Spencer Golub
David Hancock

Mildred Sparrow has long since retired from Hemispheres and believes that she lives in her cottage in the dunes of Cape Cod. However, she actually lives in Ohio, in a Hemispheres recreation of Cape Cod. Every personal effect in her house is a forgery, manufactured by the Hemispheres Properties Department, and intended to jog certain memories. The water is not the Atlantic Ocean, but an eddy of Lake Erie, which has been artificially salinated by Hemispheres biologists. Even the flotsam and jetsam on the beach are fake. The face of Mengele in the driftwood was fashioned by craftsmen in the Scene Shop and the salt air and sound of chirping crickets is made by special effects machinery inside the walls of Mildred’s bedroom.

Inside her retirement fantasyland, Mildred has many routines. She drives into town every day. She buys essentials at the small grocery store and checks her mail at the post office that is actually staffed by Hemispheres agents. Mildred drives a Toyota pick-up, although it’s a stick shift and Mildred is thinking of trading it in because the clutch hurts her bad knee. She doesn’t remember if the bad knee was caused by gardening or the weather. The bad knee was actually caused by torture, along with the crooked fingers and scarred back. Mildred spent a long, cold winter in an Argentine prison cell in ’78 but refuses to remember the episode.

Mildred tosses the mail next to her on the front seat of her pickup. In the mail, tucked in one of the catalogues, is a postcard from her son Wesley Hunter.

The postcard has arrived many years after it was mailed. But Mildred thinks nothing of the dated postmark and old stamps. It is not unusual for Mildred to receive mail years after it was sent. She knows that the agents at Hemispheres headquarters (Hh) forward items to her only after they have been vetted. This vetting process can take years, sometimes decades. This results in a skewed sense of time for Mildred. She is always living a few years behind. Mildred doesn’t have a television, so the mail is her only news—including issues of Pravda that are exactly 295 months out of date. Mildred once received a package from 1948. Inside were items sent to her from a lover she no longer recalled. She remembered his smell, briefly, as she opened the package. It was there for a moment—stale breath mints and gin, pickled beets and sauerkraut and the diesel engine of a train. Then it was gone. She spent the day sniffing through the house, trying to recover it, like a lost blob of regret. She found it on a pillow, then it lingered in the kitchen. Then it was gone again.

Mildred parks the truck and walks into the house. She carries her mail with her. She is thinking about Cary Grant. She has some items in her house that she believes were given to her by the actor, although really these gifts were sent by Control. Among Mildred’s favorites is a set of ceramic kitty cats. Mildred is planning to donate these trinkets to the thrift shop that the hospital runs. She is content with the thought that someone will buy the ceramic cats without knowing their true significance. The new owner will have a piece of Hollywood legend, history sitting right under her nose, but it will remain a secret history. Each kitty cat represents a time that Mildred believes her bifurcation (Millie) slept with Cary Grant. They would sleep together, and then a ceramic cat would appear under her pillow. Grant was like the tooth fairy. But what was Millie giving up to receive these gifts? She realized too late that Cary Grant gave her a different cat breed depending on how he felt about her: Siamese, Manx, Tabby. But what did the code mean?

As Mildred packs up the cats, she believes she is finally coming to terms with her past, with the life that she has led—with the pain she has caused herself and others. She believes this is a moment of intense personal revelation, of self-acceptance and self-love. But really Mildred is feeling what all of us feel when we’re getting ready to die, that lonely reconciliation with the sad fact that our lives did not turn out the way we wanted. Mildred is reconciling with her regret, and this means she has given up and is ready to pass on. For the first time in her life, Mildred has settled. She is not fighting the good fight against authority, against the world, against the past. She is already a shadow of her formal self.

