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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I FIRST HEARD ABOUT LIFEBOAT THEORY WHEN TINA TOOK ECONOMICS. She stayed up late arguing with Daddy about it. The way she told it, this guy—Garrett Hardin—used it to explain why rich countries couldn’t bail out the poor ones. He said rich nations was like lifeboats full of rich people, with the poor people in other lifeboats. As the poor fell out of their overcrowded lifeboats, they tried to get into the richer lifeboats. Hardin said that created something called a moral dilemma, which is when the people in the rich lifeboats gotta figure out what to do about the people in the water.
Daddy said Hardin’s fulla shit, that he don’t see what Lifeboat Theory has got to do with real life. And I thought it was over then, ‘cause most times when Daddy says something’s fulla shit, it is and that’s that. But then one night we saw a lady on the news that was arrested for keeping 105 cats in her trailer. She was crying that them cats would have died if she hadn’t took them in. The camera crew walked through her house showing litter boxes overflowing everywhere. There was dishes of cat food with flies buzzing round them and them upside-down popbottle-things that keep water fresh—right up on her kitchen table! The police used a pole to catch some of them cats ‘cause they had turned mean. That lady’s whole bed was covered in yacked-up hairballs. There wasn’t one thing in that trailer that didn’t have so much cat hair on it, you half expected it to meow.
When the news was over, Daddy turned his mouth down and asked how somebody could live like that. Tina said, “Maybe she ain’t got a choice” and Daddy said, “We all got a choice.” Tina said, “Not according to Hardin” and Daddy said, “Not that lifeboat shit again.”
I felt bad for that lady, though. I’m sure that lady didn’t wake up one morning and think “Maybe I’ll get me 105 cats.” I figure it’s like somebody who collects things, like figurines or stamps. She might start with just one, real pretty stamp, clipping it careful off the envelope and putting it away in an old shoe box. Then people notices she likes stamps, so they start giving her theirs. Before she hardly knows it, her whole shoe box is brimful of stamps. And she still wants more. That cat lady probably started with just one real cute cat—now she got 105.
Momma’s like that lady, collecting things. Only she collects children. Daddy says it’s on account of her big heart. All of the church ladies call her an angel, but Momma just looks down when they say that. I think she knows it is an addiction, just like cigarettes or booze or cats.
Momma loves all of us kids. Even though she don’t have time for hugs, or homework, or brushing our hair real pretty, like other mommas do. Some days she don’t even brush her own hair. It’s those days I feel sorriest for her. Her big heart might tell her to take all of us in, but it don’t pump near enough blood to take care of ten children. I’ve snuck back downstairs some nights and watched her staring round the kitchen at all of them dishes, looking like she just don’t have the energy left to get herself to bed, let alone do the cleaning up. I’ve tried to help her but it’s always the same: Momma shoos me up to bed. “I’ll just leave them ‘til morning,” she says. But I know in the morning that kitchen’ll be all shiny and reeking pine cleaner. And all of our bowls will be lined up on the table, full of oatmeal.
One night when Tina and me was setting the table I asked her about that lifeboat thing. That’s how I said it: “What about that lifeboat thing?” So she wouldn’t get suspicious about why I was so interested. Her eyes got all squinty and she looked at me real hard, probably trying to see if I was fixing to pick a fight. I just kept putting forks next to all the plates, like it didn’t really matter none if she told me or not.
After a few minutes she asked what I would do if I was floating in a lifeboat with plenty of food and water and I saw a bunch of people drowning in the water. “I’d pull them in my boat,” I said. I knew that was the right answer ‘cause that’s what they said in church, but Tina just looked real sad then. I asked her why that was so bad and she asked me what I would do when the boat filled up and we ran out of food and water. “You’d die right along with the people you tried to save,” she told me.
After that I used to sit in church surrounded by all my brothers and sisters, all of us dressed in our scuffed-up shoes and patched-up hand-me-downs, sandwiched between Momma and Daddy, and watch them white-pressed church ladies holding hands with their one or two natural-born children—all hair braids and shiny shoes—and think about what Tina had said. I watched them ladies nod when Pastor read the parable of judgment in Matthew 25:34-45:
‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
“Amen,” they’d all said.
Momma did not say “Amen.”
Instead she’d squeezed the two hands she held—Jack and Rachel, on account of they was the littlest—and let just one tear roll out of her squeezed shut eyes. I’d watched that silver tear float over the soft down on Momma’s cheek and cling to the cliff of her jaw. It paused there, pregnant with the weight of all our lives, and the lives of the children Momma still wanted to rescue—babies orphaned by tsunamis, discarded China dolls, them twins whose parents died in that house fire. I’d known then in my heart if Momma was in charge of our lifeboat, we’d all drown.
We’re a big family and I loved all of my brothers and sisters—the cousins and the fosters—but Tina, she was my one true sister, and I lost her last spring.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of running water. Tina was standing at the sink, wearing the top to one of Momma’s purple nighties over her favorite pair of black jeans, a box of L’OREAL # 3 on the sink next to her. I sat on the toilet watching her scrub the blondeness out of her hair. When she was done, I followed her into her room and watched her pack Momma’s laundry bag full of tattered jeans and holey underwear. She dug her old cowboy boots out from under her bed, the ones with the low heels and leather fringe, and threw them in the bag. Then she stopped still and looked at me real hard.
“What size’re you?” she asked.
She reached into the bag and pulled them back out. “These here are 6 ½’s. They’re too small for me,” she said. The boots clumped on the floor at my feet.
She slammed her door real hard on the way out of her room and dragged that heavy bag down the stairs all the way to the kitchen. She hauled a chair across the floor, its legs scraping so loud Jack fell out of bed upstairs and padded into the kitchen, all wide-eyed and scared. The two of us watched Tina stand on that chair and feel along the top shelf behind where Momma kept the sugar bowl. She pulled out Momma’s coffee can, ripped the lid off, and dumped it upside down, right there—the coins Momma had scrounged away for Christmas spilling all over the counter. Tina smoothed the piles, sifting through the slippery silver with her too-thin fingers for the meat of a folded bill, but there wasn’t none to be had. I thought she’d grab up all of them coins and take them with her, but she didn’t. She just stared down at them for a minute, then turned and walked out of the back door, her laundry bag dragging in the dirt behind her.
Me and Jack followed her around the side of the house. We stood with the trash next to the curb, my one natural sister and my foster brother, waiting for only Tina knew what. The trashman’s big green truck rumbled up next to us and he hopped down, scooping up them cans like they was nothing and dumping them in his big front basket. He banged the empties back down, ignoring us like it wasn’t nothing to see three kids standing by the curb before the sun even woke up. Just more garbage.
When a car jerked up to the curb Tina finally turned and looked at me. I seen in her eyes she wasn’t coming back, but I seen more, too. She was leaving for us, ’cause she thought one less mouth to feed would really mean one less mouth to feed. I wanted to tell her that her seat would fill right back up, Momma would yank some other kid out of the water, but the girl driving the car leaned over, all purple hair and sparkly earrings, and kicked the passenger door wide open, hollering for Tina to get in. And she did.
After Tina’d been gone awhile Momma took in another baby. His God-given name was Michael, but he was Mickey D to us, on account of he liked McDonald’s French fries and would holler ‘til you shared yours. After he came, I began a list. In black I wrote down our natural family: Momma, Daddy, Tina, and me. Then I crossed Tina’s name off. No sense counting her—they’d found that purple-haired girl in a ditch near Tucson. They ain’t never found Tina. Momma said she’d be back, but I knew the truth: Tina was already in the water.
I snuck two of the colored pens from Daddy’s desk and used the green one to write the names of the cousins Momma took in after Daddy’s sister killed herself. We called the other kids “fosters,” but it wasn’t legal or anything. The ladies at the church just knew who needed help and that Momma couldn’t say no. I wrote them in red, starting with the oldest and going down to the littlest: Gabby, Cecil, Aleesha, Casey, Caleb, Jack, Rachel, and Mickey D. Then I drew a circle round Mickey D.
I tried to think like Mr. Hardin. I stood next to the crib looking down on Mickey D, sucking his two middle fingers, probably dreaming they was French fries. I pictured us all on a crowded lifeboat; Mickey D clinging to Momma’s leg. He was dragging Momma into the water, it was up to me to save her.
I didn’t know it would be so hard. He kicked and hit at the pillow, his breath coming in deep, hard-fought puffs. It took a long time, and I kept expecting Momma or Dillon to come down the hall, but they didn’t. When I took the pillow off, Mickey D looked peaceful, like he was still sleeping, but his puckered fingers lay forgotten next to his little dead face.
I kept expecting someone to ask me about Mickey D, but they never did. They just kept saying how sad it was that he died. After the whole summer passed, I decided they wasn’t never gonna ask, and I waited to be alone with Rachel. When school started back up, my chance finally came.
Momma was walking us bigger kids to the bus stop, but I lagged behind. She hollered back over her shoulder at me to mind that Rachel didn’t follow, but I held out the sucker I’d stashed in my jacket pocket and called Rachel out of the house, real quiet. I waited by the road ‘til she was almost to me, then dashed across. ‘Course she followed me.
For a moment, I was God in size 6 ½ cowboy boots, holding the red lollipop of our family’s salvation in my fist, and I watched as Rachel flew up and up and then… down in a crumpled heap. I watched the van driver—a young woman—scramble out and scoop up my foster sister and race to the side of the road. I watched Momma running, a wail of denial rising in her throat. I stood trying to swallow my own scream like it was the white body of Christ, while Momma tried to straighten the angle of Rachel’s neck. Rachel stared at me, her mouth working.
“She’s trying to tell us something,” Momma said.
But I knew the truth: Her mouth was trying to eat that bright red lollipop I still held in my hand.
Momma watched us all real close after that. Gabby and Cecil kept saying CPS was never gonna let Momma keep all the fosters. But the lady from the church told Momma that the good Lord worked in mysterious ways. When Momma asked about another baby, the lady cleared her throat and said they’d have to wait on that. Before we could get another baby, Jack drowned in the pond down behind Pastor’s house.
Momma told the police he must have got out after we was all asleep. It would have been declared an accident, except Sheriff Blum found another set of footprints in the mud by the pond. It didn’t take long to match them up. In our county there wasn’t too many low-heeled cowboy boots size 6 ½.
