I almost had a husband once, but we never made it to the wedding. Now, he’s someone else’s husband, with a baby announcement on Facebook and a house two towns over. Our last date, we went to an Italian restaurant that served brown bread in gold baskets and didn’t list prices on the menu. A couple’s restaurant. You can always tell who the married ones are. The quiet ones who sit like crumpled napkins and don’t share dessert, eyeing everyone but their own lovers with unreserved curiosity. Visualizing each new body, craving them the way my almost-husband would’ve craved someone else if we’d ever married, even if I let him swallow me whole. I lost my appetite and packed the rest of my carbonara to go.
My father has always been a sloppy cheater. He’d come home smelling like cherries and smile too obviously at his phone when his mistresses sent him a lure, cut out of dinner early when a flirty selfie hooked him. My favorite of his affairs was a waitress at a sandwich shop. She’d send him home with overflowing styrofoam boxes full of cold cuts, kettle chips, loaves of soft bread. Perhaps out of guilt, he’d give them to my sister and me. We’d feast on the leftovers, whispering our theories about what the woman must’ve looked like, if she knew he was married, questions we didn’t ask him, but wanted to. My mother didn’t ask questions either, because she had answers of her own to hide. She’s a quiet cheater. Her affairs leave no trace and bring no gifts. For all my life, their marriage has been a game of hide and seek.
The last married man I slept with was my landlord. I came on to him after careful consideration of his features: brown hair that cradled a blooming bald spot at the top of his skull, a secret for only birds to see, or women he lowered beneath; arms like udon, spongy, thick, and stretchy; furry ankles peeking beneath pants that were too short, like he’d had a sudden growth spurt in his forties, or didn’t have any women to buy him properly fitting clothes. The kind of man who blames his dwindling sex life on his wife’s premenopause, who stares too long when I pass by in the lobby wearing the kind of skirt his wife hasn’t since college. Who gulps when I tilt my head and invite him upstairs. The kind I’d flatten myself against the laminate flooring of my apartment for, let him devour me.
I’ve never slept with a man of my own. Even my almost-husband started as someone’s boyfriend, the kind that couldn’t resist me. Something about me screams I’ll be what your girlfriend isn’t right now. I spent years trying to muffle it before I became the girlfriend and realized some other woman would soon take my place. She didn’t have to be hotter than me, or funnier, or sweeter. She just had to be there, wherever I wasn’t, and make him want to be there too. In the months before our wedding, I searched for signs of cheating, clawing through the couch cushions for unfamiliar hair bands, tracing the rims of the dirty mugs in the sink with my finger in search of lipgloss residue. When I found no evidence, I packed my stuff and left my engagement ring on the nightstand, knowing it is better to give something up than to have it taken.
The landlord’s wife was beautiful and kind and deserved a better man than him. Sometimes I’d linger in the lobby just to watch her arrive, ferrying him coffee and a blueberry donut from the shop down the road, kissing his cheek as a treat. Next to her, he was a wax figure at a museum closed for winter. Greying and sweaty and lifeless. Each time he shed his clothes in my living room, he’d carefully set his wedding band on the edge of my coffee table and slip it on as soon as we finished. I’m not going to leave her, he’d say, firm, as though I was trying to sway him. I don’t want you to, I said, and meant it. A year later, his wife left him instead, marrying her pilates instructor. He sold the apartment complex to a new landlord, someone unmarried and dull.
I attend my sister’s wedding alone. At the reception, I sit between my parents, gossiping with my father about snooty relatives we wish hadn’t come. My mother texts her current affair beneath the table, looking up to smile at us every few minutes. I watch my sister’s husband’s every move, counting how many seconds his eyes linger on a server, how close his hand dips when he leans in to hug a bridesmaid. My sister rolls her eyes at my paranoia, but secretly, I think she’s grateful; he was someone else’s at first, too. When my father leaves early with a headache, Mom kisses his forehead gently, and they both nod. We scrape plates when the last dance ends, and as we do, she asks me why I hadn’t yet found someone of my own to commit to. Instead of responding, I focus on the sound of metal against ceramic. Watch the uneaten food fall into the trash, spoil.
Regan Puckett is a writer from the Ozarks. Her favorite leftovers are Indian takeout. Cold pizza is a close second. Her work has been recognized by a multitude of flash fiction contests and awards, and her most recent stories can be found in Fractured Lit, Emerge Literary Journal, and the 2021 Best Microfiction anthology.
SEVEN STARTS TO THE WOMAN WHO WENT OVER THE FALLS IN A BARREL Annie Edson Taylor, 1901 by Frankie McMillan
Picture the cold dark inside of the barrel. Annie feeling her way over the padded mattress to a harness hanging from the side. The barrel sways in the water. Picture her fastening herself upright into the harness, pulling the leather strap tight across her chest. Picture Annie flailing about, she can’t find her lucky heart-shaped pillow. Now picture the barrel picking up speed, with the current, heading straight towards the falls.
It’s not as if falling was something new. Early on, I fell from my crib, I fell through haystacks, I fell from grace, I fell behind the church to kiss the bridesmaids, I fell between heaven and hell then into marriage and when my good husband was taken off to war I fell into despair. When cholera came and took the baby I fell so low I did not know I’d fallen. I fell short of loving men. I fell into debt. I fell about the house; birds beat against the windows, mold grew upon the cheese. Yet in the dark I dreamed that fame could come with falling.
Us boatmen watch the wind fall. Then we anchor by Goat Island so we can get Mrs. Taylor and the barrel ready without too much sway. When she begins undressing, we turn our backs. Let the oars rest in the locks, listen to the falls. We’d done talking. We’d told her no one has ever survived going over in a barrel, it was madness it was. She was killing herself and on her birthday.
We turn around. She stands there, a man’s coat flung over her shoulders. A big flowery hat on her head. Can’t help but stare. The long barrel begins bobbing alongside the boat. Later it’ll have white letters painted on it. Heroine of Niagara Falls. But we don’t know that now.
We spit on our thumbs, hold them up to see which way the wind’s coming.
If I hide my grey hair under a hat, if I lie about my age, I have my good reasons.
My poor head is full of measurements. The length of the barrel staves, the circumference of the iron hoops, the position of the bunghole, the exact weight of the anvil at the bottom so the barrel floats upright during the ride. I look the barrel maker in the eye. I tell him I have every expectation of surviving.
Night comes. I talk to my lucky heart-shaped pillow, I talk about the barrel maker, the boatmen, the beef-faced newspaper men, I talk about their buffoonery, their banter, and blather, I talk about the Buffalo Exposition, the crowds that await me, how lucky the timing was for my stunt, and I go on talking while candlelight gives such a ruby glow to the pillow I push my cheek into the plump mounds of silk and Maude, Maude, Maude I breathe though I don’t know any Maude, not even a bridesmaid Maude and later, to knock some sense into my God-fearing self, I draw my knees up to my chin, listen to the noise of the falls and brace, brace, brace, I cry.
A huge crowd had gathered on the Goat Island bank. Some had been there the previous day when the wind got too fierce to get the barrel out. Over the noise of the falls, we hear snatches of a voice shouting from the wharf. Mrs. Taylor, refined teacher of New York …What are the bets …Will she take the plunge… We head around the inlet into view. The crowd erupts in cheers. Horns blast the air. We pause a bit as Mrs. Taylor stands in the boat, big hat on her head, her arms held out to the falls.
The noise from the falls grows louder. You are in a barrel heading for the plunge. You are still upright in the harness, arms crossed over your chest. Your lucky heart-shaped pillow, wedged under your chin. The barrel begins to spin. You are prepared, you tell yourself. You have planned for this. Below the boatmen are waiting. Below is your new life, fame and fortune. The noise is deafening. Happy birthday, you breathe into the red silk pillow. Happy birthday, you.
Frankie McMillan is a poet and short fiction writer. Her latest book, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press), was listed by Spinoff as one of the ten best New Zealand fiction books of 2019.
Mom fell asleep around Labor Day that year and the slumber was deep. Dad bagged the recycling, drove to school on weekdays, spread his papers across the living room floor in the afternoons, and asked me often if I needed anything. I always told him no, but each Sunday when I’d finished my chores, I’d wait at the kitchen table for the chunk-chunk-putputput-whirrrrrr of the lawnmower in the backyard, then venture upstairs to see if Mom had stirred.
One Sunday evening in October, Dad was changing the mower blade out by the shed and I figured he’d be occupied until the stars came out. “Mom?” I called gently from the foyer. “Mom?” She didn’t answer and I quietly mounted the stairs. “Mom, are you awake?”
The bedroom door was open and I crossed the threshold. Twilight sounds stirred in the yard, beyond the drawn shade and the poplar boughs in muted silhouette. The oscillating fan in the corner whirred calmly as I neared the foot of her bed. She was reduced by then to a snoring, pillow-laden mound of patchwork quilts; sometimes on her stomach, other times curled up; sometimes a leg flung free of the bedding, other times an arm. But she was always there, and I stood at the foot of the bed, watching the rise and fall of her breath, uncertain if her presence was a comfort or a disappointment. The clock on the wall, the cicada drone, the fan’s hum all seemed to stretch like a tape cassette when you put a finger on the ribbon. Slower and slower, dragging and slurring, until my ears made it silence and I decided to wake her. I had to wake her. I even moved to touch her leg, but, for some reason, I stopped myself, hand outstretched and fingers spread.
I’m still not sure why.
The best I can think is that I was scared. I couldn’t name it at the time, but I know now that I was wary, especially in those first weeks, of spoiling her solitude, of pinching her while she dreamed, of who she might have become with her eyes closed and how much of it she’d remain if I woke her too early. I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head in that moment, but I hesitated. I held my hand over her leg for a split second, and that was more than I had.
“Shh. Come away from there, Laurie,” Dad said from the doorway. I jumped and drew my hand back, startled. “Your mother’s very tired,” he said, leaning with his elbow on the molding. “Come away from there.”
Mom resumed her snoring and the opportunity stole away with the waning daylight while I watched her and damned my indecision. If I had to guess, I think that was when the idea took root, deep in my belly, that I’d wanted her to keep sleeping, that I’d hesitated because I didn’t necessarily want her awake. She pulled the pillow more firmly over her head and Dad cleared his throat, but I just stared at her, willing away the sudden fear that she might never move again. For almost a minute, Dad and I stood there with the hallway light in a column over the floor and evening gathering in the corners. He sighed and I finally turned to leave, but the idea clung to me. You didn’t want her to wake up, did you? Go on, say it out loud.
I never did say it out loud. It was nonsense.
Dinner that night was reheated chicken over buttered pasta. We ate late, Dad and I, at opposite ends of the table and, when we’d finished, I left the dishes to soak and Dad to wipe down the countertops and went upstairs to finish my homework. Mom snored steadily on the other side of the wall and I blocked it out with headphones full of music. Quadratic equations, I think it was, and I worked and worked while faces stared down from just beyond the dim lamplight; posters of movies, photographs of friends, and caricatures drawn by an amusement park artist on my twelfth birthday in which Mom’s head was too big and my face was cheerier than I remembered being. I worked and worked until, with a pop, the bulb in the desk lamp burned out.
For a moment, nothing moved but the moonlight on the wall. Shadowy branches tickled the pale glow and I removed the headphones and went downstairs. I padded across the dimly lit kitchen to the cabinet where Dad stashed the extra lightbulbs, but none remained, so I wrapped my hand in a dry dishrag and unscrewed the single bulb from the light over the sink. The kitchen went black and, at that very instant, a sudden cough cut the silence. I froze and it came again: close. I opened the back door and found Mom sitting on the porch rail, feet swinging against the balusters.
“What’s that?” she asked casually, balancing a cigarette between the fingers of her right hand. I’d always known she smoked—the house smelled like old pennies and air freshener—but I’d never seen her with a cigarette, never found a pack lying around, never seen her stop to buy them.
“What?” I could feel my face slacken and my eyes grow wide, but she didn’t seem to notice. I felt like an intruder in the night, but she was calm, in control of those parts of herself that were visible in the darkness.
“What’s that?” she said again, this time pointing her cigarette at the rag in my hand.
“Oh,” I said, staring at the red ember as I unwrapped the rag and held up the bulb so that she could see. “We’re out of lightbulbs. My desk lamp died. This is the one from—”
“Ah.” She nodded at the dark kitchen window. “I saw.”
Rustling leaves and the distant, irregular harping of a bullfrog hovered around the edge of the quiet and she raised the cigarette and took a drag. Smoke spilled from the corner of her mouth and I remember her staring back from the shadow, not into my eyes but rather just past them, over my ear or maybe at my forehead or the tip of my nose, like an actress taming her nerves. I started to speak, but she cut me off.
“It’s dark out tonight,” she said.
I stopped with my lips still formed around the word Why and she dropped her gaze. Her feet clicked against the balusters and I looked around.
“Sure,” I said. The sky was a truer black, with a faint silver ripple of cloud in the space where the moon hung earlier. I looked back to her and nodded. “Sure,” I said again. “It’s probably the clouds. It’s just the clouds, I think.”
She took another drag and stared just past me again. As she released the stream of smoke, her face turned slowly from mine until she was gazing over her shoulder, into the night.
“I like nights like this.”
“Dark,” she said.
“Dark.” She tapped the ash from her cigarette, then motioned with it toward the yard. “I feel like I can hear more of what’s out there. I feel like, when I close my eyes, I can see what I’m supposed to. Better than in the daylight.”
I didn’t know what she meant so I just nodded, and she was silent for a long time, staring off into the yard. The quiet chewed away at my ears and I wanted to return to the kitchen, close the door behind me, climb the stairs back to my room. “I like it too,” I said finally, just to hear something other than night. “It’s—it’s nice.”
She sighed and took another pull. “I used to come out to sleep in the yard, under the clouds, on nights like this. A long time ago. Before you were born, before this house, before your father.” The crickets billowed and we were both quiet and I remember being oddly certain that she wasn’t waiting for me to speak so much as for her words to decay, to break down into their component elements and join the earth under the poplar where the hostas grew. So I waited. “It’s been years now,” she said, after a long time. “It’s been many, many years.”
A light flicked on somewhere behind me while I puzzled over her face; old and smoke-carved; half-lit by the feeble moon, freed again from the clouds. How could she be so comfortable, sitting there talking like that? I was still watching her when she ground the cigarette cold on the rail, dropped it into the garden, and slid from her perch. The questions vanished and my mind raced for something to say, something to keep her there; anything, fact or fiction, question or statement, that she might find interesting. “Without a tent or a blanket or anything?” I blurted out. “You just—”
“I should get inside,” she said, as though I hadn’t even spoken. “It’s getting late. It’s really getting late.” She yawned, then glanced from the house, back to me. “See you in the morning.”
The door swung shut behind her and I stared after her and knew that she wouldn’t. She slowly disappeared into my reflection and I watched my pale face in the storm door, counting under my breath until I was sure she was far enough away. The crickets sang and I still held the bulb in the rag as I pushed the door open again and climbed back to my room.
The next morning, I came out before Dad was up and found the cigarette butt in the silent garden. My breath came in clouds and I covered the butt with mulch, then went back to the kitchen for breakfast. That night, I finished my homework early and, once Dad was in bed, tip-toed quietly downstairs and out onto the empty porch. The wide moon winked behind sparse clouds and the night chirped and buzzed and rustled. I sat next to the burn mark Mom had left on the railing and clicked my heels against the balusters, but she never came and I gave up and went to bed.
For months, I repeated the ritual, each night after Dad fell asleep. At first, I obscured my purpose in case he woke. I carried a glass downstairs to fill with grapefruit juice from the fridge, left my backpack in the kitchen so I could pretend I’d come down for a book, or rummaged in the catchall drawer for batteries or rubber bands until I was satisfied he was still dreaming in the guest room overhead. After a week or two, I abandoned the pretense, safe in the knowledge that I’d be alone.
She slept through the falling leaves and rain and cooling weather and, over and over, I watched the moon drift from shining climax, all the way to nothing, and back again. From the porch, I listened to the crickets in the hedgerow, the frogs in the creek bed. With only the shape of the night to mark the hours, I waited and waited, but Mom never came back out.
One night, while frost still slicked the grass, I decided to sleep in the yard. It was March, I think, and I had no way of knowing that, in a few weeks, I would wake to the smell of hot bacon and descend the stairs to find her standing over a popping skillet like she’d gotten a single, wonderful night’s sleep and nothing more; that she would wish me good morning and pass me a plate loaded with avocado, eggs, sugared berries, and sliced grapefruit; that I wouldn’t know what to do but pretend I hadn’t thought about waking her, every night for half a year.
I had no way of knowing, and I let the storm door close quietly behind, dropped the pillow and quilt on the porch, and sat for a moment on the rail, under the moon and clouds. The night whirred and whined and I wondered if Mom would’ve gotten out of bed that evening in October—and every morning since—if I’d just shaken her leg. Might she be stretched out right now, waiting for me on the empty lawn, if I’d just wrenched the blankets from her body and thrown open the curtain?
I hopped the railing and pulled the quilt and pillow after me. Mulch and petals, then grass and leaves cooled my feet, and the crickets breathed. I unfurled the quilt in the quiet and the crickets erupted in song as my head struck the pillow. Staring at the moon, I thought about marching back up the stairs and shaking her awake, but with that impulse came the idea that I might’ve been dwelling on the wrong failure, the wrong opportunity missed. Like a flash, it passed, and I fell asleep and dreamed of daylight in the windows, of roller coasters on my birthday, of popcorn on the couch, and her face under the blue flicker of a movie that I knew in the dream but couldn’t recall upon waking.
Peter Amos lives in Queens, New York with his wife and one-year-old son. He was raised in rural Virginia and studied jazz and classical guitar in college before moving to the city. His writing can be found at The Maryland Literary Review, Eclectica, and on his website, The Imagined Thing.
AUTOPSY OR, THE HOUSE OF YOUTH (LIKE A RUSSIAN MOUNTAIN)
by J.M. Parker
I kept a hand-written note, on creased but still clean typing paper, wedged into the pages of a book
You’ve got the tv program and today’s newspaper―
some white wine in the fridge,
and the end of a bottle of red one on the table, and another one and pastis in the kitchen― I don’t know what time I’ll be back but until that moment I kiss you―
Also, if the phone rings
let the answering machine answer―see you―
I’d kept a photo of the two of us grinning while cutting up a dead rabbit to put in a stew, after which, as I remembered, we’d sat on Fred’s couch, and I told him I had a boyfriend in America. “I love him,” I’d said, “But he isn’t in love with me.”
“Without love, it’s like a day without sun,” Fred said―and this had sounded romantic, or even sympathetic.
After pulling his note out of the pages of that book and then a phone call, I stood in the atrium of Fred’s office, looking up at his desk. Fred sat at a monitor, smiling at something on his screen until he glanced down to see me. “Sorry I’m a little late,” he said downstairs, meaning he was sorry I’d been standing in the lobby in view of his colleagues instead of waiting by the door, as he’d suggested.
It was gray outside, boats along the canal St. Martin battened down for winter, tarps sagging with water. In French, as in English, people are expected to ask each other how they are on meeting, then to reply pleasantly before inquiring all over again more methodically. If they’re interested. We were. Sitting down in a café, Fred talked about Abriel. “Abriel is complicated,” Fred said. “I’m complicated myself. It isn’t easy for complicated people. Every week is like a Russian mountain.” Fred made up-and-down movements with his hand, I supposed to illustrate the shapes of mountains in Russia.
Two years earlier, Abriel’s name had come in the same moment Fred taught me the French word for “magpie,” one morning, sitting on the couch. As Fred explained that Abriel had spent the night in the courtyard downstairs trying to call, a magpie had landed on a chimney outside, catching my attention. “What is it, that bird?” I’d asked, and Fred told me. I’d never seen a magpie. “They’re fascinated by bright things. To steal them,” Fred said, explaining the magpie’s personality. I’d thought of the two of us there on the couch with the sun and coffee, of Abriel waiting in the courtyard, and of a long-tailed bird who steals bright things that catch the light. “Look,” Fred had said, “With Abriel, things have been getting more serious lately.” Then Fred had put me on a train and we’d said goodbye.
Will you have wine? Fred asked. Will you? Up to you, he said. I don’t mind. A carafe, then.
We sat discussing our story, discussing how we felt about it, the way you’d talk about a film or a book and what you thought of it. Fred didn’t mind if you looked at his face, but if you looked into his eyes, he shifted them slightly so they changed their way of looking to something more blank. If you persisted, he looked away. “You look a bit sad,” he said.
“You always say that,” I said. Then there was a silence between us, after this reference to an “always” that covered only a few distant days. I waited to see what he would do with that silence.
“I wonder,” Fred said, “What you think about us.”
“Us?” I asked. His face puckered in disgust at my pretending not to understand.
“It was two years ago, wasn’t it?” he said.
“When we met. Was it October?”
“Yes,” I said. “It was in October.”
“I wonder what you think about that now?” The strangest thing happened now, something that hadn’t ever happened to me before and hasn’t since: without moving in the least, my line of vision suddenly fell perfectly level with the tabletop, so I saw everything on it, our plates and glasses with their sharp outlines, from their undersides. It was difficult to draw away from this vision, but his face above it all waited for an answer.
My answer, completely unplanned, was completely familiar. “I came back to Paris because of the sentiment I had here with you. Now I’m here, and never see you, and miss you.”
He sighed. “I didn’t know your thoughts then. I wasn’t sure of you.”
“You didn’t expect me to stay, so you took me to the station and put me on a train.”
“Yes, it was like that,” he agreed. “But you are here now?”
“You can call my office when you want to have lunch.” Full of wine and caffeine and energy, I walked across the canal, wanting to think. Fred and I had always been honest with each other. It felt good to say the truth.
I put my hands behind my head on a park bench on the other side of the city, watching a tiny black poodle walk alone across the wide dusty paths and, for the first time, saw I wanted something that wouldn’t be simple to get and that if gotten, wouldn’t be because of anything I did myself to make it happen. A low fog made everything close grainy, everything faraway closer. An hour with him made it easy to remember how he made his coffee, the cup he drank it from, the noise he made falling asleep. Above the Champ de Mars, Eiffel’s tower stood, clipped from a painting, pasted over the chestnut branches, hanging there. The drug-like sense of everything being an option intensified: an option for happiness, an option for sadness, one of a thousand spaces somewhere in between. I’d fallen in love with Fred two Octobers ago. This fascinated me.
That autumn two years before, backpacking across Europe, I’d prepared for France. Handing my passport to the receptionist at the youth hostel, I’d been the only person in line who spoke French. “You are American?” she’d asked. “Yet you speak French?”
“Yes,” I’d said, “I’ve also recently purchased a métro pass―want to watch me smoke a cigarette?” I put Paris’s neighborhoods on different sections of my tongue, moving them around slowly―sweet, salty, sour, bitter. I’d drunk watery lattés and eaten greasy croissants at the youth hostel, found Shakespeare & Company full of American divorcées with loud purring voices, and Gertrude Stein’s house in a street where gusts of wind brushed the granite facades, pouring along ankle-level, like a beach. From Montmartre, the sun withered behind the city, the clack of roller blades passing up through the trees. A Paris sunset.
I took the subway to the Marais, feeling foolish and happy. In a bar, two men stood together laughing, one stout with glasses and a pasty complexion, the other shorter, blond, a silk blazer hanging off his shoulders, shaking as he laughed. After a beer I said hello. The men exchanged a startled expression which read―a foreigner! The blond, curious, stepped closer, clearing his throat, turning his face up into the light so you could see it. It was a nice face, drawn around the mouth with a smoker’s wanness. Turning to his companion in a furious whisper that seemed to generally establish shock between them more than to seek a response, he turned back to me. “Tu parles Anglais?”
“Oui. Pourquoi? Mon français, c’est mauvais?”
He turned to his companion again before answering. “Ah, non! Your French―it is vary, vary good!” He’d taken some care in selecting his clothes, you could see, his hair neatly brushed: a professional. They both smiled. He turned back to his companion, who was making a blowing noise with his mouth, then to me.
“My name is Frédéric,” he said. “This is Jean-Pascal.”
“Max,” I said, putting out my hand. Frédéric and Jean-Pascal had had a little chuckle together. Max: the monosyllabic glamour of the American first name―yes, a real American. Frédéric shook with laughter.
“We are going to another bar,” he shouted over the music. “You might like it. A bar for―lesartistes―yes? You will come?”
At the bar for artists, glaring, middle-aged men and goateed boys with glasses danced slowly, foot to foot. A mustached Turk in a baseball cap looked on, shuffling his feet now and then. Jean-Pascal and I danced. Frédéric got drinks. I stood holding mine to my lips, watching Frédéric pound the floor with his shoes, scrunching his shoulders under his blazer. After a while I sat down and he sat beside me.
“Sleepy?” he said. Green eyes. Eyebrows flecked with blond.
“Oui, un petit peu.” I said, mimicking his pronunciation.
“Can I take you home?” he asked. We looked out to where Jean-Pascal was dancing by himself.
“He’s having fun,” I said.
“Yes,” Frédéric said, “Jean-Pascal likes to dance.”
Outside, the street quiet and dark. He hailed a cab. “My things―” I said, “Mes affaires―sont à l’ostello―à la . . . la maison de jeunesse, the house of youth, non?”
“Oui, oui. Où est ton auberge, your things?”
“Bastille,” I told the driver, kissing Fred, then remembering that we’d already kissed in the bar. Frédéric waited in the cab as I came downstairs with my bags, smoking, a hand hanging out the window. “I never waited for a boy in a cab before,” he said, bemused. “I didn’t know how long to wait―one cigarette, or two . . . three.”
“Was I long?”
He nuzzled me. His hair was the softest thing I’d ever felt. “Richard-Lenoir, s’il vous plaît,” he said.
The next morning, children played in his courtyard. Women called across balconies as they hung out their wash. The sun through the skylight came across Fred. I went to test his shower, smelling like a tourist―paté, beer, dust, and smoke. Fred climbed down from the loft, taking me by my shoulders to dance on the tiles in his bare feet. “Je t’aime,” I’d said. Then Fred was prostrate on the couch with a cigarette, ashing into the blue ashtray.
“Je t’aime,” Fred explained, isn’t a phrase one unleashes on a new-found lover. “Je t’aime” is très serieux.
The second time I called for lunch, it rained again. The canal boats’ plastic tarps dripped and sagged. He wore the same brown turtleneck, face red from the cold.
We ordered plats de jour, getting warm. “Abriel is jealous now,” Fred said. “I always tell after I’ve seen you, but never before we meet.” He paused. “When I describe you, I must make you out to be rather the ideal boy.” I smiled, hating myself―easy flattery. “With us, it’s always like a Russian mountain. Last month we broke―I think the same in English―‘broke up’?”
“Two weeks not seeing each other.” He paused, lit a cigarette, offering me one. “I was happy with you,” he said, going off in a slew of French he must have been saying for its own sake, seeing I didn’t understand. Rain spattered in waves across the window behind him, a pure gray, as gray as the city looks from an airplane window in winter. Normally his eyes were so sharp that I was surprised every clerk in every store, every waiter, every person on the street, didn’t realize how amazingly alive he was and jump on him, all at once. Looking at me carefully now, his eyes went dead, with nothing in them.
“Listen.” I’d had too much coffee now. That we only had an hour together―and how much time apart after that―terrified me. “If it gives you trouble, I don’t want to see you anymore. But if there’s anything in your heart that gives you any indication that you feel something similar to what I do, please think about it.” Unsure what I was saying had been true half an hour before, it seemed true now. Fred picked up his glass and set it down again. “The last time you asked what I thought of us, you didn’t say what you thought,” I said.
“I would ask you not to ask me that. Let’s eat our lunch. You’ve hardly given me a moment to think.” The waitress came for our plates, and that was the end of it.
At the third lunch he explained that he had a tank of fish that were slowly dying. He and Abriel lay in bed watching them swim. Every few days another dead body had to be scooped from the surface of the water. It was Abriel’s birthday recently. I said it was my friend’s birthday, too. What day, he asked. Ah, well, that was also Abriel’s birthday. But he couldn’t understand why his fish were dying.
“Did you get your tank new or used?”
“Did you clean it before you put the fish in?”
“No. Perhaps it is that.”
“I have sympathy for the inhabitants of your aquarium. Because you killed some of me, too.” Learning a language, drunk on the options of things you can say, you sometimes say anything that comes to your head.
“Oh? I killed some of you?” Fred smiled, turning away, the smile still on his lips, enjoying it to himself for a moment.
“What did you do after I left?” I asked.
“There’s no sense talking about that.”
“I’ll say what I did,” I said. “I sat in that train for five hours, feeling sick. Once the train stopped, I walked all over whole cities feeling sick. Then I took another train, a lot more trains, and buses, and a plane, feeling sick some more in all of them. I bought a bottle of Pastis, drinking it every night to make myself sick again. After a while, I didn’t miss you anymore. I just made myself sick.”
“I didn’t mean to make you sick,” Fred said. We were quiet for a while.
“Abriel is in Province,” he said finally. “I don’t know if he’ll come home tonight. I hope not. He always wants to go out, and I love to go to bed early. I like to get up Sunday morning―at ten, say, or eleven. Abriel isn’t easy to live with. But I’m very difficult, too.”
“I never thought so.”
“Oh, yes. I’m always afraid of losing someone. If they say anything―for example, Abriel and I were at a restaurant, and I asked, ‘Are you happy?’ and he said, ‘Happy about what?’ and I”―Fred pulled a sad face, glancing back over his shoulder like a scolded dog. “I can be sad for no reason. Just sad. I’m very difficult to live with, I’m afraid.”
“You were never afraid to lose me.”
“No. Perhaps because I knew I would. There’s some irony for your story,” Fred said, putting his glass down. “Does your friend travel very much, too?”
“Tonight he leaves for Strasbourg.” Our eyes met without either of our faces saying anything.
I thought he might call; I thought I might call him; but I didn’t see him again for two years.
He was “content de me revoir”―de m’avoir retrouvé, he corrected himself, explaining that content, a strong word, which most people used to mean “satisfied,” meant “fulfilled.” Our original fifteen days together―he’d counted them―had been a dream. At three in the morning on the Boulevard Sebastopol, our hands in each other’s pants trying to hail a taxi, Fred said he was falling in love with me. I wasn’t falling in love. I was already in love. He was my destiny, Fred said. I’d been pretty close to thinking it was my destiny to be with someone else, I told him. That wasn’t my destiny, he said. I should get myself used to that idea, Fred said. He’d been alone, mostly alone since Abriel left, and wasn’t ready for me yet. But if I went back to America for three months, he’d be ready when I came back.
Over the months I was gone, I received notes like this:
I’m a little drunk
I’m not going to say anything now because you will think I say that because
I have a lot of things to tell you
you will see if you ask me…………..
you have to ask yourself questions concerning abriel, ask me, I will answer
and you will see that you REALLY are in my heart and in my LIFE
I love you and it’s not a joke
as Carmen would say, “et si je t’aime prends garde à toi” fred
I had no particular questions to ask. He wrote back: “Why don’t you write? Did you meet someone else?” I sort of had.
We agreed to meet in New York. This story doesn’t have a happy ending. Imagine it like this:
A guy gets off a plane with that dopey, expectant look people getting off planes have, waiting for a face to come up out of the crowd at them, too shy to look at every head in the terminal, the whole fluorescent-lit crowd, the features of each a pang of disappointment. Imagine the guy walks past the crowd, his gullible ears perked up, waiting for his name to be called, like a half-hopeless dog, steeled for the surprise. At the back of the terminal, he pretends to be just a guy in the crowd, watching the heads coming off the plane from behind. Imagine him walking toward the exit, that same goofy half-grin on his face making people want to smile back at him, though they can’t because he’s avoiding all eye contact like hell.
Imagine that half-grin gone by the time he stands outside, his jacket collar (someone else’s) tugged up to his ears (he thinks leather jackets look good on him), smoking cigarettes and scanning the inside of each passing bus. He’d never fly into Kennedy in a million years if it wasn’t that the guy he’s supposed to meet found a cheap flight from Frankfurt and was afraid he wouldn’t find the hotel. But with construction at the airport, finding an address in Manhattan is easier than finding the right terminal at Kennedy, it turns out, because the hotel’s night staff tells him his friend the European checked in two hours ago and is waiting for him at the bar next door. There he is, not looking him in the eye.
He’s since sworn never to travel with the French again. For all their railing against American-style homogeneity, they want everything the same wherever they go. Any fluctuation―in coffee, food, prices, smoking regulations―becomes an item to deconstruct.
They drink beer sitting up in bed, sleep coming fast, that nice effortless kind you learn to appreciate, curtains left open to a view of barren Midtown wasteland. Imagine that last night in a cab or a bar, when Fred said he wasn’t in love anymore. “But touch me,” Fred said in the cab, “Like that,” the cab speeding up the avenue, past a statue he’ll see years later, then again more years later, and again after that, first with pangs, then with simple familiarity.
Imagine, when things start going wrong, he calls someone else who lives in New York. Imagine, one night when things start to go wrong, he meets this someone else in front of a theater, goes back to his apartment, explaining nothing of what is going on in a hotel room twenty blocks south and saying nothing to Fred when he comes back to it. Imagine the next morning he gets in a taxi and leaves Fred eating breakfast on a Broadway terrace.
Imagine a long line of gauzy curtains against a bay window the size of a ship’s prow, someone else asks, “Why did it end between us?” And imagine he can’t really think of a reason.
J. M. Parker’s fiction has appeared in Roanoke Review, Segue, Foglifter, Gertrude, and SAND, among other journals, and been reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2015. His novel Seattle or, In the Meantime was recently published by Beautiful Dreamer Press. He lives in Salzburg, Austria, where he teaches creative writing and American studies.
In the neuroscience lab where I worked as an undergraduate intern, we were studying what makes mice experience the sensation of fullness. You can just imagine who’d want access to those findings—the know-how to regulate people’s appetites. The primary investigator, Dr. Hillbrawn, suspected a specific subnucleus of being the moderating agent of satiety, so my job was to locate and then lesion it (which is fancy scientific jargon for destroy, and, just so you know, I am pretty fancy). Once I could do the surgeries without supervision, I started coming in late at night so I could work without the distractions of other people’s gossip and smells. One grad student played Nirvana on a loop, so the whole white room consistently felt filled with dismay.
On a late September night, I had an adolescent mouse head-fixed into the stereotax, a kind of miniature operating table. The mouse, big for his age, lay belly down. While his red eyes looked blindly up at me, shiny with ointment to keep them from drying out, I shaved the white fur at the top of his head, made a slice, and pulled the pink skin apart into a vaginal-looking wound. After I drilled a hole through his skull, just as I was about to lower the electrode, I saw the mouse’s whiskers twitch. Or I thought I did. From ethics training, I knew we were supposed to give a booster of anesthesia if we sensed the mouse waking so I pinched his tail, and his whole body flinched, a clear indicator that the dope wasn’t enough.
But what if it had to be? If I continued the surgery how would this mouse react, skull-cracked, brain-exposed, but alert to the world? What if I just—
At the electrode’s pulse, his sticky eyes filled with dampened terror, followed by screeches that rent the antiseptic night. When I pulled the wire free, his body and limbs thrashed across the metal surface, his head locked in place.
I watched with a kind of thoughtful horror. This writhing mouse has touched death, must sense himself on the brink, caught up in the suck toward oblivion.
What a rush it must be. I could almost feel it myself.
After sealing the mouse’s scalp with vet glue, I set up an arena and video camera and grabbed one of the female mice we kept for breeding.
Even among mice, males are considered the norm, the females too inconstant, so to ensure we always had female mice in estrus, all hot and bothered and ready to rut, we had to keep them separated. Just like us, female mice get on the same cycles with their fellow cage-dwellers. Whenever a new litter of pups was born, we’d wait the twenty-one days until they were weaned, pick out the surplus of females, dump them into a tank, and fill it with carbon dioxide, slowly at first to put them to sleep, then full blast. Their very own girls-only gas chamber.
At least they were spared the life of a lab rat.
During my training, I’d watched some videos of mouse sexual behavior, which happened to be even more formulaic than human. The male would dally before sniffing the female’s backside, and that sniffing would go on for quite a while, in all kinds of positions, before mounting, then withdrawing to lick his junk, then mounting again, and soon done after several quick-time humps and rapturous squeaks. The technical term for mouse foreplay is, get this, anogenital exploration.
Feel free to use that next time you’re looking to spice up your dirty-talk.
This mouse, whom I would dub Ladies Mouse, was having none of it. He must have been woozy from the drugs, but once I put him in the cage with the female, he leaped at her like Superman, or rather, Mighty Mouse, snort. It was as if it was his last lay, his final chance to pass on all the genetic material that defined Ladies Mouse and Ladies Mouse alone. He did it for the same reason shipwrecked men carve their last words into the bark of trees. Because even the most is never enough.
The going theory was that if you stress out animals, they’ll do all they can to return to homeostasis. The last thing they’d be up for, supposedly, was the agitation of a courtship ritual. But Ladies Mouse defied the theory. He didn’t fight or flee but found a way to do both, to force himself on another and allow his DNA to escape.
I put on a pot of coffee, already planning my next experiment. First I had to confirm that I’d lesioned the part of Ladies Mouse’s brain I’d been aiming for. Stereotactic surgery only gives you a suggestion of which part of the brain actually gets hit by the electrode. Mouse brains are small, after all.
Which meant I’d have to kill Ladies Mouse. Wishing I hadn’t named him, I put him in a cage and marked it: “Surgerized mice. Save for Deb.” It would take a couple weeks for the neurons to die off, if I’d destroyed them at all. Maybe I’d just stimulated them. Or maybe the burned neurons had nothing to do with it. Was the stress of waking during surgery enough to explain Ladies Mouse’s desperate and freakish last lay?
Over the following weeks, I prepared for Ladies Mouse’s final surgery, and when the time came, I laid him down in a tray of crushed ice inside the fume hood. This time I was sure to inject him with a healthy dose of anesthetic—actually it wasn’t so healthy, har har.
This final surgery, a transcardial perfusion, would be belly up.
A draft from somewhere rustled some hairs that had escaped from my bun as I made a horizontal incision just beneath his rib cage and pushed apart the skin with my thumb and forefinger. The twitching bright redness of his organs made me stop. I could just glue him up now, virtually no damage done. But I kept going, remembering the steps of the surgery in my head like a telephone number. With the scalpel, I traced the shape of a shield along the edges of his ribcage and, as if peeling away a sticker, lifted the skin, followed by the sternum. There his heart pumped wildly, I couldn’t believe with what tempo and vigor. His system was drugged and irreparably damaged, but his heart beat pertinaciously on. Holding my breath, I pinched the pulsing heart between the forceps, pierced a hole in the right atrium to let the blood ooze out, and, with a trembling hand, inserted a needle into the left ventricle. I didn’t exhale until the saline, then paraformaldehyde began their journey through his organs. Ladies Mouse’s whole body moved as if in a seizure, then just his fore paws, as if waving goodbye. In less than twenty minutes, his body had gone stiff, all the organs paled to a chalky white.
Rather unremarkable scissors are sufficient for cutting off mice’s heads, but I thought Ladies Mouse deserved the guillotine that we reserved for tough-necked rats, the royal treatment.
With his head in my blood-dappled gloves, I scissored away his skull as if it were a cuticle on a nail, and the clattering sound of me dropping the scissors back on the tray made me jump, an alarm bell shrilling its warning in my head. I looked around, expecting to find someone who’d been watching me this whole time.
But, no, I was alone. What was the next step again? All I could think about was the bloody, decapitated body and a missing witness. Had I pickled Ladies Mouse for nothing? Then I saw the mini-spatula and knew what to do.
After severing the cranial nerves, I popped Ladies Mouse’s brain out like a pea from its pod, and my heart clamored against my chest as I caught it before it fell to the floor. Concentrate, I told myself as I slid the brain into a vial of paraformaldehyde for post-fixing. Then I tossed Ladies Mouse’s corpse, wrapped in a surgical glove, into the freezer with the other carcasses, bound eventually for the incinerator, and tried not to feel sad for him. All the next day, I stayed in the lab, drinking coffee and keeping my eye on the solution, making sure no one disturbed it. That night, after everyone had finally left, I cut the solidified brain into sections, stained them, and searched for the missing neurons under a microscope.
It was a miss. I’d put Ladies Mouse through all that, only to hit a neighboring subnucleus.
But maybe it was a happy miss. Discoveries can’t be anticipated, after all. Maybe, I thrilled to think, males also have an ever-elusive g-spot, and maybe it’s in the brain.
The next morning, I was woken by Jason, the grad student responsible for supervising me. I didn’t like sharing what I’d been up to, but I’d need his help, and Jason was always railing against the Man, by which he meant academia, its rigidity, its unpredictable hesitancies, and its general stinginess. He usually spoke in a low, emphatic tone that sounded on the verge of angry, but once I’d explained my plan, his voice seemed to jump an octave. “Sweet, nice work, Deb. Way to stick it!”
He set me up so I could spend the next few months breeding my own litter of mouse pups, which mostly just consisted of him signing forms I put in front of his face. After I’d put aside half the weaned mice as the control group, I dove into my experiments. How could I get them to take that desperate lunge toward whatever life remained rather than retreat to nurse their wounds? The findings, I knew, could have huge implications. Forget controlling appetite. Whoever knew the formula for invigorating the sex drive could rule the world. Or at least buy it—and was there a difference?
Over the holidays, the city was aglow with Christmas spirit, but I was in the lab, trying to figure out what I was missing in my research. As the new year approached and as more and more mice failed to live up to their predecessor, I started to suspect that my initial results had been an anomaly, related more to Ladies Mouse’s distinctive qualities than anything endemic to mice, let alone humankind.
There was no payday in sight.
Then, at the beginning of Spring term, Jason delivered a presentation to the whole lab, complete with PowerPoint slides. The topic: my research.
I was sitting at the back of the conference room, in denial. This couldn’t be my hypothesis, my experiments and data, my potentially field-changing findings he was claiming as his own. I considered briefly, and absurdly, that he’d been working on a parallel experiment this whole time. But no, I even recognized my mice in the videos, the ones whose neurons I’d been destroying and whose sex acts I’d been filming. The more he spoke, his voice assuming that self-righteous tone of being the only person in the room to have thought of something previously unthought, the more insistently my heart pumped, and the feeling of it nearly bursting through my chest made me remember the blood draining out of Ladies Mouse. What did Ladies Mouse ever do? The undeserving one was Jason.
I wasn’t even a footnote.
After the presentation, I found him in the cafeteria, a huge building, airless as a shopping mall, with a daunting design of hatched wooden planks on the high ceiling. Fight or flee? I went up to where he was sitting and slid his plate of salad bar salad down the length of the table like an air hockey puck. When I put my face in front of his, the clatter of his dropped fork, just like that of the scissors I’d used to trim away Ladies Mouse’s skull, made me shiver. But his obvious fear made mine manageable.
“Deb.” Even in that one syllable, I could hear the quavers in his voice. “How was your Christmas?”
“Bullshit, Jason.” I got so close, our lips were almost touching. From afar, the moment might have looked romantic, like I was willing to vault a cafeteria table just for a kiss.
“There’s nothing to say,” he went on all aquiver. “I was the lead on that experiment, set you up, supervised you.”
“It was my idea, Jason. I did the work. You just gave the okay.”
“More like you were the manual labor, the benchman.”
“That’s a lie, and you know it.”
“I provided the materials, the animals, the equipment, got the go-ahead from Dr. Hillbrawn. You don’t even have a college degree. Everything you used was mine, which means so are the findings.” He sneezed, and it sounded like the karate chop yip—hiya!—of a cartoon ninja.
Maybe he’d done those things, but none of it was enough to justify taking my work. Authority too often gets the glory, without even showing up. “I’m telling Dr. Hillbrawn everything.”
“He’s been kept apprised this whole time. We even got IACUC approval and had to cover up some of your shadier techniques in the process, I’ll have you know. As far as he’s concerned, the experiment’s mine, and that’s because it is.”
“That’s some false reality you live in,” I said, but to my own ears, at least, my voice sounded thin. He couldn’t have me beat.
“I tell you what, Deb,” and he hopped his chair forward and picked up his fork as if about to dive into an invisible meal. “I’m presenting the findings at the conference in April over at NYU. You can join me at the poster session, help me answer questions when it gets busy.”
“I’ll be there.”
He lowered his eyes to my short black skirt and rainbow leggings. “Just make sure you look the part.”
I made my best holier-than-thou face. “I thought you were all about sticking it to the man.”
“I am. But sometimes you have to play the game.”
And here I was, thinking I was playing.
When I left the cafeteria, it was snowing. As I watched my step over the sidewalks, I wondered why it didn’t thunder in a snowstorm. Where was the protest of the sky?
Since ketamine is a schedule three controlled substance and hallucinogenic, any lab that uses it is subject to DEA inspection, thanks primarily to a rather experimental bunch of 1970s California yoga instructors with a death wish. Dr. Hillbrawn kept it in the lab as anesthesia for the mice and rats. The problem, though, was the dosage: I’d need to hoard it for months before collecting enough to cook down and concentrate, but I didn’t have that kind of time. Or patience.
How ironic, then, that powder AP5, just another antagonist of NMDA receptors, was readily available for a couple hundred taxpayer dollars. In Dr. Hillbrawn’s lab, there was AP5 to spare.
So when it came time for the neuroscience convention, I was ready. In a single bathroom off the main conference hall, I took out my stash of AP5 in dimethyl sulfoxide, since it can dissolve chemicals that are hydrophobic (afraid of water, of all things). It’s also great for transporting substances through skin.
As I stirred deliberate figure eights into the solution, I could feel the heat building under my arms with the prospect of revenge, but that was soon chased by doubt: Was I the bad guy here?
Feeling like a witch above her brew, all I could think was I needed to come out of this without losing my dignity, even if meant doing something as rotten as the smell drifting up from my potion: a heady blend of spoiled milk and asparagus-laced urine.
All vengeance really was was self-defense after the fact, a welcome balm to helpless feelings.
As I looked around to ensure I hadn’t left anything incriminating behind, I caught a glimpse of myself in the streaky mirror. It was the nicest I’d ever dressed: gray twill pants and a white collared shirt, complete with a narrow snake-skin belt.
No witch was I.
After pulling on fresh surgical gloves, I donned another pair, these made from black lace. The left-handed one was soaked in my solvent. Before leaving, I doused myself with patchouli to cover the smell and thought, it’s not just mathematics, firefighting, and rock and roll that young girls get dissuaded from. Our potential for bad doings gets stymied too. We unlearn our capacity for trouble. Beamed to us daily, we hear the messages that we’re built for good, for caretaking, obeying. Boys will be boys, but girls aim to please.
How deep did the lesson run in me?
Across a sea of ambling scientists, there was Jason, setting up his poster at the far wall. In all his high fashion sense, he was sporting a short-sleeved collared shirt with a bowtie. Feeling as if my gliding body was a substitute for the real me, I weaved my way toward him, protecting my left hand as if it were broken. I felt unbound, sipping on trouble, a drink like liquor that rouses and dulls.
“No hard feelings,” I said, clutching his arm and holding on a few seconds longer than a casual greeting merited. He grinned, reached for my shoulder, and said, “That’s my Deb.”
With my most innocent smile, I withdrew my hand, claiming nervousness. “Gonna go to the little girls’ room before the big show.”
“You might want to wipe off some of that patchouli or whatever the hell it is. It reeks. And lose the gloves, Elvira.”
“I guess I got carried away,” I said and hurried back to the bathroom, feeling as if I’d had too much caffeine and might be propelled into a topple. To get the stink out, I rinsed and scrubbed the glove, wrapped it in a couple plastic bags, and buried it deep in the nasty bathroom trash. Then I splashed some cold water on my face, trying to tame the flush in my cheeks.
“You go here,” Jason told me when I returned, indicating the spot against the wall. He stood on the other side of the easel that held a rather shoddily designed poster. The sheets of data pinned to the board hung askew, and the small font was hard to read. Shockingly, he hadn’t asked me to design it for him, but probably—rightfully—he hadn’t trusted me to give it my best. My kind of crafty wasn’t for him.
He didn’t seem at all conscious of his poster’s inadequacy but stood with hands on hips, looking out with a devil-moon grin at the meandering scientists. When he bent to tie his shoe, I scribbled my name into the bottom corner.
As the scientists made their way toward us, they stood close to the poster, as if about to grab the easel up in a waltz. Soon they were gathering in droves, intrigued by the originality of the research, not to mention the fact that it was about the sex drive. Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex” was stuck in my head, and I hummed it to try to still the nerves. When would the AP5 kick in? As he handed out ivory-colored business cards, Jason’s voice rang with confidence, and with each card, I worried more. Maybe I hadn’t held on to him long enough. Had I screwed up the dosage? Maybe AP5 didn’t work the same way ketamine did. If nothing happened, I told myself, nothing would happen. Maybe it would even be a good thing.
Motivated by the size and stature of his audience, Jason kept expounding, but after he’d been through the spiel multiple times, handed out at least thirty cards, and answered dozens of questions, his responses grew suddenly curt. He shuffled the cards in his hands. Was this it? When he stared at the ceiling, mouth agape, I took over the presentation. “As you can see, the results far exceeded the expectations of my hypothesis.”
The next time I glanced at Jason, his business cards were strewn across the floor, and each hand was clasped to the opposite shoulder, his elbows draped in a V across his chest. He started rocking, alternately standing on his tiptoes and falling back on his heels. Accustomed to eccentricity, the scientists looked at him out of the corners of their eyes.
Then Jason growled, and the real hallucinations set in. “Fuck you,” he started yelling at the scientists. I flinched at the first one. “Get the fuck out of here!” He was moving erratically, like a bee was after him.
Now my fears were upturned. Maybe I’d given him too much. What if he became violent? What would an overdose of AP5 look like?
“Are you okay?” one of the scientists asked him. Her name tag told me she was Dr. Chelsea Pak from Stanford.
What if he died?
“Get off me!” he yelled.
“Is this normal?” a Dr. Brian Alexander asked. I’d all of a sudden become Jason’s handler.
What if there was an investigation?
What else hadn’t I thought of?
“Shut up with your incantations!” Jason got up close to the scientists, who wiped his spit from their faces. Then, as if they’d bared fangs at him, he jumped back, dabbing his forehead, chest, and shoulders before holding up his two index fingers in the shape of a cross. Like a sprinkler, he moved the cross back and forth, forming a barrier between him and some of the smartest people on the planet. “Christ!” he screamed. “Christ, save me! Save me from Satan’s children.”
“Anyone an MD here?” Dr. Pak asked. Another scientist, Dr. Portia Green, was inching toward Jason, making shushing sounds. As she approached, Jason crumpled to the floor and crawled under the table, wailing hysterical tears, ringing the pathetic tones of a lone child finding himself at the end of the world. “Oh Christ, Oh Christ! Save me from this hellscape.”
As the scientists looked at each other in nervous horror, I slipped Jason’s business cards into their unfeeling hands, feeling fine and redeemed.
But the next morning, I woke in sheets that felt marinated in sweat. What if there was a comeuppance? I’d covered my tracks well, but would Jason suspect me? After all, he knew I had a motive. I spent the next several nights drinking late, feeling by turns monstrous and vindicated, sip by sip.
But time passed, and I was left alone. Vindicated then. I’d done Ladies Mouse proud.
Why had I even doubted myself?
I’m not sure what was more damaging to Jason’s credibility, the delusional hysterics or his invocation of Christ, but, as far as I know, he never got a job in academia.
Dr. Hillbrawn, though, became the director of a major sexual dysfunction research center in Manhattan. Last I heard, none of his products worked better than placebos. But sometimes that can be enough—just thinking things are so can be pretty damn persuasive.
At other times, though, you need every corrective at your disposal.
