Fall 2022, Volume 33

Fiction by Johnny Payne


Dara sat against a nest of eight pillows, watching the bedsheets shimmer from refracted rays.  Light sliced frost from the window overlooking the stand of cypress, behind it a pond half-frozen, mottled with the algae they’d not skimmed.  If David had been present right then to warm the bed, she wouldn’t have to rise and cook one egg instead of three.  He’d been awakened with a call from the utility to tend damaged aboveground cables in the next county over.  They were in danger of catching a farm on fire, which then might spread to the surrounding woods, then other houses, afterward possibly jumping the small river until at length, it reached their own house, burning it down, her inside, then she’d never see him again.  She could imagine the smell of the charred squirrels and foxes, hear the panicked shrieks of distant neighbors, as unfinished dry planks caught fire.

It always felt that way when he left on a call, that he wouldn’t come back, either because of fire, or he got electrocuted, or because he’d grown tired of their sedate life.  It was the life she’d wanted, no children, only the two of them, trips to the coast, golfing together, brunch on Sunday, attending church when they had a special service or classical music program, neither believing in God nor disbelieving.  They remained constantly fit, going to the gym together or apart; he designed workouts especially for her, as he’d been a personal trainer when she met him, before he got on at the utility.  She’d brought a trust fund to the marriage, meaning they could pamper themselves and not have to worry, though she couldn’t get him to just give up his job and live the life that her father’s and grandfather’s corporate savvy and financial investments had made possible for her. 

They hadn’t disowned her when she chose David, a smart, stubborn laborer who was easygoing but not to be condescended to.  On the contrary, her parents had been glad, possibly relieved, for someone who agreed to “take responsibility for her,” after her many world meanderings, someone who didn’t seem daunted by her mercurial tendencies.  They already had one other adult son they worried about, a disappointment, they’d gone 0 for 2 in their book, and they considered him, who might have taken over her father’s business, one of those of whom it was said, “it skips a generation.”

Dara and David were mistaken often for someone five or ten or even fifteen years younger, durable in youth, as if aliens had taken over their bodies but let them remain healthy, rather than act as parasites.  Her skin radiated subtle light, like the soft bedside lamp she kept clicked on, to stave off darkness, as that Coleman lantern had the time they camped at the gorge and heard distant coyotes that kept getting closer, but never arrived.  Dark that was fire—she liked the paradox so much that she stirred from her comfortable spot to retrieve coffee from the timed coffeemaker that had worked in comparative silence while she slept, water slithering down a narrow tube out of sight. Pulling bread from the freezer, she dropped one slice of Jewish rye in the toaster, leaving the other, empty side, his side, glowing orange in vain.  Even knowing her toast would be slightly burnt, she didn’t adjust the knob down, because David liked his extra crunchy, two notches up, and she wanted to experience the same as his taste buds did.

Her name was Dara.  Sometimes she forgot it, whether on purpose or not.  Did it matter?  She could have been Rhonda or Colleen.  She had no relatives of that name, so there was no legacy involved.  She preferred being she, anonymous, blanketed in invisibility, relaxed at the lack of inquisitive humans.  She was an anti-alien, really, not wanting to explore the curious ways of this defective race.  Somnolent, she chose flowy pants and a tight top, another paradox, not with much deliberation, because all her clothes were pretty.  David bought many garments for her, his attention to detail touching.  In the beginning, he’d refused to spend money out of the liquid accounts given by her parents, and tried to teach her financial prudence, but when he realized she was just going to spend it anyway, he learned to give her some of the gifts she wanted, pleasing her that way, instead of having her just go off and buy them herself.  With his eye and taste and exquisite tact, so unfitting for a utility company lineman, he could have been a woman, if he weren’t so ungodly manly.  Probably he’d been female in past lives, maybe even a fashion designer or the dresser of a king. 

She slid into her loafers, the name so right for her, the queen of lassitude, except when she was striving for her life.  Sometimes Dara thought it was her body alone that kept him; he was crazy about it, emitting insane primal noises when they made love, each time with the ferocity of a savage who didn’t speak her language, so he could express himself only through his physical being.  He wanted her to be the one of slow, sensual movement, a contrast to his kinetic style, her a scudding swan swimming in parallel with clouds.  It was a marriage based on biorhythms. 

At times, she suspected he had other lovers, whether men or women, maybe both, though there had never been any indication, no intriguing clue, not even when she once went into his phone and computer, neither password protected, scrolling, and clicking until she grew bored.  She’d begun in a preemptive jealous rage and ended embarrassed, though he wouldn’t have disapproved, even if she had confessed to spying.  He handled her gingerly, like their heirloom crystal.  Her meddling would only would have puzzled David.  Was that his real name?  His birth certificate said so, but it could be forged.  No, the county records affirmed the same; then again someone could have bribed someone.  That hypothesis made no sense, however.  They could have as easily named him someone else at birth; it would be less trouble.  There was no need for subterfuge.  Okay, he was David.  All she cared was that she shared his last name.  That made their names almost identical.

Dara slipped the loafers off, realizing that her outfit was more or less for yoga, and she fell into one of her self-assembled routines, starting with the downward facing dog, as close as she would ever come to owning a real dog.  She’d never wanted one, after growing up with allergies around a series of long-haired dogs, afghans and collies, always big ones who tried to knock her down with their enthusiasm, ones that her mother bought or adopted and all of whom met premature, unfortunate ends.  Clipper, Chipper, Max, Ruger, Helga, they all had names like that, robust, full of vim and vigor, making it all the stranger that they died from sudden infirmity, or weren’t fast enough to cross the road in time before a speeding ice cream truck hit them. 

He had taken along to work a change of clothes, possibly because he would leave right after his shift, shower at the Y or whatever hotel he was heading toward to shack up with someone buxom and slightly fat, less pretty than Dara, but more willing to do freaky things to which she didn’t even want to put names in her mind.  It occurred to her to call around to a few hotels in the area and ask whether there was a reservation under Devereaux, but of course they wouldn’t use a real name.  She could ask for John Smith or Jane Doe, but the very thought of it made her sleepy.  Better to do the happy baby pose. 

