Sunday, July 5, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 210: The Great Celebration

Highbrow by Payton Chung, Wikimedia

The Great Celebration

Like, sorry for drinking
the last bottle of champagne.
My memory is fuzzy but
I remember I couldn't taste it.

And sorry for fighting
with your friend
(who's name I don't recall).
How did that start, anyway?
I have rug burns on my elbows
and a bruise on my forehead.

It's embarrassing that I was sick
although I managed to confine it
to your bathroom, my shirt, and one shoe.
I think I used up
all your paper towels.

Oh, and thanks for the shirt.
I don't remember you giving it to me
but you must have.  That was nice.

I'm happy you're engaged, now.
That green sweater you gave her looked
as good as the ring, which was pretty.
I hope you enjoyed your party
and I hope I did, too.

I'll give you the shirt back tomorrow.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 209: Return of the Ambitious One

adapted from Wikimedia Commons
Return of the Ambitious One

It's a moment like a few others,
with an arm around an old girlfriend,
naked next to each other after an evening
of laughter, debate, and wine,
auburn hair against my cheek,
breasts against my sternum;
and in that moment, she shivers, sighs.

She doesn't believe in love -
so she's said many times - and though we
had sex the night before
she doesn't want it now, I can tell.

She crouches into me,
careful where she puts her legs,
determined to stay celibate for the night
but ashamed, a little guilt-ridden.
So she pretends to be more tired than she is.

It's a moment of reflection.
I feel the breath of her sigh on my throat,
think about how she hurt me before,
how terrible and wonderful she was,
how she 'wants to be friends.'
And I realize she will run away,
just like last time,
now that we've had sex.
The only difference is, this time she feels guilty
and she doesn't wear her makeup to bed
and, just maybe, she's not so afraid
to show me herself.
And I think, 'Well, it's silly, but
I guess I do love her.'

I can't help chuckling.
She has already told me tonight
she does not love me.

"Okay, what is it?" she says.

"Oh," and I pause to feel certain,
discover that there is not even a thought needed.
“I’m seeing dream images, I guess.
Maybe I’m tired.”

“Can we just rest?” she suggests.

“Yeah.”

Her body curves in tighter to mine.
But she is not really tired,
not either of us, really,
so I listen to her breathing for half an hour
before her rhythm relaxes
and she begins to sleep in my arms.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 208: Note on a Napkin

Mailbox in Flowers, Kasharp, Wikimedia
Note on a Napkin

I said, "My love is like a
'68 station wagon, inefficient and invulnerable,
a plower of mailboxes, a pet-killer,
There’s poodle-fur in my tires
So come, drive with me."

You said, "Love is not funny.
And you drive too fast,"
as we cruised to your house,
as I opened the passenger door,
as we walked you to the gate.

I pleaded for you to travel, to take any risk.
“Put dents in everything!
Your car, my car, any person, any object!
Travel the reaches of the globe
and know that I will be there for you.”

You should have run off with my heart.
Oh, I would have tended your goldfish
as a sign of my love for you;
I would have worn your cat on my shoulder,
cherished lost strands of your hair,
never vacuumed your couch,
if only you had let me get broken-hearted.

You could have left your tire tracks all over my life
but you never took the wheel,
not for me, not for anybody,
not even yourself.

I turned the corner a little slower tonight
as I drove past your house.
There, I saw your Volvo in the driveway,
wondered if you ever leave the garage.
It was a late night, full of bleary-eyed
self-pity, and I raged at
the rust in my body, the oil like curdled milk,
all the missed chances of my life.
And now I must apologize.

Please understand, it was with love
and also with slight near-sightedness
that I ran over your mailbox.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Aesop's Progress - Almost a Collection

Woodcutter and the Trees, Arthur Rackham (Wikimedia Commons)

There's only one thing worse than writing about writing.  That's blogging about blogging.

The title of this series of essays about the blog comes from a book of stories that I never finished compiling.  It was a book intended for my parents.  Since I'd read the Aesop collection in our house at least a dozen times, maybe more than twenty, really, before I was ten years old, I think they would have understood the title.

Ultimately, I created several different collections and considered a variety of names for them.  With family and friends, I collected photographs to serve for the artwork.  The collection never made it as far as becoming a book, though.




Aesop's Progress

Explanations


  • Aesop's Progress - Almost
  • Aesop's Progress - The Blog Begins
  • Aesop's Progress - It's Small
  • Aesop's Progress - It's Growing
  • Aesop's Progress - Rise of the Influencers
  • Aesop's Progress - The Mystery of the Ukraine
  • Aesop's Progress - The Israeli Influencer
  • Aesop's Progress - NotZen Continues


  • Sunday, June 7, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.7: Aesop's Progress - NotZen Continues

    Afterword

    Part 7: NotZen Continues


    The NotZen site lives on. With no art, the lowest ad settings, and no connections to other blogs, it pretty much does everything wrong. I’m writing more slowly. Instead of producing a story every week or two, I’m coming out with less than one per month.

    I’m taking time to write other things. Even so, the NotZen story ideas sometimes seem urgent or at least important. As I write, I have four finished and waiting plus I've jotted notes on others. There are times like that. Usually nowadays, the need feels less dramatic with the kids out of the house and very few folks around who want to talk about secular Buddhism. I’m trying my hand at more humorous stuff on the theory that the world could use more smiles.



    In December 2015, the U.S. readership fell to fourth for the month. I thought the U.S. would continue to decline in readers but it has climbed back up to second, generally, behind either Israel or Hong Kong.


    Israel, Ukraine, Russia, France, and Hong Kong have all passed China for foreign readership. Germany, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey are not far behind. Then come various European countries. In 2016, the site got roughly two to four thousand readers per story. In 2017 and 2018, the count continued to rise. In 2019, it fell, but even so there are a steady stream of readers coming in to read old stories even when a new NotZen story has not been posted.




    Sunday, May 31, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.6: Aesop's Progress - The Israeli Influencer

    Afterword

    Part 6: The Israeli Influencer


    In March 2014, Israel read a story. By that I mean, it felt like everyone there read it. The home page at the time was showing Job Well Done. This log graphic seems to show a healthy mix of viewers. There were none of the weird, esoteric browsers in the records on the day this happened. The most popular browsers and all of the big OSes were represented. It appears that a thousand individuals in a tiny country, all with fairly standard computers, not phones, were online at NotZen.

    Someone in Israel, it seemed, could recommend a story and generate a thousand readers. And for Israel, that turned out to be only the beginning.

    But first, AdSense and AdWords would produce another change in the attention of aggregation sites.


    In May 2014, the site received Google approval to use AdSense. Going through the process felt weird. Google makes almost all of its money from ads. You’d think the company would be eager to have sites sign up.

    On the surface, that’s the case. But underneath the campaign for ads, there is a bot that automatically approves sites. Until I applied, that bot hadn’t looked at the NotZen site. When, on my request, it did scroll through the homepage, it decided that NotZen was not a real site. The articles didn’t have enough text structured in the right form.

    I had to appeal to a human. When I got through to one, fortunately, the human agreed that the bot wasn’t able to make sense of stories with dialogue. The Google employee allowed AdSense on NotZen. It changed the site.

    Some of the change was for the worse – product ads, awkwardly placed for viewing by non-materialistic people. But along with the ads came the presence of different referring engines. One of those engines resided in Turkey.

    When Turkey started sending readers to NotZen, the site got a spike in AdSense earnings. Whatever Google was doing there, it was working. The Turkish readers were clicking on ads alongside the stories. That seemed so unlikely that I blamed it on smartphones. I figured the Turks were accidentally clicking ads.

    Later, my wife thought of another possible reason: readers in Turkey saw different ads than readers in the U.S. Maybe they were relevant. Maybe they even got referred to NotZen stories in a way that made sense.



    In May 2014, Turkey readership actually passed the U.S. for the month. Also, I saw that someone there was still using a Nokia phone.


    The trend continued in June. The log summaries made it appear that Turkish citizens owned plenty of Android phones and Windows computers but not a whole lot of Apple products. It seemed believable.

    Also in June, the Dalvik browser made an appearance but that’s just another way of saying it was Firefox starting up within Android, probably. (Dalvik was an old Android virtual machine. A web browser running in it gave two identification strings and Blogspot didn’t understand that yet.)