Sarah Schiff earned her PhD in American literature from Emory University but is a fugitive from higher education. She now writes fiction and teaches high school English in Atlanta. Her stories have appeared in Raleigh Review, J Journal, MonkeyBicycle, and Fiction Southeast, among others. One has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Lab Rat Vengeance” is excerpted from her novel-in-progress, As Though to Breathe Were Life.
Teenagers found him washed up on the sand, bloated and bright in his favorite Hawaiian shirt. A crowd gathered and called the police, but not before those who found him took his wallet, wedding ring, car keys. The car itself. Authorities appeared, took pictures, bundled him up and drove his body past the palm trees and liquor stores to the morgue in Oakridge on 31st. There were several other bodies already there so he waited his turn, something he’d always found difficult.
Around dinner time, a Broward County detective came to Marv and Lorraine’s condo in Plantation with two shoegazing deputies. He told her he wished everyone had their names sewn into their clothing because it would make his job a lot easier. Lorraine just looked at him with her mouth open. It was late when they left. She drank a whole bottle of Lakeridge Southern White and lay on the couch staring at the ceiling until daybreak, when she loaded herself and another bottle of Lakeridge Southern White into the Volvo. She transported what tears she could muster to the beach and spent an entire day rusting in the sun next to an ocean she couldn’t stop thinking briefly, fatally contained Marv. She sat there cradling her grief like a baby, careful not to break it or fray its edges as it was suddenly and without ceremony her only possession of any consequence.
She rocked gently back and forth, ignoring passersby, recalling certain details about her husband, a big, booming man in flip-flops born in Romance, Arkansas. She made a list in the air with some whispering. He loved to golf. He was kind to animals and children. He could drain a double gin & tonic fast. He was impatient. He served in the Coast Guard and had three missing fingers, as well as a human skull he found in an abandoned rowboat and kept for himself. She spoke the empty platitudes and idioms he’d liked best. Quick as a whip. All that jazz. Drunk as a skunk. Life isn’t always fair. Big deal, champ.
And this: he’d taken special interest in their new neighbors, a mother and son from Indonesia with whom they shared a wall. A very special interest and a very thin wall. She picked up several more bottles of Lakeridge Southern White on the way home from the beach. She bought a whole case, which is twelve bottles.
She had a list of complaints and spit them one-by-one into the phone at her hunched mother listening in Bali. Uh huh, her mother said.
The boy will only eat food that has been deep fried. He grows sullen if there isn’t anything deep fried close at hand for him to devour. America is ruining him. He is only age thirteen. He is inflating like a balloon. And sugar. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his breathing becomes heavy with little exertion. We are having disagreements over food and video games and school.
Silence on the phone.
He is failing school, Mom.
I told you about Marv already. He’s dead, it was on the news. Before that, he was helping and there was some hope, but now Marv has disappeared just like Mauli’s father—well, he drowned—and there does not seem to be any more hope. What Marv would do; he would take Mauli on walks. To get his heartbeat up. And he would pay him one quarter for every block. And he would talk to me. And his wife hates me. And I’m scared to tell Mauli he’s gone.
Uh huh. Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Putri’s mother’s voice dipped to its lowest possible octave.
The teenagers took the Cutlass on a lengthy joyride, and she had to retrieve it from an impound lot on the edge of Pine Island Ridge. The attendant, too animated for such a quiet place, looked at Lorraine with vast, watery eyes. He’d seen it on the evening news. That man your husband sounded nice, I like the way they say about him, just a nice guy all over. He was really sorry, sincerely sorry. His wife wasn’t dead, but his parents were, he offered. He said they were murdered right in front of him when he was only seven. He made a stabbing motion with an empty hand. The teenagers had slashed the seats and ceiling of the Cutlass, which Lorraine now considered an ironic name for this particular car.
Before she could tell him, a note was slipped under their door.
Perhaps you’ve heard Marv has drowned is gone. Whatever agreement you had is now null and void. Please return any belongings he loaned you by leaving them outside the garage. Your neighbor, Lorraine. Mauli stood in the foyer gripping the note with both of his thick hands and began to sob.
Putri worried at how depressed, how angry the boy had been since Marv didn’t show up Friday night to take him to dinner as promised. She worried about the secret time in his room. She worried about the fact that he was a teenager, a huge sullen teenager with no friends and a thick accent. She worried even more when she checked on him in the middle of the night and found him snoring in the glow of his night light, holding the skull Marv gave him to his chest, his eyelids open, his eyes rolled back in his head.
Lorraine’s shopping list was brief and sundry: onion rings, lube, cough syrup with codeine, a Komodo dragon. She veered onto 842 West from Plantation toward the shopping centers of Fort Lauderdale, reveling in a claptrap serenade: air conditioner drone, ice in her gin & tonic as castanets. She shook her head to the feral rhythm, the landscape a swerving, indistinct blur; a whoosh of charcoal pavement decorated with cerulean smears of rippled sky.
She looked at the coupon. 20% off select reptiles. The passenger seat occupied by several empty cans of gold spray paint. She had a lot of spray paint on her face, around her mouth. She rolled down her window and shouted something incoherent to even her at a passing car. Its driver frowned, as did she.
She turned on the radio full blast. Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue: The deafening distorted squeal was just a whisper to her. Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies. Give me no reasons, give me alibis. Tell me you love me and don’t let me cry. Say anything but don’t say goodbye. She ran her fingers through her loosening perm, ripping roots, and opened her mouth wide in a full-throttle yawn that turned almost seamlessly into a deafening scream.
Marv had been dead for thirteen days. Thirteen days since he’d waded into the Atlantic. She remembered the garish Hawaiian shirt and a blank look when he left the condo. She imagined his face framed in seaweed, his lungs spilling their last effervescent treasures, his body softly sinking to the ocean floor. She took a big sip of her drink. Fort Lauderdale loomed on the horizon. The Cutlass still reeked of weed and musky cologne. Long strips of ceiling fabric billowed in the wind, occasionally touching her face, covering her eyes. Oh Marv, Lorraine muttered sorely brushing it away as she steered unevenly past Galaxy Mart, Firewood City, Pump & Go, Sandy’s Place Too.
The night Marv drowned, the deputy had said, We’ll do everything we can to help you, ma’am. We know you’re feelin’ pretty bad, and I would, too. Do you have a friend or neighbor that can come sit with you? Neighbor. Lorraine frowned bitterly at the word and the thought of Putri. She thought of the day Putri moved in, not wasting any time sucking up to Marv. In her tiny white shorts and halter top, prancing shoeless in the kitchen, showing speechless, grinning Marv how to dance the Topeng while Lorraine and Putri’s son Mauliwarmadewa stared unhappily at each other over bowls of melting sherbet.
She stretched out on her bed in the afternoon, thinking of Marv, imagining him walking out of the ocean, covered in seaweed, mouthing words she almost knew as the ocean receded behind him. She fell asleep that way, and her dream carried the vision forward: Marv taking her by the waist, kissing her neck, suggesting with his soft brown eyes that she might consider loving him—at least consider it—as he guides her into the waves, under the ocean surface. Putri wanted to say that she had done more than consider it, but the words came out in a clump of oblong bubbles: Lorraine.
She woke and felt a presence, and the presence was her son. He was in the hallway, just outside her bedroom, where she sat up, squinting. He was moving in sweeping gestures. He was dancing? Mauli?What are you doing, please? Why are you awake? She rose and went to embrace him, but he shimmied away into his room and locked his door behind him.
Lorraine About five minutes from downtown, a highway patrol car pulled her over. Lorraine ducked and drained her gin and tonic, watching the officer in the side mirror as he approached, muttering into the radio clipped to his stiff blue shirt. She attempted a sweet smile and rolled down her window. What did I do, officer, she slurred.
Do you remember me? He adjusted the angle of his broad-brimmed hat. His teeth were huge. She felt her scalp crawl. With pursed, spray-painted lips, she shook her head and fidgeted with the tortoise shell clip in her hair. She couldn’t remember meeting him, but there had been so many policemen in such a short amount of time.
Ma’am, I was at your house three days ago. Your neighbor called us for the noise? The pounding on the wall and cursing?
Lorraine nodded slowly.
You were swerving pretty good back there. Can you please step out of the car?
What did I do?
You’re driving recklessly, endangering yourself and other motorists. We’ve had several complaints. Let’s step out of the car, okay? You got spray paint all around your face, you a huffer? Have you been drinking?
Of course not, it’s only one in the afternoon, Lorraine spat, her demeanor turning sour. She struggled out of her seat belt and, once she was out of the car, rushed past the officer and ran clumsily down the side of the highway until she collapsed in a bawling heap. As the officer carried her to his cruiser, she stared into the cloudless sky, her head rolling limp from side to side like a rag doll’s. The patrolman spoke into his shoulder radio as Lorraine sat handcuffed in the backseat of his cruiser. She squinted out the window into the sun, let its enormous glare swallow her whole, let herself float briefly, blissfully into a blinding white vacuum as they hummed down the highway.
She told her mother the truth about her arrangement with Marv, about the condo, the skull. Her mother wanted to know where she’d met him, and Putri surprised herself by admitting that Marv had contacted her on the internet. There was silence. And that is how I am in Florida, Mother, not working.
Uhh nnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Her mother’s voice found the bottom of the well.
At the Broward County jail, Lorraine was issued a thin, scratchy sheet and an outfit like she’d seen on TV. She scrubbed her face hard over a sink. There were too many women in her cell so she’d have to sleep on the floor. She curled up next to a radiator and watched a group of unpleasant women play cards and roll their eyes at each other. She wondered who else among them had been awake for five days straight. The TV was on but nobody was watching. Something about a new kind of microwave oven: The convenience will simply. Blow. Your. Mind.The speed is incredible. And listen to that … total silence. See? Total silence! The studio audience exploded.
There was an argument between several of the women playing cards, and Lorraine asked them to speak more softly. A burly one with matted hair and bloodshot eyes struggled to her feet and loudly explained that she’d jam a pipe up Lorraine’s ass if she didn’t shut the fuck up that instant. Lorraine shut the fuck up. She retreated back to her blanket by the radiator and lay there, watching the last bloodless remains of daylight struggle through the milky-filmed window of the jail cell, angry at Marv for the shabby circumstances she found herself in. The Lakeridge Southern White and gin & tonics and gold spray paint had worn off completely. Her head throbbed. She pulled the sheet over her face and considered how wide-open her eyes were, how cavernous her expression likely looked. She felt the crazy electricity that comes with days upon days of vigilance, of keeping your eyes wide as saucers, anticipating every single molecular vibration and total catastrophe, the world coiled at the ready like a pit viper.
Putri. She took Mauli to the beach at night. They drove there in the car that would be repossessed. The car payments his wife would find out about if she hadn’t already. They went to see the place Marv died. They sat in the sand and cried. They had come a long way to be with Marv. She’d done some things for Marv, physical things that didn’t make sense to her. But over time something had begun to tug at every corner and curve of her, a little at first, then more. A fondness and a warmth and something else. But the plan was now dashed, as they say. Mauli’s head fell and his shoulders shook, silhouetted by bright moonlight.
When they returned home, she sat outside on the front stoop after the boy went in to sulk or sleep in his room. She heard someone call out for their cat across the lake behind the condo. She saw a tiny lizard scamper up a drain pipe next to the garage. It stopped here and there to cock its head at something only it could see. It went up, it went down. It had nothing in mind or everything at once. Maybe it just liked the feeling of its tiny claws scraping the painted metal of the drain. Maybe its son or daughter spent too much time cradling a stranger’s skull. Maybe it had just gone too long without sleep.
Someone sat down nearby and touched her hip.
I’m Shari. There’s no cause for concern.
Lorraine was extremely concerned.
All you need to do here is let it go, tell someone. See, I have done some unthinkable things.
She poked her head out. Shari was long and tough, buck teeth shining in the stripe of early-morning light the triple-pane window allowed. She had long, dirty hair and little wire-rimmed glasses. Lorraine sat up. So my husband always had this skull, skull of a little girl he thought. And he found it in a rowboat. He was in the National Guard and had missing fingers. I’m not sure, but I think he paid someone, a woman from Bali, to come live next door to us. And he spends…spent a lot of time with him, this woman’s son.
Shari said, Okay?
And then my husband, he died. I think he took his own life. And I don’t know if it was out of guilt or what. But I’m going to figure out how this bloodsucker got ahold of him.
Shari, sitting cross-legged, casting a thin shadow against the yellow-painted cinder block wall, asked, And what exactly are you going to do?
Lorraine had no time to answer that question, as the sergeant came to inform her she was to be released immediately. She looked at the big metal clock above the lunch table. The place that sold reptiles opened in twenty minutes, and it just happened to be only two blocks away.
Putri. She and Mauli sat on the sofa looking away from each other. On the coffee table was the skull Marv gave him. Putri wanted nothing to do with it. But then again it was a gift from Marv, and Marv had paid for a lot of things over the last six months. There was a sound coming from the air duct high on the wall for the last day or so. The vent cover was off. It was a wheezing sound and scratching, then almost a hissing. And the room smelled foul. If Marv were alive she would call him, let it ring five times then hang up. He would use his key, and she would ask him to see what’s wrong, get on a ladder and poke around with a golf club. With Marv dead, they just sat silent until dinner and its necessary arguments began. Then the foul odor and hissing would be the least of her worries, at least she assumed so.
Marc Tweed’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in NOON Annual, New World Writing, The Normal School, Juked, X-RAY, and more. Marc has recently completed a collection of short stories. He lives in North Seattle, USA and also creates paintings, drawings, and music. www.marctweed.com
My daughter tells me her dream while I pack her lunchbox. What a terrifying nightmare! I say and kiss the top of her head. She narrows her eyes. Mom, she says, It was not a nightmare. It was a dream. She smiles, showing off two lost teeth.
I do not correct her. Even though it is polite, when you dream up terrible things, to pretend that they are unwanted. But she is still learning, still puzzling over the sound an ‘o’ makes. When is it a short exhale? When is it a sharp howl? I add a sticky note to her lunch and make myself proud. Motherhood is contained in small gestures. Later, I get the call. My daughter has decided today the ‘o’ makes the howling sound.
When I arrive at her school, the teacher says, Your daughter is crying because she cannot read the sticky note in her lunchbox. She pronounces love like loaves of bread. I bristle. She is very fragile, I say. I collect my daughter from the timeout corner.
As we are leaving, the teacher grabs my arm and says, I’m worried about her dream. I say, It was just a nightmare. No, the teacher says, It was a dream.
I drive to a department store. What are we doing here? asks my daughter. I maneuver the minivan into a parking space. We are shopping for a solution, but I just say, Shopping. Inside, I let her ride in the cart’s basket and she pokes her fingers through the holes. Which do you prefer? I hold up two nightlights. One is pink and pig-shaped. The other is a white rabbit. Bunny, my daughter decides. I agree.
Look what Mom bought me! my daughter shouts, at home, holding the gifted light out to my husband. He takes it, studying the high gloss packaging and the color-coated cardboard, and hands it back. It’s my money, he says, Mom did a very nice job picking it out. My daughter wraps her arms around his legs and says, Thank you! Thank you!
Then she plants herself in the middle of the kitchen and holds Bunny at eye level. They stare at each other, and she lisps words I cannot understand. Sometimes, she falls silent so that Bunny may respond. I want to sit with her and speak her language, as I had imagined we would commune before she was born, but I sense that Bunny holds answers which I do not. This must be how she feels when I spell secrets to my husband. I-c-e-c-r-e-a-m. B-e-d-r-o-o-m.
Eventually, she forgets the novelty and leaves the nightlight on the hardwood floor. When I tuck her in for the night, I pull it from the inside of my bathrobe, like a conjurer performing a trick. Look who’s back! I say. She yawns, waves lazily, and drifts off to sleep. I leave Bunny in the electrical socket. Light radiates from his nose.
I had the dream again! my daughter tells me on our way to school. Everyone was burning! she announces. All my teachers and all my friends! With each word, air escapes from the spaces her teeth left behind, filling our car with morning breath and a low whistle. She continues, My best friend Hannah said she saw the light, so that’s where I put her. Now that she is dead, she is going to live with us. With each detail, my daughter defeats me. Bunny was meant to soak up her nightmares like a sponge, leaving me an untroubled child, the clean surface I was promised.
I swerve to the side of the road and turn around to face her. Do not tell Hannah about your dream, I say. The fire would frighten her. Not everyone is as brave as you. My daughter laughs. Don’t worry Mom, she says, I won’t tell her. But I do not trust my daughter’s judgment. She is a child without pity. Or, she is without pity because she is a child. Either way, I cannot stop myself. I clean the kitchen. I make her bed. I launder her clothes. I worry.
The phone rings. My finger hovers over ‘accept call’, the sound echoing in our high ceilings. I am a brave woman. I answer. I say, Hello, who’s calling please? and I am glad, at first, that I do not hear my daughter howling. Instead, I hear the cries of a dozen children. I’ll be right there, I say, thinking the teacher must be on the other side, although she has not spoken since I picked up.
Blue mats are spread out on the kindergarten floor. The children have tired of screaming and instead rest their surprising weight on the ground. Some snore. My daughter is wide awake, sitting upright in the corner. When she sees me, she averts her eyes, burying them into her knees which pulls close to her chest. She is scared. She has disobeyed.
I go to her, crouch down, stroke her hair, do not ask what happened because I already know. What could scare them more than death? Most of them are so young they have not encountered it. Maybe they have squashed a beetle. Maybe the cat has brought in a mouse.
My daughter clings to me as I carry her out of the classroom, and I allow it, because she is only now learning that there are things our family can stomach that other people can’t. Tragedy is our common trait. I blame my husband. He is an oncologist who specializes in a rare form of cancer. He makes a lot of money off dying people, which makes death seem advantageous, joyous even. Although he would blame me, I’m sure.
In the hallway, we pass a weeping mother speaking softly to the principal. I eavesdrop. I gather the story. A child gone missing in the night. No windows left open. No doors unlocked. You never think it will happen to you, says the mother, dabbing tears with her shirtsleeve. This is how I confirm my fear; Hannah is gone.
I have no words. As we drive home, my daughter is the one who breaks the silence. I didn’t tell Hannah, she says, All you told me was not to tell Hannah, and she wasn’t even there today. This is true. So I forgive her and ask, Where is Hannah? even though I do not want to know. My daughter chews her lip. When we arrive home, we sit in the garage for a long while. Finally, my daughter offers an answer or at least, an action. Upstairs, she says. So we go upstairs.
She disappears to her room without me telling her. In this way, she is a good child. She knows when she needs to be punished. I drift to the backyard. I smoke a cigarette, a habit I kicked before I had kids because it was classless and repulsive, and which I picked up again for the same reasons. Sometime later, she pads her way down the stairs and peeks around the corner. Yes? I say, inviting her over. An object is held behind her back. Here, she says, placing it in my lap. It’s Bunny.
Your daughter did a very bad thing today, I tell my husband at the dinner table. He looks down at her and cocks his head to one side, silently asking our child if I am lying. Well, he says, I’m enjoying my meal. We will talk about this after. But we never do.
In bed, my husband says he’s sorry. He tells me, Sometimes I have to limit the day’s amount of sadness, and I nod, Boundaries are important. He is not a talkative man. His mouth is a straight line. I removed a patient from life support today, he tells me. I fondle his earlobe. You pulled the plug, I muse, That must be a hard decision. He closes his eyes, nudging my hand with his cheek, resting his face in my palm. It was sad, he tells me, But it was easy.
Tonight, I sleep with Bunny on my nightstand, and when I wake in the middle of the night he is the first thing I see. He has circular eyes and an X-shaped mouth, like a stitch sewing shut a wound. There is something strange about his milk-white body, how the usually luminous plastic has dulled. I flip him face down and shut my eyes but cannot shake the image of the metal prongs affixed to the back of his head, like the tines of a fork in soft meat.
I give in. I get up. I kneel down at the wall, feel blindly for the socket, and plug him in. Light floods his face like water fills a footprint. Then, the thread of his mouth comes loose, opening wide. I peer inside. It is like a dark tunnel. It extends so far backward that it collapses into a single point.
And from this blackness emerges a pinprick of light, like an eye floater. I rub my eyes with fists. The bright white circle grows larger. Now, it is the size of a match head. Now it is the size of a cheerio. Now, a wedding band. Now, a bottle cap. Now, a clementine. A coaster. A compact disk. A pancake.
I jerk away for fear I might be absorbed or go sunblind. The light grows and grows. Until it is no longer circular. Until it sprouts appendages. Until it takes the shape of a six-year-old girl. I know before the face forms that it is Hannah.
With a soft thud, she steps out of the mouth and lands on my carpet. I am kneeling and she is standing and so we are around the same height. Her torso is flesh. Her head is flesh. When she reaches out to see if I’m real, I feel her hands, and they too are flesh, mushy, fat, and balmy. I cover my mouth but cannot stifle the scream.
I yank Bunny from his socket. The light goes out. And so does Hannah.
My husband lifts his head, searching for the sound.
Night terrors, I explain, and crawl back into bed.
Morning beats on slowly. I watch my husband stir awake. The wrinkles around his mouth return first, then the ones on his forehead. The bags under his eyes fill up, like Michelin tires, with exhaustion. Of course, I get up first. I make breakfast. He eats and is gone before I rouse our daughter. I move to lunch making. No sticky notes. Just peanut butter and Wonder Bread and fluff.
I am glad when I drop my daughter off at school. We are lucky they let her return at all. I count my blessings. An empty house, erotic fiction. I chain smoke. I hide the remains. I have dug dozens of pits in the backyard that hide orange butts and several with other substances. Those holes are deeper.
Today I do not expect a call. I don one of my husband’s oversized undershirts, with armpits that smell like men’s deodorant. I lounge in bed. I pull the duvet over my head. I read a woman’s magazine. Bunny still sits where I left him, underneath the outlet. I ignore him successfully for half an hour. Then, I cannot resist. I get up. I go over. I plug him in. Legs crossed, as if I am meditating, I wait for Hannah.
This time, when she asks where she is, I have an answer. My house, I say. She looks around. It’s big. Where I live now is not so big. She begins to cry, tears tinged like ash, which she catches by pressing her hands to her cheeks and crushing the murky droplets like beetles.
I lean in, envelop her in a hug I have perfected as a mother. The cotton of my shoulder absorbs her sobs as I rub her back, remembering this same methodical motion drew her out of the nightlight and landed her here in my bedroom. She sniffs and says, You smell like my dad. Would you like something to eat? I ask. She smiles and her face glows orange, like a finger held against the warm, vibrating surface of a flashlight.
Do you know how I got here? she asks, sitting at the kitchen island. I set a glass of chocolate milk in front of her. It clinks on the granite countertop. Drink up, I say. She vanishes the liquid and then inhales, suctioning the empty cup to her face. Stop that, I say, grabbing it by its plastic bottom and pulling it off with a pop. You’ll leave a ring around your mouth. She shrugs. Does it matter?
I have no answers for Hannah but am working on several for myself. My daughter was scared. It was unintentional. Already, I am making excuses for her. I remind myself this make-believe danger has tangible consequences.
The microwave flashes half past one. Hop in the car, I tell Hannah, We’re late to pick up my daughter. But we do not make it to the minivan. Hannah is stopped by the threshold. She goes through the motions of walking but only manages to kick her legs out faster, as if riding a treadmill while the belt picks up speed.
I weigh my options. I tsk, tsk, tsk, in contemplation. Upstairs, Bunny still sits in his socket. I hate to do this, I tell him, But I cannot take any more disasters. I wish my husband was here because I do not limit my sadness and it is not easy when I pull the plug. Bunny dulls. Circular eyes stare blankly ahead. Is she inside you? I ask, already certain that she is. My daughter has always been gifted. Before I pocket him and Hannah, I hold his four-inch face up to mine. Tell her I’m sorry.
The longer my daughter stays at school the greater the chance of calamity. I am a good driver. I take stretches of road at seventy miles per hour. I put on the radio to revel in tragedies that eclipse mine. An oil spill in Lake Erie. A series of three celebrity suicides. A civil war in a country the US does not recognize as legitimate. All these to distract from signs tacked up to every telephone pole. Have you seen our Hannah?
I drive home slowly, pointing each one out to my daughter. Count them, I tell her, Count how much they miss their child. Don’t you see the consequences of your actions? My daughter counts. One, two, five, twenty. She has a good grasp of numbers. Maybe she will be a mathematician. On thirty-three her lip begins to tremble and I ready myself for a flood, securing hazardous items, seeking higher ground. How, she sobs, How, How, How, How many would you put up for me? I do not have a definitive answer. I do not know the ratio of signage to loss.
At home, I plug Bunny in, rub his nose, and will Hannah into existence again. My daughter squeezes her in a hug. When she is finished with sentimentality, she announces she is hungry. I make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut diagonally, and serve them on plastic dishware.
Now can we talk about it? I ask my husband before bed. He massages his bagged eyes with his ring fingers and says, I bet this is the rarest condition in the world. He searches his nightstand. Leaves the sex dice but takes the stethoscope. The girls are playing dress-up. I gave Hannah all my long skirts, even the sarong I bought for the Bahamas. Leave them be, I tell him, Her heart can wait. He’s already inserted the eartips, he must listen to something. I unbutton my blouse, reveal my clavicle, my breast bone, my bra, so he can press the cold metal bell to my skin and diagnose my heart murmur for the millionth time. What is it saying? I ask. He retracts, winds the tubing in wide circles and returns the instrument to the drawer. He says, It’s saying no.
Out of fear that the missing person posters might have multiplied overnight, I keep my daughter home from school. To entertain your guest, I explain, doling out playdough and washable paints. On slabs of blank paper, Hannah and my daughter finger paint pictures. Hannah draws a yellow crescent. My daughter, a yellow disc. That does not look like the sun, my daughter critiques. I know, says Hannah, This is the moon. My daughter dips her index finger into yellow and turns the half-circle full. There, she says, I fixed it.
Hannah begins to cry.
I shut myself in the living room to watch subtitled television, as if I can keep Hannah’s disappearance from even herself.
The newscaster announces a vigil. Tapered candles to be provided. Hannah’s parents stand on screen. Her mother fidgets with her wedding band, working it on and off her pale finger. At one point, she drops it, its hollow toll echoing on camera. When her husband bends down, his hand feeling blindly for precious metal, she snaps, Leave it, and the broadcast cuts. I touch my own rings. Not the ones we exchanged vows with. My husband bought these later, after graduating med school, and I feel a pang for the original.
The door rattles, and I investigate. My daughter’s eye sits in the keyhole. What are you doing? I demand, A shut door means a private room. I breathe deep. Remember she does not know love from loaves. How could she comprehend their grief as it scrolled across the screen? As if to prove me wrong, my daughter wonders, Does this mean Hannah has to leave? My heart swells. A tender bruise. She is brighter than I thought. These things take time, I tell her, which makes her happy. She darts off, and I no longer want for my wedding ring. Just a cigarette.
On the stoop, I revise my theory: besides the rush of nicotine, what I like about smoking is its meditative quality. Forced deep breathing. Thinking in repetitive pairs, In and Out, In and Out. Letting myself gather and assess. It is like in sleep when we solidify all that is significant and discard the junk. My daughter slept so deeply her dreams calcified, a bone among soft tissue. I grind the butt into the ground.
Tonight is moonless. I drive to the community park. Tomato plants climb chicken-wire and koi swim counterclockwise in their ponds. Those mourning Hannah amass in front of the gazebo, holding candles which they flame by passing a lighter like at a concert. Some of the mothers carry meager gifts: lasagnas, casseroles, hams. I hold my candle with both hands.
On stage, a portrait of Hannah sags under the weight of floral wreaths. Her parents shuffle towards it, wearing slippers instead of shoes. The crowd murmurs. I bow my head and channel my husband, how he soaks up sadness without spectacle. It is his practice, listening without feeling too deeply.
Please come forward if you have any information, finishes her father.
We queue to present our condolences. The mother in front of me brought a lasagna. The mother in front of her, a casserole. My candle still burns in my hands. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, says Hannah’s father, relieving the woman at the front of the line of her ham. It is the least I could do, she tells him, honestly. The way Hannah’s father shoulders the ham, it appears he is holding a baby in a football hold. He looks so lonely.
I know why my daughter brought Hannah into our world. It is the same reason I brought her into this one. I was lonely. I had a secret I needed to share. I head home, to my child. The light of my life. The porchlight is left on, as I requested.
It’s well past my daughter’s bedtime. I sneak upstairs and peer through the crack in her door, casting a pillar of light onto her shag carpeting. There is my daughter, and there is Hannah, asleep like spoons, a shape my husband and I will form later that night. I know we are all holding onto something, but my daughter is simply too young to hold so fast.
That is for the adults to do. My husband has left a note on my pillow. He has an early shift at the hospital but wants me to know all is forgiven. He does not believe in anger for it has no healing properties. I stare at Bunny’s luminous face. When I exhaust sleeping positions, I pace. It must be done, I decide. The second time is easier than the first. I do not apologize, just pull. Bunny separates easily from the wall, his metal prongs warm to the touch.
Breakfast is hard-boiled eggs, prepackaged. I cannot bear boiling water or hot surfaces. On TV, new disasters are announced every minute, and I do not keep them to myself. How can a fairy sink if they have wings? asks my daughter. A ferry is a kind of boat, I explain. Where’s Hannah? she asks, and I place Bunny on her plate like a leftover yoke. I say, It’s time for Hannah to go home.
I make my daughter carry Bunny with two hands while I ring the doorbell. Careful, I say and she pets his furless face with her thumb. Before the door unlatches, we hear the rustle of slippers, the clink of fork to plate. Hannah’s father answers with a mouthful of ham and eggs. His wife appears behind him, resting her chin on his shoulder to peer out at us. Her wedding ring has returned. She fiddles soundlessly, on and off, on and off. Have you found our Hannah? she asks, the words dry in her mouth, as if she has been reciting this question in her sleep. My daughter holds Bunny out towards them, as an offering. Yes, she says, Here she is.
Lizzy Lemieux recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English. Her work can be found in the Best New Poets of 2018, The Massachusettes Review, and Penn Review.
Matt felt the morning dew jump against his legs as his feet flattened the seagrass in his way. He had his fishing pole slung over his shoulder like a bindle and his tackle box swinging at his side. The sun had crested over the ocean, already strong and getting stronger as the light shifted from orange to white.
On a good day, no one bothered him on this beach. He could expect to see one or two old retirees fishing too, but they usually kept their distance and never said anything to him besides the obligatory “How’re the fish today?” to which he’d respond with either “Not a nibble” or “Got a few keepers.” Beyond that, they all had a tacit agreement to keep the peace by keeping to themselves.
Matt baited his line with some baby squids he’d picked up on his drive to the shore. He had a good feeling about today. High tide was just about to peak, so the fish would be caught up in the swell and dragged in towards the coast. That was the theory, anyway. Matt believed in it when it was working and blamed his luck when it wasn’t. He cast his line out about a hundred feet from the water’s edge to test it.
He wasn’t alone. Overhead, he saw a hawk circling, stirring the wind. Matt supposed the hawk saw something moving in the grass. Both of us are looking for something to eat out here, he thought. Further down the shore, a man, also fishing, kept stealing glances in Matt’s direction. Beneath the man’s baseball cap and behind his sunglasses, Matt felt smugness radiating off him. He didn’t appreciate any of the judgments this man must have been making about him, that that’s not how you should stand or cast your pole, that a teenager like Matt was too young to know how to surf fish anyway. Matt averted his eyes from the man and spat into the water lapping at his ankles, in and out. He tried to sync his breathing to the pull of the waves.
Still, he could feel that man getting deeper under his skin every time he looked over. He rested his fishing pole against his hip to free a hand for him to pull out his phone. He texted his girlfriend Good morning 🙂 and snapped her a picture of the sunlight glaring on the waves. He knew it would be a few hours before she woke up and saw the messages, but he wanted to make sure that she knew that he was thinking about her. He flipped through a few notifications and picked his phone again, returning to earth. He was back where he started—nothing on the line, Peeping Tom, and the hawk. But he didn’t mind the hawk so much; his stalking wasn’t anything personal.
He reeled in, hooked some new bait, and cast again. After he did, he noticed that the man did the same. Copycat. Soon, Matt saw his fishing pole bend over like a tree in the wind. He twisted his feet deeper into the sand to stabilize himself as he gave the pole a sharp tug to sink the hook into the fish’s cheek. He cranked on the reel to bring it in, each turn only bringing him a few inches closer. Eventually, he saw the waves frenzy as the struggling fish surfaced.
Matt held it up by the line and studied it. He’d caught a fluke, and a nicely sized one at that. Fifteen, maybe twenty pounds. Looking to his right, he made sure that the man saw him, that he caught the first fish, and he gave him a smirk. Serves you right, Matt thought. He didn’t need to fish anymore for the love of the sport. He had his lunch and that was enough, so he stuck his thumb in the fish’s mouth and carried it back to his car.
There, he dropped it on one of the wooden podiums where fishermen cleaned their catch. Now the necessary part. He took out a hammer and with one deft swing he hit the fluke in the head to kill it. He accidentally hit its eye, which popped and leaked a creamy white juice. Some of it landed on his shirt’s shoulder, but he just flicked it off and moved on. He took out a knife and started cleaning, first cutting off the head and then spilling the guts. He tossed the remains into the seagrass, hoping maybe the hawk would find it before the seagulls got to it.
Matt threw his catch in a cooler he’d brought with him. A new car pulled up with a new retiree fisherman. “Fishing’s good today, I take it?” he said with a smile.
By this point, Matt had lost his daily patience for nosy old men. “Good enough,” he said.
Scarlett rolled over, for good this time. She had already partially woken up a few times but none of them had stuck. She was in the middle of a dream where she was rock climbing, where one day she’d grabbed a hold of a rock wall and was able to pull herself up as if she were weightless. She liked the feeling enough to want to stay in for as long as she could. Now, she reached her hand out into the half-light and searched her bedside table for her phone. 12:10 PM. It always gave her a great sense of satisfaction to get more than nine hours of sleep.
At the bottom of her notifications was a good morning text from Matt. She replied good afternoon 😉 and sifted through all the other messages she’d gotten.
She went to the kitchen to pull out some leftovers to eat for breakfast. Or was it lunch? It didn’t matter to her; she wasn’t very pedantic. She put two slices of pizza in the microwave for thirty seconds (she didn’t like her food hot, just warm) and started aimlessly scrolling through her Instagram feed. The sliding glass door to the backyard whined open and Irv walked in.
“Look who’s finally awake,” he said. A necklace of sweat was saturated into his shirt. “Sleeping Beauty.”
“Like I’ve said, I don’t have anything to wake up for these days,” she told him.
“You’re missing half the day! Don’t you want to get out there and do something?”
She hated that moralistic sense of superiority felt among people who wake up before seven. It was things like this that made Scarlett tolerate Irv’s presence rather than enjoy it. “I’ve worked and worked and worked. Now, I’m resting.” The microwave beeped and she took out her pizza.
“It’s not about work,” Irv said, pivoting, “it’s about getting out there and seeing some of the world.”
“I see plenty.” She was a little muffled by the food in her mouth.
“Just try to wake up before noon. It’s the least you could do.”
“Don’t tell me what’s the least I could do. I promise you I could do less.”
Irv pointed his finger at her. “Don’t talk to me like that in my own house. I’m only trying to help you.”
Scarlett had meant it as a joke, but if he wanted to argue, so would she. “You don’t boss me around if I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s not your life, so leave me alone.”
“Now’s the time in your life when you should be forming good habits instead of bad ones. Once you’re in college, you won’t have us there to help guide you.”
“Oh, how horrible my life’s going to be without you breathing down my neck every day. I wonder how I’ll survive.”
“I’m sure your mother agrees with me on this.”
“I don’t care. I can disagree with her too.”
As if she’d summoned her, Scarlett heard her mother walk in through the garage door carrying groceries. “Hello, hello!” she chirped.
“Maureen, we were just talking about you,” Irv said.
“What about me?” she said, unpacking items one by one onto the kitchen counter.
“I was saying that you’d agree that Scarlett should be up and dressed before noon. Wouldn’t you?” Irv said.
“And I said that it’s no big deal,” said Scarlett.
“Well, neither of you are wrong,” Maureen said. Irv looked at her, lowering his gaze and raising his eyebrows. “But Scar, it wouldn’t hurt you to get up a little earlier.
“Please don’t raise your voice at me,” Maureen said.
“The both of you are overreacting,” said Scarlett.
“Don’t talk to me like that in my own home.”
“I didn’t choose to live here, Irv. Give it a month and I’ll be out of your hair anyway.”
Scarlett grabbed her plate and retreated back into her room. She scrolled through her phone between bites of pizza. She got another text from Matt, a picture of the fish he’d caught fried up with some rice.
looking good, chef, she replied.
Still good for later?
of course 🙂
A soft knock on the door told her that her mother was there. “Can I come in?”
Maureen shuffled in and sat at the foot of Scarlett’s bed. “I think you owe Irv an apology for what you said to him.”
“What did I say to him, exactly? He’s a big boy. I’m sure I didn’t hurt his feelings that badly.”
Maureen cleared her throat. “That’s not the point. The point is—”
“What is the point, Mom? Illuminate me.”
“That’s it. I don’t want any more lip out of you. And you can cancel any plans you might have.”
“That’s not happening,” Scarlett said with a laugh.
“It is if I say it is.”
“Are you going to let me go to college?”
“Excuse me?” said Maureen.
“Answer me. Next month, are you going to let me go to college?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Because when I’m in Boston you won’t have any control over me anymore. So either make your peace with that now or help me look for secretary jobs.”
Maureen huffed and scowled, chewing on some thoughts before leaving without saying a word of them.
mom and irv are really up my ass today, she texted Matt.
That’s shocking, he sent back. Tell me about it later.
After their dinner, Matt and Scarlett walked along the beach. The sun had recently set, and the last swathes of orange and pink were evaporating over the western horizon. The dividing line between the sea and the sky was blurred into a deep blue-black, but there were still plenty of lights twinkling along the shore and, up north, from New York City in the distance. No moon.
As usual, they weren’t holding hands. Their friends thought it was a quirk of their relationship that was an indication of some latent problems. In truth, neither of them really liked it. Holding hands got too warm and clammy, and they both felt like it attracted undue attention since nobody likes PDA. To them, the fact that they both hated this mawkish little thing was proof that it was all working.
“You see that?” Matt said, pointing out into the ocean.
“That light flickering out there.” He waited for Scarlett to focus on the ocean. Then he grabbed her by the shoulders and, lovingly, tilted her in towards the water, threatening to push her in.
“No!” Scarlett yelped. “Stop it, stop it, stop it!” Matt pulled her back in and Scarlett gave him a gentle slap on the arm and smiled at him. “Bad boyfriend.”
“What, afraid of getting a little wet?” he said.
“You know I’m jumpy.”
He knew. The pair kept walking until they didn’t feel like it anymore. The wind picked up, wiping away the last scraps of warmth for the day. They made their way to an overturned lifeguard stand and used it as something to lean against. Scarlett rested her head on Matt’s shoulder, and he rested his head against hers.
“I should really try night fishing out here sometime,” he said. “That’s how you catch striped bass.”
“I don’t know how you do that,” she said.
“Like not the fishing itself. I don’t get how you can just kill them and eat them like that and not feel bad about it.”
“They’re fish. They don’t have rights.”
“I know. But to kill them with your bare hands like that. It’s brutal.”
“That’s how I get my kicks: brutalizing fish,” he said.
“Stop, you know what I mean. And you love fish, too, which is the part I really don’t get.”
“I don’t think it’s that strange.”
“Tell me about all your pet fish again,” she said, nudging him.
“I’ve told you that story a million times.”
“And it’s still funny. Tell me again.”
He told her about his three fish, all named Rex, which had all killed themselves in quick succession. The first two leapt out of their fishbowls in the middle of the night, leaving Matt to find them flat and crunchy on his floor the next morning. The last Rex, somehow, buried its head in the neon pebbles at the bottom and drowned itself. “I never understood why my dad kept giving me another fish.”
“And now you’re the expert in killing them.”
“See? Now you’re catching on.” Matt turned his head to smell her hair, clean with a whiff of salt. She felt his hot breath spilling out of his nose. “You know, it’s never too late for you to go to Rutgers instead. If you change your mind.”
“I think it actually is too late.”
“What are you gonna do in Boston anyway? Throw yourself a little tea party?”
“My dad went to B.U. I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“And that accent, Jesus. It’s unbearable.”
“Pahk ya cah, ya chowdahhead.”
“Matt? Look at me. I know this isn’t exactly how we pictured things, but this is what’s happening. Hey.” She put her hand on his cheek, and he recoiled from the cold. “I’m sorry. You know I wish we had more time too.”
Matt sat there, breathing. He almost felt like he was being lied to, so he tried listening to the ocean instead, still saying the same thing it had been that morning. “You don’t really think that.”
“Of course I do,” she said. To Matt, it sounded like a beg. He grabbed her hand and squeezed it because that was the reassuring thing to do, and he didn’t have any words for that at the moment.
They sat like that for a while, seconds or minutes, it was hard to tell. Scarlett lifted her head and turned to face him. Her eyes were too dark for him to find any emotion in them. He leaned in and started kissing her, sweetly at first and then with purpose. He was trying to sap as much out of this moment as he could. Scarlett pulled back to catch her breath and look at him. There was something shiny in his eyes that felt off to her. He looked frustrated.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
“I know when you’re lying. Just tell me.”
He sighed and looked away, then turned back and kissed her on the head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do out here in Jersey without you.”
“You’ll be perfectly alright. You’ve survived this place without me before.”
“But it’s different now,” he said. Scarlett focused on the measured in and out of his breathing. Once she felt the rhythm change, she knew he was about to speak again. “I really think you should consider staying here.”
“I told you that’s not happening.”
“Rutgers would be so much cheaper, and it’s still a great school. You see how much of a problem student loans are. I don’t want you to have problems with that down the road.”
“That’ll be my problem. Not yours.”
“Your problems are my problems.” He kissed her head again. “I just care about you.”
“I think right now you only care about yourself,” said Scarlett, and she already regretted it. She was usually a bit more careful with her words.
“What was that?”
“Do you really think I’m that selfish?”
“I didn’t mean it. I’m upset too, so I wasn’t thinking. I know you’re not selfish.”
“Good.” He started running his fingers through her hair. “It’s okay, I’m not mad. You’re lucky you’re cute,” he said. His father used to say that to him, but he’d only recently realized he could use it on Scarlett.
“Who knows,” she said after a minute or two. “Maybe I won’t like it in Boston. Maybe I’ll go there for a year and hate it and want to come back.” With her head against his cheek, Scarlett could feel Matt’s face tense up into a smile.
“That would be nice,” he whispered.
They sat there with the sound of the waves. It was fully dark now, and the wind had wiped away the last shreds of warmth from the day, bringing in cool, salty air.
“We should get going soon,” Scarlett said. “I won’t want to be out too late.”
“If you insist,” Matt said groggily. They got up and shook the sand off themselves.
“I can drive if you want. You got up so early; you must be exhausted.”
“If you want. Do you know the way back?”
“I think so. But you can be my GPS if need be.”
“I’ll just drive,” he said. “I could spin you around and you’d get lost. And I feel fine.”
“Alright,” she said. On the drive back to her house, she counted the turns in her head. She knew them all.
A good morning text from Matt was waiting for Scarlett again. She swiped it to the side so she could deal with it later. She had gotten up early, around ten, and he wouldn’t be expecting her reply for another hour at least.
In the kitchen, Scarlett scanned the fridge for food. There was nothing immediately appealing for her to simply heat up. There were eggs and pork rolls and other things she could make, but she decided that she wasn’t hungry enough for the effort to be worth it.
She went back to lay on her bed, already bored with the day. It was Monday, so both her mom and Irv were out at work. Not even anyone around to bother her.
Flipping through her apps, she realized she hadn’t spoken to her father in three days. She sent him a text, and her phone started ringing soon after.
“Hi, Daddy. Aren’t you working?”
“I can’t take a break to talk to my favorite daughter? I’ve been meaning to call you anyway. I booked a house in Lavalette this weekend. It’s right on the beach; it’s beautiful. What are your plans for this weekend? I know I should’ve asked you first.”
Scarlett thought about Matt. She couldn’t remember having any specific plans. “No, that’s fine. That sounds great.”
“Wonderful. I can’t wait to see you. I actually do have to run, but talk to you soon. Love you, sweetheart.”
“Love you too.”
Scarlett went back to her messages. She finally texted back Matt. good morning! i just talked to my dad. he’s coming down for the weekend
That’s nice, Matt responded almost immediately. When? We usually get dinner on Sundays.
we can move that around. it’s not like we have anything else going on lol
On the other end, Matt scrutinized every letter of her texts. He didn’t want to sound too pushy about their Sunday dinners, even though it did bother him. Should it bother him? He paused on that thought. What were they as a couple without their routines and habits?
Sure, he sent back. That should be fine.
Matt pocketed his phone and started pacing in his room. Before too much time had passed, he picked up his phone and added, It would’ve been nice if you said something first though. He liked that. It was the shortest summary of what he was thinking. He put down his phone again and it buzzed.
this is me saying something, Scarlett wrote.
He swiped the notification aside. He could deal with it later.
He got up to make himself some lunch. His father worked mornings, so he had just gotten home. Matt took out some sandwich materials.
“You alright, Matty?” his father asked. There must have been something about the way he was slathering mayonnaise on his bread.
“No reason. You just seem a little aggravated.”
“That’s odd,” Matt said. “I feel fine.”
“If you say so.” His father took a beer from the fridge and plopped onto the couch. “You gotta learn how to relax like your old man. You’re so stiff.”
“Maybe,” he said on his way back to his room. He tore through his sandwich without tasting it.
Lou pulled up to his ex-wife’s house to pick up his daughter. He kept his eyes on the garage door since he knew Scarlett would come out of there instead of the front door. He saw the door list, and Scarlett walked out. He craned his neck to see if he could catch a glimpse of Maureen. Not to be nosy, just curious. But he didn’t see her.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said as Scarlett dropped a bag in the back seat before climbing into the front.
“Hi, Daddy,” she smiled at him. She wished he weren’t wearing his sunglasses so she could actually see him.
“This summer’s going too fast. I can’t believe you’re off to Boston next month.”
“I know,” she said flatly.
“Where have all the years gone?”
Scarlett had been asked this question so many times recently that she’d made the blanket decision to not answer it. Lou drove the familiar route to Lavalette. The way he always drove with one hand made Scarlett nervous, even though it had never been a problem in the past. They pulled up to a little bungalow with a white pebble lawn. It was decorated appropriately with shells and anchors and kitschy signs about how life is perfect down the shore. They put down their bags and went to the back patio to sit in the Adirondack chairs and plan the weekend.
Lou went on: “So we have this next two days, but I gotta see you a few more times before we send you off.”
“Whatever you have time for. I’ll be back soon for fall break. And Thanksgiving’s early this year,” she said. She had been studying the B.U. academic calendar a few days before.
“Sure, but you’ll probably want to spend that time with your friends.”
“I can always save some time for you, Dad.”
“Well aren’t you sweet,” he said, mockingly and lovingly. “Speaking of, how’s Matt doing? I haven’t heard anything about him in ages.”
“Oh, he’s fine,” said Scarlett. The last time she’d seen him was also the last time she’d seen the ocean. Here, twinkling under the sun, the water didn’t seem like it could be the same. “He’s upset that I’m leaving.”
“Are you gonna try to keep it going into college? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I think so,” she said. She and Matt had avoided that particular conversation for so long that they both assumed the answer was yes.
“You have to do what makes you happy, Scar. So if that’s what makes you happy, then go for it. And there are so many ways to keep in touch with people these days.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she said. He turned to her and flashed a winning smile. She didn’t want to talk about it any further than that.
They spent the afternoon idling around their little beach house. Lou had brought some drop lines, which he baited up with chicken and threw over the dock on the edge of the property. It was too late in the day for them to catch much of anything. A few crabs here and there, but nothing worth keeping, so they threw them back.
“I’m hungry,” Lou said after a while. “And there are easier ways to get crabcakes.”
They went to a restaurant on the water where everything was cheap and greasy and served with fries. Lou watched Scarlett eat her scallops carefully, as if she didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Scarlett watched her dad eat in big mouthfuls and finish his crabcakes in a few minutes.
“Take your time, Scar,” Lou said. “I’m in no rush.”
Scarlett covered her mouth so she could speak between chews. “Thanks.”
“You remember Dr. Fiore? Your old dentist?”
“I read in an article that he’s got assault allegations against him from one of the technicians. His whole practice is already shut down and everything.”
“Oh my god, that’s horrible,” said Scarlett.
“I know. He was a good dentist.”
“I meant for the technician.”
“Oh yeah, her too,” Lou stammered. “That is horrible. It’s just crazy how someone can make a few claims and like that,” he snapped his fingers, “your whole career is over.”
“It’s not like he didn’t deserve it.”
“Sure, but you never know if someone just has an axe to grind and’s saying that you’re a creep just because they know it’ll ruin your name.”
“I think that’s pretty rare,” Scarlett said, trying to sound flat so she’d be taken more seriously.
“What if someone said something like that about me? What, would you jump on their side right away?”
“I don’t know, Dad.” Scarlett gritted her teeth. “What if I told you Matt did something to me. Would you say there was room for doubt?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Matt’s a good kid. I know he wouldn’t do anything, like you should know that I wouldn’t do anything.”
“You don’t know Matt that well. I don’t think he’d do anything either, but you can’t be that sure.”
“You’re right, you’re right. You know I would believe you, sweetheart. But I hope that you’d believe me too.”
“Well let’s hope that it never comes to that,” she said as she drank some water to cleanse her mouth. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Me neither.” Lou reached over to grab a small fry from Scarlett’s plate. “Do you know what classes you’re taking for your first semester?”
Scarlett sat up straighter. “I do, but they’re all introduction and requirement classes, like writing and calc I and stuff. The only one I’m really looking forward to is intro to anthropology.”
“I thought you were doing archaeology.”
“No, it’s always been anthropology. We’ve talked about this before.”
“So is anthropology the Indiana Jones one or the Jurassic Park one?”
“It’s neither, really,” said Scarlett. She had answered this question for him once or twice before, so she wanted to answer it this time in a way he’d remember. “It’s like… You know how scientists go into the jungle to study frogs or birds or something? Anthropology is doing that for people. So I want to study how humans work as a species, if that makes sense.”
“Sure it does,” Lou said. “You want to be like an alien studying people from outer space.”
Scarlett half-smiled. “Something like that.”
“You should still take some business classes, though. Just to make me happy. It’s always good to have some business smarts about you, and I really think you’d like it.” Lou watched his daughter shovel in her last few bites. The sun was set, and the ocean was unusually rough. Wave after wave fell over the sand with a violent hush. The ocean knew it was going to rain before either of them realized. “We should get going soon.”
Lou looked at their waitress and snapped his fingers in the air to get her attention. Scarlett looked down at her phone, embarrassed to be around someone beckoning a person like they would a dog. She quickly texted Matt: this is gonna be a long weekend
How so? he replied quickly.
i’ll explain later. it’s like he doesn’t know me. Scarlett paused on that last thought before sending, considering if it was fair for her to say that he didn’t know her or if she was expecting too much. She sent it anyway.
Matt was lying on his bed when he read her texts. He wanted to go fishing in the morning, so he was already half asleep, but now he felt a bit more awake. He got an odd satisfaction from knowing that Scarlett wasn’t wholly enjoying her time with her father, especially since it was impinging on their time together. This is perfect, he thought. He realized that all he had to do was be Scarlett’s better option. If she came to him whenever she didn’t feel great, he’d always have her crawling back.
Tell me about it over dinner, he sent her. I want to hear all about it.
