Authors: J. Travis Phelps
Copyright 2016 by J.
All Rights Reserved.
This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without
The following story
Proof is forthcoming.
A Very Strange Man
The thunder and lightning crashed with a wail and his wife
who lay next to him sat up in the bed. Through the blanket he could see the
light play across her worried face, revealing that she had not slept. As
always, when he was not well she had watched over him. But tonight her worries
had been near hysteria. He had slept poorly while the fever had worked through
him, watching silently as the shadows danced across the ceiling of their
bedroom. There was a light sweat still on his brow and the sheets were soaked
through. Finally, the fever had given way. He had fallen into dreams he could
not remember. As always, even an hour of uninterrupted sleep refreshed him. Now
he peered sideways through the sheets, almost like a child, feeling momentarily
protected. He was no child though. His body ached palpably all of the time.
“Go back to sleep,” he said trying
to calm her. “I have to get up soon anyway.”
She glared at him, swiping her hand across his forehead and for
a moment he felt truly as a child must when a parent comforts them. He thought
of his own mother now gone for so many years. One look from her had always made
his fears evaporate. He allowed himself to indulge the emotion only
momentarily, peering out through the canopy of the blanket, finally rolling
himself away to the edge of the bed.
“You will work today then, even
after all I have said?” she said with irritation. “Please don’t go; just this
“No,” he answered, “I will eat and
come back to rest as you wish.”
“Look there,” he said, his face
suddenly becoming animated, “the light is breaking through,” he said.
And through the window they both
could see a beam of sun. The low clouds blew speedily past, seemingly headed to
some faraway place, as though time were of the essence.
He walked silently down the hall to
his bath stopping only to catch his reflection in the mirror. It was a jolt. He
had become old. His eyes were now permanently rimmed in a red that no sleep
could erase. His hairline gone, only wisps of curls still clinging to his ears;
there was nowhere left to comb it for protection, for artifice.
When had it happened? In Spain? No, earlier.
It was too late to care. He looked at himself and as he had for years, and
started to make exaggerated and ludicrous expressions at himself in the mirror.
Each expression ever more ridiculous: an old man chewing gumless at his food,
an old man smiling proudly, then aghast with horror, then his tongue wagging in
mockery, but always an old man. These expressions were all meaningless now. He
felt almost none of those things any more. Every emotion had quotation marks.
But the faces made him laugh inside. The only place left for him really.
“Fuck you, old man!” he said to his
reflection. “No, fuck
!” he shouted
and it was funny because in real life he almost never swore. He burst into
laughter, but then tears came without warning. They leaked. Emotions came over
him suddenly and for reasons he could hardly explain. A condition of old age,
not real feelings mind you.
His eyes would stay red for days
now, but it felt good and wise to let some of whatever it was out. He thought
of his younger friends and how they would talk behind his back.
“The old man is turning to crust,” they’d
mock, “outlived his usefulness.”
They had said worse no doubt. He stared
at the scar near his throat, a gift from the war. Wouldn’t it have been better
to die there so many years before
thought of the blood he had seen so many times pouring from other men. He
secretly thought it was a sign of weakness to bleed. He had never even once
considered that anyone could kill him. And no one ever could. Sometimes he had
almost strangely longed for it, but none would release him, as he had for them.
It was unadulterated intimacy to take a man’s life with your own hands. You had
to love people to kill them, and that he had. It was possible that no one had
ever delighted in people more. The raw intimacy of a slaying was the pinnacle
of that love and there were a great many men he had made better through the
killing. He had completed their lives in a way that no other act could. It was
the very last thing you could give a person. He had never killed without
feeling the sweetness in life though, the deliverance. It was beyond poetry,
beyond books, and even sex. Yet, if given the choice he would never have killed
anyone. He sometimes fantasized about turning himself in. But to whom? To men
lesser than himself, who were guilty of far worse crimes? That would never do.
It didn’t matter now. He wiped his face hoping it would improve; but he only
looked more disheveled, more pitiable.
He wouldn’t work today then. The
worst of his fever had already broken and as always was in retreat. No sickness
could take him; that much he knew. He endured illness quietly, barely letting
out a moan no matter how wretched he became. The business would be a bore and
today that was indeed too much, for his vanity at least. Still, at home there
would be no books to read either, not that he had not already read anyway, and
no company that could bring him delight, nor a concerned wife, nor woman or
man, nor food no matter how well prepared. He thought of running away for just
a moment and in his chest came an erratic purring.
To start over. Where to? There was nowhere to go.
He had been
looking in the mirror for maybe thirty seconds now, no more. The agility of his
mind sometimes astounded even him.
“Where are you going to go old man,
huh?” he said to the mirror.
A knock came at the door jolting
“Sir, I am terribly sorry to
interrupt you.” It was his servant Apollon. “I wonder if I may have a word?”
Abandoning the mirror, he slid his
head through the doorway slowly while pulling the bottom half of his face down,
“Yeeeeesssssssss?” It was the expression of an imbecile. Apollon, after all
these long years, never quite knew how to respond to his jibes.
