short fiction by barry gifford, with roy, his youthful stand-in from chicago

"A few yards ahead of them, two men, both wearing short-brimmed hats, were arguing. One of them pulled a gun from a pocket and shot the other man in the forehead. The man who had been shot flew off his feet backward as if he’d been caught off balance by Sugar Ray Robinson’s quick left hook."

The Age of Fable

by Barry Gifford

Roy read a story about a tribe of female warriors who interrupted the conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans in their quest for males to assist in the propagation of their race. These women called themselves Amazons and were led by Penthesilea, who, as had the rest of the tribe, severed her right breast in order to more swiftly and easily draw back her bow. The most exciting part of the story, Roy thought, was the Amazon queen’s confrontation with the champion of the Greeks, Achilles, whose ferocity in battle attracted Penthesilea as no man ever had. For the first time she encountered a man she could consider her equal.

The idea of a tribe of brave, vicious, single-breasted women was almost beyond the comprehension of Roy’s eleven-year-old mind. He drew pictures of the Amazons as he imagined them, naked, tall, and lean, their long hair tied back with leather thongs.

Roy asked his grandfather if he’d ever read this story.

“Sure,” said Pops, “it’s in The Iliad, by Homer.”

“That’s right,” Roy said. “I kind of found it by accident on a table at the library. Do you think there really ever was a tribe of savage women like that?”

“I don’t think savage is the correct word for them, Roy. They knew what they were doing. The Amazons wanted to be independent of men, the problem being that they needed men to impregnate them in order to keep their race from dying out.”

“But they only wanted girls, right?”

Pops nodded.

“Then what did they do with boy babies?”

“Killed at birth,” Pops said. “Drowned them or slit their throats.”

“It’s just a story, though, isn’t it?” Roy asked. “Homer made it all up.”

“Yes,” said Pops, “but there’s a lot of truth to it. Even today many Chinese drown their female babies because they think they’re worth less than men.”

“But they need girls to keep China going.”

“They don’t drown all of ’em.”

After talking to Pops, Roy walked over to the park to see if anybody was playing ball. Halfway there it started to rain, so Roy ducked under a canopy in front of the entrance to an apartment building. A very tall, sturdily built blond lady wearing a thin black coat came out of the building. She stopped under a canopy and looked at the rain, which was falling hard.

“Damn!” she said. “Now it’ll be a bitch to get a cab.”

She turned around and walked back into the building without glancing at Roy. He waited under the canopy for a few more minutes until the rain let up a little, then ran back to his house.

Pops was sitting in the kitchen eating a chopped chicken liver sandwich and drinking a beer.

“I thought you were going to the park to play ball,” he said.

“There won’t be a game. Maybe I’ll go when it stops raining.”

He opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of milk.

“What’s the leader of the Amazons called?” Roy asked.

“A virago,” said Pops.

“Is that the same as queen?”

“You need a king to have a queen, Roy. No, a virago is a termagant.”

“Termagant? That sounds like an insect.”

Pops bit into his sandwich.

“It means a big, tough woman,” he said, as he chewed.

“I guess the Chinese don’t want any of them,” said Roy.

“Probably not,” Pops said. “Close the refrigerator door.”

Door to the River

ROY READ IN A SCIENCE BOOK about a parasite that lives in water and enters the skin of human beings, goes to the head, and causes loss of sight. This condition, Roy learned, was sometimes called river blindness. Soon after he’d read this, Roy was taken on a Friday night by his cousin Ray to Rita’s Can’t Take It With You, a blues club on the West Side. Ray was twenty-two, six years older than Roy. Ray had recently enlisted in the navy and wanted to celebrate before leaving for boot camp the following Monday. The cousins were accompanied to Rita’s by Ray’s friend Marvin Kitna, an accordionist in a polka band who had been to the club several times before.

“The Wolf’s playing tonight,” Kitna told Roy and Ray. “He’s gettin’ up there, but he’s still the best.”

Roy, Ray, and Marvin Kitna were the only white patrons that night in Rita’s Can’t Take It With You. Kitna seemed to know almost everybody there, from the two bartenders, Earl and Lee, to many of the customers, as well as the two off-duty Chicago cops, Malcolm and Durrell, who were paid to provide security. Roy let his cousin and Kitna order beers and shots of Jim Beam for the three of them. The waitress, whom Marvin addressed as Dolangela, and who favored them with a dazzling dental display of gold and silver, did not ask any of them, even Roy, for verification of their ages.

