Patricia Bidar: I wish

The two ladies at the nail salon are giggling again. This place is truly a hole in the wall. In fact, it is the kind of place that might even have holes in its walls–although I have never seen any. The salon is a few yards from my house. I go there for pedicures when the urge strikes me, which is to say rarely. But I always smile and wave as I pass, and they always seem tickled to see me.

The topic came up a few months back about a guy they know from the neighborhood. He is Vietnamese, like they are. They have told me in their limited English that he is “crazy,” by which I understand they mean developmentally disabled. They always add that he is ugly. That he looks exactly like “the biggest kind of monkey,” by which I have come to understand they mean the gorilla.

Here are some other things I have learned about him. His name is Tuk. He receives SSI, because he is “crazy.” He is 42, the son of an American GI stationed in Ho Chi Min City during the Vietnam War. His father was African American. Tuk is thoroughly Vietnamese, although you would not know that by looking at him. Anni says he just looks like a poor middle aged black man; the commonest of sights in our neighborhood.

Tuk’s mother abandoned him as soon as he was born. He was raised in “the temple.” Vietnam, Anni and Mai always tell me, is extremely racist. “Mixed” children had little trouble in Vietnam, even though their fathers were gone. But no one wanted the mixed children whose unknown fathers were black. Tuk has never known a family member, ever. What happened was, when the American government began allowing the children of GIs to come to the U.S., he was quickly snapped up by a Vietnamese family who wanted to come here. As soon as they all arrived, they bid him “goodbye forever.”

It is true that Anni and Mai laugh their asses off every time they talk about Tuk’s appearance. But they like him, and always help him. Mai gives him $five dollars for food whenever he stops in. If she has no money, she gives him her lunch. His rent is $550 per month. His SSI check is $700. So he has a place to sleep but has to choose between bus fare and food. Clothing, he only gets if someone at the temple gives it to him.

I showed them on Mai’s i-phone the website detailing where he can get a free lunch in the neighborhood from a St. Vincent de Paul program, four days per week. I said if he could get to the Alameda County Food Bank, they would give him groceries and determine whether he’s eligible for food stamps, now optimistically termed “Cal Fresh.” When I showed Anni and Mai these things, they were super excited to tell him about the resources he might access to have more food.

Today when I came in, they told me he loves the lunches from St. Vincent de Paul and that the Food bank gave him a lot of food, but said he is not eligible for food stamps. Mai said she wishes he could get a job helping out at a Vietnamese business, because he loves to work and is such a good person. But they added that Vietnamese people are so racist that they would never hire him, and would say that he would drive all the Vietnamese customers away.

Tuk wows the African-American ladies who come in to the shop when they hear him speaking Vietnamese, they tell me. Then they repeat that he is soooo ugly, and double over with laughter. Anni adds that people have always “used” Tuk, and that he has had nothing but terrible luck his whole life. Mai manages to get out between giggling fits, “I always tell him he is ugly,” and he always answers, smiling, “Wrong, Mai. I am handsome.”

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: In the Clouds

Thanksgiving night, I started in on some cheap white wine one of my brothers had brought and we hadn’t gotten around to opening. I had lived alone in my furnished apartment for a couple of months at that point,having begun my graduate studies at the university. My brothers had come down from Portland for the holiday. My ex, Marty, had flown up from California. He was a good boyfriend and every bit as good an ex. He was living at his artist brother’s place in San Francisco.

We’d eaten early and they all hit the road by four. I spent the night picking at the leftover stuffing and sipping from a plastic tumbler of wine. Outside my furnished apartment, my tree-lined street was bereft of green. The sidewalk-colored sky seemed slashed with hard black phone wires. I didn’t want to leave my apartment, even though its very impersonality normally soothed me.

I had this giant old microwave someone had discarded and left in the laundry room. But I burnt the microwave popcorn into a black and smoldering ball, and now my apartment reeked. I was drinking and drinking that ersatz chardonnay, and calling Marty. Now it was seriously late. But I just kept calling and listening to that ringing phone in his brother’s concrete studio, willing myself to register the sound for as long as I could, before the next billowing silence.

