moral laws. The lock is salvation; but a female way back when cocked her lovely head of hair toward the ground to listen to a Jew snake, swallowed the salvation key at his urging, and shat it into the Manchester River. Sure, we are in prison, and we are not getting out; but, at least, we know our places. 

         Walter feels in his heart the truth of what Lucius is saying right now. His proof is the fact that he always feels so good, so protected, whenever Grandma Eunice snaps his fat ass with her wooden spoon. There is finality in punishment. There is an absolute when one righteously can and does inflict injury. It may be no more than absolute power, which is a raw, cold, ultimately thoughtless take on absolutism. Even better is when the injury reflects an absolute judgment, as based on unambiguous moral laws; because in a world of sand caught up by the winds, the iron bars, the remorseless stares from our jailers, the cell door lock that cannot be unlocked, all these accouterments of our eternal prison life give us something upon which we can hold. We can hold onto those prison bars. We can stare back at those cold stares. We can recall forever why that key is gone.

         As for everything outside of prison, everything beyond the front gate, all that life out there about which Grandma Eunice will remain ignorant, well, it is best to compare all that to the whores sliding in and out of a man’s bed. A man can hold them down a while, maybe long enough to add his seed into the brew; but invariably they slip away for the better prospect next door. 

         Some men thrive in a world without certainty. Walter had thought Lucius to be among those men, but apparently Lucius is much more bark than bite. As for Walter there is no question that his is a life marked forever for the jail cell.

         Lucius looks out the open window again. There is nothing to see, but an old pond and garden bathed in silver moonlight. The black swans are asleep for the night. The darkness beyond the perimeter is still and silent, so that it is all too easy to imagine that the Victorian house and the property leading up to the gate are together the full reach of a prison yard. 

         I saw it in Grandpa’s eyes tonight, Lucius says quietly. He finally realizes what we’ve known all along; that he is a caged animal, a squealing rat that we keep alive for our amusement. He wants out, the old bugger. Wants to slide his time card into the clock one more time, collect his gold watch on the way out, and fall asleep for the last time. I should not blame him for wanting the easier way out. He is a weak man, a follower, a sheep on the way to the slaughter. If he had what we have in our blood, the strength and the character of our noble ancestors, then he would not shy away from being a caged beast. He would put heart and soul into his sunset role; be so loud and obnoxious a caged beast that we remember him with some pride years later. Instead, he’s a common faggot, bawling into his bedpan, peeing in his bed. He is a mess we’ll have to clean up someday. I hate him. I know that is hard to say, but it is true. I want him dead.

         Walter is taken aback noticeably. He too has harbored a similar thought, if only because Grandma Eunice had instilled in him long ago the conspiratorial, dark whisper that says that putting down inferiors is the surest sign of ones own nobility. Grandpa Henry is an ‘inferior.’ He comes from a prison colony, for the sake of God. He drinks cheap beer (or at least he used to do so, before his liver finally quit on him altogether). He submits to his wife, perhaps just to keep the peace, perhaps for other reasons Walter cannot yet understand. Regardless, his submission cannot but inspire revulsion in the mind of a boy whose identity now is so caught up in upholding the natural hierarchy among men and beasts.  Still, for all that, Henry is his Grandpa, the kind man who used to bounce him on his right knee, the conscientious man who, in spite of his weakness, really stood up as needed for his fat, gawky, and mostly silent grandson. Grandpa Henry is too weak to inspire the feelings of love, but that in itself does not mean that he no longer warrants filial respect.

         I don’t mean that literally, Lucius backtracks. 

         Except the look in Lucius’ eyes suggests that he is not backtracking from his statement one bit. It is like a ghostly truth has emerged in the pot smoke all around the bedroom. This truth sifts in and out of the long shadows cast by the antique lamp on the nightstand. In physical form, it is as ephemeral as ghoulish pot smoke; but the fact that it lingers in this bedroom makes it more visceral in

fact than anything else here. This truth then is unavoidable: Grandpa Henry has fallen from whatever grace he may have had once upon a time. He has fallen in shame because he is weak. He has fallen under final judgment, as evidenced by the fact that he can no longer squirm out of his cage. 

         Eunice says I need to return to college this summer, Lucius reflects after a while. She says I need to earn more credits…

         Walter looks down. He fidgets with his hands. He is still surprised to hear his older brother refer to their grandmother as ‘Eunice,’ but even more so he is distressed by the prospect that Lucius may be going back to college so soon. He hates his Grandma Eunice for even proposing as such; and at the same time, he  feels considerable guilt for harboring such feelings toward his Grandma. Hatred and guilt blend together in Walter’s psyche as to conjure up vague, disquieting fear. It is the kind of fear he can never voice, the kind that cannot be lessened with girlish screams; a shameful fear, really, like the one he experiences every time he slips into the bathroom to masturbate. The bathroom door has no lock. Grandma Eunice could step in at any time. He would have no warning, because she usually wanders about the halls in her quiet slippers. He can stroke all that he wants, but the fear will persist like an unwanted partner in crime until he is done. That is the fear that comes from blending hatred and guilt together. It is shame; and all Walter can do is to fidget, until it passes from his flabby cheeks.

         Don’t be surprised, Lucius says with a smirk. Eunice will have no choice, when Grandpa Henry finally passes from the scene. She will not take me to bed with her, though I have seen the naughty look in her one good eye. Believe me, Old Sport, she would do so in a minute, if she thought she could get away with it in respectable society. Eunice recognizes as well as any other cunt that there is no better way to tighten the leash than with sex. But she won’t go that far to try to bridle me, and I won’t drop my drawers anymore for her damned wooden spoon. So what’s the choice, when the pen consists of two roosters and a pudgy hen? One of the roosters has got to go, that’s all. I’ll be given a one-way ticket to the big world out there, and you’ll be left behind to be Eunice’s pudgy hen…

         Unless, Walter mutters, while looking up from his hands.

         Unless what, Old Sport? Lucius asks with a knowing grin.

         Unless it doesn’t happen that way, Walter concludes.

         Lucius finishes his joint. His flicks it out the open window. He closes the window, turns back to his younger brother, folds his arms before his chest, and looks at him with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Lucius seems inebriated by the spell that he has cast. 

         What am I going to do with you? Lucius asks in a flirty manner.

         I love you, brother, Walter says from the heart.

         I love you, too, Lucius responds. No one is going to tear us apart.

         Lucius steps closer to Walter, so that Walter can bury his tearful, chubby face in his chest. Lucius strokes the back of Walter’s head, as Walter bear hugs his brother. They remain together in that way for several minutes. They do not speak, though many pretty words pass between them.

*   *   *

         Lucius kisses Walter’s nose with his own. It is an ‘Eskimo Kiss,’ and it is a cold, wet, slobbery one. Lucius must be coming down with a terrible head cold.

         Still, Walter moans. He is in his cocoon. Nothing can happen to him here in this secret place. Even the silver moonlight, moving slowly across the sheets, cannot penetrate the coziness. 

         I love you, Walter mutters, while opening his eyes to see Lucius’ face so close to his own.

         Walter makes out a hazy something or other. It is a face. Walter can tell that much already. Nevertheless, in the foggy haze, it is not a human face. The eyes are too dark and tilted. The nose resembles a button on a teddy bear. The mouth is a tense line almost totally hidden beneath whiskers. 

         Walter imagines the greys. Those are the extraterrestrials that come out of nowhere to paralyze white trash, when they are sleeping off their hangovers deep inside their trailers. The light bulb shaped head, the dark, tilted eyes, the button nose, the hidden mouth, all these together suggest the stark features of  one of those greys. 

         Walter begins to scream in horror. What has happened to Lucius? Has he been whisked away by something from out of this world? 

         Or is he gone, because of something, or someone, must closer to home?

         And is that really a grey anyway? Since when do the greys have whiskers?

         Walter opens his eyes completely. He stops screaming midstream. There is something inhuman on his face, but it is not a spooky alien from outer space; not even an alien from south of the border. 

         Scat, Whiskers, Walter snarls. What are you? A queer kitty? 

         Whiskers purrs. Walter almost makes out a grin on its face.

         Indeed, Whiskers is an obstinate cat. Nevertheless, after a long moment of willfully disobeying Walter’s command, the Dragon Li steps off his face, and curls up into a ball upon the bed beside him.

         Walter sits up in his bed. He scoots over to the edge, and stares out that same window behind which he had waited on pins and needles for his brother a long time ago. He almost thinks that he has returned to that bright summer day in 1968. He is not sure if he likes or fears returning to the past, especially since he is sure now that he cannot change history. Fate is what it is, no matter how many trips back to the outhouse. 

         Then, Walter stares more intently at the garden. It is not that beautiful, lush oasis it had been back then. 

         Whiskers looks back at him with contempt. It is as if the cat snarls: Well, duh, you flabby coot. After all, if you really went back in time, who’d feed me? 

         Walter gets the message. He snickers back at his feline brother.

         He looks back out the window. It is late afternoon. The sun casts hideous shadows that resemble long, malformed masks. The masks stretch beyond what is normal even for a strange, old ghoul; and as a result, Walter shivers in fright.

         He is about to turn away from the window, when he snatches something out of the ordinary down in his garden.

         Actually, beside his dead pond…         

         There are now four black swans beside the pond, two older ones bathing in the late afternoon sun, two babies flapping their wings erratically in order to build up their confidence. The babies are teetering on the banks, so they must be nervous about sliding onto the water by themselves for the first time. Given the preponderance of pungent sludge in that water, Walter cannot blame them for being as trepid as a couple of faggots. 

         But the real question is: Why are they there?

         Actually, that is not much of a question. It is obvious why they are there beside his pond. Earlier today, when he saw the one swan, he knew that Lucius had come home. Now, apparently, the whole family is back. Grandpa Henry has been cured of his liver ailment. Grandma Eunice had been cured of her insanity and dementia. As for Lucius, well, let us just say that he has returned from the Manchester River; wet and slimy, maybe, but still adding a swagger to his walk.

         But why are they there now? Walter asks himself under his breath, while he flutters his fingers together just under his nose. 

         Walter stands up at once. He retrieves his huge, red robe from the floor; and he proceeds out of the room without looking back. 

         Whiskers watches him go. He is not used to seeing his owner waddle with such determination. He really does not want to leave his comfy spot on the bed but, at the same time, cannot just set his curiosity aside. He gets up, stretches his paws, and runs out of the bedroom. 

         Whiskers is about midway down the steps, when he observes his owner in a huff. Walter must be going through one of his loony phases again. Whiskers is curious, but he decides to remain on the staircase as Walter bolts out the door.

         And, indeed, Walter is pissed. He is beside himself with contempt.

         What right do they have to be there? He mutters through his spittle. This is my home now, goddamn them. This is my life. Why can’t the dead stay dead?

         Walter almost falls, while stepping off the porch. He should stop to get a bit of his composure back, but he does not. Instead, he pushes himself into that mess of thorns and branches that had been an oasis back in the day. The trail is long gone, of course, but he instinctively knows the direction to the dirty pond.

         Frankly, even if he did not have his instincts, his nose would take him to that spot. The rotten smell is everywhere, but it is especially potent where the slime and the feces bubbles out of the cracks beneath the pond. He senses that the cracks are open tombs as much as birth canals. They push out new life, but the new life is animated death. What passes for new life here are those ghosts; ghosts with dark, damp feathers, long necks, and eyes as radiant red as the sun at dusk. Condemning eyes, the kind that undress the condemned, the kind that burn the verdict into the heart; for Walter is as much a caged rat as the others.

         And so Walter cannot escape. He can push through the bramble, scream out vitriol at the thorns scraping against his skin, but he simply cannot escape…

         Sure enough, he reaches the pond only to find that the four black swans, the two grandparents, and the two brothers, are staring at him. They are silent and still, almost like statues; and for a brief moment, Walter wonders if he had been fooled by a quartet of black swan statutes someone had put in his garden.

         But those are not the eyes of statues. There is too much life in that sick, menacing look; too much virility in their scorn. Yes, they are as dead right now as they had been years ago; but the verdict that they have rendered is as much a weight to be born today as it would have been back then. 

         Scat, you fucking nigger birds, Walter screams.

         Except his scream is little more than a hoarse whisper. Moreover, Walter is halfhearted even to that extent, for he senses already that those black swans have won this round. The birds sense his futility, for they do not even bother to flap a feather in response to his weak command.

         Walter backtracks. The black swans watch his every move, until he is no longer observable through the thick foliage. 

         Those nigger birds judge me, Walter mutters, while leaving his deranged garden behind. What gall! What has this world come to that they can judge me?

         He almost says, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ He stops himself, for he remembers well enough what he had done; or more accurately failed to do…

         He waddles back up the porch steps. He is so out of his mind that his red robe nearly falls off his trembling flesh. He grabs a hold of his cincture, as he is pushing open his front door. May God be damned if he allows them to view him naked, his raw flesh shivering on the way to the gallows, just before he escapes back into his sprawling, creaking house beside the screaming Manchester River.

         But is the house a refuge? Can the rat find any spot in his cage that he is able to call his own? Or do the ghosts haunt every last inch of that dark jail cell in hell? Walter can answer each of these questions, but he chooses not to do so as he waddles up the staircase (almost stepping on Whiskers, who skirts quickly to the side and hisses in response) and back into his bedroom. He shuts the old, heavy door behind him. He misses closing the door on Whiskers’ tail by an inch.

*   *   *

         Darkness is everywhere. It is the remnant of a cosmos that has grown too cold to generate even the smallest spurt of radiance from a dwarf star. Trillion upon trillions of dead planets, rocks robbed of whatever atmosphere they may have had once upon a time, spiraling so far into deep space as to be eventually infinitely removed from one another. The end of the universe is loneliness; raw despair writ large on a night sky that is no longer illuminated by sparkling stars.

         The past is prologue, and so the same darkness is everywhere just before a baby is pushed through his mother’s birth canal. He has been released by his mother, but not yet born; and so, in that moment, he is totally alone. His first, conscious impression is not maternal love. It is despair, and he will grasp onto that despair as his first and best understanding of the world outside of himself. Wistful sadness, abandonment, loss, death, these are man’s best friends, for it is only in the depths of his despair that he can see the cold, distant universe as his home. So embrace the sickness, the madness, anything really that separates us from one another, because it is only when we are completely alone, dead to the world, that finally we are alive…

         Or so Walter tells himself with the mind of a sixty-two year old, but with the voice of a sixteen year old. The dichotomy is so jarring, indeed frightening, that Walter consciously forgets that insight that he has had about the darkness. Subconsciously, though, that insight remains. He senses it as the cold, clammy, creepy feeling of being violated by hands that come out of the shadows…

         Hands that grab his nightshirt, and shake him out from his dream…

         Walter opens his eyes. He stares into the face of his Grandma Eunice. He sees the alcoholic madness in her eyes, even before he smells the liquor on her breath. Her eyes seem to be swimming in their sockets; totally lost, even when they are focused. 

         Wake up, Walter, Grandma Eunice says in her typically haughty, vaguely foreign accent (though in fact she never even went ‘across the pond’ to Europe and thus had to copy the accents of those society ladies, who had demonstrably noble blood in their perfumed veins). 

         He is awake now, and yet Grandma Eunice does not notice at first. She is still shaking his nightshirt collar, like he is dead to the world. 

         Lucius steps forward. He has a flickering candle in his left hand. With his right index finger, he pokes Grandma Eunice in the back. 

         There is a silly expression on Lucius’ face, as if he had dipped a few too many times into Grandma Eunice’s sherry downstairs. That is possible. Since he returned from college about a month ago, he has been spending the bulk of his after supper hours whispering and drinking with his Grandma in the sitting room downstairs, while Walter eats alone in his bedroom, and waits for Lucius to call it a night. Lucius always shares Walter’s bed; but somewhere in the back of his mind, Walter has been wondering of late if that too is going to change. Perhaps one of these nights, after putting away a couple of bottles, Lucius will go on to follow his Grandma into her bedroom for a ‘nightcap’ behind closed doors… 

         Walter sees that silliness, but he senses the fear lurking behind the eyes.

         A scheme is afoot. Lucius is going forward with it, but he is not nearly as stoic in his resolve as he had imagined he would be. Indeed, the fear behind his eyes, the fear narrowing his brow and dropping a single tear of sweat down his left cheek, suggests that he’d rather be anywhere else but here. Only pride and ego, a pair of enormous, untamed broncos kicking up dirt in the arena, are able to explain now why he is standing in Walter’s bedroom and holding up a candle. Remove some of that pride and ego; and it is doubtful that Lucius would go on to play a part in Grandma’s scheme, even if that meant that for the rest of her life she called him ‘one of the boys.’ Better to be thought a faggot than to be a conspirator. Better to be sleeping with Walter than to be helping Grandma now to wake him up from his dead sleep.

         Why are you poking me in the back, Lucy? Grandma Eunice asks irritably.

         Lucy? Walter thinks. Since when is my only brother, Lucius, named Lucy?

         Because Walter is already awake, Lucius responds to Grandma Eunice. If you open your eyes, then you will see.

         My eyes are open, you pecker peeper, Grandma Eunice snaps back.

         Lucius holds the candle close to Walter’s face. 

         So you are awake, Grandma Eunice snaps at Walter. Why didn’t you tell me? Or did you hold back because you have convinced yourself this is all a joke?

         Walter almost says, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ He senses his error before he gives voice to it. If he had said that, then no doubt his mad, but pretty, grandmother would have smacked his face as dark red as a ladybug.

         The reason is simple enough, once one understands Grandma Eunice: If a boy does not have a clue what an adult is saying, then either that boy is faking ignorance to try to get out of his duty, or he is mentally lazy. Either way, he is the kind of boy who deserves an open hand to his face or a wooden spoon to his ass. Grandma Eunice can and will dish out either punishment on the spot, since she cannot imagine shaping a boy without first beating him back into the womb from which he had been born. 

         Furthermore, regardless of what Grandma Eunice would have done, it is just not correct for Walter to suggest he has no idea what is about to go down. In fact, Walter has been anticipating this night, since the day his brother came back from college. Walter has not been able to reconcile his mixed emotions on this matter, so he feels that he looks as scared to Lucius, as Lucius does to him.

         Walter pulls his blanket aside. He sits up, and he rubs the sleep out from his eyes. That does not improve his eyesight much. It is terribly dark, but for an eerie, disorienting, ghost light from Lucius’ candle. Grandma Eunice and Lucius look like a pair of ghoulish faces floating in the darkness. Even more disturbing, the faces are almost identical; two alpha ghouls that have made a pact for this cursed night, but who will not be able to live under the same roof much longer.

         Walter tries not to think about where all this is headed. He scans for his clothes on the floor. He figures if indeed he is dressing, then he is not thinking.

         There is no time for that, Grandma Eunice scolds. 

         Walter gives up the search at once. He stands beside his bed, and slides his fat feet into a pair of slippers. He anxiously awaits further instructions from the woman in charge of this late night scheme. 

         Grandma Eunice is wearing a simple housedress. There is a deep pocket on the right side of her skirt. She reaches into this pocket, and retrieves a long, perfumed candle just like the one that Lucius has. 

         She hands it to Walter without saying a word. She acts like Walter knows (or should know) the significance of the candles.

