The Bath


Bo Huston

Art by Ronald Lockett
Photos by Cary Whittier, courtesy of MARCH

On Saturday June 10, at 3:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time, please join a dozen of Bo's friends and colleagues (old and new) to celebrate Bo's birthday. He would have been sixty-four. For two hours, we'll share memories of Bo and read out loud from his work. The event is free and open to the public. Click here to join.

Updates and more information about the event are available on Twitter @fellowseries or Instagram @fellowtravelersseries.


That Christmas season Cunningham was hearing a knocking in his ears again. It was a dreadful ailment because it was very soft, and sometimes Cunningham thought he might only be imagining it. And he was afraid to see a doctor about this condition. He couldn’t bear the wait at the city clinic, but more than that, Cunningham knew there was never good news from a doctor.

Cunningham spent a few moments fiddling with his tie at the mirror under the weak overhead light in his room. Cunningham never had liked the look of his face. His cheeks were fleshy and spotted with red, as though he had a permanent rash. His mouth was crooked, his lips seemed not to ever properly close. He was discouraged by his ears, too, for one seemed higher up than the other. He had scrutinized the shape of his mouth and his weak chin and his uneven ears, he had moved his head to all angles, hoping for even one acceptable glimpse of himself; and when he tried to smile Cunningham was especially disappointed by his appearance.

Some people are just ugly, he reasoned. Some people must just go through life ugly and cock-eyed, and they try to accept it, and then they cultivate some other part of themselves: a good character, or humor, or they do good things. There are cripples who adjust to their conditions; there are the simple-minded who find some sort of happiness.

The wallpaper in his hotel room was bruised and stained, pulled and tearing at the seams; it displayed a faded pattern of a flock of seagulls soaring over an island.

People did try to be nice to Cunningham. He frequently encountered a young married couple on the clacking gate elevator when he rode down; the man would smile at him, the woman would smile and nod. There was a very sweet, very pretty young blond man who worked behind the desk of the hotel. He greeted Cunningham every morning as Cunningham left for work, he remarked on the weather, which had been dreary and cool for so long now. Sometimes, Cunningham tried to smile at the blond man. It was difficult for Cunningham to look a handsome man in the eye.

In winter, it did not snow in this city, it rained; Cunningham was raised with snow, he expected it, so its absence seemed a sad deprivation and somehow fraudulent. By morning the walks and streets were burnished and gray and littered. Green and gold garlands were twined round the lampposts along the streets; blinking white lights and wreaths and paper Santa Clauses were in the windows of the apartment buildings; and saddest of all, strings of colored bulbs were weaved through the bare, black branches of the trees in the park.

Cunningham was reflecting as he walked the few blocks to his job: people must think he was a depressed man, that he was unhappy and lonesome; or maybe they conceived that some tragic thing had happened to him.

There was an elderly lady with an accent who worked at the doughnut shop near his office building; she wore a pressed handkerchief pinned at her breast and eyeglasses on a thick silver chain; she always smiled so warmly to Cunningham and sometimes would give him two sweet rolls instead of one. But Cunningham kept his head lowered and his scarf lifted, to cover his chin.

The main offices of Coso Foods, Inc. were on the fourth floor of a plain cinderblock, colorless building on Market Street which also housed a mail-order company, a driving school, and an investment firm. On either side of this nondescript structure were a newsstand and a parking lot. Cunningham's desk was in a rather spacious room, too brightly lit, with a low ceiling. The window faced the back of a red-brick government building, splayed with lines of long-dead purple vines, and no sun came through, no sky was ever visible. He shared his office with Ted, a man about his own age, who habitually arrived late to work and left early, whom Cunningham believed did next to nothing all during the day. Ted's desk was kept neat, practically empty. But Ted was friendly with the secretaries and the managers. He was an attractive man. Throughout the business day, Ted could be observed poring through the bookcases, leaning against cabinets, seriously studying file folders and papers, jotting down messages. He would bound through the narrow corridor, and wave into office rooms as he passed, easily, almost gaily greeting the other employees. Ted was swift, intent. Ted seemed ultimately useful in this place. Stenciled in gold and black on a smoky-glass pane of Cunningham's office door were the words: COMPLAINTS DEPT. Cunningham's job was to carefully read all correspondence from customers, which was delivered in a canvas sack on Wednesdays, and respond to each piece. If Cunningham was not fond of Ted (or, indeed, any of the others on the floor, particularly), and if he found his office too bright and white and square, and if the building itself and his view he considered unexciting, even sad, even hopeless, the letters he was called upon to read every day did somehow make up for all that. These letters sometimes could make Cunningham laugh out loud, right there at his desk—they were a mixture of the serious and petty, they were infused with a queer morality, a keen and bitter sense of justice. He couldn’t help but picture the letter writers, deliberately sitting down with their stationery and pens, righteously affixing the stamp, summarily depositing the envelope in the postbox. Cunningham believed they must picture him, too, the reader, and wonder at his response to their well-intentioned suggestions or profound dissatisfaction. But Cunningham's job at Coso Foods was simply to choose from a variety of form letters—an appropriate bland company apology, an assurance of a refund payment and his employer's good will—sign them, and send them. Cunningham's job didn’t require him to actually reply to these pleas and bargains and gripes. His occupation didn’t involve communication—he wasn’t engaged with actual people, only with their grievances. His job wasn’t to sympathize, or understand, or care. Sometimes there were letters that intrigued Cunningham, and these he would slip inside his jacket pocket and carry back to his room, to save and read over again.

