all good swimmers

This was the proper way to live: fill the glass, and wait; the rest would take care of itself. Everything made sense. Do what you say, say what you mean: easy….”


by kurt eisenlohr



THEY WANTED TO KNOW where she had kept her rosary and he told them her purse but the purse seemed to be missing, seemed not to want to be found, so now they were turning the house over in a clumsy search for it.

It wasn’t bad really: the busy eyes, the whirl of motion; the way Uncle Gus seemed charged with an almost cartoon-like, animated energy.

Time crawls it’s knees raw, on and on, ever forward, and in a standstill; and then one day, through the thickness of living, come hands and feet and probing fingers, many faces, and much frantic activity. All of a rush, there is a change.

He had lived with her as long as he could remember.

KARL IS STANDING in the kitchen; he has a glass in his hand and is thinking how much he dislikes the wallpaper: a paradise of poorly rendered birds, repeating themselves into common eternity of four tilted walls. He is thinking that when it comes time for him to die and all the bells in the world do not toll nor change it, he will crawl off into the woods somewhere and do it alone. He is thinking he will never own a rosary. He is thinking. Karl is a thinker.

IT WAS NEVER A GOOD IDEA to be a part of things that tangled and tied you to the living: church, family, friends; love, promises, lies. there were countless nets in which a person could snag themselves during the swim; and countless ways to drown. all good swimmers kept this in mind.

“IT COULDN’T HAVE SIMPLY DISAPPEARED. It has to go somewhere!”

You never had these problems when an animal died, when a bird or a bear or a fish died. You never had to tear a house apart looking for a word or a lost line to god, never had to rush around putting things straight for a charade; frantic, motion of it all, the upending, the horror of being forced to feel, to grieve, to stand on one’s own feet — guilt clasping your ankles like a shackle running over the earth, invisible to all but the accused.

What dress to put her in? what shoes?
(“shoes are not necessary, Karl.”)

Make-up? no make up?
(“she’d never leave the house without her lipstick, Karl.”)

And what about the hair?
(“Get a stylist down there, Bea, the one she liked best.”)

What funeral home? what hymn? what stone? what wake? what place? what priest? what flowers? what time? what tea?

Everything else on earth just died. Except people. People did more than die.

KARL FILLS THE GLASS and waits. This was the proper way to live: fill the glass, and wait; the rest would take care of itself. Everything made sense. Do what you say, say what you mean: easy.

In the window, a teenaged boy, shadow-boxing up the sidewalk. Karl watches him, the morning sun providing a long, monstrous opponent. Small, now smaller, now smaller still. Sooner or later, the boy always goes. Karl watches him go. He hears birds singing somewhere in the place beyond the trees; now soft, now sweet, now quite sickening. Karl hears birds, but he cannot see them.

Twirl the ice cubes, lick your finger, sip, and sigh. Think of nothing. Think of woods, think of wallpaper.

THIN WHITE ROPE BROKEN HORSES galloping over a buckling frontier.

Once again, there is change.
Is this my kitchen?
My hand
at the end
of my

Is everybody ready?

THE ROOM WAS SMALL, with a thin slit of sky cut high on the door. In this room there had been a light bulb webbed with steel mesh, large, round, bright, that burned away all of the sharp hours of night, leaving exactly nothing in its place: a soft, hissing whiteness — the sound of no thought at all.

You never had to wake up in the dark. it was the thing Karl had liked best about being confined. The Quiet Room. The place they put you when they didn’t know. The place you put yourself when you did.

 IT WAS ALL RATHER AMUSING. The rolling eyes, the whirl of motion; the way Uncle Gus had screamed blue murder and begun to jerk around the room like a mad cartoon.

That was the sound of NOW.
The sound of movement.

AN EXCLAMATION from the living room. A sightless hand with an alarming mouth had tripped upon all important purse, crushed, the way its owner had lived, flat, behind a velvet couch cushion. Relatives mill about like cattle, having nothing more to search for. people begin to eat, the thin following the obese, who, by virtue of mathematics and physical girth, hold the others, the weaker among them, at bay. Several of the men drink beer, Uncle henry, Uncle Clem, Grandpa Joe, all of them healthy, robust. Leo, a next door neighbor, clicks on the television, a talk show, with the mouths turned to murmur.

