Photo of Duff Brenna on book tour in Bend, Oregon Cover of Murdering the Mom, a memoir by Duff Brenna Cover of Minnesota Memoirs, short stories by Duff Brenna Cover of The Book of Mamie, a novel by Duff Brenna

“Where life and literature meet, there is first and foremost character. We are all heroes and villains, courageous and cowardly, noble and ignoble, loving and hateful. On good days, we are smart and people admire us. On bad days, we are stupid and people roll their eyes at us.”

—Duff Brenna, quoted in “Thanks to Lady Fortune,
There’s Always an Upside”

Excerpts: Stories From Minnesota Memoirs


From “Jealousy and Doubt”

Ray waits a moment to see if being philosophical makes him feel better. It doesn’t. Where is she? Why isn’t she answering the phone? Instinct tells him it is for sinister reasons. She is out with someone. Or maybe she is home, she and he thrashing on that Persian rug. Or is it Turkish? Yes, Turkish. Ray sees her head thrown back, her mouth open, her hands gripping her lover’s arms. What does he look like? Ray can see him. Slim and dark. Smelling musky like the dark ones do. He has seen how she looks at them. Always younger men. Older women are hot for young studs. An article in the paper this morning told of an older woman arrested for sexually abusing two teenage boys, fifteen and sixteen. The charges included oral sex and sodomy. She got two years. What perversion of the mind made those boys tell? Ray knows that if such a thing had happened to him at that age, he never would have told. He would have made a sacrifice to Aphrodite instead. Found a golden apple to offer her.


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From “Stupid Cunt”

Tina looked out the side window at another Minnesota lake going by. The wrinkling water grayish. Narrow piers jutting from the shoreline like runways for fashion models. Houses peering out from landscapes teeming with trees. When Bob died she would buy a cozy little home on a lake. That would be the thing to do. Sit on the porch and watch water skiers going by laughing, having fun. Watch the fish jump. Watch birds glide and dive. The wind in the trees the only music she would need.

Glancing at her husband, she took in his dour expression, mouth turned down in an old man’s stereotypical frown. Bags under his eyes. Stray wisps of hair still clinging to his head. Who is this guy? Did she really marry him? Once upon a time she had thought he was ruggedly handsome, dangerous and sexy. A war vet with undress-you eyes. His insatiable cravings. They had that in common back then. Do whatever you want, her body always said. They would get drunk and plow the bed for hours in various states of sexual delirium.


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From “Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

“You’re all wet,” says Santa. “Come up here. The rain’ll blow over. Keep an old man company. C’mon.”

Pete shrugs why not. He climbs the wooden steps dented with age. Takes refuge underneath the eave, removes his cap, shakes the water off. Then squares it neatly on his head again. The old man’s bulk flows over a plastic lawn chair. His hair and beard are a mass of tight curls. His nose is very large and laced with tiny red veins. Next to him is a plastic end table. On top are a Meerschaum pipe and a book entitled LATIN AT YOUR FINGERTIPS. There are two more plastic chairs on the porch. Pete smells sweet marijuana. He looks at the pipe and wonders if he might get a hit. He sniffs moldy wood, rain-soaked earth, unwashed old man. It registers that this guy is probably poor. More easy pickings, but nothing worth stealing. Except that pickup parked at the curb.


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Full Text of Short Stories

Jealousy and Doubt

[Editor’s Note: This version was published in The Literary Review, Winter 2005. A revised version appears in Duff’s book, Minnesota Memoirs.]

It is one of those evil moments when Ray doubts everyone, even those closest to him. All liars and betrayers. All of them living sordid lives. Not just them, but all humanity. The whole world. Dishonest. Disgusting. He hates them and he hates that he hates them and hates that he has such hateful thoughts about them. But he can’t help it. He trusts no one and believes in nothing. Not even himself.

God, I’m in a mood, he says, exhaling sourly. And it’s all her fault, the little bitch. Look at the time. Where is she? Why doesn’t she call? Should I go looking for her? I could go over to her house and see if she’s home.

Yes, but what if she’s—

No, Ray, no you don’t.

That would be demeaning. Desperate. Pitiful.

Sometimes it comforts him to remember that we all die tomorrow and all our desire and pain dies with us. All striving, caring, loving, hoping will end one day in a great departure of thought. That 5,000-year-old frozen corpse found in the Italian Alps had once been a living, breathing man. Just as greedy for pleasure as anyone alive today. But what did it matter? Embedded in an Alpine niche as the centuries ticked by and no one noticing him. Maybe he had a family. No doubt they had wondered why he disappeared. They cared for a while — where is Ugha? He went up the mountain and didn’t come back. They searched for him. They called out Uuughaaa! Uuughaaa! But all that returned to them were echoes. The moon changed shapes, rose and fell and life is for the living. Must go hunt and gather. Got to stay alive somehow. Ugha’s disappearance remained a mystery to his relatives and friends. The memory of his voice faded as the months went by. The years. Eventually they forgot what he looked like. And his wife and children went on until one by one they wore out and died. As did his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren generation after generation and so on and so forth. All Ugha’s descendents departing. And what was the point? Bodies gripped in ice. Flesh and blood morphing into tusks.

Life is short, Ray mutters, clenching his teeth. Better to acknowledge its brevity and the insentient state to which we sink, all of us great or small. Better to not be fooled by an afterlife that no one’s seen. From whose bourn no one returns. Shrug it away. Be philosophical. It’s coming. So who cares? It may not be today or tomorrow. But it will come. The readiness is all. Said Hamlet. Or is that Lear? No, Lear says ripeness is all. Actually no, it is Edgar saying it to Gloucester. And Gloucester says that’s true too. Because everything is true. And then he died. Hamlet died. Gloucester died. Lear died. Uhga in the Alps died. Need to take death with a grain of salt. The only way to handle such an outrageous fate. The trick is to know when to go. Give me the hemlock; it’s time.

Ray waits a moment to see if being philosophical makes him feel better. It doesn’t. Where is she? Why isn’t she answering the phone? Instinct tells him it is for sinister reasons. She is out with someone. Or maybe she is home, she and he thrashing on that Persian rug. Or is it Turkish? Yes, Turkish. Ray sees her head thrown back, her mouth open, her hands grip ping her lover’s arms. What does he look like? Ray can see him. Slim and dark. Smelling musky like the dark ones do. He has seen how she looks at them. Always younger men. Older women are hot for young studs. An article in the paper this morning told of an older woman arrested for sexually abusing two teenage boys, fifteen and sixteen. The charges included oral sex and sodomy. She got two years. What perversion of the mind made those boys tell? Ray knows that if such a thing had happened to him at that age, he never would have told. He would have made a sacrifice to Aphrodite instead. Found a golden apple to offer her.

He goes into the kitchen, gets the vodka, pours some in a tumbler and adds three ice cubes. Swirls. Waits for the drink to cool. Remonstrates with himself. Why shouldn’t she go for some other guy? No reason not to, not when you’re impotent half the time, old fool. Not when your face looks like a cluster of grapes hanging over her in bed. She never wants to make love with the light on anymore. Your body no longer turns her on. Wrinkly neck. Almost a wattle beneath your chin. Rusty skin on the V of your chest, where the sun used to burn you. Age spots surfacing like seaweed on your forehead. That tiny lesion on your nose is probably a basal cell.

Not your fault, old fool. You tried to warn her. You told her she was too young for you, but would she listen? She said your age meant nothing. That you didn’t look twenty years her senior. Maybe ten years at the most. That’s when you were working out, lifting weights, jogging a mile every morning. And you had more hair. And you used an acid that sloughed the dead skin off your face. Left your cheeks shiny and smooth. You had looked good for fifty-four.

He takes a drink. He swishes it like mouthwash over his teeth. Holds still for a moment breathing through his nose. The vodka bites. After he swallows, his whole mouth feels antiseptic. She claims he never has bad breath. He tells her it is because alcohol keeps his palate squeaky-clean. And that is why he never gets sore throats or rarely catches a cold. Germs can’t multiply in an environment pickled in alcohol. She laughs at that. She joins him in a drink, laughing, laughing. She loves to drink one or two and laugh at his jokes and have fun.

But she’s got control. Not him, not Ray. Once he starts he can’t stop. How many drinks have there been over the course of a decade? Gallons of vodka, whiskey, wine to alter his moods. To tuck away truth. Seek oblivion. They had walled their love in a bubble world for a few hours every weekend, before she had to go home to her husband and kids. It was such a shitty way to live back then. She betraying her husband. Then finally divorcing him. Her willful behavior, the need to have her way at all costs, have taken a ten-year toll on Ray. Knowing that if she would betray her family, she would betray him too. And why not? He’s a burned-out old bag. Heartburn, indigestion, and bowel troubles. Arthritis in his knees. Intermittent impotence. No wonder she gets that look on her face. The look that says, what am I doing here?

She used to say, Sex is how I express my love for you. Sex is the closest we can physically be. You inside of me is spiritual. I never knew I could love this way.

Stuff like that. Stuff she doesn’t say anymore. Like you are my soul mate, Ray. She hasn’t said that in years.

