All the time, I would see her, like, every day, this woman, dressed all in black or sometimes, like, a gray, a dark gray. The trail—the hike and bike—ran right past my house and every morning, there she’d be. Walking. I don’t know what she was doing there. I mean, I don’t know why she was living in our little suburb. She wasn’t the only one, of course. They’d opened up a whole goddamn mosque a year before, and a couple of new Indian food places. Not that she was Indian. I know that she wasn’t Indian. You don’t have to tell me she wasn’t Indian. I don’t know what she was but I know she wasn’t any kind of Indian lady. Those ladies don’t cover up so much, even if sometimes they should cover up more of themselves than they do.
Anyway, so I’d see her all the time, and I’d think to myself, as any normal god-fearing, respectable kind of guy would, I wonder what she’s hiding under there. That’s what everybody thinks. Don’t tell me it’s not. And I’ve got a pretty wife, much like you’d expect, and I look at her when I get home and I see her in her pretty little dresses or sometimes her curvy little jeans, and I think, that’s fine, that’s good. I know what I’ve got is a good thing. But then I think, sometimes I think, I wonder what she’s hiding under there—not my wife but the other lady—and then I think, What would Jennie look like under one of those. What would I do if I came home and found Jennie under one of those things. Or if all the time except for bedtime that’s all I could see her in. I’d tell, of course I’d tell her to take it off. I mean, what the hell is she trying to pull with that shit, but also I’d wonder about her, think about her in that get up. I’d want to know, What she’s hiding under there. I’d want to know that even though I already know that. And maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Because, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it. Not. Well, maybe it’s not the point of that big black cloak that lady wears or the mask, or, whatever, not a mask, I don’t know. What is it? A veil, I guess. I mean, that’s probably not the point of that kind of get up, but I could see my wife, like, if she didn’t think I was noticing her as much, enough, I can see her doing something like that. Maybe in the opposite direction, with some frilly little thing at night, or with something to do with her hair, making her hair purple (it happened). The point I’m making, what I’m trying to say is, I can see how this kind of thing might work. Not the purple hair, maybe. I mean. I noticed it but wasn’t happy about it. It didn’t make me wonder, What’s she hiding under there, in other words. It made me wonder other things, but not that. Anyway, we can all see how this could work, this thing, is the point I’m trying to make.
You feel sometimes like people don’t notice you, don’t see you, or they see you and think they know all there is to know about you, and that’s just the same as not seeing you at all, but then showing more of you doesn’t ever seem to work, and so what are you left? I mean. I’m just trying to get you to see it the same way I’m seeing it.
In any case, I didn’t know where you were supposed to buy this sort of stuff, the full-body wrap stuff, so I kind of put some shit together. A costume store, some drapes, some heavy black drapes. My wife’s eyeliner. It wasn’t hard. I mean. It was hard to make it look right, look even close to right, but it wasn’t hard to do. Doing it was pretty easy. Then I took a picture—one of the old cameras because of the timer and because I didn’t want Jennie to find it by accident on my phone or the digital camera. To be honest, I took a few pictures. And then I took all that shit off and threw the drapes away. I spent a hundred dollars on them and then just fucking threw them away. But now I have this. I have this thing now, and why shouldn’t I. Why shouldn’t I be able to look at this thing and wonder, What’s under all of that.
Dirty Santa has no money is the reason why he calls me about a possible job. And look, there have been times when I have studied at the events of my life, the decisions good and bad, the whole nurture vs nature thing, in hopes of figuring out exactly how I came to run around with folk like Dirty Santa, but seeing as how I’m broke and down to my last everything, today’s not one of those days.
What job, I ask him.
I should know better by now than to trust the viability of Dirty Santa’s ideas. Once he wanted us to rob my parents, us dressed up all in black and with ski masks or Halloween masks on over our faces so they wouldn’t know it was us robbing them. I didn’t bother telling him that anything that they had that was worth stealing I’d already taken, and simply by walking through the front door and taking it.
They’ll know it’s me, I told him instead. No matter what kind of mask I’ve got over my face, they’ll know it’s me, because of the fucked up way I walk.