She looked at the wedding ring on the finger grasping her haunch as she rocked.  He’d spent a lot on it; too much, as he always did, having to work extra hours to keep her in a lifestyle he’d never asked for, not forbidding her to work, but not wanting her to either, not that he ever said so.  There was that trust fund—but then again, the funds had kind of run down.  Honestly, she had no idea how much was left in it.  She wasn’t allowed to touch it.  Her parents, or maybe it was David, had taken her name off, leaving only his!  Yes, he was working extra shifts, but maybe that was his way of doing exercise and staying fit.  Who could figure out his motives, really?  Maybe they were perfectly solvent and she was only imagining that they were on the verge of bankruptcy, and soon this beautiful house would have to be sold and they’d be in the street.  She did still have those credit cards, ones she’d shown great restraint in not using, wanting everybody except her to forget they existed.  She’d earned her privileges back, stayed on her medication for months, not making any fuss about anything, though the truth is, she’d gone off it a few weeks ago, and also gone off birth control without telling him, because all of a sudden, she did want a baby, did want to get knocked up, but so far, no go.  She’d always imagined that his seed was so potent he’d impregnate her on the first go.  Except maybe he’d depleted himself with his harem of willing whores.

David was attracted to her elegant, passive ways, her being in the world without seeming effort.  If they hadn’t been married, she’d have considered herself a kept woman.  He referred to her as a yogi, joking but serious.  It was true that she could perform past life regressions almost at will, and she’d done so a few times, landing in space and time as a groomer of horses, a suffragette, a spinner of flax in a remote village in the mountains.  Never did she land as a princess or a powerful businesswoman.  It was too much effort to assimilate all that information, all those selves, when she only wanted to be her complete self, so she treated the other selves as compost, best left to fertilize distant trees, other lives. 

Without self-explanation, Dara threw on her cashmere winter coat, backed her classic BMW out of the garage, listening to the crunch of the tires, and drove a little too fast on the rural route, half-hoping for a patch of black ice that would hurl her into a concrete post.  Nothing of the kind happened, and after a spell during which the road became hypnotic, her driving on sheer instinct, floating really, she realized that she was looking for David.  She was going to find by intuition alone the damaged power lines where he worked in a near-freezing temperature, his hands covered by cloth gloves, as he tried not to get shocked.  Possibly she’d be saving his life by calling him off the pole onto which he was harnessed, coaxing him down just before a shower of sparks became a high-voltage death jolt. 

On into the sea of pitch sky, lightening to tornado-slate-blue, she pushed, glancing side to side at the shuttered windows of century-old farmhouses giving way to ranch homes and trailers, without rhyme, arbitrarily littering the fluctuating landscape, field stone walls flanking the narrow two-lane, after which steel guardrails or no guardrails or wooden fences. 

Many stands of trees hadn’t been maintained.  Some crew hadn’t done its job.  Or the county had neglected to provide enough funds to employ sufficient workers to keep them trimmed back from the lines, exposing her husband, and everyone, to wanton and gratuitous risk.  Why?  What had they against Dara that they would deprive her of the one thing, the one person, on which her life depended?  She did their taxes every year, that she insisted on, so her accounting degree wouldn’t go entirely to waste and to hint to her husband that she had depths of expertise that he hadn’t plumbed, that she was more than an object of desire.  And because she did their taxes, except for the past two years when he no longer allowed it, because of some of the deductions she’d put there that got audited, she knew that they scrupulously paid every penny owed.  No one could accuse them of shirking.  If she could have designated, their share of state taxes would have gone directly to the tree-trimming budget.

Rounding a bend, she spotted a utility truck half on the shoulder, half leaning on a patch of grass to stay clear of traffic.  The bucket was up at the level of the power lines.  Cinching the cashmere coat around her tiny waist, thin yoga clothes underneath, trying not to slip on the ice, not having thought to change out of the loafers she’d slipped back on and into something with a tread, she half-walked, half-slid to an ice-free patch of grass which allowed her to approach two quizzical men wearing yellow hard hats and orange vests.  Neither was her husband.  Why wasn’t one of them standing in the crow’s nest palpating a length of cable?  Before she looked up, she knew that it was David up there.  She had found him.  For a moment, Dara remained mute, afraid to call up lest he ignore her or else refuse to come down. 

The men stood aside, and she walked between them to the base of the utility pole.  “David!” she shouted, expecting to call that name many times over until she grew hoarse, though in truth she wouldn’t have minded speaking his name again and again, like a mantra, and going into a trance.  He turned around immediately, unhooked his safety belt, sliding back into the bucket, and signaled for the men to bring him down.  He descended, his head lamp fixed on her the whole time, as a clear patch opened in the sky and the drizzle that had soaked the deep nap of her coat stopped.  He hopped out and walked to her, not seeming irked, not even surprised, and took her hand, slightly shaking his head. 

“Dara.  What a pleasure.”

“I’ve been missing you.  I was afraid you’d died.”

“Here I am.  You worry too much.  Are you all right, honey?  You shouldn’t be out in this weather.”

“I had a premonition.”

“Not everybody is 100%, not even savants.  Did you take your medicine with your coffee?” 

“Yes,” she lied.

He hugged her tightly, as if she had gone under in the pond, having thrown off her clothes to court hypothermia, and he had to warm her back to life.  He held her in a long embrace, one that said he’d never let go, and it was then she knew with assurance that he was seeing someone else. 


Why couldn’t her life be a novel that simply ended with a question mark?  What was this need to languish?  Was David really still her husband?  She hadn’t seen him in several days.  Was she not in fact sitting on a beach in Cancún, at a luxury hotel with flags of nations fluttering from its battlements, protecting her against the encroachment of any being, alien or human, that might interrupt the yoga position she’d held for ten minutes, while watching the surf roll toward her like liquid tongues of fire, as the sand crabs scuttled, only to recede whence they came, leaving her intact, her skin white and pure as bleached bones in Death Valley, a desert where her car had once conked out, and that’s when David had passed by, rescuing her in his Ford 250 pickup with tools neatly put away in locked metal boxes, the first of many rescues?  She’d gone to sit in a sweat lodge, releasing by means of her tiny, attractive pores, salt and liquid, like the sea evaporating. 

