WHEN THINGS WEAR AWAY OTHER THINGS by Michael Melgaard
Moira played with the ocean, chasing the waves as they pulled back into themselves. Her pink rain boots splashing through the water were the only color on the wet, rocky shore. She turned to her dad and laughed while a wave came in behind her. It covered her feet and was over the top of her boots before she noticed. She watched the water pull away and then looked up at her dad. She started to cry.
David walked over and picked her up. He told her it was okay and just water, then turned her away from the ocean and asked, “Do you see how they built a wall there?” He held her on his hip in the crook of one arm and pulled her boots off with the free hand. She was trying to tell him about her feet being wet between exaggerated sobs. He said, “Over there. Look. Do you know why they would build a wall on the beach?”
She didn’t say anything but did look where he was pointing. David went on, “A long time ago, before they built the wall, there was a graveyard here, where we’re walking.” He dumped the water out of one boot, then the other. “Back then where we’re standing was underground.” He moved her onto his other hip and tugged off her socks. “But the waves eroded the ground away.”
She asked, “What’s ‘eroded’?”
He turned back to the water. “See how every time a wave comes up it pulls some rocks back with it? That’s eroding. It’s when things wear away other things. Eventually, the waves will wear through the wall and wash away the city.”
Moira looked at the wall and then the ocean and then at her dad. She asked, “Really?”
“Yup.” He said, “Hold these,” and handed her the boots. He wrung out her socks as best he could. “Eroding takes a long time, though. Hundreds of years. But anyway, back before the wall was built the waves were eroding the ground, wearing away the graveyard’s dirt, and you know what’s under the dirt in a graveyard?”
“That’s right. So all these coffins were getting uncovered and they started floating out to sea. After bad storms the bay would be full of them, like little boats bobbing around in the water.”
“It’s true. It was a real problem. And, of course, no one wanted coffins floating around the bay, so they built the wall to keep them in.”
David pulled Moira’s socks and boots back on and dropped her on the ground. She went up to the wall and asked her dad, “Really?” He nodded. She ran her hand along the wall. It was pitted and rough, small rocks stuck out where the concrete had been worn away around them. She grabbed one of the rocks and pulled. It came off in her hand.
“See,” David said. “Just like the coffins.”
She held it up close to her face. When she went to show her dad, he was staring up the beach. He said, “We better catch up with your mother.”
Katherine was far enough ahead that he could only see her outline against the rocks. It looked impatient. Moira didn’t want to go. She whined and planted herself on the ground. David said, “Bye, have fun,” and walked away. She ran to catch up. But once she was with him she climbed up on the driftwood logs piled at the high tide line and started walking along them, hopping from one to the next. David asked, “Could you please try to hurry a bit?”
She said, “I can’t put my feet down because of the lava!”
“We don’t have time for that.”
Moira kept going on the logs until she got to the end of one that was too far from the next. She stopped and said, “Help, Dad, the lava.” David went back and bent down in front of her. She climbed onto his back and they headed toward her mother.
Katherine put out her cigarette when they got close. She said to David, “You took your time.”
“I didn’t realize you got so far ahead.”
And Moira said, “Dad told me that the ocean took the coffins out to the sea because of eroding and all the coffins floated away.”
“Why would you tell her about that?”
David put Moira on the ground and crouched down in front of her. He said, “See, I told you it was true.” Katherine tilted her head to one side and gave David her are-you-fucking-kidding-me look. He smiled at Moira, then tickled her and said, “Let’s build a sandcastle!”
She looked around the rocky beach and said, “There’s no sand.”
“Then we’ll just have to make do with what we have.”
David pulled a driftwood stick out of a tangle of seaweed and wood and tossed it on the ground. He found another that was the same length and threw it on top. Then another. Moira asked what he was doing, and he shrugged and kept pulling out sticks, breaking long ones so they were all the same length. Once he had a pile, he carried them down to a flat part of the beach and started driving them into the ground. When Moira saw they were going to make a circle, she said, “It’s a wall!”
“You got it. Can you grab me some more wood? Like this.” He showed her a stick. She concentrated on it, and then ran over to her mom, grabbed her hand, and told her to come help.
She was back a few minutes later with an armful of all-too-short sticks. She dropped them off and left to find more. Then Katherine was there with her own load. She added them to the pile and didn’t leave. David focused on making sure one stick was in the ground right but eventually had to turn around to get another. Katherine was staring down at him. He smiled at her. She said, “You think it’s funny?”
He shook his head and drove another stick into the ground. “This is ridiculous. You’re mad at me because you walked ahead of us?”
“I’m mad because this was supposed to be a day of us all together and you kept her with you.”
“We were having fun and you didn’t stop.”
“What do you get out of this?”
David said, “Almost done,” to Moira, who was coming up behind Katherine with more sticks. Katherine rolled her eyes at David and then walked over to a driftwood log to sit. Moira and David finished the wall. He stood up and waved a hand over it, “Behold, my queen, your ramparts are complete.”
Moira looked it over and said, “There’s no roof.”
“But there will be. And a moat. And a drawbridge. It will be the finest sandcastle ever created!”
“Daa-aad. It’s not made of sand.”
“Neither are sandwiches, but we eat them anyways.”
“That seems to be the consensus around here.”
“Consensus is when everyone thinks I’m silly.”
David started digging a moat with a flat piece of wood. Every scoop out made more pebbles and rocks fall back in. The best he could manage was a shallow, wide ditch. While he worked, Moira leaned sticks up against the wall, trying to fill in the gaps. Katherine smoked and looked out over the ocean. Moira got bored with trying to fix the wall and started waving around one of the sticks, commanding David to work faster in a voice that was meant to sound like a queen. David played along, groveling and shoveling faster. Once the moat was as good as it was going to get, he said, “My queen, I’m going to find a roof.”
Up the beach he found some rope tangled up with some driftwood. He pulled it out, but there wasn’t enough with which to do anything. There were some old planks and what looked like a palette, and then, a little farther along, he found a piece of plywood. He lifted one edge off the ground and gave the crabs time to find new shelter. It was waterlogged and heavy, and he had trouble getting a good grip. He took a lot of breaks dragging it back.
He saw that Katherine had left her log. She was crouched on the ground by the castle, and Moira was running around picking things up. Moira held something out to Katherine, and they both laughed. By the time David got back to them, they were both sitting on the ground. He said, “A roof for your castle, your highness.”
Moira said, “Look, we made a garden.” They had arranged pieces of shell and wave-worn glass in spiral patterns all around the entrance to the castle. There was a little path too, and small twigs stood upright with seaweed wrapped around the tops. “Those are trees,” she explained. “Mom made them.”
David said, “That’s very clever.”
He lifted the plywood over top of the wall and let it down slowly. The castle shifted a bit to the left. Katherine got up and wiped the pebbles off her pants, and David found a few large rocks to prop up the side that seemed most likely to give out. He stood back and admired their work. Moira was focused on her garden. He said, “Nothing left to do but move in,” and crawled in through the little opening.
He tried to sit down without knocking the whole castle over. Moira gave up on the garden and followed him in. David had to pull up his knees to under his chin so there was room. He said, “I think it’s nicer from the outside.”
Moira had just enough space to stand. She said, “I like it.”
“I’m not saying it’s bad. I just wouldn’t want to spend the night here.”
“It’d be cold.”
“We could make it better.”
“I don’t know. It’s getting pretty late.”
“It probably won’t be here tomorrow.”
“It will be washed away by then.”
“It’s like the graveyard. It will get eroded away by the waves when the tide comes in tonight.”
She thought about that. David stretched his legs and rubbed his lower back. Sand sprinkled down from the ceiling. Through a crack in the wall he saw a freighter passing by on the horizon. The water had darkened to the same color as the clouds. The ship looked like it was cutting through the air. Moira asked, “Can we stop it?”
David took a moment to realize she was talking about the erosion, not the freighter. “I don’t think so. We’d need to reinforce it with something. Concrete maybe. Do you have any concrete?” She shook her head. “Then I think we’re out of luck.”
Moira sat down across from her dad. Their knees touched. She shivered, and David pulled her around so she was sitting on his lap. He rubbed her shoulders.
Outside, Katherine said, “We should get going.” Moira said no, and Katherine said, “Come on, it’s getting cold out.” Moira said no again, and David didn’t say anything. Katherine stared at the castle. She said, “Five minutes,” then sat back down and lit a cigarette.
David kissed the top of Moira’s head. She shivered, and he wrapped his arms around her, and they listened to the waves drag the beach into the sea.
Michael Melgaard is a freelance writer and an editor at an independently owned Canadian publishing house. He has contributed to several print and online publications, including Potluck Magazine, TheTorontoist, and the Maple Tree Literary Supplement. He lives in Toronto.
My grandboy, Ricky, actually comes over nowadays, ever since that stupid show. He’s been here every day this week, drinking all the juice in my fridge straight from the carton. He’s so proud of me, or at least as proud as a preteen can be of his grandmother. I mean I wasn’t on the show, but Alexia the reborn was. Ricky couldn’t be bothered with old Mema before, but then Mema got herself tangled up with the Music Television. I’ll take it, I suppose. Beggars and choosers and that.
After he accepted my hugs and kisses with minimal protest, I let him have the run of the house while I holed up in my studio, adding dimples to Ruthie’s knees. I can hear him in the kitchen now. He’s chugging my cranapple like a diabetic, cussing and fussing with Roland Nielson’s kid. Yes, the same Roland Nielson’s kid who shaved Marylou Crain’s mini-poodle and wrote a filthy word that rhymes with “Bundt” on the poor thing’s side in permanent marker, two summers gone. The same kid who has done worse besides—his worst, as we know it, involving firecrackers and the deaths of a whole heap of lizards this past Fourth of July. I remember a smell like chicken over that particular field as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played nearby. Made me hungry even as it made me sick. The boy won’t stop till he’s tried as an adult, I swear.
Ricky’s mother has already tried and failed to keep Ricky away from The Devil Jr., so I know there’s no use in my making an attempt.
Best I can do is keep an eye, right? My eyes and ears may have seen and heard the events of umpteen Sundays, but they still work as good as they did when I was a seedling. The ears in particular perk up when they hear, from the kitchen:
“Holy shit, that thing’s creepy! Like, that’s the most insane thing I’ve ever seen.”
Ricky must have just showed the Nielson boy Alexia, whom I lent to Ricky when he promised he could be gentle with her. I handed her over like I would have handed over any bun fresh from the oven. It put a twinge in my heart to see him cradle the doll with such exaggerated care, even if he was doing it to mock me. With her tawny head in the crook of his elbow, he’d looked up at me and asked, “If this baby doll is so precious, why’d you hire her out to The Bonehead Squad and let them do donuts at the Smart Mart with her on top of a car?”
“Oh, is that what they did?” I pretended to wonder. “I didn’t see the episode. Aileen will be over later with her laptop to show it to me, if I can stomach the sight.”
I know I didn’t answer his question about lending Alexia to a prank show, but he didn’t wait for an answer, anyhow, just rolled his eyes and left the room.
My reasons are actually quite simple. When the fellows from The Bonehead Squad came to my page at Rebornangels.com, saying they would be in the area soon and wanted to “rent my Alexia model” (as if there were more than one of her), I offered them Janie or Sue instead. But they wanted Alexia specifically and were willing to pay me a ridiculous sum for “the privilege of her company.” Go figure that. I was hesitant, but I gave it all a good think. The money they sent my way will let my daughter go back to school next year, like she wants to. She doesn’t know I can help her yet. I want to surprise her with the check. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d passed up the opportunity to support Lizzie, since she doesn’t pull in much income waiting tables. Mark barely makes enough to keep them in cola, bless his heart. Lizzie accepts little gifts from me now and again, if grudgingly. Except, of course, for the time I tried to give her Alexia.
Now, in the kitchen, Ricky is saying, “Dude, this is definitely the one. See, you can tell, it even has road rash on its face! I told my grandma not to fix it but she says she has to.”
“I still don’t buy it, man. So you have a real-looking dolly, big whoop. I’ll ask Greg if he DVRed the episode and we can put this thing next to his giant screen to compare. I’m pretty sure the fake baby they used wasn’t a beaner, though.”
This wasn’t the first time someone had made a peanut gallery reference to Alexia’s skin and features. When I first made Alexia, thirteen years ago this December (has it really been that long?), Aileen had run off at the mouth as well. She put it different, declaring there was “something a little on the American Indian side” about the eyes and coloration, and “did I mean to make a nonwhite doll.” At the time, I simply said that “yes, I meant every wrinkle, every pigment and every fine black hair on her sweet head.”
What I’d wanted to say was something far from kind about her project, which was looking more like the Elephant Man than a preemie. I don’t mind the noise of my own horn when I say that even though Aileen and I started making lifelike baby dolls at the same time, I surpassed her in skill quickly. My babies get adopted at three times the rate and many times the price that hers do. People smash open car windows to save my babies from boiling in their own sweat in parking lots. To my knowledge, nothing has ever been damaged or destroyed in the name of protecting one of Aileen’s babies, but everyone’s got their own reborn journey.
And it makes all the sense God has to spare that my most realistic reborn would look a little “Indian” around the eyes. The whole town, save me and the midwife, was in the dark about who was responsible for the swell of Lizzie’s belly. But if God hadn’t taken that child for an angel too soon, the girl would now be a year and two months older than Ricky, with a Mexican surname.
“I wonder if it has a vag,” that awful Nielson boy is saying, and I’m about to quit my workshop desk to go retrieve Alexia when the gravel on the front drive crunches under familiar tires. Ricky’s mother is here. You can tell because Mark knows not to drive that fast toward a civilized residence. And he listens to the tinny country/western station out of Jamestown, not that screaming heavy metal stuff we always fought about when Lizzie was a raccoon-eyed teenager living under this very roof.
I am in such a panic to get out and grab Alexia before Lizzie has a chance to see her that I knock over some turpentine as I get up. Shoot! Then a jar of watchful baby blue eyes spills into the mess. Shoot, shoot, shoot! Each cornea looks up at me like an accusation. The turpentine will ruin my baby-in-progress if I don’t mop up the spill, but as I do so, I hear from the kitchen:
“Mom, what the hell! Mom!” This is the sound of a boy with his ear in the makeshift vise an angry mother can create between pointer and thumb. Lizzie learned this pinch from me.
“What’d I tell you about sneaking off with this creep? Huh? What are you two, star-crossed lovers? Oh, are you playing house now? If you don’t get your ass in that tru…”
This trailing off is the sound of my daughter not believing her eyes. I get why she’d be angry, I do. She let me know a long time ago that the sight of Alexia makes her madder than a hornet. There are things we do in love that make our children think we hate them.
I’ve got enough of the turpentine mopped that I can leave the rest for later. I open the door to my workshop on this scene unfolding in the kitchen:
Lizzie is grabbing Alexia, her jaw tight with anger, holding the doll upside down by those pudgy vinyl legs that look so much like God-made flesh. Every doll I’d made prior to Alexia had been practice, I thought, for the real work my hands were called to do. I’d heard from the grieving almost-mothers on my forums that a reborn could help with the process, but Lizzie wrote me off as a sicko when I suggested as much. She has always loathed my hobby.
Neither did she want a reminder of the life she’d almost had with Juan. She says their time together was a mistake, that the loss of his child was a warning. But that just doesn’t feel right to me. Her dimpled smile was constant back then. Even though she felt the need to carry on with Juan in secret, Lizzie was never so well adjusted as when the promise of a life with him lay maturing in her belly.
Sure, it annoyed her when he called me “moms,” but I thought that was because she couldn’t stand the thought of me in the plural. It only came to me later that she might be ashamed to claim Juan in public. But it couldn’t be true. My stone-tough daughter would never be shy about loving whomever she loved in this world, busybodies be damned. Or maybe I failed her in that regard.
And then came that bleak day in the delivery room, and the umbilical noose, and the resulting depression. Then came the affair with Mark, and Juan’s roaring exit from town. Mark still has a scar above his eyebrow from that day. I’d hoped Alexia could contain the ghost of her nameless flesh-and-blood counterpart, so that she could be put to rest, someday. What a fool I’d been.
Now, in the kitchen, Lizzie is shoving her son away as he goes to grab the doll back. Lizzie is shouting, “I told that woman to lock this thing up somewhere ages ago, and what does she do? Puts it on TV and then lets my son play with it.”
Lizzie is turning on the stove. I could wrestle my Lexie from her grip if I moved quickly enough, but she’s already got that precious left foot in the flame.
I remember how hard it was to lacquer Alexia’s toenails to make them look glossy but unpainted. Sleek, but true.
The kitchen is filling up with the rank smell of burning vinyl. The smoke is not safe to breathe, but Lizzie doesn’t care; she’s got the effigy lit and is on the move through the back door. The Nielson boy is recording a video on his phone and saying, “I think I just fell in love with your mother, dude,” as we all follow her into the backyard.
Now she’s saying, “I don’t know what kind of weird shit you’re up to right now, Mom, but leave Ricky out of it, okay?”
She is lighting the old barbecue grill Mark brought over at the start of the summer and putting Alexia over the flames to finish the job. Then Ricky says, “Mom,” in a small, plaintive voice, the likes of which is rarely heard from a male child, and instead of looking at him where he stands beside her, she is looking at me on my back step, where I’m hugging myself despite the heat. She is looking me in the face, and seeing something there that must have stayed her hand all these years, what it is I still don’t know, and pulling Alexia back off the grill, flinging the charred brown body back to me, so that it lands unreal and wrong at my feet. She is shaking and crying, but in a fierce way that doesn’t want to be consoled. As she takes Ricky by the arm and leads him down the driveway to the truck, the Nielson boy following behind, still recording, the sound of cicadas warbling in the close, pre-rain air, she is asking, repeatedly:
“How could you?”
She could be asking that of anyone present, including a whole crowd of ghosts.
Maria Pinto was born in Jamaica and grew up in south Florida. Her recent work has appeared or will appear in Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, The Butter, Pinball, The Missing Slate, FLAPPERHOUSE, Small Po[r]tions, 100 Word Story, and Literary Orphans, among others. She was the 2010 Ivan Gold Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston, in the city where she lives and does karaoke. Her debut novel is in search of a home. She’s working on the next.
This girl, she’s one of those people you hear about nowadays, living her life for the second time around. She’s a slack-faced, dream-eyed sister, born—twice now—at the end of a gravel road outside town, a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse. She abides with a skittish mother and two large black boxer dogs, and she knows that one of the three will die suffering from a snakebite, hopes she can stop it when the time comes, but she doesn’t know when it’s supposed go down, or if it’s still supposed to go down at all. The girl is Birdy. Birdy Brightlane. Sunny name for such a sad body.
But I don’t judge her, it’s part of the job not to judge her. You’d be sad too, is what I tell myself, after fifteen years at the institution, and besides, these are often sad people, the ones on their second time around. The agency–they call my visits “conversations” to make them sound less clinical—list them on the paperwork informal-like—Convo #1, Convo #2—but Birdy knows what they are.When I come to see her, we sit together on the mossy deck off the back of her mother’s house, and we drink strong coffee and I offer her cigarettes, but she declines. She knows I am not her friend.
I used to smoke, she says.
When was this? I ask.
Sometime—she pauses to think a minute. Sometime a while ago. I must have smoked. I remember it.
I can see in her big mooneyes that she’s drifting off, and sometimes I try to net her in with questions (Birdy, why don’t you stay here, in the now?). But there she goes, which is to say, she’s dreaming about what it was like the first time around, when she didn’t end up here with her mother, at the end of the gravel road outside town, a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse.
She remembers a long drive, she and the man in the fire. She drives; he lights her cigarettes. A cigarette slips, drops down between her thighs. She curses, pulls over, and then, as she’s rubbing spit on the burn, they see the peppery cloud bourgeoning from an overpass, spilling out into the twilight—a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. Tadarida brasiliensis, she tells me. In college, she wrote a paper about the way their migration patterns affected peach crops. That time? No, both times. Both times she wrote a paper on bats and peach trees, but that time, the first time, she and the man in the fire sat on the hood of the car and watched until they could no longer see, could only hear the tinny week week week and the beating of batwings in the darkness. Birdy tells me that’s when he said he wanted to marry her, his words all warm and honeyed. That’s happenstance (or is it happiness?): a dropped cigarette and some bats and a confession of love.
Birdy and people like her, they’re a phenomenon that hasn’t gone unnoticed. Physicists have said their piece, a big dump of Scandinavian names popping up on your newsfeed, airy blond whitecoats with the noble brains required for the paradoxes of time and probability. They wonder if folks like Birdy are proof of the oscillating universe, the Big Bang that starts it off, the Bounce that revs it back up again, over and over. They’ve given silly names to what Birdy’s experiencing: the quantum foam memory sequence, anachronistic recollection, kairotic displacement disorder. From the Greek, kairos, Birdy tells me, (she minored in Classics, both times), meaning “the supreme moment.” From where I stand, in the muck, among laypeople, it’s hard to know whether Birdy is holding on to a lifelong delusion, or if she is actually visualizing the existence of an alternative world, where things turned out better. I have tested her before (even though I’m told not to, that’s not my job). I ask about presidents, Superbowl winners, natural disasters—What’s in store for us, Birdy? What’ll happen in the future? But Birdy looks at me like she doesn’t understand the question.
How would I know those things, she says.
But don’t you remember?
She shakes her head. Her lips are dry, skin flaking like a sugar glaze.
And let’s think about the snakebite a minute. You can’t remember if it’s, if it’s the dog or—or your mother that dies.
Birdy’s face crumples with guilt. At the kitchen window, the curtains flutter: her mother, watching us. She seems like a very careful woman, not unkind, though I have the sense that she’s afraid of her daughter.
I’ve tried, Birdy says. I mean, I’ve tried to remember where I was, the first time, when I heard about it. I was with him. I must’ve been with him, with the children. I guess—you know—that’s why I took part in the experiment, because I wanted to remember—more.
I know she is ashamed of her obsession with the man in the fire. It’s a quality almost universal to her kind, as if memory were a pane of shattered glass. Certain shards, particular ones, they shine their light in your eyes. Because as a teenager, she did remember getting the scholarship for State (though she wonders now if she applied for it only because she knew she had gotten it before). She remembered a series of unexciting boyfriends, which she avoided, a lewd professor, whose class she took with caution, an internship in Savannah, which moved her out of her mother’s house. She bought the car she remembered buying from before, an ancient junker that would break down the following summer (it did), when she’d find herself stranded at a backcountry crossroads on the hottest day of the year (it was). Here, by happenstance, she remembered hitching a ride back home with the man in in the fire.
And all this happened the way you remembered it? I ask.
Up to the point, Birdy says, where the man wasn’t there.
We sip our coffee in sync. The face of Birdy’s mother is a ghost in the window.
When’d all this start, the memories? I ask.
Birdy sits for a minute, working a loose thread on the edge of her sleeve. I’ll show you, she says, and she disappears into the shadows of the house, returns with a stack of old journals from her high school years. They are filled with drawings, cartoonish renderings of the man in the fire and their children, two girls, one tanned, one fair, their house with the wrap-around porch, backyard view of the Yadkin, a tuxedo cat named Sadie or Sasha, she can’t recall now, and a peach tree. Prunus persica, she tells me. It has always been a peach tree. She talks about how at night (both times) the slaughterhouse stench used to lie on her like a blanket, pig shit and blood, and her body (this time) would ache with hope and joy at the road ahead, and she would think, she would KNOW (this time): I’m meant for more than all this.
Birdy’s always been a troubled sleeper. The weight of time keeps her awake. She tells me she thought about suicide during her stay at the institution, that she figured her life as a trial run. Maybe the gods, whoever they are (and she’s sure they’re getting a good long laugh at all this), would send her back around again to get it right.
But that’s enough to make a body ill, isn’t it. I end up driving home from Birdy’s to my cheap, tiny apartment in Corporate Village, all those thoughts flitting like wasps in my head: maybe the Hindus got it right with reincarnation, except for the part about how no other lump of meat would dare have a sister like you, that nothing that exists prior to your birth or following your death. Just poor sad you, as you, as you, over and over again on the dented-up disc of time.
I think Birdy was okay until the experiment. After a year, they suspended her internship program because of funding problems (which happened last time), and toward the end (this time) she had a pitiful fling with some fool who gave her an infection, spent time in the hospital, whittled down her savings in copays. Then she found herself picking through a meager pile of shit jobs, clerks and lab assistants—women always end up languishing in those positions, and it was nothing she could live on in a city that expensive, not alone. This was when she heard about the experiment, how they were testing people like her.
You’ve heard of them maybe, Drs. Møller and Gasana. Swedish physicist, Rwandan bioneurologist, respectively. They chained up their subjects to some-other monstrous machine, wanted to hone and develop those spiderweb threads to the past, the future, to universes beyond. After all, if a girl’s living her life over again, does it not stand to reason that she is living her life for the tenth or hundredth or millionth time? Would it not make sense that she’d remember other lives too? They thought they’d help them too, pull them out of the pits these people find themselves in, where they question what they did wrong or fail to avoid a catastrophe they knew was coming.
And when they hooked Birdy up, Drs. Møller and Gasana, it did for her what it did for all the others—improvements at first, renewed clarity and breadth of all the childhoods lost, relationships failed, opportunities taken, cataclysms avoided, the complicated tendrils of cause and effect, choice and happenstance, a dropped cigarette, some bats, a confession of love. But further deepening, further prying, and they start to cling, these subjects. They couldn’t let go of what obsessed them most. They clung to it like crazy. And some say that gamma rays from the equipment did that, or maybe it was the chemical cocktails they used to track their neural pathways, or the mere terrifying act of Møller and Gasana unraveling the brain by threads. The multiverse—think about it—the multiverse is huge, after all. Can we ever consider our place in it, honestly, without going a little bit insane?
Anyway, Birdy came out of all that swinging, a spiraling tornado of anguish and hope. She decided then that she’d find him, the man in the fire.
I can’t blame her. The man’s handsome. I’ve seen pictures. And when I come home from a job that pays too little to an apartment that’s too small and too dirty, I wonder where I could go if I weren’t alone. Find someone you like who’s paid well, snatch him up quick, even now, mothers spell that out to their daughters—Birdy’s mother did, mine did. But the thing is, I like being alone. I don’t care for most men, for most everybody. So it does, I admit that, it does frustrate me to see Birdy still obsessing.
She has the peach tree tattooed on her ribs, wormed with fibrous wrinkles (in truth, Birdy has been more than a girl for a long time now). She remembers (last time) that he gave her the tree as an anniversary gift, at their place on the Yadkin, that they planted it together along the side of the house and collected its first fruits by the end of the summer. When she found him, she did find him, he had married someone else (this time), a woman who resembled Birdy in her face and in her gestures, and the house was as she remembered it, and the lawn was as she remembered it, and the tree—the peach tree—was planted along the side of the house as it always had been, half-withered in the heat of a summer drought.
But how—I say. How did he—
I don’t know, she tells me. I don’t know. I always thought he got it special, for me. That’s what I assumed. Wouldn’t you assume that too?
I have no answer, so I light up a cigarette. She puts her chin in her hands.
His wife didn’t take care of it, she says. She didn’t know how. The tree was drying up, it was dying. But I swear, I don’t even remember lighting the match.
She does remember the wind that night, how it pulled the flames beyond her reach, how the burning tree nested its sparks like seeds on the roof of the house, their place on the Yadkin, the man and his wife inside.
I feel for her, I do. But a body could spend years and years feeling sorry for Birdy and never really know her, never understand. I didn’t realize it then, when I started driving out here, though I realize it now—when her mind gets its death-grip on the home from before, and the man, and the children, it’s endurance, it’s survival. It’s the kind of survival with collateral damage—we’ve all seen that now—but survival nonetheless. Birdy would rather destroy everything than let herself vanish in the void of time.
It’s better now, I think, though I doubt any of that’s my doing. Now that she lives with her mother, Birdy wants to take up gardening, and I say, That’s good, that’s good. Gardening is good. Very therapeutic.
Yes, she says. I know. I took it up the first time, at the house on Yadkin.
After our chat on the porch, I gather up my paperwork and follow her out into the yard through the overgrown grass, through the smell of the slaughterhouse, thickening like soured milk in the heat of the afternoon. Birdy is filled with plans.
This will be a raised bed here, she says, waving her hand over a square of tilled earth. I had tomatoes and squash. Okra. Sunflowers. I’d drop them off on my neighbors’ porches in baskets, and I’d cook for my children on weekends.
She smiles. She is here in the garden. She is there, in the other garden. The grass itches my calves, and my eyes are darting all around for snakes. But I smile too.
And there, at that sunny spot, that’ll be a rose garden, she says. I didn’t have roses then, but my mother loves them, so I’ll have them this time. And all that brush down there, that I’ll clear out.
On the porch, her mother is watching us, a stone pillar, and while Birdy is lost in thought, considering the underbrush in the tree line, I wave—it’s all right, it’s all right, don’t fret about us—and Mrs. Brightlane nods and waves back.
Maybe, Birdy is saying. Maybe this time I won’t pull out all the honeysuckle vine. I’ll let it alone. It’ll be better, once I get things going. It’ll be even better.
Jen Julian’s essays and short stories have appeared in Press 53’s Open Awards Anthology for 2010 and 2013, Four Way Review, New Delta Review, North Carolina Literary Review, and The AntigonishReview,among other places. She also has work up and coming in New South, Tahoma LiteraryReview,and The Chattahoochee Review. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Missouri, Columbia, though she calls rural North Carolina her home.
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” – John 4:29
I got no rabbits’ feet on today. But the sledders don’t know. Cuz I got my jacket on. There’s the whistle, and there goes Kinkly. Kinkly and the other racers. Right down the hill, right? Thoom. Kinkly’s the fastest. Those rabbits’ feet? They might be real. And Kinkly and the other Rabbits got them on. I got seventeen at home, but they might be real.
I’m all kinds of wrong. Like Bucket, right?
The Rabbits got rabbits’ feet. All these different colors. Yesterday Gushy turned around and said they’re real. But I don’t know how they got those colors. Gushy says they use dye. Gushy’s only got one thumb.
There’s red stuff in the snow. It says, “Gushy is fog.” That’s just silly.
Red’s one of the colors I got. My rabbits’ feet, right? So’s yellow, and orange. I got six reds, but they’re not on now.
Gushy’s standing on the bench up here. He’s holding his sled. Way over his head. That sled says something. Big letters: “HOO.org.” I ask him.
“It’s Help Our Oceans.” He points down at the road. “I want the people in cars to see.”
He’s missing a thumb, and he’s got a silver jacket on, and a silver hat. Shiny.
I say, “It says you’re fog. In the snow over there?”
“You need a better straw.”
I got a coffee straw. It’s Dad’s. My dad’s thermal’s shiny and silver like Gushy. Dad puts coffee in his thermal for work, right?
Capper’s over there. He’s got this tail thing. And ketchup. That’s just silly. And he’s got a magazine or something. He’s showing it to some Fire Skulls and some Clogs.
Kinkly’s at the bottom. He’s first again. Thoom. He’s on the Rabbits, and he’s got red and yellow and orange rabbits’ feet. I’ve got those, but I don’t got any on today.
Gushy holds his sled. HOO.org. He says, “Sammy, you got those rabbits feet on?”
“I got red and yellow and orange. At home.”
“It’s warm. You can take off your jacket.”
“And a whole bunch of other colors. Like the Rabbits.” Today four teams race. You got your Rabbits—Rabbits are the fastest—and you got your Fire Skulls. And you got your Clogs and your Sandstorms. Kinkly’s on the Rabbits.
Gushy keeps holding up the sled and he says maybe I should take off my jacket. But I don’t got any rabbits’ feet on and look at all those rabbits’ feet on the Rabbits. I turn around and pick up a bottle cap. “This is your dad, right?”
“No, Sammy. That’s not my dad.”
A football bangs into Gushy’s sled. He almost drops it, but he keeps it up. A couple Sandstorms and Fire Skulls got a football and they’re throwing it.
Capper’s here and he’s got some ketchup and that tail thing. He talks through it. “Thumbs up, Gushy.”
I ask Capper what is that thing. He makes a suck sound. “It’s a vacuum cleaner hose, cuz you suck. And your mom’s muffin . . .”
Gushy said they might be real. Those rabbits’ feet?
Capper says, “What’s with all the silver? He looks like a fuckin’ bullet.”
I say he looks like Dad’s thermal, right?
“Ah thermal. Blah blah blah thermal. What the fuck is thermal?”
“You put coffee in there, right? That’s just silly.”
“No a bullet. I said a fuckin’ bullet.” Capper whips the hose. Gushy blocks it. With his sled.
I turn around and sing that song Kinkly sings: “Come on, come on in the rain/Come on and dance in the rain.”
One of those Sandstorms laughs. “That’s not how it goes, Plugs. You need to get them earplugs fixed.”
I got gloves. Just like Kinkly’s Shroudex gloves. I turned around and drew the snake on there and thoom. They look just like Shroudex.
Capper puts the hose around me. “What’s with all them kissy sounds. You a kissy fag like Gushy or something?”
Here comes Kinkly. He sings, “Within me somethin’s due to sink.” You got to make it down there in ten seconds to be a Rabbit. I made it down in 29 seconds. Kinkly let me use his sled once and I got rabbits feet at home, right?
Capper turns around and takes out that magazine. He’s got ketchup, and there’s ladies in there. They got no clothes on. “That looks like your mom, Plugs. She got a muffin? A nice muffin like that?”
I got this feeling and I’m all kinds of wrong. I sing one of Kinkly’s songs. “I hear the streams of the sasasa calling me.”
Capper takes one of the Clogs kids’ pop bottles. “Sa sa sa blah blah your brain all dried up? It’s ‘sands of the Sahara,’ dummy.” He throws the bottle. He throws it at a real rabbit and it turns around and it runs away.
I tell Kinkly his rabbits’ feet are real. “Nah, they’re not real. You got yours on?”
Gushy says, “They’re real, Sammy.”
Kinkly touches his rabbits’ feet. “Ah caulk it, Gushy.” Kinkly tells me just leave my jacket on.
Capper looks at the magazine and holds the ketchup by his thing and squirts it. That’s just silly.
I tell Gushy my straw’s a coffee straw.
Kinkly talks to Capper, and they turn around and look at Gushy. Capper shows me that magazine. There’s a naked lady. He says, “Who’s that?”
Capper’s on the Fire Skulls. He points at Gushy.
I say, “That’s his mom, right?”
They all laugh. Gushy doesn’t laugh. He holds up that sled.
Capper laughs and holds the hose thing by his thing. “Hey Gushy, I got some pictures of your ma here. Want to buy some pictures of your mom? Nice and cheap.”
Gushy told me they might be real. Real rabbits’ feet. I said no way and he turned around and said yeah they’re probably real. I said I never seen a blue rabbit. He says that’s dye, this stuff to make it have color.
I got my suspenders on. Under my jacket. But I’m not wearing my rabbits’ feet on my suspenders today. I got seventeen of them, right? But I’m not wearing any.
The whistle blows. Kinkly and some others jump onto their sleds. There they go. Thoom.
Capper and another Fire Skull hold that hose. They run at Gushy and knock him over. Right off the bench. That’s not . . . I got orange and green and red and blue. I even got blue, right? And red like Kinkly. Blue’s like water, right?
Gushy’s back up on the bench. And he’s holding up that sled. HOO.org.
Kinkly’s winning. Kinkly’s got goggles.
One time he let me go down and thoom. That was so fast, right? It was too fast and I went right into the red bushes with thorns down there and I turned around and got a scratch on my face. I got down there in 29 seconds. Those Rabbits? They make it down there in ten seconds. That’s just silly.
Capper throws the football. Real hard. Right at Gushy, but he misses. “Bullet. Fucking bullet boy.”
I tell him Gushy looks like Dad’s thermal. He talks into the hose. “Blah blah blah thermal. Plugs goes to a special school. A special school for geniuses. Why you smiling, Plugs? You’re always smiling.”
“Kinkly won. He won again.”
Capper takes out this white thing. Like a little pillow? “You know what a period is, Plugs?”
Kinkly’s down there first. Thoom. “A dot thing, right?” They laugh.
Gushy says, “Thermos, Sammy? You mean thermos?”
“Yuh thermos. What the fuck is thermos? Blah blah blah thermos.” Capper shows that white period thing. “You guys got this in your head.” The Rabbits are the fastest team. They can turn around and make it down that hill so fast. Thoom.
Gushy says it’s warm. He asks me to take off my jacket.
“I’m all kinds of wrong.”
“What else does Bucket say?”
“Somebody put something in my water.”
“Doesn’t he say that when he helps somebody?”
Capper talks all funny. “Wellstead High, I watch Wellstead High.” He talks through the hose. “Ah Bucket. I’m sick of Bucket. Fuck it Bucket.”
Sometimes Bucket wears red and yellow and orange, right? And all kinds of colors like that? And sometimes he doesn’t.
Capper squirts ketchup on that white thing. “Maybe I need to add a little more red to them cheeks, smiley boy.”
I got six red rabbits’ feet, but they’re at home.
Kinkly’s back up, and he’s singing. “Come in, come out of the rain/Come in, and take away your pain.”
Capper puts the hose by my ear. “Why you smiling? Huh, Plugs? Why you always smiling?” He puts his thumb on my straw. “Hey Kinkly, I’m gonna make kissy sucky smiley boy’s cheeks all red. Like his straw.”
“No, no. Not him.” Kinkly squeezes his lips and points at Gushy. Kinkly’s got Shroudex gloves. Mine look just like that. Thoom.
Capper gets up on that bench. He rubs that white thing all over Gushy’s face. Gushy holds up the sled. There’s ketchup all over Gushy’s face, and you got to be fast to be a Rabbit. Cuz those guys, they’re just thoom, right?
Capper puts the period thing in Gushy’s mouth. Gushy spits it out. And he holds up the sled.
Kinkly says, “Something’s not right with your face, Gushy. You stick out like a sore thumb.”
They all laugh. Gushy’s face is all red and that’s not . . . and he’s still holding up that sled. HOO.org. I got six red rabbits’ feet. I’m all kinds of wrong.
A kid with the Clogs grabs my glove. “Them aren’t Shroudex, Plugs. You drew that snake. That snake’s fake. Plugs.”
He’s the one who put a sock in my mouth when it was hot out. “The Clogs are good, right?”
“Clogs? Clog? We’re not the Clogs, dumb shit.”
One time that Clog and Capper put a sock in my mouth. And they put their thumbs in mud and put it on my face. But Kinkly came and he said no and they stopped, right?
“Clogs blah blah Clogs.” Capper bounces the football on my head. “Ain’t you seen ‘River to Dovitam?’ Or your muffin mom won’t let you? It’s the Glogs. The bad guys. The Glogs.”
Gushy says, “The Glogs lose.”
The whistle blows. There goes a whole bunch of them. They run to their sleds. You got your Rabbits and Sandstorms they run and the Fire Skulls and the C-Glogs and there’s Kinkly. They jump on their sleds. Thoom.
There’s a yell. Gushy’s on the ground. He’s got his face in the snow and he makes a hurt sound. That’s not . . .
Capper yells, “Touchdown” and there’s the football by Gushy.
There goes Kinkly. He’s fast, right? He’s the fastest. Gushy’s holding his eye. Kinkly can turn around and make it down that hill so fast. Thoom. Gushy’s got ketchup all over his face. Kinkly’s got red, and he’s got yellow and orange.
I asked my mom if my rabbits’ feet were real. She turned around and said, “I don’t know. But look it. They’re pretty.” Right?
Gushy’s lying there and making a noise like it hurts. That’s not good. His eye’s all puffy, and I spit out the straw.
If you get down there in ten seconds, you get to be on the Rabbits and you get a rabbit’s foot. From Kinkly. I got all mine at Appleton’s. In the gumball machine in the front.
“Bucket . . . Bucket fuck it.” Capper’s got his foot on Gushy’s sled. He’s bending it. “Oops. Oh oh I can’t stop oh oh. Why can’t I . . .” The sled cracks. Capper throws the two pieces. They laugh.
Gushy gets up. His face is all red, and his eye’s puffy. He gets the two sled pieces.
Kinkly’s first. He’s all the way down there. He’s down there by those thorns.
Gushy gets up on the bench. He holds up the two pieces. HOO.org.
It is warm. I take off my gloves.
Douglas J. Ogurek’s fiction appears in Bards and Sages Quarterly, British Fantasy Society Journal, The Literary Review, Gone Lawn, The Milo Review, Morpheus Tales, Schlock Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and several anthologies. Ogurek is the communications manager of a Chicago-based architecture firm and has written over one hundred articles about facility planning and design. He also reviews films at Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. More at www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.
THE VERY DIVERTING HISTORY OF MAYA by Grace Singh Smith
Now the day has dawned and the lamp that lit my dark corner is out. A summons has come and I am ready for my journey.—Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali.
It was Fate, Maya thought. Fate who got her married to someone she did not quite love, but maybe, she would learn to love. In the beginning, she woke up feeling as though he was her baby, this engineer husband her parents had carefully selected. She remembers the ad they placed in the city’s best newspaper, The Shillong Times. The classified had described her as “wheatish in complexion” and “respectful of traditional values.” These, and other important details like: caste (Kayastha); languages spoken (Bengali, Hindi and English); height, weight, body type (average); and the occupations of her parents. Her father was “ex-Army” and her mother was “homemaker.” And she was also a Capricorn.
According to the pundit, Fate aligned her with the perfect match—Rajeev Majumdar—and the events that followed became in her memory like the pages of a book turned fast. All the rituals flowed into one another until she could no longer distinguish what had happened when. Did she fast all day after she ate doi first? Did she get smeared in turmeric paste next, eating bits of rasgullas and kaju barfis from many unknown hands that thrust themselves into her face, one quickly taking the place of another? So many rituals, so many people, so many days, so many people, so many rituals, so many days…
When she was a girl and wore red nylon ribbons in her hair, Maa and Dadi said to her every night: Fate will take you where you will be, child, and there is nothing you can do to fight her, so be good. And Maya had always wondered, why be good if Fate was going to take you wherever she wanted to? Why could she not find out where the other road leads…wherever Fate doesn’t take you?
This Fate occupied Maya’s daydreams as a child when she looked at the hammered silver bangles on her wrists and the payals that embraced her ankles and announced her steps, and she thought: Who am I? Who is this Fate, who has so much power over me?
Sometimes she thought of Fate as a kind-faced, wrinkled dadi, a grandmother whose lap was soft. On monsoon nights, when the rain pounded nonstop in a thum-thum cadence, her hands found comforting dark places in her body under the covers, and she felt freed by the blood that rushed to her brain and the warmth of her thoughts. Then, she was seized by a hatred for this Fate. One such night, it came to her that this other, who had now been created in her mind would help her defeat Fate. “Anti-Fate”—aha—that’s what she would call the other, she remembers thinking as she sat at her study desk, doodling in her no.7 exercise book where she should have been writing an analysis of “The Diverting History of John Gilpin.”
That afternoon, she looked into the mirror and instead of seeing her chai-colored face, she saw someone else who actually smiled at her. Anti-Fate.
So, on dark monsoon nights, she began to think of Fate as a Rakshashi—a demoness—whom she would defeat. She sang softly to herself, cheerful and cheerless tunes; and she told the Rakshashi, you cannot win, because I have Anti-Fate, down here, inside, me.
She remembered this on Phul Sojja night when she was sitting covered in flower-shaped ornaments on a bed covered with marigolds, waiting for Engineer Majumdar to appear and find her waiting, sitting with her legs tucked under and her eyes down, silent. When she heard the door open, she saw the face of Anti-Fate appear on the bed sheet. Does he think he is a Bollywood star, how slowly he approaches, Maya thought. Then, she heard the bed gasp under his weight. When he reached under the pallu of her sari to grab her face, there she was, again. Anti-Fate, right beside the head of the Engineer, making him look like the demon king Ravana. She winked at Maya, and Maya smiled at her.
“What a smile, my love,” said the Engineer as he pulled the pallu down and slowly began to unwind her sari, next undoing the blouse’s front hooks. In the night that followed, she did not feel anything, though her sari was removed from her body and she was overcome by the smell of Old Spice, sweat, and the marigolds all around and under her. She also could not stop thinking of the lines from that poem by William Cowper whose sixty-three stanzas she had been forced to memorize.
He soon replied, I do admire Of womankind but one, And you are she, my dearest dear, Therefore it shall be done.
After the marigolds had been crushed and he had fallen asleep breathing like a well-fed dog, she wept with tears that would not cease.
Anti-Fate, you lied to me, where are you?
Because after Phul Sojja, when she winked at her from behind the henna-streaked hair of Engineer Majumdar, Anti-Fate did not appear—not even on the day when the Engineer hit her. He had apologized, of course, but in the corner of the kitchen, his mother smiled without even bothering to hide her face behind her pallu. Maya had put too many mustard seeds in the Ilish Shidho curry and he had asked her why. Her answer had been that she was not aware that he did not like too many mustard seeds and that she did not know she would be his chef.
“Because you are BA English major, too good to serve your husband? Nonsense this is.” These were his words as he threw his plate at the wall. The stainless steel plate had fallen CLANGCLANGCLANG on the cement floor while his mother invoked the name of Maa Kali. But Maya had seen her smile, before “Maa Kali”, and Maya knew then that Fate, that kind dadi who was meant to protect Maya in her soft lap, had left her. And Anti-Fate was gone too.
Six weeks went by and Maya now knew how many mustard seeds the Lecturer wanted in his Ilish Shidho, and she no longer looked for Anti-Fate.
One night, when the puja had been completed and the Engineer had eaten his five-course meal, Maya was called into the drawing room. She drew the pallu over her head, knowing that the Engineer’s mother would be present, and then she walked down the hallway that led from their bedroom to the drawing room. As she walked past her mother-in-law’s bedroom, she saw a reflection in the mirror that faced the door, the mirror with seashells hanging in strings over it. It was the face of Anti-Fate looking straight at her, smiling.
She sat on the varnished cane chair, facing the Engineer and his mother. They sat on the cane love seat with the red brocade cushions that had been brought as part of her wedding dowry.
Last night he had suckled her like a baby.
“Do you know that your family wants to renegotiate your dowry? After we have accepted you into our family?” asked the mother.
Maya looked down at her hands that were still decorated with mehendi, now faded beige instead of orange, and she stuck her feet out and then back under her sari.
Don’t cry, I am right here.
These words were whispered into her right ear through her pallu and she leaned her head towards it. Words were spoken: of sums promised to the Engineer and his mother now being reduced, honor, promises being broken, her family not holding up their end of a bargain. And what a reasonable bargain it was—an Engineer. And she, only BA English major, passed with no distinction.
She looked at their mouths and saw that it was time to tell them.
“Fate—Maa, Rajeev,” said Maya, “Fate decides where we go and no fighting it.”
“What strange things you speak.” said the Engineer’s mother, spitting out betelnut juice into a cup in a swift stream. It looked like blood, and in her mind’s eye, Maya began to see the beginning of many things to come: before, after. That night, the Engineer suckled her again like a baby, but this time he beat her after he made love to her. Maya did not scream once because she saw her.
Right above the bed, reflecting in the Oscar ceiling fan’s brass orb, was the face of Anti-Fate, and her eyes looked into Maya’s.
The next morning, when Maya went to pick out which sari she should wear, she decided that the bridal red would be the most suitable. Anti-Fate agreed, smiling down on her.
The gold letters on the wedding invitation had invited guests cordially to pay the family of Rajeev Majumdar the honor of their presence on the auspicious occasion of his nuptials to tie the knot with Maya Das, the daughter of Bijoy and Anupa Das. The card had also been red with two gold hands meeting in a “Namaste” at the top.
It will not take long, Anti-Fate whispered, her words reaching Maya as clear as the ululating she woke up to each morning.
The sari’s pallu—its end—was quite perfect for this auspicious occasion. It even had a peacock in gold thread with its chest puffed out when she laid it out on the bed to make tiny pleats.
S like the shankha they blew at weddings, round, round, round, one knot here, loose right there, over her, beneath her right ear. Now Maya offered up the pallu to Anti-Fate, and she could feel Anti-Fate’s warm breath of approval as she approached the Oscar fan to tie the knot. They looked beautiful in red. Then, Maya stood up on the bed where there had been crushed marigolds and sweat that smelled like Old Spice only six weeks ago.
She bowed her head to Fate, left the bed, and became one with Anti-Fate.
Grace Singh Smith was born and raised in northeast India where she worked as a teacher, TV anchor, and journalist. She now lives in Santa Monica, California, where she works at Santa Monica College by day and writes fiction by night. Her short stories have appeared in the Santa Monica Review. She is an MFA candidate at Bennington College and is working on her first novel.
I’m a speckled sparrow.
My short wings are narrow,
My beak blunt for cracking seeds.
All I do is feed
But never get enough.
City life is tough
And winter’s hard. I should migrate
Except it’s far. And now it’s late.
I’ll have to stand in snow
And watch the flakes blow
Across the vacant lot.
What things seem they’re not.
Someone is dreaming me.
The trash and cars and bird are he.
I’m someone who’ll wake.
The snow and lot are fake.
They represent a mood.
A dreamed thing needs no food.
The snow falls like feathers, like down.
I’ll wear them for a crown.
Then I’ll be king.
If I wanted to I’d sing.
I don’t think I will.
He likes it white and still.
The boy lowered his orange papier-mâché beak and his feathers cut from newsprint fell over the cutout eyes. He raised both brown wings, acknowledging the scattered, light applause, then hopped off the stage on clawed feet, past a stunned-looking Mrs. Waverly, his fifth-grade teacher, who had emerged onto the boards.
“Peter,” she called, “Peter, come back!” as parents and grandparents began to murmur and Mrs. Waverly stepped toward the bunched curtain. Principal Harvey stood from his front-row seat and hurried up the three stairs to backstage.
Robert Hamilton turned to his wife, Helen, who stared straight ahead at the empty platform, at its proscenium arch hung with white and red holiday bells, flanked on either side by three silver leaping reindeer, who appeared to have slipped their harness to escape Santa’s stinging whip.
“My God,” a woman behind the Hamiltons announced. “What on God’s green earth was that?”
“I’m not surprised,” answered a low voice beside her. “It’s what you get, not letting the kids pray at school.”
“You knew about this?” Robert asked Helen.
Her gaze focused on the trail of silver tinsel fallen from the previous actor portraying a skipping spruce, decked with blinking lights and ornaments.