My room at the Betty Gainer Juvie Center is bigger than my room at home, and I got it all to myself. I sit on the bed and listen to the air conditioning echo off the yellow concrete walls like the ocean. I sit and wait for my lawyer. I keep telling her that if I hadn’t done it Momma would have gone in the water. She tells me to keep quiet and smile at the psychiatrist, the social worker, the judge. She sneaks in them Double Stuf cookies that I like, and on court days brings me fancy dresses with shiny shoes, dark as the rubber patches on lifeboats.
Katherine Higgs-Coulthard is a freelance writer and novelist whose work has appeared in WOW: Women on Writing Ezine and Jack and Jill. As founder and director of Michiana Writers’ Center she leads workshops for writers of all ages, Katherine is a member of the National Writing Project and provides school visits and teacher inservices. Visit her website at www.writewithkathy.com.
Getting kicked out of my house wasn’t a surprise. It happened to my ancestors, my parents, and to me several times. I lost count pretty quick. The landlord left minutes before Javier came back from his latest job search. He saw me standing in the middle of the street with everything I could carry from our former place.
“Kicked out again,” I said when he pulled the truck up to me.
“But we asked the landlord for two more weeks,” he said.
“It’s been two weeks,” I reminded him. Javier helped me into the truck. He gave me a kiss on my cheek and we went to grab some food.
We split a Navajo taco from Joe and Aggie’s Café. Our stomachs were still grumbling when we were back in the truck, but we learned to deal with it by making out.
“Maybe we should go to my mom’s,” Javier suggested. I told him no way. We had been at his mom’s several times in the last year and she was bound to figure something out.
Mrs. Bluehorse was a sweet woman who lived doors down from my childhood home. My mom was killed in a hate crime when I was four. When I was 15, my dad died of brain cancer and since there wasn’t anyone in my family with extra room, the Bluehorses took me in. Even though Javier and I were neighbors for years, we never spoke to each other until I moved into his house. At first, we were just friends. One evening, I went to Javier’s football game and instead of hanging out with his buddies after the game, he took me to an isolated spot in the field and kissed me. On that night, I noticed how cute he was.
“Emmy, we can’t sleep in the truck again. I don’t want another fine for exposure.”
“That was your fault; you’re the one who had your big butt against the window.”
“Leave me and my butt alone,” Javier frowned. I reached one arm over and hugged him while we were at a red light. I was glad there weren’t any landlords who could take him away from me.
At sunset, we had no idea where we would park for the night. There were several cops circulating Holbrook. Javier had indecent exposure on his record. I had soliciting on mine since I tried to sell some of our things in a parking lot. We stole bread and milk from the grocery store a few days before, but we hadn’t been caught, yet.
“We gotta go to my mom’s, Emmy,” Javier said.
“She’s probably got someone staying there, I don’t want us to be a burden.”
“Mama would never turn us away. We shoulda gone there a long time ago.”
“Why don’t we try the Wigwam Motel?” I said. Javier sighed and slowly turned our truck around and went to West Hopi Drive. We had $100 in cash left, which we needed to stretch for a while. But I already had a plan to help us out.
“My husband and I are visiting Holbrook for the weekend,” I told the receptionist. “We’re from the Navajo Nation. It’s our wedding night. It’s a Navajo tradition to sleep in a wigwam on your honeymoon, but all of the ones on our reservation were taken.”
“What a shame,” the receptionist said. “We got one wigwam left and since it’s your honeymoon, I’ll give you a discount. Payment is due at checkout time.”
“Thank you sir, you’re very kind,” I said. He handed over our keys and we went to our wigwam at the end of the row.
“Wedding night?” Javier shouted when we were inside. “We’ve been married for six years! And we’re Navajos, we don’t have wigwams! I still dunno how we’re gonna be here anyway, this place costs 30 bucks a night!” I didn’t know either. If we ran off without paying, that could put us in jail. But at least we’d have somewhere to stay.
Javier took a hot shower and I lounged on the bed, figuring out how we’d pay for the room until we got back on our feet. Javier and I weren’t a Navajo version of Bonnie and Clyde – we were only people who stumbled upon hard times. We used to own a souvenir shop in Seligman, right on Route 66, next to the Snow Cap Drive-In. It was doing great for the first two years until another shop opened. I admit it was better than ours. Soon after, we became nomads like our ancestors.
“So did you come up with a plan?” Javier asked when he stepped out of the bathroom. He waved his long hair around, getting several drops on my face.
“Nothing legal,” I said as I dried my cheeks with a pillow. “Have you ever thought about exotic dancing?”
“Nah,” he said. “I got achy knees.” He began shaking his hips, shoulders, and butt. He was a horrible dancer, but I would still put a dollar in his underwear.
Javier climbed in next to me and watched a rerun of The Honeymooners. He let out his big laugh over and over while I came up with more ideas.
“We need someone to rob us,” I finally said. “That way we can skip out paying for the room without getting arrested.”
“Yeah, but we don’t have anything to steal,” Javier said. He was right. The only things of value we had were our wedding rings and they weren’t even worth much.
A little after 10, neither of us could sleep. Our stomachs were performing a symphony and this time, our making out trick wasn’t working.
“Wanna split a plate again?” he asked as he placed final kisses on my lips.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m too hungry to keep doing this.”
So we went to an all-night diner up the street from the motel. We ordered waters and an appetizer plate of fried mozzarella sticks. Javier let me have the last one. He always let me have the last of anything.
“Emmy, I can’t pay the bill,” Javier said. “I forgot my wallet at the wigwam.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I snuck away to the bathroom and placed my wallet inside a toilet tank. The only thing I kept was my license, which I hid in my shoe.
“Honey, aren’t you gonna pay the bill?” I said when I returned to our table.
“But I left –”
“Follow my lead,” I told him.
“Where’s your wallet, babe?”
“I can’t find my wallet, honey,” Javier said in a louder voice.
“I can’t find mine either! We’ve been robbed!” I shouted.
“If we get arrested for this stunt, I’ll kill you,” he whispered.
“No you won’t, I’ll kill you first,” I whispered back.
Within minutes, the manager was at our table. He called the police for us and when they came, all they did was file a case number and wish us good luck.
“Okay, we got off easy tonight, but we can’t keep living like this,”
Javier said when we were back at our wigwam. “What if the motel doesn’t care about us getting robbed? Then what do we do? Rob the motel so we can pay them with their own money?” I wasn’t sure how to answer him, so I hugged his soft body.
Javier dozed off a little after two in the morning. No matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t fall asleep. I thought about my wallet inside the toilet tank of the diner. Then I thought about how the grocery store hadn’t noticed the missing milk and bread either. Around 4am, Javier woke up. He said he had a nightmare, which was unusual for him. I caressed his hair, asking him what happened in his dream.
“The receptionist knew we faked getting robbed and I took off in the truck but never got caught by the cops,” Javier said.
“How is that a nightmare?”
“I left you behind,” he said.
“You dummy, how could you leave your own wife behind?”
“You’re really short. Sometimes I don’t even notice when you’re next to me.”
“Maybe because you’re really chubby,” I said. Javier winked at me and I gently shoved him. He took hold of me and then covered our bodies with the blankets.
The sun was drooping in the sky when we woke up. I snuggled with Javier for a few minutes and then went to take a shower. When I re-emerged in a towel, I saw the receptionist standing in the center of the room.
“Did you hear what happened last night?” the receptionist asked.
“Cardinals won 27 to 24!” Javier cheered. I let out a sigh of relief.
“Some nutcase broke into the cars,” the receptionist said. “And last night at the diner up the street, a couple was pickpocketed.”
“That was us,” I told him. I was so nervous, I almost dropped my towel.
“It’s a damn shame. The cops shut the motel down to investigate. I can’t charge anyone for the night and I don’t want to if everyone staying here just got robbed.” Javier shook hands with the receptionist and soon had him out the door.
“Emmy, did you go around breaking into the cars?” he asked.
“No, did you?” I said.
“No, I guess we got lucky again,” Javier said. We looked at each other and before I could blink, we were packing up our things in a frenzy. By 8:30 in the morning, we were out of the wigwam.
“What if they took my corn nuts?” Javier said as we ran to the truck.
“What if they took our stuff?” I said. We had leftover souvenirs from our shop, clothes, housewares, and blankets woven by Mrs. Bluehorse.
“Nobody would steal any of that crap,” Javier shook his head. “Now corn nuts – that’s something I’d steal if I were a thief.”
When we got to the truck, we found everything intact. We were relieved and bummed because it was a cruel reminder that we had nothing worth taking. We climbed inside and took off towards the Navajo Nation at full speed. Halfway to the reservation, Javier stopped to get gas and snacks and I stayed in the truck with mist in my eyes. He came back with a bag of dried fruit for me. I chewed on the sweet bits and hid my red eyes from him for the rest of the trip.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Javier asked when we were in the Bluehorse driveway.
“I can’t go in there,” I told him with sniffles in between. “I came here when I was a girl, I shouldn’t come here as a woman, it’s too embarrassing.”
“It’ll be like old times. Before your dad died, you were my dorky neighbor. If you hadn’t moved in with us, I would’ve never known you.”
“Are you sure your parents will be okay with me living here again?”
“They wanted you here the second they found out you were an orphan,” he said. He dried my tears with his palm and carried me out of the truck. Javier rang the doorbell and Mrs. Bluehorse appeared with her hair half-braided and welcomed us inside with her famous smile. She was short and plump in her body and face, just like my mom was.
“You should’ve told me you were coming, I would’ve put more food in the oven,” she said. Mrs. Bluehorse hugged us tightly and took us to the kitchen.
“So how’s everything?” she asked. “Am I gonna be a grandma soon?”
“We’re broke, Mama,” Javier said. I glared at him, but he didn’t hold back.
“Broke? But you got that nice souvenir shop in Seligman!”
“It closed,” I confessed to her.
“We’ve been working odd jobs since then. Things have gotten pretty bad and we slept in a wigwam last night.”
Mrs. Bluehorse didn’t know we were living in Holbrook. She thought I meant we spent the night in an actual wigwam. Her eyes opened wide and then she dropped backwards onto the floor. Mr. Bluehorse walked in from the backyard with a grass cutter in his hand, confused by everything that was going on.
“Jennifer, why are you pretending to be a rug?” Mr. Bluehorse asked.
“I’m okay now, Paul,” Mrs. Bluehorse panted. I helped her up and rubbed the sweat from her forehead with my hand.
“Paul, the kids told me that they’s broke and they had to sleep in a wigwam last night,” Mrs. Bluehorse said. Javier stared at me from across the room. I wanted to clarify what I meant, but then I thought we would seem like liars about our financial situation, which was the last thing I wanted us to be in front of the Bluehorses.