    Likewise, the GSA browser appeared in the logs because someone visited the site with a Google Search Appliance. In a way, I’m surprised there aren’t more entries for like these.


    By the end of June 2014, Israel rose to third place in the overall readership. About eighty percent of their readers total, though, probably only read a single story. The Ukrainians had visited more steadily. Sometimes they’d browsed as few hundred people basically at the same time, sometimes as just a few dozen.

    Although the Ukrainians, Russians, Chinese, and Americans seemed to be attracted to stories about love and peace, the Turkish readers, in contrast, seemed interested in stories about transcendence. That seems like a good thing to me, personally.


    In September, Israeli readers noticed a second story. This one was Thoughtless Competition. As before, the Israelis browsed to the main page of the blog, not to the dedicated story link.

    It seemed to be an emerging pattern. Someone decided they liked the current entry on NotZen, recommended it, and sent the homepage link to others, who actually read it.

    Whoever that person was, they had been influential again. This time, they’d brought in over fifteen hundred readers at once. There was no spike in referring sites. The lack of an obvious source made it look personal, maybe a method as simple as a link sent out in an email newsletter.



    In September of 2014, the NotZen site saw over 3,800 readers in a month for the first time. The surge came thanks in part to Israel, again, although it also came from the U.S., Ukraine, Russia, and China.


    Eight of the top nine NotZen audiences turned out not to be from English speaking countries. Their citizens might read English some and they might use translation services. Mostly, I think those eight countries all have traditions of education and of reading for pleasure. It seems to be the most likely source of the readership differences.



    In February of 2015, readers in Israel discovered Immunity. It’s a parable that deals, in part, with deliberate ignorance and its consequences.

    It’s true that some folks love to argue for the sake of appearing smart. Behaviors like that, coupled with lack of attention to practical details (for instance, not understanding that an ice maker needs a water line), lead to a sort of popular disdain for intellectuals.

    The consequences of deliberate ignorance as an emotional response, though, are pretty severe. The failure to understand the science behind our homes, our tools, and our medicines affects anti-intellectuals and their families, friends, and neighbors. There’s a social aspect of deliberate ignorance that can make it irresponsible to let it resolve itself.

    At the time I wrote Immunity, there had been a few outbreaks of old, nearly-forgotten diseases in the U.S. It seemed clear to me that, if the American anti-vaccination trend continued, more outbreaks would come. I picked an eradicated disease and decided to use it for my explanation.

    Thiomersal, the other main technical key to the story, has been removed from U.S. vaccines. That probably wasn’t a good move or at least not a necessary one. It doesn’t seem to break down in the human body; there’s no sign that it does harm except to molds and bacteria; and its replacements are also preservatives and have similar but less studied properties.

    If preservatives do damage, it’s likely to be because they are weakly antibiotic. They influence our personal biomes. If preservative compounds are causing harm, they’re doing it in a widespread fashion – in our foods, cosmetics, paints, and wooden furniture. Vaccines might be the least likely way to encounter a preservative.


    I’d gotten used to the graph growing in a regular fashion. In the spring of 2015, though, I could see that Israel had skewed the readership trends again.


    This is what happened when Israel liked Immunity. Previously, the Israelis had only browsed to the main page. This time, some of them went to the dedicated story link. Some may have even looked at other stories.


    This bump in the chart appears to be a reaction to Always Land in July 2015. The Peace Process story might have had some appeal, too. By this time, the influencer in Israel, whoever or whatever that is, could apparently bring over two thousand six hundred folks to the site in just one day. This is for a small and until that day, unknown story, after all.

    Next: NotZen Continues

    Sunday, May 24, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.5: Aesop's Progress - The Mystery of the Ukraine

    Afterword

    Part 5: The Mystery of the Ukraine 

    The first week of January 2014 was the one in which the Ukraine passed the U.S. in readership.


    Normally, Firefox and Chrome are the browsers on top, week to week. That week, Internet Explorer rose to the top. The change implied that the readers in the Ukraine had a lot of Internet Explorer browsers on their desktops.

    You might have expected a stronger Firefox and Chrome presence in the Ukraine. I’d have figured on seeing more Linux. Apparently, that wasn’t the way.


    By the end of January 2014, the site hit a new high in monthly readers logged. There were more than 1,300 for the month. Of course, as an acquaintance pointed out, I had no assurance that this was the number of people actually reading all the way through a story.

    The number of real people seeing each tale could have been greater, due to aggregator sites skimming off the text and re-publishing it as their own. It could have been less, too, because the same sort of web robots could generate hits in the logs while doing nothing else.

    Since there’s not much I could do to get a more accurate sense of readership, I decided I had to accept the log numbers. The bot hits appeared to be a small fraction of the total. Plus, if each aggregator hit led to one extra, real person reading a story off-site, then the Blogspot totals would be accurate.

    At this point, in a very short period of time, the Ukraine had risen from a tiny presence to third place in all time readers.


    My sense of the Ukrainian readers was that, however they found out about NotZen stories, they were most attracted to those about love, peace, and friendship.

    I remember noticing the pattern and discussing it with a friend, Sharon. For reasons that could be seen as Buddhist, I didn’t like it. Stories that are emotionally difficult are often more worthwhile than those with a happy resolution. The pattern of bumps in readership was apparent, though, and I flirted with the idea of playing to it.

    At the core, that’s not what the stories are for, so the concept was impossible to execute. As you have probably seen, not all of these stories are friendly ones. They’re what they needed to be at the time.

    The story that appeared just before June 30 was Tribes. I can see how that one might have appealed in the Ukraine at the time.



    Next: The Israeli Influencer

    Sunday, May 17, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.4: Aesop's Progress - Rise of the Influencers

    Afterword

    Part 4: Rise of the Influencers

    In first week of January 2014, the story called 'Parroting the Instructor' surged in readership. It was a bump that started when I recommended the link to a project management instructor. He was more than a fun teacher; he was also the author of project management books. I’m pretty sure that he was - and still is - a strong, positive persuader of others. Maybe he recommended the story to other teachers or to his students in classes. I'm just guessing. But it's an educated guess. And I still haven't thought of any other good reason for the bump in readers.


    The effect in the logs reminded me of the other people who had recommended NotZen stories. Some of those people and their websites had been influential. Among them:

    • One of my brothers
    • A Buddhist clown (yes, really) who I’d met via Diaspora
    • A True Land group leader on Google Plus

    These people determined for themselves whether a story was worthwhile. And then they spread the news. The True Land monk, Denis Wallez, was perhaps the most influential, not only because of his online presence but because his own, careful writing. His explanation of critical points of Buddhist philosophy affected me personally and inspired some of my later stories. His work appeared in Plus groups and on his own website.

    When people like these recommended a story, dozens or hundreds of people browsed to it.


    When Denis Wallez recommended the story Best after it was posted in January 2015, folks in the Buddhism interest group started giving it +1. Readership went up. The same thing happened earlier when he praised and reposted Bridge of Promise to the Buddhist and Taoist communities.

    Meanwhile, slightly removed from the individual recommendations, the aggregation sites with an interest in NotZen also made their impacts. There must have been people behind the sites, of course. I still don’t know who they are. They left some clues for me, though. For one thing, they came from these three countries:

    • Russia
    • Ukraine
    • Israel

    Early in 2014, these aggregators started looming over everything else.

    Next: The Mystery of the Ukraine

    Sunday, May 10, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.3: Aesop's Progress - It's Growing

    Afterword

    Part 3: It's Growing

    Although the blog site never had links to Chinese social media (because I would have had to know the language to do that), somehow Chinese readers found the stories. After eight months, China had become the number two country in NotZen readership.


    Naturally, at this point it was a distant second. The surprise was that China appeared at all.


    Around the same time, two stories, Mercy and Focus, seemed to be drawing more attention than the others. As I looked through the logs, I saw that a third story, The Heavy Staff, had been translated into French.

    I traced down the French version after getting curious about a referring site. The referring site ended up being another blog - in French. That writer, who lived in Quebec, had translated the story and had also politely linked back to the original. Most other folks aren’t so polite. If the same thing has been done at other times, I’ll never know.


    By April of 2013, China overtook the United States on a weekly readership basis. I think that I saved this screen due to a ‘China again, WTF?’ reaction. The site also started averaging a couple hundred readers per week. A significant portion of them came from out of the country.

