Tiny Dynamite One Sunday

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Tiny Dynamite  One Sunday Powered By Docstoc
					Peter Sanderson                       about 125,000 words
11 Langston Circle
Exton, PA 19341
(206) 910-0286
yaga@yaga-ysgs.com




                     TINY DYNAMITE

                     by Peter Birch
             Birch / Dynamite / 2




  PART 1

ONE SUNDAY
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 3




                             CHAPTER 1

                               CHLOE



One Sunday, near June, near dawn we wake; grey cold skies two

dimensional and pale with the window open but the air still,

thin and crisp.   "It feels like winter," she murmurs, pulling

herself closer into the covers, wrapping herself into the warm

cotton and flannel sheets.   Her hair’s mussed from tossing all

night, but perhaps she doesn’t remember having nightmares;

around one or one thirty she screamed, gasped at my throat and

scratched my back, dug in with her nails hard enough to wake me.

But I was already up, caught in a state of flux, an emptiness

like hunger twisting my stomach, trying to pull the rest of me

in:   All night staring at the fractured lines of blue and red

neon coming through the blinds.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 4


    Neither of us have been sleeping well, really.     Chloe keeps

saying her name, desperate, plaintive and also eager.     I imagine

she's calling out to herself, but from where within her dreams I

doubt I'll ever know.     For three weeks she’s been nervous, a

little scared; she’s started wearing more make-up, taking two

martini lunches, pecking at her food, pushing it around her

plate, separating the lettuce in her salad from the toppings,

looking for something, anything, to distract her from herself,

from her thoughts.     Again she murmurs something, half asleep,

but I don’t catch it.     She doesn’t stir this time, so maybe I

just imagined it.     The clouds are low this morning, diffusing

the sunrise.   The light is pale and cold, the wind thin, the

room hollow.   We're in her small studio apartment, barely enough

for the couch, two end tables, mini-stereo and a bookshelf full

of dog-eared books.    This small library is full of foreign

policy, historical interpretations of the Spanish American War

and the plight of marginal ethnic groups in the remote jungles

of some obscure backwater nation.     Gas prices shot up last week,

the flocculating bond market sent ripples of doubt into the

Nasdaq and fires out in Southern California claimed three more

lives in a hilltop villa overlooking the Pacific.     But the some

refugees in distant jungles received aid from the Red Cross, so

Chloe was optimistic; this was another step in the direction of
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 5


their being recognized by the UN and once that happened, she

said, then things would really pick up.

    Maybe it’s her job, but I doubt it.     She didn’t think I was

still awake when she cried herself to sleep around midnight, and

I only half caught what she was saying.    Sobbing rather; it was

a rasping wail, aching from her gut.    Some dark thought looking

for a voice.   One of the little demons she'd hoped to exorcize

from the very core of her.

    Sometimes I try, I ask.    Conversationally over dinner on

Thursday, in some generically Italian restaurant whose only

redeeming quality was a decent bottle of Merlot Chloe’d found on

the wine list I said:

    "Is Mindy still on maternity?"

    "Hm?" Olives stacked haphazardly next to tomato wedge.

Onions, diced, a crescent of pale white tinged blood red from

three thin slices of beets forming a vanguard against a picket

of julienne carrots which, in turn, provided cover for a squad

of croutons leading half a plate of romaine and baby greens.

Her fork dripped raspberry vinaigrette a sick shade of pink and

she wielded it between thumb and forefinger casually, the tip

bobbing up and down as she applied thin pressure to the base.

    "Mindy?    She should be back from maternity soon, right?"

    "Uh...Yeah.   Soon.   Next week?   It doesn’t matter.   Things

are slow now."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 6


    "Oh."

    A beet felt the sharp tongs of her war-fork, but Chloe’s

heart wasn’t in it; a thin movement in her fingers and it slid

onto the croutons, which soaked up the juices, becoming red and

soft themselves.

    "Still, it’ll be nice to have her help."

    "She’s useless."   And taking a sip of Merlot Chloe looked

at me, studied my jaw as a thin drop of wine edged over the roll

of her lips to run down the smooth of her mouth.     She felt it,

let it trace the contour to her rounded chin, taking her time to

lift the napkin and dab it away with a casual grace.    She was

definitely still hitting the Zantax pretty hard.    Watching her

the whole time I’d said nothing.    Placing the napkin back in her

lap she began talking, poking at her salad and I was reminded of

Catherine, years ago, in another nameless Italian restaurant;

the words were almost the same:

    "It seems a little pointless, a little boring, I know.

Futile.   I know you think it.    The pay’s okay, nothing like you

or Clara, I know, but still, it’s enough.    I love my apartment.

It’s small, kinda cliche; push button fireplace and the

landlady’s a bitch but it’s a nice location, right?" She paused,

scything through the ranks of croutons which could not resist.

"But I think it’s worth while.    Right?   I’m doing what I always

wanted to do; save the world, make it a better place for, well,
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 7


other people’s children." Down and to the right.      When she lets

something slip like that she looks down and to the right. "I’m

doing the right thing.    I know it.   I am.   My dad would be

proud.    I know he would." She nods to herself, eyeing the Merlot

but waiting.    Her mouth's closed I see the telltale quiver;

she’s drawing the inside of her lip between her teeth.      Her jaw

clenches; she’s biting down on the flesh, just to the point of

pain.    And when she releases, lets the pain pass, she continues

in a lower, more serious voice.    I listen.    "I’m only twenty

eight." I nod.    It’s not work.

        Coming home late last Tuesday I found her passed out on

the bathroom floor.    When I picked her up and carried her into

the bedroom I found a deep scratch on her temple from the corner

of the couter, the blood already dried.     With a clean washcloth

and a bit of hydrogen peroxide I cleaned the wound.      She didn't

stir.    Part of me felt dirty undressing her so I left her half

unbuttoned, half covered, and when she woke the next morning she

assumed she was just too tired the night before; she never

thought or never admitted that anything else could have

happened.    It wouldn’t have jibed with her own peculiar reality.

    While she was still asleep early that next morning I went

though her purse, checking the prescriptions and making sure she

wasn’t low on cash or anything.    Always we’ve been secretive

with each other, mostly because she and I both know that the
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 8


other will go through wallets and handbags and dairies.     The

trashcan isn’t safe either; she’s a month behind on her credit

cards and I’m still trying to figure out a way ask her about

this without admitting, or letting her figure out, that I

already know.    She’s smart, if poorly educated, beautiful

despite the scars, and when she smiles I almost feel bad that

she needs to fuck around behind my back with some guy named Eric

who lives in the Hills and smokes Kamel Reds.     He’s been here at

least twice, or maybe she’s just bummed some cigarettes off him;

she hid the butts in a can of diced tomatoes at the bottom of

the bathroom wastebasket on trash day.

       I haven’t been sleeping well, either.    Rob Lawrenson fired

Kathy Olsen on Monday and that night she showed up on my

doorstep, drunk and looking to fuck.    We’d had an thing two

years ago when she’d come to intern her Junior summer.     We hired

her as a Producer but she couldn’t hack it.      I knew it was

coming and thought Rob handled it poorly, but wasn’t really in a

position to say so.    Still, there was nothing I could say to her

as she fell on me, smeared lipstick all over my chin and kept

going on about a position I had open and she really needed the

job.    She should know better, should have just packed up her

desk, sent out a couple of resumes and would have landed a new

job by the end of the week with a 15% pay raise and maybe a

decent signing bonus.    Maybe she’d tried.    Maybe no one would
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 9


give her a good reference.   She passed out twenty minutes later

on my sofa so I tossed a blanket over her, tucked a pillow under

her head and placed a glass of water on the coffee table.    Still

there in the morning when I left for work, I half expected her

to have moved in when I came home.   But the place was empty,

just a wet spot on the carpet from where she’d probably thrown

up and been kind enough to clean up after herself.    A blank

message on my answering machine was hers, according to Caller

ID.   I took that as an apology and moved on.

                                 #

      I’d like to think it was Chloe keeping me awake, lying in

bed on a Sunday, tired and achy as hell but restless with a

thousand thoughts going through my mind.    It’s well past dawn

now if the light in the sky is any judge, and I only slept for a

few minutes last night.   It wasn’t her tossing or her screams

that woke me.   I’m not too sure what it was; something around

two thirty or three, I think.   The marks on my back must be

pinking over by now, the tingling of broken skin and thin

bleeding have both subsided and there’s the faintest itch on my

right shoulder blade if I think about it.    An hour ago I heard

the thump of the Sunday paper outside the door and faint,

foreign voices that sounded like a cross between German and

Farsi, one low and gruff the other young and sleepy.    For half

an hour I imagined a little girl in feety pajamas trudging
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 10


around with her father at five am, yawning into the morning as

his back cracked, lifting up a stack of papers and tossing them

here and there while wondering where the fuck his life went and

why in God’s name did he think America would be something to

write home about, looking forward to December when he can slip

that guiltily empty "Remember your paper-carrier at Christmas"

envelope under my door.

    Before I can really lie back and decide if a crisp twenty

would be better or worse than one of its normal, dog-eared

siblings, Chloe sighs the sigh of the waking, turns towards me

and places a kiss on my shoulder.     "Good morning," she says and

she means it, smiling into my eyes as she blinks awake and yawns

then, slightly confused, grimaces looking out the window,

accusingly saying "what time is it?    Christ," and she shrugs the

sheets up over her shoulder.

    "Six?   I dunno.   Maybe seven.    When is sunrise these days?"

    "Too fuckin’ early." And she clams her eyes shut as if the

sun were falling onto her face, turning it a golden brown. "I’m

not waking up yet."

    "Well I..."

    But she senses the movement, knows my pre-kinetic movements

and slips her arms under my neck and around my chest, loosely

locking her fingers together as they meet on the other side.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 11


"Oh you’re not going anywhere..." her voice trails off into that

mater-of-fact, singsong declarative she uses to get her way.

                                  #

Three hours later she wakes up, stares over at me reading the

Sunday paper on the couch in a pair of pajama bottoms.       "Aww..."

she moans, then rolls over onto her side and props herself up on

her elbow.    "You coming back to bed?   Or are the comics more

interesting than naked women?"   I smile.

      "I read the comics an hour ago.    Coffee?"   I get up slowly,

dropping the sheaves of the Style section and let them

disassociate from one another as they waft down onto the carpet.

      "Coffee," her voice low, sultry, as if I’d propositioned

something that would make her mother blush.     "Coffee is

wonderful."

      "It’s about an hour or two old."    I’m in the kitchen,

eyeing the lees of the pot scornfully, adding a playful tone to

my words to join in with her own.

      "Fresh coffee is even more wonderful on a Sunday morning,"

she rolls over onto her back and I hear the sounds of her

fishing a cigarette from the pack and picking through the debris

on the bedside table for a light.

      "More wonderful than half naked men?" But she doesn’t hear

me.    I thought about going down to get a pack of Kamel Reds

from the mini-mart on the corner then remembered they wouldn’t
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 12


be open for another few hours;    she’d ask why I’d started

smoking again and I’d just shrug.

    Her lighter flicks twice before getting a light.     The air

is still, thin; I can hear the intake of her breath, the burning

of the tip, the silent plosive of her lips and she holds it in

for three second before exhaling and letting herself fall back

under the covers and I realize she loves her first cigarette of

the day more than she loves me.

    I make coffee, tossing the old grounds into the garbage

disposal but not turning it on because the noise would make her

groan.   I scoop out six spoons, then add two more, furtively,

because I like it stronger than she does but feel bad about it.

Maybe because it’s her apartment.    Maybe because I’m making it

for her.

    "Don’t make it too strong," she warns; the air is crisp and

fresh and the silence of mid-morning has carried the gentle

sculp of spoon digging into the grounds.   I force a compromise

by only putting in seven cups of water from the tap and hit the

"on" button before coming out of the little kitchenette and

joining her on the bed.   As I approach she scoots over and pulls

down the covers either in the silent hope that I will rejoin her

or as a reminder that she’s naked; the covers fall across her

belly button, a darker shade under a curl of cotton.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 13


    "Anything interesting happening in the world today?" She

means the paper.   She means Tamils and Kurds.    I say no.

"Didn’t think so," but she sounds disappointed.    We spoke once

of how we wished there were a decent, honest war, some calamity

to befall us where right and wrong, good and bad could be

clearly defined, if for no other reason than to give us

something more to think about that the mediocrity of our lives.

Helen Allenson, a mutual friend and an incredible optimist,

tried to argue though the haze of gin and cigarette smoke that

if we wanted to do something extraordinary we didn’t need others

to suffer to realize it.   In the cab on the way home we agreed

that she just didn’t get it; she lives in the suburbs now and

drives a Volvo, which pretty much says it all.

    Chloe cut her hair short, just below her ears two weeks

ago, under the pretense that Summer was coming and the length on

the back of her neck would be unbearable.    But I see her playing

with it every now and again, as she is now, running her fingers

under the slight curl at the back, tucking a loose strand behind

her ear, all the while gazing off into the distance and thinking

about something.   I’m betting either Eric suggested it or she’s

about to have a nervous break down.   She’s due for another any

time now.   I had my third back in April.   Last night at dinner

she was talking about her parents again, and that’s a sure sign

as any.   Soon she’ll start-
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 14


    "I talked to Clara on Friday."

    Her parents had three girls and decided it would be cute to

give them all named starting with "C" - Catherine, Chloe and

Clara.    The Hempsted Girls.   Catherine turned 30 last October

and is undoubtedly the most stable, the most reliable.     We don’t

talk about her much for various reasons.      The youngest, Clara is

also the smartest.    Or at least, being three years Chloe’s

junior she felt a constant need growing up to out-do her older

sisters and as a result has a job in Chicago pulling down mid-

six figures.    She’s reached that condescending stage where she’s

trying to convince Catherine and Chloe to come work for her

firm.    It sounds condescending, at least.   She’s 23 so maybe

she’s coming into that phase where you start to doubt if you

really did the right thing and try to get people to be like you

as a sort of crutch for an ever plummeting self-esteem.      In the

last three months she bought a new car, had a string of torrid

affairs with married men and got a summer house on Lake

Michigan.    The woman needs a smack up-side the head like no

other.

    "And?" I ask.

    "Oh, the usual," she turns to look at me, taking another

drag and ashing into a half drunk tumbler of red wine from a

couple days ago. "She wants us to come out to her house on the
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 15


lake this summer." She looks at me for approval, for a shade of

confidence in a decision she’s already made.

    "We should go."

    Wrong answer.    Chloe shrugs with just her eyebrow and sits

up to ash.    When she lays back down she pulls the covers up to

her neck she adds, "I’m sure Catherine’ll be there."     Another

nervous look in my direction.     Yes, very wrong answer.   Can’t

talk about Catherine.    Ever.   I think Chloe’s found a way to

check who I call and who calls me, to see if Catherine and I

ever speak.    I’ve adapted; I call from the office and from

payphones.     And when she calls me I purge the number from my

Caller ID, but this is just a short term solution.     Soon

Chloe’ll figure it out and then there will be a Conversation.        I

can’t blame her, really, but Catherine and I was ages ago and

it’s not my fault she’s her older sister.     I mentioned all this

to Catherine once and she said it was unhealthy.     I asked which

part, and she just said "All of it" and it’s never come up

again.

    "So I told her we were already booked.      Which is true," she

tries to comfort herself while changing the subject, "at least,

we’d talked about going to Europe this summer, and..."

    "That’s right," I’m trying to make amends, trying to be on

her side.    She’s definitely about to crack.   The sadistic half

of me runs over the number of things I could say that would make
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 16


her start crying.    The other half of me says that this is just

to make sure I don’t say them, but the first half says that’s

bullshit. "I should call Susan and see about fares to...where?

Italy or France."

    "God, not France."     She laughs a little and I feel that

sense of accomplishment is making the right decision, ignoring

the voices that are chuckling at myself, reminding me that I

hate both those godforsaken countries and just said it to make

her laugh.    "No, not France.   Or Italy, either," because she’s

never been, "How about, I dunno, Portugal.       I like Portugal in

July."

    She actually means she likes the Lapa in Lisbon in July

provided she has a view of the Targus, but I don't push her.

"There's always England.    Or Ireland."

    "Just anywhere but France.     Or England.    I don’t care," her

smile fades and she ashes again without taking a drag.       "It

really doesn’t make much of a difference." Turning over now,

staring at the beige of the ceiling.       "I doubt you can go

anywhere near the end of the quarter, and you’ve got that thing

in August."

    "Oh yeah." Of course I have my 'thing' in August, as she

calls it.    I have my 'thing' every August.     I've brought it up

every time we talk about going away at the end of Summer,

including the last time she mentioned going to Europe.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 17


    "Maybe we should just go.     She talked about her new Audi

and said I had to drive it.    Fucking bitch," she turns, quickly,

staring at me, holding her cigarette dangerously close to the

sheets but she’s on a roll and I know better than to interrupt.

"So she’s telling me about this lunch she had with some famous

guy in banking, talking about how he was flirting with her, how

he picked up the check even though she’d invited him, and felt

it necessary to just oh so casually mention that the bill was

over three hundred dollars," she pauses, but only to breathe and

get angrier, "then she has the fucking balls to segue right into

asking how things are with you.    The fucking nerve!   So you’ve

got a decent job.   You’re a good guy, whatever she says."

    As she’s trying to reassure herself, I know right then that

when she does break down that I’ll be the first thing to go.        At

the last minute she’ll change her mind and go out to Chicago and

Clara will be there, they’ll sit and talk about ‘their boys’

over martinis and she’ll finally say it, that I’m no fucking

good for her.   Clara will give her all the right things to say

and try and hook her up with some hardbody she met "at the

club."   They’ll do this before Catherine arrives, or when she’s

not around.   Sometime safe.   They won’t want Catherine to know,

afraid of what she’d do.   The rest of the weekend she’ll be

double dosing on Zantax and drinking too much.    Clara will take

her for a facial and Catherine, bored, will spend the day
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 18


wandering the streets of whatever godforsaken town that happens

to be nearby and wondering what’s going on.   Or worse, knowing

what’s going on and figuring out what to do next and maybe

she’ll call, to warn me, to ask how I’m doing.   But as soon as

Chloe leaves for Chicago I’ll go out, get drunk, pick up some

worthless chick in a bar and try and get her before she gets me,

a thousand miles away, over cheap martinis in some pretentious

dive, talking in whispers to a conniving little bint who needs

the bitch smacked out of her.

    Then I start to think that I’m paying too much attention to

the part of me that wishes for a war, but she looks up to me,

trying to read my thoughts over the glow of her cigarette, and I

realize that that’s exactly what she wants.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 19




                              CHAPTER 2

                               MONICA



Monica finds me on Tuesday in Fairchild's, a decent pool hall

where you can usually find me whenever I'm neither home nor at

work.    It's sufficiently dark, with pockets of light over the

green felt, the blue haze of cigarette smoke hovering over the

table and a fair wedge of lime crushed and stirred into a gin

and tonic on the table, next to the ashtray.    The final touch is

Dave Brubeck doing "All the things you are" at the College of

the Pacific, the speakers clear enough to feel the pop and hiss

of old vinyl.    I’m playing against myself using strict rules

when she finds me; if you can’t be honest with yourself, who

can?

       I’ve known her for eight years, since freshman fall at

college; we’d slept together a couple of times and when Cal
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 20


Henderson got her pregnant the summer after her junior year I

was the one who drove her downtown, held her hand and told her

she Made the Right Choice.   Still, she started taking education

courses, got certed for Elementary Ed. and now teaches in the

suburbs, volunteering after school and on weekends with the Head

Start program.   The doctors fucked up, or maybe she’d waited too

long and lied about the date of conception; chances are that

getting pregnant again would kill her if she brought the child

to term so she had her tubes tied soon as she turned 21.   Her

face is always kind, but sullen.   Of all the women I know she is

the most broken, the most embittered; an empty, lonely life of

strangers and ice cream with nothing more to look forward to

than Summer Vacation and the occasional student actually

thanking her for all that she’s done for them.

    The seven is nuzzled up against the far bunker, close to

the corner pocket.   I’m playing solids at the moment and have to

hit the ball just enough to send it in, but not hit the fifteen

on the way down, or miss entirely and scratch.   She waits,

blending into the dim background in a formal blue suit while I

line up, breathe, check my angle again, and tap ball roughly.

It threads between the fifteen and the eight, I hear the faint

click as it hits the seven weakly, then spins back hitting the

three and snookering the cue behind the eight.   Not the best

shot, the seven only moved an inch at most, but as stripes I’m
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 21


fucked; destined to scratch.   I take the opportunity to pause

and look up at her.

    She’s been crying, her eyes red, mascara blurred, giving

her the look of a mourner, which she is: "I burried my

grandmother today."

    Typical Monica; not wanting to interrupt, not wanting to

inconvenience me with her sorrow.   I lay the cue aginst the wall

uncarefully and the tip tap tap taps a few times behind me.

Unthinkingly I wrap my arms around, feel her go a stiff then

relax just a little bit, but tremble.    As I remember myself, our

history, the cue begins to make a low scraping noise as it rolls

along the wall to smack the floor with the sharp clap of wood on

wood.    Monica jumps, starts crying again, and buries her face

into the crook of my neck, staining a hundred dollar shirt with

Revlon and tears.   The fact I think about how much the shirt

cost as this happens is a pretty good indicator how much of a

prick I can be in situations like these.

    After a moment I let go and steer her to the bar across the

floor.   She swallows back the tears, sits down on the stool

unsteadily and I order two shots of Jim Beam with Cokes as

chasers.   Monica takes the shot and sips it down, as I toss it

back in one go.   I feel silly so I make a face like it’s cough

syrup then greedily reach for my coke.   She raises her eyebrows

at the bartender then settles her gaze back on the empty glass
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 22


in front of her.     He refills it and waits.   Another shot, more

brazen, me feeling like a fool for my childish antics with the

medicine face.

    Now the bartender raises his eyebrows, in disbelief or

maybe compassion, but she wipes her mouth with the back of her

hand and waves him off.     He knows better than to speak, just

looks at me.    I   blink slowly as I nod and he walks off; the

bill goes on my tab.

    I need for her to speak first, but she won’t, just stares

at her drink with her hands folded in her lap.      I think about

the seven year olds she teaches every day, and what they would

think, if they knew what it meant, for their teacher to be drunk

at two in the afternoon in a pool hall bar.      But then I remember

it’s June.     When does the school year end?   Teachers have the

summer off.     What do they do?   Do they make enough to go on long

vacations?     Or are they strapped for cash, looking for side jobs

like their older students, trying to get enough to go out on

Friday and maybe get laid.     And then I feel like a shit again;

this is Monica.     Now I really can’t think of anything to say.

We sit in silence for a few minutes.     I drink my Coke though the

straw, licking my lips after each short sip.      Finally a question

comes to mind:

    "How did you know where to find me?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 23


    "I called your secretary.     He said you’d taken a late lunch

and that you were either here, or at McCormick’s, or maybe the

book store or the music store, or at…" she was going to ramble

on, just to fill the silence, so I cut her off.

    "Did you look in all those places?"

    A nod.    "Well, a few," trying to make me feel better.

Trying not to think of herself.    I don’t know anything about her

family.   She’s from New York, right?   Upstate.    Actually, I’ve

never known anything about geography, and this makes me realize

I have no idea where she’s from.

    "Sorry." I say, trying to make her feel better.

    "It’s okay.    It was good to walk around after the funeral."

    "It was in town?"

    Another nod. "I’m from here, remember?"

    "Oh yeah." I take a sip of my Coke, my throat dry.

    "The service was horrible.     They buried her Catholic, even

though she wasn’t Catholic, even through she wanted to be

cremated.    It was just horrible, like what she wanted didn’t

matter.   Evan will contest the will, I know it.     He wants her

property over in Crescent Falls, but she’s probably left that to

her cousin, Beatrice, who’s so senile she kept asking in this

really loud voice ‘who died?    Who’s in there?    Is that Tom

Benson?   I never liked him.   Just like him to make us all stand

out in the rain.’ But it wasn’t raining.    Evan will say she’s
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 24


senile, or he’ll try and weasel into her will.   Or something.

My mother was there."

    I’m supposed to know what this means, so I nod.    She’s

still looking at her Coke, hands folded in her lap, talking low

and pronunciating every word like she’s in front of the class,

telling them about fractions or Egypt or whatever it is that

seven year olds are supposed to learn.   I let her go on, even

though I know that I should some how make her feel better.

    She rambles on about the service, about her mother giving

the evil eye to her step-mother who was there even though the

church didn’t annul their wedding or recognize their divorce or

something.   I think about putting my arm on her shoulder, about

reaching out to make her feel better but am suddenly startled by

the image of her shrinking from Kevin Olafson at a party three

years ago; the look of half-drunk wild-eyed terror coming over

her face, then staring at me with a hurt look like I should

protect her.   I struck up a conversation with Kevin, whom I

really didn’t know, save that he was in Advertising somehow, and

mentioned something about how work was going, how was he doing,

what’s the market like these days, that kinda thing.

    He looked at me, distracted, eyes darting back to Monica,

who feigned interest I guess, but never missing an opportunity

to talk about himself in the hopes of impressing some girl,

Kevin launched into a diatribe on Campaign Finance Reform and
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 25


how it was really going to be a key issue in the elections.

After the third word Monica excused herself and locked herself

in the bathroom for an hour.   I’ve been afraid to touch her ever

since, to elicit that kind of response from her, scare her that

much, make her skin crawl and flip whatever switches she has

left going.

    And even though I’m sure that what she wants right now,

more than anything, is a friendly embrace, to be held, for

someone to tell her it was okay,   I can’t.   I think of that

startled jump when the cue hit the ground and know the sound was

just a jolt reminding her or herself and her history.

    So I sit with my Coke cooling beneath my fingers, the cue

ball lying behind the eight without a clear shot, or even a

clear angle to hit three bunkers and not take a scratch.    She

goes on for ten or fifteen minutes.   Eventually I tune her out,

steal a glance at my watch while picking a piece of non-existent

lint off my shir,t and note again the two black crescents of

mascara slowly drying into a hundred and sixteen dollar off-

white Joseph Arbaud Egyptian cotton button-down dress shirt

that, until recently, went very well with the linen hound’s-

tooth slacks, Armani tie and beige twill sportcoat carefully

folded and lying over the armrest of a cheap, old captain's

chair thirty feet behind me.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 26


    Somewhere in there she stops speaking.      I’ve lost the

thread of the conversation some time back and don’t know if

there’d been a question or something that I was now supposed to

respond to.    I think quickly, if poorly.

    "How about another drink?"

    Monica just shakes her head. "I’ve taken up too much of

your time already..."

    "Don’t be silly."

    "You probably have to get back to work." She looks at the

door, then the clock.

    It’s 2:30.     I’ve a con-call at 4:00 and some sort of

horrible work function at 5:15.    "No.   I can take the rest of

the day off, if you need me too."

    And then she looks at me, that same wild, hurtful look as

the party, as the operating room, as that cold October evening

when the stick turned pink.    A little girl.   "Could you?"

    "Of course."

    She looks down at herself, as if she hadn’t a clue what she

was wearing.   She probably didn’t, if it came to that. "I’m a

mess."

    "You look fine."

    Touching her eyes, then her forehead, then looking at the

stain on my shirt she asks, "Does Chloe have any cold cream at

your apartment?"
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 27


                                  #

Four hours later we’re on a blanket on the roof of my apartment

building, watching the sun go down over the river.      The oil,

chemicals, and god knows what else - PCBs and drug needles

probably - make it shine like a rainbow.    "It looks pretty," she

says, her hands laced around my upper arm, leaning her head

against my shoulder as we sit, knees bent with a six-pack of

empties lying at our feet, staring at the sun.

    I’m a little drunk.     There was a bottle of wine before the

beer, and it’s good beer.    It was good wine.    I’d been saving it

for some special occasion, letting it chill in the fridge,      and

when I stood in the glow of the kitchen’s fluorescent lights

trying to figure out what sort of occasion this was, when Monica

came out of the bathroom in a pair of my jeans and a University

of Michigan sweatshirt, wapped her arms around my middle and

said "I’m so glad you’re still here," I knew.

    Part of me felt bad for fucking her on the kitchen floor -

the part that kept reminding me of who we were, that flashed

images of Chloe in my mind, that snickered that the position of

her legs and body at one point was the same as in the operating

room, the faces of seven year olds peeking around the door jamb

mouths agape and pointing.    The part of me that just wanted to

break me down, put me in my place; a small, 26 year old boy

who’s grown up too fast and still hasn’t picked up on all the
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 28


cute little social mores that everyone else tsks and hrms about

in polite company.    But another part of me felt her skin, warm

and willing, smelled her sex even as the button-fly popped open

and noted the feel of her nails over the slight scar left from

Chloe’s most recent nightmares, now just a line of pinker flesh

along my shoulder blade.

       Am I simply justifying the infidelity, the sheer wrongness

of it?    Maybe.   I don’t know.   Maybe that’s the point.    She

dipped her fingers in half a glass of the wine and touched it to

my lips as we kissed.    I don’t know.   I just don’t know.

There’s half a bottle of beer left, warming in the evening’s

cool, and I slosh it around before taking it to my lips.        It’s a

bitter, hoppy ale from one of the local breweries, already too

warm for drinking really, and I hold it in my mouth to get that

extra little buzz.    I can’t even think about what she’s

thinking, what she wants.    Use either Monica or Chloe as the

direct object of "she."

       We'd climbed up the fire escape half naked.   I have on a

pair of pajama bottoms and Monica has on the same sweat shirt as

before, just nothing else.    The sun slowly goes down over the

city; there are factories on the other side of the river and it

looks like there’re just bands of pinkish orangeish red nestled

between non-descript masses of steel and concrete.     Venus is

out.    I point at it and say "that’s Venus," and she squeezes my
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 29


arm a little, makes a small noise like a sigh but doesn’t stir.

It’s been a long day for her.       She’s probably tired.

       "You tired?"

       "A little.   You?"

       "No, just a little tipsy."

       "I’ll say," she chides, moving her head from my shoulder to

flash me a smile.     But I’m not smiling.    I’m staring at the

factories and thinking of all the incidents that have kept me

from being there, right now, making God knows what - office

furniture or beer or sweat shirts - and trying to decide if I’m

a decent person.

       "Am I a decent person?"

       She thinks about this for a second.     I’m afraid to look at

her.    "No, not really.     You’re a bit of a prick, arrogant as

fuck and have a tendency to treat people the same way most of us

treat our cats."

       She’s not kidding.    Her voice is even, more mature.   I

wonder what grade she would give me, if I were one of her

students. "Like, a D student?       In life, I mean."

       "No, more of an E."

       "What the fuck is an ‘E?’"

       "An E means you can make it up in Summer School.     An F

means you’ve failed, totally botched it up with no means of

recourse and need to do it all over again."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 30


    "So I have failed, totally fucked it up, but I can still

make it up?"

    "More or less.    That’s what we always thought."

    "Who’s we?" Neither of us have moved.    I’m not angry, I’m

curious.   No one really ever tells you the stuff about yourself

that you should hear.

    "Me, Kate, Hanna, Ellen, Emily..."

    "Emily who?" Maybe I am a little angry.

    "Emily your sister Emily."

    "When have you talked to my sister?"

    "She saw you in college, remember?    She came up what,

Junior year?"

    "Oh yeah," and then I turn to her and say, "But that was in

college!" All indignant.   She soothes me with a roaming hand to

the inside of my thigh, looks at me with a smile and a

brightness to her eye:

    "Stephen?    You really haven’t changed much since college."

    Nothing.    I don’t say anything.   I’m not angry, not really,

not at her, but at everyone else who hasn’t had the balls to

tell me this shit.   Fuckers.   I make a mental note to call my

sister as soon as I’ve sobered up a little, once Monica has

left.   As for Monica herself, she traces her fingers along my

thigh, an age old trick initiating make-up sex, the second best

kind of sex there is.    I play hard to get, drinking my beer, but
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 31


soon my beer is all gone.     It’s getting dark, our skin is

pricking with the beginnings of goose-bumps.       And other things,

I guess.

       Lights are coming on all around us - it’s only a six storey

building, dwarfed on two sides by condos to the North and

another apartment building to the East.     More stars are coming

out.    I see Epsilon Eta and say to myself "There are planets

around that star."     I’m thinking about mentioning this to Monica

when she does something that tells me exactly how well I know

her: She turns to face me, takes her hands from my arm and my

leg and brings them up, catching the hem of the sweatshirt as

she does, pulling it off.

       I’m about to remind her that she’s buck naked in full view

of half the city when she moves her hands to undo the drawstring

of my pajamas and think instead Aw, why the hell not?

                                   #

Wednesday morning I call my sister.     Monica is still asleep with

a fluffy down comforter pulled over her.     For privacy I take the

cordless phone into the living room, closing the bedroom door

behind me.    I Check my watch to make sure it’s a reasonable

hour.    Six AM.   Emily is a reasonable person.

       The line rings a comfortable three times before her harried

voice says, "Good morning" with feigned cheerfulness.      In the

background I can hear the faint hum of violins and birds
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 32


singing, like any other morning.     When I call in the evening

there are distant cars and the occasional motorboat framed by

the constant sound of crickets.    Usually I don’t call during the

day, but I remember dogs barking and the sound of sprinklers.

This is all for show, of cours:.     There’s a small radio of

fairly high quality sitting by her bed that plays these sounds

on a specific schedule.   The whole thing is something she does

to put people at their ease, to imagine her in her lake front

home of yesteryear with it’s beautiful bay windows and forests,

on all sides, keeping her safe from the world.

    "Hey there."

    "Stephen!" Genuinely gleeful now.     I hear a creak and a

small grunt.   She’s sitting up to talk to me.

    "Oh, don’t get up Emily.    It’s just me."

    "Just you.   Oh don’t be silly.     How are you!"

    "Pretty good.   I guess.   All things considered."

    "What’s wrong?" That same voice, slightly exasperated, the

one she’d use when I was sitting out somewhere by myself

pretending that I didn’t want company.    But she’s smiling.     I

keep telling myself she’s smiling.

    "Same old same old, you know how it is?"

    "Uh-huh." Dubious.    She knows better.   She’ll wait.   I’m

hating this conversation already.    What do you tell a person

who’s only half there, and the half that is there is more fucked
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 33


up that you can ever imagine? "So tell me - how’s work, how’s

love, how’s everything?"

    "Work’s fine.     Played hooky yesterday afternoon."

    "Good for you," and again, less enthusiastic. "Good for

you."

    "I dunno.     Everything else is fine..."

    "What’s her name?" That flippant same tone.         I think she

likes this game, getting to play Big Sister, to be the only one

who can pull it out of me.     At least, I hope so.

    "Monica.     Chloe.   Catherine.   I don’t know."

    "Monica from school Monica?"

    What do I want to say?      I think of lying, think that this

isn’t the right way to talk about this.      I think of her and it’s

just too much.    So I try to just imagine her mouth, close up on

the phone, like a movie, the image filling my entire view, that

smile and the oblique hemisphere of the receiver.        "Yeah," I

finally say, quiet and small, "Her."

    "You didn’t..."

    "She..."

    "Stephen..."

    "I would have been worse to say ‘no,’ right?"

    "Hrm..." she considered this.       "Maybe.   Under the

circumstances.    What were the circumstances?"

    "She'd just returned from a funeral..."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 34


    She’s suddenly curt, trying to sound like she’s teasing and

doing a good enough job of it that I can’t tell if she really is

or not. "Oh, yeah, bang up job Stephen.    Get ‘em when they’re

down."

    "Em..."

    "Oh, I know, circumstances are hard things.     You know right

from right and wrong from wrong, but this can’t be right, you do

know that?"

    "Yeah, I know."

    "Chloe’s gonna leave you when she finds out."

    "Chloe’s already seeing someone else."

    "Now, is this a known fact, or one of your hypothesizes?"

    "It’s a fact." I say, convincing myself, at least.

    "Now..." her chiding voice.   I hate that voice. "Would she

say that it’s a fact?"

    "As much as anything is a fact."

    "Uh-huh." She doesn’t believe me.      The conversation can

only go down hill from here.   We both know this.   It was a

mistake.   But if I try to change the subject she won’t let me,

so she has to decide whether to continue beating this dead

horse, or start with something new.

"And Catherine.   You said ‘Catherine.’"

    "...I did."

    Silence.
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 35


       "And?" She pauses, waiting for me.      I can’t take it any

more.    If it were anyone else I’d say something petty and small

and hang up.       But this is Emily.   I couldn’t live with myself.

       "Chloe's seeing some guy named Eric.      Lives about 15, 20

minutes away.       He’s 5’10" medium build.   Probably a white guy,

or at least...yeah, knowing Chloe it’s a white guy..."

       "Does that make a difference?"

       "No, I’m just letting you know that I know."

       "But we’re talking about Catherine now." She reminds me.

       "Okay."

       Silence.

       "Well?"

       Catherine.    Right now it’s difficult for me to think about

her.    Still I can’t reconcile the images of her in my mind; high

school student, college student, young professional, girl-

friend, girl-friend’s sister, just a friend, a phone call, a

Christmas card, a name heard in passing.        Her hair long, her

hair short, her hair curled around my fingers and falling onto

my stomach.       We were never in love, just very close enemies

who’d blurred the line between love and hate and need.        Last we

spoke she had plans to move out West somewhere.        Anywhere; she

was tired of the East Coast and of the Mid-West.

       "Stephen?"

       "Yeah?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 36


    "Talk to me."

    Emily.   She spends her days slowly tracking her declining

health, learning as much as she can about her situation,

thinking about the future and making plans for the if and when

of her many possible futures.    And I’ve lost the image of her,

of who she really is: A beautiful brunette with an athletic

build, bright smile and sharp, emerald green eyes.     Her hands

long and thin, piano hands, a graceful neck, turning to look at

me when I push her on the tire swing behind our parents’ house.

A spring in her step everywhere and everyday, looking out at the

world with all the wild fear and gleeful uncertainty that marks

your average college student.    That was years ago.

    More and more it’s becoming difficult to talk with her, to

make a connection between our lives when they’re so different.

But this isn’t unique to her situation; David and I haven’t seen

each other in almost a year.    He’s out West, somewhere.   There

would be a pleasing irony in he and Catherine meeting up and

start sleeping with each other.    I’ve never really liked David.

    "Stephen!" Emily barks down the phone.

    I break out of my stupor and say "Huh?" or something

equally as elegant.

    "Look, I can’t have this non-conversation right now.      I’ll

have to call you back."

                                  #
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 37


After staring at the phone for a few seconds, having been

unceremoniously hung up on by my sister, I decide to make

coffee.    I make enough for two, even though I can’t remember if

Monica drinks coffee, if she takes milk or sugar or tea or what.

She’s still asleep in my bed when it’s done: 5’ 4", 120, maybe

130 pounds, a little frumpy, body starting to look old.         Older.

She’s not 18 any more.    Neither am I.   What else do I really

know about her?    Not much, it seems.

    I don’t want to wake her.    She’s had such a hard night, I’m

sure, with my tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep,

eventually giving up and just lying there, staring at the

ceiling, making circles with my fingers on the small of her

back.    Eventually I start thinking about my day and begin to

feel restless.    It’s 6:30 Wednesday morning.    The alarm will go

off in fifteen minutes so I turn it off and just sit reading the

paper.    Nothing happening in the world.

    At seven thirty I write her a note saying that she’s

welcome to stay.    I won’t be coming home for lunch but will be

back sometime after 7 or 8 pm.    If she needs anything she can e-

mail me, with directions on how to get the computer up and

running, start the e-mail program, and a block script version of

my e-mail address at work.

    Right before I leave I check in on her again.       Still

sleeping.    I miss summer vacations.    I debate leaving a copy of
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 38


the keys for my apartment and the front door and decide against

it.   I leave the note on the bedside table and resist giving her

a kiss good bye.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 39




                             CHAPTER 3

                         ISOBEL & DANIELLE



Isobel and I are trapped on the elevator together for about

thirty seconds.   Like a bad sitcom she called out to Hold the

elevator! as the doors were closing.     I froze as I recognized

her voice, but some older woman from downstairs hit the "door

open" button and Isobel, trotted in adjusting her glasses,

looking like someone from a Banana Republic comercial.     But I

don't think they make those commercials any more.    At least not

on deep cable, where I spend some of my more sleepless nights

when I'm at Chloe's.

    We make eye contact as the doors ding closed in an oh so

cliche way that includes the frumpy woman from downstairs

catching the signifigance of the glance and then pretending to
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 40


be interested in the fact that there's a $50 fine for smoking in

the elevator, that the license for this elevator is on file in

the management office, and that it's car number eleven, should

she care.   Isobel just turns her back to me and hits 26.

    Luckily there's no bad Muzak, or I'd be afraid of her

turning to me and asking Are those Bugle Boy Jeans you're

wearing?    The elevator stops at 22 , Frumpy Woman gets out with

a sideways glance at me, the doors close and then those thirty

seconds pass.   I spend it looking at Isobel's ass, which is

lovely, and thinking I really should have slept with her when I

had the chance.

                                  #

My office lies in one of the newer glass and steel office

buildings clustered together in what was once a bad part of

town.   Urban renewal programs are cropping up all over these

days with cheap land, tax breaks, and ample parking for all.

I’ve a decent space in sub-basement 8, near the elevator that

takes me up to the 27th floor in just under a minute and a half

non-stop.   This morning there were quite a few others rolling in

at quarter past eight: Yuppies get on, Yuppies get off, the

elevator hisses along with mechanical glee.

    As a whole the building is aesthetically pleasing in a

hyper-modern Japanese comicbook kind of way.    It’s more or less

a tall rectangle full of jagged corners plated with huge
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 41


mirrored windows, giving it the look of some huge phallic onion

made of bulky aluminum Lego blocks.    Maybe that’s not the best

description, but it’s the one that always comes to mind.     On the

outside, of course.   Inside it’s just an array cubicles and bad

corporate art.

    The elevator doors open.   Stacy, an overly peppy woman

about my age, looks up, already smiling with a cheerful "Good

morning Mr. Hoemke!" on her lips.     She has that chirpy,

telemarketer’s voice, a once-upon-a-time cheerleader no doubt,

one of many classless, uneducated women who’d failed their

college pre-wed courses to find themselves doing remedial work

in Corporate Greeting Services simply because they were too

proud for retail and too dumb for actual work.     Her eyes are

heavily caked with some sort of mauvish purplish gunk deigned to

match her gold-edged earrings which, in turn, apparently match

the bronzish-gold accents of her blouse.    As if in contrast,

Susan Meyers from Corporate Accounts walks by in a demure

charcoal and black pinstriped suit from one of the more

exclusive uptown tailors.   She catches my eye and nods but

doesn’t speak, headed for some early morning meeting with a

stiff jaw and an arsenal of briefs under one arm.     With this

kind of outfit du rigor, Stacy's has the effect of a poorly done

Wal-Mart knock-off in a tray full of finely honed Tiffany

originals which, combined with that voice, makes her all the
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 42


more jarring at eight twenty in the morning.    But, given that

her sole function within the company is to say "Good Morning"

"Good Afternoon" and "Good Night" to the better part of a

hundred people in a given day, I suppose none of that really

matters.

    I give a monotone "Good-morning-Stacy," the words slurred

together, not really looking at her but scanning the halls.

Eight twenty-two.   A couple of people hovering here and there,

brandishing coffee mugs and the occasional piece of hardcopy.

Eight steps in I begin to feel it in earnest, that ball in my

stomach, that slight twinge, something like a hunger pang,

something like a cramp; the contortion of muscles wrapped around

a hollow organ full of nothing but bile.   It’s not stress or

fear or dread, just work.   Just this life, slowly tearing away

my insides as real sound fades into the static background noises

of air conditioners and printers, slowly churning out the paper

life blood of Corporate America.

    The plebes scurry to look busy as I pass, some nod,

murmuring Good Morning to which I give a silent nod in reply,

only barely hearing them above the low buzz / the faint ring in

my ears.   Suddenly I’m reminded of the fire drills from school

days, that numbed silence after the bell stops going off in the

hard echo trap of cement stairwells, and this leads me to Emily,

which invariably leads me to Summers on the Jersey Shore,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 43


chasing each other through the pine barrens, along the low

dunes.

    Memories with a Billy Joel soundtrack, edged by the steel

cold gray memories of the occasional off-season trips.     Standing

on the beach, wrapped tight against the dark storms of midwinter

scouring the Atlantic coast line.    Fire in the fireplace,

covered in blankets with a mug of coffee or cocoa, Emily telling

stories of boys, of high school, of church retreats and what

it’s like to touch someone, cold in your nakedness, fingers

fumbling with things never seen before.

    These thoughts bracket the warm summer sun, the cool waves

and days and days of beach blankets and dozing with some cheap

paperback covering my eyes.   If I close my eyes and hold a memo

close to my ear, I can almost hear the sea.

    Jeffery isn’t in yet; he’ll arrive at nine with his caramel

mochachino and a glint in his eye.   But he slipped a copy of my

schedule under my thin particle board door last night.    I nearly

trod on it, thoughts lost in the feel and the click of the

lock's tumblers though my fingertips.    There’s no real reason

for me to lock my door, it’s just another piece of corporate

psychological warfare.

    My office is relatively bare; a small shelf-sized

AM/FM/CD/Cassette player, some bland industry books, the

occasional magazine and the desk itself - plastic and laminated
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 44


wood glued together with a computer on top.   Even the chair is

the standard corporate swivel-and-tilt model.   There’s a small

filing cabinet, the window overlooking the street below also

gives me a decent view of the accounting firm across the way.

Hanging from the ceiling is a spider plant whose origins I can’t

clearly remember right now, which needs watering I notice.     Some

of the standard corporate art bought in gross from the lees of

some hotel’s or doctor’s office waiting room stock hangs on one

wall.   I keep meaning to go out one day and fish around for

something a little more tasteful, a little more "me" but every

time I’ve gone to look I can’t find anything.

    Today’s schedule is pretty bland, some meetings and

presentations, a rogue "one-on-one" with one of my staff.

Nothing to really occupy my time with, nothing that will change

the world or make it a better place for other people's children.

    In short, it's just another day.   It goes slowly - the

yawning hours until ten with a cup of coffee and a dull eye,

going through the e-mails on minutiae from the number of pens we

can order in a given month to the budget for this project,

Kathy’s rewrites or this proposal, news of the hirings and

firings, the usual comings and goings of a company too large to

do anything quickly, to small to do any one thing well.   My ten

o’clock meeting on God Knows drags on to eleven, eleven fifteen,

eleven thirty, till finally, at eleven forty-two, on the verge
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 45


of snoring or tears, Gary begins tapping his pen.    Everyone

begins the end-o-meeting shuffling of papers, clock watching and

One Last Things until we’re practically walking out on each

other, desperate to escape the hot, stifled air of the

conference room.

    As usual it’s just too much by the time lunch rolls around;

shuffling towards the elevator, fully intending to hit some

horribly chainish restaurant for take-out with Bob and Steve

from Corporate Operations I make an excuse, take a capricious

turn towards the stairs, and head up to the roof.

    All those ten stories I’m pecked by my thoughts, inklings,

little threads of conversations and memorylings - a word here,

an image there, Catherine's perfume and the twinklings of the

stars last night on the roof.   I need to be there again, that

roof, any roof, and I break through the final door marked

"Authorized Access Only" into the heat of the day, the sun too

bright, the whole place reeking of hot tar and pigeon shit.

Still, the noise of the city coming up from below, the squeak of

the huge air conditioning machines around me, there's a bit of a

respite.   Everything from below, the boring memos and petty

gossip, the half-truthed words and violent silences, all wash

away for a moment and I feel as if I’ve come up on deck from the

bowels of some hellish galleon.   Even the wind on my face smells

of the sea.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 46


    Often I wonder why I don’t just pitch it all in, tell

everyone to go fuck themselves and leave it all behind.    And

again, now, I can’t think of any reason why not, any real

reason, save perhaps my own cowardice, my own sense that there’s

something for me to do, that I’m on some sort of quest and that

walking away from it would be just another admission of failure,

the likes of which I’d never be able to survive.    It’s twelve

twenty-one on a Wednesday afternoon and I feel more alone than

ever, surprised at my own resignation to the world turning

beneath me.

    It’s just the weight of the day, I’m telling myself, just

the feeling of having once again been caught in the center of

intrigues and cabals.   I tell myself that my fear towards them

is like the fear of my own shadow.   But no sooner do I think

this than I’m reminded of Peter Pan, who lost his shadow and was

forced for years to track it down.   Why?   What does one lose in

being without a shadow?   What does it mean to not be followed

everywhere by a darkness mimicking your shape?    But Pan’s shadow

had a mind of it’s own, once loosed from the body and it took a

little girl, claimed to be innocence personified, to mend them

together.   So perhaps, all in all, it is well to be afraid of

one’s own shadow.   Perhaps there is a violence there in the

darkness that we can never fully understand.
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 47


    I walk to the end of the building and peer over, sure first

to have my hands firmly rooted on the low wall running the

perimiter.   I’ve never been subject to vertigo, but it’s still

hard not to feel a little small when looking down past thirty-

two stories to the street below.       The wind is stronger here,

pushing over the lip enough to rustle my hair, my shirt snapping

like a sail in the wind.

    Slowly I back away, looking up, out over the city.       You

would think you could get lost in its myriad of buildings, but

I’ve been here so long now that I know it better than the pine

barrens we played in as children.       The names of streets and

buildings come to mind as I gaze west, towards the river, able

to pick out my building between two skyscrapers.       I think of

Monica, most likely awake now.   I look east and see Chloe’s

office building, not far, nestled among the glass and aluminum

Mecca of downtown.   I think I should make some kind of decision,

and pick instead to go back downstairs and get back to work.

Danielle will be coming soon, having already been pushed off

twice for her review which is, now, over six weeks late.

                                   #

Danielle Jenicor is twenty three.       This her second job since

college.   On her resume she lists a year and a half with one of

the larger international consulting companies’ local branch.

She moved back to the city after four years and a BA from some
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 48


Midwestern liberal arts college I’d never heard of and started

with the company in an Analyst’s position before requesting to

move into my department after six months.   When I agreed to take

her on, I’d been impressed with both her ability to make

relatively sound conclusions and to subsequently present them

both clearly and efficently.   With my department divided into

four main functions, she appeared to understand when it was put

to her that she was to bring her analytical skills to bear on

some of the more mundane aspects of each function and try to

make them more interesting.

    Now, six months later, she’s done this, but concurrently

transmogrified herself into some sort of faux protégé simply

because she’s done better than her peers.   She’s wearing a black

skirt, a gray crepe blouse and sensible shoes.    She wears that

type of thick, black framed glasses that always go in and out of

fashion, the stems tucked behind her ears and hidden by one of

the short, fashionable summer haircuts, and has had her fingers

done in a French manicure.    Her small hands clench at her pen,

which hovers over the page, knuckles showing a sliver of white.

Is she angry or afraid?

    We’ve done the formulaic aspect of the review, the physical

reading aloud of the documents we have before us, found a typo

and smiled over it simply to break the boredom.   Now we’ve

reached that point where she’s supposed to air her grievances,
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 49


but she’s faltering, stuttering out the words, taking forever to

make a point, which isn’t really like her at all.    I’m trying to

look open and smiling, the Friendly Boss, but she’s just going

on about how she’ll improve this point, enjoys this, and will

try harder on that even though it’s not her favorite thing,

because she wants too look intense and dedicated.    And then:

    "There is one thing..." she says meekly, but I urge her on

with an earnest expression of concern and curiosity. "I’m only

twenty three, I know..."

    "That makes little difference.    I’m only twenty six."

    "You are?" she says, surprised.

    "Yeah," I chuckle, feigning a casual air "how old did you

think I was?"

    "Thirty, at least, I mean, not that you look old..."

    "But because of my position?    Trust me, you’re not the

first to be surprised."

    "Well, I mention it because, well, I have some questions

about the benefits of the company, and, well,"

    "HR has a stick up their ass?    Yeah, I know.   I had some

questions as well and it took me forever to get a straight

answer from them."

    Luckily she doesn’t ask about what, but just continues,

saying "Well, you see, I know that there have been some changes

in state law, and I’m curious about, well, some of the wording
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 50


is a bit vague, and I’m a little unclear about how some of the

benefits apply to..." she's searching for the words, looking out

the window, hoping to find them there, or perhaps just ecape my

gaze. "To others in my household," she says before looking back

at me.

    I look at her, calmly, my mind firmly on policy but trying

to appear at least a little human, saying evenly, "It’s my

understanding that benefits only apply to those in your

household who’re either legal dependants or legal spouses," my

voice even, unassuming. "However, I could be wrong, and I'm

unaware if any changes to the law would affect these parameters.

You should speak to Don Meyers in legal.   He’s a very

approachable man, and has had to deal with similar situations

with other employees looking to extend their benefits to

relatives, non-legal dependants and others whose relationships

with the employee’s have been equally vague."

    She takes this well, my having danced around the matter at

hand relatively poorly.   Still, I add, "Personally, I believe

that it’s important for everyone who works for me to feel that

their personal life is safe and secure, and that whatever might

be going on at home is neither the subject of office gossip, nor

in such a state that they feel it impinges on their work.    If

you need to take a couple days to care for someone who’s ill but

otherwise not traditionally covered, or if you feel that your
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 51


environment is at all hostile as pertains to your personal life,

from benefits to others’ remarks, then you should come to me

directly and I will do what I can to rectify the situation

without exacerbating the symptoms."

    Silent, she continues to look at me, nodding slowly.

    "Now, even though I’ve been horribly vague, does that put

you at ease at all?"

    "You say that this Don Meyers is...approachable?"

    "I’ve never heard of him breaking confidence, or take

advantage of any private, personal information that’s come his

way."

    Again she nods, then smiles suddenly, looking far more

relaxed than I’d expect. "Thanks, Mr. Hoemke."

    "It’s my pleasure, Ms. Jenicor," I reply formally, half

nodding, half bowing my head. "Anything else?" I look at the

clock, "You still have fifteen minutes of my time if you’d

like?"

    "No, thank you, I should be getting back to work."     She

stands, and as I rise to follow, reaches out to me.   We shake

amiably and I feel the cold, clammy fear in her hands.   My face

must have shown it for a second because she blushes a little and

when she pulls her hand back it passes against her thigh, as if

to remove the bits of sweat.

    "Thanks again."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 52


    "My pleasure.   I hope you don’t feel I was too hard on

you?" I break from her gaze and make for the door.     She turns to

follow and allows me to open it for her.

    "No, not at all," Danielle pretends, then smiles a crooked

smile and cocks her head a little adding, "Well, a little, I

guess," she confesses.

    I smile a laugh by way of apologizing, "I’ll have the

paperwork sent up tomorrow, and the Robeson piece by...?"

    "This afternoon.     Thanks," she says again.   Jeffery gives

me an encouraging smile as she wanders back off to her desk.        I

don’t return it, just raise my eyebrows quickly and turn back to

my office, slowly shutting the door.

                                  #

I decide to call Chole as the door clicks shut.     Without even

really thinking about it, I just decide, walk over to my desk

and dial her work number.

    "Carmichael Foundation, Chloe Hempstead speaking." She’s

somber, but not sullen.

    "Hey there."

    "Hi Stephen," she says without skipping a beat. "I was

beginning to wonder about you."

    "Oh?" I sit down, take a pen from the desk and fidget with

it as she speaks, keeping my voice normal.

    "You didn’t call last night."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 53


    "Sorry - Monica showed up at my doorstep."

    "Which one’s she again?"

    "The teacher?    From college.   You know..."

    "Oh," a tremble of hushed awe creeping into her voice. "She

okay?"

    I sigh, as if exasperated, "I guess.      Her grandmother’s

funeral was yesterday afternoon.     She tracked me down, had a

couple of drinks and cried on my shoulder all night."

    "You send her home?"

    "Nah, she wasn’t in any state to drive so I tossed her on

the couch."

    "Mmm..." a luscious groan. "Speaking of your couch..." her

voice trailing off suggestively.

    "Yes?" I reply in kind.

    "What are you up to tonight?"

    "Uh..." I glance at my schedule, then at my calendar and

answer non-challantly, "Drinks at six with Morrow and Flemming

at Roland’s, should be free around...seven thirty?     Eight?" I

forgot about that.   Shit. Switching back to sultry, "What do you

have in mind?"

    "Oh...I dunno.    Dinner at McMahon’s?"

    "No, we went there last week."

    "We did?"

    "The mussles?    Remember?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 54


    "Oh god, not there then.    Where?"

    "I’d like Union Street or the Concertina area."

    "The Japanese place on Union?    What’s it called...Shiro’s?"

    "Something like that.   Sounds good."

    "Seen you at eight then."

    "See you."   She's chipper.   Must have fucked Eric on her

lunch break.   I wonder if they work together?



Thinking about how to broach the subject of new hires at

Carmichael makes the rest of the day slightly bearable until I

wonder, in the middle of Hawlsey’s presentation on some

cost/benefit bullshit, if Monica really is alright.   I consider

calling, but then knowing her she won’t pick up the phone, and

if she wasn’t alright she’d have called by now.

    Three fifteen, Powerpoint slides flickering on the screen,

my mind playing over the possibilities of Monica, knowing that

whatever I think of will be wrong, so I think of the worst.

This bleeds into a hundred different possibilities and I have a

hard time trying to decide what’s "the worst," what would be

merely "inconvenient" and what would be "good."   It’s the last

that gives me pause, makes me really think about her.

    She is, by and large, a nice woman, a good friend, and a

decent fuck.   Maybe she has been with other men recently, my

image of her as a chaste, reclusive schoolmarm wholly
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 55


unjustified.    She certainly didn’t act as repressed or frigid as

I’d expected.   Or maybe she’s just well read.   Still; Chloe.

Focus.

    Chloe, we know, if schtupping some guy named Eric.     What do

we know about Eric?   He’s a man, he’s fucking my girlfriend,

smokes, and drinks enough that between the two of them they

finished half a bottle of Glenfiddich between a Tuesday and a

Thursday without Chloe being hungover on any of those mornings.

Now, what else do we know, knowing what we know about Chloe?

    He’s well dressed, intelligent, probably a little fucked

up, has some foible or idiosyncacy she finds both frustrating

and endearing - not holding the door open for her, not lighting

her cigarette, listens to Top 40, something.     Eric doesn’t live

too close to her, but maybe they work in the same buildings, or

is a friend of a friend.   She didn’t want me to come to the

party last week, the one at...shit, whose apartment?     Someone

from work.   Will have to remember that.   Never did tell me how

it went.   Curious.   So he’s definitely white - all the people

she knows from work are white, or at least appear to be of

Northern European descent.   Drinks Scotch, so he’s not in

Advertising, maybe Marketing or Biz Dev.    Something creative,

yet inane.

    I play around on the Internet for half an hour when the

meeting is over, looking up who else is in her building, but
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 56


this takes too long for too little of a result: There are

probably a hundred offices in her building, and her part

Downtown is small enough that they could be anywhere within six

blocks in any direction and still be close enough for a quickie

at lunch.

    This too bears consideration - she doesn’t have an office

to herself, so either they did it in a closet, in his office, or

in the car in the parking garage.     Hrm - none of that helps

narrow it down, but might be useful later.    Someone’s knocking

on my door.   Four thirty.   I check my schedule.   I’m free till

five.

    "Come in."

    Danielle's face peeks out from the two inches she’s opened

the door, her glasses set far down along the bridge of her nose.

She’s looking over them at me. "You busy?"

    I stare at the computer screen.     Am I busy? "No, I guess

not."

    She opens the door and slips in and turns, closing it

slowly behind her.   Nice ass.

    "I have the Robeson file done." She comes to me and hands

over a half-inch think manila folder.

    "Thanks." I look at it, and looking back up she hasn’t

moved. "Do I need to look over it?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 57


    Danielle makes a strange motion wither her head and

shoulder, a sort of one sided shrug. "I don’t think so..."

    "But you want me to any way."

    "If you don’t mind..."

    "Sure." I sit back, opening it. "Do you want to wait?"

    She sits, schooching the chair closer. "Just one part,

really, yeah." She moves a lock of hair out of the way and

behind her ear. "The second section.   I had to re-write almost

all of James’ copy.   I don’t like it, but I couldn’t leave

it..."

    I nod, cutting her off, having found the section.     I mumble

a little as I read it, to let her know where I am on the page.

She nods, poking her black glasses back up on her nose. "Yeah,

there," she says when I come to some prosaic part about process

and response.

    Again I nod, re-reading quietly, my brow furrowed as I try

and make my way through the mired phraseology.   Then I shrug,

look up.   She’s worried, but hopeful. "Looks good," I say

casually, placing the whole folder, open, back on the desk. "It

looks fine."

    "Okay." But she sounds kind of dejected.

    I console her with "Nothing I can do to make it better,"

knowing this is kind of lame, but what am I going to say?     Six
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 58


in one, half dozen in the other. "Do you want to work on it any

more?"

    "Nah," she sit back, playing it cool. "It’d just make me

more frustrated." She wants some sort of congratulations, some

sort of immediate gratification showing her that the time wasn’t

wasted.

    "I’ll review it tonight and let you know first thing if

there’s anything that looks out of place."

    She nods, crinkling her mouth like Linus from Peanuts, then

gets up, making that half sighing motion again. "Thanks for

looking over it," but not really meaning it, wishing I could

give her more.

    As she leaves I eye her legs, her butt, and slim frame.

There’s a very good chance she’s a lesbian, but I resign myself

to the fact that a) I never get involved with someone I work

with, usually b) definitely not someone who works for me,

usually and c) she’s probably making some woman very happy.    At

least, as the door clicks shut and I resume my stalking of Eric,

I hope they’re happy.

                                  #

Half past five Jeffery knocks on my door, reminding me of the

time.    Nodding I usher him in and give a few directives while

shuffling papers back into their folders, collecting the folders

in piles, then sorting the piles for tomorrow.    I click off the
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 59


CD player, pausing to think if there is anything else I’m

forgetting.    "Who’s on my schedule for tomorrow?"

    "Pryce at 9:30, Hapspur at 10, con call with Clyen and Roe

at eleven fifteen, Thomas Heyd from Fairbanks and Moore for

lunch at Asagio and then your free till three thirty, when you

have a technology review on new business systems which you’ve

invited yourself to.    That runs till five, when you’re double

booked for drinks with your attorney and racquetball with your

accountant.    Diner reservations at eight for two at Klien’s."

    "Cancel Edmund, I don’t feel like playing tomorrow.      Who

are my reservations with?"

    He pauses, almost imperceptible, but answers with a

primmish monotone.    "Ms. Hempstead."

    "Oh yeah," I say, not really paying attention.      I catch

this and try and come up with a lie to cover with, then cease to

care.    I just want to leave. "I’ll be in late tomorrow..."

    "Pryce..." he reminds.

    "Not that late.     Nine, nine-fifteen."

    "Very well," he makes a note. "I’ll send an apology to

Edmund?    Or a brush off?"

    "An apology.     No need to piss him off.   Suggest...Oh, I

dunno.    Does he like...baseball?   What season is it?"

    Jeffery chuckles, shaking his head. "It’s baseball season."

    "What’s so funny?" I ask, a little hurt.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 60


    "You do know," shifting his weight in the chair, "that

we’re favored for the pennant.   Right?"

    "Nope."

    He laughs again. "Surely..."

    "Like I care," I switch off the desk lamp as I toss a

couple of folders into my briefcase along with my laptop. "I

think that’s about it."

    "Shall I call you a cab?" All traces of casual mirth having

vanished from his tone.

    "Please."

                                 #

Again, Isobel in the elevator.   This time she's already on as

the door opens and we look eachother square in the face.     My

cab's ready, and it'll be only a minute or so of conversation

provided no one else gets on between here and the lobby.

    "Isobel."

    "Stephen."

    So it's five seconds of conversation and fifty-five seconds

of silence.   She scratches at her watch, so she probably has

someone waiting for her downstairs, or maybe nearby, who'd be

familiar enough with me that the possibility of his or her

seeing the two of us in close proximity would give her enough of

a guilt / nervous reaction to make so drastic a movement.     Watch

scratching isn't the worst though.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 61


    The spectrum begins with her tugging gently on her ear,

progresses through licking her lips to watch scratching, then

jumps up to scratching the back of her neck and, on two known

occasions, bringing a folded hand up to her neck and using her

thumb to strum her throat.    Throat strumming was what I got when

she invited me out to dinner, and I'd accepeted then because I

figured that since she was married and working with me on a

pretty big project that it was some sort of way to give me bad

news.   However she strummed her throat again over coffee and I'd

lapsed into a silence, smoking.   This was last year, when I was

still smoking, obviously.

    "I...I really don't know how to say this, I guess, but,

well; it's just, see, my husband, Jim, well, he left me, a while

ago, I just havn't let on in the office, you know; because, you

know, so, we're seperated, legally, and, well, I've always

admired you, Stephen, I think that what you did with the Kurren

Project was just brilliant.   A lot of people were upset, you

being promoted so young, but they're just jealous; you're a

brilliant man.   A handsome and brilliant man, Stephen, and I

think, well, I mean, I don't know if you're seeing anyone, but,

well, I really enjoyed dinner, talking with you, but I don't

want to just sit here and talk about work.   I know a little

about you, about how you left school and started out at the
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 62


bottom and have worked your way up and that's so admirable these

days, with the new peerage -"

    "The what?" I's interrupted.

    "The...the new peerage.      Second Gen Yuppies and dot-com

Torys."

    The conversation turned to the New Economy, the subsequent

crash, which she insisted on referring to as the Dot-Crash, and

other industry talk.    We never got back to her stammering

confessions, but I noted Jim being at the Christmas party later

that year, and the two of them sharing a drunken kiss in the

back corner of the office.    The confession, however, reared its

head in the new year when I was promoted above her, twice, and

she slowly stopped speaking to me, distanced herself from the

department and eventually taking a position in Production

Services as some sort of Project Manager or Co-ordinator on the

22nd floor.    We'd seen each other at meetings where she'd

pretendeed not to notice me.     In a meeting of four once she

managed to go seventy-three minutes before even acknowledging my

existence.    It was horrible.   Kyle noticed it right off and

asked me about it.     I said bluntly that she'd made a pass at me

and I'd more or less turned her down and now she was taking it

out on me, his response being The bitch.     I told him to Fuck off

and walked away.    I hadn't seen her since that meeting and now

we meet in the elevator twice in one day.
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 63


    I stand next to her at the back of the car, both of us

looking at the LCD numbers counting down the floors, perhaps she

as well offering a small prayer that no one between here and the

lobby will be looking to leave work right about now.        Prayers

answered, the panel goes into express mode at the 11th floor,

and both halves of me smile as the letters EX blink into

existance, for different reasons.       The car slows, the panel

blinks to L, and the doors open.       She doesn't move.   I don't

move because I want her to go first, to get another look at her

ass, but she's pauings too.   After a beat I start out and she

follows quickly after, quickly enough to brush her hand against

mine as we cross the threshold and turn or seperate ways.        I

wait for her to say something, Excuse me, or Sorry, or

something, but it's more subtle than that; she says "Stephen"

and keeps walking, and I have no idea what she means.

                                   #

Since it’s pointless to drive ten blocks, but walking in early

summer is unheard of, a cab is necessary.       Calling for a cab

moreso, since half the people in the city are stupid enough to

think they can just flag one down during rush hour.

    My cab arrives as I exit the building, and so I don't have

to fend off any punters.   Feeling the solid weight of my

briefcase, heavy in my hand, the hard edge of the leather
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 64


cutting into my hand, I open the car door and the frigid cool of

the air conditioning washes over me.    Christ it’s cold.

       "Where to?"

       "Roland’s.    6th and Pike."

       "Okays." The cabbie flicks the meter and we’re off.

       "Could you turn the air down, please?"

       "Nah, it’s busted," he says, with a flippancy that makes me

wonder if it really does work and he just doesn’t care.      He

pulls into the turn lane, cutting off an SUV,      The streets are

just starting to get really packed.    I check my watch.    5:45.

"Open the window if you wanna." He offers.

       "Thanks," sarcasm dripping from my jowl as I hit the button

to roll the window down,

       "Or don’t," he counters casually, "Fuckin’ freeze ta death.

Your choice." He turns, gunning the engine as the light turns

red.    The heat of summer comes into the cab.    Now half of me is

sweating while the other half shivers. "So lemmie ask," the

cabbie starts into the typical pratter, "Whaddya do?"

       "Why?"

       "Just asking," he shrugs, changes lanes without looking and

makes a sharp right onto Pike. "You seem like a decent guy, even

though your obvi'sly the corporate type." Only the word

‘corporate’ in that entire sentence was pronounced correctly,

hearing it as jarring as listing to the pratter of Japanese
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 65


school girls in Yokohama last fall on the subway, their alien

speech punctuated with words like "computer," "CD" and

"concert," the verbal icons of a foreign culture.

    The city is fresh and new in this part of town.    Urban

beautification.   Scrub trees, silver birches I think, line the

streets, the old brick buildings have been sandblasted recently

while the brushed aluminum and glass of the newer ones reflect

the scenes around me: The cab a dirty yellow in a sea of shiny

new cars, their drivers decked out in pale blues, beige silk and

soft linens.   With the window open there is the occasional horn

blaring, but more often the sound of trendy pop tunes and

ringing cell phones, the usual sounds of the city muted softly

behind them.   It’s almost beautiful, but not quite.

    I think about what to say to this guy, who’s catching

glimpses of me in his rear view mirror, some random cabbie

pulling down a union wage plus tips.   He’s faintly European, the

placard bearing his name and picture professing him to be Gary

Timoshabevich, a second generation immigrant whose father didn’t

quite live the American Dream, whose kids are probably wondering

what they’ll should change their names to to make them a little

less ethnic.

    "I try and make the world a better place," I say, "So that

our kids have a little more than we do, So that maybe our sons
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 66


and daughters don’t have to go through the same shit we do,

everyday."

    He’s quiet for a moment.   We pull up in front of Roland’s

Trattoria.   He puts it in park and turns to me, saying softly

"You and me both, pal.   Four fifty."

    I hand him a twenty, he takes out a sweaty roll of bills

and goes through the motions of unwrapping the rubber band

stretched tight around them, licking his fingers, staring at the

cash.   I don’t know what to say, how to say "keep the change"

without ruining the moment, so I don’t say anything.   I just

open the door and step out onto the street, grabbing my

briefcase.   Then I think of something, and poke my head back

into the cab, the heat from the city already bringing a slight

layer of perspiration to my face. "Thanks for the ride, Gary."

    "My pleasure."

    I close the door firmly without slamming it, walk behind

the cab and into the restaurant.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 67




                             CHAPTER 4

                                 SARAH



Wednesday is Sarah's self-proclaimed happy hour at Roland's.

Like Fairchild’s, it’s one of those archetypal places.    In this

case it's a hole in the wall Italian restaurant with some of the

best food available.

    Inside it's cold, hard, blue concrete floors patched with a

mismatch of rugs and carpet remainders, Sinatra on the stereo

pretty much 24/7 and walls filled with medium sized pictures of

the Old Country, back when it was still old.    The photographs

are fuzzy black and whites of small buildings, rural markets and

non-descript hillsides with the occasional man or woman

squinting into the sun.   They’re unmarked save for the

occasional scrawling hand’s profession that this is, in fact,

the Piazza de Sol, circa 1932.     These are mixed in with a few
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 68


peasants’ drawings of the same places, thin sketches of a column

and a man, a woman and a well.

    Rolando’s grandson Felipe recently took over the place.

His father, after running the place with calculated indifference

for twenty years, died of a coronary last autumn.     Rolando

himself opened the place in the late thirties and ran it till

his eyes were clouded with cataracts and his hands shaking.

    Felipe made a few changes in the past year, mostly by

adding the clichés of America’s veal parmesan and bruschetta

crowd to the menu, some nicer wines to the wine list, and

getting a wait staff that actually spoke English.     Were it not

for the latter I doubt anyone’d have ever noticed the change in

management.    He still comes around, but less and less as the

seasons grind on.    Still, I look for him when I come in, but the

place is empty save for a trio at the bar, Sarah at the counter

and some old woman at the door to the back restaurant clutching

a small fan.    She looks at me as I enter.   I nod, then make my

way to the bar.

    Sarah is a god-daughter or cousin of sorts to Felipe, who

started in May after she came back from college in

Massachusetts.    I wouldn’t call her pretty, but others might:

Medium tall, shoulder length hair, college-girl thin and a

wicked smile.    Since Felipe’s children are about as adept at

managing a restaurant as you’d expect of wannabe ghettobangers,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 69


she’s a good chance of getting a stake in the place if she plays

her cards right.   But I doubt that's what she wants, a double

major in Voice and Biochemistry.

    She’s reading some Vintage International paperback, smoking

Marlboro Light 100’s as three half drunk guys in cheap suits are

goading her into turning on the television.   "It’s broken," she

keeps saying from the corner of her mouth, never looking up,

never taking her attention away from the book.   "Luck be a Lady

Tonight" drones from the small speakers behind her.

    "Just turn on the TV."

    "It’s broken."

    "It was on last night!" A second bolsters.

    "You we’ren't here last night, how would you know?"

    "You havn’t even looked at me."

    "I don’t need to; I can smell you from here."

    This gets a laugh, and the three guys turn inward, going

into some story or another.   Sarah does look up when I approach,

at first just another customer, then she catches my eye and

cracks a smile.

    "Good evening, sir!" She jumps off her stool to a wry

semblance of attention.

    "Good evening, bar wench." This makes her smile harder for

some reason.   Her cigarette touches a ceramic ashtray looking
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 70


like something someone’s child made at some point, the tip of

grey ash tumbling into it.

    "What shall it be, sir?"

    "Whiskey Sour, ifyouwouldbesokind," I run the words

together, Elvis-esque, take a seat, loosen my tie, check my

watch, and sing a few bars with Frank.   She leaves the cigarette

burning in the tray and turns to begin the drink.   I add, "You

seen Marrow or Flemming?"

    A shake of the head, then she puts the bottle down and

jerking a finger says, "Just these goons."

    The three goons laugh harder at this and catch her

attention. "Hey, turn on the TV."

    "It’s broken."

    And they whip into laughter again.   God this is going to

get old quick.

    "Any takers on Happy Hour?"

    "Happy Hour?" cries goon number two.

    "Yep.   Happy Hour."

    "Like cheap drinks and shit?"

    "No, the happiest one here picks up the tab for everyone

else."

    "Wha?" They say in almost unison.

    Sarah hands me the drink and picking up her cigarette

explains the rules. "Each of us tell the rest how happy they
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 71


are.    The happiest one among us has to pick up a round for the

rest."

       They’re quiet for a second, trying to work this one out.

Goon number three, probably the smartest since he hasn’t said

shit yet, just looks over at me, eyes my suit, then at Sarah in

her jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt proclaiming her to be a Rock

Star, and nods.    "I’m game."

       "Stephen?" She asks.

       "Sure." I rarely loose.

       "And you two fine young gentlemen?" She flashes the charm

and the smile, leans forward a little with her elbows on the

bar, preening her breasts for them.    They both take the bait.

Their eyes flicker then glaze over as they peer down to her

chest, some primal force pushing a grunt of acquiescence from

their lips.

       "Then I’ll go first, to set the tone."   She straightens

back up, runs her fingers through the sides of her hair,

managing to not catch it on fire with her cigarette, and looks

at the ceiling for a second.

       "Go on then, Honey" chirps goon number two.

       She rallies her thoughts for a moment longer, then peels

off in rapid fire: "Let’s see.    My mother this morning asked why

I wasn’t married, my boy-friend still doesn’t have a job, my

uncle wants to know if I can work six days a week, open to close
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 72


instead of just two afternoons and days during the weekend and I

really can’t say no." Pause, cigarette, continue. "I lost an

audition for a bit part in the local production of The Marriage

of Figaro and have to decide if I want to do the chorus, or hold

out for something better, these jeans are too tight so I guess

I’m putting on weight, and my car is going to need new brakes

before winter, but I havn’t the cash.     Finally, my grandfather

isn’t feeling well, ever since my great grandmother passed away

and he couldn’t afford the tickets to Sicily to go to the

funeral and wouldn’t accept the money from his grandson, my

uncle, who did go.    All in all, I’m a little miserable, and

down, but not resolutely unhappy."

    This monologue enraptures the goons.     They’re unused to so

much honesty from strangers, unfamiliar with the whole notion of

this cute, smiling girl being more than their own personal bar

wench cum jerk-off fantasy.    They stare at her for a second as

she takes a long drag and stares at them with a dare.

    "Shit." Says goon number one.     "That sucks."

    "Thank you." She bows crisply from the head. "Next?"

    "Oh I got that beat," says number two, a little past half

drunk I’m guessing.

    "Go on, Danny," his fellow goons egg him on.      I turn and

catch a look at whoever’s just opened the door, but it’s a

couple I don’t recognize.     The old woman gets up from her seat
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 73


and carries on a hushed conversation which ends with her slowly

picking out two menus and leading them into the back restaurant.

I turn back to hear goon number two start in with his own story.

    "My wife racked up over six thousand, six thousand," he

emphasizes, looking at the other goons, "in credit card bills

last month.   The twins are going into first grade this fall and

Paulo still wets his pants if he gets excited or nervous, so I

don’t know how he’ll manage.   I tried to get him to do little

league, but he won’t have any of it.   His big brother Marco

loves sports, which is good, but he’s not any good at them,

so..." his voice trails off for a moment, and he takes a sip of

his Budweiser.   "My little girl, Brittany she’s got another ear

infection, her third in the year and a half, and the docs say

that she might have long-term damage to her hearing if she gets

another this winter.   My job’s okay, I like the guys," he gives

a half hearted punch into the shoulder of goon number one, then

looks at goon number three. "But my kid brother here got another

raise, another promotion, so he’s once again Mom’s favorite."

Goon number three smiles and raises his glass to himself, taking

a long drought. "So I’m at least as unhappy as you, Sarah, but

then I’m also expecting to be much less happy pretty soon."

    We’re quiet as we mull over the stories.   Sarah nods once

or twice, then admits, "Okay, I’m happier than you."   Goon
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 74


number two smiles, clinks glasses with his compatriots, and goon

number three starts in almost immediately.

    "I may be mom’s favorite, but dad still hates my guts,

still hasn’t forgiven me for marrying Hasada."

    "Who’s Hasada?" Asks Sarah quietly.   We usually don’t

interrupt eachother.

    "My wife." He explains, "she’s Jewish."

    "Ah."