“Javi, Emmy, what the hell were you doing in a wigwam when you coulda come over here?” Mr. Bluehorse said. “And we’re Navajos, we don’t have wigwams.”
“Mama, Dad, it’s really not what you’re thinking,” Javier answered.
“No need to explain, Javi, you and Emmy are welcome in this house. I ain’t letting you kids sleep on dirt,” Mrs. Bluehorse said. “Paul, go get some more food from the store, they must be starving to death.”
“Maybe Emmy is, but Javi’s still as chubby as me,” Mr. Bluehorse said.
“Paulie, go already,” Mrs. Bluehorse said. She pushed her husband towards the door and then ran back into the kitchen.
Before dinner, Javier and I sat outside on the porch, figuring out when we could move. Temporary jobs helped us in the past for a while, but we wanted permanency.
“Maybe we can find jobs here,” I said. On reservations, unemployment is high, higher than most places. The possibility of both of us finding jobs was slim.
“Sure,” Javier nodded. “There’s an adult club being built around here. If I get my knees together, I can start dancing.” He got up from his chair and did the worst dance I’ve ever seen in my life, but I slipped an imaginary dollar in his underwear.
“If your parents were still here,” Javier said when he sat back down next to me. “They wouldn’t believe how beautiful you grew up to be. Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful?” He said those same lines to me on my 16th birthday. He didn’t have any money to buy me a gift, so he asked me to be his girlfriend instead.
“Yeah,” I said. “My parents did. And you too.” Javier winked at my answer and kissed my forehead.
When dinner was served, Mrs. Bluehorse’s hair was still half-braided. Mr. Bluehorse still had grass bits on his shirt from doing the yard work.
“Javi, your mom told me your shop went under,” Mr. Bluehorse said.
“How’s that possible? It was a great shop. You are too old to be this irresponsible with money. You got Emmy to take care of and soon, you’ll have a kid.”
“Dad, these things happen,” Javier shrugged.
“Paulie, don’t be so rough on the kids,” Mrs. Bluehorse said and patted her husband’s shoulders. She left the room for a few minutes and returned with chocolate cake for dessert, just like on my very first night in Bluehorse house.
“If you want seconds, you let me know,” she said to me. “You’re my daughter and I make sure my kids are well fed. How do you think Javi got so chubby?”
“Mama!” Javier said. She hugged him and called him her baby. Then she turned around and did the same to me. Mr. Bluehorse got up from his chair, brushed the grass bits off his shirt, and hugged me as well.
Javier and I took the old sofa bed in the living room for the night. Since the Bluehorses were known for opening their house to anyone in need, tons of people had slept on that thing and the coils were poking out. I turned to my left side and found my nose an inch away from a sharp coil tip so I leapt over, landing on top of Javier.
“Emmy, for God’s sake, my parents are in the next room,” he gasped.
“I’m not trying to do anything, you bozo,” I whispered.
“So I was looking in the classifieds,” Javier said in my ear.
“There’s a couple of teller jobs open at a bank here on the rez.”
“That’s a horrible job, we don’t know how to handle money,” I said.
“This will be over before you know it,” Javier assured me. “We’ve been kinda successful. Actually, I take it back, we haven’t been successful at all.”
“We’ve stayed together for this long,” I said. “That’s one thing to be proud of.” Javier shook his head at my response. I cuddled with him until we dozed off.
The next morning, we went to the bank to apply for the teller jobs. The manager said she’d give us a call, which we took as ‘get lost.’ During the drive home, Javier held my hand and kissed it whenever we hit a red light.
“Do you think we’ll ever have our own home again?” I asked him.
“Yeah, but not for a long time,” he said. “My folks don’t mind us staying with them. But Mama and Dad do want a grandkid. I guess we owe them a favor.”
“Then let’s make one,” I said and squeezed his arm.
“What if I get another fine for exposure?” he said with a chuckle.
“We only got 80 bucks left; I don’t wanna give it to the cops.”
“Yeah, but it’d be worth it,” I said.
“Anything’s worth it if it’s with you.”
Javier pulled the truck over and made room in the backseat. I flung myself over to him, hugging his large body and gazing into his face. Even if all our money was gone within the next hour, I knew I wouldn’t mind sleeping in an actual wigwam with him.
Darlene Campos is an undergraduate at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Her work has been selected for publication by A Celebration of Young Poets, The Four-Cornered Universe, The Collegiate Scholar, The Aletheia,Linguistic Erosion, Prism Review, Houston & Nomadic Voices, The Writing Disorder, and Red Fez. She has been invited to hold readings of her short fiction by Avant Garden and Bacchus, both located in Houston’s midtown district. She currently works as a writer for The Daily Cougar newspaper and Kesta Happening DC magazine and is a fiction judge for Yeah Write Review.
I knew him then. He was clear-eyed and steady, sawing and sanding the wood for the pews with confidence. He played football up at the high school but he didn’t think it made him god’s gift to teenage girls. He just liked the feeling of his muscles working like a machine and the mathematics of the plays, like chess at high speed. I knew these things because he told me, and I was so pleased he would talk honestly to his father that I didn’t think to ask who taught him chess. I only ever knew checkers.
The church was a simple structure, just posts and beams holding up a roof, no walls. The pews were more like benches. Our house was on the side of the road, and on the other side there was a field where my father had once pastured his dairy cows. The cows died of old age decades ago and the wire fence rusted away. I had stood in this field and thought about what would give comfort to people like me who weren’t proud of their faithlessness, whose own mistrustful brains had locked us out of the kingdom. I wanted simplicity, purity, a place to go be still. After we erected the church, I nailed a plank of wood to a tree on the side of the road, and on it I painted an arrow pointing towards the structure and the word ATHEISTS.
When I told my wife Deb she’d need to run the store all week, she handled it with grace, although I knew inside she was laughing at me. It wasn’t the first scheme of mine she’d put up with. We ran a little mini mart and gas station down by the interstate, making a living off of people on their way to somewhere else, and she was better at the books and the ordering and such anyway. I was always too distractable.
So my son and I drove the hour north into the city. We had a box full of fliers to hand out on the streets, and they showed a map I’d drawn to the field and the words ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS, AND DOUBTERS! SO YOU WORSHIP NOTHING? LET US WORSHIP NOTHING TOGETHER. SUNDAYS 11 AM.
I’d gotten him to look up addresses of places atheists might congregate: college buildings, bars with foreign beer, radical bookstores. One particular street corner had them all, so that’s where we stood. I held out the little squares of paper to the fast-walking pedestrians. “Church for atheists,” I said, again and again.
The first to stop was a man about my own age with little wire spectacles and a fine wool coat. “Hey buddy,” he said. “I don’t need to be converted. This is offensive, you know.”
“I’m not trying to convert you,” I explained. The speech I’d been reciting in my mind all morning bubbled up and rushed out; the man even took a step back on the sidewalk like the wave might hit him. “I’m a non-believer too, friend. But I remember my days of believing, don’t you? Taking your neighbor’s hand in fellowship, grape juice communion, picnics with deviled eggs, late-summer gleaning for the hungry, pulling out those red hymnals and singing together. Don’t you remember feeling whole and complete then? We can still have that, even without Jesus or Mohammed or whoever. We can still sing in joy and beat our chests in grief –“
He walked away before I finished, holding up a palm as a signal not to follow. I guess some people don’t have any days of believing to remember, or else they are proud.
“I don’t know about this,” my son said. “I think he felt like you were preaching at him. Maybe we should just be quiet and let them come to us.”
I agreed to try his method, so we stood in silence, the maps in our hands quaking in the wind. People passing by barely glanced at us, and when they did they tried to hide it.
A young woman stopped in front of my son, smiled at him, and took the piece of paper. That was the moment it registered to me how his shoulders had broadened over the last year, how if he were a stranger I would think of him as a young man, not a boy.
“So what if I’m not religious but I’m really spiritual?” asked the young woman. Or maybe she was young enough to be called a girl. I wasn’t sure. She wore a tank top and tight stretchy sort of pants that came to her knees, and she had a rolled-up mat strapped to her back.
“Um,” said my son, darting his eyes back to me. “Spiritual how?”
She cocked her head to the side, ponytail wagging. “Well, I grew up Episcopalian, and I definitely think Jesus was really wise. But I’m a little bit Buddhist now, too. Like I meditate and stuff.” Her eyes flickered over to me like she’d just noticed I was there.
“No,” I said, and reached out to pluck the flier from her hands. “See, we’re doing the opposite of that. You gave up the structure and the rules but you kept the believing. We want the structure and the rules, the comfort, without any believing.” I wanted to say, and we will not stitch together scraps of Buddhism and paganism and Hippie Jesus to make ourselves an ill-fitting garment, but I didn’t.
She furrowed her brow and walked away. My son watched her go.
“We didn’t need her,” I said. “And let me do the talking.”
It took a while but a couple stopped to chat with us, punk looking types, and I was surprised at how interested they were. My speech bubbled up again, and it went on, and I was telling them all about how badly I had wanted to believe but one day when I was about my son’s age, I just couldn’t do it anymore. It didn’t make any sense. “The music,” I told them, “that was the only time I could almost get it back. That organ playing, and all the voices – as I fall on my knees with my face to the setting sun, oh Lord have mercy on me…” I realized I had actually started to sing and that I was indeed sinking to my knees out on that filthy sidewalk.
The couple laughed kindly and applauded. “So are you going to come on Sunday?” my son asked them.
They looked at each other and their eyebrows went up. “Oh,” said the man. “This is really…for real?”
“Yes,” I said, standing, brushing the grit from my jeans.
“Oh,” said the man. “Well, cool. Good luck.” They walked off, whispering to each other.
After that my son and I were quiet for a while. Then he said, “Let me take some of them. I’ll put them in coffee shops and stuff. People will just find them.” I nodded, sensing he was embarrassed by me. In that moment I didn’t feel great, either.
The first week no one came which I knew was a likely outcome but disappointed me anyway. “Maybe eleven is too early,” my son suggested, lifting the kitchen curtain to peer at the field. “Most atheists probably sleep late.” Deb snorted. But I thought it was worth a try, so I revised the flier: SUNDAYS AT NOON. He took them into the city – said it was probably better if I didn’t come.
