You Don’t Have to Be So Afraid All the Time

A sonic crack and the ball soars like a comet, like it might remain another white speck in the night sky, like it’s a guaranteed walk-off home run. Except that the left-fielder, who, till now, has appeared hobbled by the rumors of his impending free agency, is tearing towards the wall, not even glancing up to trace the ball’s trajectory. His only hope is to beat it there and wait, to pray it loses some propulsion. And it isn’t until he’s at the farthest possible point on the field that he looks up over his shoulder, still driving forward, only his cleats have leapt from grass to wall and his free hand is clutching its ridge and his glove is reaching so far upward that it looks like his arm is being ripped out of its socket, and his eyes are shut tight and his teeth gritted, and his hat has fallen off his head, and it seems like he’ll hang there for an agonizing eternity when his glove reflexively snaps shut with the weight of the earthbound ball, and the left-fielder, who has been battling a torn ACL all season and has a batting average of .239 and is maligned daily by every sports radio host in the state, returns to the ground and is consumed by the oceanic roar of the crowd.

The whole feat shifts into reverse—the ball escapes the glove and ascends into the sky, the left-fielder climbs up the wall, then back down again—before it plays out once more in slow-motion, no easier to comprehend, even when broken down into a scientific step-by-step. The SportsCenter logo spins in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Kenny sits three feet from the TV on the living room floor, pulsating with excitement. He has to make that catch himself, move his young limbs with that same fluidity and strength, claim someone’s almost assured shot at victory as his own, imagine the charge of a stadium erupting for him.

It’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Kenny knows he’s the only one left to teach his brother these things.

And so his backyard becomes a makeshift ballpark. He shields his eyes from the sun with the frayed glove handed down from his father (the only thing Kenny can remember of him) and stands across from his little brother, Everett. Kenny has carefully instructed Everett to toss the ball up and hit it just hard enough that it will fly over the chain-link fence that borders their yard while still being catchable, but not so hard that it ends up completely out of reach. It’s a lot to ask of an eight-year-old, but Kenny knows he’s the only one left to teach his brother these things. Unsurprisingly, the first attempts either end up as dribbling ground balls or bombs that clear the fence completely and bounce across the street into the neighbor’s driveway. Finally, one connects perfectly with a satisfying, hollow sound, and Kenny follows it to the fence, head down and breathing hard like the man he wants to be; and it’s still hanging there as he plugs his feet into the gaps in the fence, and as he loses his balance and finds his face falling towards its pointed top, and as his upper lip catches one of these points and his body gives in to the gravity, and the pink flesh covering his teeth tears, sending a bolt of pain through his head and filling his mouth with the tinny taste of blood. The ball skips across the road and Everett is already crying loudly, bringing their mother into the yard, who, seeing her oldest son’s mouth split into two dangling flaps of flesh, runs back into the house and pounds out a panicked call to 911, whose operator promises to send an ambulance once the mother screams that yes she is already too drunk at eleven-thirty in the morning to ice her son’s mouth and drive him to the ER herself and would they for the love of God please come save her boy.

First, there are the sirens, then the flood of red lights, and then the ambulance itself, which blurs past Monica who has obediently pulled her Ford Fiesta to the side of the road. Unaware it’s speeding towards a sobbing boy whose mouth is in desperate need of stitching, she instinctually crosses herself—a remnant from her Catholic school days. And though it’s been over a decade since she’s voluntarily entered a church, she still can’t shake that ritual or the Hail Marys she speeds through when desperate to keep her mind off something stressful—like the biopsy she’s on her way to, having found a lump underneath her left breast last Tuesday. And as she eases back onto the road, she catches her lips shaping the words, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” She seals her mouth. It’s an embarrassingly stupid habit. Muscle memory more than anything. But it’s so much like the religion itself, a means of coping with our creeping mortality.

Todd Pendergras knew this better than anyone, even at twelve-years-old. A classmate at Sacred Sacrament for only one year, she hasn’t thought of him in a decade—he who never said a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father,” never received the Eucharist or entered Confession. Somehow, it was common knowledge that his mother had killed herself two summers before, though the exact method was left to rumor (some said she slashed her wrists, others that she leapt from the roof of their apartment building). His father was a non-entity, so his grandmother sent Todd to get a religious education after his many outbursts in public school. Even at Sacred Sacrament, he punched dents into his locker and pissed all over the bathroom floor. Kids backed away from him the way you would a rabid raccoon that had stumbled into your driveway—Monica did too. The exception being the detention they shared—she had missed three math assignments; he had torn a page out of a hymnal for a paper airplane—where, while swabbing spirals into the dusty green chalkboard, Monica heard herself ask, “Do you believe what they say, that people who kill themselves go to Hell?” She then froze, letting the cold, soapy water trickle down her arms and into the rolled sleeves of her blouse. She didn’t know where the question had come from or that she was capable of such naked carelessness. But rather than pound his fists into the board or curse her out, he just looked at her with something that resembled pity and said flatly, “Monica, there is nothing after this. You don’t have to be so afraid all the time.” Then he turned and squeezed his sponge out into the bucket. They spent the next half hour and then the rest of the year in silence. He didn’t return in eighth grade. And as Monica pulls into the parking lot of St. Michael’s Radiology Department, moments away from the cold stab of the biopsy, trembling hands gripping the steering wheel, she wonders where Todd is at this very moment.

And as she eases back onto the road, she catches her lips shaping the words, ‘Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.’

The ping of the friend request arrives like a shot of dopamine, pulling Todd from his cave of blankets. A warm wave of familiarity washes over him when he reads “Monica Paisley.” A childhood crush. A quiet girl with frizzy black hair and a pleasantly plain face. And if her profile picture is to be believed, those formerly soft features have sharpened into something more striking. One arm absently reaching for the empty side of the bed where his now (he has to get used to saying it) ex-girlfriend normally slept, he clicks “accept.” The sadness that sits in his stomach like a boulder is a mundane one, compared to his life’s other losses, but it is still a sadness nonetheless. He scrolls through the details of Monica’s digital life: bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from formidable universities in the Northeast, a museum job, no recent pictures with men; all while trying to ignore the realities of his own: dropping out of community college, failing to come up with his carpenter’s union dues, the apartment he can no longer afford because of the absence of a woman he never liked but now constantly misses. Shedding a layer of blankets, he opens a message window to Monica, then spends fifteen minutes staring at its overwhelming blankness. After fourteen years of mutual silence, he can only wonder what her request means. If she is as lonely as he is now. Regardless of the several states that separate them, his response can determine the trajectories of their future, can coordinate them to some mutual point or cause them to recede back into nothing. He focuses on a dark stain on his comforter shaped like an oven mitt, then returns to the debilitatingly vacant screen.

The sun has now set, and the room’s only light is the soft glow of the TV in the corner, flickering with baseball highlights. The home team’s designated hitter, a bear of a man, connects with a ball that looks like it’s exiting the stratosphere. Three years before Todd’s mother died, she took him to see the Marlins play the Orioles, his first and only baseball game. He never showed much interest in sports as a child and still doesn’t, except as the occasional background noise. He can’t recall which team won or even whom they had rooted for. He does remember the crowd rising to do “the wave,” the intoxicating smell of hot dogs, his mother arguing with a vendor over the price of beer. He remembers too the mass exodus from the stadium—every fan thinking they’d be the first to reach their car and beat the traffic—and his flapping lace getting caught beneath his shoe, his palms catching the pavement and stinging with blood and gravel, the blows of unseen feet against his ribs and even one stepping across his back, a rippling of gasps and his mother’s screams—That’s my son! You’re trampling my son!—and being lifted by his shirt, his collar strangling him, and then swept into her arms and squeezed like a life raft, covered in kisses, apologies breathed into his ear: I’m sorry, baby. Mommy’s got you. You’re safe with me. I’m never going to let you go.

His screen has dimmed to sleep, and so he wakes it. With a steady clatter, he types, “Monica, help me to not be afraid again.” He clicks “send,” then, as if trying to trap the message before it can escape, snaps the laptop shut.

 

Douglas Koziol received his MFA from Emerson College, where he currently teaches in the Writing, Literature, and Publishing department. His writing has appeared in The Millions, Crack the Spine, and Driftwood Press, among other venues. He is at work on his first novel.

 

Photo by Meg Kiley

Bruised Sage

Driving home from the ranch across the high desert, Enzo measures the length of a coal train, setting the odometer at the caboose and racing westward toward the engines. Tess photographs lightening that cracks the sky. Eight-year-old Sophie sleeps in the back, wrapped in the sweetness of trust.

Home in Los Angeles, Enzo needs to keep moving. “Let’s visit your parents.”

Tess thinks he is like the desert sky, full of fissures and electricity. She wants stillness. She hesitates, but her mother calls.

“Tess, come see us. I want to hear Sophie’s adventures in her words.”

“Mum, we’re still recovering; Sophie’s accident was hair-raising.”

“Nonsense, Sophie will feel brave when she tells her story, and Enzo is her hero.”

This is true. Enzo saved their daughter by moving faster than light. Sophie’s pretty roan pony threw her and bolted with Sophie’s foot in the stirrup, dragging her down the riverbed. While Tess stood frozen, Enzo slammed his horse into the pony and Sophie’s foot came free.

*     *     *

The road north to Leo and Eva’s follows the coastline in winding curves, exhilarating Enzo with memories of Italy. He accelerates into the bends. Last night Tess dreamed of careening over the edge. The drop is not a true cliff, but people in a car would drown, or twist and burn. Awaking, she questions if she is alive. Now Tess braces her knees against the dash. They arrive in Eva’s kitchen, bringing the scent of the ocean. Eva has forgotten they are coming. Enzo cooks a frittata and Tess adds extra places to the breakfast table on the patio. Leo covers for Eva with the particular grace of an old spy. Stabbing his food, distracting them all, he turns to Sophie with his I’m-teaching-you tone.

“During the war I vowed I would have an egg a day for the rest of my life.”

World War II binds Tess’s English parents and Italian Enzo. In south Italy, the chaotic aftermath shaped Enzo’s childhood. He follows his father-in-law’s narrative. “My parents were teenagers when the war ended. Their first memories are of hunger. Now my mother fills cupboards with food that rots.”

A college summer of working on a Wyoming ranch gave her a place where her parents’ war became smaller against the sky.

Eva continues the storyline of history. “The war made us mad as hatters. I traded rations with the pilots, cigarettes for chocolate, and they took me on flight exercises. Dangerous, but we all expected to die one way or another. Sophie dear, have you learned about G-force?”

These people Tess loves are good at pretending things are fine. No one says the Italians and the Brits were enemies. Tess looks at her eggs; she has never gone hungry. At school she learned how her parents’ generation saved the world, and kneeled under her desk, practicing for nuclear attack. Fear and sorrow were forbidden, excised from their lives like an infected appendix. What defines joy without sadness?

*     *     *

Snuggling on the sofa, Sophie and Eva fall into afternoon sleep. Enzo and Tess lie on the patio lounge chairs to watch the incoming fog shroud the mountains.

Enzo says, “You must tell them what happened in Wyoming. Tutto.”

“Isn’t the accident enough?”

 “No, amore. They must know.”

“You want me to tell them now, when they are almost dead?”

Tess cannot bear this. A college summer of working on a Wyoming ranch gave her a place where her parents’ war became smaller against the sky. She took Enzo to that landscape, hoping it would help him heal after his father’s death. Within a day of arriving, Sophie almost died in a freak accident. Unsinkable Sophie was on a horse again in two days, but Tess fell apart. Shame clawed its way up to her surface like the un-dead. She told Enzo the long-buried story she’d hid from herself, from everyone. They drove the rented SUV up the fire roads to a clearing high above the river gorge. She got out of the car, bruising the sage with her feet. In the rosy dusk light, sweet crisp scent wrapped around her as she spoke to the ground.

“Here. I was raped here.”

Enzo stepped forward and aimed an arc of urine over the stones and low brush, saying, “I am erasing him.”

Tess stood mute in the smell of men. You can’t. A cloud of mosquitos settled on Enzo’s tender foreskin and he slapped and danced, swearing. Tess’s laughter exploded decades of silence, echoing across the canyon again and again in a lunatic chorus.

*     *     *

Today Tess says, “Is your pissing contest with my past a funny story?” Softening, she adds, “They need to know I can take care of them, they don’t want me to be wounded.”

“They love you.”

“My parents were smart enough to survive the most terrible war.”

Eh, cosi?”

“Their generation never talks about failure.”

“Failure?”

“I got in that truck with that man.”

Enzo is quiet.

Tess thinks he and her parents might agree on her foolishness.

“Your parents did not teach you to recognize a psicopatico.”

They won a war against a psychopath.”

“That has nothing to do with this.”

It does. Leo and Eva measure even their children against sixty million dead. Weary Tess says only, “They would think it vulgar.”

Enzo respond in words that caress. “Vergogna scoperta, e vergogna svanita. Shame uncovered is shame vanished.”

Tess touches the half-burned olive tree at the edge of the patio. They were married here, under its branches. She loves this tree, tortured and defiant, bearing fruit, its silvery leaves embracing the mountains and sea. Tess’s life has grown around her like the new bark edging the burn scars, thickened and round, protecting the damaged heartwood. She goes inside to make tea.

*     *     *

In the living room, Eva and Sophie are looking at Wyoming pictures. “Good job to get right back on that pony.”

Sophie doesn’t fit in Eva’s lap anymore, her legs dangle and she drapes her arm around her grandmother’s neck. Enzo takes a picture, murmuring La Pieta, but with a happy ending. Tragedy kissed them and passed by.

Eva is telling Sophie a horse story. “I was twenty, living in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe now. We were in the middle of the African veldt, no one for miles. Do you know what the veldt is?”

Sophie nods. “Where the zebras are.”

“Quite right. I argued with Cat and stormed out. Funny, I remember slamming the door, but not why. I was so mad; we galloped like bats out of hell. Of course Raven caught my mood and bucked me off. Hit my head, no idea what happened. When Cat told me about it I thought she was pulling my leg.”

Sophie’s eyes get rounder. “How did she pull your leg?”

Vergogna scoperta, e vergogna svanita. Shame uncovered is shame vanished.’

“She said I took off my shirt and waved it above the grass to flag down a farmer going to market. When he stopped, I was madly buttoning it up again. He took me home and I fell asleep wearing my boots. One mustn’t let a concussed person sleep.”

“I know; in Wyoming Mamma sang all the way to the hospital. And poked me.”

“Lucky you. That silly farmer gave me brandy and put me to bed. Maybe that’s why I am batty now. I didn’t know my name, only the pony’s, Raven.” She looks at the mountains as if she might remember more. “California reminds me of Africa. Sophie darling, you must go to Africa.”

“But Granny, what happened?”

“The farmer called Cat. He knew we were the only English women within a day’s ride. She couldn’t come ’til the next morning. She said I let him make love to me. I don’t remember a damn thing.”

Tess whips her head around and coaxes Sophie off Eva’s lap, promising cookies and a swim in the pool.

Sophie grips her grandmother’s neck, asking, “Granny, how is that pulling your leg?”

Leo cuts in like a dancer and explains figures of speech while tugging Sophie’s heels until she giggles.

*     *     *

Tess knows this story. Eva and Cat retold it whenever they were together. In their seventies, they still described the farmer blushing as he opened the door.

“He apologized for not getting Eva’s boots off!” Their graceful gray heads rocked with laughter.

As they make lemonade in the kitchen, the stories align in Tess’s mind: Eva, Sophie, unconscious. Eva, herself, violated. Tess hisses to her mother, “Sophie is too young to hear about a man stealing your virtue, raping you while you were unconscious.”

Eva snorts like a horse.

“Don’t be silly, what virtue?” Eva takes things out of cupboards, pans go in the oven and out again. She stands lost in the center of her kitchen and looks at a flaming empty burner, then asks Enzo if he will go pick up food.

While he is out Tess opens wine for her parents. She cleans up Eva’s attempted meal, scorched chicken thighs and raw broccoli, tears burning the corners of her eyes. Her mother talks about buying Sophie a new riding helmet because they crack after one fall. Tess and her mother collude in pretending that everything is fine; they always do.

*     *     *

That night Enzo drives home. On the Ventura Freeway, Tess asks, “Did you notice my mother isn’t making sense?”

“No.”

“You didn’t see her turn on the dishwasher to make toast?”

“I turned it off.”

“She told Sophie that terrible story about being taken advantage of when she had a concussion as if it were funny. Sophie is only eight.”

“It is funny.”

“Enzo!”

“You love your mother because she is never appropriate.”

“I admire her for that. I love her because she is always there, and always brave.” Sudden lights from the car dealerships fronting the highway make the night bright and strange. “Do you see why I don’t tell them?”

Enzo pauses, changing lanes, blinker, mirror, passing the lights to darkness again. Tess thinks he has abandoned the conversation, but he says,“Yes, I do. Mi dispiace.”  He takes her hand as he navigates the exit onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

“She didn’t understand that Sophie almost died.”

“Of course not. To think that Sophie is mortal is terrifying. Your mother is finished with loss; she plans never to lose anyone again. It is we who will lose her.”

Tess’s soul cries no. She wants Sophie to grow up with Eva, laughing at disaster, pretending everything is fine until it really is. Enzo accelerates into the curve. Tess asks him to slow down. He does, but speeds up at the next bend. “Enzo, not so fast.”

Perhaps he doesn’t hear, perhaps he does.

“Slow down, you’re frightening me!” Tess reaches behind his neck to check Sophie; she’s sleeping. As she straightens, the speed of the car flings her against the door. The smell of sage from the hillside mingles with Enzo’s shaving soap, releasing the desperate memory of a numbing drive down mountain switchbacks, a man with a knife, his bruising stink inside her, blood on her thigh. Tess’s hand tightens around the door grip, words escape in a gasp, “Stop! You drive like the rapist.”

Enzo inhales through his teeth. He swerves onto the gravel verge. The waves are loud and close. Enzo leans across Tess to open her door, but she holds it with animal strength. They don’t know they are struggling. In the confined space some part of his body slams her against the car frame so her head snaps sideways against the window. Vertebrae in her neck arrange themselves with sounds that seem louder than the waves. Tess shudders, grasping the door handle like a life buoy. Sophie wakes in the back, shifting and murmuring.

“Mamma?”

Tess freezes. Enzo reaches behind her and pats Sophie. In seconds they are on the road and Sophie slides back to sleep. They will never agree on these moments. He says he spoke, but Tess hears nothing; says nothing. They pull into the garage and she scoops up sleeping Sophie and runs. Before Enzo can wrestle the bags into the elevator, Tess locks the apartment door.

 

Sarah Lejeune is an artist, writer, and urban planner living with her family on the edge of Los Angeles. She is a graduate of Smith College, and holds an MFA in painting and sculpture from Claremont Graduate University. Writing delights her. “Bruised Sage” is her first published fiction. She is writing a novel about life on the other side of rape.

 

Fermenting Hearts

Calling Txiv thiab Niam

At six years old, True wrapped his right arm over the top of his head and touched his left ear with his right hand. That was the test to get into primary school in Laos. His fingers inched towards the tip of his ear in hopes of getting into school.

“You are ready to show them tomorrow, tub,” said his mother. And he beamed.

Early at dawn, True’s mother prepared a large bundle of rice wrapped in an emerald-green banana leaf and five pieces of dried fish. His father carried a bamboo chute full of fresh water from the river, and both the packed food and chute of water were stuffed in a kawm, a woven basket. True slipped each arm into the straps of the kawm, now on his back, and looked up at his father: flared nostrils, beady, almond-shaped eyes, sun-spotted freckles. The trek was three hours to his school in the village of Phuu Sa Noi.

Txiv, I am ready,” True said.

His father nodded, walked out the front door of their mud-thatched home, and led the way into the grey skies above the jungle. True followed with his mother and father’s love shifting in the basket hugging his back. He lunged with his little feet in thong sandals to catch up with his father.

As he trailed behind, he thought back to the time when his father first took him to the river. He loved going outdoors, and he loved that his father took him.

Tub, come here. I want to show you something,” said True’s father.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Look into the water. What do you see?”

Minnows dashed around in the shallow water by the bank. True smiled at the fish that were as big as each of his fingers. He giggled and placed his opened palm into the water like a soft, floating leaf. His father looked down at him struggling to capture the fish in his hands. True distinctively remembered his father’s hand, molded into a bowl, take one swift scoop into the water. Suddenly, a minnow dashed in his hand.

On the three-hour journey, True’s father led the way on a narrow track. The two ascended up the mountainsides jumping over fallen trees and found themselves descending towards fresh mountain streams. There were no breaks. No words spoken. True’s father was cautious of mountain tigers and aware of evil spirits lingering in the depths of the jungle. True was afraid too. So they treaded on with a quickened pace.

True and his father arrived in the village where his school was. Because the school was three hours away, True had to stay in the village and couldn’t go home as often as he wanted to. His father had to go back home to take care of the household chores and farming. Three hours back and forth everyday would be a full day’s loss of farming and fishing. True could only watch his father’s back fading into the jungle from the doorway of the bamboo-thatched school.

He ran out the door because that wasn’t his mother and father’s food. Because no one invited him to come eat.

On his first day, he sat in between a Hmong boy and a Laotian boy. The classroom was small and could only fit benches and a large dusty chalkboard. The Laotian teacher, a dark-skinned man with stained teeth, wrote Lao characters up on the board and had the young students sitting in crooked rows repeat after him. For another week and a half, True repeated after the teacher and stayed in one of his uncle’s good friend’s home. The Hmong family was welcoming, but only provided him a place to sleep. That was all he needed. He didn’t borrow anyone’s water to bathe in like his mother told him not to. He didn’t use anyone’s hole in the ground to pee or poop in like his mother told him not to. He had the rice his mother packed him to nibble on when he was hungry. When he ran out of dried fish, he ventured onto empty farm lands for vegetables. When he wanted something sweet, he found a guava tree and picked off a single fruit to munch on.

During evenings, True didn’t have to avoid the family he stayed with. They were always farming past mealtime and had their family meals at the fields. But every morning, True left when the family sat around the food that would carry them throughout the day. Fresh rice sent wisps of steam into the cold air. The spicy smell of Thai chili peppers and lemongrass from the hot fish soup lightly burned True’s eyes. He ran out the door because that wasn’t his mother and father’s food. Because no one invited him to come eat.

I will eat my mother’s rice, he thought.

School in Laos was five days a week, and True had just ended his second week of learning the Lao alphabet. Squatting on the ground by the classroom, True picked at the dirt and wondered when his father was going to come get him. School was out for the weekend. Closing his eyes, he remembered his father’s back, head bobbing into the wilderness. Starting to feel lonely, True decided to walk around Phuu Sa Noi with his kawm. He wandered to a large rock that oversaw the pathways into the jungle. His tiny body protruded on the large rock as he looked out to what he thought was the direction of his home.

Txiv thiab niam. His heart sighed at the thought of his parents.

True knew better than to speak of the sadness in his heart out into the open air of the village. His mother often told him stories of Hmong villagers who had a spirit accompany them and cling onto them because spirits of the dead heard their loneliness. One villager became really sick for disturbing the spirits near his farmland with his devastating cries of abandonment by his deceased wife. When the villager came back home to his family, he was restless and could not swallow a spoon of rice so the family asked the village’s shaman to look into the situation. The shaman saw that a female spirit had clung to his physical body, wanting to take the villager with her. True was too afraid, so he wrapped the small throbbing pain deep inside his heart.

He looked back out onto the pathway of the jungle to take his mind off of ghosts and evil spirits. Up on the rock, True could see an opening into the jungle. He saw a body emerging out of the trees and shrubs and his hunger for love made him indifferent until he saw his father’s face, his back carrying a kawm full of lumps of banana leaves. True immediately jumped out of his silent fears and ran down the rock. His father had finally come for him. His father was here to take him back home for the days off. Feeling completed and full, True raced the wind down to the pathway leading into the jungle.

Txiv!” was all True could make sense of.

 

Only Child

True had been going to school for two years, walking the same pathways into the jungle every two or three weeks. He was turning eight and journeyed to school with his cousin who started school several months after him. One weekend, True came home from the farm with his dad, and his mother was sitting outside the hut mumbling to herself.

“Do you see her?” she mumbled.

True looked around him. “Dabtsi, niam? What do you see?”

“Tell her to go away!” Her voice trembled. She began to throw dirt pebbles towards something, but there was nothing there.

Tub, go get some wood for the fire,” True’s father ordered by the entryway. True ran to the side of the hut, dragging logs that were half the size of his body into the kitchen area. His father stared intently at his wife. He had noticed his wife acting up several times before.

Once, she woke up in the middle of the night as the crickets chirped and cold wind seeped through the holes of the hut. She had been shifting all night next to him.

Koj niam, why are you awake?” he asked. “Go back to sleep now.”

Me koj txiv, something hairy is touching me,” his wife whispered. He looked around their bed with slits of moonlight coming into their hut.

“There is nothing. Do not wake up our son. Wait until the sun rises.”

She silently laid her body back down onto the flat wooden bed. Their son was sound asleep right next to her.

Now True placed the last piece of wood into the fire as his father walked in. He walked calmly, his face showing no sign of worry.

Tub,” muttered his father. True, squatting on the ground by the fire, looked up at his father. “There is your father, mother, and you. Now that your mother is very sick, stay and help me take care of our farms and our home.”

“Mm,” True mumbled for a response.

 

Take My Hands

The wind caressed the opium flowers as True squatted on the ground digging a stick into the dirt. He came from home, looking for his mother. Evening was coming and all the villagers already headed back home for a meal. True placed his bottom on the dirt and allowed the opium field to submerge him. He waited just a bit longer to see if he would hear footsteps crunching on the dirt road next to the fields. Where is mother? She’s too sick to be outside, he thought. Not too long after, True heard singing.

Niam yai…

… came the sweet, melodic voice that buzzed with nature’s harmony. True was alarmed, but he did not feel afraid because the voice was so familiar.

Mother, father… You brought me into a world where the birds and insects do not fill my earth with their crooning for my love… Now that I have parted ways with you both… not able to turn back… no longer your family because of marriage… No one will accept a poj nrauj… accept someone like me who has left and brought shame to my husband and child…

True did not budge. He knew his mother was singing kwv txhiaj, a song chanting to the birds, the grass, and the spirits. The words strung together, sticky like melted palm sugar. True could not understand what his mom was saying. So he listened.

Only in this world where the birds and insects only cry for my sorrow… This home, this village where there is only one way, one life that I must follow… Mother, father you have raised me into a beauty, a young lady but in my heart and my body I differ… I have become a mother now but my husband does not love me… He speaks of a second wife, a younger wife, for I cannot give him more children… Is this really the way to love or is this the way to life’s end…

“Mother…” “Father….” “World.”

True could only catch onto certain words, words that his mother taught him.

“Heart…”

In my heart, there is a friend whose love and understanding, whose sweet voice shines for me… This friend will ruin your names and your faces, mother and father… So I rather have her come to me, take me to a world where there is no broken anger and broken hearts… I want to die with love only… Where you have gone, to the other side of this world, come hold my hands because my mother and father have gone… My love has gone… so I shall be gone too…

“Love.”

True sprung up from the fields and saw the back of his mother on the other side of the opium field where he was. Purple and pink flowers decorated her body from afar. His mother was standing on a hill, looking out towards a smoky, hazy outline of the mountains. She had completed her song. Turning around to come back down the hill into the opium fields, she saw her son. His hair ruffled by the wind, cheeks dusted with dirt, waving his fingers in the air.

She fell to the ground and the tears pasted dry on her face became wet once more.

 

Letting Go

That night, True went to sleep, and he dreamt of his mother.

He saw his mother leaving their thatched home with a young woman. The woman had glistening silver skin, soft pink lips, and gleaming brown eyes. True saw his mother walk towards a grove of bamboo trees, standing there with the young woman. The bamboo trees blanketed them, and, in hiding and secrecy, the woman took out a sewing needle. She grabbed his mother’s wrist and pricked the needle on her index finger. A bead of blood formed as the woman pricked her own finger too.

From afar, True saw the two women suck each other’s fingers like sugarcane sticks.

“We don’t have to do this. Didn’t you hear this is bad?” True heard his mother say.

Let us see, said the woman’s grin.

From afar, True saw the two women suck each other’s fingers like sugarcane sticks. True’s mother, hesitant, placed her friend’s finger in her mouth. All of a sudden, True was standing in the grove shouting at his mother.

Niam! Tsis txhob mus!” he yelled. “Come ba—”

The bamboo trees started shifting rapidly, turning into joss sticks with ghastly smoke floating in the sky and glowing red embers ashing at the tip. The ground turned into a floor of uncooked rice grains. Looking around him, True was now standing in a bowl of offering. A bowl of uncooked rice with burning joss sticks to appease the spirits. He searched for his mother and the young woman, but both had disappeared with the smoke.

Panting, True broke from the dream, tears creeping down his cheeks. Not sure of what the dream could mean, True became nervous. Why isn’t his father saying anything? Why wasn’t his mother getting any better?

When morning came, True’s father was boiling water in a pot.

Txiv, I had a bad dream.”

“Don’t worry, son. It is nothing.”

True looked at his father staring into the steam that rose furiously to the top of their thatched roof. It is nothing. His mother was sitting outside by the door on a little stool, speaking once again to the morning air.

“Have you come back?” True heard her say. She nodded.

Niam, who are you speaking to?”

She turned around to look at her son, bearing a smile through her strange illness. True saw that her condition had worsened. Dark bags weighed down her eyes and her hair was thinning. True looked to his mother’s frail index finger. No blood on it at least.

“Go back inside, son,” she said. And True listened.

The next day, the village’s shaman came to see True’s father. True was in the kitchen tending the fire for a meal as his father spoke to the shaman outside. His ears were hot from the blaring fire, crackling and blazing red and orange in True’s dry eyes. Why was the shaman here? He wanted to listen but the fire wouldn’t let him.

The shaman, with grey whiskers on a face rough like bark, wore a black jacket-shirt and long black trousers.

Tub, what will you do?” the shaman asked True’s father. “Do you know why she is like this?”

“Yes,” he whispered. The village was small; it was easy to find words from other villagers.

“If you offer me one of your cows and a pig, I will enter the spirit world to find your wife.”

“I do not have anything to offer. My farm is dry and I only have a coop of chickens.”

Tub, because you did not keep watch over her, your family’s teardrops will fill our rivers but your cries will disappear with our mountainous winds.” With the shaman’s last words, he left the hut.

True’s father came into the kitchen area to help his son.

Txiv, what did the shaman say?” True asked.

“You shouldn’t ask,” he replied.

His father’s eyes diverted to their bed where his wife lay. The man let out a remorseful breath and tended the fireplace instead to keep his mind busy. True walked over to his mother who was lying on the wooden bed. His mother was bedridden, her body losing weight as quick as the sun’s disappearance behind the farmlands. True felt his heart beating faster as he saw how much his round and bright mother had changed into such a gray body.

Niam, you must get better, okay?” he said, squatting by his mother’s side, his voice desperate and tiny.

His mother could only cough back in response, slightly turning her head towards him. Calling to him with her eyes.

Me tub, tsis txhob ntshai. Niam nyob ntawm no.” (Son, do not fear. Mother is here.)

True stared back at his mother’s dim eyes and nodded. But he felt his insides shrivel up like burning joss paper.

 

Passing

True knelt beside a cold, pale body. A white cloth string was tied around his head to signify that he was the immediate family of the deceased. His face was swollen with tears from a child who realized that he no longer had a mother. A sharp, sweet voice will no longer call out his name to come eat. Strong, slim hands will no longer pack his rice or sew the holes in his clothes. Round, bright eyes will no longer show him what love should look like.

True looked at his mother and saw a lonely woman. There were no cows to sacrifice.

His mother’s body laid on a mat woven from dried cogon grass. Her lips glued shut to the skeleton of her gums. Her eyeballs bulging through skin, round like marbles. Her skin turning green. Dead people can only be left out for ten days or they would start rotting from inside out. True looked at his mother and saw a lonely woman. There were no cows to sacrifice. There were no shamans or elders to guide his mother’s spirit back to the place she was born. There was only his father and several aunts and uncles. There was only True.

 

Erasing These Nightmares, Ancestors

True’s father had continuous nightmares after the burial. Two weeks had passed, and he could not say a word.

Koj txiv!” a woman screamed miserably.

He searched for the woman’s voice and the darkness around him was suddenly lit up by flames. Large, tenacious flames burning not only his mind but the figure that was desperately waving for help in the flames. The woman gave out another screeching yell. Her voice scorched by the fire.

“You gave me an improper burial!” her voice strained.

His eyes widened and sweat formed rapidly all over his body. Was it the fire? Or was it fear? Guilt? But he was a man, the father of a household. His shivering thoughts of being shamed were interrupted by this woman.

“You could have saved me!” Screams reverberated around the growing flames in darkness.

“But you did something bad. It couldn’t be helped,” his frightened voice responded adamantly.

The woman had on traditional funeral clothes: a long, black, robe-like coat embroidered with blue, green, and yellow threads along the edges. Her hair fell to her feet and strands glued to her face. Her red lips maliciously revealed sharp, yellow teeth against her pale skin. Her eyes were beautiful, like shiny silver coins. The woman’s hands, dripping with blood, kept reaching from the fire that was devouring the lower half of her body. She let out immense, painful cries and suddenly her arms expanded, covering the distance between her and True’s father.

“Let us go together. We are husband and wife!”

Right when her hands stretched to his face, the flames turned into a soft flickering flame. True’s father was staring into an oil candle, a roped wick burning black. When he inhaled a breath of relief, he broke from the dream, eyes wide in bed. True’s father sat up. He wanted to go back to sleep, but his body began to ache. His lower back and his shoulders tightened up, and the rooster crowed for the new day.

True’s father washed up at a small tub of water and went to work on a morning meal. Shortly after, True woke up to his father’s rustling and moving about. His sleepy eyes watched his father’s back, scooping out rice into a bowl. The steamy rice filled half the bowl, and he became numb inside all at once. True stared into the dirt floor from the bedside, wanting to avoid the bowl.

Tub,” his father called. “Wash up, and come eat.”

True did not want to hear his father. He wanted to dissolve into the dirt like his tears did.

“Tub!

“Mm, Txiv,” he uttered.

True walked to the round bamboo table on the ground, rice and boiled greens only. His father ignored that his son did not wash up. The two sat quietly at the table and swallowed a spoon of rice pooled in water. True’s father cleared his throat.

“Prepare for farming when you’re done eating,” he said.

True nodded. He got up from the table, washed his face, and placed a scythe in his kawm. He went outside and filled two bamboo chutes with water from the water jar. His father cleaned up the dishes and placed lumps of wrapped food into his own kawm. Both father and son slid on their flip flops and closed the entryway to their hut. Walking down the dirt road, True looked at the grey sky with droopy eyes while his father kept his eyes on the pathway, looking straight ahead.

They bottled their hearts like fermenting rice wine and walked on.

 

Maxie Moua graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2017 with a bachelor of arts in English and a minor in creative writing. Her work has been featured in several anthologies, such as Scholastic’s Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading. She has also performed spoken word for the White House Initiative on AAPIs in Washington, DC. Moua has been writing poetry since high school and enjoys personal narratives. She aspires to become a literary voice in her community and deeply appreciates her family.

One Librarian Survives the Apocalypse

She wakes up to a clatter. She opens her eyes and sees a raccoon skate across her counter, knocking her frying pan and all the empty cans of beans across the floor. From her place on the soggy couch (which is less soggy than it was yesterday, or the day before), she looks at the raccoon and it looks back. Its eyes are oil-slick black and its paws surprisingly neat, like little hands. It takes those almost-hands and picks up the one can still on the table. It peers inside, like the can is a telescope. For a moment she wonders if the raccoon can see something she can’t, if maybe that can will open up the universe like a letter, as though the Milky Way, Orion and his belt, and the Little/Big Dipper will wink and say, Hello Shirley. Then the moment passes. But she still keeps watching the raccoon as it turns the can around with great attention. She’s disinclined to scare it away; she’s seen so few other living things since the day the wave came.

She was standing on the pier waiting in line at the fish market, watching the men in white aprons toss the fish glistening through the air. She wondered what would happen if you intercepted one. Would you get to keep it? Would it smell just like any other fish, or would it smell like the sea? She has a problem with being fanciful, strange notions intruding upon her everyday life. Perhaps that was why Brian broke up with her: perhaps that was why, over chai, he said, I need to concentrate on the things that really matter. At first, she didn’t understand, because she was too busy watching his lips move over his white teeth. She was thinking about kissing him. But he set the key to her apartment on the tiny round table with a soft click and left.

She’s disinclined to scare it away; she’s seen so few other living things since the day the wave came.

Afterwards she went to the fish market. While at the market watching the silvery arc of the fish and trying to decide if there was something wrong with the way she was—the wave came. She heard a roar like a fan or a jet or a lion the size of the world. She smelled the ocean, the salt and chill of it. Other people started screaming and as she turned toward the water she saw a vast swell of green. It was a hill made of water; the earth was liquefying, the land remaking itself over. She couldn’t move, and the hill swallowed her.

She remembers nothing after the hill closed over her, covering the fish, the people and the market all in one go. She only remembers waking up on this couch, in her apartment, a wet blanket draped over her. She hasn’t seen another human being; there is only the city, vast and empty, which smells like dead and rotting things. The only movement is the vast body of the ocean, lapping against the edges, gently, for now. She’s wandered everywhere, looking for whoever saved her, for whoever put her on the couch and covered her with a tattered red quilt. She doesn’t understand how the wave could take away all the people but her, and yet leave the city structures wet but unbroken. She feels like one of the books she used to shelve under science fiction in her library (the one she worked at that she privately thought of as hers alone) has spilled out all over the universe and rewritten the rules of water and matter.

She wondered, at first, if Brian was the one who’d put her on the couch, even though he’d given back her key; if maybe he’d found her by the quay and carried her home. Just like the time in college when he found her asleep in the library face-down on the table with the mark of a book-spine on her cheek. He’d picked her up, and she woke but pretended to still be asleep, because he was telling her a story. Once upon a time there was a little boy who grew up in a house without books. There were movies everywhere, but no books. The boy’s father said books were full of lies made to tempt the weak. He smoked all the time, and the boy thought maybe the real reason his father hated books was because they were paper, because ash might fall from the cigarette and end the world. But this was nonsense. Instead he spent lunch in the school library, running his fingers across the pages, imagining what the books might say, if only he could take one home and read it. Shirley thought this was the saddest story she’d ever heard, so she kept pretending to sleep and let him set her on her bed in her dorm room and leave.

He understood why she’d become a librarian, why books were worthwhile; that’s why she had reason to think it might have been he who took her home after the wave. She meandered the streets looking for him, or another person she could ask if they’d seen him. She went into the old downtown library guarded by two stone lions, but there were no people. She went to the grocery store and there were no people, just shelves knocked over, the cans all over the ground, cereal boxes disintegrating in the damp. She went to the park, but there were no people and no squirrels either. Just trees draped with kelp like aquatic Christmas tinsel. She went to Brian’s apartment complex and pushed open his unlocked door. His apartment was un-looted and undisturbed. It looked like a very damp movie set. The bed perfectly made, the books perfectly shelved, his piles of New York Times stacked tidily in bins. No empty food cans, nothing even hinting at a living presence disturbed the room, and she looked through all of his drawers as though she might find answers among his socks. She knocked on every door in his apartment building, opened those that were unlocked, and never found so much as a skittering insect. She went up and down every street she knew, going inside apartment buildings, surveying rows of houses. The closed doors seemed pregnant with possibility, swelling with potential people, but she never found anyone. Sometimes she wondered if everyone was hiding from her. Always she was afraid.

He understood why she’d become a librarian, why books were worthwhile; that’s why she had reason to think it might have been he who took her home after the wave.

After several weeks she gave up looking for humans and instead went back to her library. She took every book off the shelves, spread them on the floor though it hurt her heart to do so. She whispered nice things to them as she opened the covers, gently separating their pages so they would dry. There were people in these books, words written by some soul, by someone with a heart full of thoughts and words to write them. Sometimes she lay down on top of the books and imagined every book was a hand embracing her. Every day, after the library she stopped at the unmanned grocery store and got some more canned food, and then came home and slept on her damp, fish-smelling couch. Thank goodness her blanket had dried out. She hadn’t seen anything alive but mice and pigeons. Until the raccoon, that is.

“Hello, do you want to stay for dinner?” Her voice reverberates oddly about the room. The raccoon drops the can and runs out the window. It jumps to the nearby tree and skitters away. This disappoints her, so she goes to the window and looks out, trying to watch the creature for as long as possible. She peers around the tree to see the street, and gasps. A person, someone standing in the middle of the road, all in white. Shirley opens her mouth to shout and then stops. Visions of countless zombie apocalypse movies flash through her head. Not that she really thinks there are zombies (although since the wave, who knows?) But still, desperate humans do strange things. She needs to investigate, not show this stranger where she lives. She picks her frying pan off the floor and brandishes it. This will do, she says to herself. She wishes she still had her keys so she could lock her door. She leaves and walks as silently as possible down the dark apartment hall, all of the closed doors aching with possibility. What if there were people in those apartments, people just like her? People always behind her, avoiding her face, making sure she never saw them? What if Brian was in his apartment across town, hiding out, reading soggy back-issues of the New York Times over and over again? (She never could get him to throw them out.) What if he was there, invisible to her, not dead or gone but knocked into a separate dimension? She tells herself to calm down, to stop making up impossible things, but it’s so hard when the whole world has turned into one giant unlikely scenario.

Holding her pan tightly she pads across the road, staring at the figure just a few blocks away. As she gets closer she sees it is a woman wearing a leotard and a ragged white tutu. She wonders for a moment if she is imagining things, this woman—a ballerina stepping around stopped cars and dead lobsters rotting in the sun, because such things are crazy. But she can hear the woman’s steps, and see her thin chest rise and fall as she breathes. Finally, grasping her courage by the hand, Shirley steps out from behind a car. She clears her throat.

“Hello,” she says.

The ballerina stops and turns toward her. “What’s the pan for?”

Shirley lowers her pan. “I thought you might be a zombie,” she says. She’s embarrassed immediately after the words drift from her mouth.

The ballerina cocks her head. “Oh no, not at all,” she says.

Then she turns again and keeps walking. Shirley falls into step beside her.

“Where are you going?”

The ballerina keeps her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully around broken shells and glass. A dancer’s feet are precious, after all. After a moment she answers Shirley. “I’m going to the theater. I need to practice.”

Shirley thinks about this for a moment, trying to decide if the dancer has lost her mind. But the possibly mad dancer keeps talking.

“I’m the lead in Swan Lake. It’s my big break. Opening day was a week away, before everyone disappeared. I’ve been a dancer since I was a little girl. I still remember my first pointe shoes. They made my feet bleed as I danced, but I loved them so much, the satin, and the ribbons around my ankle. At first, after the water, I hid in my apartment and ate old crackers. I was so afraid. But now, I practice every day. What else is there to do?”

The ballerina shrugs and falls silent once more.

Somehow, the ballerina’s last statement seems like the most profound thing Shirley has ever heard, although she’s not sure why. She suddenly remembers the posters she’d seen tacked up in the library and at bus stops, advertising the new production of Swan Lake. The dancer in the picture was caught mid-leap, her muscular arms and legs tensed. It had to be a picture of this very woman.

“Can I watch?” Shirley asks.

 The ballerina shrugs again. “If you like.”

They walk together, past kelp-draped trees, past shop windows, strangely pristine, the mannequins still poised, still hawking their expensive wares. Shirley realizes that she could go into those stores, take anything she wants. That Prada purse she could never afford on her librarian’s salary: hers. Yes, she could take whatever catches her fancy. But somehow she can’t bring herself to. She feels as though looting anything but necessities like food will make it certain that no one ever returns.

They walk together, past kelp-draped trees, past shop windows, strangely pristine, the mannequins still poised, still hawking their expensive wares.