Coso Canned Foods, Inc.
Attention: Complaint Department
Dear Sirs:

Recently I purchased this can of Coso Creamed Corn which I have enclosed. I opened up the can and found the cream, but no corn. The can even seemed a little light to me when I picked it up at the market. I have been buying Coso products for many years now and have never been disappointed before. I sincerely hope you will give me a refund. The cream without the corn just isn't fair.

Thank you,
Mrs. S. Shipley

Coso Canned Foods, Inc.
Dear Complaints Department:

Something got screwed up somewhere. We wanted lima beans, and that's what the label on the can said. But inside were some red things. Kidney beans, I think. My wife washed out the can, and then we put the red things in a little paper sack, and that's all in the box with this letter. We just want our money back. We're not out to sue or anything.

Yours, Nick Nayles

Dear Complaints Division:

I have never never written a letter of this type before. It is now four in the morning, and I am so angry I can't even get to sleep. So I figure my best bet is just to write to you people and get it off my chest.

The problem is with your company's Beef & Noodles. Which I don't even like canned food very much, but it's fast and easy to make and last night I just needed something fast and easy to make.

I may as well tell you, I am disabled. I have aluminum fake hip sockets and it turns out something's wrong with them, they aren't working right and I have to have them replaced. Which is going to cost about seventeen-thousand-million dollars, of course.

So, anyway, I'm disabled. Nothing's easy for me, not a goddamn thing. So last night I went for some dinner and, like I say, I wanted something fast and easy to make. So I pick out a can of your company's Beef & Noodles. I open the can, I sit down to rest for a minute, because I only can even stand up for a minute or so at a time. I've got this glop in a pan on the stove. It's all heated up, I dump it in a bowl. I'm exhausted from riding the goddamn bus all day and everything, from going to the doctor's and everything. And what do I find in my bowl of Beef & Noodles? A piece of glass as thick as my hand. I swear it's the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle. I'm thinking, great, just great, now I'll have to have my esophagus or my intestines or some damn thing replaced with aluminum — if they even make aluminum esophaguses and intestines.

So the piece of the glass is in this envelope here and it has a little bit of dried Beef & Noodle sauce on it, to prove what I'm saying is true. I would like my money back, I would like an apology. I would like a free can of this goddamn stuff, or a case of it or whatever. Or go give a bunch of your products to the homeless, starving people. Lots of them are disabled just like me. I mean, doesn't your company have any goddamn heart?

Well, I've looked over what I've written so far. I guess I feel a little better. I guess these things do happen. A company that's as old and good as yours, I'm sure you'll make things right, however you do it. I really don't mean to sound like some crazy complaining person. I mean, I have no idea who's even reading this letter. So, don't take it personally.

Everybody's got problems. But, after all, I am disabled. Just getting through the day is sometimes a goddamn trial for me. And this Coca-Cola bottle in my food was, I guess it was just the last straw if you know what I mean.

What I'm trying to say is, I guess, life has a lot of suffering in it.

L. Ubell

P.S. And by the way, after thinking it over, I am pretty sure this is a problem for you to deal with, not the Coca-Cola people.