See, I walk on the balls my feet, some would say on the tippy toes, and no matter how much I’ve tried to fix that I can’t, so no matter what I’m wearing or how I’ve disguised myself, people always know me by the funny way I walk.
Once, in elementary school, I wore every piece of clothing I could fit over myself, and then a new heavy coat no one knew about, and then a ski mask, and then a hat over that, to pretend I was a new kid that no one knew and whose face was maybe burned by acid or something? Like kids do sometimes. But right away, see, everyone knew it was me, and I felt kind of like an idiot.
Anyway, when I thought I’d finally convinced him robbing my parents was a lame idea, he told me, Okay, okay, I get you, but here, just meet me at this address, and we’ll do this other job together. Then he handed me a slip of paper with my parents’ address on it.
I guess what I’m saying is, Dirty Santa isn’t the brightest bulb, but, since the thing I botched with the McNamara job, he’s the only bulb I know right now who’s willing to bring me in on a job.
He tells me the job and then the plan—a musician owes The Angermeier money but now it’s too late for the money and so we’ll wait for him at a bar in Brooklyn where he’s supposed to be and there beat the shit out of him and take all his stuff—which seems, for Dirty Santa, like such a straightforward and thought-out plan my Spidey-Sense should start tingling, but maybe because I’m hungry and I haven’t been sleeping too good lately, nothing tingles or whatever tingles doesn’t tingle loud enough and I miss it.
It’s a surprise, then, and not a surprise, not a surprise at all, when the address he gives me isn’t a bar, is just an empty storefront, half-burned down, and Dirty Santa’s there with another guy, some guy I don’t know, and I wonder, in the split second before it all falls to shit, I wonder if he called that guy first or second, if he laid out a plan as simple and sweet to that guy as he laid out to me, except instead of collecting from a musician, he told him, There’s a guy I have to take care of and I need a second guy with me, and if after the two of them take care of me, I wonder if Dirty Santa’s going to say, Hey, how about, now that we’ve done this, we go rob your parents?
Anyway, I start to run because I’m in no position to do anything else, and, truth be told, I’m not in much of a position to do that, either, but I start to run anyway because, fuck, what else is there for me to do?
The king is dying and she should be there with him, attending to him somehow, or comforting the queen, who wouldn’t accept her comfort anyway, but, still. She should be at their sides instead of here in these woods looking for the old Hag. Or, not the Hag specifically, who was chased off the cliffs and fell to her death, or so it’s assumed, since nothing but her rain-soaked robes were found at the bottom of the chasm.
Not the Hag, then, but the Hag’s cottage.
Though let’s be honest. The old Hag’s cottage, after having lived there for sixteen years, is more to her than just the old Hag’s cottage.
She should be with the king, she knows. Weakened and wasting away. Going mad with pain, surrounded by strangers, apothecaries, clerics, magicians, and whatever other assortment of miracle workers sent for by the queen. But she also knows, or feels, or believes she feels, that if she can just find that cottage again, then everything else in her life will be set back to rights.
That she could have spent sixteen formative years of her life living in that cottage, living in these woods, and yet be unable to find it, even after almost a year of sneaking out of the castle to go in search of it, drives her to distraction.
Still, here she is, lost in the Darkening Woods yet again.
For a long time, she tried to get the animals of the Darkening Woods to tell her something about the Hag or the about the Hag’s cottage, but they’d stopped speaking to her. Not just that, but the birds and rabbits and turtles and deer had stopped gathering at her feet, as well. Had stopped bringing her baskets full of flowers or apples, had stopped draping bedsheets over her sleeping form in the middle of the night, had begun to act like birds and rabbits and turtles and deer normally act—frightened, in other words, and distrustful, blank-eyed and without intelligence or voice—which had depressed her, made her feel she had somehow offended or betrayed them, or that they had simply abandoned her, until she realized that the talking animals must have been nothing more than a side-affect of the potion that the Hag had used to drug her and, towards the end, wipe clean her memory.
