“Yup.” I lunged too aggressively for the volume control and my seatbelt tensed and slapped me back into my seat. The second verse of “Livin’ On A Prayer” blasted from the speakers.
He reached for the dial and turned it down slowly, eyes still on the road.
“What did she tell you?”
I shrugged and clenched my teeth. “Not much.”
“They’re only a few minutes away from each other, we’ll all be close by.”
I had been playing 80s music in the car since I got to boarding school the year before—before that, actually, after I had visited for a night in ninth grade and all of the girls on Hall II played it from their laptops as they got dressed for a dance or geared up for a field hockey game. By now I knew all the lyrics too, but Bon Jovi’s hopeful words and electronic guitar solos suddenly sounded idealistic and whiny. It made me angry. I skipped to the next song, the next, the next—they were all annoying. I switched to the radio.
“I think you’ll like the new house. You’ll have to share a room with Molly, at least for now, but you can pick out your new wallpaper and everything.” I felt him glancing at me, but I kept my eyes on the dashboard, focused on finding a station. “I know you were sick of that floral one your mom picked out when you were eight.”
“I like that wallpaper.” I found a station playing some angry girl song—Pink or Gwen Stefani or something. It wasn’t perfect, but at least it was angsty.
“I think you will have your own at your mom’s though.”
I hated how he had started saying “your mom.” He had always referred to her as “Mommy” when he was talking to my siblings or me, then “Mom” as we got older. But over the past two years he had started saying “your mom,” the way any stranger might refer to her. My mother still referred to him as “Daddy.”
“So we haven’t figured out the exact schedule yet, but Molly and Jack will go back and forth between the houses every few days—your mom and I will split the week. But it will be flexible, of course, whatever works for you guys. When do you come home next?”
“Sometime,” I said through my teeth. But I meant never. Now that they were selling the beach house too, the one thing left from before they separated, there was no home to return to whatsoever.
“It won’t be that different from the way it is now, Sea. It’s just finally… official.”
The car slowed as we pulled into the line for the ferry. My father lowered his window to hand a ticket to the attendant. Icy air poured into the car.
“It’s gonna be a rough one,” said the bearded man. He rubbed two dirty ski gloves together after punching a hole in the ticket. “I suggest you stay in the car tonight. The wind might blow that one overboard.” He nodded towards me.
“It will be an adventure,” my father replied, looking over at me. “We’ll be okay, she’s a brave one.”
I reached into a bag at my feet and pulled out my aviators, even though the sky was gray and on the verge of dusk. It would be dark by the time the ferry arrived in New London an hour and a half later. I put the sunglasses on deliberately as the car inched towards the ferry.
“Looks like it finally might snow,” my father offered. His hands held the steering wheel casually. They looked pale and in need of hand cream. “Although you’ve had snow at school for months, haven’t you. Maybe we’ll just have to come visit you to go sledding! I’m sure Molly and Jack would love that.”
I stared straight ahead through the streaked windshield at a black Volvo station wagon in line ahead of us. Stickers on the window boasted PROUD YALE MOM and ANDOVER FOOTBALL. I squinted, trying to figure out if I knew the shaggy-haired boy in the car. I hoped I didn’t.
“You excited to get back to school? I can’t believe it’s already been two weeks.” My father’s voice was annoyingly bright.
“Has it only been two weeks,” I said into my scarf. The bearded, gloved man beckoned us towards him and my father eased the car onto the boat. We moved forward towards the Volvo until one of the gloves gave a thumbs up. My father put the car in park. One of the gloves knocked on my window and I pushed the button to roll it down. I shrunk towards the center console as the biting air again cut through my fleece.
“You folks can keep the car on ‘til we get moving, but then you’ll have to shut it off. I know it’s cold.” His lips disappeared between his rusty mustache and beard as he pressed them together tightly. He shrugged. “Policy.”
“Got it, thanks,” my father said loudly. The weathered face disappeared as I rolled up the window.
“We might have a blanket in the back,” my father said, opening his door carefully so as not to scrape the car next to him. He returned from the trunk with a few sandy towels.
“No blanket but these might help a bit,” he said, handing me a faded red and white striped towel.
“Thanks,” I said, shoving the towel by my feet next to the bag. He tossed the others into the back seat. Some leftover grains of sand hit the leather with a hiss. An old Sugar Ray song came on.
“Remember this song?” my father asked, turning up the volume. I noticed I had started singing quietly, out of habit. I stopped.
“Who sings this again?”
“What ever happened to that guy?”
“Don’t know.” I tried to shrug, and noticed my shoulders were already tensed towards my ears. I lowered them.
A foghorn let out a low, loud bellow and the boat began to move slowly. The bearded man walked up and down the aisles, miming an exaggerated key turn as he peeked into each car. My father nodded and mouthed “Okay,” and cut off Sugar Ray mid-verse. The car grew cold almost immediately.
“Want to go upstairs before it gets too choppy? It might be warmer up there.”
“Maybe they have hot chocolate. Want me to go see?”
“Okay, I’ll be right back.”
I looked away as he got out of the car. My window was just inches from the car next to me. A dark haired man sat in the driver’s seat. He was turned around towards the backseat. I could only see the back of his head, but I assumed he was making funny faces based on the giggles coming from two little girls strapped into car seats behind him. I leaned forward so I could see around the father. A woman in a puffy black coat typed furiously on a Blackberry. Her blonde hair hung loose by her face, hiding what I pictured were furrowed eyebrows and piercing eyes. But when she lifted her head, I was surprised by how relaxed her freckled face looked. She turned towards her husband, and her eyes landed on me. I sat back quickly but she gave me a brief smile before turning towards her laughing girls in the back. She reached back and gave one a tickle. Her husband pulled her head towards him and gave her a kiss on the side of her forehead. The action was so seamless, even though they were twisted around in their seats: he must have done that all the time.
“Success!” I reared around as my father slid into his seat, balancing two hot chocolates against his chest with one hand.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching for one of the paper cups. I held the cup between my hands before opening it, thankful for the warmth.
“No marshmallows, but at least it’s something,” my dad said, peeling open a section of plastic lid and blowing into the cup. “Careful, it’s hot!”
We sat in silence for a few minutes as we drank our hot chocolates. I turned towards my window again, but I could no longer see into the other cars—it had gotten dark.
“It’s starting to get a little rocky,” said my father as a few drops of hot chocolate escaped from the opening in the lid and onto his scarf. He brushed them off with a frown. I could feel the duffle bags shifting in the trunk as the boat moved over some waves.
“You don’t say,” I said, surprising even myself with my caustic tone. Silence hung thick in the dark car.
“We’re all going to be okay, you know.” My father turned towards me, but I kept my eyes facing forward. It was now completely dark, but my sunglasses were still on.
“I’m fine.” This time, my voice sounded so bitter it scared me.
“It’s better for all of us, for all of you. It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other—your mom and me, I mean. And we both love you and Molly and Jack so much. It’s just been a tough period, and your mom and I—”
I had already slammed the door and was walking stiffly between the cars, then jogging, then running. I heard another door slam, assumed it was my father. Icy, salt air whipped strands of hair across my face. I brushed past the bearded man and heard him call “Where you goin’?” from behind me. I lunged up the steel stairs two at a time, until my boot slipped and I came to a halt as my chin hit the cold metal. I reached for the banister to pull myself up, but my body felt overwhelmingly heavy. I let myself collapse against the hard stairs. I lifted my face a few inches off the stair, touched the bottom of my chin. Sea spray and tears soaked my cheeks. I buried my face in my arms on the stair.
“Are you okay?” My father’s voice pierced through the loud wind as he bolted up the stairs.
“No, I’m not okay,” I said into my arms. “Leave me alone, I want to be alone.”
But I let him help me to my feet and down the stairs. We moved slowly back towards the car, and I fell heavily into my seat. My father wrapped a towel around me. He walked around the car and got back into his seat.
“We’re all going to be okay,” he said, starting the car.
Emma Greenberg grew up in New York City and the East End of Long Island. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. She is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, The Last Magazine, and Policy Mic. “The Ferry” is an excerpt from her upcoming novel about a teenage girl at a New England boarding school. She currently lives between Philadelphia and New York.
YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM VENTURING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND by Jared Yates Sexton
On the cab ride in the driver turned and said, Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin? We were driving over a bridge. The snow was falling and people were trudging down the walk holding newspapers over their heads.
I’m sorry, I said. I had been watching the people. What did you say?
I said, he said, that Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin.
For some reason I thought over my family tree to see if there was any truth. I was an only child though, the offspring of two miserably matched people who would’ve still hated one another had they been alive. The only glimpse of hope in my whole lineage was a cousin who had scored well on his Naval test and was chained to the belly of a submarine in the Pacific.
I’m not sure I understand, I said.
It’s an easy mistake, the driver said. He was still turned around, his head framed by the glass separating us, his hands busy with the wheel. Most think they’re abstract concepts. States of mind. Tricks of brain chemistry. But I’m here to tell you, he said, that they are very real and they are very concerned with you.
From his glove box he pulled a laminated flyer no bigger than a bookmark. I took it with hesitation and studied the print. The first sentence said DID YOU KNOW HOPE AND DESPAIR ARE SISTER AND BROTHER AND YOU THEIR DISTANT COUSIN? There was a picture at the top of two people tugging a rope. There was a woman and a man and they looked like hieroglyphic people who had been locked in eternal struggle.
Those are your cousins, the driver said. The pretty one is Hope. The ugly one Despair.
I looked at hope and her snake-like locks of dark hair. Despair had a nest of scars racing down his sharp-angled cheek.
What you didn’t know, the driver said, still paying no attention to the road or the crowd of cars he was weaving through, was that you had been locked in a constant family feud. Fought over by a universe as petty and emotional as yourself.
On the back of the laminated flyer was a phone number. Below that a question – WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN THE FAMILY?
What’s The Family? I said.
The Family, the driver said, is our humble attempt to understand the greater struggle. To find our kin. To commiserate among the likeminded and the frightened.
We were at the airport. The cab had parked itself at the curb leading into the main terminal. The driver was still there with his head poking through the divider. He was smiling, but not. He was grimacing, but not. I said, I don’t have any money.
That’s fine, he said.
I said, It’s a very strange time in my life.
That’s fine, he said.
I said, I’m sorry, but I have a plane to catch.
Catch your plane, he said.
After scrabbling out of the cab I collected my own bag from the trunk and carried it into the terminal. It was midday and throngs of people choked the space. Everywhere there was someone. They were pushing past one another, holding each other close, screaming into their phones, buying flowers by the ticket stand. I found myself at the counter. I slammed my information on the desk and demanded my boarding pass.
I’m in a hurry, I said.
That’s fine, the ticket officer said. She had straight black hair and a crooked tooth in front.
It’s a very strange time in my life, I said.
Isn’t it for everyone? she said and typed at her keys.
I have to get back to my wife, I said.
She had called the night before from Atlanta and said that the city had begun vibrating. She said she opened up the window to our loft and leaned out and listened. She said it sounded to her like all of the city, all of the towering buildings and beeping cars and hustling people and clanging restaurants, had whispered to her to jump, to fly out of the window and onto the pavement below. But I didn’t tell the ticket officer that.
You’re in seat 24F, the ticket officer said and handed me my pass.
Wonderful, I said. Thank you, I said.
Listen, she said. Did you know Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin?
What? I said.
Listen, she said and started again.
I have to go, I said.
Security next and I begged my way to the front. Some of the people in line were happy to let me through and others grumbled and yelled and spat. I shoved my shoes and belt and bag through the x-ray machine and walked through the gate. The alarm went off though and a man with security pulled me and my goods to the side.
We need to check you further, he said.
I’m running late for my flight, I said.
That’s fine, he said. This will only take a moment.
He waved a wand over my chest and arms and down the back of my legs and then the front. Sir, he said, do you have any metal implants?
Implants? I said.
Pins, he said. Needles. Artificial joints or valves?
No, I said. Nothing of the like.
Good, he said. He touched a button on the wand. You know, he said, the struggle continues whether you are aware of it or not.
The struggle? I said.
Hope is the oldest sibling, he said. She was born in a meadow on a sunlit day. Her mother and father stroked her hair while she cooed and squirmed. Despair came a month later in the midst of a flood that destroyed an entire civilization. The mother was aloft on a makeshift raft and pushed him into the world as all of the bloated animals and peoples bobbed by. She died as he breathed his first breath.
I looked at the man from security.
Why are you telling me this? I asked him.
Because, he said, it’s nearly time.
I left my shoes and belt and bag and ran barefooted across the floor and to my gate. All around me I could hear people talking to each other and into their machines. Their conversations were vastly different, their tones changing and growing as they continued. I reached my gate and found a phone near the boarding area. I dialed the numbers to my home and my darling wife answered.
It’s getting worse, she said as she picked up the phone.
What is? I said. What’s getting worse?
The sound, she said. Outside. You should hear it.
I don’t want to hear it, I said. I’m already hearing enough. Honey, I said. Are you all right? It’s been a strange day.
I’m fine, she said. I’m better than I’ve ever been. You should hear it though, you really should.
No, I said. Honey, something’s happening.
I have to go, she said. I want to listen some more. I’m going to the window.
Don’t, I said. Stay away from the window. I’m boarding the plane. Now. I’ll be home before you know it. Don’t go to the window, I said, but she was gone.
The flight boarded. I waited my turn in line and settled into seat 24F. I felt that I had broken into a sweat and soaked through my shirt and pants. My breath, which had been ragged since the incident in the cab, slowed and returned to normal. I closed my eyes and envisioned my wife, my beautiful wife, as she had been before I’d left Atlanta. She’d laid next to me. I’d looked at her and she at me.
We are so lucky, I had said.
We are, she said. The luckiest.
None luckier, I said.
But then, as I was remembering, the memory changed and my darling wife raised herself from the bed and walked to the window opposite us. She opened it and pointed to something out in the distance. She turned to me, in the memory, and said, You need to listen.
The plane lifted into the air. No one spoke. The captain never came over the address system. There was silence except for the hiss of air through the vents. Things moved faster. It felt as if we were flying at speeds unimaginable. I turned to the person next to me, the person in 24E, an old woman wearing a sweater with a squirrel on the front. I said, Is something wrong?
Of course something’s wrong, she said. There’s always something wrong.
The plane’s trajectory increased until we were nearly end over end. No one stirred except for me. No one moved except for me. I looked out the window and saw the ground growing farther and farther away and the pressure in my ears built until I thought the drums might burst. My god, I screamed, my god enough.
As if on cue the plane slowly leveled out and we were parallel to the ground again. The other passengers turned in their seats and looked at me. I expected them to be angry but they seemed serene in a way I’d never seen before. Then, in unison, they unbuckled their seatbelts and stood hunched over by their seats. The flight attendants joined them and crowded the aisles. Behind them, the pilot and first officer. All of their faces were different but somehow the same. And then, in a moment, a subtle ripple ran across them as if across the surface of a pond.
Did you know, they said together in perfect coordination, that Hope and Despair are sister and brother and you their distant cousin?
Their stare was so intense I had to look away. Out the window I could see that the landscape was changing somehow. It was warping. Transforming.
What you have seen for so long, they said, is a distraction. Life hidden by a powerless daydream.
I watched a cornfield below rise like a wave and then flatten out like the last breath of a tide. I turned back to the other passengers and realized I was surrounded.
It’s time to wake up, they said, their voices still in lockstep, their eyes unblinking. It’s time to see the true nature of reality.
The level of the plane changed again and I could feel the force of descent. The pilots were still standing there, their hands lifeless at their sides. I felt the shape of something in my pocket and I found the laminated flyer the driver had given me in the cab. My eyes were drawn to a line at the bottom – YOU ARE BUT A PILGRIM VENTURING TO A STRANGE AND HONEST LAND.
I looked outside. The world glowed now with the tint of a mad and dying sun. Where there had once been Atlanta, with its skyscrapers shouldering up from the concrete, was now a city with glorious temples and glass spires surrounding a smoking cavity of a pit full of rotting and decaying flesh. There were people dancing and making love in the streets and there were people flaying one another.
Welcome home, they said in one voice. Welcome, welcome, welcome. Image credit: blu-news.org on Flickr
Jared Yates Sexton is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University and currently serves as Managing Editor of the literary magazine BULL. His work has appeared in publications around the world and has been nominated for a pair of Pushcarts and The Million Writer’s Award. He was also a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books.
The medium is biological, human cells crafted in a sterile environment to simulate body parts: an ear, a finger, a foot. Clyde Averill has become renowned for his work, the first bio-artist to achieve such astonishing, lifelike effects. After exhibitions in Italy, France, and China, in the Ukraine, in Moscow, he has come to Los Angeles and from here will go to San Francisco, Denver, and finally New York. In each city, in each gallery, he exhibits different works, and at the end of each showing he unseals the glass in which the apparent body parts are displayed and allows attendees to touch them; the shock of it always sends a murmur through the crowd, the tactile sensation indistinguishable from touching a fingertip to the lobe of a lover’s ear, a beloved child’s flesh. The finale never alters; cells not previously exposed to bacteria are ravaged by microscopic hordes that rush upon them from the intruding hands, and the ears, fingers, feet decompose and crumble before astonished eyes, eaten alive.
Even those who’ve read about the spectacle, or who have seen it before in another gallery, are appalled and fascinated. So it will be tonight when the thirty invitees to Averill’s showing at the Lovington Gallery on 4th and Flower are treated to the artist’s disturbing final flourish. I have no doubt of this; I have seen it many times myself and am never less than repulsed. Yet the horror of it is also somehow exciting at, perhaps—if you will allow me this—the cellular level. Something resonates, primally, in one’s own tissues as these tissues made by man decay and die.
Yes. They die. And yes, they live. I am sure of this. Averill himself convinced me; the logic of it is inescapable. The cells he uses are living cells; they bond and respond to his direction, as cells respond to the prodding of scientists in labs. He is not their creator, no more than a technician who inserts sperm into an egg creates either sperm or egg, but he is the maker of their destinies, the shaper of what it is they will become. As perhaps, that technician shapes the child that may be born of the reproductive combination he has facilitated; but Averill’s control is more complete. He himself carves the contours of the ear, etches the whorls and spirals of the finger’s tip, determines if the foot will have the expected number of toes, and how long or short each toe will be. Some Averill feet have been lovely forms, softly contoured and smooth-skinned, each of their five toes “a song of delight made flesh,” as one appreciation in the art press opined. Others, crafted for divergent effect, had eight or ten or—the maximum so far—even twelve gnarled and nail-less toes bunched together at their extremity, conjuring unexpectedly our species’ origins in the sea, the crowd of digits like barnacles or small pale crabs that have affixed themselves permanently, parasitically, to an unconsulted host. At times an exhibit consisted exclusively of such ugliness, or its opposite. Just as often, the artist offered an approximate balance of the two.
There would be no announcement of an exhibition’s content before it opened. Averill’s audience was kept always in a state of uncertainty, the precise nature of what they would see/are seeing/have seen never a settled question. Yes, I have been convinced that his sculptures are alive and, because he shapes them from human cells, human; but this being so, is their inevitable destruction a moral crime or simple biological process? Are the people who touch Averill’s creations in the wrong—perhaps sinning—if they know beforehand what their touch will do?
Reviewers pondered these questions, and more. Having known Averill and his art longer than they, having been invited to touch and witness the decay of a living sculpture two years before the first public showing, I asked these questions first. And when I asked them of Averill himself in his studio one day, after we’d returned from the first exhibition, he stared at me with his laughing blue eyes and said it wasn’t his job to answer questions. I nodded and said, I see. It’s your job to raise them, then. And he said, No. I make art, and it may be that art raises questions.
I looked into the glass cylinder on the pedestal before me, at the warmly pink, perfectly formed ear that would become colorless sludge in less than a minute if I were to touch it and said, I don’t know where the limits are. Averill responded with a smile, You’re phrasing a question as a statement.
I raised my hand to touch the glass, leaned in closer to the ear inside and whispered. Perhaps one day Averill will create a mouth and I will have an answer.
Henry Marchand’s fiction has appeared in The King’s English, Paradigm, The Seattle Review, Rosebud, The Laurel Review, Penduline Press, and elsewhere. He has published essays and commentary in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Common Dreams News Center, and The International Herald-Tribune. A New Jersey native and longtime resident of northeast Ohio, he now lives with his wife Lisa on the Central Coast of California, where he teaches creative writing at Monterey Peninsula College.
The next morning at Paige’s, too many mamas were there. I didn’t know why they’d stayed. It made me feel like Mama was anti-social, which she was. But more than that, it made me feel—even though I’d lived in Greenville all my life—like I still didn’t know the rules.
“What are we going to do with you?” Mrs. Grovenor was picking up a side of my hair and letting it fall. “What about layers? Those are the same shirts you’ve worn all summer, darling. Has your body changed? It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I started packing it to my hips when I was sixteen—overnight. Just, boom. I swear, the next morning nothing fit. I mean, nothing. Have you asked your mama to take you to Jackson?”
Jackson? For a second I thought she was talking about Dr. Dana, my secret. Of course, it wasn’t a secret. Secrets around here were things that everybody knew, only they didn’t talk about in front of your face. Mrs. Grovenor meant the mall.
“I took Missy to Ridgeway last weekend, girl, they have some fun things. Ann Taylor Loft is much younger than Ann Taylor.” Mrs. Grovenor’s eyes were pools of blue and they blinked constantly. Now she was talking directly over my head to somebody else’s mama. That was how short I was. I couldn’t keep the mamas straight. This summer they had the same blunt haircuts.
There were no boundaries in this world. People could talk about your body in public then move onto something else.
Jade had a black eye. I didn’t notice it until I’d followed her into the kitchen. She hovered over the donuts just to smell them, and when she turned around the hair draped over her eye came off. “Oh my God!” I screamed in Paige’s mama’s stainless steel kitchen. It was purple and pink and puffy and black all at once.
“Shut up, Rebecca.” Jade’s voice was low and angry but secretly pleased. “That girl last night? The one with the hair?” Her hands fluttered above her shoulders. “Let’s say I met her boyfriend and didn’t know he was taken.”
“How far was it took?” I asked her.
She wrinkled her brow. “Anyway, she has an arm. I’ve never been in a fight in my life. Seriously. When the lights came on he wasn’t even cute.” She flipped her bangs back, then remembered and arranged them over her eye. “What’d you do? Hear from the cousins?”
What did I do? I got dropped off like a third grader. I hated myself because I could not hate her more. “Beauty rest,” I said, then snorted.
“Rebecca ARNOLD,” a grownup voice said behind me. “I have a solution for you.” Mrs. McJunkin laid her hand on my shoulder. “Shondra put on some weight this summer and we got a book that has helped her. Is your mama here? I am so sorry about your grandmamma, sweetie, all of us are just bereft.”
Jade had walked off and Mrs. McJunkin and I stood in front of the kitchen table full of donuts that nobody was eating. One of her earrings swung back and forth like a wrecking ball. She waited for me to say something, but she had thrown so many topics at me I didn’t know where to start. “Thank you. What’s the book called?”
“WHERE’S OUR GIRL?” Another mama came into the kitchen. All mamas shouted things when they walked in rooms. I didn’t know whose mama this one was. She was dressed entirely in white with a thin red patent leather belt synching her itty bitty waist.
“She is resting,” Mrs. McJunkin said. Her smile was full of meaning.
“How are they?” the mama asked.
“Perfect,” Mrs. McJunkin said. “I may need to let out her top. I’m just going to guess today.”
From the living room Paige’s mama clapped her hands for our attention, measuring tape draped over one arm.
“How was it?” Mama asked when she picked me up. She hadn’t come in. She’d pulled up in front of the house and waited. I’d watched her watch the mamas make their way across the lawn, their manicured hands on their daughters’ backs.
“Apparently Amber Lynn got implants.”
“Breast implants?” Mama turned to me in anger, like it’d been my idea.
“No, calf implants. Yes. Boobs. Ginormous boobs. Boobs that set the world on fire.”
We were driving through the neighborhood, not turning where we usually would. Trees passed us on both sides. This was a pretty street. Somebody’d rolled somebody’s front yard. Toilet paper streamed from the trees then clumped in the grass, moist from that morning’s dew. School hadn’t even started and there were already pranks. “I think her mama has them too. Mrs. McJunkin? Have you noticed hers?” I turned to Mama and she was staring straight ahead. “What’s wrong?”
“I cannot believe this town,” she said. “I cannot believe it.”
“This town? You are from this town. What’s so hard to believe?”
“That a mother would take her sixteen-year-old daughter to get elective surgery. Sexualized elective surgery. Tell me, Rebecca, who are breast implants for?”
“She’s seventeen, I think. A senior. What do you mean who are they for? The people who get them.”
“Girls get them, but they’re for boys,” Mama said. “Do you see the problem with that?”
This always happened. When I agreed with Mama, I still wanted to give the impression that I didn’t. “Are you saying you disapprove of Mrs. McJunkin’s parental practices? Don’t you think we have a right to modify our bodies? Maybe it’s only a taboo here.” I was trying to remember Jade’s argument. I did not have my own ideas. I did a bad job of copying other people’s.
“I’m taking you to Mama’s. You haven’t seen your grandmother in weeks.”
When we pulled in front of my grandmother’s apartment, her front door opened and my aunt Alma walked out in cutoffs with legs like a man. She was what I was afraid I looked like. Her black hair hung in pink rollers. She had a cardboard box under one arm and leaned to the side with it, walking to her truck. I got out of the car and she gave my shoulder a squeeze with her free hand. “We the same size,” she told me in her thick deep smoker’s voice. “We gotta stick together.” Her eyebrows were penciled on right above the bones, thin brown shiny lines you could rub off with your finger. She went around to the flatbed and hefted the box over the side.
Mama’s door slammed. “Hello Alma,” she said.
Alma nodded. “She getting worse.”
“I just saw her. She looked great,” Mama said. She walked to the front door then turned around. “You leaving?”
“Gotta go,” Alma said. “See you, Rebecca.” She hoisted herself into her truck and it cranked loud as a Harley. We watched her back out and turn the corner. I followed Mama to the door. It was locked and she was knocking.
“Did you see what she had in that box?” Mama asked me. I hadn’t. She knocked again.
“Maybe she’s not here,” I said. “Her car’s not. She’s not here. How come Alma has a key and you don’t?” She kept knocking and shaking the doorknob. “Mama, she’s not here,” I said again. “Stop.”
She backed away and the screen door slammed shut. There was sweat above her upper lip. She took off her burgundy sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. I stared at her and waited until she said something.
“See that man?” She pointed to the apartment next door. “See? He’s in the window staring at us. Does it every time. Wave to him. Go on, wave.”
For a minute I thought he was masturbating. He stood in front of the sheer liner, then whipped the curtain in front of himself. Mama stood there staring with her hands on her hips. “This town,” she said, then walked to her car. Image credit: Karen Rile
Anne Dyer Stuart won New South journal’s 2012 prose prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Pembroke Magazine, Poet Lore, The Louisville Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Sakura Review, Midway Journal, r.kv.r.y., Third Coast, Best of the Web, storySouth, and elsewhere. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.
He sets up the Christmas tree in the family room, untangles the lights and strings them around the tree in lazy loops from top to bottom, drapes a few strands of tinsel at the ends of prominent branches. He gets a good hot fire going in the fireplace. Later his wife will come home from work and they’ll have dinner and then put the star on top of the tree. The star is not really a star but an angel from his wife’s childhood. It’s large, about ten inches high, with sheer wings like an insect’s wings and overlarge blue eyes that the man considers overly sentimental. Perhaps it’s not an angel at all but a fairy, like Tinkerbell. Whatever it is, there is something annoyingly Disneyesque about it.
He opens the slider and goes out to see how the tree would look to someone passing by; he closes the slider behind him so as not to let the heat escape. It occurs to him that he is more interested in how someone passing by might see the tree than with how he himself sees the tree. He has no interest in any of this, if he is honest with himself, but he does it for his wife. He doesn’t really like the angel, but that of course is part of it: it’s for his wife anyway, what does he care what they put on top of the tree since on his own he’d never put up a Christmas tree to begin with. They’re dirty, they’re a fire hazard, and one year the house became infested with fleas that could only have been carried in on the Christmas tree.
While he stands looking into his own house as if he is someone passing by, he thinks about the possibility of being locked out. He would have to stand here in his sweater until his wife gets home, within the hour, or he’d have to go and bother one of the neighbors, none of whom he is particularly crazy about. He likes the way the lighted tree looks through the slider, how the partially frozen glass diffuses the colored lights, how the slider frames the tree as if it is a scene in a Christmas card, how inviting his glass of scotch looks on the side table next to his reading chair. Someone passing by would undoubtedly think of this tableau as picturesque, might stop briefly to look into the family room of another family, the cozily arranged furniture, the Christmas tree, the cat which is just now coming closer to inspect the tree and to bat amiably at a low-hanging strand of tinsel.
They would not be able to see the angel from the wife’s childhood, the doe eyes and the stalky eyelashes, the gossamer wings that have grown slack over time, and soiled (there is something vaguely louche about them), the paint blistered on one cheekbone, the silky crevice within the body of the ornament where the angel is fitted to the top of the tree a nest for mice, for black beetles, for other things.
The end of the story is that the man really has locked himself out, that he really does have to wait without a coat for his wife, or go to the neighbors, that this predicament really does heighten, for a short while, the sensation of looking into his own home as if into somebody else’s life, that it is a pleasant sensation, that he does not go to the neighbors, that the wife arrives all too soon with the customary Christmas Eve Chinese take-out, that during dinner they get into another one of their low-grade arguments, that the angel from the wife’s childhood remains in the cardboard box, swaddled in excelsior among the other ornaments, that as he continues to drink and the argument escalates it gets tossed along with the other ornaments into the fire, that the man will regret this action above all others for years to come, that he will tell this story at meetings with the inevitable refrain that he wants his life back more than anything in this world. He always knows he is crossing the line into sentimentality when he observes that the Christmas angel has performed a paradoxically graceful function, that it has risen victoriously from the ashes, or permitted him such a resurrection.
He does not believe that but would like to, which is why he must tell the story, year in, year out, over and over again.
Anthony Wallace is a Senior Lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University, where he is also Co-director of “Arts Now,” a curriculum-based initiative to support the arts at BU. Tony has published poetry and fiction in literary journals including CutBank, Another Chicago Magazine, the Atlanta Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, 5-Trope, the Republic of Letters, and Florida Review. His short story “The Old Priest” won a Pushcart Prize and was published last fall in Pushcart 2013. His short story collection The Old Priest is the winner of the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published in September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
It was Lemon Tuesday and so far it had not lived up to expectations. His gran had made pancakes, smaller and fatter than any his mum ever made, and while he was eating, his mum had come home and talked quietly on her mobile in the hall, before coming into the kitchen and speaking to his gran using words he didn’t understand. He fiddled with the metal ball chain around his neck and felt the four corners of the cross with the tips of his fingers, before thumbing the raised ridge of Christ’s body. He knew that if he asked what they were talking about she would say in her most serious tone that it was an adult conversation, so he continued to cut perfect isosceles triangles out of his pancakes and decided that when he was a grown-up he would remember what it was like to be a child.
It was Lemon Tuesday because he had a plastic lemon in the fridge, which he squeezed on the pancakes his mum always made. He had called it that since he was little, and when he started school, the other days of the week began to take on different colours:
The boy finished his last triangle and tried to listen in on their conversation. He knew that his grandad was ill because he had stopped smoking and they had been to see him in hospital every other evening for the past three weeks, even though he was usually asleep when they got there. The lights were too bright in the ward and the grey-green plastic furniture made the boy feel unwell, but he usually didn’t say anything and would just hold his hands behind his back and look at the swirls in the tiled floor.
That evening he didn’t have to go to the hospital because he was going to Steven’s house. He knew that his mum didn’t like Steven’s mum because she always wore bright lipstick, but he liked going round there because he could play on the Nintendo Wii. His mum said that he could go, as soon as he had washed up and said goodbye to Gran.
At the sink he noticed his shoelaces were undone. The boy was one of the last in his class to learn how to tie his laces. He hated wearing velcro shoes because they made him feel like a little kid and his feet were too narrow so he could never get them tight enough. He bent down to tie his laces and remembered what his grandad had told him, talking himself through it as he went: left over right, tuck, pull, back together, loop right, left over, tuck, loop left, tuck and pull tight. He remembered his grandad’s hard, wrinkled skin and the way his hands had magically looped the first time he had shown him. His grandad had told him that he couldn’t tie his own laces until he was nine and had said: “Everyone in their own time”. He went to say goodbye to Gran and she finished off his laces for him. She gave him a little smile and he couldn’t tell if she was about to cry or not because her eyes often looked as if they had too much liquid in them.
He left the house, got on his BMX, and turned out of the estate, past the sharp bend in the road, which led across a bridge and up the hill. He tried to think of nothing but he kept seeing the words his mum had said. They were all black and in capital letters:
TUMER LIMPH CARSERNOMER
They hung over him as he pedalled up the hill. At night-time, the area beyond the bridge was flat blackness, but in the daytime there were fields, electricity pylons and a farm with chickens in the yard. He wasn’t allowed on the roads yet so he joined the footpath which ran through some fields,alongside the busy road. There were some bike tracks in the mud already so he didn’t feel too guilty about cycling on the farmer’s land. It began to rain and soon it was so heavy it was as though his glasses had grey filters in them.
The ground was uneven but it seemed to level out as the hollows filled up with rain. His anorak was wet to his skin like a shower curtain clinging to his arm, which was one of his most hated feelings. He was cycling up the hill against the wind when he spotted the strange bundle on the road—a blurred grey blob 200 meters ahead. It started to become clearer as he pedalled on and he thought it could have been a rat, or a big furry slipper. The rain pelted down on his face and he kept pedalling until he got to the fence. He jumped off his bike and was about to lift it over the stile when he saw through the fence that the lump of grey fur was a squirrel. He climbed onto the bottom rung and peered over. Although the squirrel was mostly grey, its coat had specks of auburn that perfectly matched his own hair and its dull black eyes looked like they should have been intense.
He knew the squirrel was injured but he couldn’t see any blood. He dropped his bike and hopped over the fence. He looked down at the creature and the damp soil soaked into the boy’s trousers as the rain got heavier; the huge raindrops felt like coins hitting the back of his head. He looked both ways and couldn’t see any traffic in either direction. The boy hadn’t seen any cars since he’d left the house but he knew one would probably come past soon. He stamped his foot right next to its head and shouted:
“Get off the road!”
Nothing. He had read that you could tell from an animal’s eyes when it was in pain and he could see now that it was true. He thought that its leg could have been broken. Then he remembered the silver cross. He pulled the chain over his head and started dangling it over the squirrel’s body, backwards and forwards, then side to side, back and forth, back and forth. He hoped to will it into movement, and thought that the hypnotic swing would stir something inside the creature. He locked the creature’s eye and he continued swinging back and forth, back and forth, and side to side. The squirrel blinked a few times then its lid closed.
Just over nine miles away, the man’s arm came down to rest. The cannula around his head had irritated his skin for hours and he had been trying to make himself comfortable by readjusting it, moving his pillows and then altering the angle of his bed. Still not comfortable, at least he could now see the TV without straining his neck. The humourless TV presenter was introducing a piece on obese pets and was stroking a particularly mournful Basset Hound that weighed six-and-a-half stones. The man would have gladly watched the programme for the rest of the evening if he didn’t have to be seen by them all later, if he didn’t have to repeat the doctor’s words for the third or fourth time, if he didn’t have to listen to their endless interpretations and look at their poor, loving eyes. If he didn’t have to look at that boy.
With the cross now in his fist, the boy jumped and landed with both feet this time, shouting over and over again. As he screamed and thudded he thought of what his mum would have seen if she had stood watching from afar: a funny little boy shouting and screaming over nothing. Staring at the squirrel’s dull eye, he screamed and shouted and thudded and clapped his hands to scare it off the road. It gave the faintest twitch then remained completely still. He thought about picking it up but he knew that you weren’t supposed to move people if they had been in accidents because it could hurt them even more and decided it must be the same for animals. He also thought there could be insects in its hair that would bite his skin. He was ashamed of that thought and decided that it would be best not to touch the squirrel because it would hurt it to move it. There in the rain he stood staring, shouting at the ground and to the sky until his clothes were soaked through. The squirrel did not move, did not blink. He lay the cross down in the mud next to the creature’s head.
When the boy had shouted out everything he had, he whispered “I’m sorry,” grabbed his bike from over the fence and pedalled hard and angrily away, filled with rage for God’s forgotten few. Image credit: Troy Tolley on Flickr
Jo Beckett-King edits Oblong, a flash fiction zine based in London. She works as a French translator and is currently enjoying an extended trip to the US. Her fiction has appeared in The Metric, 4’33” Magazine, Scissors and Spackle, and elsewhere.
I was exhausted. It was an hour since we parked the car down the mountain and came up the slope. I had spent all my life in Tehran, but I had never been in Tochal, which was one of the city’s tourist attractions. And interestingly, this time, I was there with someone who was from elsewhere in the world. Her name was Francesca. She was an Italian girl, from somewhere near Naples, a student of Eastern studies in Naples. She had been to Iran several times, once as a tourist, and again as an intern at the Italian embassy. She was here now to take a course at the Dehkhoda institute to improve her Persian. Maybe it’s not right to say, “to improve”. She could say “hello” and “goodbye” in Persian and she might be able to learn “How are you?” and “Fine, thanks” this time. She had been in Tehran for a few days when she called me, and said: can we go to: “Tochal?” And I answered: “Tochal?”
A few days after that conversation, we were in Tochal, on the side of a mountain. We went and sat at an outdoor cafe. The waiter brought a tray of tea to our table. He said while smiling: “You are very welcome! Your lady is a foreigner, right?”
He had seen us speaking Italian. I pulled on my tea: “Thanks, yes, but she is not my lady.”
He said: “Oh where is she from?”
I said: “Italy.”
He said: “You did the best man. The best women in the world are Italian.” He laughed. “Like Anna Maria Rosa in the Rescue Group TV series.”
I had no clue if this TV series really existed, or if he made it up in a second. When he left, Francesca asked me: “What did he say? Tell me. What did he say?”
I said: “Nothing, just a welcome and then he asked where you were from.”
She said: “And he knew an Italian girl too?”
I laughed: “No, three Italian girls, Anna, Maria and Rosa.”
Francesca took a sugar cube and submerged it in her tea. She then put the sugar in her mouth and drank. She was holding the cube in the corner of her mouth, exactly in the style of downtown dudes.
We had Tehran in front of us, Tehran in smog with tall towers, different buildings. It seemed kind of desirable from afar. I was looking at apartments and thinking of my landlord who had increased the rent. We had to move. Perhaps in the middle of all this smog, our next home was not visible from this spot on the mountain.
Francesca said: “I love Tehran! It’s the most beautiful city of the world.”
I said: “Where in Tehran is beautiful?”
She said: “It’s so beautiful. The smell of smog makes me drunk and boys taunt me on the street. Every time I leave, I soon miss it.”
In the cafe, the radio was on, and somebody was talking about the value of proprieties in Manhattan.
I said: “But I prefer New York.”
She said: “New York City? Have you ever been?”
I shook my head, to say no.
She said: “Tehran and New York are different, just like the earth and moon are different.”
I said: “Have you ever been there?”
She said: “No. But I can imagine. When I was a child, we once went to California. I mean my family and me. There was nothing there. Nothing. It was like another planet. The people were drinking Coca Cola even at breakfast. Do you believe me?”
We had finished our tea and I gestured to the waiter that we wanted another. I was exhausted, and didn’t want to start climbing this soon.
Francesca said: “But you should come here more often. Your belly is getting bigger and bigger!”
I said: “I’m in a relationship now. I don’t need to be fancy anymore. You should care about yourself, as you are already looking like a housewife.”
Francesca hit my hand. We laughed.
Then she said: “Can I say something to you?”
I nodded, to say sure.
She said: “Last time that I came to Iran, I had a relationship with someone.”
I said: “It’s good! Who is this boy?”
She said: “He is not actually a boy. He is forty-five.”
I said: “For real?”
She said: “He works at the embassy.”
I said: “Is he Italian?”
She said: “Yea, he doesn’t live here. He is back in Italy for a commission. But he’ll be back next week.”
I tried to show myself interested and I said: “Listen, if he is a good guy, age doesn’t matter. I’m done, but if I could date now, I’d try an older one… Only if she was rich.”
She laughed as the waiter served us fresh tea. I noticed him peeking at Francesca.
She continued: “When you are somewhere like Tehran, you need support. You need someone who supports you or you will be so alone.”
I said: “I was saying that New York is much better. Or Tokyo, I made a mistake by studying Italian.”
She said: “What are you saying?”
She hit my hand harder.
As we finished our tea, I motioned to the waiter to bring our bill and he replied with an understanding nod. The cafe was getting crowded and he was busy with a group of girls and boys who were ordering.
I looked at the top of the mountain. I said: “Drop it! I’m too tired to climb.”
She said: “Should I call him?”
I said: “Ah sure. Why not?”
She said: “There is a problem. He is married. His daughter will be attending Sapienza. She might be the classmate of your cousin, Babak.”
I smiled. The waiter came, put the bill on the table, and he said while looking me: “Good for you! Get one in the sack for me too.” Image credit: Mohammadreza Mirzaei, Untitled, Tehran, 2013
Mohammadreza Mirzaei is an Iranian photographer, writer, and translator based in Philadelphia. His recent book What I don’t haveis published in Italy by Edizioni del bradipo. He is the translator of “La Grammatica di Dio”; short stories by Stefano Benni from the Italian to the Persian. (Herfeh-Honarmand Publications, 2012, Tehran) As a photographer, Mirzaei has participated in numerous solo and group exhibition around the world including The 16th Biel/Bienne Festival of Photography and the Fotográfica Bogotá 2011. Mohammadreza Mirzaei has a BA in Italian Literature from Azad University of Tehran and is an MFA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
All the votive candles stood arranged in a circle before Blue Santa. First, Mirta lit the four red and four blue ones. Her favorite candle holders were made from yellow glass colored dark as old cheese. She placed two in front of the dolls with the sap-green insect heads, and two in front of the wooden Santa that she had painted blue the day after the collapse of the Towers.
Mama came into the dimly lit room, luckily not noticing the mess of books and clothes on the floor. If only she would notice the dolls and say how pretty they were.
“Mirta! What are you doing? Just like it’s a statue of the Blessed Virgin, you’re lighting candles in front of that Santa. I don’t know why you painted it that nasty blue—”
Best not to talk about Blue Santa, which Mama had never liked, even when she bought him in that town in Mexico. “Elena, what lovely stockings you’re wearing today. What color are they?” Mama liked to be called by her first name.
Mama smiled and looked down at her legs. “I think the woman in the store called them lilac.”
Mirta pushed strands of her brown hair away from her cheeks, thinking of her mouse Toastie’s whiskers.
Mama said, “Papa and I have a special Christmas gift for you.”
Mirta tried to hide the anticipation in her voice. “You do?”
“We have tickets for The Nutcracker. Isn’t that wonderful?”
What a strange time for Mama to be happy. A frown soured Mirta’s face. “I’ve seen it so many times.”
“Honey, I thought the Nutcracker was your favorite ballet. I would have loved it if I could have seen it when I was ten.”
Mama probably wanted to add, ‘You’re spoiled,’ Mirta thought.
“I do like it,” Mirta answered, the truth lowering her voice with embarrassment. “It’s just the story’s always the same.”
Musical visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy floated in the air, courtesy of the CD player in the living-dining room. “Listen to that,” Mama said, “Papa just turned on the stereo system. Isn’t it beautiful? What are your favorite parts?”