Dear Coso Foods:

I notice that many of your competitors run little contests and sweepstakes and things of that nature. Maybe you could do something like that. Like a lucky label or something along those lines. Just a suggestion.

A customer


“Of course Cunningham didn’t like to think that this would always be his life. Without change, without diversion. Cunningham had the idea—as fearsome as it was thrilling—that one of these days, something extraordinary would happen to him. One of these days perhaps he would be noticed.”


Cunningham would have a hamburger and some soup for lunch at a coffee shop near his building. Each afternoon he would sit at a window table, read through the newspaper, finish his meal with a piece of cream pie and some coffee. During that Christmas season, a portable radio perched precariously on a shelf over the counter played the well-loved carols and jingles. His usual waitress had had a cast on her arm for some weeks; Cunningham did not inquire about it, but he tipped her well.

Like his room, like his office, this window table at the coffee shop was contained, predictable, known. Cunningham himself was known—his irregular face and joyless expression and weak build formed a muddy wash of familiar discontent.

Of course Cunningham didn’t like to think that this would always be his life. Without change, without diversion. So he didn’t speak, except to politely give his order. Every day at this coffee shop he glanced up from his newspaper discreetly, furtively, but often, to watch each customer or group enter and leave. He listened to the conversations of the people in the small booths against the walls; he listened to the couple of old men at the counter, or the few regular middle-aged women who came in for ice cream. He watched people's gestures and moods. He overheard broad, generous laughter, quick whispers, sharp tones. He wasn’t amused or fascinated; he was detached. Cunningham had the idea—as fearsome as it was thrilling—that one of these days, something extraordinary would happen to him. One of these days perhaps he would be noticed.


Coso Canned Foods, Inc.
Attention: The Chairman of the Board
Dear Sir or Madam:

Enclosed, please find three labels which I removed from your products: one can of Coso's Fancy Fruit Cocktail, one can of Coso's Pear Halves, and one can of Coso's Peaches in Syrup. The lot numbers of these items are written on the left-hand, bottom corner of the respective labels.

It happens to be the Peaches in Syrup with which I take issue. I am a newlywed. William and I were married four weeks ago (as of this writing) here in town, but William's parents happen to live in Cleveland. They came out to visit us just after the honeymoon. For a variety of reasons, I had never met William's parents. Naturally, you can understand how anxious I was to make a good impression on them.

I planned what I considered to be a fairly elegant dinner—roast beef and spinach souffle. I must say, things were going along just fine. Splendid, in fact. Until I brought out dessert. Now, for dessert, I thought it would be nice to have different fruits in attractive bowls and then have little cups and everyone could have what most appealed to them. I thought this was a tasteful, creative (yet inexpensive) idea. So in three of my good red and white bowls I emptied each can of Coso fruit, and put them on a tray with matching red and white little cups and my good dessert spoons (which actually William's mother had given to us).

So William took some of the pear halves. His father took some of the fruit cocktail. And as the little tray is being passed around, everyone is saying how pretty it looks and what a grand idea it is. And then William's mother chose to have a cup of your Peaches in Syrup and she spooned two or three into her cup, then spooned some syrup over them. Well, I turned my back and then I heard this commotion because William's mother had dropped her spoon and William was asking what the trouble was. I was saying, well, let me get you another spoon, and I looked at William's mother and her face was just ashen. We all were asking what the trouble was. (I thought she was having a stroke, for God's sake.)

What it turned out to be was a cockroach the size of a quarter floating right in her syrup. It was alive, too, because we all saw it crawl onto one of the peaches and just sort of sit there wiggling its horrid little legs.

Perhaps this letter seems too detailed to you, but I simply want to stress the depth and magnitude of the situation. I mean, I really did think William's mother was having a stroke! And then to find out that this vile thing is scurrying about in her cup. I am terribly distraught. This incident completely ruined the dessert, of course, and to say it put a damper on the rest of the evening is quite the understatement. When we moved to the living room for our coffee, well, we were all just speechless. As for making a good impression on my new parents-in-law, I imagine it goes without saying that it will be some time before this outrageous debacle is lived down.

Unlike my husband William, I do not accuse one of your factory workers of deliberately planting an insect in the can as some kind of perverse practical joke. I am assuming the vulgar thing crawled in there and was sealed up quite by accident. (Though that he was in your factory at all violates every health code, I'm sure!) So, giving the benefit of the doubt, I am asking for full reimbursement of my can of Peaches in Syrup, as well as of the other two varieties of your company's canned fruit which I purchased and served. (Need I say that the entire contents of all three bowls had to be discarded immediately and my good bowls, cups and spoons thoroughly washed?)