Later that night, as she’s going through her mail, Mildred discovers the postcard from her son. But she isn’t impressed. She yawns and tosses it aside. Wait! Shouldn’t she be trying to decipher the code? Maybe, but Mildred is no longer interested in solving ciphers. The only mystery she’s interested in is the one on the television.(1) It’s a good episode of CSI—one she hasn’t seen before.(2)

Mildred falls asleep in front of the television. When she wakes there’s an infomercial on—somebody selling a product for hair removal. Mildred turns the set off with her clicker. She grabs the postcard, walks to her room, opens the bottom drawer of her dresser, and tosses the postcard in there. In the bottom drawer of her dresser are hundreds of postcards from her son, all the same. On the back of each postcard, in hollow, mocking repetition, are the words: What could be more innocent than chocolate?

Why has Mildred been sent the same question, once a month for the last twenty years? She remembers once caring about the postcards and what they meant, but she doesn’t care anymore. Her interest in the question on the postcards is only superficial. The reference to chocolate reminds her of Cary Grant, because he used to feed her chocolates.

But Cary Grant was not the real Cary Grant. He was Josef Mengele, a man that Mildred imagined was a movie star when he slept beside her in the small cot in the dormitory at the death camp. It was the only way she could live with herself, to imagine a villain as a film hero. She never escaped the delusion. When she was pregnant she pretended that her baby’s father was Cary Grant. But this delusion was shattered by Wesley. The question written on the postcard: “what could be more innocent than chocolate?” was her son’s way of telling her that he knew who his father was, his real father, the Nazi who used to feed his mother chocolates and made his way into her bed and womb. So the Angel of Death was finally dead and agent “S” had completed his task by telling Wesley of his legacy and passing on the Mengele code.

As Mildred Sparrow takes a walk on the beach every morning, she tries to forget the past. Those who pass her notice that she has a hunched back and that she wears a different shoe on each foot. Her memory is a mess, although today she does remember Kilpett’s Midway, which was run by Wally Peepers’ father. She spent a summer there once, her first with Hemispheres, learning how to pick pockets, follow a mark, and read history on the faces in a crowd. She worked the booth with the little floating ducks. You pick one up and get the prize that’s under-neath it. The booth was used to send covert messages during the Cold War. These carnivals toured behind the Iron Curtain. You picked up your duck and read your message.

It was all very silly, Mildred thought. Very James Bond. Roger Moore James Bond, with that big guy with the teeth. “Jaws,” a.k.a. Richard Kiel. Mildred met him once, at a Hollywood Oscar party. He was a real fine dancer. Tango. Funny how somebody that ugly could do something so beautiful. Had those metal teeth.

Mildred Sparrow suddenly realizes that she doesn’t know where she is. It’s some beach. But she’s forgotten it’s a beach in front of her house. She catches a whiff of a chemical factory, and hears the distant rumble of trucks on a turnpike, parts of Ohio that Control can’t always hide.

Now she remembers. This is the beach in front of her house. But which house? She’s forgotten her name.

“I was…” Mildred suddenly blurts out, walking alone on the tidal flats. “I was…in my youth, one half of a minor pair of Siamese Twins.” Perhaps she is talking to the seagulls. “My brother Omar and I were bound at the pinkie toe. It wasn’t a big deal. We coped with it. We walked everywhere together. One of us was always going to the north and one to the south. So one had to walk backward. We took turns walking forward. But Cary Grant fixed us with a meat cleaver. There was a little extra sliver of skin, which Omar got. Just a little flap. It was his special flap. You could hide a penny in there, or a button. I was so jealous and was convinced Cary Grant loved him more. He sewed Omar and me together, and then he tore us apart. Over and over again. Together. Apart. Walking backward and forward. Both of us forward. One of us backward. Both of us backward. Omar forward. Me, upside-down. Falling. Detached. But Omar’s wounds became infected. And he died. After then I went to live with Mr. Peepers in the carnival.”

Mildred Sparrow stops near the high tide line and tries to seduce a piece of driftwood, thinking it’s a sunbathing gentleman.