         While Walter holds up the candle, Grandma Eunice retrieves a filthy and water stained matchbook from the same pocket. Walter almost imagines a big, airy, gift bag at the fairgrounds, rather than a housedress pocket. He does not complete that mental image, for he is too stressed right now to focus his mind on anything, except Grandma Eunice’s pretentious accent and choice of words.

         Grandma Eunice lights his candle. 

         With the second flickering candlelight, the three of them stand in a tiny circle at the exact spot where almost a half century later Rexford Muldoon will take care of Walter with his eyes. There is one circle with two lights and three persons. The one, two, three pattern presumably has some meaning. If it does, then Grandma Eunice will know, though she may not share that knowledge with them. Over the years, the two brothers have learned that Grandma Eunice only shares what she needs to share to achieve her end. The rest she ponders within her cagey old heart, like the Virgin Mary when visited by the Archangel Gabriel.

         Grandma Eunice exits the circle. Walter catches her haughty grin, but on the whole she remains an expressionless, granite façade, a witch so much older than her years as to be seemingly defiant of time and of nature. Every now and then, Walter has sensed her underlying timelessness, her squeaky slippers more or less synonymous with the creaks in the walls, her contemptuous sighs as if a breeze under the eaves. He has wondered where the house ends and she starts, as if he is able to separate the two from one another mentally. These insights, lingering in the subconscious mind, fleeting in the conscious one, thus far have kept Grandma Eunice veiled in mystery. For Walter at least, and maybe also for Lucius, Grandma Eunice is loved truly to the extent she is a kind of intellectual and moral conundrum. She kindles the heart like the promise of the Oracle can provide a purpose and a resolve to a man otherwise lost at sea. If only I can get to Delphi, that seafarer thinks, then the mysteries can be unraveled before me.

         Lucius follows upon her wooden heels (clump, clump, clump), like he is a bridesmaid holding up her train. His hips swagger, daintily, effeminately, but in a way also cloyingly; like he is trying desperately to be the pretty girl that their Grandma refers to as ‘Lucy,’ but cannot quite get the step. Lucius holds his lit candle before his chest, like he is in a solemn procession; but the flicker of the candlelight upon his face suggests the mercurial flame beneath that solemnity. Lucius is about ready to explode then. Walter almost smells his brother’s sexual desire. It is a lonely, loathsome smell, what one experiences when a bathroom door has been shut and a single, buzzing light bulb turned off. Walter desires so much to cry out for his brother and to drag him back into his bed until the first indication of dawn. Smother that mercurial flame. Let that sex smell dissipate. Force the moment to pass, so that Lucius is again his older brother come home from college to share secrets only with him. 

         Walter follows his brother. He too holds his lit candle before his chest in a solemn manner. He imagines a funeral dirge. In his conscious mind, it sounds like the Dies Irae, except even slower and drearier, if that is possible. Deeper, somewhere in the bowels of his heart, it is a wretched cry of dereliction, a sad, toneless expression much more akin to the wail of a grieving beast than a score performed by an orchestra and a choir. Only ostensibly does he grieve just now for his brother. Much more so he grieves for himself, the life about to be lost in a dark and sordid tribute to the demons, the innocence to be drenched in warm and diseased blood. He does not think about the actual life to be taken upstairs and in the darkness, for that life has been shown to be so small and miserable, so common, as no longer to warrant any feeling but cold, murderous contempt.

         Or so Walter tries to tell himself. The problem is that Walter is not at all convinced in his heart that Grandpa Henry is so small and miserable. He desires so much to be of one mind with his Grandma Eunice and Lucius, to have been a part of those long suppers that the two of them have shared since Lucius finally came home, even if only as the chubby boy left in the corner to fetch the dirty plates and utensils afterwards. There is a kind of family in conspiracy, a shared purpose, a treasure of secrets, a language hidden in glances and in faked smiles when strangers happen to step into that scene. Indeed, there can be no family, no conspiracy, without the stranger, for the family is what the stranger cannot quite grasp, let alone share. The family is what is roped off from that stranger. Grandpa Henry of course is a stranger. He is hidden away in an attic, forced to writhe in his last agony alone, unable to hear the whispers, the clink of glasses, the occasional laugh from the sitting room after supper. Walter understands as much, but what grieves him so is that he too is a stranger to that family. Maybe they have sensed all along his weakness for his Grandpa Henry, the smiling man with the cocktails and the cigarettes who urges him to get nearer and dearer to one of the black swans. Maybe they have awakened him now to permit him one more chance to show that he too can be a part of their family. 

         If so, then he should relish the opportunity; and yet he cannot remember his heart ever being heavier. He follows his brother’s swishy butt up the narrow and claustrophobic staircase. He holds his end in the demonic procession, his lit candle flickering obscene images off the wall as much as his brother’s, indeed, perhaps even more so. His steps fall rhythmically in line with Grandma Eunice’s clump, clump, clump, like he is the back end of a drill platoon. Nonetheless, in spite of all that, he senses that he is falling away from them, like a caboose let loose from the rest of the train and left to slide backwards to a stop. Truly how is it that he can be in the family, now, finally, and yet also be so alone in all of his wretched, chubby, soft weakness? How is it that he cannot fit into the dark, cannibalizing love that Grandma Eunice and Lucius clearly have for each other, even now when the moment of action has come? Why must he always stand off to the side, his voice weak, his will unequal to the cause, his spirit labored and lost? Suffer the little children, He says; but that is a lie, for no one suffers him.

         Grandma Eunice stops at the door that leads into the attic. She retrieves a large iron key from within her oversized pocket. Walter imagines the key to a medieval dungeon. He is torn between looking up to his grandmother as a witch queen and hating what is about to happen to his grandfather. The tension in his bowels makes him want to vomit, and he has to brace himself so as not to faint three steps down from the top of the staircase.

         Walter does not make a sound, and yet Lucius must sense his anxiety. He glances over his right shoulder to look down on his younger brother. Lucius now is no longer grinning. Indeed, his private hell is plastered all over his handsome face. The result is an aged, confused, lost Lucius totally foreign to the youthful chap who had swaggered down the driveway from the front gate. 

         Still, notwithstanding Lucius’ problems, he gives his younger brother the kind of disdainful look that says: ‘Man up, will you? This is bad enough for all of us without your little, fat girl weakness on display. Or maybe you are not fit for our family. Is that your problem? Does the ‘little, fat girl’ want to run from us?’    

         Walter somehow holds himself together. He does not look at Lucius’ cold and obnoxious stare, but he nevertheless stands his ground well enough. Lucius grins briefly, though it is a halfhearted, trembling effort that just reinforces his total fear at that moment. Lucius then turns back, and faces the old attic door.

         Grandma Eunice rattles the key. There is a gurgling sound from the other side. It is as if she has trained Grandpa Henry to respond just like Pavlov’s dog.

         Henry, Grandma Eunice calls out imperiously. Time for your medicine…

         There is a prolonged, hacking cough from the other side. Presumably this is as good an answer as Grandpa Henry can provide. It would be better, frankly, if he remained silent, because the poor guy sounds like he is choking on his own phlegm. Most likely, that is exactly what is happening in there.

         Grandma Eunice looks back at her boys. There is no anxiety on her face. She is cold, certain, and deliberate. Her eyes are as steady as those found on a statue; and, just then, Walter wonders if indeed she has been transfigured into something less than human. Raw power is so beautiful, but it is also so terribly, irreversibly dehumanizing; and Walter anyway realizes that he can never again love his grandmother without simultaneously fearing her as he would any beast.

         It is time, Grandma Eunice scolds them. Do not fail your Grandpa.

         What a strange thing to say, especially since it is clear in the context she very much means what she says. Indeed, upon reflection, it is Grandpa who will be released from his pain and his sorrow. Moreover, it is Grandpa who will have been failed, if the act is not performed well enough to put him out of his awful misery. So, yes, regardless of those petty ambitions pursued, scores settled, or sorrows indulged in the seconds it takes to release the old man’s ghost, what is going to happen in there is all about Grandpa Henry. After all, murder means a whole lot more to the man murdered than it does to anyone else then involved.

         Grandma Eunice waits until both boys look straight into her dead eyes. It is like looking into two black holes. 

         Convinced that they are on board, Grandma Eunice then unlocks the old attic door. She pushes it open with a terrible creaking sound. Walter imagines a single vertebrae being ripped down the middle like confetti shreds from a piece of paper. The ripping sound is clear, intense, almost deafening in its impact on an exhausted, befuddled, ‘little, fat girl.’ Walter figures that he is about to be slapped across his red, cheeky face, and so he braces himself for that hot hand.

         There is no slap. There is just silence, followed by the smell of Ben-Gay.

         Ben-Gay and booze, actually, for both soothe inflamed muscles in a way.

         Grandma Eunice steps inside at once. Seconds later, her boys follow her.

         Grandma Eunice walks to the side of the bed without any hesitation. Her boys remain closer to the open door, unsure what to do, frightened of the dark shadows that seem to hang from everywhere like thick cobwebs. 

         Sit up, Henry, Grandma Eunice orders. I’ve got a red pill for you tonight.

         Walter does not see Grandpa Henry at all. He sees a hospital bed laid so flat as to look like a mortuary slab. He also sees a mess of blankets. Although it is too dark for Walter to tell for sure, there seem to be three or four unopened booze bottles nestled in the blanket folds. These booze bottles presumably are Grandpa Henry’s version of a little boy’s collection of teddy bears. 

         We all end up at the beginning, literally beaten back into the womb…

         Grandma Eunice bends down. There is a gurgling, choking sound, but she apparently can make out words from all that pain and suffering. Or perhaps she decides what the words should be and attributes them to her helpless husband. Walter determines that the latter is much more probable. No doubt, in one way or another, Grandma Eunice has been putting words into her husband’s mouth, stuffing them passed his heart and into his bowels, from the day that they met.

         Yes, I agree, Grandma Eunice says to her husband. The red pill is lovely.

         Walter winces. That is surely his grandmother’s word. He cannot fathom Grandpa Henry describing anything as ‘lovely.’ The Old Aussie would have been convinced that his pecker would fall off the moment he started to indulge even a few of those ‘poof’ words. Even in his current state, he is not so far gone that he wants to feel his pecker slide down the side of his leg and fall onto the dark floor. He may be a sickly gnome beneath his blankets, but he has some respect.

         The very idea that Grandpa Henry has some respect still fills Walter with a dread he had not experienced when walking up the stairs. What if a flicker of candlelight reveals that there is still virile life in Grandpa Henry’s eyes? What if those eyes scream out ‘I am not yet ready to go,’ but the three of them do the deed anyway? What if there is not even an inkling of suicide in this sick murder?

         Grandma Eunice reaches beneath Henry’s upper back. She hoists him up with much more strength than her small frame would suggest. She holds him at about a forty-five degree angle, as she gathers his last red pill from her pocket.

         She glances back at her boys. In sunlight, the expression on her face just then would have suggested the impatience of an old lady apparently put out by the fact that her boys are not stepping up to the plate as fast as she would like them to do so. In the flickering candlelight, though, hers is a face of contorted, red sores, a devil’s face, the ugliness of death stirred suddenly and violently up from its eternal sleep. Moreover, her eyes are not just intelligent. Her eyes are able and ready to pounce on them, if they do not free up their little hands toot sweet by putting their flames on the bed stand. Why do they think she brought them here? To see the bloodletting from afar, like they are just another couple of guys with overflowing beer steins watching the Wednesday Night Fights with Howard Cosell? Or to wash their hands in the same bloodguilt that redeems us, even as it consigns Dirty Jews like Howard Cosell to the darkest corners of Hell?

         Walter and Lucius both read these questions in the devil’s face. They are sure that, coming from her, these questions are not meant to be rhetorical. For this reason, they are forced to act one way or another. The moment of decision is there. It is a dark and creepy moment that now feels icy cold on their hearts.

         Lucius steps forward first. He glances back at his chubby brother with an earnest, but ultimately failed, attempt at expressing smug disdain. Lucius’ fear is simply written too boldly on his face.

         Lucius places his candle on the bed stand. He looks at his brother up and down one more time, though his expression then is so blank as to imply that he has lost whatever capacity he had had before to see his secret bed partner. For all practical purposes, Lucius is totally alone and dead to the world as he takes up his spot beside his Grandma Eunice.

         The spotlight is now on Walter. He cannot recall ever feeling this queasy even when teased back at that one room schoolhouse.

         He looks back at the doorway. The coast is clear. He can waddle back to his bedroom, lock the door, blow out the candle, and hide beneath his blankets until the sun breaks through the darkness. Surely, his grandmother and brother, those two unlikely peas in a pod, will shun him the rest of his years. Surely, he will come to know over every inch of his soul the absolute coldness of isolation. Regardless, he will not do this, not to his Grandpa Henry, and not to himself. In the end he must be able to live within his own skin, flabby and fair though it is.

         But Walter steps forward. He still eyes the doorway, but he walks slowly and methodically up to the bed stand. Somewhere in his mind, or maybe down there in his bowels where his fear is cold and raw, he is indeed trundling down that narrow staircase, skipping steps here or there, focusing his mind upon how he holds his candlelight. God forbid that he should drop his light and set aflame this tinderbox he calls home. God forbid that he should hear the hellish cries of flesh on fire, the groan of an old house about to collapse, the devil’s chuckling.

         But he will not hear anything of the sort, or so he tells himself, because in fact he now places his candlelight beside Lucius’ on the bed stand. He scans the medicines, the soiled tissues, even an old stethoscope that winds about the clutter like a serpent. He smells the warm, coppery scent of blood slithering up to his nostrils from a vomit bucket beside his right foot. More so, he smells, and in a strange way feels, the Ben-Gay that seems to be just about everywhere all at once. He wants to vomit himself just then, but manages to steady his bowels by sheer determination. 

         Snap to it, Walter, Grandma Eunice snarls. 

         Walter sees that Lucius is helping Grandma Eunice by pulling on Grandpa Henry’s right arm. Without further instruction, Walter rushes over to the other side of the hospital bed, grabs a hold of Grandpa Henry’s left arm, and pulls as hard as he can. He is not nearly as strong as Lucius, and so Grandpa Henry tilts towards the right. Nevertheless, together, the two brothers keep the enfeebled man from falling back to his pillow. 

         With the flickering lights behind his back, Grandpa Henry’s face is veiled in darkness; that is, except for his eyes. His eyes poke out from the darkness as if radiated globs of red blood. It is as if his eyes are literally sizzling in their old sickliness. There is even a slight hissing sound, like eggs on a terribly hot frying pan. There is the smell of burning flesh, sulfuric, sickly, grabbing at the back of the throat and rattling bile up from the stomach.

         Creepiest of all, though, is when Grandpa Henry tries to speak. He really tries to form a word. He quivers his tongue against the back of his upper teeth, as if to sing ‘la, la, la, la, la.’ He opens his mouth, and pushes out air, in order to form an elongated ‘uh’ sound. He bites his lips together into a vibrating ‘v.’ He repeats several times, until finally he manages to pull those sounds together into a definite word, a final thought and feeling that slices through the sickness like a knife. Walter hears the word; but even more so he hears how for one last moment the old sickness spurts out and falls away just enough for the real man to emerge from beneath all that sorrow and pain. 

         Love, Grandpa Henry says. 

         There is an uncomfortable silence, as the three of them hear what calls to mind a voice speaking from beneath a grave. Yes, the real Grandpa Henry is there; but he is also a dead man; and it occurs to Walter that, in a manner that defies logic, but that makes sense to his soul, Grandpa Henry has never been so real to them, as when he is dead. For the dead speak. They speak in the ornery groan of an old house settling into a storm. They speak in the wind howling just under the eaves. And, yes, they speak from beneath graves; or in this case, out from the mouths of grey men buried forevermore in their booze and cigarettes.

         Love you, Grandpa Henry rasps. Love you all…

         That is enough, Grandma Eunice states sternly…

         But not sternly enough to mask the fear beneath the surface, for her old and irascible voice breaks noticeably between ‘is’ and ‘enough.’ Moreover, the three of them know that if she had tried to say anything more, she likely would have succumbed to a nervous stutter. Did Henry’s love penetrate even her dark heart just then? Has she been rattled even at the foundation of her witchy soul?

         Walter and Lucius simultaneously look at her. They are overcome by the same fear. Grandma Eunice is this house that protects them from the blackness of the night. She is the concrete foundation that weathers the river behind the back wall and the modern sensibilities beyond the front gate. For them, and for all the ghosts who wander the creaking halls of this house, she is the mainstay; and so their fear is all too visceral when they hear a crack in that stone edifice.

         Grandma Eunice steps away from the bed. She drops the red pill back in her oversized pocket. So Grandpa Henry will not be getting his red pill after all in the end. Instead, he gets the old bait and switch; maybe, payback for having defeated her once with respect to the grandfather clock; or maybe, for another ‘high crime and misdemeanor’ over which Eunice has been stewing for God only knows how long. Regardless, she tilts the scales her way one last time; and, in so doing, she relieves her boys from the fear that, maybe, she is not that hard, old bitch on which they have come to rely as the foundation for their own lives. There is no doubt about it. Just look at how the candlelight flickers off her old eyes. She feels nothing, but contempt for her husband. Her heart is hard, dark, charcoal death black; and the sick grin on her face reveals the extent to which she revels in her own sordidness. Whatever momentary weakness she may have experienced before, there is no sign of it now; and that, more so than Grandpa Henry’s final proclamations of his love, renders unto her boys a sense of peace.

         The peace lasts all of five seconds, before Grandma Eunice slips into the closet and returns with an axe in both of her hands. The axe has a long handle. It is the tool of a lumberjack, not a carpenter, meant to slice through the air in a long arc and to inflict a powerful impact in a relatively large target area. She grips it at the base of the handle, and holds it up in a “present arms” formation as if waiting for an okay from an imaginary drill instructor. The sharp edge juts out from her face in such a way as to divide it into two perfect halves. There is an eye on either side of the axe blade. Her eyes are focused, but they are also lifeless, incapable of empathy, fashioned for no other purpose than murder. All of the light in her soul, however much there may have been before this time, is gone. Instead, the devil’s candlelight flickers red and yellow ghouls off her face and axe blade; thus suggesting an imminent attack by an otherworldly monster.

         Grandpa Henry drops his head. Drool streams down his lower lip. Both of his arms tremble ever so slightly. He may be experiencing yet another attack of nausea, but Walter senses that there is more going on here. It is as if somehow Grandpa Henry knows that he is about to experience the worst possible pain to the back of his head. Yes, indeed, the dead know; and the dead speak.

         Walter and Lucius grab a hold of his elbows and push upward hard, so as to keep Grandpa Henry sitting in an upright position. In essence, they are trying to stabilize the target. 

         Grandpa Henry struggles. It is a feeble effort; and yet it demonstrates to everyone there that he does not embrace suicide, notwithstanding how sick he is. He tries to groan something or other, but he only ends up making a gurgling sound in the back of his throat that sounds vaguely homosexual. 

         Walter glances at his brother. He can see from the contemptuous look on Lucius’ face just then that he is thinking the same thing. Grandpa Henry may as well have padded knees and a belly full of cum, because Lucius cannot think of his grandfather with any more hatred than he does this very moment.

