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issue 5


a story by
Jenny Steele
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I'm used to this, waking up in the middle of the night and unable to fall asleep again. And here in _____ Bay or _____ Beach this insomnia is probably exacerbated because for this night, as well as for upcoming nights, there's the added anxiety of sleeping in unfamiliar beds in unfamiliar rooms. But I've stopped battling sleeplessness; I've conceded to that demon. No more do I lie awake and analyze why I'm lying awake. Now I just get up. At home, I sit at my pine desk with my exams graded, with my yellow legal pads and mechanical pencils, with my gooseneck halogen lamp, with a brass honeybee paperweight. I sit there each night until dawn.

So here I sit likewise in this motel room. I'm wearing my flannel pajamas (pastel blue with navy piping, hospital like, yes, but on sale: 40% off). Here I sit in the room's one chair, a chair with a dangerous and sordid history maybe, maybe dragged from a shipwreck off Pacific cliffs to furnish this room (its upholstered cushion, orange woven wool, reeks of brine). Here I sit near narrow windows with a view of the lot where my beige Ford Fiesta is parked. From this second story angle the Fiesta resembles a giant bunion pad with wheels. Maybe I should have opted for a Camry (the rental agency had a line-up of them, each candy red glistening in the sun, very nice), but I'm fond of a deal and ended up with this clunky Fiesta.

I flew into the Seattle/Tacoma airport this afternoon. How pretty the earth framed in the jet's oval window: green fields, snowy slopes, rivers like threads from this altitude. But next to me was an awful man, a Russian boozed on mini bottles of Tanqueray gin. He was crowding my armrest. I wanted to call him either a moose sphincter or an amoeba fart, but I held my tongue. Instead, in my leaden now, now, children, let's behave voice, let's act like humans voice, I suggested to Mr. Russian that he consult the stewardess concerning the airline's policy on armrest crowding. He got off my armrest, then offered me a wintergreen Certs. This was not a courtesy; he gestured with a wave that my breath was noxious to him. I was glad as hell to get off that flight.

I claimed my baggage (an ancient but durable brown suitcase) from the rattling carousel and hurried to the Thrifty booth for my beige Fiesta (the name Thrifty thrills me, makes my heart go pitter-patter). I then drove west following the route I'd studied on maps; I drove until I reached _____ Bay or _____ Beach (these villages of coastal Washington have similar identities, are easily confused). I checked into the Economy Lodge here. Yes, the Economy Lodge, the un-neon, un-glitzy sign beckoning to me, the idea of economy delighting me as much as the idea of thrift. I am undeniably cheap. Tight-fisted, penny-pinching. But there's no shame in this. On the contrary, there is genuine joy in securing a discount. Those who share this love of frugality understand this; parsimony is a kind of cult.

The room is boxy, with rough, pea-green carpet, a lumpy double bed under a blushing chenille spread, a sink with a cracked basin and a foxed mirror, a mildew-caulked tub, and mineral-encrusted faucets. When the heating unit clicks on there's a baffling, acrid odor, vaguely vomit-like. But there is this decent pair of windows with hinged upper sections. I'm unable to see the ocean from this room, but I can hear it; I hear the slurp of surf through these flop-open windows. It's enough for me.

After I checked in, I ate a satisfactory dinner (steamed cod and boiled carrots) in a café across the road, then inspected but did not purchase a slice of lemon meringue pie. In the room once more, I scrubbed my face and neck, flossed and brushed my teeth, changed into my flannel nightwear, watched the evening news and local weather on the TV bolted to the wall, then went to bed. But, of course and as usual, I woke up around 3 AM. During these many months of insomnia, I've doodled on scraps of paper, I've done crossword puzzles. But these activities have proven futile and wasteful; they have not prevented the wee hours' terrible conclusions from coming (these hours are wee, but they're also raw, cutting, unsettling). So I've recently resolved to use this sleeplessness, to apply these hours to a project.

