White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Lance Weller
Lance Weller has published short fiction in several literary journals. Of the stories published thus far, “The Breathable Air” won Glimmer Train’s Short-Story Award for New Writers in 1997 and “The Seven League Boots,” published in New Millennium Writings was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2000. He has also been published in The American Literary Review, and The Broadkill Review. A self-contained chapter of his unpublished novel, Wilderness, titled "In April ," was published in Quiddity earlier this year as a part of their special Abraham Lincoln, "Better Angels" issue.

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OVERSWAY

Lance Weller

She lifts him in her arms. He is so light, lighter than he has any business being. Her right arm is hooked beneath his knees while her left cradles him. The knobs of his spine press fret-like up her arm as though she had but to press here and here to bring forth the song of his life. This sudden, forced intimacy as lovely as it is unexpected. Thinner than she imagined, his arms fold like birdwings and he nestles his fists together beneath his chin like the child he must have been, once, long ago. His eyes are closed and but for the feeble stirring of his chest and the wan heat of his body against her, she’d have no way to know if he was living or dead. For just a moment she pauses to study the lines of his lips, pressed together like thin bars, bloodless with despair, as though there were poetry written there in the uncountable memories of smiles and frowns and shouts and murmurs that she must memorize.

But then his knees saw one against the other, the fabric of his trousers rasping softly, and he sets the ball of one foot against the instep of the other.

A soft puling rises from him, as though born of his innermost self, and he grimaces. Holding him tightly, she turns. And carries him home.

* * *

The first time his wife and daughter saved him, Jacob Rose had been home from war two months. Trying hard to find a reason for anything at all. His marriage, though nearly four years old, had been neatly interrupted near its start and was suddenly new again, requiring time and effort he knew not how to spend or give. And there were things he knew that he should simply take that he did not have the strength to reach for. He felt hollowed, cooled, and there were times, laying awake nights beside Anne, that he still saw German children in ill-fitting metal helmets. Rifle-flashs in fog like lightning gone all wrong and the fog turning to smoke twisting in intestinal coils through cities laying ruined and smoking as scarecrow men danced the skin from their feet or shuffled bloodily to shadow. He would come awake to find himself in motion toward the bathroom where he brought up things that he had no recollection swallowing.


The country itself seemed fresh and new and bright compared to the old lands he’d just seen where all the forests were black and all the architecture soot-stained and broken. And now a bride, a home, a yard with an apple tree and bright green grass that he’d carefully cut as cold, cold winds blew constantly down the thin piping of his bones.

And so, one afternoon Jacob Rose took strong rope from his tidy, clean garage (that he could not remember ever neatening, ever really knowing) and swung one end over a high branch of the apple tree. It was May and the blossoming fruit needed thinning before the June drop. He stood for some time looking at how the crossed, full branches threw innumerable frames around the sky then shook his head and stood for a time longer trying to remember how to tie the knot and when he woke Anne was bending over him. Her dark red hair against the blue sky with the apple branch frames behind her giving her lovely, lovely face a shadow box effect. Her fingertips cool upon his face. She lifted him then, an act he would never forget, and carried him into the house and laid him to bed like a

hurt child. Cooled him with a damp cloth twisted in her strong hands and chased the nightmares from his brow with her lips and with her voice. She told him of the child and his first reaction was to be sick. It seemed, then, to be too much, all too much all at once. But then he calmed and dreamed a dream filled with light which he could never really recall afterwards—only that the child was there and he knew her name and he knew her smile and her eyes and her bright laughter before he knew her.

In this way he was saved.

 

The last thing she expected to find that afternoon was her father weeping at his kitchen table. Jacob Rose sat in a yellowy slant of late October sun with one hand gripping the table edge and the other palm flat over his eyes as though to wall himself from all the world. He was dressed as was his custom: dark trousers, white shirt; well-worn Oxfords and, close to winter now, a worn, brown cardigan with elbows of cracked leather. His cane lay on the floor beside the chair and the obituary section of the newspaper was torn into


oyster-colored rectangles laying in a pattern on the table before him. Her father’s shoulders jerked and from where she stood, Maggie could see tears collecting along the blade of his palm. His wedding ring glittered with quiet insistence in the sun and his sobbing was so soft as to be little competition for the refrigerator as it rattled through a cycle.

