A Determination of Parts
Mark Rothko's #19
A finger that has recently been slammed in a car door points at a
map of Delaware, specifically Wilmington, where the Kalmar Nyckel
landed on March 29, 1638.
The Nyckel set sail from Sweden, land of snow and ice, with 24
passengers from four different countries: Sweden, Finland, Holland,
and Germany. One of those passengers was the notorious Hans-Peter
Schwieger, perpetrator of one of the most heinous mass murders in
the history of Germany at that time.
Hans, known as the best butcher in all Schleswig-Holstein, had
gone to the market in his home town of Husum to buy some cows for
his shop and was cheated out of several coins by a man named Otto
Finkelstein. Hans, who was thought to be a calm man, very quietly
led his purchases back to his shop. However, a week later, Otto
Finkelstein, his wife Greta, and their children Marianne and Oli
were found butchered in their home. Their necks had been slit like
swine, their blood drained into buckets, and their flesh cut away
from their bones by someone who was very obviously gifted with a
knife. The police inspectors, being some of Hans’ most loyal and
corpulent customers, immediately recognized the butcher’s handiwork,
but when they went to his home, his wife informed them that he had
fled into the sunset.
In fact, he had gone to Sweden, changed his last name by
transposing the ie vowel combination to ei (and thus
changing the meaning from in-law to keeper of secrets),
and booked passage on a ship to the New World. When the captain
asked him if maybe he wasn’t Schwieger the wanted criminal, Hans
replied that it was a coincidence, and that he was leaving to escape
the shame of the unfortunate association.
Gene’s other prize possession is a block of ice that, in 30 years
of room-temperature conditions, has not melted. Gene keeps it out so
that people can touch it. It’s as cold as if it were in a meat
locker. It’s sitting on top of a conical, flat-topped pedestal.
Around the base of the pedestal is a sensor. The sensor is connected
to an alarm system and a pager. Should the block of ice even shed
one single drop of water, that drop will fall into the sensor, set
off the alarm (which can be heard in a three-block radius), and send
a message to Gene’s pager (just in case he’s out hunting or
rummaging around somewhere) so that he can get to the museum and
inspect the block and watch it go if that’s the case.
Gene acquired the block of ice from a woman who came to his door
one night when Hardscrabble was being doused with the tail-end
fringes of hurricane Agnes. The woman said her name was also Agnes
and asked Gene for a glass of peach juice if he had any.
She told Gene a story about how she had just been in Florida,
holed up in a shack that was threatening to blow away with the
hurricane. One midnight, about a week beforehand, during the worst
of the winds, she heard a loud thump on the roof. She thought it was
a tree, but since it hadn’t broken through, she stayed put. The next
day, after the winds had died down some, she went out to investigate
and found, instead of a tree limb, the block of ice that, during the
whole drive up to Hardscrabble, hadn’t melted.
Gene gave her $1000 for it and offered her a bed for the night.
The next morning, she was gone and so was Gene’s mummified Mongolian
The storm moves in and sits over the canyon. Rain falls so hard
and fast it looks like the atmosphere has liquefied. The thunder is
so loud that it breaks windows. During the night, the creek rises
and threatens to wash Opal’s house away.
She can’t sleep. She’s wide awake in the darkness and can’t quite
remember where she is. She’s not sure what woke her up: the storm,
the howling of the dogs, or the horrible nightmare she had. A giant,
floating horse’s head came to her and spoke of the remains of a man
who had fallen apart and wanted to be put back together. The horse’s
eyes burned like the dark clouds outside, saliva dripped from its
lips, and its voice was part piercing whinny and part low growl.
She can hear trees crashing into the creek, sections of bank
sliding away. She’s afraid to look out the window and see just how
close the water is. She’d rather be carried away in her sleep. But
she can’t sleep.
She calls the dogs up to her, and they circle around her like
earthbound vultures before settling down. They’re pressed as close
to her as they can get, and their shivering rattles her teeth. She
pets their dark fur and scratches behind their ears.
She lies down and closes her eyes, but the image of the horse’s
head returns, the thunder crashes, and the dogs howl from their
positions next to her.
So she waits. She knows this will pass. She hopes this will pass.
She waits and listens to the water rushing by her front door. She
waits and listens to the thunder break the sky. She waits and
listens to the echoes of that desperate voice. She waits and listens
for the dawn.
Merle is counting the pennies in the enormous, rabbit-shaped bank
he insists on calling a piggy bank. He has somewhere around 14,000
pennies, and as he counts them, he separates them into piles
according to the year they were minted. Within those piles, he
separates them further into three smaller piles by where they were
minted—D for Denver, S for San Francisco, and blank
People often tell him that he should get some of those penny
collecting books so that he can keep his coins organized, but he
doesn’t like to look at books. He likes to organize his pennies this
way, and he does it every six months. It allows him to look at and
touch every single penny. It allows him time to think.
Merle’s not a miser, he just likes pennies. His obsession started
when he was a kid and his father gave him a small bank shaped like a
horse’s head and told him that if he put his pennies in there, he’d
be rich someday.
Over the years, he’s had several "piggy" banks, each of which was
larger than the last. There have been several shaped like horses, a
sandblasted glass one that bore the words A Penny Saved Is A
Penny Earned, and Merle’s favorite: A cast-iron sandhill crane;
when a penny was inserted into the beak and the tail feathers were
pressed down, the crane would gulp the coin down its long neck.
Now he has the snow bunny bank, which is as big as his torso. It
pleases Merle to think that he could fit well over 14,000 pennies
into his chest cavity and more than once he has considered adding
something to his last will and testament about donating all of his
organs and being buried with the pennies in their place.
