Apr/May 2023  •   Fiction


by Mark Williams

A face in the public domain

A face in the public domain

Kirk and Val Peterson are walking their min pins, Scott and Zelda, when Kirk notices the letter "L" floating through a hackberry tree up ahead. "What the...?" says Kirk.

Kirk is walking on the road with Zelda. Val is walking in the grass with Scott, to the right of Kirk and Zelda. "What the what?" asks Val. But before Kirk can answer, an "O" streams through the tree and joins the "L." So now it's "LO," floating in front of a holly.

"I'm seeing things," says Kirk.

"Your floaters?" asks Val. From a passing Kia Soul, Madonna sings, "I'll Die Another Day," a few feet to Kirk's left.

"My floaters look like letters."

"Letters? To whom?"

A second "O" floats by.

Fifty-two years ago, Kirk, a college sophomore, went horseback riding with Debbie Damm, with whom he'd shared bodily fluids and lecture notes on Sartre. One class in particular, Existentialism and You, had caused Kirk to question everything. College, for one. Debbie's interest in him, another. As Debbi, on Devil-May-Care, cantered past Kirk, on Biscuit, Kirk announced his decision to drop out of school. "Life begins on the other side of despair," said Debbie, riding off into the Tennessee sunset.

The following week, Kirk secured a job in a Nashville psychiatric hospital, where he played volleyball and bumper pool, took body temperatures and blood pressures, and oriented post-shock patients to their whereabouts. One night, he was standing at the volleyball net when he blocked a spike with his face. An hour later, he was watching a red pool ball roll between bumpers when he saw gray squiggles float across green felt.

It took 30 years to accept them: gray blobs and squiggles caused by the volleyball's impact. Twenty more years to ignore them. Now this: a "K" floating by, followed by "O, U, T," as Zelda, straining to catch Scott, pulls Kirk onto the grass and a Nissan Leaf whispers by. Missing Kirk by inches.

Zelda had saved Kirk's life. But had someone or something else tried to first?


Other than "Paul Revere's Ride," "Casey at the Bat," and that poem about two roads, Kirk has never had much use for poetry. He usually scrolls through poems quicker than you can say Facebook. But tonight, the night of the day he didn't die, Kirk is sitting on the sofa with Val and Zelda when a line from a friend's post catches his eye: "Old men ought to be explorers." Then, after exploring "the dark cold and the empty desolation," the poem ends with, "In the end is my beginning."

"Isn't that the truth," says Kirk.

"What?" asks Val.

"That things are ending for me just like they were before we met."

"What do you mean?"

Fifty years ago, Kirk might well have been playing ping-pong with a patient one day, while the next day, a fellow attendant might have been playing ping-pong with Kirk—a patient. During his five years working at the hospital, he'd admitted himself six times. "You're in Nashville, Tennessee. It's Wednesday. You've just had your treatment," he remembers someone saying over a head-splitting ache. One night while working graveyard, he looked at his chart and saw, "depressed depressive." On one of his nights off, he went to see the movie Tommy and identified with a pinball.

Then one Saturday night, Kirk drove his Gremlin down Broadway and sneaked into the Ryman Auditorium in time for the 11:30 set of the Grand Ole Opry. As Marty Robbins closed the show with "El Paso," the woman seated next to Kirk spilled a Mountain Dew on his leg. "My name is Valerie," she said, patting his leg with her handkerchief. "From out of nowhere, Felina has found me," sang Marty.

Staring at the greenest eyes he'd ever seen, Kirk asked, "Would you want to catch The Midnight Jamboree with me?" Valerie was in her final weeks of nursing school. And yet she'd never been to the Opry until that night. She owed it to herself to go there at least once, she told Kirk as they crossed Broadway, a half block from the Ryman. Entering the Earnest Tubb Record Shop, they discovered Earnest singing, "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," live on WSM.

After The Jamboree, Kirk followed Valerie to her apartment, where they spent the night talking about country music, the ethics of healthcare, and Sartre's novel Nausea, which Kirk summed up by asking, "Is this all there is?"

"Isn't this enough?" said Valerie, patting Kirk's leg with her hand.

Two weeks later, Kirk quit his job and followed Valerie to Bowling Green, Kentucky, her hometown, where a job in an ER awaited. Her father, a State Farm agent, persuaded Kirk to get a Life and Health license. Forty-some-odd mostly happy years later, after fathering two girls—Penelope and Lane—burying two parents, six dogs, and selling life insurance for a lifetime, Kirk retired, only to discover his black dogs of depression had returned home.

"What do you mean, what do I mean?" Kirk asks Val now. "Surely you remember the shape I was in when we met."

"Yes, but that's all behind you now."

"That is what I mean. Says here that my end is my beginning. If that's right, I get depressed all over again. Who am I kidding? I am depressed all over again."