They arrive at the theater—it’s hushed and black inside. Shirley takes a seat and watches as the ballerina, whose name she hadn’t thought to ask, props open a door to let in some light. She steps onto the stage, poses for a moment, arms upraised, head turned as though she listens to distant music. Then she begins to dance. Shirley watches the lights come on, a soft pink spot, hitting the wood of the stage. Then they all come back, the prop hands and the lights manager and the orchestra down in the pit, playing even though their violins and cellos are covered in barnacles. The chorus in pale-blue tutus sweeps their arms, even though seaweed hangs from their ears. There is an audience clad in velvet and diamonds, slightly moldy-smelling but there. They all come back. Brian sits down beside her, smart in a suit and smelling of Calvin Klein’s Euphoria for Men. He pecks her cheek.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says.

She rests her head on his shoulder as they watch the show.

“I love you,” she whispers, and remembers the time she caught him sleeping on the couch (the now very damp couch) his eyelids fluttering as he dreamed. I Love Lucy was on, he hadn’t shaved and his T-shirt had a hole in it. She wonders if she really loved him or only hated her own aloneness.

The ballerina leaps through the air just as she did in the poster and the music sweeps through on the sound of wings. She touches the ground. The audience stands and applauds—thundering, roaring, sounding just like the ocean the day it swallowed everyone in the whole wide world except for Shirley and the dancer. The music stops, the people fade, and there is just the ballerina standing there in her dirty tutu. Shirley runs out of the theater, because she just can’t stand the echo of the empty hall, or the way her own imagination tortures her. But even as she runs she knows she’ll go back tomorrow. Because Brian is gone, because he didn’t put her on the couch, because he didn’t love her any longer anyway, and because what else could she do, really?

 

Jennifer Pullen received her PhD from Ohio University, her MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her BA from Whitworth University. She originally hails from the wilds of Washington State; however, at present she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Northern University. “One Librarian Survives the Apocalypse” is from her manuscript of short fiction. Her fiction and poetry have appeared or are upcoming in several journals and collections, including: Going Down Swinging, Cleaver, Phantom Drift Limited, Clockhouse, Off the Coast, Prick of the Spindle, Gold Man Review, Gravel, Blink Ink, and Behind the Mask (Meerkat Press).

Notes from My Hong Kong Travel Journal: Sightseeing with a Silver Comb

I love the smell of burning. Some say it bodes of destruction; I see birthday candles and cake and new hope instead. When I walked past the Man Mo temple today, still jet-lagged and groggy, I simultaneously saw burning incense sticks and lotuses, and thought the lotuses were on fire. I had never seen something so beautiful and terrible before. I looked once, then twice: my imagination had as always deceived me and there were no burning lotuses to be seen.

*     *     *

I lunched today at a café a few blocks away from the temple, the silver comb and my journal quietly sitting in front of me. The comb’s presence calmed me and I would reach out for it as I wrote in the journal, burrowing myself deeper and deeper into the den of my words. It’s my favorite place to hide these days.

*     *     *

I have no idea why I brought the comb with me on this holiday. I stole it from Amma’s antique collection and impulsively packed it in my suitcase. She has so many antiques that she wouldn’t even realise what’s missing until probably months later. Our storeroom smells like an antique store because there are so many antiques there. My mother says they smell of forgotten histories. My father says they smell of dust, fungus, and other people’s bad luck, which makes them very tainted. I don’t think anything. We adopted the antiques and now they are ours.

*     *     *

Amma messaged me: “Have you taken the comb?” She found out, I guess. I told her, “Yes, I didn’t have my own.” She didn’t reply.

*     *     *

My mother says they smell of forgotten histories.

The guidebook told me I was on Antiques Street. After lunch, I walked and walked until I found a clutch of antique stores clotting the jagged streets, the antiques spilling out from the shops on to the pavement. I didn’t enter a single one, though, out of deference to the comb. I wondered what it would make of this library of kindred, abandoned, antique souls, waiting to be transformed and transplanted in other people’s lives, stories, and homes. What would they make of this new life of theirs? Did they ever remember their former lives? I looked at the comb, wondering if it, too, had similar thoughts. I turned it over and over in my palm until it was nothing but a silver kinetic blur, shorn of its past and present and future. When I finally stopped, my hands were trembling; the comb meanwhile remained its silvery swan serene self and I thought then, That’s what I want to be when I grow up.

*     *     *

The comb and I have been sightseeing Hong Kong together. So far, we have seen Victoria’s Peak and five MTR stations and a beach bordering an imprisoned sea. I sat on the crunchy sand, writing about the angry, restless water and the mansion-forested hills and the dying saffron sky. When I page through this journal years later, I will want to remember this sea, this hill, this sky. I will want to remember what I was at that moment. Photographs lie and deceive to us. Our words don’t.

*     *     *

I walked thirteen kilometers today. Or so my phone says. I walked until my soles were on fire, as if I had become one of those yogis who can walk on burning coals, unable to distinguish between their soles and coal. When I returned to the hotel, I sat cross-legged in bed for the entire evening, gazing at the nocturnal skyline outside my hotel window. The lights studding the distant peak looked like tired stars coming to rest on the beach of the night sky. Did you know that there are more stars in the sky than the number of sand grains in all the beaches in the world? I suddenly needed to be outside. I stuffed the comb in my pocket, grabbed my hotel key, and ran out to the street. Even though the light pollution did its best to taint the sky, I could still see the stars glimmering away, like Heaven telegramming messages of hope to those who cared enough to look above. I felt the comb in my pocket. I wondered what stars it had seen in its lifetime.

*     *     *

I shaved off my hair just before this trip. Everyone—predictably—was appalled, except for Dadi, who applauded my decision and wished that she too could do the same. It’s not as if I have much left, she told me. I promised her that I would help her shave it all off once I returned from the holiday. After the hairstylist finished shearing away my hair, I remember examining the glossy brown strands scattered around me. It had once been part of me and now no longer was. How easily I had been able to renounce it. I wish I could renounce my skin and thoughts and self as easily as I had renounced my hair; but no, I am forever doomed to live in this cage of bone and flesh.

*     *     *

I heard everyone back home gossiping that I am going through a transitional phase, a mandatory rite of adolescence that everyone dutifully performs at the temple of adulthood. It makes me feel like something out of evolution, a reptile undecided on becoming a mammal. They don’t know that I see glimpses of myself in the mirror and I can’t recognise myself. They also don’t know that I am okay with that. I touch my head’s soft dome (I never knew that it was so nicely shaped!). I touch the nose-ring and the archipelago of the tattoos embroidered on my collarbone, neck, and undersides of my wrists. Some days, I wear violet lipstick, other days blue. A shaved-head Indian girl with a nose ring, tattoos, and violet lipstick wandering in a city whose buildings are like trees in a forest, growing close to each other and yet giving each other just enough room to flourish. A city with vertical streets. A city where sea and land and rock are homes. I could stay in this city because it looks and doesn’t look like me.

*     *     *

I heard everyone back home gossiping that I am going through a transitional phase, a mandatory rite of adolescence that everyone dutifully performs at the temple of adulthood.

I go to the beach again. Everybody is there with someone else except for me. I place the comb on the sand, watching the grains immediately invade its fragrant, stained, delicate silver surface. I ask questions that I had never asked before. Had the wearer ever been by the sea? What did she imagine the sea would look like? I was born in a city by the beach and I could not imagine what it was like not to know the sea. The phantom woman was gone but her comb was visiting the beach. I did not feel sorry about stealing it from Amma, although I should have told her that I was taking it. I should tell her so many truths but they are imprisoned in various parts of my body; I can exactly map you the points where I keep the hurt of a friend betraying me, an ex-boyfriend slapping me thrice without saying sorry, my walking on an empty city street at three a.m., terrified. These are subterranean tattoos, buried deep inside my skin but I know exactly where they are. I lift up the comb and balance it atop the softest part of my head. It feels like falling rain.

*     *     *

Today, I went to the Man Mo temple because I saw a sign saying that you could get your fortune read by a Chinese fortune teller. I don’t know if I believe in the notion of future any more than I do in the idea of fortune: they both seem like myths, Santa Claus I no longer believed in. But I stood in the queue, anyway, staring at the inscrutable, unhelpful face of a fat jade god, wondering what to ask about a tomorrow that I no longer believed in. I could map the atlas of pain buried deep inside my body but I had no idea how to plot coordinates for my future or even know if there was a future. When it was my turn, I sat across from the fortune teller and pulled out a bunch of sticks from a jam jar and heard him decode my nebulous tomorrow (yes, it did exist!) by consulting a small book: “Your fortune very bad before. It will take some time before it gets better.” I handed him the crumpled dollars and walked into the temple, inhaling the incense and pausing before the galaxy of unsmiling deities, seeing and smelling nothing. I preferred yesterdays, even those which were nothing more than stories which could never be rewritten; tomorrows with all their grand, glorious hope frightened me. What I wanted to know was about my today, not tomorrow. I had wondered if I could ask the fortune teller one more question, but he had a face that had shuttered up the moment he finished telling my fortune and I just knew he would say no more. And perhaps, there was nothing more to say, after all. When I came outside the temple, I instinctively reached out for my talisman, the comb, but even its moonlight lake coldness failed to console me.

*     *     *

I am at the airport, waiting to board my flight back to Delhi. My luggage weighs exactly the same as it did when I flew in here. The only thing that is missing is the comb and that’s because I gave it away to an ancient Chinese woman I met in a Kowloon park yesterday. I had been sitting there for hours, mourning the end of this holiday, when an incredibly hunched-over Chinese woman sat down next to me. Even though her skin looked like a very wrinkled antique map, she had the most luxuriant crop of rabbit-white hair. I took out the comb from my backpack and began to play with the teeth, as if coaxing music from a dead instrument. I thought once more of the woman who had once used it; I saw its silver home, that little house of vanity. I saw her in a steam-filled bathroom, brushing out her hair, gently coaxing the tangles to leave her hair. The comb didn’t deserve to be imprisoned in a storeroom or someone’s pocket. It deserved to perform its music. I nudged the woman and produced the comb in my palm, as if it were a lady bug that had landed on the runway of my palm-lines. “For you,” I said. She didn’t understand. I picked it up, ran it across my head, returned it to my palm, pushing it towards her. When she still didn’t understand, I gently reached out to her and ran the comb through her hair, a silver ship sailing in a snow sea. “For you,” I said again. Her face shattered into a smile and I had never seen anything so beautiful before. And then I walked away, feeling just a pang, a little bit of a pang, the comb beginning its tomorrow, already a yesterday for me.

 

Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka previously lived in the Sultanate of Oman and the United States. She has been published in numerous publications, and takes a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity; she is also currently an editor at Mashallah News. Priyanka is the author of three poetry volumes and is working on a short story collection. An avid amateur photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography @iamjustavisualperson. She tweets @priyankasacheti1.

The Moon-Bright Smile Rebellion

5:02 p.m.

Looking out the window you wouldn’t know Chicago is disintegrating. Cotton-candy skies swirl across the horizon. I sip cold coffee on the thirty-sixth floor of an office building. Bean-flavored liquid, the consistency of cough syrup, slides down my throat. Too much sugar. In this moment, I pretend everything is normal.

People scurry from the glisten and glamour of The Loop, rats from a sinking ship. The new law dictates everyone be in their homes by nightfall. Well, everyone who lives where the man on the screen deems dangerous. He’s in charge now so if he says my place is a “war zone,” it’s a fact. The areas black and brown people occupy typically are, he says. They are damaged swaths of grimy concrete and underperforming schools, he says.

Who wants to be bothered with that except real estate developers?

The neighborhoods without us are okay. They don’t have The Rules. They also don’t have anyone with a tan darker than the heavy-cream lattes savored while ignoring homeless people begging for change. The North Side contracts and expands with the capitalistic ease of an artisan bakery in Lincoln Park. The South and West Sides choke on the smoke and cut themselves on mirrored fictions spewed out by an orange magnate splashed across television sets.

Most think it’s a joke when he declares martial law. We believe he can’t strip away our freedoms with the ease you remove dirty bed linen.

The tanks come a few days later.

Rubber and steel sentinels are stationed on odd clustered blocks. Skin Suits dressed in fatigues and helmets roam our ‘hoods, make us sit on curbs if we don’t have the right identification. Sometimes we park our asses on the curbs anyway when we do.

We are all suspects until we are citizens.

For one day I want to live without fear so I work in my cubicle and act as if everything is fine until five o’ clock.

Now I’m screwed. Now I imagine being beaten by the Skin Suits, captured and carted off to some forgotten prison where no one finds me. Where I scream and scream and the air welcomes my cries and swallows my anguish with pleasure.

Why am I still drinking this nasty coffee?

*     *     *

5:20 p.m.

I hustle out the revolving doors and catch the last bus willing to go near my neighborhood. Everything else is diverted or shut down for the early evening. The onslaught of protests and fires, raging and shoving, batons and plastic shields. Tear gas and blood. Television cameras and articulate reporters who use the terms “urban” and “inner city” as codified speak for black.

All-consuming happy savagery encircles my South Side homestead. Every night. Some perpetual racial and cosmic joke on repeat with no end in sight.

I remember sermons from the preacher behind the pulpit who flails around like a dying crow in his black robe. I remember the lyrics from an old Public Enemy song.

The orange man on the television says he’s making progress. Says gang leaders want to talk to him. They’re clamoring for his attention. He’s close to peace. To Chicago not being such a “war zone.” Profane characterizations of certain zip codes easily gliding off greasy lips and smarmy smiles. Slippery notions of what black and brown hues mean for a fractured nation. I remember the American flag behind him as he talks, the subject somehow always circling back to self-praise. A nation cosigned to this bombastic nonsense, and an entire city, the hometown of a dark-skinned president, pays an unjust tax.

Adrift in my own thoughts I don’t hear the driver impatiently ushering me onto the high steps of his vehicle. The girth of his belly taking up most of the bottom steering wheel he shouts, “Come on, come on! They gon’ start all this foolishness and demonstrations. I ain’t gettin’ caught up in that.”

Too anxious to take offence to his tone, I rush past the doors and his plastic enclosure, the one that protects him from me, and I sit down.

I’m an hour and fifteen minutes away. Only three others occupy seats. None of us speak. We pray with our brown eyes open. We move our ample lips but there is no sound.

I know prayer when I see it.

I can’t tell you what they ask God or Allah or Whomever for. I can tell you I ask God to make this a dream. I ask God to wake up, and if He won’t give me that, then just get me safely to my destination.

Bouncing down patches of collapsing asphalt, the driver maneuvers east, then south. Faster and faster still. Tires screech, brakes squeal. Toppling to my side, I remain for a few moments until I witness the ashy chestnut-colored ankles of the driver escaping across the park.

Even with the collective of angular African bodies marching towards me, I marvel at my surroundings. At the lake crashing, spraying white foam towards the shore. The mass of structures drawing up and receding into the fabric of legends, a beating heart of stories in each building. The forming buds of spring leaves clasping to old trees.

I cherish this moment because it is my last. Hard hands bang and knock against the sides of the bus. I rock to and fro. I close my eyes and pray this time. I remember words from my momma and grandma. I remember sermons from the preacher behind the pulpit who flails around like a dying crow in his black robe. I remember the lyrics from an old Public Enemy song.

Cobbling this altogether, I create a semi-coherent prayer. Screams, feral and anguished, lay themselves amongst the rubble of orders shouted by the Skin Suits. The others desert the bus. I remain marble-encased in my own terror.

“No Justice. No Peace!” The chant grows louder. Conception of free speech slaughtered with a BOOM and tenor thud of tear gas.

Toxic white mist infiltrates the bus. I’m left with no choice so I flee into the chaos.

*     *     *

5:29 p.m.

“You’re not protesting?” I hear him ask.

I almost consider it when I focus my gaze in the direction of the voice. Even with the yelling, the heat of the fire growing from the abandoned car ten yards away, I hear him above the maladjusted clamor.

I reply, “Hell no! Do you see what’s going on?”

He has the nerve to smile. Whatever for, I have no idea. We reside in Hell and he smiles bright and beautiful as the moon. He smiles like we’re enjoying a drink on a white-sand beach!

“I see precisely what’s going on and this is why we’re marching,” he reasons.

His size isn’t intimidating to me. He possesses the height and muscles of one always asked if he plays a sport. Hell, what else would a large black man in America do?

BOOM! BOOM!

Canisters of smoke are propelled into the band of brothers and sisters. They anticipate the launch and target. They scatter from ground zero and regroup to the east. Synchronized swimmers would’ve been jealous with the slick grace of this army.

He possesses the height and muscles of one always asked if he plays a sport. Hell, what else would a large black man in America do?

The Skin Suits advance with their armor.

“It’s gonna take all of us standing against this,” he says. He extends his hand.

There’s a cell waiting for him.

And one for me if I go. He’s right, but I can’t take this chance.

I turn from him. His last words as I go: “Good luck.”

I look back again. He stares at me another moment with that smile and walks back into the acrid mist.

*     *     *       

8:37 p.m.

I haven’t run like this since I was in college. When I was in better shape, when I thought the world a better place, when I could eat a medium-sized cheese pizza without gaining a pound and live on two hours of sleep.

Close to home, I slow my pace and keep to the shadows. Apricot-tinted lights betray night-blackened blocks, refracting their harsh orange glow, creating demons where none exist—at least none on this street. I can’t be sure of the next.

Marchers swarm. Some groups big and some small. My phone buzzes with constant updates. Information drowning all with no ability to distinguish the truth from fallacy. In a rush for news, there’s no rush for right, just the prize of being first. I have no time to vet what is correct.

When I was in better shape, when I thought the world a better place, when I could eat a medium-sized cheese pizza without gaining a pound and live on two hours of sleep.

I pass Ronnie as he hunkers down near the crumbling white overpass. Scents of old beer and piss cling to his filthy clothes and skin, the color of wilted leaves. Normally, I give Ronnie a dollar and he calls me beautiful.

The Skin Suits have no use for an old black man, as battered as he. Life has already done its worst. Where’s the sport in trying to do more?

Ronnie’s croaky whisper stops my urgent pilgrimage. “Slow down.”

“It’s not safe out here, Ronnie.”

“Ain’t safe nowhere even ‘fore all of this mess.”

BOOM! BOOM!

They’re growing closer. The Skin Suits will be here soon. I have no time to debate.

Long face, sagging, sandpaper rough skin, the whites of his eyes the color of weathered lace, he opens dry, cracked lips. “This all here is familiar,” he opines. “Like the ’60s.”

All I know from those times are the grainy, black-and-white celluloid images. Dark skin. Water cannons. German shepherds. Beatings. Smoke. Blood. Death.

Ronnie is right. This isn’t his midnight ramblings, his teeterings and nonsensical declarations. This is real and this is at my doorstep.

The shouting is getting louder. People trickle through the road to my left.

“Some of these folk walkin’ these streets to be seen. Some of y’all really tryin’ to make a difference. Even tho’ you layin’ your very life on the line.”

“I’m not,” I admit. “I just want to go home.”

“Then what? You go home and you think all this out there ain’t gon’ touch you in there? It will.”

The guy with the moon-bright smile. He is one of those people Ronnie’s talking about. He might be dead. If he is, his blood is as much on my hands as it is on the Skin Suits, on the orange guy from the television. All of their blood will be mine to keep. Permanent stains on any future happiness I’ll allow myself.

The trickle of people becomes a torrent of dark and light and tan, of men and women, of black and white and Latino.

The hollow swish of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle assaults my ears. “Hey Beautiful, you want me to help you home?”

Chants in the street grow into roars, and ferocious voices inside my head telling me I’m crazy, slowly quiet themselves. I’m almost home.

Just a few blocks east.

“No, Ronnie. I don’t need you to take me home,” I respond.

I walk west.

 

A writer born, raised, and living on the South Side of Chicago, Catherine Adel West fixes punctuation and grammar for big companies to pay the mortgage. While soothing itchy Twitter fingers on @cawest329 or curating content for her blog, The Scriptor Complex, she’s also recently completed her first novel. Publication credits include Black Fox Literary Magazine, Five2One, Better than Starbucks, Doors Ajar, and 805 Lit + Art. Upcoming credits include The Helix Magazine.

Find Your Happy Place

It was Father’s Day and Maeve was in Friendly’s. After all this time, she was still a sucker for a Conehead. She and her father had spent countless hours here scarfing down the clown-faced sundae with whipped cream for hair and Reese’s Pieces for eyes when Maeve was a child growing up in Levittown. They always ate the cone that doubled as a hat dipped in fudge first.

She was approaching forty and already a sneeze could make her pee, yet she still wanted her daddy despite the fact that he was a loudmouthed prick who’d made millions out of bullying anyone who disagreed with him.

The last time Maeve and Dad had spoken was on the phone one year earlier when he was trying to give her advice about her own career, not so subtly suggesting that she wasn’t thick-skinned enough. She was a political pundit, like him. She was doing just fine. She had tons of requests for radio interviews and podcasts and even had a book coming out, Liberal Two-Step: Screw and Be Screwed. So she politely told him to fuck off and that she’d speak to him on her own time. He’d respected her wishes. That pissed her off even more.

Now he was off the air and trying to make amends with anyone he’d ever offended, including her. So, Maeve had made the trip down from Albany to the Friendly’s on Hempstead Turnpike. It was a Santa Claus-red building with Taco Joe’s to its right and a giant abandoned Kmart to its left. Maeve stood in the foyer, sunglasses still on inside, because God forbid if anyone recognized her. On the drive down, she’d already seen a bus with her mug plastered on it, her jet-black bob and seaweed-green eyes staring back at her as if she dared herself to disagree. The bluster, the rapid hand gestures she was known for—it was all for show when it came down to it. The last thing she wanted was to discuss taxes or school budgets with this crowd even though she probably agreed with more than half the people in here.

She leaned against the pole by the takeout window and hid behind a sticky menu that no doubt someone’s entitled brat had touched. Maybe this whole thing was a bad idea. Already she was disgusted by the dirty-mop smell of the place. But she had to give it points for longevity, for surviving when most of the other chains across the island had closed, and for keeping the names of their ice cream sundaes as is. Like “Happy Ending.” What a riot.

The place was teeming with dads as expected. Normal dads who gelled their hair and donned NYPD T-shirts and blue jeans instead of a suit every day. Every now and then she’d look up from behind the menu to find one of them about to jokingly smack his kid or give them a noogie in a headlock and she was thankful she hadn’t stretched her uterus out. Just as she was questioning the cost-benefit of the $5.55 entrée section for the umpteenth time—where the hell was Dad?—one man caught her eye and limped over to her with a toddler clinging onto his leg. Damn it.

“You’re Maeve O., right? The Bull’s daughter,” he said. Maeve O. That was her dad’s brilliant marketing idea. “I’d recognize that pretty face anywhere.”

“Nope. Must be another pretty face you’re thinking of,” she said. She turned her back and pretended to be impressed by a teen swirling hot fudge behind the counter.

A few years ago, she’d made it onto Manplate’s “25 Most Gorgeous Female Politicians” list even though she wasn’t a politician, technically, but she let it slide. It helped her political game.

A few years ago, she’d made it onto Manplate’s “25 Most Gorgeous Female Politicians” list even though she wasn’t a politician, technically, but she let it slide. It helped her political game. All the crusty men she kicked back martinis with loved that she, who had a standing appointment at the salon every week, was one of them. She had to give a shit upstate; it was part of her job. Down here was different. Being home gave her the ultimate permission to be a slob if she wanted to. But she’d second-guessed herself and opted for a breezy blouse and capris combo, with a gold necklace that doubled as a pencil. It had been a gift from Dad when she received her first nasty comment on a blog. He told her she was on the right track to success.

Now look what this clothing choice had made happen.

“No, really. I know it’s you,” the man said. He tapped her shoulder and she turned around out of habit from fundraising parties she reluctantly attended. He was waving to a woman who was standing underneath a giant sign of a Friendly Frank, swinging a crying baby in a car seat. “Honey, come here a minute.”

The woman gave him the finger. Maeve would much rather talk to her.

“Skeedaddle,” she said. She waved the menu toward the woman who looked like she might throw the car seat through the window. “Go be with your family. Stop talking to strangers.”

Dad would be flipping his shit if he heard her. If this were him, he’d slap the man on the back, make some joke about his kid being a cracked-out zombie, and they’d be talking about how there’s never been a better deli than Fred’s.

“Fine, fine. I know when I’m not wanted,” he said. “I just gotta tell you, you socked it to that news anchor the other day.” He winked at her. “Fucking bleeding hearts, you know what I mean?”

Sort of. She was a sucker for cute cat videos and if really pressed, believed heroin antidotes at CVS were the way to stop the island’s epidemic. Dad was more of a secret liberal than she was. He gave money to the homeless as frequently as he ridiculed them. But only when he was in a car, so he could zip away without anyone seeing him. One time, years ago when she was just starting to make a name for herself, she’d teased him about leaking it to the press. “Don’t be a moron,” he said. “Maeve the Moron. That’s one for the tombstone.” He’d been calling her that ever since. And each time it was a gut punch—a soft one of the kind a man who only used his hands to pick up a knife and fork could do, but a punch nonetheless.

“Table for one?” The hostess was an older woman, and had a plastic gold name tag with Joanne written on it.

“God no, Joanne,” Maeve said. “Two. My dad’s meeting me here. He’s late.”

“Bastard,” Joanne said. “You’ve been standing here for a while.”  The nerve of this woman.

“It’s not his fault,” Maeve said. “He’s probably stuck on the L.I.E. like every other schmo today.”

“Sure, honey,” Joanne said. “Follow me to your table.”

Every table in the restaurant was buzzing. There were kids climbing over booths, kids crying, kids throwing their chicken fingers on the floor. Every now and then scattered in the chaos was an elderly couple slowly lifting spoons of ice cream to their mouths.

Joanne tried to seat her in the middle of it all. Maeve pointed to a booth tucked in the corner.

“That one,” she said.

Joanne shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

Maeve sat down and kept expecting one of the adults to recognize her, but nobody said a word. They were too busy dealing with the messes of their own lives. Just as well. She took her sunglasses off. She grabbed for the napkin holder so she could keep busy and started fiddling with the waxy paper napkins. She made a pinwheel first to see if she could still do origami after all these years. She nailed it. Next up was the crane. Then the rose. As she was creasing corners, her phone dinged. It was a text from Dad: Too many knuckleheads in traffic today. Got off on the wrong exit. Love, Dad the Dumdum.

She could just see him deadlocked on the L.I.E. checking himself out in the rearview mirror, combing his hair while puffing his cheeks. The windows would be down and he’d be inevitably snapping his fingers outside the car to some horrible Eagles song. He could be a bastard but she missed how ridiculous he was and how seemingly oblivious he was to it.

She texted back: If by “wrong exit” you mean Mr. Beery’s, I swear to God!

He sent a smiley face back. He loved his $1 pitchers of Bud. Man had tons of money and still was Cheapo Charlie.

She sighed. She couldn’t believe she had to sit at this dump longer than needed. Although the vintage black-and-white photos of men in bowties scooping ice cream were charming, she’d give them that. Nostalgia always wins. And boy, did Friendly’s go for it. There was a giant “Share Your Memories” wall in the far corner with scribbles and doodles of all kinds, what, she couldn’t exactly see from where she was sitting, but she could tell they were sappy. She fiddled with the card for a Sharks Frenzy Sundae. The electric-blue color of the ice cream tickled her gag reflex, but her stomach was empty and she wished she could bite off the heads of those gummy sharks. Right. This. Second.

Once, Dad let her slip underwater at Bluegrass Lane pool when she was about seven. When she came up, spitting water, he was laughing.

Once, Dad let her slip underwater at Bluegrass Lane pool when she was about seven. When she came up, spitting water, he was laughing. The only thing he’d said was, “You survived the shark tank, kiddo.”

She turned the crane over and wrote with her necklace pen: You got to learn to swim for yourself.

Joanne walked by after escorting a family of five to their table. She stopped in front of Maeve and drummed her hot-pink nails in front of her.

“Dad still a no-show?”

“What’s it matter to you?” said Maeve.

“Ha! Not so friendly are we, doll. Might want to try Fire & Ice over there,” she said, waving menus toward the Turnpike.

“Funny,” Maeve said. She wanted to tell her to fuck off. But she couldn’t be too much of an asshole in person or else the leftie loons would be all over her.

She handed the crane to Joanne, who raised one badly plucked eyebrow and shoved the crane into her apron pocket. Maybe now she’d leave her alone.

There was a man to her left, sitting alone in the booth and slurping the bottom of his strawberry Fribble. Gross. At least she wasn’t that guy. She could take out her phone and Google her name like she always did when she was bored and needed to feel good about herself but lately, the internet trolls had been too much for her. There was one comment from armoredarmaggedon about her one stubborn tooth that stayed buck despite braces (okay, so she forgot to wear her retainer when she was younger), and as much as she tried to forget about it, every time she looked in the mirror now that’s all she could focus on. These trolls destroyed her father’s politics, but never mentioned the stray nose hairs that creeped out the corner of his nostrils.

That’s how it went in this game. She knew it and still loved it. The minute she became a lifeguard at age sixteen, she had no problem declaring herself a Republican. It was the way to get promoted, after all.

She turned the rose over. Follow the crowd. They’re always right.

Joanne breezed by again. It seemed every time Maeve looked up there she was, looking like she owned the damn place, as if she were seating guests at her own private dinner party in the Hamptons. This time Joanne was arm-in-arm escorting some Latino or Hispanic guy—she still wasn’t sure of the difference—to the table catty-corner to her. Two preteen girls were behind him, phones out and giggling. She could smell their obnoxiously coconut fragrance. Joanne handed the man the menu, but not before patting the tall, stiffly gelled spikes he called hair. He acted offended before squeezing Joanne’s shoulders in an embrace. Maeve let a laugh slip. He looked at her. Holy shit. It was Ian. Ian Bonilla. She was almost sure of it.

Her phone dinged. I’m sorry.

She was starting to get pissed, really pissed and not fake pissed. For what, she wanted to text Dad back. Selling her mother’s new boyfriend up shit’s creek by getting him arrested on some phony drug charge? Making her sit here while he shucked off responsibility and a promise, again? Or how about squeezing her arms so tight during a fight her senior year of high school that even concealer couldn’t hide the bruises in her yearbook picture? But saying anything would set him off and upset the fragile everything-is-fine illusion they’d both agreed to just so they could sit down at this sticky table. She’d gotten this far.

She needed a drink. She wished the Conehead had a boozy option for adults. Five shots of chocolate vodka poured over the clown’s face instead of hot fudge.

Joanne made some comment, that Maeve couldn’t hear. The man who she thought was Ian laughed. It was the sputtering kind, starting out in small fits and gradually going full steam into a guffaw.

The laugh removed any doubt. His lips had thinned and he’d gained some much-needed bulk on those skinny ribs of his, and let’s not even get into his ridiculous coif, but that laugh made her sure that this was her best guy friend from high school. The guy who at one point in her life had been the only person to see through her bullshit and call her on it and still want to hang out with her anyway.

Fuck. This was the last thing she needed. It was a good time to go to the bathroom. Or walk out the door. She got up quickly and the origami rose that had fallen into her lap, unnoticed, bounced along on the floor. It slid right under the table at one of the girl’s feet. The one whose braces somehow made her more attractive.

She leaned down. Her cleavage was tiny, but taut, and Maeve stared unapologetically.

“Your, uh, flower?” the girl said, as she picked it up and handed it to Maeve. She turned to the other girl wearing a sweatshirt with white HOFSTRA letters sewn on it and they both burst out laughing. The buns on the top of their heads bobbed back and forth, taunting Maeve with how young and perfect they were.

“Oh, this, I don’t even know where I got it…” she said. The girls scared her.

“Maeve?” Ian said. “Maeve O’Flannery?”

His bedroom. A couple of weeks before high school graduation. The two of them rolling around on sheets that smelled of musty Cuban cigars and fried plantains mixed with Ian’s Drakkar cologne. Downstairs, the party sounds of Rolling Rock bottles clinking and exaggerated moans from the Spice Channel. His drunken hands on her, grabbing aimlessly, hungry for whatever her body would give. They said they’d never do this but it was nearly the end of high school and they were both still virgins so why the hell not. It was an agreement they made during one of the phone calls they’d had every night.

She didn’t love him, at least not that way, and was a good Irish Catholic girl. She put the condom back into the drawer, moved his hands down. His fingers stabbed around inside her. It hurt. She squirmed. He pulled her panties off, put his warm mouth on her, and her body fizzed. When he was done with her he went downstairs. She turned the light on and there was blood on the sheets. Shit.

The next day at school there was a jar of maraschino cherries by her locker. Ian’s friends walked by her in the halls and chanted, “Bloody Bloody Maeve-y.” Like it was her fault that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he wasn’t gentle enough. Ian didn’t meet her at her locker to go to the deli for lunch. That night she went home and cried. It was Dad who came in the room and held her. She didn’t say a word about it. Neither did he.

She ran into Ian at a few parties here and there, but their friendship was never the same after that.

“Ian! Oh, my God! I had no idea it was you!” she said.

“Dad, you know her?” said the girl who picked up her flower.

She tried to be a good role model, show them that politics wasn’t all nasty business.

It was sweet when the young ones recognized her. She tried to be a good role model, show them that politics wasn’t all nasty business. She reached across Ian’s table, grabbed a couple of napkins, and twisted open her necklace.

“Maeve and I go way back, sweetie,” Ian said. He patted the girl on the back. “I used to draw tattoos of the solar system on her arms in science class.”

“Yeah, and I had to scrub the damn things off every day,” she said. “I could never get all the ink off. My mom hated it.” She signed Maeve O’Flannery on the napkins and added an extra swirly flourish on the y.

“But you still let me do it,” he teased.

“Yeah, well, that was light years ago.” She didn’t know what else to say. She bit the inside of her cheek and handed the girls her autographs. “Here. One for each of you.” The napkins dangled in the air.

The girl with the Hofstra sweatshirt took them both.

“Uh, thanks?” she said.

They didn’t know who Maeve was. Of course, they didn’t. It was stupid of her to think otherwise. She screwed the pencil back, tight, into its insignificant hole.

“Maeve’s a big deal, honey,” he told his daughter. “Right, Maeve? I’ve seen you on TV a bunch.” When he tilted his head up toward her, one of the stiff spikes of hair fell onto his brow. “I always knew you’d do something with those smarts of yours.” Goddammit if he wasn’t still charming.

Joanne’s butt bumped into Maeve. She was carrying two strawberry Fribbles whose cream was frothing over the sides.

“Sorry about that, doll,” she said. She looked at Ian. “Your sundaes will be up in a minute.”

“You be with your family,” Maeve said to Ian. She wanted him to shut up.

“I see these girls all the time. They’re sick of me. Why don’t you take a seat?” Ian said. “Catch up.” The girl with the braces rolled her eyes and elbowed her sister.

“I can’t,” she said. “Good to see you.” Maeve forced a smile that stretched her gums and reached out her hand to shake his. He looked it at for a second. Then he shook it anyway with hands that were limp and clammy. She expected different.

She sat back down at her table, facing the back of Ian with his neckline that faded into a perfect triangle, decorated with a birthmark the shape of a lumpy potato. A neck she had stared at so many times while daydreaming in class or sitting behind him as he drove to the billiards place. It was thicker, but still familiar. She opened up her phone and Googled Ian. There was next to zilch on him. He didn’t do the social media thing. There his name was in the Yellow Pages as the owner of a custom wood furniture business. Good for him. She found one picture of him by a lifeguard stand at Jones Beach with his arms around a woman who looked like she frequented Beach Bum Tanning. Could be his wife, but the girls looked nothing like her. Most likely girlfriend. Oh, and here was his member picture in a club of men who liked to fly toy planes.

Maeve grabbed a napkin and fumbled as she tried to make an origami butterfly. She tried folding the wings but her fingers were shaky and slippery and the napkin couldn’t hold the creases.

She texted Dad. Be straight with me. You coming or what?

Ian was laughing, tapping the handle of his knife against the rims of the glass bowls their sundaes came in, pretending to make toasts to pretend people. “To Queen Cookie Butter, the sweetest ruler in all the land! To my friend Jim Dandy, the most stylish man I’ve ever known!” The girls tried their hardest not to giggle.

Maeve kept trying with the butterflies until the holder was nearly empty. Ian tapped louder and faster. His laugh started to sound like a distressed seal. Her whole table was a stockpile of mangled butterflies, her shaky hands botching their fragile wings. She grabbed one and wrote: Broke but not forgotten.

She was one second away from screaming at Ian. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.

Hofstra girl jumped up. She moaned, covered her mouth with one hand, and stomped in place. Blood trickled through her fingers.

“I ate glass! I ate glass!” she screamed. She tried to spit out a wad of blood. It dribbled down her sweatshirt and colored the H and O.

Ian scooted out from the table.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” he said. He put his arms around his daughter’s shoulders. “I’m so sorry.”

What did this asshole expect? Actions have consequences.

He grabbed the last two napkins on his table.

“This fucking place!” he said. He threw the holder onto the floor. “I need napkins!”

She texted Dad again: Mr. Beery’s. 15 minutes. He gave a thumbs-up back.

On her way out, she grabbed a handful of butterflies from the pile and chucked them at the girl. Ian scrambled to pick them up off the floor while Maeve sidestepped him.

 

Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including Drunken Boat, Boston Accent Lit, Gravel, Barely South Review, and more. When she’s not engaged in the arts activism space or being a mom to two little girls, she’s working on a book of short stories connected by her hometown of Levittown, NY. She can’t stop writing about chain restaurants and mouthy women.

Photo by Ali Lanenga

Success Avenue

That night, I’d just opened all the windows in the living room and collapsed on the sofa. My husband was sitting out on our stoop, listening to the oldies station too loud. I took my first sip of coffee when I heard Sammy talking to someone.

“Yeah, go on in,” he said, and the screen door squeaked and slammed. I didn’t know who he could be inviting in, maybe his cousin Billy. I was in no mood. I’d been waiting to see this movie on TV, a murder mystery with an actor I liked. I work long hours at the nursing home, so I don’t get too many moments to myself. I tried to get ready to see who I had to entertain.

Soft little steps in the hallway told me who it was: my neighbor, Terri. She’d moved to our street a while ago, and lived with her three kids in a small Cape a few doors down on the other side. I’d gone to high school with her. We’d gotten a little friendly, but not really close. We’d talk occasionally about neighborly things: city plow trucks, the garbage men who scattered our cans everywhere, or the cop cars we saw rushing to Success Village, the brick co-ops down the road. We lived in real houses on Success Avenue, and this made us feel superior in a tiny way, even though we knew there was no real difference between us and them.

It had been a long day. I didn’t want to see her. I was tired.

She looked older than forty-eight, but our neighborhood had the tendency to age women fast, me included.

“Mary Ann,” she said, looking at me in the dark, squinting. She stood just inside the living room. Her brown uniform pulled against her skin, emphasized her extra weight. Her hair, two toned from a fading dye job, fell out of a messy bun. She looked older than forty-eight, but our neighborhood had the tendency to age women fast, me included.

I didn’t say anything. I already knew why she was there.

“I’m sorry to come here so late. I don’t want to bother you.” She blinked. “I just need a little money.”

This had been going on for years. She’d come here, desperate, asking me for ten here, twenty bucks there. I felt bad for her. Her husband had left her, and she was just getting by, but even less than the rest of us. She worked early in the mornings at UPS, loading trucks. I kept giving her loans, but then I’d seen her walking out of Barron’s, the bar on Barnum Avenue, loaded in broad daylight. My husband said, I told you so. You’re too soft. Now you know what she’s doing with your money.

“All I need is three dollars,” she said. She looked over to the front door, I guess trying to make sure Sammy didn’t hear.

I almost reached into my pocket, but I remembered what Sammy had said. If I gave her the money, I was proving him right, that I was a pushover. So I said, “No.”

“But three?”

I nodded to the doorway. “Will you please go?”

She stood there for a good five seconds. She opened her mouth to speak, but closed it without a word, without a fight. Then she left.

I turned back to watch my movie, but it was on a commercial. I laid my head against the back of the couch. I looked up to the mantle, at the pictures of my children when they were little, but I couldn’t really make them out in the darkness.

When the movie came back on, I realized I’d missed something important from before, but I tried to follow along. I wanted to forget Terri, but I kept thinking about her, about the money. I heard the damn screen door again and Sammy came in, carrying his radio.

“How much?” he asked.

“Three dollars.” I couldn’t figure out what she wanted with three. Not really enough for a drink, unless she was just a little short.

Sammy sat down on the couch, next to me, crushing the velour cushions. “That’s all?”

“Yeah.”

“Not too bad this time.”

“I didn’t give it to her.”

I thought he’d be proud of me, but Sammy’s eyes went droopy. “You should’ve turned her down if she was asking for twenty dollars, but what’s wrong with three? We could spare that.”

“Excuse me,” I said. “You were the one who told me to stop giving her money.” I picked up my coffee cup again, lifted it to my lips. It was cold.

“But three bucks? It’s nothing.” He rose from the couch, ruffled my hair, and walked into the kitchen.

I slammed my cup down on the table. “Never satisfied, Sam!” He turned the radio up louder, and I cranked the volume on the TV. I tried to watch the movie, but he ruined it for me. After about fifteen minutes, I shut it off.

It was always like that, the little digs, the disappointment. After the kids grew up and moved out, we were alone again. Freed from criticizing our children, we shifted back to criticizing each other. I blamed him for everything in the house that was broken, for all my lost Saturday nights wasted with his boring friends, for him not getting it up enough. He always complained about the thirty pounds I’d gained, the chicken wings I served over and over, the way I managed the money.

I sat in the dark for a moment, then reached into my pocket. I pulled out what I had, four dollar bills, all that was left after grocery shopping. Might buy me a new nail polish, if that. I folded the bills and put them back in my pocket. I grabbed the arm of the couch as I got up and stepped into my shoes.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said, but Sammy kept his head bent over his crossword puzzle. He didn’t say anything when I left, but I knew he was probably gloating. I was doing what he wanted, even though giving her the money was what I always did before. He just got to feel like he taught me a lesson.

I started down the street. I walked between parked cars, and checked for speeders before crossing. I didn’t know what I was going to say. Everything I thought of was wrong: I always gave you money before; I wanted to be alone; I just wanted a time when somebody didn’t want something from me.

I took a deep breath and climbed her stoop, which was missing a railing on the right side. I didn’t know how I could face her. I thought about leaving the money in her mailbox, ringing her bell and running. But I had to stay. I pressed her doorbell, but I didn’t hear anything. I waited a few moments, then I started knocking.

When the door opened, instead of Terri, it was one of her daughters, the middle one, who’s about thirteen. She peeked from behind the door, fingers curling around the edge. I couldn’t remember her name. I asked, “Honey, is your mom home?”

With her brown hair, the girl seemed to disappear into the darkness of the hallway. “She went to C-Town,” she said. The grocery store.

“Okay, hon, thank you—” The door clicked shut before I could finish my goodbye.

Maybe she just wanted a couple bottles of soda, a box of doughnuts, some tiny comfort.

I stood on the stoop for a moment. I decided to walk there, see if I could find her and give her what she needed. Maybe she just wanted a couple bottles of soda, a box of doughnuts, some tiny comfort. I moved as quickly as I could, which isn’t very fast because of my bum knee. The ache started right when I was almost to the corner of Boston Avenue. I saw Terri turn onto the street. She carried a gallon of milk.

We both froze. Then she held up the plastic bottle. “I got home and the kids said we were all out.”

I stared at the milk. Shame filled me up, made my insides tight.

A wailing ambulance sped past us on its way to the hospital. We’d both been so accustomed to the noise over the years that neither of us turned to look. The sirens were a constant reminder of what living in Bridgeport meant: no matter what, somebody always had it worse off than you.

When it faded, Terri bit her lip. “I’m going to pay you back.”

My voice scraped its way out of my throat. “I want to apologize for before.”

Terri pushed a piece of loose hair off her face. “No. You don’t, really.”

What did she mean by that? That I didn’t have to or I didn’t want to? She moved to walk past me, but I stepped in front of her.

“You’ve gotta listen.” I tried grabbing her arm, but she shrugged out of my touch. “I always help you out, and I shouldn’t have gotten angry with you.”

Terri shifted the milk to her other hand, wiped the sweat of the bottle off her right. “Uh-huh.”

“I’m not that kind of person, you know that.” I didn’t like the upward turn my voice took, so I swallowed hard.

“And what kind is that?”

I looked at the bottle again. “You could have just told me what it was for.”

“Why’s that matter? People talk enough already.” She looked at me steady for the first time.

“How’d you pay for it?”

“And that’s your business?”

