by Howard Waldman
ARTHUR AND JACK
The last time Arthur saw his ailing twin brother, Jack had hobbled out and stared helplessly at the mounds of earth disgracing the rear lawn, his wife’s pride. Alice had nagged him into trying strychnine-powdered worms, barbed-wire (moles are bleeders), poisonous gas, even planting garlic. He was hammering in an ultrasound device when he collapsed face down on a black mound. He was forty-two. Arthur was on an off-shore drilling platform on the other side of the world when it happened.
A month later, Arthur returned. After the grave, he visited the widow, striking and rejuvenated in low-cut black. The familiar mole, like an eighteenth century beauty-spot, decorated the rise of her left breast. They evoked Jack at length over coffee and cookies. She said that life, terribly, went on with all its problems, great and small. For example, the lawn, his pride, a disgrace now, the grass knee-high and of course the moles at work. It would have killed him a second time to see it. She couldn’t cope, simply couldn’t. And she wanted no paid stranger mowing his lawn. She wept.
So Arthur, no stranger, had to offer to mow the grass, despite the heart condition he’d shared with his twin, along with identical features and desires, almost everything in common. She pointed out that the lawn mower was self-propelled and pressed Jack’s gardening overalls on him.
But confronted by all those black mounds, he had to raze them with a shovel, dumping the earth into a wheelbarrow, not self-propelled. Sweating hard, he turned to the lawn mower. By the time he had it running, new mounds had come up. He ran right and left, panting, trying to rescue the green from the black, Alice looking on from the terrace.
A sharp chest pain pulled him to his knees. As her panicked voice called his brother’s name, new mounds, like miniature tumuli, rose all about him, the lawn less and less green, now nothing but black, like her dress and the familiar mole on the rise of her left breast, and now the sky black too. Her voice, fainter and fainter, went on crying, “Jack! Jack!”
His darkening mind protested, “I’m not Jack. My name is Arthur. We have nothing in common now.”
Green seeped back to the lawn, blue to the sky. He arose unsteadily to his feet. The pulled muscle stabbed him as he wrenched off his brother’s gardening overalls and made for the car.
Her voice went on. She had his name correct now but Arthur ignored her pleas to return and finish the job for Jack’s sake.
She ran toward the car. Resisting the temptation of her black figure in the rear mirror, his eyes fixed on the road ahead, Arthur accelerated.
Foolishly bare-armed (with pathogenic birds overhead defecating in flight), the others on the supermarket parking-lot goggle at my tight-buttoned overcoat, gloves, surgical mask and deployed umbrella. Ninety degrees in the shade, yes, but we’ll see who’s crazy. Haven’t they read of the danger of mutation and the crossing of the species barrier?
Back home with food for two to withstand the summer siege, I discover Mary and her things are gone. Because of her cat of course. He devoured birds and his love-bites would have been mortal. He didn’t suffer. He lies deep in the garden far from birds.
Burning the dangerous feather-stuffed pillows, I scorch my hand rescuing a long blonde hair, all I have of her now.
Summer, pigeon-infested, drags on.
My doors are locked, my windows shut, the phone finally disconnected, the letter-box no longer explored.
TV recounts the synchronized progress of terrorism and the deadly sickness. Their women are encased in wise burkas: total protection. They will inherit the ruins of our civilization.
Last night melancholy cries ended a dream of the two of us in a long-ago wood full of innocent birds, mottled sunshine in her long hair.
I stand before the closed window and see distant V’s of honking geese cleaving the dawn sky.
Why am I crying?
Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French University. His short stories have appeared in Verbsap, Gold Dust, Global Inner Visions and other publications. He has published three novels with BeWrite Books: Back There (2005), Time Travail (2006) and The Seventh Candidate (2007). A fourth novel, Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die, will come out in late 2007. Arthur and Jack previously appeared in the July 2006 issue of Global Inner visions, and H5N1 previously appeared on March 2006 in VerbSap.