My project? I'm putting together the story of oxygen. Nothing lengthy, nothing fancy. Just a pamphlet or booklet printed and bound at Kinko's with a brick red or jade green cover. I've drafted one version, but its language is too technical, so when I pick it up again (when I go home and if), I'll deliberately dumb it down, eliminate the unreadable aspects. Perhaps it should become a children's book with illustrations (not done by me, I cannot draw); perhaps I should create a character, a bunny, for example, a large brown bunny, erudite, with pointed, attentive ears, wire-rimmed bifocals, and halitosis. This science bunny would hop, hop, hop through the story of oxygen. Perhaps he could hop through the stories of every element, through the entire periodic table.

Oxygen: my insomniac project. This is my focus. Or things like this: reading science journals, biographies of great people (FDR, Jefferson, Julius Caesar) and non-fiction (battle of Verdun, history of Apartheid). This is better for me and easier for me. I am more cerebral than corporeal and that's how it is and I am okay with it. I have become entirely sexless. There are rumors and dumb jokes in the teachers' lounge, of course, but I ignore them. I do not care. But I have had a beau or two. Two exactly. Specimen A: Russell, a classmate from college, a medical student, a future doctor of nephrology, intelligent, but whose fidelity was a bit if and maybe. Specimen B: Louis, a loan officer whose painful timidity charmed me but who, after eighteen months, informed me that he could not love an ice cube, but that I qualified for 6.5% financing.

So...Oxygen, featuring _____, the science crazy bunny. Oxygen! Symbolized by the simple and elegant letter O. O, which is useful as zero too. O, the shape of the mouth when expressing amazement, as in, "O, Louis, how cruel!" O, the first figure scrawled by babies with crayons, around and around. O, hooked into loops in primary school penmanship lessons. O, quick padding for the lyric-deficient songwriter. O, O, O! Isn't this lovely? How this element, the most necessary and happily the most abundant, is represented by this letter O, so meaningful on its own? I wax poetic perhaps (I've always wanted to wax poetic), but there is genuine poetry in such things.

I ponder too (ponder and wax: I'm caught doing both lately, especially in these dead, dark hours) on the man who identified the element oxygen. I'll mention him in my story, of course. Joseph Priestly, English amateur scientist, through various experiments in his home lab, isolated oxygen in 1774 (I'll have him illustrated with a high collar and shoe buckles, with _____ assisting him, clasping a glass beaker in his fuzzy paws). In a footnote of fairness, I'll add that a Swedish scientist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, was simultaneously performing similar tests in his own laboratory and also identified oxygen. But it is Priestly who is generally given the credit.

In my sudden enthusiasm for my project, I now display in my classroom a reproduction of a portrait of Mr. Priestly alongside the previously hung portraits of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. Though Priestly is not quite of the same ilk as those others (he really was an amateur, with no formal schooling, his tests crude), I nonetheless have included him in that line-up of cardboard likenesses thumb-tacked above the chalkboard. He was a plain-faced man, with thin, inexpressive lips, but with eyes blazing with curiosity. Am I waxing poetic again? Forgive me. Is it possible to wane poetic? I'll attempt that.

I am, in fact, a teacher. I've taught physical science at Belker High in Chandler, Arizona for twenty-two years. I have always been strict and demanding, but recently, actually rather suddenly, since my mother's death, I've relaxed my standards. I suppose this is wise, for my own sanity if nothing else. There is less pressure now on students to struggle, to ruminate over problems. What's wrong with you, Miss Winston? There's no such thing as an actual attention span, Miss Winston! Breathe, Beth. Inhale. Exhale. There. Better. But let me add that my pedagogical method has been further undermined of late by the younger crop of teachers fresh from graduate school who, instead of following me and the other veterans, reject proven paths and lead their already span-less students into utter chaos!

Inhale. Exhale. Calm down, Miss Winston. Calming down.