I dug my hands into the sides of my legs. “Ok, you’re right. But still.”

“I got one of the girls at the market to loan me what I needed.”

I knew it probably took a lot of talking to convince a total stranger. I couldn’t imagine what she said, but it must have been bad. It must have made her feel low, as low as I’d made her feel. I reached into my pocket, and my hand shook while I took out the bills. I held them out to her. “I have four dollars here. Go pay her back.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Take it.” I grabbed her right hand and pressed the money into her palm.

Her fingers curled around the bills, but she wouldn’t look at me. She balled up the money, paused for a second, then shoved it in her pocket. She walked right around me, not another word.

She took the money like I thought I wanted, but then I didn’t want her to anymore. I thought I caught the smell of whiskey. “You’re so high and mighty, Terri!” I called.

She never turned around.

I stared at the abandoned bank building on the opposite corner, the weeds shooting up from the cracked parking lot.

At home, the screen door slammed behind me, no tension in the spring anymore. Sammy was still at the kitchen table. He glanced at me. “You find her?”

“Yeah.” I walked to the sink, turned on the water, and turned it off again.

“And you gave her the money?”

“Yes,” I said, turning to him. “But she’d already bought the milk she needed.”

Sammy snorted. “How’d she pull that off?”

“She found somebody else to give it to her.”

“She don’t know how good she’s got it,” he said, turning a page in the crossword book.

“What’s so good?” I asked. “What’s she got to look forward to?”

Sammy put his pen down. “She’s got a job, she’s got a house. If she wasn’t a goddammed drunk, she’d be fine.”

I gripped the counter behind me. “How do you know that, Sammy? Take a good look around.”

He put both palms on the table. “Watch it,” he said.

“Nothing ever changes. We’re gonna work until we drop dead. We’re no better off than twenty years ago. You think that makes me happy?”

He stood up. “Stop.”

“Or what, Sam? What are you going to do?”

He took a step towards me and grabbed my upper arms. I thought he was going to shake me, hit me, but after a couple seconds he lowered his forehead to mine, shut his eyes tight and let out this cry. It took my legs out from under me. Then he just let go and walked away.

I slid down the cabinets and sat on the floor. It would’ve been easier if he had hit me. That I could have dealt with.

I slid down the cabinets and sat on the floor. It would’ve been easier if he had hit me. That I could have dealt with.

It occurred to me that maybe this was how it happened to Terri. Maybe she pushed too hard one day, pissed off her husband too much. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all: maybe one stupid tiny thing, one thoughtless moment, was all it took for her life to go to hell. Did she even know when it happened? Would I? Was this it?

The faucet dripped and my back ached. I sat there for a long time, trying to make myself move. Get up, I told myself. You always get up.

But I just couldn’t go.

 

Jessica Forcier is a native of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her fiction has been previously published in New Delta Review, Moon City Review, Coal City Review and Paper Nautilus. She received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University.

Dominoes

Shaving’s my contribution to society. Like, who needs a brown guy with a beard sitting next to them on the plane these days, you know? Look, no beard, I come in peace brother. Wrong word! Beep. Don’t say brother. Like ever. You don’t want them looking at your backpack.

Whatever. So I shaved this morning, like, with a six a.m. flight. You know how people donate hair to cancer? I donate beard to airplane goodwill, ha! Making my fellow humans comfortable, you know. You might think I’m playing it safe, chickening out. I dunno, okay maybe I am a bit. Cluck cluck, so kill me.

Don’t say brother. Like ever. You don’t want them looking at your backpack.

I’m not the placard-holding type. That’s my crazy-ass sister. She’s the one who designs shirts with passive-aggressive shit printed on them like:

I’M A BOMBShell.

ALL BROWN SKIN AND NO BOMB.

THAT’S NOT A BOMB. IT’S MY BRAIN TICKING.

Like wait, what?! She even had this poem. Something on heaven, harems, and explosives. I was like, Dude, you don’t wanna wear that. She was like, why not, you gotta shake things up, make people think. Yeah, but you gotta be cool about it, Dude, subtle, not like freak people out on the subway. I mean! They’re just chilling, reading their book, listening to their music, and you’re like, boom, planting explosives in their head. You know?

So here’s me: clean-shaven, JFK to Heathrow. Went through security check, no random scans, no one feeling me up. Like smooth, peaceful.

Okay, so where am I? 14C, 14C…14… C. There. Next to hijab-lady-with-toddler, seriously? Awesome. The kid looks like he’s going to throw up already. Like shit.

The air hostess, though! Cute. I’ve got eight hours to get her number.

*     *     *

Goodness. I wish he’d stop chatting up the air hostess and just sit down. Quite annoying, to be honest. Blocking the aisle like that. What if I’d needed the toilet?

The way these young Americans talk these days. Makes me despair, really. Like this like that, like like like. The vocabulary of a lampshade. He looks Indian. Could be Pakistani, they don’t all have beards now, do they? Where are the exits? They always say note the exits. Increases your chances of survival. Well, not if it blows up, no. But maybe if it landed on water, in one piece. On the Atlantic. Endless water. Freezing. Freezing water in lungs. Oh.

I better do my breathing exercise.

They say the water feels as solid as a cement floor when a plane hits its surface. I remember reading that somewhere. Impact, and instant death. I can handle instant death. It’s the slow seeping of water into a plane that, that…

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Oh. It’ll be lovely to get back to grey old England. My allotment. The spuds’ll be ready by now. I hope Mr. Davies remembered to water them. New York’s too… too erect, too anxious really, there’s no sky. No, it’s not for me, New York.

I should’ve taken a different airline. Emirates, or the other one… what was it… Qatar. They wouldn’t go blowing up their own planes now, would they. Gran! What a horrid, disgusting, racist thing to say! Emma would’ve launched at me. Her best friend’s from Bangladesh you see, “bestie” they say these days don’t they, BFF. Death of the language, I tell you. Abbreviate everything, save time! And if you agree with someone, all you need is one word. Word. Yes, I learned that recently, you see. Just nod your head and say “word.” It seems that says everything without you having to tax your vocabulary. Or your opinion. In my time, young people had opinions.

I can’t follow anything anymore. On top of that, all you hear on the street is Polish, and… and… Spanish and Arabic. Too many of them, really. Everything’s changing.

Anyway, Emma’s fiercely loyal, she is. Blind too. If you ask me, that bestie of hers is a flight away from Syria. With people like you, who can blame anyone for leaving?! Emma would shout. We don’t get along much these days.

I text her now: Hello darling, been sitting in plane for 40 mins, hasn’t budged!

She sends me an Aww! and some… what are they called?… emoticons. One’s a sleepy face with zzz. No, I don’t want to try and get some sleep, but I don’t tell her that. I send her two yellow smiling faces and a heart. I notice there’s a bomb emoticon near one of an aeroplane. Are they called emoticons even when they don’t emote? I wonder if it’s a sign, that I’ve seen the bomb and aeroplane just before the plane takes off. And that woman in her hijab.

The Atlantic. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

*     *     *

Right. Here we go with the stares now. They look at me, at my head, the hijab. Every one of them, flicks of the eye, like flames licking. They think they’re being real discreet, oh yeah, but I can feel those glances sharp and hot on my skin. I’m smothered in eyes. I hate travel. I feel loud. Like an announcement, a warning, a reminder. Even when I’m silent, to them I’m a scream. On this airplane, in the subway. I hate that I have the power to make people shift in their seats or think of death. I feel sorry for them, I feel fucking sorry for myself. And I feel sorry for my two-year-old who has no idea that the world is waiting to judge him by the sound of his name.

There are more people walking up the aisle, stuffing their suitcases into the overhead bins, and taking note of my covered head. Their eyes are blanched of all expression. Let’s all be politically correct at least, yeah? Small mercies. I read about a man who was escorted out of a flight just before takeoff because he was writing something in Arabic. In Arabic, how dare he?! If it wasn’t painful, it’d be funny.

Some of the passengers notice there’s a child on my lap, they relax a bit, they smile. Ah, a mother! I look a little less lethal now, don’t I? In my head, I see myself standing under a spotlight waving at everyone with a big ol’ smile: “Hey everyone, look—B for Baby, not B for Bomb!” (I pause for punchline.) “The baby can be a terror though.”

I don’t have a cause. I have no wars to wage. I’m tired, I need sleep, I need to wax my legs, you know, get a manicure, get through this flight without a toddler meltdown.

LOL in my head! That was good, right?

Sometimes I have no jokes though. I worry too. Every time I fly, I panic. If this plane blows up, I will splinter into as many pieces as that poor woman there doing her deep breathing. I don’t want to go like that.

I don’t have a cause. I have no wars to wage. I’m tired, I need sleep, I need to wax my legs, you know, get a manicure, get through this flight without a toddler meltdown. That’s all.

And maybe a tub of ice cream, butter pecan. I could use that too.

*     *     *

Hungry, Mama! Mik mik mik! Sami hungry, Sami hungry, Mama. No can wait, now now! Bananana bananana Mama. Sami want bananana now now now.

Pane whoosh? No whoosh, Mama, pane no whoosh. Piot fly pane Mama? Where piot, Mama? Mama? Where piot, Mama?

*     *     *

Steve had to fall ill today. Of all days, today. My one weekend day off in months, but here I am. Stuck in the cockpit clocking hours. I could’ve spent them sleeping. Or with the kids. I’d promised to take Beth to ballet today. But no.

I issue yet another apology to passengers for the delay; I say nothing about the last-minute switch in pilots. Cabin crew please take seats for takeoff, take seats for takeoff. The PA system fizzes into silence. I set the aircraft in motion.

The runway stretches and splits. Every time you choose a path from a fork in the road, you set your life off on a certain course. I agreed to cover for Steve today, so here I am. On the runway instead of my bedroom. Someone up there was writing the screenplay.

Maybe we’re going to crash and die. Maybe I’m here today because I’m the one meant to die. Steve is meant to walk his daughter down the aisle in twenty years, but not me. An explosion midair, no survivors, lost black box. Bodies scattered over rock and sea, doomed clumps of DNA.

I can see Steve being interviewed by the tabloids later. For articles on fate and destiny. The narrow escape. The one that got away. Everyone marvels at it. At how Steve fell ill the very day the plane was carrying a suitcase full of cheap homemade bombs.

Steve is on CNN, he’s blinking back tears. He looks up to thank the hand that spared him, only to encounter the tangled wires of the studio ceiling. The lights make his teeth shine and hair glow.

I’ve never missed a day’s work, Steve tells the presenter. Stevie’s never missed a day’s work, his wife tells their friends. In fact, would you believe it, he was already in his uniform when he doubled up in pain. Thought he was having a stroke, rushed into ER. But turns out—too many southern-fried chickens.

Gas. Gas was what it took to save him.

Newspaper headline: Pilot’s stroke turns out to be stroke of luck!

But, Steve’s dinner has me in a coffin now, my family’s standing there crying. One man’s fried chicken is another man’s forever. Church music.

Look at me. Damn. I stop; I pull my thoughts back, and push the plane forward. This fear, it rises and runs so fast and wild when we let it. ‘Til we’re all exploding over and over in our heads. Trusting nothing and no one.

The takeoff is done. We’re almost at a thousand feet, in perfect weather. The passengers are starting to switch on their movies now. The babies have stopped crying, their ears don’t hurt anymore. I shake my head. It’s autopilot from here, and I need coffee.

 

Pia Ghosh-Roy grew up in India and now lives in Cambridge (UK). She is the winner of the 2017 Hamlin Garland Award. Her work has been placed, shortlisted and longlisted for several other awards including the Aestas Fabula Press Competition, the Brighton Prize, and the Bath Short Story Award. Pia is currently working on her first novel and a collection of short stories. Twitter @piaghoshroy

 

Sounds of Separation

Leslie thought about lighting a candle as the sun set, tinting her bedroom with a dimming tangerine glow, but she was down to her last box of matches and didn’t want to ask Alan for more. After twelve days of general quarantine, the electricity had gone out when too few workers could make it to the power plants. That was a week ago. Alan said there were talks of rerouting the power grids from west of the Rockies, but no one knew when that might happen. Occasionally, generators filled in the blank spaces where there had been the hum of refrigerators, the buzz of TVs and stereos, and the whizzing of any number of electronics plugged into walls, but the air was now free from those agitated noises.

At first, it was worse than after September 11th, when the absence of jet engines in the skies made stranger those unnerving days. That absence was there again, but, coupled with no power, the silence was deafening until everyone’s ears readjusted to birdcalls, dog barks, and the sound of people in their homes.

From the open window of her second-story flat, the neighbors’ lives had become soap operas that occupied Leslie’s time now that she wasn’t commuting to her cubicle downtown. She listened to the other households as the days wore on thanks to the crowded suburban neighborhoods of the city, where one could reach out the window and practically touch the brick wall of the next building. The Morrisons lived in the house across the alley. Amazingly, none of the five perpetually sniffy and phlegmy children had been infected, but that meant Antonia Morrison was nearly hoarse from yelling at them to stop antagonizing one another. As evening came on, things were reaching fever-pitch over there for the fifth time that day, but then everything went quiet. Worried that one or more of them had finally been pushed over the edge, Leslie peeked through her window to see them in their kitchen hugging each other.

Perhaps it had occurred to them as it had occurred to Leslie that there would be a need to bolster the population once the quarantine was over and the bodies were counted.

Relieved, Leslie lay back on her bed and folded her arms over her stomach and waited for a breeze to blow in. While she waited, her neighbors downstairs, Jim and Emily, decided to use the time to propagate the species. Perhaps it had occurred to them as it had occurred to Leslie that there would be a need to bolster the population once the quarantine was over and the bodies were counted. The breeze arrived, sending a shiver across her arms. Thankfully Leslie was spared a play-by-play of their repopulation plan after the Espinozas got into a screaming match about cleaning the house.

“Anything would be better than living with a pig like you!” Mrs. Espinoza slammed a door.

“It’s not like you have anything better to do!” her husband responded, slamming his own door.

It wasn’t the name-calling and the door-slamming that put a damper on the mood around the block, but rather the enthusiastic make-up sex. The Espinozas were passionate people. Judging by the near silence of the neighborhood after these cycles, everyone got a little self-conscious knowing how much could really be heard by their neighbors without the distractions of modern life, but then when Leslie heard muffled noises, she was left to guess what was being muffled.

The only silent apartment was Leslie and Alan’s. If one of their neighbors strained to hear what they were doing, the only clues would be quiet voices in brief conversation and the occasional door closing as Alan came and went from the second bedroom or Leslie took a breather from hers. But this had been the arrangement for two-and-a-half months before the quarantine began. Long gone were the days when they would pull their mattress into the living room to watch movies or take turns reading to each other from the paper. The night he told her about Marissa, the old college friend who had become more than that, and that the affair was over, and Leslie said he couldn’t sleep in their bed anymore, the things they used to do together were suddenly things they might never do again.

When Leslie heard him coming up the stoop to the front door, she sat up from the bed and padded over to the bedroom door, blinking against the sun’s last brilliant rays. The deadbolt unlocked, the door swung open and shut, his keys landed in the bowl on the little table, then Alan came up the creaking stairs from the porch to their flat, each step echoing into the corners of the entryway. The sticky door at the top was forced open, and once it was closed again, he stopped to lean against the cool plaster wall.

That morning, Leslie had crept to the living room window to watch him leave. As a police officer, he had been deemed essential personnel and was authorized to leave the house only to perform his duties, but she suspected he abused the freedom of his badge to get out of the apartment into the open air. Where he went, always in his uniform that was becoming less and less crisp, whether it was to deal with those who had been infected or to see her, she didn’t want to consider. Now as he leaned three walls away, she could hear him breathing, each exhalation slower than the last. After a moment, he walked through the living room, dining room, and hallway to stand outside their room.

“Leslie?” he said through the door. Traveling through the century-old wood his voice softened so that she could pretend everything he said was said tenderly. “Are you okay?”

Before the quarantine, he would just say to no one in particular, “I’m home,” when he came into the apartment. And Leslie would disappear into what had become her room without a word. But for nineteen days it had been, “Are you okay?” She always answered yes. Now scenarios tumbled through her head—what would happen if she said no?  What could he do? Risk the contamination (his if she was sick, hers if she wasn’t) of coming into her room only to discover that she was perfectly fine, not even a sniffle. His eyes would narrow to glinting slivers, a glare she didn’t miss. “Yes,” she said at last. “I’m okay.”

His weight shifted on the creaking floor back towards the other room—he was turning to go. “How are you?” she blurted.

She peered at the knotty panel of the door, convinced that one of those afternoons through the power of x-ray she would be able to see Alan’s expressions and body language. For now, she told herself that she heard his shoulders relax. That was one power she had developed: the ability to discern the nuances of cloth on skin or breath pushing through air.

“Are you okay?” she asked once more, hearing him caught in the space between their rooms.

His weight shifted away again. “Yeah.”

“Is it terrible out there?” She was forgetting what his hands looked like—her memory was smoothing them out. Was it his index or middle finger that had the scar from fixing his bike’s derailleur on their second date? This lapse made her throat clench, despite the weeks she considered what a relief it would be to never see him again.

“No.” The windowsill groaned as he sat on its edge. “It’s weird with everything so deserted, but not too bad.”

“Are you safe?”

“Most of the looting is up north.”

She was relieved and sad. There was always trouble to the north, but never much help. It had always been a point of contention about his job—this disconnect from the community. “Let me guess, the chief’s not doing much to stop it.”

“Leslie, can we not do this right now?” The soft friction of his hands rubbing his face was less tinged with agitation than exhaustion, judging by the slowness of the sound. But it still stung. This critique of the chief used to be something they discussed with heated enthusiasm. It was something he needed to share with her that was difficult to share with anyone else.

She bit her lip to keep from saying sorry. Reminding herself she was the one who had stopped talking, she kicked her toe against the floor and tried not to blame him for resisting now.

She bit her lip to keep from saying sorry. Reminding herself she was the one who had stopped talking, she kicked her toe against the floor and tried not to blame him for resisting now. “How much longer?”

“They won’t say.” He stood up and stepped quietly to her door, probably so Jim and Emily wouldn’t hear his reply through the floor. “But I think it’ll be two weeks.”

“Will we make it?”

“We will,” he said, almost too quickly.

“You’d tell me the truth?” Her mouth was dry.

“We made it this long.”

She turned that over in her mind while hoping he had not learned how to hear drooping shoulders. Her eyes fell on the candle. “Can you get me some matches?”

She tensed, waiting for the reply. This was the first thing she had asked him to do for her since he started sleeping in the other room. He had stocked their kitchen with canned food, bottled water, baby wipes, and other things—she was never hungry or without the supplies that made this bearable.

“I’ll leave them for you outside your door when I get home tomorrow,” he said, but she couldn’t imagine the expression. Was she forgetting his face? It had been months since she had been able to look at him. Now she only saw flashes of his profile or the top of his head as he left the apartment. She wanted to see his face, to forget the isolation, to be them again.

Across the way, the Espinozas started up again. Something about the last bag of Cheetos. Something normal, trivial. Leslie smiled, but it faded. It’s not trivial anymore.

Then, something brushed against the door. She put her ear up to it, hoping not only to hear but feel his fingers on the wood. Her breath collected in brief puffs on the dull sheen of the door until he moved away. She waited in the quickening dark for him to retreat to the front of the apartment, listening for the shift of his weight away from her door, her room, her… Her fingers curled over the doorknob, and it was cool under her grip. But not cool enough.

 

Sarah Kuntz Jones

Sarah Kuntz Jones lives among the red brick wonders of St. Louis with her daughter and two black cats. When not taking care of her tiny human, she is at work on a novel. And, when she’s not doing that, she is painting, cooking, baking, or thinking about riding her bike. Her fiction has appeared in The Summerset ReviewThe MacGuffin, and Iron Horse Literary Review, among other places.

Photo by O. Jones

Arroz y Dulce

I remember that it was a hot summer day in Hawthorne. The concrete outside of my house was splattered in red, blue, and purple Popsicle stains as el heladero’s bell echoed far away towards the high school. The trees bent in agony against the rays of the sun that cracked branches and drained the moisture from inside. I sat cross-legged in the shade of a large weeping willow tree that hung over from my neighbor’s yard while I drank a Capri Sun, ate Oreos, and played Super Mario World on my Game Boy Advance. I was watching my sister, Gloria. She was twelve years old at the time, four years older than I was. She sat with her legs under her as she made flower chains for herself and our aging keeshond named Timmy. He was lying like a dirty cotton-ball next to the washer and dryer that was rusted from being outside. He didn’t seem to mind the flower chains, but if I were him, I would have knocked them off. A fierce wolf dog shouldn’t be covered in flowers. From inside, I heard my Mama’s strained voice calling out to us in the backyard.

“Gloria! Tabitha! Ven acá! I want you girls to get ready for prima Veronica’s party!”

“I’ll race you!” I shouted to Gloria as I stuffed my Game Boy into my back pocket.

“I don’t race anymore. I’m too old for that,” she said, as she carefully plucked the flower chains she had made and hung them from her left arm.

“Fine, be like that,” I said. “And if I were Timmy, I would have attacked you for putting those stupid flowers on me.”

“Flowers look stupid on you anyways. You look like a dead person with them,” she said, laughing.

Timmy looked up at the call of his name but then flopped down, disinterested. I stuck out my tongue at her and I ran into the house. My dirty toes left black polka dots on the kitchen tile. I could smell that Mama was baking something in the oven, and I tiptoed over and opened the door. The air was warm and cheesy. Gloria walked into the kitchen, coughed, and surveyed the spots with a smirk.

“Oh, when Mama finds out, you’re gonna get la chancla!” she laughed.

I shut the door with a loud metallic clank. She took her sandal off and began to chase me around the kitchen with it.

“Hey! Stop! You’re being stupid!” I said.

Each time I dodged my sister’s sandal, my killer moves showed on the floor, the polka dots multiplying. Finally, she chucked the sandal at me and it landed hard at the back of my head.

“MAMA!” I cried.

I flopped down onto the wooden kitchen chair and rubbed the back of my head. I felt the warm tears gather and blur my vision as I pulled my knees up to my chest.

“OK, OK, what is going on, aye?” Mama asked.

Her dark chocolate hair was pulled back into a loose bun and she was dressed in a ratty pink T-shirt with loose green sweats.

“Mama, it hurts! I’m bleeding,” I said.

“She’s not bleeding,” Gloria said. “You can’t even tell because of her hair anyways.”

“Shut up! How about I throw it at you then?” I said as I stood up on the chair. It wobbled but I tightened my grip on the backing.

Cállense! You two are giving me a headache,” Mama shouted.

She grabbed me and placed me on the floor next to Gloria.

“Your dad is going to be coming home soon any minute and when he is, we’re going, claro? Now, say sorry and get dressed.”

Gloria and I looked at each other and mumbled, “Sorry.” Gloria was much taller than I was. Her long brown hair matched mama’s curls, and her sun-kissed skin always had warmth to it. Mama would say how Gloria looked just like her when she was growing up in Sinaloa. But Gloria had blue eyes, and they were so icy that it gave me shivers when I stared at them for too long. She turned around, gave Mama a kiss, and walked towards her room.

“OK, I guess I’ll get ready then,” I said, slowly shifting myself away from her.

“Not so fast, mija,” she said. “When you dress yourself I can’t tell if I have a son or a daughter. I pick out your clothes.”

“Not so fast, mija,” she said. “When you dress yourself I can’t tell if I have a son or a daughter. I pick out your clothes.”

As we walked to my room, I prayed that Mama didn’t take a closer look at the kitchen floor, and that she would notice only when I was at safe at school tomorrow. I rubbed my head thinking about how much my butt would be hurting when I got home.

When I walked into my room, Mama was already digging in my closet. She pulled out a dusty pastel-yellow dress with a white lace collar that I had tried to hide in the corner.

“How about you wear la muñeca dress?” she asked.

She called it that because when I wore it I matched the porcelain dolls that sat on my bed covers.

“But Mama, it’s a party. I don’t want to wear that!” I said. I crossed my arms and pouted on the bed.

“Put it on,” she said.

She pulled me up to my feet and grabbed my dirty Pokémon shirt. She then pulled my dirt-stained purple shorts off and dunked my head into the pastel-yellow sea of fabric.

“It’s stuck!” I said.

“Aye, stop moving,” she said, and tugged it down with a single swoop.

My little head popped out with my hair in a nest and small prints showing the lace that was stuck on my face a couple of seconds ago.

“You look so beautiful, mira!” she said.

I walked over to the mirror and saw my pale arms sticking out of the light-colored dress. My legs were covered in bruises, scabs, and Band-Aids from my adventures in fence scaling, soccer playing, and wrestling with Jacob from next-door. I also had a tendency to mess with the wandering cats outside, and multiple scratches let me know they did not enjoy having their butts poked with sticks.

“I look ugly,” I said, with a tongue sticking out.

“Look at your hands, están sucias! Go wash the dirt off,” she said.

I tried to pull the dress off, but it was stuck. I could tell that Mama was going to swat my hands until we both heard the front door open.

“Hello?” a voice said.

I ran out to the living room and into the arms of my dad. He wasn’t very tall, but his arms were muscular and he smelled of fresh linen. My favorite thing about him was that his hair and skin mirrored mine.

“Hey pumpkin, you ready for a fiesta?” he asked. He accentuated the “fi” part, which made him sound crazy, but I loved it. It reminded me of the “wazzup” commercials I would see on TV.

“Yes!”

“Your dress is beautiful, is Mama forcing you to wear that?” he asked, and winked at her.

She rolled her eyes and smiled. He put me down, and wrapped his arms around Mama’s waist. He pulled her into him, his face nuzzled into her neck and held her. He was the only one who could tame her, and make her melt like butter.

“Where is Gloria? Gloria!” he called.

She floated around the corner and ran right into Dad’s leg. She held on tight—obviously she wasn’t too old to still get hugs.

“Every day you look more like Mama! Pretty soon I won’t be able to tell!” he said. “Wait, are you wearing makeup?”

She giggled and then stood up, straightening her blue dress.

“I told her it’s OK this one time,” Mama said.

“OK, all ready to go?” Dad asked smiling.

Mama looked down at her clothes and then back to Dad un-amused.

“Let me get dressed and we will go.”

She rushed down the hallway with Dad chasing her into the room to get ready.

*     *     *

Going to my cousin’s house was always my favorite. They lived in the house on Euclid that Mama, Tío Rudy, Tío Leo, Tía Esther and my cousins’ dad Tío Arturo grew up in. Their backyard was much bigger than ours, and they would hang up lights for when it got dark. I loved following the strings that ran through the lemon trees against the backdrop of the pinholes in the darkening sky. It always made me wonder if that was what chasing fireflies was like.

When we arrived, I could hear the other kids laughing and screaming in the back. I was in charge of the mac and cheese, per Mama’s orders. I speedily walked to the black wrought iron fence while balancing the ceramic dish between my hands. I shifted the dish to my hip and shook the fence until someone noticed I was there.

“Hey! Cool it, crazy!” Tío Leo said coming down the driveway.

“Hi Tío!” I said.

I was bouncing up and down excitedly and making tiny screeches between breaths. Tío Leo began to open the fence, but I squeezed through the crack and scurried past his legs to the backyard without dropping a single macaroni. I could hear Mama yelling at me to come back, but I was already searching for Vero. That year they’d gotten a giant castle jumper for her birthday, and I wanted to see who could jump high enough to touch the hot pink ceiling.

“Aye mírala! Tavvy, cómo estás?” a woman asked.

My name was chopped up against the rolling of her Spanish tongue. I looked up and noticed it was my grandma, Abuelita Maria. She was a round woman with short brown hair, square glasses, and a giant smile. She wore a pink apron adorned with bright yellow flowers and red stitching. I can never remember a time when she wasn’t wearing it. She grabbed me and started stamping my face with kisses.

“Tavvy, Dónde está su mama y su hermana?” she asked.

I looked around for my mother and my sister, and noticed them by Tía Esther who was touching Gloria’s hair and smiling. Tía Esther was smaller than Mama, but she was what my dad called a “tough cookie.” She was the lead accountant at a big bank, something my abuelita’s eyes brightened at when she met new people. I moved my head to their direction, but the dish was drooping in my stick-like arms.

“Aye! Ponlo acá,” she said.

She motioned me over to the long plastic table. I could smell the carne asada as it sizzled on the grill next to it. Tío Arturo was turning the meats, warming the tortillas, and setting plump green chilies on the grill. I saw its shape shrink as it roasted in the flames. I put the dish in between the tin of green nopales and a bowl of fluffy arroz. I lifted the aluminum covering the mac and cheese, and with my dirty finger I scooped up a couple bits. It burned but the stolen cheese was worth it. Mama always puts in four kinds of cheese; she told me that was her secret.

I heard ice shift and clink as Dad went to the blue cooler and pulled a cold Corona for him and a bottle of Coca-Cola for me. He popped open the bottle and handed me the frosty glass.

“Grestian! Hola! Hello! How are chu?” Abuelita Maria asked as she walked up to him.

She loved my dad and would try to speak strictly English with him to show off how much she had learned from the last time they spoke. Dad shooed me off as he began to mingle with the adults, who all gathered around him to talk or sat in chairs whispering about him. I always thought it was because in the sun his hair glinted and came to life like fire.

I worried that Rudy was also eroding into a million pieces and maybe that was why he was sad.

I felt a large hand grab my shoulder and knew it was Tío Rudy. He was the quiet type who always had a drink in his hand and would nod in conversations. He was gone for a long time when I was growing up, but Mama told me to never talk about it. I could tell from his heavy eyes that he was thinking about something a lot. Back then, I learned in school that sand used to be large mountains and that over time they were eroded into millions of little pieces. I worried that Rudy was also eroding into a million pieces and maybe that was why he was sad.

He gave me a Styrofoam plate two times the size of my face. I reached over the bowls, and scooped up large helpings of soft arroz, watery frijoles, crunchy pollo y chili verde flautas, guacamole, ceviche, chips, and a glob of mac and cheese. I walked to Tío Arturo who flopped a giant piece of asada onto my small mountain of food.

“Someone is hungry! Tu madre not feeding you?” he asked with a smile.

“Don’t forget my tortilla, Tío!” I laughed at my little rhyme.

“Tío tortilla!” I shouted until he gave me my warm circle.

“You always are coming up with something, huh?”

I carefully walked over to an empty seat at next to Vero, who was now chugging a strawberry Jarritos that stained her lips a bright red.

“Hey, prima! Sit over here!” she said.

Next to her was a group of boys from school. Apparently, her older brother Ramon had invited them, each of them varying in shades of brown skin and black hair. I began shoveling food into my mouth, savoring each salty bite of the meat and creaminess of the guac. At first, no one said anything but then I heard them pulling their chairs closer to the table.

“You say she’s jur cousin?” one of them asked.

He was missing some teeth, but he had a shaved head and his peach fuzz was darkening near the corners of his mouth.

“Yeah, Carlos,” she said with a smile. “This is my cousin, Tabby.”

They all started whispering, just like Mama’s aunts who sat in the corner, their brown eyes always darting, and their mouths always slightly opened. Gloria was walking over from the table with a smaller plate of food, but she didn’t skip out on the mac and cheese. She sat down on the other side of Vero and nibbled at her plate.

“Hey, what’s going on?” she asked.

Vero rolled her eyes and pointed to the boys who were now smiling at Gloria and trying to slick their hair back for her.

“Who’s this?” Carlos asked.

“This is Gloria, my prima. She’s Tabby’s sister.” Vero said. “Any more questions or can we eat now?”

Carlos looked bewildered and his friends all started to pat him on the back oh-ing and ah-ing.

“Wait, so la gringa is Mexican?” the one with the glasses asked.

I looked up from my plate. I felt the rice cling to my lips as I rolled my eyes and let out a dramatic sigh.

“Hey, don’t call her that,” Gloria said. I looked at her sheepishly.

“Yeah,” said Vero.

“Why don’t chu look it?” Carlos asked me.

“Look what?”

“Mexican,” Carlos said.

I stopped eating and started moving the beans with my plastic fork. I felt a hot rush to my cheeks. Gloria looked at me and was about to protest, but I shook my head at her.

“I don’t know. If you’re Mexican, why don’t you look like me?” I asked.

They all looked at each other and started laughing hysterically. Their heads were tilted back, mouths wide open, their hands holding onto each other’s shirt collars until they stretched to keep from falling over.

“You’re not Mexican, you’re white. Mira el cabello,” the one wearing glasses said.

I took a piece of my hair between my fingers and examined its red color.

“But… but, we eat the same food.” I held up my plate.

“Is jur mom the one who made mac and cheese?” Carlos smirked.

My fingernails dug into the soft flesh of my palm. I could see Vero was becoming uneasy, her left arm partially extended in case I decided to pounce. Gloria stood up, her icy eyes locked on him.

“Chur like this,” Carlos said.

He reached across the table and grabbed a handful of my arroz, squishing it between his brown fingers. He flashed a silver smile and then threw the rice on the ground.

“You jerk!” Vero said. “Leave or else I’ll get Ramon to kick you out.”

Carlos got up and rubbed his hands on his shirt. His little squad of menaces got up as well, like puppies. Carlos smiled until he looked up into Gloria’s eyes and grimaced. It was only when they were at the jumper that they had the courage to look back and laugh. Their little gang now terrorized the house on Euclid.

“They are a bunch of cabrones,” Vero said making a face. “Nothing but air in their heads.”

My carne asada had become cold and I wiggled uncomfortably in the plastic white chair.

“Don’t let them scare you. I’ll use la chancla on them if you want me to,” Gloria said reaching for her sandal.

“Nah, it’s all right,” I said. I pushed my plate to the side, no longer hungry.

“Thank you for the mac and cheese,” Vero said. It was her favorite, and we all knew.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“I’m sorry sis, but we can still have fun. Forget about them.”

Gloria tried to reach for my hand, but I sat on it to keep her from touching me. I could tell that I looked different; they had shiny black hair and olive skin. Perfect.

“No, it’s all right,” I said. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom.”

From inside the bathroom, I could hear echoed laughs, and the whir of the jumper. I looked at myself in the mirror. Pastel and red. I pinched my skin between my fingers, hoping to darken it, but it only left a large blotchy red mark. I sighed, washed my hands, and went back outside. I hoped we were leaving soon.

“It’s time for the piñata!” I heard Tío Leo cry out.

I saw dozens of little bodies rush past the door and toward the large lemon tree. Tío Leo was standing on the concrete wall, trying to hang the Powerpuff Girl piñata from a branch.

“No one ever hits the piñata when Tío Leo is doing it,” Ramon said out loud to his friends.

They were all wringing their hands just waiting for the opportunity to bust it open. I looked around and saw Gloria was talking to Tía Esther again. Vero saw me from inside the jumper, but she didn’t come out.

“OK, OK, step right up, niños!” Tío Leo shouted. “Who wants to go first?”

“I’ll do it,” I said.

I felt everyone’s eyes glued to my little self as I walked over to Tía Esther who was waiting with a blindfold and a wooden bat.

“Go get ’em, sweetie!” I heard Dad shout.

Tía Esther put the blindfold over my eyes. Darkness. I felt her hand gently guiding me into the squishy grass from spilled soda until she grabbed my shoulder to stop. She put the bat into my hand, and whispered, “Sí se puede, go show Leo what you’re made of, chiquita.”

The bat was heavy but I could feel that the Powerpuff Girl was only a few feet away. I swung and hit the dirt.

The bat was heavy but I could feel that the Powerpuff Girl was only a few feet away. I swung and hit the dirt. Missed. I heard the boys laughing in the back. I waited before I swung again; this time Gloria was giving me directions on where it was.

“To the left!” she shouted. “No, your left! Oops, I mean right! Swing! Swing now!”

I swung again and got nothing but air. The laughs multiplied as I frantically searched for the piñata. I was going to hit it. I then waited, like a tiger in the long grass, until my prey was no longer moving.

“You give up already?” Tío Leo asked.

I jumped and gave one last swing with all my strength. I let out a loud yell, as loud as I always imagined Timmy would if he were in the wild. I felt the wooden bat rip through the paper, and the poor Powerpuff Girl was torn in half. I lifted the bandana and saw it raining red Vero Mango lollypops, multi-colored Duvalíns, chili Lucas, and powder-white de la Rosa circles from the sky. I extended my arms and felt the dulces bounce off my hand and onto the floor. I heard a roar of excitement and felt little bodies swarm around me as they dove to the floor.

“How did you do that?” Vero asked, with her hands full of sweets.

I shrugged and picked up a Vero Mango lollypop. I ran over to Gloria showing her the dulce.

“I have an idea,” she said.

She took me over the plastic table and broke off the candy part of the lollypop from the stick and wrapper. She grabbed a tablespoon of rice and carefully placed it into the wrapper and then back into my hand. She smiled and it was if I had read her mind. I frantically searched around for him, and soon spotted Carlos alone in the corner just watching us.

Un regalo, from us.”

I handed him the lollypop and walked back to crowd of high-fives. Gloria pulled me aside and hugged the tightest I’ve ever felt.

When Carlos would decide to eat the lollypop, he would see that the sweet was gone and it was stuffed with orange arroz instead.

 

Rebecca Komathy is an emerging writer from Southern California. She is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing (fiction) from California State University, Long Beach. This story is based on her childhood of growing up in the LA area. Her narratives showcase the strength in familial communities while hoping to make the readers a bit hungry afterward.

The Black and Invisible Butcher

They crashed into a pit, half mud, half sand, like a meteor falling from the sky, or rather, like remnants of a tumbling meteor—their plane disintegrated mid-nosedive as though it was wrapped in papier-mâché, as though it was wrapped in the old newspapers back home that shared the same haunting headline at every street corner, that an invasion had begun.

Their bomber’s tail was hit hard, and the ensuing spiral shot the two men downward into a wide deserted gulch, a thick pool of mud and sand and earth catching them.

Their bomber’s tail was hit hard, and the ensuing spiral shot the two men downward into a wide deserted gulch, a thick pool of mud and sand and earth catching them. It didn’t take long for one of them to regain consciousness. James, the gunner, woke first. What he saw was half in darkness; the world was half visible to him from the view of the muddy hollow. The brown slop came right up under his right armpit, but just above his left elbow. It slowly sucked the twisted and mangled mass that crash-landed, down below its surface—the plane became the nourishment, the marrow that filled the mixture of sand and earth, the deserted belly James found himself trapped in. He had only one arm free. He used it to shade the one eye of his that wasn’t trapped in darkness. The other had a cut across the upper eyelid, cutting into the surface of the whitish yellowish ball surrounding his cornea. It was a partially dark world to him.

The late afternoon sun made the pit glisten. James shifted in his place, twisting his hips, attempting to step up through the slop, but each step sunk him lower than the previous. A sense of panic rose to the back of his throat at the sinking feeling, a sense of hysteria, like he was five again and could not keep himself afloat.

“Holy—” A voice several feet from him started up. The man was up to his collar in the thick ooze.

“Dre!” James shouted, but Andre was far too preoccupied with the thick slop for him to hear the call. James swung his free arm over the muck, like a swimmer changing positions, but felt the thick earth shift beneath him, dragging him under a little further with each step.

Then, like a deer struck by a driver, Andre jolted. He convulsed and squirmed, crying out, screaming a kind of bloodcurdling scream that made James sick again. The dark brown slop slowly moved up, covering the front of Andre’s throat, then inched its way up to the bottom of his chin, moving at a rate that seemed to know it was torturing the man. He cried across the desert, across the gulch to the ends of the earth and back, rattling James from the inside. Rattling. Their world was empty, and for James, only half lit. The thick slop stopped dragging Andre down right as it covered his chin and jaw.

James watched from afar as Andre’s breathing eventually slowed, as his eyes stopped giving way to streams. Andre’s temple and jawbone met at strong, smooth angles, but the way his skin and that dark muck blended, they did not match; the former’s complexion was far friendlier, far less murky. He was a handsome man, a tall man, and those not involved in their friendship often felt the two of them possessed a kind of rivalry. They had the two highest times for flight exercises, completed target training at identical paces, and both represented their respective units at national competitions as privates.

“Dre!” James tried again, like it was on a lifeline he flung across the gulch hoping to land directly on the ears of the listener. Andre turned his head as though it rested on a pillow of soggy earth.

“Jay…” Andre’s words landed heavy. His response was weighty—it signaled to James the state of things, the isolation of that desert gulch and the quiet distance between the two, like it leapt up and squeezed James by the throat, demanding his attention, demanding to be seen and known and recognized as a wildly confounding end for them. If only the crash had brought them closer together, perhaps they would have managed to push at least one of them to stable ground, perhaps the other could see to it that they would also be freed.

Andre rested his head, exhausted and frightened. He began motioning his mouth, but choked on words, on tears and panic.

“I don’t wanna die, Jay…,” Andre said.

James shuddered, but tried desperately to hide his chattering teeth. “I told you … I should have flown,” he responded anxiously, smiling.

“Hah, you look like shit,” Andre laughed back, resting only slightly now.

“At least I’m not up to my neck in it,” and at James’s words, they both laughed, and winced and looked around once more to be certain of their current situation.

“Think you can reach behind you?” Andre asked, catching sight of a dislodged pilot seat half sticking out of the deep, dark muck. James turned, slowly, but again slipped, like the underbelly of the gulch deformed at will. The slop was just above his chest now, and Andre’s eyes glossed over once more. They sat in silence a moment, maybe two, maybe a lifetime, James thought. Maybe long enough for the gulch to crystallize, for the gulch to set in place so that they could break the earth and walk out, but the moment gave to Andre’s soft murmur. He was sinking again.

“Dre, keep still, man!” James said, in a voice he hadn’t heard before, and suddenly the sinking stopped, “Just, chill…”

James could see Andre’s lips tremble, then after a few minutes slowly turn to a smile.

“Wh—you all right?” he asked, stupefied, yet relieved at the same time.

“I was just thinking of what Pastor Franklin said about bottom feeders, how one should abstain from them to meet their lord heartily,” Andre said, and began chuckling, keeping his head high enough to stop the muck from flooding his laughter.

“What?” James found it unexpected, but slightly contagious.

The two could be heard from across the desert, and in the backs of their minds they thought about how no one interrupted, how no one cut in like they were hoping someone would.

“I would tear the hell up out of some crab legs right about now,” Andre said, breaking the quiet of the desert with high-pitched cackles; his eyes streamed, but not as they did before. James shook his head and broke into laughter. The two could be heard from across the desert, and in the backs of their minds they thought about how no one interrupted, how no one cut in like they were hoping someone would.

“Hmph,” Andre paused. “The sky really does look nice from down here, almost welcoming.”

James hadn’t any idea how to reply. He wanted to stare upward, but thought it would only send him the opposite direction.

“We’ve seen a lot up there, but from down here… it’s really beautiful when you take the chance,” Andre said.

“Yea, it sure is,” James added.

The ground began slowly swallowing Andre again as he spoke, and it was like reality suddenly came crashing from the sky like they crashed earlier, coming down all on top of them and over them. Andre began wailing, began calling out to the great vastness above them.

“Oh God, please!” he exclaimed.

“Dre!” James cried over him, over the bloodcurdling that started again.

“Jay…God, please!” Andre gagged on his words. The dark slop went up and over his eyes and into his mouth, and he spat out what he could for the slightest gasp, the slightest chance at air. His friend’s face was still only half lit, half exposed one last time for him to see across the gulch that was consuming them. James heard his choked cries, heard Andre’s appeals once more before words and phrases became muffled heaves and broken consonants. And without further warning the muck swallowed Andre and left bubbles of his violent sobs behind.

“Dre!… DRE!” James exclaimed amidst massive hysteria and regret and horror and nausea, his one good eye bulging now. He tried to swim, tried to paddle with his free hand, but the earth began swallowing him again. He could feel it tugging hard on the breast pockets of his vest. He could feel the warm mud bearing down upon his broad shoulders now, forcing him under, wanting to drown him. Then, like the butcher it had been that day, it stopped.

The dark mud rested right below his nostrils as tiny ripples appeared across the surface from his quick exhalations. He could barely see up and over the bowl they were caught in, and every now and again the spot where Andre cried bubbled. James floated in that thick mass, no longer aware, no longer feeling—numb to the partly lit world he lived in for a minute longer. He thought back to his training, to the accolades and exercises. He thought about their mission, and regretted being a gunner, in that moment. In that moment, he wished desperately to be of use before he went. The thought of his mother pruning their garden when he’d been a child created a lump in his throat large enough to be felt through the muck. He looked up one last time.