He rolled over and slept well.
Lou and Scarlett had been holed up in the beach house for the entire weekend waiting for the rain to pass, and by the time it did the weekend was over. Irv was outside pulling weeds when Lou came to drop her off. Scarlett hated every second that the both of them were in each other’s presence. Maureen was the only thing that the two of them had in common and knew about each other, so they always acted like they were in a silent competition with each other, sizing each other up with their eyes, even though there was nothing to win.
Lou got out of his car to hug Scarlett goodbye. He waved to be nice. “How’s tricks, Irv?”
“Same old, same old. And yourself?”
“Great. Just great.” Lou turned to Scarlett and pinched her chin with his thumb. “See you soon, sweetheart.”
Scarlett lugged her bag towards the house as Lou sped off.
“So how was your weekend?” Irv asked.
“Fine,” Scarlett said.
“I said it was good,” she huffed as she passed through the storm door in the garage. Irv tossed his weeds into the garbage can and then set up a sprinkler to water the grass. He went back inside and found Scarlett lying on the couch with her phone suspended over her face.
“Your mother’s not around tonight,” he said. “I was wondering if you wanted to get dinner later. Wherever you want.”
“I can’t. I’m seeing Matt later.” She didn’t look up.
“That’s still a thing?”
Scarlett let her phone fall on her chest with a thud. “Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?”
“I know you don’t like me, Scarlett,” he said. “And I don’t know if you’ll ever like me, so at the very least let me speak my mind and be honest with you.”
She rolled her eyes.
“You should think about calling it off with that boy. Going to college with baggage like that is only going to hold you back.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m eighteen. I can make my own decisions.”
“You can, but you can still make the wrong ones. I could be wrong too.”
“Thanks, Irv, but I don’t need you meddling in my business.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Have fun later.”
“I can’t believe he didn’t remember.”
“You’ve always wanted to study anthropology.”
“I know. He can never keep track of those things.”
“Well I remembered,” Matt said. He tightened his arms around Scarlett. It had been a week since they were in that same place, on the same beach, leaning against the same lifeguard stand. The water was so gentle that it was almost silent. It was this calm after the storm that Scarlett preferred.
Matt was in good spirits. His fishing in the morning had gone well, and all-day he had the night to look forward to. Now, he could relish in the moment. It all seemed to be falling into place.
“I really like the idea of you coming back after a year in Boston. That’ll be a nice change of pace for you. And a year we can manage,” Matt said.
Scarlett didn’t respond immediately. She was trying to remember if and when she’d agreed to something like that. “Yeah, a year can go by quickly.”
“So you’ll get some time in a new city, and I’ll be here patiently waiting for you.” He tightened his arms again, but Scarlett didn’t feel comforted, she felt fastened down. She squirmed away from him.
“Sorry, it was getting too hot,” she said.
He tried to decode the expression on her face. “Something’s wrong. Tell me.”
“I can tell when you’re lying. Tell me.”
Scarlett turned to face him. “I don’t want to make a promise that I’ll only be in Boston for a year, even though I do want to be with you. I just don’t know how things’ll go.”
“I think this can work. But you have to want this to work. You do want that, don’t you?” Matt said. Scarlett could see the muscles in his neck tense up as he swallowed. She waited a moment too long. “Don’t you?”
“Right now, I think so. But I can’t promise what I’ll think a month or a year from now.”
“That’s not the plan.”
“Maybe it’s not your plan.”
“It’s our plan. We work as a team.” Matt wrapped his fingers around her arm, just above the wrist, and squeezed.
“Let go,” Scarlett said. He didn’t. She slapped the back of his hand. “Don’t grab me like that.” She started shifting her weight to stand up.
“Where are you going? We haven’t figured out anything.”
“I’m done for tonight. I want to go home,” said Scarlett.
“Okay, we can talk on the car ride back.”
“I can take an Uber. I’m out of your way, anyway. And you’ve had a long day.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Scar. We’re not done here.”
“For tonight we are at least.” She got up and swatted off some sand. Matt got up to follow her. She pulled out her phone to call an Uber. “I don’t want to eat the cancellation fee. Go home, it’s okay. I’ll see you soon.” She put her hand against his cheek to make him feel fine enough for the moment.
He walked off, routinely checking over his shoulder to steal looks at her. Scarlett sat down on a bench and waited for her ride. The wind picked up until it was louder than the waves on the shore behind her. She held her skirt down with one hand and hugged herself with the other, occasionally removing it to comb down her hair with her fingers. It got cold enough that she was shivering, but she didn’t mind because the breeze felt crisp and clean.
Dylan Cook is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied creative writing and biology. He’s often reading and writing, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a genetics lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
PHOTOTAXISby Olivia Tapiero translated by Kit SchluterNightboat Books, 128 pagesreviewed by Dylan Cook There’s something refreshingly laid-back about Olivia Tapiero’s take on apocalyptic fiction. Most novels in the genre come off a bit preachy, warning us page after page that X, Y, and Z will be ... Read the full text
PLENTY OF FISH by Dylan Cook Matt felt the morning dew jump against his legs as his feet flattened the seagrass in his way. He had his fishing pole slung over his shoulder like a bindle and his tackle box swinging at his side. The sun had crested over the ... Read the full text
THE GREENER MY GRASS by Dylan Cook Maureen could clearly remember the day in December the two young professors moved in across the street and how much more she respected them back then. It was a shame that Mrs. Graham had passed, really, but Maureen liked the idea of two ... Read the full text
THE SPORT OF THE GODSby Paul Laurence DunbarSignet Classics, 176 pagesreviewed by Dylan Cook For the best experience, I recommend reading The Sport of the Gods outside on a cloudy day, rain threatening. As you fall in step with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s rhythmic prose, it’ll be easy ... Read the full text
CLOTEL, or, The President's Daughterby William Wells BrownPenguin Classics, 320 pagesreviewed by Dylan CookPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver In 1998, scientists performed a DNA test to answer one of the longest-running rumors in American history. Historians could no longer deny the truth: Yes, Thomas Jefferson ... Read the full text
MINOR DETAIL by Adania Shibli translated by Elisabeth Jaquette New Directions Books, 144 pages reviewed by Dylan CookBuy this book on Bookshop.OrgTables need at least three legs to stand; guitar strings only ring when taut around two points. Minor Detail, Adania Shibli’s third novel, takes its title as ... Read the full text
SKETCHES OF THE CRIMINAL WORLD: FURTHER KOLYMA STORIES by Varlam Shalamov translated by Donald Rayfield New York Review Books, 576 pagesreviewed by Dylan CookPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver A man gets ready to murder his boss with a pickaxe. A woman is grateful that her newborn twins ... Read the full text
MAX HAVELAAR: OR, THE COFFEE AUCTIONS OF THE DUTCH TRADING COMPANYby Multatulitranslated by Ina Rilke and David McKayNew York Review Books, 336 pagesreviewed by Dylan CookPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver “I call a man a fool if he dives in the water to rescue ... Read the full text
I remember back in the day Nick used to try to get to Heaven. Heaven was a glitched-out place in San Andreas where nothing made sense or seemed quite real, and Nick would come home most days, boot up the PS2, and try again to get into it. There was a specific building in San Andreas where, if you went inside and used a cheat code to spawn a jetpack, you could fly through a certain part of the ceiling that didn’t have proper clipping. There was just one spot where you could fly through, a place that the developers had overlooked. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. This wasn’t something you were ever supposed to be able to come across just walking and jumping around. But if you knew what to look for and you did everything in just the right way, you could lift off and go through the ceiling. Fly right above the interior. From up there, I remember it looked like you had ripped the roof off a dollhouse and were looking down at its insides. And everywhere around the interior, where the outside world should’ve been, there was nothing but blank gray. Gray as far as you could see, in every direction. The way the game worked was that in order to save resources, only the exterior world or the interior world would ever be loaded at any given time, depending on what the character chose. The developers never intended for the player to see beyond the place that had been loaded for them, but Nick had found a way to clip through.
I remember every day he’d go straight back into that building and continue where he left off. You couldn’t save in Heaven, so he’d have to just repeat the glitch every time. There were no waypoints, no markers, so Nick would fly through gray nothing for what seemed like forever before coming across a new interior, some place he had never seen before. He’d go there and take mental notes of everything he saw, then fly back up through where the ceiling should’ve been and look for another place: a space explorer trying to chart new worlds. He’d find interiors you’d only see in passing in random cutscenes, abandoned test areas, and places you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the game. Many of these places were unfinished, so he’d land there and find himself able to walk through the walls, glide through props. It was like he was there but not at the same time.
The wild thing is, he committed so much of that to memory. There was no real way to map all that out. Once you were in the air, there were no landmarks to guide you, nothing but gray everywhere. If you checked your map in-game, it said that you were still at the building you’d originally entered. It was like you had never left. Like you were stuck, even though you weren’t.
I didn’t play San Andreas for years after Nick died. For a while, I just couldn’t. Then, when I wanted to, I couldn’t get it to work. The audio/video wires were old and frayed, and the electrical tape was coming apart, and it was years back, when I was still little, that Nick had spliced in old wires from a stereo system that no one was using anymore to replace the ones that had gone bad. He could’ve just gotten new wires, and I guess I can now too, but I remember how he cut and stripped them down, rubber to copper, demonstrating how you had to twist the proper wires together, like for like, but the two pairs you twisted together could never touch each other. They’d be taped down or pushed in opposite directions. They could be parallel, but they could never make contact again.
I think of checking eBay for a fresh set or searching how to properly splice wires, but I want to see if my memory is still enough. As they come untwisted, gangly and with their individual strands pointing in every possible direction, I have to remind myself that sights and sounds are transmitted through these things. Memories are. I cut a little further into the wires, past the unruly strands to get at the fresh portions, untouched. I cut too much off, if I’m being honest, but it’s just enough to get the two pairs connected again, pushed down onto either side, not touching, and I don’t have electrical tape to make it official, but that’ll be enough. It should hold.
I boot up the old PS2. It’s too early, and the sun is on the screen so I can barely make anything out, but I can hear that familiar old boot-up sound. And when the game cycles through, and I find that Nick’s old save file still works, and I track down that old handwritten jetpack cheat tucked away inside the game manual, I go back to that corner, from memory, and I fly straight up. Away and past it all.
Nick Olson is an author and editor from Chicagoland now living in North Carolina. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, and he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, decomP, and other fine places. When he’s not writing his own work, he’s sharing the wonderful work of others over at (mac)ro(mic). His debut novel, Here’s Waldo, is available now. Find him online at nickolsonbooks.com or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.
We are playing Concentration. First, she finds the Jacks and then the Queens. Her head was lopsided when she was born, and she stared up at me with rolling grey eyes. I unwrapped her and thought, this is the pure one. Lightens up my life. Released. Escaped from personal injury.
Potatoes. Ducks in a green sky. A turquoise moon. All these things in her. My daughter in red rubber boots crossing the street in rain.
She has not seen her father for some time now. They used to watch prize fights and play dominoes. “He’s going to love another kid,” she says. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Now the big mouth scream. The other kid wriggling in her crib. “It’s it,” she says. “The name I can’t remember.”
Diapers flap in winter air. He drives to the bank and opens the vault.
“My hands are so small with the nails painted cherry fudge and my teeth hurt,” she says. “Let’s send him the olive with my teeth prints. Then he’ll know we need the money.”
He takes the money and hands it to the other kid. What we deserve.
A studio garden apartment in the Sunset. The rooms are chopped up and boxy. Frosted glass obscures the garden view. We are so far away. The only night we stay there, we eat in front of the gas heater and then curl up in sleeping bags. She puts her head in my lap, and I stroke her hair and listen as her breathing becomes deeper. Her small body is warm and heavy against mine. I feel small. Swallowed by the night and the fog devouring streetcars. Is there someone in the garden? Moving?
Dream? Water near the pier laps against the dock.
“I dreamed my friend got hurt and the next day she came to school with a black eye.”
“That’s psychic,” I tell her.
“What’s that?” she asks.
She’s hysterical. I’m going to cry tonight. She has pink curlers in her hair. She moves the rubber animals around in the sand tray. Trees, plastic fence, bridge, boat. Mama cow and her baby off in the distance by themselves.
“We know what that means,” the therapist says. “It’s significant.”
“Today at school the boys were chasing us, trying to hit us. We hid in the bathroom. We decided not to run anymore. When they came after us, we hit back. I picked up one of them and threw him in the air.”
At East of the Sun, a long line of children stand by the tables running their fingers through the small toys. Metal leap frogs, water guns in the shape of fish, wooden horses dangling from strings, animals masks, magic rocks, and blue marbles. Every toy for a penny or nickel. My daughter has ten cents. She is rich.
We take Highway 5. I’m going to a wedding. She’ll stay with her father. I drive fast through Altamont Pass and down into the San Joaquin. Rows of business parks and warehouses give way to green fields and the flat farmland. It is hot. Scorching. Waves of heat blast through the floor of the car. At the wedding in the garden, some friends play guitars and a violin. A young woman sings. There is laughter and later tears over the phone when he calls to say he has to bring her back early.
“My wife doesn’t understand. I can’t see her anymore.” He sets her suitcase on the porch steps, climbs into his car, and drives away. Back to the new wife and baby.
Up on Mt. Tamalpais, the kids are piled into tents. Wind whooshes through the eucalyptus trees, and the jagged surf crashes on Stinson Beach. When the bus returns them, their faces are covered with dirt. And later there are photographs. My daughter sitting on a picnic table holding her white hands up to the sun. Her blonde hair is tangled and wild.
We ride the bus downtown to the babysitter’s. She lives in a railroad flat on an alley near the Civic Center. Later, she’ll take my daughter up the street to the childcare center, an old storefront on Hayes St., the only one I can afford. I call from work two or three times a day to check on her. Is she okay? Can I talk to her? Winos stagger past the windows yelling angry threats at the air. The kids play in the cold sun. She makes chalk marks on the dirty sidewalk.
“What’s that?” an old man asks, pointing to her drawing.
Tonight, I go into her room to check. Her small body is there under the covers. I bend low until I feel her breath on my cheek.
We sit in wet sand. July fog. I’ve brought sandwiches and apples for a picnic on the beach, but it’s too cold. The windmill flutters in the tulip garden in Golden Gate Park. She digs in the wet sand, picks up driftwood, seaweed, pieces of shell. I keep my eyes on the green waves crashing under white water and wish I wasn’t afraid to dive in. Surfers ride the waves dangerously close to the rocks. She shudders and says, “Can we go now?” We move into the shelter of the park, and she puts her hand in mine. Squeeze. Quiet.
We get off the trolley and walk up the street to the corner of Arguello and Fulton, and stop in front of the Jefferson Airplane house. It looms large and gloomy. “Are they in there?” she asks. Huge pillars glisten in moonlight as we stand on the sidewalk waiting for music. Nothing. We tiptoe up to the house. She goes all the way up to the windows and peeks in. Nothing.
A card comes in the mail. A picture of a little girl in a pink jumpsuit holding a teddy bear. “Happy Birthday To A Sweet Six-Year-Old.” There’s a check for fifteen dollars in it. She jumps up and down. “See,” she says, holding the card in front of me. “He did remember.” I take the check and think groceries, coffee, cheese, eggs. I do midnight shopping at Cala Foods with the after-hours crowd cruising for someone to take home, and the panhandlers. One old man stretches his hat out to me, and I drop in a dollar.
When I get home, she’s lying in a puddle of moonlight. The card pressed under her cheek.
I read her a story while she soaks in her bath. “Outside,” a story with a girl hero. “We should paint toenails on the tub,” I tell her.
“It’s got claw feet,” she says.
“I’ll give the tub a pedicure,” and I take out red paint and paint each claw. She goes under water giggling. While she soaks, I paint. Vines coming out of the closet. Green vines all the way down the hall. And later in the kitchen, a green zebra appears over the stove. For a whole month, I spend my afternoons painting. There’s a park emerging on one wall in the hallway. Bicycle riders sneak in and out of the trees. Each day when she comes home, I’ve added a new item to the park: a castle, a quarter moon, a ballerina, and a winged horse sailing over the tops of the trees.
“I’ll never be able to let the landlord in here,” I tell her.
“It doesn’t matter. It belongs to us now,” she says.
She looks like her father. Has his round eyes. His mouth and perfect nose. Even his facial expressions. His way of sagging in a chair. His devotion to television. The only thing she has like me is a gold-brown color. I say, “Let’s take a walk. It’s drenched and stormy outside.”
“What about my favorite program where the dad comes home after being gone for years?” she asks.
“He’s not coming,” I tell her and go out into the street. The light is dying and I forget time and the wind pushes me up the hill and I get lost. Dogs rush toward the fence as I pass. It’s dark when I find my way back. She is under a pile of blankets in front of the TV. The blonde ends of her hair poke out. My own daughter who looks nothing like me.
Thirty parents arrive at the school in icy rain to hear about “the rules” and “respecting each other’s space.” We do an exercise, stare into each other’s eyes without blinking. Later, in the science class, a woman stands holding a small boa constrictor. The woman tells me all the kids handle the snake. She offers it to me, but I shake my head and leave the meeting early, thinking this will be the next exercise. I take the long way home through the park. Enormous dahlias unfold in the Tea Garden. Cherry blossoms drop petals into water, and the museum glows in its chalky skin.
At home I find her curled up in my bed. Crayons and magic markers scattered over the floor. She’s been drawing pictures. A girl on horseback. Shooting stars. Rainbows. Flying Sufi hearts. The giant hearts hurl through dark blue skies. She tucks herself down into the pillows. I tell her not to fall asleep in my bed. “I’m not falling asleep,” she says. “I’m just resting my eyes.” Later, I climb into bed beside her. She’s too heavy for me to carry now.
Her grandmother calls to tell her about the new baby girl. “Did you know you have another sister now? Your dad was hoping for a boy, but things don’t always go like we plan.” She hangs up and says, “There are two of them now.”
She writes a story. “The Cool Girl.”
Once there was a girl and her name was Susan and she was 18. And she loved motorcycles. But her mother did not like them. But anyway Susan bought one. The next day Susan and her boyfriend wanted to ride the motorcycle to school. But her mother would not let them. So Susan got very mad. And she and her mother had a fight and her mother would not let her go to school. So Susan thought of a plan. She thought of running away from home. So she did. And when she was riding she got hungry so she stopped at a cafe for a bite of something. And after that she went to France and had a great time and so she lived there. The End.
There are pictures. In one, she’s a dark-haired girl diving off a board into a turquoise pool.
Ballet class in an old Victorian in the Mission. In the purple light of winter, cold wooden floors creak as we walk up three flights of stairs and into a room of mirrors. Legs, white tights. A boy strutting back and forth across the open floor. She whirls around in her black leotard. Catches a glimpse of herself. The teacher is Japanese. Lean muscles. Years of work.
“Hard work,” she says over the heads of the tiny dancers. “She has good feet,” she says, bending to grasp my daughter’s feet in her hands. “Strong feet.” And my daughter’s feet carry her through rain. Through afternoon wind, to the corner store for bread. To the Swedish Bakery for butter cookies. Down littered sidewalks to catch her bus. “Do you pick her up at the bus stop?” Mr. Fiji, her school teacher asks. “Your neighborhood is not safe.” Smiling, he tells me he will teach her to read and speak Japanese.
She speaks to me in Japanese. The words are red and black. Choppy and deep. She presses her hands together, bows her head and says, “Good morning, Mother.” She paints characters on rice paper. Translates for me, “Happiness.” I put the painting in a frame and hang it over our door.
In Japan Town, paper fish fly through the air on sticks, and yellow umbrellas twirl in wind. We buy a pencil box and incense. Drink tea in a shop with red booths. Tea, almond cookies, and spicy crackers. She picks up chopsticks and holds the bowl of rice to her mouth as she eats.
My fortune: “The more you know, the less you understand.”
Hers: “Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.”
In our house on a street that opens to battered storefronts, bars, bookstores, The Purple Heart Thrift Shop, she waits by the phone for him to call. She chews on her thumb, picks up a hand mirror and brushes her hair till the long blonde strands fly up, fan out with electricity. She waits, gives up, puts on a record, and asks her friend who lives upstairs to come and dance with her. Her friend is small with long brown hair. Smaller than my daughter who looks like an awkward fawn as she bows and stretches and turns in the living room with a naïve grace. The two girls whirl and their dance becomes more frenetic, wilder as they fly and laugh and fall. Till the neighbors begin to pound on our floor.
Every day she rides the bus to Valencia and 16th and gets off. She walks home passing Aunt Lil’s Antiques and dodging drunks as she goes. When she comes in the door today, I can hear her hurrying up the stairs. She tells me in a rush, out of breath, “A man tried to get me to go with him. He said come here, angel, I’ve got a lotta money. I ran but he started to come after me, then these two guys chased him. He drove away real fast.”
I call the police, but when they arrive, she can’t tell them anything about the man—just the car—a black Seville. And the money—”hundreds of dollars lying on the front seat.”
She gets a letter from her grandmother. In it there’s a photo of the two girls—one of them about six and the other a toddler. They’re dressed in identical pink jumpsuits. Her grandmother writes a few lines. “Here’s your baby sisters. I thought it was time you got to see them. Aren’t they dolls? And I want you to know I haven’t forgotten you. Love, Gran.”
She studies the photo for a few minutes, holding it tightly in her fingers. Then she turns to me and says, “I don’t know what he sees in them.” She tosses the photo onto the table and begins examining a broken fingernail.
Low riders rumble through the damp air past Mission Dolores and the Integral Yoga Institute where Swami Sachatinanda’s beatific countenance smiles down on his devotees, and just next door old women in old lace cluster under their icons of joy. Church bells and shirtless men returning to their women. My daughter wants to dress in black. To wear the uniform of another culture. A blonde chola in her black derby, black pants, and Chinese slippers. She pulls her hair tightly to one side and pins it back. Takes a red rose and sticks it over her ear. She lines her eyes with black. She looks ten years older than she is. Her lips a deep red. Her friends tell her, “You’re a wannabe.”
“Nam picked a fight with me today,” she says, staring into the mirror rubbing a bruise on her cheek. “We used to be friends, but she belongs to the Wa Chings now. She started yelling at me, calling me honky, saying, come on show me how tough you are. So I did. I forgot all the karate I learned, but I went for her anyway. I was swinging my fists and punching her head. Her friends were yelling, okay girl, okay, okay, stop.”
A boy appears at the bottom of the stairs. He has walked blocks in the rain from the Mission Flatlands where dogs roam freely and women sell tortillas on street corners. Hot and fresh, La Taqueria. Watermelon juice, papaya, mango. He tells me he has come to see my daughter. A silver cross dangles from one ear, and he smiles at me with his eyes.
Boys appear at our door. Black, brown, their hair in cornrows, hairnets, and shower caps. Protecting their most valuable asset. They walk her home from school, come up the stairs quietly, and sit in her room drinking soda and listening to the soul station. Their names are T.J., Bugsy, and Helio. They wear leather pants and Members Only jackets. Their mothers work in factories. They live in Bay Area Hunter’s Point and the Outer Mission. They don’t have money, so they walk and run to get where they’re going, and sometimes they boost what they can’t buy. Helio is wearing his flannels today. A blue bandanna around his forehead. Their names appear all over the city—in the Fillmore and Western Addition. Upper Market and the Embarcadero. “Helio Was Here” and “T.J. the Cool One.” Mexican hieroglyphs bloom on walls covered with bougainvillea. Rise above the salty air.
At school, the girls threaten her. Sometimes on the bus they swear at her, “Girl, you gonna get your ass whipped.” And she tells her grandmother these things, proud of her ability to stir up trouble. The phone rings and her grandmother asks, “Is your boyfriend black? I’ll disown you.”
At the concert the black man at the piano. “I’ve gotta get closer,” she says. She is clapping her white hands. I want to help her find her way down the stairs, through the crowd below. Ushers move toward us. Threatening. Flashlights. I don’t understand. Strange. Alien. My own daughter. The man at the piano, fluid and female as he moves to his own music. His hair braided into a thousand silver beads. He is smiling upward at my daughter.
Sandra Florence taught writing for forty years in Tucson, Arizona, ran two NEH projects in Tucson, and currently writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and blurs the boundaries between them. She has published creative and scholarly work and has just completed a short story collection entitled Everything is Folded.
She was sitting on a stool in the basement of the restaurant watching the octopus spin. It was on a cold/cold cycle in the washing machine. This was how they tenderized it, Ellis had told her, overjoyed he had something genuinely interesting to offer. It was this nauseous moving smudge, the octopus, not his telling. She was coming to adore it, the borderless slosh. No, more than that, she could believe she loved it, adjusting her over-the-knee pin-stripe skirt in the cold-damp of the concrete room, it was good. A man she also loved was upstairs, drunk, frying things, cutting real close to his fingers, and working someone else’s shift, and Ellis was on his way down to her, in his unadorned state, in an apron, having been washing dishes, walking down the concrete stairs to finish talking to her about the new crudo option on the menu so she could finish her little write-up for some hyper-local culinary column that at least her dad liked to read. The suckers and the head were a singular hum.
When had she started with the rabbit traps? Seven winters ago when her grandmother had shown her, when they were up north and the snow had settled in whipped-cream heaves on every roof/road/sidewalk/way of getting anywhere at all. It made everybody a trudger. You’d look out past the exhale of farmland and someone would be getting to their truck, in the over-the-knee white, forcing themselves into the day, trudging. No one was delicate. No one was flashing with glimpses of dorsal appendages or outer gills, even though this, she supposed, had been a cold/cold cycle too. That thought was nothing. Her knees looked a little blushed against the stark border of black cloth. Her grandmother had liked French cooking. Her grandmother had tied barbed wire into halos for the rabbit traps and left them in the snow by the wood’s edge. They were attached to something else (Ellis was on his way, she could hear him upstairs), but she could never complete the traps herself. She could only bend and knot the wire with a pair of needle-nose pliers and pass the circles to her grandmother. Her mother would look on. Her mother would pass through the kitchen in little steps and look at the both of them, her eyes stinging with salt water, as if they were killing a man. Her mother’s whole face, one pang. She might have stopped making the circles if her mother didn’t also love the rabbit, the French rabbit, accompanied by glazed carrots, steaming up a frosted window, beyond which some neighbor was dredging their thighs through the snow. She just made the circles and slid them across the table.
The octopus was still making its own feverish orbits when he finally got down to her. His face was so pleased as it ducked under a ceiling pipe. He got to talk to her, her on the stool in the skirt across from the washer, he got to talk to her about the crudo. She had her recorder out, extended towards him. She looked politely happy. This was only a little worse than if she’d looked completely bored. Ellis knew she cared more for the prep chef who did cocaine sometimes, but the prep chef was upstairs getting paid more, not down here in the concrete enclosure with its stagnant fluorescence and one woman gazing at a thrashing cephalopod; Ellis was lucky. What if he just said he loved her and could get her good dinner, good dinner for years. Sure, he didn’t love her yet, but oh he knew he could muster it up, given some time. The tape recorder had its mouth towards him but hers was slightly parted and facing the washer. She was supposed to be asking him something, for sure, but she was tired and crowding her brain with full-fat pictures of brutal winters. Ones where the snow got over the height of the shed, once, but they’d gone on separating rabbit thigh from bones with their teeth like it hadn’t. Biting like they weren’t in any actual danger. Biting like the pale outsides were just salt hills, not the guts of snowstorms. She was supposed to ask him things, but what did he care. There wasn’t another stool. He sat on the floor in front of her. In between her and the octopus. He took up her sight and smiled. His face was so open, teeth haunting just behind his smile, words about to breach. His face was so open; one pang; she thought.
“So after an hour on rinse, we take them out and they are quickly cleaned, chopped, drizzled with olive oil and smoked sea salt, and accompanied with basil leaves and blood oranges and sectioned grapefruit. It’s plated on a dipped plate, not quite a bowl, but with sloped edges that makes a wide pool of it all. Everything is, absolutely, sliced as thinly as feasible. We take the tentacles through a deli meat slicer. They should be like meat-paper. It’s clean and refreshing on the palate. It’s a beautiful opener to a meal, scrapes the long day out of your mouth and sparks it with sodium and citrus.” She was looking at him now, realizing he wanted, almost, to just write the column himself. That no one said “sparked” unless they thought up the word beforehand, hauling it through their brain like an extra body, an extra life to push into the light. It would be a trim and sparse paragraph, thin and shoved to the corner, probably no wider than the sliced crudo itself, certainly not terribly thicker, if he’d meant what he’d said about paper. Okay, why not let him basically do it, him and all his hoping at her.
Her grandmother’s neighbor had come in weeping once. Around her ankle: pinching wire, and out of her grandmother: so many apologies, then an invite to dinner. An invite to the rabbit her neighbor could have been. Her grandmother kneeled and cut the wire off of the jeaned ankle. Nothing had broken skin, but the area was strained and swollen. Her grandmother had traced the red circle with the pad of her thumb, checking. She had been thinking that her grandmother ought to just marry this neighbor. When had her grandfather died? Well before she herself knew how to make halos for rabbits, that was certain.
Just look at her, the neighbor, sitting while a white-haired guilt kneeled by her legs. She was sitting and not crying and trying to let the feeling of being an almost-animal fizzle off her leg. Someone had to marry her. The wet sat in her eyes, poised bright like someone’s waiting child in a too-large chair.
“Is it good?” She pushed the recorder forward half an inch. It was the laziest, most inane question. He knew that. He could love her. Give him six months. Someone, give him six months.
“What? Oh, yeah, I mean I think it’s superb, and I have had it. They, I guess we, test all the new menu additions with the entire kitchen staff. Even if you’re only washing dishes, you get to eat the entire restaurant. It’s truly a stunner and certainly a very unique dish to have offered this far from the coast. I assure you,” he placed a palm on the washer window behind him, “that despite the distance, the octopus is incredibly fresh. Now, it’s not the Italian coast by any means, but show me better in small-town Montana and I’ll quit working here and move in with you.” He hadn’t meant it. Or sure, he had, but he hadn’t meant to mean it. She brushed it off like it was nothing, like it was stray hair on her shoulder, like he wouldn’t absolutely take a blushed knee in this basement and set a hand on her skirted leg and talk himself into already loving her. He watched her write something down about smoked salt. His palm thrummed. It was still on the glass, blocking the picture.
Something upstairs crashed. Something upstairs yelled and balked at flashing oil. What she was in love with was above them, she remembered. He took his hand off the glass and raised a finger. He ran up the stairs under a deluge of swears. He ran up the stairs to where she actually held some adoration. He started swearing along with them, to make it better, to slide into the hurt of the room like a knife into a block. The cycle stopped. The body stilled and slumped. The washing machine beeped four blissful robotic notes.
By the time the day was cleaned, by the time any glow bled out of view of the singular basement-alley window and Ellis came back down to her with new oil burns on his wrists and one on his neck that he’d have to find later, she would already be holding the octopus in her lap. She would be washing fingertips down its legs to check for bleeding, to check for signs of being an animal. Her hair would linger and stick to its damp bulbous head. A few blonde tips would cling to the wet of a cornea when she finally turned to find his face, his coming down.
Cleaver Poetry Editor Claire Oleson is a Brooklyn-based writer hailing from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She’s an alum of Kenyon College, where she studied English and Creative Writing. Her work has been published by the Kenyon Review online, the University of Kentucky’s graduate literary journal Limestone, the L.A. Review of Books, and Newfound Press, among others. She is also the 2019 winner of the Newfound Prose Prize and author of the chapbook Things From the Creek We Could Have Been.
In a minivan borrowed from Connie’s sister, Connie and Lori were on their way to the town of Locke. Connie drove, keeping her eyes straight ahead. So far there had been no road signs for Locke. On the first leg of the trip, Connie had jabbed at the radio buttons, changing the stations—music, talk, static, music—then, somewhere around Antioch, she seemed to reach a detente with the ominous murmur of NPR. Lori’s hearing was not the best, but she hesitated to ask Connie to turn up the volume. The two-lane road crossed back and forth over the river, over drawbridges and through the Sacramento delta sloughs. The morning turned sunny, the sky above them was a giant, blue bowl tinged gray at the horizons with the dissipating fog, and although there was a considerable amount of traffic, they were making good time.
This trip was Connie’s idea, Locke being the location of one of her favorite restaurants “in the world.” Lori had been to Locke once, years earlier, with her husband, Frank, before he ran off with his coworker. Now Lori was single again at sixty years old, and she had a roommate, Connie, all within six months.
Something rather surprising had transpired between Connie and Lori the night before. Somehow they kissed. Lori had learned that Connie was gay several weeks after they’d become roommates. Now Lori wondered if she might be gay, although this morning she wondered if it was just a phase she was going to go through, like the time she thought she could paint portraits or learn scuba diving.
If she was gay, Lori thought this trip might be their first official public appearance as a couple, though Locke was hardly more than a ghost town. If Lori remembered right, most of the buildings lining the two or three short streets were sagging and boarded up. There were a few art galleries, an antique shop, and Connie’s ultimate destination. “The restaurant is all the way in the back of a bar,” Connie had told Lori when she suggested the road trip. “It’s a hoot. There’s no menus or anything, the waitress just comes up to you and asks, ‘How do you want your steak?’”
In the days leading up to the weekend, the whole adventure had seemed like the kind of thing two women who were new friends and roommates might do together. There was a lot of planning for the three-hour trip, which began with the BART train from San Francisco to the suburbs to pick up the minivan from Connie’s little sister. Connie’s sister seemed to assume that Lori and Connie were in a relationship. Lori had lived her entire life without someone thinking she was gay, and now it was as though the kiss the night before had left a mark on her for everyone to see. As the sister handed the keys over, she requested that only Connie drive the minivan, “for insurance reasons,” and that they be careful not to leave any personal items in the van when they brought it back, “because of the children.” Lori wondered if the sister thought that she and Connie would be returning from the day trip with the back seats full of vibrators and strap-on dildos and pornography.
Lori tried to catch Connie’s eye and smile, but it seemed that Connie was in one of her moods. Sometimes Connie needed lots of quiet and coffee in the morning.
Connie’s sister stood in the driveway watching as they backed out, her arms folded across her chest. She wore such a thin dress. Lori didn’t know any women who wore dresses on a Saturday except her mother, God rest her soul. Thinking about her mother made Lori feel a tight inward cringe. Her mother would have been appalled if Lori turned out to be gay. Her mother would roll over in her grave except, of course, her mother had been cremated. What would be the cremated equivalent of rolling over in her grave? Lori imagined her mother’s ashes, far-flung into the ocean, quivering at the notion that she might have a gay daughter. Not in my family, those ashes would say. Or maybe her ashes had been consumed by a fish, then eaten by a bigger fish, then pulled out of the sea and were right now being eaten by a stranger dining in a restaurant. She could see some heavyset man forking a bite of fish with her mother buried in it into his mouth, and then the essence of her mother was assimilated into his bloodstream. Was that bit of her mother flipping over as well?
They passed a front yard where someone had built a ten-foot-tall Christmas tree made entirely of green wine bottles, stacked and glinting in the sun. It must have taken years to erect what was now a permanent holiday decoration. The whole thing looked like a lot of work—the assembling, the maintenance, the drinking.
“Will you look at that,” Lori said, turning her head as they zoomed past. Connie grunted. Frank, Lori’s ex-husband, had not been a morning person either. Perhaps she and Connie could landscape their own yard with recycling, though Lori wasn’t creative that way. She was a paint-by-numbers kind of person—not capable of designing anything but pretty good at following directions to recreate what someone else had dreamed up. They could make something out of Amazon boxes. Robots, maybe. They could erect cardboard robots all over the front lawn like snowmen.
Lori was pretty sure the neighbors would have something to say about that. Lori and Connie lived in the house that Lori once shared with her husband and where she had raised her daughter. She’d have to pay the high school boy she employed more to mow around robots.
They turned a corner and came upon a stop sign flashing red, warning bells ringing, a gate, and beyond that another drawbridge, this one as if the erector-set structure of the bridge had simply turned ninety degrees. A boat glided past, two tan women in bikinis and sunglasses preening on the bow. A suave fellow guiding the boat past the bridge pulled on a horn and the women squealed. Lori quickly looked at her lap. Was Connie watching those girls? If Lori turned out to be gay, would she start to ogle girls like her husband used to? Did lesbians ogle?
Lori had so many questions. She hoped Connie would snap out of her mood soon.
The bridge clanged back into place, the gate rattled to the right, and Connie eased the van forward. The tires slid queasily over the grates in the road.
The kiss. Or, more accurately stated, the make-out session. Lori tried to work through the details of how they’d gone from sitting on the couch talking about the last episode of Dancing with the Stars to what happened. There was wine, of course, a tepid red, but there was always wine on Friday nights. It was their private happy hour, a tradition they’d started soon after Connie had moved in. Was everything going to be different now? Lori liked having Connie as a roommate. She reminded Lori of those Renaissance paintings of Joan of Arc, steely-eyed and determined. Tall. The kind of woman who could pull off carrying a broadsword into a room but with a softness around the eyes. Lori had never really known anyone who was gay.
She didn’t want to stay in the house alone, but she couldn’t bring herself to sell. She had moved into her daughter’s old room, packed her married life into the master bedroom, and locked the door. She went in there every month or so to dust and vacuum or sometimes to just sit on the bed. The room was crowded with artifacts of her previous life—the wedding pictures where she and her husband looked like shocked children, the collection of owl figurines she’d received for birthdays and Christmas and Mother’s Day year after year. So many owl figurines. Her nicest dresses, hanging in the closet, collected a gray film on the shoulders. Her daughter’s stuffed animals and carefully folded baby clothes filled the bureau drawers.
Her daughter. Lori would have to come out to her daughter. There was an excruciating thought. Her daughter, who knew everything at twenty-five, who already thought her mother was a silly woman. Well, this would confirm it. Then her daughter would tell her father, even though Lori would swear her to secrecy, and her ex-husband would tell his new girlfriend. Lori felt another cringe.
What happened? The wine had made Lori weepy, Connie had laid a hand on Lori’s knee, Lori put her head on Connie’s shoulder, then somehow their lips connected and there was that first, tentative kiss, which Lori responded to with more enthusiasm than either of them expected. A lot more enthusiasm. She’d opened her mouth for God’s sake. Was this how it started? She knew people didn’t choose to be gay. Had something been lying in wait inside her all these years, a sleeping beauty waiting for another princess’s kiss?
“Finally,” Connie said, pointing to a sign. “Locke, four miles.”
The river had been playing hide-and-seek all morning, opening up in full view in front of them, a glittering brown jewel, before disappearing behind levees. Near the water, the air smelled like rotting garbage and mud, but now, as they moved away from the river, there was the smell of mown fields. Brilliant green stalks of a tall crop flew past in a blur on the right.
Connie eased the minivan down a one-way street and parallel parked effortlessly. Her lesbian superpower. Perhaps now Lori would be able to parallel park as well.
They clomped down the narrow street over the old, wooden sidewalks, Lori following a few feet behind Connie. Just like when she was married, she thought. Connie’s broad shoulders could be interchangeable with Lori’s ex-husband’s. Lori wondered if she and Connie would ever be the kind of couple to hold hands in public, oblivious to other people’s stares.
Of course first they needed to discuss if the kiss last night was the beginning of something.
In the back of her mind, Lori unpacked an incident from middle school, a memory shoved in a shoebox along with the embarrassing crush she’d had on her elderly art teacher and the too-short, blue gym romper with her last name written in black marker across her back. Buried under everything was that time she and Del Buchanan had stepped into a closet for “Seven Minutes of Heaven” during her first boy/girl party. As soon as the door had closed, Del shoved one hand down the front of her jeans and the other up under her shirt. Lori liked Del. He was a funny-looking boy with a lazy eye, a blonde Afro, and Birkenstocks. The popular kids at school called him Garfunkel and let him hang around with their crowd sometimes, like a court jester. He was a visiting celebrity to Lori’s crowd of gawky adolescents. At the party, when someone yanked the door back open after only thirty seconds, Del’s hands were still in the vicinity of where they had started, and Lori emerged, clothes askew, blinking into the light. Del draped his arm around her shoulders the rest of the night, as if he was claiming ownership, and then never acknowledged her existence again after that. The rumor around school was he had called their half-minute of heaven in the closet a “mercy grope.”
Perhaps the kiss last night had been some sort of charity on Connie’s part.
Now Connie pushed through a pair of Wild West saloon doors. The bar was just as Connie had described—the yeasty smell of mildew and despair hit Lori as soon as she stepped inside. A neon jukebox glowed and blinked in the corner. Hundreds of blackened dollar bills and several pairs of what looked like dingy panties were stuck to the ceiling. How did they get up there? Two pale men at the bar, bent larvae-like over their drinks, didn’t look up as she stood there blinking.
In the back, meagerly lit by a wan fluorescent light, were half a dozen picnic tables, the kind where the benches attached to the tables with metal clamps. Were the owners worried that customers would walk out with the benches? The red-and-white checked tablecloths that Connie had rhapsodized about were just thin sheets of patterned plastic stapled to the tables. A kitchen area was partially visible behind a half wall in the back of the room. All the tables were occupied with tourists in shorts and visors, middle-aged gray men, and brightly dressed grandmothers. High up on the walls were the mounted heads of every antlered animal Lori had ever seen: deer, various types of antelope, a moose, a rabbit. A thin woman carrying a line of plates on one tattooed arm swooped past them, saying, “Sit anywhere.”
“Isn’t this great?” Connie said, the most animated she’d been all morning.
They had to share a table with another couple. Connie and Lori sat at the far end, twisting awkwardly to get their legs under. Their tablemates were silent—the man sawing at his steak, the woman watching him with a hostage-like expression. The plastic tablecloth was grimy. The knife protruding from the peanut butter jar looked sticky.
They ordered their steaks. The waitress returned instantly with two slabs of T-bones that barely fit on the plates, a stack of plain white bread, and two Budweisers. No glasses.
Lori’s ex would be in heaven here. This was the kind of place he would have been thrilled to go to. When they were married, Lori always did what Frank wanted to do. Now he was off trying to please someone else. Her daughter had told her that the new girlfriend made him go to the ballet. A ballet! This was the same man who refused to go to a movie with her if he thought the title was too “girly.” Now he was going to ballets, and she was here, surrounded by dusty dead animals, drinking beer from a bottle.
She had spent her entire life going with the flow, like a cork bobbing along in a stream. She could trace each step along the path that brought her here, bouncing from one thing to another, buffeted along by what other people wanted. Here she was at twelve years old, pulling weeds in the front yard for a penny apiece, when the neighbor, Dr. March, drove by. He lowered his car window to ask if she was available on Saturday nights to babysit his two boys. After high school graduation she morphed into Dr. March’s receptionist at his general practice. Soon there was this patient, her future husband, staring at her each time he came in for his yearly physical. Their brief courtship, their wedding, her father giving her away in the church like he was passing the baton in a relay race, her mother nodding her approval—in retrospect it all seemed like someone else’s idea that she followed along without thinking. Even her daughter just fell into her life, just like that; they hadn’t even been trying and Lori was pregnant. Frank said one child was enough, though she thought two would be better, but Frank got a vasectomy. When Dr. March retired, he handed her over to the doctor who took over his practice, Frank fell in love with someone else, and she was now, perhaps, a lesbian.
Lori had no control over her own life.
Lori looked up at Connie, who was diligently cutting her steak into bite-size pieces. Connie’s lips were pursed with concentration. The desire that had swept through Lori last night seemed as if it had happened to someone else. How much was a person expected to just accept in life? Because this was too much. She would not now be gay.
Connie, as if aware Lori was about to speak, stopped working on her steak and set her knife, then her fork down beside her plate. She glanced over at the other couple and said, sighing, “You’re not eating.”
This is going to break her heart, Lori thought.
Connie sighed again. “Look,” she began, “I’m really sorry about last night. Things got a little out of hand. I’ve got be honest. I’m just not into you that way.”
Lori blinked several times.
“Oh God,” Connie said, glancing over at their tablemates, who were listening intently while trying to look as if they weren’t. The man’s face was horizontal with his plate and just inches above it, like he was trying to read the fine print on a contract. The woman stared pointedly at a handwritten sign on the wall that said No Outside Food, but she had reached up and tucked a strand of hair around her left ear. Connie said, “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been through this too many times to fall for it again.”
Fall for what? And how was Lori looking at her? “I…I don’t know what—” she began.
“If you want to ‘experiment,’ you’re going to have to find someone else. I’m not going to be your lesbian Sherpa,” Connie hissed, leaning forward, “I’m way too old for that shit.”
Why, Connie was angry. Had she waited all morning until they were in a restaurant full of people? Had Connie thought she would fall apart? Afraid Lori would make a scene?
“I really like you. I do,” Connie continued, “but I do not appreciate you coming on to me like that.”
Lori started, “No, now wait a sec…” but for the life of her she couldn’t find the next word to say. All at once she felt old and tired and incurably stupid.
“I’ve got to pee,” Connie said, standing up. “Pull yourself together. It’s a long trip back.”
Connie lifted her legs out from under the table and over the bench, then headed toward the restrooms without looking back.
Lori opened her bag, pulled out a compact, and checked her face. The mirror only showed the small, round center of herself—a sliver of forehead, her graying eyebrows, two faded blue eyes in their pouches of wrinkles, the bridge of her nose. She looked shocked, like she’d just lived through something life-changing. Now that all the excitement was over, the couple who had been listening pulled themselves up out of the scaffolding of the picnic table.
The waitress came over and looked pointedly at Connie’s plate.
“Is your girlfriend finished?” she asked.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Lori answered.
The wistfulness in her own voice startled her. It was as if she’d lost her future, even though she wasn’t even sure it was a future she wanted. She felt tears well up and then spill over onto her cheeks. She was crying.
“Aw, honey,” the waitress said, sitting down backward at the end of the bench and curling her tattooed arm around Lori’s neck.
Her touch made Lori cry harder. She sobbed in a sort of gasping, gulping way.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re going to be okay,” the waitress said.
That kiss. The thing was no one had ever kissed Lori that way. It was the kind of kiss the characters experience at the end of every girly movie. It was so kind and sensual and slow, the way she had always thought a kiss should be but never was. It was a kiss that hadn’t asked anything of her but simply gave, touching all the womanly parts of her, reaching in and pulling at her shrunken ovaries and her useless uterus and her still gorgeous breasts that hadn’t seen the light of day in forever. That kiss had touched her heart. Her soul.
Lori dropped her head and let her body slump against the waitress. Her nose burrowed into the crook of the woman’s elbow—she smelled of kitchen grease and antiseptic soap. It felt so good to be held like this. The waitress patted Lori’s back once, twice, then settled on rubbing up and down with an open palm. Lori thought she could sit like that forever, just waiting for someone to tell her what to do next.
L.L. Babb lives in Forestville, CA with her husband, two cats, and a Doodle named Punky. She has been a teacher for the Writers Studio San Francisco and online since 2008. Her work has appeared in West Marin Review, The MacGuffin, Rosebud, and many other literary journals. She was voted first in the Sixfold fiction Winter 2019 competition. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.
Maureen could clearly remember the day in December the two young professors moved in across the street and how much more she respected them back then. It was a shame that Mrs. Graham had passed, really, but Maureen liked the idea of two yuppies coming into that stuffy, gray house, sprucing it up a little bit, and bringing some fresh energy to the neighborhood. And professors, no less! With any luck, they’d be the first step in turning Manasquan into a kind of cultural center along the Jersey Shore where intellectuals and artists lived and worked, anything that would warrant it being bolded on maps. Each box they pulled from their U-Haul held that dream.
When she first met the professors, they had been so warm and kind, so cute behind their nearly matching pairs of glasses, that Maureen, for the first time in her life, considered greeting her new neighbors with a pie. She decided that a pie would be too kitschy, but she held the idea of her neighbors’ potential close to her heart like a locket. For good reason, too, because in a matter of weeks the couple had painted over Mrs. Graham’s gray with a tasteful, beachy yellow that promised to melt the winter that surrounded it.
“You better watch it,” Maureen’s friend and neighbor Donna told her on their routine evening walk. “The professors are looking to upstage you.”
Maureen laughed because “nicest house on the block” was not a title she was willing to part with easily. Every angle of her house and yard was carefully designed and consistently kept. She resembled her yard and vice versa. They were both lean, neat, and smooth, and she spent plenty of time and money to keep them that way. If the professors wanted to tire themselves out in competition, have at it. It would only help her property values to have something pretty to look at across the street.
But after the paint dried and winter died for spring, it became clearer that surface level touchups were enough for them, and they were content to neglect the harder maintenance needed for decent curb appeal. Their grass grew long and thick like a sheepdog’s hair. It hurt Maureen to look at it. In the evenings, she’d stand by her bay window and chew on her upper lip in a confused scowl until Donna knocked on her door promptly at eight o’clock.
“Can you believe what they’re doing?” Maureen would start.
“You mean what they’re not doing? Ugh! I don’t know how you could let your house get to that point,” Donna said. “It’s laziness like that that I can’t stand.”
“It’s a lack of pride is what it is. These kids don’t have that. They don’t know what it means to work for something and be proud of it. They could at least hire someone to cut the grass.”
Maureen peered over her shoulder to bring the yard back into view, as if to remind her of what she was criticizing. Even from down the block, she could see the sharp property lines where the neighbors on either side kept their grass short and tidy.
“You know what I think?” Donna said with a click of her tongue. “I think one of their parents bought that house for them. I doubt two professors could afford a house like that at their age. They don’t want to care about that house because it’s not theirs. They’re not paying someone to cut the grass because they can’t afford it.”
“I’d like to believe that,” Maureen said, thinking. “I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“That’s what makes the most sense to me.”
And for days Maureen tried to see if it made sense to her too. Her husband, Irv, seemed indifferent towards a yard he could choose not to look at, so he was little help. Maureen was paranoid that a crumbling house across the street would reflect poorly on her, her house’s curb appeal, and the entire street’s reputation. Perhaps the professors really were just too poor to hire a lawn service, a thought that made Maureen sympathetic, though still dissatisfied.
“There’s no shame in being poor, but there’s shame in being dirty,” her mother always told her.
She couldn’t otherwise justify why the couple would jeopardize the neighborhood like this.
But, as much as she wanted to believe this, she couldn’t without proof. She sat by her window with a magazine spread over her lap but paid almost no attention to it. She nibbled the manicure off her fingers as she waited for one of the professors to show themselves. Professor Klein came out to get the mail, and Maureen decided she ought to do the same.
Klein was tall and handsome, even if a bit lanky, with wavy brown hair verging on curly. To Maureen, he looked like a bookish dweeb, like the kind she used to tease back in high school who never grew a harder shell. If he weren’t a professor, Maureen had a difficult time picturing him surviving as anything else. He didn’t look like he could handle being a lawyer, like Irv, or a manager or a doctor.
With mail in hand, Maureen waved at Klein and invited herself to his side of the street. As they exchanged pleasantries, she swept her foot across the grass and watched it unfurl in waves.
“You know,” she started, “I can give you the number for the lawn service I use. They do wonderful work, and they’re very reasonable.”
“I appreciate it,” Klein said with a clean smile, “and I can see that they do great for your house. But I think Renée and I are fine taking care of our lawn on our own.”
“Are you sure? I know I could get them to give you a free consultation.”
“For now, quite sure, but if we ever change our mind, I’ll give you a knock.”
Maureen feigned a smirk. Klein gave her a little salute with the envelopes in his hand and retreated back into his house. On the way back inside, Maureen knelt down to pull a weed that had sprouted in the gully between her grass and the sidewalk and threw it in the garbage.
“Take care of it themselves!” she scoffed at Donna on their evening walk. “That’s what they think they’re doing? Are they blind? You would think that professors would have more of their wits about them than that.”
“It’s just selfish,” Donna said, and Maureen was relieved that someone agreed with her disgust.
