Ken Poyner

Ken Poyner is publishing a fair amount of fiction these days, which, after publishing poetry by the bucket load for 40 years, feels kind of like learning in late middle age that sex does not always have to involve a unicycle:  you enjoy the new configuration, but you still look lovingly now and again at the unicycle preserved in the closet.  He is married to one of the world’s premier raw power lifters, a woman who is currently USAPL 105 pound class National Push/Pull and Dead Lift Champion.  That, and the five rescue cats that expect his attentions, makes for a strange environment in which to live and write.  Right now, he is hoping life has him about just where it wants him.

The Marriage of the Flat Man (Issue 50)

The Peacemakers (Issue 40)

The Traveler (Issue 38)

Overreach (Issue 36)

The Spouse (Issue 32)

The Marriage of the Flat Man (May, 2015. Issue 50.)

I forgot about him for two days. That is not surprising, considering the misted alcohol stupor I led myself into after first running in to him. I called in sick to work and slept for a day and a half, letting the solace work its way out of my ashamed, frightened body. I reminded myself of the rum cakes of my childhood, the ones mother would let me have but a small piece of on holidays. My imagination of inebriation was far less toxic than the realities I later discovered. And here, after first running in to him, I shot the wad and put on my first two day drunk.

After first running into him. I was not looking where I was going. I do not know where my mind was. I was fumbling with the sash on my coat. Or maybe I was rambling on my cell phone. Or I was counting cracks in the sidewalk. Whatever I was doing, it was stunningly unremarkable. And I turned the corner at full pace and there he was. I saw him only after I full force smacked into him. A blur of a man even then: even as we tried to occupy unsuccessfully the same space. Until I made physical contact, he was unknown to me, unimportant to me, not a part of my landscape. One of millions who inhabit the earth for which I have no category.

But after we hit, complete with the sudden halt to our progress, he and I stepped rudely apart, momentarily merely two halves of a serendipitous collision. His eyes widened like those of a bird in a tempest. Perhaps the belt latch on my coat was sticking out. Or there was a capped pen in one of my pockets angled forward. Or my impractical stiletto heel hit the inside of his ankle. From that fog of my life existing before our striking face to face, I could assemble no cause. But I heard the hiss of air. The even paced, tunneling sound. I saw the candied look of amazement in his trapped eyes.

Without a word, he quickly began to shrink; and from the folding of loosened skin on skin, I could not tell where the breach was. The hiss came and went as his body wiggled and wriggled and slowly began to come down: shortening, and then narrowing, then shortening, then folding, then dipping cautiously over into a wash basket heap; his face, that had started barely above mine when we stood in the first half second of our meeting, lay flat on the collapsed bounty of his body and clothes, looking awash with astonishment up at me.

I knew no social norm for this. I had no etiquette to tell me what to do. I had never so soundly deflated an unknown man before. What to do; what to do? Feeling near criminal, I stuffed him into my oversized purse, looked about for witnesses, and ran as gracefully as I could in my brusque heels home, where I placed him on a shelf in the bedroom and cracked open the bottle of bourbon that kept me for two days without memory of what I had unwillingly done.

But I got my senses back, fishing them from the spirited cesspool of my self-blame and self-pity, netting myself back into the moment, the second, the minute, the hour, the day. My hopelessness of responsibility had gotten the better of me; but I was in some ways a victim of incidental randomness as much as he. But I had not deflated. I was not sitting wadded on an unknown woman’s closet shelf.

With my reason resettled, and my faith set right again, I quite respectfully pulled him from the closet and laid him out carefully on the bed. He was unabashedly wrinkled from two days on the shelf, and I tried to smooth him out without cracking his surfaces. He seemed to like this, and he smiled, but I could only draw him out to half his original height and width, and he looked like a smirking midget of himself, a two dimensional representation of what he would have been had he been born an elf, or a bridge troll. I selfishly felt less sorry for him – he, looking now as he did - but I was sated with the responsibility I had for his current condition, and I was awash with mission.

