Gregory Wolos


Gregory Wolos’s short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, Nashville Review, A-Minor Magazine, JMWW, Yemassee, The Baltimore Review, The Madison Review, T. J. Eckleburg Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A cappella Zoo, Superstition Review, and many other print and online journals and anthologies. His stories have earned five Pushcart Prize nominations, and story collections have been named as finalists for the 2010 and 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and the 2015 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award (Snake Nation Press). Gregory’s stories have won competitions sponsored by the Rubery Book Awards, Gulf Stream, and New South. He lives and writes in upstate New York on the bank of the Mohawk River. For full lists of his publications and commendations, visit


He’s proud of the diorama concealed in the back of his tractor trailer. Is it art? Maybe. It’s got to be something more than the stolen contents of a brother’s apartment.

He’s stuck in traffic now, stopped dead between Boston and Springfield in an eastbound lane of the Mass Pike. People are getting out of their cars and trucks, peering over vehicles lined up as far as the eye can see. And across the median the westbound lanes are empty enough for touch football or a picnic: Whatever happened ahead is bad enough to have stopped the flow of traffic in both directions.

Next to him on the passenger seat sits Puck, the little poodle mix he took from the apartment along with the furniture. The dog’s giving him the eye, and he slaps his knee, though he knows Puck’s too old and timid to make the leap over the gear shift box. He picks up the dog, leashes it, tucks it under his arm, and swings out of his truck’s door onto pavement rubbed shiny by millions of tires—but his boots are probably the first to touch this exact spot. The smells of asphalt and exhaust rise through the cool March air. Puck tugs like a fish too small to keep, making for the dirty snow on the highway’s shoulder. A girl with a blond ponytail pokes her crimped face out of the driver’s side window of the car they’re behind.

“Hey,” she calls, “you know what’s wrong?”

He shakes his head, unprepared to speak. The dog scrapes at the pavement, eager for the snow. “Nope,” he says. “Nothing on the radio. Got an iPhone?”

“It’s out of power, and I don’t have a car-charger,” the girl whines, like a kid who has yet to learn about real trouble. She yanks her head back into her car without another word. He notices the college sticker, “Framingham State University,” on her rear window and guesses that she’s late for class, then squints up and down the highway at the sun-glared roofs and windshields. Everybody is missing something. He follows Puck to a crust of snow and watches the dog squat. If the young woman were to join him at the rear of the truck, her face would uncrimp when he revealed the diorama. She’d forget about missing whatever she’s missing and lift a hand to her open mouth. She’d insist that he invite the multitudes stranded on the highway to behold the display.

Puck finishes, and he leads the dog to the back of the trailer where he stands and stares at the roll-down door as if he’s penetrating it with X-ray vision. He reads the phone number printed after the question, “How’s My Driving?” He knows the number has been disconnected because he’s tried it.

The diorama replicates the brother’s apartment as seen for the last time before it was emptied. He considers the contents repossessed, since most of it originally belonged to his parents. It’s furniture he grew up with. He’s never seen the old dioramas from the natural history museums, but he’s heard about them—how they’re full of dead animals shot long ago in Africa—antelopes and rhinos and wild dogs. He’s heard that behind the panes of dusty glass you can see hundred-year-old bullet holes in some of the stuffed carcasses. There aren’t any bullet holes in any of the furniture laid out in the back of this truck, but would it be so surprising if there were? Puck is sitting on the asphalt, showing a pink tongue the size of a postage stamp. If dioramas included living things, maybe the dog should be in it, curled up on the rug his mother spent decades braiding out of clothes her kids had outgrown.

There’s a tall bookcase in the diorama, its shelves jammed with familiar paperbacks. Beside the bookcase is a formica-topped kitchen table he and the brother had sat at for thousands of childhood breakfasts. On the table are a few liquor bottles and shot glasses, super-glued into place so they won’t roll off when the truck turns corners or bounces through potholes. One of the bottles is filled with water to look like vodka, another with tea to look like whiskey. Also on the table is a yellow legal pad, its wrinkled pages covered with writing.

He’d considered hanging framed apology-letters on the inner walls of the truck behind the furniture, but that would have been inauthentic: a diorama should represent a creature’s natural habitat, and an abuser attempting recovery would have mailed his apology letters out, not displayed them. Then he’d had the idea of filling a legal pad with rough drafts of apology letters that he could leave on the table as part of the display. He’d used a template:

Dear {Recipient},

I am writing to you today because I am making amends to people I have harmed as a result of my addiction to {substance}. Specifically, I know that I harmed you by {state action}. For this, I am deeply sorry.

I know that sometimes apologies are more of a burden than a blessing, but I would like the chance to apologize to you in person. This will allow us to discuss how I harmed you and what I can do to make things right. If you do not feel that you wish to forgive me, or you do not wish to have any contact with me, I understand. However, please know that I am deeply sorry for what I have done to you and would like to do whatever I can to repair our relationship.

If you would find it acceptable for me to make amends in person, please contact me at {phone/email}. Otherwise, rest assured that this letter will be my only attempt to contact you, because I do not wish to impose on your life.



As he copied the template letter, inserting “alcohol and drugs” for “substance” and “irresponsible behavior” for “action,” he didn’t try to imitate the brother’s handwriting. He addressed the first letter in the pad to himself. Hadn’t he been the biggest victim? The next two letters went to “Mom” and to “Dad,” separate letters that could have been sent in a single envelope. Three letters didn’t seem like enough, so he’d kept going. He composed the next for his own ex-wife, and then one to his daughter, who must be old enough to read by now. They’d been victims, too. These two letters would never have been sent, since the brother wouldn’t have had any more idea of the address than he did.

At the last moment, to fill the pad, he’d added one final letter—an apology to the dog. It must have been unsettling to have been snatched out of the apartment by someone you weren’t sure you could trust, even if his scent was familiar. He’d signed this last letter with his own name, and only now, standing at the back of his closed truck, leash in hand, does he wonder whose signature he’d used to close all the other apologies.


He’s dozing behind the wheel—traffic hasn’t budged for an hour—and wakes to find the dog gazing at him with eyes like chocolate chips. He’s been dreaming of the family furniture fallen into disrepair under the brother’s care: the table supporting the bottles and legal pad full of apologies is scarred and warped; the sofa he and the brother had shared for Saturday morning cartoons now leaks stuffing and smells of kitchen grease. He’s absorbed that smell, having slept on the sofa for countless nights since he’s begun transporting the diorama.

He dreamt of the photograph of his uniformed uncle, his mother’s brother, hanging now in the diorama behind the sofa. He’d never known the young soldier, who’d barely been out of his teens when he’d died “on foreign soil.” His mother said she saw him in her children. “God gave me back the brother he took when he gave me you,” she told them. “A brother means everything.”

But in his dream on the Mass Pike, he’s seen something else on the wall of the diorama, dwarfing the photo of the dead uncle: his own tattooed flesh, stripped off his body in a single piece and hung like an animal hide. The sight of his stretched skin lingers—he feels a hot knife pierce his ribcage, sees himself peeled from himself like wet linen. What if the brother on some lonely evening had woken from troubled sleep to find that skin stretched out on the wall, its tattoos as purple as bruises and as indecipherable as hieroglyphics? What if the brother pulled the skin from the wall and wrapped himself in it?

