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Owen picked April up at the designated time after the Unpleasantness of the Pilfered Play and proceeded to drive her in his applesaucemobile toward the Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company. Owen complimented her on her nice red sweater, and April in turn complimented him on how nice the weather had turned out to be.

They drove along in silence until they got downtown, when Owen's stomach began pleading for a little help. "There's no chance you'd want to, say, swing by the drive thru window at ChiliNOW, is there?" he asked April at 9:14 a.m. In response she looked at him as if he had suggested they eat a bowlful of used dimes.

So all she ordered from the place was a triple serving of The Emperor's Four Alarm Meat Party and a large order of Potato Eels, both of which, Owen was impressed to note, were pretty much gone before he had even dug into his half pint of Chicken Explosion. He tried to steer the conversation toward the fact that he used to live in exciting and scenic Delaware, and had in fact been to the Dover Slots no less than twice, but in the end she would have none of it.

"How could you agree to slip those halfwits a copy of the play?" she asked him finally, taking a resentful sip from her soda cup. "If anyone's going to perform it, it should be professionals, on a stage that doesn't double on weekends as a volleyball court."

"To be honest, I thought I could shake them down for some money," Owen replied. "I'm not some rich literature expert like you driving around in a Ferrari and living up in Moistbrook Towers, you know."

She grunted. It was a sound Owen hadn't heard out of her before. It was kind of like an otter hiccupping. He found it lovely.

 

They trotted up the steps of the theater into the barricading outstretched arms of a five-foot five-inch art major with yellow-lensed sunglasses and biceps the size of Reese's Pieces.

"Hold it right there," he warned them in a voice that was even more high-pitched than Owen expected. "What's the password?"

Owen glared at him. "Listen, sonny, do you know who I am?"

The sentry looked again. "No...."

"No?" Owen mocked. "One Oscar, two Grammys, and an ESPY award for Best Clutch Free Throw of 1993 don't mean anything to you?"

"I....I'm sorry, I¾ "

Owen took April's arm and they brushed by him. "All right, just don't let it happen again," Owen told him. "And get some symmetry in that goatee." They drifted into the lobby effortlessly.

No one was there to meet them, so they crept, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys style, into the auditorium. There was a large group of people gathered on the stage, in the middle of what could only charitably be called a rehearsal. Owen was the first to notice that the backdrop and much of the pieces of the set design seemed somewhat out of place with what he had read two evenings before.

"Okay, there's no bungee jumping in the play that I recall," he said, noting an odd bridge-like contraption to which was secured what clearly was a harness, "no scenes in the Vatican....and there sure as hell is no giant inflatable Neptune." The twenty-four foot planet in question was instantly identifiable to him only because someone had actually painted its name in blue block capitals right across the front.

April was staring in awed disbelief as a man dressed as the Pope shuffled back and forth before the Rome-suggestive backdrop. "It's Rutherford Lamp's doing," she said, putting a hand to her forehead. "He's experimenting again. Remember Death of a Headless Salesman?"

It was then that Gaston Green came rushing up behind them in a suit rife with fuzzies, a bit out of breath from the long hike which had begun at the concession stand and ended forty feet later. He seemed about a foot shorter from the last time Owen had seen him.

"Trittle, thank God you're here. Come with me." He peered at April suspiciously. "Who are you?"

"I'm the one person here who seems to know anything about Dari Stanislad," she told him.

"All right. Come backstage with me, both of you."

They crossed through the lobby, up a flight of stairs, down another flight of stairs, down one more flight of stairs (which was a mistake on Green's part), and finally righted themselves somehow. They stood conspiratorially outside a dressing room and Owen had a side view through the wings onto the stage, where the director was instructing two actresses on the proper use of their light sabres.

"What's up?" Owen asked Green.

Green handed Owen a crumpled note written in the most breathtakingly flawless handwriting he'd ever seen. "I was copying the play and I left it just for a second sitting on the radiator to get a shawl for Mr. Lamp. He gets drafty during run-through. When I came back, that note was in its place."

Owen and April huddled their heads together and read:

We, the citizens of the Dick's Notch Citizens' Brigade to Protect the Works of Dead and Defenseless Authors, established in 1983 with funds from the State Council for the Arts and a generous grant from Microsoft, have regretfully found no choice but to steal The Cobbleswoddler's Tale from its irresponsible guardianship, and will release it only when we are assured that its first production will be a tasteful one, and completely excludes the participation of Rutherford Lamp and the Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company, whose recent revival of The Odd Couple managed to threaten the very future of the American theater. Send anyone but representatives of the Lofty Verb to Moistbrook Towers, apartment 402, tonight at midnight, and you will hear our demands.

This note was printed on 100% recycled paper.

"I need to copy the ending of the play!" Green cried. "The cast is standing around with no finale, and we have a premiere on Saturday!"

"Saturday?!" Owen bleated. "Ever considered rehearsing for a while?"

"We have no choice. Lord knows who those bloodthirsty terrorists are going to give the play to next. We have to be the first to perform it!"

April crossed her arms with a bit too much self-satisfaction. "Once the announcement's made that the play's going on so soon," she informed Owen, "the college is going to figure out it got out of your hands and into Lamp's."

Owen winced as if slapped by a wet trout. "An excellent point," he said.

Green tried to think so quickly that his glasses nearly flew off his face. "No, no, no, they won't," he said. "We'll tell them we received a pirated copy from unknown sources, and you'll be absolved¾ on one condition. Well, nine conditions."

"Which is?" Owen asked. "Are?"

Green took a deep breath. "Firstly, we need you to go on Dick's Notch: City of the Globe, Gavin Steed's public access show. It's the best and most inexpensive way to promote the play. You'll go on as an expert and tell the world they're not going to be disappointed in the production."

Using his entire arm for emphasis, Owen pointed to April. "Why not send an actual expert?"

She closed a hand around his officious index finger and slowly lowered it to his side. "Because the actual expert is having no part of any of this fiasco," she said.

"Then why not send Lamp, or someone else from the company?" Owen sputtered.

Green grinned nervously. "Well, there's an unpleasant history. Steed despises the company ever since he blasted last year's production of The Alan Alda Story and Rutherford filled his mailbox with sixty pounds of bacon fat. Now the show is set to start taping this afternoon over at WKAS, so you'd need to be ready to go on the air very quickly."

Owen thought about it. "All right. TV, I can do TV. What's the other condition?"

Green dropped all pretense of maturity and babbled like a boiling pot of French onion soup. "You have to re-write the ending of this play for us, Owen!" he begged. "I'm sure it's hideous; the whole thing is! I've never seen the word 'anus' used so many times, and so out of context. And my God, those endless speeches about the history of cobbleswoddling¾ "

"What makes you think I can write?!" Owen asked him.

"You're the only one we've got," Green said, picking a fuzzy off his lapel. "Rutherford has convinced everyone in the company that there's nothing wrong with the play, and they refuse to even touch it. He says he can use his mastery of improvisation to make up an ending right onstage!"

Owen turned to April's fiery stare. "Say, you'd chop off my head and turn it into a scented candle if I did this, right?" he inquired.

"Immediately," she said, nodding.

Owen turned back to Green without delay. "I'm out," he said.

"Just come up with a final scene in case we don't get the play back and we're left with no Act Four," Green said. "It's a simple matter of writing one scene on some old-looking paper in some old-sounding language and telling Rutherford we just found it. Think it over tonight, Owen¾ for the sake of saving your job!"

And with that, he stomped off, admittedly in the wrong direction, but for appearance's sake he kept going toward the men's room, even going so far as to wash his hands in there until he was sure the two so-called 'academics' had left. Luckily, April remembered the confusing path out of the theater, or Owen in his weakened state might have been trapped there forever.

 

She had Owen drop her off at her apartment after checking her messages at work (zero, none at all) and collapsed on her sofa, thoughts of microwaving some of the so-so vegetable stir fry she had spent two hours cooking herself for the week all but gone. She found herself closing her eyes and wishing she were just back in bed, but she forbade herself from taking naps as a rule, her theory being that they were the last refuge of the bored and the soulless. (Owen had made the mistake of telling her he never took less than eight a week.)

Her checkbook was the nearest thing to her so she grabbed it and started balancing it, noting once again that another month had gone by and yes, she had managed to again save exactly nine dollars and forty cents for her future. It was surely only a matter of time before a van packed with American Express financial advisors pulled up to her door at the scent of all that money. She set the checkbook aside halfway through her totaling and just stared at her mantel for a while, a mantel she'd put up shortly after she swore in her idealistic youth she'd never live in a dwelling without a fireplace. When that vow had crashed and burned within weeks, she took a basic carpentry course at the college and built herself the thing which at least sat over a hypothetical fireplace.

Her two college degrees sat on the left hand side of the mantel, and her acceptance letter from Story magazine was beside those. (It was her only published work of fiction, and when she'd read A Hotplate for Mr. Tollinger again six years later she wondered who on the editorial board had possessed such a glue-sniffing problem that they would print such miserable material.) The rest of the lineup consisted of photographs of her mother and father, and six pictures of her in the countries of Canada, England, Mexico, and Holland. In every photograph she wore the same contented smile of exploration and education, and in every photograph she was alone.

She got up off the sofa after a half hour and walked over to her television set. Three videocassettes sat on top of it. Two were movies bought for her by well-meaning friends who for some reason thought she'd have the slightest interest in watching Independence Day and Wayne's World. The third cassette rested inside a plain black box. A label on the side of the tape read:

HEART THUMPERS VIDEO DATING SERVICE

"Because Single Life Can Make You Want To Eat Glass"

She put the tape into her machine and pressed Play. She flopped back on her sofa again, preparing for the worst and ruing the night she had been seduced by the internet into forking over $7.95 for Heart Thumper's Basic Introductory Service.

The first potential suitor on the tape sat in a chair against a plain red background, a little bit too happy to be there. He also possessed all the physical attractiveness and solid fashion sense of a deflated basketball.

"Hi, my name is Dan Flanma," he said, "and I work in a pen shop. I also own an extensive collection of pens from all over the world, including some historical pens, like the pen Roy Scheider once used to write an overdue rent check. I can prove that's the real pen because they have ways of telling with science. I guess I'm looking for a woman a lot like my mother, who I live with because of my spells. The thing that absolutely shocks most people about felt tips is¾ "

April hit the fast forward button with as much force as she could possibly muster. Thankfully the horizontal lines which appeared on the screen masked much of the next suitor, who wore both a turban and an eye patch and who seemed to be gesticulating at the camera with increasing anger. She was deep into fast forwarding past the third suitor when she sat bolt upright in shock.