No one came the next week either. We discussed what other revisions might be made to our plan. It occurred to me that it’s easy for atheists to pretend to be believers, and that there are many situations that might make it seem desirable: to please family or in-laws, for example, or to get elected to public office. I couldn’t think of many situations where a believer would want to be mistaken for an atheist – atheists might be afraid of being identified as such.
My son suggested that free food or drink might be an enticement. I agreed with him. I brought home a bulk bag of ground coffee and two airpots from the mini mart. That week he built a table for the coffee pots, and I added words to the sign so that it read: FREE COFFEE FOR ATHEISTS, and under that, BELIEVERS WELCOME.
We dispensed with the starting time. Instead I tried my best to put fresh coffee out a few times a day, when I wasn’t down the road at the store. My son helped out when he got home from football practice. Beside the coffee pots, we put a dozen paper cups, a jar of sugar, a shaker of Coffee Mate, some plastic stirrers, and a little wicker basket marked DONATIONS.
It went on more or less the same for a few months. “You think this coffee is free for us?” Deb asked. So I marked up the prices 30 cents a cup at the shop. Wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the people passing through.
I knew neither of them thought anyone would ever come, but I didn’t mind. My wife and I were married in the local Methodist church, of course, but after that we never went any more. I wouldn’t have stopped her if she wanted to go, but she always said, “I doubt God cares whether I pray there or at home. And if I don’t have to see goddamn Linda Prickett every week for the rest of my life that’s just fine.”
My son went to church from time to time with his friends growing up. Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic – he got a taste of everything. Most Sundays he just slept in. My father would have come for me with the belt if I told him I just didn’t feel like going to worship. I let that boy have all the freedom I never had.
Whether or not he believed anyone would show up, he kept putting out the fliers on the weekends. He had turned 16 and gotten his license, so I let him take the truck into the city. He’d be gone for hours. I’m not dumb, I knew he was probably getting up to something else too. Probably converting to Christian Science or some such just to spite me. But like I said, I thought it was important for him to be independent. Make his own choices.
It was in April that I found the crane. I went out at seven to put fresh coffee for the morning, and some coins glinted from the basket. Beside them sat a little folded paper crane. I counted the stack of paper cups and instead of 12, there were only 11.
I didn’t want to lecture my family about lacking faith, for obvious reasons, but I couldn’t help bragging a little. “We made 87 cents last night,” I told them over dinner.
“Probably just someone lost, looking for the highway,” my son said.
“That’s fine with me,” I said. He turned away and set his fork down.
“Not going to eat your chicken?” Deb asked him. I noticed as she pointed to his plate that he’d polished off his green beans and potatoes and dinner roll, but left the chicken breast untouched.
“I told you, Mom, I’m a vegetarian,” he said, standing to push in his chair.
“Since when?” I asked him, but he walked off to his room so I directed the question at his mother instead.
She sighed. “This morning.”
There were no more cranes, but I felt purposeful and serene. I went into the shop less and less. One evening, I found a twenty in the donation basket, about half the sugar gone, and 9 cups in the stack. “See,” I told Deb. “We’re starting to make back a little of the bottom line.”
Someone must have written us up somewhere, then, because before long I was having to buy new paper cups once a month. Twelve visitors a month might not be a congregation but I considered it a success. I never saw them. Most often the basket would have a little money in the morning or in the afternoon, meaning they came overnight or when I was checking in at the store midday.
The first time I was approaching the clearing with fresh coffee and saw a car parked on the side of the road, I hesitated. It was my chance to go up and shake hands, to be together with my own kind. But I felt reluctant – what if they didn’t like me? What if I ruined it for them? I didn’t want to be a preacher or a leader. I just wanted this place to exist. So I decided to remain invisible, tending my shelter unseen. It seemed better that way. I went back home until the car disappeared.
The crane-maker must have returned, because a few more folded paper birds appeared on the benches. Then someone – the same person or not, I don’t know – tacked up a few snowflakes on the posts, the kind children cut out from folded paper. Little trinkets appeared on the table, plastic jewelry and quarter-machine toys. Someone wove a garland from the field grass and draped it from the roof beams. I often sat there myself, hands folded in my lap and a cup of sugary coffee beside me, listening to the garlands and the snowflakes rustle, letting the sunset fill up my tired chest.
One dusk I walked up with a fresh pot, checking for cars on the side of the road as I normally did. There weren’t any so I didn’t expect anyone to be there. But as I approached, I saw a woman in the clearing. She sat on the front pew with her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. A mess of reddish brown hair covered her face and neck. I couldn’t tell how old she was or what she looked like. She was too far away to hear, but I suspected from her shuddering back that she was crying. I went back to the house.
My son had come home and he was sitting on our front steps, gazing out in what seemed like boredom at the sky. “There’s a woman,” I said.
“Where?” he said, which seemed to me like a purposefully dumb question. His face used to be so open to me. Every emotion would spell itself out in his eyes. Now I couldn’t read any of his thoughts. I wondered if someone had taught him how to keep his face still and blank like that.
“Our church,” I said. “No car. I wonder how she came.”
He frowned at me. “Didn’t you ask her?”
“No,” I said. “I didn’t want to disturb her. She looked like she was crying.”
He stood up from the couch. “What if she needs help or something?”
“That’s not what we’re here for,” I told him.
“But what if she’s in trouble, or her husband beats her up, or she’s homeless?” he asked.
“Well then, she’s found a peaceful place for the moment. But I don’t run a homeless shelter.”
He stood and grabbed the coffee pot from my hand, pushing past my shoulder and marching to the clearing, muttering something about me being a hypocrite. I went inside. At least he was interested.
I helped my wife get dinner on the table. We sat there eating quietly, his plate of vegetables getting cold.
“He’s not going to be able to keep up on the field unless he gets some protein,” I said.
She arched an eyebrow. “You know he quit the team,” she said.
This was news to me. “What? When?”
“Last month. He didn’t want me to tell you. Thought you’d be mad.”
“I don’t give a damn about football,” I said. “And it seems like he’s been trying to make me mad.” I chewed my food for a minute.
“Then where’s he been going after school if he hasn’t been at practice?”
“Working,” she said. “Bagging groceries up at the supermarket. Saving up to buy himself his own car.”
I thought about the city, and his changing face. “Well, when were you planning on telling me this?”
She set her mouth in a line. “You been a little distracted lately. Thought I’d wait until you noticed.”
I heard the door swing open from the hallway and stood to go to it. I wanted to tell him he could quit football if he wanted. I didn’t care. I just wanted him to tell me about it.
He was with the woman, who stood behind him in the doorway, almost hiding slightly. Earlier, when I couldn’t see her well, I had imagined she might be beautiful, young. The mind tends to fill in a face that way. But now I saw her face was ravaged, rough, with the sucked-in cheeks that meant missing teeth. Her eyebrows were plucked to thin straight lines over small eyes. She was bony, hollow chested, clutching a cigarette. I still couldn’t tell her age – I had a strong suspicion she was years younger than her face looked. Junkie, I thought. Prostitute.
“This is Misty,” he said, which just about confirmed all my suspicions. “Can she come for dinner?” The tilt of his chin told me this was a challenge.
“I want to talk to you a minute first,” I said, putting my hand on his elbow and pulling him through the door. Misty stayed where she was, just outside, eyes down, seemingly unfazed.
“Look now,” I whispered. “Get your mother to make her up a plate if you want. Take some food from the pantry, too. Give her the money from the donation basket–“ if she hasn’t taken it already, I thought.
“Give her a ride wherever she needs to go, where there’s people can help her.”
“No,” he said, his face set hard again, all of a sudden like I was looking back at my father when he was a young man. “Let her in.”
“I know you’re testing me,” I said. “But this is still my house. And out there –“ I pointed in the direction of the shelter, “and in here are not the same thing.”
“They’re supposed to be,” he said, looking disgusted enough to spit.
“Says who? Jesus? Mohammed? Buddha? You don’t believe any of that any more than I do. I built that place so that people like us –“
“People like you,” he interrupted. “No, not even people like you. Just you. Just so you could feel better.” He turned and walked out the door, slamming it behind him. I heard the engine turn over and it wasn’t the first time I questioned my decision to let him have the spare key to the truck. I walked to the kitchen window and watched the backs of their heads drive away.
By eleven he still wasn’t back and Deb convinced me to just go to bed, that it would blow over my morning and if it didn’t, well, the cops would make us wait that long to go looking for him anyway.
It felt like the very same moment I feel asleep, but it must have been hours later, that the scent of wood smoke woke me. As soon as I smelled it, I felt like it had all been foretold. I stood looking out the window in my boxers and undershirt, watching the flames rise from the field, silhouetting the truck and the figure of the young man that stood between our house and the fire.
I knew I’d have to call the fire department in a second or risk the conflagration getting truly out of hand, and I knew that I would tell the police when they came that it had been some kind of freak accident. A lit cigarette maybe, or some kind of campfire gone awry. I would not tell them I had seen my son there, and that I could not tell whether his back was to me or to the flames. I would keep my promise to let him worship however he chose. If this was how he meant to do it, I would let him.
Michelle E. Crouch
Michelle E. Crouch, a co-founder of APIARY Magazine, has been published in Indiana Review,Treehouse Magazine, and The Rumpus. She currently lives in Wilmington, NC. Her website is mcrouch.com.
Janine stood watching the swing of the burnt-out light bulb that hung in the unfinished laundry room of her empty little house, the pull-chain that released volts into the socket clinking against the bulb’s brittle glass with each sideways motion. In her left hand, she held a new sixty-watt light bulb, one which could replace the one still hanging, and solve all the problems she’d been having lately with her laundry: when she accidentally dropped a single red shirt in with all her whites, which dyed her work blouses, socks and white dress pants a dull pink; or when she folded clothes together because she could not see that she held both a pair of jeans and a t-shirt in the dark warmth just in front of the dryer, and then searched for half an hour before unfolding and refolding everything in her drawers; or, more recently, when she pulled from her pants pocket the piece of paper, now sopping and illegible, on which she had written the time of a job interview with a research facility looking for people with B.S.’s in Physics, and realized that she perhaps shouldn’t have screamed at the district manager and then walked out of the bank before her shift was done just earlier that same day.
