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  • One One Thousand
  • John Smolens (bio)

“There is no afterlife, no heaven,” she said, “no God, no Satan, none of that stuff. When you die you become past tense.”

Janet said things like that since their mother’s stroke. “It’s too simple,” Eric said.

“Because it is simple. There’s present tense, and then there’s past tense.”

As they left the nursing home, Janet held on to her brother’s arm. Since the ice storm two days earlier, the footing had been slippery and everything was still glazed. Once they crossed the street to the park, Janet pulled her arm free and dug her cigarettes out of the pocket of her overcoat.

“You didn’t use to be so . . .”

“Cynical?” she said.


“I wasn’t. It’s an acquired taste, you know, like wine. My favorite vintage is the benign indifference of the universe. Very Camus, very French.”

“That’s not simple. That’s easy. Too easy.”

The park looked like one of those scenes in a movie where you can tell it’s really summer but they came in and blew fake snow and ice on everything. Once she had her cigarette lit, they started across the park, the grass, encrusted in ice, crackling beneath their boots.

“You think it’s abandoning hope?” she asked.


“Thing about hope is nobody really gives much thought to it until it’s being abandoned. If you have hope, invest it in life. Hope for a better life. You can even believe that you can make a difference. Do good works. Offer a helping hand.”

“But that’s different.”

“I know that, Eric. Why don’t you?”

“What made you so bitter?”

“I’m not. I’m really not. I’m looking at it with clear eyes, that’s all. We have this,” she waved her hand in appreciation for the splendor of the ice storm. “This [End Page 27] is all we know. This is it, so don’t fuck it up. That’s not bitter. It’s real. It’s true. If I’m cynical, you’re . . .”

“I’m what?”

“Never mind. You’ll never get it.”

“I don’t see things as they really are? Something like that?” When she didn’t respond but only took another drag on her cigarette, he said, “I wish you hadn’t mentioned wine.”

She laughed. “Where do you think we’re going?”

Now he didn’t bother to answer. They both knew. From the window in their mother’s room, they could see the bar on the other side of the park. It had a flickering neon sign, a tilted martini glass with an olive on a toothpick. “It’s probably the kind of place that serves wine in little bottles with the twist-off caps.”

“This is no time to become a wine snob.”

“No, that would be imprudent.”

This time her laugh was more of a snort. “‘Imprudent.’ Christ, Eric.”

“I’m not the one who mentioned ‘benign indifference.’” They continued across the park. The air was cold, very damp. So much vapor poured from their mouths they might both have been smoking. “Forget the wine,” he said.

“Right. I’ll bet they have martini glasses like that sign, and the bartender understands what you mean when you say ‘very dry.’” She took a last drag on her cigarette. “His name will be something like Tony.”

“I’m guessing Earl. Red vest, white shirt, black bow tie.”

“Wouldn’t that be something?” She took his arm again and picked up the pace. “Dad would say we’re like horses returning to the barn.”

Tree branches weighted with ice hung almost to the ground. When he was in college Eric thought he wanted to be a film director, or perhaps a cinematographer. He would think in frames, visualize everything through a camera lens; imagine the entire day as a series of small scenes, mundane but poignant. He liked long-distance shots. Let the setting define the characters; close-ups were overrated. He would have filmed this scene from a treetop. Bird’s-eye view. And from behind: a man and a woman walking across a park that...


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pp. 27-36
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