         Walter thinks about his own feelings. He feels no contempt, no hatred in his mind or heart; indeed, beyond that fear that has been gripping at his heart since Grandma Eunice awakened him from his sleep, Walter feels a strong wave of nostalgic love for the relationship he and his granddaddy had had in the past and, in a way, even have now. Walter is not sure he can remain here too much longer, let alone continue to push up hard against his granddaddy’s left elbow; and yet, at the same time, he desperately fears losing his ticket to the twisted, but real, family life still developing between Grandma Eunice and Lucius. He is so conflicted internally that he imagines the fat around his midsection catching fire at any moment and putting an immediate end to this sick drama. 

         Grandma Eunice raises the axe above her head. There is a strained smile on her face now as she musters up all of her strength to lift the blade over her head. Nevertheless, ever ladylike, she does not grunt. Nor does she sweat. She instead glows in the flickering candlelight like some sort of an evil sweet angel.

         Grandma Eunice rotates the axe blade, when it is behind her lower back and about to be hoisted upward. She moves the axe in the subtle manner of an ‘old hand.’ Has she cut wood outside over the years? Probably not, since that is hardly a ladylike activity. More likely, she has committed murder with the long handle axe before. If so, then God only knows what other horrors she (or some boys she recruited) has thrown into that Manchester River at the witching hour.

         There is an audible swoosh. The top of the axe blade clips a rusted, old ceiling lamp that has been inoperable since about the time of Methuselah. Just for a second, the ceiling lamp rattles creakily, like a metal beast screaming out vitriol for having been awakened from its long slumber. The ceiling lamp is still and silent again as the long flat end of the axe blade hits its intended target at the very end of a long arc. 

         Grandpa Henry makes no sound, as the back part of his head bursts open and squishes inward. His arms tighten, though, no doubt from the last explosion of pain sent from his brain to the ends of his nerves. His chin slams improbably into his own Adam’s apple. His head does not bounce back up from this strange position. As a result, the head wound can be viewed as easily from the front as from the back. It is as if God wants to make sure that no one misses this horrid gore fest, which at first glance and in the flickering candlelight looks like some sot of rotten pumpkin smashed inward by an axe wielding loon. The wound is so much wider precisely because Grandma Eunice had used the flat end. Not a job for precision cutting, apparently, though as a result there will be a lot of blood and brain splattered every which way from the wide trenches dug into his skull.    

         Walter and Lucius drop Grandpa Henry’s arms. Walter shrieks, and walks backward, until his back is against the wall. He turns his right hand over, so as to rub his right palm against the wall. The splinters poke deeply enough into his skin as to shed blood. The throbbing pain from the puncture wounds, the warm blood slithering down his palm, the attic wall pushing against his hard back, all of these sensations combine to remind him that, indeed, he is in a certain time and place. This is important, because if left to the devices of his fearful, crazy imagination alone he would be floating in mad darkness right now, unable to be aware of anything in particular, craven in his insanity. 

         Lucius does not step away. He looks down at the blood pulp, which used to be his grandfather. His contemptuous grin appears so frozen on his face as to be unreal; but his eyes are lively, sinister, scheming, looking for the weak point to exploit; amoral, beastly eyes, to be sure, but at least fully alive.

         Walter senses that Lucius is as mad as he is. Nevertheless, Lucius hides it behind a veneer of contempt. Lucius’ contempt is his way of suggesting that he is handling this situation and thus has no respect for those who are dead (life’s biggest losers) or who are weak (life’s next biggest losers). All fine and good, to be sure, except that everything apart from his contemptuous grin and his lively eyes suggests that he is in fact way over his head. He may act like the lifeguard from the neck up, but below the neck he is flailing desperately in the enormous waves. The nervous way that he wrings his hands is proof positive of his terrible anguish. Walter almost feels sorry for his older brother. He had never felt sorry for his older brother before tonight, and he is not certain what to make of that sudden departure from the ‘hero worship’ with which he is accustomed.

         Grandma Eunice stares at Lucius. She must view the very same weakness behind his grin, for she walks over to the edge of the hospital bed, and compels him to take the axe from her hands. She does not speak to Lucius. Her eyes are sparkling, like silver dollar coins in candlelight; and somehow that alone is able to convey everything that could be said at this time. 

         Lucius looks at the long handle, like he cannot figure out what it is. He is no longer smiling. Rather, his lips move ever so slightly. He could be a man just trying to figure out the next clue in a crossword puzzle…

         Or he could be coming to terms with what it really means to be counted forever among the murderers and the knaves…

         Lucius slowly, thoughtfully, starts to smile again. It is as contemptuous a smile as before, except this time it is real. Apparently, he has come to term in his own mind anyway with being a murderer and a knave. There is a real family among murderers, a brotherhood literally bound in blood, a home designated in this lifetime and in the next for the damned.

         Walter watches with stunned fascination as Lucius finally stops searching for his place in this world. Now what Walter had inferred earlier is definite and beyond dispute: Lucius is home, in this attic, with the blood smeared axe in his hands, and with the spirit of a murderous fiend forever etched into his youthful handsomeness. In Lucius, there is no more conflict; and Walter envies him that.

         Grandma Eunice steps back to the head of the hospital bed. 

         All three of them look at the blood pulp. Grandpa Henry is dead. He very likely would have died within minutes even if his bride had not struck him upon the back of his head. So there is nothing for Lucius to do but to defile a corpse.

         But that too is a kind of murder, is it not? Removing any person’s dignity, when that person is no longer in a position to defend himself; changing how we remember his last moments aboveground; transforming in death the semblance of a man into the semblance of a piece of road kill; these are all acts of murder if not legally, then morally and existentially. Indeed, as Walter observes all this from a wall several paces away, he senses that when Lucius is done doing what he is about to do Lucius will be much more the murderer of their Grandpa than Grandma Eunice had been. Grandma Eunice had killed a body about to die; but Lucius, so sinister, so handsome, will defile how we recall and hold onto a soul.

         To that end, Lucius slams the sharp edge of the axe blade savagely, and repeatedly, into the back of Grandpa Henry’s corpse. Blood splatters like thick, red juice from a blender that has not been properly covered. Bone shards stick to the axe blade, only to fall from the blade and onto the floor when he raises that blade again over his head. Gooey muscle tissue slithers off the blade much more slowly. The muscle tissue falls to the floor and collects down there as oily and bloody clumps beside his shoes. 

         At one point, Lucius slams the axe blade into nerves in Grandpa Henry’s left shoulder. Apparently, there is residual life left in the nerve endings, since in response to that strike the left arm starts to flop on the bed erratically. It is a macabre, electrical fit straight out of a Dr. Frankenstein film that highlights a point often forgotten in the course of an attack: The body may be clinically and legally dead, but it takes a little while for all the motors in there to shut down.

         Grandma Eunice reaches forward from the head of the bed, grasps some of her husband’s hair, and pulls backward. She intends to place the back of her husband’s head on the pillow, so that Lucius then can proceed with his beating against the front side of the corpse. The problem is that Lucius had inflicted so many neck wounds that the spine snaps in two, and she decapitates the corpse.

         Grandma Eunice holds the head up. She had not realized just how much damage had been inflicted against the back of the neck, and so she is genuinely bewildered. She reclaims her bitchy game face soon enough, and makes a point of tossing the head contemptuously to the other end of the bed; but the savage mood had been broken, nevertheless. 

         Lucius stops slamming his axe blade into the corpse. Instead, he catches his breath while watching Grandpa Henry’s head settle beside Grandpa Henry’s left foot. There is also a bewildered look on Lucius’ face, though he is not here surprised by the decapitation as much as he is coming out of a mental fog. And, truth be told, is there a glint of shame in that confused look? Is there a hint of the young man who, before this night, had had some vague sense of morality in his psyche? Hard to tell, but what is more certain is that that mood has passed; and Lucius anyway no longer has any passion for defiling Grandpa Henry’s body.

         There is total silence, except for the sound of Lucius’ haggard breathing. God only knows how long the three of them are lost in their own thoughts. It is perhaps just a matter of seconds, but it feels like minutes upon minutes. Really time is difficult to measure when standing ankle deep in any dead man’s blood, but that is especially true of the contemptuous murderer looming over his prey.

         It’s your turn, Walter, Grandma Eunice says. Time to join the family…

         Walter remains plastered against the wall. He sees the two sets of eyes. They are staring him down, to be sure; but those eyes are also removing his red slippers, his stretchy underwear, even his flabby skin. He is naked in their eyes.

         Consumed by fear and shame, Walter hardly notices Lucius walking up to him. Even when Lucius hands him the axe, and the blood, bones, and organs on the long handle start to slide off the handle and onto Walter’s slippers, Walter has only a vague sense of what he has in his hands and what he is ordered to do with it. Instead, in Walter’s mind, he is a little boy, violated, alone, given over to the monsters that live in the shadows and come out when the witches strike.

*   *   *

         The monsters that live in the shadows…

         And come out when the witches strike…

         Walter awakens from the dead. His right eye opens groggily. His left eye remains shut, like he is a one-eyed zombie crawling out from beneath the earth for no other reason than to scratch at the moonless sky with his claws. Okay, so he is deranged. Dr. Watson could determine as much without having to barge in on his friend’s late night cocaine binge. As much as he endeavors to deny all of the skeletons hanging in his closet, instead projecting outward his inner shame by seeing the world outside as shameful, he accepts in his more lucid moments that his mind now and then screeches off the two-lane highway to do some off-roading. Even if he had not been gifted with that much self-introspection (Or is it a curse?), he would never be able to deny the deranged man reflected every day off of Whisker’s eyes. Thus, he accepts his flirtations with madness as part and parcel of his character; a spasm or a hiccup that can be stilled with a huge bowl full of ice cream, chocolate syrup and M&Ms. 

         And so as much as he is aware of his insanity, what really bothers him at this moment is the extent to which his stomach is growling. He had assumed he would awaken yesterday, but the first rays of dawn are creeping into his dusty, cramped bedroom. He sits up in his bed, and stares out the window through his one good eye. Sure enough, the purple light is just now drawing the garden out from the darkness. The world is developing like an image within a Kodak frame.

         That means he has been asleep at least twenty hours. 

         Twenty hours without the munchies; twenty hours without a ‘ta-ta’ toast (or two or three) to the White Man’s Burden; twenty hours without a pee break in his favorite bathroom, while Whiskers stares up at him with those mysterious and sinister eyes. No wonder his stomach is growling. Just another hour or two, and he is likely to look and to feel like an Auschwitz survivor. 

         Well, perhaps not an Auschwitz survivor, Walter thinks, as he looks away from the garden scene outside and shakes the fat folds around his midsection. I am still a candidate to be ‘Santa Claus’ at the Beverly Mall next Christmastime.

         Walter chuckles. It is a weak laugh, but it is enough to open his left eye.

         Walter eyes his red robe on the floor. He is about to grab it off the floor when suddenly that mantra returns from somewhere in his dreamscape. He has little recognition of the dream itself, which he senses is a blessing; and so that mantra stands apart as something important, something that demands fast and concerted action to prevent a much worse occurrence.

         The monsters that live in the shadows…

         And come out when the witches strike…

         Now, suppose all those ‘monsters’ can be encapsulated into one monster and that one monster looks and prowls suspiciously like a Dragon Li…

         Walter looks up from his tummy in time to see Whiskers pounce out from inside a shadow on the top shelf of his Qing armoire. Whiskers lands on the side of an iron cage. There is a squealing rat in that cage, a ghastly beast with stark red eyes that wants to chew off the face of any man or cat that manages to get close enough to its bloodstained dagger teeth. Whiskers recognizes the danger, and so he keeps his belly and his face away from the iron bars. He only extends his right claw into the maelstrom. His claw sways and stabs viciously at the sick beast, while the rat in turn squirms about the cage seeking a good opportunity to level that damned cat with an effective counterpunch. 

         Enough, Whiskers! Walter screams out in a voice not much stronger than a hoarse whisper. If anyone is going to be torturing rats around here, then that person is going to be me. 

         Walter feels good for the first time since God knows when. He attributes this goodness to a daydream that he entertains just then: He has pounced onto the iron cage, while Whiskers watches him from the bed. He cannot tell if he is smaller, or if the iron cage is bigger; but, regardless, the proportions work just right. He stares down at that hideous, squealing rat. The rat stares back at him with the same intensity. They are playing a game of ‘chicken,’ apparently; and he intends to win that game. Sure enough, the rat trembles first. He reaches in with long, dirty fingernails that are as deadly as any cat’s claws. He stabs with no hesitation at that mangy rat fur. He turns two of his fingernails into scissors and cuts the rat’s tail into two slithery halves. He digs a fingernail into the top of the rat’s head, while using two fingernails on his other hand to puncture the rat’s beady, red eyes. The rat’s squeal erupts into a woman’s scream, while rat blood squirts onto his hands and arms. Walter smiles broadly, because that rat blood smells like warm ejaculate. A man’s final ejaculate before the axe falls…

         Walter grabs a handful of M&Ms off of his floor. He weighs it in his hand, like it is precious gold. Then, he pitches the candy towards that rascally cat on the top shelf of the Qing armoire. His throwing arm always has been quite good for a fat man with no athletic inclination whatsoever. Sure enough, he hits that Bull’s eye; and the screaming, hissing cat falls back down to his carpeted floor.

         Whiskers is up again within seconds. He hisses at his owner, lifts his tail, and struts into a corner to lick his wounds. 

         Walter puts on his red robe and slippers. He waddles over to the corner; and, after considerable huffing and puffing, squats down in front of his cat. He smiles broadly, while Whiskers intones an annoying ‘wow wow wow’ sound that indicates that he is ready for ‘Round Two.’ Walter is not afraid. He knows that Whiskers is not going to attack him, no matter how pissed off he is at this time. After all, Whiskers is a survivor; and like all survivors, he knows better than to claw the jowly face of the man who feeds him.

         Oh, pouty pussy, you think I can’t wield the axe? Walter asks. Well, think again. I can take out ‘nine lives’ with one swing of my blade. I double dare you to try me. Heck, I triple dare you. Ta-Ta!

         Walter wiggles his fingers beneath his nose and laughs, when he exclaims ‘ta-ta’ just inches from his cat’s wet nose. He lets himself laugh until his flabby face turns red and his belly hurts. Then, he stifles that maniacal belly bop just as fast as he had started it, thus calling to question the sincerity of the laugh in the first place. No matter, because Whiskers already thinks his owner is a loon; and nobody else is there to witness how Walter turns on and off his emotions as if a water faucet. Walter himself appears not to care if his emotions are real or not. He regards his own emotions as only keys to be stroked for advantage.

         Do not fret, kitty cunt, Walter says, after he manages finally to huff and to puff his way back to his fat feet. I’d never use the axe on you…

         Just like you didn’t use it on your Grandpa Henry, Walter thinks…

         Walter is embarrassed by his own thought. He tightens his cincture, like his robe is about to fall from his flesh. He imagines being exposed to the whole universe, and the very idea turns his cheeks crimson red. He fights back the hot blush, but it takes a while for his heart to stop kicking in overdrive in his chest. He finally calms down; but the sweat upon his face convinces him that it is high time for a bath, even though it is not the day of the week set aside for bathing.

         Come, kitten queer, Walter says. It is ‘Tiny Bubbles’ Time!

         Walter places Don Ho’s Tiny Bubbles on the Victor Talking Machine. He is careful to keep his bedroom door wide open, so that he can hear the song as he is drawing a hot bath in the bathroom across the hallway. 

         Whiskers joins him in the bathroom. He is still a little miffed. Heck, he is always at least a little miffed at something or other; but he really loves how his owner lets him curl up on the bathroom sink, while his owner slips in and out of consciousness inside the bubble bath. Also, sometimes his owner is so calm and happy when he leaves the bathtub that he hands his favorite cat a treat or two.

*   *   *

         Whiskers gets his treat. 

         Walter feels a bit better from having taken a long and lazy bath upstairs, but he is still exhausted. Too much sleep will do that to anyone, but something else is going on here. He had had a terrible dream; and though he cannot recall it, except as disjointed, macabre bits and pieces, neither can he shake the last impression from that dark and twisted journey into dreamland. 

         The monsters that live in the shadows…

         And come out when the witches strike…

         He feels like he is being watched. He has not seen any of those damned, filthy, black swans since awakening from the grave this morning; but he is sure that they are out there still, waiting for him, perhaps, even glaring at him now through the dusty moth holes in his curtains. He imagines the idiot eye of a silly birdbrain staring through one of those holes. There is almost nothing to capture in that blank stare, except the persistence of an unthinking beast; a monster in long, wet feathers and soiled, webbed feet that has no other purpose inside its pee brain, but to hound him back into his mother’s womb…

         Because Grandma Eunice cannot imagine remaking a boy, even a boy as fat and as reticent as her ‘Little Walter,’ without first stuffing every inch of his pork and gristle back into his mother’s womb…

         A womb as dark and as craggy as a tomb…

         A tomb into which he is to be buried alive…

         Walter shudders from the thought. He is scrambling eggs on his stove. He has to lean against the cabinet above that stove, because he is winded already. Perhaps, notwithstanding how many hours he stayed in bed, he did not manage to sleep much. Bad dreams, sleep apnea, Whiskers kneading on his fat belly, or purring into his nose, none of these are particularly helpful for a man who truly needs his eight hours of deep and uninterrupted sleep. 

         So what is it? Too much sleep, or too little sleep? Moreover, why does it matter? How he got so sick and tired with his life means very little. What really matters is that he is so sick and tired. 

         Walter sighs. He feels Whiskers sliding across his left ankle, but he is not taking that bait. Whiskers got his treats. He can wait a bit longer for breakfast.

         Walter slides his scrambled eggs onto a plate. He turns to the freezer to his left, almost kicking the cat in so doing, and grabs that barrel of vanilla bean ice cream that takes up the bulk of his freezer space. 

         He whistles ‘Camp Town Races,’ while he drops a half a dozen scoops of ice cream onto his eggs. He squirts in ketchup. He grabs an old wooden spoon…

         Is it Grandma Eunice’s wooden spoon? He thinks so, because he is able to smell his own butt blood and shredded butt skin on the handle.

         Let that go, Walter mutters halfheartedly, though of course he knows he can do no such thing. He has lived with the ghosts far too long to be able to tell any one of them now to take a hike. 

         And so he grabs the wooden spoon, and mixes that eggs, ice cream, and ketchup concoction that he affectionately calls his ‘Sweet and Sour Sunrise.’ In this context, the ketchup is the sour ingredient. In fact, the ketchup is not sour at all; but he likes the sound of ‘Sweet and Sour Sunrise.’ It plays up to his very refined aesthetic sensibilities.

         He really should have mixed this concoction together in a large bowl. His cat waits patiently for the inevitable droppings from his plate. Nevertheless, he identifies breakfast with plates and dessert with bowls, even if he slurps up his dessert the first thing in the morning. After all, there are those proprieties, all the hangovers of that finer culture and nobler bloodline that are the bread and butter of his soul. He can no more eat breakfast out of a bowl than accept that a colored man carries in his heart a human soul. 

         He starts to carry his breakfast into the ‘family room.’ Whiskers follows a step behind, because his owner’s wobbly walk almost surely means a lot more droppings between the stove and the Lazy Boy.

         There is a flourish of notes dancing upon a harp. It is the front gate bell.

         Normally, on this day of the week, the front gate bell is to be expected; but notwithstanding the bath, Walter still has not awakened entirely from that dream that terrorized him the previous night. He does not hear the pretty harp notes. Rather, he hears a bloodcurdling cry, followed at once by a blood squirt.