Janene knew that these events could be avoided and that all the effects – the frantic shopping trips just before running to the office, tags still hanging off her clothes; the time spent redoing chores; the stress of trying to explain to a very skeptical and probing graduate assistant that yes, she was responsible and a good candidate for the job, she simply wanted to double-check the appointment date – all of these could be eliminated, or at least lessened, if she would just change the bulb. But every time she reached up toward the rocking socket with her right hand, a blue flame would ignite in her chest and illuminate her stomach, lungs, esophagus, heart, while images of Davis changing that same light bulb would project in her mind – that one day, as the plaid button-up shirt she loved lifted above the jeans that had worn spots on the pockets from his wallet, keys, cell phone. She had been leaning in the doorway, studying the image of his thick knuckles and splayed fingertips in the curved surface of the glass. He had turned and smiled at her when he was done, greyed bulb in his hand, and had kissed her forehead before turning to the bin to throw the old light bulb away. Janene had stepped into the room and watched him leave as she turned the picture of him changing the light bulb over and over in her mind, imagining the tiny packets of light – the “potons,” as her Laotian professor used to say – immersing Davis from the new light bulb, flooding down his arms, over his clothes and the slight paunch of his belly, right down to that patch of luminous skin over his hipbone. Davis had moved out a week later, and Janene as yet hadn’t cried once – not even to her mother over the phone – because, she said, when you expect something for long enough, its arrival should come as no surprise. When, two months after he left, the light bulb he had replaced burned out, Janene had shrugged in the sudden darkness, folded the shirt she was holding in half, and mumbled, “Things come, things go.”
Three long months after that shrug, Janene scuffed her foot on the carpet and shifted the light bulb in her sweaty left hand so that she held the metal threads rather than the slick glass. She closed her eyes and huffed, ashamed even in solitude of her desire to wait, of the temptation to never replace the bulb, despite the consequences. Janene reached up again – this time quickly, as if she could race the reflection and not be faced with the image of Davis, that crescent glimpse of his waist as his solid arm lifted – and even as she told herself it would be the last time she would go through this, the back of her mind wandered to the delicate cardboard box the new light bulb had come in, sitting daintily in the bottom of a fresh trash bag, and how easy it would be to retrieve, even in darkness.
Austin Eichelberger is a native Virginian who completed his MA in Fiction in May 2009. His creative work has been presented at several conferences, and has been published in numerous print and online journals and anthologies, most notably in Eclectic Flash, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and theUniversity of Chester’s Flash Fiction Magazine. Since graduating, he has taught various English and writing classes at several universities, served as a co-curatorial assistant on the art-book show “Somewhere Far From Habit,” and is co-founding editor of the new online literary and art journal SPACES. He currently lives in New Mexico.
HOLLIE THOUGHT OF THIS AS A CONTRACT. She and Dana had promised each other they’d be the type of people who remembered things could always be worse.
They toasted the tragic.
“To James Dean!”
“To Princess Di!”
Still, it was a bummer when their favorite restaurant didn’t have a wheelchair ramp.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s go somewhere with a ramp.”
“Let’s go somewhere expensive with a ramp,” she said.
She was proud of her husband, his tough mouth. If anyone stared at him, Dana glanced up and unholstered his thickest Philly accent: “You shoulda seen the other guy.”
It was like the old joke about the grimy Schulkyll River, Hollie told people: if you fall in, don’t bother getting out. The car that hit her husband’s amid the Schulkyll Expressway’s slick March traffic had plummeted into the water below. The ‘other guy’ never bothered getting out until the cops dragged the river, and him. Dana was still half here. Half full, they remembered to remind each other.
There were, after all, a lot of ‘other guys.’ They knew this for a fact since they had started skimming the obituaries for what kinds of things were killing people under forty these days. Accidents had held the number one spot for weeks. And not just car accidents, but tales of the strange – those things that should be so rare – such as a head hit against a freezer door. The out-of-the-blue tear jerker had aged, like mild cheese, into a single click of the tongue.
Just last week Dana had wheeled into the living room where Hollie lay tented under the unfolding hands of the Sunday paper.
“Jon Lennon is dead,” he announced.
She smirked. “Oh really?”
“My friend from when we were kids, Jon Lennon. His mom just called. He died.”
“You had a friend named John Lennon?”
“Yeah. J-O-N, Jonathan Lennon. We sat next to each other all through elementary school: Lennon, Lennox.”
Hollie stood up and walked over to rub his shoulder. (He hadn’t gotten too close; they were keeping his blackening wheels off this rug.) She liked to massage his shoulders. It made her thankful for arm muscles. With these he could still do his very favorite things, like cooking and giving bad drivers the finger. He wouldn’t be driving anymore, of course, but maybe someday he’d find himself in a swarm of less-nimble wheelchair riders, so he could flip them the bird. He’d need that. If worse came to worse, he could always flick off his dad; that was a back-up plan that could always be counted on.
“Ono, oh no!” she said to make him laugh.
In a rush, Hollie felt a strong urge to go to the bathroom. But she couldn’t just walk away from him like that, Dana unable to follow her to the toilet as he used to, continuing their conversation over the staccato tinkling. The corners of the narrow hallway would halt him again and again. (In the weeks when he was first adjusting to the chair, she’d have to wait for him to go to bed and then hunch along the hall with paint and paintbrush, touching up the walls he’d scraped — like filling in missing syllables. She was his reliable Igor. His Quasimodo with a can.) So she held it, her eyes burning a little, and kept rubbing circles into his shoulder.
They didn’t want to be conventional – not conventional grievers anyway. No therapy, no sitting on park benches watching healthy couples run by in matching jogging suits while tears dropped from their mournful eyes. They didn’t want to be the type of people who yearned. They could live without. They would decidedly not yearn.
Doctor’s orders, after all. “I’m not telling you anything will be fixed and working again. But for your own sake, remember that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Having completed his stock parting advice to those for whom he couldn’t do anything else, the doctor had smiled and slipped out of the room with a nod. The combination of majesty and singsong lilt in his Indian accent reverberated in Hollie’s ears. She could be sweet as honey, definitely. But did they really want flies? She looked at Dana. What else was there to do but nod at each other and agree to agree with whatever the doctors told them?
They decided laughter was the sweetest medicine. Laughter and a good oldie. “Teen Angel.” “Leader of the Pack.” “Last Kiss.” They would sing all the time. Over breakfast, they decided how many songs should be sung by lunch. In between they told knock-knock jokes.
They fed their minds. Foreign films, classic books, even thoroughly covering the business section of the paper. They fed their bodies. Dana prepared his homemade salad dressings and signature sauces. Hollie told him he was still a genius of the culinary senses.
They didn’t use the insurance money for a new car. What good was living in Center City, that nucleus, if you were always driving away from it? They could slide right out of their ground floor apartment and see everything Philadelphia had to offer without even a flight of stairs (and to think they’d originally wanted a second-floor apartment!), or a car, or a special van electronically lowering its gate to meet them. They did things around the city they’d never done before. It felt good to sidle off the sidewalk and onto cobblestone, into the past, with its places taken care of for centuries. As the wheelchair bumped along in front of her, Hollie figured this was OK: it was good for Dana to feel the ground, where he was going. One of the reasons they’d chosen this chair was for its durability on the uneven streets; they’d also been looking for maneuverability, for around the apartment. And, what they hadn’t thought of on their own: portability, weight. “This is the model I always recommend when the wife will be doing all the carrying,” the salesman had said. She’d since referred to the salesman as a pimp, helping to round out a threesome with the perfect companion for them both.
They noticed those sights they had passed each day, and now they let themselves be sucked in as tourists: Independence Hall, Independence Mall, the looming skeletal remains of Benjamin Franklin’s house that just dared lightning. They sensed they were fulfilling an American duty by collecting any available pamphlets. They hoarded copies of “We The People” in eighteenth-century script, the ss and fs so comfortable filling in for each other.
“When in the course of human events . . .” Dana had taken to beginning whenever he needed a break from sight-seeing to have his catheter bag emptied.
Hollie insisted they spend more time with their lesbian friends. Audrey and Gayle always joked that they were making things work without the requisite parts.
“You’d be surprised how many things aren’t so necessary,” Audrey often laughed.
Gayle was a biologist, Audrey a lawyer. They didn’t just make things work – they made them work splendidly. They had completely, independently renovated an old West Philadelphia row house into a work of art. Corinne, their daughter, was a violin prodigy, a spelling bee whiz, a tennis star. Audrey and Gayle were the ones Hollie and Dana had called for ideas when they needed to make the apartment as wheelchair-friendly as possible. Dana-fying the apartment, Corinne had called it.
“I can’t talk – I’m up to my armpits in papier-mâché.” Gayle’s voice sounded far away; Hollie could tell she was cradling the phone between her shoulder and her chin. “Tuesday is Big Boom Day in the fourth grade.”
Hollie’s leave of absence from her job at an elementary school – she was a speech therapist – had made her forget about all those special events crammed into the last few weeks before summer vacation. “Big Boom Day?” she asked, twisting the phone cord around her wrist and thinking of Gayle’s sleek portable.
“All the kids make model volcanos, and they set them off all at once.”
“How? I’d think the schools would be avoiding explosives.”
“Apparently all you need is a little vinegar and baking soda to make things happen,” Gayle said.
Something popped in the background, and Corinne’s disappointed, yet hopeful voice sang out in response: “Ooh, sooo close!” Hollie pictured their butcher-block kitchen set up as a laboratory. Cluttered with their familial effort. She looked around her own spotless kitchen; she’d stayed up the night before, using a special marker to fill in the scratches the chair had made on the lower cabinets and cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom till it gleamed, before curling into her side of the bed a little after two a.m.
She could hear Audrey’s voice in the background. “Is that Hollie and Dana? Tell them to go to the Mutter Museum.”
“You should go to the Mutter Museum,” Gayle said to Hollie.
“That medical oddity place? You’ve been there?”
“Yup,” Gayle replied, the sound of successful, potent fizzling and Corinne’s rejoicing (“We did it!”) rising behind her voice. “It’ll make you feel so normal.”
They made themselves as normal as possible. They got in line at the Mutter Museum. Hollie couldn’t imagine it was always this crowded. The ticket, information, and souvenir desk was perched right in front of the door so that, except for the first two or three people, everyone was standing just outside of the mansion-like building, brushing flies from their personal space. Hollie had thought the museum would be deserted on Memorial Day weekend, but she guessed this crowd made sense for a place that made battlefield death look regal in its lack of pus. As they neared the front of the line, Hollie saw the way the bland-looking ticket seller eyed all the patrons. Looking for what was wrong with them, she thought, what had brought them here. What hidden secrets had they come to compare against the freaks of the world? There was nothing visible, though, only what the woman could imagine as she collected money and bestowed badges of entry. When their turn came, the woman looked at Dana, checked her glance, quickly cleared her throat, and nodded them in. “Second door on your left.”