It wasn’t that I wished we were a couple again. Hadn’t I just put the brakes on that crazy affair with my old flame from college? It had ended spectacularly, with him driving me to Matador Beach. Me nauseated from the drive. Begging him to take me back home. Stopping at the Westward Ho supermarket in Brentwood, seeing him deliberate over ten dollar bottles of bubbly. I had gotten used to expensive things by then.

By the time we got to my place, I had gathered myself to say at last that I really was leaving for Oregon. That I wanted him to be happy; to meet someone great. A surreal night flowed, with him repeatedly leaving the apartment, then returning. In my sleep-deprived state after those crazy nights of love I was having waking dreams he was coming back again and again. Then, at last, he was gone.

I finally got drunk enough that I stopped calling Marty and lost consciousness in my bed filled with books. The next morning I awoke with a caved in feeling in my skull, belly roiling. The streaming sun made my eyeballs pulse. I was hefting that giant microwave back into the laundry room when I ran into a neighbor I’d met only once before. Tall, good looking, friendly, Gay, of course. I remembered my landlord telling me he was a high-end hair stylist. He surprised me by inviting me to take a bike ride. An invitation so normal, so not-me. I was still pretty green around the gills, as my grandmother would have said.

“Say yes,” he instructed me, so I did. We rode for an hour or so. I had this red Schwinn I’d brought from Santa Monica. This hairdresser guy and I rode down the empty midtown streets, then cut over to the river. I must have told him about my struggle to be happy. My starting graduate school after this crazy affair and how my old flame still wrote to me and telephoned me every day. How he’d informed me that if I was breaking up with him, I needed to do it in person. And then calling from the train station not far from my house, scaring me. How cruel I ended up being to him on the phone.

My building was so quiet I could hear the splash of urine in my upstairs neighbor’s toilet bowl. According to my landlord, he was a Japanese violin maker. But all I ever heard was his soft footfall; his piss. I was trying to begin graduate school life, but it was going badly, with the sleep deprivation and the late night calls.

I guess I told my neighbor the famous visiting editor who was leading my writing workshop had called me out for coming to class unprepared. That I’d torn though all of my material the first-ever class I taught, then realized only twenty minutes had passed. That I’d visited the famous women-owned bookstore in my neighborhood. My idea that I’d work there part-time. Join a community of women, now that I was single. But the cashier had snapped at me that I needed to close the door so the cat wouldn’t get out.

In the clouds, airplanes appeared and reappeared like a line of stitches in laundered-thin quilt. Sitting beside our bikes on the weedy bank, the sun had a chance to warm us. “See that plane up there?” my neighbor said at last. “It seems like everyone on it must have it made. But how much do you want to bet every single passenger is up there asking themselves why does happiness elude me? What am I supposed to be doing. I’d be complete if I could just have that job, that partner, that lucky break.”

I know; I know. It sounds simplistic now. But for some reason, sitting on the warming dirt beside our bikes, I laughed. The night of drink and self-pity began to turn the corner in my mind. I never saw that guy again. It really was an extremely quiet building.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Connected

At the museum today, a young couple stands before a painting called The Yellow Lampshade. The young couple is dressed inconspicuously, in light colors. Their faces are plain. Their very youth provides their color and aliveness. The painting depicts a couple standing in a corner windowed apartment. A penthouse, I guess you would say. They are standing a distance apart. A good stretch of carpet between them and the big windows with all the gray skyscrapers in them. The young couple at the museum is kissing. With deep love, you might say. But lightly, too. Sweetly but lingering. I am standing near the painting, closest to the man. My husband stands before the next painting over, closest to the woman. We give them their time–young love is to cherish. And when they move away, we come together in front of the painting and kiss, smiling.