Boredom. Tea. Cookies.

Mrs. Husure passes through the hall, a wonderful woman in a perpetual thin-faced nervous pace. He tried very hard not to look at this woman, but the living were hard not to look at. A woman Karl had never seen before shoved her face into the kitchen; it hung there above the tile like a small rouged balloon, unstrung and smiling.

“We found it!” screamed the new, perpetual Mrs. Husure. she thanked God; she crossed the floor, pressing something thick and green into the palm of Karl’s hand. Tick of clocks and time. there was an awkward pause, and then, her smile falling just a bit — twitch of the lid, lashes, eye’s rapid birds — Mrs. Husure added, “We found this with the rosary. We thought you might need it, given the circumstances…” she was looking at him idiotically, the way people will at such times, not knowing what to say or do, no script, unable to improvise, empty-headed, confused, dull, ordinary, human. Karl wondered if she knew about the dark flower unfolding in her brain, if she had any idea how slim her chances were, anyone’s chances, for that matter; the world being a cat, and life a hummingbird, being a shadow and a doubt. He could picture it there, this flower unfolding, growing twining, could feel it there, and the microbes multiplying in her belly, a swarm and beyond, and in everyone. He could easily see her lying face down in a ditch along a hot stretch of rod somewhere, becoming part of the earth again. She would be better off that way, Karl reasoned. he wanted to tell her this. But he did not tell her. To tell her would be futile; to tell her would mean kicking and screaming, promises, and lies. Mrs. Husure, the old one, the slow one, thought just then that Karl resembled the awfully attractive actor she had seen in a film the night before, whatshisname, the one she loathed and was forever seeing on the tv. She was always seeing people this way, late at night, when the shades were drawn and sleep would not come. She had often seen her husband this way. But it was not night now, and the shades were not drawn, and she had always been fond of Karl; especially when the newly risen sun lit up his hair with a halo and turned him into a film star.

“We all loved her,” Mrs. Husure stated, with an air of finality. “It’s a shame, a real shame,” she said. and then she was gone. Another woman, disappearing down another corridor.

Karl said “thanks” to the place she had just vacated.
(Speak to her as if she were still here; we’ll fix that later.)

It was habit. He’d been saying it all his life. Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Father. Thank you Doctor, Doctor, for reeling me in. Thank you and you and you. Thank you, all of you, rising in the river. But he meant it this time; he needed all the money he could get his hands on now.

A HOUSE OF SUGAR AND SPICE and everything nice. You will be able to buy these things. And a very big oven.

(Hold fish firmly. with a sharp knife, cut downward at a slight angle just behind the pectoral fin. Cut down to, but not through, backbone.)

UNCLE GUS CAME NEXT; a lurching puppet jerked to life by trick strings. Karl stopped smiling; he put on the appropriate face.

“We’ll be going soon,” said Uncle Gus. “We found the rosary, thank God.”

Uncle Gus was a MASON; he wore a red ring, drank scotch, and kept good secrets. “Would you like a ride?” he asked.

“No,” Karl said, he would walk, he would meet them there shortly.

“I’d like a few minutes alone,” he said. “I’m not feeling so well.”

Uncle Gus understood, “but completely.” He knew how Karl loved her. They had all loved her. things just wouldn’t be the same. Life was an “awful business.” He looked very solemn in his mothballed suit and tie, in his black overcoat and natty felt hat, in his long, banana-thin face. The young man standing before him had always been a mystery, a thorny puzzle he could never quite piece together, but of a type that is always a pleasure to work on. Quite a character, his sister’s child; a boy of queer mind and queer ways; thin, weak — a reader of books! he wondered what ever could become of a boy such as this; a dozen different scenarios played quickly through his head and he chose the most dramatically appealing: a good ending was everything.

“We all loved her,” Uncle Gus repeated, stammering now, then turned, a smile breaking over his face, and disappeared down the narrow hall.

Karl felt himself falling, felt the earth parting beneath his feet, like the backs of two tigers walking in opposite directions. He clawed the air for a moment. then let go.

LAND, LONG STRETCHES OF WATER, rivers, lakes, and streams. Melville’s TYPEE (“Once or twice it made wry faces at swallowing a mouthful of water, and choked and sputtered as if on the point of strangling.”) Thoughts turning around in slow-time.