Maggie opened her mouth and shut it again. Taking a step forward, she looked at the finger-length, single-column clippings laying in neat rows and columns between his elbows. Open-faced men with too-wide ties and boutonnières, jowly or caved of cheek and hair tamed with oil, carefully combed. Women with styled hair and impossible eye lashes, strings of pearls and sharp-framed glasses. All smiled over earlier, better times well before whatever had finally killed them had started in. The clippings for the few young people lay in a stack to one side where they grinned invulnerably from parties and fishing trips and weddings while one clipping for a toddler scalded in his bath was set off by itself near her father’s coffee cup. She quickly scanned the names for any that might be familiar, found none, then looked back to her father’s

covered face. His open mouth—teeth bared, lips wet—framed whatever grief consumed him. He remained quiet in his sorrowing and she barely heard the breath entering or leaving him.

“Daddy?” Maggie finally ventured. “Did someone die?”

He didn’t answer right away. Nor did he show surprise that she was there. The hand covering his eyes traveled slowly down his long, goatish face to cup his mouth while his eyes lay moist and shot-through with red like two strange flags of his heart’s own country. After a moment, he reached out and with the four fingers of his right hand began touching each photograph in turn.

Maggie looked at her father and the space between them. Taking a small bit of air, she leaned near and settled a hand on his thin shoulder where his damp, tear-stained fingers found it. “No one you know,” he said.

With their joined hands trembling upon his shoulder, Maggie suddenly remembered a morning long and long ago when they had walked in a forest


and he had held her hand. How good it had been to have a father that morning. She blinked. “I was worried,” she said. “You didn’t answer when I called.”

He sniffed. “Did you call or did you telephone?”

“Father . . .”

“One needs be precise. Don’t you think?”

Maggie sighed and let go his hand to stare at an indefinite point somewhere beyond him.

“Well,” he said. “At any rate, I didn’t hear you.”

“Did you take all your pills?”

He made a dismissive gesture then motioned for her to sit. “Yes, yes.”

Maggie crouched and picked his cane up from the floor, hung it by the crook from the side of the table then sat. She crossed her arms and cocked her head. “Jesus, dad.”

He pursed his lips and touched curled forefingers to the corners of his eyes. “You shouldn’t swear around your father. Have you had breakfast?”

“I’m fine.” “How’s Carl? Sleeping in again?”

“He may have a lead on something. A warehouse down at the Port might be hiring,” she said quickly. She motioned to the clippings. “What’s all this about?”

Her father sniffed, laid his hands flat upon the table and bent his head as though engaged in a deep study of his fingernails. He looked out the window to where the sky was still dark in the west and sat silently that way for a long moment. Finally, he said, “It’s important to be aware of the dead. Sometimes we didn’t know. In the war. We didn’t always find out what happened after someone was wounded. Or transferred. What have you. We only knew for sure when we saw it . . . could see . . .” He shrugged. “I’m tired of blank spaces. Makes me feel old.”

Maggie shook her head, frowning. “I don’t understand you.”

Jacob shrugged again, looked at her, then pushed the scraps of newspaper across the table. He told her to pick one up and read the name.


With a moue of distaste, she picked up a scrap and read, “Dorothy—”

“Baumgartner,” he finished. “Dorothy Baumgartner. Passed away October 14th. Aneurysm. Journalist of thirty years. Lost her husband in 1993. Another.”

Maggie blinked, picked up another. “Ad—“

“Adeline Newel. Passed away after a short illness October 13th. Beloved school teacher and mother of four.”

“Father,” said Maggie gently. “What purpose does this serve?”

He made small, polishing motions on the tabletop with one palm. “I don’t know . . .I’ve been thinking.” He paused and pressed the pad of one finger to the table to lift away an imaginary grain of salt. When he looked up at her his eyes were wet again. “I don’t know.”

“All right,” said Maggie, holding up both hands as though to slow a man running to disaster. “This is morbid and it needs to stop right now.” She crossed her arms and stared at him.

He stared at her open-mouthed, then blinked and shook his head slowly, a rueful smile twitching the corners of his lips.

“What?”

“You look like your mother sitting there. Mad at me with her arms crossed.” He shook his head then looked outside. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just . . . I miss her.”

Across the street, rusting metal gates to a never-finished housing development stood cockeyed on their posts and wind kicked bright leaves along the paving to hang them like ornaments upon the wrought iron. Jacob watched them shake and quiver and finally nodded. “You’re right, of course. But sometimes you see something that brings to mind another thing. And . . . to have memories rise up so suddenly and so clear . . .” He paused and raised a hand as though to pluck words from the air before him, his fingers trembling like naked branches. “So clear it’s as if, when you turn your head, you’re sure you’ll see people you used to know sitting beside you, wanting to talk.”