         He drops his plate. It shatters on the hardwood floor. 

         Whiskers has a field day, while Walter peers out the window by his door.

         He sees the taxicab driving away. There is a diminutive Latina in a long, dark, shapeless dress standing patiently before the gate. She clutches a simple purse in front of her flat stomach, like muggers and rapists are ready to pounce on her at every turn. Although Walter cannot view her face from this distance, he has seen it hundreds of times. Hers is a frail, mousey face, not unattractive, but neither compelling. It is the kind of face that will slide easily into the grey domain of ghosts, when finally her delicate heart ticks for the last time. Maybe that is why he has employed her for so long. She seems always to have been an unobtrusive fixture in the house. 

         Imelda, Walter mutters. Always on time…

         Walter cannot recall if that is her real name or not. He calls her ‘Imelda’ because, for all her understated, dour simplicity otherwise, she has never worn the same pair of shoes twice on the day she cleans his home. He recalls once or twice trying to explain ‘Imelda Marcos’ to the simple peasant. He finally had to give up when he saw from the blank look in her eyes that she just could not see in her mind what he had been describing. It is not a language barrier. Imelda is almost fluent with her English. Neither is it a lack of intelligence on her part. It is hard for Walter to admit at times, but Imelda seems to have as much natural inquisitiveness and smarts as a white woman her age. No, in Walter’s mind, the communication failure should be blamed entirely on the insurmountable chasm between races and classes. For all that is good about her, and indeed there is a lot, in the end Imelda is a simple ‘Indian Nigger,’ as far as Walter is concerned.

         Walter fumbles for the front gate key in the foyer. Normally, he finds it within seconds. This time, it takes him several minutes of turning over the keys on the foyer table, and searching through the pockets of old, moth eaten coats hung next to the front door, before he finds that for which he is looking. In the meantime, his mind wanders. He sees blood splatter on the attic wall. He hears his own muffled cry, when someone (perhaps not someone, but something, like one of those monsters in the shadows that come out when those witches strike) approaches him with an axe that is still dripping blood and body parts unto the floor. He feels naked, alone, while penetrating eyes emerge from the darkness.

         With the proper key in his hand, Walter steps out the front door. He has on a stained nightshirt and a pair of sandals. His nightshirt snaps in the morning breeze, like a sail catching its second wind and kicking back those waves that, until then, had been beating scars into the hull. 

         For a moment, Walter feels as good as he did when stepping out of that bubble bath earlier this morning. He feels strong, capable, focused in his mind.

         Then, he sees one of those black swans step out from the overgrown and thorny garden. It stops along the side of the driveway, and coldly stares at him.

         Oh, shit, Walter mutters.

         He blushes for having said a ‘naughty word.’ His breath quickens, and he leans against the open front doorway until finally he gets control over his fears.

         Walter walks down the porch steps and onto the driveway. He tries hard to maintain a stoic face, but inside he is as frightened as he had been the night Grandpa Henry died. The eyes of the black swan are dumb, of course, but they are also strangely accusatory. They remind him of what he cannot set aside, no matter how much he shames the world, or insists on his racial privileges, or has a look on his fat face that is equally condescending and prickly. 

         He passes the black swan. He quickens his pace a bit, and he trots along the far side of the driveway. The black swan does not move, but neither does it take its eyes off of his. No doubt, this is a showdown between those ghosts who will not be silenced and Walter’s repeated denials. 

         And why must Walter endure this showdown now? The answer is written into the fabric of this morning as much as it had been scrawled into his dreams. The answer is a stanza Walter mumbles, stupidly, drunkenly, though he has yet to drink anything at all this morning; a stanza of half memories and dark dream impressions that belabors his steps and draws tears from his eyes:

Because the monsters that live in the shadows

And come out when the witches strike

Smell his weakness, his pussy blood

And seduce him to take off his clothes

         Not much of a poem, but in Walter’s psyche anyway, the words hit hard, like the sharpened edge of an axe into dead flesh. There is a squishy sound, the suggestion of blood squirting out of a soft pumpkin head and splattering against a wall. Every word of that stanza is an unctuous blood squirt in his dreary mind.    

Are you okay, Mr. Whipple? Imelda asks Walter, as he walks up to the big gate with tears slithering down his cheeks. 

Walter stops in his tracks. There is an uneasy silence, except for the soft breezes rustling the garden leaves and the black swan feathers by his driveway.

Walter had been unaware of his tears. He is mortified. He steps out from that semi-hypnotic state in which he had been repeating that stanza, wipes the tears away with his stained nightshirt, half sneezes, and unlocks the front gate.

         Are you okay? Imelda asks again with heightened concern.

         So long as you don’t squeeze the Charmin, Walter says with a forced grin on his jowly face, before pushing the heavy front gate open with a grunt.

         Imelda’s eyes open in a manner common to South of the Border Latinas, who cannot make hide nor tail from something a Gringo has said. It is of course a surprised look, but it is also an embarrassed look. The proverbial ‘deer in the headlights’ is the American variation on this frozen and dumb facial expression.

         Now, you remember ‘Mr. Whipple,’ the conscientious store manager who stopped those old lady whores from ‘squeezing the Charmin’ right there where little boys could have seen what they were doing, Walter says without dropping that maniacal grin from his face.

         Imelda is still ‘the deer in the headlight.’ Walter sighs. 

         Oh, come along now, Walter says. You cannot be expected to understand Charmin. ‘Indian Niggers’ are lucky if they know which hand goes in the mouth and which hand goes in the anus.

         I am familiar with the television commercial, Imelda says. I am surprised at your condition. You look like you haven’t slept a wink in days.

         Oh, just something in the air, Walter shrugs.

         Imelda senses that something more is going on here, but she decides not to press. She passes through the gate. She waits with her purse clutched tightly in front of her stomach, while Walter shuts and locks the gate. 

         The fat man is wheezing by the time he is done. He really is a mess what with his excess weight and stationary lifestyle. He really should take up a game or a hobby. Something to get his heart pumping…

         Maybe something that involves a bloody axe…

         Oh sure, the same axe I did not use on my Grandpa Henry, Walter thinks with so much horror he clenches the gate key in his left hand, and draws blood.

         Of course, Imelda also sees this tantrum; but again she does not pry.

         Walter and Imelda walk together up the driveway.

         For the most part, they remain silent. The exception is when Walter sees that all four of those black swans have gathered together at the side of the dirt road. They are the impaneled jury. The idiotic look in their eyes says it all: The fat man is guilty. The fat man is guilty, for he refused that axe, and washed his soft and pretty hands of the blood that ties a family together into eternity. The fat man is guilty, for he would rather be a pussy boy willfully ignorant of all the murderers and witches in his bloodline. The fat man is guilty, for he shames far and wide, but feels no shame, for he critiques, but does not take the stage, for he imagines civilization behind his gate, but ignores the derelict screams when the breeze sweeps the eaves. The fat man is guilty, for he took off his clothes…

         No, Walter says aloud. That is a lie.

         Excuse me, sir, Imelda says carefully.

         Walter snaps back to reality. He gestures for Imelda to follow him along the far side of the road, as the two of them pass by those still and silent swans.

         I do not recall you having birds, Imelda comments.

         I do not, Walter says. Someone put them there likely as a practical joke.

         Imelda almost makes another comment about the black swans. Then, on seeing the exasperated look on Walter’s face, she thinks it is better to let that subject pass. Over the years, she has learned that curiosity is not a virtue when working for Walter Whipple. He wants her to tidy the house, but God forbid she sweeps out and sheds light on what had been swept under the rug years before.

*   *   *

         Walter snoozes on his Lazy Boy. There is a half finished chocolate crème dessert resting precariously on his trembling belly. A bit of the crème is sliding down from the left corner of his mouth, and dripping onto his chest. Except for his thin hair and gargantuan girth, he could be a toddler asleep in his highchair.

         Naturally, the bowl topples to the floor. Whiskers pounces on the crème in seconds. Walter awakens, while gasping for his next breath.

         There is a Kraut blond anchor-ette on the television screen. Walter looks stupidly at her, while his breathing slowly normalizes. As soon as he has enough strength to do so, he gives her the back of his hand, like he does to all the FOX News blonds who think that they have the right to read the news. 

         Nothing but a ‘Reverse Klondike Bar,’ Walter snarls. Pretty white on the outside, but uppity nigger on the inside. Next thing you know, she will have the nerve to give us her pretty little opinion about a topic besides Tupperware. No doubt about it, the gals, the gimps, the apes, and the queers are running every last bit of civilization into the ground. 

         Walter glances down. He sees Whiskers licking up the crème dessert. 

         At least, you know your place, you old catnip queer, Walter remarks. 

         Oh, sure, there’s nothing uppity about that fur ball freak, Walter thinks derisively. But I love that little guy, well, sort of, and likely will never axe him.

         What’s with all these damned ‘bloody axe’ thoughts of late? Walter then thinks, while shifting uneasily in his Lazy Boy. 

         You know why, Grandma Eunice whispers in his head. You little pussy…

         Go on, Lucius chimes in. Take off your clothes. Show me everything…

         Walter slams both fists onto his Lazy Boy armrests. That seems to work, for Grandma Eunice and Lucius step out of his head at once, though deep down Walter knows all too well that they are just outside his mental door waiting for another opportunity to step back inside uninvited. He wishes he could get rid of them altogether on a trespassing charge; but that implies that his mind, and his life for what it is worth, belong to him in the first place. He knows better than that. He has been living with secrets and ghosts far too long to have a life that then is his own. At most, he is a darkie servant to those unspeakable memories.

         Whiskers does not seem to notice the fists slam. Or he hears it, but then decides that the dessert is of greater importance than his loony owner’s antics.

         Walter looks at Clover Fist, the hunky, well endowed mannequin with an adolescent, pouty look on his face. As always, Clover Fist stares back at Walter while rising to the occasion beside the television set. 

         It is good to be able to glance at Clover Fist, when whatever is on T.V. is downright infuriating. Walter can imagine his white plastic ‘boy toy’ blowing an unctuous kiss in his direction; or when the libtards are speaking on FOX News (a lot of the time, since ‘fair and balanced’ apparently means letting Demon-crats and other disreputable types also get in their ‘two cents’ worth), Walter is able to get a good laugh when his ‘boy toy’ simply rolls his blank eyes and simulates wanking his wiener. Sure, Clover Fist is sexy; but at his age, Walter values even more the fact that Clover Fist is an ally. He reminds him that he is not alone in his growing anger about the filth that passes as ‘entertainment’ so often on the boob tube. ‘We are together,’ Clover Fist seems to say to his pudgy butt friend.

         And, indeed, ‘butt friend’ is the correct phrase, because Walter’s quirky sex drive has not totally gone the way of the Dodo bird. 

         Once in a blue moon, Walter has the kind of needs that Whiskers, bubble baths, and perfumed candles cannot satisfy. Yes, he can shut the creaking door to the bathroom, sit on the throne, and climb ‘Mt. Everest’ (actually, more like tripping on a speed bump that has been pressed halfway back into the asphalt); but when he has two hunky monkeys always ready for action (though not really identical action, as Rexford Muldoon upstairs is more the slow, romantic type in comparison to the adolescent Clover Fist downstairs), it begs the question why, oh why, would he settle for chuck when he can have his filet mignon? And so in recent years, ‘climbing Mt. Everest’ by his lonesome has taken a back seat very surely to ‘horseback riding’ or ‘blowing balloons’ with either Rexford or Clover.

         Frankly, Walter did not anticipate feeling ‘hot to trot’ this morning given the dream, the black swans, and the bloody axe fixation; but now, as he stares into the blank eyes of his ‘boy toy’ across the way, Walter feels something like a sugar high. Actually, it is so much better than a sugar high that he puts aside his resentment of the fact that Whiskers is eating more of his chocolate dessert than he managed to do. He feels a tingle in his butt that could be mistaken for hemorrhoids, but for the fact that the look on Clover Fist’s face just now surely makes it clear that this feeling has nothing to do with a rash (though after all is said and done the same ice cubes and ass cream may be advisable in recovery).

         Are you sure, Master Fist? Walter whispers demurely at the mannequin. I don’t think you appreciate the risk. After all, Imelda is in the kitchen and could walk over here at any moment to check in on me.

         Walter pauses a moment. He imagines Clover Fist responding to him in a prematurely deep adolescent voice. Apparently, Clover Fist has a leg up on the competition in terms of how early he first experienced the feel of testosterone rushing like a buffalo stampede through his body. He is not yet a senior in high school, but he has the deep, masculine voice of a college boy already. The only indication that he is still in high school is the extent to which he punctuates all his comments with ‘dude’ and ‘awesome.’ Of course, college boys also talk this way; but it is much less common, unless they happen to be stoned or a member of the university crew. 

         Okay, ‘check in on us,’ Walter responds. I stand corrected. 

         Walter pauses again. He starts to laugh, but then he stifles it, so that his maid does not hear him from the kitchen. 

         You really think so? Walter asks with a sly grin on his face. I’m putting a lot of trust in the judgment of a silly boy who still uses Clearasil every morning. 

         Walter knows deep down that the proposition is more than risky. It is the worst kind of naughtiness; worse than wooden spoon to the rear naughtiness, in fact, more like hot coal up the ass naughtiness. This is the kind of behavior the grizzled, old man who wrote Leviticus would have denounced, if he had not run out of papyrus back in the day. Moreover, regardless of Holy Writ, what Clover Fist proposes is vaguely queer(actually, it is unambiguously queer, but the last thing Walter wants to admit to himself is that he is willing to entertain a bit of frolic that is unambiguously queer). God only knows the state of a man’s soul if he wanders down that path. 

         And yet Walter has been troubled beyond measure longer than he wants to admit. Sure, everything came to a head the night a fake, a phony baloney, a sex pervert blasphemer, substituted for the ‘Restless Wrangler.’ Adding barrels of insult to injury, on that same night a nigger with a badge tried to take away his driver’s license (or so Walter recounts the incident now) and a sniveling ass maître d (likely a Jew homosexual when he is not wearing his tuxedo) later had the unmitigated gall to inform him that he is not welcomed anymore to drink a bourbon or to dine on hunted game at Belvedere’s. Nevertheless, truth be told, long before everything came to a head, Walter had sensed that he was sliding a bit faster each day on a downward slope. That garden outside has been casting longer, uglier, even more obscene shadows; and some of those creepy, ghoulish faces have not been receding when the sun moves. Indeed, even at night, those faces have been holding fort, defying the temporary departures of the sun, and demanding a place in his imagination. Moreover, the house has felt more like a prison than a refuge, as Walter has gone about his daily indoor routines with all the vigor of a convict sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. 

         What all this means is that Walter needs a release. He actually does not need to feel good, let alone sexually satisfied, just different and so removed a bit from all that emotional burden that has been dragging him down. Yes, he is going to have to pay for this indulgence later. That Piper must be paid finally in the end. But given his slow and inexorable descent into madness of late, should he be blamed for focusing on the relief he can experience now, rather than on all those hot coals that will be dumped over his head sometime later? Hell is so very distant, when that tired soul aches right now for something, anything that shatters the norm. Indeed, even Grandma Eunice with her wooden spoon seems remote, even though he can hear her still in the creaking hardwood floors, the whining door hinges, and the shivering, glass windows when kissed by the wind.

         Walter stands up. He steps in the chocolate crème dessert. Whiskers has to pounce backward to get out of the way. Whiskers hisses at his owner, for he had been so rudely knocked off of ‘Cloud 9’ by the loony in the dirty nightshirt.

         Walter pays no attention to his Dragon Li. He only grins like a deranged, heartsick schoolboy, while straining to hear what Clover has to say next to him.

         This time, Walter giggles aloud. Whiskers looks up at him as if to ask him contemptuously, ‘What’s got into you, fat boy?’ More problematically, the maid hears him from the kitchen.

         Is everything okay, Mr. Whipple? Imelda asks from the other room.

         She has a reason to be concerned. Not only is she a bit frazzled, because of how he had acted when retrieving her from the front gate several hours ago; but she knows his routine. He seldom giggles aloud, and never when he reclines on his Lazy Boy to watch FOX News. On those occasions, he is much too furious on account of what he sees on the old boob tube suddenly to suffer the giggles.

         I’m fine; Walter calls back to her (though frankly his voice is so soft just then he is not sure she heard him).

         Walter waits a minute to determine if she is going to check in on him. In spite of a midday breeze rattling the ‘family room’ window, and the incessant, neurotic hiss of his cat, he can hear her cutting the vegetables for the stew she is going to cook and to freeze for him. She never stops cutting those vegetables (God, there must be enough to feed an army in there); and, more importantly, as the seconds tick away in his mind, he figures that she is not going to stop her stew preparation anytime soon. That means that the coast is clear, does it not?

         Okay, Walter whispers to Clover Fist. But don’t make me laugh anymore.

         Walter takes a few steps toward his pouty ‘boy toy.’ He stops and listens to whatever else the mannequin has to say to him. There is a strained look now on Walter’s face, as he is trying to figure out what the heck Clover Fist means…

         Brylcreem? Walter interrupts.

         Walter thinks a bit longer. Then, the light bulb turns on in his head; and he smiles like a teacher’s pet getting the answer right.

         Of course! Brylcreem! Walter remarks excitedly. ‘A little dab will do ya.’

         Did you call, Mr. Whipple? Imelda asks from the other room. 

         Damn, Walter thinks. I forgot to whisper.

         Walter hurries into the foyer, so that he is sure that Imelda can hear his response to her question. 

         No, I did not call, Walter replies as matter-of-factly as he can. Now, how is that stew coming along?

         Muy sabroso, Imelda says with too much cheer to be authentic.

         She suspects something, Walter thinks. Women always do.

         Very good, Walter says to her with the same inauthentic cheer.

         Walter returns to the ‘family room.’ He is careful to step over Whiskers, who is again licking at what little remains of the chocolate crème dessert. He is mindful of the fact that that Dragon Li needs to be reminded just who is boss in this household (just one swing of the bloody axe, he thinks), but now is not the time. Now is the time to learn just how deep he can take it. Now is that time

         Walter removes his nightshirt. He keeps on his sandals; for frankly at this time he is not certain he can bend down to remove them without having to call for Imelda to help him stand up again. He really should get some exercise (yes, he thinks, swinging a bloody axe is a gentleman’s muscle builder) before he has to relegate his girth to a wheelchair. 

         But that is for another time; and, anyway, the sandals will not interfere.

         ‘A little dab will do ya,’ Walter whispers with a delicious wink, while he steps to the side of Clover Fist to open the safe hidden behind a painting there.

         There is some cash and jewelry in the safe, but most of the items are of the ‘X rated’ variety: furry handcuffs, black dildos, nipple clamps, dog collars…

         And, hidden in the back, that for which he is looking: a half finished can of K-Y Jelly. His is colored blue, because he is a man, and not some sort of pink pussy queer like those perverts out there who use K-Y Jelly for deviant reasons.

         Walter unscrews the can. He giggles like a schoolboy first discovering his older brother’s Playboymagazine hidden under the mattress. He realizes there is a decent chance that Imelda can hear him, but right now he does not care. It just feels so damned good to be so damned bad. 