"Or maybe your end is the beginning of good things, dear," says Val as a "C" floats across Kirk's tablet, followed by "H, E, S, T," accompanied by Zelda's faint snores.

Kirk's annual Medicare exam is tomorrow. Could the same whoever who told me to "LOOKOUT" be warning me again? wonders Kirk. Didn't Mom die from a heart tumor?


In an exam room about the size of a coffin, Kirk is joined by an attractive young woman with shining black hair and dark chocolate eyes. "Hello, Mr. Peterson, my name is Chandri. Before you see the doctor, I have some questions for you."


Seated in front of Kirk, Chandri, expressionless until now, smiles and asks, "Do you ever feel depressed?"

Most of the time, thinks Kirk. "No."

"Have you recently experienced any feelings of hopelessness?"

As you walked in. "No."

"Do you have trouble sleeping?"

Yes. "No."


As Chandri records Kirk's responses, he looks around the room. On one wall, he sees a portrait of Chandri and her family: two young boys, a slim dark man, a fat orange cat. On the adjoining wall: a picture of Chandri, scantily clad, running beneath a finish line clock that reads "3:21:19." And revolving on the wall beside that, floats "3, 1, 0, 9."


The day after his exam, Kirk is steering his Explorer north through Illinois. Cornfields to the right. Cornfields to the left. Scott and Zelda asleep in their backseat cuddle bed. "Maybe your subconscious was telling you a car was coming," says Val from the passenger seat. "You were telling yourself to 'LOOKOUT'"

"What about 'CHEST'? Did I somehow know I had heart problems?" Subsequent to Chandri's grilling, an EKG indicated Kirk's right bundle branch was blocked.

"A lot of people have that. Didn't the doctor say not to worry?"

"Yes, but how would I have known about it the night before? And how do you explain the floating numbers?"

Kirk and Val are on their way from Bowling Green to Casey, Illinois. Val had heard about Casey on TV. "Eight of the world's largest things are there," she'd told Kirk. "The biggest rocking chair. The largest mailbox. They might cheer you up."

"Hot damn," Kirk had said.

So far, they've passed through Olney, Illinois, "Home of the White Squirrels" (they didn't see one); and in nearby Newton—on Val's insistence—Kirk sat glumly on a bench beside a stone statue of Burl Ives and his guitar. "A rock guitar," Val quipped, snapping Kirk's picture as Burl sang "Big Rock Candy Mountain" from her phone. Now, nearing Casey, she says, "Maybe you stared at the numbers in the picture long enough to see them on the wall, too."

Picturing Chandri in her running clothes, Kirk says, "Why would I stare at a clock? And the numbers weren't all the same anyway."

"I'm only trying to help. Look," says Val as they pass a sign that reads, "Big Things in a Small Town. Welcome to Casey, Illinois."

Walking up Main Street, dogs in tow, the first attraction Kirk and Val see is a giant birdcage. "It's not the world's largest, but let's sit in it anyway," says Val. "Excuse me, could you take our picture?" she asks a passerby.

"Sure thing," says the passerby, a man wearing a T-shirt reading "London, Paris, Rio, Casey."

Reluctantly, Kirk follows Val, Scott, and Zelda into the cage. "Sit beside me, dear," says Val with a nod to the perch. Kirk perches. And no sooner than he does, a parakeet enters his mind. It seems to have a name: Petey.

"Smile everybody," says the man.

Continuing up the sidewalk, weaving through more people than Kirk would have guessed cared about big things, they pass a giant barber pole, a large No. 2 pencil, and a 36-foot-long yardstick. "No baseball bat?" asks Kirk as Scott scarfs up a fallen hot dog bun.

"Yes, there is one," says Val, consulting her Casey brochure. "But we'll have to drive to it. Why would you ask?"

"There is no joy in Mudville."

"Oh, yeah."

It's big, the rocker, no doubt. Zelda and Scott look like mice beneath it, while across the street, kids run up and down the World's Largest Teeter-Totter. "Do you want to get on it?" asks Val, pointing up, then down.

With visions of Westminster Abbey, the Eiffel Tower, and Sugarloaf Mountain in mind, Kirk answers, "When bulldogs all have rubber teeth," before crossing the street and leading Zelda toward their car, passing the World's Largest Wind Chime along the way.

"But we'll miss The World's Largest Golf Tee," says Val from behind.

Without breaking stride, Kirk is sizing up pretzels in the Tetzel Pretzel storefront when Val says, "Look, the mailbox!"

"Where?" asks Kirk, turning from the pretzels toward the street.

"Look up!"

No wonder he hadn't seen it. He'd been looking straight ahead. It must be three stories tall, thinks Kirk. You could fit two mail trucks inside that thing.

"Let's go up," says Val, pointing at the people in the mailbox.