In a court of law dedicated to the adjudication of love, would not David appear as the defendant, one who lured her into a relationship as he had many others, the women who had children by him and lived in such places as Provo, Utah, Bisbee, Arizona, Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the nuclear bomb was born, or the San Fernando Valley of California, where pornography once flourished as the odd, funny cousin of the film industry?  They were there for his appetites, instead of the usual barflies with wilted wings, the ones who had been on the cusp of working as supermodels, only to be exploited and cast aside, thence falling as far as they had climbed.  Dara, too had modeled, albeit in college to pay her way through, creating the illusion that she came from a pampered, patrician family, a ruse only belied by the fact that she was studying accounting, or were those two aspects compatible after all, meaning she could have founded her own modeling agency and built it into a global concern?  Were her parents hard-working Presbyterians after all, who had scraped and saved to provide her a dowry of sorts to take her off their hands?  Had they dipped into their retirement fund for that purpose?  Were they that desperate?  Maybe her father had been a car salesman, now that she thought about it, though she might have told a few people that they were capitalists of global reach.

Too many questions.  Behind the tiki bars stood a Javanese former cage fighter who had ruptured something or other and had retreated to Cancún, literally licking his wounds the way a stubborn cat licks a bowl of almost-turned cream.  Alfonso had asked her questions, the kind that usually ended with the woman in bed.  She had flirted too while fending him off with her own questions, like that theater exercise where you always answer a question with a question.  Dara would have been excellent at Jeopardy because her natural inclination would have been to form a thought in the form of a question.  Maybe she should have studied science?  See, that was a statement, but the lilt at the end, the rising tone on the last word, the way Yiddish and Irish did, turned a statement into a question.  She’d sashayed out of the sun and into the bar, a transparent sheath minidress pretending to cover her orange and blue floral bikini.  His caressing eyes watched her approach as he ignored a customer ordering a drink.  The air was less heavy with salt only one hundred yards west of the shoreline, a paradox, like when she cleaned out her closet that time and donated half her wardrobe to the Salvation Army, expensive clothes, but her rule was that if she hadn’t worn a garment in a year, she could dispense with it.  As a result, she wore the remaining ones more often, making it seem she had more clothes rather than fewer. 

“Dara.”  It was a declarative one-word statement, sharp yet contradictorily blunt as a machete administering a swift blow, but as if containing an implied question, such as “Do you want to go to bed with me yet?”

“No, I don’t want to do it yet.”

“How about a Virgin Mary?”

“I see what you’re doing.  Reverse logic.”  He made the chaste drink without waiting for a direct answer. She sipped in silence, narrowing her eyes to make a suspenseful impression.  “Don’t gaslight me, Alfonso.  There is a way to get to it.”

“Your voice has taken on a serious tone.”

“Do I have to spell it out?  H-O-N-E-Y P-O-T.”

“Honey pot?  As in pancakes or Winnie the Pooh?”

“As in finding my husband and assassinating him, if necessary, if he turns out to have several families living in different states, or even the same neighborhood.”

“Honey pot usually means trickery is involved, that I am an unwitting dupe being manipulated by sex to reveal secret information that could help you, for instance, get political advantage over a rival.  In which case the sex would come first, then the ‘favor’ of assassination.”

“Semantics.  Let’s call it a molasses pot, wherein promised sex, rather than preemptive, is the motivator.  Otherwise, you might burn me.”

“Or you me.  We’re at a Mexican standoff.”

“That phrase is now considered prejudicial.”

“But we’re in Mexico, therefore it is merely a statement of fact.”

“You’re a pretty good logician.  But. I can’t accept your terms.”

“Nor I yours.  Besides, I already used up my vacation.”

“I’d think that you’re permanently on vacation.”  Dara wanted badly to sleep with him, to exact revenge.  Yet she had no proof.  If she gave in to her lust, she’d lose the moral upper hand.  “No matter it was just an idea.  Thanks for the Virgin Mary.”  She stood to go.

“You were joking, right? About your plan?”

“I’m not sure.  When I go back, he’s going to put me in jail.  Not a real jail, but it’s a lot like a jail.  Unless I leave again before he traps me.  There’s always Kachenjunga.”

Dara slept for fourteen hours, after which she had the energy to take a cooking class on several uses of the sacred chile, the heart and origin of Mayan culture.  Dara learned to save the seeds in a bowl of water in case she wanted to turn a dish spicier later.  The class culminated with the group preparing mole, the dark sauce making her think of David’s blood flowing with unrealistic slowness from multiple stab wounds, while she stood over him brandishing the same death-sharp knife with which she had sliced the chicken for the group’s celebratory meal. 

As she savored the piquant chocolate sauce with a wooden spoon, as if holding onto her and David’s first kiss, she reminded herself of how he had climbed down from the pole during the ice storm and held her tenderly.   Maybe they would be okay, and he would forgive her for taking this trip without consulting him first.  Or he could fly into a rage and beat her senseless at the threshold of the door.  Not that he’d ever laid a finger on her, but you never knew.  Still waters and all that.

Clothed in guilt as long as a burqa, Dara flew back and took a taxi from the airport, not letting David know she was returning early.  He’d not made a big deal of her leaving without telling him.  Possibly David knew that was counterproductive and would only prolong her stay.  Sometimes it quietly infuriated her, how he spoke to her as to a skittish animal.  It was patronizing, infantilizing, although it actually did work.  He stood at the marble topped counter under the recessed lights, making pizza dough.  He looked up and smiled as he had beneath the power lines.  “Babe, you’re just in time.  I’m making the same dish we ate when I invited you to my little garden apartment when we first started dating.”  Dara burst out crying.  He came and embraced her tense body as snot clotted her nostrils.  He took a hankie from his back pocket.  “Blow into this, little miss booger.  I didn’t know you were missing me so much.”