“Do they have any idea what this will do to our street? No one will want to live here anymore, and everyone’s property values will go down. We have a community we have to think about. We have to think and care about our neighbors.”
“This is exactly what happened to my sister Sue,” said Donna. “They had one bunch of slobs move in next door, and the next thing you know the neighborhood is trashed!”
Maureen shook her head and bit her lip.
“Ah! You know what I heard? The wife is pregnant now.”
“Renée? Who told you that?” said Maureen.
“The Myers, next door to them, they told me. Now, I don’t know how they know, but I saw her yesterday and I swear she had that glow to her. And she’s a little rounder around the waist too.”
“Well that shouldn’t be hard to notice. She’s a twig, that one. I can hardly imagine her ballooning like that on those little toothpick legs.”
But Maureen could imagine beyond that, all the way to them having a toddler running through grass that towered over its head, getting knotted and tripped up in it, falling, crying, blowing on dandelions, growing more weeds, cuts, scrapes, bruises, bug bites, rashes, hay fever, Lyme disease…
“Well they better get their act together,” Maureen said, “because if they’re not responsible enough to take care of their lawn, they’re not responsible enough to take care of a child.”
The summer went on hot and swampy. There was regular rain followed by relentless heat, keeping it humid almost all the time. That and the salty breeze from the ocean made the days unpleasant and the nights only marginally better. But it was a great time to grow. Maureen hired her lawn service to heavily fertilize her grass and trim it once a week on Thursdays—perfect for the weekends. She ordered some tropical flowers to place in pots across her property. They would only last the year, of course, but Maureen liked to have nice things while she could.
All around the town, people seemed to be pursuing similar goals. Every day the overlapping hum of lawnmowers, sprinklers, and cicadas sounded like a single species. Everyone was doing their part to beautify the neighborhood. That is, everyone except the professors. Their lawn was growing wicked and wild, with tall grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and seedlings popping up irregularly. Looking at it, Maureen winced and bunched her brow, making her worry about the wrinkles this eyesore would cost her. So selfish, those professors.
The good news was that Renée really was pregnant, or at least she had started to look it and wasn’t intent on hiding it. The bad news, as Maureen saw it, was that with a baby on the way, it looked even less likely that the professors would spare precious time and energy fixing their jungle. Circumstances stacked as they were, Maureen had to work to avoid becoming hopeless. If she couldn’t stand looking at their yard, she couldn’t stand being quiet either. She’d annoy them, yes, but such matters were worth losing friends over, not that she and the professors were all that close anyway. There would be no love lost there.
She resumed her perch at her window, taking aim at the professors’ door. Their car pulled up, an outdated Civic, and Maureen went to get the mail. Renée and Klein almost made it to their door before Maureen got to their side of the street.
“Hello, hello!” Maureen called out to them. They spun around to face her. “I just wanted to extend my congratulations.”
She reached a hand towards Renée’s stomach. Renée rubbed her baby bump defensively.
“Thank you,” she said. “She’ll be our first.”
“When I was pregnant with my first, back when I was a bit younger than you are, I remember all I craved was olives, and I could never keep them down.” Maureen went on, burdening them with uncomfortable details until she could see them backstepping towards the door. “Before you go—I don’t want to hold you all day—I wanted to ask you about your lawn.”
“What about it?” said Klein.
“Well… some the neighbors, myself included, have noticed that it’s become a bit… overgrown. We want to know what your plans are for it.”
“This is the plan,” Klein said as he waved over his grass. Maureen blinked at him.
“What plan? Let it grow until you can’t walk on it anymore? It’s, it’s unsightly.”
“We want a natural yard,” he said. “We’re ecologists. Well, Renée is a bit more of an agronomist.” He tucked her under his arm, and they smiled at each other, as if to keep Maureen out of their joke. “Fertilizer runoff throws ecosystems out of balance, and we don’t want to contribute to that, especially here with the reservoirs and ocean nearby. It’s all very delicate.”
Maureen bit her lip again, unsure of how to deal with a kind of lunacy she’d never encountered before. “But can’t you at least trim it? The neighbors…”
“We’ve been busy,” Renée told her as she drew a circle around her stomach. “We’ve been focusing on making the backyard nice, since that’s where we like to spend our time.”
Frustrated, Maureen let them go, but she wasn’t sure if she told them goodbye. She paced around her home, biting her lip, biting her nails, and sneaking glances at the fresh meadow across the street. Irv got home around six, and she couldn’t wait until her walk with Donna.
“Is that so?” Irv said after she explained. “I never thought Manasquan would attract a breed of hippies.”
“I don’t know how you can be wedded to an idea like that when it actively hurts the people around you. I can appreciate science, but what happened to common courtesy?”
“Common courtesy and common sense are both going to die out with us,” Irv said, and Maureen agreed.
“Isn’t there something we can do? Can we report them to the town?”
“Outside of an HOA, there’s not much recourse. It’s their God-given right to let their yard go to shit.”
“What if it’s a safety concern? I’m sure they’re attracting all kinds of ticks and pests. You have to know some loophole that can get them to cut their grass.”
He said he’d look into it. Maureen made him dinner but was too distracted to make it properly and overboiled the pasta. Donna came, like clockwork.
Donna widened her mouth in a silent gasp as round as the pearls in her earrings. “Are they really that concerned? We all care about the environment, sure. I recycle. I don’t litter. But how can you do something like that?”
“Of course we have to care about our planet. We know that better than anyone. We’re next to the ocean. If it rises like they say it will, we’ll lose our homes!” Maureen donned concern, but behind that concern she had a fantasy that the ocean would rise right up to her backyard—beachfront property at last.
“There’s no reasoning with these people,” Donna said. “We have to try our best to ignore them.”
Maureen couldn’t let it go. Looking at that tall grass made her sweat, which was unusual for her. She tried putting herself in their shoes, imagining what it was like to care so much about the environment that you’d voluntarily live in filth, but her empathy couldn’t stretch that far. The environment to her wasn’t there in Manasquan but in mountains and forests so far removed from those suburbs. As long as she lived there, she couldn’t let their little experiment go on.
In a bin in the garage, Maureen dug out a Super Soaker that she gave to her grandkids when they came over. She filled it half up with bleach and topped it off with water. I’d rather see dirt piles out there than what they have now, she thought. Unusable dirt they’d have to at least cover with rocks, something more reasonable. Maureen put on a pair of black joggers and a black sweater. She looked like a cat burglar, a bad caricature of what a villain should look like. She wondered if she was stooping too low, but she quickly swatted that idea out of her mind. Nothing, nothing could be more important than her own sanity. She didn’t work hard until retirement for a couple of professors to ruin her peace.
Once it was good and dark, Maureen snuck out with her chemical weapon, crept across the street, and unloaded on a twisted column of grass. In the half moon’s scant light, Maureen could hardly see where she was shooting. Crickets drowned out the sloshing sound in her water gun, but she still worried that she would get noticed. She vastly underestimated how much she’d need, but she figured that whatever she sprayed would serve as a fine trial run. If she successfully stomped down a patch of the yard, she could come back, work bit by bit, and kill off the nuisance slowly.
She washed her hands, changed clothes, and climbed back into bed next to Irv. She threw an arm over him and slept well, and by morning she felt light in a way she hadn’t in weeks. It was Sunday, so no mail, but she could still wander around her front lawn plucking weeds, not that there were many left after all the Roundup, in order to get closer to her handiwork across the street. She could see a couple splashes of grass that had been drained white, but not quite the mass destruction she’d hoped for. Instead, there was a patchwork of stains that, hopefully, presaged death, and were luckily mild enough that they could be chalked up to a minor drought or the sheer volume of plants choking each other in a struggle for space.
What was more apparent was the steely smell of bleach that reached down her nose and nipped at her lungs. But even so, she could only smell it when she got close.
Convinced that her plan still held promise, Maureen set out to replicate it. She swapped the water gun for a plain bucket, reasoning that the bucket would give her the coverage she needed and would be easier for her to spill out and retreat. She also didn’t like the idea of her grandkids playing with a toy laced with bleach, so she washed it and put it back in its place. She stopped paying close attention to the bleach dosage, figuring that the water would evaporate and the bleach would accumulate until the soil was too poisonous for anything to grow.
She carried on like this, dumping bleach in their yard at night and sleeping soundly right after. The sore on her lip was finally healing. Neither Irv nor Donna, and especially not the professors, knew what she was doing, and she planned to keep it that way. The less they all knew the better. Still, it was hard for anyone to dodge the smell of bleach that suddenly began haunting the street like an industrial ghost.
“What is that?” Donna asked her each night.
“Chlorine? I bet the Myers are messing around with the chemicals in their pool.”
Donna accepted that answer at the time. When the smell sharpened, Maureen got her to believe that it was someone’s fertilizer. When the smell became a stench, Donna was told that it was emanating straight from the professors’ lawn, which was an easy sell because it became strong enough to pinpoint the origin. Conveniently, a good percentage of their lawn had died, turned brown, and began decaying into a juicy sludge that at least looked like it stunk.
It was working perfectly. The professors’ lawn was withering away, and in the process, it had become the disgusting onus of the street, leaving them no choice but to be ashamed of it. It was only icing that the whole dying thing provided a neat cover for Maureen. Now, whenever she saw the professors, she noticed embarrassed grief caked on their faces. She felt bad for them, truly, but some lessons have to be taught brutally, and Maureen thought it was incumbent upon the professors to learn how to properly take care of things, especially with a baby on the way. She hated seeing that shame inhabit them, but she mostly hoped that they’d change, work themselves out of it.
Maureen and Klein crossed paths at their mailboxes again, and this time Klein came to her side.
He conceded, asking Maureen if she could put him in touch with her lawn service, please.
“Really?” Maureen acted surprised. “I thought you were opposed to that.”
“I was. We were, but everything in our yard is dying.” He looked worried, maybe even close to crying, but he swallowed it. “I feel like I’m losing it. Every day I walk out my door and I swear I smell bleach, but bleach doesn’t just appear.” He ran his fingers through his hair and tugged on it.
“Bleach? I’ve smelt it too, but I assumed it was all the fertilizers people spray around all mixing together. Pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, you know.”
“I can’t quite place it. I’ve been around plenty of dead plants, and I know it’s not them.” He paused. He bit his lip, for once. “Renée can smell everything right now. Her nose has gotten so sensitive lately. She completely believes that it’s bleach. She says she gets a migraine every time she leaves the house. I can’t disagree with her, but I don’t know how to help her either.”
He trailed off. Maureen held his arm and flashed him an assuring, winning smile. “I’ll get you the number.”
By early August, once everything in the professors’ lawn was dead or dying, the bleach smell too was subsiding as a heatwave scorched the soil dry. This was the best Maureen could ask for. Her lawn service was scheduled to clean out the debris and lay down sod in a week or so. But before that could happen, a nor’easter tore up the coast, shaking houses and laying down thick piles of rain. The next morning, the bleach was rehydrated, reinvigorated, and ready again to accost the street’s noses. Even from her porch, as Maureen stirred sugar into her morning coffee, the fumes mingled with her drink and turned each sip sour. Yet, she remained in good spirits because the gray-brown mess across the street would be gone shortly.
The professors emerged, as they always did on weekdays, around eight-thirty. Maureen had been seeing less and less of Renée, but she saw that she was coming along and had started waddling slightly in an effort to balance her stomach with the rest of her frame. Klein was dutifully by her side, arm in arm, helping relieve the pressure on her swollen feet. Then, once she got a good whiff of her yard, her veneer of calm cracked and caved inward as her face drained of all color. She folded at the waist and vomited before her feet. Klein held and straightened her, but she lurched forward again and further emptied bile from her stomach. He wrapped her arm over his shoulders, carried her to the passenger seat, and sped off.
Maureen watched it all unfold from her porch. After the first vomit, she stood up as if she were offering herself for service, but she was only searching for a better view. She sat down when they left, and it took her a few minutes to crave her coffee again. What a shame, she thought. All that big, nasty yard to throw up on and she chose her walkway. Left in the sun, that’ll bake in and leave a stain.
When Donna knocked on Maureen’s door two nights later, she had already pieced a story together from her threads of gossip.
“You didn’t get this from me,” she said, lowering herself to a whisper, “but I heard that they took her to the hospital, and she had a miscarriage.” She hissed slightly on the final s.
Maureen looked surprised, but news fell on her softly as if she’d known it all along. “No, no, she couldn’t have. She’s more than three months along; that’s unheard of.”
“I couldn’t believe it either. It’s rare, horribly rare, but it can happen under stress. At first I thought it was an abortion, because you know how these kids play fast and loose with those things, but I heard her say so many times that they were excited.”
“You’re assuming that the baby is gone,” Maureen leveled at her, “but we can’t be sure of that, unless you have her ultrasounds.”
“I’m just talking. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to. I heard this from the Myers, and you know they’re closer to them than we are. They haven’t led me wrong yet.”
Whether it was true or false was inconsequential to Maureen, nothing but another nagging loose end that came to mind whenever she thought of the professors. More crucial to her peace of mind was when the rotten plants would be trashed and the sod would be laid down. After the storm, the bleach must have leached across to the neighbors’ properties, because their grass too was getting that yellow tinge. The sooner that all got fixed the better, but Maureen hoped that the innocent bystanders would understand the collateral damage. It was horrible, really, that their yard had to go through that, but Maureen was confident that it would look so much nicer in the end.
Anticipating that, she spent the off hours of her days leering out her window sipping tea—she had switched to tea, it was lighter than coffee without all the cream and sugar. The professors’ comings and goings became less common, but Maureen always took notice. Their faces were difficult to parse, mostly because they now looked down more often than up, and they moved slowly, like the air around them was heavier than normal. Sighting after sighting, it became clear that Renée’s stomach was deflating rather than bulging. Maureen had been lucky that all three of her children came to her easily, so she had to imagine what a heartbreak like that felt like, and when she concentrated on it she could almost feel it, but the recreation was never as strong. The thought made her sad, and she didn’t want to let it go any further than that.
But it did lift her spirits to see truckloads of sod roll up to cover the barren landscape that had become the professors’ yard. She celebrated the sight by applauding to herself excitedly with tiny claps right in front of her face. Klein and Renée were outside overseeing the process, still looking down, but Maureen couldn’t blame them this time. It was beautiful. For the first time since Mrs. Graham had died, the lawns across the street flowed from one to the next. The street was respectable again, and Maureen was sure that everyone’s property values would benefit from being a part of such a presentable neighborhood.
Maureen didn’t bother to get the mail as an excuse to invite herself over this time. She had a vested interest in seeing how much they liked their new lawn.
“What did I tell you?” she said to the couple. “My guys do the best work.”
Renée broke her gaze to face her. Her mouth smiled but her eyes didn’t. “We’ll have to find a proper way to thank you. It looks so much… neater than it did before.”
“It looks marvelous,” Maureen said, getting carried away with her own satisfaction.
“It’s neat, but it’s plain,” Klein said. “We still want to have a natural yard one day, but we’ll plan it better next time. Do it right.”
“There’s always next year to try again,” Maureen said.
Maureen spat a goodbye at them and turned back to her porch. They’re already planning on ruining it again, she thought. They can’t think straight. I know they’re grieving but even in grief people should appreciate the silver linings when they come, and they got one served straight to them, and they want to throw it away. Ungrateful. They suffered a tragedy, I know, but life’s full of them. Lord knows I’ve had mine, Irv has had his, and Donna hers too. They’re too young to understand that that’s what life has in store from them, so it’s best to learn how to move on and try not to be so bitter about it. I’ll give them a year or two. That should give them enough experience to teach them how to stay in line and fit in around here.
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at [email protected].
As she clocks in, Jillian looks up from the computer to find a wrinkled envelope dangling in her face. Her chest tightens.
“Thank god you’re here,” Sonya says, waiting for her to take it. “Everyone’s calling out.”
Jillian grabs the letter, slips it in her apron pocket.
“Not me,” she says, out of breath. She and her dad are nowhere near the estimate the mold people gave them, and the latest bloom inflames her airways. “What are my tables?”
While Sonya checks the floor plan, Jillian answers the phone ringing at the counter. The man on the other end starts placing an order for pick-up, but his kids can’t make up their minds. You want Denny’s before the apocalypse or not? he shouts. She hears rumblings about getting Chili’s instead. As the debate drags on, Sonya glares at her.
“Can I help you?” Jillian asks the man, as forceful as she can muster. “Sir, can I help you?”
Sonya takes the phone and hangs up on him. “Some people can’t be helped.”
Jillian’s first table is a young couple with a daughter. “I’m incredibly strict with myself,” the man says, ordering his coffee. “I don’t drink milk, I don’t smoke, I don’t gamble. No sugar, no booze. My life is purity.”
“So no milk?”
“No, just a little milk.”
The woman seated across from him insists on ordering now, though she can’t decide what she wants. She flips back and forth between the regular and seasonal menus, desperate to solve the puzzle of her desire. Waiting, Jillian’s eyes land on the envelope poking out of her apron. Inscribed in large cursive where the return address goes: Hades. Her mom always puts something weird there.
Jillian last wrote her to ask for money, something she never did before, and she’s been regretting it ever since. Though she’d claimed it was for college applications, her mom no doubt knew it was for the house. Jillian remembers the chill that rose up in her as the letter slid down the rusty blue hatch, out of reach.
The next table is packed with teens, all arguing about the big news on TV. “I swear to god,” a boy says to a girl, “If you don’t eat a French fry before the end of the world, I will lose all respect for you.”
“I’ve maintained a state of ketosis since I was fifteen,” the girl says, ordering the Cobb salad.
The other servers, huddled around a monitor, invite Jillian to watch security footage of the big family who’d dined and dashed that morning. Embarrassed by her heavy breathing, she declines, instead spending her first moment of peace leaning back against the wall that the cameras don’t reach. She keeps a hand on the inhaler in her pocket, though she rarely needs it here. It’s the house that’s trying to kill her. Hoarding her tips for months, she’d almost saved up a quarter of the mold people’s estimate when the lights went out, and it took every dollar they had to turn them back on. Her dad was supposed to cover the electric, but their court drama controls his attention.
Jillian agreed to stay with him after the divorce, to help him fight her mom for the house, but she never dreamt they’d still be in the thick of it now, eight years later. Even as Jillian left for work this afternoon, her dad sat in his chair at the kitchen table, hunched over the latest pages of real estate law she’d printed out for him. He had the little TV on, yes, but he only half-listened to it.
“It’s the same reason people lose in court,” he said of the news—of the experts who insisted that the sun had just belched, and that a magnetic wave could hit the Earth as soon as tonight. “First whiff of danger, they panic.”
Jillian stared into the little box, wondering if she could trust a thing with so many faces. As she unbolted the door to leave, her dad took a loud, wheezy breath.
“There’s still only two kinds of problems in the world,” he said. “The kind you can solve and the kind you can’t.” He says this constantly. “Still stupid to panic over either—imagine if I’d thrown in the towel after that first subpoena? Where would we be now?”
In a moment of bravery, she pulls the letter out of her apron. Then, just as she’s about to open it, Sonya catches her standing idle. “Your side work is salad bar,” she reminds her.
‘Salad bar’ is usually her favorite. A reprieve from all the problems that can’t be solved with knives. She tries to focus on the head of iceberg lettuce that she chops—to feel the little shot of Zen this usually instills. That sweet, earthy smell.
But the letter won’t loosen its grip on her.
I get it, her mom will start. Your father is easier company. He never made you clean your room or mind your weight, because who is he to judge? If I got to pick my authority figure, I’d probably go with the dim one too. While her mom tutors Latin and writes letters to the editor, her dad watches daytime TV and collects disability. What she doesn’t say upfront, her mom will weave into the riddles that pepper all her letters. I just want you to ask yourself, peanut: what is it that always digs but never leaves a hole? She posed that one years ago. Jillian still has no idea, and it still upsets her. Even Google doesn’t seem to know the answer.
All the wall-mounted TVs show the same footage of sun spots churning. Solar Flare and Coronal Mass Ejection appear in the chyrons. She hears a scientist on some debate show arguing with a skeptic. “It won’t just be a few black-outs,” the scientist says. The world will fall into complete darkness.”
“Even if that’s true,” the skeptic says, “That’s why we have these things called generators, flashlights…”
“You don’t understand…”
So many different messages coming out. Dueling authorities who make her feel small. Jillian coughs into her elbow, feels her throat tensing up.
While serving desserts, her eyes are drawn to the little girl in the young couple’s booth. She’s reaching over the divider for an abandoned chicken nugget when she catches Jillian’s glance and responds by waving at her like an old friend she hasn’t seen in years. As Jillian waves back, charmed, a sundae slides off her tray. She can feel Sonya sneering at her before it even hits the floor. Before the thud of glass on tile, the flight of vanilla globs.
Bending down to clean it up, she hears a cook ring the bell. Then the teens start yelling for their check. White rivulets snake under a booth, towards the feet of an old woman in sandals, and as Jillian tries to intercept them with a napkin, she coughs on the woman’s toes. She hears Sonya yelling at her, telling her to let Antonio get it, but her whole body tenses up now. Between violent coughs, she sees the tips of her fingers turning blue.
She can’t breathe. She can hear her dad telling her that this is solvable, but that does nothing to stop the sense of drowning. The fact of drowning. Lying down on one arm, she finds the floor surprisingly rough. It’s craggy, like the bottom of a trench. She feels her shirt riding up like a plumber’s, hears her mom scolding her to pull it back down.
Working hard isn’t enough, the letter will say. We all need some scrutiny to keep us on the right track. If she’d moved out with her mom, Jillian thinks, she wouldn’t have wasted all these years feeding her tips to a money pit. She might have a degree by now, a desk in some office. By this hour, she might even be home for the night, sipping a mug of herbal tea, instead of dying on the floor of a Denny’s.
By the time she inhales that first paint-thinner tasting, Albuterol-laced puff, she’s nearly accepted her fate. It seems like a fair price for her incompetence—but her throat loosens anyway. Her terror ebbs. Another puff and she’s rejoined the world of the breathing.
Jillian crawls out from under the table. Then, as she stands up in the aisle, clutching an empty chair for support, a deafening snap. Everything goes black, inside and out. Every single light is gone.
High-pitched shrieks top the explosion of reactions. Someone very close begins to cackle. As people pack up and dash, bumping into Jillian on either side, Sonya pleads for order. She pleads for Jillian, specifically, “I need you now, Jillian! Now!”
But Jillian’s retightening trachea tells her to run from her boss’s voice. Mindful of her footing, she feels her way to the fire exit, out the building, past the dumpster in back—to the edge of the woods, where the air is luscious. Dizzy, she feels out the old lawn chair that Sonya uses for smoke breaks. It’s cushier than she expected.
She hears the yelling and honking on the other side of the building, suddenly-dead cars sliding into each other. Though her phone was fully charged, it stays dark when she tries tapping it to life. It’s just like they said it would be, all those grim-faced experts: complete darkness. She looks up for stars, wondering if they’ll shine brighter, but it’s too murky to tell. It’s been overcast all day, she recalls.
Admiring the dark blanket of clouds, all those churning shades of black, she imagines the version of herself who’d left with her mom after the divorce. Who bore the brunt of that scrutiny for the last eight years. So what if that Jillian has a desk in an office? In a stone-age economy, she doubts that will count for much.
She should probably feel terrified, but it’s a wave of relief that comes over her now. Fresh air always made her feel like a new creature, an animal with skills to hone. With her inhaler now the relic of a dead age, she can’t rationalize sleeping in the house another night.
How faintly she heard the drip as a child, when a pipe started leaking behind the wall of family photos. She would push her ear up against it to listen. Years later, when her dad turned off The X-Files, she could hear it resounding all the way from the couch. Drip—drip. Still, you couldn’t hear it outside the TV room, and her mom never joined them in there. Her mom called it the “boob tube,” a phrase that made Jillian feel dirty, like they were watching porn. But she liked soaking in the blue light. Her dad’s Marlboros helped conceal the musk when it seeped through the wall. She knew it had to be bad, whatever was reaching into her nose. The fingers of something vast and malignant. But to involve her mom still seemed more dangerous.
With no light to read by, she rips open the letter anyway. Maybe she just wants to feel it in her hands, this powerless sheet of paper. Sheets of paper. All these words she can feel but will never read, because she’s ripping them up. At the moment, she hardly cares if civilization rebounds in a month, or ten years, or never. She’s spent her life caught in the middle of a war she hates, between the scrutinous and the dim, and she’s found the cover to go MIA.
Mike Nees lives and works in Atlantic City where he is a case manager for people living with HIV. His fiction has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. He hosts Atlantic City’s Story Slam series, more on which can be found at https://www.storyslamac.com/.
I turn and see the large, inquisitive eyes of a woman behind me. I’ve been startled from my thoughts, and I am briefly confused as my eyes follow her outstretched arm, down her red sleeve, to the pointed tip of her manicured finger. My neck scarf has fallen to the floor. I bend awkwardly over my carry-on to stuff it back into my bag, deeper this time.
I smile at her, looking past her eyes at the gray-streaked red hair that hangs limply at the sides of her temple. “Thank you.”
I turn back to face the front of the lengthy security line. I listen to the voices float around me in excerpts of excited and nervous chatter. I watch the woman in front of me dig deep into her small, red bag before she finds a rattling bottle. In one fluid motion, she takes a swig of her water and a white pill. I smile at the back of her head in empathy. She must be a nervous traveler, much like my mother was.
I am visiting my Grandfather. My Dede is sick, and while I don’t enjoy the lengthy and cramped flight to Istanbul, with young babies screeching in outrage, a stiff neck and the silent fight for the center armrest, I am looking forward to seeing my family. I long for hot tea and the döner from Iskander my cousin always has waiting for me when I arrive, steaming hot and swimming in juices.
I check my phone for the time and then put it away. I feel a wave of the dusty moths scatter across my stomach, awakened from their slumber, as the security line begins to shift. I shuffle my feet forward, looking down at the speckled floor. It hasn’t changed in all these years. The interior of the airport has been transformed. The stairs leading up to security are built into a faux rock wall, water cascading over it, as if the airport is in the midst of a jungle. The ripped blue sofas from thirty years ago have been replaced with smart, gray chairs and white side tables. The walls have a nice new coat of paint on them as well. But the floor has stayed the same. I step over the cracks separating each tile, just as I did as a child. I study the spots, a faded version of what they were, a smattering of black, blue and gray. I feel my eyes steady on the tiles as I am pulled back to a time in this airport, almost twenty years ago. A time when I traveled with my parents, my brothers and my sister.
“Lale, don’t even think about it!” Anne, my mother, yells at me. Her harsh words reverberate through the hollow expanse of the airport. Even though her face is covered, her eyes are angry, a warning that I am about to cross a line. I look longingly at the moving baggage claim belt and imagine how much fun it would be to climb on it. Defiantly, I brush my palm on the moving rubber, letting the belt skim my small hands, before Baba swats my hand away.
“Listen to your Anne,” he says to me sternly, but his eyes are smiling. I am often told to listen to my mother. He pulls me warmly into his side. Rubbing his scraggly beard with his other hand, he bends his head to murmur, “You are going to give her a nervous breakdown. She hates flying, you know.”
I adore my Baba. He makes me laugh until tears come out of my eyes. I watch my older brothers, Abrahim and Ali, playing with their Gameboys. We are waiting for my sister, who is in the restroom. When Miriam emerges, I feel a stab of envy. She tucks a strand of hair that has escaped her bright orange scarf. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to wear a hijab too. Only big girls get to wear them and, according to my Anne, I’m still just her baby at eight years old.
“Let’s go!” Baba yells, and we begin walking toward the escalators to security. When we get to the top, there is a long line. Baba reminds me that this is the part where they check our bags to make sure there are no bad guys. Abrahim’s Gameboy dies and now he and Ali are fighting over the second one. Miriam is reading her book, her gaze steady and intent, seemingly unaware of the bickering between my brothers. I swing myself back and forth under the ropes that divide the lines. Anne has given up on me. She stares ahead and breathes deeply, while Baba squeezes her hand.
“Next!” the security woman barks.
She has blonde hair, and her soft, brown freckles almost completely cover the pale skin of her arms. Baba gives her our passports and boarding passes, and she studies them intently before handing them back to him.
Miriam looks at the security line and frowns. “Baba, do you think we will make our flight on time?”
Baba smiles. “Yes, cenim, this line is moving quickly. See how fast they are moving people along?”
I watch a girl at the security line next to us. She puts her bags on the conveyor belt and walks through the metal detector. I realize this is what I must do. I shift the straps of my backpack off my shoulders and get ready to put my bag on the conveyor belt. But I freeze.
Because my Baba is raising his voice.
And he never raises his voice.
“Sir, I’m asking you to step aside, please,” the security man says.
“Is this necessary? We have a flight to catch. We’re running late.”
“It’s policy,” he says.
“You have let every single person through. Why not me?” My father’s smiling eyes are no longer smiling.
“You can either step aside right now, or we can help you do that,” the man yells at my father, and he moves toward him before my father throws up his hands in exasperation.
“Fine!” Baba follows the security man, passing an officer patting his hands down the back of another young man. I wonder why he is touching him in this way. My Anne looks at another security lady in alarm.
“Where are they taking him?” her voice quivers.
“Calm down, go stand over there. You’ve been selected for a random search.” The woman points to a tall man a few feet away.
He has white gloves and a light blue shirt on. The man gestures to my Anne to come closer. “Come here, ma’am, I just gotta check your person.”
Anne shakes her head. “This is not possible, I can’t do this.”
“Come on,” the man says, and his smile disappears. He frowns. “Now.”
Anne steps hesitantly over to him. He reaches for her waist and she cringes with her hands in front of her chest to guard her body. “Is there at least a woman available?” Anne says. “I’m not comfortable with this.”
“Calm down, it will take two seconds,” the man yells at her and he plunges his hands up and down her waist. Her billowy dress outlines her petite figure as the man rubs his hands down the outsides of her legs. He moves his hands to the insides of her ankles, and he runs his hands up and starts reaching inside her scarf to check her body underneath.
My cheeks heat up and I look away because I don’t want to see this man touching my mother in this shameful way. Abrahim and Ali are staring at their shoes, eyes wide, and they don’t say anything. It would also be shameful for them to look at my mother this way. Abrahim’s hands are clenched into fists at his sides, and Ali’s Gameboy trembles in his hands. Miriam’s eyes are wide; she is looking in the direction my Baba went, and I look for him instead. Baba will stop this man. Baba will know what to do. I see that the men have taken him to a little tent next to the security line.
Just inside the opening of the tent, I see a flash of my Baba’s belly. His bare belly is very pale, like my own, and it has lots of dark, curly hairs covering it, and I can’t see a belly button. I realize he is naked, and I have never seen my father naked, and I can’t believe he is naked with all these people so close, close enough to see flashes of his belly. I feel my sister’s hand on my shoulder, pulling me gently. I look down at the ground. I study the speckled floor. Black dot. Blue dot. Black Black Blue. Gray dot. Blue dot. Black Gray Blue.
I feel myself moving forward, my gaze still steady on the dots on the floor. Miriam stops abruptly and brushes by. I peek forward as I watch her walk through a large, black door frame. She turns and gestures for me to come through. I creep toward the ominous black frame. One of the uniformed men has returned from the tent where Baba is, holding a black stick, watching me. I hesitate, Miriam’s gestures becoming more frantic.
“Gel, Lale. Come!” She tries to be gentle, but I can tell her voice is shaking, like my hands.
I see my Anne on the other side of the threshold and I know I must cross it to see my family. I walk through and jump as a harsh beep reverberates in my ears. The man with the stick comes forward, frowning, waving it before my face. I am afraid he will hit me. I cringe and crouch to the floor. He sighs with exasperation and pulls me by my arm.
“Let me,” I hear a woman’s voice say. I feel an arm gently pulling me up to standing.
She takes the stick from him and waves it over my head. It beeps again, and I duck my head down in fright. I wonder if they will take me to the tent and make me get naked too.
The woman smiles at me, and she looks really pretty and nice. She waves the stick and shakes her head as if it is the stick that is wrong. “It’s just mad at your cute hair clips. I love the purple! Is that your favorite color?”
“Yes,” I manage, nodding. That morning, I had adorned my long brown hair with metal hair clips. They are my favorite, with two large purple butterflies on them. I had coordinated them with my purple shirt. I am wondering if I am not allowed to have them.
“You’re okay. Go ahead, don’t forget your bags!” She gently guides me toward the conveyor belt. I watch our bags emerge from their dark cave, but I dare not touch them. I see that Anne is standing before a man on a bench. He has opened her bag on the table before him. He is rifling through the clothes.
Miriam grabs my hand and brings me to a bench a few feet away from Anne. I see Baba walking back from the tent, and I jump up from the bench and run to him. My arms are flung around his waist, and he presses my back gently toward him. I look up at him for reassurance, but he is frowning and quiet. The laugh and mischief are gone from his eyes.
Anne is given her bag and joins us. No one is speaking, and I decide that I shouldn’t speak either.
“Gel,” Baba beckons us. We begin to follow quietly. My Anne is pale. Abrahim and Ali have stopped fighting over the Gameboy. Ali lets his Gameboy hang limply at his side. Baba squeezes my shoulder and Miriam is holding her book to her nose, though I do not think she is reading it.
In the end, I chose not to wear a hijab. I prefer my face to vanish among the faces of the people in this line, in the grocery stores, and in the malls. I hold my purse tightly toward me, my head down, my hair framing my face in a curtain to keep them out. I watch my feet as I skip the cracks on the floor, concentrating on those speckles from all those years ago.
The TSA security agent motions for me to step forward.
I feel a surge of the flurried moths in my stomach, but push through them with my carry-on in tow. I swing my hair around to the left side of my face, the ends curling at my ribs, damp from the rain outside. I feel apprehension as he studies my passport and then glances briefly at my face.
“Have a good trip,” he absently hands me the card and begins motioning to the next person in line. I place my bag on the conveyor belt. I peel off my sweater and take off my shoes as I pile them into a bucket. Before I go through the metal detector, I run my hands through my hair to check it, a habit, all in vain because I know the little metal hair clips with the purple butterflies are no longer there.
Seyda Mannion is a writer and World Languages teacher in Syracuse, New York. She graduated with a B.A. in Modern Languages from Wells College, where she earned a writing award for her thesis: Una Guerra Poetica. She earned an MST in Education from Lemoyne College. She also self-published Send Us Forward: Thoughts of a Teacher in the Face of Intolerance. This is her first published short story. Seyda enjoys traveling abroad with her husband, Daniel, and visiting her family in Turkey. They are expecting their first child.
It started off with cats, which was what my cellmate Rudy had, til his cat shrunk down to the size of a kitten, then a mouse, then disappeared altogether. Every once in a while, at night, besides the usual squeaks of the roaming guard’s boots, I’d hear squeaks of a different kind. Through the slight light at Rudy’s bunk, I could see where he lay with his head propped on one hand, the other hand cupped in front of a squinted eye. An eye he’d wink at me before putting his finger in front of his mouth and saying, “Shhhh.”
When my morning came, through the bars the guard handed me an armadillo. I guess, by the time they got down to people like me, they was all out of cats. They had already told me I shouldn’t self-punish. But for me the armadillo made a kind of sense, at least that’s what our group therapist Dr. Gronsky said, because I keep a hard outer shell. That’s why I’m supposed to write this all down, he said: to find myself a way out of myself.
An armadillo is small as a squirrel—lots of people don’t know that—and Aztecs used to call them Nahuatl, which meant turtle-rabbit. Rudy told me about that word because like all the Mexicans in here he likes to pretend he’s descended from Aztecs, though who’s to say he’s not just descended from Erik Estrada. Or was, anyway. I still don’t understand what happens to us after we leave here. Not when we leave the way he did.
My armadillo is cheap to feed—ants, grubs, roly-polies—and that’s how I spend my time in the yard. Me on my knees digging up dirt with my hands, Harriet with her little claws. I pet her leathery armor, warm like a saddle, warm from the sun falling behind the barbed-wire caging.
The idea behind the Pets for Penitents program was that by trusting us with responsibilities we were made more responsible, that by being trusted we’d accept ourselves as trustworthy.
So there we were in the yard getting beat down by the sun on our necks. I sat on top of an aluminum table with my shoes propped on the blinding bench-seat.
Across the grass, Hector walking his peacock, strutting at the end of its leash, grooming those feathers like dancers’ eyes: all-day watching, blinking—tempting, even.
Tyrone watching the weighted barbells move up and down over chest after chest, all the while on his shoulder sat that iguana, throat-breathing.
Thad watching the whites play basketball, head bobbing approval at a three point swish; Twyla, his cockatoo, perched on top of his head and bobbing her own.
We inmates was all lock-step so our pets could get their walking privileges. So they could get a treat or two. An extra fly. A biscuit. Humans’ll take care of a pet better than themselves. Most. We all thought Rudy was the only one his pet didn’t check. We all thought when his cat disappeared, Rudy took to starvation.
We all thought wrong. Thing was, he wasn’t just getting skinnier.
Rudy had been beastly, with tats scrawled across his buff shoulders and down his swollen arms. Now he stooped from five feet and a half to five, skin flabby beneath his chin and chest. His pants wouldn’t hang on his waist, so the warden finally issued him pants from the women’s ward visible out the window and across the boring Central Cali fields.
“Where’s your cat?” the warden asked, shiny shoes at the base of the bars. I watched with my pillow tucked down over my head. The warden thought of me as a problem. My armadillo, Harriet, she curled up into my tensed forearm, tensed at the thought of that word “problem.”
Rudy shrugged his now-knobby shoulders. “Must have made his escape from Alcatraz.”
That’s when the warden took Rudy’s TV time.
When the guards finally came into the cell, it got tore up from the floor up for some kind of clue. What was happening to him? He didn’t tell them shit. Rudy sat cross-legged, no bigger than a bronze Buddha for a garden, on the worn-out bed. He was down to four feet tall and one hundred pounds. They took his family photos; he just kept shrinking.
They had to stop there because prisoners were allowed by law to do three things: Crafts, Kitchen, and Crap. They thought maybe he wasn’t eating anymore, but he’d climb down off that toilet like a child and smile over his crusty mac and cheese in the dining hall. I had a deeper hunger for thinking on the past than I had for any food, and I pushed my macaroni around my plastic plate.
He sat across from me, clutching his tray topped with a plate empty of anything but a yellow smear, his denim collar and cuffs big as a Marx-bros hobo-skit. “You gonna eat that?”
At the bus tub near the dining hall exit, I dropped my tray in and looked back at Rudy eating my dinner at our empty table. Tyrone, with the slow-lidded iguana on his shoulder, nodded at my tray, took the hairnet off his bald head, and took the bus tub up in his delicate hands.
I asked him, “Is it just me, or is Rudy shrinking?”
Slow blink from Tyrone. Slow blink from iguana. Big-throated, double-chinned shrug from the both of them. “I hate to say shrinking,” Tyrone said. “Dr. Gronsky says we’re not supposed to make judgments.”
Dr. Gronsky ran our circle-time on Tuesdays. “What should we call it?”
Tyrone propped the bus tub against a hip and scratched his iguana’s chin. “How’s about self-induced reduction therapy?”
I asked, “That a thing?”
Tyrone didn’t answer, just fed a stray piece of macaroni from his fingertip to his iguana’s pink tongue.
So there was Crap, and there was Kitchen, but when it came to Crafts Rudy ran the show. All day and night he super-glued twigs and popsicle sticks, Lincoln logs and heavy paper, light bulbs from Christmas lights no bigger than a bee’s ass.
Rudy, hunched over his project, now looked more like a four-year-old building a diorama than a man of eighteen building a piece of art.
“You know by now what I did, to get locked up.” He did know. He was the only one, really. That knew what I’d done and why. “What did you do?”
“Does it really matter?” He corkscrewed his tongue against his chapped lips and squinted down at the four-inch-high door he was gluing to the doorframe. A bead of sweat dripped off his small bald head to land on the stamp-sized welcome mat at his fingers. He sounded different and said in his new small flutey voice, “Dr. Gronsky says we shouldn’t self-punish.”
It should have told me something, that to Rudy I was the one who self-punished. He just kept on gluing pieces together. Kept on shrinking, too.
That Tuesday, at circle-time, Dr. Gronsky put his grey-haired hand on my shoulder, to stop the sobbing. And he said our guilt would only disappear when we learned how to live in the moment, the way our pets did.
By the last days of Rudy’s stay, I had to leash Harriet to my metal bedpost—she could’ve blown Rudy over just breathing near him. The last time I saw him, Rudy was just big enough to open that popsicle-stick door of his little home, walk in, and, right after waving goodbye, shut the door behind him. The lights went on in the tiny windows crossed by toothpicks. I heard it again, then, the tiniest high-pitched meow, and a purr like the sound of a fly’s wings.
I petted Harriet’s armor, not much harder than a calloused hand, and I cried because I still felt hot-bellied with guilt, because I always would, even once the crying stopped. And it was a thing I had when I didn’t have many things, so I hung onto it. Then Harriet crawled stump-legged into my hand, sniffing up at me, her tiny black eyes reflecting me wide as a world. Now when I thought of Harriet I didn’t think Nahuatl, or turtle-rabbit, or even Armadillo. See, Harriet wasn’t her name when I got her.
When I blinked my burning eyes free of her gaze I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but my tears were gone. And there she was, still the size of a squirrel in my palm. Only, when I set her down on my pillow and she crawled across it onto the headline of my newspaper, I realized she was the size of a mouse. She sniffed at the date running long from her nose, and I thought, life’s a long time and a short time at the same time, isn’t it? She wobbled her artichoke back to tuck herself under my duffel-sized pillow. I took a deep breath. I laid my head back and imagined her settling in under there.
Christopher David Rosales is from Paramount, CA. His first novel, Silence the Bird, Silence the Keeper, won him the McNamara Creative Arts Grant. His second novel, Gods on the Lam (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2017), and his third novel, Word is Bone (Broken River Books, 2019), are available now. Word is Bone won him an International Latino Book Award, and his new short story “Fat Tuesday” is featured in the anthology of border noir titled Both Sides (Agora/Polis Books, 2020). Contact him at www.christopherrosales.com.
She spread her legs and the neon blue lights shifted like we were underwater. She was wearing underwear, but they were crotch-less, white elastic stretching around her hips to hold her tips. Her hair was brown. I don’t like brunettes, especially not with how short she kept it, just barely brushing her shoulders, yet I watched her with interest. She stood up and moved to a pole languidly, her steps not in sync with the beats of the music. She was in her own world, she spun around the pole, her head hung like it was out a window, letting the breeze blow through it. She shimmied down the pole and then she was seated again, in front of me, her legs splayed out, she lifted her butt once, twice, maybe she thought that it counted as dancing, and then she went back to the pole.
I wasn’t seated. I stood in the aisle, hesitating, my friends behind me, waiting for me to join them on the purple velvet couch that stretched the length of the room. A man was in front of me, seated at the dance floor, his elbows propped up, beckoning my girl over with a twenty-dollar bill. She’s my girl now, I thought. My girl was wearing socks like she was a baseball player, maybe. All the women in the joint seemed to be confused, no clear costumes or personas, a mish-mosh of colors and fabrics and skin.
My girl had movie screen nipples. Her breasts were so white they easily grabbed onto the blue light and she moved like she had alien skin, she’s a blue-skinned woman, dancing on the ocean floor. Her breasts weren’t as big as mine, but still on the larger side. It’s unfair that her tiny nipples sat perky in the center. Only women in the movies have nipples like that, no areolas, just perfect little nipples. I resisted the temptation to look down my own shirt at my own nipples that dared to be average-sized.
My girl was looking at me. It only makes sense that she was looking at me because I’d been looking at her for so long, watching her socks and her nipples and her ocean skin. I met her gaze and her expression was interested but disinterested and I did my best to look the same. I was curious about her, about the place, about what kind of women came here. I kept staring at her. I learned that if you look away too soon, it means that the gaze meant something to you. I didn’t want this gaze to mean anything.
We went to a strip club for my friend Teddy’s Dirty Thirty. I didn’t like that he called it that, I felt slimy when he said it. I didn’t like to imagine Teddy in dirty positions. In sticky situations.
I drove south with my friend Katie to Tampa. Teddy’s plan: steak dinner, casino, strip club. Katie and I were late, the GPS lied to us, we took a series of winding back roads that eventually spit us out where we needed to be an hour late.
We missed the steak dinner. Teddy called us, said we missed quite the show. Their waiter really had a voice on him, Teddy said he should audition for one of those singing shows, that singing Happy Birthday for someone’s Dirty Thirty shouldn’t be it for him.
Teddy’s roommate was with him. I didn’t like the roommate, Marvin. Now he, he was slimy. He looked like his underarms smelled toxic and he had permanent perspiration on his forehead. He had a way about him that made me uncomfortable.
Katie’s fiancé, Dylan, was coming from work so he met us at the casino. He was late too. He missed the steak dinner.
Katie and I stopped for food. She was on a diet and was counting calories, but when she realized that the pancake sandwich was only 70 calories more than the chicken one she said, “Fuck it, I’ll treat myself. What’s seventy calories anyways?”
She later threw up when we got to a casino bathroom. I heard her, she told me the pancakes were too greasy, they made her sick. I think she was just guilty.
My friend and I, we wore tight little dresses to the casino. I had never been to a casino but I’d seen plenty of movies. I did my hair up real nice, even wore some false lashes. Shoved my tattooed feet into four inch heels and pretended I was prettier than my friend when I watched her get out of the car. She was so tall and skinny, a real model type with chiseled cheekbones. I knew I was pretty, but I had to breathe through my Spanx. As we hustled out of the garage, her phone rang—her fiancé was at the bar.
We waited at the crosswalk to cross the street into the casino. A cop car pulled alongside us, the officer rolling down his window. “You ladies alright?” he asked. He gave us one long look up and down. It was less icky and more evaluating. I realized he thought we were hookers. We looked like hookers.
“Just headed into the casino,” I said, “it’s our friend’s birthday.”
“Dirty Thirty,” my friend said.
The cop stared at us and then nodded. “Alright, you girls have a good night.” He pulled away and we hustled into the building.
Whistles and eyeballs followed us into the casino. I slowly began to realize that we were still in Florida, not Las Vegas. People walked past us in t-shirts and flip flops. Women were wearing ripped jeans and tank tops. We still looked like hookers.
At the bar, Dylan gave us a long whistle, one hand wrapping around my friend’s ass, the other going over my shoulder. “How much for the night?”
I smacked him on the head and Katie told him to pay for our drinks and maybe he would get lucky.
Teddy arrived at the casino very drunk, Marvin was holding him up, one yellowed armpit next to Teddy’s head. “Let’s get playing,” Teddy said.
Dylan liked blackjack so we played blackjack. Marvin had a gambling problem, so he didn’t bring any money with him. He asked Teddy to borrow some, and Teddy handed him his wallet. The casino wasn’t very exciting. It felt kind of sad. Mindless Floridians moved like zombies from poker table to poker table, their sandals smacking against the carpeted floor, their drinks spilling over the rim of their cups, dripping down their hands, and they didn’t even flinch.
Katie and I tried the slots, seated next to old ladies wearing matching gold sequined scarves. A man walked past smelling of sunscreen and I turned my head into the scent, my eyes following him across the room. Sunscreen smelled like desire to me. Of summers sliding sunscreen under my friends’ bikini straps. But the man didn’t turn around, he didn’t feel my stare.
But I felt stares. They came from everywhere. The dealers, the guards, the men with mustaches and whiskey glasses, the women in the ripped jeans, the men watching the basketball game, daring a glance away from the screen to see my chest. One redneck man hooked his eyes into my flesh and dragged them up and down my body until I squirmed. How much? He mouthed to me. I couldn’t tell if he meant it in jest.
I grew tired of all the staring. Was I just imagining it? Was everyone really looking at me? Lingering on me? My cleavage was plenty. My heels were tall. My hair was blonde. People love to look at blondes. But was something wrong with me? Had I drunk too much? Was my makeup smeared across my face? I told Katie I wanted to use the restroom. Maybe there would be friendly women in the bathroom to share lipstick with. Katie patted Dylan’s hand, told him to wrap it up, and then followed me.
When I entered the restroom, I knew that something was wrong, I could smell a dangerously sweet smell in the air, my nose turning in disgust. I walked toward a stall door and pushed. It swung open, revealing a woman seated on a toilet, hunched over in pain, red down her chest, around her feet, splattered on the walls and floor. For a moment, I thought it was blood, for a moment, I thought she was dead. Her black dress was around her ankles. She sat in just her nude colored bra, the underwire digging into her pale flesh, turning it flush. She lifted her head and grunted at me, a string of saliva spilling from her wine-stained mouth.
“Oh!” I said, “Do you need help?” She clearly needed help.
She lifted a hand and in a whisper said, “Please, close the door.”
I entered another stall and peed real quick. I then joined Katie at the sinks. She was re-applying her lipstick.
“Katie, there is a woman in that stall—,” my voice was a hush, “we need to get help.”
“I know.” Katie smacked her lips. “I already let a security guard know.”
I risked a glimpse at my own reflection. I looked fine. Even my lipstick was fine.
We exited the bathroom and a guard was waiting outside. I pointed to the stall and thought that I might never drink red wine again.
The strip club shifted between red and blue lights. When we walked in, it was blue, everyone cast in an electric shade, like we were underwater. My hand was stamped with a glow-in-the dark kiss print and my group settled onto a long velvet couch.
I was caught in the in-between, not yet moving to the couch, not moving to the stage where women didn’t quite dance. I watched a stripper. The stripper watched me.
“Hey? You alright?” Katie’s breath was on my neck. She took my hand and we sat on the velvet couch, my back to my stripper. Katie rested a hand on Dylan’s knee and clutched my close hand.
Teddy pulled a wad of rubber band-wrapped dollar bills from his pocket. “All for tonight,” he said. I tried not to cringe. His eyes roamed around the club, searching for the woman he would pay first.
“Who do you want?” Dylan asked. A pregnant stripper walked by, wearing a velvet and lace nightie. “What’s your type?”
Teddy glanced at my chest briefly then said, “Oh, I don’t care.” We knew he did. I shook off the glance like I didn’t see it.
Marvin asked him for more money. Teddy peeled away a few bills and handed them to him. Marvin grabbed the wrist of a stripper who walked past and they moved to a more isolated part of the room.
“How much is a dance?” I asked, wondering, as I gazed at a distinguished-looking gray haired man in the corner of the club. A stripper shorter than I and skinnier than Katie was dry humping him to the beat. Her eyelashes were glued on crooked but I could see her appeal. Cheetah spots were tattooed on her thighs.
“Twenty a dance, usually,” Teddy said.
“Damn.” Katie’s face looked concentrated. “Songs are what? Around four minutes? That’s like three hundred an hour.” Her eyes met Dylan’s. “I think I need a career change.”
Dylan laughed and hugged her close.
I dared a glance toward Marvin. All I could see were his sweaty hands roaming over the woman’s breasts in the reflection of the mirrored ceiling. I tried to imagine that being me. Dancing for money. I tried to imagine the last time hands touched my breasts like that. The image of pink manicured nails flashed through my head. On my stomach, then my breasts, I sucked one into my mouth… I shook the memory away.
“Anyone want a dance?” Three strippers stood in front of us. One blonde, one redhead, and one with a long, raven-colored braid. They could’ve been Disney princesses. Teddy eyed the redhead with the double D’s and gave a hearty nod.
The redhead’s name was Lacey. Lacey strutted across the room to put a dollar in the juke box machine and changed the song. Teddy seemed happy with her breasts in his face.
“You can touch my ass too, I don’t mind!” Lacey was fun.
The other princess strippers still hovered by our group, shimmering like schooling fish.