“I only helped with the costume.”
“‘Someone is dreaming me’? ‘He likes it white and still’?”
“He said it was a secret, not even Mrs. Waverly knew. But I think she did–”
“His teacher put this on? Without our consent?”
Helen shook her head, lowering her voice:
“I found a folded paper in his room, a jingle about Santa Claus. Peter’s name was at the top. I recognized Mrs. Waverly’s handwriting.”
“So he deceived you and his teacher, in front of the whole school, staff, student body, and attending parents?”
“It’s not my fault,” Helen said. “You leave books around the house.”
“Are you kidding? That was straight out of Abraxas and the Gnostics. Talk about a holiday showstopper.”
“Last week I caught him reading No Exit.”
The stage had remained bare and all around the Hamiltons there was the growing hum of confused and disturbed conversation. A local minister stared at Robert, then turned back to his wife, his lips at her ear.
Now she and several gray-haired women and men turned in unison, until the microphones shrieked with feedback.
Mrs. Waverly appeared again, Principal Harvey at her side, and the room went still.
“Personally, and on behalf of Ronald Reagan Grammar, our principal, Mr. Harvey, and our entire faculty and staff, I wish to apologize for the presentation you’ve just seen and heard. It was my responsibility to prepare each of the children, and I’m afraid I’m to blame for not being more alert.”
Her head bent to the side and in her green dress with holly berries and leaves pinned at her breast, she lifted a hand to her brow.
“I’m afraid I was taken off-guard, as surprised as no doubt many of you—”
Mr. Harvey touched her shoulder as she went silent and he stepped forward.
“All of this was a mistake. Rules were broken, a deception has taken place, and we at the school are as mortified as all of you. Especially at this time of year. Disciplinary steps will be taken with the child involved and with his parents, I promise you.”
He spread his arms with open hands, then brought them together in a silent clap.
“Now let’s get on with our wonderful pageant!”
Immediately, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” blared from the speakers and boys and girls dressed as forest elves danced in circles, holding little hammers, big plastic scissors, bright wrapping paper, and spools of ribbon.
“Let’s get out, before they start a pyre of Yule logs.”
“I can’t believe it.” Helen sat frozen in her chair. “I simple can’t—”
“Someone put him up to it.” Robert was on his feet and reaching for her arm, asking, “Your dad been around, Mr. Nietzsche Jr.?”
“You’re blocking our view,” a man said. “Go home or sit down!”
It was Clint Evans, the mechanic, who had worked on the Honda.
“Please,” Helen whispered, “not now,” and like convicted parents of the anti-Christ they edged past familiar townspeople dressed in their holiday best, people Helen knew from Cub Scouts and Pee Wee baseball, and from the PTA and grocery store.
“You’re always busy at the college,” Helen said.
“Is that her husband?” someone asked.
At the aisle, fifty faces watched them endure the long walk to the lobby, as if Robert’s tweed jacket and Helen’s cashmere parka were emblazoned with scarlet letters. At their backs they felt loud whispers aimed at them like snowballs concealing stones.
At last outside the auditorium’s swinging doors, Helen said, “God!”, then suddenly, as an afterthought, “Peter!”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know— There must be another entrance. I can’t—”
Robert stepped to the lobby’s arched window and then stood still, silent, against the grey light.
“What’s wrong? Robert?”
His wing and breast feathers dark, sodden as the sky, his clawed feet black as soot—only his lowered bill a vivid orange—the sparrow stood alone in the field of December snow.
Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Poems have appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review, and other magazines and have received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Poetry Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.
She appears in my dreams as a tornado. The settings vary. A dusty plain. The downtown of a major metropolis. My backyard. Although I never see her face, I know who she is. I feel the wind in my hair. I feel the danger and thrill of her nearness. I feel so close to death I know I am alive. And always when I wake up I am disturbed by how still the air is.
I’ve seen Alice Maravicious—Alice Marvelous is her nickname—do scratch spins, lay-back spins, Biellman spins—the figure-skating equivalent of tornados—at the end of Learn-to-Skate sessions, for which I signed up my daughter, having failed to interest her in bowling and basketball. Alice’s spins are designed to show the young skaters she instructs what they, too, could do one day. During the actual lessons, Alice and her assistants skate between four- and six- and eight-year-olds, preventing them—and sometimes failing to prevent them—from falling. Some of the children fall so often Alice allows them to use walkers like old people would. They shuffle around the ice like miniature residents of a retirement home.
At Learn to Skate, Alice doesn’t wear the sleek, glittering dress she used in competitions. (Photos of her on-ice triumphs, including a fourth-place finish in the U.S. nationals, decorate the lobby of the Sherman Ice Arena.) She wears a Russian overcoat, like Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. She could be in Red Square in winter. Often I imagine myself meeting her in a world apart from the heavy world I inhabit. She is twenty-five years old and I have more gray in my hair than black. I am old enough to be—I hate to consider the math and hope my calculations are off—her father. But in these worlds I envision, I am ageless.
I am married to my second wife. Ten years of wedded bliss. Or less-than-bliss-but-better-than-loneliness. Or better-than-I-deserve. Or come-to-think-of-it-downright-good-maybe-even-great. We have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful house. Even our dogs, a pair of golden retrievers who might have stepped out of a hunting calendar, are beautiful. My wife and I both have good jobs. We have good friends. We buy good wine and watch good movies and have good, albeit infrequent, sex.
I cannot be having a mid-life crisis. I had my mid-life crises toward the end of my first marriage, manifested in a new car, a new career, and—the marriage killer—a new woman. I am supposed to have arrived at serenity. At Learn-to-Skate sessions, I should be checking my email and index funds. I should be gabbing to other parents about football and 401Ks and global warming. Hell, I should be comfortable and contented enough, as I sit under the warm air tumbling from the box heaters above the bleachers, to, every so often, close my eyes and drift into tornado-free sleep.
I am not supposed to sit like a rapt pilgrim at a holy shrine, studying Alice’s movements as if each spin were a hieroglyph or a piece of scripture.
Sometimes I wonder if my dreams are about heaven. Alice’s swirling presence might suggest the obliteration of my sins and the chance, in the beyond, for a clean slate and a glorious afterlife. Sometimes, however, I worry my dreams represent my incapacity, my impotence. She is the life force I no longer have—and now fear in others.
I used to see a psychologist. But in his absence—he and I parted ways after I remarried, when I thought my dark days were over—I share my dreams only with good people gone from my life who live on in my head: my third-grade teacher, who assigned me the seat in front of her desk and shared her lunch with me; my uncle Joe, who drank too much but listened to whatever I told him; my first girlfriend, whom I dumped because I was young and stupid. Sometimes they tell me my dreams have no meaning but are only the random videos the YouTube of my mind plays. Sometimes they joke with me, say The Wizard of Oz must have stamped itself on my subconscious. Sometimes, most times, they simply smile at me, as if they haven’t heard what I’ve told them or as if they, too, don’t understand—or understand and don’t wish to share what they know.
Sometimes I imagine telling Alice about my dreams. I imagine her revealing she has the same dreams, except in them she is swirling around a still point. “You,” she says in this happy fantasy, “are the still point.” In her dreams, I am what cannot be moved, the counterpoint to her tornado, as strong in my stillness as she is in her whirlwind. “Yin and yang,” she says. “Thesis and antithesis. The unstoppable force and the immovable object.”
To the real Alice, I say little beyond, “My daughter’s learning a lot from you.” And: “She isn’t falling down half as much as she used to.” And (joking): “A few more weeks and she’ll be ready for the Olympics.”
Do I want Alice to fall in love with me? Do I want to sleep with her? Of course not. Of course not.
Of course. Of course.
But more—or less—I don’t know—I want her to explain her presence in my dreams. No, to assure me my dreams are good omens. No, to sweep away my loneliness and leave me satisfied with my own company. No, I want. . .
Perhaps the tornado is my confusion.
The days disappear.
At the end of the penultimate Learn-to-Skate session, fortified only by the drinks I’ve imagined myself drinking, I decide to tell Alice about my dreams. I will make fun of them. I will say, “Maybe I’m obsessed with major weather events. Tonight I’ll probably find myself in a flood.” I know—of course I know—that there is something strange and inappropriate about what I am about to tell her. But if I don’t tell her, I might never stop dreaming of her.
Maybe I am hoping she will reveal to me something I could never have suspected.
When the last Learn-to-Skate student steps off the ice, Alice follows. I catch her in the near corner of the rink. I stutter, lie, tell her I want to discuss my daughter’s progress. (My daughter, meanwhile, has slipped into the lobby to warm her hands by the gas fire.) My words tangle, collide—they swirl like the tornadoes I’ve dreamed of. Alice waits, a patient smile on her face.
A moment passes. Alice looks at me questioningly, as if for permission to excuse herself. Now I tell her—do I? do I actually say this?—I tell her I love her. But I don’t mean it in the way she thinks I mean it. I mean it in the way one might say “Help” when one isn’t in any immediate danger but feels the presence of something foreboding approaching on the horizon or in the way one might say “Lightning” and not be referring to what blazes across a thunderous sky but to a horse one dreamed of owning in childhood, black save a white zigzag across its forehead, a horse capable of bearing its rider past every danger.
Or perhaps I mean it as a surrender, an acknowledgment of language’s inability to describe what I don’t understand. Perhaps “I hate you” would have been equally as inaccurate. But, no: “I love you.”
“I’m glad you love what I’ve taught your daughter,” Alice replies. Has she misunderstood what I’ve said? No, she is offering me a passage back to respectability. There is such grace in her gesture, I bow. She blinks twice, as if to dismiss the entire scene, and slips into the lobby. For a long time, I stand in the cold rink, listening to the hockey players who have stormed the ice like soldiers into a vulnerable city.
The final Learn-to-Skate session will culminate in a show dubbed “A Festival on Ice.” All of the Learn-to-Skate students, including twin six-year-old boys who wear hockey helmets and like to smash each other against the boards, are to perform brief routines to their favorite songs. The Learn-to-Skate instructors, Alice’s four teenage assistants, are to perform as well. So, too, is Alice.
The Festival on Ice is to be held three weeks before Christmas, two weeks before Hanukah, some time before or after Kwanza and Ramadan and Diwali. Alice asks the four fathers who regularly bring their daughters to lessons—“the gentlemen,” she calls us, perhaps because she doesn’t remember our names—if on the night of the festival we will string holiday lights around the rink. She asks the mothers if they will run the bake sale. One mother balks, deciding on her role: bouncer.
The day of the festival is bone cold, its skies filled with full gray clouds. Working with the efficiency of an elite bridge-blowing unit, the three other fathers and I hang our lights in thirty-seven minutes.
My wife joins me a minute before the show starts. She explains her tardiness: a meeting at work, bad traffic, etc. . . etc. . . This is the third time in the past two weeks she has shown up at the last minute to an event. I might be suspicious and suspect an affair. I might even desire such a scenario; it would serve as an easy explanation for my unease. But I know my wife isn’t having an affair. She simply works too hard; she always has. I must search elsewhere for the source of my disquiet.
The first twenty-nine routines preceding Alice’s are filler, white noise, droning previews. In my mind, I cross out each performance as it occurs, even my daughter’s. I am counting down to Alice’s performance. Twelve skaters to go. . . eight. . . six. . . three.
When the oldest of Alice’s assistants leaves the ice after her program, the lights dim and a hush falls over the arena. Or perhaps the hush is in my heart. In the window at the far end of the rink, snowflakes light up in the darkness like white fireflies. Alice skates to the center of the ice and holds a pose. The lights slowly come up, showing her in a white blouse and black poodle skirt, her hair in a pair of ponytails. She has put twin suns of rouge on her cheeks and her nose is red from the cold. Her white skates seem disproportionally large on her feet. If I were capable of thinking it, I might think she looks like a clown.
No, I am the clown: a man who is too old to be so adrift, so baffled by life. Disgusted, I excuse myself. “Bathroom?” my wife asks. I nod as Alice’s music—not “Send in the Clowns,” but something playful and light, like a breeze or a whistle—begins.
I don’t need the bathroom, but I go anyway. I stare into the mirror above the rust-stained sink. I see a middle-age man who thinks his dream of a tornado is some kind of portent or promise. But it’s only the swirling dust of his mind.
I return to the rink, stand alone against the Plexiglas at the far end as Alice finishes her program. As she curls into her final spin, the flag below the scoreboard shudders, snaps. The Plexiglas trembles, threatens to shatter. From the crowd come cries of astonishment and awe. I close my eyes. The entire building shakes. My dream, I realize with satisfaction, but also with fear, was prophecy. Some kind of end of days is upon us. But when I open my eyes, the rink is still, the applause diminishing to silence. I have imagined everything. The crowd files into the night.
Minutes later, my wife finds me. “Coming?” she asks.
I remind her about my duty to the lights.
“Right,” she says.
With the same efficiency as before, the three other fathers and I remove the lights from around the rink. My fellow fathers are, I realize from their banter, good friends. As our task concludes, they mention grabbing a beer at Don’s Underground and ask if I would like to join them. I decline, tell them I’ll finish up our job. I watch them march out of the arena and into the snow-filled night. I stow the boxes of lights in the giant cupboard at the west end of the rink. After I lock the cupboard, I gaze out at the empty ice.
I’ve failed to understand something. Or I’ve failed to realize there is nothing to understand. I laugh like someone pretending to laugh.
I step outside into snow. The falling flakes are as large as hands. In the distance, at the end of the parking lot, I see a woman in a black coat crouched beside her car. The snow in her hair makes her seem ancient, a witch, a crone, but I hear her softly crying like a child. I plow toward her; there must be half a foot of snow on the ground. When I am within a few feet of her, she looks up.
“I’ve lost my keys,” Alice Marvelous says, sniffling and swiping her ungloved hand across her nose.
As if a curtain has been opened in front of me, I see her not as a mystical life force, a tornado capable of sweeping aside all my problems and bearing me up and over my limitations and into a land of rebirth more glorious than Oz—no, I see her as everything she has been and is and will be, from an infant to a beautiful figure skater and a kind teacher to a white-haired woman. Perceiving her like this, I see myself in a similar way, as someone who, although living in a middle-aged body, carries everything I’ve once been and am and will be within me—in my soul, in my psyche, in my memories and presentiments, even in my body—and I realize, in the kind of epiphany too obvious to celebrate, that I am the tornado, that we all are, everything past and present and future whirling in one concentrated force, mortal but freer from time than we think as we move across life’s landscape.
Like the good father—the good husband, the good son (Alice’s snow-white hair makes me feel youthful by comparison)—I was and am, I kneel in the snow and stick my bare hand under her car’s left rear tire. It isn’t long before I touch her keys. After standing, I hand them to her without ceremony. She throws her arms around me, a quick embrace, perhaps a pardon for my words of the week before. “Thank you, thank you!”
She thanks me again before she opens her car door, slips in, starts the engine. She waves as she drives off.
I should feel blessed or absolved. I should, at least, feel relieved to be at the end of a mystery. But even as I pull in a deep, satisfied breath, the snow swirls around me, clouding my eyes. I wave my hands but nothing comes clear.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. To learn more about him, visit his website: www.markbrazaitis.com
It was spring in Minnesota, and the winter newborn babies were entering the outdoor world for the first time. There were many in the park behind the senior center that day. Mothers cooed as they bent over each other’s jogging strollers, their cropped yoga pants stretching over the mounds of their well-squatted buttocks.
Christine watched from one of the few benches facing the playground. She turned her head away from the taut mothers and inspected the babies instead, the curled-up little beings in the strollers. They were shaped like commas, but she knew they were much more than mere pauses.
One was parked facing Christine. The single front wheel of the stroller was pushed against her bench, and the mother, facing the other way, leaned her back on the handle of the stroller and laughed with the group that huddled there. Her hair shone golden and strawberry, waving left to right, as she shook her head at the incredulity of some joke.
The infant was belted, physically restrained, but its mind was scheming, wielding its power from behind glassy blue eyes on an egg-white bed. Its stare was unsettling, but at least this infant was not Christine’s affliction. She was free of binding belts and babies. She smiled, lifted her face to the sky and reached her arms out on either side, palms flat on the bench.
“I hope she isn’t bothering you?” the mother said, twisting at her tiny waist to face her baby who was staring steadily at Christine. “She seems mesmerized by you.”
“And who wouldn’t be?” Christine said, still in her fanned peacock position. The mother laughed with her friends at the wit.
Christine had had friends too. And husbands. She returned the baby’s glare. She had had it all until she had paused. She paused for a comma or two, and the world transformed, leaving her behind, incomplete and unable to compete. Sitting on the bench behind the senior center, Christine filled her cheeks with air again, unconsciously attempting to reverse the dents on her face, attempting time travel.
It was a few minutes before she realized the baby was smiling, or laughing, at her with its smooth, plump lips. Glancing to her left and then right, Christine casually deflated her balloon face and readjusted her weight on the three-slatted bench. As she lifted her left leg over her right knee, she kicked forward, jabbing the side of the stroller with the toe of her sensible shoe. The baby was unmoved, but the mother whipped around, her hair a shiny, ironed mane, her mouth slightly open and eyes large on her lineless oval face.
“Oh dear. Did I do that?” Christine said.
Seeing the baby quiet and content, the mother replied with a smile, “It’s nothing. I just got startled.” Then after a moment more of observation, she turned her perky breasts back to her friends.
The baby seemed to have enjoyed the sudden rocking. It stared at Christine with mocking anticipation, and Christine obliged. She waved a backhand at the air in front of her. “Mosquitoes already?” she said to the mother’s back. She continued to swat at nothing, moving her hand closer and closer to the baby’s bare legs, a pair of parentheses lying on the stroller. In a single movement, Christine leaned forward, slapped the baby’s thigh with the back of her hand and returned to her original position. It was too gentle. The baby did not even blink. It just continued to stare up towards Christine, towards the sky.
Christine looked down at her hands. She tilted her right hand, the one that wore the biggest solitaire, and watched the princess cut toss light as brilliantly as it did on its first day. The landscape around it had changed though. A small a mountain range of untethered skin had risen on the back of her hand. She made a fist, stretching the skin, but some hills and valleys remained. She waved at the mosquitoes again, this time with her fist. Her ring reached the baby first, and the platinum prongs left a quick, diagonal scratch right above the baby’s chunky knee. The blood was held just under the skin. The baby’s lower lip fluttered outward, and tears filled up on either side of its nose. But like the blood, they did not spill.
The baby’s hands opened wide and closed tight, maybe as a panic reflex. It tucked its fingers inside its palm, and its knuckle dimples stretched out and disappeared, leaving behind smooth plumpness on the back of its hand.
Christine suddenly felt intense fatigue and stood up to leave. She leaned a bit on the stroller to do so. Her hand slipped onto the baby’s clenched fist, and her fingers pinched the back of its hand. She held the flesh between her forefinger and thumb and squeezed until her own fingers tingled with the pressure. She watched as the creamy peach color turned into a deep red cherry with a tall wrinkle of raised skin in the center. Christine released the hot skin and turned towards the senior center just as the baby let out its scream.
Nigar Alam was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but grew up in Italy, Kenya, Turkey, and several other countries. She hopes to bring all these experiences together in her writing. She is an educator and currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and two children. Her flash fiction can be found in the Atticus Review.
Belle Fleur was there on opening night thirty years ago. She doubts anyone remembers the skinny girl in the ill-fitting wig—a replacement for one of the hoochie coochie dancers who missed the train in Cincinnati.
“You can do it, Mavie,” her mother had said, already slipping her into the gypsy costume. “You’ve seen their act a thousand times.” Her parents were The Fire-Eating Royales. That night, Mavie adopted the stage name she’d been crafting her whole life, Belle Fleur, and posed with a dozen dancers while Mr. Waller mumbled his speech. Nobody booed, since he owned The Burlesque and paid for the acts that had arrived by train that afternoon. Belle and The Lovely Sisters and The Brothers Grimelda carried trunks two blocks to the theater. Mr. Peels, the chimpanzee wearing a suit, tipped his bowler hat to women and children as he’d been taught. Kids and drunks followed him all the way to the theater where the marquee read “Suitable for the Entire Family!” The hoochie coochies would have to clean up their act.
Directly across the street was the hotel still under construction, but they likely wouldn’t have taken in the performers anyway. Not the right clientele, they’d been told in town after town. After setting up the stage and unpacking costumes in the basement dressing rooms, the thirty-odd performers settled in the boardinghouse run by Mama T, with a backyard, thankfully, for the dancing pony and jump-roping dogs, but not for Mr. Peels, who refused to sleep outdoors.
Opening night, before the theater doors opened, the performers scattered like ants around the rococo-style house, caressing the orange drapes and seats, ogling the gold-rimmed balcony and gas wall sconces. The manager shooed them backstage when carriages arrived with the Waller family and other notables who lived in that stretch of stately homes Belle had walked by earlier with the knife thrower’s kids.
From the stage, Belle saw those fine ladies on the front row with their ascotted husbands, all of them decorated with more diamonds than Belle had ever seen, sparkling more brightly than the pounds of fake stuff the performers wore. Even Belle understood this crude display was a sign of new wealth.
Though the performers had been told it would be an integrated audience, she was surprised to see negroes sitting on the main floor right next to white folks, not just tucked in the balcony or peering in from the lobby. This didn’t bother most of the Northern performers, however, a mixed lot themselves: Jews, Germans, Irish, and Italians all sharing the same train car and toilets.
After the first dance number Mr. Waller bumbled on stage as skittish as Butter, the elephant that had been banned from the show. Waller talked to his feet, fidgeting in his ill-fitting tux, applauding the theater’s craftsmanship and promising only the best entertainment for his hard-working townsfolk. And then he finally did speak up. “I know you’ve all been anxiously awaiting the name of my new hotel, which will open this spring. Only one name will do: The Dorinda, offering the grandest accommodations for miles, suitable for statesmen and queens.”
Mr. Waller bowed to his wife, Dorinda, perched in the front-most box seat. “Now your name will forever be linked with opulence!”
Mrs. Waller leaned forward; the only things glistening on her were tears.
Thirty years later Belle was back in the theater—even if it was showing its age, but so was Belle. Last fall she’d been so thoroughly booed in Peoria for her botched dancing that she’d been reduced to getting spritzed in the face with seltzer and playing baseball with a goat.
Tonight there was only a smattering of men in the audience drinking bathtub gin from flasks. Belle kept missing her cues. Several men hooted: “Bring on the fan dancer! We want the fan dancer!”
But Chéri wasn’t for three more acts and at that moment was in the dressing room tending the baby.
Belle rushed offstage and downstairs to collect the infant who, like Waller’s hotel so many years ago, still had no name. The baby lay sleeping in an open trunk.
Chéri rouged her cheeks and fluffed her ostrich feathers. “Do I look all right?”
“You look just like—” Chéri blustered off before Belle finished. “—Irene Castle before she cut her hair.”
Belle changed into street clothes and scooped up the two-month-old whose lips pursed as it dream-suckled. The thought made Belle’s milk seep, a sensation she never thought she’d experience again, especially this late in life. She clamped the baby tighter to her chest and went into the hall, pressing herself against the wall to make way for an usher carrying a laundry basket, hidden bottles clanking beneath the sheets. He darted into the tunnel that had been gouged out a few years before to sneak liquor under Front Street to the hotel. Without forethought Belle followed him, her shoulders scraping the whitewashed walls, electric light bulbs dangling sporadically to guide the way.
The tunnel ended at a stone stairwell. Belle ascended and found herself in The Dorinda’s kitchen. Chefs piled silver-domed plates onto trays for waiters to serve to diners. Someone hollered: “Baked Alaska for the mayor!”
The baby cooed and a black dishwasher looked up, unperturbed, as if he were used to Madonna with Child rising from the pits. He nodded to a plate beside him loaded with scraps. Belle scooped up bread and a pork chop with a napkin and tucked it into her purse.
Belle followed a waiter into the dining room. The maître d’ spotted her and headed her way. She went in the opposite direction, but he expertly navigated around tables to reach her. Before he opened his mouth Belle said: “I just wanted the mayor to meet his new baby.” The maître d’ swiveled to the table where sat the mayor and his stout wife.
“Absolutely not,” sputtered the maître d’, whisking her and the baby through the main doors.
The lobby’s orange and gold décor matched The Burlesque’s with the grandest chandelier Belle had ever seen. If the mayor really were the baby’s father, Belle would be eating flaming desserts and wearing a beaded gown. But the father was a Baltimore wharfie who’d disappeared with Belle’s pocket watch. She skirted the lobby, peeking in the Gentlemen’s Club where men drank tea and smoked cigars, and the Ladies’ Parlor where women sipped tea and gossiped. One wall by the front door was crowded with autographed photos of Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, entertainers famous enough to earn a room in The Dorinda. A sinking in Belle’s chest at what she had already seen coming.
Just that afternoon she had tried to quiet the baby by walking it around the theater. She paused at the Wurlitzer organ that had been installed several years prior and signaled vaudeville’s death, even here in Wallers Ferry, by moving pictures.
In The Dorinda, Belle faced a stairwell that begged to be ascended, but there was also an elevator car descending inside an ornate shaft. It hummed down, the uniformed operator opening the accordion gate and letting out two men who tucked coins in his hand.
Belle stood before the car, debating, until the operator, Jeb, one of Mama T’s boarders, leaned out. “Like a ride?”
Belle entered and watched Jeb work the levers with more skill than she thought he was capable of, felt the jolt as they made their way to the top floor.
Jeb opened the door, graciously not extending his tip hand. “Have a look around.”
Belle read suite names as she passed, each with engraved illustrations on the metal plates: Blood Fruit, Sleeping Bear Rocks, Ferryboat, little works of art, much nicer than the hand-painted numbers at Mama T’s.
A young couple exited one of the suites and Belle froze, embarrassed to be caught with the baby. They probably assumed she was the nanny. Or grandmother. The man bowed and forgot to lock the door. When they were out of sight Belle slipped inside and bolted the latch, awed by the high ceiling rimmed with crown molding, the dangling chandelier, gleaming parquet floor, separate dressing rooms for the man and woman. A basket filled with fresh blood fruit and caviar and familiar blue bottles, except now the labels read: Sparkling Juice—the factory having been converted during Prohibition.
Belle laid the baby on the bed and rifled through the woman’s dresses and jewelry. The pearl ring fit perfectly and she felt entitled to it. She also bundled a mink stole inside a kimono and set it by the door. She’d always wanted a fur. The baby cried and Belle sat in the chair by the front window to feed it, not the least bit afraid the couple might return. This was her town, a place she’d visited every year for three decades. This was her room. To prove it she gouged a B in the wooden arm of the chair with a diaper pin. The streetcar clanged and Belle looked below at Front Street where couples promenaded beneath streetlamps as if they were in Boston or New York.
“The Great White Way.”
The theater manager was already taking down the poster for the vaudeville that would leave by the midnight train, just hours away. He unrolled the newest poster and even from this height Belle could see it was for The Gold Rush. A crowd gathered around the poster, their excitement already predicting the movie’s success. The Dorinda would certainly accommodate Chaplin. Belle switched the baby to her other breast. “I should have gone into pictures.”
A whistle sounded and Belle felt the kathunkathunk-kathunkathunk as the train passed. She would miss Wallers Ferry even if it was harsher now that old Mr. Waller was dead. Last year, she and several of the performers had taken the streetcar to pay their respects.
The cemetery was on an acre of land surrounded by blood fruit trees. The Wallers’ obelisk was the most prominent, Mrs. Waller buried years before her husband, and now they rested side by side. After laying flowers on Waller’s stone the performers walked to the farthest corner to place a bunch of bananas on the grave of Mr. Peels, who had died in his sleep in Wallers Ferry two years before at the ripe age of forty-five.
The baby mewled and Belle looked down at it. She had thought she was beyond fertility, but several months earlier her body had begun blooming the way it had twenty years ago. Back then her parents were still working and it was her mother who noticed even before Belle. They were in the basement dressing room at The Burlesque. “You’re carrying,” Mother had said so matter-of-factly when Belle’s costume no longer fit. They left her there with Mama T who later delivered the thing. A month afterward Belle was at the train station to meet her family just passing through. Mother wanted to see the baby boy whom the boarders called Little Man.
Belle had waited on a bench inside the station letting him suck on a slice of blood fruit to keep him quiet. Beside her was a family speaking Russian, the mother handing peppermint sticks to her children. By her feet was her valise, wide open, filled with clothes and something wrapped in linen. Belle wondered what it was, if the woman had brought it in steerage across the Atlantic. Something valuable that they could sell to begin their new lives.
A whistle had sounded. The train carrying Belle’s family approached. She moved faster than she thought possible so that no one would see her reach in and grab that linen-wrapped treasure. She was on her feet before the family noticed, dashing to the door, then outside where the train was slowing down. She raced along the platform looking in windows until she spotted The Daring Palenkas and Teacup Lil. Belle hugged the thing to her and jumped on board, her mother heading her way, but Belle said, “Go back to your seat!”
When they were safely nestled Mother looked at the bundle in Belle’s hand, her face a puzzle as Belle unwrapped it to expose, not a baby, but a matryoshka doll. A couple of vaudeville kids leaned over their seatbacks. “What is it?” Belle picked the thing up and opened it to find another doll inside, and another, and another, all the way down to a baby no bigger than a lima bean.
Mother held the littlest one in her hand. “Where’s your baby?”
Belle looked out onto the platform and into the station, but she could not see the family.
“It died.” She wondered if at that moment the mother was looking inside her valise to find Little Man surrounded by three blood fruit that might keep him quiet.
Mother’s head dropped. She looked at all the nesting dolls on her daughter’s lap. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
The train lurched forward and as Belle reassembled the dolls her mouth opened but no sound came out.
Belle often wondered what happened to Little Man. If he spoke only Russian. If he learned his father’s trade. If they even kept him or turned him over to the station agent. Maybe Little Man was still living in Wallers Ferry, and every time Belle came to town she looked into the faces of little boys, then bigger boys, big ones, men, wondering if it was him. Or if the Russians had taken him, but he ran away time after time, always heading to Wallers Ferry for reasons he couldn’t explain. I belong here. Maybe he even loved vaudeville. She already knew he loved blood fruit.
And now here was a daughter asleep in Belle’s arms. She could leave her here with this couple just beginning their lives. Tuck her in an open drawer and surround her with blood fruit in this town where her half-brother perhaps lived. Belle could board the midnight train with just her trunk, which still held those nesting dolls. The baby died, she would say if anyone asked. Or maybe she would board a different train bound for San Francisco, a city she’d always dreamed of visiting. Maybe open her own boarding house with the nest egg she’d accumulated. She’d make a good Mama T.
Ten minutes later Belle darted out onto the street, bundle clutched to her chest. She walked briskly to Mama T’s intending to hide in her room and rub the mink across her cheek, but Jeb sat in the parlor playing his Jew’s harp. He stopped when he saw her. “I beat you home.” He eyed the loot in her arms, but didn’t say a word. Belle started to leave when one of the salesmen playing checkers said: “King me.” Mrs. Oswald imbibed in her nightly sherry. Mama T mended linens in a rocker by the fire, hands so gnarled from arthritis she could barely hold the needle. She lifted one of the sheets. “Why don’t you help me with these, dear?”
Belle considered the request. She’d helped Mama T with a thousand chores. Mama T had helped Belle with her own labor. Tonight there was more than just sheet mending in Mama T’s request.
“I’m awful tired,” Mama T said.
The parlor was more familiar to Belle than the thousands of train cars she’d ridden in over the years. And it would never go anywhere, ever, nor would this town where she had carved her initial as if to claim it as her own.
“Let me set this down.” Belle carried the bundle to the divan and unwrapped the kimono that held the mink.
Mama T reached out to touch it. “Gift from an admirer?”
“Yes.” Belle felt the fur too, then caressed the baby she’d nestled inside.
“You’ll spoil that child,” said Mama T, a woman who had acted more like a mother to Belle than her own.
If Mama T could act, maybe Belle could too. Who needed moving pictures? She could pretend to be a good mother, could dote and fawn, and maybe in a few years she would be one. And tomorrow, she would walk to Harbinger’s, buy three blood fruit, and line them on the wall in the back alley behind the boarding house where her son was born, a gift for Little Man in case he walked by.
West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), won the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel (River City Publishing, 2012), received the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Still Life with Plums: Short Stories (West Virginia University Press, 2010) was a finalist for both the Weatherford Award and Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year. Learn more at www.mariemanilla.com.
The light was green but a woman was standing outside her car in the middle of the slow lane with her emergency blinkers on. She was surrounded by what looked like geese. Geese are everywhere in Minnesota. Geese aren’t interesting. Grace glanced left and saw too many vehicles hurtling towards her. She had to stop. After stopping, she realized what the animals really were, what this woman was doing with them.
Wild flapping of arms, shooing and yelling and exhorting, she was trying to get three wild turkeys to cross the road.
If this were a silent movie (and, stuck inside her car, it was), Grace would’ve said the woman communicated a fallen, flawed brand of earnestness, that her desperation was the trumped-up, righteous desperation of the undesperate. She looked like an enraged and foolish general.
Forced to wait, Grace focused on the birds. Having not seen wild turkeys since the winter she spent house-sitting for her uncle, Grace thought about her Maine winter and how she didn’t find the silence, solitude, or peace she thought she would have. Did they exist? She didn’t know, but she could still remember that flock and the magic when it appeared: fifteen big, plump, proud, beautiful birds that had tromped through snow and wood in search of the cracked corn Grace’s uncle had told her not to forget to scatter.
Grace watched them through a picture window. Some, after feeding, flew into the branches of the king pines where they perched like bleak-plumaged buddhas before moving on to wherever they moved on to. They were unspoiled, marvelous, natural. And they made Grace feel old, the wild turkeys did, though she was only twenty-seven at the time. More precisely, looking at beings that made the words “rare,” “endangered,” and “extinct” pop into her head, they made her feel that her youth was over, or that it should’ve been.
She did not, however, romanticize the birds completely. She saw their aggression, their territoriality, their hierarchies, and the silly orders they seemed to take from some invisible commander. But she forgave them because they existed, because they didn’t know better, because they were special, and because they came, each day, her wild gift, never failing to make her feel both happy and sad. She appreciated that. She would appreciate that today.
Shot back to today by a blaring car horn behind her, Grace, seeing the road and the woman and the birds in front of her, thought about Thanksgiving and the slaughter. Forty million of these birds, she had read, were killed and consumed a few weeks prior. If a feeling had bubbled up through that article’s words and statistics, it was pride and a sense of accomplishment.
The three wild turkeys eventually crossed the road. They crossed, Grace thought, with dignity, when they felt like it.
The woman scampered back to her car. She wore a long, turquoise coat and an enormous purple scarf and a pink winter hat the word “gaudy” could only begin to approach. She was like Willy Wonka or that technicolor Joseph, and she gave Grace a shy but satisfied little hand wave and a what-can-you-do smile, but there wasn’t a trace of embarrassment or shame on her. She had done her good deed; her actions befit the season.
As the woman pulled off, Grace wondered what the turkeys made of the zealous, colorful, vertical animal who—joining them in the road for an unfathomable and urgent reason—had gesticulated wildly and continuously and tried to communicate with them in an unintelligible tongue while mechanical monsters choked, belched, and screamed all around her.
The woman drove the speed limit, so Grace was able to pass her before swinging into the liquor store’s parking lot. Grace gave her the usual glare of curiosity and loathing she gave to other vehicular idiots when she did, but the woman was too busy singing to notice.
Later, on National Public Radio, Grace heard that one of the cameras on Highway 169 spotted a two hundred pound cougar crossing the road. This had been the night before, in Champlin, a growing suburb of Minneapolis.
She wasn’t afraid. Didn’t fear for the local dogs or children, just thought about a world full of wild things, crossing our roads. She liked the image but shook it off as quickly as it had come and mixed herself another strong drink.
She sat down with it and didn’t think about her sons playing video games in their bedrooms, nor her husband tinkering on his motorcycle in the garage, nor Linus, their spoiled schnauzer, dozing away somewhere warm and marshalling his forces for yet another meal campaign. She didn’t think about her extended family, either, about to descend on them like old-timey marauders. She thought about none of that, only this: Man kills. Man would always kill. Man would kill every last one of them.
That cougar, for instance, was being actively hunted by serious men with sporting hearts and sophisticated weaponry, and those turkeys that woman “saved” out on Highway 55 today? Those turkeys stood even less of a chance.
Grace’s husband had apparently been in the kitchen long enough to retrieve, decapitate, and start to dispatch one of the recently purchased Christmas beers. He had a bemused look on his handsome face.
“What?” she asked.
“I asked you a question.”
“Ask me again,” she said.
He was smiling mischievously as if he knew he were going to get laid tonight, which he was. When Grace felt sad, confused, angry, and small, she needed his contact more than ever.
“I’ve tried three times,” he said. “A man has his limits, you know, his dignity.”
“Come on,” she said, “play nice.”
He picked up a set of keys that had been lying on the counter. With two dark, grease-stained fingertips daintily pinching their ring, he jingle-dangled them through the air.
“These mine?” he asked.
She looked at him, surprised by the banality of the question, the effeminacy of the gesture.
“Does it matter?”
“I need to get a canister out of the shed,” he said, “and I was wondering if these keys were mine or not.” He frowned at the keys and gulped his beer.
“These keys,” he said again, for no apparent reason.
Grace looked at them more carefully. She squinted and thought about the not one but two turkeys she had served to her family over the recent holiday, the smiles on everyone’s faces, the satisfying gluttony.
“No,” she said, “those are mine.”
“Hmm, I wonder where mine are.”
“No clue,” she said, “but those keys there are mine.”
Her husband grunted in a curious, I’ll-be-damned kind of way and looked at the keys again.
“I can’t tell them apart,” he said, suddenly slipping a finger through the ring and twirling the keys before snapping them into his fist. “I think it’s a sign, I think we should be paying attention here—I mean—how and when did we accumulate so many friggin’ locks?”
Grace sipped her drink, pictured blood rivers, blood oceans, corpse mountains, certainty—every last one of them—death and murder and extermination. Nothing left but black void gone nothingness.
Her husband, still bemused but looking ready to march forward, finished his beer in one last, greedy gulp and shoved the keys down deep into his pocket.
“It’s damned interesting, though,” he said, “how you can, how you’re so sure of yourself over there.”
“They’re fucking mine, okay? What part of mine don’t you understand?”
Her husband, not a novice with women or wives, grinned, but Grace didn’t see this grin because she had shut her eyes and shook her head, trying to shake off the images and the words, thinking: Wait, we can do better, we can do this differently. Geese are interesting. Geese matter. Do you understand? What I’m trying to say? I can do better. I can do this differently. I can make the difference.
But when she opened her eyes, all that remained was the reassuring, irresistible cocktail.
Vanessa’s loneliness beckoned her to the white room, where the ceiling vanished into a mist so fine that it melted into six suns and the sediments were of pink marble with flecks of orange and white. So white. Not everyone could make it there. Only those pure-hearted, lonely few who still believed in magic could ever find the door, the white-hot keyhole, and they remained in life like the unicorns, all but extinct. She had found it in her fifteenth year, when she had looked into a mirror and for the first time understood what it meant for a smile to not touch the eyes. Her key was a metal spoon, stolen from the kitchen of her dreary first life, and a bag of white powder was the sacred artifact that opened her eyes to the magic.
She escaped the monotony of the real world by pushing on the golden frame of the door and budging her way inside. The warmth crawling up her cheeks was instant and alleviated the sorrow knotted in the pit of her belly like thorny vines. Visiting the white room was riding a horse, playing the game she couldn’t afford, making love, having everything she was not to have at once.
She did it for herself. Her parents didn’t warn her about the secret world stashed in the walls of the white room because she hid it like all the sweet things that she had to hide, and they boasted about their perfect daughter as though she were invisible among them. Going to church and listening to the preacher in his cold polished suit did nothing to convince Vanessa that she should not visit the white room, breathe the white air, and warm herself with white. She listened each Sunday, her roaming soul more apathetic to the starch in the preacher’s voice. Her eyes sagged with a lost grace, and her face blanched white as her sin. No one noticed her change. She was surrounded by the blind.
She was only herself when she was in the white room, and as her arms withered and her heart began to lust, she became the white room and the white room became her. Her bruises melted into a great violet lake. Her frayed hair grew into a brown field, awave on a velvet breeze. Her heart became the fire in the torch light, the warmth in the spoon. In the white room she only knew love. The walls crawled with love, and nothing else could pierce the silence, until the day her father broke down the door.
She didn’t care. His wail of Vanessa! flooded her field of daydreams, and she didn’t care. He fought his way through a tundra of translucent pearl to find her, Vanessa, his only daughter, and he picked her up by the shoulder and battered her over the tide of his arms. She resisted like a caught fairy, the magic of her sopping wings ruined, shouting that he didn’t know and couldn’t know and never would. What she was going through did not belong to him, and yet here she was, helpless against his ruby veined hands. He couldn’t see the magic of her world washing away, the magic his presence was abolishing, but he could see the white.
Erin Victoria Bradley lives in southern Illinois and is soon to graduate Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a B.A. in English. This is her first professional publication. She is currently at work on her debut novel and a scattering of short stories.
When the junk collector paused to adjust the hitch to his donkey last week, scattering old papers and dusty bits of plumbing among the potholes, he told Abd el-Majid that snow was on the way.
Rami, the Sa’idi who sold fruit from a wooden cart at the corner of Saad Zaghloul street, denied that it could ever happen.
“It’s a conspiracy, like everything else,” he said.
But then, it did.
Abd el-Majid was standing in the doorway to the Noor Mosque, waiting for the landlady to let down her blue plastic basket from the balcony. As he scraped the coins from the bottom to fetch her the daily papers, he felt something wet slide onto his cheek.
Snow. Gray. Not white. Fragile, dandruff-like particles. The flakes flickered silently in and out of the flame tree branches overhead.
Abd el-Majid settled down on his haunches in the doorway. All around him, others were staring at the mercurial substance. Women ducked and laughed, adjusting their hijabs in wonder. Children and grown men stuck their tongues out, trying to catch an aging snowflake, but they were always a little too late.
He wondered what his brother would have thought of it. Ahmed would have likely been just as confounded as everyone else, but a slow smile would have crept across his face. He loved change of all kinds.
As the flakes continued to fall, cars lined up on Abd el-Majid’s usually quiet side street to avoid the ongoing protests in Maydan el-Gelaa. A taxi driver hailed him and asked what his news was.
“Thanks be to God, everything’s well,” he replied, looking at the line of vehicles, their engines steaming in the cold. They discussed the snow a little. The unexpected bite in the air.
“This weather is hard, very hard,” the driver said, his eyes sympathetic. “God be with you.”
For a few days, Abd el-Majid observed that people drifted away from their incessant arguments about politics and turned instead to the topic of the weather.
Construction workers restoring the old Mauritanian embassy down the street smiled more, even as they adjusted their scarves and pulled the folds of their gallabiyas around their bodies to protect against the wind. A group of boisterous young men showed Abd el-Majid pictures of a snow-covered Sphinx and pyramids on their Blackberries, while he was taking his nightly tea at the ahuwa, or coffee shop, up the street.
It was too cold to play checkers, so the few men who came to the ahuwa every night to escape their homes contented themselves with talking and flicking cigarettes. Most tried not to move much, and stayed nestled in their black coats.
“This is the first time we’ve seen snow in over a hundred years,” the owner roared, pacing in and out of the plastic chairs and slapping some of the clientele on the back. Abd el-Majid cringed.
“I always said the president would leave when hell froze over,” the large man shouted again, laughing. “Maybe we’ll see some real change now.”
Abd el-Majid carefully put down his cup. Again, he thought of his brother. With one finger, he slowly wiped the black specks of tea leaf, like a hundred tiny insects, off the rim of the glass cup.
The change in weather actually changed very little, he discovered, but it did make his job more difficult. Abd el-Majid worked for an old, widowed Christian lady who rarely left her apartment. Madame was tiny and fragile-looking, and constantly complained of chill. She collected fabrics, and chiming clocks, and long curved kitchen knives with wooden handles. Though she was in her eighties, Madame often flirted shamelessly with her younger tenants.
After the first snow, Madame summoned Abd el-Majid to her apartment.
“The stairs want a good washing, and you’re three days late,” she said. The snow had created more mud, and the stairs were indeed covered in small twigs and clumps of dirt. “What will the foreigners think?”
Madame rented only to foreigners; she thought Egyptians too messy and too demanding. Abd el-Majid sighed and retreated to his living quarters to find his mop and bucket.
Abd el-Majid inhabited a sparse room in the inner sanctum of the building next to the first-floor mosque. The cement-block walls were painted a mint green, and a solitary light bulb hung overhead. When Abd el-Majid lay down and gingerly removed his plastic sandals he could almost fit, lying lengthwise. He and his brother had shared this space once. Now that Ahmed was gone, Abd el-Majid kept his belongings scattered around the closet-room—a plate, a few clothes, a tea kettle. They kept him company in the dark.
As the snow continued, the wind picked up and blew some of the browning leaves from the flame trees into the mosque. Abd el-Majid was slowly picking them up, one by one, when Hussein, the doorman from next door, hailed him from the street.
“Want some?” He asked Abd el-Majid, holding out a silver aluminum take-out container. Hussein’s residents had thrown a party and had given him the left over food – mahshi, some pieces of baladi bread, a few greasy slabs of chicken and rice.
Abd el-Majid abandoned his task and took the container, which was bent in half from the weight of the food, and settled down on a chair in the dirt. He tore the chicken off the bone—it was still hot—and slowly stuffed it in his mouth with a handful of rice. He savored the taste—a pleasing, salty mash.
Hussein was a good man, but too political. He always wanted to talk about the failed revolution. Abd el-Majid tried to avoid these discussions, as they left him feeling torn and used-up inside. He mentioned the snow, in an attempt to head him off.
“Snow, revolution. It comes, it goes. What trace does it leave behind?” Hussein replied, stuffing another handful of bread and rice in his mouth.
Mostly, however, Hussein talked about his feelings, which he expressed with a terrifying force. He was in love with one of his tenants, the daughter of the owners of the villa. “Love is like drowning,” Hussein told Abd el-Majid solemnly as they sat in their plastic chairs between the buildings. “It’s nothing more than a slow death.”
“And what if she loves you back?”
“It doesn’t matter. It won’t work. But I can’t breathe sometimes,” he said, shifting his chair until the legs twisted and almost broke underneath him. “She has beautiful hands, you know. Beautiful brown hands.”
Hussein stared at the pile of trash across the street, near the old, broken-down Uzbekhistan embassy. A stray dog was picking its way through the trash.
“Love is a sickness. I’m tired of it,” Hussein concluded, wryly pulling on his cigarette.
Abd el-Majid thought him stupid, but didn’t say much. To fall in love with someone because of their hands! He finished his chicken, wiped the bottom of the aluminum container clean with a bit of bread, and returned to the mosque, where he resumed picking up the fallen leaves, one by one.
As the snow continued, he felt himself growing thinner, losing substance. With all of the talk of the snow, he had thought of it as an achievement in itself, or as sustenance of a sort. But it was nothing but dreams and a few particles of ice.
To pass the time, Abd el-Majid thought of Luxor where it was still warm. After Ahmed and the incident at the protests, he had gone home to upper Egypt, where his older sister lived with her three children. He found, as he always did, that he missed the country: the long expanses of green, the sound of the Nile kissing the muddy banks at night. Sometimes, crouched over his teakettle in his small room off the side of the mosque, Abd el-Majid closed his eyes and pictured the palm branches against the white winter sky. The air was better there. It was not like the air in Cairo, which tasted like it had lingered in the lungs of a hundred thousand other people before it reached yours.
Abd el-Majid and his brother had left the fertile, green swathes of earth to come to Cairo for work years ago, like so many others. They had found jobs as boabs, or doormen, for a time. Then, in the summer, the coup happened. Later, the catastrophe in the squares.
Madame was giddy with excitement over the change in government. The news anchors on every channel had taken to lauding the military and calling all protesters terrorists. “I wish they had killed all of them. All of them,” she told him, from the folds of her soft sofa chair, underneath her layers of blankets. He recalled with shame how he said nothing, and handed her the morning papers—Al-Ahram, Al-Watan, Al-Masry Al-Youm. She wanted nothing to do with the more left-leaning El-Shurouk but he bought it anyway sometimes and slipped it into the pile. He didn’t really know why.
Neither he nor Ahmed had wanted to get involved, at least in the beginning. Abd el-Majid’s brother hadn’t been in the squares on that day when the catastrophe happened, but he had known people—friends from the mosque. One had died, from bullet wounds to the neck and head.
One day, when the weather was sweltering in August and the mosquitoes were relentless in their spawning, Ahmed gathered his clothes and went to protest at Mohamed Mahmoud. Abd el-Majid watched him go.
He had no reason to do this, Abd el-Majid remembered saying in an attempt to dissuade him. They hadn’t come from the village for this. They had come to work and save money. They had come so that they could live on the surface of the city for a while, and find the resources to return, buy some land, and begin to really live.
Abd el-Majid had a very strong sense that wherever he might be, life continued as it always had inside his village. This place was the only place where the real events of life were shaken out. Reality was there, etched into the palm bark and the slabs of wood his family had used to build their home, and the hoof marks of the water buffalos in the sooty Nile mud, which took on the consistency and color of tar in fall and winter.
Cairo in winter was only a cold dream, an alternate world where nothing really mattered. One’s dreams were played out as if on a checkerboard, or a soccer field. It wasn’t real, far away from the eyes of his village. None of it mattered.
He remembered how Ahmed had looked at him.
“They killed our brothers. What would you have me do?” Ahmed asked him. It wasn’t really a question. Angry, he left for the protest.
That was the same day that new tenants arrived, and Abd el-Majid stayed behind. The foreigners finally arrived in the afternoon, two tiny women from somewhere far away, with silver-plated baubles on their wrists and in their ears. One’s hair was short and yellow and bright like plastic.
“Welcome,” Abd el-Majid said, holding the door open as they climbed out of the taxi. He helped them with their leather bags, trudging up the newly-washed stairs of the building. Madame watched approvingly from behind her black door gate.
At the fourth floor, the one with yellow hair smiled and took her bag back. He waited, beaming, willing himself to exude warmth and hospitality. Eventually, without a recognizable word of thanks, she shut the door. The sound echoed throughout the cold building.