“I’m okay.  I’m really okay.”

“Eat a proper meal.  We’ll talk about things later.”

She had been missing him, damn it, on the plane back, at least an hour before the final approach.   Another of the many paradoxes that filled her life!  They sat down and ate the smoked gouda and fire roasted tomato sauce pizza, splitting it, with a bottle of merlot he’d been saving for a special occasion.  Simple, like something the Dalai Lama would eat when he got a midnight craving.  The pizza was slathered with garlic he’d grown in the kitchen garden.  “Let’s kiss a lot tonight, with strong breath.  Let’s be like teenagers.”

She was grateful for the garlic.  That way he wouldn’t be able to taste the several delicious kisses that Alfonso had left on her lips, when she first went into the restaurant and no one was there.  David and she kissed and kissed, rolling around on the mattress as if they were wallowing in the surf at Cancún, where they should have gone together instead of her alone, for a second honeymoon.  How selfish she was, how inconsiderate, how suspicious!  She was a hysterical harpy made of tacky pizza dough, the kind that sticks to your fingers until in frustration and disgust you fling it into the garbage


Leroy watched through the open chintz curtains of his motel room a couple crouching in the flickering light of a single lamppost, circling one car after another in the parking lot, as if they had dropped a set of keys.  Eventually, they couldn’t find the keyring, so the elfin woman jimmied the door with a crowbar she’d taken from an unlocked trunk. 

Putting down his clarinet, on which he’d been playing Das Lied vom Branntweinhädnler, Leroy stepped outside into the night and walked around the motel, beyond the dumpsters, where from a rutted patch of earth, he observed a canopy of sharp starlight, as if aliens were trying to tell him something using a secret set of semaphores.  When they did, he wrote down their cryptic messages on the motel stationery.  It had been too long since he and his sister Dara had spoken.  Leroy swooned as he recalled their privileged childhood in the Azores, gamboling in the sand, kelp clinging to their ankles while they ran among the dunes, fragrant with the lotion their mother had rubbed them with before letting them scamper through the sentient surf.  Even the small clouds of gnats hovered without getting too close, as if in minute obeisance, while tourists, recumbent on the nearby hotel’s chaise lounges, under blue and white striped towels, turned their smiling heads to acknowledge the tow-headed waifs, who doubtless would be at the joint head of a major corporation someday, such as Big Pharma, or dual defense contractors, sitting at their side-by-side desks in front of an artfully arrayed series of color-photoshopped, framed images of Bikini Atoll.

Instead, Leroy developed Asperger’s and Dara disappeared from his life when he could no longer keep up his end of the fantasy of fraternal twins enshrouded in a cloud of metaphorical cotton candy, or some other murky simile relating to their childish, witless insouciance.  In short, she had screwed him over, leaving her only brother unattended, working at an insurance office, where he was continually goaded into participating in the office pool, betting on NFL games he never watched and always losing.

David and he had shared an apartment in Santa Monica, both working as personal trainers. The two of them used to work out together on Venice Beach with a group of mildly irascible guys, hitting each other too hard on the shoulder as he and they took turns deadlifting and bench pressing, David and him usually placing in the top three or four in weight or number of reps, as gulls perched on parked bicycles or benches left unoccupied due to having been shat upon by said gulls.  The sun slid from cloud to cloud, as if trying to outdistance heartbreak. 

Almost brothers, they had borrowed each other’s sweatpants when one didn’t have a clean pair, the way girls lend each other party dresses.  Secretly, he’d wanted David to meet his sister, who kept sending postcards from various places in Asia, through which she was backpacking, flaring up the shin splints from her ballet school days, preferring to talk about pagodas and her evolving consciousness of the agony of the world and the splendor of jungles where mosquitoes, as the gnats had, left her skin alone, trailing her as if she were a goddess of the malaria-inducing insect world.  On one, she wrote words of Ram Dass: “The most exquisite paradox… as soon as you give it all up, you can have it all.”  She was obsessed with paradoxes, claiming her life was based on them.  Leroy’s ardent hope had been that she’d get a glimpse of David, fall in love with him, and the three of them would occupy the cramped apartment, laughingly oblivious to the lack of space and they’d help him also find the right girl, not the bikini-sporting hangers-on of the power-lifting scene, but a real woman, one whose authentic, non-enhanced eyelashes would bat at him over breakfast, right before she winked at him regarding an unspoken secret, as this National Geographic photographer girlfriend studied maps for the four-wheeling adventure the four of them would have that weekend, jolting through a canyon in Utah, past mesas that throbbed with the hidden insights only igneous stone can hold. 

Dara and David never met.  Her promises to visit California came to nothing, as she fell for a Sherpa, and became interested in raising goats, before abandoning him and taking up for a month with the leader of an oppressed village who quickly got jailed on account of organizing human rights protests.  All this was relayed in long, handwritten letters, ones that arrived far after the fact, as if Leroy were her confidant in the 19th century, when steamships took travelers to foreign lands and people used sealing wax on an envelope to make it feel like a packet of mystery.

How had he fallen so far?  Okay, he was weird, making inappropriate comments about a child’s cotton candy, comparing it to a mushroom cloud from a nuclear blast, making her run off yelling to her parents, or blurting out facts about a friend that everyone knew but no one ever said.  He’d always been good at getting first dates, not so good at second ones.  Then came the office pool.  Leroy picked out all the right teams, all the way down to the final.  The entire office was more astounded at that than with his years of actuarial acumen that did a lot to keep the office solvent.  If he’d worked for Berkshire Hathaway, he’d have won one million dollars.  He walked away with $10,000 largely because of extravagant side bets he made with co-workers.  That’s when Thelma got interested, seeing him as a guru who would help get her life straight.  She started baking him chocolate cakes, Bundt cakes, cheesecakes.  He wasn’t a big eater, so he thanked her and laid each on the snack table for others to share, and the office gossip began that they were sleeping together.  Thelma began to wear preposterously sheer blouses, sometimes with a black bra underneath, and skirts ever shorter, until Daniela, their boss, called Thelma into her office for a stern, half-yelling lecture everyone heard, and the next day Thelma slunk in with a high cotton turtleneck and black slacks, fuming, but switching to doe eyes every time Leroy passed her cubicle to get coffee.  He’d freaked and left town.