It was Owen!

She backed up a ways and started him at the beginning.

"My name is Owen," he said, seeming a trifle nervous. "I'm thirty-three years old and I teach at a local community college. I¾ "

There was a glitch in the tape here and April missed something. She hit the tracking button and it got better.

Owen was staring at the ceiling in the makeshift studio, an extremely stupid look on his face. "I wish sometimes that I could be¾ "

There were suddenly more glitches; the tape was breaking up. Owen's head became separated from the rest of his body and the audio became a series of staticky beeps and boops. April rose to her feet in panic and rushed forward. Owen spoke on through a haze of electronic fuzz.

"¾ called me the biggest moron she'd ever met¾ "

A complete video wipeout ensued and the tape was ejected forcefully into April's hands just as she reached out to press the Power Off button. The tape's entrails remained partially within the machine, twisted beyond recognition.

"Stupid Radio Shack VCR!" she shouted, blowing out a small lick of flame that had caught on one of the take-up reels. "File for bankruptcy already!"

She would have tossed the tape into the garbage can except she had broken hers the week before and had resorted to throwing her trash into the box they'd shipped her Abs Squisher in. Wheatables, her sickly orange cat which hadn't moved from its comfort zone since Duran Duran had been hired to write the theme song to a James Bond movie, glanced up at the sound of the tape thwacking against the side of the box but seemed content that all was well and went right back to sleep.

April prepared herself for an afternoon of reading and perhaps a very brief and very therapeutic session of breaking plates against the kitchen wall when she looked at the clock and switched the TV over to channel 12. After fiddling with the rabbit ears for a minute (Wheatables had bumped into them the night before, ruining the alignment she had worked for six months to perfect), the picture came in reasonably well.

Dick's Notch: City of the Globe, the town's most dynamic and only public affairs program, was just starting. She almost laughed when she saw Owen sitting in a long-sleeved T-shirt and khaki pants, which to him must have been considered ultra-formal. His chair on the decrepit, gruesomely orange set rested between one supporting a bald fifty-ish man who looked vaguely familiar to April and the host of the show, whom she knew from his part-time weekend shifts at Literally Everything For Your Pet, where his hair did not appear quite so deafeningly silver. The backdrop was a crudely drawn Dick's Notch cityscape, complete with its only photogenic feature, Iowa's tallest check-cashing outlet.

"Hello, and welcome to another edition of Dick's Notch: City of the Globe," the host announced into the set's only camera. "I'm Gavin Steed. Joining me today is Frederick LaFace, chairman of the literature department at the University of Iowa, and Owen Trittle, a man who once applied for a job as a file clerk there. Today we'll be discussing the recent discovery of Dari Stanislad's The Cobbleswoddler's Tale, and the deluge of national attention it has brought to our fair town. The world premiere of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale is set for Saturday afternoon, to be performed by Rutherford Lamp's Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company, whose financial troubles of late caused the cancellation of their spring production of Frankenstein's Lovers. Gentlemen, welcome."

The two guests nodded politely. April was already shaking her head. Owen squirmed in his seat, unable to get comfortable.

"Mr. Trittle," Steed began, "let's start by explaining your involvement with the play. You are perhaps the only one to have actually read it from beginning to end and is available to speak about it. What can we expect on Saturday?"

Owen cleared his throat a couple of times and tried to look as official as possible. "Well, Gavin," he said, "I think I can say¾ without fear of hyperbole¾ that this play will make Glengarry Glen Ross look like one of those crappy live nativities you'd see in a junior high school cafeteria."

Gavin Steed and Frederick LaFace merely gawked for a moment. At home, April's eyes got a bit wide.

"High and bold praise indeed!" Steed said, raising a jaunty brow into the camera.

"Oh, I can't trumpet this thing enough, Gavin," Owen said, crossing his legs a couple of times. "Reading The Cobbleswoddler's Tale, and watching just a few minutes of Rutherford Lamp in rehearsal, I felt my heart thumping like an amplifier and I literally could not stop my legs from trembling in adolescent anticipation. By the end of the premiere, all other so-called artistic 'achievements', like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the invention of music, should be completely obsolete."

Gaston Green and Rutherford Lamp were watching backstage at the Lofty Verb. Green leapt up out of his chair in mild outrage.

"He's not mentioning the discount refreshments!" he cried.

Lamp stared into space reflectively. "I think Steed slept with my wife," he said to no one in particular, and temporarily removed his toupee.

Gavin Steed turned to his other, more suitably dressed panelist. "Frederick, you've devoted a good part of your life to studying Dari Stanislad's works and how they relate to the world around us."

"Oh yes," LaFace said confidently, rubbing his hands together and grinning. "In fact, I courted my fiancée with his sonnets!"

"Terrific! Terrific! So they did the trick?"

"Well, she turned out to be a distant cousin," LaFace said. "But what's more important here, Mr. Trittle, is that I'm a little worried about the rumors that the Dick's Notch Citizen's Brigade to Protect the Works of Dead and Defenseless Authors has resurfaced somewhere in Iowa, and has plans to somehow steal the play for their own well-intentioned, but obstructionary, purposes."

Steed put on his best world-affairs-that-matter-deeply face. "A valid concern, indeed. Mr. Trittle, has Dick's Notch Community College taken the proper steps to make sure the play is never let out of its sight?"

"Certainly," Owen said, looking directly into the camera. "I'm sure the college recognizes that the Dick's Notch Citizen's Brigade represents the single greatest threat to American democracy we will ever know."

"With all due respect, sir," said Steed, "that's hardly the best assurance. The wisdom of your college's board of regents has come into question several times in past months. For instance, isn't it true that in April they would not allow any of the clocks on campus to be set ahead for daylight savings time?"

Watching the show in his efficiency apartment on Carrot Road, Nevin Smiley jumped out of his chair, one damning finger pointed into the air.

"That was a political protest against the state's unreasonable refusal to pay for new chalk!" he shouted.

Steed went on, leaning so far toward Owen that April thought he might simply tumble out of his cheap vinyl seat. "And what of last December's controversy in which one trustee was found to have hatched a plan to kill everyone on the Supreme Court?" he demanded to know.

Owen was smooth as a softball after a baby oil rubdown. "Well, obviously I'm not saying Dick's Notch Community College is an acceptable place to send one's child," he retorted, "but I believe I can assure everyone watching that the play is at the moment completely safe, and there's no reason for Nevin Smiley or anyone else to think I have allowed any third party to have access to it for my own personal gain. The proof of this is that I have the original manuscript with me right here in the studio!"

With that, he lifted a handkerchief off an object sitting on the coffee table at their feet. It was a leather-bound manuscript of somewhat ancient nature, and he brought it up to his lap. April was quite puzzled by both the book's origin and Owen's decision to wear different colored socks, which were plainly visible in the frame.

Steed gazed at the manuscript with open lust. "Just being in the same room with it, I feel honored!" he said.

LaFace reached a hand toward it. "Can I see that?"

"Are your hands sterile?" Owen asked him.

"Well, I¾ "

"Sorry, pops, not in this lifetime," Owen said, and held it away from him contentedly.

Steed, over-stimulated by the raucous debate, went to commercial way too quickly. "We'll be right back after these public service messages for a detailed description of what exactly cobbleswoddling is," he said to the camera. The public service message was actually a commercial for Bally's Fitness, but that wasn't his fault.

Quite possibly the only other two people in Iowa watching the show that day were a couple of young clean-clothes-loving blokes named Titus and Kiley, who found themselves staring up at the ceiling-mounted TV at King Arthur and the Nights of Wash-a-Lot with intense concentration.

"Man, I think that's the book we pawned to Citrus Donny in our youthful impetuousness!" Titus despaired. "How come every time we find something to sell, it turns out to be worth a million dollars and no one tells us?"

"You started it, man," Kiley replied, placing seven of his twelve Sid Vicious T-shirts into the closest dryer. "I told you we shouldn't've traded that original copy of the Constitution for Meatloaf tickets."

The beginnings of an idea formed in the dimmest reaches of the arid acreage of Titus's brain. "We gotta strike back, dude," he said, rubbing Pop Tart stains out of his favorite six pairs of sweatpants. "They're makin' a mockery of us, just like Baskin Robbins did."

Kiley nodded pensively. "You're right. It's just like that time at Baskin Robbins. Okay. After Teletubbies we're gonna take direct action. Can your mom give us a ride?"

She could indeed. The two go-getters spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a friend's basement and eating Doritos out of a wheelbarrow, and then they got moving.

 

Owen called April from his apartment after having whipped off his 'prison' clothes, as he called them, and changing into jeans and a pajama top.

"How was I?" he asked her. "Did I drool at all?"

"Not much," April said from thirty feet down the hall, petting Wheatables with great reluctance and cradling the phone between her shoulder and her ear, "but I question the necessity of displaying a fake manuscript."

"Just a little insurance against any completely valid accusations Green might make against me to Smiley," Owen said.

"What is it really?"

Owen leafed through the book's age-yellowed pages idly. "I bought it at Citrus Donny's, it's a sex manual from 1895. Cost me six bucks but I figured it was worth it. Did you know there was a position called The Gettysburg Address?"

"Okay, we're done here," April said. "I'm going to walk over to your apartment at quarter to twelve and we'll go up to the fourth floor from there. Now if anything goes wrong tonight with the Citizens' Brigade, we're going to the police, understood, and the whole game is over."

"Don't worry, I'm a master negotiator," Owen said. "I could con the bald off Charlie Brown."

"Bye." April hung up the phone and sighed. There was the rest of the evening to kill, and she had no desire to do much of anything other than sit and pet her ungrateful cat.

She got up to see if she had any Ritz crackers left in the cupboard. Passing her trash box, she looked down at the worthless videocassette she had thrown there. A few seconds later, she brought a hand slowly up to her mouth, which had formed itself into a very worried frisbee shape.

"Oh, hell," she whispered.

 

She was right to worry. Down the hall, Owen was taking a videotape down from a shelf crammed full of George Romero films, episodes of The Prisoner, and anything with Harry Dean Stanton. The tape, featuring the recorded introductions of nineteen women between the ages of twenty-eight and thirty-nine, had sat neglected for three weeks as Owen told himself again and again that there was no need to resort to such long-shot dating techniques, that the woman of his dreams would simply walk into his world when the "time was right". Though this had never happened before to any human being in the history of Earth, it did provide him with the opportunity to exert virtually no effort in life.