         He dabs his left index and middle fingers into the jelly, savors a moment just how that jelly feels on those fingers (like squishy brains on the sharp edge of a battle axe, he thinks), and inserts as deep into his anus as he can reach. It is in there pretty deep, for very little jelly is sliding down his butt cheeks. That is good, for he intends to take in every inch

         He stands inches in front of Clover Fist’s abnormally long, erect cock. He turns around so that his butt is rubbing up against that plastic shaft. He glances over his right shoulder. He wants to see Clover Fist’s pouty face one more time before the pistol fires, for he will recall the face more than anything else later.

         Make it special, Walter whispers.

         Walter turns away. He bends over as much as he can. It is not much, for his belly soon rubs into his thighs; but it is just enough for him to open his anus for the top of the cock. He slowly, painfully, slides back and forth on the shaft.

         ‘Oink! Oink!’ The farmer shouts to his wife, Walter remarks irreverently.

         It takes a while, but he is able finally to pick up some speed. Even so, he is able only to slide back about a fourth of the way down that shaft, before the pain is too much. Still, he shuts his eyes, grimaces, and sweats like a hot oinker ready to be slaughtered. Maybe, if he strains hard enough, he can make it now to the halfway point. That would be a personal record for him. Hell, that would be a world’s record, so far as he is concerned, since frankly he cannot imagine one of those real, bona fide, perverted queers (never him, of course, but those guys) doing any better on this long, erect, plastic manhood. 

         And then he hears it. The sound snaps through the air, like a thunderbolt meant for his sweaty forehead. Actually, it is not a sound so much as a terrible, splitting pain erupting out from some deep corner in his mind. 

         Oh, God! A stroke! Walter mutters.

         It is not a stroke, though. Notwithstanding how it feels to him, indeed it is a sound, a distinct sound from the kitchen, the sound of Imelda cutting a big, hard head of lettuce with a hatchet…

         And then it is repeated…

         And then again…

         Goddamn it! Walter blurts out with considerable pain. What is she doing?

         Actually, Imelda is not doing anything at all, Walter thinks. You are now hearing Lucius. He is continually swinging the sharp edge of the bloody axe into what remains of Grandpa Henry’s corpse. Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! ‘Till there is nothing left of my grandpa but blood splatter all over my fat boy belly.

         That’ll make your pussy red, fat boy, Grandma Eunice cackles. 

         So take off your clothes, Lucius demands. Show me everything.

         No! Walter pleads. No! No! No! No!

         And then he no longer hears himself say ‘No!’ Instead, all he can hear is:

         Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp!

         Walter feels blood squirting out from Clover Fist’s plastic flesh and onto the back of his naked body. The blood coming out from Clover Fist’s pouty face squirts over Walter’s shoulders and onto his belly. The blood is cold, slimy, like jelly used to mold plastic. It makes sense that this should be Clover Fist’s blood type. After all, when the fantasy has been wiped away, what is Clover Fist, but a plastic mannequin with a pouty, adolescent face, a hard body, and a hard on?

         Whatever Clover Fist may or may not be, Walter wants no more of it. He wants to get away from all that blood, all that slimy, cold death, and rush back into his bedroom. Let Grandma Eunice and Lucius have one another. He will be a fat boy pussy, so long as he can close his door and cry out beneath his sheets.

         Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp!

         I’ve got to get away! Walter screams in agony, as the plastic blood from the mannequin ‘boy toy’ gushes so freely now that he is covered over totally by cold, greenish, industrial grade slime. 

         He regrets having screamed, for now the slime slides down his throat. He imagines this is what one of those real, bona fide, perverted queers must taste when he goes down on a dude in a filthy bathroom stall. It is like tasting death.

         He tries to run away from the plastic blood geyser; but the plastic penis remains intact, and it is in his anus so deep it is stuck in there.

         He squirms as if an impaled pig still somehow clutching to his life (‘Oink! Oink!’ The farmer shouts to his wife, he thinks), but all that spastic writhing on his part only seems to drive the shaft deeper into his love tunnel. 

         Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God! Walter pleads, thus letting even more slime slither into his mouth and down his throat. 

         He opens his eyes. Somehow, through all that slime, he is able to see the K-Y Jelly can several feet away. The jelly inside the can had been smeared into the semblance of a sick grin. It is laughing at him. The world is laughing at him.

         No matter, for he can deal with that later. Now, he just needs to get the heck away from this plastic blood geyser…

         Because he is a yellow livered pussy…

         And pussies have no more in them than to run and to hide…

         Walter reaches for the K-Y Jelly. He cannot grasp it from here. He has to step forward, but of course that means dragging whatever little is left of Clover Fist along with him. His life is not his own. He carries his memories on his back.

         He steps forward. All that plastic blood weighs him down, so that he has to strain as if carrying a heavy pack. Clover Fist’s blood face (likely as pouty as before, but thankfully Walter cannot see it) bounces against the back of his big head. Every time, there is a sickening squishy sound, as more green blood then geysers out from Clover Fist’s exposed teenaged brain and down Walter’s neck.

         Walter reaches the K-Y Jelly can. He is so scared and weary then that he nearly knocks it over. He takes the time to count to ten. He is not much better than before, but he waits no longer. He reaches in with his trembling left index and middle fingers, gathers up as much jelly as he can, and rubs it against both the shaft and the mouth of the anus.

         He wonders why all that plastic blood does not loosen the shaft, but that is a mystery for another time. Right now, he just wants to get free however he is able to do so. 

         It takes three smears of jelly, but he finally feels the shaft start to move inside his anus. He pushes forward with his heels. His face is covered totally by plastic blood; but if observable, then it would be seen as a grimace of horrible, raw pain. His head is so strained that it feels like it is going to burst into flames at any moment. That might be a blessing. Burning alive would be a better fate, or so he imagines while trying to rip his blistered anus free from that big penis.

         In the meantime, Clover Fist is a dam breaking into two (except for that penis, which remains lodged inside Walter). There is a waterfall of slimy, green blood falling over Walter’s hurt back and nearly pushing his face onto the floor.

         Walter knows that if he lands face down on the floor, he will never have enough leverage to pull away from that cock. He pushes up against that roaring waterfall of plastic blood and slimy flesh with every last bit of strength that he has in his legs. Somehow, he manages to stay on his legs; but he feels that cold slime, that liquid death, push through his pores and into his warm bloodstream.

         There is a terrible ripping sound. It is followed soon by the sensation of a hot stream of blood gurgling out from inside his anus. The pain is unimaginable, but it is also welcomed; for this means that his love tunnel is now wide enough for him to be able to push away from that dagger. God only knows if ever again he will be able to take a shit on his throne, but that is a fine question for later.

         Walter braces himself. He then pushes forward on his heels with all that he has left. He hears another terrible ripping sound, as presumably that dagger stabs and cuts at his lining while slipping out of him. Apparently, it intends now to rip as much out of him as it can before he escapes from its sharpened edge…

         Not the sharpened edge of a cock…

         But the sharpened edge of an axe…

         There is a sickening flushing sound, as dead skin and blood coughs out of Walter’s anus. Walter stumbles forward, and lands on the floor beside Whiskers and in front of his Lazy Boy. His chin hits the floor hard, and a tooth falls out of his mouth like candy that had been dislodged by the Heimlich maneuver.

         The Heimlich maneuver, Walter thinks. One man embracing and pumping another man from behind his ass. Now, that’s real bona fide queer shit, isn’t it?

         Walter screams in fear and agony. All the horror of the past few minutes comes out at once. It is like a geyser of emotions squirting out from his bowels, through his broken mouth, and into the world. His voice, normally so soft as to be unheard, now bounces against the walls with the power of gale force winds. Walter is frightened briefly of his own power, but that does not restrain him at that moment from letting it all out. He senses that if he does not let it all out, all that fear and self-loathing lodged deep inside his bowels finally will kill him.

         Whiskers flees from the ‘family room.’ He cowers on the staircase. 

         Imelda rushes into the ‘family room’ at the same time. She stops, when she sees that Walter is naked and face down on the floor. She cannot figure out why he is screaming into the floor, though given how loud he is right now this is probably a blessing. If not muffled, then his awful scream very well might wake the dead; and she has sensed over the years that indeed there are too many of those already roaming about these halls, thank you very much.

         Then, Imelda sees the skin, blood, and jelly gurgling out of his big anus…

         Madre de Dios, she screams, while turning her face away from the scene.

         Walter hears Imelda. This enables him to put an end finally to his insane, bloodcurdling screams. He is instead consumed by shame that she is seeing him in this manner. He wants to order her to leave, but his voice is too hoarse to be able to formulate any intelligible words. He is mute, for all intent and purposes now; and precisely for that reason he has not felt so naked since that summer…

         Take off your clothes, Lucius demands. Show me everything…

Because the monsters that live in the shadows

And come out when the witches strike

Smell his weakness, his pussy blood

And seduce him to take off his clothes

         Walter rolls onto his back. At the very least, he can save himself the real indignity of showing her more of his arse than he already has. He winces in pain from the great effort, and as a result Imelda steps forward to kneel beside him.

         Walter looks at Clover Fist across the room. The hunky mannequin is not drenched in blood. K-Y Jelly is dripping from its erect penis, but otherwise it is as beautiful and inviting as ever. 

         Walter looks down at his own naked flesh. He too is not covered in green blood. He cannot view his butt, but it feels anyway like it had had a horrid one-night stand with a meat cleaver. His mouth is bleeding from how he had hit his chin against the floor. His tooth is stuck in the remnant of his chocolate crème.

         Walter looks up at Imelda. He sees the worried look on her mousey face. That pisses him off, but does not frighten him. What scares him is when he sees that she is clutching still the hatchet. It looks like it is bloodstained. He is going to scream out again, when a tiny voice of reason reminds him that she no doubt had been slicing the beats before chomping away at the lettuce. That happens to be the order in which she cuts and chomps the raw vegetables in his kitchen.

         The fear passes. The shame does not. Perhaps, it never will.

         Walter eyes his nightshirt halfway across the room. He also looks up and views Gretchen Carlson (all smiles of course, because she still thinks she is in a freaking beauty pageant) offering up one of her pretty little opinions about the political topic of the day. Like she even knows how to punch a hole in a ballot…

         Hand me my nightshirt, and turn off the television, Walter finally is able to whisper through his sore throat. I am a gentleman of higher estate, after all.

*   *   *

         Walter slowly looks up from his bloodstained belly. He will not move any faster for fear of launching a projectile of hot vomit and blood. For all that, he still moves his head faster than his eyes can adjust; and as a result what he had seen before still appears as a ghostly image superimposed over what he can see now. He sees his brother’s thin torso, and yet over this he sees his bloodstained belly as viewed from the top down. It is impossible to tell where the past stops and the present takes over. For the past, like the ghostly image of his fat belly, fades in color and texture; loses its substantiality; seems ever more dreamlike; and yet it lingers. The past lingers. The past is bloody dead, and yet it lingers…

         Walter continues to move his face upward, even though he can feel thick and sludgy vomit sliding up his throat. He looks into the face of his brother, but that is not his brother. That is the face of a demon; a teary-eyed, smiling fiend with so much blood splatter on his white face as to look like a morbid clown. In that face, there is only despair, madness, darkness reaching out to snatch even more darkness into itself. It is a vampiric darkness, feeding upon Walter’s deep and abiding loss, taking all that isolation into itself as if in communion with sin.

         It’s your turn, Lucius whispers. Or are you a pussy?

         Grandma Eunice cackles like an unhinged beast. Walter cannot see her, except as a dark, fuzzy, something or other in his right peripheral vision. She is in a shadow now; and in all the years the two of them will live together, she is going to remain in that shadow. Walter never will see her face again, not really anyway, just as he suspects he would not really see Grandpa Henry’s face now, if he had it in him to glance at the gelatinous blood flesh on the hospital bed to his side. Never again will Walter be able to see any face as what it is in reality.

         I knew it, Grandma Eunice yells. I knew it. Nothing, but a fat pussy boy…

         Walter stares even deeper into Lucius’ eyes. There is humanity in there, surrendered, conflicted, but still capable of some basic emotion beyond simply fear and loathing. 

         Come on, Lucius’ eyes seem to say. Don’t leave me hanging, brother. Do your part, so we can go back to bed together and call it a night. Just one swing of the axe, so we can be a family forever…

         It is not as if Grandpa Henry will feel the blow, Walter thinks. Grandpa is too far gone. Grandpa is bloody chuck meat.

         Walter shakes that thought out of his mind. Even though he recognizes it to be an eminently rational thought, he also senses just how evil it is. It is that sanitized moral corruption that allowed a SS Guard to swing a Jew baby’s head into a brick wall without breaking into a sweat. Sure, the Jew baby deserves it, Walter thinks, what with the bloodguilt and all; but so much primal violence in a moment of decisive action without breaking into a sweat? Is violence so sane? Is it so near and dear to civilized decorum? It is just under the surface of all the polite chatter and the proper charm by which men separate out from the apes?

         As soon as Walter shakes that thought out of his mind, an act of will just then occasioned by a whimpering sigh, he ceases to be able to sense that poor, beaten humanity in his brother’s eyes. Lucius is again a mad beast, a fiend that sifts in and out of nightmares, a force of nature that corrupted grandpa’s flesh into something that could never have been alive, and thus will never live again.

         No Resurrection for Grandpa Henry, Lucius’ eyes gloat. Come to think of it, nothing so bold and decisive for the rest of us, either, for we three butchers shall leave behind God’s Justice. We shall neither live nor die. We shall linger…

         The ghosts linger, Walter thinks. Nothing else does, though. Niggers take the white man’s seat at the table. Faggots get married. Blondes read the news on the boob tube. But the ghosts do not change. They stay behind. They linger.

         The thought is out of place. It seems to have originated in the disturbed mind of a sixty-something man, not the frightened mind of a teenaged boy; and yet, somehow, that seems okay. Out of place, but okay, because this is not the memory, so much as the dream that arises from where that dark and perverted memory has been buried. This is the dream that arises from inside the grave. It is the sickness then, but it is also the sickness now…

         Walter looks down. As before, he moves slowly, so as to keep that slushy vomit inside his throat, but not slowly enough. Thus, Lucius’ morbid clown face remains a ghostly image in front of his teary eyes. It is superimposed over what he sees now. It lingers, while he focuses his eyes on what he holds in his hands.

         The bloody axe glistens in the candlelight. The blood drips off the sharp edge. One of Grandpa Henry’s eyes, now no more than a punctured egg yolk, is sliding down the handle.

         But how is that possible? Walter thinks. Didn’t Lucius only strike Grandpa Henry in the back of his head, the back of his neck, the back as far down as the butt crack? If so, then how did Grandpa Henry’s eye end up on the handle, huh?

         Easy, fat boy, Grandma Eunice answers him from a particularly dark part of his mind. Easy as pie. Lucius hit the back of the eye and sucked it back up in and through the opened skull, when he lifted the axe back for another swing. If you were swinging the axe, and not standing there like a pussy boy, then you’d understand that just about anything can happen upon the butcher’s meat slab…

         Grandpa Eunice may have said more, but Walter does not hear her voice anymore. Instead, he drops the axe to the floor, raises his blood smeared hands to his face, and screams. 

         He screams because the punctured egg yolk eye is sliding down his hand.

         He screams because he never again will be able to wash his hands clean.

         Walter still holds his hands in front of his face, as he flees from the attic and down the staircase. He hears the echo of his own scream. It sounds like the wail of a ghost that has been trapped forevermore inside these menacing walls.

         The staircase spirals downward. It passes his bedroom, passes the ground level, pushes through the foundation, continues down a crack in the earth. It is an endless staircase, a downward spiral into an abyss, a one-way passage to the darkest pit in hell. Each step appears from out of the darkness just as Walter is planting his foot there, so that Walter is as much the creator as the traveller in this demented dream. He is as much the owner of his destiny as he is shoved to another square on the chessboard. He is as much willful as he is fated into hell.

         From somewhere much further down, a voice calls up to him. It is a deep and gravelly voice that calls to mind the depths of the earth; and yet, it is also recognizably Lucius. It is the last coherent sentence Lucius ever said to Walter:

         Take off your clothes, the voice from below orders. Show me everything.

         Walter continues down the spiral staircase, even though he realizes that that voice is waiting for him at the end. Waiting to behold him in his flabby and sweaty birthday suit. Waiting to violate what scant humanity he still treasures…

         Walter screams as if a frightened girl, since that is all pussy boys can do.

*   *   *

         And he is still screaming, when he opens his eyes, and sits up in his bed.

         Eventually, his weak respiratory system conks out, and his crazed scream turns into a coughing fit. There is phlegm in the back of his throat that clogs up his windpipe. He wheezes uncontrollably, until finally the phlegm slides out his mouth and down his chin. 

         It takes a couple of minutes for his breathing to settle down. Until then, his eyes dart about his candlelit bedroom like the eyes of a prey looking for the predator in the shadows. All the familiar items in his room seem new to him at that moment, and there is an air of imminent danger that he just cannot shake out of his body no matter how hard he tries. Rather than shake out of his body, that air of imminent danger works its way deeper into his soul. It crawls into an old and cramped room in his soul called ‘paranoia.’ There are already too many buggers in that room, but somehow this ‘air of danger’ ekes out space for itself amongst all the other festering devils. It will not be exiting there anytime soon.

         Walter sees Whiskers staring back at him from the foot of the bed.

         What do you want pussy lips? Walter snarls. You want to gloat, huh? Well go ahead. I’ll remember the next time I am wielding the axe, you frothy feline.

         The next time? Grandma Eunice laughs at him. How about the first time?

         Walter looks away from the cat. He also hopes to shake grandma’s voice out from his head. He has had enough of the nightmares for this evening, thank you very much, and so to that end he checks out his reflection in that candlelit dresser mirror to his left. Usually, his ghostly reflection sifting in and out of the candlelight comforts him.

         But not this time. This time, his face looks like the walking dead. It is an ugly bluish white façade, consumed in night sweats, and quirky mad in the eyes staring back at him. It is the face of death, yes; but even more so, it is the face of shame. All at once, he remembers the terrible shame when realizing that his maid, Imelda, has seen the blood coming out of his arse, the K-Y dripping off of Clover Fist’s penis, and has put two and two together to equal four. Imelda is a simple peasant woman; but even simple peasant women, when tasked to do so in the heat of the moment, can add two and two. 

         That would be bad enough, but then he lowers his eyes to see what is on his lap. Because try as he may he simply cannot ignore the weight upon his lap.

         Actually, it had been on his belly. It probably had fallen onto his lap the moment he sat up in bed. 

         Walter is not sure what to make of it. It is so unreal that he wonders if a part of his nightmare has fallen out of his mind and onto his flesh; in essence, a reversal of that hole through which Alice had fallen into Wonderland. 

         Then, he sees how that blade glitters in the candlelight, and he screams.

         There is an axe with a long handle on his lap. Is it the same axe Grandma Eunice and Lucius used to turn Grandpa Henry into lumpy dog food? Is that even possible? God only knows. Well, the ghosts in this house know too, but just now they are not talking. They are laughing at his weakness and fear, but not saying one way or another which axe this is and how it came to rest upon his fat body.

         What do you know about this pussy pisser? Walter asks Whiskers. 

