Jefre Schmitz

Crest of the Hill

“Where did Miss Spielmann hide your meds, Mother?" Malcolm opened and pawed his way through a kitchen cabinet above the stove, cluttered with Tupperware and forgotten oddments. "Christ, I'll find the Lindberg baby first,” he muttered.

Then his knee slipped and banged hard against the counter. “Jesus, Mother of…” and he checked himself. Gladys Schopp didn't tolerate abuse of the Lord's name. "Take that kinda talk outside, on across the street where that colored man lives," she'd say.

“Normal people put meds in the bathroom cabinet," he shouted. "Smartest move I made was letting that Nazi bitch go.”

“You don't have to shout. I'm right here. And watcher mouth.”

He hazarded a half-turn. “Oh. Well, they're not in this cabinet.”

“I said the top cabinet, Malcolm,” and his mother, with her one good eye blazing fiercely, stabbed her cane towards a spot above him, several feet away.

Malcolm groaned. Between him and the top cabinet lay two pie-pan tins heaped with day-old cat food. He then looked at her. Everything about her reminded him of how far he had fallen. Her wheelchair was on its last legs – the gears whined and a strange, industrial odor emanated from it. Her retinue of six cats milled and circled like lazy sharks about the chair. One leapt upon the kitchen table and began clawing at something in her shag of hair that clumped nicely in some areas, but sprang in wild, unpredictable patterns from others. The cane was her last remaining conceit. She clung to it like a superpower nation clings to a nuclear warhead – she hadn't a need for it, but she'd use it if she had to, by God.

"And lay off them Germans, Malcolm. They ain't proud like they once were. They're bitter."

"The war ended years ago, Mother. They need to move on." He noted her bad eye had clouded to a dull blue and rolled to the side, to some nonspecific place. When it strayed like that, there was no talking to her.

"Mmm-hmm. Bitter people, them Germans," she said. Then with her voice rising: "But I had me a goodern once. Dark and handsome like a Spaniard, but smart like the Dutch!" and she held her cane imperially with her good eye burning a blue flame.

Malcolm shook his head. His mother's meanderings onto the European continent often mystified him. "Daddy was Austrian," he reminded her.

"Nothing but a few hills separating the two countries," she countered.

He shoved the pie pans aside and strained to reach the top cabinet, but couldn't. He scooted closer, affording a view through the window above the sink, and he paused. A strong wind had kicked up, pushing the clouds swiftly past. He remembered once as a boy, staring at the sky and believing that time moved faster when the clouds raced by, aging us all a little quicker; and believing how the introspective like him, in possession of this extraordinary knowledge, would be made to suffer.

He sighed then opened the cabinet and there they were. Each bottle neatly categorized according to which of his mother's ailments they combated, and alphabetized within each category: the German way.

Miss Spielmann had been wordless in his final encounter with her. He had planned to apply logic upon informing her of her release: it was time for him to step in; sometimes, a family must pull together; money had become an issue . But as she stood absolutely still, like a stake hammered into the ground, he stumbled over his words and his eyes sought refuge upon any object other than that of her terrible visage. At the conclusion of his clumsy address, she murmured something derogatory, then whirled and marched out of the house. The bus stop was twenty yards away, and he had had to endure the horror of watching her from the window, cringing behind the thinly parted curtains, praying the German she-devil would soon mount the steps of a downtown shuttle. He had cursed his own cowardice.

Malcolm couldn't make heads or tails of the Spielmann system. “This is impossible, Mother. I'll need a degree in Library Science to find your blood pressure medication.”

The doorbell rang.

Gladys' unmoored eye suddenly aligned itself with the good one. “It's Frau Spielmann! She'll find my pills. That woman could find life on Neptune if'n you asked her to.”

Malcolm hopped down. “Forget it. There'll be scooping ice cream in hell before that woman darkens our doorway again.” Secretly though, he half-feared it might be the dreaded Hessian.

Gladys fumbled with her joystick and the chair spun. All six cats fled, seeking shelter under a table or behind a curio cabinet. Malcolm hurried through the alternate exit from the kitchen into the hallway leading to the front door, ahead of his mother. But she had already gathered a full head of steam and collided hard into the back of his legs.