Soul mate. Cynic that he is, he used to laugh at such drivel. Before he met her. As the weeks became months became years with her, he began to wonder if a mate for the soul might be true. Now he knows he was right in the first place. He is a sentimental dupe. He is a romantic old fool. He is what he used to laugh about. He is.

That’s me, he says. And then he says, When I die there will be no one to give the folded flag to. Neither of the kids will come. Maybe one of the grandkids? If a man does not keep pace with his companions—

He paces the floor, goes into the study. Frowns at the bookshelves, the rows of British literature. Shakespeare and his ilk and all things Donne — the metaphysicals. All the lovely words he used to quote to his students. His mind overflowing, endlessly able.

Things are not truly, but in equivocal shapes.

Said Thomas Browne, says Ray out loud, satisfied that he still has a brain.

And next to Browne, incongruously (or maybe congruously?) is Alice in Wonderland. Down the rabbit hole. That’s where life is. Has been. Will be.

Ray puts forth a trembling finger, touches Alice and says—

Speak roughly to your little box:
And beat him when he sneezes!

—a coughing laughter follows. He blows his nose. Wipes his eyes.

Laughs heh heh heh, like a mad scientist.

And then he says, Thou shouldst not have been old til thou hadst been wise! So where is she? Whose arms, whose hands, whose — Jesus, the thought is unbearable! I’ll kill her. I’ll kill myself. Eyes closed, he whispers, Let me not go mad. Oh, Fool, I shall go mad!

He pictures the gun in the nightstand. Tomorrow we die anyway, so why not get it over with? Turn time to zero. You will not wake wondering. You will not feel the guilt you have felt these almost eleven years, you the man who broke up a family. Selfish prick! And you knew it would end this way. You knew in your heart that her passion for you would fade as you aged and the ills of aging started plaguing you, started showing on your stupid face and in the corroded state of your organs. Those gall bladder stones that won’t let you digest fats. That burping routine after every meal. Disgusting. Even more disgusting is the IBS that comes and goes. And also your swollen prostate, the itching, burning in there that has made you short-tempered. Doctors can’t help you. Forget the bastards, the pompous frauds, the phony fakes. It’s a benign hypertrophism, sir. It will be with you always. Nothing to be done about it. Don’t drink. Alcohol is hell on stomachs and prostates. And stay away from spicy foods. Some day we may have to operate if the gland turns cancerous. But surgery is the last resort. They shoved pills at him for his indigestion. Ultram for his arthritis. What a joke that stuff is. Might as well drink snake oil. His ailments overwhelm every elixir, his courage especially. And his love.

But he does wonder why, with so much wrong with him, he continues to drink so hard. Every night at least five or six. Or as many as it takes to calm him down. Make him not care about anything. Stop caring! When you care that’s when life hurts. In his cups he tells himself that he most certainly has a death wish now. Several times he has taken the gun out and put the barrel in his mouth and pressed the trigger and thought — All I’d have to do is flick the safety off and this world will know me no more. And then her coming in and finding him with the back of his head blown off. She would freak out. His children would freak out. Or would they? Would his children care? Sure they would. But they are both grown and have lives to lead and not much time to grieve for the old bastard who left their mother. He had let them think it was his fault. He had never told them that she had had an affair and wanted the divorce. She had told them that his black depression was destroying her. She had given an ultimatum: See a psychiatrist and get some help or it’s over. You’re drowning and I’m drowning too. You’ve got me halfway down the road to crazy, Ray!

Long ago, Ray. Years ago. Let it be, let it be.

Basically it was for them then that he didn’t kill himself. For them and for her too, his increasingly bored lover. Sexy succubus. What man could resist her? Maybe he should kill her first. And then himself. COUPLE DIE IN SUICIDE PACT.

He returns to the kitchen, lifts the bottle. One or two more drinks and it will be empty. Should he go to the liquor store now? Or should he finish the bottle first?

Finish the bottle. Then kill yourself, Ray.

What would she do if he were dead? What did Ugha’s wife do when she realized he was never coming back? He can see her crying. He hears her asking why. He sees her running to her children for comfort. And her parents who had begged her not to break up her marriage for that no-good man. Her friends would be there for her. She has lots of friends. Friendly, popular, always hanging on the phone. He hates it every time the phone rings. It’s never for him. But sure she would miss him. But then she would move on. She loves life. She loves her pleasures. She would find someone else. Someone closer to her own age. People have got to get on after a loved one dies. And besides, women have a life force that men don’t have. Men die easily. Women go kicking and screaming. But they die anyway and 5,000 years later everything and nothing has changed.

He looks out the window. The wind tickling the trees. Go now or wait for her? Where is she? She didn’t used to be so evasive. Always kept her cell phone on. Always prompt. Phone calls always on time. If she said she would call at five, she always did. Give or take a minute or two. The past month or so she has spent lots of extra time at work, lots of houses to show. Houses selling like hotcakes. She is raking in the dough. She has asked him several times to invest, take a chance, but he lives on a fixed income now. He has some savings for a rainy day, but that’s it. Nothing left over to gamble with. No risk left in a man in his mid-sixties. And besides, he doesn’t really want anything more than what he has. The condo is comfortable. He owns all his furniture and his car. He doesn’t need more clothes. Except some new skivvies. The waistband in the old ones are wavy. Maybe she started pulling back when she realized he would never amount to anything more than what he was — a lazy semi-alcoholic wannabe writer who can’t sell his work.

He could have taught school longer. He could have hung in there and piled up five or six more years on his 401K and the bonds and Social Security and his State Retirement fund. He had thought retirement was what he needed. Give him time at last to work on his books. Write everyday. Concentrate. Focus. Create something brilliant — a brilliant work of art that might outlive him. And read all those novels he has piled on the nightstand over the years. He hadn’t realized that when you’re no longer in the thick of things, the writing and reading don’t mean very much. There is only you and the words. Or you and someone else’s words. Only you and the gesture unshared. On the page where no one cares to see it. She is far too busy to read his work and encourage him. He belongs to no writing clubs. He doesn’t do readings in bookstores anymore, because they fill him with anxiety. No one buys literature, anyway. People want thrillers, mysteries, westerns. Scandals that expose the seamy side of celebrated lives. Biographies that cut their subjects down to size. Literary novels? Forget it. Too much mental labor. And he is guilty too. He hasn’t made a dent in the stack he’s been saving. He lacks the energy to read or write or eat out or go to movies or — How in the world has he become so boring? A man like him who used to strip nude and dance like a pagan. Stevie Ray Vaughan or John Lee Hooker blasting. Those were the days when he had had energy to burn. No more. The backs of his hands, his corky arms tell him he is way too old to be living. He should have died at forty, like Jack London. Or like Byron at thirty-six. Instead of this living on and on to no purpose. And becoming what you used to dread.

He finishes the first drink and pours another, whirling the vodka, the ice cubes clicking, the sound reminding him of when he lived somewhere else, drank one drink a night and slept like a child. A place with a wife of eighteen years who betrayed him. The eighteen-year itch. An office romance. She and that guy named — What was that bastard’s name? Smell him on her when she came home. Ray had made love to her knowing her lover had been there first. Probably on her desk. Or in his car at lunch. Ray had thought he could wait him out. And then she came home and confessed. She couldn’t keep her stupid mouth shut. She needed confession. Absolution. Divorce.

Well, you love him, what more is there to say, I’ll move out, Ray had told her. He had even felt sorry for her when she cried so hard.

Love hurts, she had said. God, how love hurts!

Ray had been decent, civilized, full of compassion. Over the years he had become a bit of an actor. As a teacher he had had to learn the art. Always ready with a smile and a wink, a nod of encouragement. Sympathy.

People grow apart, it’s natural, he told her that day. Eighteen years is a long time. You would have to be a saint not to be a little tired of the same old face day in and day out. But maybe, you know, maybe if we quit our jobs and moved away. Maybe just changing our surroundings and being in a place where we were dependent on each other again. Like we were during the first years of our marriage. Maybe it would work? I’m willing to try. I’m willing to put this affair out of my mind and try.

You’ll always hold it against me, she had said.

He protested, but he knew at the time she was right, it was shock and despair talking. Beneath it, rage and hatred. The black depression following. The separate bedrooms. The polite, pointless conversations that finally sunk into days, weeks, months of gloom. The ultimatum given. By then he was bone-weary and just wanted out.

He goes into the bedroom, opens the drawer and takes out the gun. Puts the barrel in his mouth. He slips the tip of his tongue down the muzzle tasting tangy metal. He backs up to the wall. She will find his brains and hair on the wall. He wants that. He wants an image that will stay with her forever. You did this!

He watches the secondhand sweeping a circle round the face of the clock on the dresser. Just do it, he tells himself. Flick the safety off and end time. You’re going to die before long anyway. Get it over with, you fucking coward!

He takes the gun out of his mouth and shouts, Where is she, goddamn her!

He puts the gun in his waistband and phones her again. Her machine says, Please leave a message after the beep. He slams the receiver down and swears. He says, Fuck, shit, motherfucker, whore. He pours himself the last of the bottle and says, Ray, we got to make a booze run. He bolts the drink and feels dimly genial. He feels borderline fine.

Ray’s cool, he says. Everything’s cool, Ray.