I looked over him for the disembodying hole I had apparently caused. I suspected a tear would be evident, a discoloration of the skin, a bit of fabric turned out from where his pants and shirt and shoes had all shrunk with him. Maybe a button dipping curiously sideways; or what would appear to be a mole which, on closer inspection, would be a blow through of his forearm; or perhaps an anonymous cicatrix on his cheek.

When I could find nothing on his front, I turned him over and spread him out again, feeling along the shoulders and stretching out his calves, twisting through the small of his back and looking inside his pants pockets. I ran my hands along every inch of him, and I swear I heard him giggle; though without air he could not have done so. But I could feel him smiling. A slow burn of a smile; one that bungles about in closets and ends up on window ledges. A smile that is proud of itself for its industry. A smile that noiselessly smacks the air unlucky enough to be around it.

I imagined him the sort of man who did not usually garner the attention of women. I do not know why. I do not remember him as being particularly without charm or looks in his inflated state; though nothing of decisive substance could be learned from his disengaging air-removed condition. But I felt the hollow hum of his appreciation even in the limp folds of his empty skin, in the simple flat of his airlessness. His smile – no, grin - followed me even when I turned him face down and inspected the back of his head, though I could not have punctured him there.

After twice inspecting him front and back, after feeling all of him with first the fingers and then the flat of the hand, I decided that I would make no progress until I could get him partially inflated and look for the part of him that was spitting back air. It works with inner tubes. It works with beach balls. It would have to work with a man.

But I did not know where the inflation valve might be. I had found no hole that let the air out; but, at the same time, I had found no valve to allow the push of air in. I looked for something convenient. I experimented with the fingers, to no success. And I tried the toes, but nothing would enter. I worked down his fly, uncoiled his sexual relevance, and tried that; and while he smiled wider than he had ever before, still nothing inflated, not even the organ itself, and the air I tried to force in just leaked across the scrotum and uselessly away. He tossed at me that broad smile which I was coming to experience as a briny mocking lecture, and I started to wish I would find no valve, no way to re-inflate this ever more insufferable man.

In the end, I sat in the wing-backed chair that I have kept in the darkest corner of my bedroom for years, and considered the man that I had, as a fully accidental consequence of an unbidden random encounter, deflated. He lay across my bed, a bare ten feet away, staring at the ceiling – since I had turned him again over on his back – with his irritating, ineffective little goblin’s smile slowly fading. I could see a wrinkle here or there across the fallow skin and the ordinary clothes the man had become stuck in when he deflated: when the air left him and I had smuggled him in my purse into my home and into my bedroom, and then onto the shelf of my closet; and then to my bed, where I ministered to him no less faithfully and prudently than would a nurse minister to a favored dying family member. I am doing my part.

I sat breathing unconsciously for a while. And then I began to breathe consciously. And I thought: breath. Breath. Perhaps taking in air and holding it as though it were a religion is as much a matter of will as it is of tears and rips and valves and any force employed to externally force air in. Taking in air is what a man does because he wants to. Holding air is what a man does because he has will. Why doesn’t this man have a want to accept ordinary air? Why doesn’t this man have the will to hold atmosphere, to roll it about within him for the profits buried in oxygen and nitrogen? Why was I trying to force air into a man who would not hold air on his own, who imagined himself punctured by a chance encounter with a random distracted woman? What responsibility did I imagine I had? I could be so foolish.

And was that encounter random? How did I know that he had not been waiting there, just around the corner, waiting for someone who looked gullible, who would instantly believe that she had some responsibility for the demise of a complete stranger, perhaps a stranger who was already deflating and was simply holding on, holding on until some rube with the look of saintliness or fear or responsible sociability stumbled blindly around the corner and became his mark.
What if I were the victim?

And then, just barely at the limit of sound, I muttered “Water”; and joyously, triumphantly, I could see on the man’s flat and empty face the bare beginnings of a stingy frown. He knew. Oh, he knew. I watched slyly from my chair, my sight of him angled, seeing enough that I could learn the broad measures of his emotions and his anxieties. Yes, I was learning. Perhaps water. Dumping him in the tub and seeing where the liquid rushed in. If he did not need air, how could he drown? The water would rush in and then I could pick him up and see from where it rushed out. And if that did not work, I would think of something else. There would always be something else to think of. I would be everlasting in my efforts, I would be dogged. I would administer every test and trial and relentlessly seek out the flaw that let him go flat. Whether I had caused that flaw or not. Whether either of us could profit from the fixing of the flaw. But I would know, I would know all!
I rose and stepped lightly over to the bed, where with minutely measured movements I rolled him gently into a compact cylinder of outline, the man flattened and without air, making room for myself on the bed.