Which, coming to this realization upset her even more, made her wonder what other memories of those years with the Hag and the cottage had been nothing more than a side-affect of the potions the Hag fed her hidden inside apples and cakes and gingerbreads. It made her wonder if there had been a cottage at all.
Maybe if she sings, she thinks. She lets out a few, croaky, warbly notes. Birds and squirrels overhead scatter and fly away.
She was supposed to be happy, saved from the wicked clutches of the old Hag who had abducted her only weeks after she’d been born. Happy to learn that she was a princess, not a peasant girl living in isolation in the Darkening Woods. Happy to learn the true origin of her birthmark, be reunited with family and friends and the six spirit sisters, who were supposed to watch over and protect her, though she’s become good at slipping out from their watchful eye. And she was happy, at first. The old Hag had become overbearing lately, and unreasonable. When she was a little girl, she and the old Hag had gone deep into the Darkening Woods to pick flowers and mushrooms, to converse with the woodland creatures, to bathe in the cool waters at the base of Forever Falls. But towards the end, she’d become paranoid, asking her where she was going, bolting the doors and windows, sprinkling protective powders around the cottage. Although, in the end, it seemed less like paranoia, with all the palace guards and the six spirit sisters with their powerful spells.
Anyway, she had been happy at first. But then, after a month, after two, the castle began to feel cold and big. Her father, the king, was nice enough, but seemed distracted by kingly affairs, and now, being sick and at death’s door, the sight of him confused her. She should be sad at his imminent death, being her father and the king, but all she can muster for him is pity and an urge to avoid looking at him. It shames her to admit, but when she is at the king’s side and is being watched—she is always being watched—and she feels the weight of expectations pressing down on her, she will think of the old Hag, will bring to mind the image of her falling from the cliffs, and that’s how she will summon tears for the king.
She sighs, or maybe it’s a sob. It’s no use. She is lost, hopelessly so, has been walking in circles for an hour now. She hikes up her dress and sits on the forest floor and waits. She waits for the old Hag’s cottage to magically appear before her, or for the old Hag herself to step mysteriously out of the darkness of the Darkening Woods, or for the king to die. She waits for something to happen to her, for anything to happen at all.
I have this boot. It was given to me at a wedding. Well. Two boots. I have two boots. The pair were given to me at a wedding. It wasn’t my wedding. I’d already been through my own wedding and subsequent de-wedding. For a while, and this is a digression, I tried to convince people to call it just that, a de-wedding, as if it had been similar to a delousing. I’d been de-wed. Though, technically, the relationship—de-wed to delouse—didn’t match perfectly. I was de-wed, but if we were to try to formulate the same sentiment with the word, delouse, then it was my un-wife who was deloused. In this situation, if you can imagine it at all, I was the louse. But, see how the two don’t exactly match up? I was de-wed. She was deloused. If you can imagine it, anyway. Generally, I didn’t go into as much semantic detail when trying to convince people to agree to call it that rather than the thing they wanted to call it. There were times, too, when a person who thought they knew what I was trying to accomplish with this word, de-wed, would offer their own, de-marriage, and this would make me want to punch them in their faces, not least of all because the word made them sound like immigrants trying to say ‘the marriage’ and I found this belittling. Most often, though, I would calmly explain how the two were not only not the same thing, but were incompatible, and that their strange word, de-marriage, spoke nothing at all to the actual state of my relationship with my un-wife.
Anyway, this boot. It’s not a very interesting boot. It’s black. The soles are worn, on both of them. Both of them are equally uninteresting. Except, according to the man who gave them to me, they are interesting because they were once the boots of a famous actor. That’s what he told me, anyway, as well as the name of the actor, though I don’t remember that anymore. I’m not very good at knowing the names of famous actors or movies or singers or songs. And I think he gave them to me because he felt bad for me. I had been trying to explain to him the fact that what I’d been was un-wed. He looked at me during this explanation the way most people look at me, except that, at the end of it, he took off his boots and he handed them to me, and I thought he wanted me to hold onto them for him while he did something else, but he stood up, wearing only his socks on his feet, now, which were white, very white, and didn’t match the rest of his clothes, and he patted me on the shoulder and told me, You should have these. They once belonged to X and he gave them to a friend of mine who eventually gave them to me, and ever since, I’ve had nothing but the best of luck, and now maybe you need them, so you can have them, okay? I have other shoes in my hotel room and you should have these and maybe they’ll help you out. And then he left and then a crowd showed up at the bar and I lost sight of him, but when I knocked on his hotel room door the next morning, trying to give him the boots back, he said, Don’t be an asshole. I’m trying to do you a solid. Then he closed the door on me.
