Short Stories



Noelle Wall

All he wants to do is retrieve his Matchbox car.  He knows it’s right here under the pillow, or maybe it’s fallen to the floor next to his bed.  He is not supposed to get up, so he leans over far enough that all of him, except his feet which are hooked over the edge, is suspended in the space between mattress-top and floor.  Not there.  All right then it must be in his bathroom, perched on the oval track of the sink rim, its engine revving in anticipation of the green flag.  He hesitates, then slides off the bed.  After all, he is allowed to get up to pee.  Out of habit, he pauses to pull the crisp white sheet over the waterproof pad that protects his mattress from accidents.  He’s much too old to wet the bed; he’s sure he hasn’t in ages; but the pad is still there because it’s better to be safe than sorry.  He turns away indignantly and stomps to the bathroom.  He doesn’t pee in his bed; he doesn’t.  The car isn’t on the sink.  It isn’t in the bathroom at all.  Now he really wants it, wants to hold it in his hand.  He remembers the feel of the cold metal on his fingers, the way the tiny MG rolls over the mountaintop of his knee.  He pictures the swoop of its creamy white fenders, the spin of its wire wheels.  Maybe it rolled under his bed.  That’s it; he’s certain of it.  It’s under the bed.  Wait.  Not his bed, but hers.  He left it in her room when it was time to take his bath.  Now he remembers rolling it over the top of the carpeting, the white car sleek against the baby blue plush.  He pads to the door and opens it a crack.  The hallway is dark, but he can see that her door is ajar; no light comes from within.  It must be very late.  He tiptoes down the hall, careful to avoid the creaky spots so as not to wake her.  A silver thread of moonlight filters through the leaded glass window at the end of the hall, helping his eyes adjust to the darkness.  He stops.  Music is coming from her room, and another sound.  At first he thinks it’s part of the music.  Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket…He silently mouths the next line:  Save it for a rainy day.  He knows the whole song, it’s one of the recordings his mother plays on the hi-fi while they fold laundry, holding the corners of each sheet and shaking it high into the air until it billows like a sail.  Sometimes they run underneath while the sheet hovers overhead, and meet halfway, hugging and laughing, while it floats down over them.  You’ll have a poc-ket-ful of star-light…It’s the same song, but there are other noises, separate from the music.  Unh…unh…unh.  The sound has a rhythm of its own.

Crouching on the floor outside her door, he collects himself into a ball and listens.  Unh…unh…unh.  He feels cold and shivery.  Maybe he should go back to bed.  He starts to crawl down the hall, but then remembers a story his teacher read to the class from Weekly Reader.  A six-year-old girl saved her mother from certain death with QUICK THINKING.  She found her mother turning blue on the floor and dialed “O.”  The operator put her through to the hospital where a nurse led her through the steps of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  At first he thought that was gross, but Weekly Reader called the girl a hero.  What if his mother is sick now?  What if he is listening to the last breaths of her life?  What if he can save her?  Now he’s flushed, sweat beading on his neck and underarms.  He can do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he knows he can.  He can be a hero.  He rises and turns slightly to squeeze between the door and jamb.  Tears gather in the corners of his eyes and he brushes them away.  Heros don’t cry.  Unh…unh…unh.  He enters the room.  She is not on the floor turning blue.  She is on the bed, naked, a strange man moving on top of her.  Unh…unh…unh.  He instantly knows what they are doing.  It’s sex.  He has never seen it before, and he is not sure how he knows it, but he knows.  And somehow, maybe from whispers caught on the tail of a dream, he knows that sex, like peeing in bed in the night, is a secret.  He stands frozen in the doorway, but neither his mother nor the stranger notices him in the near darkness.  It’s as though he is invisible.   He drops to the floor and inches closer until he reaches his mother’s yellow rose chintz chair.  The toy car is there, lying on its side between the folds of the chair’s skirt.  He hardly dares to breathe as he scoops it up and slips behind the chair.  Unh…unh…unh.  All his senses are alert.  The idea that he can be in the same room with his mother without her knowing is brand new to him and strangely exhilarating.  Oh, he sometimes sneaks up on her to surprise her, but that’s a game, a game they both know they are playing.  This is different; this is real.