They made their way through the grand central hallway to the cherry-stained door. “This feels like being asked into a parlor for tea,” Hollie said, tentatively crossing the wooden threshold into the museum.
“I don’t think they’ll have Chai.” Dana’s eyes scanned the photo-covered walls from red carpet to textured ceiling. “And that’s all I drink.”
They decided to divide and conquer. Dana stayed on the main floor within the mazes of the old diseases that had been stamped out. All those forgotten pox and colored fevers.
Down the stairs, the gallery opened up into one room, glass cases filled with jars lining the walls. An aquarium of formaldehyde. Or, Hollie thought, the jars looked like portholes — the entire building adrift, like a ship turned away from harbor — so she would look into the glass for signs of life.
Information on Siamese Twins made this place famous. Upstairs was an exhibit of drawings and photographs with shocking captions about P.T. Barnum’s lucrative schemes.
But here, beneath the stairs, were actual conjoined twins. Of course they didn’t look real, the bright white, clay-like skin of their scalps threaded through, suspended from a thin rod in honey-colored fluid. But they were real, down to the scrunched shut eyelids of all newborns. And surrounding them, even more balloons of infant forms were poised afloat in their aquariums. Forceps injuries, stillborns, other descriptions Hollie didn’t want to think very much about. The card propped in front of each jar told the story. What astounded her was that, well, that each one had found its way here. And that each one had been ‘donated’ by the doctor, not the parents.
And yet Hollie knew the parents had somehow signed off on these jars. Walking away, the father helping the mother so soon after a difficult birth, muttering that the left twin would have liked horses, the right one candy. Because, Hollie had noticed, the left one’s legs were slightly bowed, the right one’s hand curled a bit upward as if asking to receive. She knew how carefully voices proceeded when they were needing to convince, how they faltered when resisting belief; these parents would certainly mumble while the doctors would speak meticulously. Inside the wordless glass, the two (or was it one?) specimens pressed together into one, wide chest, face to face, lies passing from one to the other —
She scurried up the stairs to grip the handles of Dana’s chair as if it were a stroller careening down a hill. She found him engrossed in the epidemic nook — a colony of sufferers, an injured gang — and pushed him back out onto Chestnut Street and into the sea of the noisy city.
“What’d you take me out here for?” he snapped, groping for control of the wheels. “You know, there’s something almost friendly about contagiousness.”
“You know what else,” Hollie used her best DJ voice.“There’s nothing quite as contagious as a snappy tune.”
The Platters were always a favorite of his: a band taking its name from the essential trappings of elegant food presentation. “The Great Pretender”: that was a good one. So she took him back to 1956, making her voice drippy with melancholy through every verse.
Dana wrapped his hands around the wheels and pushed on ahead of her, the handles jerking out of her fists. Hollie hurried along behind him as if on a tether, as if she were the entire back-up group to his solo. And she kept singing – they would be nostalgic for bobby socks, not communities of death, like normal people.
When Dana’s father had come home to the hospital after the accident, he’d started punching his son. Actually punching him. Not hard, but still.
“Come on there, tough guy. Like Rocky. Be like Rocky.”
Dana had put on a smirk and thrown his arms up in the air, protectively around his face, halfheartedly flinging them back at his father’s.
“Yo, Adrienne,” Ralph said in a Stallone-like slur, glancing back at Hollie. “Look at this champ. He’ll be up and fighting in no time.” She watched as her father-in-law lowered his aim, fists knocking bluntly against Dana’s legs. Dana stopped boxing back and looked at her.
Hollie wasn’t sure what else to do but, behind his back, give her father-in-law the finger. Above Ralph’s head, Dana smiled at her, fists still coming at him.
Since the hospital, Ralph had only been to visit once, but he hadn’t ever come to visit all that often before the accident either; he rarely stepped a foot outside South Philly. Today, being a national holiday and all, he made an exception — though not without a grudge. Ralph was the kind of Philadelphian who waxed horrorstricken when he met someone who’d never tasted a cheesesteak. He was also the kind of Philadelphian Hollie always wanted to grab by the throat, not to strangle, but to learn the strange flexings that produced the accent. Ralph said ‘wuder’ to describe what he drank and ‘byoo-dee-ful’ to describe . . . he didn’t say ‘byoo-dee-ful’ all that often, actually. Sometimes, maybe, she did want to strangle him, too.
“Ya know how your mother would act around you, if she was still around?” Ralph pointed his finger as he spoke. “She’d cry all night over a bottle of red wine, I promise you. Now what the hell good does that do? You and me, we’re gonna be men about all this. What d’ya say we drink a few six packs?”
Ralph’s complaints about his ex-wife were usually of the red wine versus beer variety. He still complained about the name she’d chosen for their only son. Apparently, when Ralph had objected to ‘Dana,’ she had found new inspiration in her favorite Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue.” Ralph had put his foot down at ‘Dana.’ Ralph was always bringing up his ex-wife; before she had become his late ex-wife, he always wanted to know exactly what she was up to, and he always wanted to comment on how she’d have been better off staying put than running off to do whatever the hell it was she was doing. Dana’s mother, on the other hand, had only mentioned her ex when expressing gratitude that she didn’t have to put up with him anymore. “Not that I wish him harm,” she’d say, “but phew!” Hollie had never known whether to laugh as her mother-in-law swept arm across forehead and flung pretend sweat onto the floor.
As Ralph finished his speech, he looked at Hollie. She knew that was her cue to invent an errand — or play dumb and Ralph would make her unwelcomeness clear. Once when Dana had missed out on a promotion, his dad had suggested an outing to a strip club. Hollie hadn’t been invited, but she rarely was. Ralph would never trust her prim New England birthplace: that part of Connecticut that hadn’t even absorbed a splash of Brooklyn into its voices. He often looked at her as if she were somehow boyish and inept, like she didn’t quite cut it, couldn’t quite satisfy her man, wasn’t all there. She was Lady MacBeth to him, just begging to be unsexed so she could plunge a dagger into a man’s chest with as much gusto as she could muster.
Dana looked at her apologetically as his dad got up to meander through the kitchen. Ralph picked up each plastic utensil, each pot holder, and looked at it as if it had been the undoing of his son’s manhood: had the accident not happened, a paring knife probably would’ve slipped and severed some nerves anyway. A cook of all things after a long line of plumbers, housepainters, and a healthy smattering of veterans. Though Hollie figured a vet’s wheelchair might be a badge of masculinity in Ralph’s eyes.
She shrugged. “OK. I’ll call Audrey, or Gayle, or Audrey and Gayle.”
“That’s how I fell for the Leader of the Six Pack,” Dana replied with a smile.
“Eureka!” Ralph exclaimed, yanking a six pack from their fridge. He winked at Hollie: she had finally done something right.
She took a cab west from Center City across the bridge, over the Schulkyll and the tracks to Thirtieth Street Station, to meet Gayle on campus. Officially the university was closed for the day, taking twenty-four hours off from its burdens, but Gayle had insisted a small-to-medium-sized emergency at the lab shouldn’t be left for the morning. She had overcome the crisis with a single bound, and now she could recline with Hollie on The Button, an oversized modern art piece, gazing across the green at the gothic architecture of the administrative halls. During the year this sculpture was a popular spot. The cracked-button design created the perfect slope for professors’ kids to use the white plastic surface as a slide. And you never knew when you’d be startled by the heads of neighborhood kids who had ducked underneath to pop up through the buttonholes. Gayle had heard from student workers in her lab that “Under The Button” was rated the number one place on campus to do it. But right now it was summer session, and The Fourth, leaving the campus’s paths thinly populated.
Hollie crossed her feet. “God, this thing is comfortable. And so, so ugly.”
“But it’s Corinne’s favorite story. Ben Franklin was looking out here for a place to put his university, his button popped off, he found it, and – voila! – that would be the center of campus.”
“That’s Corinne’s favorite story? I would have pegged her for a sci-fi fanatic.”
“Nah, she’s more into history, material culture. Pots and pans, just the facts, like Audrey. She just humors me by letting me teach her what’s in each petri dish at the lab.”
“But I taught her her diphthongs.” Hollie toyed with her top button to test its potential for tearing off and sprouting an institution.
“Yes, the diphthongs are yours.” Gayle started to get up and straighten her skirt. “Well? Home for dinner?”
“Depends.” Hollie didn’t budge.
“Can I pop off my father-in-law somewhere in West Philly?”
Gayle laughed. “At least you got out of the house for a little while. I remember when Corinne was a baby, we never went anywhere unless a relative came to visit.”
True, Hollie hadn’t been anywhere without Dana much since her life had been, well, Dana-fied.
And – also like a new mother – she had suddenly become the kind of woman who wore her hair very short, the time spent on her appearance now a dispensable part of her day. Her locks spun out in short spurts as if her head were fizzling.
Gayle began her walk home, just to the west of campus, and Hollie headed back east, swerving slightly north toward Chestnut Street. Over the bridge again, on foot this time, down into the twenties.
She wasn’t sure it would be open on the Fourth of July, but of course it was, the faithful gatekeeper letting all pilgrims come and rest their eyes on people who’ve got it worse. Hollie handed over her dollars, hoping the woman wouldn’t recognize her the next time she came, or the next. She crossed the hall to the glossy wooden door, the rolled-out red carpet. Tea time again. The place had a nineteenth-century-ness about it. Victorian politeness dwelled here: the politeness of a shrunken head collection kept in immaculate order by tuxedoed domestic servants.
She’d named the conjoined twins Richie and Buddy. The plumper boy hanging all by himself in the next jar was, of course, the slightly less big Big Bopper. Their jars shone when infused with the tragedy of rock ‘n roll. Their names in lights. Anyone and anything needed someone to come visiting.
Counting the zigzags of the cross stitch (almost fully camouflaged, yet still there) that had been threaded through their scalps to keep the boys suspended, Hollie thought of the smiling kids who pushed their heads through the holes of The Button, their baseball caps like thimbles. The pit between these two threadings held the strange pairings of her mind: the difference between birthdays and mortuaries, the difference between the tastes of the t in ‘paralytic’ and the t in ‘death.’
As she came out of the building, a handful of shirtless men with their chests painted red, white, and blue, stumbled drunkenly by, almost running her over. “Happy birthday, America!” one screamed, grabbing Hollie’s shoulders and planting a sloppy kiss over her nose and upper lip before continuing his rampage toward the debris of the Broad Street parade.