Mama always wanted to share her happiness. What a strange time to be happy, after all the terrible things that happened in the city this year. But Mirta played along and said, “Well, I love the growing Christmas tree, how it gets bigger and bigger…”
“Yes, isn’t it something? It still thrills me. What else do you like?”
“The dance of all those snow flakes in the forest of the Christmas trees. The lights are almost as blue as my Santa.” Though not as sad, Mirta thought, glancing over at the wooden figure, her treasure from Mexico, which she had painted two shades of blue: the face and hands a pastel, and the rest of him a darker, blueberry blue.
Mama said nothing, ignored the mention of the blue Santa. They hadn’t argued about him since last week, when Mama wouldn’t let Mirta place Blue Santa under the Christmas tree. Mirta had felt angry, and that’s when she started plans for the altar of votive lights.
“But my favorite part of all,” Mirta continued, “is when the mice battle the toy soldiers. The music is so swirly there. Only…well, the mice never win.” She pictured the Mouse King, stiff as a fallen log, carried out by the defeated mice after his death.
“Why would you want the mice to win?” Mama asked. “They’re the bad ones, trying to take over little Clara’s room, her house, everything.”
“I don’t care. It’s unfair they always lose.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“If she just had a cat like Rongo that would solve the problem, right Mama?”
“What a thought.” But Mama couldn’t conceal the smile gleaming in her large dark eyes. “Anyway, we’ll eat lunch early Wednesday, so we can be at the theater early.”
“I’m going out to make drinks for Papa. Do you want to join us? I’ll ask Nanny to make your favorite punch.”
“Thanks Mama, but I’ll just finish up in here first. Call me when dinner’s ready, ok?”
“All right.” Mama started to stride away, her satin blouse trailing perfume, her head held high as usual.
“Oh, and Mama?”
“Can I bring Blue Santa to the ballet with me? Please, pretty please?”
“Mirta! Why would you want to bring that…thing? He’s too big for your little red bag.”
“He can fit into the pocket of my coat. Maybe he’ll make something different happen. That’s why I’m lighting candles to him. Don’t forget, Santa’s as powerful as Saddam Hussein.”
“Saddam Hussein! Where did you hear about him?”
“Beth mentioned him. Her teacher talked about Saddam in class.”
“I don’t know what they’re teaching you in school anymore.”
“It’s all right. I like my teachers. They’re good.”
Mama walked away, her heels clattering on the wood floor. “I hope so,” she said softly.
Mirta arranged all the lit candles on the shelf to form a semi-circle in front of the Santa before she said her evening prayer. She felt so sad, and remembered painting Santa blue the day after the Towers fell down. “Make something special happen at the ballet. Something different…pretty please? If you do, I’ll buy you your own chocolate bar. In fact, we can share it…” Did the Blue Santa nod? Mirta hoped so. “See, Toastie,” she said to the mouse sleeping in his cage in the corner. “Blue Santa will come through again.” Unlike most mice, Toastie wasn’t nice to look at, for he had red face patches, raw from nervous clawing. The vet couldn’t help, and now even Papa called Toastie “Scarface.” How horrible. Mirta would never bring Toastie into class again, no matter what. All the kids made fun of him.
The day of the matinee was only a few days before Christmas. The streets, full of rain and fog, felt clammy. Papa would say the bad weather had been caused by global warming. Blue Santa weighed down her pocket, and reminded Mirta of his power. He’d performed miracles before, such as the time Toastie the mouse left his cage and ran across Rongo’s front paws without being eaten. That day Blue Santa had cast some sort of spell on Rongo, so he wouldn’t notice Toastie. At the time Mama said Rongo was too old a cat to pounce on Toastie. But no wonder: Mama didn’t believe much in such things.
Inside the theater, in her seat, the chatter of the screeching violins led Mirta away from thinking about Blue Santa. She would never confess it to Mama, but being at Lincoln Center and seeing the ballet was exciting.
Mama took her hand. Poor Mama. She would be content with the usual story. But tonight it would change, because Mirta rubbed Blue Santa’s head.
Mirta looked around the auditorium for her friend Beth, though she didn’t see her. Beth had sent an e-mail saying she’d be at the same performance.
The curtains, already opened, revealed the cozy parlor. Why didn’t everyone call their living room a “parlor”? Parlor sounded much nicer than “living room.”
Despite not wanting to, leaning against Mama’s shoulder, Mirta became sleepy. But after the first gun shot in the battle of the mice and the toy soldiers Mirta was jolted awake. The gun shot reminded her of those terrible things she’d seen three months earlier on TV about the Twin Towers. How horrible guns were. Just like terrorists, they killed people.
In the ballet, she watched the same old story. The Nutcracker, gnarled and short as any dwarf, though he wore a scarlet jacket with brass buttons bigger than thimbles, would soon defeat the Mouse King. Then he’d turn into a boy-prince and lead Clara to the waltzing Snowflakes in the Enchanted Forest. If only the mice could somehow win and stay alive, the way Toastie had when he ran across the cat’s paws.
The battle proceeded with some losses for the toy soldiers and some rodent deaths, when all at once the tide turned. The mice were cleaning up, mopping the floor with the expiring toy soldiers, who they pulled offstage by their long locks of hair, probably wet from stage sweat. After all, the toy soldiers were played by girls; lucky Beth had been one last year.
Nudging Mama’s elbow Mirta whispered, “Look! The mice are winning.”
At first Mama didn’t seem to notice the difference. “Calm down. It’s only a fairy tale.” This was the most incredible moment ever, and Mama didn’t get it.
But throughout the theater dozens of other kids understood. Squeals of fear burst out all over, above the silky-smooth violin melodies. Mirta sat on the edge of her seat, her knees twitching. Thankfully, she’d visited the Ladies’ room before the ballet started. She took Blue Santa out of her pocket. To think his power had really worked. Just like Papa said, no one would have an ordinary Christmas this year.
The seven-headed mouse king seemed bigger, almost like the Christmas tree had grown earlier in the scene to throbbing strings and low brass braying in the orchestra pit. The rumbling noises sounded unruly, as menacing as the reptile cage at the Central Park Zoo. Next the other mice, the lieutenants and foot soldiers, marched forward. Their fat padded stomachs contracted and they stood taller. The rodents, with teeth pointy as dentist’s drills and yellowed as tea stains, picked up the remaining toy soldiers. Some wounded soldiers limped off stage, dropping their silver stage swords, crying and clearly defeated. But others, not so lucky, were already grasped by the rodent paws. Mirta thought the new version of the ballet was even more frightening than Jurassic Park. The mice warriors twirled their small victims around their heads, holding the children by the feet. The mice wouldn’t throw the limp kids out into the orchestra, would they? Suddenly things looked bad on stage, too horrible to watch. Silently, Mirta prayed to Blue Santa to stop the mice.
Mirta wondered if the police would come, or if most police still worked down at Ground Zero. She’d seen them day after day on TV. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to show up. The orchestra played on raggedly. The deeper instruments, the trombones and horns, blared on, if partly drowned out by people talking in the audience.
Mirta saw that the woman conductor seemed to have a long, twitching snout, rather than a nose. A bunch of prickly, toothpick whiskers sprouted from her upper lip. She glared right and left at the chatty audience members, and she loudly urged on the frenzied orchestra.
Mama leaned over, a frown on her face. “We should leave,” she said. “You look upset.”
“Oh no,” Mirta said, her chin firm. “I don’t want to leave. Not now. The ballet is good today, Mama.” Blue Santa’s magic would work. Mirta’s praying to him would stop the battle.
On stage the fight continued, the mice now piling up the toy soldier bodies stage center, right before the gigantic Christmas tree. The plot had definitely changed from the original one everyone knew. The victorious mice dragged large gold cages from underneath the boughs of the tree. A sweaty fear scented the air as the mice pushed the children, clearly no longer pretending to be toy soldiers, into tall cages.
“Blue Santa,” Mirta urgently whispered. “You have to stop this.”
The Nutcracker-Prince, his contorted mask askew, lay wounded on the stage. Things looked disastrous, and it hadn’t been wise to wish for the mice to take over.
Suddenly the tide turned and the mice were pushed back. The wounded soldiers rose and more of the toy soldiers rushed in from the wings, while kids cheered in the audience. They regrouped as the Nutcracker Prince stood up, a circle of stars lighting his forehead. Blue Santa saved him, Mirta thought. This time the bad ones wouldn’t win.
Mirta blinked, and the scene changed to the huge forest of Christmas trees. The snowflake ballerinas danced on their toes as the air in the theater, showering cold all over. In her head, Mirta saw again the fierce Mouse King, mean as Rongo, advancing on the Prince, and all the candles blazing on the stage from the first scene to the last, each one magical.
Then the curtain came down and the music stopped.
“Mama,” Mirta said, pulling on a sleeve.
“I liked the ballet today. It seemed so different. Thank you for taking me.”
Mama smiled, as they stood, to walk up the aisle.
R. Daniel Evans was a founding co-editor in 1976, along with Louise Simons, of Philadelphia’s long-running literary magazine, The Painted Bride Quarterly. During the seven years that they edited the magazine, they published stories, poetry and essays on music, by many authors including Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Gregory Corso, Lynn Lonnider, and Meredith Monk. During that period Dan published poems in many magazines and anthologies, including Hanging Loose, Hellcoal Annual, America, Gay Sunshine, and over 40 others. Dan’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Peregine, Art Mag, Of Leather and Lace, and Pangolin Papers, which nominated one of his stories for a Pushcart Prize.
The day of his wife’s forty-fifth birthday party, Norbie Bernbaum let Jerry Rosen talk him into an afternoon at the Dirty Martini, a strip club on the edge of downtown where Hot Pantz, Double Dee, and The Bride seduced the clientele to one degree or another. Rosen had been there a couple of times, mostly during weekdays, and he made the place sound so irresistible—the women were just like showgirls—that Norbie was panting to go.
“But what about Donna’s party?” Norbie groaned as Schpilkes, the family dog, came by and leaned against him.
“Just tell her you’re going out to buy her a gift,” advised Rosen. “You’ll be back in time for brisket with the in-laws. I promise.”
Norbie hadn’t bought Donna a birthday present, so this sounded like a plan. He hurriedly splashed on a bit of cologne, brushed his teeth, and scooped his keys off the top of the bureau, which was slightly dusty and decked with family photos. He nearly tripped on a toy police car that his son, Eddie, had left in the upstairs hall. Latin rap pulsed from his teenage daughter Annette’s room. Through the slightly open door, Norbie saw her working her hips to some kind of chipotle-flavored belly dance and cringed. He had to pick up Rosen in twenty minutes.
An accountant in a medium-sized firm, Norbie was in good health and not bad looking: he had a full head of onyx hair and a slight cleft in his chin that could look playful and charming when he was feeling merry. But he had not felt merry in some time. Instead, a blue mold of boredom and resentment had crept over him. He began to wonder what accountancy meant in the big picture and what the big picture was anyway. The idea that he was squandering a third of his life on other people’s numbers poked at him like a constant elbow. As for his marriage, he was bored and resentful of it too. The easy passion he and Donna once felt for each other had subsided with the years and petty disgruntlements of matrimony. Norbie sometimes wondered if this was a normal part of the passage or if he and Donna were just stringing each other along. The problem was that nothing much could gain traction in his soul. He felt like a man dangling and reaching out for something, but he didn’t know what.
As Norbie sought relief from his funk, ideas of purpose would stir in his mind. He should coach Eddie’s Little League team, learn Spanish, take up guitar, engage in a wild affair, maybe even try harder to appreciate what he had. But he only dreamed of these things. He didn’t act on them – neither the good things nor the bad ones. The idea of the affair he dismissed as too real, too intense, too risky. Sooner or later, each notion dissolved like the morning fog, and hard daylight only made him see the big boulder of his life more clearly.
Eventually, he figured that he should simply try to have more fun. And convinced that his opportunities for fun were speeding away from him like a Porsche down the highway, Norbie jumped whenever Jerry Rosen called with a new adventure. So grateful was Norbie for these invitations that he tried not to mind that Rosen was always a few dollars short for beer or greens fees, that he usually had Norbie chauffeur, or that Rosen kept him waiting as he finished his shower, went through his mail, or yakked on the phone with his girlfriends, some of whom were married. Compared to Norbie’s life, Rosen’s life seemed so various and full.
Donna Bernbaum, Norbie’s wife of sixteen years, worked as a part-time paralegal in a small suburban law practice. A devoted mother and a loyal spouse, Donna also cultured her hurts like pearls, and Norbie’s small abuses—no-showing for dinner without bothering to call, playfully putting her down in front of the neighbors, opting for outings with Rosen over dates with her—supplied the grit that started the pearls. Now on her birthday, Norbie avoided eye contact with Donna as he strode toward his red Toyota Camry. He aimed his electronic key at the car like a ray gun.
It was a fruitful May, the air heavily peppered with pollen, and Donna had a bad case of hay fever. Before she could utter a word, a sneeze tornadoed through her body. Recovering, she arraigned her husband, “You’re off with that Rosen, Norbie. I know it.” She fixed him with a narrow look. Behind her sharpness, Norbie sensed the fluttering flags of insecurity and fear.
Ever since Rosen had entered their lives, Donna had felt herself weirdly in competition with him for Norbie’s love and attention. This Saturday, his flight on her birthday made her feel even more sidelined and insulted. Not that a man wasn’t entitled to his free time. And her birthday party was hours away. When, however, her tormented nostrils caught the scent of cologne, a new anxiety pricked her. She hadn’t known Norbie to cheat, but under Rosen’s tutelage anything was possible.
“And what’s that smell? Where are you going on a Saturday afternoon that you have to wear cologne?”
Schpilkes trotted up to Norbie for good sniff. The dog’s tail accelerated to a quick tick-tock. He looked expectantly at his master.
Norbie made no reply, but lobbed a you-must-be-paranoid look at Donna and made the loco sign so she could see it. He knew that being a little mean would make Donna shut up. He slid into his car and started the engine. Today, it was easier for him not to feel so annoyed or judged by her. After all, he would soon be in the bosom of topless dancers.
“We have to be at my sister’s by six. It is my birthday,” she said, fighting suspicion and another oncoming sneeze.
“Terrific. Thanks for the reminder,” snapped Norbie. “If I have to spend time with your family, the least you can do is let me have a little fun first.”
A wounded expression whitewashed Donna’s face. A pearl began to form over the sting of Norbie’s remark.
“Maybe I’m just going out to get you a present. Unless you rather I didn’t,” he said glancing at his watch. What would Rosen think if he had to call and cancel just because he caved to his wife’s nagging?
“You play in the dirt, you get dirty,” warned Donna in just the sort of schoolmarmish tone that made Norbie jump into the fraternal arms of Rosen. As he backed down the driveway, he saw her brandishing a Kleenex. He definitely did not like the way she said “dirty.” It was as if she knew where he was headed.
The thought of Donna’s birthday party circled him like a turkey vulture. He could barely tolerate Donna’s family, a bunch of self-righteous socialists always hammering away with their politics and justice causes. If it wasn’t the whales, it was the handicapped or the undocumented immigrants or people with AIDS. He needed an antidote to all that suffocating goodness, and he was now more glad than ever that Rosen had talked him into a visit to the strip joint.
Donna ducked into the house and told the kids she was off to the health club for a quick lift. For the last several months, whenever she felt Norbie was saying no to her and yes to Rosen, she went to the health club to weight train. She could now curl fifteen-pound dumbbells and bench press forty pounds, yet she lacked the power to cut Norbie’s ties to Rosen. The fellows’ friendship burgeoned. Almost every day begat another pearl.
It would be a busy Saturday. After the gym, she had to run Annette to dance class and Eddie to his ball game. And there was Norbie out and about who-knows-where, no help at all with errands—and on her birthday no less. Of course he was going with that Rosen. It was scrawled all over his face like a signature on a bad check.
Donna Bernbaum detested Jerry Rosen. He was a know-it-all, a schnorrer, and he dripped enticements into Norbie’s brain the way a bad factory leaked dioxin into a stream. A half-hearted salesman of uncertain skill, Rosen had, at various times, peddled ad space in magazines, vacation time shares, radon detection systems, and mortgages. Now he was selling hot tubs. He mostly lived off his wives when he had them and his girlfriends when he was single. Donna couldn’t stand the way Rosen used women and the way he collected male followers like Norbie, guys who mistook the cheesy glow of Rosen’s sporting company for a kind of glamour. She hated Rosen’s stupid satanic-looking Vandyke. She hated the way his cigars stunk up their good car, his cocky self-confidence, and, if she had only known him better, she surely would have hated him more. Just hearing Norbie on the cell with that Rosen made her skin crawl like a roach in a diner. What skeeved her especially was that peculiarly light and eager tone her husband used only with Rosen. It was a voice he never used with her.
While Donna militantly believed in protest, she worried that today she had antagonized Norbie too much. It was something about the sight of him backing down the driveway and speeding off down the street. She stood for a moment in front of their house as she watched Norbie disappear. A pang of anxiety went through her. She polished her newest pearl.
Jerry Rosen kept Norbie Bernbaum waiting as he finished watching a golf tournament on TV. Norbie understood that Rosen was a tacky playboy, and he therefore secretly considered himself morally superior to his friend. Rosen, for his part, liked Norbie well enough, but saw him as a watch to unwind, a pal to fill his loneliness, and, should he sell him a hot tub, a customer from whom he could profit.
Rosen seemed to be endowed with great bravado and self-esteem, yet inwardly he was not a happy man. On some level he knew he was self-centered, of little help to those around him, and below par on the job. He sought to blot out this sense of lack with pleasures and entertainments—women, golf, cards, dining out, shopping, movie going—and endless hours of chitchat: gossip, trivia, and advice he foisted on his listeners. Yet after all of this, there was still the lack.
The golf match crept by slowly, and Norbie grew increasingly antsy. It was already after two in the afternoon. He instinctively felt a little bad at having treated Donna poorly, but he tried to delete those feelings. Then there was the matter of the birthday present. Norbie usually just bought Donna a card and maybe flowers, but now he was committed to buying her an actual gift. But what? A nightgown? A handbag? He hadn’t a clue what she’d like.
“Hold your horses, bubbeleh,” Rosen soothed as he pared his fingernails. “Those gorgeous gals aren’t going anywhere.”
The Dirty Martini was a low, flat building that might have once been a factory or a grocery store. An easel-style marquee in front said, “Philadelphia’s Bachelor Party Headquarters. Congratulations, Brad.” Another sign in the parking lot said “Police and Dirty Martini Parking.” Although it was early afternoon, all the parking spaces were filled. Cops or no cops, it was a dodgy neighborhood, so Norbie didn’t want to park the red Camry on the street.
“Here’s a space,” said Rosen pointing to a spot designated for disabled parking.
“Are you crazy?” replied Norbie. “It says a minimum fifty dollar fine, plus towing at the owner’s expense.”
Rosen minced his lips and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Listen, do you really think some gimp in a van is coming to the Dirty Martini? They have to put a handicapped space there. It’s a federal law or something. Just park for crying out loud. You don’t have all day.” Then he looked at Norbie meaningfully and added, “Well, if it will make you feel better, limp in and if anyone asks say you twisted your ankle.”
So Norbie did as Rosen instructed, parked in the handicapped space, and made his way into the club half jumping, half limping. Like Hopalong Cassidy on his way to the bordello. He felt very foolish.
Two plaster statues of female nudes pillared the entrance to the club. In the parking lot, a number of men lingered talking on their cell phones. Inside, a huge bouncer, who looked like a body builder, had Norbie and Rosen pass through a metal detector. Rosen sauntered through. Norbie kept up his limping act. By the metal detector were signs that warned against cameras and touching the girls. Norbie was surprised at all the security. It made him kind of nervous. He heard raucous laughter coming from a curtained-off room. Peeking in, he saw several girls in fishnets and black leather bustiers wheeling in a big box that was iced like a cake. He felt sure that a girl would pop out of that cake.
“Craaazy, craaazy,” yearned a female voice over the sound system in the cavernous main room, which smelled faintly of a moist mustiness. One wall of the club was mirrored. The other was hung with a number of flat-screen TVs tuned, audio off, to a baseball game. The patrons were mostly middle-aged white men. Some were seated on shell-shaped cushioned chairs; others perched on barstools along the polished runway, a black stretch bordered in red lights that rolled out through the center of the room like a long tongue. There was a brass pole in the middle of the walk. Overhead pulsing spotlights splashed the strippers in red, green, blue, and yellow.
The Dirty Martini was like something Norbie had seen in a movie or a TV show, only it was better and real. The door to a deeper, darker, nastier side of sex opened to him, and he felt big, elevated, male. There to be served by juicy little teases who sometimes acted submissive and sometimes acted like they were begging for it.
The two friends settled into bar stools along the catwalk and ordered beers. The DJ played mostly sultry R&B and announced girl after girl. There seemed to be an endless stream of dancers of all races, skin tones, breast sizes, and hair colors. Each came in with her gauzy wrap and five-inch Lucite heels. The Lucite high heels were definitely a very big item. Then inch by inch, each girl unpeeled her wrap until she wore nothing but a thong or a G-string, see-through pasties, and those skyscraper Lucite heels. Then the slow grind. And the embrace of the pole.
Hot Pantz, a very fit black girl in a leopard thong, thrust herself up against the brass pole. Norbie wished he were that pole. Then Hot Pantz climbed the pole and suspended herself upside down. Her legs were like boa constrictors. She had amazing abs. She did all sorts of acrobatic moves. Just like Cirque du Soleil, mused Norbie. Then she slid down the pole and began to stalk catlike on all fours. One man put a bill in her thong. She purred like Eartha Kitt.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a patron leave the club with one of the girls.
A tall blonde with huge breasts came on and slowly gyrated to “Nasty Girl.” “That’s Double Dee,” Rosen whispered. Double Dee did a backbend, lowered herself to the catwalk floor, then knees bent she pumped her beautiful and shapely legs open and closed like a giant butterfly. Shaved, fit, and incredibly tight was all Norbie could think. The kind of girl you can’t get at home. His heart was pounding, and a big erection took root in his pants. He watched as she went down on all fours and crawled up to a patron who lovingly tucked bills in her little pink thong. She smiled at Norbie. He wanted to be a bill in her thong. He took a dollar from his wallet, and she held her side string open for him. His fingers grazed her hip, which was warm and round and smooth. He was mesmerized, lost in a hormonal haze.
“Hey, give me a bill,” Rosen broke in, rubbing his fingers together. Norbie hesitated but, reluctant to seem a poor sport, he handed Rosen a single. “Gimme a five, at least. They like bigger bills,” wheedled Rosen who proceeded to insert Norbie’s five-spot into Double Dee’s thong. Double Dee swung her silky golden tresses and worked the two cupcakes of her ass.
“And now, gentlemen,” announced the velvety voiced DJ as organ tones of the “Wedding March” began, “Here comes the Bride.”
The Bride, petite and virginal, began to step demurely down the runway. She wore a white G-string, a white garter, and a snowy shawl over her small breasts. Dangling from her arm was a white beaded drawstring pouch, the kind brides carry to collect wedding checks. A hush drifted over the crowd, but this was soon disturbed by some rustling at the back of the room.
A grizzled male voice ripped through the sultry atmosphere. “Lawbreaking prick!” The man’s tone spiraled louder with mounting indignation. “Lawbreaking prick!”
The “Wedding March” kept playing, but the DJ fell silent and The Bride froze. The yelling was coming from a guy in a wheelchair. “Whose red Camry is that?” he raged. “You’re in a disabled zone. You’re gonna pay for this, asshole! Management, too.”
Working the hand controls on his wheelchair, the disabled man, a guy in his mid thirties with stringy hair, motored deeper into the club. Fear dug its red polished nails into Norbie’s chest. The huge bouncer lumbered into the room.
A contingent of strippers, now in halter tops and miniskirts (how plain they seemed off the stage!), filtered through the crowd to comfort the disabled guy. Their kindness caused him to lose his tough edge. His voice began to break. “I just wanted to see you girls dance. And some bastard with a working prick…”
Two cops came up to the man in the wheelchair. One took out a notepad and began to take a report.
“Bubbeleh, looks like you’re up shit’s creek,” said Rosen as he took a pull at his beer.
“You’re the one who told me park there,” retorted Norbie lamely.
Having run a license plate check, one cop began to bellow, “Norbert Bernbaum! Is there a Norbert Bernbaum here! Red Toyota Camry!” Norbie was frantic with shame; fine beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He hopelessly prayed for deliverance. Trembling, he looked at his watch. It was after five o’clock. The party. The present. And he was about to get a citation in a strip club.
The limping excuse did not work with the cops. Then the strippers gathered around Norbie and started to yell at him. “Don’t you have any respect for those less fortunate than yourself?” scolded Hot Pantz. “Shame on you.”
“And I thought you were a nice guy!” hissed Double Dee curling her collagen-plumped lips.
The Bride glared at him and smacked him with her white drawstring purse. “Go back to your wife, you dick!” she shrieked.
The cops assessed him a seventy-five dollar fine, twenty-five more than the minimum. When the bouncer escorted Norbie and Rosen to the door, Norbie saw that his red Camry was being hauled away on a tow truck. It would cost a hundred and fifty dollars to get it out of impoundment, and he’d have to pay for a taxi to the lot, too. He fumbled with his cell phone and was finally able to call a cab. There were six missed calls from Donna and one bitter voice message. “If you don’t think enough of me to get home in time for my birthday party, then I think that is pretty disgusting. But I understand your priorities. And don’t bother coming to my sister’s.”
The ride to the impoundment lot was a long tour of the city’s rundown riverfront streets. The lot, no surprise, was attended by some unsavory types and a couple of pit bulls. Nothing like the sweet-tempered Schpilkes. Forced to pay with his credit card, Norbie knew he’d need to intercept the statement before Donna could see it and interrogate him. Not that he’d have to account to her. She wasn’t his mother. And if Donna did see the statement with the impoundment charge, he prayed she would not use her paralegal skills to get to the root of the story. The parking fine, he’d pay with cash.
The drive back to Rosen’s place was bleak. Norbie imagined Donna’s family at dinner, drinking wine, talking politics, talking about him. “Shit happens,” offered Rosen seeking to break the silence and minimize the situation. “All you wanted to do was be happy and have a little fun. Is that such a crime? You’ll buy the wife a nice gift, that’s all. And you’ll say you screwed up. You’ll say you went to a sports bar and lost track of the time.”
Norbie made no reply. Shame was on him like a red rash, and a sick stomach ache churned in his gut. Over and over he saw those censorious whores and the paraplegic man with stringy hair and a life that was so much harder than everyone else’s. If only he had refused Rosen’s idea and looked harder for a parking spot. That fucking Rosen! And fuck me, fumed Norbie. Fuck me!
“I really think you should help me out with the cost of the fine and the towing,” Norbie said to Rosen.
“I don’t make bank like you, my friend. From each according to his ability, you know what they say,” declared Rosen. He blew a smoke ring with his cigar, a big fat zero in the air. “But I’ll see what I can do. Here,” he said and handed Norbie a ten dollar bill. Minus the five bucks for the thong money, Norbie calculated that his companion had really chipped in a measly five.
Down and depressed, partly angry, partly worried, feeling not at all like a birthday girl, Donna fed Schpilkes his dinner and drove with Eddie and Annette to her sister’s. In the car, the children were very quiet.
When they arrived at her sister’s house, Donna preemptively announced that Norbie would not be coming, and after that no one said a word about his absence. At least being with her side of the family was a comfort. Over eggplant salad, they talked about movies, and as dinner progressed they moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan and the miracles orthopedists were working on injured soldiers. As her mom and dad and her sister sang “Happy Birthday,” Donna felt weirdly girlish and unmarried. When she blew out the candles on the pink and white cake, she could barely muster her traditional wish: that lightning would strike Jerry Rosen. The pearls of her hurt hung heavily around her neck.
No longer in a hurry to get home, Norbie drove to a McDonald’s and ordered a vanilla milkshake hoping it would settle his stomach. Amidst the loud primary colors of the McDonald’s, he imagined being yelled at by Donna. He drove to a Walgreens and browsed through the gift items—big candles, jars of potpourri, Whitman’s Samplers—and ended up buying a bubble bath and dusting powder set, a humorous birthday card, and a festive gift bag for the presentation. He planned on using that excuse about the sports bar.
Schpilkes wagged his tail energetically when Norbie came home and nosed his master’s pant legs, curious about the unfamiliar odors. When the family arrived home, Eddie bounded up to his dad, hugged him, and asked him where he’d been. Annette was sullen. Donna, her face drawn and colorless, barely looked at her husband.
“Happy birthday,” Norbie said, attempting cheer, and tried to kiss Donna, who backed away from him. He apologized, offered the sports bar alibi, then handed her the gift bag. He half expected her to clobber him with it à la The Bride, but she merely mumbled thanks and placed the gift bag on the dining room table without peeking inside. There was no yelling. Donna’s eerie politeness troubled Norbie’s waters; a rant or at least a quick curse would have helped him justify his escapade.
“It must have been a very exciting game,” said Donna dryly. She wondered how much of Norbie’s story she should believe. She had always seen sharply through falseness and remarked on it quickly, but now that falseness seemed so close upon her she found herself looking for ways to justify Norbie’s version of events.
That night, they slept restlessly in their double bed, a shadowy wall between them. Some day this turned out to be, thought Donna, inhaling the new atmosphere of mistrust. Yet angry as she was with Norbie, she was glad that he had returned, comforted that he had not abandoned her, relieved that he had not been in a car accident. Then she detected the fading whisper of Norbie’s cologne. She opened her eyes in the darkness. Cologne? A sports bar? She twitched her nose for the scent of another woman. Finding none, she drifted for a while on a current of bitter thoughts, then fell asleep.
On his side of the bed, Norbie tossed and turned. What is wrong with me, he thought, that I cannot be happy with what I have? Why do I want more? And what do I want more of? Visions of Hot Pantz, Double Dee, and The Bride swam up to him like evil spirits. What a dumb shit he’d been. What rotten luck to be caught by the disabled guy, a man frozen from the waist down, who nevertheless had the power to cause him such anguish.
Norbie reached out to Donna’s slumbering form, hoping that she would not wake and shake him off. She was warm, and she was there, and down the hall the children slept, and below Schpilkes snoozed, his simple canine mind at peace.
If Donna had known about Norbie’s afternoon at the Dirty Martini, she would have been more appalled…and then less. She would have approved grimly of Norbie’s comeuppance by the feisty man in the wheelchair. She would have reasoned that at least Norbie didn’t buy a lap dance or contract with a girl for sex. As for the business about the bill in the thong, well that was practically expected of him as a red-blooded patron, no worse than a woman slipping a dollar into a Chippendale’s mankini. But Donna knew none of this, thought none of this. What turned the bad key over and over in her mind was the simple fact that on her birthday her husband had preferred Rosen over her. Why couldn’t someone just shake some virtue into that man?
A week passed of work and chores and not much talk between them. Donna could not bring herself to use the bubble bath and dusting powder, but she wasn’t the type to throw good items in the trash. Unsure of what to do, Donna left the birthday present on the dining room table. At first it glared at her from its brightly colored gift bag, then it seemed to turn into something funky like an overlooked bag of groceries. After a week it practically ossified into a cast. Eventually, she decided to donate it to a women’s shelter.
A gauzy mist overcast the sky as Donna drove to the shelter office (the actual location of the safe house was kept confidential). In the haze, the sun looked moonlike and opalescent. The route took her down some unfamiliar roads, and after a while Donna came upon a white wooden lawn sign planted in some landscaping. The sign read: “7-Day Spa—Massage and Reflexology.”
A treatment would feel good, she thought. A way to do something nice for herself. So she pulled into the parking lot and entered the spa, which looked a lot like a suburban insurance or real estate office. The place was very plain and seemed deserted. Not a receptionist or client in sight. How did they stay in business? Then with a frown, Donna wondered if this could be a happy endings parlor.
After a moment, a woman emerged from a back room and showed Donna a menu of services. She settled on a half-hour deep tissue massage. The masseuse, Rose, was plain-looking and her long mane was grasped in a pink hair claw. She had Donna strip down to her panties and lie face down on the table, which was covered with a white sheet. Rose smoothed massage oil over Donna’s back. Her hands were warm, meaty, assertive. Flute and harp music trickled from a portable CD player. This was meant to make the clients zone out, but the plinking and the blowing just irritated Donna. An aromatherapy machine cloyed the air with a heavy vanilla scent. She sneezed a few times.
At first Rose’s hands fluttered over Donna’s back like butterflies. Not bad, thought Donna. She could get into this. But it had been a while since she’d had touch, so the niceness also made her feel a little sad. Then Rose began to dig. “You work out?” she asked feeling Donna’s body tone. “Lots of tension,” she said. “Lots of knots.” But instead of easing away the tension, the treatment hurt. Was it supposed to feel this way? Perhaps she should ask Rose to stop or go a little lighter. But then she figured that this was what a deep-tissue massage was, so she toughed it out, paid the bill, and, minding her manners, gave Rose a tip. Her back was so sore she had to take a couple of Advil, and she ached all the way to the women’s shelter office. How she regretted that massage. What a stupid thing it turned out to be.
“Of course, our clients would be delighted to have these things. The children will love the bubble bath,” said the receptionist at the shelter office, a friendly but cautious woman who took the toiletries, gift bag and all, and didn’t ask any questions about the provenance. Donna immediately began to feel better. The receptionist offered a tax receipt, which Donna declined. No sense in letting Norbie know that she had visited a women’s shelter, much less donated the birthday present to it.
As Donna drove home, a sense of lightness came over her. The haze had evaporated, and the sun was as yellow as the middle of a daisy. The Advil must have been working because her back didn’t hurt as much, and she felt satisfied by her secret deed. In fact, she found its secretness especially pleasing.
When Norbie returned home that evening, he was glad to see the bubble bath and dusting powder gone from the dining room table. He assumed that his wife had come to her senses and had made good use of the gift. Image credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr
Lynn Levin teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Her poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Ploughshares, Hopkins Review, and Cleaver. She is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), and with Valerie Fox co-author of the craft-of-poetry textbook Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013). She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
It was July, winter in La Serena, Chile, and Lily sat in a pretty little plaza, her feet resting on the battered train case that her mother had bought at Sears long ago. Hard shell Samsonite. Part of a set for the family trip to Hawai’i. “Don’t pack it too full,” her mother had said. “You’ll break the mirror.” In all her travels with Adam she had never used the case; it seemed too old fashioned and clunky. But she was glad she had it on this trip. It provided a place to sit or put up her feet. The rest of the luggage was arranged around her—the rolling duffle, the cargo bag, the camera backpack. All within reach. “In case someone tries to rip us off.” Adam shook his head, smiled, “I’d like to see someone try to run with one of those bags.”
It was a clear, cool day, and it was pleasant to be able to rest, to sit in the sunlight. People crossed through the square. Not tourists. They walked quickly, and their hard soled shoes tapped against the concrete. Only another woman and child shared the tree lined plaza with Lily. The little boy was just learning to walk; he had a stiff gait and was still unsure how to use his knees. He moved through a flock of pigeons that barely parted. The woman was small, sat round shouldered with her hands in her lap. She wore an ugly maroon quilted coat and stubby brown shoes. She was dark haired and plain, and she watched the boy without expression. “Not the mother,” Lily guessed.
“Let’s park you on a bench, and I’ll find us a hotel,” Adam had said. He had used this strategy last summer in Italy. “It’s faster if I don’t have to haul the luggage.” That was true. And it was also true, Lily knew, that Adam liked being on his own. A little adventure. He’d come back with stories about his encounters. “The guy on the desk used to live in Seattle, worked in a record store selling CDs.” Adam imitated the man, clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Oh my god. Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.”
And the truth, too, was that Lily enjoyed this waiting. She liked to think Adam was off having his adventure, that he would come back and tell her about it, and until then she was able to sit alone and watch. Not something she would admit to any of her acquaintances. “I hate passive women!” Bethany, a coworker, said after a team meeting. And then the woman had looked at Lily. “Next time say something. Anything.” “Like what?” Lily hadn’t meant to be facetious, but Bethany threw up her arms and stomped down the hallway.
There was a gentle flutter of wings, and Lily turned to see that the toddler had lost his balance. His feet were still on the sidewalk, but he was bent over, his palms flat against the pavement. He tumbled, managed to land on his rear. A padded thump as his bottom hit. “Ooof,” he said. He raised his hands in loose fists and began that familiar weak baby flail. He gurgled and giggled, and Lily laughed and sought to catch the other woman’s eye, but the woman remained expressionless. Lily shrugged, turned away, a little annoyed with what she thought was the woman’s rebuff.
They had come to South America because Lily wanted to see Ichigualasto and the fossils from the Triassic, and then they had crossed the Chile-Argentine border to La Serena because somewhere she had read about the observatories. They had travelled by bus over the Andes, the only Americans aboard, and had smiled in childish delight at the subtitled Schwarzenegger video and the unexpected meal service. “Even a place mat,” Adam smiled and made a production out of setting the tray before her. In the dark they crossed the border, and everyone had to get off and go through a customs check point. The officials carried rifles and attempted no English, in fact said not a word. They pointed and gestured, and Adam and Lily eventually mimicked another traveler, a European Lily thought, who had placed his bag on a table, opened it, and then waited. The building was dimly lit and cold with giant doors like an airplane hangar. Lily could make out the silhouette of the mountains, darker than the night sky. Later she learned they had stopped near a ski resort, but at night all of it had seemed deserted and gloomy.
The sun was just above the rooftops now, and the slight breeze was chilly. The guide books described the winter climate as Mediterranean, and Lily had thought of Southern California. But even at the lower elevations it was colder than Lily had expected or planned for, and now she drew her jacket closer, ducked her chin inside the padded collar. For a moment she thought of stacking their luggage around her on the bench, building a fort to block the breeze. When she was a child she liked to tuck herself into close tiny places—her grandmother’s closet, the imaginary cave behind her bed, her own fanciful tents.
She was aware first of the sound of their footsteps. Lily turned to her left and saw two men running towards her. A man in a thin green nylon jacket was being chased by a policeman. The other pedestrians slowed to watch the chase; they stepped to the edge of the wide sidewalk like spectators at a marathon. “No,” the policeman called out. “No.” He wore a long wool coat and an official-looking cap like a doorman. But his shoes didn’t seem to fit; he ran as though he were slipping. The flock of pigeons exploded up from the sidewalk as the first man ran past. Lily leaned forward slightly—a reflex—as if to reach for the little boy. Surrounded by flapping wings the baby raised his arms and squealed in delight. The woman had made no move to collect the boy, and Lily sat back, suddenly embarrassed, afraid the woman might have seen her clumsy gesture. The officer passed, his steps a loud slapping sound against the concrete. Lily saw that he was very young; his cheeks and nose were pink from the exertion. He was losing ground. He probably wouldn’t catch the other man. Several of the pedestrians were smiling, and Lily thought they were laughing at the young policeman. The two men crossed the street, oddly still running down the sidewalk as though following a course, then turned at the next corner and disappeared.
There was a murmur and some soft laughter and then the people in the plaza continued on their way. The woman across from her was now standing, holding onto the hand of the little boy. The child tried to take a step, but lost his balance, and the woman pulled up on the child’s arm to keep him on his feet. The boy giggled, and the woman squatted, picked him up. Again Lily watched the woman, hoped to catch her eye. She was ready to express a friendliness, something benign, even timid. For some reason she hoped for that contact. But without a glance the woman turned, began walking away from the bench, and in doing so passed so close Lily drew her feet from the train case and tucked them beneath the bench. The woman did not look at Lily but in profile she was scowling. The hateful expression startled Lily and she quickly looked away, stared down at the sidewalk. The long shadows of the woman and child moved away in the same direction as the two runners.
Later when Adam returned it was dusk, and as he gathered up their luggage he chattered on about his adventure. He had found a place not too far away, and the clerk had told him the room would be warm, and they would not be uncomfortable. He had even stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant that was close to the hotel.
“You were gone so long,” Lily said. “I’m cold.”
“Oh,” Adam shrugged. “Sorry. Sometimes it takes a while.”
“I’ve been waiting a long time.” Lily drew a breath, tried to control her temper. She didn’t understand why she was so angry.
“You okay? Honestly, I thought you’d be okay with the wait. You said you wanted to.”
She picked up the camera bag and the train case and started down the sidewalk with Adam. “How much longer?”
“It’s not too far.”
“No.” The case slipped from her hand and clattered to the sidewalk. She thought maybe she had broken the mirror; her face flushed with anger, and she felt like crying. “How much longer?”
Barbara Nishimoto was born in Chicago, and grew up along with her two sisters in the western suburbs. She is a Sansei and has spent most of her working life as a teacher in such locations as the Alaskan bush and the Marshall Islands. She now lives in Nashville with her husband and their dog, Koji. Her stories appear are are forthcoming in Discover Nikkei and Streetlight Magazine.
I was ready to die, so I jumped off the highest bridge in town, the river a dark frozen mass ready to accept my mangled mess of skin and insides. I detached from my descending body and watched it fall lifelessly while I drifted through the air with the winter breeze and the stars and those snowflakes that instantly melt when they land on you.
I saw or imagined my mom’s house from the sky, about six miles from the bridge. Her house had been empty since I left nearly four years ago. Well, that’s not true. She lived there. I drove by occasionally but I don’t know why. Well, that’s not true either. I did know why. I wanted to make sure she still existed.
Did she know I still existed? One time I drove by and she was unloading groceries or something from her trunk. I didn’t shout or stop or honk though. I didn’t want her to be disappointed. Or I didn’t want her to know she could have been right to worry about me.
She was right, and she’d be real disappointed if she found this out. She may have to answer the standard your-son-committed-suicide questions. He had issues, she’d say, issues that pulled him away from me forever, but I never thought he would resort to this. Others would talk about how pathetic I was, saying shit like I wasn’t cut out for real life. They’d say I lived out the typical emo-fantasy, just another waste of life. Hopefully not mom. I was convinced she’d defend me no matter how long it had been since our last conversation.
But I’m not as dead as I was expecting to be. I was violently sucked back into my body and felt my leg crumble, bones shattering like a glass hitting the floor. I felt cold and wet and such agonizing pain. But I wasn’t dead.
I woke up in a reclined bed with itchy sheets, lights way too bright. Rain played a drum-roll on the world while some stupid actor confessed his love to a busty broad on the box television mounted high up in the corner. The walls and most of the floor tiles were white and made the lights feel brighter, but there were some rogue black tiles too. There was a window to my right without much of a view from my angle and a red vinyl chair in the corner that probably made funny noises when visitors sat on it.
The doctor came in, some high and mighty prick with hipster glasses and a Middle Eastern accent and skin tone. He had his stupid hair with a stupid part along the side of his scalp and I hated him immediately. He regurgitated a laundry list of what the hell was wrong with me but in that sophisticated doctor talk. I only made out some of the key words: hypothermia, shock, fibula, tibia, open fracture, six to twelve months. My leg was a miracle wrapped in a phenomenon being held together by rods and screws. I lifted my paper gown and looked at the cast and imagined what my leg would look like with sharp bones piercing through my flesh. It seemed pretty cool, although I probably would’ve vomited in real life.
“We’d like to keep you here for a while,” the prick said, looking at his stupid clipboard. “The length of your stay will depend on your progress.”
“Who knows I’m here?”
“The police will want to talk to you,” he replied. “But for now, let the drugs do their job.”
And they did. Colors turned to nothing and I dove right in. It wasn’t the kind of nothing you saw while staring at the inside of your eyelid. But empty nothing. No thoughts. Just gray. Like a dirty blizzard.