    "Yeah, and she’s pregnant, with a boy, and my dad keeps

going on about how," he stops suddenly, shakes he shoulders and

affects a thick Old World accent, "There’s no way in Hell my

grandson’s gonna have his dick cut." He harrumphs and goon

number two shakes his head, apparently agreeing with his father,

or maybe just the impersonation. "So I got that, daily, from

Pops.   Hasada is doing well, for now, but the doc says that

there could be complications given that...well, she’s a ‘small’

woman, if you get my drift."

    Sarah nods emphatically, but none of the goons really

notice the intense look on her face.   She’s crossed her arms

over her chest, holding onto the opposite elbows.   He continues.

    "The new position is great.   At work?   But my new boss is a

cocky ass schwartza who keeps going on about the Mexicans he’s

got working for him, about how they never pull their weight, and

I just can’t stand for that, so I gotta do something, I just
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 75


don’t know what yet.   And I got more responsibility, so I’m a

little nervous about everything.   Dalton, this new guy I’m

working with, I think he’s looking to move on somewhere else, so

then I’d be the senior guy, but I really don’t know about how

well I can do the whole job by myself.    And my car’s in the shop

already," he nods to Sarah, who replies by nodding vigorously,

"and the guy says it’ll cost over a grand to fix it." He shakes

his head. "So Hasada keeps asking how we’re gonna pay for the

baby and the operation when I keep putting money into my old

car, and why don’t we get a minivan.    A fuckin’ minivan!" He

quiets, takes a long draught, "But I’ll probably give in.     I

love her, ya know?"

    And with this he’s quiet.   His brother clasps his shoulder

and shakes his head saying, "I’m there for ya, Tony." Sarah nods

again.

    "You so have me beat," she says, shaking her head. "I hope

it works out."

    "Thanks, kid." He says. "Another scotch?"

    "Sure." She begins to pour.

    "So who’s next?" Goon number three, aka ‘Tony’, asks,

breaking the silence of his misery.    "You up, Sparky, or is it

this tall glass o' water?" he jerks his thumb in my direction

and I chuckle, thinking of the last time I heard that

expression.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 76


    "No, I’ll go," says goon number one, ‘Sparky’ to his

friends.   He looses his tie a little, begins to think, then

stops. "Shit, I guess I’m a happy motherfucker."    The goons

laugh at this posturing.   Even Sarah smiles a little, depositing

Tony’s scotch before him. "Nah," he goes on, "I guess I’m not

that bad off.    Still not married, still looking to see if I

wanna ask Camille Forlani, you know her, Danny, nice ass, nice

smile, real sweet girl, though the family don’t think I’m good

for much, just being what they call a ‘glorified salesman.’      I

was gonna take her to the Billy Joel concert, but he cancelled,

again, and it don’t look like he’s gonna reschedule, so she’s

heart broken and blaming me, but I don’t know why.    It’ not like

I can do anything about it.    The team’s doin’ good, looks like

it’ll go into the pennant, but they traded their only Italian

off the team last month, so I dunno if I can still support ‘em,

ya know?   My folks are doin’ okay, but my little sister.

Christ," he kisses his fingers as he says this and traces a

cross on his chest, "I hope someone’s looking after her ‘cuz

that girl is too wild for me.    Twenty two and she ain’t even

lookin’ to got married." Sarah quirks a brow at this one, but

says nothing. "Hangin’ out with some punk from the south fifty,

that she met at some bar or somethin’, I dunno, but he’s a lazy

sonofabitch, don’t even have a proper job.    I think he might be

sellin’ drugs.    Dunno, mind you, I just think he is, and I think
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 77


she’s doin’ ‘em too.   And I know he’s doin’ her, kids these

days, and in my parent’s house even!     But, you know, apart from

that, I’m pretty okay."    He nods and raises his beer, Danny

toasts with him, and they both drink.

    Sarah looks skeptical, but just grinds out her cigarette

thoughtfully and lights up another before the first even stops

smoldering in the tray.    She look at me. "I think we should hear

from Stephen before we make a judgment on that one, ‘cause it’s

close."

    "Whaddya mean, close?" asks Sparky. "You ain’t got half the

problems I got."

    "Now come on, Sparky," Danny chides, "it’s close.     Let’s

here was this kid’s got ta say?"

    "Yeah, I wanna hear the man."     Tony eyes me suspiciously,

takes another look at my suit.     All these people staring at me I

feel a little nervous.    I take another sip of my Whiskey Sour

and think, hard, about what to say.     I could throw the match,

acquiesce, and pick up their tab, but Sarah wouldn’t stand for

that if I tried.   Aw, what the hell.

    "My girlfriend is fucking some guy named Eric, but I don’t

know why." The men let out a low groan in appreciation.     Sarah

turns a little soft, but hides it by exhaling over her shoulder,

obscuring her face with blue cigarette smoke. "Her little

sister’s been trying to break us up for a while, and this may be
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 78


the final straw.   So I’ve been kinda looking around, and

yesterday an old friend of mine jumped me in my kitchen, and

she’s feeling a little fragile right now, so maybe she’ll still

be there when I get home.     I don’t know.   My job is pointless,

in the grand scheme of things, and there’s this new girl,

Danielle, who’ll probably work her ass off to take it from me.

At least, I wouldn’t be surprised.    I’ve been having some legal

problems with my grandfather’s estate; my father is in sort of

denial, even though grandpa was sick a long time, and my

brother, David, hasn’t been helping.    He’s pretty much walked

away and left it all to me.    My sister is still really poorly,

and when I last spoke to the doctors they didn’t have much hope

for her, one way or another.    It looks like she might just be

wasting away for another three, maybe five years, and that’s no

way for a woman to live out her twenties." I catch that I’m

trying to pull sympathy with Sarah, and slow down a little.       The

Whisky Sour is a little stronger, more bitter, as I take a long

pull on the glass, the condensation dribbling down my fingers to

the crook of my knuckles then curling around the palm of my hand

to the thick teak bar top.

    "And then there’s Catherine, my girlfriend’s older sister,

an old lover of mine, who’s been calling me every once in a

while.   She’s obviously hurting from something, but won’t tell

me what.   I may be going with Chloe, my girlfriend, to her
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 79


little sister’s place on Lake Michigan later this summer.

That’ll be interesting.   I’m feeling like a bit of a fraud,

still.    Wandering aimlessly, not sure what to do, with Monica or

Chloe or Catherine.   And my friends were supposed to be here

half an hour ago, but they havn’t shown yet.    In about...thirty

minutes I’m going to have to take a cab to some godawful sushi

place to have dinner with Chloe, who’s too damn happy right now,

so who knows what’ll happen with that.   Then home, read a

little, maybe go see a movie, get up tomorrow and do it all over

again."

I’m quiet then, as is everyone else.   I look over at the three

goons, and Tony pipes up.

    "Just so we can be crystal clear on this..." he says,

blinking hard.

    "Yeah?" I ask.

    "You’re schtupping two women, you’re wearing a thousand

dollar Armani suit, getting ready to go out for fuckin’ sushi,

your grandfather left you a fucking estate, and you’re still

bitching?"

    "It’s not an estate, that’s just what you call..."

    "Shit, kid." Tony turns away and shakes his empty glass at

Sarah, who’s looking mildly amused. "Buy me a fucking drink."

The other two harrumph in agreement and bring their half empty

bottles to her attention.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 80


    "No, it’s not like..." I protest.

    "Tell ya what," Sparky chimes in, "I’ll trade you Camille

for one of your broads.   How’s that?"

    "They’re..."

    "You lose, Stephen." Sarah lays a hand palm down on the

bar, leaning towards me. "Majority rules, remember?" Her other

hand comes out, palm up, rubbing two fingers together.

    "Well, Danny?" I say, looking at him.      He tosses me a look

of amusement that I could even be asking.     I slump into my seat,

pull out my wallet and hand over my credit card.

    "Gold fuckin’ American Express." Tony shakes his head.

    "It’s..." but I don’t even try.      Sarah shoots me a smile,

goes to the shelves of liquor and pulls down a bottle of scotch

and two glasses. "Who’s the other one for?" I ask indignantly.

Sarah just smiles, pours two drinks, and slides one in front of

Tony.   She takes the other and raises it.

    "To Stephen.   The happiest man in the bar."     The others

raise and clinks glasses with her.

    "Campai!"

    "Yeah, campai motherfucker." Sparky says with a smile.

    "Campai you lucky bitch," Tony clinks my glass sitting on

the bar in front of me, eyes me again, then looks back at Sarah.

"Even if he don’t know it."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 81


Marrow and Fleming show up soon after, as I’m finishing my

drink.   They hustle in bitching and smiling, take a seat at the

bar, Fleming taking off his suit coat and tossing it over the

back of the chair next to him.     "Hey Stephen.   Sarah."   I nod

into my cups.

      "Gentlemen.   The bar is open."

      "Woo hoo!" Marrow shifts in his seat. "Gin and tonic for

me.   Top shelf.    Fleming?"

      "Why, I believe I shall have what the loser is having."        He

looks down at the goons and sports a frown. "Unless the loser is

having a Bud, in which case I’ll have some cat piss too as a

chaser."

      Sarah laughs. "The loser," she looks towards me, "is having

a Whiskey Sour."

      "Oh ho!" Marrow, sitting directly to my left, bumps

shoulders with me. "Happy fucking day to you!"

      "Where you kids been?" I ask.

      "Don’t take that tone with me, young man." Fleming loosens

his tie and cracks his knuckles. "Whiskey Sour," he says to

Sarah, "and another one for my grumpy friend here."

      "You are verily grumpy for being the Happiest Man in the

Bar." Marrow licks his lips as Sarah pulls off the Bombay

Saphire from the top shelf.     He takes a packet of cigarettes
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 82


from his jacket, a gold plated lighter from his pants pocket and

lights up.

    "Feh." I say, draining my drink.     "How are you guys?" I

change the subject.

    "Not too bad, not too bad." Marrow looks left and right.

"Ashtray?" I slide it over to him.

    "Hey, that’s my smoke." Sarah calls out.    She pauses after

pouring the gin and reaches under the bar for a glass ashtray

and trades with Marrow. "Here."

    "Thank you, thank you." Marrow ashes. "Someone," he grins,

"closed the Ross account today."

    "Good job Marrow."

    "Thank you, thank you." He nods. "You can drink to my

health if the stewardess ever comes with that drink I ordered

half an hour ago," And then Fleming joins him as they holler

out, "Oh stewardess?"

    "Yeah, Yeah," Sarah mocks, walking over shaking our drinks.

She places them on the bar and takes up her cigarette again as

she reaches behind her for her scotch.

    "To my health, then."

    "To your health," agrees Fleming.    They clink glasses and I

join them.   The goons look over.

    "What are we drinking to?" Asks Tony.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 83


    "His health." Sarah points at Marrow raising her glass.

Tony nods and raises a glass.    The other two are in a heated,

drunken argument about something and Tony has to elbow them.

Startled, he explains to them briefly and they raise their beers

then settle back into their conversation.

    "I must say," Marrow repeats, "that you’re awfully glum for

being the Happiest Man in the Bar.

    "It was a conspiracy," I say, nodding towards Sarah who’s

looking on with mild interest.

    "Oh?"

    "Stevie here..." Sarah points

    "Don’t call me that."

    "...feels that boinking two chicks and having a shitload of

cash is the cause of his unhappiness."

    "Sarah..."

    "Cheating on Chloe, are we?"

    "She started it."

    "Yeah, I’m sure." Fleming taps Marrow for a smoke.

    "With who?   Anyone we know?" He slides the packet and

lighter to Fleming.

    I consider. "Monica Dorian." Stare into my drink.

    "No shit!"

    "Jesus tits man!"
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 84


      Slowly I look up at Sarah, who’s the look about her as if

she’s just realized she’d said too much, should have known

better.   I half shrug and look away.

      "Damn, how the hell did that happen?"

      Marrow and Fleming I know from college, and they in turn

know, if not all of Monica’s story, then enough to think that

this is some sort of coup.     Fleming returns the cigarettes to

Morrow, who offers them to me.     Aw fuck it.   I take one and

light up.

      "She tracked me down yesterday.    I think she had it

planned."

      "Why’s that?" Morrow’s lost his mischievous grin, is

hunkered down the bar now, swishing his G&T around the walls of

his glass, staring into it like an augerer.

      I shrug again.    God it’s been a long time since I’ve

smoked.   The taste is bitter and acidic, burning my tongue and

scratching at the back of my throat, my fingers are already

numb.   The sensation reminds me of the reasons I started in the

first place, that desire for some semblance of disconnection

from the world, the a physical embodiment of detachment from

everything around me; numb to all that I touch, that could touch

me.

      "Stephen?" Marrow again.

      "Huh?   Sorry.   Just thinking." My voice low, chipped.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 85


      "No problem." He lets it drop.   Fleming’s eyeing me, while

Sarah’s retreated back to her book.    I catch the title, 'Written

on the Body.' "So," he tries to change the subject, but finds

nothing on his mind.    Slowly he scans the room, small and

cramped, the bar big enough for eight or nine people, four tall

tables behind us with pleather and plastic bar chairs, the old

woman, idly fanning herself and looking out the window in a

cliché scene entitled Pesant’s Repast.

      "We’re headed over to Paul and Hannah’s later, you wanna

come?" Marrow again.

      "Can’t.   Dinner with Chloe." Sarah looks up.

      "That’ll be fun." Fleming mumbles, shifts in his chair so

he’s sitting sideways, facing Marrow and me, but looking behind

us.

"Hey," Marrow says suddenly, "I saw Dwight the other day."

      "Dwight who?" I grab at the name, eager for anything to

drag the conversation out of its doldrums.

      "Spencer.   Two years a head of us?"

      I think, try and place the name with a face.    I shake my

head.

      "Oh, the Econ guy?" Fleming asks, still staring at

something behind him.    Half of me is temped to look, but I know

that nothing’s there.    He’s an old friend of Chloe’s.    I wonder

what he’s thinking.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 86


    "No, that’s Terry Spencer.    He’s in Chicago, I think."

    "Then who’s Dwight?"

    "Uh..." Fleming looks at him. "I think he was a Foreign

Policy guy.    Anyway," he shifts uncomfortably, takes a sip, "he

was three doors down from me Sophomore Year."

    "Oh," Fleming looks back. "The guy with the towel?"

    Marrow rips out laughing. "Yes!    My god, I totally forgot

about that."

    "Is this," I feign seriousness, "Thee Guy with the Towel?"

    "None other."

    I chuckle despite my mood. "Heh.    What’s he doing now?

Porno?"

    "No," Marrow’s still laughing.    Sarah’s looked up from her

book and expressing the mild interest of anyone not privy to a

You Had To Be There joke. "He’s working at Citidel.    Or

Citibank.   One of the two."

    "Hey, I know a guy there," I say, "I should call him up and

tell him the story."

    "Oh god, that would be so cruel." Marrow shakes his head,

finishes his drink. "So cruel."

    Sarah goes back to her book and Fleming looks at me

suddenly, past Marrow’s shoulder, a cold, calculating look on

his face which I only half catch out of the corner of my eye.

As I turn my head he looks away, his face changing back to his
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 87


toothy smile.   We’re old friends.   We’ve been through a lot.

But then, he used to have a thing for Chloe, didn’t he?

    "Come to think of it, I saw him at Nordstom’s, in the

health and beauty section." He chuckles again.

    Fleming looks up at him with a critical smile, "And what

were you doing in the Health and Beauty section, young man."

    "Why," Marrow pulls out his Churchill impression, "I was

studying the enemy, so that when we again go to war..." he

trails off, puffs the dregs of his cigarette like a cigar, then

crushes it out.   Fleming and I smile at each other but I can’t

help thinking to myself what a bastard he is. "And with that,

gentlemen."

    "What, you’re leaving?" Fleming looks affronted.     I don’t

know how I feel about him taking off so quick, so I just look at

him, then at his cigarettes as he puts them away.     Mine’s half

smoked, lying in the ashtray.

    "Yeah, I gotta run to the cleaners before it closes."

    "Why time is it?" Fleming makes a motion to look at his

watch, but I know he knows damn well what time it is. "Shit, I

should go, too." He hasn’t even finished his drink.

    "Sorry to run out on you, Stephen," Marrow consoles.     He’s

never been the brightest guy, but maybe he’s picked up that

Fleming doesn’t want to be caught dead with me right now.    As
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 88


for Fleming himself, he shoots me another clandestine glance as

he puts on his suit jacket.

    "No problem, I gotta run soon too."

    "You take care, Young Jedi."

    "You too, Marrow."

    "See ya, Stephen."

    "Bye, John."

    I hardly ever call him by his given name, and it takes

Fleming a second to assess this, but whatever his conclusion he

takes it in stride and flashes me a toothy grin. "Yeah.   Bye

Sarah."

    "See ya Sarah."

    "Night, boys.   Be good!" She leans forward to catch them

leaving and offers a little wave that only Marrow catches and

returns.   Fleming is already out the door.

    "Fuckers didn’t even thank me for drinks." I mumble after

the screen door bangs shut.   Sarah catches this and looks at me

with such pity I feel even worse than a moment before.

    She gets up, puts her book in front of me on the bar and

lights up another cigarette, saying, "I say too much?"

    I shrug and look away.

    "Sorry."

    "Don’t worry about it." I mumble, trying to think of what

Fleming will say to Chloe, if anything.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 89


    "You guys close?"

    "Maybe." I think. "I guess.      Fleming and I get in these

fights..."

    "Yeah.    He was a bit of a cock there at the end."

    "He’s a friend of Chole’s."

    She nods. "You're all friends from college, right?"

    "Yeah."     I finish my drink.   Sarah looks down at it.

"Sure."   She tilts her head, then goes to the glasses and

bottles behind her.    "I have some friends from college," she

begins, even though I’m only half listening to her.     "None of

them would meet me for drinks every Wednesday.

    "I guess." I’m feeling sorry for myself, I know, and trying

to pin down the exact cause, trying to find something beyond

Fleming, beyond Chloe, to pin it on. "You like college?"

    She shrugs, tops up the glass with some more whiskey, and

then pours herself another scotch before joining me. "I mean, I

had fun, right?    Lotta sex, lotta dugs, lotta rock and roll." I

nod, lettingt her speak. "But did I like it?" I nod again,

taking my drink, taking a long pull, taking a cigarette from her

pack.   She notices this, but doesn’t mention. "My folks think it

was a waste, ‘cuz I’m working here, but this isn’t a long term

kinda thing."

    "What you got planned?"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 90


    "Little a this, little a that.       Looking to be here for a

while, then put out my resume, land a research job when I’m

ready to don the skirt and tights five days a week."

    "Yeah."

    "What about you?"

    "I," I say, taking up the cigarette, taking up the drink,

"shall finish my drink, and my cigarette, and be on my way."

    "You nervous?" She asks hesitantly.

    "Yeah, a little."

    "Well, what’s the worst that could happen."

    It sounds rhetorical, but I answer anyway, feeling a little

tipsy, I guess. "Chloe could dump me at one of the better sushi

places in town, and then I could go home and find Monica has

ensconced herself in my apartment."

    She nods thoughtfully, sipping at her scotch. "And the

best?"

    "Nothing.     Absolutely nothing."

                                   #

Chloe comes in late, smiling prettily.      Positively glowing, in

fact.    Fuck.   Left at Shiro’s for twenty minutes by myself with

nothing to do but drink Sapporo and smoke, I was furious and

just a little tipsy.    As she comes in I toss a twenty on the

bar, grab the smokes I picked up on the way from Roland’s, and

head towards her.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 91


    "Hi..." she starts, but I just walk right past her.     She

calls after me, her glee gone, the timbre of her voice shaky,

unsure, "Stephen?"

    I stop, I turn, I walk two steps towards her so that I’m

almost in her face. "Fuck you." And I turn, leaving her even as

she begins to stutter and call after me.

    "Stephen," she says curtly.    Some of the couples strewn

about the bar suddenly look up, then quickly back down.    I’m not

drunk, just warm.    "Stephen," level this time, but still kinda

malevolent.   But I’m already out the door.   Down the block I spy

a taxi, I flag it down as she comes out of the restaurant, again

calling my name, "Goddamn it Stephen."

    But I ignore her.    The cab comes to a halt.   I grab the

door and haul it open, toss myself inside and slam the door.

"Rilke Building," I say automatically.

    "The what?" The cabbie turns, looking at me funny, then

catches the sight of Chloe in the window, just as she knocks on

the window, again calling my name.

    "18th and Michigan."

    "There’s a lady..."

     I ask him, "does it make a difference?" and he shrugs,

puts the car in gear, and pulls away from the curb.    I don't

look back.    I just close my eyes and sigh long and deep in the

blisfull cool of the cab's A/C.
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 92




                               CHAPTER 5

                                 KAREN



When I finally get home, entering into the parking garage and

pulling into my space, an Innocence Mission song keeps running

though my mind, just a snippet, over and over - "Shouldn’t your

friends know better now? / Maybe they say these unkind things /

never dreaming they hurt you /    And she may turn around / and

it’ll be a different day" - starting with when I turn off the

car and continuing with me as I lock the doors, walking to the

elevator in the silence of the place.      I can’t help myself.   I

start singing low, off key probably, continuing to sing the same

lines over and over, as the elevator arrives, as its doors open

and close, as it ascends to the heavens and stops only when the

doors ding open on my floor.    It’s three AM.    Everyone else in
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 93


the world is asleep.    I make my way to my apartment, nestled in

the corner facing the river.

    The door clicks open.    There’s a warmth and crackle of

burning wood smoldering, coming from the small fireplace.

Otherwise it’s quiet.    I keep singing to myself, perhaps humming

a little, close the door and drop my briefcase with a heavy thud

on the thick carpets.

    In the kitchen I look to make myself a drink, but I’m out

of ice.   Still I stare at the bottles of whiskey and gin, slowly

taking a cigarette from my pocket, place it in my mouth, and

reach over to turn on the stove.

    Blue flames shoot up from the hiss of the gas.    I lean

forward, not too close, and take a long drag.    It lights and for

a moment the red on blue, both violent and warm, seem to me the

most beautiful things in the world.    I take a bottle of Merlot

from the small rack beside the stove, the short tumbler I’d

planned to fill with something stronger, and then spend a few

minutes fishing around for my cork screw.    After finding it I

take them to the living room, then come back to take down the

large, crystal ashtray Catherine had given me as a highschool

graduation present.    At the time she smoked and I din't.   It was

one of the more subtle invitations she’d made; we hadn’t

otherwise been speaking at the time.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 94


    After some more searching I find three of my four Innocence

Mission albums and take them to my CD player, an old reliably

Sony 5-slot carousel I’ve had since forever.    It’s dinged and

marked from half a dozen moves, scuffed from my rogue attempt at

my having a pet, but otherwise perfectly functional.    I set the

volume and hit play, starting with their first album, back from

my High School days.   It was given to me by Kimberly Cook, a

smart, cute girl I met in Mrs. Thomas’ 9/10 English Class.

"Paper Dolls" is the first song.   Slowly the piano rises in its

chords and Karen Peris’ voice comes in. "Well I am lining up my

heros / like big paper dolls / and I find they need a wall

behind them / to lean on. / No they won’t / stand up by

themselves / I know that maybe it’s time to grow up."    Kickass

lyrics when you’re a 15 year old trying to get into Kimberly’s

pants.   I thoughtsing along as I draw out the cork and wait till

"Black Sheep Wall" is finished before pouring the wine.

    Idly, in the back of my mind, I know Monica is here.     But

right now I feel like Sisyphus, strolling back down the hill.

Suddenly I’m listening to Innocence Mission but there’s a Belle

& Sebastian line running through my mind - "I could kill you

sure / but I could only make you cry with these words."

    Did I want her to cry?   Of course.   Positively fucking

glowing, late because she was fucking Eric.    "Schtupping Eric,"

as Tony would say.   I sit back and breathe in the Merlot, in the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 95


vain hope that I’ll smell anything, feel anything, but I’m lost

in the flow of my history, in the image of Kim, slowing rolling

her hands around my shoulders to clasp over my heart in Roger’s

half finished basement, sitting in the sun beam coming through

the sliding doors.   Even now I lean back into the sofa and into

her arms, feel the warmth on my face, our skin damp from

swimming, the door silencing the others running and splashing in

a moment of our youth we'd nver be able to live again.     Karen’s

voice on the stereo then, probably these same songs.

    Later, their second album helped me bed Fiona, and later

still in college their third and Wendy, Samantha, Christine and

Helen.   I read somewhere Karen’s a devout Christian, and I

wonder how she’d take this information.   Perhaps she wouldn’t

care, perhaps she’d frown, perhaps she’d sung her husband into

her arms with words playing now - "I write in my notebook / with

feelings that take me by surprise / and thoughts that I don't

know I had. / They’re hidden by useless facts that I / compile

at the office where I work / where there is no time for feeling

anything."

    A frown, I guess, comes to my face, which is flushed and

warm.    My hands are numbing again, the cool Merlot tracing down

my throat, feeling dry and crisp.   I long now for Autumn to come

and fill the air with a thin wind, the leaves to fall in the

breeze, the crackle of every step on my parents’ lawn, the
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 96


rustle of long grasses in the fields behind the house.    Suddenly

romantic, suddenly feeling the lines of my shirt, the cotton too

rough, too cool, the leather of the favorite chair warming too

slowly from the heat of my body pressed into it like a shell

pressed into the sand.    I slowly rise, taking the glass of

Merlot with me, and walk slowly to the door to the bedroom.

    Cracking the door I let the light fall on Monica’s

shoulder, bare, the sheets and blankets falling across her back

into folds along the lip of the bed.    She’s chosen to sleep such

that I will have to wake her when I come in, the other side of

the bed laying against the wall below the windows.    The shades

are drawn, the lights of the city obscured by thin lines of

black.   Somewhere in that night is the river, slowly winding its

way to the sea.     I think of sleeping, but Karen beckons me back.

I leave the door open.

    A fresh log tossed on the fire spits and crackles, sparks

fly and the flames cradle it until, though it seems but a moment

later, it’s half consumed by the fire.    I’ve been drifting in

and out of sleep.    The room smells of winter with the heat

oppressive.   But it’s the smoky heat of the fire, so I slip out

of my coat and tie, carefully unbutton my shirt front and cuffs,

and settle back into the sofa to drift again, luled in and out

of sleep by Karen’s voice.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 97


    My dreams are simply memories as I sleep, embellished and

fortified by what could have been and what might be; Juliet and

I in Paris, as we’d always dreamed, walking with Ellen through

the mountains of Ecuador,   Watching Isobel lock my office door

with a mischevious grin, Karen and I lost in Carlisle in the

Spring singing "Where are we going tomorrow? / where are we

going? / Oh I can only say / we will be found."

                                 #

Morning.   The air cold and damp through the open window.   Grey

skies again.   Monica nowhere to be seen.   My keys are still here

so she hasn't popped out to get donoughts or a paper, but all

her things are gone.   Not much, really, to notice as being

missing.   Just her dress from the funeral.   Still, it's gone.

I'm going to leave late anyway, so I make enough coffee for two

then smoke another cigarette as I wait for her to ring up from

downstairs, throw some pebbles at my window, send a strip-o-

gram.   The coffee turns bitter and acidic.   She doesn't come

back.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 98




                               CHAPTER 6

                               AMY LYNN



Amy Pryce.   Amy Lynn Pryce.   Slathering ho-beast from the

nether-dark where this only the wailing and the gnashing of

teeth.   My direct report, my scourge, my soulless leader. A-my-

Pryce.   She's in her mid thirties.   She dresses impecably, is

terribly effecient, spends her weekends On the Lake in Summer

and On the Slopes in Winter.    She has a charming smile and

excels at Putting You At Ease.    She wants to see me.

    More specifically, she told Jeffery to give me an

appointment with her at 9:30 Thursday morning.    Very telling.

First, I'm not getting fired - that would be either the end of

the calendar month at the pay period, or a Friday mid-pay
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 99


period, or a corresponding Thursday before a long weekend.       I

check the calendar.    This Friday is a work day.

      I report to her office at 9:25, dressed overly casual since

she doesn't like her mindless middle managers to be better

dressed than she is.    She beckons me in to her palatial, 400

square foot office on    29. You can barely hear the air

conditioning, the sound proofing on this floor is so good.      She

has a couch and two leatherette chairs, one of which she offers

me.   Idle chit chat, but my file is on her desk and we're just

waiting for the coffee to come.      Well, my coffee.   She has a

spritzer of orange juice, tonic water, and crushed lime with a

shot of ice-shock-cold spingwater.      My coffee is semi-burnt and

too hot.

      "How is everything?" She smiles, legs crossed at the knee

and half-folded under her on the sofa. "You look good.      Sleeping

well?"

      I'm about to lie Yes, when I realize that I did sleep well

last night.   Almost five hours.     So I say "Yes," in a startled

kind of way, as if she just asked out of the blue if I'd been

molested by my step-fourth-cousin-twice-removed-in-law at the

family reunion when I was six, and she'd been spot on in her

guess.   Okay, so that sounds weird, but that the first thought

that comes to mind.    She smiles.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 100


    The most frustrating thing about Herr Pryce is that she

knows she's very good at putting people At Their Ease, and so if

you don't immidiately Ease she knows your hiding something.     I

start thinking about whether I'm hiding anything from her, and

don't think so.

    "You're review is up in a month, so I thought we'd have a

little chat about how things are going, if there's anything you

'd like me to take note of before I start."

    "My review?" I must looked confused.

    "Yes.     Your Annual Review."

    "Oh.     I guess so."

    She cocks her head, another calculated move to Put Me At

Ease. "Why does that seem strange to you?"

    "I guess because I've never had one."

    "Don't be silly - you've been with the company for three

years now."

    "Well, yeah, but they reset the clock.     When you get

promoted."

    "Oh.     I guess that's right."

    So this is the thing.     It's been a year.   I've been moving

up the ladder under her for three years, averaging a promotion

every - six months?    And now I've been in this position a year.

Not that I've been activly avoiding promotion, I kind of like it

where I am - a nice average between low-paying actual work and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 101


high-paying bullshit.   Yet she's probing me for some reason.

Then I remember she has a thing for armchair psychoanalysis and

must have read somewhere that people whose careers plateau, when

they've been otherwise rising at an incredible curve, must go

through some sort of Stage or Phase or something, and she's out

to convince herself that I'm in one.    Since I don't think I'll

get a promotion out of it, I don't push that button.    In fact.

I really don't like being in this office.    Not right now, not

like this.

    "Do you have any plans for the Summer?"

    "I've a semi-family semi-gathering that I attend every

August."

    "Oh? How's that?" She laughs a little at this, which is

good because it's supposed to be semi-funny.

    "Some of my cousins and other friends and relatives all go

to my sister's for her birthday,"

    "I didn't know you had a sister."

    Then you didn't read my file well enough, bitch. "Yes,

she'll be 28" which is what everyone asks as soon as they find

out you have siblings - how old are they?    What are they doing?

    "You're very close in age.    Does she work in technology as

well?"

    "No, she's a consultant at the Greenlawn Extended Care

Facility."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 102


    "Oh?     Doing what?"

    "She's a specialist of sorts, occasionally working with the

doctors and other specialists on unique cases." None of this is

really a lie, and I have said it often enough that it doesn't

sound like one.

    "That sounds marvelous.    And Greenlawn is such a wonderful

community."

    "Yes, she lives on the grounds."

    "Well, it's so remote.    You'd almost have to."

    "Yes."

    "Have you already spoken with HR about the time off?"

    "No, not yet.     I usually wait until about 45 days prior to

the request for leave before filing the paperwork.     If you hand

it in too early it just gets tossed to the bottom of the stack,

and then if there's a flurry of requests, say, for around Labor

Day, it can get de-prioritized and there can be difficulties in

securing the time off."

    I'm droning on now, so I pause and make a feint sip of

coffee, really just touching it to my lips and going "Um" so she

thinks I've atually had a sip and found it to be too hot, as

opposed to being able to tell simply by the smell wafting

through the room that it's horrible, burnt coffee that needs

enough cream and sugar to kill a small family of rats to be

paletable.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 103


    "How are things with you, Amy?" I'm tired of talking about

myself.

    "Wonderful," and again, "Wonderful," so I wonder how long

until she jumps ship.    All her stock activity has to be reported

to the SEC since she's a vice president.     She has about 3.4

million in options right now, plus another 1.2 in granted, none

of which she's moved since Christmas.     I monitor the trading

practices of all the senior level staff of the company.      It's a

fair indicator of when the place is about to go belly up or have

a bad quarter.    Everyone's holding on to their stock right now,

so they figure we're doing well, which translates into job

security and a low risk of layoffs, but a higher risk of a

buyout.    But no one wants us.   Mergers and leveraged buyouts and

industry consolidation and whatnot all around, but no one cares

about us.    Mostly they don't know what to make of us - a

technology firm that's not really brick and mortar and not

really Internet oriented.    The other upside is that our stock

didn't tank that much during the crash.    Which leads me to think

of Isobel, and a curious idea about whether anyone saw us in the

elevator together, saw the hand brushing, is trying to talk shit

about me, get me fired, reprimanded, something.

    "Are you going away this summer?"

    "I'll be taking an extended leave in Late July, yes."

    "Oh?    Going somewhere fun?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 104


    "Yes, my husband and I are heading to the Islands for six

weeks."

    "Well that really will be nice for you.     You havn't had a

proper vacation in, what - eighteen months?"

    "That's right - not since the three weeks in Tahoe."

    "How was Tahoe?   I always meant to ask." I'm being

facetious, my hands clasped around one knee    which is crossed

over the other.   This is supposed to be an open and responsive

posture, according to the books she reads, but one that belies a

strong, inner firmness.    She also has a copy of The Rules on her

book shelf, right next to Men are From Mars, Women Suck Their

Dick or whatever it's called, and I wonder if she realizes this

betrays her problems at home.    I can't stand people who wear

their heart on their bookshelf.

    "Tahoe was very, very nice.     A real good time."

    "And the Islands.     I assume you mean the Virgin Islands?"

    "Why yes!"

    "St. Thomas?"

    "I keep forgetting how insightful you are, Stephen."

    Oh, corporate bints like you always go to St. Thomas or St.

Stephen and think you're being risque by slathering your topless

selves with oil and drinking overpriced margaritas.

    "I'm really looking forward to it.     Get away from all the

stresses of the city."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 105


    "Oh yes.   Wonderful beaches there, I understand."

    "Yes," she says with a sigh. "Of course, knowing things are

going so well here will really keep my mind at ease."

    "Things have been going quite well recently.     I hear Parker

is being considered for promotion?"

    She darkens a bit, but it's forced, faux-conspiratorial.

"Well, between you and me," oh Christ, "Parker won't be staying

with the company.    He's considering a position with Blackwell

and Kurt, and since he's engaged to Kurt's neice, I think it's

pretty much a done deal."

    "Ah." I say.    As if I care.   As if this petty cabal of two

will enrichen my life in any way shape or form.

    My mouth goes on automatic for another five, ten minutes,

and pretty soon the day is a blur.    Somewhere in the back of my

mind as it passes is the image of Amy, sitting in her

leatherette swivel chair, listening to some Easy Listening Top

40, deciding what to pack, again, and every once in a while

getting indignant and exasperated about my Goddarn Review, which

Has To Get Done;    A line item on a legal pad begging to be

checked off and forgotten.

    Jefferey takes me through my day, orders me lunch and sees

that I rememeber to eat it.    I'm poking around for information

on The Islands as a premptive measure to small talk in the halls

from Amy when Jefferey asks if I would like a cab.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 106


    "I'm sorry?"

    "It's 4:50, you have a dinner date with Ms. Hempstead at

5:30?"

    "Oh, that."

    Silence.     Me staring at my keyboard.   What was I typing?

There's a wilting salad next to me, smelling of balsamic and

basil.   I sniff it twice.   I'm not all that hungry.

    "Can you...actually, Jefferey, you use them.        I'm sure you

can use them?"

    He blinks twice, mouth slightly open.      "I..."

    "Put it on my AmEx." I'm looking at the keyboard still.        I

was doing something.    I think it was important. "Okay?"

    "Sure.   Thank you." But it's monotone.      Obligatory.

"Anything else you'll be needing from me today?      Only I'll need

to go and change..."

    "No, I'm fine."

    He waits a moment.     Then he nods a bow.

    "Thanks." More genuine this time, but tinged with some

concern.   I'm already trying to think of what to do, but then it

hits me.

    "Oh, and could you call me a cab?     To Fairchild's."

    "Certainly,"     And he closes the door quietly, as if I were

a sleeping child he'd just checked up on.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 107




                            CHAPTER 7

                                MONICA



She's there, sitting at the bar, when I get to Fairchild's.     I'm

not too sure what to make of this, so I ignore it for now, nod

to Joe and head towards the tables.      As I wander through

brightly lit islands of blue smoke over green felt surrounded by

a sea of old wood, number thirty-six suddenly brightens, not too

much, but enough to steer by.    I alter my course without missing

a step.

    Monica comes over as I'm racking.

    "Hi."

    "Hello."

    "I figured you wouldn't want me hanging around, so I left.

Figured you'd come back here eventually."

    "You been hanging out here all day?"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 108


    "Yeah."

    "Play at all?" Chalking my cue I nod to the racked balls.

    "A little." She turns and looks at the house cues.

    "You wanna break?"

    She shakes her head as she selects one, eyes its tip.       She

has been drinking a little, but pacing herself for a long boozer

of a night.    "Not my thing."

    "Okay.     Strict rules?"

    She nods and I line up the break.    It's solid, but

ineffectual.    Monica pots the 3, cue striking the 8 recklessly,

then coming to a rest with a clear sidepocket shot on the 7.

She goes for the 6 in the far corner right instead; a longer,

more difficult shot.    I don't say anything.    She misses.

    Hi-Ball.     The 15 is easy enough, near corner right, the 12

difficult at far corner left but I give some break spin and it

careens off the bunker, changes its trajectory almost impossibly

and rolls smoothly into the corner pocket behind it's starting

position.

    "Nice."

    "Thanks."

    I miss the 9, barely, but manage to hit three bumpers with

a good lie for me, and a better one for her.      She sinks the 1

and the 5.    The 6 she tries again, still not the easiest shot
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 109


but the straightest, and again she misses it.    She's a lot of

pride, even if she won't admit it to herself.

    "Smoke?"

    She shakes me off, making a little face as she does so.       "I

thought you gave that up."

    Not a question really.     Not really a statement, either, at

least, not about my smoking.    She's really saying "If you want

to keep this up with me, i.e. fuck me again, you'll have to stop

smoking, or at least put up with being nagged about it

constantly, often in seemingly humorous and I'm-Just-Kiddingly

crouched jabs".    I light up, take a drag, and ash on the floor

when the opportunity presents itself.    I look out of the corner

of my eye as I do so.    Her gaze is following the red glow in the

dim, and when I flick my thumb over the filter I swear she

winces a little.    I win the game soon after.   She's distracted.

    We play twice more, and twice more she becomes obsessed

with this ball or that.    She starts scratching and ordering her

drinks more quickly, not waiting until she's finished, just

whenever the waitress comes around and her glass is half-empty.

It's going on my tab, probably.    I'll tell Joe I'll pick up her

tab and find out she's been drinking slowly and steadily all

afternoon, cultivating that buzz you can only really get, and

only really enjoy, when you start at 7 am and keep going until
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 110


closing.    But Fairchild's doesn't close; they just have fewer

customers.

    Sometime after midnight I fuck her in the women's room,

which is more nicely decorated than the men's.      This is often

the case; the disparaging appointments of the men's room, which

all seem to be one step away from a solid, convex piece of

ceramic with a huge drain in the center.      As opposed to the

women's room, with its black tile, plush couches, gilt mirrors,

deep sidebars, more mirrors, nice hot water, and another mirror

or two for good lick.    Oh, and some place to very, very

privately drop your underware and do your business.      Our

business is fucking.    There're no other women in the place at

this hour, so we use the couch.    I light up afterward.

    "You know that's bad for you."

    "...it is?     You mean...what, smoking?" Shock and horror

come to my face.    In infomercial glee, "How is that possible?"

    "Don't be sarcastic."

    "Don't be passive aggressive then." I ash onto the floor.

    She gets up and starts washing herself down, dabbing at her

crotch with a moistened paper towel.    She looks at me in the

mirror.    "You like it, don't you?"

    We're not talking about smoking anymore, so we must be

talking about sex.    But what part of sex?    She's toweling off
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 111


her short shorn public hairs, so I figure she's talking about:

"Coming inside you?"

    After a moment she says "Yeah."

    "Of course I do."

    "Well don't do it again."

    There are a number of responses to this: Okay.   Why not?

You said I could.   It's not like it makes a difference.   It's

not really an issue, is it? None of these are very diplomatic,

and she's rooting around for her underware anyway.   If we

weren't in a semi-public place she'd probably just walk out.

Still, I enjoy my cigarette and think about the various

responses, for once both sides of me agreeing.

    "I gotta go," she lies, once she's at least mostly dressed.

It's then I realize that she's wearing my clothes.

    Again, I could say When am I gonna get my clothes back, and

be as passive aggressive as she is, or I could say something

more whiney and romantic like When will I see you again.     I

could be dismissive and just say Goodnight, but I decide the

best parting words as she heads for the door are: "I'll pick up

your tab."   It's sounds like a nice diplomatic thing to say, but

in the cab on the way home, as she's playing over the evening

and beating her head against the glass, she'll realize it's

really just a polite and subtle way of my calling her a whore.

I'll probably never see those clothes again.
Birch / Dynamite / 112
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 113




                              CHAPTER 8

                                EMILY



"Well," I say, sipping coffee and stifling a yawn, "You were

right."

    "Of course I was right.    At least it didn't end badly."

    I havn't told my sister about the pool hall and have no

plans to.   I'd lied and said Monica'd left me a nice, polite

thank-you note which I'd found after work.   Emily believes it

because she wants to think of most people as being kind and

considerate.

    "What about Chloe?"

    I pause. "What about her?"

    "Stephen..."

    "I'd be surprised if she came back."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 114


    "Why, what did you say to her?" Of course, Emily knows I'm

not 'most people.'

    "To fuck off."

    "What did you say exactly?"

    "Uh," I try to rememeber while I fish around for my

cigarettes. "I think I said 'Fuck off."

    "Oh Stephen." Then she hears the flicking of the lighter.

"Are you smoking again?"

    "Yep."

    "Those things'll kill you, you know." She tries to sound

serious, but she begins to giggle by the end of the sentence

even.   I share her chuckle. "Christ, I'd kill for a cigarette.

Kaplan came in the other day reeking of menthols.    I could see

the goddamn packet sticking out from his breat pocket even."

    "You didn't you ask him for one, did you?"

    "Of course not."

    "Good."

    "Then again, maybe I should have."    She gets a little

sarcastic, "He was the one who told me to live a little," she

snorts.

    "I don't think that's what he meant."

    "I know, Stephen."

    Emily likes to say my name, to remind herself of who I am.

Or who she is, maybe.    She sighs wistfully, then asks:
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 115


    "But you are coming in August?"

    "Of course I am."

    "Even though everyone'll be here?"

    By everyone I know she means Hope.     "I always come, Emily.

I always will."

    She sighs. "Good.    I want you to visit.   You know you can

come whenever."

    "I's like to, but it's hard to get the time away."

    "You know you're the only one who calls anymore?     Everyone

else just writes letters.   I got a letter from Hope the other

day."

    On the other end of the line I hear an owl hooting in the

distance. "Is that an owl?"

    "Yeah," she says after a pause.     She sounds dejected and a

little sad. "I got a new tape.   'Sounds of the Forest Volume

Six.'    Pretty much the same as Five; they replaced the wolf with

an owl, toned down the crickets a little and added a train.     Of

course, it's an old steam locomotive.    Not very bright on their

part."

    "I still think you should have some fun with that."

    "Like what?"

    "I dunno, an air-raid siren?     A chainsaw cut short by

someone screaming?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 116


    "Yeah, Stephen, that'll really help people think I live a

normal fucking life."

    "Sorry.    I was just saying..."

    She brushes it off. "Don't worry about it.       So.     What are

you doing today?"

    "Thursday.    What time is it?"    I look at the clock.     Emily

won't know what time it is; she doesn't have a clock, just a

calendar.    The doctors say it's better for her somehow. "Five

something." I refocus on the LEDs through the door into the

bedroom. "Looks like five eighteen?     Ten?   Can't tell.    I'll

probably just make some coffee and go to work."

    "Still can't sleep?"

    "Sometimes.     Slept for like, five, six hours the other

night."

    "You should try some sleeping pills or something.         You do

have to sleep, you know."

    "If I had to sleep I'd sleep.      Since I don't sleep I guess

I don't have to."

    "Everyone needs to sleep, Stephen."

    "Don't worry, Em, I know."

    "But I do worry, Stephen."     There's a bit of a sigh, but

it's masking a grunt.    Something squeeks, a wheel on the bed

maybe.    We've been on the phone for at least ten minutes now.

    "I should let you go.     I'll talk to you this weekend."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 117


    "Okay." She doesn't resist or apologize.     Emily reminds me,

"don't call on Saturday."

    "I know, I won't." Saturdays she's booked solid with

physical therapy, visits to her psycologist, they run all sorts

of other tests.     By the time she gets back to her room she's

exausted.   Usually she's asleep by the time the orderlies can

get her into bed.      "Good night, Em."

    "Good night, Stephen."

    After I hang up the phone it takes me twenty minutes to

recover; staring out the window and biting back the tears.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 118




                              CHAPTER 9

                              CATHERINE



My pack of cigarettes is nearly empty now.    Three left, but

stores won't open for another few hours.    I look in the ashtray,

which I havn't emptied, spotting two or three butts I could

relight if I get that desperate.

    Light from somewhere is glinting off the cut edges of the

crystal.    Sitting back into the plush leather of my chair I try

and recall that day, seven or eight years ago, when I found it.

I hadn't actually gone to the ceremony.    We'd gone out to

Seattle for David's wedding to Gretchen.    At the time I'd

theorized he'd found someone to marry simply as an means to keep

me from walking at graduation.   Emily'd said I was being

neurotic.   David divorced her six months later.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 119


    I came back from the trip to find the box sitting on the

table beside my bed.    It was wrapped in layers of plain white

tissue paper with a white ribbon.   There was no card, but it had

to have been from Catherine, I knew it as soon as I saw it.

    Only Catherine knew how to break into my room through the

back window.    Even before I opened the gift I checked the sill.

The window hand't been closed all the way, like I'd left it.

When I tried to push it closed there was some resistance.      I

opened the window.   There was another tissue-paper wapped gift

there, smaller and oddly shaped.    It turned out to be a box of

Marlboro Lights 100's with a crystal lighter.

    The sun was setting when I opened the larger box.      Lifting

the ashtray out it caught some of the light coming through the

back window.    I held it up; light shone through it like a prism,

casting rainbows all around the room.    I wish the sun were

coming up now.   I could hold up the ashtray up to that light

again.   Watch the rays be split, scattering the myriad colors

onto my face.

    With Catherine there we always these little gifts, left

surrepticiously here and there on minor holidays and

celebrations.    She'd been a freshman at Millers College, one of

my father's advisees.    She'd come to dinner one night.   Over the

whole of the year we saw eachother more and more as Catherine

switched majors to be in his department.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 120


    When I asked him my father said she had some interesting

theories on the connections between lingustic and philosophical

structures.   Together they created an image of college that I'd

yearned for throughout my four years at State, but never

experienced: They two of them in his study, arguing theory.

Sometimes with other students tossing out words and ideas that

were both meaningless to me and highly impressive.    They wrote

papers together, published a few, and spent a week in January at

a conference in Arizona.

    She came from a wealthy family outside Chicago.     Her father

was a professor, her mother in banking.    She thought I was

beautiful.    In the kitchen after dinner at the end of Fall Term

she told me as much.    She smiled and toussled my hair.    I was

five foot eleven.     She was too.

    I hate this nostaliga.     When I was seventeen the world was

full of possiility.    I was young, bright and beautiful.    I

remember that time, remember how everything looked and thinking

how nothing could keep me from it.    Seven, eight years later

that glint in my eye has dulled and grown cynical.    My friends

and I never really talk about it, too concerned with keeping up

our image and bolstering our self-delusional facades of budding

power and greatness.    But we all feel it, gnawing on our bones.

    She left Millers for medical school in Boston, eventually

going into neuro-lingusitics.     A rising star, one of the field's
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 121


pioneers.    I see her face smiling at me from obscure trade

magazines in doctor's offices.    They say dhe knows all about how

people think and why.

    The best person to talk about all this with is Catherine,

of course.    I don't always get the answers I want, but at least

I get answers.    The conversation is stifled, a little one sided

and repetitive, but it calms me down.    She starts by commenting

on my smoking again, and I use the opportunity to say that at

least I'm putting the ashtray to good use.    This makes her

smile, I know it.

    "Chloe'll be back, you know."

    "Not this time."

    "She'll always come back to you."

    "You said that, once."

    "I was just quoting a movie.    I was being romantic then.

Or prematurely nostalgic."

    "We hadn't even broken up then."

    "Right.    Premature."

    "So how are you?"

    "The usual - working, fucking, eating."

    "Good, good," I chuckle.     I think of Catherine, naked, soft

brown hair, the shape of her lips, curve of her back.

    "Mark my words, she'll be back within a week."

    "What about Eric?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 122


    "What about him?"

    "So you know who he is?"

    "I know who you think he is."

    "Is he?"

    Nothing.    Change the subject.

    "You planning on being in these parts anytime soon?"

    "If I am I'll call you."

    "You should."

    "I will.    I said I would and I will."

    "I know."

    It's about 6am.    I call in and leave voicemail for everyone

I can think of, saying that I'll be Working From Home today.

It's a nice euphemism for taking the day off, but letting people

know they can and should call if they need me.     I stare at the

phone.

    "I hope you call."

                                 #

The phone rings at 10 am, when the coffee is wearing off and the

sky is starting to pink over.   It's not as cloudy this morning.

I yawn, just to get it over with, and answer the phone in what I

think is a lucid and clear voice, but there's no one there.    I

hang it up and slowly drift off to sleep.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 123


Again at 10:30 and 11 the phone rings.   Again the line is dead

by the time I pick it up, just the drone of Ma Bell urging me to

Reach Out and Touch Someone.   I wonder if it's Chloe and think

about saying her name into the line, but it could be Monica.     I

replace the receiver each time and try and get back to sleep.

                                  #

At noon I give up.   Switching on my laptop I find I've half a

dozen e-mails waiting for me, so I read through them and respond

to keep up the illusion of work while vainly attempting to

induce a malaize of sleep.   It's no use.   At two I take a

shower, shave, and get dressed.

    I'm in the office by 2:30, to Jefferey's surprise.    He

thanks me for dinner and inquires as to How I Am.   I reply Good,

Good.   Then he blows up, taking half the floor with him and it

strikes me odd as I fly through the air that he looked a lot

like Timothy McVeigh.   When I wake up the ringing in my ears is

the phone.   I'm sitting on my sofa in my boxers and the phone is

ringing.   I pick it up and stare at it like an alien thing.

Only when I hear a strange and warped voice coming from it do I

recognize it as the thought-object of a Telephone, once again

proving Lucan right.

    "Hello?"

    "You are there," says an accusing voice.

    "Yes."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 124


    "I tried you at the office, but I got your voicemail."

    "Chloe?"

    "Who else would it be?"

    "I thought it was someone from work.        I'm Working From

Home."   Then I remember we're not speaking to each other.         At

least, I'd assumed we were.     Wern't.    One of the two.   "What?"

    "I just wanted to call."

    "Eric dump you too?"

    There's silence, and then the click, and the line is dead.

"Huh." I say to it, and hang it up.       I think it's frowning at

me, so I lie down and look up at it and it's smiling.        It was a

present from someone, an old style phone, an archetypical phone.

Can't remember who.    I think I'm coming down with something.

Luckily it's Friday.   20% of all sick days fall either on Monday

or Friday.   Douglas Adams did a strip about that once.         The

pointy-haired boss was irate.    Scott Adams.     Douglas Adams

doesn't write comic strips.

                                   #

It's dark when I wake up again and I've managed to sleep through

the phone ringing twice.    Which I guess is a good thing.        In the

grand scheme of things.    I mean, its means I've gotten some

good, deep sleep, right?    I check my messages, and the first is

my Mother, asking if I was alright.       The other is Chole,

sobbing, apologizing, saying she'll be over tonight, that she
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 125


has to talk to me.   The wine glasses still have Monica's

lipstick on them so I spend some time washing them and then I

remember my dream.   It's pretty cut and dry - either Jefferey is

going to go psycho and blow up the building, or I am.     My

money's on the latter, which is good, because I'm probably smart

enough that I'd do it from a reasonable distance and know when

it's coming.   Jefferey, of course, would probably include it as

a line item in my schedule - 3:00 pm, Meeting with Finance.

3:05 pm, Fiery Death.   Either way I should be covered.

      Chloe rings up, even though she has a key, which I think is

extremely polite of her.   I remember to put on some clothes at

this point, having been wholly unaware that I've been spending

the last few hours wandering around my apartment in my boxers.

She's wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which means make-up sex is

on.   I can't stand her corporate outfits, they de-humanize her

and de-feminize her at the same time, turning her into some odd

amalgamation of half a dozen androgynous androids from TV and

the movies, and she knows it.   They're low slung, on purpose, so

that when she reaches up I can see she's wearing plain white

cotton underware, which she hates, which she only wears because

she knows I prefer it to the Victoria's Secret frilly crap she

likes.

      I don't really know how best to play the evening, and to be

honest I don't know if I want her back.   She apparently really
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 126


wants me back, bad, because she asks me for a light when she

sees that I'm smoking, she cricks her neck and makes obvious

I'd-Love-A-Back-Rub gestures, and she's placed her overnight bag

in the bedroom.    It still reeks of sex and Monica in there.

Either she doesn't notice or doesn't care.        Or doesn't want to

mention it, fearing that it'll lead to a conversation about

Eric.   Then again, she's probably just getting back together

with me so that she and dump me like I dumped her.

    We smoke, we listen to Portishead, and she doesn't mention

Tamils, Afghani Hindus, or the Maya.        When I stifle a yawn and

stretch out on the couch she does the rest of the dishes.          I

fall asleep to Glory Box and the sounds of fine crystal clinking

against flat ware in the drying rack and think You know, this

isn't half bad.

                                    #

"You're right.    She came back."

    "Of course she came back."

    "Still, she's probably just doing it to set me up."

    "Probably."

    "Are you going to the Lake?         That'll probably come up

again."

    "I still havn't decided.     I should, but, well, if you're

there, it'll be awkward, and if you're not there it'll be

awkward."
                                       Birch / Dynamite / 127


"Still,"

"Yeah.   Like I said, I havn't decided yet."
               Birch / Dynamite / 128




  PART 2

SUMMER-BLINK
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 129




                            CHAPTER 10

                               JAMIE




One saturday evening late in June, Jamie calls wanting to know

if I have any plans for the rest of the weekend.   I say I don't

and so he invites me over. "Simone is out of town until Tuesday

and Taylor's going out;   I could use some company."

    Their house is on the outskirts, just beyond the neon veil

of stripmalled suburbia but not quite into the boondocks.   My

cell phone still works when I arrive late in the evening, but

only barely. Which is good because I'm lost so I use it to call

for directions.

    "Where are you?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 130


    "Uh...well, I just passed some small squat building that

looked like a restaraunt, and now I'm going over a bridge."

    "Turn around.    You just crossed 926 about half a mile back.

Turn...right on to 926," he says, "then stick to the left when

the road forks.    You'll wind around, following the creek up, and

you'll see our lights on.    Remember the drive is a hairpin

switch back, so take it slowly, okay?"

    "About how long?"

    "From where you are?    About 10 minutes."

    "Okay, I'll call in fifteen if I still havn't found it."

    "Sounds good.    Taylor's home afterall, so it'll be a pretty

sedate evening, I guess.    Sorry."

    "No worries.    Bye."

    "See you soon."

                                  #

They named their first and only child Taylor before they found

out that everyone else was about to do the same.    It's one of

the first things either mentions when someone asks about her.

Jamie and Simone are both about ten years older than me; He's

thirty-six and she's 'a little younger.'   I think Taylor is

fifteen or so.

    When she turned six and entered kindergarten was the first

it really hit home for them; two Taylors, three Britneys, six

Jennifers, two Michelles, four Ashelys, three Madisons and one
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 131


rogue Rachel.    The boys are just as bad - Michaels, Matthews,

Tylers, Andrews and Christophers the lot of them.    There are

hardly any Stephens left, and if there are they spell it Steven.

They tried calling Taylor by her middle name, if for no other

reason than to help her have some sense of individual identity,

but it didn't take.    Even now if you try and call her Camille

she'll stop speaking to you for days.    So it's Taylor: Fifteen

and ready to kick ass.

    She opens the door when I finally get there.     "Dad's

downstairs."    The volume on the TV is far too loud.   The scary

part is that I was planning on watching the same show that she's

watching now.    I some times miss having been part of the target

demographic, a glorious six months about two years ago when some

friends and I realized that all the ads on TV and radio, all the

new shows, the fashions, everything, was targeted to us.      It

didn't last long.    Boy bands and cute cartoon characters sell

better.

    "I remember about ten, fifteen years ago," Jamie begins

when I mention this to him.    He's gluing a small, hand painted

man into the cockpit of a 1:48 scale model of an ME-109e

Messerschmidt as we drink beers in his dungeon, the only part of

the house he's any say over.     It's cinder block walls, remanant

carpetting and large battlemaps of WWII on the wall over the

mini-fridge, but it's all his.    "We had it for a good three
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 132


years, I think.    There were articles about us in Time and

Newsweek.    On TV everyone was our age, having our problems,

thinking like we thought.     The music, too.   Then it went to

shit.   Take a look."

    He prepares the real glass for the cockpit while the glue

dries and I look over the plane.     It's beautiful, meticulous,

made of metal and balsa wood.     He doesn't like using plastic.

Even the pilot is a tiny hunk of metal.     The wheels turn, the

landing gear can be retracted from a level in the cockpit.        It's

part of a squadron.     Six others already line the shelf, each

plane modeled after a real one from some specific sqaud.

Jamie's last name was Vhertoffer or some such until his dad

changed it to Verde after the war, exchanging his un-flattering

German name for faux-Italian.     Jamie always talks about changing

it back, but his daughter's last name is Verde.      Simone is

French in ancestry.

    "Looks incredible.     Almost as nice as the Bock's Car."     An

uncle of his was part of the ground crew for the Bock's Car.       A

huge 1:12 model takes up almost half the garage sitting on a

modified boat trailer.     He takes it to shows and wins awards

with it.    By day he's a machinist for real airplanes.    His

grandfather had eight kills in WWII; three Spitfires, two P-51

Mustangs, two B-17 bombers and a reconnisance plane.      Jamie was
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 133


very happy to hear that the recon plane's downing caused the

bombing of Munich to be pushed back two weeks.

    "I'm pretty happy with them.. The first two were a bitch,

trying to get the proportions right." Jamie spent five days at

the National Air and Space museum, used nine rolls of film and

half a sketch book to make his own plans.    After he scaled them

down to 1:12, 1:24, 1:48 and 1:72 he sold them to Mattell or

someone and made some money.   He took that cash and used it to

buy some better tools and enough materials to make three 1:24

scale Me-109es.   Now he's using that money to build this

squadron.   He started it all four years ago, but this was the

plan all along - to reproduce his grandfather's squadron as it

appeared the exact day he we shot down down over France, fifty-

some years ago.

    Taylor says she thinks it's "neat."     We meet up in the

kitchen when I go up to get a glass of apple juice, three beers

later.   Jamie's gone into grunting mode as he hand-screws a wing

together.   I'd mentioned to him that he could probably save time

if he just did them all at once - assembly line style.      He

looked up at me over his jeweler's eye piece and nodded, said "I

guess I could," then went back to his screws.    Taylor hears me

in the kitchen so she comes in and leans against a doorjamb.

    "What you looking for?"

    "Do you have any juice?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 134


    "Like, mixers?" She says, trying to be cool.

    "Not really - apple juice, orange juice, something sweet."

    "Yeah, there's some apple juice in the pantry.     What you

want it for?"

    "I'm thirsty."

    "Dad outta beer?" She snorts.

    "No.     I'm just thirsty."

    "Oh." She pauses as I pull out a 64oz Family Size plastic

bottle from behind a bag of cat food, then adds lamely, "There's

ice in the freezer."

    "Thanks."

    "So, I havn't seen you in like, a year."

    "Yeah.     I havn't been out here in a while."

    "Well it's the same old house."

    "You're in High School now?"

    "Uh-huh.     I'll be going into 10th grade this fall."

    I nod, crack the ice tray and fill the glass half-way

before pouring in the apple juice, putting the rest of it in the

fridge.    I try and remember 10th grade, but everything between

the first day of High School and when I met Catherine is a

jumbled blur.

    My silence must be making her uncomfortable.     She says "Mom

doesn't like Dad having friends over, I guess," sounding tired

and bored.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 135


    "Wouldn't know," I say, steering away from that

conversational minefield.    I've realized that she's leaning on

the door to the basement, talking loud enough for her father to

hear.    When will I be free of all this passive aggressive

bullshit?

    "She doesn't.    He's particularly emasculated when it comes

to defying her will."

    This stops me mid-sip.     Not just because it's an odd thing

to tell a veritable stranger, nor because she's saying it so

that her father can hear, but mostly because of the words she

used.    I'd always kinda discounted her, mostly because she was

named Taylor, wears Boy Band t-shirts and chews gum.    I look

around. "Is there a back door?"

    "Uh...yeah, through the dining room."

    "Ah.. Thanks." I take out a pack of cigarettes and head

towards it saying, "Excuse me."

                                  #

Halfway through the cigarette she comes out.    She's put on a

sweatshirt, even though it isn't that cold, as well as socks and

shoes.    The door clicks shut behind her as she gently pulls it

closed, walking over the dimmly lit patio with the confidence

that only comes from having lived with it for a few years.    I'd

hit my knee on something solid and heavy in my vain quest to

find someplace to sit, settling for a low retaining wall in fear
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 136


of hurting myself more looking for a real seat.       Taylor sits

somewhere near me, in what sounds like a wrought iron chair from

the way it scrapes the flagstones and groans under her weight.

    Not that she's heavy.     I guess like the average girl her

age she's around and 120, though she's a little taller than most

at 5' 8".   I don't think too much more about her, for obvious

reasons.

    "So, you're like, twenty something, right?"

    "Twenty-six, yeah."

    "Do I call you Mr. Hoemke, or Stephen?"     She says my name a

little forcefully, but not so alien than I'm led to believe this

is the first time she's said it out loud.    I become a little

more cautious.

    "Either.     You like being called 'Taylor?'"

    "My friends call me Verde.     Well, most of the time.     There

are six Taylors in my grade.    Taylor Wagner is in my home room.

Everyone calls her 'Vog.'"

    "Pretty well versed 'everybody.'"

    "Well I guess just some of us do, Stephen."       She tries the

name again. "Huh."

    "Hm?"

    "Well, I just realized that you're twelve years younger

than Dad, but only eight years older than me.       Seven, really.

I'll be sixteen in two weeks."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 137


    "Huh." I say.    Part of me wants to get away from her again,

but I don't really know where I could go that she couldn't

follow.    So I mentally distancing myself from her, marking the

thought with a flick of my cigarette.

    "How do you know dad?" This sounds like a genuine question

from some sort of spontaneous curiousity, which does warm me to

her a little.

    "He was doing grad work at State while I was doing my

undergrad.    We had some similar circles, of friends, so we've

kept in touch."

    "Yeah, I don't remember you being around more than a few

years ago."

    "Four years?    Five, maybe.   You were 8?   Something like

that."

    "Yeah.    Can I have a cigarette?"

    This makes me laugh so I end up coughing a bit as I've just

inhaled.    "No," I finally eek out. "Jamie would kill me."

    "He won't notice," she says with the air of one vocalizing

a constant, internal monologue.

    "Your mother would.    Thought I don't think she likes me

anyway.    I'm trying to figure out what to do with these butts,"

hoping that will change the subject.     I look around, but I doubt

she can see me in the darkness.    I can barely see myself, though
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 138


I'm lit up a little by the glow of the cigarette and I feel as

though absolutely glowing from the three beers.

       "She's not coming back on Tuesday," Taylor says flatly.

"He just said that, you know, to be diplomatic.        She's gone to

stay with her boyfriend for a little while." I'm silent.           I

don't move.    I don't inhale.    I barely breathe.    She keeps

going. "We've both known about it for a while.        Little things,

like matchbooks in her purse from really nice restaraunts Dad

didn't take her to.    Making a big fuss over being certain places

on time, then coming back from them later than she said she

would, with her make-up and her hair re-done.         I don't know if

Dad notices that, but I do.      I notice a lot of things."

       Her voice dims down as she says this last bit, growing

quieter until she's barely whispering.      I can kind of see her

now that my cigarette hasn't been blooming in front of my eyes

and ruining my night vision.       She's slowly pulling a leg up, to

rest her chin on her knee.    Her hands she's pulled back into the

sleeves of her sweatshirt, tucking them both under her other

leg.    I don't think it's that cold, but I keep my opinions to

myself.    I take a long drag.

       "I've some cigarettes in my room.   I was going to get them

and join you, but I thought I'd just ask you."

       "How long have you been smoking?"

       "About six months." she says without skipping a beat.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 139


    "When did you first find out, first think, your mother was

having an affair?"

    She's quiet for a moment, then says, "six months," and I

think she understands.

    "I'm like that," I say, "I just started smoking again a few

weeks ago.    Or was it last week?   I dunno.   Had some shitty day

so I got a little drunk and started smoking again.      I've been

drinking and smoking ever since.     I'll stop again in a little

while.   It happens like that, for me. I go though these phases I

guess you'd call them, when I just need to numb myself a

little."    The cigarette's smoke has gone hot in my mouth so I

snub it out, laying it next to me on the wall.

    "Yeah." Is all she says.

    "Never tried the harder stuff.     Some of my friends have,

and some of them can do it and drop it again, but I'm worried.

My friend Kate is hooked on coke.     Makes six figures, does

really well for herself.     And has this beautiful apartment

that's barely furnished because she spends a couple grand a week

on her coke.    I don't know if that would happen to me, that I'd

get that strung out, but..." I trail off, to let her finish the

sentence.    She doesn't.   I become a little more worried.   After

a moment I say "You guys actually talk about it, or is it just

known and no one says anything?"

    "Yeah," Taylor responds.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 140


    "Where were you supposed to go tonight?"

    "Out with my boyfriend.     But I didn't wanna."

    I nod, for what it's worth.     She shifts again.

    "Can I have a smoke?"

    "Sure."    I take out the pack, select a single cigarette

and hand it towards her.     She fumbles a little in the dark,

fingers rubbing along mine before grasping it.     She's not that

far from me.   I shift my weight, take my lighter out of my

pocket and flick it on.    She flinches a little as it flares, and

I can see her eyes reflect brightly in the light - teary-eyed

but not crying.    I take out another cigarette for myself and

leave the packet next to me on the retaining wall.

    "What are these?" She's taken a few puffs by the time I get

mine lit. "Red M&Ms?"

    "I'm sorry?"

    "Marlboro Mediums," she explains.

    "Uh, no, they're Kamel Reds."

    "Oh.   They're kinda strong.    I smoke lights."

    "I just bought these to piss off my girlfriend.     Well, I

guess she's my girlfriend.    Her other boyfriend smokes these."

    "Heh."

    "What?"

    "Didn't peg you as the passive aggressive type."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 141


    This leaves me a little quiet for a few moments, so I take

a drag, take a sip of my apple juice, then watch the end of her

cigarette quivver on her knee a little.    "I guess I am.   A

little."

    "You going to dump your girl-friend?" She says, out of the

blue.

    "I tried."

    "What happened?"

    "She came back.    We don't talk about anything.   Just play

games with matchbooks and the like."

    "Fucking great." Bitter and a little disappointed.

    "It's either that or have a nasty fight that doesn't do

anyone any good."

    "Why can't people just, like, respect what other people do.

Why's it such a big deal?"

    I'm not entirely sure what we're talking about, or at

least, what she means by this, so I think a bit and start

hedging my answer.    This leads me into a few holes so it's a

good two or three minutes before I actually respond. "Because

people rarely talk about what they're really talking about.      A

fight about whose turn it is to take out the garbage is really

about whose supposed to be taking care of whom.    That kinda

thing.   I guess.   And because people don't like to ask for what
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 142


they really want, because they're afraid of being honest with

the other person."

       "Can I be honest with you?"

       I take too long, I guess, trying to figure out what I'm

supposed to say, trying to guess what she wants to be honest

about.

       "Never mind." She cuts off my silence and looks off into

the darkness of trees on hill behind her house.      I think of the

cottonwoods, drawn in a line along the rise behind my parents'

house.    I offer a quiet apology:

       "And because sometimes people are afraid of honesty,

because they're always thinking the worst."

       "The worst about what?"

       "About any given situation," I say.   "Someone leaves you a

message on your voicemail, 'Call me, it's urgent,' you begin to

think someone died or your getting fired or a bad grade or

something, when all they really want to say is that they missed

you.    Really wanted to hear your voice.    But of course, they

won't say that, so they leave some other message, sounding

vaguley urgent.    Then when you call back they say 'Remember to

get milk at the store,' or 'Don't forget to take out the trash.'

and you get upset, because they worried you over something so

trivial, all because neither of you have the guts to just say
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 143


'call me, I want to hear your voice,' to think 'maybe the world

isn't out to get me.'"

    I immediately get quiet, like I always do when I talk too

much, afraid of what I've just said.     After a minute I start to

feel like shit, having played what I've just said back over in

my mind, because it really had nothing to do with her.

    "So who do you wish called you more often?"

    I don't say anything for a minute, then just close my eyes

and let myself go.   I block out the image of the Boy Band and

the gum chewing and forget the number hanging over our heads and

just talk, just let myself go into the conversation.

    "Catherine.    She never calls."

    "Who's Catherine?"

    "Just a girl from long ago.    We met when she was eighteen.

I was seventeen.   We had a kickass time together.     At least,

looking back on it it was a kickass time.     Then she was just

this really smart and pretty girl.     Now she's the myth of my

childhood, my formative years when I could do anything, when I

was immortal and no matter what I did, could do no wrong.      We

broke up, eventually.    Then got back together and broke up and

got back together.   We wouldn't speak for months or years and

then I'd show up on her doorstep and it'd start all over again.

Then I said something.    I don't really know what, but I said it.

Or maybe I did something.    Or didn't say someting.    And then we
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 144


didn't speak.       I talked to her once, a few years ago, and again,

recently.    But I don't think she wanted me to call.      I don't

think I really mean anything to her anymore, and I don't know

what she means to me.       But I just wanted her to say something, I

guess.    I don't know.     I don't think I wanted her back, more

just a confirmation that yes, sometimes she looks back and

sighs, too.    But she doesn't, I don't think.      More and more I

worry that she looks back and shudders and Thanks God that

that's over.       I don't know," I quiet myself suddenly, shy.

"Sorry.    I didn't really mean to go off like that."

       "It's okay," she says, and I think she means it.

       "I guess.    I mean, here you are dealing with your parents

and the bullshit of being fifteen and you've got a grown man

bitching about how a girl he fucked eight years ago doesn't call

him.    How lame is that?"

       "Not that lame.    I miss Greg Trimble."

       "Who's he?" I don't want to talk about Catherine any more,

or myself at all really.

       "This guy I knew when I was, like, five I think.      I don't

know.    He lived next door to us when we were in student housing

at State, when my folks were getting their degrees and we used

to play together.       I don't really rememeber him all that well.

I've a photograph of us together.       My mom says that we used to
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 145


have sleepovers and stuff, but I really don't rememeber.       I

don't know a lot about him.    But I kinda miss him.   You know?"

    "Kimmy Campbell." I respond.

    "Who's that?"

    "Same deal.    We were in pre-school together.     We used to go

to the park, I think.     At least, there's a picture of us

together at the park.     Maybe we only went once.   But every once

in a while I think of her.     Tried to track her down, used the

Internet and stuff, but, well, she's gone."

    "Yeah.   So's Greg.    Out there somewhere."

    Her hand arcs up, not towards the land but towards the sky,

the glow of the cigarette sweeping through the stars like a

meteor.

    "So yeah," I say, "you can be honest with me."

    She's quiet, still staring at the world above her.        She

takes a final drag around the time that my cigarette becomes hot

and bitter in my mouth, so I put it down near where I think I

put the first.    Reaching out she places hers next to mine, but

doesn't say anything until she stands up.

    "My dad's probably wondering where you are."

                                   #
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 146


"Was out and had a smoke."



    "Ah." Jamie is manuvering a thin shaving of glass into a

metal basket which will eventually serve as the cockpit for his

fighter. "What did you do with the butts?"



    "I put them on the wall.     Figure I'll get them in the

morning and toss them in the garbage bin.    Didn't want to try to

find it in the darkness.     Managed to bang my knee on something."

    "It's an obstacle course out there all right.     Look," he

says with a start and I worry for a second he's going to yell at

me for giving Taylor a cigarette, or that he'd overheard our

conversation.   Are there windows down here that face the back

patio?   Did he know that his wife was being unfaithful?   But he

says, "I hope you're not bored.    There really isn't too much to

do around here.   I was going to say we could get a movie or

something, but Taylor usurped me on the TV, and I havn't the

heart to tell her she can't watch it.    She was supposed to go

out with some boy tonight, but he cancelled on her.    I think

she's taking it pretty badly."

    I just nod.   Another cabal.    Another overlapping Venn

Diagram of secrets.   Taylor's probably be at the top of the

stairs, out of sight but listening in.    I walk around the room

until I get a good view of the kitchen, outlined by the regualar
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 147


rectangle of the door frame, but this doesn't mean anything.

She's a smart enough girl to keep from being when she wants to.

"I'm not bored, not really.     Chloe's working through the

weekend, so I was just going to sit around the house anyway."

       "Well, if you do, feel free to tell me.   Get bored I mean.

What time is it?"

       "Uh..." I check my watch.   Ten thirteen. "Just after ten."

       He nods. "Could you remind me when it's eleven thirty?     I

have to get that girl to bed by midnight.     What do you want to

do tomorrow?"

       "I'm pretty non-plussed."

       "Hrm.   Well, I've got Panzer Blitz still.    And King Maker."

       Jamie and I truly bonded in college over various board

games from Avalon Hill, the ones where you re-create historical

settings and duke it out with dice, pencil and paper.        However

these games are pretty boring when you just have two people

playing, and I mention this.

       "True," he responds, donning some leather gloves to keep

from slicing up his fingers as he starts working his shavings of

glass into the cockpit.     They aren't fitting well enough to suit

him.    The bodies of the aircraft have been brushed down then re-

painted a uniform green and black with a tiny brush, under the

cockpits are names in fine gothic lettering.        Along the noses

the tally of planes shot down.     I notice pretty quickly that
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 148


he's manufacturing them not alphabetically by pilot's last name,

but in order of kills, from least to greatest.    Which means that

he'll do his grandfather's last.    On the work bench set aside

for painting are various pictures, some appearing to be from the

original negatives:   Eight by tens pf pilots posing in, on, and

around their planes, three by five blow ups of the planes'

noses, details of uniforms and medals.    Sifting through them I

see their faces, younger than my own, oil-streaked and smiling.

All of them; they're all smiling.

    I don't really know much about my grandfathers, both of

whom were in the war, save that my one was in the Pacific, the

other on boats in the Atlantic.    Both survived the war, through

neither spoke much of it while they were still alive.

    Before he died I tried to get my father's father to tell me

anything that he remembered, but the stories were sparse and

dismissive, too general to get any sort of picture of their

pasts.   Grandpa Keener died of pnumonia two years ago, but I

never really knew him.   Grandpa Hoemke went two years ago for

various reasons.   No one really talked much about either, save

in the courtrooms and law offices; my uncle began contesting

Grandpa Hoemke's will the day after the funeral.    Since then

everyone's pretty much dropped out of it save him and myself, on

my Father's behalf.   Thinking about it all again reminds me I

was supposed to mention something to my accountant, Atkinson,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 149


which gives me something to think about while Jamie works on his

memorial for a grandfather he never knew.



There's a small guest bedroom, but the couch is more

comfortable.   Jamie knows this and tries to shoo Taylor to bed

at 11:45, but it doesn't really work.   While they go through the

seemingly formulaic back and forth of Five More Minutes,

progressing through But My Show's Almost Over to Right Now Young

Lady I grab another beer, my fifth, and have another smoke.

Jamie joins me a little while later and asks for a cigarette.

    "You smoke?"

    "Everyone else in this house does, so I figure I may as

well."

    I don't say anything, or act surprised or say Certainly Not

Taylor! since this would be tantamount not only to lying to my

friend, but also a mild reproach and perhaps a gateway to his

discussing his wife's extra-cirricular activities; I just hand

over the pack.

    "Don't you smoke in the house?"

    "Lowers property values," he responds.     So he's already

checking the drywall for cracks and wondering about resale

value.   They've only lived here two years.   Last time I was here

was for their Fourth of July party last year.    Before that was

for the house warming party.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 150


    "You going to have another Fourth of July party this year?"

    "Dunno.    Probably not.   Maybe."

    So we smoke in quiet, the conversation shut off, drinking

our beers.    I notice he spends a lot of the while staring at the

stars, but don't comment on it.     After we've smoked two or three

a piece and drained our beers we quelch the butts into my

bottle, search around for the others, leave the bottle out then

shuffle in in silence.

    "There's a pillow and a blanket for you here.      If you get

too cold or too hot, the thermostat is behind the door, don't

ask me why, and there are more sheets and blankets at the top of

the stairs in the linen closet.     Bathrooms at the end of that

hall.   Anything else?"

    "There a security code for the doors?"

    He chuckles. "No, Stephen, we don't have to worry about

that out here.   Oh, any time in particular you'd like me to get

you up in the morning?"

    "No, just whenever you get up."

    "If Taylor bothers you in the morning, just send her to her

room.   She can get up kind of early, and I won't be up until,

what time is it?"

    "Almost one."

    "I won't be up until at least ten then."     And with that we

bid each other good night.     I don't bother undressing, just
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 151


unbutton my top buttons, pull the blanket over me and lie down,

staring at the ceiling for hours.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 152




                            CHAPTER 11

                              TAYLOR




Sometime in the morning, drifting in and out of sleep, I hear

footsteps on the stairs, light and unsteady enough that I doubt

it's Jamie.   By the clock on the VCR it's six fifteen, which I

guess is late enough that this is Taylor, getting up 'kind of

early.'

     The house is set up so the living room shares a wall with

the main hallway, which in turn runs beside the carpeted stairs.