    The Chinese web browsers seemed not to identify themselves in ways that Blogspot could parse. That’s why the browser named “;” makes an appearance. There’s more of that than anything else.

    Later, the “;” entries disappeared. I think that Blogspot learned to translate the Chinese.


    Individual stories started making comebacks in readership. I wasn’t always clear on why. It might have come from someone liking it, posting a link to it, and finally the link getting noticed. Whatever the process was, it took time to happen.

    In this log entry, the older stories getting readers were Parroting the Instructor and Self-Discipline. I thought I had a clue about the first one. It was due to a particularly influential person.

    Regardless of the trending stories and referring sites, readership from mainland China faded. I was never sure of the reasons. The United States finished on top in the logs again, week after week, even though the landscape of countries and technology kept shifting underneath.


    Although readership in China seemed to fade - due to lack of interest or to the Great Firewall or to a search engine grabbing the page contents and re-packaging them in Chinese - other countries outside of the U.S. started to climb. Israel made an appearance. Russia and the Ukraine showed up.

    In November 2013, despite a lack of Chinese browsers, NotZen got more hits than ever from Baidu, the main Chinese search engine.

    I’m not precisely sure if the Baidu search engine rose up to fill a need. If the notzen.net site got blocked by the Great Firewall of China how did Baidu get through? If the site wasn’t blocked, why did the Chinese browsers disappear? One logical answer would be that the few readers there ever were in China stopped browsing to notzen.net but that doesn’t match with the Baidu searches of the site trending upward.


    I don’t have the answers and, possibly, I don't even have the right questions.

    Sunday, May 3, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.2: Aesop's Progress - It's Small

    Afterword

    Part 2: It's Small

    Early on, hardly anyone clicked on the link to any story. Most of the readers came from a small, kind, and rather literature-oriented subset of my friends. After them came folks who I was meeting in social media platforms. Diaspora had good interest groups for philosophy and Buddhism. The best platform early on was Google Plus.

    If you’ve relied on Facebook for all your social connections, this part is hard to describe. In Google Plus, there were interest groups that shared articles and held discussions about them. On Diaspora and Friendica, the articles were even more interesting (although lack of vetting was a problem). The interest groups in those services and a few others seemed to be the equivalent of college classrooms.

    Everyone in the groups joined in a discussion on Buddhism, for instance, because they genuinely wanted to trade ideas about it. That’s different from the Facebook neighborhood of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Your uncle may not want to hear about your hobby. In an interest group, they do.



    As you can see in the traffic sources chart, there are signs that the social media sites were, somehow, linking more distant readers to the stories. The google.fr (France) site appears. So does paper.li, an aggregator service that tries to be international. A t.co reference also appears. That one belongs to a service owned by Twitter.

    I think that it was through these channels that readers in European countries started to triangulate on the site.

    By late December 2012, a Russian site made its appearance as a referrer (troll-face-ru). I read about how it was a blog aggregator. According to online author complaints, the site was grabbing material from all over the world and re-packaging it for a Russian audience. Some writers were mad because they were losing advertising money. At the time, I had no ads.

    And anyway, the notzen.net site was tiny, tiny, tiny.

    Sunday, April 26, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208.1: Aesop's Progress - The Blog Begins

    Afterword

    Part 1: The Blog Begins

    In May 2012 I started posting entries in Not Zen, which led me to discover the logging features in Blogspot. I didn’t think to save the information; the weekly logs came only in picture form and I didn’t realize that the pictures would disappear in a rolling, always-updating fashion. Even when I figured out that the daily and weekly readership snapshots were ephemeral, there didn’t seem to be much reason to try to preserve them. That was partly because I kept looking for real logs, the kinds I know from running Apache and IIS websites. Among the things missing from the Blogspot graphics were details about specific browser sessions and ways to archive the logs.

    Despite the crude state of the blogging records, there were a few lessons that I learned early on.

    1. The world has more browsers than Internet Explorer. Not everyone is a U.S. government employee using a mandated application. I’d lost track of what the world-wide web public looked like. 
    2. Technologies logged by the NotZen site ranged from generations-old OS/2 and Netscape to the newest variants of Linux systems with obscure Chinese-language tools.
    3. Social media sites, as the Blogspot logs showed, do matter. The blog posts that I shared on Facebook, Google Plus, Friendica, and Diaspora generated readers.
    4. Few readers, though, ever commented on a story. I’d started out thinking that folks might write responses. Nope.
    5. The folks who did send comments posted them via Google Plus, Diaspora, or personal email. They didn’t use Blogspot.
    6. Some people didn’t read the social media side of it at all. They only looked at emailed stories.
    7. Others hated getting email. They unsubscribed from the Not Zen mailing list.
    8. And of course, some friends and relatives never use the Internet. For them, stories not in print don’t really exist.

    By October 2012, I was starting to find the logs interesting. I got the idea to capture the log files as the images they were. It was the only way I saw to preserve them. I’d noticed changes like the sudden presence of Chinese browsers. Those changes started to give me a sense of the site history.


    In this log graphic above from 2012, you can see that for the first six months of Not Zen, most of the readers came from the United States. I’d grown accustomed to seeing that, week after week. Then came a sudden appearance of Chinese readers. Where would Chinese citizens have come across Not Zen? How did their technology operate? Was it Internet Explorer on a desktop? Or was it Opera, SeaMonkey, or Instapaper on a phone? Of course, the Chinese citizens could have been like everyone else and appeared in the logs as just more of everything.

    I started asking global Internet questions. At the same time, I was still trying to solve very basic problems.


    I had trouble with the mechanics of blog posts. My understanding of social media was limited. Everything I tried, I seemed to do badly. My first few links went up on Facebook and G+ but I mis-typed them or included badly rendered graphics. I reactivated my MySpace account because I got the bright idea of using MySpace to test my blog posts. The tests kept me from posting more embarrassing, non-working links in other social media venues.

    That’s why MySpace appears in the logs. Google is at the top if you add up the variants of the referring Google sites. Facebook is next. But MySpace looks respectable, early on, because it’s a site that automatically links back to the source.


    Referrers and search terms provided more revelations. Every now and then, I could see that folks were searching for my stories in Google. It was gratifying but it felt mystifying, too. My friends and my social media sites had links. Who could be looking for “notzen 6 non-action?” That’s a very specific search.

    All in all, I didn’t know what I was doing. That much, I knew. So did anyone reading the social media links, I guess.


    Next: It's Small

    Sunday, April 19, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 208: Aesop's Progress

    Aesop's Progress
    A Book That Isn't

    In the spring of 2014, I decided to compile a selection of Not Zen stories into a book for my mother. I thought I had maybe twenty years to do that based on how long my grandmother had lived. I was in no hurry. I had plans for many more stories to include in her book. Unfortunately, it turned out that I didn't have as long as I thought.

    Some of the Not Zen stories had been written with my mother in mind. This happened to be the case even though she wasn't part of the online audience. She was someone who never read anything from the Internet in her life. She didn't use a computer. She knew about smartphones and felt she didn't need one. She understood that I was writing something online. Occasionally, she expressed interest in reading it if I would print it for her.

    That spring, my mother was also recently healed up from a misplaced radiation treatment. She had recovered from bowel cancer but, during one radiation session, a replacement technician failed to irradiate her tumor. Instead, he administered a lethal dose to several sections of small intestine. Sepsis developed. My mother would have died if she hadn't received an emergency operation. The surgeon removed the dead sections of intestine. My mother lived. In fact, she recovered entirely, it seemed, so it was reasonable to think she would live another twenty years.

    It was in that frame of mind that I started marking the stories that were meant for her. I added more that were meant for my father. It wasn't easy to see, however, how to turn them into a book. As I progressed, I realized that I needed to explain what a blog was. Neither of them knew. That's when I started writing the essays and collecting the pictures that I intend to share here. The explanation of this blog was meant to be the Afterword of their book.

    Meanwhile, the damage from my mother's misplaced radiation treatment spread. I didn't know it because she didn't complain. My mother had never healed quite right from her surgery. She was in pain. And the pain kept growing. Eventually, fibrous growths connected her organs, an effect of the bad treatment. The problem spread to critical areas of her body. Her doctor recommended a second surgery to fix the parts of her that had been missed in the previous recovery attempt.

