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Selected Stories by Robert Moulthrop


  Mrs. Mellors
  Friends In Need

  Uncle Louis
  Elvis’s Dog, the One Named Moonbeam
  Olden Days

About the Author  


It’s three in the morning when the rain finally clears through the snow to a core of shiny black pavement. Here, by the living room window in our Stuy-Town apartment, in the blue-gray light reflected up from the street, I turn my hand over and look at the deep creases and bisections of the palm and wonder, not for the first time, which is my life line. Suddenly, I have no thoughts. Then clearly, over the sound of my own breath, I hear the voice for the first time.

“See that boy over there?”

It’s a woman’s voice, full and rich, a Black voice with undertones of the south. Even though I can’t see her, I know she’s outside, but not too far away. I close my eyes and watch her emerge inside my head. Her skin is very dark. She’s wearing a red knit sweater and a black skirt. I watch as she gestures, slim brown hands with fingernails painted red to match the sweater. I am afraid to open my eyes, to look out through the window, for fear I will see her standing under the street lamp, the light glancing off shiny straight black hair, off gold earrings shaped like bamboo, off lips shiny with dark red lipstick. So I keep my eyes closed, and listen, and watch her, inside my head.

“See that boy over there?” she says again inside my dark. I follow her pointing finger and see a boy hanging upside down on the monkey bars, swinging back and forth, smiling, his hair brushing the sand. He’s my son, Adam, and he’s talking loudly to his younger sister while he swings.

“Come on, Sarah,” he says. “You can do this. This is easy. Come on over here next to me. Just hang on with the inside of your knees like this, see? See? It’s easy, Sarah. You’ll have fun. So what if we fall. It’s just sand. Come. On. Sarah.”

Sarah is standing, looking at her brother. Her mouth is slightly open. She’s wearing the white dress with the purple flowers. Her golden hair hangs limp. The fingers of one unwashed hand are curled tightly around the hem of her dress. She raises the balled up fabric and smears the snot that’s begun to drip from her nose.

“See that boy over there?” The woman’s inflection doesn’t change; I wonder who she’s talking to. “He’s the brother of that little girl standing next to him . . .” she continues now. I look at Sarah, who is standing very still, watching Adam. “. . . the blonde one wearing that white dress, dress could stand a good wash.” Sarah turns now and sits in the sand.

“That there is little Adam Tarlikian,” says the woman. Her voice flows like warm brown gravy over rice. “My sister used to do for them is how I know . . .”

That’s not true. Where is this woman in my head getting her information? We never had a cleaning woman. Annie wouldn’t have one. Annie finds the edges of her life by having too much to do. Annie keeps sane by scrubbing, even the toilet, and by telling me to aim better.

“How can you possibly not see that you’ve missed?” she says.

“Adam I could understand,” she says.

“I expect Adam to miss,” she says. “He’s a child. But you are not a child, Josh.”

She says these things to me at times when I cannot see her, when I am shaving and have my back turned to the door, or when I am on my hands and knees groping for the sock that has vanished under the bed.

“Just use some toilet paper and clean up the floor and around the seat,” she says.

In the days when I felt safe and we made glorious love, we would, in the dark, lie in breathless silence, then kiss and stroke each other’s skin.

Now, late at night, when the children are asleep, she says things to me that will help order her life. She rolls her head from side to side on her separate pillow in time with her words as I lie with my eyes closed and listen to her hair crunch against the linen. “I don’t understand you,” she says. Crunch crunch, like dry sand under foot on a too hot day.

“You work too hard,” I say. “You have your job, the children, the shopping, all the meals. Let’s get a cleaning woman.”

“We can’t afford it,” she says.

“My conscience won’t allow it,” she says.

“I’d feel silly,” she says.

 There in bed, the warm sheets creased, our bodies almost touch, arms and legs and thighs next to each other, but separate.

Now the Black voice is sharper. “. . . They used to be a real nice family, can’t tell it by now, them children all raggedy and coming out the sides.”

My son is now at the top of the monkey bars, his dark hair gleaming in the late afternoon sun.