“Ow! Back off.”

“Let me get it, Malcolm. Frau Spielmann doesn't care for you,” and she jabbed him with her cane. Malcolm snatched it from her.

“Quit it.” His mother then slumped and pouted, as she was wont to do when rebuked. ”Don't start, Mother.” The doorbell rang again and the wheelchair whirred. He shot her another look.

“I need my pills, Malcolm!”

“Hush.” He then moved to the door and peered through the peephole. The visitor was standing too close to the door, presenting only a blurred image of the top of their head. He tiptoed for a better look, but to no avail.

“My pills, Malcolm. I declare, I feel the vertigo comin on.”

“Lord Jesus,” and he cracked open the door only a little, crooking his head around the edge.

He could manage nothing to say upon seeing her. The woman was singularly the most curious looking person he had ever seen —- at once freakish and striking. His mouth moved, but no words were forthcoming.

“Frau Spielmann!” Gladys called. “You've returned! I'm in need of my pills. You'll kindly fetch them, won't you?”

The woman's eyes flitted only briefly upon Malcolm, then darted past him, straining to see who called to her from within. Her head bobbed twice before she made her decision.

“Step aside,” she ordered and pressed through the narrow opening. Malcolm was too startled to resist.

“Now see here,” he said. She ignored that, moving in short bursts of agitated energy. Once inside, she stood statue-still in the hallway, her eyes locked solidly upon the addled matriarch as if gazing upon some fantastic treasure finally unearthed.

Gladys' mouth O'ed in astonishment. “Why, Frau Spielmann. What on heaven's earth has happened to you?”

“It's not Miss Spielmann, Mother.” He stepped around to confront the woman. “Who are you, and what nerve have you to burst in like this?” Then in a grand gesture as if to thwart the imposter, he drew an imaginary line upon the floor with the tip of his mother's cane.

The woman reached into a breast pocket of her jacket and removed a card. “Here.”

“What's this?” The card simply read Family State Services . No name or number. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“Can you find my pills, young lady?” his mother warbled.

Malcolm looked over at his mother. The good eye had focus and glowed cobalt blue, but the other had drifted towards the ceiling and he now feared the worst. He looked back at the stranger. Again, he was amazed at the sheer power of her physiognomy.

She stood scarcely five feet tall with a face and body too small for their accompanying fixtures. Eyes too large, a nose too hooked and a mouth that stretched unusually wide — almost the entire length of her jaw. And from her tiny frame torpedoed two breasts that seemed intent upon pinioning any interlocutor captive. It was as if all of her five senses had been tuned to their uttermost state of acuity. The skin was taut and unwrinkled, yet no amount of scrutiny could ascertain her age. Then there was the hair, moussed in what looked to be tufts of exclamations points and question marks punctuating her scalp. Malcolm wasn't sure whether this was a result of some unfortunate accident or if she had purposely sculpted this flocculent abomination. Despite all of this, there was an unsettling allure to this creature.

"Listen, did a…" and the first name escaped him. "Did a woman named Spielmann send you?"

With her eyes still fixed upon Gladys, she asked, "Has he been looking after you properly?"

Gladys motioned Malcolm to hand over her cane, which she then laid upon her lap. She laughed. "You mean Malcolm? Well, he tries. Did Frau Spielmann send you?" The woman didn't answer; simply edged closer to Gladys and bent, as if to better examine some rare object.

"Now look here!" Malcolm went to reach for the woman's sleeve then thought better of it.

Gladys craned and returned the woman's hard look. "Are you European?"

The woman straightened. "My people are from Holland !"

"I knew it! See, Malcolm? I can always tell. Smart and, hmmm, oddly attractive." Gladys tilted and cocked her head to view the woman from every angle.

"Yes, yes, that's all very well. But what is the point, Ms…"

The woman lifted her head and sniffed. "What's that odor?"

"We have six cats. There's always a smell," Malcolm answered.

"It isn't wise to have that many cats prowling the premises. They carry diseases. They should be removed." Malcolm's jaw dropped. Could it be possible this woman was for real? Gladys continued to stare in amazement at the enigma.

