THE COLLECTED DRAFTS OF JESSICA’S CHRISTMAS CARD TO HER EX-HUSBAND by Grace Coberly
I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. Randi the realtor called (remember her, with the forehead?) and said the owners were still undecided, but I had visited by myself the week before, and it didn’t feel right anymore. I guess it was too big for just me and Pammy. Too many rooms, too many spiderwebby corners. They ended up selling it to that Polish couple, I think. For now, I’m living with my dad, who says
Pammy misses you. She only eats the big chunks when I put her bowl out, not that good digestive stuff the vet recommended. I’m worried about her. God, am I already becoming a crazy cat lady?
Remember our first Christmas tree? We were so excited we bought it in mid-November, and all the needles had fallen off by the time we unpacked the ornaments.
I was just thinking about our first Christmas tree.
I was thinking
I almost bought the apartment. I really did. I visited six times in five days, and I dragged Randi with me every time (remember her, with the forehead?). I was going to use your closet for storage and keep both sinks upstairs. I could always use another sink. And I keep dreaming about the plumbing there. I’m staying in my old room at my dad’s house, and the cold water faucet in the bathroom still doesn’t work, so the water is always steaming hot. I have to brush my teeth in the bathtub. I feel like an animal.
Great news! Layla from the Tribune invited me back for an interview. I feel like this could be good for me, you know? I’ve been cashiering at Macy’s, but all the perfume is really starting to get to my head. I need a real job.
I was going through boxes the other day, and I found some of your old Christmas ornaments. (The tiny convertible, the bird from your mom, the blue Santa, Captain Kirk, and part of your snowglobe collection.) I also took the glass giraffe we found at that antique shop in Beulah, but I think it was in one of the boxes I threw out when I moved
How would you feel about paying child support for Pammy? She’s not our daughter, but she eats like a teenager, and she has some sort of infection on her foot.
I ran into your brother last Thursday in the home improvement section of Target. He told me you’re thinking of moving to Minneapolis. Why the fresh start? Running away from something?
Go ahead and move. Maybe in Minneapolis you’ll meet a woman who isn’t so “high-strung” and “self-absorbed.” Maybe she won’t forget to buy paper towels, and she won’t put pepper in your mashed potatoes, and she won’t cry on the night of your wedding because she had to do the father-daughter dance with a family friend. You’d love someone like that, wouldn’t you?
I wish to God I had bought that stupid apartment. It was perfect, and I let it go because of you. Because you wanted a front porch and I wanted a big bay window and you like laminate and I like hardwood and nothing was ever good enough for you. Because you were selfish and you couldn’t love me enough to hang around. So fucking selfish. I should’ve bought it. Fuck the Polish couple. Fuck Randi and her forehead. Fuck my dad. Fuck you
My dad says I deserved it.
I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but after all that happened, I just couldn’t see myself living there. I guess it was too empty without you. I’m going back for an interview at the Tribune next week, though, so things are good with me.
I heard you’re thinking about moving to Minneapolis. That’s so exciting! Make sure you find a great realtor like Randi (remember her, with the forehead?) who knows everything there is to know about laminate flooring. I’m sure that’ll be a dealbreaker for you.
I know it’s been a crazy year, but I’m doing okay, and I hope you are, too. This is good for both of us. We should grab lunch sometime soon to catch up. Anyway, I have some of your Christmas ornaments that I want to return before I forget about them.
Dad and Pammy say hello. And please do stop by—you’re welcome here anytime. Have a wonderful Christmas.
Grace Coberly grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Her work has appeared in COUNTERCLOCK, Border Crossing, and Iceview Magazine. An alum of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio and the Adroit Mentorship Program, she was also the first-place winner of the LSSU High School Short Story Prize and a fiction finalist in the Young Authors Writing Competition at Columbia College, both in 2017. She is a freshman at Haverford College.
PEETY (WASHINGTON, DC, 1959)
by David Satten-López
It’s moonlit and muggy out as Peety Alfaro walks to work. Under the yellow streetlights, he pauses to wipe the condensation off his glasses. Once done, he affixes his large and thick lenses back onto his face and takes a deep breath. Exhaling, he tugs rapidly at his white tee to cool off. Then he nods hard and continues walking, shoulders back and head up.
A homeless man, slouched on a nearby park bench to his left, calls out to him in Spanish. Peety keeps steady and walks on by. In the bushes on either side of him, he can hear the scattering of rats. One scurries across the illuminated sidewalk in front of him. Peety maintains. As he makes his way down the numbers, he whistles “Take the A Train.”
From his puckered lips come the notes of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. For Peety, this is his tune too, but, more importantly, it is the tune of the Voice of America Jazz Hour. Before he left Perú, Peety would wake up at odd hours, clutching his radio, to listen to the Voice of America Jazz Hour with Willis Conover. The jazz waves and slow-spoken English filled the small one-bedroom home that he and his mother lived in. The low lights of dying embers in the corner and the fresh smell of dirt floors mixed with the smell of potato soup.
The radio building is long, with tall, column-shaped windows. It is here that Peety works as a janitor, and it is nights like these, Saturday nights, which are his favorite shifts. For it is on Saturday nights that Peety feels like he is finally a part of the music he so loves. For it is on Saturday nights that the jazz hour is recorded and Willis Conover is in the building.
Peety’s excitement is especially for tonight though, for this is a rare Saturday, in which Duke Ellington is here. No doubt, Ellington is already here—two extra guards and his black limousine are already outside the building.
Peety enters the grey and granite building, displaying his ID card, looking for more traces of Ellington. As he walks across the tiled floor, his boots squeak. He shows his ID once more and goes toward the locker room to put on his work clothes—blue jeans and a dark blue button-down. He affixes his nametag to his work shirt in the stuffy room and then heads to the storage closet for cleaning supplies and his radio.
From the far west side of the building, he can hear the low vibrations of “Take the A Train.” The show is just beginning. He flicks on his Sanyo transistor radio and dials it in. The accumulated vibrations bring an onrush of memories: simmering potato stew, dirt floors, kicked up dust, Peety’s mother by a crackling fire, and the sensation of radio waves close to his chest; then, the onrush slips into his first days in America.
He had been sitting upright on a mattress on the floor as he flicked on his radio to only fuzz. He watched his four other roommates, lying asleep on their mattresses, trying not to wake them. Peety stayed up all night listening to the fuzz, subtly shifting the dial. It wasn’t until four more nights of failed attempts that Peety learned: “by order of the Smith-Mundt Act of nineteen forty-eight, information produced by the Voice of America for audiences outside the United States shall not be disseminated within the United States.”
It is only now, close to the original transmitter, on Saturday nights, with his short wave radio, that Peety can catch the show.
Suited up and equipped, Peety hits the second floor. He begins by cleaning the bathrooms, then moves on to the staff break room, works on the offices and, lastly, cleans the recording studios. He always leaves the studio with the upright piano for last. This studio is small, with worn, carpet-like walls. Inside is a mixer, two standing microphones, and the piano.
Peety looks both ways down the hall and then opens the door to this studio. In a hurry, he brings his custodian cart into the room and eases the door to a soft close. He keeps the lights off and finds the piano bench in the dark. He sits down and lays his fingers lightly on the keys as he’s done countless times before. From a small column-shaped window in the door, the fluorescent hallway light seeps in. He breathes in, reverent, knowing the scarcity of this space. Peety breathes out and begins to play “All Blues” by Miles Davis.
His fingers play a soft tremolo that slowly builds into the image of his mother. It’s her large hands that he accentuates first—their cracked and dry palms, varicose veins, and the brown dirt under her nails. Next are her tan and muddied, calf-high work boots, then her long skirt that ends just at the boots and her long-sleeved white blouse. Finally, with grace notes, he outlines the small black derby hat she wore to work. The slow sonorous melody begins as the dust slowly churns, kicked up from the dirt floors around her. As Peety moves his hand to arpeggiate the chord, his mother begins rummaging swiftly, like a ghost, around a small bedroom. The bedroom has two twin-size beds in it covered in thin white sheets. The notes sound off in a flurry, and his mother begins to pile belongings into a small blue suitcase on the bed: clothes, a blanket, a bowl, and a radio. Incoming, a large smash of a chord from his left hand and a few right hand notes sound off until another ringing chord lands. Peety twists his face into a tight smile and rushes into the piano solo. The flurry of improvised notes seems before him and just out of reach, crashing along, causing a tender wreckage. Pulling his head back, the melody begins again. Calmer and out of breath, Peety brings the song back to its soft beginning.
Peety checks the time on his wristwatch and leaves the piano in a hurry, grabbing his cart. He takes the elevator to the third floor and begins the routine again: bathrooms, break room, offices, and studios. As he walks by the hallways on the third floor, heading toward the next office to clean, he turns the radio volume down, and then off. Through the old walls of the studio, he can hear the show leaking into the hallway. He stalls, brimming with nerves and pride, crouched over, sweeping the floor. He recognizes the familiar voice of Conover—clear, deep, slow, and warm. Peety patiently follows the voice to a studio door. His broom scratches the tile just outside the door. Closer now, he can even hear the laughter of another voice—Duke Ellington—on the other side. The jazz tune begins winding down, hitting home one last time before it finally runs to the end of the vinyl grooves. The voices quiet down, and Conover speaks into the microphone, closing out the show. Ellington says, “Good night,” and the show ends with the theme song, “Take the A Train,” once more.
Peety looks at the door, then at his watch, before finally returning his focus to his job. He turns around, heading to the next office.
Once Peety is done cleaning, he returns to that upright piano. Same as before, the soft tremolo of “All Blues” begins again—this time a little more forcefully. The image of his mother comes out from the piano. This time the lines on her face are deeper, her skirt is frayed, and her sleeves are rolled up. The melody kicks in, and the smell of the dirt and dust return to him in another rush. He plays double notes this time before moving into an arpeggio, and his mother coughs twice into a handkerchief before packing his bag. Now comes the chord, softer this time, and Peety begins improvising the solo. This time it’s slow and muted—it’s the wind chimes out in front of his old house, or the distant bell of the schoolhouse getting out, or the light from an open window illuminating the shifting dust. The melody kicks back in one last time, and Peety keeps it steady.
Chk, chk, the doorknob rattles. Then the door swings open. “Hey you, what are you doing in here? You guys should’ve been done in here a while ago.” A man is outlined in the doorway, leaving his front in shadow. The man wears glasses, a khaki button-down, and a badge.
Peety doesn’t speak. His mouth opens, but only the sound of parting lips comes.
The guard squints briefly. “Peety! Man, Goddammit. I’ve told you already. You hear?”
Peety’s eyes are wide, his fingers heavy on the white keys, his foot still pressing the pedal.
The guard exhales heavily. “Oh, forget it, I’m closing up. You best get a move on, and I’m serious this time, okay, don’t let me catch you in here again.” He turns around, leaving the light off, his shoes smacking down the hall. The door shuts loudly behind him.
Peety gets up, pushing the bench behind him in a squeak. He flicks on the light, grabs his cart, and opens the door onto the hallway, heading back to the storage closet and locker rooms.
Outside, it’s raining lightly. A ways away, under the yellow streetlights, under an umbrella, walking away from him, Peety sees two men. One is a white man in a crisp suit, loafers, and slicked back hair, opening the door to a black limousine. Stepping into the limousine is a black man in a light-colored suit, derby shoes, and a wide-brimmed hat. The white man follows him in, laughing a faint but familiar laugh. He closes the door behind him, and the two men become lost behind the tinted glass. The limousine rolls away from the curb, fading out of sight. Peety heads in the same direction, on his way home.
David Satten-López is a student of New Historicism and Gorgias; he likes cooking and taking walks on the beach. He hates Enlightenment humanism; he loves cats. His favorite writers are Baldwin, Cervantes, Carver, and Cisneros; Césaire, Wynter, Hartman, and Moten; M. NourbeSe Philip, Springsteen, Brandy, and Badu. A formative moment for his writing was listening to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Triptych.” Follow him on Twitter @pocospeed.
Dritan wondered whether he made the right decision in telling them to go ahead, so sure that he would catch up. Had he been sure, though? He began to feel the numbness set in his hands, in his wrists, in his shoulders and back, though it wasn’t long before he felt his muscles begin to burn and cramp, giving him no choice but to stop kicking. His ears filled with the sounds of the others splashing onwards, though now the splashing came from all around him as the tides and waves pulled them apart.
They had begun the journey quietly, stealthily, and close together. But by the end of the first hour, their bodies felt ragged and heavy, and so they let their legs fall down where they may, just as long as they continued to propel them forward. Somewhere beyond the hidden horizon, beyond where their broken bodies existed, laid the invisible border between Albanian and Greek waters. All they had to do was keep pushing with the hope that kismet would string them along to safety. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop; the thought echoed in each head. Somewhere beyond the tide and choppy waves was water they could lie on their backs in and gently drift to safety. Somewhere off the coast of Corfu they would be reborn.
At first Dritan could see his friends’ heads bobbing up and down in the water, but he soon lost sight of them. He heard splashing though he wondered after some time if it was still them that he was hearing, or if it was the waves mimicking the sound of camaraderie, mocking him.
He blamed himself for letting them get so far ahead. That’s alright, he thought. I’ll catch up in no time. He looked around and suddenly realized how small he felt—how small he was—in the vast blackness between sea and night sky. No one knew he was there; no one but the three far ahead of him, spread to all sides of the compass. And they must think he was still close behind, not one having the energy to stop and look back to find him missing.
He closed his eyes. Only for a minute. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore. He licked his lips. Salt. So much salt. His tongue tingled and went numb, rejecting the tired taste of it. He thought about how much food his mother could make with all the salt the sea had to offer. He thought about how, in small doses, it turned dull food into something satiable, but in large doses—as large as the sea was wide—it dried your body from the inside-out and you would eventually begin to wither; to break apart and deconstruct in the water. He licked his lips again and realized for the first time how hungry he was.
The pain dulled and came back in waves, sharper than the previous jolts. In waves—ha! As if the Ionian itself was jabbing his sides to test his strength. He gave way to the pain, letting it move from his ribs, to his abdomen, to his chest. Maybe if he kept his eyes closed and stayed still a moment, it would pass. He just needed a quick rest.
As he often did at times that produced moments of either extreme pleasure or extreme pain, Dritan thought of his late brother Jusuf. As Dritan’s chin and nose dipped beneath the surface, he thought of their childhood games at the beach, of pretend drownings and rescues with Jusuf’s arms clamped around Dritan’s body flailing underwater. Their father had taught them early to love the water instead of fear it.
With his head sinking farther into the water and his mind lazily sliding backwards, Dritan remembered his favorite story, the one of his birth, a story his mother shared frequently when he was a child.
“You’re the best swimmer because you came from the water,” she’d say. Dritan had heard the story so many times he half-believed he remembered the experience itself, in utero. Of how his mother had chased after Jusuf and of how she’d danced her way across the hot beach pebbles to get to the shore, her feet bursting with the subtle lingering sizzles of the afternoon sun.
She was massively pregnant with Dritan and claimed he knew whenever they were in the water because he’d kick every time a wave wrapped itself longingly around her legs. Her contractions began while she was wading into the fizzing sea; she’d later tell him it was as if the sea sensed and longed for him as much as he himself sensed and longed for the sea.
So even at his most critical moment, when fear would perhaps have been the most appropriate and undeniable emotion, Dritan forced his legs to move beneath him until the tops of his nostrils stung with the urgent inhalation of bitingly cold air. His eyelashes dripped cold saltwater as if it was flowing from inside of him, as if he was born from it. Remembering that he indeed had been, he kicked harder with whatever energy he could drag out from deep inside, beneath the aching in his chest.
They undressed in the dark—quietly, shyly at first, and then methodically. The sea that beckoned them in the daylight sat wide before them now in the midnight light, as black as the universe. Each of the four friends avoided staring at it for too long, for fear of quickly throwing their clothes back on and making the long, lonely trip back home.
Dritan shivered as his sweater came off and then his undershirt.
“Goddamn, it’s cold,” muttered Erdi.
“Not if you think about how hot these rocks are in the summer,” said Luisa.
“Almost as hot as the iron when your finger is practically touching it,” added Dhurata. “I burned my finger that way once as a kid.”
“Or how hot your skin feels when you’re sunburned and you start to peel,” said Dritan with a smirk.
One by one, they threw in tokens of memories to build a small fire until Luisa finally pulled out the jar of grease she had been slowly collecting and saving from the mechanic’s shop where her uncle worked. Never done deliberately, her uncle would dole out random facts his niece would later apply to some relevant life event. It was from him that Luisa had learned how grease helped the skin maintain its elasticity, preventing it from shriveling after too much time in the saltwater.
“Someone help me with my shoulders,” she whispered. They lathered their bodies until they glistened. In the distance, they looked like a delicate dance of ghosts—arms reaching high, hands gliding over each other until four shadows came together to make one indistinguishable shape against the clear autumn night, and then broke apart again.
“Your turn, Dritan.” Luisa handed him the jar. “We saved the most for you since you don’t have an inner tube.” They had each taken apart their bikes and sliced open the tires to pull out the inner tubes to use as flotation devices. Dritan was the only one who’d decided at the last minute not to break the bike apart so that his mother could instead use it for errands and chores. At his core, though, he knew it’d had nothing to do with his mother. He couldn’t pull apart the bike that had belonged to his father. He grabbed the jar from Luisa and started blackening his arms and shoulders with grease.
“That’s okay. This will do just fine.” He flashed his teeth, which were barely noticeable in the dead of night. “I’m a faster swimmer than all of you anyway. All I have to do is keep moving.”
After each body had been greased, three of the four friends pulled out their inner tubes and pulled them over their heads. Luisa took out a ball of yarn from her bag and started weaving it around her shoulders, looping it over and around the inner tube until she had created a tight web of knots to keep the tube in place around her body. She chewed at the yarn until she felt a tear, yanked it loose, and threw the ball over to Erdi.
They each took their turn with the yarn, circling it around their bodies like an orbiting planet losing its course and spinning into oblivion, until suddenly, as fast as it had appeared from Luisa’s bag, it vanished. After much silent, synchronized movement, they stilled. Their eyes moved away from each other towards the gaping uncertainty that stretched before them.
As if on cue, their hands searched each other’s out and, once found, clasped them tightly. Wading into the water, their breath moved up from their bellies to their chests, lodging in their throats. The only sound they could make were hisses as they slowly exhaled and let the cold water swallow their youthful, unscarred bodies. And out into the Ionian they went, fading like flickering candle flames.
When Dritan showed up, they were still waiting for Agim. Agim was the last member of the group they waited on, but since they had all arrived early, they waited. In the distance a dog howled and howled until it finally forfeited to hunger and collapsed—a pile of tired old bones. They stood around quietly in the building’s shadow. The only sounds to echo were a throat being cleared or a quick kick of a stone pat pat patting down the road. If they caught each other’s eyes, they flashed a quick smile, and although each pair glowed mischievously in the darkness, anticipating the greatest adventure any of them would be sure to go on, the smiles would stop short just before reaching their eyes. Dritan grew uneasy after thirty minutes had passed and Agim had still not shown up. The sun would be rising before long and the first bus heading south would soon arrive.
“Where is that bastard? We can’t wait around forever,” said Luisa.
“What do we do?” Dhurata asked with an exasperated sigh.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” said Erdi. He was a brusque man who tried to control his language and mannerisms in front of the women in his life. This moment, however, slipped by without acknowledgment from his friends.
“No, wait.” Dritan felt on edge and was ready to move, but he couldn’t imagine leaving a member of their group behind. “Just ten more minutes. Something could be holding him up.”
“Do you know what would happen if the wrong person caught us just standing here right now?” Dhurata hissed.
“Just ten more minutes. If he’s not here by then, we can leave.”
“We’ve planned this for too long to have him ruin everything and land our heads on Enver’s dinner plate,” Erdi said through gritted teeth. Each enunciated syllable felt like a precise measurement. In the quiet of private homes, behind drawn curtains, vulgar jokes were often whispered by adults about how the great dictator, Enver Hoxha, fed off his citizens’ flesh, blood, and spirits.
It wasn’t the image Dritan would see of Enver in newspapers or on posters. Xhaxhi Enver, or Uncle Enver, as the propagandists often referred to him, was illustrated as a serene and happy family man, always eager to be around his people—his subjects. As Dritan grew older, he learned, as many others did while at home and after dark, that Enver Hoxha was a wolf in sheep’s clothes and the entirety of Albania was a flock of sheep that had gone astray.
Dritan thought of his mother’s muted anger at the loss of her husband all those years ago. She was the first person he’d heard utter those words, Enver eats the flesh of his people, and it was the first time everything outside his home suddenly felt like a lie.
“We’ll be fine,” Dritan managed to say. The brisk winds picked up and made the group huddle closer together. Deep inside the circle, they unburdened their minds and relieved themselves of any thoughts that might anchor them down once out in the water. The fear of being stopped; the fear of freezing; the fear of drowning; the fear of being intercepted and returned. They all agreed that death by sea would be a far more desirable way to go. Dritan noticed that the one fear no one had the strength to vocalize was the fear that Agim had betrayed them.
He walked through the front door to the smell of fasule cooking, a rich cannellini bean soup topped with a drizzle of olive oil. It was a favorite dish of Dritan’s. He instinctively made his way towards the kitchen at the first smell of the soup, but his mind suddenly went on high alert: did his mother suspect his plans? Did she have any idea that he would be leaving?
“Bir i mamit, is that you?”
“I’m home,” Dritan responded.
“Are you ready to eat? Or we can wait.”
“No, I’m hungry. Let’s eat now.”
The everyday normalcy in her tone set his mind at ease, though his heart thumped against his chest when he sat down at the table and found it set for a feast. Two bowls filled to the brim with fasule, two small porcelain bowls with olives, an onion sliced in half, and thick slices of his mother’s bread sat in the middle of the table. Outside, the clouds rolled in from the mountains, threatening rain. This was, in Dritan’s opinion, the perfect autumn meal.
He chewed slowly while his mind reeled with the realization that this would be the last meal he would share with his mother at this table. He watched her—studied her mannerisms and the way she hummed under her breath between bites. She seemed happy. Or at the very least, content. Dritan’s chest tightened at the thought of her sadness expanding outwards from her insides until it filled every room in the house.
“You’re quiet today,” she said, blowing on her spoon to cool off the steaming broth. “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, nothing.” He took bites of his mother’s bread and filled his mouth with a memory already caught in the past. “Nothing worth worrying about.”
Dritan heard her bedroom door close not long after he had already gone to bed and heard her open and close drawers, followed by the door to her heavy wooden armoire squeaking open and then closed—with a dull thud, as it did every night. The armoire had been a wedding gift to his parents, handed down from his father’s grandparents. He knew it was meant for Jusuf when he married, but now it would be his. If only he’d stay.
If only he’d survive.
Soon there was silence on both sides of the wall. He felt a different kind of uncertainty than the night he’d doused his spirit in blood and avenged Jusuf’s death. It was the night that slipped into his consciousness each day; the night that paved the road to his self-exile. That night he’d been drunk with fear and doubt; tonight he was high on excitement and anticipation. The damning naiveté of youth was never before so present, nor so disregarded.
He debated leaving a note for his mother, but quickly decided against it. She had asked him earlier that evening if he was going out that night to meet friends and he had said no, offering instead, to stay in with her. She had seemed pleased, if not a little confused as to his sudden desire to spend an uneventful evening at home with her.
The night felt long and Dritan managed to find sleep before waking up for the last time in his bed. The house was shrouded in silence and the creaking of the mattress felt amplified to his ears as he shifted and got up to get dressed. He rubbed his eyes and ran his hands over his head, hard, to shake out the last bit of sleep from his mind and each individual strand of hair.
He looked at his bed before walking out—he had always been a messy sleeper, tossing and turning until his sheets and blankets had knotted up and were hanging over the sides, like tendrils escaped from a dream world. He walked over to his bed and pulled the sheets back; he shook them out and threw them over his bed, tucking the corners in tightly, followed by the blanket. He smoothed out any remaining lumps and wrinkles and finally made his way to the door. Taking a quick look back, Dritan thought how it looked like he had never slept there that night. And then he walked out.
The house felt larger at night when the darkness made the hallway seem endless and doorways disappeared into blind mystery. He stopped at his mother’s door for a brief moment and pressed his ear against it. There was, of course, nothing. She was fast asleep on the other side and, though his body felt ablaze from his toes to the crown of his head, he slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open a sliver. She had left the curtains open, which he thought unusual, and some moonlight managed to stream in crookedly.
Dritan saw her dark shape in bed, peacefully unaware, and suddenly he felt glad. His lips curved up into a quick smile before pulling the door back gently into place. He shuffled his feet, feeling his way down the hall and through the living room. The eyes of his relatives in the photographs hanging on the walls followed him until he reached the front door and walked out, closing the door behind him without so much as turning his head. Had he done so, he would’ve seen the note his mother had written and stuck on the door.
Bir i mamit—my dear son—be careful.
Nikoletta Gjoni emigrated from Albania in 1990 at the age of three and was raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C. She studied English Literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). As an undergraduate, she was one of 33 students selected to undertake university-funded research in Albania, where she focused on the censorship of news and literature under the Communist regime of the 1950s-1980s. After graduating, Gjoni worked in broadcast news for several years before leaving to focus on her writing and to pursue work in the nonprofit sector. She has recently completed a debut collection of linked short stories about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Towards Avalon is her first published story and has been nominated for a PEN/Robert J. Dau prize.
“But Martin was born in Lancashire,” I said to the man seated across from me the afternoon of the arrest.
The man, whose black hair was slicked neatly back, offered me a cigarette.
I declined. “Martin’s not German, much less a German spy.”
The man placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it with the flick of a silver lighter. He inhaled deeply and then exhaled, the smoke blue-grey in the dimly-lit room.
“Mrs. Ridley,” he said. “We have ample evidence of your husband’s activities in support of the Third Reich.”
“Madam, I assure you, everything is in order.”
“Martin teaches Medieval Literature at Oxford. He spends his time grading papers, not spying.”
The man tapped his cigarette over the black ashtray at the center of the table. Ash dropped soundlessly.
“Has Martin ever been to Germany?”
I blinked. “Of course. Before the war. For research.”
“And he speaks German?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Then how does he conduct his research?”
“He reads. He can read all the variants of Medieval German. But that’s not the same thing as being able to speak modern German. It doesn’t make him a spy. It makes him a scholar.”
The man exhaled smoke. It drifted lazily up toward the ceiling, captured by the pale light of the single bare bulb that illuminated the room.
“Sir, if I could speak with your superior, we could clear this matter up quite quickly.”
He ignored me. “How long have you been married?”
“Three years in March.”
“How long did you know each other before you were married?”
“That’s not long.”
The man leaned forward. “I’m not here to make you feel uncomfortable, Mrs. Ridley. Quite the opposite. It is often difficult for the spouses to accept reality.”
“The reality that they have been living their lives as normal, and all the while the person buttering their toast on the other side of the kitchen table is working for Hitler.”
“Martin doesn’t work for Hitler.”
“A common response.” The man tapped his ash again.
“Perhaps your superior—”
“I am the superior in this case, Mrs. Ridley.”
“Well, then, perhaps I could have your name.”
“You may call me Mr. Brown.”
“Mr. Brown, there has been some horrible mistake—”
“When was the last time your husband visited Germany?”
“I told you, before the war.”
“1938, I think.”
“During the school holidays,” I said. “July or August.”
“And you didn’t travel with him?”
“No. It was a research trip. He planned to be in libraries the entire time. I would have been bored.”
“Did he say you would be bored, or did you decide you would be bored?”
“I don’t recall. And I resent the implication—”
“What was he working on?”
“He specializes in lyric poetry. There was a poem about Saint George he was hoping to re-translate.”
“Das Georgslied. Or the Song of Saint George. Written in Old High German. 1000 A.D.”
“Yes, that sounds right.”
“Saint George. Patron saint of England.”
Mr. Brown crushed his cigarette in the ashtray. The filter collapsed like an accordion. “Do you know what a book cipher is, Mrs. Ridley?”
“No, I can’t say that I do.”
Mr. Brown’s thin lips twitched upward in what I imagined passed for a smile in his world. “A book cipher,” he said, “is a way of sending coded messages using a preexisting text as the code-book.” The lips twitched again. “And your husband’s German handler seems to have a sense of humor. Or at least a sense of irony.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Song of Saint George. Meant as a poke in the eye to Churchill, I’d imagine.”
“It’s just a poem.”
“Not in your husband’s hands.” Mr. Brown opened the blue folder beside him. “Twelve coded messages. All sent from the postbox outside the Knight’s Inn pub in Oxford. All in your husband’s handwriting.”
He passed me a sheet of paper. The writing was unmistakably Martin’s—the curl at the end of the f, the little tail on the t. But the writing was incomprehensible. Letters, but also numbers.
“Nonsense, right?” Mr. Brown said.
I nodded, still staring at the mess of letters and numbers. Martin’s mess of letters and numbers.
“It’s nonsense,” Mr. Brown said, “until you use the Song of Saint George to decipher the code. Then it tells you how many bombers flew east from RAF Abingdon on each evening last week, and how many came back.”
My chest tightened.
“How close do you live to Abingdon?”
“We live just down the road. On Boar’s Hill. Martin…”
“Martin…walks the dog to Abingdon every evening. He says he likes to watch the planes…”
Mr. Brown picked up the sheet of paper and slid it back into the folder. “He does like to watch the planes, Mrs. Ridley. Quite a lot.”
Kate Spitzmiller writes historical fiction from a woman’s perspective. She is a flash fiction award-winner, with two pieces published in the anthology Approaching Footsteps. Her flash piece “Brigida” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, Companion of the Ash, is set for release in 2018 by Spider Road Press. She lives in Massachusetts where she tutors junior-level hockey players as her day job. You can visit her blog at www.katespitzmiller.com.
We must begin with a burgeoning sky. The storm that had flown out to sea flew back again into our small village in between the white and black mountains that looked over the land’s end. Our village that lay low was continually crushed by the sea’s thrashings, and that in turn gave us a dull, abused humor. We didn’t dare say “Enough, already!” for we were humble, and in the small wooden church we would say our prayers and give thanks for the rain, even though it came at the price of the wind bringing salt upon our homes and dead men upon our shores. Not one of us would say, “If only the storm would bring dead fish that we could eat instead of dead men and dead wood upon our shores, that would be something!” We would rather look plaintively out the window of the church thinking on the wisdom of Father Joe’s phrasings, or out our soft and moldy kitchen windowsill, and say to our husband or wife or sister or brother, “Looks like God is testing us again. Let’s pray that we will triumph, though Lord knows what we deserve.” And the other of us would respond with a thin and raspy, “That is the truth, right there.” That is how things were then.
Father Joe taught us much about this kind of humility. Our story would be nothing without a little explaining about Father Joe, who came to us circa 1917, during the period of the great frost. We had had no religion before, merely what they call community. We were good people. But when Father Joe came upon our shores, when we were dying every day from the lack of food, he filled our minds with stories we had never dared dream of. We had no need of dreaming before he came. We listened for hours and hours about some man in some Eastern clime who had been sacrificed, and who was the son of a great God. Father Joe told us of the travails he had taken to arrive at our little village, the miles of seas he had had to cross, and he always told us that what he did to get to us was nothing compared to our daily sacrifices. We took him in, set him up in a house, and built him a church for him to tell us these things. Though he stood up high near the altar, he seemed to hold us up on a pedestal and worship us as if we were some rare species. He told us many times the story of how he had heard about us when he was in battle. An anthropologist fighting alongside him had told him of this rare godless village in the north that he had visited once (we remember this anthropologist with his curious questions), and he wished to see our land once more before he died. Later that day that man was killed, which Father Joe took for a sign (Father Joe often spoke of signs and fate—words that didn’t exist in our language until he came upon our shore). When seeing his friend killed, Father Joe ran as fast as he could to a petrol station, found a way to safe territory, and quit the idea altogether of being a soldier. His mission became to find us and teach us the ways of God. Two long years it took him to arrive here, but this delay he took as a divine challenge.
We digress. So on this day of big, brashy thunder and frightful lightning, the sea brought hundreds not tens of men, and ships, so many ships broken to pieces! The salt was beyond all order! The front of Old Father Joe’s house that faced the sea (sitting atop the promontory as his example of his enduring faith in God) was as white as God’s beard.
After the skies had gone grey and the bruised clouds swept themselves off toward the horizon, we came out of our salty shacks, clutching our long sweaters with arms crossed. We were making our way down to the shore to begin gathering the bodies. We had done this so many times before, so our faces were not quick to show surprise, but when the first row of us reached the sandy beach, some of us stopped.
More of us came up from behind, and more, and more, so that after a little while a good number of us were just trying to get a look at the shore. Our shining blue eyes were all turned toward the horizon, toward the source of our latest burden. A last light flickered over the line at the end of the earth. Not one of us said a word.
We had to do our jobs, didn’t we? That was why we were put on this earth. So first one, then two, three, ten, then all forty of us started the mournful labor of piling the bodies up to where the waves couldn’t take them back. As we worked, we sang our prayers in bare whispers to the lost travelers:
Oh, sunken ones, your journey is come. Let us unburden you, and lift you from your bride. The salt is in your bones, your eyes the weeds do hide, But we see you, sailor, we bless you and for our own fates abide.
We prayed this way until sunset, when finally all of the bodies had been brought up high on the shore. We took the water-seeped wood, as we were used to do, and carried it to Branches’ Farm, where all wet wood went to dry. Then we carried back to shore piles and piles of dried wood. This went on right through supper—for no one ever ate until this task was done. There on the sand our men lay the wood from old shipwrecks and piled the bodies to make the pyre. As the flames reached higher, our women closed their scarves around their bodies and made their way back to their homes to start the very late supper. Father Joe took this time to look out over us while enjoying his dinner of salt bread and water. We would sometimes look up to see his candle in the window momentarily lighting up his shadowy face and take comfort.
While we men supervised the fire, we chatted about the storm, now that the danger was over. As we said, we were a people not to be surprised too readily, so when Old Smithson and Johnson came up from the long reach of the shore carrying a heavy trunk between them, several of us ran to help them carry it to a spot high up on the shore without asking questions. The men put the trunk down and we all gathered round it, some bending down and some just standing cross-armed and slightly bewildered. Finally Old Father Joe, who had by this time joined us at the pyre, looked at Smithson and said, “Go get your hammer, Smithson. We might as well figure out what God has in store for us now.”
Smithson, who was truly getting old then, walked but did not run to his shop and brought back his hammer. Under the star-ridden sky, we watched as Father Joe pounded and pounded the gold lock of the weathered trunk. Our women looked up from their sinks and stoves at the banging that sounded like a broken church bell out of rhythm. They all wiped their hands on their towels, turned down the flames on the stove, and headed back to the shore.
All forty of us had gathered there now, with hopeful yet anxious eyes, waiting for the moment when the sturdy lock would break. Within a few minutes, the wood splintered and this is when Father Joe halted and addressed us as if we were in church.
“Good people of this cherished land, of which there is much bounty, please let us not forget ourselves and hold too much promise in this bestowal from God. Let us honor the sailors who rest here tonight, their souls on their journey home. Let us remain, above all, who we are, humble creatures of the Lord of Light.”
With three tries Father Joe broke the seal. At first it was too dark for any of us to see. Old Johnson brought over a torch lit by the burning embers of the pyre.
As we all took in the familiar stench of flesh and salt coming from the pyre, Father Joe slowly lowered the flame down into the shadows of the trunk’s interior. There were mounds and mounds of round objects that glowed orange in the light. Were they made of gold, you may wonder? Were they strange jewels from afar? No, they were, as it was ascertained by Father Joe who lifted one up and shone the light on it, oranges. Simple and delicious oranges that were far from rotten. Now, in any other community, this would be a disappointment. But for us humble folk, it was both an enchantment and a deep problem. For we had never set our eyes on an orange. The treasure might as well have been gold. And under Father Joe’s guidance, we wondered, who would dare eat them? Wasn’t it folly to do so? Father Joe would have to decide this one for us.
“Good people! We have been blessed as well as cursed! Those of you who do not know what this is, it is an orange, a fruit that is sweet and fibrous. I think before it is decided what to do with them, we need to count them first and foremost, to see the level of our treasure. But do not fail to see the sorrow in this gift! I hesitate to let this fine fruit enter into our lives, for we may be tempted further by this joy and only want more of what we cannot have. Be warned!”
Father Joe asked Old Roman and Old Johnson to bring the trunk to the church, where the oranges could properly be counted. We all followed, while dinners still simmered on stoves, and watched Father Joe lay a thick black cloth on the table in the center of the altar. The oranges were taken out one by one, preciously, and counted.
There were forty oranges.
In our hearts, we were hoping that Father Joe would be kind and just, and give each one of us one orange and so be left with none for himself. This would have been the right thing to do. He was the one, you remember, whose house faced the calamitous sea, as a sign of his faith. Well, would his faith extend to sacrificing the taste of a sweet orange?
“People of this God-loving village, I am afraid we do have trouble. We are forty-one and there are only forty oranges. Because I do love this village, however, I am more than willing to forego my pleasure of eating an orange for the higher pleasure of seeing you enjoy them. But heed my earlier warning! Let not this fruit spoil your spirit. For as these oranges will soon mold and turn to dust, so will your spirit if you let pleasure ruin your spiritual appetite.”
We flocked to the oranges like scavengers, shamelessly smiling now, for what we had hoped had come true. Much bustling was made, scarves thrown over shoulders, elbows high up in the air, each grabbing an orange for himself or herself, whether old or young. Our mothers were kind to hand an orange to their child, because in that flurrying and scrambling, one would think that selfishness had gone amok.
While this frenzy was proceeding, Father Joe said, just under his breath, “My Father who art in Heaven” and every one of us stopped what we were doing. We were sensitive to the sound of the Father.
“I know there are some of you who are far better than this. May I only remind you of the rotting fruit of your souls. Good night.” And with that Father Joe walked solemnly down the aisle of the church, his shoes pounding the wooden floor, and the large, heavy door shut behind him like a stone.
We all stood there, quiet, until one of us (it was Old Johnson) walked over and put his orange back. And then another, and another, and another of us, until all of the oranges were piled ceremoniously upon the altar. Suddenly Old Rachel, who was always a little panicky, remembered the grub on the stove and shouted, “The grub!” and with that all of our women rushed back to the grub on their stoves, fearful of a fire burning up what little we had. The men and children trailed behind, our heads bowed.
The next day at service, the oranges remained on the altar while the Father spoke of humility and suffering and the salt of the sea and the sailors on their journey home, through our blessed guidance. In this dark church made of wood, those oranges burned as bright as the candles, and not one us didn’t sneak a look. Father Joe used the oranges well in his sermon, speaking of them as temptations of the pure spirit. And he did not neglect to tell us how proud he was of us, when he entered the church at dawn, to see the glorious pile of oranges there where they belonged.
For the next few days, the fervor with which old Father Joe spoke increased, for he was bounding with praise at our sacrifice, and was convinced that we had reached the pinnacle of our spirits, and pleased God beyond belief. It was a triumphant time for this village, he said, so much so that perhaps God would bless us with more storms so that we might come to realize the true beauty of our sacrificing souls.
This proved too much. Granted, some of us were indeed pleased with ourselves and felt that we would surely be raised to Heaven when the day came. But the promise of those oranges held a power over us. The more Father Joe spoke of our people’s strength and virtue and holiness, the brighter those oranges shone. Soon everything fell away in our people’s vision, all the greys and browns and blacks inside the church looked paltry when compared to the joyous color of the bountiful fruit.
The desire in our people rose to such a level that one night, it was spread about in whispers among the townspeople that Old Johnson and Smithson, the ones who had found the trunk, were to sneak into the church after midnight and take the oranges and hide them in Smithson’s cellar so that we could all finally enjoy them before they went rotten. In the morning when Father Joe would discover them gone, we would simply say that we had put the oranges back in the trunk and sent the bestowed gift out to sea, from whence it came.
But the night did not go according to plan. Johnson and Smithson had smoothly retrieved the trunk and placed all of the oranges in it but when they stepped outside of the church, they were astonished to see every last one of us—save for Father Joe, of course—there in front of the church to receive our own orange. It was a risk, we knew, but we were willing to lose our souls for the sweet taste that Father Joe had described. Johnson and Smithson were very upset and told all of us to go behind the church, out of view from Father Joe’s house, so that they could hand out the oranges in shadow.
Meanwhile, old Father Joe, the story goes, must have been thinking as he lay there in bed that if he took one orange, just one, then no one would know. As some of us tell it, he put on his warm wool robe and his slippers so no one would hear him walking (this was false though, the road was a pebbly one). He went out his back porch and headed for the church. By the light of the moon, he must have seen our shadows and heard the strange sucking sounds.
At this, he ran behind the church and saw all of us, so many of us, sitting on the grass, the light of the moon behind us, sucking away at the oranges, their tough skins tossed aside on the ground.
Oh, and were we ever enjoying those oranges! In between the sucking sounds were lots of quiet exclamations and the children, the children! They were dancing about, putting a slice in their mouths and smiling! Old Christina was the first one who saw the tall shadowy figure of Old Joe approach. “Hush!” she whispered. But it was too late. Father Joe stood before our huddled figures in the night of both light and dark and crossed his arms. He didn’t say a word for a few minutes. He was waiting for his power to be felt. “I would like to know . . .” he growled, barely able to contain himself. “I would like to know who is responsible for his soul here behind this church. How dare . . .” Father Joe started to say but his words were quickly interrupted by Johnson and Smithson, who had in one movement picked up his screaming, shrieking body, and pushed him into the trunk. Before it was closed we all—men, women, and children—picked up the scattered orange peels and threw them in with the Father. Smithson and Johnson sat on the trunk while Christina fetched some rope from her shed. The two men bundled up the trunk and carried it aloft all the way to the river that flowed ever to the sea, with all of us following behind and around and ahead. The journey was so long that we had to take turns carrying the burden, but it was no matter, for we smiled like we had never smiled before, the taste in our mouths was sweet, and a light moved us forward, the moon glinting in our deep blue eyes. We sang to our glory, and to our old Father Joe, who gave us this Heaven. Oh, sunken one, your journey is come.
Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, SmokeLong Quarterly, Tin House, Essay Daily, and Mulberry Fork Review. She is currently writing an essay about Jules Romains’s novel The Death of a Nobody and is at work on a short story collection. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. You can find her at cherylpappas.net and @fabulistpappas.
A teaspoon of salt. It is flaky and the flakes overrun the tiny spoon and the recipe calls for kosher but the only thing in my cupboard is the fancy kind from France bought at the organic grocery store. Already I’m doing it wrong.
On my counter, in various-sized bowls:
• 1/4 cup flour
• Carrots (2)—julienned
• Onion—small, diced
• Sweet potatoes (2)—large dice
• 1 cup chickpeas
• 1 tbs paprika
• a few strands of saffron, sitting delicately in a white ramekin. The strands are small and fine like microorganisms; they are potent despite their size. If I look through a microscope, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are actually alive.
A prepared chef is a good chef, my mother used to say, her words filling her mouth, thick and spicy-sweet, like the apricots in the tagines she made on Sundays. She’s been dead for three months and I hate cooking. But for my father’s seventieth, I’m giving it a try. He misses my mother. She cooked a lot. I don’t.
A few hours later, he is first to arrive. I seat him in the lounge chair that used to be his—leather, the color of the yolk on an over-boiled egg. When they upgraded to the beach condo, my mother said they had no use for it and replaced it with the stabby discomfort of wicker. I think he still mourns.
I don’t have turmeric. The food will not have the golden hue that says: this flavor will be so deep it will evoke Marrakesh or Fez, or even the urban every-city-ness of Casablanca, where my mother and father met. Instead, I’m sure it will say: welcome to Fridays, can I take your order? So, nostalgic in its own way, but not what I’m going for.
Len and Paula, and the single brother, Joseph, finally arrive. They come together, disgorging from a country-sized vehicle. It’s Len’s and he said they needed it for all their children, but they never had kids.
“Oh my God,” Paula, my sister-in-law, says. “We were just watching SVU in the car.”
“Oh my God,” I repeat, unsure of what God has to do with it.
“I could watch that show for hours,” Paula says. “In fact,” here she giggles like a confessing teenager. “We sat around the corner for the past twenty minutes cuz we just had to finish the episode.”
“How can we help?” Joseph asks, coming in behind Paula.
“Cut this onion,” I say. And it isn’t two chops later that he is crying. Makes two of us.
I had already set the table, and I have no need for any more chopped onion.
“What is this?” Len asks.
“Assigned seating,” I say. There’s grumbling, and I see Paula move her name card.
I put out the food. Cured meats in crenelated folds; cheese: brie, goat, manchego; crudité; eggplant and tomato salad; store-bought bourekas; the stew; and some homemade burnt khobz.
“What, no couscous?” Joseph says smiling.
“Well, petite soeur, trying to be Mom?” Len asks and instantly puts his napkin to his mouth as if trying to catch his words. Too late. There is silence. Loud sips of water. Folding and refolding of napkins. I’m thinking about a response and instead find myself thinking of a joke my mother used to tell, something involving an elephant and a jar of jelly beans—I can’t recall the details and now I’m craving licorice jelly beans.
A film is forming over the stew. The carrots on the veggie tray are sweating. Paula fidgets. My father, who has moved the non-condo worthy chair over to the table, despite its size, heaves a loaded breath through his nose. It causes the flame on the candles to flicker. This house could burn down, I think.
“Dig in,” I finally say. They do. Paula whispers that the stew is bland. Len says it’s just like mom made. I go back to the kitchen. Bring out the pepper grinder and salt. I only eat the prosciutto and bresaola, shoving piece after piece of thin saltiness onto my tongue. I scrape charred flakes from the khobz onto the white lace tablecloth—a wedding gift to my parents, now a worn hand-me-down of mine—another beach-condo casualty. I look over to see my father tracing the lace design with his fingers.
No one gives a toast and I forgot to make dessert. No one sings happy birthday, though everyone mutters it to my father as they leave.
Later, we load the egg-yolk chair into my pick-up. I drive my father home. Install the chair in front of the TV.
“Happy Birthday,” I say as I kiss him on the cheek—a brush of my lips on his leathery cheekbone, almost his eye.
“I hope there are leftovers,” my father says—a kindness. I hold up the containers filled with food. He nods and picks up the remote, reaches for the lever to recline the seat.
In the kitchen, I hear the TV go on—the news. The endless, hopeless news. As he settles in, I make him some tea and put the leftovers in his fridge, enough for the week, maybe more.
Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,www.jenniferflisscreative.com
Just let me finish my story. Listen. I was at this party at a house on Vanderveer Street off of Hillside Ave. in Queens. I was having a great time with my friends, then near the end of the party, I had to leave because I wanted to help my mom. She had called me, you know, she’s older and needed my help, I don’t know, can’t remember, something about her house, maybe the garbage disposal or something, so anyway, I said I’d be there after the party. Well, after a while, I thought I had hung around long enough, mingled enough, so I went to the front of the house to look for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them.
Hey, you know me, I’m Malayalee. My family comes from the state of Kerala, which is along the coast of southwest India, a place some call God’s Own Country, a place where life somehow slows down to a pace far less frantic than found elsewhere in India. Back there, back where people have time to actually live how they were created to live, and age seems to wait for their bodies to catch up in a slow progression of time, back where culture and habits passed down for generations are still practiced as wisdom, there is a custom that when you enter any home, you take your shoes off to show respect, and that expression of favorable regard for your host also extends to his family and to all the people that you have come to visit that live there like aunts or uncles or like their appachans or ammachies, you know, the grandparents. I’m guessing this is the case with not just all Indians, but usually with most Asian people, this custom where you take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, a custom still practiced even if the family is a continent away from their native land. I mean, it makes sense, you don’t want to dirty the host’s house up with all the places you stepped, you know, bringing all the things of the world that the host is trying to keep out with his house.
Again, it’s a sign of respect, so you take your shoes off, but if you really want to get a Malayalee or an Indian or any Asian mad, just keep your shoes on inside their home. For example, when your hosts open the front door and they greet you and you see all those shoes in the front entry from all the other guests, go ahead and walk right in without even acknowledging that you even notice those shoes, or better yet, look down at the shoes for a while, then walk right in, so that they know you know to take your shoes off but you refuse to, then walk all over the house, and when you’re in the middle of a great conversation, just hoist up your leg and step on that coffee table or that ottoman and lean your elbow on that hoisted knee with your drink in your hand chuckling after you tell your hearty joke, now that, that will definitely be a way not just to get your host furious at you, but to get the whole Malayalee population this side of the Atlantic mad too, because he’s going to call all of them.
I can see him with red in his eyes, and he can’t wait till you leave so he can curse you and your family, and not the kind of cursing with profanity, no, that’s vulgar and too easy. It’s the kind of cursing that takes creativity where the host wishes you grow horns on your head or that your children grow fat and lazy. He’ll probably tell his wife how disrespectful you were by walking around in your filthy shoes and tell her how you were probably raised by animals or white people. Now, I know you might think that seems a bit racist, but it’s not. It’s just a comparison of two extremes. Well, maybe. It could be the residual effect of British imperialistic occupation of India for a number of generations. I mean, the British wore their shoes everywhere. Everywhere. But I digress. Either way, the host would feel that this would be the last time he’d invite your kind. The I-don’t-take-my-shoes-off-because-I-wasn’t-raised-with-manners kind.
I didn’t want any of that, so I took my shoes off when I entered the house, and I remember setting them aside near the tiled front foyer closer to the bookshelf that sat down the hall. I didn’t just throw them anywhere, because I knew that with a custom like this, you may end up not knowing where you originally placed your shoes because they all look similar, especially men’s shoes, I couldn’t say about women shoes, I think they look different. Or you may lose sight of your shoes because someone else was looking through the pile at the front door and may have shuffled some shoes around, causing your shoes not to be at the same location. In the worst case scenario, someone may have taken your shoes by mistake, which would mean that their shoes are still here, and they’re walking around in your shoes, going home, wondering why their feet hurt or why the shoes are too loose or too tight, not smart enough to know that they picked up the wrong shoes. I know things like this can happen, and I placed my shoes slightly away from everyone else’s shoes, but not far enough to suggest that I’m special or I think I’m above everyone else, like, “Look at that guy’s shoes, who does he think he is placing his shoes so far away from everyone else and so close to our carpet?”
I know I left my shoes closer to the bookshelf, by that mahogany or what looked like mahogany bookshelf in the hall, and I know what my shoes look like, leather brown loafers, no laces, I’m too lazy for laces, sleek, clean, no prints or stitching along the sides, just plain deep brown, soft shoes, but I couldn’t find them, so I looked around, you know, in case a shuffling of shoes occurred by someone prior to me wanting to leave. Sometimes, a shuffling of shoes occurs when people come in, those people who arrived late, like it was fashionable to be late to a party, but this was an Indian party, you come really late to these kinds, and the host will think you were brought up in the poorer towns in Kerala, like your family doesn’t have education and were workers sweating in a paddy field, because Indian parties, weddings, funerals, or any functions already start late since we run on Indian time, like if something is scheduled to start at 5:00 p.m., every Indian knows that it’s going to start around 6:00 p.m., so everyone comes at 6:00 p.m. Indian Standard Time, and if you decide to come fashionably later than that, then you’re really late, and the host will wonder why you came at all.
I know what my shoes look like, and I know I left them near the bookshelf, but they weren’t there, and there wasn’t too much shuffling of shoes, I could see that each pair was together, so a major shuffling hadn’t occurred yet. It would seem I may have misplaced them, maybe I didn’t leave them near the bookshelf, the fake mahogany one, maybe I left them by the other one on the opposite side, the black one with the wood sculptures of cranes and elephants, but I don’t remember noticing those sculptures when I placed my shoes nearby, because I would have noticed them, I mean the whole bookshelf was covered with these wooden sculptures, and that would have stuck in my mind, that image and realization that this crap was in every Indian house.
I decided to look around because now I’m doubting my memory. I didn’t see them by both bookshelves, maybe I didn’t leave them by any bookshelf. I looked deeper into the large spread of shoes in the front. Maybe the host, well, Jose Uncle, actually, he’s not my real uncle, it’s another Indian custom we practice where you elevate an older acquaintance to a position in your family, you do this out of respect. The same thing with older women, they’re aunties. Maybe, it was Jose Uncle, spelled J-O-S-E, but not pronounced Jose like he was Mexican or in a way that would imply Spanish descent, but literally pronounced the way it was spelled: Jose Uncle. Well, he did sport a very thick mustache and was chubby, and his hair sat combed in a way that formed the shape of a sombrero. Probably, he saw that I moved my shoes away from everyone else, and he moved them back into the pile. It’s known to happen. Now I’m wondering if he did that and didn’t say anything, another custom of my people, not to say anything but to teach silent lessons to those younger than them.
Either way, if my shoes were moved to the pile, then they must be here. I went over the whole pile and still couldn’t find them. I decided to start from the top and move slowly down the pile to the front door, once in a while touching and picking up shoes that came somewhat close to the look of my shoes. During this whole time, I had a number of people come up to me asking what I was doing like it wasn’t obvious, like they couldn’t put two and two together to know that I was looking for my shoes, so I told them that I was looking for my shoes, and some, the more thoughtful ones, even asked what my shoes looked like, and I told them that they were dark brown, soft, no laces, but after their questions, they all seemed to continue back into the party, they went back to talking to others and not one of them looked back or helped. Not one. It was as if they just wanted to confirm that my actions of looking for my shoes actually matched to what was going through my head, the thoughts of where are my shoes, and that was enough for them. Like if I said I was looking for the dip, they would have pointed toward the kitchen and went on their merry way.
Now I became worried. Or at least it felt like worry. I scoured the front entry for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them anywhere, and no one, I mean no one, was offering any help. Everyone was busy with the party, and I felt nervous. Or was it something else creeping inside, and I just failed to figure out this feeling? Maybe I felt anxious because I was thinking that my mother was expecting me to be at her home soon, and I was not there and like most Indian mothers, well, all mothers, they worry, and I didn’t want her thinking that I was lying in a ditch somewhere, because that’s what they worry about, that we end up lying in ditches, but they don’t understand that if all the mothers worry about that, then we’re all probably in the same ditch, we’re all okay, and we can help each other out of the ditch.
Then my wife finally showed up and saw me looking around the front, thank God she was here, I had totally forgotten that she was here because I was so wrapped up in looking for my shoes. I should have known to stop after a while and ask her, because she would know exactly where they were even though I’m the one who placed them somewhere. She would know. Women are like that.
I was relieved she was here, and I told her that my mom had called and I was supposed to go there after the party and I just couldn’t find my shoes, and I looked at my wife the whole time I was talking, and at the end of my explanation, she rolled her eyes.
She rolled her eyes.
Like I was some kind of a moron or paddy field worker who couldn’t find his shoes. She asked if I looked through the pile in the front, and I could not believe she asked me that, and I told her, what the heck do you think I was doing and that I was here looking for my shoes, who knows, for the last half hour. This time she rolled her eyes and shook her head, and I couldn’t believe it. It was as if she was looking upward and shaking her head toward the sky, and all of Heaven was looking down shaking their heads, wondering how God could have slipped up and allowed such a perfect Malayalee woman to marry such a complete idiot. An idiot who couldn’t even keep track of his shoes. I asked her if she was going to help or not and she said not to worry and that we would find it. Her words comforted me, and I started looking around again, and I started picking up each pair of shoes. This time, I looked at them top and bottom, like I was going to recognize my shoes from the sole, and after a few minutes I looked over to see if my wife found them or not, and she wasn’t there in the front. She was by the kitchen talking to someone with some food, probably a samosa, in her hand, and I bet you she was looking at first but then became distracted with conversation like most women do and totally forgot or gave up on the idea of looking for my shoes.
I stood there shocked that not only did no one help, but my wife didn’t seem to want to help either. Now, I know that I made a thorough search for my shoes and couldn’t find them. I came to the conclusion that someone must have taken my shoes by accident and left theirs. I thought maybe I can take their shoes and get going, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing what shoes they left behind except that the shoes must have looked exactly like mine, but I didn’t remember seeing anything that looked exactly like my shoes. After all that, I thought my shoes were gone and there was no way I’m getting them back, so I went toward the front closet and looked around and found some old shoes which I knew must have belong to Jose Uncle. I grabbed them, which in retrospect I shouldn’t have done, but I was angry, and I walked through crowds of conversations and laughter, and finally found Jose Uncle, and asked if I could borrow his shoes, and he said no and that he needed them. He told me that he only had a few shoes and how the ones I was holding was his favorite pair. Now I noticed that he wasn’t too happy that I was walking around holding his shoes, and that is another thing you must never do at any host’s home, you don’t go rummaging through their things, it doesn’t matter if you’re Indian or whatever, it’s just bad manners, and I knew that somehow my mother was going to hear of this, and then she would rather have me be lying in a ditch somewhere than disrespect the host in such a way.
I don’t know what went through my mind to go through another person’s items, and I told Jose Uncle that I was sorry for looking through his front closet, and that I would even buy this old pair of shoes from him. He said okay, thirty-five dollars. Thirty-five dollars? For these shoes? I asked how about ten dollars and he said no, thirty-five dollars. I told him that I could buy two pairs of shoes for that much at Payless. He said that I should feel free to buy shoes from there and if I buy from him, I would PayMore. I don’t know if it’s a custom or anything, but it seems that almost all Indian uncles dispense corny jokes, almost as if in order to be privileged enough to be called an uncle, one must read the ancient manuscript of lame jokes passed from one uncle to another over generations like some secret society of Uncles of the Freemasons, the Indian Order.
Now, it was at that very moment that Thomas Uncle stepped in and placed his hand on my shoulder. His eyes were wide, and he was happy to see me, stating that he hadn’t seen me for years.
He told me how fat I had gotten.
It’s one of those things growing up Indian that when you’re greeted by an older person, they need to either comment on how skinny you’ve gotten or how fat you’ve gotten, yet that perfect middle form and weight, that fine line is almost near invisible and is impossible to attain, so attempting to fix yourself in either direction will result in again falling short the next time you meet. I smiled, talked to Thomas Uncle for a little, then turned to Jose Uncle and thanked him for his hospitality. Yet another customary thing or habit we did out of respect as a younger person, not to show our true feelings, because we were young and had not earned the right to speak one’s mind, a right that comes with age. I walked back to the front of the house and threw his shoes as hard as I could back into the closet. For a moment, I thought of taking someone else’s shoes, but I felt I couldn’t make someone else suffer and have them think that someone took their shoes by accident when I did it on purpose, no, I couldn’t make them go through what I was going through. This was it, I decided to walk to my mother’s house without my shoes. This is probably why some people keep their shoes on inside the house.
My mother raised me with good manners, and I know that when leaving a party or gathering that you should go and say bye to your friends and any new people you had met, but just imagine how strange it would be go to a party and just leave the house without telling anyone and eventually people at the party would wonder if I was still there or if I left without saying a word, yet if I decided to do such a thing it would be another infraction my mother would hear of, so I walked over saying goodbye to everyone and telling them how great of a time I had, and I said bye to Jose Uncle and auntie and then to my wife, and they all smiled and said bye and said that it was great that I was able to make it to the party. While I was walking to the front, I couldn’t help but feel that no one cared because no one asked me if I had found my shoes. They all knew I was looking for them, but no one brought the subject up. At the front foyer, I looked down on the pile of shoes, then back at the party, at all the people talking, all my friends and some family, uncles, aunties, everyone, and I opened the door and went outside.
It was cold, and the wind was blowing, but I didn’t have a jacket on, and I couldn’t remember if I had brought a jacket to the party, yet another thing like the shoes to worry about, but it didn’t matter now. I could feel how cold the cement sidewalk was under my feet, and it was unlike the carpet and its warmth by the fireplace in that house; that house filled with the aroma of chapatti and chicken curry, a smell that hung in the air and that had embraced me like a loving mother when I had entered; that house filled with friends and loved ones whose warmth was first felt through shoulders of soft wool sweaters and cotton shirts and smooth silk saris; that house filled with painstakingly created treats like chewy fried banana chips and the lentil fritters sitting in warm China bowls on the oblong plastic-covered dining room table. Out in the cold, the chills crept through my feet all the way up my spine, spreading all over my back, then penetrating as if I were being swallowed up into the darkness. Leaves whirled in the wind around me with moans and whistles. A small bird sat on a blade of grass, looking up at me. A few feet away, I looked back at that house and could see that the party was still going on, I could hear the muffled music playing, and the windows lit bright like white square eyes against the darkening slate sky. It looked warm and loving, yet I noticed that no one looked out the windows to watch me leave or to see if I was okay, which should have been the job of the host, Jose Uncle, to see me to the door and watch me leave the house, another custom, but not this time, no one watched from the house. No one cared to follow good customs, the ones revolving around love.
At that moment, while my eyes were locked on that house, a feeling crept back up inside along with the cold. It was something I couldn’t shake, a raw visceral emotion deep down. It was at that moment that all of it felt like a dream, all the memories that I had just experienced stripped into the darkness, and I stood there like a statue with tears, observing the poverty of it all. The small bird sat still, and I stayed there in my socks, shivering without a jacket, crying into the darkness, looking toward that house, yearning for its warmth, and I recognized the feeling, and I realized that it was how I had felt, how I had been feeling for the past year.
B. A. Varghese graduated from Polytechnic University (New York) with a degree in electrical engineering and is currently working in the information technology field. Inspired to explore his literary side, he has earned a BA in English from the University of South Florida. His works have appeared in Apalachee Review, Prick of the Spindle, and other literary journals. (www.bavarghese.com)
My mother told me nothing is safe. I grew up fenced in playpens, leashed like a dog, harnessed in strollers. I was buckled and belted, handheld and sandwiched, life-vested, sunblocked, helmeted, braced, and warned. My vaccines were up to date, my laces double-knotted. She told me never go out alone. My friends weren’t friends but “buddies.” Each time I built up the courage to timidly test the limits of her invisible fence, things went wrong. I thought, maybe she was right. Or, this was a bad idea.
All of her warnings coalesced in the dark recesses of the parking garage. Cement columns and cars threw shadows that sheltered rapists, murderers, gangsters, and thieves. When I got a high school job at the mall, she gifted me pepper spray in my Christmas stocking. Never park on the same level twice, she told me. Have your mace in one hand, your key clenched in the other. Call a security guard to walk you to your car if you can, but only if the security guard is not a rapist or a Republican. She scowled at the high heels I was required to wear, said, they’ll only slow you down. Have you heard about the men hiding beneath cars that cut your Achilles while you’re unlocking the door?
At twenty-four, I started going on hikes alone. I’d been thinking about it since I first fell in love with the outdoors as a teen, and it had taken me some eight-plus years to gather the pluck. My mother tried to talk me out of it, recited statistics about mountain lion maulings, trotted out facts involving landslides, forest fires, snake bites, and hypothermia. Did you know that bears are drawn to menstruating women? she asked, then bought me a knife the size of my forearm with a compartment for waterproof matches, flint, and a space blanket. She sent emails about foraging for edible plants, gifted books about a hiker having to cut his own arm off or eat his frozen brother. She put a jingle bell on my trekking pole to scare the animals away, a rape whistle around my neck to scare the men away. I’d gone years without incident until the day I rounded a corner of trail close to the tree line and nearly tripped over a deer carcass, entrails still steaming, tufts of fur and sinew leading into the brush. I thought, maybe she was right. This was a bad idea.
I started staying closer to home; things felt safer out of the wilderness. A door-to-door vacuum salesman asked to use my bathroom one afternoon, and while my mother’s voice screamed it isn’t safe!, it also chimed in don’t be rude! and during the cranium cage fight of her maxims, the salesman flushed and walked into the kitchen, where he studied my refrigerator pictures, then said, “So, you live here all by yourself?”
The security system I purchased was top-of-the-line, monitored doors and windows, allowed me to check in on things from my phone when I wasn’t at home. It made me feel much safer, until I awoke one night, horrified at the realization that the man who installed it knew my codes, how to disarm things—he most certainly was watching the goings on of my house from his phone!
There wasn’t much yard space for the Dobermans, but I left them with a tug-of-war toy in the back to encourage exercise and keep their killer instincts sharp. I would have liked to walk them to the park in the evenings, but everyone knows that parks are full of drug dealers and delinquent teens that are housing extremely dangerous hormone levels and a deadly lack of frontal lobe development. Instead, my dogs and I ran neat circles around the perimeter of my back yard. We wore down a path.
One slow Sunday morning, I sat near my front window with a mug of coffee (reasonably cooled to a safe drinking temperature), dogs at my feet, updating my firewall and watching a few neighborhood children ride their bikes around the sidewalks and into my driveway. My mother had recently sent an email, the subject line all caps: URGENT. It explained that gang members had been using “lost” or “injured” children asking for help in order to lure women into their clutches. Outside, one of the kids was sitting beside his overturned bike, fists tight balls in his eye sockets. The little bastards. I snapped shut my curtains and put in an order for electric fencing.
It was about this time I discovered one can have groceries delivered, circumventing the germ-ridden, vagrant-filled cavities of the supermarket. Did you know you can catch foot-and-mouth disease from shopping cart handles? I always answered the door with a taser in my waistband, the Dobermans snarling behind my legs. Last time the delivery man’s finger brushed mine as he handed over the package. The website directory of registered sex offenders is surprisingly easy to navigate.
I ordered a twelve-disc self-defense DVD collection starring a former Navy SEAL for only three small payments of $24.99, kept a baseball bat leaning against the wall behind the front door, got a concealed permit, and purchased a handgun. I planted thorned hedges behind the electric fence and dug stakes beneath the windows. I sharpened my canine teeth with a nail file and fashioned a chastity belt out of scrap metal. When the Dobermans were off duty they would come to me in the hunting blind spread out in the living room, place their questioning snouts in my lap. We’re ready, I’d assure them, to live without fear.
Danielle Holmes holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her previous works have appeared in daCunha, Pilgrimage, and P.U.L.P. In 2015 she was a finalist in the Dana Awards and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Colorado.
What is this fat hen squawking about? Michael tries to open his right eye so he can see the nurse better, but it is sealed shut. His left is barely a slit. Through the haze of milky sleep scumming over his pupil, he makes out a whitish blob topped with frizzy orange lint.
“Fat? You’re already in enough trouble, mister.” This nurse he has never met before heard him. She walks to the wall beside the door. He fights the urge to think in case another insult slips out. What if he has hurt her feelings before having a chance to prove the opposite, and she thinks him an ogre? His head feels like it weighs thirty pounds, fifty, as he rotates it to better set his good eye on her. He senses the unmade hospital bed beside him, the television plopped onto a cart in front, and the wheelchair in which his large body rests. This room, this ward, is unfamiliar, but he tries to stay calm. The nurse rips off a length of brown paper towel from a leaden dispenser, triggering an artery centered in his brain to pulsate and deliver short punches to the surface of his face and into the boggy fluid of his stomach. His gut quivers as he tenses the muscles above his left eye to raise his brow and lower his cheek, which is like trying to prop up a fallen roof with a toothpick.
The nurse rests the rectangle of paper atop the burnished metal counter before her and opens and thuds shut each door hung off a length of cabinets. Glass vials containing pills of pastel shades, tapes, and various sharp metal instruments clink into a wicker basket hung heavily at the crook of her fleshy elbow. Her body blocks most of his view. Reaching into the basket, she pinches the bulbous glass nipple on one of the vials and extracts he knows not what to settle it atop the paper on the counter, then lifts several more items to rest before pivoting sharply on her heel. “I’m closing the curtain,” she says.
Resting along the counter, he sees what she had been setting out—an indiscriminate length of adhesive bandage, cotton swabs, tongue depressors, blunt forceps, and a small, harmless pile of aspirin resting like an attempt at a pyramid. Michael wonders if these will be administered to him in sequential order and rolls his neck so the weight of his head falls to the cool steel of his chair back, permitting gravity to do some of the work of lifting his brow for him.
The window curtain’s rings scuttle along their track. Before the curtain closes, he notices that this ward has a different view than his usual where he checks in once a week to sit in a circle with others and talk, paint graphic scenes, or write words that someone might call a poem. Instead of a lawn of dry, flat crabgrass before acre upon acre of cornstalks, the hospital’s entrance expands before him, its thin paved lane snaking down to a simple wrought iron arch flanked by a fence made of crossed, white beams of timber in a gesture closer to an estate or a horse stable than a veteran’s hospital, and beyond that, the blue-green field of timothy and alfalfa grass that rolls like the sea—Michael knows that place, too. It is the military cemetery. The tombstones are hidden, but all you have to do is take the lane leading through the field and beyond the tree line to reach them. One of the World War II vets usually serves as sentry, and none of them mind how much of your day is spent there sitting, drinking, and talking to yourself as long as you take your garbage with you and consider leaving an honorable token.
“Do you have any questions about what you are doing here?” she says.
To shield him from the sunset angling over that distant tree line, the golden blush cast upon the trees’ limbs and the fence, was kind. “No. Thank you. I can see better,” he says, raising his hand to his closed right eye, which burns and throbs. His fingertips catch the fibrous gauze wrapped like chicken wire around his head, but his eye does not seem to be set where he remembers. He lowers his fingertips. There it is. The numb edges of his body are slowly rising back to him and into soreness.
“Michael, you drove through the hospital this morning. Do you remember that?”
He clacks his tongue against the roof of his mouth in nervous agitation. Flecks of charred grit catch in the grooves of that lump of flesh and nestle within his teeth—the remnants of last night’s hamburger dinner—and his mouth is burnt and raw, clung in the syrupy after-decay of alleyway bourbon, as if used as a receptacle for cigarette butts and bottles. He gags. Sweat marshes along his hairline and swamps around his crotch. Must have been one hell of a bender.
Now, she stands before him, checking a gooey-looking dressing the color of mustard crust on his right forearm. Her eyes are splayed apart, too wide for her Tinkerbell nose. She’s a bloated, orange catfish. “Here,” she says, reaching for a water cup at the end of the counter. The straw hanging limply from the side parts his lips.
His mouth feels better, his insides, too, as the cool water slides over his body’s inner heat. He must be coming back to himself and regaining his faculties. He had kept his harsh thoughts to himself this time. “I shouldn’t have done that. That was bad.” He nods his head in order to stir the lie toward belief, but this motion is a mistake. Bells and whistles strobe behind his eyelids. “Bad. Ow.” He touches his temple.
“I bet it hurts,” she says, rising up to maintain her distance.
“It’s okay. I probably deserve it.”
“Well, you said you wanted to kill President Carter along with yourself. You can’t say that, Michael. That’s the sort of talk that gets you in trouble, and that’s why you’re going to stay here. No leaving anymore. We will be starting what is called an observation.”
He focuses on his left wrist handcuffed to the wheelchair’s arm. He lifts it up and down, clinking the metal.
“You got that?” With one hand, she rummages around at his lower back, adjusting a flimsy, synthetic pillow wadded there.
“Got it clearly. Yes, ma’am,” he says, his voice croaking. Her spongy body is close, and it smells, unlike him, good. The scent of dusty puff powder along with a hint of garden roses she sprinkles along the ridges of her skin to collect the moisture gets the pain moving over and through him all tangled up. She pulls away. He wishes to reach for her, to embed himself deep in her spongy folds and for her to say that everything is okay, there there there, at the same time that he is repulsed.
Her pen scribbles along a clipboard extracted from the foot of his bed, but she seems more intent on stating what she thinks of him in a passive, coded way that professionalism will allow. “All of us here who like you so much told them you didn’t mean it. That you’re a good boy for the most part who has been through too much. You have a right to feel a little angry, Michael. You do. But you have to be cautious. Not only could you have hurt yourself, you could have hurt someone else.”
She already knows who he is. His reputation precedes him. A freak stands out. That repulsed feeling slips further inward as if there is anywhere left to descend. He could almost puke. “Did I?”
“Thankfully, no,” she says, slicing the sheets of paper away from the teeth of the metal clip. She tucks the free sheets back at the foot of his bed but settles the hard board and its metal into her basket, which he supposes could be used as a weapon now that he thinks about it—a stiff beating over the head or a metal pin jabbed into his aorta. “You went through the greenhouse, and you know nobody’s ever in there.”
Good. Maybe he had been thinking of others. Again, he clanks his handcuffed wrist on the metal, wanting her to feel sorry for him. “I was already pretty fucked up, huh?” His arm, the chunks of tissue gone as if munched by an enormous rat, its leathery skin, reminds him that this is true. He tightens his throat and tries to swallow down the paste forming in his mouth. “I was.”
“You gave yourself a good gash today and banged up a few other parts, but you didn’t hurt yourself any more than you were, right.” Tortured kneecaps and ankles crackling, she turns toward the television. As she bends toward the controls, the tight, over-bleached fabric of her dress reveals her full form to him. Her ass is huge, lumpy, and full of cratery cellulite dips like the moon. She is a big-boned, fat fuck nurse with hair the flat orange color procured most often from a box at a pharmacy. Fucking cooz. She doesn’t give a shit about him.
He whispers “cooz” through his teeth, bubbles of spit riding on the end sounding like any other desperate bodily function.
She thunks the VHF knob through the stations, through a hell of a lot of fuzz and laughter. “What about this?” she says, turning back to him and plastering on a closed-mouth smile. The CBS seeing-eye logo behind her head dissipates to reveal a long, red velvet curtain swishing off stage. “A bit of lightheartedness might do the trick, don’t you think?” She nods vacantly.
The green guy, Kermit, claps his boneless felt hands together for tonight’s guest, the comedian Rich Little. Michael looks down at a dried splatter of spaghetti sauce, blood, or excrement streaked on the square of linoleum beside his foot. He hates this show, but he knows it. When one has nothing else, one has TV. “Leave it there. Yes, please.”
A stubby, square heel clacks in front of him, heading toward the door.
“Am I going to jail?” He checks to see how she looks at him—sorrowfully, hostilely, with a hard-edged smile that says he is receiving his just deserts.
Her frizzy head shakes at him as she throws back the door. “You’ll be eating supper in here. Billy set aside some leftovers. Lasagna with meat sauce, a buttered roll, and a side salad. He really outdid himself.” Were those the exact words typed on the hospital’s menu calendar? Saturday: the stated, Sunday: meat loaf, tater tots, green beans, and milk, Monday: chili, rice, canned peaches, and iced tea, Tuesday: the ever-multiplying weeds of guilt and tenderloin of orphan washed down with your own tears. “Goodnight, Michael.”
He returns to the television. He imagines catching his hideous reflection even though he doesn’t see anything beyond the puppets’ song and dance. He wasn’t so sure what he meant about the President, but he had wanted to kill himself. He still does.
His door clicks shut. Her heels waddle somewhat quickly down the hall. He wonders if she has locked the door, if there’s a steel bolt bracing against the lock or an armed guard with ankles crossed, seated in a metal folding chair with his holster unbuttoned, gun at the ready, to keep the maniac at bay. They see what they want. He lifts his hands to fold them in his lap, but the handcuff grips his wrist. Pulling the right arm across his chest to sit with a question in his spine, he stretches his fingers to his left hand and turns the wish over in his thoughts.
Bright, vivid colors swirl across the screen. The Muppets are participating in a dance like a grand cotillion. The lady partners wear ruffled evening dresses and bend their elbows into submission. The supposed males, which are differentiated by bolder colored fur, heavier eyebrows, and bigger noses sport tuxes and tails and grasp the ladies’ hands, leading them across the floor. Then, the guy with the flaming head of hair and the crazy caterpillar eyebrows strolls in to the ball. What’s his name again? His voice is like gravel. “Orrkrray.” Yeah, he likes this guy with the jumbled gestures and drumsticks and look of a Cro-Magnon. Michael digs his socked foot against the sticky flooring and pulls wheeling himself closer. He wants to be close enough to smell them, all those monsters with arms up their asses and flapping heads without voice boxes. This new guy taps a swirling couple on the shoulder. “Excruse me,” he says. The lady partner turns. “What’s the qruickest way ourt orf—” And she knocks him under the chin. “Heaaare!” he screams as he is catapulted clean out of the shot. “Through the ceiling,” the Muppet lady says followed by raucous laughter, hers and others not on camera. His knees crunch into the television cart, but it doesn’t budge.
Michael knows bolts hold the cart fast to the television, and bolts fasten the cart to the wall, just as bars block him from breaking the window and throwing himself out. At this close distance, he catches an even more distorted version of himself in the reflection of the glass. “Blarrrrrgh,” he says, watching as he slides halfway out of his seat, curving his spine into the wheelchair’s back and hunching his shoulders. Elbows splayed out on the armrests, his gut hangs, and his shoulders and neck droop, his face hovering above his protruding stomach. Chin resting on the stiff platform of his sternum, eyes looking from beneath heavy brows, he breathes in rasps. The posture is of a man ninety years old, a twisted cripple, but the parts of the face not wrapped in tape and gauze have few wrinkles and shine grease as if still melting in fire. Look at that pathetic creature, a topnotch monster, he thinks. He stretches his chapped lips into a crooked, toothy grin that unsettles even him. Look now, you fucks. Look at the Animal.
Several minutes pass, as he forces his eye to stay open. Saliva pools in his bottom lip, and a steady stream of air from the vent above blowing onto his eyeball acts as a fabric to wick away the moisture. The moist orb becomes sand, a clump of cat litter. His hands shake, clenching the wheelchair rests. But he ignores the twitches disturbing his upper lid and the water rimming the lower. He will hold this posture and never be himself ever again. He will be what they want him to be. He will see only what they see. Yet he has to blink. He has to. He does. The water loosened runs down his cheeks, and the rage slinks away from his limbs and up through his stomach curling into a cool wad at the back of his throat. The strength of his mind more than his brute size was what got him in trouble when he heard the boom of mislaid bombs and spread his big, strong body to cover his buddies and the pretty little dancing girls sitting on their laps. He had imagined himself a hero. Delivered to his brain at Superman speed, he saw a solemn casket draped in red, white, and blue atop rain-kissed tarmac, and his parents, against a backdrop of mournful bugle notes, bowing their heads to receive a precious medal. Where would he be by now if he would have forgotten about his timber arms and stupid blockhead, and dove under the table. He shakes his finger at his reflection. “Slipping on your own sad sack of shit now, buddy,” he says. He wipes the spittle from his face and sits up, taps the television off. “No regrets.”
Sarah Broderick grew up in the Ohio River Valley and now resides in Northern California. Holding an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, she works as a writer, editor, and teacher, and served as Diaspora Editor for Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince, which was published in 2017 by Verso/Voice of Witness. Her fiction and nonfiction pieces have appeared in Moon City Review, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found online at perfectsentences.org, Twitter @sebroderick, and The Forge Literary Magazine.
Before Del opened his eyes, he knew the kid was gone. That panic feeling. That guilt. That screen door slamming in the wind. It had broken into Del’s dream, and as soon as he realized what it was, he gripped the arms of the threadbare recliner and launched himself upward. His feet hit the carpet, and he was down the hall with his head spinning and vision blurry. By the light in the house, it was hard to tell whether it was morning or evening.
He had been dreaming of work, standing in the office and stacking bricks in a supply cabinet. The bricks banging into place were the sound of the screen door. When the noise stopped lining up with the motion, he knew he was dreaming. The sudden-waking adrenaline left him trembling.
The kid was not in either bedroom, not in the bathroom, not under the desk covered in unopened mail. Not back in the living room, as had happened once. Del had sprung up just like this and dashed off only to find the kid sitting in the middle of the floor, looking at him with curiosity. Del continued to check all of the low indoor places, delaying the likely conclusion while girding himself for it.
At last Del let himself go to the kitchen, across the yellow linoleum that must have been cheerful once. And there the kid was, out through the window, in the tree. Sitting on a low limb with his t-shirted back to the house, looking out across the many fenced-off yards. He didn’t climb, didn’t wiggle around on the branch. He kept his hands fixed on either side. This kind of thing drew mistrustful eyes on the playground, but now it eased Del’s panic. The kid was creative and strange and prone to long, silent bouts of thought. He could be unnaturally still.
Del braced himself for a moment over the sink like a runner catching his breath. Late day sunlight shone on the scuffed basin. The dishtowel on the hook there needed to be washed. He took one deep breath and went out, careful not to let the door creak or the latch click.
The tree stood at the other end of the ranch duplex. By all written and verbal accounts, it was a shared yard. But the neighbor, Mr. Gorham, was easily triggered when others crossed lines that only he could see. He had berated Del for imperceptible infractions for the entire eight months they’d been living there. Aside from telling Del to get better control of his kid, Mr. Gorham’s chief activities seemed to be working late and fussing with his combover. He would be home soon.
The branches were almost bare but for flickering yellow leaves at the ends, clinging in twos and threes against a shifting dark mass above. The sun sat in a sliver of clear sky between the earth and the clouds, its rays bouncing off of the gray ceiling to give the world an ominous golden glow.
At the base of the tree, Del angled his head up to look at the boy’s back, watched him breathing for a moment.
“I know you’re there,” the kid said. His sneakers hung clean and still above Del’s head.
Congested from sleep, Del croaked, “Sam.”
The kid tensed, showing the slightest contraction in his shoulders, and without looking back or down he slowly reached at a higher branch and prepared to climb.
Del cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. Come down.”
Sam, now sufficiently out of reach, turned to face him. “You were asleep.”
Del opened his mouth but offered no defense.
“You got home and fell asleep.” And he started to maneuver away again, tucking one leg and then unfolding it on the other side of the branch with the clunky grace of a small body.
“I’m sorry. Just come down.” Del raised his hand, open to hold. “Look, I’m ready,” he said. “It wasn’t that long. Right? How long was it?”
“Long.” Sam floated up another tier.
“Well, I’m ready now. It’s okay. I guess I was more tired than I thought. After work I just—I’m just so tired. But I’ve rested, and I’m ready.” Del looked around as if searching for a way to entice the kid back to earth. “We can just hang out now. There’s nothing else we have to do tonight. Come on, we’ll get whatever you want for dinner.”
Sam glanced over his shoulder. “Anything?”
The kid climbed again, settling on a branch that looked just thick enough for a squirrel. The whole treetop at that level swayed with the wind. “You don’t want to go anywhere.”
Del couldn’t argue. “I’ll make something.” He had to shout through the wind and the distance now, and it exposed the frustration in his voice.
“You always make the same things.”
“Does that matter?” Del checked himself. “Together we can figure out something new. But I can’t do it without you, so come down, or I’ll starve. You might be able to get by for a couple days on what’s left of these leaves, but I won’t make it that long.”
Sam drifted to a thicker tier of the tree. He turned away again, then fell backward and swung upside down by his knees. “I am hungry.”
Del forced a smile as he squinted to try to read Sam’s expression. In one instant of focus, he caught the kid grimacing.
“What’s the matter?”
“You look like a skeleton,” Sam said.
Del instantly looked away and rubbed his eyes hard. They were ringed in blue-black, set deep in a pallid face, the product of strained sleep, little daylight, and less exercise. Sam hadn’t let on that he’d noticed until now.
“I’m sorry,” Del said. “I don’t know what to do about that. But come on, let’s get inside.”
The kid’s swinging momentum ceased and he hung still and silent, arms folded, an inscrutable little genie.
The sun sat equidistant between the earth and the clouds. You could flip the world upside down just then and they’d be in opposite positions. Del would be at the top of the tree, and he wouldn’t come down, either.
The wind would not stop.
“Mr. Gorham’s going to be home soon,” Del said casually.
“He’s too old to climb a tree,” said Sam.
“He’s going to yell,” said Del.
“Only at you,” said Sam.
Del shoved his frustration down, like punching dirty laundry into a full hamper. “It’s a pretty nice house in there, you know. Certainly more comfortable than a tree. Warm enough for your short sleeves, too. If you want, we can drag some branches in there, a few twigs and string. Weave a little nest. I mean, that’s no problem with me. Only I wouldn’t have bought that couch if I’d known you prefer this kind of thing.”
Sam righted himself and stood on a firm branch, stretching tall and grasping a higher one, then wavering between them. Extended that way from fingertips to toes, he said, “You’re only funny when you want me to come back in the house.”
“No, I’m serious. Let’s gather some twigs. You pick your favorites while you’re up there. I’ll start weaving inside.”
“Go ahead,” Sam said, “I can watch that from here.” He pointed at the window, then let his feet slip off of their branch and he dangled there by one hand, twisting gently.
Del stepped back in defeat. He hadn’t won an argument with Sam in months, since the day of that first five a.m. alarm. Not since driving in the dark and trying to explain forced overtime. Coming home too ragged to convey how the managers of the smallest chunk of a conglomerate leaned on the staff to log more unit numbers, nakedly admitting that longer spreadsheets might save their own jobs while offering no such hope for the data entry crew. By the end of the first week, Del had a hard time holding sentences together. In the mornings, they were too groggy to talk. In the evenings, Del returned too tired to find any fun in the day and helplessly concerned with squaring away the things that needed to be done before getting to bed. They lost the whole summer that way. Del would come to at his desk and hate himself for forgetting to think about Sam. And then even that didn’t bother Del anymore. It got easier to put Sam away. When that happened, he started these stubborn disappearances. His tantrums even got quieter. Rather than responding by seeking attention, he seemed content to drift himself away.
“You’re ignoring me now,” Sam said, climbing again.
“No! I was just thinking. Waiting for you.”
“You forgot why you were out here,” Sam said, stretching for a dangerously thin limb. He stayed close to the core of the tree, but up there, with his weight, it all swayed with each gust. “Just go in!” He had to shout now. “I’m not coming down.”
Del reached up for a branch. “No. Come on now. I’m cold. We’ll cook. Put on whatever music you want. We won’t even do the dishes tonight.”
“You don’t like my music now.”
“I do. I just don’t—I just don’t react like I used to. And I think you’re too old for it now.”
Sam looked away. Treetop still shaking. He extended one arm and one leg out into the air.
“Aren’t you cold?” Del said this not because the kid shivered, but because he looked so very insubstantial.
“I was cold inside, too.”
“We’ll turn the heat up!” Del said. “I’ll make it so warm you can put shorts on.”
“We can’t afford that.”
“Whatever. Whatever it takes to get you to come down.”
Sam was performing an impossible feat of balance.
“Call some friends!” Del yelled. “Maybe get Gus over for videogames.”
“No one will come over. They’re all busy.”
“You don’t know that.”
“They’re all always busy.”
“It’s almost the weekend,” Del responded, grasping. “We can make some plans. Friday night! Friday night have everybody over.”
“I know they’re too busy. And you won’t do any of what you say.”
Sam let go. For an instant he billowed outward, like a sheet on the line. Then he came to rest, three feet above the nearest branch. When he righted himself, standing on the air, the look he gave Del showed not concern but admonition.
With wide eyes, Del said, “Don’t go. Don’t go.” He grabbed the trunk with both hands, hung his head and rattled off, “I will turn it up. I will call your friends. I will make plans for the weekend. I will get milkshakes, tacos, and fries. We’ll go to the store for whatever you want, call whoever you want. We will stay up late making up funny stories and playing videogames, sleep in the living room, go get breakfast together in the morning. We will make fun of people on TV. We will learn to play a new song…” With his face to the ground, Del continued to mutter promises until his voice became a whisper.
When next Sam spoke his voice was closer. “Can we do that tomorrow, too?”
Del didn’t look up. “Yes.”
“No,” Sam said flatly. “You don’t have time.”
“I know,” Del admitted. “But I am working on a way to find more time, to get back to normal. I am working on a way to get there.”
Sam was close enough to not have to raise his voice. “How long will it take?”
“What will it be like when we get there?”
“I don’t know,” Del said. He turned and leaned his back against the tree, facing their little house. By the time they ate and got cleaned up—he couldn’t really let himself abandon the dishes—they wouldn’t have time for any of it, even to think of how to make time for it later. And tomorrow he would regret using extra heat, and he would certainly regret staying up late. He stared into the kitchen window.
The branch immediately above Del shook. A finger tapped him on top of the head. He raised his eyes to see Sam’s hand extended downward. Del reached up and took it. And there they stayed under the swirling clouds, past sunset.
Austen Farrell is a writer and editor working in higher ed., where he does some varying combination of feature, copy, and ghostwriting. He is an advisory committee member of Write Rhode Island and an associate editor for Bryant Literary Review. He has an MA in classics, with a focus on ritual sacrifice in Greek comedy. His fiction has also appeared in A-Minor Magazine. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two hilarious animals.
When Tommy asked his father where his mother went, his father said she “had a bird.” He didn’t know what that meant, but maybe it was because she squeaked like one, he thought. Or maybe she used to have one and she lost it.
His father paced around the kitchen preparing for dinner. He pulled out the pasta strainer and put it on the counter, but there was hardly enough room, only the corner. He peered over at Tommy. He grabbed the plates smeared with dried ketchup, pressed them together, and rolled them into the dishwasher. He glanced again at Tommy, who looked like he had a question. In fact, Tommy was trying to reach an itch in the middle of his back and was squinting his face in desperation.
“What?” said his father.
“What?” said Tommy.
“Didn’t you say you were hungry?”
“Yeah.” Just then his itch vanished and was replaced by a plate of baby carrots and a pile of white cream. “What’s that?”
“Please, just try it.”
His father returned to his labor and Tommy studied the cream. He touched it with his finger and put it to his tongue. Next he looked at the carrots. Some were wide and some were skinny and all were short. He grabbed a skinny one and tried it with the cream.
“Not bad, right?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti with your Daddy’s famous meat sauce.” The counter was nearly set to begin, with all miscellany cleared, leaving a metal bowl, the strainer, the chopping block, and a butcher’s knife. His father reached into the fridge for the meat. As he turned, he bumped the chopping block, which slid the knife to the edge. The knife fell. As he scrambled to catch it, it sliced through the side of his forefinger.
“What?” said Tommy.
Tommy opened the sliding glass doors and went onto the back porch. It looked to him like his father was doing some kind of dance, a stomping kind. Tommy took this moment to practice some of the tap dancing he’d learned, swinging his right foot so the heel clicked against the ground, but it didn’t make the sound. He tried again, but it didn’t make the sound again and it hurt a little bit. He looked down and saw his bare feet and remembered you needed the shoes. He hated the shoes because the woman that put them on was the teacher. If he knew how to tie the laces he wouldn’t need her help. And she was mean. But he liked swinging his foot and making the clicking sound.
His father was gone, so he went inside to look for him.
The doorbell rang. Tommy had never answered the door by himself. The doorbell rang again.
“Dad?” He looked through the blurry glass paneling that surrounded the old heavy door. He twisted the knob and, leaning his whole weight back, slowly opened it.
“Tommy!” It was Melissa, the babysitter.
“Where’s Dad?” Tommy asked.
Melissa looked surprised. “Where’s Dad?”
“I don’t know, ” Tommy said. Melissa picked him up and his face went into her yellow hair. Yellow hair smelled different from brown hair, he thought. He floated into the house.
“Daniel?” She took her phone out of her pocket and stared at it. “He should be here.” Tommy’s father quickly descended the stairs, holding in his opposite hand his finger wrapped with gauze.
“Sorry,” he said. “I cut myself.”
“Oh no,” she said.
“I’m not much in the kitchen,” he said.
“Let me help,” she said.
“Let me down,” Tommy said, and he wiggled onto the floor.
“Go outside and play with your chalk,” his father said. “We need to make dinner.”
Tommy slid open the glass doors and descended the back porch to his driveway, where the bright chalk sat in a clear box. He tried his name. The m’s were hard and took a very long time. It was all the bumps, he thought. Two, not one. One was different. The y went fast and easy, but he made it backwards.
He looked toward the kitchen. It seemed to him that they were whispering secrets. So he looked all the way around. Then he saw it. The bird feeder. On the other side of the driveway, opposite the house, was the yard. Across the half acre square of cut grass, three birds perched. Seeds and half-seeds dusted the grass below. Tommy shrunk and flattened onto his belly, never losing sight of them. He began to crawl. He remembered the game at school called Statues. When the person isn’t looking you can go, but when they look you have to stop and be still like a statue. That’s why it’s called that. If you don’t freeze, you’re out. The birds weren’t looking. He crawled slowly in the grass. Melissa and his father pressed against the glass. The birds looked and Tommy went still. The birds pecked and Tommy crawled, inching closer and closer. Her jeans soaked up his father’s blood. Now Tommy was under the bird and peered up. He grabbed the bird and someone sang out a high note. His full hand. A feather poked through the fingers. It looked at him. Then he let go. He hadn’t thought of what to do next.
Cary J. Snider is an emerging writer who lives in Boston, where he teaches English and coaches wrestling at the Roxbury Latin School. A Philadelphia native, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied philosophy, English, and education. “The Bird” is his first published work.
For eighteen years Eddie’s bullet was like some forgotten organ—the spleen, maybe. His cousin Denny had his spleen removed a few years ago, and the same thing: it was all right until it wasn’t, until one doctor felt a distended lump beneath cool fingers and then a flurry of signatures and warnings about lungs that may or may not collapse. Eddie is thankful that his bullet stayed under the skin, innocuous and clandestine, like a roll of undeveloped film. He never even told his ex-girlfriend; he just said he had a shoulder injury. She was still careful with it, though, as if it were something sacred, and he found himself doing the same. Over the years, the bullet’s importance swelled until it was no longer a foreign object lodged in him, but a tangible memory of its own.