Maggie thought of the walk in the forest then remembered years of indifference—a distant coolness that seemed worse than any active dislike. He’d told her once, after she’d committed some trifling, juvenile rebellion, that because he was her father he had to love her but that didn’t mean he had to like her. And that conditional appreciation had always been the grey color of their relationship right on through college and after. But on the day they walked together in the dark forest Maggie had all his attention. As though he had only just discovered in her some delight that captured his attention and that he found fascinating. In her memory, they walked the day long and into the cool of the evening on a trail red with fallen pine needles. She considered the memory a rare and fragile token to be kept safe and dry in a far corner of her mind; rarely to be taken out to admire for fear of it breaking utterly.

“Well, that happens to everyone,” she finally said. She gestured to the pile of clippings. “Anyone there you actually know?”

He looked at her a long moment without

speaking. “Did I ever tell you about Eddie DiMarco?”

“You buddy in the war? Sure. But didn’t he die already?"

Her father looked out the kitchen window again. A fresh wind shivered bare rose bushes, rattled the loose downspout at the north corner of the house and set the cables of the abandoned development’s empty flagpole to rattling. The sky had gone nearly dark now but for a few places where the sun stood in columns falling upon the hills of the city. Jacob Rose sat softly lit and what light remained played in his white hair, smoothed the lines of his face and Maggie was reminded of how handsome he’d been. “Yes,” he answered slowly. “Poor Eddie died in the war.”

He stared out the window in the direction of the broken gates. The leaves danced along the gutters. Rose thorns scratched on the windowglass. He opened and closed his mouth but was silent.

“Dad?”


He looked at her, blinking. “You never had a name,” he said. “I killed you and never knew your name.” He shook his head and wet his lips and looked at her in wonder. “I just . . . I was so angry. So angry and you were more than I could take. Standing there looking like that but you never had a >name until I conjured one for you.” He trailed away and looked at his hands then at the walls then all about the kitchen.

Maggie sat very still and when her breath was back she asked, “Father? Who are you talking to?”

He blinked and frowned. “Well you’re sitting right there, aren’t you?”

“What are we talking about?” she asked cautiously.

“You asked me if I’d taken all my pills then told me about your bum husband.” He cocked his head. “Why? What’s wrong with you? You look terrible.”

“No,” said Maggie firmly, shaking her head. “You were going to say something about Eddie DiMarco.”

Her father sat up straight and looked at her. “What are you talking about it?” he asked, shaking his head. “That boy died before the war ended.” He stood and plucked his cane from the table. “Why would you bring up something like that?”

“Father, you—”

“I wish you’d just go. I’m tired and I don’t walk to talk about any of that.” He waved a hand through the air and turned to make his way into the living room then stopped and said her name but did not turn.

“Yes?” she asked.

“I have blood in my urine.”

“Oh.” She stood and tucked her upper lip between her teeth. “Does it hurt? I mean, are you in pain?”

He did not turn but Maggie watched him grab at his lips with the thumb-and-fingers of his free hand in the way he sometimes did. “I wonder, would you just make an appointment for me? I’m very tired.”

“Of course,” she said softly. “I will.”


He nodded and thanked her then moved off into the living room. After a moment, she heard the stereo come on and recognized the opening quiet of “La Valse,” her father’s old record popping and hissing through the first moments like messages from a vanished world. Driving home, Maggie watched her father’s small house grow smaller yet in her rear-view mirror until it was disassembled by space and darkness and vanished. Rubbing her temples, she looked at the places on her hand where his tears had dried. Hesitantly, she touched her tongue to her curled foreknuckle and drove the rest of the way home with the salty taste of her father’s grief stinging her mouth.

 

Some nights they still dance. He dresses in the guest room, imagines Anne in their bedroom—the way she’d stand before a mirror, upper lip caught between her teeth, pushing two fingers at an errant lock. Except for after the war when he was sick and everything was so wrong, they have always been formal with each other—taking time to prepare themselves for each other like gifts. Meeting in the front room where the furniture is

pushed to the walls, he will bow to his wife and she will graciously dip her head and they will both try very hard not to grin or laugh and spoil the moment. He puts music on and takes her hand. They strike a pose that belies the heat they have for each other and briefly look at their reflection in the wide mirror over the couch. As always, his breath is stolen to see her. To see her with him.

And then the music starts and they begin.

Precise steps move them about the room. Natural Turns to Right Closed Changes swing them about and Reverse Turns and Left Closed Changes bring them back again. They perform other, small figures they have themselves created out of scarcity of space. Her fingers on his shoulder, his palm at her hip, their legs moving together as they quickstepswaythenslowsweep across the floor. The figures become mixed and strange so the dance is no longer a Waltz or a Tango or a Slow Fox-Trot but something else entire that is their own wholly and completely. They chassé over single bars of music until finally, her back bent in supple fashion over his forearm so that his palm cradles the back of her neck, they end with an


elegant oversway as the music crashes into silence.

