By Joanna Ruocco
Dorothy, a publishing project
Melba was about to push off again on her bicycle, when a man flung open a second floor window in the house across the street. He waved at Melba.
"Bev," the man cried, "Bev Hat." Melba squinted at the man, who was now leaning out the window gripping a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
Melba knew Bev Hat. They'd been schoolchildren together back when Bev Hat was Bev Horn. Bev Horn had always showed promise and eventually she had blossomed into Bev Hat, a popular young mother. The last time Melba had seen Bev Hat, she was scrubbing stroganoff from a Turkish rug and singing in a high, clear voice. She was vigorous and thin, with the kind of grueling beauty that Melba's mother found so impressive. Everyone was impressed with Bev Hat! Even Randal Hans, back when he was Melba's boyfriend, seemed to think admiring thoughts about Bev Hat.
"Is it fair to say that Bev Hat's beauty is like new fallen snow?" he asked Melba. "Or does that make her seem cold?"
"Are you writing a letter to Bev Hat?" Melba asked, surprised by her shrilling tone. Randal pushed back his chair and put his pencil behind his ear.
"I was only thinking aloud, Melba," he explained. "Sometimes I take notes when I think aloud." He picked up his coffee mug and his stationary and went outside to sit on the back steps. After a while, he came back inside for more coffee and he and Melba found themselves in a spirited conversation about the life cycles of fruit flies. Melba never felt happier than she did in those days, drinking coffee with Randal Hans.
"Your coffee is something else, Melba," Randal Hans said. "It's special." Melba had told him the ingredients—water, coffee grounds, puffed wheat, honey—but not the proportions.
"I don't know how they puff wheat," Melba admitted.
"You don't?" Randal Hans replied. "I'm surprised." Randal Hans always claimed to think a lot of Melba's intelligence.
"Would you like more honey?" asked Melba.
"I have a theory," Randal spoke with a serious look on his face. "People claim that the lentil was man's first food, but I think that food was honey."
Randal Hans rarely offered opinions and Melba felt happy that she had incurred one of his ideas. She had never shared this fact with him, but her life had been significantly improved by honey. Due to her ingestion of honey, up to a half pound a day, she had developed immunity to the histamines in the local flora.
When Melba was a child, she was plagued by chronic congestion and as a result she had developed polyps in her sinus cavities.
Her sinus cavities, Dr. Buck had explained, were abnormally dank and deep, with almost no airflow, the perfect conditions for anaereobic life forms, such as polyps, to proliferate. Dr. Buck's office frightened Melba, with its photographic murals of circus clowns and the complicated many-bladed instruments soaking in the utility sink.
"Have you been to Kentucky?" asked Dr. Buck, opening the speculum in Melba's nostril somewhat wider than she would have preferred. Her eyes began to tear and she struggled cautiously with her lower body, pulling up her knees and delivering short kicks. Dr. Buck inserted a penlight in her nostril.
"There is wonderful spelunking in Kentucky," said Dr. Buck, "and certain of the caves have properties, properties you would not believe if they were described to you by someone less respected than a family doctor, someone slightly cracked. Can you think of anyone, Melba?"
Melba thought of the redheaded people in Dan. There were many redheaded people in Dan and Melba's father, Zeno Zuzzo, always said they were different from normal people. Then Melba thought of Hal Conard, who traveled all around the county because he shoed horses.
"Hal Conard?" guessed Melba. Dr. Buck extracted the speculum and penlight and tossed them in the sink. He dropped heavily onto a rolling chair and drew the chair rapidly forward with his feet. He stood and lifted Melba off the examination table, settling back into the chair, with Melba on his lap. He wiped away her tears with his gloved fingers. The wet latex on Melba's skin made squeaks.
"Do you have an eye otter?" joked Dr. Buck, tenderly.
"I hope not," said Melba and Dr. Buck sobered. He squeezed Melba close.
"Hal Conard is exactly right," said Dr. Buck. "You wouldn't believe Hal Conard if he told you about a cave in Kentucky with special properties. Hal Conard shoes horses, but have you ever seen a horse in Dan? I didn't think so. In fact, Melba, answer me this: have you ever seen a horse?"
"Yes," said Melba.
"Think carefully before you answer," said Dr. Buck. "Because there are certain canids—those are dogs, Melba—that can be shaved and groomed to resemble other animals, raccoons, lions, even horses. Can you be absolutely certain that what you saw was a horse and not one of these canids?"
Melba thought carefully. She could not be absolutely certain.
"Of course, you can't be certain," said Dr. Buck. "Without the opinion of an expert there's no such thing as certainty. Now what if Dr. Buck tells you that you've never seen a horse? That, in fact, there are no horses?"
Melba tried to pull away from him but he held her in his squishy embrace. His heart was beating against her shoulder.
"But what about the ponies?" Melba asked. "The ones on the islands?"
"Islands," repeated Dr. Buck darkly.
"Aren't there islands?" asked Melba. She had seen drawings in the display cases at Dan Elementary, each of a brown hump rising from jagged blue crayon marks, a curving tree with five skinny leaves rising from the center of the hump. The humps were islands. There were so many drawings and they were all the same! How could the children all draw the same thing if it wasn't real? There had to be islands.
"There are islands," said Melba. Dr. Buck said nothing. Moving his feet, he crept the chair across the floor to the window. He reached out and pulled on the window shade so it flapped up and Melba could see the window glass, flecked here and there with white deposits.