"You know, Malcolm had a girlfriend, but she was trash. He even said so."

"Oh, for godssakes, Mother!"

"It's true. Brought her over here oncet. She carried on like a myna bird the entire evenin. Young, pretty thing, but dumb as a sack of stones."

Malcolm reddened. That evening was one of the most horrifying experiences of his life. His mother spoke of Lydia , a pale, mousy woman barely out of college whom he'd secretly lusted after at work, but hadn't the wherewithal to engage. When she had sensed his attraction, she threw herself at him. He had panicked and did what he always did when nonplussed — turned ugly and indifferent. Yet, she had rejected these false pretenses and pursued him until it became sheer torment. He had at once yearned for and despised her. He'd ridicule her in public and foil every advance, only to return home alone each night and wallow in self-loathing.

To finally rid himself of her, he arranged a dinner date at his mother's house. He wagered one evening with the paraplegic wretch would repel even the most steadfast. However, Lydia laughed gaily and prattled the entire evening. If Malcolm uttered a snide remark, she blithely dismissed it. Gladys, her lucidity inspired by the arrival of an infrequent visitor, bade Lydia welcome. By evening's end, the two sat laughing and sipping tea while leafing through endless volumes of photo albums, most featuring little Malcolm naked in the bathtub, naked on the sofa, squatting on potty, or wearing a wan grin because his diaper was full.

Ultimately, there occurred an incident that cost him his job — a lousy, menial job as an editor's assistant for a second rate magazine, but a job nonetheless. He had had enough. One afternoon, after she had run a slow finger along his neck then around his ear, he erupted and let her have it before the entire staff, including the Chief Editor. His words were vicious and battering and finally, she broke down. He remembered a part of him leaving his body amid the bombast, looking down at himself in abhorrence. And now, exposed before this day's mysterious intruder, he would be punished.

"Malcolm's book-smart, but operates about a half-bubble off plumb. He needs a woman that'll listen and challenge. A woman like you! But, he's unemployed. I reckon you need a man of means," Gladys sighed. The woman glanced over at Malcolm with a sneer, as if the very idea of coupling repulsed her.

"So, where does he keep your pills?" the woman asked in a haughty voice.

"They're in the kitchen cabinet. Malcolm found 'em, but can't make sense of all them bottles."

Malcolm stood paralyzed and watched as the woman moved with short, choppy steps to the kitchen with Gladys in pursuit. From the hallway, he listened as the woman opened and closed cabinets.

"In that upper cabinet, girlie," he heard his mother bark. "Use that step stool." Malcolm finally steeled himself and walked into the kitchen. When he got there, the woman had already begun removing the pills from the cabinet and placing them on the counter.

"There isn't a need to hide these. You're treating her like a child." Even with her back to him, her words were no less venomous. When she had finished, she stepped off the stool and smartly rubbed her hands together. "There!" then turned and directed a most profane and ghastly smile towards Gladys, her teeth gleaming like the Dover Cliffs. "You can help yourself now. You don't need him."

Gladys slammed her cane hard upon the kitchen table. "You ain't got no right saying that, Missy. Ain't-no-right," she repeated, her cane tapping the Formica between each syllable. The woman retreated, her face drawn and lips pressed into a thin, long line. Emboldened, Malcolm rushed to his mother's side and took up her hand. It trembled and he clasped it tighter as to seal their solidarity.

"A mother cain't ever, ever let go or let something come in between." Gladys' voice was beginning to fail and Malcolm tried rousing her, but it was too late — the glaucous eye had already headed north into her skull. "Leave us be for now, Missy. Leave us be. Oh Lord, Malcolm, there's a darkness creepin in."

"Sssh, Mother," and he stroked her wild, matted hair. "Just relax." Malcolm looked back at the woman and tried standing straight and tall with his chin raised, feigning courage like some cornered animal about to be slaughtered.

The woman's malignant smile returned, spreading with glacial ease from cheekbone to cheekbone, revealing the white pillars of her teeth; and her eyes, the beautiful enormous eyes, seemed to quake and begin to emerge from the confines of their deep and narrow sockets. She took a bottle of pills from the counter.

