Lisa Lynn Biggar received her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College and is currently completing a short story cycle set on the eastern shore of Maryland. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Main Street Rag, Bluestem Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Kentucky Review, The Delmarva Review and Newfound. She tutors at Chesapeake College and The Gunston School and is the fiction editor for Little Patuxent Review. In her spare time, she co-owns and operates a cut flower farm on the eastern shore of Maryland with her husband and three cats.
After practice, Rodney drives over to Café Sado where he’s meeting Becca, a girl he’s been hooking up with the past few months. She’s sitting at a booth-for-two, staring intently down at her phone as if she could ascertain the future on the screen. He walks over to the booth, sits across from her. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. “We ran through the whole battle.”
“How long did you have to stay dead?” she asks in her distracted way, her brown hair piled on top of her head like a punk version of Wilma Flinstone. But she doesn’t have that small pointy nose; she’s got a wide, strong looking nose that fits with the rest of her face, her large, copper-color eyes, full lips.
“Too long—I almost passed out in that uniform. Sir Parker went out in style.”
“At least you were already on the ground.”
She’s drinking a tall Sappora. Rodney waves the waiter over, orders one too.
“What rolls are you thinking?” he asks her.
“Afterburne looks good.”
He peruses the rolls on the menu. “And how about dragon?”
“Sounds good,” she says. “And miso soup.”
The waiter comes over with the beer, takes their order.
When he leaves, Becca wrinkles her forehead and says, “Doesn’t it feel weird—I mean, to practice dying?”
He pours his beer in the pilsner glass. “It’s just a show.”
She takes a sip of her beer. “I wish we really could practice it. Then when it was time for the real thing, we’d have it down. We’d be ready.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Rodney says. He’s playing Sir Peter Parker himself in the reenactment of the Battle of Caulk’s Field next Saturday, the 200th anniversary. He and his men were sent to stop eastern shore militia units from reaching Baltimore during the war of 1812, but the local boys sent them packing—and 14 to their grave, including Sir Peter who was an upper class officer. It was an embarrassment to the British that he was killed in such a small skirmish, so they changed up history, said they came across a mighty force of many. But it was just around 150 local boys—most who’d never seen action before.
“But, actually,” Becca says, “I think we have died over and over again. It’s just that we can’t remember. Well, some people say they can.”
The waiter brings the miso soup and Rodney nonchalantly turns down his hearing aid, tucks a strand of his long brownish-red hair behind his ear—it’s what he does when the words fly at him too fast. Becca’s still talking, while continuing to check her phone, but it’s just a low murmur now. He nods, throws in a “yeah, right” every now and then, eats his miso soup in peace, in communion with the bright yellow fish in a tank on the shelf beside them.
He’s the same age as Sir Parker was then, twenty-nine, and turns out he even looks like him, with his long, downward-sloped nose, dark wide-set eyes, period correct sideburns. His high school history teacher, who’s head of the Maryland Light Dragoons, contacted him over the summer, encouraged him to join the reenactment group; he remembered how Rodney had gone off on Sir Peter Parker one day in class for burning down those farms along the Chesapeake Bay. His duty consisted of “an eternal annoyance of the enemy.” But he didn’t have to burn down those two farms—that was his own maliciousness. He and his men burned down the barns, the outhouses, all the wheat in the granary and stack, burned down everything they could at losses of over 10 thousand dollars each. But Karma’s always there ready to stab you in the back—in Parker’s case it was a decisive shot to the thigh with a blunderbuss.
The rolls come, and Rodney turn his hearing aid back up.
“I’m so hungry you’d think I was pregnant,” Becca says, breaking apart her chopsticks.
“I’m not,” she says, topping a piece of afterburn with wasabi and ginger, popping the whole thing in her mouth. “I mean, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?”
Rodney waits for her to chew and swallow, which seems like an infinity. He glances over at the fish, pacing the length of the tank and back, their dark eyes, in profile, trained on him in what seems like judgement now.
Becca looks at her phone, quickly scrolls. “Well, I’m late, but the timing wasn’t right.”
“You know, that morning when you were too tired to put on a rubber.”
Rodney searches his memory and comes up blank.
“I don’t remember exactly, but it was over a month ago. I wasn’t ovulating though—at least I shouldn’t have been.”
“You don’t sound so sure.”
“Nothing is certain in this world.”
He takes a swig of beer, his pulse rising. The last thing he needs are her platitudes right now. “Well, when will you know?”