These two women, he concluded, understood nothing. Certainly not the concept of baksheesh, or tips. From that moment on he disdained the foreigners, not because they didn’t understand him, but because they didn’t try.
Later in the day, Ahmed returned, his eyes wide and glassy. That night, the ahuwa was full of angry words and people ranting about the protesters. Ahmed ignored them and drank steel cup after steel cup of tap water in between sips of tea. He interrupted the waiter only once to ask for more mint, so that he could mix it in with the black flakes at the bottom of the cup. The green, fragile roots folded into the black liquid and disappeared beneath the surface.
“I’m going back tomorrow,” Ahmed told him in a low voice. “I’m going back every day until I die.”
Abd el-Majid didn’t believe him, but he decided to go as well, the next day—after fetching the morning papers, after washing the stairs again, and after sweeping the leaves from the mosque entrance. He was bored, more than anything else. He wanted to see something.
In the square, the crowd gathered its strength slowly like a storm. When it reached its peak, the voices around him were impossible to separate or understand. Hundreds of people, all chanting bits of poetry and familiar protest songs and hurling insults at the military. Rumors flew, half whispered or screamed, that the circling planes were going to drop poison gas. Others said that they would be bound and burned. Abd el-Majid stood his ground with Ahmed, believing in his brother, who was riveted to his spot, despite the swaying layers of limbs around them.
And then someone threw a Molotov at the advancing phalynx of police. Deep inside him somewhere, Abd el-Majid understood that that black mess was made up of individuals, but it resembled nothing more than a moving wall. The dark, faceless nature of the wall sparked panic in his heart. The protesters surged forward, and a foaming silver missile – a tear gas canister—launched itself from the wall and struck Ahmed in the forehead.
Abd el-Majid’s brother immediately fell backwards, but his descent was slow, as if the air itself was resisting fate. There was nowhere for his body to go, really, with so many people pressing up against each other. Abd el-Majid watched him fall as if he were under water, as if they were young and diving into the muddy Nile again before the canal was built. His brother’s body fell so slowly.
Don’t leave, Ahmed told him without words, with his bloodied, still eyes, as some men Abd el-Majid didn’t know hoisted his brother up on their shoulders. Don’t leave it like this.
But it was all for nothing, Abd el-Majid screamed in his head. What was it for? He remembered grabbing the tear gas canister that lay, forlorn, in a pothole on the street. He tried to break it but could do nothing; it sustained only a small dent from contact with his brother’s skull.
That night, Abd el-Majid was crazy. He jumped up on a table at the ahuwa, while the fat owner stared at him stupidly. He shouted openly and publicly to all of the clientele— the wealthy businessmen, the vegetable sellers, the felucca operators with their wan, flat faces—that he would go back to the square and stay there all day, every day, just as Ahmed would have done. He would stay there till he died, he swore.
Most of the patrons listened quietly. Angry rants were hardly uncommon in those days. He noticed Hussein, the other boab, staring at him from one of the tables on the street.
“Come down, habibi,” Hussein urged, with a shocked look on his face. Abd el-Majid ignored him.
Abd el-Majid returned the next day, but the square was blocked off. There was no gathering storm of protesters, only the police. The army. Ponderous tanks and smug, vacant stares. Disdainful glances from passers-by.
For a time, he attended secret political meetings and tried to feel something, but his grief dominated his thoughts. They weren’t bad men, these protesters, he remembered thinking. They had wives and children and jobs behind pharmacy counters and in banks. But they disappeared, one by one, taken away in night raids by the armed forces, and finally, there was nowhere to put his memories, or his anger. It stayed inside of him for a time. Then, with the tiny, gray flakes of snow that clung to the leaves of the flame tree, it dissipated. All that was left was air.
The day after the first snow in a hundred years was Friday, and Friday always meant prayers, then tea and the rustling of papers at the ahuwa. Abd el-Majid didn’t know how to read, but he liked to watch the people scanning their newspapers in between quiet, small sips of tea.
“What’s the news?” He asked a fellow who was sitting by himself.
The man replied without taking his eyes off the papers in front of him that Ahmed Fouad Negm, the revolutionary poet, had died. “Everyone is talking about it,” the man said, waving the long, elephant-like trunk of his shisha pipe.
Abd el-Majid settled back into his plastic chair and thought for a moment. He didn’t care much for the old poet, in fact. He was only an old, lewd man with many wives. He had produced a few good lines, though. But his timing was impeccable, he thought. The old man had died just in time to miss the cold.
Alexia Underwood was born in Kuwait and grew up between the U.S. and the Middle East. She holds two Masters from the University of California, Berkeley in journalism and international and area studies with a focus on Arabic literature. Her chapter on Egyptian literature after the 2011 revolution is forthcoming in an anthology from AUC press, and her nonfiction writing has been published in VICE, Bloomberg Businessweek, and various other publications.
The glass surface of the round banquet table buzzed. Outside, antigovernment demonstrations jammed the streets of Bangkok. Plastic whistle blasts and the call and response of a hundred megaphones echoed through the humid capital. Sounds of contention burrowed upwards through levels of concrete. The protests hummed between Nahm’s ears.
Nahm sat with Jason’s family in a private dining room on the fourth floor of the Iron Wok Chef. The entrance to the secluded dining area featured a tall red archway ornamented by carvings of spiraling dragons. A wall of windows opened out to a small balcony. Behind a short karaoke stage decorated with blinking Christmas lights, panels of full-length mirrors attempted to give a greater sense of space. But the mirrors reflected the opposite wall and a mural of a foggy Lushan mountain range, trapping dinner guests between dark summits and stirring Nahm’s anxiety.
To calm herself, Nahm narrowed her concentration on specific parts of the meal. She tried to identify the various flavors in the shark fin soup. She attempted to calculate the cost of each ingredient passing between her lips. Nahm had developed habits like this selling mango and sticky rice with her mother in front of the headquarters of Kaidee Inter Auto Parts Co., Ltd. During those long hours she would stare down at one of the cracks in the grimy sidewalk and count the number of expensive shoes that passed over, or she’d look up at the tangled thicket of telephone wires running above her head and imagine where each line finished and began.
Every year Jason had pleaded for Nahm to attend the family’s Chinese New Year dinner, and she always declined, saying she didn’t want to go anywhere she wasn’t welcome. But tonight she had finally conceded, and Jason hoped to make the evening enjoyable if possible.
Jason leaned over to whisper, “This is not as nice a restaurant as the one we had last year, but it is okay.”
The rotating tray at the center of the tabletop squeaked, some of the silverware had soap spots, Jason’s chair had one shorter leg, and the karaoke machine only played folk songs. Thankfully, the deep-fried soft-shell crab flippers served with plum sauce were delicious, and Nahm said she liked the lychee fruit salad.
Jason’s father enjoyed the glass noodles with baked shrimp and ordered a second plate for the table. Jason didn’t ask where his father had been for the last three months. No one ever asked.
Tonight, like most family occasions, Jason’s parents avoided looking across the table and into the face of their spouse. With a fork and spoon Jason’s mother moved the food on her plate in circles. She ate very little and hardly spoke except to discuss her favorite television drama with Jason’s aunt. They fumed about the villain of the series: an ungrateful son betraying the mother who sacrificed so much for him. Jason caught the sisters glancing at Nahm as they discussed the character.
Nahm ran her fingers across the bottom hem of her dress and brushed something invisible off her lap. She had to take a little from her savings to buy the outfit, but she liked the way the garment’s lines appeared to evenly distribute the weight she had gained from the pregnancy.
Jason’s aunt didn’t ask about the baby.
Neither did Jason’s grinning uncle.
During a break between courses, away from the table in the short hall leading to the bathrooms, Jason pulled his smartphone from his shirt pocket. He showed pictures from the hospital to his cousin and her black husband. The husband gave Jason a congratulatory clap on the back the same way Westerners do in movies. He called Jason lucky.
In the women’s restroom, Jason’s cousin told Nahm the newborn—underweight and the color of vanilla milk—resembled baby pictures of Jason’s younger sister, Ivy. Nahm mentioned that Ivy had promised to visit the hospital but no one had seen her since a week before the delivery. Nahm filled Ivy’s absence at the dinner table between Jason and the family accountant.
Outside, the protesters started to chant: No to vote. No to vote. No to vote.
Returning to the banquet table, Jason imagined one of the voices belonged to his sister. Beyond the walls of the Iron Wok Chef, Ivy stood alongside thousands shouting for the establishment of a People’s Council and the end of party elections. She had invited Jason to join the cause. When he admitted he didn’t fully understand the fight, Ivy smiled and said, “Good people have an obligation to stand against the tyranny of the majority.” Jason didn’t ask Ivy how she distinguished bad people from the good. He didn’t tell her how tired he was of feeling obligated to beliefs that were not his own.
The public dissonance rose above the white noise of the restaurant air conditioners. Only Jason’s cousin and her husband turned their heads to the balcony. Twice, a loud pop and boom slapped the windows of the building like thunder. Each time, after a few static seconds, the family continued eating, quieter than before.
As servers brought toothpicks to the table, the family accountant downed his third glass of scotch, stood, and waddled to the apron of the small karaoke stage. He sang “Ai Piah Cia Eh Yia” two times, stopping often to raise the volume of the speakers over the exclamations of demonstrators.
Jason remembered how his grandmother used to sing the same song while working around the house. Her dry feet resembled crinkled paper and made soft scratches against the bare floors. The gentle shuffling joined her chorus, “Life is like the tide of the sea / We rise and fall by turn.”
Jason wondered what family gatherings might be like if his grandmother were still living. Would she approve of his cousin’s African-American husband? Would his grandmother try to look past Nahm’s race and economic status to find likenesses?
The accountant’s song reminded Nahm of stories Jason told about his grandparents migrating from China to escape the famine. Nahm wondered what Jason’s grandparents had envisioned for their descendants in Thailand. Wasn’t assimilation with the Siamese a part of their dream? Couldn’t they have predicted their children’s children blending and mixing with other nationalities, cultures, and classes?
Outside, the chants condensed: No to Vote. No Vote. No Vote.
Jason and Nahm had been together for more than five years. Ivy had introduced them, inadvertently. At least four times a week Ivy stopped at Nahm’s cart to buy mango and sticky rice before entering Kaidee Inter Auto Parts. Ivy always spoke to Nahm and eventually the pair became friends. Sometimes, Ivy would come outside of her family’s office building just to talk or rant about the government, the lack of accountability, and failing democracy. Nahm didn’t have an interest in politics. No matter who stood in charge it never seemed to improve the quality of life for her parents. Nahm would listen, annoyed but appreciative of Ivy’s sincerity.
One late afternoon, Ivy called the family’s office at Kaidee. Sick in bed, she asked Jason to bring her mango from the canopied cart downstairs from his office.
Outside the building near the revolving doors, Nahm seemed preoccupied with the telephone wires above. She bagged the rice, fruit slices, sugar and chili powder, and bound them with a rubber band without looking down from the nests of thick black cables. Jason asked what she saw and she replied openly, “I’m thinking about the messages going over my head. I’m trying to imagine the senders and receivers.” Then she looked Jason in the eyes and held out her hand, “Thirty baht.”
Although Jason passed her every day to enter work at his parents’ company, he would later admit he never noticed Nahm until he visited the cart for Ivy. Jason abhorred sweet foods, but he began stopping to buy mango regularly. Eventually Nahm started to notice how often he visited her cart, and how long he stayed to chat. She confronted him. She asked if he would ever court someone whose family made little money.
“If I like them,” he said, “yes.”
She asked him why.
Jason squinted, thinking. He remembered a Chinese New Year dinner with his family when he was younger. He recalled the way his mother never let her gaze linger past the center of the tabletop and how she didn’t allow herself to stare at the empty place setting where her husband should be.
“I don’t ever want to settle with someone I can’t look in the eyes,” he said.
She frowned, and he asked if he could meet her when she wasn’t working.
Nahm said yes, but added, “I’m not interested in becoming a mistress.”
No Vote. No Vote. No Vote. No Vote.
Nahm was a mother now, and she had hoped to finally receive acceptance from Jason’s mother and father, not because she needed their validation but because she wanted her daughter to know two sets of grandparents. Nahm had hoped things might be different if the child did not have a dark complexion. She had found traditional approaches online that assured her baby would be born fair-skinned. Everyday for nine weeks she boiled saffron strands in milk and added a little sugar. She stained the corners of her mouth orange eating a hundred carrots and pomegranates. Even Nahm’s father had recommended a chemical supplement he overheard two passengers debating in the back of his tuk-tuk.
Jason’s parents still hadn’t visited their grandchild in the hospital.
They never spoke of the baby.
No Vote. No Vote.
The family accountant finished. He returned to the table and everyone clapped politely. Jason and Nahm rose from their seats.
Jason apologized for having to leave early but did not offer a reason for departing. Later, he would call his cousin to explain—Nahm had to return to the hospital for the baby’s feeding. On the phone, Jason would invite his cousin and his uncle—her father—to come see the baby.
They would come because they wanted to.
Nahm and Jason glimpsed themselves in the mirrors behind the karaoke platform. They looked bigger. Standing, their reflection became a part of the mountain mural; their heads among the painted peaks seemed to rise from grey crags.
Nahm pressed her palms together. She gave seven small bows, one for each person still seated at the table. Then it was Jason’s turn to bend in reverence, but he didn’t. Jason’s aunt glared disapprovingly. The family accountant fiddled nervously with the band on his wristwatch.
No Vote. No Vote. No Vote. No.
Before telling his parents about his relationship with Nahm, Jason had asked his uncle how he thought they might react.
“My sister will not be pleased and neither will your father,” his uncle said. “Maybe if this girl was at least half Chinese or high-society Thai.”
His uncle asked what they shared in common.
Jason explained that he and Nahm both wanted the same thing: a life in which the only responsibilities are to those they serve willingly.
“We both want a choice in what governs us.”
Jason reached for Nahm’s hand.
Nahm clasped her fingers with his.
Jason nodded in the direction of his uncle and cousin, and they nodded back in recognition. His cousin’s husband waved farewell.
Jason and Nahm strode away from the table. Before disappearing beyond the crimson archway, Nahm smiled at the fake snarling dragons scowling down at her.
Outside, in the heat, Ivy and the sweating crowds raised their voices louder.
Jason’s father and mother ignored the growing discord. They pretended to be too interested in the remains on their plates to notice the cries for more and their son saying goodbye.
Donald Quist is a writer and editor living in Bangkok, Thailand. His work appears or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Pithead Chapel, Knee-Jerk, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Adroit Journal, Apeiron Review, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Awst Press, Publishers Weekly, J Journal, The Rumpus, and North American Review. He serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com.
It is just past Thanksgiving, and they’ve already begun playing Christmas carols at the theme restaurant where Eleanor waits tables. The music streams from the speakers on the ceiling, like a curse from God, until her head feels stuffed with jingle bells and sleigh bells and holiday bells. She is so bloated with pre-Christmas spirit that she feels sick, as if she’s eaten an entire plate of Santa-shaped cookies with an inch of frosting on the top. And yet somehow, the show must go on!
She has been living on her own in the Windy City for just under three months, lives in a shitty garden apartment with a leaky ceiling, and has auditioned for zero plays. She can’t seem to find the time, what with all the old AMC movie-watching she must do and the waitressing and homeless people to dodge and all.
Table two would like more ketchup in a white salad dressing cup, please. Table three would like several free refills of Diet Coke, some with lemon and some with lime. Table five would like a new husband and in the meantime, will take her unhappiness out on Eleanor by sending back her calamari, first as not warm enough and then saying the plate burned her fingers. Table six explodes with rowdy German tourists who will not tip, and table seven is the angry wheelchair guy, a regular who purposefully juts his chair out into the middle of the aisle, making it difficult to maneuver around him, especially if you’re carrying a heavy tray of food filled with super-fun holiday appetizers with sprigs of holly, as if he hopes to be doused by chili con carne. He also wants his food prepared in a very particular way and explains that if it’s not—if, for instance, the carrots interact with a peanut in any way—he will keel over and need an EpiPen stuck in his neck, which may spoil the lunch of the other patrons. However, he is also fiercely handsome with a square jaw and chiseled features of a 1940s movie actor of some kind.
Lately, she feels a defiant buzzing in her chest, as if when she opens her mouth she will release a long string of bees into the air, buzzing in the key of G. So when the wheelchair guy asks her out, she trills, “Yes, of course I would love to go out with you! How about after work?” Why not, she’s off at 4 p.m. and what does she have to look forward to except for numerous glasses of cheap wine and the newspaper crossword puzzles from the break room where half of the clues have already been filled in (often incorrectly) by the line cooks. Why not go out with a strange, angry, crippled man instead?
“I’m busy tonight,” he says. She stops, confused. Is she mishearing things? “Tomorrow is better.”
He cracks his knuckles. He wears fingerless leather bicyclist gloves, white with Velcro at the wrists.
His wheelchair looks expensive; possibly the Bentley of chairs with a black backpack on the chrome handlebars. He has the body of a gymnast—powerful arms and a muscular torso. But his legs. What must they look like?
“What’s your name?” she asks, feeling suddenly awkward and giant standing above him.
“Tiny Tim,” he answers quickly, unsmiling. She freezes. He says, “Colin. It’s an easy joke.” Oh, good, he can laugh at himself (even though he’s not, in fact, laughing). That takes some of the pressure off. She still feels cautious and makes a note in her order book to pinpoint the phrases she should banish, Sorry, I’m running late. Gotta run! Quit walking all over me!
They make plans for later and he dismisses her with a nod, leaving behind an eight percent tip.
On the way home from work in the freezing Chicago rain, she finds herself thrilled to have something new to focus on aside from her own failures in life, which she can easily list from A to Z. Did he become paralyzed while trying to save a passel of mewling kittens in a burning building and become trapped or pinned under a fallen beam? Was it too many drinks at an Irish pub and he ran into a car of singing church choir kids, spending months in recovery, crying to his mother, “I don’t want to live! Why couldn’t it have been me?” Or maybe it was a debilitating illness, some weird throwback disease that’s usually 100 percent curable if caught soon enough. No way to ask politely, that’s for sure.
At the wine shop, she drops three quarters into the March of Dimes plastic canister at the checkout. She is such a good, good person.
She skips up the steps of her apartment. If the date goes well, how will she invite him back to her apartment with the three stairs leading to the front door? She imagines heroically throwing him over her shoulder and carrying him. His legs will be thin and small, like those on a Raggedy Andy doll. He will be light, lighter than expected and easy to carry around.
They go to see a movie full of shootouts, high-speed chases, and bad Santas. As he does in the restaurant, he positions his wheelchair in the aisle, so people have to detour around him. Someone knocks into him. “Watch it, asshole,” he hisses. Heads turn. His level of anger is awe-inspiring—it’s like seeing a low-burning fire suddenly doused with gasoline—an explosion of flame and heat.
The guy who has bumped him—a burly, testosterone-puffy man in a Chicago Bears jacket defers and moves away. “Sorry, man.”
After the movie, he takes her back to his place. His bed, which does not (thank God) turn out to have hospital side rails, is a queen-size mattress low to the ground made up with tangled white sheets. She feels her heart thumping in her ears. She is not sure what to expect—hasn’t figured out how to ask him what he can and cannot do.
“It works,” he tells her. “I might be crippled, but my cock isn’t.”
She laughs too high and loud, a laugh like a cartoon schoolgirl.
It’s not good. It’s awkward and embarrassing and she doesn’t know where to look. His kisses are dry and formal, his hands inside her panties within the first thirty seconds. He touches her breasts like a doctor would, weighing them. “Your breasts are uneven,” he says. “This one’s bigger.” When she tries to maneuver to a more comfortable position, he says no, there is only one way for him. She has to be on top. She obliges; self-conscious of her deformed, different-sized boobs. Now she is the freak. His eyes remain shut. “You move,” he directs. “You have to move if this is going to work.”
She moves and it hurts but she keeps at it, feeling vaguely charitable and not at all turned on, which makes it even more uncomfortable. It takes a long, long, long, long time and when she tries to vary her approach, his hands clutch at her hips, strong hands, and set her back to his rhythm. She imagines herself as Rosie the Riveter, doing her part for the boys over there, over there. He crows, startling her, and she realizes it’s over. “You can get off now.”
They lay in the dark on their backs. She waits for him to say something like…what? Thanks?Good job? Even a high-five would be better than silence.
She is about to ask him what he might rate that experience when she hears his heavy breath turn into soft teakettle snores. Oh, well. A line pops into her head from her first college play. She was cast as Laura, the sad little lame girl who could never find a suitor. Typecasting, she had thought, at the time. Still thinks. “I was not expecting any gentleman callers,” she whispers.
She is trying to find her center; doesn’t want to feel like she’s constantly on emotional tiptoes, liable to fly off in any direction like a ballerina at moment’s notice—anger, despair, hope! She must grow up, plant her feet firmly on the ground, establish roots, and become like an oak tree.
“Be here now,” her movement teacher, Liesel, instructs. Liesel wears her hair in a long thick braid down her back, so long, it almost touches the ground. The braid looks strong enough to climb. And yet Liesel never steps on it while they’re doing the nonsense movement exercises that involve them bending and rippling like trees. She reads a long passage from Thich Nhat Hanh about staying in the present moment, in a soft, seamless voice. Outside of class, Liesel speaks with a slight stutter, every word thought about carefully before she articulates it and many of her sentences coming out twice in a row, as if she doubts she got it right the first time.
Leisel has a large, encephalitic-like head and tiny thin arms. Strangely, she also has a soft big round bottom that seems to help keep her more grounded. She has no trouble moving like a birch or an oak or a palm tree in a hurricane. Her bottom-heavy body defies gravity again and again while Eleanor’s arms refuse to allow her fingers to graze the floor when they hang over like unstrung marionettes.
She should try harder. She should recognize how fortunate she is to have all of her limbs in working order. She should be running races, vaulting beams, grateful for the use of her legs, the way she doesn’t have to think before moving, it just happens.
Leisel finishes her passage and closes her book. Her eyes rest on Eleanor when she says. “And now, stop.” They freeze in space and Eleanor tries, really tries, not to imagine how stupid she looks, frozen with jazz hands meant to represent bare winter branches.
She calls her long-distance best gay friend Joseph to tell him about Colin. They met at her ninth grade audition for Annie. At first, Eleanor convinced herself she was in love with him—he could tap dance, he did great imitations of Mickey Rooney as well as Shirley Temple, and he made her laugh until she peed her pants. As soon as he realized she thought he was boyfriend material, he said, “Oh, Dorothy, we have to work on your instincts.” He always called her Dorothy, and wanted her to call him Lillian, like the Gish sisters. And yet despite this affection he had to say the words to her, “I love boys. All boys. I love you, but not like that.” And she was heartbroken for a day and then she got the part of one of the main orphans and felt better about herself.
Now, she explains to Joseph that she needs his advice. He already knows it has to do with love because it always has to do with love.
Joseph is slightly hard of hearing. She tries not to think of it as an affectation. When she mentions that she’s dating a guy in a wheelchair, he exclaims, “With no hair?! Like, none?” She speaks louder, saying no, he’s disabled. “On cable? What is he, a weatherman?” Their conversations flow much better in person. She confesses to Joseph that she feels guilty because of, you know, her non-disabilities. Also, she explains, he’s not even that nice and the sex is bad.
“What?” he yells. “Do you like him or are you dating him because you feel like you should? Are you that lonely?” Yes, she says. He makes a tsk-ing noise. “You need to change your internal monologue. Your interior voice is a Jewish mother going, ‘What’re you complaining for? At least you have your legs!’ Get out more, for God’s sake.”
Colin invites her to a cocktail party thrown by his ex-girlfriend, Chelsea, at her penthouse on the Magnificent Mile. Who lives like this? With real furniture purchased from real stores and not stuff that they’ve found next to the garbage on their way to work?
Chelsea is beautiful with a medley of springy red ringlets like a girl from a fairy tale book. After a few drinks, Eleanor finds herself shivering on the patio alone with the ex, sharing a cigarette. Chelsea stares at Eleanor with slanted almond eyes and says, “I bet you think he just became a dick, right? That his accident changed him from this sensitive, sweet guy into an angry one, right? Is that what you think?”
Eleanor says yes, actually, yes, that has occurred to her.
“Did he tell you he has MS? Or that he was shot down in Iraq?”
“I didn’t know he was in Iraq,” Eleanor imagines him—a war hero!
“He wasn’t. Those are just the stories he tells. It was a car accident. His fault. Many dead.” Chelsea takes a delicate sip of her martini. “He was always a prick. If anything, he’s nicer now.” She smiles at Eleanor, revealing a row of tiny, straight white teeth like those you’d find in a baby doll. She exhales a long streak of cigarette smoke and they both watch as it unwinds in the cold air above their heads.
Some nights, after work finishes and she drops into her futon at 1 a.m., she spends the rest of her night chasing the orders down in her dreams, with everything larger and more cartoonish than in real life. The cooks move in slow motion, the customers scream about their orders with rivers of color spilling out of their mouths, the floor is littered with banana peels and ice puddles. On those nights, it’s like she is working a double shift; no matter what, she can’t seem to escape the stress of waiting tables.
She is in the service industry, after all. This means that she is meant to remain cheerful, use a bright voice and say “I’m sorry” five hundred times a day, even when she is really sorry zero of those times.
“I’m sorry your chimichanga isn’t hot enough,” she says to a frowning man in a business suit that is bursting at the seams. What she would like to say is, “I hope you eat these fried beans and your stomach explodes.”
That’s one of the things she admires about Colin–he just doesn’t seem to give a shit what people think of him. He says whatever he wants and people are so taken aback that they seldom respond to his rudeness. Plus, how big of a dick do you have to be to get into a screaming match with a man whose legs don’t work?
He rages at everyone while Eleanor watches, in equal parts amazed and embarrassed. The foreign clerk at the CVS who isn’t able to get the Trojans fast enough gets called an obese Slav, the guy in the aisle of the bus who doesn’t move out of the way fast enough is rammed in the shins, the hostess with the Southern accent who doesn’t understand that he wants to sit by the window is told she suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He lashes out at anyone he perceives as thwarting him and then shakes it off like a Labrador does water. She realizes that she’s waiting for him to do the same to her, but he never even raises his voice. He’s unfailingly polite to her, says please and thank you, makes a killer cappuccino with the perfect snowball of foam on top, and lets her sleep in on his giant bed, swaddled in 500 thread count sheets. Meanwhile, she waits for him to decide she’s a waste of time.
The holiday gift looms on the horizon—this big weighty thing; they’ve been dating for one month, what’s the anniversary symbol for that? “Grass,” Joseph tells her over the phone. “I believe you’re supposed to get each other something made of grass. Or corn husks, I forget which.”
“That’s three months,” she counters.
“What I Did for Love” plays on her iPod as she steps on the Howard Red Line on her way to find the perfect Christmas gift for Colin. She feels like shouting it to the people waiting on the platform, come on, people, sing it with me, “Can’t forget! Won’t regret! What I did for love.” This compilation of old songs comes from her high school musical theater days, and she has a whole bevy of them to choose from. It turns out that it’s actually true that musicals cheer a person up. Who could feel blue after hearing “A Bushel and Peck” from Guys and Dolls? She thinks about mentioning this to Colin but stops herself, wondering if he might have something negative to say about people who can execute high kicks.
It will ever be thus, she realizes. She will always be checking her thoughts against his possible reaction and imagining disaster before it strikes.
She browses the bins at the Brown Elephant—a hipster-type Goodwill store that tries very hard not to look like a Salvation Army by putting retro clothes on one rack and hanging up funky ugly paintings of kittens on the walls.
The furniture can be found in the back of the store by the non-handicapped accessible restroom. Eleanor’s entire living space has been built from cast-off pieces from this store and whatever she had left over from college, furniture that is more than slightly distressed—bookshelves with bowed sides from water damage, a coffee table with a bum leg held steady by a wad of napkins, a TV stand made of an upside down packaging crate with Bombay, India stenciled on the side. Though the dishes and other items are arranged nicely, they’re still mismatched pieces given up by people who have died or divorced or moved on in some way.
They have a giant plastic toilet seat for old people or the disabled. Should she jokingly buy him a hemorrhoid chair? A puffy toilet seat? A stained suede jacket? Something kitschy? She picks up a shepherdess figure with a chip on her finger and no sheep in sight. The shepherdess has dark hair and a row of daisies around her head; she looks like a hopeful, slightly deranged Snow White, with one of her cornflower blue eyes half chipped off, which gives her a winking, jaunty look. Would he have a sense of humor about it? She thinks not. She will buy it anyway.
The girl at the register wears kitty-cat eyeglasses and has her lip pierced right in the center with a giant hoop. She rings up the purchase while still talking to the girl next to her, a similarly pierced and outfitted woman wearing a peppermint striped cap. “And like, this guy goes, ‘I don’t think I should have to pay full price for something that’s used’…I’m like, ‘Uh, it’s a dollar forty nine and you are in a thrift store…doucehbag.’ “You get what you pay for,” Eleanor chimes in, handing over a crumpled five dollar bill. They both look at her and say nothing. More friends she won’t be having. They are not her type, she decides. She must find some people who are.
Maybe there will be a miraculous moment where she’ll convince him to try standing, and he will resist, but she will keep encouraging him and he will get so angry that he stands up, still holding onto the handles of the chair, sweat pouring down his face, and then he does, he is able to stand, for just one second. That victory would give him confidence to try it again until the moment when he’s standing on his own and she says, “Try to walk to me,” with her arms out to him, and he does, like a baby fawn, on wobbling legs, one foot in front of the other!
She does not share these fantasies with Colin. They evaporate the first time she sees his naked legs. They are thin and pale with no muscular definition, and she sees that she may not be able to save him after all.
Before Colin, a long line of waiters paraded through her garden apartment, one after the other, wearing their black work pants slightly stained with mozzarella sauce and smelling like french fries. They all had aspirations to be something greater—they were artists or musicians or poets or actors or comedians—and the road to greatness in the arts started first with the blooming onion and grew from there. She needs to find her niche, her one true dream, beyond being able to afford something more than ramen noodles for dinner and to have more than two dollars in her savings account. A balance large enough that she was actually earning interest.
The shift manager, a tall, thin guy with bright blue eyes and a prominent Adam’s apple, claps his hands in the break room to get their attention. “All right, people, now we’ve had some complaints among the customers that our attitude isn’t right. We need to remember that we’re out there to make people happy. If they want extra special sauce, we give them extra special sauce, with a smile. Ladies, if they’re a little flirtatious, flirt back—you’ll get a better tip.”
As Eleanor listens, she replaces the word waitress with “call girl.” It’s really not that different. They get violated in similar ways, humiliated, degraded, made to feel like they don’t matter, the one difference is that the risk of pregnancy is lower. As is the pay. When Rob asks if anyone has any questions, she raises her hand, “If the guy wants to feel us up, should we charge extra or is that on the house?”
“On the house!” Rob says, only half-joking.
Her day is again filled with unhappy tourists as “Feed the World” plays on seemingly incessant loop from overhead. She tells one group of five guys that they must be in the wrong place; Hooters is across the road. They think she is hilarious. They leave her a two dollar tip on a eighty dollar tab. When Colin texts to tell her that he’s going to be late, she texts back, “Me too.”
After her shift, she goes to the bar and tells Mikey, the bartender she has not managed to seduce, to line up three shots. “How about just one to start,” he suggests. He has a two-year-old daughter named Maggie after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Like her, he is a lapsed actor who still likes to keep ties to the theater community.
Rob, the manager, breezes over. “You know, it’s against policy to be up here. We don’t want our customers to see the staff drinking.”
She waves her black book in the air. “You know how much I pulled in tonight? Fifty bucks. And from that fifty bucks, I had to tip out $25. All my customers have gone home to torture their dogs. None of them are left. I’m having a drink.”
Rob stares back at her, blinks. He’s not in love with his job either. He has to pretend to care about all of this shit when all he wants to do is practice music with his garage band, The Losers of Solomon.
He turns to Mikey. “Make sure it’s on the house.”
When Colin texts again that he’s going to be even later than he thought, she tries to imagine who he’s with and realizes it doesn’t matter. She pictures him meeting a buxom waitress from Ed Debevic’s—the place where the wait staff is paid to be rude to you. Or someone from TGI Fridays who sang him “Happy Birthday.” It could be his thing. Maybe he goes around to restaurants picking up vulnerable waitresses with self-esteem issues.
And so she will have a couple of drinks, flirt with Mikey, who will flirt back even though he’s clearly not interested, and that will be that. Maybe on the way home, she’ll be gang-raped by a bunch of teens. Probably not. Most likely, everything will be just fine. No musical theater ending with a kiss under an elm with a perfect half-moon hanging in the sky.
She walks the two miles home, weaving only slightly, the music from her iPod now from Gypsy. How did that musical end? Mass suicide?
She notices a scrawny man approaching with a ski cap pulled down over his eyes. It’s racist to just assume he wants to hurt her, and anyway, she can’t even tell if he’s black or white or Hispanic or Arabic or what. The tips of her fingers tingle as she wraps her hands around the keys in her jacket and straightens her spine. Be here now.
In this moment, something is happening.
A light snow has started, and the snowflakes swirl around the man in the streetlight as if he were a sparkling apparition from ghosts of Christmas passed. She quickens her pace to brush by him, but he bumps into her, his hands fumbling at her coat pocket. She twists away, jabbing at him with her keys. He comes at her again, this time grabbing her arm. She wears a thin raincoat of slippery acrylic and manages to wiggle away. He rushes at her once more, grabs her jacket, and pulls her toward the alleyway by the sleeve of her coat.
“Get away from me, motherfucker!” she screams. She pushes him as hard as she can and he slips on a wet patch of snow, his arms pinwheeling backward for balance. She kicks out, connects with his stomach, and down he goes on his back. She hasn’t thought far enough ahead, doesn’t have mace to blind him, and this is the part where she should just run away. Instead she stands over him, screaming in a voice she doesn’t recognize. “You want me to kick you, you dumb shit? You don’t touch people like that! You stay away from me!” She moves as if to kick. He flinches and puts his hands up to his face.
“I’m sorry, hey, I’m sorry,” he crawls backwards away from her, leaving wet lines in the snow. “My mistake.”
“Good,” she says, buzzing with anger. “You stop that now.” She walks away, furious and singing inside.
When she gets home, she unwraps the figurine from the newspaper. It remains in once piece, wasn’t broken in the struggle. She sets the milkmaid on her wobbly mantel.
It wasn’t for him after all. She wanted it for herself. That much seems clear to her now.
Aimee LaBrie teaches and works at Rider University. Her short story collection, Wonderful Girl, was awarded the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction and published by the University of North Texas Press in 2007. Her second collection of stories, A Good Thing, recently placed as a finalist in the BOA Short Fiction Contest. Her short stories have been published in Pleiades, Minnesota Review,Iron Horse Literary Review, Permafrost, and other literary journals. In 2012, she won first place in Zoetrope’s All-Story Fiction contest. You can read her blog at www.butcallmebetsy.blogspot.com.
That morning there was an email from Paul. Gemma clicked on it without thinking. Her coffee mug steamed at her elbow, too hot to drink. She forced her eyes to focus on the tiny electronic letters. Legal issues, he wrote. Looks like it’s back to jail, do not pass go. I’ll try to be out by summer break so we can meet again in the usual place. She had to read it twice, slowly. Then she slammed the laptop shut, as though extinguishing a flame.
Pouring her coffee into the travel thermos, she took care to rest the lips of the cups together. That way, even her shivering hands couldn’t spill—no messes, her kitchen spotless, not a beer can in sight, the garbage can empty and lined with a fresh plastic bag. A place where no roach dared to tread.
Don’t nobody know my troubles with God, she sang along with Moby on the radio. Traffic was light going into the city, but she tailgated the red Civic in front of her anyway. The maples and pines that shouldered together on both sides of the highway were close and dark, the ivy obscuring their trunks so they seemed like a dense wall of green. As Gemma’s Volvo rounded the final bend, and she saw the tunnel that opened to the city, the sky began to lighten in the west. A handful of leaves floated over the road for a moment, showing their yellow bellies.
“You won’t need those,” Allie told Gemma in the locker room. “She’s doped.”
Gemma hesitated, handcuffs halfway clipped to her belt. She had her taser, her pistol. Her mace, the can as slim and shiny as a tube of mascara. “Still dangerous,” she said. The wallet-sized photo of Paul, slipped under a magnet mirror on the inside of her locker. She’d cut it out of a bigger picture, and now she couldn’t remember who else had been there that night. The beginning of his legal issues, the night he’d set the first fire. Ninety months in jail, mitigated only by Gemma’s testimony, her eyewitness and sterling evidence that she’d been with him, that he’d been unwell. That the gasoline hadn’t been purchased at a truck stop outside of Portland, that he hadn’t painstakingly loaded the match heads into the tennis ball. None of it was true, she’d said to the jury. Paul had to serve six months, and then they let him go. The word of a police officer and a private-pay lawyer—the recipe for a reduced sentence. That was ten years ago, but Paul was still on paper. After all her efforts, he had proved himself unredeemable. Gemma fingered the handcuffs, felt the tiny pins in the chain.
“It might look better if we were unarmed, you know? Things are bad enough already,” Allie said.
“She’ll look less guilty.”
Allie shrugged, straightened her clip-on tie. “Everyone knew from the start.”
Gemma shook her head, fastened her handcuffs into their right place on her belt. “Now’s not the time.” She touched the hammer of her pistol, snapped the leather strap around the grip. She liked its weight, which reminded her of the way Paul’s hand used to rest on her hip, a little too heavy, a push in the wrong direction. Making dinner, she’d find herself in his bed, oblivious to the smell of scorching onions.
She caught Allie frowning, ignored it, headed towards the control desk. “Unless you’ve got clearance, you should probably arm up,” she called over her shoulder. And was gratified to hear Allie’s locker opening, the belt and gun and clinking keys sliding through the metal door.
The prisoner was not fat but had the pouchy, waterlogged face of someone who cried too much. A washed-up woman, Paul would have said, with his poet’s touch. Gemma tugged her earlobe, trying to rattle his voice out of her head. No distractions today. She nodded at the receptionist standing behind the control desk, who pressed a button by her knee to let Gemma through the security doors. The courthouse holding cells were brightly lit, fluorescent tubes giving light in pulses. The walls an industrial white, Walmart blue linoleum floors. They’d renovated upstairs, trying to make the lobby seem grand—Paul again—even judicious, but the place for prisoners was a different story. The single hallway, its row of unbreakable metal doors holding the guilty, the unsentenced, the frightened people in their orange prison suits. The accused.
Twenty-five years old, born and raised in Portland, a single white female living alone in a cheap suburb outside the city. Never had a boyfriend, and Gemma, who was not allowed to read the charts but had a quick eye and a terrible curiosity, saw that the girl’s hymen had been intact when the doctors examined her. She’d claimed a miscarriage, the baby only five weeks from being born. But the blood on the suspect’s clothes was not her own, nor did the dead infant’s DNA sample match hers. She’d been put in soft restraints, sedated. It was all in the chart. She’d screamed my baby help my baby over and over until the drugs took hold. The orderlies watched her through a security camera, and as Gemma unlocked the cell she imagined it, the woman on the bed, belly heaving, face streaked with scummy tears. The police had found the baby’s real mother—cold, stripped—hidden in a crawl space behind the suspect’s oven. Her abdomen was slashed open, uterus torn in two. The news played the story for weeks, showing every time the real mother’s picture, reiterating the details of the attack. How her nose had been broken and skull knotted by a metal baton, how the suspect had allegedly lured her into danger with the promise of baby clothes, a crib, a tiny bassinet. The real mother had been twenty-one, blond, gullible. Unmarried. And of course the baby had not survived without her.
Today was the sentencing, and the same news crews that had pumped up the grisly murder were already staking out their places in the courtroom and on the marble steps outside. They were asking the prosecutor for a statement, knowing he could be counted on to say certain things about protecting our most innocent. He’d stand behind the specially draped podium between the columns and declare a victory against evil. Nobody would contradict him—the suspect hadn’t bothered to plead insanity, wouldn’t consider it. I wanted my baby was her testimony, the only thing that made it past the courtroom doors. The clip of her sad, soft face, her voice pleading with the stony-faced jury. I just wanted my baby.
The same face greeted Gemma inside the cell. The woman sat on the edge of her cot (sheetless, metal, bolted to the wall and floor with 8-inch rivets). Her orange clothes bunched around her arms and waist, making her look like a doll whose stuffing had been taken out and then clumsily jammed back in. She was thinner than she had been at the beginning of the trial, but they’d let her wash her hair and the circles under her eyes, though dark, did not seem to age her. Gemma wondered if someone had given the woman makeup to cover her skin, or waterproof mascara for the hearing of the verdict. Though by now the woman must know what was going to happen to her, how everyone was crying for blood. It would be life in prison, possibly even transfer to one of the death penalty states for a retrial—the kind of place where no number of appeals could make a difference. The woman smoothed her ponytail, tucked a stray strand behind her ear. She looked at Gemma, her eyes mostly pupil.
“You’re here for me,” she said. The words were gulped back as though lodged in the woman’s throat. She didn’t cry, like some prisoners, or snarl. One man had thrown himself at Gemma, not anticipating her quickness with the mace and the butt of her pistol. He’d held his broken nose between his praying hands while receiving his sentence (rape and attempted strangulation of a twelve-year-old girl, ten years without parole). Gemma had watched him from her place by the exit door, secretly hoping he’d spring at her again.
She’d met Paul when she was twenty-two and halfway through her online degree in Criminal Justice. She only knew that she liked him, in spite of her passion for maintaining order. “You think you can change me?” Paul had asked her when she visited him in County after his first arrest (suspected drunk driving in a rural area, exceeding the speed limit, reckless endangerment).
She’d nodded, drummed her fingers on the greasy plastic table. “I see you,” she told him, and though he laughed, she wouldn’t let him make it into a joke. “I’ll change you because you can’t change yourself.”
“Between you and outpatient, I’m really fucked, aren’t I.” But he pressed her hand for a moment at the end of the visit, and his face was so beautiful and serious that she believed that she really did have the power to bring forth the goodness in him. The transformation, she thought, would come in time. In any case, he had eighteen months of group therapy, urine tests, and AA meetings to think about what she’d said.
“You’re young,” the woman croaked. She looked Gemma over, the dark blue uniform. The gun didn’t cause as much as a flicker on her drugged-out face. Space face, psych case, said Paul in Gemma’s head.
“Your verdict has been prepared,” Gemma recited. “Myself and one other female guard will escort you to the courtroom.” The woman clutched the edge of the cot, shook her head.
“Not today,” she said, but Gemma was ready for her and took a step closer, already unhooking the handcuffs.
“I don’t want them,” the woman said. “I want my lawyer.”
But Gemma had heard it before. “This is standard procedure,” she said. “Please rise and put your hands behind your back.”
She’d used them on Paul, as a game, clipped him to the enamel rail of her headboard. Neither of them was a stranger to handcuffs—Gemma having just finished her final security and firearms training, and Paul waiting for a summons from an Idaho court for charges of possession. Is this supposed to be exciting? he’d asked, but came in her mouth anyway. The chain links pitted the white paint on the enamel, like the marks that teeth make in a slice of frosted cake.
The accused (or suspect or prisoner or alleged murderer) shuffled her feet on the floor, an obstinate child. Gemma suspected that they’d given her morphine, maybe some heavy-duty benzos. Something to slow her judgment. It was safer for everyone this way.
“You’re no cop,” the woman slurred. She leaned forward as though to stand. A bead of saliva dropped between her feet, then a second one near the toe of Gemma’s boot. “Worthless. Not even a mother.”
“Are you refusing to cooperate?” Gemma asked. “I’ll count to three.”
“I want my lawyer,” the woman said, but Gemma, not wanting to risk being spat on, seized the woman’s wrist and pinned her face-down on the mattress, her knee in the middle of the woman’s back. It would only take a light tug to dislocate at least one shoulder, wrench loose the tendons around the shoulder blades. And, Gemma thought in the instant before she slid on the shining bracelets, would anyone complain? This woman had done the unspeakable—yet she got a fair trial. She got to stand in front of the jury with her hair neat and her dignity intact. Gemma tightened her fingers over the woman’s clammy fists. How easy it would be to snap the ulna, leave a surreptitious spattering of bruises on the prisoner’s back. You deserved it, Gemma could say. As though it was her choice to make, who was guilty or not.
“Your lawyer is in the courtroom,” Gemma said. She changed her grip, hauled the woman to her feet by her upper arm. That might leave a mark. The woman’s flesh was so soft, muscle-less, that it felt like bread dough that you could squeeze and squeeze between your two fists. “Everyone’s waiting on you.”
“But it’s not real, is it?” The woman asked. “Your badge, all of this.”
“It’s real, bitch,” Gemma whispered under her breath. The prisoner, goaded by Gemma’s fingers, lurched towards the door. At the end of the hallway, the double doors, and beyond that an elevator which—for security reasons—would only go one floor at a time, with Gemma’s key inserted in a special panel by the emergency button. She had a spotless record, Gemma did. Never assaulted by a prisoner, never unprepared. Never lost the upper hand. From the first moment in the cell, she commanded the accused. Her lead officer asked if she had experience with dogs, or training animals. Paul’s wolfish grin appeared in her mind, but she shook her head and said nothing. Nobody had to know about him, they’d decided that together. Except for the testimony in the arson case, there were no links between them. Even when he needed a train ticket, or a new pair of pants, she used cash and not her credit card. No traces, she told him, and in answer he brushed his fingers down her neck, leaving behind little trails of fire.
At the entry to the courtroom, Gemma put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and looked her over. They could both hear the photographers warming up their shutters, the awful hum of a room full of people paying attention. Gemma straightened the woman’s shirt and neatened her hair.
“You did a terrible thing,” she said. “Don’t know if you know that.”
The woman stared at Gemma’s badge, her nametag. “This isn’t right,” she said, and before Gemma could argue, added, “You shouldn’t be doing this—this line of work.”
The woman frowned. “You like the pain too much. One day, you’ll run out of people to hurt. There won’t be anyone left but you.”
And then Allie was there, taking the woman’s other elbow, and they went into the buzzing room together, the cameras absorbing their faces, magnifying the three women—two in blue, the angels of justice, and the shuddering creature between them, the guilty one, how could she have done such a thing? It was the end of a nightmare, the prosecution said, and Gemma closed her eyes and felt the woman shivering, her body fighting the weight of the sedative and the accusations and the longing, the terrible longing, for the one she wanted so badly—the baby, she loved him, she would hold him so close that the world could never, ever hurt him. And he would grow in her like a monster, a blackened seed stretching its roots into the darkest soil inside her.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her critically recognized short fiction has appeared in various respected journals and she has been honored by several small presses, including a nomination for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently at work on a novel.
Search SolutionFinders > Near Los Angeles > Products and Services > Misc. Services > God
Contact Information: Reachable via lamentation, group prayer, rhythmic chant, written appeal, liturgical recitation, meditative outreach, dance, selected hallucinogens and dark night of the soul.
Note: In some markets, DBA as Allah, Krishna, Christ, Nyame, Ein Sof, Shiva, Jehovah, Yahweh, Creator, Brahma, HaShem, Shakti, et al. For a complete list, visit our website: www.AllKnowing1.com
Business Description:As humankind’s premier incorporeal source for moral guidance and answers to your ontological questions, God has provided supplicants with top-quality service for millennia. Equally at home with small-scale projects or massive upheavals, God combines the omniscience you’ve come to expect with an awe-inspiring arbitrariness you’ve learned to appreciate. Loyal adherents enjoy the peace of mind that comes with access to a broad range of services and a set of ritual practices tailored to your family, cultural heritage, lifestyle, region, and aesthetic sensibilities. Crews of God’s highly trained professionals are prepared to answer your questions and assist you in accomplishing your desired result. So whether you’re a neophyte, reformer, scholar, mystic, traditionalist, weekend dabbler, zealot or curious skeptic, find out today why God is the industry leader in Divine Wisdom. God is Holy, Perfect, Just, Merciful, Indivisible, Genderless and Eternal. Accept no substitutes. Family owned and operated.
Service Area: Infinite
Services Include:Omnipotence, comfort for the bereaved, moral parameters, fear and trembling, inspiration, awe, humbling, threat of retribution, blessings, punishment, shaming, acts of nature, spiritual awakening, extensive selection of religious rituals, unknowability, community, purpose, holiness, heaven and hell (not all markets), purgatory (not all markets), reincarnation (not all markets).
Overall:B- Workmanship: B Responsiveness: C- Punctuality: D Professionalism: B+ Eternality: A- All Reviews: 4,017,639,218 Member Reviews: 3,148,025,701 Disputes: 1,002,593,647
Comments from Recent Users:
Would definitely recommend! Until last summer, I had zero experience with this service. We didn’t grow up with God in the house or anything. But last July a bunch of friends and I rented a cabin inside Bryce Canyon National Park, which was awesome except my girlfriend had dumped me the week before, so I was too bummed to enjoy any of it. Our third night, we sat around the fireplace and took some shrooms. Everyone decided to go on a night hike, but I was in a weird place, so I stayed behind and sat outside. The night sky was intense. Deep purple and thick with glittering stars. They were swirling around and pulsating and some people don’t believe me when I say this, but I could hear them humming, like a cosmic vibration. It did something to me. I called out, “God, if you’re legit, and you think I’ll be okay, let me know.” Everything was quiet except for the humming. I called out louder, “Let me know!” Then this bright shooting star goes streaking low across the sky, right in front of me. I felt this heavy weight lift off my chest. I started to laugh and couldn’t stop. The rest of my trip was amazing. I’m a huge fan! ~ Yuki H.