I am assuming that your response to this letter will be a prompt repayment. I cannot imagine that someone in your position would question the truth of what I have said or trivialize my embarrassment or trauma. I mean, after all, thanks to Coso's Peaches in Syrup, my relationship with my husband's family is strained, to say the least. It will be a very, very long time before I dare to serve (or they dare to eat!) any meal at my table again. Though I would appreciate any condolence or apology you cared to offer, I will expect and be satisfied with a check from your company as soon as possible.

Furthermore, I hope you will do everything in your power to make certain such a hideous thing does not happen again — however, if it does, it will be to some other unsuspecting woman who simply wants to please her husband's family. I will not be buying Coso canned goods again.

I remain,
Eunice Trevor-Hall

Coso Canned Foods, Inc.
Dear Complaints People:

We think there is a problem with your mandarin orange sections. We think they're tangerines.

Chloe Braverman


Cunningham always retired early. He smoothed a white, soapy cream over his cheeks and under his eyes. He kept a dim table lamp on by his bed and put himself to sleep reading paperback British mystery novels; but the stories acted upon Cunningham as a hazardous hypnotic drug might have, all of the characters and plots, the cleverness and revelations fused, blended into irrelevant unity; so in the mornings Cunningham remembered nothing and was agitated, fearful.

One night Cunningham woke suddenly. In his hands he felt that terrible, hot numbness he had experienced a few years before. The travel alarm clock on the bureau read just after four A.M. Cunningham rose and draped himself with the tan raincoat he kept on a hook behind the door. He opened the door, peeked out into the hallway and proceeded past the staircase quietly towards the bathroom at the other end.

Cunningham's hands were slightly swollen, bluish; he felt as though the circulation had been cut off with rubberbands at his wrists. He intended to run warm water over his hands to revive them. He reached for the wooden handle of the bathroom door and just then heard a sound from inside. A small splash of water. Then a sniffle, like someone inside had a cold. He put his ear against the door and heard water echoing against the cracked, old tile walls.

Cunningham raised his knuckles, waited a moment, then lightly rapped against the door. Four raps, then after another moment, four more slightly heavier raps. There was no acknowledgement from within—only the same sounds of water moving and soft echoes.

"Hello, hello?" Cunningham whispered. "Is someone in there?"

No response and Cunningham knocked rather forcefully this time. Because by now he was angry, he was impatient. Mostly, Cunningham felt deprived. His hands were in this severe, dangerous state, they needed attention, they needed a soaking in water, and someone—at this unbelievable hour — was inside the bathroom and would not come out, would not answer him. Cunningham was afraid to speak any louder or knock any harder, he worried he'd wake up others on the floor. And yet this sense of being invisible, being of no matter or consequence, enraged him.

He stood, frustrated and uncertain, nearly panicked for some seconds, the raincoat tight around him. He held the tingling hands close to his chest. "Hello?" he tried again. "Hello, whoever is in there. I'm in pain. I'm in great pain out here in the hallway. My hands. And this is unjust."

Cunningham lowered himself to his knees. He closed one eye, pressed his cheek and the other eye against the keyhole of the old-fashioned door. He could see a good portion of the bathroom quite clearly: the edge of the white marble sink, a wooden towel rack, a section of the medicine chest mirror. Through the keyhole, Cunningham could see the room was illuminated in a queer, dull orange that flickered and made shadow shapes against the white walls. Cunningham realised that whoever was inside there, whoever was inside ignoring him, had lit several candles.

A deeper, hollower splash startled Cunningham then, but he remained kneeling, fixed at the keyhole. First he heard the water, like glass against glass, cracking softly, breaking without violence. Then he saw the water, quick bullets that landed on the tile floor and formed tiny, clear puddles. Whoever this was was getting out of the bath; bare feet were now on the worn peach-colored rug.

A handsome man stood naked before the mirror. He forced his fingers through his hair, then touched his throat, then rubbed his shoulder and chest, gazing continually at his own reflection. His hands were large with square fingers. The handsome man pressed his hands flat against his body, moved them almost in a rhythm, kneading his legs, his buttocks, pushing against the muscles in his arms, feeling his body, tensing, watching himself. The handsome man was smiling, too.