"Yes, of course. I should leave," she said in a cold, acid voice. "These pills," and she shook them, "will control her spells. I trust you'll tend to that," and she placed the bottle carefully on the kitchen table next to Gladys' cane that now lay quietly inattentive of the intruder. The woman then turned and made her way out.

Malcolm waited for the front door to open then shut. A terrible, terrible fear swelled inside him, filling his throat. He wanted to shout some something … anything that would condemn those that would want to expose him, but he could manage no words. He rushed to peek from the window adjacent the door.

Across the street stood old man Tubbs. Next to him sat a hunched figure in a wheelchair, shrouded in a black coat and shawl from which only a glimpse could discern a woman of extreme age. The younger woman was rapidly making her way towards them. When she neared, Tubbs removed his rumpled hat and broke into a broad, idiotic grin, nodding and clutching at his hat like here was the first white woman to have ever acknowledged him.

“Damn fool,” Malcolm muttered and pressed closer to the window, his eyes narrowing. The woman walked right up to Tubbs and dropped a few coins into his hand. Tubbs gaped at the money like she had just given him keys to a new car. She then knelt next to the wheelchair and looked into the face of the invalid. Malcolm cupped his hands about his eyes, for the late evening sun now fired a column of brilliant light directly upon the three.

The woman took up a hand of the elder and held it, as if to reassure. Then in a gesture that stilled his breathing, she lifted the elder's hand and set it against her cheek, so utterly tender and purposeful, and let it reside there for a long while. Overcome, Malcolm had to move his eyes away from the sight, if for only a moment. When his courage had been somewhat restored, he looked again.

Tubbs had shambled off, leaving the younger woman standing with a hand upon the shoulder of her attendee and looking expectantly down the road. There came a rumble and Malcolm angled his body to see the approach of the 6:15 bus from the inner city. It rolled to a stop with a loud squeal of its brakes. After the women boarded, he watched as it pulled away, slowly cresting the hill above the neighborhood, beyond any point he had ever known.

They had traveled a great distance to arrive here, he imagined. Who had sent them? He no longer subscribed to any conspiracy theory involving Mrs. Spielmann. And yet, he couldn't escape the thought that all of this was somehow contrived deeply to impress his mind.

“Malcolm!” He tore his eyes from the window. “It's comin up on six-thirty. Bring me them pills and switch on that tay-vay.”

He sighed as the remainder of the evening played out in his mind's eye. He'd wheel her into the TV room where she'd first watch the 24-hour Medical channel and comment on the litany of diseases presented — she favored those that tended to linger and deform. Next, she'd switch the Wrestling channel, then scream at a witless referee and rant how wrestling was staged: "You hit a man like that with a foldin chair … well, he ain't comin to," she'd posit.

While she'd holler at the TV, he'd try to bury his thoughts in the course of completing the usual evening chores. He never really succeeded and ceded this evening would be no different, especially in light of this day's visit.

He'd fix her a simple meal around seven-thirty. Then by nine o'clock it would be time for her bath, then bed. "Read to me from Romans, Malcolm honey," she'd say. "I read to you from Romans last night, Mother." She always selected Romans. "There's a lesson for all of us in Romans," she'd remind him.

But the lesson was never disclosed for he heard not the words he read. He'd deliver them along a long, winding stream of monotone running parallel to his own thoughts — thoughts he couldn't escape. Like never being never able latch on to a single thing in his entire life. Too old to go back to school and too intelligent to remain gainfully employed. Relationships were impossible — he had nothing to give and knew not how to receive. He hadn't any hand to gently lift and press to his cheek, nor anyone to travel great distances with. The top of the hill was unattainable, and he'd forever languish at the bottom. He was alone and powerless to change.

At some point, he'd cease reading and look at his mother. In the diffused light of the ancient bed lamp, she'd appear gray and still and near death, with her head tilted back and mouth open. Barely perceptible would be her breathing. Her eyes would lie motionless behind rice-paper thin lids. It would be then that he would try to imagine what it would be like when she was gone … and, what would become of him.