"There is Dan," said Dr. Buck, and Melba tried to look through the glass. She had always known that she lived in Dan, but she had never thought about what Dan was made of. Melba looked intently at Dan.
She could see her father sitting on the hood of Dr. Buck's car holding an olive and an extremely large knife. She could see, behind her father, the outlines of Dan Elementary on the hill and the children climbing on the midget submarine and Kubelwagon, and, behind Dan Elementary, she could see the steep muddy foothills that rose steeply into the steeper muddy mountain range, the closest peak accessible only by funicular device.
Dr. Buck laid his gloved fingertips lightly on the back of Melba's neck. She felt his breath tickling the exposed line of skin away from which she folded the left and right halves of her hair.
"What do you see?" asked Dr. Buck. Melba was holding her breath and she had to exhale noisily before she could speak. Dr. Buck patted her back.
"My father," said Melba Zuzzo.
"Melba, I am your father," whispered Dr. Buck. Melba stiffened. She cried out. She slapped her palms instinctively against the window as though trying to reach Zeno Zuzzo, who had shaved a sliver of olive and was contemplating the sliver where it clung to the blade of the knife. Dr. Buck began to laugh.
"Not biologically, Melba," he laughed. "But we are just alike in our souls, don't you think? Do you like pralines?" He gripped Melba under the armpits and set her on the ground, then rose to fumble in a kidney-shaped tray. He extracted a praline.
"I like pralines," he said. "But I would rather you have it. This praline is for you." Melba took the praline between her lips, then pushed it with her tongue so that it fit between her gums and her cheek.
"You didn't eat the praline," said Dr. Buck.
Melba nodded. "I did," she said, the saliva puddling around the praline so that a sugary tendril of drool escaped from the corner of her mouth.
"You did not," said Dr. Buck, sadly. "No matter. I will write you a prescription."
That very night, Melba developed a system of nasal irrigation, snorting a broth of white pepper, tobacco leaves, and mustard powder. Within the week, her polyps had dissolved. Adopting a maintenance therapy of rigorous honey consumption, Melba attained a fully oxygenated, even ruddy good health. As the years passed, she experienced small ignominies—thinning hair and frequent infestations of eye mites—but she did not seek out Dr. Buck. He asked about her, Melba knew this, and sometimes he came into the bakery, pretending not to recognize her, but leaving little gifts: paper bags of empty gel-caps for her to fill with whatever she wished.
Melba wondered if she would ever find out for sure about horses and islands. If she would need some sort of reference material or travel regimen.
The man in the window was still calling to her.
"Bev," he called. "Bev."
Seeing another human being operating so vehemently under a false perception made Melba feel a kind of relief. She smiled and waved at the man in the window, walking her bicycle forward with her legs on either side of the top tube.
"It's not Bev. It's Melba," called Melba. "From the bakery."
The man in the window gave a jerk, striking his head against the window sash.
"Oh Bev! Why have you come back as Melba?" the man moaned.
"Oh Bev! Why Melba? Why Melba?"
Melba could no longer bear to crane her neck at the man. She let her helmeted head fall forward, slumping over her handlebars.
The man was still shouting. "Why Melba? Why Melba?"
"Why, Melba," came a voice close at hand. "Now you've done it."
Melba dragged her head to the upright position and saw Hal Drake, the successful machinist. He patrolled the streets of Dan in the early hours when Officer Greg was still asleep. Melba had never seen such a somber look on his face.
"That's Ned Hat up there, Melba," said Hal Drake, grimly.
"Ned Hat?" Melba's eyes flew to the figure in the window. "But that's an old bald man! Ned is different. He isn't like . . ." Melba faltered.
"Like what?" Hal gave a short, harsh laugh. "Like me, Melba?"
"Like that," said Melba. "I mean, like that man in the window."
"He is now," said Hal. As he spoke, he worked his mouth as though he were chewing on the sides of his tongue. Melba looked away.
"A lot can happen to a man in the night," said Hal, quietly. "You wouldn't understand."
"He's frothing at the mouth!" cried Melba.
"Let him be," said Hal. "It's the peroxide."
"Someone has to do something," protested Melba. She glanced uneasily up and down the empty street. "Where's Bev?"
Hal went rigid.
"She's dead, Melba," said Hal. "She died yesterday."
Melba squeezed the grips of her handlebars. She inclined her chin to look again at the man in the window and she felt the weight of her helmet tug her head backwards.
Melba's thoughts of Pam Dempsey returned to her. Melba wondered if it was still possible to walk off, to lie quietly. Her head lolled.
"It was helium poisoning," continued Hal. "She was filling campaign balloons for Mayor Bunt . . ." his voice broke.
"Ned thinks I'm Bev Hat!" burst out Melba, straightening her neck with a sudden rush of isometrics.
"Ned doesn't know what to think," said Hal. "It's very early in the morning and he hasn't gotten much sleep. He'd have to be crazy to imagine that Bev has come back as you, Melba. Where would you have gone, then, answer me that? If you're Bev, where's Melba? It would be better if he'd never seen you, but now that he has, there's nothing you can do. He'll forget this whole thing soon enough. The best thing you can do is get to work. I'll handle Ned Hat."
"Bev!" Ned yelled.
"Go Melba!" said Hal, and he slapped the back wheel of Melba's bicycle as he aimed a flare gun at Ned Hat's window with his free hand. Melba pushed off and pedaled faster than she ever had, flying down the hill, until she saw the lighted windows of the bakery shining onto the dough dumpster that Bert Bus, the garbage man, had forgotten to drag back into the alley where it belonged by day, upright amid the liverworts.