He squeezes the metal toy in his hand, allowing its sharp edges to dig cracks in his fingers.  He can hardly believe how close he is now to the sound and sight and smell of his mother and the man.  He sees them, but they don’t see him.  He opens his hand and rolls the car back and forth on his palm.  It occurs to him that he has stumbled into the center of their secret, but he is the secret one.  He is invisible.  His fingers work the surface of the object in his hand, blindly rubbing the smooth top, absently spinning the rubber cylinders.  He feels the knowledge of his being there seep through his skin like heat, or radiation.  He owns the knowledge; it is his.  No one else knows he is there.  He huddles behind the chair for a minute, ten minutes, an hour, watching.

Back in his bed he is too excited to sleep.  He is changed.  He feels the change at the molecular level.  Catch a falling star…He has peered into another universe, one he never imagined existed; how many more are waiting for discovery?  Possibilities swirl around him; he is dizzy with their implications.

 *     *     *

 Perry is at school or summer camp or band practice when the packages arrive at his house.  Destiny waiting in plain brown boxes on the entry table.  They contain X-ray glasses or a miniature camera or Real Detective Secrets.  Now he listens in on the extension; now he hides under the porch; now he practices being invisible.  He is an explorer charting his own way through the world of secrets.  He has worked it out.  At any given time, there are two worlds, the world he is in and the one he is not in.  That world is a parallel universe where things—all sorts of things—go on without him.  Whenever he is present, it is his universe and goes by the rules he knows, but when he is not there, anything can happen.  The trick is to enter the parallel universe without anyone discovering him.  Then he can unravel its secrets.

Here is Perry, helping his mother; now he’s gone, but where?  There he is doing his homework, or is he?  He is quiet as a breeze, stealthy as dusk.  Every person, every room is a universe to be explored.  He has the talent; he has the gift.  When he was a little boy, his aunt thought it was cute when he took one of the table cameras at his cousin’s wedding and crawled among the grown-up ladies’ legs aiming it up their dresses, but his teenage neighbor won’t think it’s funny if she sees his telescope aimed at her bedroom window.  Take care, Perry, you’re on perilous ground.  Few understand your calling, the power you hold in your eyes and ears, and the images in your mind.  Be supple; be furtive; beware.  Why is Miss Harper staring at you?  Why do the girls whisper behind your back?  Hide, Perry; make yourself disappear.  Slide, Perry, into that other world.  Study and practice your craft.  Electronics fascinate him.  He repairs the telephone, makes the speaker crystal clear; soon he’s fixed the phones of all his mother’s friends.  On their newly repaired phones, they complain and advise; they lie to one neighbor and reveal themselves to another.  He possesses their conversations; he owns them all.

He takes up music and the capricious girls who shunned him for his strangeness, now find his strangeness hip and alluring.  His features settle into a geeky handsomeness, intense eyes, thick hair, full lips.  After every gig with his band, he has his pick of girls to party with.  He takes their pictures and notices how the camera unmasks them; he sets up his own darkroom; he has a gift.  A language emerges in his mind, a canon of intricate methodology and classification.  Secrets of the body, secrets of the heart, secrets of the soul.  He becomes a collector of reality, but collectors display what they amass; they compare and evaluate their booty.  They trade.  Perry, so long dodging and ducking in darkness, thirsts for the illumination of appraisal, he hungers for esteem from the like-minded.  Does he dare proclaim his talent?  Will he expose his sleight-of-hand?  Shall he boast of his knowledge, his power?  He tentatively deals out a series of photographs before his college roommate, and suddenly he’s an entrepreneur, a supplier.  His images snake through the frats and dorms, party to party on the well-worn pathways of stolen tests, used term papers and drugs.  Be careful, Perry.  You’re a big shot now; they seek you out; they marvel at your work; they’re making you wealthy, at least by campus standards, but not everyone appreciates your métier.  An outraged father, for example, comforting his ruined daughter, wiping tears from her delicate, aristocratic cheekbones, and now friends have vanished; tracks are covered, and Perry is quietly leaving school, all charges dropped to avoid a scandal.  Secrets shared have lost their power.  A lesson then, those who respect the power—those who are chosen as guardians of the power—are few in number.  Few have the gift; few are chosen to explore the pathways of the hidden and concealed; few are initiated into the quest for discovery.  Secrets.  They surround you, obscure you, delude you, and ultimately, they betray you.  No, the power found in that clandestine world is not for everyone, Perry, not for everyone.

He resolves to embrace silence.  He dons the role of silent observer, but not without passing judgment; he’s a living, breathing conscience, keeping tally, both plus and minus.  Not all secrets are sinful.  He bears equal witness to charity and larceny, love and betrayal, arrogance and despair; all coexist in the hidden realm of secrets, the elusive underworld lair of hidden truths, the place where sin, safely concealed, is no sin at all.