He winces from the bright sunlight, and, hoisting Puck to his lap, laces his fingers like a collar around the dog’s neck. There are tattoos of musical notes on his knuckles, but he’s unable to remember why he chose them—he doesn’t play an instrument and can’t read music. Maybe they’re the sound of a punch. Maybe they begin a melody for the diorama.

He releases Puck’s throat, cups a palm over the dog’s head, and shifts his attention to the car in front of him. “Framingham State University,” he reads aloud. Someday his daughter will be as old as the young woman with the drained cellphone, and maybe she’ll go to college. By then she’ll have made up a history that explains her absent father. If he finds her and her mother, he’ll show them the diorama he travels with. He’ll give them as much time as they need to study it. On the beat up table, between the liquor bottles and pad full of apologies, there is a stale, pink-iced donut. He’ll tell his daughter to take it, not for eating, but because it’s pretty and once was something. “This is yours,” he’ll say, as if to remind her of an event she’s forgotten.

When traffic moves—when traffic moves again, he’ll continue on to the towns south of Boston. He’ll look for the cemetery where his parents rest and back his truck up to the stones engraved with their names and dates. He’ll raise the door with the “How’s My Driving” number and show them the diorama that displays their son’s history. “Come and see your boy,” he’ll shout at the monuments. “Read the letters on the pad. Look at the bottles on the table and the flesh hanging on the wall.” Then he’ll hold up his fist and turn it slowly like a globe and listen for its music, hoping it will tell him where to take the brother’s story next.

‘Diorama’ is one of a set of linked stories I’ve been working on after having been trapped in a three hour traffic jam on the Massachusetts Turnpike last March. The circumstances (the cause, as the central character in ‘Diorama’ suspects, turned out to be a horrendous accident with multiple fatalities) proved fertile ground for a trapped writer who, like Kafka, sees fiction as ‘an ice ax to break the frozen sea inside us.’ The nerves of the drivers stuck in my ‘neighborhood’ of the highway were strained by unanswered questions, both practical and existential. There was a truck driver beside me who took his little dog for a walk . . . and ‘Diorama’ was born.

Gregory Wolos


Gregory Wolos’s short fiction has recently appeared in Grey Sparrow Journal, LITnIMAGE, The Baltimore Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK Magazine, A cappella Zoo, Superstition Review, FRiGG, Prime Number Editors Selections Volume 2, and many other journals and anthologies. His stories have earned two Pushcart Prize nominations. His latest short story collection was named a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. Visit his website at:


Tweetsie Railroad

There’s a stranger at the front door when I finally get there. Katherine always tends to the doorbell, and I forgot she isn’t home. She’s been visiting our son, from whom I’m estranged, for so many days I’ve lost count. Katherine used to be estranged from Jarrod too, until she finally wrote him a letter and he wrote back. Now she’s with him and his family. She’s missed the Olympics. Gymnastics is her favorite event, and I’ve recorded it. Maybe she watched in Colorado—I don’t know, because we haven’t spoken. She knows I don’t like talking on the phone. The little USA gymnasts are all I watch now. They flutter like disciplined canaries. I sit with my face so close to the screen that my eyebrow hairs lift from the static electricity. I’ve memorized every routine. It’s good to know when a little girl’s going to land on her behind after a vault or waver on the balance beam or drop from the uneven bars like she’s been shot. If you know what’s coming most of the shock is gone, and it becomes clear that falling is part of the big pattern of the world: gravity always wins.

At first I mistake the stranger at the door for one of the USA gymnastics coaches—if you watch something long enough, it becomes the way you see things. The guy has a big belly like the coach, and his white T-shirt matches the jacket the coaches wear. Some of his important teeth are missing. He’s holding a scythe as if it’s a flag.

“I’m Willy,” he says. He lets the handle of the scythe slip through his hands to the porch and leans on it, waiting, confident that his name explains everything. I wait, too. I’m generally disinclined to speak until I understand a situation. Even strong silent types like Willy crack before I do. He looks about my age, which means he probably started collecting Social Security a decade ago. Wisps of grey hair rise like dead grass from his comb-over. His eyes are as cold as bullets.

“I’m here to whack your weeds,” he says. “I talked to your wife. I’m from Umbrella. She said the weeds down at the river block your view. Cattails, she said.”

I nod. Umbrella is an organization that sends retired guys to do odd jobs for the elderly and handicapped. They charge a fraction of what a regular handyman would cost. Katherine learned about them from our neighbor Joan Pritchard. My wife forgot to tell me she hired someone to lop the cattails. If it were up to me, I’d let the weeds take over. I’m so nearsighted these days that if I didn’t know there was a river a hundred yards behind the house, I’d assume the occasional sparkle I catch was a symptom of further eye trouble. But Katherine cherishes the view. “Why live by a river if you can’t see it?” she asks.

“Well, come on in, then,” is the first thing I say to Willy. “The cattails are out back.” I confuse him, inviting him inside when the job he’s hired for is down at the river, and he hesitates. He doesn’t know what to do with his scythe. “Bring in your weapon, sir,” I say. “The quickest way to the water is straight through the house and down the deck steps. It saves at least ten yards of walking.” I hobble off, and my poor mobility makes my point that distance is relative—ten yards is a big deal for me. “Follow me,” I wave, on my way to the back door. “But be careful. The wife’d have my head if she knew I let you drag a tool through the living room.” Willy’s got the perfect instrument for head-having, I think as I clump along—or head-halving. I try to twinkle an eye at the handyman to see if he appreciates my pun, but of course he can’t read my thoughts.

He’s stopped in front of the TV, which I’d put on pause when the doorbell rang. One of the tiny gymnasts is frozen upside down in mid-flip above the vaulting box. Willy’s scratching the rusty growth on his jowls.

“How the hell’s she do that?” he asks. He seems to think she’s pinned in place like a butterfly.

“The TV’s on pause,” I explain. “She’s about to fly through the air, flip and spin, and stick the landing.”

“Yeah,” Willy nods. He doesn’t move. He probably wants me to release the pause so he can see the flying and sticking, but I continue back through the house.

“This way,” I summon. “See the river back there?” We’ve got bay windows for the view on this level and upstairs in the bedroom where I don’t sleep anymore because it’s too hard for me to walk up. I sleep in my son’s old room. “I can’t see distances so well anymore, but you probably can.”

“Yeah,” Willy says. I hear the knock of the scythe he’s using like a walking stick on our wood floors as he follows me, and I hope he’s not leaving marks I’ll have to explain to Katherine. “Cattails’ll take over, if you let them.”

Then I sense he’s stopped again, and when I turn, he’s between the dining room and living room. His head’s swiveling back and forth: he’s noticing the candles on display all over. The truth is, I probably led him through the house so he could see them. “You sure got a lot of candles,” he says.