Read the fine print Mixed reviews from me. I was a regular user for years. I grew up in a hardcore Polish-Catholic family outside of Detroit. My mom and my aunts practically lived at our parish church. I went to Mass every Sunday, attended St. Stanislaus through 8th grade, and was in the local Youth Ministry for five years. Growing up, I felt like God and I had an understanding. I’d do my thing and he’d look out for my family and me. Then my youngest brother committed suicide because he was too scared to come out to our parents. He was a freshman in college, probably still a virgin, but he was sure it would destroy them and that he’d burn in hell for being gay. Nice work, God. I left the church and didn’t look back for 12 years. But I got married last year, and my wife has been trying to get me to reconsider. She insists I was using the service wrong, and she wants me to try what she calls “God 2.0,” essentially a user-friendly update that’s more popular on the West Coast than where I grew up. Plus, we just found out she’s pregnant, and it makes me think maybe she’s right about giving it another try for my kid’s sake. But I still feel like, buyer beware. My advice is, read the fine print. Know exactly which version you’re signing up for. ~ Matrixx78, Oakland
He is not the problem Where I come from, we don’t judge the Almighty like He is an electric blender. Maybe this is why America is going downhill. ~ Carole Mitchell, Greenville, SC
Save your $$ Unimpressed. Takes forever to respond. Promises more than He delivers. Service is unreliable and his staff tries to nickel and dime you to death. Might be fine for births and funerals, but otherwise, I’ll pass. When my soul feels battered, give me a chilled piña colada and a comfy beach chair over this guy any day. You want to feel renewed? Spend your hard-earned money on a resort vacation instead. You’ll thank me later. ~ Sandra, Lansing, MI
Not your parents’ G-d I am a Cisgender Reformed Rabbi at an alternative, egalitarian synagogue. I am very gratified to see G-d on this site, as it demonstrates that s/he does not have to be a distant forbidding figure, but in fact is accessible everywhere. To the more hostile commenters here, I suggest they explore newer options for healthy G-d interaction in their communities. In our suburban shul, for example, we celebrate G-d as an LGBT-friendly Creator and agent of social justice. Each week, we usher in the holy spark with Buddhist meditation, original guitar music composed by our congregants, and an organic, vegan Shabbat meal.
~ Rabbi Rob Lerner, Buffalo Grove, IL
Blasphemers It is too bad that there is no Internet connection in Hell, because when you’re all there, twisting and burning for eternity because of your filthy decadence and arrogance, you won’t be able to go online and review your experience of it. Maybe for faithless dogs like you, that will be the greatest punishment of all: no Wi-Fi. ~ M.H.
Welcome to the 21st century I like SolutionFinders because it’s an eclectic nuts-and-bolts site. I found a new dentist here and got a solid recommendation for a bike repair shop in my area. My roommate buys used circuit boards and other geek items he can’t find as cheaply elsewhere. But God? Seriously? It’s hard to believe this is happening in the same century as advanced cloning, the Genome Project, the Large Hadron Collider, and high-res Hubble photos of the Andromeda Galaxy, (where 100 million stars are embedded in an area that stretches across an area of 40,000 light years). This is the 21st century, people. Science is moving forward while you lunatics wage holy war and log on to this site to write consumer commentary about a magical sky-daddy dreamed up by ancient nomads. SMDH. ~ Richard Raithel, Pittsburgh PA
Blessed, blessed, blessed Hello! I don’t usually write comments, but God has been so good to my family that I must contribute here. I was born in Mexico, one of 14 children. We were very poor. There were so many hardships, I won’t begin to describe them, but life was nothing like it is here. My American children hear our stories, but really they have no idea. My parents and older siblings worked so hard it hurts to think about it sometimes. Although God took my mother and father while they were still in their 50s, he made sure neither suffered too long. Growing up, whenever we were hungry, God made sure we had some kind of work so we could put enough food on the table to keep going. Over and over, He has given me strength and answered my prayers. In 1974, two years after I received my green card, God sent me my husband, Octavio. In our wedding photo, he is so tall and handsome in his blue suit. We christened our firstborn, Tomasito, in the same church where we married. When he was four months old, my son died in his crib and all the light went out of my life. For ten months I couldn’t say God’s name without a bitter taste in my mouth. Then Octavio came home one evening with vegetable seeds and some clay pots he got from a friend. I planted and watered them and it was the only thing I did each day that felt good. Slowly, my heart opened. Now we have four wonderful grown children. All of them went to college and three are married. We have five grandchildren, including tiny Lucas, born six weeks ago. God took my husband last year, so he is with our baby now, but I still feel his spirit with me. Every Sunday my whole family comes to my house for dinner. My son-in-law built me una pérgola for my patio, and he wired it with a chandelier. Usually it’s warm enough for us to eat outside. I sit at the table under the glow of the lights and look at my family. I remember those nights as a girl, lying under a rough blanket with my sisters, trying not to dream about food. I think of everything God gave Octavio and me. If I live to be 100, how could I ever forget? ~ Marisela, Cathedral City, CA
God is dead Such unbearable foolishness. In Prague in 1941, my father and uncle were shot in the street during a Nazi police action. My mother, sister and I were deported to Theresienstadt, where my sister died of typhus. In 1943 my mother and I were sent to Auschwitz. They separated us when we got off the train and I never saw her again. I was 13 when the camp was liberated. I weighed 68 pounds. Other than a second cousin who lives in Israel, I am the only survivor in my family. My parents and sister, my grandparents, all my aunts, uncles and cousins were murdered. Our story is not unique. There are millions like it. I saw such unspeakable things there, things I won’t mention. After such a war, how obscene to talk about God. For better or worse, there is only us. Please do not offer here any claims about your “services.” It is an insult to the memory of all those who perished with your name on their lips. ~ Jacob Kleinfeld, White Plains, NY
So what now Four months ago I dropped out of high school and ran away from home because I couldn’t handle being there. Trust me, anyone would have left. Since then I haven’t stayed any place longer than three weeks. I work for a little while and move on. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m trying to stay hopeful. I’d like to get my G.E.D. I’d like to have my own computer instead of sitting in libraries or these weird Internet cafes with creepers and video gamers. I read these reviews and everyone here seems a lot older than me but no one agrees about anything. I don’t need you to tell me the world is shit. I’m trying to find someone who can tell me the opposite. ~ Kayla
Diane Arieff was born and raised in Wisconsin. She earned her MFA at Warren Wilson College. Her essays and fiction have appeared in The Milwaukee Journal, The Jewish Journal, the anthology, The World is a Narrow Bridge, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @DianeArieff
Three women are swimming in a pool. It is a large pool surrounded by trees. Sunlight filters through feathery pecan leaves; twigs and bugs from the night’s rain litter the pool. The women with their kickboards push through them, heedless. To one side, teenagers explode from the water, spiking a ball over a volleyball net with raucous shouts. On the other side, shrieking children toss balls and hit each other with sherbet-colored Styrofoam noodles. In the middle of the chaos are the lap lanes, where the women find refuge from their children, where they can talk in peace.
The youngest one, Amy, in her twenties, is recovering from a breakup. “Tell me there are good men; I don’t want to be bitter,” she says to the other two, one in her late thirties, the other in her late forties, both long married.
“Oh, sure there are,” says the middle woman, Rosa, “although my husband says most men are pigs.” The word comes out peegs. Rosa is Brazilian, and although she has lived in America for twenty years, her English still rises and falls with unexpected pitches. Kristin, the oldest, says nothing.
“Great, I’m fucked,” says Amy. They approach the wall, turn lazily, push off and kick, their feet leaving three small white trails of frothy bubbles.
From their view they can see everyone: the tanned, toned beauty flirting with the lifeguard, flipping her honey hair over a sleek shoulder; the tattooed young mother chasing her toddler; the pale, lumpy high-school girl hiding behind her sunglasses, pretending not to watch the volleyball game.
“Look,” says Rosa, “There’s Mark with his new bride.”
Mark and his new bride saunter past, seemingly unaware of the women in the water. He is tall, with curly brown hair beginning to recede, regular features, and deep blue eyes. Just a bit past it, thinks Kristin. His bride is thin, of indeterminable age, her bright red hair cut in a severe bob, a style not currently seen in the pool set. Despite her slightness, she stands out.
The swimmers come to the edge and turn in unison.
“I hope he’s nice to her,” Amy says when they are in the middle of the pool.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” Kristin asks.
The other two exchange glances.
Kristin, looking at the now receding back of the man, remembers something. “Hey, wasn’t he with Cecilia for a while?”
“And many others while he was with her,” Amy smirks. “I was a candidate at one time.” She wrinkles her cute nose.
Rosa says, in her peculiar, accented locution, “He’s a hunter!”
“Really!” They laugh at the strange but apt description.
Kristin now feels very much out of the loop. She used to know these things. “So, why wouldn’t he be nice to her?” she asks, looking at the bony back of the woman. There is something painfully obsequious in the way the woman curves towards Mark. Meanwhile, a boy of about ten, dark and feral-looking, tugs angrily on her hand.
“Mark has a little trouble with drinking,” Amy reports authoritatively. “I’ve seen him with more than a few scotches in him. Makes him mean.”
They get to the wall, turn, push off. A few white fluffy clouds float overhead. There is the smell of chlorine, and under that, mold.
“Where did he get her, anyway?” asks Rosa, squinting at the couple.
“I heard she’s Slavic or something,” Amy says. “Romanian, Hungarian, Czech, something like that.”
“I heard there were green card problems,” says Rosa, who has had green card problems of her own.
All three pairs of eyes contemplate the couple, who have now settled into some lounge chairs in the shade. Kristin can see that Mark, although he moves confidently, has the pallor and gut, the sloping shoulders, of someone soft from drink. Looking at the red-haired woman, now arguing with the boy, she tries to imagine her in her home country. Kristin’s impressions of Eastern Europe are grainy and bleak like the films she’s seen, the stories she’s read, but they are also compelling. Images come to her of Cold War skirmishes in old cities with narrow streets, of Orthodox Jews in dark coats scurrying to prayer, of sad-faced mosaic Madonnas glinting in Russian churches, of dancing Gypsy women in bright skirts. She thinks of it as a place of old rivalries and new ideologies, of betrayals and alliances, a place dense with a history she could never hope to understand. She wonders how this thin, hennaed woman will fare under the guileless American sky. She wonders what accident of history brought her here, and whether she will one day swim and gossip in the lap lanes.
But she doesn’t say any of this to her companions. “A mail-order bride?” she quips.
They laugh again, and their laughter is languorous, like their slow kicks. The breeze shifts and Kristin can smell the rich coconut scent of suntan lotion, the buttery popcorn the children love. The lifeguards are playing Led Zeppelin now—what is the title? Something about rain. She tries, but she can’t come up with it. For a moment she gives herself over to the music, to the sweet, carefree vigor of it. For a moment she is nineteen again.
“I know I have my issues,” Amy is saying, “but he’s really fucked up.”
Her whining is beginning to grate on Kristin’s nerves. “I don’t know anyone who isn’t,” she says. The drama of Amy and Tom is in its second summer.
Amy doesn’t respond, she’s in full throttle now, the distraction of Mark and his bride forgotten. “But it just seems untidy to expect me to be a friend, now, when he’s the one who has a problem with commitment. I have my issues, but he needs to take responsibility for his. He’s texting me five times a day. Give me some space, I told him. God, I hate having to be a hard-ass with the guy I. . . .” Her eyes shine with angry tears. “I hope his thumbs fall off!” Amy juts her chin out defiantly.
Kristin glances over to spot her son. At twelve and a good swimmer, she doesn’t need to worry about him, but it is force of habit. Just as she finds him in the knot of children, he and Rosa’s daughter erupt from the water, grabbing for a green tennis ball. The two children come together as if in a dance, the silvery water rippling around them in overlapping circles. They hang in mid-air, grinning, and then they separate. Kristin turns her head back to her friends.
Rosa is talking about a book she has read about men and women. “They really are different from us. Their brains are different. When a woman says, ‘I need to talk,’ they are like dogs who just hear, blah, blah, blah. What they think is, ‘I’ve done something wrong and you’re pissed.’”
“So what are we supposed to do?!” cries Amy, plaintively, giving a vehement kick. “I mean, we’ve got to be able to talk to them, right? Or do we just give up?” She looks at Kristin as if she might have an answer, her lovely face tan and flushed, her large brown eyes wide. They come to the wall, turn, push off, the water in front of the boards gathering like fine silk. Beseechingly, she asks Kristin, “You’ve been married for a long time. You guys are OK, right?”
Kristin hesitates, not knowing how to answer. Yesterday she would have said yes, but today she feels dispersed, watery, at sea.
“Marriage. Ees. Work,” Rosa says, arching an eyebrow at Kristin.
How many years have Kristin and Rosa taken turns airing their marital grievances? And yet she can’t remember now what she was angry about then.
Kristin is beginning to feel cold in the water, her muscles stiffening. The pace is too slow to keep her warm. Amy has not seemed to notice Kristin’s lack of response, and now she and Rosa are discussing how many more laps they have to do, and when they will have time to work out at the gym, what machines they use, how great it feels. The sun glints metallically off the water. Everywhere Kristin looks, there are healthy whole bodies in motion. She feels suddenly old.
Noticing Kristin’s silence now, Amy asks, “What about you, Kristin?” and Rosa adds, “How’s your pain today?”
“I’m OK. I think I’m going to do some freestyle when we get to the end of this lane,” she says, as glad now to be out of the conversation as she had been to be in it. She welcomes being underwater, her ears stopped.
She finds her rhythm, arm over arm, her head turning every other breath. As she turns her head out of the water, her eyes seek her son again, and find him in a throng of laughing, jumping, sun-burned children. She holds the vision of them in her mind’s eye even as she is back underwater. She kicks strongly, accelerating, enjoying the sensation of being propelled through the water, enjoying the stretch of her side ribs as she scoops the water, pushes it behind her, feeling for the moment only her strength, not her pain. The water rocks her, the spangles of underwater light soothe her, like the light cast by a lava lamp.
The lava lamp! She hasn’t thought of it in years! She sees it on her cousin’s shelf, can almost reach out and touch it. How it had fascinated her at twelve, the age her son is now. That summer. She had forgotten it, but here it is again—the lamp, as exotic as any Aladdin’s lamp, its purple globs throwing fantastic shadows on the wall, Abbey Road on the turntable, the acrid burnt smell that clung to her older cousin’s Indian cotton quilt, the trashy novels she filched from Tina’s room. She hadn’t understood exactly what was happening in those books full of ripped bodices and black leather and corsets, with words like musky and throbbing, but she had plowed through them, her heart beating as if she had a fever, saliva gathering in her mouth. Terrified of being found out, she’d gone to the far corner of the garden, sat for hours on a bed of pine needles, unaware of the tiny cones pressing into her thighs. The books had to do with the mysterious way adults acted, with the exciting secrets they kept. Funny to think now of how little she knew then, and how much children know now.
That summer! How could she have forgotten it? The summer she had cast off the slumber of childhood, and awakened to herself, mind and body. Learning to dive, she had been avid for the feeling of her body flying through air, stretching her arms wide as if to gather in the sky, then, at just the right point, her body contracted, folding and lengthening into a slender spear, splitting the water cleanly. She had prided herself on her perfect, splashless entry, and practiced it over and over until her aunt forbade her to do any more, making her come into the house to change into dry clothes. How reluctantly she’d left the pool, looking back at it as she made her slow progress to the house.
She had been awkward in her twelve-year-old body on land, but in air and water, never. How she had dived and swum and slept then, as if there was no trick to it at all, her unquestioned birthright. Now she never dives and barely sleeps. Can it be that she is on the other side of all that now? It seems to have gone so fast, the past years, the best years. She feels as unsure now of what lies ahead as she did then.
She turns and strikes out again. This, at least, has not changed. The swimming eases something in her chest, a wordless weight, and she wants to go on and on, but she knows she had better stop or she will be stiff and sore the next day. She slows, enjoying the last few strokes. She hears her friends’ voices, their words indecipherable under the water, and then she sees her husband’s face again, briefly, just before he turned away from her last night in bed. What happened? Her stomach flips, even though she is stationary now, hanging on to the ladder, catching her breath before hoisting herself out.
Instead of her usual easy embrace, she’d bit his tongue teasingly, stroking his buttocks with her fingernails, then rolled away from him, wanting him to meet her challenge, to take her, to play. She’d felt a powerful urge for something darker, more exotic than their usual fare. Each time he reached for her, she pushed him away, wanting more than anything for him to pin her on the bed, immobilize her.
But instead, he’d gotten a confused, hurt look in his eyes. Had he taken her attempts at playfulness, her minor challenge of him, her deviating from their well-worn routine, as some kind of betrayal?
Was that it? Or had he picked up on an aggression she could barely own? She had lain there feeling suddenly impatient, wanting some unnameable change between them, and now it seems to her cruel and unloving to have wanted it. He is aging too. But she resents him misunderstanding her, even as she loathes herself for causing him pain.
They have always had this between them, their bodies able to communicate when nothing else could. If this fails them, what will they have?
The sun seems suddenly too strong, too glaring. She climbs out, shaking her head like a dog to clear her ears. It’s just weather, she tells herself, it will pass. But she sees again his turned back, his arms over his head, and it rips her right down the middle, knowing his capacity to turn inward, this cruelty of his he sees as self-protection.
Her land gait unsteady, hand shielding herself against the sun, she picks her way towards her child, passing by Mark and his mail-order bride. She notices how the woman, on closer inspection, has a pinched wary look around her eyes, how she keeps touching the man’s knees possessively, talking to him with little dips of her head, and how Mark sits, relaxed, letting her attend to him, legs spread in a contented, lord-of-the manor fashion, his doughy skin already sunburned, his eyes focused straight ahead. Ah well, she thinks, good luck to you both. And she means it.
Sara Baker has published fiction in Confrontation, H.O.W. Journal, The China Grove Journal, The Examined Life, The New Quarterly, and other venues. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in TheApalachee Review, the 2011 Anthology of the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, The Healing Muse, Ars Medica, and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems. She has an M.A. in English from Boston College. After fifteen years of teaching at the university level, she developed a writing workshop for cancer patients and found her true calling. Currently she is developing a program for the Athens-Clarke county jail. You can read her thoughts about writing and healing at Word Medicine, www.saratbaker.wordpress.com.
That morning, Jane Philban looked out the kitchen window and tsked at the thunderheads perched above the trees. Her son bounced on the balls of his feet behind her, telling her it didn’t matter because the field trip was to the bowling alley and the bowling alley had a roof.
Mrs. Pederson’s son pleaded from his bed to be allowed to go even though he had a temperature of 101. I don’t feel sick, he said, slapping at his high forehead and kicking his feet like he was pedaling a bike. I feel fine, and you know I really like the smell of bowling shoes.
Anthony Skiles dressed himself, picking out a t-shirt and the new jeans he’d gotten for his birthday because the field trip meant no one had to put on the blazers or the purple-and-green striped ties they wore every other day. He was glad for the field trip because his dress shirt was wrinkled and the teachers would frown at him. Anthony waited for the bus while his mother cried in her bedroom because her husband had told her the night before that he wanted a divorce. No one had told Anthony this, but he’d heard a lot of yelling, the slamming of a door, and his mother’s sobs. He’d reheated his own dinner.
The story was all over the news that night: the bus skidding across a wet slick on the highway overpass and careening through the cement guardrail down into traffic below. No one on board survived, except the driver, who was in a coma for three weeks. She made a full recovery except for some nerve damage in her left leg. Her doctor told her to get a cane, but she refused, and spent the rest of her life dragging one side of her body behind her, pulling the reminder of what had happened with her everywhere she went like a sandbag.
The first funeral was a week after the crash, Catholic and with a closed casket. All of the school administrators came, wearing somber black suits. The principal wore a swishing, heavy black dress that drooped over the pew. She sat near the back and had to excuse herself when she started to hyperventilate. The night before, she’d written in her journal that she was terrified of funerals, that they made her feel like an empty vase.
It was during the funeral mass that the pounding noise started. Through their tears, the parents of the dead boy looked around, startled. The father wasn’t crying but the mother was, her mascara running tracks down her cheeks. When it became clear that the pounding was coming from the casket, she screamed and fainted like something from an old movie. He caught her and trembled, staring toward the box that held their son. The priest stopped and whispered to one of the altar servers, who shook her head.
The priest opened the casket, which creaked like a falling tree. Everyone started screaming when the boy sat up, even men who would swear on their lives that they’d never once ever made such a noise.
The dead boys were alive again. After the initial shock, and when, three funerals later, people realized that this was happening to all of the boys, mothers waiting for their children’s re-awakenings pulled their sons to their chests when they sat up in their caskets. Fathers pinched the bridges of their noses and tried to breathe deeply. Siblings cried or swayed, hands in pockets, unsure of what to do. Those who were older stared at their shoes and grabbed at their shirt collars or skirt hems.
Not all of the boys came back, and neither did the three parental chaperons or the math teacher who had been aboard the bus. Armin Stabler and his twin brother Adam were the last boys scheduled for burial, a dual funeral, and their mother hiccoughed and fanned herself when one son—Adam—stretched out his arms like he was just waking for school when his eyes blinked open. She and her husband waited for Armin to stir as well, but he never did. His lips remained pursed, eyes closed. Because everyone expected them to both be reborn, hardly anyone came to the service. The church was small, anyway, and the air conditioning was out. The twins’ father’s shirt stuck to his back. There weren’t enough men to carry Armin’s coffin out, so his brother joined the pallbearers, trying to heft his brother’s weight with his newly-resurrected arms. The casket swayed and dipped toward the ground.
The boys seemed themselves, had all of their memories. Anthony Skiles remembered that his father had walked out and was surprised to find him at the funeral and then insisting he come home and work things out with Anthony’s mother. We should try to make it work, he said, squeezing his wife’s bony shoulder. She nodded through tears.
As far as anyone could tell, it was as if nothing had happened to the boys. They were human beings, certainly, nothing like mindless zombies on television or in the movies. Doctors poked and prodded at them. They listened to the boys’ heartbeats with their stethoscopes, and the boys winced at the cold metal on their skin. None of them had any scars; their injuries were healed. The few that had been young organ donors were whole again, their hearts and lungs regrown in their chest cavities. They all said they felt fine. Their temperatures were normal.
But something was wrong with their eyes.
Yes, they all said when asked if they could see, confusion in their voices. They had no problems following their physicians’ pen lights, and they squinted and squirmed when the brightness was drawn in close. But their eyes looked wrong.
They’re like mirrors, one mother said, finally, bending in close to her son, who wiggled uncomfortably on the doctor’s pleather seat, the sanitary paper crinkling under him. Her nose reflected back in her boy’s eyes, which were a shimmering silver color. She waved her hands back and forth and the glimmer of her skin flashed across his face.
Are they cataracts, she offered.
No, the doctor said. Not milky enough.
She leaned in close to her son’s right eye. Hmm, she said.
Please don’t do that, her son said. Can we go home yet? I’m getting cold.
When asked to look at themselves in the bathroom mirror, none of the boys saw anything out of the ordinary. Mrs. Pederson bit her lip and looked at her husband, who shrugged. What, their son said. What’s wrong? He blinked and his eyes caught the overhead light, twinkling.
None of the boys had any memory of the crash itself. Just the skidding and screaming and the large rumping noise of the bus smashing through the cement barrier, which had crumbled like a soft cookie. Then waking up in itchy black suits and stuffed into boxes. They talked about their experience in interviews for the major news networks. Diane Sawyer, Al Roker, Katie Couric, even, spoke with the boys and their families, their talks sprinkled over the following weeks, the boys with their mirror eyes sitting at an angle to the camera so that you could see the gaping black lens sometimes. In voice-over, with images wafting across the screen—the bus crunched up like an accordion, EMTs running around with windblown hair—Brian Williams or George Stephanopoulos said that doctors had no explanation for the boys’ eyes, much less why they were alive.
Life returned to something like normal. Parents tucked their boys into bed with extra care. They drove with the radio turned off and their hands tight against the steering wheel. When it rained, parents bit their lips and some kept their boys home from school. Jane Philban shook her head and told her husband as he stepped out of the shower that she’d told him so. She could say that now, now that their son was alive and not dead: she’d told him so. She’d stared out the window and known those rain clouds were trouble.
Mr. Philban and the other husbands had sex with their wives in celebration and relief. This seemed to them the most normal course of action, because what else was there to do? Their bodies and brains were flummoxed from being overwhelmed by inconsolability and then elation. They found themselves waking up in the middle of the night unsure if their sons’ resurrections had been a dream, and they often tiptoed down the hallway, scuffling across the shag carpet, to press open bedroom doors and peer in, assuring themselves that the lumpiness under the covers was an actual living boy and not a trick of the shadows and moonlight.
I hold my breath every morning when I wake him up, one mother said to another. I’m worried he’s going to disappear again.
I honestly can’t look at them, their English teacher said while having a drink at a bar that smelled like grease and cheese and had dim light to hide the sticky stains on the tile floor. She was talking to some guy she barely knew. She took a drag on a cigarette. They all pay perfectly good attention, which is unnerving in ten-year-old boys. And I don’t think they blink anymore. Just stare stare stare.
For an entire year, nothing happened to the boys. Not one of them was seriously hurt or sick, as if they were invincible. Their parents accepted their sons’ eyes, a spot of compromise, many of them thought. An acceptable mutation for the sake of their being alive. Sure, they were all quieter, more subdued. Most of the ones who had played soccer or basketball shrugged when sign-ups rolled around, saying they would rather read, or sit on the couch, or sleep. Those who had loved video games found themselves staring up from their beds, where they retreated to after dinner, counting the gritty lumps in the popcorn ceilings. When one parent worried aloud, saying something was different, wrong almost, another would clamp down on the worrier’s hand with a squeeze, saying it was true. Things aren’t the same, but how could they be? At least we have them. At least there’s that.
Right, the other would say, voice drifting like condensation.
School was cancelled on the anniversary of the accident, but there was a memorial for the math teacher and the other adults, along with Armin Stabler, whose mother had been all but forgotten. Her husband had left, unable to deal with the withering gloom that descended over the house. Adam Stabler spent most of his time in the lower bunk bed in his room, the place where his brother had slept. He rolled toward the wall, greeting his mother with a curved-in shoulder when she tried to say goodnight to him. They ate meals in silence, his mirrored eyes glued to his under-cooked mashed potatoes.
The memorial was held on the school soccer field. Everyone sat in long rows of white wooden folding chairs that gave people splinters if they weren’t careful. The boys sat with their parents, rather than in the front as originally planned, at the quiet request of the mayor, who was the guest speaker. He’d been struck by an eerie shudder any time he imagined twenty-four boys with faces like mirrors staring up at him in the sunshine, their noses and mouths obscured by the shining light blistering from their faces. He spoke of gratitude and loss and consolation and not taking things for granted. Everyone sitting near the husband of the dead math teacher reached out and squeezed various body parts, and eventually he started squirming and he cried out for everyone to stop touching him and he stood and marched off the field while everyone stared. People turned back around a few minutes later and waited for the mayor to finish speaking. They processed one by one to the front and laid roses on a table in front of blown-up photographs of the dead.
That night, parents were shocked when they tucked their boys into bed. A round robin of phone calls revealed that yes, Jane Philban’s son, and Anita Pederson’s son, and Betty Skiles’ Anthony all had a strange silver sheen to their skin, like someone had covered their faces in metallic paint.
He looks like the Tin Man, Mrs. Philban whispered to herself. She tried wiping at her son’s cheek, but he grunted and slapped her hand away and turned toward the wall.
What do we do, she said.
Take him to the doctor, I guess, her husband said.
A few parents took their sons to the emergency room that night, only to have harried doctors tell them that this was something new, something never-before-seen, and that there wasn’t a prescribed treatment for this. Temperatures were normal, double- and triple-checked. Blood pressures stable, heartbeats strong, steady thumps in chests. The boys reported a slight itchiness in their faces, and, in an attempt to assuage unnerved parents, the doctors suggested Benadryl and a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, parents were greeted with sons whose faces had changed. Although the shape was the same, their cheekbones, lips, everything had taken on the hue of a mirror, glassy and sleek. The contours of the boys’ faces made their parents’ reflections stretch and bloat like they were staring into a funhouse mirror. Terrified, the parents called one another.
I don’t know what to do.
No one will tell me what’s going on.
Are you sending him to school?
How can I?
One mother lamented to her therapist: I just want to see him, but all I can see is myself.
It was the start of some unstoppable devolution. The next day, the mirror coldness had strayed down to the boys’ chests and into their hair; a week later, they were walking mirrors, shimmering back everything around them. Parents could barely look at them, the images were so confusing. The boys continued to say they felt nothing amiss in their bones. Their hands still felt like hands. When they rolled their tongues over their lips they felt the smooth roundness of flesh, the familiar ridges of their mouths. They could move and walk and talk as always. In their eyes, they looked absolutely normal. All of them did complain of an even stronger urge to sleep, an exhaustion that was starting to heave down on their shoulders like heavy hands. Most of them stopped going to school and only sat up in bed for some soup or cereal.
It’s getting unbearable, Jane Philban lamented to her husband one night while they were wrapped in each other’s arms.
I just wish there was something we could do, said Mrs. Pederson.
Anthony Skiles’ mother and father started fighting again, the stress of what was happening to their son opening up cracks they had tried to cleave together upon his waking from the dead. They managed to whisper at first, keeping their hissing disagreement from their son’s reflective ears, but volume started to edge its way into their voices without them noticing.
When their skin from head to foot had taken on the sheen of a mirror, the boys were sleeping almost all day. One couldn’t tell if their eyes were open or closed anymore; even their eyelashes were tiny, flicking mirrors. The Philbans stood watch over their son, taking vacation and sick days in order to be near him. His breathing was heavy and creaky, and it fogged his mirror-lips with each exhalation. They watched him toss and turn, groaning that there was a heavy weight on his chest.
Doctors still couldn’t account for what was happening. Aside from the scraping clink of metal on metal, stethoscopes revealed nothing but a normal heartbeat, if a little slower than before. Blood pressure was still normal—and, to many doctors’ surprise, still detectable through cold metallic arms—and temperatures stable. X-rays revealed regular skeletons underneath that glassy, reflective exterior.
After a week of this shining transformation, parents woke to an unsettled calm. The nervousness that had manifested itself as a sourness in their mouths and a stiffness in their arms was gone. The Philbans and Pedersons rushed to their sons’ rooms; Mr. and Mrs. Skiles—he from the living room, she from their California king bed—met in the hallway and felt their looming distaste for one another vanish like rising mist. Husbands and wives went together to their sons, letting bedroom doors creak open like vault entrances, heavy and safe. Though their sons’ beds were tousled, blankets and sheets twisted with the unsettled sleep they knew had befallen their children, something was smooth and kind about the comforters’ slopes.
They peeled back the blankets and found mirrors lying there. Nothing boy-shaped, but flat, body-length mirrors with plain wooden borders stained the color of their sons’ hair. The parents looked these mirrors up and down, peeling the covers all the way back, tucking them down past the end of the bed.
None of them cried out or bawled. Mrs. Stabler let a few tears dribble down her face, and they plunked against the cold metal that had once been her son. No one suspected some kind of trick. Jane Philban squeezed her husband’s hand and let out a small sigh, a release of air that had been bottled up for the past year.
Together, parents lifted the mirrors from the beds. The wood was smooth in their hands, warm. They squeezed the frames hard, feeling their own pulse in their clenched fists. Each couple chose a spot: above the fireplace, in the dining room, on the bedroom wall—somewhere to hang their mirror, a place they would pass by regularly, somewhere to stop, chew on a cheek, and, looking themselves over, adjusting a collar or tie, smoothing a shirt, remember.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Hawai’i Review, Folio, and numerous others, and he is the author of two chapbooks of fiction: Ivory Children and Rolling Girl, Shepherd Hill. He has been a finalist for the Andrew Cappon Prize for Fiction and the River Styx Microfiction Award. He teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.
It’s a late summer afternoon in 1945. On the side of Tongue Mountain in the Adirondacks, a male deer is leading two females along a switchback. They’re on their way to a special meadow to enjoy its late summer bounty in peace, undisturbed by occasional hikers passing along the trail.
They’re halfway across the last switchback when the sharp crack of a rifle splits the air. The buck stops abruptly and stands rigidly in the soft light. The does freeze as well. For some moments, only his ears and nostrils move. Then he shakes himself, sending a ripple under his coat from his neck to his haunches. He snorts, and turns from the trail onto a narrow rocky track that is largely hidden by bushes. The inner side of the path clings to the mountain, but the outer edge drops off sharply to a valley below. With no hesitation, the buck and his companions clatter out along the ridge. As they round a bend, the buck again stops. Standing still, he surveys the shimmering vista of the lake laid out below him. The females behind him fidget slightly, awaiting his direction. Some twenty seconds later, he snorts once more, gives another rippling shiver, and starts up again. The three deer round the bend and soon will be gone.
As the second doe makes the turn, one of her back hooves dislodges a small rock, spinning it over the edge of the trail and sending it caroming down the hill. The falling rock flickers when it exposes a polished side to the fading summer light. Silently, it drops until it glances off the side of a large boulder embedded in the hillside. With a click, the encounter sends the rock spinning sharply off course. It bounces twice, once left, once right, into a patch of mossy stones. Then, continuing its journey, it strikes the edge of a large tree root, seems to poise for a moment, and finally nestles into a depression among some mottled leaves.
Below the deer, between the mountain and the lake, lies the Knob, a loose cluster of cottages and a few permanent homes on an abutment into Lake George. During harsh winters, only a few hardy souls live in the Knob. In summer, however, the cottages are filled with families drawn by the swimming, boating, hiking, and the sheer beauty of the lake. During the war years, it’s mostly mothers who bring their children. They want a few days’ break from work and escape from some of their loneliness and fear for their husbands overseas.
The Ice House is the gravitational center of the Knob. Flanked by a number of boat slips and a gas station, it stands on a packed dirt road that follows the edge of the lake. It’s festooned with hand-painted signs. The largest proclaims “Beer, Pop, and Pinball.” Another promises “Honest Weights and Square Trade.”
During the deep winter, workers with pickaxes and large ripsaws gather blocks of snowy ice from the lake and pack them in a windowless cellar in back. Covered with burlap and sawdust, the lode lies for months in the dark room, waiting for delivery to neighboring houses and cottages. From the road, a forking concrete walk runs some forty feet to the Ice House, one arm curving around the side of the building to the storage, and the other leading to its front door.
In summer, visitors and residents usually find their way to the Ice House at least once a day. Some come for ice, of course, but more for bait, ammunition, beer, cigarettes, and newspapers. Two chalkboards list prices for trout, bass, and perch; and the other, prices for vegetables. At dawn, deer can often be seen at the back of the Ice House drinking from the lake before retreating to their refuge on the mountain.
These days, there is almost continuous conversation about the war. Exchanges that in the previous couple of years had been laden with gloom are now lightened by news of Allied advances in Europe and the Pacific. Still, some women whose husbands have not yet returned avoid even chatting about the conflict.
In the early forties, with so many fathers at war, stays in the cottages are often short, because many of the women work at least part-time. But, because the Knob is less than ten miles from town, a mother might bring her children several times over the course of warmer months. Sometimes, several women might join to bring a gaggle of energetic kids for a visit. They relax, and their children rejoice in exploration and modest adventure.
Several older residents of the Knob can be usually found seated along the long counter that serves as an informal bar. Throughout long summer days, the owner sells six-ounce bottles of Cream Soda, Lithiated Lemon, and Coke, chilled in a tub of icy water. Late in the afternoon, he adds bottles of Dobler beer to the mix.
For the kids, the lure of the Ice House is great, although the sawdust on the walks and floor grinds their bare feet. Outside, they can sometimes cool off on a burlap-covered block of ice set for delivery. Inside, they get to “Shoot the Jap” at the pinball machine, which sits against a back wall at the far end of the counter. With its dull blond finish and multi-colored jungle backsplash, it quickly draws the attention of anyone coming through the front door. Whenever kids are there, the game is sure to be in play. One after another, following the command emblazoned on the glass facade, they fire away.
At the back of the machine is a glass-fronted box encasing a painted jungle scene, perhaps copied roughly from a Rousseau painting. Instead of a tiger in the grass, however, this painting shows a man crouching in the grass with a machine gun on a tripod. Back and forth in front of this picture, the Jap in question struts from one side of the box to the other. He jerks his arm spasmodically, as though he’d been trained by Nazis. Under a black mustache, his teeth protrude, making him look even more like a Nazi gerbil. But to resolve any questions regarding his true nature and allegiance, he carries a sword in one hand and a Japanese flag in the other. The object of the game is to kill him.
Although his chances of escape are slim, the Jap won’t die easily. He’s been killed many, many times before. It’s not the gun mounted on far end of the box. That’s solely decorative. It’s a shiny ball rolling down a slope through a maze of holes and bumpers that holds his fate. Thumps on the sides of the box urge the ball toward a special hole—the Hole to Hell. Sometimes the ball seems to have a mind of its own. It bounces erratically from side to side, from bumper to bumper, as it rolls down the slope. It may pass by that dark hole. Then the Jap will escape death. More often, the ball falls in. Then a bell clangs, and he dies again, slumped midway along his run. Those who have killed him cheer.
Adults often try their hand, some several times a day. Occasionally, one who successfully shoots the Jap mutters, “Gotcha, you yellow bastard!” or “Take that, asshole!” When the kids play, their language is more restrained, but their shouting leaves no doubt regarding their exhilaration in killing him.
During the bitterly cold days of February 1945, only regulars can be found at the Ice House. Some still buy bait for ice fishing. Others just gather for coffee and gossip—and to once again kill that lone enemy soldier. With no children around, they can give full voice to their contempt for that yellowed, buck-toothed figure. Curses unsuitable for the ears of kids often fill the air.
While the war in Europe seems resolved, the push across the Pacific continues. So an undercurrent of worry persists. Several local boys have returned, some wounded. A few have passed through hell unscathed. Throughout February and into March, attention focuses on Iwo Jima, where the Allies confront bitter resistance from the fanatical entrenched enemy. Newspapers recount the assault as, seemingly foot-by-foot, the two forces contest the mountainous terrain. Finally, the photograph of the flag raising on Suribachi at the end of the month bolsters spirits.
In the Knob, however, joy is tempered by the knowledge that one of their own is fighting with the Marines at Iwo Jima, where casualties are reported to be frightfully heavy. And that joy is extinguished altogether two weeks later when a dreadful message arrives. Rob Wilson has been killed in action.
For many years, Rob’s parents, Marge and Tom, have run the gas station next to the Ice House. Until he was called to war, Rob worked at both places whenever he had time off from school. In winter, he cut blocks of ice, and in summer delivered them to houses and cottages around the Knob. Everyone knew him. Everyone cared for him. Now everyone mourns him.
In late June, women and children begin to return to the cottages at the Knob. Happily, some of their husbands have returned to join them, eager to put behind the horrors and loneliness of recent years. The Ice House becomes a stage on which a wonderful return to the ordinary plays out.
But there are no parts in the play for Rob’s parents. They busy themselves with the gas station, and they often drop in for coffee or beer at the Ice House. They seem like actors reading for parts they know they will never win. Those who have known them for years attend carefully to their own performances, hoping that in time, grief will loosen its hold on Tom and Marge.
The kids, however, are immersed in the freedom and adventure of summer. Subtle aspects of adult behavior pass over them like a light breeze, which only occasionally diverts them from their activities. “Shoot the Jap” still appeals to them, particularly to those kids visiting the Knob for the first time. Even after the climactic bombs bring Japan down, the pinball machine attracts many of them. But by implicit agreement, it is not put in play when Tom and Marge are around.
One August day, Rob’s parents are sitting at the counter in the Ice House, drinking coffee with several friends, when some kids burst in excitedly to announce that a visitor is looking for them. The swinging doors open to reveal a young, uniformed Marine. Stepping inside, he immediately sees the pinball machine and “Shoot the Jap!” He stands still for a few moments, staring at the Jap, who slumps unmoving at the midpoint of his track.
A tug at his sleeve startles him, and one of the kids directs the Marine to Tom and Marge. He removes his hat and, with a noticeable limp, slowly crosses the sawdust-covered floor. Standing stiffly before the couple, he introduces himself as one of Rob’s buddies. They welcome him warily, and he takes a seat.
He says he had been through a lot with Rob, including the long struggle on Iwo Jima. Patting his leg, he recounts how he’d been wounded on what proved to be the last day of the battle. Rob had gotten through it all with only a few scrapes and bruises. The day after Suribachi had been taken, a bunch of the guys had been lying around on the slope, exhausted by their efforts of the previous days. Rob announced he had to “clean up.” He’d poured some water from his canteen into his helmet and was fumbling in his pack for an old razor they shared. A Jap suddenly burst out of a brush-covered hole on the hillside, screaming and firing. “Our guys shot him,” the Marine says softly, “but not before that Jap killed Rob. Shot him in the head.”
Their visitor chokes. He can’t say more. Marge and Tom sit in stunned silence. It is as if, impossibly, their son has just died a second time.
One afternoon, near the end of the summer, the kids are leaving the Ice House after a day of swimming, tag, sodas, and shooting the Jap. One of them spots something glinting in the grass by the edge of the walk. It’s a rifle shell. Spent shells are artifacts of deer hunting the kids have seen many times before. They often collect the empty casings to use as money in their card games. But this shell is different; it hasn’t been fired. Its head still protrudes from the case. It’s no artifact. It is, they quickly realize, a real bullet. Having shown it quickly once around, the boy puts it in his pocket out of grown-up sight.
After supper that night, the kids gather to ponder the fate of the bullet. Early opinions incline toward giving the bullet to an adult. It is, they know, a dangerous thing. But when one of the girls suggests “launching it like a rocket,” new prospects open. But how to launch it without a gun? After inventing and discarding a few complex methods, they decide they could throw it hard, butt-first onto cement. That might work. That becomes the plan.
Tomorrow will be their last day at the Knob, with school in the offing. While their parents are packing, the kids assemble at the Ice House at dusk. They bring the bullet. The concrete path that runs between the Ice House and the gas station extends into small parking lot at the back of the two buildings. There, with an old broom, they sweep sawdust away to clear a small circle on the cement. Spacing themselves on its circumference, they wait. When he is sure no adults are in sight, the caretaker produces the bullet. Holding it aloft, he steps into the circle, chants what he takes to be a magic charm, and hurls the bullet straight down. The other kids wince and turn away. But the bullet just bounces several times and rolls toward one of them. He, in turn, throws it onto the cement with the same result. Laughter and excitement rise. New magic charms are proposed. Others want to try their hands.
Tom Wilson is in the back of the gas station straightening up, a job Marge would ordinarily handle. But she isn’t up to much these days. Neither is he, but at least he can shuffle along with the routine. He hears the noises of the kids and, through curtains on the back door, sees the quick rising and falling of their hands. Curious, he opens the door and steps out.
The unmistakable crack of a rifle shot rips the late afternoon stillness. It has to be close by, thinks Tom, looking around frantically. But he sees no gun. The pitch of the children’s screaming rises sharply. They twist about in agitation—or in agony?
Seeing nobody but the kids in their writhing circle, Tom stumbles forward and clutches the closest, who squirms trying to pull away. No blood. He lets the boy go and grabs a girl who is jumping around nearby. Again apparently no harm. And the others are too active to have been shot. But as Tom lunges about among the kids, he pieces together the story of the bullet launch. He begins to moan, first softly, then more and more loudly. His harsh, raspy gasping brings the kids to a halt in a ragged, larger circle around him. He tries to speak, but can’t still his sobbing. He falls to his knees. Finally, he is able to croak “crazy kids” and “stupid,” but then sobs again overcome him.
The kids stare at him, transfixed by such strange adult behavior. Finally, one of the kids breaks the spell and retreats furtively over the sawdust and down the walk. The others join an accelerating flight toward their cottages. But before they round the corner of the Ice House, they look back one more time. The remarkable sight of Tom, now crouched on the cement, will embellish the story of the bullet launch for many days to come.
For a long time after their nervous laughter and the slapping of their bare feet have faded, Tom sits shuddering in the circle of sawdust.
A short time later, the deer have settled in their meadow high up on the mountain. From there, the view validates the locals’ claim that theirs is one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. Certainly a match for Lake Geneva, although they know that lake only from some old picture postcards. Indifferent to the panorama, the deer browse contentedly as the sun begins to set.
Tony Gorry holds a chair in management and is also a professor of computer science at Rice University. Over a long career, he published many academic articles. Lately, he has turned to writing essays, memoirs, and short stories. These works have appeared in The Fiddleback, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Chronicle Review, The Examined Life, The New Atlantis, and War, Literature and the Arts.
The thing to remember was that nothing had really changed. That was what her father was telling her. Yes, he and Mum were no longer together but that was only a small detail in the grand scheme of things. More important was that he loved her, Mum loved her, and Imee loved her, too.
Stella nodded but her gaze drifted out the window, to where the sunlight draped over the Angsana trees. It was hard to concentrate on what he was saying with the many cries flying up from the condo swimming pool now that it was an after-school peak hour. Hard because she was looking forward to seeing her friends, maybe even going out to Ion Mall like they used to on Friday afternoons when she still lived here, in Singapore. Hard because her father had been staring at her ever since she got off the plane, making her feel that despite what he said, nothing would ever be the same again.
“Stella, are you listening?”
Stella wrapped her arms around the new Babolat racquet he’d just given her. A tennis prodigy, that’s what her parents and coaches had called her from the minute she first picked up a racquet. She had played every day since, but after the divorce and the move back to London with her mother, she had lost her touch. Everything that had once been easy became a struggle. She couldn’t hit her favored drop shot, because it needed finesse, soft hands, while hers felt about as sensitive as meat cleavers. And when, during a match against a girl she should have beaten with her eyes closed, Stella watched as ball after ball dived to the bottom of the net or else sailed over the baseline, the emotions that had been simmering away boiled over. She smashed her racquet on the court, screaming over and over, “I’m done with this stupid game. I’m done.” She’d had enough of all the rules, the hours of practice, the fitness training. It was the scaffold around which the rest of her life had been built and she wanted to tear it down. Her mother had been patient at first, but when after a month, and then another Stella refused to play, she panicked. “I don’t know what else to do,” Stella overheard her saying on the phone. “She’s your bloody daughter too.”
So here she was six months later, back with her father in Singapore, because if anyone could get through to her he could. On the plane, a latch slid into place in her mind. She’d never wanted to leave the warm cocoon of her life in the tropics—fresh watermelon juice every morning, black pepper crabs at Long Beach, hiking past monkeys at MacRitchie Reservoir, or just hanging out by the condo pool with Imee. The only reason they moved was so Stella could take her tennis to the next level, but London was cold, miserable, and lonely. Giving it up had been a fair trade.
“Stella, do you understand what I’m saying?” her father asked.
“Yes,” she said, and her voice sounded strange to her, as if it were someone else speaking.
“Because you’re a big girl now and this is important,” he said and waited for her to nod again. “I really want this to work out. For all of us.”
Later, after an afternoon spent poolside with Valerie, Akiko, and Saya, amid a flurry of phone calls and text messages—LOL, LOLPMP, Dude are you serious?—Stella and Imee set the dinner table. Her father ordered a diavola pizza, and when it arrived she looked up in surprise at the extra flakes of chili because he wouldn’t have been able to handle that much heat last year.
He poured himself a glass of wine and sat back in his chair. “So what’s this about you wanting to give up tennis?”
Stella shrugged. “It’s different in London. The girls are bigger and taller. They hit the ball harder. I can’t compete.”
“Of course you can,” he said brightly. “You just need to be positive. Try harder.”
Stella rolled her eyes. When it came to pep talks, her father had once been a magician with a bag full of tricks, but his words had lost their old magic. Something about his frothy tone hardened her. She was twelve years old and he was treating her like she was still five. She did not like it.
“You don’t get it, Dad. It’s got nothing to do with not trying.”
“I disagree,” her father said. He looked as if he were about to say more, but was stilled by Imee’s palm on the back of his hand. They exchanged a look. Imee picked up a remote control, switched on the sound system. The music, some house inflected pop, pierced the quiet of the room, like a knife ripping through canvas, leaving an ugly hole that couldn’t be ignored. Stella felt her throat tighten, and emptied her glass of water in noisy gulps.
“Can I go to my room?’’
“Sweetheart! I thought we were going to hang out a little,” her father said.
‘Three’s a crowd.”
He looked at Stella slack-jawed. And there it was again, Imee’s hand on her father’s arm, a blanket dousing a flame.
“It’s okay,” Imee said. “She’s probably just tired.”
Stella pushed her seat back with more force than intended, making the chair legs scrape against the marble floor.
“Young lady. Your plate’s not going to walk to the kitchen by itself.”
Her father’s face had that scrunched-up look he got when trying to control his anger. Imee’s expression was placid. They were sitting so close to one another, almost knocking knees, and now it was his hand on Imee’s shoulder.
“Can’t she do it?” Stella asked.
Her father sucked in some air before he spoke. “Imee is not your helper.”
“Yeah. Not anymore.”
Stella was six years old when she first saw Imee. She’d been lying on a sofa half asleep and her eyes had tracked the woman, walking with head bent low behind her mother. Doll-like, with big brown eyes, a moon face, and gleaming, waist-length black hair, she’d thought that only a magical creature could be that pretty. For years Imee had been as much of a maternal figure as Stella’s own mother, more in some ways, because it was Imee who cooked her chicken rice and mee goreng, Imee who picked her up from school and took her on playdates, Imee who never complained about being forced to wait outside for hours while Stella played tennis, because helpers were not allowed in the clubhouse. And even though she knew her mother didn’t approve, it was into Imee’s bed she climbed on those stormy nights when the air crackled and thunder shook the very ground beneath them. She would wake up on those cool mornings and play with Imee’s hair, marveling at the silken feel of it, so different to her own tight afro curls. Seeing her father’s hands in Imee’s hair had changed it somehow, like a river that once flowed now turned to sludge.
“Does that even make sense?” Stella said to her friends. They were sitting in Saya’s dusky pink bedroom, painting their nails.
“Ewww,” Valerie said. “Is he like always touching her?”
“No! He’s not a perv. It’s just. . . I don’t know. . . it’s like even when they’re not touching, I feel as if they want to.”
“Well, I’ve never seen them out together in public,” said Valerie. “So maybe not that many people know?”
“Yeah, but all the helpers do. Josephine says Imee doesn’t even go to Lucky Plaza on Sundays anymore,” Saya said. “They barely talk now. I don’t think she’s got any friends.”
Stella looked down at the indigo polish on her toenails. “It’s just weird.”
She thought back to that first night. That had been weird too. Imee knocked on her door before going to bed, looking as fragile as she had been all those years ago and said, with a hopeful smile, that it would take some getting used to for all of them. And something about the way she spoke, the way she sat on the bed and held Stella’s hand had been like stepping into an old photograph or a memory, as if there was no distance between them and nothing had changed.