Another painting is by Modigliani, a favorite painter of mine. This painting depicts a Polish friend of the artist, Pierre-Edouard Baranowski. Either a poet or a painter; maybe both. The subject is described as having blue eyes. But really, the Pole’s eyes are a complete blank. Even though I read the printed placard beside the painting, I still thought of the subject as being female. The angular face; the tilted head, the pronounced cupid’s bow. I loved that she appeared to be wearing a black jacket and a white shirt with the collar loose. Like Patti Smith, I thought.

Here’s the third: In a gray gravel alley shirtless metal workers called puddlers relax, shirtless. They are pale. Spindly. Not mighty workers of the world. Yet their professional was a skilled one. Later, I learn that the job entails continuously working with boiling iron. Puddlers performed strenuous work, very close to the high heat–a job of skill as well as strength and stamina. In the painting, one’s skin is reddened at his clavicle. All of them are arrayed in poses of stretching, reclining and twisting. Poses recalling classic Greek sculptures. The green onion stink of their skin, their unwashed hair and animal restlessness; palpable to me. Their male-ness, you might call it. In their way they are mighty workers. Still, the factory behind them looms large. If you were here, I would touch your arm to show them to you.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Jazz

The thing about being a con artist is to be in it for the art. Not for the swindle or the cash payoff. I conned the older ladies at that new wine bar just last night. They bought me dinner, yes. But that wasn’t all. Part of the role I was playing was that I didn’t wear glasses. I subordinated myself to them. Had to, because I really couldn’t see! So I had one of them reading me the list of sandwiches while another waited to resume the story she’d started telling me about her trip to Austin, New Orleans and Memphis. I am old enough I don’t care about looking cool. I told her I wouldn’t mind heading off on one of those senior citizen trips. I don’t know about yours, but in my town, you only have to be 50 to get in on those classes and movie nights and trips.

How old do you think I look?

No mirrors in this jazz bar, which is more of a restaurant. They have a hundred types of wine there. Pictures of Django Reinhardt everywhere. Red wallpaper. Gypsy jazz, or Jazz Manouche, playing all the time. None of the ladies were ordering up any wine, so I asked for water. I’d been heading into the main part of the place to see if my girl Conchett’ was there. But I saw a side door open. I’ve always been like that. If I see a side or back door propped with a chair or a matchbook; I have to take a look.

What kind of sandwich? BLT. But without the T, because I can’t stand tomatoes.

So in this side room, there are two dozen older ladies. A club. Retired, most of them, from the looks. And in the door I pop, right when they are winding down the flag salute. And the head lady waves me over. She’s in a cream colored turtleneck and plaid slacks. Those crinkly eyes from smiling a lot. And the ladies at this short side of the table all have name tags and are all standing. I am with them, so I stay standing, too. And then one of them says they are all sorry as can be about Diane. I look around and some of them have their eyes all shiny, thinking about their friend.

“I can hardly think about it,” I say, and I hang my head because I don’t know why I need to con these nice ladies who end buying me dinner and letting me mourn Diane with them. And all the while, I’ve got money in my pocket. A sweet smelling Sicilian girl waiting for me in the main bar.

But my first love’s name was Diane. English girl. I don’t mind telling you I was already in my twenties when she and I met at the bank. The bank where she was working. Younger people don’t believe we used to smoke everywhere back in those days. Supermarkets, movie theatres, banks. But it wasn’t a regular cigarette I slipped to Diane. It was a joint. And it wasn’t a slap on the wrist she got when her boss found it in her cash drawer. I’d long since gone home by the time Diane got shit-canned.

The women are all going around the table telling me the things they liked about their Diane.She’d drive you places. Always brought a pie to their parties. Loved old movies. Cute things like that.

My Diane rang my bell at ten that night. I was painting. My heart racing, the room awash in the stink of gesso and paint and a body revving. Diane had been drinking, for sure. She was a nice girl, but had a taste for the wilder life. Well, she and I dove for each other like…like Stanley and Stella in Streetcar named Desire. You know that scene where he is hollering for her in the rain and she runs out and he picks her up high against him and she runs her nails hard on that wet skin? Diane and I didn’t leave my room for four days. Her daddy came out from Pleasant Hill and fetched her home pretty quick after that.