The needle runs off the vinyl and bumps into the label. He holds the pose. Jacob’s eyes are closed and he can feel each drop of sweat along his brow and the thunder of breath against the inside of hislips. He opens his eyes and swallows hard then says her name aloud as though to call her back. Finally, he takes the empty dress from his forearm and hangs it once more in the guest room closet.

And then he goes to bed.

 

In October of 1944, a few miles to the west of Aachen, Jacob Rose danced a waltz with a woman whom he would later come to think of as Magda. They danced a slow waltz near the broken fountain in a ruined village courtyard and neither dressed for the occasion. A few dry flecks of Eddie DiMarco’s blood still peppered the left side of his face, she wore a blue kerchief tied under her chin, and her red hair spilled from under it and onto her shoulders like curled tongues of heat. She kept her eyes shut as though imagining herself elsewhere

and her feet were bare and bloody while her left hand lacked two fingers and wore instead a soiled bandage that stunk even in the chilly, wet weather. Magda wore a mud-spattered man’s raincoat over a torn dress and her clothes rippled in the soft wind blowing through the shattered buildings. The music came from a radio found in the gutted remains of what was once a little bakery and she was so thin and worn that she moved like air through his hands. When he touched her, Jacob could feel the curves of ribs that held her insides together, the clicking, dry articulation of her hip-sockets as she stepped with him through the rockdust.

The music had started while he was staring into a drinking well poisoned with the heads of cattle and wishing like hell it held clean water so he could wash with something other than caught rain. He was frightened and angry and trembling. After looking at the snipers’ bodies, he’d wandered, wanting to feel violence in his hands even though his hands had been fists for so long they ached to the wrists. Axis Sally had been playing popular songs all month and as he walked into the courtyard the music began. Magda had touched his shoulder as he


stood listening and her eyes were wild and high color stood unnaturally in her caved cheeks. The filthy raincoat shapeless on her thin frame. She touched her chest and perhaps she told him her name, but Jacob was silent. There were no words in his vocabulary to cast a frame around his anger and his hurt. But she took his hand just the same and they began their surprising dance.

At the end of it, impulsively, he pressed his hands to the shells of her ears. The heels of his palms fit to her cheekbones and he roughly kissed her. To this day, lying awake, Jacob can smell her hair, her rooty scent, can taste her in his mouth. And he can still see her expression when he drew back, unlimbered his rifle, and shot her, the wig sliding from her shaved scalp and falling to the flagstones, itself like something once living, now dead.

 

The final leg of his journey home had been by taxi. The driver never even turned the meter on but sat with the engine idling and watched as Jacob lifted his bag out then grinned and nodded. “It’ll be worth the fare to see this,” he told him.

Jacob turned to look at the house—the façade of so many idle, and then increasingly desperate, fantasies—and Anne was there on the porch, sudden as wind. And then in his arms and they held each other a long, long time without speaking. Finally, she stepped back to look at him in his uniform, cupped his face in her palms and shook her head slowly. “Look at you,” she said. “You’re perfect.”

But Jacob knew it wasn’t true. He knew it wasn’t true at all.

 

When Maggie drove him home from the specialist she followed Sixth Avenue east three blocks then turned left onto Pearl and pointed the car in the direction of the park. The world went by, dull and bruised and hurt-looking in the gray weather and neither she nor her father spoke but listened for changes in his breath, some tell she could use to judge his mind but he revealed nothing—merely sat, hands folded just so upon his lap and watched out the window. His hat snug to his head with just a few white curls juddering softly on his collar.


His face a study.

“Are you all right?”

“I’ve been sick before.”

“Is it possible that this might be a little different?”

“No.”

She could not seem to keep her hands still upon the steering wheel and covered her mouth with her fingers and then her palm. “Jesus, father,” she said softly.

“It’s all right,” he said, still looking out the window where the world was. “Your mother will take care of me.”

She glanced at him but said not a word.

A short while later they sat parked in his driveway with the engine off, watching the weather spill itself across the windshield. The way the wind blew the scattered drops together and then separated them again. Jacob stared at the gates to the empty development and finally said, “After the war, I knew I was finally well when I could lift you

without feeling sick.” He sighed and seemed to think. “For whatever reason . . . a combination of things, I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t eat and there were . . . Other problems that I had. And when you were born I would still get the shakes and was afraid to lift you. But I got better.”