There are doors on the far end of that wall and the one shared

with the kitchen.   Both are open.   The echoes, dim and soft in

the morning, give me a good sounding of where she is and I map

that sound image over my memory of the hall.    When she hits the
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 153


hardwood floors I hear the hard thunk of her heel and comment to

myself that she doesn't wear socks to bed, it would seem.

    I'd spent the better part of the night unravelling our

conversations, thinking about what I know of the girl, and

trying desperately to ignore the various inklings of an erection

from time to time.   This led to thinking about Tom and Christie,

who were 21 and 16 when they met, who're still together.    Jack

and Betty, 25 and 17, Luke and Jenny, 23 and 15, Steve and

Wendy, 17 and 22.

    When I was 14 I had a crush on my Mother's friend, Mrs.

Unrue. At 21 I'd had a brief fling with a 44 year old woman

whose daughter was 14.   All the thoughts about ages and

propriety and everything else were partially academic, partially

irrelevant.   There was still, afterall, the Law.   That led me to

think about the kids shooting each other in schools, and my own

memories of being fifteen and making out with Darpa Vingmett, a

Pakistani exchange student at my high school who was 20.    Then I

think of stories I'd heard from female friends - about their

brother's or father's friends hitting on them at parties and

gatherings.   About the boys they'd met at clubs and youth groups

and all the things they'd said, all the lies they'd plied to get

them out of their shirts and pants.   Finally, just before I'd

heard the footsteps upon the stairs, I thought of John Cugar-
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 154


Mellencamp: "Hold on to sixteen as long as you can / changes

coming round real soon make us women and men."

       She shuffles into the kitchen, opens the fridge door, roots

around a little, then closes it.    She sets something metal on

the counter then opens the sqeaky cabinet door I know from my

search last night contains sugar, spices, cookies, tea bags, and

other loose items.    It sounds like she takes some paper out of a

box.    I'm thinking about the boxes I rememeber being in that

cabinet when I hear the familiar sculp of coffee being dug from

a can and poured into a paper cone filter.    She's making coffee.

I smile.    I try to judge exactly how much is being made by

listening to the various clues of coffee spoons and water taps

and decide there'll be enough for me so I yawn and stretch my

jaw.    There's a click from the other room, followed soon after

by the first faint smells of freshly brewed coffee.

       Taylor comes into the living room slowly, trying to stealth

her way across the floor.    Slowly I close my eyes which, while

only half open anyway, I don't want her to see flutter too much,

so I do this in conjunction with a deep breath.    Still her

coming closer, until it feels as if she's right next to me.      I

force myself to not swallow, having read that sleeping people

never swallow, and not wanting to give myself away.    Her knees

crack as she bends down.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 155


    Theres some indeterminiable time while she just crouches

there, beside me.   I think I can feel the force of her breath on

my face but this could just be an illusion.

    And then she gets up and moves slowly back to the door, the

hush sounds of legs unfolding, of cotton moving over skin.     I

don't hear her after that, not over the gurgling of the coffee

machine.   I wait for a few moments, then turn, just shift a

little on the sofa, and make a low "Mm" noise.    Unfortunately

I'm also remembering Monica waking me up by going down on me a

few weeks ago, so I'm also trying to shift enough that, should

she be watching me from the doorway, Taylor won't notice the

rock hard errection brewing under the blanket.    I bring my hand

up to scratch my face in a jerk and let it flop back down near

my crotch, which hopefully masks it.   A few minutes later I

begin my Patented Stephen Waking Up Routine.

    This begins with a long groaning sigh and the smacking of

my lips, soon followed with a random scratch.    I make another

"Mm" noise and shift a bit, then begin moving my eyes around

with my eyelids still closed.   Finally, another scratch and a

yawn that turns into a stretch and a roll onto my side.    I count

to 100 slowly, then flutter my eyelids, make like I'm stifling a

yawn, and am then offically Awake.   I rub my eyes with my

fingers, as if fishing out the sleep from their corners, then

look around.   Since I'm some place different than normal I look
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 156


around kinda confused with my eyes squinted.    During this

portion I look to the door jambs, but don't see anyone.    Since

there's coffee I sniff twice, make a pleased noise and count out

another two or three minutes before getting up.

    I head into the kitchen and don't bother looking around,

almost consciously.   I'm still in my slacks, button down and

socks, so I don't have to ward of the self-consious feeling of

walking around someone else's house half naked, or feign extra

surprise when I see Taylor at the counter in nothing but a

camisole and white cotton panties, hair pulled up into a

ponytail.

    I've always had a weekness for this sort of outfit, which I

doubt she's aware of. However I've also become far more wary of

her in the last few hours of introspection.    Perhaps it's all

those kisses and near misses when I was fifteen, getting girls

down to their underware for so long until Hope hooked her thumbs

into the waistband of her pale blue Hanes Her Ways and schooched

them off in the fields behind my father's house.    Maybe it's the

jaded years since, as fashions and sensibilities have changed to

the present proclivity for thongs, satin, to the extremes of

uncomfortable and unattractive swatches fabric.    Or perhaps I

just miss all those girls, slim and athletic with a dare of a

smile.   Either way the low slung white cotton, the bare midrift,

the simple t-shirt or camisole and short bobbed hair are my own
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 157


particular fetish.   There are far worse things in the world, I'm

sure, provided you don't dig too deeply into the origins of my

desires.

    Taylor isn't quite deer-in-the-headlights as she sees me,

but then again her facade of cool is definitely gone.   I mumble

something like an Excuse Me and turn around.

    "Sorry," she says, quietly.

    "Nothing to apologize.    Err, I'll go into the other room."

    "No, I just forgot that you were down here." Uh-huh.       Sure.

"I'll go change," she says and half runs, half scampers off

upstairs.    I get my coffee and, after going back to get my

cigarettes from my jacket pocker, head out to the patio.   In the

daylight it's much smaller than I'd thought.   Last time I was

here it was only a gleam in Jamie's eye, having seen what a few

dozen people at a party could to bare grass.

    The retaining wall has a drop of three feet on the patio

side, but on the other there's only a foot before it gives rise

to the hill beyond, and then it's just trees, old wood Maple and

Oak, spreading out into a thick canopy.   The early morning light

only penetrates for a few yards before being lost among the

bracken.

    The patio itself is of flagstones, about twenty feet wide

and perhaps a hundred or so long and running half the length of

the house.   At one end there's a step down to gravel which leads
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 158


to the drive.   On the other a break in the wall gives access to

a small flat area about 50 feet square before the brambles and

other scrub demarcate the beginning of the woods.   The object of

last night's knee bashing appears to be a large terra cotta

planter filled with a medium sized tree.   It doesn't look like

it's been watered all summer, save from the occasional

rainstorm.   A small wrought iron table stands in the corner,

surrounded with matching chairs.   I sit in one and drink my

coffee.

    Taylor comes out with a mug of her own and a pack of

Marlboro Lights.   She's put on a grey sweatshirt that says "GAP"

in large, blue letters and covered her legs with some flanel

pajama bottoms.    As she turns to slowly shut the door, a curious

habit whose origins I'm still uncertain of, I catch the line of

her underware along the side and look away as soon as I do, so

that when she turns around I won't be staring.

    "Sorry," she says again.

    "Taylor, don't worry about it." I try and give her an easy,

non-challant smile, but my heart's not in it.    I've my cigarette

poking out of my fist and I don't think this helps.

    She lights up as she says, "Okay," and I watch the way she

holds her cigarette, the way she inhales and holds the smoke

before exhaling slowly; such trivialities betray a lot about a

smoker - how and when they smoke, hold long they've been
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 159


smoking, and in some respects why they smoke.    Taylor smokes to

be numb.   She smokes often.   She smokes like a battered

housewife with a bottle of vodka always within arms reach.       I

think of all the girls I know who've killed themselves:

    Hanna Greenburg, at 16, because of Steve Calmers, who

didn't ask her to the prom.

    Kathy Aimes, at 17, because she applied to seven colleges

and didn't get accepted to any of them.    Even her safe schools.

    Christine Monroe was 17.    She didn't leave a note.

    Greater still is the list of those who tried, some who

really meant it, some who didn't:    Hadly Tourse tried twice,

once with pills and again with a razor.    Gretchen Filks tried to

hang herself and ended up paralyzed from the neck down from the

fall when the bedsheets gave.    Kelly Otislander pills again.

Rachel Taft drank half a bottle of whiskey then plowed her car

into a tree.   Diana Jones slit one wrist and screamed so loud

her father broke the door down before she could get the nerve to

do the other one.

    "What?" Taylor asks.   She thinks I'm staring at her hands

and she jerks them back under the table, but I can see through

its grating that she's again drawn them into her sleeves and

placed them in her lap, her cigarette poking out from them and

looking like a small, white, glowing pixiestick.

    "Just...thinking."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 160


    She doesn't ask "About what?"     Which I find oddly

endearing.   In the spirit of last night, I continue:

    "I think you're one of the few people I've met that I

actually like after only just meeting them."     She looks up at

me, but I dodge her gaze by taking a deep draught of coffee,

even though it's still quite hot.    Defensivly I shrug. "Part of

it's narcisicm, I know, because I think you're like me, and I

like myself.    At least, I think I do." I think of Monica,

failing me, and think of summer school, and realize that Taylor

probably spends all her mornings like this.

    "What do you do, in the summer?"

    "What do you mean?"

    "I was just thinking of summer vacations, trying to

remember what I did.    I can't, really.   I remember them, but

can't really peg down anything other than the big things, like

trips here and there, and the occasional things I really looked

forward to, like going swimming.    Do you go swimming?"

    "Yeah.     There's a pond, about a mile that way."   She points

up the hill, "it's mostly shallow but there's a place about

yeigh deep," unselfconsiously she runs the side of her hand

across her chest, still sheathed in its sleeve, "and its got a

level rock flooring.    I think it's an old spring house, and it

gets warm enough to swim in around ten or eleven."

    "What else?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 161


    "Mom's been getting on me to get a job, and Dad's trying me

to get some sort of hobby, so I take piano lessons once a week,

but I'm not very good, enough though I supposedly have the hands

for it."    Her hand drops back into her lap, then the other comes

up with her cigarette. "We've worked out that I can not work

until mid-summer, after 4th of July.    I don't know what I'll do

then, since I'll only be sixteen." As she says this she looks at

me, at my eyes.

    "Do you get into town at all?"

    "The city you mean?     I'd like to," she looks away, "But

even trying to get the train is a bitch.    It takes like, two

hours and it hardly ever comes.    Mom won't go and Dad only takes

me to the boring places I've been a hundred times and they're

all historical and shit."

    I don't comment on her cursing, but I notice it.      Nodding I

take another sip and return her stare.

    "And my grandma is coming out in two weeks.     For my

birthday.   Mom's mom, and they don't really get along.      I'm..."

She cuts off, looks around, then up, and some how satisfied

continues, though her voice has dropped, both in tone and

volume, "I'm a little worried, though, that they'll split this

summer, and that it'll be a real bitch, trying to get everything

settled.    Mom'll try and use me against Dad, I know it, and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 162


they'll sell the house.    Which could mean switching school or,

if things get really messy, sending me away to school."

      Sending someone to boarding school is a long process, but I

don't mention this.   It's a dream of hers I can tell, a desire

to get away from this place.    It's six forty five by my watch,

and Jamie won't be up for hours.

      "Well, you're always welcome to come into town and see me."

      "Really?" She'd wanted to ask, been positivly hinting at

it.

      "I'll probably take you to fewer boring places, but I don't

knowe what you like..."

      "I like museums and bookstores and coffeeshops and stores

and stuff.   I wanna see the river and go to the aquarium.    Where

do you live?"

      "Near the river, but not that near."

      "Can you see it from your house?"

      "Apartment, yeah, from the roof."

      "You have a deck on your roof?"

      "Uh-huh."

      "That is so cool."

      This is some sort of bookend to her exuberance.   She

settles back in her chair and begins to dream, forgetting her

cigarette for a moment, forgetting the coffee and the house and

her parents and everything.    I don't wake her from her reverie,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 163


even as a thin smile comes to her lips.     Trying not to move too

quickly I take another sip of coffee and place the butt of my

cigarette into the empty beer bottle we'd left out overnight.

There's another butt, moist with dew, further along.    One we

must have missed.

                                  #

Jamie gets up around nine thirty and another round of coffee is

made.    Taylor is banished to the television, such as the

banishment is, while Jamie and I have some more cigarettes out

on the patio.    He sits in the same seat as his daughter did

hours before and, I notice, has many of the same ideosyncrasies:

Turing to quietly shut the door behind him, pulling his hands

into the sleeves of his pyjama top.     Slowly the story of he and

Simone comes out, and I sit and listen to him as he begins

quietly, rallies with bitterness, glosses over the infidelity,

and finally comes to a rest with a look through the kitchen

window towards the living room.

       "I don't even know if she knows what's happening around

her.    I can't get through to her.   We were young when we had

her, I was twenty and Simone only 16.    It was horrible.    We

didn't really love eac hother, not really.    I mean, we really

liked each other and had a lot of fun, you know, but between her

getting pregnant and her parents and the wedding, a lot of that

just faded away.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 164


    "But it's what she wanted, what she'd told herself she

wanted - a man on a white horse to take her away from it all.    I

drove a black Camaro.   That was close enough for her I guess.

We lived with her folks for a while, then with my folks when

that didn't work out and I finished college.    She went to school

and I worked for a while, then my father decided he'd had enough

and gave us a little money, enough that we could move out, get

out own place.   I used the money to go back to school and that's

when he stopped speaking to us.   Still it worked out well enough

for a dozen years I guess.   About a year or two ago, when we

moved in here, that's when things started to really go bad.

    "It was the house, I'm sure of it.    The house and kids.

Simone always wanted her house just so, and my stuff didn't

really fit into the scheme of it.   My models, my drill press and

band saws.    'Too loud, too messy,' and so I got the basement and

the garage.   She complains that I spend the money from my models

to build more models, and says that I should use the money to

add a sky light, to build this patio, to redo the kitchen.

Sometimes I agree, I give in, but then I have to start over.

And so I lie, mostly, both about how much stuff costs and how

much I get for it, so then she says that it's not worth it,

getting 500 for a pair of Spitfires.   Heh.   If she knew I'd

gotten fifteen hundred a piece she'd want me to use the money to

add a bay window, then complain because my next models only
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 165


fetched 800 or so, not realizing that it was because I didn't

have enough to invest in their building.     And so she lies to me,

too.

       "She's not happy.   She's only holding on, I think, because

of the house.    We'd have to sell it, if it came down to it, and

she's not willing to do that.     So she's hiding money, trying to

get enough so that she can keep the house.      And then there's

Taylor.    Who gets Taylor?   Who gets stuck with Taylor, really.

       "I guess it's horrible to say, but we didn't want her

anyway.    If we could have we'd probably have aborted her.      And

it's really horrible to say that often I wish we had.      She's not

happy, she's not that bright, she doesn't seem to want to do

anything except make out with boys and watch MTV.      I guess

she'll start doing drugs soon, now that she's started smoking.

I think she gets the cigarettes from her mother, but I don't

know.    Maybe she gets a friend to buy them.

       "So who gets her?   We'll probably stick it out for another

few years, until she's off to college or something, if she can

get into college.    She almost failed ninth grade, can you

believe it?    Her mother speaks three languages, I have a

doctorate in 20th Century History, and she almost fails three

classes.    Found out she talked one of her teachers into giving

her a D instead of having to go to summer school."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 166


       He shakes his head and I dig my nails into my palm to keep

myself from killing him right there and then.     I wonder if my

father had a conversation like this with one of his friends when

I dropped out of college.      And then my rage subsides when I try

to think if I'd be a good father, or if I'd be so blind.      I

can't think of anything polite to say, but I don't want to not

say anything.    Jamie makes the issue moot by standing up and

tossing his butt into the bracken.

       "I'm off to the store, if you'd like to come.   Probably be

gone an hour or two, depending.     Realized that since Simone's

not around I can get some things ordered and delivered before

she gets back.    You don't have to come.   I mean, it'll be sheet

metal and finding three hundred 1/72th of an inch flathead

screws which I won't blame you for not thinking as exciting as I

do."

       "I think I'll pass.   I've some work to do, anyways.   May as

well get it out of the way."

       "Oh, I was thinking of calling Colin Troupe and seeing if

he's up for some King Maker this evening."

       "Sounds like a plan."

       Jamie nods in agreement. "I'll try him when I get back.

You need to use the computer?"

       "My laptop's in my car, though I might need your phone

line.    It's an 800 number."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 167


       "Okay.   Mi casa es su casa.    You need me to get Taylor out

of your hair while you work?"

       "I was going to work out here." I look around, gesture with

my hands like Jesus blessing the last supper. "Besides, I doubt

she'd find sheet metal and screws interesting."

       "No, but it'd be good for her."

       I can't think of how.    Then again, I don't know if her

spending time with me is good for her either, but I don't say

anything, save, "Either way."

       He nods again.    I don't know if he's trying to draw the

conversation out, or perhaps trying to mitigate his monolouge

with inanities so that he won't be dwelling on it all the way to

the store.

       "I'll have my cell phone if you need anything.    Number's by

the phone."

       "Hey, give a call when you're headed back and I'll get the

grill going for lunch."

       "Ooh," he croons, "Good idea.    I'll pick upsome stuff at

the store, too."

       "Don't go out of your way..."

       "It's nothing."    He shuffles towards the door. "You coming

in?"

       "I'm gonna have another cigarette, get my mind focused on

work."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 168


    "It really is nice to have you here, Stephen."

    "It's good to get out of the city; it's getting me out of

my head for a while."

    Again he nods and goes into the house.    Ten minutes later

he leaves for the store alone.

                                  #

When I go back inside the TV is off but there's music coming

from upstairs.   Loud.   I figure there's been a(nother) fight and

that in this instance it's not really any of my business.   So I

head out to my car to grab my laptop and a few other things that

I didn't want to be laden down with last night when I arrived.

Jamie and I keep in touch via e-mail, and we'd seen eachother

once or twice in the last year, but otherwise I really didn't

think that I'd want to show up on his doorstep carring my travel

bag, briefcase, laptop bag, and the six pack of beer I'd brought

as a gift.

    The front of the house has a small yard, really no more

that ten feet wide running the length of the house before it

drops away to the road, overlooking the treacherous switchback

of the driveway; I wouldn't want to try and ascend it on an icy,

or even rainy evening.   The walk is flagstones in gravel out to

the drive, which is all gravel on packed dirt; getting it paved

was at the top of the list when they had their housewarming part
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 169


two years ago and I can only imagine the conversations that have

occured on the subject in the interim.

    It's this thought that leads me to glance back around the

blank expanse of the garage, which faces the drive, the far side

of which is visible from the patio.   There, at the corner of the

garage, just out of site, is a cigarette butt.   The implications

stop me dead in my tracks, cause me to tremble slightly, slur my

thoughts and nearly vomit on the stones.   Shaking I go towards

the little half-inch nub sticking out of the dirt; whoever put

it there ground it in slowly while it was still half-lit.     I dig

it out: white filter, two gold lines under the word "Marlboro"

in pale blue scrunched but half-visible in the folds.   The

stones have been jostled recently, as if someone about 5' 8" was

sitting there, back against the garage door, slowly rubbing her

feet into the gound for the better part of half an hour.    In the

still I imagine I can hear the music coming from Taylor's room.

Imagine the conversation of Jamie and his daughter in the living

room a few moments past, the daughter he'd just told me there on

the patio, well within earshot of anyone sitting here, that he

wished he'd have aborted. I collect my thoughts as I grab my

things from the car and go to the back patio where I deposit

them beside the table.

    I'm shaking as I go into the house again and so I pour

myself a little coffee into my mug which, I suddenly realize,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 170


I've had with me throughout.    I drain it all in one go and pour

some more before heading to the stairs.

    Following the music is easy enough, and her door is half

open.    Taylor is lying on her queen sized bed, her face burried

in the pillows, shoulders shaking a little.    Her room is pinkish

beige with white baseboards and lace curtains, awkwardly

decorated somewhere between crayons and perfume.

    Part of me was scared that she'd already done it, that I'd

find a note saying "Consider me aborted" and a dead, blue stiff

fifteen year old girl and I'd have to Call People, and Explain.

Even though I know it's only been fifteen, twenty minutes, still

that image.    Loud music to cover the screams, the thud of a

chair.    If she weren't moving I might still be worried, and then

I think that maybe these are convulsions, but after a moment she

stills, wipes her hand across her face, then starts breathing

slowly again.

    Trying to decide if I should knock, which she wouldn't

hear, if I should leave and pretend it hadn't happened, hadn't

found the cigarette butt, hadn't put it all together; trying to

decide what to do she turns around qucikly and stares at the

door like she'd expected me to be there.    Then she jumps, as if

she wasn't really, just wishing I was; her eyes go wide, she

gulps down a breath, coils her legs underneath her and then

calms again, swallows, and looks a little embarrassed.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 171


    Still the music is almost deafening, some punkish type of

band I recognize but don't know the name of singing "we had joy

we had fun we had seasons in the sun."   Taylor reaches over and

turns it down, but not off.

    "What?" she barks, indignant, enjoying a good pout mixed

with some nastier mental images and pissed off at me for

invading them.

    "I was worried about you," soft and genuine.     Should ever I

feel cold or distant, I'll think of that glowing cigarette tip

in her fingers, tracing an arc across the sky.

    She warms a little, rubs her eyes again and sniffs. "Why,"

quiet now, but accusing. "My dad tell you to check up on me?"

    "No."

    The song ends and she leans over again and re-cues it from

the beginning, but it's too soft for me to make out the words

without paying more attention to it, and right now that's not

what I want to do; take my attention off of her.     Taylor shifts

again in her bed, curling up into the corner furthest from me.

    "I'm sorry if I bothered you.    I can leave."   She just

looks at me in a way I last saw on Monica, in Fairchilds.       I

look down at my coffee, shrug a little then look up. "I'm sorry

I bothered you," I say again and turn to leave.

    "No," Taylor calls out.    But when I stop and look over at

her again, she shrinks back.   Her eyes flicker as she scans the
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 172


room, looking for something to say, something to talk about.

Drawing her lower lips gently between her teeth she bites down

on it.   I wait in the doorway, wondering what good can come of

this, if any. "I," she starts, but doesn't continue.

    "It's okay, Taylor.     I'm gonna go out and do some work on

the patio if you need me."

    "Okay." She sounds deflated somehow.

    "You want me to close the door?"

    "Leave it," she says dismissivly, getting up and heading to

her closet.   So I do.

    At the top of the stairs is the bathroom, and I realize

when I see the gleam of the tile in the late morning light that

I really have to go.     It's bright enough that I don't need the

light on, but I'm self conscious enough to flick on the fan to

mask the sounds.

    When I come out, I look over towards Taylor's room at the

end of the hall, visible through the open door.     She's topless,

with her back to me.     For a moment I think she's just in day-glo

green underware, but she leans over to the bed and grabs what

looks like the bra I realize she's putting on a bikini.    The

Verde's don't have a pool.     I'm confused but head down the

stairs before she sees me.

                                   #
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 173


On the patio, lighting up another cigarette as my laptop boots,

it strikes me that not only did Taylor specifically ask me to

not close the door, but that she chose to change where she'd be

in full view of anyone in the hall.   Did she see me enter the

bathroom as she went to her closet?   Does it really make that

much of a difference?

    I mentally access the 'Taylor' file in my mind and ammend

the word 'Trouble' in big red letters over ever page.     Then I

open up some spreadsheets and a couple of weekly status reports

from my team leads and begin to type up my status report for Amy

Lynn.

    It's a relatively easy process of cut and paste, cross

reference and usually takes about an hour or two each weekend.

Apart from reviewing a couple of proposals and what looks to be

a long and droll satar-of-quarter summary report, it's the only

work I actually have to do.   It's barely eleven.   With any luck

it'll keep me occupied until Jamie comes home.

    Taylor appears a few minutes later in her bikini with

matching flip-flops, a deep blue towel tossed over her shoulder

and two cans of Coke.   She comes to me and offers one.

    "I thought you might be thirsty.    It's kinda hot out here

around noon."

    "Thanks," I say, popping the can open.    She takes this as

an invitation; the towel goes on the chair, revealing a small
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 174


knapsack slung over her shoulder.     She puts this on the ground,

opens her Coke and begins to sip at it.

       "What are you working on?"

       "Weekly status reports," I say, poking at a couple of the

keys so that I don't have to look at her.     She's drawn her leg

up and placed it on the edge of the table, leaning back in her

chair that its front two legs come off the ground.     In the

process, of course, her crotch is effectivly staring me in the

eye.    Taylor lets her arms drop at her sides, pushing her chest

out a little.

       I notice all of this out of the corner of my eye, but don't

look over directly.     I concentrate on the screen.   Thirty-six

thousand dollars, amoritized over the remaining period of the

quarter at no more than three thousand per week, will be

allocated this quarter (Q3) for the aquisition of New

Technology. (see definitions in Appendix A)     These funds are to

be controlled by the Managing Director of Business Operations

for the benefit of the respective departments, however all

Department Heads will have signatory authorization on

expenditures, with copies of the Authorizing Form (0450.021)

forwarded to the Office of the CFO.

       "You like your job?" Taylor asks.

       "Yeah." I say.

       "How come?" She slurps on her soda.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 175


    "I don't know.     It's fun I guess.   I like the company, the

people, what I do."

    "What do you do?"

    "Internet stuff, mostly."

    "Like what?"

    "How much do you know about the Internet?"

    "A bit," she says defensively.

    "Well," I slip into corporate speak, hoping it'll drive her

off. "I use it to keep the company well positioned within the

Industry to facilitate the extension of our brand, while at the

same time monitoring the effectivness of our campaigns and those

of our competitors."

    She thinks about this for a minute, then summarizes "You

fuck around with the Internet and mooch ideas from your

competitors on how to better fuck around with it."

    "Something like that," I say.     I'm trying not to be

patronizing, but feel like she's pushing me towards that.

    "It'll be about eighty our here soon," she says, in what I

hope is a change in subject. "Why don't you come with me to the

pond.   It's much cooler there."

    "I'm fine, thanks."

    "No you're not.     You're sweating," her voice is becoming a

little whiney, but I am sweating.    Of course, only half of it is

the heat.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 176


    "I really need to get this work done, Taylor."

    "So?     It's a laptop.   You can take it with you anywhere."

    I'm frowning now, and I know it.     Sitting back in my chair

I let out an exasperated sigh, slowly turn my head and stare at

Taylor.     She's smiling what can only be categorized as a

mischevious grin. "Taylor?"

    "Yeah?" She tosses back a gulp of her Coke, her eyes never

leaving mine.

    "I'm trying real hard to be polite here, but you're

starting to piss me off."

    "Why?" Still that smile.

    "Because I don't like people trying to manipulate me."

    "How am I trying to manipulte you?" Her voice coy.        My only

response is a skeptical, unbemused look.     She tsks and rolls her

eyes, lowering herself down onto the patio with a bang of iron,

at which point she pronounced me to be "Lame."

    "Well I like being lame," I snap back.

    "Obviously." She stands up

    "Christ," I say, fishing a cigarette out of the pack,

wishing I could just send her to her room.

    "Look," voice nasal and bitter, "I don't know who you think

I am,"

    "I think you're a manipulative, screwed up little girl," I

tell her.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 177


    "Oh," she's angry now, and making no effort to hide it.       I

don't even bother looking at her as I light my cigarette, but it

doesn't seem to make a difference to her. "Yeah, I may be

screwed up, but I'm not a little girl."

    "You're acting like it."

    "I'm almost sixteen."

    "So you're almost acting like a sixteen year old.      I have

work to do."

    "You just like my Mom, you know that?"

    "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I never liked

Simone, always thought of her as a catty and self-serving bitch,

and don't like the inference that I am to.

    "Your off in your own little fucked up world, you don't

give a shit about me or anybody else.   You can't even fucking

deal with me, so you just fucking ignore me; you're as much of a

cunt as she is." Taylor's face is flushed with anger.     She's

shaking a little, eyes bright and fearsome.     I'm suddenly struck

by the memory of all those kids shooting up their schools, the

anger and frustration I saw in their eyes when they plastered

their faces all over the newspapers and magazines asking What

Happened to Our Children?

    "Taylor," I say, hoping my voice is softer for having taken

a deep breath.   But she won't stand for it.    Rather, she knows

what's coming.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 178


    "What, 'I'll understand when I'm older?' Bullshit.       I

understand perfectly:   If I toe the line I'll get a CD player or

a walkman.    If I try and call you on your shit I'll get sent to

my room.    Try something else, Stephen; that shit might have

worked when I was twelve, but it's not gonna fucking cut it

now."

    I'm waiting for her to go on, trying to think of what I

should say.    I don't like being called out.    I don't like being

wrong.

    "Well, go on." She's goading me throwing her hand up,

nodding, reading for the next round.

    "'Go on' what?" I try.

    "What's next?    You just going to sit there and ignore me?

You gonna tell me to settle down?    What's gonna be next?"

    "What am I supposed to say, huh?    You seem to have the

script memorized."

    "Ah, being passive-aggressive.     That always works.     That

way you can tell me I'm over reacting when I get fucking angry,"

she yells the last two words.    I flinch, my first thought about

what the neighbors must think.

    "And no, no one can hear us," she spits out.       "Nobody's

around.    They're all shut up in their air conditioned bullshit

watching Oprah."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 179


       "I have no idea what you want from me," The words come out

quickly, voice firm but stressed. "What do you want me to say,

huh?    That I can't deal with you?   Because I can't.    I barely

know you.    I try and help you, cuz I thought you were upset and

you start, start trying to play me for something and I don't

even know what it is.    Christ, Taylor, what the fuck am I

supposed to say?    Cuz I don't know."

       She breathes, hard, staring through me.    It makes me

uncomfortable.    I suck on my cigarette nervously and run a hand

through my hair.    She seems larger than life.     But in a moment

she's softer, tired and just plain fed up.       Her mouth twists

into a sour frown. "Why can't people just treat me like a

fucking human being?"

       Though she sounds hurt, I don't trust her.     Because it's

the perfect thing to say to make me feel sorry for her.         Because

it's what I would say, if the situation were reversed.

       Taylor sits back down, staring at where her hands dangle

between her knees.    Shoulders hunched over, feet splayed, she

pulls out the band holding her hair back in a ponu tail and it

falls around her face. "It just seems like no matter what I do,

people just treat me like a child.     Treat me like shit."

       For a moment I think she's going to cry or something, but

when she looks up to the trees on the hill behind the house she

just looks hurt.    But still I don't say anything.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 180


    "I mean, like last night we were all cool and you weren't

like, 'That's Taylor, she's just a girl' and I really liked

that."   Smothing her hair with her fingers, tucking strands

behind her ear she sets her shoulders. "I'm gonna go now.

There's a pond, through the woods," she points, "I'm gonna go

swimming and then maybe lie out for a while.   I could use some

company, but if you're busy..." she trails off, looks back at

her hands then finisihes. "If you're busy then I guess I'll see

you at lunch.   When my Dad gets home."

    With that She stands up, picks up her knapsack and her

towel, steps onto the retaining wall and crosses it onto to the

rise of the earth beyond.   I watch her leave, not really knowing

what to think, just happy that I have my work in front of me so

that I don't have to.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 181




                            CHAPTER 12

                               SIMONE




Jamie's phone rings around twelve thirty.   I'm in the kitchen

pouring myself some apple juice wondering if I should answer it

or not.   Since it could be Jaime I decide I should.

    "Hello, Verde residence."

    "Who's this?" Demands the voice on the other end of the

phone, loud.

    "This is Stephen Hoemke.    May I ask who's calling?"

    "Where's Jamie?"

    "He's out at the moment, may I ask who's calling?"

    "Who is this?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 182


    "Stephen Hoemke," and again, in a sing-song cadence, "may I

ask who's calling?"

    "Are you one of Taylor's friends?" And I recognize it then

as Simone.   Alone in the kitchen, I roll my eyes.

    "No, Simone, we met while you and Jamie were finishing up

our degrees at State."

    "Uh-huh.   Where's Jamie?"

    "He's gone to the grocery store."

    "What for?"

    "To get hamburger meat, I believe."

    "What would he do that for?"

    "We're going to have hamburgers on the grill this evening."

    "When did he leave?"

    "Oh, I don't know - not too long ago."

    "When is he coming back?"

    "Soon, I should think."   I take a sip of my apple juice.

    Simone stops for a moment.   I try and listen for background

noise that might tell me something about where she's calling

from.   She asks "What time did Taylor get to bed last night?"

    "Can't say I remember, Simone." I really don't care where

she is.   I really don't want to get involved.

    "Where is she?"

    "She left for the pond about an hour or so ago to go

swimming, she said."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 183


       "What was she wearing?"

       "A bathing-suit, Simone."

       "Don't adopt that tone of voice with me."

       "Excuse me?" I had adoped that tone, so I ran with it. "Do

you treat all of your husband's friends this way, Simone?"

       "I beg your pardon?" Her voice is stacatto, her shock

overly artifical, like the expression itself, as if she was

edging for a fight and decided to call home expressly to pick

one.    Since Jamie isn't around, I guess I'm the stand-in.

       "Simone? I'm neither the mediator of your relationship with

your husband, nor your daughter's babysitter.       If you would

like, I can tell Jamie you called, or you can call back later.

Either way, I'm afraid I have to go.      I hope you're enjoying

your weekend, and that you'll allow the rest of your family to

enjoy theirs.    Good bye."

       Hanging up on my friend's adulterous wife feels good.

After a moment I go back outside.      It is hot.   I left the patio

for the shelter of some shade trees a while ago when I realized

that my armpits had been stained with sweat.        But there's hardly

any breeze, and I'm starting to feel dull and itchy.

       Twelve thirty, I think, Jaime should be home soon.     As if

on cue the phone rings again.      Hurriedly I get up and run into

the house, catching it on the third ring.

       "Hello, Verde residence."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 184


    "Hi Stephen," Jamie says.

    "Hey."

    "Look, I'm gonna be a little while still.    I'm at the

hardware store, but they don'thave some of the things I need.    I

should have called them first, I guess."

    I'm not sure why he's apologizing to me like this, so I

say, "It's no problem."

    "I'm going to run over to the Home Depot, because they

should have the stuff.    But it'll be another hour or so."

    "Don't worry about it, Jaime.    I'm getting a lot of work

done."

    "Taylor leaving you alone?"

    "She went off to go swimming."

    "Oh." He sounds flat.

    "I'll put on the grill in about an hour, then?"

    "Oh shit, I forgot about that!" He's nervous, but I can't

figure out why.    Maybe it because he's used to having these

conversations with Simone. "I'll stop by the store on the way

back.    It'll be an hour and a half."

    "Okay.    Oh, where's the charcoal and stuff?"

    "Uh...it should be in the garage.    But maybe we're out."

    "You want me to check?"

    "Yeah, would you?"

    "Sure, hold on."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 185


    I put down the phone, find my way past the laundry room,

through a small nook to the garage.    It takes me a while to

figure out what the hell it is that's taking up half the space

until I realize it's the Bock's Car.    It's larger than I

remember, about twenty feet long easily, and on its trailer

taller than I am.

    In the corner I find the grill and the charcoal.    By

picking up the bag I can tell just from the weight, or lack

there of rather, that there isn't enough to get the fire going.

Jamie sighs when I tell him.

    "Okay, I'll pick up some, too, then.    I guess it'll be

steaks for dinner, sorry.   So it's half twelve now..." I can

imagine the look on his face, mouth puckered as he hems and haws

over the hands of his watch.   "I won't be back until three at

the earliest.   I'll call Colin and tell him not to come until

about four, I guess.    Will that be enough time for you?    Or are

you going to have to go back earlier?"

    "No, I can stay 'till later."

    "Good.    Feel free to hunt around for something to eat."

    "Okay.    Uh, Jaime?"

    "Yeah?"

    "I don't mean to impose or anything, but you mind if I take

a shower?"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 186


       "Go right ahead," he says. "There are towels in the hall

closet.    But you know," he adds, "if you want, you could grab a

bathing suit and go swimming.       It's a lot nicer."

       "Well," I hesitate, looking out the window towards the

woods.    I want to say But Taylor's out there, but don't know if

I can trust myself to say it.      I don't know how it would come

out.

       "It's up to you."

       "I might.   I'll think about it."

       "I'll keep the coals warm until you get back if you do."

There's something in his voice I can't quite catch. "I gotta go.

I'll talk to you later, okay?"

       "Sure?"

       "Bye."

       He hangs up.   I stare at the phone for a moment then

replace it.      It makes a dull clunk as the plastic hits plastic.

Again I look at the woods.      I sip my apple juice.    He knows that

Taylor is there, I mentioned it to him.      Then again, swimming

does sound better than taking a shower.

       Upstairs I grab a towel from the closet.     There are some

bathing suits there, too.      Jamie's and Simone's, but the size of

them.    I grab a pair of trunks.    What the hell, right?

                                     #
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 187


The path is easy to follow, since it doesn't split but seems to

lead in an almost direct line away from the house.      I brought my

laptop with me in its case, but shut it off since the battery is

only going to be good for another few hours.      Besides, I don't

know how far it is to the pond.    As a peace offering of sorts I

grabbed another pair of Cokes.    One for me.    One for Taylor.

    Ten minutes down the path I begin to wonder if I'm going

the right way.   There is a pocket of sunlight ahead though, so

maybe this is the right way.   It's about this time I realize

that I didn't change into the bathing suit before I came out.        I

try not to think of why this was but just follow the path,

keeping an eye on that patch of sun to make sure the few twists

and turns arn't going to take me further from it.

    Oak and Maple give way to tall Birches.       A lone Sycamore

rises from them, and though the branches I can see the glimmer

of light on the water.   The ground begins to fall and the trees

give way to raspberry and blackberry bushes, their fruit still

small and tight buds of green and white.    A flat rock lies

across the path, surprising me with it's regularity.      But soon I

see a low fieldstone wall, which stretches from a spur of pine

trees down to the water's edge.

    I've heard about places like these, but never seen one

before.   Back in the twenties I think it was, it became

fasionable for people in the city to have homes here in what was
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 188


then the country.   They built lavish villas and mansions, and

often on the grounds would create small ponds to swim in in the

summer.   These, too, were themed as a sort of post-Victorian

Elysium with stately walls running their perimiter, gazebos and

carefully placed trees for shade from the sun.

    On the far bank I see a weeping willow, stretching out over

the water, its roots long ago breaking free of the stone circlet

built to contain it.   The wall itself has toppled in places,

often into the pond itself.   A group of tall pines lays

opposite.   But elsewhere the brambles have grown up.   The water

is dark, but not clouded; I can see the bottom, dirt and stone,

and the turbulence on the surface from what must be the spring

that keeps the water fresh.   Which means that it may be quite

cold.   Or perhaps the summer sun will have warmed it enough.

    There's only one way to find out, but I abate my curiosity

because among this ruin Taylor is nowhere to be seen.   I could

have missed her, perhaps, but then again there's so much over

growth she could be almost anywhere.   "Hello?" I call out.

    Her head pops up quickly from behind a small section of

wall near the pines. "Stephen?" She says when she sees me. "Hi."

    I raise the Cokes like a talisman, "You're right, it did

get hot."

    "Uh..." she looks down at something beside her, then back

up. "Is it lunch time?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 189


    "No, your Dad called to say he'd be late.     He suggested

that I come out for a swim to cool off."

    "He did?" She seems confused by this. "Hold on." She

disappears behind the wall again.   When she stands up she's

holding her towel over her front.   "Um...let me, ah,"

    "Oh my god," I say as it dawns on me. "Sorry, I'll uh...I

have to change into my suit anyway.    I'll uh, go over here," and

I head back up the path.   There's a small tree here, and looking

around I don't think anyone can see me.    Still, it's a bit weird

undressing in the middle of so much nature, without walls.       I

take my cothes off quickly, running into such strange issues as

how to take my socks and shows off without getting them dirty,

where to put everything that it doesn't fall onto the ground,

and the sudden realization that Jamie is about four inches

larger in the waist than I am.

    Pulling on the drawstring of his swimming suit helps to

keep them on, but I feel I look a bit of a fool.    That, and all

my clothes are spread over the branches of the tree.     I feel

foolish.    It's also a little chilly in the dim of the woods, and

there is a breeze here, I notice.     My flesh goosebumps.

    "Okay," Taylor calls from the distance.     I grab my things

under one arm, pick up my laptop and head back to the edge of

the pond.   She's in her day-glo green bikini again.     Knowing how

uncomfortable it can be to have to put on wet clothes just makes
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 190


me feel worse as I put my things on the wall leading to the

pond. "It's pretty shallow around there, about four feet.     It'll

get deeper as you head towards the tree," she tells me. "And

watch out for the spring, because it's colder there."

    I step down to the water.    It's chilly, but not cold.   I

try and make my way towards her, then remember I'm here to swim,

not to see Taylor.   So I stop, turn, and dive under the surface.

    As I thought, it's colder near the bottom.      I come back up

again shivvering a little.   Taylor laughs at me.    I look over to

where she's standing in time to see her toss her towel onto the

ground and start towards me.    As the water rises to her hips she

ducks down and disappears below the surface.     It's only when

she's almost right in front of me that I can see her through the

water.   She pops up again about a yard or two from me, dips her

head back to smooth her hair behind her, then gives me a smile.

    "It's still a little chilly.    It'll be as warm as it gets

in the next hour."

    I nod, shivvering a little.    Suddenly a shower sounds much,

much better than swimming.   Showers are warm.

    "My Dad really tell you to come down here?"

    "Yeah, why?"

    "No reason," she says, turning away from me and lowering

herself into the water until it comes up to her chin. "There's a
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 191


stream over there, by the tree.    It's where all the muck is, so

watch out."

    I join her in changing the conversation, though I'm not too

sure why it needs    changing. "It's a weeping willow," I say.

"The tree."

    "Yeah, that's right," she says, having jogged her memory.

"I keep meaning to bring some clippers down here and cut back

some of the brambles, but I always forget.    Be careful when you

get near the edges, because they will scrape you up.    It's

better if you get your whole body under.   You'll warm up

quicker."

    It doesn't seem that way at first, just that I'm letting my

torso get as cold as my legs, but after a few minutes it passes.

Taylor tells me about the other trees, about the jumble of rocks

in the far corner and where the ground is flat rock, like it is

here, and where its dirtier.

    "The bank over there is the best place to sit, after," she

gestures to where she'd been laying out, behind the wall. "It's

covered in pine needles.    They're a little prickly, but they're

warmer and drying than the dirt bank.    I'm gonna get out.    Let

it warm up a bit."

    "I'll get the Cokes," I say and we swim away from each

other.   As I reach up to get them, exposing myself to breeze, I
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 192


suddenly feel chillier than when I was in the water.    I grab at

them quickly and duck back under the water.

    It's then I realize why this is better than taking a

shower, despite the initial chill.    I take my time getting to

the other bank.    Turning over myself in the water I get that

almost weightless feeling.   The water through my hair and

fingers, the feel of it against my skin and even the soft of the

dirt between my toes makes me feel a little more free than I've

felt in weeks.    I emerge from the water grinning wildly.

    Laughing at me again, Taylor points, "That's my father's

bathing suit."

    "Yeah," I say, shrugging it off because right now it

couldn't bother me less.

    "It's huge."

    "Why yes, yes it is," I say.     When I realize what I've just

said I begin to blush, hurriedly looking away from Taylor, her

eyes bugged and jaw dropped. "Sorry," I say quickly, making my

way up through the pine needles.    She doesn't respond, just

laughes, shaking her head. "Aw shit."

    "What?"

    "I left my towel on the other side."

    "Here, have mine if you need it."     She hands it to me as

she sits down on the bed of pine.

    "You sure?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 193


    "I don't use it, except as a pillow sometimes," leaning

back she settles herself into the needles. "They're a little

prickly, but I like it."

    "Okay," I toss the towel onto the wall and sit down next to

her, letting the Cokes thunk onto the ground between us.     The

needles poke at my skin, but they're warm and otherwise soft.

"Your right," I say, "does feel kinda nice."

    "My friend, Becky Iverson, she says its like acupuncture.

Which is supposed to b really good for you."

    "Friend of mine is in to acupuncture.   I think it's kinda

weird." My eyes are closed, the breeze prickling my skin but the

sun is shining overhead, warming me at the same time.

    "I don't like needles.   I fainted the last time I had to

give blood."

    "At the doctors?"

    "Yeah."

    We keep talking in these fits and starts, about nothing,

about the minutia of our lives and of those around us.   I tell

her how I'd heard of places like this pond, she talks about the

mansion, long abandoned, that burned down a few years ago.

    "They had to raze it when a couple of boys were playing in

the rubble and got themselves hurt."

    "People come around here a lot?" I ask, self-conscious.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 194


    "Not really.    I've never been bothered by anyone when I'm

here.   Some kids come here every once in a while, but they come

at night, mostly.   No," she says, turning over on her stomach,

"the only people who bother me out here are my parents."   She

segues so smoothly, I almost don't notice. "He say when he was

gonna come get us?"

    "No, he just said he'd keep the coals warm."

    "When did he say he'd be home?"

    "A couple of hours."

    "Mm," dreamily.   I can hear the soft sounds of the wind

through the trees, the chitting of something small and furry in

the branches above us, in the distance there are birds, calling

to each other; sounds that have always been there, but that I'd

never noticed.

    Staring up at the sky, eyelids flinching at the glare of

the sun, my mind begins to clear.   Though we've been silent for

a while, I decide to give voice to my thoughts. "You come down

here every day?"

    "Mm-hm," she sounds half asleep, or perhaps just drugged by

the summer sun.

    "Have a swim and then lie out?"

    "Mm," her only reply.

    I swallow hard, but things are falling into a strange order

than I don't know how to deal with if I just leave them be,
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 195


unsure, to float about in the back of my mind.   So I ask,

"Topless?" and Taylor again gives a small, murmurming Mm-hm.

"And your father knows this?"

    "And he told you to come for a swim," she finishes my

thought.

    "That's fucked up," I say softly, matter of fact.

    "Who knows," she sounds dismissive. "My Dad's weird."

    Now it's my turn. "Mm?"

    "He's into all sorts of kinky stuff, you know.    I think

that's why Mom left.   She didn't want to play dress up any

more."

    "I don't want to know."

    "Neither did I," she says in agreement. "Taught me to come

home early on a Friday night."

    I push the image of Jamie and Simone out of my mind.

"Thanks for the mental image," I say sarcastically.

    "Sorry," Taylor pushes herself up on her elbows and looks

at me.   "You know, you should really put on sunscreen.

Otherwise you'll burn."

    "You didn't put on sunscreen"

    "Yes I did.   Before.   It's waterproof."

    I sigh, because I know I'm pasty as anyone who spends ten

hours a day in an office building, and that I probably will burn
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 196


if I lie here for any length of time.     But I'm suddenly struck

with a thought. "Taylor?"

       "Yeah?" She repsonds quickly.

       "What, exactly, are you trying to get me to do?"

       "What do you mean?" Feigning innocence.

       "I know, you know, that you're really good at manipulating

people.    And I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that I get

the feeling that you want me to do something, so just tell me

what it is and I'll do it, since you seem to be so interested in

it."

       "Promise?"

       "Within reason," I add.

       "What do you see as being within reason?"

       "Why don't you tell me what you're after, and I'll tell you

if I think it's reasonble."

       She tsks and sighs. "Okay.   But you gotta promise me you

won't laugh, okay?     Or get angry or anything?"

       "I can promise you that."

       "Cool."   I can hear the pine needles being scattered by her

sitting up and turning quickly to face me. "I," she begins, then

takes another drink of her Coke. "I just wanted to, like, let me

put your sunscreen on.     Your back, I mean."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 197


       It's hard to tell if she's actually embarrased, of it this

just some other game.     Then again, I can't put it on myself.

"Sure," I say.

       "Cool."   She reaches over to her bag while I sit up,

brushing the pine needles from the back of my thighs.     Scooching

herself around behind me I hear her nail flip up the plastic

top.    She doesn't warn me when she squirts the lotion on my

shoulders and I flich a little at the sudden chill of it.

"Sorry."

       "No problem."

       Her hands on my shoulders, I realize this isn't the first

time we've touched, our fingers brushed last night as I gave her

a cigarette, but it's a very different sort of touch.     Far more

intimate than it needs to be, really, but I'm not going to say

anything about it.     She has strong hands for a girl her age.

       The sun falls behind a cloud, giving me a chance to rest my

eyes a little; I'd been squinting from the glare.     Hands over my

shoulders and biceps.     Running underneath, almost tickling me as

her nails trace their way to my sides.     She stops to get more

lotion.    From here the water looks deep, calm and cool.

       "Do you have any cigarettes?" I ask.

       "Yeah, hold on."   She leaves a hand pressed firmly on my

back while the other searches her knapsack.     The pack gets
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 198


tossed between my legs, a book of matches tucked into its

celophane wrapper.

    "Thanks."    I light up.

    "Can you get one for me, too?"

    I hand her the one I've just lit, passing it over my

shoulder.    Again our fingers brush together.   She leaves a bit

of the lotion on my thumb.     It's a pale beige color and smells

of something familiar.     I light another cigarette, careful to

shake out the match before grinding it through the needles into

the cold, damp earth below.

    "Who would you rather live with, your mom or your dad?"

    "My Dad.    I can't stand Mom.    But Dad's pretty cool, once

you get past the fact he thinks I'm going to be a failure."

    I nod, not really knowing why I asked the question.

    "Why do you ask?"

    I shrug, lamely, take a drag and look away. "I dunno.      Just

curious.    She called."

    Taylor's hands stop. "What did she say?"

    "Wanted to know where you were, where your father was, who

the hell I was."

    "What did you say?"

    "Actually," the smoke tastes bitter on my tongue, but also

pale.   I've never been fond of Lights. "I kinda told her off."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 199


    "You did?" Taylor hops up on her knees, pressing her body

against my back as she thrusts her face next to mine. "What did

you say?" She sounds elated.

    Her cigarette hangs from two fingers visible in the corner

of my eye.    Moving away from it I draw my cheek closer to her

nose.    "That I wasn't there to babysit her husband or her

daughter, and that I'd give you both the message she called."

    "Then what?" Her hair moves against my neck as she asks,

stirring the muscles at the pit of my stomach.

    My forearms hang from my elbows, propped over my bent

knees.    I push the soles of my feet into the ground.    "I, uh, I

hung up on her."

    "You," she gives me a quick peck on the cheek, "are so

kickass, Stephen Hoemke," then falls back down behind me.      "You

told off my mom," she giggles, "that is so cool."    Working her

hands faster, humming a Nyah-Nyah playground song.       It makes me

smile; glad I told her.

    More lotion, spread over my shoulderblade down to the small

of my back.    The sun keeps skipping in and out of the clouds,

the pond flashes in the reflection.    I've had enough of my

cigarette and ground it down on top of the match, carefully:

Only _I_ can prevent forest fires.

    "There," Taylor sits back, taking her hands from me. "All

done.    You'll want to do your front, too," and she hands me the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 200


bottle: Non-Chemical Kiss My Face SPF 18 sunblock with oat

protiens.   Naturally waterproof and naturally organic.   On the

corner of the package is a child's rendering of the sun,

complete with way orange rays.   I take some on my fingers and

begin to work it into my legs and stomach.

    "Would it totally weird you out if I layed out for a while?

It's just that this is good sun time and I hate tan lines."

    "Uh," I start, then flinch, waiting for the bitter and

sarcastic Nevermind, but it doesn't come. "A little, yeah."

    "I figured," she sighs, moving back beside me. "It's no

biggie.   I won't get any bad lines from just one day I guess,

huh?"

    "I don't know," trying to sound non-committal.

    "How about I just do my back, and unhook my top?"

    "If you want to." My voice flat, I rub lotion into my

calves.

    "You're getting all distant," she sounds a little annoyed.

    I stop, assess my coverage and then move on to my chest and

shoulders. "It just makes me a little uncomforable is all."

    "I mean, it's not like anyone'll see us."

    "Okay."

    She sighs, snubbing out her cigarette, staring at the last

whisps of smoke rising from the grounds.   I've nowhere else to

apply the sunscreen so put it down, risking a glace over at her.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 201


    Taylor is lying back, knees bent, staring at the sky but

not saying anything.   Her mouth is wrapped into a tight frown.

I shift uncomfortably.    "Look, we're like, honest with each

other, right?"

    "Uh..."

    "Well, we said we were gonna be honest with each other.

Any you know I don't like being treated like I'm some child,

right?" She doesn't bother waiting for me to say Uh again. "So,

I'm going to lay out for a while.    If it bothers you, I don't

know, you can join me or go away or pretend your asleep or

something."

    Before I can say anything she turns over and with a simple

gesture reached back and unhooks the clasp on her bikini top.

    "Actually, let me ask you something."

    "Okay?" My, the trees are lovely this time of year.

    "Why is it," she lets out a bit of a grunt and I hear the

sound of pine needles shifting as she settles herself in, "that

boys always pretend to go to sleep after they come?"

    "What?" Oh yeah.     Pretty little trees.    Pretty little pond.

Lap lap lap goes the water.

    "Becky Iverson and I were talking about it yesterday, and I

figured I'd ask you since you probably know.      So like, after a

boy comes, right?   He'll go all limp and pretend he's asleep.

You can poke them and try and talk to them and they like,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 202


pretend to snore and stuff but you can totally tell they're

faking it.    Why do boys do that?"

    "Uh..."

    "Seriously."

    She's waiting for me to answer, but I'm keeping my eyes

focused on the willow opposite, trying not to think about her

question, just looking at the tree.    Pretty tree.   Brnaches

dangling over the water, long, thin leaves dipping to the

surface in the breeze.    I like trees.   Yes, very pretty trees.

Why look!    Another tree.   But then she goes on:

     "And they won't fess up to it, either.      Becky got so

upset, because she was having sex with Bobby Tolino?       And he

came and then he like, pulled out and curled up like he was some

narcoleptic puppy.    What are they called," she asks herself.

    "Sleeping dauschounds," I say.     Puppies are cute.    I saw an

add a while back that had a basket full of puppies, all of them

cute as buttons.    How the hell does Taylor know about sleeping

dauschouds?    How do I know about them, come to think of it.       Oh

yeah, Animal Planet.    Lots of cute animals on the Discover

Channel, you know.

    "But yea, so Becky's getting all pissed off, because he

always tries to do this.     She'll say 'I know you're faking it,

Bobby,' but he pretends he doesn't hear.     Tom's the same way,
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 203


this guy I was seeing, he'd just shoot his wad then keel over

dead."

    I hear the metallic pop and hiss of a Coke can opening,

then her taking a loud slurp of a sip from it.   I'm trying

really hard to think about those cute little puppies, and not

focus on the image of some pimply faced geek fucking Taylor, but

it's not really working.   Suddenly Taylor starts in again:

    "Oh! And so Becky and I are all, like, you know, still

interested and stuff, but we don't know what to do because if

you try and shake them they pretend you _woke_ them, so they get

all angry, or act all confused. 'What time is it?' 'Where am I?'

all that stupid stuff.   And we're thinking that maybe, you know,

guys are like that.   Because they talk about it on TV.   I saw it

on 'Friends,' where Chandler is giving Joey a hard time about

it, but Joey's all like 'Wha!" you know?   At least, that's what

I was thinking, but then Becky decided that she was fed up with

it, either way, so the next time Bobby just fell back and

started his fake snoring, she started, you know."

    She stops and I swallow hard, hoping Taylor isn't going to

go on.

    But of course she does.    "Playing with herself," she grows

quiet again after she says it, and somewhere the rational part

of my mind is wondering if she did that on purpose, or if it

actually was something she was embarrased to say out loud. "And
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 204


then, of course, Bobby suddenly woke up."    Taylor takes another

drink, the sudden sarcasm having dried out her mouth. "So, like,

what I wanna know is why do boys do that?"

    "Uh, well..." Puppies are long gone from my mind.       I try to

think like the guys at Animal Planet, their cool, casual tone as

they discuss the mating rituals of the African Lion or Three

Toed Sloths, but I can't do that without the associated image.

So I think about work.   Work is always good.   Good morning team.

The first item on the agenda is related to consumer confidence

levels in pubescent male's sexual decision making.   Our

reasearch shows that "The majority of young men in those

situations are uncomfortable with their own sexuality, more,

they have a deep-rooted fear of the female's sexuality, and are

afraid of appearing unfamiliar with their territory, so to

speak, and thus seek to remove themselves from a confrontation

with it after they have achieved orgasm," behavior that will

greatly affect Q3 profits for all female departments.      Any

questions?

    "Why did your voice just go all funny?"

    "Because I'm feeling very uncomfortable right now," I

conclude, "and while I appreciate the necessity for honesty and

disclosure with you, I have my own defense mechanisms when faced

with situations such as these."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 205


      "So even when they're twenty-six, boys are still

'uncomfortable with their own sexuality and that of the

female,'" letting her voice drop an octave, to mock my own.      I'm

suddenly reminded of Hope, and her penchant for doing the same.

Hope, who on my fifteenth birthday presented me with her self in

a pair of cheap, sequined painties and a feather boa in the

hayloft of my father's barn saying 'Happy Birthday!.'    I'd said

no.   Because I was afraid.

      "Pretty much.   It depends on the level of familiarity they

have with the female, the environment, the physical, emotional

and mental environment of the moment."

      I pick at the pine needles, trying to ingore the growing

errection that's pressing uncomfortably into my thigh.     More,

I'm trying not to think about the fact that it's Jamie's

bathingsuit I'm wearing, and the errection is in a large part

due to his fifteen year-old daughter, beside me.

      Then, as suddenly as she brought up the topic, she drop it.

"Okay," another sip on her soda, then "Thanks."

      "Don't mention it," I say, tossing some pine needles

towards the edge of the water.    As I reach down for some more I

casually change the position of my leg and pull out the

constricting folds of the swimsuit.    Much better.   Taylor

giggles behind me. "Hm?"
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 206


    "I guess twenty-six yearolds are a lot like sixteen

yearolds."

    "How's that?" Innocently, very innocently.

    "They can't discuss sex without having to adjust their

pants." She starts giggling again, while I feel the rush of

blood to my face.

    "Sorry," I say.

    "Don't worry about it," her glee turning into a light sigh,

"just lie back and enjoy the summer."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 207




                             CHAPTER 13

                                TAYLOR




I wake with a start; the sun behind the clouds above the tall

oak trees, the wind turned cold, my skin tight and pricked with

goosebumps.   Tobacco and honeysuckle, rich earth and bitter

pairs faintly on the breeze.    Distant, water over the small

break at the edge of the pond; Taylor's pond.    The crush of pine

needles as I turn my head.     Sunbleached split-ends, small mouth,

bright green eyes laced with a golden sunset brown.    Translucent

blonde hairs along her cheek and freckles on her shoulders.     Her

razor sharp collarbones, suit top loose around the slim of her

neck;   Taylor, turned towards me.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 208


    "Bad dream?" Arm folded under her for a pillow, her voice a

hush.

    Did I dream? "No, I don't think so."       But I did dream:    Of

the cottonwoods behind the house and the horses long sold on.           I

can still hear the fields, rolling like the sea the summer

breeze.

    "It's getting late.     We should go soon."

    "How long was I asleep?"

    "A while; I don't know, I just woke myself."

    Joints stiff, I sit up.     My stomach is warm to the touch.

Taylor reaches out to smooth the needles stuck to my back.        Her

fingers in my hair, pressure on the nape of my neck. I close my

eyes to remember the dream, but it's gone.      When I open them

again Taylor, her legs, covered in a scarf of printed silk,

scissor open and closed.    It's so cold.

    "I don't want to go back into the water," I say.

    "We don't have to.     There's a way around."

    The back of my suit is still wet, clinging to my skin which

feels clammy and cold.    I shake out my legs and begin to get up.

    "We don't have to leave just yet.       The sun will come out

again soon." Her hand falls from my shoulders; she lets her

fingers keep contact; familiar.    I ease myself back into that

touch. "See?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 209


    I shade my eyes with the back of my hand.      The light hits

the water and reflects up from below.    Turning my head I see the

cigarettes, the matches, lying beside Taylor's knapsack, ontop

of the bottoms of her suit. I say "Your suit."

    "You fell asleep," she turns and looks away, offering her

back to the sun.   Her straps fall from her shoulders.    The silk

barely covers her from cleft to knee, pulled tight under her.

Still in a hush: "I didn't think it would matter."

    My hand reaches out to touch her, stopping a breath from

the small of her back.   She breathes.   Muscles tighten from her

shoulders to her thighs, pressing against her silk.     I pretend

not to notice.   She relaxes.   When she turns to look at me over

her shoulder I'm already reaching for the cigarettes, easily

within grasp beyond the pale of her calves.    I say "I hate

waking up without coffee."   I strike a match.    It flutters and

goes out.   I strike another, cupping it in my hands.    The tip

blooms and there's that sound of the burn, air rushing into my

mouth tasting bitter and thin.

    Taylor settles back into the ground.    "You should lie on

your stomach," she says, "to even your tan.      It'll dry out your

suit, too."

    So I make a slow spin onto my stomach, keeping my elbows

under me.   The land here rises to another wall, a broken pillar.

These ruins are overrun with blackberries, still unripe.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 210


Further along there is a gap, wide enough to skirt through with

just a few pricks on your ankles.   From there the path turns

towards home.

    Taylor lifts her straps gingerly with thumb and forefinger,

pulls it over her head and tosses it behind her.    Fingers

knitted with her palms pushing down on the pine she lays her

head upon them, eyes watching me.   Her hand creeps out to pull

her hair from her face, to tuck the lock behind her ear.      Her

eyes never leave me. "It was just getting in the way," she says.

    I don't react; I stare into the blackberries taking long

drags of smoke and whistling them back out again.    It leaves my

throat hoarse and dry.   My back begins to warm, my skin soften,

the sun on the back of my head feels like it's pushing me down,

back into my dreams.

    "Are you angry?" She tries.     But I just shake my head once,

and keep staring at the blackberries. She looks towards them,

then back at me. "Say something?"

    "When," I have to stop and lick my lips, swallow to wet my

mouth before I say again "When will the blackberries be ready?"

    "I don't know," she sounds confused, proclaims: "You are

angry."

    "Not angry."

    "What then?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 211


    But I don't really know, so I give her a shrug and hope it

passes for an explanation.     Taylor makes a low growling sound of

resignation and lays her head back down.     My cigarette is

burning down.    My suit is drying and the cold feel in my flesh

is gone.    When i move to snub out the butt I keep going till

I've stood up.    Taylor doesn't say anything.   I don't have

anything with me, so I just point to the path and say "This the

way back?"

    "Yeah.    But you have to cut across to get to the right

path.   I'll show you."

    "Okay." I turn to face the pond because she's getting up.

Because I can see the silk fall from her legs as she stands.      I

can't turn quickly enough to not catch glimpse of that flesh

framed against the bracken, rising from the pine.     Though it's

just a blur of copper tan, I'm aware of the softer shadows

within it at the crook of her hips, the deep rose of her aurole.

    The trees shake in a burst of wind, which dies quickly to

where it is almost dead calm.    "You can turn around now," her

voice sour, hurt.    She has the pieces of her suit in her hand,

crouched down near the stone of the wall, stuffing them fitfully

into the knapsack with the Coke cans, the sunscreen and her

cigarettes.    She's wrapped the silk around her waist like a

sarong.    Her back is bare.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 212


       I'm about to protest,not really knowing how to say it, when

she brings her towel around her neck like a yoke.      She hooks her

toes into her flip-flops.    They flap against her heels as she

hikes the knapsack over her shoulder and makes her way through

the break in the black berries.    Their thorns rip at her skin,

but she doesn't seem to notice.    They dig into mine as well, but

it just feels like the faintest of a scratch.

       I follow her down the path, through pool of sunlight

between the taller trees until we come to a line of Oak and

Maple.    Her she turns, follwing the line of shadows below their

branches.    The ground here is still soft, free of roots or

thorns that would cut into my feet.    We walk through the ferns

and saplings until we reach the corpse of a tree, felled years

ago in storms, it's root having torn up the earth.      I remember

seeing it on my way in.    The path is close.

       Reaching it she turns back down to the pond, stopping only

when she can sit on the wall beside my things.      A sock as blown

away and it takes me a moment to find it.    Taylor takes the

opportunity for one last cigarette.    I'm not sure what to do

with it all, so I check the clock on my cell phone.      Two forty

two.    Jamie said he wouldn't be back until three, 'at the

earliest.'    The relief strikes me oddly, as I didn't realize I'd

been stressing about it.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 213


    "What?" Taylor's looking at me, and her question comes

casually, as if she just happened to notice the change in my

expression and found it curious.    Her towel-shawl hangs over her

chest, its ends reaching almost to the middle of her hips.      But

the printed silk was tied low, barely holding on to the extreme

of their curves.    The edge is fringed.     She has one foot on the

ground, the other pressed against the wall, revealing the soft

of her thigh.

    "Two-forty," I say, nodding to the cell phone in my hand.

"I was worried it was later than that, I guess."

    "Why?" Again, a curious innocence.        But this time I can

tell it's affected, ungenuine.    My brow furrows as I look back

down at my things, piled on the wall next to her.

    "Your father's invited some friends over.       I was hoping I

wouldn't have kept them waiting."

    "When do they get here?"

    "Four or so."

    "So," She sucks on her cigarette, blowing the smoke out in

a quick huff, looking back up the path as she glibbly says

"Dad's not getting back till when, three?      Because that's who

you're really worried about."

    "Taylor," I say.    My voice is whiney because hers is tinged

with spite and bile.   Because I really don't want to fight. "I

have had a wonderful afternoon.    Really.    Please don't get angry
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 214


at me just because I want to be there when your father gets

home."

      "He sent you down here, you know."

      I blink at her two or three times. "He...he suggested that

I come swim, yeah."

      "He knows I lie out," her head lowering, jutting out from

her shoulders, punctuating each line with a curt toss she makes

her case: "I come down here almost every day.      Half a dozen

times he's come down here when I've fallen asleep or something.

He always hollers out to me, afraid he'll see me without my suit

on.   Just the other day he did it.     But he didn't tell you about

it.   Didn't warn you."

      "So?" I'm trying to act like this is no big deal, but it

has been bothering me.    I tell myself that Jamie's a bit of a

scatter brain at the best of times, ask myself why he would want

me to see his daughter naked.    I ask her, "Why would he want me

to see you naked?"

      "Duh," her hand flopping to her side. "Because he's afriad

you're bored, stupid.     Hasn't he been saying that since you got

here?"

      "Taylor, that's...that's silly.    No man offers a glimpse of

his daughter naked to forstay some, some sense of obligation to

be a good host."   I toss my cell phone on top of my clothes
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 215


because I feel I should do something to make this point.     It's a

lame gesture though.

    "Please," snapping her cigarette back to her mouth, "I know

my own father.   This is a guy who likes it when you take

clothespins to his nipples.     This is a guy," she sucks a quick

smoke off her butt, affording me the opportunity to get a word

in edgewise:

    "Look, just because he's a little kinky,"

    "A little?" She interjects, but I keep going:

    "It doesn't mean he's trying to pimp his daugther off on

one of his friends.    Okay?"

    Taylor just glares at me, her leg bobbing up and down in

spasms of what I can only assume is anger or rage. "I didn't say

he was 'pimping me out.'"

    "Sorry," I back off a little. "That was out of line."         She

lets me have a moment to get my thoughts together, puffing on

her cigarette all the while.     I catch myself staring at it, then

again, wishing I had one right then.     I'm tempted to ask her for

one, but I don't want to loose my train of thought: "Jamie isn't

the most with it guy, okay?     He was all distracted on the phone,

and yeah, he probably was worried that I was bored, and

suggested that I come down for a swim.     But I don't think he

meant anything by it, okay?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 216


    I can tell she isn't convinced, but she tosses it off with

a "Whatever," then looks again back up the path. "I'll see you

at the house I guess." She pushes off with her foot, jumping the

small distance to the ground.   After a few steps she stops and

turns around, hand on her hips. "You know, I thought you were

pretty cool yesterday.   How come you turned into such a dick

overnight?"

    I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

    "Nevermind," she says, and stalks off through the braken.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 217




                            CHAPTER 14



                               JAMIE




Walking out of the woods, down the hill to the patio the sun

hits me again.   There's no breeze here.    I stop, drop my laptop

bag and let the heat fall over me.     I never thought it would

feel so good to be wrapped in the hot, humid daze of summer.

    I don't want to go inside yet, because I know the air

conditioning will seem frigid compared to this, and also because

I don't want to run into Taylor.   There's quite a bit of shade

over in the side yard, and while it's cool, it's comfortable

enough that I take my socks and shoes back off, undo the top few
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 218


buttons of my shirt and start back in on my status reports.      I'm

still at it half and hour later then Jamie comes home.

    "Good swim?"

    "Yeah," I say, paying attention to my laptop.     I'm reminded

of the scene with Taylor a few hours ago; different sense of

discomfort, but just as edgy now as then. "Took a nap down

there, too.   Nice place."

    He nods. "I don't go down as often as I should, what with

Taylor hogging it all the time."

    "Mm," I agree.   I'm not actually doing any work now, just

tapping my fingers on the keys and trying to keep track of him

out of the corner of my eye.

    Jamie figets a bit, puts his hands in his pockets then

takes them out again. "She give you any hassle?"

    There's a sick knot forming in my stomach.     Biting it back

with a shrug I say "Nah, she told where where to be careful in

the pond, then pretty much kept to herself."

    "Oh." He actually sounds disappointed.     But it could just

be me, I figure.   It's not like he's admitted anything.   But

then: "She wasn't smoking, what she?" The question takes me by

surprise.   After all, last night he said he knew she smoked, and

he didn't seem all that upset about it.   He was pretty non-

challant come to think of it. "She was, wasn't she?" Sounding

angry, but it's like an amatuer actor stiffly reciting his
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 219


lines.   That's when it dawns on me that he's just trying to find

something to be angry with her for.    I try and stutter out

something, I don't know what, but he just plays into it. "And

she probably asked you to lie for her, too, huh?     Well we'll see

about that!"

    He storms into the house with a flourish and I spend

fifteen minutes in worry, fearing that the resulting family

quarrel will include some of the accusations Taylor made to me

earlier.   Or worse, accusations towards me.    My mind is full of

images of Jamie coming at me with his bare hands, with a

bandsaw, with the barbeque fork.    In the end he comes back out,

stands over me with a sigh, then ask if I can help him cart the

contents of his Jeep   into the garage.

    The change in his demeanor is astounding.      He looked

deflated and weak when he came out, and I think he even kicked

at the grass.   At the Jeep he tells me what everything is,

adopting an authoritative tone.    He points out at a box,

proclaims it to be full of No. 2 sable hair brushes, then puts

his hand back in his pocket, waiting for my response.     I give a

nod of appreciation.   His hand comes out again, points to the

box right next to it, says "I got a good deal on some paints.

Running low on olive and I use it quite a bit, you know, so I

got a dozen for the price of eight."    And again his hand drops

to his side, slips inside his pocket and he waits.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 220


    "Good deal," I say.

    He names half a dozen more items before he announces that

"We'd best get at it, then" grabs a box and carries it into the

garage.   The whole charade of machoism gives me a clue as to

what might have transpired with Taylor.   But I'm still struck

with apprehension when, having just hid some lumber under Bock's

Car's tarp, he suddenly asks for advice about his daughter. "She

says that I've been keeping her cooped up in the house, that all

I do is sit around and play with my models and she can't go

anywhere."

    "Um-hm," I respond, then return to the car.   I quickly heft

a 50 pound bag of just-add-water cement over my shoulder.      I

don't ask what it's for, I just unload it, then some huge pieces

of sheet metal, large boards of what smells like balsa wood,

some sacks of screws and nails and other strange metal bits.

Each is hid around the garage, behind other boxes, under the

tarp, the sheet metal into the rafters.   Finally, the Jeep is

empty save for a small easel.   This doesn't get hidden, but

placed beside the door into the house.

    "What's with the easel?" I ask.   It looks impressive from

the line-art representation on the side of its box.   I seems

like it's a decent model since the words "fun" and

"educational," often seen festooned with exclamation marks on

lower end art products, are nowhere to be seen.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 221


    "Oh," he darts his eyes around conspiratorially. "That's a

surprise."

    "For who?"

    He looks at me kind of blankly. "For Simone."

    "Oh." I wonder if Taylor mentioned that she called. "She

called, by the way."

    "She did?"   He stops what he's doing, which appears to be

shoving a plastic bag full of screws behind some firewood, and

looks at me like we were in ninth grade and I've just said that

Sally Ann mentioned him in Gym Class. "What did she say?"

    "Demanded to know who I was, where you were, what Taylor

was doing and when she'd gone to bed last night."

    His look changes from sunny to cloudy with a chance of

rain. "Oh.   What did you say?"

    "I lied."

    He nods, as if anything but the truth would be good, and I

have to agree with him.

                                  #

We drink beers in the basement, cooling off from the light labor

as the coals cook down outside in the failing heat of the day.

For once Jamie doesn't fuss with his models as we talk.

Occasionally, sitting on his work stool, he'll swivel around and

poke at some brushes or papers, but mostly he talks and I half-

listen.   I don't really want to be here any more, in this house,
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 222


in his company, but I've committed myself to another few hours,

at least, so there's really nothing I can do.

    "I always used to think that when I got older, there'd be

things that I just knew.    Just...stuff, I dunno, like about

mortgages and how to fix a car and do taxes and how to pick out

the right steaks at the supermarkets.    But I was in there today,

and there were London Broils and Porterhouses and New York

Strips, plain Strips, Round Steaks and all this other stuff and

I realized that I really don't know what's for what.     I looked

around and tried to find the most expensive, but then they

didn't look like the ones my dad used to cook, they looked too

small and I was too ashamed to ask the guy who was stocking the

pork section so I just picked out some Porterhouse steaks.        Was

that okay?"

    He looks up at me, and I nod.

    "Good.    Good.   But like, I'm thirty six.   I should know

these things, right?    I just found out that my mortgage is tax

deductable.   I didn't know that.   Can I get that money back from

the Government?"

    "I don't know."

    "I don't even know who to ask.     I went to the doctor and he

kept going on about cholesterol and my exercise habits and if

there was a history of this or that in my family.     I don't know.

He said I should ask my Dad, and I told him that my father had
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 223


died.   He looked like I'd just made his day, he said, 'Heart

Failure?   Did he have cancer?' and I said 'No, he killed himself

with a government issue .45 after he blew out the candles at his

50th birthday party' and the guy looked almost dissappointed.

He said I should ask my mother if he had any health problems or

suffered from chonic pain.    I almost wanted to say 'he blew his

fucking head off, of course he was in pain!' But I decided not

to, and said that I would ask.

    "He was actually a good Dad.    A lot of people assume     he

wasn't.    They get this image of him that he was a drunk or

something because he killed himself.    They don't know that he

had bought tickets for he and mom, just a few days before, to go

away for Thanksgiving.    I don't know how to be a Dad.    I thought

I'd know how to.    When we had Taylor we spent a lot of time

reading about it, about having a kid and preparing a nursery and

getting toys that were supposed to stimulate her mental growth

and worrying about SIDS and debating breastfeeding over formula.

Simone cut all the caffiene out of her diet, and the smoking and

everything else and being all careful.

    "I guess we did an okay job for a while.    But then it just

went to shit.    When she hit ten she really started being a

handful.   Simone wasn't all that interested in being a Mom

anymore by then; she was going back to school for her Masters.

Yeah, it was around then.    Taylor just got in the way.   Now she
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 224


won't clean her room, doesn't do her homework, talks back to me

and Simone.   We tried to put her on Ritalin, to calm her down,

but she refused to take it.    Say she didn't want to become a

drug addict at thirteen.    Simone was livid.    They fought, and

Taylor hit her.   If I tried that with my Mom, my Dad would have

thrashed me dead.   I can't even think of hitting Taylor.      If I

did I'd be afraid that someone would find out and have me thrown

in jail for Child Abuse.

    "I did learn how to fix cars though.      Well, my Jeep.    I'm

useless with any of the new ones.    One of the guys at work got a

new BMW.   Open the hood and the whole engine in hermetically

sealed, even the battery.    You can't get at it if you don't have

the proper tools, and you can't buy the tools unless you're a

Certified BMW Technician.    Costs thousands to even sign up for

their course, which you have to take before you can try and take

their test.   That's why I like my old Jeep.     Simone says its an

eyesore.   She got a Volvo when she got her new job.     We were

driving once and it sounded like the timing belt was off, so I

tried to take a look.   Could barely make heads or tails of it.

When we finally took it into the mechanic and I told him what I

thought was wrong he looked at me like I was insane.

    "Old cars, airplanes.     These I know.   Not much else.   They

say people are becoming more and more like machines these days,

but I can't make heads or tails of these machines.      I'm ashamed
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 225


to say that I'm thirty-six years old and I don't have a web

page.   Is that, like, okay?"

    Eyes wide, his mouth small; I hate feeling sorry for my

friends.    "That's fine," I say, "I don't either."

    "Oh.    I thought you did."

    "No."

    "Nevermind then." He sucks on his bottle, popping it from

his mouth with a wet slurp.     "I have an e-mail account though,

at work."    As if that makes anything better, you fuck.   "But I

hardly ever check it.    We're supposed to do all this stuff at

work on e-mail now.   I can't just call someone up when I need

something, I have to go into this program and fill out a request

then hit the button and it's supposed to work.    I guess I do it

wrong sometimes.    Or something; every once in a while I try and

track down something and the person who was supposed to get it

says they never got it, and I have no proof that I actually sent

the e-mail, so I'm screwed and get yelled at, when two, three

years ago I'd just pick up the phone and say Danny, I need a

gross of No. 6 carbs sent over to Kyle," and it'd get done.      Now

everything is tracked and numbered and logged and and and data

mined and I don't know how it works.    And I don't know who to

ask to figure out how it works.    I don't even know what data

mining is, but my Supervisor talks about it all the time.     He's

younger than me, and I'm one of the younger guys on the floor.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 226


But I don't want to ask him, because he'll probably yell at me

for not knowing already.

    "I asked Taylor if she had a web site.        She got all

defensive and wanted to know why I wanted to know.        I tried to

tell her all that?    About how it is at work?     She just stared

off into the distance and didn't really seem all that

interested.    Now when my dad talked about something I listened.

I listened and I damn well listened hard 'cuz he'd tell me to

show him what he'd just told me to do and I had to do it or

there'd be hell.    If I told Taylor that, she'd just look around

and say 'Show you where?' and get all sarcastic.