While he really should have spent the rest of the afternoon grading the papers that Dari could not due to his very sudden three days off, Owen figured it couldn't hurt to give the dating tape a quick once-over before his nap. He popped the tape into his VCR and settled back with a brand new bag of Baked SugarSalties.

"Ah, my sweet Panasonic," he mused upon seeing the first crisp image grace the screen. "A perfect picture every time!"

When he saw that the first woman was April, his mouth involuntarily ejected a SugarSaltie across the room and toward the north wall of the apartment with a force great enough to ensure that his slowly-vanishing security deposit would now be gone forever.

She looked small in her wooden chair. "Ah....I should start with my name, right?" she said so softly that the cameraman could be heard adjusting the microphone offscreen to catch her weak words. She brushed her hair away from her face, then subtly tried to blow away a couple of stubborn strands.

"My name is April Mahone," she said. "I'm twenty-nine years old and I work in literary research. I like it. Ah.....it's very nice."

Owen watched her fidget, setting aside his snack slowly, as if the sound of the crinkling bag might somehow distress the TV April further.

"Sorry, I'm really nervous," she said. "Okay." She looked into the camera for the first time, and Owen could sense she was being directed to do this by an unseen hand.

"I'm not really sure what I'm looking for in a relationship anymore." She took a deep breath. "It's funny, I know there's no rational basis for believing I can't get through my whole life just by myself. I have friends. I like my work, and I have lots to do. I don't think I especially want kids. So there's no reason for doing this, you know....it's silly. No matter who you're with, we all go through life alone. I mean, what is love anyway, just a response to random biological cues."

Owen reached for the remote to stop the tape, all amusement gone from this serendipitous gaffe. He felt like he was spying on her somehow. Now she was examining her hands, having mostly given up on the whole eye-contact vibe, finding it far too uncomfortable.

"I've told myself for a couple of years now that I don't need a relationship," she said. Her hand went through her hair once more, just for something to do, some comforting ritual. "It's too hard, though," she said. "I mean, it's hard to get up every day when you know for a fact that somewhere in the future, you're guaranteed to have grieving and heartbreak, and chest pains and bad days, all of them just waiting for you. I think I.....it's...."

She stopped completely for a moment. Owen closed one eye, all he could do.

"I don't think it's so much to ask," April said, her eyes rooted directly on the floor, "to have just one person to tell me he'll stay up waiting for me at home when all that happens."

That was all. The tape went on for four more seconds, and then someone in an editing room somewhere had had the decency to star-wipe out of that scene and into the next one, which featured a woman twenty-five years past the age bracket Owen had specified, and who went on for eleven minutes about some bird who had died forty years before. Owen stopped watching as soon as April was gone, and he did not watch the rest of the tape that night, or ever. But he could not bring himself to just throw it away. That felt wrong somehow.

 

In his naptime dream, April had changed herself into a butterfly with the assistance of a one hundred and seven year old wizard who bore more than a passing resemblance to Jay Leno. This insect metamorphosis, she had complained to him, was the only way she could get away from Owen once and for all, who had showed up for their wedding in a red cape and whose "self-written" vows had turned out to be nothing more than a recitation of the lyrics to "Born to Run". She had left him at the altar and stormed out of Giants Stadium without looking back.

Now Owen was scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in an attempt to find April, whose newfound butterfly existence had brought her genuine peace and tranquility. He was only fifteen feet from reaching the summit when his footing gave way and he began to slip.

"Davy, tighten the winch!" he called down to his spotter. Several meters below, Davy dropped the grammar quizzes he'd been grading for Owen and yanked on a stout rope.

"Oops, wrong one," he apologized, and Owen was sent cascading a mile or so to the nearest embankment. He happened to land in a large pile of boiled white rice and he was basically okay. Then Butterfly April landed on his nose and bit him. After that, things got a little strange. There was a car chase through the streets of San Antonio and an episode in which Owen stood in front of his class naked except for a pair of boxer shorts, the symbolism of which would have been fully obvious except that the entire class consisted of nothing but pairs of boxer shorts.

He woke up in his usual way, head drooped over the side of his bed, staring up at the ceiling.

"I can learn from this," he mused.

 

 

At eight p.m. that evening, a mummy-thin, werewolf-short woman in a yellow housedress stood transfixed on the stage of the terminally chilly Dick's Notch Community College theater. Her entire body a-tremor, she waved a damning finger into space and projected a voice filled with rage and terror across the auditorium and beyond.

"You did this to him, didn't you?" she cried. "It was you who made these marks on Danny's neck! Not the crazy woman in room 237! It wasn't her at all, you monster!"

Her words might have had more weight had she not been speaking to a small lemon that sat impaled on a vertical stick at eye level. Nevertheless, she laid into that lemon with a level of vitriol and horror that hadn't been seen on campus since the student riots which had ensued in 1997 when the college changed its mascot from a blue jay to a mere bluebird.

"You did it, didn't you?!" the student actress screamed at the inert lemon. "You're evil, Jack, evil! The spirit of this hotel has driven you mad!!"

She stopped abruptly, winded. It took her a moment to come back to Earth, and when she did she looked at the professor hopefully. There was scattered, uneasy applause from the rest of the class.

The Actor nodded, undoing the cap of his Bic pen. "Very good, Soo Kim," he said, obviously meaning it not at all. "Very....very good. Ah.... just out of curiosity.... is anyone not doing a monologue from The Shining?"

Out of the class of twelve, two people raised their hands tentatively. One of them was April.

"How about you, April?" the Actor asked, gesturing for her to take the stage. "It's about time we finally got to hear from you. What do you have for us for your final soliloquy?"

She stood and took one step forward.

"It's Lenore's speech as a ghost from It Might Have Been, by Dari Stanislad," she said in a strangled voice.

"All right. Did you bring your focus fruit?"

April held up a pear she had bought at the student cafeteria. It was slightly misshapen, slightly mushy, and very purple for some reason, which explained the ten cent discount she had received. "Yes," she said.

"Then you can begin." The Actor crossed his legs and the rest of the class watched avidly as April forced her feet to take her forward.

It was a grim, torturous battle, but in the end, she was nominally the victor. No one in the auditorium knew how those eight or nine steps magically became the walk of a mile or more. She found some part of her mind clinging to the hope that she might trip on the stage and fracture a minor bone of some sort. Turning around to face the class when she had climbed the stage and taken her mark was the worst part of dozens of worst parts. The relentless spotlight that the Actor had insisted on turning upon the stage seemed as hot as the sun, and twice as blinding. April waited a full three seconds to see if perhaps the light might not be that of the Beyond itself, which she would have gladly passed into without regret for only having lived twenty-nine years. She stuck her pear on the focus stick with uneasy hands and tried to clear her thoughts. Sweat trickled down her forehead. Oh boy, oh boy, she chanted in her brain, you're a Mahone, you're a Mahone, you're a Mahone.

 

At that same moment, Owen was sitting in Painting For You, Painting For Me, staring intently at the not-quite empty canvas before him. Most of the other students, having received their final grades already, had filed out of the room, having learned not a whole hell of a lot of anything, but any activity which involved a smock felt worth two hundred dollars.

Professor Coopsteen examined the work of a chap named Horace through eyeglasses smudged with tempera paint. "Not bad, Horace," he said, marking a B in his grade book. "I like the way the shadows slanting through the stained glass windows suggest dusk, but you might want to think about getting rid of Christ's third arm."

Horace took another look at his painting, ready to protest, then stopped, having little in the way of defense. He lifted his painting from his easel and left the room.

Beatnik Lydia, who had taken to wearing a bright red fez to class, an oddish look for a fifty-two year old dental assistant, smiled wide as Coopsteen approached. He in turn regarded her final project with the fear of a man forced to make nice with the neighborhood pit bull.

"Lydia....is that what I think it is?" he said, mortified. "And....is it going....where I think it is?"

"I sure hope so!" she said happily.

Coopsteen nodded and sighed. "Most arousing, but I don't think we'll be putting it up with the others in the daycare center. Your final project gets a C+." Lydia shrugged and vanished, knowing that if she could not be appreciated in her own time, she could at least score fifteen bucks or so for her work in the dirty section of eBay.

That left only Owen in the room to be judged, and to Coopsteen this was actually a great relief, since he was the one student whose work could be described as wholly normal, perhaps even possessed with a glimmer of talent, and almost never indicative of a dangerous split personality.

But this time the professor was quite disappointed. "Owen, what happened?" he asked, looking at the half-completed, half-assed seascape Owen had tried to craft. "You didn't finish?" The sky was an awkward mélange of blues and reds, the water itself looked like sandpaper. The horizon line was uneven, and the figure of a man standing on the beach was absurdly sticklike.

"Nope," Owen said quietly.

"Why not? You were allowed to paint anything you wanted."

Owen raised his brush one more time, to get a little green in the upper part of the ocean, or maybe to just fill in the six-by-six inch white gap he'd left in the lower right, just to say he tried, but then he stopped, finding it pointless.

"It was terrible," Owen said. Coopsteen shook his head, not understanding. Owen set his brush gently on the ledge of the easel and affixed his gaze on the solitary man on the beach.

"I can only paint one thing, and that's my grandfather's creek," he said. "I remember it perfectly, every little detail, I guess because....it could be that's the last time I was truly happy."

Coopsteen said nothing. The more Owen stared at the beach man, the more the little guy seemed to have his arms raised for one purpose and one purpose alone: to get out of the scene entirely.

"I mean, I just can't visualize anything else. I sit, and I sit....I can't even draw a believable tree unless it's in that particular field." He tried to laugh; no dice. It came out as an exhausted cough.

"Sorry about that," he said. He took the easel with him when he left the class, but forgot all about his paint supplies. He never noticed they were gone.

 

April's focus fruit fell off its stick once, which bought her a few seconds of time, but then there were some breathing problems. The pear itself became a vengeful member of the class, gawking at her expectantly. She could even imagine she saw two of the little dents in it become slanted eyes. The big bruise in the center became a mouth. She got her breathing under control only by mentally reciting the Russian alphabet, one of the six tricks she had either taught herself or read in books.

Then the shakes came, and that was a different story altogether.