Dusk was approaching, and a blanket of blueish grey streaked with slivers of red covered the sky. It was beautiful, he thought. Bright bits of white light peppered the wild blackish blue, mimicking the hole-filled shoebox James had used to spot stars at night as a boy. He thought about taking his life back, taking it back to the point where he knew he could have been of use, before the crash landing, all the way back to the pruning. He felt gravity, felt his weight going down now. He could envision a bed of tulips where he rested, and a broken piece of fuselage serving as a makeshift headstone. As long as it said I was useful, he thought. The world was becoming completely dark now. He was no longer partially blind to it as the mud slid up his cheeks and over his eyes completely. The ground did not rumble this time, nor did he fight it or roar. And without objection, the earth opened up and quietly consumed him.

 

Jamal Michel is a Miami native whose Afro-Caribbean roots deeply influence his work. His mother and father were born in Guyana and Haiti, respectively, and his prose and poetry focus on race, surrealism, absurdity, and, as Georg Simmel called it, the techniques of life. Michel studied English literature at FIU and English education at Duke University, and his intentions are to use creative writing to explore race through film and other media. His work has been published in Yes Poetry, and is forthcoming in 805 Lit+Art and Linden Avenue Literary Journal, to name a few. He’s also written opinion pieces for Miami Herald, The News & Observer, and The Chronicle at Duke, where he currently serves as their guest columnist.

La Garroba

When I was nine years old my first love died. She liked to sit out in the sun, in front of Niña Marina’s whorehouse, her face to the sky, her long hair behind her, the tips touching the sandy soil of Acajutla, that little town where I grew up. People called her La Garroba: The Iguana. I remember her as a thirty-two-year-old prostitute who, aside from sitting out in the sun, liked to sing the songs coming out of that whorehouse’s jukebox. She’d sing everything: the Spanish songs sung by Roberto Carlos and José José, the English songs by Air Supply and Scorpion. A Korean businessman stopped by the whorehouse one day and donated one of his records to Niña Marina. She had it put into the jukebox. La Garroba learned those sounds too.

I don’t remember being in love with her. I do remember coolness in my chest, happiness, I think, whenever I was with her. My mom’s friends claimed it was love and nicknamed me after her. They were all truck drivers, including my mom, and they’d sit on the ground, in a circle, in front of a fish warehouse, gambling while someone loaded each of their Toyota pickups with fish and crushed ice. Then, when the vehicles were fully loaded, they drove to other towns in El Salvador to deliver their load. The warehouse sat on a small hill that overlooked the ocean as it stretched comfortably on dark sands. North of the ocean was a line of palm trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. In the midst of all that green flowed two long rivers. Sometimes I liked to stand right at the place where the hill began to descend into the water. I’d close my eyes and I could hear the waves, the rivers, the palm trees, all, talking to each other in hushed voices.

At one point, I knew all the men in that circle, the way they always smelled of fish, the way their dark skin hung loose on their face, creased by the weight of the sun. The finer details of their faces are blurry, hazy in the collage of the many other noses and mouths and foreheads I saw throughout my childhood. Even their voices, the sounds that remain in my head, are lost in the collective harmonies of the many other people who populated the periphery of my youth. However, two of the men in the circle I remember well: a fat man nicknamed Panza and another one they called Funes. They played with me the most.

The men in that circle saw me come daily to ask my mom for money or for food or just because I missed her. My father couldn’t feed me. He often left the house early to go to work. When I’d wake up he and my mom would already be gone.

“It’s La Garroba!” the men in the circle yelled whenever they saw me. They would laugh and pat each other on the back, proud of their old joke. My mom would give me money for food. “For a Coke,” she’d say, and I would sit with them for a little bit, my back against my mother’s back, her straight hair on my shoulders. Her friends would ask how old I was and they’d make up ages that were obviously not possible: “Thirty? Thirty-five?” Then they would ask where La Garroba was hiding. They’d search their surroundings just in case they’d somehow missed her presence. Sometimes they’d look inside my pockets for her. Most of the time I knew where La Garroba was.

“Está en el salón,” I’d tell them, because that’s what we call whorehouses in El Salvador. When she wasn’t at the beach she was there. That’s where she was the day she died.

Then they’d tell me that when I was little, La Garroba would sing me a song about a man who’s heartbroken because he falls in love with a cabaret dancer, who only loves him for his money. It was a popular song for a long time and I heard it often coming out of the jukeboxes of the whorehouses of that little town. “Cabaret love, you kill me little by little,” the singer sang. My mom’s friends would hum it and Funes would grab my hands and spin me in place. I always laughed at that part.

What I know about La Garroba I learned from bits and pieces of information I’d hear from my mom and her friends after they stopped harassing me and continued gossiping over their game of cards, as if my presence and their use of the nickname summoned from sands nostalgia of past lives. They shared stories that La Garroba never shared with me. I always listened.

Before she was La Garroba she was Carla. My mom was two years older than her. They went to the same school, as did many of the other fishermen in the circle.

Before she was La Garroba she was Carla. My mom was two years older than her. They went to the same school, as did many of the other fishermen in the circle.

“Carla didn’t like going,” my mom said. “She would go to the beach instead.” She’d sit on the sand and stare into the ocean.

They said she liked the waves more than she liked learning about mammals and reptiles and fish and math. At the age of seven, she told her parents she didn’t want to go to school anymore, that she’d help clean fish at the fish market. Her parents didn’t let her. They told her she needed to learn to read and write and do math. She would be more help that way.

Panza often said that Carla began offering sex for money after both her mother and father were lost at sea during a storm. The coast guard searched the water for two days and managed to find only the inner tube on which both her parents fished, one with a nylon mesh in the middle. It would be four days before her mom washed up on some rocks and her father washed up on the sand. Both were bloated and covered in fish bites.

Whenever Panza shared that detail my mom would cover my ears with her hands. She’d tell him that I was too young to hear of such things. But I’d already heard the entire story many times before.

Carla was thirteen when her parents died. I wasn’t born yet. She tried working at the fish market, cleaning the hammerhead sharks, the tilapias and the glossy tunas. She wasn’t skilled and the man who hired her fired her and hired an older boy who was better with the knife. She’d also tried to fish. Her father had taken her on many of his fishing trips and taught her how to sit quietly on the inner tube, the waves lapping at the rubber and the night wrapping around them. He’d taught her to release the hook and bait and to wait patiently for the fish to nibble, to wait for the right type of tension on the line, for the hungry pull of an eager mouth. She’d bought a small inner tube from a fisherman and had created a colorful mesh of synthetic fabric to attach to the inside of the tube, just like her father taught her. She knew from where to launch her vessel so as to not get pummeled by the waves. But no matter how much she tried to stay out in the open sea, a current always brought her back to exploding foam where she was flipped over and pushed onto the sandy shore. The first time this happened she laughed and blamed it on the ill nature of the ocean. The next day she tried it again and again she was dragged toward the waves and slammed against the dark sands. That time the ocean broke her nose, gave her a black eye for three weeks.

“I saw her,” Funes said. “It was like someone had punched her.”

She tried it again, this time using a paddle to push the dark rubber deeper into the waters, away from any strong currents but, again, the sea shoved her back toward the waves even though she paddled with all her strength until the blisters on her palms sent streams of blood running down the wooden oar. Some fisherman laughed at her. They said she didn’t know what she was doing. Others, older fisherman, knew the ocean did not want her in the water and no matter how much she tried she wouldn’t be successful. The ocean, Panza said, was trying to keep her from a similar fate as her parents.

“El mar es sabio,” he’d say.

Everyone nodded.

“Y el hijo de puta de Manzanilla?” someone would say, reminding everyone to not forget Manzanilla’s role in Carla becoming a prostitute.

Two years before Carla’s parents died, when she was eleven, she’d been walking home from school when Manzanilla walked behind her and told her he wanted to fuck her. This was another part of the story from which my mother tried to shield me, her warm hands around my ears.

Carla ran home and told her father, Don Julio, who went to Manzanilla’s house, pulled him out in a headlock and dragged him to the beach where he tried to drown him. Had it not been for a then fourteen-year-old Panza, who was standing on the beach watching the whole thing happen, Don Julio would have killed Manzanilla. Instead, he released his grip around Manzanilla’s neck and walked back home. Panza, teary-eyed and confused about what was happening, stared at the injured man. Manzanilla got up, his eyes red and swollen, and, silently, dripping water from all over his body, walked back to his house.

“I was scared,” Panza said. “Don Julio almost killed him.”

“That son of a bitch deserved it,” my mom would say. Funes put his hands on my ears. Everyone laughed.

After the death of her parents and after her failure at the fish market and her failure out in the ocean and the fact that she had no money to eat and no one would help her, Carla went to Manzanilla’s house and told him she would have sex with him for twenty colones. I think that was about two dollars back in those days, a lot of money.

“No one helped her?” I asked. The answer was always the same, recycled by everyone in the group at one point or another.

“We all had problems.”

My mother and friends would fall silent after that line and all movements of their bodies seized, as if the suddenness of a memory stopped their breathing, as if whatever force was keeping back pain took a break and allowed all of that life, all of those stingers held back by deliberate attempts, to be released all at once, to penetrate flesh and soul. They all had problems. Carla’s were just different than theirs.

My mother would undoubtedly be thinking about my great grandmother, how she had enough money to take my mom and my grandmother out of poverty but how she’d chosen my aunt instead. Sometimes I would ask my mom about my great grandmother, but she didn’t like talking about her. “She loved my sister more,” she’d say sometimes. My great grandmother paid for my aunt’s education, sent her to expensive Catholic schools. Along with Carla, my mom had to go to the poor school in town, the same school I went to.

Panza would probably be thinking about the death of his mother. He often talked about how, when he was twelve, he had to drop out of school to take care of her and to get a job unloading boxes from the ships that arrived in Acajutla. He would cross himself whenever he talked about how, on her last days, it was difficult for his mother to breathe, how he would spend many hours at night, awake, hearing every single strangling breath scrape out of her throat.

“It’s a horrible way to die,” he’d say. “Who knew seconds could last so fucking long. When I go I wanna go quick.”

He said he’d have to sneak in naps throughout the day just to be able to survive the sound his dying mother made at night.

The others kept their fears to themselves when I was around. I have no memories of listening to them describe their pain.

Panza said that no matter how much Carla tried to convince herself that sex was just sex she felt shame and cried through that first time with Manzanilla. He said that Manzanilla told him what had happened, that he even gave him money to buy the same services from Carla. He said Manzanilla pulled him close and told him that Carla was good at what she did. Again, my mother tried to cover my ears during this part of the story but all she did was make Panza’s voice hollow, like he was inside a cave. Panza gave Carla the money Manzanilla gave him. He said he didn’t ask for anything in return.

Trips to Manzanilla’s house became weekly and when she turned seventeen, Niña Marina, one of the madams in our town, offered her a job in her whorehouse. My mom said that on the first day, eleven clients came to seek the services of La Garroba. This she found out through Niña Marina, who bragged to everyone she could about how well her whorehouse was doing. That day, and for the entire length of that first year, La Garroba would make more money than any of the other women. She was young. Her body still resisted gravity and her supposed innocence enticed single men, married men, and even some of the boys with whom she’d gone to school.

A wave surprised me, grabbed me by the feet and threw me against one of the cancerous iron legs, cutting a long gash into my thigh.

I never met Carla in her younger years. My memories of my relationship with her wouldn’t start until three years before I left that little town. I was eight. She was thirty. By that age, I’d already almost drowned three times. Each time I was saved by someone who’d gone to the beach to look at the ocean and throw their thoughts into the blue, to feel weightless while the heavy things they carried on their shoulders floated out onto the waves and swayed back and forth in the glistening depths. The last time I almost drowned, Carla was there, on the beach, staring at the waves. I was swimming too close to the old dock, the tall rusted relic from the past that still stood ten feet tall, pushing into the ocean decades after the last train stopped traveling its length, many years after the last ship had docked on it. A wave surprised me, grabbed me by the feet and threw me against one of the cancerous iron legs, cutting a long gash into my thigh. I think I fainted immediately. When I woke up Carla was above me, her hair dripping salty water onto my face. I coughed and cried and she hugged me and rocked me back and forth.

“Estás bien, Marquitos. Estás bien,” she said, and she sang a Korean song to me and it calmed me.

I spent many hours with her after she rescued me. I’d stop by after school, almost daily. I’d ask Niña Marina if Carla was busy and if she said no I would run into the whorehouse. I’d say “hola” to the other prostitutes but my voice could never penetrate the music coming out of that dark brown jukebox. I’d run to the last room at the end of a long hall, quickly, so as to not hear the sounds coming out of the other rooms. I’d often find Carla alone on her bed, singing romantic songs. I’d say hi and she’d smile and then I would tell her about my day while she listened. She always listened. While I talked I ate the fruit meant for the clients who weren’t coming around anymore. Niña Marina didn’t mind me there. No one thought it was strange for a child to hang out inside a whorehouse talking to La Garroba. I visited her many times during those two last years of her life.

One afternoon, a couple of weeks before she died, I’d come to the whorehouse and walked in on her having sex with a man. I knew what sex was. With five whorehouses within four blocks of my house I was surrounded by it. But seeing Carla bouncing on top of the man, her bored eyes open, her hair tied back with a brown clip, I felt a sudden surge of shame. He saw me first, yelled at me to get out. Then she saw me and tried to cover herself up quickly and threw herself, face down, on the bed. The man she was with, an old man I’d seen picking through trash at the landfill, cursed at me. He said he would come out and put his foot up my ass. I ran out, ashamed and scared, her naked breasts bouncing in my head. I ran to the beach and sat on the sand. I knew I was in trouble. I knew I should have knocked, should have asked Niña Marina if La Garroba had clients. But I didn’t; she rarely did, so I’d forgotten.

I’d been on the sand for no more than ten minutes when I felt Carla’s hand on my shoulder. She sat next to me. In front of us the ocean whispered in hushed voices. Dark clouds gathered in the distant horizon. Rain was coming.

“Estás chiquito,” she said. “You shouldn’t see those things.”

She ran her fingers through my hair. Inside my head their movement sounded like the rushing of water.

“Lo siento,” I said.

We dug our feet into the sand and stayed like that until the ocean reached and covered them with white foam. Then she got up, took a couple of steps into the water and crossed herself. Her lips moved in a short prayer while she bent down to scoop sandy water into her hands. She used the water to wet her hair.

A week before she died I found her crying in her room. I’d seen her cry before, many times, in fact. Sometimes I would watch her from her door as she sobbed into her pillow or her hands. Those days she and I didn’t talk and the next day I wouldn’t tell her I’d seen her cry. But that day I felt like I needed to walk up to her and put my hand on her back so I did. She wiped her eyes dry and hugged me against her for a couple of seconds. She said, “You are my only friend, Marquitos.” It made me smile but she didn’t smile with me.

I visited her the day before she died. Her room was clean. Fresh hibiscus glowed red from inside a green plastic vase. When I arrived she took my backpack off and offered me a fresh bowl of jocotes. I sat on her bed and finished the fruit while I told her about my day. She sat in front of her mirror, running her brush through her long hair many times. There were holes in the ceiling but someone had placed a pink curtain on the roof to keep the rain out during storms. Sunlight filtered through them, casting round pink circles onto the bed, on my lap and on her mirror.

“Do you love me, Marcos?”

“Sí,” I said. “You’re good to me.”

“Would you miss me if I left?”

I never considered her absence and when she asked the question I couldn’t help but feel sad at the idea of her not being there anymore, at not seeing her hair flow behind her, shiny strands of darkness.

I told her I had to go, that I had math homework to finish. I started walking out but she called me back and hugged me tight against her. She smelled of lavender.

“Sí. No te vayas.”

I watched her reflection in the mirror; it darkened under the shade of a passing cloud. It stopped brushing its hair. It stopped smiling. It turned around to face me and somewhere through that movement her smile had returned.

“I won’t leave, Marquitos. Don’t worry.”

I told her I had to go, that I had math homework to finish. I started walking out but she called me back and hugged me tight against her. She smelled of lavender.

*     *     *

The day she died I stopped by the market on the way to the whorehouse and bought us each a mango. I planned to eat it with her while I told her about how our teacher had let us play with a thermometer, how I knew how it worked. I knew she would ask me to explain it to her and I’d practiced my explanation: the mercury inside reacted with the heat in my hands. The heat made the silver water rise. But, when I got to the whorehouse I saw a crowd outside. Niña Marina was crying.

“¿Qué pasó?” I asked a man who was standing with his arms crossed on his chest.

He pointed with his lips and said, “Se murió La Garroba.”

The spirit is a coward. During moments of sudden pain it flees the body, leaves it empty, hollow. Everything sounds louder when we’re in that state, as if sound has newfound space through which it can reverberate, through which it can birth echoes that ring the loudest behind the ears. The ocean, which, on my way from school to the whorehouse, was far away, like the soft running of fingers along the scalp, was now raging inside my head, crashing against the emptiness within.

Someone should have stopped me as I made my way to her room. Someone should have noticed the unblinking eyes, the tears beginning to form behind stiff eyelids. But no one did.

Her toes looked crooked. Her dress, a white one I’d seen her wear when she walked along the beach, hung around her, still, like it was made out of wax. Her nails were painted red, on crooked fingers. Her arms hung next to her, still, flexed somehow. Her neck was bloated slightly along the place where the rope squeezed. Her eyes were closed and the darkness of her hair hung behind her, a loose mess of darkness.

“Her neck didn’t break,” someone said. I didn’t know it had to break.

“Qué trágico,” said another voice.

“Pobrecita,” another one.

Someone grabbed me by my backpack and pried me from where I was frozen, took me outside, left me standing under the hot sun. I tried going home but all that was once automatic became a thing I had to force myself to do. I forced air into my chest. I commanded one leg up and pushed the other down. I blinked to clear the blurriness in my eyes. I opened my mouth to let out a moan. But all this was tiring and I’d only walked a couple of steps when I fell to the ground and sobbed.

*     *     *

The next day I didn’t go to school. My dad was home when I woke up, sitting at the round wooden table he’d made himself. The morning sun had already begun to warm up the metal sheets that made up the four walls of that house. I could hear the clucking of the chickens outside. His eyes watched me from a distance as I tried to put on my school uniform. He walked up to me, told me it was okay to stay behind, that I shouldn’t have seen what I saw, that he was sorry he wasn’t there to keep me from seeing. Then he went to work. My mom would already be at her usual station, playing cards with her friends. At home I sat under the jocote tree until I felt hungry. I walked to the warehouse and found my mom at the same place, playing with the same people, laughing at the same jokes. They saw me approach but didn’t say anything. Their fingers gripped the cards. No one played any hands. I sat next to my mom. She patted my back and kissed the whirlwind of hair on my head. Her lips were warm.

They played their game in silence.

“I’m hungry,” I told my mom.

She gave me the Salvadoran equivalent of a quarter. I put the money in my pocket. I got up to leave. I could sense tension getting up with me. It would follow me when I left. I stood there for a second, trying to find a way to ask the question I wanted an answer to, a question I wouldn’t be able to ask Carla. I looked at my mom, tears in my eyes, and asked half the question.

“Why?”

All their faces looked at me. No one said anything. They all fiddled with their cards, looked at each other, looked away. My mom sat me down, ran her fingers through my hair and the scraping was so loud I shook my head and she stopped.

“She carried something that was too heavy for her,” she said. The others grunted in agreement.

I didn’t understand what that meant. I took it literally, thought about my grandfather’s oxen and how they pulled on the wooden cart when it was full of wet sand and how they didn’t kill themselves when they couldn’t pull anymore. They just stopped and my grandfather knew to let them rest. I asked my mom why Carla didn’t just rest, like the oxen pulling the wooden cart.

“Oxen are meant to suffer,” she said. “We are not.”

She put her hand on my back, told me to go play, to go distract myself.

I went to the beach and sat at the place where Carla and I had sat. I listened to the waves, trying to understand what happened to people when they died, trying to understand what would happen to me if I couldn’t make the suffering stop. But I didn’t understand it then. She was only the first. More people would have to die before I could look into the bloated face of death and understand why it amplified the ocean the way it did. I closed my eyes and listened. In the distance I could hear the jukebox and I imagined it was Carla’s voice singing that sad song about the man who fell in love with a cabaret dancer.

 

Andres Reconco

Andres Reconco is a high school teacher and writer living in Los Angeles. He was born in Acajutla, El Salvador and immigrated to the United States in 1990. He is a 2014 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. His work has appeared in The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (Tia Chucha Press, 2017). He is currently an MFA student at Warren Wilson College.

Photo by Casey Curry

Stages on Life’s Way

Enitan woke up to the sound of Ogechi’s voice, she was shouting something. Her voice was hoarse—the first thing that had made him fall in love with her. He waited a while until she calmed down. “What was that?” he asked.

She didn’t look at him. “It’s my mum,” she said.

“What’s going on with her?”

“She’s not well.”

“Is it serious?” She didn’t answer, he knew why she was like that. He propped himself on his elbow and blinked to clear the sleep away. It was too bright in the room—like living on the face of the sun. She didn’t like the room bright—it was unusual, he thought, but then, these days, she was unusual. He yawned and he could smell his breath. He thought about those Hollywood movies where the couples would wake up in the morning and instantly kiss, morning breath be damned. Unrealistic, he thought, because he knew his breath stank, so bad. He bounced off the bed, stretched, his joints making a clicking sound. He went into the bathroom. He sighed and checked himself in the mirror. His hair was a little too long and, due to sleep, had matted to his skull overnight; now he would have to endure another painful comb through. He brushed and ran water in the bath, he played music from his phone. He stretched a little, then entered the bath, rubbing his head with shampoo, letting the cool water cascade down his shoulders. He thought about Ogechi, how she seemed to have changed, how these days, when he really looked at her speaking to him, he could see the hate crusted around her eyes. Of course, he had a role to play in that, definitely. Definitely. As he swabbed his armpits, he thought about how he had never really learnt to swim, even though he had always submerged himself, as a kid, in bathwater, delighting himself with the sounds under the milky-coloured water.

When he finished bathing, he combed his hair gently in front of the mirror, not really seeing his reflection, but looking into himself. His phone played his favorite song, a thing of beauty, where the talking drum was not an accompaniment but an instrument of authority. He repeated the words from the song and he remembered why he loved it. He didn’t use the lotion because it made him sweat, it was hers and it didn’t smell good; like spittle. He had brought his clothes with him to the bathroom, so he dressed now, buttoning his polo shirt the wrong way and redoing it when he noticed.

He left the house immediately; they had agreed on that, he would leave the house every day, even when he didn’t have any place to go.

He left the house immediately; they had agreed on that, he would leave the house every day, even when he didn’t have any place to go. Now he walked from the house to the bus park and sat there waiting for the one p.m. Lagbus. He watched, chuckling inside a little as a boy holding his mother’s hand stepped into the dirty puddle he had avoided as he walked to the bus stop. He watched as the mother complained to no one in particular about how dirty the little boy’s white socks had suddenly gotten. She cursed the government and blamed her son’s dirty socks on the governor, other people in the park, who had previously been “ennuied” interjected themselves and their problems into the narrative and began a far-reaching conversation that prodded everyone in the park except him.

The sun was digging into him now, his back soaked, his armpits wet, his face already starting to follow suit. It was the kind of sun that made you feel ill. He regretted not having a handkerchief and hoped that the bus arrived sooner, but he knew it would be late. An old man was telling a story now about how he’d gotten into a fight with the electricity officials, they had brought a bill of sixty thousand despite power having come on only twice in that month, he was sure they didn’t even read his meter. He didn’t pay it, he said, and when they came to disconnect his power in their white trucks and unloaded the ladder at his front gate, he rushed out and scared them with his machete. “Bravo,” one person said. “That’s how it should be, we should be like doctors peering into the cancer which is corruption in this country and exposing it.”

“So, what happened next?” another person asked.

“The police came,” the old man said.

“And? You scared them with a machete too?” the person said.

“No, I bribed them, which is even worse,” the old man said.

“Hmm, so what happened in the end? You still had to pay for the light, right?” the person said.

“Of course, that was inevitable—”

“What is the moral of this story you just told?” the woman with the little boy asked.

The old man shook his head and coughed, it racked his feeble body. “It’s that the more you try to fight it, the more it spreads, the more the cancer metastasizes… Down the rabbit hole you keep going.”

“So, the imperative is to be a coward and shy away from fighting?” the woman said. “Do you want me to pass that on to my little son here?”

The old man laughed, he adjusted his white cap and leaned on his stick, the sweat on his face glistening deep in circles around the tribal marks on his cheeks. “Look at me, look into my eyes, do I look like a person who hasn’t fought?”

“I don’t know, you tell me,” the woman said.

“I marched for the British queen, waving the little Union Jack and then I celebrated as I watched them leave, I saw them leave… Our independence, then the coups, the civil war, the oil boom, then numerous coups… Then the men from the coups after decades of bloodshed and trampling on rights said, ‘Ah we’ll adopt democracy now, no more regimes…’ Then I watched as the men from the coups became democratically elected officials, I saw the men from the coups become presidents, one after the other, and I saw the sons and daughters of those men build buildings, banks, petrol stations around the country in their names. I saw their million-dollar farms and their billion Naira automobiles. I saw the country, the giant which had gained fame in the ’70s for its oil and the efficiency of its refineries, export oil to foreign refineries… I saw education become another commodity unavailable to the masses. I saw ignorance become a virtue and selflessness a thing of the past. Those people hold the key, they’re not in the shadows, yet we’re scared of them. I don’t know why. We know them yet we pretend to not. We fight and bleed to at least get a piece of that national cake, a cake that is poisoned by deceit and the cries of people in the South-south. There’s a Yoruba proverb: Aso o bo Omoye mo, Omoye ti rin ihoho woja. We’re too far gone… I’m too far gone in the system. So, I don’t know what you should tell your son, I really don’t know.” It’s late to clothe Omoye Omoye has gone naked into the market.

The people in the park (except Enitan) sighed and looked to the bright sky, as if the answers resided there.

*     *     *

The bus began driving up the bridge, and Enitan got glimpses of things below. They passed the people jogging, walking, they passed a beggar sitting in his own excrement. Nine metre level headroom above water, he’d read. He sat in the back trying to piece together things no true Lagosian should ever do; wait—were they heading directly now to Ajah or Olowu? If so, how was he supposed to get to Falomo? If they were not heading to Olowu and they were going via the law school, how long would he have to walk from there to his destination?

The woman from the park was pointing out something from below the bridge to her son. Enitan was seated next to the old man, who was seated next to the window, and despite the general airiness of the bus, he was still hot, still sweating. He should have sat next to the window, he thought. It would have helped.

The bus purred along and inside was quiet until a man from the back stood up and started shouting. Enitan didn’t realise the man was peddling something until he brought out bottles of a black liquid from a sack. “Alomo bitters!” the man shouted.

“What does it do?” the old man asked the salesman. The salesman looked at the old man and appeared perturbed, as if he was doubtful that the old man didn’t know what Alomo bitters did.

“For your back,” the salesman said. “Rheumatism, Jedi-Jedi… and other things.”

“What other things?” the old man said.

The salesman smiled, embarrassed. Other people in the bus were interested now, there were a few chuckles here and there. “That one you know, sir. Opa-eyin.”

“I don’t, what is that?”

“You know, for strength.”

There was laughter in the bus now, even the ticket collector was braying like a donkey. They knew the old man was messing with the salesman.

There was laughter in the bus now, even the ticket collector was braying like a donkey. They knew the old man was messing with the salesman.

“Strength where? For…?”

“For when you want to do,” the salesman said, looking down at the sack.

“Do what?”

“What?”

“Do what?”

“The deal, when you want to score.”

“Like a football match? I’m too old for that,” the old man said.

“Not a football, but in your house with woman,” the salesman said.

“My woman doesn’t like to exercise, she’s too old and lazy.”

The salesman smiled an awkward smile and turned towards the back of the bus.

“That’s it? You’re giving up? So, no sales today?” the old man shouted at the salesman.

The salesman considered this for a moment and to Enitan, it seemed, the salesman unfurled himself and became taller. “Alomo bitters is also good for stamina when you want to fuck ya woman,” the salesman shouted at the bus, frustration imprinted on his rotund face.

The bus erupted and people clapped, including the priest who sat at the very front. “I will buy one, then,” the old man said.

“One thousand, sir.”

“Bring it, you have change?”

The salesman nodded and reached into his sack, he brought a bottle and wrapped it in paper, then put it inside a bag for the old man.

“In this country? Dilly-dallying will get you nowhere, especially if one is a hawker like yourself…” the old man said, as he accepted the package.

The bus fell silent again and Enitan thought about Osun, the Yoruba deity of the river and freshwater and how many people forget about her connection to sexuality, fertility, and pleasure. He dozed off soon after, dreaming of wading into a frothing sea full of knowledgeable beasts and mermaids. He was jolted awake when his phone vibrated in his pocket. There was a text: I thought you were coming? Call me. He dialed the number and rubbed his face as it rang, sleep still in eyes. Why had he been dreaming about swimming, when he couldn’t even swim?

“Hello,” the voice said. “Where are you? You texted me you were coming.”

“Yeah, I did, I’m in a bus.”

“What’s wrong, your voice sounds weird.”

“I just woke up.”

“You slept in the bus? You know that’s dangerous, right? You could miss your stop or worse… Somebody might steal something from you.”

“No more dangerous than…. Chill, it’s Lagos! Not a city in a dystopian… Jungle.”

“Humph, I’m just saying. So, how’s she?”

“Eh, just there, still same, you know how she is. I mean, you’re a woman too.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m different, you know that. I actually love you, Ogechi doesn’t. She cheated on you while you were away.”

“I know that, yeah I know that.”

“Where are you right now?”

“You mean where the bus is? I suppose in the physics of it, I’m also moving with it.”

“What are you talking about? Are you drunk?”

“I wish I was, but no… Just sleepy.”

“You’re weird.”

“I have no idea where I am right now, I’m on my way to Ikoyi, that I know.”

“You should go back to sleep.”

“I don’t feel like sleeping anymore.”

“Okay… Have you told her about me?”

“We can talk about that when I arrive at your place.”

“Okay, bye.”

“Yeah.”

He hung up the phone and closed his eyes. Images from his dream flashed in his mind. Was it because he had thought about Osun? He sighed. He was still sweating.

“You sigh like an older man,” the old man said to him.

He seemed taken aback at the voice of the old man, or that the old man would speak to him at all.

“I had a dream, it’s a paradoxical one, I was trying to unravel it.”

“Hmm, the Yorubas say Alaa go,” the old man said. “Dreams are stupid.”

“Possibly true in this case, since I’m underwater in the dream and in real life I can’t even swim.”

“What university are you in?”

“I’m a graduate.”

“Oh wonderful! Where did you go to?”

“Abroad, New York University, I also hold a master’s degree from there in world history.”

The old man opened his mouth and held it there for a long time before he closed it. He looked over—really looking this time—at Enitan, taking in the faded blue shirt that said FBI and the jeans that had holes in them. He raised his eyebrows at the Sanskrit tattoos that covered Enitan’s arms like a sleeve.

“So, you’re visiting then?” the old man finally said.

“No, I moved back.”

The old man opened his mouth again, he chuckled and looked around the bus. “Ahan, Iru eyan wo leleyi,” he mumbled in Yoruba. What kind of a person is this? “Why?” the old man asked.

“Ah… Because this is my home, my country.”

“I still don’t understand why someone like you that had a life would want to come back here.”

“Because I grew up here.”

“You don’t look like you’re educated, you do sound it, but you don’t look it, look at you…”

Enitan looked at himself and didn’t see anything wrong.

“Do you know what a superstitious Yoruba person would say to this? I’m not superstitious, but do you know what they would say?”

“No?” Enitan said, even though he had an inkling of what the old man wanted to say.

“Are your parents still alive?”

“No.”

“Do you have a job here?”

“Not really, I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer, what kind of things do you write?”

“Fiction, nonfiction, right now I’m working on a book about Lagos.”

“Lagos? What about Lagos? Which Lagos? Precolonial or colonial Lagos? Or postcolonial capital or even postcolonial industrial center?”

“Uhh… It’s a treatise on Lagos and its important voyages: To and fro, and the cultural and economic implications resulting from that.”

The old man shook his head and fell silent.

“You were saying something about Yoruba superstition?” Enitan said.

“Oh, what I was saying is, they would say, oh won pe wapada ni’ won fi in kan pee pada ni…. That you were called by something—oh don’t make that face, you must have seen the movies or heard the stories…. That something called you back, someone with bad intentions, with Juju, principalities, something. But that’s still a reason, right? You appear not to have any. Coming back here to write…. Your generation, in this country, cannot succeed where we have failed. You’re all lazy.”

“Respectfully sir, I disagree,” Enitan said.

“Pshhh, you disagree… Look around! What do you see? It’s muck… It’s ignorance, it’s anti-intellectualism, it’s steep decline in the very fiber, it’s corruption, it’s death, it’s blood and oil money, it’s religious fundamentalism. Look around!”

“I don’t see anything… I don’t see anything that’s not in other countries, I don’t see anything, but I feel potential, it’s abstract, it’s everywhere.”

“I don’t see anything… I don’t see anything that’s not in other countries, I don’t see anything, but I feel potential, it’s abstract, it’s everywhere.”

“No, no… no,” the old man muttered and looked out the window.

Enitan took out his phone and played a game of Tetris but he wasn’t really concentrating on it. He could feel himself looking into the bus from an outer body, willing this body to say something. You don’t talk to an elder person like that, he thought.

People got off the bus and people entered. The bus fell silent and moved along unbothered by the myriad thoughts and problems of the people in it. The little boy was sucking on his thumb and watching his mother sleep, her head lolling gently like a scarecrow, and one man bought Gala and passed money to the hawker who ran beside the bus, chest heaving. “That guy could be the next Usain Bolt,” the man said to no one in particular.

“See! See! Helicopter!” the little boy said, shaking his mother awake. “Abi! Abi!” she replied, then went on dozing, her mouth slightly open.

He felt his phone vibrate in his hands. Still in the bus? He wondered if he should have brought a book from his reading list, but Wittgenstein in this hot bus? He really should have sat down next to the window, he thought, he would have been able to rest his head. He closed his eyes, not sleeping and didn’t open them until the ticket collector shouted: “Ikoyi! Next bus stop! Ikoyi!”

“You’re going to see a lady,” the old man said.

“Yes,” Enitan said.

“You need this then.” The old man pulled out a white handkerchief. “You’re sweating like a miner.”

“Oh, sir, I can’t take that.”

“I insist.”

He took the handkerchief from the old man’s bony fingers and wiped his face. It smelt good, so he wiped his face again, smelling it.

“Keep it,” the old man said.

He folded it, and noticed that there was a fish pattern and that the handkerchief was actually blue: how could he have missed that, he thought.

“I made it myself,” the old man said.

“Are you a tailor?”

“I used to be; in the ’90s I did contract work for the ministry of defense and Fuji musicians… Now I just make handkerchiefs for my wife. I also used to be a gardener.”

“It’s very artistic,” Enitan said, happy he was on better terms with the old man again.

The old man looked at him, smiled sadly, and clicked his tongue. “You’re me you know… Or rather you will be, in the future. Full of regret, you will feel like your feathers have burned off. But, that’s if you stay here.”

He thought about the old man’s words for a long time—he pretended to clean the surface of his phone—until he could see the landmarks that told him that he was now in Ikoyi, his destination. As the bus rolled to a stop, he turned to the old man, who seemed fast asleep. “Maybe, maybe not… At present I’m happy and I always tell myself to live in the present.”

Enitan stepped off the bus seconds later and he couldn’t be sure but he thought he heard the old man laughing.

 

Ridwan Tijani was born in Nigeria and now he lives in Indianapolis, Indiana. His work has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue and Mulberry Fork Review. He is at work on a novel.

 

 

Small Packages

Paul hates talking on the phone so Connie’s the one who calls his daughter-in-law once a month to catch up. She doesn’t mind calling Vicky. She likes hearing about the grandkids growing up too fast in the new house in Simi Valley where they’ve never been invited. Emily’s ten and Noah is almost eight.

“He’s right here if you’d like to say hello.” Connie holds out the phone but when Paul shakes his head no she puts it back in her ear. “He says to give the kids a hug.”

“We’re taking the RV up to Santa Barbara this weekend for Noah’s soccer tournament,” Vicky says. “My parents are coming with us.”

“How nice,” Connie says. “Maybe we could meet up with you guys somewhere.”

“Sure,” Vicky says. “I’ll talk to Robert and let you know.”

Her voice carries through the receiver and Paul rolls his eyes, slides open the screen door to the balcony and goes outside. Connie can predict the future. They won’t hear back from Vicky or Robert and then they’ll see pictures of the other grandparents on Facebook.

When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence.

“I found a band for Paul’s birthday,” she tells Vicky. His sixtieth is coming up and she’s talked him into a party at the Elks Lodge. She’s hired a taco truck and Trina, her best friend from work, is baking a cake. “They sound exactly like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”

“Paul’s going to love that,” Vicky says. “Robert too.”

Tom Petty is one thing Paul and Robert have in common. When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence. Men can be like that, Connie supposes. Maybe there’s nothing really wrong. Maybe whatever it is will work itself out.

She watches the sun sink through the black web of electrical wires and palm fronds behind their apartment building and smells garlic from their neighbors cooking dinner downstairs and the sticky-sweet scent of the joint Paul has just lit out on the patio. She wishes he’d quit. He’s already a quiet man and getting stoned doesn’t help his conversational skills.

They haven’t been married long, thirty-four months next week. She believes in celebrating every milestone and she’s got Paul in the habit too. He’ll stop by the Mini-Mart to buy her flowers and a card. She’ll pick up something special to eat on her way home from the nursing home where she works. She’s never been much of a cook, not like Paul’s first wife, Sheila.

Connie was married before too, a long time ago. Her first husband died young, in the accident she tries to forget but can’t help remembering every time she looks at herself in the mirror. She’ll be fifty-eight next year and almost made peace with her face and the fact that she never had children. When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

“They coming to the party?” Paul asks when Connie joins him on the patio.

“I think so.” The sun disappears behind the San Gabriel Mountains. She imagines a photograph of the grandkids with Paul, something she can frame and put on top of the dresser in their bedroom. Someone else could take the picture so she can be in it too, as long as she’s in the back and slightly out of focus.

*     *     *

The night of Paul’s party is warm for October and the air-conditioning at the Elks Lodge takes a while to cool the room down. The guests eat tacos out in the courtyard. Robert and Vicky and the grandkids are the last to arrive. Robert shakes Paul’s hand and glances over at a table piled with gift bags and cards. “I have something for you I didn’t want to bring,” he says. “I’ll get it to you soon.”

When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

 Robert and Vicky go inside with the grandkids and sit down at an empty table near the stage. Connie wonders why they don’t mingle. It’s hard to believe they’re shy. Vicky sells real estate; surely she’s good at conversation. Robert’s an investment broker, he makes his living convincing clients he knows what he’s talking about. They’re a little overdressed for this crowd. Robert wears a silk shirt and Vicky has on a linen sheath and three strings of pearls. Connie means to go talk to them but Trina needs plates for her cake and someone else wants to know where the bathroom is. She looks around for Paul later, planning to get a picture of him with the grandkids but the lead singer from the band asks her to unlock the door behind the stage so they can bring in their equipment.

One of Paul’s cousins is sitting with Vicky when Connie returns with the key. They have empty wine glasses in front of them and don’t notice Connie heading behind the stage towards the back door. Robert’s turned away to talk to the cousin’s husband and Emily and Noah stare down at their phones.

“Connie’s eyes make me nervous,” Vicky tells the cousin. “I can never tell if she’s looking at me or not.”

It’s not like Connie’s never heard this kind of thing before though it’s usually from strangers and not from family. She can’t remember the cousin’s name which is not like her at all. Remembering names is one of her strong points.

“Grandma Connie’s creepy-looking,” Noah says.

“She’s not our grandmother,” Emily says in her clear, young voice. “She’s only Grandpa’s wife.”

The door to a van slides open behind the building and someone knocks. Connie’s feet are blocks of cement in her uncomfortable heels.

“That’s enough,” Robert says. “Show some respect.”

“You don’t need to yell at them,” Vicky says.

Connie doesn’t realize she’s been holding her breath until she exhales and finds she can move her feet after all. She swings the door open and the band brings their equipment inside.

Later, when she cuts the cake, she makes sure Robert gets a corner piece. Vicky says she just wants a taste. Connie cuts a small slice and dumps it on a plate, frosting side down. Since no one is watching, she spits on her finger and cleans off the knife, flicking the cake debris to the side of the plate with her thumb. She sucks the frosting off her fingers. Her fingertips are slightly purple from the way the red and blue Happy Birthday Paul letters have bled into the white frosting.

“Vicky,” she says, holding out the plate. “Is this a small enough piece?”

*     *     *

“We never got a photo of us with the grandkids,” Connie says later as they lie in bed. “They left early.”

“I’m surprised they came,” Paul says. “It’s a long drive for them.”

“It’s your birthday. Of course they came.”

“I could have been a better father.”

Paul’s said this before. “You’re a different man now.”

“I worked all the overtime I could get and sat on a bar stool every night until closing time. Robert’s lucky Sheila had enough sense to divorce me.”

Connie finds the place under his arm where her head fits perfectly. “What do you think his gift is?”

“I don’t know.” He pulls her closer. “Something too big to fit in the car, maybe.”

“Something nice to look forward to.”

*     *     *

Paul’s back goes out the week after his party. He can barely sit much less drive and he has to lay off work for a while. He worries about the loss of his paycheck even though Connie tells him not to. She makes enough at the nursing home to cover the rent although there’s no health insurance or retirement plan.

A month goes by and Paul seems to have forgotten about Robert’s gift. Connie hasn’t. She decides to forgive what was said, putting the blame on too many glasses of wine, and calls Vicky to check in.

“When can we get together?” she asks.

Vicky itemizes their activities. Emily has cheer practice on Wednesday, guitar lessons on Friday. Noah plays soccer on Mondays and Thursdays and his games take up the entire weekend.

“It’s a lot,” Vicky says. “I worry sometimes it’s too much for them.”

“Kids need time to be kids, I guess.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Vicky’s voice sharpens. “Let them stay home alone and play video games? I’m closing on three houses right now, and Robert’s under a lot of pressure at work.”

“Maybe you could take some time off.”

“My job’s not the problem. You don’t understand. You’ve never had to juggle kids and a career.”

“You’re right,” Connie says. “I’d like to understand.”

“I love my job. And the kids are fine. I’m just tired. I’m sorry. I should let you go.”

“Robert mentioned he had something special for Paul,” she says and waits.

“I’m not sure we’ll be down there anytime soon,” Vicky says after a moment. “Maybe you could pick it up next time you’re in the area.”

As if they’d ever be in the area. It’ll take hours for them to drive back and forth to the Simi Valley from Santa Ana. Even though Vicky’s probably hoping she’ll drop the subject, Connie can be persistent when she needs to be. She’s simply holding Robert to his promise.

“What would be a good day for you?”

“I’ll need to check my calendar.”

“I can wait. How about next Tuesday? Didn’t you say Tuesdays are good for you?”

“Did I?” Vicky’s annoyed. “We don’t get home until after five-thirty.”

“We’ll see you then.” Connie hangs up before Vicky can say another word.

“They want us to come up there,” she tells Paul later when they set up the folding tables in front of the television.

“You mean to their house?”

“Tuesday night,” she says, putting down plates of microwaved macaroni and cheese. “They get home from work around five-thirty.”

“You know how much traffic there’ll be at five-thirty?”

“I don’t mind driving.”

I mind. Robert promised he’d bring the gift to me.”

“They’re busy. It’ll be nice to spend time with the grandkids. See the new house.”

They eat and watch television for a while without speaking. “Maybe we could sleep in their RV,” Paul says during a commercial.

She knows he’s kidding. “Let’s splurge and get a motel. We can always cancel it at the last minute if we need to.”