I give Conchett’ harder things than old school marijuana. And she doesn’t have a dad; at least one that would come and take her from me.

I knew my Siciliana wouldn’t wait for me long. But still I stayed there in the side room, enjoying my sandwich and water, sharing an hour wIth those wholesome mothers. Their grief was a thing of great beauty to me. The pantsuits, the not drinking. All of it. Remembering Diane. It was the oldest one of them all who held me when I cried. Like I was her son, and just as pure as he must have been.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: One Block Away

Jesus the short order cook is stripping off his stinking t-shirt. Stepping out of his chinos and boxer shorts.He wear rubber clogs to work. His are cornflower blue. These, he places side by side next to the basin, beside his leather sandals. He is not Jesus as in a Latino HeyZEUS. Everyone calls him Jesus because of his flowing hair and beatific gaze. Beatific. An old girlfriend had dubbed him Jesus. Even though his name was Gordon.

His very ball sack feels greasy after the long shift. Jesus steps into the steaming bath. It is fucking three o’clock in the morning. His wife and newborn baby are sleeping down the hall. They live together in a duplex apartment. The neighbor’s place and theirs are mirror images.

After he soaks and soaps, Jesus will read for a few minutes–a few minutes is all it will take for his eyes to grow heavy. One time, not long after the baby was born, Jesus was so tired he heard in a daze the paper guy gently removing his house key from where he’d left them in the keyhole. Jesus had frozen, breath caught, half-upright on the couch while the paper guy nudged the door slightly wider. Then set them down just inside, closing the door with a click.

Keyhole; was that even the right word? Verily, he was so tired. He was lucky. Tonight his neighbor Brooks was up late, too. Brooks worked swing shift at the pillow factory on the West side of town. Jesus could hear him very softly plucking his banjo. The apartments had matching wide and shallow closets abutting each other. Sounds carried through. So soothing to the ear. But tonight, his neighbor’s loneliness seeped through the closet doors, too. Jesus felt it in his own hands and chest. Brooks was a good man. The two had grown up together in Nazareth, Tennessee.

Brooks’ playing was so gentle, the night so still Jesus thought he could hear Brooke’s fingertips on the strings. He wished he could turn some water into wine and bring it with some bread and fish over to Brooks. If he could only muster the energy, he’d find the light; the way. Pick his way in robe and sandals atop the little stream that separated their porches. He’d just leave them outside Brooks’ door for his old classmate to find and savor.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Prove It

Last night, Trinidad and I saw the Handsome Family at Café du Nord. The singer, Rennie, remembered the courtyard complex where they lived in Chicago, where that winter there was always some crazy person or another in the courtyard, yelling in their underpants. Now she and her husband lived in the tallest building in Albuquerque.They still have not seen their entire home, she said, adding that the house’s turrets are sharpened to razor points.

So know I know two Rennies. The one at work is a waxy skinned girl in accounting. This morning, she told me she went through two canisters of asthma inhaler the week she started. Our HR person issued an e-mail memo to the staff, reminding us that we have a scent-free workplace. But the program staff still descend upon our conference room each Tuesday morning, a veritable cartoon cloud of perfumes surrounding them in a flowery nimbus. I know for sure the memo was sent to them. Because our director said that one of the program managers called to ask her about it. The director told her to ignore the memo. “Where are we going to wear our perfume, other than here and church?” she asked.

Today when I entered the accounting office, I smelled something pleasant and familiar. A scent I associated with San Francisco. It was tea tree oil, Accounting Rennie told me. She was spraying down all the accounting office cubicles with it, using a small plastic squirter bottle. Actually, it was tea tree oil, alcohol and water. The alcohol kills dust mites. Was I allergic to dust mites, too? No?