One of the newest of the new teachers is a young woman named Debby. She is predictably blond; she flounces and bounces. "Science is fun!" she squealed to her 9th grade biology class on day one of the fall term. "Science is fun!" This jubilant yelp cut through the accordion curtain drawn to halve one room into a pair and interrupted my preparatory remarks to my own students. Eyes lifted, ears perked up. What? What did we hear? Science is fun? I quit my speech and snapped my fingers. "Children," I announced (since adolescents hate being called children I do it frequently), "Science is not fun. Science is serious and complex. Science is rigorous. Do these men look like they're having fun?" I jabbed the rubber tip of my steel pointer at the cardboard portraits of the great scientists. While I waited for an answer I wondered how to rid the school of perky Debby next door, maybe with a fizzing, fruit-flavored tablet of cyanide plopped in her morning can of Fresca? Moments passed and a girl piped up with, "Einstein had fun."

"O?" I answered, packing the solo syllable (and the symbol of my dear element) with practiced sarcasm.

"On those TV ads," the girl said. "Rent-To-Own. Where he was like confused by the choice of appliances, you know, like ovens."

There was a hush in my classroom then. The students, sophomores, had heard of my wrath, of my pen quick to ink detention slips. "She's old-fashioned." "She's like from another century." I admit that I don't come off very well with my students, but I'm not there to be a pal, a chum. I am there to teach them procedure, discipline, and awe. Yes, awe. Precious awe. I am discouraged by their obvious contempt of awe. But I glanced at my cardboard heroes and I imagined Darwin's awe at the spectacle of finches and tortoises as he prowled the Galapagos Islands; I imagined Einstein's awe as he cracked the formula for energy while clerking at a patent office in Bern. And, of course, I imagined the eccentric Joseph Priestly, with his tubes and flames and apparatuses, identifying a gas then unrecognized. Awe. I inhaled. I exhaled. I returned to my opening remarks. I was letting things slide.

As further proof of my recent laxity, I've chosen to use my so-called "personal days" which have been accumulating in a kind of time bank. The principal of Belker, Lester Lieber, informed me during the pre-semester potluck that I'd better "use up" these days because that's what they're designed for, for "using up."

"And what exactly is 'using up?'" I asked.

"Listen, Miss Winston," he said. "These personal days are going to be wiped soon. Wiped! So please use them up. You're entitled to call in sick every once in a while. Even if you're not sick. You can call in sick if you want an extra Friday to go camping."

" I don't go camping."

"Okay, not camping. But whatever it is you enjoy doing. Nobody really knows what you enjoy doing. If I did, I wouldn't have suggested camping. The point is, Miss Winston, I want you to use up your personal days. Because I guarantee they will be wiped. Wiped!"

I blinked at Principal Lieber. He has a gleaming, yellowish skull with a rim of dark brown hair and he always wears sagging cardigans; he resembles a bottle of hazelnut liqueur. He continued, "And since your mother's death..."

That. That. "Okay," I said.


"Okay. I'll 'use up' my personal days."

"Great. That's wonderful," said Principal Lieber who was suddenly sweating not bullets but torpedoes. This amused me. Had I made him nervous? How funny. "And don't worry, we'll find a proper substitute."

"Okay," I said again, then I walked past him to the folding table of casseroles and buffalo wings (my lime gelatin with wedges of pineapple was a mild success, I noticed). I scooped another plop of Mrs. Alba's macaroni salad onto my plate. As I stood there eating, observing my colleagues hug and mug, I realized that an extended rest - an escape - was not such an awful idea. But I could not picture my pale flab horizontal on a white beach near sparkling blue water. Beached whale alert! Colleagues spend holidays climbing peaks or rafting canyons. They've never asked me to join them; I'd decline though, wouldn't I? Those activities involve groups and groups are generally bad for me. I'm not skilled in unstructured chitchat; I mumble and verbally stumble. Witty banter eludes me; it won't wait for dissection and analysis. So I've come to this damp and isolated seaside village for my little trip. The gloom and the gray suit me.