“How about you ladies? Do you want a dance? We would love to give you a dance. A double dance!” They squealed and the blonde clapped her hands in excitement. Katie turned to Dylan to see what he thought and he shook his head uncomfortably.
The blonde brushed the back of her hand against my cheek and said, “Maybe later.” She was almost my type, not like the woman I knew was behind me, slinking up and down the pole, lazily dancing the night away. Where does she go after? Or is she always on that pole, on that floor, like a genie in a lamp, granting temporary wishes. I resisted the temptation to turn around, to look at my girl, to see if the stripper I had watched was watching me, or still moving on the stage like she was under a spell.
Teddy had a few more dances. The woman in the corner still grinded against the distinguished gentleman. Marvin appeared and asked for more money, his shirt sticking to him in sweat. Teddy gave him a few more bills, and Marvin disappeared again.
“Why do you do that?” I didn’t trust Marvin, I didn’t like him. I saw him in the mirror again and felt sick.
“He pays me back,” Teddy said. I didn’t believe him.
Dylan helped Teddy choose his next dancer and Katie and I spoke about the outfit choices of the women in the room. “I suppose men don’t care if they match,” she said.
“But women care,” I said.
“Yeah, but they’re not here for us.”
“I thought they would dance. I thought strippers danced.” I turned around then to see my girl, and there she was, spinning around the pole in a slow trance. She saw me staring. I held her gaze.
“It’s a nude strip club,” Dylan said, “they don’t have to put on a show, their clothes are already off.”
Teddy had a few more dances. His wad was slimming down. I caught Katie with her hand on Dylan’s groin. Marvin still held a stripper captive in his own corner. I wondered if the woman with the gentleman took breaks. I wondered how rich he was.
“Hi, ladies! How ‘bout a dance for y’all?” A new stripper stood in front of us. She wore a bright smile and a bright blue bra with rhinestones on it. Her skin sparkled too, she wore body glitter. “I’m gonna give you gals a dance, I sure am!” She pretended to sit down on our laps. Dylan laughed uncomfortably. “What?” the stripper said, “You don’t wanna see three ladies havin’ a good time?”
The stripper held his gaze until he conceded.
“Perfect! My name is Dixie, y’all.” A new song began and Katie and I found ourselves with a moon-white butt wiggling in our faces. Then Dixie turned and slipped off her bra. She scooted herself between us, resting her legs on us, her breasts in between our faces.
“Touch them! Go on, touch them!” She lifted my hand and put it on her right breast and put Katie’s hand on her left breast. As if on reflex, I squeezed it. My touch lingered. Dixie leaned her face in close to ours. “They’re fake.”
“No!” Katie gasped, “no way!”
“Way!” Dixie wiggled her chest and laughed. I caught Dylan, Teddy, and Marvin watching us with interest.
“I want implants,” Katie said. She gave Dixie’s breast a squeeze and whispered amazing under her breath.
“I want a reduction,” I said. I decided to give Dixie another squeeze too.
“The surgeries are so advanced now. I was even able to breastfeed.” Dixie turned to give us her backside. “Slap it!” she said. We slapped it. I felt excited. Is this how the men felt? Is this why they came here?
“Wow, you don’t look like you’ve had kids,” I said. Her body was perfect, slim and smooth. Her breasts were perfect.
“I have three!”
The song ended and Dixie gave us a hug, squeezing our heads between her breasts. “I love you girls. I love you. Have a good night, let me know if you want another dance.”
Dixie wiggled her eyebrows at Dylan and tried to saunter away. Marvin pulled her to his corner for a dance.
“What were you guys talking about?” Teddy asked.
Dylan walked Katie and me out of the club to my car. He was going to stay and make sure Teddy got home alright.
“I shouldn’t be long, he’s almost out of money. The Dirty Thirty is winding down.” Katie murmured something into Dylan’s ear and I walked away to give them some space. I could taste their tension. I felt tense. I stared up at the neon sign above the club, a giant clam shell that opened to reveal a naked mermaid inside. I let its blinking colors wash over me. It buzzed softly in the early morning.
I looked up and my stripper was in front of me. My girl. She was standing in the parking lot in her baseball socks and nothing else. She stretched a hand out toward me.
“You forgot your phone,” she said.
I walked a couple steps forward and took it. “Thank you.”
She nodded. The clam shell opened and closed.
My girl took a step even closer, our feet almost touching. I looked intently at her face. She wasn’t very beautiful and yet I wanted to run my fingers through her hair, slip off her socks, kiss her brow. I stumbled an inch closer.
“Do you need a hug?” she whispered. My brows drew together, not understanding the question, not knowing how to answer.
“Do you?” my voice was quieter than hers.
My girl, my stripper, shook her head. Her mouth curved in a funny way like she was saying yes and no at the same time but she said nothing. She wrapped me in a hug and I remember everywhere I felt her skin.
She walked back into the club and I realized I didn’t hug her back.
Shanna Merceron is a Florida writer whose work can be found in many acclaimed literary journals and magazines. Shanna holds an MFA in Fiction from Hollins University, where she wrote stories that explored the darker aspects of humanity and pushed the boundaries of the strange. She is currently at work on her first novel, and when not writing, best spends her time traveling or with her dog. You can read more of Shanna’s work via her website at linktr.ee/shannamerceron.
My freshman year of college I lifted weights and kickboxed five days a week. The kickboxing gym was four miles down Riverside and I biked there every weeknight. There wasn’t a bike lane on Riverside and cars honked. My brakes screeched.
On my way home I stopped for Taco Shack. I tried doing the drive thru once but they said I needed a car to use the speaker box so I ate inside. I was drenched and sometimes bruised from the workouts and the staff looked at me while I ate the burritos.
One of the janitors wore nipple rings that poked into his shirt. The janitor was in his late teens/early twenties. He mopped with a crook in his low back and sometimes he perked up to yell at his coworkers in a Spanglish vernacular I had trouble understanding. His shoulders were undeveloped, his arms small. I looked down on this. For myself I wanted physical greatness. Shoebox calves were my main focus. Growing up I was skinny and Dad and uncles fed me extra steak at dinner parties saying “we gotta get some meat on these bones” and when I first saw results in the bicep region, from Dad’s pull-up bar in the garage, I decided fitness would be a big part of my life.
After getting home from kickboxing I ripped my shirt off used the bong and took in my reflection before entering the lounge where my suitemates drank alcohol and played Cards Against Humanity. I looked down on their ways especially those who never set foot in the gym. They were all getting fat and no one seemed to notice but me.
One of the suitemates Arthur played guitar. Arthur had a great memory for trivial things like stats about climate change and marginalized peoples. Arthur had sex often. He had a pair of logs for calves and he had a way of breaking out in song with the guitar and whenever he began strumming, as if sans agenda, the guys in the room traded looks. The girls looked at their cards or the floor, anything but Arthur or each other.
One morning that fall, sometime in October, I went for hot breakfast at 6:30 and saw the same janitor with the conspicuous nipple rings sweeping in the college cafeteria. He picked his nose and flicked the boogers around the floor. He had razor bumps between his mouth and nose and flakes of dead skin hung from his lower lip. His phone was playing new age rap that sounded almost American but not quite. Interesting fact: you judge people by the music they listen to but also you judge music by the people you associate it with. I wished the man had headphones in. I had an important lift after the omelet. Quiet is sacred, I thought, and that’s when I started feeling hotness in my chest and eyes. I tend to avoid conflict as Anger has been known to take over. I had problems with wall punching in high school and I saw a therapist about it and the therapist said it was Dad’s fault. I enjoyed our sessions but then Dr. Carlsen died in a car wreck and after that I stopped going to therapy. Sometimes people argue with me and I forget how to carry myself because I’m upset and unable to formulate proper sentences. It’s like the production of each word is some complex equation so I end up pausing for longer than acceptable and insert curses for fear of being interrupted and before you know it I’m yelling fucking this fucking that because basically I’ve forgotten how to communicate otherwise.
“Can you turn that down please?”
“Can you turn that down?” I felt weakness in my neck and shoulders.
“Oh yeah man, yeah, my bad man,” and he turned the music down.
I continued talking. “You work at Taco Shack too, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Taco Shack and Darlene’s.”
“You like it over there?”
“Yeah man. Good people. Free food. Pay’s alright.” He swept while talking but his form was dubious and there was no sign of a dustpan and no accumulation of Cheerios and dust and crumbs. “I got my business on the side though, so probably be outta there soon.”
“Oh, you have your own business?”
“Yeah man, yeah.” The man pulled on his nose and grabbed for his waistband.
“What does your business—What kind of business?”
“Um.” The man grimaced.
I asked Uriel the nipple-ringed Janitor why did he tell me about his business given that I was a student he knew nothing about and wasn’t that risky, and he said he knew I smoked weed cause of my tomato red eyes at Taco Shack every night and I said oh so you did recognize me and he said yes we have a nickname for you over there and I said what’s the nickname and he said stoned Rocky. I said okay good nickname but still, why. And he said he wanted to break into the college market and what better way to do that than through me. And I said why me and he said cause obviously you’re not a pussy like the rest of them, I see you coming through with them fucked up hands and black eyes and most of these college kids too scared to leave campus anyway cause they think it’s all methheads out here. He gestured toward the city. I said true, true, staring into space like someone who knows things, and we traded phone numbers.
The way it worked was I introduced Uriel to customers and he sold me weed for cheap. That and we lifted weights together. I said as a drug dealer he needs to project toughness and what better way to project toughness than by tacking on mass. He said that shit don’t matter but okay, if I can get him into the college weightroom he’ll lift some but nothing crazy, still gotta be light on his feet to run from five-oh haha. I said stronger quads and glutes will optimize your capacity for sprints and he said why you talk like that and I said my bad. I taught him how to squat bench deadlift and I wrote him a plan on Excel, heavy on the legs because you have to build a solid base, and he came in four mornings a week and never missed a day. He even changed his work schedule to optimize growth.
We smoked out of my one-hitter by the science center before and after our lifts. I had Sociology 100 on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:00 and I showed up to every class pumped and stoned. One time I came in late and locked eyes with the fat blonde wolfing down her ritual McDonalds with the supersize soft drink and I broke down laughing and the professor said please leave. Another time I came in late and shoved a bunch of chairs out of the way to reach my desk but then realized that someone had taken my seat, so I turned around and shoved the chairs again, wishing the chairs would please shut the fuck up, and that’s when I heard someone whisper behind me, as if full of wisdom and insight, “He’s so high!” After that the professor had a chat with me in the hall saying you have a D+ average. I said since when is D+ a grade and he said I’m happy to round it down for you and I said I’m sorry I’m having problems with mental health and he apologized and gave me a B- for the midterm.
My other classes were also going badly because I had no interest in academics. As mentioned, I put most of my time and energy into muscle upkeep and development. I had trouble focusing on lectures with my bulging forearms on the desk in front of me. I brought a stress ball to class and watched the triangles of muscle inflate and deflate. When the bad grades started coming in I told each professor I was having problems with mental health. The calc and stats professors asked for a note from the doctor but the religious studies professor Dawn told me depression is no joke and come over to her house tomorrow evening and I said okay. Dawn smelled like candles and she wore tapestries as dresses and usually sandals. In class she talked about sex positivity and discouraged the use of cosmetics and most shampoos. Dawn had a missing thumb from when her neighbor’s pit bull bit it off and she had this unusual habit of inhaling/whispering her one-syllable words, especially the word “yeah.” I went over to her house and she fed me asparagus and gave me sex on the ottoman. She asked could she call me Smoky and I said okay. Sexually I have a small member so intercourse is no picnic but Dawn was tolerant even though she sighed and averted her eyes post-explosion. Dawn gave me a flat C for the midterm.
On my way back from Dawn’s that night I looked at my reflection in whatever glass panes provided it. I felt less upset about my calves than usual because I had just gotten sex for the first time in seven months. The air was dry and the ridges in the sidewalk massaged the arcs of my feet. I smelled pesto sauce like Mom used to make it but then I realized the smell was pot. I had a gram waiting for me at the dorm. I would smoke it do push-ups analyze reflection and walk into the lounge shoulders breathing and maybe participate in Cards Against Humanity, depending on my reception. Although probably I would have to wear sweatpants because my calves were looking small. Either that or fire off a set of donkey calf raises in the stairwell.
As far as the weed one gram would be enough but more would be better so I called Uriel and asked could he swing by. He said he got hung up at work and why you be smoking so much I just sold you a quarter last weekend. I said my bad hombre and he said please don’t call me that and I said just playin,’ and he said why you all happy and I said I just got my nut and he said oh okay well don’t be annoying about it you’d think you never been laid and I said word? and he said aren’t you from Westchester and hung up.
He came by the dorm and we smoked and watched music videos. I fired off a set of diamond-grip push-ups and he said why you doing push-ups at 9pm and I said because discipline, plus I missed my kickboxing workout for the workout with Dawn. He said speaking of discipline what’s your GPA and I said did you or did you not graduate high school and he shook his head and looked at the ground and I said just playin’. People came by to pick up and I stared into space as money was traded for drugs.
Uriel sold better weed and cheaper weed than anyone on campus, except for this one kid Johnny, the drummer in Arthur’s band “Young Dads.” Johnny had a connect in Colorado who sent him vacuum-sealed kilos through the college mailroom. Johnny had long hair and he wore a hoop earring but only on weekend nights. Johnny came from Greenwich Connecticut and his face looked like something that might have been handsome in an alternate dimension but in this one it was pointy and hollow in all the wrong places. Johnny came by my room sometime around midnight. He introduced himself to Uriel and they talked about selling drugs. Johnny said he moved a lot of drugs and Uriel said he moved a lot of drugs and Johnny said I don’t think you move as much as I do and Uriel said okay well let me see what you have and Johnny said okay. We took the underground tunnel to Johnny’s dorm. The tunnel smelled like dryer sheets. We passed the Stench, a student who never showered and wore capes and talked to himself. When we passed him he mumbled something about blueberry pancakes.
Johnny had the poster of Johnny Cash giving the middle finger. The room smelled like hot Cheetos and dirty dishes. There were bottle caps wedged into the ceiling and empty Four Lokos on the floor and a total of three lava lamps, one on the blue-grey carpet in the center of the room. A plastic owl sat on the windowsill facing out. Something new-agey and instrumental played from the dumbbell-shaped wireless speaker. A black banana was becoming one with the desktop and there was clothing everywhere, one heap in the corner, presumably the clean pile. Johnny pulled a safe the size of a cooler out from under his bed and tweaked it open and said okay. He clicked his tongue and dumped the contents on the floor and grabbed for the stubborn bags of weed and tossed them in front of us, as if to say “there.” The countless wads of twenties skipped around and rested. Uriel swayed his head and rubbed the scruff on his cheek. He said okay that’s a lot where you get your shit from and Johnny said Colorado wanna smoke and Uriel said sure and looked at the door. When we left, about ten paces down the hall, Uriel said we’re robbing that faggot.
I toyed with the idea of saying no but then it was the day of the robbery and what kind of friend would I be if I backed out last minute. I met Uriel in the Family Dollar parking lot about two blocks from campus. The car was a light blue Honda Odyssey, a sturdy minivan with good gas mileage. I knew this because Mom had looked into buying one, a wholesome family car she had said, but then she closed on the Range Rover. The bumper sticker on the Honda Odyssey read “Jesus Wants You.” Uriel was in the passenger seat. The driver Craig was eager to share that he had been to prison twice, once for selling drugs and the other for knifing his supervisor at Quick Chek. I guess he thought of his time behind bars as a sort of accolade, which, okay, given the scenario he wasn’t totally wrong. Craig had stick and poke tattoos on his neck and part of his face. He touched his tongue to his nose before and after talking. The Teletubbies car seat rose and fell in the corner of my eye, up and down like a working muscle. A bird crashed into the windshield and Craig said yo that’s good luck and started the car.
Uriel turned to face me and said okay so you let us in your building, right, we take the tunnel and the system thinks you’re going home like any other day. Then we put on these (he handed me a beige stocking with black pineapples on it), and—if it’s open we walk in. If not we knock and move over to the side so he can’t see us through the thing. If anyone sees us with the, uh, with the socks, we bail and try again next week. Don’t say my name, don’t say shit to me. Matter a fact don’t say shit at all you let me talk I let you hit. Put those stupid muscles to use. (He slapped my shoulder, hard.) What’s your shoes?
I pulled my foot up and bumped the car seat. The car seat jingled. Uriel turned to Craig and sighed “White people.” Craig contorted his lips agreeingly even though he was whiter than me.
“You’re wearing purple Jordans.”
“Yeah. Okay. Got it.”
“Leave them in here. Take off your socks, don’t want you slipping and sliding around the carpet when you’re—(he laughed and then paused) when you’re making Jack o’ Lantern out of—(he waved the thought away). Yo—(we slapped hands). Yo, we’re about to be rich.” He reached for the door handle and retracted his hand. “Yo,” he said.
“Hit that motherfucker as soon as we walk in. Hit him in the mouth.”
I slipped off my shoes and socks and opened the door. The gravel nipped at my feet. I smelled the cafeteria food and the kerosene from the dry cleaner down the block. I saw the yellow fire hydrant by the writing center and the black tag on the side of my building that read “Gunk.” I heard the thumping bass from the frat alley behind the library, the crows yacking on the power line, the retch of a motorcycle somewhere deep in the city.
I buzzed us in. Uriel led the way down the tunnel. I noticed he only swung his left arm. The right arm seemed immune to momentum, as if the shoulder and socket had been soldered together. I would have to ask him about his rotator cuff, his posterior mobility. He wore a backpack, dark green with little pockets all over and a spiderweb sewn into the left strap. We caught a glimpse of four students in the laundry room. Three were huddled in a triangle and the fourth sat on the rumbling dryer, his nose in a hardcover. I kept seeing things—fliers, moths, hidden lightbulbs, a striped apron draped over the railing, a straggling pink jellybean at the bottom of the stairs.
Uriel turned to me and said, at full volume, “Okay put it on now.” He pulled his stocking over his head and I did mine. His was a brownish yellow. We raced up, two stairs at a time. I engaged my glutes and paid close attention to my form, careful not to buckle my knees. Johnny’s room was right off the stairwell and Uriel walked in. I followed him and he closed the door the way you close the door to the waiting room at therapy. I saw two bodies sitting Indian-style and a hookah. We stood by the door and looked at them and they looked back at us. They crept to their feet and inched away from the center of the room, and us, and each other. The hookah smelled like the watermelon-flavored toothpaste Dr. Weinburger gave me as a kid. One of the bodies, Johnny, said what do you want. Uriel said Shut the fuck up Shut the fuck up and reached into his pocket and I lunged at Johnny with a right hand, pivoting my left foot, driving the momentum up my leg and through my hip per sensei Chandler’s guidance. Nobody screamed. I grabbed Johnny by the collar and dragged him to the center of the room, knocking over the hookah, then planted my bare heel on the loose coal. I yelped. Black water spilled and soaked into a heap of clothing and the bright orange coal looked up at me like some sort of prophet. I said fuck and soccer-kicked Johnny in the ribs and heard a crunch. Johnny muffled a heave, and the body twitched confusedly. I looked over and saw Uriel pointing a Glock at the second body, Arthur, Arthur the sponge-brain whimpering please and making faces. I smelled urine and I kicked Johnny again, for the same reason you sip your drink twice as fast when you have no one to talk to at the bar.
The bag was full, packed with money and pot. We even made use of the little pockets. Secret pockets my mom used to call them. Great for skiing. Easy access on the chairlift. We took off the stockings in the tunnel. I stuffed mine in my underwear. Uriel said Craig’s out there and I said word. The same four were in the laundry room, unmoved, except the one had put his giant book on the floor, face-down as if in timeout. My heel was throbbing and I wondered if the burn would hinder my squat. I walked on the balls of my feet, engaging my calves. They say you can accelerate growth by up to 20% just by visualizing it.
The funny thing about the getaway drive is that I didn’t have anywhere to get away to. But I got in the car anyway and Craig drove, stopping at stop signs and clicking his turn signals. Uriel was digging through the bag and saying holy shit. Under his breath he said holy shit there’s damn near thirty grand in here. We drove to the Walmart and parked, and Uriel went around back and tapped on the trunk. Craig popped it open and Uriel dug out a shirt and shorts and pushed them through the window. The clothing fell into the crevasse between my seat and the door. The clothing belonged to Craig, I guess, but he didn’t object when I changed into it. I said you can keep my shit I guess and he said nothing.
Back in the passenger seat Uriel turned to me and said you have to walk and I said well okay, can you drop me a couple blocks down it’s like forty minutes from here and he said too risky. I said okay can I get my share. He picked a few wads and baggies out of the backpack and dropped them into a grocery bag under the glove compartment. The grocery bag made loud crumpling sounds. Craig looked out the window. Uriel handed me the bag over his shoulder. Walgreens. He didn’t turn his head and I stared into the bag. I opened my mouth but Uriel talked.
I got out and walked home and never saw Uriel again.
There were cop cars on campus, a cluster of them blocking the intersection between Ridgewood and College Street. The grocery bag was white and the contents were green so I walked in the shade and kept my head down. The bag weighed no more than a pound. I looked like a college student coming home with his pizza pockets and Zoloft.
Johnny was hospitalized, arrested, and expelled, in what order I’m not sure. Arthur wrote a song about the robbery. He called it “Johnny’s Song” and he played it at the campus bar. People cheered violently and you can be sure that Arthur had his pick of the litter that night. Me, I sat in the back of the bar drinking seltzer. I had an important lift in the morning. People looked at me and they would keep looking at me and they could look all they wanted. Scar or no scar, I never left my room without a pair of crew socks on, hugging the base of my stubborn calves.
Ben Austin is a writer from San Marcos, Texas. His work has appeared in Lotus-eater, The Metaworker, and elsewhere. He’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Texas State University. He lives with his cat, Mr. Behavior.
The drink was called Spring Breeze. Elin had three of them at brunch, but Lucy never drank in the morning, so she’d missed it. It was the third night of a weekend cruise Elin had purchased on sale months ago, and they sat outside on an ill-lit and almost empty deck as the ship charged somewhere between Miami and the Bahamas. There was a stiff wind and no moon. Instead of the desired Spring Breeze, Elin bought two bottles of Amstel Light back to the table.
“The bartender won’t make it,” she said.
“What do you mean he won’t make it?” said Lucy.
“Apparently it’s a daytime drink.” There was a pinching sensation at the crown of Elin’s head, as if she were a plush toy in a claw machine, drawn upward by those spindly metal fingers. She didn’t enjoy Amstel anymore, but it was their drink back when they both still lived in the city, before they had money or married or bore children, back when marriage and children seemed like some sort of demarcation between past and future, loneliness and worth, domesticity and the abyss. Now they were both married. Elin had a son. Lucy used to have two sons, now she had one.
Lucy squinted at the menu. “Just tell him the ingredients, not the name of the drink. See if that works,” she said.
“He already said no to me once,” said Elin.
“God, Elin, I’ll ask,” said Lucy. She carried the menu to the bar, where she leaned on her elbows, making no pretence as she read off the ingredients. The bartender shook his head, but the drinks Lucy carried back to the table were adorned with a lime wedge and a sprig of fresh basil, as well as a half-closed hibiscus plucked from the potted plant that sat at one end of the bar. Lucy had never looked her age. She dragged the flower up from the ice cubes. It slumped between her fingers.
“It’s kind of sad,” she said.
“Poor flowers. They were trying to sleep, and he picked them,” said Elin. She tucked the flower behind her ear. Lucy draped hers on the table, where it melted into a pool of water. The sky had gone dark and the water had gone dark and they’d merged and still Elin and Lucy skimmed along over unconsidered worlds and Elin worried Lucy might be bored. Elin loved cruises, but Lucy had never wanted to take one.
“I’m glad we did this,” Elin said.
Lucy lit a cigarette, cupped her hand around the flame and inhaled, brightening the ash, despite signs on both sides of the deck forbidding her. She pushed the pack toward Elin. They’d started smoking together in high school, with cigarettes stolen from Lucy’s father. Lucy had quit easily the day after her twenty-first birthday, only started again after Max died. It had taken Elin forever to quit. She would always love the bright shiver of nicotine. She tried to avoid it.
The wind licked Lucy’s hair loose and sprayed it across her face. She had that blank look, but Elin could see the teenaged Lucy stamped underneath it, the fierce Lucy, the original Lucy she had loved. Something about the way she set her chin, pushed it forward in a way that made her almost ugly, and she had no idea. Elin thought maybe she would finally find the right thing to say. Three days should have been more than enough time to work up to it. It was as if Lucy had moved away and stood on some other continent, but maybe if Elin said the perfect thing she could drag Lucy back. She could remind Lucy that she still had another child to love, or she could tell Lucy how much she loved her. She could say how she felt Max with them that night on Lucy’s porch six months ago, that night with the wide orange moon slung low over the trees, demanding awe at a time when they couldn’t muster any feeling except a dull and plodding horror. Lucy’s cheeks wet. Her lip bloody where she’d bitten it. Elin at the Speedway at one in the morning to bring cigarettes back to Lucy. The cashier, almost a boy, joking with Elin about partying on a weekday. By that point it was early Wednesday morning. Elin lighting the cigarette because Lucy’s hands shook. Lucy refusing to sleep or even to go inside. Maybe Elin should lie and say she felt Max with them right now, insist that he was still with them, right this very moment, even on the cruise, but Lucy had pushed the third chair away as soon as they sat down as if to preempt her.
“Lucy,” said Elin.
Lucy scratched at her ankle.
“Did you get any bug bites at the beach yesterday?” she said.
Elin had not. She’d stayed out of the water, under a large umbrella, drinking sun-warmed champagne while Lucy floated away on her back, dressed in a bikini so that the world could see how her stomach caved, bug-like sunglasses covering her eyes.
Elin swallowed her Amstel. The Spring Breeze was already gone. It was too easy to drink through a straw. Lucy tapped ash into the hibiscus. In the distance, a stack of lights approached them over the water.
“Another ship!” Elin stood. The apparition drew closer, an identical beast, sister-ship, all tiered and lit up like a wedding cake on fire, and Elin saw another in the distance, behind the first, a speck of light, and then the first ship passed and the next came closer, bloomed golden in the dark and passed, and then, in the distance, came another.
“There’s so many!” said Elin.
“God,” said Lucy. “They keep coming.”
Melissa Benton Barker’s recent work appears in Moon City Review, jmww, and Longleaf Review. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio and is currently completing her first collection of short fiction.
My mother became a maid for a rich, white lady a few months after my father bounced. She worked cleaning the lady’s house—vacuuming, sanitizing toilets in a bathroom with heated tiles, dusting—two days a week for over a month, while my brother and I went to school. The bills, however, didn’t seem to be getting any smaller; but as luck would have it, the lady had also invested in other properties, including a one-story office building that housed a local paper company amongst others. It turned out that the contractor the lady hired to do after-hours janitorial work was under investigation and had closed their offices and laid off their employees. Unsure of what to do, the woman had asked my mother if she knew anyone who owned a janitorial service. Needing the money, my mother lied and said that she did, but that it was a very small company that consisted of only three people. What she didn’t mention was that the people were me, her, and my brother.
I was all of thirteen years old, reading peacefully on one of the twin-sized mattresses—which had been moved into the living room after my mother’s sister moved in to help pay the bills—meant for me and Elias, when my mother burst through the front door, tripping over me.
“Move tu mierda out of the way,” she said, barely catching herself.
“Where am I supposed to put it?” I asked, pretending to set my book down next to me but failing because the mattress was pressed flush against the wall on that side.
“Or here?” I asked, placing the book between the three feet of floor space that divided mine and Elias’ makeshift beds.
“Keep it up, you hijo de puta, and I’ll put you in charge of the toilets,” she said, wagging her finger at me.
“You’re my m—wait, what toilets?”
Over dinner that night, eating the same thing we’d been eating all week—black beans and queso fresco—our mother told me and Elias that she had quit her second job at the Mexican restaurant down the street where her sister worked and had gotten us all a night job at an office. I thought she meant coding or trading stock, which I don’t know how to do but was willing to learn—my first real look at corporate America where I would make bank.
“When do we start?” I asked, naively.
“Get some rest,” our mother said. “I’ll get you when it’s time.”
At 10:30 that night, the reality of the job set in as I stood over the sink of the paper company office, Lysol in one hand, scrubber in the other. I could see my brother across the hall wiping down the desks at a cubicle. Twelve years old and already cleaning up after other people to help keep the lights on.
The office building had four offices—a dentistry, the paper company, a call center, and one unused. The jobs were divided like this: I was in charge of cleaning the kitchen area in all three suites—counters, leftover dishes, trashcans, sweeping and vacuuming the carpet. Elias covered the desks in the call center and paper company—wiping them down with Pledge and bringing me mugs and plates people left at their stations, and our mother would do what was left—most of the dentistry because she didn’t trust us near the tools, bathrooms, etc.
“I miss being bored,” I called out to Elias, hands still in yellow rubber gloves. He was taking a trash bag out of its bin and replacing it with another, the way our mother taught him.
“Me, too,” he said, sighing. He sat down at the desk in front of him and kicked it, causing one of the loose drawers to slide partly open. He pulled it the rest of the way, and I could see his eyes light up because of whatever he saw inside.
“Come here,” he said, waving me over.
“What is it?” I asked, crossing the hall to him.
“Look,” he said, pointing at a family-size bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. He reached in slowly, cautiously, as if the person who sat at the station had booby-trapped the candy. He grabbed the bag and held it up to the light.
“How many are there?” I asked, taking off the gloves. The bag looked almost full.
“I don’t know,” he said.
I took the bag out of his hand and weighed it the way I’d seen in movies when someone weighs a brick of cocaine or envelope full of money and says, “It’s light.”
“Okay, let’s take one and split it,” I said, “that way they won’t notice.” I pulled one out, undid the wrapping, then used a knife from the kitchen area to cut it in half. It was delicious. We never had anything like that at our house, our mother not wanting to spend money on anything that wasn’t necessary. Even when our father was around, the only time we got candy was during Halloween, when we’d dig our hands into bowls with signs that read “Please take one,” knowing whatever we got that night would have to last us all year.
“Tomorrow,” I said, “we’ll take another one.”
Elias and I weren’t getting paid to do this work—considering that the money the woman was paying our mom and her two “employees” was the equivalent, I would later understand as an adult, to be the same as what she would pay one white person in her employment—and we didn’t get allowances, so this was our only compensation. We threw the wrapper in the trash bag, where it blended in with everything else.
The next night, after taking the recycling to the dumpster out back and making sure our mother was in the dentistry, we went back to the desk with the chocolate and took one each instead of splitting one. And once we got a taste of that sweetness, we wanted more. We reasoned that taking from only one desk would eventually get us caught, but if we took from a different one each night, no one would know. So began our search for treasure.
There were 61 stations between the two offices, and it took us only one night to look through all of them, taking a mental inventory. There were people with power bars, Oreos, mini-bags of chips, stress balls with their company logo, coupons and menus for restaurants. One person had, inexplicably, a pair of pliers, and someone else had a quarter collection that instructed the collector to place a quarter in the states’ slot only if they’d visited—it had only Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri filled in.
We spent the next two weeks doing this—picking up picture frames with family photos, pictures of dogs and cats; two people, for reasons I, to this day, do not understand, had pictures of the plants they had on their desks on their desks. There were funny calendars—my favorite had a different picture of Garfield for each day of the year saying something like, “I hate Mondays” or “Thursdays mean I eat lasagna.”
At the start of that third week of cleaning, Elias’ math teacher called our mother after speaking with his other teachers because Elias kept falling asleep at school, and I looked like the brown version of a Tim Burton character with 15-gallon bags under my eyes. They sat us all down in Mrs. Holloway’s class to ask our mom some questions, but she barely spoke English, so it was up to me to translate my own interrogation.
“Mrs. Castillo,” they began, “we’re concerned about your children’s health. They look tired. Is something going on in the house?”
“They want to know how you’d like to accept the award they’re giving us for being the best students at this school,” I said to my mother, in Spanish.
She didn’t believe me. The teacher’s faces were telling a different story.
“Tell me what they said right now,” she said.
“Well,” I said, sighing, “they want to know why Elias and I,” I said, signaling at my brother, “aren’t getting paid for working late at night.”
The look she gave me said, “If I didn’t think they’d take you away from me for beating your ass in public…” Mrs. Holloway must have noticed, because she said she was going to get our Spanish teacher.
“Why don’t you wait outside,” she told me and Elias.
I took one last glance at my mother and could tell that she was scared. She couldn’t very well let them know that we were tired because she was keeping us past midnight with a night-time job or we’d be put in foster care. She couldn’t tell them we needed the money so she made up a cleaning service, and she definitely couldn’t say she was being paid under the table; of course, at the time, I didn’t know any of this; to me, it simply looked how I imagined my mother looked when she was a child in school back home in Guatemala.
In the courtyard, my friend Guillermo sat reading an old book series he was obsessed with, titled The Keys to the Kingdom.
“I saw your mom walk into the school,” he said to me and Elias as we approached.
“Yeah. Elias here,” I said, slapping my brother in the back of the head, “couldn’t stay awake in class, and now we’re all getting deported.”
“Ow,” Elias said.
“Don’t joke about that,” Guillermo said. “They did that to my cousin, and no one has seen him since then.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “He isn’t back home?”
“My parents said they heard on the news something about concentration camps. They think he’s there.”
Kids. We got our information from our parents who got their information from the people on TV, who got their information from someone else, and so on. It’s a miracle any of the truth actually made it to us, but sometimes, like in that instant, we were talking about something important—something we didn’t truly understand—more than the adults around us.
“What are you virgins doing?” It was Fernando, Guillermo’s brother. “Y’all never gonna get any panocha reading this shit,” he said, slapping his brother’s book out of his hands. He was barely sixteen but acted like he’d been sixteen for years. He sat on the table in his faded jeans—holes at the knees—and Timberlands.
“Hola, Fernando,” my brother said, dumb as a rock.
“He’s going to lose his v-card before you two losers,” Fernando said, pointing at Elias.
Fernando did shit like that to us all of the time before he graduated to the high school across the street two years before. It had been even worse when he had an audience—the wedgies, the swirlies, the occasional dead arm just to impress some girl who would never notice him otherwise. What he didn’t understand was that sometimes it was better to go unnoticed, the way animals use camouflage to keep from getting eaten; I didn’t understand that then either.
“I already lost mine,” I said.
“Bro,” Fernando said, laughing, “You? You’ve seen a girl naked?”
“Yeah. Me and—” I blanked for a name, saying the first one that came to mind—a girl from science class. “Amy.”
“That a white girl?” Fernando asked.
“You better hope you lyin’ or that her parents don’t find out.”
“Her parents love me,” I said.
“Now I know you lyin’. Come on,” he said to Guillermo, “Mom’s waiting in the car.”
Guillermo put his book in his backpack and zipped it up, then waved and said goodbye. I watched him and Fernando—at least five inches taller than us—walk to the parking lot.
“Her parents love me,” Fernando shouted up to the sky, not looking back at us. “Ha!” he said and laughed the rest of the way to the car, his voice echoing in the courtyard.
At home that afternoon, I wished my father was still around so I could ask him to tell me about sex, what it was, how it worked, everything. The only information I’d gotten was from TV, because sex-ed had been taken out of my lesser-privileged neighborhood’s school district for being too risqué, opting for teaching abstinence instead, leaving it up to parents to give their children “the talk,” but my mother, who cursed and drank in front of us, found that talking about sex was inappropriate. She waved me off if I ever asked, saying I’d find out one day, but then got angry with me for not knowing more. That was the real double-edged sword we’d learned about at Sunday school—simultaneously wanting, like the tree of knowledge of good and evil, children to have both information and ignorance.
I turned to Camila, her sister, for help before she went to work, and she told me to do what every other kid my age was doing—look it up on the computer. I reminded her that we couldn’t afford a computer.
“Do it at school,” she’d said, but I was too embarrassed.
Then it hit me—there were computers at our night job, and we would be going there that night, even though my mother promised to make sure we got more sleep. She told us that when she was a girl in Guatemala, she and her sister got only three hours of sleep a night between the two of them, holding down school and a job, and that we would be fine. Elias and I didn’t dare argue with her, and as much as I missed getting a full night’s sleep, eating like a king—and now gaining knowledge I’d lied about having—was sort of worth it.
That night, after our mother was in the dentistry, I started wiggling the mice at people’s desks, checking if any of the computers were on.
“What are you doing?” Elias asked.
“Help me. See if any of the screens turn on,” I said.
“This one came on,” Elias said a few seconds later.
I walked over, but it asked for a password.
“Look for another one,” I said.
I moved the mouse on the computer next to that desk and the home screen came on. I sat down on the chair and opened Google. Not sure where to begin, I typed in the first thing that came to mind: boobs.
“Boobs?” Elias said.
“Shut up. It’s my first time doing this.” I clicked search and got a ton of pictures of men with hairy chests. I tried something else: naked boobs.
“Try girl boobs,” Elias said.
I typed it in to no avail, but after several more searches, it finally happened—we found a website where women posed topless. All of the models were white, and their chests looked like two ceiling lights, nothing like what I imagined Amy’s looked like. I clicked on one of the pictures to enlarge it, but then we heard our mother coming down the hallway. Elias ran to the desk where he’d left the duster and pretended to use it, while I exited out of the window and all of the pop-ups as quickly as possible.
“Almost done?” our mother called out, still walking down the hallway. “Where are you?”
“In here,” I shouted back, closing the last pop-up ad and grabbing the bag of trash by my feet. We must have looked guilty because she wanted to know what we were doing in there. I told her I was done with everything but the vacuuming and thought I’d help Elias so that we could finish quicker. She looked convinced, but more than that, she looked proud, thinking Elias and I had a good work ethic.
“We’ll get some Waffle House on the way home,” she said.
“Really?!” Elias wanted to know. We could have taken a snapshot of his face and used it as their new ad campaign he looked so happy. I understood why though—we never got to eat out, and our mother never rewarded us for doing chores, so this was unprecedented.
“Finish up,” she said.
That night, she let us eat in the car; and with yolk running down my chin, I smiled a smile that comes only from those who’ve tasted the good life, or from those who’ve had the opportunity to taste it before the plate is taken away, the food only half-eaten.
I spent the next week cleaning and vacuuming as fast as I could, then running back to that computer to do more research, this time asking about my own body. I discovered that stuff other than pee came out of my penis and that’s why my boxers were wet when I woke up, it was nothing to be ashamed of, it was natural. Of course, I also learned some misguided things—that I had more pubic hair than grownups, not knowing the people in the pictures had shaved, and that I was the only person in America with foreskin—because I was a child with no one willing to teach me otherwise.
Then, one night, I went back to the computer to find out about pregnancy and found the desk empty and the computer password-protected. I didn’t mention this to anyone but worried that I might have had something to do with it. A few weeks later, the desk was occupied again, but this time there were new family pictures, a new calendar, new plants.
It wasn’t until I had my first office job that I found out that employers can, and often do, monitor activity on employee computers. I understood then that I had gotten that person fired. I had looked up things like “penises,” “boobs,” “people get paid to have sex?”—that one was another gem from Fernando, whom I later found out heard about all of this stuff from his older sister who went to a community college and had to learn how to put on a condom and what birth control is as quickly as possible so that her peers didn’t laugh at her for not knowing. Did I end someone’s career or marriage trying to find out something that could have easily been told to me by my parents or health professionals at my school? I always hoped to write that person a letter one day apologizing, and I guess this is sort of it, even if I don’t know their name or where they live, and I don’t think they’ll ever read it.
The Waffle House night, our mother ran a stop sign in our neighborhood.
“You didn’t stop,” Elias said. “You’ll get in trouble with the police.”
Our mother smiled at us through the rearview mirror of our minivan.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” she said in Spanish, none of us knowing how wrong she was, my brother and I looking ahead, watching the next stop sign get closer, wondering if our mother would stop to look both ways.
Jared Lemus is a Latinx writer whose work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, PANK, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Kweli and Joyland. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was awarded the William S. Dietrich Fellowship and is working on his first novel and short story collection.
Foxley’s uptight on the glass, watching for the hard silver wink of Daddy’s Bronco. Mama said his ass was grass. He heard her on the phone tattling and when she brought it to him and he put it to his ear, Daddy said to wait in his room and to not be leaving even for the bathroom, that he was gonna get the whipping of his short life when he got home. Daddy told Foxley five o’clock couldn’t come soon enough, and that maybe, if he was lucky, boss man would let him clock out a few minutes early.
Every car that crosses the pane knots Foxley’s guts more and he tells himself that he’s making it worse. He might as well relax in the bed and be in the moment, since at the present, Daddy ain’t home yet, and his ass is fine, besides being pinched tight for dread.
Foxley on his bed’s still got eyes out the window, but here he can think better, try to tuck himself safe in the present moment. That’s what the book he found in Mama and Daddy’s off-limits dresser said to do. It had a picture on the front of a happy bald fat man sitting Indian style and holding a yellow flower. A pink sticky note on the cover with Mama’s tiny perfect handwriting said, Happy Anniversary Lou! It’s some things in here could help you simmer down some. But that book wasn’t nearly as interesting as the other one he found called 119 Satin Nights and that made him feel like he was climbing up and dropping off the Texas Cyclone. Shoot. He’d pick that book over AstroWorld any day, and he wishes now he wouldn’t have fooled so long with the blue one, since he only got a little time with the other before Mama walked in and went nuttier than a fruitcake.
Foxley can see Daddy now, rapping his door hard twice before walking through it anyway. He’ll say, “Foxley LeBlanc,” and unbuckle his belt. “This is gonna hurt me more than it’s gonna hurt you.” Yeah right. Foxley hates how Daddy stretches that belt out like a snake and then snaps it. SNAP! Like he enjoys it or something. But Foxley thinks he’ll be lucky if it’s just a regular whipping. Somehow, he thinking this might be worse. It ain’t just a rock spider-webbing the shed window, or him riding his bike over to the Seven Eleven when Mama told him not to. This is a direct violation of Daddy’s private things. Like maybe just as bad as if he was to fool with his rifles. But he can’t say for sure, since he ain’t that stupid.
Foxley hears Mama laughing and he sure hopes she ain’t tattling on him to Miss Roxanne. Ain’t nothing funny about that. Maybe Miss Roxanne gonna feel some pity for him and come steal him from his window like as to protect him from Daddy’s wrath. Wouldn’t that be ducky! Mama keeps yapping her way around the kitchen, getting supper together, and Foxley gonna ask to be excused from supper tonight and maybe for the rest of his life. He don’t know how he’ll ever look Mama in the face again after the way it screwed up at him seeing that book on his lap, like he uncovered a secret they gonna have to kill him now for knowing.
Foxley can’t get them illustrations out his head. Those big dumb peckers seemed amateurish for such a heavy book, looking like the ones his good friend, Buddy draws. But it’s the lady part, or like the lack of one that’s bugging his craw. When he tries to remember it, he sees instead the pretty red candle wax dribbled down the side of the chianti bottle Mama keeps on the dining room table. Foxley knows that ain’t right, and when he dips back into his memory fading fast, he sees that Venus flytrap snapping shut, what he saw on a PBS nature show the other night with Daddy called, Peculiar Critters. Good Lord! That what Jane Dupont got under her plaid skirt? Mama too? Foxley don’t want to know!
Foxley’s pretty sure he hears the beater going, which means Mama’s doling out measurements. He can see her in an apron dusted white, leaning over that spinning bowl, and something bigger than Foxley’s fear takes over, puts his hand on the doorknob softly to turn. Foxley’s got ninja skills of quietude, and soon, he’s peeking down the hallway to see the coast is clear. His crane stepping on the carpet into the master bedroom is a thing to be envied, something he learned from years of sneaking up on squirrels and birds across husky leaves like Daniel Boone through the woods.
The beater shuts off right as he’s coming up on the off-limits dresser, and Foxley freezes in place. He’s ready to sprint on a dime if he hears Mama’s slippers on the linoleum, but the beater whirs back to life and so Foxley makes his move. Dang, that book is heavy. His heart is drumming in his throat like a toad as he flips it open at the midway point, but it ain’t nothing but words there. His fingers are greedy to flip the page, sweaty and so clumsy that the paper tears. Comes right off in his hand. Oh Shit! Foxley realizes the beater’s not going and in a split-second ninja impulse, he crams the ripped page in his pocket and shoves the book back. He floats over the carpet like that Jesus lizard on water from the same PBS show and is soon back in his bedroom, panting behind the door. He listens for Mama, but his heart is slamming home so hard that his ears are like stuffed with rustling paper.
Now Foxley got two fronts. He glances nervous from the window to the door. That paper in his pocket, it’s burning right through the denim and branding his thigh, marking him for the after. He pulls out the piece of page, shaped like Idaho, and flips it from the boring side of writing with none of the words there being of any interest except for “gently on the tip”. The page ripped right through a cartoon of a titty. Ordinarily, that would make him laugh, but it’s the knee next to it that don’t make sense, that steals the funny right out of it. It’s frustrating to have just that little bit of Idaho in his fingers and Foxley remembers Montana. It’s a lot of room in Montana, Foxley thinking.
The clattering of Mama’s nails on the door startles Foxley almost out his skin.
“I brought you a beater,” Mama says muffled.
Foxley don’t understand. He cocks an eye out the window and still no Bronco.
“Hey, listen, Fox,” she says sweet. “I brought you a beater. Oatmeal raisin.”
Foxley thinks it could be a trick. “Just put it through the door,” he says. The beater comes through, thickly caked with dough and Foxley goes to it graceful, snatches it quicksilver from her hand and leans the door back shut.
“Listen, Fox,” Mama says. “What you know about all that?”
Foxley knows what she means, but he don’t want to say. “All what?”
“Oh, you know. The birds and the bees.”
“I don’t know no birds and bees,” Foxley snaps.
“That stuff what you saw in the book, Foxley,” Mama says. “You know what. Sex.”
Oh God, thinks Foxley. He don’t want to hear Mama say that. “I know what I need to,” he says. “Ain’t nothing to talk about.”
“Well then tell me,” says Mama, scratching at the door. “Tell me what you know.”
Foxley sure don’t want to have this conversation with Mama. Buddy told Foxley how it works. Buddy saw a video on his brother’s phone where two women ate a man’s stuffing from him like it was Friday’s Jello. But Buddy ain’t always truthful, like what he told about his brother being a Rambo for the government, on assignment in Canada. Foxley wants Mama to go away, but he got to give her something or she’ll scratch a hole right through his door.
“The man puts his thing in the woman’s navel,” says Foxley, just wanting to tell enough so she’ll leave him be. “Gently on the tip,” he adds. “I know what I know,” says Foxley, angry now that Mama’s putting him on the spot. He glows rosy hot to hear her chuckling through the door.
“Listen, Fox man,” she says. “I’ll sick your daddy off you. He been uptight all week long. Y’all need to have y’all a sitdown.”
“I don’t need nothing. I’m educated.” Foxley would rather have the whipping.
“I’ll call him off,” says Mama. “It’s some things you need to know, I guess, now. Your daddy’s on edge these days and I say you don’t need no spanking just cause you curious about nature. You know how uptight your daddy gets. You want that other beater?”
Foxley remembers the one he got already, unlicked and dripping gobs on his sneaker. “Nope,” he says. “And I don’t need no sit down neither.”
He waits for Mama to say OK, that he can just have his whipping back, but pretty soon, she’s off knocking in the kitchen again.
Foxley makes that beater shine, knowing he’ll need the nourishment on his travels. He goes to his closet and dumps the school books out his backpack. He stuffs some clothes in there but has to take some back out to fit his Buckaroo Box, what got his compass and flashlight and knife and sparkers for building fires. And he definitely ain’t leaving his basketball trophy. When Foxley’s through packing, he bends to some loose leaf. Dear Mama and Daddy, he writes. Time’s come for me to set out in the world.
Foxley can’t think what to say next. He squints up at the popcorn ceiling with his tongue tenting cheek, looking for wisdom from Lebron James slamming one home for the buzzer win, but Foxley don’t see him up there, like the constellation got scrambled back into the sundry, and Foxley guesses he might have done split for shame. Y’all been good to me, Foxley writes. Please don’t worry. I’ll send signs that I’m OK. Love Foxley Alphonsus LeBlanc.
Foxley weighs the note down with the beater and looks disappointed at scrappy Idaho. He understands it could be deadly to head out into the wild without knowing the mystery of the titty and the knee, that the wondering could dull his senses and make him vulnerable to the elements. And Foxley got to be sharp if Foxley gonna make it in the world. Plus, if he can gently separate the rest of that page from the book then Daddy might not even notice.
Foxley peeks from the door and when he hears the oven beeping at Mama’s finger punches, shoooom, Foxley Jesus lizards himself to the off-limits dresser. The book opens right to his spot. He gently persuades the torn page out and is back safe in his room before Mama can creak the oven shut.
Mission accomplished, thinks Foxley, surveying the beater and the note. He’s reaching greedy into his pocket when Daddy’s Bronco floats by the window, slowing for the driveway. For a second, Foxley don’t move, but then he spies his backpack at the window, the golden head of his trophy peeking out the top where he couldn’t zipper it shut, and he remembers what he got to do. Foxley thinks he needs to WD40 that screeching window, and he waits on the other side to slam it in cahoots with Daddy’s clamoring through the front door. Then he’s off across the front yard, squirreling his arms through the straps of his backpack.
Mister Shankle’s standing in his driveway with one of them long-armed paint rollers, knocking it against his rusted satellite dish. He throws up an arm, but Foxley ain’t got time for hidy’s. He burns it down the street without even looking over his shoulder until he can cut through the patch of woods that shortcuts to Seven Eleven. As soon as Foxley gets himself out of the open, he sits down on a log and digs out that paper. He removes it like a surgeon.
Foxley joins Montana to Idaho but sits puzzled by the sum. He’s looking at satin night #63. The titty and the knee joined to their purplish owners look like cartoons in the Buddy style. The lady’s on her back with her hands on the man’s behind, and him on all fours crouching over her, facing her feet. What they got between their legs is hidden, and the expressions on their faces are joyless, like frogs about their business. But the point of focus for Foxley, the main attraction soon enough, is Mama’s perfect tiny handwriting, captioned off in a talk bubble drawn from the lady’s mouth. “Hey Lou!” it says in blue ink exquisitely. “I see the tip of the stick! Fetch me some rope and Vaseline, and I’ll go in!”
Foxley seen some things. One time, a pink owl swooped down under the streetlight to snatch a rat from the ditch, and another time, Wendy Langois ripped a Sugar Daddy out of Kevin Brickey’s mouth with his two front teeth in it still. But he ain’t seen nothing like #63. He experiments with the two pieces of page, trying in vain for other geometries, until he tells himself that it’s best he don’t understand, like the knowing would make him just as fish-eyed vacant as the cartoon lovers.
Foxley puts the paper into his backpack and counts out the almost five dollars in change. He figures to buy various provisions to last him to the next town. Good thing he brought along that trophy to prove his moxie and guts to the world. Maybe Miss Roxanne gonna see him hobo-ing and pick him up, take him back home with her. She could keep him locked in her bathroom and feed him ice cream and pizza and play with his hair for long stretches instead of just the quick ruffle she gives when she comes over to gab with Mama. Foxley thinks about last time she come over, how he hovered outside the door and saw her and Mama trying on dresses. Miss Roxanne was just wearing her bra and she had her elbows out to pin her hair and Foxley saw she had little black patches of hair under her arms. Foxley on a roller coaster thinking about them patches. Mama told him to shoo when she’d seen him in the doorway, but he’d gone to Miss Roxanne like in a trance and asked her to pick him up. And she did it too! Only for a second, but she did, then said, “Woo you heavy,” and set him down before Mama chased him out. Maybe Miss Roxanne gonna keep Foxley hostage forever. That what Foxley hopes.