Cunningham was frozen at the keyhole, compelled to watch, like a child who'd caught a bug in a jar.


Coso Foods Company
Attn: To Whom It May Concern:

Please pardon my handwriting. Pardon the messy ink. I am seventy years old. I have lived in this city all my life. I can remember when the trolleys still ran along Market Street. That was a long time ago.

I still live in practically the same neighborhood as when I grew up, I have only moved just up the hill a few blocks. Some nights, around sunset, I will be looking out my window and the streets will seem the way they were so long ago. The streets and signs and buildings seem like when I was a child. But, I know it is not true. So much has changed.

I am writing your company to make a confession. When I was young—not over ten or eleven years old—my mother sent me to Teller's Market which at that time was on the corner of Post and Leavenworth Streets, just across from the building where we lived. That market and our old building have been torn down now for many years. My mother sent me with some coins to buy a jar of baked beans at Teller's for our family's supper. In those days, your products came in jars, not in cans as they do today. I pulled a jar of beans from the shelf, Coso Hearty Brick-Oven Baked Beans, which had a yellow and green label. In those days, all of your jars had those green and yellow labels.

At the counter, Mr. Teller was speaking with a neighborhood lady named Mrs. Boratch. I spotted a glass bowl with some chocolate candies and pulled out a fistful of them, five or six of these candies, and I put the candies, the coins and the jar of baked beans on the countertop. Well, Mr. Teller and Mrs. Boratch went on with their talk and they were laughing, and they did not seem to notice me at all, I was so small. Mr. Teller counted out a couple of coins for the candies and put them in his drawer. I swept the change into my hand, and then the chocolates, and stuffed all this in the pocket of my little short pants. Then I picked up that jar of baked beans. I did it without thinking. It was quick and sudden, I did not plan to steal. But, I knew Mr. Teller had not charged me for that jar. I stood there for a moment. I wondered what I should do. I wondered if I could manage to get away with it.

I said good-bye to Mr. Teller and he nodded at me. I said good-bye to Mrs. Boratch, and she patted my head and said to be careful crossing Post Street. I ran home then with these chocolates and coins and the jar of baked beans which I had not paid for.

This may not seem like such a terrible thing in these times. A little boy stealing a jar of beans so many years ago. No, maybe it is not. I've seen many things in my life since then. The Depression came, the wars came. In one life, so many friends will leave or die, so many lives will be ruined with pain and illness and misfortune. So many disappointments. Things you believed were good get lost somehow. I was married three times, but my marriages failed, and feelings were hurt. I did have children of my own. They did not do well for themselves at all, they did not turn out to be happy people.

So, I know there are many things I have done to feel guilt about. I have said some cruel words to people in my life, words I did not mean and could never take back. I have hurt people. I have told lies. I have told so many lies I can never begin to sort through them. Now I am afraid I will never know the truth. There was someone I thought I loved once, but I did not really feel love. There were plans I made, but I could not go on with my plans, and then I would look back and feel miserable. My life is made up of these lies, sorrows, regrets, hurts.

It has come to the point now where I barely can even remember yesterday or last week. But I do remember perfectly well the new black and white tile floor of Teller's store, Mrs. Boratch's chubby red cheeks, the street lamps on Post Street, the trolleys on Market. I can remember my mother's tired face and her stained apron. In those days mothers had to stay home and take care of the children. I can remember her counting out the coins into my palm that day and telling me to run and buy a jar of beans for supper. Of all the meanness and arguments and lying in my life, it is very, very strange to me that the most haunting thing is that theft of that jar of baked beans. It has made me feel bad all these years. It has made me feel dirty. I have always been waiting, I think, to be caught.

I cannot think how to really find peace with such a long, sad life as mine. I do not know a way to make amends for hurtful things I've done, or how to erase the hours and hours and years and years of my shame. So, I think the best I can do is send this letter to your company, and say how truly sorry I am that I stole. In some small fashion, I pray this will make me finally feel clean.


P.S. Enclosed is one dollar, which I hope will cover all costs. Thank you, and Merry Christmas.