My name is Beth Winston. Beth is not, as is commonly assumed by those filling in a form, such as the sleepy clerk of this Economy Lodge, an abbreviated version of Elizabeth. No, it's simply Beth, a tidy and pragmatic name. I am a woman on the verge of fifty, graying but not entirely gray, with ample flesh on a sturdy frame; I wear plain clothing and sensible shoes; I am acutely astigmatic and require thick glasses. I have buckteeth and, as previously mentioned, chronic foul breath. I am not attractive. I was the eldest child of Mark and Ida Winston of Miami, Arizona. Miami is a small mining town east of Phoenix and my birthplace.

My family, which once included a younger brother named Oliver, lived in a modest, pale yellow house. Behind the house my father kept a neat garden of tomatoes, green beans, pattypan squash. He collected the vegetables in a round brown basket and as he knelt to the earth to pinch things from it, he hummed (he was a musician as well, had played clarinet with a Phoenix jazz trio). In the evenings, for fun, he read philosophy (Nietzsche, Sartre); he alternated this with issues of National Geographic (articles on Inca sacrifice, grizzly bears fishing for salmon, Roman coins dug up in London suburbs). His keen, curious mind was wasted in his job as foreman of a factory for copper pipes, wiring, and tubing. But he was happy, a man who fit into happiness.

As for my mother, she made the home my father provided for, but she wasn't dismissed as an ordinary hausfrau. She was a woman of exceptional beauty, with plum-black hair, creamy skin, and eyes of ink. She was, according to my father, a gazelle, a flash flood, a nova. Obviously, he adored her. He'd rescued her from a war-ravaged village in Italy where he'd fought in 1944, a reluctant GI. He brought her home, taught her English, gave her what he could afford of America. In turn, she gave him children, first me (who had, she decided, "old world features," a throwback to the scowling, shawl-shouldered woman in a grainy sepia photograph she'd held onto), then Oliver, a bright, beautiful boy, a marvel, dark like her, breathtaking like her. She was a fine mother, her discipline measured, her love limitless. I vividly recall the summer Oliver and I inventoried the insects in the area: grasshoppers and crickets, moths and butterflies, beetles and scorpions. We created a booklet (not unlike my pending Oxygen); I wrote the text describing each specimen and Oliver sketched their likenesses with colored pencils. Because she loved us and wanted to show her enthusiasm, our mother assisted though she grew squeamish when, with copper tongs, I plunged a bug into a jar of formaldehyde, stilling its legs, its wings. She hated that instant, but she loved us enough to endure it. She had too much love in her; she had an excess of love to give.

And Oliver. Lovely Ollie. Whom I still miss. He'd have crossed into his forties by now if what happened hadn't happened. Everyone claimed later that they'd noticed nothing, no symptoms of sadness. He was always a quiet, contemplative boy, but not sullen or brooding, and certainly not like the smug brats in my classes with their pierced bits, idiotic music, baggy pants. Ollie was a gem. He was effortlessly sweet and equally good. I loved him. So did my father and my mother. How could we have suspected that he'd hang himself in the cellar? He was too young to have suffered from a failed romance (girls at his school had caught his attention, but he was still boy-frightened of them); he didn't have adult concerns (debts, unemployment). I suppose now that his was a case of severe chemical imbalance; maybe he was a tad mad. Nobody understood these things. The unseen turmoil in his funny, precious brain engulfed him, I guess. I'm still guessing.

Our mother found him. She used the cellar for drying wild herbs and, in rainy or cold weather, laundry too. Bundles of rosemary and lemongrass swung from nails across the joists of the cellar's ceiling (the house proper's floor grid); as well, on hangers, there were my father's work shirts (tan shirts with his name embroidered in red thread above the breast pocket), and the family's linen and undergarments, including my mother's disturbingly enormous brassieres. An unspoken rule prohibited me and Oliver from entering the cellar; this was our mother's realm, mysterious and private. Then Oliver, just fifteen, violated this forbidden zone (a calculated choice, I believe, not haphazard, he was too clever). He carried a kitchen chair down the cellar stairs, anchored a rope around the joists, slipped his neck into a loop, pulled the rope taut, further secured it with a scout-taught knot, then kicked the yellow chair away. There he hung for half a day with the tan uniforms shoulder to shoulder like files, with the cloying sprigs.