I regarded the coming long, luxurious months of education and experimentation, of discovery and mastery, that shimmied before me in my wide and breathless dreams: waiting like velvet servings of rum cake; and not just mother-sized sniffles of rum cake, but who cares, here-have-another-slice, portions. Soon I would know everything, everything, everything. Silly man who could hold no air, there would no secrets denied me.

Table of Contents

The Peacemakers (February 2013. Issue 40.)

She loved the processed food. Most of us could not stand it, but she eloquently craved it. It became an obsession. She sat in her home at the edge of our village and cried out for it. She had grown larger and more plush and now could barely leave her house, and yet she called out for the mechanically processed food: that food, in its strangely pliant boxes, wrapped in heavily decorated sleeves, covered endlessly with such prurient excess of production and effort. How much labor it must have taken! How many men and boys and unmarried women must have swayed listlessly in work dirges to make it!

Children would run to town to get it for her, and bring it back with all its fierce wrapping intact. She would pat each child and unclothe the gift, depositing the bags and papers and boxes out of her nearest window, then set into the food as though it would escape without her application of immediate attention.

Beneath her window there was not the expected on-going pile of discards: only the day's fresh collection of packaging and papers and cardboard and Styrofoam. Nights, the villagers would come to claim these valuable leavings; and many homes were festooned with cardboard and paper, all gaudily ornate: painted, it seemed, almost as though with a madness of message. Roofs slowly disappeared under the water-shedding miracle of flattened white boxes, and walls became yellow wrap or stripes on aluminum foil. Every home, for the mix, became different and distinct. While the mere utility of covering mud and thatch with material that was far closer to immortal remained our driving purpose, nonetheless we began to judge amongst ourselves which houses were ostentation, which were dreary, which had caught the modern sensibility just so.

Before long, some villagers did not wait until night. They came as soon as they saw the children run for the woman's home with their arms emboldened with her precious provisions. These precocious citizens would stand outside of the woman's window, unabashed, signaling their right to the best of the packaging, collecting with an imperious eye: gluttonous, even though we all knew no one had any special right, no one was due more than anyone else. This trash was out of her window, and thus the village's gain.

Public shame could not deter the early gatherers. They crossed their arms and glared at passing neighbors who looked to them in disapproval. The public morality was to wait until nightfall; to gather and sort, contend and select. Every individual was assumed to be aware of his or her own needs; yet some of these early collectors already had covered their houses twice over, and for them it was not enough. They were willing to displace those who had not collected sufficient leavings even to cover a roof, or those who had yet to place one thin layer on the windward side of their exposed abodes. And amongst themselves, the early gatherers cooperated when it came to claiming the most, or the best, of the pile, in opposition to the coming of the rest of us to collect; yet, when there was no competition from the village proper, the early gatherers competed amongst themselves, ferocious both in quality and quantity.

Our village, once the drab of utility, was growing to be a festoonery of panache, a flock of many species of color and patch: piebald, and less a place to live than a place to inhabit, a showpiece. Food wrappers and packages and Styrofoam hung everywhere like triumphal streamers. Many admitted: it had its charm, and the old utilitarian abodes seemed less comfortable in hindsight. Looking over all the houses, it was easy to pick out favorites, to classify styles, to see who had put thought into arrangement.

The houses of the early gatherers stood out like a wink in a full moon, the laundry of outlanders, or the laughter of lame magicians.

Soon, the early gatherers began to believe their success, that all success, was more truly a side of entitlement. Having covered their homes many times over, each would decry that, having the most, he was due ever more; and that everyone could see by her success at covering her home with the food packaging discards that she surely knew how best to arrange and display the collected material; and so he should be allowed to take the best of it, so as to make the best use of it. Those who had not collected as much apparently did not have the talent for it, or lacked the industry. We who wished to wait for the sun to set, to take a communal and ordered approach, we, to the early gatherers, were dullards and slackers and lie-abouts: unworthy. The useful discards should go to those who had the most talent to use them, they would say, and it was almost a duty for those with the most packaging already claimed to rescue the largest share of the bounty available from those who would make no progress with it.