    This time, the damage inside her was greater than they had expected. The one-hour scheduled outpatient operation became a twelve-hour ordeal with several near deaths from anesthesia. She emerged coherent but she never recovered her lung strength. My mother never was able to leave her hospital bed after that.

    We talked every day for a month. My brothers expressed the hope that she was getting better. A month of stable, slow progress is a long time and left us room to expect more. At some point, the doctors recommended removing her ventilator. None of us understood that they didn't see her making enough improvement. They wanted her off the ventialtor to let her die. After they removed it, the hospital staff doped her up on morphine until her heart stopped. My visit to the hospital that day missed the event by about ten minutes.

    The book entitled "Aesop's Progress" and the explanation of the blog were left undone. What comes next is the missing Afterword. I don't expect that it will appear anywhere else.


    Sunday, April 12, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 207: Ivory Key




    A fourteenth anniversary is, in some traditions, celebrated with gifts of ivory.

    Ivory Key

    On love's battlefield shall I wear our silken, family livery,
    Colors of bond and blood raised high in merry heraldry.
    We shall crash the gates to make a daring, midday robbery
    Of keys to hearts and other parts of innocence and ribaldry.

    I'm no Hamlet crying, "To be or maybe not to be ..."
    Yet a prince or playing jack or simple form of royalty.
    "A royal what?" you may reply excepting for your loyalty
    And the fallen shout suggestions as we rush the castle bailey.

    Then up we storm the ramparts and other kiss-me-fool activity
    Slash and grab on battlements with leap-about proclivity
    Then down the stair with treasures, keys of purest ivory,
    Past the lost romancers in their agony and bribery.

    Gather all our friends!
    Embrace the wounded others.
    We'll never make amends.
    We'll mourn for many lovers.

    Never can surrender, we who fight for hearts' pure empathy
    And those we trampled in the dust will never trust our sympathy.
    With spears we crossed the battle royal in loyal family livery
    Victors in this, our fourteenth year, the summer of our ivory.

    Sunday, April 5, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 206: The Nancy

    The Nancy

    "Want to guess what the boys down at the hardware store said? They were talking about your boyfriend," I call to her. When Jeannie hangs up the phone like that, I know who she's been talking to.

    "I don't want to hear it, daddy."

    "Don't you want to guess?" With this, I swallow the last of my spaghetti and start playing with the leftover sauce, stirring it with my fork, watching my fingers tremble, feeling them ache. I drop the silverware and reach for a napkin. It takes me three tries to pick one up and I knock the others on the floor doing it, too, but she doesn't notice. She's ignoring me.

    Jeannie unties her apron and stares out the bay window of the kitchen. Her sandy-brown hair is tied in a bun, the way I like it best, but she'll take it down for her boyfriend. When she starts to clear the table and has to pay attention to me again, I try to speak. But instead of words, all I manage is a croak. It's embarrassing.

    "Are you all right?" She rolls her eyes away from the stack of plates she is holding to check me over.

    "Just burping." A grin. My voice sounds rough but strong. "They say he wears ladies' lingerie!" This is triumph. My throat, after dinner, is usually clogged with mucus and bits of food that won't go down.

    "Dammit!" She slams the plates onto the kitchen counter. "You always pick on Roger, and he's so nice to you!"

    "He's so nice to me," I squawk, mimicking. The words sound scratchy and I want to say something more but I'm suddenly aware I've got to cough, to cough and spit. I lurch out of my chair,
    leaning on my walking stick, and stumble over to the trash can. Jeannie drops the plates down in the sink and rushes over to help. They hit hard, fake china against hard metal, but I don't hear any of them break.

    "Keep away!" I can help myself but Jean props my other arm anyway and we go tottering to the trash can together, out of step, our hips banging against each other.
     
    "You shouldn't try to move so fast," she says.

    I'm too busy leaning over and hacking up tomato-colored phlegm to answer. I feel her hand on my back, patting gently. It reminds me of the thumping caresses she gave as a child.

    "He's coming over about a half hour."

    "God!" My mouth tastes like slimy salt. "Where's he taking you this time? Where are you going to do it?"

    Jeannie stares at me, a little shocked, angry too, and I realize I've used the name of the Lord in vain. But I'll apologize to Him later tonight. She takes her hand away and puts it on her hip.

    "It's no business of yours," she says, finally. Then she trots back to the counter and leaves me huddling over in the corner. Funny how, when she's angry, she withdraws so quickly. No help for the petulant. No help for the complainers. Keep your mouth shut or we'll leave you to die alone.

    "No business of mine?" I stand as straight as I can, using my cane to point, not for support. "This is my house he comes into! My food he eats! What is my business, then?" Jeannie
    runs hot water over the plates and pots, scraping the food off with hard strokes of the scouring pad, jamming them into the dishwasher rack one by one. "Hell. Damn him to hell! You can
    tell him to stay out of my house! If ... if that man ..." My hand has started shaking. Again. Whenever I get excited, it does that. I curl it into a fist.
     
    "You've forgotten his name again, haven't you?" Jeannie turns around, a pained expression on her lips, wrinkles on her forehead. "I just said it a minute ago."

    "It's ..." My cheeks turn warm and pink. I'm thinking but I lost my thoughts when I saw that hand. "I ..."

    "I've got to go upstairs and change," she announces with a flip of the dishtowel. My opinion doesn't carry weight with her anymore. She never even gave me a chance. "You'd better come
    with me. Those stairs are getting to be murder. God knows they're tough for me." The last part is to make me feel better. She's barely forty.

    "I have my stick."

    "I know."

    She takes me lightly by the arm, as if I were a real gentleman and she, my lady, and we each lean on the other a little. It starts out smooth, nice but by the time we reach the steps I'm doing most of the leaning. Jeannie doesn't stop. She leads me up with grace, her hand on the banister, letting me take it slow so I can get both feet on a step before moving on to the next one.

    "Do you think you can get yourself to sleep all right?" she asks, and I nod. No need to say something mean. It's been a long day for her, with Bobby, our electrician, coming in and all. She opens my door and props my cane against the wall for me.

    "I'll come by later to see if you need anything."

    "Okay. I'll be here."

    Jean titters, though I don't think she really understood the joke. I don't think she can, yet. Not the way I mean it. She snaps the door latch shut behind me, leaves me alone to undress.

    On the edge of the bed, sitting straight as I can with the mattress sinking and shifting beneath me, I draw one boot slowly up until I touch my knee to my chin. The strings keep turning to knots in my hands. Can't give up. This happens every night. Each finger cramps in its own special way, every joint swells and fills with pus. I cut a puffy knuckle once, sitting right here in front of the TV, to see what was inside. After a bit of blood came out, there was just some yellow stuff there. Calcium deposits, my old doctor told me when he was having the same problem, about a year before he died. I don't pay it much attention.

    After about twenty tries, I get the candy-striped laces untied, kicking off the shoes, peeling them each with the toe of the other foot, and I feel a shudder shake the floorboards. A
    grinding sound runs underneath the house and water clanks through the pipes. Jeannie's turned on the shower. I lie back, listening.

    Sometimes, when I lie here, I think I hear Martha's footsteps. She had a rabbity, dainty walk. I always heard her scurrying around downstairs, pattering up in the attic, folding things so neat, dashing over to kiss me smack on the lips in front of my friends. Now I only hear her when Jeannie is asleep, her feet still not quite lifting off the ground.
     
    Downstairs, a door slams.

    I think, It's him! He's let himself in again! For a second, his name is in me, in my mouth, but before I can say it to myself, I've forgotten it again and all I've got left is a bitter taste, like old coffee, like my spit when I wake up in the morning. Stretching, reaching so far for a hold that it hurts, I put one hand on the nightstand, another on the stool by the bed, and lift myself up. He's down there now, in the dining room, wearing his floppy, red-plaid hunter's jacket, poking around in my things, taking what he wants. It's not right. There's no one around to help me with him, no one to fight for Jeannie's honor except for me. And if no one's going to do it, it'll never get done. I've got to go down there. This may be my last chance ... one day soon, it will be last.

    Walking is easier in just socks. Strange, how I'd forgotten that those boots weigh so much. The door to my room creaks, of course, so I can tell when anyone is coming in. But I'm used to it, myself. I can swing the hinge without much noise. My house is like my body -- full of sounds in the places that got used most. It's still standing, though. We both are. Barely.