 

Owen would up standing in the hallway outside the English office for a few minutes, certain there was a trash can nearby big enough to hold his canvas. But the one he had pinned his hopes upon was about two inches too small in diameter. He then came up with the desperate idea of cracking the easel in two over one knee. After three or four tries, it was obvious that it wasn't going to happen. The pleasing snap he desired never came, and he walked to the other end of the hallway where he hoped to find something, anything that would hold the stupid thing.

But the trash cans down here were already overflowing, as could be said for most of the ones on campus. Owen swore under his breath and wandered back to the classroom where he spent most of his days, five days a week, forty weeks a year. He unlocked the door and turned on the lights. He left the canvas on top of his desk for now, a little to the right of a stack of moldy copies of the "new" literature textbook that had finally come in just ten weeks late, and a little to the left of the ceramic pencil jar his sister had made for him four years ago for his birthday. It may have been his longest surviving non-broken possession. Then he turned to the assortment of mismatched, now-empty desks that greeted him in the mornings, six rows, six desks to each. Inexplicably, he raised his arms into the air in a gesture of mock triumph, almost identical to the pose of the little man he'd trapped forever on his poorly drawn beach.

"I'm a grammar teacher in the American midwest!" he shouted, his words careening around every available surface. He could hear their aftershock ringing in the pencil cup. It didn't really feel that good to shout like that, but no one was there to stop him, so he did it again.

"I'm a grammar teacher like my father! Everyone conjugate the verb 'to lose'!"

That was all he had in him. He walked forward and took a seat in the third row, slouching and facing the blackboard, which was still marked with the ghosts of words he had written six, maybe even ten months ago. No amount of washing the board seemed to be able to get those ghosts off there. So they remained from semester to semester. He noticed for the first time that even at night, the view from the center of the classroom out the wide picture window was quite nice, looking down as it did on the gentle wooded depression that bordered the southern edge of the campus. No one in their right mind would be able to resist looking out there on a sunny day instead of at the teacher, unless the teacher had something truly interesting to say. It was a wonder he could keep anyone's focus at all. Maybe he never had.

If he had looked beyond the trees, he might have just been able to see the auditorium where April Mahone stood silent on its barren stage, every clock in the entire world against her, every face on the planet, and not just those making up Acting for Hesitant Beginners 100, judging her. He would almost certainly have seen her emerge from the rear entrance of the building and into the warm night after striding, humiliated, off the stage, not having uttered a single syllable, her face down, her eyes filling with tears. When Owen got up out of his seat in the third row he did think he heard a faint bang from across campus, which was April slamming the door behind her with quite terrible force. It took none of her confusion or her frustration away, so she did as she had so often done before and sucked all of it back into herself, keeping it there so that someday she would get so repulsed by it that she'd have no other choice but to suddenly learn what was wrong with her, why she couldn't do that one stupid thing she had wanted to so badly.

Sitting on the steps behind the auditorium, she looked up at the sky, which was littered with hundreds of dazzling stars. The moon was full and there were no clouds in sight. She tried to feel exactly what she had used to feel upon seeing a sky like that as a young girl who had serious thoughts of becoming an astronomer, for no other reason than to spend every night reveling in the same awesome view from so many different parts of the globe. She felt just a twinge, a faint passing interior breeze of wonder, which was enough at least to bring her to her feet again. But she didn't last very long on them. It was one hundred percent easier to merely sit and not look anymore at the stars, not do anything, so that is exactly what she did, zero, nothing, just like the idiot sky did nothing all night but hang there with its fake magic and its completely false promises of unending beauty, and what was beauty anyway but

 

all that Dari saw when he got off the plane in Iceland and returned to his hometown of Grindavik. He found himself unable to do much but stand silently in certain spots, like his old grassy haunt on the shore of the North Atlantic, or outside the stables near Bjorgen Road, where his father had tried in vain to teach him not to be afraid of horses. Nowadays, in 2003, his favorite stretch of beach had become a condominium-infested resort spot and the stables were long gone, replaced by a poorly tended cricket diamond, but it was all right. The air was the same somehow, it really was, and so was the color of the afternoon light on the pier where he'd first kissed a girl.

The street where he grew up was now filled with shops and cafes, where once there had been exactly one place to buy things: the shoe peddler's dirty storefront, something demolished one hundred years before. At the top of the street, Dari stood in wonder before a tall painted wooden sign which read:

Vellhotn Street, Grindavik

Birthplace and ancestral home of Dari Stanislad

Iceland's greatest writer, and the world's most faithful romantic

He then took the downslope all the way to the end, passing cars, people with ice cream cones, running children. No one paid the least bit of attention to him. He was wearing sunglasses for the first time in his life and he had parted his hair on the other side. He had also adopted a Milwaukee Brewers ball cap and a T-shirt from Old Navy.

The house where he had grown up was too busy to enter. A short line of tourists waited outside patiently to begin their tour of what lay within. He saw that the preservationists had done quite a stunning job: the colors of the house's exterior were close to perfect, and they had gone so far as to make sure the 6 which graced the door was kept nice and crooked. He felt moved by that. There wasn't really anything to see inside, of course, but he did wonder if the table at which he had begun to write his first words was still in there, or the original bed he'd had to share with his two brothers.

He was not able to stop himself from taking a right turn at the end of the street, toward a quieter section of the town which had mysteriously become hip in the almost two hundred years since he'd seen it. Two blocks over, he came into view of a red door marking a one-story house which almost made him faint when he saw how little it had changed. This street was still entirely residential, and almost a third of the houses had at least partially survived the passage of time.

He went up to the house with the red door, which he had managed to open just twice in his short life. Both times, Natalya had almost, almost been his.

He pressed his face against the front window and peered within. Inside, a man was asleep on a leather recliner, clutching a can of beer. The fireplace where Natalya had long ago responded to Jof's final pleadings concerning her sad tumult with Dari had been cemented over entirely, and now an entertainment center, complete with TV, DVD, and Tivo, blocked its ghost over entirely. Natalya's mother had died in the house just seven days after Natalya herself, or so he had read from a book.

A small boy sitting in front of the television turned his head, sensing someone was at the window, and he fixed Dari with a curious stare. Dari smiled and waved to him. This seemed to set the boy at ease, and he went back to watching his program about American cowboys. His father slept on.

Dari walked away from the house. He wanted to find a patch of grass far away and lie in it till dark, because he did not think he had the mental strength to keep standing for very long.

So he took a bus out of town, but he made the driver stop as they passed a large shopping center on Kopaskr Road. Dari got off the bus and entered an establishment called Barnes and Noble. Inside there were more books than he had ever seen in one place. He thought for a moment that the place must be a library, since no one seemed to be buying anything and everyone was spread out lazily on sofas, drinking coffee and not seeming to care if they damaged any of the merchandise. But seeing the cash registers, he became confident he could walk out with what he was looking for. On his way to the Poetry section, he happened to move past Drama Classics, where a homely girl of perhaps twelve was checking and double-checking a list she had received from her teacher at school, and putting two of Dari's plays into her basket, and seeming none too happy about it.

Dari smiled a little. A voice spoke behind him, in Icelandic, naturally, but fortunately there were subtitles present.

"Are you looking for anything special, sir?" a young woman in a nametag asked him.

Dari snapped out of his daze and, worried that the woman was looking at him a bit too closely, pulled his ball cap lower over his face.

"Actually," his subtitles read, "I need to buy a gift for someone. A rather romantic one, if possible."

"Oh, that should be no problem," said the clerk. "There's plenty of good poetry collections right here, if you'd like that." She pointed to the shelf behind him.

"Oh yes, that would probably do," said Dari, grinning like a fool.

"Are you familiar with Dari Stanislad?" she asked him, picking out a book of his wildly overrated sonnets. "He was a great romantic writer in the early nineteenth century. He lived and died right here in Grindavik."

"Yes," he replied. "He's rather too wordy, I think."

"Okay. Along the same lines, but even better, in my opinion, is this...."

From the bottom shelf she removed a shiny trade paperback and put it into his hands. When he saw the title, Dari nearly fell over on the spot. Turning it over, reading the jacket copy and seeing the author's portrait, he simply closed his eyes and whispered: My Lord. Oh, my dear Lord.

The clerk left him, finding him a little strange, and Dari remained in the Poetry aisle, feeling like his whole being was fading, fading away to nothing, for what felt like a thousand years.

 

The dramatic showdown between Owen and April and the rabid terrorists calling themselves The Dick's Notch Citizens' Brigade to Protect the Works of Dead and Defenseless Authors began at 11:49 p.m., when April rapped on the door of Owen's apartment and he answered promptly, ready to roll into the eye of the hurricane, except that he asked her if she wouldn't mind accompanying him down to the trash room for just a second because he had two full bags he really needed to get rid of, and then that reminded April that the next day was trash day and she had one very large bag she needed to take down there, so they stopped by her place for just a second and then took their trash down and when the trash was in the bin, then they were ready to confront ultimate danger and intrigue. Neither of them displayed to the other the slightest hint that their evenings thus far had been such punishers.

"If you're even considering re-writing this play, I'll cut that monstrosity you call a sofa into little pieces and make you eat it," April reminded him in the elevator up to the fourth floor.

"It wouldn't be the first time I had to eat that sofa," he said. "Look, I don't want to get fired over this. Green hasn't read the end of the play, right? We'll get the original back right now, I'll type the ending onto some blank paper, and I'll just say I rewrote it; he won't know the difference. Then I sneak the play back into Smiley's office and we're done."

The elevator door opened and they padded down the hallway, stopping in front of apartment 402.

"Meanwhile," April asked, "what if these nuts want a million dollars for the manuscript?"

"Then April," came Owen's grave reply, "we must take them out by any means necessary."

"You know, it's true," she scolded him, "men just don't listen."

"Yes, but we do hear," Owen said. "I think that should count for something..."

Owen knocked on the door. His knuckles had barely made contact when it was wrenched open with real flair by a small man in an ill-fitting turtleneck cluttered with unstylish green stripes, which his aunt had bought for him for his birthday and which he actually thought was quite snazzy. April wished for a pair of sunglasses.

"What's the password?" he asked them.

Owen stepped forward. "Do you know who this is?" he asked, jerking a thumb in April's direction. "Do you want me to call the Prime Minister of Canada right now?"

"You didn't give us one," said, standing on tippy-toes to be seen over his shoulder.