We disagreed, claiming that there are other pursuits a villager should be engaged in, and that too much of anything is the sign of a person who cannot be filled up. But the gatherers were not willing to listen to our reason and were settled to continue, to any unforeseen end, their overarching efforts to gather ever more. The remedy collectively seemed more and more to be some violence of restraint, an enforcement of civility that would surely create a reaction in the early gatherers, that might in opposition create a hunger for even more, ever more: to take this need which had already surpassed the practical, and then the ostentatious, to a need encompassing the social and soon the religious.

The woman simply ate, and soon her husband could not see the whole of her in one session of looking. She sat on the floor, unrestrained by furniture or gravity, and the bolts of her body slowly slipped dejectedly groundward. Her laugh at the resupply of her constant meal was but a gurgle of trapped air expelled as its last wish before execution. She could not stand against her own corporeal success; her movements became compromise, and in some cases ceased when their mission could not be mapped to her torrid ingestion.

But then a man, long in the tooth and tired of the hunt, took up the processed food as well. His grandchildren would run to town and come back with the brightly colored bags and boxes and he would sit in his house, growing larger and less able to navigate even the floors of his own home. He would toss out of the window the magnificent resource the foul food had come in. At first the hollows of his cheeks filled in, and then the space between his ribs, and soon he was eating as much as the woman and the bounty flew out of his window in a stream no less wondrous than the one from her lazily admired window.

The village took notice. Many had not even a full layer of the flashy paper on their walls. A few had none of the white compressible food boxes, boxes that worked so well to beat back the rain, on their unspectacular, lusterless roofs. Some who had covered their homes once over began to think: if there is more to be taken, why not add more; why not take away the bland and unexciting and replace it with desperate, private explosions of color and texture; why not replace a wrapper with a bag, a bag with a box?

The early gatherers would have split into groups: those who felt they could find better at the man's house; and those who felt that soon better would be left unclaimed at the woman's window after some of the others had gone to raid the man's growing pile of discards. But before any grand reorganization, there were rumors that a strap of a girl who had married too young and too cheaply was thinking of the processed food, had had her fill of reaping and picking and curing and salting and foraging. It was said in the body of village gossip that her children had been asking about the run to town: about the time and distance, and the ritual shuffle at the place where the processed food product was assembled and clothed in its princely boxes. And the early gatherers put by any thoughts of disagreement and competition amongst themselves and began to think: too much of anything is too much for all. When there is no more to want, then thinness will come back again and the subtlety of thin walls and a porous roof and open air through thatch will stand again as all the rage and the colors and papers and boxes and aluminum will disappear. There must be control. There must be one level higher that can manage want and keep it predictable. Where in that circle are the early gatherers, and the publicly traded plutocracy that their own industry has evolved out of mere want?

And so they created a market.

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The Traveler (September 2012. Issue 38.)

He was planning an around the world trip of discovery: birds to find; frogs to catalog; perhaps a few natives to partially educate and develop into cargo societies. Nothing special: just enough industry to make for a memoir and to keep the neighbors distantly envious. Just enough of a mission so that he could see himself as a traveler, a man of exploration and discovery, a generator of knowledge. Just enough so that in history he would land between commas.

His wife would actually like the trip to take more than the projected year. Perhaps eighteen months; possibly longer. During that time, her lover would be moving in and they would be setting up shop like a normal couple, with all the time together necessary to become old-hat, well-worn, personally lethargic.

The traveler knew this. He knew about the lover, and, for the sake of peace, endorsed the lover's presence. The traveler wasn't so sure about the man moving in: rearranging the traveler's furniture, sitting in the traveler's chairs, using the traveler's towel, pouring coffee in the traveler's mug; but, outside of that, the lover could do as he liked.