Rennie seemed relieved I wasn’t bothered. I told her about my husband’ asthma, and about how it’s really kicked up since our daughter went to college and we have been moving around so much furniture. We should replace our pillows every six months, she said. She also told me about a lamp I should buy. If I understood her correctly, the lamp would be made of salt. And definitely squirt alcohol all over everything, she said. I said we have four cats and that our walls are lined with books, which clearly horrified her. Then she quickly said she grew up with animals, even though she is terribly allergic. Which made me laugh, because then I remembered that someone else in accounting told me last week that Rennie is allergic to ants, which I didn’t even know was a thing.

The other Rennie, the singer, said last night that if they’d known San Francisco was so close to the water, they never would have come. Right now, we’re surrounded by octopus, she said. Her husband, who is from Odessa, TX, whistled through his teeth lik emy Grandma Mildred and sang mournfully that owls in their house were stealing his pills.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: THE CRIME

It has been a hot day, and Micheline idly scratches her underaram as she removes her work blouse and replaces it with the t shirt she slept in last night. If she avoids checking e-mail, she might get to bed at a decent hour. Her third work night in a row. Her bodily smell comforts her. Reminds her of creatively fruitful times.

The knock at her front door is unprecedented. It is nearly eleven. The lives on a dirty but reassuringly busy street. Is it better to ignore it, as every particle of her wishes to do? If someone’s out trying locks, best they think someone’s  home. She presses her face against the mail slot. It creaks faintly; the corner hurts her cheek. Her heart skitters. She will call out gruffly, “Who is it?” But no sound comes, as in a dream. There is a man there. He is unusually short. Mustn’t he be, for her to see his profile so close to the mail slot? She sees every white bristle on his face. Which is suddenly pressed against hers. Clean sweat, tongue, wetness, odd sounds. She sees that tan placket at the top of faded Levi 501’s He is gone. Her porch light illuminates dust-furred pots of succulents and that is all. She has tasted another person’s mouth. It has been years.

Now she is left with her hands on the cool wall, regarding the oil painting her grandmother left her, the vertical image of dewy cotton bolls. She presses herself to the mail slot again, hurts her cheek again. Opens her mouth and closes her eyes.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: They Don’t Make Neighbors Like They Used To

I grew up with a woman in harem pants who lived in a glass bottle. When her master called her, she would emerge to see what he wanted. As I recall, they bickered a lot. He was an astronaut who needed to appear sane. So no one could know about Jeannie. She was always in a snit, disappearing in a tendril of smoke and sulking on her curved couch inside the bottle. Her master had one friend, kind of a dumb playboy. He was so dumb he thought nothing of the fact that his neighbor owned a woman in a bottle, and he never complained about all that arguing. He normally wore his snappy work uniform everywhere he went. Who wouldn’t? All the chicks were wild for these guys.

I also grew up with a family who’d made it big in oil (AKA “Texas Tea”). They didn’t have many friends, but they stuck together. Their main friends were their banker and his assistant. The assistant was a spinster and a birdwatcher, which was pretty hilarious, I guess. The banker was always trying to swindle them. The father of the family was sexy in his country clothing and his amused eyes. His mother was always in a snit about something and would stomp around I her long skirt and combat boots. He had these sexy teenage kids. Jethro: kind of a dumb playboy and Ellie Mae, who wore a rope for a belt and loved animals, which she raised in their pool.

My favorite neighbors moved away from the city to the country. I used to love hanging around with the wife, Lisa, because we both love air conditioning and a penthouse view. She and her husband were both veterans of WWII; she as a member of the Hungarian underground and he as an ace flyer. I never got around to asking them how they met. Because her husband out of the blue decided he wanted to be a gentleman farmer. Everyone from his wife to his handyman to his neighbor, whose son was a pig named Arnold, thought he was out of his mind. Lisa on the other hand was an “out of the box’ thinker whose ideas included mending socks with staples, throwing dirty dishes out the window and moving back to New York. Unfortunately, her short-fused husband always got the last word, even though all of his plans and schemes were failures.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Rat Girl

In the dark in this cathedral Kristin Hersh is singing about butterfat, about plastic deer and missing bras. Pulled-back bedclothes and Sno-Cats.