"Oh. My fault." Turtleneck stepped aside and let them in, closing the door firmly and with admirable paranoia. Far behind them, a full eighteen feet down the hallway, the conspiratorial faces of young Titus and Kiley appeared around the corner as if their heads were attached to the same stick. They looked at each other and nodded, and step thirty-four of their forty-one step plan (worked out entirely in pencil on the back of Kiley's Burger King Whopper Club card) commenced right on schedule.

Owen and April stood with anticipation in the foyer of overly-furnished apartment 402. Around them, several middle-aged men and women were sitting around on easy chairs and couches, playing chess or reading books of disturbing thickness. All wore turtlenecks, slacks, or at the very sleaziest, a freshly pressed collared shirt. The power of their combined upper body strength might have been able to move a peanut across a very small stream if the wind were behind them.

"So, ah, you guys are the Citizen's Brigade," Owen observed pointlessly. "Please, um, don't hurt us." April would have laughed if she hadn't seen this coming a mile away.

One of the men, balding and paunchy, rose from his study of Orwell's later essays and approached them.

"I'm Dennis, the group leader," he said, trying in vain to introduce some semblance of huskiness into his voice. "Well, I will be group leader when Evan steps down. He's not here right now. He has toe surgery. Are you prepared to give us a guarantee that this work, if we relinquish it to you under our soon-to-be-disclosed terms, will be entrusted to a professional theater company?"

"Absolutely," Owen said. "I absolutely, absolutely guarantee it. No doubt about it."

"We need something more concrete. I'm not sure I can take the word of a man who is constantly jamming up the second floor trash chute with pizza boxes."

"Sure. I see your point. If you don't get what you want, you can kill the girl."

"Thanks," April said.

"You must understand, it's not our feelings we care about in this matter," Dennis told them. "It's all about the young people who need to be exposed to the beauty of Dari Stanislad's words in a proper setting with the proper presentation."

"That's right!" came a redundant cheer from behind him. Gladys, seventy years old, dismissed from Princeton in 1955 because of her radical views on dangling participles, exhausted all her day's energy on these two words and sank back onto her couch, napping peacefully.

"Well, how about being exposed to a giant inflatable Neptune?" April asked. "Because this play's being performed by Rutherford Lamp on Saturday afternoon no matter what we do."

Owen made a whistling sound as if he had been hit by a poison dart. "Um, April, by telling them this we gain what advantage....?"

Dennis saw nothing but frankness in April's eyes, and his own became all inflamed and spinny. "Then you shall never, never have the play!" he announced, and turned to the kitchen. "Korbett!" he shouted. "There's no deal!"

Korbett, who was either Dennis's twin brother or a very high quality digital photocopy of him, emerged from the kitchen, spatula in one hand, trembling somewhat. He looked like he had just seen Hamlet's father's ghost, and the news had not been good.

"What's the matter?" Dennis asked. "Did you finish reading it?"

"Ah....yes," Korbett answered, disoriented and weak. "Yes, I did." He turned to Owen. "Would you like it back? I'll get it for you."

"What?!" Dennis cried.

"That would be splendid, yes, thank you," April said.

Korbett nodded serenely. "Sure....no problem...."

Dennis began to vibrate with frustration. "Korbett, are you mad? You're betraying everything we stand for!"

"That's okay," Korbett said, "because the play is really, really, really bad. Did you know it was this bad?" he asked Owen.

"Oh yeah. We sure did."

"And the cussing? Did you know about the cussing?"

"Uh-huh."

"And the repeated cutaways to the beginnings of cobbleswoddling?"

"Indeedy."

"It's in the kitchen," Korbett said, feeling a trauma-induced acne attack coming on. "Please, please take it."

Owen and April brushed past him. Korbett collapsed in a chair before a newly set-up game of Deluxe MasterMind. Dennis, whose own trauma-induced acne attack was well underway, took the spatula out of his hands and pointed it accusingly at the room.

"OKAY, REMIND ME TO TEACH YOU PEOPLE AGAIN HOW THE DICK'S NOTCH CITIZENS' BRIGADE TO PROTECT THE WORKS OF DEAD AND DEFENSELESS AUTHORS RANSOMS SOMETHING OFF!" he bellowed. "THERE'S A FEW SUBTLE POINTS YOU DON'T SEEM TO BE GRASPING!"

In the kitchen, Owen grabbed two marshmallow brownies off a plate beside a toaster while April looked left and right, sensing something was about to go very wrong. There was no sign of the play.

"Oh, crap!" Owen shouted, pointing toward the window. A pair of be-jeansed legs were squirming out of it, kicking and flailing.

Owen dashed over to the legs and grabbed them. A fight for dear life ensued. It looked like Owen was wrestling frenetically with a wheelbarrow. First Kiley's shoes popped off in his hands and he hurled them away. Then Kiley's jeans began to slide down his ankles.

"Oh, crap!" he noted again, and let go. Kiley's legs disappeared from view. (Owen stood firmly by his decision.) Seeing that April had already backtracked and dashed through the apartment in an attempt to cut the thieves off down below, Owen clambered up onto the sink and wedged his own body into the window. Still just a 32 waist after all these years (if April only knew!), he forced himself through and into the night.

It was a three foot drop to the long, drastically downsloping hill that began just behind the fourth floor of the building and ended forty yards later at the community pool. Kiley and Titus were log-rolling down it at great speed, the manuscript clutched firmly to Titus's body. Owen began to skitter down the slope, quickly tripped, and began log-rolling himself, observing that it was a much swifter and more efficient mode of travel.

He slammed into Titus and Kiley where the slope met even landscape. They got up and dashed madly forward, around the chain link fence which protected the pool, and into the open field beyond. Owen, out of breath since the mid-nineties, galloped after them as best he could, yelling something unintelligible about "punk Generation X-ers", which cost him even more wind.

It was April, coming from the other direction, who saved the day. Seeing Titus and Kiley coming hard, she dropped to the ground and rolled forward like a bowling ball, cutting them down below the knees. They both went tumbling. The manuscript shot off eight feet to the left and there was a scramble.

"Man, you Rhodes scholars can really put a nasty hit on someone!" Owen said as he joined the fray. Soon the four of them were writhing on the ground, hands in each other's faces, feet in each other's backs, clawing and clutching to come up with the play. Titus got to it first and he held it away from April's reach. She pinned him down and flailed at it wildly.

"Okay, hand it over, little man!" she shouted.

"Never!" Titus said proudly, squirming relentlessly. He was easily shattering his previous record of closest contact with a girl and he was pretty much in heaven.

"It was ours to begin with!" Kiley yelled, his cheek pressed into the grass by Owen's right kneecap. "If we'd known it was written by some movie star, we wouldn't have sold it for a pair of big pants!"

"It's art, dammit!" April barked, her right elbow squished beneath Kiley's forehead. "Enough is enough! You can't just go around selling it to the highest bidder!" Finally she managed to extricate the manuscript from Titus's grasp and she rolled away, standing with some effort, brushing the dirt off her pants.

Titus remained motionless on the ground. "But doesn't all art essentially belong to those souls who need it the most?" he pondered aloud.

April looked down at Owen, still on the grass. Owen, still on the grass, looked up at April.

"We'll give you twenty bucks for it," Owen said.

"Sold!" Titus trumpeted with glee.

Everyone got up then, far more filthy than they would have thought possible. Owen tugged on April's elbow. "Um....could I borrow twenty off you for like, an hour?" he asked her. She dug into her pocket without a word, determined to hold back her wrath just until the impressionable teens were gone. She gave Owen the cruddier of the two twenties she possessed, and he in turn handed it to Titus, who snatched it away with the kind of speed that promised a long and profitable career as a blackjack dealer.

"Now not a word of this to anyone, do you two understand?" Owen said to them. They both nodded and galloped away into the night. They had forgotten the entire affair by the time they got to the nearest convenience store, where the twenty was transformed through the miracle of capitalism into one extra large GigantaSlosh, four hot dogs with extra hemp, and the June issue of Bastards of Wrestling.

"Sadly enough, they're two of my brighter students," Owen remarked when they had gone. He brushed the rest of the detritus off the front of his clothes, wiped his hands in an Another-Job-Well-Done gesture, and then glanced at the manuscript with a tinge of shame. "So, I suppose you'll, ah, you'll be keeping that now, eh?"

April placed it firmly between her arm and her right side. "Yes, I will. I'm going to go home and give it the attention it deserves. Let's see Lamp perform a play whose ending he never got to see. I think he'll call it off, don't you?"

"Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, where's he going to get an ending? I'm not going to write one just to go on eating and breathing and paying my rent. That would be an act of madness."

April turned away without a word and walked off in the general direction of the parking lot. Owen considered saying one thing more, then stopped himself. Then started himself again, stopped himself twice more, and finally came out with it.

"A little constructive criticism?" he said. "I think you may be taking that thing a little too seriously."

April halted in her tracks, and turned around slowly. "Say again?"

"April," he said, his shoulders dropping in mental exhaustion, "you're giving those pages a meaning they don't really deserve. I mean, I just don't understand an intelligent person's ferocious attachment to a bunch of words, which, springtimey and rainbowy as they may be, have about as much utility in the real world as the speedometer on a moped!"

There appeared on April's face an expression he did not recall seeing there before, one which just about guaranteed that he was going to be the next one to get his legs bowling-balled out from under him by a speeding literature expert. But even more, he saw that he had just genuinely hurt her somehow. Her response was obviously going to include more than just a condemnation for having sacrificed a twenty dollar bill she had needed for groceries.

"Oops, I crossed a line," he said, backing away. "Forget I said anything."

She came forward. She took the book from her side and held it up for his observation.

"Yes, Owen," she said, extremely angry, "I take this way too seriously. Guess what? This is my life." She touched the spine of the manuscript against his chest and withdrew it fast, as if he might infect it somehow. "I've chosen this instead of the real things. I can take a play down off my shelf anytime I want and not be disappointed by it, unlike any one of two dozen human beings I can mention. I married myself to books instead of instead of some....spiritless dunce who might woo me with romance and the ocean for about three months before the stupefying, day to day monotony of an actual relationship dulls us both into a fifty year catatonia!"

She backed away, the force of the manuscript slapping against her waist evoking one tear from her eye and dropping it all the way to the grass. But no; Owen saw that it was only a drop of rain and he had just assumed she was crying. She was tougher than that. Once in an evening was more than enough, and she didn't feel like wasting it. Instead she stood in place for a moment, staring at the ground. A few more raindrops appeared, but she would not be the one to run away from them first. She waited, shivering, as a distant clap of thunder rolled miles above.