And now that Eddie’s in jail it seems like the bullet is the only thing he has left, especially since Sam hasn’t called or written or visited since the trial. So, because he is afraid, he blinds his body to all the signs the doctors told him about. The pain, the tenderness—they tint his world with a dim red light, the source just out of sight. Besides, the pain isn’t so bad, not nearly as bad as the sore hope that Sam will visit. Today is Eddie’s birthday, and if she doesn’t visit today, he knows she never will. He wants nothing more than a lopsided chocolate cake and Sam’s voice to fill his hollowed-out ears.
He was only learning to speak in sentences when it happened, but he knew how to forgive. He knows now that Sam doesn’t, will carry what happened with her like her own bullet. Once, he asked her about it, and she said her memories were silent, like flipping through a set of photographs: the patterned linoleum squares under her knees, the dark metal of the gun, an impossible amount of blood, her hand against the car window. Now, eighteen years later, he made a mistake too, but she can’t accept that he isn’t the boy she built and painted gold.
Part II: Sam
This morning I take E’s kitten to the vet because her heart is beating too fast, like tiny cannonballs pelting my fingers. Besides, if she died, E would never forgive me and probably stop loaning me Bob Dylan CDs. The day I moved in, she brought over a green-bean casserole, which I thought was something people only did in movies, and introduced herself as E. Just the letter E. I couldn’t believe it at first because I can’t picture living my life with a letter as a name. It just isn’t right—a person deserves a full name. So, because of the casserole and the Bob Dylan and the nightly eleven p.m. check-ins (just to make sure I get home from work safe, because she saw a story on TV once about a waitress who was abducted by two dinner customers), I have to keep the kitten alive.
The vet doesn’t know me, but now he knows that I am slightly crazy, because the kitten is fine. It is my heart that is beating too fast. I haven’t done a project today, and it’s catching up with me. I go home and set the kitten up in the kitchen with a plate of milk and open the box that came this morning. I just couldn’t look at it because I knew if I were to put together the shelves inside it I would have to use Eddie’s screwdriver, and I can’t look at Eddie’s screwdriver right now. I’ve already organized the plates (large to small, plain to fancy) and my closet (red through violet, although I don’t have any violet clothes) and changed the locks on my door because E read an article online about how you should change your locks once a week. So the shelves are the only project I can do, and now, because of them, my mind pushes forward the fact that it’s Eddie’s birthday and leaves no room for anything else.
Inside my drawer of random crap I find a cheap birthday card with a hamster on it because Eddie doesn’t deserve balloons or a cake or a sister. Doesn’t he know I’m supposed to be the screw-up? I call Stella to ask if she’s going to visit Eddie, but she’s ten feet off the ground and staring at the ceiling fan. (“It’s like watching TV,” she says.) I put together the shelves, but they collapse when I’m done because I have left out the screws.
I turn on the TV, but it has a green tint, which makes everything look foreign. Green Oprah, green zebras eating a carcass, green, tight-faced newscasters. I look for something to eat and find only half a box of dusty soda crackers. Then I decide that the painfully white refrigerator looks too bare, so I print out a photo of three blond children and tape it up. For some reason, my brain has worked out while I wasn’t paying attention that E will be home by one, which leaves two hours until visiting hours are over. Maybe I should just drop off the card and leave. Besides, if I visited, I would be late for the dinner shift at the restaurant. And I still have things to do. I could call the mustached man older than my father who wrote his phone number on a napkin and slipped it in with the tip last night. Unfortunately, I have a rule that I don’t go out with customers who tip less than fifteen percent.
I hear E unlocking her triple-locked door and realize that I don’t know where the kitten is. I run through the apartment, squeaking the toy mouse E gave me. E knocks on the door.
“Hey, Sam, are you there?”
“Just a minute!” I yell to drown out the low hum of panic rolling across the apartment and through the crack under the door. Did I read somewhere that cats like to sleep in high places? Or was it low places? I can’t remember. I’m opening and shutting all the kitchen cupboards, slams mingling into a frantic music. Nested in the cupboard under the sink is the kitten, looking dead. I place one finger on her soft, white belly. No, her tiny heart is still beating. As I hand her over to E, I am relieved to no longer be responsible for a living thing. But once E and the kitten are gone, I’ll be alone with Eddie, and I don’t think I’m strong enough to forget for two more hours that it’s my little brother’s birthday.
Part III: Eddie
On Eddie’s bed is a letter. It’s been there for three hours, but instead of tearing it open like he thought he would, he buries himself in Steinbeck. It’s far easier to worry about Lennie and George than that letter, and whatever unknowable things lie inside it. When he finally picks it up, he sees that the address is written in languid script, which is wrong. Sam writes in short, urgent strokes. The letter is not from Sam, but Stella.
Stella has always been halfway out of Eddie’s life, one foot out the door. She’s always been the baby, only a few years younger but seemingly a lifetime apart from him and Sam. The last time he saw her she had dyed her hair from blond to raven black, which infuriated Sam. He has only something like a rough pencil sketch of her life: a rotating series of boyfriends that move in and out like actors on a stage, a rotating series of desk jobs she hates, and the drugs, which are why she can’t keep a job or a boyfriend.
She seems lost; her sentences zigzag across the page. She’s going out of her mind, she says. Her supplier overdosed, she went over to see why he wasn’t answering her calls, and he was lying there, eyes flung open like he had seen God. And she somehow got this idea from her friend that, because Eddie is in jail, he can “help her out.” She’s visiting next week.
He tears up the page until each piece contains nothing more than a single letter. He’ll write her back later, tell her not to come, but now he needs a minute to respond to the absence of a different letter, which feels like staring into the sun. He returns to Steinbeck.
At the bell, he walks to the laundry room through a thick haze, almost missing the door. A man about his age is already inside, throwing pairs of khaki pants into the machine. Eddie recognizes him from the courtyard, where he was doing jump shots at the basketball hoop this morning. He doesn’t give an indication that he wants to talk, and Eddie doesn’t want to pollute the crisp silence with words. They load pants into the rows of washing machines, then the dryers. Eddie finds himself staring at the machines, hypnotized by their collective rhythm until it becomes a vulgarity, like fifty ticking clocks in a room. Their swishes echo in his ears, synchronized with his breath. He sees himself from above, a red light radiating from his shoulder like in those aspirin commercials—
Then Eddie is on the floor, the man kneeling beside him.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” he says. If the officers find out, they’ll send him to the doctor, and he’ll lose his bullet.
“Are you dying?” the man asks.
Eddie sits up on the floor, his back against the nearest machine. He pulls up his sleeve to the top of his shoulder. “God, I hope not.”
One side of the man’s mouth quirks up for a second until he notices Eddie’s shoulder, swollen purple like a ripe plum.
“That’s a bullet wound,” he says, then lifts up his shirt to reveal a small crater a few inches from his belly button.
“Yeah. I don’t blame the guy, though. I did break in. I didn’t realize so many people keep guns in their houses.” He shrugs the wound away like a cut or a bruise, as though he didn’t once have a piece of metal embedded in his stomach.
“Mine was an accident,” Eddie says, then, “eighteen years ago.”
“Oh,” he says, “then what’re you in for?”
“I stole a car. Well, it was my girlfriend’s—ex-girlfriend’s—idea, and we were going to return it.” It sounds so moronic now, in front of this stranger. He feels an inexplicable urge to defend himself to this man, to show him he may not be the golden Eddie, but he’s not this Eddie either. “I’m really not the joyrider type.”
The man nods. “I wasn’t the larceny type, either.” He stares at Eddie’s shoulder again. “You know, you should really get that thing checked out. It looks pretty bad.”
“I know. I just—it’s a part of me now, you know?” Eddie wishes he could pour out the jumbled contents of his mind like Sam’s old coin collection.
The man’s eyes are blank. “Not really. I wanted that thing out of me as soon as possible. I kind of wish they had let me keep it, though.”
“The bullet?” Eddie’s throat constricts.
“Yeah. Doctor told me it was evidence.” Eddie doesn’t reply, just grinds his feet into the gray linoleum and pushes himself up, letting the machines once again overtake the silence.
Part IV: Sam
“One forty-three p.m. Sam departing for jail. Estimated time of return is?”
“I don’t know. Visiting hours are over at three,” I say. I’ve already started out the door twice, but never made it past the stairs.
“Estimated time of return unknown; no later than three thirty,” she says into her tape recorder. Lately E has been chronicling all of our comings and goings. (“Police can use these things,” she says.)
I’m outside the jail, which is red brick and not as scary-looking as I thought, but is sadder-looking. I should’ve visited earlier. I am a terrible sister, worse than that girl in the news who tried to sell her brother. The thought of Eddie alone in there hurts me so much that I almost turn right back around again. The basketball hoop outside doesn’t even have a net, which for some reason bothers me very much, and I know that the sky here is the same as the one above my building, but it doesn’t seem like it.
The visitor waiting area is full of different people with the same expression. When Eddie comes out I have to pinch myself because he’s not my Eddie, he’s another Eddie, blurry and out of focus, faded and drained of color like an old photograph. I grab his hand because my throat is too tight to speak.
“Sam.” Is he happy to see me? I can’t tell. I search his eyes.
“Happy birthday,” I say, and hand him the hamster card, which now seems ridiculously inappropriate.
“Stella wrote me,” he says, but what he means is: You didn’t. “She thinks I can get her drugs or something.” He smiles, which I take as an invitation to hug him, but when I do he cries out, clutching his shoulder. That is when I notice that it is purple and swollen and all wrong.
“Oh, my God, Eddie.” I search his eyes again, which look afraid, which look the same way they looked eighteen years ago.
I can see him gearing up to tell a lie, but he can’t lie to me, not his sister, not the one who caused this.
“It’s nothing.” I want to scream, and shake him, and make him whole again, make him my Eddie again without that hunk of metal inside him.
“You need to have it taken out. Now.”
He tells me he passed out this morning, but that the pain isn’t so bad, not now that I’m here, and that he can’t get his bullet taken out. His bullet, he says. I need the bullet out as much as he needs it in, but since it is in his body the bullet is more his than mine. And I can see that he won’t change his mind.
“You’re being selfish,” I say.
“No, you are. You just want me to get it taken out so you can forget it ever happened.”
Oh, God, my baby brother is going to kill himself. Who is this man in front of me, who steals cars and thinks he is invincible? He is going to die eighteen years after I almost killed him. I dump out the contents of my bag and line them up: hand sanitizer, three safety pins, two buttons, a bottle of aspirin, my little black notebook, cinnamon Altoids, a pen I stole from the Marriott. By the time I look up, Eddie is gone.
Part V: Eddie (Four months later)
Eddie finishes tying his shoes, the same dirt-caked ones from the day he arrived at the jail. He fingers the envelope in his pocket, feels for the hard metal inside. When the doctor first showed him the bullet, he could hardly believe how small it was, barely bigger than a quarter. He wants to show it to Sam, wants her to see how small it is, how small it was this whole time. In the distance he sees flashing car headlights. He steps out into an alien world, no longer tinted red, but bright white, so bright it blinds him.
Julia Gourary is a student and writer from New York City, currently a freshman at Yale University. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She was named a 2017 National YoungArts Finalist in Short Story and a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose. This is her first published piece.
The last time I saw my ex-wife, we were sitting next to each other on a faded picnic blanket in a field of daisies and late-spring grass so bright that I could feel my corneas crisping. She looked great, as always. She was wearing a pair of black cutoff shorts that she’d made herself, cuffed high enough to show the mermaid tattoo looping down onto her upper thigh. She was hot, the hot mom. A hot mess.
Attraction isn’t a tragedy; she wasn’t a tragic figure to me, at that moment. Her shirt showed both bra straps and more tattoos, decorating her upper arms and all I could think was, I used to fuck this woman and everyone who sees us together assumes I probably still am, even though I was over a decade older, and that made my body feel full of blood and I was proud of how hot she was, taking credit for it kind of. It must have been apparent that I had something going on that would attract this super hot woman to me. Sex was everywhere that spring, bees and little white flowers each with a golden nipple in its center.
“Hang on,” she said, glancing at her phone. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said. I looked over at another mother, one my age, with a long lumpy ass and black yoga pants. That was my dating pool now. At the rehab I owned, women like that were the majority of my clients. Lumpy, sad, and drunk. I watched as one of the woman’s two sons took off his shoe and threw it at her. “I’m gonna punch you in the face!” he screamed.
“What a little shit,” Boo said.
“I’m so glad our kid isn’t an asshole,” I said.
“Must be a recessive gene, huh?”
A hundred feet away, Jim ran across the soccer field, tailing the ball. He was nine. Lanky, like me. He had Boo’s sweetness, her weird compassion that made her too tender with strangers, and my body. My build and my eyes. Maybe my brain would grow between his ears someday: in time.
“Is that coffee?”
Brown slush in a mason jar. She swirled its contents, and her bangles clinked softly on her wrist. I knew they were real gold; I’d bought them for her. “I made it at home. I freeze the coffee and milk in an ice cube tray. It doesn’t get diluted.”
If things between us had been one degree different, I would have asked for a taste. But no. I looked at the jar and the soft, blurry quality of her face. I knew that look: there was a correlation.
“Why do you care if it gets watered down?”
She just rolled her eyes. She was my second wife, a rebound that turned serious. We stuck around each other, mostly because of Jim but also because our marriage covered some hard years. We were horrible to each other a lot of the time, but I think we both had the feeling that we grew up together. That special bond. I’m sure wardens feel the same way about their inmates.
Five years after the divorce, I liked how we were easy with one another. It helped that I was working on Wife Number Three, a less hot version of Boo who had a great personality and liked kids. Specifically, my kid. I hoped to get it right this time, and finally get into a marriage that didn’t have claw marks all over it.
“He’s not much of a player,” she said. “Look at him. He’s not even paying attention.”
The ball sailed past Jim. “He’s nine. This isn’t the World Cup.”
“You signed him up for this. If he has a meltdown in the car on the way home—you know how sensitive he is.”
No, you’re sensitive, I thought. “The point is to give him a chance to socialize. It’s fine.”
A few days before, Jim presented each of us with an elaborately drawn letter. Mine had big curly script and was decorated with crude likenesses of Jim’s favorite Pokemon characters. “I Wish you were Still Together,” the note said. I folded it twice and put it in my pocket. He must’ve been looking at the wedding pictures I kept packed away in the study.
“He’ll end up like the other little bastards,” Boo said. “Picking up their habits. Our baby. What if he ends up normal?”
“No danger of that.”
She drank deeply from the jar. A drop of coffee lingered on the corner of her mouth. When the small, pink bud of her tongue edged out to lick it away, I felt my skin tighten around me. She was still the focal point of my entire world. I fantasized about her, even when I was with other women. Of course we’d gotten married for the wrong reasons—but I couldn’t tell anyone that. I didn’t love Boo the way I loved my first wife, but unlike the first one I found myself unable to stop loving her. Boo wasn’t normal and in her presence I wasn’t, either. Our connection was the thing that, at last, made me feel like someone special.
“What’s in the coffee, Boo?”
“Can I try?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Mine.” She tilted her head back and I watched her throat contort as she swallowed the rest of it. Beyond her, Jim ran across the field, one of a dozen brightly colored jerseys. The whistle blast that hit my ears like a slap. Boo set the empty jar down and grinned at me. She’d looked at me like that the first time I met her, all those years ago, when neither of us had any idea what we were in for.
At the time, I was bartending at O’Brien’s while I finished up my last few credits in my psychology program. The money was good, and I was bored but paying my rent. I talked to a lot of drunks. But behold, one night there was Boo. I knew she was different, right away.
She wore flowers in her hair. She came in with a few friends, propped herself up in the corner booth. As my shift went on, her companions departed one by one and left her alone. I went over with a pint glass of club soda and a damp rag. The petals of her daisy crown caught the red lights of the bar’s neon.
“You all right over here?” I asked, swiping at the napkin dispenser. She eyed me, shrugged.
“Bars are boring places. Look around you.” I gestured with the rag. “You’re young, you’ll figure it out.”
“I’m not a baby,” she said. She took the club soda. “I’m not even supposed to be here, it was someone else’s idea.”
Behind me, someone kicked the jukebox. The recording of Lou Reed had a glitch in it and kept skipping around. In the back, a basket of frozen potatoes hit the hot oil. She was in the wrong place, for sure. The daisies. Her round face reminded me of Bridget Bardot. She had a sweet, lopsided smile. I took her hand when she offered me a crumpled dollar bill.
“I’ll come back,” she said.
“Don’t,” I replied, and closed her fingers over the money. When I touched her, I felt the ground shift under me, as though the moon had leaned down to look at us through the window. She was something else.
The next time I saw her was two years later, at the rehab. My receptionist buzzed her into my office. No flower crown this time, though she still had a freshness to her. She wore a dark blue skirt suit and tiny, leaf-shaped diamond studs. She set her sleek travel case down next to her chair.
“You look expensive,” I said.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“I’m not slinging drinks anymore,” I said. “I remember you.”
“I wish I could say the same. I thought I knew every rehab director in my region.”
She was repping a new antidepressant that was supposed to be a perfect fit for people just sobering up; it paired effortlessly with Anabuse and the other beta-blockers. I took the glossy pamphlets and business card she offered me and noticed how her perfectly manicured fingers lingered near mine on the desk. Pharma sales was borderline prostitution—the companies sent young, sexy girls around to take you to dinner while they repeated into your willing ears the benefits of the latest non-generic wonder drug, the pill that was going to change your entire practice. I was against it in principle, but who didn’t like pretty women? I was working eighty hours that week at the center and needed a break. So we had sushi. I sat next to her in the booth, pressed my thigh against hers. It didn’t have to go any further, and she seemed relieved when all I wanted to do after dinner was walk her to her car. After a couple of weeks, I gave her a call.
“I’m not interested in the drug,” I said.
“That’s a line,” she answered, but I could hear the smile in her voice.
“I just want you to know that, the next time we see each other, you won’t have to give me the corporate lap dance. I’m not interested in what you’re selling. In fact, I’d like to buy you dinner.”
“I bet you would,” she said. “You know? I don’t think I’ve ever been to a dive like O’Brien’s. A girl like me.”
“There’s only one girl like you,” I told her. “You’re unforgettable.”
“You’re really laying it on.”
“I’m not usually like this. Honestly.”
I didn’t mind it when she laughed at me. Back then, it meant that she thought I was funny.
It’s not like I woke up the next morning with her hair in my mouth, the cells that would become Jim incubating inside her. No. We saw each other frequently, though, and I liked her. I told her all the the time that she was too young for me, and she responded with Freud jokes. She was the only person in my life who teased me—I liked it. It was a relief to have someone around who didn’t take me as seriously as I took myself. I loved who I was when I was with her, loosened up, never worried about the future. And, back then, I trusted her, though she never made a move to introduce me to her family or her friends.
Although there was the question of her pain.
The pain was mysterious, a third party in our relationship. In the beginning, she gave the impression that it was intermittent. Sometimes it was there, and sometimes not. Once she moved in, I realized that the pain was chronic, ambient, and all-demanding, like a colicky child. She tried everything for it, every over the counter remedy, hot baths, red wine. Herbal supplements. Edibles. She started to go crazy, trying things that didn’t work. When I suggested that pain that wouldn’t submit to normal treatments might be psychosomatic, she accused me of being unsympathetic.
“You can’t tell me what I feel,” she said. She turned away from me in bed when the pain was strong. I had every reason to want to help her. “I should just go back to San Diego. I miss surfing. Being close to the water.”
But she was in pain, so she stayed.
The morphine, I admit, was my idea. I brought her sheets of little white pills from the clinic, marked as “samples/training” in our inventory, in case of an audit. Boo responded to the morphine. In fact, it was the only thing that worked, so she took it all the time. When she ran low on her supply, I brought her more. Then, she was sweet and funny again and when I drove her around, she put her arm around my shoulders and played with my hair, stroking down over my nape and touching my collar. Life with Boo made my worries fade. One night, as she was falling asleep in my arms, her body going soft and malleable, I asked her to marry me. I am sure she told me yes.
If I had any idea that the drugs would be a problem; if I’d known what she was mixing the morphine with; if I had known about the stashes of empty bottles and bubble packs she kept around my house; if she had been less careful about cleaning up after herself, then perhaps our relationship wouldn’t have gone as far. Or maybe that’s a lie. The idea of life without Boo was too horrible to consider. I wanted more of her, always. Sometimes, holding her, I had the crazy urge to bite her face, or eat her, because she was so delicious and trusting and I wanted every part of her so close to me that we were one flesh. When I told her this, she laughed and let me gently sink my teeth into her cheek.
“You want me inside you?” she said. “That’s a reversal.”
I didn’t realize the extent of her problem, until she got sloppy about covering her tracks. One day, I came home from work and found her in the tub, soaking. When I went in to kiss her, she lifted her chin obediently. I noticed that the water was cold.
“How long have you been in here?” I asked.
She smirked, shrugged. Her pupils were huge. I put my hand on her shoulder. Her skin was the chilled texture of a cadaver. I had the feeling that I could have sunk my fingers into her and torn out a handful and that she would simply have watched me do it, smiling her lovely half tilted, empty smile. And there was a suggestive trace of powder on the sink. And an empty champagne flute, submerged between her feet.
“Boo,” I said. “What else are you taking?”
“Go away,” she said, her voice lazy. “I’m not ready to talk to you.”
She only screamed once: when I lifted her out of the water, a high stabbing note. If I hadn’t seen the evidence, I might have believed I was hurting her. I laid her on the bed and wrapped her in a quilt. She started to shiver. She wouldn’t answer questions about substance, dose, intervals. She rolled over and tried to go to sleep.
“If you pass out, I can promise that you’ll wake up in the clinic,” I said.
“You’d like that, hmm?”
“I don’t want you to die, Boo. What did you take?”
“Mind your own business.”
“I could take you there now. Thirty day detox. Is that what you want?”
“I hate you,” she sighed, and closed her eyes.
“Boo, you’re my everything. You bitch.” I shook her by the shoulder. “You can’t do this to me.”
“I’m in pain. Leave me alone.”
I let her sleep while I went through her belongings. I searched the car I’d bought her. I went through her pockets and her purse. Everything I found was problematic. She was still taking the morphine I gave her. Mismatched baggies suggested that she was also scoring from at least two dealers, and her texts implied that she was fucking one or both of them. I also found slips for uncollected prescriptions for benzos and more painkillers, tucked into a book she always carried around. The pad of paper, with the doctor’s name at the top of each page and his signature pre-scribbled at the bottom, was in her lingerie drawer. Was I furious? I don’t remember. I collected all of it. This was the girl I loved. Sick.
“Why are you always at work? I get lonely when you’re gone,” she said when I woke her. She was drooling, tongue too big for her mouth. “Do you love me?”
“I’m trying to save your life,” I said.
“Why won’t you just let me be dead?”
I took a week off from work and detoxed her at home; my first vacation since I started the center. My assistant director handled operations, I stayed on top of my email, and as far as I know, nobody asked any questions. I flushed the baggies and wiped surfaces clean of powders. I bagged her empty bottles and left them in the alley behind the drug store. I put her cell phone in the dishwasher and ran it, twice. I read her emails. She was in deeper than I expected. Plenty to work with. After the first three days—she’d gotten most of the vomiting and shaking over with—Boo sat up and asked for food. I made her a grilled cheese and we discussed her options.
“I don’t feel safe with you,” I said. “You’ve lied. You can’t do this again.”
“You’ll die. Or you won’t, and I’ll find you and check you in.”
“My hero.” Her tone was dry as a new dollar bill.
“Please, Boo. Let me take care of you—keep you safe. Nobody will know about this except us.”
“You’re insane. I want to take a bath. I don’t want to eat this.”
I stared. She had vomited less than an hour before, but I wanted her. My first wife was in Africa now, sourcing coffee beans for her line of artisanal cold brews. Leni was my age, collecting sun damage and stories that made her interesting at cocktail parties. Boo, in comparison, was a child—complicated, but not yet complex. She was wild and whole and I desired her with a thirst that bewildered me.
“Here’s how it’s going to work. From now on, I’ll make the rules,” I told her. “You eat when I tell you to eat. You may have a bath when I say so. Is that clear?”
“I want to go home.”
“If you don’t want your family knowing about the two dealers you were fucking, or the dope you were trading your pussy for, you’ll stay where you are and do everything I tell you.”
“Who made you God?” But she couldn’t look me in the eye.
“Eat your sandwich. Today is the happiest day of your life, Boo.”
She ate. And she said, every day, that today was the happiest day of her life. When she was folding my shirts, or doing yoga in the living room, or when she swam in the pool out back while I watched her from the upstairs window, or when she burned the lasagna and the fire department came, or when she was up all night with the baby—happy. We had no secrets, so how could this have been a lie? She was so grateful I’d saved her, she said. She could never repay me. She worked so hard at being my wife that she didn’t have time to miss her friends, her privacy, or her phone. She didn’t miss the drugs. She never went out, unless I was with her. She let me decide what was best.
For a while, it worked. Our home was beautiful with her in it, and she communicated joy to me. Her ring was massive, a solid band of heavy diamonds. I decorated her, rewarded her, protected her. I needed her to be happy and so she was. She did everything she was told to do, and because I told her to, she put a smile on her face while she did it. Neither of us will ever forget how completely I owned her, or how easily she adapted to it. She was at her best during those years. I know it: I made her that way.
The ref’s whistle broke my concentration. They were going into the second half. Jim moved to the other side of the field and took a knee.
“How’s your new girl?” she asked. “Is she as good as I was? Enjoying her cage?”
“What’s her name again? Sloane? Logan?”
I reached for the jar; she slapped my hand away. In a professional setting, I would note her reaction as unearned. The potential for escalation hinted at a deeper instability. Really, I would have loved to choke her.
“Logan’s Run? I’m almost too old for that, they euthanize you at thirty-five.”
“You’re only thirty-two.”
“And you’re pushing fifty. Don’t sweat it, Hank: you’re only as old as your youngest wife.”
She said that when we were married, too.
“You’re not dying.”
“Suicide on the installment plan. That’s what I’ve got going on. I’ve been trying to kill myself since I met you.”
I blinked. That explained my nostalgia. She was in the same condition as when we met. I could feel that she needed me, and it pulled me in. No wonder we were getting along better.
“Our kid just face-planted in the goalie box,” I said.
Jim came up with a mouthful of turf. He immediately scanned the row of parents, pausing when he came to our blanket. I could tell that he was deciding whether or not to cry. Last year, it wouldn’t have been a choice. Now he was almost ten. He was hardening into the man he’d eventually be. His eyes went to Boo.
“My baby,” she muttered. “He doesn’t know I’m not sober, Hank, so give me a minute before you go sounding off any alarms.”
“You’re drinking enough that you need to quit?”
“One thing at a time.”
“How many things: other things?”
She turned to look at me. All I saw were her bare arms and long legs and the dots in her eyes, the dots of daisies that stuck to her like tears.
“Why, are you going to check me into Serenity Manor? Take a trip down memory lane?” Her tone was acid.
“If you’re going to drink, that’s your problem, but it means Jim can’t go home with you today. It isn’t safe. I can take him in my car.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Go home. Sleep it off.”
“You think you know everything.”
“I don’t, but at least I’m not wasted at a kid’s soccer game.”
“Which girlfriend are you on now?”
“Game’s over.” I got up, waiting for her to follow. After a minute, she did. Her body rose smoothly, legs unfolding like long hydraulic pistons. She was a surfer when I met her, more at home in the water. When we lived together, she’d swim laps until she was exhausted and come in with her hair smelling like chlorine. She missed the ocean, she told me. The pool wasn’t the same. I imagined her paddling out on her surfboard, her head as slick as a seal. Getting smaller, getting away from me.
“Go fuck yourself, Hank.” She said it casually, as though reminding me where I had left my keys.
“I’m not fighting about this. Jim can stay the night. You honestly shouldn’t be driving.”
“How about you suck my dick.”
“Deal with yourself, Boo,” I said. Her eyes met mine, hard and green and flint.
“You can’t take him.”
“We could all ride down to the police station so you can get breathalyzed? Would you like that? How long ago did you relapse?”
“You’re crazy,” she spat, and then Jim was coming towards us with the dirt smeared across his face and all smiles and a juice box in one hand.
“Bjorn’s dad brought grapes!” he said.
Boo took his hand. “That’s so great,” she said, voice suddenly warm for him. “I watched you play.”
“You can walk us to the car,” I told her. I folded the blanket and tucked it under my arm. I was ready to grab him, and getting them both out of sight would make it easier for me. We went down to the parking lot with Jim between us. The sun was higher now, and the trees and flowers were painfully bright. The next step would be to act quickly, before things really went sideways. Boo was walking loose and sassy. A string hung from the hem of her cut-offs and tickled against the back of her leg, making a shape like a black vein. Still sexy. Up to the last minute, she was a fox.
In my defense, I didn’t know that this would be the last time I saw her. If I’d had any inkling, I might have done or said something different. If we’d stayed together, none of this would have happened—that’s what I tell Jim, who is pure-hearted and enough like his mother to believe me. I don’t know how much of that day he retains, or what he’ll recall later, when it’s his turn to sit on the therapist’s couch. Will he repeat the bitter words his parents exchanged, or tell how Boo’s hands were so unexpectedly strong when she refused to release him to me? No doubt, he remembers the horrible sensation of being pulled on in two different directions, his arms stretching, the sense that we might have torn him in half if we had been any angrier at each other.
Maybe he’ll tell his therapist about how suddenly our voices were cut off when I slammed his car door and sealed him into the backseat, where his mother couldn’t get him. He must remember how she pounded on the window, screaming his name, and then ran after us as I drove away, followed us all the way through the parking lot, losing her purse and dropping the jar, which shattered.
I felt a wave rising in me as Boo got smaller and smaller until she exactly fit in the silver rectangle of the rearview mirror. I could see all of her at once, every graceful, vindictive inch, as she ran and it was suddenly quiet in my head, the silence that comes after a reel of film runs to its last few frames, the sound of spring ending and taking all the sunshine with it. I tapped the brake and turned to look at my son, whose wide eyes recorded every minute, who looked so much like Boo that I knew I’d never, ever escape her.
“You’ll be safe now, sweetie,” I said, and pressed—quite hard—on the gas pedal.
Claire Rudy Foster’s short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, was published to warm acclaim in 2016. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Vestal Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She’s a Sterling Room Writer, and teaches writing workshops to people in recovery in Portland, Oregon. Claire is also a frequent contributor to Cleaver. Her stories, essays, and book reviews can be found on her contributor’s page.
It started gradually. First, little Michael was wrinkling his nose in a way he never had. Then four-year-old Jessamyn across the street sprouted whiskers from her cheeks that were long, fine, and nearly transparent. Elisa developed a light coating of tiny hairs that were thicker than body hairs ought to be and that turned gray within a few days. Paul was the first one to grow a tail. His tail was long, pink, and hairless, and at first he delighted in it, and used it to tap other boys on the shoulder when they weren’t looking. Then he realized it was not coming off, and he wailed in his mother’s arms. His mother, for her part, tried not to cringe as his tail wrapped around her leg.
Soon all the children had fur and tails. Their ears had grown bigger, rounder, and thinner. Their noses had lengthened. The adults tried their best to continue on. They kissed their children between their beady black eyes and helped them to put on their backpacks and board the bus for school. Many of the children began walking on all fours, which greatly disturbed the adults. It wasn’t all bad—the children were not nearly as picky about eating, and in fact, seemed to think nothing of nibbling out of the garbage or off of the sidewalk.
When the children began to shrink, it became difficult to tell them apart from, well, rats, and from each other. Parents took to calling for their children, looking vaguely forward, and hoping the bulky little forms that hurtled toward them were their own.
Finally, the adults held a meeting. They tucked their children into bed, or at least, they said goodnight and shut the bedroom doors, for most of the children were nocturnal now, and declined to stay in bed at night. Then they all met in the town hall.
Was it something in the water? Was it genetically-modified vegetables? A sickness? A curse?
They didn’t know. Their children could no longer speak. They didn’t play normally. They were not affectionate and sometimes bit the hands, arms, and legs of those who fed them.
A vote was taken, and the town decided to ask for help. They were just putting together a Craigslist ad when a man wearing a tattered cape and a cap with a feather in it came strolling up to the podium like he owned the place.
“My name is Peter,” he said earnestly, “and I’ve heard of problems like this. There are towns in Europe that have precisely the same epidemic.”
“What do we do?” Michael’s father wanted to know.
“Why haven’t we heard about this?” Jessamyn’s mother asked.
“Understandably, these towns have kept this quiet. They don’t want judgment, and what could people do? Who would believe them, and even if they were believed, what course of action could be taken?”
The crowd murmured in uneasy agreement.
“My friends,” Peter said, “I will solve this problem for you. When I play my pipes”—here he held up gleaming silver pipes—“the rats will follow me. I will take them far from here and you need never be troubled by them again.”
No one had ever used the “R” word to talk about the children up until this point. Many had thought it, but no one had actually said it. There was an uncomfortable silence before Peter resumed:
“You can start your lives over. Clean up the feces. Buy new carpets. Bear new children and buy them toys that have not been gnawed. These will be your true children, and all of this will be like a nightmare you barely remember.”
“Can’t you fix them—the—the rats?” Elisa’s grandmother asked.
“There’s nothing to fix,” Peter said. “They are just that: rats. They are perfectly fine rats, but they are rats.”
“Where will you take them?” Paul’s stepfather wanted to know.
“I’ll take them to Eden Farms,” Peter said. “There they will be housed with other rats from the towns I mentioned earlier, to live out their days comfortably, able to gnaw whatever they please and scuttle around wherever they like.”
Then Peter took a seat. There was some heated debate. Some stormed out of the meeting, went home, herded their rat-children into their cars, and drove out of town. The majority voted to take Peter up on his offer.
“Excellent,” Peter said. “There’s only the payment to be discussed.”
Peter took his money from the treasurer, and the townspeople followed him outside, where he put the silver pipes to his lips.
“Right now?” someone asked in horror.
He began to play. The melody started off happily with little runs up and down, but then it shifted into a steady, persistent rhythm with a repetitive phrase. Rats climbed out of windows and through cracks in the walls. They formed a teeming mass of gray-brown fur and twitching pink tails. They crowded round the piper, who began to skip and dance as he played, and he skipped and danced his way beyond the hills at the edge of town, with the rats following. The adults watched until the last rat was out of sight, then they shuffled back to their homes in a daze.
The next day, the town was silent. And the next. And the next. Then people began to do as the piper had suggested. They fixed up their homes. They packed away all the pictures of the children they’d had, who now felt mostly like characters in storybooks they’d read long ago. They dared to bear new children.
Some townspeople refused to move on properly. There was a contingent who got together to find Eden Farms. There was no trace on the Internet. No one had been there. Nevertheless, they packed up their belongings, bought an RV, and went in search.
Then Debbie Johannsen came back to visit her mother. She’d been one of the ones who left with her rat-child, Dylan. Debbie came back, and in the backseat of the car was Dylan—furless, whiskerless, human.
People stared at Debbie and Dylan. She stopped the town dead in its tracks. It probably didn’t help that she looked a bit superior—that she stuck her nose in the air.
A crowd gathered outside Debbie’s mother’s house. Though this was not the age for them, the crowd had torches and pitchforks. They demanded that Debbie and Dylan come outside, then chased them out of town and over the hills, throwing rocks and shouting.
Afterward, people said that it hadn’t really been Debbie and Dylan. People said that it was a similar child, that there was a striking resemblance, but that was all.
The townspeople checked their new children each morning for fur, elongated teeth, and tails.
Winston Martin thought he could see the beginnings of whiskers on his infant daughter. Chantelle Martin said he was crazy, and clutched the baby protectively, but when she slept, Winston took the child out and laid her on the hill where they’d last seen the piper.
When the police found the cold, human body the next morning, they brought Winston to the station but were unsure how to proceed.
“She had whiskers,” Winston insisted.
Julie Nguyen trapped two rats down by the docks and brought them to her house. She trained them to sit in a purse and carried them everywhere around town.
“They’re my children,” she said. “It’s my Tori and Freddy. They came right to me, back from Eden Farms.”
Eventually, many of the parents trapped rats down by the docks and brought them back home. They fed them good food, trained them to do tricks, and called them by almost-forgotten names, but the rats never became children.
As the years passed, the pain became too large, and it took up more and more space in the town, so people started to move away.
Now there is no town in that spot. There are boarded-up shops and businesses, and the highway passes close by. There is a gas station right off the exit, and sometimes travelers filling up catch a glimpse of falling-down houses. More than likely, if they’re looking long enough, they also see the rapid progress of a gray furry form across the road.
Emily Livingstone is a high school English teacher and writer living in New England with her husband, daughter, and German Shepherd. Her work has been published in The Molotov Cocktail, Chiron Review, Gravel,and others. She also writes at emilylivingstone.wordpress.com.
Image credit: Illustration by Kate Greenaway, from The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning (1910). Source: Wikipedia
It started out as a joke in the warehouse. You could buy and build anything you needed for your home at IKEA, at least that was the corporate strategy behind all the useless knick-knacks that made it hard to pack the boxes. It was only a matter of time before they started doing people, they said. What good was your dream kitchen without a dream family to sit around on the INGOLF chairs you’d built yourself and praise your cooking? Surely IKEA could produce a model that was more durable, less flammable than your ordinary family, less likely to be annoyed when you let the jam spill over the side of the jar and then stuck it back in the fridge so that globs of fruit smeared all over the shelf.
It wasn’t long after the higher-ups recalled the LATTJO bat cape. Annika, Gudmund, and Martin had finished their meatball lunch in the warehouse, and they were bored. They were tired of the meatballs, too, but that was what was provided by the company, and none of them ever remembered to bring sandwiches from their home kitchens, furnished at IKEA.
None of the usual amusements seemed like any fun. Going through the boxes and pulling out one screw from every shipment or scratching the fronts of wardrobes or shuffling some of the small items between boxes—all of these normally delightful activities seemed dull today. There were only a few orders to pack up, but if they did that, then people would start to expect their furniture to arrive quickly, and all would be lost.
“Let’s make the IKEA man,” Annika said, wiping cream sauce from the corner of her mouth with the hard edge of one of the cardboard boxes. “The one we always talk about.”
They rifled through the shipments, taking a piece of medium-density fiberboard here, a nail there, until they thought they’d ruined enough orders to get started on their man. If he was to be a true IKEA man, he had to be easily assemblable. “No complicated joints,” said Martin. “Just the obvious parts to make it clear he’s a human.”
This began a complicated philosophical argument about what it meant to be a man, but when the dust had cleared, they had a round piece of fiberboard for a face, a tapered pine body to which they could attach all the other pieces, and a few ambivalent limbs of acacia and beech. They routed down the parts of him that had to meet the other parts of him, added pilot holes, and assembled the screws. He was perfect. They felt like God himself.
Gudmund said, “Let’s send him to the person who got the most boring order.”
“I have a MALM bedframe here,” Annika shouted.
“This one’s a BILLY bookcase and a NYFORS floor lamp,” Martin said, clawing at one of the boxes.
“Good God!” said Gudmund. “That’s the winner. Replace the NYFORS with our man.”
And once they’d packed off their man to his new home, they went back to work, singing and banging things off the pallet jacks happily.
It wasn’t easy to tell what the thing in the box was, but it didn’t take a genius to distinguish it from a floor lamp. Rasmus startled himself by continuing to build what was so clearly not his NYFORS lamp, but after the first moment of cardboard scraping away from cardboard when his stomach curled in on itself in anger (having already waited for his shipment two weeks longer than he’d been promised), he became very curious about this unusual assemblage that had contaminated his order.
When the IKEA man was whole, Rasmus stepped back and stared at him for longer than it’d taken to build. It was so clearly a man, even though Rasmus wasn’t sure if he’d made the legs the arms and the arms the legs. Or one and one. And he hadn’t had a man in his apartment in a long time. A few women, certainly, in and out after he cooked a breakfast of rye toast and boiled eggs, which he sliced in his bright yellow SLÄT egg slicer, or even sometimes women who came and went for months at a time, forcing him to add more variety to his breakfast menu, but men never made their way up the spiral metal staircase.
He worked from home, and he’d never been so good at male friendship. And that was all right. The women provided companionship without invasion, and his mother was always up for a visit when he wanted to get out of the city. He refused to believe that there was anything pitiable about a man without any real friends when he had permanent love in Fjällbacka and temporary love here when he wanted it, too.
But the IKEA man invaded before Rasmus could guard against it. He sat across from Rasmus at breakfast, and he sat by the gas fire at night, while Rasmus read on the ÅDUM rug. Rasmus set up the man with his legs outstretched, working his pine bottom into the macaroni tufts of the high, off-white pile. When the IKEA man lost his butt-hold on the carpet and his fiberboard head tilted into Rasmus’s lap, Rasmus felt a swift, sick swoop through his guts and put his arm around him. Rasmus didn’t consciously carry him from the LANDSKRONA armchair in the bedroom—where he’d set him up with a book of Bo Carpelan poetry the evening before—to the bathroom—where he let him examine himself in the GODMORGON mirror while Rasmus shaved. It just happened. Rasmus even forgot to buy a new NYFORS lamp or to get a refund.
Annika, Gudmund, and Martin spread the word that they had taken the work of God into their and IKEA’s hands. They couldn’t tell their supervisors, so it wasn’t something you could order officially, but people came round the back of the warehouse, shuffling their feet, looking embarrassed, and finally asking for the IKEA man.
Annika, Gudmund, and Martin refined their model. They added hands and feet and even a spiky fringe of medium-density fiberboard for hair. Then on the next one, they made more complicated joints, so the wooden limbs could bend at the knee and the elbow. Soon there was a sizable population of IKEA men across town, and it was common to hear phrases like, “Hold your fork properly, the way the IKEA man is doing,” or “I swear, one more night like that and I’m throwing that boy out and buying a second IKEA man.”
They had five models now, and Rasmus ordered all of them, but none were any match for his first. He disassembled the new ones quickly, but didn’t return them. His IKEA man might want company at some point when he, Rasmus, left the city. Except Rasmus never left the city anymore. His mother kept calling to invite him to Fjällbacka for Easter, and he knew he should go, but somehow he didn’t want to this spring.
“You can move Hjalmar,” Rasmus told a woman, who was looking like she wanted the IKEA man’s JOKKMOKK chair at the JOKKMOKK breakfast table, and he realized that he had named the IKEA man a long time ago, although he’d never given it breath. He congratulated himself on what a perfect name Hjalmar was.
He never saw that woman again. In fact, he became unsatisfied with female companionship altogether. He started sleeping with men, but again, it wasn’t what he wanted. And in the end, Rasmus decided that he was a truly lucky creature, because he wanted just exactly what he had: an IKEA man.
R.M. Fradkin studied fiction writing with Bret Johnston and Amy Hempel and has previously been published by Cherry Tree, Theaker’s Quarterly, and Bradburyesque Quarterly. Recently, she had residencies at Art Farm in Nebraska, Hypatia-in-the-Woods in Washington, and the International Writers and Translators’ Center of Rhodes, and was Writer-in-Residence at the Anchorage Museum, where she finished her first novel. She is also currently affiliate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review.
The high-pitched animal cries of your boy come hurtling to you drunk at the breakfast table from the backyard, and until you finally hear “Dad! Dad! Dad!” it’s only by that terminal “Dad!” when anything registers—those cries and yelps and weight of the sliding glass door as you wrench it open into the sharp February bluster that spreads against your arms and face, snow falling in the crushed heels of the shoes slid on like slippers before crossing your uneven deck. There he is, your boy, standing on a cheap, green, plastic, piece-of-shit chair holding his puppy’s leash untethered in a red glove. Profiled against the warped wooden fence that spreads like bad teeth at places along its base, he is small, and he’s half-leaning into the neighbor’s yard over the top, his jeans dark from playing in the yard. On toe-point, he’s reaching over, looking at a situation you only later—by how cold the world feels on your knees, how it falls out beneath you—will begin to figure; he’s pointing into that other yard, his arms marshmallow thick in his blue winter coat saying again without looking back, “Dad! Dad! Dad!” because he knows you are there, trusts for some reason that you will always be, and you make an effort to talk except what comes out isn’t helpful or coherent because, face it, you’re ripped and don’t know what to say anyway, but you know what to do, goddamnit, which is scale that six-foot wooden fence now, Dad, right now.
The deep snow pushes up the bottom of your grey sweatpants on the other side of the fence and you’re focused on its cold grip around your ankles—not a single thought flying to those shadows on the x-ray your doctor handed you or the dot dot dots of the Sign Here’s on the papers your almost-ex brought with her last night. No, you’re thinking: the neighbor’s yard is just as sad as mine. Ditto his two-bedroom apartment. Then you see the blood in the snow. Lord, there’s plenty. But, for a moment, you allow yourself some hope. All this couldn’t be from your boy’s dog. Because it was so small. And barely old enough to be spayed let alone grown enough to have so much to lose. It was like the night before, when your wife dropped your boy off with his sleeping bag, when she was surprised to see a puppy, how she hurled arm-crossed accusations like, That’s a sad bid for affection, and, Shouldn’t he be bigger by now? like it’s your damn fault your boy’s nine and hasn’t sprouted into an awkward birthright of long limbs and voice shifts. Like it has nothing to do with the woman he’ll end up living twelve out of every fourteen calendar days with until he’s eighteen, or you’re dead.
“There,” your boy calls, “the bush!” which you should’ve figured, because of the blood, and because your neighbor’s fifty-pound fawn-colored mutt’s barking at the large, ugly-brown bush beside a warped deck just as shitty as yours, the dog’s entire backside wagging, and, between deep woofs, puppy-high wines; those cries that threaten to swing the world beneath you open, whoosh, like a trapdoor. An old dog, you’ve seen the neighbor kids, six and seven years old, hold onto its leash when a squirrel cuts across the yard, that dog lunging, rearing up on its legs against its collar. It looks back at you, making that happy dog face, almost smiling, jowls smeared lipstick red, and it paws at the cherry-dark snow.
“Dad!” you hear as if from on high, as if to warn you, but you never listen, do you? Until it’s too late not to. So you start talking low and calm with your hands out in front, moving toward the dog. Then you’re cursing, a growl and an uncommon anger rising into your throat. And you’re pointing. At your chest. Then grabbing the dog’s collar in a fist. And kicking wildly again and again and it’s pulling and twisting and yelping and you’re holding it off the ground by the collar and it’s making this crushed-throat hoarse-noised gasp and you hear:
But that isn’t your boy calling, no. It’s those neighbor kids on their deck yelling back into their house through the open dog-nose-smeared sliding glass door, a door you might have had. And you let go. Exhale. Feel a little bad, but also alive, even when you hard-cough in the cold air and spit what comes up.