Imee said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” Stella replied and when she said the words, she really meant them.
Stella’s father agreed to speak to her mother about tennis. If she had no interest in becoming a pro, then there was no point taking it so seriously. But she would still have to return to London and she was not happy about that. Neither was she happy about spending her last Sunday in Singapore at some boring barbecue at the British club. Stella glanced at her father as Imee came out of the bedroom wearing a too-short skirt, a too-shiny top, and a necklace with an amber gemstone just like the one her mother used to wear. She had obviously made an effort but, in her high heels, the overall effect was like a tinsel-laden Christmas tree about to topple over. He didn’t seem to notice.
The only people that Stella recognized in the club’s orange-hued function room were Mark and Melissa, one of the few couples still friends with her father after the split. Stella slouched in her chair, chewing the straw in her virgin colada while Imee struck up a conversation with Colin, a red-faced man with a swollen belly and an Asian girlfriend. Her father settled in the seat beside her.
“Why don’t you go see if some of your friends are here,” he said.
“None of my friends come here.”
“You could make some new ones,” he said cheerfully.
Stella glared at him. He was doing it again, talking down to her. “I’m not a baby.”
“Uh-oh, you’re in trouble there, Dad,” Melissa said with a throaty laugh.
“Tell me about it,” her father said. “It’s a minefield.”
He turned away and she could hear the three of them talking, laughing at her, not even trying to hide it. She moved to a seat slightly away from the group and watched them all. Mark and Melissa, professional expats, their skin all folds and creases. Her father’s stomach straining against his blue cotton shirt and the sweat patches pooling under his armpits. She was embarrassed for him because chest hairs were creeping out through the button holes of his shirt, because despite being many shades darker, he looked as if he had been kneaded from the same dough as Colin, whose girlfriend was now standing up with Imee. The two women were holding hands, animated because they just loved the song that was playing. And then they were dancing, back to back, faster and faster, shaking their shoulders, rotating their hips, their long black hair like tangled weeds whipping across their faces. Colin whooped in encouragement, and they replied with arched backs and pelvic thrusts, bumping and grinding, laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world.
Melissa put a hand over her mouth to suppress a snigger and Stella’s father didn’t seem to know where to look. “Oh God, make it stop,” Stella said, but nobody heard. She felt a familiar sensation, the same creeping helplessness as that day on the tennis court. But this time she remembered that she could deflect the power of her opponents, even if she couldn’t hit the ball as hard. She knew it was possible to neutralize their strength if she was nimble and quick. That’s why the drop shot was her favorite, because her opponents, so sure of their strength, always underestimated her. They never saw it coming.
So Stella walked across the room, through the hallway and out to reception where the turbaned security guard waited and explained the situation to him because somebody had to. And in her mind a racquet had connected with a ball and she was certain that she had done the right thing, of applying enough backspin to make it land just on the other side of the net. And she was still certain as she walked a step behind the security guard, through the double doors of the function room. Except Imee was no longer gyrating on the makeshift dance floor. She was standing quietly at the bar and Stella sensed the ball losing momentum, dropping into the net.
The security guard marched up to Imee and pulled at her arm. “You must wait outside.”
Imee was confused at first and then red blotches stained her cheeks. Stella’s father stood up in outrage, demanding to know what was going on, but the security guard was equally indignant. “We received a complaint, sir. Helper disturbing guests. We have a strict policy here, sir. Family only. No helpers allowed.”
Other guests turned to stare and Stella shrank into the wall behind her.
“Who made the complaint?” her father spat.
The room went silent. Imee shook her head in disbelief, turned towards Stella, who so wanted to lift up her chin, but couldn’t look Imee in the eye.
Shola Olowu-Asante’s fiction has been published in The Linnet’s Wings, Everyday Fiction, The African Writer, and Pangea, an anthology of stories from around the globe. She’s a broadcast journalist with an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She lives in Singapore with her husband and children, but calls both London and Lagos home.
I decided to ask for the manual scan, so I was listening to this woman telling me to spread my legs, where she was going to put her hands, and I laughed because it seemed like porn. Not really like porn, of course, just like the way I imagined porn would be when I was a prim pre-internet teenager who’d never seen porn, right down to the crap lighting I somehow knew was something you were supposed to know about porn. The word banal came to mind. Though in the airport the lighting really was crap. Thankfully, there weren’t any mirrors, not to guard against vanity like in the house of mourning, but to preserve some shred of self-respect, some hope we weren’t the faces we were.
Behind me men came out of the luxury lounge. More porn; more banality. They twitched under their rings and slick hair making their way to the first-class line. Last year a company spent ten million dollars on an innovation that found an extra centimeter of room for first-class legs. They had a team of engineers and they all cheered, threw a big office party in honor of the centimeter. I read this in an airport in the special travel issue of The New Yorker. It was right before an article about migrants dying at sea and the European coast guards turning them away. A sentence came into my mind: “I tremble for my world when I remember God is just.” I thought someone righteous had said this but I looked it up later and it turned out to be Jefferson. First I thought, how strange a slaveholder said it. Then I thought, of course a slaveholder said this, they would know.
I didn’t mind the pat down, really. I wouldn’t have minded the machine either, but I liked the gesture of opting out. It had been a long flight and I’d slept through the beverage service so it was the first decision I’d been asked to make in almost half a day and it seemed important to remember I still knew how to do that, how to make decisions.
Rachel says I give my son too many choices—she read one of those “serious” popular books about the brain and how choosing makes us miserable. Supermarkets were the big example. It made sense: when I felt buried it wasn’t tiredness or boredom but the tick of possibility. A child’s voice calls you. Answer right away or take a breath? And then you tell a story: bear or beast? Airplane or rocket ship? What will you name the trains?
My family picked me up and we went straight to the museum. I was still in docile traveler mode so I half-expected the guards to ask me to spread my legs but they just handed me a little neon pin to put on my jacket.
When my grandmother was alive we came to this museum a lot, just the two of us. She liked the rooms where no one went. We’d be alone with the ancient mosaics and tapestries, just her and me and the guards. She’d talk to them sometimes because she was like that. We liked the cases of coins, the bronze earrings. I said, they’re only in the museum because they are so old, but I was faking my cynicism and she knew it because she would smile and say beautiful, beautiful no matter what. The year she died I saw some exhibit where they asked guards to talk about works of art that had been stolen from the museum where they worked. Did they miss them? I wondered whether we would miss the guards if they weren’t there, if they came up with some kind of invisible electronic. But there were no invisible barriers and no strip searches, just the same kind faces who stepped forward once an hour to wave back overly enthusiastic gesticulators.
Today everyone was behaving, more or less. Children no bigger than mine circled the statues and threw themselves on the couches. The usual search for something to say, the usual lists of the expensive and the famous, of which famous expensive ones were done by men who were terrible in which kind of way. The word mistress wafted by, then concubine.
No strip searches and no metal detectors, no mirrors. Not even a bin to dump your liquids. How had I never noticed this before, how they let us right up to the million dollar pigment with only ghosts to protect them? Someone said something about this or that ghost and how many women he’d had and what each dead woman had to do with which color of million-dollar pigment. Whoever is saying this, whether it’s a beautiful boy to someone he kissed on the way in or the most beleaguered mother, it’s certain that no one can stand the sound of anyone else’s voice.
“Ah! The rabbi!” My mother stood in front of an old familiar face. The card said he was a beggar, that the painter gave him the rabbi’s clothes and asked him to pose when the real rabbis weren’t available for the task. I thought of the homeless men in Utah posing as the disciples because in Utah only the homeless have beards. I thought of the beggar going through security, pleading for his shoes and his last sips of water. I took a drink and touched the coins in the pocket I hadn’t been asked to empty.
Laura Tanenbaum is a writer and teacher whose fiction, essays, poetry, and book reviews have appeared in publications including Jacobin, Narrative, Dissent, failbetter, Monkeybicycle, and Open Letters Monthly. She teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. Her blog, The Golden Notebooks, which discusses feminism, left politics, teaching, and parenthood can be found along with her other writings at lauratanenbaum.org.
She hadn’t been planning to rob the bank. Her face was cold.
Or maybe she had been planning to rob the bank and her face was cold. Sometimes bank robbers feel a chill in their cheeks just like any ordinary person.
The facemask was yellow. She couldn’t remember buying it or recall why she had chosen that color. There were a lot of yellow things in her closet: cardigans and dresses, a nightgown that bordered on an ugly green. She supposed at one time she must’ve enjoyed the color. Said things like, “Yellow is cheerful.”
On that day, however, yellow did not make her feel cheerful and instead made her feel like the top part of a banana, the knob that is peeled down to reveal the gushy insides.
It was one of those winter days that was so cold the car door was frozen shut and Elise, with her small body and yellow knob head, was unable to open the door and had to return inside to get her husband who was still wearing his pajamas pants to come outside and open it for her.
“You’re starting to turn into the chair, all brown and leather,” she said to him.
“The chair leads a good life,” he replied and looked up at her. “You look like a bank robber in that thing.”
He had to put on his Gore-Tex jacket and boots just to go outside.
“Sure is cold out there,” he said. “Are you sure you want to go out now?”
The streets were icy. The weather had warmed and then frozen again covering everything in a slippery transparent sheen. Elise used to be afraid of car accidents, of a broken skull, back, fender, but in the past couple of years had found herself developing a fearlessness that other people, her doctor and children included, labeled as forgetfulness. Whatever she was going to be, she was not going to be one of those women that clutched at the steering wheel with both hands.
She kept the facemask on in the grocery store. She found it comforting, the extra layer of yellow skin. No one knew that it was her underneath that mask and she was happy, for once, to be the person who was unrecognizable the way so many people had since become unrecognizable to her. Her body was shapeless underneath the puffy winter coat. Even her hands were covered by her two-fingered extra-duty winter mittens that she normally wore just to shovel snow. The cold masks a lot of things. Her face was just one thing buried that day.
The grocery store workers said hello to her the way they always did. They asked her how she was doing, if she was finding everything she needed. She said nothing. She suddenly understood why there were women in some countries who covered their faces every day.
She paid for her groceries with cash. She didn’t like to use a credit card and she saw the way that people glared at her as she fumbled with her checkbook. Always fumbling in a way that made her doctors suggest some kind of dreaded degenerative disease. She had left her reusable grocery bags in the car because she always left her reusable grocery bags in the car. She wanted to be good to the environment, but like everything else she wanted to be good to she found herself lacking. She accepted the plastic bags and killed the earth a little more.
The bank was two blocks down from the grocery store. The bank parking lot made Elise nervous. There was one occasion, an occasion she tried not to think about, when she had accidentally backed up into another car and dented its paneling. Her car was unscathed, though, so she got back in and drove home. She spent the rest of the day crying and cleaning the house and waiting for the police to come get her. They never did. No one ever found out it was her. Since then she had always parked on the street, nervous they would figure out that she was the one who did it, nervous that she would suffer a repeat performance.
As Elise walked into the bank she saw her reflection in the glass, a yellow bulb head enlarged in its mirroring, puffy coat that doubled her body in size. She giggled. She did look like a bank robber. The thought was so absurd. No one would ever expect her, a mother, a wife, a house owner, to rob a bank.
She giggled further as she scrawled a note on the deposit slip, “Give me money,” in her looping cursive. She realized that she had inadvertently carried in her reusable grocery bags. Always armed with things at the wrong time.
There was no line. She walked up to the teller. She had seen her before, a young black girl. She wore a heavy sweater over a button-up shirt. She had a nametag that said “Jessica.”
Elise passed her the note. She couldn’t stop laughing. She couldn’t wait to tell her husband about her joke when she got home.
Jessica, instead of issuing her normal instructions to run the debit card through the machine, had unlocked the cash register in front of her. It was then that Elise realized that Jessica actually thought she was a bank robber. She thought about correcting the mistake, but Jessica was already neatly stacking piles of bills. That’s what Elise remembered about Jessica. She remembered the nice way that Jessica stacked money and handed it over with a smile. It made it feel like a present rather than a withdrawal from one’s own account.
Jessica was not smiling that day. Elise knew what it was like to feel fearful of another person and thus she understood the look on Jessica’s face, though Elise had only previously experienced that look from the inside. Elise had been afraid on the street, in bars, at the airport, in her home. Elise had been afraid everywhere a person could be afraid. To be on the other side, to make a person afraid, was something entirely different.
There had been previous times that Elise had felt powerful inside of her body. The men she had been with before her husband. The time she ran a community 5K. But she had never held a gun, never used her body as a weapon. No one had ever treated her as a threat before. No one had ever shoved money into reusable grocery bags at her behest, treated her as though she were something to be fearful of, something that could penetrate the skin. She realized that her two-fingered mittens resembled a gun. She almost clarified that they were only her hands, delicate with rings circling several fingers, but by then Jessica had handed her the bag.
Elise took the bag and ran. Elise did not know how to run. Elise ran very slowly. Surely they would catch her. Surely they would shoot her down, putting holes in her yellow fabric skin. This would just be another occasion where she had failed. She made it to her car and sped home. She could hear sirens behind her, but they weren’t chasing her. She pulled into the driveway and went inside. She decided to make cookies.
“These are the best cookies I’ve ever made,” she exclaimed to her husband.
“You always make good cookies,” he said.
Elise had never been filled with such love.
The second time she robbed a bank it was a purposeful act. It was summer. Her husband’s skin, covered only by worn boxers with holes where his legs met, stuck to the leather of his chair.
She was cleaning out the hall closet. Summer cleaning. They had so many things she never remembered acquiring. Plaid scarf. Rain boots too small for anyone who lived in the house. Seven umbrellas. Elise never remembered to bring an umbrella with her when it was raining and would purchase another when she was out and vow to become a better umbrella user.
She had a cardboard banker’s box in which she was collecting these unused items. Banker’s boxes didn’t really have anything to do with banking. They were about taxes like anything else.
There was the coat Elise’s husband wore only once a year when they went out and bought a Christmas tree from the YMCA Christmas tree sale. A coat she had bought her daughter that her daughter never wore. Elise’s daughter had always valued saving feelings over saving money, though in the long run she had not saved anything at all.
Elisa put on the coat. It was too small for her, the middle buttons unable to button around her breasts. Breasts: another thing on the list of things that Elise once cherished that she now wished to put in a banker’s box and donate to Goodwill.
The coat was corduroy. Elise had thought it cute. It was on sale. The trick of sales was that they convinced people to buy things they didn’t really need under the guise of a lower price. Elise was very susceptible to such ploys. Her hall closet was evidence as such. Eight different hats. Seven gloves without their partners. A canister of tennis balls without any tennis balls inside of it. A swim suit. A spider carcass.
The top no longer fit on the banker’s box. Elise kept the coat on. She did not believe in giving something new away. She had her husband carry the box out to the car.
“Put some pants on,” she said. It embarrassed her when her husband went out like that. Pants were made to cover thighs like his.
“It’s too hot,” he replied.
He was no longer good at lifting things and had to pick the box up and set it down several times before making it to the car. Elise told herself not to be so critical. She was no longer good at the things that she used to be good at either. Sewing. Cheerfulness. Paying bills on time.
The air conditioner no longer worked in the car. It would cost too much to fix, so Elise rolled down the windows and turned up the fan.
“My own personal sauna,” she said.
The yellow facemask was sitting on top of the pile of stuff. In a different box in a different closet Elise had a picture of a very old boyfriend. She had remained in contact with this man for several years after she married her husband and once had sent him a picture that she had taken of herself in her underwear. She had to take the film to a different city to be developed. She never showed her husband the pictures or told him about the ex-boyfriend and eventually they lost contact. Elise supposed it was possible that he was dead. The facemask was like a lover who could resurface at any moment. Something that had many possibilities or perhaps none at all.
Elise had never shown her husband the money. Based on his behavior for the entirety of their marriage, this was how she understood money was to be handled.
Elise did not know how to get the cash from underneath her bed into her bank account. It was not as though she could go into the bank and ask for it to be deposited. She bought petty things. Ice cream cones, a new hand lotion. Even if she could deposit it she did not know what she would buy. She idly considered a boat though there were no lakes nearby, though her body was not spry enough for boating.
Elise did not like going into Goodwill. Because the store was both the name of corporation and an adjective, she was certain that this dislike implied a badness of self. The store made her itch though she touched no products once inside. Many of the women browsing the crowded racks of clothing were around her own age and like her were wearing clothing that didn’t fit, and she suspected this was why she didn’t like it. Something too close to her own skin.
Elise dropped the banker’s box on the counter. The yellow facemask stared up at her.
“I think I’m going to keep this, actually,” she said, pulling it out of the box. The eyeholes looked at her reproachfully, aware that she had almost let it go.
She was thanked for her donation. Elise made some joke about the ever-replenishing nature of her hall closet.
She put the mask on in the car. It nearly suffocated her in the summer heat. She realized how improperly dressed she was: an old pair of jeans that she wore for cleaning, a jacket that didn’t fit, and the yellow facemask.
She then drove to the bank and told everyone to put their hands in the air. They all obliged. She never felt so powerful.
Elise, in those small moments she allowed herself to remember her past robbery, had masturbated to the thought, her own fingers like the gun in the air, her own fingers like the gun inside of herself. She had not expected to do it again, but she also did not know how she would never do it again and thus it was unsurprising to find herself that way, facemask covering her skin.
The difference between wearing a facemask in the summer and wearing a facemask in the winter was that in the winter people assumed the wearer of the facemask wanted to protect themselves from the cold and in the summer everyone assumed the wearer of the facemask was robbing a bank. Neither of these assumptions was wrong. Elise was wearing a facemask and she was robbing a bank.
Jessica wasn’t working. Elise hoped that Jessica had found a better job somewhere else. She had been an exceptionally good teller. This time there was a young man shoveling bills into a bag. A banker’s bag. He was a very handsome young man, but he didn’t handle the bills with the same crispness that Jessica did.
Elise had injured her hip in March while shoveling the sidewalk during a late winter storm. Women her age were not supposed to shovel sidewalks, or so the doctor said.
“How else will I have my requisite hip injury?” she asked and then laughed at her own joke. The doctor didn’t laugh. The doctor told her it was best not to have any hip injuries at all.
In order to run she had to put her all of her weight on her right leg and then swing her left leg around in front of it. This action did not look like running at all. This action looked more like some kind of dance with a bag full of money, which actually describes many types of dancing.
She tripped on the curb that led in into the parking lot and lay on the ground for several minutes before she was able to lift herself again.
She could hear the sirens approaching. This was familiar. The way they had approached when she fell and broke her hip. That time her daughter had threatened suicide. When her husband had a heart attack that turned out to be a panic attack. When her son had fallen off the jungle gym and broken his arm.
It was possible that she could be caught. She could not imagine a way for herself to escape. She imagined having the yellow facemask stripped from her head to reveal the self below. Have her little body shoved against the sidewalk, handcuffs around her wrists.
Elise pulled herself up. The police cars had still not arrived. Elise was not one to believe in miracles, though this was not the only implausible thing that had happened in her life. The bag was heavy. Paper was always heavier than she expected in to be. Elise made it to the car. She threw the bag in the passenger seat of the car.
“Be calm,” paramedics always said. The least comforting of phrases.
“Be calm,” Elise murmured to herself as she got in the driver’s seat. She drove away like someone who was not making a getaway. She drove away like she was just running errands. She saw a flash of police lights in her review mirror stopped in front of the bank. They did not chase after her. They did not suspect her little car or her little body peering over the dashboard. It was like they couldn’t see her at all. She was both visible and invisible inside of the facemask.
Elise was hungry. She wanted some pancakes. She took off the facemask. Hot air blew at her from the vents. It felt nice after the cold of the bank.
“Trying to stop the gold from melting,” she joked. She checked her reflection in the rearview mirror to make sure her lipstick wasn’t smudged. It wasn’t, but it had started to fill in the cracks in her skin.
She drove to the diner and parked her car. She was still wearing her daughter’s jacket. She supposed it was her jacket now as she had worn it more than her daughter ever had. She went inside and sat in one of the plastic booths. She was glad for the warmth from the too-short sleeves. Elise never understood why they made restaurants so cold. Who wanted to be cold while they were eating?
“I want a tall stack,” she said to the waiter.
“With chocolate chips,” she added as he walked away.
She smothered the cakes in maple-syrup-colored corn syrup. She cut through each of the layers, spearing all three pancakes at once. The bites barely fit in her mouth. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been so ravenous for something so sweet.
She left the server a pile of crumpled bills on the table, she left with crumpled bills spilling out of her pocket. She had chocolate smeared across her lips. People excused such blemishes on the face at her age.
Tasha Coryell is an MFA Candidate at the University of Alabama, where she is working on a novel about murderous sorority girls. Her work has been featured in [PANK], The Collagist, and Word Riot, among other journals. You can find Tasha tweeting under @tashaaaaaaa and more work from her at tashacoryell.com.
Katherine’s father wanted to get out of the city. “We can hike and star gaze,” he said. “I want to show Katherine the whales.” So, early in the morning they packed the car and locked up their townhouse. Katherine climbed into the back seat, and her mother tucked her stuffed dog into the seatbelt with her. As they started down the driveway, her father stopped the car, “Where’s that photo album? The one with Phillip?”
“In the attic with your parents’ things. You’re not going back for it?”
“I’ll just be a minute.”
He returned with a large brown photo album. Katherine’s mother moved to the driver’s seat, “I’ll take the first shift,” and her father settled in the passenger seat with the album on his lap.
They headed north over roads that thinned from six lanes to four. “Goodbye, Massachusetts. Hello, New Hampshire,” they said together. Katherine’s parents talked about the cabin. Would there be cleaning supplies or should they stop in Portland and buy a mop and Lysol? Katherine’s mother sang to Simon and Garfunkel. Her father flipped through the pages of the photo album. He reminisced about Phillip—their seed-spitting contests and the time they knocked down the bees’ nest in the wood shed. He turned to Katherine to tell her about the time, when Phillip was seven and Katherine’s father five, Phillip got the ladder from the shed and the two of them climbed the red maple tree along the path to Jackson Ridge so they could peer into the nest of the barred owl. “He had no fear,” Katherine’s father said, wiping his hand across his eyes. Between stories he’d fall silent. Katherine gazed into the passing woods of jack pines and aspen and saw Phillip riding between the trees like a cowboy on the back of a whale.
Her father took over driving in Maine as the roads turned to twisty, two-lane ribbons weaving through corridors of tall trees. Her mother handed the photo album over the seat to Katherine. She flipped through the plastic-covered pages.
In one photo, Phillip stood by himself on the cabin porch wearing a black cape that hung down to the top of red rubber boots. A black mask pushed his curly hair out over his forehead and his eyes watched Katherine through almond-shaped holes. His mouth was hard and serious. In a black-gloved hand he gripped the hilt of a sword, shiny with tin foil.
As Katherine’s father got taller, Phillip disappeared from the pictures.
“I don’t know why we’re going back to the cabin,” Katherine’s mother said, after Katherine had closed her eyes and rested her head on her stuffed dog. “He wasn’t much older than Katherine when it happened. It’ll just scare her.”
But Katherine wasn’t afraid. She had the idea that Phillip remained, stopped in time, in the cabin high up in the Maine woods, and she yearned to see him.
They pulled the car up the short gravel drive and climbed out, taking deep breaths of sharp mountain air. Afternoon sun blinked through the leaves of the cherry tree by the front porch. Her father picked some of the red fruit and handed one to Katherine. She was not surprised to see Phillip sitting on the top step, spitting cherry pits toward the pine martin box. He had vanished by the time they brought up the suitcases. Katherine’s father stopped to test the porch railing and examine a small hole in the floor boards. Then he opened the creaky screen and unlocked the front door.
Katherine helped carry groceries and bedding from the car. She watched for Phillip around every corner of the small cabin.
“Let’s go see the whales,” Katherine’s father said, after all the bags were in and the car was locked.
“Don’t let her go past the boulder,” her mother said.
While her mother stocked the pantry, Katherine and her father walked the overgrown path that led to Jackson Ridge. Her father held back branches and warned her to watch for roots. They listened for the hollow tap-tap of the pileated woodpecker. When they emerged at the bayberry bushes that marked the beginning of the grassy ridge, the sound of the ocean chased away the quiet of the woods. Gulls screeched and soared overhead like paper on a breeze.
Katherine’s father pointed past the boulder toward the edge of the cliff and beyond to the cold, black water. “Over there,” he said. He squatted next to her and wrapped his arm around her waist. “Straight ahead but way out. You have to be patient.”
Katherine stood unmoving, goldenrod and timothy scraping her bare legs and the wind whipping through her hair. There was a flash of red by the boulder. Red boots. The ones Phillip wore in the photo that showed him standing by the front door of the cabin where her mother was now putting cereal boxes and Pop-Tarts on the shelves. It was that Phillip, frowning, armed, and proud, that she saw. It was that Phillip who ran past the protective boulder to the edge of the cliff, heedless of danger. It was that Phillip who defiantly held up the tin foil sword against the sky. Katherine stiffened as the wind grabbed hold of his cape, ballooned it out behind him, and lifted him off the ground.
“There they are!” Katherine’s father said at the sight of the finback whales rising and falling far out in the inky blackness of the sea. He took his arm away from her waist to raise his binoculars. “Glorious.”
Katherine wiped her face with the backs of her hands where the cool wind had brought tears oozing down her cheeks. Her father held the binoculars to her eyes and pointed her toward the whales, helping her focus until she could see the water droplets in their misty spray. Too close. She handed the binoculars back.
“They used to come every summer when I was little,” he said. “Grandma would bundle us up and bring us out to see them.”
Katherine raised herself to her toes and lifted her arms. Phillip, again standing solidly at the edge of the cliff, did the same. Together they flew over the waves, carried by the wind, Phillip’s cape spread out, his red boots kicking. Katherine watched the solid ground fall away; beneath her only ocean, white waves stitching across the surface. The finback whales spouted and dove in the water below. She gasped.
She brought Phillip back to the edge of the cliff where he stood, his back to her, cape flowing, sword raised. One minute planted firmly; his mother—Katherine’s grandmother—seeing him, yelling, “Come back! Get away from the edge!” The next minute, gone. Katherine closed her eyes and shivered.
Her father lowered the binoculars and took off his jacket. He wrapped it around her and took her hand. They tramped back through the woods, leaving Phillip behind with the whales.
Lisa J. Sharon’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Belt, and Kestrel, among others. She received an Honorable Mention for her short story submission to the 2015 San Miguel Writer’s Conference Fiction Contest and she was a semi-finalist for the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.
College kid this time. Loud, heard him soon as they got out of the car, warbling like someone too comfortable with his own voice. Badly fucked up or bad at faking: had to be a college kid. Blue-collar guys handle their booze and don’t have to be loud to prove a point, and professional types bug out when they see our shithole. She even brought a black guy back once, the only one who introduced himself, cooked us eggs before he left.
Must’ve gone to the dives near the college, had her pick of beer-soaked frat boys blue-balled from staring at tight Mormon asses all day. Knew it was going to be one of those nights, fucking knew it, but I’d stopped taking Tylenol PM the month before, giving my liver a well-earned retirement, and had to spend each night wrestling my thoughts and gripping the mattress so I wouldn’t get up and do something stupid. Should’ve put more shit up in the room to distract me, lava lamp or aquarium or those squirmy little sea monkeys. Shit, probably should’ve moved rooms in the first place—hate and hurt seeped into the walls—moved rooms, moved houses, moved cities. But time gives a fuckall about your plans.
Her voice soft as they came inside, making his louder in response. She shushed him and made him take off his shoes, a ridiculous request given the state of our carpet, but it’s the one rule left over from her mother she still observes, we both do, paying some kind of sick tribute to that bitch. The kid blared on, trying to tell jokes, exclamation marks in his inflection. She didn’t laugh, she never laughed, but he couldn’t take a hint. I could almost make out words but used the pillow to cover my head, smother the world.
Some of those dives hadn’t caught up with the new regulations, still served near-beer. Would’ve taken her about thirty to get a buzz off three point two. But she was buzzed, more than buzzed; she was so quiet. The nights she came home sober, she’d crank music, bang around the kitchen. Only quiet when she was ripped. Inherited the drunk guilties from me, soaked it up all those nights I crept in late and she’d peer out of her bedroom door and I’d nod and she’d crawl into my lap and we’d fall asleep watching infomercials for get-rich-quick seminars. Must’ve inhaled something in my boozy breath, infected her cells with whatever shit used to drive me and now drove her.
But the college kid was still loud, and I was tired. I was always tired. I wasn’t going back to sleep so I played the game I always did when she brought them back; I thought about my own nights, the nights I must’ve kept her awake when she had tests or dances or other life-altering teenage shit the next day. Turned my alarm clock around every night so I wouldn’t check it, every hour I could associate with a different drink, a different drug, a different fight.
Booked for assault at 11:11, officer told me to make a wish
Midnight shots of Beam at Grainey’s for a buck twenty til the bottle was gone Tootskis at two whenever Tino was in town Give her the bottle at 4am, grab one for myself
The SCRRCHSSHHHH of a staticky radio ripped me back. She switched it off, reprimanded him, voice so quiet and stern it scared me how much it sounded like her mom. Despite everything, she didn’t want to wake me.
Actually, bullshit. She knew I’d still be awake, had to, I’d stormed out and kicked up shit for much less. For show then, this voice, this attempt at placation. She knew I’d hear it, maybe stall me a little. Kid ate it up, got more aggressive, wanted to know where a fucking drink was, where her fucking bedroom was, what’s that fucking smell.
Pivotal moment now, whether she took him to her room. Right next to mine, and the walls so fucking thin. I knew the score, known it since she was fourteen and I gave some skate punk a felonious black eye, but it never got easier. Hearing. Knowing. Got worse after the bitch left and it was almost every weekend. I’d stay out all night to avoid it. Wanted to yell at her what the fuck was she doing, but what right did I have? I’d wake up scrambled and wait until I’d hear the front door slam and we wouldn’t talk to each other for days. That’s when I knew she was grown, the first morning she didn’t avoid me, didn’t stay in the bathroom an hour, instead looked me in the eyes and asked about breakfast. Few years ago but could’ve been lifetimes. Time, fuckall, that thing again.
It flew like a brick through our plywood walls, jolting me up. Could’ve been a punchline to one of his self-aggrandizing jokes.
She broke pretense and opened full-bore, curses and screaming and the thwack only a curled fist makes and I was up and out.
Everything froze, like someone had pushed pause on one of those white-trash family dramas on the women’s channel. And he was a college kid, wearing the block ‘U’ t-shirt to prove it, but not like I pictured, not at all, not some water-polo frat rat, but someone more marginal and menacing. He wore glasses over a ratty face, and had a divot out the side of his hair like someone took a razor to him while sleeping, or an operation, or chemo, or some other stupid shit he deserved. He was punching the stereo, not her, already ripped through the speaker mesh and dented the cone. His look went from surprise to something like embarrassment. I wasn’t a bruiser anymore but I had scars and ink and a fat old-man’s gut that looked like it’d be hard to throw around.
He thought a second, eyed the glass mug on the table, eyed me. This wasn’t the first time he’d been tangled up in a shitpile of this sort, and I looked for something within reach that could be weaponized.
She watched, hair back in a ponytail, that athletic look, but the weathered face and boozy loll that aged her a decade. As if she needed more shit, there was adult-onset acne, went to a doctor a few times but what’s the fucking point, she’d asked when we talked about getting her cream or something. What’s the fucking point, there’ll always be something.
College kid was looking at her, thinking the same thing. He shook his head. It wasn’t worth it. She wasn’t worth it. He stood up, made a joke about incest, and backed to the door. It’d be a story he’d tell his buddies, met some slut at the bar and went back to her place, almost got into a brawl with her crazy fucking dad. Fucked up their speakers though.
“Skank.” Tossed over his shoulder as he walked out.
I went after him, I don’t know, to push him in the back or something, suckerpunch his ass to next week. Show her she was worth it, fuck that guy, she’s my daughter and she’s worth the effort and the acne cream and every goddamn drop of blood that’d be spilled from his ratty snout.
But she pulled me back. His lowered pickup peeled out, then stalled halfway down the street. I slammed the door as his engine gasped back to life.
Silent as she looked at me, a look that on a more put-together woman would’ve been called “knowing,” and if she’d had a cigarette she would’ve lit up. I made her promise not to keep any in the house, no smokes or booze or pills, nothing, like we’re fucking Mormons ourselves. We were through with the drama, the dish-throwing, the curses and blames and shitty, sorry muck we dragged each other through for years. Sometimes she woke me up, sometimes she didn’t, and we both dealt with the consequences like the adults we pretended to be.
She helped me toss the speaker into the trash outside. It was cold, and I still wasn’t wearing a shirt, but the night was as clear as I’d ever seen it, like somebody had pulled back a scummy shower curtain that’d been blurring the sky. I’d spent most of my adult life awake during the night, ignoring the sky, trying to blot it out, and yet here it was the whole time, waiting for me.
She stood next to me, followed my gaze up to the crescent moon giving us a half-cocked grin. “That’s where you found me. Remember? I was the girl on the moon.”
I wanted to tell her I knew what she was talking about, but we’d both know I’d be lying.
“When I was little you told me you found me on the moon, playing with the stars. But I was lonely, so you took me home so we could play together.”
More than anything, I wanted to say something here, something witty and important. Something a real dad would say.
But she knew me those years, remembered me during that time better than I did, so she knew not to expect anything. Even gave me an awkward sideways hug before she went inside.
No use trying, so I stayed up, watching informercials, swear to god they’re the same ones we’d watched all those years ago.
I went into her room later. Trespassed, I know, but she’d woken me up, and it was my fucking house. Passed out, teeth clenched into a skeleton grin, so motionless that I held my hand over her flat chest to make sure it still rose.
A full bottle on her nightstand caught light seeping from the hallway. I wasn’t surprised she’d snuck beer in. I was surprised by how cold it was—wasn’t from the fridge, and she’d been out for hours. But it was perfect mass-produced domestic beer temperature, bottle sweating like in the commercials, announcer telling me how it’s the perfect thirst-quenching blend of taste and body. Years building the rickety structure inside but it’d only take one sip to knock it down. I didn’t want to care anymore.
She rustled and sighed and I set the bottle down, catching the label. Hadn’t seen High Life in years—should’ve recognized the tapered bottle. Favorite beer, not just because it was cheap. I loved the label.
Fucking idiot. Of course. A pretty girl sitting on a crescent moon in a field of stars. The fairy tale I told her, the only thing my hole-punched mind could concoct on all those nights I couldn’t remember, all those nights I’d lost, and she’d held onto it like folklore.
Felt like I should do something more there. Wake her up, apologize, find her stash and pour every drop down the drain, a sudsy swirl that would carry us with it, out the drain and through the pipes and into the ocean, where we could float away to an island and start again.
But I’d done enough for one night. I set the beer next to her and stepped out of the room, leaving the door open a crack in case she woke up and wanted to come join me.
Originally from Boise, Idaho, Andy Bailey teaches English in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and dog. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee, and his work has been published in Juked, Tupelo Quarterly, Buffalo Almanack, Stymie, B-Boyish, and Underground Voices, among others. His attempt at a website can be found at www.memyselfandrew.com.
When I was young and living in San Francisco’s Sunset District with a roommate, I had a job selling underwear at Neiman Marcus. If I were to speak of this job with more reverence I would say that I sold “intimate apparel.” But “underwear” is more honest and also closer to “undercover,” because that’s what I was, an incognito undergraduate philosophy major, covered up by a lot of expensive underwear. I had to be a good salesperson to an occasional businessman who came in to grope La Perla panties (at $130 apiece). These men would ask, in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, “Where is the nearest restroom?” And I would say, “Straight and then left, next to the children’s department.”
One late night I was working alone and had to close the register. I was putting bras back on their hangers. When I looked up, I saw a very attractive woman who dared to examine underwear a few minutes before the store had to close.
She was a rare beauty, likely in her mid-40s, her body alert, her movements self-aware, like an actress or dancer. She was wearing simple dark slacks and a tan-colored, v-neck sweater and had the polished look of wealth that signals unattainable dignity. Her jet-black hair was long and wavy, her lips full, and her dark eyes calm. Her make-up was heavy, but tasteful. A wholesome beauty—it was as if she were created from a single cloth, showing no seams. She looked a bit like the Italian actress Monica Bellucci, who had had recently appeared in the movie The Matrix. To meet Monica on my night shift amidst underwear seemed itself akin to a trip into some kind of Matrix.
Monica had a question for me: “Do you have a burgundy La Perla bra in ‘34D’ and panties in ‘small’?” Her voice was deep, lacking in hesitation, or maybe it was the flatness of her heavy Russian accent, like a big book that falls on the floor, a blunt sound. At the time, my own Russian accent was strong, but as if full of apologies, not like a book on the floor at all.
I said, in our native tongue, “I speak Russian. I will check the size in our stockroom.”
For a moment she looked offended. I imagined she wanted to be left alone, among strangers who speak a foreign language, living their foreign lives. Another Russian, even a complete stranger, is always an invader. Chances were, a co-patriot could picture her life more or less accurately and, therefore, mercilessly. I hastily retreated into the stockroom and then emerged with “34D” and “small.”
Monica Bellucci was at the register, her wallet open and ready for the credit-card transaction. She eyed me quickly, then stretched out her manicured hand to say: “I’m Alina.” Then: “How old are you?”
I told her my name and that I was nineteen. Cold sweat was gathering on my forehead and I didn’t know why. I thought: Is she a bitch or a goddess? I wrapped her purchase in white tissue paper and was already putting it inside a small red shopping bag when I heard: “You have something about you.” When I looked up, I saw her assessing glance. It was a lazy assessment, costing her no effort at all, but I took it gladly. This “something,” I wondered, is it something she wants or something I want? Should I ask her to clarify? She clarified: “I’m here for a few days. I flew alone from Moscow, through New York. My husband is unfaithful to me—I ran away. Would you like to have dinner with me tonight? I will pay, of course.”
We walked together along Geary Street, the air suffocating us with summer exhaust fumes. Alina did not look around much and did not talk much either. She took me to Kuleto’s, a fancy place on Powell Street, between Geary and O’Farrell, “to start with drinks.” Lemon-drop martinis, that’s what she wanted. I was not yet twenty-one, I reminded her, so a Shirley Temple would do for me. It was not a cool move, but legal. We were shown to a small table not far from the window and I ordered Bloomsdale Spinach Salad and Filet Mignon. With a martini in hand, Alina seemed relaxed. I noticed that men nearby were looking in the direction of our table and pretending that they were not looking. Some of them were with women, maybe even their wives.
“Don’t look at them,” Alina dropped sharply.
I was defensive: “I’m not looking.” I felt stupid, not in control.
“Oh,” was all she let out and looked at me with those eyes, calm eyes, like a calculator. And I thought to myself: What am I doing here? Me, a member of the feminist philosophy group where my friend Jenny recently argued that to shave legs is to submit to the patriarchal framework. I recalled a line from a poem by Mayakovsky: here you are, a woman thickly powdered/looking like an oyster from the shell of your stuff. And so it seemed that Alina, with her captivating eyes, her delicate everything, wanted me to be a student of female-oyster science.
I decided to treat this dinner as a strict anthropological investigation of a species distinct from my tribe. But this powdered woman, who likely thought feminists to be unadorned man-haters, held my attention in a way that defied rational explanation. I felt physically sucked into her evening. Or was it a whole world-view? What else could have explained my sudden onset of embarrassment about my mostly make-up-free face? As if reading my thoughts, Alina reached into her bag, pulled out a lipstick and applied it to my lips, painting the territory rather expertly.
“Good shade for you,” she said. She also said that I reminded her a little of Monica Vitti, an Italian actress from the 60s film L’Avventura. Doing justice to the Italian-Monica clan held its undeniable attraction. The pull of patriarchal values, I said to myself. How low I’m sinking.
She asked about my life, and I told her the essentials: when I left Russia, why I majored in philosophy, and how I started working at Neiman Marcus. I tried not to reveal too much, and left out the part about my year-long leave of absence from college. I sensed how far away she was, listening, but from some other place, a tall tower, perhaps, like Rapunsel’s. She could be planning her seduction moves on unsuspecting men, I thought to myself. The waiter brought our salads and I started puncturing thick spinach leaves. Alina’s salad remained untouched. Does she count calories in salads? She seemed the type.
She got up to use the restroom and was gone for a very long time. Sitting all alone I thought how ridiculous I must appear: lonely, at this exclusive place, with that bright lipstick I never wear, spinach stabbed on my fork, the fork in mid-air. The waiting went on and on and I began to fear that Alina was gone for good. Would she return to pay the bill? I thought of the food we ordered, plus the drinks, plus the tip, and did a mental calculation: $150 at least. My maxed-out Visa could not cover it.
Outside the window a group of drunken young people was obstructing the sidewalk. Three young guys from the group stood apart howling like wolves, their girlfriends bent in half from hysterical laughter. Tourists walked around them trying not to notice. When I looked up, Alina was suddenly back. She sat down, picking up her drink with that manicured hand. Her soft, open presence lulled me into forgiveness and renewed submissiveness.
“I want to tell you something about men,” she said. “Any man can be tamed if he has the right woman next to him. You are at the right age to absorb this lesson. Most women are clueless and they waste their opportunities. Many women don’t even know how to walk like women or how to wear high heels by the time they reach the age of thirty! The body of a woman, every part of it, is like ammunition, but if you don’t know how to use it, it just hangs there, sad and limp.
“My dear girl,” Alina went on, “femininity is an art, a game, and a science. Men started wars for women, killed each other for women they desired. Those women knew what they were doing. Believe me, attraction is the glue that binds people. The real woman is aware of what she projects from every angle. She is her own choreographer. It is a feminine dance, you understand, and it goes on even when you are by yourself, even when you get up from your bed alone at night, or reach into your bag here in this restaurant. Surround yourself by many men and make them compete for you and then choose.”
She was rambling; the martini was doing its job. I was sure this bag of feminine-charm tricks was a mere quick glossary, and that the meatier lessons, or even a glimpse of chapter titles, would not be revealed that night. This was a disappointing realization.
There was a lot to say, but I said this: “To live this way, just to be desired by men?”
“No, to be desired generally, but mainly to feel connection with people, with many people at a deeper level. It is the only way to know a person, to feel the stuff he is made of. And to be generally desirable is the only way to get to know a lot of people intimately.”
“You mean having sex with many?”
“No, sex with a few and a deep connection with the rest.” She then said: “To be drawn into another person is bolshoe schastie.” A big happiness. The way she said it made me think of Bolshoi Ballet, the Big Ballet, happiness like a grand Russian institution, world famous for its success with the most Platonic of art forms.
“Can I ask you to do something for me?” she said with a tone hitting a different note, as if music had been changed abruptly from Tchaikovsky to a pop song by Spice Girls. “Could you stay with me tonight? I have a room at the Westin St. Francis, just up the street. Windsor Suite. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed there some time ago. You will like the view—the city at your feet.”
I didn’t know what to say. What must be said in a situation like this?
“It is nothing improper,” she explained, sensing my shock. “I get scared at night and can’t sleep. I need to have someone nearby, someone I like.”
I was not sure how to proceed, so I asked about her husband, whether he is often unfaithful to her.
She looked straight at me, somewhat deflated, but willing to pay this price.
“Vadim, my third husband, is a businessman, an oil dealer, a very successful one. We met five years ago. He has been unfaithful from the beginning, but he will never leave me. Not that I want him to. He often brings home a girl or several girls, just for the night. Sometimes he comes home with his male friends and asks me to sleep with them, ‘to share’ me. I have been with many men my husband knows.”
I was listening, but her storyline was so indigestible I was having a hard time catching every word.
“Why do you stay with your husband?” I asked. The obligatory question.
“He is not a bad man. Some things are hard to explain. Vadim gives me freedom. And I don’t think he can do without me. I choose to stay. But I can’t sleep. Not alone in a big, foreign city. Stay with me tonight. What is one night in your long life?”
“OK,” I said hesitantly. I said it as if to myself and wondered whether I was now entering my experimental phase, since I was willing to go to hotel rooms with older women. I tried to picture my room at that moment: my bed still unmade, clothes scattered all over the floor and, in the kitchen, my roommate making tea and talking on the phone with her long-distance boyfriend in Boston.
I knew that if I returned to that room I would continue thinking about Alina, mulling over events of the evening, unable to sleep or read or call my friends. I was certain I couldn’t tell anyone about Alina, her hotel room or not. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do next because the important thing has already happened. Going to her hotel room was like that—it was that thing that happened next, after the important element.
“Why do you not have a man?” she asked. She said a “man” as opposed to a “boyfriend.” She meant: someone not a boy, a mature person, a masculine type. I was glad she thought me worthy of a “man.”
“I need to fall in love to be with a man.”
“Not always. Sometimes you can be kind. Or just reckless. Don’t be so hard on others.”
“And if you have no desire?”
“Then find it. Many people are desirable and not only those who desire you.”
She paid the bill and we walked into the cool air. The Westin St. Francis was only a block away. Not talking. Each with our own thoughts, listening to the city’s silence, a muffled sound, like a noise suppressed by force. The elevator took us to the thirty-first floor, to the Windsor Suite. I entered an extraordinarily large space with big windows and tasteful furniture in dark wood with light blue upholstery. I saw tidiness, the absence of a presence, as if all of it had been purchased and assembled earlier that day. Alina asked me to feel at home and then retreated into the bathroom for “a quick shower.”
When she returned her hair was up in a bun and she was wearing a long, light blue silk robe. As she walked, the material of her robe ran after her in a spiral motion. Her steps were small and bird-like. How modest she is, it hit me then. It was a modesty that left me free with my own ideas about her. She didn’t ask me to think of her in a certain way. She didn’t mind my judgments. I’m not modest, I realized, even when I didn’t wear make-up, even when I walked down the street in my boyish jeans thinking about philosophy, not looking at anyone, minding my own business. Even then I wanted people to see me in a certain light: a smart girl, a feminist, a girl going somewhere. Let them see me for only a fleeting moment, but I wanted their description of me to match my own.
It was my turn to take a shower in Alina’s luxurious, white bathroom where Prince Phillip did his intimate ablutions. My shampoo had a sweet coconut smell. When I was done Alina came in with a long silk robe in light pink.
“I bought this robe in Tokyo,” she said, “the softest silk you can find anywhere. It will suit you. Keep it. Think of me when you wear it.”
When I put it on and turned to look at the back in the mirror I saw the delicate image of a peacock, green feathers drawn in quick lines. The touch of luxury—for, at the time, this robe was the most luxurious piece of clothing my body had ever known—was intoxicating, like a physical surge of self-respect.
We were together on her bed, me in my peacock robe, Alina in hers. I recall sliding under the sheets as if trying not to touch the material. Who was in this bed last night? Another Russian woman? Did Alina find one in every city she visited? Alina’s perfume and arms enveloped me and she gently caressed my hair. Everybody has a presence when they are in bed, even when alone, I thought lying there, and that presence is like a confession, a slippage of the mind’s material through the material of the body.
Alina’s bed presence was surprisingly innocent and giving. She was lying still and holding me and that was it, but I felt—I could find no other way to put it—that she gave away her body generously. Gave freely to anyone. I thought her initially a Dostoevskian Nastasja Filipovna from my favorite novel, The Idiot. (I liked to mentally catalogue Russians I met into Dostoevskian types.) Nastasja, the tragic femme fatale, who threw one hundred thousand rubles into the fireplace during a birthday party, and then asked a specific person to fetch it from the fire with bare hands so that the guests could see his soul in action. No, the woman lying next to me was not Nastasja. She was Lizaveta from Crime and Punishment. Not the whole Lizaveta, but Lizaveta as far as Alina’s “soul in action” was concerned. Lizaveta, the meek, hard-working, younger sister of the pawn-broker and Raskolnikov’s accidental victim.
It had always puzzled me that many men lusted after Lizaveta, in spite of her unremarkable looks, her meekness, and poverty. She must not have smelled very nice either. But Lizaveta gave herself away readily to any man who wanted her, and she was often wanted, and admired, loved, needed. I hadn’t understood Lizaveta then, but nested in Alina’s arms, it suddenly dawned on me that Alina was Lizaveta, a person living in her body with generosity towards other bodies. This generosity was both innocent and knowing, non-judgmental and intuiting the terms and terminology of other bodies. She hugged me tighter. Was this the “chaste embrace” I had heard about? How did this come to her? To others like her? Did I ever have it? Would I ever?
“Those men, your husband’s friends who come to you, what are they like?” I asked.
“They are good people, darling, mostly gentle. It is just desire for them. It lives for only a little while.”
I wanted to believe these men were mostly gentle. Or gentle next to her. It seemed entirely plausible somehow.
“Were any of them in love with you? How could they not be?”
She was silent. I sensed her sadness and blankness, but it was very abstract, as if there was no door into that space, not for me.
“At Neiman Marcus you said to me ‘you have something.’ What did you mean?”
“The way you looked at me—with the defiance and boredom of a young girl.”
I closed my eyes and fell into a deep cave of sleep. I had a vivid dream. I was in a movie theater watching a film made with technology that awakens all of our senses. On the screen I watched and felt the most primitive one-celled organisms bumping into each other in endless waves of orgasms. I was watching this film and thinking: Life evolved from orgasms.
I woke up to soft sunlight and Alina sitting on our bed, dressed in jeans and a white linen blouse. Her face was radiant and a little shiny from face cream. She was nursing a cup of coffee in a black mug. We ordered room service breakfast—scrambled eggs and French toast with jam—and asked polite questions about quality of sleep and quality of weather. My shift at work started at 9:00 a.m. sharp. I could see Neiman Marcus from a window in the living room, right across Union Square. A very short walk back to my life.
I didn’t want to return to work in clothes I wore the night before, so Alina found a dress for me. I put my hands up, obediently, like a girl, while she slipped the dress over my head. It was slightly big on me—I was slimmer than Alina—but it worked. A handsome, light blue dress: simply cut, heavy linen, knee-length. We found a wide light belt to go with it—the dress looked more my size when I was belted at the waist.
She pulled out her big make-up case and got to work on my face. It took a long time and she followed a strict procedure: concealer, foundation, eye-shadow, little angled brushes, big brushes, a brush for every stroke and color. I was to look down when she applied mascara. I briefly glanced at myself in the mirror just for basic information and decided to really look later. That make-up session was Alina’s drawing of me on my face and I wanted to know how she saw me.