Eventually I go somewhere. When, I don’t know. Where, a church. One of those massive contemporary ones that looked more like a concert hall. There was a young band—teenagers I guess—rocking out on some holy shit. I was far from stage, but one of the lead singers, some young brunette, had curves nice enough to be noticed from a distance, and all I wanted was to taste her body. Her voice was killer though, and the band sounded pretty decent; change the lyrics and I probably would’ve downloaded the album. My left foot tapped along with the thick thud of the bass pedal as the song told me to lift my hands and let Him take me under His guidance. My hands stayed in my pockets, my foot continued its rhythm.
I would only go to church for my mom’s sake, never really bought into the whole “I am powerless and must give up every ounce of control I might have and give it to some dude that supposedly exists” thing. I still went with her, though. She constantly worried about me and my friends being teenagers and smoking drugs and fucking chicks without protection and leaving for days without a phone call and dropping out of school. Typical stuff. She worried too much, but that wasn’t true either.
Mom and I sat in the upper deck, and I was staring at the top of some kid’s head in the row in front of us, his black hair slimy and slick with goop. He wasn’t standing like everyone else. Instead, he was rocking back and forth in his chair. I wasn’t sure if he was epileptic or some shit and it made me really uncomfortable. I glanced over to mom to back up my discomfort, but her eyes were closed and her hands were raised up towards the sky with her palms open. Her face was red and wet with tears.
I looked back down and saw his hands moving quickly, but with some semblance of order, as if the movements were choreographed. On each side of the stage the song lyrics scrolled down large screens and then the obvious dawned on me: dude was fucking deaf. He was signing the lyrics, singing with his hands. How could he hear it? He must’ve felt it; the bass pounded through my chest too. Was he feeling Him? I wanted to know. Eventually, I stopped caring; I wasn’t feeling it. Him. Whatever. I wanted Her. The singer.
Hours or days later, I told the police everything. Although it wasn’t much. I wanted to die for no good reason and failed miserably. They told me a driver called the police from the bridge and E.M.T.s were already parked and prepared at the river bank.
“Who knows I’m here?”
“We left a message with your mother,” the officer with a bushy moustache said. “Anyone else? Friends? Priest? Boss?”
“Thanks,” I replied.
I drifted back to sleep and felt my mother with me. She sat in the vinyl chair and it made noises I never heard and she cried into her hands for a time too long to measure. She screamed and smashed her fist against the wall and yelled in my face and broke the small rolling table next to my bed. She also touched me softly as only a mom can. She dragged her wrinkled hand along my face and kissed my forehead with her cracked, chapped lips. I swear I could feel the salt from her tears rolling down my face.
When I woke up, she wasn’t there. But damn it I knew she had been. I had a new table wheeled in that afternoon and there were imprints on the vinyl.
She’ll be back, I thought. She wasn’t like me and I needed to tell her that.
A couple days later I woke up and the thin curtain on my left was pulled out. The lights behind it were bright and presented the silhouette of a fat man, although it could’ve been a woman. But then I heard a grunt and it cemented his fate as a “he.” He remained still for hours, and I watched him do nothing for the entire first afternoon. Although he did do something. He moaned and cried as if his organs were in a tightening vice grip.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He continued his moaning and crying.
Fuck you, I thought. Just trying to help. Although what could I have done? I couldn’t even reach the damn curtain to pull it back and see him. I envisioned him looking like a blob, just a pile of glub without a neck. He made me sick.
Maybe I made him sick. Maybe he wanted a glimpse of my silhouette in order to make similar assumptions. Of course, with the lighting, mine wasn’t visible, which is probably why he wouldn’t answer me. Why would he accept help from someone he couldn’t see?
If he could see, what would my silhouette have looked like? Probably like nothing, my thin build resembling bedding or pillows, not a man. It was hard to be sure. There’s only so much he could have seen with the curtain closed.
Brian Druckenmiller earned his Master of Arts in Writing from Coastal Carolina University where he now teaches English composition courses, and plans on earning his terminal degree in creative writing sometime in the not-so-distant future. He currently has a short story in Fiction Vortex online, and many others in slush piles across the country.
Miko seduced our mom with a gruesome story about Jews. When he was a boy, he told her, he followed the American soldiers into Bergen-Belsen. He saw the dead bodies and the bodies that were not yet dead. This he shared with her during singles night at the Unitarian Church three years after the divorce. Miko said his purpose there was to profit off the rich Nazis who’d come to bad ends. Thing is, the bodies moved him to compassion. He just helped the Red Cross workers, that’s all he could do. Miko told our mom this after she told him her granddad was liquidated by Hitler.
I got two brothers. We love our mom. We boys have turned out well, so it was good to see her happy. Miko was of high intellect, a sensitive man of the world. Name a country and chances were Miko had been there. He’d contracted malaria in a Brazilian jungle, had hunted a strange animal nobody’d heard of in South Africa. He’d been a monk in Tibet.
And Miko owned houses in Atlanta and Lake Tahoe, drove a Jaguar XJ6—just look out the window at it in the drive—and built a harpsichord from scratch. His daughter was married to August Wilson, the black playwright, he told us. I felt like asking Miko how he, Iranian by birth, found himself traveling through Hitler’s countryside as a kid, but let it slide.
Our mom married Miko in Mendocino, sent pictures of them on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, mist and wind and birds in the air, and a radiant flower, a gardenia, pinned to her dark gown. Of their honeymoon, she wrote: “Miko’s Tahoe getaway is a panacea. The air here dances across my taste buds, and the light? Oh, such purity. I feel as if I am living inside of a dream.” She hadn’t been this happy since her poetry book, My Bitter Love, was accepted for publication at Inspirations Press. The poems were about her struggle to overcome the pains she suffered after Dad left her for a younger more beautiful woman, a woman that she insultingly nicknamed Miss Nigh and Sly to try and undermine her hold on Dad’s heart. In any event she was a student of his, which was what our mom was for him before they were married. The happiness Mom experienced at the release of her book lasted until she read the reviews.
We brothers decided it was a mutual joke, that we all were players, that when Miko told his whoppers, the unspoken code was don’t question them. Otherwise the joy might disappear. Only then we find out Miko has cancer. Our mom tells us he may have six months to live, that she runs the air all night because when Miko returns from his treatments he’s hot and depressed. Sometimes she sees him in the backyard staring into the trees and leaves, and believes Miko is imagining himself dying like the people he saw dying in Bergen-Belsen.
We felt for her, and for Miko, but six months later Miko was going strong. He traded his XJ6 in for a BMW, and our mom sold the house she had received in the divorce agreement with Dad, this so she and Miko could move from Florida to Charlotte, where Miko had secured a better job as the new director of the Super Computer outlet at UNC. He was a brilliant Iranian, read scientific manuals, and my brothers and I were thrilled to see our mom regain some of her pride.
Miko continued with his chemo treatments, but alas our mom, for whatever reason, visited Miko’s doctor, behind Miko’s back, and found out Miko never did have that cancer he said he had. Nope. No cancer. Was it possible? Could a guy make up such a thing? When our mom informed my brothers of her discovery, they said, “That’s awful!” and “How could he?” but me, what I said is, “That’s great! I’m so happy Miko’s not going to die.”
“I feel sick to my stomach,” our mom said, and her words brought to mind the time I came home from school with a swastika penned in red ink to the hem of my shirt. This was way before the divorce, while I was in ninth grade. “I feel sick to my stomach,” she said, and told me to take my shirt off. I said, “It’s a good luck symbol,” but she grabbed my shirt by the collar and began to throttle me. She hit me in the face and her nail scratched my cheek so that it bled. I still have the scar. She normally kept her angst under control, but she’d recently found a cache of Miss Nigh and Sly’s love letters in Dad’s desk. She’d been going around the house, fuming, quoting the stupid things Miss Nigh and Sly said to him, stuff like, “because of you I will never again wish away time,” and “I love you dementedly.” I don’t think she meant for my shirt to rip, but it was old and thin. Once it started ripping she just ripped the whole thing off me and threw it into the garbage bucket under the sink. Then she sent me to my room without dinner.
I was happy for Miko’s lie. I didn’t want to understand our mom’s insistence that Miko had done something unforgivable. I even thought of the old footage I’d seen of Hitler addressing his people, the Germans, how it’s pretty clear what Hitler has in mind for the Jews that lived amongst them. Was it possible that our mom could have looked the other way in order to have the thing she desired? Just a little bit of happiness was all she’d wanted. Was it really too much to ask for? A feeling of being loved and kept safe in the face of the cruelties of the world? In Miko a storehouse of possibility existed, a path of redemption, a return to beauty, to youth. That Miko’s worth was contingent upon prescribed behaviors didn’t set well with me.
“That’s great!” I said, but she didn’t share my enthusiasm.
We were at a restaurant, just the two of us. As it turned out, Miko didn’t own a damn thing, she said. His fancy Lake Tahoe getaway was a rental, go figure. There’d never been a house in Atlanta. The Jaguar Miko once drove—yes, we’d all seen it in the drive—had never been fully paid for, and the BMW was also being bought on meager installment. Miko was clever, had not paid taxes in seven years. He was a liar, a liar! Supposedly Miko had two daughters, right? That one of them had been married to August Wilson was perhaps the most bald-faced lie of all, yet our mother had believed.
It was just the two of us. Our plates arrived. Our mother’s tears fell into her pastrami. She had used the money she received from selling the family house to buy the new house in Charlotte. Miko had arranged things so that the house was in his name. She had consulted a lawyer and the lawyer said that there was a chance she could get some of the money back, but the IRS had caught up with Miko, did she want to try to send Miko to jail? No, so all that money, almost forty thousand dollars, was lost. That money was half of all she had, and could have been used for her retirement.
“I feel like such a fool,” she said.
You’ve always been a fool, I thought. She had spoken often of the sacrifices she had made, such sacrifices being raising our father’s children, cooking dinner for everybody and basically succumbing to the conventional yet “unconscionable” role of suburban housewife. If not for us, who knew but that she could have become the poet laureate of the United States?
You never respected your children, I thought.
You never knew any of us, I thought.
I said, “We thought you knew but that you were looking the other way on purpose. We thought that Miko was worth it, that the pride he gave you made the lies worth it.”
“I hate him!” our mother screamed.
Everybody in the restaurant was looking at us.
“He should have died!” she screamed.
I reached across the table and put my hand on her hand. I’d never before made such a bold gesture toward our mother. “I hate his guts,” she said, and I told her it was all right, that even though she’d given him her money, she still had lots to be thankful for. “Think of the Jews,” I told her, and she looked at me as if I was crazy.
John Oliver Hodges lives in New York City, and is the author of War of the Crazies, a novella about commune life in upstate New York, and The Love Box, a collection of short stories. His short stories have appeared in Swink, American Short Fiction, Washington Square and about 50 other journals. He teaches writing at Montclair State University and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
Ling turns up for class every other week and falls asleep halfway through the lesson. I watch her from the other side of the room as her head drops. Her round cheeks redden and her hair falls over her face.
At the start of term I talked to her just before class. She told me that she once saw Saint Patrick march down O’Connell Street in Dublin. She says she likes the Irish and enjoys a good Guinness. I don’t take offence when she mimics my accent. I find her hilarious.
Today she has arrived late again. She sits at the end of the row of tables with a brown notebook and a pen. At first she seems attentive, nodding her head while the teacher talks about Notre Dame Cathedral. Ten minutes later I watch her droop. She fights to keep her eyes open. Eventually her eyes close and she slumps onto the desk. It’s then that I begin to wonder about her life. Has she sat up till dawn with a lover discussing life in London or is she exhausted having just worked a tedious shift at a restaurant? Now she looks so peaceful.
Ling’s head falls sideways on the desk. The tutor glances at her then continues with her lecture. The pupil next to her shakes his head while she snores. I sit and wonder if she’s dreaming. That’s when I close my eyes to get a feel of the world Ling now inhabits. I find I like it here in my own make-believe darkness as the tutor’s voice fades into the background. I imagine I am lying beside Ling outside the cathedral both of us snuggled up in a blanket to keep out the cold. Between dozes, we look at the tourists—a great bustle of people entering and exiting the building.
Ling turns to me. “Let’s go inside now that we’re here.”
We slip from beneath the blanket and enter the cathedral. Our boots echo on the old stone floor. Halfway down the aisle we stop and raise our heads. Shafts sweep unbroken from the floor towards the ceiling where they meet the ribbed vaults like a great oak with giant outspread branches.
“This is incredible.” I widen my eyes, feel something inside me lift and stir as I look at the light which pours through the clerestory windows illuminating the verticality of the structure.
Ling grabs my arm. “Can you feel the energy? Can you smell the scents of time?”
We inspect the frescoes, statues, and sculptural decorations.
Ling points to the stained glass windows. “People look for happiness in the wrong places. They travel here; they travel there—always in the search of something they’ll never find.” Her eyes shift from left to right. “Haven’t you felt at ease since you came through those doors?”
“Well, I sure feel different.”
Ling grins. “So do I. I find it difficult to concentrate in class. But now I feel I’ve found everything that I’ve been looking for.”
She lets go of my arm and runs up the aisle. I chase after her and stop to look at the altar. The marble stands like an iceberg encrusted with strands of gold. People sit, heads bowed, the smell of incense heavy in the air.
Ling turns to face me. “How do I look?” Her face is gleaming.
“You don’t look so tired,” I say
She smiles and pretends to yawn.
“Don’t talk to me about tired. What about you?”
“Everyone has a story,” I say. “Me, I close my eyes and try on people’s lives.”
She nods, and buttons up her jacket. “It’s so much cooler in here. The heat in class…so uncomfortable.”
The organ begins to play. The sound rises from the core of the edifice and enters the cathedral. Ling puts her hands to her ears.
She runs down the aisle doing cartwheels all the way to the exit. We go outside; the chill pierces our skin. We stop to look at the three portals depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, the Last Judgment and the life of St Anne. Our eyes rise to the headless statues in the King’s Gallery, then to the two huge towers which shoot into the waiting arms of the stars. The bell rings—a colossal, booming sound.
Ling puts her arm around me. “Think of all the people who have stood here over the centuries. Imagine if we could stay here forever and watch the world go by.”
I turn around to face her.
“Come on,” she says. “Stay with me.”
We hold on to each other our breath turning foggy in the air. We close our eyes. The tutor finishes her lecture. The projector hums in the background. Passersby stop to take our photographs: two frozen statues immortalized in time.
Kieran Duddy is from Derry, in Northern Ireland. He lives in London were he is currently working on a collection of short stories. He has been published several times in Wordlegs and Acquired For Development… A Hackney Anthology. In his spare time he likes to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and listen to punk rock.
In the back of the house Sherry and Miranda were playing in the plastic swimming pool. It was blue on the inside. The plastic made the water seem blue.
Sherry stepped out of the pool, shards of grass and flecks of black dirt clinging to her feet. Her knees were brown and red with unhealed scrapes, and her hair hung wet from her head. Over the course of the summer, it had faded from white-blonde to green, a color like the sky when a tornado is approaching. The heat of the sun had warmed her shoulders to fever pitch and now set about drying the damp parts of her body: a hip here, a hand there, the bread dough curves of her calves. It was a warm August day and the third straight month of mornings spent playing with her sister.
“You look like a mermaid,” Miranda said from her cross-legged place inside the pool. Her skinny body folded in upon itself like a paper fan. Her eyes were slits, catlike in the sun.
“I am a mermaid,” Sherry said after a pause. “My name is Queen Esmeralda, the mermaid. And you are my subject!” She ran to the side of the house where they had laid out their treasures from the beach the month before. The things lay scattered beside their mother’s tools and gardening gloves. She grabbed two shells and clutched them to the two sides of her chest, elbows thrust out proudly. “You’re my mermaid servant. That means you have to bring me my crown.” She held the pose, squinting into the sun and perfectly still, while ants crawled over her ankles. Then she turned to Miranda.
Miranda hugged her knees tighter. Goosebumps rose like pinpricks on her skin, pale peach against the wet oak of her hair.
“No, I don’t want to,” she said. “I like being in the pool.”
“You’re a servant mermaid. I’m the mermaid queen. So you have to get me my crown.” Sherry tried to shove the shells into the top of her bathing suit. One of them scratched her chest, leaving an angry line. She frowned and returned to clasping the shells against her.
“No,” Miranda said.
“You have to, Miranda,” Sherry said. “Those are the rules.”
“What game are we playing?”
“The mermaid game,” Sherry insisted, pushing her elbows out further. “You’re my servant. So you have to get out of the pool and get me my crown.”
Miranda sighed. Slowly, limb by limb, she began to stretch out in the pool. The thin lines of her legs wobbled and leapt in the blue.
“I’m a mermaid, though?” she asked.
“Yeah, obviously, you’re just not important.”
“As long as I can be a mermaid, I guess,” Miranda said, and she stood up. Droplets of lukewarm water scattered off her as if she were a dog emerging from the ocean. She raised one foot to step out. The water rocked. “Wait, though,” she said. “How can we walk on land if we’re mermaids? If I’m a mermaid won’t I die once I get out of the water?”
Sherry stood still for a moment, shells clutched to her chest, elbows flagging. She always got caught in this trap, of having to break the rules after she’d made them. Usually Miranda didn’t realize the trick. Sherry thought she wouldn’t get it this time either. “No, it’s okay,” she improvised. “Because I’m the mermaid queen so I can walk on land. And even though you’re not as good a mermaid as me I can give you the power to walk on land too. So you can do that,” she declared. “But don’t get any ideas.”
“Okay,” Miranda said, and stepped cautiously out of the pool. “I guess that makes sense.” She held her breath until both feet touched the earth. “Where’s your crown again? Didn’t you leave it in the kitchen? Mama won’t let me come into the house if I’m wet.”
“Not my plastic crown,” Sherry snapped. She was stalking around the yard now, lifting one muddy foot after another, toes pointed as if she were at gymnastics practice.
“No?” Miranda stood, dripping.
“Mermaids don’t have plastic crowns. Do you think there’s plastic in the ocean? There’s not.”
Among the beach treasures were a dilapidated Sprite bottle and a collection of thin sea glass that looked very much like plastic. Sherry caught sight of them and hoped Miranda wouldn’t say anything. She walked round and round in widening circles. She stepped over stones and sharp sticks with ease. She left tracks in the mud.
“I don’t think we have any other crowns around.”
“I guess you have to make one for me, then.”
“Be quiet, subject!”
Miranda turned her back on the shallow pool, now leaking its contents into a wide black puddle, and on Sherry and her endless circles. She crossed her arms. Sherry, stalking around the yard, watched her standing there shivering and looking into the woods. The leaves were apple-green and thick, made golden by sunlight. The trees stood tall and thin. Plump-bellied squirrels and bluebirds shuffled and fluttered from place to place. Beyond the border of the yard, steps and steps beyond, the ground sank into a creek and then rose up again.
On the ground, forcing their way up through the pine needles and damp dead leaves, patches of wildflowers sometimes grew. A clump of pale pink was visible twenty feet in. It looked as if a princess had dropped her handkerchief. Rounding the tree at the edge of the yard, Sherry reached out one chubby arm and pointed.
“I want a flower crown, Miranda.”
“Okay,” Miranda said. “With those pink flowers there?”
“Obviously,” Sherry replied with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. Miranda took one baby step into the woods.
A year ago, while exploring, Sherry and Miranda had found a face in the ground. Sherry had walked too far into the neighbors’ section of the woods, and despite Miranda’s warnings, kept walking. Miranda was always whining about the rules. Sherry told Miranda she was looking for interesting rocks, or shells to prove that the creek had once been part of the ocean. They were learning in science class that all the water in the world was the same. Miranda was too little to know things like that.
Sherry had been walking, looking at the ground, when suddenly she shrieked and Miranda ran to her. When she reached her sister, Miranda, too, yelped and leapt back. Beneath their feet was unmistakably the face of a child. Pool-blue eyes, blood-red lips, pointed nose, porcelain skin. Sherry edged closer while Miranda backed away.
“Miranda, stop being stupid,” Sherry said, as if the idea of being scared, as she had been moments ago, was ludicrous. “It’s nothing. It’s not real.” Crouching, she lifted the face from the ground and pulled. It came loose in a reluctant squelch. The skin really was porcelain. She had picked up a doll, hard-headed, soft-bodied. All of the stuffing was gone from the body. The hair, too, was gone, eaten away by monsters or overzealous future stylists. Sherry held the thing high in the air like a triumph: a bald head with an empty child-shaped sack for a body.
“See?” Sherry said to her sister. “You were just being a baby.”
The porcelain hands hung lifeless and dirty from the flattened cloth arms. The eyelids lolled half open.
Sherry wanted to give it back to the neighbor girls, but Miranda cried and moaned, saying they would be mad. “Put it back in the ground, Sherry, put it back,” she shouted. Sherry shook the doll in Miranda’s face and lifted up the limp arms so they waved like a ghost’s. In the end, though, she agreed, and they hid the thing away underneath the forest dirt. Secretly, Sherry hated when the neighbor girls wouldn’t play with her, and she didn’t want to risk their anger. Now, walking around the yard, she wished the neighbor girls would come over so they could play a more interesting game.
“Miranda, hurry up,” Sherry yelled over her shoulder.
Miranda screamed. Sherry turned and saw her shoot out of the woods in a frantic sprint. Tiny buzzing creatures surrounded her, swarming around her legs and hips. Sherry jumped to the side and Miranda ran, screeching, up to the driveway, where their mother had come out of the house.
Before Sherry could do anything, their mother had scooped up Miranda, folded again in contortions of pain, to bring her into the house. Sherry stood alone in the silent yard, shells at her side. The pool-puddle slid around her feet and trickled in rivulets down to the woods. She dropped one shell to slap a fat mosquito on her arm, leaving a splotch of blood and thready black legs. Then she went to the living room window and pressed her face against the dirty glass.
Inside, their mother had placed Miranda on the couch and encased her legs in ice packs and bags of frozen peas. One by one, her mother checked the swollen bumps to make sure the stingers were out. She turned the television on. They were not usually allowed to watch television in the afternoon. Miranda moved her hands back and forth over her legs as if touching the air above the skin might heal the skin itself, and she cried and cried and cried.
Sherry went back to the side yard. She bit her lip. She set both of the shells back in the space reserved for their treasure. She looked toward the area where the nest had been disturbed, but it didn’t seem any different from before. A last lazy wasp wobbled in the air near her, and she ran away, back to the living room window.
From outside, Sherry watched their mother braid Miranda’s hair while cartoons played on the TV. Miranda sniffled and rubbed her watery eyes with a handkerchief. The bags of vegetables and ice were draped over her bony legs from ankle to hip. When she shifted, a few of them fell off, and Sherry saw her skin, bright red and swollen. Miranda started sobbing again at the sight, and her mother shushed her, cradling her head with one hand, replacing the ice bags with the other.
It was noon. Sherry sat down underneath the window; she could not find shade outside. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She wondered if Miranda might get ice cream that night because of the stings, but then another screech of pain came from inside and she shuddered. She rested her back against the wall, biting her nails ’til they bled, and tried in vain to imagine the kind of wound that could inflict that kind of pain, that could make a person cry for so loud and so long.
Sarah Van Name
Sarah Van Name is a recent graduate of Duke University, where she majored in Literature and wrote short stories, poetry, and documentary pieces. She currently works as a marketing writer in Durham, North Carolina, where she is continuing to write fiction in the hope of compiling a collection of short stories.
Every day, as I drive down Main Street and then turn in to the high school where I’m a long-term substitute teacher ($65/day), I pass rows and rows of $2 million houses. It’s a fairy tale I can see but can’t join. The houses are sort of like Candy Mountain and Gumdrop Hill.
A few years ago, in fact, Money Magazine voted the town a Best Town To Live In, a watershed achievement that was trumpeted in a banner across its Main Street and plastered on its idyllic, quaint storefront windows: the Starbucks (needless to say), the adorable toy store, The Happy Hippo, the obligatory “Oriental rug” shop with $10,000 area rugs “on sale” in the front display, the upscale consignment shop, Jamaican Me Crazy, where a used shirt costs more than three brand new outfits at Target. Did you know the town’s schools are “top notch,” according to Money Magazine?
In my top notch classes, the kids talk endlessly of 1) The size of their houses (“I went to Bryce’s yesterday—Oh my God! Have you seen his house?”) and 2) The vacations they’ve been on. Europe, cruises, Disney, and any number of fortress-like five-star resorts in Mexico, Belize, Antigua, surrounded by high walls and guards to protect against the intrusion of poverty.
Fiscal crisis? Economic meltdown? What?
Once, in a fit of a frustration, after some particularly long gush about some party at this kid’s brand new pool with fantastic sushi, I said: “Guys, there’s more to life than a big house!”
They cocked their heads as though hearing something interesting for the first time: “Like what?” one of the boys said, half joking.
Today, the kids are apparently watching the movie The Pianist, with Adrien Brody, as part of their “Holocaust Unit.” I’m standing in for a Special Ed teacher, and I’m ‘helping’ the students with their study guides; I sort of dart from need to need. I try to pretend I’m cheerfully indispensable.
As the kids watch the movie, they become more and more incensed. Incensed? At whom? The Jews, of course. “Why didn’t they just run away?” one boy asks when the Jews are lying down at gunpoint in front of the Gestapo while he shoots them in the head. “I’d run away.”
I start to explain, but another boy says, “Why doesn’t the Adrien Brody guy get a nose job. Then no one would know he was a Jew.” Several boys snicker. I’m Jewish, but I don’t dare say that. I may be Jewish, but I’m no fool. The teacher is at her desk, her plump arms crossed, a glazed expression on her young, pretty face; she’s from Swedesboro, working class, like most teachers. Her father says teachers are lazy shits who sit around all day and then whine they’re underpaid. “Why don’t you get off your butt and get a real job,” her father tells her, meaning office work, perhaps nursing.
“Teaching isn’t at all what I expected it to be,” the teacher tells me sadly, often. “I feel like my soul is being sucked dry.”
I nod. As for my soul, it was sucked dry so long ago it blew away like ash. My husband hates my guts—I hate my guts—but we stay together for now because I need his health insurance and he needs my body. I used to be some sort of genius. I got straight A’s in my graduate school classes in Special Education too, but I still can’t find a teaching job. I’m supposed to be grateful for this long-term sub job. “This could be your foot in the door!” the entire world constantly exhorts me. “Never give up! Visualize your goal and the universe will align with you!”
The principal’s son is in this class. The teacher’s very first marking period on the job she made the colossal error of giving the boy his real grade, an 83. She was hauled into the principal’s office at once and made to sit on a low student chair in front of his desk. The principal said her assignments were “unprofessional” and “pointless” and then personally did her next observation. He wrote, “Needs improvement” in every category, which is eduspeak for paving the way for denial of tenure; and once your tenure is denied, you are blacklisted. It becomes very hard to get a job, particularly if the superintendent or principal has political aspirations and/or knows a lot of people, like Mr. Principal of Top Notch High School in Best Place to Live In Fairyland. I’ve seen the best teachers of my generation driven mad by… well, you know what I mean. Dare I disturb the candy universe? Yes, T.S. Eliot and Ginsberg were on my teaching qualifying exam, and yes I got a perfect score on it, not that anyone cares.
The other day I met a failed teacher at an Apple store where I was applying for a real job (no luck). He hummed as he interviewed me. He said he was paid about as much to do this job as he was when he’d been teaching. He looked happy. I was jealous.
So a few weeks after her “observation,” when this teacher went to her online Gradebook, she saw the Principal’s son’s grade had been changed to a 93. Magic! But the teacher had learned her lesson and said nothing. The next ‘observation’ was “satisfactory.”
We learn our lessons well, we have-nots.
“Yeah, why doesn’t someone punch his nose and break it?” another boy offers now, leaning back on his chair, his long legs lazily outstretched. “If he had a broken nose no one would know.”
Ah, why didn’t the Jews think of this? All they had to do to avoid death was to break each other’s noses! Simplicity itself. All the Jews would be walking around Warsaw in their Bandaged Nose Disguises and no one would suspect! If only this Candyland kid had been there to plan it all out….
I say nothing to the boys, of course. I need this job. See under: food for my kids. You can’t say a thing, not a thing, because you just never know who knows who, who has connections to the board, the mayor, you name it. Last year, in a nearby Also Top Notch school district, a gang of about twenty kids broke into a girl’s house. She was on vacation with her family (Hotel Atlantis, on an island sealed off from the poverty of Nassau), and for some unknowable reason had given a copy of her house key to a friend. This “friend” and his pals and pals of pals then decided it would be fun to fill giant water pistols with urine, and spray all the rooms with giant arcs of pee. Oh, and jack off on to her baby brother’s stuffed animals, and defecate onto the Steinway piano keys. I am not making these details up. This is a true story. Every single person in the Also Best Place to Live In town knew who the kids were, but not one of the kids was suspended, much less arrested. Not one. They were connected. The mayor was friends with the ringleader boy’s family. The girl’s family settled for some undisclosed bribe.
In a Period 9 class, one of the kids offers to bribe me if I tell the teacher his PowerPoint presentation “crashed” when really, he tells me conspiratorially, he’d been “too whacked” to do it last night. When the teacher isn’t looking, he flashes me a $100.
He says, “Come on. I bet it’s more than you earn all day.”
As soon as I leave Candyland, it dissolves into fairy dust, and I forget about it.
I pull into my block. Our oak tree is dead and I’m worried its rotten branches will fall onto someone’s car or head, but we cannot possibly afford the $2000 to take it down; our heating doesn’t work either and in the winter I walk around in my down jacket all evening; the kids huddle in blankets. We don’t even think to complain, because that’s just how it is. Now it’s late May and my husband is out of work yet again, and all day long he sleeps on the recliner in the middle of the living room with the TV blaring endless reality cop shows, his favorite. It’s boiling hot, but it goes without saying that we don’t put the air conditioner on.
I pull into my driveway. My neighbor from Yemen is watering his tomato garden. He’s out of work too. His wife, in a head scarf and jeans, smokes a cigarette, staring at him with hostility. Across the street, three repulsive looking pit bull dogs are straining at their leashes from the slanted porch while their owner, a woman with M.S., limping around with her cane, caresses them. She just loves those dogs. Five or ten children ride bikes in the street, playing some sort of chase game, steering their bikes over an improvised ramp made up of plywood mounted on mulch. They have nothing scheduled, nowhere to go in particular. The other day I read about “kids today” in the newspaper, which is made out of spun sugar. According to the paper, “kids today” are too scheduled, too stressed about getting into “top schools,” also too coddled.
“You got him!” one of the kids shouts. “No, I’m safe!” “Liar!” “Faggot!” My youngest son is among them. I see him now, weaving in and out, a hesitant smile on his face, trying to navigate the line between the winners and the losers, the safe and the out, his small sunburnt shoulders already bearing the burdens of the world.
DC Lambert is a public school teacher serving an inner city school district and the author of War on Excellence: Our Giant Secret Education Bureaucracy and Me, a nonfiction narrative about the secrets behind the closed doors of our rapidly changing 21st century schools. She earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. Her award-winning writing has appeared in such magazines as Stand, ACM, Columbia and Connections, and her academic book, Point of View in Mrs Dalloway: Rooms, Corridors and Houses, was recently published by Edwin Mellen Press. Read more here.
When I hear about the death of a friend’s baby, it usually takes my heart two or three days to catch up to the news, to feel what a heart ought to feel, something like sorrow, or anger, or befuddlement, not necessarily in that order, and generally all at once. When Daniel’s baby girl died at just eleven months old, I downloaded all of her pictures on facebook, stared at them for hours, days, until I resembled less of a mourner and more of an addict, having no intention of giving up her addiction. “Emma will be forever missed,” someone posted on Daniel’s wall. Emma is (was?) short for Emmanuel: God with us.
When Corey’s baby boy died yesterday, at nine months old, I went to the coffee shop two blocks from my apartment in Long Island City, found my usual spot by the window, drank my coffee, ate my scone, read every page of the New York Times—a tourist gang-raped in India, North Korea’s hunger, AT&T’s dash of orange across black and white journalism, Anne Carson’s email excerpts, punctuated with less popular linguistic emblems, like the “<.” (I don’t remember what emotion the “<“actually expressed—it seems we already have “!” for surprise, “?” for confusion, and “.” for things being over, like death. I wouldn’t know how to use the “<”, but I liked it.) I didn’t cry—though the article about rape in India would’ve been the right moment to do it—and I must have appeared as normal as everyone else reading the newspaper. The world read the same world-news as I did, and it continued to be chatty and opinionated, without missing a beat in the Sunday morning dalliance and overture.
The gentleman next to me, typing away at his computer, offered to look up my destiny from an astrology website. He pointed toward the Pulaski Bridge before us and told me that he grew up in Brooklyn, Hebrew school on Saturdays, Chinese take-out (obviously non-kosher) on non-festive days. He studied American History at Columbia, and now lives abroad. He said he doesn’t feel American. I asked whether that was because he lived abroad or if that was the reason he lived abroad. I asked out of politeness, not interest. He said he’ll save that story for next time. Then he asked me for my birthdate. And I said, “I’ll save that for next time.”
I tell my friends about Corey’s baby over dinner at their house in Astoria. I had to spell out, rather than say out loud, the word “die,” since they have kids. Luca, a three-year-old girl, Ilan, a twenty-week-old boy, and another boy due in a few days. His name will be either Johan, Yohan, or Ewan, all derivatives of John, all three meaning: God has been gracious. My friends have already decided that God “has been” gracious to their unborn child. They’re not trying to put on spurious faith, they’re not trying to sound religious or annoying, they’re not even prophesying a long, happy life over their third child (though that would’ve been understandable). Because we are good enough friends, I can ask: would you still see God as “gracious” if what happened to Corey’s baby happened to Johah or Yohan or Ewan? Because we are good enough friends, they know that I’m not looking for some brush-off platitude. They both become quiet. They put their forks down. Luca tells her mother she wants ice cream for dessert. Not apples. Not broccoli. Not rice. Just ice cream. Her mother hugs her tight. Tucks her bangs behind her ears. Her father says, sure, she can have some ice cream, and Ilan can have some ice cream too, and if something were to happen, to these kids or to “God has been gracious,” he just doesn’t know how he would go on. He doesn’t know if he could go on. He just doesn’t know what he’d do. How to go on being a husband and a dad to the remaining kids. How the hell does Corey get out of bed every morning, make breakfast and go to work? He doesn’t know. He would need some crazy strength beyond what he could come up with himself. Some fortitude to keep him from sundering. Something to keep him from plunging. Something, well, like grace.
There is leftover Korean miso soup, fried sweet potato, and chicken with shiitake mushrooms. We put them in tupperware and take out a brand new tub of ice cream. We call for the kids to come back to the dining table. Luca shows up in a Dora the Explorer bathing suit and beach sandals, with not an iota of worry about the forecast of snow throughout the week. She eats her bowl of ice cream as if it were summer. After dessert, her mother changes her into her jammies (pink), and she insists on wearing a princess dress (pink) over her (pink) jammies. Dining as a vacationer and sleeping as royalty, it has been a good day for Luca.
“I just don’t understand,” I say to my friends. Without my detecting of it, my heart is beginning to catch up to the news about Corey’s baby. Perhaps I should’ve taken down that astrology website from the gentleman at the coffee shop. Perhaps I should’ve told him my birthday. Maybe he’d even tell me something about my death.
If stars can speak, and if constellations narrate with a historian’s precision, then it must have been a clear night when the shepherds kept watch in the field, walking distance from where Mary gave birth, and the night that the magi, Egyptian wizards, came bearing gifts. I have a cubicle in the Writer’s Room on Astor and Broadway. It is open twenty-four hours a day, and I often stay past midnight. I look out the window. It is snowing—the forecast was correct. The gray haze blurs up the sky without a star in sight. There is nothing in the sky to guide me, so instead, I walk a couple of familiar blocks toward Soho, to a deli that lights up the street corner with fluorescent bulbs, and I buy seven cupcakes. Back in the Writer’s Room, I eat all of seven.
“I don’t understand either,” Luca’s mom texts me at my seventh cupcake.
Sonnets, psalms, plays—comedy and tragedy—are left untouched on my desk. I don’t have the stomach tonight for hollow eye sockets, hoary kings gone mad, a prophetess burning at the stake. Instead, I pull up pictures of Emmanuel on my computer again. I study her eyes. I study her ears. I look for possible details I might have missed previously—perhaps a new fold in her chubby arms? Fingernails that need to be cut? A cut that needs bandaging?
I am finally crying, by the end of the second day, in my cubicle, looking at photos of Emmanuel I am crying over Corey’s baby.
There is an order to things, the stars tell us. When things become out of order, people will lose their hair and babies their breath. Children begin wearing coats and stockings on snow days, and beach sandals only at the beach.
As the tears fall, they collect around my lips, stretched, shaped like the beginning of a smile, a simper, and I prepare all my membranes and faculty for sonorous roar, from deep in my belly, a loud hurrah: this is not the end! Death is not the end! Life doesn’t end here, Emmanuel! There are stars in the sky, and fire beneath the earth. Where cancer and starvation, psoriasis and child trafficking are burned in flames of sulphur—a thousand, a million, times more brilliant than the fires on May 30, 1431. Or the Brown Building fire (23-29 Washington Place. Very close to my cubicle in the Writer’s Room).
Dear Joan of Arc, you who listened to the stars, died shining and incandescent. You who know about being silenced, and about injustice—take care of the babies.
Olivia 子琁 Tun
Olivia 子琁 Tzu-Shuan Tun lives in New York City, just a few blocks from MOMA’s PS1, which she enjoys. Other things she enjoys include: Taiwanese mochi, dogwood trees (pink), Eastern European writers, the gym’s steam room, and her mother’s praises. Things she hates include: steroid creams for psoriasis and psoriasis. She is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University.
DO NOT USE QUOTATION MARKS TO INDICATE IRONY by Anthony Wallace
David Sarnovski taught only one creative writing course at Boston University, so he didn’t have an office. Sometimes he conferenced students in the Espresso Royale at BU Central, sometimes in a filthy Chinese restaurant at Kenmore called the Jade Inn. Sometimes he would just pull into an empty classroom, have a seat at one of the desks, and start talking about whatever he thought the issue was. Madison had met with him twice before and had tried to follow through on at least some of his suggestions, but the grades only seemed to be getting worse. He’d given her a B on the video store story, then a B minus on the Dog Chapel story. One of his comments was “do not use quotation marks to indicate irony.” Sure, she’d done that a few times, but it was hard to understand how a few quotation marks could get you a B minus. There were a few other margin comments, and a short paragraph at the end, but it was hard to read his handwriting, and none of it seemed to add up to much.
Sarnovski wore a Yankees cap and a beat up tweed sports jacket; he talked nonstop about writing a heroin-chic novel on Stegner money, out at Stanford, kicking back for a couple of years and soaking up the California sunshine. He’d asked the class to call him by his first name, but Madison privately thought of him as “Sarnovski.” Since she didn’t want to call him either David or Professor Sarnovski—or even Mister Sarnovski—she avoided the problem by not directly addressing him at all. She began her e-mails to him with a simple “Hello.” Madison had arranged a meeting via e-mail so that she could talk to Sarnovski about the B minus, and he’d written back that they would “touch base” directly after class. When the class was over she waited until everyone else had filed out, then she reminded him of their appointment. She knew he’d forgotten, although he acted like he hadn’t.
Sarnovski put the rest of his stuff in his Tumi shoulder bag, and together they walked down the unevenly lighted hallway. The course was scheduled at night, since Sarnovski had explained to the class that he wrote all day and this was the only time slot that fit into his schedule. He’d told them all at the first meeting that the writing must come first, must be always placed above everything else. The class met for three hours on Wednesday evenings, and sometimes if things really got going they didn’t stop for a break.
Without saying anything Sarnovski veered left into the first classroom he saw, flipped on the lights, and sat down at one of the desks in the back of the room. Madison supposed that he expected her to follow suit, which she did. “Close that door,” he said to her as she came toward him. “Would you please?”
She went back and shut the door and then took the desk opposite his. She went into her bag and brought out the story, which was called “A Journey to the Northeast Kingdom.” The story concerned a pet sitter named Heather who begins an affair with a married man, a tax attorney she meets while walking a pack of five mismatched dogs down Commonwealth Avenue.
“This is a really imaginative premise,” Sarnovski began. “But I have a few issues with the way you’ve followed through on it.
“I wanted to start revising,” Madison cut in, “but you didn’t give me much to go on.”
Sarnovski thumbed through the manuscript in a way that seemed dismissive. “Oh yeah, well, these margin notes are really designed more for me than for you, something to help me remember what I thought about the story when we meet to discuss it in conference. I do find it so much easier to simply meet with students in a seminar this small. Plus you have my commentary from the last two stories.”
“That’s true,” Madison said. “I definitely know what you don’t like about my work.”
“Yes,” Sarnovski went on, again thumbing the manuscript, this time licking his thumb beforehand. “And here once again are some of those things we’ve already discussed. Sentimentality, overwrought or stilted language, forced dramatic action or realization—I think I’ve laid it out for you pretty clearly to this point in the semester, so I’m not sure if you’re simply disregarding my suggestions or if these problems are really ingrained in how you’re thinking about this—I mean, they seem really entrenched.”
He set the manuscript on the desk, looked down at it, then looked directly at Madison. Apparently he thought this was some sort of showdown, and maybe he was right. She certainly felt that she was trying her best, that this story especially was the kind of work she’d imagined doing when she’d first gotten interested in creative writing back in high school, and now here was this Sarnovski telling her not to do exactly what she wanted to do. Whose work was it, anyway?
Of course she didn’t say any of this to Sarnovski. Instead, she returned his gaze as evenly as she could manage. Under the Yankees baseball cap his eyes flashed deep blue, almost purple, something at once attractive and menacing: a gaze intended to indicate both that he was a friendly soul but that she was taxing his very large store of patience. Madison was the first to look away. Her eyes landed on the manuscript. On the first page above the title she’d sketched the Dog Chapel, a small white New England-style chapel with a steeple on top of which, poised like an oversized weather vane, was a wooden black Labrador retriever with blue and white wings. Sarnovski’s response to the sketch was that she should “Resist the impulse to illustrate. Illustrations are for people who are (some word she couldn’t decipher) with language.” Whatever she did in Sarnovski’s class, it was wrong.
“Yes, the illustration,” continued Sarnovski. “It’s cute, you know, but a little amateurish. The same thing with the way you’re using quotation marks, which is a new wrinkle. I don’t remember you doing that before.”
“No, it was something I was trying out.”
“That’s, you know, sort of like air quotes. It brings attention to the fact that you’re using the word in a different way, usually ironic. Sort of like Doctor Evil with ‘The Laser.’” He made two gigantic quotation marks with the first two fingers of each hand, then burst out laughing. Apparently this Sarnovski thought he was a very funny fellow. “But if you start with that, where does it end? I’m happy you’re attending this ‘meeting,’” he went on, once again hooking his fingers in the air in a way that made him look like Richard Nixon giving the victory sign with both hands, but with the fingertips pointing downward, “and I hope this ‘meeting’ ‘helps’ you to ‘write’ ‘better’!”
At this he lowered his arms and laughed uproariously, a trick he used in class whenever things got a little tense.
They discussed the plot points of the story leading up to the epiphany, which Sarnovski said was forced, as was some of the language, and this was also evident in the way Madison was using quotation marks, which were designed to show that a word was being used in an unconventional way, or that the conventional meaning of the word was being challenged by the character, the writer, or both. The main thing he seemed to be insisting on was that everything seemed a bit forced, that things needed to be done more quietly, more seamlessly. And the ending was simply a lesson that the lawyer was too cynical and needed to open himself to the possibilities represented by the Dog Chapel. But the story didn’t take into consideration that the Dog Chapel itself could represent kitsch, sentimentality, oversimplification of emotion. The writer had painted herself into a corner in the way she had set the Dog Chapel up as a symbol. The story could work, but she needed to get more control of her material, to see that the story itself might suggest more possibilities than she’d realized.