When Foxley sees them taquitos spinning behind the glass, his list of provisions goes out the window. They too hot to eat even and he tucks them safe in his backpack for later. He feels good at the Big Gulp station, mixing together his favorite kamikaze: Sprite, and Mr. Pibb. He skirts the hot dog dressing station ninja style and swipes some relish packets, liking his chances in the wild.
“Look out, world,” says Foxley through the door, blinded off the bat by Daddy’s winking Bronco. Daddy’s leaning on the wheel wearing the same froggy expression as the cartoons, like hypnotized by the business at hand. But then Foxley recognizes Daddy’s gotcha smile as he leans over to push the passenger door open.
“Fox baby,” he says when Foxley crawls up inside. “You got to quit running off.”
Daddy starts in with his never ever, don’t even think it, next time is murder speech about going anywhere near his shit again. Daddy knocks his fat ring against his buckle to make Foxley feel his warning and it tings out in the stuffy cab before Daddy finally confesses that it ain’t no whippings coming today. “Your Mama says we got to talk.” Daddy rubs his face like he plum wants to scrub it clean off. “What you know about sex then?” Daddy says into his hands.
“I’m good,” Foxley says. “You can just whip me if you want. I deserve it.”
“Yeah, you right,” Daddy says. “But I think you done outgrown whippings, maybe.” He starts rattling off about sperms and eggs and cellular divisions and Foxley, reflecting on #63, wonders is that what they getting at? Daddy stops talking when he sees Foxley’s face scrunched in thought. “Wait a minute,” Daddy says and starts worrying his face again. “I’m going backwards. You know you got the pecker, ahem. I mean the penis?” Daddy holds his arm out at a right angle from his elbow and makes a fist. “And then over here,” Daddy puts out his left hand and pinches his fingers to a point, wiggles them open like that star-nosed mole from the peculiar critters show. “And the woman, she got that.” Daddy wipes his forehead with his designated pecker before putting it back in place and waving the fingers on his lady arm at it. “The lady over here got a vagina,” he says and his voice breaks so that Foxley thinks for a second Daddy gonna have himself a heart attack by the time his story gets any steam. “Vagina’s like a flower, Fox. Just like a flower.”
Daddy rambles on and Foxley wishes he could help him tell it easier. A sweat bead tracks down Daddy’s sideburn and rides the creases of his cheek. Daddy thumps his throat to make a rain drop blop. “You know that uvula,” he’s saying. “Hangs down back of your mouth? Well, it’s like that, I guess. Except it don’t hang, not quite.”
Daddy squirms behind the wheel like a balloon artist without balloons, wrestling his hands together. Foxley tries to apply Daddy’s words to the context of #63, thinks if that’s what them cartoons are after, then they must be taking a detour to it. The way Daddy’s acting, this sex thing must be terrible.
Foxley can see why Mama’s always on Daddy about being uptight. He got to relax some. The vein in Daddy’s forehead bulges like a night crawler up through the dirt, and Foxley remembers the other day waiting for a table at Waffle House. Mama wanted to dance to the song playing and when Daddy turned her down out of shame in public, she’d twirled Foxley instead, right in front of all the waiting smiling folks, told Daddy over Foxley’s head that he got a stick up his backside.
“It feels like a giant sneeze,” Daddy’s saying. “That building up to one anyway.”
Foxley imagines them cartoon people as Mama and Daddy, and then he busts up laughing. Punch lines always finds Foxley late, and he got to give it to Mama. Nothing Buddy’s done in a while got his funny bone like Mama’s doodle. Foxley looks at Daddy’s red face, like it just been punched, and busts up all over again to think it might for true be a stick up there lodged. A big, long, pointy one too.
“Oh, for shit’s sake,” Daddy says. “It ain’t supposed to be funny, Fox! What you in a hurry for anyway? You younger than me by a long shot when I came to all this shit. You ought to be out catching frogs and reveling in your happy boyhood daydreams. It’s all downhill once you start to fooling with vaginas anyway. Jesus, what’s that smell?”
Foxley presents his taquitos to Daddy like them samplers at the Winn Dixie, relieved to hear Daddy crunching instead of talking.
“I forgot to eat lunch,” Daddy says, stuffing his mouth like them taquitos gonna scrape clean all the words been coming out of it.
Foxley don’t even care that Daddy gonna eat all his taquitos. What’s he need ‘em for now anyway? Foxley feels light as a bubble when Daddy puts the Bronco in gear and they roll out of the parking lot.
“You got all what I been telling you, Fox?” Daddy says, sucking clean his fingers. “You understand now a bit better about the human condition?”
“Yes Sir. But I don’t much care about it. I just as soon go frogging.” Foxley knows just what to say to Daddy.
“That’s good, Fox,” Daddy says, wincing and burping. “Frogging’s way better. Shit,” Daddy says and puts his hand to his chest. “Why’d I go and eat that?” Daddy pats Foxley’s knee. “If your Mama asks you anything, you just tell her we had us a talk and that you all cleared up on nature, OK?”
Closing in on the house, Foxley sees his bedroom window sliding by. He smiles to think of the blinds snapping shut, and a scared little Foxley behind them. He feels like a V.I.P being on Daddy’s end of it, and Foxley pretends he’s coming home after a long hard day at the plant to make things right. Little Foxley in there deserves a thrashing, he thinks. Little Foxley got to be smarter from now on. He got to WD40 up that window for one thing.
Mama’s fussing at the stove when him and Daddy walk inside single file. She’s wearing her polite face, like it’s nothing ever happened. “Pork chops in the oven,” she sings.
“Count me out,” Daddy says, with a hand to his throat. “I’m struggling this afternoon.”
“You told me that’s what you wanted, Lou! You asked for pork chops!”
Mama and Daddy’s words tangle up quick, and Foxley slips away down the hallway. They won’t bother him for the rest of the night. He feels giddy coming up on his bedroom door. He raps his knuckle on it, lets himself in. Foxley smiles to see his note on the dresser still, but without the beater to hold it down, since Mama don’t like her things where they don’t go.
He looks up to greet Lebron out of habit and is relieved to see his popcorn image returned. Foxley roves his room with his hands clasped behind his back, eyes cast up to check his constellations are all in place. Fat Godzilla’s there and so is the space rocket launching. Jolly Green Giant’s still on his battle turtle in the far corner, but Foxley notices that if he lets some other popcorns join in, then the Giant turns into Miss Roxanne with her arms up over her head, and them dark patches too, where the night light gives out.
It been a strange day, and Foxley’s ready to lie down and drift off into the popcorn galaxy. But first things first. Foxley cuts his eyes at the window, where Little Foxley cowers and quivers, hands already covering his butt, bottom lip shaking like an oyster.
“Fox, man,” he says, slipping off his pretend belt and snapping it. “This gonna hurt me more than it’s gonna hurt you.”
Benjamin Soileau is from south Louisiana. His fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Opossum, Grist, Louisiana Literature, Bayou, Superstition Review, Fugue, and many other journals. He won the 2018 Rumble Fish Quarterly New Year’s Writing Contest and is a special mention in The 2020 Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is a stay-at-home father in the Pacific Northwest. Reach him at [email protected].
The girl escorts her boyfriend to Gare du Nord, where he will take a train to the coast and then a ferry back to England—this is years before the Chunnel will be built. He is her first serious boyfriend, and two nights ago they had sex for the first time. The girl is not religious or old-fashioned, but she had fetishized “going all the way” as a momentous journey, only to take with someone she loved. This is why she is twenty years old and only now, long after nearly all of her friends, has finally had sex. It’s a strange kind of fetishism, at odds with the fact that she has, over the last two and a half years, given blowjobs to seven men, including one whose name she doesn’t remember, though she does clearly recall his cleft chin, which looked like someone had begun and then abandoned cutting a cake: a knife pleat in the frosting of his face.
In a week, the girl will fly back to America, her junior year abroad officially over. England is where she met this young man, her first serious boyfriend, her first lover, and though she hopes otherwise, she knows that their relationship, this tender green shoot, will not survive the 6,000 miles of distance. They are not yet breaking up, because it seems tactless to do so, two days after they first had sex, after all those months of build-up. But she recalls the way, after they had “real” sex for the first time, her boyfriend held her briefly and then rolled away to sleep. She knows in the hollows of herself that their breakup will happen soon. That knowledge has been weighing on her for the past hour, as they left francs for their cafés au lait (this is before the introduction of the euro) and then boarded the metro and transferred at crowded, intricate, terrible Châtelet-Les Halles, with its grimy corridors of peddlers hawking purses and cheap, fringed scarves. That knowledge is fundamentally why she is sad now: not because they are saying goodbye.
It is also why she is a hundred feet away, floating above, holding an imaginary camera that films for posterity herself and her boyfriend. One thing her panning shot attempts to capture is how the other people in the Gare du Nord crowd (the girl thinks of them as “extras”) interact with her and her boyfriend (whom she thinks of as “the stars”). Do they think they are tragic or sweet incarnations of young love? Do they even notice them?
Most of the extras seem indifferent and oblivious. They look at the enormous, oxidized copper clock or their own watches or simply into empty space (this takes place long before cell phones, before everyone had something to attract and compress their gazes).
But there is a middle-aged Frenchwoman nearby who appears to be aware of the girl and her boyfriend, and watches them benevolently, with a smudged-lipstick smile, as if they are indeed sweet/cute/representative of amour jeune. As if they are like the famous black-and-white photograph by Robert Doisneau of the couple kissing outside the Hotel de Ville. It’s the girl’s favorite poster: all year it has been on her dormitory wall in Oxford. Sometimes she would open her eyes and look at it while she and her naked boyfriend fooled around (but did not yet have sex, because she would only have sex with someone she was serious about, and she was waiting for him to say “I love you”). In other words, it is no accident that the girl waited for this final romantic visit to Paris to have sex with her boyfriend. This moment kissing her boyfriend goodbye at the Gare du Nord represents the merger between the girl and her boyfriend, who with his sweeping, dark hair even resembles the man in the Doisneau photograph, and the couple outside the Hotel de Ville.
What the girl requires now is an audience, to confirm that they, like that couple, are romantic, appealing, and worth looking at, like the couples that the girl will seek out in the next few days when she wanders alone in Paris, mourning her boyfriend: the hand-holding couples that the girl will take pictures of and think, we were like that, in love.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf‘s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
SOME BRIEF THOUGHTS ON SELF-IMPROVEMENT
by Reilly Joret
My wife fingered the remaining chocolate syrup from her bowl to her mouth and announced she was going to bed. I’ll admit The Tonight Show monologue that night wasn’t going to change her mind. It was all obvious punchlines about the president’s Asia trip, with some cheap shots at the end for the congressman with the Honduran mistress maid, and the reality TV star with the unflattering DUI mugshot. I feared this was becoming the norm. I followed my wife upstairs, hoping we might discuss this unsettling trend, or get in something cursory between the two of us, but she fell asleep in a way that suggested a medical condition.
Our doctor had recommended we remove the television from the bedroom, claiming it was best for both of us, studies had shown, etc. We gave it to a woman at my work who said she needed one in front of her treadmill. It wasn’t going to win us any humanitarian awards, but I was still trying to scrounge up some goodwill at the office. It hadn’t worked, and I’d been left with the increasing inability to fall asleep. Forty-three minutes, an hour seventeen, an hour fifty-one, two hours and three. Our doctor recommended warm milk and counting sheep to ease what he casually referred to as “an adjustment period.” So, I drank glasses of warm whole milk, then skim, soy, half-and-half. I mixed them together and drank that. And I counted. I tallied the barnyard, then the parking meters along Sycamore Street, the counties in the tri-state area, the bricks on the First National Bank’s facade. No luck. I lay in the dark, staring at the steady shape the streetlamp cast across the ceiling.
Dino pushed into our room like an invading army. His collar clanged like armor. His tail flogged the framed pictures of vacation beaches and the home store Buddhas that helped my wife with her yoga. I hissed at him to lay down, closed my eyes, and counted the thumps his tail made on the carpet. The number was nearing one hundred fifty, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to shoo him away, but the blankets pinned me to the mattress. My wife layered and tucked the sheets and covers, trying to recreate the feel of a luxurious hotel bed, and it closed around us like a finger trap. I rolled my body to create separation, and kicked at the blankets. As their grip loosened, I dealt a harder blow, and heard my toenail tear a gash in the top sheet.
Dino shot up and stared at me from beside the bed with his ears back in defense from the sound. I turned to my wife. She was still asleep in the same dead pose. I listened to her breath, counting the seconds between inhale and exhale, waiting for it to quicken or for some other sign she’d noticed, but nothing changed. Dino walked three cautious circles at the foot of the bed and laid back down. His tail began thumping again. I pulled myself from the finger trap and slunk towards the bathroom. I had known for a while about my toenails. They’d been burrowing weird shapes in my socks, and making certain shoes uncomfortable, but they hadn’t done damage. Now, I was disgusted with my lack of stewardship.
I sat on the edge of the tub counting the floor tiles, and remembered gently kidding my wife for the time she spent in here, but no one was laughing now. For five minutes of time, I’d have to explain a ruined set of sheets. Of course, it would have been five minutes if I hadn’t let things become so far gone. It took five minutes just to snake my fingers through to where the clippers resided, deep inside the vanity drawer long ago claimed by my wife, and overcrowded with fiendishly-shaped grooming devices that seemed to threaten harm. And then I had to slowly chip away at the proof of my negligence. The big toes offered the toughest opposition, but the clippers and I prevailed, even if it was only a short-lived victory.
The results were poor. My nails were too angular and jagged, still too much like blades—though now they were serrated. I went to the drawer again, and found my wife’s nail file. Its sides were bifurcated, split between increasingly finer grits and labeled accordingly, which facilitated the institution of an assembly line on my toes. Then, once they were smooth and glossy, my fingernails looked outrageous by comparison. It took another half hour of work until I could approve of my hands. I returned to bed and fell asleep instantly.
A feeling of accomplishment pervaded the next day until The Tonight Show monologue, when looking at my nails no longer did anything for me. In bed, the minutes ticked by again. I tried counting them, but this only made it worse. My satisfaction turned to discomfort, and then became a nag, which manifested itself as an itch that radiated from my groin out over my entire body. I tried to scratch, but my nails were too short to alleviate it.
Standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, I witnessed the severity of the problem. Here I was, peacocking around about an overdue nail trim, when the rest of my corporeal chunk lurched like a Sasquatch. I was a thin veneer, shamefully pretending to be civilized.
Waxing began with my shoulders, then proceeded to my back. A makeshift combination of vise-grips, a spatula, and a golf ball retriever allowed me to access the more remote areas. My chest and thighs were easier, requiring only a protractor and a ruler. The groin was last, and as anticipated: not pleasant, precarious, but necessary.
The next morning, I took a post-shower victory lap around the bedroom. I paused in the middle of the room and posed, as though sculpting myself into marble for my wife to behold. The water droplets slid unhindered from my body.
“Since when don’t we use towels?” she asked.
She threw one at me from the pile of laundry she was folding unevenly.
The post office delivered my last check from the bottling company. Just the check, no additional remarks included. I spent the afternoon practicing my signature, not wanting to squander a final opportunity to show H.B. Davenport & Co. what they were losing; but my pen didn’t wet the page properly to give my letters the boldness they required. I searched the house, but we only had one cheap box of the same cheap pens. I left the check on the kitchen counter, took a couple naps, and trimmed my goatee until my wife came home.
She set the groceries and junk mail on top of the check and didn’t mention it. She barely mentioned anything the whole evening, and then said she was going to bed. The monologue dry spell was beginning to sour her mood, I could tell.
After she’d gone upstairs, I sat on the couch stroking my face. Dino pawed at my leg, apparently concerned I hadn’t also gone to bed. I’d shoo him away, he’d come back. He was picking up on the restlessness surrounding him. I walked him around the house, hoping it would tire him out. It didn’t, so I got his leash and took him around the neighborhood.
After midnight, our street was as quiet as could be. The pulsing of the day—husbands and wives back and forth to work, children canvassing lawns for adventures, contractors’ saws and hammers, pneumatics and rotating electrics, cars, delivery trucks, front doors, garage doors, voices carrying through open windows and across backyards—retreated without any sign of ever having existed. The houses were silent, just spreading placid pools of light from front porches and central hall chandeliers. I walked Dino through the silence, remorseful for the jangle of his collar, hoping we could somehow capture the smallest fraction of the austerity the other houses seemed to have in abundance.
We returned home, and I wandered room to room. I couldn’t find tranquility across our threshold, only turmoil. A strange, almost sixty-cycle hum radiated through the house. I unplugged the television and cable box, the microwave and coffee pot, and turned off everything except the front porch light. It felt worse in the dark. The chaos, imperceptible during the day, cloaked by the commotion outside, now threatened to vibrate the house apart. I had to root it out before it tore us to shreds.
I dealt with the drawers in the bathroom first. Dull scissors, baffling implements, half-used duplicates of deodorants and perfumes. They were all discarded without second thought. What remained was cleaned, consolidated, and organized. I applied labels to the drawer fronts to prevent a return to this state. The kitchen received the same treatment. De-Tefloned pans, right-angled whisks, wax-gobbed spatulas, and Tupperware in need of birth control were tossed. I raided the refrigerator and pantry, the cabinets and sideboard. Night by night, I moved through the house. No room, no item was spared judgment. I took special delight in ridding our lives of the plush throw blanket my mother-in-law bought us in Graceland. A calm, Spartan order was settling in.
One morning, while we drank coffee from two of our remaining mugs, my wife asked if I’d seen the stick blender.
I remembered pulling the stick blender’s phallic case from the abyssal cabinet next to the dishwasher. It was buried under three items I didn’t even know we owned. This was enough evidence to condemn it. Her tone implied otherwise.
“You’re throwing our money into the trash,” she said.
“What’s the alternative? Live in a heap because it’s our heap?”
“What are we going to have left when you’re done?”
I explained that it wasn’t about what would remain. It was about trading things for a new feeling, an organic environment where we could breathe. I asked her to stop for a moment and open herself up to receive the sensation of the house. She was having none of it. She stormed off to work, leaving the ingredients for her split pea soup on the counter.
My magazines finally arrived in the mail. I read them all by the time my wife came home. She had a take-out meal with her that she said was for dinner, but the men’s magazines condemned this as being too sodium-laden and processed. I declined her invitation, and took Dino for a run instead. He was getting to be a real chunker, and I had to get my heart rate to one hundred and fifty-three BPM.
I thought about the interior design magazines while I ran, and for a long time after. They implored me to embark on a soul search for my personal affinities to Country Glam or Boho Chic, to explore space as texture, and couple sleek mid-century lines with thrift store finds that expressed personality and whimsy—if whimsy was part of my personality, I suppose. But I didn’t need design gurus utilizing esoteric terms with flippant familiarity. I needed the Platonic ideal of our living room, the Truth of the space. These were layers of reality, not shag pillows and low-pile rugs. The wall between the living and dining rooms was reality—and also load-bearing, evidently. I had to find the room constrained within the room, yearning for its realization.
I awoke to my wife yelling from downstairs.
“Did you move the furniture?” she kept hollering.
I came down to find her collapsed on the relocated chaise lounge, howling, and cupping her foot.
“Did you move the furniture?” she asked again.
The answer to her question seemed obvious.
Her toe was turning a tumultuous swirling of purples and yellows beneath the hairs that sprung from her knuckle. I placed a frozen bag of French-cut beans on it, and reminded myself to wash the bag before returning it to the freezer. She diagnosed the toe broken, and asked for supplies so she could tape it to its neighbor. I had marshaled our first-aid kit into order during one of my organizational nights, and brought it to her as though it sat atop a velvet pillow, proud that she could perform her task with ease. I made coffee and brought her a cup, setting it beside her before loitering a kiss on her forehead. She shook me away.
“Why? Just why?” she asked.
“The living room was a farce.”
“It’s been that way for five years.”
“It was difficult to get the indentations out of the carpet,” I agreed.
She huffed, and limped upstairs to get ready for work.
When she came hobbling through the kitchen door that evening, I was waiting for her at the table. Before she had time to set her purse on the counter, I handed her a loose assortment of wrinkled, coffee-stained copy paper.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” I said.
She read the first page slowly, then thumbed through the others with increasing speed and decreased attention. She finished the last page, then stared at me blankly.
“What is this?” she asked. “Pages—pages—of one-liners?” She looked at the papers again and shook her head. “What is this supposed to be?”
“It’s a rough draft. I printed a good copy, and mailed it to The Tonight Show.”
She fell forward onto the counter, and looked at the first page of my manuscript again.
“This is how you spent your day?”
“I know the monologue has been bothering you—”
“The monologue has not been bothering me. This,” she said, gesturing wildly towards everything, “has been bothering me.”
“I can only do so much at once.”
My wife took up a new hobby. She made phone calls, scheduled appointments, and shuttled me to doctors’ offices. We had long conversations with several of the doctors. They were quick to point out that they had no desire nor intention to place blame. I was quick to commend them. The other doctors were less conversational, and only seemed interested in tests they intended to perform at later dates for additional co-pays, and future follow-up consultations for the same. This was concerning. My wife was collecting referrals like trading cards, and her new hobby was beginning to impede my progress.
One doctor sent us home with probes and monitors we were instructed to affix to specific parts of my body before bed, which would measure all the things needing to be measured. My wife spent the better part of The Tonight Show clamping and taping the dongles and meters to my prescribed parts until they dangled from me like the jewelry of a space pirate. I lost all freedom of movement with these devices tethered to me. I couldn’t shave or spackle, paint or hammer. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. They beeped when connected; they beeped when disconnected. I couldn’t make sense of what they wanted from me. After a few nights dragging those things around, they had my wife drive me to a sleep center for an overnight stay. I lost a whole evening reorganizing someone else’s room.
With the experiments over, I could get back to work. I was mitering and coping an inside corner when my wife came down the basement stairs to talk to me about talking with the doctors.
“Don’t you remember what Dr. Phillips said?” she asked.
“Not as such, no.”
“She said we needed to establish boundaries.”
I examined the cut I just made. The power miter saw was not strictly necessary. I could have performed the work without it, but it moved the process along while still maintaining the required precision.
“Apparently, that was one of her more salient points,” I said.
Crown molding was exactly the type of boundary our dining room needed.
“Where are the boundaries? It’s three-thirty in the morning. We don’t have any boundaries.”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
She leaned slightly while I carried the molding past her. Dr. Phillips, or perhaps Dr. Senglin, or Father Kendrick had stressed the need for us to engage with each other’s lives again. Maybe it was in one of the men’s magazines. I thought my wife might want to see what I was accomplishing, but when I returned to the basement with my next measurement, she was gone. She would have seen everything coming together.
The maintenance was becoming unsustainable, however. Something had to give. Everywhere I turned, a spot needed wiping, dog hair needed vacuuming, the yard needed scooping. Dino’s half-masticated rawhides were omnipresent. Stains were inescapable. My days were spent following him with disinfectant wipes and a garbage can.
He had to go.
My wife abandoned her hobby, and began spending long periods in bed. She didn’t watch The Tonight Show anymore, and she didn’t ask about the powder room I took down to the studs, or the old pickup truck I planned on using for runs to the home center, but had to park in the driveway and dismantle the engine. I worried she was regressing so far into herself that she wouldn’t be able to appreciate the transformations around, and that she would reach a place where I couldn’t reach her anymore.
I circled the bedroom one night, noting the frequency of the drafts swaying the curtains, and the patterns our feet left in the carpet. My wife’s breathing raised and lowered the blankets over her in the slow pulse of a summer lake. She slept on her back with her head turned to the arm curled behind her, and looked posed for a photograph or painting in the way that people used to. I saw the picture of her hung, huge and solitary, on the white wall of an empty museum. It had the same curiosity, drew the same fascination, as any great canonical work. It was easy to forget sometimes. When I looked at her, I saw the world drawn to scale, unified, pulled together in a more profound way than I was prepared to experience. That it would be her who was here, peaceful and full of grace, well…I was still as awed by her as ever.
I stepped back to take in the whole scene, to study it and burn the details I’d forgotten back into my memory. But the more I observed, the more it seemed out of balance. Her upper body flowed easy over the pillows and mattress, an effortless expression of comfort and serenity. A cocoon encased her from the waist down. Her legs were mummified under the blankets. Such an off-putting juxtaposition betrayed the truth of how she should be seen. I knelt at the foot of the bed and pulled at the pleats and folds like opening a present without damaging the wrapping. I found one leg under the covers, eased it out, and set on top of the blankets. This little correction changed the whole scene. It looked like she wore a flannel and down tunic as she descended from a Grecian urn. But her foot drooped to the side, making her look bow-legged. I reset it and adjusted the blankets to hold it upright. It fell outward again. I cradled her foot in my hands and inspected it for any inherent causes. Her toe had healed nicely, but those hairs were still on her knuckles. They were an aggressive disruption, asserting dominance over the idyllic scene. Those fine, haphazard hairs were all I could see. I retreated across the room, hoping distance could maintain the trance, but it kept receding. I didn’t want to lose her. I thought I could touch up the picture and hold on. There was still some wax left over. I retrieved the jar from the bathroom and set to work, but her scream shattered the tranquility of the vision, and it was gone.
She left a discomforting indentation on her side of the bed. Flipping the mattress corrected this concern, but there’s something disproportionate about living alone in a large house.
I’d ask her to come back, but there’s no helping some people.
Reilly Joret is a writer and mechanic. There isn’t as much overlap between those two fields as you’d think. He graduated from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA. This is his first published short story.
The world was fuzzy. Victoria blinked. She blinked again and again until the room came into focus. A pixelated ceiling. A window opening to blackness. An unkempt man slouched in a chair, fist propping up a mess of greasy dark hair. He had sallow skin, dark bags beneath bloodshot eyes. Familiar eyes. Barry’s eyes? Benny? Billy? Billy.
“Billy?” she rasped.
He sat up straight, suddenly alert. He flew toward her, swooping down and kissing her before she could stop him. His breath smelled like something rotten—a forgotten peach, curdled milk. His lips smashed into hers, pressing her hard into the pillow. Every time she thought it would end, it somehow kept going. “I can’t breathe,” she managed to mumble beneath the weight of his lips.
He released her. He dragged a chair next to her hospital bed. “Do you remember the accident?”
Victoria had a vague memory of leaving work. Nodding to the resident peddler on the corner. Fishing a bruised banana from her purse for him. Staring at the steady stream of hypnotic white lines, the empty pavement stretching to infinity.
“You smashed into a tree,” Billy said. “You must have fallen asleep. The doctor said you have a pretty serious concussion.” He was grimacing.
“Why are you making that face?”
“It’s the baby,” Billy said. “They couldn’t save it. I’m so sorry.” He brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, exposing a ripe armpit.
Victoria wrinkled her nose.
He grabbed her hand, but she could barely feel his touch. “It’s not your fault.”
She leaned back against the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m so hungry.”
“Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll go find the doctor and hunt down some food.”
After Billy left, she examined her body. The left side looked all banged up—leg in a brace, arm in a sling—but she felt perfectly symmetrical. She felt a large bump on her forehead, but it didn’t even hurt, like it wasn’t even real. She moved her hands to her stomach. She hadn’t even been showing, and yet, she felt lighter.
It was nearing ten p.m. The hospital was strangely quiet. Victoria got out of bed. The thin hospital gown hung from her body like a bag.
Outside, leaves rustled in the trees. The breeze drifted in through the open window, grazing Victoria’s exposed back. She nearly fell over. She walked to the hallway on unsteady feet, wispy legs. The gown fluttered behind her. She could barely feel the ground beneath her feet, like she was floating.
She floated out of the room, down the hospital’s corridors, all the way outside. The street lamps lit up a mosaic of reds and yellows blazing in the trees, openly signaling their imminent decay. The breeze rustled her hair, blowing behind her, going through her, carrying her faster, farther.
She remembered the great big oak rushing toward her. The flash of bark. The exhilaration she felt when she thought it was all over.
“Look what came!” Billy said, appearing in the kitchen. Victoria sat at the island counter, eating chocolate chips straight from the bag.
Billy set down a bouquet of pineapples, strawberries, chocolate-covered bananas blooming from a pot wrapped in crinkled red paper. “Get better soon!” the card demanded. “We’re lost without you.” It was from her coworkers at the marketing firm. Instead of feeling guilty, Victoria felt relieved not to be there, contorted in her desk chair so long her knees went stiff, her feet numb, tingling pinpricks climbing her shin until her entire leg fell asleep and she had to punch it back to life.
Billy wrapped his arms around her waist. He massaged her belly, slid a hand up her shirt. His fingers felt like clammy little tendrils. She slid off her stool and moved to the other side of the counter.
Billy sighed. “I know it must be hard.”
He gave her a pitying look. “You know.” He placed a hand back on her stomach.
“Don’t you have tires to rotate? Oil to change?” she said.
“You have to talk about your feelings, Vicky.”
“I’m just trying to help you. You could meet me halfway here.” His irritation was palpable. A hot white light radiated from his body, but it was hard for her to care. She plucked a strawberry from a plastic stem. It tasted like ashes. She spit it out, covering her hand in a stringy mess of red entrails.
“Jesus, what’d you do that for?” Billy said.
She held out her hand. “Taste this, will you?”
“That’s got to be the grossest thing you’ve ever done.” He forced a smile to show he was only joking. He wiped her hand clean with a paper towel.
He took a fresh strawberry from the bouquet, sniffed it. Poked it with his tongue. Nibbled off the end. His expression lightened. He popped the rest in his mouth. “It’s good,” he said with his mouth full, garbling his words.
Victoria braved the chocolate-covered banana. The banana tasted just as ashy as the strawberry, but the chocolate casing was smooth and velvety. She wondered if maybe it wasn’t the fruit. If it was her. This strange, new body.
Everything the living would consider healthy—the kale spinach smoothies she used to blend every morning, the medley of squash, carrots, and onions she’d roast for dinner—tasted repugnant to her now. The only things Victoria could stomach were peanut butter cookies, potato chips and onion dip, popcorn doused in a stick of butter—things she’d long avoided.
No matter what she ate, she didn’t gain weight. She remained light and buoyant. She didn’t even need to exercise anymore. She could spend the whole day curled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn, reading the books lining her walls that she’d been meaning to get to since college: The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights. She’d sit for hours, getting lost in worlds of heightened emotion that seemed so much more meaningful than hers ever did, oblivious to Billy puttering around the apartment, the neighbor kids squealing outside as they chased their barking dog, the phone ringing and ringing and ringing (“Don’t you hear that? The accident didn’t damage your ears, did it?”). When Billy asked Victoria if she was up for a game night with their friends, she didn’t even glance up from her book. “I’m reading.”
“I don’t mean now, I mean in a little bit.”
“I’ll be reading then too.”
“Don’t you want to see our friends?”
“I just want to finish this chapter.” She’d played Apples to Apples a million times. She’d never read Moby Dick.
She used to read all the time as a kid—The Boxcar Children, Goosebumps, The Magic Treehouse, transposing words into vibrant movies in her head while her classmates turned every boring facet of their lives into a game: pretend grocery store, pretend doctor, pretend dinner. But after college, marriage, the marketing firm, she never could seem to find the time or the energy to read as much as she wanted. It often made her angry, losing so much time to things that seemed so pointless—watching Billy’s intramural soccer games, reviewing ad copy for products no one needed. “You’re being ridiculous,” she used to tell herself. “You have to live in the world.” Still, the thought nagged at her, burrowing deeper and deeper, its roots taking hold and spreading as far as they could go.
It was the reason she finally acquiesced to Billy’s guilt trips about having a kid. Her boss wouldn’t make her come in for six a.m. website launches, stay until nine p.m. for client feedback, attend product launch parties over the weekend. She only realized what she was doing when it was too late. She couldn’t bring a kid into the world for a terrible reason like that. How selfish that would be. How cruel.
Victoria walked straight at the bedroom wall. The limitations of the physical world she’d grown so used to for twenty-seven years overpowered her, so that instead of going through the wall, she collided with it. Her supposedly injured arm, locked in its sling, was the first point of contact. Her arms were turning into a mosaic of purple and blue splashes.
Billy called from the hallway. “I’m picking up tacos for lunch. You want fish?”
“Chorizo,” she called out. “Make it a chimichanga.”
She charged ahead again, faster this time, full of purpose. She willed herself to keep her good arm down by her side. To forget her old body. Still, she collided with the wall. She bounced back like a spring and fell to the floor.
“What the hell, Vicky?” Billy said, appearing at the doorway.
“I thought it might be one of the perks,” she said. He helped her up, inadvertently smashing an ice pack against her shoulder.
“You need to rest. You need to get better so you can go back to work.” He tucked her into bed and pressed the ice pack to her head, securing it with a long pink ribbon.
She loosened the ribbon under her chin. “Why would I go back to work?”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Dead people don’t go to work.”
“Is this a bit?”
“I’m hollow inside, Billy. I float.”
He crossed his arms. He opened his mouth like he was about to say something, his chest filling with air, but then he released it in one big whoosh.
“You’re lying in bed, Vicky. You just walked into a wall.”
“That’s just an illusion.”
“So what then? Is your spirit really in the bathroom?”
She sighed. “I’m still trying to figure this body out. I realize I’m not a ghost, but I’m some sort of in between. Maybe a ghost with a human costume.”
“If you’re dead, why do you need to sleep? Why do you need to eat? Tell me that.”
“That’s the nice thing about being dead. You don’t have to do anything. You can do whatever you want whenever you want as often as you want. There’s nothing inside of me. No organs. Nothing to sustain.”
Billy put a hand to her breast. “I can feel your heart beat.”
“That’s just part of the costume.”
Billy shook his head, incredulous. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, Vicky.”
“Don’t do anything. I don’t need you.”
“You don’t need me.” His voice sounded so cold, edging on anger. That’s when it hit her—there was no way he could possibly understand what was happening to her. She should’ve known, but her new head made everyone else so cloudy, so that she’d been doing and saying whatever she wanted without considering how it might be received, which was nice for a change, but it also meant she’d have to contend with consequences she used to be able to sidestep. Had she realized this before, she wouldn’t have said anything. “I’m sorry, Billy,” she said now. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m really tired, that’s all. I should rest, like you said.” She curled up on her side. The ice pack slid down her forehead, covering her eyes.
He sat there for a while, staring at her. She could practically see his body through the back of her head, the way it pulsed and blazed.
Finally, he left the bedroom, yanking the door shut behind him so it slammed. She squeezed her eyes tight, pulled the blanket over her head.
Victoria perched on the edge of the exam table, her jeans crinkling the paper lining.
Billy sat in a nearby chair while the doctor checked her blood pressure, heart rate, the dilation of her eyes.
“Your husband tells me you think you died in the accident.”
Victoria sighed. She rubbed her face with her hands. “Would you believe me if I said I was kidding?”
She stared blankly past the doctor at the wall. An anatomical chart of the human body hung there, illustrating stringy muscles she was glad she no longer had to worry about. “It doesn’t really matter what I say, does it? You’ve already decided.”
“She’s never this brazen,” Billy said.
“A miscarriage can be very traumatic,” the doctor said. “We might come up with all kinds of ways to cope.”
“It was the size of a centipede. People squash centipedes all the time,” Victoria said.
The doctor placed a little blue pill in the palm of her hand. “I want you to try this.”
“It’ll help you feel more like yourself.” He handed her a cup of water.
“But I feel better than ever.”
“Please, Vicky?” Billy pleaded. They both stared at her, a manic orange pulse radiating from their bodies, consuming the entire room until it engulfed her too. They weren’t going to let her leave until she took it.
She swallowed the pill, trying to assure herself that it couldn’t affect her anyway.
They both relaxed, and the orange receded back into their bodies.
“Wonderful,” the doctor said. “I’m going to have a word with your husband.” He and Billy stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind them so she couldn’t hear. Like she was a child, she thought. Maybe this was how the dead were treated. Patronized.
At first, she didn’t feel anything. But after a while, she felt weighed down. The left side of Victoria’s body, the side that had been most banged up in the accident, now felt heavier than the right. She hobbled lopsided around the living room, her swollen leg crashing into the floor with each step. She walked too quickly and fell over, her bad arm breaking her fall. She rolled over on her back and rubbed her tingling arm. Shapes began to form on the stucco ceiling—Billy, her friends, her clients and coworkers and boss. She needed to go back to work. She needed to exercise. She grabbed her belly and felt soft flesh—too much flesh.
She remembered with painful clarity the tree speeding toward her, the flash of bark, the rush of anxiety, and it hurt suddenly, even though it was weeks ago, it hurt. She felt the tree bearing down on her, crushing her, crushing the baby. She squeezed her belly, empty now. It was her fault. She was careless. She was reckless. She was selfish.
When she woke the next morning, before she even opened her eyes, she felt her body levitating above the mattress. All the worry was gone. She remembered that none of those things mattered. Why couldn’t she see it before?
You could work somewhere else, Billy used to say. Write for a nonprofit that helps the homeless.
And make my entire purpose and livelihood dependent upon their misery?
I’m just saying if you’re not happy, do something, don’t just bitch about it.
Well she’d gone and done something about it alright. She felt so lucky not to have commitments anymore. She refused to let Billy manipulate her back into her old ways, the ways of the living.
When she went to the bathroom, she flushed that day’s pill.
Later, when Billy said he needed to take her to a therapist, she smiled sweetly and climbed willingly into the car.
She tried running out the clock by reading The Grapes of Wrath in the drab pink waiting room, but people kept asking if she had an appointment. So she hid in the bathroom. She locked herself in a stall with her book for the rest of the hour, not even minding the open toilet seat crawling with bacteria, the smells wafting beneath the short, thin walls.
When exactly one hour had passed, she went outside to wait for Billy.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Fantastic,” she said, smiling extra wide for good measure.
Billy walked in circles around the living room, straightening books, folding throw blankets, fluffing pillows—something she’d never seen him do before.
“You can go back to work you know,” she said, looking up from Anna Karenina. “Clearly you’re bored. I’ll be fine.”
He put on a record. The Temptations’ Greatest Hits.
He shimmied over to Victoria. “Hey, let’s dance,” he said.
“I thought I was injured.”
“Think of it as physical therapy.” He took her hand and pulled her up from the leather armchair.
They swayed in the small space between the coffee table and TV, her feet hovering above the ground. She could feel the music pulsing through her costume. Was it fun? Maybe. When she was alive, she used to enjoy dancing with Billy. Was even the one who’d put on records and rub up against him to make him laugh.
He pulled her closer, smashing her arm in the sling between their stomachs. He rested his head against hers, breathed her scent in deeply. “Remember when I used to sing to your belly?” He kissed her neck, then moved his mouth to hers. He ran his hand down her side, across her hip, between her legs. She didn’t push him, but she pulled back so his hand got stuck in the waistband of her underwear.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“I’ve been trying to tell you. This body is all show.”
“You still think you’re dead?”
She sighed. “I know it’s hard for you to understand, but I need you to accept it.”
He grabbed her shoulders. “What’s the matter with you? I’m your husband.” He started to shake her. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Don’t you care?”
“Billy, you’re hurting me!”
“Now you can feel pain?”
Then suddenly, like a switch had been flipped, his anger turned to fear, to guilt.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” To her relief, he rushed out of the room.
The windows had frosted over, sealing them in a hazy bubble.
Victoria curled up on the couch beneath a throw blanket, reading The Stranger.
The phone rang but she ignored it. Billy picked it up without looking at her. He’d been avoiding her the last couple days, but she preferred it that way.
“Andy, buddy! No, I don’t think I can make it to soccer. I need to stay with Vicky a while.”
“You should go,” she chirped.
He moved to the kitchen, where she could still hear him mumbling earnestly.
She felt herself floating above the couch, her body filling with helium. She could float all the way up to the ceiling if she wanted to. She could float away. While Billy was preoccupied, she went to the sliding glass door.
Winter had arrived early, burying everything in snow, sealing streets and sidewalks beneath slick sheets of ice.
She glided out onto the porch without a jacket or shoes, but it didn’t matter because her socks hovered above the snow. She floated to the top of the railing. She wanted to float all the way up to the sky, but she felt invisible tethers tying her to the earth. She lifted her arms and closed her eyes, the helium tugging her up, up, up. Soon, the tethers snapped. They flapped loosely around her ankles as she rose above the house, the electrical wires, the tops of the bare trees. She knew she’d plunged into a cloud when the light filtering through her eyelids darkened and a soft, pillowy substance kissed her skin. When she was high enough, she stretched her arms out in front of her and flipped sideways, the better to soar across the great expanse of sky.
“Vicky, what are you doing!” Billy’s voice called from far below.
She would’ve ignored him, would’ve kept soaring until she could no longer hear him, but she felt herself being tugged back down, reeled back in like a kite. She floated down to the earth, landing softly in the snow.
When she opened her eyes, she was laying supine on the snowy lawn in front of the porch. She stared up at the sky. No clouds obstructed the sun, yet there was a dullness to it, as though it had spun farther away in space.
Billy towered over her. He must have yanked the tethers, pulling her back down. He picked her up and carried her like a baby up the porch steps.
“Put me down,” she said, but he didn’t listen.
He carried her inside and set her on the living room rug. He began peeling off her wet clothes. “Do you think you broke anything? How’s your arm? Christ, you’re soaked. You could have hypothermia. I better take you to the doctor.”
“I can’t get hurt, Billy. I told you.”
She touched her head. Her fingers came back wet with red. She licked one. It tasted sweet, like corn syrup. “It’s not real blood.”
He stared at her, mouth agape. “For Christ’s sake, Vicky, we can’t go on like this!”
She looked at him thoughtfully, relieved that he finally acknowledged it. “You’re right. We can’t.”
Victoria packed a bag. There were no clothes in it, only snacks and books, as many as she could fit. Don Quixote, Pride and Prejudice, As I Lay Dying. The bag didn’t feel heavy at all.
Billy had finally returned to work the day before, maxed out on vacation days. She only had an hour before he returned. She left a note so he wouldn’t go looking for her. It wasn’t right for the living and the dead to be together, she wrote. He needed so much, and she needed so little. She hoped he found someone who could give him the things he needed.
Victoria didn’t mind being in limbo, but she never expected limbo would reside on Earth. Maybe it was the ones who loved you in life that kept you in limbo after death, she thought, with their insistence that they owned you, that you belonged to them, belonged to anyone at all beside yourself. Without Billy’s demands weighing her down, maybe she would’ve already floated up into space. She needed to find others like her, others who needed nothing.
Despite the snow, she didn’t put on a jacket. She didn’t put on mittens or a hat. She did put on boots, but only because it would be easier to traverse the ice if levitation failed her. She walked out into the cold. Of course, it didn’t feel cold to her. It felt invigorating.
Melissa Brooks is a Chicago-based writer with an MFA in Fiction from the University of San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The Matador Review, Arcturus, Gravel, and elsewhere. Her short story “Closed Casket Calling Hours” was included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She currently works in marketing at the University of Chicago.
When Mom died Rachel started asking questions. What did Mom make for Christmas morning? Egg casserole. When did Mom go back to school? I was fourteen, you were eleven. The questions got smaller and bigger, as though by their specificity they were magnified. What did she smell like? She wore Chanel No. 5. I know that, Tabbie. But what did she smell like? She smelled like orange honey and coral lipstick and bright green breath mints. What did her hugs feel like? They were nice. Tabbie. Like she was bringing you in and keeping you out at the same time.
You see, I remember everything. Rachel says I’m the only person who truly loves her because I know everything she ever did. She is my sister, my friend, and still—I lied to her.
Mom had a set of matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, that she kept lined up on her bookshelf. I can see inside people like the inside of those dolls, each self tucked inside the others. Much like a mother sees all the ages her child ever was: the baby in the toddler, the toddler in the teenager, the teenager in the thirty-year-old. Mom told me once that when I stood in the sunlight she could squint and see twelve-year-old Tab, five-year-old Tabbie, and Baby Tabitha deep inside. Matryoshka means “mother” in Russian. Maybe that’s why.
I realized I was different on Thursday, January 9, 1992. I was thirteen. I was riding the bus home from school, staring out the rainy window. Greg Saunders was sitting nearby and I was thinking about how he pushed me at recess back in sixth grade. It was March 7, a Wednesday. I’d had cottage cheese in my lunch and Sarah T. said that was weird. I told her she was weird. Then Stephanie started talking about her slumber party and we both shut up because we wanted to go. I remembered Stephanie’s slumber party. We watched The NeverEnding Story. I wore my pajamas with the dancing toothbrushes and my dad was twenty minutes early picking me up. I rushed to get my sleeping bag and I forgot one of my socks. It was Saturday, March 10, 1991.
This is weird, I thought. Does everyone remember like this? I started asking.
I’m fascinated by other people’s memories: What do they keep? What do they forget? How are those decisions made? My husband, Danny, tells me people don’t make decisions about what to remember. Just like I don’t choose to remember every detail, he doesn’t choose to remember only certain events.
But Danny is a person who forgets. After we’d been dating six months, I asked him what he thought after we had sex the first time. He stammered, searching. I could picture little men walking up and down his brain, looking for a file that had been misplaced, mislabeled, or recycled. They muttered to themselves: sex with Tabitha, first sex with Tabitha.
He said, “Oh, it was nice.”
He didn’t remember.
It makes me feel small, to remember these forgotten things. That’s why I lied. These memories are suffocating. They pile up on me and I cannot breathe.
The day Mom left us was a Tuesday. December 6, 1990. I was twelve and Rachel was nine. It was a school day, but a heavy snow came through in the night. Mom paced the kitchen listening to the DJ read the list of school closures. “Closing school?” she said. “Ridiculous—it’ll be melted by noon.”
She was showered and dressed when we came downstairs for breakfast. Most days she was still in her bathrobe, packing our lunches. Mom had a part-time job at a dentist’s office, doing the books. But she was home when we left and home again when we got off the bus in the afternoon so what she did during the day was invisible. She wore a cream turtleneck sweater, dangly gold earrings, and her camel church slacks. Her blonde hair was swept up in a twist. Dad had already left for work, leaving early to shovel out the car, and make his way through the snow to the office. She made pancakes, a rarity. She made too many at once and they sat in a cold pile on a plate by the sink.
“Eat up, girls. Then go play. We’ll go out in a little while, when they get the roads cleared.”
“No school!” We shouted, “Snow day, snow day!” We jumped up and down and held onto each other’s hands. At this age I was as likely to trip Rachel as I was to paint her nails. We were tight in the love-hate hug of sisterhood.
We went outside to play, but after a few snowballs the novelty wore off and the cold set in through my wet mittens. Rachel wanted to build a snow fort. I tried to tell her it was impossible, that the snow didn’t make ice blocks like it did in the cartoons.
“Fine, Tabbie,” she said. “Don’t help. I can do it.” She took a handful of snow, which crumbled in her hands. She shook the frozen clumps of snow from her mittens and set about pushing the snow into a mound. She’d find a way, maybe, but I was going inside.
The house was dark after the sunshine on the snow and quiet, like no one was home. I walked into the living room, my snow pants heavy and wet around my ankles. I stood at the bookshelf and looked at Mom’s matryoshka dolls. The biggest doll had a red coat with small blue flowers and pink painted cheeks and a mouth painted in a small red bow. Her black hair peeked out from her red kerchief. Her blue eyes glinted with a dot of white at the pupil. I pulled apart the belly with a satisfying pop. Inside, I found the next doll with a green coat and the same blue eyes, the same black hair, the same bow mouth. Underneath her, a doll with a dark blue coat, and then the orange coat, and then the light green coat, then the light blue coat, and, finally, a baby, wrapped in a painted pink blanket. Her eyes were closed, little painted half-moon lids, always asleep.
I heard my mother call. It was almost time to go. I put the baby in my pocket and went to change. I left the dolls open and scattered along the bookshelf like a series of unanswered questions.
Once in the car, I asked, “Where are we going?”
“The mall,” Mom said.
But when we got close to the mall, we turned left into the parking lot for Garcia’s, the Mexican restaurant. Mom took us each by the hand, walking in the middle, linking us together. I kept one hand in my pocket, rolling the small, egg-shaped baby doll between my fingers and palm. The restaurant was almost empty.
“Girls, I want you to sit right here. I’m going to go over there, at that table by the window. I’m going to have lunch with a friend. I’ll be able to see you. It will be your very own special lunch date. Just you two.”
She smiled. Her coral lipstick shined against her white teeth. She bent down and kissed each of us, hard. She stood up and straightened her sweater, smoothed her hands over her camel slacks, rubbed her lips together to redistribute the lipstick. She walked to a table by the window and she sat down across from a man.
The man wore a dark suit. I saw him only in profile, but I was sure I didn’t know him. He was losing his sandy-colored hair, but it puffed above his ears hopefully. He wore glasses. I had never seen him before.
Rachel kicked her shoes on the legs of her chair. “What are we doing? Are we gonna eat?”
I kicked her shin under the table. “Shut up. Stop it with your feet, ok?”
I was trying to listen to my mother and the man in the dark suit. They were too far away; I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The waitress stopped at their table, glanced over her shoulder at us, then took out her pad and pen. She brought chips and salsa to our table without stopping. I kept looking over at Mom and the man.
“Tab, what are we doing? Who’s that guy?” Rachel asked.
“Shut up. I’m trying to hear them.” Mom was talking using her hands. The man looked serious. He kept nodding. He’d say something—break into Mom’s talking—and her hands would flurry to a stop. They would fall, like birds shot out of the sky, into her lap, limp and still.
The waitress brought us two Sprites. She told us our mom had ordered lunch for us and it would be here in a few minutes. There was a TV in the bar somewhere over my shoulder and Rachel kept looking past me and zoning out. I bobbed the straw in and out of my Sprite, watching the bubbles push it up to the top. The tiny little bubbles shot the straw up into the air when my finger released the pressure. Rachel’s eyes looked glassy; her mouth was partway open.
Lunch came. Mom had ordered us each two chicken tacos, with a side of rice and beans.
“Plates are hot, ok, kids?” The waitress told us. The plates were white ovals and the rice and beans were gooey, melted together with orange and white cheese. Rachel asked the waitress for another Sprite. Mine was only half-gone. Mom and the man weren’t eating, but they drank coffee.
Mom was crying now. She had a Kleenex out of her purse and was dabbing her eyes with it. Her nose was red. The man in the suit reached out and covered Mom’s hand with his. Mom slipped her hand out from under his to steady her coffee cup to her lips. She sipped, nodded, then put her hand back on the table like an invitation. His big hand covered hers again.
The waitress came and got our plates. Rachel was still watching TV with that stupid look on her face.
Mom and the man stood up. They hugged. She turned toward us and smiled. The smile faltered like it wasn’t sure it could balance on its own.
“Who was that, Mom?” Rachel asked.
“A friend,” she said. “Get your coats, ok?”
She took our hands again as we left the restaurant. She walked briskly across the parking lot toward the movie theatre.
“Let’s see a movie, what do you think? Huh, girls? There’s that new one out. Alone at Home or something? Want to see that?”
“Home Alone,” I said. “It’s called Home Alone.” And yes, I wanted to see it. Jenny had seen it last weekend and said it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen in her life, she laughed so hard she almost peed her pants. But I was vaguely angry. What were we doing? Why was she acting like this was normal?
Rachel jumped up and down, still holding on to Mom’s hand. “Yes! Yes! Please?”
Rachel didn’t understand you didn’t have to beg when something had already been offered.
It was cold and the guy at the ticket booth wore red earmuffs. “Two for Home Alone,” my mother said. “One for… Dances with Wolves.”
“That one started about ten minutes ago.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” she said.
“You’re not coming with us?” I asked.
“I’ll just be next door. You two are getting so grown-up, my goodness, we can do things like this now.”
Rachel asked for popcorn and Mom nodded. Rachel squeezed my hand like she’d just gotten us something really good. What’s wrong with her, I thought. Why doesn’t Rachel see how weird this is?