She disappeared into the bedroom and came back with a sizable Louis Vuitton bag and some clothes over her arm. Three dresses, a polka-dot top, two light-weight sweaters, my pink robe with the peacock. She packed the bag, my bag now, with my gifts and I thought: Is she preparing me for an escape, or perhaps an elopement?
Old bag across my chest, Louis Vuitton in hand, I was ready to depart. Alina walked me to the door and we did the Russian-style, double-cheek kiss. She said, “How lovely you look. Don’t be late for work.” These words sounded domestic, what the wife says to the husband on TV.
I marched across Union Square, past the front door of Neiman Marcus to the “employees only” entrance. I then turned around and started walking in the opposite direction, to Kuleto’s. Not seeing much, I just walked, fast and uncharacteristically purposeful. It was too early for Kuleto’s to be open, so I stood at the window looking at the table where I had sat the night before with Alina. Our chairs were turned legs up, perched on the table. It took me a moment to recognize myself in the window’s reflection behind Alina’s clever, cat-eye make-up that would be washed away tonight. I felt certain that I would never see her again, would never feel her gentle presence, would not know how to be gentle myself.
Svetlana Beggs is a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, and holds an M.A. in Philosophy. Her poems will appear in forthcoming issues of Columbia Poetry Review and Pleiades, and her flash story was in a recent issue of Bartleby Snopes. Her philosophy essay about friendship and conflict was selected for a collection of essays, Friends and Foes. She lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter.
My father’s hair is a tuft of wolf fur; his clothes and body a grimy rag wrapped around a charred bone; his arms, a stick tied crosswise to the bone with sinew. My mother is a dirt-stuffed sock topped with a tangle of red string, in a dress cut from an old skirt. My younger sister Edna is a shard of bark with a face drawn on it, in charcoal. My older sister Joy is an empty doll’s smock, because she is dead.
Edna hums to herself as she pieces together the last figurine from twigs and twine, packing the head with muddy cotton for a scraggly beard: me. The likeness is striking. We are too thin and dry and knobby, my effigy and I, and neither of us can move our legs.
I almost order Edna to throw her playmates in the fire and find us some food. But if I open my mouth, the words might snap the weak thread that holds her mind to the living world, and I will lose her forever. So I sit on the dirt floor of the cabin, in my stiff cocoon of blankets, and watch as she transforms our family stories into a puppet-play, voicing each of us in turn.
Our parents settled in this valley long before we were born, and built a cabin beside the wide, cold creek at its bottom. My father collected berries and shot animals with an old revolver. My mother tended the garden and three children, once we came along. Their earthly possessions amounted to a cast-iron skillet and a kettle, a skinning knife, two knitting needles, and an onionskin Bible. My mother taught us how to read from the book, and to write words on a board with bits of chalk. Eventually my father ran out of bullets for the pistol, but we still used the grip to beat rabbits and marmots to death, after we snared their legs in traps. Every few weeks my father carved a spear from a long branch and disappeared into the woods above the cabin, returning with armfuls of bloody venison. He made a fire by the creek and pushed the burning coals into a shallow pit, skewered the flesh on the spear and let it sizzle in the heat. We sat on boulders by the water and tore into that crackling feast, joking and laughing as the juices dripped down our chins. My mother used to tell us that everything outside our valley was poison, and how lucky we were to live here alone.
Then my father broke his ankle.
For the rest of his life, he walked with a slow limp. He told me to hunt, but I lacked his stealth in the woods: deer heard my footsteps from a distance, and ran. So we lived off animals caught in the traps, and whatever we grew in the garden. Our bodies thinned, our muscles like rope on bone. Winter arrived too early that year, the ice choking our peppers and beans in their beds. We chewed on boiled roots to kill our hunger. When the kettle rusted apart, and the skinning knife broke at the handle, my mother cried out that the Lord had abandoned us. That was before Joy curled on the floor of the cabin, moaning whenever one of us touched her. By the next morning she was dead and stiff, and my mother never spoke another word again.
We used too much of our dwindling strength to bury Joy in the garden, chopping at the frozen ground with shards from the kettle. My father disappeared into a grove of pines near the house, where we could see his fire at night, and hear him yelling at ghosts, blaming them for something called Nam. In the cabin we were too weak to move much. I found myself sucking at the flap of skin beneath my thumb, imagining how it would taste if I bit down and chewed. By then I could no longer stand upright. Edna dug up some acorns in the dooryard, smashed them to pieces with the revolver, and chewed them to a warm pulp she shoved in our mouths, massaging our throats so we swallowed the hard bits of shell. Every night I bent my head to a chink in the cabin wall, watching for the gray flicker of wolves at the edge of the woods, and drooled at the thought of sinking my teeth into their meat. My father went silent. Edna tore apart his doll and tossed the pieces into the fireplace, saying the beasts had eaten his flesh. If I could walk, I might have fought them for a scrap of him. The hunger had swallowed my revulsion, along with my hope, but I swear I never thought of attacking Edna or my mother. I swear. We were maybe a day away from death when your helicopter descended from the sky.
Nick Kolakowski’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Evergreen Review, Satellite Magazine, Carrier Pigeon and Shotgun Honey, among other publications. He’s also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction that covers (and sometimes, lovingly skewers) everything from ancient Greek tragedies to Albert Einstein. He lives and writes in New York City.
The real estate agent pulled at the hem of her skirt. In the shop she had thought it too short but her lack of inhibition after a couple of lunchtime drinks swayed her decision.
—I like your skirt, said the girl wanting a one-bedroom flat.
—Oh, thank you, said the agent. —I got it at Reddy Teddy. You don’t think it’s too short?
—No, not at all.
—You need to be careful in this job. You don’t want to seem too available.
—I’m sure you don’t.
—The flat isn’t far. Beaumont Avenue. Do you know it?
—No, I don’t.
—It’s very nice. Edwardian. Quiet. It leads onto Baron’s Court Road, close to West Ken tube.
The two women left the agency and walked down Fulham Broadway. The agent, Marilyn, had recently divorced after fourteen years of childless marriage. She didn’t want another relationship. Her client, Jane, had just returned from Spain where she had been teaching English, and she was looking for a place of her own as she was staying with plastic friends at the moment and her life was overcrowded.
As they walked to her car, Marilyn asked, —How long were you in Spain?
—About eight years.
—A long time. What brought you back?
—I got fed up with the job. It’s very limiting, teaching English. There’s only so far you can go, and I wanted to do something different.
—Any idea what?
—My degree is in media studies. I’d like to get into journalism.
—Difficult, I’d imagine.
—Yes, I suppose so.
As they neared her car, Marilyn turned to cross the street and bumped into Jane. Jane apologised and Marilyn said, —No, it’s my fault. I should look where I’m going. It’s just across here.
Jane had felt Marilyn’s hip against hers. A metallic hip; hard and cold. She had known a metal woman in Seville, cold and inflexible, with a clockwork heart and a computerised brain. And even though she knew deep down that not all metals were like that, the memory stirred whenever she met anyone metallic.
In the car, as she strapped herself in, she wanted to touch Marilyn’s arm, to tap it with her knuckle to see if it went donk like The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. She turned to look at the backseat and brought her arm round to tap Marilyn’s shoulder as if by accident, but as she twisted round, Marilyn moved her arm to steer out of the parking space.
—All right? asked Marilyn, wondering why her client was looking in the backseat.
—Oh, yes, said Jane, —I thought I saw someone I knew.
—You know this part of town?
—Not really, I’ve always lived in Islington. Fulham is new to me.
—It used to be very run-down, but recently it’s become quite trendy.
—And pushed the prices up.
—Which must be good for you?
Marilyn braked suddenly when an old man stepped into the road. And Jane thought she heard a clunk as Marilyn was forced forward against the seatbelt. Was it Marilyn, or the seatbelt? The old man looked at the car as if he owned the road and cars had no right to be there.
Marilyn rubbed her shoulder. —Sorry about that. Stupid old coot.
—You hurt your shoulder?
—It does that. A couple of years ago I was carrying a heavy case and when I tried to put it in the car I pulled a tendon or something. Ever since then it gives me an occasional twinge, just to remind me.
—I use homoeopathic arnica, which helps a lot, but whenever there’s a knock or a strain it hurts. Here we are.
The house was Edwardian, four-storeys in grey brick, originally red, but made grey from the grime in the city atmosphere.
As she led the way up the stairs, Marilyn was aware of Jane looking up her skirt; not looking up the stairs to see where she was going, she was definitely looking up her skirt. But instead of being affronted, as she would have been had it been a man, Marilyn was mildly excited and resisted any impulse to pull at the hem of her skirt.
Jane was an attractive girl and Marilyn had always wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl, or more.
The flat was on the top floor. It had a large living room, a smaller but adequate double bedroom with just enough room for a bed, wardrobe and a chest of drawers. In the tiny kitchen, with a tiny window overlooking a roof and a gutter, Jane deliberately bumped against Marilyn and Marilyn bumped against the counter. There was a definite metallic clunk. —Sorry about that, said Jane.
—It’s a very tiny kitchen, said Marilyn.
Could it have been a saucepan? There was nothing metal on the counter. What went clunk?
The living room had an ugly couch and an uglier cupboard and coffee table. The furniture was unpleasant, but not to the extent that it would drive Jane away. No, the reason Jane disliked the flat was not the dowdy furniture, nor the tiny kitchen, but because the bathroom had no bath. How could you call it a bathroom if it had no bath?
—I couldn’t live somewhere without a bath, said Jane.
—I know what you mean. A bath is so relaxing. A shower is never the same, is it?
—There’s another one-bed nearby, said Marilyn. —I feel certain it has a bath rather than just a shower. Would you like to go and see it? It’s very close.
As Marilyn stepped down the stairs, Jane had the mad idea of pushing her to see if, when she fell, she came apart and rattled down the stairs with rivets and aluminium limbs bouncing down.
—Careful on the stairs, said Marilyn. —They are very steep. Built before the days of building regulations.
Outside, the sun came from a blue sky and warmed the Earth and Marilyn and Jane.
They walked through a small park. Lollipop trees swayed, trying to look bigger than their worth. Children played on the swings and giggled.
—Do you have children? asked Jane.
—No, replied Marilyn, abruptly.
—Oh, I’m sorry.
—No, I’m glad. He was a monster. Clay. Hollow. Had no empathy or understanding of the desires and wishes of others.
—I know what you mean.
—That’s the house.
It overlooked the park, and had a grand façade with a portico. The flat was in a roof conversion, and Marilyn once again enjoyed the feeling that Jane was looking up her skirt as they climbed the stairs.
Jane liked the flat as soon as she stepped in. Somebody happy had been living here. The living room was not large but, as she would be living alone, more space was unnecessary, and a small room would be easier to heat in cold weather. The bathroom had a bath as all bathrooms should, and the grand kitchen could easily be home to two people, should Jane ever find herself in a relationship with someone who could cook. But it was the bedroom that decided it; she loved the sloping ceiling and the dormer window that filled the room with light. When she looked out over the garden she fell in love with the mature cherry tree and, in the garden next door, a beautiful maple. She turned to Marilyn. —I’ll take it, she said, smiling.
—It’s a lovely flat, said Marilyn. —And not too expensive for this area.
As they descended the stairs, Jane realised her desire to see Marilyn tumble and break apart had dissipated.
They left the house with Jane feeling all the worries of the past weeks melting away.
Marilyn pointed out the nearby tube and shops and, while they walked back through the park, Jane imagined herself as a teacher, sitting on a park bench on a summer’s evening, marking homework.
In the car, she asked Marilyn, —Do you live around here?
—Hammersmith. Not far.
—So what’s it like driving people around to see flats?
—If I can find something for a client, it’s satisfying, but some clients have so many stipulations about what they want; you can spend ages finding something suitable, and they’re still not happy.
Back in the office, Marilyn printed a contract and slid it across the desk for Jane to read. It was busy today and Richard, Marilyn’s co-worker, was taking a young couple to see a house. He waved as he left and she smiled.
—That seems okay, said Jane, unable to read the small print, and not really understanding much of what she’d read.
—Sign here, and here, and here, said Marilyn, putting crosses to guide her client, and she gave Jane a pen.
Then she saw Jane’s hand. —You’ve got woodworm.
—Oh, it’s old. I’ve been treated.
—We’re not allowed to rent to wood.
—The landlords don’t want it.
—Isn’t that illegal?
—Yes, but proving your material is the reason for being turned down for accommodation is almost impossible.
—It’s so unfair.
—I loved that flat.
—I know. But I know for a fact the owner of that property won’t have wooden tenants.
—He’s terrified of woodworm.
—But the furniture’s rubbish.
—It’s not the furniture. It’s the beams and floorboards. The house is very old.
—But that’s ridiculous. Jane started to cry and her tears soaked into her face and revealed a scrolly walnut grain. —I’m living with flat pack and plastic people. I need somewhere of my own. I thought this would be the answer. Why do they do this? We’re being pushed out of everywhere. Plastic is taking over.
Marilyn handed her a tissue. —I know. I’m scared myself.
Jane looked into Marilyn’s cold eyes. —Are you metal?
Marilyn nodded, returning Jane’s look. —There are so few of us left. If we’re discovered, they melt us down to make cars or computers.
Jane took Marilyn’s hand. It was hard and cold. —I’m sorry. I’m sorry I blamed you. It’s not your fault. It’s the way of the world, how it is, and where it’s heading.
—Take my advice, said Marilyn. —Go back to Spain. Where nature still has a place, where wood and metal are still accepted, and revered.
—Yes, said Jane, and she let go of Marilyn’s hand, and wiped her tears with the tissue, revealing more of her scrolly walnut grain. —I’d better go, she said, —I shouldn’t keep you from your job.
—Take care, said Marilyn, and watched her leave and cross the street without looking back.
She went into the office and checked her makeup to make sure nothing shined through. When she returned to the showroom, there were three people, a man, woman, and child.
—Hello, said the man, and all three beamed bright plastic smiles. —I’m a marketing executive and this is my wife and daughter. We’re looking for a modern three-bedroom apartment, penthouse or loft, open plan, with dimmable windows, underfloor heating, air comfort cooling, en-suite bathrooms, terrace, private garden, and in-house gym. It will be a short let–eight months–so we would like it furnished, preferably repro Biedermeier, leather, of course.
—Blue, if possible, added the wife with her perfect white teeth glinting.
—Smartphone automated, with concierge and 24/7 security.
—And elegantly decorated, said the wife. —Not white.
—And private parking.
—And close to schools.
The man looked hopeful. Marilyn tugged at the hem of her skirt.
—Of course, she said. —We have an apartment in King’s Road I think will be ideal. And she clicked a remote at a screen on the wall to show them the apartment she had in mind.
Samantha Memi is the author of the chapbook Kate Moss & Other Heroines, and the story collection All in letters bound in string. She lives in London.
Standing on the balcony on the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise on Collins Avenue, the Nut King surveys his domain. The creamy-green Atlantic stretches flat to the horizon where it’s wedged against the cerulean sky so bright and hard—like the taffy you have to slap on the table to break—that the Nut King turns away, slides open the tall glass doors, and steps into the artificial air-conditioned coolness.
“Seen my sunglasses?”
Tracy shrugs. She’s applying the last coat of tangerine polish to her toenails, and if she glances at him or gets up to walk around to look for them she’s certain to smear the third coat over the second to create a mottled mess more volcanic than smooth.
The Nut King shuffles over in his white bathrobe and slippers and plants a distracted kiss on the top of her head. His head sports a fuzzy ring of grey-turning-to-white hair around his balding pate, and his wire-rimmed reading glasses are pushed up on his forehead like an extra set of eyes. Otherwise he’s in decent shape for a man his age. At least he can get it up.
“Coming on the boat today?”
Tracy’s mouth contorts sideways, a cross between a pucker and a frown.
“I should go to the studio.”
“It’s Sunday! You can paint tomorrow. C’mon, I’m making Bloodys,” he says, padding into the kitchen. She hears the crunch-crunch of the ice machine, the musical plink-plink as the cubes drop into a glass.
Truth be told, Tracy hates the ocean. Or, actually, she loves the ocean when she’s next to it, lounging on a towel, or in it, swimming with long crisp strokes, but she doesn’t enjoy being on it—in a boat of any size—and certainly not with the Nut King on his small fishing craft as he revs the engine and hurtles full throttle over the wakes of larger vessels, whooping like a six year old. Which is pretty much what he is, a boy trapped in the body of a man.
Still, the thought of not going to the studio has a certain appeal. She’s at a dead end with painting these days. Inspiration has gone out with the tide, leaving her grouchy, staring at blank canvases as she dodges her gallery dealer’s calls. She twists the top back on the polish and admires her toes, ten perfect surfaces as smooth as tumbled garnets.
The Nut King hands her a cocktail in a tall jelly jar glass, a stalk of celery sprouting above the rim.
“Don’t spill that shit, sweetheart.”
Is he talking about the nail polish or the drink? Maybe both. He’s the only straight man Tracy knows who keeps a spotless house, the only person at all she knows who keeps Windex and a cloth on hand for impromptu scrubbing. Maybe his neatness fixation comes from a yearlong stint at a small nut company in Somerville, Massachusetts, where, just out of college and eager to avoid the family business—health insurance providers based in seven major American cities—he took over an aging nut roasting company and polished it back to viability. “Who doesn’t love nuts,” he likes to say. Bulging bags of pistachios, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, and sugary-salty peanuts—accompanied by a bottle of Dom Perignon—are his gifts of choice to everyone from his brother to Miguel the doorman. Tracy finds his quirky gift-giving habits amusing and endearing.
“Cheers.” Tracy lifts her glass, careful not to drip on the cool marble floor where she sits. The walls and furniture around her are white, and tables and doors are glass and steel. The only color in the apartment, other than her gleaming toes and a lapis table, are the paintings that cover the walls and stack in corners, including her own large canvas, “Saint Jose tames the Wild Cats of Wynwood,” hung in a place of honor above the faux fireplace. He bought the painting at her last one-woman show, three months ago, shortly before asking her for a date. She eyes the other paintings and wonders how many involved sexual conquest.
Tracy rises and waddles, toes splayed, to the balcony. She slides the door open without spilling her cocktail, and steps out into the blast of humidity and heat that is June in Miami. A handful of ant-sized people lay scattered across the beach, lolling before the day gets too hot. She swigs the cool liquid, flushing as the zing of horseradish and the heavy-handed vodka invade her circulatory system. Squinting at the expanse of faded brown sand where no one is moving, she thinks of Ak-Mak crackers dotted with sesame seeds and toasted poppy bagels. She could paint this scene. Mix some Prussian blue with phthalo turquoise and add a smidge of titanium white. But, shit, she’s out of turquoise now, isn’t she? Used the last squeeze for the dress of the matron in her “Museum Series” painting, a series she now hates. She steps back inside.
“Okay. I’ll go boating.”
“Yay! Yay!” says the Nut King, turning from his desk where spreadsheets and numbers fill the wide computer screen as stock prices scroll in an endless ribbon below.
“But no speeding. And no smoking pot.”
“I mean it. Promise me.”
“I promise,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling like the water she loves so much.
Flap-flap. Flap-flap. Tracy’s flip-flops slap the dock as she walks to where the Nut-King is hosing down the Miss Pecan Sandy, christened for his toxic ex-wife, a name, he explains, he’s too lazy to change. She’s wearing her one-piece Speedo under denim cutoffs. He’s sporting checkered shorts, a pink Izod shirt, Sperry top-siders—no socks—and a Tag Heuer watch the size of a lime. Everything about him is slightly tattered and askew, a look the uber-rich acquire that says they couldn’t care less about wealth and status. They are that fucking rich. Tracy’s income last year, from adjunct teaching and painting sales, is most likely less than what the Nut King spent on the ruby earrings he bought for his daughter last week. She realizes she’s dancing on the edge of this privileged world, allowed access as a bohemian curiosity perhaps, a performing monkey in the one-percent’s zoo. She doesn’t really care. She’s not here for the money. She simply likes this guy, at least so far. And after Baby-Carrot Man, the Poet, the Long-Limbed Mandolin Player, and Asshat Bill, anyone is an improvement.
“Hand me that,” says the Nut King. He takes her mesh bag, bulging with sunscreen, a towel, a sketchbook, pens, a swim cap and goggles, and stashes it near his cooler filled with who-knows-what beverages, ice, and snacks.
“Ahoy! Captain Sparky!”
Tracy turns and sees a couple she doesn’t recognize: a man, late-forties, wearing swim trunks and a tee, and a tall, stunning woman in a flowery sundress who could be a body double for Penelope Cruz. They carry plastic supermarket bags bulging with chips and beer, and Tracy realizes they aren’t heading to board their own vessel; they are arriving to hop on the Mz. P.S., as she calls the dinghy. She shoots the Nut-King a seething look that says, “Who-what-the-fuck?” but he only offers a sheepish grin, and steps around her.
“Liam! What’s the stoooory?”
The Nut King thumps Liam’s back, and wraps his arm about his neck in a chokehold. The men tussle and shout, breaking apart with curses of testosterone-fueled endearment. Asshat! Dipshit! Double-dipshit!
“Liam’s my old roommate from New York, the TV producer I told you about,” says the Nut King.
Tracy’s never heard him mention this guy, but she smiles.
“And who’s this beauty? Liam, you dog, you’ve been holding out on me.”
“This is Claudia,” says Liam. He pronounces it the Latin way, Cloud-ee-ah.
Claudia-Penelope removes her sunglasses, revealing large burnt sienna colored eyes with mascara-manicured lashes.
“Thanks for the invite! I’ve been waiting all week.”
“All week?” says Tracy, raising her eyebrows and glancing sideways at the Nut King.
“The weather’s been miserable in New York. It won’t stop raining.” Claudia-Penelope says this in a way that makes the weather sound almost sexy—meeezerable—slightly rolling her r’s while slipping her sunglasses back on. Tracy notices she’s holding a large striped sunhat, one that will blow off the minute they careen across the bay. She hopes the Nut King will behave himself on this excursion, if only for the sake of this well-manicured woman. And herself, of course.
“And you must be Tracy,” says Liam. “I’ve heard so much about you. Can’t wait to see your paintings.”
Tracy extends her hand for Liam to shake but he snags her in a quick bear hug.
“Let’s get going,” says the Nut King, hopping on and holding out his arm to help them board.
There’s not much room on the tiny vessel. The Nut King stands behind the wheel. Liam and Claudia-Penelope perch on a bench in front.
“You might want to sit here,” Tracy offers the woman a seat in the back, where the wind and spray are less severe.
“I’m fine. Thanks,” she says, waving Tracy off with a flick of her wrist.
The Nut King eases the boat from its berth and putt-putts along the canal, the glass towers of Collins Avenue on one side, stucco McMansions on the other, heading at a steady but manageable speed into the wide Intracoastal Waterway that separates the island and the mainland—as locals refer to Miami Beach and Miami—before turning south, navigating toward the calm, glistening waters of Biscayne Bay. The air feels cooler out here, the bright sky is clear, the oppressive humidity of the day tempered by a steady breeze. A perfect day for a cruise. Tracy relaxes, happy she turned down a day in her cramped, stuffy studio for some time in the great outdoors. Why live in South Florida if you can’t enjoy its beauty? She brushes her hand along the Nut King’s thigh.
“Ready for a smoke?” Liam extracts a long, fat cylinder from a pack of Marlboros, a hand-rolled, filterless stick Tracy guesses doesn’t hold tobacco.
“A-riiight,” says the Nut King. He slows the boat to a rocking stop, reaching into the cooler to pop open and distribute cans of Pilsner Urqell. Tracy waves him off, grabbing a bottle of water.
Liam lights up, and the pungent, skunky smell of Cannabis Sativa drifts through the salty air. Claudia-Penelope takes the joint, inhales, and passes it to Tracy.
“Tracy doesn’t do pot,” says the Nut King. Intercepting the stoogie, he sucks the end, holding the smoke in his lungs until he can hold no longer.
“Hang on!” shouts the Nut King, passing the joint back to Liam. He pushes the throttle up and they accelerate at a rate that tips their faces toward the sky. Tracy grips the side of her seat as they careen across the wake of a larger boat, slamming down so hard between each swell it’s like someone’s slapping her head from above. She swivels to glare at the Nut King, shouting—“you promised!”—but her words are swallowed by the motor and the wind. Claudia-Penelope’s hat flies off, spinning like a Frisbee to the distant shore, though she doesn’t seem to notice or care.
“Ey-yiiii! Faster! Faster!” shouts Claudia-Penelope. Her plump red-lipsticked lips open wide as she laughs. She’s clutching Liam around the waist, though he still manages to toke between the battering thumps and salt water-soaking spray.
“Faster! Go, go, go!”
Tracy closes her eyes, wondering why these people are having so much fun in a situation she likens to a circle of hell. She’d like to shoot them all and then swim to shore. She’s glad she doesn’t own a gun.
Ahead, lights blink along the side of the Venetian Causeway drawbridge at Rivo Alto Island in syncopation with mechanical warning bells—clank, clank, clank—indicating the steel span is closing. The Mz. P.S. is a tiny vessel, an insect on the sea, and can zip unimpeded beneath the structure, open or closed, though Tracy always ducks her head reflexively, just as she does in most low-ceiling parking garages.
Hurtling forward at ever-faster speed, Tracy wishes she were somewhere else, anywhere else, perhaps painting in the quiet of her studio, when a horn assaults her ears, one large blast from a larger ship, some kind of streamlined yacht with mean black windows and a fuck you attitude that is racing straight at them, gambling to beat the closing bridge.
“Watch out!” Tracy shouts, tugging the Nut King’s shirt and pointing.
The Nut-King swigs his beer, throwing the empty can overboard like a gauntlet into the sea. His cheeks are flushed with wind and booze and machismo, and Tracy can see him calculating how to thread the needle between the approaching ship and the concrete pilings. The horn sounds again, louder, more insistent, the match accepted, the fight on. The bridge continues its downward path, dropping inches every second, threatening to crush the yacht’s radar system, a shiny dome sitting like a pompous crown on a multi-tiered slice of cake.
Tracy punches the Nut King’s shoulder, an action he mistakes as encouragement as he glances at her for the briefest moment, eyes ablaze like some evangelical preacher on a Jesus high, before pressing the throttle up to its limit. Claudia-Penelope shrieks in ecstasy—Saint Theresa on Biscayne Bay—hurtling taunts in Spanish at the larger ship while offering her outstretched middle finger with its polished nail in greeting. Liam takes one last drag on the dwindling joint, holding it elegantly between thumb and middle finger before flicking it into the wind. Clearly, Tracy thinks, I’m the only sane person on this boat. She lunges to control the throttle but is blocked by the Nut King’s steely grip.
“What the fuck!”
He elbows her away and she slips, landing on the deck that is shuddering forward toward what can only be their imminent demise. In a panicked attempt to derail their momentum, Tracy opens her mouth—wide—and chomps on the Nut King’s sculpted calve. She hears his screams above the now-incessant bellowing horn as he attempts to shake her loose, kicking about wildly, but she doesn’t loose her grip, a pit bull warrior queen. The more he thrashes, the deeper her incisors and cuspids sink into his pampered flesh. How far before she reaches bone? Tracy doesn’t know and she doesn’t care. She is trying to save his skinny-assed life—all their lives—and so she holds tight, resisting the urge to gag, until she feels the boat slow, his hands now gripping her hair and pulling hard. She spots the looming hull of the yacht, its angry inhabitants spewing venom from the deck as they sweep past with seconds to spare before the bridge moans shut.
Tracy opens her mouth, falling sideways, and struggles to stand as their vessel rocks wildly in the larger boat’s wake. A second swell crests the dipping bow and tepid bay water sloshes over their feet, lifting the cooler for the briefest moment before depositing it three feet closer to the stern. The Nut King’s face is puffed and aflame, a range of changing hues from vermillion to violet to magenta.
“You’re welcome,” she says.
“What the fuck? You bit me!”
“I saved us!”
“Are you out of your mind?” The Nut King raises his hands and slaps them on his head, as if holding in his brains from exploding.
“We were gonna crash—”
“You flaming cunt! There was plenty of time—”
“What did you call me?” Tracy shouts though the Nut King is no longer listening, his eyes shifting from anger to alarm as the boat swivels in the fast moving current, drifting so close to the pilings she can see how they were cast, their barnacle-crusted surfaces pockmarked with rock and gravel, unyielding sentinels that will surely crack open the Mz. Pecan Sandy.
“Start the engine!” shouts Liam, but the Nut King is already trying, snapping the throttle into neutral and turning the key repeatedly to start the stalled motor—on and off and on—to a rising chorus of “Fucks!” The engine coughs and spurts but doesn’t catch. Claudia-Penelope is wailing, “You ee-diots! Malparidos, guevones!”
Tracy looks up at the azure sky where seagulls ride invisible currents in wide indifferent swoops and realizes she is done with this man, this boat, these ridiculous people—done, done, done—and she sighs, knowing it’s time to return to the constancy of her studio, the smell of linseed oil and paint, wood scraps and leftover Chinese takeout. She imagines the sky as a canvas, and conjures an image of a brand new painting, an ant’s eye view of a glorious blue dome interrupted by small winged creatures, specks of movement that could be atoms or stars, the random nature of the sublime that hovers eternally above manmade wreckage.
Stumbling across the deck, she untangles her mesh bag from the cooler’s handle and extracts her swim cap, stretching it over her hair and ears, diminishing the cacophony of curses. Shrugging off her shorts, she snaps the goggles over her cap, testing to make sure they’re tight, and steps on the bow. Watching, waiting for the swirling waters to spin them round again, away from the soon-to-be kiss of the rigid pilings toward the softness of the welcoming, glimmering bay. Tracy curves her arms above her head, bends her knees, inhales, and leaps.
Necee Regis is a frequent contributor to the travel, food, and magazine sections of The Boston Globe and has also been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, American Way Magazine, The Robb Report, Modern Farmer, The Globe and Mail, and the literary magazine, Tin House. In fiction, excerpts from her unpublished novel, Glitterbox, appeared in Gulf Stream: New Voices From Miami, and Hacks: 10 Years On Grub Street. When not traveling, she divides her time between Boston (summer) and Miami Beach (winter) where she is working on a final draft of yet another novel. For stories, photos, and her oyster blog, visit her website: www.necee.com
Tito Angelini was asleep beside his wife, Francesca, when a loud banging, accompanied by a claw-like shaking on his arm, intruded on his dreams.
“What, what?” he muttered, floundering into consciousness as he freed his arm from his wife’s grip and blinked into what appeared to be floodlights beaming into their second floor bedroom.
“Wake up! There’s someone at the door,” Francesca hissed as Tito groped for the clock, knocking it to the floor, but not before he caught a glimpse of the time, 2:15 a.m.
He stumbled out of bed and grabbed his robe.
“Who is it?” he yelled, descending the stairs as quickly as he was able. When he reached the vestibule he peered through the frosted, oval window of the front door, but could only make out shifting shadows behind the glass.
“This is the Dunmore Fire Department,” a voice replied. “We’re evacuating the street.”
Tito cracked open the door to find three fire fighters haloed in the pulsing red lights of their trucks. UGI Utility vehicles lined the road, and from his narrow front porch Tito could see water gushing down Merrion Street.
“There’ve been reports of a gas odor,” one of the firefighters explained, his cheeks ruddy in the raw March air. “Buses are bringing residents to the Community Center.”
“Didn’t they just replace the pipes last September?” Tito asked. “They dug up the entire street—”
“We think a water main break might have caused a leak. Either way, sir, it’s not safe for you to remain.”
Tito peered down the road, clumps of people already congregating behind a blue wooden police barricade on the corner of Nutley Ave. It looked as though his street was the only one that was cordoned off, and he thought with distaste of having to call his son, Anthony, who lived two streets over. Thea lived a half hour away in Colcannon with her husband and kids, but she had to get up to go to work in the morning.
“Sir? We’ll need you to be out as quickly as possible. Ten, fifteen minutes tops.”
“Right,” Tito nodded. “Thank you.”
As the yellow reflector bands on their uniforms bobbed away down the street, Tito pulled his bathrobe closed and wondered if anyone he knew was out with the utilities tonight. For years it had been he who had been called when there was a downed power line or a blown out transformer. On a night like tonight the poles would be slick with condensation, the metal climber hooks biting cold on his bare hands. Turning into the house, he vacillated between calling Anthony or having to spend the rest of the night beneath the hanging fluorescent fixtures in the Community Center.
“Fran!” he called. “We gotta get dressed. There’s some kind of gas leak. The crews are out and we have to evacuate.”
Francesca stood on the landing in a pale blue nightdress, her hair flattened on one side. “A gas leak? Didn’t they just replace the pipes?”
“Those cast iron pipes lasted for almost a hundred years with no complaints.” Tito paused halfway up the stairs, giving his stiff knees a chance to rest. “Now that they’ve replaced them with plastic, people are calling and complaining that they’re smelling mercaptan.”
“That rotten egg odor.” Tito sniffed the air nervously. “Do you smell anything?”
Francesca flared her nostrils. “Maybe.”
“Come on, we gotta go.”
Tito followed his wife into their room, where the soft mound of bedding gave him an almost irresistible urge to go back to sleep. Instead he picked up the phone and dialed Anthony’s number. It rang and rang, until finally someone picked up, loud music playing in the background.
“Anthony,” Tito yelled, “turn down the music!”
…get back to you. There was a click, and Tito realized with chagrin that he had been talking to Anthony’s machine.
“Anthony, it’s Dad. Mom and I have to evacuate. Something about a gas leak. Where are you? It’s two thirty in the morning. If you get this, call me.” He hung up, picturing Anthony driving around in his souped-up Audi with his arm around some half-dressed girl.
That’s what they wear these days, Fran would shrug, as if, now that Thea was raised and settled, it didn’t concern her. The same way it didn’t seem to bother her that Anthony was twenty-five years old, and neither Tito nor Fran had any idea what he actually did for a living. With his gadgets and made-up job—something in “marketing”—Tito sometimes felt as though Anthony was living in a virtual-reality world. Unless it was Tito who had missed the memo. Maybe, he thought as he pulled socks, jeans and a flannel shirt from his bureau, the message had came through on a device he didn’t own or didn’t know how to use.
You’ve got to get serious about your life, Tito had said the last time he’d had a sit-down talk with his son. You’re too old to be hanging around the clubs all night.
Are you talking about Buskers, that dive? Anthony had scoffed. If I want to go to a club, Dad, I’ll drive to Philly or New York.
I guess Flanigan’s, that dive, was always good enough for me, Tito thought as he tried to hook his sock over his toe. He glanced at Fran, not wanting her to see that he was having difficulty, but she was buttoning her blouse. Matter of fact, he sighed, he wouldn’t mind a mug of Guinness right about now, chalky with an edge of bitter, meeting up with the guys from Local 537 before heading home to Fran and the kids. He was usually one of the first to leave; at least he tried to do the right thing.
“Are you coming?” Fran touched his shoulder. Her overnight bag, the one she used when she went to stay with Thea and the grandkids, lay open on the bed. After Thea, Fran had thought she couldn’t have any more children, but then along came Anthony. A time-of-life baby, the doctor had called him, and Anthony had been having the time of his life ever since.
With a final tug on his sock, Tito recalled one of the first times his boss, Joe Franconi, had stepped into the break room where Tito had been filling out paperwork.
Your wife’s on the line. Joe had watched Tito a bit too carefully, as if he could suss out whatever family embarrassment it was that would call Tito to the phone in the middle of his shift.
A half hour later Tito had been down at Dunmore Elementary, clomping into the principal’s office, where Fran jumped up when she saw Tito, and Anthony was sitting contritely on a molded plastic chair, his feet not quite reaching the ground.
“So, Anthony,” Principal McLaren had said, “would you like to tell your father why you’re here?” Beneath the sternness Tito could sense a flicker of indulgence sparking around the edges of the principal’s voice. It was a response, Tito had come to recognize, that seemed to trail after Anthony, a kind of photoelectric effect he had on people, and not only his mother.
“I put a frog in Louisa Delray’s desk,” Anthony mumbled.
Delray . . . Tito looked to Fran, who raised an eyebrow. So this must be Joe Delray’s daughter, Tito thought, the same Joe Delray whom Tito had gone to school with thirty years ago, and whose picture was in the local paper with his arm around the mayor. Joe Delray owned some kind of internet company before “online” was more or less the place where people lived. Even back then the company made Delray enough money to be building a brand new house up in Clarks Summit. Tito, meanwhile, had been going on three years without a cost-of-living raise.
“So no more frogs, okay?” Principal McLaren said as Anthony scooted off the chair. When he nodded, that quick dip of the cowlick, Anthony looked exactly like Fran. He even had the same smile, something Tito wished he could grab a hold of and keep, but it was moving too fast.
Eight years later Anthony’s date to the prom had been Louisa Delray.
Fran, meanwhile, was zipping up her carry case, and Tito was about to ask if he could throw a few things in as well, but he dumped his bowling ball on the bed instead and used the case to pack a change of clothes, his toothbrush, and shaver. On the way out the door he grabbed the cell phone that Anthony had given him at Christmas. He pressed the button on the side as multi-colored pixels bobbed across the screen. Frowning, he slipped it into his pocket.
“Double tap the message icon,” Anthony had said on Christmas morning as he talked about 3G versus 4G, SIM cards, data plans, and Wi-Fi.
Tito rapped the screen twice. Nothing happened.
“You have to tap it fast, like this.” Anthony took the palm-sized device and demonstrated, his thumbs scrabbling like mice over the minuscule keys that were really just pictures of minuscule keys.
When he held out the phone for his father to try, Tito’s fingers, which could install a conduit or thread a wire through the tiniest of openings, thumped clumsily over the glass. Anthony laughed, and Tito threw the phone on the couch.
“Dad,” Anthony said. “I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“Like hell you weren’t.”
“It’s just—come on. It’s kind of funny, that’s all. Lighten up.”
“What did you say?”
“Oh Christ. Here we go again.” Anthony reached for the remote.
“Maybe in my twenties I thought I had all the answers, too. But at least I knew what it meant to work.”
“Whoa.” Anthony held up his hands. “Knew what it meant to work, Dad? Where do you think I got the money to buy you the latest model phone?”
“I’m talking about union wages, not some marketing nonsense. I was nineteen when I joined Local 537, and by the time I was your age I’d already been promoted from Lineman to Supervisor. There were so many cave-ins from abandoned mines that the entire block south of Wiley, including all twelve homes on the street, collapsed in ’71, taking the electric lines down with them.”
“That’s great, Dad. Very impressive. I believe you’ve told me this story before.” Anthony unmuted the TV, and Tito felt blood rushing to his head, dots floating in his peripheral vision like pixels on a screen that was about to go black. He reached out to grab the remote from Anthony’s hand, but then the remote was on the coffee table and Anthony had stood up.
“Even if I wanted a union job, Dad, assuming I could get a union job, what do you think they’re paying the new hires these days? And there sure as hell wouldn’t be a pension waiting for me when I retired. You got out just in time.”
The problem, Tito thought as he juggled Fran’s suitcase in one hand and clutched the bannister with the other, was that Anthony made Tito feel stupid.
It’s nothing personal, Joe Franconi had said when he’d pulled Tito into his office before Thanksgiving. It’s about the numbers. He’d shrugged. I’d think you’d want to retire, Tito; you’ll still get your pension.
Three months later Tito had sat on the couch, sixty-five years old and surrounded by staticky pieces of silver tinsel, staring at a phone he had no idea how to use after having alienated his son who, even if Tito’s suspicions were correct, and Anthony did in fact wax his eyebrows, was still the one person who might have helped Tito learn.
So no, he’d thought, scrolling through the muted TV channels, he was not going to admit that he did not find the cell phone “intuitive.”
He locked the front door, the night air bracing and fresh. Francesca was wearing the knit hat that Thea had given her for Christmas, and as the generator lights cast shadows over her face she looked twenty years old. When was the last time, Tito wondered, that they had been out so late at night? It was almost festive with the flares and people milling around. He put his arm around Fran’s shoulder.
“Do you think we should call Thea?” she asked.
“No. She and Walter have to get up early for work.”
“Anthony will probably call back.”
“You’re too hard on him, Tito.”
“Why doesn’t anyone ever say he’s too hard on me?” Tito lowered his voice when he saw his neighbor shepherding all seven of her homeschooled children out onto their porch a few feet away.
“Hello Mrs. O’Kelley,” Francesca called across the alley. “Heading to the Community Center?”
“We’ll be staying with church friends,” Mrs. O’Kelley replied, the glassy eyes of her children reflecting the light like the gaze of raccoons.
“You don’t see those kids dry-cleaning their jeans,” Tito muttered.
“What are you talking about?”
“Our son, Anthony!”
“Tito Angelini, I believe you might be jealous.”
“Like hell I am.” The O’Kelleys stopped to gape at him. “What are you staring at?” he barked.
They turned in unison and continued towards their mini-van with the Come to Jesus, Come to Life! bumper sticker plastered on the back.
“I don’t understand you,” Francesca continued. “Aren’t you happy that Anthony is doing well?”
“Maybe, but neither of us has any real idea what he does. When you wire a circuit box you can at least point at it and see that it’s there. How well can Anthony be doing when he barely works?”
“You always say that, Tito, but things are different today. Anthony deals with people who work half way around the globe, in a different time zone.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I asked. Come on,” she said, starting down the porch steps. “Stop being so cranky.”
The slabs of the sidewalk were uneven and buckled by tree roots, and as Tito maneuvered over a particularly rough spot, a tinny melody emanated from his pocket. He pulled out the phone to see a lit-up photo of Anthony in a backwards Phillies hat, and he jabbed at the photo.
“Swipe it!” Francesca drew frantic zigzag motions in the air, but the instant Tito dragged his finger across the screen, the ringing stopped.
“Was that Anthony? Call him back.”
Tito stared at the screen, but it gave him no indication of what random series of pokes or prods would make the device function like an actual phone.
“Give me that,” Francesca sighed. After a few deft maneuvers she lifted the phone to her ear. “Anthony? You got our message? That’s okay. I’m sorry we woke you—yes, we’re going to the bus. Tito?” She turned to him. “Anthony’s on his way. Should we go back to the house, or wait—?”
Tito pointed towards the barricade. “Tell him we’ll meet him there—the corner of Merrion and Nutley.”
“Dad said we’ll meet you—” Before she could finish her sentence, though, an enormous, hollow boom reverberated through the air. Tito was thrown to the ground, and as the loose gravel embedded itself into his palm, he saw the cell phone skitter across the pavement, the Martucci’s blue spruce illuminated in an instant of garish, unnatural daylight. Tito scrambled onto his hands and knees, but then buckled and grabbed his elbow as an asphyxiating pain shot from the palm of his hand up his arm.
“Fran? Fran!” he groped towards her as a second blast shook the ground and a roaring filled the air. He looked up to see billows of gray smoke pouring from the O’Kelley’s home, his own porch just a few yards away. For an incongruous moment the smoke reminded Tito of the fur of the Connelly’s poodle.
“I’m right here.” Tito tried to help her up, but he only had the use of one hand, the pain in his wrist making him grimace whenever he moved it the wrong way. He could feel the heat from the fire against his cheek, while people ran in different directions, some of them, he realized, climbing over the blockade towards them. One figure in particular, with a loping, easy stride, looked familiar, a backwards baseball cap on his head as he emerged from the shadows.
“Ma!” Anthony cried. “Dad. Thank God—” He bent to help Francesca to her feet.
“Is this yours?” He nodded to Tito’s bowling bag. Pulling the luggage with one hand, he supported his mother’s elbow with the other. As they made their way towards the blockade, Tito recognized Anthony’s shiny, silver car pulled askew to the curb, the door open where he must have left it when the blast occurred.
“The phone.” Tito turned back to a street filled with blown-out debris, firemen aiming their hoses at flames that gusted through a dirty orange sky.
“Forget it,” Anthony said. “It’s not important.”
Tito, though, started to retrace his steps, searching through the broken glass littering the road.
“Hold on, Ma.” Anthony crunched over to Tito and put his arm around his father’s shoulders. “Dad. We have to go.”
Disoriented, Tito dragged his attention away from the mute, glittering asphalt, as if a giant screen had broken, and Tito had no idea how to fix it. He turned to his son as soot drifted over them like a curse, or a benediction, Anthony’s strong, young body braced against Tito’s own.
Tania Moore’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review,The Flexible Persona, St. Sebastian Review, Quiddity, Kestrel, The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture, About Place Journal: A Retrospective of the Civil Rights Movement, among others, and she has been anthologized in Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers;Crack the Spine; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosm. Having earned her MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts, she teaches creative writing at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx and lives along the mighty Hudson River. Find out more at www.taniamoore.me.
A line of parents was already waiting in the assembly room by the time school let out for the day. Diane made her way through the rows of gurneys staffed by workers from the local blood bank, past the PTA volunteers wearing matching T-shirts that said, “What’s your type?”
The posters publicizing the blood drive were all over campus. Since the accident two weeks prior Thomas’s face had been everywhere, his blond hair hanging shaggily across one eye as he smiled for the camera. He was in her daughter Leila’s fifth-grade class. They’d gone to school together since kindergarten and had played on the same soccer team during first grade, the two of them standing next to each other in their team photo. How quickly he’d become the poster child for every parent’s nightmare, Diane thought.
The information had seeped in from multiple sources, each update adding a new terrible layer of specificity, hard-edged details glinting like shards of glass. A crossing-guard out sick that day; a car that came around the corner too fast. Thomas, already halfway across the street, unable to move out of the way in time. He’d been thrown onto the hood by the impact and lacerated his spleen. At his mother’s request, the PTA had quickly organized today’s drive to support the blood bank that had been his lifeline at the hospital.
A few days earlier Diane had run into Carrie, the PTA president, at the supermarket. Their relationship had never really progressed past the hello stage; in the concentric rings of popularity among the mothers at the school, Carrie orbited near the center, Diane, on an outer ring.
“Hi, Diane!” Carrie said, turning back from unloading her cart. She was wearing turquoise cropped pants and a flowered cardigan. “How are you? I don’t know if you heard—I’m putting together a meal sign-up sheet for Thomas’s family. Let me know if you’re interested.”
“Yes, definitely,” Diane said. Of course Carrie, polished and efficient, would be at the center of the coordination efforts. Diane was suddenly aware of how unkempt she must look in her faded jeans and flip-flops. “Have you heard anything about how Thomas is doing?” she asked.
“His mom said he’s doing pretty well, considering. They were really worried about the internal injuries.” Carrie paused, smoothing her hair back behind her ear. “It turns out he has one of the rarer blood types—he just about depleted the supply at the hospital.” She sighed. “When she asked if we could host a blood drive at school, I told her we’d make it happen.”
Diane nodded sympathetically. Carrie and the other PTA moms had been doing a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes. She felt a small flush of inadequacy; her own plan to donate blood suddenly seemed a paltry contribution. “I’ll be there,” she replied.
Diane stood in the doorway, surveying the school assembly room. It looked like a Red Cross shelter furnished with rows of gurneys rather than cots. Carrie was walking down one of the rows, heading away from her, writing on a clipboard. Along the walls, children in black-and-white class pictures from years past smiled down on them.
Underneath a row of photos from the 1970s, the PTA had set up a snack table with crackers, cookies, and juice. Diane recognized Sherry, the room parent from Leila’s class, who was arranging juice boxes on the table. She looked up and gave Diane an enthusiastic wave. “Glad you could make it!” she called. Diane smiled reflexively and waved back. It was unsettling, this incongruous cheerfulness. When she’d first heard about the accident, she’d immediately pictured Leila suffering the same horrific injuries, sprawled across a car hood, limp and unconscious. It had been enough to make her weak-kneed. She was awed by Thomas’s mother, her ability to channel her anguish into something positive, requesting a blood drive even as she kept vigil with Thomas in the ICU. Diane doubted she’d have the same presence of mind if she were in her position. She had a vision of herself keeling over in panic and pain, keening like a trapped wild creature.
Up on the stage, a few parents were helping organize the kids who were waiting while their parents donated blood. They’d transformed the space into an arts-and-crafts area, with three long tables and two dozen chairs, along with piles of colored markers and construction paper for making get-well cards. Even from across the room Diane could hear the kids, loud and unconcerned, exuberant in their innocence. Leila was there with a couple of kids from her class but didn’t appear to be interacting with them. It was as if she’d been dropped into their midst, her slumped shoulders accentuating her aloneness while the activity and conversation flowed around her.
When Leila was younger, she’d always insisted on colorful barrettes and ponytail holders. She’d given those up a few years ago; now, her dark hair hung heavily around her face like a barrier against the rest of the world. Diane knew better than to get up and check on her. She thought about the argument they’d had that morning and sighed.
By the time Leila had finally gotten dressed and come downstairs for breakfast it was already 7:30 a.m. She seemed to move with an exaggerated slowness, scowling at every reminder to hurry up, until Diane wanted to gather up her folders and finish packing Leila’s backpack herself. Finally, she’d hunted down Leila’s high-tops and brought them into the kitchen, where Leila was still eating her cereal.
“I’m not a baby!” Leila said angrily when Diane deposited them next to her.
Diane walked over to the counter to refill her coffee cup. She knew without looking that Leila was glaring at her. “Don’t forget you still need to brush your teeth,” Diane said. “We’re leaving in three minutes, and if you’re not ready, I’m going to have to wake you earlier tomorrow.” She turned toward the doorway, glancing quickly over at Leila. As she started down the hall she nearly tripped over the cat, which lay stretched out on the linoleum, engrossed in its morning grooming ritual.
Leila looked up and gave Diane a dirty look. Her bowl was still half-full, her juice glass untouched. “Stop ruining my life,” she muttered.
“Three minutes!” Diane called back.
In the car on the way to school, she tried to bridge the silence. “I heard you have a special assembly coming up. Is that this week?” She tried to catch Leila’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, but she was turned toward the window, chin resting in her hand. She didn’t reply. Diane gave a small sigh and decided not to push it.
Every morning now was the same. Diane felt the familiar regret. What hadn’t they argued about lately? Even topics that seemed safe, like what to buy at the grocery store, quickly led to conflict.
On Monday, Diane had asked if there was anything Leila wanted to add to the shopping list.
“I hate the bread you always buy,” she said.