To no particular credit or discredit, the traveler spectacularly had a fourteen inch penis. Those are much more usable in porn movies than in spottily erotic daily life. The wife could only make practical a very little of it, and the traveler had to be exceedingly careful: and then, when he got too excited, he could drive too far unthinkingly and no one was happy with the result; so his love life was one of constant retreat, constant measuring, guess work, and waiting for alarm.

So his wife found the lover: an overweight, balding man of no particular accomplishment, with a dependable three inch penis. The lover could work his will as hard as he could and the effect was negligible. It put the joy back in her life. The sympathetically endowed lover could explosively throw all the force he could harvest behind his intentions and she might end with an upper thigh bruise, a sore hip: nothing more. It thrilled her husband to see her so happy, and this fit-to-order lover and the husband were on good terms. In fact, the wife slept, even when the husband was in town, with the lover far more than with the husband, and the husband found it a relief.

So she watched her husband, the traveler, go off on his trip of discovery, thinking: "oh yes, those nubile natives he thinks he is going to find are going to discover just what he is like soon enough. His inflatable impracticality will jump up at them first chance and be the private brake to their public reverence of him. He will need soon to content himself with unheard of butterflies, a new species of rhododendron, a sink hole on an uncharted island, the lost history of France."

She did not think often of her husband, the traveler, while he was gone. The lover settled into the traveler's house, became comfortable with all of the traveler's things: poured coffee in the traveler's mugs, watched the traveler's television, sat on the traveler's couch, wore thin ruts in the traveler's carpet. Life was day after day of expertly fitting in, of making the ordinary as ordinary as the coddled back of an everyday hand. The quiet domestic life suited the two of them, and their love life was like the restocking of shelves, the watering of a house plant, the making of a grocery list.

Too soon the traveler came home, fifteen months to the day from leaving. He had a small box of soil and the bones of a fish and a twelve foot tall woman. He said the transported soil came from everywhere he had been, and the fish was from the menu, and the twelve foot tall woman was his strikingly kidnapped lover. Most important of the three, everything being in proportion, he could work his will with the twelve foot tall woman and happiness still survived. But the soil gave him fond memories. And the bones of the fish reminded him to hunger first, catalog later.

His wife thought this odd. At least her lover was small and nondescript and could be dismissed as the maintenance man, or a neighbor, peeping. This gargantuan woman drew crowds when the foursome was arrayed in public, and there could be very little reason for the woman's existence here except the protruding fact that her husband had a fourteen inch penis and could not find a way to keep it in check, other than by capturing a twelve foot tall woman.

She tried to hide her embarrassment. When the four of them went out to dinner, all manner of customized arrangement had to be made to accommodate the twelve foot tall woman. People would ask politely very impolite questions and the giant woman would be the center of everyone's thoughts and conversation. Her husband, the traveler, would do most of the talking, answering questions for the oversized woman and describing the imagined distant, brittle land from which she came: recounting how they had become matched purely by accident one night when the yellow thatch fairies were bored and limp winged on the window sill, the drunken frogs howling murder, and the native children were roaming perilously about in privately engorged packs singing love songs to unthinking prey.

The wife's lover sat with his small hands in his lap more than ever. He worried that the woman's husband was moving back into the lover's recently won house, pouring coffee in the lover's recently achieved mugs, sitting in the lover's favorite chairs, mopping the lover's floor with the lover's mop, and building an expertly apt extension to the bed they all shared separately on different nights.

Out of a sense of adjustment, the old married couple had not had physical relations since the return of the husband. They had each kept to their respective lovers. But the time did come for a reckoning, and the wife put on her best teddy and primped an hour before her newly cleaned mirror and spread herself luxuriously across the bed: half angry, half glad, half objectified, half charged with action and purpose; her long hair wrapped half sensuously about the pencil marks of her face, half wrapped in the left-over practical scents of cooking; while she half fondly fingered the shearing scissors she had hidden just under the edge of the mattress. She was thinking: more than he can use, but less than he needs, just three inches off of the tip. He would not miss those three inches, even if his twelve foot tall Golem of a lover would. At the same remotely shared instant - as her husband, the traveler, came upon the adjusted bed with none but his wife displayed on the hard surface - he was thinking of how delicate he must be: how slow and understanding, how withdrawn and limited, and how lightly she seemed to rest on the bed ahead of his grand entrance: a nest of flesh all in one bite to be consumed carefully in the larger outline, the larger context, of his curious and comfortable twelve foot tall lover.