"His Sunday shoes," my mother said later. "That's what I noticed when I came down the stairs. And how still he was. His body not pivoting. Doesn't the air circulate? Then I saw the chair knocked sideways onto the floor. But it was his shoes I noticed first. His feet nearly together. His toes pointed down. As if he were on tiptoe."

That's the sum of what my mother told me. I wanted other blanks filled. Did she scream? Did she faint? Who cut Oliver down? Who brought his body up? I wasn't there. I was away at college. I've since forgotten what else I wanted to know. But what lingers, what echoes still? As if he were on tiptoe. As if he were on tiptoe.

My father telephoned me and I hurried home from Tempe. I wanted and was willing to suspend my semester, but my parents insisted that I return to school within a day of the burial. This seemed insane and callous, but they wanted to push on, to rush through the dark tunnel of those days. The funeral was mercifully brief (the clergy available was a sincere young priest with facial tics). I remember the morning was ultra-green and luminous and breezy; I remember the overwhelming grotesqueness of putting this boy's body into the damp ground.

When we came home, we splintered for the remainder of the day. My father shed his suit in exchange for dungarees and boots and he went for a long walk in the forest. I went up to Oliver's room. I wanted to box up his belongings - brushes, art paper, trays of watercolor - and perhaps find a clue, find something out-of-kilter. But there was nothing unusual, nothing wrong, and no note of why in his schoolboy handwriting.

Later, a pick-up pulled up to the house. I recognized the vehicle by the empty hives stacked in its bed. This was Mr. Unger who owned Miami's Honey Farm. I was unaware that he knew our family and was curious why he'd come here, why, if he wanted to mourn with us, he didn't come to the funeral like other townspeople. I watched through Ollie's window screen as Mr. Unger came up the cement walk dividing our lawn. He was angular yet fluid, weathered, shy-seeming; he wore a celery-colored canvas coat and faded jeans. He was carrying an object, something shiny and golden, not a jar of honey as I initially thought, but the brass bee I now use as a paperweight.

I heard the kitchen door open and slam, then my mother appeared below me. "No, John," she said. "Go."

"I'm going to grieve," said Mr. Unger, his voice frail. "I want to grieve like I'm supposed to."

My mother didn't respond to this. I assumed this was because she was as confused as I was by Mr. Unger's reaction. He was just an acquaintance, nothing more to us; he was a solitary man, marginal, with a reputation for odd behavior (coaxing his bees with lullabies). Why was he so deeply and obviously pained by Ollie's death? I became angry as I gazed down at him and my mother. I suddenly felt greedy about Ollie's absence. His absence belonged to us as a family; it was not properly the possession of the community.

"Yes. Okay," my mother finally said. "Now go, John. Please. Before Mark...please."

Mr. Unger offered her the brass bee and she lifted it calmly from his cupped palms. He drifted back to his pick-up and drove away.

Near dusk, when I came down from Oliver's room, I noticed the bee on a shelf of our oak dish-hutch. In retrospect, this placement, so impudent, seemed dangerous. My mother said to me, "Never mind that, Beth. Okay?" And my father never mentioned the bee. I've recently realized he was steeped with tact.

I withdrew from a program to study fossils in Canada that summer and I came home. It was a predictably hushed summer though some routine was reestablished. My father continued with his warehouse duties, but in the evening found solace with his philosophers (he was on a Danish kick then, I believe). My mother, who hadn't visibly changed, who was still dazzling, had nonetheless disconnected within. She began chattering to me about the war; she described severed limbs floating in bloody gutters, the harsh winters, the lice, the Allied bombers "growling like empty stomachs." But when I asked her help with cosmetics, fashion, and hair, she refused me. I was actually half-glad; I was only showing interest for her sake.