Under the rafters’ spire and discrete disco ball, she looks like a doll. Rat Girl, she calls herself in her memoir of those early days when she was 13 and started Throwing Muses. She is singing out over our heads and serpentining her head in the shape of infinity as she always does. Her arms are sinewy, pounding at her guitar; bracketing round breasts in a tiny pink t-shirt.

Then she reads from this book about being hit by a car. How afterward she saw her reflection in a bystander’s mirrored sunglasses: her own blazing eyes in a bloody mass of meat. Then she puts the book away and the sound of her singing tears the air between us again.

All four of us are standing at the side, but close. All of us are fans. Because of her wiseacre patter, the intimacy of her lyrics, and her frankness in interviews, people feel they know her well. Because she is small and has suffered many hardships, they want to take care of her.

She sings about the notion of spurning, and it gets me to thinking. What am I spurning by scribbling notes during a performance? By snapping a picture? On my second drink, dulling my sense of her? What will happen after writing this stuff in the dark of The Chapel on the backs of these business cards, then jamming the cards in my pocket?

A Good Samaritan saved my life a few weeks back. One minute I was driving to meet a friend for drinks, and then I was itching all over, and then coughing dryly, and then my throat closed up. But my eyesight remained until I parked. I parked, exited, locked, then began blacking out. I remembered having seen a woman a few feet away getting into her car. So I called out, Ma’am? Can you help me? In the ambulance, my sight began to return. I texted the friend I was meeting. She showed me the text later. It said, “Cllsped.”

After the concert, we will walk with Blaze and Michael to 16th street BART. The iron Day of the Dead tree grates have all been installed on steel and glass Valencia. But Mission Street looks exactly the same to me as when I lived here twenty years ago. I will recall that the venue where we saw Kristen Hersh was once an alternative college. I will also remember making out with that filmmaker–he hair falling in his eyes, in suspenders and no shirt– in Dolores Park. But I won’t mention it. Then Michael will tell us a story about almost losing his arm. He and Blaze will laugh about it, so so will we.

What happens after you realize the members of your support group are dead?, is what Kristen Hersh is singing about now. Do you keep yearning for them, or do you dig in where you are? Her husband has left her, I know.

I want to lick her biceps, strum her neck tendons. “Get in line,” I can imagine her saying in that cactus dirt rasp.

The song is over, and it is her last one. Thank you very much, she says and while it does not sound sincere, she is a 100% sincere person and the real deal. She reads a little more from Rat Girl, this time about the bus ride when she was “a hundred years pregnant.” She laughs that she doesn’t die at the end, then adds that she hopes she isn’t spoiling the book.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

 

Patricia Bidar: Hansel, Solo

He’d forgotten his radio. Tonight, Ben the night watchman would settle for music at a remove. Its strains would drift from the Institute’s tiny painting studios, or the photo processing room, with its synthetic stink and fuzzy crimson light. Nina Hagen. Peter Gabriel in Deutche. Der Kommisar. 99 Lufbalons. German consonants colored the air they breathed at the Institute in those days.

Ben himself was of German extraction. His father a sportfishing boat captain who retired at forty and spent 16-hour days building a new home above East San Diego’s wild beige ravines. He’d told them of feral dogs he’d encountered in the early mornings. How he’d fought a pack off with a shovel. Ben’s mother had written to him about these things. It was easy to picture her at the kitchen table with her Bermuda shorts and varicose veins, her stack of books and deep tumbler of rosé.

When Ben and Cyn were growing up, she’d sometimes fallen asleep at the dinner table, hands entwined in her linen napkin. She’d been an anesthesiologist, before her legal troubles. She kept the lawsuit a secret from them back then. But they knew their father’s cruelty, as all children know. The house was steeped in his spite, although no one ever spoke of it.