She pops another piece of sushi in her mouth, shrugs her shoulders. Again, he watches the pacing fish as she chews and swallows.“I guess I’ll take a test tonight,” she says.
Rodney follows Becca in his jeep to her small cottage in Stevensville. He’s been spending the night there off and on, as it’s only ten minutes from where he works at PRS Guitars—just a convenience thing. Becca just a filling of the void. He’s not ready, if he ever will be, to get serious with someone again. He drives toward the red of the setting sun, the windows down, the katydids debating his guilt: Rodney did it, no he didn’t, yes he did, no he didn’t. . . .
The small yellow and white cottage is a summer place with poor insulation and only a small wood stove for heat, but Becca plans on staying there through the winter. They walk inside to the living room, a bright yellow pottery sun on the wall, a large smiling Buddha statue in the corner—Becca on the spiritual side, with her incense and crystals and veganism, but she smokes and drinks too much. She goes over to the fridge, takes out a couple cans of beer.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be drinking anymore,” he says.
“I have to get up the nerve to take the test,” she says, tossing him one of the beers.
She sits down on the purple crushed velvet loveseat, puts her feet up on the raffia ottoman. She has the flower of life tattooed on her upper back, a lotus flower on her naval. Rodney was starting to run out of places on his body; for him, a tattoo is a ritual thing, a running story, but after he lost his son he stopped getting inked—he stopped writing the story.
“So what if I am pregnant?” she asks.
He sit down beside her, takes a big gulp of his beer. He told her that he’d been married before, but he never told her about Forest.
“You know I haven’t been sleeping with anyone else,” she says.
Rodney resists the urge to turn down his hearing aid. He stares out the window, a few house lights illuminating the falling darkness. A man across the street rolling a garbage can out to the curb. “Nothing is certain in this world,” he says, quietly, more to himself than to her.
“What do you mean by that?” she asks, her back stiffening.
“I just mean, I mean, maybe you had too much to drink—”
“I haven’t been sleeping around.”
“Maybe you should go,” she says.
He turns to her, not knowing what else to say, the words ‘I’m sorry’ long ago rendered so utterly powerless, pathetic.
“God! Just go!”she says, turning away from him and cocooning herself on the couch.
Rodney’s defense mechanism has been to retreat at the first sign of emotion, so he drove to his mom’s rancher in Rock Hall where he’s been staying since his divorce three years ago. His mom and her boyfriend are asleep on the couch in the den, so he goes straight to his room, pets his black cat Jerry, puts on an Allman Brothers album, lights up a joint and reclines on his bed.
He remembers when Tara got pregnant, just three months after they were married; they were so excited, so happy. There were parties, preparations, books of names. They had decided on Forest, and it had turned out to be the perfect name as he always wanted to be outside, splashing in puddles, climbing trees, wading in rivers. . . .
He takes another hit, strong Jamaican weed going around the guitar factory. His memories of Forest come in and out of focus—some days it’s as if he’s right here beside him, his small hand in Rodney’s, his precious voice telling him about an ant carrying a cheese puff or about his friend, Gia, in kindergarten, who brings lemon meringue cookies to lunch to share with him, while other days they are muddied, turbulent, and Rodney can barely make out his face; what worries him more than anything then is that Forest may never resurface again.
Rodney’s never committed the ultimate sin at PRS—when you burn through base coat, sand too much off the edges, distort the shape of the guitar—but he’s been here two years, and he’s still in the same base coat department. He hasn’t complained about it, though, because it suits him. He can put in his earbuds, listen to music, and he doesn’t have to wear a dust mask—everything he sands gets sucked down the air draft bench, every speck, every particle, in compliance with code.
He texted Becca multiple times today: What’s the verdict? Sorry I was a jerk. He hasn’t heard back from her yet, but in his dream last night she had a baby—a small yellow fish that swam out of her and then found its way to the river to be lost forever. He’s afraid she’ll get an abortion and then tell him she was never pregnant. He’d at least want to know that there had been a baby. . . that its energy is still out there somewhere.
At lunch Rodney sits with his friend, Matt, on the shaded deck of the loading dock. Matt and his wife Gloria have a flower farm that Rodney helps out on sometimes. They often commute to work together, meeting in Chestertown. Matt’s the only one at the factory that Rodney has talked to about Forest. The others surely know, more gossip cranked out than guitars here, but they don’t breech the subject with him—most keep their distance, treat him like some kind of pariah.