When Hollie got home, she found the men on the small balcony: empty beer cans, Dana fast asleep, Ralph kicking at the wobbly table leg.
“Oh, hey,” Ralph said when he saw her. She stepped outside and started collecting the cans into an orderly bunch. “So you teach the sign language, right?”
“No,” she said, not looking up. “I’m a speech therapist.” She’d corrected him a million times, but it wasn’t worth bickering over. She remembered what the doctor said: honey.
“Yeah, that’s it. You know, that could work out, I think. You teach little punks to talk and Dana shuts ’em up with his food.” He laughed, and she almost did, too.
But when Hollie looked up to smile at him, his eyes were elsewhere. He had turned toward Dana, intent on gently swatting the mosquitoes from his son’s legs.
Hollie let the cans be and sat down to watch the sun complete its setting. As the sky darkened, the first fireworks bloomed above, launched from the art museum’s famous Rocky steps that everyone had to run up once, just once. Her father-in-law kept his vigil well into the dusk.
Weeks later, in the thickness of a very late August, it was too muggy for the balcony. Traditionally, when held captive by heat waves or blizzards, they’d put on The Beatles and twist and shout till they dropped. Now they opted for ice cream. The fragile architecture of the perfect sundae brought out their best teamwork skills. The counters were too high for Dana, so they did all their food preparation at the table now. Dana’s chair had flip-back armrests they’d paid extra for so he’d be able to sit this close to a tabletop. They were a nuisance in restaurants, getting in the waiter’s way. “But I’m a cook, not a waiter,” he’d said, snapping both armrests back in one, quick motion. “Draw!” Hollie had replied.
“Can you believe there are people in the world who never let themselves indulge like this, ever?” Dana asked, licking chocolate fudge from his fingertips.
“Savages,” said Hollie. She concentrated on drawing a scalloped edge of whipped cream around her bowl. “Even fancy-schmancy gourmet cooks want ice cream.” She felt relaxed, ready to fill herself up with sugar.
“Wanna watch my video?” Dana asked.
Hollie jumped up to get it. She always wanted to watch his video. They had made it about a year back as a mock-pitch for the food network, but Dana insisted that if he ever really did try out, this was exactly how he would do it.
The cardboard sign appeared first: “For the Love of Lasagna: Cooking and Romance with Chef Dana Lennox.”
“Chivalry is all senses,” the video Dana began, his voice flirting with a Spanish accent. “As is cooking. People think they know that romance and food are all about the senses: taste, smell, even hearing since you have to be attuned to the right level of sizzle.” Hollie had zoomed in with the camera as Dana winked. “But do you know what the world’s finest chefs know? Touch is as important to cooking as it is to courting. Only through touch can the promise of smell and taste be consummated.” Like a matador, he waved a red napkin. “On today’s show we will talk about –” He raised his palm and paused. “The Weight of The Dough in The Hand.”
“I look like I’m asking for money,” Dana said, letting his spoon clang into his empty bowl. “Spare a sixpence, guvnuh?”
Hollie giggled. “You’re kind of a cross between Don Juan and a street urchin.”
Dana returned her giggle, and she looked up to see him grasp the table and lift himself halfway out of the chair. “God bless us, every one,” he squeaked, grabbing the ice cream scooper and thumping it along the formica like a crutch.
Hollie cackled, shaking her head at him. He could make her laugh forever with his dumbest jokes. Yet he never thought of himself as a Funny Person. He responded to her laughter with a bewildered look, like when she’d agreed to marry him. “Really?”
Really, although acquaintances they ran into at the grocery store told them they were dealing with all of this like champs, she couldn’t help noticing the increased frequency of those bewildered looks. When she wasn’t there, she knew, there was nothing for him to promise. She wondered if this was when the hands came out of their oven mitts to search for some territory of response. Recently Dana had learned to haul himself in and out of bed without her help, and she had wanted to give him a gold star for it. He deserved it for taking care of himself this way. But soon, except maybe to help with the catheter, she’d have no reason ever to touch him.
He used to tell her that chefs were people born with their nerves abnormally close to the surface. Now he was framed in with metal edges. All of the armor trapping the inner knight. He was bionic. Yes, it could be worse, but knocked right off his feet (how romantic it sounded!), food and love weren’t at hand-level anymore. Like recipe books removed to the highest shelf, they were out of reach.
He could probably land a show on the food network now. Angle he could pitch to the execs: representing the ‘less active’ viewers. She watched him kneading on the TV screen — as if he were behind glass and in a jar. Floating like the last pickle.
But looking back at her.
“Maybe I should’ve scripted this part; it’s too rambling,” he said. “Do you have a specific script you tell your students?”
She did. She said the same thing to all the stuttering or silent children who’d been sent from their sunny classrooms to the private chamber of her office. It was a script that stayed with her, the way basil stayed under Dana’s fingernails for days. But scripts were starting to feel too silly, unstable: The Beatles melting into humps of ice cream under their bangs. Dana looked at her expectantly. The phone rang, and Hollie walked across the room to get it.
“It’s the doctor,” she told Dana, turning her back on him and replacing the mouthpiece against her chin.
She had taken Dana in the day before when he had a low-grade fever, and he’d had a culture taken to test for a urinary tract infection. Of course Dana hadn’t felt any other symptoms – urgency, burning.
But these infections were quite common with catheters, the doctor told her now. “Which is why we emphasize hand-washing. On the part of the caregivers.”
Hollie bit down on her lower lip till she tasted the first saltiness of blood. Behind her Dana had turned the TV off and the stereo on. She heard clanging and turned to watch her husband trying to swivel his chair around the small kitchen in time to the music. Knocking over everything in sight. She could barely hear the doctor saying he’d call the pharmacy with the antibiotic prescription – and to be sure she washed her hands.
“It was an infection,” she said, hanging up the phone. Dana didn’t respond, continuing to jerk back and forth in the debris, his face coiled into the unseemly smile of a rock star destroying a hotel room. She maneuvered around him to get to the sink. Ralph would really think she was Lady MacBeth now; she’d have to start washing her hands two dozen times a day, with industrial-strength antibacterial soap. She stuck her hands under the faucet, scrubbing fiercely, and kicking away the things Dana had made fall to the floor.
“Do you really have to knock every damn thing onto the floor?” She yelled over the rush of the water and the boom of the music, still rubbing her hands together. “I just cleaned up in here!” There was a box of tissue at her feet, and she kicked it clear across the kitchen.
She turned around, holding one hand in the other, to face the angry slits of Dana’s eyes. But he wasn’t glaring at her culpable hands; his eyes were aimed at her legs.
They had received an invitation from Marla, one of the teachers at Hollie’s school, who had an annual back-to-school barbecue for the teachers and their families. It had been an honor for Hollie to be invited her first year and each one since. The other class pop-ins and specialists – like ‘Gym Gal’ and ‘Music Man’ – forever straddled the A and B lists of the classroom teachers. Hollie suspected her acceptance had been triggered by her voluntary attendance at PTA meetings; all the teachers thought it just darling of her to show up. She wouldn’t ever have full teacher status in their eyes, she knew, but still each year they had gone to the barbecue, she and her husband, to get back into the swing of things as autumn hit: she to coaching tongue muscles, he to heavier soups. Seeing her colleagues would remind her how close the first day of school really was and how she better get cracking at re-covering her bulletin boards with construction paper whose color hadn’t been warped by the sun. This year Hollie wondered what might have been done in her absence since the rainy March day that had been her last of the school year. In many ways the months since had felt like the non-reality of a stretch of snow days that had lasted and lasted, the way she’d wished they would when she was a kid. But the whiteout was now subsiding. Back to work. This was normal now.
The humidity was brutal in Marla’s backyard as they sat and listened to the stories of the summer. All teachers and their families apparently did the same things: public pools, day camps for the kids, rounds of golf – only sometimes real rather than mini – and voyages out for Italian ices. One in ten had ventured to the zoo or even the shore. Conversation turned, as it always would, to the children.
Finishing her handful of baby carrots, the fifth grade math teacher began to gush. “I was tucking Jeremy into bed the other night, and he said he was sure he loved me, so I asked him, ‘How do you know?’ You’ll never believe what he said! He said, ‘Because you’re sitting on my leg, and I don’t mind.’”
Hollie thought about the last time she’d put Dana to sleep — before he’d mastered getting in and out of bed by himself. (The last time she’d felt him against her, since he couldn’t register her weight as love even if she planted herself squarely on his leg for a month straight.) She’d sit on the edge of the bed, they’d wrap their arms around each other. He’d lift, she’d pull, and they’d end up sprawled on the bed, him on top of her. She knew better than to hesitate under the weight of his body, his breath on her neck, making her eager for him; she’d quickly place her hands on the back of his neck, like how she’d been taught with newborns, and use all her weight to roll him over and off her. Maybe he’d kiss her, hard but swift. This was enough. Everything that mattered to her was neck-up anyway: teaching people to set their vocal cords and will a sound, looking up and out. She was sure Dana thought this way, too; his business also resided in the cave of the mouth. It was the blossoming of taste that was essential to him, not how it all might collect below. She’d get up and help him undress, her fingers those of a disinterested nurse. And he’d fall asleep, the thin tube of the catheter snaking out of his shorts.
Hollie felt an ache in her gut and figured she must be hungry. She caught Dana’s eye and nodded toward the sliding screen door. Excusing themselves to refill on cold drinks, they sifted through the heat into the climate-controlled house with whispers at their backs.
“I’ll be OK in here,” Dana told her once over the ridge of the threshold, his voice gruff, asocial. The way they’d been speaking to each other in the days since his infection. She should go mingle.
She found herself in the kitchen with a congregation of women. She would be helpful, she decided, beginning to deposit lipstick-smeared cups into the top rack of the dishwasher. Marla quickly nudged her aside. “Excuse me, Hol. I just want to show all of you this nifty feature up here: the extra flip down rack. See?”
Hollie stepped back and almost onto the youngest of Marla’s gaggle of daughters, who was pouring juice for herself.
“Oh, Jessie!” One of the other women said and stepped in to do the pouring. “My youngest does the same thing. Juice everywhere.”
The women started buzzing about ground cereal in their carpet and stains in their tablecloths that would remain until the next ice age. As they talked, Hollie saw a commercial for a dream kitchen materialize before her eyes: one woman cutting vegetables, another loading the dishwasher, another pouring freshly-brewed iced tea into midget glasses. Lots of wives taking care of everything. She backed away from the conversation, word by word left out, and found herself edged to the den where the men were watching football.