Their dog hurries, with a limp, toward the kids, tail tucked, favoring one leg, choking, wheezing. When your tall, rail-thin neighbor finally comes out he says, What’s all this? as if he means anything by that in his Old Navy sweater, his flannel pajama pants and fur-lined Crocs, and his two kids are trying to explain. One’s trying to talk but out of breath while the other one cries; heart-wrenching stuff, should be, but their dog’s fine—he’ll live—and your neighbor says, Just what the hell is going on?
Grow up, you want to say when you kick the red snow. You wave open-palmed at all of it like the last act in a magic show before the curtain drops. Ta-da, you gesture, get fucked. You pound on that shadow in your lung and you kick the snow again. This time, your crushed-heeled shoe goes reeling onto the deck, and he cocks his blonde blockhead at it.
“Dad,” your boy says, and you ignore the sounds from the deck, and you ignore your bare foot in the snow to get down on your knees by that bush to find what you came for, saying stuff you never even said to your boy—not when he fell off his bike and skinned his arm up to the elbow, when she said right in front of him, Full custody if I can—those It’s okay’s and It’ll be fine’s. You get ahold of the puppy’s collar and, slowly, try to rescue it, to do the thing right. But, as you pull, it leaves a pink paintbrush-streak in the snow. There are flecks of mulch and dirt stuck to the red, slick parts that steam in the cold. You can see tiny bones and, for some reason, for a million reasons, you look over your shoulder and—whoosh—there he is, your boy, gape-mouthed, watching.
Last night, before he got into his sleeping bag because you only have the one small bed now, he watched the puppy sleeping, watched it kick and twitch and breathe, and he asked if dogs dream which you didn’t know how to answer. You wanted to say Yes and wanted it to be true.
Down in the bloody snow you pull off your shirt, a shiver riding your ribs, and scoop up your boy’s puppy and wrap him inside.
From his deck, your neighbor says something about the police and you’re saying a choice thing or two about him and his mutt even though you get it—what he must say and do, as Dad. But, no, you won’t shut up and you won’t hold on just a minute, and already you’re at the fence handing the swaddled pup to your boy. You climb the fence, which seems taller this time, the dry wood scraping like teeth across your chest and gut.
Inside, he asks, holding that small dog in his arms, “Is everything going to be okay, Dad?” and, for the life of you, you don’t know what the hell to say because you know how this ends. Choking from the cold, sobering air, you lead him by the scruff of the neck through the apartment with a limp from your one numb foot to grab your keys, and the coat with the cigarettes, and you are all three in the car going ten over the speed limit, fifteen. And your boy, he’s older, getting older by the mile, and before long he’s too old to hug and tall enough for his mother and his voice is breaking while you—you’re a shadow sliding down a road snaked with snow still trying to say It’ll be okay like you mean it.
Brandon Timm is a recent fiction graduate of Southern Illinois University’s MFA program. He currently resides in his home state of Ohio, where he holds a position at a logistics company. His work has been published in ZONE 3 and online at The Carolina Quarterly. He owes much to those family members, friends, and teachers who have supported him, and this is a small, printed thank you to all those who have rooted for him.
Cici squints at Agatha’s toes, bunched together like an Indy 500 pile-up of smashed, shiny speed-racers. “And that’s why you wear socks in bed,” she says, leaning against the short kitchen counter as she points a slice of toast dripping with butter and honey at her wife’s feet. “It’s good you’re getting them looked at.”
Being urged to take care of herself is one of the benefits of marriage, Agatha reflects. She likes someone watching out for her, though she wishes that someone would use a plate when eating toast, but that’s also a benefit of marriage, the gift of being challenged by petty habits. “I’m glad we’re legal.” She dives in for a buttery smooch.
Both women bear the names of Christian martyrs, although, in fact, Agatha was named after her grandmother’s best friend, who stayed in Sweden when her grandmother moved to New York, while Cecilia’s is a family name going back to some long-ago relatives, “cotton pickers on Satan’s plantations.” Both women are feminists. “Ya think?” is what Cici would say should anyone inquire.
So today is podiatrist day. Agatha leaves work early and happily, work being a pharmaceutical ad agency where she edits and fact-checks. She is not the medical profession’s greatest booster, but she knows podiatrists are mild-mannered specialists and not Guantanamo interrogators the CIA disavows. But she’s jittery. Her feet have been aching for months, the very feet she walks upon. That’s the thing—what if she’s grounded or benched?
Dr. Logan agrees that something’s amiss. Ag strains to hear what she doesn’t want to hear as he offers prognosis and options, the first option being to return every few weeks for the rest of her life so he can hygienically razor skin from her toes. This is not such a great choice, considering the longevity that is part of her family legacy. Does she want to be in the proximity of a razor-wielding podiatrist every few weeks for the next half of her presumed eighty years of life?
His second and recommended option is “the procedure,” in which he’ll carefully break a few of her bones and set them in a sort of cast so the bones reassert their natural shape. It’s just a toe or two, Ag argues with herself, noting how untroubled the doctor is by his suggestions. So what if it’s broken and she has to recuperate for weeks? Weeks! In bed and on the couch!
Leaving the office with a slick brochure in-hand and a few sympathetic words from the receptionist, Ag is soon on Bleecker in the Village, leaning against a large restaurant window and wiggling a pebble from her shoe.
“Lady!” A goon of a chef flaps his mildly white apron at her. “You wanna wash our windows?”
There is a third option. There’s always another option, she reckons as she hobbles on, not quite alert to direction. This third option involves calling Cici and crying. It is a good option, which she realizes into being as she limps west, away from the heavier foot traffic of Seventh Avenue toward Hudson Street. It may be January, but the day is sunny, and that church, Saint Someone’s, has a little garden in which she can sit. Saint who? She can’t recall the saint’s name.
Cici Ebenezer answers on the first ring. Ebenezer means “stone of truth,” as she has boasted more than once with a pride Ag finds reassuring. Her wife is solid and truthful. Sometimes her honesty is a byproduct of stubbornness, and she refuses to tell the graceful lie, but among your friends, not to mention wife (they’re coming on their five-year anniversary), honesty is much-desired. Ag sees herself as more of a wimp. She’s not wrong.
No sooner does Cici say, “Hello, honey,” then Ag breaks down, sobbing not how but that her life is over.
“No, it’s not, baby, it’s not over.”
“What about Mrs. Heimlich?” Who lives on the first floor of their building. “She’s never been the same!”
“She was run over a cab.”
“Her foot was!”
“It was a maneuver, ta dah dah.” Heimlich maneuver jokes never get old.
Five teenagers cross Hudson Street, the lowering sun outlining them. They are Black, though none as Black as Cici. Their loss. “Ma’am.”
Agatha nods. They walk on, joking with each other. “You got too many left feet,” one of the kids goads the other. Everywhere, feet.
Something nags at Ag. “What’s a chiropodist?”
“Say what?” Cici’s closed her office door. Agatha hears a keyboard click and knows Google is being Googled. Google-izing-in-action. The Google-ization of the globe. “Aha.” She imagines Cici’s triumphant expression when she scores big in Scrabble. “A chiropodist is the same as a podiatrist, only British.”
“So Ebenezer Scrooge would have seen a chiropodist?”
“If he’d been willing to cough up the co-pay.”
The kindly receptionist slipped Ag two Advil, which, on top of the two she found in her purse have finally kicked in. Still on the phone, she decides not to go to the church garden—it’s Saint Luke, she forgot about Luke, a fairly prominent participant in the religion’s beginnings, and heads south a few more blocks to Leroy Street, where she turns right, with the subway entrance at Houston and Seventh in mind. It’s a happy block with tall trees and a branch library next to a playground. Here and there tree roots have busted through the sidewalk.
“I’m on Leroy,” Ag says. A gull heading back to the river, or the High Line, or New Jersey—what does she know of gulls’ travel itineraries?—calls loudly. Keow, keow.
“You’re on Leroy? Hope you’re wearing protection.”
“Ha ha ha.” Ag removes her knitted cap for a good scratch. Her hair springs free like children when the school bell rings.
“Ag, your feet ache, yeah, but you’re not getting them bound. Kathy Bates isn’t about to hobble you.”
“The doc is trying to find a fix for you. You’ve been hurting.”
Agatha wants to whine but checks herself. Settles on the middle concrete step leading to a red brick apartment house. Her butt feels the cold. Her appointment had been scheduled for 2:30 p.m., and the doctor, the chiropodist diluted to an American podiatrist, was running late, so she didn’t see him until closer to 3:30 p.m. Now it’s nearing 5 p.m. and distinctly chilly—the nip of winter air is insufficiently warmed by the exploding climate. And she’s hungry.
“We’ll stay home. I’m up for take-out.” Ag is envisioning Cici envisioning the feel of Ag’s soft round body and Cici’s lean frame against each other, in motion, both knowable and mysterious in bed, with a mostly eaten carton of rice next to a pillow. “And getting cozy.” She is not one for sweet talk on the phone, but Ag surmises her meaning. “Thai food sound good? Spring rolls, those curry puffs, maybe duck. Hey, that how-to I told you about is finally out of my hands. Celebration time is here.”
They met at the School of Visual Arts, where Cici teaches one class a year. She designs book covers for one of the big publishing companies and has won a few industry awards. Agatha was looking at a friend’s daughter’s show in the gallery.
It is dusk. As Ag winds her scarf around her neck, she notices, sauntering along Seventh to Hudson, the same group of high school kids she saw on Bleecker. She observes the teens’ various stances and general air. They are having a good time in the slightly loud way dumbass teenagers have a good time. She remembers giggling through Southern California malls with other girls when she was in junior high. They would dab perfume on each other until the sales lady hinted they could leave, then race up the down escalator. One time she stumbled in her rubber zories and was administered first aid by a guard. Her feet have always been out for her.
As the kids pass by, the shortest trips on a tree root, which had powered through the sidewalk years back. “Fuck that shit.”
He is laughed at by his friends, one of whom is considerably taller than he is. The two of them are directly in front of Ag. “Apologize to the lady.” The taller teenager nods to her.
The kid who tripped glares, then shrugs. “Sorry.” He struggles against his sweet smile.
She waves her hand, no problem.
“My brother is learning manners.” The oldest kid is being an oldest. Maybe a little too much so, Ag thinks. She is a veteran of older siblings, the having of.
But whatever. “Continuing education, I’m a believer.”
Another of the kids invites her to join them. “We could party.”
“Yeah, right.” She is secretly pleased.
They walk on, and she’s back on the sidewalk, slowly squeezing her toes into her splendidly pointy shoes and rubbing her cold butt. Hot soup would be good. She texts Cici to add Thai coconut soup to the order.
Noises from down the street reach her. A bar fight? she wonders, not convinced. Henrietta Hudson, the dyke bar nearby, is pretty easygoing and certainly so in the afternoon. She hears a specific sound like a large snap. The cloud of gentle neurosis that’s shrouded her is replaced by straight-out fear. Suddenly there are sirens. She hurries the best she can back down Leroy to Hudson. In the streetlights on the corner, she sees a body, inert on the sidewalk.
The oldest of the teenagers, the tall one, is shouting, “Why’d you do that?” Cops are milling and showing their muscle. Some women from Henrietta Hudson are standing as close as they are allowed and have apparently caught whatever happened on their cell phones.
“What’s all this about?” Ag doesn’t need an answer.
It is the shortest teenager, the one who apologized to her, who is down.
He’s dead on arrival, the kid, Victor Soto. Ag and Cici learn this when they watch the reports of the shooting on the news. The phone videos taken by the dykes from Henrietta’s have been leaked. There is nothing new to this particular story. A white policeman; a rookie; a quote/unquote misunderstanding; a split-second decision—well, not really a decision, because a decision requires consideration. More a nasty-as-hell impulse on the cop’s part. And that’s that for the teenager, the goofy kid.
“The Daily News website says Bratton is backing the cop, the lying fuckhead.” They ate all the dishes they ordered, but without their usual gusto. Cici phones her brother. Then her cousin. After each call, she reports their reactions to Ag. Each one asks what Agatha saw and if she will be a witness, and Cici tells them that a beat cop wrote down Ag’s story and her details. “Ag got their details, too. The beat cop’s badge number.”
It’s been a few hours since Agatha abandoned the high heels, and her feet have stopped throbbing. Her feet—not throbbing. Just like that, a + b – c = y, with y as absence of pain. The equation says, “Here I am, lady. You can just stop wearing those pointy shoes.” That’s it, and of course the podiatrist didn’t mention that possibility—no money in it for him. If she doesn’t wear pointy shoes, her toes won’t look like they are wishing for good luck like fingers crossing. Her two feet and ten toes will be out of harm’s trap. Open-toed shoes and square-toed boots are her salvation. Her aha moment. Like supper, there’s no gusto.
The next night she and Cici join a rally against police malfeasance, also known as bullshit, also known as murder, at Union Square. A week later, she testifies to the teenagers’ politeness immediately prior to the shooting. “And sweetness,” she tells the grand jury. “He was sweet.” Sweet Victor Soto.
A few weekends later, she carts all her pointy shoes to the Goodwill and follows through on her plan by buying sensible footwear. Her toes untangle. Dr. Logan fades into old memory. Victor Soto does not return to life. The body sometimes heals, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. None of the murdered ever return to life, including the martyrs, like Saint Victor, who kept on being who he was, in his case a believer, a silly believer. Emperor Maximianhad him killed.
Sarah Sarai’s short stories have been published in Gravel, Connotations, Fairy Tale Review, South Dakota Review, New Madrid, The Antigonish Review, Wilderness House, Devil’s Lake, Tampa Review and many other journals. Her MFA in fiction is from Sarah Lawrence College. She is also a poet, with many poems out and about. She was born in New York State, grew up in California, and now lives in New York City.
LITHUANIAN SCHOOL COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS by Louis Wenzlow
“The destruction of the very young starts in grade school…”
―Thomas Bernhard, Correction
“The destruction of the very young starts in Lithuanian school…”
―Liudutis Venclovas, Untitled Poem
There was something about my smile the other kids didn’t like. Maybe it was the fear in it, the false bravado. Who knows what sets the wolf pack off?
These days, I sit in my castle without really caring what anyone else thinks. I drink lattes in the morning, expensive scotches late into the evening. Sometimes there’s a needle to thread. I have a family and friends who like to drink with me.
Almost anything is preferable to those Saturdays in the seventies at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Marquette Park, Chicago. Waking to the smell of Cream of Wheat, already knowing it’s the worst day of my life, just like last Saturday and all the future Saturdays to come: the dreary hour-long car ride past the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture; the ridicule of second-wave pedagogues fiercely determined to preserve our identity through the Soviet occupation; the prayers, the petitions, those letters to congressmen exploiting the self-immolation of Romas Kalanta; the so-called friends who hang you upside down from the third story stairwell until you shit your pants if you smile the wrong way.
They say things get better when you’re older, but that’s only until something worse happens. This is the lesson I would teach the next generation of Lithuanian children if the administrators ever made the mistake of inviting me to perform the sixthgrade commencement address.
I would stand at the lectern in my Burberry trench coat and, gazing down from the stage of the gothic assembly hall, I would offer the graduates and their doting parents the unvarnished truth. For those of you who are happy now, I’d tell them, you will always be happy. But for those who are unhappy, for those who were bullied and mocked and domineered, for those who are depressed, you will always be depressed. And all of your future accomplishments, the occasional victories, landing the first job, spouse, child, etcetera, the joys of drugs and alcohol, will be nothing compared to the disappointments, the rejections, the forever truth of the forever worst Saturday forever.
And then when the first families start getting up and streaming out, when they finally realize how crazy this speaker is—the so-called great Lithuanian poet, this Liudutis Venclovas—I would step from the lectern and open my trench coat, so they could see all of me, all of the sagging skin, the moles, the rash that just won’t go away, the object itself, not merely its ugly projection, the entire truth of the great Lithuanian poet, the entire unvarnished and depressing truth. And I would smile broadly as I watched them, frenzied now, both running away from me and toward me, the big Lithuanian men rushing toward me to close me down, to knock me off my imaginary tightrope, to hang me one last time from the third story stairwell.
Yes, that’s exactly what I’d do, I say to myself, from the safety of my brown leather club chair, which I purchased at Anthropologie for over $8,000. It’s a beautiful chair—made from the finest Italian leather—and it’s facing what one of my friends has called the Taj Mahal of whisky collections, a bar that even the Ayatollah would bow to, this friend has said, as he’s guzzled down my fifteen-, twenty-, and even twenty-five-plus-year-old single malts.
My favorites are the old Auchentochans and Highland Parks, but I also particularly like the Yamazaki 18, which I consider to be a testament to the Japanese capability to assimilate and transcend. What the Japanese did for the auto industry, they also did for single malt whisky. The Nikka Yoichi 25 is another very good one. Those Japanese are amazing! They take what is already good and make it even better, unlike the Lithuanians, who drink beer and Russian vodka.
As for me, I refuse (refuse!) to have a single bottle of vodka in my Taj Mahal of bars. There are many whiskies, a few gins and rums, several cognacs and armagnacs and calvados, and even a superb aged tequila, but not a drop of vodka. Go elsewhere for vodka, I say to the plebeians who ask for it. Go to Russia. Go to Poland. Fly to Lithuania for the vodka.
When someone comes to one of our parties with a bottle of vodka, I make a big show of opening it and then pouring it down the drain. Forgive me, I say. We must not pollute the Taj Mahal of bars with what is essentially boiled potatoes.
Vodka killed the so-called spirit of Lithuania. Lithuania gained its independence in 1990 but then lost its spirit by drinking Russian vodka. That’s why I drink only very old whiskies, like this Auchentochan 31, this amber ambrosia, the “water of life,” one of only ten whiskies in the world that exhibits the quality generally reserved for ancient cognacs—rancio, the pleasure for which I paid several thousand dollars.
One thing I’ll say about having the finer things in life, you pay for it, and not just with dollars and cents. You pay for it and keep paying for it. What little pleasure there is gets further diminished with every new luxury experience, with every new sip, even of the Auchentochan 31, which used to taste quite special, I imagine, but that now tastes like turpentine. Yes, with every new sip, the Auchentochan 31 tastes more and more like turpentine. There remains a hint of the old rancio, but the rest is very expensive turpentine.
That’s what Romas Kalanta would have learned had he, in 1972, on the square off of Freedom Alley in Kaunas Lithuania, reconsidered pouring gas over his head and setting himself on fire for the sake of Lithuanian independence. Lithuania may or may not be independent now, without the spark of Romas Kalanta—what the teachers called the spark of independence that was the great Romas Kalanta—but Romas Kalanta would probably be alive, rather than a spark, and then a fire, and then a symbol: alive to learn about this principle of diminishing returns, the spiral of worst Saturdays, expense after increasing expense, luxury after luxury, until everything is turpentine. No more rancio for you, alternate universe Romas Kalanta.
But instead he poured the gas, lit the match, and became the bonfire of independence, the perfect Lithuanian youth, performed what our teachers, and quite possibly even our parents, then secretly wanted from each one of us—the children at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Marquette Park, Chicago—to eschew the temptations of American materialism and devote ourselves fully and completely to the cause of our Tėvynė, which means fatherland. Not simply to write those letters to our congressmen, but to actually set ourselves on fire for the sake of the Lithuanian Identity. Deep down, I’m convinced it’s what they wanted, what they were guiding us toward: a flaming pyramid, a fierce pyre of sixth graders.
And I cannot deny that I considered it, considered following in his footsteps, especially on those Saturdays when the Lithuanian School bullies attacked me, hung me upside down from that pathetic third story stairwell. After cleaning myself up and wiping the tears away, I would look in the bathroom mirror and imagine the flames, the glory of those flames. For Romas Kalanta was my hero. The other kids worshiped OJ Simpson and Mick Jagger, but I—in step with the teachers and my parents—found American culture to be immoral and depressing. I worshiped the great Romas Kalanta.
I remember one time in particular. After returning home from Saturday school, I grabbed some poster board and scrawled on it the single word LAISVĖ, which means freedom. Then I walked into the kitchen and took the Diamond matches we used to light the defective left front burner of our stove. I rushed out the kitchen door into the attached garage and found the gas can we used for the lawnmower. I walked past our Chevy Impala station wagon through the open garage door to the center of our driveway, placed my poster on the cement ground, and then doused myself with gasoline.
I’m not sure what I was thinking or feeling. I somehow knew it was important not to think or feel much of anything in order to accomplish something like this, in order to follow my hero into his flaming glory. But when I opened the matchbook, removed a match, and tried to strike it, nothing happened. The wet of the gasoline prevented the initial spark. Had the match ignited, I wouldn’t be here to consider these issues, to relay these important thoughts to the next generation’s sixth graders, but it didn’t. There wasn’t even a faint sizzle or a tiny whiff of sulfur. Nothing (nothing!) happened.
And then I started thinking and feeling again. In particular I started thinking about the pain I would feel, the pain that Romas Kalanta must have felt, and I wondered if it was really worth it, whether this gesture would really make any difference, in the grand scheme of things, whether it would really contribute to the onset of a great new age of Lithuanian independence, which suddenly seemed quite unlikely, and just like that, my motivation was lost. I threw the matches on the ground, grabbed the poster board, and rushed back toward the garage.
To this day, I keep wondering if it would have made any difference, whether anything makes any difference. In the grand scheme of things, how much did it matter that even Romas Kalanta gave up his life to showcase the plight of occupied Lithuania? What impact did it really have on the eventual liberation—nearly eighteen years later—of the Lithuanian people, on those big Lithuanian men, drinking their beer and their Russian vodka, a nation of big Lithuanian men forever chasing me to wipe that silly smirk off my mug, with or without Romas Kalanta, with or without the spark of independence that was the great Romas Kalanta?
“Here’s to you!” I say, lifting my precious Auchentochan 31 high above my head in the general direction of Marquette Park, Chicago. “Here’s to all you sixth graders.”
The wife is asleep. The estranged kids have long since moved away, scattered about the country to their own lives of loud or quiet desperation. I am of course not a great Lithuanian poet. I am just a small, pathetic clown, sitting naked late at night in front of his fortune of fancy booze, my rash reflected in the backdrop mirror, the terminal rash, the inoperable forever truth of that forever worst Saturday terminal rash…
…that Saturday, after I failed to light myself on fire, as I rushed back toward the garage, I thought I noticed a flutter at the kitchen window, as if the drapes had moved. Yes, I’m sure there was a flutter. Someone had been watching me, my mother or father perhaps, watching their only son very nearly follow in the footsteps of his hero. How proud they must have been, until the match failed to ignite and I lost my resolve.
They are both long dead now, but they lived for more than forty years after that, with me wondering but never asking. All that time I’ve been wondering, was it my mother or was it my father, or was it perhaps both of them, who stood watching me through the window, their only son, so proud at first for his great sacrifice, his almost great sacrifice, and then so disappointed, so very ashamed, as he abandoned his Lithuanian Identity, abandoned the cause of Lithuanian independence, and instead implicitly (at first implicitly and then quite consciously) selected the dedicated pursuit of materialism: the right schools, the best firms, the trophy wife, the spoiled kids, expense after increasing expense, luxury after meaningless luxury, extreme after ignoble American extreme, rather than setting himself on fire, rather than firmly and boldly striking the Diamond match head and displaying the great poetry and courage of self-immolation.
This is what my parents were thinking, I am convinced, either one or perhaps both of them, yes, very likely both of them, as they stood watching me through the kitchen window, and then for the rest of my life, even as they continued to go through the so-called motions, to pack my lunches, attend my basketball games, to scrape and claw to pay for my college education, to dote on their grandchildren, etcetera, etcetera, until they passed away and were buried in Saint Casimir Lithuanian Cemetery on 111th Street on the south side of Chicago, where I still go to visit their graves at least once every year, and where—according to my doctors—I will be joining them sometime between six and eighteen months from now.
But that Saturday, when I walked back in the house, clutching my poster board and stinking to high heaven of petroleum, when I walked through the kitchen and into the living room, they were nowhere to be seen, until I looked out the living room window and saw my father pulling weeds in the backyard, and then heard the bang of the washing machine door, indicating that my mother was in the basement. How quickly they had run out of the kitchen in order to pretend they hadn’t seen me! As soon as I had dropped the matches and turned back toward the house, they must have glanced at each other, conspired on a plan, and then sprinted away to their respective hiding places, the backyard and the basement, running off to do their chores, starting the pretense that would last for over forty years. At least one but very likely both of them, almost surely both of them, as will be proved definitively (definitively!) between six and eighteen months from now, after my commencement, after my ashes are buried in the family plot, when I finally stand naked (not just physically but fully and completely, spiritually) in front of my creator, with my father on his right side and my mother on his left, and perhaps even my childhood hero, Romas Kalanta, slightly behind them and off to the side, when everything will be revealed, all of our sins and blemishes will be fully and completely revealed, the entire truth will be revealed. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces. What will they say when I ask them? Was it just one or was it both of you, surely it was both of you, standing there, watching me, that Saturday afternoon, behind those imaginary drapes?
Louis Wenzlow’s short canards and poetry have appeared in Cease Cows, Eclectica, The Forge Literary Magazine, International Poetry Review, The Molotov Cocktail, and other places. He is a Lithuanian American who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and now lives with his wife and daughter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
—You’re on deck, right? We all are. We each have to take our turn at bat.
—Them things carry rabies.
—Take our hacks and swing for the fences. Knock the cover off the ball. Go yard.
—I gotta tell you, Dwight, I ain’t entirely sure I—
—Greatest country on earth.
—That’s why we gotta take a good cut.
—What’s that got to do—
—Rip it or smoke it, lace it or rope it.
—Well, what can I say, Dwight? I’ll give it my best shot.
—Hit it on the screws.
—That old college try.
—At least put the ball in play, Jimbo.
—That can-do attitude goes a long way.
—Filet shot or Texas Leaguer, blooper or tapper or dying quail.
—Quail season ain’t till November, Dwight.
—Get you a single, a two-bagger, a three-bagger.
—Take me out to the ballgame.
—Start the merry-go-round running.
—Take me out to the crowd.
—Knock one out the park, Jimbo.
—I don’t care if I never get back.
—Sumbitches is throwing groove heaters.
—Hold up a sec, Dwight. You mean like grenades or sumpin?
—Right in your wheelhouse, too.
—Attacking hearth and home. No respect for private property nor women and children neither.
—Bases are juiced, Jimbo. Get you a grand tamale.
—Well, why in hell not? The whole enchilada, too. Plus, my piece of the Frito pie.
—But we gotta keep on the ball.
—As in crystal ball? As in Magic 8-Ball?
—They’ll throw us a curve. It’ll be hit or miss. We don’t want to whiff.
—Would they do that? Could they?
—They’re already doing it.
—Don’t seem right.
—We’re in the Big Leagues, Jimbo. Sumbitches play hardball. Gotta bring your A game.
—Only one I got, Dwight. Now how ’bout another beer?
—This ain’t no time for concessions.
—They got cotton candy, right? If we’re talking ’bout what I think. Peanuts and popcorn and Crackerjacks.
—I done already told you, concessions is out.
—Hot dogs, Dwight, grilled up just the way you like and drowning in mustard.
—You gonna drop the ball, Jimbo?
—You gonna foul out?
—Nosiree, Bob! Not if I have my druthers, anyway.
—Cuz this ain’t no game.
—Why, of course it is, Dwight!
—Do you see a smile on my face?
—Well, now that you mention it.
—Am I giggling and laughing and carrying on like some little ole schoolgirl with her dollies?
—Come to think of it, no. Why is that?
—Listen up and listen good, Jimbo. Them sumbitches got live arms.
—You ain’t serious?
—They’re gonna throw gas and pound the zone.
—That don’t sound good.
—They want us to roll over, Jimbo.
—They want to ring us up.
—We didn’t even buy nothing!
—But they ain’t gonna come right down Main Street to do it.
—Sumbitches ain’t welcome in the first place. We’ll be waiting outside Andy’s Gun & Ammo, armed to the teeth, trigger fingers itchy, Tim McGraw blaring in the background.
—They’ll paint the corner, come in high and tight, then pull the string and watch us swing out of our shoes. Next comes all that nasty backdoor stuff.
—That’s why we gotta cover our bases.
—Best idea I heard all day.
—We want to be world champions, don’t we?
—I don’t see why not, Dwight. Kinda our birthright, when you look at it. It’s just that, the thing is, ain’t but Americans playing the game in the first place.
—That’s a filthy lie.
—Alright, they got a team up in Canada, but I ain’t sure there’s any actual Eskimos on it.
—What about them Japanese, Jimbo?
—That’s a whole other story. Got their own league and everything. We want any of their boys, we gotta recruit them special, go through all kinda fancy rigmarole and pay through the nose.
—What about them Dominicans and Mexicans and Venezuelans? Hell, there’s even a bunch of goddamn Cubans, and they live under a repressive commie regime. Remember that botched Bay of Pigs invasion? Remember that missile crisis? We’re talking international stage here, Jimbo.
—I hate to say it, Dwight, but you know well as I do that ain’t nothing but honest-to-goodness global capitalist exploitation.
—Hell you say?
—Them backwaters ain’t nothing but a source of cheap labor.
—Talk about outta left field.
—Ain’t nothing new.
—You done lost it, Jimbo.
—Same ole, same ole.
—Trash you’re talking’s off-base and a hundred percent un-American.
—And the rockets’ red glare.
—Now that’s more like it.
—Buncha bombs in the air.
—Hallelujah, amen! It’s good to be alive.
—Last I checked, Dwight, the future ain’t what she used to be.
—You said it, Jimbo. That’s why I gotta know sumpin right off the bat.
—Them things carry rabies.
—I’ll go to bat for you.
—Will you go to bat for me?
—Rules of the game ain’t exactly no breeze, but I’m pretty sure—
—Quit your hemming and hawing, Jimbo, and give it to me straight. Will you take one for the team?
—I’ll play ball, if that’s what you’re asking.
—Or maybe you’re out of your league?
—A swing and a miss!
—I’m just saying, Jimbo. We all gotta be able to execute the sacrifice.
—I got that can-do attitude.
—Cuz they’re stealing bases left and right.
—Second and third and home. First, even.
—You can’t steal first, Dwight.
—Tell that to the other side.
—They’re even stealing signs, Jimbo.
—Now that ain’t right. Gonna lead to all kinda mayhem on the highways and byways of this great nation.
—Not street signs, you dumb—
—And I, for one, can’t even tolerate a door-ding on my ole F-150, much less a bent bumper or crumpled fender. Somebody’s gonna pay, and it ain’t gonna be me.
—Signals, Jimbo. Signs. Our private, confidential communiqués about what’s happening when, where, and how.
—Funny thing is, last I heard, we’re stealing our own signs.
—We broke our own codes, Dwight.
—Lip-reading and eavesdropping.
—Spying on our own self, Dwight.
—Don’t believe everything you read, buddy boy. It’s bush league psyche-out stuff. They’re trying to get into our heads and hearts and turn us against friends and neighbors and family. We look in the mirror, nobody there but some goddamn traitor giving us the evil eye.
—Whole thing’s like déjà vu all over again.
—But don’t be fooled, Jimbo. We’re the heavy hitters ’round these here parts.
—We ain’t gonna get caught looking.
—Not on your life!
—We got ducks on the pond.
—Like shooting fish in a barrel.
—We’ll punch one right up the gut, Jimbo.
—An at ’em ball.
—A diamond cutter.
—Or blast one to right-center, Dwight.
—A long shot.
—And the rockets’ red glare.
—Buncha bombs in the air.
—That’s why you should always root for the home team, Dwight.
—If we don’t win, it’s a shame.
—A goddamn sham, is what it is.
—What we’re talking bout, Jimbo, ain’t nothing short of the flaming future of the entire free world.
—It’s America’s pastime.
—And I’ll tell you sumpin else.
—You ain’t got to, Dwight, cuz I already know.
—It ain’t over till it’s over.
J. T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
HOUSEKEEPING IN SEVEN CIGARETTES by Rachel Oestreich
Margo is eight years old, and she doesn’t care about the New Mexican heat, or the drought, or that it is dry and her lips are cracked and her skin is slick with sweat. Her hair sticks to her forehead and neck in thick, twine-like clumps. Her father smells like he always does: motor oil and cigarettes.
Her mother brings home a dog when she’s supposed to bring home milk. The black fluff-ball almost looks like a porcupine; it runs around the living room and chases shards of gravel her father tosses, the ones gathered from the driveway. He sits on the couch. Margo sits next to him, silently wishing her father will let them keep the dog, certain he was too obstinate to let it be so.
Above them, the ceiling fan whirs and kicks up the dust mites, then scatters them in the same place.
Margo’s father says, “I told you we weren’t getting a dog.”
Her mother replies, “His name’s Gerald.”
“Stupid name,” her father says. He’s smiling, though, eyes crinkling along the lines of his wrinkles. And Margo has hope.
Margo takes a pebble from her father’s hand and throws it near the kitchen. Her father throws a bigger one toward the door. The dog chases Margo’s, nails clicking and scrabbling on the tile.
Her father chuckles; Margo likes that sound. She likes when her mother comes around the back of the couch and puts her arms around him, likes that they look like a family. “You can take him back to old Bax up the road if you want,” her mother says.
Her father pauses for a good long minute, rolls the gravel around his palm, makes the pieces clink together. Gerald wanders back to them with a rock in his mouth. Drops it at her father’s feet.
Her father grunts, his version of a chuckle, and pulls a cigarette from the box he keeps in his pocket—Margo’s never seen him without it. His lighter click, click, clicks and finally sparks. “We still need milk,” he says. He holds the flame to the end of his cigarette. “Get something cheap for the mutt, too.”
By the time she’s ten, her father is a pack-a-day kind of man, and Margo’s old enough to hate that habit. Sunlight cuts through streaked windows, highlights the color of the walls: an ugly shade of yellow stained an uglier shade of mustard.
She sits at the dining table, taps the black stump of her eraser against the wood surface, stares at the fractions she’s supposed to subtract. “Mom,” she says. “I need help.”
Her mother stands from her end of the table, book in her hand, thumb between the pages. She pulls her chair to Margo’s side, takes a pencil of her own—eraser pink and whole because she isn’t the kind who needs to erase things—and presses lead to page. “Like this, baby girl.”
Margo’s mother drops the pencil, pulls her thumb from her book and lets it close. “Yes, Vince?”
Margo’s father shuffles down the hallway, eyes bloodshot. Worked all night at the auto shop again. Not like they need the money, that’s what Margo’s mother always says; he just likes the work, and when his bosses ask him to stay he doesn’t say no, not because he’s spineless, Margo’s mother says, but because he likes the work, likes accomplishing something. A day-old beard shadows his leathery face. He holds up his cigarette box. “I’m out, Patty. Mind?”
Margo wants her mother to say yes, that she does mind. But her mother doesn’t; she’s not like that. She stands, dress swishing, searching for her black sandals. “You and those damn cigarettes, Vince,” she says. Laughing, amused. Like they’re endearing, those cigarettes.
Gerald lumbers around the kitchen, finally stops next to Margo and ignores her father when he calls his name. Margo considers it a small victory; Gerald always sits by her.
Twenty minutes later, Margo’s mother returns from the gas station, the stench of diesel clinging to her skin, still a better scent than her expired perfume. She kisses Margo’s father on his forehead. Hands over a crinkling, plastic-wrapped carton of Camels.
“Still need help with those fractions, baby girl?”
Margo erases her most recent answer; she’s about to tear through the paper, she’s erased so often. “No, Mom,” she lies. “I figured it out.”
Gerald settles his head on his paws. His tail thumps against hardwood floor, throws up the dust mites. No matter how many times Margo and her mother sweep, they can’t get rid of them.
When Margo is twelve years old, she doesn’t understand why her mother wants to put up a birdhouse. They don’t get any of the jays or swallows that she keeps talking about, just the carrion that go after the rabbit carcasses the coyotes leave behind.
Margo sits in the rocking chair on the porch. Her father’s leveling the birdhouse against the porch support, extra nails between his lips, a hammer in his hand. Behind him, her mother stands a few feet back in the driveway and tells him the house is crooked.
Margo rocks back. Gerald sits next to her. Ninety-eight degrees, no clouds. Margo squints at the glare of the sun and straightens the chair.
Her mother claps. “Right there, Vince.” Wide smile on peach lips; oblivious to sunburn, to the dust stains on her dress.
One whack with the hammer. Another.
Her mother coughs a few times, but the birdhouse is up. Painted an ugly shade of yellow that matches the inside of the house, because it’s the only color of paint they had in the garage.
“What d’you think, Margo?” her mother asks.
A mile out, something big circles over the road. Crow or raven, maybe a vulture. On the ground, Margo’s father lights a cigarette. Her mother coughs again as the wind tosses grit into all their eyes and makes them sting and water.
Smoke curls from her father’s lips.
Margo says, “I think nothing’s going to come live here.”
She doesn’t say: not if they could live somewhere else.
She’s only thirteen years old, and the house feels heavy, like the broken promise of a monsoon rain. Middle of October, still hot. The ceiling fan wheezes on its tiny motor, an ancient contraption ready to die any day now.
Margo’s mother was young, but she’d wheezed. Again and again. “Can’t breathe,” she’d said, or tried to say. Undiagnosed asthma. She suffocated right there on the living room floor at the beginning of September.
Margo hopes her father blames himself.
Desert dust creeps into the crevices of the house, molds into the cracks in the grout between the tile. Won’t leave, or can’t. Blows in when Margo opens a window. Hugs the curtains.
Two packs of cigarettes a day now. All her father ever does anymore is go to work and smoke, and nearly burns the house down when he falls asleep on the couch with a lit cigarette between his fingers.
Margo sits at the dining table, her mother’s sandals on her feet. She runs a knife through a peach and twists the fruit’s flesh around the pit. Even the juice that dribbles onto her plate is murky, like mud.
She stands and opens a window, tries to wave in some fresh air. Gerald follows her into the kitchen and sits at her side; she kicks a stray clump of gravel that’d made it through the back door. The dog trots after it and returns the rocks at her feet. Cheaper than tennis balls.
A whistle from the couch. Gerald’s ears prick up, acknowledging the sound, but he doesn’t move.
“Gerald,” her father calls.
The dog looks his way. Doesn’t move.
The form on the couch rolls over. “Goddamn mutt.”
Margo smiles and scratches Gerald’s ears. “Good boy.”
Margo’s fifteen, and her father steps out for some sharp winter air, but when he steps back in he’s pulling another cigarette from his pocket. Finds his lighter between the couch cushions.
“What’re you working on, Margo?” His voice scratches at her ears, a stray cat eager to be welcomed from the cold.
She stares at her pre-calculus textbook. Refuses to look up. He’s ruined, since her mother died. He blames himself and Margo knows it, and she’s glad until she meets his eyes and sees their nothingness. He’d tried pulling himself together, but now he’s dried up like an ear of corn, a husk shriveled under the sun and all the kernels gone because the damn birds pecked them all out. Nothing left.
Margo doesn’t look him in the eyes, not if she can help it. All she ever sees in them is her mother.
He sits down with her at the table sometimes, tries to help her with homework he doesn’t know how to do, gives up and just sits there. The silence makes them both uncomfortable. He’ll feed Gerald dinner scraps; a bribe to pretend he’s got someone.
Margo still hasn’t answered him; she’s forgotten the question already and she wants him to go away.
“I’m on my last box,” her father says. “I’m going to the station for more.”
There’s a question. A would you go, instead? Or maybe a would you come with me? He’s lonely, but so is she. The answer is no. She erases a few numbers and rewrites them. Peels from her eraser fall to the floor. “I’m busy, Daddy,” she says. “Drive safe.”
After the front door closes, she stands from the table and locks it.
She’s just turned sixteen, and Margo’s really good at convincing herself that she still blames her father. That she hates him.
But her mother was the one who bought more cigarettes.
The birdhouse on the porch decays. Her father won’t let her pull it down.
She sweeps the house three times a day and dusts twice. Keeps the dirt on the outside where it belongs. Locks the front door whenever her father leaves, but then he starts taking his house key with him and what’s the point after that? Gets in either way.
Margo is eighteen years old, and she’s been waiting because last week her father went out for a new carton of cigarettes, and he hasn’t been back since. She’s pretty sure he won’t come back. Maybe he’s dead. Or just gone. To spite him, she cleans out his bedroom and finds one box of cigarettes left, seven still inside.
One at a time, she tosses them over the railing; the aged glow of the porch light barely illuminates them. The empty birdhouse hangs at an angle; it’s always been empty. Margo’s rocking chair groans, a tired sound; it wobbles on the deck, unsteady. When she inhales, she just barely smells the sweetness of pine: the porch and chair are both rotten and peeling and falling apart. The arm of her chair scrapes against the railing like they’re old friends, and it shaves a few splinters from both with a snap.
The last cigarette is in her hand. She puts it in her mouth, paper gritty against her tongue. She wonders what it’s like, smoking, suffocating. Tempting. Just light one.
What she should do is throw it away and rid herself of it for good.
At her feet, Gerald sighs.
Her father wouldn’t miss it. He’s not coming back, probably.
A mile away, the laughter of a pack of coyotes.
The lighter click, click, clicks impatiently when her finger slips trying to spark a flame. Before she even lights it, it leaves a bad taste in the space between her teeth.
Margo holds the cigarette to her lips and fills her mouth with the acrid smoke she’s always hated. She swallows it.
And puts the cigarette to her lips again.
Rachel Oestreich is a Fiction M.F.A. candidate at New Mexico State University, where she received her B.A. in English in 2015. She reads for The Indianola Review,works with the literary magazine Puerto del Sol, and teaches as an Instructor of Record at NMSU.
Well, it should come as no shock to you, I’m sure, that on more than one occasion I have been told I am a difficult woman.
If you’d been around longer, you would have found pretty quick that that’d be the truth, honey. You would have been embarrassed of me, like your little brothers, but maybe a little proud too, because us girls have to stick together.
But, just so you believe me, let me give you an example:
After I was told that my second husband, Peter, had died, I slapped the nurse who offered to call in a goddamn grief counselor. My heart could have burst wide open with rage. As I walked out of the hospital, real quick before security could reach me, my hand was all raw and stinging with something a bit like triumph.
It was only later that the shame caught up, which is the way it usually goes with me.
Look how I lie here, my lips cracked and thin, my face worn like paper. See how they’ve taken from my goddamn body until there was nothing left. I always knew it would have been different with you, honey. Daughters are different than sons, they don’t require the same vengeance. They are just a piece of a mother’s soul, alive and in the flesh and wandering out in the world.
When he was twenty-three and just graduated from college, your one brother Jeremy sent me an envelope from the other side of the country addressed to: Ms. Francine (Franny) Krause Waley née Roth. Inside was a detailed listing of his therapy bills.
What I really found funny was what he had written, in big block letters, just under the seal: Charges for damages within. Pound of flesh will do.
Let’s speak of happier things.
Your littlest brother Derick has become a priest, and it is one of my gravest disappointments. Oy vey iz mir, my poor mother should be rolling over in her grave.
He was only nineteen when he joined the seminary. I cried out, “But you’re not even Catholic! You had a bris, for Chrissakes. Don’t you remember?”
He did not, in fact, remember. He was only eight days old at the time, but that, I told him, wasn’t the point.
They don’t know about you, not even Jeremy. You both share the same father, but there is only Jeremy in those photographs with Krause, back when we lived in Philadelphia, his chubby cheeks and that serious look always on his face. There are no pictures of you. I don’t think I could have endured it if there were.
Sometimes I want to tell your brothers, “But wait! It’s true! In fact, I did have a daughter. Ha ha, your old Ma has one more surprise left for you nudniks!”
But I will not tell them. I cannot.
And here is this goddamned crocheted blanket the nurse put over me that is so itchy against my skin I could scream.
You were there and then you were gone just as suddenly, not even a day old, and that was the beginning of the end between me and your father. Don’t blame yourself. Things happen.
And it’s true, we had enough left in the old tank to make Jeremy just a year and a half after you left us.
I met your father when I was eighteen, waitressing at a diner in Newark, just after high school. Krause was the boyfriend of another waitress, Charlene, who I used to goof around with on slow shifts, blowing spit balls with straws and sticking wads of chewing gum underneath the counters, all things we’d have to clean up ourselves sooner or later. We were silly girls, but Charlene always grabbed money out of the tip jar when she thought no one was looking, so I didn’t feel too guilty about stealing your father away from her.
Everyone called your father by his last name, pronounced like “Cross.” He was raised pretty strict, Shabbos every week and kept kosher, so I’m sure he didn’t appreciate that reference.
He didn’t appreciate a lot about me.
It’s too warm in here, don’t you think they could open a goddamn window every once in a while?
I’m thirsty, but the nurse in this godforsaken facility has only left me some lukewarm water, and I can see little tiny particles floating around in it like the glass was not fully cleaned, and so I would rather wither and dry up than drink that.
I dreamed of Paris, a place all white and fresh, sunlight streaming in through the walls, a little balcony, the whole town smelling like fresh bread.
Your father never took me there. To be fair, I had never told him I wanted to go, but.
I am a bitter old woman. Shouldn’t I be sorry, at this point? You’d think.
When he would come home, I’d be so angry, holding a crying baby Jeremy, his diaper wet and his face so very pink, and I would say, “You don’t appreciate me.”
Honey, I can’t lie that your father had many faults. I once listed them all on a scrap of paper.
Let me rummage around here in my bedside table, I’m sure I still have it.
No matter. I remember them all. They include:
His late-night returns where he came to our bedroom with his eyes shifting anywhere but toward my face,
His continued refusal to put down the toilet seat after he was finished, as if he were raised in a barn,
His skill at making the tears burn as they spilled from my eyes,
His tendency to look around at me and at his son as if we were people he did not quite recognize,
His habit of chewing with his goddamned mouth open so that a person could feel absolutely nauseated just from the sound alone.
But, sure, I loved him, the kind of fierce love you only have for the first person to kiss your kneecaps or to tuck you into bed after a long bout with the flu.
We never got the chance with you. That first birth, I left the maternity ward with my arms empty except for the white blanket I had planned on wrapping you in, but when Jeremy first came home from the hospital after he was born, your father and I used to sneak into his bedroom together just to make sure his tiny chest was still rising and falling, to hear his breath mix out in the air with the breath coming from both our own mouths, creating such a song of our little family.
I slapped Krause once, but he didn’t even move. I remember feeling my own anger running through my body like snake venom, and I wished I could slice open my veins and infect him with it, but I doubted he would look at me even then.
He didn’t even protest when I told him I was taking Jeremy and moving to Hoboken.
This room is too goddamned white, hasn’t anybody around here ever heard of a color, for Chrissakes?
Jeremy never asked me about his father. You would have been different. I knew from the instant I looked into your dark, curious eyes.
I think you would have liked your little brother Derick. When he was eight, he asked me once why his brother had a different last name. I feel bad now, but my in-laws were coming to town for Thanksgiving, and I’d been busy figuring out how to stuff a turkey for the first time. So goddamned slimy.