         But Whiskers is not talking either. Instead, he just stares back at his fat, slovenly, mentally enfeebled owner with a mix of boredom and scorn in his old eyes. He is not sure that it is worth the effort to despise his owner. It is likely a better use of his mind and his power now to curl into himself and to fall asleep.

         Walter looks again at the axe. He traces his right fingers over the handle and the blade. Everything is clean, cold to the touch, like a tool out in the shed that has not been used in decades.

         Still, the summer of 1968 had been forty-seven years ago. That is nearly a half a century. If Grandma Eunice had cleaned the axe, and if it has been in a shed all this time, then it may feel like this one. This could be the weapon that killed his Grandpa Henry and that knocked away the front doors to hell for him.

         Or it could be an axe one of the gardeners had left behind long ago. The property outside is a treasure of loose ends, discarded tools, forgotten articles of clothing from when Grandma Eunice hosted her parties from her bed for ‘the best people’ in the community, even contraband thieves have hidden here with the intention of reclaiming when the coast is clear. The axe may be innocuous, and any dread he attributes to this axe may mean nothing but that his perverse imagination is working on all throttles. 

         Then again, it may not be innocuous at all…

         Regardless of what it is, Walter wants to know how it came to be where it is. Unless the Axe Fairy delivered it in the dead of night, he must have found it and taken it with him to bed. He has no memory of that, though. Indeed, the hours following his ‘incident’ with Clover Fist pass through his mind as a surreal flash of disjointed images. Mostly, he stayed in his room, though sometimes he left to masturbate in his bathroom across the hall; and once or twice, he thinks he tiptoed downstairs to eavesdrop on Imelda. Make sure the Indian Bitch is not on her cellular phone (even dumb peasants have cellular phones nowadays, can you believe the injustice in that historical development?), telling her friends all that she saw, and chuckling at his expense. Do something decisive, if indeed he catches her in the act. 

         Did he catch her in the act? Does that have anything to do with why he is fingering the axe on his lap just now? Frankly, the axe does not feel like a tool, or a weapon, that has been used within the past few hours; but what does that mean? Maybe, he just cleaned it up really well; or maybe, he did nothing at all. 

         Either way, he must be losing his marbles. 

         Losing them? Walter chuckles. I think I tossed them to the river out back decades ago. I think they are washing ashore on a South Pacific island just now.

         Walter removes the axe from his lap. He places it on the floor next to his bed. He wishes it could be much further away, like on the other side of the sun perhaps; but he is too tired now to get out of his bed just to haul the damn tool (Nope. Sorry Charlie. You know damn well it is a weapon…) into some other old and creepy room. He’ll just leave it right where it is and deal with it tomorrow.

*   *   *

         Walter awakens suddenly from a restless sleep. His head is throbbing. He feels drool sliding down his chin and onto his bare chest. He also feels Whiskers sleeping on his belly. God only knows how long Whiskers has been kneading into his old skin, while Whiskers has been stalking rodents and rabbits in his dreams.

         Walter sits upright, and Whiskers tumbles to his lap. That puts a devilish smile on Walter’s face, even though he continues to suffer from that headache.

         Serves you right pussy poop, Walter snarls. Who gave you permission last night to ascend Mt. Everest? 

         There is a loud car horn from outside the gate. The temperamental tone suggests that the horn had been sounded once or twice already. No doubt, that obnoxious scream is the reason Walter awakened just now. 

         Walter sits on the side of his bed, so that he can look out his window. He stubs his right toe against the axe blade.

         Shitty, Shitty, Buck, Buck, Walter cries out.

         He cannot abide the word ‘fuck,’ and so ‘buck’ will need to do under the circumstance. After all, he thinks, if you really think long and hard on the word you cannot but come to the conclusion that it is a faggoty, little queer word no doubt peddled by those miscreants who want us to believe that rump roasting a wiener is just another ‘harmless’ exercise in ‘fornication.’ 

         What a hypocrite? Grandma Eunice scolds him. Did you not call your cat a ‘fat fuck’ just a few days ago? Have you not used that special word on various other occasions? For that matter, when you waddle your ass into the bathroom, and shut the door tight, do you not whisper that word with every stroke of your hand? Come on, now, fess up. Be honest to your grandmother if not to yourself.

         Quiet, Walter says irritably. You’re dead.

         Ha! Grandma Eunice barks. If I am so dead, then why do you renew all of my magazine subscriptions each year? Why are you still depositing into my own checking account my social security checks every month? Why am I still getting an absentee ballot every election cycle from those Marxists and Lesbians at the Registrar of Voters? Why do you change my bed sheets, put out my silver bowl…

         There is another car horn. It is loud enough to shut up Grandma Eunice a moment. That is all that Walter needs to break free from her spell, to stand up on his screaming toe, and to waddle over to the window for a better look.

         There is an old Lincoln Continent out there; probably one of those roomy gas guzzlers from the mid 1980s. The burgundy red paint is peeling away almost everywhere. The driver’s side back window had been broken by a baseball way back when. Only the souped-up engine roar suggests a vehicle still far from the junkyard. The way the driver revs up the accelerator when he is not leaning on his horn suggests that he is a car fiend; probably a Mexican, since wetbacks are about the only people nowadays who have a clue what is under the effing hood.

         Walter eyes his oversized, red robe on the floor. He puts on the robe and cinches the belt. He slips his feet into a pair of sandals. 

         He is about to step out of the bedroom when he sees the sharp axe blade glistening in the early morning sunlight. He trembles indecisively a moment. He then walks over to the axe, picks it up from the floor, and leaves while holding the axe over his chest like a rifle at a ‘count two’ (diagonally across the chest).

         Whiskers eyes him suspiciously. He decides not to follow him downstairs.

         Walter opens his front door, steps down from the porch, and stops dead in his tracks. As expected, there is a black swan along the side of the driveway. It is staring at him through a pair of dead eyes. If a corpse can waddle out from the swamp, stand at attention, and judge his murderer, then he will do so each and every time with those same eyes. There is no intelligence in those eyes; no empathy; no balancing of the scales; nothing, really, but cold, raw judgment in a stupid bird face. That is the end of judgment: Idiot ‘duckspeak’ to borrow an Orwellian idea, where moral outrage and vigilante justice must play themselves out on the basest level of human survival intuition; where there is no principle, but force; and where there is no civilization, but what is founded and sustained by blood savages wearing suits and tapping walking sticks. The black swan is an old nightmare; a timeless story come back from the swamps to kick a bit of life back into those enfeebled ghosts. Put a little color back into Lucius’ handsome cheeks; snap another cackle out from Grandma Eunice’s hoarse throat; add one or two more iced cubes into Grandpa Henry’s cocktail; make the ghosts livelier, so that in contrast Walter is sicker, his skin is bluer, his mind two kicks behind…

         And then another black swan stands alongside his brother. Then, another one; then, another one after that one; and soon, there are countless, identical, silent, black swans waddling out from the old garden and standing side by side along the left side of the driveway. There are many others, though Walter then cannot see them. They are further back in the bushes, hidden behind the tired, gangly trees, even looking up at him from beneath his porch. Of course, Walter thinks of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds; and as in that scene where thousands of birds sit quietly, stupidly, watching Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren return to their home, so is the tension thick enough to be cut through with an axe. Indeed, all that cold tension, if cut through hard enough, would squirt out blood and flesh.

         There is yet another car horn. Walter braces himself, for he presumes all that noise will jolt the black swans into attacking him. Surely, that horn sounds like an order to charge over the bulwarks and into the field of fallen soldiers; a trumpet call from on high before the elect and the damned are forced into two irreconcilable sides. 

         The black swans do not move, though. They are much too disciplined. In due time, when he is at his weakest, they will tear off his clothing, his skin, his flesh, thus rendering his soul naked and exposed beneath the sun and the stars.

         Walter steps forward. He grips his axe as hard as he can. The sweat from his forehead blurs his vision, and yet he holds his head high. Yes, he can feel all that madness draping over his mind, like a curtain unfurled over a stage all of a sudden in the middle of a scene; but there remains enough civilization deep in his bones, enough of what he likes to think of as his white man’s privilege, that he holds up his head with some measure of pride. He may die before the strong bayonet line, but he will die swinging his axe into the flesh and the bones of all those persons who have defeated him: the family born out from the blood shed in ritual murder; the niggers smacking their big lips about their rights; the Jews making us pay interest for their bloodguilt; the old faggots licking their lips like a pack of hyenas; the FOX News blondes reading words from cue cards that God never intended for women to read; that ape man cop, who had the gall to take Walter’s driver’s license; that maître d, who had the gall to kick Walter out of his favorite restaurant; and finally, that usurper who had presumed to stand in for the real ‘Restless Wrangler.’ All those smiling devils standing together in an endless bayonet line, and yet Walter still charges forward with his nose so high.

         In actuality, Walter does not charge, so much as he walks steadily, like a drunk trying to mask just how drunk he is. Walter is not inebriated from liquor, though he hopes and intends to be later this morning; but he is disoriented now by a strange brew of fear and fearlessness, of submission and resolve, that just manages to stimulate his nerves enough to keep him on his feet. He is a man on the prowl either about to sink into his own pond of sweat or to commit murder.

         Walter stops before the gate. He is still holding his axe diagonally before his chest. His breaths are haggard. His eyes are vaguely homicidal. He seems as if a man alone in his own dark mind and best left undisturbed by everyone else.

         As Walter had expected, there is a wetback sitting behind the wheel. He is a tall and beefy kid in white shirt and trousers. The preppy clothes do not fit with the boy’s ‘devil-may-care’ attitude. Walter determines that he must have a good mother (well, as good as any beaner mama can be, which is frankly only a smidgen above those Aunt Jemima welfare queens out there); but when he is out and about in his hand me down automobile, he acts like those hood rats he sees hanging around the liquor stores and the taco stands in town. 

         Walter Whipple? The asshole adolescent inquires. 

         That’s Mr. Whipple to you, Walter snaps back. Doesn’t the Border Patrol teach you any goddamned manners when they fetch you out of the river? 

         The adolescent lets loose the kind of malicious grin that says, ‘I’m gonna slice your throat someday, Gringo.’ 

         I’ve got a message for Mr. Walter Whipple, the adolescent states without letting up on that malicious grin of his. Are you that white asshole? Or another?

         How old are you? Walter asks, as he tightens his grip on that axe handle.

         The adolescent looks away in disgust. He already is speaking to this silly, old, white man a lot longer than he had hoped. He should be picking up whores along the Manchester River docks, tapping their asses and hearing them scream like the little cunt creamers that they are, instead of doing his mama’s bidding. But what can he say? Regardless of all his posturing, he remains a weak mama’s boy, after all; and the very thought makes him sick to his stomach.

         Seventeen, the adolescent finally answers.

         Imelda never told me she had a son, Walter states with a grin, while also leaning forward on the gate. 

         Mama doesn’t talk about a lot of things, the adolescent states.

         No, she doesn’t, Walter agrees. It’s always safer that way.

         The adolescent stares intently into Walter’s face a while. He then looks away and shakes his head as if to ask, ‘Why am I dealing with this fat fuck nut?’

         So what’s your name, half nigger? Walter asks.

         Listen, I have got a message for you, the adolescent responds irritably. If I could just read it to you now…

         A beaner telegram, huh? Walter says with a slight chuckle. Let me guess. The message is: No hot sauce on Taco Tuesday, for mama’s passed her period… 

         The adolescent curls both hands into tight fists. He would beat this fatso back into the ground, if he thought he could get away with it. Nevertheless, for all his ‘hood rats’ demeanor, he knows to keep his cool. He wants everybody to see him as the man he knows himself to be, but he also wants to be the first in his family to go to college. A serious criminal record never helps in that regard.        

         So, again, what’s your name? Walter snarls.

         Marcos, the adolescent answers. 

         San Pedro’s little cocksucker, Walter comments irreverently. 

         What? Marcos inquires.

         As in Saint Peter milk fed Mark pretty much everything Mark wrote in his Gospel later, Walter explains with obvious impatience. 

         Marcos remains silent. The two strange hombres just stare at each other.

         Oh, nothing, Walter shrugs. Just a Biblical reference. You wouldn’t know it, of course, since nobody from your generation reveres the Bible anymore. 

         Marcos is smart enough to see how this irritable weirdo has contradicted himself. First, he refers to ‘San Pedro’s little cocksucker.’ Then, he attacks his generation for supposedly not revering the Bible. Boy, this fatso is a real trip. If this fatso was not now keeping him from picking up those whores on the docks, then he might actually enjoy figuring out how this quirky man’s mind works. He has a fascination himself for all things strange and dark. He thinks he had been bitten by the ‘horror bug’ when his mother first took him down to Oaxaca years ago for ‘El Día de los Muertos.’ Those monsters never stay hidden for very long.

         Still, this is the time Marcos has set aside for his own little game; and so he really wants to hurry up this conversation.

         Uh, Mr. Whipple, I’m going to go ahead and read this message, if you do not mind, Marcos says. 

         By all means, Walter remarks condescendingly.

         Marcos removes a folded sheet of paper from his pants pocket. He really tries to put that malicious grin back on his face, but he cannot do so. Whenever he goes about his mama’s business, he lapses back into being his mama’s much beloved son. There is a soft spot there, and he has yet to harden it. He realizes deep down that he will never be a man until he figures out how to do just that. After all, do the ‘hood rats’ get all teary-eyed and squirmy when doing a favor for their mamas? Do they even do any favors for their mamas? Marcos doubts it.

         Dear Mr. Whipple, Marcos reads. It is with much regret that I must resign as your maidservant. Serving you over the years has been an honor for which I…

         Was it the K-Y Jelly that scared her off, or the blood? Walter interrupts.

         What? Marcos says incredulously.

         So she really did not tell him, Walter thinks. Good girl, for if she had I’d have had no option but to march on over to her silly teepee, or smokehouse, or wherever the hell she lives, and to scalp her with my axe. Would’ve served her right, too, given what all those Red Injuns did to the White Men over the years.

         Walter waits for Grandma Eunice to berate him, but she remains totally silent. She probably knows that he means it this time. She may be even a little scared of him. Serves her right, too…

         What are you talking about? Marcos asks with a bit more force this time.

         Oh, nothing, Walter mutters. Just an inside joke…

         Marcos does not believe him, but he lets it pass. He clears his throat, so as to resume reading his mama’s heartfelt letter of resignation.

         Walter waves him off.

         Do not bother, Walter says. I understand your mother will not be coming back; but what about you, Marcos?

         I don’t understand, Marcos mutters, as he folds the sheet of paper again.

         I’d never ask a young man to do woman’s work, Walter says. But there is plenty to do outside. 

         Oh, I don’t know, Marcos says. Mama would not approve…

         Imelda does not need to know, Walter interrupts him. Just come on over after school a couple of times a week. I’ll pay you twenty dollars an hour. That is twice the going rate with the illegal aliens in town. Golly, with all that extra cash in your play wallet, you’ll be the King of the Wetbacks before you know it.

         Once again, Marcos feels drawn to the old man. Marcos does not like him at all. Indeed, he loathes him. Nevertheless, Mr. Whipple intrigues him in a way no one has since he first got bitten by that old ‘horror bug.’ It is like everything about ‘El Día de los Muertos’ is contained in the life of this sweaty buffoon with the axe. Look into his eyes long enough, and you see death staring back at you.

         What do you want me to do? Marcos asks.

         Walter tightens his grip on his axe, while a homicidal pall descends over his face. He nods toward the driveway behind him.

         Those cursed black swans, Walter whispers. There are hundreds of them.

         Marcos sits up in his seat, so he can see more of the driveway behind the old man. He counts four black swans along the edge of the path. While he is no expert, they seem to be docile; but, hey, whatever floats Walter’s boats, right?

         You want me to get rid of them, Marcos says.

         I want you to kill them, Walter whispers.

         Marcos feels a cold chill down his spine. He is frightened a moment, but then he senses a surge of testosterone galloping through his bloodstream that is frankly even better than sex (not that Marcos is all that experienced a gladiator in the sex arena). He has never bonded with a man like this before. It is like he is bonding literally with a beast. 

         Marcos feels his malicious grin return to his face. This time, it is real. He still intends to slice that Gringo’s throat, but before then he wants to learn just how sick this man can get. Like so many young men his age, he has no idea that he truly will regret getting what he wants; for when all has been said and done, Walter can be a horribly sick man, indeed.

*   *   *

         Walter leans against the back of his front door. He is trying hard to catch his breath. He is not doing a very good job, because he is about as scared as he had been when running back from the gate.

         He vaguely recalls the wetback telling him that he would return to work in his front yard next week. Walter privately had hoped that he would start the work right away; but beggars cannot be choosers, now can they? 

         And so without further chitchat, the two had parted. Walter had gripped his axe handle hard and had turned to face his tormentors. He had expected to see a few hundred standing side by side along his driveway.

         Instead, he observed nothing, but birds…

         Millions of silent and still black swans…

         Actually, not black swans, but rather millions upon millions of dumb, but also stark and penetrating, birds’ eyes. He saw so many at once he started then to imagine that the whole of the universe had been swallowed into those eyes; all the world’s reason and civilization, the finer manners of the nobler estates, even the white man’s privilege, sucked into those beady black holes and forced to submit to the verdict rendered by a miniscule bird brain. 

         He ran through these eyes, swinging his axe erratically before his sweaty chest, and screaming like a pussy boy splattered by innocent blood. He ran for what seemed like an eternity. He closed his eyes the whole time, and yet deep down he still saw those millions upon millions of eyes judging him. In that dark and frightful eternity that is hell, there is no resolution, it seems. There is only cold, raw judgment, followed by judgment, followed by judgment, followed by judgment again, from now unto eternity, without that resolution, and then that final peace, provided by the hangman’s noose.

         Somehow, he made it up the porch steps and into his house. He slammed the front door shut, bolted the lock, gripped the axe diagonally against his wet, heaving chest, and leaned against the door.

         He may have passed out; but if he did, he did not slide down to the floor of his foyer, for he is leaning still against that door. He simply hopes to God his breath returns to him, before he succumbs to the darkness creeping in from his peripheral vision. He does not want to have survived out there, only then to die an ignoble choking death in here. 

         Walter sees Whiskers on the staircase. For once, Whiskers seems to have a genuinely concerned look on his face. 

         You see them too, don’t you? Walter whispers. So many eyes…

         Walter feels a bump against the front door. It could be the wind rattling a door that is loose on its hinges. Or it could be the silent black swans crowding against the door, the windows, the roof, pressing their bird faces into whatever crevices allow them to watch him inside his sanctuary. Once more, Walter has a vivid memory of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Those evil birds are so numerous, and so single minded in their determination to break into the house, that they push the windows and the walls inward. For the persons trapped inside, the whole of the world is caving in on them; and what is on the other side wants only to eat them, senselessly, maliciously, tearing soul from flesh for no other reason than to see civilization fall before the wild. What is on the other side is evil, pure as black, like feathers dipped in ink, and aware of the world outside of itself only to the extent possible when the world is viewed through beady, senseless eyes.

Because the monsters that live in the shadows

And come out when the witches strike

Smell his weakness, his pussy blood

And seduce him to take off his clothes

         No, Walter groans. They shall not see me…

         Walter again eyes his loyal Dragon Li. He is as scared as before, but with Whiskers in his sight of vision he is able to control his mind enough to formulate a basic plan. He lowers his axe to his right side, as slow and meticulous as if he were a rifleman in an honor guard, so that his left hand may be freed. He is not sure yet why he needs a free hand, for that basic plan is still vague in his mind.

