Short  Story- **Editor's Pick


BARBARAT    

    by Gary Moshimer


We're the Insomniacs. Not a four piece band, although we might resemble a barbershop quartet with our brand of whining and complaining in and out of harmony. Four old guys, all around eighty, who have pretty much given up eating and sleeping. To keep going we need only bullshit, and the occasional sighting of a young woman. We have plenty of both: Ralph's porch, where we do the heavy bullshitting, is on the main drag where the girls walk to and from the new high school.

When it's warm we walk around barefoot, just because, and cling to Ralph's weathered and warped boards with our unkempt toenails, perched like strange birds preying on memory.

Girls giggle when they pass us. I don't think they're being mean; they seem shy when they do it,  like the girls of our day. Maybe they know it's what we need. Kids today are smarter, and these are not the grandchildren of the ordinary people that we know. They are new people, settlers to our little valley where the big, rich houses are being built, where the career parents work on-line or commute to New York City.

Maybe the girls are mean to their boyfriends. I think about this---long fingernails teasing the strained crotches as they say, "Well, good-night." Sometimes when I think of it I slip a hand down to find my memory, my relic, which hardly strains anymore, except maybe to pee. Our girls sure enough teased us, but not in a mean way. That was another era. Kids now probably get right to it. And what oppurtunities they have, in these big open houses, with some parents not arriving home until eight o'clock!

Last year, in the fall, before Conch broke his hip, before Ralph's prostate cancer, and before Dave had to go on oxygen, we formed what we called the "Dead Ninjas Walking." We were an old guy's walking club, if anyone asked. That was why we wore black sweat-suits, pretending to be ninjas. We also wore black ski caps, and Conch had a separate one for that ear of his, which was his great, noble gift from birth, huge and shell-like in mother-of-pearl shades.  Someone said we should wear something reflective, since we went out in the evenings, but we said we could do anything we want, we're old. We had the kind of sweatshirts with the pouches, to hide our binoculars, because what we really were were plain old peeping Toms, creeping up on the big houses to try and catch the kids in the dirty deed. A roving, restless band of old men, never meeting a rival gang of restless teenagers, because they just stayed inside with their TVs with the giant screens we could see a half-mile away.

Staking out the dark borders of lawns, we were mesmerized by the four foot wide, clear-as-reality games which took place. Cars tumbled, innocent school-girls carried missle-launchers. Swords flashed and well-endowed oriental princesses paused their battles horizontally in mid-air, long legs poised to crush windpipes. The soundtracks shook the ground beneath us, and explosions sent Ralph hugging the ground, having flashbacks to the war, while Conch whistled and said, "Sweet system. I'm getting one. I'm cashing something in." Through my binoculars I watched a snarly-faced punk turn on the screen to fire a round directly at me, which I felt deep in my chest.

We knew the houses where the liquor cabinets were raided,  where we'd witness the long, complicated kisses of girls on girls; where the chubby Korean twins giggled and rolled endlessly in front of animated porno. We were frightened by these scenes-they were just children, after all. We should have told someone. But of course, we couldn't.

Once, cutting through a thick grove of pines, we came upon a fantastic secret world, where water softly bubbled and hissed and a multicolored fog swirled. It turned out to be an exotically placed hot-tub, and as we huddled behind a tree a naked boy and girl rose from the water to the wooden platform. They were soundless and patient in their explorations, and as we watched we each had our own brand of discomfort. Conch's ear quivered uncontrollably and its hat shot off. Ralph clutched his balls.  I dug into my pouch for my nitro, and Dave hit on his inhaler. The dark, smooth bodies were backlit by the mist and the lights which changed from red to green to blue and so on. The boy held his proud "member" ( we had been run out of that club years ago) in its straining upward curve, and the girl knelt worshipfully. Her slow nibbling was excruciating, taking much out of us, and we tried to stifle our wildlife sounds: the thud of my heart  like a deer hoof on the ground, Dave's loud wheezes like  calls of a dying bird, Conch's little chipmunk squeaks from his throat. Before any climax could happen we were down on the soft bed of needles holding one another, hiding our faces so we wouldn't have heart attacks or cry out in our own appreciation of this girl. We stayed there after they were gone, too, in case of searchlights or dogs or cops. We shivered with fear and shame. We waited for death. Our own cast out members twitched at the ground like worms in search of home.