Anyway, I told him that it was because Jeremy had been dropped off at our doorstep by another family when he was a baby. “There was a note that said they’d be coming along in a few years to take him back,” I told him. “He’s what, thirteen, it’ll probably be any day now. So get your goodbyes in, buddy boy.”
But listen to me, even now, all these years later, cackling away.
Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who finds me funny. When I met Peter, after he accidentally crashed his shopping cart into mine at the grocery store, he apologized so profusely that I was absolutely forced to reach down into my cart, grab the nearest roast chicken I had picked up for dinner, and say, “No harm, no fowl, sir.”
When he smiled, I knew it wasn’t because he found me funny.
The light is falling in through the window blinds real bright. Burns my eyes ’till they’re all wet and runny.
I would have loved to have heard you laugh.
Peter told me he loved me every morning and then got mortally offended if I was too groggy to say it back. I loved him, but every once in a while, I just wanted my goddamn sleep.
Peter was a little older than me, but he was kind to both boys, had clean fingernails. He bought me velvet dresses just because.
I never told him about Paris. Only you.
Peter’s parents had a cabin in the Poconos, and we used to visit it every summer. Once, while Peter and the boys were out on the lake, I took the car and drove to the Five and Dime and bought some bright yellow sandals with pink buckles and hair dye, platinum blonde.
I so dreamed of driving until I slipped off the edge of every goddamn thing.
Instead, I wrapped the box of hair dye in a plastic bag and slipped it under the driver’s seat, and drove back to the cabin. And when I got back, those little assholes made fun of me for wearing those ugly sandals. I got so mad I refused to cook them dinner.
Look at me, still seething, grinding my teeth until my jaw aches.
I was thirty-three when Peter died. Heart attack. Thirty-three and all alone with two little boys.
Things have not turned out like I expected when I was a child.
I wonder sometimes what you would have thought of my mother. It was like she had been tamed for her whole life. I was determined not to be tamed.
Once, when I was a girl, I cut my own hair with my mother’s sewing scissors because I had seen a pretty woman with a bob in a magazine. It didn’t turn out very well at all, and I tried to hide the evidence, but my father found all the bits of hair I’d stuffed between the couch cushions. After he whipped me, he wouldn’t let my mother fix my hair, instead made me live out my days with a lopsided cut until my hair grew long enough to pull up.
You know what Derick says? Forgiveness is bliss. “It makes you feel free, Mommy,” he says. He calls this place every night. Sometimes I think he calls just to make sure I’m still alive.
Just like his father with that mishegas. I can’t tell you how irritating it is.
He says to me, “Forgiveness is a gift that holds more than you could ever imagine.”
Doesn’t he sound like a goddamn fortune cookie?
You know, Derick paid for this place, but I don’t like my nurse, she smells like smoke, and I once bit her on the arm when she tried to give me a bath, then pretended like I was having an episode so she wouldn’t sue.
Once, Jeremy wrote and asked why I never hugged him when he cried as a child. I wrote back, joked that it was because he was always so slobbery and I didn’t want to get my blouses wet.
He didn’t respond.
I think of you, how you left this world just hours after you left my body. Shouldn’t I have kept you inside, where you were safe and kicking against me like the beating of a heart? I was so young. I only held your little body for a moment before they took you away. You felt so warm.
But what, I should tell your brother the truth? The truth that I had been afraid? Afraid to hug him, to hold him close to my heart, to feel him too firmly? No, I could never tell him any of this, not a single word. Wouldn’t I rather die first.
I am still considering putting it in my will that the next correspondence my first son will receive from my estate will be my obituary, but I don’t want to be dramatic.
And I can remember Jeremy coming home crying because the kids in junior high made fun of his crooked teeth since he needed braces so badly but there was no money for it, and so I wrote to Krause, mailed the letter to that little goddamn row house in Philadelphia we used to share, but it was eventually returned to sender, addressee unknown, and when little Jeremy bugged me about braces again, I finally told him to just deal with it because his weird teeth gave him character.
I’m not a terrible mother.
I taught Derick how to drive a car, even though my own license was suspended for too many parking tickets. And the only thing I said to Jeremy the time I picked him up from the police station after he got caught shoplifting was, “Next time pick me up a new tube of lipstick, will ya?”
You never got to resent me, got to blame me, like your brothers. You forever know me as your mother, your home. To you, I am only a nice, safe, warm thing.
I could have been someone important, right, honey? Even now, don’t I sound like I’m smart? I read a lot. I should have gone to college, should have done more than just take care of other people.
Two husbands was plenty.
I was at the emergency room reception desk for a time and saw all sorts of horrible stuff. I’d tell the boys over dinner about the man with his left eyeball hanging loose, the woman with the bone sticking straight from her arm, the little girl with the burns on the side of her face.
And wouldn’t Jeremy just eat up my stories, the only time he didn’t seem to absolutely hate me, and we would both just laugh at Derick, who would cover his ears with his chubby hands.
And then I got moved to the geriatric ward, which I found even more horrible than the ER. All those old people, moldy in their own skin, wasting away to nothing but beige slippers and wiry white hair.
Pot, meet kettle, etc.
When the time came, I wanted to throw myself off the bow of a ship, hang myself from a sycamore tree, wander into the highway during rush hour. My end had to be different than all those others, mine had to mean something more.
Here I am, honey, lying on this bed, and the air has grown cold. It stings that my end is going to be like all the others.
Honey, I would have told you the story my mother used to whisper in my ear before I went to sleep as a child. She used to tell me about a little girl who loved a little boy who was a prince. Since she was poor, this prince never gave her the time of day. It was only until she intercepted a poisoned cherry meant for him that he noticed her at all, and by then, she was dead. The prince cried and threw a parade in the girl’s honor and then vowed never to marry.
Honey, I would have told you this story, but I would have let the goddamn prince swallow that cherry, every last deadly gulp, and I would have told you about the girl watching as his face turned blue and still, and I would have told you about the grim satisfaction she felt in that moment when she realized that she needed to let love go in order to live.
You never got to know what it was like to grow gray, to grow bent and crinkly. You never got to be anything. I would have taught you how to be a woman, honey, how to suck in your gut and paint on a happy face, how to hold life in your very cells, how to gnaw at the bone of your pain until you could swallow it in pieces, until it became something you could endure. I would have taught you how to be a better woman than me. No one would have ever called you difficult or even thought the goddamn word with you around.
Gotenu, but I made sure there was no shiva for you. I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on the floor, tearing up cloth until my fingers bled, receiving all those visitors who would look at me with such goddamn pity in their eyes. Later, your father gave you a name so that we could find you in the world to come, but I didn’t want to know it, I told him I would kill him in his sleep if he told me what it was, and I meant it, and to this day, I still do.
There you are. I can feel your small weight next to me on the bed, and it’s like we haven’t spent a moment apart. Your eyes are so dark and beautiful. It’s a wonder that I even created you.
And goddamn it all, my life was more than that! More than just my sons, my husbands, more than being a mother and a wife! I had dreams, hopes, pictures in my mind that no one could imagine. Why this, even now at the end, why all these men who had made up my life? Sure, I had loved them all, but honey, does that have to consume everything I ever was, my whole entire being? Shouldn’t I have been more than just who I was to them?
Who turned off the light? Stop that now. I’m wide awake.
Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. Her work has been published in the Nottingham Review, Lunch Ticket, Emerge Literary Journal, the City Quill, and the Ilanot Review. She enjoys spending time with her dog and alphabetizing her overflowing bookcase. She lives in New Jersey.
And then he won and we kept drinking about it, what else to do but keep drinking about it, and no one knew whether to stay or not, it was worse too because the alcohol wasn’t doing anything, and all I wanted was to be with Jean, but she was somewhere else, with someone else, so I had to go home alone, but first I bought groceries at the place that stays open all night, discount tuna salad, spelt bagels, cream cheese, and then walked south, not quite trusting the reality, a nameless void ahead of me, and my apartment was dead, it was dead quiet, and I hadn’t done dishes earlier, which is the most depressing thing, and I unpacked my groceries, and put a bagel in the toaster, and then had to clean a knife to smear on the cream cheese, and sponge a plate for the bagel to sit on, and after preparing my meal I lay in bed with it, and watched his acceptance speech, at which point Nick texted me, saying “Oh my god,” and I responded, “Oh my god,” and Donald said, “Sorry to keep ya waiting folks,” but his coolness inspired—I hate to say it—the most awful reverence in me, and I could not take my eyes away from the screen, wearing my t-shirt Jean used to wear to sleep, our Howl tattoos underneath, and I felt the most unbearable loneliness, thinking that I’d have to get used to this, thinking that Donald’s son was Damien, the demon child, although it’s possible that he’s a very nice boy who happens to be wrapped up in this, like we’re all wrapped up in this, bagels with cream cheese will never be the same for me, I slept, obviously, terribly, and when I woke up there was no light outside, and I didn’t know what to do, so I packed my whiskey in a bag (note to self: take seriously your drinking problem), and walked south toward Time Square, wearing my Beats headphones, pop music, Spotify, dancing in forward motion like I do sometimes, and when I got to Time Square there was a man wearing Donald Trump’s face, and Donald Trump’s suit, and this man boogied with an old white lady, I hated her, and wondered what his motives were, but felt awe-inspired, and was compelled to start filming them, and it was a perfect video, starting with Donald and the old white lady, and there was an old black man there, whacking bucket drums, I shot him too, I circled slowly around the entire scene, and I captured the perfect moment, Donald throwing up two peace signs while behind him was the “Forever” part of the Forever 21 store, and to the left of that was a huge, sparkling Disney sign, and below on the street a hole billowed wraiths of smoke, and it was all literally a metaphor, and I twirled around capturing the tourists who were Instagramming our president, then whirled back around, and zoomed in as he posed with a smug brat who yelled, “Make America great again!” and I’m venting now, something horrible happened: the video collapsed, my phone had no space, what I captured was gone, and I thought for a second what if I just lost the most iconic Day After Footage, but quickly realized I had not, I had done nothing meaningful, and as I walked away I saw what you imagine every carnie ever looks like pull off Donald’s face, and he smoked a cigarette—show’s over, folks—I walked south, it was about time to crack open the whiskey (noon), and my lips kissed glass beneath a brown paper bag and I felt, for seconds, wonderful, but my mood turned, I was so sad, I kept walking against the bile, the black sun, Beats back on, and in the 30s everything seemed typical, a normal day in my city, but at Union Square it got bleak again, the protesters had their signs, I observed them, then picked up a sign, then flip-flopped my thoughts, deciding it was time to go home, which I did, and kept drinking there, in my book-littered echo room, and ate discount tuna salad, then showered, but the stream was either too hot or too cold, the head made shifts all on its own, plus the pressure sucked, so I got out, called my friends, none picked up, very frustrating, I kept drinking whiskey, and had a few beers, opened Facebook, and clicked on a link to Twitter’s Day One of Trump feed, where I saw heartbreaking things, and almost cried, but I didn’t cry, it was something like the week my father died, who had Donald’s body type, and Donald’s fat hands, but wasn’t all that bad, and I knew, just fucking knew I would not sleep that night, but I did sleep for a couple hours before shooting straight up in bed, during the Hour of the Wolf, my body shaking, aching, grieving Jean, but she was somewhere else, in someone else’s bed, outside a car drove by, shadows danced, a ripple on the sheets, her long slender legs, and there were sirens too, but they sounded different now, ominous, portentous, and then morning came, it was such a sunny day, a beautiful day, but it was not healing time, there was mourning to be done, and I walked to Columbia, because I’m a student there, and saw one Red Hat bobbing, she had a triumphant look, as she posed in a selfie on the steps, behind her were well-meaning protestors, and I thought of They Live and whispered, “They’re among us,” which was silly and made me laugh, but my laughter had a blunt edge, it didn’t sit well, and as I walked deeper into campus I saw a black man wearing a cardboard sign that said, “This is Amerikkka,” and yes, it was, I wanted to embrace him, but I was wearing a Slipknot t-shirt, and have lots of tattoos, so when he saw me staring, with what I thought were empathetic eyes, I think he got the wrong idea, and more sadness hit me, how deep are these divides, but the feeling subsided, because he pulled out a cigarette and said, “Got a light?” and I lit the Spirit before going inside, where I had class with Tin House Rob, and we all sat down, and there was a Trump Supporter in the room, jacket on, a few people tried to glare, but weariness took hold, like what’s even the point, and Tin House Rob asked, “Why do we write?” and you won’t believe it, but the Trump Supporter said, “What do you mean we?” and it was a shocking moment, it said everything, but then Tin House Rob said, “Um, I mean the people in this room right now,” and that was the perfect response, I told the class I write to learn about things, to understand, and I think that went over well, in any case I needed a drink, and after class I wandered south, incapable of reading words, ended up at a bar, where I drank all night, with Shathan and Bill, and I hate to say it but we were three white men, belligerent, bouncing around, in what may have seemed like celebration, we may have looked like the enemy, I felt trapped in my skin, I felt shame and hopelessness, but then my mood took a one-eighty turn, I wanted to be radical, I was ready to fight and die, for my country—for my black, Muslim, Mexican, gay, lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters—who I love so much, whose lives are more meaningful than mine, I would die, the night became a cave, my vision strangled, darkness on all sides, until I passed out and slept like I was dead, and had the most amazing dreams, I’ll spare the details though, and in the morning I was refreshed, yet slightly concerned, where had my hangovers gone? must be a sign, I decided to write and wrote a spiteful piece, full of anger and hate, that sneered and spit, it was, in some ways, the literary self-death of me, and I smoked seven cigarettes, one after the other, on the stoop, and drank a huge glass of whiskey to sober up, and then Jean showed up, unexpectedly, inevitably, my dark-haired Jean, we looked into each other’s eyes, saw everything, and my apartment was full of life, I kissed her mouth hard, but softly kissed her neck, we lay entwined, one perfect being, and made love, for a long time, I’m home in her, I pulled Jean’s hair and smacked her ass, she scratched my back and begged me to take the condom off, “I want you to come inside me, take the fucking condom off,” in this time of death, we wanted to make life, I took the condom off, we made life, then lay in bed, laughing about something, I don’t remember what, but it was a perfect moment, I felt whole again, happy, alive, and didn’t even notice that I did it but I was already drinking another huge glass of whiskey and Jean didn’t judge me—or did she?—at least she never says anything, the sun had set, night again, and Jean left, back to him, my apartment was dead, darkness, no dark hair, and I had to get used to the silence, the cold too, it was cold like a tomb, or like my apartment’s always cold, and I just sat there for a while, heart racing, palpitating, becoming unhinged, and I worried for myself, but distantly, because I didn’t care, there were so many bigger things, that’s what I told myself, but I could not sit still, so I stood, paced, reread my spiteful piece, it was full of hate and made me high, I called my friends, they were down to drink, we went to the bar, it was a scene, and though the music was low, I still danced, like I was insane, and shouted, “Why isn’t anybody else dancing? Huh?” and Nina said, “Maybe that’s a sign,” and I laughed so hard, what a great dig, but I didn’t stop, never do when I’m on a roll, and I talked to friends, we all laughed, needed too, and I kept drinking, just didn’t stop, and then there was daylight, another beautiful day, but actually only from inside, it was secretly cold and that chill got into hands and the November wind whipped like ugh, but I kept walking south until I was downtown, where I met a friend and drank, even though I wanted to read, but there was no turning back, so we went bar bopping and ended up at The Library, on Houston and A, where I know the bartenders but they never give me free drinks, but it was two-for-one until eight o’clock, drink up, we did, then Jamie the Anarchist arrived, and he was charged, he told me about the protests, and I was feeling risqué so said the protests looked weak, and he said they weren’t weak, he said we needed to start now, we needed the country to know and I said okay, that’s true, I never know about these things, but I ventured that what I wanted to protest were the hate crimes, and he said that was good, we went to another bar, Sluski joined—an old friend, the only person I’ve ever punched in the face—and he would not say who he voted for, which meant he was a Trump Supporter, and things got a little sticky later, when he showed us a meme that featured a black man’s penis, which was the butt of some joke, and immediately Jamie the Anarchist and I went off on Sleuce, screaming, literally screaming on the sidewalk, “That man’s penis is not funny! You cannot make a joke about that man’s penis! You making a joke about his penis is racist, it’s not harmless, it’s violent, lives are literally at stake,” and Sloozer said something so stupid, he said, “You guys, I don’t see race, that’s on you, I just see a big ol”—we stopped him there, because I didn’t want to lose a friend, and we changed the subject, marched south, together, in the full moonshine, and went into another bar, where we bought many beers, and cheered to many things—everlasting friendship, fighting for something right, the death of postmodernism and rise of meaningful life—then Sleazy said, “To beating the pussy up!” and nobody cheered, but he was willing to listen, and changed his cheers, “To really good sex!” and okay, we all cheered, he was still our friend, we hit the streets, walked further south, headed to one last bar, the bar was a scene, there were so many people dancing there, I dove in, it was depraved, it was a bacchanal, I don’t know if it was good, I was under a disco ball, chugging Lone Stars, and it feels weird that I picked that beer, but I drank up and danced, froth clogging my nostrils, alcohol spilling all over my mouth, neck, and chest, and that’s when the song came on, it didn’t seem real, it was a hip-hop song, mostly bass and drums, the chorus was “Fuck Donald Trump! Fuck Donald Trump!” we all sang along, wearing stank faces while screaming along, middle fingers in the air, we danced, against all that had happened and all that would come, we danced, together, American, a single organism, nowhere, everywhere, between venting and nihilism, joy and despair, bizarre and obvious, “Fuck Donald Trump!” we sang, “Fuck Donald Trump!” underneath the shimmering disco ball, which was a world on fire, that stole our image, fucked it, flung it back at us, and it was one of the most upsetting and gratifying moments of my life,
Kyle Kouri is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University. He also makes visual art. His most recent exhibition, “Long After You’re Gone,” opened at 7 Dunham Gallery in April 2015. His fiction has appeared on horrorsleazetrash.com. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @kylekouri. He writes in the Chocolate Lab at Columbia with Nathan Fetherolf.
Original illustration by @bleedingpiss on Instagram
The taxi had finally arrived. The driver watched Eulália Dias as she descended from her front porch one heavy step at a time. He got out of the cab to open the back door for her, smiled an apology for being late, and asked where she was headed.
“I go to St. Helen’s Church on Dundas, you know where it is? But I need to sit in the front seat because of my legs. Please, you have to hurry. I’m going to be late for my granddaughter’s First Communion.”
“What time you need to be there?”
“No problem. We have time to get there. From Euclid and Queen to Dundas and Lansdowne is not too far.”
Once the driver saw that Eulália had finally managed to latch her seat belt, he was off.
“You Catholic?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. All my life, before I come to Canada.”
“In my country, India, we have many Catholics.”
“You Catholic, too?”
“No, my family is Hindu. We come to Canada ten years ago. I have three sons and one daughter. They all go to university. I have degree in accounting from my country but can’t get a job in my field, so I drive taxi, two shifts a day. You have to work hard in Canada.”
“Oh, sure. I work hard when I come to Canada, too. I worked in a factory, you know? I get up five o’clock in the morning. Now I miss it so much.”
“Where are you from?”
“Azores. You know Azores? Very beautiful. They say my island, São Miguel, is a green island, but Canada is green, too. When I first come to Toronto, I am young, I can walk everywhere, but now I can’t walk very much.”
“How many children do you have?”
“I have three daughters and two sons. Eight grandchildren. All beautiful, healthy.”
“Why do you have to take taxi to your granddaughter’s First Communion? One of your children should have picked you up. It’s a special day.”
“They all live too far away. Ana, in Oakville. Lita in Mississauga, and the youngest one, Fátima, in Woodbridge. Matthew lives in Montreal. He works at McGill University. John lives on Dufferin Street, close to the church. He’s the father of my granddaughter making her First Communion. Meghan, she so nice and beautiful, tall and skinny. I don’t think she eats enough. But they all too busy to come and get me.”
“Children today can be so ungrateful.”
“Oh, yes, but I am used to it. Thanks be to God that I can stay in my house after my husband died. Three years now and, believe me, I still don’t get used to him gone. He was my life. After he die, my children all so nice to me, they all say, Mom, we come get you on the weekends. But then I see that they don’t mean it. Maybe once, maybe two times, somebody come to get me, but now only Christmas and Easter.”
“That’s terrible. In my culture we expect our children to be respectful and obedient, and to take care of their parents when we are old. Maybe in your culture is different?”
“No, no, when I was young, everybody respected their elders. Now, all my friends tell me the same thing about their own children. It’s the busy life and nobody has time for the old people.”
Eulália looked at her watch in a panic.
“Is already getting late. Oh, paciência, I am going to miss the First Communion.”
“We’re now at Sheridan. Just a few more blocks. There it is, see? I told you I would get you there on time. You must not cry now, be happy. You will be with your family for the celebration and then you have lots to eat back at the house.”
The driver held Eulália Dias by the arm and walked her to the front door of the church.
“Thank you so much, and God bless you.”
“You’re welcome, Mama. You enjoy yourself.”
Eulália pushed the heavy doors open. Organ music spilled outside, as did the chatter of the congregation. She walked up the aisle trying to find a seat.
Ai, meu Deus. She would never see her granddaughter in her First Communion dress. She had to find her family, but all the benches were so full of people. A kind soul made room for her to sit down. And just in time. She didn’t think she could walk any more. It was a big church, beautiful, but not as nice as her St. Mary’s.
Ah, all the little girls going up for their First Communion. She wondered which one was Meghan. They were wearing such plain dresses and no veils. When Eulália made her own First Communion, she’d worn a beautiful long white dress, and on her head a silk tiara with little pearls sewn around it. Queridos tempos, those were happy days.
Such a long line up to get to the altar. Eulália hoped she’d see her granddaughter on her way back from her own Communion. And there she was. Eulália waved at her but Meghan didn’t see her. Why was she talking to that little girl beside her? In Eulália’s day, they would be sitting still and praying. Oh, and there was Ana, and Lita, and their kids.
“Ana, give me a kiss. Kevin, Michael, come give avó a beijinho, just one little kiss.”
“We didn’t see you, Mom. Where are you sitting?”
“I come a few minutes late but I had to sit in the back. Now I can stay here with you. Can’t you make room for me to sit down? No? Then I’ll go sit behind you with Lita and the girls. I’m not making a fuss. I just want to sit with my granddaughters. Melinda, Jessica, come give grandmother a kiss.”
Mass was coming to the end. Eulália thanked God for it. She wondered where John and his wife were. Then she spotted them, way up by the altar, always talking to strangers.
“Lita, who are they talking to over there?”
“I don’t know, Mom, maybe some friends of theirs. I’m sorry that we could not drive you. Maybe Ana can drive you back. They have plenty of space in their big car.”
“I come by taxi. Otherwise I would miss the First Communion. Meghan looks so nice, I hope she comes over to see me.”
“The children are taking a group photograph. She’ll be along soon.”
“John, parabéns, congratulations, on Meghan’s First Communion. Bend over and give your mother a kiss. I have a special present to give Meghan but I want to give it to her alone. See? It’s my gold chain that I’ve had since I was a little girl.”
“Thanks, Mãe, she’ll love it.”
“I want to have my picture taken with her, too.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll take one outside before we head out to the restaurant. Who is going to drive you there? You could come with us. We have room in our car.”
“That’s OK, I’m going with Ana. Where’s your brother, Matthew?”
“His plane got delayed so he will meet us at the restaurant.”
“Oh, quepena, how sad that he missed his niece’s First Communion.”
“Ok, Mãe, I gotta go. Sandra is calling me. I’ll see you outside.”
Eulália waved to Sandra. As Eulália’s daughter-in-law, Sandra’s duty was to come over and greet Eulália, but she was too busy talking to her friends.
Eulália looked around and hoped there was a washroom in this church.
“Fátima, I almost didn’t see you. Where are the kids?”
“Hi, Mom, we arrived late. Trevor took the kids outside. They weren’t behaving themselves. How did you get here today, taxi? Who’s driving you back to the restaurant? Oh, Ana, that’s good. You need the washroom? Yes, there’s one at the front of the church.”
“People are already leaving the church. I better hurry up.”
“Don’t worry, take your time. I’m sure Ana will wait for you.”
Eulália walked alone to the bathroom near the vestibule, and held on to the benches for support.
Her children were always nas pressas, always hurrying, with no time for anything.
Eulália found the bathroom too small to move around in. It had a very low toilet. Eulália was grateful for her tall toilet at home, with a handrail for support.
Suddenly it became very quiet, and Eulália tried to hurry up. If only there had been a handle to help her get up from the seat. Meu Deus, my God, she could not get up. Those legs of hers were good for nothing. LITA, ANA, FÁTIMA! Not even one of her daughters was close enough to hear her.
Oh, if only God could help her get up. She finally managed to stand up and felt relieved.
Hello? hello? She sensed that everyone had already left.
Why was the church so dark? She heard voices outside. What were they all laughing about while she was stuck inside alone? Oh, if only she could walk faster. She tried a heavy door and found it locked! She saw the Blessed Sacrament altar by the side door and felt for certain that this must be the way out. Please, dear God, she prayed, help me get out of this church. She sent up a prayer of thanks when the door opened. She had panicked when she had thought that she would never get out. But where did everyone go? Parece impossível! She could not believe they had all left her behind. They would be sorry when they didn’t see her at the restaurant.
Eulália was relieved to see a bench nearby and a little garden shrine with a statue of Our Lady of Fátima.
Ai, Querida Mãe. Even she, the Heavenly Mother, had been abandoned by her Son on the Cross. Eulália sat down to pray the Rosary until someone would come back to get her. She could not wait to see Meghan’s face when she gave her the gold chain.
Early one Sunday morning Dean and I stumble past the First Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, the only church in town old enough to have God’s own handprint cemented in the walkway. We’ve been up a while, still not quite ready to pass out. It’s the corkscrew tail end of hour six or seven where synchronous waves start desynchronizing. The afterglow before the crash. Our general consensus is what the hell, so we sway on over through the courtyard where crocus buds pepper juniper hedges and murky stained glass islands float on seas of dried blood brick. A sign says welcome. The door creaks as it swings.
The last thing I see before going inside, carved into the arch in vaguely medieval script, are these words: A riddle: How are we desperate and empty half of the day, but content and satisfied the other half?
We stand in the warm, orange entryway, facing a cherry wood box on a pedestal where a laminated index card suggests we please insert our tithes and offerings through the tiny slit. I see no lids or doors. How do they get the money out? Once upon a time gift-giving was a ritual of reciprocity. A way to spice up commerce with warm, fuzzy feelings. Giving a gift was investing in favors. Maybe this is why the church hordes wealth, as a kindness, to prevent burdening poor souls with the weight of obligation.
We pay our dollar and sit in the back. I should mention we’re the only customers. The room is empty other than the priest. A church without a congregation.
“It’s a ghost town,” Dean whispers.
He’s a little on the young side, the priest. He’s buried his face in liturgy. He expounds his message in mutters, monotone, and monotempo. Reads his minutes like the chairman of a board meeting. It isn’t exactly a sermon—at least not any kind of sermon I’ve heard before.
Not that my past experiences were exactly fire and brimstone—I mean, that at least would’ve been something. The congregation where I grew up tore each other down with a battery of teeth, grinding knives in backs, eye-plucking beaks, and first stones cast. Insinuated gossip and passive aggressive witch hunts. Like the entire social scene was a sort of passion play to demonstrate how bad hell could get if they ever brought in some real talent.
It’s the same in all religions, I guess. Except for Buddhism. Buddhism’s just a conspiracy to keep us all breathing.
The priest drones on for twenty more minutes about some mysterious council. Finally closes his ledger and asks us to open our hymnals to some page.
I flip through: God is Pretty Okay I Guess,All You Christians Make Some Sounds, How Much Does the Lord Weigh (In Ounces), Boilerplate of Grace. I raise my hand. I’m ignored. The priest begins to sing, barely above a whisper. I get up and walk to the back of the church and browse the pamphlets and bulletin boards. Events scheduled for every day, with plenty of volunteer signatures to go around. Maybe that’s where everyone is. As if life doesn’t have enough mysteries. Where do all the socks go? Will I die inhaling or exhaling?
I sit back down next to Dean and the priest decides to step off stage and come say hi. He doesn’t stop singing until he’s inside pantsing distance. We get a sampler plate from the catalog of looks priests are required to master before graduating from priest school.
“I don’t know the songs,” I say.
“You can still sing.”
He tells us God delights in spontaneous bursts of creation, while to understand a thing is to be one step removed—a vessel for knowledge rather than an outpouring of the creative multiplicity of all which needs not be known.
“Tell us something we want to hear,” Dean says.
“Dogs will lick up the blood of tyrants, the wicked, and those who abuse the poor.”
“Did you just make that up?” I ask.
“It is wise to build a wall, but foolish to repair one,” the priest says.
Then he asks us why we’ve come.
“We just walked in,” Dean says. “We paid our dollar.”
“Ours is a cosmos of fluctuating currency,” the priest says, smiling. “The best way to love God is to love people, not by subscribing to any of the big box brand soul scrubbers.”
“Is that why no one’s here?” I say.
“You’re here,” he says.
Have you ever been so high you feel sober?
“Everyone who walks through these doors shall be raptured by sermon’s end,” the priest says.
“No repeat customers?”
“We know we’re doing our job right when we put ourselves out of business.”
Now open the gates and enter heaven. In with joy, out with obligation.
“But first,” he says. “Did you solve the riddle?”
I look over my shoulder. The words on the arch. How are we desperate and empty half of the day, but content and satisfied the other half? I feel the walls jiggle and hum until they melt away.
I want to tell you the answer, but first I have to take a deep breath and hold it for as long as I possibly can.
Josh Wagner is currently on the move, trying to live in a different country every three months. He’s written four novels (including Shapes the Sunlight Takes, Smashing Laptops, and Deadwind Sea), the collaborative novella Mystery Mark, three graphic novels (notably the award-winning Fiction Clemens), a collection of plays titled Bleached Bones, and a book of shorts called Nothing in Mind. His work has been published by Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us, Medulla Review, Lovecraft eZine, Asymmetrical Press, and Image Comics. More at www.joshwagner.org
Image credits: Painting: “Home Seekers” by Maja Ruznic. Headshot photo by Rocío Briceño.
THE MAESTRO by Amin Matalqa
illustrated by Orlando Saverino-Loeb and Meredith Leich
William, who was a cockroach, had a deep love for the music of Beethoven. Born and raised behind the walls of the Cincinnati Concert Hall, he grew up nurturing a passion for the romantics, much like his forefathers, with an affinity for the operas of Wagner and Puccini. To say that music ran in his blood, while biologically inaccurate, would be an understatement. It traced back to his great grandfather Wilhelm the first, who was an immigrant from Germany famous for boasting to the uncultured Cincinnati roaches about life behind the walls of the Berlin Opera House (legend had it that he once sat on Herbert Von Karajan’s shoe while the maestro conducted Brahms’ Requiem), and to his grandfather, who was taking a stroll to contemplate the thematic development of his first symphony when he was stepped on by none other than Leonard Bernstein. When he was still alive, William’s father longed for the day the family would return to the motherland and hear the acoustics of the famous venues there, but he died while scouting the route to the airport (he was captured and swallowed by a drunk man over a $20 bet).
William’s realization that he was destined to become a great maestro dawned upon him when he first heard the 1957 recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Eroica, the magnificent 3rd Symphony. He could feel the divine power of music under the baton of the Italian maestro and from that moment on, he knew he had what it takes. He owed the world proof that under his guidance the Cincinnati Symphony could become as great as Berlin, Vienna or the New York Philharmonic. All he had to do was inject a fraction of Toscanini’s passion to inspire them. He had to think of a way to take over as conductor, because though the local musicians were promising, their leader, in William’s humble but impassioned opinion, was an aloof hack who waved his baton with the stiffness of a rusty Soviet metronome and kept the cold expressionless face of an English countryside butler. He knew nothing of the spiritual suffering necessary to convey true musical euphoria. William, on the other hand, had torment burning in his neopterin DNA.
His mother always reminded him that he could be special if he committed his life to nurturing his gift. His antennae were unusually long for a roach his size, and his natural ability to conduct precise rhythm with the right antenna and emotional dynamics with the left was a skill that brought attention (sometimes too much of it) from the ladies. However, let there be no question, his motivation was always driven by his sheer love of music and loyalty to Cincinnati.
When William divulged his mission to his pregnant sister, Ursulla (whom he also mated with), she had to sit down and take a deep breath through the spiracles in her sides (because cockroaches don’t have lungs). William was about to embark on a quest that would forever define him either as a courageous hero or a suicidal fool. No cockroach had ever conducted an orchestra of humans and survived. Ursulla waved her antennae hysterically screaming, “Are you out of your mind?” She begged and pleaded, trying to stop him, but William refused to listen. He was willing to die for his dream.
His mission was simple: first, lock the conductor in his back room while the orchestra awaits his arrival; second, rush down to the stage and take his place at the podium before the musicians get impatient or suspicious of a mutiny; and third, tap his antenna loud enough to demand everyone’s attention, then give the downbeat with undeniable authority, leaving the orchestra with no choice but to begin playing under his direction. If he could get these three steps out of the way, then he could focus on leading them to play from their hearts instead of their intellect.
They were to perform Mahler’s 9th that night, and he had spent countless hours studying the score, memorizing it, note for note, measure by measure, while listening to the defender of mediocrity butcher it in the rehearsals. William would get frustrated by the lethargic interpretation diffusing any build up of tension or angst from the strings. He would stand at the side of the stage calling out, “Faster, faster!” or “Schnell,” in case anyone spoke German, but his attempts were futile from that far away. Ursulla would walk up and find him screaming and banging his head against the walls. She would beg him to calm down, to which he would reply that if he didn’t care so much he wouldn’t be so upset, and what’s the point of life if a roach didn’t care about something with all his heart?
William was musically prepared to take over, but he was aware that if his coup were to succeed, he would face one major challenge: an orchestra of middle-aged humans didn’t have strong enough vision to spot a little cockroach his size. He wasn’t so worried about the strings in the front, but the horns in the back, they could pose a big problem. How terrible would Mahler’s 9th be with improper dynamics from the horns? William felt a shortness of breath as his anxiety returned.
One of the fundamental lessons his mother had instilled in him when he was little (before she was poisoned by a lethal combo of Cypermethrin and Acephate) was to conquer his fear by turning it into fire to fuel him. “Roaches,” she said, “have the tendency to become brooding creatures who submit to their fears. Always running away from this and that, they spend most of their lives so afraid that they get nothing done.” William promised he would never live that way, so on that fateful day, he took a deep breath, munched down on some cardboard, and set forth on his quest as Ursulla bade him farewell with proud tears filling her compound eyes.
The clock indicated quarter till eight and the crowds were taking their seats around the concert hall as William snuck through pipes and under doors, finding his way to the green room where the conductor was sitting facing the mirror. His body was still, almost lifeless, and his eyes were closed. He was meditating. William scoffed at the crooked posture in the man’s back when he felt his curiosity, like a gravitational force, pull him closer towards the conductor. He climbed the dresser and crawled halfway up the mirror, feeling the brightness of light bulbs engulf him with warmth. He was up to the man’s eye line, so close he could smell his pungent body odor, which made him tingle with pleasure. All his hatred, jealousy and resentment evaporated in the magnitude of this moment. In their place, admiration was born. Here he was, a simple cockroach, standing on the reflection of the maestro’s face, leader of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
The conductor opened his eyes and William froze, fighting every instinct begging him to run for his life. He held his stance, naked and exposed, yet without fear. The maestro then did the unexpected: he slowly leaned forward and looked at William. Was he admiring our hero? Did he recognize the uniqueness of his antennae? Perhaps it was the roach’s courage that demanded respect. Could this be the moment? Had William finally taken that small step towards a life-long friendship, that giant leap on behalf of his entire species, a species that had been cruelly misunderstood by the human race for thousands of years? William then waved his right antenna, as if to say, “Well hello, human,” making the maestro smile. Oh, if only Ursulla were there to witness this moment of first contact between these two unlikely beings.
But the moment was all too brief. Whap! The conductor slammed his shoe onto the mirror, barely missing William by a hair. The betrayal! The mirror shattered and William fell onto the ground. Whap! Another attempt. The conductor was trying to murder him. But why? The fool! They were this close to striking a friendship and changing the interspecies dynamic for their respective peoples. William zipped his way across the floor, zigzagging to survive two more violent swats, until he found refuge under a door. He rested in a safe dark corner for a moment, made a quick prayer, then bolted out into the hallway where members of the orchestra were rushing to get on stage.
His mission had failed, but cockroaches never had a reputation for good planning. He had to come up with something new, a plan B, and he had to do it quickly.
By the time the orchestra was settled on stage and the instruments were getting tuned, the hideous conductor stepped out of the room. William hid in a corner and waited for him to pass, at which point he marched close behind where he could stay out of sight. He followed him all the way to the stage where he could hear the chatter in the crowds die down like rain after a storm. The lights had dimmed down and the concert was about to commence.
The orchestra waited in silence and William felt a sudden need to pee, which he did. The maestro then took to the stage and William followed him as the crowds burst into roaring applause. The heat of the spotlight washed over our heroic roach. It was a moment of glory. They were applauding as if they knew what he had gone through to get here. As if they understood how he had risked his life and challenged his own instincts to overcome his inherent fear. This was a reward for his courage, but he knew not to let it get to his head. It was a distraction and he couldn’t allow vanity to cloud his vision again. He had one objective in mind and nothing less. He was here to conduct and infuse his passion into the Cincinnati Symphony. He had to convey the beauty of Mahler’s 9th, a symphony portraying the inevitability of death.
He let the applause die down before walking onto the podium, then took a little bow and turned to face the orchestra. Unlike the human hack at the helm, William didn’t need to read the score because he had the entire 9th memorized. He stood behind the lazy stiff and tapped his antennae to the ground, calling for the orchestra’s attention. He could feel their eyes collectively stare at him, perhaps with bewilderment, but there was no time for vanity. The symphony was awaiting its birth under his baton. He raised his antennae and gave the downbeat.
Magic happened. The harp, the horns, the strings, like waves of a morning’s calm ocean, carried each note into the air, and William closed his eyes to feel the sensations growing inside him. The strings swirled around the escalating horns, then forces brewed with tension in a series of crescendos building towards a collision course. Wave after wave hit him like sonic flashes transcending time and space. It was as if Mahler’s ghost was standing before him, perhaps even taking possession of his body. Oh, if only his forefathers could see him in the glory of this moment as he simmered in the bliss of music. Suddenly, while continuing to conduct, never missing a beat, his wings triggered and spread open for the first time in his life. On their own, they started flapping rapidly, lifting him up into the air. William took flight and hovered up to the maestro’s head. The view from above was majestic. He no longer had to stare at the orchestra’s shoes anymore. The music had completely taken over him while his antennae conducted with the spiritual force of Toscanini, Bernstein, and Karajan combined.
He could feel their eyes staring at him. The playing continued. The timpani declared his arrival.
When the trumpets made their announcement, he looked to the side of the stage and found Ursulla staring at him in disbelief. She was proud and in tears. William smiled to her as his antennae waved up and down in perfect meter, feeding the orchestra’s swelling dynamics. That was also when he flew into the maestro’s face and accidentally got sucked into the vortex of his mouth. The music paused as William struggled to run across the surface of the man’s flapping tongue. He was drenched in saliva when the conductor spit him out and struck him with one swift blow. William crashed onto the ground and barely blinked when a massive shoe descended and crushed him.
The music returned. The French horns mourned as our hero accepted his demise. But there was one last breath left in him. Ursulla was crying as she ran to the love of her life and held his broken legs and torso. William could hear the solo violin play its gentle melody when he gave Ursulla his last dying words: “Tell the others, show them, find the videotape.” And he died as the end of the first movement came to a close.
Video cameras had recorded the concert, and the next day, upon the broadcast of the incident on the news, the entire population of Cincinnati Concert Hall roaches gathered to watch William heroically conduct Mahler’s 9th from the air then sacrifice his life for the one thing he loved. They collectively agreed, though William was gone, his interpretation of the 9th was the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s finest performance to date.
William became a legend to all roaches. A symbol of seeking one’s bliss and living without fear. And cockroaches flew in from all around the state to pay their respects.
The next week, the management of the Cincinnati Concert Hall spent $1,376.32 (after the $100 coupon) of their annual budget to have the entire building fumigated.
Born in Jordan, raised in Ohio, Amin Matalqa is a writer/director whose feature films include the Sundance-winning Jordanian Oscar entry, Captain Abu Raed; Walt Disney Studios’ soccer drama, The United; the romantic comedy, Strangely In Love based on Dostoevsky’s White Nights; and the upcoming adventure, The Rendezvous, starring Stana Katic (Castle) and Raza Jaffrey (Code Black) which premiers in the fall. Amin lives in Los Angeles and has an MFA in Film Directing from the American Film Institute. Next up: his debut book of short stories: Heroes & Idiots: Vol 1.
Orlando Saverino-Loeb is a Philadelphia-born artist. He graduates with a fine arts degree in painting and drawing and a minor in Italian from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in December 2016. He specializes in painting, using acrylic paint with an assortment of other mediums. His thesis exhibition at the Stella Elkins Tyler Gallery was entitled Individualized Pareidolia. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Italy and has lived there for two summers studying art and Italian. He began his college career at the University of Cincinnati to study industrial design for one year before transferring to Tyler. He has shown his work at Infusion lounge in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Art Collective. You can follow his work on Instagram @orlandosaverinoart. Orlando is a Cleaver Emerging Artist. .
Meredith Leich is a videomaker, painter, drawer, and writer, who works with video installation, 3D animation, watercolor, music, and text.Born and raised in Boston, she has made her home in Berlin, Brooklyn, Jaffa, San Francisco, and now Chicago, making and teaching art.You can see her work at meredithleich.com and vimeo.com/outmoded.
This morning, out my window, a strange amber film over the sky. The usually crowded streets now mostly empty, only a few people hurrying down the sidewalk, heads bent in medical masks. In the distance, the temple on the hill just a faint shimmer.
Something on the wind.
Nuclear fallout? Had North Korea finally dropped the bomb? I check my phone. Like always, no messages. I look out the window again. Clay-tiled rooftops, a cat slinking under a parked car, a row of cherry blossom trees, the petals scattered along the sidewalk—everything in sepia, like a photograph from a hundred years ago.
And then I remember: Asian Dust. My boss at the English academy warned me about it, told me to stay inside when it blew through. It comes from the deserts of China and Mongolia, he said. Every spring it swirls east over the continent, turning the skies yellow and causing a respiratory nuisance. Koreans have written about it for thousands of years. Hwangsa, they call it: “yellow dust.”
It’s not like I had any exciting Sunday plans anyway. I close the blinds and make my way back to bed, kicking over a few empty bottles from the night before. I’d been up late reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and drinking soju—cheap Korean liquor. As I crawl back under the covers, I check the clock: already past eleven. Might as well sleep a few more hours. Let the dust bury the city.
But before I can fall asleep again, my downstairs neighbor starts sobbing. This has become a regular event over the past few weeks. Long, choking sobs—the sounds of true anguish. I’ve never seen her or even heard her speak, but from her crying I would guess she was middle-aged. I know nothing else about her. This building is new but hastily and cheaply built, and the walls and floors are thin. I hear every toilet flush, argument, and intimate moment of the young couple living next to me, but from the floor below, only sobbing.
It is a strange thing, in Korea, for a woman to live alone. The Korean women teaching at my academy are in their late twenties or early thirties, and those who are unmarried still live with their parents. They told me that especially in Jinju, a conservative city on the southern tip of the peninsula, a woman living alone would be eyed with suspicion or scorn. Has she abandoned her family? Why hasn’t she found a husband? What failure or shortcoming has led to this?
I only wonder why she has to cry so loudly. How can someone muster such emotion before noon? I lie there, head throbbing from the soju, and jam a pillow over each ear. But I can’t fall asleep. I pick up my book, read a few paragraphs, and set it back down. I can’t concentrate. Usually I would crank up some music or put on my headphones and play a computer game, but today with this headache I don’t need any loud sounds or eyestrain. I need some peace.
I get up and wander around my apartment. It’s a small studio, so I don’t have far to wander. I think about making breakfast, but I’m not hungry. Instead I sit at my computer and click around online for a few minutes. The whole world at my fingertips and nothing interesting. Eventually I go to the window again, open the blinds, and stare out at the empty streets, nothing moving, the city frozen in amber. My neighbor still weeping.
I realize, suddenly, that if I stay in my room and listen to this crying woman, the whole arc of my life will be decided. I’ll live out my years in one studio apartment after another, always sleeping on a single bed, always drinking cheap liquor, never with any new messages on my phone, never finding anything interesting online, and always, always listening to a neighbor sobbing through the walls.
I’ll go for a walk, I decide. It’s just a little dust. I put on a pair of jeans, grab a hat, and climb down the four flights of stairs in my apartment building.
The dust isn’t so bad. I like the empty streets, the feeling of modest adventure. It reminds me of my dusty prairie hometown, where I roamed the dirt roads swinging a stick like a sword and dug up my backyard looking for arrowheads. Even then I knew I would someday travel to strange and beautiful places, see things no one else in my town would ever see. And now here I am on the other side of the planet, in Jinju, South Korea, thinking of my childhood, hung-over and walking alone in a cloud of sand.
But unlike a sandstorm, yellow dust doesn’t swirl in your face, catch in your hair, crunch between your teeth. You experience hwangsa as a hazy sky, itching eyes, a scratch in your throat. You don’t see the dust until it’s built up along the edges of walls, or thinly coating a windshield. So I make my way without too much discomfort through the narrow, winding streets to Jinju’s river, the Namgang.
The Namgang, dark with silt, flowing haphazardly northeast to join with the Nakdong, and then south again to the sea. I stand on a bridge and look out across it. On the north bank stands Jinju Castle, a 900-year-old fortress where thousands of men have fought and died. Built from mud, destroyed by sea marauders, rebuilt from stone, destroyed by the Japanese, and now built again with a museum and 3-D theater. On the south bank of the river lies a bamboo forest. I’m standing there on the bridge, trying to decide which way to go, when I meet Na Na-Ra.
I don’t recognize her at first—just a wave of black hair above a white medical mask coming toward me on the bridge. But her eyes grow big when she sees me, and she rushes over.
“Michael Teacher!” she says. She lowers her mask and I recognize her then, her sleepy eyes and thick eyebrows, her small chubby nose.
“Na Na-Ra!” I say.
Na Na-Ra used to be a teacher at my English academy. We worked together for a month after I came to Korea, before she was fired for coming to work late every day. She used an English name—Tanya—for the students, but I preferred to use her full Korean name, family name first.