         What am I to do? Walter asks Whiskers in desperation. 

         Whiskers stares back at his owner. His eyes seem to elongate in Walter’s imagination. His eyes are creepy, foreign, and yet also hypnotic. They really do not impart a spell of their own, so much as they snatch Walter’s mind out from that paralyzing fear in which he had been transfixed earlier. That is enough for the light bulb to switch on in Walter’s mind.

         Turn off your lights, Walter says to himself. Pull down your blinds. Drop, and tie down, your curtains. Just do it right now, before they can see anything.

         Walter wanders about the house, turning off lights, locking doors, pulling down blinds, dropping curtains; in essence, doing his utmost to transform home sweet home into a dark and musty crypt. Whiskers follows close upon his heels.

         Walter is careful never to look out the windows, while pulling the blinds or dropping the curtains. He knows that the birds’ eyes are out there, and he is not sure he can handle the mental assault of seeing them inches away from him and as still and silent as eternity. Instead, he looks down at his sandals, and he tenses his grip on the axe handle. 

         The house really does feel like a dark crypt when he is done. He can see only oddly shaped, black forms where he once saw tables and chairs; and in his exhausted, frightened mind, he imagines that someone, probably the old crypt keeper, has replaced those tables and chairs with piles of bones. The bones are scattered every which way, hence the oddly shaped, black forms. These bones, ghoulish examples of what time will do to a man, come from vandalized graves and abandoned bone yards far away. They are foreign bones; illegal alien bones to be more precise, because Walter has not granted them a visa to be here. He has no choice in the matter, though; for his house is now a dead place, and the dead are allowed to inhabit dead places no matter their place of origin. Walter is most disgusted, and frightened, about this fact; for as he wanders about the oddly shaped, black forms, his sandals squeaking the old floorboards, he cannot but sense that there are nigger bones, wetback bones, kike bones, even liberal Democrat bones scattered about his hallowed halls and rooms. 

         Whiskers is his only company in this terrible place. Whiskers is Virgil, and he is Dante; except that rather than see the face of Satan, they want to hide in the one room that feels safe for them, until finally judgment passes over them.

         As if there can be a Passover in Hell…

         Regardless, Walter carries armfuls of nonperishable foods (mostly cakes and candies that have enough preservatives in them to be edible even after the Nuclear Winter passes from the scene). He holds his axe beneath all this food in case he needs to drop everything at once to wield his weapon. He stacks all the food beside his bed, lights the candle on his dresser, and switches on his Victor Talking Machine. Don Ho’s Tiny Bubbles is still on the turntable from before, so again he imagines how those tiny bubbles ‘make me happy, make me feel fine.’

         Better than thinking about those damned birds’ eyes…

         Whiskers meows. He taps Walter’s right foot with his paw. He looks up in such a way that even a man on the edge can read the message in his vivid eyes.

         Leave it to a pussy to think about food at a time like this, Walter groans.

         Nevertheless, he is not about to share his cakes and his candies with him any time soon; and so he holds his axe diagonally over his chest, takes in a long breath, and waddles down the staircase to the kitchen. 

         He returns with Whiskers’ kibble and water. He forgets all about that big litter box beside the refrigerator, but no matter. Who the buck (okay, at a dark time like this one, go ahead and say ‘fuck’) cares if there is cat shit and pee all over the bedroom floor over the next few days? How does that matter when the birds’ eyes are just outside the windows and the walls, pushing through cracks, straining to see him naked and vulnerable? Seducing him to take off his clothes?

*   *   *

         There is a hard knock on the bedroom door. 

         Walter has not been able to sleep a wink, and yet the knock hits him like he has been pulled up suddenly from a deep and abiding sleep. Maybe, in some dark corner of his mind, he has been out cold since Grandma Eunice raised that axe blade over her head and slammed it into the diseased flesh before her. The mind only accepts so much; and then it dies, sometimes slowly, and sometimes like a light switched off to reveal an eternity of shadows. 

         Can that light be switched back on? Walter does not think so, but he just cannot deny the sheer force of that hard knock on the bedroom door. He senses that he is being ripped out from beneath the earth. Yes, he is a corpse still; but that does not stop him from wincing in pain and wishing he could return to that buried grave with which he had become accustomed of late. 

         Walter pulls down his bed sheet. He sits up in bed. He unconsciously rubs his pudgy hands over the bloodstains on his belly, while his mind tries to create and then to articulate some sort of sensible response to the violent door knock.

         There is another hard knock on the bedroom door.

         Don’t think you can shirk your chore, Grandma Eunice barks out from the other side of the door. So open up, before I ring your ass with my spoon.

         Walter is paralyzed in his fear. He wipes the sweat off of his mouth, and then he looks at the sweat beads on the back of his hand. The sweat beads look like blood splatter. He almost screams out in fright, but then he bites the back of his hand in order to keep that girlish scream lodged in the back of his throat. Still, he feels the scream down there. It is thick, gooey, chunky, like a big wad of phlegm; no, worse than phlegm, like a big wad of manhood down his throat…

         There is another hard knock on the bedroom door. This knock sounds like it is hard enough to push the door off its hinges. That does not happen, but the intensity is enough to snap Walter away from that ‘man goo’ image in his head.

         I am giving you three seconds to open up this door, Grandma Eunice yells with the single minded ferocity of an aggressive rat. 

         Indeed, Walter hears her voice as a series of high pitch squeals inside his head. He desires to cover his ears, but he knows he does not have the luxury to do so. Either he opens that door by the count of three, or all Hell breaks loose; not the Hell he keeps in the darkest corners of his fantasies, as bad as that Hell can be; but the real life Hell of two savages, an old woman and a young man on the hunt, grabbing at his flesh and his soul, and chopping away at his manhood.

         Walter opens the bedroom door on the second count. He cannot prevent himself from trembling, even though he imagines he must look like a wet rabbit in front of their hungry eyes. He senses he may have sighed, but he is not sure. Indeed, he is not sure of anything at all, but cold fear surging through his veins.

         Take your end of the sack, Lucius remarks in a slow and tired monotone.

         Grandma Eunice and Lucius have stuffed what remains of Grandpa Henry into an enormous sack. It looks as if they have crammed it full with bloody bed sheets and towels. They also reconnected Grandpa Henry’s head to his chopped neck with what must be miles upon miles of duct tape. Blood coagulated within the duct tape makes it that much harder to break. The savaged head and neck are poking out from inside that sack, so Walter can see how the two have been reconnected to one another. The pained look on Grandpa Henry’s face suggests that he is not altogether satisfied with how his wife and his grandson have tried to reassemble him. Humpty Dumpty probably had been as peeved with his men.

         Yes, you may hug the swan, but do not squeeze it too hard now, Walter, my boy, Grandpa Henry says in his normal, jocular manner…

         This time, Walter cannot hold back the scream, no matter how girlish he must sound in front of them. Of course, he must have imagined Grandpa Henry just now speaking to him. That is what his rational mind insists, anyway; but on the whole, he does not really believe that. The voice had been too real. It had been way too close to his heart. He must have heard it in his ears as in his soul.

         Stop this nonsense at once! Grandma Eunice insists, while stepping down from the last step of the windy staircase that leads up to the attic. This is not a night for baby talk. 

         The admonition works. After all, Walter habitually reacts to his Grandma Eunice’s voice like he has heard it in a burning bush. For all the madness of this night, and except when he had had that axe in his bloodied hands, he has been predisposed to do as he is told. He is still very much a boy and will remain thus.

         Do as your older brother says, Grandma Eunice commands. Take up your end of the sack. Otherwise, Lucius will need to drag your Grandpa to the River.

         Walter imagines an honor guard dragging the Stars and Stripes through a grim field of blood. If the flag deserves better, then so does his Grandpa Henry.

         Walter zips up the rest of the sack, so that the head no longer pops out. He grabs his end, and starts to waddle down the steps toward the foyer. No one says a word, as the pallbearers carry their grandfather into the dark night, and the witch keeps clearing her raspy, old throat from several paces behind them.

         Walter and Lucius carry their heavy sack out to the top of a grassy knoll, which overlooks the Manchester River. Howling winds snap at their bloody faces as they position their sack for the final leg of the trip. Mist ascends periodically from the foamy river. The cold droplets sting their eyes as if they are miniscule knives thrusting into their pupils. Nevertheless, for all that, the brothers do all that needs to be done, silently, methodically, each person lost in his own head.

         They position the sack just so, and it slides down a muddy waterfall into the Manchester River. It is as if Grandpa Henry is swallowed whole by the dark, howling night; and that more than anything stabs at Walter’s heart. He has that sack in his hand one moment. The next, the sack is gone as if it never had been there. The loss is really that sudden. It is also total, irreversible; for though he tries, he cannot see any indication of the sack amidst the foam that is charging down the ravine. Even the winds stop howling, and the cold mist stops stabbing at the eyes, for there is nothing now over which to shed any more tears.

         Lucius nudges Walter to follow him home. Grandma Eunice is waiting for them further up the pathway, and she does not want to be out here any longer than necessary. The night is too long as it is what with Walter’s insubordination up in the attic, and there must be justice still before the first scents of sunrise.

         Walter follows in silence, but he does not think about justice. He tries in vain to imagine that sack floating just under the foam and out to sea. Try as he may, he cannot do so. Maybe, Grandpa Henry will pop up in his mind again one of these days; but right now, this moment, there is nothing of him left, but the inconsolable sadness of his loss. Is that all there is? In the end, is there nothing left of a man, but a feeling of loss, a girlish sentiment, a lump in the heart that makes a boy dumb, weak, and fat?

         Walter remains alone with these thoughts, as he and his brother scrub all the blood, flesh, and bone shards out of the attic and the staircase. He actually relishes the work, since he cannot envision falling asleep tonight anyway and in a way the mechanical nature of the work lets his mind wander a bit. 

         It does not wander enough, though, and so he returns to his bed several hours later with a heavy head and an even heavier heart. He is too tired to cry, even if sleep is going to elude him. 

         He hears his bedroom door open slowly. The hinges creak, like old bones about to snap. He looks back over his shoulder. He expects to see his Grandma Eunice there with her wooden spoon (no, not the wooden spoon, but that blood smeared axe) in hand ready to exact justice for his insubordination in the attic.

         But Grandma Eunice is not standing in the doorway.

         Instead, Lucius is standing there. He is naked. He has not bathed, for his face and his flesh are still splattered with coagulated blood. As a result, Lucius looks like a demented clown. No, it is actually worse than that. Lucius appears as if a fallen angel stripped of his wings and burnt everywhere by specks of red, hot, blood fire. He is a devil lost inside the homicidal madness of his own eyes. It is impossible to tell if the old Lucius is handcuffed and blindfolded inside the mind of that fiend, or if the old Lucius is as irretrievably dead as what remains of Grandpa Henry. Regardless, this fiend will offer Walter no mercy tonight, for he is here to exact the justice. He is here to do the bidding of his grandmother.

         Walter cannot help but to trace Lucius’ blood speckled flesh all the way down to Lucius’ erect cock. Walter has never seen an erect cock, except for his own; and his never looked like this one. 

         Walter is not quite sure how he feels. He is surprised, excited, scared, a wild assortment of emotions, and yet simultaneously removed from all of them. He is like a boy in a cocoon. All those emotions are beating against the outside of the cocoon. He can sense what those emotions are like a man can make out a vague shape bleeding through a canvas wall. Nevertheless, since they remain on the outside, he has no firm impressions, but that he is alone and vulnerable.

         Lucius steps inside. He closes the bedroom door behind him.

         The candlelight on the dresser flickers against Lucius’ eyes. As a result, those eyes seem to dance in the air like fireflies. Lucius’ malicious grin stays in place, but the eyes are all over the place. 

         Take off your clothes, Lucius whispers. Show me everything…

         Walter’s heartbeat is a Conga drum in his ears. He has to catch his next few breaths, lest those breaths never return to his lungs and he literally chokes to death. His fat face loses all its color. He is on the verge of fainting, or dying.

         What happens next is so fast, so violent, that Walter never remembers it except as a few disjointed flashes of pain in his psyche. 

         Lucius runs forward. He rips off Walter’s nightshirt, like he is a wild tiger tearing off the fabric with his claws. He turns Walter around, so that he is now facing Walter’s heaving, trembling, sweaty back. He pushes Walter face first to the bed and straddles Walter’s thick legs. He fingers Walter’s asshole, until it is large and bloodied enough for his fist. The blood is the natural lubricant for the justice about to be had. 

         Walter feels the horrible, throbbing pain; but it is so unreal as to appear in his mind like something someone else had felt eons ago. This is not occurring in his ass. This is occurring in the ass of some disreputable faggot out there, an ugly, little, nigger, kike, queer most likely; and that pervert no doubt is licking his lips in enjoyment at all that mayhem in his derriere. Now, that is the awful, sickening truth of the matter: Those ape men out there, well, they deep down get their jollies from this kind of action. They like this, because they just want to tear down what is civilized and beautiful in favor of God only knows what. If there is any good to come of this, then it is that Walter will remain ever strong and principled in standing for what is good against those butt pirates out there.

         Walter blanks out before Lucius manages to slide his erect cock into that bloodied tunnel. It is no matter. He can feel the rape even as he is falling down that abyss. It is the sadness not quite hidden by the darkness. It is the pain not quite forgotten in that drop down to nothingness. It is the despair that lingers

*   *   *

         Walter opens his eyes. He is not awakening; so much as he is focusing on how the candlelight flutters in front of his dresser mirror. It is such a small and dismal light, no more than a speck of kinetic energy about to burn off the wick from which it gets its tenuous hold on life. Once the wick is gone, it will be just swallowed whole by all that clumpy candlewax. It will be there one moment. It will be gone the next. In this world, everything dies as fast as one sickly breath not followed by another, or a bullet penetrating flesh, or a flame coughing up a final cloud of dark smoke. Oh, how life slips through the fingers at the last call.

         And yet, as reflected in that dresser mirror, the candlelight is boundless. It is illumination unrestrained by space and time, making known the ghosts long deceased, hinting at the ghosts yet to come, and suggesting the eternity of the imagination. For in the ghostly candlelight, the imagination comes alive in how the reflected shapes move, in how the dream seems to linger in the shadows of a cramped bedroom. The observer cannot quite understand where he ends and all this visual madness begins; and precisely because there is no definitive line behind which he can lay and say that ‘this is sane’ and ‘this is not,’ he floats in an endless continuum of ghostly light and transfigured, reflected shapes. 

         Walter could be happy floating in that strange place. He could spend the rest of his miserable life there, not too happy, but not wallowing in his endless, suffocating tears, either. There are worst fates, like returning from abroad just to discover that Americans have elected a Kenyan Ape Man to the White House.

         Oh, but his butt hurts, and that shatters the illusion each and every time he tries to indulge it for a moment of two. Clover Fist had been much too hard. 

         So had Lucius…

         Walter sits up in his bed. He eyes Whiskers beside his feet. The Dragon Li sleeps soundly enough, and yet even then he kicks out his paws in response to a dream playing itself out in his little cat brain. Even the beasts dream, it seems; and Walter wonders if perhaps every living thing is trapped in the same kind of cage in which he keeps his rats. Perhaps, we only dream that there is a greater beast clawing at us from outside that cage. Perhaps, we just claw at ourselves the whole time, scratching away skin with long nails, smearing the warm blood.

         Except that there really are beasts out there

         As if to confirm that fact, the bedroom window shutters. It could be that howling night wind outside, stirring up the loose leaves, and beating the rusted window hinges even deeper into the mildewed walls.

         But Walter knows better. Sure, he may be his own worst enemy; but the black swans really are out there, crowding against the windows and the walls, and flapping their feathers frantically to stay afloat…

         Actually, flapping their feathers to stay alive…

*   *   *

         Walter crouches behind the rose bush. He is itching from poison ivy, and he has a headache from the hot sun cooking the back of his head. Even so, it is better to be out here during the daytime hours. Grandma Eunice and Lucius are especially frisky, shall we say, when the summer sun bleeds through the drawn curtains and blinds scattered about the house. 

         Grandma Eunice and Lucius keep their friskiness behind the shut master bedroom door, but there is no door or wall thick enough to muffle totally those lascivious catcalls and bloodcurdling screams that pass for conversation. Walter is no expert, of course; but he suspects the noises have less to do with perverse sex than with the cry of wolves or the lip smack of demons. 

         Lucius has not returned to Walter’s bedroom since that night. He has not so much as spoken to his little brother. 

         Grandma Eunice is only vaguely aware that Walter is alive still under her roof. Actually, she is only vaguely aware of life in general, except for when she locks eyes on her favorite grandson. She has taken to the bottle to a degree her discarded grandson has never noticed before. She seems loopy, whimsical, as if a mature and respectable woman rediscovering the naughty lusts of yesteryear. 

         Except, again, those naughty lusts do not seem sexual, at least from the perspective of a sheltered, overweight teenager. Rather, they feel darker, like a witch’s spell unleashed and indulged to its maximum. Walter would have felt less vulnerable if he had sensed nothing more at play here than incest. Instead, he senses the raw evil of secrets gossiped, wardrobe chests unlocked, odd wigs scented, handcuffs tightened until thin wrists peel; and, almost daily, he hears those screams, gargling throats, unintelligible incantations whispered off of the tips of heavy tongues. 

         Walter senses that at some point all that dark energy will be directed at him. Perhaps, Grandma Eunice and Lucius will tire of one another. Perhaps, the sun and the stars will click into place; and they will know that they need to get a hold of the fat pussy boy who had shirked his duty and to take off his clothes.

         Ironically, the nights are calmer. Grandma Eunice and Lucius supper and booze until passed midnight. Then, they go upstairs hand in hand to make love.

         Walter roams about the garden. He is anything but clandestine out there what with his wheezy, asthmatic breaths, lumbering breaths, and chronic farts. The rodents and the rabbits no doubt view him as some sort of idiot giant. He is not a predator, or so his scent says to them; but he is big and clumsy enough to pose a danger to anything on his path. For that matter, the beasts scatter; and the foliage bends out of his way in the nick of time. He does not notice his own impact, until he tries to approach one of the black swans, and Grandpa Henry’s bird waddles away from his reach.

         It pains him that he cannot grab one of the black swans. He wants to hug it, like when Grandpa Henry used to watch him play years ago. 

         The front door opens suddenly, and Lucius storms down the porch steps.

         Instinctively, Walter crouches behind the nearest obstruction: a thorny, overgrown, rose bush on the edge of the garden pond. Although he cannot stop the rapid Conga drumbeat in his ears, and the sweat slithering down his cheeky face, he remains quiet and still enough to blend into the scenery, or so he tries to imagine. In fact, Walter can be noticed easily enough within the garden as a fat, sweaty, startled boy who does not belong there. He stands out in all of the surrounding foliage, as the Adam from the Bible no doubt would stand out if he had managed somehow after the fall to sneak back into the Garden of Eden. He feels deep down that he is out of place, and so he is as ashamed, as frightened.