When I returned to my house from these "walks", the evening nurse would often question me. I didn't like that nurse, and I told her so. I told her it was not her business to worry about me, but to tend to my wife. "About your wife," she said, nodding towards the bedroom where Annie was curled into a ball. "How much longer can you keep her here?"

"Forever," I said, fiercely clutching the binoculars in my pouch. "I promised her."

"That's really not fair."

"What do you care? You're getting paid, aren't you?"

"She was calling out that word again tonight. What is that?"

Annie had recently started crying out a word, or a name. "Barbarat!" she might shout, like a command, or "Barbarat?" like a soft plea. I had no idea what it meant or where it came from, if it was person, place, or thing.

"It's nonsense," I told the nurse.

The next day I phoned the agency and told them to send someone who'd mind their own business.
                                                  



Annie had never really recovered from her broken hip ( it breaks first and then you fall). In the hospital she threw a blood clot and had a little stroke, just enough of one so she couldn't walk on her new hip, just enough to make her a slightly different person, suspicious of everyone, including me. She would no longer look directly at me. "Who brought you here?" she would ask, looking just off to my right and sniffing like a haughty queen. "What do you want? Where's Sammy?" (Sam was our only child and had died long ago from leukemia. He too once had a hospital bed in our house.) Then she became Sam for a while, constantly apologizing for dying young, forgiving us for various things. Once she, as Sam, said this to me: "I forgive you, Father (he never called me that), for using up some of my mother's precious milk from her breast. I believe I needed all of that milk then, to fight this disease I have now, but you couldn't have known that. I forgive you."

That angered me, and I tried to argue with him, or her, but by then he or she heard only what he or she wanted to hear.

Her next phase had her believing that I was Sam, so I went along and told her that she had to forgive my father for taking what little milk he did. It really wasn't much at all. It couldn't make a difference. Then she grew suddenly angry and said, "Good God, Sammy, he just wanted to play with my tits! Don't you see? It was all about the tits! All a sexual thing!"

For six months she's been in the state she's in now, a curled up puddle in the center of the big bed. She keeps her eyes closed, occasionally calling out phrases or Sammy's name or that other word, but never my name. She's recently stopped opening her mouth for food or drink, so a feeding tube would be next, and I suspect they'll say she shouldn't stay here anymore. They'll use the words "best interest."


"Hey," Dave says, cranking up his oxygen a bit, as he's getting worked up. "I blame my Doris for her death! I blame her for getting on that damn boat!" He smacks a gnarly bare foot against the porch boards. "The Lake Champlain ferry! Oh yeah, all done up in the strings of light. Lights like.uh.strings of pearls! And why did she go down, gentlemen? Some believe it was a monster similar to Nessie."

We bob our heads. Nothing like that happened. Doris died of cancer, but Dave likes to make up alternate deaths.

And it's a day for telling tales: crackling blue spring day, and since my hearing has progressed in the opposite direction as expected, I can hear everything growing, beginning. I hear the seeds splitting and the roots and shoots slithering through the dirt.

I'm the one who doesn't have a death tale yet, as Annie is the only wife alive. So I make up a mysterious-vacation-abroad story. They always like those. I lean in on the other gentlemen. "Night. Italian coast. But not dark. A full moon makes the sand glow, a small tongue of sand, a private beach, and these huge white boulders we are sitting between look like they're lit from the inside. Our feet are in a pool of black, still water, very warm."

"Which coast is it?"

"South."

"Really."