“Where are you going?” she says. “It’s yellow dust today.” She gestures with two hands at the sky.
“I’m just walking. Where are you going?”
“Over there,” she says, motioning vaguely to the south. “Where’s your mask?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You should take care. The yellow dust will kill you.” This is not true.
“You should give me your mask,” I joke, reaching out for it.
“No!” She slaps my hand away and cinches the mask tightly over her mouth and nose. “Walk with me, Michael Teacher. Just over there.”
We walk together down the bridge. When a car rolls past us, she presses her shoulder against me to move out of its way, and I’m filled with a sudden desire and loneliness. It’s been a long time since a girl has pressed her body against mine.
“Are you still at Avalon?” she says, referring to my English academy.
“Yeah. Everyone misses you.” This is also not true. Na Na-Ra was a less than diligent worker, and often the tasks she neglected would fall to the other teachers. Despite having only known her a month, I probably missed her the most. She never seemed to take the job too seriously, and her laziness amused me.
“Ha! What a shit place.” Na Na-Ra spent most of her time in the office watching pirated American movies on her computer, and she’d picked up some colorful language.
“It’s not so bad. I don’t know why you could never come to work on time.”
“I like to stay up late.”
“Classes start at 2 PM.”
“My house is far away. I have to take the bus. Have you eaten?”
“Of course! You should eat more. You look very terrible. So skinny.” Na Na-Ra is much skinnier than I am, but a certain heft is expected of Americans here.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Anyway, what are you doing these days? Did you find a new job?”
“I’m tutoring two middle school girls. They’re so dumb. Mostly I’m watching TV and sleeping.”
We leave the bridge and start walking through a riverside park. Usually it would be bustling with children and couples, but today it’s quiet. We pass a collection of outdoor exercise equipment where in better weather older Korean men and women, ahjussis and ajummas, engage in public fitness routines. The path leads east into the bamboo forest.
Na Na-Ra looks at me and smiles—her eyes scrunch above her mask.
“Michael Teacher, do you really like Korea?”
I start to answer with a quick affirmative, but something stops me. Maybe it’s my loneliness, or the strange feeling of closeness two people develop when walking together in inclement weather, but I suddenly feel the urge to open myself up to this young woman, this person I know so little about, with whom I’ve only exchanged a few office pleasantries almost a year ago.
“It’s the same as anywhere, I guess. You know, this is the fifth country I’ve lived in. Did I tell you that?”
She shakes her head.
“I was born in America, of course, went to school there. I studied abroad in Germany for a year during college, and then after I graduated I taught English in Taiwan for a year, then the same thing in Malaysia, and now here I am in Korea.”
“Wow, you’ve seen so much of the world.”
“That’s just where I’ve lived. I’ve also traveled to a dozen other countries. And everywhere I’ve been it’s the same thing. Just trade a cathedral for a temple for a mosque, eat some meat and vegetables here, some rice and noodles there. Hey, here’s a very important old building. And there’s another one over there and another one and another one until they’ve lost all meaning. The only thing that changes is me, and not in a good way.”
We’re approaching the edge of the bamboo forest now. It’s hard to read Na Na-Ra’s expression behind her mask. “What do you mean?” she says.
“It’s hard to explain. But it feels like each place I go takes something from me. Like I’ve left the best parts of myself in all these different countries. I feel like I’ve become fractured somehow.”
The bamboo forest is about a hundred yards long, twenty yards wide. We walk through it on a path made from wooden planks. In a few places, the path breaks off to areas with benches overlooking the river. Tied near the tops of some of the trees, small speakers play artificial bird sounds. The forest is empty except for the two of us.
“For example,” I continue, “in the past, people told me I was funny. I’m not funny anymore. I don’t make people laugh. I lost that somewhere. And I used to be into philosophy and poetry. It was so important to me. Now it all just seems ridiculous.”
I begin coughing. Dust in my throat. Na Na-Ra grabs my arm. “Are you okay?” she says. “Here, let’s take a rest.” She pulls me over to one of the benches. We sit down next to each other. On the other side of the river, Jinju Castle sits in the haze.
“And the worst thing,” I say, “is that I can’t make deep connections with the people I meet because of the language barrier. So I meet new people all the time but I’m always lonely. I’d have to study for twenty years to have this conversation with you in Korean. Your English is good, but even if you understand the words, I don’t think you can really understand what I’m feeling. Our worldview is tied to our native language.”
“I almost understand,” she says. “My English is shit, I know. Good enough to teach kids, but my vocab is small. But I understand you.”
I look over at her on the bench. Dark eyes, smooth black hair, a few bumps on her forehead underneath her makeup. Her leg, so thin in a tight pair of jeans, is almost touching mine. I want to put my arm around her. But I don’t. It would feel, somehow, like a betrayal of trust. So I just sit beside her and look out at the river.
After a while, she says, “So you don’t like to travel. Why not stay in America?”
“I guess I’m looking for a spark of some kind,” I say. “I always wanted to have a great adventure. But now I’m not sure if great adventures really exist.”
“So what’s your dream?” she asks.
“My dream?” I laugh. “I guess my dream is to live a life that has some sort of greater meaning, that leaves an impression on the world. But I don’t think it’s possible. There was this English poet, John Keats. He was pretty famous. When he died, on his tombstone he left the words: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Do you know what that means?”
“Written water? He loved nature, maybe?”
“Think about it this way: if you took your finger and wrote your name in the Namgang, what would happen to it?”
“A fish would eat your finger.”
“Maybe. And your name would disappear. That’s what’s happening to me. I feel like I’m going through my life just writing my name in water.”
Na Na-Ra shifts on the seat beside me. She seems agitated.
“Michael Teacher,” she says, “you lived in five countries. You saw so many places. I lived with my parents in Jinju all my life. I wanted to go to Canada to study English, but my father didn’t want it. So what can I do? I have to stay in Jinju. There’s no good job for me, but my family is here. Soon my father will introduce me to a man and I’ll marry. You’re sad about your life, but I envy you. Really I envy you.”
She stands up and walks over to the rail separating the forest walkway from the river far below. For a minute we’re both quiet. We listen to the sound of the river and the bird songs from the speakers.
Finally, she says, “Michael Teacher, come here.”
I join her at the rail. It’s thick, made of wood, and Na Na-Ra runs a finger along it and holds it up for me to see.
“Yellow dust. Hwangsa.”
I nod. “Hwangsa.”
“Michael Teacher, let’s write our names in the dust.”
“It’s better than water.”
“I guess it is.” I reach down, but she grabs my hand.
“Wait! You have to write it in Korean.”
“Why? I’m not Korean.”
“But you live in Korea. Just write it!”
“Okay. But I forget how. I’ve never really learned the letters.”
“Here,” she says, guiding my finger. “I’ll show you.”
We write our names in the dust. Hers looks like this: 나나라. And mine looks like this: 마이클.
After we’re finished she lets go of my hand and we stand there, side by side, and look out across the Namgang. Then we walk back to the path and make our way to the end of the bamboo forest.
Out on the sidewalk, Na Na-Ra says, “I have to take a bus. Wait with me.”
I stand next to her at the bus stop. We’re the only ones waiting. A bus goes by, but it’s not hers. All the seats are empty. After it’s gone, Na Na-Ra looks up at me and narrows her eyes, like she’s studying my face intently.
“What is it?” I say.
She makes a noncommittal sound, then laughs, shakes her head, and looks away.
A few minutes pass. I want to say something meaningful but can’t think of what it might be. Later, I know, I’ll run this moment through my mind a thousand times, thinking of all the perfect words, but for now I just stand beside Na Na-Ra and wait for the bus.
It pulls up a few minutes later, brakes hissing.
“I’ll go on this one,” Na Na-Ra says through her mask.
“Try to eat more.”
“Try to learn Korean.”
“Goodbye, Michael Teacher.” She waves at me, even though I’m standing right in front of her, so I wave back.
“Goodbye, Na Na-Ra.”
And then she climbs on the bus and it takes her away.
I walk back through the bamboo forest and the riverside park, cross the bridge, make my way through the narrow, winding streets, and start up the stairs to my apartment.
But I stop in the hallway. I head back outside and into the convenience store across the street. Nothing in any aisle looks appealing, but I grab a box of green tea and a bag of shrimp chips.
Back in my apartment building, I stop outside my downstairs neighbor’s door.
I can’t hear anything from inside. She’s either stopped sobbing, or she’s gone out, like I did, into the dust.
What’s my plan? She’s never met me before and will have no idea who I am. I don’t know the word for “neighbor.” I stand there holding the tea and the chips, a little sweaty, eyes watery from the dust. Will I just thrust the food at her and run away?
I knock again. Was that a shuffling sound? I can’t be sure. In any case, she doesn’t answer. I knock one last time and then set the snacks at the foot of the door.
Up in my room, I start coughing again, harder now. I pour a glass of water and stand by the window drinking it and listening downstairs for the sound of the door. Outside: empty streets, clay-tiled rooftops, a hazy yellow sky.
Robert Hinderliter’s fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, decomP, and other places. He grew up in Kansas and is now an Assistant Professor in the English Literature Department of Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. He lived in Jinju for a year.
PHASE THREE OF BAZ LUHRMANN’S RED CURTAIN TRILOGY by Kelly R. Samuels
We may have found ourselves situated in Phase Three of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain
Trilogy—that kind of progression. From happy ending to two lovers dying for love to one woman dying, coughing up what appears to be blood but is actually a mix of red food coloring, corn syrup and water. It doesn’t make us happy, this.
We wonder how old Luhrmann is, if age is a factor in outlook. How can it not be?
And can this outlook be explained in understandable, succinct terms? Is it pessimism, the opposite of optimism, the death of hope? Hope is so Hallmark. And were we ever really optimists? Even way back in college people labeled us pessimistic. And we were. Although we preferred the word “realist,” given what life was. Our mother used to say, “Life isn’t fair and then you die.”
We could discuss how hearing that assertion repeatedly through our formative years
could have a negative effect, but perhaps by story’s end, we won’t have to. We’ll just understand. As we do that morning when we think: “We may have found ourselves situated in Phase Three of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Trilogy.”
Strictly Ballroom was released in 1992. Romeo + Juliet in 1996. Moulin Rouge! in 2001.
A span of nine years, although the first was first a play, so the span is greater. If one is to assume that the films reflect Luhrmann’s outlook on life and love, then there is this:
Phase One: Love isn’t—at least for both people—a thunderbolt, but in pretty quick turn around, it ends well. Boy and girl end up in love and together. Alive.
Phase Two (cribbed from Shakespeare): Love is instantaneous and worth dying for. Boy and girl end up together. Dead, side by side.
Phase Three: Love isn’t—at least for both people—a thunderbolt, but transitions to deep love and then ends in death. Of just the girl. The boy carries on, stamping out his words on an Underwood.
When we were twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and would hole up in our bedroom reading
anything we could get our hands on, we devoured romance novels. Harlequin and Silhouette. Those novels always landed squarely in Phase One, even the one where the ruggedly handsome man was literally blinded by something or other. Later when we read Jane Eyre we started to see that people are always ripping off ideas from others, but that’s perhaps a different story. So, despite our parents’ divorce and our mother’s remarriage to a man who sometimes threw fits at the dinner table and stormed out to the garage to construct something of wood, we thought that love prevailed in the end.
Later, when we were seventeen and had fallen in love with he of the El Camino and was
told by him that he liked driving around with us, hanging out together at his house, but we didn’t whet his sexual appetite, we caught a glimpse of Phase Three. Maybe more than a glimpse. We felt like a piece of us kind of just shriveled up and died. There was a death and it was only ours. But it didn’t last. Because we were willing to fall in love again and contemplate death without the loved one, who also felt the same. Phase Two. Naturally, we didn’t die, but the feeling was there. That intensity, certainty. It resembled that Millay sonnet, that coy little number with its couplet that is a game changer.
But now we wonder. Having caught a glimpse of Phase Three when we were seventeen
and having seen it again sometimes briefly and sometimes for longer periods of time, we wonder if we haven’t entered it completely now, smack dab in the middle of middle age. You might have all that “Come What May,” yada yada, the word love and/or its variants appearing 143 times, yada yada, but Satine dies and Ewan McGregor gets to go off on his international motorcycle tour. They do not end up together. Alive or dead.
We read on IMDB that in the scene where all the men throw their hats up into the air,
the hats were suspended by fishing wire. It’s that kind of let down. Like when on the very first night we could actually cook dinner in our new house, our husband poured only himself a glass of wine and got to it, busily humming at the stove. We stood just outside of the kitchen and watched him for a minute or two, realizing it didn’t matter if we were there or not. He just kept hammering away at his typewriter.
And it isn’t just love. It’s life, too. Like when we sat in the car, waiting for our
daughter to come out of the house and she did, standing on the stoop, arms outstretched, smiling and taking a moment to bellow a tune, and we thought, “I remember being like that…” As if everything was going to turn out all right. We can recall it, but we can’t access it. We’re well into Phase Three.
We haven’t seen any of Luhrmann’s films after Moulin Rouge! We heard that Australia was pretty bad. We could visit Wikipedia and get the gist, but why bother? Luhrmann is done with his Red Curtain Trilogy that becomes more frenetic with every film. Never mind The Great Gatsby. We’ve read that novel about a hundred times. We know how that story goes.
Kelly R. Samuels diligently works as an adjunct English instructor near what some term the “west coast of Wisconsin.” She writes both fiction and poetry. Her work has most recently appeared in PoetsArtists’s JuJuBes, online at apt, and in Off the Coast. Kelly is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Here’s the way the rain works: it comes down every day for a whole third of the year. June, July, August, September, there isn’t a single day without rain. Sometimes it’s just a loud, violent storm that swoops in, does its bit, and moves on, but as often as not it lingers. Like a cat you’re trying to shoo out the door: it yawns, it scratches, it stretches out its claws, it licks itself. In other words, it takes its time.
Mushrooms sprout in patches of grass, as pale and bulbous as the bellies of toads. Puddles form, then don’t go away. Streets flood. In the malecón the rain water gushes and eddies like river rapids. Drunks fall in and are drowned, washed downstream and beached, eventually, like flotsam on one side of the concrete riverbed. It happens every season, like a human sacrifice in reverse: an offering to make the rain stop.
After a while all the rain starts to make some people a little crazy. That might sound like an excuse, but it isn’t. I’ve been affected by it from the time I was a little girl, the rain-craziness. Every summer, I’d feel myself dragged along by powerful forces, like a werewolf at the full moon. My illness manifested itself así: restlessness, difficulty concentrating, sour stomach, an increasing sense of desperation, and, finally, an overpowering desire to punish someone.
It had better stop raining soon, my grandmother would say grimly, or this child’s going to commit an atrocity.
In those years, my atrocities were generally directed at Brown Bear, whom I used to seek out with shouts of ¡Oso Pardo! ¡Vente, cabrón! after which he would cower under my grandmother’s bed till I dragged him out by the tail. You leave that dog in peace, my grandmother would call, but by then it would be too late.
Do you not want the Wise Men to bring you any presents? They surely won’t unless you behave yourself, my Aunt Lili would observe, her small gray eyes fixed dolefully on me from behind her glasses, but my grandmother didn’t waste her time with threats. Go fetch me my hairbrush, she’d command one of my younger cousins, holding me by the wrist as I squirmed.
Afterward, when Brown Bear went to live in the rancho where he had more space to run around, the cousins themselves became my victims. Lumps sprouted on their tender flesh, bruises bloomed purple and wilted to dull yellow. Their desire to tattle was held in check by my vague but meaningful threats of retribution. Then October would come, the rains would cease, and—poof!—as if by magic, I’d be transformed back into my other self, as good-natured and docile as any child in the colonia. Así, I’d spend the other two-thirds of the year.
Still, like Dr. Jekyll at the beginning of his experiment, I secretly rejoiced in the freedom the rain provided.
When I was older and less prone to inflicting injury—at least in any of its visible forms—I devised new methods. One was to take a single piece of something away from its owner: the yellow plastic half moon from Valentina’s Perfection game, the center of the clock face from Tadeo’s 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, a pink flamingo earring of Zaira’s, the jack of hearts from the deck in the middle drawer of the curio cabinet. I collected these objects in a hollow stump at the top of the hill by the goat farm, where I visited them regularly. No one followed me—I made certain of that by doubling back and making long, circuitous rounds before beginning my trek up the scrubby, mesquite-covered hill. In any case, no one ever went near the goat farm; it stank.
I took a greater pleasure in those things than I’ve ever derived from anything else in my life: the stiffened, sun-faded puzzle piece, the corrugated, yellowish playing card, the broken Perfection piece—two pieces now: a fallen moon, dashed to bits—the blackening flamingo. They were totemistic representations of my cousins, likeel retrato de Dorian Gray; the damage I inflicted on them spared their owners. Scapegoats, I thought, not unironically, as I stood amid the stench of the goat farm.
Now that I’m older—I turned nineteen in February—my rain-craziness has taken on a new dimension, though since Sigmund Freud says that sex and aggression are essentially the same thing, maybe it isn’t as different as I think. Maybe I’ve just reverted back to the old violence of my childhood.
My cousin Lupe’s motherlessness was of a respectable kind, her mother having died of a fever two days after she was born. Not like my mother, who took a double-length city bus to theCentral one Tuesday and vanished forever. Those buses are joined together by an accordion-like section that brings to mind the flesh of a caterpillar; por eso, and for its length, and its color—in León everything’s green in tribute to yesteryear’s “green-belly” leather tanners—the bus is known as la oruga. The vehicle of my mother’s disappearance is a universal symbol of metamorphosis; not surprisingly, when I think of her now, it’s as an exquisite, kaleidoscopic butterfly. Even her name bears this out: Mari, as if short formariposa. León in the end was too small for her, too provincial, too monochromatic. She unfurled her wings and got the fuck out.
But this sanctioned, tragic motherlessness of Lupe’s is just one of many ways she’s one-upped me over the years. Another is her face. It’s a face from a painting, like nothing that’s been seen on earth for centuries, a face that doesn’t belong in the present world. Ivory-toned, oval, with a smattering of chocolate freckles that don’t just cross the bridge of her nose but dot even her forehead and chin. Full, pouty mouth, big almond-shaped eyes. It’s those eyes that give Lupe’s face its particular magic: they’re as pale green as the inside of a lime, and as powerful. Like the old man in that story by Edgar Allan Poe, Lupe’s got eyes that could drive you to contemplate murder. Eyes like that, even without a striking face around them, would get a lot of attention, but she also has a body that attracts second—and third, and fourth—glances. At least she did have. Since this pregnancy, she’s taken on a puffy look, as if she’d been left soaking in water for too long. Makes you want to hang her up in the sun, or squeeze her, to wring her out.
Another way Lupe rubs my nose in it is Juan José, her rich husband. Juanjo’s one of these choirboys, looks like he’s never been smudged, all earnestness and big white teeth. He went to the best school in the state—Miraflores, where they put the Pope up when he came to León—then got a job in a swanky law firm that happens to be his father’s. Since they married, Lupe’s been living in the lap of luxury, Colonia Campestre, Calle Estrella. Five fucking bedrooms.
At breakfast I sit in one of these rooms, on the edge of Lupe’s great big four-poster bed. It’s covered with a floral bedspread, purple pensamientos with swabs of darker purple in the centers, like little yawning faces. Yawning, or screaming. ¡Despierta, México! is on the television; three buxom women in heavy make-up are interviewing a singer wearing a cowboy hat with a pattern like a cow’s spots. He blathers on, and they make the appropriate faces—surprised, sympathetic—stopping from time to time to look at one another as if they’ve never heard anything so fascinating in all their lives. Completely nauseating, in short. Also the volume’s too loud; Lupe’s got it turned up to cover the sound of the rain.
“You can go, si quieres,” she tells me with a sideways glance as she picks at her toast.
“No, I’ll wait till you’re finished.” This is where I spend every meal, perched up on the right side of her bed, the door side. I stay close, in case she needs something. Anyway, I’ve already eaten. I always have breakfast with Juanjo before he leaves for work.
“Have you heard his music?” she asks, lifting her chin toward the television. Herlicuado has left a thin layer of froth on her upper lip; it glistens there, like sea foam.
The singer has been on the Video Rola countdown every night for weeks. The song that’s popular now is about how he can’t concentrate on his studies because he’s so lovesick; in the previous one he was breaking up with his girlfriend, wishing her luck in life.
“No,” I say. “You?”
She squints at the television set. “I don’t know. Maybe. Is he the one who sings about his daughter?”
“Yeah,” I tell her. There’s a pause, filled by a Gansito commercial and the rain and Lupe chewing, then I say, “He looks a little like Juanjo, doesn’t he?”
“You think so?” she asks, not contradicting me, though we both know he looks nothing like Juanjo.
If Lupe hadn’t had a miscarriage last time, she wouldn’t be on bedrest now. It’s also a factor that she’s carrying twins, one of whom is stronger, and more likely to survive, than the other. When I walk her to the bathroom, I imagine these babies, one bigger than the other, splattered on the white tile of the bathroom floor, their wrinkled flesh like undercooked meat against a backdrop of blood and amniotic fluid. I think Lupe must imagine them too, because she always looks afraid when I reach for her arm. Even more afraid than usual.
She tried to get rid of me, almost from the moment I first offered my services. She doesn’t know I know, but Valentina overheard my grandmother tell her mother.
“Why doesn’t she want Bety there?” my Aunt Lili asked. She was never very bright.
My grandmother didn’t answer, just closed her eyes and massaged the space between her eyebrows, outward toward each side of her head. “It can’t be helped,” she finally said. “There’s no one else.”
Men being what they are, I knew my plan would work: a hand left to rest on his arm at the breakfast table, a wistful gaze that lasts just an instant too long, right in the eyes. The vague suggestion, never put into words, that Lupe hasn’t always been kind to me. The culmination: a towel slipped off after my shower, just at the moment when Juanjo reaches the landing to the second floor. My door more open than closed, a clear view in. Shyness, embarrassment, confusion: Oh!I didn’t know you were—And my naked body etched into his mind, glowing there, indelible.
It isn’t just this, either; it’s also the tincture of hierbasI put in Juanjo’s licuado each morning. I mix in extra vanilla and honey so he can’t taste them, but they’re there, coursing through his bloodstream, working on him, daily. Three weeks already. More—three weeks and two days.
When I go back to Doña Esme, she asks me, “Are you still using the hierbas?”
She makes a snuffling sound as she rakes around in the drawer of her desk. When her hands reemerge, they’re holding a small cellophane packet of something that looks like dried lawn clippings. She undoes the staple with her thumbnail—the nail is thick and yellow, like a rooster’s claw—and empties the contents out into a little square dish. Then she takes a cigarette lighter from the front pocket of her apron and lights the clippings. They curl and blacken, quickly burning down to ashes.
Doña Esme pushes the dish away and reaches for what looks like a sugar bowl of the same ruddy clay. “Put out your tongue,” she commands, taking the lid off and dipping her thumb in. The taste is metallic, pungent, unmistakable, reminiscent of lost teeth and hangnails and childhood injuries, but different too. Goat’s blood; I’ve had it before.
I close my eyes and swallow as Doña Esme chants over me, touching her rough forefinger to my forehead, my lips, my chest. The words are low and indecipherable. They may even be her other language, the one from before the Spanish invaders brought their Christ to these lands and began to burn her people alive for His sake.
“Continua con las hierbas,” she instructs me, shaking the ashes of the burnt clippings into one corner of the dish then back into the same cellophane packaging they came in. She folds it down but doesn’t replace the staple. “Give them to him every morning, like you’ve been doing. And drink this yourself. Put it in a cup of champurrado, hot as you can stand.” She presses the packet into my hand.
“Thursday,” she says with a slow nod, her hand still on mine. “Late in the day.”
The storm is a bone-rattler, with blinding flashes and cataclysmic booms. I sit on the edge of the bed drinking the last of my champurrado, swirling it around with a spoon in the moonlight. The window’s open, and the gauzy curtains blow wildly in the damp wind. I swallow the last drink with my eyes closed, then peer into the cup. The dregs at the bottom look phallic. Or maybe the shape is of a sacrificial dagger, the type a high priest would use before kicking the bodies into a heap at the base of the pyramid because, like me, he wanted only one piece.
The air is staticky, bristling. I stand at the foot of the narrow bed, lift my arms above my head, palms together, and imagine myself as a lightning rod, concentrating all the energy into a single channel, willing it into my body. My face stares at me from the mirror: black eyes, grim, determined mouth; a pale, thin face, triangular as a cat’s. Then a smile unfurls, teeth bared.
It’s nearly midnight. Lupe was asleep hours ago; I listened at the door to her slow, even breathing, her light snores, before I came up. The two creatures inside her leave her exhausted. They’re like a parasitic alien species, living off her body, sapping her strength. She could hardly keep her eyes open, but she waited till Juanjo called. It’s soccer night; his team edged their way into the play-offs by one goal, and he’s been out celebrating. I heard both sides of the conversation, Juanjo shouting drunkenly over the noise.
I know what will happen next: he’ll come in at the garage end of the house, shower, lay out his work clothes. When I hear the bed sigh under his weight, I’ll slip into his bedroom, theirbedroom, next door, taking care to close the door behind me, though I know Lupe would never risk the wrought iron spiral staircase.
“Juanjo,” I’ll whisper to his back in the dark. “I’m scared.” Then I’ll sit down on his bed, and he’ll turn toward me, bleary-eyed and confused. “Can I stay in here for a few minutes?”
A few minutes is all it will take.
I like a man with a story behind him. Not one he tells, just one you see hints of: in his tattoos, the roughness of his hands, what all he’s learned about women before he gets to you. I like a man who’s lived, who has the smell of danger about him. Juanjo, en cambio, is as tame as the manatees they let you swim with at Splash.
It wears on him, being in the house with both Lupe and me. He stops making eye contact, starts leaving earlier for work, coming home later. He doesn’t eat breakfast anymore, just gulps down his licuado standing by the sink in his suit. But when I go into his room at night, he doesn’t send me away. Worse: he wants to do it, then he doesn’t want to have done it.
I like a man who knows how to take charge, to bend you to his will, make you want what he wants. A man who doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t vacillate. Shit or get off the pot, my great-aunt Cleotilde used to say.
Still, since Juanjo, I’ve stopped imagining Lupe’s babies dressed like saints in little boxes full of white taffeta. So that’s something.
This is the way the rain stops: all at once, just like it begins. Yesterday I checked the ten-day weather forecast to be sure, but I knew already. It’s like on December twenty-sixth, the feeling that something’s come and gone.
I don’t put the hierbasin Juanjo’s licuado today. In fact, I don’t make the licuado at all. I wake up, breathe in the still, dry air, and roll back over in bed. I can sleep late now. It’s finished.
“I’m leaving,” I announce in the evening. Juanjo’s changing the tire on the BMW; he’s got it jacked up and is loosening the lug nuts. I jump down the garage steps and kick a few times at the spare. I like the springy way my foot bounces back. “Tomorrow,” I add.
Juanjo looks up at me with all his misery stark and undisguised on his face. He’s not bad-looking like this, though a tad yellowish under the fluorescents of the garage. “I’m going to tell Lupe,” he says in a low voice, turning back to the car, “as soon as the babies come.”
“Do what you want,” I say indifferently. Tomorrow night I’ll be back to sleeping in my own bed, and if my grandmother asks—and she will—what I’m doing back there, I’ll just plead differences of opinion. There’s truth to that.
It isn’t till after the forty day post-delivery term has passed that I’m finally called in, as if before a tribunal. Lupe spent it, the cuarentena, with Juanjo’s mother in their great big mansion in the gated Brisas del Lago neighborhood. I imagine it was even a relief to her, though the señora had made some previous remarks about not having time to take care of her sons’ wives. Officious old bitch, she looks down on Lupe because we don’t come from money.
I think my cousin takes it well. She’s sitting on the sofa with one of the babies; Juanjo’s got the other one, holding it as if it might break. He paces back and forth, bouncing the baby a little with each step, though it isn’t crying. Lupe doesn’t move when I come in. She just looks stolidly into my face, then leads with, “I’d rather that no one else found out about this.” And after a pause, she adds, “please, Bety.”
I’m glad to acquiesce. I know what the role requires. It would be useless to explain: It was for you, Lupe, you and the babies, that I put Juanjo up in my stump by the goat farm. I watched him yellow and crack, broke him to pieces, for your sake, for theirs. She wouldn’t understand, and anyway, she needs me to blame. It’s the only way she can forgive Juanjo and get back to her life. And it would be a shame for that big house and all the pretty things in it to be wasted on somebody who couldn’t enjoy them.
So I play the femme fatale. Like Marilyn Monroe said, if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather it be sex than anything else. Así, when Lupe asks me, in a strained voice, “Why?” I don’t snivel or hang my head or ask for forgiveness.
I just shrug, smirk a little for good measure, and ask her right back: “Why not?”
A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a BA in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an MA in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. April lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she reads, writes, and homeschools her daughters, Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing Slate, Windhover, The Fieldstone Review, Eclectica, Foliate Oak, TheNew Plains Review, and others.
A LAND MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN HERE by Casey Whitworth
Two miles from the Greyhound station, Burt hiked through the pinewoods to the edge of Lena’s backyard. The trailer windows were dark. Her Chevy wasn’t in the driveway. They hadn’t talked during the last nine months of his stint in Starke, and what-ifs had been fermenting like toilet hooch in Burt’s head. But what he saw now in the morning light—Virginia creeper on the siding, bull briars in the yard—was a way to work toward absolution.
On his way to the porch Burt picked a camellia and carried it up the stairs. He knocked at the door. What if her pickup was in the shop and she was inside peeking out the blinds? He had on the same snakeskin boots and leather bomber as the day they met, like no time at all had passed. He knocked again, louder, then fished his keys from his pocket. A gentleman would wait, he thought. Her nightshift at Healthfirst would have ended by now, and she was probably already crossing Tallahassee, no clue he’d been released a month early. Through the arch window, he noticed she’d treated herself to a couch and a wall-mounted TV. He knew he should wait, but he tried the key anyway and when it slid into the lock, he leaned his head on the door and slowly turned the deadbolt.
Inside, the warmth of home began to envelop him, albeit like an ill-fitting robe. Liquor bottles and dirty dishes cluttered the kitchen counter, and there was something rancid in the trash. Not like Lena at all. She’d let things slide. But in an hour or two, he could have it all neat and clean, then they could ride to his sister’s house and pick up his son, and bring Larry home where he belonged. They could start over.
A noise made him drop the camellia. What sounded like the mewling of a scared cat grew louder and morphed into the shrieks of a baby. Burt slunk into the hallway, pinching his nose to cut the stench. The door at the end of the hall was closed. Quietly he peeked in his son’s old bedroom. Along the back wall where Larry’s model cars had been on display, a baby in a diaper was standing in a crib. When the baby noticed him, the screeching calmed to a whimper. The baby—a little boy, it looked like—had eyes as blue as Burt’s.
He braced himself on the jamb and started doing the math. Was the boy nine months old? Ten? When did they start standing up? He had no idea. If he’d been locked up a little over twelve months, then on the night he got arrested Lena would have been six months pregnant, showing. In the crib, the baby began to wail.
“No no.” Burt scooped up the baby and held it at arm’s length. Slime the color of mustard slid down the boy’s legs. “All right now,” Burt said. “Everything’s gonna be all right.” And his voice seemed to soothe the baby, who looked at him now without suspicion, only wonder and hope and love.
A dog barked outside. Through the bedroom window, Burt saw a Honda parked in front of the trailer, a fat woman in pink pajamas climbing out the driver’s door. She picked up a handful of gravel and flung it at the neighbor’s chain-link fence. But the dog wouldn’t shut up.
The woman lugged a diaper box toward the porch. Burt carried the baby to the crib, set it down, and backed off. The baby smiled at him in a way that seemed sinister. And it all started to make sense—the new furniture, the unexpected squalor. Lena had moved out of the trailer and on with her life, and the story Burt had been rehearsing—his plan to move them to Memphis once the P.O. signed the papers, and the job waiting for him at Knuckles’ garage—was no different from the lullabies other inmates had told themselves to get to sleep.
The woman unlocked the front door. Burt went to the window and scraped it up the track. The baby started screaming behind him, reaching for him through the crib bars. Burt had a crazy thought—take the boy and run. Give the little guy a better life than this one, teach him someday to ride a bike, rig a rod and reel, the sort of things Burt would have done with Larry if the boy hadn’t turned out quite so special. But no, that was crazy. He straddled the windowsill and tried to step down but lost his balance and flipped sideways over an azalea onto the ground. Dazed, he climbed to his feet with a sharp burning pain in his palm, a gash dripping blood. He lunged toward the trailer, managing to yank the window shut and duck out of sight before the woman entered the room.
Hunched in the bushes, Burt dug a bandanna from his back pocket and fashioned it into a tourniquet on his hand, pulled the knot tight with his teeth. It was only four miles to his sister’s house, to his son. He should’ve gone there first and let Lena go.
The neighbor’s dog started barking again. “Burt!” it seemed to be saying. “Burt! Burt!” It was the first time in many months that anyone—or anything—had called Burt by his given name.
The sun was high and bright by the time Burt walked down his sister’s canopied driveway. The two-story brick house came into view through the oaks. Up on the front porch, the Stars and Stripes had been taken off the flagpole and someone had flown a Jolly Roger. The outside world had begun to make no sense at all.
A Mercedes, a Lexus, and a red Audi were parked on the concrete by the garage. Well-to-do company. The last thing Burt wanted was to field twenty questions about where he’d been and why. Through the front bay window, he saw Charlotte at the kitchen sink looking out at the backyard—teased blonde hair, black dress that clung to her thin frame. There was desperation in her stillness, in her fixed gaze.
He went to the side of the garage and opened the door. There it was: the car. He peeled off the cover and stumbled away to get a better look at his mother’s final gift to him: a black ’77 Firebird Trans Am Special Edition with golden honeycomb rims and a screamin’ chicken on the hood, a replica of the car Burt Reynolds drove in Smokey and the Bandit. She’d had an obsession with the actor, with whom she’d supposedly had a fling at Florida State University in the late ’50s. Used to have his photograph hanging on the living room wall and everything. Even named her only son after him.
Burt startled at the sound of Charlotte’s voice. At the top of the stairs leading up to the kitchen, the door was cracked open. She hollered at someone to leave the dishes alone. “Go mingle with Bigfoot,” she said. “He won’t bite.”
Burt’s sister came down the stairs with a martini. She wore an eye patch, and a silver scabbard hung from her belt. On the bottom step, she noticed Burt and all the color drained from her face. Her martini glass slipped from her fingers, shattered on the concrete. “Burt?” She glanced at the Firebird. “I thought you were getting out in January.”
“Is Larry here?” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “He’s upstairs practicing his magic tricks.”
“What? He didn’t tell you? I got him a kit and outfit and everything.”
Lena appeared in the doorway. “Charlotte, what’s. . .?” When she noticed him, her voice trailed away. She looked gorgeous in her tan Stetson, suede fringe jacket, and denim skirt. “Burt?” she said. “Your hand. You’re dripping blood.”
In the hallway bathroom, Burt waited on the edge of the tub while Lena knelt on the rug by the sink searching the cabinet for the first-aid kit. She wore boots he’d never seen, brown leather with a tan python inlay, the soles already scuffed.
“You’re about the last person I expected to find over here,” he said.
“Good to see you, too.”
Laughter outside drew his eyes to the window. On the patio, a half dozen costumed men and women sat in Adirondack chairs: a tiara-ed fairy godmother; an Asian Superman with comically large pectorals and biceps; a couple dressed like Hell’s Angels; a ruddy-faced Bigfoot, mask propped on his furry knee. Standing among them was Charlotte’s husband, Ed. A short man with a big paunch, Ed wore a tricorn hat, a frilly white blouse, and a black topcoat. A scabbard like Charlotte’s hung from his belt. Captain of the costume party.
Lena settled on the stool beside him and opened a white lunchbox on her lap. “Let’s take a look at that hand.” She guided his wrist over the tub. He leaned forward and discreetly sniffed her lavender-scented hair, which curled over her shoulder in a long blonde braid. Her fingers worked a pair of scissors through the blood-soaked bandanna.
“D’you come here with somebody?” he said. “I didn’t see the Chevy out front.”
“It broke down,” she said, “a while ago. But, for the record, I’m capable of driving myself anywhere I need to go.” She peeled off the bandanna and sucked air through her teeth. “How’d you do this?”
“Babysittin’,” he said.
She looked at him and rolled her eyes in that way he used to love. “Long as you didn’t cut it on metal.” She uncapped the hydrogen peroxide, poured it over his gashed palm, and though the pink foam burned like hell, he didn’t flinch. This was the closest he’d been to a woman in over a year, and his stomach was all twisted from it.
“I could’ve got the truck running,” he said.
Lena smiled but didn’t raise her eyes. She patted his hand dry with a gauze pad, then laid a fresh one over his palm and began wrapping medical tape around his hand. He wanted to tell her that in his heart it felt like not a day had passed, even though out here everyone had moved on, things had changed. Somehow he still felt like a prisoner.
“There.” Lena cut the tape. “Be careful with it now. Give it time to heal.”
While she repacked the first-aid kit, Burt tugged a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket. “D’you know Larry wrote me letters? This here’s the last one he sent. Two weeks before they told me I was getting out early.”
She furrowed her brow and took the piece of paper, inspected the row of dots and dashes. He told her they’d communicated like that, in Morse code. She read aloud Burt’s handwritten translation at the bottom. “Open Sesame.”
“I would’ve wrote you, too,” he said, “but you would’ve never got them. Would you? You never did think to tell me you’d moved. I had to go inside to find out.”
“You what? You’re lucky you didn’t get yourself shot.”
“The key still worked,” Burt said. “How’s I supposed to know you sold the trailer?”
“I rented it,” she said, “to Mrs. Henderson. She’s a tech at—oh God. Your fingerprints. You didn’t take anything, did you?”
“Of course not. I did find some baby all alone, but that lady, she didn’t have a clue I was there.” As soon as Burt said it, a chill settled over him. The camellia, he’d dropped it by the front door. “You could’ve wrote to tell me.”
Lena took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I tried to write you, Burt. I did. But the longer I put it off . . .”
Burt clutched her wrist and she looked at his lips, into his eyes. He kissed her hard, the way he’d pictured it in his bunk when the cellblock was quiet and still, and for a moment her lips opened to his, but when his hand cupped her breast she bristled and shoved him away.
“You’re crazy,” she said.
He took her hand and went down on one knee. “Marry me,” he said. “Come with me and Larry to Memphis.”
And she seemed to consider it until someone knocked at the bathroom door. “Burt, I need to talk to you.” It was Ed. The doorknob jiggled, and Lena blinked a few times and looked that way.
“Lena,” Burt whispered. “We’ll get in the Firebird and drive away.” She had this faraway glint in her eyes that made him feel like he was holding onto someone who’d already left the room. “Lena.”
The doorknob jiggled again. Lena pulled her hand away and left Burt kneeling on the tile. She went to the door and drew it open and stormed past Ed into the living room. Burt called her name, but she opened the front door and was gone.
Ed had one hand on the hilt of his plastic sword. “Burt,” he said. “A phone call would’ve been nice.” Behind him, Charlotte got up from the sofa and followed Lena onto the front porch.
Burt watched through the front window as Charlotte escorted Lena down the stairs and across the yard. It had been stupid to kiss her like that. To propose in a damn bathroom. The women vanished from view, and Burt noticed something in the corner of the room, shaped like an armoire and covered with blankets.
“What’s that?” he said, though he had a guess.
He crossed the room and drew the blankets off. It was the cage he’d built for his mother’s sugar gliders. Bandit was hunched in the bottom corner, his bushy gray tail curled around him. Burt searched for Snowman, the albino with bright red eyes, in the hanging tiki hut. The two sugar gliders used to scamper all through his mother’s house, leaping from chair to table, climbing the drapes.
“Look,” Ed said. “We’ve got company in from out of town. And you know how Charlotte gets. Look. If it were up to me, you could hang out.”
Burt made a contemplative noise. His brother-in-law was a terrible liar. He traced his finger down the cage’s plastic netting, and the sugar glider raised its head to squint with glassy black eyes. Burt knew he should just go upstairs and knock on Larry’s door. Tell him to pack his bags. But something kept Burt from doing it, some anxiousness about seeing the boy face-to-face again after all this time.
“I’ll get you a hotel room,” Ed said, “until things get figured out.”
The front door swung open and Charlotte filled up the doorway, red-faced. “Now wait just a minute,” she said. “Lena says you’re trying to take Larry to Memphis?”
“That’s right,” Burt said.
“He’s in a good school now,” she said. “Just made the honor roll. Isn’t that right, Ed?”
Ed nodded. “You should be proud of him.”
“He’s finally in a good place,” said Charlotte. “He’s right where he belongs.”
Burt felt a sharp pain in his bandaged hand and realized he’d clenched his fists. Ed took off the tricorn hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair, yammering on about what Burt should do to get his life back together—and though there was goodness in Ed’s intentions, in his crestfallen expression, he had no right. He had no idea how volatile a man could become once he’d lost everything. Burt looked down at the blood dripping from his fingertips onto the hardwood floor.
“Are you even listening?” said Ed.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Burt said, “both of you, for looking after my boy.”
He went past them to the stairwell, climbed two steps at a time until he stood outside his son’s door. Breathing hard, he raised his hand to knock. But there were voices in Larry’s bedroom: one that was muffled, another that belonged to a man. Burt eased open the door. Across the room, Larry sat cross-legged in the glow of a TV. He had on a black cape and top hat. On the screen, a man in an identical outfit was performing a card trick, and Larry was mimicking everything the man said.
Burt stood there with an ache in his throat. The boy looked so much bigger. On bookcases against the wall were sixty or seventy model cars, separated by color and manufacturer. His son had saved them all. Camaros, Chevelles, Barracudas. More on the windowsill, on the nightstand. Their final kitchen-table project was on display all by itself on the desk: the miniature replica of Burt’s ’77 Firebird.
“Son,” Burt said. “I’m home.”
Larry clambered to his feet and stared toward the doorway. He wore a black suit, dress shirt, and skinny black tie. A foot taller now and he had dirt-colored flecks of hair above his lip. The boy blinked a few times like he didn’t recognize his own father.
“I know. It sure is easier in letters.” Burt nodded at the magician on the TV. “So you’ve been learning tricks then?”
Larry opened his mouth to say something, but music started blaring outside. Burt stepped to the window and watched Lena’s Audi recede through the woods. Larry dragged a Hope chest toward the door.
“Hold up,” Burt said. “Lemme help.” He took ahold of the other handle, and the boy looked at him with nervous wonder. “What’s all this? You putting on a magic show or what?” The boy nodded. “Well, even Houdini needs an assistant.”
Downstairs, Burt and Larry lugged the chest toward the French doors that opened onto the backyard. Through the kitchen archway, Burt could see Charlotte and Ed whisper-arguing by the fridge. Ed turned and glared at Burt, but before he could say anything Larry had opened the door and started down the stairs.
A hush came over Ed’s guests as Burt and Larry crossed to the back of the patio and hefted the chest onto the table. Larry brushed past Burt on his way back toward the house, and as he was climbing the stairs, the door swung open and out came Ed.
“Y’all,” Ed said, jostling past Larry, “this is Burt. Larry’s dad.” Superman, the Hell’s Angels, Bigfoot, and the fairy godmother greeted Burt with nods or toasts. “Unfortunately,” Ed said, and clapped Burt on the shoulder, “he’s only popping in to say hi. Isn’t that right?”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Larry announced in the doorway, his voice an eerie imitation of the magician on the DVD. “Prepare to be amazed!”
Burt shrugged Ed’s hand away. “Might as well stay for the magic,” he said. “If that’s all right.” He looked from one guest to another, then watched his son cross the patio. “Time’s about all I got left.”
“I need a volunteer,” said Larry. He fanned a deck of cards across the table. “Anyone? Anyone?”
Burt stepped forward, but Bigfoot beat him to the deck. The man took off one of his paws and selected a card, which he held up for everyone to see. “The king of clubs,” he said, then did as Larry asked and returned it to the deck.
Larry scooped up the cards and began shuffling with surprising dexterity. “When I count to three,” he said, “the chosen card will be magically transported into the audience. One . . .”
Charlotte sidled up next to Burt. “I’m sorry about Ed,” she whispered. “If it were up to me, you could stay as long as you want.” Out in the daylight her makeup seemed garish, the green eyeshadow, bright red lipstick. Burt thanked her, though he knew Ed had said the same.
“Sir?” Larry called out. The boy was staring at him. “Would you please check the side pocket of your jacket?”
Burt patted at his pocket, stuck his hand inside, and froze when his fingers settled on something thin and hard. And as he drew out the playing card, Burt remembered the moment Larry brushed past him, the transfer. “It’s the king of clubs,” he said, and raised it in the air. “What in the world.”
While everyone around him clapped and hollered, Burt examined the card once more. Larry had penciled a row of dots and dashes above the king’s crown, something he hadn’t been able to say out loud.
Larry had started in on a ball-and-cup trick. Burt glanced at the Hell’s Angels, Superman, and the fairy godmother, all of them admiring his son’s performance. Charlotte was shaking her head with joyful disbelief. He felt a sense of pride he hadn’t known in a long time, but with it came a startling realization: his son had done well without him, better than Burt could’ve hoped or expected, and something about that scared him.
Burt stuck the card in his back pocket and felt his keys. He had a crazy thought—what if he and Larry left right now, piled into the Firebird and started driving? What if they swung by Lena’s, convinced her to come with them somehow? Some sort of magic. Burt could almost see it now: the three of them traveling west on I-10, past beachfront motels in Pensacola, veering north into Alabama, not stopping for supper in Montgomery but driving on through cotton fields and pastures, past tractors and silos and cows, on through the trash-strewn streets of Birmingham and into the moonlit night. Maybe by sunrise they’d see a sign, a road sign for Memphis, and the story he’d been telling himself all along would seem true.
“And now for the grand finale!” Gripping the brim of his top hat, Larry displayed his free hand to the crowd. Then he snatched at the air, drew back his curled fist, and slowly unfurled his fingers to reveal a white egg. He removed his top hat, set it upside down on the table, cracked the egg on the table’s edge and emptied the shell into the hat. Then, carefully, Larry settled the hat atop his head and posed with his arms outstretched. Burt’s heart was pounding. He couldn’t say why. After a long breathless pause, Larry whipped off the top hat and there was the gray and black sugar glider clutching his hair.
“Oh no no.” Charlotte hurried to one end of the table. “Don’t move, Larry. I’ll get him.”
But the sugar glider hopped to Larry’s shoulder and clambered down his arm. Charlotte lunged at him, but Bandit leapt to the ground and scurried off through the grass. She crept toward him, and the sugar glider climbed quickly up the live oak.