 *     *     *

 (If you are situated just right you can see the whole scene through the window; the buttoned down exec presiding behind his oversized desk, his sycophants jockeying for position around him.   If you are watching, you can tell when he speaks, the way his eyes move from one face to another.  Now he raises a hand for emphasis; now he slams his fist on the desk.  You can see his audience startle.  They are on the second floor so you have to be some distance away, parked on a hill, perhaps, with binoculars or a telephoto lens.  The angle has to be just right, because it is the second floor window of the NewsChannel-12 Live Television Broadcast Center, and because you have to look between the stems of the huge white microwave dishes that rise behind chain-link fence, like giant techno-mushrooms.  Your gaze might linger a moment, but it’s a familiar scene, one you’ve observed a hundred times before.  Easing your lens to the left, you settle your sights on the only other window not blocked by the dishes.  It’s the last window in the row, barely illuminated—but wait, here is an interesting picture.  Click, you squeeze the shutter on your battered F3 almost without thinking.  Oh yes, definitely worth contemplating.  You have to be situated just right, but then you can see him reach out his arms to grab her.  Click.  She pulls away, and you see him laugh.  His laugh is confident, you imagine, and cruel.  This could be useful.  Click; click; the motor drive doesn’t hesitate.  She backs into a corner, her arms outstretched to block his approach, but he is persistent; he pulls her toward him, encircling her with his arms, burying his face in her neck.  Click.  You would have to know it is the sales manager’s window, otherwise you would have trouble identifying the two figures standing poised there in the half light—click—the glow of the desk lamp silhouetting the sales manager and his secretary like a wedding portrait).

 *     *     *

 Perry Jones considers himself a Renaissance man, a man for all seasons.  Now he dabbles in nature photography, seeking out hidden caves and beaver dams in the Adirondacks and preserving them on film.  Now he seeks out women for what he calls his boudoir collection, preserving his most private moments with them—sometimes with their knowledge and sometimes without.  He still gets off on making music, losing himself in the frantic passion of sticks beating drums.  But the band he plays with always wants to practice, and he needs to be free.  More and more Jones realizes he doesn’t have to actually create anything to be an artist; his life is his art.  Its style and forms are subject to his mercurial command.  Now he’s an aesthete seeking the expression of his soul; now he’s a union man, setting store by his daily toil.

No one knows who hired him at NewsChannel-12, but no one cares.  If his commercial shots aren’t always lit just right, well, at least he slips you a joint while you edit them, and if his stills are stained with fixer, at least he has plenty of pictures of the traffic girls from his private collection to entertain you while he makes a reprint.  If you need something, Perry can find it; if you want something, Perry can provide it.  You got lucky with this gig, Perry; you’ve got a good thing going.  All right, it’s true that it is sometimes a hassle—but mostly because of that bitch Elaina—she doesn’t understand that you can’t be bound by her limits.  All she cares about are deadlines and getting shots in focus.  She doesn’t appreciate what you have to offer.  Well, you’ll show her.

The trouble is, Elaina doesn’t give respect where it’s due.  No respect for the way things have always been done, no respect for the people who were at the station long before she came along; no respect for the tape operators, the directors, the photographers—all the workers who hold domain over the elaborate equipment that makes a television station run.   No respect for territory.  She breezes in on her first day, fancy red suit, blond hair slicked into a tight bun, bottle of Coke in one hand, cigarette dangling between two fingers of the other, and starts right in.

 “I want you to switch to digital; we’re going to get the Canon Mark II” she tells him—him, the photographer, who, after 30 years as a professional (a Nikon devotee, by the way) can decide for himself what kind of camera he wants to use—”and start a filing system for our digital originals.”  Our originals.   Within a week, Elaina hires an assistant, a Xerox copy version of herself, and then every time you see Elaina, Claire is on her heels.

Director of Promotion, but you’d think Elaina is Queen of Promotion, demanding that everyone act more “professional”—as if she knows their jobs better than they do.  Oh, she can be nice enough, if she wants something, then it’s all “oh please for me,” and “I know you can do it,” but Perry’s not an idiot; he knows what she is up to.  She can’t hondle him.  Look at her preening at her desk.  She had her office remodeled.  Now it is arranged just so, blond wood desks, matching blue executive rollaway chairs, dove-gray industrial carpet stretching across the floor and up one wall, modern art prints: Ellsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollack and Georgia O’Keefe, for God’s sake, and an original Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph museum-matted and framed.  Her Coke sits on the corner of her desk.  She has her own cup for it, dark blue plastic with the legend, “The glass ceiling gets more pliable when you turn up the heat!”  She thinks she’s smart; she thinks she’s a big shot.  Listen to her plot and plan and whisper with her little shadow.  Telling each other their secrets.