“Yes sir, we do,” I say. There are candles everywhere, on top of everything. Not tapered dinner or church-altar candles—ours are artsy, decorative, wrist-thick. We never light them. If I try to picture a candle flame, all I see are the birthday cakes Katherine used to bake for Jarrod and his younger sister Linda. Our daughter died a few years ago of cancer. She was trying to have a baby and couldn’t get pregnant, and then the doctors found the cancer and she was dead before a year was up. I thought we’d keep in touch with Todd, my son-in-law, but he’s out West now, where his folks live. Katherine says he’s been remarried. I remember putting my arm on Todd’s shoulder at the funeral, and, just as he was going to hug me, he saw Jarrod and wound up hugging him instead. For the sake of decorum, Jarrod stood beside his mother and me through the service, but he and I never exchanged a word. When I add up the years since we last talked, I start from well before my daughter’s funeral.

Willy’s stopped dead in his tracks. He scratches his chin while he takes in all the candles, maybe wondering if the folks he’s cutting weeds for belong to some kind of cult. Maybe he thinks we’re deep in mourning for something, because his hand moves up to his head as if to remove a hat.

“We used to make candles,” I explain. “Kind of a home business, after I lost my job. We’re talking more than twenty years ago. We sold them at craft shows and at gift shops. We tried mail order, but that didn’t work out.”

“Did you try the internet?” Willy’s got his eye on a pair of candles set on the cupboard. They’re taller than the others, fourteen inches. I fixed up a special milk carton mold to make them. These were made with chunks of blue wax of different shades set in white. I think of them as “the twin towers,” because they remind me of the World Trade Center. We were done making candles a decade before the towers fell—I got a regular job as a school bus driver that included health insurance. I’d never light my twin tower candles—what might people think if they saw them half-melted? But I know I’m the only one who sees their tragic potential.

“We stopped the business before the internet became a thing,” I say.

Willy’s gaze beams like a searchlight: candles on the mantle; candles on bookcases; candles on the kitchen counters and on the refrigerator; candles on every window sill and table. There are even candles on top of the TV. All colors. Any shape that could be carved out of a milk carton or coffee can mold. There are stacks of flat little Christmas and Halloween floating candles made to look like snowflakes or Jack-o-Lanterns. There are so many candles that if I were a guest in my own house, I probably wouldn’t see anything else.

“Years ago there was a real candle boom,” I tell Willy. “It lasted about half a dozen years. For a while, we maintained a genuine cottage industry—the whole family was involved. Katherine and I were fulltime candle makers, and my daughter helped after school and on weekends. My boy did his share when he came back from college.” I’m not about to go into the full story about how things fared with Jarrod. Instead, I picture the big truck from Mobil Oil backing down our driveway, delivering the cases of raw paraffin I stacked in the garage. I remember the big pots of boiling wax on the kitchen range, stacks of milk-carton molds, and snack tray sheets of red and blue and green and orange and yellow wax we’d slice into chunks with Exacto blades. I could show Willy scars on my wrists and hands from spilled wax.

Bottles of coloring powder were lined up next to the range. And the smell of strawberries saturated everything—it was easiest to keep to one scent. Before long, all our meals tasted like strawberries— Katherine prepared our dinners next to bubbling pots of wax. Linda cried when she couldn’t wash the smell of strawberries from her hair. She said the sight of strawberries made her gag. She stopped inviting friends to the house.

“You said ‘Katherine’?” Willy’s head is cocked.

“My wife, Katherine,” I say. “She called you about the cattails, remember? I can pay you in candles if you want. You can keep them or give them as gifts. The scent’s worn off after all these years. I’ll let you in on a trick of the trade—I used to wipe all the candles down with some extra scent before I took them into the gift shops.” My “false-scenting” was one of the “artistic differences” Jarrod and I had before our estrangement.

Willy’s shaking his head, about being paid in candles, I think at first, and I wouldn’t blame him. But he digs in his pants pocket and pulls out a scrap of paper. “‘Joan,’” he reads, and winces. “Somebody named Joan called me, not Katherine. Joan Pritchard.”

“That’s my neighbor,” I say. “Joan Pritchard lives next door.”

“This is 246 Riverside?”

“This is 24-8 Riverside.” Willy and I are figuring out at the same time that he’s at the wrong house, which explains why I didn’t remember he was coming. “I guess Joan’s got cattail problems, too. I can’t really see down there, like I said. But since you’re here, ours definitely need to be cut.” Katherine will appreciate my having her view cleared. I tell a lie: “I happen to know that Joan Pritchard isn’t home today. She left for Cape Cod. She’ll be gone a week. There’s a surprise family reunion. I’m supposed to feed her cat until Monday. She must have forgotten that she hired you.”

Willy rasps his slip of paper across his chin. He squints like he’s about to say something when all of a sudden there are cheers and an excited male voice: the TV’s gone off pause, and the little gymnast has finished her vault. I know that she’s stuck the landing, but Willy’s staring toward the TV like it’s haunted. There are five big candles on top of it. Each one is composed of different colors, but it’s hard to tell. “Candle colors fade,” I say. “I should dust them and polish them. Do our cattails, okay? I’ve got cash.”


On the screen is a little Russian girl in a white leotard. In a second her music will start, and, at the end of her first tumbling run, she’ll land out of bounds. She’ll hit the mat awkwardly and stagger. Points deducted. Eventually, she’ll shrug off her coach’s hug with a pout. There will be tears in the dark Russian eyes she’s surrounded with sparkles. I pause on the close up of her face. When my kids were little, before the candles, I worked as a purchasing manager at an aluminum products plant. We took regular family vacations. One summer we drove down to the Smokey Mountains to see the sights. We stopped at a tourist trap called Tweetsie Railroad. It featured an old, working small gauge locomotive. The highway billboards advertised “Rides, Souvenirs, Snacks, and More!” Jarrod would have been eight, Linda four. Admission exceeded our budget, so Katherine and I concluded in “parent talk” that I would take Jarrod in without his sister. What would a little girl care about trains, anyway?

We boys left the girls in the parking lot. We paid our admission and rode the undersized train around a couple of miles of mountain track, while the old-time engineer tooted the whistle and the old-time conductor made a big deal of punching everyone’s over-sized ticket, then told us the locomotive’s history. Afterwards, Jarrod got the free cotton candy his admission entitled him to, and we went to the souvenir shop, where his job was to pick out an inexpensive souvenir for his sister. He chose a yellow plastic whistle shaped like the dwarf locomotive.

When we met them back at the car, Katherine told us they’d counted license plates from sixteen states as they passed through the parking lot to the “Free Scenic Overlook.” She said she saw deer in the valley below, but Linda shook her head no when I asked if she’d seen them, too. Jarrod shrugged that they hadn’t missed much, and he gave his sister the cotton candy and the yellow Tweetsie Railroad whistle. She accepted both, looking at me, not her brother. Her eyes were big and moist; they didn’t have sparkles around them, but otherwise they looked just like the little Russian gymnast’s.

Linda blew the locomotive whistle’s single piercing note the whole time we drove through the mountains looking for a cheap motel. It set my teeth on edge, but I didn’t tell her to stop. When I think of my daughter, I smell strawberries and hear that whistle.