He awoke the next morning vaguely disoriented, unsure of where he was, like stepping out of a disturbing dream with its accompanying sense of displacement. He lay there until the feeling subsided before rising to pad to the bathroom. From outside the window, he heard the clicking of a bicycle's gears followed by the thud of the newspaper hitting the front stoop. A bird began to sing, limning the peacefulness of the morning quiet and lifting his spirits.

He put on his robe and slippers and walked outside to retrieve the newspaper. It was one of those crisp, cloudless March mornings that inspire the artist to paint and the poet to pen. Seldom did he take heed of his surroundings, but something this morning compelled him.

He looked for a time down towards the swath of apartment buildings that clustered at the edge of a row of warehouses, which in turn abutted the business district of town. There was little traffic or noise, allowing him the fleeting thought that there might be others like him, surveying the still of morning and relishing a precious moment of clarity.

As he stood admiring the suffusion of dawn's light upon the silent city, the chirp of a bird's song returned. He turned, expecting to be rewarded with a vibrant splash of red or blue upon a royal crest or curving breast. Nothing. The bird sang out again, and he wheeled. Again, nothing, save the rustling of last season's sycamore leaves still piled and unraked in the corner of the lot. He grew frustrated and uttered an oath as he spun to locate the bird whose call seemed to come at him from every quadrant.

At length, his gaze fell upon the crest of the hill, whereupon the call of the maddening bird ceased. He looked upon it a long while and marveled how the street seemed to disappear into the expansive sky, as if Columbus' naysayers had been correct. Alternating bands of salmon, turquoise and white color stair-stepped above it, filling him with a sense of both awe and dread. And, it was in that instant that he realized he had never ventured beyond that hill, had never even walked to the summit to peer across, nor had had any inclination to do so. He had grown up in this house, moved out and into the city when he was eighteen to attend college, and now, in his thirty-fifth year, he stood one hundred yards from the edge of the earth and what felt like the end of time.

There came a rap upon a window from behind. It was Gladys and he could see the shadowy bounce of her cane behind the filthy pane of her bedroom window. It was time for her breakfast.

He brought her a half of grapefruit, a bowl of instant oatmeal and some buttered toast. She'd eat little, leaving most of the oatmeal for the cats. He wasn't hungry and only poured himself a cup of coffee.

When he arrived with her tray, she had hoisted herself up into a sitting position, leaning forward as if she ready to launch herself out of bed. All six cats prowled the surface of the mattress, mewing in anticipation of the warm, gooey oats.

"What kept you?" she grumbled. Her errant eye lolled in its socket as if it floated on water. Malcolm sighed then advanced to shoo the cats. Three disappeared under the bed while the others just looked at him through lazy, half-opened eyes.

"Why do you let these animals on the bed, Mother? They're unsanitary."

"Cleaner than Tubbs' mongrels any day of the week."

"Tubbs' has goats. Of course they're filthy. I doubt he let's them drink from the faucet and eat off the bed."

"Well, if you're gonna act like a turd, go lay in the yard," and her mouth kind of flopped open in an ugly way he always found amusing.

He chuckled. "Okay, I'm sorry. Look, it's a pretty morning. Let's not squabble."

Gladys slowly picked up her spoon and poked around at her oatmeal. She then directed a long look out the window. His eyes followed hers, past the dusty pane where one could barely make out a thin strip of ever-bluing sky that held just the faintest whisper of promise. But then, his focus changed and fell upon his hazy reflection in the glass. In his red flannel robe, with his hair still unkempt from last night's sleep, he saw his father, just as he appeared in the months before passing away.

Gladys opened her mouth.

"You gonna leave? Gonna take off with that woman?"

"Huh? What woman?"

"That woman who came callin. Whatser name? I didn't catch it."

"Oh, her. She didn't give her name."

"I believe it was Flotveg … yes, Norwegian. My, she was pretty!" Gladys proclaimed in a clarion voice. Then added: "You ain't gonna leave me, are you?" and she looked up at him with an expression that was both vexing and profoundly sad.

"I'm not leaving. I don't need anyone."

"We all need someone, Malcolm … or some thing ." He waited, expecting her to add something to that, but she now only appeared interested in feeding the gray tabby oatmeal from her spoon.