THE SECONDHAND CLIMBED THE DIAL, then wound down again; up, down, around and around. He had lived with her for as long as he could remember. Maybe he loved her. Maybe that’s his hate up there, circling hungry in the sky.

He is thinking of an old barn in the dream where he used to play Hide & Go Seek with his brother. He is thinking about an old Faye Dunaway film and a musty stack of pulp paperbacks. He is thinking about a pair of blue tennis shoes and all the other lives he has misplaced along the way. Lost forever in the sink.

The cars pulled away and the tigers came together.

The moment the others were gone, Karl felt much better, and after the seventh highball he felt downright giddy, though a little like a character moving choppy through an old newsreel; a little flat and a little strange, alien strange.

“Don’t get too close to it; if you get up close all you’ll feel is the heat and the sweat and the life.”

Where had he read that?

Alone in a house, in a kitchen, somewhere in North America.

THE CLOCK MOVED. And the glass. Drunk, now drunker. Winter sun, dusty pane, a wishbone on the windowsill. From what bird had it come? What strange dinner was this? Karl turned it around in his mind for what seemed an hour; then picked it out of the dust and slipped it into his pocket.

(Look nervously over your shoulder. Feel vaguely criminal. The old scenario.)

He walked to the bathroom, pissed, studied his face in the glass.

Whose eyes were those?

He tipped his cigarette into the sink. He used mouthwash and spit the tell of drunk down the drain. Life was like that: you simply mouthwashed over it all.

(Strains of commercial jingle.)

Karl thought he looked damn handsome in a coat and tie, and he turned from side to side, getting a good look while it lasted. Then he saw the teeth. they were soaking in a glass atop the medicine cabinent, looking very unlike her.

So this was how it worked. Laid out in a box downtown, wearing a dress she’d never seen nor ever would see, hair piled to perfection, lips the same sticked red as always, a recovered rosary wrapped in her hand: but no teeth to chew through eternity.

It was all very funny when you thought about it. And that was probably the reason people tried not to.

THE BOY BEGINS TO WEEP; but then the boy goes away, and the weeping passes, and Karl is feeling numb and much better. He brings the teeth to his mouth, knowing they will not fit. It occurs to him that he might tear out his own, but he laughs at this notion, wraps the teeth in a length of toilet paper, and places them deep in his pants pocket. The pants are loose, baggy, nearly slipping from the slight, girlish frame: father’s pants, husband’s pants.

He finds his key, locks up, and whistles his way down the steep, solid steps. The day is sharp, diamond-like. His breath balloons out, a homecoming parade on the cool, biting air. It makes the boy think of cotton-candy and the smell of sawdust, dwarfs, clowns; the man, however, is reminded of the Hindenburg, Hitler, the Titanic. The town looks like something a child has set down next to a Lionel train kit. All the colors are wrong, the objects are too small. He sees a girl in a long red wintercoat, trailing a blinding scarf. He sees a squirrel tearing up a thin, dead tree. A water tower. Sunlight glinting against snow. Sand. Clouds passing like happy faces. He sees a bird. And something he can’t quite identify.

Is that my love up there. Falling hungry from the sky?

AT THE FUNERAL HOME they watch as Karl carries himself up the steps, then down again, to get a better look at the building; tie askew, hair disheveled, the teeth unwrapped and unraveled, clutched loosely in a numb hand, just like her. All the Mrs. Hushures had seen him coming, had seen all the Karls, whistling and smiling, laughing and crying, from half a block away. Now they see the teeth. They are spilling out the double doors and down the long steps to the street and all that is in it.

“You should be ashamed!” she cries, he cries, they all cry. “Drunk at your own mother’s funeral!”

And although he doesn’t feel that way in the least, the boy agrees to everything, and Karl steps into the path of the car anyway.


Originally published:
Issue Fifteen
November 2001



Kurt Eisenlohr is a painter, writer and bartender living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to illustrations contributed to all issues of Smokebox his poetry and fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Asylum, Verbal Abuse, River Styx, Another Chicago Magazine, Cokefish, Decoy, Way Station, and STOVEPiPER. His chapbook, Under Hand and Over Bone was published by Alpha Beat Press in 1994.

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