    "And sex.     Christ.    I'm not a prude.   Hell, I slept with

half a dozen women before settling down with Simone, and yeah, I

was pressured to have sex and I teased girls and all that.          And

I guess it got me and Simone in trouble, but, I dunno.          I was

Simone's first.    I always feel kinda bad about that, and I guess

I don't really blame her for fucking around behind my back now,

because of that.    She's been doing it for ages.     I think.     I

tired once.    I got really mad at her for...something, I don't

know.    So I went out with some friends and tried to pick up some

girls.    Didn't work out.    Everyone else got lucky.    I took a cab

home. When I got there Simone'd gone out.       Somehow she knew what

I'd been doing.    Trying to do.    I didn't try again.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 227


      "Now Taylor's having sex.      At least she's responsible about

it.   Simone found some condoms in her room and was outraged.         I

tried to joke that maybe if we'd used condoms - oh, that was a

horrible fight.     That was a few weeks ago.    I met the boy.   At

least, I think it's the boy.      Didn't like him.   Wears his pants

halfway down his ass like some prison bitch and his ball-cap the

wrong way round.     He's eighteen.    Same age difference between me

and Simone.      He'll be nineteen this fall, and I'm half inclined

to get him in court for it.

      "But I wouldn't, really.    I'm just kidding about that.    I

mean, you know what I mean.      Yeah?"

      I shrug.    I drink my beer.

      "I tried to do the intimidating girl-friend's father

routine and I was really doing well until I did the 'So,

Michael, what are your intentions towards my daughter' bit,

which I'd seen in movies and stuff and it always seemed to

unsettle the kid and sometimes send him packing, sometimes

without the girl.     But I guess he saw the same movies; he just

nodded and said, 'Well, Mr. Verde, my intentions are to give her

what she's looking for; make sure she has a chance to do all the

things she'd regret not doing when she gets to be, I dunno,

thirty, thirty-five and to try and help her make the right

decisions about what she would and wouldn't regret.'
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 228


    "That kid.    Slapped me in the face with that.   Practically

whipped out his dick and said 'fuck her till she can't take it

any more.' But I rallied.   Said, 'Oh, like what?' All dry humor

and that.    And he said, 'Oh, I'm sure you know your daugther

better than I do, sir.'

    "And that was that.     He sweet talked Simone in the kitchen

earlier.    Offered to help her do dishes, told her dinner smelled

wonderful, asked what it was, then gave her some recipies from

memory with fancy ingredients and then asked how her degree in

Social Antropology had affected her attitudes towards division

of labor in the home, specifically concerning the ritual aspects

of the Family Meal.    Christ the kid was good."

    I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him; it was all

too familiar, part of my old mantra. 'Get the parents and you

get the girl.'    Jamie kept talking, hardly touching his beer

anymore while I drained mine quickly.    The basement kept us cool

as he spoke, until he snapped out of his monologue and noticed I

was empty.

    "You want another?"

    "Please."

    "Sorry, I must be rabbiting on..."

    "Don't worry about it.    It's good to get things off your

chest."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 229


    He stops, tries to look me in the eye, but glances away

quickly, nodding guiltily.     I don't think he knows I know, he's

just afraid I might.   Walking to the mini-fridge he offers me a

selection of micro-brews and imports, listing off the names like

a man under the lights confessing his crimes.

    "Just a Bass.   Please."

    The cap is popped off and the bottle placed in my hands.

    "She wants me to ask you something." Staring at his feet

again.   He kicks a bit of balsa that'd long fallen to the floor.

    "Who?"

    "Taylor." He takes a long draught from his bottle, then

turns it around to look at the label. "I don't really know how

to ask, but, well, she says she's bored stiff here.    She wants

to know if she can come visit you in the city."

    'I know my father,' she'd said.      How long has she studied

him, learning how to push and prod to get her way?    Well,

fifteen years is the answer to that one.    But how well had she

read me?   Enough to know she'd need to get this look on my face,

of confusion and surprise glazed in disgust, or he could never

convince himself to go through with it.    And she needs him to.

Because he's trapped her in his own image.    Because mine is a

way out.

    The fight.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 230


       She couldn't have anticipated the fight unless what she'd

said of him was true; it was their fight, and whatever she said

in it, that cut him down, pushing him to the point of, what was

her word? 'Emasculation.'

       Taylor needed a chance to look angry and bothered, tod say

that she'd been talking to me about life in the city, spinning

stories of all the cool things I do, playing a jealousy card,

trying to make me out as some incredibly cool person who'd come

into her life, able to offer her more than airplane models and

MTV.    A better man than he could be.   A stronger man.

       I don't think she knows what she's getting into, but she

probably believes it's better than what she has here.      It only

makes it worse that I'm arrogant enough to believe that that's

true.

       Sitting there, shocked, the reality of her deviousness

blooms into my mind. I just stutter and stammer.

       "I'd understand if you said no," Jamie says, not looking at

me, fingernail tearing up the label on his beer.     "Wouldn't

blame you, really.    She's hell to live with, between wanting to

stay up till all hours and then barely sleeping.     It's like

she's activly mocking me.    I go to bed at ten and can hardly

muster enough strength to hit the snooze button.     And when I

finally do come downstairs, she's up eatting CoCo Puffs and
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 231


drinking her third cup of coffee.   But she made me promise I'd

ask, so I have to ask."

    "I...I don't know what I'd do with her."

    "Do you have cable?"

    "No."

    "You don't?" As if it's an affront to civilized society.

    "I had it but I never watched it, so I got rid of it."

    "Well, maybe it'd be good for her.    Heh.   Actually, once

she finds that out, she'd probably not want to go." There's a

gleam in his eye, tightening the knot in my stomach.

    "What would she do?" My mind is slowly coming back to me,

and with it a desire to protest as much as possible, to get her

father to say No, Out of the Question, and remove the burden

from my shoulders.   And back on to her shoulders, peppered

freckled sunlight.

    "She says she wants to go to museums, roam around the book

stores and galleries and whatnot.   I don't believe her, but,

well, maybe she does.   More likey she just wants to meet up with

some boy and...do whatever they do." I turn before his eyes

flicker their smiles towards me.

    "Wait," I say, confused again. "For how long?"

    "I dunno.   How long would you want her?"

    Having Taylor pawned off on me like a sick relative doesn't

do anything for my mood..   Again my disgust at Jamie rises into
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 232


my throat, making my words taste terrible as I speak them.

"She's welcome, of course, but I can't really watch her.      I work

pretty long hours, but apart from giving her a key to the

building and a couch to crash on, I can't make any promises

about what she'd be doing with herself all day."

    "She's not entirely stupid," he says, as if sizing up her

ability to fend for herself.    "I'd give her the emergency cell

phone to take with her, and if you'd be able to dole out pocket

money a little at a time I could front some cash probably.       Of

course I'd give you wantever you'd need for food or whatnot."

Another slug of beer. "And I wouldn't hold you accountable for

whatever happened to her."

     I'll take her to the range and teach her to group three in

a tight arc from twenty-fire yards.    I'll buy her a gun.    Black.

Untraceable.    I'll show her how to strip it down and wipe it

clean.   Better, I'll introduce her to Oskar.   You won't know

what hit you.    If you're lucky, when she comes home she'll give

you to a count of ten.    But it's the other half of me who

actually speaks, "It's all academic, Simone wouldn't let her."

    "Simone's not going to know.     She won't be back on Tuesday.

She's gone to stay with some friends for a little while." He

looks down at the floor, bent over on his stool with his feet on

the top rung, bent all the way over to where his elbows are on

his knees.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 233


    I take a moment to think it over, and in my silence he

looks back up at me.   I can see him out of the corner of my eye.

My thoughts are full of images and debates and snippets of

conversations over the past twenty-four hours.   After a moment I

realize that there is, somewhere within it all, something like

the voice of reason, and I call for silence to let it speak.    It

reminds the rest of the quroum that this is a smart, devious

girl whose probably a little psycho, may be suicidal, and is

probably in need of a vacation from her father and her self.

The same voice reminds me that I'm a rational, fairly

respectable young man and that the worst that would happen is

that this girl will have a good time.   At least, it sounds like

the same voice that's saying this.

    "I'm not going to say no.   To be honest, it sounds like she

could use a vacation, and if things really are that bad between

you and Simone, I'm sure she's picked up on some of it.   The

fact that Simone's left and you're not sure when she's coming

back probably isn't going to help.   If you'd like me to I'll

take her, show her as good a time as I can, then send her

packing when she gets bored with it all."

    "Thanks, Stephen."   He uncoils from the chair, his legs

unfolding to the floor and his spine straightening, unaware of

what he's just agreed to. "I'll make it a Birthday present for
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 234


her.   Oh, and if you can?   Try and talk to her, see if you can

get her out of her shell."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 235




                            CHAPTER 15

                              CRYSTAL




Colin Troupe shows up with his girlfriend Crystal around four

fifteen.   We toss the steaks on the grill and break out the

cigarettes while Jamie tries to find the patio umbrella;   it's

rather bright in the sun and still quite hot.   We stand in the

shade on the hill as re-introductions are made.

    Colin is an old gaming buddy, about my age, who was a

member of the Engineering department at State while Jamie and I

were both there.   Crystal, it turns out, is also there to play.

She's hypes her self on the first handshake as 'one of those

rare women who likes guy stuff.'   She works for one of the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 236


innumerable internet companies that have sprung up in the

suburbs where rent is cheap and broadband is more easily

available.    When she finds out where I work there's the pre-

requisite Do You Know games where we eventually find out there's

only two degrees of seperation between us professionally.     She

laughs at this, and thinks it's So Cool.    They've brought

Hefeweitzen, and I can already tell that I'll be sick of her

sooner or later.

       Jamie emerges with the umbrella which is dusty, slightly

moldy and, as it turns out, broken.    The grill is wheeled over

the flagstones to the grass and into the shade of the side yard.

The chairs are brought over from around the heavy wrought iron

table, which we leave for now.    It's debated if we should bring

it over, too, as we sit on the grass in the shade and drink

beers; the iron chairs still too hot to sit on from hours in the

sun.    Colin notes that we'd just have to move it back again

before we left, since its too heavy for one person.     We agree to

leave it, and worry about that later.    After food.

       "So what do you do, Stephen?" Crystal asks at the first

lull in conversation.

       "I'm management these days, so I don't really do anything."

       This gets a chuckle from the assembled group.   Colin works

on mainframes, huge machines so old that each one has its own

set of idiosyncrasies and unique problems that it takes teams of
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 237


techs and eningeers to keep them going.   Everyone would like to

get rid of them, but they're usually doing something so

important that the risk of moving their fuctions to newer,

leaner machines is too high to justify.

    Crystal, it turns out, works on the newer, leaner machines,

coming up with the ideas and technology to make them even newer

and leaner.   She says she has Moore's Law tattooed on her arm.

We don't believe her, but then she cinches up her sleeve and

shows us.   I look over and there is Moore's Law like a tribal

mark encircling her bicep.   Of course, it isn't actually a law,

simply a projection that's been proved true; that the speed and

functionality of computers doubles every eighteen months.    It's

rendered as an overly complex mathmatical expression to look Way

Cooler than it really is.

    Since I don't really feel like talking about my job, but I

want to keep my mind off the rest of my life as well, I start

talking about the game.   Specifically, which rules we'll be

playing.

    Like most Avalon Hill games the core rules are relativly

simple.    However there are so many supplemental rules, each with

various degrees of 'realism' attached to them, and so many

variations on each additional rule set, that no one really plays

the same way.   It's a little like pool or gin rummy: There are

the Offical Rules, and then there're the way people play.    We
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 238


decide to keep Calais, but get rid of the advanced combat

system.   We'll include all the heirs, and the Plantaganets, but

not use the French mercenaries.

      Colin says he has some alternative events cards, with kooky

additions and changes, so he goes off to get these out of the

car while Jamie tends to the steaks and I get more beers.

Crystal offers to help.    She corners me in the kitchen.

      "So, seriously Stephen; what do you do?"

      I fish through the upstairs fridge and find only three

beers. "I'm management.    I push paper around and attend

meetings."

      She follows me downstairs to the mini-fridge. "Well, what

did you do before that?" Giggling and smiling.    Flirting with

me.   Just to find out if I'm 'useful.'   I have no time for this:

      "Not to be rude, Crystal, but I usually try and get to know

someone before ferreting out what they do and pidgeon-holing

their business card into my protfolio of Contacts."

      She tsks defensivly and sighs, "That's not why I'm asking."

      "Then why are you so curious about what I do?"

      "I'm just wondering why you're still working for such an

old firm."

      I get this a lot.   Dot-com people who're as bad as Clara;

twenty-two, twenty-three, who're so amazed at the amount of

money they and their company are worth on paper that they can't
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 239


believe anyone would willingly work for a company that's older

than their car.    They feel this strange need to prosleytize and

get everyone to jump on their bandwagon as some form of

validation to their own decisions.    I give Crystal my patented

response: "Stability, benefits, salary; why anyone works

anywhere."

    "Don't you find it boring?"

    "Of course it's boring."    I hand her four beers from the

mini-fridge and grab the six that've been cooling on the shelf

since I came last night.

    "You should totally come work for us."

    "You don't even know what I do," I smile, and head back

upstairs.    Taylor is there, as I figured she would be.   Her room

faces the side lawn and I thought I saw the curtains twitch as

we all got up to come back inside. "Taylor, this is Crystal.

Crystal, this is Taylor."

    "Hi."

    "Hi."

    Never before have I seen two people so instantly despise

each other for the almost exact same reason.    In Crystal's case

it was a "You're a few years younger than me and epitomize

everything I hate about my parents / childhood and you remind me

how fragile I am."    For Taylor it was more of a "I'm a few years

younger than you and you epitomize everything that I could be if
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 240


I could get away from my parents / childhood and therefore

remind me how fragile I am."   They don't even bother smiling at

each other.

    "Tae, could you grab my cigarettes for me?      I think I left

them in the den with my briefcase."

    "...Sure."    But here eyes don't break from Crystal as she

turns towards the den, until I worry that she's going to snap

some vertibrae.   When she finally snaps it around I'm reminded

of an owl.    Perhaps I should point out that Crystal is some from

of chicano mulatto, is about two inches shorter than Taylor, at

least a cup size larger, is wearing shoes that negate the

difference of the former and a shirt accentuating the difference

of the latter.

    "You shouldn't do that, you know," Crystal chides as we

make our way outside with seven beers between us.

    "Do what?"

    "You're encouraging her to smoke."

    "You're encouraging her to think she has to stick her tits

out to get attention.   Who's doing more damage?"

    We're within earshot of Colin and Jamie just after I say

this, so Crystal shuts up and simply stares at me in shock.     Not

that they're paying attention.   The two of them are going

through the additional cards, sorting them into piles and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 241


looking very much like they did as kids; the entire scene is

almost exactly the same as five years ago.

    "Beer here," I call out, and they look up briefly.     Colin

doesn't even bother to look at Crystal.    He just makes a motion

with his eyebrows, a sort of 'Yeah, I'll have one,' and then

returns to his conversation over the Heir Killed card, and if it

should be used.   They reach and agreement and set it in one

pile, then go on to the next while I open the beers and pass

them around.

    Tayor comes out with a can of Coke, glares at Crystal, and

tosses me my cigarettes.    As expected, she sits down a little

off to the side and observes.    Like me, I'd assumed, she wants

to be a part of social groups but would never invite herself.

Having had an excuse to join she won't leave until she's made to

feel unwelcome, which could be anything from a look

acknowledging her presence to an absence of response to her

presence.   For the time being she simply observes.

    I overly belabor points concerning the rules, the way the

game works, and make it seem I've forgotten how to play.    No

one's overly exasperated by this, since we havn't really played

in years, and it allows the others to admit that they've

forgotten a point or two.    Jamie vanishes again to get the rule

book, leaving Colin in charge of the steaks.    Crystal take the

opportunity to poke Taylor.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 242


    "So, Taylor, how old are you?" She begins.

    "Sixteen in two weeks," she answers in stride. "You?"

    Crystal laughs, "Too old, too old."

    "You don't look too old," stressing the 'too;' slightly

reassuring, just a hint of patronizing.

    Crystal smiles, "Thanks," then gets up to join Colin at the

grill.

    Taylor grins at me, then pulls herself along the ground

closer. "Taylor -" I start, but her father returns,

interrupting:

    "It is Frotheringhay," he says, holding the rulebook in his

hand.    "That in Wales?"

    "Near the border, I think."

    "Okay.    So yeah, Colin, that stack looks good."

    "Steaks are almost ready."

    "Taylor," Jamie asks from behind the rulebook, "can you get

us some plates?"

    "Sure, which?"

    "The Heller."

    "Okay."     She wanders off and I try not to look like I care.

    "Where we gonna play then?"

    We all stop and look at the heavy, hot iron table sitting

under the hot, overbearing sun.

    "Dining room table."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 243


    "Sounds good.   Get things sorted while we eat?"

    It's agreed.    Plates are brought out, steaks brought in, a

couple more beers opened and the game opened, various decks

shuffled, its pieces sorted, some rules respoken and the lights

turned on just a bit.   Though the sun is still high in the sky,

enough of it is falling through the wrap-around windows behind

us to play by.   We're talking about how to divvy up the various

nobles and titles and such when Taylor asks to play.

    "Uh," Jamie's mouth goes slack mid-sentence, then looks

around. "You know how to play?"

    "Pretty much - guard your faction, wheel and deal with

everybody else, grab an heir and a bishop and try and stay

alive."

    "It's actually more complicated than that," Crystal

condesends, gazing at the girl over the rim of her in a glass-

please,-I-don't-like-drinking-out-of-bottles beer.

    "Well, not really." Colin's stubborn obliqueness wins out,

and the cards begin to be re-organized.   I wind up with a

faction comprised of Mowbray, Courtnay and others with castles

in the Southwest.   Colin takes London and the Southeast, Crystal

is spread across Wales and the Midlands, Taylor the long road

from London to York, and Jamie the Northern Marches and with

Douglas, who's stranded out on the Isle of Man.   The first few

rounds go slowly as fortune spreads everyone around: Marshal to
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 244


Wye, King to Preston, Scots Invasion, Storms at Sea, and then

the first battle - Crystal's force of Hastings and Neville

caught in a clearing by Colin's heavily re-inforced Roos and and

Scrope.   With odds of just 5:4 they pull a victory, and what's

worse Neville is killed.   Crystal is stunned.   She tries to

parley for Hasting's life, but has nothing to offer and so Colin

beheads him.   I can't help but grin; ten minutes into the game

and already Colin is sleeping on the couch.

    The hours pass quickly and the sun slowly sets.     Scrope

tries to ambush Mowbray twice but rain delays the battles;

Taylor takes her forces back to York.   My nobles are split

often, but each is powerful enough to draw stalemates when

they're attacked.

    It's Jaime who suffers the worst: his ships can never seem

to get Douglass off his island, and when they do the best he can

manage is to capture a few cities of no consequence.    He and I

are destined to battle since he holds the senior Yorkist Heir

while I the have first junior and the two bishops necessary to

crown him soon as Richard dies or is killed.     Crystal and Colin

fight over the Lancastrians but eventually unite to try and

defeat the rest of us, hoping to free up some of the clergy

needed to crown one of their many Heirs.

    Taylor plays well, if ineffectually at first.     When she

captures King Henry after Colin gets too near York,    we all
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 245


expect her to keep the king and the power that comes with it,

but she doesn't, "The King is dead," she cliches, tossing the

counter into the box.   Jamie tries to explain the rules again to

her, as if she must be mistaken, but she just looks at him with

a crooked smile saying, "Oh, I know how it works, Dad.   Now's

the part where you all fight it out with eachother and I make

your life miserable as I hole it up North of the river Trent.

Oh, by the way?   My Archbishop of York is open for business; if

anyone wishes to crown their Heir in one of my Cathedrals,

titles and land are always appreciated."

    Colin looks at the board and the casualties.    I have two

Bishops, but no viable Heir.   The Archbishop of Canterbury and

Chancellor of England were both killed, their cards sitting

uselessly in one of the piles.   HAd she kept the King, we all

would have come after her, breaking her down through attrition.

With no King and no Chancellor, whomever has the most Lords and

Commons will end up in a good negotiating position when the

Event Cards finally demand Parliment be convened.   And, of

course, the best way to do that is to crown an heir, or aquire

more land and titles.

    Alliances shift as Jamie starts trying to ply his daughter

with some cities and ships, while Crystal tries to win me over

to her side with promises of votes in Parliment.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 246


    "But you've lost Oxford, Manchester, and Leeds," I say,

"I'd rather side with Tae."

    "Pity then," Taylor says, affecting a British accent "that

the Archbishop has such strong theological differences with our

Southern Brothers."

    So that's how it is.   The grandfather clock in the living

room strikes six and I go for more beers.     In the kitchen

searching for the bottle opener I hear the patio door open.

Jamie sticks his head in, "We're headed out for a smoke." I nod

and give him two bottles to take with him.

    Taylor comes in as her father leaves, ostensibly to get a

Coke from the fridge.   I pop another bottle cap off and wait.

    "So," as she squats and grabs a can out of its plastic

holder an orange rolls out. "Damnit."   Trying to grab it she

falls backwards, landing on her ass. "Ow," she says, but there's

no real pain behind it, as if she's saying it just to get it out

of the way.   Or to get a response from me.    Nodding towards it

on the floor she asks, "want an orange?"

    "No thanks."   I smile at her and take a sip.    She smiles

and with a shrug puts it back in the fridge. "So..."

    "So," she agrees, continuing with   "you get a chance to

talk to Dad?"

    I nod.

    "And?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 247


    "And what?" I say casually.

    "Did he ask you anything?" Glancing out the window with a

baleful glare; she's running over all the things she'll do to

make his life miserable if he didn't ask.

    "Wanted to know if you could come to the city."

    The eyes focus on me, but the thoughts behind them don't

seem to change. "And what did you say?"

    A shrug. "I told him I couldn't be responsible for you."

    "But he let me go anyway," Taylor says flatly, nodding.

"Kickass."

    I feel like a well played card.

    She smiles again. "How long?"

    "As long as you can make him, I guess."

    I feel like a Goebbles, idly tacking on some zeroes.

    "Really?" Either she doesn't realize that I'm on to her, or

she doesn't care.   I'll vote for the latter.

    "Well, within reason, yeah." My beer tastes sour.    I frown

into the bottle as Colin taps on the window.    I look out at him

as he pantomimes drinking a beer, then flinches as he realizes

he's got a lit cigarette in his hand and almost burned himself.

He gives a dull smile.    After I given him a nod he turns back to

the others. "But," I say to the window, watching him go, "It'll

be a few weeks still.    He says it's going to be a Birthday

Present." It's probably just me, but I stare down the barrel of
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 248


my beer to see if anything's floating in it that could be

impinging on the taste.

    Taylor steps to me, takes a hand to my chin and returns my

attention to her.   "Thank, Ste," she says, and kisses me quickly

on the cheek before releasing, pushing herself off me with her

hips.   She flashes that mischevious smile.

    "Uh-huh." Absently I rub my chin and give her a look I hope

to be slightly wary, slightly dubious.   She pops the top of her

can of Coke and turns on the balls of her feet to spring out the

kitchen and onto the porch scat-humming 'I'm in the money.'

With two bottles of beer I follow slowly.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 249




                            CHAPTER 16

                               CHLOE




A thin line of light glows from under the door when I arrive

back at my apartment late Sunday evening.   I try the handle.

It's unlocked; Chloe's here.   It shouldn't be unexpected, but it

is.   However I really don't want to deal with her right now.

Standing in the hall I'm tempted to just go back to the elevator

and leave, go to the office and sleep there.   But that would not

only delay the inevitable, it would also make it worse when it

happened, having to explain why I didn't come home.

      I rearrange my face, wiping the sneer from it, and open the

door.   I feel like bellowing out "Honey, I'm home!" but decide
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 250


not to.    Dead Can Dance is playing on the stereo and I can smell

cigarette smoke as soon as the door opens.   Strands of it float

in the hall beneath the sconces.   She's been here a while.

    "That you, Stephen?" Chole calls from the living room.

    "Yeah," as if it would be anyone else.     I drop my bag to

take off my sport coat, hanging it in the closet.    It's just an

excuse to see if she's hung up her clothes for work tomorrow.

She has.   Oh well.

    Picking up my bag again, holding it in front of me like

some sort of talisman, I wander down the hall into the main

area.   Chole's there, wearing my white terrycloth bathrobe,

sitting on the sofa with her legs tucked underneath her.      On her

face she has an incredulous exrpession, eyes darting once,

quickly, to my bag, then back at me.   The crystal ashtray    sits

on the coffee table.   There are eight butts in it and half a

bottle of one of my nicer reds within reach.    Chole has a large

wine glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a Vanity

Fair in her lap.   The Dead Can Dance album she put on is called

'Into the Labyrinth,' which I feel is an appropriate soundtrack

for anything that happens next.     She says my name, "Stephen,"

as if she's reminding herself of who I am.   But there's a bit of

reproach to it, too.

    Chloe's make up is still on and I think she's had her hair

done.   "You get your hair cut?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 251


    "Yes.    Stephen, where have you been?"

    "Jamie's wife left him." Casually, trying to be as non-

chalant about this as she's forcing herself to be. "He's going

half mad and his kid's pretty much a full bore basketcase.        Not

that he isn't, as well.    Went up Saturday night.    Weird fucking

weekend."    I sit opposite from her in my leather chair, dropping

my bag on the floor beside it.    After I sit down I realize I

need a drink, that I'm shaking a little, and instead of getting

up again take out my cigarettes.

    "So that's where you've been," she looks at her nails, then

continues her interrogation.    "When did you start smoking

again?"

    "I don't know." I light up, blow out the smoke, lean

forward and pull the ashtray closer to me.      Chloe's not asking

any more questions, just look at me expectantly, so I go on.

"Colin was there.    You remember him.    He showed up with some

bitch of a girl who waved her tits around all weekend and more

or less acted like an immature, spoiled version of Clara."

    I want to see the look on her face when I say this, but

don't dare show my hand so bluntly.      But I know she's still

staring at me, and that she'd see me looking at her.      Otherwise

I can feel a boldness about me, one that's strikes me as wholly

ingenuine.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 252


    "I hardly got any work done, drank too much and, when I

wasn't having to deal with Colin and Crystal, had a series of

monologues from Jamie on everything ranging from World-War II

airplanes to whether he's a good father or not to why he's good

at his job.    The drive back was too long, I managed to wake my

sister when I called her and then had to convince her she could

go back to sleep and that I'd call again tomorrow.    And right

now I need to sit down and have a drink."

    I maintain my look of cool disregard, for better or worse.

Chloe slips into the hard-core passive-agressive bullshit I'd

expected like I hadn't said anything at all: "I only came over

because I hadn't heard from you all weekend and was worried.

Silly me.    If I'd known you were out getting drunk with your

friends, I wouldn't have bothered to come and look in on you."

    "Or drink my '74 Shloss-Johnasen," I gesture towards the

bottle on the coffee table.

    "It was too dry anyway."

    "It's supposed to be dry."

    "Then I guess it succeeded," she counters.

    I shrug and ease myself further back into my chair.     I

realize exactly how tired I am as the leather begins to warm

around me.    I follow along with the music in my head.   I've

always liked Dead Can Dance.    Emily introduced me to them when I

went to visit her once in college.    She stretched out on her
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 253


bed, poured herself some wine then just sat back and listened.

I was eighteen, ostensibly previewing the school even though I

knew I didn't have the grades to get in, let alone the

scholarships I'd need to pay for it.       But Emily got them.

    The music is an odd sort of alternative-middle-eastern-folk

rock, heavily influenced by celtic plainsong.       Lisa Gerrard

split to persue a more extreme sound in her solo career, which

Emily prefers to the original style she and Brendan Perry

pioneered.    She mentioned this in fits and starts between songs.

I felt self-conscious about it because I always felt young and

awkward around my sister.       But I listened, because whatever she

said was gospel to me at the time.       She was a lot like my

father, save thats she would give me the time of day.

    "Stephen!"

    Chloe's glaring at me.       I blink at her. "Huh?"

    "I said, don't fall asleep in your chair."

    "Oh.     Did I?"

    "Yes," her head tilted down, staring up at me over the top

of her magazine.       She tosses it onto the coffee table.   She's

loosened the belt on her bathrobe, re-arranged the leaves of

terrycloth to reveal a line of flesh from her neck to her thigh.

The rising curve of her breast, the shadowy vee of her crotch.

I guess we're supposed to have sex now.

    "I'll get ready for bed, then."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 254


       My joints creak as the springs uncoil under the leather,

helping me to stand.     I look at my cigarette, which is now

mostly ash.    My hand trebles a little as I yawn; ash falling the

floor.    Oh well.   Chloe makes a sharp tsk and rolls her eyes. "I

swear, I don't know what would happen to you without me around."

       I don't either, so I don't say anything.   Besides, I hate

that argument.

       The sex is dry and mechanical.   I try and make an effort,

but my head keeps lolling on my shoulders.     I'm really tired,

and Chloe's makeup is getting all over my pillows.     I fake an

orgasm with my last bit of caring, then quickly fall onto myside

of the bed like an old tree in a storm.     Chloe rubs my shoulder

and coos.    I twitch.   She says my name, "Stephen," singsong and

coy.    I smack my lips.   This is part of the patented Stephen

Falling Asleep routine.     I bought a camcorder and recorded what

I do when I genuinely fall asleep and cross-referenced the

results over seven days to make sure I got the order right:

Twitch, smack lips, twich again, open mouth, slow breathing to

ten breaths per minute.     Wait, I've been smoking, which affects

lung capacity.    Make it twelve per minute.   Count to two hundred

and then twitch again.

       Chloe sighs, and when she starts masturbating herself I

think of Taylor and grin myself to sleep; those boys have so

much to learn.
Birch / Dynamite / 255
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 256




                             CHAPTER 17

                                EMILY




I wake up slowly.    Five o'clock, six o'clock: sometime before

dawn. There's a bit of sunlight coming through the blinds.       I'm

naked, a brunette lying next to me.     Chloe.    I reach over and

slide the window open a little.    Cool summer air rushes in.     I

exhale the stifling, pungent reek of sex and sweat, breathing in

the smell of rain and the city in the morning.

    I had a dream.    I try and freeze the memory of it, but it's

already gone.   Getting out of bed will probably wake Chloe, so I

just lie there for a while, trying to bring back the dream,

taking long, deep breaths.    The rain was sweet, summer rain,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 257


washing the dirt and grim from the city.     It's no wonder water

is so wrapped up in rebirthing myths; the smell of it calms me

from the vestiges of fear lingering from the dream.

    'Fear?'     Maybe I shouldn't try and remember it.

    Shuffling out of bed Chloe groans, but doesn't wake.       I

snap the condom off my flaccid penis and toss it into the

garbage.   The bathrobe Chloe was wearing last night is in a heap

on the floor.    I pick it up, put it on and check the pockets:

Cigarettes, 14k gold lighter, a single condom.

    The wrapper from the one we used last night is still in the

trash can.    Same brand.   Not a brand I bought.    It has

nonoxynyl-9, which Chole's mildly alergic to.       Which means she

didn't buy them.    Which also means that she didn't notice when

she grabbed them from wherever she got them from.       Which means

she's fucking someone new, who doesn't know not to get that

kind.   I wonder what happened to Eric?

                                   #

Emily thinks I'm over-reacting.     I call her around six, which is

a reasonable enough hour.

    "Why don't you say something, Stephen?"

    "Say what?"

    "That you think she's sleeping around?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 258


      "Like she'd admit it," I say, sipping at my coffee.    I've

closed the door to the bedroom, but am still keeping my voice

down, just in case.

      "You can still get angry."

      "I do get angry.    I just don't take it out on her.   Or on

you," I add.

      "So you just kick the puppy?"

      "Uh-huh." I smile.

      Emily segues. "Speaking of which, I talked to Hope the

other day."

      "Oh?   How is she?"

      "Feeling hurt and discarded."

      "Good.   Now she knows how I felt."

      "Stephen..."

      "Now I can't be angry?" I ask, trying not to sound whiney

or passive-aggressive.      Probably failing, but oh well.

      "She didn't get married just to hurt you," Emily says.

      "No, she told me to fuck off and never come back to hurt

me.   And it worked.     Getting married and sending me an

invitation was just icing on the cake." I don't like talking

about this with Emily, and she knows that. "What's it matter,

anyway?"

      There's a click and suddenly the crickets that had been

chirping in the background cease, replaced by the sound of
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 259


sprinklers. I look at the clock in time to see it the zeros

flick over at the hour. "Damn cangeovers," Emily says with a

sigh. "They still havn't gotten them right.     Six am, noon and

six pm and midnight you get that.   Wakes me up at night,

sometimes."

    I don't say anything.    I sip my coffee.

    "I just don't want a replay of last year, is all," she

bursts out.

    "What do you mean?"

    "You and Hope.    Being in the same room and ignoring each

other.   Or one of you will leave when the other comes in.

Everybody notices."

    "I doubt that," I say.

    "I notice it, Stephen," quieting a bit into mild annoyance.

"The two of you live in the same town for christssake.     You'd

think you'd have gotten over it by now."

    "Well I'm not calling her."

    "What if she called you?" I think about this for a minute,

long enough that Emily adds, "and don't you dare tell me you

have to go or something."

    So I sigh and actually think about it. "I guess I'd take

the call."

    "You promise?"

    "Emily," but I know what's next.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 260


    "For me?   Please?"

    "Emily, don't."

    There's an awkward silence between us then.     I'm tempted to

say that I Have To Go, but it'd be no use.    She's already up.

She'd probably just call back.    Or worse, she wouldn't.

    "I promise."

    "Thank you." A long sigh, bed springs squeaking as she

eases herself back into the pillows.    I can't believe I made her

sit up. "When are you getting in?"

    "I don't know yet."

    "Let me know when you do, okay?"

    "I will.   I promise."

    Her voice flattens as I make my second promise.     "I don't

ask much of you, Stephen.    Don't try and make me feel bad

because I asked this."

    "I didn't mean it like that," and I feel like I'm seventeen

again, caught at trying to be sly.    Emily keeps me there,

because for her it's always going to be the day after her

twenty-first birthday party.   I pick a piece of lint off the

front of the robe.    Cigarettes in the pockets.   She'll hear, but

I take one out and light it anyway.

    "You still smoking?" Emily asks as soon as I flick the

lighter.

    "Yeah."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 261


    "Christ.    You know, the only thing I need more than a

cigarette is a good orgasm."

    I cough as I choke on the smoke, taking a long pull on my

coffee to wash out the roughness from the back of my throat.

    "Sorry."

    "No problem," I say mid-swallow.

    She's quiet for a minute, then asks "When you come out,

will you bring me some cigarettes?"

    "You're not supposed to smoke, Emily." I top off my coffee

"You said it could kill you," knowing I shouldn't have said it;

But I spilled some coffee on the counter.     I was wiping it up.

I got distracted.   I'm about to apologize:

    "Please, I was supposed to die years ago," bitter and

resentful she spits out her doctor's name, Kaplan, hard on the

'K,' says he's a fucking quack and doesn't know shit about what

he's doing.    The tests must have gone poorly over the weekend.

She usually only curses when they go poorly. "So don't worry

about it.   Hell, I'd rather keel over with you around then a

bunch of orderlies who'll try and drag me from the grave.     You

at least would have the balls to let me die in peace."

    I keep my tears quiet.     It would just make her feel worse.

    "These guys, I'm a fucking cash cow and guinnea pig all

wrapped up into one.   The new ones always try and get me to sign

waivers when the pain's so bad I need the morphine.     I try and
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 262


yell at them and they say I'm having an 'adverse reaction' to

something and then they put me out with shit I've never even

heard of before.   Makes Lithium look like a fucking Altoid.

Takes me days to get my mind back after that.     Only thing I

fucking have left and they just..."

    Her voice trails off.   I'm biting my lip so hard I can

taste blood.   Because I'm the strong one.

    "I'm gonna go," she says, still angry. "Call me tomorrow."

    I eek out a "Kay," and Emily hangs up.     I replace the

receiver.   When she wakes up, Chloe asks what happened to my

hand.   I tell her not to worry about it.    She gets coffee and

asks if it's what happened to the kitchen cabinets.     I tell her

not to worry about it.   She asks who called, why the phone is

smashed, why there's blood all over it and if I'm planning on

going to the emergency room, because my lip might need stitches.

I tell her she can shut up or fuck off, and that I could care

less which.

    She doesn't slam the door on her way out, so I feel like

shit for the rest of the day.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 263




                            CHAPTER 18



                               SARAH




Sarah waves me off when I try to pay for my drink.    I raise it

and toast her in a vague, silent way.    She and I are the only

two in the bar.   Even the old woman is missing.   But it is a

rainy summer evening; maybe everyone's just got somewhere better

to be.

    And that must include Morrow and Flemming.     I didn't expect

Flemming to show, but had hopped Marrow would stop by, even if

only for a few minutes.   Hal Perkins sometimes shows, but that's
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 264


a bit of a long shot so i don't really look for him in the few

faces that cross in front of the window.

    I wonder if this is the end of our once-a-month ritual, and

if I'm to blame for its demise.   If so, it's pretty ironic that

I'm the only one who showed.

    Sarah's been unusually quiet, barely poking her nose out of

her book.    It's hardbound, missing its dustjacket and the title

embossed across its spine never seems to catch the dim light

enough for me to make it out.    There's not much else to do, so I

try for about five minutes before giving up. "What are you

reading?"

    "Lillian Hellman."

    "Oh." Poking at my drink. "Never heard of her."

    "Playwright.    Wrote _The Little Foxes?_"

    I shake my head, even though Sarah still isn't looking up.

"Never heard of her."

    "She's good."

    "No one's gonna show, huh?"

    Sarah shrugs.    I can't tell if she's unhappy to see me, or

just engrossed in her book.    I'd finish my drink and leave if it

weren't raining.    As it is I'm a little damp from ducking in and

out of my cab to get here.    A trickle of water will slip down my

collar if I move too quickly.     I sip at my whiskey sour half-

heartedly.   Someone passes, and I glace out the window to the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 265


street.    Face cast down, umbrella close over their head,

shuffling hurriedly.    They never look up; I can't see if it's

anyone I know.    They pass the door without stopping.

      Summer thunderstorms are common enough in these parts, but

this sort of constant, day-long drizzle is practically unheard

of.   The ground is hard and dry, the rain slowly soaking into

the soil.    If there was any soil around here.   Out in the world

it's probably just what we need for water-tables and sport

fishing.    In the city the rain just runs into the drains,

carried through tunnels to the decrepit old streams and concrete

waterways to the river, turning it an uglier brown than usual.

      I could drive up to the park on the hill, sit in my car and

listen to the rain on the roof.    I could step out into the

shower, walk through the fresh wet grass and listen to the earth

creak open with each new drop.    I sit on my barstool and take

another sip, watching the stragglers make their way through the

rain.

      I like a good rainstorm, even something as long and drawn

out at this.    Without them the summer just drags on and on.

It's good to have something you can point to, some reference for

your memory. "This happened the summer is rained all day," is as

good a place to start a story as any.    If I had any stories to

tell.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 266


    The door opens.     My head snaps over, but it's just the old

woman, shaking off her umbrella before squelching in her rubber

boots into the back, covered in a pink and blue floral rain

slicker.   Three sips later she comes back with a cup of coffee,

sits down in her chair and stares at the floor.    It's depressing

watching her, and since she's ignored me so far I don't feel bad

about ignoring her back.

    But distracted, I reach for my drink with my bad hand.

Pain shoots through my knuckles.    It's been ten days, the scabs

are starting to flake, but especially in this weather they creak

and groan whenever I try and move them too quickly.    At least

the cuts in my lip have healed to where the swelling is gone,

leaving just three dark patches visible in only the brighter

lights.

    Sarah doesn't ask about my hand.    No one does.   Jeffery

noticed it, understandably so as the bandages were tinged red

that Monday morning when I came in, but he didn't ask.      Neither

did Amy Lynn, who stopped by last Wednesday.    Isobel, Tim

Stevens, Kyle Evans.    They all noticed, but none asked.   Part of

me wishes they would.    The other half is happy they don't.     I

don't like to lie about something so trivial.

    My shoulders and upper arms are still cold and I try

ordering some coffee, but I'm cut off mid-sentence by a quickly

raised finger in the international symbol for 'just a second.'
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 267


Sarah gets to the end of the sentence, the line, the scene, then

looks up expectantly.

    "Coffee?" I say.    The door opens behind me, letting in a

burst of air and the smell of the city in the rain, followed by

what sounds like a pair of women's heels clicking on the tiled

floor.   Off to my right I hear the old woman's chair creak as

she stands up.   Actually, in this weather, it may be the old

woman who's creaking.

    "Milk and sugar?" Sarah asks, then stares off over my

shoulder.

    "Yeah.    Please.   What?"

    Sarah's eyes bug out a bit, but when I ask her she just

shakes her head into a slight furrow of her eyebrows.   The old

woman creaks back down into her seat like a rusty door hinge.

"Nothing," she says, looking back at me, then in a lower voice,

"that woman who just came in looks like you is all."

    "Hm?" I try and casually look over her shoulder to the

mirror hanging behind the bar.

    "Weird.   You're like...twins."

    My bad hand slides forward, across the hard wood of the

bar, reaching towards the mirror like Alice to the looking-

glass; there within is the familiar shiloutte, long since passed

through memory and into myth.

    "You have a twin sister or something?    That's uncanny."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 268


    "No.    Time seems to speed up and slow down in the same

moment.   I begin to rotate in my chair, not taking my eyes from

the image in the mirror lest it should disappear in the instant

it takes to turn around. "That's my cousin," and I say her name

like a charm, as if to make her real, "Hope."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 269




                            CHAPTER 19

                                 HOPE




Hope catches my eye and smiles a warm, broad, luscious smile,

shaking herself out of a cheap overcoat.   She breaks eye contact

to hang it up on one of the pegs beside the door.     Her shoulders

are sharp, athletic, like her hose-clad calves, poking out from

under a severe, black wool skirt and jacket.     Mother of pearl

earrings, pearlescent white shirt, thin, with drops of water

flecked about the collar.   A nervous smile.

    "I'll get you coffee," Sarah sucks in her breath and ducks

down the bar into the kitchen.

    "Yeah, thanks," I tell her from somewhere far away.
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 270


       Hope's heels click over the floor.   She steps up to the

bar.    I feel like I'm watching some sort of blind-date candid-

camera embarrasment of my life.      Hope is here.    With me.   In a

bar.    Hope.

       "Stephen," she's unsure.

       "Hope?" Maybe it's someone else.   Not that it is, but you

can always dream.

       "Hey." She sits down, looks around, french manicured-nails

through her short brown hair, the hard scrape as they hit her

scalp and run back behind her ear.      She looks at me again and

says "You know, if you keep looking at me like that, I'm gonna

think you don't want to see me."

       "This is not co-incidence."

       "No, of course not." Tight lips, almost a frown.      A Silly-

Boy kind of frown.      A Hope kind of frown. "Emily said you always

come here last Wednesday of the month."

       "She said you'd call."

       "I am."

       "This is not calling."

       "I'm calling on you, as opposed to calling you.      Same verb.

I'm not responsable for your more restrictive interpretation.

Waitress looked pretty.      You fuck her yet?"

       "Wow.    It's so good to see you too, Hope." I snap, turning

my attention back to my drink.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 271


       "I knew I could wipe that shocked sneer off your face." And

she chuckles, then puts her hand on my leg, leaning in, "you

rather I'd given you a peck on the cheek?"

       I flinch back from her.

       "Me neither," she says dryly.   I catch a flash of Sarah's

curls beside me as she sets down my coffee, two packets of sugar

on the saucer and a small tureen of cream next to it. "Hello,

I'm Hope."

       Sarah takes Hope's outstretched hand and gives it a limp

shake. "Hi.    I'm Sarah."

       "It's good to meet you.   Stephen here is going to be a dick

to me for a little while before he gets over whatever ego-ridden

psychosis he's currently inflicting on himself, and I just

wanted to warn you in case that might make you feel awkward.

Also, I would be extremely grateful if I could get a cup of

coffee when you have the chance."

       "Sure..." Sarah looks at me, back at Hope, then shrugs.

"Certainly," her professionalism coming back. "Regular?"

       "Please," Hope gives her a disarming smile. "Thank you."

When Sarah leaves Hope gives me a light punch in the shoulder.

"So!    Three years!   How ya been, kid?   Things going well?   Good,

good," then dropping the affected joviality with a rolling of

her eyes. "Hey.    Christ, Stephen, it's me.    Okay?   Deal or don't

deal.    I'm having coffee.   Ah, thank you again, Sarah."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 272


    "Not problem."

    "Can I run a tab?    I'll be needing at least two stiff

drinks before I'm through here."

    "Certainly."

    I know Sarah's enjoying this on some level, I just don't

know which.   Maybe her boyfriend dumped her and this is some

sort of vicarious revenge fantasy.   I stir in the mix and sugar,

trying to will her to leave us alone so I can really lay into

Hope a bit.   It's not surprise, really, that she chose to meet

me here, some place public, where I can't really get away with

out some form of embarrasment, free of her husband, free of

Chloe, but at one of my favorite bars, where she knows I come

regularly.    It's very much like Hope, to attack the enemy on

their home turf, when they least expect it, when they think

they're safe.

    "When you're finished creating a maelstrom in your little

teapot, could you please pass the milk?   Thank you.   Now, are

you going to be speaking at all, or just sulking like when you

were fifteen?"

    "Hope," She's smiling prettily at me when I look up at her.

"how can I help you?"

    "Stephen," she sips at her coffee, "Mm...this is much

better than what I usually find at restaraunts.   I've come to

have such low expectations over the years that I automatically
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 273


just put in the milk and sugar, always expecting the worst:

Bitter, acidic, weak , tepid.   It's so nice and refreshing to be

proved wrong about something in those circumstances."

    "Thank you," Sarah's brightened like a two-bit whore whose

been flashed a couple of twenties in a dank back-alley.

    "It's rare, too, to see people take pride in themselves, in

what they do."

    "Hope?" Because she's really talking to me.

    "Stephen?" Because she know I won't say it.

    But I don't have anything to say, so I just try and breathe

a bit.   "Look, I'm sorry."

    "Now, are you saying that because you're actually sorry?

Or because you know it's what I want to hear?"

    "It's what you want to hear," as if there was any question,

"I'm not the one who should be apologizing."

    "Well I am sorry about what I said to you, years ago.     It

was rude and insensitive of me.   I took a lot of shit out on you

you didn't deserve and I've been trying to apologize ever since,

but you never return my calls and I doubt you opened any of my

letters.

    "I'll forgive you for that, because I know you're just in

the same circumstance, holding on to your anger at me because

it's one of the few things you can fall back on.   But you have

to be sincere in any sort of apology before we can move forward
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 274


at all.    Otherwise I'll just get bitter and cynical and look for

some otherway to fuck you over and make you feel just as shitty

for just as long.   Hell,   I'll even forgive you for bailing on

me at my wedding and sending, in lieu of an RSVP, a tasteful

gift of cash in the form of four crisp hundred dollar bills,"

she pauses then, poised over her coffee. "Yeah; why four

hundred?   Was there some twisted, semi-psychotic reason behind

that that I missed?    And they were sequential.   And the last six

numbers on the bottom bill was my birthday.    But I think there's

no way in hell you would remember my birthday, save beyond the

year, though even that's questionable, so what gives?    Let me

ask you that."

    Leaning back in the stool I rest my head against the wal,l

the chill in my shoulders slowly receeding from the heat of the

coffee in my throat.   Hope has a beautiful, confident voice that

can trapise along with the curve of her thoughts so fluidly

every new turn seems perfectly natual and logical.    In short, I

fall in love with the sound of her voice all over again.    Like I

wanted to.   Like I knew I would. "It was the most the ATM would

let me take out at once."

    There's no response for a moment, and then: "That makes

sense," creating a scenario that gives her a reasonable doubt,

"Emily probably told you that you'd need to send a gift even if

you didn't show up, so you went to the ATM, got out as much cash
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 275


as you could and just sent it in the mail to Dad.    I can see it;

that makes sense.   It sounds like you."

    Throughout Sarah's slowly been backing away to the far side

of the bar, leaning now against the bottles displayed in front

of the mirror.   I give her a weak smile as I look further along

to Hope in profile, who's looking across at me directly.    Small

ears.   I've always had a thing for small ears, I wonder if this

is where I got it from?

    "So," she says, and she she does her lips part, teeth come

down to hiss out the Ssss, pursing on the Ooo as she draws out

the word.   Her eyebrow twitches just a little bit and she leans

over the back of her barstool, jacket buckling as she uncrosses

and re-crosses her legs.   Strong, athletic legs.   By the time I

was eight she could out run me.   I don't think I ever caught her

after unless she wanted me to.

    And then half a grin, malevolent as she turns to firmly

catch my eye in the in mirror, staring at me there as she adds

"I'm just wondering; is this is going to be another in a series

of bizarrely constructed emotional manipulations where neither

of us know what we really want, or are we're just going to fuck

in the restroom and then ignore each other next month at

Emily's?"

    "Excuse me," Sarah raises that finger again.    We both look

at her.   Taking turns looking at both of us she lowers it,
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 276


pointing it towards the kitchen, "I got a thing," and quickly

exits stage left.

    "Smart girl," Hope says when she's left. "I doubt she'd

fuck you."

    "Enough," I turn to her, leaning in like a wiseguy. "What

do you want, Hope?"

    "What happened to your hand?"

    "My temper.     Look, what do you want?"

    "I'd hate to see what happened to the other guy," she

smiles at her coffee.

    "I was the other guy."

    "Then who was the first guy?"

    "I was him too."

    "How very Fight Club of you.     You been hanging out with

Oskar?"

    "Oh, let's not evoke Oskar in this conversation."

    She knows she's gone a little too far, so she backs off.

"Sorry," a gulp of coffee. "Christ, this was stupid, wasn't it?"

    "Yeah."

    "You're not going to budge, are you?"

    "I doubt it," my voice definitely nasal and whiney now.      It

makes me feel self-consious, so I back off a bit, sit up and

straighten my shirt front.    The heat feels good on my hand.

    "What did happen to your hand?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 277


    "Why the fuck do you care?"

    "Because you probably hit something, and you only do that

when you're angry at something you can't control."

    "So?" I take my hand into my lap, turning slightly to hide

it from her.   Looking into the mirror I can see Hope's eyes

follow it down, then look away, self-consious.

    Her head sways right and left, trying to find something

else to look at, finally settling on her coffee cup. "I do still

worry about you, Stephen.   You'd a dick, but I worry."

    "Why does everyone use that word to describe me?      Whatever

happened to 'asshole' or 'bastard?'   Why 'dick?'"

    Hope actually thinks about it, her face opening like a

flower as her forced smile fades. "'Asshole,' is more borish and

clumsy.   'Bastard' is a bit more...rutheless and cunning and

cruel."

    "But why 'dick?'" We'be both softened a little, lowered our

voices.

    "It's the epitome of male chauvanism," she says, nodding,

"it's being the parody, the stereotype of male-ego run rampant."

    "I think I like 'bastard' better."

    "Well you are a bit of a bastard," she says with sweet,

consoling sincereity. "And you only act like a dick when you

feel like someone's calling you out on something," adding "which

I am.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 278


    "I just don't like getting hurt by you," I mumble ito my

coffee.    When I look up after along a pull on it that drains the

shallow cup she's looking at me and smiling. "What," I grumble.

    Hope lays a hand softly on my shoulder, fingers working at

the lip of my collar.    The fold of cotton pushes against my neck

as she moves her finger along its edge.     She's smiling, like I'd

said something beautiful. "We don't have to compete with each

other anymore, you know."

    "What do you mean?" She's making me nervous.     I try and

drink more of my coffee, but it's gone.     I put down the cooling

cup and drain the remainder of my whiskey sour.

    "When we were kids; always competing with each other over

every little thing.    You know.   And we kept at it, through

college."

    I brush away her hand under the pretense of scratching at

my neck.    Pulling her hand back that smile of hers fades a

little into a look of sorrow that looks just a bit too much like

pity for my tastes.    I don't try and hide the inevitable sneer

that somes as a result.

    "I'm just not mad at you any more," Hope finishes her

coffee. "I don't like that we're not speaking now because we

were young and stupid then."   The cup clinks on the saucer. "And

I miss you," now her turn to mumble. "I miss you, and your

life."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 279


      Which makes me snort.   Hope lets out a bit of a sigh,

stretching her neck, smoothing her hand over her hair, keeping

it there, crouching over to let the elbow come to rest on the

bar top, staring out the window.

      I'm waiting for her to say something, but she doesn't.

Twice I start to reach out to her, but I can't make myself do

it.   Three years is a long time.

      "I'm going to go," Hope suddenly gets up, picks up her

purse and pulls out a five. "Tell Sarah I'm sorry about not

ordering more drinks." She tosses the bill next to her cup,

stills herself for a moment, then turns without looking at me;

without saying a word.

      Staring into the mirror I watch her receede, fall back

through the looking-glass, put on her coat and head back out

into the rain.   She never looks back.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 280




                            CHAPTER 20



                          JAMIE & SIMONE




The ride out to Jamie and Simone's Fourth of July Party; Freeway

by-pass winding over rooftops, houses giving way to blasted rock

cliff-face, backyards growing from patches of green to sloping

lawns to wild, unkempt copses of sick looking trees.     Chole just

statres out the passenger window, bored.     She doesn't want to be

here, but she'd promised she'd come.     I reminded her of that,

"you promised," letting my voice sound as whingey as it wanted

to be, like a kid outside an icecream store; 'Buy Maaaom, ya

praaaamised.'   She gave me a vile glare and got ready.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 281


    Exit twelve, route 30 to an unmarked turn-off then fifteen

miles of pot-holed back roads, coming out under an old iron

railway bridge.    Past the strip malls, through the center of the

townlet at the crossroads, left onto Picker's Mill Road for a

mile and a half.   More stripmalls, springing up between used car

lots, a Home Depot, a pair of burger franchises and a gas

station.   Take the next right, two lanes winding up the hill

then down, over the bridge, right, up another hill, left at the

cross-roads.   Sharp right up the hair-pin turn of the driveway.

    There are only three cars up past the lip of the hill,

where the macadam gives way to in the gravel drive.   "We're

early," Chole speaks for the first time in over an hour.

    "I told Jaime I'd come early and help him set up," I tell

her, pulling the car into a spot next to Simone's Volvo.    It's

silver.

    Not waiting for me to turn off the engine, Chloe gets out

as soon as I pull up on the emergency break.   Over her shoulder

she mutters "You could have mentioned that to me" just as she

slams the door behind her.   Chloe hates Simone more than I do.

I figure getting the former in a bad mood will help make the

latter's day a little more miserable.   So I smile, zip the key

out of the ignition and don't bother to ask for help unloading

the beer from the trunk.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 282


    Jamie's out back, setting up a work table next to a pair of

grills. "Oh, hi" he says. "You're just in time."     He's wearing

khaki slacks and a cotton polo with watching brown leather belt

and shoes.   I feel a little over dressed in my sport coat and

slacks, crisp poplin button down and low cut loafers, but it's

better than ending up looking like every other khakis-and-polo

who'll be here in about an hour and a half.

    "Anything I can help with?" I ask, setting down a case of

Bell's Amber.   Jaime looks at the beer, approves of its

obscurity and then points to the work table.

    "Here, or behind me, do you think?"

    "There's good," I say without looking, shuffling the beer

into the shade. "Should be cool enough, if you want one."

    Looking first over one shoulder, then the other and through

the window into the kitchen he nods, conspiratorially.     There's

no opener available, so I just pop two open using the edge of

the retaining wall.   Jamie flinches when I do this, but I

pretend not to notice. "Easy there," he says.

    "No damage," I hand him a bottle, "cheers."

    "Cheers." We both take sips, then turn the bottle around to

look at the label. "Good," he nods.

    "Not bad, yeah.    So what do you need still?"

    "Not much.    Bring out a tub for beers and Cokes in about an

hour.   We'll get the meat then, too."   He takes another sip
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 283


while looking around at the patio.       A large canopy tent had been

rented and set up over the bulk of it, along with some chairs

and two wooden picnic tables on the side lawn.

       "How many are coming?" I ask.

       "Twenty are confirmed.   Some will come after lunch and

leave, others later for an early dinner.       Another eight or ten

are maybes."

       "Who's here already?"

       Jaime pokes at the wire of the grill. "A friend of

Simone's."

       I just nod and sip my beer.     "Wanna duck out for a smoke?"

       "Sure," he looks relieved to have been given the out. "Let

me just," but he wanders off without saying anything more,

heading into the house with a gentle click of the door behind

him.

       It's cool in the shade, and the rains of the past day or so

have left the grass still damn in the shadows.       A light breeze

brings a damp air in from the woods behind the house, but out in

the sun there's just enough heat to prick the back of your next

with sweat.    Jaime returns, turning to close the door firmly

behind him.    I wonder where Taylor is, but decide not to ask.

       He leads me up the hill to the woods, but not along the

path towards the pond.    Instead we head to the left along the

edge until we reach a patch where the bracken gives way to a
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 284


carpet of wild violets.    "This is a newer section of the wood,"

he tells me, "about twenty or thirty years old.      There a

clearing ahead."

    The clearing is about a hundred feet on a side and almost

perfectly flat.    Low grass runs the length of it, recently mown.

Hedges line the far side, which leads to an unused field grown

wild with tall grasses and shoots of trees.

    "The farm up the way closed down years ago.       The land is in

some sort of soil trust or something," he takes a long pull on

his beer while I get out a pair of cigarettes. On the opposite

side is the old woods, over run with brambles and more

blackberries.    Pointing to a break in this hedge he tells me

"That's another way down to the pond.    Comes out by the willow.

A little over grown, though, and you have to jump the stream.

That runs down the otherside of that hill." He casually motions

to the hill.    I try and ignore what he's trying to tell me,

swallow my mouthful of beer hard and make to light my cigarette.

    Jamie sticks his in his mouth, thrusts it at me.       The tip

flickers and blooms.    He smokes like a girl.

    "Come 'ere."    There's a jumble of rocks at the corner of

the clearing with some shade.    Some are rough fieldstone, others

look like they've been worked to lie flat.       We sit on them,

drink our beers and smoke.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 285


       "I finished Von Kohler's Me-109E," he says, "the model I

was working on when you were here last."

       I nod.

       "Started on Schlesinger's.    Going to be a little tricky,

since he had an older '109D.       Not much difference, really.    I'll

need to make some new forms, though.       I'll show you them later,"

he goes on.

       "Neat," is all I can say.

       "So what have you been up to?"

       "Not much," I shrug.

       "What happened to your hand?"

       "I lost my temper, beat the shit out of my kitchen."

       "Oh," he darkens, concentrates on his smoking for a minute

or two. "Didn't think you'd be the kind of guy with a temper.          I

just mean I've never seen you get angry before is all."

       "I don't make a big deal out of it." Sip, shrug, puff. "But

I get a little carried away at times, though, when my blood it

up."

       "Oh."    He looks around a little nerviously.   I ignore him,

enjoying the view and the day. "I was planning on doing some

fireworks here later, if you're still around after dark."

       I nod.

       "Nothing much, cuz, you know, I don't want to start a

forest fire or anything.      Sparklers.   Some bottle rockets."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 286


    "Junior High stuff," I say, non-commitally.

    "Yeah."    Jamie stands up, dropping his cigarette at his

feet and snuffing it out with a petulent sort of toe-grind. "I'm

gonna go check on the girls," he says. "I'll see you in a

while?"

    I nod.    He heads back down to the house.   Out of the corner

of my eye I check his progress.    Two or three times he looks

back before being obscured by the trees.    I wait until I've

finished my cigarette, similarly snub it out, then head for the

break in the brambles.

    I havn't gone too far before I can hear voices, high and

girlish, giggling through the woods.    The path is rough.   I keep

to the side of it, making sure not to leave any footprints in

the soil damp from the rains.

    There are two girls, one of whom seems to be Taylor,

sunning themselves naked on the far shore of the pond.    I only

go as far as is necessary to make out the copper movement

through the trees before turning back; the pair of them lying on

their backs, one with her hands in the air as she talks.     That's

probably Taylor.   Beside them I see the familiar day-glow green

of her bikini sitting atop the side wall like a warning flare.

    Back at the top of the path I take a moment to simply stand

in the noon-day sun, let it fall on my face and the palm of my

hand, the beer warm in my mouth.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 287


                                  #

Simone is pleasant enough to my face, so I keep up the pretense

of our being on friendly terms for the time being.     Her 'friend'

is tanned a sort of sickly orangish color, the kindyou get from

spending time under a tanning light instead of the sun.    He

shakes my hand with a salesman's smile, introducing himself

simply as "Dale."

    "Stephen Hoemke," I say, meeting his grasp.      His hands are

fair and soft. "I've heard a lot about you."

    His smiles freezes on his face, like a poor hologram of a

real human who needs a moment to compute how exactly one

responds to this.   He must know Simone hates me, which means

that whatever I know I must have learned from Jamie.    My eyes

narrow as my smile broadens.

    Now he's staring at my hand, which is in intense pain from

being so firmly grasped though I have hid that from my features.

"Uh, what did you do to your hand?"

    "Oh," I look at the inch-wide bandage along the knuckles,

only partly concealing some of the small scars from where the

cheap particle board split and cracked and dug into my skin. "A

little mis-understanding," I say.

    "If you'll excuse us," Simone takes Dale by the shoulders

and moves him away from me.    His smile still hasn't unfrozen.

Chloe turns to me once they've left.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 288


    "That was rude," she says.

    "What," I ask, "having your boyfriend over to your and your

husband's Fourth of July party?   Yeah," knowing that that wasn't

what she meant.   I get another of those vengeful glares and she

wanders off in search of more wine.   With luck she'll be drunk

and beligerent by the time the steaks are done.

    About half a dozen others have already shown.   Two couples,

colleagues of Simone's, seem to already know Dale but don't

quite know what to make of his presence.   The other two are guys

from Jamie's shop. They seem to be set on not giving off the

impression that they're there as a couple, though they're

obviously good friends.   After a quick introduction they follow

Jamie around like a pair of puppies until the meat goes on the

grill, at which time they hover over it like guardian angles.

All the men are in kahki's and polos.   The women seem to have

all shopped at the same stores Chole does, each wearing a

similarly cut sun-dress somewhere between prim and adventurous.

    I sit on the retaining wall beside the grill, next to the

beer.   I'm on my third when Taylor and her friend come back from

the pond around one.   They're dressed, with matching styles of

silk wrapped around their hips sarong style.   Taylor sees me and

nods, but otherwise ignores me.

    "When's lunch?" She asks, sniffing at the steaks.    One of

the guys standing at the grill looks away nervously.    Simone
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 289


snaps at Taylor that she and Becky can have lunch as soon as

they've put on proper clothes.   The pair of them roll their eyes

and head into the house.   Simone turns to say something to Dale,

who leans down and smiles vacantly.   When she's finished she has

a sour look on her face, while Dale's doesn't change expression,

just pats her hand.

    Conversation at lunch is stilted, but picks up once the

steaks, various salads and other assorted foodstuffs are

decimated.   Taylor and Becky come back down in jeans and tank-

tops, are privately scolded by Simone, go back up-stairs and

don't return.

    One of the couples apologizes, but says they have to leave,

that they're headed for another party they don't want to go to,

but really have to make an appearance at.   Chloe mutters under

her breath that she wishes she could go with her.   The guys go

with Jamie down to see his planes, but I decline the invitation

when it's presented to me.

    By four another set of couples have shown up, all four

friends of Simone and Dales.   My interest in the party wanes,

but I insist to Chloe that I can't leave.   She takes me aside.

    "I don't want to be here any more, Stephen."

    "Then leave."

    "How?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 290


    "Take the car," I offer her the keys, putting a hurt tone

in my voice, "I'm sorry you're having a bad time of it.     I'd

take you home, but I really don't want to leave Jamie while Dale

is here."

    Chloe looks at me suspicously, then at the keys.     Putting

her hand on top of them she asks, "How will you get home?"

    I shrug, like I havn't already thought about this. "I'll

ask if anyone's headed in that direction.    Or I'll get a lift to

the train station.    OH, let me take my apartment keys," I pull

the set from under her hands, fumble off the set for my car and

then place them in her hand.

    "Where's Chloe going?" Jamie asks, having seen her give me

a peck on the cheek and a slight squeeze of a hug.

    "She's going to head home afterall."

    "My offer still stands, if you want the couch," he says.

I'd called him Wednesday evening, asking if this might be a

possibility. "I doubt Simone'll be in tonight, so it's no big

deal."

    "Thanks, but a ride to the station will be more than

enough," adding    "I'll check the train schedule though,   can I

use your phone?"

    He says I can, which is really unnecessary as I already

checked.    The last train is at 8:15.   When I come back out of
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 291


the house I tell him it's at 8:50.    He doesn't ask for

clarification.    Later he'll just assume he heard me wrong.

                                  #

Simone's gone before dinner.    She and Jamie were notably absent

from the collection of a dozen or so couples and the two guys

from work who, all with rumbling stomachs, were keenll aware of

their return.    I was tempted to poke Dale, but he'd ensconced

himself between a pair of adoring women whose husbands were on

the far side of the patio discussing golf.

    When the back door clicks open, it's painfully obvious that

everyone's not looking to see which of the two will emege first.

It's Simone.

    She makes her way through the crowd, thanking them all for

coming while apologizing that she has to get to her boss' party

in time to catch the fireworks.    Her work friends look at their

watches and collectivly lemming their way along behind her,

saying goodbyes or just politely laughing at themselves when

they discern that they'll all be at the next party.

    By the time orders are taken for steaks, it's a sausage

party of us four guys, standing around the grill sipping beers.

Jamie and I smoke.

    "Where's your daughter and her friend?" One of the guys

blurts out; it's the one who was looking nervous when they were

around before.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 292


    "Oh," Jamie says apologetically, "they got picked up a

while ago.   Going with some friends of theirs to see the

fireworks down at the park."

    So it's the four of us, talking about boy things for three

hours when I casually mention that it's 8:20, and that we should

be getting to the station soon.   The two guys from Jaime's shop,

whom I've been studiously ignoring for the past seven plus

hours, shake my hand and proclaim that it was good meeting me,

give Jamie a nod and tell him they'll see him on Monday, then

head out to their truck parked on the street below the hill.

    "You know," Jamie says once they've left, "If you're not in

a rush to get back, I could use some company tonight."

    "Sure," I say, thrusting my hands in my pockets. "Why not?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 293




                           CHAPTER 21



                         JAMIE & TAYLOR




I crawl on to the sofa well past mid-night.    Half-drunk, I

wonder if I'll actually fall asleep, trying not to think too

much about the past four hours with Jamie in the meantime.

Well, the first two hours weren't that bad, sitting around

drunking beer, poking at cold steaks and letting off some bottle

rockets just for the hell of it.

    But the next hour of the night it slowly came out, the

story of he and Simone and how they'd spent the past week
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 294


beginning the long, drawn out process of divorce.    "It was

inevitable," I told him, my only real words of consolation after

he'd just up and stopped, deciding not to go on. "When you try

and make choices that young, to last the rest of your life, some

of them are bound to not be the right ones."     Then I clapped him

on the back, gave him another bottle and we sat watching the

stars for an hour or so.   We didn't speak much, just finished

out the cigarettes, drank down the last cold beers and then said

our good nights.

    I realize I still have on my sport coat, and my shoes, so I

get up to take them off.   The belt comes off, too, and I decide

the socks are going tohave to go.   I stuff them into my shoes,

unbutton my top buttons and then the chill hits me.

    Upstairs rooting around for a blanket, I hear the front

door open.   The house is dark, save a light in the kitchen.

Below I hear the faint click as the door is closed again, then

the floorboards squeak as someone moves a few steps towards the

open livingroom foor.   I hear Taylor sigh, then clunk in her

shoes back to the foot of the stairs, where I can see the moon

light glow off her hair.

    Halfway up she stops and looks up.   I'm motionless beside

the open closet, a knitted afghan in my hands.    She's shiloutted

by the light in through the windows, reflecting off the bare
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 295


wood floor behind her.    I smile in what I hope is a friendly

way, nod, then turn to close the closet door behind me.

    She makes no sound going back down the stair.      Even when

she reaches the ground floor her movements are silent, save for

the occasional squeak of the floorboards.    Somewhere in the

house the AC clicks on.    I make my way back downstairs.

    I see her in the kitchen, but don't approach her.       I don't

mask the sound of my barefeet moving through to the couch, where

I sit and pull the blanket over my feet.

    "Hey," she says from the door to the kitchen.      Taylor's

holding a box of something in her hand.    She shakes it, and I

realize its the sparklers. "Come on."

    And she's gone.

    I think for a moment, then stand up, taking the afghan with

me as I follow her shadows through the kitchen, where she picks

up what looks like her knapsack, and heads to the back door.

She waits for me there, closing it behind us.

    Like her father, she leads me up the hill towards the

woods.   The grass is cold but soft on my bare feet.    I worry

she's going to lead me down to the pond, but she too follows the

tree-line until we're walking on the collection of clover and

wild violets through to the clearing.

    Looking ahead of her, heavily shadowed now that only the

faintest traces of moonlight can make it through the canopy
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 296


above, I try and keep up with her.      But she has shoes on, and

the small twings that litter my path jab and poke into my soles.

    When I reach the clearing, the light is brighter, and I

cannot see where she is.   To my left, near the jumble of rocks,

I hear a heavy wooden match strike, followed by the sizzle of a

sparkler.

    She's glowing in its silver sparks, smiling, laughing as

she twirls it through the air.    I watch her dance with it,

spinning her arms, her whole body, mesmerized by the light.        I

must have been following it with my head, because suddenly my

whole body twists; the sparkler flies up into the sky, where it

burns itself out before falling to the ground.

    Taylor comes to me, hands me a couple of the thin metal

rods, then strikes another match.      They spring to life in my

hands, like magic.   The blanket falls from under my arm as I let

go of myself, spinning around and twirling them in the darkness.

    And I remember being sixteen:      Firefies at sunset,

sparklers on the Fourth of July.

                                   #

We spread out the blanket in the center of the clearing.      Taylor

asks if I want a cigarette, and when I say yes she sticks two in

her mouth, lights them both, then hands one to me.      I say Thanks

and lay back to look up at the stars.      Taylor sits down next to

me, resting back on her elbows.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 297


    We havn't really spoken yet, so I'm hesitant to say

anything, to make any sort of conversations.      I see Vega and say

"That's Vega," pointing to the brightest star, hanging nearly

directly overhead.   She doesn't say anything. "And Daneb and

Altair kinda in a triangle.    Can't remember which is which.

Over there, kinda orangeish?    I think that's Artica.   Or is it

Articus?   Something like that.   Oh, and see that smudge there?"

    "Where?"

    "There," I point, keeping my cigarette far from my eyes in

my other hand.

    Taylor leans over to see where exactly I'm pointing, her

hair brushing against my cheek.    "Okay; Yeah.   I think so."

    "That's a whole other galaxy.     M13 it's called.    It's

twenty thousand-some light-years away."

    "Wow," awe finally creeping into her voice. "So, that light

is like, twenty thousand years old, right?"

    "Twenty, twenty-two thousand years; yeah."

    "Twenty thousand years, give or take a civilization?"

Playing at being a little dismissive. "What's that?"

    "Which?"

    "Those four stars, in a kind of diamond shape?"

    "Oh...I have no idea."

    "Where's Cancer?" She wants to know.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 298


    "Um..." I look around, "it might be that sort of lopsided

square.   Or it could be that lopsided square," I say, I'm not

really sure.    I've never been good at constallations.

    "Oh," then, more excitedly,      "aren't you going to wish me

happy birthday?"

    "When's your birthday?" I ask.      She sounds a little

dejected when she tells me it was last week, so I wish her happy

birthday.   I try and think of something else to say, but all

that comes to mind is "You get your license?"

    "Permit," she says. "Dad's Jeep is stick, and Mom won't let

me drive her Volvo.      So I have to wait for Driver's

Tray...Training classes in the Fall."

    "Are you drunk?" I ask bluntly.

    "Just a little tipsy," she says, matter of fact. "Had two

beers is all.    You?"

    "Loads," I say, "over the past twelve hours or so."       I'm

about to chastise her for drinking, because it seems like the

right thing to do when she reaches up with her cigarette,

holding it high over our eyes.     Her thumb comes down slowly to

the tip of the fliter to give it a good flick.     A few embers are

tossed off, falling down over our legs like shooting stars.

    She sighs. "I love doing that.      How was your party?" She

stresses the 'your,' and I know then she wants me to ask about

hers.   More, she wants to tell me something.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 299


    "It was okay.     A lot of people I didn't know."

    "Mom's friends.     And those two creepy guys." She shudders,

but I can't tell if it's just for effect or not.      She's wearing

jeans and a sweatshirt, so I hope the mere thought of them

doesn't trigger that response.      Then again, this afternoon...

    I look over my head at the break in the hedges.       I think of

Jamie, probably passed out already in his bed, sending me down

that path.    But I don't push the topic when she doesn't

continue, I ask, "How was your party?"

    "Pretty good," she's being coy about something.      Then she

tells me, "I got lucky."

    She's smiling so hard, the moon is reflecting off her

teeth.   My stomach contracts a little, and I say "Oh?"

    "Yeah.     Rusty Ballard.   My god is he cute.   He's eighteen.

We did it in the front seat of his BMW in the neighbor's

driveway.    They're out of town.   He dropped me off." Taylor

looks down at me, her shoulders swaying back and forth a little

at the memory. "You get lucky?"

    "No," I say.

    "Was that your girlfriend?      The girl in the green Prada

sundress?" Chloe was the only one wearing green, so I say yes.

"I thought so.    She was giving you the most evil look of any of

the women there, so I figured she was your girl."

    "Really?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 300


    "Yeah," she says, wistful.   She's brought her knees up,

holding onto them with her hands tucked into the sleeves of her

sweatshirt. "You being such a dick, I figured it had to be the

girl who was so openly hostile towards you."

    "Taylor, I don't mind your critique of my personal life,

such as it is," I raise my head a little, "But I'm getting a

little tired of your constantly referring to me as a 'dick.'

Pick a new word."

    "Hmm," she stops moving and looks at me.   In the darkness,

eyes recovered from the sharp flare of the sparklers, I can see

the look on her face of feigned scruitiny. "I'll have to sleep

on it." She snubs out her cigarette.   When she stands up, she

steps over me. "Try not to fall asleep out here, huh?   You'll

catch cold."

    And she leaves me there, looking up at the stars.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 301




                              CHAPTER 22

                                TAYLOR



Taylor greets me with a chipper "Good afternoon, dickhead," when

I finally get up on Sunday.

    "That's not much better."

    "I'll have to keep thinking then."

    I find her on the porch.     It's almost eleven.   "I havn't

slept this long in godknows how long."

    "You were snoring, too," she says, taking a bite of her

bagel.   I'm still not awake.   I have no coffee.

    "I need coffee."

    She nods to the thermos beside her.     It's hot and bright,

the canopy tent is gone, along with the picnic tables and the

chairs and the grill.   I don't have a cup so I go inside and get
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 302


one.    The coffee is outside, but it's dark and cool inside.    But

my mouth is dry from the rampant Air Conditioning.      I find sun-

glasses on the counter in the kitchen.     That'll work.

       "Where's Jamie?" I ask Taylor when I get outside.

       "He left you a note."

       "Where?"

       "Inside," she takes another bite and puts down the

paperback she's been reading.

       "_Ender's Game?_   Any good?" I take a long pull on the

coffee, as it seems to be quite cool already.

       Shrugging non-commitally, she gets a little defensive when

she says "It's okay," bouncing her feet on her toes. "So what

all did you and Dad talk about last night?"

       "Lots of stuff, why?"

       "That note," Taylor nods towards the house, "says he has to

go see someone about what you guys talked about last night.       And

that he's not going to be back until later this afternoon, close

to dinner time.    He tried to wake you up around noon, but you

took a swipe at him so he just backed off and wrote you a note.

Why's my Dad so afraid of you?     You hit him or something?"

       "You're talkative this morning."   I take a cigarette from

her pack.    Even with sunglasses on it's bright out.

       "It's almost one," she says, the motioning to her cup says

"And this is my second pot of coffee."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 303


    "While you've been reading?"

    "Yeah," she frowns for just a fraction of a second, but I

catch it.    The coffee is getting into my system, waking me up.

"So what did you guys talk about?"

    "Lots of shit.    I don't remember.   Your Dad talks like you

do, but he asks fewer questions."

    "Did you hit him?"

    "No." I remember my hand, and his asking about it, my oh so

casually mentioning that I can have a bit of a temper.    I decide

not to mention this to Taylor.

    No longer bouncing, her voice goes flat.    "Damn.   You're

awake now, aren't you?"

    I nod.

    "Best time to ask people questions is when they're just

waking up.    They aren't thinking fast enough to lie to you."

Taylor nods, gives me her mischevious grin. "You want a light,

or are you just going to sit there with that cigarette sticking

backwards in your mouth?"

    I turn it around and take the proffered matches.     Another

sip of coffee, and a few more drags I might start to feel myself

again.

    "I'll have to remember not to have coffee made next time; I

didn't even get to ask you to go swimming yet."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 304


    "It is hot," I say, then my mind clicks. "Taylor," giving

her what I hope is an unimpressive look, "last time we went

swimming you ended up yelling at me.

    A shrug, "Only because you were to afraid to actually let

yourself sit back and relax.    You ended up being overbearing and

self-important," cocking her head to the side she asks, "is that

better than 'dickhead?'"

    "Marginally," I say, squinting at her through the tinted

lenses of the sun-glasses.     She's wearing a pair soft denim

jeans with a ribbed black cashmere turtleneck.     Her hair is

pulled back in a small ponytail, held together with a pair of

what appear to be chopsticks. "You dressed up?"

    "Not really," she says. "These are just the most

comfortable things I own."

    So I nod, smoke, sip.

    "Oh, Dad also got you some more cigarettes.      He went out to

the store to get orange juice and breakfast stuff, if you want

to cook."

    "I can't cook to save my life," I confess.

    "He got me a pack, too," she mentions.

    A long groan makes it pass my internal filters, my head

lolls back and I put my hand over my forehead. "Your father, is

one fucked up prick.   I'm sorry, but he is."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 305


       "Yeah," Taylor seems a little depressed about this, but

oddly fatalistic. "I think I saw him yesterday, when Becky and I

were laing out at the pond."

       "Oh?" I don't betray myself, but keep myself casual.