    In the hall, since I know which places squeak and which don't, I move like a ghost. A carpet might help here but I like the color of the wood too much. I don't think I'll ever put one in and anyway, I'd hate to give up the advantage. I can hear everyone in the house from this hallway. But no one hears me.

    He's in the kitchen, rattling around in the liquor cabinet. God, he's such a nance! I hope he doesn't break something again. The last time he was here he cracked one of the legs off the
    coffee table. I made that coffee table practically with my bare hands, sanded it, polished it ... it was part of me, like a bastard child. Now a leg is cracked and you can't put anything
    heavy on it and I don't think I'll have time to make it new again. The only consolation I got was the bruise on his shin after he did it. Though Jeannie had to ruin that, too, when we
    came down to see what he'd done.

    "How'd did it happen?" she said, crying. She never even looked at the table.

    "Bumped it." He always mumbles or whines.

    "You poor thing! Let me see." She acted like he'd gotten wounded in a war or something. All you could see was a tiny little blue and red mark, though I hear it turned black later.

    Gasping. At the top of the steps, my lungs are gasping. Once they get going, they're hard to stop. After a while they hurt like hell, too. So I rest here, leaning on the wall.

    Oh dear God don't let me be this weak, not when I talk to him. If only my body wouldn't betray me every step I take, then I could throw him out, out of my house, and make sure he'd never come back again. Jeannie would hate me for a while, sure, but she'd thank me later - thank me for stopping her from being such a slut.

    Why does she sleep with him? Good Lord, why? He's such a clod, a nance. A nancy. That's what the boys at the hardware store called him. A nancy. Baggy clothes, baby fat all over his body, wire-rimmed glasses half as thick as my thumb ... what can she see in all that?

    He'll never marry her. That's the worst part. I know he'll never marry her and it seems like that's the least he could do for a woman who's too good for him anyway. My fingers hurt. They've cramped up into balls of twisted flesh.

    Jeannie would just die if she saw me. The rail is smooth and glossy. Me and Bobby's father put it up. I have trouble gripping it. Put weight down, gingerly. My right knee hurts. I don't know
    what's wrong with it. Maybe someday I'll take it to a doctor, but I doubt it. The new one at the clinic, all he'll do is poke at it for five minutes or so, then give it a name. When doctors give things names, it makes them sound like they can be cured. You know, if you've got something with five syllables, just take a pill that's got six syllables and that'll make it better.
    Well, that won't work this time.

    Nothing's going to work this time. The knee is just a sign. What's really wrong, what's really got me, is God, crushing me in his fist, my whole body just decaying into a mush of blood and
    dust. No matter what names you give to all the little things going bad in me, they all add up to my age and God's great big hands.

    My old age. All the medicine in the world isn't ever going to stop it, I don't care what anybody says.

    I reach bottom and slip and slide along the floor in my socks, feeling giddy. The wall keeps me from falling. My heart protests. I can feel it in my temples, squish-thud, squish-thud, as steady as ever. Loud. I'll have to rest before I go on. I can't let him see me like this. He'll laugh.

    Worse, I'll have a damn asthma attack right in front of him and instead of stammering and turning pink at the ears like he always does when I yell, he'll get all smug and concerned-looking. Then he'll call Jeannie because he's got an excuse and she'll come rushing down with a towel wrapped around her and make like I'm about to die.

    Feels like I've twisted my knee, even though I know that's not true. I just need to find a chair and relax. I'm glad there's one by the kitchen door.

    Without ever lifting my feet all the way off the floor, I creep up on it. The last yard or so I have to walk without a wall for support and my body starts wobbling crazily, like a weighted pin in one of those fixed carnival games that comes around. I have to keep looking down to catch my balance. Collapsing in the seat is a relief.

    But the sound of the shower dies. A second later, Jeannie is stomping around between the hallway and her room. I haven't got much time left. She probably already knows which clothes she wants to wear.

    So I rest my fingers on the handle of the kitchen door. If I'm going to do it, I've got to do it now. The latch turns silently. The door eases ajar an inch or so. Cold white light seeps in through the crack in the doorway---Jeannie insisted on buying those damn new lights, those things with some kind of gas in them, shaped like tubes. He's in there, all right, sitting at my table, drinking from one of my fancy glasses. I can see him through the narrow, open slot, sitting on his fat ass, guzzling my liquor. Who let him into my house? Into my cupboard?

    God, what a face! When I was young, a kid with that kind of face got beat up at least three times a day. And why does he always look like he's wearing hand-me-down pants? He must buy
    them four sizes too large.

    He raises his arm, trembling, and downs half a cup of my whiskey in one huge gulp. As greedy as that. Have to wonder how much he's had before. I doubt he's still sober. It's hard to tell when someone's sitting down. I'll bet he throws up. That would be just like him, to vomit all over my floor.

    His snifter quivers. It looks for a moment as if he's trying to pinch the glass together at the rim. Straining, he jerks his head, so that his foolish mop of long, curly brown hair falls
    into his eyes and I can't really see him anymore, only the lower part of his face. There, I can make out shadowy muscles twitching. I didn't know he had any under all that pudge. When I see those ripples on his jawbone and watch the tendons pop out on his neck, I know it for certain. I know he's going to break that glass. On his smooth, little boy's hands, there are veins
    swelling up like flooding rivers.

    When the crystal starts to bend, it makes a funny, high-pitched noise, like a dog whining. Then the glass breaks apart, like a dandelion puff. Flakes of it float everywhere.
    They fly away in spirals, bouncing off the ceiling and floor with the force of the explosion, shattering again and again, until they become a fog of pointed dust motes. He just sits there, in the swirling, falling slivers, and lets himself be cut over and over. Tiny pinpricks, like measles, grow on his arms, and the anger gently fades from his face. He stares at the cloud of
    shimmering rain he has created, hypnotized, calm in his fascination. He doesn't move.

    The stem of the glass has driven deep into his palm. A thick, red, sticky syrup drips down from the bottom edge of it, staining his pants. Gripping it fiercely, he shivers.

    That cut is so deep, the blood so dark, I almost leap up to help him. Only the effort of rising stops me. Partway out of the chair, I groan, crouched between two urges, and I hear Jeannie's footfalls in the upstairs hallway. She comes clacking down the staircase in her heels and even as she takes the first step I'm sitting back down.

    In the kitchen, Jeannie's boyfriend hears, too. He lurches up out of the chair and sweeps off all the fragments from the table onto the floor. He winces, stumbling on his way to the sink, recovering with the wrong hand. Maybe he really is drunk. He washes his palm under the faucet, letting the water run clear and bubbly-white from the tap to his hand, thick and frothy-red from his hand to the drain, taking the big pieces out before my daughter can get there.

    "What happened?" She is frantic again. She never even glanced at me, sitting out here in the hallway, and she grabs him by the shoulder, jerking him away from the counter top because he doesn't resist.

    "I was trying to catch it. Broke in my hand." His voice is deeper than I remembered.

    "Oh, Roger!" So that's his name. God, why don't I remember things anymore? I should know him ... Roger, I mean. He's been around long enough.

    He looks at her with a pouty expression on his face, as if he's saying he's just a nance and doesn't know any better. Jeannie coos and pats his hand with a wad of tissue, mothering
    him the way she always does. She kisses him on the cheek and murmurs something that I can't hear. But it seems to be kind.

    It makes her happy, taking care of him like this. I've never understood it, the way she's always liked helping other people. Maybe it's that she never had a child. How could she? She's
    never been married, never had anyone to support a family.

    Jeannie mutters something about bandages and walks over to the closet. Halfway there, she glances back at Roger. Her face is so sad, so full of crying for him because he doesn't do it
    himself, not really, that I want to rush out and hug her - I would have, if I was stronger - but there is a warning in her eyes. She knows. I know she does. She knows what he's doing.
    And she protects him from it.

    Why did he do it? God! Why? I didn't want to see that. The last thing I needed was to see Roger do something like that. How can Jean be in love with him?


    The Nancy by Eric Gallagher, originally published in The Norwottuck, 1985

    Sunday, March 29, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 205: Eating Elephants

    Lucy the Elephant by Acroterion, Wikimedia Commons





    Yes, this is a metaphor for composing a novel or for persevering through any long effort. The work may take years. The results may not represent much of an achievement. But you do it. You get it done.

    It's not about actually eating elephants. But also, it is.