What was he doing here amid the wheeling stars and the mournful coyotes and the streaking meteors, one of which had just hit the ground in a mass of flaming wreckage resembling a car that had been set on fire?  Fire engines and police were inspecting the sinister smolder, questioning occupants who stood in their pajamas or underwear staring at the symbol of their own misfortune, for truly the motel was an asylum of the damned, with its peripatetic petty thieves, its meth addicts, and its tourists and business wayfarers who wanted to save $30 by staying at a “perfectly good inn—it’s budget, but it’s clean and comfortable.”  The ice machine was a constant death rattle.  The beverage machine a respirator on an ICU.  The beds should have had side bars with restraints.  Half the reason he played the clarinet night and day was because he had nothing better to do, except his continued hopes of getting into a community orchestra without insulting someone accidentally, but the other half was to give these lost souls a soundtrack that wasn’t about bleak defeat.  His fingers on the apertures of the clarinet were fleet and firm—he was really good, gifted.  No one would ever know or recognize that fact, except the coyotes who specifically gathered each night at varying distances, inching closer into the flickering neon to sing counterpoint to Abime des Oiseaux.

After a brief glance, the policeman ignored Leroy as he walked by, as if he were a mental defective whose word on anything could not be trusted.  It was just as well.  Going straight to his room and packing his few possessions, Leroy returned to the parking lot to get in his vehicle and leave this outpost, from which he’d been hiding from his own life, only to realize that the still smoking remains of the supposed meteor that had hurtled to earth was in fact the burned-out hull of his Kia Soul.  The thieves, no doubt finding nothing of value—but what did they expect to find inside a Kia—had doubtless torched it for revenge.


I, an intelligent dwarf, raced through the sky in a minute jet toward the aurora borealis, determined to discover its divine origin, which paradoxically turned out to lie in an underground lair of discreet, dwarf-friendly hoop snakes.

Dara broke the sealing wax on the envelope with its familiar handwriting, its faint benzine scent returning her to the moment in Katmandu twelve years ago when a cryptic letter from her brother had miraculously intercepted her erratic trajectory through Asia at a post office not much larger than the pack-loaded yaks who stood around waiting for mountaineers to show up.  She and her Sherpa, Pasang Dawa Lama, had begun seeing one another, result of a frisky, tent-bending interlude at base camp, days after her reaction to lack of oxygen kept her from summiting, and he had accompanied her on the descent.  She’d watched a gigantic shelf of ice slide into the abyss a few hundred yards to the west, a momentary cosmic guillotine, shards of ice spraying as a continuous crash shook the very air.  Two Sherpas had taken her the last stretch back to base camp in a litter, her remaining conscious enough to look on Pasang’s dreamy, wind-burned face and black locks tumbling over his expression of concern.  Dara had spent a year climbing challenging lesser peaks in preparation for the big one, always without incident.  Three hundred yards had separated her from destiny.  Pasang told her, as she lay her head, back safe and rested, ankle twisted, in his bungalow, on his slender but steely chest, that she should have no regrets.  He had turned back twice in his career, at first being branded a shirking Sherpa, before it came out that the German climbers who pressed ahead, had lost fingers and toes due to frostbite, despite his warning them to descend, as a fierce storm was going to hit.  They’d been lucky to survive.  The second, an Austrian crew, cavalier from the beginning, taking too many selfies at the bottom, live casting their dancing hormonal inanity, them lofting bottles of gorkha beer, hadn’t been as lucky. On that occasion, he’d gotten into a screaming match with them, quite contrary to his character, but they were stubborn, and they perished.  He kept hoping to discover their frozen bodies one day, but they may have fallen into a crevasse.

She cherished the economy of ice climbing, in which knowledge, finesse and balance matter more than brute strength.  That trio suited her essentially lazy temperament, belied by an outward ambition and resilience.  David knew little of that phase of her life, given that she never spoke of it, and her skin somehow or other remained pristine, not even slightly roughened by exposure to the elements.  Pasang, running his hand across her cheek as across a virgin snowscape, told her the cause was magic.  She still remembered the beginning words to a used, well-thumbed book on Tibetan mysticism she’d read in a cheap hostel, among dented pop novels, in the “library” of books discarded by people who wanted to travel light.

We came from a distant galaxy to colonize this planet but lost our memories and spacefaring abilities in the process... an alien race evolved in a world at the center of the universe. This race was known as the Liza.

Dara had always known she was one of the Liza, she only didn’t know the name for them, and that is what had attracted her to this part of the world.  Climbing Dhaulgiri I, on the northeast ridge route, 7000 feet above the Kali Gandaki River, not the highest mountain but perhaps the most treacherous, had set her up for the most stringent challenge.  Summiting with a small group of underrated but technically proficient mountaineers, after relatively short acquaintance and rapid acceptance by them, having lost their mate to a broken leg on a test climb days before arriving, gave her confidence to attack Kanchenjunga, the second highest mountain in the world.  From the paperback she remembered that the occultist Aleister Crowley, no mean mountaineer himself, learned his unseen companion—a ghost said to accompany and inspire some climbers during difficult stretches—had a negative side when he tackled an expedition on Himalayan peak K2, that is, Kanchenjunga.  Crowley was courageous to the point of stupidity when climbing.  Yet he met with something on Kanchenjunga that terrified him.   He called it the "Kanchenjunga Demon.”  Others called it oxygen deprivation.

Her climbing of Kanchenjunga was her way of getting to God, the Mothership, whatever one wanted to call it.  In the end, the mountain had spurned her, humiliated her, a few hundred yards from the top, and she knew she didn’t have the strength or spirit to attempt again any mountain in Tibet of significant size.  Pasang could have done it.  She settled for a while into being a respected Sherpa’s girlfriend, getting strange looks from the other ones, not on account of their relationship, but because she’d given up.  No one spoke of it—that’s how bad their tactful disillusionment was.  Some of the Sherpas even looked at her with brimming eyes, lightly shaking their heads.  A girl had been let into the boys’ club without prejudice and failed.  She was letting down not only herself, but the entire side, all women.