"Shut up. We were kissing, and I held Annie's breasts in my palms, like puppies, when the stranger appeared. Or he'd been there all along. He placed a hand on Annie's shoulder. 'In four days a man will come to you,' he said.  'When he does he will ask for a word.' He whispered something in Annie's ear and disappeared. He left no trace in the sand. I begged for the code word, but she would not say it, she would hold it in until the day came, lest I be killed. I paced nervously like a Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. A swarthy man came to us during dinner at a restaurant on the fourth day. I like saying 'swarthy'. He leaned and said, 'Madame?' Annie said the word to him, he nodded solemnly, and that was the end of it." I leaned in further to my old men. "Do you want to know what the word was? Shhhh. It was."



We're all retired from the GE over the border. Welders. Dave got the worst of it, inside the tanks of the transformers in all the heat and fumes. That and his Luckies fried his lungs. Our brains, I suspect, have tiny flecks of poisonous metal, causing our flights of fancy. We have tiny holes in us, from years of sparks, and in a certain kind of darkness you can see the colors of our souls leaking. My colors are impure, ever-changing, grey-black-red-orange-yellow, never the pure peace of blue-pink like Conch's ear. It's because I masturbate in public places (but secretly), and look in windows and do not spend time with Annie. And because I never took her to Italy. And because I suckled her breasts which might have caused my son to die.


"Eighty-thousand," Conch says, rocking and rocking. "That's what they gave for the ear. Can you believe that? Just what we needed for the operation. It makes me cry." Tears run down a ditch across his cheek and drip off the giant earlobe which is still there.  "That Chinese fishynoddoe."

"Wait. The what?"

"The Chinese dealer of curiosities."

"Right. Go on." (We snicker.)

"He dried it and lacquered it and displays it in a case of blue velvet. So beautiful. I can hardly believe it was a part of me. I'm welcome down in Chinatown anytime to view it."

Heads shake and nod. During the respectful silence I reflect on the real truth: Irene needed a double lung transplant, and it wasn't a matter of money, she just wasn't a candidate. Towards the end she became confused and one night tried to sever Conch's ear with a kitchen knife. In the ER a plastic surgeon said it would be a good chance to fashion Conch a new, normal ear. But Conch told him no, just sew it back how it was. It was the ear, after all, which had told Conch that Irene was his true love. On just their second date she had kissed it delicately all over.
                                                   

I have played with myself in men's rooms of  many fast food places. I didn't start that until I was seventy-five, and I blame it on the metal flecks in my brain. It's not very pleasant anymore, kind of like backing into a weak electric fence. The flecks also make me write on the bathroom walls with permanent markers, things like: SUCK YOU, SUCKFACE!

I read once that Napolean's penis is kept somewhere, perhaps in a velvet box, dried and shriveled like a little mushroom. It is said to resemble a seahorse. I think I might be headed in that direction.


Unlike many groups of old geezers, we don't talk about the president. That would just lead to talk of the war, which would lead to talk of the useless deaths of so many young men, which would remind us of my son who died young, even though it wasn't in a war.

After the girls go by, on their way home from school, we start talking about breasts. They don't know that this, too, is a sore subject for me.

"I believe," says Ralph, "that some of these girls have fake ones, even at their age."

"Of course, their parents are loaded. They probably get them for their thirteenth birthdays."

"Remember Hot-Tub Girl? Hers were kind of round and hard. Very disturbing."

"Yet I couldn't look away."

"Doesn't that day nurse of yours have them?"

"I think they are real," I say. "She's a natural beauty."

"She is beautiful, isn't she? What's her story?"

"I just know that her and her husband bought the old Collier place at the crossing. They're fixing it up."

"There's more to it," Dave says, squinting at me. "She's here to cause your downfall."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"I don't know. I just liked saying it."



Conch has told us he's moving to Florida to live with his daughter. And Dave will be going to his son's in Arizona, where supposedly the breathing is easier. Sad days ahead, with our gang breaking up.

But first Conch goes on a shopping spree!