“Sir, your nephew is at the door.”
“Yes indeed sir.”
Apollon’s face drew up in a look of concern.
“He is not alone, sir; there is
another man with him, a very strange man.”
The Good Professor
If there was one thing Professor Noah Downy despised it was
lecturing in these damned auditoriums. They always reminded him of his own school
days, wasted in crowds of other lost students just passing the time. Even
worse, it was utterly impossible for him to get the feeling in a place like
this. The feeling was the moment, the instant when everything was settled, when
he conquered his audience, when they submitted to him. It did not always happen
of course, but it was next to impossible with a crowd of this size, in such a
room. He was at best a tour guide in a place like this, pointing to glass cases
full of dead mummies and artifacts. Here lies Rameses, now a skeleton like the
rest of us, so mortal. So boring. He was at his best when he forgot he was
teaching and just started talking. He thought silently of his early years as a
part timer, running from campus to campus just trying to cobble together a
living. It was better back then in some ways, when his classes were always
small and intimate. He could get the feeling easily. It was absolute
exhilaration for him. He could make people swoon with his storytelling; it was
the only thing in life that truly came easily to him. Downy wasn’t your usual
academic though. He never spoke in platitudes and suffered mightily in the
company of pretentious intellectuals, which was pretty much all of them. He
preferred to be direct, clear. Most days the company of fellow academics was
more than he could stomach. It was his only complaint about the job really.
Today, in his History 301, though, he was busy injecting the story of how Mark
Antony and Cleopatra, despondent over their pending defeat and probable
execution, had started their own drinking club called “The Royal Academy of
Outstanding Livers.” Most didn’t catch the double meaning until he announced
that he had briefly been a member of the club in college himself. It was an old
joke made up on the fly when he had needed to wake a sluggish afternoon class.
He hated retelling jokes, but even real comics recycled material didn’t they,
and today he was definitely too tired and knew the feeling wasn’t going to come
anyway. Looking around the room he realized many of his students were probably
already hung over, or headed that direction, since the college weekend always
started a day early. It never ceased to amaze him that on exams students could
remember almost nothing of importance about Mark Antony’s political career, but
always remembered that he was a terrible drunk. He had thought of making it a
test question, briefly.
Today though, it was all Cleopatra and she was an easy sell.
The young female co-eds in the audience really lit up, and the boys too. The
questions were always the same. What did she really look like? Had she really
committed suicide by cobra? He took pains to clear up many of the myths about
“The only reliable likeness of her
was a picture on an old coin face minted during her lifetime,” he explained.
“The pronounced hook of the nose was hardly beautiful, not classically anyway,
which must have meant her powers of seduction--her mind--were the real work of
art. She spoke five languages.”
Every plain Jane in the room plucked up their antennae at
once. You could almost sense their relief.
“You could be marginally hot and
still end up a Queen in the first Century,” he explained. The young women in
the room grimaced at the expression ‘marginally hot’ as the boys all went wild
with laughter. He hadn’t meant it as a sexist comment. He marveled at how
little things had changed between the sexes. It was still a girl’s job to be
beautiful, but the homeliest of boys considered themselves absolute judges and
jury over such matters.
“The story that she simply
committed suicide was probably a necessary fiction,” he went on to explain.
“With the ever ambitious and utterly ruthless Augustus waiting to take Egypt
and her fabled riches, Cleopatra’s continued existence was the greatest and
only threat left to him. His soldiers may well have put her to the sword. She
was a loose end that had to be sewn up in any case.”
A hand went up breaking his
concentration. He knew the face and hand already. McGuire. It would undoubtedly
be a dull comment.
“Yes, Mr. McGuire?”
“Wouldn’t death by a sword be
really painful and like--messy?”
Downy considered this brilliant inquiry with a slow rub of
his chin, while other members of the class snickered.
“Mr. McGuire you raise a serious
concern here. Let me think on it a fortnight and get back to you.” McGuire’s
hand shot up a second time, this time more slowly.
“Uh, how long is a fort--?”
Before Downy could answer, everyone
burst into laughter. Kevin McGuire followed suit; he really liked to hear
himself ask questions more than he cared to think about whether or not they
made any sense.
“But I do get your point, Kevin,
definitely not as poetic as death by cobra, is it, which is why I am suspicious
of the myth making elements of such a story--the cobra of course being a symbol
of both royal power and immortality for the Egyptians.”
Downy had a way of making people
feel good even at their dumbest moments. He could also rescue a class from a
As the laughter finally died down
to a murmur, a voice came from the back of the auditorium.
“It is quite a beautiful way to die
as a matter of fact, elegant even. Killing meant something in such a time. It
was a hero’s trade. Now it is merely a common, wholesale slaught--.”
The voice was low and clear, but
trailed off. People turned in their chairs, somewhat taken aback by the
interruption. Downy couldn’t find the face out of the crowd.