He turned to her and gave a small smile. “There’s a picture of us. Of you and me, I mean. Your mother used to carry it with her. You must have been a year-and-a-half, maybe two, and I’m holding you by your feet. You’re standing in my palm and I’m holding you up. I remember that. Your mother didn’t even try to take you back, just smiled and took the picture. That’s when I knew I was better. Your mother smiling like that at me holding you.”

Maggie sniffed and touched the back of her wrist under her nose. “Do you remember . . . ” she began but stopped when she saw he was staring off across the street again and she had not the courage to ask for fear of his answer. Either way, she thought it might break her heart open and start her sobbing before she was alone and ready for it.


“Do I what?”

She shook her head. “Did you, I mean. Did you remember to take your pills this morning?”

He snorted and raised a hand as though he meant to reach across and touch her face but then seemed to think better of it and left the car. Maggie watched him to the door. It took a long time. The wind came up and tossed his tie over his shoulder. A cold northern wind that started the downspout creaking and set the broken gate to clanking softly.

And later that night, lying in bed with Carl, she rolled to him, pressed her face against his chest and moved her hands upon him. She could tell his quick surprise by the caesura breath that divided that moment from all the others of the day that had come before it and by the end of it she lay weeping. Carl was wise enough not turn the light on and simply lay holding her, letting it run its course silently and Maggie wept on into the night because she was living and Carl was living and because they were alive together.

 

That night, half-asleep in his chair in the dark corner of the living room, Jacob watched the snow begin. It fell thickly and fast and soon the streets and the yards were covered. There was no traffic on the street and was fell quiet but for the snow tapping softly at his window. He stared across the street, frowning. After a time he stood.

 

When she couldn’t sleep, Maggie got up, draped herself in her old robe and went to the front room to sit before the picture-window and stare off down the big hill and across the bay. Most of the view was lost to the falling snow and she watched it fall. The utter silence that it brought. It collected along the gutters and the power lines and the lintels of the doors and the hoods of parked cars to make something more of ordinary architecture. A small clearing opened in the clouds over the bay through which she could suddenly sees the stars glittering. Maggie went to the window and put her palm flat to the glass to feel the cold. And then she jumped as though shocked and turned to the phone, dialed and waited. No one answered.


***

She followed his tracks through the new-fallen snow which fell thicker as the night grew long. They led her from his front door to the broken gates and thence to a split in the chainlink. Ducking and gathering her long coat about her waist, Maggie followed her father into the abandoned development.

She stood on a boulevard that had never been a boulevard. Scattered homes stood half-finished—frames of houses with boards in place of windows, no doors and an air of ruination. But streets and sidewalks had been poured and graded and now lay snow-covered and lovely. The tracks filled with snowfall. Maggie called but all she heard in return was the soft, precise ticking of snow falling on snow. Stumbling along his trail, the hem of her coat whispering atop the snow, she was badly frightened and angry and worried, yet when she found him it took her breath away.

Whoever designed the development had planned a fountain for the center of the community. It had been broken apart by vandals

but the pool was still intact and was now filled with snow and Jacob Rose lay on the ground in the snow beside it. A small dark shape there upon the clean white. His bootprints stamped the snow around the fountain in a pattern that even Maggie recognized as waltzing.

When she reached him, she took his shoulder and rolled him onto his back. His lips were bluing and snow was caught in his eyebrows. Maggie said nothing but looked at him until he blinked and when she saw he lived she gasped and called him daddy.

“I knew you’d come,” he said, voice breathless and soft.

“Hush now. We’ve got to get you home.”

He smacked his lips and his eyes swiveled in their orbits. “You,” he managed, blinking against the snow falling on his face. “You know English?”

Maggie hung her head. She worked her face and calmed her breath and when she had managed herself she told him yes. Of course she did.


“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I’ve always been so sorry.” He smacked his lips again and rolled his eyes and shuddered.

When she bent over him, Jacob reached and touched her arm and said her name. “I know you’re not her,” he said.

Maggie nodded and was silent. The snow swirled around them.

Jacob sniffed. “I just needed you to be. For just a moment.” He looked at her and swallowed, then set his jaw and nodded as though some pressing business had been closed. “All right,” he said. “Take me back.”

She had never touched him in this way before. Maggie lifted him as if he were a child. His legs swung over the crook of her arm and he was lighter than he had any right to be. The snow tapered off and the clouds broke up. Moonlight stood in columns on the fallen snow and lit it blue. Shimmering. A soft wind blew that smelled of pine. He set his arms about her neck and she turned to take him home.

Copyright© Lance Weller. White Whale Review, issue 1.3

 


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