He invites us over as the delivery truck is winding its way up his crazy driveway, as the drivers are gawking at his lawn sculptures and then at his ear. He's kind of like a crazy reverse Van Gogh. What they deliver is a fifty-two inch TV and home theater system! It takes them hours to set it all up, and while they do we drink some gin-and-tonics and engage in some harmless fist-jabbing and wheeze-laughing and singing. We sing: We're old pervs of the first magnitude,
                            We're old pervs of the second magnitude,
                            We're old pervs of the third magnitude,
                            Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah.

The delivery men get nervous as our rowdiness grows, as we smash our fists with their glasses together like Viking drunkards. Glass flies. One of the men says to us, "You don't throw anything at the screen. It will break."

"We're not stupid," I say.

Conch also bought a game system, complete with wireless controllers, which vibrate in your hands when you blow something up or crash something, and this vibrating mat on which you can stand or sit. Ralph spends time on the mat, soothing his prostate as he explodes apartment complexes where terrorists might be hiding, but then worries he might adversely affect the tiny radioactive seed embedded in his prostate which is itself exploding cancer cells.

Because Conch spent so much money, he received five free games, a two-hundred-fifty dollar value! Dave picks them out of a box with his bare toes, showing off the agility a few drinks allow him. The delivery men trot away from the scene. We go to the window and pretend to have a missle-launcher with which to blow their truck to smithereens. But they probably have families.

Somewhere in there, amidst all the riotous fun, I think of Annie at home in the bed and of what a shit I am. I'll return to her, but not quite yet.

There's one role-playing game, or "RPG", as they say. You get to invent your character---looks, name, weapons, special powers, etc. My guy I name Barbarat, and he's more of a lover than a fighter, a thinker and strategist, although I myself am a lousy strategist, so in the game I'm always getting slain by hidden beasts after making the wrong choices. My special power is that I can fly short distances, but the flying takes a lot out of me and in order to replenish my strength I have to go questing for certain red gemstones which of course are hidden. It's too much questing, and it gets annoying. You could be stuck in this game forever, that much is clear. I'm pursued for some reason by this young woman with long blonde hair and sizzling green eyes. She wears a garland of flowers and displays her cleavage to me above her medieval-looking gown. She keeps her distance. I'm not sure what she wants with me. When confronted, she hides, and never speaks. I should make love to her, but I'm afraid she's not what she seems.

"Hey," says Dave, "she looks like the day nurse. I told you."

I make sure I get home before her shift ends. Her name is Selma, and I think she's Scandinavian. She's shy and calls me "Sir". I watch her movements as she brushes Annie's hair, once blonde like hers. I shamelessly look at the front of her uniform and feel her blush. I know she walks home from here, healthy girl, so I should stalk her, staying just out of sight in the woods next to the road, watching to see if she turns into a demon.

Annie says, "Barbarat?" I sit on the bed and take her crinkly cellophane hand and say, "It's me, my love. I've returned from afar."

At this she smiles and works her hand up to my face. Her tears run down and I start crying myself. Selma puts a hand on my back and I feel a little tremble from her as well.


"You're elected," Ralph says.

"Huh?"

"You get to go see the day nurse tonight, to see if they're real. Since we can't go anymore. It's just you, the only one healthy enough. We've learned, through Fred at the store, that her husband is working for two weeks in high voltage on the Canadian border."

"You want me to look in her windows?"

"Well, unless you charm yourself into her bed, you charmer."

"You should have chose invisibility as your power," Conch says.

"Go with God," Dave says. "And beware."

"We'll be here waiting for a full report."

"Break a hip!"

                                                         

Annie looks at me as I'm getting on my black clothes. She's more alert than usual, and when I put up my hood she nods slowly and knowingly and says, "Battle, is it?"

"I'm afraid so."

"Return to me." She reaches out a hand. "I'll wait."

The new evening nurse shakes her head and says cheerfully, "Look out for cars!"

What the hell am I doing? The binoculars feel heavy and my heart skips. There's a full moon on the curve of the tracks. When we were kids we threw rocks at the freight trains, trying to get them in open doors of empty cars. One of the trains came to a stop and men jumped off with bats and walked around looking for us. Old man Collier, whose ghostly house I'm going to, threw himself in front of a train ten years ago, maybe because of me.