"You know, I was married once," Owen said to her.
"And....it wasn't anything like that, I assure you." He moved to his left a few inches, underneath the branches of the closest tree. "Far from it," he said softly.

There was no tree immediately available for April so she didn't move. She looked at his face for any sign of a joke or a remark that would turn his previous sentence into something utterly forgettable, but nothing came. His face was sad, his body was sad.

"Do you see what's happened?" he asked her. "These books and these plays have set an impossible standard for you, so you're never going to be happy now. Good God, of all the ridiculously fragile things in the world to pin your hopes on, why did you have to pick romance?"

Still she was quiet. She broke down and stepped beneath the overhang attached to the pool's changing rooms. It was a little farther away from Owen, and he had to raise his voice over the increasing rain.

"People aren't knights," he said. "They can't always be so wonderful. And people fail, too. Which is something I think Dari Stanislad was afraid to admit."

She nodded, looking off into the distance. Her voice was barely audible. "I know it," she said. "I know they fail."

Owen spread his empty arms out. "I got nothing to compete with that stuff, April. You want to hear the fluffiest words I can think of? I think you're pretty, and smart, and I think I could trick you into being really, really silly sometimes. And maybe we'd have fun, or maybe not. I can't ever tell these days."

She sighed, shook her head. "I don't know anything about you, Owen."

He smiled a little. "What's there to know? Single white male, thirty-three years old, seeks non-smoker to ignore all flaws. Some Windows knowledge preferred."

He almost got her to smile back, almost. She snuggled the manuscript under the front of her shirt; it was a genuine, unpredicted downfall now.

"Who could resist that," she said without any real meaning, either good or bad.

Owen turned away, scooping the neck of his shirt over his head so he resembled a mutant, preparing for the run back up the hill. "I'm going this way, gonna go get Kiley's shoes back for him," he said. "He won't make it in this world without them. I'll see you at the thing on Saturday, okay?"

She only nodded, then watched him go scrambling up the slope, slipping a couple of times in the newly moistened grass, and finally mastering a tricky balancing act as he maneuvered his way through the kitchen window and back into the apartment up there. She suspected for a moment that his eagerness to get back in had much to do with the brownies he had left behind, but then she tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, which seemed a little easier to do now. He turned before he disappeared entirely and waved to her. She waved back. Then she ran through the rain, trying to figure out exactly she was. She was thoroughly drenched by the time she got back into her apartment, but the manuscript had suffered no great harm.

 

At two-fifteen a.m., Owen found himself hunched over a manual typewriter in the English office, working only by the light of one of Davy's candles. It did kind of give the room a nice retro glow. Beside him was a short stack of pages he'd punched a few words onto and then consigned to the Absolute Desperation pile. On his newest page he typed this:

ACT FOUR

(Gustavus enters left, dragging Artin's doll collection in a satchel behind him. The fifteen witches are already there, waiting. He leans saucily against the bar, not intimidated in the slightest.)

GUSTAVUS: Ladies, I think you'll find that the haggis in your heartbone belies your good stance.

WITCHES #3 through #9: The devil you say, cobbleswoddler!

GUSTAVUS: Ah, that I wish the devil were here to lay face upon your shamrock, so that sport could be made of suppence and thwine!

WITCH #5: All day long with suppence and thwine! It's all that ever escapes your mouthpart, ye damnable duppentote!

GUSTAVUS: Takes one to know one, sister.

He snatched the new page out of the typewriter, crumpled it up, and tossed it into the corner of the room at the infamous copy machine. The ball accidentally struck the On button and that satanic helldog burped into life briefly before fizzling out for the last time. Ever. The toner cartridge slid out onto the table as if in surrender.

Owen was startled to see Davy appear in the doorway, scissors and a can of paste in his hands. "Davy, what the butt are you doing here this late?"

Davy smiled disarmingly. "I just got in from my little trip and I missed by landlady's curfew. So I thought I'd come in and do a little work. I've been assembling a new collage for the bulletin board near the biology lab. I thought 'Why Turkeys Can't Fly' had had its day. And you?"

Owen ran his hands through his hair, scratching his scalp insanely. "I've been saddled with an impossible task, Davy. I don't suppose you know anything about Dari Stanislad? I'm trying to....write a little something in his style."

Davy bit his lip. "No, sorry, I was never much on that era. I forgot to ask¾ how is the play?"

"It's, as they say, weak in spots," Owen told him. He dropped his head onto the typewriter's platen with a little more force than he wanted. "Ug, how could the man have written such an atrocity?"

"Lots of reasons, I suppose. It's a love story, correct?"

Owen rubbed his eyes. "Just barely."

Davy lifted one of Owen's pages from his pile, read the first couple of lines, then dropped it back into place. "I wrote something once," Davy said, "a play, actually¾ and I thought it was beautiful. I thought I had finally done something that would make a difference in my life. But it came from so deep within me, from such pain and confusion, that my judgment became clouded. I couldn't see what I had done was so poor because I couldn't see at all. When I realized this, I tried to save it by changing it to appeal to the shallowest tastes of the masses. It didn't help. Eventually all that was left was the barest marrow of my intention. And even that could be seen only through the greatest effort, and the kindest forgiveness."

"Sorry to hear it, my man," Owen said. "So anyway, how was your vacation? Where'd you go?"

"Here and there," Davy said. "Nothing special."

"You should have taken me with you. I could use some time on the beach. Hell, at this point I'd even go to Iceland and cube trout for three days." Owen rose to fetch a grape soda from the vending machine outside, which was almost certain to steal his fifty cents and offer nothing in return. As he passed Davy, he got one more very good look at his face in the candlelight, and had to once again shake his head in wonderment.

"Wait, wait, it's not Joe Namath you look like," he said, leaning in a bit, noting the angle at which Davy's eyebrows sloped, and the way his chin jutted out, and the color of his eyes. "You know who it is? Sam Donaldson." He moved past Davy but paused at the door. "Man, that's just freaky," he said. He left Davy to think about it for a while. Davy lit a new candle for Owen, blew the old one out, and when Owen returned, he was gone, having snagged for himself a small corner of the marshmallow brownie which had been rescued from Moistbrook Apartments two hours before at unthinkable risk to life and limb.

 

Saturday afternoon brought even more excitement to Dick's Notch, Iowa than did the passing of the Olympic torch down Mustard Street in 1992, the result of a horrible navigational error on somebody's part. The Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company issued twenty-two press credentials for the first-ever performance of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale, and spent thirty-eight dollars on velvet ropes to line up the customers outside the box office. The price of a front row ticket jumped from eight dollars to sixty-six, and the two-month-old Twizzlers at the concessions counter were replaced by brand new Red Hots. The seats had all been vacuumed and the deeply, deeply confusing symbols on the restroom doors were replaced with standardized man/woman designs. There was even a new logo for the Lofty Verb printed on the program, a logo which appeared at first glance to be a hedgehog digging its teeth into a snow tire, but which was eventually explained by one of the volunteer ushers to be some sort of sunrise over the town. The buzz was immense, and the Dick's Notch glitterati turned out in force at one o'clock to witness history in the making.

April got to the theater earlier than almost anyone and was the first to be admitted within. She placed her jacket on the seat beside her to save it for Owen. By twelve forty-five, the house was filled almost to capacity, another first for the Lofty Verb, which had been falsifying attendance figures for years to ensure their annual five hundred dollar grant from the state arts council. Also falsified in the past were the number of fire extinguishers inside the building and the Croatian names on the original lease; six or seven times in fact. April knew nothing of this and was simply impressed at the audience's excitement level. She hadn't felt anything like it for years. Her first foray into the local theater scene had occurred on her very first night in town after having arrived from Chicago. Anxious to get out of her empty, desolate apartment, she'd paid $5.50 to see Rutherford Lamp's re-working of Coriolanus, which had involved the strangest use of a Zamboni machine ever noted in the history of Shakespearean drama.

Owen got to the box office at ten till one and spoke cheerfully through the little metal sieve, shivering a bit at the sudden overcast chill. "Hello, there's a ticket on hold for me, the name is Owen Trittle," he said.

The woman behind the glass took his ticket out of an envelope and pushed it out to him, offering a distracted, meaningless smile. Owen thanked her and made his way inside.

The ticket seller had been working for the Lofty Verb for less than three days. She simply hadn't known what else to do. She'd suddenly found herself in this strange town, in this mystifying time, with no explanation and no guidance, so getting a job had seemed like a positive step, and because she had no money, a necessary one. Maybe the answers would come later. All she could do was wait and hope and try to deal with the fact that everything moved so fast here, from the vehicles to the people to time itself, which everyone seemed so obsessed with, chasing after it frantically, needing to know where it was going. She pushed her long blonde hair behind her ear, straightened her nametag, which kept falling off, and smiled emptily at the next customer, yearning only for the end of her shift.

 

Owen wended his way down toward April, who held a hand up so he could see her. Exhausted after the night's escapades, he collapsed beside her just as the house lights went down.

"So, what did you think of the play?" he asked her.

She had thought up any number of lies, yet in the end she decided that trotting one of them out would be too Owen-like. "You were right," she said, downcast. "It's not worthy of his name, or almost anyone else's. But it has a chance, if people make it to the end, and if Lamp and Green even got to read that far. Fionna's last speech has real beauty to it. It almost redeems some of the mess."

"I agree," Owen said. "I was rewriting Act Four last night¾ "

Her mouth opened in enraged shock.

"¾ and I remembered how potentially good that part of it was," he finished quickly, giving her no room to kill him. "So I tore up what I'd done and decided to let the chips fall. I figure if Green goes to Smiley and rats me out and I get fired, the college is so messed up I can probably get a job in a different department and no one would figure it out. I've done it before, you know. Many, many times."

She breathed a final sigh of relief. "I'm proud of you," she told him. He smiled and nearly dozed off on her shoulder then and there. He'd gotten about two hours of sleep, having committed some wee-hours time to one last task he thought he needed to fulfill. Suddenly the curtain parted and the crowd hushed.

The stage was totally bare and eerily silent. Rutherford Lamp emerged from the wings and walked to center stage, wearing the costume of a very over-dressed king. He had raided the wardrobe closet for all it was worth, in the hopes that it would distract people from the fact that Act Four was going to be a totally improvised free-for-all.