A fine silting of chalk dust falls down around Charlie
Buckthorn’s jack-o’-lantern mask. He’s out beating the erasers on
the playground again. Mrs. Getha has told him that he will have to
do this every day until he takes the mask off. She thinks of it as
punishment, Charlie thinks of it as a reward.
He grabs one eraser in each hand and smacks them together like
cymbals. Sometimes he hears music when he looks at things—like now,
as the chalk dust explodes from the erasers and poofs out in little
clouds and eddies.
In kindergarten Charlie was amazed to learn that a P could be
turned into an R merely by adding a tail. The teacher asked him why,
and he said he didn’t know you could change a banana letter into a
People keep asking Charlie why he won’t take the mask off, and he
just shakes his head. He can’t quite put it into words, but it has
something to do with seeing Jenny Stilton dressed as a whooping
crane for Halloween. There was something about the way she looked
with those extra-long sleeves and that cowled hood that makes him
want to cover his face.
He smiles a lot under the mask and makes faces at the other kids
and the teacher. He likes that they can’t really see him when he
sticks out his tongue or crosses his eyes.
As he beats the erasers and marches around the playground to a
silent soundtrack, he hopes that Mrs. Getha will always let him do
this. The music the chalk dust makes is so much better than the
music the dry-erase dust makes or even the kind the fish make when
they get fed.
The Ranchhand Motel in Ainsport, Nebraska, has pictures of
Hereford cattle on the wall. The motel was built sometime in the
1950s and retains its original look. The owners, Cliff and Mim
Rudnick, make most of their money in the fall, when hunters come
from all over the country to shoot turkeys, deer, and sometimes,
accidentally, the local ranchers’ cows.
When Agent Williams checks into room 5, Mim hands him a letter
and tells him that it’s been waiting for him for a couple of days.
Agent Williams asks her to put it on the counter. There’s no
return address. The envelope has been typed and reads, in part,
Please Hold for Sam Williams. He reaches into his pocket and
removes a pair of latex gloves. Mim arches an eyebrow, but says
nothing. Agent Williams picks up the letter, thanks her, and goes to
He closes the door, locks it, and pulls the blinds. He tosses his
briefcase onto the bed, carefully places the letter next to the
phone, and leaving his gloves on, removes his jacket.
Since there is nowhere else to sit, he sits on the edge of the
bed. He opens his briefcase and removes a paper knife, which he uses
to slice open the envelope.
The letter has been typed on lemon-scented stationery, and Agent
Williams smiles in recognition. He unfolds the letter, and two
photographs fall onto his lap. They are both of a woman. She is
bound, gagged, and blindfolded with strips of old bedsheets. The
sheets have been printed with pictures of dancing citrus fruit.
He reads the letter, which begins, Hi. It’s me. I hope you’re not
surprised. By the way, you’re getting colder, not warmer. That’s too
Howard sits on the side of the road for about 15 minutes before
he reaches for the keys, starts the car, and begins to drive off.
As he’s turning the wheel, Howard thinks about what will happen
when he gets home. Tracy will have just finished putting smiley-face
stickers on all of her student’s papers. He’ll tell her the story
about getting pulled over by Jerry, how he almost peed his pants,
how they now need to go out with Jerry and Judy, and then he’ll give
her the letter.
Tracy will laugh because Jerry’s always been kind of a funny,
good ol’ boy. She’ll put the letter on the table and get up to kiss
Howard, who will passionately kiss her back; the combination of the
radio story and being pulled over will have scared a little fear of
death into him, and when Tracy kisses him, he’ll feel life come
rushing back to him in unexpected ways.
Howard and Tracy will end up on the kitchen table, where they
will make love like it’s the end of the world. When they finally get
up, the letter will be sticking to Tracy’s thigh. They’ll laugh as
she peels it off and sets it back down on the table. Then, too tired
to cook, they’ll go out for some dinner, maybe to that Puerto Rican
place where they make all those great dishes with bananas.
Howard presses the accelerator with his right foot and turns the
wheel a little more to the left. Just as he pulls back onto the
street, his car is broadsided by a speeding 18-wheeler.
The police report will say that after the accident there were
four inches between the inside of the driver’s side door and the
inside of the passenger side door.
Hans Schweiger puts down his quill and thinks of his wife’s face,
which over the years has come to look more and more like her aunt
It’s late fall, most of the leaves have fallen from the trees,
and Hans feels the old sadness creeping into his bones. It’s late,
He’s sitting at his desk, trying to compose a letter to his wife,
trying to her tell the real story of who he is and what he’s done.
The sentence he just finished reads, All blood smells the same
whether it’s pig, horse, or human.
He reads the sentence over again. He knows she won’t understand.
He knows she won’t be able to forgive him. He knows he shouldn’t be
writing this, but he wants to be free of his past. And he wants to
be free of his future.
When he finishes the letter, he’ll slip it under Gisela’s pillow,
grab his boning knife, walk down to the bend in the creek where he
first met his wife, cut his arms open, and bury himself under the
leaves he loves so much.
He writes another sentence, And human flesh separates from
human bone just the same as all flesh separates from all bone, just
the same as leaves fall from trees.
Leaves, he thinks, and for a moment, he sits motionless.
Then he thinks of his wife’s face and of the bend in the creek
and of the bird that flew up at him like the end of the world and of
kisses on the cherry wood rocker.
He reads the letter again. He inhales deeply.
He thinks, Fall. . . . and rips the letter to shreds. He throws
the pieces onto the fire and watches them burn. He goes to bed.
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