Ignoring the tone, Diane asked again if there was anything she wanted. She waited for Leila to answer, watching as she slowly unknotted her iPhone cord.
With the cord untangled, Leila put in her ear buds. “Get whatever you want. You always do anyway.”
“Then don’t complain that there’s nothing to eat,” Diane retorted.
As a toddler Leila had been talkative and happy, easily amused by the world. Her exuberance had been infectious, and Diane, who’d never had the urge to hold someone else’s baby, became enthralled by her, marveling at how her own natural reserve melted away in the brightness of Leila’s personality.
Becoming parents hadn’t been enough, ultimately, to keep her marriage to Dennis together, but they’d stayed cordial after the divorce. Leila saw her father regularly, spending alternate weekends with him. Dennis had noticed the changes in her too, the emergence of a warier, more self-conscious version of her preadolescent self. Yet when Diane tried to talk to him about it, he seemed flummoxed. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a preteen girl—isn’t that more your area?” Remembering the conversation, Diane felt a flash of resentment. It didn’t seem fair that he could so easily delegate it all to her, as if simply being female made it easier to weather Leila’s growing storms.
The girls in Leila’s fifth-grade class seemed on a faster track to adolescence than the boys; last year, they’d all started wearing training bras or stretchy camisoles. A couple of them had even gotten their periods already. Leila hadn’t yet, and thank goodness for that, Diane thought, although she knew Leila’s hormone levels were stealthily building towards it. Diane felt helpless against the rising tide. She tried to remind herself that Leila still loved her, still needed her, even when she vibrated with moodiness.
Diane gathered up her paperwork and walked to the next station. The blood-bank worker there wore scrubs and running shoes, as if he’d jogged over, and a large button that said, “Remember—it takes all types!” Diane extended her right hand and waited for him to prick her ring finger and analyze her blood. Iron-rich, he pronounced, but too thick: had she had a lot of coffee today? He handed her a bottle of water and instructed her to drink it before proceeding to the next station.
As she stood to make way for the next donor, Diane thought again of the cruel arbitrariness of the accident. Despite the oddly festive atmosphere today, she knew the other parents must feel it too. They’d organized prayer vigils; they’d dropped off dinners at the family’s house. Casseroles and cannelloni and comforting pots of soup: food left as offerings.
How quickly tragedy could infiltrate a tidy life. At night, Diane conjured up new horrors that could befall Leila: car accidents, stranger abductions, random violence. The possibilities massed at the edge of her consciousness. Even when she was pregnant she’d worried about all the things that could go wrong, the abnormalities and deformities described explicitly in her pregnancy books. Reading about possible complications, she’d marveled that anyone managed to give birth to a healthy baby. There was simply too much danger in the world. As a parent, you had to push it into the background to avoid being overwhelmed. Having Leila had permanently branded Diane, marking her with a panicked sense of responsibility.
At the next station, Diane recounted her personal health history in response to the list of questions. No tattoos in the last year, no recreational drug injections, no sex for money since 1977. “And none before then either,” she added, briefly amused, grateful for the small diversion.
At last she lay on the gurney, immobilized for fifteen minutes as the red tube snaked to the collection pouch below. It would siphon one pint—enough to refill her now-empty water bottle. With each beat of her heart, her blood pulsed through the tubing. All the dozen gurneys were occupied by similarly-tethered parents. She recognized some of the moms from Leila’s class and several dads too. It seemed strangely intimate, lying side by side, all of them drawn here by a need to do something, anything, to help Thomas’s parents bear their burden.
Looking over toward the stage she saw that Leila was standing apart from the other kids, facing the sea of gurneys. She looked like she was about to cry. She was staring at Diane with a feral intensity, noting the blood draining from her right arm into the quickly filling pouch. Diane thought she could see in Leila’s pained expression a kind of anguish at seeing her prone and hooked up to tubing, as if she’d been injured and needed care. Leila had pulled her sweatshirt hood up over her head, as if the charcoal fleece might provide a barrier against the world.
Diane had a vision of her at age four, similarly hooded as Tigger in a black-and-orange striped hooded jacket and matching fleece pants. The jacket had zipped up the front and had ears sewn onto the hood. It was Halloween, and Diane had used an old eyeliner pencil to draw a black nose and whiskers on Leila. Even afterwards, there were many days when she’d worn the jacket, her hood with its fleecy ears eliciting smiles at the grocery store or on other errands around town. Leila, as she used to be, bouncy and exuberant.
Diane thought of sharing this memory with her, bringing it up casually on the car ride home, but even as she considered it she knew it would go wrong. Leila would respond with stony silence, leaving them both resentful. Marooned, yet again, on opposite sides of the gulf that now separated them.
Up on the stage Leila seemed smaller somehow, her shoulders hunched in protectively. Diane thought she could sense the warring impulses within her: her craving for independence, her simple, fundamental need for her mother.
“How are you feeling? Any lightheadedness?” the blood-bank worker asked. Diane’s view was blocked as he stood over her.
“No—I’m fine,” she said. She looked around him to see Leila still standing there. Diane ached for the pain of her transformation, the angry retreat of her difficult journey through adolescence. Underneath her prickliness she was still so vulnerable.
Her guard was nearly always up now. It was only occasionally, when Diane would come to Leila’s bedroom to say goodnight and find her already in a state of near-sleep, that she was willing to accept her touch. Leila’s body would be taut, but slowly, she would let herself relax as Diane traced the knots of her spine, the sharp wings of her shoulder blades gradually flattening as Diane smoothed away the tension Leila kept hidden away. Diane knew better than to speak at these moments, grateful for their quiet communion.
The blood-bank worker came over again. “All done—you did great,” he said, cradling her outstretched arm. “I’m going to unhook you now.” Diane felt a small tug as he withdrew the needle before wrapping the area with several layers of stretchy bandage. “You’ll need to leave this in place for a few hours.”
The woman on the gurney next to her had her feet in the air and a cold compress on her forehead. An apparent fainting risk. Slowly Diane sat up, then stood, the worker still nearby and alert for any signs of unsteadiness. Diane glanced at Leila again, wanting her to see that she was OK.
But Leila was no longer facing her. Diane watched as she put on her backpack and leaned forward to shrug it into place. She yanked at the base of her sweatshirt hood to loosen it from the straps, then jerked her head forward to free her hair. Even from where she stood, Diane could sense her irritation. It was the emotion Leila fell back on most often to vent the roiling awkwardness below.
At the snack table, Diane accepted a cup of juice and took a sip. Apple, Leila’s favorite when she was young, although Diane couldn’t remember the last time they’d had any in the house. She sat quietly as the two volunteers at the table discussed the upcoming PTA fundraiser. Carrie came over and whispered something to the volunteer handing out cookies and they both laughed. Diane closed her eyes to try to block it all out: the happy volunteers, the rows of gurneys, the children’s faces in the photos lining the room.
Leila’s needs had once been so straightforward: a hug and a band-aid for a skinned knee, a cup of juice for crankiness. Now there were no simple fixes. Diane felt her own sadness well up for not being able to ease her pain. She wanted to throw her arms around her daughter’s stiff shoulders, to surround her with warmth and strength. This was her role, she realized: to try, to continue to try. She held onto her paper cup as if it were an offering, wishing it could somehow hold all of her fierce love that even right now was threatening to spill over.
Lisa Lynne Lewis is a contributing writer for Literary Mama and has also been published on Prime Number Magazine and in Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Southern California with her family.
BLACK WINGS FLAPPING by Shmu’el Bashevis Ben’yamin
I had the ingredients of becoming a perfect milksop, but it didn’t happen. Every day I carried to school an orange ball bigger than my head, and at lunch watched long-legged teenagers with patchy facial hair and funny white boots borrow the ball to put it through a bent rim. The ball was named after my uncle Wilson. I had found it buried under the yellow flowers of a California pepper tree. My hands itched all day after scrubbing it with laundry detergent, and my feet hurt when I kicked it against my aunt’s garage door.
The young men multiplied faster than tree rabbits. They started as two-on-two, then three-on-three. After a few more days, they played a full court press of five-on-five, hooped back and forth while other children picket-fenced the sidelines, waiting to be picked. Girls perched on top of an aluminum bleacher. They had wavy canary feathers for hair. They hardly paid attention and did not cheer. I sat on the bottom row and absorbed their singsongs without looking at them.
I didn’t speak much. I was immersed in ESL classes, where Spanish became the lingua franca. That went on for several months before I realized that The Jetsons on television sounded foreign in English. I did well in Spanish and mathematics. Everything else I failed that term.
I don’t remember the exact day, but for hours the sun’s sulfur carbonized our heads. No one really wanted to play except me. Sweat had already covered my body and dripped from my forehead before I even touched the ball. On the court, I flew like a black-billed magpie among white storks, stealing the ball from Michael, dribbling between the legs of David, the tallest stork, lobbing it over Daniel, swish and score. I lost two kilos that day from being in the outdoor incubator, but it didn’t matter—we were the champs.
We queued in front of a fountain to scoop water and splash our body. I stood last. The water hadn’t cooled. We spread our drenched shirts on top of the monkey bars to be dried. They spoke. I listened. “Dis…Dat…Der” were the only words I recognized, plus the familiar biblical names. Thank God for that. I could have been playing with Jehoash, son of Jehoahaz, son of Jehu, and Jeroboan, son of Nebat.
“Let’s see who has the biggest shoes,” David dared. Converse, Adidas, Puma, white leather vamps and black overlays, tongues and ankle straps, lined side by side, heel to heel. They sized me up and laughed. It was a contagious laughter that rippled in a minute-long wave. My shoe wouldn’t have fit David’s toes.
My mother had bought the pair at a Goodwill store one hot summer day when we first moved to my uncle’s house in Los Angeles. I was almost eleven. My father and older brother joined us two years later when my brother completed his compulsory military service. They never saw my shoes. Red and yellow with black wings glued on the side saddles, they were the best shoes I’d ever owned. My mom convinced me that they belonged to Robin, the sidekick to Batman. To make it official, she’d stitched a capital R on the vamp.
I didn’t get to shoot again until weeks later during another heat wave. The storks had transformed into cranes that late fall. My mother attributed it to them eating burgers and fries. “Look at their parents,” she commented one day when she picked me up from school. “They look like tractors. That’s not healthy. Do you want to be like that?” I kept quiet and snuck my first Whopper that week.
David remembered my play and invited me to court. The wings on my Robin shoes were half peeled, flapping like a tiny bat. My toes bulged at the seams. My T-shirt stretched. Our sweat splattered and instantly evaporated. The callus on my toe bled, but was camouflaged by my black polyester socks. We won again.
David ordered another showing of shoes after that game. We lined up as before. The boys laughed again, pointing their fingers at me. They wore the latest Nike, with a red man stretched like a letter X holding a wart. I was not taken by the wave anymore. I pulled away and sat on a field of sallow crabgrass, knees drawn to my chest, arms around them, chin resting on the knees.
Another person immediately leaped from the bleacher and took my spot. Her bleached head reached their chests; her scrawny legs shimmered like the Mediterranean Sea in the morning light. She flashed a pair of glossy sneakers with thick pink laces, and an open-mouth alligator plastered on the sides.
“These are La Coste,” she gushed. The article didn’t match the word, and it was neither Spanish el costo nor French le coût. She probably spoke Latin. The boys shrugged and strolled to the cafeteria. David rolled the ball to me but it curved back into the court. I watched it stop near the free-throw line.
The girl grabbed the ball and sat on it next to me. She removed the letter L from the eyelet and tied it to my lace. It was a dainty white L, made of jute. She spoke rapidly. “My mom’s remodeling the kitchen. I found extra strips of linoleum and carved out the L with an X-Acto knife.” I didn’t grasp any of it. I remained silent.
“Look,” she pointed. “L and R.” I nodded. A half-smile broke out on my face.
For the next three months the L drummed off the R with every step. I sprung six inches that winter into a wary black stork, and she became a flaming flamenco. It rained for the first time. My toes poked out and got wet. The R had converted to a P before my mom replaced the shoes with a pair of soccer cleats. They were brand new from K-Mart. The orange ball had tanned like a cherry; the bumps on its leather had faded. I wore the L on a necklace, under my shirt close to my heart, hidden from my mom.
Shmu’el Bashevis Ben’yamin moved to Southern California at the age of ten where he unwittingly learned Spanish before English. It turned out that because of his mother’s Semitic tongue, he knew more Ethiopian than English. During his scientific studies in his twenties, he began to publish arrhythmic poems, under various pen names, in Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum, Poetry.com and Eber & Wein. His short story, When Emily Left, was selected as one of the five finalists of Warren Adler’s Divorce Short Story Contest in March, 2012. He currently resides near Pasadena.
One day, you’ll wonder if you were even here. The moment will come back to you in snatches—that abandoned pair of shoes, ominous like a bleached-out goat skull in the desert; the line of heavens meeting earth, as viewed from the bottom; the vista from the top looking down, just before you all hurl yourselves into the bowl. It’s something you can never again duplicate. You wouldn’t even know where to begin, nor would it ever occur to you to try. But the three travelers standing one dune over? It will occur to them. The photo that one of them just snapped will live on for many years to come, and you’ll never know it existed in the first place. You’ll go home again and resume your ongoing soccer match with the computer; you’ll hop on your bike to ride down the street to your best friend’s house seventy gazillion times, and you’ll start school again and see that girl two rows in front of you and wonder how her hair smells, but these three strangers—they’ll still be staring at the image of you, frozen in a run, for a long time yet. Shaggy hair pressed against your head, mouth wide open, one arm forward, one arm back, legs kicking up poofs of sand: that’s you, and these strangers will study you and they’ll talk about you and they’ll try to figure out why they can’t look away.
Pull back and study the entire scene for a moment. Sand is everywhere, rising and falling and undulating all over the place. It is a character in the cast: from a distance, smooth and solid; up close, pocked and wavy and pliant—an impossibly massive mound of desert that’s been poured from a god-sized bucket onto this straw-yellow, moss-green valley floor. Footprints peter away and blend into others, the owners long gone, and at first push in their wake, these impressions become defeating, humbling. Tiny, black specks on distant peaks prove that this land can be traversed but it might take all day.
The sky, well, it’s a huge canvas of clouds: gray and white and silver and yes, even blue. Blue clouds. It’s a blue you can hardly believe, though, and to describe it you’d have to invent things you’ve never seen before: a piece of candy, cool and crystallized, crumbling and dissolving on your tongue with its floral sweetness and something else, something like anise that you can’t quite put your finger on; or a tail, long and shimmering, almost certainly that of a mermaid, the scales surfacing in the first rays of the day, glistening, remaining poised for the flash of a second, before submerging again, back to those mythical depths. Those are the colors of the blue clouds.
Then on cue, the sun ducks from view, casting a great shadow over everything, turning it all a dirty gray. Moments later when it peeks back out from hiding, the ground is again the white, flapping promise of sheets hung to dry.
Don’t look back. Look forward; look to the side but don’t look back. Over there, that slope in particular is a torso as viewed from the side, right where the shoulder blades end and the two great latissimus dorsi continue their downward plunge—not that you know the name of those muscles. You don’t think of the human anatomy when you look in that direction. Have you even started to think about the human anatomy—ever at all? You’re twelve; it’s hard to know what you’re thinking about.
“Oh, this kid again. Love him.”
“Me, too. I wonder where he is now.”
The travelers are contemplating you again. They never seem to tire of it. The first time was over dinner that same night after they saw you. They didn’t drive long from the park. Just across the valley and over the mountains they went, finding two rooms in a rustic lodge. Then they walked across the road to a small place with a counter bar, where they sat on stools, the only customers in that tiny town. They ordered meatball sandwiches and bottles of microbrew, and the light overhead created a glare on the camera’s display screen, so they couldn’t quite see at that moment what a fantastic image they had. It will, in fact, be their favorite one from the entire, long trip they’ll take together. They will see so many places, so many things, so many people, yet you will be the best—you, poised at the lip of the precipice; you, just before the plunge; you, a few strokes of color on a wash of gold; you, unaware you’re being watched.
“He’s not in his body yet; you know what I mean?”
“Yeah. It’s splendid how he occupies it.”
“ ‘Splendid.’ Listen to you.”
“Well, it is! Look at him. He can’t feel a thing. He’s just going for it.”
And you are. Your clothes fit you perfectly. Don’t get used to that. There will come a time when you’ll be conscious of the cotton pull against your butt, into your belly, across your chest. You’ll realize in a crushing instant that there is extra flesh behind your knees; you’ll feel those folds hanging just a little behind the joint. It’ll happen on a day when you’re just standing there doing nothing after an entire day of sitting there doing nothing—sitting in traffic, sitting at your desk, sitting at lunch, sitting in front of the evening news.
“He’s got on white shorts, too. Pretty ballsy.”
That’s the male traveler talking to his female companions. Of the three wanderers, he’s the most jealous of you and so his tone is reverent. He’s trying hard to remember himself at your age but he cannot, and so he’s unsure of everything except the fact that he was never as cool as you. He doesn’t know, of course, that just this morning, you fought hard for your right to eat a cinnamon roll for breakfast and that you lost, and that it started the day off all wrong, so that you didn’t even want to come here. You sulked in the backseat and you stared out the window and you watched a dust storm racing towards your family’s car, wishing all the while that it would swallow everyone whole, your dad in particular. Oh, and last week, it was football: you were in a real funk about it, because you’ve been wanting to join the team this fall but you dare not even ask; you already know the answer will be no. The answer is always no. Adults, they don’t remember what it feels like to possess so much raw strength—coursing through your veins, throbbing from your tissue, snapping from your tendons. You don’t even know yet that you have hip bones, because they quietly do their work. Swish, swish, swish. There’s no creaking, no cracking, no grinding; there is only your hand in front of your face and the knowledge of what you must do with that hand, except no one will let you and you don’t have the voice to explain this. You are strewn into pieces of something that have not quite figured out how to work together. If you hesitate, it’s because you don’t know better and so you’re yelling underwater—or at least that’s what it feels like. No one hears you; they just hear the animal noises you’re making: the sarcasm you haven’t figured out how to wield; the forethought you haven’t put into use; the limits you haven’t learned to set.
That’s not where you are in this freeze-frame, however. You’ve bounced back; you are the essence of yourself: nothing but you, racing forward, rushing down. That is what has captivated the attention of these three people. If you knew they were still looking at you, you’d think it was creepy but it’s not; it’s one more thing that adults do which you don’t yet understand. A lot will happen before you do understand it. That girl two rows in front of you in school? First, she’ll send you soaring. Your mom will ask what happened to your appetite. Your teachers will snap their fingers in front of your glazed, staring eyes, five pages behind the rest of the class. Your friends will punch you in the shoulder and say “Earth to dodo brain,” or whatever your name is. You’ll smile more than you ever have in your life and it will partly be due to this odd sensation in your gut—a feeling you can only describe as that moment when a roller coaster pitches over the first hill. Even your dad’s jokes will make you laugh sometimes, and when your brother does his usual spiteful shit and your mom makes him apologize, you’ll just shrug and say, “It’s okay. I know he didn’t mean it.”
All the while, running through your head so quickly you won’t even be fully aware of it will be a reel of snapshots of her: laughing with friends across the lunch table; piling her hair atop her head at the beginning of seventh period social studies, when the room always gets inexplicably hot and stuffy; stooping for a drink of water from the fountain; picking up a book that’s just flown out of her locker at break; dribbling the basketball in PE—shooting, missing, shrugging. When you see flowers growing beside the sidewalk on your way home, you’ll have a sudden urge to pick them, though you won’t know what you want to do with them. When your best friend down the street asks if you want to go to the movies this weekend, you’ll feel a surge of impatience with him and you’ll say that only babies go to the movies. This will confuse you both.
Come Friday morning, you will arrive at school having barely slept. Your eyes will feel dry in the sockets; your mouth will have a skunky taste but you will be bolstered by the resolve to finally ask her out. You won’t have told anyone you’re going to do this; no one even knows you like her and so there you are, all alone, heaving open one of the heavy steel double doors, traipsing into the bright, fluorescent corridor filled with milling, chatting bodies. You’ll blink; you’ll look around; you’ll see her. What happens next does not matter as much as what happened in getting you to that point—the conclusions you reached without consulting anyone else; the decisions you made all on your own; the knowledge, whether you knew what to call it or not, that you had listened to your heart and no one else.
And yet, what happens next is actually very important. The girl likes someone else; she doesn’t like you. Already, the seed has been planted that that’s what you get for listening to your heart: a big fat nothing. As expected, you will not be allowed to play football, either. Then there will be the parties to which you don’t get invited, the zits that blemish your smooth cheeks, the grades you don’t make, the colleges that don’t accept you, the interviews you don’t get, the trips that don’t live up to the brochures, and all the other girls who like boys who aren’t you. Every one of those disappointments will make you pull in a little. That left leg which you’re throwing forward so confidently? It will straighten out and draw back about a fraction of a millimeter each time until eventually it becomes an inch, two inches, three inches inward. The wild bend of your elbows? Well, just look at your dad behind you and you can see what will happen: one arm will drop and flail a little, thinking it’s helpful while actually being totally useless; the other will squeeze against your ribs—prissy, scared. And that unabashed gape of your mouth? Forget it. You’ll make that face a few more times at most and then a bug will fly into your throat and you’ll adopt the dropped chin-jut of your brother—neck like a brake cord; teeth like a shield; lips sneered in cool conveyance of the fact that this fun is temporary, a mere show.
Whose idea was it anyhow, racing to the bottom of the dune at top speed? It was your dad’s idea. Don’t forget that in your arrogant youth. And your mom: see how she’s just going along with it? The funny twist of her waist; the awkward square-dance posture of her arms; her exaggerated high step—those are all methods to slow herself down before she’s even gotten started. She doesn’t want to do this thing but she is; she’s doing it. Don’t forget that, either.
“He looks like a good dad.” One of the girl travelers is speaking. She’s squinting at your dad in his baggy, knee-length shorts and his wrap-around sunglasses. “Don’t you think he looks like a good dad?”
The other girl nods but she’s looking at your mom—your mom, the trooper; your mom, the good sport; your mom, in her hip newsboy cap; your mom, of two boys. “My mom would never do that.”
“Your mom’s like eighty-five.”
“I mean back in the day. Growing up. She’d still be in the parking lot, sitting in the car, maybe smoking.”
She’ll bring it up again when they’re much farther down the road—somewhere in the South and sitting at a shiny bar in a port city, the wispy fog of fall pressing itself against the black windows behind them; a nightcap, amber brown and sugar thick, loosely clasped in each of their hands; the photo of you again placed in front of them, its presence a compulsive habit by that point. She won’t be speaking to her two companions; none of them will be speaking, in fact, because they’ll be exhausted from all the driving that day and they’ll also be getting a little tired of each other, and they might also be a tiny bit drunk, as well. She’ll be staring at the four of you all together on that dune—her gaze hard, almost angry. Then she’ll swallow and say: “I hope he knows how lucky he is. I hope he’s not a spoiled little fuck.”
The other two companions will smile faintly but they won’t say anything, because they won’t be in the mood to talk about you right now; they won’t be in the mood to talk at all. No one seems to appreciate silence these days; everyone seems to need to fill every space with words—captions and feelings and jokes and memories. Some moments should just be allowed to wash over you, however, and that moment in the bar will be one of them. She’ll seem to agree, because she won’t say any more; she’ll be caught up in the image again. She’ll look at the two by-standers to your left in the background, also appearing to be watching you. She’ll then move her gaze across the entire sweep of the landscape around you—the backs and the bellies and the buttocks, an orgy of body parts at rest, cradling you, supporting you, allowing you. Above it all, that sky: roiling clouds, bulges of rain, silver strokes of sun.
But her gaze will always come back to you. As the rule of thirds goes, you’re straddling the intersection of the first vertical line and the bottom horizontal one, and the light, it’s glinting from your rear calf all the way up to your shoulder—an aura across your back.
She’ll forget the group’s unspoken vow of silence then and blurt: “Look at how he’s stomping his own shadow.”
The two friends will be intrigued enough to straighten in their seats and lean in to look more closely—not that it’s a hard thing to see. In fact, it’s the first thing someone else might have noticed.
“You’re right. I’ve never noticed that before but he’s stomping his own shadow.”
“Or chasing it.”
This will make them study the image harder.
“Chasing it. Yeah, he’s chasing his own shadow.”
All four of you are stomping and chasing your own shadows, actually, but it’s your shadow that these three comrades want to see you pursue, because it’s your shadow of which you must be wary. It’s not your friend, this shadow of yours, though you’re not wrong to think that it is—always with you, never straying, never talking back, patiently following you most of the time. But it’s taller than you and it’s thinner than you and it doesn’t have to do so many of the things that you have to do: make decisions, make mistakes, face consequences, feel pain, cause pain, apologize. One day your shadow will make you angry. You’ll whirl on it and yell at it as if it’s a lost dog: “Go home!” But it won’t leave; it will merely face you at that point—taunting, judging, challenging.
The day in the dunes is different, though. Then the shadow is under your feet and you’re driving it away, even though you don’t know that. You never will. You’ll never consciously remember this detail from this moment. You’ll remember the sand; you’ll remember the sky; you’ll remember your mom and your dad and your brother, and you’ll remember beating them all to the bottom of the hill, but you will not remember the most important part of that moment. It’s documented in the photograph, however, and maybe that’s enough—the fact that it happened at all. Not only that it happened but that it’s still alive, preserved like a hair on a pillow from a person long gone. Frozen in time, it’s proof of you. You: at the top. You: on the starting line. You: uninhibited, unencumbered, unfazed. You: in perfect form.
In the sixth grade, M. Goerig won first place for a short story she wrote. One might say she’s been wandering the world ever since, looking for that elusive muse. Work has also been published in Airplane Reading, Fugue, and Snapping Twig.
I do not feel the Jet Ski as it crashes into my head. Or I do—it is a Jet Ski and it is crashing into my head after all—but it does not register as pain. I feel it only in the way I feel a fly that lands on my thigh or a strand of wet hair on my cheek. I lift my hand to push the Jet Ski away, but of course by then I am already spinning down into the lake. The water is cool. I forget for a moment what I am doing down there among the seaweed and the muck and go still. I think I might have forgotten I am even in water. Or maybe forgotten what water is. I am just beginning to remember things like the way the sun rose that morning over the fog on the lake and that my brother’s name is Liam when suddenly something pulls underneath my arms and I am back up in the sun looking at the hysterical face of my uncle.
“Are you ok?” he shouts, treading water, his arms still holding me up. My lips taste like gasoline.
“Yes,” I yell, but it comes out a whisper.
The Jet Ski spins back around us and a tan girl in a white life vest screams.
“Turn it off,” my uncle yells, and she does.
“We need you to take us to the cabin across the lake.” The girl nods and my uncle pulls the Jet Ski just in front of me. “Climb up, Sammy,” he says and pushes my limp body towards the girl. She grabs my arms and, just as I start to wonder how she is going to get me aboard and if I should be kicking my legs to help, I am seated behind her. My uncle climbs on too and holds my arms around her waist.
This girl, now covered in my blood, jumps off at our dock to hold the Jet Ski steady while my uncle helps me off. The blood is everywhere, running down my legs and into my eyes. It’s smeared against my uncle’s chest and shoulders, a bit of it in his beard. My mom and aunt come running out of the cabin. I’ve already started laughing though, laughing at the bloody footprints on the slats of the dock and at the two of them who are frozen on the shore trying to figure out where the blood is coming from and who they should be looking at.
“I’m fine,” I say as the girl in the now pink life vest bursts into tears.
The next day, I wake up with nineteen stitches in the back of my head. The hair is shaved in a thin line and I can’t keep my hands away from that fuzzy, tender spot. I touch it all the way to the diner. The family of the girl with the Jet Ski is meeting us for dinner in town. “They want to check up on you,” my mother explains. “Apologize again. They’re lucky we are reasonable people,” she says. “You could be dead or, worse, brain dead.”
“Accidents happen,” my aunt says. “Imagine how awful she feels.”
I nod and everything goes black for half a second. But then the light blinks back and the grass along the street turns orange and purple. I laugh and my mother turns towards me, alarmed, “Why the hell are you laughing?”
“I’m starving,” I say.
The girl is sitting in a booth with her parents. She looks younger today than she did the day before. When she sees me, she stands up and pulls me into a hug. “My biggest fear is killing someone,” she says into my ear. I nod in the blackness, the smell of mosquito repellent pressing up against me.
Her mom orders chocolate malts for the table—the best thing for a bad day she says—and the waitress comes back with a tall cup for each of us. I hold the plastic tube of the straw uselessly between my lips for a few moments before pushing the cup away. The Styrofoam squeaks against the table and my tongue droops out of my mouth.
“I think I should take you back to the hospital,” I hear my mom say from across the restaurant.
I shake my head. The girl sips her malt and then says, “I didn’t even want my driver’s license because I was sure I’d be driving home from school or work and just totally mow over a mom pushing a stroller. Or an old lady.”
Her mother adds, “I remember that. We had to bribe you to take the test.”
The girl nods seriously, “And now look.”
No one says anything for a bit except I can hear everyone’s thoughts. Not the actual thoughts, but the spark the thought makes when it first appears. And the pinging and beeping of the brains at the table drowns out the chatter of the other customers and the sound of their forks against their plates. I’m thinking about how I can’t get a thought of my own in between these sounds when suddenly I feel something cool against my cheek and realize I’ve put my head on the table. A scream stops the beeping and I open my eyes except not really because everything stays black. I wait for the tug beneath my arms.
Kim Steele lives in Chicago, where she spends most days reading near the space heater. She has been previously published in the flash fiction zine Oblong and writes the occasional book review for Cleaver Magazine. You can follow her on twitter at KJ_Steele.
Midnight, and I can tell it’s urgent because the mistress never knocks me this late. I struggle with the bed-jacket that belonged to Harry’s mother. Moths have eaten close to the armpits and it’s in danger of splitting, but I don’t wear it often enough to warrant mending. The candle in my hand blows a thin ribbon of soot backwards as I hurry to the front door. No sooner than it’s open, air skates in, and with it the howls of the dogs she’s woken up on her way.
I feel myself clench; the instinct to soothe the pups. Mistress’s brown eyes are aflame. She’s hissing, “It’s happened again. I won’t tolerate it.” Her voice dissolves on the last word and I widen the door, bring her inside with the cold fizzing off her pinned hair. I know she must be pained to be in such a state in front of me. She prides herself on her fierceness, Mistress does; has made a name for herself in the county as “the independent one” after Master died and everyone said she should give up “that bloody country pile” for a townhouse.
She sits down at the table by the range, perching away from the flaking paint on the chair like it might poison her back. Across the tablecloth my books are strewn, volumes she’s teaching me to read: Equality for All; In Favour of the Working Woman; Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Pencils rolling around, for when I underline the hard words.
I’m glad though, that she can see I’m working, and she notices and it flashes on her face that she’s glad too. She takes pride in me; loves to show me off. Last week at the women’s club in Chancery Lane I gave a small speech about how education is helping me manage since Harry passed away. My hands were shaking as I told them how much I was enjoying Jane Eyre. Mistress says all workers must be educated, so that our children will have choices. I never bother to point out that I don’t have children.
I see her looking at my black pot, idle on the range, but she says she won’t take tea at this hour. “They came, just now, in the night,” she says, dipping her eyes away from me, the way she does when she’s embarrassed to ask for something, but about to do it anyway. “They came again.”
She still wears her wedding band; it’s cut a little valley into her old hand. The skin beneath her eyes has fallen, see-through like newspaper. She doesn’t look like she used to; all that dignity, that buttoned up look, it has to harden some time.
“What did they take?”
“Silver. Cook’s pies. Port. I could hear them. That was the thing.” A shiver runs down her and her eyes flicker. “I could hear them pattering about, even from my bedroom.”
“Didn’t Mr. Rodgers wake?” Even I know this is a silly question. Mr Rodgers is Mistress’s butler but he’s deaf as a tree trunk.
“What could he do anyway?” She lets a ghost of breath out as a sigh. When I see it, I realise how cold my kitchen is and how used to it my blood must be.
“Triggs…” She dips her eyes again, and when she says my name like that I think an offer must be taking form, that she must be about to invite me up to the house, to offer me a bedroom on the first floor, close to the housekeeper’s day parlour, with candles and a fire, away from the draughty attics where the rest of the servants sleep.
“Triggs I need your help.”
“Yes ma’am.” My voice—I want it to be trusty, full of pluck—but I’m old and full of sleep and it cracks.
“Can you keep watch? Over the back of the house, at night? I’ll pay you more.”
The vision of the bedroom close to the housekeeper’s parlour disintegrates. “I can pay a boy,” I say.
She doesn’t reply. She doesn’t have to; I know the words she would use. One of her phrases, “No that won’t do.” Words of finality. No reasons to go with them so no one can argue. I hesitate, but when she finally brings her green gaze up to mine, there’s something in it that says she wants me to be up to the job myself. I look at the books on the table. I say, “I’ll clean the guns tomorrow.”
I let her back out into the cold night air with a fur I find hanging under a pile of Harry’s old cloaks in the hall. The smell of it is embarrassing but she doesn’t say anything.
As she walks past the dogs again, I tighten again, as I hear the rustle of their collars, then their voices rising into a roo, into a pattern of sharp high barks.
The process of cleaning the guns is one I enjoy. The satisfaction of their gleam I think must be the same feeling some ladies get from looking at their jewels. But there is a different sensation in them today, right now, under my hands. It is as if they have calcified. As if the edges have grown hard, and instead of gleaming like diamonds, they seem to gleam like wet teeth.
“Gamekeeper? Her? With her hats and her jams?” That’s what Mr. Rodgers said to Mistress at Harry’s funeral. I heard him. I saw him scratch his feathered head, I watched across the table of sandwiches, through my sniffles. “Surely Cook could use an extra pair of hands. Or the nursery…”
The small pistol must have brought in at least a hundred partridges, the shotgun a couple of dozen stags, and that was just since Harry died. Notches have been gouged all along the palm of the tender wood, soft with age. None of them are mine, I didn’t like to continue that tradition, they were his prizes. But there’s a stain that slipped through the varnish into the bare wood the first time I made a kill. When the gamekeeper from the next estate insisted on the ritual, digging his hands into the warm cavity of the deer, taking the blood and wiping it onto my cheeks.
That night, when the sun finally sinks I stay close to the corner of the outer wall that runs all along the big house, from the laundry room to the kitchen. I sit on one of the half-barrels they use to gather pears at harvest time, my breath fogging like pipe smoke. Up above, the faint red brick frame of Mistress’s window is visible, a candle sitting in it.
On the other side of the wall, inside the kitchen, I can hear noises. Someone is moving bottles, pans, shifting metal, stacking earthenware. I picture them: a pair of salty thieves in tattered coats, grizzled beards, rusty eyes. Fingers hardened by begging and cold, torn boots and stolen pocketwatches.
There’s a lightfooted stumble on the tiles. Someone’s hobnails scrape. I cock my gun.
“Her? With her hats and her jams?”
I stand, steadying the half-barrel with my foot as the noises tumble closer. The tradesmen’s door has never fitted the wood properly, and through the gap each footstep, each crunch of thievery echoes. I’ve got my arm steadying the crosshairs, my eye trained on the brass handle of the door. Kidney height. I think of Mistress last night, in her state. She needn’t worry. I’m up to it and I’ll prove it. Tonight she’ll sleep again.
Metal shifts. One murky pitch cuts a slice into another; the dark inside of the kitchen reveals itself, and a bone-white fist melts into view gripping the thin handle of a lantern. It takes a while for the light to spill up the two figures. And by that time the kitchen door is open wide and they can see me too.
She is taller than he is, but only just. Her face—a malnourished mix of age and childishness—is scraped back to the muscle; prick of nose, gristle cheeks. There isn’t an ounce of blood in her. I cannot place the age of the boy. His hair sticks in thin tufts from his head, cut coarsely. It’s he who carries the lantern. She has a small hock of bacon rested on her shoulder and a sack hanging from her hand, clinking with the tuneless rattle of metal.
She looks straight at me, her eyes wet as a doe’s. And that’s when I know I have seen her before. There’s a corrugated shed just past the bounds of the estate woods. Sometimes they come selling sprigs of herbs and mushrooms wrapped in cloth. Cook always sends them away. Sometimes you’ll hear them singing together, or smell the smoke from their fire curling onto our land.
She puts the bacon on the ground, balancing it against her leg, and strokes her fingers through the boy’s hair, dragging the tangles towards her.
My finger pauses on the stiff curl of trigger. The sightline is clear. If she were meat I’d already be dreaming of the pot.
“Her with her hats and her jams? Her that couldn’t silence a mouse if it was squeakin int trap? She won’t kill beasts for you, I’ll warrant it.”
Above me, I can feel the light burning in Mistress’s red window, pouring down like wax, melting a hole in my back. If she were standing here she’d want the prick of my gun-barrels jabbing them all the way to the constables. All the moments Mistress smiled over a book and said to me, “Let’s try again shall we?” or “Triggs you’re a marvel.” The hand-me-down casserole pots in my kitchen. Her patience and her kindness. Her hands, dusting off in that no-arguments way, and the way she put her gloves back on as she said to Mr. Rodgers at Harry’s funeral, “Mrs. Triggs has the courage of a lion, and is the only one who can fill the boots of her husband as gamekeeper. I have absolute faith she’s up to the job.” I feel it all burning in me as I look into the boy’s hungry face. His eyes travel between the bacon in his mother’s hands and the muzzle of the gun in mine.
The woman’s head dips. She bends to pick back up her ham.
And out of nowhere a raw howl splinters the night. The hounds. The hounds must be able to hear our breath or smell the meat. Without knowing what I’m doing I turn, as if I could soothe the sorry little pup from here. A giant fuss spreads through the kennel, yipping and rooing, and suddenly the dogs have all kicked off, as good as on the chase. It’s as I’m gazing across the cold field towards them that I feel the shadow slip over me, and when I look back up at Mistress’s window, still gripping the gun, there’s a black frizz-topped shape there now. Her face, I know every ripple and mole, every plump and shadow, all her kindness in there, all the things she did for me. She’s in her night smock; her hair looks like bracken, stiff and swaying. Through a trick of the wind I think I hear her voice pushing through the house, saying my name. It’s as if it comes from the bricks. “Triggs.” It’s that face she’s pulling, the one from the kitchen, the one that said she didn’t want a boy to do the job, she wanted me to do it.
And while I’m still frozen, while my back is turned, while my gun is held high, I hear them scurrying off, the pair of them, lightfooted thieves, feet like mice, skating towards the lawn, the grit on the path barely cracking. And when I turn, the golden dot of their lantern is ducking and rising, ducking and flickering as they patter off into the night, with Mistress’s belongings and her food.
Lucy Ribchester was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and grew up in Fife. In 2013 she won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award for fiction. In January 2015 she was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award, and the same month her first novel The Hourglass Factory was published in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand by Simon & Schuster. She also writes about dance and circus for Scotland’s The List magazine.
The letters on the marquee jammed against each other: Ingmar Bergman Retrospective, the billing read, words cohered into a smear of black.
Greta’s breath clouded as she waited by the box office. She paced on the balls of her feet, toes pointed upward, arms outstretched. The theatergoers, trickling in like the drops of a leaky faucet, lifted their brows at her. She had seen them all here before, but they had never seen her.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Her fingers grazed the two tickets, snug within the fleece of her jacket pocket.
Enclosed within a glass box, the cashier slid another ticket across the counter. Lara had to work the box to keep her spot in the school’s film society. Today she had forgotten the issue of Rolling Stone she always had spread about before her to occupy her time during those long lulls. Now she lifted her focus to Greta with raised eyebrows; the girl’s constant strolling back and forth was giving her a headache.
Lara leaned towards the opening in the glass and yelled out, “Are you going in or what?”
Greta spun around, coils of copper hair clinging to her forehead. She held up the two tickets. “I’ve got a date.” The smile broadened on her waxen face.
“The movie starts in ten.” Lara tapped on her watch for evidence.
Greta’s glow faltered, but only a little, like when a wisp of cloud drifts past the moon for a brief moment. “He’ll be here soon,” she said with glittering gray eyes. Snowflakes had gathered into a circlet upon her head.
He would, though right now slush was gathering in his shoes as he dashed across campus. Only twenty minutes earlier Neil had sat in front of a typewriter as he stared at the protruding, blank leaf of paper.
He had tottered back in his chair and planted his feet on the desk. Bob Dylan crooned about simple twists of fate, Velcro voice wafting from the record player in the corner. Neil deliberated between writing a paper that wavered in the spectrum of B+ and A-, or following through on something else. Both options caused a groan to make its way out of his throat.
It had been, he reminded himself, a vague promise, one suffused in a theoretical tone. They had met, after all, in an Introduction to Literary Theory class, so nothing from him at that time should have been construed as fact.
Greta was the girl who watched as the other classmates argued between themselves. She drew swirls in her notebook while the quarrels left the topic at hand and descended into ad hominem.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Philip Weiss once remarked to his current opponent, a burly bohemian. “You’re an ignoramus.”
Sometimes Neil could see a blush creep up her neck and into her ears, a rapid rash, when the professor solicited her opinion. She would squeak out something about Marx and then bow her head.
He had taken a seat beside Greta and grown accustomed to her tics; how she would lick off her lipstick entirely by the end of class, the bobbing of her leg that nearly shook the table. In a sea of furious discourse, she was a schooner on her own. When his attention drifted, which it often did, he counted the polka dots on her shirt. He did all this without turning his head.
They only formally introduced themselves on the day Neil needed to borrow her book, though they had known one another’s names for the past two months. In a mad dash for breakfast, he had foregone his hefty book bag and glided to the cafeteria, unburdened by the weight.
She pushed all 500 pages of the critical anthology toward him. “Excuse the rambling annotations,” she said, softly, before holding out a pale hand to him. “I’m Greta.”
He took her hand in his. “Neil.”
She was an English major, and he undeclared. A dabbler.
“But I’m leaning toward Anthropology,” he added.
It soon got so that he made sure to leave behind his book before class. When he returned her copy back at the end of each session, they would share quick bites of conversation.
“Thanks.” She hurried to pack up her bag. “How’d you find the class today?”
And from there they would extend the class discussion, the one that neither had participated in, while they walked out of the classroom. They roamed across the tumbling campus green. Greta plucked verdant blades of grass and rolled them between her palms. She spoke of Agatha Christie and Flannery O’Connor.
“They frighten me,” she said, running her hand across a tree trunk. “And fascinate me. Isn’t that the best combination?”
Neil talked music.
“Cat Stevens was one of the best out there. That is, before he gave it all up,” he mentioned, mournful.
When she professed to know nothing about music past Gershwin, he said he would loan her some records.
This amble evolved into a ritual. Neil’s vinyl passed from his hand to hers, along with the guarantee that she would return them unscratched. Greta gave back albums like Tea forthe Tillerman and The Stranger and Blue, flushed with excitement, as though discovering a new sector of the galaxy. And Neil, meanwhile, felt a twinge of pleasure in educating this girl, bereft of sweet, sustaining music for her whole life. He felt like a do-gooder for the first time.
Their shared class days were waning and the sky had taken on a perpetual hue of gray by the time Greta gave him something of her own, a frayed copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find and, with it, an offer. They sat on a bench that needed a good sanding.
“There’s this tiny old movie theater on campus,” she told him. She tugged at a splinter in the seat. “Nobody goes there much, except a lot of Cinema Studies majors, mostly, but they show some of the best films there. People really should give it more of a chance…”
Neil knew where this statement was heading, and a sense of dread lodged itself in his stomach. He had heard of that theater; he and his friends had all deemed it the hive of the socially inept, the decrepit place where wan film geeks would plant themselves to hibernate. When he saw movies—and they were movies, not films—he usually went to the Cineplex, nestled twenty minutes away by bus in the city.
“They’re showing a double feature this Friday night,” Greta continued. “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to go with me.”
Her eyes lifted and he could see disappointment flash across her face. Neil realized he was grimacing. He twisted his mouth into a neutral smile as he thought of what to say. Pretenses flashed across his field of vision like fluorescent advertisements. His term paper, impatient to be brought into the world. A dinner with a professor. A date.
But how could he say any of these things? She appeared braced for his rejection, shoulders bunched up to her ears, biting her lower lip. How many days had it taken for her to muster up the courage and make that one request?
The words surfed out of his mouth without warning. “Sure,” he said. “What time?”
And Greta could have floated away right then, becoming a child’s balloon lost in the clouds. She told him that the first film started at seven. That day, he went to his dorm and fell asleep with A Good Man is Hard to Find resting on his chest, dog-eared on page six, rising and falling with his breath.
And now she waited at 6:50 PM on Friday, the eyes of an ornery cashier locked on her. Her buoyancy dissolved, hissing out of her pores. She considered going inside where it was warm and the film would flicker and she would forget all about him.
Greta had only asked Neil because he looked like James Stewart, lanky and mellow, and he paid her some attention when she felt like she could have disappeared in the breeze. And because, she admitted to herself, she didn’t want to go to the movies alone again. She hugged her torso to absorb the warmth of her arms.
Lara tapped on the glass. “6:54, kiddo. You’ve been here for twenty minutes.”
Closing her eyes, Greta didn’t need reminding that she had once again been naïve, overeager. But she imagined that it must be unpleasant, to be trapped in glass while everyone else got to see the movies.
When she opened her eyes, she told herself she would pivot on her heels and march into the theater and never look back. Her eyelids flicked open, and there he was, warming his hands with his breath. He raised his eyebrows at her in greeting. She rushed up to him.
“You made it,” she said.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
That last half hour faded from memory. It seemed as if all along they had planned to meet at this time. None of it mattered. She pulled Neil by the arm and guided him inside, forcing herself to take small steps.
The theater had walls of white brick and crumbling mortar. Unframed posters for films like L’Avventura and À bout de souffle hung off tacks. When the door opened, they flapped in the onslaught of wind.
“No popcorn?” Neil laughed, eyeing the concession stand.
Arm still entwined in his, Greta turned and frowned at him. This was the type of film in which snacking was sacrilege. She winced at the thought of chomps breaking the quietude, the celluloid spell.
She brought him to her favorite spot, burrowed in the back corner. They sat on the upholstered cushions. A few heads sprouted out from the field of tattered seats, and the light of the screen transformed them into silhouettes.
Greta held a finger to her lips and, burbling with giggles, hushed Neil.
The first selection was Persona. As the sylphlike forms of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson caressed each other on screen, Greta’s euphoria slowly paled, lips curling into her mouth. She hadn’t realized how experimental the film was, the unease that settled in the pit of your stomach. Her senses heightened so that she was acutely aware of every shift Neil made in his seat, every cough and intake of breath. Now every fault of the film belonged to her, each one a knot in her abdomen.
She sunk into her seat, face heating, wanting to bask in the glow of the film but unable to ignore his lolling head. A crease appeared on his forehead, like a coin slot. Maybe if she deposited a quarter there it would go away. At this point she was red enough to blend with the upholstery.
Only when the lights went up for an interlude before the next feature did the tension expel itself from her muscles. She pulled her knees up to her chest, peeked at him from above her stockings.
Neil rubbed the space between his eyebrows. “You see this stuff regularly?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “I love Bergman.” But she didn’t know if she could see Persona ever again without the phantom pains of mortification.
He stood and stretched. His joints cracked. “It’s getting kind of late…” he said, glancing at his watch.
“You can leave, if you want,” she said. She looked straight ahead. “Don’t stay because you feel bad for me.”
Neil opened his mouth, perhaps to protest, to defend himself. But he closed it and looked away and all he said was, “I’ll see you in class.”
She watched him slipping on his jacket as he walked through the aisle.
Greta felt like a hollowed container of ice cream, cast aside. But she couldn’t tell if this emptiness echoed more of loss or relief. In any case, the lights were dimming again, and there was nobody there beside her to dank up the air with his breath.
The next picture was The Seventh Seal. Sometimes in foreign films she liked to close her eyes and imagine that the Swedish was a secret language whispered into her ears alone. Sometimes she would miss key pieces of dialogue that way, but she had already seen this one, so it was okay. All was dark now, and she was warm.
Ariella Carmell is an 18-year-old writer from California. Recognized by the Poetry Society of the United Kingdom, Falmouth University, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cadaverine Magazine, Burningword, Crack the Spine, Vademecum, Crashtest, Eunoia Review, and Canvas Literary Journal, among others. She also serves as a blog contributor for The Adroit Journal. Come next fall, she will attend The University of Chicago to study literature and creative writing.
The first time my sister Mari lost her baby, only twenty weeks, the doctor assured her that she could try again. “The body is miraculous, it can bounce back from anything,” as though her womb just needed to be cleared of the cluttered, grasping mess inside.
I was recruiting a student for my college, flipping through brochures in her living room. They sent me all over the Southwest as their official bilingual recruiter. The girl sat next to me and ran her hands over the glossy pictures of the campus. She would be the first in her family to go to college. Her mother, who sat on my other side, peered at the pictures of the dormitories. She paused over the listings of scholarship information and fees accrued over the first academic year and wanted me to assure her that they could afford it, that her baby wouldn’t be so far away. “Unas horas,” I reminded her, showing her the route from I-20 across Louisiana and into Texas. When the visit was over, the mother sent me off to my hotel with arepas wrapped in tin foil. I relished being among these hopeful families, taking on some of their glow.
At the hotel, Mari called me to tell me the news. There were fibroids in her uterus; she had passed the contents of the amniotic sack and was taking medication to expel the rest. She explained this as though she was reading straight from the hospital’s printout of her condition. She cried, but was still hopeful. It was the kind of slow letting of tears, like drops of blood rising to the surface of a small but painful cut which leaves a minute but lasting mark.
I should call this baby by her name, the name that Greg and Mari chose for her. Sophia. Her name was Sophia, for the short time that she lived in Mari’s womb.
Less than a year after my sister lost the first baby I was with her in Chicago with news of a new baby. Her OB/GYN insisted on checking in every two weeks to monitor her progress. In her home in Chicago, we drank tea heavy with honey and lemon and watched movies with her head in my lap the way we used to sit when we both lived at home. I ran my hands across her forehead to keep her serene. “I have to relax, be stress free,” she repeated.