Roy slowly sipped his beer and kept his mouth shut. He did not touch the shot of bourbon. The Wolf put on a great performance, crawling around on the stage, lying on his back while playing guitar, and emitting his trademark howl. Ray and Marvin Kitna got up and danced a couple of times with girls Kitna knew. Roy was content to sit still and take in the show.

After the boys had been there for about an hour, a girl came over to their table, pulled up a chair, and sat down between Roy and Ray.

“Hi,” she said to Roy. “My name’s Esmeraldina. What’s yours?”

“Roy.”

“You got beautiful hair, Roy. You mind do I touch it?”

“No.”

Esmeraldina ran the fingers of her right hand through Roy’s wavy black hair.

“You Eyetalian?” she asked him. “You an Eyetalian boy, huh?”

Roy shook his head. “I’m mostly Irish,” he said.

“Pretty Eyetalian boy with turquoise eyes.”

Esmeraldina draped her left arm around Roy’s shoulders while she played with his hair.

“Just go along with her, Roy,” said Marvin Kitna. “She won’t bite.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” Esmeraldina said. “I surely do can bite when a particular feelin’ comin’ on.”

She poured Roy’s shot of Beam into his glass of beer and picked up the glass.

“You mind do I take a taste?” she asked Roy.

Roy shook his head no, and Esmeraldina drank half the contents.

“What’s that particular feelin’ you’re talkin’ about, Esmeraldina?” asked Roy’s cousin.

She grinned, revealing a perfect row of teeth unadorned by metal, and replied, “When a man get under my skin, crawl all up inside so’s I can’t itch it or see straight. Happens, I ain’t responsible for myself, what I do until the feelin’ wear off.”

“How long’s that take?” asked Marvin Kitna.

“Depends on the man,” Esmeraldina said.

“Like river blindness,” said Roy.

“What’s that, honey?”

“A water bug swims in through a person’s pores up to their head and makes them go blind.”

Esmeraldina stared for a long moment into Roy’s eyes, then kissed him softly on the mouth.

“I bet you know all kinds of interestin’ things, Roy,” she said. “You want to dance with me?”

“Sure.”

Esmeraldina picked up Roy’s glass and finished off the shot and the beer before they headed to the dance floor. Jimmie “Fast Fingers” Dawkins’ “All for Business” was playing on the jukebox. She pressed her skinny body hard against Roy’s and wrapped her arms around his back. Esmeraldina nudged him gently around in response to the slow blues. Roy guessed that Esmeraldina was in her early twenties, but he didn’t want to ask for fear she would in turn ask him how old he was, and he did not want to have to lie.

“How old are you, Roy?”

“Old enough to be here,” he said.

“You pretty sharp. Sharp and pretty.”

“You’re very pretty yourself, Esmeraldina.”

After the song ended, Esmeraldina took Roy by the hand and led him out of the club. It was cold outside, too cold to be in the street without a coat. Roy had left his on the back of his chair at the table. Esmeraldina did not have one, either; she shivered in her short-sleeved blouse as she walked him to the right, around the corner onto Lake Street. A few yards ahead of them, two men, both wearing short-brimmed hats, were arguing. One of them pulled a gun from a pocket and shot the other man in the forehead. The man who had been shot flew off his feet backward as if he’d been caught off balance by Sugar Ray Robinson’s quick left hook. The shooter ran and disappeared under the El tracks. Roy looked at the man on the ground: his eyes were open and his short-brim was still on his head.

“Bad timin’,” Esmeraldina said. “We’d best go back indoors.”

She and Roy hurried into Rita’s Can’t Take It With You, where Esmeraldina let go of him and lost herself in the crowd. Roy went over to the table where he’d been sitting with Ray and Marvin Kitna. They weren’t there. Roy looked for them on the dance floor, but he didn’t see them. He took his jacket off the back of his chair and put it on. The music coming from the jukebox was very loud, but Roy could hear a police siren. He saw Malcolm and Durrell, the security guards, go out the front door followed by Earl, one of the bartenders, and several customers. Roy ducked out too, turned left, and walked as fast as he could away from Lake Street. He could still see the dead man with a nickel-sized hole above the bridge of his nose.

“How could his hat have stayed on?” Roy said.

 

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