*     *     *

Every time Connie has to pass a truck Tuesday afternoon, she murmurs part of the rosary and grips the steering wheel, feeling her shoulders hunch tight towards her ear lobes. Twice she has to get off the freeway because the lane ends and she can’t get over. Paul puts “Free Falling” by Tom Petty on the CD player. She asks if he wouldn’t mind turning it down. She needs to concentrate.

They still arrive at Robert’s house too early. It’s a huge place, three-car garage, basketball court on the side. A dog barks behind the cinderblock wall. No one is home. They get out of the car and walk around, stretch their legs. It’s hot. Robert and Vicky finally get home around six o’clock, kids in the back seat. Vicky and Robert go upstairs. Paul and Connie sit on the couch and watch the grandchildren watch television.

“How’s school?” Paul asks Emily.

She shrugs and stares at the television like she’s hypnotized. Connie sees Noah take secretive glances at her face.

“I was in an accident a long time ago,” she says.

“I know,” he says.

“It doesn’t hurt or anything. It’s just a scar.”

“Oh,” he says, staring at her openly now. “I scored a goal last week.”

“How about if we come see you play sometime?” Paul asks.

“That’d be okay.” Noah grins. He’s missing a front tooth.

Paul squeezes her hand.

Robert comes downstairs and says he’s taking them all out to dinner. Vicky’s right behind him in a cloud of perfume and an angry expression. Connie and Paul follow them in their car to a Mexican place. The food’s all right but the kids are antsy and Vicky’s not in a good mood. “It’s hard for us on a school night,” she says. “The kids still have homework.”

Paul limps as they walk back to the car after dinner. “My back’s killing me.”

She almost suggests they go straight to the motel so he can smoke and she can take a hot shower. “We won’t stay long,” she says instead and they follow Robert’s car back to the house.

Vicky takes the kids upstairs and Robert brings out a small gift bag. “Here you go, Pops. A little something I thought you’d like.”

“Good things come in small packages,” Paul says.

He tries to take his time unwrapping whatever it is even though there isn’t much tissue paper in the bag and there isn’t a birthday card either. Connie can see right away it’s a Laker’s cap, a give-away item. She’s seen the photos on Facebook of Robert, Vicky, Emily, and Noah sitting courtside wearing the same exact hat and matching team jerseys.

“Thanks, son. This is nice.”

Connie clears her throat. Robert gives her a quick glance and she realizes she’s glaring at him. At least he has enough sense to look embarrassed.

“I guess we’ll take off,” Paul says.

Robert follows them out. “Emily and I are going to see Tom Petty at the Forum next week.”

“You and Emily,” Paul says.

“Yeah, since she started playing guitar she loves the Heartbreakers.”

“The Forum,” Paul says.

“Orchestra seats. I can’t wait.”

Connie gets in the car.

“I imagine you’ll see your mother for Thanksgiving?”

“We’ll go to Santa Ana for lunch with her,” Robert says. “Then Laguna for dinner with Vicky’s parents. Our holiday tradition. Drive all over Southern California and eat too much. Maybe we could get together with you guys on the weekend.”

“I’d like that,” Paul says.

“I’ll talk to Vicky. We’ll let you know.”

Paul says goodnight and angles himself in the passenger seat. Connie starts the ignition and Tom Petty sings on the car stereo, “I Won’t Back Down.”

“His first solo album,” Paul says as she pulls away.

“I know,” Connie says. “You’ve told me before.”

*     *     *

While Paul smokes in the motel parking lot, Connie cries in the shower and dries herself off with a thin towel. Even though she can’t see her face in the fogged mirror she knows her left eye is weeping. The doctors say the right tear ducts might unclog someday and if they don’t it’s nothing to worry about.

Trina claims happy tears come from one eye and sad tears from the other. It’s something her grandmother told her although Trina can never remember which eye is which. Tears are tears, Connie thinks. She’s pretended she’s not sad for so long she’s not sure she’d know the difference.

*     *     *

The only tickets Paul can get last minute are nosebleed seats. It costs twenty dollars to park in the Forum lot and the T-shirts are thirty-five each. Paul says he doesn’t like the designs and doesn’t want one. At least his back’s a little better, Connie thinks, as they climb the stairs up to the last row of the Forum. The opening act is Steve Winwood. The sound’s a little distorted up so high but they can almost see the big video screen. When Winwood finishes, most of the people in the seats around them head down the stairs.

“You want something to drink?” Paul asks. “I’m buying.”

She imagines him negotiating the stairs down and back up again. “I’ll have to pee. I don’t want to miss anything.”

They watch the crowd and wait for Tom Petty. A young couple standing at the bottom of their section seems to be staring at them. Connie automatically puts a hand across her face. The boy has a crew-cut and wears thick glasses and the girl has pink highlights in her hair. Connie wonders what it would be like to be so young and stylish with money and energy to spare. The girl runs up the stairs, two at a time, in heels no less, straight towards her and Paul, the boy right behind her.

“We’re looking for the people with the worst seats in the building,” the girl says.

“That would be us,” Connie says. She can feel the shock on Paul’s face. She doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but their seats are terrible.

“Here you go.” The boy hands Paul two tickets. “They’re down in the pit.”

“No thanks,” Paul says.

Connie elbows him. “How much do you want for them?”

“Nothing,” the girl says. “They’re free. We’re going to Winwood’s party. We wanted to give our seats to someone who’ll appreciate them.”

“We’re fine where we are,” Paul says.

Connie stands and hugs the girl thanks.

“It’s probably a scam,” Paul says when the couple is gone. Connie takes the tickets from Paul’s hands and heads down the stairs towards an usher. “Go down and keep going,” he says. They take two flights of stairs and then three more and finally they are on flat ground. Another usher motions them forward and points towards a group of folding chairs set up in front of the stage. The lights go down and the Heartbreakers walk out.

Connie’s never thought Tom Petty’s voice was particularly good, but tonight he sounds wonderful. The lyrics are crystal clear, the guitars ring, the keyboard slinks through the mix; the drummer brings everyone to standing. A woman next to Paul lights a joint and passes it to him. He takes a deep drag and Connie tries not to breathe in. She already feels lightheaded. She takes a picture of Paul with the band in the background. Someone taps her shoulder and she sees panic register on Paul’s face. When she turns around, it’s a large man, motioning for them to stand closer together.

“Let me get the two of you,” he says.

Afterward, they walk circles around the Forum trying to find their car.

“This building looks exactly the same on all sides,” Paul says.

“It’s round.” Connie laughs. “You’re stoned.” Her feet hurt from dancing. “Stop for a minute.” She adjusts the toe of her sock and pulls out her phone, brings up the picture of the two of them with Tom Petty in the background.

“That’s good,” he says.

“I’m posting it.”

“It’ll seem like we’re showing off.”

“Too late,” she says. “It’s done.”

*     *     *

Paul’s phone rings the next morning. “Hey, Robert,” he says and puts the phone on speaker, lays it down on the kitchen table between their bowls of oatmeal.

Connie can’t remember the last time Robert’s actually called Paul instead of texting or messaging or having Vicky call her.

“I’m impressed,” Robert says through the speaker phone. “You were down in the pit?”

“Someone felt sorry for us,” Paul says. “Great show, right?”

“We left early. This asshole kept smoking pot right next to Emily. How’d you get those seats?”

“We were up in the rafters and this couple picked us out of the crowd.”

“If I’d known you had those kinds of connections, I would have asked you to get me tickets.”

“We got lucky for once.” Paul clenches and unclenches his fist. “Is it so hard to believe your old man might have a bit of luck once in a while?”

Connie touches his arm.

“What are you pissed off about?” Robert asks.

“You could have invited me to go with you and Emily. You know how I feel about the Heartbreakers. It was my sixtieth birthday. Kind of a big deal.”

Robert’s voice bristles through the speaker. “We came to your party. We gave you a gift.”

“You did. A hat.”

Connie sucks in her breath. Paul’s never sarcastic and immediately he backs off.

“A nice hat. Did you think any more about Thanksgiving weekend?”

“Turns out Vicky has to work on Friday. And Saturday we’re heading up to Pismo with a bunch of friends. Taking the sand toys. We’re giving Noah Emily’s ATV and buying her a new one. It’s going to be a blast.”

Connie shoves away from the table. The chair legs scrape the floor. She lets her bowl and spoon clatter down in the sink and turns on the kitchen faucet full blast.

“Maybe Christmas then,” Paul says.

“I’ll let you know.”

Paul hangs up. “That right there is an example of why I don’t like to talk on the phone.”

Connie takes a few deep breaths until she feels calm again. “I don’t know about getting together with them for Christmas. It’s our anniversary.”

“Three years,” he says, and manages a smile.

He’s a good man with a big heart she might not deserve. “I was thinking of buying a pie from Marie Callendar’s. They usually have them on sale around Christmas.”

“Cherry,” he says.

“I know, it’s your favorite.”

*     *     *

On Christmas Eve, Connie waits in line at Marie Callendar’s and tries to decide if she should buy one pie or two. She couldn’t talk herself into calling Vicky this month, so she’s not sure what their plans are. If she and Paul end up going to Robert’s house, they’ll need to bring something. She thinks about how much money there is in her purse and when it’s finally her turn at the cash register she says, “One cherry pie, please.”

“There are some almost ready to come out of the oven,” the clerk says. “I’ll be right back.”

“Why don’t they have more people working the register?” a familiar voice says behind her. “It’s Christmas Eve, for God’s sake.”

Connie glances over her shoulder. Paul’s first wife Sheila is in line a few customers back. Although Santa Ana is not a small town she can’t help running into Sheila once in a while. When the clerk comes back with her pie Connie hands him a ten-dollar bill and waits for her change, then turns towards the door. Sheila’s impossible to avoid. She’s gained a lot of weight since the last time Connie saw her picture on Facebook. She’s no longer plump; she’s fat.

Good, Connie thinks and feels momentarily guilty about being so mean-spirited until she notices the smirk on Sheila’s face as she sizes up Connie’s old Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings, the same ones she wears every year.

“This line is ridiculous,” Sheila says. “I still need to go to the market. I’m making tamales tonight with the grandkids.”

“They’re spending Christmas with you.”

“Christmas Eve anyway. Vicky will insist on leaving first thing in the morning to go to her parent’s house. At least I get to do Santa Claus this year.”

“Well,” Connie says, attempting a smile that feels more like a grimace. “Enjoy it. I’d better get back to work.”

“I thought you’d retired already.”

“Not yet. I like my job.”

Sheila smirks again. Connie wants to take the pie out of the box, smash it in Sheila’s face and watch the red cherry juice run down her cheeks and collect in the folds of her triple chins. Instead, she blurts out a quick, “Merry Christmas,” and flees towards the door. She places the pie box carefully on the floor of the passenger side. Her hands shake a little, so she decides to sit there for a minute and calm down. She won’t mention seeing Sheila to Paul. It will only upset him.

It takes all the strength she has not to run into Target and buy him something special. A complete set of those “Die Hard” movies he likes so much. New speakers for their CD player or even a few packages of socks and underwear. They’ve agreed not to exchange gifts this year but she’d do anything to fill up the big gaping hole Sheila has ripped through her holiday spirit.

*     *     *

When she gets home from work and plugs in the tree it doesn’t cheer her up like it usually does. It needs presents. She finds some Christmas paper in the hall closet and wraps up some old games for the grandkids. She doesn’t have any ribbon though and the gifts look like orphans underneath the tree so she puts them on the top shelf of the closet. The kitchen table is too fussy, she decides, with the six Santa Claus placements and the evergreen candle in the center. She takes four of the placements off the table and stuffs them in the closet on top of the gifts.

When the phone rings, Connie barely recognizes Trina’s voice. “I hate to ask,” Trina says after she finishes a coughing attack, “but could you work for me tomorrow? I’m running a fever and I can’t keep anything down. I know it’s your anniversary.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Connie says. She can use the extra money. She’ll ask Paul to come with her. They’ll make a day of it.

*     *     *

On Christmas morning they eat cherry pie for breakfast before they leave for the nursing home. Paul wears a Santa Claus hat and she puts on the Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings. Someone brings in a spiral-cut ham and there’s red and green Jell-O salad and too many store-bought cakes.

Paul plays card games and helps the residents with jigsaw puzzles. He sees her watching him and smiles from across the room. Someone’s grandson picks out Christmas carols on the piano and she hears Paul’s tenor singing harmony.

They’re both tired when they get home and find a box propped up next to their front door. Paul brings it inside.

“It’s from Robert and Vicky,” he says. “The kids even signed the card.”

There’s no good reason to feel guilty. “Too bad we missed them,” she says.

“They could have let us know they were coming.” It takes him a minute to loosen the ribbon and open the box. He unfolds a black leather jacket, holds it out in front of him and turns it around so she can see the embroidery. The Heartbreakers logo, a red heart pierced with a Gibson Flying V Guitar.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says, trying it on.

It’s a little too big for him. It’s more Robert’s size. “I’m sorry I made you go to work with me today.”

“Are you kidding? I had a blast. It was a great way to spend Christmas. And our anniversary.”

“You could have stayed home and been with your family.”

“I was with my family.” He crosses the room and wraps his arms around her. “They should have brought something for you.”

“I don’t need anything.” She buries her face in the soft leather, feeling the tears start. “You should call and thank him,” she says, hoping the jacket muffles the choke in her voice.

“I’m busy right now,” he says, kissing the top of her head, holding her tight against him. She wants to stay there forever but she needs to blow her nose and wipe her eyes so she won’t ruin the jacket.

“How about a piece of pie?” she asks, pulling away and trying to turn her head so he won’t see the tears.

“Are you crying?” He holds her face gently with both hands, his brown eyes worried. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m fine,” she says. She goes in the bathroom to blow her nose. She’s at the point now where she can inspect the scar on her face and not flinch. She never was a beauty, not even before the accident. Something about her reflection tonight though is different. The scar seems diminished in comparison to the crow’s feet stamped around her uneven eyes. She’s older, of course, and she’s tired. She looks her age. She wipes her nose again and sees what’s changed. She’s crying out of her right eye.

“You sure you’re okay?” Paul calls out from the living room.

“I will be.” She smiles at herself in the mirror and turns off the light. “How about some ice cream with the pie?”

“Sounds good,” he says.

He opens the patio door and lets in the noise from the freeway. A steady stream of cars heads home from family parties, trunks full of presents, kids asleep in the backseat, parents looking forward to taking them up to the snow tomorrow or what about Disneyland? What about New Years? Super Bowl’s coming up, then Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s and Easter and suddenly it’ll be summer and the grandkids will be another year older.

She’ll call Vicky in the morning. She’ll ask about their Christmas and thank her for Paul’s jacket. She’ll suggest they meet somewhere special for lunch next week, their treat. Some place convenient, just off the freeway, halfway in between.

Mary CamarilloMary Camarillo’s fiction has appeared in Extracts: A Daily Dose of Lit and The Ear. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband and their terrorist cat. She is a recovering CPA and a lifelong music lover, frequently found stalking Los Lobos across the country.

The Grey-Haired Man

The grey-haired man was back again today. He sat there for a few minutes, which isn’t very long for him. Then he looked out across the street and started the engine.

He always pulls out carefully though there’s hardly any traffic. People don’t drive down our road because it doesn’t lead anywhere. If you came here, you’d probably be visiting someone who lived in one of the long row of identical houses. The houses were built on only one side of the street so each house gets a nice view of the field on the other side.

The other people who come here are dog lovers. They park near the gate to the field. It’s an exciting moment when the boot opens and the dog jumps out. Mum and I used to try to guess what sort of dog it would be just from looking at the car. In general, the smaller the car, the smaller the dog. But oddly, people with small dogs tend to have two or three. So their total dog volume is about the same. We called the game “What Dog?” Mum would have been sad if I had lost, so I tried to win to make her happy. But it always seemed to turn out a draw. We would watch together as the owners walked politely around the edge of the field while the dogs ran across the middle and went to the toilet on the crops.

*     *     *

He doesn’t do anything. He just sits very quietly with his big driving-gloved hands resting on the steering wheel. He’s not really looking at anything and not making any noise. In fact, that’s the most striking thing about him. Even in a quiet street like ours, he is the quietest thing.

When a car engine stops it’s not usually the last sound you hear. Usually, there’s a car door closing at least and possibly voices, then a garden gate or a front door banging shut. But when the grey-haired man pulls up and stops his engine, that’s all he does. And the bits of your brain that connect to your ears are waiting for something else.

Then he sits there. How long he sits there can vary, sometimes it’s a couple of hours. But what he does is always the same. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t fidget or look bored. He doesn’t pick at things with his fingers or stroke the wood on the dashboard. He doesn’t look round if a door slams or another car parks close up behind him.

*     *     *

Mum spent the morning tidying my room. It isn’t untidy. It’s very neat these days, Mum has tidied it several times already.

She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away.

My room is at the back of the house. It’s the best room because it has a multi-coloured light shade. It looks quite small but it has cupboards built into the wall along two sides. If you took them out it would actually be quite a big room. The cupboards are very useful for putting things in when they have been on the floor too long. They are also good for security, for storing things that you don’t want other people to see. The top cupboard is best for this. All my personal projects are stored up there. It’s not very convenient but at least other people can’t steal your ideas. I kept other things up there too. I kept my fossils and my Doctor Who swap cards. I collected sixty-two Doctor Who cards and kept them in good condition. I made some good swaps, there are a few valuable cards in there. If anyone ever gave me money for birthdays or Christmas I always spent it on swap cards.

The walls in my room are plain blue. We painted it with a roller because this gives the best finish. I did have a poster of the TARDIS and a map of the ancient world. The map, which was still quite large even though it was on a scale 1: 40 000 000, peeled off the wall in the night. It left a terrible mark.

The drawers are built-in too. There are two large drawers underneath my sporting equipment shelf: the shirts and T-shirts drawer and the jumper drawer. That’s what Mum was tidying. She took everything out of my shirts and T-shirts drawer and unfolded them all, one by one. She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away. She looked through some of my other clothes that were hanging up in the wardrobe. She especially looked at my big jeans that Nanny brought me back from her holiday in America. They had buttons on the fly. They were for growing into.

*     *     *

He never comes in the evening when Dad’s at home. He usually comes at lunchtime and he can stay until about three o’clock when the kids get out of school. Not that there are any kids on our street, which is a shame. It’s mostly old people, Mum and Dad are probably the youngest people living here now.

Having said that he doesn’t ever do anything, he did something. He moved. That was all, it was just a movement. But he is usually so still. It had been a cold, boring day, not windy or rainy. The sun was white and fierce, poking out of the sky. It must have been coming at him through the front windscreen. He reached up and pulled at the visor. Then he watched his gloves as they came down again in front of his face.

He has bright cheeks, as though he’s been burnt by the wind. They hang off his face covered in a dry pink crust. Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

When his gloves fell back to the wheel he stared at them. Then he pulled them off and looked at his bare hands.

*     *     *

Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

Mum was doing some cooking. The main difference between when Mum cooks and when Dad cooks is that Mum never uses a book. Whereas, Dad is constantly checking the instructions. There are other differences too. Dad needs to have a drink when he cooks and he needs music on and no one to come in and ask him questions. You can’t ask him questions about anything, not even about what he’s doing. Especially not about what he’s doing. Mum would let me join in. I had special jobs and she would call me in to help her. The thing I was best at was tossing the salad. Even Dad said he could really taste the difference when I’d tossed the salad.

Dad came in and saw Mum cooking. He looked relieved to see her bustling to and fro in the kitchen, throwing things in a bowl. She never weighs anything out. She always guesses but she guesses exactly right. And if she guesses wrong it just makes it taste different but better. Then she tries to remember what she did wrong so she can do it on purpose next time. Unlike Dad’s experiments which have to be thrown away.

Dad gave her a little kiss on the cheek and then he left her to it. Recently, most of their meals have been from the freezer. Nanny cooks lots of the same meals and brings them round in plastic containers. She says they have to eat.

Dad smiled at Mum’s back as she was cooking. His smile faded when he saw what she had cooked. She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

That was one of my other jobs, laying the table. I always made sure everything was lined up very neatly at exactly ninety degrees. That’s what Mum did. She made right angles with the spoon just touching the top of the knife and fork so the food couldn’t escape before it was eaten. Then she served it up, fish fingers with fried potatoes and peas. Nice little garden peas like green sweets and a piece of buttered bread so you could make a fish finger sandwich. In the oven she had hidden a syrup pudding. It was waiting there for the ice cream. Most people assume boys like custard best but that’s not the case. Mum always gave me ice cream. It’s quite like custard but it’s really helpful if the syrup is too hot.

“I made all his favourites,” Mum said and smiled down at her plate.

“I can see that,” said Dad.

*     *     *

He has had to change his parking spot because Mum saw him. She was walking to the post box. She usually walks the other way, to the shop across the main road.

I liked going to the shop with Mum. I wasn’t ever supposed to go there on my own. She would give me coins so that I could buy swap cards. Going to the shop always put Mum in a good mood too. She would buy a chocolate bar and we’d break up all the squares and share it fifty-fifty. She told me not to tell Dad and although I never did, Dad had a way of finding the empty wrappers and getting to the truth.

Mum had a letter to post. She was feeling for the letter in her bag as she walked along and eventually she had to stop walking and look for it properly. She stopped right in front of his car. As she pulled the letter out, she saw him. He was watching through the windscreen. He was wearing his thick black coat with white flecks on the shoulder. Mum turned around and walked quickly back to the house with the letter still in her hand. He could have jumped out of the car and run after her down the street. He could have caught up with her before she reached the house. Later, when Dad got home, Mum didn’t tell him that she’d seen anyone.

*     *     *

Mum seems to have got worse since then. She spends a lot of time in the bath. Last Monday she stayed in the bath all afternoon. She was still there when Dad got home from work. Dad went into the kitchen and clattered the breakfast dishes into the sink. He switched on the radio and turned the volume up loud. Then he switched it off again. Then he ran upstairs and leaned his forehead against the bathroom door.

“You can’t carry on like this.”

But she just stayed there, she wouldn’t get out.

She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

Then Dad looked really tired. He went downstairs again and stood in the middle of the lounge with his hands in his pockets. He walked over to the window and looked out at the field. There was the outline of a man and his dog balancing on the path that led across the top of the hill. They didn’t seem to be moving. Dad scratched the stubble on his cheek and looked to see if there was anyone else out there but there wasn’t.

He walked over to the telephone and dialed Nanny’s number. Dad left a message on her answer machine. It took him a while to get going after the beep sounded, so when he did start talking there wasn’t much time.

“Hi, it’s Stewart. It’s us. It’s difficult. Could you come round?”

Mum stood behind him in her towel. “What did you have to call her for? She’s upset enough as it is.”

“Well, I had to do something. Things are getting worse.”

“How could things get any worse?” Mum asked. Dad didn’t know the answer to that.

*     *     *

He’s been here every day for the last couple of weeks. He just sits very quietly. He never brings a book but recently he has the car radio on sometimes. He listens to the type of music that doesn’t have any singing, just lots of violins. It’s a very gentle noise. It’s good music for sitting quietly and it means he’s not completely on his own. He has a noise with him. The music can grow though. At times it gets bigger and bigger and pounds on the car doors.

I like him. It surprised me when I realised it. But I do quite like him. He’s got a kind, saggy face and he moves slowly. I wonder if he’s got a wife, like Mum but a bit older probably and not as pretty. She must wonder where he is all the time when he’s sitting parked up in our road with his driving gloves on. She is probably thinking he should be at home helping her around the house.

*     *     *

Nanny came round, it was raining and she’d had to walk from the bus stop. She gave Mum a special long hug and her umbrella dripped onto Mum’s trouser leg making a damp patch. Dad was still holding onto the latch and hovering in front of the door, as though Nanny might turn around and try to leave. When Nanny let go Mum was still leaning in to her like she couldn’t stand herself up again. Dad was looking at Nanny, straight at her without looking away or blinking. Nanny looked about in a general way and then said.

“Hello, dear. How are you?” She kissed him nicely on the cheek.

“We’re managing,” said Dad and he found the confidence to let go of the front door.

“You might be,” said Mum.

“Would you like a cup of tea, love?” said Dad. The question seemed too simple and that made it difficult to answer.

“I think we should have some tea,” Nanny said, to help her.

Dad went into the kitchen. He lined three mugs up in a row. He made normal tea for himself and Nanny, fruit tea for Mum. It made the kitchen smell of jam. Dad put the kettle down but he didn’t let go of it.

While he was gone Nanny and Mum waited for the tea to come. They didn’t say anything. They could talk about the tea when it arrived.

Dad put two mugs down on the table and went back to the kitchen. Nanny looked up and watched him go. Then she asked quietly, “Why don’t you come and stay with me for a bit, dear?” But he heard her from the doorway and turned round.

“Why don’t you, love?” Mum looked at him as though he had offended her.

“Right, I’ll go and pack my stuff then.” She went upstairs without her tea. Dad stroked his finger round the top of Mum’s mug. He seemed to know not to look straight at Nanny now.

*     *     *

So, Mum went to stay with Nanny for a few days. She took her to the seaside and on a shopping trip but Mum didn’t buy anything. I wish Mum had stayed there longer. Nanny is good at looking after her, much better than Dad. Even when he is trying really hard to be nice he sounds a little bit like he is telling her off.  Nanny strokes Mum’s hair as though she was a little girl.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

Since she got back from Nanny’s she has barely stepped outside the house. She used to love little walks, even just around the block. The leaves are on the floor and there’s conkers now. Mum is good at conkers.

She always noticed things when we went for walks. “Look at that silly duck!” I tried to point out funny things too. We did it to make each other smile. Dad didn’t point things out so much. He would just grab me and hold me upside down. I quite liked it but I couldn’t do it back to him.

Mum spends her days inside the house, sorting through drawers, especially photographs. She endlessly rearranges the photographs. She writes long descriptions on the back. Where we were, how we got there, who was with us, how long we stayed, where we ate our lunch. Everything she can remember. She files them in date order.

It’s getting to the point that there aren’t many left to organize. She’s slowing down, taking longer over every detail. Added to which, she’s losing concentration. She’s getting distracted. She lays the photos out on the bed and then just sits next to them and gazes out of the window. She watches the local cats patrolling. She watches the postman’s legs marching along driveways. She looks out over the field on the other side of the road and watches the farmer shuttling up and down.

*     *     *

Mum was watching yesterday. She had seen him long before he rang the bell. Perhaps she recognized his car as it parked up right outside. He didn’t get out straight away. He sat in his car looking over at the house. It took quite a long time for him to finish doing that. He ran his hand over his hair.

His hair is definitely grey but only overall. On average his hair is grey. If you looked at the individual hairs they are actually lots of different colours. Some are still thick, coarse and black. While others are fine white hairs that look like they would fall off in your hand if you touched them. It is cut very short so you can see the fold of flesh at the back of his skull where it settles onto his neck.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

When she saw him from the upstairs window she sat back on the bed. She didn’t go running downstairs but when the doorbell eventually rang Mum was standing behind the door. She clicked the latch on the mortice lock and held her breath. The grey-haired man was moving on the other side. She edged away from the door. As she slid across the mirror in the hall she watched herself, creeping backwards. She stopped and looked for a moment. He rang the doorbell a little bit so it didn’t make too much noise, as if trying not to wake a baby. But there was no baby.

She didn’t look like she was going to move.  She looked like she was going to do “pretending not to be in.” But there are criteria that must be met for that. For instance, you mustn’t have the telly on and you should turn the light off in the hall. It’s best if you haven’t left a bike on the front lawn.

Today, Mum was meeting all the criteria. She could have stayed on the bed or even crouched down on the other side by the wardrobe, just to make sure. That is a very secret spot. I used to jump out at Dad from that spot and he was always really surprised. Once I did it and he nearly died of a heart attack.

But she gave up really quickly. He only rang the bell that once and then just stayed in the porch. He didn’t look irritated and keep pressing the bell like Mum did when we went to visit people who weren’t home. Looking back, they could have just been pretending too. They could all have been in the upstairs bedroom lying behind the bed with the telly off. Mum might have realised this, which would explain why she got so irritated.

Then she cleared her throat, so they would both know that she was home. He moved his shoes around. Mum unlocked the door and opened it. He lifted up his hand to show her that he was holding a box of chocolates and then he lifted up the other hand which held a bunch of big white flowers.

Mum looked beautiful, standing there with the sun coming through the coloured glass chimes and twinkling onto her face. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. The grey-haired man dropped his hands, so the flowers were all hanging upside down.

“Do you want to come in?” Mum asked, without making any room in the doorway.

“Thank you,” he said. Then they stood there in silence and it was a very silent silence. Mum pushed the door closed a little.

“Please…take these,” he said, waving the flowers about a bit. Mum put out a hand and took them. She didn’t say thank you or give him a smile. She closed the door and the grey-haired man stood in the porch. He was still holding the chocolates. He walked back to his car as though his legs were tired.

At teatime, Mum told Dad about it. “He was here.”

“Oh Christ,” said Dad.

“He brought flowers.”

“Flowers? Jesus, can’t he see how creepy that is?  He’s unhinged.”

“He’s just sad.”

*     *     *

The grey-haired man did look sad, leaning forwards, his head resting in his hands. That’s what he was doing that day when Mum first saw him. He was sitting on the side of the big main road just past the shop. A policeman was talking to him. He had his head in his hands. His legs were shaking. His car was parked on the verge and he was sitting beside it.

He was especially quiet today. He really didn’t stay long, just a few minutes. A gull was barking at him from a gate post. After he’d started the engine he looked over at the field. Then he checked the mirrors and tugged his big car awkwardly away.


Alison GibbAlison Gibb lives in Brighton, England with her husband and two young sons. She has previously lived and worked in London and New Zealand. She is a Doctor specialising in the care of vulnerable and homeless patients. She completed an MA in Creative Writing and Authorship at Sussex University.

The Do-Over

When the ruddy-faced doctor at the Joshua Tree Medical Clinic announced, “It’s back,” Vera nodded, picked up her old purse from the floor and tucked it under her arm. She was still nodding when the pleasant red-headed receptionist called out, “Have a nice day,” as she exited through the sliding glass doors of the clinic. The dry heat hit her like an oven. Nice day, unlikely.

The air conditioner in the Buick spewed a lukewarm stream. On either side of the two-lane highway that beautiful shimmering floor of ancient trees beckoned to an ancient sea. On certain mornings, Vera swore she smelled its salty breeze. She longed to plunge into a water so cold it could erase everything. A semi behind lay on its horn and she turned in the direction of the green blinker on the dashboard. In the shade of the K-Liquor Mart sign, Vera shut off the engine. She took a deep breath. Frank hadn’t yet spotted her through the store window. She gripped the wheel, watching her knuckles turn white.

There was the issue of Rain.

*     *     *

Six weeks ago, her daughter Stevie the-queen-of-heartaches had showed up unannounced with a surprise at their new motor home. “Her name is Rain,” Stevie informed them, dropping a sleeping child into Frank’s recliner.

“Why not Thunder or Lightning?” Frank asked under his breath.

They’d been in a middle of a game of Scrabble and Frank hated to be interrupted when it was his turn.

“I just need you to watch her,” Stevie snapped. The circles under her blue eyes were darker than Vera remembered from the last time.

“Vera, did we put a babysitting ad on craigslist?” Frank asked.

“She’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Stevie challenged.

“That wasn’t my first thought,” Frank replied. “But it was in the top five.”

Three in the afternoon on a Thursday, a year since any communication and already they were at it. Vera laid a hand on her husband’s broad shoulder. It wasn’t Frank’s fault that he’d inherited Stevie at sixteen when it was too late to change things.

Stevie skulked to the fridge, opened the door and peered inside. “She’s three, no wait, four, I think. She likes oranges, Cheerios, bacon, not bananas.” She pulled out a Coke and opened the can. “Oh, and be careful, she’s got this weird thing for cotton balls. Really packs them in.”

“I hardly ever serve cotton balls anymore,” Vera joked, but nobody laughed.

Stevie took a swig of Coke and scanned the room. “Not bad. Hey, where’s Bob?”

“Hit by a UPS truck,” Frank said.

“Jesus,” Stevie sighed. “I warned you.”

Frank grunted and slid his big frame out of the dining nook. “Good to see you, Stevie.” He walked to the door. “Call your mother more often.” It slammed hard behind him. They listened to his heavy boots descend the metal steps and walk the gravel path to the Mart.

“He never liked me,” Stevie said, sliding into Frank’s seat at the table.

“Bob loved everybody,” Vera replied, and her daughter laughed.

One day, the blind basset hound had pushed the unlocked mobile home door open with his nose and found his way down the stairs, around the store parking lot and onto the warmest patch of sunin the middle of the highway. Frank had buried Bob down deep where the coyotes couldn’t get to his body. Now dog food commercials left him as misty-eyed as Christmas movies on Hallmark.

Stevie moved the Scrabble tiles around, her stringy blond hair shadowing her face. “He has the Q and the Z, but no U.”

“It’s good to see you,” Vera said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Everything all right?”

Stevie shrugged, “Peachy.” She grabbed a handful of Frank’s jellybeans from the candy dish on the table. “I thought he had diabetes,” she said, spilling out the syllables one by one.

“I can scramble you an egg.”

Stevie returned her gaze to Frank’s Scrabble tiles. “I’m clean, mom.”

Vera listened to the wind pick up, scattering bits of leaves and trash across the yard, surprised to feel a spark of hope ignite. “That’s good,” saying the words easy and slow.

“He could spell qi,” Stevie said.

“Qi?”

“You can spell it c-h-i or with a q and an i,” Stevie said, moving Frank’s tiles around. “It means inner life force.

One day, the blind basset hound had pushed the unlocked mobile home door open with his nose and found his way down the stairs, around the store parking lot and onto the warmest patch of sunin the middle of the highway.

It’s Chinese. Every person is allotted a certain amount each lifetime. When it runs out, you’re out. But then you get a new life with more. I think I believe it.”

“Qi,” Vera repeated. In her religion, you only got one life and then it was up or down. “I like it. But, don’t tell Frank. I’m winning.”

Stevie pulled the curtain aside and peered out the window. A Camaro with darkened windows waited near the mailbox. Vera wondered if Frank had bothered to stop and inquire, probably not. A while back they’d agreed: they didn’t have any more money to spend on rehab or any inner spirit left to recover from heartache. Where Stevie was concerned, it was better for their marriage to assume that things wouldn’t get better. More than likely Frank was walking up and down the aisles inside the Mart getting rid of a slow burn.

“I could make you and your friend pasta for dinner?” Vera suggested.

“Jesus, stop,” Stevie said, sliding off the bench. “I gotta pee.” She disappeared down the short hall, sliding the bathroom door closed behind her.

Once, she’d been a pleasant person. Her name was Stephanie then. Stephanie was a bright, pretty kid who’d taken to water like a fish. “Stephanie has talent,” her junior high swim coach, Mr. Ambrosia, had told Vera. “UCLA, maybe even Texas A&M. Real potential.” And real curves and a sweet disposition.

After they won the lawsuit against the school district, Vera moved them to the desert. Yes, she’d been single and working two jobs, but she was the only line of defense against the ugly in the world. Why hadn’t she noticed sooner? They tried child therapists, family therapists, and various medications. Vera apologized until her face turned blue and capillaries broke in her eyes but no one could resuscitate the daughter. Frank appeared solid and steady, but Stevie wasn’t interested in a good male role model. She’d escaped into the wrong crowd with the right drugs. Would it be smack or meth or the needle? It was a marvel a heart still beat in her tortured body, that it would continue once Vera’s had silenced.

“Stevie, there’s something we need to talk about,” Vera started.

“Oh, hey, Mom, can you spot me some cash?  I lost my ATM card somewhere in Colorado. It’s a fucking mess. You won’t believe this. I went to the bank, but they needed my driver’s license. It’s expired, whatever, I don’t carry it on me. I can’t drive. They made me call an eight-hundred number and some woman with a seriously heavy accent said the bank could only mail a replacement card to my address on file. But I’m in-between places. Rick moved that bitch in, whatever, we have to be in LA tonight.”

And there it was. The longer the story, the bigger the lie. Vera reached for her wallet and pulled out forty dollars. Not enough to buy real trouble.

Stevie stuffed the twenties into the front pocket of her jeans. “Thanks.”

“How long do we have to watch Rain?” Vera asked, feeling the return of the hard edges.

“I gave her dad your number,” Stevie replied, draining the last of her soda and setting the can on the counter instead of putting it in the recycle bin.

“Good to know you still have it.”

“I’m sorry.” Stevie threw her bony arms around her mother’s neck, “I’m such an asshole.”

Vera took a deep hungry whiff, hint of beer and cigarettes, and yes, the faintest trace of sweetness. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. She tightened her jaw to stop the unconditional from rushing out and pried her daughter’s arms from her body. “Enough, Stevie. Enough.”

As the dark Camaro peeled out onto the highway, Stevie’s arm shot out the window in salute. Vera gave her the finger. To grieve the loss of the dead was too unbearable.

A while back they’d agreed: they didn’t have any more money to spend on rehab or any inner spirit left to recover from heartache.

A short time later, Frank returned with orange juice, milk, and Cheerios because he was a good and reliable person. The little girl devoured two bowls and fell back to sleep on the pullout sofa without a single question. Frank and Vera finished their game of Scrabble without a mention of the word qi, but Frank won anyway.

*     *     *

Now, six weeks later, everything had changed.

Frank caught Vera’s attention through the front window of the Mart. Quite a few customers were lined up at the cash register. She faked a smile and gave him the thumbs up.  He held both up at her. Her hand shook as she unzipped her purse, pulled out a gold tube, and carefully applied cherry red to her chapped lips before returning to work.

Later that night after a dinner of cold fried chicken and pork ‘n beans, Vera washed the dishes while Rain, emotional, recounted a children’s story about a lost kitten.

“It was white,” Rain repeated at Vera’s side. “But it had a black spot. And it was lost. In the big city.”

“Honey,” Vera assured her. “I read that book to Stephanie when she was little.  In the end, the mama kitty finds her kitten and they all live happily ever after.”

Rain wiped her nose with the back of her small arm. She stared at Vera with big saucer eyes. “Truth?” she asked. The kid was way too smart. She ran to Frank, sitting in his recliner watching a ball game. He pulled her up onto his big lap. “I don’t remember that ending, Pa Frank.”

“Rain of the forest. Rain of the sea.” Frank sang in deep baritone. “Rain, the dark-haired beauty queen of the desert.”

It was a miracle, each day that passed without a phone call. At church people assumed she was Stevie’s. Folks had prayed on her troubles, so the delusion fell easy. At first, they’d been afraid of what Rain might say, but the girl acted like they were her real grandparents. Every day, Vera meant to bring it up to Frank, but the days kept passing, and in all fairness, Frank hadn’t mention it to her, either.

He carried Rain to the sofa bed. “We will never lose you in the big city,” he said.

“You have to say, promise,” Rain said, looking up at him. “Twice.”

“Promise. Promise,” Frank said. “Promise, three times.”

Vera pulled the covers up under the child’s chin, examining the defined cheekbones, the jutted chin, the dark hairline that grew low over her forehead. Where was the mother?

*     *     *

One month later, the well-tanned cancer specialist at the Palm Springs Clinic pronounced “metastasized.” While he rattled on about the minimal benefits at this stage of chemotherapy, Vera traced the hardened crescent moon of the old wound across the taut skin where the right breast had once lived with the left. Frank had spread aloe and kisses across her old road map of a scarred chest. She grabbed her big white bra with the foam prosthesis and stuck it in her purse. “To hell with appearances,” she said, but the specialist rattled on.

A brown-skinned receptionist quietly handed Vera a scribbled prescription for oxycodone, one of Stevie’s favorites, on her way out. She rode the noiseless elevator down to the sparkling empty lobby and called Frank from her cellphone. “Store busy?”

“Nothin’ me and Burt can’t handle,” he said, over the din of after-school teens loafing near the register. “Everything all right?”

“Peachy. I’ve decided to stop wearing a bra,” she announced. When he didn’t respond, Vera added, “Sign me up for Beer & Brawl’s white t-shirt contest.” That at least got a laugh.

At church people assumed she was Stevie’s. Folks had prayed on her troubles, so the delusion fell easy. At first, they’d been afraid of what Rain might say, but the girl acted like they were her real grandparents.

The sky was bright blue, the 10 freeway shimmering ahead. She shivered and rolled down the window. It was hot, but she didn’t feel warm.

Inside the Dairy Queen, Vera picked a booth near the back. She slowly spooned cold sweet vanilla into her mouth trying to fill the emptiness and watched the people in line. A short man held the hands of two small fat boys. Three teenaged pimply girls giggled behind a tall handsome boy. The boy pretended not to notice. Sweet young boys and budding teenage girls with promise. Vera unfolded the map and spread it across the table. It was a three-hour drive to Lake Havasu. They’d leave Burt in charge and the mobile parked behind the Mart so as to not arouse suspicions. With the camper on the truck, they could enjoy themselves until the weather turned.

“Planning a vacation?” Betsy asked, sliding her wide frame into the booth across from Vera.

Vera jumped. “Jesus.”

Betsy laughed and set a small milk carton down, sloshing white liquid across the table. “Sorry, sorry, but I am clumsy.”

The woman reeked of cheap drugstore perfume. Vera blotted the wet map with a napkin, trying not to show her irritation.

“I told the leader at Weight Watcher’s this morning, ‘You don’t understand the power of my drive,’ but I resisted and ordered a small two-percent. Hopefully, my lactose intolerance won’t act up.” She stared at Vera’s sundae. “You should join Weight Watchers, Vera. We could be buddies.” Betsy turned her focus to the map.

“Havasu. Frank wants to teach Rain to swim.”

“Take her to the Y.” Betsy shivered, holding up the stump of her left arm as evidence. “Less dangerous.” A boating accident one summer in Wisconsin.

Betsy smiled. Vera smiled. Once, they’d been friends, not the best, but good enough. Ah well, old age showed unattractive in different ways. Vera scraped the last bite of fudge into her mouth.

“Wanna split a dog?” Betsy asked, slurping down the last of her milk.

“No, thanks” Vera started, but stopped at the word MISSING stamped on the side of the cartoon. Underneath was a black and white photograph of the child living in their house.

“Must’ve been quite a shock finding out Stevie had a kid,” Betsy said, slowly crushing the carton with a fat, pink palm. “She’s good-looking, no offense, but she doesn’t look like either of you. What is she, half Mexican? Excuse me, Latino, whatever it is they wanna be called these days.”

Vera quickly refolded the damp map. “Sorry, Betsy. But I promised I’d make mac ‘n cheese for supper.”

“It’s only three-thirty.”  Betsy stared into her eyes. “Vi, are you all right? You look a little drained of color.”

“It’s the air-conditioning is all,” Vera said, standing. She picked up the smashed carton. “Let me recycle this for you.”

“Huh?” Betsy asked, a look of confusion crossing her face as Vera jammed the evidence into her purse. “All right, thanks.”

“No, thanks” Vera started, but stopped at the word MISSING stamped on the side of the cartoon. Underneath was a black and white photograph of the child living in their house.

“Good luck with Weight Watchers,” Vera added, then quickly left before the idiot said another word.

*     *     *

After two weeks at Lake Havasu, Frank looked well-rested and Rain looked well-fed. In the mornings while it was still cool, Vera sat in a lawn chair under an old beach umbrella and read her romance, while the two, well-slathered in sunscreen, waded out into the shallow reddish waterFrank wearing swim trunks, a faded Dodgers t-shirt stretched over his thick middle, and Rain, skinny with a protruding girl belly, in a new pink suit she’d picked out herself from Walmart.

Frank balanced the shrieking girl on his shoulders and slowly lowered himself blowing bubbles underwater. Rain shrieked and the two laughed so hard it was like chords of music to Vera’s heart. He’d married her sans uterus and never complained once about not having his own family. Now, twenty years later, she watched her lumbering husband patiently make circles with his arms in the water and a little girl’s mirror in unison. She’d always suspected that Frank loved children. His never having mentioned it made her love him all the more. What had she done to deserve such goodness? Suddenly, a rolling wave of tiredness coursed through her body. She felt a little frightened over the imminent.

Rain Gomez was snatched from a small town named Cortez down near the four corners in Colorado. Three months ago. In broad daylight. By a “skinny white woman with stringy blonde hair wearing a black leather jacket.” In almost every case on the missing children’s website, the words “Taken in broad daylight,” were near the top paragraph, as if children were only safe under the dark of night. Vera remembered how easily Stephanie would slip through her fingers under a clothing rack at Target, behind a tree in the park, and recently, a Camaro with darkened windows. She’d known Stevie capable of many things, but never child-stealing. Funny to learn that kidnapping was in the family genes.