Cunningham spent the next several days distracted, unfocused, wandering as though invisible through the dead cold days of what seemed a false winter. He walked swiftly past the blond desk clerk of his hotel; in the coffee shop, he moved to a table at the rear, fixed his eyes on the newspaper, and did not look at the other patrons. Ted made trivial conversation in passing—he told Cunningham about the gym where he worked out and suggested Cunningham could use to get in shape and laughed—but Cunningham didn’t reply.

He was carrying around with him a shabby paperback edition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, but couldn’t seem to concentrate on the story or the language or the ideas. Strangely, during these days no sight or sound caught his attention, nothing seemed compelling or interesting. He didn’t wonder about anything at all. He knew he was depressed, withdrawn, and yet didn’t understand what caused this sadness and pain, the nature of his burden. Cunningham had the thought that he was like a character in a story, that his life was a simple, terribly sad fable.

One early evening, Cunningham stopped at an outdoor flower stand. He bought a bunch of red carnations that were chilled, nearly frozen. A fast and sudden wind chased him all the way to his hotel.

His room was too warm. The radiator beneath the window dripped onto the thin, gold carpet in a steady, soft tap, and made a dark patch there, like a bruise. Cunningham placed his flowers on the bed.

His sleep that night was uneasy. He was awakened many times but couldn’t recall his dreams. His eyes burned, his ankles itched. In a room down the hall, or upstairs perhaps, a radio was playing: a man's voice, a low, sinister monotone, the words indiscernible.

Cunningham was afraid. He switched on the table lamp. He kept a little pen knife in his bureau drawer, and now he brought it with him to bed, and he laid there, his hands folded over his chest, the closed knife in his fist, his eyes wide open.

And then Cunningham did sleep. There was a slow, long dream of a beautiful woman playing a bugle. Her eyes shone bright green. She was smiling at Cunningham in the dream; she beckoned to him and he followed her down a path through a garden; she played a sweet melody on her horn; she laughed; she loved Cunningham.

The dream ended abruptly and Cunningham woke to see his dull, fully lit room, scattered with the week's newspapers and the ruined carnations on his blanket, to hear the relentless dripping from the pipes and that radio far off. He felt silly, lying there sweating and scared and holding tight to his pathetic little knife.

Cunningham sat up in bed, drew his knees close to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, lowered his head. As he cried that night, it was as though he were caught in a fast, unpredictable current of memories, quick images he could barely recognize. He coursed through treacherous flashes of his own history. After all his days of doubt, dread, secrecy and his terrible aloneness, Cunningham had arrived at this moment. While he huddled there sobbing, nearly choking, he formed a picture of his actual self: a hideous collection of deficiencies, bitter, shameful, fraudulent—but his concealments were too deep to ever heal. He was ill-formed, a moiety.


All people Cunningham came across, all the people in the world, seemed to have clear beliefs, to know something that Cunningham did not. Something about being happy. Cunningham was truly tortured by his breathless, tireless crying. He absolutely hated himself.

In the early morning hours, before daybreak, wearing his battered tan raincoat, he trod lightly down the dim hotel corridor; it would have been unbearable to meet with any other person. This time, the bathroom door was unlocked.

Inside, Cunningham turned the taps in the bathtub. Wisps of steam rose, curled. He was surprised to see, fixed on the wooden windowsill, stubs of three candles, and there was a packet of matches with a burnt match tucked under its cover. Cunningham's hand shook as he touched a flame to the wicks.

He stood at the sink, before the mirror. He regarded his own face abstractly at first, and then directly, looking into his eyes which were light brown. His eyes were the color of creamy milk chocolate. He gazed at his forehead which was narrow, but square, and at his gently arched brows; at his ears, which were small and perfectly round; at his slender, smooth throat; at his straight, thin nose; at the planes of his face, painted gold and shadowed by the candlelight. His reddish hair had gotten a bit longer than usual, it brushed the tops of his ears and a lock curled onto his forehead. He looked finally at his mouth: the lips were slightly parted and full, they didn’t seem so shapeless.

The steam, by degrees, was covering the mirror with a pearly wetness and finally his image was obscured. Cunningham removed the tan raincoat, let it fall to the tile floor. Underneath he wore flannel plaid pyjamas; he unbuttoned them slowly and took them off. Standing naked, he closed his eyes, leant his head back.