Reading the handwritten message inside her brother’s envelope, as she nervously paced among ash trees on her land, strangely reminiscent of Pasang’s exquisite body and his untamed mass of hair, Dara reflected that this dwarf message, which would have been cryptic to anyone else, made her smile, instantly knowing it was from Leroy, even without the wax seal.  He was a foot taller than her, but when she got mad, she used to call him “dwarf,” and after his initial ire, it became an affectionate joke between them.

She also understood that he was coming to Kentucky soon.  They hadn’t spoken for several years, not because of any falling out, but because she had drifted away, into a world of excitement and risk, leaving him to wither, with no siblings or parents, or even grandparents, alive to succor him.  He’d been so keen in their early 20s for her to visit him in California, to meet a buddy muscled like him, a fellow power lifter whose name he wouldn’t disclose until she showed up.  Dara had made one excuse after another, and only after she began trekking in Asia, did she think about this mystery man, having elaborate fantasies about him.  She reasoned that if it was meant to be, their paths would cross someday.  Maybe he’d pick her up hitchhiking.  That was the fantasy, anyway, her beside her broken down car and him pulling up in a truck with a winch on the front.

In the golden Tibetan mornings, she ate wheat pastry with yak butter, stewed sheep’s head, blood sausage, tripe curry, and gyaho, a weird combination of she knew not what ingredients, only that they were consumed by senior monks for ceremonial purposes.  The rest was chow, what the Sherpas ate when they got done with the rations and wanted to shed the circumstantial East-West brotherhood that the Western climbers assumed was a real soul bond.  Only the Sherpa’s girlfriend was included in this family meal, among this group, many of whom were actual cousins.  She reflected on the irony that had she summited Kanchenjunga, she wouldn’t be sitting among them, no matter how great her athletic conquest.  Maybe God was also sitting in this hut, among them, the unseen companion, and she didn’t have to climb any near-inaccessible peak, to discover that quiet deity. 

Her participation in the expedition had been kept on the down-low at her request, the easier because she’d been added officially at the last minute, and kept her face hidden with a ski mask at base camp.  The climber-documentarian among them sometimes filmed her, sometimes not, clearly unsure of whether he’d include her, not because of her gender, but because it remained to be seen how she’d work out—how she’d reflect on the team as a whole.  Had she made it, however, that face would have landed on the cover of Outside magazine and the media venues of many other journalists, probably a documentary would be made about her alone, and there would have been endorsements.  She’d have become wealthy on her own initiative, not as a pampered housewife or a trust-fund baby.  The climber who filmed, afterward had decided she should be in, was even considering framing the story around her participation, but he edited her out of the footage at her request, shaking his head in incomprehension at her stubborn desire for anonymity.  In that way, she became the invisible companion, retroactively.  That was the extent of the enlightenment she’d derived from the life-altering, but ultimately banal and brutal exercise. 

It would be good to have Leroy around, during the deep freeze that had unexpectedly descended on this upper South mild climate.  David was going to his sick mother’s place for a few days.  That woman was entering fully into dementia, and she needed the care of someone she loved.  Dara had offered to go and help, but he answered, “You know she’ll be cruel to you, dementia or not.” 
“Yes, because she thinks I’m the crazy one.”

“Don’t say that word.  It’s not in our vocabulary.”

“Ah, okay.  Differently gifted.”

She stayed home, running in shorts and a light sweatshirt, wanting to feel the chill and try to outrun it.  With her cheeks numb, it was almost like being back in Tibet, lingering in the cold only to finally duck inside and drink butter tea, savoring the film it left on the lips.
The affair with Pasang had ended badly.  As she grew aloof and depressed, rather than comfort her, he began to accuse her of sleeping with other Sherpas.  For all their professed mysticism, these Tibetans didn’t understand the concept of depression.  Mental health breakdowns were overcome, not by pills or therapy, or tender nurturing, but by pushing back up another impossible route, one where at least one of your best friends had died, carrying your emotions on your back like one more piece of white man’s luggage. 

Thus, he was unable to soothe the wound in her, as sure as any broken leg that stranded a famous climber in a blizzard until he lay dead of hypothermia, oxygen starvation, or simple failure.  Pasang, so kind, he of gentle eyes and broad laughter, turned sullen and silent, driving her further into sadness, neglecting her body and her spirit.  Listless on her cot, she heard them laughing outside around a rock-ringed fire late at night, speaking their native language, which she had only partially picked up, smyon pa skyes dman shum, drinking cups of bitter ara or bottles of Chhang, passing them around, their raw voices perhaps boasting of their conquests of American and European women, Pasang joining in to describe in detail what he’d done to her, emphasizing his prowess and remaking her into a docile, fragile, nubile woman, one whose ultimate destiny was to please a man and cling to him.  A woman’s place was not at the top of a mountain but scrubbing out men’s underthings. 

Maybe he said none of this, maybe they were only remembering childhood pranks, but she lay sobbing in the cot, watching lantern light play against the sides of his and her personal tent, casting specters into her intimate darkness, the same ones who’d promised enlightenment and delivered only disappointment.  That was why, when she returned, lost, to the U.S., and David rescued her by happenstance in Death Valley, exactly as in her fantasy, she fell.  He didn’t have any heroic image of Dara; he only wanted to take care of her, to study her face for each nuance of sentiment, no matter that he was the practical sort and needed little emotional maintenance.  He was a doer.  But one of the things he did was to read her the same way he read water currents when he fly-fished, patiently waiting for the moment to strike and reel the small, wounded creature to where he stood, ready to unhook it with his strong but soft and gentle hands, not knowing in advance whether he’d release, or keep the catch.