“Ma Vi!” Rain called out. The child dunked under water, then popped up, sputtering and coughing, wet strands of hair clinging to her cheeks. “See my can hold my breath as long as my want to!”

Today several fellow-vacationers had looked more than once in the little girl’s direction. And a woman with binoculars had been enough to arouse Vera’s anxiety. “I can,” Vera called back. “I can hold my breath as long as I want to.”

Later that night in bed, Vera suggested, “I think we should drive on.” There were dozens of small towns along the RockiesDurango, Buena Vista, even down into Cortez, the four corners, where history got interesting.

“All righty,” Frank said, patting her bottom. “Lots more fun to be had.”

If Frank knew about the black and white photo on the milk carton, which she’d destroyed with garden shears back home, he showed no signs of wanting the party to end.

*     *     *

The third week they stayed in a faux-chalet motel in Durango with a pool and cable television. It was hotter than normal for Colorado. They spent a lot of time when they weren’t in the water napping on the queen beds in the air conditioning. They ate dinner each night at Denny’sRain’s favorite, always fried chicken. The waitresses fawned over the girl wearing an oversized pink sunhat to hide a new, very bad, haircut. Even though she was nauseous, Vera tried to eat enough so as to not arouse Frank’s suspicion.

By the end of the week, they had poked in and out of art galleries and shops in historic downtown, eaten ice cream and buffalo burgers, and were ready to move on. But before they did, Frank wanted to take Rain on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

“The train departs at eight-fifteen, so we gotta get a move on! Oh, Rain, but it will be beautiful, traveling along the winding Colorado river with you, Rain of the forest, Rain of sea,” he sang. “Rain, the beauty queen of the desert.”

Vera declined with a headache. She was having a hard time waking up over the weak coffee Frank had brought up from the motel lobby. After the door closed behind them, Rain chattering away, Vera lay back against the headboard and tried to take in a deep breath. She may as well have been sipping air through a straw. Maybe it was true what Stevie said about chi because Vera could feel it draining from her body.

For the first time since they’d left Joshua Tree, Vera dropped the façade. She took an oxycodone, then lay back on the bed in the dark, the air blowing ice cold across the sweat beads on her skin. So, this was bone-tired. Against the dark pain, she cried out for Stevie the queen of the heartaches, whose cell phone had been disconnected. I’m sorry. I love you, still and always. I see. I see it now, this life, this life offers beauty and pain up to its very edges, take it, take it.

Hours later a voice brought her home, “Ma Vi! Ma Vi.” Rain wrapped her arms around Vera’s neck, planting little kisses across her check. Vera struggled, clawing her way back. “Settle down, gracious,” she snapped as Frank flipped on the light by the bed.

“We got pizza for dinner,” he announced, holding a large box in his hands.

“Roni with cheese,” Rain said, jumping on the bed. “Cause we all like it.”

Vera shook her head. She reached for her glasses on the nightstand. “I must look a fright.”

“You sleep all day?” Frank asked, a worried look on his face.

“What time is it?”

Rain interrupted, holding up Frank’s phone. “Ma Vi, lookey,” she said, sticking the screen in Vera’s face. “My took a selfie. And drank a Shirley Temple. But don’t worry, it isn’t real, only make believing.”

In the photo, Frank and Rain sit in the train’s dining car under a plastic dome. On the table, maraschino cherries sparkle inside two glasses of soda. They grin for the camera. Rain’s little body leans against Frank’s, pink sunhat pushed back from her smiling face. They could be related.

“It’s the funniest thing,” Frank told Vera, biting into a slice. “A woman on the train recognized Rain.”

“What?”

“She had a weird finger,” Rain said.

“It was in a splint,” Frank explained. “She swore up and down that she recognized Rain.”

“I said my name was Susan,” Rain jumped in.

And so Vera told them about the MISSING girl on the milk carton.

    *     *    *

Cortez. The four corners. Land of the Anasazi. Canyon of The Ancients, the ancestors, tall silent red rocks which had stood the test of time.

“This is a cute little town,” Vera declared, trying to sound joyful but ending flat.

Frank pulled the truck alongside the curb. “It’s nothing more than fast food, a drive-thru liquor, and a hardware.”

Rain sat quietly between them.

Vera grabbed the AAA travel book from the dashboard and opened to a cornered page, trying to steady her shaky hand. “Rain, did you know that your town features real live stagecoach rides?”

The child pondered Vera’s false cheer. She climbed up onto her knees to get a better view through the windshield. “My going to be lonely,” she prophesied.

“No such thing as alone when you’ve got people who love you,” Frank said.

Vera could hear the tight pain in his throat. She took the child’s small hand and squeezed it.

Rain bit her lower lip, fighting back big tears. “But, you love me.”

Frank worked his jaw hard. He reached over and placed his hand on theirs. It was heavy and hot and felt all right. The three stared through the front windshield at a Ruby’s Diner just down the street.

“First,” Frank said. “I could use a slice of pie.”

“I like cherry,” Rain announced. “But only with white ice cream.”

In the distance, dark ominous clouds threatened an afternoon storm. Frank helped Vera down the sidewalk to the diner. Her legs felt like jelly and they took their time, Rain hiding at the edge of his left side. Once inside they ordered three slices of cherry pie with vanilla ice cream from a young man with angry acne across his forehead and listened to the thunder growing closer. There were only two other customersan old man in a cowboy hat sipping a cup of coffee, and a young woman with a pierced eyebrow eating a greasy burger.

On her way to the ladies’ room, Vera spotted the MISSING poster with Rain’s face. She ripped it from the wall and took it into the ladies. In the disabled person’s stall, she sat down on the toilet and closed her eyes against the stabbing pain. Relief, relief what in the hell was this life about anyway? She opened the poster and saw the number scratched in red ink with a name. Five, four, three, two, she grabbed the sticky metal bars on either side and with a grunt and stood. Thunder bellowed nearby. Rain, likely.

The payphone by the emergency exit was keyed with four letter words. She took a Wet Wipes from the pack in her purse and cleaned off the numbers as she dialed.

He answered on the fifth ring, voice thick with sleep. “Yeah.”

“Is this Dylan Gomez?”

“I ain’t got your money,” he yelled, slamming down the phone.

Back at the table, Vera flattened the crinkled poster.

“Rain, can you show us which way?”

Rain stuck out a small arm and pointed west, her dark eyebrows knitted together.

The waiter gave them a suspicious glance as he set down the check, but then it could have been Vera’s imagination. By then, her fever was one hundred and four.

Rain lived in a clapboard house of peeling green paint and old furniture on the front porch. A brown muscled dog in the yard lunged as they approached, but his leash caught up short. “Get back, Harley,” Rain commanded. The dog whined and sat back on its haunches. Vera and Frank each took a small hand and they walked shoulder-to-shoulder up the concrete steps and across the squeaky wooden porch to the front door. Vera had to stop twice to catch her breath.

Rain let go of their hands and peered inside through the locked screen door “D?” she called out. A TV blared a news program inside. A young man appeared. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. “Girl?” he asked, peering out, and not in a way that seemed excited or relieved, but more like he wondered if he were still stoned on the sagging couch in front of the television.

Rain nodded her small head. “Yes,” she whispered.

The winds picked up in the cottonwood tree and the dog growled low.

Dylan Gomez stepped outside. He wore faded jeans but no shirt. His chest was shiny brown and shrunken. His dark hair grew past his shoulders. He had her eyes. But his were rimmed in red. The heavy pit in her stomach told Vera that she had made the wrong decision. He reached out and grabbed the little girl by the arm. “Where in the hell have you been?”

“Easy,” Frank said, his voice steady. “She’s back now.”

“I’m sorry, D,” Rain whispered.

“Girl?” he asked, peering out, and not in a way that seemed excited or relieved, but more like he wondered if he were still stoned on the sagging couch in front of the television.

Dylan Gomez’ fingers gripped her arm turning the flesh under his tips white. “Cops been lookin’ for you.”

Frank took a step toward him. Dylan couldn’t have been more than five-seven. He looked up at Frank. The dog barked, straining at its leash.

“Let go now,” Frank said. “Let her go.”

Ignoring the warning, Dylan jerked Rain closer. “Do it againI’ll give you somethin’ to be sorry about.” Dylan turned to Frank and Vera. “You with child services? Did the cop catch that bitch?”

A shiver ran down Vera’s spine and she grabbed the back of a rusted chair to keep from falling.

The dog lunged to the end of its leash, barking with fury. “Come on, girl. Inside.” He jerked her toward the door.

“D, don’t,” Rain cried. “It hurts.”

“I said let her go,” Frank commanded.

“Fuck you,” Dylan said. “She’s mine.”

And so, Frank cold-cocked him.

*     *     *

The sky cleared without a warning just outside of town, the storm leaving traces of dark wet pavement and small puddles in its wake. They drove to Monument National Park. Frank paid the fee at the ranger kiosk and drove into the park.  He found an empty campsite off the main road, far from any facilities or tourists, and parked beside a large boulder. The last of the day was sinking soft pink light toward evening.

After he made Rain an impromptu treat of cheese and Cracker Jacks in the cab to keep her occupied, he joined Vera in the back for their conversation.

Vera said she was glad that she’d done it the way she had and hoped that Frank wasn’t too mad. The sheets of pain made it hard for her to sufficiently explain her reasons, but they had loved each other long enough to let misunderstandings slide. She wouldn’t go into hospice. It was best to give things their proper respect. They’d lived in the desert under stars their whole married life.

Frank wiped the tears from his face. He gave her a pain pill. He pulled the quilt over her shaking frame. “Your daughter finally did it,” he said, kissing the top of Vera’s head. “Get some rest.”

As night passed, Vera flew, circling over the canyon of red arches while her husband seated in the cab of a truck below stared out into the darkness and made plans for the small peace offering curled in sleep beside him.

In the morning, Frank’s voice carried through the heavy fog. “Thought we’d head on down to El Paso, then through the Franklin Mountains down into Chihuahua, Mexico.”

“My has never been to Mexico,” Rain sang, patting Vera’s head a rat-a-tat-tat with her small hand.

Peachy, Vera thought, feeling the pills enter her blood stream. Maybe there was chi and maybe there wasn’t. Maybe it was one time and that’s all you got, no matter how badly you screwed it up, oh well, it was all just water flowing underground until it reached the ocean. And then . . . cold refreshment.

Staci GreasonStaci Greason is the author of The Last Great American Housewife. Her essays have appeared in Brevity (Jan 2017), Slate, Angel’s Flight Literary West, the Huffington Post, and many others. She also coaches fellow writers at The Write Muse. www.thewritemuse.biz.

Broken Horns

Yeah, so, they give us these little bathroom breaks every hour or so, cause it’d be a real shame if Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, pissed his fluffy purple dress pants in front of these little whiney-ass children. Their parents, many in the death throes of potty training the little imps, would certainly be nonplussed.

It was that time again, so me and Rhonda Hornblower, who silently encased my buddy Dave, would smile (always the same flat, toothy grin) and wave at the poor souls who would now have to wait in amusement park purgatory for fifteen blistering, immobile minutes. I always felt sorry for Jimmy, the poor old sap who worked the line, trying to be firm and cheery at the same time, delivering the bad news.

“Okay, everybody, thanks for your patience. The Dancing Rhinos are so happy to see all of their favorite little fans. We’re just gonna take a short break so Rudy and Rhonda can get a quick drink.”

Man, I loved that part, seeing contempt and despair simultaneously ooze down the faces of those sweating, irritated parents. This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.

“Don’t worry, Daddy, it won’t be that long. I’ll be real still.”

I did feel sorry for the kids, though, because some of them were pure, selfless in their devotion to the caped, purple-bedazzled Hornblowers.

This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.

Rudy and Rhonda had been created for daytime children’s television to educate children, in a fun way, on the dangers of animal extinction. It’s all happy and nice, comes at it from a preservation side, you knowpositivedonate, raise awareness, etc., but I like to research my acting parts, so I dug a little deeper.

The real story is quite brutal, so the show has to seriously cut out the gore and violence, you know, the tranquilizers and bullet holes, the de-horning with axes. Most people think Rhinos are tougher than nails, but they’re easy marks for poachers. Black Rhinos are super aggressive, but White Rhinos (Rudy and Rhonda are White Rhinosthe most numerous and easily recognized) usually run from danger, but then stop when they get tired and need something to drink. But then they lose sight of the hunters and forget. That’s just the threat on the ground from locals, doesn’t account for the professionals who tranquilize the creatures by helicopter and then land, lopping off the horns and letting the animals die from drug overdose or blood loss while they fly away again, taking only the lucrative horns. It makes me sad to think of those massive bleeding hulks dying slow, then being torn apart by scavengers or left to rot. And I wonder about the lonely calves.

Well, enough on that depressing crap, let’s get back to the jolly theme park.

So, anyhow, on the Saturday of spring break, you know, the busiest day of the whole season, Dave and I were taking our three o’clock break, and I got a call on my cell. Now, I wasn’t even supposed to have it on me. I’d already been warned when it happened before.

See, one day it started ringing, and this crazy-eyed four year old with red hair and chocolate ice cream smothered hands started running laps around me, patting down Rudy the Rhino in all of the uncomfortable places, searching for the source of the screamed, repetitive, “Turn down for what?!” while his younger brother awkwardly head-bobbed to the muffled electronic warbling, “eh-eh-aah-eh-uh-ooh!” By the time the ringtone ended, the grubby little monster had smeared so much chocolate on my suit that it looked like poor Rudolph Hornblower shit himself.

So this time I ran to our private little crapper for characters and disrobed fast, hoping no one would hear the phone. I was out of breath and sweating profusely when I said hello. The voice on the other end was distant, as always.

“You still dressing up like a douche bag Rhino?”

I can only guess that Pops was mean so he wouldn’t feel.

“Yeah I do, Pops. Thanks for the annual telephone call; it’s always so nice to hear your voice.”

A long pause, and I was starting to get irritated, needed to pee, for real, and get a drink, you know, chill a second before going out to face the endless adoring throng of maniacal children and perturbed parents.

“Pops…?”

His voice was nearly a whisper.

“So, anyway, I got bone cancer, got it bad. Two months is all…”

It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he camea long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest. I leaned back against the locker just as Dave silently walked in, and I was glad I’d been sweating, the moisture all over my face.

“Yeah, so, I just wanted to tell ya. All right then.”

Click.

Pops had a way of always avoiding everything, missing each tender moment.

It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he camea long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest.

He never wiped a tear, never read a page, never threw a ball or came to watch a game. He ignored every real and imagined pain, letting mom do the best she could until she finally got sick of his shit and called it quits, took me far away, on a permanent cross-country road trip. That was fifteen years ago, and he’d seemed happy to let us go, hadn’t come around, not even once. No presents, no cards. Few calls, most of them a few weeks after my birthday or Christmas, to sort of apologize. I say sort of, because he never really said he was sorry. I guess making the effort to call was good enough in his mind.

And I learned to make it without him, without the strength or direction, the protection and kindness that a kid needs from a father. And though I hated him very much, I never lied to myself, pretending like it didn’t matter. I couldn’t change my life, but that didn’t mean I had to act all Zen about getting screwed by the guy who should have loved and cared for me.

And I always hoped for something, the smallest grain of good.

Two months.

Not enough time, even if he wanted to try to make it right, and clearly, he didn’t.

I leaned over, looked to make sure Dave wasn’t paying attention, and then took a deep draught from the flask I had secreted in my bag. Evan Williams, he was my daddy, the one who hugged and punished, who put me to sleep at night and then pounded my head in the mornings. I took some consolation from his wisdom that afternoon and then washed my face real good and popped in a Lifesaver. Can’t walk back out smelling like Rudy the Whino, right?

Anyhow, one of the good things about being an oversized cartoon character is that you don’t get to talk. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to talk for days without crying, and frankly, I wouldn’t know the words. The other benefit of that giant Rhino head is that no matter how shitty you feel, no matter how disastrous your life becomes, you can and in fact do, always smileone big, incredulous, cheesy grin.

So there I went, hand-in-hand with my buddy Dave, back to the anxious children and their tortured parents, to renew the happy and ridiculous farce. I trudged through, shaking hands, hugging, posing, and signing books.

I was fatigued, the terror of permanently incomplete closure looming, and Rudy started becoming lethargic. The line was moving too slow. Even Jimmy, the old dude who monitored the crowd, started urging Rudy to move a little quicker. Rhonda kept looking over with that goofy smirk, waving her arms in exasperation.

Then I heard it, the conversation between the man and woman and boy, maybe four families back. The dad was pissed, was just staring off in the distance, folding and unfolding and folding his arms again, huffing and puffing. Under his breath I heard him curse (by the way, Rhinos can’t see shit, but their hearing is superb) asking why in the hell they should keep waiting in this forsaken line. The mother just smiled, patted the eager son, Bobbie, on the head. She spoke placidly, saying how much it meant to their boy.

Suddenly, a memory surfaced, circa six-years-old. I had a glove and a ball, my Pops was sitting in his La-Z-Boy, watching a Phillies-Mets game. I’m sure if I could fly back in time and see everything clearly, I might notice that Phightin’ Phils were getting their asses beat, and Jimmy Rollins had just dogged it half way to first base after a bad first-pitch swing on a low fastball out of the zone, the result not a homer as he hoped, but an infield popout, a bad play, a selfish play. I don’t recall any of that. I just remember wanting, more than anything in the world, for my Pops to go get his glove down from the top corner of his desk in his office. I asked and asked. If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.

Finally, I guess my questioning blew his top and he leaped up, snatched my glove and ball. He marched outside, and I was a kid, so like, I kind of thought that even though he didn’t have his glove, maybe he was going to bare-hand catch or something. Naw, he chucked the ball in the creek behind our yard and tossed my glove on the roof. Didn’t even look at me. Just turned around, went to the fridge and grabbed another MGD, then sat back in his La-Z-Boy. Never spoke a word.

By now Rudy was a statue; I was drowning in a hopeless feeling, staring at little Bobbie. And he was staring back at me, concerned.

If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.

“Hey, momma, is Rudy okay, he seems kind of sick or something.”

Then I heard the dad again, grumbling that I was an asshole.

“That’s enough, Will!”

The mom gave a sharp look while the family I had largely been ignoring moved along, and the unhappy family of three moved a step closer to bliss. The dad’s face was all red now, but he was silent, had been rebuked by the mom, who was clearly in charge. Little Bobbie was becoming a bubbling ball of happy. He turned to his father, and his face was shining, all sweaty and hopeful.

“Hey, Dad, we’re almost there, see?”

The dad didn’t look at his son or acknowledge him, but instead spoke to the mom.

“Sheila, I can’t take any more of this shit. When you guys get done, come find me over at the Wild Safari Brewing Company around the corner. I gotta get a beer.”

No one saw it but me. Not Sheila, whose eyes were following her husband with disgust, and certainly not Will, who was already gone. Bobbie was crushed, wiped a tear, set his jaw. He wanted to see Rudy the Rhino, sure, but he really just wanted to be with his mom and dad, to hang out for a little bit on his terms, in his little, simple world, where Rhinos get to dance and smile because there are no poachers roaming about.

They say the Black Rhino is aggressive, will charge any threat, has been known to pose a real danger to people on safari if they get too close. Will had gotten too close, had stomped on my wound, and my soul was breaking dark.

We all want to right things that are unfair, and I’m no different. The next family had moved forward, three bouncing little girls bearing pink notebooks adorned with smiling, twirling images of Rudy and Rhonda. They also had those big fat purple Sharpies.

The smallest girl handed me her Sharpie and I patted her on the head, walked off set, and followed Will around the corner to the Wild Safari Brewing Company. I, or rather Rudy, was all smiles.

Jimmy and Dave, well, you know, Rhonda, just stared after me for a second, didn’t understand that the dam had broken through, the sorrow was over the banks, and there was no turning back.

Will was putting back one of those fancy micro beers, a semi-hoppy golden ale or some bullshit. I guess he thought he deserved a break, had literally been pushed too hard, had earned the several dollar mark-up by his paternal exertion.

Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, charged, attacking with the fat Sharpie until it exploded and bled purple all over the unconscious body of Will.

Then Rhonda finally reacted, ran over and pulled Rudy off poor Will quick enough to save his life, but not quick enough to salvage my job. Oh, well. Rudy was still smiling when security took him away.

And hey, don’t worry. That dull father is going to wake again. And when he does, maybe he’ll remember his son.

See, a Rhinoceros horn completely severed never grows back. But sometimes, when a horn is only broken, it still has the chance to heal, to grow again.

Blake KilgoreBlake Kilgore lives in Burlington, New Jersey, with his wife and four sons. People there treat him with kindness, and he is at ease living among the old and tall forests of the Garden State. His lingering accent, however, verifies that his heart is still Texan and Okie. Blake’s writing has appeared in Forge, Midway Journal, The Stonecoast Review, The Bookends Review, OxMag, and other fine journalsTo learn more, please visit blakekilgore.com.

Golem

“Please don’t misunderstand me.” She is barefoot and wearing a robe, all soft and white.

This is in the nineties when we live in the house on Taney Avenue, about twenty-five miles from the edge of Harrisburg. She names herself Zephyr and our parents amiably allow it, granting her this little teenage rebellion. I want to change my name too, but I can’t think of anything so I keep it for now.

“Please don’t misunderstand me,” she says. She is seventeen and when she laughs it comes out in a rush like wind. “I’m not crazy.”

Earlier that day, Marla throws a stick at my bedroom window and when I look down, she whispers-screams, “Avette, your sister has lost her mind.”

I want to say, “What else is new,” but don’t, instead climb down clutching the rain gutter. This is all just for show. On the way down, I spot my parents through the kitchen window and they both give me a wave. My mom motions for me to zip my sweater.

We have the type of parents who allow us to make our own bedtimes and to do our chores on whatever time frame we see fit and to set our own punishments when we get out of line, and perhaps this is why my sister and I end up the way we do, although our parents also taught us to take responsibility for our own actions, so perhaps not.

Once I reach the ground, Marla hugs me tight, her body shaking. We are not like this, Marla and I. I try to think of a way to disentangle myself. Eventually, I pretend I’m having a sneezing attack, and she releases me.

“What’s happened?” I ask when I’m freed. “I thought she was with you?”

My sister Zephyr often disappears, from home, from school, from my life, and then pops back up again with a new haircut, or a nose ring, or a venereal disease as she does later when she is twenty-seven and needs me to take off work and drive her to the clinic. She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.

Marla sniffles. I notice then that her nose is quite large. “She was but then she just kinda lost it, and went running out, talking about fixing things. You know how my parents are moving us to Cleveland tomorrow. I think she went over to Flanders Park, over by the hiking trail?”

I sigh, roll my eyes, but inside my heart is a hammer. Zephyr’s world is like mine but only louder. I have to take advantage when I get invited in. “OK, let’s go find her,” I say.

Marla’s got her bike there. It still has purple and white streamers coming down from the handle bars even though she is seventeen. I am embarrassed for her, and then for myself as I hop on the back and we glide down the street. I hope I don’t see anyone from school, even though I remember nobody cares so it’s not a big deal. I’m too quiet at school, it freaks people out. The only kids I hang out with are the ones who read fantasy novels during lunch. And Zephyr, of course. But even though I know no one would care, I’m embarrassed anyway because I’m riding on this silly bike with a girl who is wiping tears and snot from her face, and it’s really just the principle of the thing, I guess.

When I am seven, Zephyr is ten, and she is not Zephyr but another name that I am not allowed to say anymore. She shaves both my eyebrows with our mother’s Lady Bic. She does mine as an experiment to see how they look before she does her own. The Powerpuff Girls don’t have eyebrows. It doesn’t occur to her that number one, their eyebrows are probably just covered up by their bangs, and number two, they are cartoons. My mother explains this to her right after Zephyr finishes with me.

She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.

They try to draw some eyebrows with markers, but it ends up looking worse. In the end, I go around looking like some kind of alien and at school I freak the other kids out a little. Zephyr starts calling me E.T., but whenever she says it she puts an arm around my shoulder and gives me a squeeze so I don’t mind as much as I should. Still, it takes months for my eyebrows to grow back. You don’t realize how much eyebrows do until you don’t have them anymore. It is worse when it rains. I can’t keep the water from my eyes.

This is not the last time my sister uses me like I am a toy. She dresses me like John Oates to go with her Daryl Hall costume. I hate the mustache she tapes on my upper lip; it itches the bottom of my nose and sneaks into my nostrils whenever I inhale, but I stick with it because she would look ridiculous in her blonde wig without me. I should be more bothered when she uses me how she likes, but I can’t ever help but feel like I am helping her.

On the bike, I look down and see Marla’s got greasy hair. I wonder if Marla even knows. Maybe it’s a fashion statement, shows she’s committed fully to that grunge look, like Kurt Cobain and his hair that’s been dipped in sweat. It would be almost too sad, I think, for Marla to be walking around all day with hair like that and not even realize it. I see she’s got one earring that’s a white cross and one that’s a gold moon. They’re cool, I think, against my better judgment. I wonder if Zephyr’s seen them, though of course she has.

I know Marla’s parents don’t like my sister and they will not be the last ones to feel like that. I’m not surprised. She’s a hard one to like, honestly. She wears these combat boots that we found in my grandfather’s attic after he died. They are two sizes too big, so there’s this loud clomp whenever she puts her foot down and then an accompanying drag when she picks her foot back up. You can always hear her coming from a mile away. She lives her life noisily and doesn’t know any different. When I move into my first apartment after graduating from college, Zephyr crashes at my place for two months and while I am away at work, she leaves a burning grilled cheese sandwich on the stove and doesn’t pay much attention when the fire alarm goes off. “I had my music on,” she tells me, “and you won’t believe how well a fire alarm goes with the beat. It sounded seamless.” The wall next to the stove needs to be redone and the landlord is ready to sue, and even after Zephyr talks him off the ledge by offering some cocaine she just has lying around, I still decide to move out a few months later when my lease is up.

Marla and I ride down the street, then round the corner. I’m impressed with how fast Marla is going, despite having both our weight on the bike. It is the very launch of fall, so when the cool breeze whips at our faces, it feels nice, not punishing. The leaves on the asphalt look like they’ve been painted from fire.

“Whose homeroom are you in this year?” Marla calls back to me.

I grip her shoulders tighter as we ride over a speed bump in the road. “Willoughby’s,” I reply. I don’t want to talk more about it. School is only two weeks in, but I have a feeling that eighth grade will be just as terrible as everyone promises. I ask Zephyr if she has any tips on how to survive middle school, and all she does is roll her eyes and tell me that in the grand scheme of human suffering, middle school ranks considerably lower than global warming and genocide in the Sudan. Zephyr should not write an advice column, I have come to realize.

I could have skipped to tenth but my parents think my social age isn’t quite that advanced, whatever that means. My locker is right by the English wing staircase, so people are always bumping into me on their way to class. In Phys. Ed. we’ve been doing an archery unit, and my arms are so weak that I can’t pull back the bow string. I get out of Home Ec., though, by saying I am so terrified of needles that the sight of them immediately causes me to vomit and faint, in no particular order. My mother even signs off on the note herself and I spend my third period on Tuesdays and Thursdays filling out crosswords in the nurse’s office. So I have that going for me, I guess.

“Cool,” Marla says and I grunt back. If I ask Marla about how to survive middle school, she will probably tell me just to lay low. I think she might have more concrete advice than Zephyr. I consider Marla’s greasy hair and have a feeling eighth grade was no picnic for her.

We reach Flanders Park and she slows to a stop. She walks the bike over to a bike rack and locks it up, although who would actually want to steal that silly thing, I don’t know. “She’s by the hiking trail?” I ask.

Marla shrugs. Her eyes are wide and too large. “I think so. She said something about needing to find virgin earth.”

“Of course she did,” I say, and stifle a chuckle. Marla looks really worried, but she doesn’t know Zephyr like I do. When I am eleven she refuses to talk to me for a week. I wrack my brain for reasons why she’s mad at me, I wonder what I’ve done wrong, if it is because I took the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, but at the end of the week she tells me she just decided to take an oath of silence to see if she could do it. Zephyr says things, does things, but most of the time doesn’t actually mean anything by it. My mother calls her, not unkindly, “a well of false profundity.” At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth, and by punching Tommy Enzo square in the nose at the bus stop when I am in fifth grade, the day after he calls me a whore for taking his seat on the bus, hitting him over and over till he starts to spurt blood all over his yellow polo shirt, till he begins to whimper like a hurt animal, till I have to hold Zephyr back myself while I let him wiggle free towards safety. She is like that.

We walk along the hiking trail, our eyes peeled for Zephyr. When she is eighteen she will have midnight-colored hair but now at seventeen she’s got this bleached blonde look so I hope it will be easy to spot her through the trees. I keep looking past the dark for the flash of light that is my sister. “So she ran away because you’re leaving?” I ask Marla.

When she turns thirty, Zephyr disappears for a little over a week. My parents say she’ll turn up, but I am concerned, and keep calling her cell phone until her voicemail is full. I go to her place but a neighbor tells me she doesn’t live there anymore, and when I peep through the windows, I see only the sun falling in through the glass, flooding with light the empty rooms where my sister used to be. When she finally returns, she laughs and shoves some poker chips in my cupped hands and tells me she went to Atlantic City for a break, just a little getaway is all she needed, and maybe she can stay with me for a while, but when I look down at the poker chips they are made of cardboard, like she got them at a dollar store or something, and when she tells me she is sorry she made me worry, I don’t believe her.

Whenever she runs, I can’t understand why. Marla shrugs, sighs deep. “She was over at my place and my parents wanted her out. They don’t know I’m here. I’m not allowed to talk to her anymore.” She pushes her hair behind her ear and I spot that gold moon glint in the sunlight. “They said they’ll rip up a letter if they find one in the mailbox.”

Early this summer I walk out to the back deck and they are there kissing on the steps. I am not surprised by it really, but rather by the way Zephyr looks at her afterwards, like she wants to swim inside her skin. I don’t understand because Marla seems so utterly ordinary.

At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth…”

I have never seen my sister’s eyes look that way, like they could chip in an instant. Usually they are like tiny boulders and I have to be careful when they roll my way to keep from going under.

I guess Marla’s parents want to move away so they can escape Zephyr, but they don’t know that you can never escape my sister. “I used to love them a lot more,” Marla says quietly. “Before.” Before Zephyr.

Finally we see my sister’s bobbing blonde head through the fall foliage. She is a few yards from the hiking trail, standing in a big expanse of dirt. When we get close, we make sure we don’t step on any sticks. There is something in both of us that doesn’t want to make any noise and scare her away.

Zephyr is wearing all white, this ivory-colored robe that makes her look young. I recognize it from my closet. When I am nineteen, she borrows my very first car, a Dodge Neon, to road trip to a Dave Matthews concert. She crashes it after one too many but doesn’t pay me back.

Out near the trees, her feet are bare and black from the earth. Her eyes are closed and she’s got her hands folded together like she’s praying, and I’m surprised. Never before have I seen her pray and I won’t see it again after this.

Her eyes are still closed when she turns to us and says, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not crazy.” Her voice rings in the surrounding stillness.

She says the same thing to me soon after that mysterious trip to Atlantic City. Only this time she is not standing in a mess of trees, but lying in a tangle of sheets at the hospital, her eyes a dry red, wild and wide.

I don’t say anything to her that time, but now I ask, “Zephyr, what are you doing?”

“Relax, guys,” she laughs. She is calm. “I know it’s silly, but it just felt right, coming here. You remember, Avette? The golem?”

I remember, but am surprised Zephyr does. There are times I don’t think she’s listening when in fact she’s picking up every word. The golem comes from our dad. He tells us stories sometimes from his mother, who dabbled in Kabbalah every now and again. “You mean the man of clay?”

“What man?” Marla asks.

I think back to what our father told us. “The golem, it’s this man you make out of the earth. You need to have a pure heart and you need to know some word to write on his forehead before he can come to life, and then he’ll be there.”

“To protect you,” my sister adds with a knowing smile.

“He’s just a myth, Zephyr,” I say. “Just from a story. He’s soulless, this Frankenstein thing.”

Marla steps closer to her. “Who is he coming to protect?”

There is a silence that is loud because it is Zephyr’s and she says it without saying it: Us.

I can’t understand. It is not that she wants to create a man out of clay, but rather that she wants to do it for someone like Marla. My sister, who at nine tries to teach herself German and only remembers key phrases, like “Where is the bathroom?” and “I have a headache.” Who draws a comic strip of a feminist superhero named Super Bitch who goes around throwing thunderbolts of enlightenment at every misogynist she sees. Who is the only person I tell after I pee my pants at Pammy Lytle’s house and throw my dirty underwear out her bedroom window where it lands in a tree. She hangs out with Marla nearly every day after school but sometimes I see her twirling her hair at Anthony Slimner at the bus stop. Sometimes she talks to Jennifer Ypsilantis on the phone at night and I overhear her say honey. Why the golem now? I’m not sure of this sister standing in front of me wearing white.

“You’re not making any sense,” I say.

When she is in the hospital for the first time, she holds up her hands to me and asks me if I see all the thousands of pixels in them, how those little boxes of light make up her body and cover her whole, but I don’t see a thing, just skin stitched over veins. I tell her she’s got to stop mixing her medication with coke.

Zephyr stomps one foot on the forest floor. “Avette, your negativity’s bringing me down,” she snaps. Her face is tight. “I know it’s stupid, it won’t work, but it just makes me feel better. You know what I mean?”

We don’t reply. It wouldn’t matter if we did. She tells us we can stay if we want but we are not allowed to help. Marla wrings her hands and leans against a tree, never taking her eyes off Zephyr. I crouch in the dirt, write our names on the ground with a leaf.

She begins and we are witnesses to it all. Grabbing clumps of dirt, sifting through till the sticks and rocks and leaves are thrown out, sprinkling drops of water from an Evian bottle she’s brought, she crafts a man out of mud, with eyes of earth, muscles made from mounds of soil. I wonder how she can stand it, she who’s never had the patience to finish a full game of Monopoly.

I think about my father’s stories. They never end well. “You can’t play God, Zephyr,” I say, but it isn’t true. She’s been playing God my whole life.

Zephyr doesn’t reply. She is busy sculpting the face, with its square chin and wide full nose. It looks a bit like Bruce Springsteen. She presses her thumbs sideways to make indents for the blank eyes.

“Z, let’s just talk for a second, okay?” Marla says. She is hugging herself like she wants to climb inside her own skin. Zephyr stands, shoots Marla a crushing glare meant to level her, and then turns back to her dirt.

When she is done he lies there flat on the ground and Zephyr towers over him holding a stick like a blade. She carves something onto his forehead. “What is it?” Marla asks, but Zephyr doesn’t answer. A secret word.

By this point, her hands are black with soil and her white robe is stained. She looks down at herself a moment and then takes the robe off. She is above him in her underthings, a matching Tweety Bird set that makes her look younger than she is. Her hip bones jut out sharply, she looks scrawnier than I’ve ever seen her. I could take an arm and splinter it like the stick that’s in her hand. I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.

She stands over him and waits.

I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.

Marla goes over, tries to hold her hand but she pushes her away. She doesn’t look at her, but down at him. Marla chokes back a sob. I wish I could tell her to wash her damn hair once in a while but I feel like that would just be embarrassing for everyone involved. She returns to her tree and slumps to the dirt, her head in her hands.

Later when she is in college, Zephyr buys a yellow lab pup on a whim and keeps him until she gets sick of him peeing on her rug. The pup goes to my parent’s house, where I am finishing up high school. I master staring down the dog right at the exact moment when he’s about to pee on the carpet, till he’s so uncomfortable that he learns to go outside in only two weeks. My parents don’t mind having him, but it’s me who ends up taking care of him, just because I can’t ignore the begging, the need that’s embedded in every muscle of his body. There are times when I look at that dog and am reminded of Marla, in more ways than one.

“Babe, stop it,” Zephyr says. “Please. You know why I’m doing this, but I need you to stop crying. I’m trying to concentrate.” Marla quietens down. I think she’s got a future in drama club, except for the fact that her nose is too big. She’d only get bit parts playing dancing trees with her face all covered so you couldn’t even tell it was her, which is kind of tragic if you stop to think about it.

The sun tumbles down the sky slowly. My stomach growls and I wonder what’s for dinner at home. I wonder how long we’re supposed to stay here before we realize what won’t happen. I wonder if I can get away with skimming chapter six of Lord of the Flies before the quiz tomorrow.

At nine, she constructs a lemonade stand out of my dad’s old poker table and parks it at the corner of our street. We spend all day making the product and she swears we’ll be rich, but we only get three customers, bringing our grand total to seventy-five cents. But she insists that it will happen, people will come, so we wait until the air cools and it has grown dark. We wait until the flies swarming around our lemonade pitchers have all gone to sleep, until my arms are pocked with goosebumps, until I use my sugar-coated hand to loosen her clenched fingers and hold onto her disappointment, until my father walks over and says the time has come for us to go back home.

From my spot on the ground, I can see the golem’s thick stomach, looking much like a pillow packed hard and full with flour. I wait, watching, and it is just like the day when I am all grown and I sit on the floor of Zephyr’s bathroom, where she lies sprawled, and I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness, because I know if I will only be patient, it will happen.

There in the woods, I look at the golem and I wait for his stomach to rise and fall.

She tells me often how she dreams of me before I am born. As a toddler, she thinks up my hair, each brown curl, my eyes, one slightly rounder than the other, the lone freckle on my nose. I am her blank canvas.

When I am a young child, our bedrooms are right next to each other and the walls are paper thin, so I hear when Zephyr cries out from her nightmares. Our parents want us to soothe ourselves, so they don’t come running, but I do. I sneak into her room, and by then she is awake, and she is crying, and holding her hands out for me, and when I squeeze them tight, she whispers to me that she dreams she is in heaven being made, constructed from scratch, but there is a clog somewhere on the assembly line, and so when she tumbles down to earth, there are a few parts of her that haven’t been put in just yet. In the morning, she turns my sleepy face to hers and says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t mess up with you. You’re all finished.”

She sees me entire, imagines every particle, tries my name on her tongue before I am even a kernel of life in our mother’s womb. She tells me I am a creation of her own heart and I believe her when I am a young child chasing after her in the grass and I believe her even still sitting now in the dirt.

When the time comes, Marla tells us she needs to leave. Her parents are waiting for her, they’re probably livid that she’s snuck out. “I wasn’t allowed to come out, you know,” she says to my sister. “But I wanted to see you one last time.” There is a note of hope in her voice that makes me wince for her.

She pecks Zephyr on the cheek, and Zephyr flashes a lazy smile, still standing over the golem. Marla waits, expectant but only for a moment. I wonder if she’s thinking about her parents and the way they look at her now. I wonder if she’s worrying about starting over in Cleveland, where there probably won’t be someone who finds that greasy hair charming. I wish she had known before she started with Zephyr, I wish I could have warned her not to love this girl who can’t even give her a goodbye after shaking up her entire life.

Marla doesn’t look at me when she leaves. There will be more days, September and October ones, yet she is only temporary. There will be more hers to come, but despite Zephyr’s little cruelties, I am here for the long haul, all the way until she decides she cannot endure the noise of her life any longer.

Zephyr is shivering now in the wine-tinted air. I tell her to put the robe back on. She shakes her head no, but after another moment she does. She stares at him still. “What do you think he’ll say?” she laughs. It is a sharp sound in the silence we have been sitting in. It crashes against the trees around us and slices its way to my eardrums. I would not be surprised if she’s forgotten Marla entirely by now, but that only makes me want to stay here longer, to make sure she remembers me.

“He can’t talk,” I tell her. “He’s an unfinished man.” I stand, creep closer to her but she doesn’t move. When I am near enough, I crouch down to see him better. Even in the dimming light, he looks like he is only sleeping.

“That’s right,” she nods. She looks down at me. “Isn’t that sad, Avette?” Zephyr pulls her hair back into a ponytail. I don’t answer. I am suddenly touched by the crude life in front of me. I want to reach forward and grip his hand but I know that it will only crumble and that Zephyr will smack me for it.

My sister sighs. “Sometimes I feel like the biggest idiot on the planet,” Zephyr says. “I thought he could help me. I just didn’t want things not to be real this time. But it’s always the same, Avette. Things are never real.”

I am hunger and fear solid enough that you can hold in your hand. She is all sound and sheen. She is made of splinters that crack down to her very marrow.

I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness…

I say, “Things are real enough. And at least you know you’re not made of dirt, like this guy.” She kicks my shoe, but it is not as hard as I think it will be, and that makes me want to give her my jacket and carry her all the way home. And the part of me that doesn’t love her hates her because I know she will not let me, she will never let me. But despite all those times she disappears from me, from those small moments when we are children until that last final hour, I never want to stop trying to hold her still, to push my own air into her lungs whenever she thinks she can’t keep on breathing.

We wait. The park will close soon and we will make the trek back home in the night. She will convince me tomorrow to go vegetarian with her because she’s been reading about cruel practices in the livestock industry. She will confess how much she likes Celine Dion and beg me not to laugh. She will want to know what I think about Marla’s earrings and I will be oddly grateful when she doesn’t say anything about the greasy hair. She will ask me to follow her and I will, anyplace.

But now, here in the plum dark, we wait for the golem. She says, “Tell me a story. Anything. You talk and I’ll listen. I just want to hear you talk.” I place my hands in the dirt and when I open my mouth, I don’t even know how to begin.

Taylor Kobran

Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the 2013 recipient of the Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. She is interested in literacy education and is from New Jersey.

 

 

I Don’t Know if I’m Dealing Very Well with Everything That’s Going On Right Now

“We’d be in more danger driving down the 101, Amanda,” Brandon says as we sit on the New York D train. “Statistically, you are literally one thousand times more likely to die in a Volvo after drinking half a glass of chardonnay.”

As he talks, the subway hurtles into Brooklyn. Warm and oxygenless air presses against my throat and thighs as Brandon and I squash into the D’s orange seats. The dark outer world, flickering with small starships of light and featureless faces, whirls past the grimy windows. The dirty floor is barely visible for manifold shoessneakers, black boots. Men in jeans and smirking, pretty-lipped women crush alongside us, insult-flirting with each other. Have you seen Lawrence of A Labia? It’s a really good movie. Shut your dumb mouth. Or else they just slump over, like the homeless-looking woman in a Mets cap sitting next to me. Ugggggghhbbbbbb. I can’t tell if people are upset about the headlines, or the election. Everybody seems fine.

“I see your point,” I say, nodding.

I move my knees to the right as the Mets-cap lady kicks out her legs, and give myself a gold star for not saying, But I wouldn’t have gotten killed in a Volvo, Brandon, because as you know I only take public transportation so as to not participate in the oil-economy time bomb that is detonating as we speak. I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies. I came here for other, diametric reasons, which relate to personal happiness and the prospect of encoupled stability.

I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies.

I am from Studio City, California. I am a media strategist who is also an artist, or a former artist. Brandon is a lawyer from Culver City. He is not a hyphenate or a former hyphenate. We have traveled to New York for our first vacation as a romantic couple. It’s not exactly a romantic time, though, since Orlando happened yesterday.  I’m aware that as a heavily leveraged thirty-eight-year-old single woman, I need to say simple, economical things like, “That’s terrible,” or, “What a tragedy” about the Pulse massacre, but not act unnervingly bizarre in front of my beloved Brandon. In the three months that Brandon and I have been “hanging out,” he has so rewired my neural system with the unlikely astonishments of love that I now (yet again) believe in impossibilities like soulmates and other halves.

However, as I have learned from my roster of failed relationships with both men and women, the preservation of such exquisite passion mandates the attainment of a strangely mundane status: Regardless of how much your boyfriend or girlfriend initially enjoyed your “intensity” and “authenticity,” they must ultimately regard you as a potential real partner. Attaining the coveted status of a real partner requires more than Brandon witnessing my radiant soul as it shines out of my eyes and penetrates the shadowy layers that have accumulated around his heart. He must additionally see me as a healthy and attractively productive person.