Sarnovski droned on and on, and much of what he said really was interesting, but Madison was drifting away, thinking of how she’d tried to write a nice little story about something that happens in a Dog Chapel in Vermont. She’d gone there with her parents last summer because her mother had wanted to post a photo of their golden retriever Lucky who had died of a brain tumor the previous winter. Madison had thought the Dog Chapel was a stupid idea designed to get stupid tourists to part with their stupid money, but once inside the place unexpected things began to happen. And when Madison saw her mother kneel in the Chapel, fighting back real tears, all the battles they’d had throughout high school fell away and she saw her mother—felt about her—as she had when she was a little girl on her first day of school. Her mother said, “Mind the teachers and be polite. And when you meet another child just say, ‘Hello, my name is Madison. What’s your name?’” At recess she tried this and, to her amazement, it worked. By the end of the day she’d made more new friends than anyone in the class—ironically, she’d been enrolled in a Friends School—and when her mother came back to get her Madison ran into her arms. In the Dog Chapel this past summer Madison went up to where her mother was kneeling and knelt down beside her. She put her arm around her, and together they stood and thumb-tacked the picture of Lucky to a vacant space on the corkboard wall. Since then it had been completely different between Madison and her mother, as if the real women named Veronica and Madison had been held prisoner and were now suddenly free.
It was this sense of freedom Madison wanted to create not just in this story but in every story. The attorney could be free of his awful cynicism and womanizing, and the pet sitter named Heather could be free of whatever it was that always made her submit to male authority. They could be free, everybody could be free! As she had this conversation with herself she looked carefully at David Sarnovski. Beneath the bill of the Yankees cap his blue eyes flashed and glinted like thin patches of ice on a frozen pond. His chest and shoulders heaved up and down as he worked himself into a frenzy with his own ideas.
“I like the whole setup,” he went on. “I mean, I like that the guy is a real creep, the attorney is a real creep, as all attorneys are. The pet sitter is eighteen or nineteen, sweet, loves animals, as you might expect—and I like that she likes the Dog Chapel, and by that I mean I like that she takes it seriously, and by that I mean I like that she takes it literally. That she wants to go there with the picture of the dead dog and that she gets the attorney to take her there as part of a romantic getaway.”
He paused, took a pair of wire-rim reading glasses from the top pocket of his sports jacket, and picked the manuscript up with both hands.
“Let’s go right to the climax of the story, right to where he looks at her and has the ‘epiphany.’” He hooked his fingers in the air to make two oversized quotation marks, straining a bit inside the tight jacket and smirking. “That’s where I have the biggest problem, and that’s where I think the story goes off course. Some words we can change, the quotation marks we can delete, but—the center of the story—the place where everything comes together, or is supposed to—well, I just don’t buy it. And for a few different reasons. For one thing, I don’t think the change is earned by what happens in the story. For another, I like him as a creep, so I’m not sure I want him to change. That might be a red herring—to think about the story in terms of something happening to him, that something has to happen to him.”
Sarnovski paused again, looking very satisfied with himself. He looked her straight in the eye over the metal tops of the reading glasses. His eyes looked bruised, sensitive. His hands as they gripped the manuscript looked unusually expressive.
“What about her changing? I mean, what about her seeing that he’s a creep?”
Madison didn’t say anything. But what she wanted to say was that she thought the idea of the course was that he would help her write the story she wanted to write, not take her story and do whatever he felt like doing with it. She wanted to explain that she’d used the quotation marks to indicate how every word potentially is charged, how language is always turning back on itself, simultaneously constructing and deconstructing itself, in the process trapping us in a world of logical construction and deconstruction. Sarnovski hadn’t noticed that, as her characters emerged, the quotation marks went away. It probably was a corny way of doing that: he was probably right about that. But one thing she was sure she wanted to do was to free her characters, and the trap of irony was one of the things she wanted to free them from.
Sarnovski meanwhile continued: “But let’s back up before we consider that as a strong possibility for revision. Right now we get to the part where she puts the picture of the dead dog up on the wall and then kneels down in one of the pews toward the front of the Chapel. He looks at her, her face colored with light from a stained glass window in which a beagle is chasing a rabbit, and what happens? What exactly is the chemical reaction that occurs?”
“He sees her innocence. Or at least that’s what I was going for. He sees what he’s lost.”
It caused Madison tremendous pain to say this—to have to explain the story to him in this way. Almost unbearable pain. Almost like he was a sadist, or a rapist, even, and she was allowing it. But now she couldn’t stop herself. “He’s so cynical, like with everything he says about the B and B where they stay, a place where people sit around in the afternoon sipping tea and working wooden jigsaw puzzles, plus what he says about his wife, and then he has this pure moment when he looks at her tacking the picture of the dog to the wall and then kneeling down—the way the light comes through the stained glass—just the purity of that moment—”
“All right,” Sarnovski interrupted. “But let’s consider what the Dog Chapel itself actually is. I mean, as a complex literary symbol, let’s discuss what it represents.” But this time he didn’t stop to ask what she thought it was supposed to represent. “Kitsch. Sentimentality. An oversimplified emotional response.” He tapped the paper for each item on his list. “I do understand that she can be guilty of that—should be guilty of that—and still be a sympathetic character. I mean, good grief—carved wooden dogs flying up to heaven! But for him to experience something life-changing because of that would mean that you, as writer, are endorsing that—that sensibility—and asking the reader to accept it as well.”
He paused again, looked directly at her.
“Is that what you intended?”
“No. At least not how you’re describing it.”
“Well then, that’s the point, isn’t it? I mean, that’s my central point here today. That story and what you’ve set up might mean different things to different readers. Things much different than what you intended them to mean. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s a matter of control. You’ve got the characters, the situation—everything, really. But then you just lose control of the story. The story becomes not an interesting and complicated reflection on sentimentality and the questions it poses, the question of how attractive the Disney response is—what we might call the Disney response: It’s a small world after all, whistle while you work—the whole boatload of clichés they peddle down there in Orlando to the tune of billions of dollars a year—and the darker questions that response poses because it’s so attractive. Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you see what I’m saying about the unexplored possibilities here, about taking complete ownership of the material and seeing it through to the furthest possible conclusions?”
His eyes met hers and everything stopped, just for a moment, as she raised her arms and hooked her fingers into gigantic quotation marks and said, “I do!” Then they both laughed. The tension in the room had been broken, and something else had come to take its place, and even when they’d stopped laughing she kept her hands in the air, fingers curled like two talons. He looked, and she looked; her arms were getting heavy. Finally she let them fall, and it came as no small surprise that Sarnovski’s open hands were there to catch them. But his eyes, when they peeped out from under the bill of the Yankees cap, were full of pain—or perhaps it was fear—blue-white and floating just above the empty glare of the reading glasses, as if he’d fallen through the ice and hers were the only hands that could pull him to safety. As if she alone could save him.
Anthony Wallace is a Senior Lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program at Boston University, where he is also Co-director of “Arts Now,” a curriculum-based initiative to support the arts at BU. Tony has published poetry and fiction in literary journals including CutBank, Another Chicago Magazine, the Atlanta Review, River Styx, Sou’wester, 5-Trope, the Republic of Letters, and Florida Review. His short story “The Old Priest” won a Pushcart Prize and was published last fall in Pushcart 2013. His short story collection The Old Priest is the winner of the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published this September by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
She has begun to go to the gym twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening. She will run fast, moving up the speed every five minutes, until it is going at nine and she can barely breathe. Roxy’s body has transformed in the last year; no more arm fat or slack ass, she is all sinew. Her shoulders have ridges, indents. The weight room is emptier in the morning and she can stand in front of the mirror watching her triceps, her deltoids.
Roxy gets lost on the way to her aunt’s, and by the time she finds the right street she knows she will have to turn around pretty soon.
Her father had warned her, so Roxy is not wholly surprised at the mess of the house, the smell.
“Lenore,” she hugs her, “You need to get a cleaning service in here.” Her aunt holds on to her, only coming up to her shoulders, squeezing her around the waist. She looks up at her. They sit down on the couch, Lenore lighting a cigarette. She apologizes. “Don’t,” Roxy tells her, “It’s fine.”
“You’d think I’d know better after watching Maggie but it’s an addiction.” Roxy waves it away.
“You look so thin,” Lenore says.
“I’ve been working out,” says Roxy.
“Jesus, the fits you threw just to get out of a soccer game.” Lenore laughs. “Has your dad spoken to Rog?”
Roxy shakes her head.
“Of course,” Lenore says. “He wants everyone in the family to think… He called last night and I didn’t answer.”
“That’s good you’re being strong,” says Roxy.
“He doesn’t even feel guilty,” Lenore tells her. “And you know why?”
Lenore looks at her nailbeds, picks skin off with her teeth.
“Because we don’t have children,” she says. “That makes it ok.”
“That’s so wrong,” Roxy tells her.
“Have you talked to your grandparents?” Lenore says.
Roxy shakes her head.
“I just want to know if everyone thinks it’s my fault, I don’t know if,” Lenore takes a few deep breaths, laughs at herself in a few coughs. “I just don’t know if they believe he’s shit or if they’re just saying he’s shit, you know?”
“I haven’t really talked to them about it,” Roxy says.
Lenore leans back against the couch, closing her eyes. She reaches around next to her blindly for her cigarettes but doesn’t find them.
“This fucking year,” Lenore says.
“I know,” Roxy says.
Lenore sits up straight, “Christ. Is this distracting or a downer?”
“Both,” Roxy says. “I’m kind of past needing distraction.”
“You’re ok,” Lenore asks.
“Yeah,” Roxy says. “Doing fine.”
“I don’t really have time for that this year.”
“What about classes?” Lenore asks.
“I’m going to have to leave soon,” Roxy tells her later. “I should get to at least the second half of this class.”
“It’d be so much fucking easier if I were in school right now,” Lenore laughs. “School or something.”
She calls her grandparents from the car. They always talk on the phone together, two phones in the kitchen, one on each nightstand next to their beds. They sleep in two beds pushed together, like girls on a sleepover.
“Howie,” her grandmother calls out. She hears him pick up the other end.
“It’s Roxy,” her grandmother tells him.
“Roxy,” he says.
“Hi Poppy,” she says.
“She just came from Lenore’s,” her grandmother says.
“What were you doing there?” he asks.
“Just a visit. Dad suggested it,” she tells them.
“It’s nice to do that,” her grandmother says.
“Then what was the heavy breathing for,” says her grandfather.
“How does she seem?” her grandmother asks.
“A little frenetic,” Roxy says.
“He called her last night you know,” her grandfather tells her.
“Drunk,” her grandmother says.
“He was at the bimbo’s apartment.”
Roxy’s phone beeps and she looks down at it; low battery.
“What a year,” her grandmother says.
“I’m going to sign off,” her grandfather says.
“Love you, Poppy,” Roxy says. He hangs up.
“You know, he doesn’t want to make Seder this year,” her grandmother tells her.
She gets on the treadmill, starts out steady. Turns the incline up. She imagines herself running up a mountain right now. She could outrun anyone. Her knees don’t even ache, not with this much adrenaline. They almost buckle when she gets off though. Her music was too loud because now her ears hurt and she takes out the headphones. As soon as they are off, a guy approaches her.
“You were going so high today,” he says.
Eyes closed, she leans against the railing of the treadmill. She thinks her breathing must sound like an animal’s.
“I don’t know how you can stay on the machine every day.” He squats next to her. She shrugs, head against her arms. “Do you ever run outside?”
“Nope,” she says.
“Last year I did that, ran outside a lot, well actually I started two years ago, but last year I ran the marathon. Which was because I was running outside. That’s why I mean I ran the marathon.”
“You’re limping,” he says as she begins to move toward the mats. She turns to him, and pantomimes a pout. When he sits next to her, she can see the outline of his dick against his thigh covered by the thin, red mesh shorts.
“I was just coming in and saw you from over there,” he says. “I think I’ve been going to the gym more this year.”
She looks at him. “Oh yeah?”
“I always catch you here,” he says. “I mean, when I’m here.” She thinks about pushing him into the weight room and the way his penis would feel as she slid her hand down it from outside of his shorts.
A weekend night, she clenches her fists as someone tries to squeeze in next to her. Owen bends down to talk to a girl. She is fat, no that’s not right, she is normal. He would think she was fat, though. He looks up; he wanted her to see this. She squeezes her way back to their booth. Lucy slides over, and she slides into the booth. They look at Owen, now across the bar talking to a different semi-unattractive girl.
“Just so you know, Derek’s over there too.” They stare at Derek, reaching for a drink, throwing an arm around a friend. Lucy pulls Roxy behind her toward the group, a handful of boys, one or two girls.
Derek moves closer to her, to talk about something, a class, a mutual friend, and she feels the heat from him. She wonders what Derek would do if she were to put her hands or nose or lips against the back of his neck, just to feel some heat.
“Where’d Luc go to?” Derek turns his head, whips it back immediately. They lean out and there, back in the booth, Lucy and Jeff kiss quickly. Derek looks back at Roxy and she at him. They laugh, he doesn’t look away from her. Roxy takes a sip, turns it into a gulp and then downs it.
“A double just means more tonic here.” She stands, bumping into someone. “What a nightmare,” she says. Derek nods. Someone comes up behind her, slides a hand from between her shoulder blades down to her back.
“You haven’t been here in awhile,” Owen says.
She turns, they don’t break eye contact, he puts his hand on her waist, pulls her in. She can feel Derek move away from behind her, sees him walk around them, back to the boys.
Owen walks past her, and she follows Owen out. She finds matches when they get home. She can hear him peeing in the bathroom, wishes he would have turned on the water so she didn’t have to hear.
Owen takes his shirt off, sits down, hard, on the bed. “Come here Rox,” he says. She doesn’t immediately, and his self-consciousness is obvious.
“Get over here,” he says. She shakes her head, pulls her shirt off. A purple bra against white skin, and he doesn’t seem to notice the difference. She knows then that he isn’t even looking at her, because if he were paying attention, he would see that her body has changed. He doesn’t notice her breasts, small now, strange and small. As she walks over, as he kisses her stomach, unzips her jean, she wonders if maybe the difference is only apparent to her and to Lucy. He kisses her ear, licking it, Rox, he groans. So she gets on top of him, hair falling around their faces. She wonders why she can’t feel the heat that must be coming from his body.
She gets into the shower immediately, turning the water on so hot her skin could melt down the drain. She leans back against the wall, warm for the first time that day. Shaking a little, mainly in reaction to the heat. She thinks of her mother, asking them to put their hands on her, touch me, she told them. Her hands on her mother’s stomach, distended with fluid, the cancer kid whose skin Roxy imagines burning slowly away, bubbling from the radioactive medicine, bleeting as it died. Roxy knows she is not dying, that this is an imaginary illness, a strange sickness that has become a part of her and not the dying of her mother. When she gets out she’ll order a pizza, put something inside of her tonight that will stick.
Lucy comes downstairs as soon as she hears Roxy on the phone for pizza.
“I heard him come in,” Lucy says.
She is accusing her, hoping for a denial, an explanation, but Roxy shrugs, so what? Roxy looks at her phone, at the time.
“He’s just so not worthy,” Lucy says. Roxy rolls her eyes. “Alright, fine, you just…”
Lucy looks for the words, “You just need to take better care of yourself. “
“This won’t do anything to me.”
“Why not?” Lucy asks but there is no answer. “Want the blanket? You look freezing.”
“We are always running out of hot water,” Roxy says. Lucy brings the blanket over, sits next to her. They get under it, toes touching.
“Still cold?” Lucy turns toward her, throws an arm over her, draws her in.
“Roxy,” Lucy sighs.
Roxy’s cell phone rings, the pizza. She rolls over to get off the couch, out of the room. She goes out onto the porch, money in one hand. As the deliveryman turns around, she opens the box of pizza. Steam rises into the air and she lowers her face, breathing it in.
Lenore calls her in the morning, earlier than Roxy would have assumed Lenore would be up.
“What are you doing today?” Lenore asks.
“Class, maybe the gym,” Roxy says.
“Do you have time for a nice lunch?” Lenore says, “I know when I was in college I always loved when some visitor would take me out for a nice lunch.”
“Sure,” Roxy says. “That sounds nice.”
Lenore names a French bistro, a few blocks away from campus and they meet there at noon.
“This place is great, we can eat outside,” she says to Roxy. Lenore orders a bottle of white wine, a special treat she says, and stares at it as it’s being poured.
“You have no idea how nice it feels to get out of the house,” Lenore tells her.
“I’m sure,” Roxy says.
The food comes; a salad for Roxy, a croque monsieur for Lenore. Lenore rests her cigarette in the ashtray and moves to fill Roxy’s glass of wine. “You drink so slowly,” she says to her.
She fills hers and puts down the bottle, turns her face to the sun.
“You know what’s corny?” she says to Roxy. “I always think of your mom on these days. Or, days that feel like this outside. That’s not it. Beautiful days just make me miss things now. Rog. Your mom. My brother.”
Lenore stays like that for a few minutes, shivers, sips her wine.
“That woman called me last night, told me I was ruining her relationship,” Lenore tells her.
“You’re kidding me,” Roxy says.
“Can you believe that?”
“She must be crazy.”
“It feels like I’m talking to Maggie with you,” she tells her.
Roxy walks her back to her car, and Lenore leans against it.
“I remember college with your mother,” she says, “Jesus it could have been last week. Going on dates, tanning on the roof, topless. She managed such good grades, though.
“So you’re going to class now?”
“The Soviet Union one,” she tells her.
“Jesus. Think I’d like it?”
Roxy shrugs, but takes her to class anyway. They sit in the back, Roxy taking notes, Lenore looking out the window. The class is small, and Roxy knows that the professor has noticed Lenore.
“Is this your sister?” he says on the way out, turning to Lenore.
“No, just her old maid aunt,” Lenore smiles, pulling Roxy close.
As they walk out, Lenore looks at her. “Don’t be so embarrassed,” she says. Roxy doesn’t respond.
“Are you mad at me?” Lenore asks. Roxy shakes her head.
She runs hard that evening, almost two hours. She knows she’ll have to do something else tomorrow, maybe swim, because her knees can’t take this much. She’ll ice them when she’s home, take some Advil, it’ll be ok. He comes up behind her while she’s waiting for the water fountain.
“What got into you today?” he says.
“Nothing,” she says.
“C’mon,” he says. She shakes her head, smiles, not realizing how tired she was.
She ices, she takes three Advil, but in the morning her knees are sore. Walk it off, she tells herself, shake it off. They’re just stiff. She gets a text from Lenore, What class is today?
She doesn’t respond, and Lenore calls her.
“Want a bagel?” she asks.
“I’ll get my own breakfast,” Roxy says.
“Oh Rox I need to come meet you today,” Lenore says, “Rog has been totally incommunicado. I fear the worst.”
“What could be worse?” Roxy asks.
“Nothing,” Lenore says, “I mean, the worst is when there’s nothing.” Roxy can hear her beginning to cry.
“Want to bring over the bagel?” Roxy asks.
“Do you have cream cheese?” Lenore asks.
Her father calls her.
“Just checkin in,” he says.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” he says. They are quiet, she leans her head against her refrigerator and closes her eyes.
“Daddy my knees hurt from running,” she says.
“You gotta be careful with those joints, they’re with you for life,” he says. Words like that make them uncomfortable around each other.
“So,” Roxy says.
“Lenore says you’ve been so sweet with her,” he says.
“She’s driving me nuts.”
“Have some compassion, sweetheart,” he tells her. She opens her eyes, hooks the phone against her ear. Lenore buzzes up and comes in, bag of bagels in hand. She plops down onto the couch, holding out the bagels for Roxy to take them.
“Lenore just walked in,” she says. Lenore waves in her direction.
“Alright,” he says, “Call me later.”
“Love you.” She presses the phone against her shoulder while she opens the fridge, pulls out her ice packs. Lenore walks next to her, takes the phone from her ear and talks into it, “Hello?”
“Was that Sam?” Roxy nods, slaps the ice packs over her knees.
“Ah Roxy,” she starts in. “This place is nice.
“I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want you to think I was gross but we slept together a few nights ago,” Lenore tells her.
“Do you think I’m a bad woman?” Lenore asks.
“Of course not,” Roxy says. For a moment, she imagines Lenore in bed, smoking cigarettes, chatting with a nude Roger.
“You know how that is, when you just want them and you’re like no it’s so weak but it’s like there’s still so much chemistry,” Lenore asks.
Roxy shrugs, “I can imagine,” she says.
“Are you still…?” Lenore asks, trailing off.
Roxy promises Lenore she can accompany her to class later. She ices for an hour and limps to the gym. She gets on the bike but it’s not running and she’s off soon, lifting weights, watching herself in the mirror. She can see the swelling in her knees.
She goes straight to class from the gym; she didn’t sweat enough to change clothes. She waits outside. Lenore is late. She calls her cell, no answer. When she gives up and goes inside, there’s Lenore. She stands at the front of the room, talking to her professor.
Roxy turns back around, walking out of the building. She begins to run down to the river, past the museum.
Her knees ache and then the pain is sharp, too sharp to keep running. She slides down on to the grass next to the runner’s pathway, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Jane E. Sussman
Jane E. Sussman lives in Los Angeles, where she writes fiction for television, the screen, and the web. Her writing influences include Hemingway, Didion, Rushdie, and Chandler, as well as the gothic literature of the nineteenth century, Keats, and Milton. She can be followed on twitter and instagram @janeesussman.
THE IMMACULATE SADNESS OF PETER J. BEECH by Dan Micklethwaite
He misses it immediately, the soft glass of that screen. The sinking, only slightly, of his finger against it.
There is a pining at work within him for that formed plastic mass.
The minor desert of his palm looks back at him falsely without it; even more arid, now that the mirage is gone. The ways in which the sunlight, the tube-light, the streetlight had slipped across it, fussing with the things he was wanting to know—they’d nagged him as bad as the pleas of a lover, but he’d still opt for that above the warmth of that light on his bare open skin.
So used to it. So accustomed. So comfortable, knowing it was with him, on him. In his pocket, his jacket, his hand. So used to bringing it home and charging it before he went to sleep each night. So attuned to the vibrations it made upon message receipt. Checking its emails, its messages, its social networking notifications and proddings and feedouts of banter and digital chat.
Regular. Clockwork. Reliable.
Five-star product rating.
But more than a product. A pet, almost, at the constant beck and call of its master, always happy to help, constantly supplicant, the judder of a phonecall its little tail wagging. The ringtone its jovial bark.
This thought—this notion of smartphone as furry familiar—it gives him an idea. Bounces him back from where he was teetering, on the slick canyon-side of despair. Most people he knows, if they lose a device, they’ll announce it, sure enough—as soon as they can reach a computer, they’ll log into a network and fess up to their foolishness, or rage at the indiscriminate nature of petty street thieves. But they won’t try too hard to get it back.
This is, for Peter, too soon a leap from loss to abandonment. Too smooth a transition from one piece of kit to the next. He can’t do that, himself. Time and ownership are concepts that still hold too great a sway in his life.
No. There has to be a search before the search can be called off.
Peter Beech plans to make posters. The same way that dog owners/cat owners/gerbil/hamster/rabbit/tortoise owners do, if one of their menagerie guests happens to flee.
Intends to find the nearest library, log onto a computer, mock something up—something eye-catching, yet mournful—then print out twenty, thirty, fifty copies, go around sellotaping them firm onto lampposts and bankwalls and on the clear plexiglass behind benches at bus stops. Intends this and it firms up his shoulders, delivers a trim kick of adrenalin direct to his legs.
But then he gets lost.
Or, rather, realises he was lost already.
That is, looking ahead—at buildings, down shopping arcades, sidestreets and inner-city thoroughfares—he can’t quite work out where he is. It’s different if you have a map. It’s better. Better still if you’ve got a map that shows your real-time location, which tracks you, holds an arrow in place to signify in which direction you’re heading. Lets you know you’re in the clear, without doubt that you’re on the right track.
No map means no clue, and no clue means shitness. Means standing in the middle of one of those shopping streets gawking alternately at the sky or at the ground, too embarrassed to risk catching anyone’s eye. Even though he’s increasingly aware that that’s exactly what he’ll have to do, if he wants to be given directions.
Eyes drawn down level with most everyone else’s. Watching them. Tear ducts watering slightly in the cold and the bright of the day. Wiped away with the left sleeve of his thin woollen jumper—doesn’t want anyone to even begin to think he’s upset.
People all staring dead ahead, as eager to dodge contact as he is himself. People all lugging bags full of food and Christmas shopping around at their sides. Hobbling their own knees with the heavier ones. Reluctant as he is to reach out for help.
A woman, blonde, notes Peter looking, switches her own eyes away. A man mouths Fuck. Off. to him when he catches him staring at the stuffed toy monkey tipping out of a deep pocket in his coat. A pigeon shits on the ground just next to his foot, and he shifts, sets off walking against the grain of the traffic, trying as best as he can not to clatter shoulders or elbows with anyone else.
Breathing space and he stops still again, gives the whole searching for helpfulness thing another half-hopeful shot.
It works. Someone’s coming over. A girl, in her late teens. Brunette. Smiling. Certainly helpful. A little bit hot. Too late does he notice the clipboard in her hand.
She unravels onto him a spate of sorrow, sob stories related to him through a customer-service smile, same as a newsreader. She lets him in on the grim reality of a certain condition, and the harsher-still realities of the care, tells him all it’ll take is a few pounds a month, tells him again, and he can’t open his mouth to explain that he hasn’t really got any money to help her, even if he wanted to. Can’t open his mouth until she comes to close hers. And she doesn’t. Her voice has a curious lilt to it, from another county perhaps. Possibly from the Midlands, even, but then again possibly not. Eyes just on the blue side of green, he notices. Less and less aware of losing track of what she’s saying, though he’s doing so more and more fully.
When she does stop speaking, he simply stands there gazing dumbly at her for a few seconds before fumbling about with his tongue for something appropriate and proper to say.
His tongue doesn’t comply.
Instead, it cuts to the chase.
Excuse me, but do you happen to know where the library is?
Whoosh of the doors and already the itching that’s in him is slightly relieved. Something mechanical, robotic is almost essential. He gets a surge of comfort in the sensor’s semi-sentient presence. Steps through, watching the slickly sick green of the carpet, the vaulting height of the bare, spare ceiling.
Everyone here either with their face in a book or in front of a painting or in front of a screen. Ten computers and only three people currently using them. Fancies his chances of enacting his plan.
Dropping to eye level again, he searches for the helpdesk, finds it. Finds a sign taped to the front of the desk that reads, on laminated white card, Please use self-sevrice machines to check books out. Late fee queries only.
Thinking, calmly, Fuck it, he heads towards the machines. Doesn’t have time to waste attempting conversation with someone who clearly isn’t being paid to talk. Not the sort of person who talks much at all, probably, that librarian. Not the sort of person who’ll empathise or sympathise with Peter’s plight. His need to recover his phone. His old, current phone.
Logged on, he heads straight for the browser. Blanks, momentarily, on his purpose for coming here. Has his habitual cycle in action now. The pattern he follows each and every time he hits the internet.
Personal emails first.
Jobseeking emails next.
Social networking site A.
Social networking site B. (Separate tab)
Blog. (Checking if anybody has commented on his last entry. No new updates.)
Personal emails again.
Social networking sites A and B again.
Contemplates what he’ll write to enlighten people as to what’s been going on. Mulls over how best to broach the subject. How can he possibly deal with it without coming across too overwrought, or distraught, or ridiculous. How can he wring both pathos and a laugh from 148 characters. How can he enlist help and support from people without directly asking for it.
Can’t think of anything. Twigs back onto what he’s meant to be doing here —
Has hit a wall.
Realises he doesn’t have a photograph of his phone with which to make a HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? poster. His only camera had been part of the phone, so he’d neither been able to nor given thought to turning it back on itself.
Of course, he could just wheel around on the internet again, seek out a stock image of the model. He could. But, in Peter’s mind, that would be like a dog-owner using a picture of Lassie to help them retrieve their missing collie, Max. In Peter’s mind, using a stock-photo to find a specific, well-used, personalised phone sounds magnificently daft. Using a photograph of any old screen to help chase down the one he’s missing doesn’t make the slimmest bit of sense.
Besides, there is a scratch, nearly a chip, at the top left front corner of the casing that’s very distinctive, if you know where to look. And stock pictures certainly won’t include that.
Stares at the screen, around the screen. But not into the distance. Into the desk, into the hint of red laser-light that floods out beyond the ovaloid base of the mouse. Gears grinding and brain ticking round.
No solution. Nothing easy. Unless—
30 minutes up. Please wait 30 minutes before using IT facilities again.
The message puts him off whatever line of thinking he was on the verge of jumping into. He squashes his palms flat on his thighs. Shuts his eyes, takes a breath. Takes another breath, opens his eyes. Checks to his left and his right. Empty terminals in both directions. Empty all over now. The other three users must have logged off and left already. Glances back at the helpdesk. Librarian’s pencil-neck still craned over, obsessing over something that’s probably not work.
Librarian not looking, he shifts onto the next chair. Again it sags. A very quiet but undeniable pneumatic hiss.
Logs on. Goes through the whole cycle again. Responding to two emails. Responding to one comment on social networking site A. Laughing soundlessly. Laughlessly, almost. Jokes going completely when awareness returns of the space in his pocket. Whatever solution he’d nearly come up with wasn’t about to re-materialise now.
Lost my phone. Message me numbers please, he updates, then castigates himself for missing out your.
Sweet hushing sound of the breeze on the left side of his face, as he sits, bent forwards, on the bench. Analysing cracks he can see in the paving, grasses and weeds showing through in microcosmic pantomime of returning rural sprawl. A downtrodden dandelion pressed prone like a bridge between two flagstones.
Breathing in and out as feet scurry past him, eyes only looking up as high as knee-caps of children and the mid-shins of adults. Breathing in and out and his fingertips twitching and touching in patterns against his palms. Places them on his thighs, steadies himself.
His gaze sweeps the curved shopping plaza in front of him, pausing every few seconds to note the names on the separate storefronts, and the colours used to mark each name; to construct and then disseminate a brand identity, a logo, a thing redolent to him of icons on a screen.
Constant viewing of life through a frame about 5 x 3 inches. Sitting around and knowing stuff only according to the dictates of a device that’s little more than ghost to him just now. Knowing facts, gleaned and raided from the collective minds of millions, via a small search engine data entry box. Being able to find the answer to any question the world outside his smartphone threw his way.
This thing—that thing—that had given him exactly what he’d been told and now believes he wants. Black plastic perfection he’d trade for almost anyone he’d met. Honestly. Because it knew more, did more, spent more time alongside him. Kept him connected to as much as was out there to connect with. Never held back any secrets. Never left him completely alone. Never picked on him, or chatted shit behind his back. Never slept in someone else’s bedroom. Never held anybody else’s hand. Never said no. Asked only for electricity. A few pounds a month. A few pounds a month and it was his absolutely. Came with a warranty, on the off-chance it was ever less than reliable. On the off-chance that it suddenly started acting more human and making mistakes.
He barely moves. Except to fidget on the bench to stop his backside from numbing. Drops his eyes back down to mid-shin level. Pigeons skitter and strut with rock-star arrogance between the moving feet, and step over and around his own shoes, before winging it promptly for another spot as soon as those shoes shuffle.
Without his phone, and being, ever since he was seventeen, without a wristwatch, he isn’t certain of the time, or even of exactly how long it’s been since the losing occurred. From the placing of the sun in the sky, he figures it’s somewhere close to four o’clock. But he isn’t confident. He’d had an app that could do that for him, if he wanted.
He hadn’t given his parents notice this morning of when he might return home, but wants to be back for around six, so as he can eat with them, partake in a meal his mother has cooked. Something warming, he hopes. Comfort food. A stew, rich with beef stock and red wine. Comfort food and then bed, and perhaps just waiting it out until he can arrange for a replacement handset to be sent. Camping there beneath his covers. Going into hibernation. Sleep mode.
But then, he does have a laptop at home. And there is Wi-Fi there. So perhaps everything isn’t all the way bad.
Peter J. Beech takes solace in considering that.
In planning his evening in accordance with the websites that he’ll visit, the emails he’s likely to receive—mostly recommendations from online retailers—the Friends he might acquire or lay off because they don’t interest him anymore or simply haven’t expressed sufficient shock or sympathy at the major event of his day. Contemplating the old faces he might look up, and which events for whose birthdays he might be getting invited to—invites he can leave to stand for a few days, so as he doesn’t appear too keen, or which he can let lie indefinitely, if he so chooses. Musing on the news sites he can visit to get the lowdown on the outside world—the latest protest highlights, the latest unemployment figures, the latest who’s fucking who. And, after that, which chillout music he might hunt down and play in the background on repeat as he checks his social networks again for any information that might relate to the item he’s currently missing the most.
He’ll have to find the bus station first, though.
The thought of it keeps him seated a few moments longer. He’d let himself get carried away with a fantasy, and now reality is striking back, hard. Recollection rising that he has seven miles to travel before he can do any of that stuff.
Looks up again, beyond the pigeons, beyond the moving feet and shins and knees. Looks at button-like signs in shop windows, at buildings with Home icon silhouettes. But more closely he looks for faces. People standing still, almost photographic, frozen. People, just one person, who can tell him where he needs to go. Someone helpful, useful, capable of performing the simple task of pointing the way. He looks for more charity workers trudging about with practised grins and clipboards, looks for mothers taking a break on other benches with their children tucked in prams. Looks for police officers, and for businessmen who might need the bus to get back home.
Looks down at his palm, where the light plays.
Dan Micklethwaite lives and writes in Yorkshire, England. When he’s not writing, he’s usually reading, and when he’s not reading, he’s often trying to convince himself he can paint. His stories have featured or are forthcoming in BULL, NFTU, 3:AM, Emerge, and Eunoia, among others. A selection of poetry and prose and links to his other work can be found here.
THE LONG GREEN STRETCH, THE TALL TREES, THE CLOUDS SHAPED LIKE STARS by Benjamin Woodard
I’m not supposed to get calls after nine, but when the phone rang, my old man didn’t stop me from answering. He’d already removed his leg for the night—it stood upright on the cushion next to him—so he just stayed there and stared me down with these death eyes, these ass-kicker eyes, as if I’d planned the whole thing to interrupt his lame TV show, and he grunted while I walked over to the cordless and slunk into the kitchen.
It was Maura. She said, “God, I don’t even want to talk to you. I can smell your stink through the phone.”
And, yes, I’m kind of dumb enough that I did a pit check. She heard me sniffing and made one of those disappointed tsk sounds on her end, like she was picking up where we left off, back last month when we found ourselves tanked on strawberry Boone’s at Billy Hurlbrink’s big woods party and I licked her neck after we got kind of glued together, at least in our minds.“Glad to hear we’re back on speaking terms,” I said.
My old man grunted again. A warning grunt. A don’t-make-me-hit-you-with-my-peg-leg-in-the-middle-of-my-TV-show grunt he’d grown fond of since his accident.Most days aren’t too fun.I sidled up against the sink of dirty dishes in the dark.“You’re a last resort, I’ll have you know,” Maura said. “Gonna leave for Grandma’s funeral tomorrow morning and you need to come feed the animals while we’re gone.”
I said I couldn’t and ran a finger over a greasy bowl.
“You don’t understand the term ‘last resort,’ do you?” Maura was all sarcastic now. “Trust me, you’re the last person I want around my pets.”
“How about Saddam Hussein?” I said, thinking of some lethal jerkoffs we’d all like to avoid. Like Billy Hurlbrink’s older brother, Ed, he of the strawberry Boone’s procurement. Ed haunts the neighborhood, does go-kart races two towns over and acts as if that’s something special, as if it’s his career. “Want Saddam feeding your animals?”
“You’re an idiot, Tripper,” Maura said.
“Who told you to call me that?” I said, though I knew fully well she heard it from the Hurlbrinks.
“It’s just a name.”
“Bullshit it’s just a name. Billy tell you to call me that?”
“Jeez, nobody really thinks you’re going to, you know,” she said. “Like your dad.”
“Then don’t call me that again.”
“First say ‘yes.’”
“You want me to start calling you a name?”
“Jeez, of course not.”
I looked down at my shadowed body. I could barely see my legs, as if they’d already been blown off me. My old man muttered to himself in the other room. It was time for his pills. He keeps count so I can’t nab any.
“Must be nice,” I said.
“What must be nice?”
“Getting away for a vacation.”
“My grandma is dead,” Maura said.
“Still,” I said, “beats hanging around here with the living, don’t it?”
She tsk-ed me again, but she didn’t outright answer, either. Princess Cocktease didn’t have to. I knew I was right.
Now I’m heading over to Maura’s for day three of my pet duties, my obedience. One of her pink bras dangles loose in my imagination, all silky and soft. What a dipshit I am, letting my pecker decide my fate.
Ed comes out of the bushes smeared in motor oil and black sludge: Total gearhead, double dipshit. He catches up to me, getting his stroll on, a twig shooting out of his matted hair.
“Hey there, Tripper,” he says in his crazy way.
“Name’s not Tripper,” I say.
Ed laughs. He tags me with his fists, leaves a little bit of black behind on my jeans and shirt. Expecting more, I curl up in a ball on the ground.
“Can’t believe you,” he says. “After all that booze I get Billy for you little fudge packers, least you can do is show me some respect.”
He offers a hand, gets me to my feet. He brushes me off like he cares.
“Where you headed?”
“No place special,” I say.
“Just enjoying those legs of yours, I bet.” He makes a chainsaw sound and pretends to hack through me with his hands. “Bet your dad’s got some sweet painkillers.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I say.
The two of us walk side by side—a regular dynamic duo—to the end of the street, past the collapsed sheds, the empty foundations, and the half-trailers full of snotty little kids chasing each other around with Wiffleball bats and firecrackers. Ed fires off mean eyes and they scatter. I turn left instead of my usual right and I lead Ed away from Maura’s place. All I smell is engine grease, like Ed showers in the stuff. I kick at a stone that bounces up the dirt shoulder and hangs off into the woods.
“You know someday I’ll be pro,” Ed tells me. “Down at the track they say I’m on my way. Wouldn’t hurt to be tight with a guy like me.”
“I’ll think about that,” I say.
Nobody ever feels completely safe walking next to Ed Hurlbrink.
“Where you headed again?” Ed says.
“What were you doing in those bushes back there?” I counter.
“If you ain’t going nowhere, maybe we’ll head over to the diamond. Feel like it? Maybe you’ll let me work on my jab? My right hook?”
This cracks him up.
I look back and can barely make out Maura’s driveway. I don’t want to peel off. I can just imagine Ed following me back and stealing the TV or breaking something or feeding one of the animals a food it’s not supposed to eat. So I keep walking like I don’t have anything to do but walk, like I’m some kind of sissy freak that goes on walks for exercise.
“Know what I did the other night?” Ed asks.
“Nailed that Maura. That friend of yours. You hear me? Nailed ‘er.”
I nod. He’s looking to make me nuts. A classic Hurlbrink move. But the whole thing is déjà vu because not long ago, just around the corner from here, a whole slew of us hopped off the bus early to watch Billy slaughter this weirdo, Keith Clements, a beat down that started with Billy making claims on someone Keith liked. Just like Ed and me right now. Only difference was Billy used Keith’s little sister as his target—which is sick. Libby’s nine.
Point is, Billy got under Keith’s skin, and Keith ended up with a busted tooth that led to extra torture from Billy and me and everyone else.
So I smile at Ed like a dummy, act like who cares about Maura.
We walk and we walk and we walk until Ed finally says, “You’re wasting my time, Trip,” and he rams me into the side of a mailbox. I go down. My ankle splits open. “Say hi to your daddy for me,” he says with a chuckle. “Tell him watch out with them power tools.” Then he lopes away into somebody’s yard.
Slipping into Maura’s using the Hide-A-Way key, I feel my sock spongy with gore.
Ed’s got me all pissed off.
The little indoor orange cat I sometimes call Firecrotch (though I think she might be named Sunny) prances over, tangles my legs while I try to get inside. I swear she acts like I didn’t spend two hours petting her just yesterday between spelunking missions of Maura’s bedroom, and I nearly drop, which makes me swat at her and shout and I’m yelling “Jesus, give me a minute, will you, Crotchspark!”
She scampers. I hop to the bathroom.
Twist on the bathtub faucet and poke my naked foot under the cold, cold water. The blood above my ankle swirls down the drain in a peppermint pattern.
Stupid clumsy old man. Fucking chainsaw. Doesn’t he know that shit trickles down to me? That being a kid sucks enough without cutting your legs off? I hate having to deal with Ed. Like his family’s something special. Like he’s some kind of superstar. Truth: He and Billy come from a long line of flunkies and pyros. They live on food stamps and charity. And they go ride the go-karts.
Listen, Ed, go drive your go-kart off a goddamn bridge. How about you and your brother stop handing out shitty nicknames? Tripper. That’s a clever one. Like you’re so special.
I roll tight my wet sock and press it into my back pocket.
Maura said my old man didn’t fall on accident, but that he chopped his leg off on account of having me for a son. She was kidding, of course. But there’s some truth in every joke.
I slap on three short band-aids like stitches and then I dig through the bottles in the medicine cabinet and choke down a pill that looks like the kind my old man devours. It sticks in my throat so I suck from the tap.
“Firecrotch,” I say, wipe dribble from my chin.
“Sunny,” I say. “Sparkbutt.”
I pad into the hallway, the kitchen, the living room. But no cat anywhere.
The fish tank bubbles soft against the wall, all neon.
I kind of expect to see Ed flop around the corner with the animal limp in his arms, to learn he’s outwitted me and followed me here and drowned her in a bucket of vinegar, but he doesn’t.
Instead, I peep her through the backyard windows. Firecrotch hangs there near the rabbit cages: tail curled, head darting, she swaggers on the long green stretch like she belongs to the grass.
Only thing is Firecrotch isn’t allowed outside.
I slip my foot into my sneaker and make for the screen door, which is ajar on account of my own carelessness—the gory leg, the tangled feline greeting—not Ed Hurlbrink, and I jump the brick steps and turn the corner in time to see the little dimwit tiptoe into the dark underbrush of the surrounding woods. Moron won’t survive this move. She has no experience, no history of owls, dogs, hailstorms. Her biggest adventure to date was probably a trip to the vets or a dustup with a field mouse.
So I pick up the pace: grass swooshes, pants swoosh, the smells of fresh dirt and a rusted old swing set fill me up. I tuck head and charge into the mystery behind her.
Bye -bye lawn.
And if this sorry excuse for a neighborhood qualifies, so long civilization.
I use my sweetest voice, my softest, calmest intonation. “Kitty! Kitty!” But the twat keeps inching forward, through the stick piles and fallen limbs, the old crumpled leaves, the pitted ground and jagged rocks, like she doesn’t remember the good times we’ve shared, and I clutch at the tall trees with their rough bark like elephant skin, and I put my lips together to make little chirping sounds. And I reach and I grab, but it’s like there’s an invisible wall between us. Like we’re dancing. Like we’re in sync in two halves of an underworld.