“Do you think I’m beautiful?” she asks. (She lost a man on this very beach, back in 1965, a man who bore a striking resemblance to Gregory Peck. Mildred went to the food stand for a snack, came back with her hot dog, and discovered that the man was gone. Although the stranger looked like Gregory Peck and not Cary Grant, but Mildred still confused him with Mengele. And now Mengele was gone. Drowned like a crazy dog, she supposed.)

“Que Sera, Sera,” she sings to herself.

Mildred Sparrow has trouble falling asleep that night. She gets up at 3:24 AM and tries to sleep on the couch. Then she gets up off the couch and tries to get to sleep on the recliner. Mildred Sparrow has many books in her cottage. She also has scrapbooks. She has annotated everything. She remembers the day, and she sees the sky. She remembers where she is today. Some days it’s hard to remember. They gave her drugs, she knows. First to help her memory and then to hinder it. She remembers Control. But, like Howard Hughes, he was so different in different times of her life. Mildred nods off. She knew Howard Hughes as well. There is a faint British accent coming from somewhere. She has collected some shells. And she’s placed the shells by her window. She put a pot of tea on the boil. She reads a newspaper (Pravda) mailed two decades late. Mildred knows a little Russian, but Millie is fluent, and the two of them enjoy reading the stories about innovations in farming techniques and the Soviet film industry.

Mildred Sparrow takes a mental inventory of the items in her cottage. She is hoping that she will not forget them. She wonders who has taken what. She is certain some items are missing. She has a cleaning woman who comes in, she thinks once a week. She has some mementos from her past travels. It always fascinates people. Hundreds of slides, the old slides. She was allowed to take some pictures when she was on assignment. Mostly they were pictures of pictures that came in. Exotic locations. She spent most of her time behind a desk, annotating. The items in her cottage have connections known only to her. Why they are placed next to each other is a mystery.

There is a photo in Mildred Sparrow’s cottage of a man with a brownish-grayish goatee with hair of similar hue skirting a receding hairline. The man is poised on the vaguely malevolent side of glee over a tan cat who is having trouble keeping his eyes open, whether from natural feline fatigue or through the offices of the man holding him at either side of his neck, it is difficult to say. The man bears a similarly vague resemblance to the actor Bill Bixby(3) in his role as Tony Blake in the short-lived 1970s American television series, The Magician—either that or in the extension of this role into the persona that Bixby(4) affected in his other TV appearances of this period on Masquerade Party (as panelist rather than as mystery guest) and as host of the ABC late-night special It’s Magic!

One wonders whether the picture of the bearded man with the cat has any relation to any of The Magician episodes that are listed below in a not so random sampling of adventures in death, deceit, concealment, mystery, counterfeit, illusion and loss:

Lightning On A Dry Day (10/30/1973)
The Man Who Lost Himself (12/11/1973)
Curious Counterfeit – Part 1 (1/14/1974)
Curious Counterfeit – Part 2 (1/21/1974)
Deadly Conglomerate (2/25/1974)
Lethal Playthings (3/18/1974)
Cat’s Eye (3/25/1974)
The Illusion of the Evil Spikes (4/15/1974)

In this last episode: “Tony Blake is on the set of a movie watching his good magician friend perform the ‘Spikes of Death’ escape when his friend is tragically killed. Tony is asked to perform the illusion for the still-unfinished picture since he is the only other magician who can do so.

Tony agrees because he wants to help the owner of the movie studio and wishes to find out what went wrong with the escape when his friend was performing it in front of the cameras. Tony finds out the escape equipment had been tampered with by a studio stagehand who is trying to sabotage the making of the movie, so the movie studio will fail and have to sell the studio lot. But who is behind it all?”(5)