Right now Willy must be swinging his scythe, toppling the cattails. I watched him melt into the fuzzy landscape on his way to the river. He plans to clear our weeds and Joan’s. He’ll collect from our neighbor another day because of my lie about Cape Cod. She may see him working, but she’s got a bad hip, so I doubt she’ll walk down to the river; if she phones, I won’t pick up. The cattails are a big job for a man Willy’s age, especially when he has to lug around that belly. The sun can get pretty strong, and he wasn’t wearing a hat.

A commercial break in the gymnastics coverage features a duck quacking about insurance, and I remember the geese and the decoy dogs that I should have mentioned to Willy. A few springs ago Katherine and I woke up to find a flock of Canadian geese settled in our yard. We held hands as we walked toward them; they honked and flapped a little and flowed like lava to the river. They left their crap behind: hard little turds like cigar butts. They took up residence for the summer, flew off for the winter, and came back the following spring. So I bought a set of decoy dogs—three for ninety-nine dollars. The dogs are black cut-outs that look like the shadows of coyotes. We staked them out by the river bank, and they’re still out there. We’ve been goose free for a while. I can’t really see the dogs anymore. Last time my eyes were strong enough, I could only make out one—I suspect the other two have fallen over.

I wonder if Willy likes the dogs. Katherine hates them. She’ll frown at them through the breakfast room window and complain, “Those things look like dog-shaped holes cut out of the living world. They’re more not-there then there.”

“They do keep the geese away,” I’ll reply. It was looking at the decoy dogs that made Katherine blame the candle-making for Linda’s cancer. A friend of hers had a Siberian husky that died of some kind of blood disease. The vet said there might have been something poisonous in the dog’s environment.

“All that wax and scent—we breathed it and ate it for years,” Katherine said one morning. She hadn’t touched her eggs. Her face crimped with her new idea. I suspect she was looking at one of the black dogs while she ruminated. “I bet there was something deadly in the wax. I’m going to look it up.” If she did, she’s never told me, but not long after getting the poisoning idea she decided to write to Jarrod.

“Is there anything you want me to tell him?” she asked. I’d only seen him once in fifteen years— at Linda’s funeral where we didn’t speak.

“Tell him not to bother coming to my funeral,” I said. “If he does, I’ll follow him to his house and haunt him.” It was a dark thing to say. Before I’d invited him into the candle business, Jarrod had tried college for a year, flunked out, and come home with his tail between his legs and an attitude to cover up his failure. We hoped candle-making would rescue him like it had me.

Jarrod had been excited at first. He had some grand marketing schemes. Before long, he said, we’d get the operation out of the house and into a factory. Back into the real world. Unfortunately, he wound up contributing very little to the business. His sister put in more hours making candles, even though she was still in high school. Jarrod dedicated himself to the “artistic” end of things. He claimed to have an eye for patterns and colors, and some days he’d rise at noon and work until midnight carving one of what he called his “specialty” candles. He wanted to sell his masterpieces for a hundred dollars! I challenged him to tell his price to the gift shop owners who were my customers, but he demurred. “I’m an artist,” he insisted, “not a broker.” He denied smoking pot in his bedroom, claiming he burned incense “to cover up the god-damned strawberries!”

Jarrod left home after our last big fight. Shortly thereafter I got the school bus driving job. Katherine and Linda and I kept up with the candle-making for a while, but, because it had always been work, I couldn’t get it to feel like a hobby, and the pots and molds and extra wax went into the basement. We never got around to selling off our inventory of candles. Eventually, they were all on display.


There’s a little gymnast wavering on the balance beam, but above her, on top of the television, are five candles. Jarrod worked on the set, “The Elements,” for a month and insisted they be marketed together. I was too embarrassed by the price tag to take them on the rounds of the gift shops. The first is “Earth Tones.” It’s brown and green swirled together. Jarrod carved, dipped, and re-dipped for a week, fiddling away without sleep until he was satisfied. Like the other four candles, “Earth Tones” is fused onto the TV. I’d have to pry them off. Next to “Earth Tones” is “Fire”—yellows and oranges and reds spin together and rise to the wick. Then “Ocean”: blues fade the most over time, I’ve noticed—like with my “twin towers.” “Ocean” reminds me of the last time I looked hard at my own eyes in the mirror. Jarrod admitted that “Air,” the fourth candle, was a failure. It looks like a glass full of ice cubes. The fifth candle doesn’t have a name. It’s black and carved with deep grooves. It resembles one of those dark-wooded African statues. I don’t know who Jarrod expected to buy a black candle. I make a mental note to ask Willy what he thinks, but he probably won’t pass through the house when he’s finished with the cattails. I don’t know why I make mental notes. Whenever I try to recall one, the whole batch swirls around my head like a blizzard.

Although I’ve made a point of not asking Katherine about her communication with our son, things leak; I know he’s an art teacher. He’s married and has children, my grandchildren. I think of grandchildren while I watch the gymnasts soar like little angels on the screen under “The Elements,” but I prohibit myself from imagining that they’re Jarrod’s children. Instead, I give these kids to Linda: I pretend they’re the spirits of the babies she never had. They’re stuck in limbo—inside my TV. Each of them has a whole lifetime of energy bottled up just for the routines I make them repeat.


The telephone wakes me up from the dream I’m having about the hurricane that once made it all the way up the coast. It had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it drenched us. The river rose over its banks, swelling into a lake. The water crept closer and closer to the house until it stopped no more than fifteen feet away. Some neighboring houses flooded. Ducks were swimming among the tops of our rose bushes—this was years before there were any geese. Katherine was pregnant with Linda, and Jarrod was a pre-schooler. He sat on my lap while we watched the water. It rose over the ladder rungs of the slide on his swing set. The metal seat of the swing went under—the chains it hung from strained against an invisible current. The situation might have been frightening to a child, so I tried to get Jarrod to laugh by making quacking noises and pinching at his butt.

When the phone rings, I still feel my boy’s weight on my thighs, and I wonder who’s calling. It’s dusk. The TV recording of the gymnasts has played through. I can “Save,” “Delete,” or “Start Over.” I’m always worried I’ll accidentally press “Delete.” The phone keeps ringing as I paw around my legs for the remote control. I’m not going to get up to answer. Katherine’s the phone-answerer. I listen to messages, if they’re left. I would pick up if I thought my wife was making the call, but why would she do that when she knows my habits? For a moment I think maybe she’s convinced Jarrod to call, but that’s just the after-effect of touching him in my dream.

Who had I been worried might call? My mental notes whirl, all of them blank pages. Joan Pritchard—why am I thinking it’s her? Oh—the thought startles me—it’s because of Willy and my story about her being on Cape Cod. Maybe she’s seen him. Maybe he’s stopped off at her house. Maybe they’ve discussed my lie. I’m not going to pick up for Joan Pritchard. The phone stops ringing.

But where is Willy? The day is done, and he hasn’t come for his pay. All five candles on the TV appear black in the gloaming, even “Fire.” Had Willy seen me asleep? He might have walked through the back door and passed right by me, scythe and all. If it weren’t so dark I’d check for muddy footprints. On TV the gymnasts are still hidden behind the options I woke up to: “Save,” “Delete,” “Start Over.”