Leroy took a Trailways to Kentucky.  A friend had given him a big bag of pistachios for the trip, and he purchased a gallon of water and that was his sustenance on the journey.  It was overnight and part of the next day and he’d just call Dara from the terminal from his pre-paid phone, telling her he was in town.  If she didn’t answer, he’d hitchhike and walk.

As early teens, Dara and he had formed an exclusive club for the two of them, called the Dark Companion Society.  They read Scientific American as well as watching lots of sci-fi series.  The two were particular fixated on Barnard's star, a dim red dwarf star about six light-years away from the sun.  It was accompanied by two dark companions, ones that couldn’t be directly observed, really more inferred, each with about the mass of Jupiter.  They named them after themselves, Leroy and Dara. She read his tarot and he made up an astrological chart for each of them, him being Aries and her Libra.  It was something they kept to themselves, conducted in a scientific spirit, using Hiram Butler’s 1927 edition of Solar Biology: A Scientific Method.  His calculation method was simple enough for the two of them to be confident in doing.

That was the beginning of a journey that took them in different directions, him looking toward outer worlds, and her searching within, as if her physical body were the biosphere, or even the universe.  She used to joke, “Leroy, you’re looking at the sky for incoming aliens.  Me, I am an alien.”

The Trailways bus stopped for a rest and snack break on the edge of a small town, where the sky was dark with little ambient light.  Leroy stood and pistachio hulls fell from his lap to the bus floor.  He crunched over them and disembarked to stretch his legs.  There was the Mintaka star system in the sky ranging from the brightest to the faintest.  Three million years old, luminosity 190,000, that he remembered.  How was it, too, that he could recall that the distance derived from the Hipparcos satellite parallax was 212 plus or minus 30 parsec, when in fact it could be double that?  It was useless knowledge, the kind he accumulated easily.

A woman who once was pretty, clearly, but like him had been weathered by circumstances, had pulled alongside him.  He’d seen her get on the bus, and now recognized her Navajo patterned jacket, and her perfume, too strong for the interior of the bus, but maybe she just hadn’t been able to bathe recently.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?”  He wanted to give her a brusque answer, one that would turn away her brief, ever renascent hope, one that somehow hadn’t yet been killed in her, that she was finally going to meet the right guy, specifically him, and therefore not have to give in to the crushing pessimism that the world had been trying to induce in her, for decades, with a permanent and fatal certitude.  Leroy wanted to be nice.  He knew what it was to suffer neglect and derision, and to be treated like a lunatic non-entity by people who fundamentally no better than you, and who took a special pleasure in smashing your cheerful efforts to smithereens, as if in a particle accelerator.

At the same time, he didn’t want to give this woman false hope, because he could smell on her that with even the slightest encouragement, or even courtesy, she would glom onto him, getting off the bus wherever he got off and that he wouldn’t be able to shake her easily.  It was the type of situation that, if you gamed it out, could end up with her being wrestled onto the ground and into handcuffs by the police, while shrieking obscenities at Leroy, accusing him of intimate betrayals and a lifetime of abuse, making him the stand-in for a series of men, beginning with her birth father, who had betrayed her, either by their presence of their absence.

Instead, he gently handed her what remained of the bag of pistachios, patting her on the shoulder, and striding off as fast as she could to the men’s room, where he peed and then stood doing nothing until he heard the honk of the bus driver.  When he reboarded, the woman threw him a sulky look, but left him alone for the rest of the trip.

He called Dara from an all-night diner near the station, where he was left in the anonymity of an orange booth, nursing a cup of black coffee.  When she pulled up in her BMW, and got out so they could inspect one another, she showed no sign of being in shock at his appearance, though he knew he’d aged much faster than her.  She looked pristine, like a sand dune on a planet with no wind, its surface unruffled, and you wonder how there can even be a dune on a planet without wind, yet there it was, its mere existence smashing all your theories about what is and what isn’t.  They embraced each other.  “The Dark Companion Society is back in session,” she declared.  Yet he detected a quiver in her voice, the equivalent of a breeze kicking up and brushing itself against the blank and perfect dune.


I raced hundreds of top-ranked balloonists around the world, coming in first, only to discover that they had ascended collectively to Heaven, as part of some pre-planned Rapture thing, so did I actually win?

Dara never knew whether Leroy was joking in his messages, or whether he experienced transports similar to hers.  It could be genetic.  Maybe they were just in blessed possession of a different kind of truth.  After his arrival, to which she reacted with no surprise—it was no weirder or unexpected than anything else that had happened to her—the two of them stepped over half-rotted logs littering the five acres of her and David’s property, as dead leaves, the ones not frozen to the ground, stuck to the waffle soles of their shoes.  The Rapture.  They’d been raised on that by their quietly evangelical parents, who paradoxically stored supplies in their basement that could last two months.  If you were going, would you need anything?  Wouldn’t you be like the sparrows of the fields?

She decided to be amused at Leroy’s claims about playing on his instrument with coyotes singing in counterpoint, made with a serious or deadpan face.  Although it did make sense.  Dara really couldn’t read his expressions accurately, as when they were children.  David had returned from his mother’s.  As soon as Leroy alighted from the taxi, a significant look had passed between him and David, the latter giving him a big hug, circumventing any chance of discomfort, exercising his talent for mooting awkward situations. She could tell they were going to have a conversation before debriefing with her.  But she needed no debrief.  She knew in an instant that they had lived together, and that this moment was fated.  It was better to acknowledge it through silence.  She was tired of everything having to be explained.  Rather she’d have preferred for them to communicate through squeaks and chirps like dolphins, who bypassed all the inessential stuff and got straight to esoteric reality.  That’s what made them as smart as a learned rabbi. 

David was going to restore a Trans Am in the basement and with his usual tactful directness, told them to please catch up by themselves; he didn’t want to take away from the re-encounter.  It’s what she loved about him.

“I still have the Christmas ornament you made me in third grade.”

“I’ve been living in a bad motel.  I freaked out and left my office job.”

“We’re going straight to that news?”

“I’m not asking for anything.  I only wanted to see you.  I had the address from a birthday card you sent me a few years ago.”