The Canon’s first outing:  a weather ad for TV Guide.  Elaina fusses around picking his brain.  How to light the set?  Where to place the tripod?  Not so confident now, is she?  He’s surprised, and then not surprised.  Why shouldn’t she need his advice?  A smile, a laugh, a hand on her shoulder.  Now she sketches a layout and he visualizes the scene.  He shows her the framing and she dresses the set.  Their ideas meet and connect; they are riding the same mind wave.  Wisps of hair escape from her bun and curl at her neck.  The world tilts and he sees her anew, her self laid bare (how white is her throat), her secrets revealed (how delicate her earlobe).  He owns her now.  His skin tingles.  She is his.   The shots are good, a little dark perhaps—when has he had time to test-run the new camera?—but she assures him she can fix them in Photoshop.  A drink after work to celebrate and a walk to her car.  Too soon to kiss her, let her wait.  He’s in her world now.  A flip of a switch and he’s in her car, her house, her head.  She’s on her cell phone, with Claire, he guesses.  … so easy, she says, I’m almost embarrassed for him.  “Oh Perry, please help me…”  Giggles.  Giggles!  “I think he has a crush on me.  Gross, I know…”

Elaina gets sick.  Sweet revenge. Vertigo, disorientation, hallucinations, panic attacks.  Oddly, it comes and goes, striking twice in a week, not at all the next, and three times the week after.  Claire covers for her, taking her calls, walking her back and forth in their shared office, driving her to the doctor when she loses control.  Months go by.  Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, the diagnoses multiply in proportion to the number of doctors she consults.   But no one must know, Elaina pleads…not after she’s worked so hard to get this far…not after she’s fought her way to this job…no one must see her like this.  No one does, except Perry, who sees everything.  Nothing is hidden from him.  Not her shaking hands or faltering steps, not her confused looks or garbled speech, not her manic attacks concealed behind closed doors.  Nothing is hidden.  Not the dangerous swerve of her car or the slam of its door.  Not her frenzied steps racing across the slick pavement, not her mask of fear or wild screams, not her frantic grasps at the bridge’s railing or her final desperate climb up its rungs to stand suspended on the brink, a living bowsprit quivering against the moonlight.  Not her plunge into the Hudson’s inky deep.  And that’s it; she’s gone.  Gone forever, Perry; gone for good.  He spins the wheels on the toy in his pocket, rubs the smooth top where the paint is worn away.  She’s gone now, Perry.  Gone with her slicked back hair and her Coke and her dangling cigarette.  Isn’t this what you wanted, Perry?  Isn’t this what you intended?

A day, a week, two weeks.  Past the shock and the funeral, and a version of truth pieced together.  She was unstable, irrational, mentally ill, at the very least, depressed.  At the general manager’s request, he shoots a PSA on mental illness and the warning signs for suicide.  He also shoots six car commercials (come on down for the no-dicker sticker…) and smokes a joint in the garage with a studio cameraman who plays keyboard in a pick-up jazz band.  He shoots two furniture spots (no payments for a full year…) and shows the weekend sportscaster how to use laundry bleach to turn ordinary coke into crack.  He shoots a series of promos on Accu-Weather (you can count on us…) and cops an amplifier and some cable connectors from one of NewsChannel-12’s engineers.  He takes black and white PR photos of each of the anchors against gray seamless and gives the new Chyron girl a tour of his darkroom.  He avoids Claire.  He doesn’t like her look, her looking at him, her eyes always on him, following him, waiting for the instant he disappears—now you see him; now you don’t—searching for the moment, the exact moment, he slides from one world into the other.  Does she know?  Does she guess?  Or is she simply fed up with his shaky zooms and sloppy photos, disgusted with his disregard for deadlines and his cavalier attitude.  Where have you been Perry?  Are my prints dry yet?  What’s taking so long?  What have you been doing?  Be careful Perry; she’s trouble.  She’s a Xerox copy of the other one, isn’t she?