He reminds himself to be philosophical. Let her fuck them all, he doesn’t care. What he really needs is another Stoli. What he needs is the indifference it brings. Like a shot of heroin.

After a stop at the liquor store, he finds himself on the freeway. The university where he used to work is in the distance, its gold dome glimmering. He spent twenty-five years there before he managed to work up the nerve to retire. Telling himself, Now I’ll really write! No excuses, Ray. He threw himself into it, turning out two worthless novels that no one wanted to publish. Numerous short stories, all rejected. He wasn’t a writer after all. A sham of a writer making motions. And finally after two years of failure he stopped. He sent nothing out. He wrote a short story or a poem occasionally and put it with the others in the drawer beneath the drawer that holds the gun.

Ray has no ideas. Everything he writes seems stupid. He drinks as much as he can hold every night and he tightens his grip on his anger and he dreams of going postal. Striding down the hall at school and capping the director and the dean and maybe a vice-president or two. Then killing himself. Or maybe battling it out with the police. Take as many of them as he can before they shoot him. He sees the headlines: UNIVERSITY EXPROFESSOR KILLS COLLEAGUES, IS GUNNED DOWN. Something like that. He fingers the gun snug behind his belt. Cars whip by him on both sides. After six and the freeways are still crowded. All these people, where are they going? These SUVs sucking up more than their share of gas. Polluting the air. It would be an easy thing to shoot out a tire, set the motherfucker rolling. Beside him he takes the Stoli from the sack and opens it. Drinks a lascivious mouthful. He is buzzed. Very.

Her house is dark, only the porch light on. The garage door is closed, so he doesn’t know if her car is in there or not. He parks halfway down the street and watches for signs of life. Something tells him she’s in there all right. Oral sex. Sodomy. Older woman losing all her inhibitions with a younger man. Or maybe two younger men. Or two teenaged boys. What had possessed that bitch? Two years in prison for two blowjobs and her butt reamed out. Was it worth it?

At the curb in front is a phallic Miata. Red, the color of passion. How typical. How cliche. Of course she would take up with someone like that. Some stud in a sport’s car spreading AIDs. Fuck him!

The minutes tick by. Half an hour vanishes. Ray gets restless. I don’t really want to know, do I?

On the way back he pulls up behind three other cars at a stoplight. Standing on the center divider is a skinny, long-haired man with a stick in his hand. A homeless panhandler? The man walks over to the first car in line and opens the door and yells, Out! Get the fuck out or I’ll brain you, you stupid bitch! He brandishes the stick, but it isn’t a stick; it’s a tire iron. A woman gets out of the car clutching her purse. The man rips the purse from her and jumps inside and speeds away. Crossing cars screech to a halt. They end up sideways. A man yells, What the fuck, you moron!

The woman stands in the empty space gawking. People get out of their cars. One woman is screaming into her cell phone — A car-jacking, I said! Others have gone over to the victim and are talking to her all at once and waving their hands. Everyone is fuming. If they could just get their hands on that bastard! More cars pull up behind the others in line. The light is green. Horns start honking. The air is filled with blustering horns and car jacking! Car-jacking!

Ray sits benumbed and silent and drained. It had happened so fast! And he had not even tried to do anything. He could have jumped out of his car and shot that bastard. He could have run to the rescue. Saved the day. Freeze, motherfucker, I’ll blow your fucking head off! That’s what he could have said. Why hadn’t he moved?

He didn’t used to be so indecisive. He didn’t used to be so scared. Of anything. Of life. Once long ago when he was thirty-five or thirty-six, he had stepped between a man and a woman who were yelling at each other in a bar. The man was threatening her, his hands reaching. And Ray had jumped off his stool and told the man to back off. The man had sized him up. Calculations spinning in his eyes — can I take this guy? Ray had been in his prime, all muscle from pumping iron. Behind him the bartender held a baseball bat. Everyone waited to see what would happen. The man pointed his finger at the woman and said, I’ll take care of you later, baby! And she said, You can go to hell, asshole! And that was it. The fight was over. Ray sat down and finished his beer. The woman didn’t even thank him. But the bartender did. Thanked him and gave him a free pitcher of Coors.

And here again I could have been the hero, he mutters. And then he reminds himself — I’m too fucking old to be a hero. He burps. He rubs his stomach round and round. He is nauseated. He needs Maalox. Some Immodium too. He slides the gun and the Stoli under the seat. Useless luck, he says and burps again. Strokes his burning colon and keeps a tight asshole.

Oh Ray, oh Ray, he whispers. Oh Ray, oh Ray.

The police arrive. They have the witnesses pull their cars to the curb. Ray tells a policeman that he hadn’t seen anything. He had gotten there too late.

When he gets back home, he puts the gun away and drinks Maalox straight from the bottle. Sits on the pot and lets the poisons flow. Then he washes his face and neck in cold water. Goes to the kitchen and pours another drink. This will stop it, he tells himself. This will numb every thing.

He turns on the lights in the living room and sits on the couch staring at his reflection in the TV. His heart is still pounding fast. He wonders if every old man is a coward. Old and brittle and impotent and a coward. He wonders if a testosterone patch would make him snap out of it. He wonders if he would do anything different if he could live the car-jacking over again. He sees himself in the thick of it. Ordering the motherfucker to freeze. But he doesn’t freeze. And Ray shoots him. Ray shoots him and shoots him.

What kind of car was it, anyway? What had the woman looked like? He can’t remember anything about her except her astonished mouth. There had been an overturned sandal in the street. He could have gone over and picked it up and handed it to her. An act of kindness. A show of compassion. Poor thing. But nothing! He had done nothing. Moment of truth. This is who you are now, Ray.

He sets his drink on the coffee table and leans forward, elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. Readiness is all, he murmurs. Ripeness I’ve got, but readiness, no. No readiness in you, you old worthless fuck. He chokes on the words. He tries to repeat them, to veil them at himself, but a sob gushes out instead. He weeps into his hands. Big baby! Big stupid baby!

What’s wrong? she says. What happened?

He looks up at her. He wipes his eyes. He takes out his handkerchief and blows his nose and wipes his cheeks and she is saying over and over, Honey, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, are you sick? Honey, what’s wrong?

He feels his lips moving. He listens hard, but he isn’t saying anything. The afternoon and evening pass through his mind, her message machine, the vodka rocks, the liquor store, the gold-domed university mocking him, the crowded freeway smothering him, the darkness of her house taunting him. The car-jacker. That goddamn car-jacker! He should have shot him!

I, he says, I thought you had left me. I couldn’t find you. I called and called. I couldn’t find you.

My cell phone died, honey. I accidentally dropped it. It’s all smashed. It’s right there on the counter. She points to it.

There it is. Why hadn’t he seen it? I didn’t see it, he says.

Honey, you never see anything.

It’s been there all this time.

I went to Verizon to buy another. She fishes in her purse, shows him the new cell phone. It cost me an arm and a leg, she says. And they took forever. I hate that place. They knew I couldn’t wait for a special. They knew they had me. They really stuck it to me this time. I paid a fortune for this phone. And I phoned you as soon as I could, but all I got was the answering machine. The freeways were a mess. I could have walked home faster.

He looks at the answering machine and sees the red light blinking.

I went out to get more vodka, he says. And then he adds, I thought you had finally had enough of me. I wouldn’t blame you. I’m old and sick and ugly and all I do is whine. I wallow in self-pity. I’m disgusting. I hate myself. I’m a failure as a man and an artist. What good am I to you? Good for nothing.

Oh, honey, no! Stop thinking like that, honey. You’re not old, you’re not at all ugly. I love you as much as I ever have. I would never leave you. I would never hurt you. I adore you. Only death can part us and that’s the truth. You know in your heart I’m a hundred percent yours, Ray. Tell me you know it, Ray. Tell me.

I’m so depressed, he tells her, feeling the tears welling again.

I wish you would at least try Prozac, honey. It’s helped millions of people. You don’t need to be so miserable. It’s all chemistry. It’s a chemical imbalance.

But it won’t be me anymore, can’t you see? It will distort my mind and I won’t be able to write or do anything creative. Those things make you too mellow. It will be someone else in here (he taps his head), not me. It will be a Prozac person. But maybe that’s what you really want. My moodiness makes you miserable. I know it does. I’m driving you down the road to crazy like I did my ex.

She shakes her head. Her eyes are infinitely sad. He waits for her to tell him that he isn’t finished yet, he has a lot left to give and all he needs is to just keep working and everything will be all right. He’s going to start sending stories out again. He’s going to get back to his desk and write. He’s going to work on his novels. Rewrite them until they’re perfect. Polish them until they’re irresistible.

He needs to hear her say all that. He needs her magic words. Eagerly, like a child he watches her mouth. And he thinks of Browne again, the end of that quote about equivocal shapes: ... real substance beneath that invisible fabric.

She knows what he needs. She sits beside him holding his hand. Stroking his arm. Her voice is soothing and his tears dry and his heart slows as she assures him again and again that his luck will turn, everything will change. Maybe starting tomorrow. Maybe that soon.

Whatever happens we’ve got each other, she says. Don’t ever forget we are soul mates, Ray, and we love each other and ultimately that’s what really counts. I’d die for you, honey. I really would.

And he is thinking, Maybe tomorrow. Maybe that soon.