Healthily attractive productive people do not, as I have in my not long-ago past, go to Yaddo to make arte povera out of baby clothes and napalm to illustrate the environmentally doomed prospect of childrearing. They also do not use their Slamdance Grand Jury award money to publicize their relationally aesthetic hunger strike protesting the acquittal of Michael Brelo. And they do not have elongated nervous breakdowns when fundamentalists of whatever stripe gun down minorities and queers. Instead, they must be able to demonstrate that they can do things like hold a job, attend social events without getting drunk, safely drive potential future offspring to and from various extracurriculars, and also organize fun vacations that remain unpunctuated by savagely panicked responses to the New Normal.

“Anyway, I’m not worried about being killed by a terrorist,” I say.

That’s why Brandon and I are on one of the sightseeing excursions I planned two weeks ago, to prove myself as a solid and dependable person. I had never developed an “itinerary” before but found it an interesting challenge: I decided almost immediately on a New York art history tour, since that would play to my strengths. So, the day before yesterday Brandon and I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where in 1989 Diamanda Galás participated in the mass “Stop the Church” Act/Up demonstration. I stood by the Lady Chapel and sang her You Must Be Certain of the Devil (“Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord”) until a praying woman wearing a collaborationist I’m With Her T-Shirt brusquely asked us to go. “That was pretty interesting,” Brandon had said, as we hustled out. Then, yesterday, I took him to the Town School Library on East 76th Street, where Audre Lorde was head librarian from 1966-1968. We saw a lot of children’s books there, and I recited a part of Lorde’s The Erotic as Power (“I find the erotic such a kernel within myself”) until told to leave by a male guard. Brandon liked that, too. He bought me a caramel vanilla ice cream cone from a food truck and hugged me while I talked about Sister/Outsider.

But then we found out about the shooting early this morning when I saw the Google Alert. There was also news about Donald Trump tweeting, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord. Brandon just cleaned the shattered glass, though, nodding as I read Mother Jones tweets out loud while crying and standing on the bed wearing nothing but his Stanford sweatshirt. I said I wanted to go home. He kissed me and said that we should stay, that I should distract myself with the Weird Artist Tour and not be sad.

And so that’s what we’re doing. Tonight we have plans to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Lucy Lortell on Christopher Street, but for the larger part of today we’re going to stalk the ghost of one of the nation’s greatest artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat, on the D train.

“Then why did you have a meltdown last night?” Brandon asks-yells over the thwaka thwaka thwaka commotion of the subway. He has buzzed off his blue-black hair, an austerity that gives him an Air Force elegance, though he went to UCLA law school and works for a left-leaning firm called Miller & Watanabe. We met at a Ralph’s.  Today he wears a dark blue insignia-less polo shirt and khakis. Humidity bronzes his high cheekbones, and I’d like to sink my teeth into them, then bite lightly yet firmly onto his jaw so that he can’t escape from me.

“I just needed a reboot,” I say. “I slept, I feel fine now.” I hold Brandon’s hand and look down at my lap. I have black hair, brown eyes, and am a medium-dark brown Xican@. I’m wearing a green flowered dress that I allowed him to buy me yesterday at Forever 21 on Broadway despite F21’s Uzbekistan slave labor problem. My black cotton backpack that I bought in Argentina sits at my feet. I’m also wearing leather huaraches that I purchased four years ago in Mexico City, which was when I endured a couchsurfing/homeless period that finally got resolved at Yaddo. Inside the backpack are my phone and my wallet, the latter of which harbors Chase Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover credit cards. I obtained these economic passports on the strength of my new and astonishing $76k annual salary, as I am done gifting my art to the sacred space that exists beyond the cares of capitalism. In the last half year I’ve become a platform whisperer for Snapchat, which means that I discover trends through campaign-wide analyses and execute strategies to optimize campaign performance and company metrics. At night, I calm myself down by writing criticism for frieze and making collages using a personal Fun Tools app that I designed a few months ago.

“You were really out of it, I was worried,” Bradon says.  

I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord.

He looks across the car to where a woman with painted-on eyebrows and a frilled purple dress, an Anglo skater punk in a green beanie, and an old black man in a khaki jacket all busy themselves reading newspapers. Eyebrows in the purple and the old man both hold subway-crumpled copies of the New York Times that bear the headline “The Orlando Shooting Victims” and selfies of happy-looking men and women. The skater punk’s reading a trashed Post that reads “Gay-Club Attack On Our Freedom.” Eyebrows is taking little bites out of a shedding almond croissant as she scans the articles. Brandon starts raking through his hair with his fingers and gives me a crooked smile. “I’m not saying I’m upset that you got so wigged out.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re not upset,” I say in a strangled voice that is not in keeping with the magnanimous and emotionally composed way that I want to conduct myself on this trip.

Brandon plays footsie with me and tickles my knee. “Babe, life is for living. I just don’t get why it’s better to scream yourself to sleep at the Regis when you could just get up, wash your face, and deal with it like other people do. I mean, who are you helping?”

Or maybe you’ve seen Battlestar OrgasmicaI look up to see a tall, bearded man standing to our left teasing a pretty, petite woman wearing shorts and gold earrings.

Weak, she says, giggling.

“I’m not helping anybody.” I stare at Brandon for one beat, two beats. Thwaka thwaka thuds the subway. “Jesus Christ.”

“I’m seriously asking. I want to know,” he says.

I look down at my huaraches again. When I bought my shoes I worried about maquiladoras all the time and was also going deep into animal rescue. I had no health insurance and was so lonely that I would follow attractive men and women around D.F. taking pictures of them like a lugubrious Sophie Calle. I don’t want to be like that anymore. “Okay, so I forgot to bring my lavender oil and my lorazepam and things got a little out of control.”

Brandon leans back in the orange plastic of his seat and tilts his head at me, cracking up so that I can see the tender pink of his uvula. Then he gets serious.  “Look, I get it. Something terrible happened. And I want to know how you feel about it. I’m not some douche who came here with you just to get into Sushi Zo

“Sushi Zo . . . ”

Brandon smushes up his face and shakes his head. “It’s a hot New York restaurant that you try to impress your girlfriend with.”

My diaphragm twinges, from a cramp caused by the strangely similar sensations of stress and hope. “Girlfriend,” I say.

“It was totally booked except for the rez I got for last night. I was online for two hours. Seriously, if I were a Washington Post reporter I’d have a better shot at getting into the Trump bus.”

I make a shrugging gesture, rolling my eyes, but not crazily. “Trump.  What a guy, right?  He sure is something.”

Brandon enfolds my hand with his and makes little circles on my wrist with his thumb. “The thing is, I’m not some complicated art person with the sexy political depression that I’m starting to worry you might be more drawn to.”

I grip onto him, hard. “No, you’re perfect. You’re beyond perfect. You’re cyborg perfect.” I smile at him. “Sexy depressed artist people just wind up stealing your camera equipment because they’re on meth and then they want to have a foursome with the Martinez sisters but then they don’t even look at you until it’s time for a ride home.”

Brandon tilts his head at me. “How do you know that?”

I shrug. “Not from books.”

Brandon looks up, sternly, as if he’s doing math in his head. “I mean, I like UFC. I shop at The Gap. I don’t always look at the labels to see if my underwear’s made in Bangladesh.”

“Uzbekistan.” I shake my head. “But you do civil rights cases.”

“Yeah, but I can turn it off. I’ll go home and eatwhat did you call it? ‘Blood chocolate.’ I get my clothes dry-cleaned. I sit under outdoor heat lamps at restaurants in the winter. I play ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ I know that the Republicans are very Marine Le Pen right now. I’ve read The Fire Next Time. But I don’t get upset like you do.” Brandon puffs out his cheeks and exhales, thinking. “I switch off CNN and play web poker.”

I jerk, looking over at the woman in the Mets cap, as she has just nudged me in the ribs. She’s sticking her elbows out as if doing some kind of seated calisthenics that keep up the bone density. She’s also chewing on invisible food. She smiles as if she recognizes me.

“Hello Ma’am,” I say.

Brandon lifts my hand up to his mouth and kisses it uncertainly. Then all at once he blurts out: “Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation

The D makes a stop and there’s a humid tumult of people exiting and entering the car. The lady in the Mets cap stays put, though, as does the bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings who are joking around. Eyebrows stands up, molting almond croissant flakes and tossing her paper on the seat. I see all at once that Eyebrows’s face is red, puffy, and wet. There’s a stress bubble of saliva on her lower lip. 

“Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation

Then she disappears, along the Skater Guy and Old Man. Their places are taken by a trio of T-Shirt-wearing teenagers who stare at their phones.

“Do I want to have kids?” I blink, blink again, then make myself focus on Brandon. “Why are you asking me that?”

Brandon blushes so that a stripe of burgundy crosses his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. A thin glimmer of sweat slicks the right side of his face. Almost a full minute of silence passes between us.

I liked White Men Can’t Hump, the girl with the gold earrings says to the bearded guy.

That was a shitty movie full of stereotypes, he says.

“No reason,” Brandon eventually sighs. He looks up at the subway ceiling. “What are we doing here again?”

I’m still holding Brandon’s hand. It’s warm, brown, and has knobby knuckles like baby antlers. Two weeks ago these hands cut and buzzed my hair. Brandon and I were both naked in my bathroom, covered with my fur, and laughing. “It’s our art tour,” I chirp anxiously. “We’re doing 1980s neo-expressionism today.”

Brandon nods. “Oh, yeah. Basquiat? Baskweeat? That artist guy you were talking about.”

I peer closely at the subway walls, looking for any signs of Basquiat’s famous graffiti, while Brandon plays with my foot some more, gently nudging it with his Timberland. There’s no sign of Basquiat’s Kilroy, though: The interior of the car discloses only scuffed gray paint, which is cross-hatched with so many words and scratch marks that it looks like a Cy Twombly.

I wish I had something to show Brandon for today’s tour. The Diamanda Galás and Audre Lorde outings were somehow melancholicly cheerful.  But now I’m distracted, and am starting to feel as if I’m being unstitched. And I don’t know what exactly to tell Brandon about the unhappy tale of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I could tell him how Basquiat used to tag the D in 1978, 1979. That’s why I brought us here in the first place. At the beginning of his career, Basquiat went by the street name SAMO©, which stood for Same Old Shit. He’d spray crazy little sayings on these very walls before he started painting on canvas and got famous. SAMO© Saves Losers, SAMO© as an end to 9-5. Basquiat was a genius, a snappy dresser, a ladies’ man, and a junkie. He had these long dreads that he would tie up into a spiky crown at the top of his head. He created in a frenzy. He would listen to Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie on his earphones and emblazon the back wall of a liquor store with red starbursts and stuttering phrases like Mississippi Mississippi Mississippi. He sketched skeletons, policemen, dogs, and jazz men in small ringed notebooks, purchased for thirty-five cents. He became friends with Andy Warhol and ultimately showed at the Gagosian. He dated Keith Haring. He dated Madonna.

But that’s not why he was special enough to put on our itinerary. Basquiat felt things. It made his life sort of unbearable. He couldn’t cope, for example, with the death of his friend, Michael Stewart, who was a black graffiti artist, too. In 1983, Stewart was arrested by a group of Anglo police officers for tagging a subway station wall on First Avenue. The police killed him, and listed the cause of death as a heart attack, though an independent pathologist said he succumbed to strangulation.

So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.

There’s a picture that photographer Virginia Liberatore took of Basquiat and Madonna around ’83. They were in love. In the image, Madonna is gorgeous and sharp-boned, with spiky blond hair and a tilted, pointy face. Even back then, Madonna understood Market Forces, which require that you at all times remain both relatable and aspirational and not get derailed by emotions. Madonna is relatable and aspirational in the picture as she makes a cute cat’s claw and pounces at the camera. She’s already a star, though her self-titled monster album hadn’t even come out yet. Basquiat, on the other hand, does not understand Market Forces. He looks sad, with a soft smile and wide-set, inconsolable eyes that reflect the terrible truth about Michael Stewart.  He can’t handle the same old shit. You can see what a winner at life Madonna is and what a mess Basquiat was going to be. She broke up with him not too long after Liberatore shot the image.

But, no, I don’t want to tell Brandon about all of that. Once, I had this girlfriend named Xochil who left me after she started eating meat again, “for [her] health,” and I had re-explained in gentle if graphic detail the ethics of factory farming. She, along with Madonna, are just two of the reasons why I will now keep my comments meaningful yet playful, interesting yet not too dark or so deep that they verge on Schopenhauerian pessimism.

“My favorite Basquiat is called Horn Players,” I finally say. “It has Dizzy Gillespie in it, and teeth, and all these crazy scribbled words, and Charlie Parker.” I smile at Brandon, admiring his dark, swashbuckler’s eyes. Brandon’s half ethnic Chinese, though his parents were born in Brazil.

So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.

For a second, I look across the aisle again, at those T-shirted kids playing with their phones, and see one of them has picked up the busted-up Times that Eyebrows had been reading.

“Teeth?” Brandon asks.

“Basquiat had dental problems. Drug problems, really.”

“I love Charlie Parker. In law school, I downed a beer bong and did this crazy sort of romantic spider dance at a party when ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ started playing on Pandora.”

“What’s a romantic spider dance?” I start laughing.

“It involves a lot of kissing, having eight legs, and being extremely unsober.” He nuzzles my head with his. “That was a long time ago.”

Brandon and I now have our arms around each other. The fluorescent lights in the car shimmer on his wide white teeth so that he looks like a toothpaste model. He smells like cinnamon. The bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings have started listening to the same song on his iPhone, sharing spindly white headphones. The kid reading the paper across the car is invisible behind the Times, except for his feet, which are huge and encased in light blue Vans.

Brandon runs his hand through the long part of my hair, tenderly touching my scalp. “You’re so beautiful.”

A small sun begins faintly shining inside of my belly. As we sit there, I begin to feel better, less unraveled. After a minute or two, I realize that I actually am starting to feel happiness approaching me. It feels easy, softer. It feels good.

I start singing, quietly. I’m singing that Charlie Parker song:

I didn’t know what time it was
Then I met you
Oh, what a lovely time it was
How sublime it was too.

The song floats between us. My lips are on Brandon’s cheek. I touch his throat and feel his pulse. I think of how he held me last night at the expensive Regis hotel, after I’d stopped quoting the Mother Jones tweets. I remember the tender things that he whispered to me in bed.

You’re all right, you’re ok, he’d said.  I’m here.

But then I make a mistake. Because when I ponder Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub. And instead of gazing sweetly at Brandon like a solid life partner with whom he can share headphones, playful obscenities, and the morning news, I look across the aisle again. I stare at the kid in the blue Vans studying the paper with a placid face. I hear something all at once, a hacking sound. I look up to the left, and notice that beyond the couple who had been joking about made-up porno movies stands a short, heavy, white, bald man wearing glasses and a yellow button-down shirt. He is also looking at the kid with the Vans. The bald man’s round, apple-shaped face is bulging and trembling as he looks at what the kid is reading. His lips have turned white.  People are staring at him, the bald guy; a young black woman with red beads in her hair and a Latino man wearing a black tank top also start crying. And then, to the right of them, I see a white guy with piercings and a Stonewall T-shirt look at Blue Vans’ NYT with this dead face, and dead eyes.

I shift my gaze again, staring at the kid’s Times the way they are. I see the Orlando victims’ selfies that splash across the front page.

There’s a picture of a woman about my age, with buzzed dark hair. She’s wearing black-rimmed glasses, and a turned-around baseball cap. Her mouth opens wide into a punky, happy grin.

There’s another picture of a guy, who looks like he’s in his late teens, and might have been transitioning. He’s got a wispy little mustache and close-cropped beard, and these doe eyes, and he’s wearing those earlobe extending earrings. You can see that he’s trying to look beautiful for the camera.

And there’s a guy who’s leaning back on a pillow, smiling, so that his dimples show. He looks Latino. They’re all Latina or Latino. He has groomed eyebrows, and maybe cornrows? He’s got frosted tips and a soul patch. And he looks like he’s not thirty-five years old.

But then I make a mistake. Because when I think of Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub.

Brandon kisses me on my cheek, gently, and then smack-kisses me, playfully. “So, what happened to Basquiat?”

I rub my upper lip with my index finger and feel my mouth shaking.

“Um, he died,” I say.

I lean back, put my elbows on my knees, and then rest my head on my thumbs, like a more freaked version of The Thinker. I look down at my huaraches once more, my black backpack. I can hear the bearded guy and the lady with the earrings softly scatting to the song they’re playing on their iPhone. The lady in the Mets cap is grunting again and flexing. I can feel Brandon watching me, confused. My face is wet and I’m making an eeeeehhhhhhhhh sound.

“Bon don da ton ton ton ton, bon ta ta ton ughghggh,” the lady in the Mets cap sings.

Brandon puts his hand on my arm, squeezing it gently. “Amanda.”

I’m still making that animal noise. I try to stop. I wipe my cheek with my shoulder. I reach down, opening my backpack and pulling out my iPhone. I switch the phone on. I get on Chrome and begin searching on Orlando and clip the photos of the smiling woman in the baseball cap, the guy with the wispy mustache, and the guy with the dimples.

I feed them into my Fun Tools collage app. I begin to make a small, shifting, indigo assemblage of their faces. It’s no Horn Players. It’s kitsch. I erase it and start again.

“I – I – ” I shake my head. “Why?”

“Amanda,” Brandon says again, taking his hand off my arm.

I change the collage’s color to orange-violet. I can barely see. Tears drip down my chin. The world looks red. The subway racket is a rapid heartbeat. My hands shake but I press and slide the pictures, press and slide, the woman, the transitioning kid, the man.

I need to get myself to a march or a memorial that must be happening today. I’ll stand in a crowd and cry and it won’t help anybody and it will be better than this. I’ll take Brandon along with me. I hope to God he doesn’t say anything like it’s too depressing.

“No, I don’t want children,” I manage to say.

Yxta MurrayYxta Maya Murray is a writer and a law professor living in Los Angeles.  She is the author of six novels, including The Conquest (2002).  She won a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1999.

 

Since I Got Here

Since you always wanted to know. Since you’ve been asking me ever since I moved here.

I had lost my job and she had lost her mother. We were great at losing things. She asked her therapist, how could we lose all these beautiful things in a small world? Where do they go if we live in the same house, barely leave town? There was no good answer I ever heard. She stopped seeing the guy after he suggested we break up. No way, she shook her head. I can’t lose anything else. He can’t lose anything else. There’s no sense in that, she screamed. She got led out of there by a rent-a-cop.

We sat for hours at the kitchen table, going over the same bills, plucking magical money from the sky. I drank gin and she drank milk as The Band played on our old record player, like a haunted old quartet that roamed the narrow nearby dirt roads. The same piles of dust appeared on our cabinets and duvets. I put a hand on her shoulder and she said, don’t tell me it’ll be all right, I’m just not in the mood to hear that right now. I said, what are you in the mood to hear? She just shot me this pathetic smile and said, this dumb old song on the record player. So I took my gin outside and watched a few hawks fly back and forth in the dark ugly air.

I think what really started it is that her fucking brother showed up one day. He carried this old Sears & Roebuck luggage bag and started asking for money. He was missing a few teeth and was growing this biker beard, much different than the college know-it-all that he was when I first met him. My wife gave him the royal treatment, letting him sit down in my chair, even, and I told him he couldn’t until he shaved off that ridiculous beard. A small fight broke out. I knocked over the lamp. He got me in the kidney with a decent hook. My wife screamed at us to stop and I made sure to put a hand on her shoulder this time to tell her I would be all right. She said something and I said something and her brother did leave and he never got his fucking money. Which is all I wanted in the first place. That takes a real coward, to walk into a house of confusion and ask for something. I never did see him again but I’m sure she ran after him days later when I was off looking for work.

And I did look, too. I tried warehouse and farm work. I even tried the goddamn diner as a fry cook but nothing ever came out of it. Most days I would just sit with a six pack of Shiner and a pack of Parliaments on a park bench and watch the same dark ugly air. This entire place was just coated with the stink of everyone’s lives. I knew the end was coming and I tried to blanket it with as much beer and smoke as I could, as most people around these parts do. 

I drank gin and she drank milk as The Band played on our old record player, like a haunted old quartet that roamed the narrow nearby dirt roads.

I know this story isn’t exciting. But you asked.

So about a few weeks later, what I was waiting to happen finally did happen. I caught her sneaking around. I had come home in a haze and I found them necking on the back porch. He was drinking my gin and they had Blue Cheer on the record player. I tried to be stealthy but all I did was grab the motherfucker by his neck and throw him down and kick him in the ribs. My wife just sat there. Didn’t say a word. Which was surprising. I threw him down in the yard and he tried to run but I caught him down by the marsh and grabbed a big clump of mud and rammed it down his throat. I let him go after. I saw him stumble off towards the ridge up far ahead and those same damn hawks were flying, watching us, watching him, thinking what fools we were, more than likely.

I went back up to the porch and she didn’t say a word. Is it all right now, I said? She sat there, silent, happy probably, in a stupid tiny kingdom. I said, I’m gone. Still nothing. I went in and threw everything I could in a few trash bags. I stood in the doorway then, all these shadows of us and other things dancing around, trying to settle. I called her name and said to kiss me goodbye but she sat there, just listening to the music. I left and took the truck, figuring it’d be a good damn idea to strand her for a while.

Well, it really didn’t end there. Because she found me soon after. It really was a small world. Remember when I said how could we lose such things in a world as small as this? We never lose them. Not finally, anyway.

I moved back home with my mother. She wasn’t doing very well. I did all the housework and was getting it ready to put up for sale since I knew she didn’t have long. I didn’t have much desire to sleep in the same room again, drink gin in the same basement. So it had to go. Everyone would have wanted it that way, I think.

Well, one day my mom was at the doctor’s office, and I came home quick to eat lunch. I was out in the front yard, about to get the mail, when this taxi pulls up and my wife gets out. In this big old white sundress and this ridiculous hat, like she was First Lady or something. Guest speaker at the church bazaar, I guess. Well, she took a long deep look at me, and I held out my arms, as if to say, make your move, this is a boxing match now. She started to weep and I didn’t know what to do so I started to turn back to the house when she grabbed me by the arm. I turned and I finally saw the grief in her eyes. All the sorrow she had conjured in full plain view now. But I didn’t give in. I said, go find the man with mud in his mouth. Go run to him and sing Rock Me Baby, maybe he’ll come by and make you feel sixteen again. She acted like she was going to slap me, but instead just turned and went back into the same taxi. I guess she told him not to leave. She stuck her head out of the window and told me that if I ever changed my mind, I would know where she was. I just spat on the ground and they drove away. I got the mail. Everything became ordinary again.

A month later my mother did die. I guess she just had a bad doctor. I buried her, sold the house, had a yard sale, left everything that didn’t sell in the small dead yard. I posted signs all over wobbly telephone poles and grimy phone booth walls, but no one came biting. No one wanted the things I had, even for free. I expected her to come by, to rifle through all the dust and gin-soaked pieces of my life, but I guess she had enough of seeing the dots and blurs and marks of our ridiculous time spent. I left it all in a box for the trash man and I went to go find another place to live. What I had fit in the trunk of the car. I went to a diner, asked to see a phone book, picked the first town that I thought sounded even halfway welcoming, which was here. Got back in the car, drove down, knowing full well that even though I had a wife I guess I could go home to again, she wouldn’t be able to accept my dust, and I wouldn’t be able to accept the bullshit silence she gave when I beat her lover to an inch of his stupid, rotten life. I couldn’t live with someone who didn’t appreciate what I did for them. I can’t even live with myself, barely. It’s enough to make a man sick.

One day I know she’ll find me, she’ll have to. She’ll search for an address just like I searched for money or reasons or even another glass of something cold to drink. You’re given things throughout your life and you can choose to hang on or you can choose to lose them, only to find them and touch them again. There’s plenty of chances for someone—even if you’re pathetic like that guy who drank with my wife—to find what you want, to find what you need. Right now, I have no reason to get up off this stool and go hunting for something that’s just an ugly piece of an old nightmare. Especially not now, when this town looks the way it does. It’s better than the old ugly air that I saw before, many times, many nights, when I knew that life could get better than what I had.

I’m rambling, I’m sorry. But you wanted to know. You’ve been asking me ever since I got here. Tell me your story, now. Come on. I’ll buy you another beer and we’ll take a table and you can tell me the best story you ever heard or the worst one you ever heard. I promise to listen. I promise not to talk over you.

That promise I can keep, this time.

Kevin Richard WhiteKevin Richard White is the author of the novels Steep Drop and The Face Of A Monster. His short fiction has been previously published by Akashic Books, Tahoe Writers Works, Crack The Spine, and Cactus Heart Press. He is also a contributor to the indie music magazine Manifesto Of Sound, and is the head editor of Viewfinder Literary Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania.

 

Don’t Say Anything

One month alone, and Jesse was still getting used to things. He was filling a saucepan for tea—Anna hadn’t let him take the kettle—and when he touched the stove and the faucet at the same time, he got a jolt up his arm. His arm jerked back and the saucepan flew off the stove and clanged on the kitchen floor. The old heap must have been ungrounded. Jesse swore. He curled into a corner of the kitchen floor and rubbed his aching arm. His heart thumped a fast, funny beat.

Anna and Henry were playing in the vacant lot outside. Through the window, Jesse could hear their laughter as they, unaware of his accident, chased a neighbor’s cat around. Anna had brought Henry’s overnight bag and his teddy bear, and now Jesse wished Anna would just bring in Henry, say her goodbyes, and leave. The oven contained a cake for Henry’s birthday, and Jesse figured that he and Henry would eat it all themselves. Jesse had never baked a cake before, and the kitchen smelled surprisingly good, but he didn’t want to touch the oven again. How to get the cake out…

A young woman came down the fire escape outside his window. Jesse saw her bare feet picking spots on the iron grate. The woman peeked in the window, her fingers folding around the sash. She said she lived upstairs. She had heard all the clatter. Was anything wrong? Jesse sat up from the floor and kneeled, still gripping his arm. The woman climbed in the window.

She helped him wipe the water off the floor. She wore a sundress, yellow with red polka dots. The hem of her dress skimmed the wet floor as she squatted down. Her feet left small wet prints on the old linoleum. She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that. She wiped the floor.

She asked, “So what’s your major?” She looked at Jesse and waited for his answer. She had beautiful brown eyes.

Jesse shook his head and held up his hand. “Uh, parenting.”

“You don’t go to the U?”

“No, but obviously you do.”

The young woman smiled. She stood, gathered the ends of her skirt, and climbed out the window. Her arched feet stepped over a dish of cat food on the landing, and she was gone. Jesse’s hands trembled. He left the saucepan in the sink. He didn’t want tea anymore. He was shaking. His body remembered the stove.

She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that.

From the kitchen window, Jesse watched Anna and Henry chasing the cat in wide circles in the grass. The sun cast long shadows across the vacant lot. Fairy rings had sprouted in the open spaces, but college students had worn a path among them. Cars whizzed by. Jesse saw the pink sunset, and he heard his son’s laughter and Anna’s voice, and from the upstairs apartment window he heard dishwater splashing, and the girl, Jessie, singing a tune, “One, two, three, four…” From another window came the sounds of a couple having sex. Jesse closed his eyes for five long seconds. His heart still rattled about.

Wearing a hot-mitt, and using just one hand so as not to complete a circuit, Jesse opened the oven and took out his son’s cake. His hands were shaking as he spread a can of green frosting. Henry had asked for green. The frosting melted on the hot cake, pooling along the edge of the pan. Should have let it cool. Anna would remark about that. She should have left already. He stuck four candles in. Bought them himself. He had never bought birthday candles before. He didn’t know where to put the extra candles. Hadn’t thought of that. A drawer? Above the stove? Fucking stove.

Matches. He had forgotten matches. The neighbor, Jessie, maybe she had some. He wiped his hands on a towel, lifted the cake, and climbed out to the fire-escape landing. Climbing the stairs he heard Jessie on the phone, her voice through her kitchen window talking and laughing, “Dude, that’s so awesome!” Never mind. He turned back, stepped over the dish of cat food, and carried the unlit birthday cake down the iron stairs to his wife and son.

Long light combed through the grass. It was end-of-summer light. End-of-a-good-day light. The sun lit the cottonwood leaves, and the empty lot glowed with pink light through the leaves. Jesse was happy to have this light. Every night, sitting on his fire escape and watching the pink light, he didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, which meant he didn’t explain anything hurtful or bad. The night would come later, hard and alone, but evening was a beautiful time if you could stand the cold. It was always cold. It was Missoula, the northern Rockies, and it was always cold in the evening. You wore a sweater. Anna was wearing a blue sweater. She looked good in a sweater.

Jesse’s little boy was chasing the cat around the lot. Anna sat at a picnic table that the college students had dragged over from a city park. The long light of a Montana summer evening made Anna’s skin look pink and warm. She was drinking wine from one of Jesse’s plastic cups. She frowned as Jesse laid the cake on the table.

“It’s not lit,” she said in her slow sleepy voice. She wasn’t mad.

“I don’t have matches.”

“Jesus, Jess.” She dug through her purse and found a lighter.

“What the fuck,” he said.

“None of your business.”

“So if my son starts smoking and dies of cancer, can I never forgive you?”

Jesse took the lighter and tried to light the candles on the cake. His hands still shook, and the flame danced around the wick. “Uh, I got a little jolt from the stove.”

“The stove? What about Henry?”

“He’ll be fine as long as he’s not grounded when he touches it.”

“Oh good, explain that to a four-year-old.”

“The knobs are just his height too. It’s a funky old—”

“I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.”

“He likes it. I like it. He likes the fire escape, and the Murphy bed, and he likes that stray kitty. Besides, it’s only for a while.”

“Until what.”

“Until I-don’t-know. Heck, I haven’t even told you about the airshaft. See, there’s this little door that—”

“No.” Anna put her hands over her face.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry about what, Jess?”

Jesse sat at the picnic table, and Henry ran over and sat in his lap. They sang Happy Birthday and ate warm pieces of cake. Green frosting stuck on their fingers. Jesse’s heart slowed to a placid pace.

Henry asked why he was getting this second birthday cake.

Anna stepped away from the table. Her face shone in the light. Her shoulders were tight. Her jaw was tight. She must have been cold. Jesse scooted from under Henry’s weight and went over to stand by Anna.

Anna stared into the pink sun, then she looked down. Her sleepy voice. “He thinks I’m spending the night too.”

“You didn’t tell him?”

“He wouldn’t come if he knew.”

“What the fuck. This is my night. My first night. His and mine.”

“There’ll be hitches. It’s okay. I can take him home. I got nothing else to do.”

They walked farther into the grass and into the light. It was cold. Arms touching.

“Damn it, Anna. This is a fucking undermine.”

“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”

“Happy?”

“And then I’ll go, okay?” Anna started to cry but the muscles in her face fought it back.

Behind them came a clatter. The neighbor girl, Jessie, stood on the fire escape. She was putting out a fresh bowl for the cat. She wore an Icelandic sweater over her sundress. It was cold in Missoula. She understood this. She was smoking a cigarette on her landing. So she did have matches. Didn’t matter anymore. That’s the way it was.

“Look at the light.” Jesse was pointing at the apartments. He was thinking about the light on the girl’s long loose hair.

Anna’s voice. “So Jess, I was thinking….”

“What?”

“About his preschool…”

“Sure. But just look at the sunlight. It’s only for a moment.”

“Listen to me.”

“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”

Jesse didn’t listen. He ran back to the picnic table and played with his little boy. Crumbs and frosting smeared Henry’s face: Forget about cleaning that up. They chased the cat. The cat was just a kitten and it stayed close to them, but when Henry and Jesse began chasing each other the cat lost interest, ran through the bushes, and was gone. No matter. Jesse picked up his boy and swung him around and around, matting down the grass. All the things he had wanted from life felt like they weren’t going to happen now. Where could life go? It didn’t matter. They played in the small empty lot and hid in the grass. The cars hissed by.

Two girls came around the front of the apartments and across the worn path. One of them stepped off the path and bent over a fairy ring, picking flowers with her right hand while her left hand held back her hair. The other girl knelt beside her and picked flowers too. They spoke Ukrainian or Russian. The girls stood close, touching. Each girl held a fist of weedy flowers and tucked them into the other’s hair.

“What are you looking at?” Anna stepped up to Jesse and Henry.

“They’re Pentacostal, or something. Their fathers won’t let them see boys. They touch each other because that’s all they have.”

Anna snared Henry in her arms. “Seems to be a lot of pretty co-eds here.” She wiped Henry’s face with a cloth. She looked tired. She still had her ring on. Her fingers looked old.

Henry said, “What’s a co-ed, mommy?”

“Um, I don’t know, a girl.”

“That’s silly.”

“Your mom was a co-ed.”

Anna kicked Jessie.

“A what?”

“A beautiful co-ed.”

Anna laughed and rolled her eyes. She took the wine bottle and refilled her plastic cup. Jesse sat with Anna on the picnic table and drank wine and watched Henry spend all his playful energy running around. Get him good and tired before bed.

Henry stopped and watched them. Puzzled.

“It’s short for co-educational.”

Henry cackled but surely did not understand. Oh well. This would be all right. But it would not be all right. That’s what the marriage counselor had warned. It would not be all right, but what could you do? Poor Henry.

Jesse led Anna and Henry in. They climbed the fire escape, left the cake and the wine on the fire-escape landing, and entered through the window. Inside, while Anna tidied up the kitchen, Jesse tried to demonstrate that he could get it right: changing Henry into a pull-up, brushing his teeth, helping him go pee, singing all the right songs. Henry found the airshaft’s little door right away, but Jesse blocked it with the heaviest box he could find. Good thing he hadn’t unpacked the boxes. Henry bounced on the bed and asked about his mom. Jesse said she was cleaning dishes.

“This is a mess,” she yelled in. “You need some paper for the cabinets. You just do.”

Henry kept bouncing on the bed.

Anna came into the main room. Jesse and Henry began a tug-of-war with the Murphy bed, pushing and pulling the bed into the wall and out again.

“He’ll squish his fingers!”

“Everyone likes it.”

“Everyone? I didn’t know you had so many friends in bed.”

“Knock it off, Anna.”

A voice came from the kitchen. The girl, Jessie, had come into Jesse’s apartment from the fire escape. She peeked around the corner, smiled, and held up Jesse’s serving spoon inquiringly. Then she was gone. Scampered away. Her footsteps made little pings on the iron landing.

“What was that all about?”

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing. He held his son tight and rolled on his back.

“I said, Who was that? Your concubine?”

“I think her name’s Jessie. She goes to the U and—”

“What the fuck is this place?”

“Well, there’s a ton of students, okay? She’s borrowing a spoon. A spoon. She’s probably stoned, watching TV, munching Häagen-Dazs, getting fat.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“I guess.” He and Henry rolled the other way.

“Don’t ‘I guess’ me. You know it. How many other hotties live here?”

“What’s a hottie, Dad?”

“Will you just get on with things? I’ll wait outside.” Jesse climbed off the bed, into the kitchen, and out to the fire escape. He drank wine from the bottle and dangled his legs into the last violet light before dark.

The key to happiness was the light. The last light. It was private, and he wished Anna would go. She was in there, putting Henry down, and he wished to sit alone and say nothing and watch the light’s slender swords slide between the cottonwood leaves, longer, longer, until the night allowed the dark to stay. Loneliness would set in, but Anna would be somewhere else. He could handle loneliness alone. With her it would be too much to bear. He closed his eyes.

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing.

They had been fixing up a rough-timber house on five acres along the Clark Fork. It backed against the river. Half their property was flooded in the spring, but the house was above the water line, and it was beautiful. Swallows nested in the eaves, and at night they circled over the water. Every night, Jesse drank wine in the kitchen and listened to the river whispering. Through the small kitchen window he would watch the swallows fly their long circles. The low sunlight made the fog pink and glowing, and that window became a little box of color, and Jesse swore on the light through that small window: He was going to replace that window with something big. Then Anna would come back from her shift at the hospital. They’d sit in their kitchen and gaze at the small window and think different thoughts. They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over. When the darkness was so complete that the window shrank to nothing, Jesse wandered into the bedroom and the bright light. Anna busied herself knitting. Jesse dreamed of a happier time. He closed his eyes and dreamed of it hard. He couldn’t tell her. There wasn’t supposed to be a time happier than this.

A police car zoomed down the avenue. Everything that was wrong seemed far away.

The Ukrainian girls were sitting at the picnic table, kicking each other’s feet. A man’s voice yelled from a block away. It was time to go. They leaned close and walked the worn path. Their arms brushed. They got to the sidewalk, but they couldn’t hug, and intimacy had to be a game that meant nothing, one of them wrestling and tugging and falling into the other, then giggling and helping her up and smoothing her long hair, and then it was over. One girl ran, her hair lifting back. The other girl ran too, far from this, her fingers clenched around her hair.

Anna came out. The fire escape rang with her steps. She took the bottle of wine and poured two cups, and together they sat on the fire escape and drank the wine. Someone in the apartments was playing Bob Marley.

“I should go.”

“Yeah.”

Anna looked at the wine bottle. “I have to drive. That fucking house.”

“You going to sell it?”

“Did he tell you we saw a cougar? Your little boy saw a cougar. I didn’t believe it until I went out there and saw the tracks by the swing set.”

Jesse poured himself more wine. Plastic cup.

“It’s going to be so dark. I hate that. I hate that house. I hate it there.”

“You should get a gun.”

“Fuck you.”

“Just be civil. This is good wine. Like in Taos. Remember?”

“Yeah.” She poured another cup.

“So, you were saying about his preschool…”

“Shut up about his preschool. I’ll just send you the bill.”

They ate cake. They drank wine. It was cold, and they sat close together.

Anna said, “What the hell are you going to do, Jesse?”

“You know. This is what I do.”

“And it’s fucked.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Fuck you.” She leaned against him.

Her arm felt warm against his, and it felt familiar, and her shoulder fit the way it always did, and her sweater hugged her body the same as always too. Jesse put his arm around her, and her shoulders tensed, then gave, and her head rested on his chest. She was close and warm. She didn’t say anything.

The purple sky of a long northern summer evening held out.

They leaned in and kissed. He pushed back her hair.

“Jesse.”

“No. No. Don’t say anything.” 

They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over.

*     *     *

They fucked like old times. They moved Henry’s little body to the Goodwill sofa, and they fucked on the bed that folded into a wall. Fucking was always something good that they had. They knew how to be tender. Maybe they were used to being cruel, but they put that aside, and they spent the little tenderness that was left. They knew how to please each other decently. The right touches down the muscles along the spine. Finding the contours of the hip bones and pressing together. And all the time, Jesse knew that there would be another girl, someday, but there would never be this. There would never be this again. Did Anna know it too? You didn’t ask those things. They nestled together long after any hope was left, but Montana summer nights did not last long, and dawn was already seeping into the room, and Anna’s wavy hair was tangled, and she pushed it back with the heel of her palm and squinted at the bluing sky. They woke up adrift in the middle of the bed.

Jesse and Anna didn’t say anything. A long time ago, words had broken the ice, opened the heart. Standing beneath aspens on a hike in Taos, Jesse had told her, “You are so beautiful.” She had said, “No, you’re beautiful.” But this time, it would not be words. There was nothing to explain. When the only choice lay in deciding who would break whose heart, you didn’t say anything.

It was Jesse’s turn. He got up. The air against his skin felt cold. The wall hummed with water in the pipes. Someone was singing and taking a bath. You could hear it through the airshaft, a Joni Mitchell tune. Jesse looked at Anna. She looked at him the way she always did in the morning, a smile, only today it was wry and pained.

Jesse went to the window. There was the long lovely light, from the east this time, the shadows slicing the other way. Last week he had seen a coyote. The fairy rings, heavy with dew, slumped over. The Ukrainian girls were in the lot. They sat on the cold wet edge of the picnic table, shoulders touching. They each wore a T-shirt and shorts, and they must have been cold. Later they would leave, and Henry and Jesse would play in the grass. Hide-and-seek and fairy villages. They’d have a picnic. Then the long shadows Jesse loved best would collapse across the grass, and Anna would come back to pick up Henry, and Jesse would watch the sunset alone and make his life go far, far away. He turned.

“This is my time,” he said. “So go.”

“I am going. You don’t tell me.” Anna shoved her hair back and looked around the bed for her clothes.

“So go.”

“I am.” She yelled.

“Shh.”

Henry began to stir.

“He can’t hear me.” She gathered up her things, shuffled to the bathroom.

“Shh… just shh.” Jesse looked away. Don’t say anything. Make it hurt less. When you break a heart, don’t say a thing. Jesse put on shorts and a yellow New Mexico T-shirt. Anna emerged from the bathroom and left quietly. The front door made a soft click.

As the sunrise lit up the room, a girl’s singing floated from the airshaft. A new tune that Jesse did not know. Henry woke up, and he and Jesse played on the bed. Jesse served leftover cake for breakfast. Henry kneeled on a chair at the table and ate two pieces of cake. Small pieces. The bare bright light cut through the trees on the eastern side of the lot. The bare light of a hot day.

A girl passed the window. Those slender feet again. Jessie. She wore a baseball T-shirt and a printed Indian skirt. Wet hair. She peeked in, her fingers on the sash.

“Jesse?”

“Good morning, Jessie. This is my son, Henry.”

Jessie peeked into the main room and smiled sweetly at the boy. Henry did not look up from his cake.

“Hey, Henry. My name’s Jessie too.” She turned. “I brought back your serving spoon. I’m sorry. I’m still getting set up.”

“Me too.”

She leaned against the kitchen counter. “Have you seen my kitty? He didn’t come in last night.”

“Not since then. Do you want some breakfast?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” The girl looked down. She fidgeted her bare feet. She finger-combed her wet hair.

“Please. We have cake.”

“I mean…”

“Don’t say anything. Just eat.”

She smiled. She looked down again, but only for a moment. She looked at Jesse, resting her eyes there, and she smiled. Jesse didn’t know what to say. He liked her, but come on… He wanted to tell her there would be sorrow, hope and abundant sorrow, and someday she would understand. But not today. He wanted to tell her about the light, the beautiful light in the evening, but he did not. He didn’t want words for anything, gazing at the pretty girl who smiled back at him the longest time. She was not shy, but maybe a little, because she kept combing her fingers through her wet hair, and her bare wet feet shifted around, but her gaze was solid on his eyes—until she rested her wet hand on that funky old stove and it happened, the electricity, 220 volts, hard and sharp, seized her muscles and shook her, and she twisted away.

She cried. She sank down, her body balling up, her skirt sticking to her wet skinny legs. She was trembling from her fingertips to her spine.

Jesse kneeled and held her. Henry came running as far as the doorway and watched. “Stay back!” Jesse yelled. He held the wet barefoot girl and stroked her long wet hair, and it took all his strength to say, “Shh.” His breath was spent and dry when he tried to say, “The light in the evening.” And when the girl looked up at him confused as a child, Jesse didn’t have enough breath to whisper, “Don’t say anything.”

Evan Morgan WilliamsEvan Morgan Williams’s collection of stories, Thorn, won the Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). The judge was Al Young. Williams has held an AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship and a residency with Writers in the Schools. He has published over forty stories in such magazines as Witness, Antioch Review, (The) Kenyon Review, and ZYZZYVA. “Don’t Say Anything” is his second story in Lunch Ticket. www.evanmorganwilliams.wordpress.com

The Day

“Come on, Daddy. Wake up! It’s time for our Saturday walk.”

“Okay, okay, I’m waking up.” He opens his eyes expecting to see a child, but the sunlit room is empty. Where is he?

He sits up, puts his feet on the floor, then looks around.

Nothing looks familiar. Not right. Name things. Start naming. “Bed. P… pillow. Sitting, no… chair. Picture. Table… no, not table, dressing… dresser.”

“Dresser.” He picks up the picture. The woman’s hair is long and dark. She’s wearing a blue dress… Think, Charlie, think!

“Charlie. I’m Charlie Johnson.”

“Charlie? Did you call me?” A voice from the doorway of the bedroom.

I know her, but what’s her name?

“Are you all right?” she asks. When she steps into the room, he notices a cast on her leg.

“What happened?” he asks. He points at her leg.

“I fell down the front steps three days ago,” she says, “and I broke a couple of bones in my foot.”

“I remember,” he says. You don’t really remember. “Yes, I do.”

She hugs him. “I believe you, Charlie. You called 911, then went with me to the hospital. You stayed with me the entire time. You took good care of me.”