I feel a pang of concern. Maybe Willy’s trying to reach me by cellphone from the river’s edge. Maybe there’s an emergency. It could be nothing— maybe he’s found the fallen decoy dogs and wants to know if he should prop them back up. I try to distract myself with other thoughts: what would these rooms look like if I lit all the candles? It’s gotten very dark in here—how bright would a hundred candles make it? From the outside, the windows would be ablaze! Willy might think I was signaling him. But lighting a hundred candles would take all night, and I don’t know where Katherine keeps the matches.


I head down to the river to find Willy. The darkness is nearly total. If my house was ablaze behind me, the night would be my shadow swallowing everything in the world. Soft grass tugs at my slippers—I keep stepping out of them and shuffle my feet back in. The ground is cool and damp. I spread my arms as if I’m crossing a balance beam through the blackness.

The swing set is the first thing I don’t see, because it’s not there anymore. It was disassembled and carted off twenty years ago. I’m on the spot where ducks swam once, where rosebushes used to be. Our crabapple trees materialize one by one until I’ve counted all six. Beyond them will be a stretch of clear ground where the kids played kickball and soccer and ran down Frisbees. Crickets— when I notice their thrum, I automatically look up for stars, but there aren’t any.

Now I walk with one hand outstretched like the Mummy from old horror films. The Mummy limped so slowly toward his victims it seemed ridiculous that they didn’t just run away. A stand of tall oak trees rises with a different kind of darkness from a low spot where water collects every spring. We used to call the puddle “Linda Lagoon.” I cross paving stones I’d set down long ago. They’re slick with moss, and I’m nervous about slipping. I look back at the house, but it’s not illuminated, and there’s nothing to see. If Willy cries for help, will I hear him over the crickets? I’m trying to remember the sound of his voice. What did he say besides “Yeah”?

I’ve reached the oldest trees. Their huge, rotted branches sometimes fall during windstorms. Katherine would never let the children play under them. This is where the geese gathered. I feel through my slippers for their turds as if they’re landmines. I imagine stumbling through settled bodies, the burst of flapping and honking, their beaks striking from their snaking necks. The cattails and river are just ahead. I staked the decoy dogs at this verge, where the trespassing geese would see them.


I shiver when I bump into the first dog. I pat it on the head. If I’ve gotten this far, then the river is close. The cool air smells fishy. Ahead is a broad, cricket-less silence. I don’t see the other two dogs.

“Willy—” I call, “Willy, are you down here? Are you okay?” Nothing. My words hang in the air like fog. I imagine I’m calling to myself from a canoe out in the river. I lean on the dog’s head, forgetting it’s just a cut out. It collapses and I go down. I grunt when I hit the ground—it’s soft, but the wind is knocked out of me. I’m on my back. One of my arms is thrown over the dog’s flat body. The other two dogs must lie nearby. Beneath them, the grass is probably dead. There’ll be bugs and worms.

Still on my back, I blink toward where the river must be, but I don’t expect to see it: it reflects a starless sky. And unless Willy finished his job, there’ll be a wall of cattails. I squint until my eyes ache. I should have brought the flashlight. It’s stored—where? I see a white bloat come and go—a goose? Willy?

I try to call him, but I haven’t caught my breath from my fall. One side of my face is wet—I must have rested my cheek in the grass. I pretend the decoy dog has licked me. “Willy,” I whisper. He must be in the water, half-covered by cattails—that’s why he seems to come and go. Had he dropped in mid-swing and sunk slowly in the shallows? His scythe must be nearby. I wonder if he talked to the decoy dog.

I have an urge to pull myself forward. Maybe I will in a while— across the grass into the cattails. Water will soak my arms, my chest, my crotch and thighs, and then I’ll be lying next to Willy. I think of the last time I stretched out my leg in bed and touched Katherine. It seems like a very long time ago. With one ear in the river, I’ll hear it sliding by. I could nudge Willy’s body with my foot, and he might slip peacefully into the current. No one would ever know he’d visited.

If only I’d brought my floating candles—the flat ones shaped like snowflakes, flower petals, and Jack-o-Lanterns. I could light them and set them adrift after Willy. They’d seem like the reflection of moving stars. Maybe the empty sky, for once, would mirror the candle-lit river. Imagine a sky alive with floating constellations! Stargazers might point heavenward, not noticing Willy’s passing body, and ask, “That group of stars up there, what does it remind you of?” And only I would have the answer, surprising the gazers from where I lay in the cattails. “Tiny gymnasts,” I’d say. “It’s their spirits, vaulting through the sky.”

Half a century ago, I was the victim of parental frugality at Tweetsie Railroad, and the situation I use in the story to represent the narrator’s feelings of loss and guilt is my own ‘recovered memory’: though I recall walking around the parking lot of the tourist attraction with my mother, and I vividly remember playing with my brother’s souvenir whistle, I’ve no recollection of a ride on the eponymous train. Only recently did it hit me that I’d never even seen the little locomotive, a fact corroborated by my brother with a shrug and a laugh.

Gregory Wolos


Gregory J. Wolos’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, PANK, A Cappella Zoo, Jersey Devil Press, Waccamaw Journal, FRiGG, Storyglossia, elimae, Apple Valley Review, Underground Voices, the anthology Surreal South, and other many journals. In the last year his stories have earned recognition in several competitions, including a 2012 Pushcart Prize nomination. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His website is:

An Evening with Willie Freeze

The Cubmaster introduces our guest speaker as George White Eagle. I don’t recognize the name, but his face is familiar—it’s a twist of rawhide, eyes hooded to a slit under bruise-purple lids. You’d think they were shut completely, except a gleam sneaks out now and then that reminds me of the husky dog we had when I was a kid. Wolfy slept with his eyes half open, and the dead look in them made me shiver, like he was watching us from some evil world. George White Eagle’s black hair is tugged back into an inch of ponytail. New blue jeans cinch his waist, and his flannel shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, bags at the chest because he hunches.

“Mr. White Eagle is going to tell us some Indian lore and play his flute for us,” the Cubmaster says. His face is ham red, as if his yellow neckerchief is too tight. “So let’s quiet down, kids, okay?”

The scouts are sugared up on soda pop and cupcakes, unconcerned about whatever is happening on stage. They shout and bang folding chairs and play keep away with stolen caps or sneakers. The Cubmaster raises his hand and calls, “Akela.” A ten count passes, and he repeats: “Akela!” The kids sag to the tiled floor in front of the cafeteria stage as if their bones have dissolved. Danny and I have been sitting for five minutes—sugar is not part of my nephew’s diet. He rocks slowly, careful to stay on a black tile. He’s fixed his attention on a heel mark on the white tile in front of him. The other kids keep their distance. Danny attends this school too, but he’s in special classes. He doesn’t meet eyes.

With all the kids and dads on the floor, the Cubmaster leads a recitation of their oath. Only Danny and I and Mr. White Eagle abstain.

The cub scout follows Akela.
The cub scout helps the pack go.
The pack helps the cub scout grow.
The cub scout gives good will.

After the oath, the chattering starts again. The adults don’t help—two dads near me discuss creosote buildup in chimneys while one of their boys, his cheeks smudgy with chocolate, chokes his freckled pal.

My sister Tara thinks scouting is a good idea for her son. Her boss at the Walmart made it all the way to Eagle. As I see it, Danny will never be management material. Tara calls his autism “mild Asperger’s.” He’s not a head banger yet—Tara doesn’t need to hide his red curls under a helmet—but doctors warn that it’s a possibility down the road.