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Stupid Cunt

The Beckers were headed home after leaving the Fourth of July backyard barbecue, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, baked beans, beer, sodas, grilled corn on the cob. The chatter of too many voices, grating laughter, shrieking grandchildren, a yapping poodle named Fifi. The Minnesota weather was witheringly hot under a heavy overcast adding its weight to the humid air. The air-conditioner’s effort was not enough to keep the sweat from pooling in the pit of Tina’s back, inner thighs, crotch, armpits. The arthritis in her knees, fingers, elbows and shoulders was about as bad as it had ever been. Her feet and ankles were swollen from all the standing she had done, all the beer she had drunk, all the food she had eaten. Pains in her joints came and went for no apparent reason. A jab here, a pinch there. She had been wrecking her health for two decades. Overeating, piling on the pounds, her body protesting, her conscience nagging her: go on a diet! Join a gym! Exercise, you stupid cunt!

Right now all she wanted was to get home and take a shower, put on her nightgown and plop in front of the TV. Watch whatever. Something silly, something funny. She wanted to smile. She needed to laugh. She wanted her cats, Jerry and Jazzy, lying next to her purring. She wanted Bob upstairs in bed watching the Playboy channel, his sleep-inducing soporific. It never failed to hypnotize him, visions of nubile sluts dancing in his head. Seventy-one years old and still a pervert.

She glanced at the speedometer and wished she were driving. Everyone was passing them, highway 169 stuffed to the gills with worn out revelers just wanting to get the trip over, get away from this big Lincoln SUV plugging along like a lumbering old bear sniffing the road as if it had all the time in the world. Tina knew better than to say anything. One word of complaint about his slow, uneven, jerky driving and he would call her nasty names and tell her to shut up.

Forty-five years of marriage. How had that happened? Why had she stayed with him so long? She had known within the first two years of their marriage she had made a mistake. She had stolen him from his wife, broke up his family, a terrible thing to do. Unforgivable. Paying for it ever since. It’s what happens if the sin is severe enough to rouse God’s hatred. No thunderbolts. Nothing overtly obvious. Two miscarriages. A stillborn boy. A lumpectomy and five years of taxol. And a daily dose of melancholy caused by the man sitting next to her whose name should have been Rain in the Face. Or something equally gloomy.

The cancer could have been worse, lots worse. Could have had a mastectomy. The oncologist had wanted to do surgery, but she knew Bob would never have touched her again. He had told her dozens of times how much he loved her boobs. They were her finest feature, he had said.

Better than Venus.

Back then. Long, long ago.

Look at them now.

No don’t.

None of it mattered now. He had stopped making love to her when she was in her late fifties. Hard to get used to a life without sex when there had been so much of it from her sixteenth to her fifty-eighth year. Forty-two years of balling. And now seven years of drought, her body ballooning. Bob no longer leering lustfully at her. Looking at the Playmates instead.

Well, she was 65 and couldn’t care less what he did.

“You used to look like her,” he had told her not long before they stopped screwing each other. They had been lying in bed watching TV, a naked beauty gyrating in front of a mirror. “I couldn’t get enough of you, remember? Nature made men so goddamn visual, that’s the thing. Men are too damn dependent on their eyes. When a woman’s body goes, everything goes.”

She had wanted to tell him that he wasn’t exactly eye candy either, but she didn’t dare. It was his radar eyes that had first attracted her. He came into her parlor to get a tattoo of the word MOM wreathed in red roses on his arm. A six-foot hunk of Vietnam Vet standing there pointing to his left biceps and saying, “A tattoo for my mom.”

A horn startled her. A car flew by, the driver giving Bob the finger. “Look at that idiot,” Bob said. “What’s his fucking hurry? Why is everybody always in such a goddamn hurry? Won’t be long and that bastard is dead. Think of that, Tina. Everyone in every car you’re seeing right this second will be dead soon enough. The doomed to die will be burying the already dead. Another cycle. Another step up to the plate for the next generation. What I’d like to know is what’s the point? What’s the goddamn point of it all?”

Tina shook her head. Shrugged her shoulders. In one way or another over their many years together, Bob had asked that same question a thousand times. She used to answer that God was the point. Leave it in God’s hands and stop worrying. But then one night in a drunken tirade, Bob shouted, “God my ass, you stupid cunt! I used to believe in that shit, but the life I’ve had tells me there ain’t no goddamn God. That’s Santa Claus bullshit for feeble-minded morons like you and your father and mother, your whole righteous family. Adults our age should know better. Grow up, Tina! We live alone. We die alone. Here and now is all we got. Don’t give me no more God crap!”

So she didn’t. She went to Mass by herself, took Communion and prayed for God to give her absolution and courage and understanding. She put on the pounds. She stopped spreading her legs or opening her mouth. She cultivated a life of the mind. She read a novel a week, mostly fantasy and science fiction that took her to worlds far more interesting than her own. She went to doctors, but none of them could cure her arthritis or headaches. The arthritis had forced her to sell the tattoo parlor. She made a lot of money from the sale, but she missed the parlor, missed meeting new people, drawing artful designs on their bodies. Arthritis had no mercy. She took 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen three times a day to mitigate the pain. She cooked and she cleaned and did her best not to agitate her husband, not give him any excuse to berate her and call her names. She daydreamed about his death and inheriting the money he had inherited from his mother’s estate. All the traveling she would do! Europe. England, Germany, France, Italy, Greece. She wanted to visit Bora-Bora and Tahiti. New Zealand too. Live on a South Sea island. Go native.

“Your old man is headed for senility,” Bob said, interrupting her thoughts. “He’s told that same story the last six times I’ve seen him.”

“What story?”

“That fuckin’ fish jumping into the boat. The walleye. Dinner jumping into his lap just when he had given up and was headed for shore. Jesus Christ, Tina.”

“What’s wrong with that story?” she said. “It’s funny. C’mon, old people always repeat themselves. You repeat yourself. We all repeat ourselves. He’s eighty-five. Give him a break.”

“Stupid story. What the hell—does he forget he’s already told it a million times?”

“Just trying to make you laugh, Bob. You never laugh anymore. Do you know that?”

“What’s to laugh about, Tina? Look at the state of the world. This country ain’t the America I fought for, not by a long shot. Twenty-five and all man.” He jabbed his thumb in his chest. “Fought for my country and what does it get me? A nation full of bubblehead politicians and whining Americans. I’m telling you this ain’t the country I fought for, not no more.”

“You know who you remind me of, Bob? You remind me of Dilbert.”


“The cartoon character. The cloud of doom hanging over his head. He knows when something or someone is doomed. You’re just like him. You’re Dilbert.” She chuckled while repeating “Dilbert, Dilbert...”

Bob growled at her, “I don’t know no Dilbert, but it doesn’t take a genius to know we’re all doomed. Everything is doomed, Tina. You’re doomed.”

“Gloom and doom Dilbert, that’s you.”

“Not gloom and doom, Tina. Realistic. I see life more clearly than you or anyone I know. It’s made me depressed for at least fifty of my seventy-one years on this fucked-up planet.”

“I know.”

“I need to drink to dull the pain of living.”

“Yes, you’ve told me.”

“I’ve probably got at least ten more years of observing this revolting world before I die in some nasty fucking way.”


“My mother died choking on a piece of bread.”

“I know.”

“What a ridiculous way to go. How she must have hated it. Destined to die with a wad of bread stuck in your throat? How goddamn absurd is that?”


“I chew each bite of food at least thirty times. Sometimes fifty. Depending on what it is.”

“You’ve told me this a million times, Bob. You’re repeating yourself.” She giggled.

“You eat too fast,” he said.

“I know.”

“How boring your old man is, Tina. Why don’t you just say, ‘I’ve heard that story a million times, Pappy’? And that’s another thing. Why does everyone call him Pappy? Call him Dad. Or Papa. Pappy makes him sound like he’s a hick from the Ozarks.”

Tina looked out the side window at another Minnesota lake going by. The wrinkling water grayish. Narrow piers jutting from the shoreline like runways for fashion models. Houses peering out from landscapes teeming with trees. When Bob died she would buy a cozy little home on a lake. That would be the thing to do. Sit on the porch and watch water skiers going by laughing, having fun. Watch the fish jump. Watch birds glide and dive. The wind in the trees the only music she would need.

Glancing at her husband, she took in his dour expression, mouth turned down in an old man’s stereotypical frown. Bags under his eyes. Stray wisps of hair still clinging to his head. Who is this guy? Did she really marry him? Once upon a time she had thought he was ruggedly handsome, dangerous and sexy. A war vet with undress-you eyes. His insatiable cravings. They had that in common back then. Do whatever you want, her body always said. They would get drunk and plow the bed for hours in various states of sexual delirium.

She’d feel slutty after. Slutty but satisfied. After the first two years of marriage the only time he ever showed she meant anything to him was when they fucked each other. No holding hands going for strolls as they had before they took their vows. No spontaneous hugs or kisses. They would go out for dinner three or four times a week. It’s what he liked. A steak, a few drinks. Home to bed. The Playboy channel.