    Eating Elephants


    The first bite is thick, red steak,
    fresh catch, initial conception.
    Blood dribbles down my chin.
    My mouth waters for the next.

    The fourth bite is a lump of gristle,
    a bit of fatty, knotted muscle.
    Already, this is becoming a chore
    but I work it into smaller pieces.

    The fifty-seventh bite is fur.
    My nose rebels. My tongue curls
    to feel the coarse hairs and stringy flesh
    but I know the deed must be done.

    The six-hundredth bite is greasy fat
    and the meat's going bad
    and oh god I can't finish.
    I'm not going to make it.
    It's too big for me;
    it takes too long; I can't.
    Someone at the table mentions
    if I'm sick
    I'll have to eat it all again.

    Bite nine-hundred ninety-nine
    I cough back onto the plate,
    pick it up, swallow it.
    I can't taste anything; my nose is numb.
    The meat has gone sticky with disease.
    I find it hard to remember
    the texture of the first mouthful,
    it was so many napkins ago.

    Bite two-thousand twenty-five
    is a rare bit of good flesh,
    hidden in all the stinking rot.
    I'm pleased to discover this tidbit,
    celebrate with a sip of wine.

    Bite five thousand is a morsel
    I actually look forward to.
    Yes, it's only a bit of tendon and bone
    but as I bite down on the tine of the fork,
    I bravely grin to those around me.

    Bite seven thousand seven
    is the very last toe.
    I don't like toes
    so I decided to eat them all at once,
    chopped fine, a salad.
    Now I'm finished with them
    and feeling better.

    Bite ten thousand, the tuft of the tail,
    tastes sweet, for I am finished.
    My friends raise their glasses in toast.
    A smile goes round the table.
    "What next?" someone asks.
    "Now," I cry, full of victory,
    "on to the next elephant!"

    Sunday, March 22, 2020

    Not Even Not Zen 204: Benedict and Beatrice

    "Much Ado About Nothing" image US Library of Congress

    Benedict and Beatrice

    "Always the savior of the party, eh Benny?"  A woman swung around my right side, reeking of bourbon and chamomile.  "Just as well that nobody pays you any mind."

    I'd been trying to convince two men in plaid flannel of the importance of a liberal education.  They smiled at this woman, winked at me, and fled to the television where most of the other guests were watching election returns.

    We were supposed to be celebrating Leo Sussman's re-election to Frederick County commissioner.  It was his fourth straight term.  The event had turned into the sort of party you feel obligated to help, as if the guests are drowning in a river and  you're standing on the shore.  You can't resist throwing lines to the host and hostess, who've gone in to save others, or to your old, old friends as they clumsily pull each other under.

    "Why, Tricia," I said, "it's been so quiet I thought you'd  left.  Usually, I hear you coming from across the room."

    "Hah.  As charming and hostile as ever.  How's tricks?"

    "Tricks are for prostitutes, so I wouldn't know."

    "That old line again."  Whenever she rolled her eyes or gestured, Tricia staggered ever-so-slightly.  She needed her sight and concentration for balance.  But for a drunk she seemed
    sharp.  Her emerald dress pushed her breasts high without slipping.  Her make-up wasn't smudged.  "Are you skagged, too?"

    "Alcohol," I said, "has never been my problem."

    She glanced doubtfully at the gin in my hand, looking, as  always, for a verbal advantage.  We had a history of one-upsmanship.  It spanned almost eight years, although on this particular night I didn't feel up for it.  It irritated me to be near her.

    Rouge made her cheeks seem redder.  Eye shadow blotted her lids with a golden-green, lending color to her hazel eyes.  Powder paled her nose.  Lipstick reddened and widened her lips.  None of this would have seemed out of place on anyone else.  But on her it seemed desperate.  When I'd known her in college she had never used make-up.  She hadn't needed it.

    "What is it?" she asked.  There must have been something  on my own face.  "Your poison, that is."

    "Hah.  Women, I suppose."

    Tricia threw back her head and roared.  With a limp fist, she pounded me on the shoulder.

    "Charming.  You're being charming again.  I'm not the least fooled, Benedict.  You men are all liars.  You never say what you mean."  She took a sip from the tumbler.  "And you know,
    that's why it's refreshing to talk to you after all this time.  Because I'd rather hear your stupid cynicism than listen to yet another man tell me he loves me."

    "Have men been telling you that?" I said, a bit jealous even though I had no reason.  She was beautiful, but there was nothing between us, just a crush I'd had on her during my sophomore year.  I'd  gotten over it when she started dating my roommate.

    "Much too often.  It isn't true."

    "Well, I've heard there's some sort of marriage disease  going around.  John Petriccio caught a severe case of it.  So I guess you ought to stay away from him."

    She glanced longingly across the room at John.  But she shook her head and bore down on the ice cubes in her glass.  She cracked one between her teeth.

    "I need another drink," she said.  "This bourbon is awful.  Switch me to vodka."

    We weaved our way behind the cherry-wood bar.  While I was melting some rocks with the highest quality vodka I could find, I figured on making second gin for myself.  Someone had to get drunk with her.

    "Have you seen Leo?" I asked her as we headed out.

    "Yes.  On the throw rug in his bedroom, stinking smashed, with a bleached blonde woman wearing only white lace panties."

    "Blonde?"

    "I didn't know her."  She shook her head and drained half the glass in one gulp.  "I told you.  Men are liars.  He tried to get me in there only last week."

    There didn't seem to be much sense in looking for his wife but I have no sense.  We were close to the front door.  I turned the corner to check, thinking she might have gone there to hostess.  The door was open and the foyer was vacant except for a few coats on the floor.

    "What a wreck of a life," Tricia said.  She stooped to pick up her soft, leather jacket.  "Not yours, Benny.  Maybe I should leave early, tonight.  Do you want a ride home?"

    "A cab?  Your sober driving is bad enough," I said, and leaned through the open door to see whose car was coming around the circle.  It was a white Spitfire convertible, which I didn't recognize, and it was parked behind Tricia's Pinto.

    "Oh shit, it's Claude."  She closed the door.

    "What's wrong?  You owe him money?"

    "No, you big jerk.  He was my boyfriend once, as if you'd  remember.  As if you noticed."

    Oh yeah.  A couple of months ago, I'd seen them together at a party.  I pulled one of the window curtains back to peek at the up-and-coming devil.  He was in the process of kissing and
    feeling a petite woman in his front seat.  I thought it was safe to assume he had a different girlfriend now.  I wasn't certain it was safe to say so.

    "Quick, hide me," Tricia said.  She set her drink on the shelf beneath the hall mirror.

    I grabbed a dress coat from the floor and threw it over her.

    "Not that way," she said, laughing.  She knocked the black trenchcoat from her head, mussing her auburn hair, and dashed to the closet.  "Oh, this is awful ... they haven't cleaned here for ages ... oh, hell, I think I can make it."

    She ripped a big fur off its hanger and flung it to the slate tiles.  As she squeezed herself into a spot by the vacuum cleaner, she hissed, "Don't you dare let him open this."

    At that moment, there was a knock on the thick, oak door.  I considered being rude and locking myself into the nearest bathroom but Tricia had played on my curiosity.  I knew if I left I'd wonder about what had been going on for a long while, perhaps months, since she wouldn't be inclined to talk.

    After checking my hair in the mirror and pausing to fasten the top button of my jacket, I reached for the handle.  Claude opened the door at that instant and jammed my knuckles.

    "Ben!" he yelled.  "Howdy!  How's tricks?"

    I sucked on my fingers while he stepped in and cleaned his feet.  The woman came in after him, noticeably hesitant.

    "Are you stuck with the doorman job this evening?"

    "Temporarily," I allowed.  My fingers throbbed but Claude's gymnast-looking girlfriend stared so hard at me I took them out. Claude studied the coats strewn about the floor.

    "You're doing a terrible job."

    "It's my first night."

    "Where's Leo?"  He removed his driving gloves one digit at a time.  I closed the door behind him, my job as doorman finished, I thought.

    "Feeling a little sick, I'm afraid."

    "Smashed, you mean."  A sad smile rose at the corners of his mouth.  "Bastard.  Say, he didn't invite that bitch from Detroit, did he?  I think that was her car."

    I had a sinking feeling I knew who he was referring to.  "You mean Tricia?"