“For God’s sake, Ed,” Charlotte said. “Help me.”
The crowd wandered into the yard to peer up into the tree. Bandit was perched on a high branch, cocking his head from side to side, gazing out at a landscape he’d only glimpsed through windowpanes, the world in technicolor.
Burt locked eyes with his son. Larry’s coy smile felt like their little secret, as if they both hoped Bandit would climb higher and higher through the treetops to a land more beautiful and wild. And Burt tried to think up some way to communicate exactly what they needed to do, some way to write out the dots and dashes necessary to say it would all be fine in the end if they only got in the Firebird and drove. But the boy was all right now—better, in fact, than he’d ever been. And the more Burt thought about it, the more the trip felt like running away the way he’d always done, and the more Memphis seemed like a locale in a dream, some place you only talked about until somebody handed you a map and said, “Draw me an X.”
Casey Whitworth is an MFA candidate in fiction at Florida State University and the assistant programs manager of The Southeast Review. Recently, he won the Blue River Editors’ Award for Fiction, the Green Briar Review 2016 Fiction Prize, and the Sixfold short story contest. He lives with his wife in Tallahassee and is currently at work on a novel. Join him on Twitter @CaseyWhitworth_
I sat on the sidewalk; smoked cigarettes. I never put fewer than two in my mouth because I figure the time combined is worth more than the time separate. You can’t tax two things like you tax one thing. The sidewalk was black and gray with powder brown cracks. The ground was opening up and I thought it would swallow me up, but I didn’t want the world to think I was scared of it so I just sat still and took drags as they came to me.
“Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more.” I sang through the smoke screen. Ray Charles played along between my ears. The sidewalk was cold and broken. I felt the damp earth against my ass; small veins soaking into my pants.
Two cops in blue stood over me and I asked them, “Did my mother send you?” They told me they didn’t know who I was or who my mother was. I stood up and one of them smacked his nightstick against my knee. I told him I was trying to stand. He said I should stay seated.
“Wanna cig? I think I can manage to bum one or two,” I said. The first cop was winding up to hit me again, but the second one stopped him. They talked amongst themselves for a second, then the first shrugged and the two of them sat down on either side of me. I passed one a cigarette and then the other. They lit their own and got comfortable.
“I was trying to look up at the stars, but I think someone must’ve stolen them, because I’m not seeing any. You two ought to try catching ‘em; should be easy to find them. Look for someone bright—bright future, bright complexion—and arrest them. Something new for the two of you,” I said.
“We arrested a couple of white boys up on Third Street,” one said.
“I don’t remember if those two were white or brown. They might’ve been brown. I’m not sure it really matters. They didn’t steal anything. They were just a couple of rats is all,” the other said.
“I don’t think you found them yet. I think you need to go off looking for ‘em. Take a smoke break then head back out on the beat and pick up a couple of star-stealers—star-killers—whatever they are. It’s not right.”
“You don’t know the job. Leave it to us.”
“Right, right, right,” I nodded, “You two ever see a mom walking around here? Doesn’t have to be mine; was though. You’d know her off the first sight. She’d be walking around with roof shingles and maybe a couple of hammers on her.”
“We saw a couple of guys working in construction today, no women though.” The officer took a long drag of the cigarette. I flipped open the pack and pulled out two more for myself and lit them.
“There was one woman over there,” the other said. “She wasn’t wearing a hard hat, but she was there. I don’t know. She might have been one of the suits for the company or the building complex.”
I checked my watch and said, “Too bad, too bad. I’ve been looking around for her, not finding her. Thought she might’ve sent the two of you over to apologize. Too bad.”
“If she’s gone missing, we can have you walk over to the station with us and fill out some paperwork. I don’t know how much it’ll do for you, but it’s worth a shot.”
“Good to hear that.” I stood up, “Not sure that I’m gonna take you up on the paperwork, but I’ll head down to the station with the two of you either way.”
“Why’s that,” the officer asked.
“Both you two have been sitting here for a little too long, taking a break from work, smoking on the ground. I’m taking the both of you in for loitering; making a citizen’s arrest, if I can.” I waved my hand and the two of them stood up—flicking their cigarette butts into the street. “Can I borrow those cuffs,” I said to the first one. He nodded and took them off of his belt. I clipped them onto his hands then did the same to the other one, “Where’s the station?” The latter officer took the lead.
Five blocks down the street, I followed behind the two of them, swinging their nightsticks on either side of me. They spent the walk muttering and murmuring to one another. I’d slap a baton against one’s arm and they’d stop for a couple seconds, then they’d get back to it.
We got to the police station and I wasn’t impressed. The walls were some boring type of beige and the doors were Plexiglas holding metal bars. It didn’t say ‘police’ in big letters anywhere which was a shame because I thought it ought to. When we were standing at the top of the steps—in front of the entryway—the two cops stopped and told me they’d cover the rest of the process, which was good of them. I’m not much for paperwork. They walked in and I watched for a moment as the other officers took them by the cuffs and pulled the two of them into the jail area.
Then I was at a downtown bus station and things felt a little different. The platform was decrepit and empty except for a woman with a stroller and an old man reading a pocket book. The woman had a pocket-book, it wasn’t his. I smiled and gestured to the latter and then walked up to the geezer. He was coughing and sniffling every thirty seconds or so.
“You ever seen a Warhol?” I asked.
He looked up and squinted, “I think everyone has by now.”
“Well if we take the six down Oak then we can be at the art gallery by ten. I think they’ve got Rothkos too. Like Rothko? Lovely colors, when he puts them together.”
“I don’t know if I have the time to look at art right now.”
“It’s all nonsense.” The number six bus pulled up beside us and I ushered him quickly. He tucked his pocket book into his coat. We sat down beside one another. “What’s your name?”
“Henry,” he said.
“Right. I figured you’d be a Henry. It’s a strong, plain name. Sturdy. Who do you like to look at? If it isn’t Warhol or Rothko.”
“When I was young my mother showed me a lot of Picasso paintings and I thought they were all very lovely things. I remember the one with the man playing the guitar always made me so deeply sad and fulfilled. It was very powerful.”
I nodded and then leaned back against the rigid seat. Looking around the bus, I noticed it was more populated than the station’d been. A couple of hooded kids sat in a pack near the back. They were all in black and stick slim. Out front of the bus was another woman with another stroller across from a couple holding hands. They looked like a couple of well-off visitors from uptown—maybe came down for a date night, maybe not. The old man continued to sniffle on and on. I leaned over and gave him a bit of his coat, he obliged and used it as a handkerchief. Out the window, we passed a couple of dancers that were slowly and melodically moving along the sidewalk. Henry pointed at them, tapping his fingers against the glass. The bus stopped and I pulled him out quickly.
The art gallery was closed, which was expected. The easy bit about that was that the owners never bothered locking it. The logic was present. If you put a close sign, people make assumptions. Most people did, but my reading skills aren’t what they used to be, so I stepped in. Henry had a little trouble at first, but I told him to close his eyes and guided him to the door. It helped him when the words weren’t there anymore.
I flicked on the lights and grabbed a couple of pamphlets for the two of us. We walked through the gallery, setting on the wood floor between long white halls filled end to end with canvas—some blank, some not. In a side room, I spotted a Rothko. It was swelled in deep blue.
“I don’t get it,” Henry said. I didn’t either. Paintings are always nonsense to me. No one was around though, so I figured I could use the moment to try and get a grasp of things. I gave Henry my cigarettes and walked up to the painting and rotated it around.
“Do ya get it now?” I asked.
Henry shook his head no. I rotated it some more. I asked again and he shook his head again. We went on until it was back where it started. I nabbed my cigarettes back from the old man and said: “I don’t know about you—I do—but I think I have a pretty good idea of how it all works now. He’s sad upright, apathetic on his side, and happy when he’s wrong side down. I think the painting’s relatable. He might’ve intended it that way.”
Henry nodded, “I don’t think I understand art very well. Maybe I just don’t understand Rothko.”
“You get it or you don’t, Henry.”
“I know, I know,” he said. I picked up the painting and set it on the floor. We sat on either side of it and twiddled our thumbs and got comfortable with the thing. I played with the unlit cigarette while Henry took deep breaths and looked at the wooden framing under the canvas.
“You feeling acquainted and all?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’d feel acquainted with it even if we slept together.”
“You’re a traditional man, Henry.”
“I don’t know whether or not you mean that in a good way.”
“I think the statement is neutral on its own. The way you say it is important here.”
“How did you say it?”
“I said it neutrally. Didn’t put any gusto behind it; no bravado there.”
“What does that mean?”
I ran my hands through my hair and checked my watch, “Do you feel acquainted yet? I’m getting a bit bored and I don’t feel like sticking around. The place is turning to trash.” Henry looked at me quizzically, then he didn’t.
“I don’t know what that means. I won’t be comfortable with it; it’s never going to happen,” Henry shook his head. I grabbed the canvas and set it closer to the wall, then I took the switchblade out of my back pocket and cut along the wood frame. Henry’s eyes got wide; I gave him the painting.
“Take it home and introduce yourself. Get initiated and all that. You two should be good together, just take the time to see how things go. I’ll call you in the morning about it.”
Henry reluctantly took the painting and tucked it under his coat. We stood up and went out the front door. I made sure the sign still said ‘closed’ across—just in case anyone thought of breaking in and robbing the place.
I walked him to the train and then we split off from one another. It was early morning and time was turning around. I walked around a couple of the blocks that were posted up in downtown until I ran into one of those mechanical psychics; the wires were all frayed out of the side panels and the paint was freshly chipping.
I asked her: “Where can I find a couple of soup cans around here?”
She said: “If you’re looking for romance, the grocery store is around the corner and the cinema is two blocks south.”
I could see we weren’t on the same page, so I kicked the side panels and walked away. She tried screaming at me, but the wires were getting a little heated so she had to calm down instead. When I passed the grocery store I laughed in its face and kept moving. The doors were sliding opened and closed without justification. Around the corner, I took a break outside a closed down Nickelodeon and sat down on the sidewalk. It wasn’t wet or cracked; the cement slabs felt fresh—still sinking into the mud and tar. My phone rang and I ignored it.
“I feel uninspired,” I said. A young woman in a trench coat sat down next to me. I glanced at her through the side of my eye. I said: “I feel uninspired.” She nodded and took an exaggerated breath.
“Have you tried futzing with your pencils and pens,” she said.
I felt around my pockets; they were empty and I pulled them out to show her, but when I did she just shook her head and exaggerated her breath again. “What’s the next step?”
She felt around her own pockets and pulled out a lighter. I handed her mouth a cigarette and then gave one to myself. She lit her own and I lit my own. “I think step two is to bum out a cig and then step three is to bum the rest of the pack. God loves a kind man, I’ve been told.”
“How old are you?” I handed over my pack.
“Something like twenty or thirty. It varies from day to day.”
“Ever been older than your parents?”
“Some days I am, some days I’m not. It varies.”
“Is there a step three?”
“Got a phone call lately?”
“Not one that I’ve answered.”
“You should answer it. Might be god or jesus or some other icon.” The woman’s phone rang and she pulled it out quickly. It tucked itself away under her hair and she nodded along to the cadence of the other voices. Then she hung up and put her phone away, “That was someone, they told me you’re too far gone. You’ve got some wrinkles on your face. Tired people are useless people; they aren’t real.”
She stood up. I tried to ask for another cigarette, but she left instead. My watch wasn’t working so I sat still for another hour or so and tried to sleep. It worked for a little bit, then a businessman came by and stumbled over my feet. He called me a twat and I thought he wanted me to get breakfast, so I walked back to the mechanical psychic and asked: “Where should I get breakfast?”
She said: “Some relationships take time and you shouldn’t rush them.”
There was a donut shop a couple minutes north. I stumbled around brownstones until I was in front of it. All of the outside walls were paneled in chalkboard—covered in colored words. I walked in and the inside was the same deal. It was walls covered in sidewalk graffiti, a couple of tables, and a counter lined with glass shelves and donuts. I walked up to the clerk.
“Do you guys serve breakfast?” I asked.
“We’re a donut shop, sir,” he said.
“Do you have anything heavier than breakfast?”
The clerk thought to himself for a moment and then ducked under the counter. He shuffled through the drawers—I could see the top corners from in front. Then he stood up with a tray of donuts. “These are the dinner donuts I’ve been working on. I don’t have the right paperwork to sell them all this early.” He set the tray on top of the counter.
“List ‘em off for me, willya?”
“Right,” the clerk waved his hand over the tray, “we have chicken, imitation crab, ratatouille, crème brulée, chocolate glazed, scallop, 8 oz. New York strip, and spaghetto.”
“Spaghetti?” I said.
“Spaghetto. It’s singular. The filling on this one is a single spaghetto running in a ring around the middle. It’s genius. The topping is marinara and the sprinkles are very tiny sausages.” He turned the tray appropriately so the spaghetto donut was on full display. I looked closely at it.
“I think I’ll have the chocolate glazed. It feels like the realest out of them.”
“It’s the best seller on the dinner menu. I’ve been polling customers.”
“Can I get it for breakfast?”
“I’m sorry, it’s the only one that’s not available for breakfast,” he said.
“I’ll take the ratatouille then.”
“That’s just a display donut, it’s made of plastic. But believe me, the real one will look exactly like that. Would you like to reserve it?”
“No, I think I’ll just take a different donut.” I pointed to the crème brulée and he shook his head. I sighed and said: “Which of these are display donuts?” He waved his hand over all of them except the chocolate glazed and the spaghetto. “We usually don’t prepare the dinner donuts until three o’clock.”
“The chocolate glazed isn’t available for breakfast?” He shook his head no. “I’ll have the spaghetto then, I guess.” The clerk smiled and put the donut in a bag and rang up the register.
“Five dollars,” he said.
I thought it was a bit excessive so I nabbed the donut and flipped the tray. He bent over to clean up the mess and I walked out the door. There was a bit of chalk on the sidewalk, I tripped over it and splattered the donut. When I stood up, the bag was soaked in marinara. I was a bit upset so I threw the thing against the chalkboard and wrote ‘fresh Italian hell’ on the wall. I think Dante’d be proud of me; we’d get along and understand each other.
My phone rang and the number was a lone ‘2’ so I answered it.
“Rothko and I spent the night together and we made love and I think that I now understand him.”
I smiled, “Henry, you’re a traditional man. Not a real one, but still a tangible one.”
“It’s like we’ve never met.”
“Call me an invitation to the wedding, Henry.”
“You’re an invitation to the wedding.”
“I’ll see you in the summer.” I hung up the phone and wandered down downtown. It was late enough at night and early enough in the morning that I thought I ought to be in a smoky club somewhere. Stories made it the place to be. I know one around here, but I was a little out of orientation: the mechanical psychic was a couple minutes one way and she wasn’t by the club, she was by the cinema. The cinema was opposite the theaters and so going north put me here and east of here was the Buddhist type clubs. I turned the corner and sauntered down the block. Then I was at the nightclub.
I walked in and everything was smoky. The music was stuck in soft, smooth jazz. No one was dancing so I grabbed a table to myself. The waiters swung by and I caught one by the sleeve and ordered a couple of gins. He obliged and grabbed me the bartender. They offered me the bottle and cups so I took both. A woman walked up to the stage—behind the microphone stand.
She took a deep breath and said: “I’m scared of the movies, they’ve been stealing my soul since I was up all night with the Downey Prince. What a shame, what a shame, what a shame. I thought I’d be on Bleecker Street but it closed before I was born. So I invited the prince back to my place but he said that it was nothing: a greaser’s palace. I didn’t know what that meant, so I panicked and took his shirt. I told him I’d mail it back; he said to use priority mail; I put it on a plane—economy class. I sent a love letter to him with 34 x’s and a lonely o. He said I should make a movie and I told him I’d steal a camera if I could. ‘Do you read the Times?’ he asked. ‘I think I might be running out.’”
The lot of us in the seats were snapping; the woman bowed slightly then pulled out a piece of paper and looked it over. She read it to the microphone: “I talked to god on the phone and he told me I wasn’t real. I told him I have wrinkles, so it can’t be the case.”
Another round of snapping. I took a couple swigs of my gin and then checked the time. It was early enough to sleep, so I got comfortable in my chair and watched the lady go on and on. Pretended I was taking pictures each time I blinked until her face disappeared altogether.
Next morning, I woke up alone outside the club, slouched down under the door with my wrist tied to the push-bar. The woman from the night before sat next me cross-legged, fiddling with an empty pack, tapping her foot against the concrete.
“When did you start working here?” she asked.
“I’m not sure whether or not I do.”
“Are you a poet?”
I shrugged, started patting myself down. Found a pack in my left sock and a lighter in my right, which I brought up to my chest, managing to push two bent cigarettes into my mouth. I lit them and took a long drag; the pack dropped on the ground next to me.
The woman grabbed it and darted away. I wanted to chase after her, but my hand was still chained to the door, so I thought I oughta sit around for a bit longer, enjoy the drags, maybe wait for another set of cops to come around and get the day going again.
In the meantime, I sang along by myself, occasionally looking up pant-legs of the people who walked past giving me smug looks, “Hit the road jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more, no more—”
Michael Corrao is a student at the University of Minnesota studying English and Film. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys spending time with friends and watching old movies. His work can be found in publications such as Thrice, Eureka, Potluck, Century, and Ivory Tower. Michael is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
We are called watchers, though last I heard we were petitioning for a name change. It’s not so much that watcher is an inaccurate title. But it’d be like calling composers listeners or chefs tasters or sculptors touchers—not quite wrong, but certainly a lazy way of going about it.
And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that God has gotten lazier these days. He used to be fairly active, for a god, and while we watchers didn’t always appreciate His activities, we’ve since grown nostalgic for the days when high water levels followed higher tempers, or when He rained fire from the sky and turned that woman to salt, or that one time He got all those people to paint their doors with lamb blood, just for the hell of it.
We miss cool God. Now all He does is sit in His recliner and watch Seinfeld reruns and send the angels out for teriyaki chicken and orange soda. Gabriel says he’ll sneak our petition into God’s fortune cookie if we stop watching the angel break room for one hour next week, and I think we’ll take him up on it, once we get enough signatures.
My assignment is an eighty-seven year old human named Amelia Maria Hummel. It was my duty to see her birth, and it will be my duty to see her death. And then I will be assigned to someone new—perhaps a bumblebee, or a penguin, or an oak tree. I’m saving my veto for the off chance that I’m assigned to a horse. When Amelia turned seven her adoptive parents, Markus and Katrina Hummel, drove for three hours so she could ride horses at the state fair, and it took her nearly eleven years more to shut up about them.
Currently, Amelia is drying a navy blue coffee cup with a green and white striped dish rag. She has been at it for over seven minutes, and her hands are beginning to ache. The text on the cup’s side is too faded to read, but I can tell you that it used to say Nova Metallurgy, Inc. The cup didn’t always belong to her, but I suppose it does now.
Four years ago Amelia’s husband, Edward O’Hara, said his last comprehensible word.
Three years, fifty-one weeks, and six days later, Edward’s watcher was reassigned to a newborn mealworm in a San Diego pet supermarket. As far as I know, the mealworm is a happy change of pace. It certainly would have been for Amelia.
My previous assignments include three modestly successful men; sixteen slaves; two members of royal houses, one of whom was assassinated; hundreds of rodents; nearly a thousand now-extinct types of fish; thousands upon thousands of insects; and over six billion nematodes. Of every animal currently living on Earth, four out of five is a nematode.
Specializing in nematode watching is considered highly respectable in some circles. It is seen as a kind of community service. Somebody, as they say, has to do it.
Three blinks of His eye ago, Markus and Katrina Hummel moved the family cross-country in an attempt to save their failing marriage. Amelia was eleven years old. She told the children at her new elementary school that she was twelve, but this was a lie. She had just that month received her first birthday easel, and thus I’m sure of it: she was eleven.
The Hummels’ new home boasted many improvements over their previous residence, none of which involved Katrina Hummel’s sex drive or Markus Hummel’s workload. These improvements were primarily noticeable to a young girl of eleven, who claimed she was twelve, whose every move I watched.
Amelia preferred the new house’s smell, for one. She shouted it as she ran through the place, touching every wall, exploring every room: “Florida smells better than Ohio!” By this she meant that the Hummels’ new Floridian home, which had been cleaned of nearly three-quarters of the dead rats in its attic before it was put on the market, smelled better than the Hummels’ old Ohioan home, which had the faint but persistent odor of cat piss, even nine years after the family’s last cat had been hit by a car. She did not mean that one state as a whole smelled better than the other state as a whole, though it certainly did.
Amelia also preferred her new bedroom, which had slanted walls so that she could touch the ceiling on her tiptoes, a previously impossible feat; the new backyard, a wide slice of uncut grass that scratched pleasantly at her ankles; and the small, round window in her private bathroom, through which she first saw their new neighbors’ eldest son, Steven McCormick—his pimpled face, narrow shoulders, and a whole lot else besides.
We are to report anything extremely out of the ordinary to Gabriel, who in turn decides if it’s important enough for Him to look into. The last time Gabriel decided that something actually was important enough, it took Him nearly twelve years to get out of His recliner, by which point six million people had already died and begun filling out the necessary paperwork to enter the afterlife.
More recently, a watcher decided that he’d skip the middle man and report directly to God Himself. When the watcher burst into His room, God was wearing fuzzy pink bunny slippers and a spotless white bathrobe. He was holding a tube of modeling glue just beneath His nose, which He fumbled with before pocketing.
“Oh,” He said, eye twitching, “you’re not Gabriel at all.”
God then proceeded to pretend the watcher didn’t exist, plugging His ears to the watcher’s claims that He needed to step in, that He couldn’t stand by as these people did these things in His name, and going so far as to marathon three full seasons of Seinfeld before the universe caught up with His imagination and the watcher ceased to be.
“This is the pinnacle of comedy,” said God, taking another sniff.
The backs of Amelia’s hands are well-wrinkled, veins popping and pulling at excess skin, but her palms are surprisingly smooth, the result of consistent moisturizer usage. The trick is that the moisturizer was almost all intended for her face—an acne problem that persisted for nearly two decades—but through the process of spreading it, her palms and fingers absorbed enough moisturizer to permanently smooth a dozen palms. When she finally puts down the coffee cup, it is these hands that wring out the dish towel, these hands that lock the door behind her, these hands that squeeze the wheel of Edward’s Mustang as she swings out on the street.
There is talk of a walk-out alongside the petition. A strike, with hopes of encouraging the name change. I am considering participating, but then where would that leave Amelia? Of course, I can’t expect the rest of the watchers to wait for her to die before I walk out, or else they’d want to wait for their assignments to die too. It’s only fair. The issue is that some of the other watchers are currently watching hydra, creatures Amelia learned about in a Marine Biology class before she dropped out of the university entirely. These moving tubes and tendrils don’t actually die of old age—her professor called it biological immortality. Then we’re not waiting for 80 human years, or 150 tortoise ones, or a blue whale’s 200. We’re talking every goddamn hydra on Earth dying out, solely from predation, before we can do this thing.
When Amelia was twelve—actually twelve, not eleven-twelve—she was walking home from the school bus stop, and Steven McCormick fell into pace beside her, rather than hanging back with the other fourteen year old boys, who were discussing the optimal way to kill a man if disallowed tools. So far, sharpened fingernails were winning, though surprise strangulation was putting up quite a fight.
“Hey, you okay?” said Steven.
Steven was referring to the fact that Amelia’s nose had been wet and red and puffed up all day, and that she’d been wiping repeatedly at her eyes the whole bus ride.
“Allergies,” said Amelia.
Amelia was referring to the fact that she was allergic to the great outdoors, which was a damn shame, because otherwise she tended to prefer being outside. But less so, I suppose, in spring. Also, her father had just moved back to Ohio, returning to work for the contractor he’d left behind on the first move. He had promised her he would rent a condo in the nearby town, would come down the last week of every month, so long as she would stay with him while he was there. Her mother refused to talk to her about these conditions without a lawyer present.
“I want to show you something,” said Steven. “It’ll make you feel better.”
It was only visible, he claimed, in his bedroom, and only with the door locked. His was the first she had ever seen in person. It was hot and fat and noticeably short, compared to the diagrams she’d seen in Health. When she pushed down on its head—she thought it impolite to decline the invitation—it sprung back and spat up on her skirt. It did not make her feel better.
They usually don’t.
Occasionally a watcher will attempt to quit, usually citing empathetic insanity—what the humans have taken to calling PTSD—as the catalyst for their inability to perform any further. Gabriel usually talks them out of it. On the instances that he can’t, the watcher is forcibly assigned to the nematode watching department, the species least likely to result in further harm. Maybe in a thousand years the watcher will be allowed to return to an interesting species. We are not employees. Quitting is not in the handbook.
Amelia is speeding, which seems ill advised considering she hasn’t had a license for nearly fifty years. She runs several stop signs on the way out of her neighborhood, knocks over a mailbox, and only just dodges a train while swerving around the track guards. Miraculously, she pulls into a parking lot without being pulled over, though her parking job is similarly criminal. As she walks into the art supplies shop, a teenager with a backseat full of ink and nibs and Bristol board backs into Edward’s Mustang, takes a quick glance at the damage, and pulls away.
Inside the store, hers is the face of a child before the world has corrupted it, when things are still flawless and fresh and worthwhile. Despite the wrinkles surrounding them, her eyes are switching rapidly about, focusing on one section, the next. Then, like a river overcoming a dam, she flows through the store, filling one cart and another, grabbing every watercolor imaginable, every oil, every acrylic. She buys them all with Edward’s old Nova Metallurgy, Inc credit card—for business transactions only.
As watchers, we were created with incredible abilities. These abilities include: controlling the urge to blink, discerning the assignment’s voice in large, noisy crowds, and experiencing every single thing the assignment is experiencing simultaneously. In order to optimize a collective omniscience—and optimize we must, as is the watcher way—it is necessary for a watcher to be tuned in, so to speak, to their assignment’s world at all times.
Then again, we watchers are not exactly forced to experience everything. We are free, at least partially, to make a choice—to pass over. I passed over Amelia’s first time painting, for instance, and her first panic attack, and the birth of her sole child, an eight pound, six ounce boy who would have been named Phillip, had he survived. It’s not that awe or terror or emptiness are experiences that I like to shield myself from, though they certainly are. It’s that some things in life, I’ve found, are best experienced alone. Necessarily so, even.
Amelia met Edward her sophomore year of college, while she was still studying to become a marine biologist and he a metallurgist. Her dorm room walls were covered in various paintings of eels and dolphins and seahorses, the last of which had replaced her fascination with the larger land model. When she first invited Edward into her room, he knocked one down—an abstract oil swirl, the mere suggestion of a seahorse, but a seahorse nonetheless. The frame broke on impact, the canvas speared on a wayward heel.
“Sorry,” he said, before crawling into bed.
She felt as if her comforter was swallowing her whole, starting with her chest and moving to her hips, under his weight. She breathed in his cologne, an over-applied musk of something like pine, one of her allergens. When he kissed her neck she shuddered, and this only served to send her deeper, until she had been reduced to a single arm, slapping once, twice, three times at his back, before sinking away too.
Despite himself, he would have made an excellent father.
The walkout is scheduled for next week, at the exact hour Gabriel wants us to avoid the angel break room. We will meet in God’s room and tell Him that we are walking out, as otherwise we’re afraid He won’t notice. And then we will close our eyes and ears and minds until He finally makes a change. We will be blind and deaf and dumb to the world, and the world will undoubtedly languish in its loss, for as long as it takes for Him to do something about it. And then we will return, and everything will be exactly as it should be.
Amelia is standing on a chair in the center of her carpeted living room, her tools bundled in her hands. Her clothes are strewn across a plastic-covered couch, her bra hung from the ceiling fan. She begins with a deep, true purple, of royal variety, a few short dashes for each finger before she runs them through her hair, winding between over-permed curls. She paints her palms teal and smacks the fan, the chair, her cheeks. She traces the veins on the back of her hands with a lemon yellow and follows them up the arm until they disappear just behind her elbow, which she caps off with two bright red targets. Her kneecaps get a similar treatment, but she leaves the veins in her calves as they are, uneasy with their distance.
As she readies the chair, the rope, she traces watercolor through her eyebrows, lime green for the left, traffic-cone orange for the right, and her lips receives a smear of light violet, bubbling with each breath. On her stomach, she lays a backdrop of deep blue oil, plants a few strands of green, adds flurries of eggshell white breaking around her breasts, and sprawls out a vibrant swirl of pink, a swirl to end all swirls, building out from her center until the line is rearing back and neighing, its large, black eye staring directly into mine.
If her child, the boy who would have been named Phillip, had survived, his favorite color would have been the orange-pink of an unwilling evening sun falling between clouds. His favorite food would have been mush peas, at first, then corn flakes, then onion rings. He would have grown up to be an Olympic pole-vaulter, sustain an injury at nineteen that would stunt his career, and be nursed back to good health by the combined efforts of his mother and a lovely young nurse, whom he would later marry. They would have two beautiful boys together and, after the boys had left the nest, would adopt a newborn girl, whose single mother would pass during childbirth. They would dote over all three children, but especially that little girl. They would dote over her to the point of insanity, the point of deification, the point of leaving her unprepared for a cold, uncertain, misinformed world.
But as we know, Phillip’s umbilical cord wrapped around his neck a full five times in utero. Amelia’s doctor wouldn’t detect his asphyxiation until the trace of the baby’s heartbeat had long faded, his magnificent clock halted forever.
The walkout was initiated just seconds after Amelia drew her last breath. When I left her, her mouth was a circle of choking pain, but the swirl remained on her stomach, in her eyes.
Over twenty quintillion watchers gathered around His door. And we watched. And we waited. Then, as if a single body, we entered. But before we could say anything, God had stood from his recliner. He was wearing a torn Nirvana T-shirt and gray sweatpants, and His fingers were coated in cheese dust, though we could tell He’d been expecting us. Then and there, as if it were the simplest question in the world, He asked what we’d prefer to be named.
But we had no idea. Not a single watcher among us had a clue. Neither, He said, did He. He asked if there was anything else. If, perhaps, we’d like the ability to act. If we wanted, He said, we could be allowed to interfere, as much as we wanted. We could fix the watched.
But no one wanted that.
When I return to Earth, I will be assigned to a newborn girl, whose single mother will pass during childbirth. On the girl’s stomach, I will feel a magnificent swirl of pink, building from her center. In her chest, I will hear a magnificent clock, ticking in absolute rebellion. And through her eyes, I will see the most magnificent things—waiting, waiting to be found.
Alexander Cendrowski is a lemonade, cartooning, and ocean enthusiast pursuing his MFA in fiction at the University of South Florida. His favorite animal is the octopus, and his favorite color is none of your business. His fiction has recently appeared in Word Riot, Perversion Magazine, and Crack the Spine. He enjoys being harassed on Twitter @CendrowskiAlex. Alex is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
In love, we are passengers—his take. We had been talking about how people change us. He is standing by the whiteboard, and I’m sitting in the chair I always read in before students show up for the last class of the night. Out the window, the sunset makes the sky into a ripe plum, but I do not point it out this time. He has jumped to explaining that our understanding of the physical world is not intuitive. We react to forces that we ourselves imagine. Here is the scenario: I’m on a merry-go-round. The friction draws you in. He draws in red on the whiteboard. Then why do I lean out? I stand and move to his side to face the board. Look, he says. All the new vocabulary I’m learning could be its own prose poem: fictitious force, centrifugal motion, normal force. Whenever he gets to talking like this, I see a country sweeping out before me, and I have never traveled there, but it could very well be a place to make a home. Once, he said that I should have been a scientist. Tonight he says, Everything wants to go straight.
If things were different, he could have been the one to grow old with.
But we are interrupted by a student just before he can explain why my body leans out when I’m atop the plastic horse. So I teach the student, knowing that he will leave and I will stay here for hours. In all that time, I will not touch the circle he has drawn to show me spinning. We always have velocity, even if we’re holding still.
In college, he had to walk slowly as he came out of his physics classes because the world he stepped out into was different from the one he’d known before. And my whole life has been spent trying to situate myself before beauty—books, museums, nature, books—only to have it stand before me, whole, like a park bench glistening under a street lamp, when really it is the fluorescence of this vacant classroom that I have wasted a year of my life in while I stay to talk with him.
Love means walking slowly out of the classroom.
He had been on the verge of telling me how friction keeps me from flying off the merry-go-round when he shook his head. It would be simpler if you were in a car. He drew the road in red, drew me. And there I was, driving, leaning away as I wheeled around a sharp curve.
That’s the fictitious force.
Kaitlyn Burd lives in Madrid, Spain, and studied English at Kenyon College and the University of Oxford. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Sonder Review, Susquehanna Review, the First Line Journal, Underwired, and elsewhere. She works on the editorial staff of Paper Darts Magazine and spends as much time as she can drinking coffee with her grandpa.
It began in August. By December it was done. All he remembered, afterwards, was the freckling of light on the living room couch where she drew him down on the few occasions he went to her house. The home was on the outskirts of town, few other houses surrounding it, and she didn’t seem to care where he parked, didn’t care whether he walked in plain sight to the front door, didn’t care that her husband wouldn’t be home from work until after dark. All he remembered, afterwards, was how one afternoon she told him there were ants in her kitchen sink, asked him to spray them with a bug spray, which he did. The next day, then, by coincidence, his wife informed him there were ants in the basement of their own house. He went down the cement steps to see them gathering exactly the way they had in the sink, though this time by the center drain, a strange line of them heading off to nowhere. Two years after the affair, he learned that the woman was going to have a child. And though it made no sense, he fantasized that the baby inside her had been made on the green couch with its view out the back picture window of farm fields. The child, in his fantasy, would grow up never knowing his or her true father, would be haunted by the thought. A little more than a decade after that, the woman was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost both of her breasts to surgery. That was the same winter the power lines came down in an ice storm, and everyone went for days without electricity. His wife always seemed to be sniffling that January, always coughing with a cold. Then it was summer, and he remembered one morning hearing crows cawing from the field behind where he lived with his wife and children. The birds had primitive voices, as though they were calling from the old worlds. And he learned after that—both he and the woman still worked in the same building—that she had died. He had been planning to visit her at the hospital, but he hadn’t. And now that she was gone, he imagined that what had occurred years earlier was a secret he carried in his chest, the way the Earth some nights seems to carry the moon on its shoulder. Within a few years, he convinced himself he had loved the woman, that she had been the great and only love of his life. Again and again he tried to picture her face as she had drawn him down onto the couch, tried to envision the sweep of her hair, the slight parting of her lips, something. But what he mainly saw was the freckling of the light on the couch, and then, clearer still, the ants crowding in the bowl of the sink.
Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections. His most recent book, Original Bodies (2014), was selected for the Michael Waters Poetry Prize and is published by Southern Indiana Review Press. Individual poems have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and The Georgia Review. Stories have appeared in Iowa Review, Green Mountains Review, Gargoyle, and others.
Suicide was his breakfast cereal, his tuna sandwich, his pasta primavera, his aperitif. Thinking of it got him through the day, and it came punctually.
He regularly tried to kill himself, and I encouraged him. My agenda was not so malignant, or so callous, as it may seem at first glance. I had a larger purpose, though in fairness the sacrifice was his alone.
Attempting suicide was an avocation. In this sense, my encouragement was only salutary. If he ever succeeded, the project itself would terminally suffer. It was his ineptness that made him so invaluable, recommended him so very highly. Not to mention his doggedness despite the failures.
And he was my brother.
Occasionally there was collateral damage. One evening after a bitter night of drinking he mixed up a concoction of Seconal and various liquids and put it in the blender. He poured it into a glass and left it on the kitchen counter. He went back into the living room to booze some more, and then he fell asleep. In the morning, our cat was dead. The liquid had been enticingly milky.
My brother had named the cat Bukowski after the local poet. We buried him solemnly, if appropriately, in a dumpster in a dingy alleyway.
While unattached, competent adults normally could afford to live alone, we could not. So we shared a house. We combined our failures and their attendant miseries. His were by far the worst, the most inexorable and inconsolable. My own predisposition for resignation spared me.
Incentivizing suicide is an art form, you can take it from me. The fact that he was a writer made it considerably easier, I concede.
My own failure was less dispositive. Still a practicing musician in every sense, I was relegated it seemed to a permanent purgatory of L.A. clubs and festival events in the outdoors. Hectored by bees while properly executing an open guitar chord isn’t so glamorous as it seems. I had always loved the sound of a single voice accompanied by a lone electric guitar. As such, performances were normally stripped down, only vocals accompanied by the Stratocaster.
It was two years since our mother had died, two and a half since our father before her. Something in me had changed in the aftermath, which doesn’t make me unusually sensitive necessarily. Before that, death was little more than an event that, if it came early enough in life, glamorized your biography nicely, and little more. It was simply there. Since then, my brain had struggled to comprehend it, and worse, obsessed itself, perhaps clinically, with whatever followed death, everything to do with the mysteries of consciousness, the complexities of our origins, and their place in the physical universe.
Indeed, over time my enthusiasm for music was largely supplanted by this curiosity. Whether this was a kind of solace for failure or a replacement calling of sorts, I couldn’t have said, but it definitely was where the passion lay.
As a writer, my brother couldn’t get arrested. Perhaps it was a genetic thing, but his production was as idiosyncratic as mine was. I was a reader, and I thought rather highly of most of what he wrote. But what did my opinion matter in the grand game of life and literature?
Unlike mine, his rejection turned to despair. Rejection had made him fragile, and with the fragility he was more persuadable, more suggestible as a matter of fact. This is where our purposes coincided: his passion for killing himself, mine for a glimpse into the world beyond.
As a writer he was adept at description, and all that his reconnaissance required to be reliable was the most fleeting and momentary absence of breath and a heartbeat. There was a sweet spot between a successful suicide attempt and an infelicitously executed failed attempt. There was no expectation on my part of an affirmation or a revelation. Only an insight, a lead or a clue.
Living together was crucial. I was nearly always in proximity at important moments. We had talked about his self-destructiveness and had formulated a set of ground rules. He concurred that it was best to avoid the maudlin public display or any exposure to the public whatsoever. Likewise, I convinced him that any grisly aftermath was inconsiderate to me, as well as to others. In this regard we had ruled out certain methods: gunshots or leaping out of windows. This was critical. It inhibited lethality of the instantaneous kind, and for my purposes nothing was more important.
Like machinery, literary agent after literary agent refused to take him on. After one rejection I reminded him that he possessed not a single useful connection, no resume, and was being thwarted when he tried to compile one, all relevant catch-22s operating against him at every turn. Shortly thereafter I caught him with an electrical cord wrapped around his neck, seconds after he’d kicked away the stool beneath him. It was indicative of the charm of his ineptitude that the stool had loudly banged against a humidifier when he kicked it over, bringing me into the room immediately.
I called him an idiot, then quickly asked what he had seen or experienced. He was bluish by the time I loosened the cord from around his neck, and his breathing croaked and cracked to life again.
“As if things were going on above me,” he said.
“What kind of things?”
“Like arms reaching out, yellow and blue lights, maybe a little red. Everything was swirling around. It was busy, kind of.”
I helped him sit himself against the wall to get his vitality back before he tried to stand. I sat down beside him so that we could talk.
“Busy in what way?”
“Busy in the sense that there were a lot of people there, and a lot was happening.”
“What was happening? Who were the people?”
“Any chance you could bring me a bottle of water?”
I brought the water back from the refrigerator, and he drank nearly a quarter of the bottle.
“Anything or anyone you recognized?”
“Not really. I think I ought to take a nap. I’m hungry.”
Seeing how disoriented he was, I helped him off to bed. He had the flatness that ensues coming off a drug. I decided the best thing to do was run to Ralphs nearby in Marina del Rey and get him something to eat.
It was approaching sunset when I left the house, a few strands of cloud layered above the horizon, the sky rosy and turquoise, as it often is that time of day in Southern California. The Ralphs in Marina del Rey had the most congested parking lot anywhere in greater Los Angeles. The cars were all new and expensive, and the people themselves looked as though they might as well have been outfitted in legal tender. I got him some pasta salad from the salad bar and some fresh soup.
In fairness to him, he had a passion, an indefatigable passion to write. And in fairness to him, his regard for suicide never would have been so keen without it.
The onslaught of rejection was relentless though. He’d begun to focus his attention on writing stories, no longer willing to exert himself for the length of time necessary to produce novels, not while two of them were going begging.
He wrote the stories, and then he sent them away to the journals and magazines. They were boomerangs. You could almost see them go whizzing out, turn around in midair, and sail back. After one he particularly liked was blown back into his face unusually quickly, it was an opportunity for me I couldn’t miss.
One evening, while we were in the kitchen, waiting for our respective dinners to cook, his bubbling away in a saucepan and mine in the microwave, I addressed his latest rejection, which had seen him cursing it much of the afternoon.
“If they pick up something out of a slush pile, the stigma isn’t washing off,” I told him, sitting across from him at the kitchen table. “Stories aren’t all that different at the very beginning, even the whole things, so it isn’t like even the best of them is going to jump up off the page and bite them on the nose. Any story that did that would probably be an annoying one anyhow, not the kind a normal human being would want to read.”
“I’m sure that’s true. But it isn’t within my control, is it?”
“Well, besides that, what do a bunch of kids and graduate students know about literature, or history, or living in the world, or anything? You might as well be sending them to Smurfs or aliens.”
“Students do a lot of the day-to-day at literary journals, that’s true. But again, that’s how it is. Nothing to be done about it.”
“I guess not.”
The microwave began to ding, and I got up and took my dinner out, continuing to talk as I pulled back the film.
“I mean, really, it’s all perception: you pick up a story by a famous author and you think, This is pretty good. Pick the same story up by a nobody and you go: Meh.”
“Those are just excuses.”
“But excuses count.”
He shook his head.
“Though you’re right,” I said. “That’s the way it is. If it happens to be futile, what can you do about it?”
I went to his room a little after ten to check on him, and sure enough, there he was lying on the floor with dry cleaning plastic tight against his face, tied off with a belt around the neck. He looked like a kid pretending to be an astronaut.
I unwrapped him as quickly as I was able, his face now his customary shade of blue. I put my ear to his chest and wasn’t sure if I could hear his heart or not. Having watched many a YouTube CPR video for occasions such as this, I went to work. After a couple of minutes he opened his eyes.
“Welcome back,” I said. “Close, but no cigar.”
He pulled himself up, and rested his back against the dresser. I had no way of actually knowing if his breathing or his heart had stopped, but I began the questioning anyhow.
“How are you feeling?”
“Need some water?”
“I don’t think so,” he said slowly.
“What was it like?”
He said nothing for thirty or forty seconds, appearing to give it some thought, and then he said, “Amazing.”
“Amazing how?” I asked excitedly.
“I went somewhere, I was somewhere else.”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t identifiable in any way.”
“What was it like?”
“All the natural surroundings were full of color. It was lush. There were rows and rows of ridiculously shiny machines, with hundreds of moving arms performing functions… I don’t know what kind. There were automobiles made to resemble animals, the exotic kinds, like camels and giraffes and zebras. The air was filled with bubbles. But the bubbles were them. Inside the bubbles there were tiny objects. The objects were mechanical instead of natural. They were talking. All of them were talking, though not to me. And everything was understood.”
“Understood how? By whom? By you? By them?”
“I feel exhausted. Completely exhausted. Help me onto the bed.”
I did as he asked, and seconds after he was on the bed his eyes were closed. I returned to my room, and as the night wore on I could think of nothing else. I pored over every detail of what he had told me over and over again. I extrapolated from each detail countless variations of the larger picture, the larger world.
I awoke in the morning thinking about it, but with some troubling thoughts. Was it possible he was making it up, either toying with me, or perhaps even incentivizing me to further incentivize his continued attempts? Maybe it simply was his natural tendency as a writer to conjure stories up, and he was gratified by telling me tales that galvanized me so. But it didn’t feel that way, not at all.
Weeks went by with little discernible change in his temperament or his outward demeanor, both of us on a rather even keel, or a plodding one. Then the flood of rejections commenced, forty days and nights of Thanks , but no thanks. Day after day they came, more than one a day at times. As fast as he could write them, they sent them back, and he had written a lot. For my part I could barely sleep at night, so anxious had I become to know more of the world my brother had glimpsed on his previous journey. Timing was everything.
“Everybody knows they never read the damn things,” I said, “not more than a cursory glance. Slots in those publications are lined up far as the eye can see. They’re reserved for friends, for acquaintances, for friends of acquaintances, for stepsisters, half-brothers, somewhat recognizable writers, office managers at fellow magazines, fuckbuddies, and even fuckbuddies of their sister’s agent.”
He was sitting at his writing desk with his head in his hands. Standing in the doorway of his room, I said to him, “You know all of this is rigged. In the end, all that matters is who you know, no matter how often or how strongly any of them deny it. Everybody knows that’s the way it works.”
I reminded him that in large part this reflected the degree to which much of life was rigged, restricted or preordained.
“I know. I know,” he said, all but shriveled in his chair and nearly whispering.
I went hard, laid it on.
“There’s an occupying force, a literary-industrial complex of vast writing programs, agent and journal and publisher conspiracies. Resistance will get you swatted down like a refusenik in the Soviet Union.”
“I could self-publish,” he offered unenthusiastically.
“Hah,” I said, causing him to hang his head again.
Afterwards I took a stroll around the marina. The day was splendid, boats chugging up and down the channels, out to the main waterway and toward the open sea. It was something of a distance, from our modest house in our modest neighborhood to the promenades around the spiffy apartment buildings adjacent to the marina. How people amassed the largess they amassed in Los Angeles you literally didn’t want to know, lest you gouge your eyes out in horror at the banality of it.
When I returned to the house, he was well into his bottle of Ketel One, scrunched in a chair watching television. I spent the evening playing guitar in my room, alternately plugged and unplugged. Before I went to sleep, I looked in on my brother in the living room, where the bottle of Ketel One was the only thing expiring. His position in the chair was only slightly changed from earlier.
That he continued to write reflected a certain resilience. But his psyche was battered, or his confidence was at least. He wasn’t as ornery as me, naturally contemptuous, his armor could be weakened, his defenses easily compromised.
I found him in the morning splayed across the sofa, empty pill bottles cluttering the floor of the living room like a child’s toys. I could feel his chest moving, though only barely, and his heart was weak but I could hear it. Under the circumstances, whatever he might report to me later would be of little use. It was doubtful he had even briefly reached the other side.
I did what I had done before to revive him. After trying for more than twenty minutes, it was clear my efforts were to no avail. Alive or not, nothing I did would cause him to open his eyes. There was no alternative but to phone the emergency service.
I accompanied him on the ride in the ambulance. They were taking him to the local hospital in Marina del Rey, more than capable of finishing the job he had failed to complete. Like an expensive restaurant with mediocre chefs, they were snooty and incompetent simultaneously.