And I’m thinking about Maura and her attitude and the way she thinks I’m her dog, with her tsks and everything when I’m just trying to be a good fucking boyfriend, and a part of me just wants to say screw it to her and her cat, but another part of me comes up with a declaration, a kind of deal: I won’t completely fuck up this simple mission of feeding a cat while my girlfriend is staring at her dead grandmother in a pine box, meaning I will nab Firecrotch here from certain death by bear or bobcat or coyote and bring her home, and in return I’ll get me some decent luck for once, something that’ll make sure I don’t turn out like my old man, or Ed, or even Billy, and somehow no one will call me Tripper anymore and we’ll all end up happy.
Maybe something like that will happen.
Even a part of it would make for a pleasing development.
I’m all full of sweat and itches.
By the time we pass the spot of Billy’s big woods party, Firecrotch is not even looking back anymore. I’m no concern at all to her pea brain. I’m watching this stupid creature move deeper and deeper toward her own tragic fate and I can’t do a single thing to stop her. She goes on trucking through the scene: busted glass jumbles the beauty, as does the old sofa. My gut flinches. I wobble on a bottle of strawberry Boone’s, same bottle I tossed into the sticks that night, feeling all grown up littering, and I catch myself before I take another header.
Swear to God I reach her I’m going to drag her home by the tail.
I try the voice again, try the chirping sound, tread softly. Stop and rub my thumb and middle finger together, like I’m dangling a live goldfish for her to eat. But jack shit works. Firecrotch jumps forward, onto a thick collapsed tree trunk, then takes off and before I know it I’ve completely lost her. She blends right in with the other oranges all around: the leaves, the splintered wood, the sunshine.
I stop for a second, catch my breath.
Leaving me in the lurch. Screwing me over.
That’s Maura’s cat, all right, fulfilling her role in my life exactly.
I wander around the wild some more, totally pathetic. I start thinking of an excuse to tell Maura. Something about Ed. I’ll surely never see that pink bra again. I look up at the leaves and the sky, at the clouds that all seem to be shaped like stars today. As if this might give me an answer. Staring at that blue, at that puffed up white with edges and points, I think of Maura’s last words on the phone: “You’re at least reliable.”
That’s her version of a compliment. Not that being reliable means much. It’s not like reliable and gullible are all that much different, right? Think about it.
I do, looking up at the sky.
And I realize, over my breath, I’m hearing this low whir shake through the leaves and the trees like a fly zapper. It gets louder. Then after another second or two I’m seeing the source of the noise as the front of one of those monster blimps, you know, the kind you see at baseball games and carnivals, cuts into my view.
It floats by just perfect in the middle of the sky, this goddamn silver balloon.
“What the hell is that thing doing?” I say, certain that nobody is going to reply.
The blimp stares me down. It shines up there.
I take another step forward with my neck craned. I’m wondering where they’re going. I’m thinking they’re lost. Why would they be here?
Could they spot a cat?
Could they see me?
Then I hear the snap of sticks, and my feet sink.
I’m dropping …
… into a hole, a grave, a well or something …
… that swallows me and I crash at the bottom with a shower of hole-hiding camouflage pelting my head: branches, leaves, corrugated cardboard. It all comes down and I’m wedged in this musty smelling thing probably dug out by a kid with nothing else to do. By a weirdo like Keith Clements or his sister Libby. This tomb. My bloody ankle cranks and I feel drips soaking my sneaker. My clothes are covered in dirt. When I look up, all I see, framed by a rectangle of brown earth, is the green and the clouds and the blimp.
Freedom. Maura. My dad.
I’m scratching my way back into it, but there’s nothing much to grab. All I want at this moment is to jump out, for maybe Firecrotch to appear with a rope, like Lassie. For my weakling arms to kick into survival mode and do some good for once.
But none of this happens. My nails pull back and I don’t budge an inch. I’m a goddamn loser.
“Hey,” I say. “Hey! Anyone hear me?”
I glance around at the dirt. I close my eyes so my ears work better.
“Ed,” I say. “Ed or Billy or anyone. Can you hear me?”
“Firecrotch,” I say. “Sunny.”
“Keith,” I say. “Libby. Can you hear me up there?”
Nobody responds. Nobody’s head pops over the edge of the hole. I don’t hear footsteps or meowing, just the blimp.
Firecrotch could be in a hole of her own nearby.
This whole area could be full of holes.
I open my eyes and dig into the dirt, pull loose some roots. They snap when I yank.
Looking up, I think this is the view Maura’s grandma gets to enjoy from now on, up on her perch in the great beyond.
“Great Beyond, hey, it’s me,” I say. “It’s Alex.” Then, kind of embarrassed: “It’s Tripper.”
More junk blows down and it lands in my mouth. I spit and reach up. The top of the hole waits a few inches above my fingertips.
The blimp slowly cruises from left to right. No help at all. If it sees me, it doesn’t care. The whir grows softer. It flies away. Then all that’s left is the breeze and me. A fern hangs down, as if offering a hand.
So I claw.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His writing has been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi, and other fine publications. You can find him here.
It was the not-so-early morning, coming on about nine o’clock, in the early spring or end of winter, whichever one prefers, and Dr. Naismith’s game the Saturday prior had just made the town feel alive and made its boys feel like they could be men going somewhere, elsewhere. Dismissing the papers on the desk, it was decided that today Sherwood Anderson was more important. There is no sense in trying to explain just what that means, but it is something one can’t help feeling, something one might try to explain nevertheless.
That Saturday, like all of the other Saturdays of the season, had brought the town out of its kitchens, living rooms, and Main Street offices. Of course, that Saturday’s game required a drive to a dusty gymnasium in a slightly bigger town. The hour’s drive to watch the boys play Dr. Naismith’s game had been spent differently by the different citizens of the town. Some had clambered aboard a bus, freed by the absence of seatbelts. Others had chosen to ride privately in their own vehicles, enjoying the ride, the accompanying conversations, and radio stations.
In the gymnasium, crowds filled the bleachers and the small alcoves leading to the bathrooms. Game time came on, and a young Caroline Lane pushed her way towards her seat, surrounded by the faces that belonged—according only to Caroline, that is—to amateurs. Of course, anyone else would have recognized that these faces simply belonged to students and maybe a few of the school teachers—Caroline actually being among those very teachers—who were too afraid to admit that they were more grown up than was preferable and insisted on sitting with the students in hopes of catching some of their passing youthful high school energy. But Caroline couldn’t see all that well from her seat what with everyone standing up. She was resigned to look between the arms and shoulders of those around her, wondering how long this process of bending her neck this way and that would continue. “Well, are they going to stand all night? Have I come all this way to miss even what’s right in front of me?” she muttered.
Caroline Lane, affectionately called Liney by those who knew her best, was in fact fast growing into the kind of person that one must refer to as an adult, fast forcing her to become more grown up than she might have liked. New thoughts kept coming into her mind—some less than profound, like her categorization of the faces around her as the faces of amateurs, but there were other thoughts, too. During the hour’s car drive, Liney drove down the road feeling rather isolated, despite the presence of her two companions. She was about to leave that town, the town she had not so long ago traded for her own hometown tobacco town. Liney was used to trading one tobacco town for another, but now preparing to leave this town, she felt grown up. At twenty-six, Liney had decided to take the backward view of life. This was a view of life decidedly unknown to the amateurs around her. It was known to the adults, the grown ups, and Liney couldn’t decide if she liked having the privilege of holding to this view or not. She chose to sit with the young students because part of her was not ready to let herself start small-talking with the other grownups and restrict herself to their nostalgia of their own (and soon her own) youth.
During the ride down, keeping one arm pressed against the driver’s window while the right hand held the steering wheel, Liney thought all the thoughts that she wasn’t sure she should or could articulate. She briefly thought of the burden on her little brother, Skip. To be Skip meant to become the head of Horner & Co. at some unspecified time. She thought of her own uncertainty, and to the outsider, Liney would have been a half-tragic figure, imagining her new maturity as something that set her apart but something that she did not particularly want to take hold of her.
Liney very much wanted someone to understand this feeling, but all the times she came close to explaining it to her traveling companions, she stopped and realized that there wasn’t enough time. There wasn’t enough time to bring them into her life the way she might have liked and might have done so had she known them just several years prior. She was leaving, and they were nice enough traveling companions, but that’s all they could be. They couldn’t really understand her new maturity and backwards view of life. They were not in a position to understand her isolation or her uncertainty. What a difference a few years make! They still had the youthfulness of twenty-three. Liney was about to remove herself for the second time in her life from a place that had given her a sense of stability, and perhaps, that’s what had brought on these thoughts and feelings.
When Liney was still very young, her mother, Martha, had suffered several miscarriages. The little boy who came into the world as Liney’s very own flesh-and blood brother, Skip, radiated with a sense of the present, of the here-and-now. He was the child who saved their mother from herself. He was the child whose impulsivity would probably forever spare him from taking this backward view of life that had caught hold of Liney. And Liney was a little envious of him. Just as she was a little envious of her traveling companions who also were free from this thought.
At the game, Liney watched the boys use Dr. Naismith’s game to imagine their elsewhere. Liney saw the boys fight for their chance to get to that elsewhere. They hoped, just like the town hoped for them, that Dr. Naismith’s game would grant them their departure from here and a new sense of sophistication. They saw no other alternative for getting from here to there. And yet, Liney, with several ways to get from here to there, was envious of them, too. These boys, much like Skip and her traveling companions, did not have to surrender to this maturity or uncertainty. They would either get there, get to elsewhere, or they would figure out what to do with themselves and content themselves here. They were not subject to this grown-up self-doubt that comes with trading what one has always known of what held one together during the deaths, funerals, and obligatory yet strangely consolatory ham biscuits.
And these boys were also Liney’s students. And lately, she felt she had nothing she could say to them. It was too hard to connect. It was too difficult to realize that they would continue to enjoy the space of the town that she had to leave behind. Of course, no one said she had to leave except herself. She told herself that the time to leave, to move, to go had come, and so she was leaving. And as the countdown drew nearer, it was hard to look at these boys. They were going to keep living and breathing in the space that had become her home. They were going to keep dreaming of leaving by the grace of Dr. Naismith and his game, or they wouldn’t leave at all. They would be granted departures and senses of sophistication by that game. And yet Liney had granted herself her own departure and somehow this new sense of sophistication had just befallen her. And there was nothing she could do about it.
There are only a few good words to begin with, and Liney wasn’t always sure that she knew them. After awhile, back in the car, “Well, I don’t know. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I mean. I’m always on the verge of saying what I really want to say, I think, but I never quite get it. I suppose I’d better stop talking.” A few minutes later, “I do think it’s really terrific that they won. That has to mean so much. I’m so glad,” she added.
Liney was never going to get her traveling companions to feel this same sense of sophistication. And so, Monday, back at school, she ignored the papers. They didn’t seem like her papers. Sitting behind that desk, she realized that it didn’t really feel like her desk. None of it seemed real. In Winesburg, she would have been the banker’s daughter or maybe she would have been George Willard. But here, she couldn’t collapse into a car or onto a bed and have it neatly told by Mr. Anderson just the same. She couldn’t have her departure and sophistication wrapped up in the niceties of small-town Ohio. Here, Liney was subject to the intense desire to depart and to stay all at once, all at the same time. How lucky her traveling companions were to get to stay and keep embracing those old walls of the school, even if most days those walls never seemed real, even if half of the time, it all felt like a game, even if in departing, she could finally drop the act and become herself again, whoever that was supposed to be.
Today, Sherwood Anderson was more important. There was no more time to look at the papers, the classroom, the students. Liney’s sophistication told her that she must make that departure because it was the very assurance of such a departure at some time that brought her here in the first place.
Ashlee Paxton-Turner is a native of Williamsburg, Virginia and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an English major with a concentration in creative writing. A former Teach For America corps member, who taught high school mathematics teacher in rural North Carolina, Ashlee is now a law student at Duke University.
A review? In the Times? Impossible. It’s an Off-Off-Broadway. Two offs. And Beth is only sixteen. Yet Cedric Plum’s judgment, the judgment, is seven paragraphs and in her sunburned hands. But why now? Weeks after her opening? While she’s trapped in South Carolina?
So she should read this, right? This would be good, or why bother. Right?
But what does Mr. Plum mean by cute? By not unfolding? Oh. No. The thunderbolt from reading the words—an anathema on the stage—only shocks Beth for a split second. That’s because she faints. Fades into darkness atop the bright beach rental’s kitchen floor. Beth has never fainted before, and it’s a gradual ordeal. The Arts & Leisure section sails to the sandy lime vinyl faster than she does.
“Beth? We’re back,” her mother calls from somewhere. “Stop playing around, sweetie.”
Michael, her ensuing stepdad, who has an odd smell and who only speaks in cliché, has to step over her prostrate body to get the butter cream wedding cake in the fridge. Yesterday, for a full hour, Beth had done a deep breathing body scan, a very important relaxation technique, in the hallway of this beach house prison, so both mother and Michael assume this partially unconscious Beth is merely Beth releasing her actor’s tension.
“Up and at em,” Michael says.
She opens her eyes and everything’s cloudy, but she can make out the man’s chest hair, creeping out the collar of his blue T, like pubes. Why couldn’t this be his fault? Wasn’t it? His weird cuminy sausage smell. This urgent location wedding, ripping Beth from her title role for an entire weekend, thus leaving her precious part in the hands of Marian, that hussy understudy. Such stress had to have hindered Beth’s connection with the world of the play, her connection with the rest of the cast. That’s what Cedric the critic didn’t understand. Beth’s special circumstances.
“She’s acting. Act as if you want to be here,” Michael says, less faux. “Let’s hit the pavement. Might rain later. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
From the looks of it, neither has read the review now spread on the vinyl of this God forsaken lemon yellow house. And speaking of yellow, doesn’t Cedric Plum’s claim that Beth doesn’t use her senses classify as yellow journalism? And is this even legal? To slaughter a minor like this? And now what? Has she been fired? Have they called? What if she just drops her cell phone into one of those gullies? These thoughts come in screams as she peels herself off the floor, peels herself a banana, and scoops up so much peanut butter that Michael smirks as his scent (cilantro and bacon?) wafts over, hovers above the slices of white bread she’d vacantly lined up on the counter. She eats the sticky sandwich, the second, the seven Oreos.
This savory sweet gorging does such a fine job numbing her, plucking from memory her rooted sorrow. (That’s a line from her Macbeth monologue, the one she’d auditioned with. Why couldn’t Cedric Plum have critiqued that?).
She doesn’t even notice what color beach cruiser she sits on, just knows it has silver streamers and a basket for her Triscuits. She pedals. Belches. The chinstrap of her helmet impairs her crunching through this buttery, stiff wheat, crackers that cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff (more Macbeth; it comes to her unbidden). The breeze chaps her bloated cheeks, and now that the Triscuits are all gone, the shame of Cedric Plum’s second paragraph—the vanity of ignoring others—settles into her taut gut.
Meanwhile, it’s a five-speed and Beth can’t change gears so can’t cruise on these deceiving slopes, and the other players keep talking.
“Look, Beth. A frog!”
“Like a frog in a frying pan,” Michael says.
Beth slows down to make them diminish, but this only makes Plum’s “forgetting her responsibility as an actor” barb ring louder, ring truer. And this marshland. It smells like Michael.
“Come on, sweetie!” Beth’s mother calls through cupped hands.
Fine. She’ll pedal. She can do this. Keep on, keepin’ on. She’s a sparkling princess for fuckssake (paragraph three). Memories of bicycle journeys with her childhood friend, a fat girl who doesn’t even know what a headshot needs to look like, fortifies her. Yipee! Beth is scaring herself, hallucinating perhaps. This is what her Stanislavsky coach meant by not pouring cement on the scene. Only the ball of her foot on the pedal, only the infinite blank canvases amidst these South Carolinian colors that hurt her eyes. The battle cries of all her acting, singing, and dancing teachers, past and present, course through her pumping legs. Action verbs! The ego Chakra is orange! No indicating!
She sings and pedals and passes her mother. Oh yes. Macbeth is ripe for the shaking. Beth passes Michael, rings her goddamned bike bell, then turns to stick out her tongue at this oppressive pair, but Michael gains on her. Her mother gains on her. She’s out of breath and hears no more battle cries. Just the harsh words from that critic to pedal through. She slogs, slows, skids her feet on the grass, and kicks the kickstand down with her flip-flop. It’s over. She quits. An all encompassing quit. There’s a clap of thunder and pellets of rain to emphasize this, the end of Beth’s life.
Only, it doesn’t end. The flight back to New Jersey takes off as scheduled; coasts sans turbulence.
“So, what’s your game plan?” Michael has taken the middle seat as a courtesy.
He opens a pack of those shortbread cookies with the raspberry goo stamped in the center and they erupt all over his tray, the airplane carpet, Beth’s sneaker.
“You’re going to sulk? That it? Bad review. New weird stepdad. No turning the frown upside down?”
“Michael,” her mother says, pained but not looking away from the window of white air.
“You think that’s the way to play when your chips are down? You gotta roll with the punches.”
“What does that even mean? Roll?” Beth says. “If I’m punched, my jaw breaks. I can’t enunciate. Much less roll.”
Michael eats a cookie that had fallen on the ground. “You’re splitting hairs,” he says, yellow crumbs flying from his lips.
“I think that critic was on to something. You’re a closed book. A clam. You don’t look at us. Don’t speak to anyone. Not even that flight attendant when she asked if you wanted a snack pack.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
“You don’t think I’m right. You’re trying to get me to shut up.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
Before takeoff, Beth’s agent had called to break the news, that Marian the understudy would now be playing Beth’s role, but there was a Long Island theater doing The Miracle Worker that Beth would be perfect for. Blind, deaf, and dumb. Yes. A community theater, but Off-Off Broadway was dead. Real artists knew that. Or hey! Maybe it’s time to go back to your junior year. Let go of that tutor. Take a break from the stage.
“Yeah. I know. You’re right”
So Beth does. She takes the yellow bus, pours flammable liquids into beakers, gets a mild crush on a football player, Steve, and sits with him at the Water Tower to drink bittersweet beer.
“You don’t talk much,” Steve says, itching his large neck.
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
But then, between the mile-run for gym and photos for yearbook, Beth the girl without senses, Beth the quitter, Beth the anathema onstage, sees a sign. Not a metaphorical one, but an actual one: Auditions! Macbeth! Come, you Mortal Spirits, Tuesday, 4:00 pm.
It is Tuesday. It is 3:51.
“Life’s but a walking shadow,” she moans on opening night as she gambols through the agony of losing her wife (not enough had auditioned so there’d been gender switches, plus a need to draw from Special Ed to fill the smaller roles).
The shadows are stark across the front of her unfolding body as she reaches out for Seyton upright, ruddy and swaying on his special crutches.
“It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” comes out in one breath as she spirals downward, all five senses acute as she notes every last one of her fellow castmates.
The messenger approaches with the tidings that Birnam is on the move. She sees it. Hears it. Feels it. Yeah. That’s the stuff.
A review? They’d reviewed her? No. Wait. Stop. It’s a school play. A public school. This place had a paper? And who the hell is Trudy Higginbothin? A ninth grader? A ninth grader reviewed her Macbeth? Trudy’s judgment, the judgment, is in her pencil-callused hands. What does she mean by tense? Beth? Deep-breathing-body-scan-relaxed, Beth?
The quitting comes faster this time. By second period she’s already vowed to extract herself from life. “Yeah. I know. You’re right,” she says to Trudy. Who feels bad. Who had to turn in something for her photojournalism project. And has Beth met Mr. Firestein? He’s really serious.
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Michael says over a dinner of halibut and pilaf, the fish comingling with the musky spearmint emanating from his polo shirt.
“I think you were great, sweetie. Memorizing all those lines. Keeping up with Trig.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right. May I be excused?”
“Fine. But remember what I said,” Michael says. “He who laughs last, laughs best.”
Out in the cold night, crunching the frozen grass beneath, she calls her line from Act I, Scene 4 up to the half moon—“Let not light see my black and deep desires!”
Because Beth’s problem is Macbeth’s problem. No. Worse. Macbeth wants to hide his desire to kill the king, but Beth doesn’t want to murder Cedric Plum and Trudy Higginbothin in the silence of night; she wants to murder them publicly. A hanging. That’s why Beth keeps quitting, because she knows too well her inner-Macbethness. Her ruthless ambition, greed, insatiable need for power, and her hatred for all those who don’t agree that she should rule the world. She has to quit. It’s for safety.
But She Stoops to Conquer opens in March, the weekend before Spring break, and Beth’s Kate Hardcastle is a more relaxed approach to the role. Plus, on opening night the curtain call goes awry. Actually the curtain itself goes awry, falls on top of Trudy Higginbothin’s head. An ambulance takes her away, so, surely, no review will be written. The critic is not only in the play, but her condition is unstable. Beth goes home, happy with her performance. Happy to know there will be no words in ink to say otherwise.
No. Wait. Stop. Alex Chung reviewed the play? He doesn’t even go to this school. And there was an accident. Why not report on Trudy’s head trauma? The faulty rope-pulley system? What about that? Or what if Beth just crumples this pale green Xerox of grainy photos and misspellings? Chucks it in the metal trash bin? There. Swoosh. That’s the sound of her tossing it, making the shot.
But Cindy Ho doesn’t toss the Jersey High Picayune in the trash. Cindy Ho reads it, asks Beth what she thinks of Chung’s jabs, that Beth is affected, floating on the surface. So Beth still sees Alex Chung’s limp body dangling before a crowd when she closes her eyes at the dinner table, still finds herself on the back lawn in the darkness, howling at the crescent moon for strength to really quit this time, to save herself, but not until she knows Uncle Vanya at the community theater in Long Island is a no-go.
Maggie Light teaches Composition and Theater at Otis College of Art & Design and Literature at Westwood College. She received her BA in Drama from the University of Virginia and her MFA in Creative Writing at Otis College. Her fiction will be published in an upcoming issue of Larva Lamp and she’s currently working on a novel about theater people forming a mild yet effective rebellion.
The day my father’s friend, Wade, tried to build us a screened-in porch on the front of our house was the day my mother decided to move out. Wade made his living by selling muscadine grapes and handmade cowboy hats. He lived in a trailer off of I-85, on a piece of land that used to be large but had been whittled away as he sold acres to pay for his liquor without having to get a regular job. Wade enlarged his trailer with plywood and sheet metal and duct tape. My mother called him a redneck, a bum, a white trash ignoramus, but my father saw it as ingenuity.
“My friend Mary Ann has a screened-in porch,” I said. I was about ten, and to me, that was about as close to luxury as you could get in a town like Kite, South Carolina. “She’s also got one of those above ground pools. Sometimes her daddy finds dead baby mice in it. They try to go swimming and get killed by all the chlorine.” My parents were arguing about Wade the night before he was supposed to come and build our screened-in porch.
“Why are you guys going to the hardware store tonight?” she asked my father. “It’s late, and they’ll be closed. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“That’s why you should never drink pool water,” my father said to me. He turned to my mother. “Imagine how wonderful it will feel to sit outside and not get eaten up by mosquitoes.” There was a knock on the door. I knew it was Wade, because it was past dinner time, and no one came to the door after seven.
I opened the door and Wade stood there, in a dusty and wrinkled shirt, carrying a hammer and nails and a six pack of beer. He wore a lopsided cowboy hat with the word Rebel etched in the crown and feathers hot glued to the brim.
“Hey, sweet pea,” he said to me. He tried to come inside, but I blocked the doorway. I could see the beer cans sweating, and I knew he’d just bought them. Wade didn’t have a refrigerator. He had a cooler and he mostly ate canned soup, Spam, and white bread anyhow. I could always smell it on his breath.
“My mom says you’re an ignoramus,” I said. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I liked the sound of it on my tongue. I’d just learned how to curse, but this was as close as I’d come to cursing at an adult for a while.
“Isn’t that sweet,” Wade said. He tried to come inside again but I didn’t move.
“My mom thinks it’s weird that you guys are going to go to the hardware store this late. She says that it won’t be open anyhow. She thinks you’re up to something.” This last part was my own assumption. I didn’t trust Wade. His hair was the color of rusted nails and his eyes shone like oil.
“Let Uncle Wade in, honey,” my dad said from the kitchen. I moved over a little and let Wade sidle past me, like a crab. He didn’t shut the door behind himself.
I followed him to the kitchen, where he put the six pack of beer in the fridge. My mother stared at a magazine in her lap. My father was talking about the screened-in porch.
“We’ve got to go get a staple gun,” my father said. “Do you have a staple gun?” he asked Wade. Wade shook his head. He stared at my mother. “We’ve got to get some two-by-fours and screen. Surely they sell all of this at the hardware store. Surely it can’t be that expensive.”
“We can get screen at the dump,” Wade said, “and we’ll find other places to get wood and stuff. Don’t worry, it won’t cost that much. I’ve done this a hundred times.” He turned to me.
“We better get going. You wanna come along?” I didn’t answer but I followed Wade and my father out to the car. My mother sighed and I heard her slam the magazine down on the table, start collecting dishes with too much force. I think she knew I’d always choose my father over her.
“We’ll be back in a few, Linda,” Wade said to my mother as he slammed the front door. Wade drove a small truck, with duct tape on the bumper. I squeezed into place between my father and Wade on the front seat, and I was so close to him that I could feel his arm hair brushing my shoulder.
Wade pulled down a long gravel driveway that sloped through a construction site. He turned off the headlights and parked the car near the skeleton of a house. My father didn’t ask any questions. Wade got out of the truck, and motioned for my father to follow him.
“You stay here,” he said to me. I watched as they went to a pile of wood and pulled out long strips. They carried it back, four pieces at a time, over their shoulders, and began filling the bed of the truck.
“I think this is illegal, Dad,” I said to my father.
“Wade knows what he’s doing,” my father said, but I could see the confusion in his eyes, the worry, as he glanced behind his shoulders and worked faster than before. I got out of the truck cab and went to where Wade was examining a piece of pine.
“You know that you and my daddy could get arrested for this,” I said, though I wasn’t sure.
“This isn’t illegal, it’s recycling,” Wade said. “They’re going to throw this junk out anyhow. This is scrap wood. The stuff left over. No one wants it.” I didn’t believe him, but when he handed me a piece of wood to take back to the car, I took it. Soon, we had the bed of the truck filled. Wade laid a tarp over it and told me to tell my mother that we got it at the dump. “She’ll freak out,” Wade said. “It’s just her nature.” I kept my fingers crossed. Somewhere an owl called, a low vibration through the air, who cooks for you, who cooks for you, who cooks for you now? I’d grown up hearing owls call but this one seemed different. My father held onto my hand. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t the first illegal enterprise my father had been a part of. I didn’t know that sometimes the danger is worth it.
We got in the car, but when Wade turned the key in the ignition, the only sound was a sputtering roar. He stopped, cursed under his breath, and tried again.
“What’s that noise? Something wrong with your car?” my father asked. Wade turned the key again, and again.
“No, you idiot, it is supposed to do this,” Wade said. He punched the steering wheel. We sat there in the dark for a while, Wade pushing at the key, trying for a miracle. “You got jumper cables?” Wade asked.
“At home,” my father said.
“Well go and get them,” Wade said.
“That’s got to be like, ten miles down the road,” my father said.
“Thumb a ride,” Wade said. “Run. Steal a horse. You’re creative, so get going.” My father couldn’t argue with Wade’s logic. In his eyes, there were greater things at stake. I respected him more because of this danger he faced. It seemed, to me, like an act of kindness. He got out of the car.
“You stay here,” he said to me. “Help Uncle Wade.” My father disappeared into the dark halo of woods and gravel paths that surrounded the construction site. Wade and I waited, listening to the crickets and the cars up on the highway. Wade started humming something under his breath.
“What is that?” I asked. He lit a cigarette.
“An old blues song,” Wade said. “Your father and I used to listen to it, all the time, as kids. It was an old song even then.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Your mother used to listen with him—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all of it.” I had never heard my parents listening to blues music together. My mother loved country, pop. She didn’t appreciate the sweet humming, harmonicas, disharmony of the blues. Wade got out of the car, held the cigarette tight between his teeth. “You think unloading some of this wood will help the truck start?” he asked me. I followed him.
“I dunno,” I said. “I don’t know anything about cars or wood.”
“What do you know about?” Wade asked. He threw back the tarp and took a board over his shoulder. I didn’t know how to answer his question, and I still don’t, and I think that’s why I remember that night. As Wade unloaded the truck, taking back pieces that he didn’t think we needed and smaller boards that were little more than scrap wood, I thought about my mother. I knew that she didn’t want a screened-in porch, that no matter what my father brought back, it wouldn’t be enough to hold her still. I knew that she felt trapped, in the same way as the finches that sometimes found themselves in our attic, confused about how they got there in the first place. I knew that all my father was doing was providing her with another exit, another escape route.
Wade continued singing, even as the police car crackled down the gravel path. At first, I thought it was my father, but then I saw the white of the car, the unfamiliar headlights. I didn’t alert Wade. I didn’t yell, “Run” or take off into the woods or drop the wood in my hands. Instead, I let the cop car come to a stop by Wade’s truck. By then, Wade had noticed the car and stopped to watch. He still held a board over one shoulder. The policeman stepped out of the car. Neighbors had called the cops, more out of curiosity than any real worry. When I told this story to people, I always wondered if he had been telling the truth.
“You don’t need to bother explaining,” the officer said. “It don’t take much to figure out a robbery.” Wade looked at the ground, and then the sky. The officer saw me. “Why you got this kid out here so late?” he asked. Wade turned to look at me, as if he’d forgotten I was there. His eyes met mine.
This is when my father—after successfully hitchhiking home and grabbing the jumper cables—drove back to help jump Wade’s truck. The officer draws his pistol, then yells at my father to put his hands in the air, et cetera. Later, looking back, I would realize that what happened next was an unbelievable story, almost a bad bar joke. As Wade turned around, the piece of wood slung over his shoulder turned with him, and happened to nail the officer in the forehead. I know it seems unbelievable, but that whole night was a parade of missteps and backfires, and at the time, I didn’t think much of it. The officer fell to the ground, not so much from the injury, which was no more than a bad bruise, but from the shock of it.
I don’t really remember what happened next, but somehow the officer got his radio out and called another cop. It turned out that Wade had an outstanding warrant with the Kite police department, for a bar fight. One police officer read him his rights, patted him down. They seemed excited from the conflict, as if nothing like this usually happened. Another officer stood with my father and I and watched us, as if we might run off into the woods and fields, or evaporate into the sky.
They took us to the police station, first Wade, and then my father and I in a different car. On the way to the police station my father tried to talk to me.
“I didn’t know all of this would happen, Carrie,” he said. I just nodded and kept my eyes focused on the back of the cop’s head. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have let you come,” my dad said. He wasn’t talking down to me. From that night on, my dad stopped treating me as if I was a kid, and instead acted as if I was his friend or accomplice, depending on the situation.
“When your mom comes to pick us up, don’t make it sound as bad as it was,” my dad said. “Just soften it a little. I don’t want her to be worried about you. You weren’t scared, were you? You didn’t feel as if you were in danger, right?”
“No, Dad,” I said. I didn’t remind him of the sheen of sweat on the back of his neck as he tried to fill the bed of the truck with all the wood. I didn’t tell him that this whole night felt like holding your breath, that I didn’t know what was going to happen anymore.
“Maybe I’ll build us a gazebo,” he said. “Or a picket fence, or a vegetable garden, or an above ground pool.” I thought about what it would be like, to wake up one morning and find the bodies of dead mice floating in the chlorine, their paws and whiskers drooping, their eyes like little drops of tar.
I think the police considered charging my father with child neglect, because of all the danger I was in. They glared at him as we waited for my mother to pick us up. But when she did come, their eyes softened, and they let us go without a struggle. She looked so tired. In towns like Kite, people have a different notion of forgiveness. My mother drove us home in silence. My father tried to start conversations with her. She stared at the road and didn’t hum blues or rock‘n’roll under her breath, not even country, which she liked to listen to when she cleaned the house or felt tired. When we got home, my mother stopped for a minute, stared at the front door, at the light radiating from the living room windows, at the empty front yard, the half-dead magnolia tree that dripped red seeds and boat-like leaves and southern-smelling flowers onto the lawn.
“I’m not doing this anymore, Neil,” my mother said to my dad, watching his eyes open and his lips part like he was about to say something else, like he was doing all he could to swallow his words.
“It’s late, Linda,” my dad said. “Let’s go inside, let’s get some sleep, let’s forget about this until morning.” My father’s philosophy revolved around never making grand decisions at night, because that was when the worst part of you came out. My mother didn’t answer him. She turned off the car and got out, leaving the key in the ignition. My father watched her go to the door and unlock it and enter the house. He got out of the car, followed her through the open door, watched her toss her clothes into a suitcase.
I followed my mother out to the porch and waited for the taxi to come. Her bags lay next to her. She must have called the taxi before she even left to pick us up from the police station, to convince the driver to drive the hour and a half from Greenville to Kite, pick her up, and take her to wherever she planned to escape to. She sat on the front steps, pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of her pocket. She lit a cigarette, and then handed me the lighter.
“Give that back to your father,” she said. She smoked with an easy rhythm, like a jogger’s breath.
“He didn’t mean it,” I said. I thought about what my father told me to tell her, when we were in the car together. “I wasn’t in danger. We just got confused. Wade told him that it was scrap wood. You know how Dad is.” I didn’t understand why it had become my job to hold my parents together. My mother sighed, stood up, laid her cigarette butt on the porch rail, and took my hand.
“Can you handle him?” she asked. I knew that if I said no it wouldn’t fix anything. I didn’t tell her that handling my father wasn’t my job, that I was a child and too small to handle anything like that. I didn’t ask her to stay, because I knew that she couldn’t forgive that much. I didn’t want her to take me with her, and later, I understood that wherever she ended up, she needed to be alone. I didn’t tell her that I needed her, that there were some things only a mother could take care of, that I was afraid of the places my father kept inside his head.
I just said, “Sure,” and took my hand from hers, like a tree pushing away its leaves. The taxi pulled up, a shuddering yellow in the night, and my mother picked up her bag. Years later, when my mother would call me, late at night, from far away cities that didn’t seem to exist on maps, I would remember this feeling of loneliness. The feeling was etched into my skin that night, and it would quiver whenever I saw other friends’ moms, but also Winstons, blue asters, mockingbirds, wine coolers dewing in the grocery store. I had known mothers who disappeared. I knew it wasn’t unusual, that in this day and age, maternal bonds were weaker.
The last thing I remembered, as I sat in my father’s attic and played his dusty records, was the ending to this story. I remembered standing out on the porch, watching the taillights disappear, and soon I could hear the music roaring from the living room, these sad blues records, evil, that’s evil, I don’t need no woman, I don’t want no grindin’, Why don’t you hear me cryin’? It overtook the house, and flowed down the street, into the surrounding woods and fields and all the way down the highway, through the middle of Kite, South Carolina, following my mother as she pushed further and further away from us. I went inside and saw my father lying on the living room floor, his records spread around him, the tips of his fingers clinging to the fibers of the rug. He sang along to the music, under his breath, but I couldn’t hear his voice. I could only see his lips move, his fingers pull as if he were trying to hold himself to the ground, as if at any moment he might let go and float upward and disappear.
Julia Hogan was born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. She writes about blues music, birds, and her family, because that is what she loves. Julia is a 2013 Scholastic Gold Medalist in short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, and a portfolio silver medalist. She is also a 2013 Presidential Scholar for the Arts semifinalist and National YoungArts finalist for creative nonfiction. You can find her poetry in the upcoming issue of the Monongahela Review.
When Bridget was sixteen, she met a sardonically mumbling School of Visual Arts dropout named Robert Fein while they were both browsing for cheap shoes on Eighth Street. Robert was too bug-eyed and slight to be handsome, with dim pitted skin and a puffy, disconsolate pout, but something in his manner convinced her that he would be a safe and desirable person to know. He had his own place at the edge of the devastated East Village neighborhood not yet blandly rechristened as Alphabet City, and within weeks of their first meeting Bridget moved in with him.
Bridget assumed that her father would be happy to get rid of her. By now, he barely reacted to the steady stream of failing grades on her report cards, his stock objection—“This isn’t very acceptable”—being vague enough to pass for a comment on the deplorable New York City public school system. So she was unprepared when he hotly objected to her moving out to live with a pair of fictitious “NYU girls” whom she claimed to have met last year in Forest Hills.
He glared at her, desperate. “I could always get A’s with my eyes closed, without even opening the book.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Well, that’s mature. Go and make fun of it.”
“We have the baby to take care of. And Martina doesn’t want to put up with you anymore, if it means you are going to—”
“I get it! We know Martina makes the rules! Don’t want to mess with Martina! So once I get out of your way, your life will be easier. You’ll have the perfect family! I’ll be out of your hair, absolutely. Oh, no, I forgot! You don’t have any!”
In her bedroom she packed the clothes that still fit her, her mostly blank diaries and a few favorite children’s books. She felt edgy and vengeful, as if she were shoplifting her own things. How many years had she spent in this room, playing long, lonely doll games, or reading while watching TV? Nobody had ever come to see what she was doing until Jessica learned how to walk. Now she was out in the playground, so at least Bridget wouldn’t have to physically detach herself from the cherubic twenty-three-month-old, who mysteriously adored “Widget” and followed her everywhere, even into the bathroom. Her father had retreated into his own room, and after a moment of eerie hesitation, she left without saying goodbye. She already felt darkly ashamed for making that crack about his baldness, but too insecure—would he care?—to apologize.
After she dropped her bags inside his apartment, she waited on Robert’s mattress while he uncorked a black bottle of cheap champagne. In the drunk and stoned sex that came after, she wondered why she wasn’t more swept up in this symbolic moment. He might as well have carried her over his threshold. She was electrified, also unsettled, by the abruptness with which she had exited childhood. She had just turned seventeen.
Living with Robert—locally known as Bobby Fear—reminded Bridget of an Elvis song, playing an X-rated version of house with a pomaded rock singer who wasn’t much older than she was. He seemed to have hundreds of friends. Not because he liked people that much, she discovered, but hated spending one minute alone, so that he made her accompany him everywhere, to his boring band rehearsals in the Flower District, to cop from his dealer in Tompkins Square Park, and to shop for his B-movie wardrobe of alpaca sweaters and silvery sharkskins. They dyed their hair together over his tiny kitchen tub and he painted her toenails a glistening garnet. They would stay out all night and devoured a counter egg breakfast before falling into his single bed just as morning had started to roast the apartment. By two they awoke for sex, languid with heat and hangover, and then, over Sweet Sixteen donuts and cafe con leche, they would critique the bands on last night’s bill and compare notes on the books and filmmakers they loved and their childhoods. And Bobby would talk about drugs, which Bridget could mostly take or leave, though they interested her because he was so into them.
He turned her onto his favorite: opium, a big deal to score. One evening they huddled over a saucer, Bobby heating the resinous dab with a glowing tip of hanger-wire, while she sucked the exotically revolting smoke through a toilet-paper tube.
“Hold it in.”
She swayed with her eyes closed, spine rippling with pleasure, till he guided her backward to their bed. Each time she felt she was falling, warm currents cradled and lifted her, over again, like a Ferris wheel tilting deliciously back.
On stage, Bobby transformed himself, stylized, demonic. He was the founder and lead singer of a band called Anatomically Correct. While his deadpan bandmates fine-tuned their industrial feedback, Bobby danced with seat-ripping abandon at the stage’s edge. He screeched disturbing baby-talk at any scantily dressed female drunk enough to have ventured within spitting distance of the stage, and otherwise assumed kung-fu-inspired stances that could only invite vicious heckling. As the tension mounted he leapt onto teetering tables with catlike precision, defensively stamping at “fans” with his sharp-toed boots while taunting all the “honky retards from New Jersey.” Despite his being a honky himself. From New Jersey. He had a hiply eclectic audience of neighborhood scene-makers, horn-rimmed culture critics and belligerent outer-borough types, all of whom probably shared the same baseline desire to see him get his ass kicked. “Oh, I’m not going to be stuck in this kind of venue for long,” he assured Bridget who dreaded the worst till the house lights went up. And he was beginning to get local press coverage. Girls he claimed not to recognize would call out his stage name as he strode with Bridget around their neighborhood, all of them dressed to kill in 1950’s cocktail-wear they scooped up for nothing in thrift shops.
She occasionally earned twenty dollars off the books by typing NYU term papers or writing sales slips behind the counter at The F-Stop, a tiny, fascinating photography bookshop whose real bread and butter (“seductive esoterica discretely conveyed”) was advertised through academic journals. But mainly her day draped around Bobby’s. She pasted up club flyers, waited bleary-eyed until the distribution of the door take, and spent hours dissecting her boyfriend’s impossible nature with friends who were both sick of, and helplessly loyal to, him. Sometimes he would hurt her pride by failing to try to conceal his tacky backstage infidelities, but even these humiliations seemed pro forma, a part of her job description.
By their second year together she began to weary of her Bobby-centric existence. Not that she was tired of Bobby, whom she considered the love of her life and best friend. But shouldn’t she find her own thing? Some girls she knew were developing their own creative gigs. And sometimes they also worked in massage parlors or peep shows to cover the rent. Some wouldn’t talk about what they did; others nihilistically flaunted the part in harsh lipstick and tights like torn spider-webs. Bobby escorted her to an acquaintance’s Chelsea photo studio so she could get paid three hundred dollars to pose nude for porn pictures while he read Philip K. Dick in the front office. On waking that morning she’d ingested a Quaalude to help her get through it, so that the whole scene went flabby, collapsing in places like an old balloon. She hadn’t thrown up when the affected young pornographer, a Luckies pack tucked in the sleeve of his tee shirt, disdainfully tossed her a stuffed bear and told her to “cream on it.” She just pitched it back to him and rolled onto her stomach. But she did vomit when she got home, on the floor of their bathroom, and then screamed at Bobby to clean it up. Which he did, and after she refused to let him come near her.
Her mother turned out to be receptive to Bobby, who shamelessly flirted by asking her to name her favorite Italian film director, or whether she thought he needed an eye exam, holding her by the arm on Broadway so that they could compare their ability to decipher bawdy newsstand headlines from a distance of several feet. Helen seemed amused, even seduced, by Bobby’s nerve, though she said she would like him better if he hadn’t influenced Bridget to drop out of high school. At her repeated urging, Bridget applied for her GED. A year later, she was admitted to Hunter, where she majored in English, a little embarrassed by this wimpy default of a major, but what did she want to do but read very long novels, and mull over what she had read? And what was her long-term goal, other than finding one? She trained to earn more as a word processor.
She enjoyed writing papers but for the next two years it was as if she were pacing a tightrope while balancing two unrelated personae: the sleep-deprived undergraduate who rushed to a series of part-time jobs and researched “Theatricality in Moll Flanders” under buzzing fluorescent lights at the school library, and the raccoon-eyed underground girlfriend posing upstairs at the Mudd Club in tight brocade dresses, black opera gloves, peeling fake pearls. She partly savored the incongruity, though she worried it meant she would never fit in anywhere.
Bobby left on a four week European tour, and returned with a serious habit. Well, how many great artists had been addicted to something? He kept wheedling Bridget to let him fix her too, bragging about his deftness with a hypodermic. “They call me ‘the doctor,’” he repeated, eyes agog, like a bit actor in a movie about drug addicts. For a moment she considered giving in, since his desire to initiate her seemed so much greater than hers to refuse. Then it occurred to her that he might be subconsciously interested in “accidentally” killing her. This suspicion vaporized with the speed of a dream, but a residual queasiness made her pull away.
“Okay, but you aren’t one.”
Her friends were tired of hearing her complain about Bobby. Well, what was Bridget supposed to do? There was a barbed hook connecting them. She still thrilled to his reckless persona on stage, as if he were her own looming shadow, an untethered twin, who could slither up walls and pounce over the ceiling. But if she was carrying cash in her purse. she had to take it with her to the bathroom.