Bill Bixby(6) succumbed to cancer at age 59 in 1993. A part of him had already died with his son who was taken from him on a California ski slope where he may have succumbed to an asthma attack or a bacterial infection that may or may not have been improperly treated by a doctor at a suspect clinic who made him wait while he removed a wooden splinter from a man’s fin-ger. [See: Lightning On A Dry Day (10/30/1973)] That was 1980. Two years later, Bixby’s (first) wife who was the boy’s mother and who was or who was by then a lover of women, killed herself. Bill Bixby’s funeral was attended by both family members and TV personalities. His ashes were scattered, possibly in Hawaii, although maybe not.7 [See Curious Counterfeit - Part 1 (1/14/1974)] When just the right wind blows up over just the right body of water, ashes do not remain nor do they remain scattered. They reconfigure the hidden self of the nominally deceased, who lives on after a fashion, often under the same or a very similar name.8 [See Curious Counterfeit - Part 2 (1/21/1974)].

Hanging on the wall next to the photograph of the man with a brownish-grayish goatee with hair of similar hue skirting a receding hairline is a map of Brest. Only Mildred knows how Bill Bixby and Brest are related. It could be something as simple as their shared first letter “B”, or the fact that the actor’s first and last names begin with this same letter. It sometimes pays not to overlook the obvious. “Bb’ could represent another pair of orphans who died, or it could be a coded substitute for “Hh”, but it’s unlikely.

Mildred knows this is not a world where the connections come so easy. It is a place where the struggle to understand the chaos may or may not be worth it. Mildred knows all about chaos. She once had a spiritual grounding and faith in God. That was a long time ago. But then Control became her God. And where is her master now? Mildred’s prayers are directed less to a person these days and more to a void. She is hoping that her void is filled with words. That’s what she wants Heaven to be, and God. She wants God to be an endless stream of words, like a library with no leather, only air and light and information. Answers to all the important questions we gave up asking when we were children, because our parents didn’t have any answers.

Whatever divine Entity is out there replies to Mildred’s prayers with a romantic dream of Cary Grant—or at least a dream of the agent who transformed into a Cary Grant impersonator for Control’s schemes. Mildred dreams, her last dream, of this man. She makes notes on the borders of the dream and tucks them into a plastic sleeve for safe, non-acidic keeping. She has a stack of dreams to sort through on her long journey down the river.

Trace amounts of Grant could be found on snowy nights when the television was on the blink and networks seemed to get their signals crossed. Mildred Sparrow thought she could just barely make out scenes from her childhood. She told her pet cockatiel Pasqual and no one else that these transmissions were from “Network H.” Mildred didn’t know that just down a continent from where she was sitting, in a small apartment at the back of an antiques shop in Buenos Aires, her twin, from whom she had been separated by a circus ax wielded by a drunken and enraged clown, was watching the very same transmissions, only in Spanish. He called his network “Tele-hemisferio” and his cockatoo Juan Pablo. Together but apart, The Subosio Twins watched the local children’s television show “Vditelny Karnival,” which literally translates into English as “Watchful Carnival,” implying festive surveillance. The Twins shake their heads in unison, as twins often do, amazed that they ever could have been so naïve as to believe that this television show was just a work of innocent fun. In fact, this production of the government-controlled media was designed to train children to spy on one another, as well as on their parents and teachers. The kids who got to sit in The Sparrow Gallery for the live broadcast were not selected on the basis of effusive post cards they had sent in as the show’s announcer claimed, but rather on the basis of reports they submitted on anti-socialist activities they had observed in their families and communities. Once this kind of indoctrination gets into your head, it is very difficult to get it out, so many of these children grew up to become opportunistic low-level bureaucrats, snitches and government toadies. Few if any of them actually became spies, because their powers of observation and subterfuge were arrested at an early stage of childhood development that did not readily translate into the subtleties of professional tradecraft. Name-calling and “keep away” only get you shot in the adult game. With their variety of experiences and the lack of a stable family and home life, The Subosio Twins were more educable. Circus life had taught them to be flexible, especially after the ax fell, giving them each greater freedom of movement. Lulla did the salto mortale, while Kolya danced the tango with Mishka the Bear. Their lives could have formed the basis of a John Irving novel or novels: The denizens of The Hotel New Hampshire are taken into the orphanage run by Dr. Larch, a big man with metal teeth, in the heart-warming drama, Moscow Rules of the Cider House. There they meet a watchful older boy named Homer, who strikes out on his own after having dispatched Dr. Larch with a lethal dose of ether and making it look like an accident.