The next morning the husband, sheared, and aglow with the shared satisfaction of his wife at her own surgical accomplishments - leaving no hints for his wife's lover or the twelve foot tall woman that he had been deliriously clipped to a more manageable eleven inches - announced that he was off on a trip of discovery: there would be insects to preserve in amber; trade deals to be made with white coated, unrefined materials developers; surely an undiscovered tribe of nine feet tall women to bring into the faith; and yellow thatch fairies that would sing, at the hollowed out spaces that served as windows, love songs: without rhythm or rhyme, throughout the density of heroically erotic nights, with undiscovered frogs tottering in drunkenness, and native children prowling in gloriously indifferent packs. Songs sung to those who have sworn they do not need them.

Table of Contents

Overreach (April 11, 2012. Issue 36. The Late Issue)

It is not easy being served. I sit for a long time, my feet buffing the foot rail running along the outside of the bar, watching the bartender move back and forth serving other customers, before he finally can no longer avoid me and asks what I am having.

"Bourbon and ginger", I intone. The two patrons nearest me lean in and look down the bar to where I lean confidently back, the two of them wisely smiling a sick, we-know-what-is-coming smile. They expected me to order a Shirley Temple, or at worst light beer.

They know hard liquor will make a chicken sick, and they know the bartender will spice the drink with an extra splash just to make that point. They think a show is coming, and they want to watch and be out of the way.

I fold one wing around the slippery glass and toss back almost half of its contents in the first gulp. No one expected that. Having no teeth, I cannot chase the drink with proper food, but I've been swallowing small stones all day and now I can peck at the finger food, break off a pretzel stick or two. With a fist full of munchies in my gullet, the alcohol might stay down.

The bartender is quick to figure out my plan. He slides the plate of free beer mix across to the other side of the bar, out of even my extended reach. A man with pleasantly fat fingers dips into the communal bowl and picks up where I left off.

The drink has made me quickly woozy, but I think I will hold it down. I beaked quite a bit of the mix before the bartender discovered there was method in me. He now knows I am not just any rooster, not some chicken fresh out of the coop who wants to come in and experience the bar hopping life. No rube, this chicken. I know my weaknesses; I know where my felt-feathered brethren make their mistakes. I am going to do better.

Two girls by the slot machine are lilting side to side in short sheath dresses that prove their legs go all the way up. I have no idea how they can stand in heels so high, but I like it. One is sort of straight lined, with little in the way of hips and no bust to speak of, though she tries to show it off with a dip in the shirt; the other girl, however, has the curves of a good rock-islander. She has more fold and round to her, a spread that could keep a serious clutch of eggs warm. I feel my coxcomb spreading; my tongue is as rough as cheap chicken feed along the underside of my beak.

Much of the bar has stopped looking at me. You always get that reaction. A chicken walks into the bar, and everyone watches as he makes his way to the counter, sits down at the tallest stool. The patrons grow bored as the bartender ignores him. A few minutes later, no one notices the chicken sucking the air out of his Shirley Temple. When you have seen one chicken avoiding the hardcore, you have seen them all. It is not the life for me.

Once I make an entrance, I want to keep the party going. I flutter my coxcomb. I peck at the counter when I want attention. I spread both wings at the same time, jostling good-naturedly the other patrons. I leave feathers on the floor.

But now I am thinking, those two girls are alone. The half bourbon and ginger is working its way through my avian metabolism and I am getting to think I am not so different from these other patrons. We all want the same thing, we just go after it differently. I think the girls have latched on to me, and I can see one looking at me from behind her drink, vision shifted to the tops of her eyes. One of her legs is kicked slightly back, as though she had been scratching the floor, is ready to drag out something worth following.

I slide carefully off my stool. Low, so only the nearest people can hear, I lean forward and let simply out a "brrock", and soon another, though more pointed: "brrock!" and both girls look over to me and smile.