Certain experiences were said to restructure the brain, like those ducklings imprinted for life on a cardboard mother. And real mothers were left with the cells of grown children woven into their own biological tissue. When Bobby drifted in sleep on her breast she could feel her heart painfully draining and filling at one time, as if they were two beings maintained in a lifelong transfusion. How did anyone ever manage to say goodbye, even if only to go the post office?
Eventually, Bobby lost his record contract. His band members quit. At Bridget’s insistence, he qualified himself for welfare and began a methadone program, which made him gain weight, transformed overnight to a toad from an elegant tadpole. The cause was edema, whole buckets of sub-dermal fluid, a methadone side effect. Wasn’t it partly her fault?
“You think I’m never going to move out,” she warned him. “Don’t count on me staying dependent my whole life!”
“Why not?” He looked bored. “I don’t mind.”
One day, as casually, he proposed marriage. “Relax. Just for the benefits. Not because we care.” Benefits? Was he serious? She was only twenty-one! She didn’t want to be married and living on public assistance.
Then came the opportunity she had unconsciously awaited: approval of an extra student loan coincided with an invitation to crash in her best friend’s apartment. With Suzanne’s help, she moved her most precious belongings while Bobby was out at the clinic. But sneaking was pointless. The drug made him passive, indifferent. When she returned the next day for the rest of her stuff, he watched from their bed with his cheek on the mattress and only one eye and his mouth moving.
“Arrivederci.” His voice at half-speed, mocking her. “Au revoir. For now, baby.”
What if she was never able to connect with anyone again? What if he couldn’t either, and no one stepped in to watch over him? She furiously stuffed papers and books into two shopping bags and a backpack.
Then she stood under the shabby old heaven of Houston Street watching a gold wave of freshly-gassed taxis competing to get to her first.
During the first months after she moved out Bridget was too busy and anxious to miss him, trying to complete her coursework while word-processing at Merrill on evenings and weekends. Then she heard Bobby was back on heroin, skinny and practically handsome again, resurfacing in a Prince-inspired wardrobe and makeup and living with a rawboned ex-model who made leather rock and roll pants. Mutual friends reported they were performing a weird cabaret act of an intense smarminess no one could swear was intentional. Despite this report, which she received in scornful disbelief, she was beginning to be visited by a recurring dream-specter, one she wouldn’t shake for years, with wounded, contemptuous eyes, with Bobby’s familiar erection and mouth, whose game it was to invade her with longing and fade in the same waking instant.
Bonnie Altucher grew up in New York City and has also lived in Paris. She received an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her poetry was published in Roof Magazine and she has been awarded residency fellowships in fiction from the MacDowell, Ucross, Ragdale, and VCCA colonies. She lives in Brooklyn. “Bobby Fear” is an excerpt from her unpublished novel about a therapy cult in New York in the ’60s and ’80s.
We are looking at pictures of my cousin’s new baby. My cousin is nineteen. I am thirty-two. My cousin is eight months pregnant with her second child. I’m on my period.
Everyone agrees that yes, it would have been better if Carly had finished college before having two babies, but my goodness, Damien is gorgeous. In every picture he’s grinning, exposing a row of short white teeth. At eleven months he already has a head full of brown curls that would resist being flattened by a wool hat. They’re so wondrous I imagine he could frolic all day in a pit of plastic balls and not one spark of static electricity would attach to them.
I have been married for three years, but we’re not getting anywhere, baby-wise. Our apartment is too small and full of pointed angles. Our credit card balances are bloated. And then there’s our red wine habit. My husband complains all the time that we’re too poor to have children, but I’m not sure I know what that means anymore.
Once as an experiment I replied, “Maybe we’re too poor not to have children.” He looked at me and said, “I can never tell when you’re being serious.”
“He’s not completely white,” says my grandmother, passing me another photo of Damien eating spaghetti, “but that’s all right.”
I mumble something about mixed-race people being more attractive than average, but later I think that might be just as racist.
Not many of us in the family have met Donald, my cousin’s boyfriend, so it’s hard to say “what” he is. I don’t think he’s black, at least not completely. Maybe Latino. Whatever he is, he can make a great-looking baby. He’s staying home with Damien while Carly goes to cosmetology school, so they’ll look great all the time, forever. He seems like a nice kid and they’ve made their bed so we’ve all learned to stop shaking our heads and saying, “what a waste.” I, however, continue to use Cousin Carly as a punch line at dinner parties, to prove what I’m not sure.
Carly and I aren’t actually related by blood. My aunt married her father when Carly was a little girl. Carly’s birth mother is a drug addict who left Carly and her father years ago. We don’t know much about her. My aunt has no biological children of her own, but we can all see she loves Carly like a daughter. It was my aunt’s dream for Carly to be the first in her family to go to college, and together they made it happen. She made it through one semester before she met Donald.
There are easier ways to make a baby.
My husband and I have a plan to get me pregnant in a year or two. If we wait much longer we might have a baby that has, you know, needs. Needs we aren’t equipped to handle. Last week we bounced a check on his student loan payment, and my husband wondered aloud how we were even going to afford day care at this rate. He’s sensible, but it annoys me. I catch myself wondering if it would be easier to start over again. I got scholarships.
So far no one in the family has bothered us about it. I wait for them to eye my wine glass during dinner, but my aunt fills it nearly to the brim with Pino Grigio without even asking. I don’t really care for white but I drink it anyway, just to have something to do.
“When are you two going to have a baby?”
Sometimes it bothers me that they don’t ask. I wonder if they’ve given up on me already, like we’ve all given up on Carly and college.
“Look,” says my grandmother, pointing at the photo in my hand. I’ve passed a few along without really looking at them. “Doesn’t he look just like his grandpa there?”
And I have to admit, Damien does look just like my uncle when he laughs.
A few days later I’m standing in line at a kosher market behind a young Hasidic woman and her three children. There are children all over the store. Some of them are piling into minivans outside, some of them are clutching onto the sides of strollers like suckerfish attached to a shark as the mothers wheel through the aisles, sometimes as many as four children to a stroller. The young woman in front of me pays for her groceries with food stamps. I pay with cash. Before I have my change she and her children are out of the store and making their way down the sidewalk. A little girl with light brown curls — like Damien’s, but longer — runs to catch up, reaching her left hand out for the stroller. Four children altogether.
When I get home with the groceries there’s a card from my mother. It says “Spring Has Sprung!” on the front and inside there’s a check for fifty dollars. In the memo line she has written, “For a nice dinner.” I affix the check to the refrigerator with a magnet so it won’t get lost, and a photo of Damien and his curls that had been tucked behind bills and postcards slips to the floor. With the tip of my shoe I nudge it under the refrigerator.
Kat Carlson is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Fiction Writers Review. After four years in the editorial departments of St. Martin’s Press and Viking, she moved to the other side of the desk to earn an MFA in Fiction from the NYU Creative Writing Program. She now teaches in NYU’s Expository Writing Program and is wrapping up work on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter:@katcarl.
I am not famous, but my rooster is immortal. I am the poor son of a poor farmer, and my station in life is to take the cows to pasture, feed the chickens and collect their eggs. On Saturdays I tie a string around the feet of my young roosters, hang them upside-down on a pole draped over my shoulders and walk the half hour from my village of Yotsuya to the market in Edo. “Guaranteed cockerels! None older than ten weeks!” I sing, as I run my fingers through their feathers. I don’t shout like the other vendors of fowl in the market. There is so much competition that I have had to learn to distinguish myself. Thus, I sing of cockerels in the melody of “Uenimo Haru,”– “Plum Blossoms in Spring”– my favorite song, loved throughout this part of Japan.
Short soft combs, bright red, no barnyard nicks
Fresh cockerels! The brightness in their eyes
Says I have led a happy life
Pecking corn in the barnyard of my master.
Stewed or boiled they will make your family happy, too
Taste my cockerels, fresh cockerels!
Best with onions and plums over a plate of sweet rice.
Sweet cockerels and rice for your sweet husband or wife.
My beautiful voice singing of roosters and love draws people to me. They perhaps are reminded of their youth and past loves and spring and Buddhist holiday meals, are pleased and purchase my roosters. Sometimes they ask me to sing my song even after I have no more roosters to sell. I oblige them. We all go home happy. And they look for me and my cockerels on the next market day.
On Saturday morning of the twenty-third day of the fifth month, there was a great commotion in the market, not the kind of noise when a fight breaks out between two drunkards or a self-important and unemployed samurai thinks he has been insulted, or there is a fire, filled with tension and fear. This was a low hum at first, then shouts of excitement and fingers pointing, necks craning. Someone important was coming through the market, surrounded by buzzing shoppers. The throng swooped along behind a bald old man with large protruding ears that had more hair in them than was found on top of his head, and arthritic fingers that pointed in different directions. He wore the cotton smock of a street sweeper or woodcutter. Hokusai! Hokusai! The great painter Hokusai was passing through our market on his way to the palace of Shogun Iyenari. Hokusai!
Of course, I had heard about him– everyone in our province knew about him. How in a festival many years ago he had painted a portrait of the great Buddhist Priest, Daruma. But that was no ordinary portrait! The portrait was as high as a twenty-year old cedar, stretched out on the grounds of the temple, painted with a broom and great buckets of black ink. They say he sang as he painted, dancing with his broom and swirling brushstrokes of joy. As high as a cedar! The entire festival came to a stop as celebrators surrounded his painting, walking in circles around it in admiration, cheering him on. They say that just as he finished his last brush stroke it began to rain, and the revelers all shouted, “Help the great master roll up his painting, save the painting!”
“No”, said Master Hokusai, “leave it.”
And the rain washed the ink into the street and down to the Sumida River and out to sea. Revelers removed their sandals and danced in the inky Buddha stream, and walked home with black Buddha-dyed soles. They loved him, this painter who had been an errand boy, a merchant of red peppers, a hawker of illustrated calendars, an itinerant banner painter. He called himself Hokusai the Peasant and painted all of us–the tea servers and bean-curd makers, our sake drinkers, our merchants and lonely men and ladies of the pleasure quarter, our divers and fishers, our wrestlers and woodcutters, our children, our farmers. How could we not love him?
So, yes, of course, we all knew who the great Master Hokusai was. And he was walking through our market on his way to the palace of Shogun Iynari. The Shogun,who fancied himself a great patron of the arts, was holding a public competition between his favorite artist—the old Bunchō who painted in the Chinese tradition, and the eccentric Hokusai who dared to paint twenty-meter priests. Hokusai’s assistant carried a five foot wide roll of paper over his shoulder, some buckets, brushes and paints. Hokusai was in no hurry—he loved to linger among our people, slapping our backs, eating our offerings of rice cakes and tea, sipping our sake. Suddenly Hokusai stopped and held up his hand to silence our crowd.
“A chicken! I need a chicken. No, not a chicken: a rooster!” Then he spotted me with my last remaining cockerel hanging on the pole over my shoulder. Hokusai looked me in the eye—this is why we loved him so, how he looked us commoners in the eye, then painted us.
“Is that you I heard singing so sweetly of cockerels?” He reached over and gently petted my up-side-down rooster between his glistening red shoulder blades, then looked it in the eye. “How much?” But he kept looking the chicken in the eye, as if he were asking the chicken itself how much it was worth.
“For you, Master,” I said, “this rooster is a gift.” As you can imagine, I was trembling.
“You sell chickens, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then I will buy your chicken, is forty yen a fair price?” he said as he pulled two coins from his pocket. I held up my hand to refuse his offering, but he slipped the coins into my pocket. “And what is the name of this elegant bird?”
Name? Who names their chickens, when the next day they will be stew? But of course I made up a name: “He Who Dares to Fly.”
Hokusai nodded in approval. “Our chicken monger is a poet. His chicken must be a poet, too. Come with me!” And my newly-named cockerel and I traipsed alongside the great painter as the crowd parted to let us pass.
Half the market, it seems, followed Hokusai, his assistant, me and my cockerel to the entrance of the Shogun’s palace. The Shogun, dressed in his layers of silken robes, sat on his portable throne and explained the rules: (1) the theme of the painting must be of nature; (2) no more than two colors could be used; and (3) the artist would have thirty minutes to complete his painting. The Shogun himself would be the judge.
A coin was flipped by one of the Shogun’s guards. Master Bunchō won the toss. His assistant unrolled his rice paper, and put small black shiny stones at each corner to hold it down. He then set to grinding the ink on his small polished stone, and put three brushes in a bucket of water to soak. Bunchō kneeled before the paper in deep meditation, eyes closed, hands on thighs, waiting for the painting to come to him. He was revered in our province for invoking beauty between the lines, for leaving his spirit on the paper. We were all silent as he stood and bowed to the blank rice paper, asked his helper for his large brush, dipped the brush into the ink, and then into the bowl of water to get the correct translucency of wash. He bent forward, and with great round strokes began. Transfixed, we watched as he changed brushes, mixed cloud-like washes with bold dark powerful strokes, rotated the brushes from the wet side to the dry side with a slight shift of the wrist. There before our eyes a magnificent scene unfolded, of vertical cliffs creating a narrow valley through which a raging spring river roared toward the horizon. There, in the clouds, above the cliffs—one elegant raptor, wings outstretched, riding the updrafts from the raging water, enjoying the view as if looking through our eyes. Bunchō completed his painting with minutes to spare. He bowed to the painting and then to Shogun Iynari. The Shogun returned the bow.
“The name of your painting?” he asked.
“Eagle Rides Water,” said the Master.
The great painter had silenced the crowd, and we awaited Master Hokusai’s response.
As I held my rooster and Hokusai stood with his hands on his hips, his apprentice unrolled his rice
paper, two meters by five, and placed fist-sized coarse granite stones at each corner. The assistant uncovered a container of deep blue paint and unfolded the cloth that held the brushes. Hokusai reached down and took his largest brush, then tapped it quietly in his palm with his eyes closed. Tapping, tapping, waiting for the spirit to flow into his brushes. At last he dipped the brush into the bucket with the same serenity that one drinks tea, dangled it by the tip of the handle and waited until it dripped no more. In one instant he bent down, touched the brush in one corner of the paper and sloshed a single great blue undulating curve as he skipped to the opposite corner. He stood back and contemplated his blue brushstroke for two minutes, as if having a conversation with it.
The Master then uncapped a container of red paint and motioned to me, or rather to my cockerel. I handed him He Who Dares to Fly. Cradling the rooster, Hokusai took the bird’s right foot, dipped it into the can of red paint, withdrew the foot and held it over the can until the paint ceased dripping from its claws. He repeated this gesture with the left foot. He held the cockerel up to his cheek and whispered to it as if in a bedroom conversation, the two of them breathing together. Hokusai bent over and carefully placed the bird on the beginning of the blue brush stroke, then released it. My cockerel stood there on the corner of the painting as if wondering what to do. All of us surrounded the painting in silence, sharing the confusion of the young red rooster. Then Hokusai brought his hands together with one thunderous clap. He Who Dares to Fly squawked and scampered across the rice paper and into the crowd. Red foot prints cris-crossed the deep blue curve.
We all contemplated Hokusai contemplating his painting and waited for him to pick up a brush and complete his work. The Master bowed to the painting, and then to the Shogun. He had completed his task in six minutes. The crowd was silent as a winter nightingale.
“The name of your painting?” Asked Shogun Iynari.
“Red Maple Leaves Floating on the Tatsuta River,” replied Hokusai.
I wanted to cry.
The Shogun’s eyes moved back and forth between the two paintings, flickering as they made their judgment. Then he stood, and we craned our necks in silence. The Shogun bowed twice to Master Hokusai, a signal that he had won the competition. Hokusai returned the bow, then did something that is the reason we loved him so: he stood next to his painting and bowed to us, the merchants and shoppers from the market who had left their stalls and shopping chores to follow him to this moment. Four bows to each corner of the crowd that surrounded him. We returned his bow, then went crazy, dancing and singing around his painting. Then we dispersed to return to our stalls, to selling tobacco and sweets and plums and tea and sake, to sweeping the streets, buying fresh daikon and soy and noodles for our evening meals, servicing lonely men, and hawking chickens.
Market day, for sale
Red maple leaves in autumn
He who dares to fly
Kouyou tobi yuku
Akino Tori 市場より
Mark Lyons lives in Philadelphia. His fiction has been published in several literary journals, and has been read in the Reading Aloud program at Interact Theater, in Philadelphia. He is author of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, written in Spanish and English. Mark was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and awarded Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in literature in 2003 and 2009. Currently he is director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which works with immigrants and youth to teach them to create digital stories about their lives.
Pizza boy. Howdy. Smug leer, velvet bathrobe. Wobble of warped vinyl, glint of mellow light on it, a diva panting towards a climax.
Twelve fifty, sir. Thank you.
Grazie. Keep the change, beautiful pizza boy. Ciao.
The vinyl hiccoughs, the woeful aria snags in a groove. The door shuts, the locks lock. This ostracized soul. This man’s furious paterfamilias gesturing across the ocean. Go, I damn you. After that incident with that cherubic urchin. Palazzo, baroque moon. This scenario, this flash fiction, in Nathan’s stewpot brain. Cheap amusement, house to house.
One final delivery tonight, thin crust deluxe to yet another beigestucco house. Parked on the concrete apron in front of the garage, a customized Mustang, black, sleekaberc. Doorbell. A teengirl. Nice wheels. The teengirl sneers, Now they think I’ll behave. The house all metallic throb, the parents obviously absent. The teengirl in camouflage pants, combat boots, a t-shirt with a bomb shelter symbol on it. Eyes of ganja and the coy despair of the spoiled. Obedience in her veins, ultimately. Wiping daddydrool on the daddychin in the nursing home, 2040. She slaps a daddytwenty into Nathan’s palm and takes the pizza. Peace.
Not a bad night, not unprofitable, pockets packed with tips, tipwarmed groin. Nathan vowing (again) not to spend it all on Sheila, that trinketkook, that sad nonfriend. Subtract rent, food, gas, put any extra money in a dull account, trytrytry not to buy baubles and bangles, though he loves the tinny jingle as Sheila shifts and sways around him. Maybe Sheila’s asleep now on their thriftshop futon, in their roachratty duplex, a book about butterflies spread across her breasts. How badly she needs sleep, how she is so often insomniac.
I slept so easily as a child. Sheila pacing one night, smashing her knuckles against her eyelids. I was sleepy-la-la all the time. And I dreamed in pastel. Now this agony.
Drink warm milk. Count sheep.
That won’t help. She lay alongside him and sobbed against his collarbone, murmured, My sweet boy. Boy. Yes, he seems a boy when he’s with her, though he’s only twelve days younger. Nathan hushed her that night, other nights, until her body was suddenly slack against his.
Splendid, bonny Sheila! Golden limbs, golden hair. Speckled hazel eyes, the twinkle or slash of those eyes, how they convey her moods. Calculation of flattery or irritation if observed, if a masculine gawk traces her knee to hip to jaw. Flirtatious, gullible Sheila. But suspicious too. And no dimwit, no dumbbunny, plenty of smarts, this gal. Nathan’s gal, though neither have risked heart. You’re my neutral territory, Nathan. Nathan mulls this as he marches across campus. Manly mulling, fitting the idea of neutral into an unsullied niche in his brain.
Sheila talks of getting her own place, but only maybe, Nathan, only if that lawsuit is won. That history professor and his unlawful grope. Scandal! News crews chasing the professor, wee wee wee, all the way home. But no shimmyshimmy gewgaw clip of Sheila, only a highschool yearbook snap of her. Pustules on her chin, her cheeks, her brow. As if I had the pox. Medieval!
It’s a hisword/herword situation. Rumors swirling and instant verdicts on all tongues. Silly twat. Lecherous creep. Hottie wanted it. Pig! That ancient war.
Sheila counseled to relinquish miniskirts and tanktops and now she wears Nathan’s jeans and poloshirts. She stands alongside him in a mirror and they seem twinned. Nathan too has golden hair, golden limbs. Nathan too is beautiful. Pizza boy. Why not a model instead? Abercrombe & Fitch. A sailboat scene in Vanity Fair.
Sure. Or a catwalk fruit. Strut and pout.
This idiotic chitchat. Thisway/thatway. His deft fancy. Thisway: Nathan in a beigestucco house with a flabby bride, and on the cusp of sleep, the tiny idea of a sailboat scene, himself as captain shouting ahoy! to Sheila all jinglejangle and mock on the shore. Thatway: himself and Sheila, senile drool in the nursing home, thrusting scrapbooks at nurses, look, here were are sailing the bay of sleepy-la-la.
Nathan gets back into his dithersputter Jetta and away from that teengirl in camouflage pants, that bribeMustang. People’s lives! This subdivision is Nathan’s five nights a week and he has learned these identical houses, these streets. Sagebrush Circle, Tumbleweed Lane, Wagon Wheel Way. This world of industrious people and their spawn. A tricycle tipped sideways on a lawn. Welcome mats of rubber, astroturf, bristle. A woman in a nightgown vacuuming a minivan. Aluminum poles with American flags (fabriqué en Chine). Beigestucco democracies, family consultations about onions, mushrooms, pepperoni. Pineapple! Let’s get pineapple! Yes, a toss of pineapple chunks out of a plastic bucket, yum. Their god is a bountiful god. Massacres and famine flash on their TV screens between Crest and Chevy ads. Pity, but what nicewhiteteeth!, what horsepower!
Oh wise, skillful pizza boy, he knows all the shortcuts and addresses, never has to creep number to number. He scurries to doors with hot! fresh! delicious! pizza in an insulated velcroflap pouch. Thirty minutes or less, but no guarantees. Speed limits, traffic laws. Red means stop, okay? And please remember that other pizza boy, Tyler, losing control on a rainslicked road and crashing into a lamppost as he was rushing six pizzas to the Kiwanis. Tyler a cripple now, what a cheesy drama, ha ha.
So cozy, this subdivision, but a lonely coziness. There, on Manzanita Terrace, the house with the pine blinds always twisted shut. A woman there, a lithe knife in severe skirtsuits and alligator pumps. Put it there. Sorry, ma’am, I’m not allowed to enter. I won’t hurt you. Okay. A glossy 9×12 photo. This woman with George W. Identical smirks. Her hand on W’s sleeve. A madrepublican, but maybe she yearns to lure a liberalfuck. Not on the menu, ma’am! Though it would be so keenly Tennessee Williams. No pizza tonight here, no triplemeat sicilianstyle. This house already dark. The woman tucked in, political claptrap dancing in her head.
Glimpses, zipzapzoom fictions in Nathan’s stewpotbrewpot brain. Funny or pathetic, this humanity. There, that house, its gross crucifix in the foyer, anorexic Jesus in dirty diapers. This domicile’s plump matriarch, her deaddream of bathing lepers on a squalid island, but muskylove intervened. That flabby man slouching towards TV, how he (it amazes her) had been a virile lothario. The matriarch always verifies the pizza boy’s identify. The peephole blinks and Nathan salutes it. Children swarm the table, meaty aroma in their snotnostrils during joypuncturing grace. Midnight, the matriarch tallies obscure sins, books them into her prayers, the manslob asleep, fartsnorefart. Soon, tabloid status. A greasy stain of the Virgin Mary in the lid of a pizza box. Not a miracle, Nathan will tell Sheila. I hit a speedbump too hard that night.
Silver Spur Circle, another family, a girl always clutching a kitten, a brightly beaming child, prompt with a friendly hello. Ah, but there’s the father lurking. The world so hazardous. Strangerdanger/strangerdanger/strangerdanger drilled into innocent souls. Hello! And hello to you. The father stepping close, licking the pad of his thumb to shuck money out of his wallet. Keep the change. Pizza here night after night recently, the motherwife not home, unburdened of husbandandkids. This alarmclock mutualfund antibacterial family. Joylessness here, the noose of normality.
Judge not! But how hard not to judge these gentlefolk. Sleeping, dreaming, or maybe I’m ovulating, honey, so let’s and then mechanical, unromantic copulation with never a worry about the result, Adolph, Osama, pizza boy. Parental influence a nifty idea, but any kink in the DNA corrupted it. That newsblip yesterday, that meek and mild boy in Idaho murdering his family, then heating a bowl of splitpea soup. Think rubbers and pills, gentlefolk! Think spermicidal jellies!
Back to headquarters, Blackbird Pizza, a neon cube in a stripmall. Nathan takes the yellow beacon clipped to the roof of his Jetta and carries it inside with the insulated pizza pouch. The bosslady, polyester centurion, greets him. No fictions about her come to Nathan. Her oniony gloom, her soda, slurpburp, although he is sure she was loved once. Farewell, milady, he says and he kisses her doughy wrist. She giggles. You’re a weird boy, Nathan Harrow. And so his shift ends.
* * * * *
A love child you were, are, yes, it was love. His mother’s fusty hiss in his earhole. But his father is a nonmemory, his father only an article snipped out of the Tribune. Tom Harrow, local hero. He had caught a girl thrown out of an 8th floor window of a burning hotel. Clickclickclick of cameras (so Nathan conjures), the girl a blur of ponytail and frock, then cradled and safe against the chest of a beautiful man. Fantasy father. Nathan unfolds the article, brittle now, and seeks himself, but there is only similarity of eye, of jaw, of dimple, nothing of manner, of caliber.
Nathan escaped his mother’s flakysoggy moods and skippedtoaloo to a tiny U. Corebore curriculum, but okay, this one class about the history of war. Battles, blunders, triumphs, the consequences of victory or loss. The professor had artifacts too: a doughboy’s identity disk, daguerreotypes of Union soldiers, a tin flask with a bullet dent. And in this class, this sexy, sleepless girl, this Sheila. She lingered after class once, was alone with the professor, and he touched her hip, whispered a naughty hint. She swung the replica of a 14th-century halberd at him, sliced his eyebrow with its blade. Blood gushing! The professor stanched the cut with a batch of essays. Sheila ran into the hallway. He’s hurt (quietly), he’s hurt. Clamor kindled, law students rallied to Sheila’s cause. The professor denied harassment, I am not a lecherous creep, but nobody listened. He was furloughed, his classes canceled. So irritating to Nathan. He veers around Humanities, avoids the females chanting shame, shame, shame. Their mood so hot. Sheila not involved in this, Sheila only an emblem of that prehistoric hesaid/shesaid.
One day, Nathan hunted a vacant cubby in the library and there she was, sad, hard girl, studying in a wedge of white sunlight, the flick and flash of sun on the cheap silver at her wrists, earlobes, throat. She looked at him, candid scan. Hi.
Sorry about class. All those notes you took. Antietam, Iwo Jima, Verdun. Obviously important to you.
Yes. Not clockwatching, not blackberrying, but taking all of the professor’s words. That lecture about Verdun, France, 1916, the mud, the blood, the rats gnawing severed limbs, the lice nibbling soldiers’ crotches. Slaughter. And this was to maintain civilization! The professor had a battered steel helmet. Put it on, put yourself there. Nathan tried the helmet and suddenly he actually was there, a French poilu, filthy and shivering in a trench, and now he found himself here, in this library, with this girl, though hearing the whistle and crash of artillery, and he was saying, It’s okay, and a blush shunted and tacked into his cheeks and mouth. Sheila smiling. He took her in, her hazel eyes letting him. Golden hair, golden limbs, pink plastic sandals, denim miniskirt, white tanktop with spaghetti straps. Now with his clumsy tongue, What are you studying?
Swallowtail butterflies. Maybe I’ll become a lepidopterist.
Are you hungry? She tucked the butterfly text into a knitted satchel. I’m hungry. Nachos in the student union. Not dirtyflirty, but serene kinship. They scheduled themselves, their bodies, and within a month, Sheila said, Let’s try it, be roomies, sort of, with benefits.
* * * * *
Clunk, clank, and the Jetta sighs against the curb. Nathan walks the cracked path to the duplex, fits the key into the lock. Sheila not asleep, Sheila slumped on the futon. The TV, its volume low, its rabbit ears tabbed with foil, Laverne and Shirley coming through, schlemiel, schlemazl, hasenpfeffer incorporated. Nathan empties his pockets of coins, of wadded bills, dumps it all on their milkcrate table, announces, The loot!
Good pizza boy. Sheila pats her thigh and Nathan folds himself against her. She is in his clothing, jeans, a black poloshirt. He lifts her wrist, plinkplinkplink of wire bracelets, and he licks her wrist’s knob of bone, her knuckles, her fingertips, and he murmurs, Salty. Sheila kicks the bowl of dead kernels set on the shag. I popped popcorn.
Shirley rips away the cursive L of Laverne’s sweater. Laverne glowers and huffs. Stale laughter, fakey. The picture warps now, another channel coming through, a burly chef cleavering rumproast.
Maybe he didn’t touch me.
That professor. Maybe he didn’t suggest anything.
Buzz and slant, blizzardy meld. The cleaver flashes through Shirley’s waist, Laverne swings a pillow into the chef. Not this, not that. Keep the change, beautiful pizza boy. Ciao. Sheila plunges and Nathan catches her safely in his arms. He imagines himself as his father catching that girl flung out of a burning hotel.
Jenny Wales Steele has published fiction in The Ampersand Review, Juked, The First Line, Harpur Palate, Salt Hill, Verdad, Jerseyworks, DarkSkyMagazine, and many other literary journals, and she’s been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. A native of Arizona, she now lives in Tucson.
“THE DIG” From LION AND LEOPARD (The Head and the Hand Press, October 2013)
by Nathaniel Popkin
Charles Willson Peale, Belfield, November 24, 1818
I woke at half past four, drank two glasses of water, and with the wind in my eyes, walked past the sleeping elk’s pen and into the barn. There, I milked the two cows, remarking to myself on the double economy of doing one’s chores oneself. It is apparent that many a gentlemen farmer, if that is how I am to be labeled, pays good money for his own idleness and sloth. It is like purchasing one’s hastened demise. The body in motion stays in motion, says Mr. Newton, the body at rest stays at rest. I don’t need to be convinced of the better alternative.
I set down the bucket of milk, took a spade and a basket, and so I trudged, suppressing worry of danger, through the fetid late autumn field, which felt thick and even overgrown (and not winter raw or empty), into this splendid darkness. Breathing deeply as I walked, I passed through the grazing field, our small vineyard, and ducked under the bare branches of the pawpaw and into the little apple orchard. The sky was the black of wet ink, blotted in places where clouds showed through the darkness. One stares into the darkness as if it is made of substance, as if it can be touched or felt or even inhabited. Nothing in darkness is greater than darkness. In day, the experience is opposite. The air has no form, no mass. It has no structure. The air signifies nothing more than the state of the weather. It is cold, it is humid, or it is crisp and still it is nothing.In painting, the blue sky is not only an object of its own merit, but it carries with it various symbolic meanings. Likewise, clouds, the rays of the sun—mostly invisible to us—become the life force of the landscape picture. Naturally, Birch’s nautical scenes, mere paeans to war and national feeling if not for the otherworldly clouds, come directly to mind. And so it is, yet again, the opposite when a dark background—chiaroscuro—is employed by the painter. Darkness thus becomes, exquisitely, invisible. Only the subject comes forth; only the person matters.
I stepped through the orchard, taking care not to trip in a fox hole. Mrs. Peale says she will withhold sympathy for me if walking in the dark I fall into a hole and break a bone in my leg or wrench my back. I don’t tell her that at times like this I feel myself a hawk. (The savages who once roamed this land knew something, I believe, of the power of this feeling.) The hawk never sees the little mouse clambering through the leaves made papery by the hoarfrost; he doesn’t have to because he senses the vibrating earth. And thus I become the hawk and just the feeling of it increases the acuity of my senses. So on I went, beyond the third row of trees and there, finding my prey, I planted myself, now no longer the hungry raptor but as a small child alone amidst God’s creation. This is, after all, my own earth. As I hunched over to begin my work, the lipid heat of mold and decay rose to warm my face.
When Raphaelle arrived last Wednesday to sit for his portrait, he was armed with a thousand diversions. He walks slowly and now with a cane, but insisted I take him for a tour of the late autumn garden. “You aren’t bundled well enough,” I said, but since I think it best in these cases to push on, as the will only grows in proportion to its obstacles through practice, I gladly acquiesced. Mrs. Peale came to the door with a heavy blanket made of horsehair. My son draped this over his shoulders, holding it closed across his chest with one hand while grasping the cane in the other, in such a way that only heightened his appearance of derangement (the blanket trailed behind him). We made our way along the stone path now covered with a skin of leaves, past the greenhouses and, pausing briefly, I started to explain my deep appreciation for the place. “You will note,” I began to say, “once we rise to the bluff of the summer house, how gratifying it is to sit still and ponder nothing but the glories of nature,” but as I did so, I worried that such a statement might sound to my son as an endorsement of excessive repose and so I quickly amended the statement to include a phrase on the way “such careful study of nature has improved my ability as a colorist.” We climbed, slowly enough, up the stone staircase I had built myself, to the Pedestal of Memorable Events. Each of the eighty events is denoted with a little engraved star, but I drew his attention to a single star without descriptor, a space left for an example of the positive progression of the American philosophy yet still to come, with the intention, while looking him over, of suggesting that the place be reserved for a notable advancement of his own. But this too I amended on second thought. Instead, I said, and not without truth, the space has been reserved for the glory of industrial invention, perhaps the steam engine, perhaps the prosaic, nay ingenious, mill.
While eating our small, simple dinner of boiled potatoes and cabbage—Raphaelle spent a great bit of time making jokes about the austerity of our meal (at my expense), which Mrs. Peale unflinchingly and quite calmly deflected—I asked him to tell me how he thought he ought to appear in a portrait.
“I think you had better ask that question of the man with the pencil,” he responded.
“But don’t you care how you are presented to the world?” I looked across the table. Alas, the boy looked tired. His ears were blotched red, his skin waxy. Upon his arrival at Belfield, I had looked him over carefully. He was clean, shaven, and wore a high collar and a cloak. He carried no odor of alcohol, but seemed to mutter to himself rather frequently.
“Well, then,” he said, looking around the room, “why beat around the bush. Paint me for what I am.”
“That’s what I do intend,” I said.
“No. Paint me as flesh. A good cut—Now where’s the difference? to th’ impartial eye / A leg of mutton and a human thigh / Are just the same—for surely all must own / Flesh is but flesh and bone is only bone.”
“That line of argument has already been taken.”
“That may be the point. Surely you can improve it. I should think a porterhouse cut with some curls of onion.” He brushed his hair with his hand. Did I imagine this, a hand rheumatic, claw-like? I guided him into the painting room. The fire in the hearth barely glowed and I took some time to stoke it. I then arranged him in front of an easel and canvas of his own and put a palette in his left hand, a brush in the right.
“Then why not paint me as Raffaello?” he said a bit imperiously, pausing for effect. “You don’t get me, do you? Paint me in the style of Raffaello Sanzio. Shouldn’t there be a drop of guilt in my eyes? No insipid despair, what I want is guilt. It’s more pleasing.” He paused and I allowed him to go on nonsensically. “Anyway, I have always desired that—as a joke, you see, what you might call a gesture.”
“You don’t need to act a fool anymore, dear boy. Suppose I just paint the person I see before me.”
“And isn’t that the quite real Raffaello?”
For some reason he felt the need to press the point. I tried not to resent the constant go around. I was already growing tired of the crazy fellow. I wished to make his portrait as a sign of defiance and if he hadn’t that capacity then I would have to provide it for him. The portrait would resurrect him. “I will paint you as Raffaello Sanzio, one of the cleverest members of the papish religion and, my dear boy, a master of the portrait.”
“Then I shall die in the arms of a voluptuous whore. There will be glory, at last.”
In that moment I never felt more certain that I would outlast Raphaelle—not only Raphaelle, but every last one of them. My day that begins at half past four ends punctually at a quarter past ten. That’s nearly 18 hours awake, a full 15 of which is spent in the act of work: six on farm chores, care and feeding of the animals, mending and rebuilding farm utensils and farm buildings, and working in the garden, six in the act of painting—I am determined that the portrait of Raphaelle will reestablish my own reputation as a portraitist—and three in the planning of my cotton mill. Glory, I am certain, will come in the spinning of the waterwheels, even without the aid of my recalcitrant sons.
The rest is spent eating (one hour fifteen minutes spread over three light meals) and writing to my children. And who of my children, or even my wife, 20 years my junior, comes close to this example of vigor? Rembrandt? He requires too much sleep. Rubens? He very competently manages my museum, but lives in the delicate mold of a Roman bureaucrat. During his long supper break, he strolls aimlessly around the city or idles about the statehouse gardens. The second Titian, I imagine, works hard on his naturalist exhibitions, but is easily distracted. The rest I need not mention. Mrs. Peale tells me I am a wretched father for expecting so much of my children. “Let them be!” she says. I tell her I don’t get her point. “But they must live their own lives! One way isn’t better than the other.” I can only look on impassively, but with secret joy in my ice blue eyes. One’s children are, indeed, like one’s piece of earth. They must be cultivated, pruned, clipped, fertilized, and arranged to one’s liking.
With the wind beating down on my unprotected neck, now crouched on the ground beneath the apple trees, I began to dig. A single, last leaf of the apple tree twirled around and around, making a scattered, intermittent sound, the very quality of the noise of children playing upstairs. After digging through the raised beds beneath the apple trees, I came to realize I had estimated wrong—this patch of orchard had been harvested already. I advanced to the last row of trees—and here was the motherload of potatoes. So be it, there were enough to deliver with the sample bottle of wine to Tharp, a chore which Linnaeus hadn’t ever completed. He’ll only work, he says, if he is to be paid explicitly for his services. Room, board, and the infinite patience of his mother aren’t quite enough. I filled the wooden basket until I could no longer easily lift it and carried it to the path that runs between our houses. There was now enough vulgar light to see clearly and for this, and just for a moment, I felt a usual pang of sadness, for never do I feel as defiantly alive as in these earliest hours, when the world expects a man of my age and standing to be auditioning for the hereafter. Should I be spotted doing my farm chores at the early hour by some perspicacious neighbor who thinks he’s witnessed the installation of madness, it would only be so much more of a pleasure. Now, with the rising sun, any bird worth its weight thought it necessary to announce its presence. Even the creek, which I hadn’t noticed while digging for potatoes, went about its mesmerizing holler and I went inside to escape the clatter.
Mrs. Peale was still asleep; in fact, the house was as dark as the orchard had been an hour before. I drank two more glasses of water and went into the kitchen to fill and cork a bottle of wine for my neighbor. I searched everywhere in the kitchen and then in all the possible locations inside the house. I had already filled the bottle with good sweet, clear wine, which Linnaeus himself had crushed. But the boy hadn’t cut more corks (or so I thought, as it’s never possible to receive from him a “straight” story). Instead what emanates from his mouth is both diffuse and cluttered, and therefore impossible to discern. It’s a bit like the morning’s scattered wind. Since he was a boy, Linnaeus has driven me, with efficiency and predictability, to anger. I won’t stand the obfuscation or the undercurrent of deceit. It was only much later I realized his mother (and the mother of Franklin, Titian II, Sybilla, and Elizabeth) hadn’t the same studied calm as Rachel, the mother of my older children. This certainly contributed to his instability. But I’ve always studiously avoided taking pity on the boy. And so he left for some time and joined the navy, despite my admonitions against war, only to return with a monkey on his back, a sword in his belt, and a sad, shit-eating grin on his face. His sisters fall for it every time.
But now where were the corks? It had been my intention to reach Tharp before he became busy at the mill; I lost nearly a full hour cutting down a cork from an old bottle of whiskey I found in the barn, only to have it crumble into tiny pieces and fall into the wine. I carefully kept my temper in check during this fitful exchange, which also resulted in hitting my head on the pediment to the kitchen door. Luckily, the slight welt that rose above my right eye was mostly invisible to the unknowing eye. At last, I employed a decanter, whose glass top would have to suffice. Now instead of laying the bottle down on top of the potatoes, I would have to secure it standing up for fear of spilling. I did so, resting the basket every few paces and sweating profusely despite the chill and the wind, and now something else, a sudden soaking downpour that felt more like a remnant of spring than late autumn. Being a hawk would no longer quite do.
* * *
1. Charles Willson Peale, Belfield Farm,c. 1816. Detroit Institute of the Arts
2. Charles Willson Peale, Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), 1795. Philadelphia Museum of Art
3. Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Steak, c. 1816. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. Utica, New York
4. Raphaelle Peale, Still Life with Cake, 1818. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
5. Charles Willson Peale, The Artist in His Museum (self-portrait), 1822. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Cleaver fiction review editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of three books, including the 2013 novel Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and senior writer of “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment,” an Emmy award-winning documentary series. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.
Rebecca Saunders was mean.
She was the meanest girl in the fourth grade, the meanest girl in school, maybe the meanest girl ever.
It wasn’t that Daisy wanted to think that way about Rebecca Saunders, or anyone else for that matter. Daisy liked to like people, her mom always said to try to see the best in everyone, and Daisy did her best to do just that. But some people… some people there was just no best to see, no matter how hard she tried.
The truth was, Rebecca Saunders was a bad word. She was a word Daisy wasn’t allowed to say but that Aunt Casey said all the time. It rhymed with witch.
Aunt Casey used it to describe Rebecca Saunders even though it made Daisy’s dad mad when she did.
“Did that stupid little (bad-word-that-rhymes-with-witch) start anything today?” she would ask Daisy when she got home from school.
Most days Daisy would shake her head no, Rebecca Saunders had left her alone, and it was usually true.
She didn’t bother telling her aunt about the little things Rebecca did, how if Daisy accidentally made eye contact with her, Rebecca’s face would go into this mean little smirk, or how if Rebecca and her friends walked by Daisy at recess they would lower their voices so Daisy couldn’t make out what they were saying. That stuff hurt, but it wasn’t worth getting upset about. Everyone said that Rebecca treated Daisy the way she did because she was trying to get a reaction out of her, and the best thing was to ignore it, so Daisy did her best to ignore Rebecca Saunders and her mean friends and the stupid mean things they said and did. Ignoring meant not crying or shouting or even thinking about it if she could help it. So when Aunt Casey asked if Rebecca Saunders started anything, she said no. Sometimes though, when Rebecca had been particularly nasty, she’d crack.
“(Word-that-rhymes-with-witch)es need stitches,” Aunt Casey always said when that happened. “How’re you handling it?”
Daisy would shrug. “It’s cool,” she’d say. “I’m cool.”
If Aunt Casey asked today though, she would have a different answer. Today Rebecca had finally gone too far.
Daisy never could figure out why Rebecca Saunders hated her so much. She just did and she always had, ever since Daisy started at their school two years ago.
“Daisy,” she sneered at recess on the first day, “we got daisies in our yard one year and mom had to get a gardener to get rid of them. It smelled for weeks after that. I hate daisies.”
That was all it took. Rebecca Saunders and all her friends hated Daisy from then on. They wouldn’t talk to her unless it was to pick on her. They made fun of her weight, her clothes, her hair, anything they could think of. They came up with mean names for her: Lazy Daisy, Hazy Daisy, and of course, Crazy Daisy.
Her mom told her to be patient. She told Daisy to do her best to ignore them, to keep being her sweet self and eventually those girls would get tired of picking on her and then they’d stop. She told Daisy to make friends with different kids, nicer kids.
Aunt Casey didn’t think patience was the answer.
The first time Daisy told Aunt Casey about how those girls picked on her, back when she was still in the second grade and Aunt Casey was visiting from Portland, Aunt Casey told her to kick Rebecca Saunders’ (different-bad-word-this-time-rhymes-with-grass); she told her to punch her in the chest, just below her neck, in her solar plexus. That night, at bed time, Daisy told her mom what Aunt Casey said and her mom got really mad. She called Aunt Casey and talked to her for a long time; Daisy lay in bed in the dark and listened to her mom’s angry muffled voice down the hall.