Omar is alive. From five thousand miles away he calls to his sister in her sleep. His soul slides over the analog transmission, one of the few that continues to wander the Earth, long after all receivers have converted to digital. He enters Mildred’s body through her ears, which, even in her sleeping state, hear the loving crackle. Omar fills his sister’s mind and body with his spirit, and Mildred dreams of a time when words were used to protect children instead of subduing them.

(1) Yes, I know. Mildred did not have a television. So this one must have mysteriously materialized that very morning. Perhaps one of Control’s flunkies snuck it into the cottage. Maybe Mildred was theorizing too much, and her brain needed to be lulled into a state of perpetual tranquility.

(2)The Vegas original (there’s an oxymoron). Not the New York one that’s so creepy.

(3) Bill Bixby, incidentally, had a mother named Clara Bixby. She lived also in Ohio, died in Akron, and is buried in a cemetery there. On her gravestone there is a picture of a cat, her favorite animal, and the fol-lowing epitaph: “HERE LAYS CLARA BIXBY AND HERE LIES HER BODY.” The meaning of this rather cryptic message is unknown, although it is important to note that the gravestone of the mother of the man who was to play both The Hulk and The Magician ended up in auction at Christie’s as an exam-ple of early 17th century stone carving. Clara Bixby was said to have died in 1975 of pancreatic cancer.

(4) Mildred Sparrow starred with Bill Bixby in an Hh-produced made-for TV drama about child abuse. In the movie, Bill Bixby plays a doctor who crusades for child protection laws after his own son is molested and killed by the local Milkman. Mildred Sparrow plays a film star whose own childhood was littered with neglect and punitive stepfathers. In this made-for-TV drama, called Serrated Edge, Mildred Spar-row’s character falls in love with the Bill Bixby character.

(5) Http:// The question of “who” is, of course, potentially significant on a great many levels.

(6) The surname “Bixby,” with its final “-by” appendage, indicates that its bearer is an agent who has re-tired, been retired, eliminated or otherwise let go. It is a non-operational name. [See: The Man Who Lost Himself (12/11/1973)]
(7) It might help to know that members of Bill Bixby’s family had fought over who would get his ashes. And it’s never too late for revenge.

(8) X-Rays of the Bixby gravestone, indeed the entire Bixby memorial, revealed deeper layers of necropoli-tan granite. Inside Clara Bixby’s gravestone was a hidden carving of a raven. This raven was an exact replica of the raven used in the film The Raven. The problem was the Raven in the gravestone was an ac-tual 14th century BC statue from the Ioflian dynasty in Persia (not Egypt, as Peter Lorre suggests in the film). What makes the statue particularly interesting is….)

David Hancock has received two OBIE awards for playwriting (The Convention of Cartography and The Race of the Ark Tattoo). He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Creative Capital grant, the CalArts/Alpert Award in Theatre, and the Hodder Fellowship. His recent fiction is either forthcoming or published in Interim, Permafrost, The Puritan,The Massachusetts Review, Ping Pong, and Amarillo Bay.

Spencer Golub is professor of theatre arts, performance studies, comparative literature, and Slavic languages at Brown University. His books include the semi-fictional film memoir Infinity (Stage) and the Callaway Prize-winning The Recurrence of Fate: Theatre and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia (University of Iowa). He is currently completing a book on Wittgenstein, anxiety and performance behavior.

More of their co-authored fiction is forthcoming or published in in Petrichor Machine, Chicago Quarterly Review, Otis Nebula, Martian Lit, Bluestem, Schlock Magazine, West Wind Review, Danse Macabre, and scissors and spackle.