Often at pack meetings a father will sidle over during refreshments, usually dragging his son, who’ll be smirking around at his friends. As Danny presses against me, swaying to his own rhythm, the dad will say, “How’s the boy—how ya doin’, son?” Danny won’t answer. Maybe he rocks harder. Maybe he makes a keening sound. To fill the awkward moment, I ask my default question: “So who’s this Akela, anyway?” The dad will smile without answering. “We’ll see you later,” he’ll nod, and shift away, while his son zips off like a released fish.

Tonight, I touch my nephew’s shoulder, and he flinches. I think I hear him humming, and I slide my hand from his shoulder to his back, but I don’t feel the purr I expect— only the ridge of his spine and the ladder of his ribs. The sound comes from the stage: Mr. White Eagle is chanting. The hubbub in the room subsides until everyone except my sister’s son is staring at Mr. White Eagle.

“Respect,” he whispers. His purple lids are squeezed shut, as if we’re something he doesn’t want to see. “My people use a special, holy word: Blah-dee-blah.” The syllables melt together. “It is a tradition that passes from fathers to sons. Say it with me: Blah-dee-blah.” We try. We watch each other’s lips. “Blah-dee-blah” Mr. White Eagle repeats, and we catch on. “Blah-dee-blah.” Our chorus echoes through us, as if we’re in church. Danny’s mouth is shut, and he’s still staring at the heel mark.

“It is with respect we treat our elders, our parents, our guests, each other,” Mr. White Eagle says. The Cubmaster bows. These are the values we hope to instill in our boys. Several dads nod, too. I’m still trying to figure out where I know George White Eagle from.

Respect hasn’t been part of the formula with a lot of our Pack’s guests: the young veteran of the Iraq war lost the kids to giggle fits when he couldn’t keep from swearing and quit his speech in the middle; the professional football player who’d never made it off the Oakland Raiders taxi squad only took questions. He said “yes” or “no” to a few, then stationed himself at a table where he signed autographs for two dollars each. After twenty minutes he stood and asked, “Who do I see about my fifty dollars?”

But Mr. White Eagle commands the kids’ attention. He blows three long, sad notes into his wooden flute. We hear wide open plains and forests full of wildlife. “These are mourning songs,” Mr. White Eagle tells us. “Songs of loss. Songs of death. Loss is part of the great circle of life, boys. Life begins with creation. Sex is creation. The mating of creatures. Of your mother and father. We have respect for sex—Blah-de-Blah.” Our “Blah-de-Blah” is automatic, but “sex” has some fathers frowning. The Cubmaster’s got a glazed look; his ears and neck are crimson.

“I’m going to tell you a story about respect.” Mr. White Eagle speaks in a slow, measured beat, with his head still and his eyes closed like a blind man’s. “It’s an important story. It’s about my people, the Creek. And America.” I expect something about the world on the back of a big turtle, about brave warriors.

“Not too long ago, I was driving on a long stretch of Interstate 10,” he begins, “just into Arizona from New Mexico, on my way to visit some people in Ohio. My car was borrowed from a friend in Bakersfield. The highway stretched far and wide in front of me, with great mountains in the distance. I was smoking— a cigarette—something you shouldn’t do, boys. But when my people smoke, we’re mourning our losses.” Several adult heads bob, most likely the smokers. “It was a bright afternoon. No one else was on the road. Then, in my rearview mirror I saw a car, a state trooper, closing in quickly, and I said a prayer of welcoming. The trooper’s lights started flashing, and I said another prayer to speed him safely to whatever emergency called him. When he pulled up beside me, he looked at me. I nodded at him through my open window, and when I smiled, my cigarette fell out of my mouth. I couldn’t see his eyes behind his mirrored glasses, but I saw his lips curl with hatred. He pointed to the side of the road, and I pulled over.”

Mr. White Eagle has been speaking in a prayerful monotone. From time to time there’s a glint from between his shut lids, as if there are jewels hidden behind them. He continues his story: he’s asked for his license and for the registration of the vehicle his Bakersfield friend apparently failed to renew; he’s ordered to wait with his hands on the hood of the car while the trooper searches it; finally, he’s handed citations for littering (the fallen cigarette) and the lapsed registration, and the trooper races off, lights still flashing.

“Do you see?” Mr. White Eagle asks the boys and their dads. “Shame—it sucks the warmth from the sun and the sparkle from the lakes; it steals the sweet scent from the pines. Do you see? It’s this—” and he presents his profile: his hatchet nose, his high cheekbones and crag of a brow, the stump of the pony tail he waggled between his thumb and forefinger. There’s a hush. Then Mr. White Eagle turns toward us and opens his eyes fully wide for the first time, and we gasp. His eyes have no whites—they’re silvery irises set in absolute black—eyes that belonged only in nightmares. And I remember where I’d seen Mr. White Eagle before.

He’s nearly whispering now. “What that officer showed was the ugliest thing in the world: prejudice. Against me. Against my people, for nothing more than a ponytail, and for skin a few shades too dark.” He doesn’t mention his eyes. He doesn’t have to. “No respect. Blah-dee-blah.”

I’d seen him about a year ago, at the first and only AA meeting I’d ever attended. That’s when Tara and my now ex-girlfriend, Janie, got together and “intervened,” as they called it. For Tara the few joints a week I smoked, the six pack or so that helped quench my dry mouth and round off my buzz, made me a doubtful risk around her son. “You’ve got to be a better role model for him,” she said, knowing how much I depended on his company.

Janie’s reason for wanting me sober was more complicated; it was another aspect of the situation that forced me to move out of the rented bungalow we shared, the one on the river bank where there used to be an amusement park almost a hundred years ago. I’ve seen old photographs of a midway and a carrousel, and a ferris wheel at night all lit up and reflected in the black river. I can match up the shoreline to my fishing spots. I liked to tell Janie when we were in bed that that the wind rustling the leaves outside our window was the ghosts of happy people laughing. I moved out because Janie was pregnant—not by me, though I wish that would have been possible. Janie had the best one-time job I’d ever heard of—she was a surrogate. The fertilized egg of a rich woman had been implanted in her womb; she didn’t know who she was bearing the baby for, only that she was to be paid a small fortune when the kid was born—exactly how much it wasn’t my business to know yet, she said. She also received a monthly sum to eat properly, and a nurse visited once a week to check on the progress of her pregnancy.

Janie is beautiful and ambitious—she has a college degree, and when she was picked to be a surrogate, you’d have thought she won the lottery and bags of gold would soon be dropped off at our door. “You can’t stay here,” she told me. “They think I’m single. I signed something. You’ll have to get an apartment, and I’ll visit you there. And if I am going to visit, you’ll have to change your habits. There’ll be no smoking or drinking around this baby. He’s going to be my down-payment on life.”