There’s a group of guys and few girls in the parking lot playing hacky sack. Musicians jamming on picnic tables off to the side on the grass. Others piling in cars to share a joint on the way to the local sub shop.
Rodney bites into the bologna sandwich his mother made. “Becca might be pregnant,” he says, chewing the sandwich that tastes like plastic and grease.
Matt takes a break from his rice and beans. “Might be?”
“She took a pregnancy test—but she hasn’t gotten back to me yet.”
“When did she take it?”
“Last night, I think.”
“I wasn’t there.”
“Rodney, you can’t just walk away from this.”
It was just a split second. He was there and then he was gone.
“We all deserve a second chance,” Matt says quietly.
“I don’t deserve one,” Rodney says, throwing the rest of his sandwich away.
After work—first shift at PRS lets out at 3pm—Rodney drives over to Becca’s cottage. She’s not home from work yet at Trader Joe’s in Annapolis, so he waits in his jeep in her driveway, lights up a joint. She’s only lived on Kent Island, east of the bridge, for just over four months; after his divorce, which came swiftly after Forest died, he stopped hanging around his old friends, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before someone tells her about Forest—Kent Island exactly that, an island, where, eventually, everything circles back.
Sir Parker never met his youngest son George who was born six months after Caulk’s Field—he died of croup when he was only two, Forest only five. Rodney wonders if Sir Parker ever got a second chance, if he ever came across George again in another incarnation. Could Rodney even dare imagine that Becca is carrying a baby with the soul of his sweet Forest?
It’s over ninety degrees, humid as hell, only the slightest of breeze. Rodney takes off his PRS tee-shirt, uses it as a sweat rag. He thinks about the day Sir Parker died, August 31, 1814, a day just as brutally hot. The day before he and some of his men had gone to the house of James Frisby, specifically for the purpose of burning him out, but Mrs. Frisby prevailed upon him to spare the property. So they took some poultry and said they intended to attack and defeat Colonel Reed and his militia that night and then go get supper in Chestertown—but a sentry saw him and his men approaching and tipped off Colonel Reed who prepared the action.
Sometimes in practice Rodney can feel Parker’s spirit moving through him, or maybe it’s his psyche or his soul or his atoms, but he’s filled with a sense of who he was. He can feel his cockiness, his malishishness, his sense of invulnerability—and when he dies with him inside, there’s that shock and anguish all over again.
But there the sonofabitch is now! He’s standing in the middle of the road, decked out in full regalia—the high-waisted, short-tailed red jacket made of fine wool with gold brocade and gold buttons; underneath the red waistcoat on top of the ruffled white silk shirt; grey trousers, buckled shoes—one of which they found on the battlefield that next morning; white gloves; and the black shako cap with a visor that makes Rodney’s head sweat profusely, adorned with a brass plate, a red and white plume, gold lace.
“Hey,” Rodney yells through his rolled-down window, rubbing his eyes, thinking this is some strong shit or some goon is playing tricks on him. But there’s a recognition of Parker’s spirit that is too strong to deny, a connection calling out to him.
Sir Parker nods to Rodney, gestures for him to follow him as he starts marching down the road in broad daylight. Rodney snuffs his joint in the ashtray, grabs his phone, not even bothering to put his tee-shirt back on. He looks around to see if anyone else is watching, if anyone else can see Sir Parker parading about, but people are still at work, at school.
Rodney half-runs to catch-up, Sir Parker marching faster now down a slight incline. Rodney yells, “Wait up!” But Sir Parker makes no adjustment to his pace, a cloud obstructing the sun, moving along as if to follow them, to shade their descent.
At the bottom of the hill Sir Parker and Rodney march along an oyster chaff trail, Sir Parker’s footsteps soundless on the bed of shells, Rodney staying a pace behind in obeisance. A woman in shades and high tops comes into view, walking her dog. When they approach, Rodney is relieved to see the large brown dog barking at Sir Parker, but the woman seems oblivious, shushing her dog, then giving Rodney a cursory glance.
The breeze has stopped, the wall of heat even more oppressive now. Rodney wonders how Sir Parker can continue on in that heavy uniform but then has to remind himself that Sir Parker is no longer of flesh and blood, that this isn’t real, can’t be real, it’s only a haunting, an illusion, but what if he’s being led out of the illusion?