    "Yeah, she's got a mouth on her, that one.  Or maybe you wouldn't notice.  She always flirts with you to get me jealous."

    "Oh?  She does?"

    "Yeah, well, it drove me crazy for a couple months.  While I was taking her to all those shows and restaurants.  Yak, yak, yak ... Benny this, Benny that ...  all the time, Benny.  After a while, I started talking about other women.  But I don't think she even noticed.  By the way, this is Ursula."

    "Good evening, Ursula."  When I bowed, she smiled.  "May I take your coat?  I promise not to leave it on the floor."

    She tittered and turned for me to remove the imitation fur. While my hands were on her collar, Claude shrugged off his grey coat.  He was faster than I could be and by the time I had Ursula
    half-undressed, he had his chesterfield under one arm, gloves folded into the inside pocket, and was headed away from me.

    "Don't bother, Claude," I said as he strode to the closet. "It's full up in there."

    "I'll just grab a hanger, then."  He turned the knob.

    "None left."  Before he could door move the door, I had my foot down in front of its base.  At the same time, I deftly plucked the overcoat from his hands.  "You may as well mingle while I sneak into the bedroom and hang these in Leo's walk-in. You know where it is?"

    He gave me his impatient look.  "Of course."

    "Well, then.  Nice to have met you, Ursula."  I tucked the coats under my arm and waved goodbye to them as they strolled away.  As soon as they were gone, I yanked open the hall closet.

    "What the hell is this all about?" I hissed.

    "We had a fight."  Tricia unfolded herself to step over the pile of muddy boots.  "What else?"

    "What else is precisely what I want to hear."  The coattails flapped with every move.  "I did the courtesy of misdirection for you.  And I looked like an ass doing it.  I may have made Claude look bad, too, in front of his new girlfriend."

    "Do you think I care about what his lover thinks?"  Her arms crossed in front of her chest.  Although she was a reasonably thin woman, the gesture seemed imposing.

    "Well what am I supposed to do with these coats?  It's not like I can actually sneak into Leo's bedroom.  Not with what's going on in there."

    "Why would you want to?" she snapped.

    "Didn't you hear what I said?"

    "No.  I couldn't make out your mumble from there."  Her expression seemed blank and innocent.

    I had assumed she'd heard Claude's remark about flirting.  If she hadn't, that changed my mind about what we should talk about next.  Not that it meant anything, but his statement had
    appealed to my vanity.  I'd had an unrequited love for Tricia, once.  It seemed only fair that she should have one for me.

    We stood in thought, the both of us, for nearly a minute.  It wasn't exactly an awkward silence but it felt reasonably clumsy.  Plus, when I reached for my drink, I knocked the glass over.

    "What did he say?" Tricia asked after she emptied her tumbler in a more elegant fashion.

    "Claude?  Oh, not much."  Gin had drenched the tablecloth. After I scooped the ice cubes back into the cup, I gazed around for something to sop up the alcohol.  There was nothing but a
    summer scarf.  I grabbed it, feeling guilty, and checked the tag.  One hundred percent silk.  My tie did the job, although I should have loosened it first.  As I finished up, another car drove into the circle.  The engine had a familiar rattle.  An Oldsmobile Omega.  It pulled closer than the Spitfire and, as it passed, its lights flickered through our windows.

    "That's a relief," Tricia said.  She let the window curtain fall as we heard the parking brake.  "It's just Mrs. Blair and her daughter."

    "Heather?  Oh no."  The engine died.

    "Oh yes.  Definitely them.  Is there something wrong? I don't remember you dating Heather.  Or betting against her."

    "She thinks I proposed to her, once."  I shrugged, ignoring the daggers in Tricia's eyes.  "It's a long story."

    "Another story, another lie," she began.  Cars doors slammed not too far in the distance.  "Another great ..."

    "I'd better leave."

    "Go, then.  Get into the damn closet."  Alcohol had taken most of the disguise off her disguised contempt.  I did, however, leap into the closet when the doorbell chimed.

    "Coming," Tricia shouted, two feet away from the foot rug.

    Reluctantly, I pulled my prison closed.  It seemed a mistake to consign myself to the boots and parkas but my chance to flee unseen had passed.  A breeze swept into the hallway.  I could
    hear the brass knob snap back, shoes scrape against the rug, and the screen door bang against the back of someone's leg.

    “Tricia dear.  Darling."  Mrs. Blair had a voice like a brass trumpet.  Not one which is actually played but one which has air pumped through while the keys are stuck down.

    Although I've always considered her a generous, loving soul, I'd been afraid of Mrs. Blair ever since I was five, which was when she'd sung to me while her husband accompanied her on the piano.  Heather had never been able to understand why I didn't want to play in her house after that.  It also ruined my piano lessons completely.

    "Darling, you aren't hostessing for Angela, are you?"

    "I've taken it upon myself."

    "Just now?" Heather said.  Looking, I expect, incredulously at what was becoming an increasingly busy floor.  I'd dropped what Claude had trusted me with by the knocked-over umbrella stand.

    "Of course," said her mother.  "Angela is a dear but tends to let her husband's parties get out of hand.  No hired staff.  And the furniture just reeks of alcohol.  We really ought to help you clean up."

    "Oh, no.  I couldn't let you.  Really."

    "I couldn't anyway, mother.  I've got to find my friends.  And Benny.  You know."

    "That's right.  Well, run along."  The patter of Heather's footsteps dwindled out of the room before Mrs. Blair could finish bellowing.  "I'll help Tricia clean this up myself.  The two of us ought to get this out of the way in no time, dear.  Then perhaps I can locate Angela."

    "Benny?" Tricia said.  I leaned forward to hear her better and cracked my head against the wall.  Fortunately, Mrs. Blair talked right through me.

    "Why, yes.  He's here, isn't he?  His mother said he was sure to drop by."

    "Naturally.  When does that man ever miss a party?"  Funny, the impressions people get of you.  Most of the time I'm studying or teaching but I throw myself into the occasional social event
    in order to keep up with friends.  "Still, I couldn't help noticing ... I mean, has he said anything to your daughter?  Made a move on her?  He can be awfully ... elusive, if that's the word.  Not that I mean to pry."

    If Tricia hadn't known I was listening, I would have been wounded.  As it was, I prayed for the needling to stop.  Mrs. Blair laughed.  She slapped Tricia hard on the back, which sounded delightful to me.  I know from prior experience what that playful cuff feels like.  The old woman is a bit of a bear although, in comparison, a brown bear weighs only two hundred and fifty pounds.  Tricia coughed on an ice cube until she spit it up.

    "My girl's been chasing that boy ever since they were in diapers together.  I'm not worried for her.  Benny, maybe.  He's been marriage-shy for years.  Ever since you, of course, back in high school."

    "High school?"  Tricia sounded incredulous.  Or she was out of breath from the ice cube.  "Oh, you mean college.  But we never dated."

    "Oh no.  He was much too shy for that.  But he was sweet on you just the same.  I remember seeing the ring he'd bought for you.  He never gave it to you, of course."  The setting had been only fourteen karat, the stones only garnet, but it had cost all of his savings in the world at the time.  "You'd started seeing that boy who became a bill collector ... John, wasn't it?  Poor Benny was crushed.  I think Heather ended up with it."

    "The ring?"  A gasp of horror.

    "Yes.  Didn't anyone ever tell you?  Heather, she ..."  Their voices drew closer.  Mrs. Blair's footsteps were heavy but precise.  "I'm talking too much.  That's something for my daughter to brag about or maybe confess.  But those coats seem more than you can carry, my dear.  Let me help.  There.  My, what a nice chesterfield!"

    "Chesterfield?  Ugh."  I heard Claude's coat fall.

    "Never you mind.  You just hold them and I'll hang."

    I realized, with lightheaded alarm, two things.  First, I was in danger of being discovered and second, I was too drunk to act sensibly.  Panicked, I tried to pretend I was a vacuum accessory.  It didn't feel as if I were having much success.  Probably, I had turned the wrong shade of grey.

    "Mrs. Blair.  Please don't."

    "Nonsense, dear."

    The door opened.  Mrs. Blair drew back in surprise.

    "You look nice tonight, Gwendolyn.  Particularly your hair."  I offered my hand, trying to bluster it out.  The hallway chandelier hurt my eyes.  I almost stumbled; I suspect I looked even more inebriated than I actually was.