I should have noticed that she said “my down-payment” and not “our down-payment.” But I promised both Janie and Tara I’d go to an AA meeting, and I quit smoking and drinking. When Janie started swelling, I talked to the baby in her belly, which she let slip was a boy. Janie would sneak over to my tidy little apartment every weekend, at first, but she visited less and less frequently the more and more pregnant she got. She stopped letting me touch her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t horny any more—she said she was “superstitious” about my fingers and tongue so close to “the portal,” which would be the rich child she was carrying’s access to the world. Sometimes I thought Janie was afraid I would contaminate the unborn kid with my ignorance—as if she had just enough class for him, but I’d never be in the same league.

When her nine months were nearly up—it was just after the night of that one and only AA meeting where I saw Mr. White Eagle— I suggested that we could deliver the kid ourselves, then take off with him and start our own family somewhere far away—a tropical island or a village in the Brazilian rain forest. I thought it was a funny idea to have to kidnap something inside of you. I never saw her again after that night. I don’t know where or on which day she had the baby, and when I returned to the bungalow on the site of the old amusement park, there wasn’t a scrap to indicate she’d ever lived there, let alone a note.

But while I waited in the dim fluorescence of the Methodist church’s meeting room for that AA meeting to begin, I’d thought I was opening a new chapter on Janie’s and my life, not closing the final one. Maybe two dozen folks, mostly men, sat in three rows of folding chairs. Despite the ban on tobacco, the room reeked from clothing steeped in smoke. The people in charge were welcoming, but there wasn’t much chit-chat. Everyone was too intent on publically nursing a private woe. I thought I’d be required to share my story, and I decided I’d tell the assembly about the testicular cancer that left me single-balled and sterile. I’d reveal that I’d never be able to father a child of my own, and that the heart-wrenching disappointment had driven me to anesthetize my sorrows in drugs and drink. The truth is, I’d never had cancer, just a sperm count approaching zero—I’d been tested periodically because I’d grown up in a tract house my folks bought that was built on a nuclear waste dumping ground. That situation involved some mismanaged lawsuits, and if anyone in my family reaped a penny from it, I never knew. But a cancer story would draw more sympathy than a lawsuit, I concluded. I imagined the eyes of these hardened substance abusers filling with tears at my tale of woe.

Tara and I don’t talk about it, but she grew up over the same nuclear waste I did, and maybe her irradiated eggs caused Danny’s problems. Her husband left after the weight of Danny’s turning out to be the kind of kid he is cracked marital ice that was already thin. Tara and Tim didn’t have it in themselves to deal with the situation as a team, which is why I’m scooched up next to my nephew at this scout meeting while Mr. White Eagle has resumed sounding melancholy notes on his flute. When I look at him I can’t believe I didn’t recognize him immediately from the Methodist church basement.

He sat in the first row, and when he popped up to tell about his tribulations, he made no effort to dim the effect of his frightful eyes: they were like dimes floating in black ink.

“I have been a conman and a terrible human being,” he began. His tale was set “in another city” where he had custody of a little girl, a toddler “not really my daughter.” To make his very long story short, somehow he managed to scam the congregation of a church into believing that this child entrusted to his care was dying of “something like leukemia.” He’d thrown himself on the mercy of the big-hearted congregants. “The good people organized a fundraiser,” he told us, and netted a “blessed” profit in the thousands from the gullible church folk before skipping town.

“I have paid my debt for that and other offences,” he said, by which he meant he did prison time, “and as a confirmation of that payment I inked my eyes.” I shivered. I hadn’t known it was possible to tattoo your eyeballs. “These eyes are my public admission of the midnight thoughts that always lurk inside. They warn everyone I meet, ‘Trust me if you dare.’ Being seen as I am is part of my daily battle.”

Anonymous no longer, here he is, “George White Eagle,” toodling his flute and yammering about Blah-dee-blah to a pack of Cub Scouts for the sake, I assume, of fifty dollars. How, I wonder, had the scout leaders found him? How had Mr. White Eagle advertised himself?

I’m fidgety, and at a loss as to what to do with my knowledge. Is there a statute of limitations on anonymity? What if Mr. White Eagle’s got a bigger scam in mind than just that fifty? “You okay?” I ask Danny, mostly to calm myself down, and my nephew doesn’t respond, but the father next to me shushes me and gives me a look like I’ve just violated Blah-dee-blah. I raise an eyebrow at the shusher and cock my head toward Mr. White Eagle, but the dad misses the signal. His plump son’s mouth hangs open as if the nonsense Mr. White Eagle is feeding him is better than a cream-filled donut.

What I should do is get up and take my information about Mr. White Eagle to the Cubmaster. He stands at the back of the room, smiling at the stage; but if I leave Danny, I’m afraid he’ll start howling, like he did when I left him on a movie line with a nice old lady so I could get the wallet I’d left in the car.

Mr. White Eagle has stopped playing and addresses us again. His silver and black eyes gleam. There’s a beat in the pit of my stomach like a tom-tom.

Blah-dee-blah,” Mr. White Eagle intones.

Blah-dee-blah,” almost everyone replies. Danny makes his own sound.

“Boys,” our guest says, “you make my heart glow. Your ways, the ways of scouting, are the ways of my people. And there are two things we must value as much as Blah-dee-blah: Truth and Vigilance.”

Heads nod, though I’m sure few of the boys know what “vigilance” means. This is the real deal, dads are telling themselves, this is why we signed our boys up for scouting. Not to tie knots. Not to carve race cars out of blocks of pine. Not to earn badges for taking out the trash. But to grab hold of those old virtues, Truth and Vigilance. Virtue, I think, and that’s when I decide that it’s up to me to unmask Mr. White Eagle. I’m panting, and the hand I rest on Danny’s knee is damp.

“And so,” our guest continues, “I offer you myself as a lesson in Truth and Vigilance.” He bows deeply. I brace myself—there’s the kind of hush that Danny often fills with a wail. But his breathing is regular, and for a moment I understand the relief of fitting in. Who would it hurt to let the whole thing slide? But then Mr. White Eagle smiles—for the first time this evening—and the way his face twists beneath those eyes hits me like a blow to my manhood. I’m being disrespected—no Blah-dee-blah.

I remember the first father-son Cub Scout project Danny and I undertook. Tara had dropped Danny off on a Saturday morning at the bungalow I’d re-occupied after Janie’s desertion. He sat at my kitchen table with a milk mustache while I whittled away at a Pinewood Derby car with a steak knife, the closest thing I owned to a tool. The magic marker for Danny to color the raw wood had dried up, so I gave him a Bic pen, and he slashed stripes along one side of the car, again and again and again, hundreds of them, then said, “TV,” and I said, “Okay.” We brought the car to Derby night, where other scouts displayed glossy, aerodynamic racers they seemed to be handling for the first time. Their dads swapped details about weight distribution and wheel bases, decals and metallic paint. Compared to the others, our car looked like it had been gnawed into shape by squirrels. I caught one father looking at it and muttering to another with a shake of his head, “You’d have thought . . .” The other dad shook his head too, staring at our scarred chunk of wood. The first dad repeated, knowing I was in earshot, “You’d have just thought.” I turned to my nephew, who clutched our car to his chest like it was a gold ingot. “Who the heck is Akela, Danny?” I demanded. “Why can’t anybody tell me that?”

So I have no choice. Mr. White Eagle must be exposed. But I’m still waiting for a sign that the moment is right when he beats me to his own unmasking.