"That woman was probably just one of them religious fanatics," he said.

"Well, there'll always be fanatics," Gladys replied.

"No, I'm certain she had an agenda," he exclaimed, thrusting a finger into the air. "If she comes calling again, we're to dismiss her. I won't stand for her or anyone else intruding. Our business is our own. No fanatic or lunatic can come in between."

Gladys suddenly jerked her head up and snarled, "You're a rootless, pompous ass, Malcolm." She had caught him off guard. He opened his mouth to say something, but she cut him off. "Your daddy crapped money down a hole when we sent you off to college. Didn't do any good. Left and came back the same. Rootless and pompous! That woman could have taught you a thing or two." She then called over one of the cats to lick some more oatmeal from her finger.

"Would you have me leave with that woman? Is that what you want? Who'd take care of you? That bitch Spielmann? I can leave in a heartbeat."

"You think I'm holdin you back? You got it ass backwards, boy." Her posture improved as she gained ground in the debate. She had her hands planted at her sides as if she were ready to pounce. The cats sensed something looming and began their exodus from the bed.

"I tell it like it is, Mother. I call a spade a spade. If people don't like it, tough."

"Take a hard look yourself and call a spade a spade."

He gulped, his throat getting dry. "Don't come at me like that. Things don't come easy for someone like me. My ship just hasn't come in yet." He winced upon delivery of the tired cliché as a mental picture of ship materialized in his mind, moored to an abandoned pier and taking on water through its rotting hull.

"Ha," she barked. "That's the most foolish thing I've ever heard." She now projected a disturbing image: her body rigid and battle-ready; her hair, wild as ever and snaking from her skull like Medusa; and both eyes aimed squarely at Malcolm and lit like twin braziers of fire.

"I've got a lifetime in front of me," he said unconvincingly. "Time to sort things out and set aside obstacles."

"You ain't got much time! Time's slipperier than shower soap, Sonny Boy." Her hand shot to the side for her cane, almost toppling the rickety nightstand next to the bed. "I'm figurin I'm one of your them there obstacles. Maybe I should be passin on … movin on aside. Life'll be there for the takin! Praise the Lord!" She now held her cane aloft like a staff, commanding unearthly forces to do her bidding.

The doorbell rang.

Malcolm stood bewildered, unable to tear his eyes from the bedridden specter. The ringing of the doorbell gave way to a persistent knock that grew louder in its urgency. Gladys' baleful eyes slid towards the door.

"You gonna get that? Sounds important."

All the blood in his body seemed to have evaporated, but he rallied and staggered out. The knocking ceased at the precise moment he entered the corridor, as if the visitor sensed his approach. Summoning his courage, he flung open the door.

She was dressed in funereal garb with a thin black veil that didn't mask her features, but rather accentuated them. All of the blood that had pooled somewhere outside of his body come flooding back to his face. She said nothing. Just stood silently like some alien sentinel. He stepped backwards with his hand still gripped tightly on the doorknob. He wanted to slam the door shut, but couldn't find the means.

A loud thud suddenly sounded upon the floor. He started and turned to look. His mother had made her way to the far end of corridor, leaning heavily onto her cane. Her entire body shook with one step, then another. Her face would writhe in agony for one second, to be replaced by a look of intense fortitude the next.

Malcolm's eyes widened as he paled. "Look at what you've done!" he shouted at the visitor. "Look at what you've done! Speak, damn you!" He then hastened to his mother's side and made an attempt to place an arm about her.

"Get your hands off me," she roared. "This ain't your affair." He withdrew, wary of the one good eye that had become inflamed with rage; the other journeyed in wide, elliptical arcs across the ceiling and walls.

“But you said…,” and he swallowed, “… said nothing could ever come between.”

“Why put down roots for someone who dudn't want any? Move aside!”

He looked on, appalled, as she lurched forth, her body quaking violently under the tremendous strain. When she finally reached the door, she was gasping for air. The sunlight, having just begun to slant over the hill, blasted the dark, motionless figure in the doorway, encircling it with a vulgar, crimson nimbus of mystery. With deliberate ease, the woman reached to take hold of Gladys' elbow, pulling her closer and into the candescence of morning light. The woman then pointed towards the hill.