They had all the money she could spend back then, money from the tattoo parlor and the sale of the estate. But for Tina the money soon lost its luster. She had a house full of clothes and crap she never used. She gave lots of stuff to his daughter now that she had grown up and her martyred mother had passed on. Cancer eating her ovaries. How that poor woman suffered!

Soon after she was gone, the daughter switched from men to women. Tina blamed Bob for that, his macho-man example turning the daughter off. Stingy with his money these days because he lost upwards of a million in the stock market. Only two million left. Only. She chuckled into her hand.

“Where did it all go?” she murmured.


“We never hear from Jenny.”

“She knows where we live. That’s what thanks I get for giving that Lesbo everything she ever asked for. Her mother was raped, you know. What the hell, my heart went out to her. I wasn’t even sure whose kid it was, but I married that woman anyway. It was pity. That’s how damn dumb I was back in those days.”

“I know.”

“Can you imagine that, what a sucker I was?”

“It was a kind thing to do, Bob. You had a kind and loving heart. Really, you used to be sweet.”

“Rape is a natural instinct for men, you know.”

“Rape? Is it? Is it really?”

“Programmed into our genes. Look at history. It’s crammed full of rape and murder and pillage. What a species.”

She had heard the same words many times before.

She let her mind drift to her youth. Meeting him by accident at Medicine Lake sitting on a bench with a bag of popcorn in his hands. He was feeding the ducks, throwing popcorn one puff at a time into the water, watching the ducks race each other for it. She had swam in from the raft and was walking to her towel when he called to her, his finger pointing at a mulberry tree near the road as he said, “Oriole.” She looked at the tree and saw a Baltimore Oriole pecking at the mulberries. She told him she hadn’t seen an oriole in years. “Me neither,” he said. “It doesn’t look real. I saw a cardinal yesterday in almost the very same spot. They come for the mulberries. This is a good place to rest and watch.”

What a kind and gentle man he is, she told herself. A birdwatcher.

“Do you remember me?” he asked.

“Of course I do. I tattooed roses and the word mom on your arm,” she answered.

“I bet you think I’m a mama’s boy.”

“Not a bit. More boys should love their mothers that much.”

“She’s given me everything. My father died young and I became the center of her life. She lives right over there.” He pointed at a mini-mansion on the other side of the lake.

“Beautiful house,” Tina told him.

“Too big,” he said. “I like little houses. Cozy cottages.”

She had picked up her towel and was drying her hair, glancing at him now and then. And wondering: Is he married?

A quiet minute passed before he said, “Orioles have nothing on you.”

And that’s how things started. He came in his outboard at noon day after day, a bag of popcorn or birdseed in hand. She found herself sitting beside him feeding the birds and telling him about her life, about living with her parents in Crystal, about going to college and taking art lessons, about opening the tattoo parlor and how much she loved it. She learned that he was one of the original Beckers who had settled Golden Valley back in the nineteenth century.

He started showing up at closing time. The first time they made love was in his car in a parking lot at Powderhorn Park. Oh, those contortions! She was agile then. She had to admit she loved those whorish meetings, the infidelity. She thought she loved him. She thought she had never been so happy, so fulfilled. Cars became motel rooms. Motel rooms became lovers’ nests. She was his mistress for three years before his wife found out and divorced him.

The tires thumpety-thumped over the tar strips patching the concrete highway beneath her. Cars storming by. The landscape blurring. Sweat staining her pants, the armpits of her shirt. She hoped she didn’t get a rash.

Were we happy? she wondered. Was feeding the birds the best time of our life together? The stolen moments in the car. The motel rendezvous.

Happy? If happiness is feeling excited, feeling passionate. Passion and excitement equal love don’t they?

Love has to be more than that, Tina, she told herself. Does it exist really, really?

“I’ve got a killer headache,” he said. “It’s getting dark and my night vision is shot. My eye is throbbing. I hate this long drive, Tina. It exhausts me. Makes me nervous as hell. I wish we didn’t have to do it. Next time you go up there alone. Tell them I’m sick or something. Why did they have to move so damn far north?”

The Lincoln rocked side to side, slowed for a second before bucking forward faster than ever. He had aged into a terrible driver. She thought it was mostly because his eyesight was failing.

Maybe they would crash. Maybe they would die together. It wouldn’t be a tragedy. Fitting justice for what they had done to the martyred one.

The sky was sailing towards a darker shade of gray. The hidden sun was a pale glow beyond the rim of the world.

“I wish it would rain,” she said.

“Don’t wish for rain!” he said. “What’s the matter with you? Rain! Jesus Christ, I’m having a bad enough time as it is.”

“You want me to drive?”

“No, goddamn it. We’re almost home goddamn it all.”

They arrived the moment the streetlights flickered on. He parked in the driveway and sat a moment collecting himself. His hands were trembling on the wheel. She pitied him. She hated him too. He had never made her happy. Not truly. Not even when they were younger and feeding the birds. And certainly never ever in bed. Satisfied yes. But never happy. She supposed it was not really his fault. Happiness is what you have to do for yourself. No one can do it for you. A fleeting moment now and then, but that was it. That was all. She kept staring at her husband, waiting for him to move. He had curvature of the spine now. Osteoporosis had shrunk him down to five foot ten.

She wasn’t getting any younger herself. I’ll leave him, she thought for the thousandth time. I’ll take Jerry and Jazzy and move north and stay with my parents till I can figure it out.

Now or never, Tina. Now while you still have your legs under you.

He wiped a palm over his head back and forth. His collar was wet with sweat. She could smell him—smell his rotting body, his sour breath.

“Let’s get you into the house,” she said. “I’ll make you a ham and cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato. How does that sound? We can have some chardonnay. How does that sound, honey?”

“Anything. Anything at all, Tina.”

“It’ll calm you down. You can take a relaxing bath and go to bed. Watch your girls and fall asleep with sugar plum fairies dancing in your dreams. C’mon, old man, it’s been a long, tiresome day, a tiresome day.”

“You have no idea,” he said. He lingered. Then he said, “You know what I think? I think I’m close to the end of my life and haven’t really lived at all. Hell of a thing, Tina.”

“Nonsense. Don’t talk like that. Are you hungry, honey?”

“I need a whiskey.”

“Not on an empty stomach,” she said. “Remember your ulcer, honey.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll eat first. Don’t nag me.”

She got out, went around to his side, opened the door, took his elbow and helped slide him off the seat. He was very shaky. Doddering old man is what came to mind. She locked her arm in his arm and walked him carefully into the house.

As she steered him towards the kitchen, the cats came running and began sinuously circling their ankles.

“Fuckers gonna trip me,” he said, kicking at them feebly.

While he sat at the table, his face in his tremulous hands, she opened the fridge and brought out leftover ham and made him a sandwich thick enough to choke him. She wondered if choking was a trait he had inherited from his mother.

(First published in Duff’s collection of short fiction,
Minnesota Memoirs.)

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Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

The engine starts sputtering as he’s entering Owatonna on Interstate 35 north. Pete figures it’s an overheating coil. He could fix it but he doesn’t have the money or the tools. In desperation he takes the 218 leading him into the southern part of the city. The car is gasping. He nurses it another mile, until it dies at the turn onto Austin Road.

“Hunk of junk,” he says. “Chrysler products: fuck em.”

He walks his attitude through the environs. The sky is drizzling. In his pocket he fingers his switchblade. He needs money. He’s going to get some. He sees a Casey’s Pizza and Southpark Lanes & Lounge in the distance. Continuing north checking out cars, houses, escape routes, he goes left on East Park, finds a cluster of very old houses, nineteenth century probably. Everything looks easy-pickings. Dripping trees line the terraces. Stray leaves whirling over summer green lawns. Street gutters edged in scaly cement. Blackish mold in the seams of the sidewalks. Along the curbs cars call to him, Steal me! Steal me! The rain is a slow soaker, half mist, half fog. He comes upon a black Ford pickup, a key in the ignition. Overhanging the sidewalk are blackbirds on the limbs of a white birch. Their tails jerking. Yellow eyes filled with evil intentions. Here comes one, get ready.

“Watch out!” warns a voice nearby.

White home, brown trim, rock chimney, an old man sitting on the porch, his belly resting heavily on his thighs. He has silver hair, a silver beard. Rosy cheeks. He looks like Santa Claus. He chuckles and says, “There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, you know.”

“There are?” Pete glances again at the birds. Their wings ballooning like umbrellas.

“You’re all wet,” says Santa. “Come up here. The rain’ll blow over. Keep an old man company. C’mon.”

Pete shrugs why not. He climbs the wooden steps dented with age. Takes refuge underneath the eave, removes his cap, shakes the water off. Then squares it neatly on his head again. The old man’s bulk flows over a plastic lawn chair. His hair and beard are a mass of tight curls. His nose is very large and laced with tiny red veins. Next to him is a plastic end table. On top are a Meerschaum pipe and a book entitled LATIN AT YOUR FINGERTIPS. There are two more plastic chairs on the porch. Pete smells sweet marijuana. He looks at the pipe and wonders if he might get a hit. He sniffs moldy wood, rain-soaked earth, unwashed old man. It registers that this guy is probably poor. More easy pickings, but nothing worth stealing. Except that pickup parked at the curb.