She rubbed the growing bulge in her flat stomach and I wondered if she could feel it in there, growing all the time. Greg, her husband, hovered around us but chose not to intrude. I could forgive him for taking my sister so far away, though our parents hadn’t. They comforted themselves with asking for some of my frequent flyer miles to be there when this baby was born, and so Greg took that opportunity to begin preparing a room for them when they came for two weeks to help with the baby. He even laid our mother’s embroidered quilt on the crib as an offering to her. It was the one she made for the first baby, but Mari and I both thought it was a nice gesture.
On the way home, I tucked the ultrasound of the new baby into my bag, careful not to bend it. She was a strange imprint of Mari and Greg with the potential to become more like one or the other. I allowed myself to hope for Mari again.
Mari told me about the second pregnancy even before she told Greg.
Mari always wanted a baby. The standards of motherhood were deeply entrenched in her set-up of our communal doll house, in the way that she swaddled our enormous cat Blanca who spit and scratched her. While our brother Efran and I became more interested in TV than playing house, Mari insisted on serving us milk in her tiny china cups. Our mother delighted in her youngest, her little maiden girl. My penchant for soccer with Efran’s friends in the back field behind the house left my shins bruised up and me sweating like the boys. But when Mari asked me to sing a lullaby to the cat, or rock her doll, I humored her. We all did.
Mari calls me every Sunday. It’s a ritual I have begun to count on. Her pregnancy ensures communication between myself and the rest of the family, even though Efran never left San Antonio, like me, and has two kids of his own. I won’t mention my failings as the oldest child of three whose relationships have never gone past six months. My last boyfriend, Jonathan, couldn’t take my traveling. For a time, Jonathan liked to hear my success stories about work. As I traveled more, they became tedious to him when I sat up at night after returning home, too wired to sleep. “It’s making things difficult when you’re gone so often,” he confessed. A month later he moved out.
After my breakup, the news of Mari’s new pregnancy swept me up into the effervescent happiness of new life coming into the family.
I expect the call from Mari as usual on Sunday, but don’t hear from her until Monday afternoon. I am shaken to hear her so scared. The last text message that I received two days before featured a picture of her round belly protruding from her night shirt and a caption that read “32 weeks!” She likes to mark her pregnancy with each new week of growth. I, as the future auntie, don’t mind.
“Something’s wrong with the baby, the doctor wants to do an ultrasound to check everything out. Can you come up here?” she asks. The sickening panic in my stomach subsides only after I calm myself by looking up the prices of a standby flight to Chicago the next day and how many frequent flyer miles I still have in my account. “I’m coming to you,” I promise her.
Mari reminds me not to tell Mom or Dad yet.
“I don’t want to worry them,” she says.
In the airport, the anonymity of those passing by me sinks into that place in my stomach, a hollow basin full of worry. I fly through an airport every month and with each visit, I understand a little better the exchange that I see around me. It is so easy to retreat into oneself, into a phone, a book, the news playing soundlessly above the passengers heads on a television screen, the last thing we want intruding into our private thoughts. Still, I listen to the conversations of those around me, I watch the families and business executives pass me, grasping for something familiar in this moment because Mari hasn’t called yet to tell me what’s happening.
The faucet in the bathrooms comes on automatically. I cup enough in my hands to splash water across my face in a moment of relief. The plane to Houston was pummeled by violent airstreams the entire forty-five minute flight while I barely held the bile back in my throat. Even after flying once a month for two years, my motion sickness still creeps up on me. Women around me come in and out, checking their makeup in the wide mirrors or ushering fussy kids into one stall to take turns. I search the faces that pass me, but none of them meet my eyes. We are all too lost in our own sought-after moments of comfort to notice anyone around us.
There is a message on my phone from Mari. I don’t listen to it, instead retreating into an empty stall and calling her back.
“Mari, I just landed. I have an hour before my next flight leaves, so I should be there with you soon,” I explain.
There are tears in Mari’s voice, in her choked answer. “We’re in the hospital. “
“What happened, Mama?” I called Mari Mama since we were little. Lately she wore the term like a badge of honor.
“She’s gone. No heartbeat. The doctor will induce labor soon,” she chokes out. There is a scuffle and Greg gets on the phone. “Are you coming, Linda?” he asks.
“I’m coming Greg. Text me the name of the hospital. I’ll be there in a few hours.”
There is an art display on the wall across from my seat at the gate. I sip my tea, expecting the water that funnels out to be scalding, but it’s already losing its warmth. The artwork on the wall is from a second grade class in the Houston public school district. Most of them are done in water color that was poorly controlled, like a distracted art teacher left the kids to their own devices. Art class was my favorite hour of school when I was young, and I am reminded of my own haphazard paintings, see my own use of color in the bright golden sun of a landscape. I allow myself to think of how I would have taught my new niece how to paint, how I would have shown her to swipe a finger through thick acrylics, then how to hold a paintbrush. It was how I had always entertained Efran’s kids, my legacy as an aunt.
A woman passes across my line of sight, pushing a stroller and pulling on the hand of her young son. I have not fixed my mind on many other people today. She admonishes her son to walk faster in Spanish that is clearly Caribbean but that I can’t place. It’s not the Spanish that I have heard all of my life, the languid expression of Tejanos from the Valley. Even still, hearing her speak disarms me, transporting me to a time when all of us, Mari, Efran, and I, were under the same roof, were together. Hearing that first language, the tonal inflections that can only mean family, leads me back to a place of security.
The woman is what my grandmother in Mexico would have called prieta, black with a sleek ponytail pulled so far back that it gives her thin face a severe, or possibly exhausted expression. She is younger than me. Her face is not etched with the lines that sneak in around the eyes, where we women are marked through time. She argues with her son over whether he can push his sister’s stroller. He has a high-pitched voice that kids have at that age, regardless of volume, that draws attention to him. I think of my nephew Toni, my brother’s son, who sounds just the same, four years old and loud when he wants to get his point across.
They begin boarding the plane. I watch them get in line and push the stroller closer and closer to the gate entrance. I hear my group number being called, and I sneak in line near them, hovering close. I peak in on the baby in the stroller, a baby girl with big green eyes, wispy tight curls, and a serene expression. “How old is she?” I ask the mother.
“A year,” she answers in Spanish. I tell her how beautiful her daughter is and the tension seems to ease from her face. She tells me how she is taking her children back to San Juan to see her parents, how her husband couldn’t make the trip and stuck her with the kids on a four-hour flight. Her boy watches his mother chatter away curiously, pushing his sister’s stroller back and forth to see her face scrunch up in a grin. He puffs up his chest and thrusts out their boarding passes at the woman scanning them, and I follow right behind. We are in the seats next to one another, and I watch her stow the stroller before getting on the plane, pushing her son in front of her so that he is by the window.
Once settled, the woman continues our conversation about where her husband works. It is a relief not to have to tell her about why I am flying to Chicago, letting her fill the spaces in our conversation with her own life.
“I have to go to bathroom!” Her son announces to everyone around us. When his mother ignores him, continuing our conversation, he begins to hold himself until she is forced to notice him.
“Leave her with me,” I say. “I can hold her,” I add, holding out my hands for the baby girl. She considers for a moment, but decides to hand the baby to me, realizing, I hope, that my intentions are good, and, anyway, I’m surrounded by others and there is nowhere for me to go. The baby doesn’t protest while her mother backs away slowly, surveying how she will react. Then, seeing that her baby is fine, she leads her son off to the bathroom at the back of the plane.
The baby girl sits up tall on my knee, stretching her infant body and testing the muscles of her back that keep her upright. She gurgles and hums, looking around, observing the people around us, then turns to stare up at my face. I see in her eyes that she is not yet concerned, but she frowns anyway, studying my features. I could be her Tia, or her mother’s friend. I wonder if she would know the difference. Her smooth hand reaches out and grasps my finger with baby strength both looking for balance and exploring.
“Que mamacita? What do you see?” I ask her. I repeat the question, alternating between English and Spanish. This seems to please her. She stares intently up at me, still clutching my finger, and tests out a small smile at my words. I bounce her a little on my knee, watching her curls bounce with her and she squeals, raising her arms high above her head. “Preciosa, linda, hermosa,” I repeat to her, leaning my face in towards hers and drawing back out while she laughs.
Her mother, I notice, has returned. Her son stands beside her, watching me with his sister. The baby looks around at her mother and lets out the brightest squeal of all, reaching up for her as recognition sets in. Her mother settles her under one arm, kissing her sweet brown cheek and whispering at her. There is so much love there between them, one that involves no one else, not even her son. It fills me with a longing that I find surprising.
“Gracias,” the mother thanks me, shaking my hand. Her palm is as soft as her daughter’s. The flight passes quickly as I continue to play intermittently with the baby, who stands on her mother’s legs and leans towards the window, completely unafraid. When the plane lands, the mother turns and waves at me, waving the baby’s arm too. Then they are gone, taking with them my feeling of wholeness and leaving behind a gutted, empty space. I am scraped clean, raw, repeating the lost baby’s name on my lips so that we do not forget her. Sophia, Sophia, Sophia.
Leticia Urieta is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Texas State University. She won Agnes Scott’s Academy of American Poet’s prize in 2009 and her work has appeared in Cleaver, the 2016 Texas Poetry Calendar, and Blackheart. Leticia lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and two dogs. She is using her love of Texas history and passion for research to write a historical novel about the role of Mexican soldaderas in Texas’ war with Mexico.
She found the letter in the attic. It was undated but possibly written before World War II. She showed it to him in bed. It was signed, “Ashley.” There was no greeting. She was moved by it and asked if he felt the same. He said he did, but wanted to read it again, preferably alone. She rolled away from him and closed her eyes. The summer heat made her dizzy.
“I’ll take it home to read,” he said.
She nodded, eyes shut. “Okay. But I want it back.”
He didn’t know much about her beyond her liking red wine and sex. But she was a romantic and a patriot. She could quote Byron at length and she dismissed claims that he was cold and ruthless. Warm and ruthless, she joked to herself. She owned an antique American flag sewn in Alabama. She’d been a competitive figure skater until a few years ago. She hated her mother. She loved him with a kind of wild allegiance, though he was known as a player in certain circles.
He didn’t ask her about herself. They had known each other three months, but had just begun to make love. “Let’s go to bed,” he’d said to her in his casual way.
He didn’t consider himself a romantic, but the letter was romantic, even heart-breaking. Like an ice cube in the bottom of a glass: it made him feel like that.
He read the letter to his other girl that night. She was even newer than the first. He didn’t know what to expect. Right away, she started crying. She got up from bed. She moved through the apartment naked, watering the houseplants. Ferns, palms, pothos. She loved Mozart and had a dancer’s body and long blonde hair.
“If I were the writer of the letter, I’d want a second chance to show my lover what he really meant to me, because first chances shouldn’t count,” she said. “Everything in life must be done twice.”
“You’re not born twice,” he teased.
“Sure you are. Ask any Buddhist.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to die twice.”
“Dying isn’t dying. It’s transfiguration.”
He lay stretched out in bed, his hands behind his head, his chin tipped up. “What will we be in the next life? Lions or mice?”
She put down the watering can and stood over him. “I can’t say . . . but we’ll know each other.”
“We’ve done this dance before.”
He smiled and thought he might be in love with her. She was someone who had an entertaining explanation for everything. He looked across the bedroom. Curtains flapped in the breeze. A truck rumbled by. He tucked the letter under his pillow, but made a mental note to take it before he left.
“When does your sister get here?”
“Eight-thirty,” she said. “We have to meet her at BART.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“I did,” she leaned down and kissed him. “You forgot.”
He sighed, threw off the covers and began to dress. He thought if the sister looked anything like her, he’d be in trouble.
Sheryl was nothing like Danielle. She was short and stocky. Her dark brown hair formed a frizzy halo around her face. In the car, she complained about delays at JFK, turbulence, and the food. He disliked her immediately.
“Well, I’m glad you made it,” Danielle sighed.
“Barely,” she groused. “The first thing I want is a hot meal, then a hot bath. Then I’ll go straight to bed.”
“Don’t you want to see the city?”
Sheryl didn’t answer and started rummaging through her bag. She found a tube of lipstick and put it on. It was a ghastly orange. She puckered her lips. Then she boxed it up in its case. “Berkeley is a great city, a beautiful one. But I live in New York.”
He drove the whole way in silence. He thought of pulling over and dumping her on the road.
Later at Danielle’s place, Sheryl sat on the edge of the bed and bounced a little. She frowned, disturbed by its springiness. He gave Danielle a look, but she was clearly used to this behavior. They ordered from the local Indian place.
“I hate Indian food,” she said. “It gives me heartburn.”
“I see it doesn’t keep you from eating it,” he laughed.
Sheryl put down the fork and narrowed her eyes. “Well, I don’t want to starve.”
He laughed again, thinking there was little chance of that. His girlfriend shot him a look. Then he stopped laughing. Inside, he was thinking this woman was horrific.
When he drove off that night, he considered going to the first girlfriend’s house. As soon as he thought of her, he thought of the letter. He’d left it in Danielle’s bed, under the pillow. And now that cow of a sister would be sleeping on it.
He had no choice but to go back. He made an illegal U-turn. A driver honked.
He found both women in the kitchen. Danielle was grinding coffee and Sheryl sat at the table, reading aloud from the letter, chortling now and then. He could see she’d left her filthy fingerprints all over it. He felt mad and jumbled up.
“Hey,” he said. “That’s my letter.”
Sheryl fanned herself with it. “You’re Ashley, huh?”
“No,” he said.
“So is ‘Ashley’ another girlfriend of yours?”
He snatched it from her with one athletic move. Then she grabbed it back. He didn’t want the letter to tear, so he let it go.
“If you want it back, you have to tell us where you got it,” said Sheryl.
“I . . . I don’t remember,” he stammered. “I just found it.”
“I don’t know. On the street somewhere.”
“Bullshit,” Sheryl turned to her sister. “He’s hiding something.”
He began to pace back and forth, running his hand through his hair. He knocked over one of the ferns, then crashed into a palm. His girlfriend begged him to be careful, but he hardly heard a word. He stumbled over the cat. He picked it up and smoothed its fur.
“I found it in my grandparents’ attic. They’re dead and I don’t like to talk about them.”
On the far side of the kitchen, Sheryl rolled her eyes. Danielle poured coffee into two mugs. Her face tensed and he could tell she was about to cry.
“You told me your grandparents were alive,” she said. “The ones that raised you.”
“My mother’s parents, not my father’s.”
“No, that’s not what you said before.”
He had nowhere to retreat from his lies. It was like she’d shut all the windows simultaneously and the air had gone from the room. He tried to come up with something that was orderly and consistent with his lies, but nothing came. His arms felt limp.
Danielle stared at him. “I think you’d better go.”
He didn’t want to go. He wanted to tell her that he’d fallen in love with her, that he’d been outside the experience of love for so long, that the letter made him realize it, and that he would leave his other girl. Except he couldn’t say any of that.
After he left, close to midnight, he was completely worn out. Without knowing why, he decided to walk rather than drive to the first girl’s house. Though he didn’t take in anything he saw: the homeless men, the house-fronts, the night sky veiled in fog.
Again and again, he thought of the letter. He was thinking so intently of it, he walked five blocks past her house to his own house. He was dead-tired. He tried to watch a funny movie to cheer himself up, but he fell asleep on the sofa with his shoes on.
The next day, the patriotic girl came to visit him. Her face was barely visible in the shuttered room. She wore a dress patterned in delicate flowers. It reminded him of Danielle. The lilies she’d brought him trembled in the day’s heat.
“I called you earlier,” she said. “You didn’t pick up.”
“Sorry, I was asleep.”
“Do you still have that letter I gave you?”
“I’ll get it.”
“Are you coming over tonight?”
“No, not tonight . . . I can’t. I have a Quaker meeting.”
She laughed. “Since when are you a Quaker?”
“It’s something I’m trying out.”
“But you’ll get the letter?”
He nodded. They made love and she left and he called Danielle to ask for the letter. He hung up right away when he heard her voice.
Talila Baron recently completed her debut novel, Blotted Out. Her stage plays have been produced at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, New York University, and the Abingdon Theatre in New York. A winner of the Wilner Short Story Award, Female Eye Screenwriting Competition, and Jane Chambers Award for Playwriting, Baron was a also a finalist for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, a finalist for the Beverly Hills Film Festival, and a semi-finalist for the Chesterfield Screenwriting Fellowship. She holds an M.A. in creative writing.
She’d been lying back with her eyes closed and with her sunglasses off and above her head on the ice, nothing between her and the cold bright rays but as I spoke she reached to the glasses and crunched forward at the waist. Her legs pivoted upwards a little in reaction then back down and she pushed the sunglasses onto her face. Not far to her left the ice was clinging to rock and in places it was cracked and fissured with slow pressures but to the right the side of the valley wasn’t visible beyond the hump of the glacier and down further at the valley floor, sunk in green and surrounded by trees and heat the house did its fairytale thing. Stacking upwards turreted from the land. She brought her knees toward her and hooked across them and peered down the slope.
I don’t know. A half metre a day maybe.
When I touched the ice my fingertips came back dry. It was pitted and uneven and it had had specks of dirt and grit ground into it by footsteps or deeper down by the building layers of snow and, looking across, it was a mottle of black and pale blue running deep. My hands were pale and I moved them into the crooks of my knees and I squeezed. I listened to the scrape of rocks and the creak of ice and the occasional startling crackle or crash that echoed up to the snowpack. Once there was a crack and a scatter of ice chunks and rocks a little ahead of us down the valley and the crack was loud and extended and the detritus rolled and bounced down into some newly-torn crevasse and above it all the silent flow of the glacier itself.
There were bird silhouettes above, between the high glare-blanked sky and me and on the way up from the house I’d seen deer and marmots. At the valley floor the heat rose straight out from the grass in a long wet haze but up here the air was cold and dry and my hoodie and jeans did little against it and my ski mask was stuffed unused into my front pocket.
She noticed my shiver and she shifted over and wrapped her body, obscured by layers of down and fleece, around me and her head rested on my shoulder and her face moved up to touch mine at the side. The arm of her sunglasses pressed into my cheek and, blurred in my periphery, I could see the slight shaded swivel of her eye. She was still looking down toward the house.
Rah she said. Her teeth scraped the cold flesh of my face and dug for a second and she grinned and she laughed. I could have told you that.
I settled back toward her body and I moved my hands to hold on to her arms and push them further into my chest and I slumped forward a little so my whole top half shared in her coat.
Better than being inside all day though. When this is what’s out.
She tightened. I felt movement somewhere beneath her thick clothing and I was shifted around in her arms and she rustled and crumpled. She brought her legs around to cross my waist and her boots cracked down into the ice between mine. Thumped down and made heel-shaped furrows edged with new white powder. She was above me now and in place of her skin the matte polymers of her coat scratched against my face.
How is your guy though she said.
Down the hill in the house in a room with blacked out windows he would be sitting in his chair looking downwards, dripping saliva on bare broken legs with floodlights oscillating on her own jerry-rigged circuits and the music following their patterns; irregular rapid snaps of dark noise; he’d be closing his eyes and pulling his lips back, and his teeth and gums and whole mouth were all ruined with the rest of him. When I came to him in the evenings or the early mornings and I opened the curtains the saliva was pinkish.
I chewed on my lips though the cold would dry them out and crack them. He has this thing I said. He just reels off every single fact he can think of when I’m there you know. It’s impressive almost. Like he’s exhausted and wasting away and probably hallucinating all kindsa shit right but there he is with his facts.
What kind of facts.
Not even facts. Just like data. I shrugged and the movement was loud against her coat and finally through all her clothes I felt at my shoulders some tight string of her. The muscles moving in response to me. Junk data. This morning it was battles and estimated casualties. Yesterday he was listing Pokémon.
Pokémon. She laughed. Jigglypuff. Blastoise.
I laughed. Jigglypuff and all them, I said. That little balding man with all the like, paintings on the walls of mountains and shit, the expensive wine and I take my knife to him and all he’s screaming is.
I stopped, and waved my hands out from her embrace. I don’t even know, I said. Tangela.
Tangela. Mr. Mime.
He doesn’t even know that it isn’t my job to make him talk. I don’t care what he says or doesn’t say. But it did get me thinking I should play those games again. When I was little I’d download all of them and play them on my computer through an emulator. I smiled. My first taste of piracy. I learned the internet that way.
Sounds like you’re going to be stuck with him for a while she said. She was holding onto my face in her gloves and I felt her leaning forward to kiss me once on the top of the forehead and for a few seconds the ice and the air was pushed back and her warmth and presence moved foremost. I mean that’s pretty defiant right. If I waltzed in there tonight all smiles and food and and.
No knives and drugs I said.
Right. Well he’d still be fucking screaming his Pokémon right.
As far as he was concerned she didn’t exist. When we shared the house she was silent and we came outside to talk and he only ever saw me in his one darkened room or saw my ski-masked face and gloved hands and felt my blades or needles or chisels or water, and for him it was only me crashing through his annexed castle. The little conical roofs and pointed windows.
Sometimes I’d take an object that I’d found somewhere in the house in with me when I visited him and talk about it and show him. He’d had a photograph taken from this glacier on a day like this of a youngish woman in sunglasses with a ponytail. She was pinching together her fingers above the tiny pointed roof of his home as if she was lifting it or holding it up. But he’d kept up his interference patterns and I’d junked it and crushed the picture and it was still there, crumpled and inaccessible and showing up muddied whenever the switching circuit opened the room with light.
Whatever I said. It’ll be fine.
She’d pulled her glove from her hand and she was running the backs of her minor knuckles along the curve of my jaw. You’re freezing she said. We need to get you back down to all that warmth.
Down somewhere on the valley floor there’d be wild boar wandering, and deer and hedgehogs and whatever else. In the pale nights of the summer, beneath the blacked-out windows on the upper floors we’d sit out in the garden and watch them move.
Patrick Ball lives in Philadelphia and is currently studying for a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He grew up in Sheffield, in the United Kingdom, and has had short stories published in the British literary magazines You Stumble Into A Room Full Of Poets and The Cadaverine Magazine.
No one takes you seriously until you start shitting blood. Everyone who knew him was bored of his sickness. Edith was bored of his anger. Bored of his trick bowel. His celestial rages. Bored of his misery. Bored to death of the innumerable symptoms of his enlarged heart. Life had been a waste of breath. It wasn’t until after he started hemorrhaging that his wife took him to Sacred Heart emergency.
End of the day, first day back up on the roof laying brick after he’d gone under the knife. Slit wide open at the umbilicus. Gut inflated with air. To excavate the stones that had been steadily growing for decades inside of the man. Now he was constipated. He wanted to get the hell out of here, get back to Pietrasanta, get back to his life’s work. Arrivederci and vaffanculo, Todd the foreman. And a vaffanculo to you Doctor Schultz. And to you Lady, who smirked at me last night from behind the pharmaceutical counter because you thought I had a girl’s name. No, the Lubiprostone is for my wife. But at this moment in time, all Andrea Bozzetto really wanted was to get the hell off that roof to go to the bathroom.
Fifth time already that day he had to tell Todd. What are you on the rag? Andrea managed to secrete a smile. The shit-eating grin. He lay down brick and trowel and went down the ten stories. Bozzetto hadn’t told a soul on day shift that he was straight out of surgery. That he felt his seams were splitting. He knew that Todd didn’t understand this newest mortification. He muttered under his breath. You should’ve known. You should have known about the bile, about the decades of slow stones, about the fecal occult blood, about being forced to admit my own name is a woman’s. It’s Italian and it means manly. You should’ve known Andrea Amati, euphoric father of the violin. Andrea Ammonio, poet. Andreas Vesalius, anatomist. Andrea de Adamich, the driver who won the European Touring Car Championship in a red Alfa Romeo 1600 GTA when I was eighteen years old. The same year his papà suggested bricks to a boy who was good with his hands. He should’ve known that Andrea was sixty-five years old today.
He sat down in that green plastic toilet to try to take the masterpiece shit and took out a rosary from his work pants. Not for the divine intervention of the Blessed Virgin, but for his hard-assed belief that through some kind of imitative magic, the beads raining down beneath the man on the cross would help him to defecate. His wife couldn’t understand what his problem was all the time. The problem was he was an artist.
The older men on the crew used to know that Andrea Bozzetto was a sculptor, and between talking pussy and mortar, they showed him the reverence of a man destined to leave. Get the hell out of here Bozzetto and never look back. Everything here turns to shit. But those guys were all dead now or at home hemorrhaging away in their beds, their wives decorating their bedside tables with Calabrese altar decorations and asshole creams. Now he whittled dry mortar into elephantine figures, or the same tiny nude woman whose bone structure he had committed to memory. Andrea Bozzetto, get back to your stone.
On the shitter he always thought about being a dead man. He imagined funeral things. The casket. The headstone. He predicted mythologies that would be engendered while he was turning slowly to bone. His wife would let his death be the occasion to proudly begin doing all the things she envied in other women, breaking taboos that never existed. Using his death to un-imagine him. Like a ruined wall being torn down. All those future nights of rages snared in his dumb corpse. All that suffering, Andrea thought. For nothing. As if I never existed. No one will put in a good word for the dead man.
Talking to Edith about his fears was a waste of breath. She knew it was all just shitter talk anyway. The histrionic bowel. Even if he breathed a word about that old dream project of sculpting the over-life-sized male nude, his wife would sense the onslaught of frustrated desire and stonewall him. The heat of her braced silence would ignite his anger. By the end of the night, she would prove right in her prediction of his temper. Blamed again for his sanguine rages, for sleep deprivation torture, but it was him who had been hurt by her and him who had to get up in a couple hours anyway to sit hopelessly on that cold porcelain bowl before he left for the bricks. Squatting there, he would burn his lips in silence, because he really hadn’t finished what he had to say to his wife yet. And besides, it was him that was dying.
He knew she prayed every night, as she lay down with rehearsed silence in their bed, that his day’s anger and humiliation would be cauterized by the night and this infuriated him—lying there with that ridiculous raging hard-on. He was acutely aware of all the miniscule shifts in breath and bone that separate pretend sleep from real. And he sometimes shook his wife awake in the middle of the night to blunt this anger that had been piqued by the little pretty shape of a dreaming body that had turned to him as though having one last look. Old jealousies weighed on him. Over the decades, they had become monumental and sprawling like the streets of ancient sinful cities. Andrea was not a sadist, as Edith had accused him. Or in love with suffering. He didn’t take pleasure in his own despair. He was just very, very angry. All he really wanted was for her to let him dole out his rage in his own damn time—which, she dreaded, was forever. They had been together for already almost half a century. Married shortly after the slight changes occurred in Edith’s body that only a sculptor or a widow could distinguish.
Andrea once looked out from the tops of his own brick walls for girls in the streets with travertine skin, or breasts of soft clay and terracotta lips. Like all sculptors, and more so than other young men of eighteen, Andrea had often considered the problems of intertwined figures. When he saw Edith for the first time, singing in the university, he thought her body was a slender pillar of gilt bronze, with eyes the colour of marble. Andrea coaxed himself. If she looks back at me just once.
Her skin tasted like salt after they slept together for the first time. In those furtive minutes before his quiet brother got home from working at the used book store, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked around his own body. Just a rough study for a larger work. He thought about the art book he stole from the library when he was twelve. His cock measured against the genitals of antiquity. The oversized cocks of pubescent Christs. He took solace in the nude sculpture of the Boxer of Quirinal with his open wounds of inlayed copper and his cock bound up—dog tied. Sex ruins fighters, after all. And the male singing voice. He thought about his boyhood hands. He thought about his brothers, with the matching broken noses they inherited from their father. It was then that he understood what would be, if he truly was a great sculptor, his masterpiece—an over-life-sized male nude.
Edith’s body conjured the female nudes of the art book and the figurine of a girl he made from the clay he found by the creek. Both hidden. Uncovered nights when he jerked off menacingly to The Birth of Venus as his four brothers who shared a bedroom with him all dreamed of Libby. Her hair blond with a slight green patina— showed her tits if you asked her to behind Nic’s Barber Shop or the Chinese grocery or the bridge or the coin laundry. Andrea saw them both, twice. Behind the butcher and again behind Sacred Heart. Libby, naïve and open with a ruthless laugh, was the antithesis of Pietrasanta, with its evil eyes, hexes, blood oaths, and ancient grudges, its codes of shame, and vengeful men with their loathsome wives with black horses’ manes—the mothers of future dead boys, who knew all the evil numbers and the names of funerary flowers, who gossiped with repugnance over the bellies of would-be brides who would name their unborn children after their own mother’s dead sons.
It was that back alley Statue of Libby who, one by one, presided over the first hard-ons of each of those swarthy immigrant brothers. Roused that sleeping animal who stretched itself out inside of them. But unlike his older brothers who flaunted their new sexual potency (the personal achievement of having seen tits) and played Who’d You Rather on the bridge over the creek, Andrea felt like a shameful little pervert gargoyle. His short fat cock incensed by the Renaissance nudes waiting for him in his undies drawer.
Later, during a Sunday scouring of the bedroom, the book was uncovered by Mamma who wept large Adriatic tears and spouted stories of brimstone with women turning to pillars of salt, and prayed vicious decades of the rosary in a language that no longer exists. He replaced the nudes in good time with a school library copy of Vesalius’ illustrations, over which he was forced to rub one out night after night to sixteenth century anatomical drawings of female torsos—exposed with medical precision. His pubescent imagination entangled even in the horrifying vaginal wilderness of the genital tract with upside down fetuses staring back at him—the fruit of thy wombs.
Andrea began to see all the things in his world in still life or portraiture. Everything framed and labelled, like his erotic autopsied women. He would name the day’s vignettes as though they were paintings. The Temptation of Andrea Bozzetto. Boy with Cigarette from Papà’s Pack. Portrait de Papà sans Pants. Nude Papà Descending a Staircase with Belt Overhead. Trip and Fall of the Damned Son. The Massacre of the Innocent Boy. Universal Judgement in the Kitchen. Self-Portrait with Broken Nose.
He even played a little game where he tried to identify everyone in their truest artistic material of construction. Black and whites of dead Bisnonno—an old man porcelain doll. Zio Marcello who slept sprawled then fetal on the couch and cried on Wednesdays—constructed from the materials of an accordion. His bad brother—leering eyes of grey lighter fluid. The fat brother—his big back the husk of a sunken ocean liner. Cousin Carmela, who he gave up his bed for when she arrived from Pietrasanta—breasts of ripe melon. Others still with ethereal bodies. Zia Rose, with the dead soldier husband, was a smell. A low lying haze of shifting incense. Zio Maurizio was made entirely of cigarette smoke. Rothmans. Mamma in the kitchen—a dark living spice. Papà’s archaic after dinner head—stone.
It was many years now since he had watched Edith will herself into a self-portrait, pretending to sleep. Her face was slowly changing. And that beautiful lady, who still tasted of salt, became the monument of his own closeness to death. Andrea felt he could see the slow hollowing of her cheeks. The minerals of her bones scattering like white sand over the black bed sheets. He saw the flattening under her eye sockets and felt he could actually see her jaw bone receding. In his nightly morphologic adoration he knew how much he loved her, because he realized that what he was really doing was keeping watch over her, like a gargoyle, in case she might disappear completely. Andrea kissed her on the forehead. Study of a Nude Wife Dying in Her Sleep. He instinctively wished on her too old body once again for a boy, and slept.
He took out his work lunch from the bag between his legs. Not the first time he had eaten in the shitter. His wife communicated best with him through lunches. Unlike that puritanical feed he had grown used to, for his sixty-fifth birthday (proof that she still loved him vehemently) she had ignored the advice of Dr. Schultz and packed him a panino with prosciutto and mortadella. Not being Italian, she was still a foreigner to this diabolical cured ham that had nearly killed her husband and half of his brothers. The first bite went down good and Andrea felt that this was the moment that he could finally loosen the imbroglio in his bowel. Todd banged the door. Andrea, what are you eating your little lunch in there again? I want ass to roof in five or you’re a dead man. Andrea wanted to die in there, at that very second in history, with his panino between his legs. Just tip back that green plastic toilet into the dirt and lay brick right over him.
He wiped up, got out, and with the intention of either declaring his retirement or burning the building to the ground, he got in the elevator and pressed the button for the tenth. For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it, he recalled. Andrea climbed the ladder to the rooftop, crossed the roof in long strides towards a little brick structure where Todd stood, and cracked him a right to the face. Felt the bones of his fist shatter and minerals scatter like ash into the blood of his wrists. Todd was on his ass. He got up and Andrea broke his nose. Papà’s shot. For sixty-five years this fight had been dormant inside Andrea Bozzetto. All the missed schoolyard brawls snarled in him. All the times he had bit his lip and taken it. Like when he was hit in the side of the head by his father by mistake—it was the bad brother who’d pissed in Mrs. Balvenie’s bush. Or when, somehow, he had ended up looking after the retard Cesar (bride’s cousin) for hours during his own wedding reception. Trying to stop him again and again from whipping out his enormous wildebeest cock in front of the flushed bridesmaids. His in-laws, patronizingly tolerant of his woman’s name and the Roman mass, cooed over what they perceived in him to be a sort of St. Francis of Assisi quality—attracting wild beasts through some primitive, animalistic, Catholic empathy possessed by saints, feral children, and wops.
Andrea relived noses he should have broken and skulls he should have collapsed. He saw the catalogue of body parts as illustrations in Vesalius’ book of anatomy and felt phantom pains in his fist. He smashed Todd again over his right eye because he knew he wasn’t a sculptor at all, because he hadn’t made anything in decades. He cracked him over the left eye and drew blood for what had happened to him at eighteen. He wanted to knock Todd’s head off, topple him like the statues of Mussolini before he left Italy. He smashed him in the face for Libby’s perfectly lopsided tits, for the red Alfa Romeo he would never own.
Todd kicked him in the crotch. He went down. Todd lunged. Andrea grabbed a brick in his hand and bashed Todd in the side of the head. A long stroke of black blood from his ear. Andrea turned him and knelt on his chest and hit him in the throat. He felt the bone of his knuckles grow bare and he hit him again in the mouth, for his dead language, his mother tongue that had asphyxiated in him, for the name he’d been made to swear to never speak. Todd struck wild. Tore the buttons off Andrea’s dress shirt. The two old men staggered to their feet. Andrea’s bottom lip split wide. Blood tasted like the clay salt of bricks. He took one in the gut and went down. The seam in his gut was pulling open. Todd kicked him in the face, kicked all his teeth into his mouth, like pebbles. Todd collapsed Andrea’s nose with his forehead. Andrea put his knuckles deep into Todd’s rib and it cracked. He wanted to rip the thing right out. Todd felt Andrea’s dry panting on his mouth and hit Andrea in the jaw. Andrea bit off the tip of his own tongue. He punched Todd like his father did him, slapped him hard like his wife did. He was no longer fighting, he was purging violence.
He wanted to kill Todd because he ate alone in the shitter, because he was embarrassed at elementary school roll call, because he would choke up at that one certain name, because he loathed his job, because he resented that he was the best bricklayer, because Todd had four handsome boys, because he never saw Pietrasanta again, because he was an artist, because his father died humiliated and alone, because of his all-night rages, because of the over-life-sized male nude, because of all the symptoms of his enormous heart, because it was his birthday, because he loved his wife so desperately that he would weep seething tears into the pillow, because he prayed for a boy that was almost born and now was only a little bit of dust and ash.
He felt his own body strange through the hands of this man. His two hands were around Andrea’s throat. He was chocking him to death. He heard the dredges of his life rattle in his throat and felt a sharp pain in his temple. He turned faced-down in the gravel, breathing in the dirt. A fight is always about breath and bone. He wrestled for air and the two men were back up. They collided again. Andrea’s body slumped on the roof. Wind knocked out of him.
His eyes were closed up tight with hardened blood. He couldn’t hear Todd swearing anymore. Breathing blood, he tried to call out to him but he couldn’t speak. Swallowed his own teeth. Couldn’t even taste the blood with that gnarled tongue. He wanted to feel around for Todd’s body, but his right arm was dead. He picked it up with his left. The weight of a limestone brick. Andrea felt only a shudder of fear. That he had killed the man. That he bashed his brains in or worse. Man Thrown Off a Roof. Mixed media.
For hours he lay there on his back. He was missing his cheesecake. He couldn’t see when the sky grew dark then light. The rheum of his fierce tears had dried now around his eyes, and there occurred just a subtle shift of breath and bone as between pretend sleep and real.
It was dawn when day shift found him. He’d shit himself. Cock engorged. His limbs hardened into their final shape. His copper blood still livid on the bricks. No trace of another man. No doubt Todd had wound a drunk’s path home. Only a white-haired, childless father was left there on that sad height, with his knuckle bones of fire-hardened clay showing through the skin. The apartment building, that ten story plinth below, lifting Andrea Bozzetto’s half nude and swollen body up into the thunder of the morning sky.
Marc Labriola is a writer of fiction and poetry. Most recently, his work was published in Hawaii Pacific Review. His story “Cutman” appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Issue 7. He lives in Toronto, where he teaches English.
She was the Mail Lady, an aging bleach-blonde in jeans and bright fleece. All around campus there are poorly cropped images of her smiling face like “missing” flyers. I pass by one fast, and realize I am running.
My run finds me on the precise, mile-long road that surrounds our high school campus. The sun is rising, and everything is so beautiful and shines so brightly that I have to keep blinking. I don’t remember starting the run, but it’s easy to forget things you’ve done many times. There is something else I’m forgetting . . .
I cut my loop short, sprinting through our common up to the front of my dorm. I tug on the resistant handle, locked out, and recall the picture of my ID sitting on my desk.
There’s no one around so I break in, scaling the familiar lattice up to the second floor balcony. I pop the summer screen, and shiver through a thirty-second shower.
At 8:30 a.m. there is a memorial assembly for Jackie, our Mail Lady, who is dead.
The clipping in the local paper read:
Beaumont Police report one dead after car accident on S. Palisade Avenue.
The accident took place around 5 o’clock Thursday afternoon on the intersection of S. Palisade and Main.
Police say a Jeep, red, ran the Avenue stop sign and collided with an oncoming car, whose driver was killed instantly.
Names are being withheld at the family’s request. Police investigation is ongoing.
Only a day later there is a nice long article up on the school website, a formal obituary. It paints Jackie as an angel of patience and warmth. It quotes students who considered her a mother-away-from-home, and tells of the unfillable hole her passing leaves behind. Reading it makes me feel as if my whole body is dripping in honey, but I cannot deny its truths, and this: I loved her too.
The afternoon she died, I had run late to the mailroom with a package. It was an essay for a statewide contest—a contest with a scholarship prize of $1500. In my last minute rush to meet the deadline, I had botched the address.
“I’ll take care of it,” Jackie promised me. “It’ll get there in time.”
“Now hold on a minute!”
“C’mere, I got something I think you’ll like. It’ll only be a sec; I know you’re busy. But they brought it in today and I said, ‘I’ve got a few kids who will get a kick outta this.’ You gotta see it.”
“Jackie, you’re winding me up.”
“Take one of these.”
She foisted a tootsie roll on me, and led me around to the back.
In the far left corner, the narrow, cement-colored room turned into a set of double doors. An old keypad armed with a red light hung on the wall next to them, and she lazily punched in the code “1-2-3-4.” Inside was a long row of laundry carts, some large packages, and then . . .
The school had ordered a new mascot suit, a fresh-smelling upgrade of our customary owl in a heather grey jersey. The costume was laid out on a plastic table like a disappointing autopsy, its open, man-sized box on the ground. The head was an owl’s all right, but the body was green with a yellow stomach and long, spiked tail. An alligator.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“I wish I was. It arrived that way.”
Disembodied in the low light, the animal appeared more sinister than I originally noticed. I certainly didn’t trust it, and couldn’t believe Jackie had just left it here all day while she went about her business.
“I don’t know how they got it so wrong,” Jackie said obliviously, shaking her head. “I mean, what were they thinking? You’re not gonna want that at a game now are you?”
I held up the creature’s plush, wire-fortified tail while Jackie snapped a Polaroid for the bulletin board. I couldn’t wear it; that would spoil the return, she said.
And then, within four hours of my departure, Jackie was dead.
Somewhere between putting on pants and brushing my teeth, I have managed to doze off. I open my mouth to the morning air and find I am standing in the middle of the common, half-dressed, hair wet.
I squint my eyes and can barely make out something moving in the distant field. Out across waves of green-gold, a monster flees into the woods, slowly and clumsily making his escape from that grey room where we met.
The morning is a slow start for everyone. It’s one of those days where all excuses are accepted, and you’ve been so overworked and put out you’re almost grateful such an awful thing has happened.
Our gymnasium-turned-auditorium is filled with 800 chattering faces, but the stage is empty. I settle into the cramped plastic seat that has been saved for me, noticing too late my baseball team, sitting like a clique in the first row.
My friend Valerie is slumped beside me, and I gently bump her awake. The assembly is taking up her morning free period.
“What?” she asks, annoyed.
“It’s only forty-five minutes.”
“You’re late. And besides, you wake up with the sun every day.”
She brushes back her hair, adding, “She’d still be dead if I’d slept in an hour.”
We fight an unexpected urge to laugh, and several rows below us look up in disgust. I feel myself flattening into a grotesque image.
“Shhh!” someone hisses.
“I’m allowed to laugh!” Valerie snaps back.
“You’re such a fucking bitch, Valerie,” a girl in front of us says.
Valerie opens her mouth but the headmaster is tapping on the microphone.
Despite my best efforts, I sleep through the assembly, waking only for a brief measure of “Lean On Me.” By the time Valerie steers me out the door, I notice we have been let go twenty minutes early. Everyone is red-eyed and quiet. I feel cursed for napping, like I’ve marked myself for a slow death and empty funeral. I twist my face into something less blank, and a boy I don’t know puts his hand on my shoulder.
“You look constipated,” Valerie says.
I sit across from Valerie at our student café, and under the glaring indoor light, I notice she doesn’t look very well. Her lips are chapped, and her sweater is backwards.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I’m just tired. I have a headache. Your food’s ready.”
I’m starving, and I return to the table with a large coffee and a bowl of oatmeal. I take a jar of peanut butter out of my backpack.
“There’s no way that tastes good.”
“You should try it sometime.”
“Well, then you’ll never know if it tastes good or not, will you?”
“Ugh.” She puts her head in her hands.
A girl and a boy, somewhat recognizable, walk past us. The girl stops, turns on her heel, and approaches our table. I continue eating with purpose.
“Hey, Valerie?” she asks sharply.
“I want you to know that I didn’t appreciate your lack of respect this morning. This has been a really awful two days, and I worked really hard setting up the orgs for that assembly.”
I recognize the girl as our student body vice president.
Valerie looks up incredulously from her sunken position.
“Look, Patty, I’m sorry if I offended you or whatever. I just had a long night and feel kind of shitty, okay?”
“What about you?”
Patty is looking at me now. I go to speak but my mouth is stuck with peanut butter.
“I didn’t know we had a designated range of emotion to express today,” Valerie says coolly. “You should have included that in those cute little programs.”
A swig of coffee dislodges the peanut butter from the roof of my mouth, and our silence is cut with a loud gulping sound.
“Get fucked.” Patty strides away and grabs the arm of the boy, who’s been watching at a distance.
“What’s going on?” I hear him ask.
I wipe my mouth with a napkin. “She’ll get over it,” I tell Valerie, who is posed defensively, arms crossed.
“We need to go to class,” she replies, and then points to my oatmeal. “Can I have the rest of that? I don’t feel so great.”
I’m on my way to French when Valerie calls me. She’s in the infirmary with a fever of 102. I feel bad for having left her, and skip out to pick up a few things from her unlocked room. A backpack, a phone charger, a box of animal crackers I found in her dresser. The nurses don’t like visiting students to linger, so I tell Valerie I will check back tonight.
She is worried I might catch what she has, and tells me to wash my hands. I promise to, but really I know she is the kind of sick you can’t catch.
I don’t go to class. A half-day has been declared anyway, so I conclude that I am only half-irresponsible. I take a restless nap and spend the early afternoon accomplishing simple errands. I clean my room. I do laundry. I finish a few assignments. It feels strangely like I’m preparing for a trip.
Outside, the all-seeing light of afternoon has gone, and everything is in high contrast. All at once I am overwhelmed with emotion.
When I was a child, maybe seven or eight, I fell into a whirlpool on a tubing trip with my father. The brownish water trapped my body, holding me under for around fifteen seconds. As I began to choke, I opened my eyes. Around me, I saw the currents that gave the river life in their entire truth. It was like the sheen of oil in a parking lot; like the trembling, distorted heat off the road. I understood that I was in the fabric of some great muscle, and, long after my father pulled me out, I could see its power everywhere.
Without realizing it I have begun to walk to practice. I pass the gym and glimpse my teammates converging in on our diamond, moving through trees and between buildings.
Fridays we normally walk into town for barbeque after practice, but today we are glassy-eyed and directionless. Showing up is a formality, and Mr. Wilson, our cheerful, beanstalkish coach, dismisses us almost instantly.
“I know it’s been a hard few days, so make sure you guys rest up, take care of yourselves. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” we say.
“You need anything, you know where to find me. I think Mrs. Wilson is making some of her famous blondies tonight . . .”
“Ooh,” we say.
“So give us a knock. I’ll see you Sunday, five o’clock. Marcy will be taking a few days off, so I’ll need someone to volunteer to pick up the water and equipment.”
“I’ll do it,” Alexander says.
Alexander is the closest thing I have to a best friend. He has a batting average of .701, the ninth best in the league.
Up until last spring, we were just teammates, a kind of competitive distance between us. Alexander is a boarder like myself, like most of the school. We have a few day students, locals, whose redeeming feature is their access to transportation and house parties. It was at such a party that I stumbled into a backroom looking for my coat, instead finding Alexander in a compromised position with Stanley, the editor of our school paper. I left the coat, and Alexander brought it to me the next day, along with a great, misplaced fear.
Practice disbands without so much as a warm-up, but I won’t be ready to go inside again for another few hours. Alexander suggests a Drive-In Five, a familiar team exercise we usually do in groups. The race consists of two opposing routes of identical distance (around three miles), and culminates at our local diner.
I know Alexander and all his speeds. I know he will sometimes cross the street only because of the walk sign, even though it actually puts him out of the way. I know he prefers the grass and will adjust for a longer course. But today I am distracted, and he could outpace me if he’s serious about it, which he always is.
“Left or right?” he asks.
“Left,” I say automatically.
“All right, I’ll see you soon.” He backs up to his starting place across the road. “I’ll see you first.”
On the count of three, we are off.
Anyone who has ever set about a run knows there is a supreme feeling when your lungs can hold air and you are capable of not drowning. Coaches and doctors will tell you this is being “in shape,” but it is more than a physical state of the body. I am attuned to a great vibration, a pulse that carries forward my entire being, and frees me from a place where there are such things as death and assemblies.
I pound along white sidewalks, under a bellowing overpass, and up a damp hill, taking in nothing but sound, color, and the feeling of light on my neck.
I am in this state of aligned consciousness when something lunges at me from my right and I lose my balance, slipping down into the muddy hillside. It’s a chocolate lab, pulling a jogger coming the opposite direction. She reins the friendly thing in as I wave off her apologies. I set off again, dirtier, aware of the aching in my left ankle, the soreness of my inner thighs.
As I round the final bend onto Beaumont’s main avenue, I spot the flash of Alexander’s sneakers up the block. Arms flying everywhere to slow his momentum, he comes to a halt in the half-empty parking lot of Dale’s Drive-In Family Restaurant. I am about ten seconds behind. Part of me burns at the loss, but the satisfaction on his face quashes my pride. We both struggle to stand straight.
“Goddamn! I never run like that before.”
“You got me,” I wheeze.
He sees the mud and laughs pitifully.
“What—? Oh, man! C’mon!”
He bends over huffing as I scrub at my clothes.
“Thought I actually had it.”
“You beat me.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t win fair and square.”
“No one ever wins something fair and square; that’s impossible.”
He shakes his head at me, and I know he will try to beat me again and again, until he is satisfied with himself.
Dale’s Drive-In Family Restaurant isn’t really a drive-in—nowadays, the sign just reads “Dale’s”—but the radial parking lot and matching roof refuse to forget. Something about it feels detachable, like a spaceship hiding in plain sight, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. We sit in our usual place, at the very back.
Eating here feels like picnicking in an antique shop. Everything is old and covered in junk. Checker patterns peel from lacquered tables, and the paper menus repeat the same mazes month after month. Post games, our whole team will pile in the back three booths, chatting with the waitresses.
Alexander and I order two burgers and two shakes and fill the air with comfortable, easy conversation about classes and teachers and people who bother us.
When evening sets in, mid-greys and blues blanket our little town. We split the bill and wrench our sore selves out of the booth.
“What time is it?” I yawn.
“We should get back.”
We shake out our bodies and settle into a leisurely pace. But as we begin to cross the intersection, Alexander catches something out of the corner of his eye. He shoves his arm across my chest, bunching my shirt in his fist, stopping me cold.
A car careens past, missing our feet by a few inches.
The sedan coming down the adjacent street with the light is stripped and remade into a ball of foil. The guilty, brick-colored car ricochets into a lamppost, dented, its driver dazed but awake. What little traffic there is comes to a stop around us. There is a light crinkling in the air.
Alexander leaves me on the corner to approach the wreck.
“Ma’am?” I hear him cry. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
A witness across the street is calling 911, her brown dog straining toward the commotion.
Alexander is quiet, standing above the shattered window. I hear a siren in the distance and slowly begin to walk toward him, closer and closer until the scene comes into focus.
He is holding eye contact with a dead woman, her blonde hair wet from impact. She is stunned with death, and there is something clean about it. I grab his wrist and lead him away.
“We’ve got to tell somebody.”
“It’s all right,” I assure him.
He looks at me and sets off at a run toward campus. I do not call after him, and instead, I begin to run too, my stomach still heavy with food. He will go through the town green, but I know a faster way. With measured breaths, I straighten up, hands behind my head to stop a stitch. I remember that I am supposed to visit Valerie, and wonder if she is waiting for me.
I feel this current pulling me to a bright place where I do not belong.
My legs carry me faster, faster. I am running into the past, willing myself to forget. My memory grows hot with a kind of fever, and I am late, terribly late, for something.
Donald Collins is a transgender advocate and X-Files enthusiast from Virginia. He is currently finishing his B.A. in screenwriting at Emerson College in Boston. His debut short fiction appeared in Literary Orphans #16.