Then I make the mistake of tossing back the remaining half of that damned bourbon and ginger. By the time I am almost across the floor the fire hits me in the chest and I know at the same instant that the music just starting has a beat I can dance to, that the rhythm is in my neck and I could scratch love songs in the smoke and perfume filled air that either species could recognize; but I am already leaning forward, beak down, preparing to prove the stereotype of all of my breed right here on this very floor tonight.

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The Spouse (October 25, 2011. Issue 32.)

It takes two men to deliver the box. When you open the door, they have it cocked at a suggestive angle across the porch steps. One leans threateningly against it, not in any way as if resting, but as though he were making sure the box would not contrarily run away. You step back into the saline dark of your house and wave your arm at the stairs, the stairs with that frugal hairpin landing, and nod, imagining the men should be patiently glad you have only two floors.

Up those shore ripple stairs is not so bad, but that landing wriggles like an eel on a bass line and they tilt the ungainly box on one end and then the other and think about taking down the ornamental and feckless banister, then edge the crate, as though over a fish gutting chute, midway up the next landing, slide the back end around, to let it flop like extra anchor line onto the swell of the steps. You watch them grow tired. They move less like men and more like giant squid lured inelegantly too close to the surface by the tease of the killer whale. They move as though they were fishing with nets.

You have them place the box in a gray open space on your bedroom floor. You have no small bills to offer in recompense, and the men bound back the now calm stairs reluctantly rejuvenated, glad to be done with the box and the topical bend in the stairs. Back out to the truck they swarm without closing your door, no doubt to bemoan only half playfully how cheap you must be, and then decide where in this mud flat of a neighborhood there is a reputable place to trust for lunch.

You take a small flat head screw driver and begin to try to pry open the reluctant box. It looks like the lid has been clamped on with sea worthy three inch nails, one every eight or so inches, as though the lid were expected to shut in its light indefinitely. Why can't a box like this come like a locked cabin trunk: with hinges, and a padlock against a hasp? Something a man with a key can open, not something a man has to work for hours to remove: not something that is a crewman-like labor, leaving him unseaworthy to enjoy the contents of the box.

You go for a bigger screw driver and a more malcontent hammer. Eventually, you borrow an enormous flat head screw driver from a curiously willing neighbor, and find a small but usable hammer. For an hour you are banging the screw driver in, prying up; moving farther along the spine of the box, banging the screw driver in, prying up; moving farther along the spine of the box, banging the screw driver in, prying up; moving farther along the spine of the box, banging the screw driver in, prying up.

When finally you slide the lid off, having to bend one side up and with all your weight drive it high and over into a rattle and a fit of nails cast dangerously points up, the wife inside opens her mermaid's eyes and sits unsteady up. You rummage around her ocean crisp hips for the packing slip, hoping to ensure all the contents supposedly interred in the box truly match the original request, and match what, like merchant vessel potluck, arrived. She sits there barrel fish eyed as you go over each item: one wife, one white teddy, one pair fuzzy slip-on evening slippers, one set of cotton panties, one white cased make up kit with sundry toiletries (no need for specifics, so long as they meet the need). Yes, it is all there. You check her eye color. Yes, hazel. Her kelp cluster hair? Yes, sea urchin brown. Her delicate toenails and fingernails? Yes, painted a sort of happily disquieting seizure ruby.

You help her stand. Her legs are morning fog wobbly from all the time spent in shipping. She sways simply trying to remain vertical, her eyes adjusting to the landlocked room, her feet crackling slowly with experienced balance. She looks at the expectant curiosity of you, and then looks about the outlandish room, recognizes the lid to the box. With one hand on the back of her slumbering knee and the other supporting her at the waist, you slip one salt spray leg over the side of her crate and onto the industrial grade carpet. She hovers there a moment, her aquarium senses sharpening, straddling the side of the box, unsure, swaying a little like a fox readying its haunches for a mistimed lunge at suspecting prey it does not want.

You are breathing as heavily as a fish out of its bric-a-brac tank, and your back is cramping: but you hold onto her, afraid that if you let go she will fall back into the box like so unthinkingly discarded fish entrails, or she will fall forward and splay face first onto the dry carpet, as disjointed as a barrel of sea ration biscuits.