“I am sorry, professor, to
interrupt your beautiful rendering please continue.”
In the back row sat a man wearing a
floppy tourist hat like the ones you could find for sale in almost every gift
shop in Southern California. His dark features were offset by two almost
piercing black eyes and even at a distance Downy could tell there was something
unusual about him. The way he held his chin upward with a look of wild
amusement or disbelief, he couldn’t tell which. Something in the man’s manner
of speech sparked a note of caution. It was too formal. Weirdo groupies of
history abounded in his classes unfortunately. There was the reincarnation
crowd. He had met more than his fair share of those who claimed to intimately
know the details of Cleopatra’s life because they in fact
Cleopatra in a previous incarnation. It was an occupational
hazard unfortunately. His students used the interruption to start for their
bags and he realized he had spoken well past the allotted time.
He yelled as they departed: “Don’t
forget to read pages 198 through 260 covering the period of the proscription of
leading Romans, including Cicero
be kind to your liver--” Most had already disappeared though, so he simply
waived his arms, “Have a nice weekend.”
Today, it was he who would
surrender. He looked through the crowd for the brown-faced man, but couldn’t
find him in the melee. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a student still
sitting in her seat. Her stare lingered as she packed her things very slowly.
He tried not to notice her legs as she uncrossed them to sit
up, “Professor, my father used to say your take on Cleopatra’s death was pure
speculation, not history.”
He paused, squinting to confirm what his eyes couldn’t
“Your father was a rigid,
un-imaginative old Irish bastard, young lady; and God do I miss him. Come
He was beside himself with joy to see
her. His eyes unexpectedly watered. The girl before him was none other than
Samara Lee Patterson. He recognized her immediately, but had completely
forgotten she might be there. The last time he had seen her she was barely a
teenager. He had called her Sam then. She had loved his storytelling and sat at
his feet like a young disciple, hanging on to his every word. She, in turn, had
loved making strong, dark coffee for him and her father while they talked
endlessly in the garden. It had been an ongoing contest to see how dark she
could make it. She would arrive at his side like a servant and offer it to him
in her hilarious, mock British accent: “A glass of mud for the distinguished
They had their inside jokes as
well. He had taught her when she was just a kid the first and most important
rule of archeology, which was, “always watch your step.” She’d burst into a fit
of uncontrollable laughter, seeming to understand even at such a tender age
that this was sound advice in most cases.
He could never forget the look on
her face when he had decided to leave that final summer at Charlies. She had
been so angry she wouldn’t even come out of the house to say her last goodbye.
If he had only known then how little time he and Charlie had left together, he
would have stayed. So here she was, finally on her way to college after a few
years of ‘playing the world traveler,’ as her mother had described in the
email. She had her father’s eyes, a deep coral blue, and like him, they were
full of desire, mischief. For a moment he thought he could feel Charlie peering
out at him. It bothered him. This was the man who had insisted that Downy must
teach and that he should write, even when he had insisted no one gave a shit
about history anymore, if they ever did. Noah Downy’s books had certainly
proven that wrong. He had practically watched Samara grow up and now he
couldn’t believe she was sitting in his own classroom, nor that his dear
friend, her father, was really gone five whole years now.
Out of the corner of his eye, he
suddenly saw the man in the floppy hat walk past the door in the back of the
room. His head was down, but he looked sideways in a flash. He tried not to
break his concentration with Samara.
“Come by our place as soon as you
get settled in,” he heard himself saying. “Naomi would love to see you; she
simply won’t believe it.”
He realized he had made the
invitation out of absolute fear of the way she was looking at him. She was
positively beautiful and knew it. His mind wandered to all those beautiful
busts of the Persian princesses he’d seen in Alexandria, each forever set in
marble. He sometimes imagined they might come to life, speak to him. They had
nothing on Samara Patterson. The sooner his intentions were clear, the better.
She seemed to wince a little at the mention of his wife Naomi. Was it a sign he
had been right to feel the attraction and to try to interrupt it? He was
imagining things of course and chided himself silently.
“We should get coffee, Mr.
Professor,” she said playfully, “something with mud in it, as I recall?” She
slipped effortlessly back into the old accent and he laughed out loud, throwing
his hands to his face. He wanted to hug her again, but was afraid of the
He could already see that coffee turning
into a beer, then a second, just as he had done a million times over with
Charlie, when they had been drinking buddies. But then the boundaries would
disappear. He decided instead to put Samara Lee Patterson in a glass display
case with a warning sign that read, “Daughter of a Dear Old Friend, ABSOLUTELY
OFF LIMITS.” Samara looked at him a bit crossly and it seemed to him she could
sense what he was thinking.
She smiled at him almost
disappointedly and insisted, “Coffee soon, you and me. I’ve really been looking
forward to seeing you ya' know.”
As she walked away, he feigned no
principles and simply watched. The view only made matters worse. Goddamn, he
hated being a grown up sometimes.