       "Yeah.   Someone was peering through the bushes by the

willow.    I really hope he wasn't jerking off to her being naked

again.    He basically propositioned her at my birthday party."

       "Oh for fuckssake," I say, "tell me you're making this shit

up."

       "Well, Becky might be," she admits. "She asked me if it

would be okay."

       "What?" I sit up and look at her.

       "Yeah," she takes out a cigarette and lights it.

       "And you said...?"

       Taylor exhales. "I told her she had to wait until she

turned sixteen.     I mean, my Dad's a freak, but I'm not going to

see him go to jail on Stat Rape charges."     She gives me a look

like I'd actually been sugesting such a thing.

       "Wait, what does being sixteen have to do with it?" I'm

confused.

       Taylor pushes the rest of her bagel away from her and

explains "We looked it up a while ago, Becky and me, when she

was in to this guy we saw at the mall in April.     May?   Before

Memorial Day I think.       Whenever."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 306


    "Looked what up?" I motion to the bagel.

    Moving it closer to me, Taylor picks up the thermos of

coffee and refills her cup.    "All the sex laws and stuff.     She

was really into him and we saw him a couple of times.     So she

looked it up on the Internet.    You know, it's kinda harsh all

around.   And there's all this really off the wall shit.     Did you

know that any penetration with a foreign object is a felony?"

She suddenly seems genuinely thrilled to be talking about this.

    "What do they mean by 'foreign object?'"

    "Bottles, candles.     Dildos or strap-ons even," her voice

undelicate, "Becky went into a sex shop on a dare but they

wouldn't sell her one.    A Dildo.   It was maaaaaassive."

    For a moment I worried that sentence was going to end

differently, that she was going to mention that such things were

actually a part of her life.    Mentioning them so casually, I'm

still concerned that they are; remembering her mentioning some

of her father's more bizarre fetishes, I remember too Hope

telling me she used to 'borrow' her mother's vibrator when her

folks were out of town.

    Taylor scratches her arm, pushing up the sleeve.     "But

yeah, there's all sorts of weird laws."

    "Like what?" Holding up the last bit of my cigarette I also

ask "Where do I put this out?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 307


    "Just in the grass, I'll take care of the butts later.

Anyway, did you know that age of consent is different for gays

than it is for straights?"

    "I did not know that." I make sure the butt is out before

putting in on the retaining wall and attacking the half-eaten

bagel.

    "Yeah, like a twenty year old girl could put on a strap-on

an do it, you know, with a fifteen year old girl and it would be

okay.    But if a twenty year old guy did that it'd be aggrevated

sexual assault.    And," Taylor taps her cigarette in the air, "if

there's no penetration, and the victim is under sixteen, then

it's only a misdemeanor."

    I nearly choke, spitting out some creme cheese.

"Mifdemeanor?"

    "Uh huh."

    "Weally?" I swallow.

    "Yeah.    Second degree misdemeanor.   Like drunk and

disorderly or shoplifting."

    "No fway."

    "Way," she says, adopting a Bill and Ted tone.     Then she

laughs. "You didn't know that?"    Dumbfounded I shake my head.

"Swallow, Stephen." I do and then I blush, seeing the smirk on

her face. "Oh this is priceless.    And you try and be so cool and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 308


swave." She takes a long drag, quirking an eyebrow at me Spock-

like.

    "Suave," I correct her, having swallowed.

    "I know how to say it." Taylor takes big gulp of coffee,

then ashes.   She watches   me take a few more mouthfulls before I

stop and push the plate away from me leaving a small crescent of

bagel left on it;   I always feel bad eating the last bite of

someone else's leftovers.   I wash it down with a bit of coffee

before lighting up another smoke.    Still she's smiling.

    "What?" I finally have to ask.

    "Nothing," coy. I stare at her blankly.    She gives half a

laugh and pokes at my leg with her foot under the table. "It's

like a fine or something if one of the two is under sixteen."

    "What about sixteen to eighteen?" I ask, "I mean, your Dad

would still be liable for Statutory Rape until Becky turns

eighteen, right?"

    "No, age of conset for heterosexual partners is sixteen in

this state," she says matter of factly, "unless, of course,"

suddenly dropping her tone into coy macabre, "you were planning

on sticking a beer bottle up my cootch."

    She'd waited until I was mid drag to say that, and it

probably has the effect which she'd hoped for; I choke on the

smoke and begin coughing.   Taylor lets out a gale of laughter.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 309


Coughing now I take a few sips of coffee, clear my throat, then

wonder where my cigarette got to.

    "It dropped over there," Taylor tells me, pointing.       I

reach down and grab it, decide it's still kosher for having been

on the patio, and take another drag.

    "That was cruel," I say lightly.

    "And fun.    You done?   Cuz I wanna go swimming."

    It's time to be serious, so I say "Taylor," in a very

unamused tone.

    "Stephen?" She interrupts, as casual as can be. "I'm

sixteen.   A week ago, I was jail-bait for you, yeah.     Now, I'm

just another girl who thinks your cool."

    "I have a girl-friend," I tell her, "and she's more than

enough to deal with right now."

    She tsks, leans over and puts her cigarette out in the

grass beyond the retaining wall. "I'm not asking you to 'deal'

with me, please.   Get over yourself for a minute."      Sitting back

in her chair Taylor folds her arms over her chest. "I like guys;

I like kissing guys, like I like MTV or Orson Scott Card."

    "Who's that?" I ask, but I'm thinking of Jamie's assesment

of his daughter, weeks ago.    I've given her a lot of credit for

having figured out her father.    Maybe I underestimated his

ability to figure out his daughter.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 310


       Taylor pushes her paperback towards me.   The cover says

'_Ender's Game,_ by Orson Scott Card.'

       "Oh."

       "So yeah, I'm just wondering if you want to go swimming is

all.    Maybe we'll end up having a good time, but I'm not asking

you do 'deal,' to 'put up with' to 'save' or 'rescue' me from

anything."      I don't say anything, because for the first time I'm

actually thinking it over with the notion of it being a viable

option.    Taylor interprets my silence differently: "Or we could

just go up stairs.     But I like the pond.   It's more private.

And it's usally less awkward."

       "'Usually?'" I ask.

       A glare. "Yes, 'usually,' you're not the first guy I've

propositioned to go swimming with, Stephen." She lets out a bit

of a harumph.     I almost ask what she means by it, but it dawns

on me how familiar that posture is; it's the same one I used to

get from Catherine, and from Hope.

       So I stand up, try and sound casual when I say, "I guess

I'll get my suit."

       "Not going to cut it," she says.

       "What do you mean?"

       "I want yo hear you say, 'Taylor, I think that sounds like

a good idea; let's go swimming.'"

       "Why?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 311


    "Because otherwise you'll go all dickheaded on me by the

time we get to the water," she observes with oh, just a little

bit of sarcasm.

    And I don't argue, because it sounds like something I'd do.

"Taylor, I would very much like to go swimming with you.   It

sounds like a good idea.   I'll go get my suit."

    She grins that grin again, somewhere on the far side of

mischevious headed towards malevolent. "Just get your shoes.

I'll take care of suits and towels."

                                 #

Staring out over the pond, there's no breeze, the surface is

almost perfectly calm.   Taylor crouches down on the pine to test

the temprature and finds it suitable. "Very warm, infact." She

comes back to drops her knapsack at the foot of the wall and I

look around.

    "Huh," I say, pointing back at the blackberry bushes. "You

want I should change over there?"

    "Change into what?" She asks.

    "My suit," wondering what she's playing at.

    "What suit?"

    Ah.

    Taylor steps up to me, till she's no more than an inch or

two away.   Her eyes are clear and bright, though her wan smile

betrays a trepidation lingering somewhere beneath the surface.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 312


Gracefully she raises her arms, I think at first to remove her

sweater, but while one hand does move with its fingers running

up her side, it does not catch on the hem.

    This hand folds over itself, fingernails over the curve of

her breast, to her neck.    There she picks the two laqured

lengths of wood from her hair, laying them on the stone with a

slight tak-tak as they fall from her fingers.    Sun-bleached

strands, falling in the harsh light to lie with their tips

barely touching her shoulders as she breathes.

    I can hear the birds in the trees around us.     With her

other hand Taylor touches the line of my jaw, running two

knuckles down to my chin.

    "You nervous?" She asks, straining a little to keep her

voice calm.   I nod twice, softly. "Me too.   A little.   Here."

Rising on her tip toes, Taylor leans in to kiss the corner of my

mouth.

    Turning then, she walks to water's edge.     Her back to me,

again her hands rise from her sides, this time grasping firmly

at the soft cashmere.    In one motion, fluid as a a lick of

flame, its hem rises, the left side more quickly than the right.

The small of her back.    The beveled curving of her waist up to

the smooth of her ribs.    Shoulder blades sharp, spreading as her

elbows bend above her head.    The tops of her shoulders and the

hollow of her neck.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 313


    The naked back, set against a still life of the willow

arching over the water.

    Her left foot, then her right stepping out of her sandals.

Sweater folding over her arms, gathered in her right hand.

Taylor stretches her neck first to one side, then the other,

setting her shoulders as her arms come to rest with a

ballerina's poise back at her sides.

    In the space between flank and tricep, the glimmer of the

sun off the water.   A faint curve of flesh there, backlit.

    She sets a hand on her hip, wreathed in cashmere.     The

other disappears infront of her.   She's so close I can see the

weave on her jeans as she shifts her weight to one leg.    I can

read the label stitched above the back pocket.     Hear the snap of

her buttons, yanked open one by one.

    Taylor slips out of her 501's:     The tops of her hip bones

poke from the waistband, the bellows curve spreading to their

fullness as the denim stretches, just a bit, pulled over them

but a single thumb crooked on the side.     She bends her knees as

the shadows gather around the cleft between the tensing flesh.

Her sex is hid beneath these shadows as the first leg is drawn

out of the faded blue trunk of her jeans.    Its knee touches the

ground.   She slides her seat onto the bed pine needles blown to

the water's edge.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 314


    The sweater is released, placed on the sandals with       care.

But the jeans scrape against the coarse pricks of the needles as

that same, delicate hand pulls them over her barely seen thigh,

over the nub of her kneecap.   Her calve is drawn from the

ground, bent over the water and then those 501's are carelessly

tossed aside, into the brambles.

    Taylor rests her heel in the water, sending a ripple out

over the surface.   She gathers her hands over the knee, knitting

her fingers together.   With her weight shifting to her other leg

curling beneath her, she half turns, looking full over her

shoulder at me, standing not five feet behind her.    When she

speaks, my breath comes out in a stacatto rasp; she says "Now

you."

    My mouth opens, but there are no words to come from it.

    She says: "Take your time."

    I begin to walk towards her.     She does not say "Stop."    My

eyes pass over her to the willow, and I fix them there as I

close the distance between us.     Standing beside her I take two

short steps to bring my feet from my shoes.    The leather is

rough on the soft sides of each foot, and then the gentle sculp

as I slide them into the water.    There is a chill then, but it

is brief.

    Further into the pond; I let the water come to my calves,

come to my knees and further to my thighs.    I stop there,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 315


feeling it rise through the capillaries of my cotton slacks.

Shaking slightly my hands come to my chest, calming suddenly as

I begin to work the buttons from their holes.

    When I reach the rougher textures at my waist, I stop.       The

sole button on each pressed cuff is easily undone.    I must

remember to breathe.    Closing my eyes, I feel the beat of my

blood pumping through my skin; at my wrists, my neck, the join

of my hips and thighs I feel the pressure on my skin.

    Rolling my shoulders, the poplin falls.     It's caught,

suddenly, by a rogue gust of wind, snapping at my back like a

sail before sliding into the water below.     My back is ticked in

sweat.    Now suddenly cooled I feel the flesh tighten and

constrict, straining harder at my pulse.

    Still caped in their cuffs, I bring my hands to my waist,

pulling the poplin tight against the small of my back.    I feel

it give, just a bit.    The water as seeped now up to the tops of

my thighs.    My cotton slacks are heavy, tugging at my slight

hips.    The button snaps open, zipper groans as I pull it down.

    Behind me: The sound of flesh, moving through the water.

    No longer trapped in the tight grasp of my waistline, my

shirt falls into the water without a sound.    I slip my hands

from the cuffs just as I feel something pull at them like a

tide.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 316


    Behind me : Water pouring off the poplin into the pond.

Then water on flesh; water squeezed to fall in thick flat drops

onto skin.   I must remember to breathe.   From the corner of my

eye a ball of white floating past, half under the surface; it's

been twisted, curled in on itself and loosely tied.    A single

fold rises up like a sail.   It moves out of reach.

    Hands, wet on my back.   Warm hands, my cold back, drawn

down along my shoulder blades, further still to my waist.      There

they cup my small hips, fingers taking hold in the soft; I look

down to see them press into the hollow, pulling me down into the

water.

    Knees buckling, I ease into the shallows.     Taylor leans

back, forcing me to lie back.    I look up into the sky, her eyes

lit by the by light reflecting off the water.    Her shadow falls

over me.   Her knees slip under my shoulders.   My legs rise,

tangled in the mess of cotton which, having soaked itself full

now in the water, seem to pull themselves off me even as Taylor

pulles me closer in to shore.    I kick beneath the ripples,

freeing myself from them.

    Naked now, I turn to face her, naked, lying back, legs

unfolding beneath me.   A knee finds purchase in the soft soil

basin of the pond.   Taylor feels the muscle of that leg flex as

its pressed against her thigh.    Her fingers, long having left
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 317


the hollow of my hips to search along my flesh for some new

purchase, now dig their nails into my skin.

    We fall under the surface as our mouths find each other.

The water is cold and dirty.     Her tongue presses against my

teeth.    There is no air.   As her fingers gripped my flesh so do

I grab at the soil beneath us, kicking up a cloud of rich, dark

earth as we're propelled up onto the scraggly beach.

    Taylor flexes the muscles of her arms, keeping me and my

heat close to her.    Her nipples, stiff from the shock of the

cold, dimple my chest.    Still my hands, now my knees and feet

and toes; anything that can pushes us up into the bed of pine.

Taylor, she squeezes the nape of my neck, flicks her fingers

down my skin to my thigh and there grasps with all her strength.

    I move up over her.      With her teeth she nips at my jaw, my

neck and chest.    She rolls me off, onto my side, pulling at my

neck.

    For an instant a fear knots in my belly, that some how I'd

gone too far.    I pull away; in her eyes that malevolence burns

bright.    I open my mouth, wondering at what words I'll come up

with.

    But then I feel the scritch of her other hand, moving from

my thigh to my hip, to my stomach, to my sex, priapic.     From the

the cold water to the heat of the sun, her warm touch then the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 318


furnace of her sex as she rolls her hips into mine and takes

hold.

    My shoulders relax, through only for a moment. "No," I say,

with the hot damp of my breath.    Taylor stills, loosens, shirks.

But I'm smiling.

    I shift my weight, pushing along with my elbow.     The hard

flesh of my pelvis, tempered by the chill of the water digs into

the soft of her stomach, presses against bone, then trails

softly along the coppered skin of her thigh.

    She keeps her eyes locked on mine until I tuck my chin to

the cleft of her breasts, run the enamel of my teeth over the

curve of her breast to the taught nipple there.    Further; cheek

and its day's worth of stubble sandpapering her flank to tickle

her, make her smile.    I kiss the soft hollow of her hips, the

join where they spread into her thigh.    With the tip of my nose

I make a lake circut once to the backs of her knees.    Another

kiss.

    From there, my hands rest one on her breast, the other

across her stomach.    With these holds I bring myself back up

along her other leg, stopping two, three times to place slight

kisses wherever my lips land, slowly working inwards.

    I come to the tuck of flesh rising from the pine. I purse

my lips and blow softly; the scent of pine and maple, oak and
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 319


earth.   The taste apriots and bitter pears as I touch my tongue

to her sex and press with just its tip.

    When she comes she groans like the wind through a dark and

ancient grave.
                      Birch / Dynamite / 320




        PART 3

AND THOSE WHO ARE ALONE
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 321




                             CHAPTER 23

                            DONALD & JOAN




Small back roads off from the highway.      Two lanes running beside

creek beds through the valleys and hills of central

Pennsylvania.   All day the skies have grown ever deeper shades

of grey.    Now the rains come, the mass of clouds rubbing up

against the scragly tips of fir and pine, the foothills of the

Appalachians.    It's a soft rain, turning the trees dark green,

lush.   Water on the macadam buzzes through my tires like the

road is one long zipper slowly being undone.

    There's no one else around.    I press down a little on the

accelerator.    The nose of the car surges forward.   Turning off
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 322


the radio I open the windows, air chill and fresh.      I cross the

Susquehanna on route 30, turn north on Cool Creek through

Highmount.   They call this Furnace Road now.     Wildcat Run and

Codorus Creek.    At Starview I dog-leg through Mount Wolf to

Lewisbury Road.    In Erney I look for the Eagle Tavern and take

the fork left.    Now it's called Erney Road, but it'll change

names at every town and hollow between here and Dillsburg.

    Eventually turn off on Route 74, up through Carlisle to

Caprivi, Lebo and Bridgeport.    Another fork.    There's nothing

out here now, just small towns growing up the hillsides.        Erly,

Shermans Dale, Sundy Place.     Small valleys break through the

trees, sometimes a farm or just a bit of a house perched beside

some beetle-leg of a stream.    McCabe Run.    Montour Creek.

     Greenlawn is a sneeze of a nook among the rolls near

Kennedys Valley.    Ten, twelve miles north of Carlisle, marked by

a single roadsign easily missed in the thin rain.      It isn't even

a crossroads, just a turn off the road past Landisburg.

    Most everyone else is staying in Carlisle or making the

drive back to Perceville    with my parents.    I'm staying at the

motorlodge across the road from a squat, two story building with

wood shingles and a Miller Light neon sign.      I pull off into the

parking lot, a large gravel swath next to a sign with "The

King's Arms" in gothic letters.    The woman at the front desk
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 323


hands me my keys. "Room twenty one," she points. "Around to the

right, third from the end."

    She means her right.

    I get my bags and head to my room.    Queen sized bed,

telephone, television, small bathroom.    Amber wallpaper, dark

blue carpet with a two foot long smear of a stain at the foot of

the closet.   A desk and two chairs.   No ashtrays.

    I call up to the front desk.     The woman tells me there's an

ashtray in the drawer.   There is, right next to a Gideon Bible.

I tell her thank you and hang up.    Three thirty.    I leave my

bags by the door and head back to the car.

                                 #

Beyond belief, the freakish chain restarunt I'm to meet my

parents in in Landisburg is playing Dave Brubeck's "All the

Things You Are" when I get there.    It's been a long drive from

the city; I'm tired and achy and have been dreading this for a

number of reasons.   Chief among them had been the near-

ubiquitous use of 80's music in these sorts of places, so to be

met by some decent Jazz calms me down more than anything else

possibly could.

    The hostess is overly chipper, smiling in a perky kind of

way that reminds me of Taylor.   I blink twice when she asks

"Will there be just one of you today?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 324


       My mental censor is down from the drive, from being alone

with myself for so long so even though I don't mean to say "God

I hope so," I do.    I know I say it because her eyes widen and

the corners of her mouth push into her cheeks as she tries to

decide if I'm psycho.

       I guess I'm too well dressed to fit that diagnosis.   She

says, "I'm sorry, sir?"

       "I'm meeting my family," I tell her.

       "Ah," she checks her cheat-sheet. "Hoemke, party of four?"

       "Uh-huh."

       "This way please, sir."

       That's the second time she's called me 'sir.'   Christ.

       I see my father first, sitting on the end of the bench in a

relatively high-walled booth. The corner of the nearer boothback

undoubtedly obscures my mother, who'll be sitting demurely by

his side.    But he doesn't see me so, while I keep up with the

hostess in her black slacks and tasteful but attractive matching

black faux silk crepe blouse, I also slow my pace a little to

get a good look at him.

       Even now he looks like a college professor.   It's like he

has a costume designer all to himself, who checks every outfit

to make sure it screams 'I'm a tenured professor with an obscure

PhD.    Later, I'll go home, smoke a pipe and play chess.'   His

harris tweed sport jacket has leather on the elbows.     One arm is
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 325


across his chest, holding onto the elbow of the other, the hand

of which is firmly grasping his rugged and serious jaw, index

finger askew his lips. Drawing closer I can see he's intently

studying the laminated menu, sharp brown eyes jerking left and

right and back. Hair, once just greying at the tamples, now has

a disheveled salt and pepper look about it.    There are two pens

in the left breast pocket of his pristine white button down: One

black, one red.   Both are cheap Bic ballpoints.   He's wearing

dark slacks and black wingtips.

    This is my father, Dr. Donald G. Hoemke, DPhil DRS DEd;        He

doesn't smoke a pipe but he does play chess.    Beside him my Mom,

Joan, is holding her menu at arms length but sits hunched

forwards, jutting her head out as if to try and get a closer

look.   Across from them my brother, his menu folded on the table

while he idly looks about.    He notices me first and immediately

scowls.

    "Here you are, sir."     The hostess turns and presents them

to me like a selection from the desert tray.

    "Thanks," I mumble.

    "Stephen," my father doesn't look up.

    "Stephen!" My mother puts her menu down with an

authoritative slap. "How are you?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 326


    "I'm good, Mom.    How are you," trying to smile, sweetness

and light.    She doesn't take her eyes from me as I sit down in

the only available seat, the one next to David.

    "Can I get you something to drink?" The hostess is still

there, hanging off my elbow.

    While I really want a scotch, I think better of it in light

of present company. "What are you having, Father?"

    "They have Guinness here," my mother whispers

conspiratorially.    She leans in, places her hand on my father's

forearm and tells me "Your father already ordered one for you."

    "It's buy one, get one free" he explains, in case I'd come

to the horrible, false conclusion that he was actually being

thoughtful. "It'll be here in a minute."    Then he checks his

watch. "Should have been here at least three minutes ago,

though."

    There are only three menus.    I take David's and open it up,

find something vaguely club-sandwhich-like on the menu, and

close it again.    The hostess is still there, smiling. "Sir?" She

reminds me.

    "I'm having a Guinness," I tell her.

    "Is that another Guinness, then?    It's buy one get one free

today."

    "Have you not been listening?" My father looks up from his

menu. "We have already ordered four Guinness, from you,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 327


approximitely twelve minutes ago.    The average pint takes two

minutes to pour, total, if done properly.     Given these

statistics, one might assume that four perfectly poured pints

are already on their way, as they are not yet upon the table.

Therefore, it would be extraneous for us to order two additional

pints at this time.    Is this understood?"

    "Yes," the hostess shrinks back.

    "Perhaps instead of pestering us to spend more money on

your goods and services, you could perhaps provide additional

services to ensure the prompt delivery of the goods we have

already agreed upon purchasing?"

    "Yes.   Sir." She leaves with a bit of a twitch.

    "That was unneccessary, dear," my mother comments.

    "'To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards

of men,'" my father quotes. "Abraham Lincoln."

    My mother tsks. "I doubt Lincoln was speaking of moral

pedantry practiced on the proletariat by the educated classes

when he said that," she turns her attention back to me, lightly

pushing off on my father's arm. "Was the drive pleasant?"

    "It was fine, Mom."

    "I was worried that the rain might slow you down."

    "Only a little."

    "That's good."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 328


    "What are you driving these days," David barks. "Still have

that Saab?"

    "Yeah," I push my menu a little ways away from me.

    "Stop fidgeting, Stephen" my father sighs.

    "That's what, three, four years old now?" my brother

continues.

    "Uh-huh."

    "Don't mumble, Stephen."

    "Yes.     It's four years old," I correct myself.

    "I wasn't aware they gave out four year leases." David

shifts to put his back to the wall, bringing the right pant leg

of his black, off the rack Armani Exchange suit onto the green

pleather bench between us.    He's wearing a blue, long staple

cotton button-down of unquestionable if unknown breeding.    And

no tie.

    "They don't, David."

    "You didn't buy out your lease, did you?" He says, affected

and full of mock horror.

    "David, stop teasing your little brother," my mother

reaches out to touch the sleeve of his jacket. "It's not nice."

    "Well, did you?" He asks, ignoring her.     My mother goes

back to looking at her menu.

    "No, I extended it," I lie.

    "I'm sorry?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 329


    "You heard him, David," my father again, closing his menu

and looking around the edge of the boothback, searching the

half-filled restaraunt for a waitress. "You lose.   Drop it."

    David gives me a bit of a sneer, takes back his menu then

turns to stare at the packets of sugar and sweetner sitting

midtable in a small, white ceramic holder.

    "Excuse me, miss?" My father flags down someone else's

waitress. "Could you please ask the bar what's holding up the

drinks for our table?"

    "I'll be with you in a moment, sir." The woman replies in

passing.

    My father grumbles something I don't catch and I bite back

the desire to tell him not to mumble. "Put your menu down, Joan,

or they won't know we're ready to order."

    "Shush, Donald.   We're not ready to order; I'm unsure of

what I'd like to have."

    So my father re-crosses his arms infront of himself, then

suddenly looks me in the eye. "How's work, Stephen?"

    "Going well," I tell him. "We're nearing the end of Q3,

company-wide profits are tracking towards Wall Street

expectations, but after a number of cost reduction inititives we

should be posting better than expected dividend."

    "Market share?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 330


    "Holding steady," I admit, "Organic growth is beginning to

level off for new services while our main advertising budget is

being witheld for the beginning of the quarter as they're

largely infrastructrual product offerings, which will be of the

greatest use to our Enterprise level customers as they ramp up

for the holiday season."

    "So you would recommend a buy before the end of the

quarter?"

    "Moving through October, yes.   However a roll on shares

through the Holidays with a re-purchase in late December may

provide short gains.   A long buy is advisable through Mid

February.   I'd be cautious of Q1 estimates being over inflated

by the performance of the second half of this calendar year."

    "Mm," he nods, then breaks eye contact. "David?"

    "I concur," he says after a moment. "Apple is also a strong

buy at the moment, given their low share price.   I'd hedge away

from other consumer and business line Nasdaqs, and be wary of

any company touting its services as its core business in this

market.   A return to Dow blue-chips may also be called for as a

long buy.   But most anything short should be good through

October and perhaps even early November."

    "Mm." My father looks around the edge of the boothback,

almost planting his face in our tray of drinks. "Finally," he

glares at a woman approaching with a foursome of Guinness.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 331


    "My apologies.   The bar is backed up; we're usually not

this busy at this hour."

    "Speaking of infrastructure," David says under his breath,

but I'm not sure if he's speaking of the business sarcastically

or the waitress euphamistically.   Or both.

    "Here you are," she sets down the tray, fingers reaching up

to keep a frew stray strands of hair from falling into one of

the glasses. "My name is Cindy," Guinnesses placed before each

of us, "and I'll be your server.   Are you folks ready to order?"

    "Yes," my father says gruffly. "Joan?"

    "In a minute," my mother glaces back and forth between two

leaves of the menu, pausing momentarily to touch my father on

the elbow. "You boys go."

    "I'll have the Pasta Primavera, with no gourds."

    "I'm sorry?" The waitress isn't writing any of this down,

but memorizing it.   This spells disaster with my family

ordering.

    "No gourds," my father repeats. "It specifies 'vegetables,'

on the menu, and I want to ensure that there are no gourds in my

order as one, I do not like them, and two, gourds are fruits,

not vegetables."

    "'Gourds,'" she repeats, wary.

    "Squash, zuchinni, pumpkin, et cetera."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 332


    "Oh, okay." Cindy nods and smiles, then looks at David,

then at me, and back at David. "Oh, are you two brothers?"

    "Yes," David groans. "I would like the mushroom-jack

burger; what kind of fries do you have?"

    "'Fries?'" she repeats.

    "Yes, they're a potato product oft made by emersing the

tuber's strands into heated fat or lard until soft on the inside

and crispy on the outside."

    "I know what fries are," she says sarcastically.

    "Are you aware then that there are a variety of ways in

which they can be made?"

    "Yeah." Cindy's copping an attitude now, which is never a

wise move.

    "Then perhaps you could inform me of the way in which this

particular establishment prepares them?"

    "They're shoe-string fries," she says.

    "In that case I would also like a side of cole-slaw."

    "So you do want fries?"

    "Please," David smiles, folding his hands together in a

double-fist on the table top.

    "And for you sir?" She asks me.

    "I would the like marinated chicken club sandwhich, but

without bacon."

    "No bacon," she repeats as a mnemonic. "And for you ma'am?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 333


    "I can't decide," my mother shakes her head. "It's either

'the shrimp and steak combo served with a lemon wedge, fries,

dipping sauces and mashed potatoes' or 'the Santa Fe grill with

marinated chicken, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms grilled to

perfection with a dash of salsa on a bed of rice and a generous

offering of fries:' which do you recommend?"

    "Well," Cindy tries to be friendly, "the combo is going to

have a lot more calories, while the Santa Fe grill is on our

Eat-Well list."

    "Miss," my mother places the menu primly before her, faces

the doe-eyed waitress and every so calmy says "I'm fifty-two

years old, I weigh a hundred and thirty pounds sopping wet and

stand five eight.     Do you really think that I give a shit about

your Eat-Well list?    I'm looking for a quality product from this

establishment and am soliciting your opinion on the hopes that

you might be able to guide my decision.    Which do you think is

more appetizing?"

    "The Combo," Cindy says, face now blank, clutching at her

black plastic drink tray.

    "Then I'll have the Santa Fe chicken," my mother hands over

the menu, turning to David before Cindy has had a chance to take

it from her.   "David, how is Michelle?"

    The menu hangs from my mothers fingertips.     Cindy takes it.

My father hands his over, I pull David's out from under his
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 334


fists and pass it along to Cindy with a pleasant, reasuring

smile.

    "She's doing well.     She's interning at Fairington & Smythe.

Contract Law, mostly, but a bit of Tax and Bankruptcy here and

there."

    "Good."

    "You're still with Chole, Stephen?" My father figets with

his pens.

    "Yes.    I'm going to go up to her sister's place on Lake

Michigan next weekend."    Sitting back, I hope to look casual and

non-challant.   But my father keeps scratching his ear, pulling

at his cuffs, picking up his drink and putting it back down

again.    I know my mother notices, but she doesn't have any tells

I've ever been able to spot; she just keeps on talking to David,

asking about Michelle, their new house, their plans, vagely

hinting that they should 'settle down.'

    "That'll be good," my father manages to take a sip of his

Guinness. "This is Clara's place, then?"

    "Yes.    She has a time-share, I believe."

    "Good," he grasps his glass, gives it a quarter turn, then

rubs the moisture from the condensation on his pants. "Good," he

says again. "Oh," as if it had just occured to him, "Tell

Catherine I said hello."

    "Of course, Dad," I shrug, like it's no big deal.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 335


    "She still at MIT?" His eyebrows furrow when he asks a

question he already knows the answer to.

    "I believe so, yes."

    "I don't suppose she ever mentions me, eh?    I mean, when

you two talk?   She was my star pupil," he reminds me.

    "No," I push my glass back from me a little bit. "We don't

talk much."

    "Oh."

    "Stephen, how is Chloe?" My mother interrupts.       I wasn't

paying to her conversationjust then and so I don't know if there

was a lull, or if she'd been listening in all along or what.

    "Very well, actually," I itch my temple, "her firm has been

hired to do the PR for the a rally in the city next month, and

she's been put in charge of the project.   It's quite large;

about a thousand people are expected to show up."

    "A thousand?   Wow." My brother makes at being impressed.

"How is the pro bono world of,"

    "David," my mother cuts him off, "don't make fun of

Stephen's girl-friend."

    "She's not my girl-friend, Mom."

    "She's not?"

    "I mean, you don't call them girl-friends when you're

twenty six."

    "I don't know that.    How was I supposed to know that?"
                                                   Birch / Dynamite / 336


       "I'm not...Mom, I'm not saying you were supposed to know.

I'm just saying."

       "Then what do I call her?     What do I tell people when they

ask if you have a girl-friend?       'No?     He has a lover?'"

       "Mom,"

       "I've never liked that word.     You know they called me your

father's 'lover' during the war."

       "I know Mom."

       "And they didn't mean it in a nice way.       It wasn't

something that was said in polite company."

       "I know, Mom." I stand up. "I'll be at the bar."

       "Stephen, you're not smoking again are you?" My mother

drops her voice and her chin.       Looking up at me from like that I

can see the flesh of her cheeks is starting to droop and pull

from the bone.

       "Yes, Mom.    I am.   So I'll be at the bar."

       She tsks, I step away from the table and get as far away

from them as possible.

       The bartender gives me a dumb, I-used-to-play-football-in-

high-school-and-now-I-tend-bat-and-coach-little-league-on-

weekends kind of look.       I try and order a scotch, but they're

out.    I want to ask How the hell can you be out of scotch, but I

don't. "Fine.       What gins do you have?"

       "Uh...Gordon's, Befeater and Taquery."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 337


    "Befeater and tonic.     Please."

    When he nods it's from the spine, that his shoulders bounce

in time with his head, like a guy on horseback riding past

behind the four-foot high mohogany.     But I look closer and see

it's only particle board with a heavily varnished oak sheet;

there's a seem at the moulding that's pulling away from the

column.    I sigh, light up, ask for an ashtray and sip at my

drink.    It's weak and bitter.

    Ten minutes later I knock back the remainder of it and

return to the table.    Cindy's managed to get everybody's order

right except mine.     Not only is it a turkey club sandwhich, but

it's got bacon.

    My Mom asks what's wrong when I sigh and push my plate away

so I tell her.

    "Then why don't you send it back?" David asks, glacing at

me as he takes another bite from his buger.

    I mouth 'because' and motion to my father as he says

"There's no time.    You should have been more explicit when you

ordered; either eat it or don't eat it.     We have to be at the

home at four."

    "Donald, Please don't call it 'a home,'" my mother changes

the subject.

    "It is a home, Joan."

    "It's Emily's home."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 338


    "Grammatically it would be Emily's house, but it's not her

house, nor is it techincally, a home in the domicile / household

sense of the word."   He gestures with his fork, slicing it

through the air. "It is a home, a place offering security and

happiness, and that's in the most favorable sense of the word.

Difinitivly," he pauses to stab some noodles and a slice of

carrot, which is technically an herb and not a vegetable,

however it's neither squash nor zuchinni, which my father feels

are each 'an abomination unto Bacchus' and therefore it is not a

point to press upon our hapless waitperson, Cindy.    However,

"Emily lives at the 'Greenlawn Home, a Thereputic Community' and

therefore 'the home' is the approriate signifier for it."

    My mother doesn't respond.   The rest of the meal is quiet.

I drink my Guinness and watch them eat.   Cindy comes back, asks

if there's anything wrong with my food and I tell her that I'm

simply not hungry.

    "It's not what he ordered," my father counters, "he ordered

the marinated chicken club sandwhich without bacon.    That is a

plain, slicked turkey club sandwich, with bacon."

    "Oh, I'm so sorry!" She coos. "I'll have the kitchen fix

this right away."

    "We don't have time for the kitchen to fix your memory," my

father growls, "what we need is the check, without any items we

either ordered and did nor receive, nor received but did not
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 339


order.   Our daughter is expecting us at Greenlawn in twenty

minutes so we're in a bit of a rush."

    At the pronouncement that we're headed to 'the home,' which

is only five minutes up the road, Cindy pales, apologizes

profusely and hurries off.    The club sandwhich is left

untouched.   I take a pull at my Guinness, pause, and swallow.

Cindy's back with the bill before I can finish it off.

    "Hold on," my father keeps her there, "David?"

    "Yeshf?" He chews on his burger.    My father nods towards

the check. David swallows. "What?"

    "The check."

    "What's my bit?" He asks argumentively.

    "You're picking up lunch," my father tells him.

    "Oh for Christssake," I pull out my wallet and drop my

AmEx. "Thank you, Cindy."

    As she moves for it, my Father waggles his fork. "Hold on,

Stephen; you shouldn't have to pay for lunch when all you had

was a Guinness."

    "And I should?" David counters.

    "You make more than the rest of us," my father says.

    "Gross, yeah.   But I've got Gretchen's alimony, Michelle's

schooling and the house.    Net, it's Stephen."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 340


    "Cindy, please take this," I try and hand it to her.    She

looks at my father, who shrugs, then looks over at David

disapprovingly, who wilts.

    "Fine."   He takes his wallet from the inside pocket of his

suit and tosses a Gold MasterCard at the black pleather,

knocking mine off onto the table. "There," he smiles.

    "Don't use your MasterCard," my father's voice dropping,

"what's your APR on that?"

    "I don't care about the APR, Dad."

    "Then that's why Stephen makes more than you in net.    He

doesn't carry a balance on his AmEx and doesn't have to pay

interest. 'Banking institutions are more dangerous to our

liberties than standing armies.' Thomas Paine said that."

    "Thomas Jefferson," I correct him, "And it's a corporate

card.   None of us are paying for it."

    "Jefferson," my father raps the table. "It is Jefferson.

Federalist Papers?"

    "I don't know."

    "You should," he squints at me, "context is key."

    "Can I take this now?" Cindy asks tentatively.

    My father pushes David's plastic off and places mine

squarely on the pleather billholder. "Please."

    I can't help but smile, turning to David and quirking a

brow.    He mimics my stare with a mocking waggle of his
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 341


shoulders. "You lost, David.   Drop it.    Stop gloating, Stephen."

My father stands up, straightens his coat and nods to me. "Thank

you for lunch, Stephen."

    "My pleasure, Dad."

    He nods again, squarely. "We'll meet you there?     Your

mother doesn't want to be late."

    At this cue, my Mom puts down her knife and fork, dabs the

corner her mouth with her napkin and shimmies over the bench

towards my father. "Don't be late," she says to me.

    "Move," David pokes me.    I get up.   He leaves, following

our parents out without another word.

    Cindy returns a few minutes later, sees they've all gone

and stops.   I take out my pen and she waits while I sign the

recipt. "Um," she starts.

    "Yeah, they're always like that," I answer, knowing she

wouldn't know how to ask the question. "Thanks, Cindy."

    "Thank you, Mr. Hoemke," she says with a note of sincerity.

    I hand back her copy of the recipt, tuck mine in my wallet

and give her a curt nod. "You have a good day."

    "You too." She watches me as I wind my way to the door;       I

turn as I open it and give her a brief wave over the tops of the

boothbacks and head out to go to my sister's.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 342




                              CHAPTER 24



                            MRS COLLINGS




Outside it's raining again.    I don't bother to slip out of my

overcoat when I get to the car, since I'm just going up the

road.    My father's Ford turns left out of the parking lot, the

three of them dim shapes in its windows.    A small Toyota zips

past the other way.    Even though its stronger than before, it's

a real summer rain, almost warm.

       The road climbs through the slight rise of the valley's

end.    It's beginning, actually; there's a spring up here

somewhere feeding a small brook.    At the side of the road, its
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 343


course is betrayed by lush grasses and thin birches as it winds

down to Sherman's Creek.

      Pulling away from the stream, the road straightens

approaching the well manicured landscaping of Greenlawn.

There's a turnout right before a faux gatehouse with a sign

cheerily bidding me "Welcome!"    Never trust exclamation marks;

they're always trying to sell you something.

       The whole of the facility is overseen by an otherwise

efficent woman known only as Mrs. Collings.    We meet with her

annually, as a sort of preamble to tomorrow's party.    Ostensibly

we're going over the bills, signing the lease on the room for

another year, but it's little more than a formality; our lawyers

and accountants have been pouring over recipts, bills, propsed

treatment schedules and whatnot for the past two months.      We're

not even signing anything.   My father put his name on the line

two weeks ago in a small office off Penn Avenue in Harrisburg.

      Today we'll just smile, have a cup of weak coffee and make

idle, generic chit-chat about my sister.    Should there be

anything serious to discuss it will be one of the specialists

who'll take me by the arm during the party and ask that I stop

by.   They used to go straight to my father, but after being

referred to me long enough they've learned only to bother him

when there's something to sign.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 344


    He's waiting just off the foyer, in a large alcove with

soft chairs and and wide, low tables covered with everything

from the AARP Quarterly to a glossy brouchure for spas in the

Pocconos.   Mom and David have already goen off to see Emily, of

course.   When my father sees me he stands up, sticks his thumbs

in his belt loops and nods, "Stephen," as if he hadn't seen me

just ten minutes ago.

    The receptionist doesn't stop us, so I guess my father

already made a show of apologising for the fact that his

misbegotten son was horribly late and she smiled reassuringly,

telling him to just go on in as soon as I showed my sorry ass.

I open the door for my father.     He gives me another nod, like

I'm a stranger who just happened to be polite.

    The walls are peach, with mint green baseboards and parquet

floors.   "Mr Hoemke," Mrs. Collings says from behind her desk,

to my father. "And Stephen.     Good to see you again.   Please,"

she rises only to motion us to the chairs set before her cherry

desk then sits back down.   The name plaque before us reads 'Mrs.

Collings,' should we forget.     A Bollinger print hangs behind

her, a stately white farm house beside a pond.     The red and gold

of the trees reflects off it.    I swear the man does either snow

or fall and nothing else.

    "Thank you for seeing us, Mrs. Collings," my father

shuffles into his chair with a bit of a groan.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 345


    "Oh not at all.    Not at all," her fingers steepled over a

small folder of papers on her desk. "Coffee, gentlemen?"

    I say I would love some, my father says "Please.    Thank

you," nodding twice, three times, settling into his seat.      He

clears his throat; he's nervous.   He always gets this way,

talking to specialists or administrators.   I've seen him with

the Chair of his department, who's a nice enough guy with white

hair and ink stains on his trousers.   My father can idyll with

him for hours, bantering on about the finer points of Hagel or

Derrida until the stars grow faint.

    Once, only once, did I see him run into the President of

the college, a woman just shy of eighty whom I instantly mistook

for some librarian.   I said "Hello," but my father, he stiffed

his back and spread his broad shoulders, like in those old

photos from the first year or so of Vietnam.   He managed to

stammer out a hello then fell silent for half an hour, eyes

darting to his cuffs, his reflection in a pane of glass as we

passed, noting that his shoe was untied and almost cursing at

the fact.   It never ceases to amaze me.

    "You've been well, Mrs Collings?" I ask.

    "Oh, quite well, quite well.    Things are going wonderfully

here at Greenlawn.    Construction is almost finished on our re-

modelling program, extending the activities room on the second

floor for our children's ward.   Everyone has been so kind with
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 346


their donations to help make the lives of our precious children

fuller.    And more rewarding."

    We didn't donate a fucking dime, and she knows it.

    "And we've also re-landscaped the memorial garden, for our

departed friends.    It is too bad the weather isn't finer, or I'd

suggest you go have a look."

    She's such a pleasant woman, you'd have to be a pretty

callous and cunical bastard to see any sort of threat or even a

mild guilt trip in her casually mentioing money and death in

consecutive sentences.    I've never liked the sorry whore, and I

suspect my father has as much use for her as I do.     But, since

I'm the designated hitter in these conversations, it's up to me

to play nice. "That is a shame.    Perhaps tomorrow the weather

will be finer."

    "Oh yes, you're having your celebration tomorrow.     You'll

be having quite a party, I understand." She wants to know if

we're going to be loud, going to disrupt her well oiled machine.

    "Just a few friends and family.    And, of course the members

of the staff, who are always invited." She hates the word

'staff.'    It makes her feel weak and menial.   She shows it in

the fluttering of her faint dimples as the muscles clench to

keep her fake, affected smile in place. "I dare say there will

be more of them than us, this year." So if it's noisy, you can
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 347


blame your precious doctors, I'm sorry, 'specialists,' for

drinking too much of the rum punch.

    The coffee arrives, destined to lie tepid and half-drunk.

It's barely paletable even after two spoons of sugar and enough

milk to drown a cockroach.    Around this time Mrs. Collingsworth

manages to give her regrets that she will be unable to make the

party tomorrow, as she has a pressing engagement.    More likey

she doesn't want to drive in on a Saturday.    I don't know where

she lives, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it's one of the

nicer converted ranch houses with a couple dozen acres which

litter the area.    Farming has been more and more difficult the

past few decades.    It's getting to the point that a man can make

more money selling off the house his great-grandfather was born

in and moving into the suburbs than he ever could working the

land.

    We shake hands as we leave, my father eeking out another

Thank You while I just smile and give a firm nod.    She sees us

to the door, which clicks shut behind us in a polite but

affirmitive kind of way.    I ask the receptionist to remind me of

which way the Long Term Care Wing lies.    She gives us simple

directions, down the hall, take the right at the end, then the

first left.

    My father walks slowly.    It's difficult for me to keep pace

with him.   Tomorrow the place will be crawling with aunts and
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 348


uncles, cousins and their brood of children.     Today is the best

time to try and actually speak with Emily.     The day after she'll

be too exausted to even sit up in bed.

    "Who all confirmed for tomorrow?" I ask suddenly.

    "Not many."      Half the cousins.   Your Aunt Sharon and Uncle

Evan.   The Kingsleys.   I think that's all." Passing a room whose

door lies open my father takes a short look. "Vultures," he

says.

    I'm not too sure if he means our relatives, the facility or

both.   "I wish there were someone else who would take her."

    "No one will," he says.     Changing the subject: "One oh six,

is it?"

    "Yes, father."

    Then I see he's not peeking in to the rooms themselves, but

searching the placards beside the doors.     One seventeen, Mrs.

Doris May.   One fifteen, Mrs. Rue Torrel. "That side then" he

points. One twelve, Mrs. Beatrice Remmington.     "There," down the

hall, "should be that one."

    I can hear the sound of my mother ahead, engaged in one

side of a conversation, as if she were on the phone in another

room of the house.    At the end of the hall are large windows

with muzzy curtains.     The floor here is linoleum, but the walls

the same horrid combination of peach and mint green.     Every
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 349


sound I make, from the click-clack of my footsteps to the jingle

of the keys in my pocket, reverberates down the hall.

       Nearing the door I can hear my mother stop mid sentence.

"This must be them now."    I stop beside the door and motion my

father in first with a nod. "Yes," my mother replies. "Isn't

it?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 350




                             CHAPTER 25



                               DAVID




I give Emily a kiss then move back from her bed, letting my

mother and father have the two seats available.   David joins me

at the back of the room.   He leans against the wall, crossing

his arms over his chest.

    "We gotta get her out of here," he whispers. "I sneaked a

look at the log.   They had her strung out on some kind of tranq

for three days last week."

    "What kind?" David and I seem to only be civil to one

another when we talk about Emily.   We don't look at each other
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 351


but at her, tucked under the covers.   Her face is barely

visible, framed by our parents' shoulders.

    "'Trancylpromine' I think it was called."

    "Tranylcypromine?"

    "Coulda been, yeah."

    "It's for fucking bi-polar disorders." I keep my voice low.

    "Christ."    He thunks his head against the wall. But he

stops and asks "She's not bi-polar, is she?"

    "Fuck no," I swipe at him weakly, the back of my hand

striking at the sleeve of his overcoat. "Three days?"

    "Three doses," he admits, "I didn't notice if they were for

the same days or different days."

    I look around for something that might be a log, but don't

see anything like it in the room.    The wallpaper is typical,

blues and flowers.   The woods don't really match anything,

including each other.    There's a small television kept within a

cedar cabinet to our left, the coffee table near the door looks

like mahogany.   The wood of the overstuffed chairs pulled to

Emily's bedside are a pale cherry.   To my right, along that

wall, is a rosewood console.   On top is a plain china vase

filled with snapdragons, some old pictures in silver frames:

Emily, David and me hanging from the ginko tree, our parents as

young lovers, me and Hope as teenagers, hamming it up from the

side of a pool some summer.    All eight-by-tens, each angled to
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 352


face Emily in her bed.    Other, smaller photos set among them.

None are recent. The carpets are blue berber.    There are no

mirrors in this room. "Where was this?"

    "Front desk," he says. "Well, the desk at the front of the

ward."

    Nodding, I try and remember the layout.     My father and I

passed it on our way in, but apart from confirming our bearings

with the woman working the copier behind the desk nothing about

it really sticks out.

    David asks "Who's doing oversight on this?"

    "What do you mean?"

    "Oversight," he turns towards me, digging his shoulder into

the wall. "Is anyone looking over what these guys are doing?

Making sure they're not fucking her up?"

    "Who could?    Half the shit they make up as they go along."

    "Yeah, but someone's got to review what they do."

    "The facility probably has some oversight, but they're not

going to release their records."

    David's quiet for a while, then mentions "We have the

itemized bills."

    "True.    They sure as hell are gonna charge us for whatever

they use.    But how would they report it?   I mean, last I looked

there were shitloads of miscellaneous charges."

    "Who's doing the accounting?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 353


    "Webber is.    He's Dad's guy.   Actually no," I remember, "He

was hired by the executor of the trust we set up to protect the

settlement."

    David nods, pokes me with his finger, "How well do you know

him?"

    "Kinda well.    I don't deal with him much.    He's in

Harrisburgh.   Somewhere on Penn Avenue."

    "Can we move the trust?"

    "What do you mean?"    David's never really taken this much

of an interest in all this before, nor has he ever really had

this detailed conversation with me.    Sure, there's griping and

bitching, but we don't ever really get into specifics; he

usually leaves the details to me.    It's hard for me to tell if

this is just how his mind works, or if he's up to something.

    "For leverage.    I'm thinking of going to him, getting him

to hire an outside consultant to oversee the treatments."

    "I don't know, I don't want someone arbitrating treatment

based on cost."

    "That's not what I mean," he gives me an Older Brother

Sigh, the kind he uses to indicate that he's put out by having

to once again explain something to me that I should already

know. "I want someone looking over every treatment, every drug

they give her, and making sure that it's kosher.    If we catch

them slipping up or jilking us on something, we nail them."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 354


    "Really?"

    "We can so nail these guys if they're fucking with us."

    "Really?" I say again.    David's never really payed

attention to subtlety.

    "Yeah," he turns to stare at Emily, broken, her head

lolling on its side as she whispers in our mother's ear.

    I can see the dollar signs in his eyes.     He's thinking

millions.    He's calculating the number of rooms in each ward,

thinking about class-action law-suits and getting his name in

the paper.    Fucking prick. "Then what?" I ask. I have to say his

name, "David," to get his attention.

    "Huh?"

    "Then what?"

    "What do you mean?"

    I motion to our sister. "What happens to Emily then?     After

we bring Greenlawn to it's knees."

    He shrugs it off as if it's not worth his time. "We get her

the finest care money can buy."

    "This is the finest care money can buy, David." But he's

not listening.    He's brought his leg up, bent at the knee with

the sole against the wall.    My Mom stands up, gives Emily a kiss

on the cheek, then turns to us as my father does the same.

David pushes off from the wall, leaving a dirty streak of mud

along the base board.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 355


    "You boys free for dinner?" My Mom asks, her voice soft,

eyes red, past crying.

    "Yeah," David, in passing, brushes his lips along her

cheek, his hand gripping briefly at her arm.      But his eyes never

leave Emily, who's smiling at me.

    "We're having dinner tonight in Carlisle," she wraps her

arms around me, giving me a hug that belies the strength in her

arms.   "At your Uncle Bob's.   Seven thirty.    Don't be late."

    Whispering in her ear: "I'm not giving him a ride."

    "Stephen, please, you kids should have some time together."

    "No we shouldn't, Mom."

    She sighs, her arms going slack as she pulls away. "David?"

    "Yeah Mom?"

    "You want to come with us now, or with Stephen later?"

    To his credit there's a moment of hesitation. "Emily?" he

asks, after looking at the rest of us.    I catch my father, hands

in his pockets, leaning down to stare at the pictures on the

console.   Looking back at Emily I see her silently mouth the

words "Go on," then offering a bit of a smile.

    "Okay then," David says, "I'll see you tomorrow though, at

the party."

    She nods a little, just her chin giving a little bit of a

quivver.   Her eyes brighten when she looks back at me.     David

toussles her hair, dips to kiss her forehead then gives her a
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 356


nod.    He seems so goddamned proud of himself I'm tempted to just

punch him in the jaw.

       But I don't.    The corner of Emily's mouth lifts into a wry

smile as I say goodbye to them.      They leave without another

word.

       "Hey," I say as their footsteps echo down the hall.

       "Hey," she reples.    Her good hand rubs at the matress

beside her, finds what looks like a white remote at the end of a

long cord and selects one of the dime-sized buttons, pressing it

with her thumb.       The bed begins to recline with a mechanical

whir.

       "You want to rest for a little while?"

       She looks meek, wary when she asks "About half an hour?"

       I nod.   "You want me to close the door?" I ask.

       "I can," she says.    Her thumb searches, finds another

button and pressing it there's a click, followed by the door

slowly swinging closed on it's hydraulic arm.      "Wonders of

modern technology," she grins.      I run my hand over her head,

smoothing back her hair.      My palm is wet with sweat from her

brow.

       "Half an hour?"

       "One hour?"

       "Sure"

       "Read to me?" Her eyes flicker towards the books.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 357


    Nodding, Isit down in the chair beside her and start poking

through the books on her bedside table.    They're set next to the

small stereo, a superior model that I gave as a present a few

Christmases ago.   The volume is on 'low,' barely audible over

the background noise coming in through the door.     I can hear a

wind through the trees coming from it, and perhaps that is a

car, passing in the distance.

    There are only three volumes, each a present from over the

years:   _Rebecca_.   _The Sun Also Rises_.   _The Stray_.   I pick

the last, open the front cover and read out the inscription:

"With love, Mom, Christmas 1980." It's one of her favorites.

Turing the page I begin reading in a soft, low voice: "It was

raining the day Lynch arrived at the Ford.    No one was around.

He told me later that he thought it was a ghost town, and I can

understand why..."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 358




                            CHAPTER 26



                               EMILY




It was raining the day Emily left the farm.     Everyone came out

to say goodbye.   She told me later that it made her feel

awkward, and I can understand why.     We stood under the boughs of

the ginko, thick with leaves, the watter slowed to fall in fat

drops with a loud plat on our heads.     It was the last time we

were all together.   Grandma Hoempke shook in her thick wool

shawl, clasped tight around her shoulders by Grandpa Hoemke's

broad hands.   Aunt Stacy, up from Carlisle, held a beat-up
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 359


umbrella over their heads.    Hugs all around.   Emily'd never see

them again.

    Hope had come up with her mother for one of her 'extended

visits.'    This meant she and her husband were fighting again.

In the barn the night before Emily and I had split one of

grandpa's cigarettes with her while she told us all about it.

We knew we weren't supposed to be smoking in the haybarn of all

places, but we didn't care.

    I asked Emily if she was scared. "About college?     Nah.

Four years of sex and sin," she flashed a smile. "Meet some cute

guys, take some tests, write some papers; like High School, but

more so."

    "And no parents," Hope added.     She meant her father.

    "Damn stright," Emily took a drag then passed the cigarette

off to me.    Its smoke was thick and strong, itching at the back

of my throat. "You kids gotta come visit.    It'll be a blast."

    "Like that'll happen." Taking the butt from me, Hope

stopped to ran her fingers along mine.

                                  #

Emily's first letters to us were small and bold.    Someone had

given her stationary as a going-off-to-college present along

with a pen that left thin, crisp lines along the page.    Each

page had the same printed border, black and white checks with

red cherries on a yellow field in each corner.    She kept a few
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 360


pages in her notebooks she said, jotting down things heard or

seen then sending them off every few days as they filled up.     We

learned her philsophy professor had a habit of comparing

everything to his '65 Mustang, that someone named Dr. Stell had

a penchant for Grunge and her roomate was about as lucid as one

of the inbred barn cats born with twenty-six toes.

    She quoted her friends often, leaving us with the

impression that each of them were smart and beautiful.     The

letters came addressed to either Hope or myself; Aunt Stacy

wasn't planning on returning until school started.   By the

second or third letter they'd turned into the collected wit and

wisdom of someone named Teddy.

    "'They're all recovering Cure fans,'" read one I still

remember, "'Roses are black, Violets are black, Everything is

black, *sniff*'" It was labeled 'Why Teddy didn't want to join

us for coffee at the Erie Cafe.' "'I mean, I don't want to call

them a woman just because they have a female voice because

that's... sexist.' Teddy, on answering the phone."   "'You know,

I bet giants would use bean-bag chairs for hacky-sacks.' Teddy,

drunk." Justification for all these came with her last letter

that fading summer. "'Dude, I am so annoying, it's funny,'"

signed by Teddy in his own hand.

                                   #
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 361


Fall brought an end to this slapdash style, and to any mention

of Teddy.   Maybe it was just the stationary was gone.    On torn-

out pages of notebook paper her writing became more intense and

self-conscious:

    "I'm beginning to understand why Dad's as fucked up as he

is; it's more than just Vietnam, and whatever it was he saw

there he refuses to talk about.    I spend hours reading and re-

reading pages of Saussere and Lacan, Barthes and Derrida.     It

makes my head spin.    I can't look at a tree any more and think

'what a beautiful tree.'    I can't even think 'we can bring that

one down for firewood.'    Now I see signifiers, circles of

identity and I try to place the 'tree' within the context of

self and 'self' in context to the tree.    This morning I looked

in the mirror and imagined myself as a child, forming the notion

of my own gestalt.    No wonder Dad can't keep a conversation

going for more than three sentences; I can only wonder what will

happen to my 'self' once I begin to understand as much of this

as he does."

    Still Hope and I would get alternating letters.      We's check

the mailbox after school and if a letter had arrived call the

other up, reading it over the phone.   They ignited our first

real arguments.   Even though we really didn't know much about

what she was saying, I was still inclined then to defend my
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 362


father against what I'd perceived to be a litany of his

failings.

    "She's not saying that," was Hope's common refrain.

    It was made worse by our having to hang up soon as our

parents came home, often in the middle of one tirade or another.

Worse still by feigning that they'd come home early, cutting

each other off with a quick, "Mom's home.        I gotta go," when the

strength of our point waned.    At least, I did this.     Hope's

never confessed.

                                   #

"Stephen?" Emily murmurs.    I check my watch; she's only been

asleep for about fourty minutes.

    "I'm here," I tell her, reaching out to hold her hand.

    "Thought I was dreaming."    Her eyes roll back in their

sockets, lashes fluttering.

    Her pulse is weak but steady.      I wait.    After a few minutes

her breathing slows.    I keep reading. "By the time we got back

to the Ford and said goodnight to McCragan, it was very late..."

                                   #

The house was dark, except for one light shining from the

kitchen window.    Hope went over to see if everything was all

right and called, "Look."    There in the drive by the ginko was a

large sedan.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 363


    It had snowed the day before morning, enough to close the

schools; Aunt Stacy had brought Hope with her up for a long

weekend.     The whole of the car was waxed and polished, like it

had just come off the showroom floor.     We stole up to get a

closer look.     Dark blue, deep seats.   Peering into the front we

saw a sign, heavy block letters on white card: 'Clergy.'

    I looked at Hope, her face pale and hollow.      She followed

me to the window.     Our mothers were crying in the kitchen while

my father spoke with the priest.     I recognised Father McBride by

the shape of his head.     I thought it must have been Grandma

Hoemke.     Hope did as well, tightening her grip on my hand, but

relaxed it when she appeared in the doorway looking confused.

Grandpa Hoemke took her in his arms. He must have said something

to her, because she began in deep, gut wrenching sobs I could

hear through the glass.

    "What's going on?" I wondered.

    "I don't want to know," Hope pulled me back into the

shadows.     "Come on."

    I followed her back towards the haybarn, but she kept

going, through the yard, past the tool shed to the stables.

We'd spent yesterday afternoon with Grandpa, clearing the doors.

Now she slipped them open and went inside.     I followed, closing

them behind me, breathing in the thick smell of the horses and

the cows.    Still Hope didn't stop, running from memory in the
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 364


darkness, back to the birthing stall where she buried herself in

the corner.

    "Hope, what is it?"

    "I don't want to know," she said, digging into the hay

until it almost covered her.     Even with the animals around us,

breathing and shitting and living, it was achingly cold.       We'd

just been here, having sneaked out after midnight when we knew

the house had fallen asleep.     I got down on my knees, fumbling

with my hands in the darkness to try and find her.     Trying not

to remember that this was how it had all started, years ago.

    "Something's happened.     I just know it."

    "Well, yeah," I said, following her voice.

    "No," she was sniffing, trying to hold back the tears. "I

mean something horrible."

    "Like what?" Wrapping my arms around her, planting a small

kiss on the nape of her neck.

    "I don't know.    I don't want to know."

                                   #

"Emily."    I try and wake her by softly jostling her shoulder.

It's been an hour now.     But it doesn't work. "Emily," giving her

a kiss on the forehead. "Time to wake up.    Come on." A little

harder.    Not too hard.   She squirms, pushing up a little.

"Emily."

    "No."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 365


    I step back.     Away.   Put some treble in my voice.    Sing-

song. "Emily..."

    "No!" A whimper comes out in a squeal.      I bite my lip.        Her

head jerks to the left, her good arm spasms.

    "Emily." Firm, almost yelling. "Wake up."

    "Bu..."

    I curse under my breath.      I don't know what to do.    My

knees start shaking.    I look at the door, at the remote by her

hands, wondering if I should try and get help.     "Fuck fuck fuck.

Emily!"   Her breathing is hard and fast.     She begins to wail

softly, like a lost kitten.     I have to do something.     I step

back, grab at her bad shoulder and give it a squeeze. "Wake up!"

    She screams, wakes with a start, the fear and terror in her

eyes, close to mine, huge, her mouth hangs open, limp.        Still

screaming.    The fury fading with the dream, the green of her

eyes returning as her pupils contract.     The left eye lags behind

the right. Then she blinks, says "Stephen?" and breaks into

sobs.

    "It's me," I tell her.      She grabs at me hungrily, pulling

herself up.    I slip my arms around her, holding her close.       My

hands run over the knots and scars along her bare back.

    A long ache of a cry: "Steeeeveeeen," a gasp, her tears

wetting my cheeks.    She's shivvering.   "Stephen," she says

again, "Stephen.    Make it stop."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 366


                                  #

"Stephen?    Hope?" My father's voice from the door, the faint

light from the moonglow on the snow.

    "Back here, father," I call.

    Hope grabs at my jacket, shushing me.

    "Come back to the house, Stephen."       He sounds tired.

    Freeing myself I stand up, that might see me. "Something's

happened, hasn't it father."

    I see him in silhouette, framed by the dark of night and

the pale of the ground beneath his feet. He doesn't say anything

for a moment.    The horses whinny at the draft in through the

door. "Just come back to the house.       Both of you," clicking the

latch softly behind him.

    Hope leaning up against me, pushing my chest into the hard

wood of the stall door. "I don't want to," she said. "I don't

want to hear it from them."

    "We have to go, Hope."

    "You go," wrapping her arms around my neck. "Come back and

tell me.    I want you to tell me."

    "Okay."     But she doesn't let go.    "Hope."   I turn around,

struggling against her weight pressing down on me. "Hey, it'll

be okay," I say.

    "No Stephen, it won't.     It won't be okay."

    "Hey," I kiss her cheeks, tasting of salt. "Don't worry."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 367


    Breaking from me, "Just go," falling in a heap onto the

straw.

    I button up my coat, an old wool Navy jacket from one of

the jumble sales.   The lining in the left pocket is ripped.     The

wind leaks through the weave to my fingers.    The whole of the

house is lit up now, including the lights in my bedroom window.

I make for the front porch, shutting the heavy oak door behind

me quickly, to keep out the cold.

    The house is quiet.   Not even sobs.   Everyone's in the

living room.   Grandpa Hoemke and my father on the couch, sitting

on either side of Grandma Hoemke.    My Mom is in her favorite

chair, Aunt Stacy on the stool beside her.    Father McBride is at

the window beside them, hands in his pockets, staring at his

shoes.

    My father asks "Where's Hope?"

    "Still in the barn.   She said she wants me to tell her."

    Looks are exchanged, between my father and grandfather, and

it's then I know they know.   My father looks angry, but it's not

anger at me and Hope.   It's directed at Grandpa Hoemke, who

turns and stares out the window.

    "What's happened?" I want to know.

    Turning towards me, my father says "There's been an

accident, Stephen."   It's reheared.   I can tell.   'An accident;'
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 368


They're trying to protect me.       They don't think I can handle

knowing.

       "What sort of accident?" I say.    But no one says anything.

No one's looking at me except for my father, whose brave face

crumples.       It's the first time I've seen him cry.   My knees

start to shake, and it hits me then that something bad really

has happened.       "I want to know."

       "Son," Father McBride steps forward.    I don't really know

him that well.       My mother and I go to church on Sundays.    We

don't sit in front 'with the zealots,' or in the back 'with the

guilty,' but firmly in the middle.       I daydream during his

sermons.    They go on forever. "Your sister isn't well."

       "Are you telling me she's sick or was there an accident?"

I'm fifteen.       At fifteen everything is about you.   It's so about

you that even when it's about someone else, it's still about

you.

       "Son,"

       "My name's Stephen."

       "Stephen," says Father McBride, placing his hand on my

shoulder "son, she's in the hospital because there was an

accident."       He looks over his shoulder at my father when he says

this.

       "What kind of accident?"

       "She was hurt."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 369


    "I know that," I'm whineing, "what kind of accident?"

    "One..." he stops and breathes before continuing in a

softer tone.    But he also stops so that he can glace up to look

me straight in the eye. "One where your sister was hurt very

badly."

    "Why won't you tell me what happened?"

    "Jesus Christ, Stephen," my father growls. "You don't want

know."

    "Yeah I do."

    "Stephen," He leans forward, jabbing his elbow into his

knee and his finger at me.

    I look to my mother, wondering why she's not snapping back

at him, like she usually does when he starts yelling at us kids.

But she's not looking at me.    I doubt she's looking at anything;

her eyes are glazed over.    Aunt Stacy has her hands clasped

around hers, which in turn rest on the bible open in her lap.

    "When I'm talking to you you look at me, Stephen," my

father snaps.   I jerk my head back. "I'm going to tell you this

once, do you understand me?" I nod. "Good.    Someone hurt your

sister.   That is all you need to know.   Now you go back out to

that barn and you tell that to Hope and if you have any more

goddamned questions you ask her."    But my father's gaze doesn't

waver. "Go on, Stephen."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 370


    Still shaking I make my way back down the hall.       At the

door I turn around to look back into the livingroom. No one's

moved.   My father still has his eyes on me.      I shrink back out

into the night.

    A wind picks up the snow and swirls it in eddies over the

drive.   I stumble in the yard; my knee hits a patch of ice,

sending a stabbing pain up and down my leg.

    "You're shaking," Hope says.

    I nod.

    "Do I want to know?" Hope asks.

    "It's Emily," I tell her.

    I feel her go rigid. "Is it bad?"

    "Yeah," I tell her. "It's really bad."

                                   #

I get Emily a glass of water from the en suite bathroom after

downing a glass myself.   I hold it to her lips she drinks.

    "Thank you," she says.   I tell her I'm sorry.      She shakes

her head. "It's not your fault."       Her voice is strong, firm.

She tells this to herself every day. "What time is it?"

    I look at my watch. "Almost six."

    "You have to go soon, don't you?"

    I give her half a shrug. "I can stay for a while still."

    Emily nods, closing her eyes. "Read to me till I fall

asleep."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 371


       Placing the glass on the bedside table I bring the covers

up to her neck, partly for her warmth, partly to hide the scars.

I pick up _The Stray_, but do not continue from where I left

off.    I thumb through to the end, to her favorite part.     Soon as

I begin she smiles, remembering the words:

       "By noon I reached the Ford and brought the _Andre_ down

onto the Meadow, but there was no one there to greet me.      The

Ford was a ghost town.    Evidences of the flood were everywhere:

trees uprooted, the Meadow grasses flattened, and Kind Tink's

rocking chair hanging from a limb.       I rushed up to the Big Rocks

, cawing like a crow, but no crow cawed back..."

       She's already asleep, her chest slowly rising, breath a

hollow rasp.    I place the book closed on the chair and want to

give her a kiss on the forehead, but know I don't dare.      She

murmurs when I turn up the radio a bit, enough that I can hear

the crickets chirping faintly.    In the distance a wolf howls at

the moon.    I switch off the lamp when I leave.

                                  #

When the lawyers come, I listen at the top of the stairs.

       It was a student who found her.    He went looking because he

thought he heard a lost kitten.    It was on the second landing

that he found the blood.    He called campus security, but they

didn't respond.    They thought it was a hoax.    The stairwell

where they found her was supposed to be patrolled by security
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 372


four times a day.   In the end it would be discovered she'd lain

at the bottom for eight hours.   She was lucky to be alive, given

her injuries.   The college offers a generous settlement, which

will pay for her room and her treatment.    The lawyers suggest my

father take it.   He does.

    The rest of the details don't come out until the criminal

trial, which I'm not allowed to attend.    Hope goes every day.

She doesn't tell me anything else.   When it's over she says me

that she's decided to go to law school.    I ask her what she's

going to study. "Criminal Prosecution," she says.    Four of the

boys get off with two years probation.     Two get three years in

minimum security but are parolled after a eighteen months.

Teddy does his full term of five years.    No one else at the

party is tried.   Not even the ones who watched.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 373




                            CHAPTER 27



                           UNCLE ROBERT




Uncle Robert lives a few blocks off campus in one of the nicer

brick houses.   Someone had the audacity to convert it to a

duplex in the sixties.   After Aunt Stacy died he bought out the

neighbors, knocked the walls back down and has spent the better

part of five years restoring it.   White railings on the porches

front and back, stained glass awning windows, muzzy curtains and

a doorbell that makes an overly quaint ding-dong.

    The windows are open, letting the cool evening air through.

I head someone place their silverware down on fine bone china
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 374


with a delicate clink and the conversation cease.    "Excuse me,"

Uncle Robert's solid baritone, creak of an antique chair lifted,

not scraped as he rises.    His footsteps strike at the hardwood

floors, muted as he hits the runner in the hall but still the

deep booming of a large man taking his time.

    The iron lock clicks open, the hinges make no noise as they

glide the door open.    His cuffs are rolled back, a large gold

watch ecasing his thick wrist. His glasses have thick, black

rims The sun setting over my shoulder.    He squints a little.

"Stephen," he says, unsmiling.

    "Uncle Robert." I open the screen door and reach to shake

his hand.   Quite casually he looks down at it, blinks, and puts

his hand out.    I grab it, give it a lose shake.   It falls from

my fingers, brushing against his trousers before slipping into

his pockets.    Otherwise he just stards there, one hand on the

edge of the door. "May I come in?" I ask.

    His tongue slips out and wets his lip.     I haven't seen him

since the funeral.   He never comes to Emily's birthday parties.

"I suppose."    He teaches Ethnobiology at the college, has three

cats and two children, Hope and Stephen.

    Closing the door behind me I place my overcoat on the rack

before following him down the hall to the dining room.    It's

overly quiet considering the number of people in the room.

"Sorry I'm late," I say, since everyone is staring or, in the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 375


case of Cousin Stephen and his wife Constance, studiously

ignoring me.

    "Sit where you'd like," Uncle Robert waves at the table

dismissivly, returning to his place at the head of the table.

There are three seats open.

    I slide in on my mother's right, across from a thin man

with close cropped hair and pale green eyes.    He smiles in

greeting, stands as I sit and offers his hand. "John

Ketteridge," he says.    Rising up again I shake his hand.

"Stephen Hoemke."

    "Oh, Joan and Don's youngest," he says, freezing his smile

in place.    But his hand has gone limp in mine.   I try not to

look sheepish as I sit back down.    My mother places her hand on

my knee and gives it a reasuring pat before returning it to the

table.    She rubs the stem of her glass with her fingers, her

knife and fork politely places askance her empty plate.      I try

and remember how much she at at lunch, remembering only that it

wasn't very much.    From the small streaks of gravy and few

slices of carrot left it would seem she just hasn't been very

hungry.

    "There's some roast left," Uncle Robert tucks his napkin

into the top of his shirt, raises his gold rimmed wine glass and

takes a small draught. "Asparagus, carrots and some mashed

potatoes there in the covered casarole.    Is there gravy left?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 376


    "I believe so, father," Constance lifts the lid of the

gravy boat.    "A bit." She hands it to one of her twins, I don't

know which and there's no use trying to figure it out; not only

look identical but are dressed exactly the same in blue Dickies

and white button downs with clip-on ties.     The boy takes it

gingerly, his eyes go huge, and he passes it to his brother, who

treats it similarly.   They're five or six.   He gets off his

chair and comes around the side of the table and looks up a me

expectantly.

    I take it's scalloped handles with great care, say Thank

you, and he gives me a little nod.   "You're welcome."   Then he

makes his way back to his chair.   Constance smiles at them both

and they blush with pride.   They pick up their silverware again,

gingerly cutting their meat so as not to scratch at the china.

David refils his glass, the wine gluggling out of the bottle.

My father's knife strikes at his plate.    Uncle Robert visible

flinches at the sound, but says nothing.

    My mother trys to break the silence that's endured since my

arrival: "The asparagus is quite good, dear, you should try

some."

    "I will, thank you," I reach for the dish in front of me,

using the silver tongs to place a few stalks on my plate. "Pass

the salt please?"

    Cousin Stephen wordlessly does so.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 377


    "Donald, you were telling Mr. Ketteridge about your course

on Modal Logic?"

    "Yes," my father dabs at his mouth with the corner of his

handstiched linen napkin. "We'll be studying modal theory in

terms of 'possible world semantics,' focusing more on doxastics

in opposition to doentics."

    "Fascinating," Ketteridge pops a chunk of gravy-laden roast

in his mouth, beckoning my father continue with his eyebrows

rising atop an earnest expression.

    "Perhaps.    Obligation and belief are too intertwined in

todays students."

    "Quite."

    "Mr. Ketteridge teaches philosophy at the college with your

uncle," my mother explains, "He's just begun teaching."

    "Do you enjoy it?" I ask.

    The man nods. "I'm very happy to have the opportunity.

It's rare to find institutions, even the liberal arts colleges,

that allow for a focus in linguistics as a function of

philosophy."

    From the corner of my eye I see the muscles in my mothers

arm twitch,    then lie still.

    "It is rare," my father agrees casually.    His fork bobs

back and forth like a metronome. "There's a gentleman in San

Francisco, working on extending the theories of Barthes and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 378


Derrida to include the original, Saussarian impressions of

language as the basis of philosophy."

    "Paris something, isn't it?"

    "Jack Paris, yes.   You're familiar with him?" Voice shy and

cool, the metronome stops.   There's only a moment, really, to

retrack this conversation.

    "Stephen," I say.   My cousins perks, stares at me like a

deer in the headlights. "Your studies in hermeneutics has had

similar implications, I believe?"

    After blinking once or twice he asks "I'm sorry?"

    "Historical interpretation through grammatical exegesis?"

I'm more or less making this shit up, stringing together words

heard in passing.   My cousin's expression softens a bit, but

steeles again as his eyes form a hard squint, his lips thin and

blanch.

    "Vaguely," he finally offers. "Less in terms of necessity

being predicate to thought."

    "But the whole notion of religion centers on obligation and

belief."

    "Not at all," and they're off.     I try and follow, but after

a few minutes it's wholly beyond me.    I pour gravy on my roast,

salt my asparagus and drink a little wine.

    "Excuse me," my mother rises, "Dinner was wonderful,

Bobby."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 379


    "Thank you, Joan.   Would anyone like some coffee?"

    A chorus of pleases rings around the table.

    "Shall I get the plates?" My mother wants to know.

    "If you would like." Non-commital, he lumbers into the

kitchen.

    My father grumbles, grabs his wine glass and moves to an

empty seat on my right, across from Cousin Stephen.   The three

of them huddle, hunched over as my mother collects the plates

from beneath their folded arms.    Their voices turn into a sharp

hush.

    "Stephen, are you finished?"

    "Almost.   I'll bring it in in a moment."

    "Peter, Paul, help your Aunt Joan collect the silverware

please," Constance hands one of them her knife and fork, the

other her spoon. "Don't mix the clean with the dirty."

    "Yes, mother," says the one with the spoon.    I finish

quickly, that when they arrive I can hand mine to them.

Constance watches me flatly as I do this, then turns her

attention back to the debate.

    Ketteridge and my father have tag teamed her husband, who's

begun to flunder a little.   It's unfair, as the former seems to

be pressing him regarding the "object of necessity being

consistent, unabreviated by will," while the latter stresses the

"genuine difference between obligations we actually have and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 380


those one should adopt."   It's muddled by the fact he keeps

having to argue against their assumptions concerning faith and

obligation.

    With a sigh Constance leans over, placing her hand on her

husband's arm. "Logic does not dictate the relevance of faith,"

she says, interrupting Ketteridge, "rather, it is by faith that

one understands obligation; through will, logic allows one to

assert themselves within the flow of obligation, for it is not a

constant.   It is necessarily mutable, between husband and wife,

student and teacher, God and man even, dependent upon the nature

of the relationship at the time."

    "However," Ketteridge shifts, to speak to Constance over

her husband's shoulder, "In any system where a thing is

obligatory, that thing must be permisable.   Thought it necessary

to make this distintion, yet theology mandates that to even form

a thought in violation of its tenets is to not fulfill the

obligation; you think of an alternative, and therefore you sin,

simply by being aware of its existence.   Any system that

includes its own betrayal fails any amount of deontic scrutiny."

    "To determine obligation soley on the basis of logic,"

Constance turns to look at my father, then past him, through the

window, at where the sun is setting beyond the trees, "leaves

one susceptible to betrayal.   It's a question of if one betrays

one's self, or one's logic.    Will in and of itself provides the
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 381


mechanism betrayal, and it is through faith, rather, through

grace specifically, that God forgives the human mind for its

fraility of thought."

    "Logic is a fraility?" He says.

    "To be rocognize obligation does not mean one must conform

to obligation,," my father reiterates to the conversation at

large, adding "nor that it is permissable to oblige.    There is a

lack within this one could call 'fraility.'" He shrugs his

shoulders and downs his wine.

    "Fragility is not a fault," Constance counters. "No more so

than weakness is a fault."

    "Of course it is," Ketteridge blurts out.

    "Then perfect strength is perfect being." Her tone is

droll, sarcastic. "And since strength is merely the ability to

dominate another, for all things are relational,"

    "Are you a post-modernist?" Ketteridge interupts.

    "No." She stops, twirling her wine glass in her fingers.

She seems unwilling to continue, and neither her husband nor my

father appear as if they are going to speak.

    Ketteridge swallows uncomfortably. "I'm sorry, continue,"

he says.

    "Thank you."   She slides the glass from her, stretching out

her hand along the white of the tablecloth. "Logic may indicate

this fragility is a weakness, but without it the possibility of
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 382


betrayal is far too great.    Unless one embraces their weakness,

understands it allows it to exist as a portion of one's being,

then logic is useless; one will therefore betray one's

obligations through fear, which is of course the opposite of

will."