As Gladys stared into the sun, Malcolm witnessed the transformation at hand — watched as the light played upon his mother's face until it shone like the purest porcelain, telling the story of a lifetime. And when his mother began to sag, he didn't despair nor weep. He waited until his mother came to rest upon the floor, and only then did the woman leave in the direction of the hill.

He approached and upon bended knee took his mother's head into his hands. The occluded eye, the one that had troubled him for so long, wavered before coming to rest upon him. It lay peacefully still, looking right through him as if indeed, he had never existed at all.

Something then brushed against him. It was the calico making its way past to the body. For a short time, it sniffed the corpse before looking up at him with golden eyes to mew, plaintively at first, then louder until it yowled, imploring Malcolm to see and do what he must. "Hush yourself," he hissed, "you're on your own now." And with that, the cat promptly quit and stalked off.

Malcolm carefully laid his mother's head back down then rose to walk outside. He looked down — down the street at every ugly house that lined it — all different and all the same. And further still to the gray, dreary patchwork of apartments, and beyond to the row of dingy warehouses where he or nothing else could call itself its own. After he had satisfied himself that this was how things were to be, he turned and walked to the top of the hill.

Everything opened up: the earth and the sky. Every color shone more distinctly; every contour banked, curved or squared more crisply; every scent wafted more fragrantly or more acridly. The road sloped precipitously before flattening onto an expansive plain and tapering into a long, thin ribbon trailing to a ridge of lavender hills at the horizon.

A deep, broad green pasture stretched along the left-hand side of the road. The grasses were impossibly green, as if a 17 th -century master had just completed a canvas, the paint still wet upon it. A small herd of cattle grazed near a white-railed fence separating the field and road. An orchard of peach trees dominated the back pasture, blossoming in a sumptuous sea of pink and arranged in eight orderly rows that receded into the distant hills.

At his right and below, a small group of people had gathered at a burial plot towards the front of a vast cemetery that sprawled in equal measure to its neighboring pasture from across the road. Here, the land was darker, more somber and ensconced in a stand of denuded elms that stood sentry for the myriad of dead, their tombstones dotting the landscape for as far as the eye could see. Malcolm shuddered at the sight of it. And apart from the gathering, a solitary figure walked towards the road whereupon reaching the edge, it stopped and looked up at him. He could feel her eyes upon him.

"Mornin', Mista Schopp."

He didn't start at Tubbs' voice; simply turned and regarded him for a moment before returning his attention to that which held his fascination below.

"Yessah-ree, it shore is a beautiful day." Tubbs removed his hat and drew a deep breath of air.

"Indeed, Mr. Tubbs, it is," Malcolm answered softly.

"Ain't this heah sumthin? Lookie at it all. Say, I ain't never seent you up heah. Yessah, it shore is sumthin awright." And with hat in hand, Tubbs swept his arm with a flourish from left to right across the New World.

"It is something," Malcolm said, and continued to watch as the woman now made her way across the road. Once there, she stopped and again looked up at him.

"I'se up heah everyday. Lookin 'round … seein thangs … wonderful and new … sometimes not so good, but mostly good."

Malcolm was barely listening. The woman then pulled the veil from her face and calmly turned and began walking away, alongside the white-railed fence and lush fields, alone and into the inexorably rising sun.

"Well sah, I best be gettin on. Thangs don't git done by wishin 'n thinkin. You tell yo momma ol' Tubbs says how-do," and he ambled off back down the hill.

Malcolm watched him hobble towards his tiny house and ragged lawn littered with items in various stages of decay. He then looked back at her, now only a speck at the extreme boundary of his field of vision and realm of thought. And as quickly as the thought had occurred to him to run to her, he suddenly remembered there were things he must do: a job to find; cats to feed; and the interment of his mother's body to plan … all awaiting him at the bottom of the hill.

Jefre Schmitz has been attempting to write serious fiction since 2001. He credits Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy as his most significant influences. He has been published online with Scriveners Pen, Judas E-Zine and Kudzu Monthly. He can be reached at


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