We got our popcorn and Mom walked us to the door of our theater. “I’ll be right next door, ok? I’ll be here when you guys get out. I’ll be waiting right here.”
I remember everything about that movie: the bit parts, the jokes that didn’t quite work. I remember more than just his hands on his cheeks in that mock scream. I remember him being forgotten as his family rushed out the door. It didn’t seem funny at all, to be left at home by yourself. To be forgotten.
When the movie ended, I was sick to my stomach from the Sprite and the popcorn and the wondering. I rolled the baby matryoshka in my sweaty pocket. We walked out of the darkness of the theater into the lights of the lobby. Mom was standing right there, just where she said she would be. I could tell she’d been crying. The man in the suit was walking out the door.
What had they done?
Mom drove us home. Rachel bounded into the house in front of us.
“Who was that man, Mom?” I asked.
“I told you, Tab. A friend.”
“Does Dad know him?”
She turned her head so fast a piece of hair slipped from the pins and slapped her on the cheek. “No,” she said. “No, your father doesn’t know him.” She walked into the house and left me standing on the steps.
Later that afternoon, I stood at my bedroom window and watched Rachel make snow angels in the front yard. She stood on the bank of the driveway and fell back, a trust-fall to no one. She was chubby in her snow pants, awkward as she tried to get up without ruining her angel. She waved at me in the window, but I just crossed my arms.
Mom walked out to the driveway and pulled a blue suitcase from the trunk of the car. She carried it to one side with both hands and the weight of it bounced up and down on her thigh. Rachel paused and looked up at our mother, carrying the suitcase. Rachel must have seen her, but she didn’t speak. The late afternoon light was thin, the shadows dark and cold. Again, Rachel fell back into the white drift, so sure the soft snow would catch her.
I listened as the suitcase was hauled up the stairs and then dragged down the hallway carpet. It must have been heavy. I heard my mother close her bedroom door. I walked the short hallway to my parents’ room and knocked once. I opened the door before she could answer.
She stood over the bed pulling out her green sweater from the suitcase. She had changed out of her camel slacks, back into jeans and a sweatshirt. She held the sweater by the shoulders like she was trying to decide whether to try it on.
“Tabbie, you’re supposed to wait for come in.”
“Want to help me?”
She handed me sweaters and I put them back into her bureau. She didn’t explain. I didn’t ask. Maybe she thought I wasn’t old enough to understand or I was too young to remember. Maybe she was trying to show me that she had decided to stay. I helped her put away sweaters, jeans, her fancy black dress. She put her mother’s pearls back into her jewelry box.
When we were done, I walked downstairs to the abandoned matryoshka dolls. I took the baby from my pocket and carefully recreated the shells of the dolls that held her. When they were complete, I took the mother doll with the red coat and kissed her little bow mouth. I put her back, safely, at her place on the shelf.
Over pizza that night, Rachel told Dad about going to the movies. Dad asked Mom, “What did you see, honey?”
“Dances with Wolves. The one with the guy and the Indians.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed. “I wanted to see that.”
“Well, you should. You should go. I’m sorry—I just couldn’t do a kid movie today.”
“No biggie,” he smiled.
Years pass that way: being polite and passing the breadsticks. I read once that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. But some questions are never answered, and the years pass anyway.
I never discussed that day with anyone. I grew up, left home, married Danny. Mom got sick, and sicker, and smaller, until she was so thin her passing was like fog burning off in the morning sun. Rachel grew up, too, in her way. I never outgrew being the big sister. She started asking her questions about Mom. I answered them, faithfully. Until I lied.
Rachel was over and Danny was making paella. It was a Friday night and we were already on our second bottle of wine. Rachel sat on the counter next to Danny as he chopped green beans. They were talking about Spain. Rachel told him about a little hotel in Ronda she visited in college that had a theater room that played old movies. She watched Casablanca there, her favorite.
Rachel turned to me. “What was Mom’s favorite movie, Tab?”
“Out of Africa.”
“No. No—it was that other one. Kevin Costner. The one where he’s out on the prairie and there’s that Indian woman. What’s it called?”
“Dances with Wolves.”
“Right. Dances with Wolves.”
“That wasn’t her favorite movie, Rach.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“She never even saw that movie.”
“What do you mean? Of course, she did. I remember her talking about it.”
“No. Dad loved that movie. That’s Dad’s favorite movie. He went to see it by himself. On Saturday, January 12, 1991.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Really. God, Rachel. You know I remember these things. Why would I be making this up? He went to go see it by himself after my basketball game. I scored eight points and Megan Parker twisted her ankle. And then Dad went to go see that stupid movie. By himself.”
My heart was racing. My cheeks were slapped red from the wine and I could hear my voice getting higher, like bubbles fighting their way to the top of a straw.
“Sorry. God, you’re touchy.”
“No. No, I’m really not, Rachel. It’s just you don’t remember these things and then you ask me and you expect me to remember everything but you don’t even believe me when I tell you. It’s annoying.”
“Sorry. I won’t ask you about anything. Ever.”
“Good. Because I could tell you things you couldn’t even believe.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You have no idea, do you?”
I told her how about the snow day and going to Garcia’s and the man in the suit and Mom in her camel slacks and her with her stupid mouth open watching TV. I told her about seeing Home Alone just the two of us.
Then I lied. I told her we came out of the theater and Mom wasn’t there. She wasn’t there waiting for us like she said she would be. We waited and waited and she never came back. I told her we finally walked through the snow-drifted parking lot and into the mall where we held hands and walked the long mall, looking into each of the stores hoping for a glimpse of her twisted blonde hair, her cream sweater, but nothing. We found nothing. She wasn’t there. As it was getting dark, we walked back to the movie theater and sat huddled together on the floor next to the popcorn machine. The teenage clerk asked us if everything was ok and when we said yes he shrugged and walked back to rip tickets. How Mom finally walked into the theater, her blonde hair now down around her shoulders and covered with a fine blanket of new white snow. How she took us by the hands and told us to never, never, never tell our father that she was gone all day while we wandered around the mall.
I lied so she would know the truth.
I told her everything that mattered. I told her about the blue suitcase thumping up the stairs. I told her how I helped Mom unpack and put away Grandma’s pearls.
“Where did she go?” Rachel asked.
“She was gone, Rach. She was gone with him. And I would see him, all the time, growing up. He would come to my basketball games and wave to Mom. God, we had him and his wife over for dinner.” I heard my voice climbing higher.
“Dr. Tillman, her boss.”
“Tabbie,” Danny said, looking at Rachel who had started to cry.
“She has to grow up—she has to grow up sometime! I know this. Why should I be the only one who knows this? Why should I be the only one who has to carry all this around? All she and Dad do is talk about how perfect Mom was. All Dad can say is how much he loved her. Well, I remember. I remember the fighting, them screaming at each other. She never came back, Rachel. She never really came back. She left us. Just like she left us at that movie theater.”
I stood up and walked out the front door, into the cold night. It had started to snow while we were busy in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, sorting memories. I hadn’t stopped to grab a coat and it took just a moment for the chill to set in. I wrapped my arms around myself and watched the snowflakes fall in the circle of the streetlight. The snow settled on the street in a quiet blanket. Each unique snowflake landed silent and anonymous.
I heard the door open behind me, but I didn’t turn. I knew it was Rachel. She stood beside me with her hands stuffed into her coat pockets. She leaned into me, nudging her shoulder into mine.
“Tab, I know there’s a lot I don’t know. I know I don’t have your perfect, photographic memory—or whatever it is. But I know Mom loved us. I know she wasn’t perfect. I know I only talk about the good stuff. That’s what I choose to remember. Maybe she left us at that movie theater all day. But she came back. She was there for us after school. She was there at our graduations. She was there to watch you play basketball. She loved us. Your memories don’t change that.”
I nodded. My throat swelled with the pressure of words I couldn’t predict.
“You’ve got to be cold,” she said.
I turned to Rachel and my tears touched her cheek before anything else. I wrapped my arms around her. I felt her shoulder blades fold, like frail wings, under her coat. I saw her, a little girl again, making snow angels, falling back, trusting the soft snow to catch her. I held my little sister like a snowflake on my tongue.
Marion Peters Denard facilitates writing workshops at Writers’ Room, a creative writing studio located in Jacksonville, Oregon. She studied writing at the University of Puget Sound and Dartmouth College. Her poetry has appeared in Adanna, Peregrine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel for children.
The banana bread would not bake. Maddy had followed the recipe to a T, only substituting canola oil for half the butter, honey for half the sugar, skim for whole milk, and nutmeg for cinnamon. Putting on long oven mitts and pulling the door open, she checked the loaf again. Three hundred and fifty degree heat swept into the kitchen, already filled with late summer swelter. Not wanting to take the time to lift the single bread pan onto the top of the stove, she pulled out the rack, took off one mitt and stuck a toothpick into the loaf. Raising it straight up, it was plain to the naked eye—her reading glasses were sitting idle on the kitchen table—that raw batter clung to the sliver of wood for dear life. If it had been at all cooperative it would let the toothpick withdraw, leaving no trace on the twig, as if untouched by the experience.
She knew that there was a brief moment between when the middle was raw and when the entire loaf was done, but dry as August crabgrass. It was a narrow window and she wanted to catch it, having missed the moment between seeing her husband standing next to his suitcase—mouthing words, dropping keys on the kitchen table—and when he stepped out of the front door. He had looked at her, holding his duffle bag in his hand. His briefcase leaned against his leg. A large roller suitcase rested by his rear. “My keys.” He held them out as though in full explanation.
She wanted to say, What? You’re leaving? Leaving me? But she looked at him quizzically instead, not reaching for the keys.
He cleared his throat, as if disgusted to have to explain. “I was on a ski lift and fell, tumbling airborne. Afraid of falling, of hitting hard. Then I realized—you know you can realize things in a dream—that the snow was soft and I let myself go. Falling. Free.” He nodded. When she didn’t respond likewise he continued, “I woke up and caught myself almost rolling out of bed. Then I knew: it would be okay. I’d be okay.”
She wanted to say, That’s what you want to tell me? That you’ll be okay? But what came out was, “Ung,” and another, “Ung?” She would have given anything to be someone else—a woman in a sitcom, perhaps, with a smart answer followed by a laugh track and a younger boyfriend. “Ung,” she’d said again. “Ung.”
Now Maddy rechecked the bread. She flipped the finally golden-brown loaf onto a cooling rack on the counter, next to Tad’s first letter. It had been nine days and four hours since he’d left. She skimmed the first apology— “it’s not you”—and the second one—“it’s me.” Near the end was what she had waited for, and didn’t want to know, and didn’t want to go on not knowing. No one else. She didn’t believe it but appreciated the effort. Maybe four years hadn’t been completely wasted.
The spacious Philadelphia row house that they had shared sold quickly in early fall, before the housing market completely dropped. She would have felt bad for the young couple who bought high, but they were both lawyers and should have known better. The street that was now her street—with the narrow row house in her name only—was in walking distance of the old place. Maddy once ran into the buyers at the Italian Market. They were bargaining with a merchant, offering half the listed price for bok choy. She turned into DiBruno’s slip of a shop, inhaling pungent molecules of cheese and olives, heavy and thick as ricotta in a cannoli. She’d bought a quarter pound of one of the specials and determined that she should have asked for—that she and Tad should have asked for—more when they sold. Let the lawyers swim underwater.
A surprise October snow brought slush to her cobblestone street and ice to the front stairs. The slush turned brown and, in spots, black with hints of hunter green. Her boots came to her knees and thankfully so, for the brick sidewalk was pocketed with dips and trenches of the icy mix.
The next day was her thirty-ninth birthday. Feeling both industrious and a bit lonely, she joined a Tuesday night knitting club, admiring the creations of women who had been knitting and talking together since before she met Tad. She stitched a couple of scarfs and came to the realization that the women let her sit with them—let her knit with them, accepted her contributions of every other item for Appalachian orphans—and talked as though she wasn’t there. Not a question about her life.
At first, she appreciated being around new people and not having to say anything. When she shared a story or added a comment the others seemed to enjoy her anecdotes about her first-grade students. The knitters listened and nodded, as they twisted alpaca and mohair and worsted wool and clacked titanium needles in a rhythm steady as a cow chewing its cud, hour in and hour out. Their even rows grew with inattention, from balls of yarn into sleeves and backs; knit skirts with silk linings; and what might have been ordinary gloves and hats and scarves, save for a contrasting splash of orange or red against chocolate and navy.
Maddy also joined a papermaking class that met on Wednesday evenings and it wasn’t long before trees trumped sheep. She loved the rough textures, and draining color from carrots and beets and spinach to make dyes. After a few more weeks, however, she realized she had both a scarf and a set of note cards for her entire gift list.
Christmas came and went, with her gifts appreciated—though no more than store-bought—which confirmed the rightness of moving on. There was no future in wool, no tomorrow in paper.
Decisions became more rather than less bewildering. She stuck with cereal for breakfast, yogurt for lunch, cereal for dinner, with an occasional candy bar thrown in when hunger appeared between meals. Evenings of industry devolved from arts and crafts into weeknights of dinner for one in front of the TV, which evolved into lost weeks, then months.
She noted all her anniversaries, but couldn’t bring herself to celebrate any of them. The original one—her wedding day? When he left? The day they sold the house? The date on the divorce papers? Her friends took note of none of these. They came in two varieties. Her oldest ones had known her growing up. They never had liked Tad, naming him JustaTad after the first time she introduced him over a barbeque and he wore loafers without socks. Just a tad not like them, and not trying to fit in. Her newer friends, from college and work, were concerned about the breakup and wondered if she’d considered counseling.
Spring was lost on her. The tulips could have saved their petals of yellow and red, the azaleas bypassed their blossoms and turned their brown twigs into coverings of green leaves without pausing to show off in pink, red, and glittering white. She saw none of it, and was surprised to see flyers advertising strawberry festivals at churches. June, she thought, It must be June.
Back at school on the teachers’ last day, the janitor had vacuumed each classroom but by the time he reached the end of the first-grade hallway the canister in his machine was full and he gave her room more of a symbolic cleaning than an actual one. Using her own supplies, she swept and mopped the linoleum; wiped the windows with vinegar and crumpled newspaper; sanitized the desktops and chairs; and lovingly rinsed the green board of layer after layer of chalk dust. After four rinses the water ran clear and there were no streaks on the board.
Alone in her classroom, Maddy spun around in the middle of the room, her arms reaching for the walls, then the windows, and admired the way the room sparkled. Catching her breath, she pulled a fresh box of colored chalk out of her desk. WELCOME MAPLE LEAVES she printed neatly across the top of the green board. YOUR TEACHER IS MISS JONES. She read the words aloud dramatically and made a large sweeping motion as though it were fall and the new students were entering her room for the first time.
“Why thank you. Don’t mind if I do,” the other first grade teacher, Annie, said, stepping into the classroom.
“I thought I was the only teacher still here.” Maddy laughed self-consciously. “Don’t you love the way the room smells, clean but with a hint of chalk?”
“Incorrigible,” Annie said, and also laughed. She waited while Maddy closed up her room and they walked down the long hall. The cement walls had been hastily painted and were waiting for fall artwork. “Beading,” Annie said as they approached the parking lot.
“The kids would love that,” Maddy said. She had a vision of a classroom full of six-year-olds stringing beads that they’d made out of clay into bracelets and anklets and necklaces.
Annie pulled Maddy away from her future students. “A bunch of us—” Annie said. “I promised I would get you to come. All year you’ve begged off joining us for a sushi Friday or a Saturday matinee. Tonight, you’re coming. It’s Chinese and I know you like it.”
Maddy thought about Annie’s group of single women in their mid-thirties, hanging out while they waited. Too old to be laissez-faire, too young to give up: determined to be single and happy, whether they were or not.
“Dinner’s at seven,” Annie said in her no-nonsense teacher’s voice.
Maddy decided she’d go once—and kept on going into July, enjoying the low-key momentum of idle drinks and afternoon movies with tubs of buttered popcorn. Returning from the outings she would hesitate with the key in the lock, bracing herself. Her rooms had taken on the stale bouquet that she remembered from her grandma’s musty apartment, though Maddy had no mothballs.
Weeks into her newfound social life, Maddy paused, unlocked, stepped inside and quickly relocked. This time there was nothing, no aroma of aloneness, of having been left. Maybe they’re onto something, she thought, though the admission cost a little pride.
Approaching forty had been fine when she was married, but she didn’t like being on the old side of Annie’s group. She wasn’t sure if she belonged. Her quiet apartment told her she did, her dinners for one drove home the point.
She’d been busy trying on marriage—as if it were a jeweled necklace that looked desirable through the window, but upon closer examination was far too expensive, and made with stones that weren’t precious at all. While she’d been tied to Tad, the others had formed tight friendships, vacationed together and worked out whose homes to go to for Thanksgivings and other holidays.
As much as she wasn’t sure that she belonged in the singles group, the singles group seemed unsure if she was one of them. She felt like an in-law: included all summer out of obligation because she was Annie’s friend.
The group always rented a house at the Jersey shore for a week in the middle of August—perfect timing for Maddy, before the school year started—but no one invited her. Maddy was okay with that until she found out there was an empty room. She said to Annie, “That week sounds fun. I’d love to go. I can pay for the extra room.”
Annie looked away. “We save that in case Katy’s sister can come. She came once, a few years ago. The lease is in Katy’s name, so she keeps it in reserve. I’m sorry.”
Katy’s sister lived in Milwaukee and the odds of her coming to the Jersey shore seemed as likely that week as Philadelphia being pleasantly cool with low humidity. Maddy knew where she stood, which left her almost as low as when Tad left. This felt bigger: if the single women’s group wouldn’t let her into their inner circle, there was no inner circle left.
Maddy hadn’t gained over the last year but her weight had redistributed in a way that said Single and Not Caring. She took to wearing pants and tops with sleeves even in the late July sauna of downtown Philly. With a scant month remaining of her lush summer vacation, she was determined to make a pattern that she’d follow throughout the school year. Work out. Buy fresh vegetables. Cook.
She started by taking an afternoon to make a grocery list and leisurely shop. Heading home, she’d accumulated a cloth bag bulging with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella under one arm, and a petite basil plant under the other. She leaned down to sniff the velvety green leaves. The licoricey scent made her close her eyes and inhale deeply.
She looked up, saw that it was Nick—flashed what she knew about him—fourth grade teacher, kids liked him, thick brown hair—and stepped into a pothole in the sidewalk. In the moment it took to hit the ground, she’d clenched her arms around the bags, which kept her upper body protected, but her right ankle immediately sent distress signals.
“I’m fine,” she said, trying a smile, as Nick ran to her.
“I got it.” He reached out, grabbed her packages and placed them off to the side, then knelt next to her. The first few pedestrians—who had seen her fall—walked around her, but the next few walked right up to where she sat before curving sharply to avoid her, as though wanting to be sure to communicate their disgust at the way she’d inconvenienced their passage. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” Nick said.
“Not startled at all.” Maddy looked at her ankle, which felt like it had swollen into the size of an acorn squash, but was in fact normal-sized. “It’s not purple yet or huge, so I don’t think it’s broken.” Mandatory first-aid training at school came in handy.
“Ice, that’s first,” Nick said. He’d taken the same first-aid class. “Let’s get you up.”
She leaned into him, and shrieked a bit and winced a lot on her way to upright. He asked if she wanted him to take her home. Grateful, she hobbled the couple of blocks, focused on keeping as much weight off her ankle as possible and wishing she’d already started her exercise program. She was pretty sure that his arm, which was snug around her to keep her up, and his hand, which was securely around her waist and pulling her up and toward him at every step, communicated to the rest of him that she was not recently acquainted with the gym. “I’ve been thinking of joining a gym,” she said.
“Might as well wait until your ankle’s healed. Don’t want to waste your money.”
When they got to her row house, Maddy stared at the front steps as though she’d never seen them before. She sat on the second step, facing the street. Propelling herself upwards using her good foot and hands, she scaled the six steps as though she were mounting the summit of Everest, backwards. Winded and in pain, she rested on the landing for a moment before Nick eased her to standing. Limping into her hallway, Maddy said, “Thanks, then. I can take it from here.”
Nick laughed. “I’ll get you iced and put these away.”
The Valium she’d been prescribed—but not taken—after Tad left were almost expired, but came in handy now. Nick found the bottle in the kitchen cabinet, nestled between the thyme and vanilla.
Maddy awoke in the night, stretched out on the sofa with her feet resting on a pillow, with both her foot and head throbbing, and a light on in the kitchen. Tad? She knew that wasn’t right. “Ice,” she called out. “Please?” The freezer door opened, then shut.
“Thought you’d never wake,” Nick said.
“Nick.” That’s who it was. “I fell.”
He pulled up a chair and sat next to her. “I was there.”
“I know. I didn’t hit my head.” But she was disoriented and tired, and didn’t want him to leave. “Thanks for helping me home. And staying. And the ice. I’m okay now. I’m sure you need to go.” She thought he was married or had a girlfriend or maybe a boyfriend—someone who would be waiting and wondering, even if he’d called to say that an uncoordinated colleague had tripped and he was being a Good Samaritan and would be home as soon as she woke up. Not that she’d kept him on purpose. The last thing she wanted was to be needy or seem needy. She stood on one foot and held onto the arm of the sofa.
He smiled and shook his head. “I know when I’m not wanted.” He made sure she had her cell phone handy and helped her to the door. “Lock up behind me. Can you get back to the sofa?”
She hadn’t thought of that. “Of course.” She could always crawl.
Ice, compression, anti-inflammatories, elevation. Repeat. In a few days she was able to get around with an ace bandage and a limp, as long as she wasn’t carrying anything. She composed a thank-you email to Nick, wanting to get the right tone. Grateful, not groveling. Hard to convey that in an email. But a call would be too much. A text was not enough. Immobilized by doubt as much as by her tender ankle, she wrote nothing. Thank you would have to wait the three weeks until teachers started back to school.
Annie—it was Annie, back from the shore with a peeling sunburn—who raised her eyebrows over coffee in Maddy’s living room. “He brought you home, found your Valium, and waited for you to wake up.” Maddy shrugged and Annie continue her gentle scolding: “We’re four days later and you haven’t said a word?”
Maddy nodded, silently appreciating Annie’s unhealthy pinkness. She would have happily sat there with her lips and heart clenched shut, but Annie was waiting. Maddy sipped delicately, barely parting her lips. “I got stuck. ‘Thank you for getting me safely home’ sounded cold—and too short. ‘Thank you for saving me from permanent humiliation on the sidewalk and an evening alone in pain’ sounded pathetic. Even desperate.”
Annie shook her head and smiled. “Try ‘thanks for helping me. I really appreciate it.’”
“Oh.” Maddy inhaled deeply. “That could work.”
“You’re like Goldilocks—only you stopped before ‘Just right.’”
Maddy composed and sent. A correspondence ensued: emailing a couple of times a day. Still unsteady on her ankle, Maddy took out a gym membership. She knew to avoid the treadmill until her ankle was healed, but she hit the weight room, lifting light barbells up, across, down, and back in burning sets of ten. She was surprised that her body responded eagerly. After only one week and three workouts her biceps reverberated with more of a ripple than a wave when she made like Popeye. Though it was possible that only she could tell the difference.
Annie, who’d been offering running advice for Maddy after each email exchange, was ecstatic when Nick suggested coffee on Saturday afternoon. She advised, “Beans to You, that’s the perfect place. Not a chain and you can sit as long as you want.”
Thrilled but cautious, Maddy said, “It’s a cup of coffee, not forever.” She could bring up how the first and fourth grades might work on a project together. Which she’d thought of but hadn’t mentioned to anyone, let alone Annie, one of the other first-grade teachers. Besides, Annie would wonder why Maddy had to have a topic to talk about with Nick, but Maddy knew herself, and she did.
Saturday morning, Maddy rose early and developed a new recipe for banana bread, with a touch of vanilla. Once again, her loaf refused to bake in the allotted time. She experimented with a second loaf: keeping vanilla, adding a sprinkle of cardamom, and doubling the bananas. She took the changes into account to calculate extra baking time. When she slipped the heavenly-scented loaf out of the oven the testing toothpick emerged clean and the top was a gorgeous light brown, with a slightly cracked crust.
Maddy checked her phone for directions. She wrapped the warm bread in a dishtowel and cradled it under her arm, excited to meet Nick and discuss her idea of class collaboration. Maddy knew where the conversation would begin; she did not need to know the ending.
Elaine Crauder’s fiction is in Scoundrel Time, The Running Wild Press Best of 2017: AWP Special Edition, The Running Wild Anthology of Short Stories, Volume 1, Cooweescoowe,Penumbra, The Boston Literary Magazine, and The Eastern Iowa Review. Another story earned The Westmoreland Award. Ten of her short stories are finalists or semi-finalists in contests, including finalists in Bellingham Review’s Tobias Wolff Award Contest and in the Mark Twain House Royal Nonesuch Humor Contest. Read more at www.elainecrauder.com.
Adrienne lay on the floor of her apartment, thinking that her life had become what she wanted it to be, when her phone began to ring. Sophia sat next to her, cross-legged, with a glass of wine, flipping flashcards and nodding when Adrienne said the right answer. Grassy late-April air drifted through the open window and the sound of crickets came to a swell outside. Neither Adrienne nor Sophia reached for the phone, letting the sound of fluttering bells continue. ……. As she put down the last card in the stack, Sophia said, “Crazy that you’re studying for this.” ……. “Maybe,” Adrienne laughed, picking up her phone. She didn’t recognize the caller, but it was an area number, so she answered it, still laughing. ……. “Hello?” ……. “Hi, is this Adrienne Perry?” It was a man’s voice. ……. “Yeah?” ……. “This is Emmanuel Barnett, the chair of the English department.” ……. “Professor Barnett, hi,” Adrienne said. “I’m sorry, is there something wrong? I wasn’t expecting a phone call.” Sophia looked at Adrienne, head cocked to one side. Adrienne opened her mouth and shook her head. ……. “I apologize for calling so late—I hope I’m not bothering you.” ……. “No—not at all.” Adrienne’s mind shuffled through a catalogue of possibilities. She didn’t complete all the proper credits, she plagiarized, she couldn’t graduate, she accidentally sent her nudes to the listserv, someone died and it was her fault. ……. “There’s a situation that has recently arisen regarding Professor Avery, who I understand is your thesis advisor.” ……. “Oh,” she said. ……. “The department has received a complaint about unprofessional behavior.” ……. After a few seconds Adrienne realized that he was waiting for her to say something. ……
.“Okay.” ……. “We’re taking this allegation seriously. We’d like to speak with you. Off the record, if you prefer. We’re just trying to understand the situation.” ……. “The situation?” ……. “We’ll explain more in person. I think that’s best.” ……. Adrienne ran her tongue across her top teeth. ……. “Sure,” she said. “I could come in tomorrow morning. To your office?” ……. “That would be great. How is ten?” ……. “Okay.” ……. “Okay, Adrienne. Then we’ll speak tomorrow. I’ll see you then.” ……. “Alright, bye.” Adrienne wished he hadn’t said her name. She hung up the phone and looked at it, then up at Sophia. ……. “What was that?” Sophia said. ……. Adrienne tried to explain. ……. “Unprofessional behavior? That’s what he called it?” Sophia asked. ……. Adrienne nodded. ……. “Well, it’s definitely sexual harassment,” Sophia said. “I mean, right? What else would it be?” ……. “I don’t know.” ……. “But—well, this is going to sound really stupid. But you didn’t, like, suspect anything, right?” ……. “No. Not at all. I mean, I asked him to be my advisor. He was always appropriate. In every way. Don’t you think I would have said something if he hadn’t been?” ……. “Yeah, no. Of course. I don’t doubt you.” ……. “And we’re speculating. We don’t even know what the allegation is, let alone whether it’s credible at all.” Adrienne stared at Sophia, who held her gaze for a second before looking at her hands. ……. They decided to watch television. Sitting on the couch, her knees pulled up, Adrienne cleaned under her fingernails until the ends were pristine and white and, inspecting her thumb, she bit at the stray skin of a hangnail. When she finished, she held up her hand and admired her work. ……. The next morning Adrienne showered. When the fog on the mirror cleared, she put on makeup and watched herself in the mirror, turning her face to its best and sharpest angle and practicing mild reactions. She wore her hair in a ponytail that flicked across her shoulders when she turned her head. On the walk across campus, she smiled at people she knew because she had her big sunglasses on, the ones that Sophia said made her look intimidating. On the ground were the pink petals of cherry blossoms, crushed little tongues lining the curb. ……. It was the Friday of reading week, and so there weren’t many people around. Most students wouldn’t start filling the libraries until Sunday. There were a few people on the lawn playing frisbee, looking like paid actors. Adrienne watched them, and as she did she realized her time in college felt like a discrete event in her life, something that had happened some time ago. ……. Adrienne pulled open the wooden doors of the English building and thought for a second that she should compose herself in the bathroom but then realized she didn’t really need to. Inside, Adrienne’s shoes on the tile were the only sound in the hallway, which made things feel unnecessarily ominous. ……. Professor Barnett’s office had high ceilings and windows that looked over a memorial garden for a student who had died in a car accident a few years earlier. Adrienne had been in the office before, when Barnett had called her in to congratulate her for receiving a prestigious research grant. When Adrienne knocked he came to the door, stepped aside and motioned for her to sit on the green velvet sofa. He smiled like he was sorry. He probably was. There was a woman sitting in one of the armchairs, frowning. She held her phone in one hand and dragged her pointer finger across the screen. On her chest sat a large necklace. Barnett shut the door behind Adrienne. ……. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “This is Maura Rollins, from the Title IX Affairs Office, which deals with these sorts of situations.” ……. The woman looked up and put her phone in her purse. Adrienne smiled at both of them as she sat opposite on the sofa. “It’s no problem,” she said. ……. “This is obviously not an easy conversation to have,” Barnett continued. “And we want you to feel comfortable and safe telling us anything. Obviously, you are not in any kind of trouble.” ……. “Okay.” ……. “Professor Avery, who I understand you know quite well, having had him as your advisor this past semester and having conducted research for him throughout your time here—several students have come to us expressing discomfort—that his conduct with them was inappropriate.” ……. Adrienne nodded. ……. “And as you might have heard by now—I know how information can spread around here—we wanted to give students the opportunity to come to us. We reached out to you because we know your relationship with Professor Avery was particularly close.” ……. “I understand.” Adrienne crossed her legs. Maura Rollins did too, and Adrienne wondered if this was a tactic. Adrienne bit her lip—thoughtful, like someone in a screenplay—and inhaled.
“The truth is I never experienced anything I would call inappropriate,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what the allegations are. I suppose you can’t tell me?” ……. “Unfortunately, no. It’s confidential. Out of respect—for the accusers.” The meeting wasn’t long because Adrienne didn’t have much to say. She talked about Professor Avery, who she accidentally called by just his last name a few times, as she normally would. She had taken his class on British Poetry her sophomore year. He called her essays “profound” and her comments “astute,” and she relished the praise, and began going to office hours without much reason at all. He told her department gossip that he shouldn’t have, and she knew she was his favorite. He talked about his wife, who was a professor in the biology department, and Adrienne would often imagine their dinnertime conversations and what type of wine they drank, or wonder whether they had satisfying sex. Adrienne didn’t say all of this. She wasn’t groomed one way or the other. She said that Avery was impressed with her writing, and that he asked if she would be interested in helping him with his forthcoming book. Then, at the beginning of her senior year, she asked him to advise her thesis, which he had called “ambitious.” ……. While Adrienne spoke, Maura Rollins wrote things down in a notebook. She wrote in a tight, quick scrawl and periodically shifted her hand across the paper like a machine on an assembly line. Her pen ran out of ink at some point and she made a few frustrated scribbles on the paper before reaching into her purse for a replacement. Barnett asked questions in euphemisms. He seemed to be pressing for something, but eventually he knew he had wrung Adrienne dry. Adrienne looked out the window and then back at him, and that was all. ……. When she got home Sophia was spreading peanut butter on a bagel. Sophia looked up and took out her headphones. “How did it go?” ……. Adrienne opened a drawer to grab a spoon. She dug it into the jar of peanut butter and pried it out, and the spoon bent a little at its neck. “Fine. I didn’t have much to say.” ……. “Who was there?” ……. “Professor Barnett and some woman from the Title IX office.” Adrienne sat on one of the kitchen stools. ……. “What did they ask?” ……. “They just wanted to know if I knew anything,” Adrienne said, licking the peanut butter off the spoon, coating her tongue smooth. ……. Sophia nodded. She washed her dishes, singing bits of songs and making a little sound of annoyance when the water got too hot. Adrienne took out her phone and read Twitter for a few minutes. Once she tasted only the spoon’s slick metal, she held it in her mouth suctioned to her tongue. ……. “Did you tell them about me?” Sophia said, breaking off her hum. ……. Adrienne took the spoon out of her mouth. “About you?” ……. “Yeah.” ……. “No,” Adrienne said. “Why would I?” Sophia had never met Avery. ……. “Maybe it makes sense that whatever Avery was doing he wouldn’t do to you.” ……. “I didn’t think it was relevant.” ……. “I just mean that you wouldn’t be, like, an outlier. If you’re the student he was closest with, and you never suspected anything. Maybe he didn’t try anything because he knew you were gay.” ……. Adrienne looked at Sophia for a moment. ……. “Or maybe he didn’t try anything because he never did with anyone.” ……. Sophia jumped. “I knew it. You’re taking his side.” ……. “God, Sophia. I’m not taking sides. I only know what I know.” ……. “You’re an Avery apologist.” ……. “Did you just coin that term?” Adrienne stood and dropped her spoon in the sink. ……. “It’ll be a thing.” ……. “Fuck you.” ……. “You don’t get to abandon all your principles just because someone you like was accused of something.” …… “You understand how the real world works, right? Life isn’t one big political statement.” ……. “You sound like a Republican.” ……. Adrienne walked out of the kitchen and into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. She knew she had some time before Sophia would decide to either apologize or demand an apology. Alone, Adrienne looked around her room to calm herself down. Stuck to the walls around her, propped on her dresser, arranged on her desk, was the paraphernalia of her life. She collected things from the world: triangular rocks in a line on her windowsill, four leaf clovers pressed flat inside act three, scene two in her paperback Othello. She kept bird feathers in a plastic bag in her desk drawer. When Adrienne noticed things, plucked them from obscurity, and ordered them, she gave them value. ……. Avery was forty-three. He had gone to Brown, and when he talked about it Adrienne could tell he had done a bunch of drugs there. He had had his fun. Now he was reformed, an intellectual. Wore thin ties and Doc Martens, assigned Audre Lorde, referred to his wife as his partner. ……. Adrienne was proud of how articulate she was around him. Words fell out of her mouth and once they were in the air she listened to them and thought, okay, that’s what I sound like. Okay. She liked the way Avery squinted at her and nodded, and sometimes opened his mouth to say something but was so taken by the twists in her conversational logic that he would just sit back in his leather chair and nod, and when she was finally finished he would tell her she was really quite something. ……. They talked about graduation sometimes, what real life would be like. Avery said he was happiest when he was thirty-one. When he was thirty-two he got married, but that wasn’t why he wasn’t as happy, he had said. Avery had succeeded in the way that Adrienne knew people didn’t anymore. Things fell into his lap. He was a staff writer at a print magazine at twenty-four. The world had pushed and pulled him into the right station, where he could be wild then tame, drifting then settled, just as people like him were meant to be, and everyone loved him for it. Now there were too many people funneling for the same thing, you couldn’t count on anything to get you anywhere, it was all a game of strings to pull and cards to flip. ……. Last fall, in his office. The tree outside was the yellowest on campus and in the wind its wet leaves stuck and unstuck to the window. Books stacked horizontally and vertically on the bookshelf, more on the desk. Adrienne’s umbrella leaned against the wall by the door, dripping into a small puddle on the wooden floor. She wore a turtleneck. ……. “There’s not enough time for anything,” she had said. “If we’re hurtling toward environmental disaster, how are we supposed to try for anything? Or want things? None of it’s worthwhile. And it’s all really selfish, too. Who am I to feel like this? When have I ever suffered? You know? And the absolute worst thing about all my problems is that none of them even matter, like, at all.” …… Adrienne wondered where Avery was right now and if he was afraid his career was over. Maybe it was. She thought about the plants on the windowsill of his office. Two small cacti in glass pots, prickly bodies, a visible web of white roots. A fiddle leaf fig tree, waxy, beaming. Was someone watering them? It seemed unfair that they should die too. Not that any of it mattered. But she still wondered. …….s In her bedroom Adrienne could hear music coming from the outside, periodic shouts. She looked out at a girl laughing so hard she leaned on her friend like she might melt. They were having a barbecue, celebrating not having to care for a day. Adrienne really didn’t have anything to do, but she didn’t want to leave her room and run into Sophia so she propped up her pillows on her bed and typed up some notes for her exam next week. …….s She was copying lecture outlines when she received a text from her mom, asking about lunch reservations on the day before graduation. Adrienne had planned everything. Her parents were going to meet Sophia’s parents for the first time at a restaurant downtown and pretend to have things in common over plates of hummus. But now Adrienne’s uncle wanted to bring his new girlfriend, so she called the restaurant and changed the reservation for one more person. …….s Her focus lost in open tabs on her computer, Adrienne checked her email. There was one new message in her inbox sent a few hours before. Subject line: Interview Inquiry, from a name she knew in a friend-of-a-friend kind of way. The little skip her brain did at any notification died as her mind computed pixels into words into semantics into the understanding that the school newspaper knew about Avery and her name was inevitably attached to his. She opened the email and saw what she expected: the tired polite words of student journalism, the assurance that victims could stay anonymous. …….s She didn’t reply to the email. Adrienne knew that anything she said would calcify into search-engine results later on, and she also knew that anonymity was impossible, laughable. She sat on the edge of her bed and looked around. She stood up and looked at her reflection in the mirror, not because she cared how she looked, but because she wanted to understand what people saw when they looked at her. Up close, looking into her own eyes, she noticed a few zits and she squeezed them. …….s The concept of outside was overwhelming, but staying inside felt pathetic, so Adrienne decided to go for a run. She put on a sports bra and shorts and running shoes and wore headphones and listened to music she knew she liked. This would be good, she thought. A healthy thing to do. But when she had run just two blocks she saw a classmate from Avery’s class sophomore year. She didn’t have time to turn around so she just nodded at him and he gave her a pretty normal reaction but she couldn’t be sure. After she passed him she grew anxious and each person she passed after she felt like was whispering or thinking about her, or was on their phone to text their friend, hey guess who i just saw? Everyone knew and was in on the same joke, winking at each other in the blind carbon copy thread. Or at least they would be soon. Adrienne turned around and ran home. …….s When she got back to the apartment, Sophia was sitting on the couch painting her toenails orange. …….s “Hi,” Sophia said, without looking up. …….s “Hi.” Adrienne was out of breath and sweating. …….s “Can we talk?” Sophia said, screwing the cap back on the bottle. …….s “I was about to shower.” …….s Sophia got up from the couch and walked over to Adrienne’s doorway, her toes lifted from the carpet. “I’m sorry that this happened to you,” she said. ……. “Nothing happened to me.” …… “I’m just saying, I know he meant a lot to you. That this can’t be easy.” ……. “He’s not dead,” Adrienne said. “You make it sound like he’s dead.” ……. “Adrienne, he took advantage of his students. It was wrong.” ……. “I need to shower.” ……. “Can I kiss you, at least?” ……. “No. Sorry. It’s just that I’m gross right now.” ……. Adrienne didn’t linger. She walked to the bathroom to shower and opened Facebook while the water was heating up. Once the page loaded, her first thought was that the algorithm had worked, because at the top of her feed was the article. They must have wanted to publish as soon as they could. They really didn’t need Adrienne, anyway. ……. Avery’s professional face smiled up at Adrienne from her phone. He looked smug, she thought, for the first time. He just had that sort of face. She didn’t click the article yet. She scrolled down to see what the comments said. Most were negative, from former students expressing disappointment in the university administration. She scrolled further and saw that a few friends had shared the article. She saw Sophia’s name there, without any additional comment. Adrienne wished she would cry but her mind went back to the graduation lunch. ……. The shower ran hot for a while and Adrienne stepped in without testing the temperature. She washed and rinsed, then turned the shower off and twisted her hair until it didn’t drip anymore. When she toweled off she realized she was still overheated and sweating from her run. She walked naked to her room, shut the door, sat on her bed, and skimmed the article on her laptop. In it, there was a link to another article on Avery’s research on nineteenth-century novel manuscripts, in which Adrienne’s name was mentioned. ……. She was quoted in that article: “It was really rewarding to work with Professor Avery. I’ve learned so much, and I feel prepared to take these skills and apply them to my own research.” ……. Adrienne looked up from her laptop. In the dim afternoon, and with her shades drawn, her room was dark. In the mirror hanging from her door she saw herself illuminated by the computer’s bluish light. Her hair was tangled and messy and her skin still blotchy pink. ……. Adrienne knew that this blip in her life would eventually be fine and forgotten. She was barely a witness to something barely exceptional. But it would always be there. Even once she graduated and moved to a new city and walked new routes and talked to new strangers, she would still think about this one thing sometimes and each time she did she would feel a thin fire of shame just beneath her skin. She wanted clean, deliberate lines. She wanted to trace in ink and erase the pencil underneath and hold her work in the light and nod, thinking: Yes, this is exactly how I wanted it.
Caroline Curran is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and creative writing. She is from Alexandria, Virginia and plans to move to Los Angeles after graduation. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories and a screenplay.
When I come home from school, Papa is pruning the roses. His back hunched, an oval of sweat creasing his white shirt that la Señora Francisca had pressed this morning. He isn’t wearing the gardening gloves that Mama bought him because he insists that it doesn’t let him talk to the roses. They can only hear him through his skin and the rough canvas of the gloves offends their delicate temperament.
I watch him as he goes from stem to stem, and snaps up the flowers. Even the buds, shy against the noon-day sun go tumbling into his hands and are tucked into his basket. I frown. “Papi, what are you doing?”
He scowls. “It’s them,” he says and he jerks his chin to the concrete wall blocking us from the facility next door. It’s a home, the only one in the province, for the viejitos whose children are too selfish to keep them in their houses. “They keep taking them.”
I follow his gaze to the wall. His roses have a mind of their own—they always have—and they’ve pushed through the concrete, their thorns cutting ribbons into the gray scrape of the wall and the buds blooming out of the holes their stems created like bubbles bursting. When Papa cuts them at the base of the head, they weep golden sap onto your palms. If you drink it, Papa says, you can extend your life by months. But it’s an empty promise. Time that can’t be spent except in sadness, your tears sticky like the sap of the flower.
I leave Papa to his task and take myself inside. La Señora Francisca is in the kitchen with a bag of shrimp. She has two bowls in front of her and, one by one, she takes the shrimp from the bag, rips off its tiny head, slides a thumb under its shell and pushes off the hard exterior into one bowl, and puts its frail shrimp torso in the other. I offer to help her and she looks up from her task, a smile on her lips, before waving me off to watch TV or do homework.
It is a silly offer, a private joke between us, because I cannot touch the food. My fingers carry poison like the spindle in Sleeping Beauty’s loom. When I was little, I fed the canaries my father kept in a cage in our backyard. It was a Sunday and I had watched my father pull their feed out from the laundry room to fill their bowl. I buried my hand in the same sack of grain and pulled out a handful, carried it to the canaries singing in chorus. By morning the next day, they were all dead. My father had to burn the feed.
Papa comes in at dinner time to the smell of fried shrimp and yellow rice. La Señora Francisca is just pulling the sweet plantains off the skillet and placing them on a paper towel-covered plate to soak up the oil when Papa takes off his boots by the door and changes into his house slippers. He smells like soil and sweat-tainted cologne. “Did you get all the roses?” I ask.
His brows come down, make a V on his forehead. “For now.”
The roses grow fast. They have the conviction of a much less delicate flower. Tomorrow, Papa will have to cut them all over again after he gets home from work, but by then the viejitos could have taken them.
The next morning, I am walking out the front door when I see a woman bent over one of Papa’s rose bushes. She has white hair and a long blue dress that covers her like a sack. Her arms tremble as she tugs on the head of one of the roses and, when it snaps and the syrupy ichor starts to spill, she bends her body down slowly to lick it up.
“Señora!” I call, “Get out!” I feel strange, having never said those words to an older person. My tone sounds wrong and I can’t figure out what to do with my hands besides wrap them around my backpack straps.
She turns back to me and gives me a smile, her teeth dripping gold. “You have so many,” she says and holds up the bloom she tore. “Why can’t you just spare one?”
I don’t know how to tell her that it isn’t worth the effort. That she’s better off with the time she has left and that borrowed time will only make the end that much worse.
But I don’t have the authority to make it sound real so I clench my fists instead. “I’m going to tell my Papa.” Papa is a towering man with an empty holster at his belt that does most of the job that his gun—tucked away in a locked toolbox in his truck—would do. I wish he were standing beside me so the woman could understand my threat.
I don’t have to worry. Her face falls and a drip of sap leaks from the side of her mouth as she hustles out of our yard, to the front gate, and out onto the sidewalk. I watch her backside swish under her dress, her age bearing down on her like a thickly woven blanket.
Mama has only pins and needles on her tongue for me when I come in the house. “Put your backpack away, Aniscia! Y tu tarea? Ay, niña, look at those shoes. Have you been tramping through mud?” She is a flurry around me, yanking off one thing after the next and shooing me off into the shower. When I spot a bowl of pear slices on the kitchen table, I reach for one and she slaps my hand away. “Toma,” she says and pops the pieces in my mouth, her manicured nails scraping my skin.
At dinner, Papa is a tempest. He blows in the front door and slams into his chair, rattling the tea cup with his espresso. “They’ve done it again.” Mama purses her lips and sips at her water. “They rip them, tear at them, their blood soaks the thorns,” he shakes and I can hear the grind of his teeth. “No me respetan.”
I sit up straighter in my seat, look at Papa with an anger I hope matches his. “I saw one of them this morning. She came into the yard.”
He slams a fist onto the table and it sets off his place mat. “That’s it. Ven, Aniscia,” Papa stands up and wraps a hand around my wrist. I scurry to keep up with his pace and tumble out of my seat, my feet skipping under me to stop me from falling.
Outside, the sun is sitting low in the sky and the mosquitoes pounce on me as soon as I’m out the door. Papa swats at them as he leads me to the tea roses—his favorites—and points. “Touch them. All of them.”
I shake my head. It doesn’t count, it’s not food, but Papa reads my mind because he crosses his arms. “If they want to eat, let them eat.”
I don’t want to argue with Papa. I don’t want to think of the viejitos falling to the ground like the canaries. I run across the yard as fast as I can with my hands outstretched. By the end of it, I’m covered in beads of red where the thorns have pricked my skin, a bite reminding me they don’t want this any more than I do.
The next morning I wake to the sound of hushed voices in the kitchen. Papa’s baritone and Mama’s alto toying a line between a quiet song and the hiss of a snake. “It’s their own fault. I’m not responsible for an old woman trying to cheat death and failing,” Papa says.
Mama’s anger, cutting crisp in her consonants. “El veneno fue tuyo.”
“And what am I supposed to do?”
“End this madness.”
I hear the click of her heels and huff of air that sounds like Papa’s, then the door to the house, with its distinct, heavy kuTUM, slams shut.
I see Papa when I’m heading off to school later, the knees of his slacks sunk deep into the grass and his back in a hunch that I recognize as something like defeat. The yard is empty, brown circles of solemn soil where creeping stems once flowed into nature’s vainest beauty. Piles of uprooted roses lay in Papa’s basket. “Where are you putting them?” I ask.
A twitch in my chest and I think about the part of me that lives in them now, the small bit of venom I passed into each of them that they carry like a shield. Would it waste away as they sat at the bottom of the trashcan? Or would it poison everything they touched like a plague?
I think about taking them from the trash in the night, after Papa has gone to bed, and replanting them. I could claim that he left some part of the root and they fought to come back to the surface. But I don’t have Papa’s hands. The roses would never grow the same—or worse, they would wilt in plain sight without the dignity of privacy. They would be bodies buried upright. Papa’s garden would be a graveyard.
I squeeze Papa’s shoulder instead. He places a hand atop mine, his callouses rough against the baby hairs of my fingers. Tomorrow he will plant bougainvilleas, he says, and he will let them crest and trough as they please and they will be less headstrong, he thinks. More temperate.
I picture them now. They lie low to the ground like a hound and blanket the concrete wall in a tuft of color, shades of pinks and purples glinting off the sun, eagerly crowding each other. They have that vague, lovely scent of flower that fades as soon as you’ve smelled it and, underneath it all, the near-distant memory of roses.
Andrea Ellis-Perez is lots of things, but mostly she is a writer of several published stories, an MFA student at Stetson University, and a lifelong lover of the stories her mother told her of her childhood in Venezuela. She lives in Florida with her wife and cat and works at the library, where she takes advantage of her proximity to books to read constantly.