“Climb up, Sarah,” I hear him say. “Climb up now. This is great. You can see everything from here, all the way to Toot And Common.”

For his second grade hieroglyphics assignment in October he drew the story of a boy being swallowed by a snake. Sarah scoops up some sand and puts it in her lap.

“See that over there?” says the woman softly, her dark lips caressing the words.

“Where? Where you pointin’?” says another woman in a reedy, determined voice.

“Over there, in the shadows,” says the Black woman. “See that lump looks like a heap of old clothes?”

“That’s what that is,” says the reedy woman. “That’s ol’ clothes. That heap’s been there since we came.”

“Well, you can think it’s old clothes. And you can say it’s old clothes. And maybe it is old clothes. But they’s old clothes sittin’ right on somethin’.” Now the woman’s voice is thick with knowledge, and she is moving in with real news.

I look over, out the window, through the night. Suddenly, I can see into the next day. The bundle is ragged and greasy. I see matted hair, and filthy feet, toes capped with yellow horn coming out of old shoes held together with tape and string. I see a claw that might be a filthy hand.

“My, my.” The air whistles through the reedy voice.

“That’s those poor children’s father,” says the Black woman.

“That there ol’ heap is Joshua Tarlikian,” she says.

“He lost his job,” she says.

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Muriel looks at me across the desk. She’s wearing the silk blouse she thinks I like. She moves the picture of her husband an inch to the right. Then she punches the button on her phone that sends all calls to voicemail.

“Joshua,” she says. “We are a real team. You know I depend on you. I couldn’t possibly do this without you. You’re the one with all the real skills, the one who knows how to make things go. None of these people would have real jobs without you. No one n New York City wants to hire parolees any more. No one has any sense of civic duty. No one thinks of give-backs any more. It’s worse than the eighties. It’s not even greed any more. Now, even for places like ours, it’s all about some mythical bottom line and some ethereal board of directors.”

Muriel uses words like “ethereal” when she’s talking business, then looks around to see how many people have noticed. Sometimes, at a board meeting, she’ll say that something is “evanescent,” look quickly around the table, then look over at me and touch the bow on her blouse, letting me know it’s our special word.

“So now is no time for you to go sour on me, Joshua,” she says. She’s leaning back now, gripping the arms of her chair, doing all she can to project her small breasts farther into my consciousness. “You’ve got to know people are talking. You can’t go barking at people and expect them to do what you want. Where are your people skills, Josh? Where’s your leadership? You’re the one who wanted the new computer system. That’s your report I took to the board. That was a big expense, Josh. Now the board’s asking for a follow-up report . . .”

Until that second “my blood ran cold” was, I thought, only a four-word cliché. Now my hands are ice and I know an eternal truth. Muriel catches my look.

“. . . not the whole board, Josh, just Richard.”

She leans forward, pulls the yellow pad closer, uncaps her Waterman, and begins her usual doodle of flowers with large leaves.

“Richard’s very knowledgeable about systems, Josh,” she says as she strokes more leaves into existence. “I think his view would be a big help. But if we’re going to get there, get him round to us, on our side, he’s going to have to see a report.” She stops mid-leaf and suddenly looks directly into my eyes. I look back, trying to smile with a mouth suddenly dry.

She knows the software isn’t working, knows the vendor lobbed the system over the transom and took a hike, knows I was patching things, trying to keep us moving, trying to make the thing work, keep the payroll, attendance, everything, all the parts, running, moving.

“You know I care, Josh. What we’ve built here is very important. Things’ll be fine. Just a little more direct application.” She puts the cap back on her Waterman, pushing it closed with a sharp click. “You know.”

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I work on that report. The words are polished, gleaming, silver. Objections are met and countered. There are at least three vindications for the current status, five well-thought-out and data-backed justifications for a slight budget increase, and even one request for additional staff support. When I gave Muriel my final draft she placed her counsel in the margin with faint pencil marks during a meeting at which she was curiously distant.