I reach down and take some of the black dirt and rub it onto my face.

There's the cottage at the crossing. I cut through woods to get around back. But the footing has changed over the years, and muck pulls my feet and vines come alive around my weak legs. Old John Collier! He pulls me down into the damp earth, which is not unpleasant. I should die here, and not be found until a tree has sprouted from my heart, the heart of Noble Barbarat, not so noble, who cheated with Mary Collier long ago without touching her. Lying on my side I whisper into the moss, "I'm sorry, John," until the vines let me go.

Really I should knock on Selma's door and throw myself before her. "I'm just as sick as my wife, you see. But in the head. My buddies and I, we don't sleep. We have strange thoughts and do strange things, making up stories and talking about boobies. I should go off and live with my son, but he died a long time ago. Forgive me, I kneel before you."

I'm actually ready to do that. I have a wobbly finger poised over the doorbell when I hear a man's voice from the window. Then I panic and hightail it in stiff-legged fashion through the arbor and into the back yard. High voltage my ass!  Well, my ass does feel charged, thinking of the last time I was in this yard, waiting for Mary to appear at her window. "Yes," I told my gang one night, during story time, "Mary and I were secret readers. We met at odd times like lovers in the library. We were hungry to read and discuss the classics, because John only read the paper and Annie only the soap and movie rags. We loved our spouses, but.we loved each other as well." The old men nodded, appreciative, not knowing the story was true. "But we never touched each other." More nodding. It made me seem noble, but I left out how Mary would strip for me at her window on certain nights, while I stood out back and diddled my future Napoleon-penis.

I'm only going on moonlight and memory, but something is drastically wrong in this back yard-home improvement. I tumble over a load of two-by-fours, making quite a racket, but no light comes on. The grass has been stripped and the ground is rocky. I have to maneuver around a skid of bricks. I totally forget about the old well hole, something I was always careful about, something which is still here. My right leg plunges into the opening and disappears to the hip. It's like a trap set just for me, one I out-witted as a younger man. 

My left leg is stretched on the ground, so my legs are at ninety degrees, not a good angle for a geezer. For a geezer that's a split. Something bad has happened, because immediately there's no pain, just numbness from the waist down. Far below I hear hollow tumbles of rocks, and something dripping. It may be that I've peed myself. Or I'm bleeding.
I try my power of flight, but no go.

I catch the much needed glimpse of the beautiful blonde head in an upstairs window, just from the ear up, because of my low angle. She paces, then shouts. She sounds like a different person. A red hand grabs the top of the hair and yanks. Bastard! That's something I never did to Annie, never put a violent hand to her. But what if this isn't the husband? What if it's some intruder? Some pervert? Conch should have bought that phone for me!

The light goes out, leaving the house dark, leaving me vulnerable in the moonlight. Selma's voice drops to a murmur. Even with my super hearing I can't make out the words, only that she no longer sounds threatened. Then she starts to sing, some tune  eerily echoing one from the game, and I wonder if Dave hasn't set this all up.

That son-of-a-bitch!

I wonder how long they'll wait, though, before they come looking. I'm not sure how long I can wait. The numbness is spreading upward now, crossing my potbelly, reaching for my chest, and for the first time since I don't know when, I feel sleepy. It's a great effort to pull out my binoculars and toss them as far away as possible. Get rid of the evidence, and then call this nurse for help. Play senile when they find you: What on earth? I don't know. I don't remember anything.

The bed starts rocking,  passions are whispered in rhythms that make me close my eyes. I can't sleep now.

I draw a breath to call out, but the tears running in my throat have dripped upon my vocal cords, so the sound I make is that of a toad lost in the night, a big stupid one that has to get back home, has to get that kiss. After years of being lost in woods and houses and stories he has to get back to his princess. He can hear her far in the distance, calling his secret name.



                                                              
Bio: Gary Moshimer  lives in Pa. with his wife and two sons, where he works in a hospital. He has a story online at TQR, and one upcoming in Antithesis Common.