Eyes smiling, mouth seeming about to laugh ho, ho, ho, the old man says, “I’m the George Foggy, retired entrepreneur and acknowledged genius gifted in arts—literary arts, sculpting arts, tap dance and ballet choreography, poetry and mime and anything else you care to name that has to do with artistic endeavor. No doubt you’ve heard of me. I’ve devoured whole libraries in my time and there’s nothing I don’t know about Shakespeare. Shakespeare on film is child’s play to me. Go on ask me a question. The answer is . . . cogitating, cogitating . . . the answer is Quem di diligunt adulescens moritur, dum valet sentit sapit. He whom the gods love dies young, while he still has strength and sense and wits. You can look me up in the annuals of Owatonna. I lived the American Dream. Before I got old. Senectus ipsa morbus est. Old age itself a sickness. You may wonder why I talk so cultured. I’m learning Latin to keep my mind from deteriorating. It’s either Latin or math or crossword puzzles. Remember that when you get my age, sonny.”

“Don’t believe a word he’s saying!” declares a querulous voice behind the screen door. Pete can’t make out if the voice belongs to a man or a woman. George Foggy smiles, jerks his head toward the screen.

“Jesus freak,” he says. “Get old, get Jesus, become a cliché.” He beckons Pete closer and whispers, “He didn’t used to be this way.” Suddenly he yells—“Honk! Shut it, Honk!” A tic quivers below his right eye. His whole cheek getting into the act. A corner of his mouth jumps as if an ant is biting it. Followed by his right shoulder. Everything jerking. Is he having a fit?

“Yes, Jesus!” hoots Honk behind the screen.

Pete notices a HELP WANTED sign in the window next to where George Foggy is sitting. Spattered over the front of the old man’s shirt are ashes. Some of the ashes falling like dirty snow as he holds out his hand and says, “You look, you know, remarkably familiar. What’s your name, my love?”

Pete takes the offered hand, shakes it. The hand is huge, dry, powerful. “I’m Pete.”


“Peter Paul Pearson.”

“Triphilia Pete? Three in one Pete? To impose upon the nations the code of peace Pete?” George Foggy leans his head toward the screen. “Him’s Trinity, Honk!”

“Trinity whom?” says Honk.

“I’m Peter Paul Pearson.”

George Foggy’s hands fly to his heart. “P.P.P!” he shouts. “Triphilia, what did I just say?” He presses his chest as if his lungs are bursting. “Where have you been. P.P.P.?”

“Where has he been?” Honk inquires.

“You’ve changed,” says Foggy. “Your eyes so dark. Your mouth so angry. What big teeth you have. Has someone been mean to you, my love?”

Pete slides toward the steps, ready to vamoose. George Foggy is in tears, sobbing, his fat shoulders fat gut heaving.

“An uncivilized world! Nothing’s what it used to be!” he cries. “P.P.P., P.P.P., Foggy has missed you so—“ The crying jag cuts off abruptly and he shouts, “Shit! Fuck! Crap!” Then pulls a hanky from his pocket and blows his monstrous nose. He keeps eyeing the boy as if he’s a mirage.

A frail old man with two canes comes out on the porch and watches Foggy with callous eyes. Behind him is a woman. She looks to be less than five feet tall. Her blue-black hair gathered in a knot on top of her head. Her face scribes a circle. She reminds Pete of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon.

“Told him God would get him,” says the frail old man. He shakes one of the canes at Foggy. “I said—told him God would get him!”

Foggy ignores the outburst and raises teary eyes to Pete. “Don’t go away just because Honk is crazy, P.P.P. We’ve got to talk, we’ve got to work it out. Sit down, my love. Please stay. Let’s chat.”

“I gotta go,” Pete tells him. “I’m not who you think.”

“You need a job?” asks Foggy. He points to the sign. “Some gardening, some leaf raking, lawn mowing, a little caretaking is all, some cupboard doors need tightening, hinges need oil. You can paint the porch, maybe? The garbage disposer won’t work. We need a little help around here. We’re old.”

“Can you cook?” asks Honk.

“I cook!” shrieks the midget woman.

“Swing that door, Honk. Show him how it squeaks.”

Honk swings the door, but it doesn’t squeak.

“Humidity,” Pete says. “The rain.”

“Smart as ever, P.P.P.,” says Foggy. “Come here, my love. Let me look at you. Sit by me. We’ve got catching up to do.”

“I don’t know you, old man. We never met.”

Foggy starts to speak, but doesn’t. He looks puzzled. The tic in his eye keeps firing, forcing him to wink, wink, wink.

“I’m Peter Paul Pearson, I’m Pete . . .”

Foggy nods. “Of course,” he says. “In my head you are. But in my heart you’re the image of what I’m missing. Are you fifteen?”

“Sixteen now.”

“He would be older,” says Foggy. “That was back in . . . that was years ago when . . .He’s gone. Why don’t he come back? Me no understand.”

“Was he your son?”

“The son of my soul, the son of my heart, the son of . . .” His voice trails off. His eyes stare at something distant. Then he says, “Of the way things used to be. Of course you’re not him. Don’t try to fool me. I’m not senile. Old as sin, but not senile. Where do the years go? How do they happen?”

“You know what?” interrupts Honk. One hand thrusts a cane out like a rapier. The voice repeats itself, “You know what? Do you know what I’m going to tell you? Do you know what I’m going to say? Beware the blackbird.” He points to the birds cluttering the birch. “Carriers of diseased thoughts,” he says. He stabs at George Foggy. “Him! Him! Get away from him! He be crazy fat old man!!”

“I got to go before those heavy clouds let loose,” says Pete pointing to the sky. He hurries down the steps. He eyes the Ford pickup again.

“Heavy heart, heavy,” says George Foggy. Then he shouts, “Wait!”

“Nice to meet you!” Pete yells.

“But you’ll come back, won’t you? I want to talk to you about something!”

“Jesus is the way!” says Honk. “Stay away from this old junky! He smokes Turk!”

“You’re the one!” says George Foggy. “Hash man!”

“Both of them!” shouts the woman. “Is dope fiends!”

“I have neuritis neuralgia!” Honk says to Foggy. “I have rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure and gout. What’s your excuse?”

“Heart condition, stomach and lung cancer, varicose veins, hyperten—“

“Hypochondria extraordinaire,” interjects Honk. “You’re healthy as a horse. Never sick a day in your life. I, on the other hand—“

The woman is making faces. Pete bets she has heard their one-upmanship a million times. He can see now that she is very old, maybe seventy-five, maybe older. “Shut up! Shut up!” she orders. “Look what you doing! Frightened him away, you windy braggers!”

And Pete thinks, Jesus Christ, I hope I never get old like them! Live fast, love hard, die young!

“P.P.P.! . . . P.P.P.!” bleats George Foggy.

The boy stops a few feet from the birch. The blackbirds waiting like assassins. The boy looks at Foggy’s winking eye, feverish cheeks, trembling lips, shivering beard, big belly shaking as he stands up and says, “Don’t you want to know the thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird?”


“Do you want to know?”

“Yeah, what are they?”

On a snowy field a black dart.

Black fig shimmering on a limb.

A sooty leaf whirling.

A beady-eyed baby in a black beret.

The curse of a man who has hammered his thumb.

Caliginous jealousy in a woman’s heart.

In the wind of a whistle searching for a mate.

Where two black rhythms fold into one.

A midnight circle of lovers sowing seeds.

Black plum falling on a brittle lawn.

In the sinful heart of the heart of humankind.

Fish leaping in front of the moon at night.

The black breath of a liar.

“So, is that copasetic or what, my love?”

“Cool,” says Pete. “But . . . but what does it mean?”

“If you come back, I’ll tell you,” says Foggy. He fingers the top of his head. Carefully, tenderly adjusting his hair. Instantly his forehead is higher, broader.

Pete steps off. Waves at him. “See you!”


Behind his back he hears Foggy saying, “Was he a chimera? Do I wake or sleep?”

Pete jogs back to the 218. Cars swishing by splatter him. He looks northwest and sees infinite clouds. The rain is falling harder now. To his right is a baseball field, a parking lot, industrial buildings. Hunching into his jacket he walks the edge of the road and thinks about the old man and thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. He tries to memorize them.

In the sinful heart of the heart of humankind.

Fish leaping in front of the moon at night.

The black breath of a liar.

A fish could look like a blackbird, yes. The black breath of a liar. Adding nevermore would be poetic. Vanishing in the night like ink into ink, that’s what blackbirds do. “Black scarf blowing over fields of snow,” he says, testing out a way of looking at a blackbird. He doesn’t admire it especially, but maybe it works.

Closing his eyes he sees white fields, a dot of blackbird swooping. Raisin floating in a bowl of milk. Blackberry hanging from a vine.

“Shit, this is easy! I’m onto something,” he says. Looking over his shoulder toward downtown Owatonna, he can still see the end of Austin Road spilling water into the vacant lot. A block west is the CHAMBER OF COMMERCE VISITORS CENTER, and not far away a white church, its bell tower taller than the trees hemming it in.

Bird thing: It’s got to be black or feathery or winged or bird connected somehow. Black figs in—no, no, no! Foggy used figs. What about . . . what about black coffee in a red cup? Black truth pecking at white lies? Black finger feathers drawing graffiti on a whitewashed wall? Who are they, really? Black woman’s breasts bared nipples.

