"Hansel, Solo" by Patricia Q. Bidar
By Patricia Q. Bidar
Nina Hagen. Peter Gabriel’s ein deutsches album.“ Der Kommisar.” “99 Luftballons.” German consonants color the air they breathe at the Institute. Strains drifting from the cement painting studios, and the photo processing room, with its synthetic stink and fuzzy crimson light.
Ben the night watchman is of German extraction. His father, a retired sport-fishing captain, spends sixteen-hour days building a new home above East San Diego’s wild beige ravines. Ben has heard about the feral dogs his father encounters in the early mornings. How he fought a pack off with a shovel. Ben’s mother has told him these things. She hasn’t called in a couple of weeks. But when she does, it’s easy to picture her at the breakfast bar with her Bermuda shorts and varicose veins. A lit Winston, a library book, and a tumbler of Chablis.
When Ben and Cyn were growing up, their mother sometimes fell asleep at the dinner table, delicate hands in her linen napkin. She’d been an anesthesiologist, before her legal troubles. Ben and Cyn hadn’t known about that. But they knew their father’s cruelty. The air at home was suffused with it, like a paper cup of cold and bitter tea.
The watchman shift covers Ben’s basics, and food for his Australian Cattle Dog, Alphonse. The two sleep in the truck parked at Land’s End, a few yards from the furtive couplings that take place in the twisting chaparral above the beach. The crash of white-tipped waves rising into black sky. A whiff of after-shave. A man might glance in the truck’s bed before disappearing down one of the narrow dirt paths that drop into the brush.
A student has killed himself in the Institute’s print studio. His body was found by the film teacher in the pink context of dawn. In full drag and makeup, cheesy Mancini on a turntable set to repeat. “Auto asphyxiation,” it was called. The lore says footsteps, chill winds. Rattling doorknobs. Heavy objects falling onto workman’s heads.
Ben is to clock in at different sections of the campus. Otherwise, it would be easy to laze behind the desk, leaving the cement campus unwatched.
“Alphonse.” The dog alerts. He stays close to Ben’s heels in the gallery halls, the theatre, and the bathrooms with their stickers and graffitied quips.
With gloved hands, Ben draws the folded envelope from his coat pocket. “It’s gotten weird,” is scrawled in pencil. His sister Cyn has never written him a letter. “Mom has a big tumor in her lungs. Dad drove Billy James to a ravine in East County and dumped him there to die.”
Billy James: the cat their mom got after Ben and Cyn left for college. Named for an old suitor from Minnesota. The boy she forsook because of his heart murmur. Billy wasn’t expected to live a long life. He wouldn’t have been a good family man.
“Dad told mom he can’t be around weakness. He gave her $30,000 in cash to get out.” Ben’s chest clutches. “She stays up at night, calculating. Trying to figure out how long she can last,” the letter concludes. Like a sequestered folktale queen. Ben’s small cry ricochets from cement wall to walkway to roof. Into the tower and frigid sky.
He wishes Cyn were with him now. That they were not separated by three thousand miles of wheat fields and purple mountains and ten thousand big box stores. Like medieval urchins in stained glass. Like Hansel and Gretel. They could figure it out together.
It’s time to punch in at the printmaking studio. Alphonse has been refusing to enter the last clock-in site. It’s the room where the student murdered himself. Alphonse will trot off in the direction from which they came, circle around, then meet Ben at the studio’s exit.
Ben’s habit is to run across the huge room, staring straight, stopping only to punch the clock before the dog’s low bulk greets him at the exit door.
Achh, what kind of bullshit is this, writing him a letter? Their mother had called Cyn all the way in Amherst. Then Cyn had held the news to herself. Penned the lurid tale. Sealed, mailed the letter to Ben. Three days have passed.
Now here is Ben the watchman, walking the concrete halls. Cyn in her overheated Boston dormitory, cooking soup or some damn thing. Their father slipping into bed like a minister, muscles aflame, his transistor radio tuned to a sports call-in show. Their mother up half the night under the kitchen lamp, circling job listings and rooms for rent. In search of a length of wool to her life’s conclusion. Setting off with a packet of cash and a box of Chablis.
“Auto asphyxiation,” it is called. Choking the life out of oneself.
This is where it happened. Ben makes himself stay in the doorway of the print studio. Wills himself to register a caress on his cheek, a rolling light across the floorboard. Fingertips on his upper arm.
Something. But he sights no phantom. Nor has his shoulder brushed; nor whirls a footfall to face a blank hall. How could an act so fleshly and wrenching leave no trace? There is nothing but the sound of Ben’s own callow breath.
That poor sap spinning, pink and turgid under the studio’s hot light. In ecstasy at the display he made? Or did he crave a witness, an interrupter? Kon takt!
Only maybe just bereft. Like the last soul awake, atop a cement fortress over a graveyard. Like a German. A ghost story in the making.
The fluorescent lights flicker, then blast on so bright the backs of his eyeballs smart. And then there it comes: a happy bark from the best friend he will ever have.
Patricia Q. Bidar is a Northern California-based writer with family roots in Los Angeles, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. She is an alum of the UC Davis Graduate writing program and a former fiction editor at Northwest Review. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Sou'wester, Wigleaf, ellipsis...art and literature, Litro Online, The Citron Review, Jellyfish Review, Barren Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Okay Donkey. In addition to writing fiction, Patricia works as a writer for progressive local, national, and international nonprofit organizations.
She’s on twitter at @PatriciaBidar.
This story is also featured in the forthcoming Beer Money No. 2.