Her current duties in the box office at an end, Natalya Fisk slipped behind the back row of the theater and forced herself to watch, thinking she would not be noticed. Gaston Green spotted her there and decided to allow her to stay. Every little bit of potential word of mouth helped, even if it was from a woman whose European accent was so thick he had barely understood her name at the job interview.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Lamp began in that big, bold, nasal, eternally obnoxious voice of his, "over the years I have brought you many an amazing spectacle. It was on this very stage that you witnessed the birth of Jesus....the fall of Rome....the murder of Julius Caesar....the travails of Danny and Sandra Dee and a brave young woman named Rizzo. But none of these dramatizations was so rare and vivid as tonight's performance of the great Dari Stanislad's rediscovered classic, The Cobbleswoddler's Tale."

There was light applause. Owen made a clapping motion slightly less enthusiastic than might be heard at an amateur golf tournament.

"The Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company is proud to be the first to perform this masterpiece," Lamp went on, "just as we were proud last year to be the first to perform our own daring stage version of the popular board game Boggle. Not that we have remained unscathed by the dour comments of some of our critics, who have taken it upon themselves to question not only my theatrical wisdom, but my very citizenship. I want to assure all of you that my affiliation with the government of Chad has strictly been that of cultural ambassador, and¾ "

Owen checked his watch; April gave him a warning nudge.

"¾ I can honestly say that I love this country as much as any native Canadian can."

There was the sound of trumpets from offstage and the lights changed from a sickly yellow to a glaring red.

"Now, then!" Lamp said. "I invite you all to sit back now and imagine you live in a time and a country without electric power or even the most rudimentary farming techniques. You're about to enter the windy, tumultuous Iceland of the nineteenth century....this theater is about to become a time machine....let your imagination unfurl and your senses quicken...."

Every pair of eyes in the audience save for about six got wider, more excited.

"Let us be your guide to flights of the mind that only Dari Stanislad could pilot....and now, let us away!" Rutherford Lamp strode off the stage to a final crescendo of brass, and the backdrop came into place, and the play began, and four actors emerged, and the first lines were spoken, and there was much attention riveted directly forward.

 

It lasted about eleven minutes.

At 1:27, less than a half hour after Rutherford Lamp had first taken the stage, April Mahone and Owen Trittle were the only two souls remaining inside the theater. Even the press had left for good. The cast and crew had secured the rear entrances, and in fear of the reprisals that awaited them in the outside world, had scavenged enough provisions in the form of cheese and cracker trays and mini-sandwiches to last a full twenty-four hours, if necessary. Predictably, Rutherford Lamp had been the last member of the troupe to leave the stage, chased off only by a series of verbal insults from the first row which had called his very species into question. His interpretation of the text had not gone over so well. Time would tell if people would hold Dari Stanislad responsible for the atrocity that had almost claimed a full forty minutes of their time, or if they would merely put it all on Lamp's giant shoulders and run him swiftly out of town, torches and catapults at the ready.

"Wow," Owen said after one hundred and twenty seconds of particularly morose silence had passed between himself and April. "Wow. I haven't seen that many people rush for the exits since Bill Buckner missed that grounder in the '86 World Series."

April folded her program neatly in two, and looked down at it with genuine sadness. "I guess there won't be a last speech by Fionna," she said very quietly. "Maybe ever."

Owen inserted his own program into his shirt pocket. "Judging from that audience response, I think the first concern is to make sure there are still a few unbroken windows on this place come nightfall."

April apparently wasn't even hearing him now. Her eyes went to the stage, where the big inflatable Neptune hadn't even had a chance to make its dramatic entrance. There was nothing up there at all really, just the Vatican backdrop and a couple of cardboard cows, yet April seemed to be seeing a great deal more than just the cheesy set, and none of it helped her sorrow.

Owen rose from his seat. "Well, it's over," he said. "Come on, come for some pizza with me, April. It'll be good therapy."

"You go ahead, I'm going to sit here for a while."

Naturally what he really wanted to say was that sitting there, alone in the empty theater, would be the worst thing for her, but he held his tongue, wisely for once. Well, for a few seconds anyway, before he leaned back in over her shoulder and patted it gently.

"Bill Buckner, by the way," he said, "was still a Hall of Fame caliber hitter, and to pin the loss of the entire '86 Series on him is to overlook the fundamental breakdown of Red Sox pitching and bench play, and don't even get me started on Wade Boggs."

She did not laugh, or even smile. He left her, not knowing what else to do. He was five steps up the aisle before she realized he had even spoke. Owen, feeling bad now for both her immense letdown and the fact that he had foolishly allowed the phantoms of the '86 Series to ruin his afternoon as well, walked on.

 

The last person in the world he wanted to run into on the sidewalk just outside the theater appeared there with flawless timing. Nevin Smiley had just finished giving a truly memorable address to some reporters standing around, an address which seemingly blamed the failure of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale on everything from the Lofty Verb's stifled budget to the inability of Chinese food to completely satisfy human hunger sixty minutes after its ingestion. His mood, which initially had been as foul as the line drive to deep left in the fourth inning of Game Seven that had almost enabled Don Baylor to win the '86 Series for the far more deserving Red Sox, did a shocking one-eighty when one of the reporters had informed him of certain very recent events which changed everything and made him feel like a child on candy day.

"I know what you're going to say, Nevin," Owen said to him, holding one hand up before Smiley had even had a chance to speak. "Save it. I admit, I leaked the play to Lamp. I'll clean out my desk by five."

"I couldn't care less, Owen!" Smiley said, almost hopping up and down with pep, vigor, and vim. "This is the best day of my life! Britney Spears has purchased the original manuscript of The Cobbleswoddler's Tale from Dick's Notch Community College for two million, eight hundred and sixty thousand dollars!"

"Two million, eight hundred and sixty thousand dollars?" Owen repeated, dumbfounded. "What's the college going to do with all that money?!"

"Oh, don't you worry," Smiley said, his reputation restored, his authority total. "It's already being put to good use."

It was so true. Even as he spoke, plans to build the state's first Chick-Fil-A with table service right in the center of the campus quad were taking shape in back rooms and board rooms, and forty-two gleaming panel trucks filled with boxes of pure white presentation chalk were storming simultaneously out of a warehouse in Plipton, Illinois, aiming their delivery for Monday morning: enough pure white presentation chalk to last Dick's Notch Community College approximately four thousand years.

The money was entirely spent within eleven hours. The faulty copy machine in the English office would just have to last another twelve to twenty-four months, and that was all there was to it.

 

April waited a good five minutes for Owen to come back, having forgotten either his jacket or his wallet or his comb or his Subway Sub Club Card or whatever: it seemed like Owen was the type to always be forgetting things. But when he did not return within that time, she walked up to the stage with a clear mind, and she got onto it.

There was a time when she would have imagined a packed house out there, two thousand people who had waited and waited in line just for the chance to buy a ticket to see the great actress, but no longer. Now it was enough to have those empty seats as her audience, because empty seats forgot quite quickly. Even a gathering of twelve, which was the exact number of people who had witnessed her A Christmas Carol debacle in junior high school, would be too many. She told herself sometimes that all she remembered of that day was her mother taking her out for a hamburger after she had forgotten all her lines, every single one of them, but in truth, she recalled it all, every moment.

She knelt now on the stage of the Lofty Verb Theater and Bedazzlement Company and listened for the slightest sound from the wings. There was none. Everything in the world was as far away from her as she could dream.

¾ What a fool my beloved must believe me, she said aloud, her voice carrying at first just ten rows back, but then more and more as she went on, becoming finally unafraid. ¾ Sitting here where no one can see, pining for one my father calls a friend. If the stars have mercy they'll go about their way, and not look upon me for a moment.

She stopped there, very close to ending this. It served no purpose, really. All she would feel later was embarrassment. And then she kept speaking.

¾ While you are thirty-five I am but twenty, she said to the empty theater, her face tilted slightly upwards into the spotlight which had been left on in the crew's haste to evacuate the scene. ¾ The world is something you made on Sunday as jest, but for me it's just begun.

¾ When you were thirty, I was but fifteen. As you rode your horses into battle I shied away from the littlest stable, afraid to scuff my knees should I fall into the grass.

¾ When twenty-five years you had burned away in strength, you fought for a country I had only read about in books. At twenty, you must have loved a dozen women while love's definition was a talisman they would not let me see.

With infinite gentleness, April cradled her hands around the ghost of a piece of paper that had never made its appearance that day: Nikolau's letter from Act Two, Scene Three. Somewhere backstage, it rested inside an empty shoebox. She got to her feet in one smooth motion.

¾ And this, written when you were fifteen, filled with such passion I've been too young to understand. What were you like back then, you life causing such a tumult that the maids of summer mistook you for the rolling of thunder?

A footstep tapped the carpet several feet away. ¾ Yes, it was a noisy striving, said a voice off to her left, and her heart leapt into her throat. She turned to see Owen standing in the aisle, having been obliterated from her peripheral vision by the power of the spotlight.

She would have run, vowing never to come back to her awful job in this awful town, just run right to her car and driven away with nothing but her purse beside her and a determination to disappear into the largest city she could find, for keeps. But Owen had known the line. For whatever reason, he had known the line.

¾ Some men work in volume, he said, and he took the three steps up to the stage without taking his eyes off her. ¾ I clashed with comrades just to hear the echo of my fight. I bounded to every balcony just to know the shout of a young girl's reply.

Owen kept moving until he stood in front of April, and he took the letter that was not there from her trembling hands. She gave it up willingly enough. Owen, in turn, gave it one glance of retrospect, then dropped it to the stage, where its non-existent weight brushed softly against the floor.

¾ I did not much care for the writing of letters, he said to her, ¾ because it did not make the noise of giants. I never heard a whisper I knew by name.

¾ Your youth was a roaring symphony when my ears were too small to learn the tune, April told him, without much care for projection now. His face was close enough so that she did not have to worry about such things.

¾ I must have made such a racket, Owen said gently, ¾ your father could hear me beside your crib.

April took his hand, because that is what the stage directions had specified. They had been very clear, and what choice did she have but to follow them. She betrayed them only when it came to the tears they indicated in Fionna's eyes. There had still been enough of those, and there she took poetic license.

¾ There, within that hopeful cradle, my heart could be found, she replied to her beloved's final words. ¾ One tiny note of silence in search of your sound.