         Lucius sees Walter, but he pays no attention to him. He must do what his Eunice orders, lest his continued insubordination with respect to this awful task gives her a reason to put away his favorite toy. She has not said that she will do so, but he can read it in her eyes. Indeed, the deeper they fall into their games the more they communicate through subtle looks and gestures. Yes, they make a lot of noise, but that noise is not communication. It is the sound of those dark and sinister spirits, which roamed the depths before intelligible words. It is the sound of sin loved. It is the sound of a woman and a man losing their humanity.

         Lucius carries an axe in his right hand. It is not the same axe used to kill Grandpa Henry, for the handle is shorter. Rather, it looks like something that a small game hunter might use…

         Or a murderer might use…

         Walter suspects the latter in this case. He sees the homicidal intensity in Lucius’ eyes. Though Lucius finally had washed the blood splatter off his face a couple of weeks after that night and has been clean since then, his face at this moment looks clownish, pockmarked by red specks of fury and hate, snarled by a deep seated rage into a grotesque mimicking of humanity.

         Lucius splashes through the pond. There has been little rain these passed few months, and so the pond barely reaches Lucius’ knees at the deepest spot. No matter, for it is still enough water to attract the black swans to this portion of the garden. It is a source of sustenance for them; but in Lucius’ disoriented, frustrated mind, it is also a muddy deathtrap…

         And, of course, Lucius is the only responsible trapper in this household…

         A black swan flutters out from behind a line of tall weeds. It is obviously trying to get away from the madman splashing through the pond; but in spite of its single minded tenacity, it is not able to fly more than a few feet before it is snared by a thorny rose bush.

         The swan screams out like a little girl. Or, maybe, its frightened, injured cry is more reminiscent of a pussy boy. Regardless, Lucius does not hesitate, as he grabs that struggling swan out of the bush and tucks it tightly under his right arm. He could be a man returning home with the Thanksgiving turkey tucked so tightly under his arm, except that this prize is squirming and screaming as best as it can. Its life may not be much, but even a swan knows life beats out death.

         The swan’s protests do not seem to faze Lucius. He steps out of the dirty pond, hitches up his belt with his free hand, and vanishes inside the overgrown foliage that exists between the pond and the house. But for the heavy sound of his boots plodding through the dead summer leaves, Lucius could have been an insane ghost and the bird napping could have been a figment of Walter’s taxed and diseased imagination. 

         Walter wishes that this could be so. He certainly has no stomach now to confront his older, deranged brother. He almost stays in his little hiding space; his heartbeat as loud in his head as before and his sweat pouring down his face.

         Nevertheless, at the last moment, Walter cracks. He knows that Lucius is going to kill the innocent swan. He presumes that Grandma Eunice put his older brother up to this. Regardless, that is one of Grandpa Henry’s black swans, and Grandpa Henry has suffered enough.

         Walter steps out from behind the bush. He has not formulated a plan of action in his mind, and yet his desire to save that swan is too urgent for him to wait until he has all his ducks in a row. He opens and closes his pudgy hands by his side, and he snorts phlegm out of his nose. As a result, he looks like a beast venturing out to save one of its own kind; and maybe that is most appropriate, for his conscious mind just then cannot seem to make sense of any idea or word above the sophistication level of a grunt.

         Walter waddles out of the garden. He sees a trail of filthy swan feathers leading to the side of the house. The fallen feathers, stained orange red by the pond scum, and rising and falling ever so slightly with a hot furnace breeze, do not serve any other purpose then than to inspire Walter to quicken his pace. He fears that he may be too late already. 

         Walter hurries to the side of the house. In his left peripheral vision, he is pretty sure that he sees Grandma Eunice staring out what will be later his large ‘family room’ window. She seems ethereal, like she may vanish into thin air as soon as the sunlight striking the window shifts just so. 

         Walter tries to forget that strange, ghostly apparition in the window. He has a vague sense that the more he fixates on Grandma Eunice; the less he will be able to do what he must around the corner.

         He rounds that corner, and then stops dead in his tracks.

         The black swan is dead. Lucius is on his knees, crouching over the swan’s mangled corpse, and chopping his axe repeatedly into a thin bird neck that has been severed already. 

         Lucius looks back at Walter. Now, Lucius’ face is coated in blood. Lucius must have opened a geyser with the first strike of his axe.

         Lucius’ big eyes are blank, confused, completely mad; but the way he is licking his lips now suggests a cunning devil just under the surface that is intent on getting Walter under his axe sooner rather than later. The young man is long gone, no more substantial than a pair of confused eyes on a grisly face, but the devil knows very well what he is doing. 

         Walter feels warm pee slithering down his left leg. Otherwise, strangely, there is no sensation of fear. There is only righteous anger; a kinetic surge that starts inside his raw heart, but soon spreads to the farthest reach of his nerves.

         Walter pounces. He almost trips from all that forward momentum. 

         Lucius chuckles when he sees just how clumsy his little brother can be. Lucius’ condescending behavior accomplishes nothing else, but to spur his little brother into quickening his steps that much more. Perhaps, Lucius wants to die now. Perhaps, Lucius can think of no other way to escape all this madness than to ignite that powder keg that has been laying dormant in his little brother for a long time. This must end now, the world ceasing with a bang, not a whimper.

         Lucius sits up on his knees, and opens his arms just as Walter barrels into his chest. Lucius drops his bloodied axe, and wraps his arms about his attacker.

         Lucius and Walter roll across the itchy, dried weeds and hard rocks that, collectively, are known as the grassy knoll. Several times, they come perilously close to falling over the side and into the Manchester River. Neither is aware of this fact, though, for both of them stay focused on scratching and punching the other. There is nothing to be understood or felt, but raw, sensual violence; the suicidal lust given outward expression as a fight to the finish under the hot sun.

         Like all battles, the end is sudden, unexpected, and less decisive than is first indicated. Somehow the sharp edge of the axe ends up deep inside Lucius’ heart. Blood squirts into Walter’s face before he can scream. It is the cold, sick blood of a serpent, or so Walter thinks while trying to give voice to the horrible scream already let loose in his heart. 

         At first glance, Walter is the victor; but as the seconds pass, Walter feels the weight of judgment upon his shoulders. When later he screams, he screams as much for himself as for his fallen older brother.

         There is nothing left to remember of the day. There is one bloodcurdling scream, and then there is only the sad slide of the sun into an unmarked grave. 

         Grandma Eunice watches Walter dump the corpse into the river, while a nasty firefly buzzes over Walter’s head. It is pitch black, but for the old firefly.

         Come on in for a cup of tea, she says to Walter, as Lucius is swept away.

         Walter looks over his shoulder. As expected, there is not even a glimmer down there in that foamy river that suggests that Lucius had occupied a certain place in space and in time. Lucius is as if he never had been. Yes, Lucius swung the axe untold times into the flesh of his own grandfather; but now, he and his grandfather share the same fate, swallowed whole, pushed out to the dark sea.

*   *   *

         The Manchester River roars about thirty feet beneath Walter’s shoes. He is sitting on a cushion that he had placed on top of the grassy knoll a few hours ago. Notwithstanding the two corpses that have been shoved down to the river from this very spot (actually, there have been three corpses, but the gruesome tale that surrounds that third corpse must be told some other time), Walter has found this smooth place atop the knoll over the years to be a kind of sweet and sour tonic for his soul. The sourness bubbles up from the discordant memories: the strangely calm look upon Lucius’ dead face just before Walter gets down to his knees to shove Lucius over the edge and into the sink; the squishy sound, as Walter pulls the axe out of Lucius’ chest at Grandma Eunice’s insistence (after all, scrape the hardened blood away, and it is still a perfectly good weapon for killing rats trapped, but still squirming and squealing, up in the attic); the sick, grainy smell of feces in Lucius’ pants, because Lucius must have squeezed out a couple of road apples as the axe cut into his heart. Each sensation passes like a chill in the midst of an endless night. Only the sour taste lingers on the tongue.

         As for the sweetness, that sweeps upward from the rumbling river below his feet. It could be the floral scent dancing in the river mist. It could the long, thin branches of a tree on the river’s edge, swinging wildly in the wind as if an indigenous dancer trying to seduce Walter’s attention for a spell. It could be an old, timeless sound, like the call of the whippoorwill suddenly breaking through the meditative churn of water flow. Or it could be nothing at all, but the vague sense of peace that people sometimes feel when strolling through graveyards in the lonelier hours. The sweetness lingers along with the sourness, neither truly canceling the other, but each changing the other into a reflection of itself. The sweetness is sour as it sees itself in this imagined mirror. The sourness is sweet as it sees itself in return. There is neither total joy, nor total despair; and thus, when experienced in the relative silence of a long sunset, there is the peace of limbo, a life lobotomized, a nothingness where even those ghosts do not haunt.

         Walter squirms on the cushion. He has been sitting on it so long now that it is flat, and he can feel the jagged rocks beneath it. Still, he wants to remain a bit longer, before he uses his walking stick to push himself up from the earth. He will be a huffing and puffing sweat hog by the time he finishes that arduous task. He wonders again if he should not take up walking, lest his girth send him to a wheelchair before too long. As usual, he does not answer his own question.

         After dreaming about Lucius’ death and water burial, Walter had opened his eyes only then to realize that the worst of his headache and nausea had left him for some other poor bastard. Mostly, he had felt a great weight lifted from his shoulders. Lucius’ ghost seemed to have passed, if not forever then at least for a while. Grandma Eunice still could be heard in how the floors creaked and the windows shivered. Her ghost would not be passing any time soon; but even though tired of her witchcraft, he could deal with her presence. He had lived in such close proximity with his grandmamma for so long that, deep down, he had a hard time imagining a life without her cold dead fingers grabbing at his obese belly now and then. As such, he had decided that, maybe, the tide of memories had started to recede from his shoreline, leaving him bereft, but for the cat on his belly, but also giving him a chance to focus his thoughts on what to do next.

         Walter would not leave his bedroom for several more days. Logically, he understood that the black swans would leave with Lucius, his brother a kind of Pied Piper leading them back into Hell. Nevertheless, his fears had never been particularly logical (Whose fears are?); and so somewhere beneath his conscious mind, he still heard those beasts pushing against his windows and his walls. The eyes of raw, cold judgment continued to penetrate the narrow slits in between the shut blinds, the holes in the drawn curtains, and the widening cracks in the walls. Somewhere in the darkness of his imagination, those stupid birds had dug in their claws; and he was then in no position to confront them as he had prior.

         All that changed this morning. Without thinking about it, Walter opened his eyes, rolled out of bed (almost crushing Whiskers, who had to pounce out of the way just in time), waddled over to the window, pulled aside the old curtain (more akin to tattered fabric shreds), and stared into the morning sun. He saw no birds’ eyes outside his second floor window. He saw no birds’ eyes staring at him from the ground. He saw his disheveled garden as usual, but he saw no sign of a black swan floating on the pond or waddling over the leaves. Indeed, there was not a single bird feather sifting aimlessly through the morning breezes, like litter snatched from the bowels of a dead battlefield to tickle the gods on high.

         And so here is Walter dressed in his dapper evening clothes: His Mulberry plaid bowtie, his starched, white shirt, his checkered, Gerald Ford trousers, all topped by a bowler hat, and punctuated by his snake headed walking stick. The loafers had been scuffed a bit by his walk out to the grassy knoll, but otherwise his clothes remain as pristine as always. 

         He eyes his handheld watch through pince-nez perched daintily upon the tip of his nose. His lips move subtly, as he tries to make sense of the tiny hands of that handheld watch through the even tinier pince-nez lenses. Sad, but true, the sacrifice in ease of deportment we make for the sake of fashion! Staring at a watch through impossibly small lenses may not be quite the same as waddling over the earth on high heels; but in Walter’s mind, it is near enough to the silly struggles of a woman in lace as to justify now his long and temperamental sigh.

         Whiskers walks up to his side. Whiskers has been taking in the sun for as long as Walter has been out here staring into the old river. The irritably groggy look on Whiskers’ face suggests that he is more than ready to return to his bowl and his bed inside the house, thank you very much. Just to make sure that that goofy owner of his gets the message, Whiskers paws aggressively upon his shirt.

         I know pussy crack, Walter responds. It is about time, I surmise.

         Walter returns his watch to his shirt pocket. He reaches out with his left hand and pets his Dragon Li. There is an intensity in his slow, rhythmic petting, which suggests that he could cup the cat’s throat and squeeze every last one of his nine lives out of his beating heart at the slightest pretext. There is a strong, homicidal madness lurking just beneath the exterior calm. Walter is not so sure yet what to make of this feeling, let alone how or if he ever will put all this sad rage into effect. Nevertheless, like Grandma Eunice’s ghost, the homicidal rage lingers, creaking in his bowels, howling in his sighs, deadening to a ghostly grey the light in his eyes. It strengthens him, as much as it makes him impervious to his surroundings. More importantly, at this moment anyway, it focuses his mind so that for the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, he knows just how those cards must fall for his life to get back on track…

         And what he must do, if those cards do not fall as they should…

         Don’t be fooled by how quiet this day has been, Walter remarks, as he is monotonously petting his cat, and blankly staring into his cat’s face. Lucius will be back, and the swans too, if I do not grab a hold of that axe and start cutting and chiseling this damned world into what I want it to be. We make our worlds, or we lay in fear waiting for those ghosts to return. We fashion our lives, or we draw our curtains for fear of being judged. There’s a man, a cowboy, who goes by the name of ‘Restless Wrangler.’ He is mine. As much as I once belonged to Lucius, and still feel Grandma Eunice’s leash about my neck, that fucking piece of shit faggot cowboy is mine! Well, I’ll concede he has his own life, when he is not dancing for me. But goddamn it, when I pay for a show, hand over my cash for a ‘private session,’ do you think that man belongs to his family, his friends, his fucking parole officer, or whatever? No. He belongs to me. He is mine! From the beginning to the end of that show, I may be the man in chains, but he does my bidding, like the little whore monkey on a rope that he is. So you think it is a coincidence Lucius started to play his little games the night that man decided to go AWOL? Oh, what do you know? You’re just another pussy licker…

         Walter picks up Whiskers by the neck, and he holds his hissing feline face up close and personal to his own. Walter shows no emotions. His eyes are dead.

         Let me tell you how life works, even if it is above your pay grade, Walter says. There are no coincidences. There are those who grab that axe, and there are those who do not. I have spent my life letting what is mine slip through my fingers. Now, that’s fine for a girl, or a pussy cat, because there is always some man who’ll come around to take care of them. But I am a man. No one is going to take care of me, not even my grandmamma. So I’ll be damned if the fucking piece of shit faggot cowboy goes AWOL again, and I do nothing about it, but cry in my cocktail. Get the axe, or let it fall to the floor; life indeed is that simple.

         Walter gently places Whiskers on the dry grass beside him. Whiskers does not run away, though he is convinced that his sicko owner belongs inside one of those rat cages, for he is drawn toward that homicidal energy he can sense just beneath the surface. In a way, his owner is transforming into the ultimate feral cat, a stalker, an attacker, a survivor, an ugly force of nature intent on winning the hunt, and providing for himself and his litter. Whiskers fears Walter, surely; but even more so, Whiskers is drawn to the feral, howling, blood lust coming up to the surface. As the weaker of the two, Whiskers will need to figure out soon his place in this emerging order, lest that sick monster one day claws him alive.

         Walter stares a moment longer at the river. He allows everything that he just stated to linger in his mind, like they are words spoken by someone greater than himself. That dissociation may reflect just how precarious a hold he has at this moment on sanity, and Walter is willing to concede that point; but he truly thinks, deep down, that there is something more at play here than one more in a long line of mental games. The homicidal maniac really is a new man. He may be a new man born from what is demented in his subconscious mind, or he may be an intruder. Regardless, he is a man who will hold onto that axe, when next placed in his pudgy hands. He is a man who will wield that axe, when next he is in line to do so. Walter believes that in time he will learn to love this new man.

*   *   *

         It takes a long time; but, finally, Walter manages to get back to his feet.

         He balances himself with his walking stick, as he waddles to the porch of old and creepy Victorian. He needs to catch his breath there, before taking the steps to his front door. Again, he reminds himself that he should exercise more.

         Whiskers scampers into the foyer and halfway up the staircase, while his owner, the homicidal maniac, wraps a cashmere scarf around his huge neck and puts on an overcoat. Whiskers eyes Walter with a combination of adoration and fear in his eyes. He watches his owner step back outside; and for the first time, he fears not for his owner’s safety, but for the safety of the evening world into which his owner is stepping. The strange, dark world out there is the prey now.

*   *   *

         My bros call me Colonel Sanders, ‘cause I’m packing a big drumstick, the imposter says, while thrusting his crotch just inches away from Walter’s mouth.

         Déjà vu all over again, Walter thinks, while he impassively observes that faggot imposter doing what the bona fide ‘Restless Wrangler’ never does. First, the ‘Restless Wrangler’ does not have ‘bros,’ for he is a white cowboy way out there on the American range, not a nigger lover in oily denim like this silly turd bird. Secondly, the ‘Restless Wrangler’ never plays that screwy Michael Jackson spear chucker music over the speakers. What’s with this ‘Beat It,’ anyway? Just a bunch of jungle gypsies whipping out and beating their junk to see which one has got the biggest. Then, finally, the ‘Restless Wrangler’ never faces me with his crotch, let alone his face. He understands that mystery is part of the appeal here. On the other hand, this guy is just revolting. He is a groundling ‘big boy,’ nothing more, nothing less. How inappropriate for a man of my greater stature.

         While Walter entertains these negative thoughts, he remains as blank as one of his mannequins back home. There is no point in letting ‘Colonel Sanders’ know of his disapproval; and, anyway, this is not really his fault. The bona fide ‘Restless Wrangler’ deserves the blame here, for he is AWOL a second time in a row. What the Hell? Once is bad enough certainly, but AWOL two fucking times?

Who does he think he is? Does he think his time is more valuable than Walter’s?

         Maybe the ‘Restless Wrangler’ is a little too restless out there on the Big American Desert, Walter thinks, while the imposter continues to go through the motions. Maybe, he needs to be cut down. Neutered, so he stops his wandering out there somewhere, and comes back to his senses like the ‘Prodigal Cowboy.’

         Walter chuckles a little. He likes the idea of the ‘Prodigal Cowboy.’ It is so Biblical, and surely this situation demands a response of Biblical proportions.

*   *   *

         Walter stands in front of his bedroom window. He is totally nude, and his curtain has been pulled to the side. With the candlelight on the dresser behind him now illuminating the entire room, it would be pretty easy for any weirdo in the garden, or even beyond the front gate, to see him in all his flabby glory. He doubts that there is anyone out there this time of night; but what matters right this moment is that there could be and, for once in his life, he is not frightened of that possibility. Actually, come to think of it, he is not afraid of anything out there. He is not sure what to make of this fearlessness, except that it is a heck of a lot better than cowering in fright from black swans and creaky floorboards.

         He is holding the axe handle in his right hand. He is tapping the dull half of the axe blade against his left palm. He has decided that, indeed, this is that same axe that Grandma Eunice and Lucius had used to beat Grandpa Henry into a smashed burrito. Ha! Grandma Eunice must have spilled her ghost cocktail all over her ghost dress, when she saw him holding that same axe with confidence.

         Walter sets that thought aside. This axe is really not about the past. It is about the future, the world he is going to cut and to chisel out for himself, and a certain cowboy performer that should get his attitude adjustment toot sweet.

*   *   *

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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