Also that summer, late, late at night (in the wee hours I'm again familiar with now), after I was supposedly deeply asleep, I would hear music sounding softly from the main room. I would creep to the landing and cautiously peer down through the railings. My parents danced to a warped 45, the only recording of the Gila Trio, my father's clarinet breathy and wavering in an achingly slow version of East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon. They clung to each other and shuffled in a circle on the Navajo rug. I should have crawled back to my room, but I didn't. I waded through the music with them, through the disc's static crunch. One night, when the song had ended and the record player's arm was bumping the spinning spindle, I watched my mother detain my father in a stilling embrace and I heard her whisper to him, "Don't mourn hard, Mark. You don't need to mourn hard. This is not required of you."

How bizarre, how beautiful: this was my reaction. I guessed this was a refugee's pragmatism, a method of coping, what to advise when one's village is shelled into oblivion. Move on. Move forward. Obviously, I grasped nothing then. Chemistry and physics, yes. Algorithms and complex equations, yes. But the subjects of love, betrayal, and passion perplexed me, dumbfounded me. It's just lately, during this bout of insomnia, that I've come to understand my mother's meaning, what she was begging of my father. Oliver himself would have been amused by the idea of being the beekeeper's flesh and blood. He wouldn't have been bothered in the least. That's how Ollie was.

With that brass honeybee, I've kept as well that scarred 45 of the Gila Trio. The record rests in its original sleeve - indigo blue with a chrome moon and in whimsical lettering the musicians' names - wedged between some textbooks in my Chandler home. These are the only items I saved when I sold the house in Miami a few months ago. My mother had continued living there after my father's death nine years June (he died, I'll add, within three months of John Unger whose funeral, unsurprisingly, was sparsely attended and who, according to my mother, was buried in his beekeeper's suit, including his veiled hood and his gloves). My mother's mind further faltered after these men's deaths; she jabbered incomprehensibly, but was occasionally lucid, enough so to hurl insults when I suggested a nursing home. Her physical health failed as well; her lungs seemed to wilt, her joints locked. She decayed like my father's beloved garden, which, untended, had become a tangle of wild vines and rotting vegetables.

And now I'm in this motel room in _____ Bay or _____ Beach. I'm awake and listening to the distant hiss and crush of surf through the flop-down windows. A hesitant drizzle has begun; I glance down into the parking lot and notice moisture gathering on the Fiesta's hood. What more to do but make these observations? Consider again my oxygen pamphlet? Have I mentioned oxygen's role in water, vital water? Urge O to cozy up with a pair of hydrogen pals and then, splish-splash, have a bath. Maybe I'll ask the scholarly bunny, _____, to chaperone the bashful molecules. Wouldn't that be cute? And what else. What if I outlined the industrial or medical uses of oxygen? How it flows from a pharmaceutical cylinder through a transparent rubber hose and into the nostrils of a decrepit old woman? Again, I'll bring in _____, show him casually shining his spectacles while blindly stepping on the oxygen hose with his fuzzy foot, show the old woman gasping and choking. That's dark, I suppose, but a skilled illustrator could make it quite humorous.

Maybe coffee will be available in the lobby soon, in styrofoam cups with powdered creamer and carcinogenic sweetener. Maybe the early shift's staff will also unwrap a tray of lousy little muffins. Maybe I should have spent more money and checked into a better hotel, with rooms less pungent, less crusty, perhaps directly on the water. But I can hear the ocean from here, right? I hear waves slapping the shore, the rocks.

Those windows there, up there, open an inch: I position this precarious chair under the windows and I cautiously climb up. I balance with fingertips against the panes of glass and bring my eyes level with the upper sections of the windows. There's the ocean, the surface just becoming blue, the waves like orange hems. I rise on the balls of my feet and I'm on tiptoe now just like Oliver, on tiptoe just like Ollie when he kicked away the yellow chair and the rope closed around his pencil neck. Like an O.

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