The next day, Aunt Casey came over and sat down with Daisy on the front porch.
“Your mom totally put me on blast for telling you to hit that girl,” she said. “And she was right, I should’ve kept my mouth shut but look, I was mad, you know? You’re my niece and you’re perfect and it drives me nuts thinking about someone hurting you. But you can’t hurt them back.”
“Yeah I know,” Daisy said. She never had the slightest intention of punching Rebecca Saunders in the solar plexus or anywhere else for that matter. But she had liked that her aunt suggested it.
“The things with these types of… people,” Aunt Casey was trying her hardest not to swear, Daisy’s mom had really let her have it, “is that you can’t make them stop, as much as you might want to. All you can do is take it until they lose interest. Don’t do anything, don’t say anything. Just let it roll off your back, you know?”
“But they’re so mean,” Daisy said. “They’re so mean; it hurts my feelings and makes me mad. Why can’t I at least say anything back?”
“Because,” Aunt Casey sighed, “it wouldn’t do any good. No matter what you say, no matter what you do, they’re gonna be mean. That’s why you gotta be cool.”
“But what does that even mean be cool? I don’t know how to do that.” And she didn’t. Daisy was many things but cool wasn’t one of them. She didn’t know how to dress or what to watch or say or anything. She tried asking some of the other kids if they wanted to play with her at recess, tried bringing in toys that other kids might want to use. She even brought in extra Oreos to share at lunch. But nothing worked. Whatever it was at Baxter Elementary that made you cool, Daisy didn’t have it.
“It means like – look, when you’re cool nothing gets to you, right? Cause you don’t care. You’re cool. Being cool isn’t about what you wear or the music you listen to or anything like that. And it sure as (word-that-rhymes-with-spit),” she winced, “Don’t tell your mom I said that alright? It sure as sugar isn’t what those little monsters in your class think is cool. Cool is a state of mind. It’s the knowledge that you’re better than this. Better than them. They can’t touch you. Because you’re cool.”
Daisy sat silently next to Aunt Casey, considering her words. Then she said: “I’m cool.”
“You’re cool.” Aunt Casey said, “Like the song says They’re never gonna keep you down.”
“What song is that?”
“Wait, you don’t know that song? Oh man, that song’s the best. It’s all about how, life’s rough and mean and hard and stuff, but you just gotta keep going. And that’s the chorus, it’s like, I get knocked down, but I get up again!/You’re never gonna keep me down!/I get knocked down, but I get up again!/You’re never gonna keep me down!” She punched her fist in the air as she chanted.
“Do you have that song?”
“Do I have that song? Do I have that song? Of course I have that song. I have it with me, you wanna hear it?”
Daisy nodded. She really did.
“Let’s go then, let’s listen to it right now.” They went inside, and Aunt Casey plugged her MP3 player into the stereo, turned the sound way up, and pressed play. When it finished, she played it again. She played it again and again and again. Aunt Casey and Daisy and Daisy’s mom and dad danced around the living room all night chanting along with the chorus, I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!
It became her motto.
Whenever things got rough, at school with Rebecca or at home with her dad, she would just repeat the chorus over and over in her head until she was calm. She would, as Aunt Casey said, be cool. Cool people didn’t get worked up by mean girls or sad dads; they didn’t let things like that get to them. And Daisy was cool.
I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!I get knocked down, but I get up again! You’re never gonna keep me down!
There was a while there, after her mom died and before Aunt Casey moved back, when Daisy would lie in her bed for hours, her headphones jammed in her ears, and listen to the song over and over as loud as it would go. Cool couldn’t do anything about a car hitting her mom as she crossed the street on her way to an ATM, cool didn’t have any answers for that. But the song did remind her, that while she was down at the moment, and she was as far down as she had ever been in her life, she wasn’t going to stay down. Things would get better. They had to. Nothing could keep her down.
And they did get better. Or, they were getting better. Aunt Casey moved in, and her dad started to cheer up a little. And, while she still missed her mom it didn’t hurt quite as bad as it used to. Little by little, she was starting to feel like herself again.
The problem was, the more she started to feel like herself, the more she started getting irritated again by people like Rebecca Saunders. So when Daisy lost her favorite necklace, the one she found at the flea market that her mom said looked so pretty, Daisy lost her cool for the first time in a long time.
“Miss Fantozzi?” Daisy said, “I, my necklace is gone. I think it fell off when I was on the monkey bars at recess. Can I go and look for it?”
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said Miss Fantozzi, “but I can’t let you go outside without supervision. You’re going to have to wait until school’s over.”
“But what if someone finds it and takes it before that?”
“Like anyone would want that ugly thing,” Rebecca whispered to one of her friends and the two of them snorted with laughter.
That’s when Daisy said it.
It was weird. If you had asked Daisy, just a second before, how her mood was, she would have said she was fine. She was worried about her necklace, of course, but other than that the day had been going okay, good even. Stacey Grundin invited her to play four-square at recess and she made it to the king square. She’d gotten the report on the Pyramids back with an A; there’d even been an extra pudding in her lunch.
It was all going so well.
But then Rebecca just had to go and make fun of her necklace.
Like anyone would want that ugly thing.
That ugly thing.
Suddenly, Daisy was back at the flea market with her mom. She was at the table of homemade jewelry she liked so much and she was picking up the necklace and showing it to her mom. The necklace had a locket, it had writing on it, but it was a word Daisy had never seen, with marks above some of the letters. Her mom said it wasn’t English, she used her phone to look up what it meant. When they found out, they knew the necklace was perfect. Her mom handed Daisy the ten dollars her grandmother gave her for her birthday.
Daisy felt her mom’s hands lifting her hair up and her mom’s breath on the back of her neck as she fixed the metal clasp together for the very first time.
She felt the weight of the necklace settle on her chest.
Heard her mother whispering how beautiful she looked.
And stupid mean Rebecca Saunders.
“Shut up you stupid bitch!” She yelled in front of the whole class and the teacher and everyone.
Usually there are all sorts of noises in a classroom. If the teacher wasn’t talking then the kids were, or if no one talked there were always the sounds of pencils scribbling across paper, of pages turning, of kids squirming in their seats trying to get comfortable. After Daisy called Rebecca Saunders the bad word everything went silent. No one talked; no one wrote anything or read anything. No one moved. Daisy was pretty sure the clock over the door stopped ticking.
“Daisy,” Miss Fantozzi said after she recovered enough to speak, “I need you to come out into the hall with me.”
Forty-six silent eyes followed Daisy as she rose from behind her desk and made her way down the aisle toward the front of the class. Miss Fantozzi was standing at the door, holding it open. Daisy kept her eyes on her shoes until, halfway out the door she stopped, looked up and found Rebecca Saunders’ eyes. Rebecca looked, in that moment, stunned, shocked, a little afraid. Daisy stared right back with a look that said I meant what I said, and I’m not sorry, then she walked into the hall.
Miss Fantozzi crossed her arms and looked down at Daisy. “Here’s the deal,” she said, “I’m giving you a pass on this because you’ve had a rough year and because for reasons I’ve never understood Rebecca Saunders seems to have it in for you. But if you ever, ever, use that word again, at anybody, I will make sure you regret it for the rest of your life. Are we clear?”
Daisy nodded her head.
Miss Fantozzi said it again, “Are we clear?”
“Good. Now, go inside, take your seat, and look like you just got in a lot of trouble.”
“Yes ma’am,” Daisy turned on her heels and walked back into class. She kept her head down the whole way back to her desk and after she took her seat.
“Alright, show’s over,” Miss Fantozzi said, “eyes forward, let’s go.”
Daisy looked up in time to see the class tear their eyes away from her and back toward the front of the class. A moment later Rebecca Saunders glanced back at her again, Daisy held her gaze. That’s right, still here. Rebecca broke first, turned back to Miss Fantozzi and the list of state capitols on the board. Daisy allowed herself a little smile.
You’re never gonna keep me down!
Aunt Casey would be disappointed that Daisy hadn’t been cool. But then she had been something else her Aunt liked even more.
She had been awesome.
Chris Ludovici has published articles in The Princeton Packet and online atCinedelphia. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, and in 2009 he won the Judith Stark awards in fiction and drama. He has completed three novels, two on his own and one with his wife Desi whom he lives with along with their son Sam and too many cats in Drexel Hill. Daisy also appears in the 2013 issue of Peregrine, the print journal of the University of Pennsylvania Creative Writing Program.
I’m sorry – you were going to tell me something shocking. I’m ready to hear it, but I may sleep instead. I know you won’t take it personally.
I’ve been listening to music. Tiptoeing across the albums of my recent youth, times so far gone they show themselves to me in crayon colors. Of late, it’s been 60s stuff, and my stereo serves up a docile, or raunchy replay of memories. Convenient, because as you’ve seen, I doze off so easily. I’m tossed back and forth from then to now without much warning. Sleeping and waking are so entirely alike that I scarcely bother to differentiate anymore.
Reviewing my record collection behind closed eyes from left to right: Beach Boys, Beatles. Cream. Derek and the Dominoes… I drift past two decades and hear the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, that dreamy ode to heroin. It has new significance for me, wrapped as I have become in this velvety narcotic straight jacket. The thing stalks me at all hours, but if the pain is at bay, I’m content visiting old friends brought to life by whatever tune I happened to play.
I often wake with the sun shining full in my eyes and on my turquoise bandana, from which my ears stick out, gaping wide astride the peach fuzz. I know this because I’ve seen the effect in the bathroom mirror. Above me, the night’s bag of goop dangles from its hook, the rhythmic churning of its flow into my stomach ended until my next feeding. Did I wake you last night, by the way? I tried to be quiet – that sofa bed is so close to the kitchen. I keep a dish towel folded on the counter to rest my head, because it takes a while, between pills and drams and falling asleep. All those medicines at once, and so often. I have a spiral notebook that tells me what, and a timer that tells me when. The glass of ginger ale is usually warm by the time I’m finished. Well, fuck me…
I wanted to tell you about something. But the windows need washing. I hate the way they look now. Far below I can hear the traffic pulsing, scurrying to get out of town, away from this irritable heat. Lying here on these damp sheets, on the bed someone dragged over here for me, I can escape the staleness by simply pressing the button above my arm and flying back to crouch in the recesses of my brain.
I visit all kinds of things. A pair of yellow pumps. The inside of my mother’s linen closet, my giggles muffled in the folded towels. A dead dog I once saw by the road, curled up as if sleeping, his red bandana still neatly around his neck. The hot feel of smoke down my throat, gnarled oaks clawing at an endless blue sky that glowers. My catalogue of failed art.
But where was I? You all come and go, cleaning up. Sometimes I fall asleep talking to one of you, and wake up talking to another. Usually I recognize who I’m talking to. If I don’t, I pretend I do – I’m sure we were friendly once. Hey, can you hand me that jaunty little chapeau? It is so goddamn sexy.
So yes, I wanted to tell you – about the CD someone left. I’d never seen it before. On the cover was a black and white photo of a young man, hardly more than a boy. He reminded me of something, a wish. It wasn’t that he stirred memories; he was what I never dared imagine when I was young and so spectacularly stupid, when I settled for the pimply adolescent plots of others. The photo in my hand showed long hair escaping from under a felt hat, smudged stubble brushing a turtleneck sweater. Calm aware eyes.
So I slid the disk into the machine.
He was revealed in small mistakes, charming, raw, and then, because he offered the songs to me pure and roughhewn, they became mine. Soft, untrained voice, coaxing fingers – like scrawled handwriting in a diary. I didn’t drift as usual, but stayed to listen. You will think me a silly schoolgirl, but I became joyous and giddy, my heart pounding as if, long ago, a boy I had a crush on had smiled. He sat on my bed. I tell you, I felt his weight next to me – callused fingers touching my face.
So I lay, listening – and awoke a little. I looked inside the cover forcing my eyes on the words. 1970. Thirty years ago – no wait, more. I had been – two years old? Ten? I can’t retain a clear grasp on my age. The boy was now dead, which I already knew just by the sound of his voice. I searched the words to discover how he died, but past the delicacy of tone reserved for those of us who die before it is convenient for us to do so, it didn’t say. Drugs? I didn’t think so, though I bet he dabbled. Car crash? Too commonplace. Cancer? The face on the cover looked like it could suffer with grace, but still. Suicide, maybe. Maybe not. I think I slept a little then, because I found a ribbon of faded tickets in my hand, and breathed the sugar-smell of cotton candy at Field Day on the nubby blacktop of school.
When I awoke, someone – was it you? – had raised the blinds onto the evening, and the lights of the city, yellow life-like eyeballs, peered in through the glass. I pressed play again. I wanted him with me, this boy who hadn’t yet died too young.
This is what I wanted to tell you. That I cheated. I was cowardly and risked so little of value. I’ve dismembered more in my life than I’ve completed because I thought my imperfect hand showed too stupidly, too brutally. There were only a few relationships, and a few pieces of artwork that escaped my relentless euthanasia. Do you remember? You’ve seen them, I think, around the apartment. There had been problems, some had come out partially formed, twisted. I secretly liked them best but my vanity was suspicious of taking credit for anything born of mistakes. Such a fucking stupid old woman.
There they are, on the dining room table where I can see them – pelvises, scapulas, undulating vertebrae. The filtered sun warms their patinaed surfaces, their pits and fissures, hairline cracks, bubbles of porosity – and I am undone by their beauty. Drowned. With these, you know, I wasn’t cheating, and they share me in sickness and health. The soon-to-be dead boy sings in my ear: Your legacy, your dowry, your endowment are these. They are you. But you always knew that. And that was a shocking thing to tell me.
I can hear that the traffic has lessened, and the streets have purged themselves. The city races through the night heat, through my window, up my covers and onto my face.
The soon-to-be dead boy is singing as I look out. The music is over, but I listen, and wait as long as I can.
R. C. Barajas
R. C. Barajas was born in Stanford, California. She attended college, skipping from UC Berkeley to College of Marin to San Francisco State like a rock across a pond. She eventually garnered a degree in art. For ten years, she worked as a goldsmith. While living in Colombia in the early 90s, she began writing non-fiction and short stories. She has published in magazines and newspapers on a variety of topics. R.C. currently lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, three sons, and a pack of dogs.
The girl wondered if he was naked under the sheet. The young man lay on his stomach on a bed trolley positioned in the sunniest spot in the courtyard. Weeds shimmied in the cracks. The girl watched, waiting for the right moment to serve morning tea.
He was on his elbows, the sheet covering his backside. Freckles splayed across his shoulders. He had a biker’s moustache and a tattoo of a snake on his forearm. The braces on his wrists resembled a street weapon. She pushed aside the sliding door. The young man’s cowboy hat didn’t move.
“Coffee or tea?” She smiled. She wasn’t sure where to look, so she looked at her shoes. Calligraphy sprouted from her feet and ran into the path where it followed the cracks in the concrete. She tripped over it, but recovered and caught a bench before she fell. “What’ll it be?”
He put a cigarette to his lips. “Coffee. Milk. Three sugars.”
“Biscuits?” said the girl. Smiled. Smoothed uniform. Disengaged sticky cloth.
He blew out smoke. “Ginger nut.”
She hurried back to the common room and prepared a large plastic mug from the tea trolley. Sugar spilled, biscuits upended themselves. Usually, she worked the kitchens in the geriatric wards. Sad people, lost in mind and body, and wandering ghosts. The spinal rehabilitation ward was something different. All male. All her age. She couldn’t meet their eyes.
“Eighty-two percent are aged eighteen to twenty-four,” the professor regularly told the media. “Motorbikes and diving accidents.”
“Can they get erections?” someone at university wanted to know. The girl didn’t confess she wouldn’t know an erection if she tripped over it.
She took the mug and a straw outside and avoided the cracks. She looked at the tray clamped to the front of his trolley. Her hand shook as it always did, brushing hair and shaking hands and finishing assignments and meeting people. “Where do you want me to put it?”
He closed the book – something by Stephen King – and patted it. She took a cloth from her pocket, wiped the trolley, and put the coffee on Mr King, who protested. “I forgot your biscuits.”
“Ginger nut,” he said.
The older women in the kitchens, they didn’t have any problems, no matter how old or how ugly they were. They simply said, “Dere you go, my darlink!” and smiled and winked, and the patients smiled and winked back. Sometimes jokes were exchanged. The girl longed to know the art of the smile and the wink, especially when it came to men. She didn’t know what made her so unpalatable. Guys looked past her when she spoke to them as if trying to spot a taxi.
“Ginger nut,” she said when she returned, and she set the biscuits teetering on the book next to the mug. Mr King pushed one off.
“Ta.” He picked up the fallen and ate it.
The girl watched his muscles work under the tattooed snake and thought of how much effort went into those muscles before and after the accident. She saw herself lip-sticked with earrings and breasts swinging, sitting astride his muscled naked back.
“No problem,” she said, and left.
No problem spying on him from the common room window. That resolute hat. He came from the western suburbs, she knew that. She saw the mug turn into a paint can and the biscuits into nails. The bench was a toolbox, with his name on it. Insects big as bricks buzzed about his head. A row of houses made of beer cans and frozen pizza awaited him, she was sure; a room empty but for unreturned library books, and pairs of splattered old jeans.
Lorikeets chattering in the overhanging trees crapped eggs.
“They are the patients,” said her supervisor, “we are the kitchen. They need we treat them normal.”
“Everything else is for doctor. Now, no more, or I tell your mama. She worry about you enough.” The supervisor’s arms enfolded a lifetime of goulash teetering on tiny feet.
The girl hoped the smile and the wink might be a matter of maturity, and not personality, because if personality was the decider, she was gone. They prepared the lunches; making salads and sandwiches the dieticians prescribed and reheating hot foods that had been trucked in from the hospital’s main campus. Today, the patients had lasagne. It looked appetising, hot and cheesy, especially after time with the geriatrics, processing meat and vegetables into brown river sludge.
“You take in the food cart,” said the supervisor, spraying eau de goulash on her wrists and reapplying pink lipstick.
When the supervisor wasn’t looking, the girl used fork-fingers to straighten her pony-tail. She bit her lips. There was nothing to be done about the orange uniform, her own deflated giant peach.
The young man was the last to come in a wheelchair to the dining room. The nurses were there, talking with patients and helping with implements where help was needed. The girl wrestled with the food cart for a plate and was about to put the young man’s lasagne on the table in front of him, when she noticed her thumbnail, stumpy, grimy, workman-like.
“Can you pepper it for me?” he said.
Her thumbnail objected to its classification and parachuted the plate from her hand onto the young man’s placemat. Meaty sauce squealed and ran amok. She grabbed napkins to mop it up and heard a snort. A pulse thumped in her ear. She decided to smile and wink.
“I thought you were a big boy,” she said, her voice breaking only slightly.
“Oh yeah.” The cowboy hat moved up and down. “I’m a big boy. A very big boy. Wanna see how big I am?”
The closest patients, even the nurses, laughed. Her thumbnail throbbed amusement. Red-faced, pepper abandoned, the girl herded the tittering trolley back to the kitchen.
At clock-off time, she ran through a sea of deflated peaches, sweeping aside liana vines and bougainvillea, running, until she came onto a lilac bush in full flower. She turned and stumbled down a concrete path toward a red brick house. The path was edged with olive and mandarine trees, and there was a vegetable patch, sown the year she was born, overflowing with silverbeet, spring onions and nasturtium. A scarecrow flaunted the girl’s dotted old pyjamas.
Inside the house, which was papered in olive and mandarine, garlic sat on the washing machine and lonely pots sat on the stove. Through to the living room, where a coffin sat on the sofa and a tin of tobacco sat by an empty chair. The first bedroom contained a bed cut in half.
The second bedroom was the girl’s. It was painted purple; the bed covers were purple and the curtains were white. Violets lined the floor and the desk was of twisted willow. On the dresser, in a frame of eggshells, lay a photo of the girl with her parents at Disney on Ice. She flung open a wardrobe, injuring Minnie Mouse, and rifled fitfully through a row of white herons on hangers.
“Incomplete T10 paraplegic. You know what that mean?”
The girl’s supervisor leaned against the still-warm bain-marie, eating leftover rhubarb crumble. The girl scraped the patients’ dishes. She shook her head.
“It mean he no walk again, but sometimes he feel something here,” the supervisor said. “In his legs. You see he still moves arms?”
The girl nodded.
“Lucky boy. Lucky to be alive. Terrible accident. You promise never to ride the motorbike? Your poor dead father would not have liked the motorbike. Promise, or I tell your mama.”
As far as the girl was concerned, her poor dead father featured far too often in conversation, but she promised. It hardly mattered. The people in her circle drove the cheapest ugliest used cars, while she fought daily with the ignition of her mother’s Morris 1100.
“How about I find you a nice boyfriend from the church?” said the supervisor.
The girl thought she was neither that ugly nor that desperate. She was outsider enough.
“He has the same body, the young man,” said the supervisor. “But he never be the same. He is so young.” A false eyelash descended. “He is handsome, no?”
“How come you know this stuff?” the girl said.
“Me,” said the supervisor. She slapped her breasts, releasing the smell of talcum. “I have arms and legs, and I have eyes and ears too.”
It was like a painting, the girl thought, this pose on his elbows on the trolley in the courtyard. Again, the braces on his wrists, and he was naked to the hips. His shoulders were sunburned. Hairs like spun caramel followed the small of his back. She touched the feather that lay in the hollow at the base of her neck.
“Coffee, milk, three sugars?” she said.
She brought him the mug and three ginger nut biscuits. When he saw the biscuits, he put down Stephen King and pushed back the cowboy hat. Blue eyes, fringed with blonde. The girl saw the snake on his arm quiver.
“Maybe you’d like something else?” the girl said. “You like ginger nut, don’t you?”
He took a biscuit and studied it, and then it disappeared whole under the moustache. He chewed and raised his eyes as if in thought. “I like things spicy.”
“Right,” she said. “Good.” Her hands jumped into the pockets of her uniform, and she went to walk back to the common room.
He was up on his elbows, twisted around, staring at her face. The white soles of his feet hung limp over the end of the trolley.
“I don’t want three,” he said. “Why don’t you have one?”
“They can’t sack you for one biscuit,” he said. “I’ll say you were doing patient therapy.” He tapped the plate.
She walked up close. Smelled cigarettes and coconut oil. The cowboy hat nodded. She took a biscuit and sat on the bench. His face was two feet away. Sunlines around his eyes. He sipped his coffee.
“You always work Spinal?”
“Geriatric, usually,” she said.
This, she didn’t know how to answer, especially from two feet away. Her tongue split and split until Medusa filled her mouth. She levitated above the trolley, the bench, to settle in the trees amongst the egg-crapping lorikeets. Levitating was something she did very well, particularly during funerals, exams, parties, lectures and speaking engagements. The higher she flew, the faster her skin turned to feathers.
“Have you worked in the hospital long?” he said.
Bang. Back on the bench. “Um. Since I started uni.”
Her mouth kept moving. “Pays better than serving hamburgers. A friend of mine, she works in –“
“What do you do at uni?” he said.
And moving. This medusa of hers was moving like a demon, speaking of its own free will. Hot. It was hot in the sun. “Doing a double degree.”
“You like it?”
“The only thing I like is psychology.”
“At least you can get a job with psychology. Got to think of the future.”
His wrists stilled. “The future. Yeah.”
Medusa shrivelled. “Oh, crap,” she said. “Sorry.”
Lorikeets ran across calligraphy paths and crapped on them, and through a sea of giant peaches and crapped on them.
“I’ll take the mug,” she said, avoiding his eyes, realising she was yet to eat her biscuit. She put it in a top pocket. The spun caramel on his back glowed gold. She willed her brain to think. “You’re sunburned.”
The cowboy hat came down. “Can’t reach.”
His naked back. The heat of sunburn sitting aside his naked back. The heat of sunburn between her thighs … the coffee mug leaped out of her hand and tipped brown over his white sheet. “Oh no. Let me get that.”
So much for the smile and wink. So much for personality.
“Leave it,” he said.
“It’s my job.” She grabbed a cloth from her side pocket and swatted the sheet and the mug and Mr King, and then she bent and wiped at the coffee seeping into the cracks in the concrete. Calligraphy spelled out ‘failure’. Her neck was hot, her shoulders were hot, her hands shook. She stood back up and put the cloth back, and her free hand reached out and placed itself on his caramel shoulder. “All done.”
Hot skin. A tattoo snake undulated. Its tongue flicked, chemical receptors seeking moisture and air particles in order to analyse and respond. It struck and her wingtip was lifted and used to pry open his solitary chest to reveal a lake over which two white birds circled. They shared a fish, open-mouthed. His cheek neared her resting hand.
“Hey!” The shriek of goulash from the door to the common room. “Why you take so long? Have you forgotten morning tea?”
A hand reclaimed. ”Coming.”
His hat was lowered.
The supervisor. “What are you doing?”
“Tell her ‘therapy’,” he said. He smiled and lit a cigarette.
Medusa filled her mouth. She grabbed the tray and mug, jetstreaming smoke and feathers.
“By the way,” he said, “ I don’t burn.”
The cracks reached for her and she caught the bench before she fell. The supervisor waited for her in the doorway, making the girl decide whether to squeeze through face first, or with her back to her supervisor. False eyelashes blinked and blinked their questions. The girl went for face-to face. Halfway through, bosom to bosom, the girl looked past the supervisor as if trying to spot a taxi, took the ginger nut from her pocket and bit.
“I am, “she said through crumbs, “treating the patients normal.”
And she shook her feathers and retreated, for now.
Eva Lomski lives and writes in Melbourne, Australia. Her stories have appeared in several Australian journals including The Best Australian Stories 2012(Black Inc.), The Sleepers Almanac, Kill Your Darlings, Griffith Review and Island.
The girl was bored and wandered. She did not care if she was tagged, no one could force her to play. If she was It, she would not react, she would continue looking at the Wilsons’ plants, at the rows of bright flowers. She could hear her sister yelling after their neighbor. Her sister had been It for a long time. She was only a kid so could go in everyone’s yard. She spoted a stray cat and for a while tried to get it to follow her, but the cat was uninterested. She saw her neighbor running for base. Base was any large tree. The girl walked past a bunch of flowers and one of the young flowers stretched out to her and whispered, “Take me with you, my family is boring!” The girl stared, then yanked it from the ground. The other flowers were screaming. The pulled-flower cried in her hand. “I didn’t think it would hurt! I didn’t believe them,” it moaned. The flower had a raspy voice. The girl didn’t know what to do, she clutched the flower and ran. The flower was disheveled from just a few minutes in her hand. The girl had never heard a flower before.
The flower calmed down, and now began planning its new life. “I will sit in a jar of water and you can read to me all day.” The girl didn’t know what to say. For one thing, she knew the flower would only live a day or two, and also, the girl had school, she couldn’t just waste her day reading to the flower. She didn’t want to! The flower continued, “You can drive us into town and we can see a movie. I’ve never seen a movie before.” The girl wanted to scream with laughter. She couldn’t drive! And imagine taking a flower to the movies!
Her sister ran up and tagged her. The girl dropped the flower and chased her sister across everyone’s yard. Adults were coming home from work and they waved at the girls from their cars. The sisters saw the stray cat and chased it into the bushes.
The girl was mostly home when she remembered. “I picked a crazy flower today,” she told her sister. “It complains!” She wanted it back to show people.
It was coughing in the dirt when the girl reappeared. The flower said she was a terrible girl, that she had ruined all of their plans. The girl knew the flower was being dramatic, she had never agreed to any plans, she thought she was doing the flower a favor by pulling it out. She didn’t know it would hurt. She picked up the flower, who was silent. She stroked its petals and the flower was pleased, though it said nothing.
The flower loved being in the warm hands of the terrible girl. It was lulled by the rhythm of her running. The girl tried to rouse it because its voice cracked her up, but the flower was asleep, so she left it outside near the dog’s stuff.
Dinner was started and her parents scolded her for being late, but laughingly. The girl felt right and happy with her family. Her Dad was telling a hilarious story about work. He was imitating the Mexican warehouse workers. He was good with imitations. One of the Mexican warehouse workers needed heart surgery, and they replaced one of his heart valves with a valve from a pig heart. This sounded incorrect to the family, unreasonable really, but the man felt beTer than ever. There was a rasping from outside, and the family didn’t know what it was, but the girl cracked up and ran out the door.
The flower was so stunned by the indoors, that it forgot it was furious. It talked at length about the indoors. How weird the lighting was. The ceiling fan transfixed it. The family laughed at it. The Mom stuck it in a narrow vase and the flower drank the water greedily. It was in the center of the table, on display, and felt honored. The family continued talking, but the flower had no background and felt completely left out. It complained, quietly at first, but then began moaning and the girl had to shut it in a drawer.
The flower missed its family horribly. Right now they were slowly folding in their petals and quietly saying goodnight to each flower. Young flowers were being funny and saying goodnight to made-up flowers. When it was sunny, all the flowers were spread-out and ecstatic. When it rained, every flower’s center filled up with water and they gurgled when they spoke. Each family flower had a completely different personality. Some of the flowers were near silent, and just enjoyed listening to the talk of others. Other flowers were proud and articulate. The pulled-flower was closest to a set of flowers that had all blossomed on the same time day. Just standing near these flowers was pleasant to the flower, because their heads, petals, and stems, had been present for the flower’s entire life, and made the flower feel cozy in its place. The flower could picture so clearly its family mourning it. “Turid!” they would cry, for that was the flower’s given name.
The flower wore itself out in the drawer. It was startled to wake in complete darkness, with no sounds or breeze. It now understood it had made an irrevocably bad mistake. It had sacrificed everything for a girl it barely knew. It was no longer connected to anything it liked. Its petals were dry, its singy ways were over. Turid felt the dullness of a done flower.
The girl opened the drawer and Turid would not look at her. The girl plucked a petal and the flower cried. “I’m sorry,” the girl said. “What do you want? What can I do?” Through sobs, the flower requested the vase again. The girl got it and put the flower in. “Listen to me,” Turid said in a small voice, “my petal hurts because you swiped it. I thought only boys swiped petals.” Turid leaned against the vase’s glass sides. “Even though I’m in water, I feel dry. I have no more energy to be myself. I need to be planted back with my family,” it looked to make sure the girl was listening, “but first I want to see a movie.”
The girl put the vase in front of the television and found a tennis match on. “Together,” the flower insisted, so the girl sat and watched. She was going to be late for school. Yesterday, the girl had thought she’d have fun showing the flower off at school. She’d even thought they’d become friends and she could talk about boys with the flower. Now, the girl ceased to be entertained. The flower reminded her of toys she had had as a child that ‘spoke’ in jarring, staticky voices. Her parents had grown exasperated with these toys, especially when they went off in the middle of the night, chattering aloud.
The girl looked away from the television to observe, with disgust, the flower, who didn’t seem to be paying attention. “I do not like movies,” Turid decided. “Please plant me immediately.” Turid was limp. There was a gap where the girl had swiped a petal.
“I’ll be right back,” said the girl, and then she went off to school.
The flower sat in the vase in front of the television, waiting. The day was intolerable. The television showed tennis. The flower found itself wishing to be visited by a bug, and the flower as a rule hated bugs. The flower was ashamed to return to its family with a petal gap.
Turid’s family had lived from their bulbs for thousands of years. They had been traded and transplanted and the journeys had been difficult. Many times their fate seemed teetering, but they had persevered, even when planted in poor conditions. To be a flower born from Turid’s family was an honor. The bulbs had adept memories and remarkably long life spans and taught each generation of flowers about their past. Turid remembered fondly the bulb it had come from. The generous and wise nature of that bulb. Turid felt wildly lost to be disconnected from its bulb.
The indoors was a dead place, full of interesting objects. They were stacked on top of each other. There were places for people to rest. The flower tried to describe the objects, but they made liTle sense. They were colorful and lifeless. Though the flower had looked at houses with curiosity when it was in the ground, it now understood that inside, houses were devoid of real feeling. The flower grew so bored.
The Dad came home and heard the rambling flower. He walked over to it in a menacing way, and the flower kept going. The Dad moved to swipe a petal. “You are a terrible father,” the flower said. “You’ve made a careless and unfeeling child. She promised to take me to the movies, then put me in front of this.” The television showed tennis.
The Dad put Turid in the closet. The vase made a scraping sound against a floor tile. Then, the door shut. Dust swirled in the dark. A spider immediately visited the flower and the flower thanked god.
In the terrifying starless dark, Turid thought only about its family. It struggled to remember, and was rewarded with, memories of its own childhood. It remembered lile bits of songs they had all sung. There had been epic fights between flowers that now seemed endearing and minor. Every thought or feeling that Turid had, now felt like it was an expression or learned behavior of someone from its family.
It was hours before the girl’s sister found the flower. The flower was very disoriented. It had a web over its face. “My friend made that,” the flower said weakly. The sister took the flower and threw it in the trash.
Turid spent the day fainting. It remembered the outdoors as one being.
The next morning, the girl dumped cereal next to the flower and the flower grunted. The girl had forgoTen about the flower, and grudgingly picked up Turid and shook the filth off. “You have disrespected nature and the tradition of my flower type, and I will poison you, if you do not take me home.” The girl was so bored of this flower that she considered puTing it in the blender.
“You will die!” The flower screeched. The girl stared back at the limp flower.
urid began screeching in loud, grating bursts. The sister came in and complained. The girl grabbed the flower and stuffed it in the refrigerator.
“Murderer!” Turid yelled.
Turid sobbed in the refrigerator. My flower family has survived worse than this, Turid told itself, though unsure if it was true. Turid was so weak from pain and distress that though the flower knew all the members in its family by name, when it now tried to imagine them, it only saw them in the vaguest sense. The flower ached and another wretched petal browned and fell. The flower curled in an effort to comfort itself. It thought, A family is the best collection. It tried to think what should be its final thought.
The girl went upstairs and changed. She had thought flowers were shy, feminine creatures, but had found her flower to be overly proud, needy, and annoying. The flower didn’t seem to have a gender. It was not suited to be a girl’s friend, though the books the girl had read as a child had always suggested that girls and flowers could be close. The word ‘murderer’ had startled the girl. Only men were murderers. It seemed very unpopular for a girl to murder anything.
The girl retrieved the flower from the refrigerator. The flower could not move or talk. The girl looked at the flower and saw a complicated piece of trash. It looked like ruined decoration from a present. Or an inedible part of a vegetable. The girl ran down their block. Gradually, the warmth from the girl’s hand reanimated it. The flower felt like it was going to throw up.
“I hate you!” Turid said. The girl said nothing. Her eyes scanned for the kind of flower. The girl had a softball game later on and her birthday was coming up. She knew she wasn’t a murderer.
The flower couldn’t describe where it was from. The girl took it to all the yards on her street, but could not match the flower. The flower had no sense of direction. For the third time, they snuck around the Wilsons’ yard, looking for similar flowers. The girl grew agitated. “Here here here,” Turid chanted, leaking in the girl’s hand.
The girl tossed the flower in front of its family and the flowers were frantic. “Turid! You wild thing!” Turid squirmed in the grass, trying to obscure the petal gap.
“It is me!” Turid said with glee, “I have lived a life in only two days, and I have hated it!” The flowers were quiet. Not only did Turid have a wide petal gap, but the remaining petals were shriveled and limp. Even more startling, Turid’s head was partially severed at the stem. And the boTom half of the stem had already browned. They knew Turid had only a few more hours. The flowers tried to think of something appropriate to say. They could think of nothing.
Turid watched its flower family watching and felt distinguished. The flower could hear the sounds it had grown so accustomed to. The meditative moan of the lawnmower. Leaves flapping against other leaves. A few ants began to nibble Turid and the flower did not object. I am adventurous, thought Turid.
Rachel B. Glaser
Rachel B. Glaser is the author of the poetry collection Moods (Factory Hollow Press, 2013) and the story collection Pee On Water (Publishing Genius Press, 2010). She teaches Creative Writing at Flying Object, and paints basketball players. ”Turid” appeared first in 2011 in Issue 3 of Cousin Corinne’s Reminder, which has ceased publication.
In the distance where the sky met the great desert hills, or mountains, or whatever the Egyptians called them—Howard had no map to reveal what those great masses of land might be—where the sky met the land, it was nothing like Howard had seen in Colorado where he’d grown up among the Rockies, and he was sure it was nothing like he’d ever seen in film, in paintings, in any art anywhere. What he saw where the sky met the land was the shutter mechanism of a great camera, snapped closed in this instant. All this was a mere instant. It was an instant that spanned his existence and all existence he’d ever known and all he could imagine, all of which amounted to little more than nothing in a greater immeasurable passage of time. Where the sky met the land, it was his own smallness evident there, indeed he was but microscopic, and when this struck him he ordered a second whiskey drink from the man behind the bar on the deck of this little cruise boat on the Nile.
Howard could not look into the distance again but instead, closer in, to the land’s incongruous green swath along the Nile, and then to the water, and then much closer in, to the table before him, and his Egypt guide book with its requisite Sphinx cover image.
Howard began to consider a new film, nothing like any of the films he’d ever made: a woman on a Nile cruise boat to Aswan experiences what he’d just experienced when she looks into the distance where the sky meets the land, and she wouldn’t be able to shake the profound impression of it. The experience alters the very mechanics of who she is. She must set herself on a new course.
As Howard swelled with the stirred emotions of this inspiration, as the possibilities and even a storyboard for the film gathered in a great cumulonimbus cloud range inside of him, there came a wind at those clouds, a knowing that it was too ambitious—it would not succeed—and this again was his smallness evident, the smallness of his work. Roiling now with anger, he downed what was left of his whiskey drink. Really, he hated the work of film.
Laughter, cutting into the quiet, startled him; it may as well have been a gunshot. The laughter was from a group of four at a table some distance away, an unfathomable distance because neither he nor they belonged and this was all they together had in common. Among the four of them, French speaking, one woman in particular: slender, a scarf, dark hair. Her hair may or may not have had some gray in it. It was impossible to distinguish her age but certainly she was younger than he was. Her name: Anne, or Marie, or Claire. He guessed that she’d bought the scarf in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market, probably the same day he’d been at Khan el-Khalili, he’d been at Fishawi’s having mint tea, and closer in, probably it had been during the time he was at the corner table reading a Naguib Mahfouz novel, while an American couple at another table held hands, while along the wall four Brits in dinner jackets risked a sheesha, while an older Egyptian man in a galabeya walked in and out of the café a number of times anxiously expecting someone or something that could not be found there, while nothing really of significance was happening for Howard, she was in one of the stalls on the Sikket lane that led into the quarter, she was running her hands over scarves, and then she found this scarf with its rich stripes of orange, brown, blue, and green, more colors than at once apparent, certainly handmade, and its soft fabric, spun by bedouin perhaps, the highest quality. He expected she had negotiated price. She would be a tough customer. There was something disarming in the way she looked at you—he saw this now in a glance from her over the unfathomable distance between them. She gave the shopkeeper extra Egyptian pounds after these negotiations. Howard had done the same for the man who sold him a glass Arabian ornament. She’d probably seen the shopkeeper feed a thin cat from his own plate. Howard had seen this. Or had she counted out precisely the negotiated price? Either way, certainly she’d said shokran,as he had.
Among the market stalls of Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili: How much is it, she would ask, “Bi-kam da?” and she would say “Maashi” and she would say, no, she does not speak Arabic but could understand a few words, inshallah, please speak slowly, and la la la la, she would say, Maashi.
All this while he sipped the mint tea at Fishawi’s and marveled at all he did not know, all the histories and cultures and peoples and languages, while he was suspended there in the scene unfolding at Fishawi’s, while scenes unfolded everywhere else that he could never know, because he was not omniscient, and yet if he was so limited how could he draw from a reservoir of experience to craft relevant work? All this while she browsed Arabian tin lamps and onyx baubles and silver necklaces in stalls on the Sikket lane so near to Fishawi’s asking “Bi-kam da?” while inside the mechanics of her experience were more than those of a shopping tourist, one could tell this when she looked at the shopkeeper and told him in her limited Egyptian Arabic with a French accent that she could speak a few words, she could understand a few things, there was much more she wanted to be able to understand, as she negotiated the price with him and counted out her Egyptian pounds and told him it was too much, wasn’t it, she wasn’t speaking of price now, she was speaking of the human struggle, one could tell this, she didn’t understand well but she understood well enough to know it had been too much.
And had she in the Souk al-Attarin stopped to smell pyramid-shaped mounds of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom? While he was nearby in the Souk es-Sudan passing through aromatic clouds of perfume and incense, while exhausted, rubbing his eyes, searching for names of these medieval lanes, searching for the way to Midaq Alley because he’d been reading Naguib Mahfouz at Fishawi’s for some time, so he was searching, asking one man, another and another, Which way to Midaq, “Feyn, feyn Midaq?” And always a different answer: this way, no behind us, no, that way, until he turned onto a side lane and climbed steps and found what he thought must be Midaq Alley.
On his way out of the alley hadn’t he seen this woman, this very same woman, wearing this scarf wrapped once around and one end tucked, the same way he wore a scarf? And then he’d browsed the same market stalls. They crossed the same stones, touched the same objects appraisingly, one after another, and in these moments they were, in a sense, together, in a kind of union, in Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili. Hadn’t he seen her glance at him across the unfathomable distance? Their gaze locked for an instant, a mere instant, an instant that should have amounted to little more than nothing in a greater immeasurable passage of time. Would she remember the American man who walked alone?
The bar man came around and set a fresh drink on the table before him. Howard said, “Shokran, shokran,” and was feeling the second drink in his head and his heart was pounding in step with the rhythmic hum of the boat engine.
The sun was lower in the sky, there were fewer people at tables on the deck, and the cruise boat was still on its way to Aswan—he did not know when it would reach Aswan—and there were other cruise boats, too, one ahead of them and one behind, and of course there were more, there had been many boats at the previous stop, Kom Ombo. There were many more boats.
Howard guessed that in Cairo she’d covered her head with this scarf at the Mohammed Ali mosque, as women tourists were required to do, and probably she had lifted the scarf over her head and tied the loose knot before entering while he was on his way there, while he was following the wall as the guidebook said to do, following the wall she had followed, crossing the same stones, climbing the same steps to that summit of the citadel—and on those ancient steps to the Mohammed Ali mosque, she had given coins to an old Egyptian man selling postcards. Probably she had said to the Egyptian, “Sahlan” or “Assalaamu aleikum,” with a smile, respectfully, because she did not have the Arabic to explain well, to express, that these coins are a gift and please watch over yourself and your children and your grandchildren for they are loved. Wasn’t she, as she seemed, full of love? Had she the capacity to love all the world, despite all she had experienced and all she had learned on her journey of self? He was certain that she had noticed this Egyptian was in physical pain. Something was wrong with one of the old man’s legs. It was possible that the femur had fractured in a fall in some other part of Cairo, perhaps in Tahrir Square, a fracture that hadn’t been treated well because he could not afford the time away from work.
Howard imagined that she’d been moved to tears in the mosque. The tears had been unexpected, however they had come, so suddenly, from wherever they had come, perhaps from the experience of being in this mosque, of being so far from home, perhaps from something about the Egyptian selling postcards on the steps, but certainly from somewhere deep inside of her, no one could really know the source but her—and of course she knew from where inside of her it had come, one could tell that she knew. Grateful for the scarf from Khan el-Khalili, she pulled it even further forward and hid under its low hood for some time, crossing her arms, separating from her friends to walk alone under the opulent domes and multitude of glass bowls of light strung overhead. It confused her to feel so much in this place. She scolded herself. She did not belong. This emotion did not belong here. It was simply her sensitivity, heightened as a result of that which she did not want to think about, that loss, that absence of a loved one—or it was simply the allure of the mystery of this place—this place had touched something inside of her—she was telling herself these things—she was telling herself it had nothing to do with the death of her father—
—while Howard walked from the steps to the courtyard and then stood for some time admiring all of it and appreciating the effort it had taken a devoted people to create such intricate structures, the alabaster stonework, the arched naves, the pillared and domed ablution fountain, while he felt a stirring inside of him, an anticipation, though of what he did not know. In that moment he did not attend to what he felt. Probably it was only the tremor of thrill at experiencing something so important as this place. He took a deep breath. Hands in his pockets, he passed some time in the courtyard.