She sits in her executive chair at her designer desk, papers askew in front of her, silently rubbing the sides of her head and staring at Elaina’s desk.  Everything is just the way her boss left it:  lamp, telephone, blotter, pen holder, in-box, rolodex, calendar, stapler, coffee cup, aspirin bottle.  She gets up and crosses the room—only a few steps—and starts to pick up the calendar, but her hand pauses midair and finally reaches instead for the aspirin, prompted, no doubt, by her pounding temples.  She pops two, then a third pill into her mouth, washes them down with cranberry juice from a paper cup and gets back to her writing.  Only moments later, fourteen to be exact, she lets out a cry, “oh no,” and doubles over, clutching the arms of her chair.

 “Oh no, it’s happening to me,” she groans over and over, before grasping the receiver off her phone and dialing three digits.  She drops the phone and screams.

“Help me; help me please…”

Footsteps, shouting, a cold pak from the first-aide kit.  Rush to the hospital in a blur, tests, observation, but nothing specific is found.  Exhaustion, anxiety, depression.  Of course, why not?  How could it be otherwise?  The shock, the stress, the trauma…

Claire knows it’s none of those things, and he knows she knows.  Claire knows Elaina’s symptoms too well, all those hours dealing with her secret disease behind closed doors, and Claire knows her own symptoms are the same.  She should be frightened, humble, but she’s not.  She’s back the next day, as if it never happened, but she’s different, has her own secret now, her own power.  He sees it in her disdain for his talent, in her disrespect of his work.  She criticizes him, badgers him, calls him in to her office one morning and rips his latest photos in half and throws the pieces like a gauntlet to the floor.

He smiles; he laughs; he dissembles and reappears.  He’s a panther, a skylark, a whisper of breeze.  He scorns her foolishness.  She doesn’t know whom she’s dealing with; she doesn’t understand his gift, his power.  He walks out of her office, leaving the pieces of his photographs where they fell.

He waits until she leaves, before slipping back in, alone.  Something is different, a new picture—he hadn’t noticed it before.  It’s a collage of paper and glass mounted and hung on the closet door, a strange spot for it.  It’s delicate and haunting, with a depth that’s familiar, though he can’t place where he’s seen it before.  But he has no time for artwork now.  He snatches the aspirin bottle, replaces it with an identical one, and then, for good measure, he pours a powder into the glass on Claire’s desk, a glass nearly full of cranberry juice, and stirs it with his finger.  It only takes a moment, a secret moment, a moment of slipping in and slipping out, but that’s all he needs.  And it’s all they need, Perry, all they need to follow you when you leave the station, all they need to cut you off, their lights flashing, and surround your car, all they need to pull their weapons and ram you against your car door (spread your legs you pervert, hands behind your head) all they need to handcuff you and shove you into the back of a police car, all they need to search your pockets and find the vial, to search under the seat and find your guns, to search the glove compartment and find your dope, to search the trunk and find your tapes—some of them at least.  Your secrets have betrayed you, Perry.  Where is your gift now?  And then he knows, the artwork, the familiar shape, a camera lens watching him, stealing his secrets, trespassing into his world.

 *     *     *

 He’s spared the indignity of a trial.  They charge him with murder by depraved indifference and assault, though he knows they can’t make the homicide stick.  Too obscure a trail between the pills in his pocket and Elaina’s fatal swan dive into the Hudson.  Still, other charges fly around him:  weapons, drugs, assault.  They offer a deal, but he laughs.  Don’t they understand they can’t hold him?  Don’t they know he can’t be bound by their rules?  He darts into their world and back out; he’s a chameleon, now one thing, now another; he’s invisible, now here, now gone.

They fail to pay attention.  Instead, they rip out his wires and sift through his pictures.  They inspect his tapes and ransack his closets, drawers and darkroom.  One by one, his tricks are discovered, his gift revealed.  Blasphemy.  Humiliation.  Betrayal.  His secrets are closing in; they surround him, obscure him.  Pain creeps into his chest; he can’t breathe.  He lies on his bunk waiting for the apocalypse; the mattress is thin, the sheets are cold and rough.  He feels the darkness coming and welcomes it, a new world to enter, to discover.  He shudders and a hot pool spreads beneath him.  He curls on his side, enveloped in the warmth.  Floating.  But only for a moment.  Pain rips through his chest, searing him, splitting him.  He’s drenched in sweat and urine.  Use your gift now, Perry.  You have only to slip away, Perry, (quiet as a breeze, stealthy as dusk) slip away into that other universe, unlock its meaning, wield your power.

 *     *     *

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