The watchman shift covered Ben’s expenses. He slept in the truck parked at Land’s End, a few yards from the furtive couplings that took place in the twisting chaparral that rose from that section of Ocean Beach in those days. The waves’ crash rising into the frigid night. A whiff of men’s cologne. Sometimes a gay guy might glance in the truck’s window before disappearing on one of the narrow dirt paths that dropped into the brush. But nobody bothered him and Alphonse.

A few years back, a student had killed himself up in the print studio. This student was found by the film teacher in the pink context of dawn. In full drag and makeup, cheesy Mancini on a turntable set to repeat. Auto asphyxiation, they’d called it. The lore was that now you’d hear footsteps, chill winds. Rattling doorknobs. Back when they were rebuilding the tower, heavy objects kept falling to workman’s heads.

“Alphonse.” Ben’s Australian cattle dog alerted. He always stayed by Ben’s side as he headed toward the gallery halls, the theatre, and the bathrooms that flanked them. During the shift, he was to clock in at different sections of the campus. Otherwise, he guessed, it would be too easy to laze away his shift behind the desk, leaving the cement campus unwatched.

He drew the folded envelope from his coat pocket. His sister had never before written him a letter. “It’s gotten weird,” Cyn had scrawled in pencil. “Mom has some kind of tumor in her lungs. Dad drove Billy James to a ravine in East County and dumped him there to die.”

Their mother had gotten the cat after Ben and Cyn had left for school. Named him Billy James for an old suitor of hers from Minnetsota. One she had forsaken because he had a heart murmur. The idea was that Billy wasn’t expected to live a long life. He wouldn’t have been a good family man.

Their mom had telephoned Cyn in Boston, sobbing, the letter read. “Dad told mom he won’t be around sickness. He’s says the marriage is over. He gave her $30,000 in cash to get out.”

“She stays up at night, calculating,” the letter concluded. “Trying to figure out how long she can last.” Like a trapped queen in a German folktale. He wished Cyn were with him now. Together they could figure it out. Like a couple of medieval urchins in stained glass. Like Hansel and Gretel. But he and his sister hadn’t been in one another’s presence for nearly a year. It occurred to him he might never see her again, if she would write something this momentous in a letter, rather than calling.

It was time to punch in at the printmaking studio. The dog Alphonse always refused to enter the last clock-in site, the printmaking studio where the student had died. Instead, he’d trot off in the direction from which they had come, and meet Ben two minutes later at the studio’s exit. But Ben had never caught sight of a phantom or had his shoulder brushed or whirled at the sound of footsteps to face an empty hall.

Still, Ben always ran across the huge room, looking neither to the left or right, pausing an instant to punch the clock before Alphonse’s familiar low bulk greeted him at the exit door.

Why had Cyn not telephoned? He felt she was withholding her presence and the commitment of a present time conversation. Their mother had called her in Boston. Then had held the news to her, writing out, sealing, mailing the words that would cross the breadth of the nation in an envelope before Ben could receive them.

All these nights had passed, with Ben at work and his father crawling into bed at nine. His mother at the kitchen table, circling available apartments or job listings. Willing herself to spin a life to its conclusion with only a packet of cash and a blank horizon. And Cyn, privately living her life in Boston, so far from them all.

Auto asphyxiation. Choking the life out of oneself. Ben’s breath caught as he stood in the doorway of the print studio. The fluorescent lights flickered meagerly, then blasted on.

Normally, he ran. But tonight, he paused, willing himself to register a caress on his cheek, a rolling light across the floorboard. He made himself wait at the door. There was only the sound of his own breath. A moment later, a whimper from Alphonse on the other side of the far door.

Was that student who choked his life out turned on, pink and painted under the print studio’s hot light? Some element of exhilaration at his own display? Was he impassioned, praying someone would walk in and love him?

Or had he felt like the last person on the planet, perched atop a cement fortress over a graveyard, as in a German fable? A ghost story in the making?

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.