It was the only time the line was spoken in history. Owen hadn't even been able to make it out when reading the original manuscript; the writing had been too tiny, but April had. The page on which it lay became detached and peacefully lost upon leaving Dick's Notch for good. It was nobody's fault at all. So the words hung in the air only for a moment, and then they were gone forever.

Owen and April stood alone inside the auditorium. Eventually she let go of his hand, and he lowered it to his side with regret. They were unaware if anyone was watching them, or if it might have been six, forty, or three hundred spectators. The population of the universe was exactly two. As soon as April spoke now, the rest of mankind came rushing in again, unwelcome but inevitable.

"You memorized that too," she said to Owen. "Why did you do that?"

He sighed. "I had some stupid idea that we might do it together someday," he said. "It was part of a much larger, and very convoluted, plan to win you over."

"It was nice," she said, and he heard real conviction in her voice, giving weight and meaning to what was surely one of the weakest words in the English language. Suddenly nice seemed to have more syllables than ever.

"I could change myself, a little bit," he told her hopefully. "Not much; I mean, I'm no magician. But....enough so you'd know I meant it, I think."

She touched his forearm for just a passing instant. "As long as you mean things, that's some kind of start," she said. "We'll see what happens."

He stooped to pick up Nikolau's invisible letter as they left the stage. He mimed crumpling it in his hands and tossing it into the nearest trash can. Though his shot was not even close, she forgave him and did him the service of picking it up and finishing the job. She even agreed to walk down to Slurvy's with him so he could buy them a large pizza with two of the biggest cherry sodas the world had ever seen. And if he perhaps needed to maybe borrow just five or six dollars from her to accomplish that feat, well, that was an issue that could be hashed out sometime before the final slice was gone. He would gladly give up all he had in the world if she would just make that little hiccupping otter sound again.

 

"Natalya," Dari said to the woman inside the box office.

She had been in the middle of Windexing the ticket window when that one word jolted her out of her efforts. Through a misty fog of ammonia and blue dye she saw the blurry image of a man in a black T-shirt and sunglasses who knew her name despite the fact that her nametag said Natalie. Only when he took his glasses off, and stepped more to the side of the window, which she hadn't yet lathered in cleanser, did his image become clear. Off to her right, Owen and April headed down the sidewalk, oblivious.

Some part of Natalya's soul abandoned her body entirely upon recognizing Dari; this she felt instantly, as a physical pain and an emotional thunderclap, like being catapulted, or more accurately, like being born. It was possibly the most intense experience ever felt by someone holding a bottle of Windex in her right hand. She felt she could neither move nor stand still, whisper nor shout.

"Hello, it’s me," he said modestly. "It‘s me." His rehearsal of these simple lines had been completed on campus the night before as Owen had memorized his own. From that point on, however, Dari had nothing prepared.

"Do you remember what you said to me before we parted?" he asked Natalya. "You said I spent too much time writing the words, and not enough proving them."

He was holding something himself, she saw: a shopping bag from the nearby Save-Or-Not. He stepped up to the glass and set it carefully on the pavement at his feet. He looked so thin now. She could not remember him ever being so frail.

"I told you I'd go to the four corners of the earth for you," he said. "And you doubted me. You said that was just an empty phrase that writers use. Well, I did it, Natalya. You were right when you said that, so I figured I had to do it. I've brought you some things."

He reached into the shopping bag and brought out his gifts one by one, setting them very carefully on the ledge outside the ticket window. Natalya wanted to close her eyes, just for a second, and open them again to rediscover her balance, but even this seemed like more effort than she could take.

"From China, one of those little dolls you saw once in a book and always wanted." Dari held it up for her to see. He set it on the ledge so its little body was facing out over the street. She had told him of her desire for one of these exactly once, when they had first met, at a swap meet, in 1822.

"From Africa," he went on, "the kind of shawl they make there. I think it looks nice. It's your favorite color, dark green. I hope I remembered that right." This he wrapped with great care around her Chinese doll. She had never told him what her favorite color was; he must have just taken note of the things she had worn back then, and somehow gotten it right. In fact, the information had been jotted in a journal kept especially for facts about her and her alone. It rested still in his birth home, on display for tourists and historians.

"This may be the best of all," he said, taking from the bag a small book with a glossy dark blue cover. "Look. I found it in our town."

This object, he pushed through the money slot so she could feel it for herself, observe it more closely. She lifted the book, turned it over so she could read the front cover.

"They're your poems, Natalya," Dari said, gazing at her so-missed face. "In this century, you're famous."

The title of the book was Whatever You Find Within You: The Collected Poems of Natalya Fisk. Leafing through the pages, seeing her words set in type, she began to cry, not just for the heft of a book she'd never thought would exist or the way the portrait of her face on the back cover made her seem so young and so happy, but for the sudden immensity of life itself, and for the indecipherable moment which had chosen to enfold her.

"It took a long, long time, but your dream came true," Dari said. Her hair was lighter than he remembered, her neck more tanned. Or had he never really noticed the right things, ignored what hadn't fit the image of his own creation.

At long last, she lowered the book and awaited what came next.

"Now, I had to cheat a bit in the end. I ran out of time and money, but I guess you could consider Dick's Notch, Iowa a corner of the earth. That's where someone sold me this."

From the bag he took a rectangular canvas which he had not yet had a chance to frame, since its creator had produced it for an art class this very same week. He lifted it for her, and she saw a soft landscape done in oils, a landscape depicting a daffodil field in spring. The bank of a nearby creek was sheltered by evergreens. The sky was so blue it put reality to shame. Owen had always had a way with skies, and Dari had complimented him on this one specifically when he offered fifty-five dollars for the painting, the last one Owen would ever do, and which he had instead relinquished to Dari for the more even figure of zero.

"It's exquisite," Natalya said softly, her first words to him in one hundred and seventy-eight years. "Where is that, Dari?"

His gift for invention, which he had not used in that same number of years, returned to him with surprising ease. "It's a creek a few miles away from the Thjorsa river, which feeds it day in and day out," he told her. "Remember, I talked about showing it to you sometime." He paused, took a very deep breath. "It's where I wanted to marry you."

Natalya opened the side door of the box office and stepped out onto the sidewalk, cradling her poems to her chest. She took the landscape in for just a few more seconds through her haze of tears. For all she understood of reality, she might be there beside that creek less than a minute from now, or not for a thousand years, or maybe she was already there and she would have to wait for Dari's gentle hand to wake her from her dream.

"I didn't know why I was set here until now," she whispered.

"I want to write again," Dari said. "And there won't be any empty phrases anymore. I'll prove them, every one. I swear it."

"I believe you," she replied. "I believe you."

He smiled.

"What time do you get off work?" he asked her. They both hoped that life would somehow see fit to hold them in place for a little while, just long enough to find a nice spot near the edge of town where they could be together and figure out what came next. There were no worries there. Life had no further plans for them beyond whatever they themselves could come up with. It left them on the sidewalk in the afternoon light, happy to be of some service, needing nothing more, and it silently moved on.

 

Oh, but big things were happening just a mile away.

In the cavernous depths of Citrus Donny's Used Books, Records, and Pants.

In the aisle closest to the fire exit. Which was blocked by about four hundred pounds of used receipt tape. Which had become home to about half the city's mouse population.

It was no less an auspicious local figure than the host of Dick's Notch: City of the Globe, Gavin Steed, who stepped into the vortex of the universe's swirling, rather aggressive hurricane of destiny that day. Searching for a book of easy-to-remember ethnic jokes that he could use to pep up the show from now on, and more or less sidetracked by the vast quantities of inexpensive porn he'd discovered in the Gardening section, he stumbled across a musty tome which caused his hands to tremble and his colored contact lenses to nearly pop out of his head. He dropped his basketful of vintage issues of Nude Veterinarian and made his way to the register with as much speed as his skinny legs could muster.

"I must purchase this volume at any price you name," he panted to Citrus Donny, slapping the book on the front counter. "How long has this just been sitting on the shelf?!"

"The inventory is a perpetual mystery to me, my friend," Donny mused. "Are you prepared to offer, say....seven dollars for the disputed item?"

"Sold!" Steed cried, and slapped a ten dollar bill beside the book which was about to make him an enormously wealthy man. Its cover, tattered and frayed but still perfectly intact, pretty much spoke for itself in bold white lettering which had been unseen by anyone but its creator for nearly half a century:

My Happy Secret Life As a Remorseless Nazi Conspirator

by Audrey Hepburn

 

 

Steed took that book out onto the street with childlike glee, and if he was worried about anyone spotting him and intruding on his secret, he had nothing to fear: everyone outside was too busy taking notice of a strange young man who had appeared in town seemingly out of nowhere, dressed in clothing nearly two centuries out of date. Though there was no way anyone could have known this, the young man looked a great deal like Dari's old friend Jof, and this afternoon he had finally figured out why he had been dropped the week before right in the middle of the year 2003, a frightening and vaguely distasteful time at best, and now, he intended to do something about it.

He bought some sunflowers from the first vendor he found, and he began to carry them westward along Apple Avenue, grinning like a damned fool, basking in the feel of the sun on his face and the clap of the dry pavement passing beneath his boots. As he went, townspeople smiled at him, knowing quite well the look of a man with a woman on his mind, a look Jof had never really experienced firsthand until now. But instead of punishing himself for his sudden total reversal on the subject of romance, he simply accepted it and picked up his pace. What did he have to lose? He wasn't even sure if he was truly alive. Passersby may have chuckled at his weird clothes, but there was no mistaking his determination. He knew exactly where he was going, that was for sure, and as the blocks went by, some even felt like cheering him on and slapping him on the back.

Pancake Street, Orange Juice Road, Strawberry Boulevard: he held his flowers firmly and nodded politely to all whom he met on his way as if he had known each of them for years. At last he walked into Authentications By Tomorrow and approached the bespectacled lonely lass whose name he knew was Pimma, Pimma who had entranced him with her melancholy shyness and vague terror at the prospect of almost any human interaction. He had never spoken to her and he saw no need to even now, holding out the sunflowers across the counter. When Pimma saw what the stranger had brought her, and how his face promised absolutely no harm¾ just a wish to bring one small gift to a girl he'd seen by chance and been utterly taken with¾ her smile, which had never known real freedom, beamed brilliantly across the empty space between their hands, and remained shining in that tiny strip mall for as long as their story's pages can be turned and turned again.

 

 

 

Soren Narnia

Ipswich, Massachusetts

May 7, 2003