      "Wait," Ketteridge leans forward.   I take the opportunity

to excuse myself, bringing my plate with me into the kitchen.

The conversation here is no better, save that it is on the finer

points of cat ownership.

      One of Uncle Robert's large grey and white tabbys is on the

countertop, receving a thorough scratching under its chin from

its owner.   The twins are seperating the silver near by,

returning to a large box those items that were unused.       Coffee

is brewing in a pot, while my mother is crounched down on her

ankles, trying to bait one of the other cats to approach her.

It sits resolutely uninterested by the passageway to the sitting

room.

      "Don won't have them in the house," she says, "says as soon

as one comes in, they'll all want to."

      "How many do you have?" Uncle Robert wants to know.

      "Oh, a few dozen.   They've overrun the old haybarn.    Here

you go," she rubs her fingers together as the cat turns its head

in her general direction.    But it continues, moving to appraise

me.   I think it's Corinth, based on the size; Uncle Robert has a
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 383


habit of naming his animals after cities.    The largest, which is

now jumping off the counter to approach me, is named

Thermopylae, while the one in the middle is Dakar.

    Corinth gets up slowly and veritably prances over to me

while Thermopylae has already begun to weave figure eights

through my legs.

    "Coffe's almost ready," Uncle Robert says, moving in front

of a tray with cups and saucers. "I'll be serving it in the

front parlor.

    "Thank you, Bobby," my mother rises, "Do you need any

help?"

    "No, Joan, thank you." He takes the tray in through the

dining room. "Coffee in the front parlor?"

    "Thank you, Mr. Williams," Constance says.    Her chair

scrapes as she stands. "Stephen?"

    "In a minute," her husband says.   Ketteridge hasn't stopped

talking, but I can't make out what he's saying.   I assume he's

speaking with my father since he doesn't stop and repeat

himself.

    "Thank you," my mother says softly, placing her arm over my

shoulder.

    "Don't mention it," I say.   The cats continue to circle.

Corinth mews up at me, then both of them freeze for a moment

before running through the hall to the front door.     I lean over
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 384


to look down the hall, just in time to see a dim shadow fall

over the door.   A key in the lock.   My mother squeezes my

shoulder.

    "Be good," she says, then walks infront of my vision.     I

hear the latch, feel the slight breeze as the heavy wood shifts

the air moving through the house.

    Blue jeans, and a white sweater under her coat; my mother

passes into the front parlor. "Good evening, Hope."

    "Hi Aunt Joan," she says, looking up.    "Hello Therm, Cory,"

and then, "Did I miss dinner?"

    "By an hour," her father's voice rumbles. "Your brother is

here."

    "Yeah, we saw the van."   She calls out, "Where are my

nephews?"

    The twins drop their silverware. "Auntie Hope!" each cries

in turn, then tear through the house.

    "Peter and Paul!" Cousin Stephen shouts, "What have I told

you about running in your grandfather's house?"

    But they don't reply.   They leap at her.   She looks up just

in time to stretch out her arms to catch them. "Woah!" Giving

them a big hug. "How are you guys?"

    "Good!"

    "Did you bring up any presents?"

    "Paul!"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 385


    The boy on Hope's left wilts, struggles out of her grasp

and sulks into the dining room.      A hushed conversation ensues.

David emerges in the hall, walking towards the front door, which

is still open.    "Hope," he says.

    "Hey David.    I was wondering who that Saab belonged to.

    "No, I came with Mom and Dad," he gives her a hug.        Her

face emerges from over his shoulder, and she sees me for the

first time.

    There's a mix of emotion on her face, flickering across so

quickly I can barely tell what she's thinking before she lets go

of my brother and stands back.    Another shadow joins them.

"David, you remember Cameron."

    "Cameron," my brother says, barely containing the glee in

his voice.

    "David.   Yes, we met at the wedding." A cool tenor,

slightly nasal.   I duck into the sitting room.     It's dark, the

curtains drawn.   From the light in the kitchen I make my way

through to the bathroom.   Closing the door behind me I turn on

the antique, brass lamp sitting on a small vanity.      The

downstairs gest room is just around the corner.      I know it has a

its own door onto the back porch.      I consider for a moment

slipping out and getting in the car now.      But there's a ritual

in this, one that must be observed.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 386


    I hear steps in the kitchen, pensive and searching.      I turn

on the tap, then turn it off again.    I avoid the reflection in

the mirror and step back into the sitting room.

    Hope is standing in the doorway, backlit. "There you are."

    "Hi, Hope."

    While approaching her one of the twins, Paul I think, comes

up behind her and tugs on her pant leg. "Auntie Hope?"

    She turns, bending down. "Yes Paul?"

    "I'm very happy you've come to visit us," he says, as if

remembering the words, "and I'm sorry I was rude and asked if

you had any presents."    He fidgets as he speaks, staring at his

hands.

    Hope pulls him close to her in a hug, kissing his forhead.

"You're a good kid, Paul." She turns him around, "Hey, go to

your Uncle Cameron and see if he needs help?      Okay?"

    "Okay."

    Just as he's about to wander off she whispers something in

his ear.    The boy's face brightens and without a backward glance

runs into the diningroom, the soles of his Keds slapping the

wood.    Hope just shakes her head, then turns back to me,

standing in the middle of the room. "So you're here," she says.

"You come in this morning?"

    "This afternoon," I tell her. "But I should probably be

getting back.    I'm staying up in Landisburg."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 387


       "Yeah," she says, "You might want to do that."

       I watch her get up, hear her walks slowly towards the front

of the house.    Voices muted and hushed are obscured by a squeal

of "Oh cool!" as one of the twins finds there are presents after

all.

       No one is in the dining room.    The front parlor is packed.

Peter and Paul are the center of attention, lying in the middle

of the room on their stomachs cooing over something plastic with

wheels.    Constance has her hand on her husband's knee,

whispering something in his ear.       He doesn't look too happy, but

he's doing a fair enough job of concealing a frown.       Cameron

nods at me curtly as Hope sits next to him on the chaise lounge

then turns his attention back to his nephews.      David smirks at

me from his seat on the piano bench, Ketteridge and my father

are still talking, quietly.    My mother serves coffee.

       Grabbing my overcoat I step outside, onto the front porch.

Uncle Robert is waiting for me there, sitting on the swing

hanging from its rafters.    One arm is stretched out

terrirotially across the back of the swing, the other curled

around the chains which support it.       Self-consiously lighting a

cigarette I stand at the top of the steps.      The sky purple and

red.

       "Don't make trouble here, Stephen," he tells me.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 388


    I nod, "Thank you for dinner, Uncle Robert," and make my

way down to the drive.   Past the mini-van, fingers running over

the hood of my car; just as I thought, the engine is still warm.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 389




                            CHAPTER 28.

                       SUMMER, JACKS AND ZOE




Not really too sure to go, so I pull in to the gas station two

blocks down, slip in my credit card and hit blinking box marked

'Premium.'   Filling up the tank two young, fratboy types pull up

next to me in a Mustang blaring Top 40 Angst.

    "'Sup?" Asks the driver, his ballcap on backwards.      He

takes the nozzle, slaps it in and then leans back all cool.

    I look away.

    "Wha'Sup?" He asks again.

    Part of me wants a fight.   Part of me wants to kick the

shit out of this kid, douse him in gasoline and light a match.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 390


    Fire is always an answer.    In any moment, any instant, fire

can explain anything.

    I ignore him.

    "Bitch." But he mutters it, under his breath, shifts his

feet.   Slamming the nozzle home gets his attention. "What the

fuck's your problem?"

    "I make six figures, drive a forty thousand dollar car and

fuck women 'till they purr.   I don't have any problems."

    The pump ticks off the gallons, ticks off the dollars,

clicks off when his tank is full.     There's a scowl on my lip.   I

can feel it.    I turn my back and get in my car, start the engine

and pull out of the station heading South on North West Street.

My leg is jittery.   I pass the gate of the college where Uncle

Robert works and reaize I'm headed the wrong way.     Making the

block I see a coffee shop, and on a whim pull into a space

across the street.

                                  #

Inside the music is a little too loud.     There's a haze of

cigarette smoke in the back glowing blue under the weak

flourescents.   The floor is linoleum squares, some missing

showing the concrete foundations below.     Exposed brick walls and

three visible piercings on the girl behind the counter.     Her

hair is spikey and black.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 391


    "Hey, whatcha want?" Looking first at my overcoat and then

at the Australian Mother Of Pearl buttons on my Brazilia Cotton

white pinpoint button down.

    "Just coffee," I tell her.

    "Sumatra, Columbian, New Guinea..." turning around she

looks up at the chalkboard behind her.   The hoops on her bra

straps poke through the slim fit of her black baseball jersey.

On the front in faded silkscreen it says 'Runs With Scissors.'

"and decaf Hazelnut.   We also got espresso drinks and all that

Starbucks crap."

    "Just some Sumatra then," pulling out my wallet I figure

that offering her the AmEx would be considered gauche so I give

her a ten, stuffing the change in the tip jar.

    She says something that sounds like "Thanks" as I breathe

in the smell of the coffee.    It's relativly fresh.   Better than

you'd get at a chain, at least.   It's in a large ceramic mug

with a saucer. "Refills are fifty cents if you're interested

later."   I turn around and thank her, then head towards the

back.

    Not too many people here in the summer, I guess.      Three

kids sitting around a table have their hands in their pockets

and look bored.    Another is reading something by himself, off in

the corner with a pack of menthols.   Smelling the noxious mint
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 392


fumes suddenly I stop, turning past the three to take a seat

nearer the front.

    "Ask him."

    "Suit!"

    I assume he means me.    He's youngish, nappy black hair and

a threadbare navy surplus coat slung down around his back.

    "Yeah," he becons me over.     Trying to look earnest and

bored I cock my head. "You play Hearts?"

    "Hearts?"

    "Yeah.    Our fourth ain't shown." He's not diffident,

perhaps just affectedly shy.   He reminds me of Ketteridge. "So

you play?"

    "You can play three handed."

    "Weak," pronounces one of the girls.      Her mascara is thick

and uneven.   Her face looks wan, eyes raw.    She has deep brown

eyes and wears red lipstick.

    "Ya can," I tell her.

    "Yeah, 'ya can,' but we don't want to." Her foot, the leg

crossed at the knee, bobs up and down.

    "C'mon.    Couple of hands?"

    "Sure." I shrug.

    "Kickass." From his pocket he pulls a pack of cards, slips

them out of their paper case and begins shuffling.     I sit to his

left, placing my coffee on the heavily varnished table.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 393


Someone's carved their initals, JLS, at the corner. "This is

Zoe, that's Summer, I'm Jacks."

    "'Jacks?'"

    He stops shuffling, looks me straight in the eye.      "Michael

Jackson."

    "Don't blame you," I tell him.

    "Who're you?"

    "Stephen.    Hoemke."

    "'Steve?'"

    "Stephen."

    "Good man," he shuffles one more time, places the cards in

front of me and raps them with his knuckles.     There's a periot

ring on his left hand.      Mimicing his gesture I knock them with

my knuckle.   Jacks picks up the pack and deals.

    "Ashtray?"

    "Here.    I'll get it," Summer reaches over, grabs a small

Burger King ashtray from the next table and slids it over. "Can

I bum one?"

    "Help yourself." I place the pack and the matches on the

table.

    "Thanks."

    "And one for the dealer," Jacks says.      So Summer takes two,

lights them both, keeping them in her mouth until the deal is
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 394


finished.    As she hands one over, lips stick ringed around the

edge of the filter Jacks asks, "Zoe?"

    She shakes her head.    She hasn't spoken.    She had short,

curly hair and a black shirt     on under her grey sweater.   I

recognize the cut as one I saw at Abercrombie and Fitch, or

maybe Banana Republic a year or two ago.

    "Rules?" I ask.

    "Queen is worth thirteen, no Jack, can't lead hearts 'till

they're broken," Smoke rumbles through Jacks' throat, causing

his voice to harsh.    But he doesn't cough.   The cigarette bobs

as he speaks, spreading ash over his hand.     I nod, focusing on

my hand.    It's pretty safe.   I pass off two high clubs and my

only diamond.    Jacks gives me the Ten of clubs, Seven and Three

of spades. "Bitch," he mutters as he looks at the cards Zoe

gives him.    Summer seems to have no reaction to what I gave her

while Zoe, to her left, proffers a baleful glare. "Who's got the

Two?"

    "Me."    I'm long on spades, and apart from the Queen of

Hearts don't have any worries.     I toss down the Two of Clubs.

Summer follows with the Ace, Zoe the King and Jacks the Nine.

    Summer collects the pile and plays the Queen of Clubs.        The

Eight follows.    Jacks smiles unsubtely. "Booya."   He tosses down

the Five of Spades. I quirk a brow at him. "Let's play some

caaahds!" I follow suit, adding my Seven of Clubs to the pile.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 395


    As if unaware that Jacks has pronounced his desire to try

and take all the points, 'Shooting the Moon' as its called,

Summer tosses her Jack of Clubs down as she collects the pile.

    "Bitch," Jacks pronounces, and Zoe plays the Five.      He

plays the King of Spades, adding insult to injury; he has the

Queen.   Nothing I can do buy play my Six.

    Summer taps her cigarette on the lip of the ashtray,

studying her cards. "Fuck it." She plays the Ten of Diamonds.

"Someone do something with that."

    Zoe plays the Eight and shrugs.

    "Hmmm..." Jacks scratches his chin, looks at me and plays

the Six.

    I grin and toss down my Queen of Hearts.

    "Bitch!" He cries. "You don't have a single fucking

diamond?"

    "Nope.    Passed it to Ms. Summer here."

    "And I thank you for it," She chuckles, "Running the first

goddamned hand.   Jacks, you're a fool."   Then, looking at him,

tosses the Three. "Anyone long on Diamonds?" Zoe casually slides

her Two under Summer's lead. "Jacks?"

    He slaps his Jack of Diamonds down. "Fuck you, Suit."

    Summer leans over and stage whispers, "I don't think he

means you."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 396


       I throw my Ten of Hearts on the pile, next to Jack's

waiting hands. "No, I mean him." He says, "Him and the goddamn

BWM he rode in on."

       "Don't drive a Beemer," I say, still grinning.

       "Oh?" He leads the Ace of Diamonds.

       "Saaahb," I say, adding my Ten of Clubs.    Summer and Zoe

both laugh.    Summer plays the nine of Diamonds and Zoe the Five.

       Jacks plays the Four then looks at the others. As I lay my

Ace of Spades he comments "I know one of you two got another

Diamond."

       "That'd be me," Summer confesses.    Zoe puts the Jack of

Hearts on top of her Seven. "Thanks, Zoe."

       "Don't mention it."

       Apparently her not speaking isn't that big of a deal.

Summer doesn't even respond, instead mentions "I don't want to

lead," after she collects her cards.       After a moment of

hesitation she tries the Four of Spades.       Zoe plays the Two.

Jacks growls as he flips the Queen into the middle.

       I skirt the Jack under it. "Shoulda kept that Five," I tell

him.

       "Bring it, Fanboy."   He lays down his Seven of Hearts

tentativly.    I toss off my sole remaining Heart, the Three.

       "That the best you got?"

       "Yeah," he swaggers
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 397


    She lays the Six, but Summer says "Fuck" under her breath

as she does. Zoe plays the five and Jacks takes the pile before

leading with Eight.    My high Spade falls just as Summer says

"Fuck" again, and plays the Nine of hearts.

    "Kickass," Jacks pronounces, not even noticing Zoe's Four.

    With a growl Summer tries the Six of Spades, but it's no

good.   Zoe plays the Two of Hearts and Jacks the King while I go

low with my Three of Spades.    Next rouns she tries the Eight,

but I play my Seven.    That leaves her with the Ace of Hearts,

which she plays last. "I break the fucking run," she says almost

to herself, and I end of getting screwed."

    "Hey. I took the Queen," Jacks tries.

    "You wanted the Queen.     I didn't want these...six, seven,

eight Hearts." Cards are passed to me for the shuffle. "Who's

keeping score?"

    "I will," Zoe reaches into a knapsack laying of the floor.

Pulling out a notebook and pen she writes down 'Ja St Su Zo' in

sharp, black letters.    8 Points for Summer, 18 for Jacks.

    While I shuffle Summer wonders, "Aren't you going to ask if

we're students?"

    "Does it matter?" I ask.

    Her shoulder bobs. "No."

    "Are you?"

    "Yeah."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 398


    "Okay then."

    Quickly: "You?"

    I offer her the deck.    She cuts it.   I take the pack and

begin dealing. "Visiting Family."

    "Oh.    Here?"

    "Yeah."

    "Oh."    She looks around, suddenly suspicious. "Here here?"

    "No, I just wanted coffee."     This seems to satisfy her

curiosity. "Can I ask to buy you guys a round without sounding

like a prick?"

    As one they seem to mull this over for a second.     I keep my

eyes on the cards, counting as I pass through each round just to

be sure.    "Sure," Summer finally says.

    "'Sure' I can ask, or 'Sure' you'll have a round?"

    "Both."

    "Okay.    Will they run me a tab?"

    "Kelsey!" Jacks calls out.

    "What?" Screams back the girl behind the counter.

    "Suit wants to run a tab!"

    "Okay!"

    He looks at me deadpan. "Kelsey says it's okay," then, as

if admitting a fatal flaw in his character adds, "I know her."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 399


    I smile and reach thirteen. "Bar's open then.      Just," I

could see he was about to open his mouth wide again, "please

don't yell right in my ear."

    "Oh," getting up he places a hand on my shoulder. "Sorry.

What you two want?"

    "Just whatever," Zoe says.

    "Summer?"

    Summer gets up and goes with him. "Uh...something with

whipped cream."    Her voice fades out.   I sip at my coffee.

    "You'll have to excuse my friends," Zoe says. "Summer's

just a little coarse sometimes.   And Jacks.    Well, Jacks is a

bit too obvious."

    "'Obvious?'"

    But she just nods, scratching at the binding of her

notebook with her pen. Then: "You're from around here, aren't

you?"

    The phrase catches me just as I'm about to respond with a

"Yep."   I think about it and admit that, "Yeah.    Perceville."

    "Over the river?"

    "Through the woods," I say automatically.

    "Teacher's son, are you?" She smiles, still scratching, not

looking at me.

    "Uh, yeah.    My father's a professor."

    "But he doesn't like you very much."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 400


    "Hi," I stand up and offer my hand. "Stephen Hoemke."

    "Zoe Ness," she puts down her pen, shakes my hand once,

firmly.

    "And is psychology your major, or just a hobby?"

    "Social Anthropology and Environmental Studies." She picks

up her pen again.   It occurs to me almost immediately that she

probably has courses with my uncle.   A slight grunt slips out.

"Yes?"

    "Nothing."

    She grins a little, "Who're you visiting in Carlisle?" I

open my mouth, sigh and scratch just below my jaw."You always do

that when you're trying to figure out what to say." I stop,

looking up at her she's not smiling anymore. "Now you're going

to ask if I can 'Please stop that.'   I can stop saying it, but

I'm not going to stop noticing.

    "Okay."

    There's silence until Jacks and Summer come back with their

drinks.   Both are topped with generous amounts of whipped cream.

"We got you some tea," he says to Zoe. "There's milk and sugar

if you want it."

    "Jacks," she looks at him, "How long have you known me?"

    He blinks twice. "Three years."

    "And you don't remember if I take sugar in my tea?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 401


      "No," he shrugs with a   blase smile, throwing his long leg

over the back of the chair as he sits down.

      "Yes, Jacks, you're the Alpha-Male here," she points at me

like it's my fault. "Stephen will play off of whatever you give

him, and he's impressed by your wit and charm.      You can stop

trying to impress him now, thank you."

      He thunks his mug down on the table.    Summer gives an

appreciative whistle.    When Zoe looks up at she raises her free

hand. "I didn't say anything."

      We all look at our hands, select thre cards and pass to our

right.    Jacks gives me two high Clubs and the Eight of Hearts.

Summer gets my Nine, the Queen of Clubs and the Jack of

Diamonds.    Zoe gives half a smirk when she takes the cards from

Jacks, who then leads the Two of Clubs.      But she takes the

opening trick and starts playing Where's the Queen, feeding out

her Spades until Jacks is forced to play the King.      I'm out by

this point, tossing off a one of the high Clubs and Summer

places the Queen.

      Jacks grunts in disgust, takes the pile and tries to get

out of the lead by playing a low Club.    Everyone sneaks under

his lead.    He tries Diamonds, my long suit, laying down the

Four.    I throw him a bone, playing the Five, knowing that since

I have the Two and Three that someone else will end up taking

it.   Summer tries with the Jack, but Zoe takes the trick with
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 402


the Ace.    Staying with Diamonds she leads the Seven.      I stay

low, Summer too.    Jacks curses and plays a Club again.      Out of

the suit, I decide to break Hearts.       He grins.   Summer throws on

the Nine I gave her.       His smile freezes.   Zoe gives him the

King.

    "Bitches.     All of you," he plays the Four of Hearts.     Both

I and Summer go under.       Zoe plays the Queen, takes the trick and

leads her Five.    I start tossing off my remaining Diamonds,

Summer takes the trick with her Ace.

    Unhappy, she plays the Nine of Spades. "No one has Spades,

do they?"

    "I do," Zoe plays the Four, Jacks a Heart, I keep tossing

my Diamonds.

    "Nothing Higher?" Summer asks, taking the trick and playing

the Jack.

    "Nope," she lays the Two.

    "Then the rest are mine." We toss out cards to her. "Fucked

again."

    Jacks keeps silent about the Queen.         I wonder if Zoe passed

it to him, or if she just knew. "Sixteen," he says."

    "Four," Zoe writes in her notebook, "Six to you, Summer?"

    "Yeah.     My deal."    She bends down, places her mouth at the

lip of her cup and slurps.       Whipped cream sticks to her nose,

which she wipes off with the back of her hands.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 403


    We keep playing through Crosses and Keepers and back to

Lefts.    I take Three points in the third and fifth hands.

Summer gets stuck with the Queen on her deal, but Jacks gets it

the next two hands.    Zoe picks up two more points.

    The four of us break before my Deal to again go for more

drinks.   I refill my plain old coffee.   Jacks orders a Triple

Bowbreaker, three shots of espresso topped off with Sumatra with

an iceberg of whipped cream floating on the surface.    Summer

wants a Boysenberry Mocha with extra whipped cream.    Zoe opts

for more tea.    She selects a purple packet of Darjeeling from a

pretensious felt-lined oak box.    Kelsey gives her a mug of hot

water.

    "One more hand, Stephen?" Jacks asks as I add a pack of

Marlboro Lights to my tab.

    "Sure."

    Summer wants to know, "Don't you have anywhere better to be

on a Saturday night than hanging out with a bunch of College

kids playing Hearts?"

    "Summer," Zoe says, as if merely naming the season.

    "I wanna know is all."

    "Not really," I say, "No," and take my seat.

    Zoe opens her mouth.     Her eyebrows flicker a little but she

doesn't say anything.

    "Yes, Zoe?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 404


       "Hm?" She looks as though she's wholly unaware of what I

might be asking.

       "You just had a thought." I shuffle. She looks down and to

the right. "People looks down and to the right when they're

trying to think up something to say."     I'm smirking.

       "Um-hm," she agrees, sticking out her lower lip a little,

nodding blankly.    As soon as Jacks and Summer look away,

however, her eyes darken.    She's not amused.

       Summer cuts again and I Deal.   She looks at her cards and

pronounces her hand "Complete shit."     When she sees the cards

Zoe passes her she amends that to "Complete and Utter Shit."             I

can tell Zoe also thinks this means she'll try and Shoot the

Moon; Summer passed me the Three, Ten and Jack of Diamonds.          I

decide to lead Diamonds if no one else does first.        However,

since I passed the two of the suit I was delt to Jacks, I'll

need to be a bit careful.

       I lead the Two of Clubs.   Summer plays the Ten.    Zoe's

eyebrows flicker.    Excellent.

       Jacks takes the pile and starts playing Spades.     Zoe takes

the end of the trick with the Ace but keeps on with the Spades

by playing the Jack.    I look at my remainging Spade, the King.

Jacks and Summer play the Eight and Six, respectivly, so I take

and lead the Jack of Diamonds Summer gave me.     She plays the

Ace.    Zoe tosses randomly and Jacks blythely gives up the King.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 405


    "May as well get rid of this," Summer lays the Ace of

Clubs.    Zoe ponders, tosses out a low Diamond.   Jacks seems to

pick up on something being amiss.    Chewing on his lip he plays

the Eight and I give off a low Club.    Continuing the charade,

Summer tries the Jack. "Eh," asif she's being clever.    Again Zoe

pauses.    Summer looks at her, but I can only see the wane of her

face.    "Well?"

    "'May as well'," Zoe tosses out a heart.

    "Wait..." Jacks holds his Five in mid-air, looks at Summer,

then shakes it off, laying the Five.    I get rid of my Six.

    I light up a cigarette.     Jacks immediately motions towards

the pack, as if it were a casual thing among friends.     "Mm," I

say. "Summer?"

    "No thank you."

    Again Zoe's eyebrows flicker.    That makes three.   She and I

are both waiting to see if Summer leads with a Heart, or if she

has other suits to get rid of still.    My highest is her Ten of

Diamonds, so I know I'm no good.    Jacks is fiddling with the

match, which won't light, so he's useless.    Zoe, however, must

have something up her sleeve.    She knows what she passed Summer,

after all.    I decide to follow her lead, no pun intended.

    Summer is still deciding, however.    She touches two cards,

right next to each other, trying to decide which.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 406


    Suddenly Zoe perks, straightening her spine.    She flashes

me a toothy grin, looks at Jacks and raises her eyebrows

devilishly.

    This unnerves Summer. "What?"

    "Play the Hearts, Summer, I'll let you run."

    "What?" Jacks stops playing with his match.    Summer cocks

her head, her shoulder following.

    Zoe looks at him. "You're gonna loose, boy."

    "What?"

    Turning back to Summer she says, "Play the Spade."     Her

chin rises a little and her eyes smolder. "Trust me."

    Wary, Summer selects one of her two back-and-forth cards.

Laying it down I see it's the Five of Spades.

    "Rest are yours," Zoe plays the Four, winks at Jacks and

adds, "Bitch."

    "Hold on, hold on," He follows suit with the Two.    I give

over one of my Six, my highest Heart as Jacks continues his

protest. "There are five tricks still."

    Summer lays down the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, Nine and Four

of Hearts.

    "I can beat the Four," Jacks is staring at the cards.

    "You can't beat my Ace," Summer slides it out. "Or my King,

or my Queen, or my Jack.   How many Hearts you got, bitch?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 407


    "Fuck you and the Scholarship you rode in on," he tosses

out his hand, long on Diamonds with a sole Heart.

    Zoe looks at her notebook. "So, 23 points to each of us

since Ms. Olsen got all the Hearts, and my Queen," She shows her

hand, "which puts Mr. Dawes here at 100 which, I do believe,

means he lost.   You and I tied for first, Mr. Hoemke," she gives

me a nod, which I return, "while Ms. Olsen, despite her daring

gambit, comes in third."

    "Hey..." Summer crumples. "You tricked me."

    Zoe nods, "Aye, lassie," another wink, "that I did." She

gives out a gleeful laugh devoid of malice, and toussles

Summer's hair, "that I did," and settles back in her chair with

a sigh.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 408




                              CHAPTER 29

                                  ZOE




Jacks' mood changes when I split the rest of the pack of

Marlboros with him.     He stuffs them into the empty Kamel Red

Lights pack, shakes my hand and pronounces me "Good People."

Summer waves as I put on my coat.



    "Anyone need a ride?" I try one last time.     They balk,

saying they live just down the block and arn't headed out quite

yet besides.   "Okay.    Catch you around sometime." As I'm

crossing the street I hit the button on my key fob, chirping the

alarm system on my car.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 409


    Streets glossy black from the rains in the afternoon.

Brick storefronts and antique, gas-lamp style streetlights.

Wrought-iron baskets for the trash cans on the corner.

    I'm hyped up a little on caffiene, but it should wear off

by the time I hit Landisburg.    The engine purrs when I start it.

The clock says it's only ten thirty.   I'll get an early night

after all.

    My tires squeal as I turn the wheel, which they shouldn't.

I think about checking the tire pressure when I realize that the

road I'm parked on is flat.   The car shouldn't be leaning like

it is.   Leaving the engine running I get out and take a look.

    The right front tire is flat.    So is the right rear.   "What

the fuck?"   Gingerly, I run my hand over the circumference,

thinking I might have run over some glass, or something else

that could ave punctured both tires.   I don't find anything.

"Fuck," I say again, grab my cell phone and dial Triple A while

I switch off the engine.

    I give them the cross-streets where I'm at.     They tell me

they can have a tow truck out in less than twenty minutes, but

that if it's a double flat I'll probably be stuck until morning.

I hold and they confirm that yes, I'm screwed; no twenty-four

hour service stations operate in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

    Thanking the woman on the phone I figure I have a few

minutes until someone arrives.   I duck back into the coffee shop
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 410


and ask Kelsey for a cup to go.     She warns me that most of the

brews are pretty old, but that she can make a fresh pot now if I

can wait a few minutes.

    "Sure.   Thanks.   I'll be back in about fifteen, twenty

minutes."

    "Take your time," She pokes around under the counter. "You

have a request for some music?"

    "No, I don't think so."

    "Okay." The Carosel pops out, but the music keeps playing.

I've always wanted a CD Changer like that.     I notice it's an old

Panasonic, but there's no model number.     Making a mental note to

check their product line when I get home, I leave her to

switching the CDs and head back outside.

    Stranded in Carlisle.    There are worse fates.   I wonder who

I should call.   Hope, obviously.

    "Problems?" Zoe in the street behind me.

    She must have followed me out.     I'm halfway to my car,

standing on the double yellow line. "Tires are flat."

    "Tires?" Stressing the plural in a Zz sound.

    "Yeah," walking backwards slowly, holding up the cell

phone, "I called Triple A.    They'll be here in about five, ten

minutes," hating myself for the lie.     With luck she's far enough

away that she won't be able to tell.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 411


    But she says, "Just five or ten?    I better wait with you

then," like a bad actor in a highschool play.    She shoves her

hands in her pockets and comes over to the car, turning on her

heels at the last minute, falling against the window.    I must

have winced; she says, droll "I'm not going to break your car,"

looks both ways down the street. "Both tires on the far side of

the car?"

    "Yeah..."

    She nods, "Kids.   They see a nice car, out of state plates,

they feel bad or angry or whatever, they take a knife or usually

an ice-pick to the two tires on the far side.   Driver gets in,

usually doesn't notice at first, drives a little, fucks up the

rims or the alignment or sometimes even the frame.    Smart kids.

Why'd you give Jacks the smokes?"

    "I...I dunno."

    Lowering her voice to a flat monotone she asks again,

"Why'd you give Jacks the smokes?"

    "I..." shrugging I look down and to the right.

    "Uh-huh.    Kids are smart.   They understand gentrification,

even if they don't know the words.    When's Triple A getting

here?"

    "Fifteen, twenty minutes."

    "So why'd you tell me 'five, ten?'"

    "Because I wanted to hang out with you."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 412


       "No, if you'd wanted to hang out with me you'd have come

back to the table with me, Jacks and Summer.      You wanted to be

alone with me.    Why did you want to be alone with me?"

       "I didn't..." but it's no use.    She keeps going:

       "You wanted to be alone with me because you're handsome,

rich, intelligent and charming, so of course I'll want to fuck

you.    But I don't."   She stands up, starts to re-cross the

street, stops, her eye-brows flicker and the muscles on her jaw

flare. "And no, it's not because I'm a lesbian."

       "I didn't..." my voice whiney.

       "Yeah, you did," jutting her jaw to my crotch, "your pelvis

shifted when I said it."       Sighing, shaking her head, she starts

back.    It just gives her an excuse to raise her voice. "Boys,

boys, boys.    Ever since I was seventeen..."

       Zoe goes back inside.    I wait until the tow truck comes.    I

don't go back for my coffee.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 413




CHAPTER 30



HOPE




"This so better not be bullshit."

       "It isn't.    Someone rammed an ice-pick through two of my

tires.    I'm stranded."

       Hope sighs.   Not at the world, or the circumstances, but at

me. "No way in Hell.     Really.   There is absolutly nothing, noth-

ing, I can do."

       I called her cell phone.    I'm considering mentioning that

she left it on, but decide that that's really not going to help

me. "Hope, I don't know what to do."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 414


    "Can't you..." another sigh.      This one is at the world in

general.    "Christ.   Fine.   I'll pick you up.   I'll drop you off

at your hotel.    I'll make you fucking pay, though.    Know this.

Where are you?"

    I give her the cross streets.       She says to give her ten

minutes.    I light another cigarette and she's there before I

finish.    Since I know she doesn't like the smell of it I drop

the butt at my feet, grinding it with my toe.      Approaching the

car I see her reach up and fiddle with something on the ceiling.

It must have been the door light, because it doesn't go on as I

get in.    It's overly warm inside, but I don't say anything.

    Five minutes in to the ride: "Thanks for picking me up."

    "Whatever."

    Passing under the Interstate the street lamps shine bright.

Drops of water smack against the windshield.       Leaning forward to

see if it might rain again, something catches my eye.

    Um...

    "Hope?"

    "What?" She snaps.     Her foot presses down on the

accelerator.

    Um...

    When I don't answer I expect her to repeat herself, but

instead she says "Stop staring," because she's naked, then
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 415


flicks on wipers as a smattering of raindrops fall on the

windshield.

       "Hope?"

       "Keep your eyes on the road."

       "You're driving" and your naked.

       "So?    You want to walk?"

       I look into the back seat.      There's a rumbled overcoat half

on, half off the seat.       Then I get it. "This is part of making

me pay, isn't it?"

       "Yep," she takes the fork left.

       "I see."

       "Yes.   Yes you do.   When I get home, I'm going to fuck my

husband on the guest bed in my father's house.         The old, antique

bed?    Upstairs?   With the thick, heavy quilts and the solid

mohagany headboard?     That one.     Hell, I might even fuck him

twice."

       "So you're saying your mad at me?" I try and sound non-

plussed.

       "Why?" Punctuating the word by banging on the steering

wheel, "Why? Why? Why?       My father hates you.    He seeths with

hate for you.     Seeeeeeeeths."

       "My Mom asked me."

       "And I get shit for it.      From him.   From Cameron.   From

David fucking smirking with his arms crossed, leaning against
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 416


the wall.   Fucking cocky ass know-it-all smile.    Why?"   She's

doing well over eighty, naked, near midnight on a back road in

central Pennsylvania.

    I swallow hard.     This has just not been my day.   On cue

lightening flashes on the horizon.

    "Well?"

    "Because my mother asked me to."

    "You don't give a shit about your mother."

    "That is so not true."

    "Bull-shit."

    "What the hell does that mean?"

    "When was the last time you called your mother?"

    "I call her all the time."

    "When?"

    "A week or two ago."

    "What day of the week?"

    "What?"

    "What day did you call her?     A Tuesday?   A Thursday?"

    "A Thursday," I say, but I really don't know when I last

called my mother.

    "She has Vestry on Thursdays," Hope says wryly, "She gets

home from work, has two hours of free time wherein she does

laundry, makes dinner for your father then puts it in the oven
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 417


to keep warm, then heads out to Carol's house for an early

dinner before going to her Vestry meetings until nine."

    "So?"

    "So you didn't call her on a Thursday.       You havn't called

her in over two months, Stephen."

    "I so have."

    "Not according to her."

    Which shuts me up.    Sometimes I forget that Hope spends her

days putting away rapists and murders.      Defense Attorneys hate

putting their cients on the stand with a shaky alibi; Hope can

find the chink in their armor like Bard the Bowman felling

Smaug.   "Fine."

    "Christ, Stephen," we pull into the gravel parking lot.

She skids through the stones to a stop, puts the car in park

then twists to look at me, arm flung over the steering wheel. "I

will tell you this right now.    Don't ever, ever, come into my

father's house again.    You understand?"

    "Fine."

    "I don't want you making trouble there."

    I snort, yanking on the handle to open the door.      The air

smells of rain.    Another flash of lightening, to the north, well

over the horizon.

    "What?" She snaps as I get out.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 418


    "Nothing.   Just that your father said the exact same thing

when I left," which shuts her up.   "Thank's for the ride, Hope."

I close the door firmly and don't look back.   The wheels spin,

kicking up loose pebbles before catching.   She spins the car

around, engine racing, tires chirping as they hit the pavement

and she roars off into the night.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 419




                              CHAPTER 31

                                CHLOE




My room is cold and dark, save for a bit of moonlight through

the window.    I keep it that way, moving slowly past the foot of

the bed to the bathroom door.    Fumbling at the knob I give it a

twist, hoping it will hot water.    Fifty-fifty chance.

    The water is barely tepid, but its not cold.      It slowly

warms.   Figure I'll need a good two or three minutes before I

should stopper up the drain.    I sit   on the toilet, smoke a

cigarette.    Eventually my mind will come around to trying to

make sense of this evening.    Emily, Hope, Zoe.   There's no

reason to rush it, but there's not much else to do instead.       I
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 420


decide to call Chloe.     After I plug up the drain I close the

door to the bathroom behind me and stand by the window.

Reception can be dodgy up here in the hills.

    "Hello?" Her voice musky.      I woke her.    It's eleven twenty

on a Friday night.

         "It's me."

    "Stephen.     Good.   I was hoping you'd call." Voice clipped.

Cigarette dangling I pinch my cell phone between my shoulder and

ear, itch at my stomach.     "How's it going?"

    I feel like shit, I've spent the evening with the combined

mass of almost every relative I happen to have, and apart from a

blissful hour playing cards with a trio of strange college kids

have been continuously poked, prodded, and made to feel like

shit.    Actually, the college kids managed to do that as well.

"Fine.    Typical."

    "I miss you," she says.     Her voice is wheedling, nasal.

"I'm not going to see you for six days."

    "It's not that long," I tell her.     It isn't.     I'm wondering

why she's making a big deal about it.     My shoulders feel tight

but that's probably from the drive and from being constantly

stressed since.

    Debating whether or not I should mention having my tires

slashed she asks "So what's up?"

    "Nothing, Chloe.      I just wanted to hear your voice."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 421


    There's a pause, then her voice weary, wondering "Are you

mad at me?"

    "No, I'm not mad, why?"

    "You only say my name when you're mad at me."

    "I'm not mad at you," but she's right.    I slipped.

    "Then why did you say my name?"

    Affecting a sigh I say "Doug was at the door.      He wanted to

me to come for drinks.   So I said your name that he'd know I was

on the phone with you and couldn't come right now.   Okay?"

    "Put him on?"

    "He's not here." Now I'm getting angry. "Christ, Chloe.

What's the big deal?"

    "Nothing, I just want to know, why are you mad at me?"

She's pouting, acting like a child. What the fuck?   This is so

not my night.   I thought calling Chloe might make for a nice,

happy ending, but it's just more of the same.

    "You didn't...I am not mad at you, look; I just got back

from Emily's, so I'm sorry if I'm a little out of sorts, okay?

Can you understand that?"

    "Oh." Chloe shuts up.   Even in the most cheery of

circumstances the very thought of my sister sends Chloe into a

guilt-trip the likes of which I've never seen before.      You'd

think she was the one who threw her down the stairs.     "How is

she?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 422


    "As good as can be expected," letting my voice go soft.

I'm pissed at myself now for evoking her.   Emily that is.   It

was a cheap thing to do.

    "Do you still love me?"

    "Of course I still love you," drawing out the vowels,

letting a slight sigh come out after. "I'm just tired.   I need a

shower and a drink." I tap my cigarette ash on the carpet, turn

to face the bathroom.    "I'm going to go have some drinks, okay?"

    "Okay," she says.    She's in bed; I can hear the mattress

take her weight with a creak as she eases back into the pillows.

I may be imagining it, but I swear I hear a slight, male grunt

as this happens. Quickly she adds "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

    I wait a second, then say flatly "Sure."

    "You're not mad?" Her voice a little nervous.    Maybe

there's someone there.   Maybe she's just worried about bringing

the subject back up; I'd hinted to it last night and she ended

up pulling me into bed before I could poke holes into her teary-

eyed expication of Erik.

    It's the perfect opportinuty to use my reasonable voice, as

it can split the difference. "Why would I be mad?" which shuts

her up again. "It's just been a long day, for both of us." The

smoke sucked through my teeth is sharper.   I push my shoulders

out and straighten my spine in a vain attempt to crack my back.

"I'll talk to you soon."
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 423


    "Goodnight then.   I guess."

    Melodic: "Goodnight, sweetheart."

    The phone clips on the receiver.    With a grin I finish my

cigarette, then go in to take a long, hot bath.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 424




                              CHAPTER 32



                       DOUGLAS AND ELIZABETH




I wake from a strange dream, one I try and focus on for half a

second before realizing I'm in the bath still.     Light eeks in

from the curtains over the small window set in the wall and the

water's gone cold.   Fuck; I'll probably come down with a cold or

something.   Not the smartest of moves.

    I let out the bath and wrap myself in towels waiting for

the water to heat up again.    When it does I jump back in;

showering for half an hour brings back some color to my skin.

My clothes, still in the case, will be wrinkled but there's
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 425


little I can do about that now. Should have hung them up while I

showered.    Oh well.   Placing them on the hangers in the closet I

wonder what time it is.

       The clock on the wall says its five thirty, but this can't

be right.    Checking my watch I realize it's only ten minutes

fast.    I slow down.   The party isn't until this afternoon.

After I dry myself off I realize that I don't have anything to

do.    My car is in Carlisle and the tow truck guy said the shop

won't open 'till ten.     Standing in the middle of the room naked,

holding my towel in my hand looking dumbly at the clock I think

of Hope in a flash.     I don't have anywhere to be.   I look at the

bed.    I can set the alarm on my cell phone.

       Fuck it: I slip under the covers and think of Hope.

                                   #

I don't sleep well.     Strange dreams of being on horse back,

jumping off a clud back into a shallow sea with skeletal fish,

bottom-feeders slithering over sand.    I'm aware of the alarm

first as a pale head with a high brow and blank, pearl-glossed

eyes bleating like a stuck pig.     But it wakes me none the less

and I'm happy for it.     Covered in sweat and cum I take another

shower.

       The water takes longer to warm and doesn't get half as hot

as it did three hours ago.     I shave haphazardly, giving myself a

bit of razor burn on my throat.     Oh well.   Checking my watch
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 426


it's ten oh five.     I need coffee.   I need something warm inside

me.    Actually, fuck coffee; I need a drink.

       Socks, shoes, tie in my jacket pocket, check to make sure

my sports coat isn't too wrinkled.     It isn't.   Locking the door

behind me I wonder if the place across the street does

breakfast.      I vaguely remember it doing so last year, but I

could be wrong.     The small sign over the door says The Green

Man.    I chuckle and go inside

       Inside is half my family.   It never occured to me that they

might come in late last night and stay over here for the

noontime birthday party just up the road.       They hvn't noticed me

so I ignore them and go stright to the bar.      Behind the counter

is a wrinkled old man with a John Deere mesh cap and thick

glasses.

       "Scotch, water back," I say.

       He nods.   "Breakfast with that?"

       "Sure.   Please."

       "Shoot," he says, licking the tip of his pencil.    It hovers

over a small pad. When i don't answer he looks up at me and

begins a rote litany of food: "Got eggs, bacon, sausage,

scrapple, apple sauce, what do you want?"

       "Um.   Just two eggs."

       "Poached, fried, scrambled..." his pencil strolling over

the paper in a leisurely script.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 427


    "Fried.   Hard.   Toast?"

    "Wheat, white, or rye?"

    "Rye."

    He finishes writing, but doesn't move.       The man flicks his

eyes up at me, expectantly.

    "Please?" I hazard.

    Pursing his lips a bit he says, "Coffee, tea, milk, or

orange juice?"

    "Coffee, please.     And some milk."

    "The coffee:    Regular or decaf?"

    "Regular."

    "And the milk?    Whole, skim, or chocolate?"

    "Two percent?"

    "I'll mix it up."

    I'm not sure what this means but say "Thank you" just the

same and pull out my wallet.    He tells me to settle up with

Merle when I'm done, nodding at a large woman with thin whisps

of curly red hair at the end of the bar.

    Douglas is approaching me from behind.       Our eyes meet in

the mirror.   He taps me on the shoulder. "Steve."     He calls me

'Steve' so I call him:

    "Doug."      And we shake hands.

    "Would you care to join us?"       At a booth in the back,

beside a dart board and an advertisement for Budweiser, Liz
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 428


lifts her orange juice and shakes it at me.    They have a buffer

of two or three tables in each direction before running into our

other cousins.   Everyone is studiously ignoring us.

    "Sure."

    Liz gives me a pretty smile when I sit down.     Her face is

pale in the dim light of the bar, shining from the few lamps

hanging under ceiling fans and in sconces on the wall.    There

are only a few windows, all filled with yellow and green stained

glass and covered with thick, faded green curtains besides.

Which is just to say that it's failry dim.

    She has a wedge of lime in her OJ and a remnant crust of

toast on her plate. Liz calls me "Stephen," nodding deeply as

she does so, like she's swallowing hard to clear her throat.

I'd swear she was a little tipsy.   Her dress is dark blue, like

an deep and ancient lake.    Mother of pearl buttons shimmer like

tiny moons rippling over the surface as she bends down to grab

at the back of my neck, thunking her forehead to mine. "How have

you been?" She wants to know.

    "I'm wonderful, Liz," flashing a smile.     Like her mother,

she's a horrible flirt.   Especially when she's drunk, and from

the smell of her breath I can tell it's 'drunk' and not 'tipsy.'

    Merle brings me a cup of coffee and a glass of milk.     A

disapproving eye is cast at Liz, but nothing is said.    Catching

Doug's eye I raise a brow.   He gives half a shrug and sips at
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 429


his coffee. I ask them flat out "Can you kids give your cousin a

ride to the party?"

    "Sure." Doug shrugs.

    "Fuck the party.    Bunch of assholes pretending,"

    "Ellie," Doug interrupts, placing his hand on hers, which

seems to calm her a little.

    Breathing a little, Liz regains her composure, sniffs, and

blinks twice. "I'm sorry Stephen.    I didn't mean you.   I'm not

drunk," a flash of lucidity crosses her face, then vanishes.

"Okay, maybe a little tipsy," and her eyes cast a baleful glare

at the rest of the room. "I'll behave.    Just keep them fuckers

away from me."

    "Adam said something to her last night," Doug tries to

explain.    But Liz won't let him:

    "Shut up," she says, all the more menacaing for having said

it quietly. "That's not why I'm pissed off."

    But I want to know, "What did he say?"

    "Wanted to know if I'd seen you," she says, taking a sip.

    "Me?"

    "I guess he meant you," shaking her head she adds, "but he

was saying it to piss me off, not you."

    "Why would that piss you off?" I ask.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 430


    "Because," she lowers her chin, "when I said 'how should I

know?' he said 'don't all you incest types keep tabs on each

other?'"

    Only her chuckling keeps me from making a scene.

    "First words he's said to me since Christmas, I think.

Evil fuck, my brother."

    I don't comment on her older brother.     "It's not like

mine's anything to shout about."

    Liz jabs her finger at me, fumbling her words a little:

"True his first wife left him cuz he beat her up?"

    "Liz," Doug is meeker, more mild mannered than his brother

or his sister. "Don't worry about it, Stephen," he tells me.

    But Liz presses the point. "Well?"

    "I don't know."   She doesn't believe me. "Seriously, I

don't know.   It's not like he and I speak.   I havn't seen

Gretchen in, Christ, I never saw her after their wedding."

    Curiousity sated, Liz gives half a shrug and takes a drink.

Doug's looking nervous, still with his hand on hers, but

squeezing it now.   We don't speak again until Merle returns with

my food and collects their empty plates.

    "My breakfast was wonderful," Doug tells her.

    "Thank you," she says.   There's another disaproving look

when takes out their tab and places it in front of him, this
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 431


time at their clasped hands.    Only an idiot could miss the

resemblance between them.    She smiles weakly at me, "Enjoy."

    "Fuck her," Liz says as the woman leaves.

    "Ellie," Doug pleads, "Be good?"

    "Fine."

    He nods, releases her hand and gets up, following Merle to

the bar presumably to pay his bill.

    "Stephen, I'm only going to tell you this once, okay?"

    "Okay," I give her a wary look.    While many in the family

assume that the four of us are close, Hope and I never really

had much in common with Liz and Doug and, as such, never really

spoke when we were kids, and there hasn't ever been much cause

since.    True, we often congregate together at family gatherings,

but otherwise it's barely more than a sincere card at Christmas.

    "Whatever you do," she takes my hand and stares me in the

eye, "don't get mixed up with Hope.    It's not worth it."

    "I doubt that's an issue," I slid my hand out from under

hers.    I'm vaguely offended, but why I don't know; Still, I can

feel my spine straighten, my shoulders set.

    "It's not worth it.     Okay?"

    I'm about to ask where the fuck she gets off when she

moves, slow and deliberate, to gaze at the bar.    Her eyes set

there for a moment, then flick back to me with a quirked brow.

I know she's looking at Doug.    I don't have to turn around.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 432


    "Okay," I tell her, calm now. "I don't think it's an issue,

but, okay."

    "Stephen," her voice flat, "it's an issue.       Trust me." With

that she stands up.

    "Wait," I say a little too loudly.       A few heads turn.

Anywhere else I wouldn't give a shit, but these heads are my

cousins, my aunts and uncles.      They go back to their meals.

"Liz, an issue how?"

    She sighs, looking put out. "Nevermind.       Just ignore me.    I

have to go back to my room, throw up and make myself presentable

again.   Excuse me."

    "No, Liz, what?"

    She sags, shoulders drooping.        Her face is tired.   No, more

than tired; Fed-up.      "She comes off as a really strong, really

callous woman, I know, but trust me; you make the woman choose

between you and Cameron, she'll break."      Again she looks towards

the bar.   "Any woman would.     Then?   Even if she chooses you?"

Another shrug.   I hear Doug's footsteps coming towards us.       The

conversation is over.

    "We're in room 21.      You wanna meet us around eleven forty-

five?" He asks, voice low, but cheery.

    "Yeah.    Thanks."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 433


    "Don't mention it," Doug shrugs, putting his arm around Liz

who's bobbing at the knees, keeping herself steady with a hand

on the table.

    I give them a wave and sit back down.    I keep waiting for

Liz to turn around as they thread their way through the tables,

but she doesn't.   The door opens.   The door closes.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 434




                           CHAPTER 33



                        AUNT SHARON & CO.




Doug pulls the car into an empty slot marked with a polite sign

indicating its a visitor's slot.   We're surrounded by cars with

liscense plates from New York, Delaware, and New Jersey

outnumbering the Pennsylvanias by a slim margin.

    "You go on ahead," I tell them as we approach the stately

rear entrance. "I'm gonna have a quick smoke."    This is partly

to let them go in without me at their side.    It's also a chance

for Liz to hang back and finish speaking to me.    But she

doesn't.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 435


    "Okay, see you inside," Doug is chipper.        He's put on a

nice, blue suit with a matching tie that's just a shade darker

than Liz's dress.     He does something for an insurance company in

downtown Manhattan.     She's a dosun at the Met.

    Liz and Doug started sleeping together when they were

twelve.     They thought their mother would be livid when she

accidentially walked in on them a few years later, but she

carefully explained what a lesbian was, how she was one, and how

she had long ago told everyone to quote, Fuck off, unquote, when

she decided to get married and have kids.     We all think she's

half-mad.    She agrees with us and gave her twins a beautiful

house in a trendy New York neighborhood when they promised her

they'd make sure to not have children together. "Because while

I'm all for you kids doing what you please, I'm not going to

have a potato head for a grandchild."

                                   #

All I really have to do is make a brief appearance before I can

safely secret myself into the background of the party.       The

receptionist points me towards the Garden Room, giving me simple

directions and a smile before returning to her work.

    Who the hell designed this place with peach wall paper,

mint green baseboards and speckled linoleum floors?       I'm sure

there's some bizarre marketing/psychological reason behind this

but I'm damned if I can figure it out.     I try and walk softly,
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 436


following the receptionist's directions, but no matter what

every little noise I make gets tossed in with the echoes of I

Love Lucy re-runs and the sounds of old people coughing

reverberating through the halls.     Soon I can hear light

conversation ahead, behind a pair of french doors with muzzy

curtains.   It grows as I approach, occluding everything else as

I stand befroe them.   On an easel to the side a sign announces

that the Garden Room is closed for a private engagement.     I

think of Jamie, of how Simone reacted to her present.     Which

leads me to Taylor.    Fuck.

    Inside I see Mom and my father, flanking Uncle Theo and

Aunt Betty who're hovering beside Emily's bed, moved in from her

room.   I can't see Emily though because between us is Hope,

eating cheesecake off a styrofoam plate with a plastic fork.

She's talking with Theo and Betty's youngest, Roger.     Jerry,

their middle child, is off to the right nodding as David says

something with a swagger.      I don't see their eldest child, Dawn,

or her children, so they're either not here or not coming.

Jerry's wife, whose name I can never remember, is quite

pregnant, sitting down next to her husband while their son

Kenner tugs at his sleeve.

    Cousin Stephen and Constance are primly seated at a small

table clutching their twins close to them.     Stephen sees me and

makes a sour face; I barely have time to smile and wave before
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 437


he leans over and whispers in Connie's ear.      She straightens her

posture, but doesn't turn around.     I wonder what, if anything,

was said last night.     Do they know Hope came to get me?    With

any luck they won't and never will.     I check for Uncle Robert on

the off chance he came, but he is, luckily, nowhere to be seen.

    But I do find Aunt Sharon, easily spotted she's flanked by

Liz and Doug. Liz sees me and raises her eyebrows before turning

her attention towards Aunt Betty making a light sob.      Doug looks

up and calls me over. "Hi there." We shake hands as if we hadn't

yet met.    I'm not sure why he's doing this.    Maybe for his

mother.    Then again, Doug has always wanted to be accepted by

the rest of the family.     For some odd reason he refuses to

realise he never will.

    "Hello, Doug.    Liz," I shake their hands in turn, then lean

over and give Aunt Sharon a kiss on the cheek. "Hi Auntie Shay."

    "Hi sweetie," she gives me a mwah! of a kiss. "You're

looking quite dapper today."

    "Why thank you." I'm preening, but she likes it.         Aunt

Sharon is somewhere in her early sixties and wears her age like

a Dior dress; a little rouge on her cheeks, deep blue pantsuit,

pearl necklace, perfect hair, perfect nails and a come-hither

stare that reminds me of my crush on Miss Peirs, my second grade

teacher.    "Is Uncle Evan going to be joining us?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 438


    "There's some problem with the caterer," she waves a hand

at the small buffett, "not enough olives or something, I don't

pretend to know.   So he went off in a huff in the Lincoln.      But

how are you?   Where are you?   What are you doing?"

    We make small talk for a little while, Liz and Doug

patiently off to the side.    They occasionally interrupt, but

more often then not speak only when spoken to, keep to

themselves and scan the room like a pair of Secret Service

Agents looking after a distinguised VIP.

    Aunt Sharon is the only member of my parents' generation

who sincerely likes me, and I'm glad she's here.    If she's on

one end of the spectrum and Cousin Stephen the other, the

majority are on his side.    Hope is the closest, then Liz and

Doug but that's all to be expected.    After that it's a toss up,

save that uncle Theo and his small cadre are in cousin Stephen's

camp, due to the contest over Grandpa Hoemke's will.

    We make small talk.     I tell her simple, pleasing things

about work and the rest of my life without being patronizing.

She speaks on unpretentious things, humors anecdotes of Life in

the City that could have been ripped from _Reader's Digest_ or

_Vanity Fair_, and is quite blunt when speaking her mind about

the present company.   "Bastards, the lot of them." She doesn't

care who hears since she knows they'll all be nice to her.       She

was the only daughter of a successful Chicago gentleman whose
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 439


department store eventully became part of one of the major

chains.   Suffice it to say, she's loaded. "I'm giving the lot of

it to the four of you," she told us once, the four being me,

Hope, and her twins. "Keep it in the family!    Hah!" We all

blushed and stared at our shoes.

    Uncle Evan shows up with a plate of pickles, olives,

veggies and dip and their youngest, my cousin Anthony.    Call him

'Tony' and he'll make your life miserable with his snivvling.

He's two years younger than me, in med school, and follows me

around like a puppy dog.

    Which is probably what breaks the ice between me and Hope;

we used to spend half the time at family gatherings shooing him

away, usually quite abruptly.   Anthony is the youngst of the

counsins.   Hope is one year my senior.   Two years between Hope

and Emily, three between her and Roger, who in turn is ten

months younger than Liz and Doug.

    So as I'm trying to find something decent to make of the

fingerfood and deserts at the buffett, Anthony at my shoulder

rattling off useless dietary information about my choices, I

hear Hope say, "Shoo fly, shoo."

    "Hi Hope," Anthony turns on her, "did you know that ninety-

five percent of the calories derived from olives are from fat?

Stephen's eating them instead of the nice, fresh vegetables

which,"
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 440


      "I said 'Shoo!'   So go on; shoo!      Shoo!" Hope begins to

circle him, nudging him away from the table. "Go on.        There you

go.   Go talk to your mother.    Go.     Christ," she sighs once he's

retreated. "It's like kicking a puppy.        Speaking of which," she

selects an olive, "you sleep well?"

      "Wonderfully.   I fell asleep in the bath" I give her a

dubious look, eyebrows riding high. "Yourself?"

      "Got rode hard and put away wet," popping the olive into

her mouth. "How's Aunt Sharon?"

      "Very well; her usual self.       You should go speak to her."

      "Spoke with her last weekend," she comments casually,

"Called her on Sunday."

      "Ma Bell must love you."

      "Someone should," she says, voice dropping a little.

      I seize on it, "I did notice Cameron couldn't make it.

Shame."

      "Enough, Stephen," she warns.

      "I don't think so," taking a pickle, "nothing in the rules

says I can't repay you for your kindness."

      "'Kindness?'" She walks into it.

      "Isn't that what Cameron called it?"

      "Fuck you." Hope stalks off.       I hear her Aunt Sharon's

croon her name.   I snap off the top of the pickle with a grin.

                                    #
Birch / Dynamite / 441
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 442


My Mom places her hand on my arm, "I'm sorry about last night."



    "Don't worry about it." We're touring the Memorial Garden.

It's just a raised mound with a concrete sculpture of an angel,

its palms pressed together in prayer.   There are rose bushes

galore, but they havn't bloomed.

    "I thought it would be a good chance for them to see that,"

she stops.

    "That what?"

    Shaking her head she pokes one of the rosebuds, "They

should have flowered by now."

    There's no point in pressing her.    It's obvious what she

means. "I'm sorry I don't call you more often, Mom."

    "Don't you worry yourself," slipping her hand into the

crook of mine. "I know you have a busy life out there in the

city."

    "Perhaps, but I should call."

    "You should settle down," she counters. "You wouldn't be so

miserable all the time, brooding over every little thing a

person says if you settled down."

    "Marriage isn't a pancea for the world's ills, Mom."

    "Well it never hurts," cupping the bud, leaning down to try

and sniff some scent from it.   The air is still cool from

yesderday's rain.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 443


    "I'm sure Gretchen would agree," I mutter, thinking she

won't hear me.

    But my mother slaps me, hard. "That's enough out of you."

Yanking her arm away from me her lips purse. "How would you like

it if I threw around all the rumors and stories about you, hm?"

    I look away.

    "Don't you look away from me."

    Through clenched teeth I tell her "I'm turning the other

cheek."

    Her jaw twitches, muscles contract as she bites back her

tears. "I am not your father," she says finally. "I don't

deserve that, and you know it."

    And she doesn't.    I stare at my shoes.    Her feet are small,

ankles weak as glass. "I'm sorry; you don't."

    "And you wonder why no woman will have you; do you insult

them so casually?"

    "No."

    "I wonder."

    "Mom..." I whine.

    "Don't you 'Mom' me.    I'm going inside," crossing her arms

over her chest, grabbing at her elbows. "You think long and hard

about who there in that room doesn't have something to mutter

about you.   You think about that.   You think about what you'd

want me todo if they whispered to me behind your back like that.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 444


Then you think about whether you deserved that smack, young man.

And when you think you've thought about it long enough, you come

in and tell your sister 'Happy Birthday."

    She spins on her heels, walking swiftly to the french doors

of the garden room in the distance.   There's not much to think

about.   I sit on the angel's plinth and light up one of the

Marlboro Lights.   In its holder at my belt my cell phone presses

on my side, caught between a rock and my spleen.     Placing my

palm flat on a corner of the concrete I press down, dragging it

towards me.   The pain is slight, the wind stirs the rosebuds.

    I'm to go back tomorrow, spend Sunday evening going over

whatever I missed at work on Friday, put in my first three days

as de facto head of the department while Amy Lynn jets off to

St. Thomas then fly out to Detroit on Thursday for another long

weekend, this time with Chloe and her sisters on Lake Michigan.

    I havn't seen Catherine is three years.

    For some reason I think of Noah, or Oscar as Hope first

introduced me to him.   He lives in Detroit.    I could drive out

there, spend a few days with him then continue on to whatever

that town is called.    Of course, I havn't seen him in two years.

We were quite close in college, which is saying a lot for

someone who leads two lives.   I still have his number.    Well,

one of his numbers.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 445


    "Hi, you've reached the voicemail of Oscar Rowys," I check

my watch.   One fifteen.   "If you leave a message, I will

eventually get back to you." Beeeeeep.

    "Oscar, Stephen Hoemke.    I'm going to be in Detroit in a

few days and was wondering if you'd be willing to let me crash

there for a day or two.    Gimmie a call either way," and I leave

my number along with the time and date.    'Oscar' is a strange

fish.   I wait another ten minutes, just incase he's nearby and

simply screening his calls.

    To pass the time I dig the two company's card out of my

wallet and give them a call.    They give me the number for

someone named Danny the garage.    Danny turns out to be a sly

little bitch.    He tells me it'll be a week to order another

tire, and that he'll need a security deposit befor he can do

that.

    "What do you mean, a 'security deposit?'

    "That's three hunderd dollars of tire, mister," I swear I

hear him spit his chaw, "I need some sort of garantee that you

ain't gonna leave me with it and go somewheres else."

    To make sure this is an actual conversation and not some

sort of religious retribution brought on by my profane use of a

statue as a place to rest my ass, I stare at the phone.      It's

on, alright.    "Mister?" it squawks in Danny's voice.

    "Okay," I'm calm, "how about I leave you, oh, my car?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 446


    "Sorry?"

    Perhaps sarcasm is lost on the locals. "You have my car."

    "Yessir, got it right here."

    "You have my car," I clarify, "and you need a security

depost."

    "You gots the keys," he says, "could drive it away at any

time."

    "With two flat tires?"

    "I seen a man try and drive a car off on its rims once."

    "Have you know."

    "Almost made it out of the lot, too."

    I blink. "Did he make it out of the lot?"

    "Nope.     Kinda hard to make it out of the lot without a

water pump."

    Before I think too much on the hell that my poor Saab must

be going through at the hands of this man, I take a deep breath.

"Tell ya what, Danny.    How about you remove my alternator or

distributor cap or something, and you keep the forty thousand

dollar car as collateral for three hundred dollars of tires?"

    He hems and haws, scratching his stubble loud enough for me

to hear. "I guess I could do..." he finally admits.

    "And if you can have it fixed for me by this evening, I'll

actually pay you three hundred dollars."

    Gruff, he scowls down the line "What's that mean, mister?"
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 447


    "You only need to get one tire."

    "Is that so?"

    I have little patience for people when I have to tell them

their job. "Well, there is a full sized spare in the trunk."

    He thinks for a second. "No, that one's too old."

    "'Too old?'"

    "Too old.    The rubber is most likely all flaked on the

insides.   You tak a corner too fast on that sort of tire, it'll

blow."

    "Will it now?"

    "Yep," he sighs forlorn, "Wouldn't be right of me to do

that."

    "I'll drive slow."

    "I don't know about that, Mister, it'd be my neck if

something happened."

    "I'll sign a waver."

    "Aw, lawyers are too,"

    "I am a lawyer," I lie flatly.

    He spits. "Are ya now?"

    "And my brother is a lawyer, should we need any witnesses."

    "That so?"

    "We're up here for a family reunion.   Got a cousin and an

uncle.   Hell, my father's lawyer is over on Penn, I'm sure we
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 448


could get five or six of us down there in under an hour if you

need any sort of paperwork drawn up."

       "Um," Danny falters, but for a second.    Another spit of his

chaw and he offers to "Let me see what I can do for ya."

       "Thank you, Danny."   I give him my number and hang up.

After that I need another cigarette, and I figure I may as well

wait a little longer for Oscar to call back.      When no reply has

come by one thirty I return inside.

       "Happy Birthday, Emily."

       Her brow is soaked in sweat.   She smiles weakly, eyes red.

"Thanks, Stephen."

       I give her a kiss, hoping she's not noticing that I'm still

shaking from the chill outside. "I'll come back when everyone's

left, okay?"

       "Read to me again?" She asks, plaintive.

       "'Course I will," kissing her brow.   She tastes of salt and

jasmine.

       "Good.   I'll leave the door unlocked.   If I'm not awake,"

she swallows, voice faint, "Turn the lights on.      That gets me

up."

       "Okay," smoothing back her hair.

       "Go have fun," she commands.

       "I will," I smile at her and she turns back to Cousin

Stephen and Constance who havn't seemed to recovered from my
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 449


having walked up and interrupted their reading the bible to her.

My sister was never very religious as a child.     She's grown less

so since.    Giving them nothing more than a smile in

acknowledgement I leave.     My mother, speaking with Aunt Betty,

catches my eye and nods approvingly.     I give her a smile and as

I pass, lay a fleeting hand on her shoulder.

    Someone's had the presence of mind to add a coffee urn to

the buffet table.    It smells like prototypical institutional

coffee.   I can see the bottom of the small, porcelin cup though

its thin brown body.     With a sigh I add powdered creamer and am

searching for something other than Sweet-n-Low or Equal when

Hope comes up, spins on the ball of her feet and rests her seat

on the edge of the table.

    "I've made my apprearance," she crosses her arms, leaning

in close to my ear."     You wanna blow this bake sale and find

some hard liqour and beat the shit out of each other?"

    "Yeah."    I put down my coffee, but realize that now I have

nothing to do with my hands.

    "I saw some place down the road.     A Chili's or Hoolihans or

something.    In ten?"

    "Not there; they're out of scotch and have shitty gin." Ah,

the buffet platter.

    Hope lowers her chin. "How are you 'out of scotch?'"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 450


    "I have no idea." I select a gherkin from the platter and

pop it in my mouth.    Crunch crunch.

    "Bizarre."    She turns to look around at the room.

"Actually, they probably won't give a shit if we leave

together."

    "Correction," I say, searching for another pickle. "They

won't give any more of a shit than they already do, save Auntie

Shay, who'll probably be tickled pink."

    "Why do you call her that?" Hope asks.

    "She likes it."

    "She does?"

    "Uh-huh.     One of her girlfriends used to call her Shay.

She's always dreamed of opening a coffee salon and calling it

'Shay's Lounge.'"

    Hope giggles and sighs.    "Ah, that's so like her.   You've

said Hello to everyone already?"

    "Uh-huh.     This dip is really good.   You?"

    "Yeah.   Christ, Stephen, what are you doing?"

    Hope's caught me dipping the remainder of my gherkin in the

ranch dressing vegetable dip. "It's yummy," I tell her.

    "No, it's disgusting.    Come on," she grabs my wrist.   It's

the first time she's touched me, really touched me, in three

years, four months and countless nights. "Let's get drunk and

screw."
Birch / Dynamite / 451
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 452




                              CHAPTER 34



                                 HOPE




Hope talks the guy at The Green Man into sell me a bottle of

Wild Turkey at twice cost.    He tips his John Deere cap at me

before counting the bills.



    We're heading out the door and she rolls her head on her

shoulders, giving me a tiresome glance.    "You always carry that

much money in your wallet?"

    "Yeah," I shrug.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 453


    Hope rolls her eyes back and her head follows. "You call

about your car yet?" Her reasonably priced Honda squats at an

angle to our right.

    "Yeah.    Typical bullshit."

    "You wanna drive?"

    "Why?" I stop.

    Shaking the bottle she explains "Because I wanna start

drinking."

    "Fine."    Hope tosses me the keys. "Where to?"

    "Just drive."

    So I drive. Down the hills, turning West before we hit the

Interstate.   Hope snaps off the seal on the Wild Turkey, takes a

swig then cradles the bottle in her arms like a child.   No, like

it's roses and she just won a beauty pagent.   The road turns

south, crosses under I-76 and intersects Route 30 at a lonely

stop light.    I could turn right now, I think, and keep driving

'till California.

    She did say she missed me.

    More rain.    A light misting.   After fiddling with the hi-

beams and the cruise control I find the wipers.   "The bar," I

say, as they come down with a dull thwack, "wasn't a stupid

thing to do." Thwack. "I'm sorry I said it was." The wipers go

thwack one more time, then I switch them onto a lower setting;

the rain is already clearing up.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 454


    "It's always raining when we see each other now," Hope

looks out her window.   "Have you noticed that?   It's like some

bad Hemmingway story; 'To angst.   In the rain.'"

    We grow quiet and keep driving.



Just after sunset the skies clear for good.    I tell myself I've

been heading West to try and drive through the storm.    Maybe it

worked, or maybe nature was just done.   When I finally switch

off the wipers I take the next turn.

    We're deep in farm country now; lush green fields giving

way to thick coverings of old growth trees, rising on the hills

in the distance.   The turn takes us deeper into that country.

The road is sleek and twists as we climb.    I slow the car and

Hope puts her window down.    The air is sweet.   I put all the

windows down and slow some more, until we can hear the crickets

hiding under brambles at the side of the road, in the trees

beyond.

    There's no one around, no signposts, no lights.     And

there's no turn offs; the road is winding but I can't tell

anymore where it's heading.

    "Turn around," Hope says quietly. "We're too far away."

    "Yeah."   I slow to a stop when we've reached a small rise

with decent visibility in both directions.    I make a sloppy six

point turn, the road is so narrow, either side a glutch of mud
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 455


and slipperly leaves.    We come out of the trees, head back to

the main road and turn back east.

    "Weird road," I say.

    Hope nods quickly, then pokes at the radio.       After

searching for a decent station for a few miles she says to

herself "oh, wait..." she grabs a small black pouch at her feet,

unzippers it and begins to sort through some tapes kept inside.

"Ah!" She says with a smile, but doesn't tell me what she's

found.   Examining the cassette's case she fast forwards through

a few songs until she turns up the volume that we can hear the

music. "Stephen?" She says.

    The warbling hiss of the tape's silence comes through the

car's speakers. "Yeah?"

    She lays her hand on the back of my neck with a light

squeeze as the first few chords come through.   "I'm glad we're

cousins again."

    And Karin Paris sings: "When we are lost in Carlisle, when

we are birdless, flowerless in the spring, and we cannot see.

Where are we going tomorrow?    Where are we going?    oh I can only

say we will be found."

                                  #

We've the seats all the way back, looking up through the open

sunroof to the stars above.    Not that there's many stars to see;

the sky is still patched with clouds, and then there are the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 456


branches, thick with leaves.    When the wind blows we both flinch

away as drops of water fall onto the uphostry.

    We're not really speaking, but we are passing the bottle of

Wild Turkey back and forth between us.   I'm a little buzzed,

keeping an eye on the clock, making sure I don't drink too much.

I'm also keeping an eye on the gas gauge, because we've left the

engine on; Innocence Mission in the tape player, heater blowing

hot hair over us, windows barely cracked to try and keep at

least some of the warmth in.

    I ask Hope why Cameron didn't come with her to the party.

She shrugs. "Half a dozen reasons.   He doesn't deal well with

hospitals, I didn't want him to come, he didn't want to see you

again, the only other people he'd know would be Stephen and

Constance, they don't get along, and I didn't want him to sit

around with people he didn't know while I was out with you, and

I wouldn't want him to come with us."

    After thinking about this I come to a few conclusions.      I

could jump at the last one, but I try to be non-challant about

that and ask instead, "you told your husband about us?"

    "Well, yeah." As if this was to be expected.    She takes a

drink.

    "How did that go?" I wonder.

    She shrugs. "Well enough.    I mean, there was the shock and

horror and indignation, but once I put it into perspective for
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 457


him he compromised with 'okay, so long as I don't have to see

him, ever.'" When she does his voice it's lumbering and sounds

like she's making him out to be a bit of a dullard.       Of course,

he is a frat-boy, a sub-species of humanity I've always viewed

with thinly veiled contempt. "Of course, then you came to the

house..."

    Again I don't take the bait.      "I never told anyone, you

know."

    "Anyone anyone, or just anyone?" Hope takes another drink.

    "Anyone anyone.       No one I was ever with.   No one I met.

No, that's not true," I remind myself, "I told Taylor."

    "Who's she?"

    "This girl I was seeing," I try and shrug it off, but this

is just negative psychology that Hope picks up on.

    "She dump ya?" There's a bit of menace, a bit of glee in

her voice.    So I say:

    "Yeah."

    "Recently?"

    I nod.

    "I thought so."

    "How did you think so?" I want to know, dubious.

    But Hope just shrugs. "What time is it?"

    "Only seven thirty or so."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 458


       Sitting up, Hope lets go of my hand and pulls up on her

skirt, hooks her thumbs inside the waistband of her hose and

begins shirking them down her thighs.      Her heels came off long

ago.    She catches my eye as she does this.

       "Keep your pants on," her voice droll, "These things are

uncomfortable even when they're dry, which they're not, and no;

it's because of the rain.       What're the seat-warmers set on?"

       "They're on 'two' now.    They go up to...five." I respond,

shifting a little.     I don't even try to hide it from her,

because in this confined a space she'll figure it out soon

enough, even without that much light.

       Sitting up Hope unbuttons her jacket, shakes it off her

shoulders a little then leans back.      "Much better," she grabs

the scotch from the cup holder with a long sigh of a breath,

followed by a deep inhalation, which she holds until forcing it

out with a rough blow. "So tell me about this Taylor chick."

       "I dunno," I whine. "It's kinda lame."

       "Tell me anyway.   We got time.   Drink?"

       I take the bottle.   It's burbon, not scotch, but it'll do

under the circumstances. "She's just this girl I met though a

friend,"

       "Was she this friend's girl-friend?" Hope interjects.

       "No.   She was a little fucked up, a little psycho,"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 459


    "Make her 'young' and she's just how you like 'em; was she

related to this friend in any way?" It's typical Hope to keep

interjecting, Twenty Questions style, so I don't make a fuss,

even though I know how it'll end.

    "Yes.     She propositioned me, I said yes, we fooled around,"

    "You slept with her; was the friend a guy?"

    "Yes.     And yeah, we slept together," I take another

swallow.    "It was a semi-long distance thing, and there were

complications of various sorts,"

    "She wanted less that you wanted; was it his sister?"

    "No.    I don't know if it was less per se.   I think she was

just looking for something, and after she got it she was ready

to move on."

    "And you weren't; Was it his mother then?"

    "No.    Not so much that I wasn't ready to move on, I just

didn't want to.    There weren't any complications really, just

that it was, well, in her words,"

    She finishes my sentence: "You were more trouble than you

were worth?    Yeah, I can see that."   Hope takes the bottle back

from me.

    "Thanks," I say, hoping I'm being sarcastic enough to not

get the patented 'You're welcome' response, and instead make her

realize that she's getting dangerously close to The Line.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 460


    "You're welcome.   Oh God, please tell me it wasn't his

cousin.   'Cause that would be weird."

    "No," I glare at her int he darkness.    She's not looking.

"Anyways, it was only like, a week or so ago.   We hung out like,

three or four times and then that was it."

    "Like, okay," she sits up again and folds her one leg under

the other to face me. Incredulous, staring me in the eye she

sums up Life With Taylor: "So you started sleeping with your

friend's daughter, who's in high-school still, sixteen or

seventeen, and she just dumped you."

    I don't have to say anything, and I really don't want to

say anything, so I shrug it off.

    "Wow.    That is harsh," Hope settles back in her seat, takes

a hit off the bottle then passes it to me. "I mean, that's just

cold."

    "I thought so."

    "Sixteen or seventeen?"

    "Seventeen.   Just."   I take a double gulp and instantly

regret it.   Sitting like I am it almost feels as if some of it

went down the wrong way.   Regardless, I start coughing.   The

force pulls me up in the seat.   Hope slaps my back.

    "You okay?"

    I nod, cough again, then clear my throat.    There's the

packet of Marlboro Lights in my pocket, but I can't find the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 461


matches.   I push the autolighter in and wait, cigarette dangling

from my lips.

    Hope gives me a minute, to make sure I'm okay, before

revisiting the details of my sex life. "So she turns seventeen,

what's her name again?"

    "Taylor."

    "So Taylor turns seventeen, she says 'hey, I'm seventeen,

you wanna fuck?' you, being a twenty-six year old boy say 'hell

yeah,' you screw a couple of times, she strings you along,

probably dumping you with some sort of lame-ass excuse like 'the

long distance thing just isn't working out' the second time you

spoke to her after the first time you'd started actually talking

about your life day to day."

    I think about this, connect the dots and nod. "Yeah," I

say, then give a general "What the fuck?"   Hope shrugs.   The

autolighter pops out and I touch its glow to the tip of my

cigarette.    I haven't spoken to Taylor since told me, in no

uncertain terms, that I didn't need to look her up next time I

'stopped by to check in on her Dad.'   I decide not to discuss

Jaime with Hope.

    "I did something like that with a guy once.    In college."

She takes the bottle back from me. "What was his name...oh I

don't know.   Anyway, I'd just gotten to college, freshman, first

week, guy is all hot and bothered and trying to impress me at
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 462


this party.   Starts talking shit about these 'feminists' on

campus, how I 'really needed to watch out for them,' and how I

shouldn't take this course or that course, because they're

'really hard, you know?' and most of the really attractive guys

are in this class or that class, but 'I should watch out for

them, if I were you, because a lot of guys are just looking to

get in my pants,' blah blah blah."

    I don't mention to her that she's using the same voice for

this guy that she used for Daniel.    She takes another shot of

the bourbon, then puts it down with a disapproving look.