The wind blows his cap off. He chases it and thinks—black cap winging east. Catching the cap he crams it back on his head. Black wing nesting on black hair. The old man was sitting there bloated with knowledge: Buddha. Yes, and he wept like Jesus. Old fat fart pregnant with learning. Maybe a message from some other world. A dark angel? One who smokes pot? Or was that a joke? No, the aroma in the air was unmistakable. That Meerschaum on the table. Yes, the old crocks are potheads. They need to soften reality. Who doesn’t? Pete fingers his knife. He could soften their reality. What do they have in that house? Poor as they look, you never know. Money hidden in the closet in a shoe. Wrapped in plastic in the freezer. He knows all their stupid tricks.

Pete searches the sky. Rain licking his face as he mutters, “Is the old man Santa Claus? Naw. He wanted me to be his son that he lost. He wanted me to pretend. Yeah, I could do that easy.”

The rain falling harder. The wind gusting. He pivots back, goes to the church, tries the door. The door is locked. He has always believed that churches never locked their doors. In case there were homeless boys like him needing shelter. In case a lost soul needed to pray in God’s house. In case a broken heart needed some comfort. In case the suicide wanted God to talk him out of it. Pete shows his finger to the church and jogs on.

The chair where the old man sat is empty. The LATIN AT YOUR FINGERTIPS is gone. The pipe gone too. The porch lonely. Scattered leaves on the steps look arthritic. Pete hesitates. He chaffs his palms. He’s awfully wet. He’s getting cold.

“Who is this come to us?” says Foggy as he opens the door. He yells over his shoulder, “It’s P.P.P.! Come in, come in! So good to see you, my love. Have you come back for the job?” Foggy’s face twitches, his shoulders jerk. Curly beard shaking like its saying boogie woogie.

“I could help out,” says Pete.

Foggy puts a massive arm around him. “Room and board. Ten dollars a day. We’re no trouble, no trouble at all.”

Pete enters a stifling house smelling of canned pumpkin. The temperature must be over eighty degrees. A pounding noise comes from somewhere down the hall. It sounds like someone is driving a spike into a railroad tie. Clunk! Foggy’s forehead is lower now, hair cocked to the side. He ushers the boy into the living room.

Books and papers are piled everywhere, on shelving, on the mantel, on end tables, on a roll-top desk. On a coffee table is a black vase filled with dead flowers, petals long ago morphing into moribund beetles. The flower heads are using scattered books for pillows. The chairs and a sagging couch give just enough room for Foggy’s belly to squeeze by. Books are on the floor as well, strewn under tables, propped against the sides of furniture. Some books climb corners. Titles: Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, The Life of Savage, Rasselas, Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, The Vanity of Human Wishes. The room smells of marijuana, burning birch, dusty, human skin. Like an idling engine, flames hum in the fireplace. On television is American Bandstand. The music playing is “Tequila.” On a chair in front of the TV sits the pie-faced Lucy from the Peanuts cartoon. She is so small that her boots levitate three inches above the rug. The overstuffed chair is swallowing her.

“Fix the disposer,” she orders, lifting her eyes to Pete. She wears cherry lipstick and heavy mascara. She has a wattle beneath her chin a rooster might envy. Her neck is thin and long.

“It’s P.P.P.,” says Foggy. “He’s come for the job.”

“Get to work!” The old lady snaps to attention, narrows her eyes. “Sweet boy. Come to Gerty, give kisses, smoochy, smoochy.”

Her arms go out and he obliges, bending down, trying to peck her cheek, but she pulls his mouth around to hers and locks their lips.

“Gerty,” says Foggy. “Let him go. You’ll scare him off again!”

She struggles with him. He breaks away. She lifts a bit of hem and wiggles an elephant stump.

Pete retreats frantically toward Foggy.

“Come on,” Foggy says, “Honk’s in the kitchen.”

As they go down the hall, Foggy adjusts his hair, fluffs his beard. The smell of pumpkin gets stronger. They enter the kitchen and Pete sees Honk in a wheelchair with a wrench in his hand. He is beating the garbage disposal under the sink and flicking a switch on and off. With each clank of the wrench, each flick of the switch, he says, “Demon disposer.”

“P.P.P.’s come back to do business!” says Foggy. “I hired him to run the joint!”

“Hunh!” Honk jerks a wheel of the chair and looks at Pete. “Don’t sell him the Turkey shit! Give him the Minnesota domestic.”

“What’s wrong with your disposer?” Pete asks.

“It’s possessed!” says Honk. He waves the wrench as if threatening Pete.

Pete looks into the mouth of the disposer. Puts a hand in it and tries to spin the wheel. It’s frozen. “How long has it been like this?”

“Since numb nuts put egg shells, coffee grounds, and potato peel down it,” says Honk, his eyes scowling at Foggy. “The man’s a menace!”

Moi?” says Foggy. “Curas hominum. Quantum est in rebus inane.

“Yeah, you!” says Honk.

“What did he say?” asks Pete.

“You don’t know French?” says Honk. “Don’t they teach you anything in school these days?”

“Actually, no,” the boy replies.

Foggy puts a hand over his heart. The other hand is vertical. “Human cares. How much futility in the world.” Foggy winks, pets his bulbous nose and looks proud. “I won’t go doddery into that good night.”

Pumpkin meat in a bowl. Crisco, sugar, eggs, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg, a pie crust waiting on the table. Pete sees a broom by the back door. Fetching the broom, he tells Foggy that he came to say there are twenty-five ways of looking at a blackbird.

“Twenty-five!” shrieks the old man. “But that will never do, my love. Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Twenty-five is not divisible by three. You must come up with twenty-seven ways!”

“I wanted to tell you the ones I made up.” And he does.

Foggy covers his ears. “Don’t end on twenty-five,” he whines.

Pete shoves the broom handle down the throat of the disposal, catching the end of the handle on a blade and pulling backward. The broom bends. He eases up, repositions the handle and tries again. The wheel breaks loose. He flicks the switch and the motor whirrs. He runs water.

“What a smart boy.” Honk peeks over the edge of the sink, watching the water swirling. “What a smart boy,” he repeats.

“Twenty-five ways,” says Foggy. “God help us! Come on. Out with another, come on, hurry up, no time to lose. Bad luck is sticky. Here’s five dollars.” Digging in his pocket Foggy pulls out a dollar bill and thrusts it at Pete. “Your first day’s pay.”

Pete takes the bill, starts to say it’s a one not a five and he was promised ten. But he shrugs and says instead, “I can’t make them up just like that,” snapping his fingers. “They come to me out of nowhere. Out of something my mind wraps around, you know?”

“I like this boy,” says Honk. He rolls to the table and starts mixing ingredients in the bowl.

From the living room comes the theme song for American Bandstand—“Bandstand Boogie.”

Pete recalls the dead flowers on the coffee table.

“Dead flowers drooping from a black vase: twenty-six ways.”

“It’ll do, it’ll do. Do one more and divide by three and we’re safe.”

“You come up with one.”


“A genius should be able to pop one out like nothing.”

“Too true, too true. It is the burden I carry, thrust on me by superior bloodlines. Knowing everything is very hard, my love. But I’ve already done thirteen.” His head and shoulders keep twitching.

“So have I. Come on, go for it. Twenty-seven divided by three is nine.”

Foggy grumbles, burps, winks, sniffs and bursts forth, “Lord is my shepherd, ack! foo! Don’t believe it!”

“That’s a way of looking at a blackbird?”

“If your brain’s on straight and can encompass the cosmos the way mine can. I am large. I contain multitudes. All right, never mind. Stand by. Genius cogitating.” He plops in a chair. The chair groans. He folds his arms over his belly. His eyes roll up. His cheeks glisten. Forehead reddening dangerously.

“Geez, don’t kill yourself,” Pete tells him.

Foggy shakes his head as if shaking off a mood. He pulls the makings from his pocket and stuffs the pipe. Lights it. Drags deep.



Honk takes a hit and hands the pipe to Pete. He tokes and passes it back to Foggy. Shreds of sweet pot sprinkling over mashed pumpkin, cinnamon, vanilla odors blending as Honk pours the mixture into a pie pan. And into the oven. He holds out a gooey finger and offers Pete a lick.

“No, thanks.”

Honk pops the finger into his own mouth and cleans it. “Lick the bowl?” he asks.

“Not really.”

“Lick her myself then. You kids today don’t know what’s good.”

Something tells Pete this ain’t gonna work. He wishes the rain would stop. Old people are way too whoa.

Veni, vidi, vici sitting on a fence. Along flew bird beaks and bit em on the cocktail, ginger ale, five cents a glass, if you don’t like the flavor, cram it up your—ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies, if you ever get hit with a bucket of shit, remember to close your eyes: twenty-seven ways of looking at a blackbird.”

Smiling brightly Foggy fills his lungs, holds while smoke curly cues over the pipe. Honk waving the smoke toward his mouth inhaling.

Pete ruminates the twenty-seventh way and says, “I don’t know about that.”

Veni, vidi, vici sitting on a fence? What more could you possibly ask, my love?”

“Hmm,” hums Pete.