"When hens lay soft-boiled eggs," says Kirk. But then, as he continues looking up, the word "NUT" floats into the box, followed by what at first Kirk takes to be an exclamation point. But since when do they point up? And who's calling me a "NUT" anyway?

One year later, Kirk and Val will be cruising down the Rhine north of Ludwigshafen during Pink Weeks (Rosa Wochen)—so named for the blooming almond trees along the banks—when "NAUSEA?" appears in the wake.

"Good one," Kirk will say.

"Are you seeing things again," Val will ask, standing at Kirk's starboard.

No, he is not about to be seasick. On the flight across the Atlantic, Kirk looked out the window and saw "CAN U SWIM?" floating on the clouds beneath him. Very funny, Kirk had thought. So, given the wunderbar time he and Val are having on the Rhine, Kirk interprets "NAUSEA?" as a humorous dig at Sartre's depressing masterwork. Then again, if cruising down the Rhine in Pink Weeks were all there is, it might just be enough. Life ist gut.

But back to Casey.

"I guess it wouldn't hurt to take a look from up there," says Kirk, eyeing the in the sky.

Val picks up Scott, Kirk picks up Zelda; and up the stairs they go, suffering a chorus of "Ohhh, can I pat your cute dogs?" from an insufferable troop of Brownies who are on their way down.

"This is what it must feel like to be a letter," says Val as they step into the back of the box.

Walking toward the mailbox opening, high above the town, Kirk says, "Air mail."

Good one, says a voice in Kirk's head.

Kirk hasn't heard his dead dad's voice since his final words, "See you later," 19 years ago. Dad? asks Kirk silently. Is that you?

Yes and no.

What do you mean?

I mean yes, it's me, but I'm part of Everyone now.

What do you mean, everyone?

Capital E.

How do you know I didn't capitalize it?

We know Everything.

As Zelda fidgets in his arms, Kirk asks aloud, "Is Mother a part of you, too, and both Grandmas and Grandpas and Uncle Frank and Aunt Franny and all our dead dogs?"


Standing nearby, Val lowers Scott to the mailbox floor and places a hand on Kirk's shoulder. "Is everything okay, dear?" she asks. "Who are you talking to?"

As if sensing Val's concern, Zelda licks Kirk's face. But Kirk ignores Val's words and Zelda's tongue by silently asking Everyone, Did you cause the floating words and numbers? What's that all about?

We couldn't let you get smacked by a Leaf, could we? After that, it seemed like a good way to get your attention.

I get "LOOKOUT." But why "CHEST, 3109, NUT, ↑"?

You seemed like you could use some help. And just because we lost our lives, it doesn't mean we've lost our sense of humor. Think about it.

Kirk thinks. And quicker than a parakeet flies into a mind, everything (small "e") becomes clear. Hadn't his parents lived on Chestnut Street when he was born? Could it have been 3109 Chestnut?


"Did I have a parakeet named Petey?" blurts Kirk.

"A parakeet named Petey?" says Val.

He died when you were three. And now that we have you back to your beginning, hang on.

Kirk hangs on, starting with an image of Petey in a cage in a Chestnut Street bedroom, followed by a sixth-grade talent show in which he forgets the words to "Fooba Wooba John," and on to a vision of Debbie Damm's breasts, where he wishes he could pause, but instead he's on his way to a Wee Deliver birthing class, standing at Val's head and saying "breathe, breathe," as a doll appears between Val's knees, then off to Dollywood with Val and Penny and Lane before accepting a gold watch from State Farm Corporate and driving into Casey.

Don't stop now. Oh, and we think Zelda wants down.

Kirk lowers Zelda to the floor. Then, quicker than a teeter board totters, he's thrust up, up, up into an infinite sea of galaxies with the light from time's beginning streaming past. It reminds him of the time he and his father camped in Colorado and his dad said, "Would you look at all those the stars."

And when you looked up, I said, "That's why they call it Milky."

But those were stars in one galaxy, not galaxies awash in galaxies and suns awash in each galaxy, not to mention loads of planets and moons and colorful space dust. As part of him floats in the midst of it All and his other part stands in a giant mailbox overlooking Casey, Illinois, home of big things, Kirk realizes The Biggest Thing Ever: that given the inexplicable reality of the universe (multiverse?), who's to say everyone can't become Everyone? And if that's true, this isn't all there is. But just knowing All This makes all this tons better. Hot damn.

You got it, says Everyone. Have you ever heard of Rosa Wochen?

Whisked from the galactic sea, standing at the mailbox edge, Kirk sees the giant birdcage where he perched not an hour ago. But before he tells Val Anything, or even points out the World's Largest Golf Tee in the distance, he looks out into the sky and says, "Goodbye, Everyone."

Zelda barks. Scott whimpers. Wrapping her arms around Kirk, Val shouts, "Don't you dare!"