    "My hair?  I haven't done anything to it in ages."  Her eyes ran up and down my form, perhaps checking for signs of madness.

    "Perhaps it's the light."

    "My dear Benedict," she said, temporarily immune to flattery, "are you hiding from Heather?"

    "Not really hiding, no."  I dusted the wrinkles from my jacket as I wobbled out. "No, that would imply I thought she was looking for me."

    "But she is looking for you.  That's why we came."

    "In that case, yes, I'm hiding."

    "Well, you can help us here.  Couldn't you have slipped quietly out the back?  You seem to have knocked down half of the garments inside."

    This was unfair, as it had been Tricia who'd done all the damage, but in a situation like this one there's no sense in protesting.  Everything you say is held against you.  I looked guilty and I was, although not of being as drunk or clumsy as she assumed.  Mrs. Blair put me to work at the glasses and paper plates strewn about the foyer tile.  In a few minutes, the three of us had cleared the area of party debris.

    Gwendolyn gathered the worst of the trash in her arms.  With a pile of plexiglass and silverware almost two feet high, she announced she was off to the kitchen.

    "No need for the two of you, I suppose.  Not with Ben on the lam, as he seems to be."

    "Be careful of your dress," I said.  "It's a nice one."

    This hadn't been meant as a peace offering but, apparently, it was the right thing to say.  Mrs. Blair tossed her blondish head and her second chin fell away.

    "It is, isn't it?" she said.  I nodded dumbly.

    "It's azure," Tricia said.  "That means blue, Ben."

    "Whatever."

    "A hand-me-down.  My older sister had it made."  She held still for Tricia to inspect it.  Both of us made appropriate, appreciative murmurs about the silk lace and worried aloud about Mrs. Blair wearing it to a party.

    "Nonsense," she retorted.  She gave me a meaningful glance.  "I won't be hiding in any closets.  Anyways, I'd best be off.  Before I go, Ben, perhaps you could tell me what's wrong with my daughter."

    "Pardon?"

    "What's wrong with her?  Isn't she pretty enough?"

    "Not as pretty as you must have been at her age, Gwendolyn.  And she won't hold it so well, either.  But that's not the point.  She wants someone with more ..." My hands fumbled with the carefully-picked words "... drive than I've got, but she doesn't know it yet.  I'll be happy to make tenure as professor.  She'd have me running for governor instead, probably on a timetable like five years from now.  She's ambitious and I'm just not up for that sort of life."

    Mrs. Blair nodded grimly.  As she marched away from us on what were probably also heirloom shoes, Tricia turned with a smile on her face.

    "More lies.  How come you never told me I looked pretty?"

    "Good-looking women don't need to hear that."

    "Is that a compliment?"

    "No."  I let out an exasperated sigh and tried to leave her no room to find an insult.  "It's just the sad way of the world.  Pretty women hear praises all the time, even unwanted ones.  Plain women hardly ever hear what they need.  It's obvious stuff, too, like the fact that people can see their inner beauty, that they've attractive even with crow's feet, or that the bags under their eyes are a reminder of how much love they give each day.  That sort of thing."

    "What a hideous dress," Tricia said absently as she broke her last ice cube.

    "Is the offer of a ride still open?" I asked.

    "No.  You're right.  I can't drive like this.  You're only a couple blocks off, anyway."

    "A walk, then?"

    The longer we stood in silence by the open door, the more tension grew between us.  It was like electricity in the air before a summer storm.  We could feel implications unfolding before us like an endless series of chinese boxes, possibilities inside possibilities, a secret, far-off end.  There was no graceful way for her to answer.  She took my hand.  We started out, down the drive.

    We stopped behind an evergreen tree by the main road, protected from the porch light.  There the darkness seemed supernatural although, in fact, it was more natural than anything I'd experienced in months.  Years.  In the heavens was a sliver of moon, sprinkled with stars, barely enough light to see the watery trails down her cheeks.

    "You're crying."

    "It's the alcohol."

    "Right.  The vodka is overflowing at the eyelids."  In spite of herself, she chuckled.  When I got out my clean handkerchief she nodded and let me dab her face.  It felt strangely right to touch her.  "I should have used this instead of my damn tie on that spill before.  And you know, I could hear every word you said from that closet."

    "I know," she said.

    "Why?  Why the lie, that is."

    "Oh ... just all those things Claude told you.  That business about flirting.  I didn't want to feel caught out.  Vulnerable, you know."

    There come those times when you realize with a sick lurch that your heart is not where you thought it was at all.  I'd supposed I was interested in one of the administrative secretaries at work.  But that friendliness was nothing at all to what I felt now with Tricia, or the realization that I'd never gotten over my idiotic crush on her.  I was still a high schooler in my heart, at best a college sophomore lusting after the perfect woman and an ideal marriage.

    Now the perfect woman was drunk.  She reeked of alcohol and perfume.  Her mascara had washed away with the tears.  When I lifted her chin to kiss her, she almost didn't resist.

    When our lips touched, she pressed herself hard against me.  We kissed for minutes, hours, her arms clenched hard around my shoulders, elbows in my back, squeezing with all her strength,
    untiring.  She tasted sugary.  Even the wetness on the corners of her lips tasted deliciously sweet, like lemon in chamomile tea.  I couldn't get enough of her natural flavor, it was so good, so clear, and so like my entire life of knowing her.  Sometime after the stars had spun round us, after the moon had fallen, after the guests in that far-away, long-ago party had gone home and come back, we pulled ourselves apart.

    "After all this time," I said, "it's still there.  All those feelings I had.  Isn't that strange?"

    "How long has it been?" she whispered.

    "Eight years since I was hopeless.  Almost nine, now."  I threw my head back to stare at the stars.  In the perfect darkness where we stood, there seemed to be more than I'd ever noticed before.  Although I still get lost in the local shopping mall, at that moment I felt that I could make out and name the individual pinpricks of the Milky Way.

    Tricia nuzzled against my neck, more sweet fragrances, more wetness against me.  After a moment, she chuckled.

    "What's so funny?"  My scowl came back, along with old suspicions about her wit.

    "You'd better marry me," she said.

    "Or else?"

    "I mean it.  We're not kids anymore.  Pretty soon you'll be bald and flabby.  You're already mostly bald.  And then you'll be desperate.  No one will want to marry you."

    I touched the top of my head.  I hadn't realized it was obvious yet.

    "When you put it like that, how can I refuse?"  Although I liked the idea, I also found it intimidating.

    "Don't fool around with me Ben.  Yes or no?"  Her hands went to her hips.  Her vanity was involved, too, her needs for security and for feeling good about herself, not just mine.

    "After only one kiss?" I asked.

    She gave me a warning glance.

    "All right.  Yes."

    "You're not just saying that?  You're being honest?  You'll love me forever?"

    "Forever's the trick, isn't it?"  My fingers slid down her bare back into her hand.  We turned to stride forward together along the dark street.  "I don't want to promise anything you aren't prepared to accept.  For instance, I'm not sure we'll be able to stand each other three years down the road.  But I'll still love you.  I mean, even if we're fighting.  I don't seem able to stop having feelings for you.  No matter what the circumstances."

    "Good.  Oh, god, we are awful."

    "Yes."  I couldn't help glancing back at Leo's house.  In the still of the evening, warm light glowed from its windows.  Shadows of men in suits and women in formal dresses paraded on the other side of the curtains. "We are.  We may be the underachievers of our crowd."

    "We'll muddle through."  She announced it like a decision.

    "Or it'll end in disaster."  My professorial instincts kicked in to offer a contrary opinion.

    "When I say 'we are awful,' I mean mostly you."  Her eyes glinted in the starlight.  The corners of her mouth trembled.  "You are absolutely terrible.  You make me weaker."

    "You seem to find only bad qualities in me.  Since that's the case, for which of my bad qualities did you fall in love?"  I swung her arm as we resumed our stroll.

    "All of them.  All of them together.  And for which of my absolutely sterling qualities did you suffer love of me, Ben?"

    "Suffer?" I said.  "How appropriate."

    She yanked on my arm to make me stop.  Then she spun me around and tried to slap my shoulder.  In the dark, she missed me or, at any rate, I barely felt it as she leaned in for our second kiss.


    originally published as Eric Gallagher in The Frederick New Paper, 1991