Suddenly like a ray in the shallows, without your prompting, she pulls her other leg out of the box and leans against you for support. You stand straight and lean into her. The two of you struggle against a Sargasso of gravity. Shoulder to shoulder, you consider your surroundings: you, looking about the room as though it were new as well, inspecting all the corners, counting the lamps, regarding the bed sheets folded back, the closet door thoughtlessly left ajar, the Monet copy you purchased at the National Museum of Art mounted on pasteboard above the dresser, the great mural of the everlasting sea that takes one whole wall into its safe keeping.

And then she is walking. Short steps, like a lungfish on a balancing ball: but walking. You lead her towards the head of the bed and with just a small but decisive push set her down on the edge of the mattress, twist her to get her to lay back and settle in.

You wonder if she will talk, if she will ask questions, will tell you about the storms and calms of her journey, of the life in the box. But it is not a part of the package.

You run like the accidental hammerhead around the bed and get in on the other side, the packing list still crumpled in one planking hand, the plastic bag of additional materials wrapped around one tiring finger. On your back, you pull open the bag and slide out the warranty card, the safety instructions, and finally find the operations manual. You start at page one, with all manner of best intentions, the etiquette of the Admiralty, but your impatience is building exponentially. You are finding it hard to read. When you go to turn the pages, it is one of those massive sheets you unfold and the paper gets tangled as though it were a gill net set too loose and spreads onto your chest. You are thinking deep water, irrefutable currents.

Beside you, the new wife says, "My love?"

Putting down the frustrating paper, you turn to your side and say, "Yes?"

Still on her back, hands evidencing a wicked potential, yet folded on her stomach, eyes to the ivory ceiling, a calm boiling on her face like the underside of a long washed stone, she says, "Move love is the death of Sunday's rabbits, the hunger of the chase, dust in dry fur, lightening out of arid horizons, disgust in the cracking of penitent lips, and the powder of children's bones."

And you roll towards her, intending to stop, but you are rolling down a great uncluttered sea shelf, followed by the sound of creatures that would want to be starfish, if they could understand your pearl need, if they understood how the bivalve is pried open and the prized muscle meat drawn out.

The two of you thrash about like a school of a thousand, and your love making is a one man performance: a racer lapping the pool alone, furiously alone, arms and legs shoveling the slyly unnoticed water, spray and wash and splash and gasps of air. Water is water. There is nothing you are incapable of, and your energy leaves lingering light on the floor, the sound of forming thunderheads in the ceiling corners, abandoned salt pools that will be the home of laborious microbes. You rise from the effort like a man out of a body water that has so close to drowned him that he has learned to sort into tastes and genera the disparate desires of water and has willingly grown accustomed to the fluid geometry of its needs.

Then you hear outside a truck pull up. As the new wife lies casually on her side, curiously dry, a vision of waving grass in a fertile soil cast out of the ocean millennia ago, you draw back the finlike window curtain to see the same truck that delivered the new wife this morning backing again into your drive way. It ambles in sideways, the claws of its rear door dropping down as if by a blue crab studying its cornered carrion. You reach over the bed to where the packing list sits and begin to look it over more closely, straying from the details to the preamble, looking in the columns once hidden by the paper folds, focusing away from the specifics of list and onto the illuminating hard minerals of the header.

Oh, no. You see the description at the head of the confusing and disingenuous packing list: this is not the wife; this is the girlfriend.

Out in your driveway, the same two men are pulling another crate from the back of their truck. They shake their shoulders like the whip stingers of rays and slip towards the whirlpool of the truck's roll door. They grumble that two deliveries in one day to a house with crooked stairs and a malicious eel bend at the landing should be outside of the union contract.

The men begin to slide the box across the truck bed to the small of salt. The girlfriend shifts in your bed behind you: crisp and smelling of earth and gaining the strength to crouch, to lunge. She will be feral on flat open plains, a terror to any smallness that runs in dry grass. You look into the briny dark of your wallet for small bills while, nearby, the wife is being sloshed towards the galleon buoys that point a path up the foam specked stairs.

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The Legendary