Even though she sometimes wanders off on her own, which is strictly forbidden, of course, especially now that she is pregnant and about to pop, the Good Samaritans need people like Jillian. Well, they need all the help they can get, but especially from people like Jillian—those who have a second sense about where they can find the nearly-dying-from-thirst even if they are hiding. They want to find them or provide them with water before they become “human remains”—way before that, way before their muscles start cramping from heat stroke and dehydration, before the nausea, before the dizziness and delirium, before their brains start to sizzle in their skulls, before they try to drink sand, before. . . and, here, Jillian always stops herself from thinking, for no one likes to think about what happens to the human body in such heat. The Samaritans want to find them before they become bones. Pure and simple. …… There are places to hide, Jillian knows, especially when a person is afraid of coyotes, both human and animal. This desert is not barren. It can be as beautiful as it is dangerous. There is the occasional mesquite tree, its leaves velvety green in spring; only a mesquite might provide enough shade. There are fields of ocotillo, their skinny fingers orange-tipped and reaching to the sky, thickets of cholla whose thorny joints will fish-hook in the skin, the ubiquitous acacia, the spiked pads of the prickly pear, and the tall dry grasses rustling. There are, Jillian has been told, over 2,000 miles of unmapped trails and that’s just in the tiny area the Samaritans call the tip of the pinky finger, trails that have been used, probably, for thousands of years and that wind down into and through steep, rocky canyons. There are giant boulders in whose shade a snake might sleep and arroyos filled with sand but that rage like rivers after the monsoons. …… But the sun. The sun, in summer, is so bright. Relentless. It bleaches the sky of color, it bakes the skin, makes heat radiate from the ground as if from an open oven. It is a dry heat that sears the nasal passages and parches the tongue, dries even the tissues of the throat and lungs. And most of the time, there is no water. As quickly as it falls from the sky, it evaporates or seeps through sand to ancient aquifers. Even someone who has a gift for hearing water will hear only the faintest of whispers far, far below. There are reasons the snakes hunt at night. Reasons this land was not inhabited, not even by those, like the Apache, whose warriors, they say, could run through the desert all day without carrying water. Maybe they carried a miracle stone in their mouths, Jillian had always thought, and from it sprang trickles of cool water. …… Jillian knows she makes the Samaritans nervous, and she hates to do that to them, especially her friend who has taught her to dance, but she needs silence if she’s going to hear lost or escaping souls. On this day, a cool day in early November, while the other Samaritans are leaving bottles of water and flats of cans of beans, she finds a man squatting in a tiny circle of shade. He is a small man—when he stands as if to run, she sees how small—his clothes are torn, his shoes, they have been taped together. …… She holds her hand up, wait, and then puts the palms of her hands together as if to pray. Really, she thinks, she must seem strange to him, this very tall, very pregnant woman wearing a cowboy hat, appearing from nowhere, especially since she is saying nothing. She must look like an apparition, she thinks, but surely she does not look dangerous. She takes off her backpack. Offers him a jug of water and the sandwich she had packed for her own lunch. They share an orange because she thinks maybe his blood sugar—and maybe hers, too, now that she thinks of it—might be low. …… His skin is much darker than hers and when he speaks it is a language that is not Spanish or English. She shakes her head and shrugs, holding her hands out to indicate she doesn’t understand. Then she holds her fingers over her lips to indicate that she cannot speak, is mute. He says Guatemala. She nods. He gives her a piece of paper with an address in Salt Lake City. ¿Donde? he asks. Where? So he does know at least a little Spanish. …… She holds her hand up again, wait, to indicate that he should watch. She draws a line in the dirt with a stick. ¿La linea? he asks. The border? She nods. She points with her stick in the dirt. ¿México? She nods and then walks about six paces in the direction from which he has come and makes another line and an X and points at him. ¿Guatemala? She nods. Then she walks back to the Mexican border and makes another X just above it and looks pointedly at him. ¿Aqui? She nods. Yes, this is where we are. She takes two more large paces to the north and makes another X. She points at the paper with the address. ¿Utah? She nods again. …… He is about three-quarters of the way there, she guesses. One long quarter to go. He retreats back into his puddle of shade and crouches on his haunches again. She can see his face has fallen. He takes another sip of water, but a very small one. She gives him his piece of paper. If she could speak, she would say, It is still so far, yo sé, muy lejos. Lo siento. Lo siento mucho. But she isn’t sure he would understand or that her sentiments would help. Her heart feels as if it is resting right on top of the shelf the babies make. …… By then, two of the Samaritans have found them. They put extra tape on his shoes and give him two pairs of fresh cotton socks—because the feet are so important—and a sweatshirt because it is starting to get cold at night. They give him a bag with food and a medical kit and more water. One of them gives him some cash. Jillian eats the second sandwich she had packed for herself, feeling with each bite, piggish, although she is suddenly ravenous. The babies, she thinks, must be hungry. She watches as the Samaritans try to explain to him how to get to Tucson, where the Border Patrol Stop on the highway is and how to avoid it. Maybe hop a train in Tucson, they say, but even though they are speaking in Spanish, the man seems to understand very little. …… Plus, Jillian sees, he is dazed. He is so alone. She knows, in the same way she knows how to find people—it comes to her maybe in the memories that are escaping them as they begin to let go of this life—she knows he has not always been on this journey alone, many of them started together, but then, suddenly, men with guns came. Long guns. Masks. Maybe los zetas. Who can tell? Maybe the Mexican police. Somehow, for some reason, he is not in the group when the men come, he is off in the trees, maybe taking a piss, and so he sees everything through green and as if from a distance. He wants to cry out, to run towards his friends to help them, to stop the men from tying their hands behind their backs, from loading them into the backs of trucks, but he must be very quiet. Even his memory is like a nightmare that awakens him, his heart pounding, then that momentary disorientation when the fabric between sleep and waking, this world and that, is tissue thin. And yet here he is, in this even newer world, still disoriented. He feels at once grateful he escaped—his head is still on his body, after all—but guilty, guilty to have left them behind. He has been so alone since then, so alone in his grief, so weary, for even when he joined small groups of other travelers, even when they were kind and shared what little they had, they did not speak his language. Like with these large white people, their mouths moved until here and there a word would come into focus. La migra. El tren. La bestia. Riding on top of la bestia at night. The woman who fell off and lost her leg. Another thing he does not want to remember. …… Jillian takes out her small notebook and tries to draw a future for him, a way to the people in Utah who are waiting. She draws their faces, their welcoming arms. She draws tamales and tortillas. Water. She draws plenty of water. Roads for him to avoid and smaller roads to follow. A train. Yes, a train might be good. A kind person in a car once he is well past the Border Patrol point, she draws that, too. Finally, maybe most importantly—how could she have forgotten?—a tiny angel up in the corner to watch over him. Before they leave him, she folds up her map and tucks it into his hand. At this point, the point of leave-taking, she feels the sadness wash over her. This? This is all the help they are allowed to give? What about loving the stranger as you love yourself? But, yes, by law, she knows this is all they can do, and staying with him or walking with him might only draw attention. She puts her hand over her heart in parting. She gives him another orange.
“La Linea” is excerpted from Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, by Beth Alvarado, forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in September 2020. Alvarado is the author of three earlier books: Anxious Attachments (finalist, Oregon Book Awards, and long-listed for the PEN Art of the Essay Award), Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, and Not a Matter of Love.
The infection needs ten hours at most to take your life, the doctors tell you. Nothing will buy you more time: not pills, not potions, not prayers, not even amputation. The fungus forms a second body under your skin, shadowing your veins, wrapping around your bones. Its spongy mass smells like roses, if you slice a bit free of the host and hold it up to your nose. ……. If you want to live, never hold any part of it to your nose. One stray spore in your lungs is all it needs to colonize your meat. In our homes, we keep the windows shut at all times, even in the moist-blanket heat of deep June. When we step outside, most of us wear surgical masks and goggles. How did Ron and I ever think we could bring a child into a world that’s rotting like this? ……. We didn’t think about it. We just loved, and that was gone too soon. Two hours after we said, “I do” in our living room and exchanged our plastic panda-bear rings, someone rang the bell at the top of the hill. Ron left our reception with a couple guys from his guard shift. “There’s just one down in the culvert,” he said, picking up a plastic can of gasoline and his favorite machete as he headed out the door. “You’ll see the fire when we’re done.” ……. Swamp Things, Ron always called them. My mom, when she was still alive, preferred the term Flower Heads, because she thought it sounded funny. Sometimes all you can do when confronted with grinding horror is laugh. I refuse to give anything related to this fungus the dignity of a name, even if it has the power to kill everyone I love, or transform them into something awful. ……. The patrol in the culvert went wrong, because more than one of those things had found their way up from the basin, drawn as always by our lights. They crept from the humming night and wrapped their hands around Ron’s friend Billy and tore him apart like overcooked chicken. We burned what was left of him the next day. Before Ron could retreat up the incline with the rest of the crew, one of the creatures swiped his forearm, leaving three shallow scratches from elbow to wrist. Barely broke the skin, but it was enough. ……. At first, everyone smiled and said everything would be okay. And every time they did, I bit my lip to stop myself from screaming in their faces. Nothing is okay. Not anymore.
When the infection first swept the city, a military platoon turned our sleepy neighborhood into a fortress, boxed by high fences topped with barbed wire. When the troops pulled out, following new orders, they left behind enough weapons and supplies to keep us self-sufficient while the power died and the surrounding hills burned. We learned how to use the rifles, and took turns at the gate that bisected our main avenue. We set up a field hospital in a ranch house beside the fence, after clearing out the furniture and draping every inch of the rooms in plastic. ……. Following the bloodshed in the culvert, the other guards took Ron to the hospital and burned his clothes and strapped him naked to a bed in one of the rooms. (Two years into this mess, we all know what to do when anyone’s wounded.) He was already feverish, his body slippery with sweat. When I arrived, the nurses on shift refused to let me through the plastic sheeting that covered the doorway. So I struck a bargain with Jill, the nurse in charge: three gallons of fresh water—a small fortune that hot summer—in exchange for two hours in her Hazmat suit. ……. “Take it from someone who’s lost someone,” she said as I suited up. “Getting closer won’t make it any better for you.” ……. “We’ve all lost someone,” I told her, my voice muffled through the filter-mask, and unzipped the plastic that kept me from my husband. The hospital bed stood against the far wall; the only other furniture was a folding chair for visitors, a propane lantern for light, and a five-gallon plastic bucket for vomit. On a tray beneath the bed sat a long blade in a scuffed plastic scabbard, in case things went bad, because a gun might send a bullet through the plastic or a wall. ……. I took a seat and reached for Ron’s hand. My heart thundering with panic. My throat tight. ……. “Don’t touch him,” Jill called out, as she zipped the room back up. “He’s highly infectious, he’s about to start bleeding everywhere. We might have to burn that suit, and it’s not your suit, it’s mine.” ……. “Got it,” I said, letting my hands dangle between my thighs. The suit was too big for my body, loose as a tent around my thighs and belly, and cooling sweat pooled at my waistband. The filter, cobbled together from cardboard and melted plastic and other spare bits, made my rushing breath taste like a charcoal grill. ……. “Sweetie?” I asked Ron. ……. “I hear you,” he said, and swallowed hard. His face pale, eyes wide and black, his cheeks shiny. I kept remembering the first week after the electrical grid failed, when we spent nights in our enormous claw-foot bathtub because it was the coldest place in the house, keeping the fear at bay by dredging up our grade-school jokes about farts and diarrhea and death. I remembered the way we held hands as we walked the neighborhood’s empty streets in daylight, squeezing in code. I love you. I’m here for you. We’ll get through this together. ……. “Good, because this thing makes me sound like Darth Vader,” I said, before deepening my voice into the world’s least-convincing James Earl Jones impersonation: “Luke, I am your father.” ……. “That was horrible,” he said, grinning now. His front teeth flecked with blood. ……. “Oh, I know. But at least it made you smile.” ……. “It did,” he said, and his eyes closed.
A few days after the electrical grid collapsed for good, we saw the first Flower Heads. They came only at night, slinking on the roads toward the brightest lights. Beneath their mossy veils, sprinkled with bright petals, we sometimes recognized the eye or lip or tattoo of a lost relative. They weren’t zombies, at least not in the George Romero sense. When they bit us, we realized they still felt hunger. When we shot or cut them down, and they bled over the pavement, we realized their hearts still beat. ……. “This fungus, or whatever it is, I bet it gets in their brains,” Ron said, after we killed a herd of them at the gate. “Plays them like a joystick. I remember watching this nature show a couple years back, it said some insect parasites can do that, control the host neurologically.” ……. “But most of the people who get infected by this stuff,” I said, “they die. Why do some of them keep moving around?” ……. He shrugged. “I don’t know, genetics? Who knows anything anymore?” ……. “Any more beer in the cooler? I could use about three.” ……. Around that time we had started drinking heavily, breaking into empty houses and grabbing every bottle we could find. Can you blame us? Sometimes we would fall asleep so drunk Ron pissed the bed, and neither of us noticed until the next morning. We spiked our orange juice with vodka at breakfast and filled our water bottles with bourbon before we headed out on patrol. ……. After too many nasty hangovers we decided to quit, but with sobriety came insomnia, and as I lay in bed at night, my traitorous brain kept imagining its own hijacking. Did it hurt, as the fungus wormed its way inside the house of your skull, or did you just get delirious and sort of fade away? And after the takeover, did a part of you continue to exist, deep within some buzzing void? Could that part of you still see out your eyes, as you shuffled and moaned? ……. Curled against Ron’s sleeping back, I wondered again and again if I could drive a blade through his infected head. Or would I hesitate, as so many people did? Could I keep living after taking steel to flesh I loved, stopping it for good?
When I turned to the doorway again, Jill stood on the other side of the plastic, making a show of staring at her watch. I rose from the chair, shaking the numbness from my legs, and walked over. “I need a new suit, one I can touch him in, because I’m going to treat him,” I said, struggling to keep my voice level. “And also painkillers, bandages, bottled water, whatever you have.” ……. “There’s nothing we can do. You know what’s happening here.” Jill spoke so loudly I worried Ron would hear. “You need to stop thinking about this like a fixable situation.” ……. “Just get me a suit and supplies,” I said. “I know you got crates of that stuff.” ……. “I’m not handing anything over for a helpless case. Not when I have to treat all sorts of injuries, curable illness.” ……. “But the rest of this hospital is empty.” ……. The demon part of me wanted to tear through the partition and grip her by the throat. “Let’s make a deal. What do you want?” ……. It was impossible to read her expression through the shimmering barrier. “You live in that white house on Marigold? The one with the blue shutters?” ……. “Uh, yeah?” ……. “It’s a big house,” she said. “It’d be nice to move away from the fence a bit.” ……. “You’re not moving in. Not for any length of time.” ……. “Well, it didn’t hurt to ask. You got sugar, coffee, preserves, anything sweet?” ……. “Yeah, canned preserves in our pantry, made them myself.” ……. “And let me guess: your pantry’s locked, right?” ……. Who didn’t keep their supplies secure, or hidden? “The lock’s a keypad. Code is one-oh-five-five,” I said. Doesn’t really matter, I told myself. It’s not like I had much left in there, anyway. ……. Jill nodded and disappeared from the doorway. Beneath the rustle of plastic and the hiss of Ron’s breathing I could hear her speaking to the other nurse in hushed tones, probably explaining why she had to leave for a bit. ……. While I waited, I turned to check on Ron. His eyes closed, arms and legs trembling slightly. I wondered if the red petals would burst from his skin before he died. Do I have what it takes to kill you, baby? Do I kill myself afterwards? ……. Jill reappeared, snapping off her gloves as she angled for the decontamination shower bolted to the ceiling of the foyer. “I promise I won’t take more than my fair share,” she called out as white liquid gushed from the showerhead, soaking her suit on its way to the drain-hole cut in the floor. “And don’t leave that room. The supply closet is locked, and Sarah won’t let you in until I’m back.” ……. Her sterilizing complete, Jill stripped off her protective gear, changed into a pair of cargo pants and a long-sleeved shirt, snapped on a respirator and swimming goggles, and left. I took a seat again, wondering if she would keep her word about not taking too much of our stuff. Maybe it was an illusion, but I swear I could feel the heat of Ron’s fever baking through the thin plastic of my suit.
Over the next eight hours my husband alternated between sweaty dozing and calling my name over and over again. His fingers and toes turned white and waxy, the skin cracking. The paleness crept up his forearms and shins like a creeping ice floe, the hair falling out along its path. At one point his back arched, rising high off the bed, and I saw the topsheet coated with hair and bits of skin. The cracks followed the paleness into the deep meat of his arms and legs and he began to bleed, little spots that quickly became black rivulets in the flickering light from the lamp on the floor. ……. I would have given anything to heal him, but all I could do was daub at the bloody cracks with my rolled-up cloth. When the cotton soaked through I tossed it in the nearby bucket and fetched a fresh one. I thought about us walking along hot roads, our sweaty fingers entwined. Squeezing messages. I love you. I need you. ……. By the ninth hour, Ron began to cough up his insides. His lips bloody. His face had the telltale patches now, faint webs on his cheeks and neck that gleamed against the paleness before shading into pink. I waited for them to deepen into red. At that point, my husband would start sprouting flora like a damn terrarium. He would have laughed at that comparison. ……. Whether or not I had to put him down, I knew what would happen after he died. Our burial brigade always moved with the grace of a well-rehearsed chorus line: four men in Hazmat suits stripping the corpse, wrapping it in a large plastic bag like a piece of dry cleaning, stuffing it into a scorched metal box. The brigade carried every boxed body to the ash-pit beside the highway off-ramp, where they set it to burn atop a pyre of gasoline-soaked wood. It took six or seven hours to reduce an infected body to sterile ash. ……. I had no idea if Ron wanted us to burn him in his two-piece black suit, or one of his favorite t-shirts. We had never talked about funeral plans. Maybe we thought it would jinx our chances at living. What did it matter what we dressed him in, anyway? I would never get to touch him again, and that was the worst part. The thought of forgetting the smell of his skin made my stomach cramp, hard and fast, as if someone had punched me. ……. As I bent over, sucking air through my miserable filter, I noted that my new Hazmat suit was spattered with blood from Ron’s dying. For the first time I hoped Jill had taken whatever she wanted from our home, because I had wrecked this precious outfit. Sorry, Jill. ……. Ron stopped coughing. His breathing hitched. I sat up and willed my quaking knees to hold steady. I kept my eyes locked on his face, telling myself that it was my duty to bear witness. That after he passed, I would become the sole keeper of our shared memories, all the quiet moments that formed us. ……. I leaned close to his leaking ear and said: “I’ll keep the ring on.” ……. “You’d better,” he whispered back. Or maybe I imagined it. The eldritch light had cast his mouth in deep shadow. ……. I glanced toward the doorway, which framed darkness. I hoped the nurses on the other side had dozed off. ……. As quietly as I could, I peeled away the tape that covered the seam between my right glove and the sleeve. ……. All that matters in this life is what we give each other. That I felt your presence in the dark, and that you felt mine in return. ……. Pulling off my right glove, I reached over and took my husband’s cold, slick hand. “I love you,” I said, and squeezed. ……. Ron squeezed back.
Nick Kolakowski is the author of the thriller novels Maxine. Unleashes Doomsday and Boise Longpig Hunting Club (both from Down & Out Books). His poetry and fiction have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, North American Review, McSweeney’s, Shotgun Honey, 7×7.la, Carrier Pigeon, and other venues. He lives and works in New York City.
You cannot cross train tracks without holding your breath, nor can you drive over a bridge without a lungful of air. Your children witness your fears, think it’s a game, and they, too, hold their breath going over tracks or bridges. You would like to tell them it’s not a game, like Duck Duck Goose or Red Rover, but you decide that the universe will drop its own bomb of terror on them, and what possible good would come of your own unburdening?
At the playground you circle the swings, hoping to find an old wooden seater, but no such luck, so stop living in the past, please. These days everything is built for safety—full buckets for babies who can barely hold their heads up, half-buckets for toddlers with wobbly balance, swing and slide seats for the brave and daring under-tens, because no one wants to get caught dead on a swing after that. Your five-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter screech as they run to the blue rubber swings, kick off, and hit high velocity. You did this when you were their age. There was a time when you believed you could fly if only you pumped high enough. You still believe this, but it has nothing to do with swings. You aren’t sure if you need wings or stronger legs.
Although she has been dead for a very long time, Donna peers down at you from the blue and green hard plastic climbing structure topped by a fort big enough for four and no more. You tell your kids to keep swinging as you climb up the ramps and ladders toward Donna. What are you doing here, you ask, and you’ve got one eye on her and one eye on your kids. You’re a little happy and a little unnerved—she’s still following you around, but you’re as used to it now as you were in first grade.
Donna’s wearing a plaid skirt, a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, frilly socks, and scuffed saddle shoes. Her black barrette is askew and she’s sucking on a dark strand of her hair. You’re not supposed to do that, you tell her, and she spits the hair out of her mouth. ……. Oh, grow up, she says. ……. Yes, you say wearily. I’ve done that. ……. Aren’t you the lucky one, she says, licking her finger and rubbing at a scuff mark on her shoe. ……. You think so? ……. Nyet, she says. ……. Your son and daughter run up the ramp and ask who you’re talking to. Your ripped jeans and baggy sweater make you look like an itinerant, and you’re pretty sure you haven’t washed your hair in a few days. You make googly eyes at your kids. ……. Myself, you say. ……. You’re crazy, says your son. ……. You are crazy, Donna says. ……. Maybe, you say, and your son laughs. Donna looks mad, like the time your first-grade teacher told her she’d never get to second grade if she didn’t learn to read. Mrs. Piasecka paired you with Donna for reading time that day and every day thereafter until spring dropped by for a seasonal hello, and you all went outside to eat lunch, and Donna announced she could read, and everyone clapped, because everyone loved Donna, especially you. Then you all sat on the warm green grass pulling food from your lunchboxes (yours had a tractor on it), and when you’d all eaten, Mrs. Piasecka passed around homemade molasses cookies because you were wonderful children. ……. You never hated molasses cookies before, but you sure do now. ……. When the playground loses its thrill, you and your children walk to the supermarket to buy milk and Smiley Face Fries. Donna sits in the frozen food aisle, eating cookie dough ice cream. Now what? you ask. Your son turns to you and says, I want ice cream. Donna grins. It’s really good, she says. You ought to buy some. You never know, do you? ……. You put your arm around your son and walk away. How about a candy bar? you ask, and your daughter wants one, too, so you let them pick and they get big chocolate bars and they eat them on the way home, and then you have to wash their dirty little faces, but you don’t mind so much. You serve them hot dogs and fries and big glasses of milk, and your daughter spills her milk, and you sop it up, telling her not to cry. It’s just milk you say. Your daughter asks if there are enough cows in the world so that everyone gets milk. It’s not that simple, you tell her. Milk can be expensive. Some people can’t buy it. ……. Your son announces he wants a cow. That way he will always have milk. You tell him he has to learn to milk a cow first, and you promise him a trip to a dairy farm. When you were in first grade a local farmer brought a cow to the playground, and everyone in class learned to milk a cow, but Donna was the only one who squirted milk right into her mouth. Mrs. Piasecka gave Donna three gold stars on her pink construction paper balloon that was taped to the Look At Me wall. Your balloon was blue and you had just as many stars as Donna, mostly from getting high marks on class handouts and clapping dusty erasers. If you’d known you could have earned stars for drinking milk straight from the cow you would have done it, even though the cow smelled like shit and hay. Even then you knew the value of awards, especially public commendation. ……. Donna never had milk money, so you shared your milk with her. The two of you sat in the cafeteria with two straws stuck into one carton and counted the number of slurps it took to drink all the milk. Now you can’t remember how many, but you do remember Mrs. Piasecka telling you how nice it was to share, and she stuck a gold star on your blue balloon. Your mother let you give your old play clothes—overalls and t-shirts from Sears—to Donna, who was a size smaller than you—that was a kind of sharing. Your mother was big on charitable causes, but not so big that you were allowed to go to Donna’s house. When you wanted to play with Donna, your mother insisted Donna visit your house. Your father just shrugged. Your mom rules the roost, he said. Now you get it—your mom was a chicken. Or a cow. Probably a sheep. ……. Donna sits in the rocking chair by the kitchen’s bay window, watching your children eat. Your mother was a product of her time, she says. ……. What time? you ask, and your daughter says, Daddy? Dadeeee? ……. You remember your mother looking at Donna and telling you she was just off the boat, which you were sure was not a good thing in your mother’s eyes. Your father was right, your mother ruled with an erratic iron fist, which is something Donna, had she grown up, would have told you is exactly what she and her family were fleeing from when they left the USSR or Russia or whatever it was then. Donna always whispered U-S-S-R in your ear and then looked around to see who was watching. You thought the USSR was a battleship like the USS Wisconsin or something, but your father, home on leave, said it used to be a country, more or less, and not a great one at that. ……. Every country has its ups and downs. ……. That night as you’re reading to your children, Donna sits beneath the window and clutches your son’s red and white striped monkey. Let me read to them, she demands, but you shake your head. When the story is finished you tuck the children in and kiss them goodnight, leaving the nightlight on. ……. They should say their prayers, Donna says as you walk out of the room and shut the door, and you say, Look where it got me. The two of you sit down in the hallway and she starts in on what she tells you every time she shows up, that she was in the back seat of the car next to the picnic basket, her father was driving and the train hit the car hard like a Batman punch Pow! Blam! Her mother called Jesus Save Us, and then the car spun off the road, hit the arch of the bridge and nosedived into the water, and was it ever black, Donna says, but we hit the river bottom and the water came in and you grabbed my hand and we went out the window. ……. Donna, you say. She stands up and shakes her head, already denying you. ……. You know I wasn’t in the car, you say. ……. I have to go now, she says. ……. Jesus, you say. I wasn’t there. ……. Eleven, she says. That’s how many sips it took to empty the milk carton. And she’s gone. ……. You wanted to go on the picnic with Donna’s family, but your mother said No. Your father said the world was a big place and you’d better get used to it, so go have some fun. But there was no answer when you telephoned Donna to say you were allowed to go. When news of the accident spread your mother took you straight to church and told you to pray for Donna’s poor soul, so you bowed your head and asked God to bring Donna back, and he did, and now you are stuck with her and her stories, which have grown old and maybe even a little boring, but it would be a lie to say that you wished Donna would go away. She is the last time God answered your prayers, and he has a lot to answer for, not that you’re asking. So you hold your breath when you go over train tracks and bridges, and you let your kids think it’s a game instead of telling them to get ready for a world full of sad stories that don’t mean a thing unless they happen to you.
Catherine Parnell teaches at Southern New Hampshire University in the MFA program and at Grub Street in Boston. She is the editor for Consequence Magazine, and her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, Tenderly, TSR: The Southampton Review, Post Road, Baltimore Review, Redivider, and other publications. Parnell also works as an independent consultant in communications, writing, and the arts, and is the author of The Kingdom of His Will.
It starts with a ring you buy at an antique shop in your neighborhood which you hadn’t noticed before—a dusty little place of creaky floorboards and a name to match: Gaslight and Shadows.
When you see it, gleaming at you from behind a pane of glass covered in fingerprints long left behind, you’re not sure why it feels familiar. Something about the tarnished silver and the large pink stone haloed by small green gems reminds you of a lily pad on a cool still lake.
The shopkeeper sees you looking. She sidles up and offers to open the display, to which you’d normally object. I’m just looking around, you’d say. Passing time while I wait to meet a friend, you wouldn’t add because you’d want to create the illusion that you might possibly buy something, that you’re not just looking for a place to stay out of the chill for fifteen minutes.
But your lily pad sparkles from its stand, a slim halved finger of blue velvet.
You point to it—so unlike you to be so direct, your husband would say—and with a jingle of keys, the shopkeeper leans in and pulls out your ring, your lilypad.
You’re not sure why it would fit. You’ve noted with some shame that your fingers are of above-average girth. It’s not flesh, you told your husband when you went to try on wedding bands, it’s the bones. The knuckles are wide and knobby, inelegant. A washer woman’s hands, you joked and he laughed and you stared at the things with distaste.
But you slip it on now and your lily pad glides over bone to settle firmly against your skin, its band nestled in the soft pad of your ring finger.
The shopkeeper unpacks her array of compliments and backstory, Rare piece, 18th century engagement ring, you won’t find a better price, it looks like it was made for you, but you hold out your blossomed hand before you, twisting it a little to watch the light bounce off the stone.
When you meet Sonia, you are cradling a cup of English breakfast tea in your hands, peeking every now and then at the gem that has temporarily displaced your engagement and wedding rings to the opposite hand. You watch it scintillate—catch the light and echo it—on the cup’s dull grey porcelain.
Sonia seems nervous, fidgeting with her phone lying face down on the table. You’d noticed she’d been swimming religiously but now that she appears in a tight new athletic ensemble, you appreciate how thin she’s gotten, how slim and light. How the bones in her face push at taut skin.
She talks about the usual: the office intrigues you’ve missed out on, the questionable parenting choices of mutual childed friends, and men. She hasn’t been dating much lately. Nothing juicy to report, she laughs, a peculiar note in her voice, her mouth strange with secrets.
She asks, How are you doing? and her eyes finally cease flitting about to focus on yours.
When she asks about the ring, your lips curl into a smile, and you tell her, It’s new, kind of. And when she asks, New to you? you just laugh and grip your cup tighter until your tea grows cold.
When you return, Dave is sitting on the couch but the TV is off and you are surprised to find him home at dinnertime because his meetings with Japan (or was it Australia?) now take him later and later into the night.
He asks, Had a good lunch? And when you don’t reply he follows up with, We need to talk, his eyes still focused on the dark screen, a window onto a black moonless night, and all you can think about is how he still prefers to be called Dave. How he’d introduced himself that way in college and how it had been fine then, if a little conventional, and how you’d imagined the man he’d become, the David he’d grow into: strong, proud, fertile.
There’s something you should know, he says, as you pull the long cool needles out of your bag, relishing the way your lily pad gleams even in the gloom of your twilit living room. Taking a seat on your favorite armchair, the one you tell yourself you’ll use to breastfeed, you begin to knit—something tiny and blue, for the someday future—because that’s always helped you focus in the past and he says, Since when do you knit, and Look at me, trying to find your eyes with his, but you are elsewhere now, fixated, watching the gleaming needles respond to every move of your wrists.
How undignified to take a name like David—a king’s name, a warrior’s—and break its legs, turn it into the sound of groveling.
The needles click, sharp and efficient, and your lily pad flashes as your hands move deftly, of their own accord now, perfectly synchronized, transforming blue yarn into something real. Turning nothing into a form, a shape of your intent.
I didn’t mean for this to happen, but it’s gotten serious, he says, as though he believes it, as though it could’ve been anything but deliberate, as though a heart can beat by accident.
Still looking down, your eyes shift out of focus as you settle into the pattern, the needles working at the speed of muscle memory.
But you were wrong then, in college. He is no David and never will be, and she is no Bathsheba, and as your needle sinks in, meeting soft flesh, your laugh is not your own, but familiar. Your hands rest, the needles warm where the grip is tightest, the stone somehow still gleaming in the dimness of the room and you remember something the jeweler said when you were choosing an engagement ring, how light can pass through a diamond in two ways, either as white light or as fire and you wonder is that what this is? Is this fire?
Tatyana Sundeyeva, originally from Chisinau, Moldova, is a Russian-American writer and novelist living in San Francisco. She has just completed her first novel. Find her online at TatyanaWrites.com and on Twitter @TeaOnSundey. This is her first published fiction.
I’ve seen two angels and both were named Reginald.
The spirits appeared as a consequence of my life’s work: dentistry. I came by the profession naturally, as my father was a blacksmith in a small Missouri town. Before heading west, people needed help with their teeth as much as they needed wagon axles. And Pa was no butcher. As a child, time and time again, I witnessed his God’s gift withpliers.
“Nice‘n slick,” he’d mutterfrom the side of his mouth, one hand gripping a customer’s jaw, his other hand wielding the steel tool. I’d have both palms on the customer’s sweaty forehead, pinning the head back against the high-backed chair. Pa’s knuckles would whiten and I’d close my eyes tight. Seconds later, I’d hear the pebbly sound of a tooth hitting the concrete floor, and the rattle of the plierslanding on the workbench. I’d tilt thehead to let the blood stream down the chin.
I’d asked once, “What happens if thebleedingwon’t stop?”
“They become angels,” Pa said. “Most of them.”
I was about twelve when I saw the first angel, Reginald Cooper. He had a widehead, a sandpaper voice, and eyes darker than a rabbit’s. When he sat back in the chair, he spit a stubby cigarto the floor. I tried to avoid touching the wart on his sweaty temple.
“I want it done quick,” Reginald said.
But it must have been a sticky one because Pa wrestled with that tooth for a while. Reginald fainted dead away after eleven minutes.His head felt damp and heavy. I heldhim until Pa grabbed my shoulder and said, “Leave him be, now.”
Mrs. Cooper showed up and so did the undertaker. Mrs. Coopergavea few coins to the undertaker and a few more to Pa, even though Reginald had already paid. Pa flipped me a silver three-cent piece. That evening, I walked into town and stopped in front of the undertaker’s. Slowly, above the building, Mr. Cooper himself appeared, hisoutstretched arms shimmering,his whole body floating straight up to the stars. It was late and I’d had no dinner, but still, I saw what I saw. The next month, Mrs. Cooper married my father.
I must have turned the three-cent coin over in my pocket a thousand times, but I never spent it.
Five years later, I secured a position with the Army, Union side, assisting a doctor. Afterwards, despite my considerable skills and experience, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery rejected my application. I reckoned I could set up a shopanyway and make a success of it. I settled in Chicago, and found that I didn’t mind a big city where I could blend in like a drop in a river. My trade card said: “Painless, perfect, prompt tooth extractions! Always reasonably priced! Patients treated like angels!”
When I first started, I employed a strong lad who held down my patients. The patients were mostly stockyard workers, women from factories, and prisoners in chains. I took advantage of scientific advancements, experimenting with laughing gas (never worked well), ether, oil of cloves and a cocaine solution injected directly into the gum. Such products made it easier to work alone. I bought a drill operated by a foot treadle. I imported the finest gold leaf to push into cavities after extracting rot. I acquired a reclining chair, the latest design, a pump-type hydraulic.
My customers became wealthier. Some fathers, on the occasion of a daughter’s 18th birthday or wedding day, would pay to have all of her teeth removedand replaced with beautiful false teeth that would never give her trouble. I gave them exactly what they wanted.
I regularly advertised in the Tribune—Enjoy gentle dental surgery by polite professional!
Other dentists fill their offices with carnivore taxidermy, scientific diagrams of blood vessels and nerves, and even human skulls. Not me. I have oak-framed pictures of Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists, and keep fresh-cut flowers in painted porcelain vases. Vials and instruments stay locked in a cabinet until my patient is in the chair. I do keep a variety of books on the shelves, to lend my office a scholarly look, including my favorite text, Skinner’s Treatise on Human Teeth. The metalwork is all matching bronze—the handles on drawers, the gaslight sconces on the walls, and the lock on the door.
Last spring, a new Reginald—Reginald Dupree—opened a dentistry across the street. His advertisements claimed that he graduated third in his class from the University of Michigan’s dental school. One day, Reginald Dupreevisited my office, a hand to his cheek. No warts on him; his young skin would feelsmooth to touch.
“Can’t do it myself,” he said.
“I’ll treat you like an angel.” I smiled. “Now?”
“Ha! Too many customers today.” Reginaldpatted a gold watch into his vest pocket. “I’ll set an appointment for tomorrow at two.”
Before leaving, Reginald tapped the doorknob a few times, and turned back to me. He tilted his head and smiled, likean adult might if he sees a child do something wrong. “You practice without the proper education, madam.”
I didn’t answer.
“There’ll be laws soon. And no exceptions.”Reginald put on his hat. The ring on his pinkie flashed. “But perhaps I could use you in my office. We’ll see.”
That evening, I walked along the lake. I enjoyed theweight of my wool suit against the night cool, and the way a copper nodded politely as he passed. I rubbed my thumb against the old three-center, looked at the stars, andthought about throwing the coin into the water. Pa was no butcher, I decided; nor was I. It was just that, now and then, you meet someone who’s better off an angel.
Marilee Dahlman grew up in the Midwest and studied English at the University of Minnesota. She spent ten years studying and practicing law in New York. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. When not writing or working, she enjoys movies, art museums, and getting outside on the hiking trails or her bike. Her other short stories have recently appeared in The Colored Lens, Five on the Fifth, Metaphorosis, and The Saturday Evening Post.
Image Credit: “Historic Dentistry” by Clive Varley on CCSearch
Another 5K, another easy win. With about half a mile to go, Shanna knew she had first female. Time to overtake some guys. This one, for instance, with the long hair and the Union Jack shorts. She surged past him, already eyeing the next target: the red-haired geek in the Hash House Harriers shirt, no idea what his name was, they’d raced each other before but they’d never spoken. She passed him at the finish line.
Once she could walk again, Shanna handed in her timing chip and picked up a banana. The harrier ambled past her, and they acknowledged each other with a nod.
People crowded the lawn next to the finish. A band shredded through Walking on Sunshine, and the Children’s School sold pancakes. Pink ribbons and healthy living information were on display everywhere.
Shanna walked to the curb to watch the other runners coming in. She hated the moments between the finish and the podium, when the adrenaline drained away and the soreness set in. Her desire to win embarrassed her as soon as it was satisfied. Once she’d made the mistake of looking at the finish photo provided by the race organizers as part of the registration swag; she’d looked like a boiling, contorting lizard.
As if on cue, Meghan arrived. Perfectly decked out in pink-and-black running gear, she shot out of a group of walkers and strode towards the line in photogenic agony, raising her fists to show that she had Overcome. As soon as she’d passed the photographer huddled on the ground, she dropped her arms.
Shanna hadn’t expected her. Sure, a few weeks ago, Meghan had announced that she had taken up running, too, that she had to find out what kept Shanna pounding the pavement for hours each week without going nuts, but she hadn’t mentioned wanting to run a race, let alone this one. Yet here she was, pointing a finger at Shanna with a gesture between threat and favor. You. Don’t move.
Once she was next to Shanna, Meghan said, “Man, this was brutal. So brutal.”
Shanna wondered whether she should tell Meghan that she had won the race.
“Where’s that husband of mine?” Meghan said.
“I haven’t seen him.”
“Typical.” Meghan put her foot on the curb and leaned forward. The sight of her legs and butt contained in shining black fabric made Shanna think of a scorpion.
“I had an idea for us,” Meghan said. “A friend of mine can get us entries for the Chicago Marathon. He works for a charity, I forget which.” Before Shanna could say anything, Meghan continued. “I know I’m slow. But I’ll work so hard. And besides, it’s about doing this together, right?”
Shanna felt lonely at times, but never during running. On the contrary, running was the one thing she wanted to keep for herself. She could try to explain, but it was hopeless.
“What do you say?” The question was a ritual. “You and me?”
Shanna and Meghan had met as teenagers. Shanna had been the new girl in class, and Meghan knew everything about bras, boys, and beyond. Every once in a while, Meghan singled out a girl to make fun of. Not often, not excessively, but there was always a moment when Meghan stood with her hands on her hips, a bunch of people behind her, and the victim scrunched up her face trying not to cry. When Meghan asked her to hang out after school, Shanna was terrified and expected Meghan to drop her quickly. Instead, Meghan kept her.
With Meghan as a friend, Shanna didn’t need to talk to anyone: Meghan spoke for both of them. Her voice was deep and clear. You wanted to listen to her.
A few weeks into their friendship, Meghan would sometimes close her eyes as if she were asleep, and become smaller than before, more fragile. It happened after parties, when they sat in the back seat of Meghan’s car, music playing softly on the radio, or when they lay next to the pool and toasted on hot stones, screams and the smell of chlorine, hot dogs and sunscreen all around them. When Meghan opened her eyes again, she’d whisper: “Hey. You and me.” The words were Shanna’s treasure. They proved how important she was—more important than anyone could guess.
Meghan spent her first post-grad year volunteering and shopping around a children’s book about gay marriage. She herself married an older man named Kyle, who played the cello for the Pittsburgh Symphony. They quickly had a son, Leo. Shanna moved into a one-bedroom rental with a view of the Giant Eagle parking lot and worked as a research assistant for the Psychology Department. The part of her job she hated most was cold-calling potential research participants; she memorized a script to work through her list as efficiently as possible, and not a few people became irritated with her droning voice. Some thought she was mocking them. Her strong point was data analysis, and the professor she worked for regularly asked her to talk him through the statistics she’d used so I can sell it to the funding agencies; she’d been co-author on quite a few papers. The professor kept encouraging her to apply to graduate school, but the thought of teaching classes or presenting at conferences was too intimidating. “As you wish,” the professor said. “Remain our secret as long as you want.”
Shanna became a runner by accident. One evening, after a whole day inside, she put on sweatpants, a fleece sweater, and an old pair of sneakers and started to jog around the block, not expecting to last longer than half an hour. She came home long after dark.
As a girl she used to dream of having her pack: friends that accepted her without words, recognized her like a long-lost sibling. She found them in books about running: The Lonely Breed, Young Men in a Hurry,The Perfect Mile – grainy black-and-white pictures showing young men running on grass tracks and in Scandinavian forests and in the dunes at Portsea. She was running, too, on the hills in the park and on the public track. Over the months, her hard training sessions started to feel easy. She shed the cocoon of her daytime self and became a new person – but only in her mind. The fewer people she met while running, the easier it was to imagine she was in the grainy black-and-white world of her books, so she made it a habit to run early in the morning or late at night.
Only at the races did she briefly show her face, her body, and—most intimate of all—her speed. With each race, she moved up in the local hierarchy, until she was one of the fast girls. At first she competed in baggy clothes, but eventually she switched to “professional” running sets she would never dare put on anywhere else. During a race she spat and groaned and fought to beat as many others as possible, as if she were in one of the legendary races she read about at night instead of a harmless footrace for weekend warriors.
It was as if Meghan had leapt from behind a black-and-white tree in one of the pictures in Shanna’s books, shouting, “Hey! Did you forget about me?”
The Chicago Marathon was in October, which left them about five months to get ready. Their first official training run took place on a hot and humid Tuesday. Meghan planted her feet with rhythmic concentration. Shanna ran as slowly as she could.
At the picnic area, Meghan splashed water on the back of her neck, sliding her fingers inside her shirt.
“How are Kyle and Leo?” Shanna asked.
“Don’t get me started.”
“All right,” Meghan said. “I might as well fill you in. Kyle moved out.”
“Oh my God. What happened?”
“It’s been building for a while. He hasn’t been sleeping, and he’s been saying really strange things. He’s in Boston now. His mother knows a psychiatrist there.” She wiped her hands on her thighs. “He said he needs to get away from me—as if I’m some kind of monster.”
“That sounds scary. Is there anything I can do?”
“You already are. Being out here makes me feel so much better.”
As spring turned into summer, Meghan and Shanna built mileage. Their long runs became their short runs. Kyle was crying every time they talked on the phone, Meghan said, and they’d talked about divorce and dropped it. Kyle was so incoherent it was hard to tell what he wanted. Leo took it the hardest: he was only two and half years old and kept asking for Daddy.
“Wait,” Meghan said. “Side stitch.”
“Put your hand there.” Shanna tapped a spot above her own belly button. “Maybe move your hand around a bit so your muscles can warm up. ” She demonstrated.
Shanna put her hand on Meghan’s belly. “Here. Try to breathe into my hand.”
“You’re my savior,” Meghan said. She moved into the touch, and Shanna felt her warmth through the wet nylon.
“You and me,” Meghan said. “Once more.”
Shanna pushed back against Meghan’s weight.
September brought cold rain, muddy trails, and the return of Kyle.
“He’s stable,” Meghan said, and left it at that. She and Shanna were meeting for coffee to discuss the charity that sponsored their marathon: the American ALS Foundation.
“How does it work?” Shanna asked.
“They bought race entries and sold them to runners like us, who agree to run in their name—wearing t-shirts and stuff. There will be a bunch of us in Chicago. Team ALS. Most importantly, they hope we’ll tell our friends that we’re running the marathon, and inspire them enough to make a donation.”
“Why should they?”
“It works, you’ll see. We can post our training runs and share pictures on social media. What do you think?”
“It sounds fake. I thought we were going to train and try to run a good time. I didn’t know we need an audience.”
Meghan looked up in surprise. “It’s a charity, you know? Don’t be such a bitch.”
With Kyle back in town, Meghan started to skip training. Kyle needed a ride to therapy, the mortgage person had promised to call, she needed to search for jobs to apply for.
When the time came for their most important workout—a twenty-mile long run—Shanna arrived at Meghan’s house to find her sitting on the porch in black jeans and a sequin top, smoking a menthol cigarette as she sometimes did after a really bad day. “Look, I’m not feeling it tonight. Join me for drinks, okay? Tanya is coming too. Remember her? From Pitt.”
“We can’t run a marathon if we don’t train.”
“I don’t have time for this. The sitter’s with Leo, Kyle’s with his mom, and I’m partying tonight. Join me or don’t.” Meghan brushed past Shanna and started walking towards her car.
“You call this inspiring?” Shanna called. She hadn’t meant to.
Meghan turned around. “Cute. I know you have nothing better to do on a Friday night than run loops in the park. And you know what? You’re damn lucky. My family’s on the brink. We’ll have to sell the house, my kid is biting his friends, and I’m married to someone I don’t know anymore. And I will not run twenty miles tonight. End of story.”
Shanna stood still, aware of her tight clothes and the sweat drying on her skin. Up and down the street, windows were lit; people could probably hear every word.
Meghan flexed the fingers of her right hand, then got her keys from her purse and opened the car door. “Are you coming?”
“No,” Shanna said.
Instead of doing the 20-miler on her own, Shanna entered a small marathon one state over. She was one of fifty participants. The course went out and back along a riverbank, and the field strung out quickly. Very far ahead of her, she saw two men reach the turnaround point marked by an orange cone, and start back. When they passed, they raised their hands in greeting. A thin layer of ice covered the water, and her cheeks felt hot and fresh in the cold. Afterwards, they ate chili in the boathouse to warm up. One of the two men who had greeted her pulled up the chair next to her. He was young, with a full beard.
“You’re a hell of a runner,” he said. “What was your time?”
“Three oh six.”
“Nice. Ever thought about trying to break three?”
“Not yet.” She glanced out the window, at the pebble trail along the water. She didn’t want to talk, but she loved the young man, and all the runners here, for their tacit agreement that they were not crazy doing this.
It took them hours to get their race numbers at the marathon expo because Meghan had forgotten her confirmation letter and got into an argument with the volunteers. When they finally got to their hotel room, Shanna wanted to lie down and sleep off her headache, but Meghan had scheduled dinner with the rest of Team ALS and insisted Shanna couldn’t leave her to go alone.
They ate burgers and pasta at an American food place. Meghan talked non-stop. Her eyes were bloodshot; she’d put on clumps of mascara, the way she used to as a teenager.
“Just think about what we’re going to do tomorrow,” she said. “Twenty-six point two grueling miles!”
Everyone except Shanna acted disgusted. Weren’t they all so crazy?
The woman next to Meghan was drawing the course in the air with her finger. “And here’s the wall. Right here. It’s us versus the distance.”
“I’ll drink to that,” her husband said, and they all raised their glasses of alcohol-free beer.
Back in the hotel room, Shanna and Meghan picked everything they needed for the race the next morning from their suitcase: their gels and drinks, socks and shoes, numbers and pins. They were both dressed for bed in drawstring pants and tank tops.
Meghan spread her race day outfit on the desk, on top of tourism folders and a laminated room service menu. On top of her race number she had written GO MEG. Below it, she had written STRENGTH.
“I’ll bonk so hard tomorrow,” she said. “It’s going to be embarrassing.”
Shanna put a hand on Meghan’s back and started to massage her shoulders. The muscles felt like caramel; they promised softness to someone with patience. Shanna circled her thumbs, and Meghan sighed.
“I was such an asshole the last couple of weeks,” Meghan said. “I was, like, an evil puppet.”
“You’ve got every excuse.”
“Tomorrow’s going to be hell.”
“We’ll do this together.” Shanna was still kneading Meghan’s shoulders, settling into the rhythm. “I’ve run a marathon before.”
“After you bailed on our twenty-miler.”
Meghan closed her eyes. “How did you do?”
“It was okay.” She slid her arms down Meghan’s side. “You would have liked it.”
“I would’ve spoiled it. One more beer, and then to bed?”
Shanna got a real beer from the mini bar, and they sat down on Meghan’s bed, knees up, backs against the pillows. All the lights were out, except the spots above the night tables.
“You know what?” Meghan passed Shanna the bottle. “ALS is giving me the creeps.”
“I know,” Shanna said. “Me too.” She drank and passed the bottle back.
“You know something else? I started running because someone told me they saw you run at like five in the morning. I was jealous. To have something like this all for yourself.” She turned to look at Shanna. “And now look at us. We’re here together.” She put down the empty beer bottle on the night table, and Shanna laid her hand on Meghan’s belly. Breathe here, right here. Slowly, she moved her hand down. When her fingertips reached and lifted the elastic of her pajamas, Meghan slid down on the bed so she lay flat on her back, and pushed down her pants. “That’s better.” She reached for Shanna’s hand again, leading her between her legs.
Shanna closed her eyes and felt the pubic hair shaved down to a precise triangle, the smooth, cold skin around it, the warm slipperiness further down, the lips so different from her own. She heard Meghan’s moan like a soft breath in her sleep, the hiss of her heels against the linen, a croak inside her throat. Shanna moved only her fingers, mere twitches in exactly the right place.
Meghan rammed her elbow into Shanna’s ribs and sat up.
“What?” Shanna whispered.
Meghan started to rub her crotch in a way that made Shanna think of scraping ice off a car window. After she had finished with a series of dry, efficient screams, she lay back again, sprawled out and kneading her breasts.
“Okay,” she said, “you want me to return the favor?”
Shanna palpated the sore spot where Meghan’s elbow had struck her. “No,” she managed.
Shanna got up and lay down in the other bed. Within minutes, Meghan slept.
The next morning, they stood next to each other in front of the bathroom mirror in their matching red ALS running tops.
Meghan waved at Shanna in the mirror. “Are you ready to rock this?”
They brushed their teeth, looking at each other. They spat out the foam and rinsed.
“Last night hit the spot,” Meghan said. “I slept like a baby. You’ve got a real talent.”
Shanna saw and felt the familiar blush spread on her neck and forehead, but forced herself to speak anyway. “Why did you push me away?”
Meghan put her toothbrush into the plastic cup. “Fine. Be that way.”
“You and me, right?”
Meghan leaned on her hands and looked at her reflection. “I always felt responsible for you. You never had anyone else.”
“You’re not responsible for me.”
“At least I’m watching the time,” Meghan said. “We’re late for the start.”
Thousands of people were looking for their corral, and it took them a long time to find theirs. Each charity had a different color: red for ALS, purple for cancer, gold for Parkinson’s. The start shot had already gone off, but it took another half hour before Shanna and Meghan crossed the starting line, bumping elbows and feet with strangers. The runners around them were chugging Gatorade and taking photos of each other with their cell phones. Some stopped to hug friends and family along the course. Discarded paper cups stuck to their shoes. At seven miles, the course freed up a little. Meghan was limping.
“Do you want to take a break?” Shanna said.
“Do I look like a quitter?”
One of the spectators heard her and shouted, “You’re a hero!” Meghan pushed out her chest and pointed at the ALS logo, pressing more cheers from the crowd. And so another slow mile crept by, and another. Shanna’s legs hurt from being reined in. At mile ten, she screamed at herself: Just run! Every time she sped up for sheer pain relief, the familiar voice called her back: “Hey! Wait!”
Between miles ten and eleven, Meghan’s limp got worse. When they passed an aid station, the medics trained their eyes on her like vultures. “Are you all right, ma’am?” Meghan gritted her teeth and pushed on. Once the aid station was out of sight, she stopped. “I can’t do it. It’s too much.”
“Where’s the pain exactly?”
“Let’s sit down. Over there, on the curb.”
Meghan took off her shoe. Her sock was drenched in blood. Shanna took a band-aid and gauze from her pocket. “Just look away for a sec.” She squeezed open the blister. Meghan groaned, and Shanna cleaned the blister with water from her bottle, dried it with gauze, and covered it with the band-aid. “If you have some painkillers, take them.” Meghan pulled a strip of pills from the back pocket of her shorts and took two with the rest of Shanna’s water. “How do you know how to do this stuff?”
“From my long runs.”
Meghan moved her jaw. Mascara was drying on her cheeks. “What was your time in the other marathon?”
“A little over three hours.”
Meghan put her shoe back on and tied the laces with great accuracy. “Hey!” she called to everyone close enough to hear. “Being fast isn’t important, right?”
“No!” someone shouted back. “It’s not!”
She pointed her thumb at Shanna. “My friend here just told me she’s faster than I am!”
Shanna looked down at the asphalt. She felt the spectators’ laughter like slaps to the face.
“But we’re all winners!” Meghan yelled. “No matter how fast, no matter how slow!”
“Right! Go Meg!”
“That’s all I’m saying.”
They started jogging again. To Shanna, it felt like running in place. She was sick of the toy-train speed of this run, and of Meghan. She thought about the swish of turning the pages, of the burned smell rising from her books, of veined necks and thighs and the snap of finish tapes in the fifties. Of sucking frost from her tongue during her solo marathon, and of crunching the pebbles under her toes with each step, as if she could push herself forward forever.
“Try walk-breaks,” she said to Meghan. “That’s your best chance to finish.” Then she took off.
At first, the spectators booed her for leaving her friend behind. This changed as soon as Meghan was out of sight.
“Way to move!”
“Get it, girl!”
The sun was high and she started to sweat, but she didn’t care. She was one of the fast girls, and if she was empty where the night before she had opened up and closed around another person, she preferred it—the lighter she was, the faster she could run. And she ran as fast as she could, because it felt good.
Stefani Nellen’s short stories are published or forthcoming in Guernica, AGNI, Glimmer Train, Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, PRISM International and Web Conjunctions, among others, and have won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, the Montana Prize in Fiction (judged by Alexandra Kleeman), and placed as the runner-up for the Wabash Prize (judged by Adam Johnson). She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is also a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop, where she had the opportunity to work with Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, among others. A psychologist by training and originally from Germany, she now lives in the Netherlands with her family. She’s at work on two novels and a collection of short stories.