There wasn’t any conversation in this room but for a few comments directed toward the TV about great or miserable plays. She knew a little about sports; she took a seat on the large ottoman and watched intently, making herself interested.
Dana had somehow reeled out of the male orbit, into the kitchen. She could hear his voice among the women, talking about the amazing dip recipe he’d discovered. The women were oohing and aahing over it: it was something they’d like, their husbands would gobble up, their kids would even try. Hollie tried to think of something funny she could say to mock his dip and reenter the kitchen world. But any tickertape of words that passed through her head came off spiteful. Unappetizing. She made herself search for the score among the graphics on the TV and made herself really care, too, which team acquired each plot of land, like in a Monopoly game to the death.
God bless us, every one. It was the Disney version that was in her head: a miniature Mickey Mouse with a teetering crutch and a sickeningly sweet voice. But Christmas was four months away, she had never been carolling in all her life, and she wasn’t even a mother who’d been subjected to animation till her blood was streaming technicolor. People didn’t realize the brute strength of a well-spoken cliché, like the word ‘Christmas’ itself. When she was young the other kids used to gather around her and sing, “Deck the halls with boughs of holly!” She had hated that.
Dana’s cooking tips continued to leak out into the sports room, his voice sounding knowledgeable and worldly. Almost fatherly in its advisory tone about low-fat cooking. Hollie allowed herself to look back at the kitchen and saw Marla making her (Hollie’s) husband comfortable around her (Marla’s) island. He sat in the center of the standing female ring, appearing so casual he could have been in his old boxer shorts. She thought of past nights when he couldn’t sleep, stubbornly grumbling there was no way he would do to his kid what his parents had done. No, sir, his son would be named Frank, Bud, Jack. Something guttural with hard consonants. “Out of the kitchen, onto the football field,” he’d cracked.
One of the women started complaining about not having a waist since delivering her last child and rolled up the side of her shirt to prove it. All of the women commiserated, hooking their hands around their waists to show how the indentation was less than it used to be. And Dana was there, joking with them and – did she see it correctly? – flirting! Pinching them in the sides while they squealed with delight.
Hollie had always held the idea of a child as something inside of her she wasn’t quite ready for, like an icicle latched on to one of her ribs. She had figured that someday she’d just warm it up, break it off, and toss it on the table.
She would never be the kind of woman who lost her waist.
“You know what they say: God bless us, every one.” Did she say that out loud? The men may have glanced at her uncomfortably but were back in the world of the game. One man next to her, more fragile than the others with his thick glasses and marginalized ottoman seat, responded.
“We just rented that cartoon for the kids. They loved it – even in this August heat.”
“You know,” Hollie replied. “That’s a Dickens novel.”
“Really?” Hollie couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Have you seen the new security measures they’re putting in for the Liberty Bell?” The man in the glasses had apparently lost all interest in the game. “You know what they say: if it’s already broke, don’t fix it! It’s not as if it’s not already cracked, right?”
“Well, you know what else they say,” she said, picking up a drink someone had left on the floor. “If life gives you a cracked monument, make lemonade!” She swung the glass into the air.
“They say that?” he asked.
Through the archway to the kitchen, Dana was toasting her, with bravado: a pretend glass in an empty hand. To Yoko.
The man next to her raised his torso, revealed an impassioned need to speak of removing history’s cracks with his solemn fist of a face. “I mean, who wants a cracked national monument? Fill it in! Solder it up! We’re a melting pot, for pete’s sake!” His voice was almost booming, and the other men rolled their eyes, grumbled, and turned up the volume on the TV. But four-eyes never faltered. “Indivisible!” he declared. “Remember indivisible?”
And Hollie was still listening: he was in his element now. She would give him an A for enunciation. He could heal the Liberty Bell with that enunciation. This was all what she taught: you could change everything with a slight nuance of the tongue and teeth, the right geometry of the mouth. Enter the conversation of the world by the bridge of your larynx.
She unfolded herself from the sinking cushions of the ottoman and excused herself.
Wasn’t this all part of the script? What she told her students, gently urging them to open their mouths? They talked about it. When kids came to her, closed as oysters, this was how she loosened the jaws and coaxed out something glistening and new.
She first urged her students to tell jokes – a jiggling of the tongue hinge. But if that didn’t work, it was time to tackle that dark secret everyone has one of, that ballad in the gut — something that had to come out.
This was how she fixed things. Or tried to. Even when the cords had been damaged, she’d try to make them talk about that. Pouring soothing, if futile, honey into the throat.
She went back into the kitchen and stood in front of Dana, slowly grazing his Adam’s apple with her thumb. She felt his neck muscles start to contract in anticipation of forming words and she nodded, her chin rising as if carolling with all her might at each and every threshold. Refrains, those old pals.
Just like to a student, she told herself. And she began. “Chin up. Deep breath in. Slowly now. Each tickle of a vibration counts. No one can hear you but me.”
Rebecca Entel is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College. Her stories have appeared in Madison Review, Leaf Garden, Joyland Magazine, Eunoia Review, Medulla Review, Unsaid Magazine, Connotation Press, and The Examined Life Journal. She lives in Iowa City.
Elmer was in the kitchen fixing himself two eggs over easy when he heard shouting outside. He turned the burner down, went to the window. Out near his mailbox, where the children gathered to board the yellow bus, two girls argued.
Elmer waited. He tried to decipher the voices and gauge the threat. It sounded like one of the girls said you bitch. At first the spat seemed normal, natural. But when the girl in the pink dress struck the girl in the blue dress over the head with a tin lunch pal, Elmer’d seen enough.
He stepped out onto the cool concrete, barefooted. “You girls end it right now,” he said. “Or I’ll come down there.”
The girls had dropped their lunches, and each now clutched a fistful of hair. With locked bodies they jerked, cussed. Then they both fell to the grass and wrestled, arms twisted, before the one in pink got on top, continued slapping and pulling hair. Behind the girls a group of children, ranging from first to ninth grade, crowded around; the mob coalesced, blocking the fight from view.
Elmer hustled to reach the children as fast as he could. He had a bad back from years of block laying. When he finally got there he pushed his way ringside. A little blood dripped from the bottom girl’s nose, and the girl in pink still straddled her, kicking ass.
“Come on, break it up,” Elmer said, and he placed a hand on each girl’s shoulder, pried them apart.
Then Yolanda, the neighbor across the street, stepped out her door with a sheet wrapped around her.
“Ellie,” she said, “don’t take that shit from her. If she’s still picking at you, you better finish that little bitch.”
Ellie, the sufferer through the ordeal, managed to stand at the sound of her mother’s voice. She wiped the blood from her face with an arm, then latched onto the girl’s hair, dragging her to the ground.
Now, Elmer had a problem. The children pushed, roared, cussed; foam formed around their tender mouths like wolves in drought. “Move back, step back,” Elmer said, and extended his arms to corral the children. The two girls still rolled in dirt, trading blows with clenched fists.
Before Elmer could separate them again, Yolanda hustled across the street to the huddle, silk sheet still draped around her. She pushed to the front.
“That’s it, Ellie. Come on, girl. Hit her good goddammit.”
“What you want to do that for?” Elmer asked. “They’re kids.”
Yolanda gripped the sheet above her breasts, ignored him, continued yelling. One of the middle school boys, with a dog collar around his neck and orange hair, went to his knees. He scooted under Yolanda, stuck his head beneath the sheet.
Elmer leaned down, took ahold of each girl’s arm, and started to lift them. Then he felt a sharp pain in his lower back, an explosion of numbing sensations that branched into his arms, his neck, his checks.
“You touch my daughter again you bastard and you’ll find yourself on the sex list,” Yolanda said.
Now the school bus rumbled up the block and a few of the other neighbors had stepped out onto their porches to see what the commotion was about. Three houses down from the melee, Carol Varney stuck her head out the door of her colonial wearing an apron, presumably looking for her daughter.
Meanwhile, the children rooted and Yolanda coached. At times the girls traded places on top, though both were losing energy, momentum, and their movements, their blows, became slower, less forceful over time.
Elmer flinched whenever a body crawled over him or a shoe landed beside his face. He felt paralyzed from the waist down. Through the tangle of legs, he could see the girls, weak and beaten. Then Carol pushed her way into the group.
“That’s enough. You kids know better. Debra, stop, get up.”
“Oh, so now Mrs. Riches needs to throw her dollar in,” Yolanda said.
“Throw what?” Carol asked.
“You heard me, bitch,” Yolanda said, and grabbed her, hit her in the eye.
Carol went down, and Yolanda pounced. During the sucker punch Yolanda’s sheet fell off. She was bare-breasted and the children turned their attention to her, to them, in pure hysteria; the orange-haired boy had resorted to shoving first and second graders out the way to capture it on his phone.
“Somebody help me,” Elmer said.
The mothers and daughters, in their separate snarls, proceeded to fight.
“C’mon, dammit,” Elmer said, and tried pushing himself up but couldn’t.
The bus slowed to a stop alongside the ruckus, hit the lights. Elmer watched as the innards of the bus ignited—the motionless shadows of children finally awakened—into a shove fest. Before the woman driver, who also substituted as the school’s wrestling coach, could get the door open, the children all wedged to one side, rocking the bus. The bus windows clunked and miniature arms and faces emerged through parted glass.
The bus driver unlatched her safety belt and stood. “Everyone remain in their seats and no looking by golly.”
Elmer said, “Hey, driver,” and waved to get her attention.
She must’ve failed to see him because she grabbed the sheet, threw it over Yolanda, then lifted her in a bear hug. Yolanda kicked. The bus driver whispered into Yolanda’s ear, and Yolanda quit thrashing. Carol remained on the ground, unresponsive. The bus driver then shooed the kids onto the bus, returned and lifted Carol and carried her on.
“Hey, dammit, hey, what about me?” Elmer asked.
Yolanda nodded and the driver nodded back before the bus doors closed.
As it rolled on, Elmer yelled but nobody came. He rubbed his belly and counted the cinder blocks that held his place, a foundation of stone and blood he’d once set alone; though all he could do now was wait for someone to stop and help carry him home.
Keith Rebec resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student, working on an MA in Writing, at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, apt, Underground Voices, and Split Lip Magazine, among others. He co-edits a literary magazine called Pithead Chapel and you can learn more about him atwww.keithrebec.com.