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Vol. 4, No. 2

Bliss
by Dale Peck

~

Mead Pritchard was the one person nobody ever talked about in Group, Mead Pritchard and Howard Firth. Howard Firth had served seven years for shooting Mead Pritchard in the stomach during the course of a liquor store holdup, and when he was released Mead Pritchard had staked out Howard Firth's front porch for several weeks in an effort to befriend him, and then he'd disappeared, later to be found at the bottom of Pleasant Pond with an unopened sack of cement tied to his scarred belly. In the absence of Mead Pritchard, Howard Firth's name never came up, but when Mead's did people tended to say he did what he had to do, and I wondered if they would say that about me, but I doubted it.
    I sensed my interest in Group waning after Shen finally told me how my mother died, but for some reason my interest in him seemed to grow; though I continued to go to meetings, I'd sometimes sneak out during a coffee break. I'd drive home and park down the block, and then I'd stand outside the windows spying on Shen as he watched TV with the lights off or slept with the lights on, until the night I came home and saw neither lamplight nor the TV's flickering glow. And I admit: the first emotion I felt was relief, but it was almost immediately blotted out by loss. I thought Shen had finally left me, but something, either nineteen years in prison or the few months we'd spent together, had skewed his sense of priorities. Shenandoah Manson could have gotten away if he'd wanted, but he chose to get laid first.
    My first thought was that the woman in Shen's bed looked like the kind of woman who might sleep with a man even if she knew he was a paroled murderer: too tan, too plump, too thirty-nine. When I snapped on the light she reacted calmly, lazily pulling the sheet over her body, but it took me a moment to realize Shen was calm too. He hadn't jumped when I came into the room, only lain on his back with his uncovered eyes pointed at the ceiling. I told myself it was the woman who angered me, her lack of shame, and it was her I lashed at first.
    "Don't you know what he did?" I said to her. "He killed my mother." And then I added, "Not yours."
    I clocked her reaction on her face: oh-my-God, oh-you're-joking, oh-my-God-you're-not-joking. Before I left the room I picked up Shen's glasses from the floor. I waited in the hallway, and after I heard the front door close I went back to the maid's room. Shen was still on the bed, his face still pointed at the ceiling, and I went over and sat on the edge of the little twin mattress. They hadn't gotten very far. At any rate Shen's underwear was still on, right side out this time, and the bed was so narrow that my hip pressed against the thin fabric.
    "Can I have my glasses back."
    Shen's voice was not quite flat when he spoke. There was an edge of steel to his words, and I wondered if I should be afraid of Shenandoah Manson. But the truth is I wasn't afraid. The truth is it was hard for me to believe Shenandoah Manson had killed my mother, let alone that he could kill me.
    Aloud, I said: "I used to wonder if you'd saved me. If she would've married some jerk who would've beat the shit out of me. Who knows, maybe you even saved her. He could've beat her, taken everything she worked so hard for. But that was before I met you."
    "Can I have my glasses back."
    "It was only after I met you that I realized I'd been deprived of something. I'm sure I felt it before, that's why I went to Group, but it was only as I got to know you and realized you were a real person that I began to realize my mother had been a person too, although what kind of person I'll never know."
    "I want my glasses back."
    "You probably never saw her, did you? With your glasses, I mean. She was pretty. A lot prettier than that woman you just had in here."
    He rolled over then. I don't know if he did it out of disgust or shame or if he simply didn't want to be touching me anymore, but he rolled over onto his stomach and as soon as he had he froze. The little wing on his left shoulder blade fluttered as a muscle underneath it twitched, but it became nothing more than a shadow after I put on his glasses, and my hand became a pale triangle at the end of my arm as it reached toward the shadow on his back. It seemed to me that the tattoo was colder than the rest of his skin, but that was probably just my imagination. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as my hand slipped down the length of Shen's spine, until it came to rest on the rattlesnake's tail poking toward the thin nest of hair in the small of his back. I wondered if this is what Shen had felt like when he pried open our window that night, this inexorable pull into the near future. It was then that I understood that ignorance really is bliss, not knowledge, because once you start learning you can't stop until you know everything.
    "Shen," I said now, but he didn't answer me. He didn't move either, and I squeezed onto the bed until my lips were right next to his ear. "I'll trade you," I said. "For your glasses."

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