    "So anyway, right after this guys says this I stop leaning

against the wall, trying to look cool and unavailable, just step

right up to him and say, 'Come on.'    But he still tries to be

suave. 'I'm sorry?' he says, cocking his eyebrow. 'You wanna

fuck or not?' I tell him.   He chuckles a little, so I shrug and

tap this guy that I don't even know who turns around and gives

me this blank look and I ask that guy 'you have a room?' So the

first guy takes my arm, like grabs my right here and jerks

towards the back stairs.    I tell him we're going to my place.

He tries to talk to me on the way over, has to practically jog

to keep up with me, starts saying all sorts of shit, I don't

know.

    "I don't say shit to him.    We get to my place, he's all

nervous, makes small talk, I toss my keys on the bed and start
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 463


taking off his pants.     He's like 'woah there,' so I stop and

look at him, say 'what, you want to or not?' And he's like

'yeah, but, like shouldn't we get to know each other first?' I

say 'why?' and unbutton my blouse a little, start undoing my bra

and hitch up my skirt and he looks at me; oh, this is a great

part.    He says 'uh, don't forget your underware,' and the look

on his face...I tell him I don't wear underware and then shove

my tongue down his throat.

       "We have really quick, really bad sex.    I let him come

inside me, because well, I was seventeen and on the pill and

stupid, and we don't even leave the doorway.      When he's done, I

just stop, pull my skirt down and start getting undressed.        It

takes him a minute, but he realizes that I'm getting ready for

bed.    He starts taking off his pants and I say 'uh, what are you

doing?'    Deer in the headlights.    It was beautiful.   He goes

'wha?' I say 'I'm done, you can leave now.'

       "'What do you mean?' All indignant. So I tell him again.

'I'm done.    Bye.   Leave.   Shoo.'" She giggles, puts the back of

her hand to her mouth and sighs. "But anyway, he then starts

getting angry, so I look him in the eye and say 'Good-Bye,' turn

around and walk into the bathroom.

       "By the time I'd brushed my teeth and came back out, he was

gone.    I checked the closet, locked the door, went back and took

a shower then went to bed."      With that she lowers herself back
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 464


on the seat.    Her head lolls to the side and she looks at me;

"Every woman, once in her life, has to, wants to, needs to, do a

boy wrong."

    I roll down the window to toss my butt out.     I can hear is

sizzle as it hits the wet grass.    After the window goes back up,

Hope asks that I shut the sunroof, so I do.    We leave the

windows cracked, turn down the heat to a hush and switch off the

music.   One last shot of Wild Turkey, to get the taste out of my

mouth.

    "It's cruel," I tell her.

    "Boys are cruel, too," she reminds me.

    "Yeah."

    When we stop speaking the silence is there, awkward, save

for the cricket song of summer.    Hope reaches out, picks up my

hand and stretching it out places her palm flat against mine.

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," she says. "You wanna go

through the list of all the girls you've ever fucked over?"

    "No."

    "Okay then.    As the wise Mr. Frang once said, 'Swear,

acknoweldge and move on.'"

    "I wanna get drunk drunk."

    "Later," but we both know even then we won't get drunk

drunk.   We both know drunk drunk takes a couple of days of sweat

and red wine.    When it warms up enough for her, Hope leans over
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 465


and turns off the engine. "Look, I don't...I don't know how this

is gonna sound, and I don't mean to, you know, rude or anything,

but would you feel better if we got out and beat the shit out of

each other for a while?"

    "I don't know."

    "Come on, Stephen.      Snap the fuck out of it," but she's not

angry; she's pleading. "I know all about the good face and this

being the only time to really relax and all that, so relax a

little."

    I want to say 'what, would that make you feel better?' but

that's just what I'd say to Chloe.     Chloe, who I'm going to see

in four days.   With Clara.    And Catherine.   Catherine.   I make

to reach for the bourbon, but I never put it back after the last

time; it's sitting in my hand, down against the side of the

door.   There's a beautiful, almost magical promise in the slosh

of eighty-proof alchol in a nice glass bottle.      It burns on my

tounge, in the back of my throat, a taste that lingers long

after the swallow.

    "Come on," she says, "I have a better idea."       Hope opens

the door.   It's cold.    I open the door. "Leave the bottle," she

says.

    I do.

    "Pop the trunk.      It's down there.   No, on your left.

There's a button.    Push it.?"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 466


       I do.   The trunk pops open behind us.   The wonders of

modern technology

       "Yes, Stephen, it's absolutle marvellous.       Get out of the

car.

       I do.   Hope opens the trunk, grabs some blankets and brings

them to me.       There are three blankets in her hands: small,

medium, and more medium.       Hope tosses them in to the back seat.

I'm about to get in there with them when she pulls at my arm.           I

swing around.       I'm feeling a little more tipsy than when I was

just buzzed, so I must must have just been tipsy and now I'm

buzzed.

       "Give me your keys." I give her the keys. "I'm putting them

right here, right in front of the tire, okay?"

       "Exactly."

       "You are tipsy," she says.

       "I was justing thinking that."

       "So take off your clothes."

       "Okay."    She helps me after I start by forgetting to take

my socks and shoes off, and again when I almost put them on the

wet grass.       All our clothes get put in the car.   Hope is naked,

naked and beautiful. "You're naked and you're beautiful."

       "Thank you," she says. "You're not too bad yourself."

       "Fucking dick," I say, slapping at it.    It wobbles like a

metronome. "Like a metronome," I tell her.       With authority.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 467


    "Stephen?"

    "Yeah?" I look at her, get my balance back by leaning on

the car, and get a good profile of her as she slams the car door

shut.   It's loud. "That was loud."   The world snaps back into

focus a little.

    Hope comes up to me, stands right in front of me.      Her arm,

long, lithe, beautiful arm, reaches out.    Her fingers almost

touch me.   I sway a little, trying to sway into her.   Then she

jumps at me. "Tag!   You're it!"

    "Bitch!" I grab at her, but she's already off.      First she

keeps to the road, which dead ends about a hundred feet down at

a sign saying "Road Closed - Bridge Out,"    but then she starts

hiding in the trees at its edge.   Hitting the wet of the leaves

there I fall down. "Goddamnit."

    Hope laughs from the darkness.      I see a flash of her skin

and do a fake around the tree, but she's too quick, skips back

across the road and hides in the bushes.    Her laughter stops.     I

hunt around a bit but can't find her.    Can't hear her either.

    "Hope?"

    "Boo!" She calls from somewhere behind me.     I run, but

suddenly off to my left there she is.    I try and change course

and fall into a bush.

    "Ow."

    "You okay?" Her voice heavy from sprinting.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 468


    "Uh-huh."

    "Okay."     And she's off again, twigs snapping underneath her

feet.   The ground beyond the brambles and saplings at the edge

of the road is mostly soft.      Mostly.   I can feel the sticks, the

rocks and other pointy things but mostly only after it's already

happened.    I lose her again.

    "Hope?"

    "This waaaaay." But instead of heading towards the voice, I

take a bearing off it, equidistant between where she called from

and the car.    I surprise her, stretch a bit, feel sweat and dirt

and flesh under my fingertips.

    "You're it!" I keep running foward.       She catches up to me,

gives me a tap on the back and then there's the doppler of her

voice as she shifts and begins running away from me.

    "No, you're it!"

    We go on, about ten, fifteen minutes.       It dawns on me that

she's trying to sober me up, and that it's working.      I'm hot and

tired soon enough that I stop and call out to her.

    "Okay.     I'm done."

    "Aw..." she stops, about twenty feet in front of me.

    "Do you have any idea where the car is?       Hell, where the

road is?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 469


    "This way," she says, pointing over her shoulder.     As I

approach, she warns me, "Stephen, if you even try to use this

armisitice to tag me, you will so regret it."

    "I know.   I'm not gonna fuck with you, Hope.    Don't worry."

    So when I approach she throws her arm around me, sees that

I'm winded and guides me back towards the car. "You did good."

    "Balls.    Do you know know hard it is to run with a hard-on

half the time?"

    "Please.   Try it with boobs.    I may not be stacked like

some chicks, but damn."    She rubs her chest as we break from the

trees. "There you go again," she chides me.

    "Oh come on.   I'm naked and sweaty, walking arm in arm with

a hot naked chick that I know is the fuck of the century.    It's

not something anyone takes in stride."    I collapse next to the

car, leaning up against the wheel.    My ankles are cut and sore.

I can already see bruises forming, there's more than a bit of

blood mixed in with the streaks of dirt.    I pull a leave from my

calve. "I'm a mess."

    "Me too," Hope says.    "Let's see if that bridge was over a

river or something.

    It's a small stream, but it works.     Better, the water is

frigid, which does the trick for my limbic system.    "I have a

first aid kit in the car," I tell hope as she winces.    There's a
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 470


four inch cut running the length of her shin.    I've more danage

done to me, but no one thing as bad.

    "We might need it.    A good soak in the tub at the hotel'll

do me good."

    "If we don't die of hypothermia," I tell her, throwing

water over my back. "Are you sure this was a good idea."

    "Blankets in the car, rememeber?"

    "Oh yeah."   I'd forgotten them momentarily. "Can you get my

back."

    "Hold on."

    We couch on a bunch of rocks, thowing water up to each

other's shoulders then rubbing it down.   By the time we've

gotten the most of it, climbed back up the bank while trying to

to get too dirty and then back to the car, we're shivvering.

    "Keys!" Hope says, getting back out, running around,

grabbing them then quickly starting the car.    She turns the

heater up a notch. "I don't wanna have to climb out and turn it

back down," she explains as we slam the doors behind us.

    Blanket on the seat, which is barely warm, the other two

tight around us as we press together.   It's not the most

spacious of back seats, "but we have had worse."

    "True," she says. "Oh my god, what was that car Oskar had?

A civic?"

    "An old one, yeah."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 471


       "And that was three of us."

       "I spent half the night with my feet hitting the

gearshift," I tell her. "That was just weird."

       Hope laughs. "I enjoyed myself," she squeezes me as we sort

out how to arrange our arms and shoulders.    Our legs flail,

bumping against each other as we get our bottom halves sorted

out.    Finally we pull the blankets back over us, still trying to

get our four halves to agree with each other. "You comfy?"

       The crown of my head is resting beside the rear right

seatbelt's buckle, my shoulder is at a strange angle, with both

arms around Hope.    There's little lower back support save one of

Hope's arms, her right I think, so I push some blanket in there.

Her hip is in my crotch, both legs wrapped around my right and

my left foot has no blanket.

       "I need to fix my left foot, and need to shift your weight

a little."    With my right foot I hook the blanket and tug, then

half guide, half lift Hope as she rises on her side, twists,

scoots down and places her hips square against mine. "Uh..."

       "Heeee," she squeals, rocking a little, then stops.

Innocently she asks "Yeah?"

       "Hope," I try my flat, stern voice; my strained but

otherwise flat, stern voice.
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 472


    "Are you like this with all the girls now?" With her weight

on her hips she sways her torso, rubbing her stiffed nipples

over my chest.

    "How bad an idea is this?   Let me see?"

    "Pish," she stops, gives me a bored stare. "Stephen,

sleeping with each other was never a good idea; it was fun,

enjoyable, educational, sometimes frustrating and often wrought

with danger, but it was never, ever a 'good idea.'"

    I conceed the point. "Yeah, that's pretty much my take on

it, too."

    "Now, the other stuff, that was mixed."

    "Again, I concur."

    "But the sex," she rocks her hips, "never a good idea."

    "Yet here we are, naked, with me edging on what I am wont

to describe as 'priapic,' and you're there, despite the

expectation otherwise, exhibiting a characteristic one could

describe as 'squishy.'"

    "'Squishy.'"

    "It's a word," I remind her.

    "Oh, I'm not questioning it's presence in the OED," she

says.

    "Okay."

    "I'm merely questioning it's usage under the

circumstances."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 473


    "That," I say, poking lightly, "is 'squishy.'"

    "Careful there, Romeo; you move another half inch or so and

this becomes an academic discussion."

    So I shrug.    Hope doesn't move, save that in lowering

herself down onto my chest the lip of her pelvic bone pushes

down on my crotch. "That's not comfortable," I say, sliding out

my hip a little.

    "Better?" She asks.    Murmuring a yes I curl her hair around

her ear. "Mm.   We can't fall asleep."   I agree with her.    The

clock on the dash reads almost seven thirty.    "Don't tell me

what time it is," she says.    Perhaps she felt my head turn.

Four minutes pass before she says "Yeah, this wasn't the best of

ideas I guess."

    "Any suggestions?"

    "Well you obviously have some; share yours."

    "I see three choices.     Get dressed, live with it, or..."

    "Move the half an inch?"

    "The necessary number of inches, yes."

    "Mm."   In a sleepy growl she suggests "We could just be

lame and help each other get ourselves off."

    "That sounds good too."

    "I've narrowed it down, you decide."

    "How have you narrowed it down?" I'm look at her.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 474


    "Well, in about, oh, thirty, forty seconds I'm going to

jump you, so if you're not cool with that, you'd better make up

your mind."

    "I'm going to come in thirty or fourty seconds if you keep

breathing," I counter.

    Flat she tells me "I'm still on the pill, you know."

    "Oh."

    Hope pulls herself up to my mouth and kisses me, a soft,

moist flicker of a kiss that I barely notice the hot wet slip of

her sex pressing against mine.

    "Thirty seconds huh?" teeth nipping at her lip, a hand down

to clench and pull her closer, rolling my hips forward.    Again;

half an inch.   Maybe less.

    Breathy, "This is just me kissing you," fist clenching

around my shoulder, nails biting into skin, "this is me fucking

you," less than a twitch and I'm inside her, falling into flesh.

A whisper: "Hold off as long as you can."

    Pushing down, draggin her teeth along my jaw and raking her

other hand across my back so hard it hurts, feeling the smooth,

shaved skin sliding on my stomach, stretching, her leg forcing

me a little more sideways.

    I slip into nothingness, my mind shutting off; holding back

the blood and cum and    pain and pressing down with the heels of

my hand and the pressure, like a drum, gripping along the shaft
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 475


and the weight rising, teeth again, somewhere a scream, building

up in the netherdark of the nothing, a point of light rising,

distant, no measure of distance, then here, now, and exploding

between my eyes.

    Buck, jerk, push, buck, pull, grip, jerk, push, heave, she

smacks against the back of the seat, I fall into the door;

something, somewhere losing myself, falling down now through the

darkness; Hope pulls me back again, pain like the opening of

hands, teeth grinding somewhere between the here and the there

"Fuck!"

    "Yeah." She's trying to breath, spits, sucks down a breath,

sobs, shakes. "Dear Christ why the fuck don't we do that more

often?" She spits again.

    "What are you doing?    Ow," her tongue rough on broken skin.

"Where is that?"

    "Here," she licks again and I buck, coming again, inside

her again.    She sighs, like it's little more than my touching my

lips to the back of her hand.    With a giggle Hope again presses

her tongue on the wound, but now it's just an itch of pain.

Voice deflated a little she sighs "somewhere in the middle.    I

think.    Is that you?" She sticks her hand in my face.

    "Yeah.

    "Nothing vital then," and she collapses, sliding off to my

right.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 476


       "Ow," discovering a new pain. "What did you do to my

shoulder?"

       But she's not listening.   "You mind if I..." trailing off,

bringing her hand rough down my stomach.      Turning it over the

knuckles push against the hollow of my hip.      Her legs go taught,

pushing off against the car door.      I smooth my hands over her

back and shoulders.    With her off hand Hope reaches to clench my

jaw, fumbles at my neck and settles for the cold metal of the

belt buckle, hanging beside my ear.

       It doesn't take long; her seconds and thirds are easier fo

her than the firsts.    Again she tosses, bouncing up off the

seat, turning onto her side.      The back of her head hits my jaw

as she spasms, slides off then twitches into a ball.

       Throughout I keep my hands on her, rubbing and poking and

pinching, scratching at her neck, her thighs and stomach.      Since

she's finished now I still them, just keep the pressure firm as

she regains her senses.    "I'm on the floor."    I help her up.

She looks around, eyes go wide and she gives me a quick kiss.

"Christ, what the hell did you do to my ass?"

       "What did you do to my shoulder?"

       "It'll heal." she waves a hand at me, smelling of sweat and

sex.    It lulls me into silent complacency; she's right.     It will

heal.

       "At least we didn't break any windows this time."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 477


    "Unf," turning to give her more room. "It's eight thirty."

    "We must have been abducted by aliens," playing the fool

for some reason.    But Hope gives me a droll look, eyes flashing

in the pale light of the moon.     I pet her flank and she says:

    "Maybe that's what happened to my ass."

    "I didn't touch your ass," considering, I add, "probably,"

but remember and say "Much."

    "What the fuck is this?" Hope's not really listening.

Something is thrown into the front seat. "Why the fuck is there

a Sharpie in your back seat?"

    "That's where it went.     I've been looking for that Sharpie

for months."     I try to kiss her but get a mouth full of blanket

and end up sputtering with fizzies in my mouth. "Let me try that

again."

    Sharp, quick tongues, teeth, hot chapped lips, sweet blood,

and Kentucky bourbon.

    Hope laughs and thows her arms around my head. "I love you,

Stephen."

    "Yeah, but I'll always love you more."

    With a whistful sigh Hope settles her head back onto my

chest. "Yeah."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 478




                             CHAPTER 35

                                 EMILY



Kissing Emily goodbye for another season, she squeezes my hand,

weakly, a sort of smile on her screwed up lips.    Years ago I've

gotten over the guilt.   I can tell she wants to tell me

something, to whisper in my ear, from the slight movement of her

eyebrows.   Lean down close; she says "Your so good to me."

    My hand falls to the side of her face, brushing the backs

of my nails across her cheeks damp with sweat and tears.     It's

often like this, the goodbyes.    Soft and muted, barely in a

hush, "You too," touching my lips to the edge of her ear.     Emily

sighs, eyelids fluttering.   She keeps breathing out until

there's a touch of panic in my throat.    But her chest rises

again as if saying 'no, not yet.' Her eyes blink open and she
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 479


lets out a murmur of contentment.     At least, I tell myself that

that's what it is.

       "Stephen," Hope stands behind me, eventually reaches out to

touch me. "We do have to get going."

       "I know."

       "Don't let me keep you," Emily grabs at my hand again in a

jerk of a twitch.    I'm stepping away, letting Hope come close to

her.    My sister keeps hold of my hand, her twisted arm

stretching out.    Exposed to the air of the room it begins to

shake.

       Hope runs her hands around her forearm, slides the hand

from my fingers and tucks it back under the covers.    She kisses

her carefully on the corner of her mouth, like cousins, before

briging the satin edge of the blanket up to her chin.      "That

good?"

       Nodding, Emily smiles again.   Eyes red, she nuzzles against

Hopes hand pressed lightly on her neck, drawn over her jaw. "You

take care."

       "We will," I say.

       Hope stops, only for a moment, but she does stop, then says

"Yes, we will."

                                  #

Her car is packed, dresses hanging from wire hangers on a hook

over the back door.    A small black trundle case on the seat.     My
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 480


things are in the trunk, out of sight.    Crawling in to the car

feels like revisiting the scene of a crime.    In the front seat

the lees of the Wild Turkey.   Hose balled up at my feet.   The

Innocence Mission tape starts up when the ignition hits.     Hope

ejects the cassette, hands it to me. "Put this away, will you?"

    The drive back down the hills is quiet.     No storms today.

Late Sunday morning, we pass a church.    Its white spire points

towards the heavens as if saying 'there, there is God.'     And if

God is in his heaven, shouldn't all be right in the world?

    A   Minister in white and green standing at the top of the

stairs, shaking hands with the blue suits and pale dresses.

Children, miniture versions of their parents, breaking from the

steps to a woman standing behind a folding table giving out

lemonade.   We pull around a curve.   A screen of cottonwoods

obscure the scene.

    "Have you ever thought of having children?"

    "Not with," but Hope quiets her glib reply.     After a moment

I look over at her.   She looks away, checking the side mirror.

Our eyes catch when she turns back to the road. A shrug. "I've

been late once or twice."   She stops, looks left, merges onto

Route 74 which will take us all the way to Carlisle. "Scares the

hell out of me every time."

                                 #
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 481


Danny is just as I'd imagined him:    Whispy red hair under a

dirty yellow Caterpillar hat, blue coveralls with his name

embroidered on a ratty oval.   There's a red rag covered in oil

sticking out of his back pocket.    A wad of chaw is stuck in the

corner of his jaw, pushing out the three day stubble. "Mornin'"

he calls to me.    Hope is waiting at the car, leaning against it

with her dark sunglasses and black jacket, looking like my

backup in case the deal goes sour.

    "Danny.   Stephen Hoemke," I gesture towards my car, sitting

in the corner of the lot. "I believe that's my Saab?"

    He acknowledges me with a nod, says "Then you must be

Mister Hoemke."    I can tell he's saying the whole word and not

just the abbreviation.    I don't know how, but I do.   He keeps

his grim covered hands to himself.    Following him to the car he

points to the front left tire. "That's the spare.    Had to take

it off the hub to check the seals.    Looks good, so I put it on

the hub from your flat."

    Nothing really to say to this so I bob my head

apprecatively, stroke my chin, and move with him to the other

side of the car.

    "And here's your new tire," he kicks it, "switched the

tires around, so the new ones are on your drive wheels.    You

should want to get the rear two replaced, oh, by the first

snows."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 482


      "Okay," agreeing with him, "anything else?"

      "Well," he spits, "You might want a donought," holding his

hands apart, as if defining its size, staring for a moment at

the nothingness between his hands.    He stops working his chew as

he ponders, nods, grunts, spints.     "Keep it in the trunk, until

you get another spare for your hub.    That's there in the trunk,

by the way," gesturing towards the back of the car, "wrapped it

in some newspaper, that it won't be banging around much."

      For a moment I wonder if Danny's just trying to pull

something over on me with suggesting another spare, but I

realize that this is actually a good idea. "Sounds good."     Nod,

scratch chin, look over at Hope.    She's kicking at the ground,

hands in the pockets of her jacket.    There's a bit of a wind,

throwing her hair infront of her face.    She's too lost in

thought to have a care.

      "This way then," he strolls over to his little office, not

much more than a shelf in windowless closet at the side of the

garage.   I give the invoice a once over, tire, mounting,

balancing, alignment, labor, donought spare, a little surprised

by the total.   But there really isn't anything I can do about

it.   Danny knows this.   He's staring off at the scene through

his door.   I pull out my AmEx. "Thank you," he takes it from my

fingers, slips it into and old lever style machine, imprinting

the numbers on a slip already filled out in sloppy blue pen.      I
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 483


sign my name.   He shakes my hand, then gives me back my spare

set of keys. "Let me get that other spare for ya."

    Hope opens the trunk of her car for me, not saying much as

I give her a hug goodbye.    Her shoulders are tense and her

embrace weak. "You headed back now then?" I ask.

    She's non-committal, "May stop off for lunch on the road.

Don't know," shying a little from my giving her a kiss on the

cheek.

    "We cool?" I ask.

    "Sure," but she looks away, southeast, towards the city

over the horizon. "You all set?"

    Danny is walking the spare out to my trunk.    He tries to

open it, but it's locked. "Little help?" He calls.

    "Go," Hope says, slamming her trunklid home and starting

towards the far side of the car. "I'll catch up with you later,"

she opens the door.

    "Give me a call?" I say.    She stretches out her jaw as a

way of saying Yes.    The engine starts and she heads out, turning

at the end of the block towards the Interstate.

    "That your wife then?" Danny asks, putting the donought on

the floor of the trunk for me. "She's a real looker."    I place

my suitcase beside it, check to make sure I have my keys,

finding them in the pocket of my suit coat along with the half
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 484


pack of Marlboro Lights.    "Don't see many like her in these

parts."

    "Like what?" I snap at him.

    "Don't mean nothing by it," he backs off. "Don't get many

of you out from the city is all."

    "Mm," I say.   The trunk's lock clicks as I close it slowly.

"Thank's Danny."

    He lifts the brim of his hat, "My pleasure, Mister Hoemke."

    The engine turns over, radio clicks on to some Top 40

station and the air conditioning hits me at full blast.     I spin

down the dials, slip a CD into the stereo and shift into gear.

Danny waves as I back up.    I give him a pale smile and return my

eyes to the road before me.

    Turn left; Route 74, Erly Road, Route 30 and the

Susquehanna.   Right; the Interstate and Hope.    I'm in no hurry.

                                  #

Almost midnight when I get in;    Stopped for dinner in Lancaster,

got tied up at a rail-road crossing for half an hour, smoked

three cigarettes and when I finally pull up to the garage at my

building I found the batteries dead in my garage door opener.

Luckily there's a 24 convenience store just three blocks away.

I hemmed a bit, but broke down and bought another pack of

cigarettes as well, just in case.     The kid behind the counter

looked bored, didn't even get up from his stool.     He only used
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 485


one hand, the other holding his place in a copy of "Hot Rod"

magazine.

       There's a little mail; two or three bills, someone asking

for a donation to some charity I've never heard of, and the fall

Pottery Barn catalogue.    In the elevator I flip through the

pages, thinking if there's anything Emily needs.

       My apartment smells like the city; I'd left two windows

open that it would.    I'm tempted to pour myself a scotch or

maybe open a bottle of wine, choosing instead to pop open one of

the beers stuck in the back of the fridge.       It's cold, sharp and

bitter.    Mail goes on the coffee table.

       Across the room my answering machine's red light blinks

four times.

       "Hi, Stephen..." Chole.    I listen dutifully.    It's from

Friday.    Nothing is said, really, just the usual Hi, how are

you?    I miss you bullshit.     Delete.

       "Stephen, hi, it's Jamie.    It's uh, sometime on

Saturday...Three thirty.    Wondering if you're up for coming out

for dinner tomorrow.    Um...give me a call?     Thanks."      Delete

       "Hi, Stephen..." Chloe.    Again.   Saturday.   Listen.

Delete.

       "Hi, Stephen..." Chloe.    Again.   Sunday.   Listen.    Delete.

       I should call her, probably.    But not now.    The windows

still open I fall into my chair, sip my beer and decide to light
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 486


up a cigarette.    Below my window a car accelerates into the

night.

                                   #

There's a pile of manilla folders four inches high on my desk

Monday morning.     Jeffrey isn't in yet; it's barely seven AM, but

I couldn't sleep.     If he were, I'd ask him what they were doing

there.   There's no mention of them on my schedule.    Tossing my

case on my chair I see the one on top is labeled with my name in

Amy Lynn's flat script. 'Stephen, please review these accounts

while I'm away - ALP'

      So it begins.

      I make a new folder and write "Hot Potato" on the tab.     On

a sheet of yellow, lined paper I write down all the account

numbers, in the order in which the files were placed one on top

of the other.     There are sixteen in all.   I then turn the stack

upside down and begin from the end, look over a few of the

invoices and give a low whistle.

      Amy Lynn, my Amy Lynn; how predictable you are.

                                   #

"Good morning," Jeffrey sings from his desk.     It's eight thirty.

I'm halfway through the second file, taking notes in cryptic

shorthand so that I can make them mean anything I need to later

on.   Poking his head in he asks briefly, "You need anything?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 487


    "Not at the moment, no," scanning through list of expenses,

"I will need some changes to my schedule, however."

    "Hold on," Jeffery grabs his notepad then comes in, closing

the door behind him.    He knows better to pry into whatever I

happen to be doing.    A part of me would like to bring him in on

what I think is happening, but really, how well do I know

Jeffery?   The thought gives me pause.   I'm no longer reading, my

mind going through a cascade of conspiracy theories for a few

minutes until Jeffery calls, quietly "Stephen?"

    "Sorry."     There's a few spirals doodled on my notepad,

ending at the tip of my penpoint. "I just...nevermind."    I take

my schedule and begin crossing off my appointments for the

morning, "Cancel the ten thirty meeting with Julia, and the two

o'clock with Gallagher.    See if Danielle can make an eleven

o'clock meeting with," who to trust, who to trust, "Parks?

Yeah.   Parks.   Reserve us a conference room until two.   Find out

what they want for lunch, get enough for four people and put it

on my AmEx."

    "Anything else?"

    "Not right now.     Get me when it's ten o'clock?"

    "Certainly.     Coffee?"

    "Yeah, actually, please.     And see if there are any bagels

or anything in the break room?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 488


    Standing, Jeffery nods.    His thumb flicks over to the top

of his pen, clicks the cap retracting the point as if he's

taking a mental picture of me, sprawled back in my chair and

gazing out the window.    "Thank you, Stephen," turning as I

murmur something, I don't even know what.

    After he leaves, closing the door again behind him, I take

a moment to stretch.    I really didn't get a chance to relax last

night and the sleepless ache is starting to creep into my

joints.     After we went to see Emily, Hope dropped me off in

Carlisle.    Danny had, 'miraculously' he said, managed to find a

tire for my car.    I still needed to switch out the spare, but

now it's just a footnote.    Shit, that reminds me.

    I pick up the phone and call my travel agent, have her hold

a ticket to Detroit for me and then try Oscar again.     Still no

answer, I leave another voicemail then check my messageson the

off chance I missed him.    Or Hope.   She was supposed to call.

                                  #

Coming back from the lunch meeting Jeffery says he has some

messages for me.

    "Hope?"

    "Sorry?" He says, giving me an odd look.

    "My cousin, she called?"

    "Oh," he looks at the three slips in his hand. "No.      Your

sister called, though.    At eleven fifteen.   She wants to be sure
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 489


you got in alright.      Ms Hempstead called from Lake Michigan,

asking that you call her at your earliest conveneince.         Also

Jack Meyers from InterTel.      He says it's urgent."

       "Of course it is," I take the messages and shuffle through

them.    I'll have to call Chloe.       It's two thirty.   Emily will be

napping, up again at around four. "Can you remind me when it's

four fifteen?"

       "Certainly," and because he's Jeffery, he makes a note of

it on his day calendar, even though he knows he won't forget.

       I say "Thank you" and close my office door behind me.

                                    #

"Hello?"

       "Chloe Hempstead, please."

       "Oh, she and Clara are out at the moment.      Is this Steve?"

       "Stephen, yes," I don't recognise the man's voice.       It

sounds older, mid forties, and very proper.

       "Sam Tepper.    Good to meet you."

       "Sam," I say.    I have no idea who this man is, but my

stomach does a small backflip; did Catherine bring someone with

her?    I decide to be vague. "Could you let her know I called?"

       "Of course, my pleasure." Then he decides to make

smalltalk: "So you'll be getting in on Friday?"

       "Friday evening, yes."

       "Wonderful.    I look forward to meeting you."
                                                  Birch / Dynamite / 490


       "And I you," even though I have no fucking idea who you

are.    I wonder if I should ask for Catherine, but decide not to.

"I do have to go, unfortunately Sam."

       "Try back in an hour or two.       The girls should be back by

then.

       'Girls?' "I sure will, Sam.       Gooddbye."

       "Take care, Steve."

       Before I can correct him he hangs up.       I want to try and

figure out who this 'Sam Tepper' is, but there's work to do.            I

set my notes from the meeting in front of me and begin.

                                     #

Jeffery knocks on my door.    Wryly I check the clock just in time

to see its LEDs flick over to four fifteen.

       "Come in."

       He pokes his head in, says "Four fifteen," waits for me to

nod, then withdraws.    I pick up the phone.

       "Hello?" A dog barks in the background, drowning out a

lawmower.

       "Hi Emily."

       "Stephen!" The amplifier on her telephone distorts her

voice just a little. "You got in okay?"

       "Yes, a little late, but safe and sound."       It occurs to me

that half of the funds for the consulting fees associated with

the May launch are unaccounted for in the interim quarter
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 491


report.   I'll have to check to see if they were deferred, or if

they were even paid.    Invoice is dated on the seventeenth.   So

we probably didn't pay it until the 30th, two days for

processing, interim report prepared on the 31st...

    "Stephen!" Emily barks with a smile.    At least, I tell

myself she's smiling.

    "Sorry, Em." I put down my pen. "Things are a little hectic

here."

    "It's okay," voice softer, "I know you have work to do."

    "You have a good time?"

    "Of course I did," lilting her words with a fondness I find

almost facetious.   It's an odd feeling.

    "Have you heard from Hope?"

    She pauses, voice suddenly flat. "No."    She's lying.

    "Oh."

    Dead air on the line between us.    Picking up my pen again I

tap it on the figures for July.

    "I see," I say again.

    "Been very busy here, all day," she says, "I, um, should

actually get going.    And you need to get back to your work."

    "Yeah."

    "Call me later?"

    "I'll be out," instantly regretting the words, the tone of

my voice.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 492


       Emily sighs. I think for a moment she'll make the move,

break through whatever's been said and come clean. But she just

says "When you can," then a hesitant "Goodbye." And clicks the

line dead.

       Staring at the reciever for a moment I press my tongue

agains the edge of my teeth.      Exhaling a long breath I depress

the button for a new line.

       "District Attorney's office, Mandy speaking."

       "Hope Caldwell, please?"

       "I'm sorry, she's in conference, can I take a message?"

       "Does she have voicemail?"

       "No, I'm sorry."

       "I'll try her cellphone, then.   Thank you."

       I try and remember the number, but can't.   All I have is

her home line.     After a moment of hesitation I give it a try.

       "Hi, you've reached the Caldwells," Cameron's voice on

their machine, "We're unavailable at the moment, so please leave

a message and we'll get back to you as soon as possible."

       Beeeeeep.

       "Hi, Hope, Stephen," I stop and swallow, unsure of what to

say.    The seconds drag on, "Emily asked that I give you a call,"

this should work, "so when you have a moment, please feel free."

She probably doesn't have my number, but she can get it from
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 493


Emily.   And I really don't want Cameron having it besides, "You

have my number," is a safe bet. "Talk to you soon."

    I hang up the phone, wondering at what I've done.   Not that

it really matters.   Not much I can do about it now, anyways.   No

line items for the May launch in July or August.   Amy Lynn, how

fucked are we?
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 494




                            CHAPTER 36



                               HOPE




I've been trying unsuccessfully for over an hour to get the

waitress at Fairchilds to switch off the godforsaken 80's music

and put on something decent.

    "It's 80s Night," she keeps telling me with a cute smile.

I grumble, take my drink and wait for the guy in a black leather

coat to make a shot at the table next to me.   I usually don't

come in at this hour.   The music just makes it worse, reminding

me of every summer afternoon when I was fifteen, sitting with
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 495


Hope on the back porch, listening to the radio.      She never

called.   Whenever I picked up the phone Jeffery, Danielle,

Parks, one of them would knock on the door, feeding me snippets

of information, numbers and names and dates.    I wrote them all

down on sheets of yellow lined paper until I couldn't take it

anymore, sometime after sunset, taking a cab here, hoping the

solitude would do me good.

    But the place is packed.    I'm surrounded on all sides by a

dozen or so pairs shooting eight ball using a hodgepodge of

lameass rules.    A big guy in black leather is aiming at the

Twelve.   It's not the easiest shot, just the most obvious.      He's

drinking a Budweiser, which is propped on the table's edge,

condensation tracing down the glass, over the label and,

inevitiably, onto the laquered wood frame.     He's going to hit

the ball too hard.    It will hit the Twelve, but that will go too

far, knocking the Six off dangerously close to the Eight.

Worse, the cue will then careen off into the far left corner.

    I wait.   He shoots. "Aw shit!" The cue plops into the

pocket. "Fuck!"    He's an eloquent one, this guy.

    "Excuse me," I step up next to him and lean over for my

shot:   Eleven off the bunker to the Fifteen, which might go into

the near side.    Can't strike too hard, however, as I need to

leave the cue off to my right that it will line up on the Eleven

to the corner.    But where the hell will the Eleven go
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 496


    But Mr. Black Leather hasn't moved.

    "Excuse me?" I try again, a little louder.

    He looks at me blankly.

    Smile and nod.    Motion to the table.   Raise eyebrows.   Keep

smiling.   Fucking asshole. Eleven should go a little off to the

side, hit the far bunker then roll back somewheres in the middle

left.

    He has a stylish day or two of stubble and a bemused scowl.

Grunting he takes his Bud and spins around to watch my shot,

scooting just out of the way.   Fine.

    I shoot.   He watches. "Nice shot." The Fifteen rolls

towards the pocket, slow. "Bet ya ten bucks it won't go in."

    "I don't care if it goes in," I reply, chalking my cue.

    "Twenty," he insists quickly.

    The Fifteen stops an inch from the pocket.    The Eleven

stops middle left.

    "Told ya," he stands up. "You up for a game?"

    "No, thank you." The Four looks good, though it's a long

shot.

    "Just you and me."

    "Thank you, but I'm just practicing this evening."      Six is

close, but it'll need a lot of english and a shitload of spin to

go anywhere useful.   I'm so close to the bunker the cue'll

probably pop up.   Always bad form.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 497


    "Just friendly, like."

    "I'm sorry, some other time, perhaps." Now the Two.          The

Two I can just touch off the bunker around the Eleven.

    "You'll miss that," he says as I line up.

    "Two, double bunker," I say.

    "The Eleven is in the way," he observes.

    I shoot.     He grunts.   The Two hits the cushion at an

oblique angle.    As I didn't strike it hard enough it decides to

run the length and go right in.     Fuck.

    "Wow.    Nice."

    "I missed," I tell him wryly.      Distracted, I'd forgotten

where I wanted the cue ball to end up.      Now it's lying with an

easy shot on the Fifteen.

    The hem of his black leather coat jiggles as he laughs.

"You got the ball in the hole."

    "I called double bunker.      That was single.   I missed.

They're called 'rules.'" My cell phone starts ringing.

    "What?"

    "Excuse me," I lay the cue on the table.

    "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" He demands.

    "Hello?" The reception in here sucks.

    "Stephen?"

    "Yes?"

    "Who is this?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 498


    "You keep the fuck away from my wife.      You got that?"

    "Cameron!" I call out his name in a loud, friendly voice.

"How are you?"

    "Are you listening to me?      I don't want you anywhere near

her." There's a bit of static on the line, but I don't think he

sounds happy.

    "Good, good.     Hey, how about I call you back?"

    "Don't you ever call my house again, ever, do you

understand?"

    Sweet Scotch and Soda, exlir of the Gods. I wet my mouth on

its smoky lips and agree with the man. "That sounds good.

Wednesday?"

    "What?"

    "No, that's too early."

    "Stephen?     Can you hear me?"

    "I'd rather not, no offense," continuing my own version of

the conversation. "But I'm sure Hope wouldn't mind."

    "I don't want you talking to her, you got me?"

    "No, but I have some Scotch."

    He's quiet for a moment.      I can imagine his face slowly

going red, the veins on his neck bulging as his pulse begins to

race. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing..."

    "Pool.     Eighball.   Strict rules," I tell him.

    "You're such a fucking asshole, you know that?"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 499


    And he hangs up on me.     I smile at the phone.    He may be a

six foot tall black man, but he's got an argyle soul.

    Meanwhile, the man in the black leather coat is hanging off

my arm, looking confused and trying to figure out if he should

be angry.   His friend, just over his shoulder, looks

exasperated.   I get the feeling this gentleman is wont to pick

fights with strangers in bars.     "You were saying?"

    "Let's play a round, eh?" Like it's some sort of playground

challenge he flicks his chin up, then over at my table.

    "Sure," taking another sip before placing my drink on the

table. "What rules?"

                                   #

The fifth game and Hal, as he calls himself, is trying really

hard to salvage some pride.    I've one stripe left on the table

while he has five of his solids.       Kyle, his friend, leans

against their table, cue tucked across his chest, looking bored.

    "Twenty bucks says I make this shot," Hal calls, again.           If

I'd taken him up on his bets I'd probably be up a good two

hundred bucks at this point.    But while I've no problem taking

the man's dignity, I really have no use for his cash.

    "Just shoot," I tell him.     He looks angry, as if money

could help him rise to the challenge.       The Three is far, far

away from his cue, but it's sitting right on the edge of a

pocket so Hal feels obliged to take the shot.       I can tell he's
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 500


also of the mind that hitting it straight on is the way to do

it.   As the tip smacks against the cue I stand with a sigh.   The

Three goes in, followed by the cue.

      "Hal," I reach in, taking out both balls and spot the solid

for him. "You're too kind."

      "Whatever." He grabs at the neck of his fourth Bud.

      Ball in hand, I place it behind the balk line and easily

sink my remaining stripe, then the Eight, even though it's half

hidden by his mess of solids. "Best out of eleven?" I mock.

      "Fuck you, asshole."

      "Hal," Kyle steps infront of him. "Leave it."

      "Yeah." Hal sneers at me, "Not worth my time anyway,"

making a show of turning his back to me and walking the two

steps back to his table.

      "You just keep telling yourself that," but I keep my voice

to myself.

      It's almost ten now.   I've been trying to wear myself out

enough to actually feel tired.    It hasn't worked.   I rack

another round, have just shot the break when my cell phone goes

off again.   As Fairchild's is only half full at this point, I

can actually recognize Cameron's voice cutting me off when I try

and say "Hello?"

      "You think I'm kidding, don't you?"

      "I'm sorry?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 501


    He sounds a little drunk.     "Don't fuck with me, Stephen."

There are voices in the background.      He must be at a bar

somewhere.   I wonder briefly if Hope kicked him out.     That would

be marvellous.

    "I'm not fucking with you."     Something went in on the

break.   I count the stipes trying to figure out what it was.

    "I mean it!"

    "Okay," I tell him.     Looks like it was the Ten.   Yeah.

It's down.   Break is stripes then. Cameron hasn't said anything

in reply, so I ask "Anything else?"

    And he hangs up on me.     Yeah, there's a winner, Hope.

After potting the Fifteen my cellphone rings again.

    "Greetings!" I say.

    "Stephen?" It's Chloe.

    "Oh, hello."

    "Who were you expecting?" Her voice gravelly.      I think

she's been drinking too; Chloe equates gravelly with coy.

    "No one.     Just in a good mood."

    "Where are you?"

    "Fairchild's.     Not much else to do, with you out of town."

    "You're so sweet.     I'm just calling to say hello."

    "'Hello,'" wedging the phone between my ear and shoulder,

lining up for an easy line on the Twelve.      "How's the Lake?"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 502


    "Wonderful.    Oh, it's so beautiful and romantic here,

Stephen.    You should come up right now."

    "Can't.    Amy Lynn is out of the office, remember?     I have

to cover for her."

    "Aw," gravelly giving way to whinging, "but I want you,

Stephen."

    "Friday night," I tell her. "I'll be there."

    "But what am I supposed to do until then?" She's almost

pouting.

    Tempted to tell her that she shouldhave thought of that

when she planned her trip, I say instead, "I don't know.       Go for

a walk with your sisters?    Drink margaritas and paint your

toenails.    Whatever it is that sisters do."

    "You're being mean," the pout turning back into coy.       I

miss the Eleven. "Talk to me, Stephen."

    "I'm sorry.    You're having a good time?"

    "Uh-huh.    We're going sailing tomorrow."

    "Sounds like fun.    What else have you been up to?"

    Chloe gives me a haphazard list of shops and restaraunts,

quaint boutiques and scenic vistas.    I don't know if she's

telling me her day or just reading a travel brochure.      This goes

on for a few minutes, until my drink is dry and I start

searching around for a waitress.    I see her at the front, by the
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 503


door.    Half listening to Chloe I follow the woman with my eyes,

hoping to get her attention.

       She's flirting with some guy, trying to cajole him into

leaving her a bigger tip or maybe she's genuinely interested in

him.    He's dressed well enough, smiling and is relativly

attractive by anyone's standards.     When the front door opens he

looks over, sees Hope enter, keeps talking as she scans the

room, then snaps his attention back to the waitress when he

realizes he's staring.

       "Uh, Chloe? I gotta go."

       "Why?"

       "It's my shot, they're waiting on me," I lie.   Hope's

bearing down on me and does not look very happy. "Sorry.        I'll

talk to you tomorrow, okay?" Hoping that my voice isn't

stressed.

       "Okay.   I love you."

       "Love you too.   Goodnight." My thumb jabs at the button.

"Hope."

       "Yeah," she stops in front of me, looking me in the eye.

"You want to do this here, or somewhere in private?"

       "I'm sorry?"

       "Me kicking your ass," she explains.   Her chest is rising

and falling in steep breaths, her hair tangled.     There is
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 504


nothing humorous in her eyes, which are instead sharp and

dilated.   There's some color in her cheeks, flushed with anger.

    "Here is fine," I shrug, settling back in my chair,

throwing an arm over its back.

    "Cameron is livid."

    I nod, casual.   Stay casual, Stephen.

    "And he has every right to be," she adds.

    "Because I left a message on your machine?" Just to make

sure it was that and not our fucking like banshees in the back

seat of his car last night.

    Mouth open, jaw tight, Hope closes her eyes and exhales

before saying "You do realizse the man hates you.    H-A-T-E hates

you?"

    I do know, and she knows I know.    So I drop my voice and

octave, ask her "What about you?"

    "Forget about me.   Let's talk about my husband." Another

breathe.   She's trying to calm herself down, but I don't know if

she's angry, really, at me or at him.

    So I shrug, sip at the waters that's melted at the bottom

of my glass.   The ice rests on my lip, slightly numbing.   "He

called," I mention casually, "threatened me." I'm being petty.

Stop being petty, Stephen.    Be casual, remember?

    Hope's eyes snap open, "He threated you?" And I know it's

him she's mad at.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 505


    "At eight, and again just now.     That was him on the phone.

He was drunk, called from some bar."

    "Christ," he hand running through her hair. "Where's the

fucking waitress?"

    "Flirting with the locals." I set my drink down. "Wanna

play?"

    "No, I want to go ten rounds in the alley." She's searching

the room, "Where the fuck's the waitress?"

    "Come on," I say, laying my cue on the table.

    "Where?"

    "The bar?" Motioning, I keep walking.     There's a couple

sitting there on the end, against the wall, hands all over each

other.   I think the barman's name is Jack.   Or John.   One of the

two. "Scotch and water," looking over at Hope with a raised

eyebrow.

    "Vodka tonic," she says, "decent Vodka.     Not that well

shit."

    Her demand grates on Jack's nerves, his shoulders

tightening, but he recognizes me. "Certainly," and takes a thin

blue bottle from the top shelf.

    "You," Hope calls me out, "are not to call my house ever,

ever again."

    "So give me your cell number," I take out a pen, grab a

coctail napkin fromt he stack at the lip of the bar.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 506


    "That's not the point," she looks over her shoulder,

scanning the room.

    "You afraid to be seen?" I wonder.

    "With you?   Definitely." Jack places her drink infront of

her. "Thank you," then to me, "This is a pretty popular place.

I wouldn't be surprised if I know someone here."

    "You know me."

    "You don't count," taking a long pull.

    "Thanks."

    "You're welcome."

    We're quiet until Jack slides my drink infront of me.

"Which table are you on?"

    "Sixteen," I tell him.    He turns back, puts the drinks on

my tab. "'To us, and people like us,'" I raise my glass.

    "Fuck you," Hope takes another drink, not looking at me,

still scanning the room.    Eventually, satisfised at some sense

of privacy, she returns to me. "Why the hell did you call?"

    "You said you'd call.    You didn't.   I was worried."

    "Christ, if that's not the lamest thing you've said in

years."

    "It's true," I shrug into my drink.

    "No it's not."

    "I talked to Emily," I conceede.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 507


    Hope's eyes flare, snapping her head around around to glare

at me. "What did she say?"

    "Nothing, that's the point.   I asked if she'd heard from

you, she said 'No.'"

    "And you, being paranoid, took that as a demonic 'Yes.'"

    "With good cause, apparently."     Casual, Stephen.   You don't

act casual, it'll be another three years.

    "I don't," she starts heatedly, then calms herself down a

little with another sip. "I don't want you calling me.    At work,

at home, on my cell."

    "You don't want to talk with me."

    She shakes her head, "Not on the phone."

    "E-mail?"

    "No."

    "Fax?"

    "Stephen," sliding away from me.

    "So you don't want to see me?"

    "I didn't say that."

    "You're implying that.   You don't want me to contact you.

You're not going to contact me.   Therefore," laying out my hand,

letting her finish the thought.

    But she doesn't, just sits there nursing her drink.

    I don't really feel like saying anything, but something

does need to be said.   Soon, or she'll walk away, say 'thanks
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 508


for the drink' and slink off into the night.     "What do you want,

Hope?"

    Silence.   She pushes her glass away, half finished. "Thanks

for the drink," getting up.

    "Hope," I call after her lamely.     I hate this shit. "Hope,"

calling after her again, following her through the tables,

weaving between men in suits and women in skirts and hose.

Laughter and serious faces, the murmur of the crowd opening as

we pass then closing again behind us.     We hit the door.

    On the street she turns left, towards downtown.     I call

again, trying to be a little more serious this time. "Hope?"

    Here she stops.      Behind us the door slides closed, cutting

off the words and laughter and the electronica synth of being

fifteen and watching MTV for the very first time. Her eyes gleam

under the streetlamps.     She says nothing, fingers poked into her

pockets, palms resting on the bone of her hips through her

blouse.

    "Not again," I say as I approach. "Not like this."

    "Stephen," she breathes out, blinks slowly. "I love my

husband.   I fuck you.    You fuck Chloe and you love me, god help

you but I don't know why."     Her left hand rises to move the hair

from her eyes, slipping it behind her ear.     The lights cast

rainbows through the diamonds on her finger. "This isn't how

it's meant to be."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 509


    I could say so many things.     I could say that that wasn't

how it seemed last night, naked in the back seat of her car.

That wasn't how it seemed when she came over to me at the party.

That wasn't how it seemed in the darkened den of her father's

house.    But none of them are true. "So?"   I take a few steps

towards her. "Why not?"

    "You want the list?"

    "Sure," I spit out.     Her chin drops, lips curl at the

corner of her mouth. "No," I ammend. "It's," I feel like I'm

fifteen, "It's not fair."

    "Of course it's fair.     It's as fair as 'fair' ever is." She

crosses the pavement 'till she's standing right infront of me.

    I wait for her to say something.     Anything.   She doesn't.

She just stands there, looking at me soft.    Like a friend.

    "Do you want to say something?" Hope wonders.

    "I...I just want it to be how I want it to be."

    "And how's that?    Sharing a place in the city, like Liz and

Doug?    Being accepted by your family, your friends?   Not ducking

around, fucking in the dark corners of the world and fighting

all the time?"

    "Yeah."

    "You're not going to get that with me," stepping to lean

back against the plate glass windowfront beside us.     She rests

her foot on the recessed sill, waiting.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 510


    "We could go somewhere..." I start.

    Hope cuts me off with a smile: "No, we couldn't."

    "Can," I look around, the streets empty, save for a car,

somewhere nearby, its belts squeeking as it moves through the

city. "Can we just go somewhere right now?    Somewhere else.

Somewhere not here?"

    Here eyes squint, her neck stretching forward to peer at

me. There's some sort of decision being made, but I don't really

know what it is.   I'm just feeling tired and worn down, a little

flush. After her appraisal of me, Hope glances up and down the

street. "Let's walk," she decides.

    "In this neighborhood?" It's not a bad part of town, but it

isn't exactly the best part, and it is near midnight.

    "Sure."

    "It's..." but it's my only choice, and I know it; walk with

her now, or she's gone, again. "Okay."

    "You want to get your things?    Settle up your bill?"

    "Okay." But as I start to turn back to the bar I have to

stop and ask, "Will you still be here?    When ic ome back out?"

    "Probably," Hope shrugs. "Don't see why not."

    Trying not to look too eager I run in, collect my balls

from the table and take them to the bar to settle up.    Jack the

Barman takes forever to give me the bill.    Fidgeting I keep

looking to the door, as if I could see her through the dim smoke
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 511


haze of the room, let alone the cinderblock walls covered in

woodface on the inside and brickface without.

      Finally the two little white and yellow slips are placed

infront of me.     I hurridly sign, fill in a goodly sized tip and

fudge the math on the total, but I could care. "Thanks," and I'm

off, jacket over my arm, back through the maze of people to the

door.   Left.    Hope leaning against the window, two buildings

down.   Closer, I hear her whistling an oddly familiar tune that

I can't quite place.     I feel as if it's on the tipof my tongue.

      Drawing closer to her I place my coat over my shoulders,

threading my arms through the sleeves.    I know the tune.   I know

it.   I just can't place it.    From TV maybe, or a movie theme.

"What's that you're wistling?" I ask.

      "Huh?" Hope looks at me blankly.

      "You were whistling."

      "I was?"

      "Yeah," straightening my coat, "what was it?"

      "I don't know.   I wasn't paying attention," she kicks off

from her foot resting on the sill, hands still in her pockets,

jerking her head further left. "This way."

                                   #

After catching her bearings from the office towers in the middle

distance, lit up like christmas trees even at this hour, she

turns on her heels and sets off South down Manitoba, a small
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 512


side street which is little more than an alley.    I follow, a few

steps behind.   Part of me is afraid to speak, the rest simply

with nothing to say.    I'm trying to enjoy this, but there's a

nagging in my gut that one wrong word and I'll be sent reeling

into the gutter.   So she walks, and I follow.

    We're passing the the back ends of the shops, the loading

docks and trash bins.    Steam spews from a sort of horizontal

chimney in a noir touch.    Hope walks through it, momentarily

obscured by its haze.    I hurry up a little, as if she'll vanish

like a ghost when I reach the other side.    Amid the steam I

catch food smells, mostly chicken and soy.    Coming out of the

cloud I glance over to see a sign saying, "Hoy Chow's :

Deliveries Only." Hope is in front of me, hands in her pockets,

watching the ground before her feet.

    At the end of the block I follow her left, then right again

as we cross Michigan Avenue to walk 8th Street for a few blocks

before cutting North again on Spring.    We're on the edge of the

Urban Rejuvination project, on the Northern edge of which is my

building.   I can see it, rising with a few others over the

rowhouses and powerlines.

    We're going then into a sketchier part of town. I'm tempted

to mention something to Hope, to backtrack two blocks to King,

but the words catch in my throat;    I don't say anything about

our route but let Hope lead on.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 513




The temprature starts to drop after we've crossed under an on-

ramp, turned East for four blocks then returned North.    We're

near the river now, the damp air full of its stink.    Otherwise I

no longer recognize where we are, a small semi-residental block

with the occasional convenience store and a bar or two per

block.   The neighborhood is not quite working class and not

quite white.

    The graffiti is kept to murals on large, blank walls.

Flowers bloom   by night from boxes on windowsills, doors are

painted red or blue, others darkly stained with moulded facades

and brass number plates.   There are security bars and grates

over the downstairs windows to be sure, but even these are clean

and gleaming.   There's no trash on the streets save a single

torn paper bag stuck on a fence post.   I take it and throw it

away in the bin under the streetlamp on the corner.

    Across the street is a small 24 hours minimart wreathed in

light.   Hope crosses the intersection on a diagonal, bringing us

towards a cadre of boys hanging out out front.    A pair of older

boys greet Hope enthusiastically, then they see me, trudging a

few steps behind.   While I'm in a coat and tie, they're dressed

like wannabe gangstas; ballcaps tilted backwards with puffy

jackets left open not because of any heat so much as the braids

of goldish chains hanging from their necks.    But when they catch
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 514


my eye each nods a little and calls me Sir.     I nod in reply,

saying, "Good evening, Gentlemen."     Hope says nothing.

       She hasn't infact said anything for almost half an hour

now.    It's past midnight when she finally does, that

neighborhood is a dozen blocks behind us.     Here the trash bins

are almost overflowing, though they're painted in psychadellic

colors.    The graffiti is more reckless and covers doorjambs and

sidewalks as well as the empty walls of vacant lots.        But the

grates on the windows are more ornate, belieing a wealth within,

just beyond the lace curtains and double glazing.

       She's stopped in front of a large glass window about ten

feet in front of me, peering in.     As I come up beside her I see

it to be a gallery, empty and vacant save for the slabs of

paintings hanging there.    Small spotlights shine down on each.

The styles are modern and abstract, paint in polychromatic

swirls, in visceral chunks protruding from the canvas, on others

smooth, almost scraped thin.     Hope's gaze floats around the

room, then fixes on one piece near us, on a wall perpindicular

to the street.    Backing up to get a better angle on it she steps

on my toes. When she says, "excuse me," it's casual and

impersonal, as if I were a stranger who happened to share her

space for a moment.

       "You like these?" Trying not to be argumentative, but

equally as casual.    Curious.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 515


    Hope nods. "It's one of my favorite galleries.     I stop down

here very once in a while.    They have some good artists here.

Well, that one at least."

    She gestures to a piece about four feet wide and three

high.   It appears to be of a fence, a white fence, its paint

having begun to flake and peel back from the wood.    The base is

stained and soiled, with sprigs of long grasses coming up in

solitary strands from an unseen lawn below.    Something about it

unsettles me, something unknown.

    "Why?" I ask, hovering just to the side of Hope's shoulder.

She's always had an eye for the beautiful and the cruel, for

noticing the finest of details and seeing how a single sinister

tree colored the whole of the forest.    Now I'm standing just

behind her, trying to see what she sees.    But I can't. "What

does this piece say to you." It's an almost automatic reply, the

words out before I realize how cliche and arrogant they are.

    But Hope doesn't notice.    Or doesn't care.   It's as if

she's speaking to me from somewhere far away. "To notice the way

things work.    To pay attention to the process and not just the

result.   That everything is process, really."

    I look at the painting again, making sure we're actually

looking at the some one. "The one of the fence?"

    "Uh-huh?"

    "Paint peeling off of a fence."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 516


"Yep," she's growing distant, fainter.

    I look again.     "Sorry, I don't get it."

    "You see what it's called?"

    I hadn't, so I squint to read the title from the small

card. "'Watching Paint Dry,'" it says.

    "Not much fun, is it?"

    "Axiomatically, no."

    "'Axiomatically?'" She mimics my tone; dry, academic.

    "Well, the cliche, 'about as fun as watching paint dry,'

it's an axiom, a true saying or quote.    Like 'man cannot live on

bread alone.'    'Axiomtically' means that something is true

because of such an adage," I'm about to go on, but Hope's

nodding, then interrupts:

    "So it's called 'Watching Paint Dry,' but the paint's

already dried.    Dried to the point that it's actually peeling,"

and I realize that she knew what 'axiomatically' meant.    "You

see what kind of fence it is?"

    "A white picket fence, looks like."

    "The epitome then of family and the domestic American

Dream: Two point one children, Golden Retriever, house with a

white picket fence.    Fences are also walls, to keep the rest of

the world out of the personal iteration of that Dream."

    "Yeah," I agree.     The words seem strange coming from her;

we usually don't talk like this.    Actually, we usually don't
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 517


talk at all.    I'm uncomfortable and I shift my weight from foot

to foot, rememeber my cigarettes and light one up as I wait for

her to continue.    Which she does, after a moment:

       "So is the American Dream as much fun as watching paint

dry?    Or is that a presumptive of this being an Anglo piece?

The artist's name, Keiko Vasquez.    Japanese-Chicano.    And

female.    Is it a rebellion against the imposition of American

culture on her own, that she's supposed to adhere to the notion

that being a wife and a mother as being the ideal social

inevitabiliy of her gender?    Can I have some of that?" She

reaches for my cigarette with two fingers.

       I present it to her, she takes a drag and then hands it

back, continuing to speak even as she's beginning to exhale the

smoke:

       "Or you could depoliticise it from gender and ethnicity,

and look at it from a more universal standpoint.      Perhaps it's

challenging the axiom.    Watching paint dry isn't fun, but is it

a necessity?    This paint is cracking and peeling.    The wood is

exposed to the elements, which have already started to work on

the fence's foundation.    See the rotting that's beginning on the

wood underneath?    And the grass has gone wild.   Does that lead

to any conclusions of the house beyond?    And the family beyond?

Watching paint dry isn't fun, but if you don't pay attention to

it, things can fall into disrepair, become rotted and spoiled."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 518


       Otherwise at a loss for words I say, "and you get all this

from a painting of peeled paint?"

       "Yeah," she says, and with that turns and begins to walk

away.

                                    #

Jefferson.    6th.   Broadway.   The streets stretching out around

me, a few steps behind Hope threading among the avenues.       5th.

4th.    She stops on a street corner.    We're only a few blocks

from my apartment building, hidden behind six stories of brick

and moarter with ivy running from the foundation to the eaves.

       "We're at 4th and Victoria."

       But she knows, dismisses me with a curt nod, turns to face

the hill slowly falling towards the river.     I know she lives

somewhere down there, on 2nd, in a slowly gentrifing

neighborhood full of Mexican gangs and starving artists.       It's

taken her some twenty-odd blocks to make up her mind, but now

she stalls.    Shifting her weight from foot to foot, peering down

the street, from the lip of the hill over to the river, visible

in the spaces between buildings.

       "There's a bar a block or two that way," I say, pointing

towards a place I like to go.      It's around the corner almost

from where I live. "We could stop in for a drink."

       The corners of her mouth flinch into half a smile.     Perhaps

more of a wince.     Her head bobs to the side, carring her
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 519


shoulders around that she again faces the river. "Stephen,"

plaintive, tired.   A hand from her pocket rubs at her forehead,

three fingers, then just two, pushing and pulling at the skin.

"I don't want to do this."

    "Do what?" It could be the sex, the fighting, the walking,

the decision of my place or hers.    Like I, she must feel drawn

to the intivability of it.    To take some weight off my feet I

walk back against the wall, lean into it, feeling the texture of

the brick against my scalp.

    Spinning suddenly, reeling around and facing me in a sloppy

half pirouette, stopping her turn with a scuffling of her shoe

on the rough concrete sidewalk. "It's the Choose Your Own

Adventure style of...whatever the hell it is this is."

    "Okay," dubious, but casual; like a JC Penny chino.

    "No," she turns back around, voice overly cheery, like a

gameshow announcer offering a prize.    "To our left, we have 'my

place:' hardwood floors and a nice view.    To our right, 'your

place:' Better address, a little smaller, more cramped I'm

assuming.   We also have 'A Bar,' notorious for letting us sit

around not making any decisions."    Dropping the act, her hand

falls to slap at her side. "And a million other places

inbetween, full of dark alleys and softer spaces."

    "It's nothing new," I try.

    "Exactly.   Or we could fight.    That always works."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 520


    "Hope,"

    "'Hope,'" she mocks peevishly, then joins me on the wall

with a grunt. "This is just getting old.    It used to be our

parents walking in on us, suspecting this or that, crying in the

back hall.    Now it's our spouses and brothers and sisters."

    Laying the side of her head flat against the wall her tone

slips down further, almost reassuringly.

    "You know about Liz and Doug, right?"

    "They're not getting along." I can see one of my windows

from here, just barely, hanging off the corner of the building

before us like a star.

    "Not really.    Doug wants kids.   When you asked me,

yesterday?    If I'd ever thought about having children?

Christ..." and she sighs.

    "I hadn't thought of it like that."

    "Do you want kids?"

    A shrug. "I don't know.    Sure.   Why not?"

    "Because they're ugly, greedy parasites that suck the youth

and strength right out of you."

    "I thought that was mivivans?"

    Hope laughs for the first time in a while. "They go hand in

hand, cousin."

    Sticking my hands into my pocket they press up against the

packet of cigarettes in my jacket.     "So," I think about slipping
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 521


one out and lighting it up, but stop myself.     Stay casual,

"where is this going?"

    "Nowhere," with a bitter laugh, "This, is going abso-

fucking-nowhere."

    "Where do you want it to go?" Hoping I sound a little less

coy than I probably do.

    "Somewhere, anywhere.     And quickly.   This..." trailing off,

a hand arcing up to take in the whole of the night, the city,

our world. "This isn't want I wanted."

    Slowly, soft "What did you want?" Digging my shoulders into

the wall.   The feel of the brick, dull through the cotton and

linen isn't enough.    Pressing harder with the soft at the back

of my head isn't enough.

    Shoulders rising, tips of collarbones peeking out of her

blouse, hollows forming just above, as if she's cold; jaw

clenched, features tight, eyes gunslits "More."

    "More of what?"

    "Everything."

    "Could," I stop, drop the sarcastic tone and start again,

"could you be a little less vague?"

    A flemmy sigh. "Stephen?     I can't do this any more.   One

foot here, one foot...out there, somewhere."

    "I don't get you."

    "Yeah you do.     You're not that stupid."
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 522


    "Thanks." But she's right, to an extent.

    "I was going to leave you at the bar," Hope confesses. "I

should have.    Probably.    But you'd just call again; I tried to

leave you after Carlisle.      But you called.   I can't have you

calling, Stephen.    I can't have me sitting here and being there

and vice versa.    It's pulling me apart."

    "What is?"

    "You are.     This.    This and not this."

    I'm starting to feel like I'm in a Choose Your Own

Afterschool Special. "What am I supposed to do?       I can't make

your choices for you."

    "Well what are you offering?"

    "Huh?"

    "You said we could go away.       Where?" But before I can think

about it, really, she goes on, "Or did you mean to stay here,

like this, forever.       Some long death spiral till were sixty-

four, contemplating retirement to our adjoining bungalows in

Florida with a couple of cats in the yard, waste the day away."

    "That's what it was," suddenly remembering I burst out.

    "I'm sorry?"

    "You were whistling a song, at Fairchild's, " I sing "'Our

house...'" but I can't remember the rest of the lyrics.       And

Hope is looking at me, sourly. "What?"

    "My mother liked that song is all," she turns away.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 523


    "Sorry"

    "Only thing I listened to she did like."

    "Who sang it?"

    "I don't know."

    Hope's clammed up then, mouth screwed into half a frown.

I'm trying to remember what she was saying, just now, but can't.

Not the words.    I feel the scratch of the brick, hair touching

at my neck as I pivot on the crown of my head.

    A car goes past us, racing through the city at night to the

center of town.    Upstairs a bathroom light switches on, then off

again a few moments later.    The wind shifts a little,fading.

"All the women around me are broken or bored.    Or both." Hope

shifts her weight; the sound of brick on denim. "I don't want to

go that way.    But it's almost inevitiable, isn't it? Two point

one kids.    Golden Retriever.   Fucking mini-vans.   Cameron's

cheated on me six times.    Since we met.   Three times when we

were dating, twice when we were engaged, once since we got

married.    He says he's changed.   That it'll never happen again.

That he didn't love them.    Christ; he's never really loved me.

And here are you." She turns her head to look at me.

    "I'm here," I agree.

    "Not really," looking back at the building across from us.

"You're off in your own little world.    You say you love me, and

yeah, you do, but not as much as you hate yourself."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 524


       "I don't hate myself."

       "Stephen, please." Tired.    No; weary. "You hate yourself as

much as I do.      And not because of this; just because."

       We're facing North, vaguely.    Some of the stars are out,

but only a few.      Deneb, perhaps that's Vega.   No, too far east

for Vega.    Then I realize: "That's Saturn," I say, stretching

out my hand, "over twenty moons around Saturn.        Dione, Rhea,

Titan and Iapetus are the four largest..."

       To anyone else this would sound like a non-sequitur.         Hope

smiles, wan, leaning her head onto my shoulder. "I used to fuck

you because it made me feel strong.       Powerful.   In control.

Like I was fucking the whole world.      Now it just makes me feel

small and dirty.      And I can get that from my husband."

       "I don't think he likes me," I tell her.

       She snorts out a laugh, temple bouncing off my shoulder.

"No.    He doesn't."

       "Chloe doesn't even know your name."

       "Why should she?" Beneath the light air there's a

bitterness, a resentment.       At me or Chole I don't know, but it's

there. "It's getting late."

       "Yeah."

       Neither of us move.

       "I'm not going to become like them, Stephen."

       "I know."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 525


       "But I don't know what else to do.     What are you going to

do?"

       "About what?"

       "About you.   Your life."

       A shrug. "I don't know.     Golden Retriever?   Two point one

children?    Sure.     Why the hell not?"

       "You want that?"

       "It's inevitable, right?     Fighting it just makes it

harder."

       "Stephen," sour.

       "What?" Looking at her. "You want me to want more?       I

don't."

       "That's not true," laying a hand on my shoulder, "I know

that can't be true."

       Suddenly her touch feels cold and wet.     Swallowing I smack

my lips, shift uncomfortably, her hand slowly slipping off the

linen of my coat. "So yeah," Hope stands, straightens her spine,

pulling at her belt loops, swaying her hips a little. "It's

getting late.    I should get back.     Cameron's probably passed out

drunk in the hall by now.       He has a ten o'clock court date."

       I look up at her from where I'm set against the wall,

Dubious. "What about me?"

       "Go home, Stephen," she says quickly, turning back down the

hill. "Stop wasting my time."
Birch / Dynamite / 526
            Birch / Dynamite / 527




 PART 4

LABOR DAY
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 528




                             CHAPTER 37

                                OSCAR



Past ten o'clock when I get into Ann Arbor, a university town an

hour outside Detroit.    The drive there from the airport was

short but tedious.   I'd forgotten just how flat the midwest is.

    Oscar sent a brief e-mail on Wednesday. "Thursday good.

Later the better," nothing else.    I'd confirmed the ticket with

Susan and decided to try calling when I landed.    Again when I

hit the exit off I-96.    Now, driving up Packard past the

Stadium, I call him again.    No answer.

    There's a bar around here somewhere, just off the Quad,

which I remember as having some decent beer.    Finding parking is

another issue.   I circle the streets, trying to get my bearings.

Luckily I'm in a shitty American car; do they still give you
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 529


nasty looks in Michigan for driving something European?    Or have

the Japanese taken the top spot as objects of derision?    One way

streets, old brick buildings beside massive Oaks and Maples.

Eventually, a public lot somewhere off State Street.

        I find my way back to the Quad, stand on the corner trying

to remember which of the bars is the one I want.     Around me are

scores of College kids I could ask, but I'd feel self-consious

doing so.    Late summer night, first week or so of school.   No

real cares, not yet; freshmen running around like puppies just

off the leash.    Grad students a quieter bunch, talking eagerly

in small groups on the fringes.

    Two, three years ago one of them might have been Hope, on

her way from the library late at night; she went to Law School

here.    I know the place well.   Ah, the marquee for the Michigan

Theater.    Sighting from there I head due west, cross the street

and enter a bar that seems to have the right feel.    I glance

over the taps and know its the place I was looking for.

    It's almost packed.     There's a seat just opened at the bar.

Oscar picks up on the first ring after my second pint.

"Stephen," he says in a sort of hello.

    "Oscar.     How'd you know it was me?"

    "Recogized the area code.     Where are you?"

    "That good bar off the Quad."

    "With the high backed boothes?     Good beer?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 530


    "That's the place."

    "'Ashley's.'    Excellent choice.   I'll meet you in ten."

                                  #

Oscar was Hope's boyfriend her second and third year.     She

cheated on him with me half a dozen times before he caught us in

the act.   He didn't seem to mind.    He'd just come to campus

himself as an undergrad, bright eyed and fresh for anything new

and exciting.   His father was a political theory professor at

the University of the Chicago; he grew up on campus and it

earned him, among other things, an open mind.    So Oscar shrugged

it off: "Hell, if my cousin wasn't so goddamned vapid I'd

probably do the same thing."

    Despite the age difference, the two of them got on

marvelously.    The split was equally magnaminous; at graduation

he sent her off with a kiss and a wave, said to give him a call

if she ever needed anything and extended the same offer to me.

I've taken him up on it a couple of times.     I remember him as

having dull green eyes and a large nose.     Drove a beat up Chevy

truck he worked on himself.    He still has a bowie knife tucked

in his boot, I can see the hilt poking into his pantleg, in

addition to a Leatherman hanging on a caribeaner from his belt.

He'd been an Eagle Scout and probably still goes hunting with

his father every Fall.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 531


    "Good to see you." We shake hands.      His smile fades,

replaced by a curteous facade of affability over a weary face.

There's dirt and blood on my hand from shaking his. My face must

have betrayed my surprise as he begins to apologize before even

sitting down. "I'm sorry there, Ste.    Here," handing me a

napkin, "Was working on the truck.    Screwdriver slipped."

    Knuckles raw and worn, fingers edged with the blue of dead

skin.    His hair is unkempt, unwashed, locks sticking out from

his head at odd angles.    "Just get in?"

    "Yeah," dropping his voice.    He rejects my offering the

sole stool, instead pointing to a table that's just opened up.

"Hurry, before someone else gets it."

    I follow him, watching people as they notice him.      When

they catch sight of him the students squint and recoil.        An

older gentleman, grey haired with bushy eyebrows, raises his

glass.    Oscar turns his head, nods in reply, his step never

faltering.    Three tables back a young woman catches him out of

ther corner of her eye, does a double take then stares till she

sees me looking at her.    She blushes and reaches for her drink.

    "Excellent," he sits, rapping at the table. "Christ I could

use a beer."

    "Long day?"

    He just nods. "You have any cigarettes on you?      I've been

jonesing since Tuesday."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 532


    "Yeah," taking the pack out of my coat pocket, sliding over

some matches as well.    My third pack since Tuesday.   It's warm

back here; I struggle out of my coat, loosen my tie and undo the

top button.

    In time we give our orders to the waitress, who smiles at

Oscar and calls him by name.    When she leaves he asks "So where

you headed?"

    "Crystal Beach.     Down from South Haven.   Spending the

weekend with my girlfriend and her sisters."

    "Nice," sucking in a deep breath of smoke, holding it,

closing his eyes.    He doesn't exhale, but breathes evenly

through his nose that he looks like a lounging dragon; arm

tossed over the back of his chair, chin high, tired eyes

scanning the room.

    Despite the close warmth of the room he's wearing a flanel

buttondown over a long sleeved white mesh t-shirt.      Its right

cuff is soaked red with blood. "Ozzie," I say to get his

attention then gesture towards it with a curt nod.

    "Christ."   He grabs a napkin from the center of the table,

dabbing it at the hem at first, then clamping it tightly before

slipping his hands under the table.    His jaw clenches.

Returning his hands to view, the napkin is balled in his left

fist. He places his cigarette in the ashtray and excusing
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 533


himself says "I'll be right back," heading towards the sign for

the bathrooms.

       Hope never really knew what Oscar did in his spare time.

Rather, she never told me if she found out.    He told her he was

off camping or hiking or canoeing, and that's what I heard from

her.    Late spring of his first year he started disappearing for

days, sometimes weeks, often in the middle of term.    There

wasn't any secret to his going away; he would tell her, more

often leaving a quick note. "Off to hunt some geese.    Back in a

few days."    He'd return tired, dirty, and curiously quiet.

       Then there were the bruises, the scars, oddly shaped, on

his foreharms, his calves and back.    But never on his face.

They came with lame excuses, told more for having something be

said than to explain the injuries in any way.    Just before Hope

graduated Oscar came back from a canoeing trip with two broken

fingers, rope burn on both his hands and a slight limp from a

swollen, egg-shaped bruise on his shin. "Fell on the trail,"

he'd said, adding, "into a three foot glutch."    Hope bit her

lip, but said nothing.

       Oscar comes back from the restroom ten minutes later

looking gravely ill.    I'm half-way through my beer and have

finished his cigarette.    His face is pale grey, a thin line of

soap clumped within a few days worth of stubble.    "You okay?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 534


    He nods. "I'm fine."     There's a noticable bulk in his right

shirtsleeve, but it collapses under the weight of his arm as he

sits. "It's just a fleshwound," and he takes his beer with his

left hand, drains half of it and lets out a sigh that sounds as

if it were days in the making.

    "We can leave if," I start to tell him, getting waved off

before I can finish.    His flat, broad fingernails are scarred,

encrusted with black lines of dirt.

    "I'd rather stay is all.     Besides," taking a short sip, "I

have some guests."

    Having no idea what this means I say, "Oh" and nod, as if I

do. "You're sure it's cool for me to stay there tonight?      I

mean, I can still get a room somewhere else."

    "Nah.   They're just cleaning up from the camping trip.

Most of them should skive off soon.    You'll get to mee Lucy

though."

    "Lucy?"

    "My whatever.    Girlfriend I guess.   She's been around since

the days of you and Hope."

    "Ah," nodding again, sipping my beer. "You, uh, meet her

camping?"

    Oscar picks up the butt in the ashtray, drops it again.

"Yeah," offhand.    No big deal. "Can I have another smoke?     Do

you mind?   It's just I forgot to pick some up."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 535


    "Sure," pushing the pack towards him. "Help yourself."

    "Thanks, remind me," pausing to place the cigarette in his

lips, pick up the matches, deftly slects a single match, folds

it over, striks it with a snap of his fingers leaving the book

set between two fingers.    Effortless.   He brings the flame to

the tip of the cigarette, inhales, blows out that smoke then

sucks in more as he waves out the match, tosses the book to

slide to a stop by the ashtray.    His right hand is still hidden

under the table, burried in his lap. "Remind me," he continues,

"to give you some of mine.    They're Red M&Ms, mind you,"

bringing the beer to his lips with just his thumb and two

fingers, the other tight on the filter of my Marlboro Lights.

    "Don't worry about it," trying to emulate his grip on my

glass it almost falls from my fingers.

    "Careful there."

    "I've already had two."

    "I better drive then.     Where are you parked?"

    "Up on Fletcher."

    He looks confused. "In the garage there?"

    "Yeah."

    "Oh.   That's permit parking only.    We'd better head over to

make sure you don't get towed.    There should be a space at my

place, though.   Don't worry," draining the rest of his glass.

"Shall we?"
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 536


    "Sure," I still have two inches of beer left.      It's good

beer. "Let me settle up."

    "You sure?" He takes a five from his pocket, a battered

bill folded over such that just the numeral is visible.

    "Don't worry about it," I say again, a sure sign I'm

starting to get a little tipsy.

    "Cool.     Thanks."

    "Well, thanks for letting me crash at your place."

    He flashes me a smile. "Any time."

                                  #

Oscar's place is a two story house of peeling blue paint with

three beatup wicker chairs and a harvest gold couch resting on

the front porch.    the front room is lit by a cheap floor lamp,

the kind you can get at Meijers or Walmart for ten bucks.     The

door is open, the screen screeches in protest as it's dragged

open.   Inside we're met immediately by a stairway leading up to

a dark hallway.    The living room is large.   Beside the stairs is

small tv sitting on a pair of milk crates with a board stretched

across them.    There's a Nintendo at the foot of it, some

fighting game being played by a young guy in his boxer shorts.

He says "Hey," to me, and "Hey" to Oscar.

    "Gatty," Oscar replies.

    I can see the boy's shoulders slack, the tension in his

hands loosen, just at the sound of his name.     He stand up and
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 537


introduce himself, leaving his character on the screen to get

the snot beat out of it, but he doesn't seem to care. "Gavin

Bright," he extends his hand.

    "Stephen Hoemke."

    "Do you like basketball?" He wants to know.

    "Uh," I'm confused.

    "He likes to watch it on TV," Oscar answers for me.