“Truth,” he says. “The truth is, I am not who you think. There is more to George White Eagle than meets the eye. I was baptized George DiBello, but I have gone by many other names. I have been William Smith. In prison they called me Willie Freeze.” His words seem to echo from a pit that’s opened beneath us. The blood has drained from the Cubmaster’s face. “Truth: I was not born a Creek Indian. I am of Italian and Greek descent.” He grins, and his eyes flash. “And now you think I have deceived you. That’s good—you’re being vigilant. There are those who will tell you lies, boys—you will meet such people as you journey through life.”

Confusion reigns—dads look to the Cubmaster and to each other for some kind of reassurance, but there’s none to be had, and as the boys feel their fathers’ grips loosen, their eyes round with fear. It’s frightening and exhilarating at the same time. It’s a feeling I wish I could get credit for creating.

“But even now I have fooled you,” Mr. Whoever says. He waggles a finger. “Truth and Vigilance— I became a Creek in prison. My cellmate was Creek, and after an intimate ceremony, we became blood brothers. He assured me I have full tribal rights. Then I had my eyes inked—I gave up their whites. And now, the blackness is a symbol. As I look out at you, my darkness is behind me. So, learn this lesson, just as I learned the lessons of my adopted people, the Creek—don’t trust what you see. Don’t cast judgments until you know the whole Truth. That trooper who pulled me over? He was wrong about who he thought I was—but he was also right, do you see? But in the biggest way of all, Blah-dee-blah, he was wrong.”

Silence. There’s too much to digest to understand it all. But the Cubscout oath prevails: “The cub scout shows good will.” A unified opinion settles like a golden cloud on Mr. Dibello-Smith-White Eagle’s audience: The subject was Truth. No one has been deceived. Good people chose this speaker. We will all sleep well tonight.

“Thank you, boys, fathers, Cubmaster.” Our guest is reluctant to leave the stage. I’m waiting for one more “Blah-dee-blah” when I feel Danny seething next to me. He’s rocking on his haunches, forward and back. His lips part.

“Boo,” Danny says, the sound a burst bubble that only I hear, because everyone else, all the dads and their kids, have begun to clap—louder and louder, applause that grows bolder as it justifies itself. Danny tilts his head back, and his jaws seem to unhinge. “Boo!” he bleats. “Boo, Boo, Boo!”

“Shh, quiet!” the dad behind me growls, and “Hey” and “Quiet” and “Shh” erupt around us. “Get him out!” another dad nearby hisses, because Danny won’t shut up—“Boo-boo-boo-boo-boo—” he rattles like a machine gun. Outrage swells, and in a second I’m on my feet, and I pull Danny up, too. He’s looking at the floor, and he stumbles stiffly after me as I lead him out the emergency exit that takes us into the parking lot and the night. “Boo-boo-boo-boo-boo,” he’s muttering. I haven’t once told him to knock it off. Behind us I hear the Cubmaster’s enthusiastic voice, muffled, then more applause. Did he just thank the speaker—had he apologized for my nephew and me? I take Danny into the darkness, onto the playing field stretching beyond the parking lot, walking him almost all the way to the trees at the far end. It’s a cool evening, and it feels good to move. After a while Danny stops booing.

“Look at the stars,” I say, catching my breath. I drape my arm over his slight shoulders. He doesn’t say a word, but he lifts his eyes. “There’s the Big Dipper,” I say, “and the Milky Way.” I haven’t really found them, but I know they’re up there somewhere. Danny’s staring up— at the stars or the spaces between them. I plan to stay out on the field until the parking lot empties. Then I feel Danny freeze—he senses before I do that we’ve been followed across the field.

“The Seven Sisters,” a voice whispers. It belongs to the man I first saw at AA. He points at the heavens as he circles around us until he blocks our way. “The Creek tell a story about them.” His back is to the trees. There’s an odor from him like incense. He lowers his gaze and I can feel its blackness spreading over us, thicker than the night. “You booed me,” he says, addressing me, not Danny. “Do I know you?”

The truth is, maybe I did boo him. Maybe Danny got the idea from me. I don’t say anything for a few seconds. Up close he’s not very tall, almost a head shorter than I am. His grin is tight, hiding his teeth. “We’re just tired,” I say. “It was a long night.”

“There’s something wrong with your boy,” he says matter-of-factly. There’s something wrong with your eyes, I want to say, but hold my tongue.

“He’s my sister’s kid.” The moment I say it, I feel bad. “I can’t have my own,” I add, but it’s too late. I have never before in my life hit another human being, but I’m feeling the instinct for it. My arm tingles and my hand closes into a fist. The man holds his flute like a club, as if it’s heavier than anyone would think, and I assess how much it might hurt to block a swing with my forearm. Then I ask him, “Who’s Akela? You should be able to tell me that.”

“Akela? It’s another name for the Great Spirit. Shawnee, I think.”

“Wrong,” I say. “It’s Hindi. It’s Indian-Indian, not Native American. From Kipling’s Jungle Book. Akela is the lone wolf—the lone wolf who leads the pack.” A lot of truths can be found on the Internet.

“I’m a hypnotherapist. And a homeopathic doctor,” he says. “Maybe there’s something I can do for the boy. For you, too.” I twitch as he reaches into his jeans pocket, but he pulls out a card. I relax my hand to accept it. “Give me a call. We can work something out. No charge for session one.” He looks at Danny, whose gaze has fallen from the starry sky to the turf. “Blah-dee-Blah,” the Creek adoptee says. He salutes us with his instrument and turns toward the trees. I see now that there’s a path through them to a lit street not more than fifty yards beyond, and he’s striding toward it. “Boo,” he throws back over his shoulder, followed by a laugh that turns into a smoker’s wheeze.

By now my sister will be wondering where we are. I might have to tell her we’re done with scouting, and I’m trying to think of how to break the news. Maybe I don’t have to say anything; maybe on Tuesday nights Danny and I could just do something else, like bowling or a movie. What we won’t do yet is visit Dr. DiBello—that’s the name on his card. The parking lot looks empty now, but I no longer care. The school’s big classroom windows are bright yellow, and we can see the late-shift custodians moving around. I palm Danny’s back and guide him forward.

“Akela” I say.

“Boo,” my nephew says, his eyes on the night-blue turf he kicks at with each step.

The central event in my story 'An Evening with Willie Freeze'—a presentation to a group of Cub Scouts and their befuddled parents by an admittedly fraudulent Native American—is a fairly unvarnished account of a meeting I attended with my wife and children about fifteen years ago. As I developed the narrative into fictional form, the themes and characters seemed to fit naturally with some ideas I’d been exploring in a set of linked stories I’d been working on, Svidragaylov’s Dream: a Web of Stories. I decided to make that relationship explicit. Willie Freeze first appears in Dead White Male Body, and the shadow of the narrator’s surrogate girlfriend falls heavily on three other stories. With the publication of 'An Evening with Willie Freeze' in The Baltimore Review, all twelve stories in the collection have now found homes. This story was a pleasure to write. It evokes powerful memories for my son and daughter, who learned an early lesson in the tendency of some adults to accommodate obvious duplicity instead of challenging it.