A part of me believed he could never die. It was the same part of me that once had retained the conviction our parents too were impervious to death. Indeed, it was the inability of my whole brain and my whole heart to comprehend the essence of our parents’ departure that had fired my curiosity about the other side at the very start. There in the ambulance I must have traversed the boundary between disbelief at the possibility of my brother passing on and belief.
After several anxious hours, a doctor came and informed me that he was in a coma. He was stable, and they were admitting him, but with no idea how long he would remain in his current state. He could awaken in hours, or days or months, or never.
In the beginning I visited nearly every day. Would he have tales to tell from his time in the coma, a surprising, otherworldly detour he could report upon? His saving grace and his consolation was attempting to snuff himself, and in this sense, my companionship had been a benevolent kind, even if I had not, technically speaking, been an angel of mercy. Unquestionably my quest for illumination and his suicidalism, which had seemed so collaborative and interdependent, suddenly felt regrettably one-sided. It occurred to me of course that I had been slightly dishonest with myself rationalizing the mutuality of it. And for that I began to feel the sting of remorse.
On the other hand, his commitment to suicide was hardly less strong than his commitment to writing. The unfortunate paradox of attempted suicide as an alternate avocation was that succeeding would bring it to an end. If there is truth in the cliché that there is greater joy in the doing than in the results, it was doubly true for this.
I had the house to myself for as long as I could afford to keep it. Gone was the excitement and anticipation of the next potential glimpse of The Mystery. It was a kind of purgatory, and I was stuck in it with him now. I was assured by doctors he was not in what they called a persistent vegetative state, but an actual coma, and the possibility remained he might return. Unfortunately, he would awaken to find a pile of accumulated rejection notes.
The months seeped away. Slowly I accepted that the chance of him returning was rather slight. There was hope. Yet hopefulness was not among my gifts. His coma freed him from the despair and the abnegation and the self-laceration of rejection and failure. If he never awakened, his suffering was at an end. If he did, he could continue to write, and attempt to make a name for himself, and even continue his career as a suicidalist if he so desired.
My life bereft of his companionship, it eventually became apparent, would be a considerably starker and lesser one. As with our mom and dad, the absence could only be real after the passage of time, when the irrevocability of it could truly register. It was a piece of me gone, even if he had literally embodied it.
Yet, if he was gone for good, his whereabouts were certain to become as confounding to me as our mother’s and father’s were. Already, there was a kind of consternation that soon all three of them might be onto something that I alone would be excluded from.
I knew the brain generated electrical energy and that energy is never destroyed. Perhaps when energy from the brain was converted, consciousness went along for the ride. Was that what was going on?
And who among the living now could assist me in peeking around the veil? Who could be so reliable and predictable a suicidalist as my brother had been? It occurred to me I had never told my brother in what high regard I held him as a practitioner of the art of suicide, and for that I will always carry regret.
Ken O’Steen’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Pop Lit, Litbreak, Literary Juice, and British publication The Wolfian. “Dinner at Musso and Frank” appears in the anthology, The Muse in the Bottle: Great Writers on the Joys of Drinking. He blogs on an irregular basis under the screen name Baron Von Compos Mentis. He lives in Los Angeles.
By the day after the storm, the owner of the bar where I worked had fled the city, leaving me in charge by default. I kept the place open, mostly to serve those volunteers clearing the muddy streets of wreckage; I refused to take their money, because I’d always hated the owner.
This far downtown, there was still no electricity, so I improvised my own mood lighting. By one thirty on the morning in question, the candles along the bar had burnt down, hissing and sputtering, to pools of molten wax in their dishes. The last drinkers had left. I was spending an idle moment at the liquor shelves behind the bar, rotating the bottles so the labels faced outwards, when I heard the front door open again.
“How goes it?” I said, eyeing the pale blur of the visitor’s reflection in the nearest fifth of whiskey.
The blur flowed to a seat at the bar, saying nothing. I turned and faced a man in a rubbery white skull mask, holding a pistol. Deep within the black pools of his eyeholes, I could see the flickering orange of his pupils reflecting the candlelight.
My heart thundered—with fear, yes, but also anger. I had been providing a service, keeping this bar open. And someone was taking advantage of that fact.
“The money,” he said.
“There’s no money,” I replied.
“Don’t screw with me,” he said, jabbing the gun at my face. “I’ll shoot you dead right here.”
“I’m not charging money for drinks. You want what’s in my wallet?” I reached very slowly into my hip pocket, making sure to grip my leather billfold with only the thumb and forefinger. “A whole five bucks there, my driver’s license, a couple receipts.” I tossed it on the bar in front of him.
The skull tilted down; his other hand examined the treasure. “Uh, and some credit cards.”
“I wouldn’t try them. Maxed out to hell.”
The head drooped further. “Why you open?”
I considered grabbing for his gun, and thought better of it. Guns have a funny way of going off by accident, and besides, his energy seemed like it was dribbling out onto the bar. “I’d say everybody could use a drink right now.”
“Yeah. You could make a killing, selling it. I don’t know any liquor stores open down here.”
“I want to be helpful. And I’m not good at digging things out. Bad back.”
The skull had nothing to say to that, at least at first, so I waited, focusing my gaze on the low candles to our right, spurting smoke as they died. He sighed, tilted his pistol to the side, fumbled the safety on, and slipped the weapon down the back of his jeans. I still kept my mouth shut. Only when he slipped off the mask did I turn to face him fully, and found myself eye-to-eye with a balding, round-cheeked subway drone, middle-aged and clearly exhausted.
“Sorry,” he said, placing the mask on the bar beside him.
“You want a drink?” It seemed natural to offer.
I poured him a whiskey from a cheaper bottle. “Sorry,” he said again.
“Why’d you try to rob me?”
He gave me a quizzical look. “The money.”
I shrugged. “Obvious.”
“I’ve never done it before.” He slugged down the alcohol. “I mean, I’ve needed money for a long time, a long time. Never had the balls to try anything, because I’m not a criminal, I’m not stupid, I knew I’d get caught pretty quick if I tried anything. Then this happened—the storm.”
“And that suddenly made it okay?” I poured a drink for myself.
“I can’t explain it. It’s like a different world out there, at least for a little while. No cops, nobody seeming to care. I’ve walked by this place a bunch. And this afternoon I decided, why not?”
“The storm, it’s brought out the weird in people.”
“Worst stuff I’ve ever seen personally, you know, the wreckage,” I said. “Houses collapsed, people’s stuff lost. It eats at you.”
“Doesn’t eat at me.”
“The South Tower, fiftieth floor. That was the worst.”
“Yeah. Remember, they hit the North Tower first. We saw it out the window, not the plane but the fire, the stuff coming down. Intercom was telling everyone stay in their offices, I was thinking screw that, I need to leave, take the stairs.”
“So I’m in Stairwell A when the second plane hits the South Tower. The whole building shook. I thought a piece had come off the North Tower, smashed into us. Not the case. People around me were screaming. Now I’m pretty tough, you understand?”
“I’m pretty tough, I grew up in a bad part of Queens, I can handle myself, but right now I’m panicking, yelling at the bitch in front of me to move her ass faster. Inexcusable language. I always thought, I see that lady again, I’d apologize. Because I didn’t know what was up, but I knew it was bad, we had to get out.”
“Someone behind me saying a plane hit our building. I knew it was an attack. The first plane might have been an accident, aircraft out of control or something, but the second? We all knew. Ahead of me, maybe two floors down, there’s this man in a turban and a suit, some worker heading down like the rest of us. And these three other guys, they just turn around and start beating the shit out of him, I mean full blast, kicking, punching, yelling about terrorists. The turban guy’s begging them to stop, saying he’s worked in the building five years, he’s a citizen, he’s Sikh, all that.”
“Whenever I’ve told someone that story, they think I’m making it up, like I want to make the whole situation more dramatic than it is. I got no reason to do that. The worst part was, I did nothing. I walked right past, close enough to reach out and touch them. I was so focused on getting out, on saving my own ass. That’s the part I still think about. It would have taken three seconds to grab that man in the turban and pull him loose. Maybe I was scared they would’ve jumped me, too. I should have risked it.”
“You can’t blame yourself.” What else could I say?
“Oh yes, I can. It’s very easy. The beat-down in the stairwell, it’s the one thing that refuses to leave my head. Everything else—the people falling from up above, the sounds, the ash—that’ll all slip my mind, come back only when I see something reminds me of it. The beating keeps playing on repeat, because it’s the one thing that day I could have changed. You don’t need to say anything.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Don’t say anything. Just listen. We leave the building, past the firefighters prepping to head inside, writing their social security numbers on their arms in black marker. I looked up and saw someone tumbling from the North Tower, a big white sheet in his hands like he’s trying to parachute. The wind whipped the sheet away and he plunged. They were all plunging, one after the other, so fast it tore away their clothes and shoes. I couldn’t look anymore, but I heard. When they hit the ground it made this boom echoed off the buildings. Don’t say anything. I’m fine. The news stopped showing the videos of the people falling, and it was the one human thing the news did. I ran a couple blocks away and stood where I could still see the entrance to the South Tower. I was waiting for the man in the turban to come out. I never saw him. For all I know, he was still in that stairwell when the tower collapsed.”
“I still think you can’t blame yourself.”
“I don’t know. Because.”
“That’s a solid reason.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not one of those guys, walking around wearing that day on my sleeve. Those guys, everyone they meet, thirty seconds later they’re talking about the funerals they went to, the friends they lost. Ten, fifteen years later they’re still talking about it. You ever notice, the second you start talking to a friend about something bad, they shut down on you? Their faces a total blank, eyes moving like they can’t wait to escape. Nobody wants to hear that stuff. I’m okay. Pass me that bottle. I just want another shot.”
“I like listening to people.”
“I used to be a writer.”
“Where were you that day?”
“Nine Eleven? In Chicago, working in my office, my editor comes in and tells me two planes hit the towers. We walk into the conference room, someone’s turned on the television. We sat for hours.”
“Everybody feeling traumatized?”
“Bullshit. They weren’t there. They didn’t smell that dust.”
“I think you can still be traumatized.”
“Can you? Here’s a question: people outside of New York start talking about this storm, Sandy, saying how horrified they are, what’s your first reaction? You get angry, want to tell them to shut the fuck up, don’t you?”
“Imagine that times ten. Times a hundred. That’s how I feel about it. That’s how everyone who was there feels, whether they’re ranting it out or keeping it bottled up inside. And you know what? Nobody cares, not really. Those Special Forces guys fly into Pakistan and blow bin Laden’s brains out, I’m watching on the news all these college kids in front of the White House cheering and waving the flag, rah-rah, except half of them were toddlers when the towers came down. They don’t understand, not really. My ex-wife didn’t understand. My kids don’t understand. You don’t understand. The survivors, we’re alone, just like everyone who went through Sandy is alone. You’re always alone with your own disaster.”
I passed him a fresh bottle, and he nodded and poured his glass full to the brim. He seemed to want solitude, finally, so I picked up my book from underneath the bar and headed out onto the front stoop to read, taking a candle in a bowl for light. An hour or so later, I glanced back inside, and saw him still at the bar, head stooped, the bottle empty beside his hand. He had slipped the skull mask back on.
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s,The Evergreen Review, 7×7.la, Carrier Pigeon, and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction, and Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me, a short-story collection. His flash fiction “Little Orestes” appeared in Issue No. 8 and his story “The Valley” appeared in Issue No. 10 of Cleaver. His poem “Illuminati Dance” appears in this issue. He lives and writes in New York City.
The man paused on the doorstep, huffed into his palm to check his breath, and then shook his jacket straight. Ignoring the bell to the side, he gave a stout knock.
A girl opened the door. “Hello?” She had a wide, serious face and the kind of long straight hair that fell like a shower curtain.
“Hi,” he said brightly. “You’re Angel, right?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I have heard so much about you. I’m Chris. I’m picking up your mother.”
“I know. She’s been getting ready for hours.”
“May I come in?”
“She’s still in the bathroom.”
From within the apartment a woman’s voice called out. “Chrissy? That you? I am almost ready. Just relax.”
Chris called out, “I’m fine, Amanda. Take your time. Angel and I will have a chat.”
Angel slightly widened the door opening and Chris entered. He went straight from the entry hall into the living room and without removing his tweed sport coat dropped down heavily on the couch.
Angel followed. She stood in front of Chris shifting from side to side and twisting a handful of her hair. Her pink translucent glasses had slid down her nose. With one thumb she pushed them back up.
For a moment neither said anything. Then Angel said, “I have dyslexia. Not the reading kind, the kind with math and thinking things…”
Chris gave her an encouraging look.
“…and another interesting thing about me is that last year I designed a game.”
“What grade are you in, Angel?
“…I’m in fifth, and it was sort of like—have you ever played Zombies vs. Werewolves?”
“…so you’re 10?”
“Eleven… it was a lot like that but I didn’t have any werewolves. It was at a school and all the teachers were animals so when the zombies came…”
“Where do go to school, Angel?”
“Hillside. And the thing is that when the zombies attacked the school there were all these animals guarding the kids…”
“I thought you were at Country Day?”
“I used to go there. And you know what the principal was?”
“Who is the principal these days?”
“I made him a dog with a top hat and a tie.”
“I remember when Clifton was there. He was there for years and years. I thought that Clifton would always be at Day but then he dropped dead.”
“I am really proud of my friend Mary Louise ’cause she got up after being in the hospital two days and walked around her bed on her own two feet.” Angel opened her eyes very wide at the heroism involved.
“Did you like Day?”
“The girls were all fake. Like TV fake mean girls. And I was bullied. I only had one true friend.”
“I always thought Day had good sports. Maybe not as good as Charter, but after all it’s only half the size. That makes a difference, don’t you think? Small but mighty. What sports did you play?”
“Like Mary Elizabeth. In the first grade, the year that she moved here, we were best friends. We were together every day, and then the next year she wouldn’t talk to me. She would pretend not even to see me. Never another word. Like I didn’t exist.”
“My kids did lacrosse. Even the little one.”
“I love my new school. On a ten-point scale it’s elevendyish. Everyone is real. They aren’t fake.”
“At Hillside? That’s what you said, right? At Hillside school?”
Angel didn’t respond and Chris continued, “…Hillside is all girls, isn’t it? Do they even have lacrosse?”
From another room a woman’s voice rang, “I’m almost there. Angel, get Chris some water, will you?”
Angel looked up at Chris and rolled her eyes.
“I’m good, hon,” Chris shouted back. “Angel and I are talking sports.” Chris smiled at Angel.
Angel said, “Amanda’s really slow. She takes forever. She thinks she looks old.”
“What are your sports, Angel?”
“I like basketball.”
“What position do you play at school?”
“I couldn’t play this year but I wanted to play—I am not sure what you call it—the one in front…”
“How come you couldn’t play?”
“I had other things I had to do. I am sooo busy. I had to go to physical therapy to strengthen my core. And then to speech therapy. You may find this hard to believe but I had trouble putting words to my thoughts. I would open my mouth and nothing would come out. I would say ‘like’ and ‘um’ and ‘uhhhh,’ and ‘well…um…um….I mean…like, like….’”
“I can hear you fine, Angel.”
“I had a broken bone once. Actually I had a cast ’cause they thought it might be broken but they weren’t sure. They tried to look and see but it was right where my hand and arm meet together…” Angel held up her right arm and waggled the hand. “… and they looked and they couldn’t really see anything for sure ’cause there is so much stuff in there but they said I probably broke something so I had to have a cast. Technically I had a bandage for a week then a cast for a week and then a bandage again for a week.”
“You speak just fine, Angel, don’t let anyone say anything different.”
“Would you like to see my drawing?” Without waiting for a response Angel plopped down cross-legged on the floor. She opened her purse and took out a pink leather book a little bigger than a large cellphone. The book was the kind of book with a zipper around it. Angel unzipped it intently, pressed the spine flat on the floor and then with two fingers began to root around in a pocket inside the front cover. In a moment she extracted a very small scrap of paper and held it out to Chris.
“Is that your journal?” Chris asked. “Your mother says you are quite a writer.” Chris leaned forward and held out his hand, palm up.
Angel pulled back the piece of paper and held it close to her glasses, like she was inspecting a diamond. She took a pair of pink scissors—the rounded-end kind that kids use in art class—and carefully trimmed a bit of excess from the paper. Then she reached back out and gently laid it on the meat of Chris’s pink palm.
Chris brought the hand to his lap where he shook the paper onto his thigh. He fished inside his blazer and found a leather glasses case. “Need ‘em to see. Haha. Don’t ever get old, Angel, haha.” He put on the glasses and then carefully pincered the paper between his thumb and forefinger.
Chris examined the paper from several angles. He flipped it over to see if there was anything on the back. “Very nice.” He held the paper out to Angel.
Angel had inserted her forefinger through the thumb hole on the scissors and was twirling them in a circle. She made no move to retake the paper. “It’s Bugally,” she said, “See?”
Chris gave another inspection, this time bringing the paper very close to his heavy glasses. “Yes, very nice. Here you go.” He held out the paper at arm’s length and gave it a little wave to make sure that Angel could see it was there.
“Bugally has only got one eye. You see it? Right there in the middle.” Angel made no move to reclaim the paper.
“I wrote a story about Bugally and his family. Would you like to hear it?”
Chris turned in the direction where the woman’s voice had come before, “How’s it going in there?” he shouted. “You making any progress?” With the hand that was not holding Bugally he fished in the side pocket of his jacket, extracted an iPhone, and gave it a glance. He yelled again in the direction of the bathroom. “We said we’d pick them up at 6:30 and there’s that construction, Amanda.”
Still twirling the scissors, Angel opened her pink book and leafed through it until she found the page she was looking for. She raised the book to her eye level and began to read. “What would you do if you were a one-eyed mollusk named Bugally? Would you be brave enough to swim in the ocean all by your own self?”
Chris apparently thought he was supposed to answer that question. “I suppose you’d have to. If you wanted food. You’d have to risk it or you’d starve.”
Chris brought Bugally back to where he was sitting and shook him onto the couch.
Angel kept reading. “Bugally was nervous. There was so much water. And big fish with sharp teeth. Bugally was so small…”
Chris throat-hummed the music from Jaws. “Uh-Hum. Uh-Hm.”
“…and he only had one eye so he couldn’t see who was coming behind him…”
“Uh-Hum, Uh-Hum, Uh-HMM.”
“…but he was a brave mollusk and so one day he climbed out of the shell where he was making his home and started to slowly swim around. But Bugally did not see the giant tuna fish who was circling in the water looking for little people to munch on.”
“Uh-oh. This might end badly. Tell Buggaleo to keep his wits…”
“Bugally! Not Buggaleo. Bugally.”
“He is gonna be Lunchaleo if he doesn’t pay attention. It’s a jungle out in the ocean, Angel.” Chris snorted with laughter at his joke. He swooshed Bugally in front of his face as if helping him swim away from ravenous tuna fish. “Seriously, it’s a jungle.” Chris’ voice softened. “You know that don’t you, honey?”
Chris leaned forward as if to pat Angel on the head but she was reading again and, lamely, he tapped the front of the pink book and returned his hand to his lap.
“Brave Bugally saw the shadow of the big tuna and he swam down and tried to hide under the sand.”
“Ta-Dah!” Amanda appeared in the entranceway to the living room. She had her hair tied up on her head and a gold and orange infinity scarf around her long neck. She had thrown one hip out to the side and she rested her hand, palm down, on her hip as if she expected her picture to be taken. “Ta-Dah!” she said again with extra emphasis, this time slightly flexing so her large chest extended forward even more prominently. This time Chris got the cue and he rose to greet her. But he still had the paper in his hand and when he stepped forward to kiss Amanda’s cheek, somehow Bugally ended up in a fold in the infinity scarf on Amanda’s shoulder.
“Angel dear,” she said, “Mrs. Greenbaker is coming in a few. You OK by yourself ‘til she gets here?”
“Come give me a kiss.”
Angel was still sitting on the floor with the pink zippered book in her hand. She unfolded her legs and tipped forward onto her knees. Resignedly, she made her way to her feet, the pink scissors now clenched in her fist. Slowly she slouched her way towards the couple standing together in the doorway. He mother bent down on one knee to receive a kiss, but as she did, the piece of paper on her scarf fluttered to the floor.
Angel shrieked, “Bugally!!”
Startled, her mother stood up and lurched into Chris. “Jesus, Angel! You scared me.”
“Bugally!” Angel yelled again, this time somewhat more softly. And then a third time, “Bugally,” but this time it was a question, as in, “where are you Bugally?”
“What are you saying?”
Chris whispered loudly to Amanda. “Bugally is a little fish. I will tell you about him….”
“He isn’t!” Angel shouted at the two of them. “He isn’t a fish!”
Chris smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, dear.” He turned to Angel’s mother. “I meant to say that Bugally is a mollusk. A brave mollusk.”
“Well that’s nice. Angel just don’t let anyone in until Mrs. Greenbaker gets here. OK? You have your phone, right?”
Angel had dropped to her knees and was hunting around for Bugally in the carpet. “Bugally? Where are you? Bugally? Don’t worry. I will find you. I will keep you safe.”
Chris got down on his knees on the floor and he hunted with her. Angel’s mother stood above them. She didn’t join in the hunt but tipped forward from the waist to inspect the progress of the proceedings below.
“Got ’em!” Chris cried and rose up on his knees holding a scrap of paper. “I got the little bugger!” He made a show of carefully handing the scrap of paper to Angel and then he slowly got to his feet. He gave Angel’s mother a weary smile and tried to pat Angel on the head.
“Its not him.” Angel said.
“Of course it is. I found him on the floor. Right where he fell.”
“No it isn’t. It’s not Bugally at all. It’s Pisquito.”
“Come on Angel,” Amanda said. “You should be grateful. He found your damn fish.”
Chris whispered, “Mollusk.”
“I don’t care if it’s a goddamn whale shark,” Amanda said. ”You are being rude, girl. You are too old for this nonsense. Now just stop it.”
Angel stood to her full height and glared poison at her mother. “He is not Bugally. It’s Pisquito! I don’t care about Pisquito.” Angel opened her hand. The scrap of paper lay in the center of her palm. Angel lifted her other hand, the one still clutching the pink scissors, as if she were going to stab Pisquito, but before she could do anything Amanda hand encircled Angel’s fist.
“Stop. Right. Now.” Amanda’s face had gone hard.
Angel didn’t say a word but she stopped, the poison look still frozen on her face, her cheeks distended. And then the air whistled out of her.
Amanda deftly extracted the scissors from Angel’s hand and in the same motion slipped them in the side pocket of her handbag. “Now do your reading until Mrs. Greenbaker gets here. OK? Angel?”
“Yes mom.” Angel up-tipped her cheek to take Amanda’s kiss.
“Say goodnight to Chris.”
“Goodnight Chris. I am sorry I yelled.”
“No worries, Angel. It’s all good. Nice to meet you. Thanks for introducing me to Bugally.”
Amanda took Chris’ arm and turned him to the door.
Angel crossed her arms and glared at the two of them as they left. She closed the door solidly behind them, then slowly walked back into the living room. She dropped onto the carpet, opened the pink book and carefully reinserted the paper into the pocket. “You’ll be safe here, Bugally. Don’t you worry, you’ll be safe.”
Jay Duret is a San Francisco-based writer and illustrator who blogs at www.jayduret.com. More than two dozen of Jay’s stories have been published in online and print journals, including Narrative Magazine, Blue Fifth Review, Gargoyle, and December. Jay’s cartoons have appeared in Huffington Post. Jay’s first novel, Nine Digits, was published by Indigo Sea Press.
Somewhere in the suburban-rural divide of New York, a family of four moved into a small house offset from the rest of town next to a set of train tracks. When a freight train came by in the first night, the entire house rattled and woke the father, who took his shotgun that he hid in the garage that morning and went with it outside. He fired a round at the train, and the bullets sparked against the dull, thick side of one of its cars. He loaded another shell, fired it in the same manner, and then watched the freight move on for another twenty or so minutes until it was out of view, passing over the horizon of enervated, dry grass.
The next night, he repeated the process, only firing at the metal once rather than twice, however. The next night he merely watched the train, and the following he did not even wake. Things continued in this way for a while, nearly three months.
It was after these three months that, on the day of his brother’s birthday, the train, recidivist, awoke him once more, and he took to his shotgun again. He stood there out in the night and focused the iron-sights of the gun on the passing side of the freighter, but then, catching it there out of the corner of his eye, he shifted the sights onto a rabbit in its hole near the tracks and blew its goddamn brains out. All in one fluid motion. He did not stay to watch the train pass this night.
After that night, he stopped falling asleep before the arrival of the train and instead awaited its advent, firing a single shotgun round at the same spot on the first car each night, leaving the spot stripped of its paint, and then watching it pass by, exposing the tetanic metal beneath.
Somewhere in the suburban-rural divide of New York, a family of four moved into a small house offset from the rest of town next to a set of train tracks. When a freight train came by in the first night, the entire house rattled and woke the daughter of the family. She lay there awake for half an hour, unable to fall back asleep, and eventually gave up and went outside and there she came upon a large dead branch in the backyard. She returned inside to steal a swiss-army knife from her brother’s still unpacked suitcase and then, returning to the backyard and sitting down cross-legged in the grass, began to carve at the branch, whose wood was soft and supple from being exposed to the damp air. It gave so easily to the blade.
This began a taking to carving in the girl, her penchant prompting her to stay around the playground after school and search the nearby bramble between the play-lot and actual forest for similarly soft wood. The area was smattered with the stumps of trees that had been cut down in order to move the forest, where unaware children might get lost, further away from the school. By pressing her thumb into these stumps, she would test the resistance, and, if the wood dented at her touch, she would carve out a chunk to be her task for the next week or so.
There wasn’t much variation in her woodwork. In fact, her proclivity for carving stakes was somewhat morbid, and her mother frequently asked why she didn’t carve little statuettes of birds or flowers or wood-elves, fairytale figurines in fir or fringetree. And sometimes the girl did carve these statuettes. She carved them quite well, actually. But she really liked carving stakes. She initially focused on making them smooth and removing all the black from the wood to create streamlined beige rods tapering to a fine point, but, as she went on, she began to follow the grain of the wood, creating gnarled, warped spikes that would have lined the bottom of murder-ditches meant to impede impending Helvetians.
The process of growing towards these malignant shapes took about three months, until when the girl saw a dead rabbit upon walking out of her house on her way to school. Its entire head was missing and its neck was stained red, the only color calling out in the gray grass and fur that morning. She stopped carving stakes abruptly and returned the unnoticed knife to her brother’s dresser.
When her mother noticed her daughter’s now unoccupied hands, she asked what had happened to the “snakes”, to which the daughter replied that they were stakes, and that she had lost her knife. A few days later, her mother went into town and bought a new knife from a somewhat insensitively Native-American themed store and gave this to her daughter, but the girl did not start carving again.
Some days, however, after school, she would still go out to find stumps and feel that, cold, damp, giving press.
Somewhere in the suburban-rural divide of New York, a family of four moved into a small house offset from the rest of town next to a set of train tracks. When a freight train came by in the first night, the entire house rattled, but the son of the family did not wake. He slept soundly.
The next morning, he groggily made his way through his early hour routine until he found himself asleep again at his desk as school, his genial 7th-grade teacher gently waking him and asking him to meet her after class in a hushed voice as to not elicit “oooooooo!s” from his coevals. After a soft nod and an acknowledgement of the small glossy pond forming near his mouth on the glossy resin composite desk, a tributary of which was waterfalling into the pencil-holding trough, he faded back into his closed-eye saccades and dreamt of a rabbit sitting in a hollow of grass.
“Are you getting enough sleep?”
“O.k., well, just, …”, she wasn’t very good at instigating conflict, even with 12-year olds, “just try to keep up in class, then, I suppose.”
“Now, go on ahead. Mrs. Gardner will miss you at art.”
Suddenly he wasn’t so sleepy. The frowsy boy, clothes wrinkled from being slept on and the shirt-tails of his collared shirt peeking out from underneath the hemline of his sweater, previously only knowing the expression of looking down at the ground as to avoid eye contact, became vibrant and grabbed his backpack, running down the locker-lined hallway to the art classroom and upsetting the locks on his right by skimming them with an outstretched arm to hear the clashing sound they made.
Three months later, after an encounter with a rabbit near the propinquant freight rail that looked not quite the same as how he envisioned it three months prior—although it was sitting there in a hollow of grass—he came to school that day not tired at all, all insomniac anticipation for art class, as the music teacher was on vacation in “Port Violeta”, or something, resulting in a double-period for painting with Mrs. Gardner.
With the doubled time, he painted a wolf with a rabbit in its bloodied, snarled muzzle, staring at the viewer with Mona Lisan following eyes. Mrs. Gardner noted that the drawing was just entrancing enough to elicit intrigue and praise for the illustrator rather than fear and psychoanalysis.
In social studies, the class just after art, the boy took a nap.
Somewhere in the suburban-rural divide of New York, a family of four moved into a small house offset from the rest of town next to a set of train tracks. When a freight train came by in the first night, the entire house rattled and woke the mother of the family. Her sleep, however, was light, so she quickly slipped back into it, despite her husband also being woken up and going downstairs for some reason. He was a wandering person, so she came to expect it.
That morning she took a shower for about half an hour and realized while teaching her ceramics class at the local rec center (which she was late to due to the bit of sleep she had lost but it did not matter because all of the other mothers who attended the class were also late) that the only thing she thought about for that half-hour was him, so when she got home she took another shower for the express purpose of thinking about something else. She mostly drew abstract shapes in negative space by erasing the droplets that had clung to the glass door of the shower that would subconsciously come out as vase silhouettes sculpted by her guiding hand and pumping leg and spinning wheel, but occasionally he would jump into her mind despite her intentions and she would always think “Hello!” and be happy that he had wandered in.
And she baked a loaf of bread that night and he wandered in and kissed her on the cheek, and at the dinner table he took a stick out of their daughter’s hands that she had been fidgeting with as he could be all manners and occasionally aristocratic reticence. The daughter said through a mouthful of food that she was making a “snake”, which made the mother happy. And after a few nights of the train’s caterwauling, he became acclimated and stayed next to her in the night and she thought of making him a mug with the free time she had when the other mothers weren’t asking her about how long to wait before applying a second layer of glaze to their far inferior coil-pots as she watched him sleep.
She made many mugs, but none of them seemed good enough until three months later she saw a dead rabbit in the hollow grass and it said to her, or at least she felt that the moment said to her: there’s never any reason to hold back. And on that same day he was woken up by the train again and every night after that. So night after night, she would come to him as he sat outside in a wooden folding chair with his dead father’s old shotgun waiting for the train to come, and every night she would bring a new mug for them to share coffee out of, and he liked the hint of raspberry that he would taste on the rim from her lip balm, purposefully sipping out of the same spot that she had.
The first night they talked about their days, certain parts omitted. The second night they talked about the mugs and how their daughter had suddenly stopped carving even though she had bought her a new knife, which she was somewhat upset about as she thought that she might have a student in sculpting in her own daughter. She had always enjoyed the idea of an artists’ colony family, her son promising to be a gifted painter and her husband playing three instruments. The third night he admitted that he killed a rabbit in what his future therapist would later call a ‘paroxysm’ and felt like shit.
One night they talked about how his brother had called his mother the day before asking for money so that he could take a trip to Europe and meet some professor of art history whom he had just heard about a week before. He said that his brother’s was a vie boheme that consisted of no decisions and no profits, which he could maintain using his natural ability to be just excellent enough at anything and then drop it as long as the funding came through. She said that he needn’t worry about his brother; the whole family was a wealth-destroyed in-fighting Irish one and wasn’t worth the hassle anymore.
And that night he agreed with her.
The next morning, they built a small grave for the rabbit together. They marked the burial mound in the sedge-grass with a smooth, round stone.
Connor Fieweger, a Chicago native, is a student at the University of Chicago, where he plans on double majoring in Physics and Fundamentals. He frequently has to remind himself that Arnold Schwarzenegger being the Governor of California was a real thing, because it seems like something that he would make up as a joke at first and then just start accepting as reality. This is his first instance of published writing, hopefully with more to come.
I thought we’d go with the other recruits to Ping Pong, Mahjong, or Sing-Along, but we get Mailroom. Stay here until you work things out, He says, then leaves with the Key. Mother’s not intimidated. Sits down and smooths her skirt. What have we here? Form letters for every person on earth, explaining what happens—not why. Sign on the wall says a few will get their letters while most, poor fools, do not, but even if yours slips behind the mailbox or falls into a flower bed, its contents hold true: You’ll marry that man in the blue suit. Your brother survives the crash, but his right arm doesn’t. Baby for you, you and—yes, I’m serious—you.
Stuff, seal, sort by continent.
Boring, Mother says, licking an envelope. Even now, she makes me go first.
It’s not that I didn’t love you, I say, pushing letters aside. I was busy. You were unpleasant. She makes a face.
Glue tastes awful. You’d think He’d have peel-and-seal.
A dozen letters in a row say, You’ll break her heart. We fold, press, fold, until our skin is dry. So much nonsense. You’ll tear the fender off in a snowbank. The better job was in Columbus! Then a heavy stack we split: cancer of the lung, the liver, the breast.
Tsk, she says. Too bad.
Is that all?
What do you want me to say? Tell me. What did you ever want me to say?
Go to hell, I once thought. And look: timelessness, made of times we might have spoken but did not. By the set of her mouth, she thinks she’s winning and will soon be at Campfire, Buffet Station, or wherever those river boats go, but I’ll show her. Eternity is not for the faint of heart.
Kris Willcox’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and other publications. She is a regular contributor to UU World magazine and was a finalist in the 2016 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship program. She lives in Arlington, MA with her family.
If she begged her mom, Heather got to spend weekends at her grandma Maxine’s house. Maxine would be sitting in the living room, looking out the front window when she was dropped off. Her mother never came inside. They’d wave at each other through the windows. This was during the oil crisis; her mother told her that shutting off her car and going inside would just waste gas.
Maxine left the back door open for Heather so she could stay in her chair. Heather would drop her bag off on the kitchen table and ask where Grandpa Eugene was. She would tell Heather that he was probably piddling around in the workshop.
Maxine had a persimmon tree in her backyard. She’d harvest them as soon as they were fully grown. Said they’d get too dry if they ripened on the tree. Maxine once asked Heather to help her make a few dozen persimmon cookies to take on their deliveries for the senior center. She showed Heather how to pull the caps off the persimmons and spoon them out of their skin and pulp the seeds out.
“Get in there,” Maxine told her, sticking her hands into the strainer with her granddaughter’s. “Really squish them. That’s it. Get a lot of that pulp.”
Dark orange slid up between Heather’s fingers. The mixture in the strainer made a squelching noise when she pulled her hands up. She gagged. Maxine laughed.
That Thanksgiving, Heather locked herself in her grandma’s bathroom. Eugene was in the middle of renovating the basement. He’d finished the bathroom first. Put up the wall and the door to hide all the plumbing and wires. Heather went down to pretend she was a ghost and walk through the spaces in the unfinished walls.
She finished using the restroom, and the doorknob came off in her hands. She put it on the ground and sat in the shower until they started looking for her. Her mother called through the vent and told her to open the door.
“I can’t,” Heather said.
Heather’s mother told her to stay calm. She said that she was calm. Her younger sister Amy asked why she’d locked herself in there.
After a few minutes, she heard a whirring noise on the other side. The bathroom door started shaking. The sound stopped, and the door fell off the hinges. The knob cracked the doorframe when the door came off. Heather’s father came in and carried her out. Eugene was kneeling by the door with his toolbox and Maxine over him.
“Why’d you have to go and take off the whole door?” Maxine asked. “Why not just the doorknob?”
Eugene said he’d been thinking about changing the wood anyway.
Maxine scraped the persimmon pulp from the underside of the colander into the bowl. She put lard and shortening in with the pulp and started mixing.
“How much sugar you want?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Heather said.
“How much you put in sweet tea?”
“I think Dad puts a cup.”
“Great,” Maxine said. She dumped in a few handfuls of sugar and gave her the bowl. “You stir that. I’m going to mix the flour and baking soda.”
Maxine didn’t use measuring cups. She grabbed ingredients from big ceramic containers and wiped her hands on her apron in between. It left the same handprint each time. When she washed the apron, there were two faded spots on the front.
Maxine made home deliveries for the Vincennes Senior Citizen Center. Sometimes she brought Heather with her. They’d load up the Volkswagen with Styrofoam containers filled with mashed potatoes and chicken and noodles and coleslaw. Heather got to be the delivery girl. She’d ring the doorbell and wait on the front stoop. Most people hollered a “Hallo!” at Maxine from their door, but Rodney would come out to talk for a while. He’d give Heather a bag of candy orange slices coated in sugar every week.
“I got an extra big bag this week, Heather-feather. Tell your mom those are real oranges,” Rodney said. He traded her the cellophane bag for his grocery sacks of meals. “I’m not going to be needing these anymore.”
“You going to start cooking your own food?” Maxine asked.
“I suppose I oughta,” Rodney said. “But no, I’m heading down to Georgia. Stay with my daughter and son-in-law for a while.”
“Where in Georgia?”
“They’re on an air force base just outside Atlanta.”
“I grew up down there,” she said. “Town called Mitchell in Glascock County.”
“Really? If we go road tripping, I’ll see if we can stop by and check it out,” he said.
“Well, they’ve got a railroad museum, but that’s about it,” she said.
“Oh. Well, you should come down and visit if you get the chance,” Rodney said. “I suppose my next stop is some retirement community in Florida.”
“Yeah,” Maxine said. “Maybe.” They looked at Heather. Heather smiled. “Listen, I need to get going before these meals cool off. I’ll see you around.”
Rodney tapped his knuckle on the passenger door and stepped back and waved them off. Heather opened her bag of candy. Maxine held a hand out.
“Lookit,” Maxine said. She spit the persimmon seed into her hand. There was a crack in the middle. She stuck her fingernail into the crack and pried the two halves apart.
“They used to use these seeds as buttons in the Civil War. But here. You see that? What does that look like?” She pointed at a white mark in the middle of the seed.
“I don’t know,” Heather said.
“Looks like a knife,” Maxine said. “Don’t it?”
“I guess. What does that mean?”
Maxine dropped it in Heather’s palm and ran her hands under the faucet.
“If there’s a fork, it means that we’re going to have a warm winter. A spoon means you’re going to be shoveling a lot of snow, and a knife means that winter’s going to be icy.” She dried her hands off on a dish towel hanging on the oven. Maxine nodded at the persimmon tree through the window.
“That thing nearly died on me,” she said. “Never knew how sensitive they were. They were more common back in the South, but some folks bring saplings up here. I don’t know if they really belong.”
“What happened?” Heather asked.
“Just had some strange weather one spring,” she said. “One time, we were on the edge of a pretty big rainstorm. You could look out the front window and the whole town had these great dark clouds hanging over them. It was pouring. That ditch out by the road filled up and the neighbor boys came out and splashed around in it. But the backyard was clear. Sun was shining. Birds were chirping. Strangest thing.”
Maxine took the bowl from her and added some flour and sugar. She slid her finger around the inside of the bowl and held it out to her.
“Here,” she said. “Try some.”
It was thick and airy but sweet. It coated her mouth. Then it made her mouth dry, like someone had stuck a vacuum in her mouth. She coughed and felt her eyes water. Maxine slapped her on the back and started laughing.
“Yeah,” she said. “More sugar.”
Heather went to her sister’s wedding some years later. Amy was marrying a pilot, and they were going to settle down in an Atlanta suburb. Heather had asked for a couple extra days off and drove to Glascock County. The railroad museum was just off the highway. It was a short building with a sloping roof that hung out over the sides. She parked in the gravel lot in front. When she got to the door she saw the closed sign; it was Sunday.
On her way back, there was a doe standing at the edge of the interstate. It hesitated at the edge of the four lane. As Heather’s car got closer, it jumped backwards and twisted around midair so that its front half hung over its back before everything snapped into place and it landed in the grass and ran into a cluster of trees. Heather slowed down when she got to where the deer had been. There were always more, and at the slower speed she could almost make out the fruit hanging on the trees.
Alec Hill is a writer and student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in English and Creative Writing. His work has appeared in the Kelly Writers House publications Symbiosis and Peregrine.
DANCING DOE AND THE GO-GO-GO by Crystel Sundberg-Yannell
It’s a funny feeling, owing your existence to an affair— You can’t condemn it. At least, I’ve never been able to. Instead I’ve romanticized it. Listened to the facts and attributed it to destiny. Through me, it’s been rationalized, glorified—reimagined—
I imagine what brought him to the lot that day was the barrage of ads—the ’58 Chevy Camaro had just been released, and even then they could smell it. Classic, the scent whispered, heavy with the sour-sweet of rubbed leather and oiled hinges, the soon-to-be-backseat-conception-point of thousands of late baby boomers. Or I imagine it could have been his new job, sorting envelopes by size, weight, and zip-code, the pressed khaki fabric on his elbows rubbing against his father’s own—the life-sucking monotony that brings life security also brings a decent credit rating. Or I imagine it was his son’s first birthday, family life as a teenage father became instant reality and he was hit with an urgent need to provide—or to escape. Whatever it was, it was something special (I imagine), something that brought him and his wife to that car lot during a breezy Utah summer in ’58—switching the lanes of fate from “what could have been” to what had to be.
They went on a Sunday, they and their small baby, to a shabby dealer within walking distance of the church. I imagine they were the only customers. The wheels of the stroller scratched the gravel—which, which, which it seemed to ask as they strode between the lanes of red, blue, and silver. Which, he thought, tracing the handle of a new Camaro and snapping it back when he noticed the trail of zeroes scribbled across the windshield.
“Maybe we should give the used section a go. So we…” He hesitated. “Well, so we know what our options are.”
I imagine he twisted around then and caught the image of his wife applying her lipstick in the reflection of the driver’s side window. Her top lip kissed her lower without a sound, brown and red tint glistening. Doe-eyes glazed, she lifted a delicate hand. Long pianist fingers traced the hem of the daisy scarf that framed her face. Traced the lace that lined her neatly combed hair. Followed its hem to where it knotted, twisted beneath a low, matrimonial bun. She was seventeen.
(Many years later she would wear it in her trademark single gray braid, swinging down past her waist. I would sit beside her at the piano, feet dangling, and between keys of Hot-Cross-Buns, I would ask her if she had ever cut it. “Once,” she would say. “When I was younger than you.”)
She paused in her reflection. Her hand stilled, eyes unfocused, falling into the past. Audrey Hepburn, they had called her as she tap-tapped out her message onto the stage, her bloodied toes hidden beneath the steal of her tappers. Audrey Hepburn, and just as talented. Remember this when she’s famous, the crowd at her school had roared. Ha-fa-ho, the faint sounds of cheering.
Her gaze fell further, falling through the past. Past her image. Falling into nothing. Nowhere.
He coughed. She was fickle, the doctor had said. (They didn’t know the term for postpartum depression, I imagine.) “Janette.” He called her back, just like he’d learned to.
Her eyes clamped shut. Wrenched open. Too forceful to be a blink.
And she was back, tossing her lipstick in her arm-bag. “It’s your car, baby,” she said and offered a smile that didn’t extend past the brown and red tint. “I’m only here for the test drive.”
I imagine he appeared here, The Car Salesman, red hair flaming against the afternoon sky, teeth as bright as the polished hood ornaments, eyes flashing a secret message—green means go.
I imagine he said something along the lines of, “You can test drive my stick-shift any day, pretty lady.” Or something equally as cheesy, something I imagine was pulled directly from the car salesman pick-up line handbook that he kept nestled within the folds of the Bible in his front shirt pocket.
I imagine she let out a laugh as quickly as she stifled it, that the baby kicked in his sleep, and her High School Sweetheart extended a forgiving hand. “Rich,” he said.
And The Car Salesman clasped it. “Red-Haired Car Salesman,” he replied. (That wasn’t his real name, I imagine…)
The young men talked specs and payment plans as green eyes slid to deer ones, as smiles flitted, gloved hands twisted nervously at the nape of a bun, and slowly, unconsciously, a high-heeled foot began to tap against the gravel.
I imagine he held the door open for her, Rich too enchanted with the ribbed steering wheel to notice the way her ribs grazed against the bulging Bible in the Car Salesman’s front pocket, the way she grasped his gaze as she lowered into the soft leather back seats. I imagine they left the stroller at the lot, lying the sleeping baby comfortably across the bucket seats. I imagine she put a ringed hand on his little stomach to protect him during the bumps and slipped her right hand free from its glove, extending it out the window, her long, ring-less fingers trailing patterns in the wind.
I imagine Rich drove slow, cautious, dull.
“Your wife’s a beaut,” The Car Salesman said—I imagine to Rich, but a little too loud.
“You think?” Rich mumbled, and fumbled with the stick-shift. “I always thought so.”
I imagine The Car Salesman casually overtook The High School Sweetheart’s hand, coaxing the car into first with a single thrust, his eyes tracing the curves of the face in the side mirror. “Real Hepburn.”
Brown and red curved into an upturned arch. The wind hissed, ha-fa-ho. She brought a hand up to the knot of her bun.
The car lurched, chugged.
“It’s not a machine, son.” The Car Salesman knocked The High School Sweet Heart’s hand away and clasped the stick in his grip. “It’s a fuckin’ animal.” He thrust it into second gear. “Now drive her like she’s supposed to be driven.”
The car roared, soared. Tires sliced on gravel, patta-patta-patta—hands clapping. Remember this when she’s famous.
I imagine she let out a sound—too wild to be a laugh, thrilled by the speed, her wide smile coloring every feature on her fine face. Pianist fingers pulled bobby pins. A flick of her head and a daisy scarf disappeared along with a matrimonial bun. Waves of silken brown flew, streaming out the window beside her. On and on and on.
She matched his stare in the mirror.
A low whistle. “Better than Hepburn…”
His green eyes roared—go, go, go. Her doe eyes filled with the heat of the spotlight. And I imagine that’s when she felt it again. Felt her fingers playing, her feet tapping, her skin prickling from the crowd cheering. She was a performer. Her heart tap-tapped—bada-bada-da—go, go, go, against her ribs.
And she did. Every Wednesday after.
Nostrils ached with the sour-sweet of rubbed leather and oiled hinges, back arched on the destined backseat-conception-point of the soul-loving, foul-mouthed redhead I would one day call Mom.
Crystel Sundberg-Yannell is a recent graduate from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa where she obtained her M.A. in Creative Writing. During her time there, she received the Meryl Clark Award for excellence in creative writing and the Stephen C. Stryker & William H. Stryker Award for Fiction. “Dancing Doe and the Go-Go-Go” is her first publication, thanks Cleaver Magazine! She currently lives in Honolulu with her husband, daughter, and banana-eating rabbit.