Then Cunningham let his hands drop to his sides and with his fingertips began caressing his hard, thin legs, slowly, lightly, touching himself with a nervous hesitation. He brought his hands up along his body, feeling now with the palms, studying the flat planes and warmth of this body which was never touched. He slid his hands up then to his chest, spread the fingers and stroked with unskilled, reluctant motion, his eyes still closed. He clutched at the flesh of his breast, he gently passed the edge of a thumb across the nipple, he pressed the heel of his hand hard against the bone in the center of his chest. His eyes closed tighter now, Cunningham was guided suddenly to his groin: he held the penis cupped in one hand, the scrotum in the other. He manipulated himself at first as though he were handling rare, mysterious objects, peculiar shapes that, with his eyes closed, he couldn’t quite identify. And then Cunningham, his eyes shut tighter still, his brow tense, began to really feel. Sensation overwhelmed Cunningham's tragic, dangerous self-consciousness.

By this time, the water in the tub had risen nearly to the edge. Cunningham turned the taps off. He stepped into the tub, sat down quickly and stretched his legs before him. Without thinking, holding on to the sides of the tub, he slid his entire body under the water, just to his chin. The water was quite hot, too hot, perhaps.

Cunningham breathed a deep sigh. He rested his head against the tile wall and let the water wet the ends of his hair, let the water glide across and over his naked body in tiny, clear waves. A piece of plaster from the ceiling had landed in his bath and floated between his knees, under his arms, behind him, back again, and Cunningham watched its journey in the waning light from the candles.

Soon Cunningham was relaxed in a way he'd never before known: thawed out, somehow, unbended, relieved.

He was blessed to have no thoughts beyond these moments. He didn’t consider the gloomy gray carpet in his office, the ominous cheerfulness of Christmas shoppers he observed day after day, the intimidating goodwill of Ted, the ordinariness of the people at the coffee shop. Through that outside, real world Cunningham could only navigate by guessing. Life wasn't so sad, really; it just wasn’t joyful. And maybe life wasn’t ugly; but it was not at all beautiful.

It was over an hour Cunningham stayed in the tub. The bath became finally too still and tepid and so he ran a force of loud, very hot water, watched a violent downrush and bubbles and splashes. He settled back when the tub had been filled again. His skin was pinkish, soft, as though its outer layer had been gently pulled away. Abruptly, Cunningham glided deep under the water, covering his head, and then slowly emerged, all his hair shining, dark red, wet against his temples.

Through the small window light shone, signalling day, casting the room in a hazy green. Cunningham didn’t rise from the bath, he didn’t have a plan as to when he might. He nearly fell asleep once or twice, and then would open his eyes, see where he was, hear soft echoes, echoes of nothing but the room itself, the air and the moisture and the time he had spent here.

Cunningham never actually did say anything. He didn’t whistle a tune or sing. Even his breathing was practically silent. He was stilled by this unhoped-for lifting of his despair, his guilt. Cunningham was clean.

Though speechless, Cunningham's lips shaped words, over and over. He was clean and words formed, magically illuminated to him merely through the taking of a bath. "I am happy," was his silent, simple sentence. "I am happy. I am happy. I am happy."



Spring / Summer 2023

Bo Huston

Bo Huston was born in Chagrin Falls, OH, in 1959. After Hampshire College, he lived in Manhattan, where he got clean and sober and started writing. Bo moved to San Francisco in 1987 and, within a year, learned he was HIV+. Over the next too-short years, he lived and wrote and found a partner and a community of friends who loved him fiercely. He died May 24, 1993, surrounded by family and friends, at a time of his choosing. His last book, The Listener, and an essay in Thomas Avena’s collection Life Sentences were published posthumously. His novel The Dream Life was republished this year by the Fellow Travelers Series, with a new afterword by Rebecca Brown, a contemporary of Bo’s he much admired. The Bo Huston Prize is an annual award to a writer completing a novel.

Ronald Lockett

Ronald Lockett (1965-1998) was slight of build and sentient to the point of grace. Lockett existed somewhat precariously in a historical crossroads between two generations, after the great mid-century social movements had ended and just before the dominance of television and urban culture. He was a unique talent, influenced equally by Thornton Dial and Bob Ross, who he watched on television. He grew up in the wilds of post-industrial Bessemer, Alabama where he lived with his mother until her death, remaining in his childhood home until his own untimely demise resulting from AIDS-related illness. He never spent more than a few weeks away from home, but was able to mine far-flung histories, both personal and shared, with deference and aplomb.

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