When I tell Annie about Muriel’s reaction, about the particular way she looked past my shoulder, never meeting my eyes, I try to smile, and sprinkle my version with “Really Okay” and “Slight Problem.” I leave the No-Job Monster right below my throat, along with the Black woman’s voice now intruding through my days: “He just sits now, just lookin’ at his children eat that sand.”

I say to Annie: “A heavy edit from Muriel with her Waterman would have meant something.”

“Josh, she likes you, I’m sure she liked the report,” says Annie. She moves her head on the pillow. “Nothing’s ever enough with you,” she says.

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Now it’s six a.m., and I’m walking across 14th Street then down Broadway to go back downtown. I don’t trust the buses. I don’t trust the subways. The computers at the office crashed, and I don’t care. I had printed the report and saved the sucker before the fall, and have the disc in my pocket, just in case. At four in the morning, I walked it home for one last check, sitting with a fresh cup of coffee at my own kitchen table, focused in the blessed silence on the words in front of me. Perfect alignment, perfect words. And no woman’s voice.

I showered and shaved, calmer than I have been in weeks. And now I’m walking back, my left hand clutching my “Report to the Board by Joshua Tarlikian,” the lines of type stacked and centered, 24 point Times Roman bold. Scrubbed and spell-checked, re-verified against my own Random House. Tables footed and cross-checked. Fourteen pages plus cover and two pages of appendix, every polished word luminescent enough for Muriel and Richard and a dozen ethereal fucking boards.

I smile as I walk because I’ll be early and the copier I left on in the office will shoot out the copies. Or the Kinko’s, two-four-seven ever-ready across the street, will do the shooting if our copier does a toner choke.

At Broadway and 10th Street I trip in the middle of the crosswalk, sprawl flat on wet black asphalt, hands splayed, trying first to save myself, never giving a thought to the seventeen pages of my future. Or the disc.

For a moment I cannot breathe, then I push up onto my knees, my world a curious wet map of tiny black asphalt hills and valleys. I sit. I can feel the blood on my left knee. My coat has taken a gash, and my pants, my only suit, now show my flesh through a down-and-across square rip at the knee. I reach into my pocket for the disc. I can tell, first by the touch of my thumb and fingers, then in the watery light of the new day, that it is bent. I look at my hands, see stones imbedded, feel my wrists ache, and then I am screaming Fuck, long and drawn out, because the separate pages, not now a report, are wet and strewn and scattered, all except one, which has been taken by the wind and is, I swear I don’t believe this, moving in an updraft over the too-green grass of the churchyard into the bare branches of a large, round tree with a smooth gray trunk whose branches don’t even begin to start for eighteen feet.

I stand, then rush to gather the pages, call myself an asshole for not having an envelope, not thinking about my briefcase, then look down. The pages aren’t really stained, just damp. I begin to breathe again. I put the pages in order. All are there, except page nine, the five column comparison table, the page in the tree.

A car horn. I turn. It is a taxi. I reach down and feel my knee, careful of the papers now in bloody, dirty hands. I am ready to vindicate myself with the driver, but he drives around me. I look over my shoulder, up into the tree, and the paper is gone. I suddenly feel my stomach’s cold blood suck away my life.

Except I notice a woman, Black, with earphones, not wearing a red sweater, standing ten feet away at the corner, waiting for the light to change. She glances at me, then raises her arm and points a finger, directing my eyes across the churchyard, beyond the second line of gravestones, to a white sheet of paper, my page nine, that is now pasted by the wind against the low wall of the church.

By the time I’m back at the corner, clutching all the pages, damp but now in order, she’s gone.

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I don’t think about order or chaos. Figuring the way to move my kids from the sandbox to the dinner table, remembering to aim, bridging the distance to Annie’s thigh — most days, that’s about it.

Did you ever watch your children sleep? They’re quiet, and they breathe light breaths. When you put your hand upon their heads, first on your son’s dark head, then your daughter’s gold, their hair feels radiant and warm. When you’re watching your children sleep, no one else is talking, and there’s only the silence of breath.

  © Robert Moulthrop, 2011

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