The thing was, and still is, one of the boots doesn’t fit. It’s too small. The other boot fits, if just, but the left boot is a size or maybe even two sizes too small, and while I still have them, I don’t ever wear them because I can’t get my foot all the way into the one. If I could fit my foot into that one, even if it hurt, but like really hurt, I would. I would do that, if I could, would suffer the blisters and the cramps, but I can’t even do that, so there’s not even the opportunity for them to hurt. I’d suffer through the hurt to get to the luck, is what I’m saying. But instead I have this boot I can’t wear and this wife I can’t re-wed and an entire world that doesn’t feel to me like it should be my world, and I know this is silly, know that it’s a ridiculous notion, not just that these boots were once owned by anyone in particular, and not just the idea that they have bestowed anything like luck—good or bad—on anyone who ever owned them, but the idea that my life could change, that some random act could change my life is a silly notion, but it’s one I can’t let go of, even as I bind my foot tighter and tighter, trying to make it smaller and smaller, small enough, anyway, that I can squeeze it into place.
It’s funny. I see this tree, like, I see it almost every night, whenever I’m standing outside your window. I see it, but I don’t.
Here’s the thing, I don’t ever really SEE it. Does that make sense?
Like, it’s here, but it’s just a dumb fucking tree, right? I’m not interested in this tree when I’m standing outside your window. I’m interested in you. Why else. I mean. Why else would I be standing outside this window. It’s goddamn cold outside, right? And it’s late. I mean. Really late, and I have to work in the morning, and I have to get up early, too, to help my wife get the kids to school, and so, I mean, I’m not the kind of guy who would stand outside in the cold and the late, knowing he has to wake up in just a couple of hours, deal with kids and lunches and breakfast, all just to look at a tree. It’s a thing to stand under, usually, a thing to stand under in a way that I can look up at your window and if you were to get the feeling that I’m here looking up at you in your window, were to get this feeling so strongly that you felt the need to look out your window and down onto the street, you wouldn’t be able to see me, because I’m under this tree. I wish it were a bigger tree, of course. It’s a bit skimpy as far as trees offering cover go, but it’s the tree that’s outside your window, and I can’t blame it for that.
What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that I stand here under this tree and don’t even think about the tree. But tonight.
Because, I don’t think of it because I’m thinking of a lot of other things, right? You understand that?
But tonight, I looked up at the tree. I don’t know why. You weren’t there at the window, I guess. I got bored, maybe, staring at the empty window waiting for you to cross by it again. So I looked around. It happens some times. I’ll look at the other buildings on your street. Or I’ll watch the people waiting at the bus stop, except, this late at night, there aren’t usually that many people. Sometimes, the bus will come by and people will get off, but not very often.
There’s. What I’m saying is there’s not a lot to look at when you’re not crossing by your window, and so tonight, I looked up at that tree. And that tree, it was glowing. It was a red, glowing tree, and I’m sure it’s like this every night, you know. I’m sure there’s a light hitting it a weird way, and that it’s always the same light, but tonight, tonight I saw it, but really SAW it, and I just thought it was eery and beautiful and bathed in this light, I don’t know, I guess it was an orange light but the weird green color of the leaves turned that light into a haunting kind of red, but something deeper than red. Plum, I guess. I would call it plum. And this red made the leaves look almost blue, like maybe the tree was under water or we were all under water, and what I wanted to say, I guess, what I’m trying to say about this tree, this god damn tree and the light that hit it, is that it was beautiful and I wished I could tell you to come to your window right then and look down at this tree and see it, too.