“We saw a solar eclipse this past summer.”

“You, the great changer of the subject.”

“What do you want me to say?  Yes, I feel bad that when Mom and Dad died, I didn’t return for the funeral, leaving you with all the responsibility.”

“I don’t care about that.  I know you were a mountain climber.  You couldn’t have gotten home in time anyway.  You wrote me about it.”

“Did I?”

“You have this whole life—”


“I see you as heroic.”

“Please.  I’m a housewife.  I was a tax accountant for one season.  Then David rescued me on an ill-fated road trip.”

“I won’t argue.  I’m glad the two of you met.”

“You say that as if it meant something to you.”

“I only meant that you look like a happy couple.”

“And you look like shit.  What have you been doing to yourself?  You were the paragon of robust manhood.  If I’d had you to carry me up the mountain back then, I’d have made it.”

“I don’t have an answer.  I deteriorated, that’s all.”

“We can do yoga together.  You’ll get it back.”

“Don’t try to fix me, Dara.  I know you mean well.  I’m just sick in my soul.  I’ll figure it out.  The first step was to seek you out.  I have no plans to hang around.  I had to see you, that’s all, before the rest of life passes by.”

“Stay with us.”

“Okay.  A week or so.  I do crave your company.  We can watch movies, whatever.”

“I mean live with us.  We have two empty bedrooms in the house.  One of them literally has nothing in it.”

“I didn’t come here to be a squatter.”

“Oh, fuck that shit, Leroy.  You always were a bit of an ascetic.  You’re going to live with us at least until you get to a better place in yourself.  David doesn’t care.  You guys will hit it off splendidly. You can tell him all about the Rapture and the balloon race.”  That at least got a laugh out of him.

“Okay.  We’ll see.  In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy sleeping in a bed with good springs.”


Dara woke with a start.  Her plans had changed.  It was unfortunate, but everyone in the household was a grown adult, and they’d adapt.  Hurt feelings would give way to understanding.  Leroy was already up.  He’d discovered their portable dry sauna.  She went over their brief conversation from the day before.  When he said she was heroic, he was giving her permission to return to what she loved.  Encouraging her, really.  His words suggested that it would be a shame if she let her talent go to waste.  She had to act before some other thought occupied her mind, pushing this one out, demoting it to a passing fancy. 

The two men, David and Leroy, would do fine here.  They used to be roommates.  Soon, she’d only be in the way.  There was a hidden, cosmic connection between them that she couldn’t understand.  In many ways, they’d be better off without her.  Leroy was repatriated, that’s what she’d call it, freeing her for a second ascent on Kanchenjunga.  It would cost many months of preparation and tens of thousands of dollars, or more, to return to Nepal, get the equipment, train up there, assemble a crew of fellow mountaineers willing to go with her, get the necessary permits.  She’d find the documentarian.  She’d raise money on Go Fund Me.  The entire sequence was aligning in her mind like tumblers in a lock.  It made perfect sense. 

David would see this is as just one more of her impulsive escapes.  He might have reached his limit and would send her divorce papers that would get lost in transit, as she’d be moving from place to place, working out of a new email she’d set up, neglecting the old ones.  Or perhaps he’d say nothing, letting her play out the loose rope that tied them, until it was taut, figuring that at that point, in a couple of weeks, she’d be on her way back, to make up with him and her insulted brother, whom she in effect was about to abandon again. 

That just showed how little David knew her.  Dara simply understood when and how to follow her moods, ones that others called erratic, manic, or whatever arbitrary names they attached to her activities, ones that obeyed a logic not easily accessible.  You had to have lived at the highest altitudes and at the earth’s deep core, to understand the vast polarities that defined human action.  True mountaineers were often ruthless, single-minded, monomaniacal, insane with a death wish, reckless of the feelings and needs of others, or whatever other language those others thought to define them with.  It didn’t matter.  She was privy to subterranean movements, the ones that called to her deepest self, the ones charged with a historical importance that no doctor in a psychiatric facility talking about genetics this and bipolar that could diminish.  Not everything was a diagnosis.  She was a seer of the real, bathed in intense clarity, while people went about their so-called normal lives, meanwhile dead to the rhythms of the cosmos, the ones that governed her being.  Anyone who had met her in recent years in the grocery store wouldn’t have guessed from looking at her or chitchatting with her that she’d come within a few hundred feet of ascending the second highest mountain in the world.  They’d claim she was making it up to make herself seem more interesting.

While her brother heated his travel-weary bones in the sauna, Dara booked a flight itinerary to Katmandu.  The quickest one took 28 hours, and it also happened to be the most reasonable fare.  That duality was a sign from the heavens to go forward.  One more paradox.  She’d pack a single bag and stash it in the back of her Land Rover, which she’d have to leave at the airport.  What happened to that car could be figured out later.  Probably Leroy could drive it.  He’d be happy to have an almost new luxury vehicle.  Right now, she had to come up with a pretext for stepping out on her brother and husband after he’d only just arrived.  She’d say she had to run into town for an appointment with the psychiatrist, to adjust her medication.  That would make David happy.  The main thing was to escape detection that she was leaving the country.  Otherwise, David might take a notion, and she’d be back on a psych ward for 72 hours, for observation, or possibly for much longer.  Only once, the only time she’d seen David in rage, he'd threatened to have her involuntarily committed.  He apologized afterward, but that memory of his contorted face had never left her.  After the Cancún trip, she knew she was on thin ice.  She had to be crafty.  Dara stuffed the credit cards into her pocket.  Already she could hear the distant snow of Kanchenjunga falling into deep crevasses.




BIO: Johnny Payne's work has recently appeared in Neon Door, Gasher Journal, Sparks of Calliope, Society for Classical Poets, The Chained Muse, and Soundings East.  His most recent published novels are The Hard Side of the River and Confessions of a Gentleman Killer.  His books of poetry, Vassal and Heaven of Ashes, were published by Mouthfeel Press. He has directed his plays Death by Zephyr and Cannibals for Slingshot Players, Los Angeles.