When he’d removed his shoes and entered the mosque, yes there was the beauty of the mosque that took his breath but there was this woman, too, this woman wearing the scarf—hadn’t it, hadn’t it been this very same woman, her scarf?—the only one lying on her back on the carpets under the great dome among others who were sitting, the only one lying and staring up into the dome’s majesty, probably her tears had stopped some time ago, probably she’d pulled the scarf back a little from her face, she’d come out from the low hood, she’d walked from her spot alone at the wall to the center of the mosque, with the soft carpets under her bare feet, and there she’d stood for a long moment looking up before sitting and then lying on her back though no one else was doing this. Howard regarded her for a long moment. She was like a camera someone had placed for the perfect shot. He wandered under the domes and the strung lights, crossing the same carpets she had crossed, while probably she noticed this American man walking alone, and then he stood for a long moment looking up into the majesty before sitting and then lying. It was an unreal sensation, it seemed like it shouldn’t be possible, like lying on water under morning light. He was some distance away from her but near enough to turn his head and see her, too, lying nearby, and then she turned to him—hadn’t their gaze locked for an instant?—while he could see that she’d been crying—while she could see something about him, too, something no one could really know but her.
It would be morning, he guessed, when the cruise boat would arrive in Aswan. By late morning she would be on a felucca sailing around Elephantine Island, in the Nile wind, her scarf tied in a knot or the wind would take it, sitting among her friends but leaning away, her gaze on the water—would she remember the American man who walked alone?—while Howard strolled along the water, hands in his pockets, regarding the swooping egrets, regarding the sails on the Nile, knowing that she was among them, and this would be worth enough to matter in the immeasurable currency of time’s passage and of all he’d ever known and all he could imagine.
Christopher X Shade
Christopher X. Shade has a novel set in Spain and France in agent circulation, and lives in New York City. His stories have appeared in numerous national and small press publications; recently, Poydras Review, Arcadia, andPrime Number Magazine. His book reviews have appeared in New Orleans Review andSaint Ann’s Review. Visit his website at www.christopherxshade.com.
I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen. At the moment it was pain but sometimes it was just a sensation. I sat down at the edge of the sidewalk and leaned over to puke. Didn’t. I stood, continued to walk. The twinge came back. I pressed two fingers into my abdomen. Pressed and pressed until I felt bone.
I googled appendicitis. Scrolled through symptoms. No excruciating pain. No vomiting. The pain wasn’t getting worse, and sometimes it wasn’t even pain. I wondered if I should stop weightlifting with my neighbor. I knew he had an anger problem. Weightlifting is no anger management strategy, but he also had a gym membership, so.
Did I work too much, masturbate too much? Too hard? I thought constructively about masturbating. Zoning out, I cupped my hand near my dick, deep in thought. Like this? I thought.
I thought about calling my doctor. Called my mother instead. She said to call the doctor. My doctor was a wonderful woman, looking good for almost fifty and coming out with another book on the joys and wonders of natural birthing.
I woke early for the appointment, took a hot shower, put on clean clothes. I moved gingerly, not because there was pain but because my senses were attuned to that spot deep inside my abdomen where the pain would be, if it was. At the moment it wasn’t. I stepped outside. Hunched my shoulders against the cold. Clenched my teeth. My dentist had mentioned clenching. She was a wonderful woman too, also looking good for nearing fifty, with a Bosnian accent and a glorious overbite. Her daughter worked reception, but her daughter wasn’t nearly as beautiful as she was. She said if I kept clenching, I’d need jaw surgery.
The doctor told me to sit on the paper bed. She lifted my shirt and placed her stethoscope on my belly. She told me to breathe in. Hold it. Let it out now, she said. She kept putting the cold mouth of the stethoscope to my body. Soon it was lukewarm. Again, she said, about the breathing. Again.
She unplugged the stethoscope from her ears and wore it like a necklace. Put its mouth in her breast pocket. Massaged my neck with the tips of her fingers. Palpated my lymph nodes. When does it hurt? she asked. She smelled like pine. I told her. She said Hmmm. How often do you exercise? I told her not much, but I started lifting weights with my neighbor recently. Oh? she said. I told her I walked to work. How far is work? she asked. One block, I said. She stopped touching my neck and said she was going to give me a hernia test. I’d thought of that, but the internet had mentioned an intestinal bulge. Turn and cough, she said. I coughed. No hernia, she said. Could you sit back on the bed? I did. She slipped her cold hands under the waistband of my jeans, about where I said I felt the—not pain exactly, but twinging, sometimes, like when I’m at work or walking or something.
Huh, she said. She kneaded with her fingers like my abdomen was pizza dough. Does this hurt? she said. No. Does this? She pressed hard, as hard as I’d pressed. She got to the bone and pressed and pressed. Ouch, I said. Was that it? she said. Or was that the bone?
I woke with a start. The pain pulsed. I laid a hand in the curve of my hip, probing. Trying to make it hurt more or hurt less. Trying to make it something. The doctor said it was strange there was pain when I was active—standing or walking—and not when sedentary. Well here it was, now, while I was sedentary. Sedentary. The word begged disease. Who gets strange pains that turn into cancer, into appendicitis? Who gets a hernia? Sedentary people who lift heavy objects. A desk. A guitar amplifier. Or in my case, a crate of dinner plates, not with my legs but with my back. Oops—maybe. But there was no bulge. And someone who works standing up isn’t sedentary. I was so, so young. I thought again about masturbating. It wasn’t like I was lying facedown on the floor jamming my dick into a warm towel—apparently that was how my roommate liked to do it. It wasn’t like I was doing it more than, say, once a day. And give me a break: my Ex was sending me all these texts out of the blue. Say she bought a new sweater. Kind of a small-talky, normal sort of thing to text about. But the accompanying picture would be her in the sweater, which was white, without a bra. And no bottoms.
What was I supposed to do, make a sandwich?
I thought about cancer again. Could I feel cancer, if it was tiny and inside of me? Cells are so tiny. I googled cancer cells. They looked like meat. This made me hungry. I made myself a sandwich. I took out some roast beef, but then remembered about red meat and cancer. Got out turkey instead. As I ate my sandwich I remembered something on the radio about cell phones and cancer. Something like: Using a cell phone makes a person three times as likely to get cancer! No, not so specific. More like: Populations with significant cell phone usage have three times the incidence of cancer as populations without significant cell phone usage! No, no, no. It had to be: Recent studies reveal that cell phone users, over a ten-year period, develop three times the incidence of cancer than do ordinary populations! That was it. But, ‘ordinary?’ What was ‘ordinary?’ Heavy cell phone usage for one thing. I vowed, eating my sandwich, to stop carrying my cell phone in my jeans pocket. I decided to keep it in my breast pocket. I never heard of anyone getting heart cancer.
I decided to test my theory about masturbation. I pulled up one of my Ex’s sexts and got my thing out. I worked with utmost caution. Didn’t tense up or go crazy. I was relaxed. It took a conscious effort. I felt like a woman being delicate and dexterous with her lady parts. There was some stuff in the Kama Sutra about relaxing during sex. Men in particular were supposed to take the hint. I thought about that for a second. When I was about to come, I didn’t tense up or flex or point my toes. I stood up and pushed and prodded the spot in my hip where the pain would be, if it was. Nothing. Maybe not tensing up was the way to go.
I went to a party that night with my roommate and my neighbor. Ordinarily I wouldn’t go, but I thought being social might help lose the hypochondria. Not that waiting tables wasn’t social. I had to be social or else I wouldn’t make any goddamn money. Also I would be fired.
The party would be social but not work-social. Maybe that was the trick. Maybe the pain was some pea-sized epicenter of my body trying to tell me work was unnatural. Heh, well. I didn’t need a vestige to tell me that. My body had evolved to tell me the only sensible activities for a human being were foraging and reproducing. Eating and fucking. Working for money, in theory, met the same basic needs, but working in a restaurant I sure as hell wasn’t making the kind of money that translated into a steady stream of reproductive work. So my body was in protest, and my appendix, maybe, or the pain, or whatever, was crying out: Hey, stop doing all this shit and go live in the woods and eat berries and snails and wild roots and sleep on dirt and defecate in holes and wipe yourself with leaves and make love to the moon and to Jupiter, when it’s in conjunction with the moon, for good luck!
The party was lively. There was a microbrew drowning in icewater. I rescued it. There was a mess of people dancing in the living room. I stood in the corner, clenching my teeth, clutching my beer. I realized I was clenching and stopped. Massaged my jaw. I opened it and it clicked painfully. What are you doing? a girl behind a laptop said. She was the DJ. I could barely hear her voice over the music. I yelled, Nothing! Then I yelled, What’s your name?
She yelled, What? I waved Nevermind and left the room. Went into the kitchen and saw my neighbor there. He was talking to a drunk stranger who was grasping for words to make a point. Hey, I said. My neighbor acknowledged my presence then turned back to the stranger. I knew why he was listening so hard. He was going to absorb what the stranger had to say then refute the shit out of him. He was going to deploy platitudes like ‘You’re missing the forest for the trees,’ and ‘Throw the baby out with the bathwater,’ and work himself into a frenzy over a point with which, chances were, the stranger probably agreed. It made me clench my teeth. I finished my beer and left.
Hands crammed deep in my pockets, I walked home. With one hand I pressed and prodded the pain until I wondered if I was causing the pain with all the pressing and prodding. I arrived home and called my Ex. Her voice was unexpected.
As in, What do you want?
She said, I’m studying for a Chem final, what do you need?
I thought hard, for a second, about need. I pictured her trying on sweaters and taking pictures of herself, like that was her life. I had the pictures already, so did I really need to talk to her? If she wanted to talk, then the pictures made no sense. The pictures were fooling around, and talking, well, that was what people who still love each other do. Not people fooling around. Did I still love her?
Um, I said. I hung up.
The next day the doctor called back. She wanted to do an ultrasound. When should I come in? I asked. We can’t do it here, she said. You have to schedule an ultrasound at a radiology center. I can recommend you one. Do you have something to write on? Yes, I lied. I scrambled for paper.
I made an appointment for an ultrasound the next day. If that didn’t reveal anything the doctor wanted to do a blood test. I don’t like needles. The last time I had blood drawn, the nurse couldn’t find the vein. Oops! Looks like it moved on me! the nurse had said, jabbing the fat needle into my arm until he found the vein. Make a fist to help the blood pump, he’d added once the needle was in. I looked at the nurse like he was crazy. The blood test throbbed like a headache the size of a pin in the crux of my arm.
The receptionist said, Can I see your referral? I said I didn’t have one, but told the receptionist the name of my doctor, the one with the books about natural birthing. Yes, she’s very well known, said the receptionist. I took a seat and stared at the other people in the waiting room. They were old, sick or pregnant. With two fingers I poked myself, trying to see if the pain was there. It wasn’t. It hadn’t been for a couple of days. I hoped I wouldn’t have to pay for the procedure. I was beginning to think an ultrasound was unnecessary. The pain was turning into another hypochondrial symptom scared off by sheer proximity to medical professionals. The receptionist said, Please go into the changing room and put on a tunic. She pointed. The tunic was paper-thin. It stayed on by hooking around its own left sleeve. I went into Exam Room 2. I sat on the bed. The technician came in. She was pretty. All business. Lie down, she said. She said, Are you wearing boxers under there? I said No. The technician grabbed a sheet and told me to lift up the tunic and cover myself with the sheet. She rubbed goo all over my stomach. She said, Exams usually run ten minutes to half an hour. She turned the machine on and began to knead me with the ultrasound wand. I relaxed and closed my eyes. It’s good to relax, the technician said. Have you had anything to eat in the last eight hours? A beer, I said. No, said the technician, to eat. No, I said. She kept kneading. She moved from the top of my belly to my sides, then down to my abdomen. She nosed the wand under the sheet. She got more goo. I’m about to fall asleep, I said. Please don’t, said the technician. She replaced the wand on my abdomen. She began the gentle kneading again. I opened my eyes and watched her work for a long time. She was glued to the computer screen. Her eyes were large and bright and intelligent. I wondered if all her patients watched her work. The concentration she wore was enviable. She guided the wand entirely by feel. I closed my eyes again and said, I’m so relaxed. Good, said the technician. Tell me if anything hurts.
Caleb True lives everywhere and nowhere. He holds a Master’s Degree in History. His fiction has appeared in The Madison Review, Yemassee and some other cool places. He exists online at Calebtrue.tumblr.com.
I prop one boot on the Mustang’s running board. The car creaks as I lean staring across its soiled white roof at the honey. Freezing November winds off Lake Michigan blast our faces, fluttering her yellow hair like a pennant. She hasn’t looked at me since I paid for her shoes. She isn’t reaching for the passenger door again.
Hands buried in my jacket pockets, I try not to let too much hope crimp my asking, “What about after?”
“Can’t,” she repeats, already turning away. “I have to work.”
“No, after,” I urge, inviting, not desperate. “Can we?”
“May we?” she murmurs, walking off. Or else, “Maybe,” and me too chickenshit to holler after her, hear it the wrong way again.
She takes careful, even steps because her shoes are new—brown patent leather that’s stiff, unblemished, her toes already blistering just from wearing them out of the store, she’d said. In the paper bag dangling at the end of her pink-sweatered arm, in the box with the freshly cancelled price tag, she carries her stilettos with the broken heel from last night. Whipping her wild hair back, swaying her pearl skirt, she takes careful, even steps away across the parking lot, avoiding puddles of this morning’s rainwater and matted clumps of autumn leaves.
My watch must be lying wherever I dropped it, probably beside the bed. A bank clock across the mall lot reads 12:08. I can’t believe I just spent half a morning watching a woman try on shoes, or that she picked the most expensive ones just to walk home in, or that I’m still not ready for last night to be over. I yank the car door open. Lukewarm air gasps out. Kicking to life with a snarl and a burst of exhaust, the red Mustang lurches onto the boulevard, shouldering aside two lanes of traffic in a clamor of horns. She might see it go. Her head doesn’t turn.
Through the first stoplight I grind the gears a little, ease off. More flow, less fight. Schopenhauer. Plus maybe Jay-Z.
Preppy bitch—but no, not actually . . . though she’d rather walk all the way back to campus alone, under threatening skies (or catch a bus, or summon a cab to pluck her from some innocuous corner), than have me see which Greek-lettered house she cribs in or chance any venomous sister checking scary-ass me dropping her off. Me without her number, her e-mail, her last name . . .
But no, can’t be pissed at her for what I don’t get: Is one not supposed to trip the shops after a one-nighter or drop half a G on blister-inducing shoes? Is it logical to get coldshouldered after that? What delimits the etiquette of a newfound sexual relationship? And what says it has to stay purely physical? Or one night? How the fuck else does anything get started?
Honks from behind prompt fresh gear-grinding. Creases from her thighs and back still dimple the red vinyl passenger seat.
Quicksilver drops flash across the windshield, corroborating a voice giving wet-weather reports over the crackling radio. I flip stations. No music anywhere, only voices, do this, go there, don’t have unprotected sex, buy Pepsi.
I sling my unprotected Mustang through the rain to the Jif-E-Mart for a pop.
“ ’Sup, Bigs,” drawls Al behind the counter. “Shit ain’t free, man.”
I suck a long time on my straw, staring at Al’s cadaverous face, his lank hair dangling unwashed around black-circled eyes. Al shivers nervously, dings up a customer’s purchase on the loud cash register, glances back at me, his dusted eyes sliding sidewise. When my straw broaches air under naked ice, I belch, grinning. “Want it back?”
“Shit,” he mutters, his swollen, pustulated fingers pawing his Jif-E-Mart apron. The zombie clerk from hell, doing his little court-ordered employment. So stupid. But at least it keeps his caseworker happy, and it does make the best damn cover for touting deals with our real customers, most of whom are too young white suburban to venture readily into our haunts, so who am I to complain? Smear a little Vaseline on the security cam, and we can bank more in an hour than the fricking store does all day. American convenience at its one-stop shopping finest: get your gas, biggie gulp, and a party’s worth of high right on your way from school, work, or home. We’re positively patriotic.
Legit spenders ring up, so I fade back to the soda fountain, refilling my cup, hanging till Al’s clear again. He asks, “Tap that honey last night?”
I nod, drawing on my straw again. “Sweet.”
“Yeah?” Al eyes me for truth. “You don’t figure her type, Chief.” His weepy fingers tweak the overhead smokes, popping me down a couple packs of Marlboros when the other clerk, some dumb Abdul, isn’t looking. I slip the packs in my pocket, tip my chin.
“Know what they say. Love is blind.”
“Shit ain’t cheap though,” he leers, rubbing his nostrils fitfully.
Thinking of stiff new Jimmy Choos, I raise my cup and mutter, “Amen to that.”
Softer I add, “We up yet?”
“Little left,” Al says, looking out at the gas pumps, as if we’re not even talking to each other now, just moving our lips absently.
“Tonight?” I wonder. Waggling his hand equivocally, he nods, still facing away.
Another customer comes. I go, Al hollering after me, “Check you, bro! Hey—least it came cheap last night, huh?”
In the doorway I shake my head, then step, drawing softly on my straw. The Mustang peels out on the wet cement.
No, it wasn’t a payoff. She needed the damn shoes. But was it the way she said she liked them, giving me the look over her fuzzy pink shoulder, that bare leg extended in the hands of the suited sales guy kneeling at her feet . . . was that wistfulness in her eyes? A pout?
Are all desires so cheap in her world? Is she? How far apart are we then, really?
Fuck, I think, trying to find a clearer station on the rain-smeared radio. Fuck analyzing this shit to death.
Don’t figure her type. Pissant Al, bringing that honky crap up. Didn’t matter to her last night. She looked right in my big face and didn’t make any Kemo Sabe jokes. Maybe it never occurred to her.
Anyway, the load sells out, the crew gets paid. Shoot a little stick, roll a few numbers, get fucked up before the next batch is cooked and cut and it’s heigh-ho, heigh-ho, back to work we go. Could be a nice meet-up, I muse, slamming the gearshift into fourth, flooring the pedal, watching the rev needle spike. Could be time for a change. Could be . . .
Home, the Mustang slips into its ruts worn in the gravel lot backing the apartment house. Stepping out into bitter wind, I lock the car, pitch my wadded fountain cup trailing its melted ice like a comet, and take the wooden stairs behind the old building—the shoe-heel-turning stairs of last night—two at a time to my dead-bolted door.
Dark inside. I kick my boots off. I can smell her on my pillow as I lie down. Something on the sheet crumples under my hand. I have to think for a moment before turning a lamp on.
A note, on pink paper. Her handwriting has flair, like she writes party invitations for a living. Bullfeathers 12:30?
Rainy afternoon becomes night. I sleep a while, fitfully, dreaming of her. Wakes me hard as old ivory, the luminous clock showing six. Jerking off would only make me feel more alone.
Six-fifteen, Al calls like always. He’s a prick but a damned regular little prick.
“Bullfeathers,” I insist. “I buy first.”
Enough for Al. I order a pizza, wash it down with a two-liter of Pepsi and another chapter of Kierkegaard. Do it or don’t do it—either way you’ll regret it. I ponder that over a few hours of Mario Kart. Then I strip and shower and dress again with care. My last girlfriend, Robin, moved back up to the rez a year ago after she found out I wasn’t enrolled in any of the philosophy classes I kept dragging her to. I haven’t been with anyone since. Until last night. Outside, evening wind messes my thick black hair. Time enough to straighten up before I’m seen again.
At the frat bar down on the lakefront, the men’s room mirror is greasy, but I clean up good even in stale light. I stake one of the green tables for our board meeting: Big Chief (aka yours truly), supply & delivery; Doc, production; Al, sales; and Jack-Tar, accounting, the collection man.
At a quarter of twelve, Al and Doc haven’t shown. J-T racks while I get pitchers. Just off campus, the bar has a Saturday crowd awash in animal musk, pierced with laughter.
“Lose any?” I ask while J-T goes ahead and breaks, too, the bastard.
Blond and buff, a beardless Viking, J-T lines up his shot, muttering into his chin, “Al’s pals—fuckers shorted the usual.”
He sinks a yellow stripe, misses the follow-up. I ease around, eyeing my chances.
“What was that honey’s name from back when?” I ask over the clack of balls. “The redhead.”
“Who?” J-T inquires, drinking leisurely, waiting for me to shoot again.
“That Greek Row chick. The money honey.”
“You mean Deb?” he murmurs, moving in for his shot.
I stand aside, toying with my beer. “What’d you do with her?”
He glances up. “Like, did I chain her in my basement? What do you think? We jacked a while.”
I grimace, checking the lay of the table.
“Assed her and passed her,” says J-T, sighing. “What else? Fucking waste.”
“That all she want?” I shoot abruptly, get a lucky carom off the rail.
“Why?” asks J-T. “You got her on the pipe now?”
“Not that,” I sniff, lining up a combination solid in the side. “Just, y’know, this honey last night . . .”
“You’re poking ’em again,” he says, shaking his head as the combo goes awry.
J-T lines his pale cheek up with his ebony stick, the shining white cue, and a blood-red stripe, his golden hair tumbling down over his purple-jerseyed shoulder so it brushes the green felt. Nordic eyes squinting, he says, “Listen, Bigs—it don’t mean nothing. Nothing means nothing.”
He runs the rest of the table. I rack again.
“What means nothing?” I finally ask, watching him break. The balls flee, falling down into dark corners, giving him his choice of which to go after.
J-T looks up with a hysterical, wheezy giggle. “Nothing, dammit! No harm no foul—bip, bam, what the fuck, Ma’am?”
I shrug and lean back against scuffed paneling, peering through the reflection in a windowpane half hidden under the gigantic, creepy shadow of a stuffed moose head. A black expanse where the streetlights end marks the open lake, fringed with tiny lights moving up and down the college drive. Twenty after twelve on my radiant Indiglo.
“What are you?” she asked me at the club last night, her beery breath pressing into my ear to be heard over the noise the DJ was mixing.
“Oneida-Menominee,” I said. “What are you?”
She laughed and downed more of her drink, then smiled with her whole flushed face. “An anthropology major,” she shouted. “We like getting close to natives.”
“You’re in the right place,” I said.
“I just did a paper on the Menominee. It got an A. What’s your name?” she asked, brushing bright hair back from her ear in an effort to hear better.
“Charles,” I told her. I could have drunk the sweat from her hair, her neck.
“Kalie,” she said, offering her slim, soft hand. It disappeared in my paw. She didn’t let go.
“Let’s dance,” she cried, tugging me off my barstool and out onto the floor where the mob and the beat crushed our bodies together.
I kick my heel to the old Eminem joint spitting from the Bullfeathers juke. Dumb to bring the crew here. Better I’d cut out early from someplace else, leave them wondering, than have them all watch my play. J-T stalks the table, scratching at his temple and chalking his cue. Where the fuck is Al with the roll? My steel-toes hammer impatiently, out of time with the thumping bass.
J-T, poised for a killer combo, barks, “Re-fucking-lax!”
I shrug. Thankfully, Doc sidles up to me with Al twitching in tow. Doc wears tennis shoes so white they hurt to look at, baggy black pants, an oversized Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. T-shirt, and a fat gold watch. His mocha arms are so much lighter than mine that next to him I look like the black one. The lugubrious way he blinks through his granny glasses means he and Al have downed a few shots of their own somewhere else. “Big Chief,” he murmurs. “Who’s what?”
“Solids,” I grumble.
Doc chuckles. “You’re losing.”
“No shit,” I snarl, sizing up the table and leaning in.
Doc grabs the butt of my stick and yanks me lower by the seat of my jeans. He warns, “Get your ass down where you can see the angles, then take your shot. You always got to be looking.”
I put my chin to the table and loose the cue, dancing the orange five into the side.
J-T eyes the dark-paneled ceiling. He says, “Guess there’s room for improvement, huh?”
“You tell me, Jack,” I challenge. “Deb called lately?”
“Hey, what?” asks Al, lowering his beer.
The ceiling fan turns lazily, its shadow crossing Jack’s gleaming hair as he leans over the table for a left-handed shot. “You putting something down?” he answers Al instead of me, so Al counts out four piles of bills, and from then on we’re playing for stakes, a much more banal illegality than allegedly accepting shares in sales of narcotics.
“Where’d you learn pool?” I ask Doc, pouring him a beer. Accepting the cup with a grave nod, Doc says seriously, “Crystals.”
J-T and I exchange glances. Doc’s a motherfucking genius at labs, but someday his nattering will get his ass indicted, and it had better be his ass alone.
“Law of nature,” he declares, hiccupping. “When crystals grow, the angles inside always stay the same, dig? Once they’re set, that’s it; the ratios don’t change, only the mass multiplies.”
Seeing me frown, Doc apologizes, “I forgot, you’re a metaphysics dude.”
“Epistemology,” I mumble.
“Who’s pissed?” asks Al.
Doc nudges him. “You, ugly fuck!”
“Law of nature?” I repeat.
Doc blinks. “It’s a well-documented phenomenon,” he says, his voice lazy as syrup. “Outside of non-chemical circumstances, the tricky part is crystallizing right in the first place.”
“Damn, non-chemical circumstances,” laughs Al, slapping Doc on the back, sloshing his beer. “What’re those?”
J-T sinks the eight; I rack, and he breaks hard again. I peer out the window. Quarter of one. I swallow my beer.
The frat boys bellow at ESPN on the bigscreen; their honeys line the barstools. Al, scoping the row of tight skirts, cries, “Holler up some booty, Doc!”
Doc moves aside, cell to ear. He knows the sickest women.
“What?” demands Al, catching J-T’s smirk.
“Booty,” scoffs J-T as he shoots.
Al gets defensive. “ ’Sup, then? Huh? You on that Deb freak again?”
“Nothing’s about it. That’s the goddamn point! She don’t call cause I ain’t hearing it.”
“Who?” offers Doc, off his call, gazing at the constellations on the green felt.
“Some careless twat,” J-T snaps. “A liability. Like you dumb shits.” He makes the cue ball jump a barricade, sending its victim spinning into the hole.
I line up my shot, bending low.
“Ain’t too dumb to make good bank, now, are we?” Al’s voice loses its terseness as he nuzzles his beer.
“More?” asks Doc, draining the last of the pitchers.
“Nah,” I say. By the bigscreen, a honey’s voice flutters up in anger, bawling, “Fuck! Off!”
Grabbing her coat from the bar, she starts for the door, but some gel-haired dude catches her to make nice. The frat and sorority quorum joins in cajoling her till she relents, tipsily.
I’m turning back for my shot when a flash of blonde and pink at the door freezes me like a stroke, like a heart attack in slow motion. She’s obscured for an instant by the big Greek brother holding her elbow as they squeeze into the crowd, more couples pushing in behind them.
Through the press of shadowy, moving bodies, her eyes find me, her teeth flash in surprise, setting me in motion like a well-aimed cue. I take one bounce off the green table, fisting my bills over J-T’s complaint, cross to the burnished bar for two full glasses, and roll right into the hard-faced, laughing crowd. Is she smiling at me or that college fuck? I have trouble keeping her in sight, but I see other things so much better now. The pastel paper fluttering unnoticed from her bag while she got her makeup this morning, a reminder to herself from yesterday—someone else’s invitation—except she and I came together at midnight on another dance floor, leaving which frat boy wondering at the very sensation I feel growing in my chest I can just guess. It doesn’t matter. All that counts is now. No sweater this time, but her blouse and skirt and towering heels are shatteringly pink, screamingly pink, pink as the earliest morning light and the curve of her ear and the pocket I’m aimed straight for, not about to allow myself to miss.
“Hey,” I hear Al around the corner behind me, from a direction I can’t alter, “what about Deb?”
Either way, I think, as I hand Kalie a glass, her fingers touching mine, and everything freezes around us.
Jason Newport recently received an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in many fine journals, including Chautauqua, where he is a contributing editor. He is currently revising his novel manuscript with a terrific agent and working on a short story collection.
Medusa still dreams of being beautiful. At night on her sheep skin-padded but still cold stone bed she remembers combing her hair, its dark sheen, the heavy still weight of it. She used to rub her hair with olive oil to keep it shiny. Once she had a lover who liked her to wrap her hair around his neck until he almost couldn’t breathe. He said he liked his women dangerous. She thought he was silly, but she indulged his desires so that afterwards she could lay her head on his knee and he would sing to her of meadows and myths. For some reason, whenever he sang she could taste honey on her tongue. Sometimes when she wakes up and feels her hair hissing and whispering along her neck she runs to the corner of her cave and vomits, as though she could expel this reality and bring back the one of her dreams.
When her siblings visit, they tell her she’s delusional, they tell she has never been beautiful, never been human, and besides, who said snakes were ugly anyway? The scales are so shiny, so green; it’s like having a head full of jewels, they say. Sometimes she hates them, and imagines what it would be like to cut their heads off—they’re not mortal anyway. She’s the only one with that distinction. Her mortality is why she thinks that she was once human; in a time so misty and long ago that everyone else has forgotten. It’s the proof she strokes in her mind like a worry-stone. She’s always glad when her sisters leave. It’s exhausting never being able to look at each other, dancing around the cavern with eyes averted.
Her only pleasure is the statues in front of her home, all of the would-be heroes frozen in their last moments. So many beautiful but unmoving young men, their curly hair, their armored chests, they are her own very boring harem. She loves their horses with proud arched necks, nostrils flaring, and ears perked. She sits on them and tries to remember riding. Her favorite statue is the one she caught by surprise, he doesn’t even look frightened; he’s standing at the edge of a cliff looking out at the sea. His chest is bare, his tunic down around his hips, his hair clinging to his face. He looks like he’s just finished bathing in the nearby stream, probably some sort of ritual before he comes to her cave to kill her. She likes to stroke his stone cheek and embrace his stone chest. She tells him stories, and pretends he’s her husband. She’s named him Achilles, because she thinks Achilles would be brave enough to marry her, if anyone ever would be. Besides, unless she looked at his heel, he’d be safe.
She brings out cups of wine, one for each of them. She asks him, how was your day? She closes her eyes and tries to feel his hand on her breast. She wants more than anything to be touched with tenderness. When her eyes are closed he sits on the ground next to her, crosses his legs and reaches for a cup of wine. He tells her about going to a city, bustling with people, about the women wearing clothes dyed scarlet or ocean-blue. He says, I brought you some silk. He places the cloth around her shoulders to frame her face. I hope our children are as beautiful as you one day. Then she opens her eyes, her fancy-weaving ability stretched as far as it will go for now. She stands on tip-toe and kisses behind the statue’s left ear. She supposes she must be thankful for small blessings—she could be as imagination-less as her sisters, after all.
One night she wakes from her dreams to the earth vibrating beneath her ear. She sits up in bed and the wind is a Siren outside singing of destruction. She can hear the ocean crashing against the cliffs, restless with its boundaries and ready to crawl across the earth. The snakes in her hair writhe and twist and she holds her hands to her head to try and still the scaly bodies. She wonders if the wind is really that strong tonight or if there are actually Sirens outside? Should she stop up her ears with candle wax like Odysseus? Can one monster be killed by another? She feels ridiculous in her fear, as though someone somewhere is mocking her. As pebbles on the floor rattle she tells herself a story about a young shepherd who got meet the god Pan. She’s certain she had a mother who told this story once upon a time; a very mortal mother with kind eyes and hands with calluses from weaving.
She must have fallen back asleep because she wakes again to silence. The wind is resting from its labors and the world is still. She gets up from her bed and goes outside. Then she sees her statues. The ground is covered in rubble, in bits and pieces of horses and men, a tail, a muscular arm, an armored torso; all shattered, all broken. She doesn’t stop to assess the damage fully, she runs towards the cliffs, even though she knows what she will find there. If these statues farther from the sea are broke, surely her Achilles will be too. But what she knows and what she wants won’t shake hands, so she runs. At the cliffs there is almost nothing to see, the only thing close to whole is his head. She holds it to her chest, pressing until it hurts. She wants to cry but her eyes are dry, and her hair dances triumphantly. The snakes are glad to see beauty destroyed, she is certain. Ugliness loves ugliness. She carries the head of her make-believe husband back to her cave, a plan gestating in her mind. She will take the knife she uses to pry open oysters to the snakes. She’ll cut herself free. She will she will she will.
She can’t cut the snakes, she puts the knife to one and presses the blade home and then collapses from the pain. She tries again, her hand a quavering rabbit and then she cries the way she hasn’t been able to cry for her statues. Now she recites a mantra before she goes to bed, before she eats, before she goes outside to relieve herself. I am the snakes and the snakes are me. She puts the stone head of Achilles in a corner, its face turned towards the wall. She doesn’t dream. She waits for another hero to come, as they always do.
She isn’t so good at keeping track of time anymore, but it feels like an age and half before another hero arrives. She hears his footsteps, hears the gentle clank of his sword against his armor. She can see out of the corner of her left eye his shadow against the wall of her cave. He says, I am Perseus, and I have come to slay you. She smiles to herself, because heroes are always so foolish, with their ideas of honorable combat. Once, she would have simply turned around and turned him to stone where he stood. She would have savored the moment of looking at his youthful face while it was still flesh and blood. She can see by his shadow that he’s carrying something circular, something that isn’t a shield. Are you afraid, Medusa? His voice carries mockery. He’s trying to taunt her, to make her act foolish. Now she understands the circular object in his hands: he’s going to try the mirror trick.
Others have tried before him. But lucky boy, she’s going to make him famous. She waits, she listens to his breath, and she fancies she can hear his blood thudding in his veins. The snakes on her head are quiescent. He steps in front of her and holds up the bronze mirror. She smiles again and glances at Achilles in the corner. She says, did you know, Perseus, that I once had a lover?
Jennifer Pullen grew up in Washington State surrounded by trees and books. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature, and received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Eastern Washington University. Presently she is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and a teacher at Ohio University. She writes with the loving support of her husband, mother, father, and a large orange cat named Widdershins. Her current project is a collection of myth-based stories which have appeared in Going Down Swinging (Australia) and The Rubbertop Review.
In spite of the anxiety that flares in my stomach, I get ready to move 300 miles away. The upcoming relocation fills my gut with disturbances—tiny cyclones whirring counterclockwise through the commonly known organ. These feel like hundreds of small cyclones the size of my grandmother’s Lucite earrings, humming and moving excitedly through this interior terrain. It’s a state of abnormality, a place with no homeostasis. I know inherently that my stomach is an environment that prefers the company of dinner rolls, it’s the part of my physical “instrumentation” that would rather be soothed by my fat Nona’s hands smelling of yeast, her body reliably covered in a clean-smelling cotton dress, not the bitter pill I call change.
Instead I’m forced to brave a major adjustment (a commotion) that comes at me like a wind-and-pressure system, when what I really want is this: to lean into someone’s muscle and skin while I eat toasted almond slivers and wear three-quarter-length evening gloves, like an imaginary Audrey Hepburn in love with a man who’s a father figure. What I want is ease rolled inside luxury, topped with a dollop of passivity—my life as calendula petals lazing around beautifully inside a garden salad. I want to idle away time on a velvet chair with an iridescent ribbon in my bushy hair, while a cello plays darkly yet softly in the background. Instead of coping with change, I want to be surrounded by people with manners, the kinds of social graces that come with good breeding and a strong sense of curiosity.
But there are no three-quarter-length gloves I can easily find. They are beyond my reach. Instead there’s me, alone, staring across a basement of corrugated boxes soon to be filled with the perfunctory objects of my daily life, and the other more precious things I keep— talismans to elicit something longed for: good futures for my children, a promise from the universe that I will never be confined to a bed in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital. I long for a trip to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and time to write from an Urgent Place. Moving only interrupts the flow of everything. My capacity to desire anything is divided by displacement into tiny pieces of colorless confetti.
These goods I own I will allow to be packed by a team of strange men within forty-eight hours and hauled inside the sunless cargo area of a big truck. This truck will pass horse farms, Guns & Ammo shops, and the hazy condition that makes the Blue Ridge Mountains blue. This will be the trip up and over the Mason-Dixon Line into my once-again northeast.
But what I want is to take the north out of it completely. I want to kick concern and vigilance in the teeth. What I long for is due east in the direction of Ravello, a town in the Mediterranean hills vaulted high above the Amalfi Coast. It’s a place where the zest of lemons moves deliciously, surreptitiously, into the heart and settles like a small white feather on my honeymoon memory, a long-ago trip that fills me with delight. Birds in Ravello chirp like happy, balking ladies in pink girdles reaching gently for the last arugula sandwich on a plate. Following the rules of nomenclature, we made love in Ravello more than once at the Amoré Hotel—with the long-ago man who smelled like powder and green tea from a freshly opened pouch. I want to go back there again and feel that freedom and desire more than once.
What I really want are days that stretch into nothing but what I want: the under-cooked piece of scrod handed back to a waiter and an existence where bonbons are placed deliberately and reliably in my candy dish. I want guilt-free desire. And a life of disdain for clutter in the house, in the mind, in the heart, of disdain for the deadness of conversation packed with nothing I want to hear. I want only what can fit in a small box, a wise woman once said to me—the deed to a debt-free home, prospectuses on issued stocks, a locket with the faces of my children.
What I want is to guillotine the hungry ghost of guilt that comes with my deepest desire. I want to trick it with an invitation to a séance that tells it like it is, gives me what I want without strings attached. I want the wit and wisdom to quell the ghost with scones and a true story about contentment and willingness to roll with change. With an open heart I want to laugh in the ghost’s face, sneer at its cruelty, do a hokey-pokey turnaround with a dirty but luck- drenched penny in my pocket, and a dream stashed in my new shoe 300 miles from here.
Grace Maselli is at work on a collection of essays and poems. She studied for seven years in New York City at the Writers Studio founded by American poet and author Philip Schultz. Her work has recently appeared in 42 Magazine, Poydras Review, Streetlight Magazine and is forthcoming in The Penman Review. She lives outside Philadelphia.
After dinner, Maya steered the minivan through the icy streets to their own house, Rhodes silent next to her in the passenger seat, Nash fussing in a low-level but constant way.
When they got inside, Rhodes suddenly became drunkenly exuberant. “Merry Christmas, wife, child!” he said, hugging Maya and Nash at the same time.
Maya had been peeling Nash’s snowsuit off and now the baby and the snowsuit were caught between them. Nash made a startled noise of protest and Maya propped her free arm against the wall so they wouldn’t all topple over.
Rhodes kissed her, and then Nash. “This is the best Christmas ever,” he said.
Maya couldn’t decide whether she agreed or disagreed, so she just kissed him back. “Go to bed, honey,” she said. “I’ll be there in a little while.”
Rhodes staggered away toward the bedroom. Maya tugged Nash’s snowsuit off and threw it over a chair. Then she carried Nash into the kitchen. She tried to put him in his high chair but he clung to her like a barnacle.
“Okay,” Maya said softly. “We’ll do it one-handed.”
She held him on her hip, and began making two bottles of formula, one for now, one for the middle of the night. Nash fussed and she hitched him up so his head could rest on her shoulder.
“Merry Christmas,” a voice said and Maya spun around.
“You startled me,” she said to Mouse McGrath, who stood in the doorway. He’d been passed out on their couch that morning and Maya had covered him with Christmas tablecloth so he wouldn’t be visible in the photos of Nash unwrapping presents. The tablecloth was still over his shoulders.
“Sorry.” He wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I woke up when you came in.”
“How do you feel?” Maya asked.
“Not so hot,” Mouse said, and Maya smiled at the understatement.
“Can I get you something?” she said. “A cup of tea, maybe?”
“I’d love a beer,” he said.
“Help yourself, they’re in the fridge,” Maya said.
Mouse got a beer and sat at the kitchen table with it while Maya put the tops on the bottles, crooning softly to Nash and patting his back.
Mouse took a drink of his beer. “So is Christmas over?” he asked suddenly.
How long did he think he’d been sleeping? “Pretty much,” she said. “It’s after nine p.m.”
“Good.” Mouse nodded. “I don’t like Christmas.” He paused. “Stressful.”
“I think everyone finds it stressful,” Maya said.
“Yeah, well.” He took another drink. “I’m happy it’s over and done for another year.”
“Me, too,” Maya said, and realized she meant it. “Would you like something to eat, Mouse?”
“Could I have a grilled cheese sandwich?” he asked.
She was a little startled by the specificity of the request but that was easy enough, and she’d made them one-handed before. She got the butter and cheese out of the refrigerator.
“Kevin,” Mouse said suddenly.
For a moment, Maya didn’t know whether he was calling her Kevin or asking if Nash’s name was Kevin or speaking to someone over her shoulder.
“My name is Kevin,” Mouse clarified. “Not Mouse.”
“Oh,” Maya said. “I didn’t know that.”
Mouse shrugged. “It’s what I get for hanging out with people from high school.”
Maya put a frying pan on the stove and began melting the butter. She got the bread out of the cupboard.
“You don’t hang out with your friends from high school,” Mouse (sorry, Kevin) said.
“Well, no,” Maya said. “But I went to high school in California. None of my friends are here.” This was the first actual conversation she’d ever had with Mouse and she was beginning to think all the hours Mouse and Rhodes had spent smoking pot in the janitor’s closet might have had some long-term effects.
“Oh, true,” Mouse said. (It seemed impossible that she would ever think of him as Kevin.)
“They do friend me on Facebook, though,” Maya said after a moment, putting a slice of bread into the frying pan. “Which to me is sort of the ultimate Facebook conundrum: Are you more sophisticated if you don’t want to be friends with people from high school, or more sophisticated if you’ve outgrown all that pettiness? I can never decide.”
There was a moment of silence and then Mouse said, “What’s a conundrum?”
“A puzzle,” she said. “Like a riddle.”
“Oh.” Mouse frowned. “Well, basically, it sounds to me like you don’t trust anyone who can’t hold a grudge for fifteen years.”
Maya was strangely pleased by this summation. “I think that’s exactly right,” she said.
“Rhodes isn’t like that, though,” Mouse said and Maya thought he was right about that too.
She thought there were people like Mouse, who trailed high school around forever like pieces of toilet paper stuck to their shoes, and people like her, who cut themselves away from high school as cleanly as you’d cut a slice from a block of cheese (here she remembered to flip Mouse’s sandwich) and then there were people liked Rhodes, who were so integrated, so at ease with themselves, that high school was just part of who they were. He could go back there without risking getting stuck. And lucky Maya, she was married to Rhodes.
Nash fell asleep on Maya’s shoulder. She felt him go all at once, his body relaxing against her. It was like holding a puddle of baby. Maya kissed the top of his head.
Mouse finished his beer and got another one without asking. In the living room, the lights from the tree, which Maya now realized they’d forgotten to turn off this morning, twinkled in gently rotating prisms of green and red and blue. Nash’s neck smelled like milk. The butter sizzled in the pan. Maya stood at the stove, unfathomably happy. This was her life, and she was living it.
Katherine Heiny has published stories in The New Yorker,The Atlantic Monthly, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Seventeen, and many other publications, presented on Selected Shorts on NPR, and performed off-Broadway. Her short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow will be published by Knopf in 2015. She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two children.