    "Oh.   That's cool." Gavin presses his palms against his

thighs as he looks around the room.   Striped sofa against the

wall under the windows, mirroring the one outside.   It, too,

looks like some Salvation Army reject, like bean-bag chain in

the corner covered in duct-tape patchwork. "So what's with the

suit?"

    "This?"

    Oscar moves off towards the stairs, "I'll be back in a

few," holding up his arm. "   Excuse me."

    "He okay?" Gavin asks queitly once he's gone. I'm not

entirely sure how to respond, shrug, to which he prompts "His

arm?"

    "Yeah," backing up to sit on the sofa. "Don't let me keep

you from your game."

    The screen has changed, asking in bright blue letters

"Continue?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 538


    "Oh," he reaches and turns off the TV, "I was just fucking

around.    You want something to drink?"

    "Yeah, please," getting up again.

    "Sit down," motioning with his hand, "I'll get it.    We

have, uh, Sunkist and..." Gavin walks through to the back of the

house; a small dining room with a third-hand table and mis-

matched chairs, white tile in the kitchen with a fifties-stlye

refridgerator, robins-egg blue and tarnished chrome.    Opening

the door he crouches down, calling over his shoulder. "Sunkist,

a Coke, and some...no, milk's gone off.    Ew," he ammends, "way

off."

    "Anything'll be fine."

    "Have some beer, too."

    "A soda would be fine, thank you."

    "A Sunkist?    Or the Coke."

    I feel like he's pressing the Sunkist on me, so I ask for

that.   Gavin rises, spins, nudges the door closed with his hips

and walks back towards me on the balls of his feet.    There's a

grace in his movements and I wonder if he's a dancer or an

athlete.    The can isn't so much handed to me as presented.   He

doesn't sit so much as lower himself to the floor, zenlike; one

leg raised, the other bending smoothly under the whole of his

weight.    When its stuck at about fortyfive degrees and it seems

his knee's about to give, the other foot is place that its heel
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 539


balances him.   Together they scissor closed until he's seated,

indian-style.   He hasn't noticed my watching him; the whole time

his attention had been focused on opening his soda.

    "So," he asks again, "what's with the suit."

    "I like suits," trying to sound casual but it echoes around

the room, coming back lame and defensive.

    "Oh.   That's cool.

    Footsteps on the stairs announce Oscar's return.     He's

stripped to the waist, pauses at the top of the stairs, hangs

with his good arm and gives a shout. "Gatty, you seen the

iodine?"

    He calls back, "Isn't it in the medkit?"

    "No.   Luce can't remember seeing it when she unpacked,

either."

    "I dunno then, man.     Maybe we left it?"

    "Christ,    I hope not."

    "Call..." he stops suddenly, looks at me, says quietly,

"Excuse me," then pushes off on one foot, is at the stairs in

two strides, bounds up them three at a time.     They speak in a

hush for a moment.   Oscar sees me watching them, flashes a smile

then looks back at Gavin.

    "I'll be out having a smoke," I announce and take my soda

back out onto the porch.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 540


    The house is off State Street, a few blocks up from the old

brick sports center.   Its stadium lights are off but the

streetlamps shine down, casting deep shadows under its recessed

arches.    A pair of guys are walking down the street, looking

over their shoulders as a car passes.

    Hope lived not far from here.    A little ways down East

Liberty.    An old Victorian with a cracked ceiling and two

identical cats, Istanbul and Constantinople.    Never occured to

me what happend to them after graduation.    Finishing my Sunkist

I light up a cigarette, letting the match burn as I flick it

into the street.

    Now it's past midnight.    Occasionally I'll hear shrill

voices in the distance like laughter, but otherwise it's just

the hum of crickets and the dull buzz of electricity through the

powerlines and sodium lamps.    The engine of my rental, its

engine plinking at is cools.    Soft thuds of footsteps down the

stairs, across the hardwood floor.    The creak of the screen:

"You okay out here?" Oscar with a fresh bandage and his old

khakis.

    "Yeah."

    "You want another soda?"

    "I'm fine."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 541


       "I'm getting one for myself," he motions back through the

house, half lit by the light at the bottom of the stairs. "It's

really no bother."

       "Sure then."

       Footsteps back through the house; I can hear the clink of

bottles knocking together as he opens the fridge, the sound of

the compressor, making the world colder.    Returning I hear the

thud, thud, thud of his heels in stereo, from the open window

and the screen door.    It screeches again, clicking behind him

with the scrape of metal on cement. Handing me the chill soda,

Oscar asks "Got a light?" I hand him the matches. "So what are

you thinking, out here, alone with the world."

       "How terribly lonely the world is, actually."

       "Yep," his face glowing briefly in the flame. "Does that to

ya."

       "You spend a lot of time alone," edging onto thin ice.     But

he aquiesces with a shrug, cigarette stuck between his pursed

lips.    The dead match he flicks towards a coffee can half hidden

in the corner by the rail.    Of course it goes in. "How do you

handle it?"

       His cherry hovers near the clotted tips of his hair as he

scratches the side of his head. "I make lists."    Another drag,

popping open the seal on the soda can just as effortlessly as
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 542


before. "Cars I like.     Bands I love.    Places I've been.   People

I'd be sorry to see go."

    "Who's at the top of that list?"

    "My grandmama.     She's in Jackson.    Mississippi.   Getting

real old.    Ninety-something."

    "I never knew my grandmother well.       She died when I was

still kinda young.     My mom's mom.   My dad's mom lived with us on

the farm.    Died when I was sixteen.     Didn't really know her that

well either."

    "She's my great-grandmother, actually." He punctuates his

thoughts by suckling his cigarette, now kept close to his mouth.

"My grandma, my Dad's mom, she died young, in childbirth.        Would

have been her third.    She was twenty two, twenty three.      Her

mother, my great-grandmother, raise my dad.       My grandfather died

in the war.    World War Two.   Fighter pilot."

    "German?"

    He shakes his head. "American.        Flew P-40s out of the UK.

Killed on a Sunday." Taking a sip from his soda he continues.

"But anyway, my great-grandmother, my gramdmama, raised him and

his older sister in Jackson.      He moved north, to Chicago, in the

sixties.    Met my mom there.   Grandmama's was where we went every

summer, soon as school was over.       My brothers and I would sit

under her dogwoods, in the back garden.       We'd read for hours

then fall asleep all summer long.      She'd bring us out some
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 543


suntea or lemonade when my father would make Mississippi Tea.

Whiskey Sours," he explains as an aside. "Born in nineteen-oh-

two, grandmama.    Says she wants to live to see a hundred."   He

gives a little laugh, which turns into a whistful sigh. "Damn

near killed her when my uncle died."

    "When was that?"

    "In the sixties.    Got drafted.     Lost her son in France, her

grandson in Vietnam.    Forbade her grandkids from going into the

Military."

    We sit quietly.    I'm feeling a little rude for having

interrupted him twice now and don't want to say anything more

until he's done.    But after a minute or so I see he's staring

off, out over the street to the playing fields beyond, like he's

waiting for me.    "So what happened?"

    "My brother, Noah, got hit by a drunk driver.      Died

instantly," he swishes his can, the soda fizzing in protest,

snaps back a gulp, adds "they say."

    I want to say something reassuring, but find I've no story,

no anecdote of empathy. "Who else do you want to see?"

    "Havn't seen my mom in two years," he rallies. "She and dad

got divorced when I was in highschool.     Ran off with some guy in

a BMW freshman year.   To California of all places.    Havn't seen

her since.   Ralph Pierce, guy I knew in highschool, good friend,

went to New York to try and make it big.     He was a good friend.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 544


I'd like to see him again.    Havn't seen Hope in two, three

years.    Then there's my cousin Fred.    He's in prison in Texas.

Caught him running drugs up from Mexico.      Would like to see him,

but he'll be out in another few years.      I'll probably see him

then."

    "You should call Hope," I tell him.

    "Nah.    She doesn't want to hear from me."

    "Oh, I don't know."

    "No, trust me," dropping his cigarette in the can.       It

sizzles out.

    But I press the issue. "I thought the two of you split on

good terms."

    "Good enough, yeah," taking out his pack of Marlboros, the

red of the box just a dark stain on his chest. "It was the shit

after."

    "Like what?" I'm intrigued. "I wasn't aware the two of you

got back together."

    "We didn't," the match flares and I squint my eyes. "I

heard she was going ahead with marrying Cameron, even after all

that shit he pulled?"

    It sounds like a question, so I nod.

    "Christ," he shakes his head once, as if remembering those

days.    "But yeah, I wrote her a letter.    Told her she didn't

have to put up with that bullshit.       I mean, she's a smart woman,
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 545


has her shit together.   More or less.   Good career ahead of her.

Was she trying to prove something?    Was she just going for a

black man because of all the shit with her Dad and her Mom?

Trying to prove something to him?" He's looking at the match,

letting it burn a little, cigarette hovering just beyond the

flame. "I was pretty honest with her, I think.    Pointed out that

she had a few other options.   I mean, there was you if no one

else, right?   You were so damned devoted to her." He sucks the

fire into the tobacco, blowing the smoke from his nose. "So why

Cameron Caldwell, of all people?"

    "Did she write back?   Did she tell you why?" My voice is a

little too strained, the questions too eager.

    Oscar smiles from behind the smoke. "Oh yeah.     Didn't write

though.   Called." He shakes out the match, dropping it into his

can. "Christ, can that woman yell.    Told me what's what.

Started with 'Where do you get off?' and 'who the hell do you

think you are?' Finished with a litany of accolades and

derisions, all across the board.     In the end she aid she

'believed in him,' which is more than she could say about anyone

else I could name."

    He's waiting for me to answer, looking at me with what just

might be a grin on his face, but if it is it's eclipsed behind

his hand and the glow of his cigarette. "Well," I begin.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 546


    The hand moves to reveal an incredulous frown. "Please.

The guy is a womanizer, shallow, self-centered, arrogant,

egotistical, pompous, weak and spineless."    He ashes, looks at

me. "Right?"

    "He's a dick, yeah," I shrug then take a sip. "At the same

time he's not the worst guy around."

    "That's what she said," pointing to me with his cigarette.

"'I could choose a lot worse than Cameron Caldwell,' she said."

    "Then what?"

    "Hung up on me," another gesture with his hands, then he

turns his head.    By the light of the streetlamps I almost think

he's still looking at me still from the corner of his eye. "More

of less."

    "'More or less?'"

    "Well, she went on, a little.     I forget most of it."

    "What do you remember?"

    His attention is now on the scene beyond the porch, head

turning to look further down the street.    He changes the

subject: "But yeah, when I'm out, alone?    I make lists.     People

who've done me wrong.   Those I've no time for.   The ones    who've

pissed me off.    It's theraputic."   When he's reached the end of

the block his head turns back around, like an oldfashioned

typewriter that's reached the end of a line.    "You going to have

time tomorrow for breakfast?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 547


    "Don't see why not."

    Oscar nods. "I'll ask Lucy and Gav if they want to come

with, even though they won't.    Still, I gotta ask, to be

polite."

    "I understand."

    "We can go to that place by the Theater." He's still

looking at me; when his cigarette blooms from his breath his

eyes glow orange and green.

    Looking away, trying to do it casually, I say "Sounds

good," take a sip and look back.    He's still staring at me,

definitely smiling now.    His teeth gleam.   I'm reminded of the

Cheshire Cat, slowly fading into the night, suddenly poseesed

with a sense that something is slipping from me. "What?" I ask

accusingly.

    "Why you so nervous?"

    "Eh," I say.   His grin widens.   I feel like I'm going to

fall into that mouth and choose instead to take in my

surroundings instead:   The chipped paint on the rail.    An old

bird's nest in the rafters of the porch's overhang.    Rusty nails

poke through the joints.    Christmas fairy-lights wrapped around

the spars, a few sets worth, the green braided cord taped to one

of the supports and in through a hole in the window's screen to

the living room. "These Christmas lights work?"

    "Sometimes," then, insistent, "What's up?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 548


    "I don't know.   It's just weird."

    He laughs, "Which part?" then takes another hard suck off

his cigarette. "Weird because of me, or because of Hope?"

    There, he said it. "Because of Hope.     I saw her recently."

    "How'd that go?"

    "As expected."

    "Ah," he leans forward, gesturing for another cigarette.     I

give him the pack and the matches. "Do you want advice, or would

you rather I keep my thoughts to myself?" Lighting another

cigarette Oscar sits back, left arm flopping over the corner of

the couch.   I don't say anything.   He pulls his leg up, heel

resting on the edge of the cushion. "Still a moody bitch, I

see."

    "It's just fucked up is all," I blurt out. "I...I just

don't see why she's with him is all."

    But Oscar's dismissive. "Christ, who else has she got?"

    "Me," regretting it as soon as the word comes out. I want

to qualifiy that, to put some spin on it, but he's jumped on it:

    "You?    You're better for her than Cameron?"

    "You think I'm worse?"

    "You present a whole other set of problems for her.     You're

white, for one, your her cousin for another," leaning forward,

"The woman wants to be a judge.   Judges are either elected or

appointed, either way it's gonna be a hard gig if she's living
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 549


in sin with her cracker cousin.   Hell, it's probably illegal

even."

    "She didn't have to marry him."

    "Then who does she marry?"

    "Why does she have to be married?" I ask him. "Where does

it say that she has to be married?    Huh?   What happened to, to,

women's lib and single moms and, and,"

    "Stephen," his tone patronizing, twisting something in my

gut. "Who has she ever had?   I mean, really.   You," he's

counting off on his fingers, which somehow just makes the whole

thing worse, "me, Cameron, Eddie Fischer, god he was a loser,

then there was...oh, that one guy, fuck, anyways," throwing out

his fingers, "not many.   And now she's an ADA.   How the hell do

you meet guys when you're an Assistant Disctrict Attorney?

Christ, she spends half her day in the courtroom, another half

with the cops and another half poring over briefs and whatever

the hell else she's got going."

    "That's three halves."

    "Exactly," he ashes again.    There's something obscene about

the hot ashing hitting the lees of orange soda and backwash that

makes my skin crawl.   It was warm, earlier, I left my coat

inside.   Now I feel cold, my flesh prickling over.   "She can't

be seen with me, she fears being seen with you; Cameron's the

best bet she ever had."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 550


    "But why did she have to get married in the first place?"

    "Stephen," again that patronizing tone, "when you spend

ten, twelve, eighteen hours alone with the world, do you really

want to come home to an empty apartment?    When you spend it with

the fucking cops and the dregs of society, and their lawyers, do

you really want nothing waiting for you at home but a couple of

cats and bottle of cheap red wine?"

    "What happened to her cats?"

    "What?"

    "Istanbul and Constantinople.     Her cats when she lived on

East Liberty."

    "I don't know, I think she gave them to a friend or her

roomate or someone.   But you're ducking the question.   Do you

want to come home to an empty house?"

    "I do."

    "You like it?"

    "Yeah, I like it, actually."

    "Christ," he tsks, "how lame is that?"

    "What, I do.   It's my space, my time.    No one demanding

anything of me or wanting anything or trying to fuck me over."

    "I'll let that slide for a second, even though I know it's

bullshit."

    "It's not bullshit," I tell him.

    "Fine, it's not bullshit.   But how long does that last?"
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 551


    "How long does what last?"

    "Your Sisyphusian solitude; how long before you pick up the

phone?"

    "That's the thing; if I want someone, I can pick up the

phone.    Call my sister or my friends."

    Oscar wets his lips, that they glisten by the light of his

cigarette.    When he speaks its soft, his voice almost hollow.

"And who can Hope call?"

    "She has friends." But my voice is weak, quiet. "You can

read a book," I rally, "put on some music, go to a movie, paint

a fucking picture."

    "And when you crawl into bed?      What, pull up a teddybear?"

    "Don't be facetious."

    "I'm not, seriously; when you come right down to it,

everyone wants to, has to," he ashes, the words somehow

familiar, "needs to have someone there, at the end of the day.

Without it?    You lie awake all night, staring at the ceiling,

wondering what the fuck you did wrong."

    I fumble for my cigarettes, find them, pull one out then

pat myself down, looking for a light.

    "Here." He strikes a match, holding it out for me.     The

wind snaps at it.     I jerk my hands out to cup it, take a long

drag. "Look," still quiet, "I just spent six days in a tree in

the middle of Canada.    I'm cold and tired and lonely.   I don't
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 552


mean to be rude, or to smack you around then leave you hanging,

but there's a nineteen year old girl in my bed who's warm and

naked and I'm gonna go crawl in next to her."

    Oscar stands up, his smile gone, which is good; if I'd seen

so much as a grin I'd probably have told him to go fuck himself

and gone to find a Motel 8 for the night.     I'm already replaying

what he's said in my head and I'm not quite sure how we got from

A to B.

    "I brought you down a pillow and some blankets.     There on

the couch." He scratches his side and yawns. "Help yourself to

whatever you find in the fridge, but make sure you check

expiration dates.    The Chinese food might still be good, but

becareful.    Oh, but don't eat the pizza.   It was there when I

left."    Just before he leaves he gives me a friendly tap on the

shoulder. "Wake me when you get up in the morning?     We'll go for

breakfast."

    "Sure."

    The screech of the screen door jars the silence of the

street. "Hey, I'm glad you showed up.    You were on my list, too.

I'm glad I got the chance to talk to you."

    "Me too."

    "Goodnight, Ste."

    "'Night, Ozzie."
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 553


    The door shuts with a soft bang.   It only occurs to me a

few hours later that I should have asked which of his lists I'd

been on.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 554




                              CHAPTER 38

                                EMILY



There's three hours of I-96 between me and Lake Michigan.     The

road is small, four lanes seperated by a grassy strip, but full

of cars on a Friday morning.    Since before seven I've wanted to

call Emily, but I hold off.    To organize my thoughts.   To take a

moment.    Think about the evening and the night and the morning

after.

    I got up around five, unable to sleep.     There was a coffee

maker in the kitchen, hidden behind a loaf of molded bread.

Flaky white lime encrusted the elements deep in its bowels.     A

search of the cabinets yeiled half a can of stale coffee but no

filters.    We passed a small grocer on the way over from the

parking garage, a few blocks up.    With not much else to do, and
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 555


a little tired despite bing unable to sleep, I put on some

shoes, buttoned my pants back up and grabbed my coat to ward

against the chill.

    A small town in the morning, quiet save for a few people

getting anearly start.   Between the trees starting to hint at

turning and the brick buildings behind them I began to think of

Carlisle, of Perceville.   I'd never understood really why I ran

off to the city; this morning I again considered coming back to

such a place as this.

    The grocer gave me a polite hello, his eyes still red from

waking early, to get ready for the morning crowds due in soon.

Fresh coffee, stong and flavorful.    By the time I was walking

back down Packard to Oscars there were more cars on the road.

    I'd brought a book to read, and my laptop, but no other

work with me on this trip.    Sitting at the dining rom table

seemed depressing.   The Nintendo amused me for all of five

minutes.    At six thirty I sat to leave Oscar a note.   By seven

my hand was cramped from holding the pen but not writing

anything.   I'd replayed the conversation over in my head half a

dozen times or more by then, each time coming to the same

conclusions.   One of them was starting a list of people I had no

time for, simply for a place to put him.

    "Thanks for everything.    Sorry to be a bother," was the

final draft.   I signed it "Ste" and left the pen.   It was his
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 556


anyway, discovered in a drawer in the kitchen when I was looking

for a measuring spoon.

       Thought I wanted to call Emily then, I waited.    To put some

distance between me and him.       Some more time between then and

now.

       Exits tick off.    Guthrie, Albion, Marengo, Marshal and 11

Mile Road.       Through Battle Creek, home of the corn flake,

complete with signs for the museum, just 3 miles from exit 98.

I keep on through Galesburg and Portage to exit 75 and Route

131.    After a 4 mile dog-leg up to Route 43, a tree and field-

lined two lane road taking me around Kalamazoo I give Emily a

call.    10:30 AM.     More than reasonable.

       "Good morning, Stephen."    She sounds tired, breathy. "I was

just thinking about you."

       "Oh?"

       "Mm-hm.    You calling from the airport?"

       "I got in last night, stayed with Oscar Fuller in Ann

Arbor.    Headed to South Haven now."

       "I never liked Michigan," Emily confesses, "too flat."

       "That it is." Hills to the south, Route 43 heading due

west, past fields of corn and heads of steer drinking from a

small lake.       I slow as a pick-up pulls off a dirt track, kicking

up dust.

       "How was Ann Arbor?" She's never been.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 557


    "Fair enough.   Oscar was a bit of a dick, to be honest."

Letting this sink in, hoping she makes the jump herself, I pluck

one of my last cigarettes from the pack.    No use trying to light

a match while I'm driving so I push in the car's autolighter and

wait.

    Wary, Emily asks "You boy behave yourselves?"

    "Yes," a little annoyed.    I want to change the subject, but

don't want to bring up Hope myself. "We mostly talked, had a

couple beers."

    "How's he doing?"

    "Good." Static bursts through the line itermittenly.      I'm

in the middle of nowhere.    I pass a sign for 52th street.

Bangor, 3 miles. "How are you?"

    She says something I don't catch.

    "My phone's acting up.    What did you say?"

    "Nothing; I'm doing well."    She sounds aggitated, "I don't

want to talk about me, Stephen.    Tell me something."

    "Tell you what?"

    "Anything."

    Eh, what the hell? "Can I ask a question?"

    "So long as it's not about me."

    "What did you say to Hope?"    The lighter pops out.

    Wedging the phone between my shoulder and my ear a seal

forms.   Emily's voice is suddenly clear and crisp, the noise of
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 558


the road fades into a dull vibration felt only in my fingers,

through the soles of my shoes. "We talked about you, Stephen,

yes.    We talked about how she had to choose."

       "Choose what?"

       "You or him," she says. "She can't sit on the fence any

more."

       "I didn't realize she was."

       "You stupid fool.   Hope pined for you for years.   But you

can't commit.    You'll never commit, Stephen.    Because it's

always about you."

       "Em, you said you didn't want to talk about you."

       "That's not what I mean," rasing her voice.   Then she's

coughing, "hold on," she squeaks.     I wait, smoking my cigarette.

It feels like not enough.     The road bends over a small rise.

Bangor is a stop light and a gas station.     The houses are

optional, bungalow clap-board and a small stream winding through

the trees.

       "Em?"

       "I'm here," sniffling, gasping for air. "I'm sorry."

       "Don't apologize." I'm already miles away, another turn,

flattening out, a grey sedan and a white farm house, set into a

hill with horses galloping through the fields below. "I didn't

mean to get you worked up."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 559


    "I don't care." She's stifling back tears. "I'm sorry.         It

just pissed me off."

    "Which is that?"

    "You."

    Not really sure how to respond I keep quiet for a moment,

tempted to make some excuse, hang up, and drive on.      I check the

gas gauge, which is sitting at the half-way mark; I filled up in

Ann Arbor.

    Through the trees the blue of Lake Michigan, the sandy

beige of the dunes.

    "When you were in college," she continues, "I had such

hopes for you.    We all did."

    "Em..."

    "No, let me speak.     Don't cut me off."

    I don't reply, almost there.

    "But somewhere it all just fell apart, didn't it?       Yeah,

you got the job and you proved Dad wrong about you, but

then...you just stopped caring.    Stopped trying."

    Pass under the Interstate, then left onto the old Blue Star

Highway, parallel to the coast.    I'm looking for 16th Avenue,

then 77th Street.    Out here they don't bother to name anything.

    Off 77th I need Fire Lane K.     It's on my right.    I know

where I am now.    Oscar brought us out here, long ago.    Perhaps

by this very same route.    Just down the coast there's a nuclear
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 560


power station, nestled amid a State Park.     There's no approach

save from the water.    He'd borrowed a friend's powerboat in

South Haven, drove Hope and I down through the darkness.         Idling

in towards the shore he'd stop every few dozen feet and dip his

hand in the water.     This was in the spring.    "Here," he'd

finally said.    Hope and I disengaged from eachother on our seat

at the transom.

    "Here?" I'd looked around; there was nothing for miles but

some lights along the coast.

    "Here," he'd said again, naked at the side of the boat.

Oscar dove in.    Hope shrugged, pulled off her jeans and camisole

and followed him in.

    The water was warm, over eighty degrees. "They have heat

exchangers, running out along the floor of the lake," Oscar

explained. "They don't mind the kids coming out here, provided

we don't get too close to the plant."

    "The plant?"

    "Palisade Nuclear," his arm shone white under the the light

of the moon, pointing towards the shore. "Welcome to the Nuclear

Jacuzzi."

    "Stephen?"

    "Yeah Em."

    "Talk to me."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 561


    The drive is easy enough to spot, a black mailbox set on a

wrought iron facade beside a small track leading through the

brush.   The stalks of some raspberry bushes scratch along the

paint.   Beyond a wide feild over a small rise, and then the Lake

stretching to the horizon.   There're two cars parked a few

hundred feet away, underneath a grand Oak.    A Lincoln, probably

belonging to this Bob fellow, and a Ford Explorer.    Dirt gives

way to gravel as I pull in behind the Ford.    Illinois plates;

figures Clara would drive an SUV.

    The house looks like a converted barn, peaked roof falling

in oblique angles over Amityville windows.    Were there ever

paint over the wood it's been sandblasted off.    The beach comes

to within a few yards of a large deck extending off the side.

Curtains stir in an open window, giving the house an abandoned

look.

    Emily's still on the line. "What about?"

    "Never mind," she says. Hearing the car door slam behind me

she asks "You have to go?"

    "Yeah, I just got here."

    Desperate, she urges "Stephen, forget about Hope."

    "I'm sorry?" The wind is strong, snapping at my shirt.        The

house is dark.

    "Hope; just forget it, okay?"

    "Emily..."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 562


       "I'm serious.    Stop trying to...do whatever you've been

doing.    I don't know."

       I try the door, but its locked. "I don't think it's that

big of a deal, Emily.      She was pretty clear about things the

other night."

       "Good.    Look, I love both of you, but," stopping to wet her

lips.    Her bed squeaks; she shifts her shoulders.    The whir of

the motor pushing her into a seated position.      I don't know if

she does that to speak better or just to piss me off.

       "Don't get up."    The patio door is locked as well.   No one

home.    There's a bench so I sit down on it and wait. "I don't

care about Hope anymore."

       "I know you do." The motor clicks off.

       "No, I don't." It's too windy to keep a match lit.        I try

to cup my hands around the flame quicker, but it's no use.         I

head around to the otherside of the house, to use it as a

windbreak.

       "Stop pretending, Stephen.    I know what she said.    She told

me."

       "Then you know it doesn't make a difference what I want."

       "Yes it," but she stops, expells a breath. "Just...stop,"

calming herself. "All I want is for both of you to be happy."

       "Hah.    What's happy?   Two-point-one kids and a BMW?"

       "For some, yeah."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 563


    "For me?"

    "I don't know what would make you happy, Stephen.        If I

did, I'd tell you.    But I don't think you know what would make

you happy either."

    "Getting a fucking match lit would make me happy right

now." As if they were the magic words the sulpher catches, stays

alight.    I quickly suck at the filter and the tobacco begins to

glow.    Finally. "Emily, I appreciate what you're doing.    Trying

to do.    I don't want for you to be drawn between us."

    "Stephen," she croons my name, swallows and says again,

flat, "Stephen, I just don't want you to wait around for her.

For anyone.    You're twent- seven.   Time is passing.    You can't

just sit around, waiting for something to happen next.      You have

to do something, or you'll wake up at thirty and wonder what the

hell happened to your life."

    How much of this is about her, I wonder; Emily is three

years older than me.    "So what should I do, Em?"

    "I'm not trying to make you angry."

    "I'm not angry, I'm just wondering; what should I do?"

    "I don't know," she whines. "I feel like I should be giving

you advice, I mean, I'm your older sister, right?    I should know

what's best for you."

    "Then what should I do?"

    "I don't know."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 564


    "But I shouldn't talk to Hope," wondering if the sarcasm is

being hid by the wind, stronger now, whipping around the corner

of the house.

    "No."

    "'No, I shouldn't,' or 'no, I should?'"

    "You shouldn't."

    Suddenly I remember the window, by the cars, open. "I'll

keep that in mind."

    "Fine," giving up. "Look, be careful, okay?"

    "I will."    The window is just a little too high.   I

remember my suitcase.    If I put it under the window, use it as a

step, I should be able to get in easily enough. "Look, I'm gonna

have to go now," adding, "it's not you, just that no one's home.

I'm going to have to go in through a window."

    "I can wait," she says."

    Opening the boot I yank out the suitcase.    It has an

internal frame, so it should take my weight.    Slamming the

trunklid home I catch the license plate of the Lincoln.

Massachusets.   "No, that's okay."   My voice sounds far away,

carried off by the wind.    I walk around to the front of the car,

touch my fingers to a small green parking seal stuck to the

inside corner of the windsheild. "I really have to go.       I'll

call you later."

    "Oh.    Okay.   Bye."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 565


    "Bye." I hit 'end' with my thumb and the line clicks off

and stare at the windshield.

    Black Lincoln Continental.     Maps on the front seat of

Michigan, Ontario and New York.    Tucked into the ashtray an ID

card.   The picture's obscured by a small pack of Lucky Strikes

but beneath, barely legible through the smoked glass, 'MIT

Faculty.'   I look at the house;    Catherine's here.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 566




                             CHAPTER 39

                               CATHERINE



Inside the house is eerily calm, quiet.      My legs are twitching

with energy, heart pounding.      Seven years of anticipation.

First things first.



    I'm in the kitchen.     I unlock the door, grab my suitcase,

tuck it next to the sink.    Shutting the door I leave it

unlocked, for now.    Don't turn on any lights.    Look out a

window.    No car in the drive.    They arn't expecting me until

later this evening.    It's not even noon.     They may be out for

the day.    They could be out for breakfast.    Maybe home for

lunch.    I don't have much time.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 567


    Hardwood nightengale floors.     Americana kitsch.    An old

washboard hun over an American flag on painted wood.       Oriental

runners in the hall and stargazer lillies.    Powder blue sofas

and a brick fireplace.    The coals are warm, but only barely.

    Second floor.     One bathroom at the top of the stairs, light

falling on the door from the sun through the windows behind me.

Black overnight bag on the back of the toilet; lipstick and

foundation, tweezers and tampons, jewlery bag of saphires and

gold.   Chloe's.   I bought her those earings last Christmas.

    Bedroom; four poster, seachest at the foot of the bed,

woman's sundresses, size two, heavy samsonite luggage and a tie

strewn over the back of the chair.    Clara and Bob.     The next

door down is closed.    I open it gingerly, peek in, recognize

Chloe's favorite shoes sitting next to a Shaker rocking chair

and close it again, quietly.    Two more rooms to go, and then the

third floor.

    End of the hall, door open, sleigh bed, blue and white

patchwork quilt and a dark blonde wooden dresser.      Full length

mirror at an angle, reflecting the image of an Alexander oil

painting of the dunes.    I can read his name scrawled along the

corner; Chloe picked up the same print last summer, visiting a

gallery in Chicago.    She felt proud to find his work, to

recognize it.   She prides herself on the obscure masters.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 568


Typical of Clara to buy the original, hang it in a guest bedroom

like its no big deal.

       Otherwise the room is empty.   And the next, little more

than a closet with a desk under a window looking out over the

lake to the lighthouse at South Haven, red and black against the

sky.    She must be staying up in the gables of the attic, no

doubt converted to some.    I close the door to what must be

Clara's    study, go back to the bathroom and look out the window.

Still just the three cars.    I count to ten, no one comes in the

drive, then set out for the attic.

       Part of me feels dirty, stealing into someone's room.      The

stairs rise into the middle of the floor.     Light streams through

the windows set at both ends.    There's some storage off to my

left, neatly packed wooded boxes and two antique bicycles that

have seen better days.     I stay low, eyes peaking over the lip of

the floor, wondering if I really want to be doing this.

       From my right come the sounds of stiff cotton and skin, a

murmur of a sleepy sigh.    I freeze.   She's here.   Really here.

The motion ceases, I rise one step at a time as I turn.

       The bed is dwarfed by the breadth of the room.   Two-by-four

legs turned to ornate plinths of wood holding up the massive

frame.    There's a headboard, square and solid, but no footer.

Brown leather sandals and belt on the floor.     Small feet and the

hem of a long white skirt covering her calves.     Suitcase in the
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 569


corner, sitting on a straightbacked chair with a wicker seat.

Above,a mobile after one of Alexander Calder's.   It turns in the

breeze through the window.

    Catherine is supine, covers rumpled beneath her, a pillow

under her head and another cradled in her arms.   Long brown-

blonde hair obscures her face.   Her shirt, plain cotton with

wooden buttons that match her hair, is open to the waist.

Beneath its folds small breasts bared, sunlight falling over the

skin.

    I cannot wake her, I cannot stay.

    Softly back down the stairs to the landing, down again to

stare at the mirror behind the lillies.   I did not shave this

morning.   I did not shower.   I slept in these clothes and they

smell of sweat and airplanes and vaguely of sand and cigarette

smoke.

    Retrieving my suitcase I drag it up to the empty room,

letting it thunk upon the steps.   Slowly undressing in the empty

room, taking my time, humming an old jazz tune.   As I hook my

thumbs to remove my trousers I stop, turn quickly, hoping to see

Catherine in the doorway as I affect some surprise.   But she is

not there.   Bare chested I walk to the bathroom with my shaving

kit, glancing up towards the attic casually.   There's no

movement on the stairs.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 570


    I sing in the shower, Chet Baker's "Fair Weather," one of

her favorite songs.    I take my time, until the water begins to

turn cold.    Shave with my razor, still humming the song.     I've

left the door partway open.    Still nothing.

    With my pants folded over my arm, belt buckle jingling a

little, towel around my waist I move back to my room.       Still no

one on the stairs.    No sounds from above or below.     I pick

clothes from my suitcase, open on the bed.      Socks.   Boxers.

White twill pants, brown leather belt.     I've a raw linen button

down.    I place it beside a thick cotton t-shirt with a round

collar.    Standing towel-clad before the mirror I brush my hair

and sit to dress.

    "Chloe doesn't want me here when you arrive."

    I snap my head.    Catherine leaning against the doorjamb,

fingers clutching at the beveled wood as if she hasn't the

strength to stand. "Hello," I say.

    She shakes her head. "One of us should leave."

    "Why?" I smile, belt in my hands.      The air is cool on the

still damp skin of my shoulders, droplets running from my hair

down my back.    I've forgone the boxers, that I could feel

instead the soft of my slacks, the coarse stitching along my

waist.    They lie unbuttoned; were I to stand they'd fall slowly

to my feet.    I thread my belt through.
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 571


       Catherine shakes her head. "Because she'll yell and scream.

She'll throw things.     Make a scene."

       I don't move, don't say anything.     I hope to look bored

should she see my reflection in the mirror.        But the angle is

wrong.    I don't see her but the coat rack back in the corner,

behind the open door, topped with a black bowler hat, cane

hanging from the lowest peg.        Clara tries to be dramatic and

fun.    She ends up sounding cliche.

       "I was going to leave after lunch.     They'll be home soon,"

she looks to the window, but you can't see the drive from there,

only the trees strew along the edge of the dunes. "Did you find

me?"

       "I'm sorry?" Feigning ignorance.

       "While I was asleep.   Did you find me," he eyes flicker

towards the ceiling, "up there."

       I want to lie, say No, why? but she knows from my moment of

silence, how I lick my lips that I have.

       "Figures.   You get a good show?"

       "Catherine," I havn't said her name outloud in years.     It

stops me, I still and stare at the mirror. "Catherine," starting

again, still strange, "I didn't think you would be home."

       "I'm not home.   I'm here.    I had to be somewhere."

       "You know what I mean."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 572


    "If I hadn't?    If I'd been out there, with them?      What

would you have done?"

    "I don't know."

    "Of course you do," sliding upwards on the door jamb.           Her

shirt still unbuttoned.    It falls across her chest, bunches at

the shoulders, stomach slightly pudged and pale. "I know,"

Catherine's voice a lilting drone, dry, academic. "You would

have slipped the clasps on my suitcase, run your hand through my

silks.   Tried to take in a breath of me.    I knew you would, so I

brought none.    Nor cotton briefs, that you'd satisfy some kink.

Nor bras nor camisoles.    Because I knew you'd come early.        That

you'd find a way."

    "So you stayed?"

    "It was inevitable," dismissive, "sixteen hours ahead of me

in the car.   Need to sleep to drive through the night.      I saw

it, weeks ago, planning out the trip.     What to pack.    What to

leave behind."

    "And still you undid your shirt..."

    "I always do.    You know that.    I didn't care.     You know my

shape.   I look like Chloe.   We've always been alike.     Clara's

the odd one out.    Skinny, wane.   You should find a way to see

her nude.   Maybe she'll leave the door open while she showers.

Dress slow and deliberate for you.     Give you a show."

    I fidget with the ends of my belt hanging over my lap.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 573


    "You see enough?"

    "Catherine..."

    "We've time still, I'm sure.      I could strip for you.   You

want to touch me. One last time?      For old time's sake?

Something to remember me by?    Isn't that what Chloe's for?"

    "I get it," snapping at her.      Grasping the waist of my

trousers, standing, butting them hurriedly.

    "Don't get angry," curling her words.      I hear her footsteps

on the hardwood floor. "'Footsteps!'" She whispers in a hush.

"'Is it her?    Did she hear me?'"

    "Stop being a bitch," I reach back to grab my shirt, toss

it back on the bed and take my button down instead.      I don't

know why.

    "'Bitch.'    Interesting word." She's behind me in the

mirror, past the corner of the bed.

    "How far are you going to go with this?"

    "You don't want to see me naked?" Mockishly pouting,

pulling up her hair that it barely falls to her shoulders. "You

could pretend I'm Chloe," mimicing her sister's voice. "Uh-oh,"

raising her arm has revealed her breast, over my shoulder in the

mirror. "Now look what I've done!" Then dryly, "Oh wait, it's

the other way around, isn't it.      You fuck her to think of me.

That's right."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 574


      "Look, you want me to leave, I'll leave," stuffing my shirt

tails into my pants, snatching at my socks. "I get it, okay?"

      Catherine pretends not to hear. "So, you do her to think of

me.   Huh.     Why did you do me?   Huh?"

      "Okay.    That's enough," tossing the socks back down I turn,

banging my knee on the corner of the bed. "Fuck."

      "Oh yeah, talk dirty to me."

      "Catherine..."

      Again, the fawning pout, "Yes, Daddy?"

      So I hit her, back of the hand, catching her just below the

chin.   She falls onto the bed, bounces. "Gonna give me a

thrashin'," in a redneck voice, "like back on da farm?     Always a

farmboy, they say, can't take cuntry out of the boy, just by

takin' the boy outta tha cuntry."

      I pounce, knee hitting her in the stomach.    She crumples,

shuts up, sputters out a moan, sniffles, gets up on her knees,

one hand wrapped over her waist, the other taking her weight.

      "That's right," she says.

      "Shut the fuck up already," pushing her over.

      "I forgot your father used to hit you."

      "Shut the fuck up," punctuated with a smack on her rump

that shoves her head into the wall with a thud.

      "I wonder," winsome, choking back the tears, "if this is

what it was like for Emily," which turns into a moan, "oh that
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 575


hurt," she coughs, a sputtering of spit and bile as her stomach

heaves. "Good," she swallows, "good to get that out of your

system?"

    I don't respond, sitting on the edge of the bed holding my

hands.

    "You're moody," Catherine observes.    Pulling herself up to

sit against the wall she rubs her head. "Ow.    That really hurt,

you know."

    "'m sorry."

    "Now you're sorry," tugging at the leaves of her shirt.

"Interesting."

    "What?"

    "Was wondering if you'd beat me up or rape me.    Figured

it'd be one or the other.    Six in one..." she starts coughing

again, which turns into a slow gut wrenching. "Care to get a

girl a glass of water?"

    I shuffle out of the room, keeping my head down.     There's a

small blue glass cup in the bathroom.    I rise it out, bring her

back some water.

    "You're a dear."   She drinks, wonders "Do you feel better?

Honestly."

    I don't answer.

    "I know you do," giving my shoulder a squeeze.     At her

touch my stomach tightens.    I break and hit the bathroom at a
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 576


run, barely making it in time.   Coffee and green sick hits the

water with a loud slap.   I wretch again, eyes tearing up,

grasping the seat of the toilet until my fingers begin to shake.

Below I hear the door open.

    "Hello?" comes the cry, Clara, chipper as the day is long.

"Catherine?   Stephen?"

    "Up here," she calls back. "Be down in a second." To me she

says "Flush."

    I flush the toilet.

    Catherine closes the bathroom door.   "I'm glad we had this

time together," she whispers. "You're sick.    Some twenty-four

hour thing.   You're going to spend the rest of the day in bed."

    "Where are you?" Chole's voice from the stairs, concerned.

    "In the bathroom," she cries.

    "I'm sorry," I try and tell her.

    "Oh no, not really," she smooths my hair with her hand then

begins to work the buttons of her shirt closed. "You'll really

be sorry in a few days.   And then you're going to spend the rest

of your life in fear, wondering who I might tell."

    "Stephen?" Chole shouts, her footsteps doppling down the

hall.

    "He's in here, too, throwin' up." Chole's pace quickens

towards the bathroom door.
                                           Birch / Dynamite / 577


    I fall against the radiator, shirt stained, wiping my mouth

with the back of my hand.

    Catherine steps to the mirror, fixes her hair,   "That'll

leave a mark," pulling some strands down over her cheek. "Trust

me, I know you," she says softly as the handle begins to turn,

"I know you will."

    The door opens, Chole silhouetted by the sun.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 578




                            CHAPTER 40

                               CLARA




Clara brings me broth for dinner with feigned concern.     I havn't

seen her in ages; she still looks like a Barbie version of

Chloe.   Long blonde hair, pale skin, peach sundress and diamond

earings.   There's a joke in their family that Clara got the tits

for the three of them while Catherine and Chloe split her brain.

She has a vacant stare and a plastic smile, perfect teeth and

wears a size two tailored for her C cup breasts.   Women

everywhere must hate her on site.

    "Are you feeling better?" she chirps, placing the tray on

the bedside table.

    "A bit," I say, sitting up.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 579


    "Good," then again, "good," staring at the floor, wondering

if she's supposed to say anything. "We're going in to go for a

walk on the beach!   Do you think you can come?"

    I could, easily, but instead I shake my head. "No, I'd

better rest."

    "Oh, that's too bad," she leans over to pat my hand. "Maybe

when we get back you'll be well enough to have a drink on the

porch?" I don't know if it's on purpose, but her dress falls

from her chest, giving me a view of her cleavage, breasts laced

in a white satin bra.

    "Maybe."

    "Okay!" Her spine springs up, she rises on her toes to turn

to the door. "I'll just close this so you can rest," Clara says

in a forced whisper, backing out of the room in a crouch.    She

takes forever to pull the door shut, another age to twist the

knob that the latch clicks home.

    Immediately I set at the broth, though it's salty and thin.

I'm famished; Catherine must have kept them from feeding me as

some sort of extended punishment.   There's another set of

footsteps on the stairs, heavy, not long after.    This must be

'Bobby.'   I envision him as a rotund man of fifty or so with

polo tees and an annoying guffaw of a laugh.   He uses the toilet

and it sounds like a cow pissing on a flat rock.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 580


    I've already finished my broth but am I'm still hungry.

Placing the bowl back on the tray I decidw to listen for the

voices of their leaving, that I can steal downstairs and get

some more food.   I feel like a child sent to bed early while my

parents entertain.

    "Sam!" Clara's voice from the foot of the stairs, her

shrill barely muted by the thin wood door between us.

    "Coming, dear," he flushes, quickly washes his hands.

    "We'll be outside!"

    "Be right there honey," he says in a sickly sweet voice.

The bathroom door opens with a slight squeak I hadn't noticed

before.   I'll have to remember that.   Again the heavy footfalls

as he runs down the stairs.

    There are voices, but I can't make them out.      They ceases

with a firm sound of the door closing.      I count to one hundred

then get out of bed.

    Chloe insisted I get out of my clothes earlir and put on my

pyjamas to sleep.    They're thin cotton.   The heat of the day has

been replaced by a cool breeze off the lake.     My flesh puckers

as I move through the house.    For a moment I walk quietly, then

realize there's no point.

    In the kitchen I find bread, lunchmeat in the fridge along

with some gourmet mustard.     Fishing around in the drawers for a

knife the kitchen door opens and immediately shuts again.      I
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 581


look up to see a breathless Clara still clutching the knob. "I

forgot my sweater," she pants, tosses her hair over her shoulder

and minces past me.

    Fuck it.    I make my sandwhich.

    "I'm glad you're feeling better," she says on her return.

    "Yeah," I drone, "that broth really did the trick."

    Clara giggles, stops to reach out and touch my arm. "You're

so funny Stephen.   Have fun!" And she's off again, veritably

bouncing out the door.

    I grab a plate and head upstairs.

                                  #

With only the light from the hall it's difficult to read Chloe's

datebook.   But since I'm sure there'll be a bit of noise when

they return it's safe to assume I can read it in the doorway at

my leisure.    For the time being I leave it in the top of her

purse and do a quick inventory of her suitcase:

    Six pairs of underware, two normal and boring, one her

self-professed 'comfortable lavender panties' she's had for

years, one pair black lace two pairs white satin.    Four bras,

two functional, one decorative, once strapless.    Two pairs khaki

shorts, two pairs khaki trousers, one pair straight dress

slacks, two skirts, one formal and black the other shorter and

blue.   Three pairs tennis socks, two pairs hose in black and

'natural,' other bits and pieces of little consequence.
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 582


       Two thin cotton sundresses hanging in the closet along with

a more formal black satin dress and three faux silk blouses in

white, blue and lavender. (to match the panties, I'm sure).

Tennis shoes, black heels and brown braided leather shoes

exactly like those Catherine had at the foot of her bed.

       I check through the date book; she hasn't had a date with

"E" in two weeks, but has had a number of hair appointments over

the past three months.       Seems to be every two weeks.   Thursday

afternoon at the spa on 4th, lunch with Hadley every other week

and she's going to spend the last weekend in September with her

mother in New Jersey.

       Moving forward I see a strange code of triangles and

circles on various Saturdays throughout the holiday season, and

she's circled my birtday twice, once in blue and once in black

ink.    I wonder what that means.     Office Christmas party is early

this year, the first weekend in December.       This is underlined

twice.    Odd.

       Scanning phone numbers there aren't any new ones I see, nor

new names or e-mail addresses.      I place the datebook back in her

purse, sure to get the angle right.

       Trash can is empty.

       Her wallet has forty six dollars in cash along with recipts

for some clothes and lunches, all from this trip.       And eighty

three dollars at the Willard Gallery of Crafts in South Haven
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 583


day before yesterday.    I memorize the address; there're no bags

other than an empty Ann Taylor sack int he corner.     I check the

dress; it still has the tag from the store.     That mystery's

solved; luckily I brought something suitable for what passes for

formal with this family.

    There's nothing else in the room, so I move on to Clara and

Sam's after a few more bites of my sandwhich.

    From the contents of his shaving kit I discover that Sam

has grey hair and and ulcer.    His perscription is from a Jewish

doctor with a private practice, filled at a pharmacy I don't

recognize.    No other medications for him, but Clara's on

Wellbutrin.    Nothing new there.   She's also on the pill,

currently in the middle of her cycle.     Her makeup is Clinique,

which is upmarket for her.

    Clara shops at Victoria's secret and Sam's in to trashy

lingere; the recipt for the black lace teddy is still in her

purse; she bought it last weekend.     Most of her underware is

new, including the white satin Wonderbra she's presently

wearing.   The rest of her labels are middle class, save a few

DKNY and an Ann Taylor dress very much like Chloe's, save that

it's a little more racy a design.     Sam wears Alfred Dunhill

shirts and Brooks Brothers ties.     He has decent taste.

    Checking to make sure everything is in order I leave the

room, careful to leave the door open at the appropriate angle.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 584


    At the foot of the stairs to the attic I pause, consider,

then continue on back to my room.   I finish my sandwich and get

back in bed, pull up the covers and stare at the angle

reflection in the mirror until I fall asleep.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 585




                             CHAPTER 41

                                SAM




The wind rattles the windowpanes, strong gusts betraying a

growing storm somewhere still out over the water.   Chloe's

curled up beside me in her briefs and a t-shirt caught around

her waist.   Her hands grip at each other, clasped over my chest.

She stirs but does not wake as I slip from under the covers,

walk barefoot into the hall.

    The quiet of a house asleep, muted snores from under Clara

and Sam's door.   The first floor just feels empty and hollow.

The whistle of a breeze through a not quite shut window.   Cold

flagstones in the kitchen.   Though the coffee maker claims it's
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 586


constantly 12:00 the clock on the wall says it will soon be

dawn.   The skies agree, already a pale grey to the east.

    I make coffee; my blood tingles at the sound of the spoon

measuring the grounds, pipes groan as I drawn water.     I page

through a glossy catalogue for furniture during the bubble and

hiss, breath deep the aroma as the first drops splat against the

bottom of the carafe.

    Getting a mug from the cupboard and a blanket from the back

of a chair I head into the dining room with the magazine.      Heavy

footsteps on the floor above.   Sam lumbers downstairs in

boxershorts and a threadbare white tshirt.     His stomach pokes

out between these two pieces of cotton, he pokes his head in,

grunts, says "Morning," then goes to the kitchen.

    I close the magazine, test the coffee and finding it cool

enough take a tentative sip.    Sam enters from the kitchen,

stands in the doorway with one hand on his hip.

    "I hope you make this better than Clara.     She could burn

water if she put her mind to it."

    "Good morning," I say.

    "What's so good about it?" And he laughs, from the belly,

which jiggles. "Ah," he takes a sip. "You must be Steve then."

    "Stephen, yes.   We spoke on the phone?"

    "Yeah, yeah.   I remember," crossing the rug to extend his

hand. "Samuel Tepper.   Most folks call me Sam."
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 587


    Fat hands with a pinky ring.      Dear God. "Stephen Hoekme.

Most people call me Stephen."

    "Bit formal, eh?" He wrinkles his nose, lets my hand fall

from his clammy grip and grabs the chair next to me. "So tell me

about yourself, 'Stephen.'"

    "Not much to tell really.    I'm sure you've heard a bunch

from Clara besides."

    "Yeah, but you know how girls are," shaking a hand at the

stairs, "you tell me.    You live with Chloe?"

    "We have seperate apartments, but we do spend a bit of time

together, yes."

    "Keep it that way," he pokes me in the chest. "Don't ever

let 'em move in.    It'll be the end of you.   Look at this place."

As he spreads his arms Sam spills coffee on the table, but

doesn't notice.    I look around blankly. "I bought this place a

few months ago.    Clara wanted a house on the Lake, I got this

for a song.   You own real estate?"

    "Not really, no."

    He looks at me gravely. "Oh, you gotta own land.      Just

gotta.   Markets rise and fall, but land is always in demand.

Did Clara tell you I was in banking?"

    "I'd heard through Chloe, yes," taking another draught of

my coffee.
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 588


    "Banking, investing, gambling.      Same difference.   But land.

Gotta have land."    He pokes me, asking "You have stocks?"

    "A few, yes."

    "Sell 'em.     Get some land."

    "I'll think about it."

    "Don't think." He moves and I think he's going poke me

again, but this time just points.      Still, I keep an eye on his

finger; he touches me again I break his fingers. "Buy land.

Trust me," Sam smiles.    It's a used car salesman smile.    I keep

from frowning by giving him a meek smile while I bob my head.

    "But you.     Clara says you're in computers or something."

    "Something like that, yes."

    "I hear there's good money in computers."

    "A bit."

    "Made a lot of money on that one company.      You know, the

Internet company."    Sam snaps his fingers, looks down at his rug

and snaps again.

    "'The' Internet company?"

    "Yeah.   What's it called.    Yoohoo."

    "Yahoo?"

    "No," his voice suddenly very dear, "I think it's Yoohoo.

Made a fortune.    Know what I did?"

    "Bought land?" I hazard.

    "Nope, bought a boat."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 589


    "A boat?"

    "Sailboat.     Two, actually.   His and Hers.   Mines in

Chicago.   You been to Chicago?"

    "A few times."

    "Horrible place.     Loud, noisy.   I'm from Tempe, myself."

    "Arizona?"

    "I hate the desert," he tells me. "So I moved up here.      Put

my boat in the marina, Clara's out in South Haven.      You ever go

to South Haven?"

    "Occasionally."

    "Nice town.     Clara's got a thirty-two foot sailboat there.

Know what I named her?"

    "The boat?"

    "Yeah," his eyes bright now.

    "I have no idea."

    "'My Girl.'     You like that song?"

    "Which?"

    "'Talkin' 'bout, my gur-i-url," Sam sings to me.

"Commodores."

    "I thought it was Smokey Robinson?"

    "One of the two," he waves me off. "You sail?"

    "Never been."

    "We'll go sailing.     Good wind for sailing I bet."

    "You, uh, sail much?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 590


    "Not really.   I'm from the desert.    Not much water in the

desert!" He laughs, slapping me on the shoulder.    I will kill

this man before the sun rises, I know it. Serious now he nods,

sputters, voice gravelly "We will go sailing in the lake," he

stops, looks at me, smiles. "Get it?" he asks in his normal

voice.

    "I'm sorry, no."

    "Don't you know your history?     Kids these days.   Winston

Churchill."

    "Yes?"

    "The English guy."

    My face is totally blank.

    "World War Two?     You do know World War Two, don't ya?     When

we fought the Nazis?"

    "Oh.   'We will fight them on the beaches,'"

    "Yeah, yeah!" He pokes me, "You know it," then sips his

coffee. "You're a good kid, Steve.    Oh, sorry!" Holding up his

hands, bobby his head between them, "'Stephen!" He laughs,

sighs. "Ah..."

    God save me.

    "So how do you know our Chloe?"

    'Our?' "We met at college," I say.

    "Oh, you went to that state school.     What's it called?"

    "State College?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 591


    Sam laughs, sighs. "Ah, I never went to college.    What's

college, anyway?   Drink beer, get in some girls' pants, get a

little piece of paper saying you did?"

    "Yes.   It's exactly like that."

    "And you're a farmboy?"

    "I'm sorry?"

    "Grew up on the farm, didn't ya?     Nothing to be ashamed of.

We all gotta start somewhere." Sam claps my shoulder. "I met

Clara at a fundraiser.    She was doing some silly humanitarian

thing.   Save The Whales or something, at the Mariott." He takes

a drink. "I was at a wedding, one of my partners' daughters.

Got so drunk I wandered into the wrong party!" He laughs, "Can

you believe that?"

    "Never!"

    "True, all true.     She helped me find my way back, I figured

'hey, this is a nice girl.'    And she does have a nice ass."

    Perhaps I blush, perhaps Sam just mistakes my sheer horror

for some acute embarrassment."

    "Oh, I know you've looked.     Besides, all the girls have the

same ass.   Have you noticed that?   Clara's got the tits and

Cathy has the legs, but they all have the same ass.    Now why is

that, do you think?"

    "I honestly have no idea."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 592


    "You've never thought about it?" resting his elbow on the

table, chin in his hand.

    I slowly shake my head.

    "Huh.   Probably some gene thing."

    "Probably."

    Sam starts laughing.     For a moment I think he's gone

insane, but no, it's just because he's about to make a bad joke:

"Genes!   Get it?   Genes?   'Jeans?'" He laughs, he sighs, "Ah,

You have no sense of humor.     You're too serious.    Or are you

still a little ill?"

    "Maybe."

    "Shoulda had Chloe give you a bit of medicine," he laughs,

belly bouncing in his lap, "Soon as I get a headache, I say

'Honey, I think I need some medicine,' and boy if she doesn't

heal me right quick!" The intermitten laugher turns into a

snigger. "Chloe good at that too?     Think that's genetic?    Or is

it more, you know," he shakes his hips, "one of those things

they gotta learn?"

    "I have no idea."

    "Gotta be a learned thing.     Or maybe it's one of those fag

genes?" He pokes me, "Eh?" he pokes me again, "Maybe that's it,

'Shopping,' 'Cooking,' and 'Blowjobs.'     Maybe it's the hips gene

that makes 'em good at cooking?     Can Chloe cook?"

    "She's not too fond of it, no."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 593


    "Must be it then.     Too bad Cathy didn't bring anyone.    We

could ask him if she's got the same genes!"

    Sam steadies himself with his arm on the table but still

almost manages to fall out of his chair laughing.     I'm tempted

to smack his elbow; very bad things should happen to this man.

After a few moments he regains what composure he had, wipes his

eyes with one of his pudgy fingers then sighs.    Again. "Ah.

Well, enough chit-chat.    Better go get in the shower before one

of the girls gets up.   And I have to piss like a race horse," he

stares at his coffee. "You make a pretty good cup of coffee.

Better watch out, though."

    "Why's that?" I ask before I see the gleam in his eye.

Something horrible is coming.     I prepare myself for the worst.

    "'Cuz if you start to like shopping," he stands, tapping

the catalogue I'd brought in with me from the kitchen, "you'll

only be one step away from the pinkos."    Sam gives me a punch in

the shoulder and starts laughing again, all the way up stairs.

    I sit, dumbfounded.

    "Mornin' there," I hear him say at the top of the stairs.

Whatever the reply, it's muted.    That doesn't stop him however

from using the same boisterous tone. "Oh no, I was here first.

You go down and keep Steve company.    You have to wait your

turn!"
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 594


    I can only pray he slips in the shower.       Maybe I could lace

his ulcer mediation with something.

    "Oh," I think he's trying to whisper, but it's hard to

tell, "Make sure you call him 'Stephen,' otherwise his panties

get all in a bunch."    Another pause, another laugh, another

sigh; the bathroom door squeaks closed.

    I drink more coffee, look out the window to the dark skies

to the west.

    "Good Morning."

    "Morning..." after Sam's voice my hearing must be damaged;

it almost sounds like "Catherine?"

    "Don't look so surprised," she gives me half a smile.

    "I thought you were leaving?"

    "I thought I'd stay." She walks through the dining room to

the kitchen.    I get up and follow her. "I see you met Sam."

    "Yeah.     Chole's going to go balistic."

    "She went balistic last night.    Why do you think I put you

to bed?" Catherine pours herself a cup of coffee, turns and

leans against the counter.

    "What do you mean?"

    "Had to get our stories straight.     Couldn't habe you

bungling it up."

    "What 'stories?'" I ask.
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 595


    In reply she lifts her hair to the red and purple bruise

along her jaw, raises her eyebrows and gives her patented cocky

half-a-smile. "You forget so soon?"

    "I..."

    "You're sorry, I know.   Forgiven," she makes the sign of

the cross and sips at the coffee. "Mm.   You make this?"

    "Yeah."

    "Tastes like shit," she tosses it into the drain. "Nice

hard-on, by the way."

    I look down, my fuzzy cotton pyjama's tented at the crotch.

"Uh..."

    "Oh, it's endearing," she says sarcastically, "don't worry.

I'm all aquiver," shaking her hips.   She does have the same ass

as Chloe and Clara. "You want more of this shit before I make

more?"

    My cup is almost empty. "No, I'll wait."

    "You don't want any?" Holding up the pot with her fingers.

    "No, I'm fine."

    "Why'd you drink it if you didn't like it?"

    "It's not that I didn't like it," I start.

    "If you liked it, why not have some more?"

    "Uh...okay."

    Neither of us move. "Well?" She asks, coffee sloshing in

the carafe as she dangles it.   I take two steps towards her, she
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 596


moves to hand me the pitcher, feints with her right hand then

slams the pot into my stomach.   I double over as the glass

explodes, hot coffee seeping through my clothes, scalding.      Her

right comes back, catching me in the kidneys.    For good measure,

as I fall, Catherine tosses a knee that catches me in the

shoulder.    Just to be sure she kicks me int he gut as I hit the

floor. "Fucker," grabbing my hair, spitting in my ear, "you

fucking touching me again I will not stop here.     You got me?

You leave me the fuck alone.   You stop calling my house.   You

stop sending me letters.   You stop fucking looking at me and

getting a fucking hard-on or I swear to God I will tell

everyone," she grabs me by the balls, "and I mean everyone," she

beings to squeeze, "what a useless little cunt of a man you are.

You got me?"

    I choke, cough, sputter and twitch.    Glass cuts into my

arm, my face, Catherine spinning me on the floor.

    "Well? Do you?"

    All I can do is nod.

    "Good.     Now clean up the fucking mess you made, pack your

bags, dump my sister and fuck off to whatever shithole you

crawled out of."

    Catherine pushes off, stands up, draws back her foot and I

flinch.   But she doesn't kick me again; she wipes her hands with

a dishtowel and tosses it next to me on the floor.
                                          Birch / Dynamite / 597


    "Oh, and that goes for your father as well.   Feel free to

convey the message for me."
                                                Birch / Dynamite / 598




                              CHAPTER 42

                                 HOPE



It's raining, which I take to be a good sign.      I'm standing

under the eaves of the building across from Hope and Cameron's

apartment, waiting.   I have been for two hours.     I'm chain

smoking to try and keep warm, wishing I could risk running down

to the twenty four hour convenience store two blocks down for

some coffee.   But I can't.   I have to wait.

    As I light my fourth-to-last cigarette I finally see

Cameron come out, open his umbrella and head off to work.        I

look to make sure he has his briefcase with him, and he does.

He has a private practive eight blocks down.      I'd figured he'd

go into the office today, that he'd be the type of guy to walk
                                                 Birch / Dynamite / 599


the distance, even in this weather, instead of driving.       I know

Hope doesn't have to go into work today; it's Labor Day.

    I watch Cameron make his way three blocks down to Victoria,

then turn up the hill out of sight.     When the street is clear I

run across to the security panel.     There's no overhang here and

I don't have an umbrella; it wasn't raining when I made up my

mind this morning.

    "Hello?"

    "It's me," I say into the speaker. "Can I come up?"

    Hope pauses, asks, "Where are you?"

    "Downstairs.     Please?   It's raining."

    Her sighs comes out as a burst of static. "Christ," she

says, "You know Cameron just left?"

    "I know."

    "How long have you been waiting?" She sounds tired.

    "A while.    A few hours?    I don't know.    Please?"

    "Why?"

    "Because."

    "Beause why?"

    "Because it's cold and wet and I'm shivvering and I don't

have an umbrella and,"

    "No," she decides, without letting me finish.

    "Why not?"

    "Because no good can come of it, I garantee."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 600


    "Hope?" I try sounding like a wet puppy in the rain,

"Please?"

    Nothing.

    "I promise I won't waste your time."

    There's no reply, save the buzzer and the click of the door

opening.    I grab it and jump inside.   The mailbox says

"Caldwell, 3B"

    Into the hall, up three flights of stairs, end of the hall,

door.    I open it.   Pottery Barn and vanilla.    Hope's apartment.

Chair.    Sit down.

    "Please," she calls from a room beyond, "You'll stain the

leather.    Get a towel."

    "Where are they?" I spring to my feet.        There's a puddle on

the chair.   I use my arm to wipe it off onto the floor.

    "In the bathroom," her voice echoing off the walls and

ceiling that I have to spin around until I can figure out she's

to my right.

    I poke my head around the corner. "Hello?"

    "Yes?" Her voice hoarse.     Perhaps she is tired, sitting up

in bed, smoking a cigarette.     The apartment is what they call a

French Studio.    I'm not sure why.   It's a series of rooms

connected by pocket doors, so that you can either leave them

open and have one large space, or close them off to seclude one

room from the next.     Windows line the wall opposite the front
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 601


door.   From where I'm standing I can see all five rooms of the

apartment, each with windows half-opened along the one wall,

each approximitly the size of my bedroom.     The walls are an off-

white, the moldings darkly stained to match the coffee colored

hardwood floors.    I was sitting in a large, beige, overstuffed

leather chair next to a small rosewood table almost matching the

floors.    There's a Miro print beside the door.

    "Where's the bathroom?"

    In a small, distant voice she asks "Can we not have this

conversation over three rooms?     It's in here."

    I wait until my heart quiets down a bit, my breathing

return to something akin to normal and start through to the next

room.   It's just as wide as the first, perhaps little longer.

More windows facing the street.     I think I can see my apartment

from here.    I stop.   A part of roof is barely visible.   Below

the window is a beige sofa with matching endtables facing a

television and stereo of medium quality.    More Modernist art on

the walls, framing the throughway of the pocketdoors.       Here the

floor is obscenely covered with a throw rug, probably from Ikea.

I notice I'm dripped water onto it and move off towards the

windows.    It's a hard rain, beating on the panes.   I can see in

my reflection that I'm drenched just from running across the

street.

    Hope exhales a raspy cloud of smoke. "What?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 602


    "You can see my house from here."

    "I know."

    "Oh." I turn away and crossing through another set of

opened pocket doors ostensibly enter the bedroom

    I don't look at her, instead taking in the room.    I havn't

seen where she lives since law school, a poor student's

apartment with obscure posters on the wall and.    Here everything

matches.   The bed, the bedside tables, the frames on the art

over the bed; all have the same dark hue of the floors.      The

covers, the drapes, the rug at the door to the bathroom, and

lampshades are all beige.    The lamps themselves, the shoe tree

(the parts that aren't wood) the capped joints on the rosewood

chest at the foot of the bed, all cast iron.    Hell, even the

phone matches, faux-antique rotary in matte black with cream

colored numbers.

    Propped up on the pillows Hope smokes a white cigarette and

ashes into a matte black ashtray.    She's wearing a cream-colored

dress shirt, unbuttoned from neck to sheets, her hair is black

and shoulder length and her skin, I am suddenly aware, would

probably be described as 'mohagany.'    Suddenly it hits me; She

matches the room.   She matches the fucking room. "I can't

believe you match the fucking room."

    "Whatever," she sighs.    Her laptop (matte black) is sitting

next to her on the floor. (beige)    There are half a dozen pens
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 603


(black) there as well.    Papers in piles form haphazard steps

halfway up the front of her nightstand.      While mostly white,

some with blue or red covers discretly folded back, others are

contained in manilla folders or accorodian files. (woodish

brown)    At least the glass on the table beside her is normal,

clear glass colored.

    "Towels are in there," she points with her cigarette to a

half-opened door.   I nod, walking quickly to the lightswitch.

Beige tile and dark woods.    The towels match.    I take two and

pat myself dry. "So, what?" She asks.

    "You okay?"

    "I'm fucking fine, Christ," looking out the window. "What

do you want."

    "I," I swallow, wince; the towels scrape along the scars on

my arm. "I wanted to apologize."

    She snorts.

    "I am sorry."

    "For what?"

    "For being such a bitch, to start.       For ignoring you.   For

treating you like shit."

    "Oh, you have a lot of nerve," the edge to her voice like

cut glass. "Now what?    You want to fuck?    What, Chloe leave you

again?"

    "I left her."
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 604


    "That'll last."

    "It will.    Even if she come's back,"

    "When she comes back," she corrects.

    "Even when she come's back, I'll tell her to go away.     I've

changed the locks, I've thrown away her keys."

    "This had better be more than a fucking Gloria Gaynor song,

because that will so piss me off." She taps her cigarette to the

ashtray.    It dings, the sound bouncing around the room. "And

what the fuck do I care, anyway?"

    "I..." breathe, Stephen. Toss the towel in the beige wicker

hamper.    Switch off the light and put don't put your hands in

your pockets, don't lean against the door jamb all casual. "I

want to tell you something."

    "Oh God, don't," shaking her head, sucking down her

cigarette. "Just don't.    Whatever it is, just don't.   I don't

care.   I don't want to know.   Actually, get out of my house."

She thumps at the matress with the flat of her hand. "Stephen,

get the fuck outta my house."

    "Hope?"

    "Stephen, go."

    "Can I,"

    "No.    You can't.   You can leave."

    "Please?"
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 605


    "Fuck you, 'please.'     I dont want you shit anymore.   I have

had enough bullshit from too many men today, I do not need more

from you."

    "I'm not going to bullshit you."

    "Oh, you lie.     You lie," drawing out the vowels, "you lie."

    "Hope, I want to tell you,"

    "Stephen, why are you doing this?" She tilts her head to

look at me, one leg falling under the covers. "Do you sincerely

think something good is going to come of this?"

    "I do."

    She snorts, gives a wry grin, "Oh, I've heard those words

before."

    "I'm not Cameron."     It's cheap, but it shuts her up for a

moment. Wait, "That was cheap."

    "Yeah, that was damned cheap."

    "I'm sorry."     Breathe.

    "Am I to understand that you're here to profess something?"

    "More or less."

    "Uh-huh," she bobs her head away from me. "Am I going to

like what I hear?"

    "I honestly don't know."

    Hope runs her tongue along her teeth and her eyes along my

frame, appraising me. "You're in no state to tell anyone

anything," and I think her voice is softer, but it's not; she's
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 606


exausted.   Her eyes are sunken in her head, her body limp.   "You

look like a drowned rat and you're shivvering.   Go in and take a

shower, warm yourself up.   I'm going to do some work.   You sit

around, you bide your time, have a drink.   You still want to

tell me someting after that, I'll listen.   Deal?"

    I swallow, my stomach cartwheels. "Deal."
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 607




                             CHAPTER 43

                              STEPHEN



I calm down in the shower, taking my time.    The water feels

good, but after only a little while I can feel it begin to

chill.   I turn down the flow, hoping this will give me a few

more minutes before the hot water runs out.

    Clawfoot bathtub with tarnished chrome taps and hardwater

stains near the drain.   Pale beige tiles through the translucent

plastic curtain.   Sandalwood and rose petals.   A pumice stone

hanging on a rope from the faucet.   The sound of the water,

echoing on the floor of the tub.   Hot water for fifteen minutes

before it gets too cold.

    Plastic towel holder, a single bulb hanging from the

ceiling, the floor uneven.   Heat leaks from the place like a
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 608


seive, but still the mirror is fogged over.    I run a hand

through my hair then use it to try and wipe the image clear.

But the mirror is clouded, too.

    The porcelin of the toothbrush holder has broken off, and

there's no surface space.    Two toothbrushes sit in the nook

behing the faucet, which has some kind of green grit caked

around the nozzle.    Since I came in the toilet has been running

with a constant, hollow gurgle.

    This is how the other half lives.    This is how I grew up.

The pipes probably freeze in the winter and squeal if you turn

them on too high.    Somewhere on the floor above me a toilet is

flushed and I can hear the water rush down through the wall

beside me.    On the back the door a plush bathrobe hangs from a

cheap hook.    Law journals and old copies of Harper's sit next to

the overflowing trash can; make-up smudged tissues, used tampons

and strands of black hair pulled from the bush sitting on the

back of the toilet.    My trousers lie over the toilet seat,

boxers tossed on top.    I put on my pants, fold the boxers into

my hand and open the door.

    Hope is working, face sour with a slight frown.     She

doesn't look up. Putting my things on the chaise lounge, I make

my way back to the first room.    The air is cool on my skin,

giving me a little chill, rushing my blood through my veins.      I

get goosebumps and leave damp footprints on the hardwood floors.
                                              Birch / Dynamite / 609


But it feels good.   The weather hasn't let up.   I look into the

dark of the morning and decide that if there's a Rain God out

there somewhere that I should start praying to him.

    The front door lies at in the exact center of the

apartment, in the middle and smallest of the rooms.    Next,

moving away from the bedroom is an den cum office.    Large table,

three filling cabnets, two computer monitors, bookshelves

framing the wall of windows and stacks upon stacks of papers

beneath them.   Here only one window is open, and that just an

inch of a crack.

    The kitchen is feeble, shoved off to the side to leave room

for a table pressed up against the wall.   Two matchbooks under

the leg keep it level on the uneven floor.    There are more

books, refrence mostly, pushed up against the wall:    A

thesaurus, two dictionaries, one of them German-English, two

volums of _The Straight Dope_, last year's Farmer's Almanac, a

dog-eared Guinness Book of World Records from 1988, _A Farside

Gallery_, and something called _Commodified Dissent_.      Notably,

what's absent is anything relating to the law.    The freezer

contains three boxes of fishsticks, all layered in frost, half a

bag of peas and, adhered to the back right corner, two thirds of

a bottle of Schmirnoff.   I grab the neck and pull.   The whole of

the refridgerator tilts towards me, despite the small wooden

shiv under its base meant to keep it level.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 610


    Dirty dishes in the sink, about three days worth wherein

pasta with red sauce played an integral role.   A few bottles of

red wine sit in a trendy wroght iron rack that manages to keep

the corks from dryingout but looks as though the whole thing

will topple over if i try and remove one of the bottles.

Steadying it at the base I take the bottle from its topmost

loop; a Zinfandel I don't recognize.    But it'll do.

    After opening three drawers, which contained take-out

menus, batterys, toothpicks, wooden chopsticks in plastic bags

and other domestic detritus, I find a drawer with six sugar

packets, a corkscrew, two loaded pistol magazines, a 14" carving

knife and a wooden spoon.

    I take the corkscrew, look back in the drawer, shake my

head, check the drawer again, notice it still contains a knife,

a wooden spoon, two magazines and six sugar packets.      I uncork

the wine.    I look back in the drawer, poke at the magazines with

the corkscrew and notice that they've been there long enough to

leave a faint silhoutte in the dust.   Beside them on the

shelving paper, just faintly brighter, is the silouette of a

corkscrew.   I look under the knife, and there's one there, too.

And under the sugarpackets.   But not the wooden spoon.     I

carefully put the corkscrew back, nudging it with a fingernail

to lie perfectly in its own shadow, check to make sure all the

others are in their place, then close the drawer.       There are no
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 611


red wine glasses to be found, so I take a pair of tumblers from

the sink, rinse them out and go back through the house to the

bedroom.

    Pouring the wine into the tumblers I bring one to Hope.

She's intent on what I assume to be a brief, scanning it with

her pen as she reads, which dips down just then to underline a

few words without pause.   Setting the tumbler down beside her

with a faint rap there's an eyelid flutter of acknowledgement.

So I lean down, hand on the rosewood taking my weight, and place

a kiss on the top of her head.

    She exhales deeply, so I keep my lips pressed there.     Her

hair smells of rose petals, the scent mixing with the vanilla

that permeates the whole of the apartment.    When she   begins to

breathe in again, I withdraw.    The pen falls from her fingers as

she fumbles up my chest, runs her nails over my neck then curls

a lock of hair around her finger.    Kissing her again loosens the

grip.   Her voice is gentle, smooth "Just don't waste my time,

Stephen, that's all I ask."    Her hand falls in a lazy arc to her

lap, the pen picked back up.

    The air, the room, the sun hidden behing the clouds; I

shuffle my clothes over so I can lie back on the chaise lounge,

staring out the window West.    I think of Chloe out there

somewhere with her sisters, and Cameron, far beyond the steel

and concrete and the storm.    I sip at the wine, realize how
                                               Birch / Dynamite / 612


exausted I am.   There was no flight open yesterday in Detroit or

Chicago.   Instead I drove back in my rental car.    I'll need to

figure out what to do with that sometime soon.     That was one of

the things I didn't dwell on during the twelve hour drive or the

hours since, standing on the street, waiting.

      "I havn't slept," I say.

      I can see Hope's reflection in the window.    She drops her

pen, rubs her eyes. "Then I gues you'd better sleep then."

      "No, it's okay," I tell her.

      "Stephen," she's looking at me. "I don't care.    Sleep,

don't sleep; it's the same either way."

      "I don't really sleep, I mean.    I just kind of lie there,

staring at the ceiling."

      "It's a chaise lounge, not a psycharitrist's couch."       She

picks her pen back up, slightly annoyed.

      "Mm," I murmur, and then the dreams come.    They're typical,

short and mixed in reality as I begin to doze off for an hour or

so.   They are, for the most part, of the extended reality sort,

where life passes just the same but for a few details.     Amy Lynn

looking through a bikini catalogue.     Jeffery dancing 'till two

am at one of the clubs on Pike.      Chloe moving in the sheets with

the faceless Eric on top of her.      Catherine and my father,

pressed against his desk.
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 613


           Waking from these dreamthoughts is easier than from

others, because I recognize them for what they are.      I get my

bearings, recognize Hope scribbling away, the colors of the room

and settle back against the cotton softly scratching at my

shoulders.   The breeze over my chest is sharp, pricking at my

skin; the cool of a shade tree on a summer's day.

    But those other dreams.    Shorter and more violent, my fears

mixed with false memories, my mind in rebellion:       Catherine

holding a bottle to my throat.    The image of Emily being tossed

down the stairwell.    Hope smiling naked above me, her stopping

suddenly as she hears our Grandfather's voice calling from below

and I see Oscar hiding in the rafters with the Christmas lights,

bowie knife raised.    From these I wake with a confused start.      I

look at Hope, who's looking at me in concern.    She smiles, nods

reassuringly, then goes back to her work.    After these dreams,

though there are only a few, I lie staring at the beige of the

ceiling.   It reminds me of a punchline to an old joke and helps

me settle down.   A joke I heard, from Cameron actually, over

coffee at some random family function, years ago: "What's the

difference between fucking a whore, fucking your mistress, and

fucking your wife?    A whore says 'Faster! Faster!'    Your

mistress says 'More! More!    And your wife says 'Beige.    I think

I'll paint the ceiling beige.'"    I laughed at the time.      It was

funny.   Only later, telling it to a couple of friends did I
                                             Birch / Dynamite / 614


realize he hadn't said 'a whore,' but 'your whore.'    And that

soon after he asked her to marry him for the first time.

    One dream is curious in that it defies category.     I'm on a

low hill, overlooking the ocean.   That's all.   Waves roll in,

waves roll out.   Somewhere out on the water a bell chimes.   The

dreams lasts for a while like this, with nothing happening.       And

I don't feel inclined to move, to quest out, to find the source

of the bell or explore along the coast line.     It's like I'd come

to take in the scene, and was content with the view alone.     Just

when I start to grow tired of it, start to fidget and think of

turning away, I wake up.   By the clock on the wall (dark wood

frame, white face, black numbers, wrought iron hands) something

like ten minutes has passed.   About as much time as I remember

standing on the shore.

    It gives me something else to think about, something to

focus on as I cross my hands over my stomach and again turn to

the view of the city:    Lights from a police car in the distance,

office buildings lit up downtown, a collection of newer ones off

to the side, streetlamps stretching down the block below.     I

lean over, open the window just a fraction of an inch, enough to

hear the storm, to smell the rain, fresh, like steam from a

grate.

    And this is what I wanted, to be alone with my thoughts for

a time.   To have someone nearby, their breathing like a bell,
                                            Birch / Dynamite / 615


tolling in the distance.   For the first time since I can

remember, I'm content with who I am and where I happen to be.

Perhaps this is the marital bliss I've heard mention of, these

moments of pure joy.

				
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