“Muddled, that’s what it is,” says Honk. “Muddled, muddled.”

Et tu Brute?

“It’s got to feel black and bird-like in some sort of way, don’t it?” Pete says.

“But . . . but it does!” says Foggy. “Along flew bird beaks and bit em on the . . . Who started this anyway? Who knows what he’s talking about? Me and Wallace Stevens. Casual flocks of blackbirds make ambiguous undulations as they sink downward to darkness on extended wings.

“Okay,” Pete says, not willing to argue since he has no idea what the man just said or who Wallace Stevens is. “But really it should be more like Gerty in her black dress and black hair and black boots. Redwing mouth. She could be a blackbird, Gerty could.”

“Too much lipstick, too much rouge. It’s not real hair either.” Putting his hand sideways shielding his lips from those with big ears he says, “Bald as a cue ball. Poor thing. Cancer of the bungus. Chemo, you know.”

“Lipstick and rouge could be the shoulder whatchacallems,” says Pete.

“Epaulettes,” says Foggy.

“That’s it.”

While Foggy and Honk pass the pipe back and forth, Pete paces the floor with the broom. The broom and the gray light hitting the window give him: “Witch on broomstick bursting through boiling clouds.”

“It was right on the tip of his tongue,” says Honk.

“Look what you’ve done!” freaks Foggy. “Now we’ve got to go for thirty! Divide by three and we’re home free. Go for it!”

“Why we got to go for thirty?” Pete says. “Your first thirteen don’t divide by three.”

“What? What?”

“You said it must divide by three.”

“Three, yes, the Trinity of genius. Three is in thirteen! As long as three is in there it’s okay, my love. Thirty-three is, however, the perfect number. Divides by three into a prime number that can only be divided equally by itself. Get it? Come up with thirty-three blackbirds and your life will be pumpkin pie forever. Maybe you’ll never die. I mean it. It’s magic.”

“Give him the signs,” says Honk.

“These are the signs,” says Foggy. He rubs his nose, winks, sniffs, shouts, “If you’re dying it won’t do any good to whine! Tuck the fuck up!” He pets his nose lovingly, burps, jerks. Stabs a finger at the boy. (Pete has heard of this behavior, a medical condition, but he can’t think of the name of it.) “Listen,” continues Foggy, “I’ll only repeat this several times: birdphilia, biblophilia, triphilia—the Trinity signs of genius.” He rocks a little in his chair. Hands folded on his placid belly.

“But what does it mean?” asks Pete.

Foggy ticks each meaning off on his fingers. “One, do you love birds?”

“I spose.”

“Two, do you love books?”

“I’ve read a couple.”

“Three, do you love the number three?”

“It’s okay.”

“I rest my case.”

“Does that mean I’m a genius?”

“The signs are there, the rest is up to you. Let me speak Newton. This is how it works—Ork!“

Honk switches the mixer on.

“Noise!” Foggy shouts. He rumbles out of the kitchen.

A syndrome, remembers Pete. Some kind of syndrome. He is feeling spacey. Maybe they’re setting him up to eat him. Pete baked in a pie. Four and twenty blackbirds. Their shit making me paranoid. That’s what’s happening. You gotta gets the fuck outta here, man!

Pete weaves slowly slovenly toward the front door. Foggy grabs him by the sleeve. “We have no wills of our own,” he says, licking his lips as if he wants to smooch. “We are like mercury in a barometer rising and falling according to the pressure surrounding us. As sure as there are canals on Mars, my love, does the naked eye lie? Crap! Snork! Fink!” His eyes roll.

Pete looks round the corner into the living room. Gerty sitting with arms on the armrests. Face frozen. Hypnotized by the dancers.

“Now listen,” says Foggy. “Females are busily choking their maternal instincts as fast as they can.” His forefinger seals his lips. “Shh.” Wink, wink goes the eye. “Marriage and motherhood are companions keeping company, but there’s nothing necessary about them, don’t you see? Children are brother and sister to their mothers. We are devolving toward ultimate entropy. Do you know what will save us?”

Pete shakes his head.

Foggy’s dilated eyes hovering like glossy soap bubbles.

Pete offers up—“Outer space?”

“The ant dome,” Foggy says. “All for one and one for all, the perfect society built on the number thirty-three. Mark me, mark this! Wait! Unk, crap, shit! All striving must become a ritual for the good of our country. Individualism must vanish. Fall in line. Quote cliches. Note how happy conformists are! Float the flag. Quack the duck. Be a triple good duckspeaker. Fly the ways of the blackbird. Eeek a freak.”

Pete blinks and goes blind for a second.

Foggy’s voice rushes on the path to “Do you believe it?”

“Sure, if you say so.” Pete eyeing the door, hearing the rain tapping the porch. But fuck the rain! The knife in his pocket pulls at him like chaos. If he stabbed the old man, the blade would find six inches of fat first.

“Grounded, I say, in reason and belief in a rational life. I may make a mistake, but no—no brag just fact—it is exceedingly rare. Doubtless I’m a seer, a living interpreter of the cosmos. I can’t help it! I am what I am. E equals MC squared is tinkertoys for me. Formulas impregnate my pores. I can unify the field theory. Make plain the abstruse connections between weak and strong forces and their influence on gravity and electricity. They had no beginning and will never end. Ergo! Shit! Unk! Tuck! We float and reconnect with ourselves eternally. We’ve had this conversation a million times before. It’s a simple formula manifested in spherephilia. Do you understand now?”

“Fuck no.”

“Roundness, my love, roundness. Everything comes back around. We are doomed to repeat ourselves. What goes round, comes round. Roundness everywhere. Circles within circles within circles. Read your Emerson.”

Honk wheels from the kitchen. He stares at them, his eyes a pair of opaque tunnels.

“Go away, I’m talking,” says Foggy.

“Giving you spherephilia?” says Honk.

Foggy’s shoulder jumps. Followed by head jerks, hair slippage.

“Roundness!” says Pete.

“My balls,” says Honk, “are round.”

Foggy squeezes his head between his palms. “Ook, ook, my mind is like an impassioned eel! You hold it down in one place, it coils round you in another. Listen to me, you need fat, not sugar, to protect you from frostbite. Ask the Eskimo. Don’t go out there, my love!”

“He’s always this way when he smokes Turk,” says Honk. “Pay him no mind, no matter.”

“Is it an attack?” says Pete. “I’ve heard of a syndrome—”

“Passionate eel?” says Foggy.

“That too,” says Pete.

“Ook! Like your brain wants to come out your ears and say hello?”


Foggy coughs wetly. Starts to say something more, but bends over and has a coughing fit that threatens to blow a hole in the floor. When he has his breath back he says, “Cancer. The Big C. Crap! Dork! Days are numbered. If you’re dying it won’t do any good to whine. Dive! Dive! Tuck the fuck up!”

Honk is grinning. He has taken his teeth out and put them in his pocket. His mouth looks like the wrinkled version of a baby reaching for a nipple.

Gerty shouts, “I’m hungry. Make that pie!”

“It’s baking!” says Honk. “Can’t you smell it?”

Foggy says, “I’ve got enlargement of the heart and arrhythmia and what else? Flat feet. Toenail fungus. Every organ in my body is failing. Only my philias have kept me going. Threes have kept my brain in balance with the Trinity. I’m like a juggler with three balls in the air. My physical life has been radically wretched. The only thing worth living for is my unmatched mind—my sacred lotus.” He caresses his head lovingly. His hair slips. He adjusts it.

“How about hypochondria-philia?” says Honk.

“Pay no mind to such a one! He’s a cartoon,” says Foggy. “Just remember this. There are thirty-three ways of looking at a blackbird and all you have to do is find them and report back to me and all your troubles will be over. Nirvana in the palm of your hand. A child shall lead them. Go!”

Pete opens the door. He feels like his face is wrinkling. His spine curving. There are pains in his knees and hips. He can’t breathe deep enough. Old people have heatphilia. How does anyone stand them? It’s like a house full of babbling toddlers!

“You leave a radiant trail!” Foggy calls out. “Don’t stay away too long, I’ve lots to teach you, my love! Where, by the way, are you going? Don’t you want the job? Room and board. Five bucks a week.”

“Five? You said . . . neh, never mind, I gotta get. Way too hot in there.”

“We’ll write a paper. Sell it to Scientific American Psychology Today. ‘Heat and the Elderly’.” Foggy is flexing his fingers, limbering up.

Pete tells him, “I’m heading—”


“I don’t fucking know.”

“Is that near Kansas City? Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come . . . crazy little women there and I wish you’d stay, my love!”

“Get a grip, old man! Take your meds!”

“He’ll calm down tomorrow!” says Honk. “He’ll wake up sober, a seer! You’ll learn lots if you stay. He’ll nourish your mind and I’ll save your soul.”

“Oh fuck yeah, that’s what I want.”

He searches the sky, but the ways have vanished gray on gray. Where did the assassins go? Lurking. Hope hurls him toward the Ford pickup. Behind him he can hear George Foggy wailing.

Getting old is insane. Whoever invented it should have his fucking throat cut. No way will Pete let it happen.

The hood looks like a beak. Black beak reflecting bright bullets of rain.

Divided by three makes one down, more to go.

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