Sir Parker veers right onto a sandy side path that leads to the Bay. Native trees on either side, elms, locust, river birch, paw paw trees with their large green tropical fruits. . . Rodney longs to pick one, sink his teeth into its juicy sweetness, but he’s afraid of losing Sir Parker now. “Hold on,” he says. “Wait just a minute.” But the merciless bastard keeps marching on.
It’s low tide when they arrive at the Bay, the beach covered with debris, driftwood, oyster shells, pieces of foam from crab traps, netting. . .The air pungent with brine and mud. The Bay Bridge is about a half mile away east, cars streaming across looking the size of Match Box cars that Forest would roll across Lego bridges. When he was just learning to talk they drove him over the bridge, and from his car seat in the back his sweet little wondrous voice formed the word ‘water.’ Rodney nearly drove off the bridge.
Sir Parker finds a seat on a downed river birch tree, its roots violently ripped from the ground. He taps a spot on the log beside him, beseeching Rodney to sit down. At first Rodney hesitates, thinking Sir Parker wants to ensnare him, lure him into this hallucination, but then he realizes that he’s already fully immersed in it. He sits down beside him facing the voluminous body of water, turbulent from boat traffic, waves lapping at the shore. Sir Parker is staring out at the water too, and Rodney wonders if he’s recalling his days of burning and pillaging.
“Are you sorry for it all?” he asks Sir Parker.
Sir Parker clears his throat, his voice coming out as a raspy whisper, as if he’d spent years smoking and drinking.“Seems like yesterday,” he says, still staring out at the Bay. “We were sitting down in that woman’s kitchen.” He laughs, a low rumble. “She was a feisty one. There was no prevailing upon us to save her farm. She came to the door with a North and Cheney horse pistol. She had this mole above her upper right lip. Some things stay with you like that.” He lapses into his memory, squinting in the sun.
“Why did you burn down those other farms?”
He shrugs. “Suppose I wanted to make a name for myself.”
“Well, you did that—but then karma got the better of you.”
He nods, smoothing down his sideburns. “There’s some truth to that.”
“What about your son, George, did you ever see him?”
Sir Parker looks at Rodney intently in the eyes. “He’s around—they’re all around.”
One minute Forest was splashing in the water, singing about the wheels on the bus, the next he was being washed away by the current, his body gone before Rodney could even react; but then he dove into the cold spring water of the Susquehanna, searching and searching and searching until he he could no longer hear, no longer see.
“Mind if I take your picture?” Rodney asks.
Sir Parker finds humor in this. “Go ahead,” he says.
Rodney pulls out his phone and holds it in front of them, but it’s just himself on the screen. Just him alone on the downed tree.
“Everybody wants proof,” Sir Parker says. “But that’s the thing—you just gotta believe.”
“What do I have to believe in? You?”
Sir Parker laughs again. “You know I exist.”
On her way home, Becca stops at Play It Again Sam’s for a coffee latte. She knows she’ll have to lay off the coffee soon, but one thing at at time. She only had one cigarette during lunch, and she’ll stick to tea tonight with a veggie and seitan stir-fry. She finds a table in the back, takes out her journal. Everything so new, but then again it feels as if she’s been through this before. It feels familiar in what Joseph Campbell would call an archetypal way. When the nurse confirmed her pregnancy on the phone today, she went to the back of Trader Joe’s and wept. It seemed that her whole 28 years of life had been leading up to that moment. She will be the best mother she can be, with or without Rodney. She knew she was ovulating when she slept with him, unprotected. Maybe she had been deceitful, but there are no true accidents in life. And even if he never loves her, she loves him; and what is love other than transformation?
The light is on when Rodney finally makes it back to Becca’s cottage, her car in the drive, behind his jeep. She tried texting him a few times while he was walking back. Where are you? I need to talk to you. But he didn’t answer, not quite knowing what to say. He feels strange, not enlightened as much as more open to possibility, the smell of Indian spices wafting from the kitchen. He knocks on her door, says “It’s me.” And when she doesn’t answer right away, he bangs louder. “Hold on,” he hears her say. “I’m taking stuff out of the oven.”
When she opens the door he sees something has changed about her. There’s a softness about her. A settlement of sorts.
“I thought you abandoned your car here,” she says.
“I went for a walk.”
“To the ends of the earth?”
“Sort of,” he says, tucking his hair behind his ears.
“Starving,” he says, then steps inside, not knowing, not knowing what dream this will be.