Annie. He hugs her. “Annie. You’re my wife, Annie.”

He feels her body tense. “Yes, sweet Charlie. I’m your wife, Annie. And you, sir, have been my husband for thirty-six years.”

She’s smiling, but something’s wrong.

“Tell you what,” she says brightly, “you take a shower, and I’ll fix us breakfast.”

“Good,” he says. He looks around the room.

She points to a doorway. “The bathroom is there.” They walk to the doorway and he looks in.

“Be sure to wash your hair—it’s sticking up in the back like a haystack.”

He looks in the mirror over the sink. “What if I like it this way? Maybe it’s a new style I’m trying out.”

She smacks him lightly on the arm and smiles.

“Do you need any help with the shower?”

“No. I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby.”

She picks up a spiral-bound tablet on her nightstand and thumbs through several pages. “I’ll wait until you’re finished with your shower. Would you like some toast with your eggs?”

“Sounds good,” he says as he strips off his pajamas.

After his shower, he feels fully awake. The foggy feeling has gone. He sits on their bed, pulling on his socks, when the tablet catches his eye. He picks it up and opens to the first page.

The word “December” is written at the very top. “Morning, Afternoon, Night” are spaced on the top line from left to right. The days of the month run down the left side. Checkmarks are scattered on the page. He counts them: ten. The next page has eight, and the page after that has fourteen. May has eighteen and June has twenty-five, with checkmarks in the morning, afternoon, and night columns. He does not know what this means, but his heart is beating faster as he thumbs through July, August, and September. More marks. October has even more marks, sometimes several in a day. The last mark is in the morning on day 23. He looks at the calendar on the wall next to the dresser. October is in large print at the top.

His stomach twists into a knot. He is breathing faster, and it’s hard to take a deep breath. He rushes out of the bedroom, through the living room, and into the kitchen.

“Annie!”

Anne jumps and drops the knife she is using. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s this?” he asks, waving the tablet at her.

She takes it from him, then says, “This is how I record your ‘lost time.’ That’s what you call it, ‘lost time.’ You asked me to keep track.”

“Oh,” he says. He tries to remember, but his memories are like small fish that he can see but cannot capture. He feels dizzy, so he sits in one of the chairs at the small table in the dining nook that faces the oversized kitchen window.

She sits in a chair next to him. “It was early in December when you asked me to keep a log. We were sitting here, at this table.” She puts the tablet down and rests her hand on his.

“You asked me to do this because your doctor said there would be more daily episodes just before you… before I lose you.” Her voice becomes softer.

He picks up the tablet and turns to the last page. He studies the page for almost a minute, sorting through his jumbled thoughts to make sense of the marks on the page.

“This says October. We’re in October, right?”

“Right. This is today’s date.” She points to the 23.

He points to the previous week. Every day has at least two marks under “morning” and “afternoon,” but three or four in the “night” column.

“So they’re becoming more fire… first…” He shakes his head.

“Frequent?”

“Yes.” He points to the mark she made this morning. “I’ve already had one… today?”

“Yes.” Frown lines appear between her eyes.

“So it can happen any time. I could lose time, like this morning, but never come back.”

Anne’s lips compress into a straight line as she nods. Her eyes glisten.

“I’m scared,” he says softly.

“Me, too.” She scoots her chair closer to his. He feels the weight of her arm on his shoulders.

He closes his eyes. Clock is ticking. I feel Annie breathing. That smell… that’s Annie’s soap.

I’m home. This is home. Annie is here.

“How about breakfast?” Anne asks. “We’ll feel better after we eat.” He nods.

As she works, he stares out the window as pictures of his mother squeeze into his brain. She was in the end stage of Alzheimer’s, lying in her bed, silent and mindless. This is his future. Acid rises in the back of his throat.

A movement outside snaps him back to the present. A black squirrel scurries through the deep green grass of the vacant lot that sits between his house and the neighbor’s home.

They’ve lived there a long time, but I’ve lost their names.

More movement. The trees lining the street are dropping their leaves. Single leaves flutter to the ground, but when a breeze passes by hundreds fall in a blizzard of color.

He leans back in the chair and sighs.

It’s so pretty.

Two small children are playing in the vacant lot. He hears their thin, high voices through the closed window.

Jimmy…

He is grading papers in his home office when Jimmy interrupts him.

“Come play the troll game with us, Daddy.”

Soon he is lurching between the trees waving his arms and growling about eating little boys. They shoot him with finger guns as they yell “Pow!” He staggers as the imaginary bullets strike him, but doesn’t fall. Boyish sopranos yell and scream as they evade his waving arms.

He reads Dr. Seuss books to Jimmy at bedtime. Each character has a different silly voice. Sometimes they act out the story until Annie appears in the doorway.

“Jimmy, if you get your daddy too riled up, he won’t be able to go to sleep tonight,” she says. Jimmy laughs at her joke. But sometimes she can’t resist, and piles on the bed with them.

Jimmy loves the Saturday walks. He would—

“Charlie?”

“Huh?”

“Breakfast is ready. You’ve been looking out the window for several minutes, and I’m a little worried that you’re gone again.”

“I was feeling nas, nostro, astro… ”

“Nostalgic?”

“I was… I was thinking about the Saturday walks that Jimmy and I used to take. Do you remember?”

She sets their eggs and toast on the table. “Yes. You and Jimmy would go off together on Saturdays, and, according to Jimmy, I was not allowed to go along. ‘Saturday walk time is just Daddy and me,’ he said.” She pours coffee for both of them.

“It was not unusual for both of you to come back from your walks with mud on your shoes and clothes, and bits of leaves in your hair.” She smiles as she shakes her head. “My boys.”

He hears her voice catch. Tears run down her face, and she uses a napkin to dab them away.

“What’s wrong?”

For a moment, she says nothing. Then, “I miss him.”

“Who?”

“Jimmy. That’s who we are talking about. Our son.”

He nods. “Of course. Jimmy. He woke me up this morning.” He looks around. “Where is he?”

She takes his hand. “Charlie, Jimmy died a long time ago. His heart just stopped one day.”

His eyes grow moist, and his voice shakes as he asks, “How old was he?”

“Twenty,” she says softly.

He pulls his hand away. “I’m sure I heard him this morning. Am I going crazy?”

“No, Charlie. The doctor said there would be a time when you would have… when you would be seeing or hearing things.”

“Where is he… his body?” he asks.

“He’s not in a cemetery. He was cremated.”

“Cremated?”

“Do you remember what ‘cremated’ means?”

“Burned up. I can remember some things, weird things.”

“We scattered his ashes in the little brook that runs beside Hancock Park.”

“Is that the park I see on my walks?”

“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!”

“Yes. You and Jimmy had a lot of nice times on your walks there, and he loved playing in the brook. When I took him, he would spend hours there floating dead leaves and small twigs.”

She wipes her eyes with her fingertips, then says, “We should eat now. Our food is almost cold.”

Charlie has no appetite, so he only picks at his food as images and sounds tumble over each other in his mind. His heart beats faster and his hands shake. He looks over at Annie, and sees her looking back. She has a puzzled look on her face.

“What’s going on, Charlie?”

“I’m afraid, Annie.” His fork and knife clatter on his plate. He reaches for the coffeepot, but Anne stops him.

“Let me,” she says as she pours some into his cup. “What are you afraid of, Charlie?”

“How could I forget that Jimmy is dead? I’m hearing things that aren’t there, and I even forgot your name for a while this morning. I’m losing big chunks of my life.

“And I’ve been thinking about those marks in the book.” He picks up the tablet, turns to the last page, then lays it on the table so she can read it. She covers it with her napkin. He reaches for her hand; she pulls away.

“What are you trying to say, Charlie?”

“Annie, I… ” He looks out the window. “Time has run away from me. I don’t want to leave you, but…”

He tries to catch her eye, but she will not look at him. Her face is pale and rigid.

“I need to go,” he says. “I’m afraid that if I wait much longer—”

“You don’t know how much longer you have before—”

“This book,” he says as he points to the tablet, “this book says it is happening soon. And think about what I’ve already forgotten. I’m afraid that if I wait another day—”

She throws the tablet on the floor. He is shocked into silence.

She shakes her head, stands, starts to speak, but stops. Then, with agitated movements, she picks up their dishes and puts them in the sink. A butter knife clatters on the wood floor; she picks it up and tosses it onto the counter. With her back to him, she puts her hands on the sink and stands stiff-armed as her head falls forward. Her shoulders are shaking. He stands behind her.

“Please, Annie. Please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m afraid. So much is gone. I have to—”

With a raspy, gasping sound, she turns, wraps her arms around him, and buries her face in his chest. Her shoulders heave as her tears dampen his T-shirt.

She says something.

“What did you say?”

She looks up at him. “When? When do you think you’ll… ”

He pulls away from her. “Today. I’m afraid to wait any longer.”

Her body sags. He holds onto her, helps her sit down. She rests her elbows on her knees and holds her head in her hands as he kneels beside her. He lays a hand on her back, but she shrugs him off. His insides are churning, and his knees are hurting. He sits on the floor with his knees drawn up. The silence feels long and heavy.

“Annie,” he says. She does not respond.

“Annie, I don’t want you to see… I don’t want you to see me like I saw my mother.”

“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!” Her face is white with anger as she hugs herself and goes to the window. He uses the chair to leverage himself to his feet. He wants to walk away, but it might make her mad. He wants to go to her, but she might tell him to leave her alone.

Stay? Go? “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.” A small sound escapes from him, followed by another, then another as he breaks down.

He feels her arms around him, holding him up.

Her voice is soft. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Charlie.” He opens his eyes and sees she is crying.

“I knew this day would come,” she says. “I know you’re scared, and I’m scared, too. When you brought that notebook to the table, I knew what you were thinking. I knew it would be soon. Part of me was hoping you might forget those damn helium tanks you bought. But another part was afraid you would forget them, or you would wait too long and not know how to use them, or—”

“I’m getting confused,” he said, pulling back so he could look her in the eye. “I can’t think fast enough to understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m confused, too. I don’t know what I want.” She smiles as she wipes her eyes. “I know you have to do this. I hate what you want to do, but I understand. I know how terrible, how awful your future is. I know you are afraid of ending up like your mother. I’m not afraid of that, but I am afraid of how I’ll feel two, or five, or ten years from now when your body is alive but you’re gone.” Her voice breaks. She hugs him hard. “You’re doing this for both of us. I love you for that. I’m not mad at you, but I’m furious that this damn disease is taking you from me.”

She looks up at him. “Now am I making sense to you?”

No.

“Yes,” he says as he takes her hands and kisses them. He sits and pulls her onto his lap. They kiss, then she touches his face and hair. She looks at him like she is memorizing each gray hair, each wrinkle, each blemish. They remain like this a long time, breathing in each other as the sun pulls its rays from the room and rises higher in the clear blue sky.

Charlie comes out of their bedroom in his walking shoes, long pants, and a T-shirt under a fleece hoodie. He stops at the closed door of the guest room, takes a breath, then opens it. Two helium tanks, connected by a short hose, are standing at attention beside the bed. A longer hose snakes from one of the tanks to a breathing mask that lies on the bed. Charlie shivers at the sight. This is why Annie keeps this door closed.

A single page of lined yellow paper is on the bed next to the mask. In his handwriting, there are the three simple steps that will end his life: 1. Turn the handle on tank #1 to “on.” 2. Turn the handle on tank #2 to “on.” 3. Put on the mask.

Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. He squeezes his lips together as the chant plays in his head.

“Charlie. You have your walking clothes on.” Anne is in the living room. She steps toward him but stops when she sees the guest room door is open.

“Are you going for your walk?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“I want to keep my routine.”

“But I can’t go with you because of my foot.”

“How many years did I go on my walk alone?”

“I’ve walked with you for the past year. Well, until three days ago. But why today… if you’re going to—” She covers her mouth with her hands as she takes several deep breaths.

“Look,” she says as she drops her hands. “Rachel can be here in ten minutes.”

“Rachel?” I should know this.

“My sister, Rachel?”

Sister. “Yes, Rachel.” What does she look like?

“Rachel can go with you.”

“I’m feeling fine. I want to go alone. I want to keep my routine.”

She shakes her head. “But why today?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know why… I guess I want to say good-bye.”

“Good-bye? Who will you say good-bye to?”

He opens the front door and steps onto the cement stoop. He looks around at the autumn colors of the trees against a deep blue sky, and a lump forms in his throat. Wordless, he opens his arms, then turns back to Annie.

She starts to say something but stops. Her eyes are full of tears.

“Wait just a second,” she says as she thumps back to their bedroom. When she comes back, she hands him a phone. “All you have to do is touch this button, and you can call me.”

She sounds nervous.

“Annie, I’ll be just fine. I’ll take the same right—”

“Route?”

“Route. I’ll take my usual route.” He slips the phone into his pocket.

“I’ll call Rachel so that she can be with me…” She presses her lips together, then kisses him and walks quickly away. He pulls the door closed.

A light breeze and cool air bring a chill. He zips his jacket to his chin, pulls his hood over his head, then steps down from the stoop onto their short walkway. He turns left on the broad sidewalk. Annie stands at the front window. He waves. She waves back, then turns away.

Splinters of golden autumn sunlight pass through the colored leaves of the large maple and oak trees, casting narrow, uneven patches of light bordered by shadow onto the sidewalk. He turns onto Arnold Street with its long blocks of shaded streets and modest, red-brick houses sitting behind their leaf-covered lawns. Several families are already out, clearing their lawns. Young children are jumping over, into, and onto piles of crinkling, multicolored leaves.

Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate.

Charlie remembers pictures that Annie took of Jimmy and him. They showed two sets of legs—his and Jimmy’s—stuck out from piles of leaves. He smiles at the images as the aroma of leaves under his feet brings back childhood memories of autumn days.

He remembers the feel of the rough bark as he shimmied up a tall maple, his favorite tree in the woods near his house. He loved the way its thick branches were swayed by even a light breeze. On windy days, he would sit on the moving branches and imagine he was holding on to the mast of a great sailing ship as it plowed the ocean.

He notices that large trees on both sides of Arnold Street have thrust their branches over it, creating a long, leafy cathedral with ever-shifting light. They stand like silent giants, extending their arms over him in a rustling benediction as he passes beneath them. When he reaches the corner of Arnold and Hancock, he turns around. He touches his forehead in a loose military salute.

“Hail and farewell,” he says. The trees, moved by a passing breeze, wave back.

After a lingering look, he turns. He is about to cross Hancock Street but stops. Nothing looks familiar.

Names—start naming. “Street sign, trees, houses. I came from that direction.” He points along Hancock Street. “Or maybe I came from that—” He’s startled by a car horn, then he realizes he’s standing in the street.

The car pulls closer, and the driver rolls down her window.

“Doctor Johnson?” she asks.

“Y—yes.” Who are you?

“You probably don’t recognize me. I’m Patricia Ferris. I was an English major twenty years ago. I took every one of your classes and learned so much from you.”

“That’s nice,” he smiles. I taught English?

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. Well, maybe not. I want to get to the uh, the uh… Trees. Lots of trees. Post. Park. I’m looking for a park. It’s around here somewhere.”

“It’s right there—Hancock Park,” she says, pointing. He follows her finger.

“Well, damn,” he said. “I guess I got a little turned around.”

She smiles. “Just a senior moment. I’ve had a few of those, and I’m still in my forties. Oops, I better move. There’s another car coming. Nice to see you, Professor.”

“Nice to see you as well,” he says. She drives away, and he steps onto the curb.

“So I was a teacher,” he says as he walks toward the park.

He leaves the sidewalk that curves into the shifting shades of the trees. I think I used to know what kind they were. Every breeze makes the colors ripple, hundreds of leafy flags break apart and flutter to the ground.

“It’s raining leaves!” He laughs and turns in circles as they fall on and around him. He is drawn deeper into the woods as he tries to catch some of them.

“We have to catch at least one before it hits the ground, right, Dad?” a man says.

“Right,” Charlie says. He catches one by clamping it to his chest. “Got it.”

“First one of the fall,” the voice says.

Charlie turns in the direction of the sound. The man darts around, chasing the falling leaves. He is tall and skinny, with dark hair. He stops moving and grins as he faces Charlie.

“Jim?”

“Hi, Dad.”

“But I thought you were dead.”

“I am dead.”

“Are you a ghost?

“No, Dad, I’m not a ghost. You’re having a hallucination. You had one last week, remember? In that one, I was eight years old.”

“No, I don’t remember. I have Alzheimer’s, you know. But how can you remember something if I can’t?”

Jim shrugs and smiles. “I thought you might need some company on your last walk,” he says as he walks by Charlie. They wend their way among the trees and come to a grassy area beside a shallow brook.

“I’ve always loved this spot,” Jim says. “I’m glad you and Mom brought my ashes here.”

Charlie sits down with a grunt. “I forgot that you died, and that we brought your ashes here. Annie told me this morning. I’m sorry I forgot.”

Charlie sits in silence for several minutes, listening to the brook.

“What’s it like?” he asks.

“What?” Jim asks.

“Dying. Did it hurt much?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m your hallucination, so what would you like me to say?”

“I’m scared, Jim.”

“I know, Dad. Killing yourself is scary, but you don’t have to do it. You could let nature take its course.”

Charlie shakes his head. “I can’t put Annie through that.”

“You have these little tricks, like naming things.”

“But that won’t work much longer. I know.” Several leaves drift along on the brook. I wonder where they go? It would be so easy to just float away.

“Daddy?” A boy’s voice.

“Jimmy!” Charlie smiles at the boy sitting beside him. “You woke me up this morning, scamp.”

“How did you get so old, Daddy? I thought you were old, but not this old.”

Charlie chuckled. “Hell if I know.”

“Daddy, you always told me life was just one adventure after another. Why are you scared about this one?”

“I’ve never died before.” Charlie picks up a small stone and tosses it into the brook. Jimmy does the same.

“Can we do the leaf pile again?” Jimmy is on his hands and knees.

“Sure can.” Charlie hauls himself onto his knees and gathers armfuls of leaves. It is not long before he is on his back under them with some of them pressed against his glasses, backlit by the sun. Their intricate, tiny veins amaze him, just as they did when he was a kid. His eyes are watering.

“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Jimmy is lying beside him.

“I don’t know, Jimmy,” he says. “Something about all these leaves dying made me sad, I guess.”

“Oh,” Jimmy says. “Let’s be quiet and pay attention to what’s around us. That’s what you told me to do when I felt sad.”

“I told you that?”

“Yeah, a lot of times. Sometimes it even helped.”

Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate. Charlie smiles as he catches the scent of grape-flavored bubblegum.

“Daddy, look at the light and colors,” Jimmy says.

He opens his eyes into narrow slits like he did when he was a kid. Everything is slightly out of focus, and sunlight twinkles through the tiny openings between the leaves. It is almost as if he were floating.

“It’s like little pieces of sunshine,” Jimmy says.

“Jimmy, will you remind me about this today when I’m dying?”

“Sure. I’m not afraid, Daddy. I’ll stay with you.”

The sound of an old-fashioned phone ringing startles Charlie. Leaves scatter as he sits up.

“Hello?”

“Charlie, are you okay?”

“Annie, I’m fine. I’m in, um, the tree place, lots of trees, and a stream…”

“Hancock Park,” Anne says. “I can see it on my phone.”

“On your phone? How?”

“I put a tracker on your phone last year.”

“A tracker?”

“Are you lost? You’re normally home from your walk by now.”

“Oh.”

“So, are you lost?”

“No, I’m not lost,” he says. “I just can’t remember the name of the, the park. Jimmy and I have been having a good time.”

Anne gasps. Then she says, “Charlie, we just talked about this. Jimmy died—”

“I know it’s a halo, hollow, hal—”

“Hallucination?”

“Hallucination. It’s nice to pretend. We came here on our Saturday walks.”

“I know.” After a pause, she adds, “Rachel’s here. Would you like her to come get you?”

“No, I’ll walk. It’s a beautiful day. Maybe we could play in the leaves when I get home.”

“I would like that,” Annie says.

“I’m coming home. G’bye.” He slips the phone into his pocket. “Jimmy, I have to go.”

The only answer is the sound of breeze-blown leaves and ripples in the brook. He looks around, sighs, then sets out for home.

Everything seems clearer, the contrasts sharper. He likes the feel of his running shoes on the ground, the cool air on his face. The scent of a wood fire from a neighbor’s home makes him smile.

Several minutes later, as he turns the corner on his street, he sees Annie and Rachel on the stoop, waiting for him. He waves, and they return the wave.

I’m almost home. Not much longer now.

“Daddy, I’m coming with you.”

“Jimmy? I would like that.”

“It’s been a nice day, hasn’t it Daddy?”

“It sure has, Jimmy. The best.”

Timothy CaldwellTimothy Caldwell served in the Army as a chaplain’s assistant in Vietnam in 1970. He began a career as a singer and teacher in higher education in 1972, a career that lasted almost forty years. In 2009, he published his semi-autobiographical novel, The Chaplain’s Assistant: God, Country, and Vietnam. Since then, his essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as the Blue Lake Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Storyteller Magazine, and now Lunch Ticket. He has decided he would like to be known as the Grandma Moses of authors.

Warmbloods

My new boss is a zombie. I do not mean one of those overworked and sleep-deprived corporate types; I mean rotting flesh, back from the dead, eat-your-family-at-night sort of beings. Think Night of the Living Dead. See Re-Animator. She is, however, gifted with speech.

At our first staff meeting, she stood at the head of the conference table and said, “Listen up, pussies. I’ve read over your performance reports. It’s time to get your asses in gear. From now on, no more fondue Fridays and no more pajama-fucking-Mondays. Got that?” she said and slammed her fist on the table, whereupon it snapped off at the wrist and lay there limply.

Overhead, the lights flickered. Bonnie Bonnie shrieked.

“Why are you all still here?” Zombie said. “Get to work.”

As we scurried from the room, I was certain that not one of us in our entire lives had ever been so quiet. That day we worked straight through lunch and second lunch. And what about wasabi Wednesday, you ask? No, we did not dare. For the rest of the afternoon we worked in silence, disturbed only by the sound of Jimmy’s breathing.

*     *     *

We do not know where Zombie came from, nor where Kevin, our old boss, went. All we know is that one day there was Kevin, and the next day there was not Kevin. Instead there was Zombie … I am at my desk; looming over me is Zombie. She is saying, “So you’re at your desk, see? The phone rings—ringringring—the phone’s ringing, you shit. Answer it.” Zombie smells like a well-used porta-potty that’s been abandoned alongside a highway on a hot summer day. I am choking; nevertheless, I answer the phone: “1-2-3  Delivery and Storage. How can I help you?” I say and look to Zombie for approval. Her face is a paroxysm of anger; unless I am mistaken, it seems there is a creature living inside her mouth, and my body begins to feel as if it’s retreating into itself. “You’re supposed to tell them, ‘it’s a wonderful fucking day,’ you dumbass,” she says. “Again—ringringringring.” “1-2-3 Delivery,” I say. “It’s a wonderful fucking day. How can I help you?” There is a slight popping sound; something falls into my lap. I look down—there is Zombie’s eyeball, laying in the fold of my crotch. “That’s it!” she says. “All of you get out. We’re done for the day.”

… Bonnie Bonnie, Jimmy, and I … we are walking to the vehicle—the vehicle we share—to ride to the house—the house we share—on the other side of town. We walk past warehouses A, B, and C; 2A, 2B, 2C; 3A, 3B, 3C. It is a long walk, long enough to aggravate Jimmy’s asthma. “She made me redo (wheeze) the inventory report (wheeze) seven times!” he says. Poor Jimmy. He has been working so hard for so long. All he wants is a honeymoon for himself and Bonnie Bonnie, to somewhere nice, like Jersey Shore or Rome (NY). Unfortunately, as she told me last week in bed, Bonnie Bonnie has given up all hope in this, not to mention all hope in love, generally speaking. “When you think about it,” she said. “What is love, actually? Moreover, what is life?” But all she says now is, “Don’t push yourself, Jimmy,” as we overtake the last of the warehouses and our rusty, four-door Chevrolet swings into view across a sea of concrete.

*     *     *

As we pull into the driveway of our split-level home, I am filled with dread—further down the road, beneath a billboard that says Hoogland Realty – People You Can Trust, I spot my mother’s compact car, and instantly my mind goes to all the things left undone: the tower of dishes sitting in the sink, the laundry spread in disarray across the floor.

And for once—just this once—I don’t want Bonnie Bonnie and Jimmy to go quickly up the stairs into their apartment and leave me alone. But what could I say—I had nothing to offer, and they had nothing to (willingly) give.

So when I enter my apartment, there she is, on the couch—my mother. “I thought you were going to fix the lock on that door,” she says. She is like a violent force that laughs in the face of all your fortifications and promptly knocks you down. “Have you seen this?” she says, as she rises and advances towards the kitchen counter, atop which rests an old bowl of cereal and milk. She turns the bowl upside down, yet nothing comes out. “Is this how you want to live?” she says.

“Would you believe me,” I say, “if I told you that was part of a magic trick?” and I laugh. My poor mother. Has anyone ever stood beside me as long and as diligently as she? Was it not she that paid off my hospital bills and dragged me through my senior year of high school? And yet, not once has she thrown this in my face. She is, like, a fucking mother of grace. So I cannot look her in the eyes now and say, “I’m coming up short on this month’s rent, nor do I have enough to make my car payment.” Because she will say, “How much do you need?” and I will tell her; and she will say, “You don’t have even that much?” and I will proceed to bury myself with shame.

I am thinking, “How will I salvage this?” when through the ceiling comes the sounds of Bonnie Bonnie and Jimmy moaning, prompting my mother to say, “I’ve had all I can handle today,” and leave.

*     *     *

Not two weeks ago, I met Kevin in an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of town. It was already dark when he arrived in a black Escalade. “How does it gleam like that in the night?” I wondered. I have dreams about cars like that.

After parking the car, he comes to me, bounding over tufts of grass peeking out through cracks in the asphalt. “Here’s the plan,” he says, and begins speaking very quickly. “You give me the money. Tomorrow, when the shipment comes—it belongs in warehouse A. Instead, we put it in 3A. When the guys come to pick up at the end of the week, they’s all ‘Where’s our shipment?’ We’s go, ‘What shipment? We ain’t got no shipment.’ Ensue scandal. I vamoose with the money. That’s when you step in. You’s say, ‘Hey, we’s check 3A?’ And there ‘is. You’s the hero; you’s the new boss. Bam—got yourself a new future; sky’s the limit. But first step—you give me the money.”

Kevin is out of breath. Behind us menaces the boarded-up storefront of a defunct K-Mart.

“Okay,” I say, and give him the money—all of the money; my meager savings; my poor savings. And at the time, I so badly wanted to believe that by the end of the week I would be a manager, maybe even a district manager, because to that point, my life had been so full of failures it only made sense that, by some cosmic rule, I was due for something good.

As he drove off in his Escalade, I remember thinking to myself, “One day I’ll have a set of wheels like that,” and that was the last time I saw Kevin. He did not come to work the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. The shipments came and went without the slightest hitch. To this day, what I remember most clearly about that night are the clouds—how they hung low and immobile, as if to say, “This is how things are.”

*     *     *

If I had a backup plan, now would be the time for it. Alas, I am not the sort of man who, jumping into action, thinks: What if this? What if that? I saw an opportunity, and I moved to seize it; for that, I cannot be faulted. That will be the epitaph on my tombstone.

If I had a backup plan, now would be the time for it. Alas, I am not the sort of man who, jumping into action, thinks: What if this? What if that? I saw an opportunity, and I moved to seize it; for that, I cannot be faulted. That will be the epitaph on my tombstone.

As I pace about my living room, I think of all the things I will not do. For instance, I will not hold out for the return of Kevin, unbidden and miraculous, who will not show up at my desk and say, “You know, you are a solid and hardworking man. Here is your money.” Such fantasies are for lesser men, and I, for one, do not seek redemption where there is none to be had—that is what I am thinking when there is a knock at my door.

It is Jimmy—Jimmy! He is out of ketchup. Of course he can have ketchup! I have always thought of Jimmy as a sort of father figure in my life. I tell him as much, and that it is only natural for a son to come to his father in times of need. He will help me! But at a cost.

“I’m worried about Bonnie Bonnie,” he says. “Lately, she’s been so lethargic.”

I follow Jimmy up to his apartment. The living room is dark; the shades are drawn. There is a singular piece of furniture—a bed, covered in thick purple blankets—positioned in the center of the room. Atop it rests a scantily clad Bonnie Bonnie, laid out like a wife of a Turkish sultan.

“Good news,” Jimmy says. “He had ketchup.”

“Oh, how wonderful,” Bonnie Bonnie coos.

I am still in the doorway when Bonnie Bonnie waves, and I register, in some corner of my mind, that I’m to come closer. Mortified, I sit on the edge of the bed.

“I should get my inhaler, just in case,” Jimmy says and leaves the room.

While he is gone, Bonnie Bonnie leans in. “I’m so excited,” she says. “I’ve read about things like this, you know, in books and stuff.” She takes part of the blanket in her fist and rubs it in my face. “It’s aubergine,” she breathes.

And in that moment I find it so impossible to say, “Bonnie, wait. Before—I was lonely and afraid. It didn’t mean anything to me.” She is already unbuckling my belt when Jimmy returns, naked, with his inhaler in one hand and the bottle of ketchup in the other; and immediately I am flooded with disgust and regret. I am thinking, “Not one shred of my dignity will survive this,” and the entire time Bonnie Bonnie is squealing: This is the life. This is how to live.

*     *     *

The next day I am ready for a fight. As I charge into Zombie’s office, I am prepared to offer her two hundred pigeons (dead or alive) or my cousin’s youngest son, who nobody likes, if she will graciously step down and promote me. For just such an occasion, I have been saving up all my powers of persuasion; I am about to unleash them, when I find Zombie hunched over her desk. I believe she is crying—yes, she is crying. Little green tears streak her pocked cheeks.

She does not get up, but says, “What do you want?”

I thought I’d come prepared for every possible scenario—in my back pocket is a flask of holy water; a silver-tipped shank is tucked inside my shoe—but never had I imagined this, and all I can manage to say is, “What is wrong with you?”

Sobbing, Zombie rises and says, “I can’t find my arm,” and it’s true. Where her right arm should be there is only a stump. “It was there this morning…”

And at this point it is so unclear to me what the best course of action would be. I hesitate and say, “Well, I guess you’ll live without it.”

She looks at me. “Is this a joke to you?” She gesticulates towards her stump with her remaining limb. “Do you think this is funny?” She moves out from behind her desk and advances towards me. “I do not have a single moment of peace. My mind is an opera of fiscal confrontations: revenue versus overhead; services versus salaries; inflation versus profits. My home is a veritable collage of P&L statements. Do you think I was born this way? I wanted to raise horses!”

As her stench closes in, my body is torn between the forces of fight or flight; phrases like “moment of truth” and “point of no return” crystallize and take on new meaning right before my eyes; the weight of impending action is bearing down on me, when suddenly Zombie’s leg breaks off at the knee, and she falls to the floor.

I feel deflated and robbed. I say, “Listen, Zombie—”

“Not Zombie—Sharon!” Zombie wails.

And looking down at Zombie, I cannot help but feel there is some deeper meaning to all this, but the only thing I can understand is that life can be cruel and rarely works out the way we want it to; and I catch myself thinking, “If only I could reach a younger version of myself.” I would know exactly where to find me—leaning against a chain-link fence behind the gas station downtown, listening to Jeff Hoogland, my very best friend, say, “I’m gonna to be an astrophysicist when I grow up,” to which my young-self replies, “Shit. You don’t even know what that means.”

I want to push that kid down and say, “Shut the fuck up. Get your shit together; you’re going to college one day.” And when my young-self says, “You’re not the boss of me.” I’ll say, “Yeah? Well, you should know… there are things in this world that you never get back. And Jeff,” I’ll point to Jeff, “Jeff is going to go into real estate. He’s going to be able to afford a house with a door that locks and a car of his own without a spot of rust on it.”

That’s when I notice something smacking my shin, and I am pulled back into Zombie’s office. She has retrieved her leg and is using it to strike me repeatedly from her position on the floor. “Saddlebred, Standardbred, Thoroughbred, Clydesdale, Warmblood, Mustang, Jutland, Gypsy!” she says, her teeth popping out of her mouth, skittering across the floor. “Where do we stand on the next shipment? We need to be ready!”

Thomas CardamoneThomas Cardamone is currently earning his MFA at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. His fiction has previously appeared in Necessary Fiction and decomP.

 

Death Roll

“Is it dead?”

I turn towards the tiny voice beside me. Moments ago she was spinning in circles with arms stretched wide. Her little pink skirt flying above the asphalt. She’s alone. I’m not sure who she belongs to.

“It’s not dead, sweetheart,” I say. “It’s just not moving.”

I grip the fence in front of me and pull myself forward. I close my left eye and center the right in one of the diamond shaped openings in the chain link. Just past the moat filled with stagnant water and dead leaves, a single sparse tree grows in the center of the habitat. Thin roots spread away from its trunk like sickly spider legs before sinking down into the earth a few feet from the concrete-lined pond. If it weren’t for the two eyes sitting like black marbles, I would have mistaken the alligator for a chunk of dead tree.

I am an expert in dead or just not moving. With an alligator, it’s in the eyes. With an alcoholic mother, it’s looking to see if the chest is still rising and falling.

I point a finger at its tail and trace the rows of spikes rising like tiny mountains on its back, then follow the outline of its body. Its tail long enough to touch my chin. Armor ending in claws. I am an expert in dead or just not moving. With an alligator, it’s in the eyes. With an alcoholic mother, it’s looking to see if the chest is still rising and falling.

“Do you want to come see the giraffes?” the tiny voice asks.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” I say. “I have to leave in a minute.” I look at my watch. I should have been gone already.

A pair of angry flip-flops come clapping towards us. “Abby! Don’t run off like that!” The twirler’s mother takes her by the wrist and begins to pull her away.

I call out, “Excuse me. Do you know if this is the same alligator from twenty years ago?”

If you hike higher up in the hills, you can sit amongst the eucalyptus trees and look down upon the city. From way up there, you feel the same size. For once, you can look the city right in the eye.

But this is the new zoo. A woman walks by pushing a stroller. Boys with baseball hats. Little girls with pony tails swishing behind as they bounce along with soda cups so big they have to hold them with both hands. Moms. Dads. Families. They all know how. How to cook a turkey.  How to set a table and pay their bills on time. How to take their Christmas lights down by New Year’s instead of letting them bake in the sun well into summer. They know which foods you can eat with your fingers and which require a fork. They know leaves that change from green to red to orange to yellow and baby blades of grass rising up with the warmth of spring.

I know how to say “I’m sorry” when it’s not my fault. I know how to make it better and pretend it’s okay. I know how to hold on tight and not let go.

My pocket vibrates. I pull out my phone and see Steve’s picture on the screen.

“Hey.”

“Hey. Have you seen my gym bag? Did I leave it at your place?”

“Maybe. I don’t remember seeing it, but maybe.”

“Could you check?”

It’s too hot to be wearing pantyhose. I don’t know if people even wear them anymore. “No, I can’t check. I’m going to visit my mom. Remember?”

There were worse. The one who never had a job. The one who called me a baby every time I cried. The one who didn’t tell me it was a shoes-free house. I walked across the white carpet to meet his parents with my big toe poking out of my sock. The one I thought I loved even after I caught him sending out dick pics while lying next to me in bed.

“Shit. I forgot. I’ll just swing by and check later on.”

I wait for more. Nothing. Five seconds of silence. I give. “How are you?”

“Okay. Work is shit. They have me coming in tomorrow and Saturday. Boxer threw up again last night. Guess I should take him in. I’m not paying for all those tests again though.”

It’s too hot to be at the zoo. Too hot for any of this. “Don’t you want to know how I am?”

“Really? Again? How many times do we have to do this? Why do you have to wait until I ask and then get pissed if I don’t? If you want me to know how you are, just tell me.”

Six months ago, I picked up Steve at the airport. I watched all the lonely people pull their luggage behind them as they exited the baggage claim. They weren’t calling anyone to say they’d landed safely. At least with Steve I’d have someone to call. “I’m sorry.”

“Okay. Tell me.”

Only I can’t. I don’t know how to tell him that I came here to remember dipping paint brushes in old coffee cans filled with water and painting stars and smiles and perfect square houses with triangle roofs on the fence and watching the summer sun erase them. Letting me crack the eggs and lick the spoon. This little piggy went to the market and this little piggy had none. Gentle kisses on bruised knees. Banana pancakes. Cartoons. And I don’t know how to tell him how hard it is to breathe with the weight of what came after standing on my chest. The times I couldn’t wake her up. The times I had to walk home alone like I wasn’t afraid because she forgot to pick me up. All the times I tried to make her love me enough to quit.

I don’t tell him I withdrew all my savings. I don’t tell him that she did it again. I don’t tell him I’m going to bail her out. All I say is, “Tell Boxer I hope he feels better.”

The first time I came here I was ten. Sweat glued my legs to the vinyl seats as we drove down the highway. She was happy. Her hair was still wet and wrapped like a snail shell on the back of her head. The music was loud and she turned to me. Elsa, this song was playing on the radio the day I left home. I listened to her sing. I tried to pick out the words that would tell me who she was before me. Sunny days. Canyons. Yesterday morning. Closing his eyes.

She brought me here because she thought I was scared of alligators. I couldn’t sleep after I heard a group of boys talking about a man fishing in Florida. He was only in the water, shin deep, casting out his line when an alligator snapped its jaws and wouldn’t let go. Took him down into a death roll. Ripped him apart. When they found the alligator that did it, they sliced it open and found an entire arm inside. The watch still ticking on his wrist. I remember how much I thought about that watch ticking. I wondered if it had been a gift, if he had worn it every day. I remember thinking that if the man ever lost the watch he would feel so sad about it, and I remember it made me so sad to know that the watch didn’t care at all about losing the man.

I don’t know how to tell him that I came here to remember dipping paint brushes in old coffee cans filled with water and painting stars and smiles and perfect square houses with triangle roofs on the fence and watching the summer sun erase them.

My mother took me to the alligator first. She crouched beside me and told me that they had been around since the dinosaurs. They are good mothers, she said. Sometimes they hold their babies in their mouth to keep them safe. Maybe she’ll open up and show us, she said, but I could already feel her hand begin to shake within mine. Don’t worry, Elsa. This is the only alligator in California.

A week later she was arrested for crashing into the neighbor’s parked car on her way home from work. When I got home from school, her car was against the curb with a buckled hood and bits of broken headlight were spread across the asphalt. I was glad the other car was gone so I didn’t have to see its wounds.   

Some people don’t know about the mountains around Los Angeles. Big and beautiful and sometimes covered in snow. Most of the time they are invisible. They vanish behind a heavy curtain of dust and haze for so long you forget they’re even there. Then, one day, the winds come to wipe the sky clean and there they are again standing tall against the blue sky.

But today there are no mountains. Today the sky is thick and brown. A pool of sweat is forming between my breasts. Underneath my pantyhose, an itch is spreading from my toes to my belly button. I want to rip them off and feel the air on my bare skin. I take my map and crease it, and flip it, and crease it, and flip it until it’s a fan I’m waving in front of my face and on the back of my neck. Families in various stages of sunburn come and go and the alligator still sits, unmoved. I can’t remember if they have eyelids.

I pull a soft pack from my purse and give it a few shakes until a cigarette falls through the slot. “Hey, have you ever seen this alligator open its mouth? Is it even a real alligator?”

A teenager wearing a customer service t-shirt stops, broom in one hand and a dust pan connected to a long handle in the other. “You can’t smoke here, lady,” he says and starts sweeping again.

I look around for a smoking section. A white box on wheels filled with ice cream for sale. A few trees tired of standing and a wooden sign with an arrow pointing towards the restrooms. I put the cigarettes back in my purse. I whistle, but it still doesn’t move. Ten more minutes. Then I’ll go.

Last night we had dinner. I said I’d drive even though she said she had put together seven days sober. A car was stalled in the right lane so we were stuck behind the green, red, green, red, green, red. I tried to make some jokes. Tried to make her smile and keep her from frustration. Keep her from a reason to drink.

We don’t like new, so we went to the chicken place. Same menu. Same lady with the penciled-on eyebrows and a ring on each finger working the register. Same red laminate table tops. As we ate, she apologized. Said she wasn’t herself. That she was just tired, that’s all. I smiled because I wasn’t sure if I was myself either. We talked about things that happened years ago and laughed at things we had laughed at years ago. Pretended that most of the past twenty didn’t exist.

After dinner we wanted to walk along the LA River like we once did, but it was already dark and the path seemed scary. We hugged when I left. “See you soon?” she asked.

“See you soon,” I said and watched her walk all the way inside and close the door behind her.

In the morning I got a phone call. An inmate from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department is trying to contact you. Are you willing to accept the charges?

I told her I’d be there, but I’m here instead. I scratch my ankle, my knee, my thigh. I scratch until I rip through the pantyhose. I pinch the nylon above my knees and yank until I feel them pass the curve of my hips. I keep yanking until they are just below my knees. I slide my heels off and release each leg. I quickly shove the hose in my purse. I’ve never seen a lightning bug or sipped sun tea while sitting on a back porch. I’ve never skipped rocks across a creek.

My phone shakes. I accept the charges.

“Elsa! Where are you? You said you’d get me out this morning! You have no idea what it’s like in this place. I can’t take it!”

“I’m trying, Mom. I’ll be there soon.”

“Hurry, Elsa. All these people here are crazy. I can’t be here anymore.”

“Remember when you told me that alligators are good mothers? Do they really hold their babies in their mouths?”

“Seriously, Elsa? What are you even talking about? Why aren’t you here yet? Quit fucking around and get me out of here!”

I’ve never seen Tennessee or a one stoplight town. I’ve never made footprints in freshly fallen snow.

“Mom, don’t you want to know how I am?”

“Jesus, Elsa! What’s wrong with you?”

I pull my arm back and throw my phone as hard and high as I can. I watch it cartwheel over the fence and into the pond. The alligator seems not to notice.

They say they’ll let me go if I don’t come back. I tell them I won’t, and by the time I leave the sun is setting. You can see some pink in the sky if you squint. The cement is cool on my bare feet and I spread out my toes as I walk to feel the air between them. As the tires roll towards the invisible mountains I know are there, I feel like I’m in a movie. I am the girl that drives away. I am the girl that gets out.

J.D. ShoemakerJ.D. Shoemaker is a sixth-grade English teacher living in San Pedro, CA. Her mother gave her a typewriter on her tenth birthday. It is the best present she has ever received. Her fiction has appeared in Blue Skirt Productions and Microfiction Monday Magazine.

Real Talk

Through the thin wall between the two classrooms, Miss Whitfield can hear everything Ms. Lucca says.

“If you get married before you really know yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll end up divorced. Look at me! I married a man!”

Ms. Lucca calls her advice “Real Talk” and the kids love it. So does Miss Whitfield who sometimes worries that advice for teenagers shouldn’t sound so profound.

“Girls, it took me thirty years to love these hips. Whatever you think your flaws are, learn to love them now.”

“Boys, don’t be jackasses—I say that to you from my heart. Girls, don’t be afraid to dump that jackass’s ass.”

Ms. Lucca likes to call people jackasses, but she does it with love, and Miss Whitfield suspects that’s why they like her so much. If she were more like Ms. Lucca, she would tell her ninth graders that her jackass, who has not called her in weeks, has a scar on his ass where he was once gored by a bull on his uncle’s ranch. Once, she traced the jagged mark with her finger and even kissed it, but he said the skin was dead there and he couldn’t feel a thing.

He has other scars too, from the war, but those he wouldn’t let her touch.

Eventually Ms. Lucca gets around to math. “What’s the standard deviant?” she asks, and Miss Whitfield imagines a petty criminal with piggish eyes and a polyester tracksuit. Math is not her thing, but she has begun to enjoy the language of mathematics. When Ms. Lucca says, “the axis of symmetry,” Miss Whitfield pictures a secret mountain top location where world leaders in shiny unitards negotiate peace treaties. And when Ms. Lucca mentions the coordinate planes, Miss Whitfield almost cries; the coordinate plains are where her boyfriend—is he still her boyfriend?—herds his uncle’s cattle under a dusty sunset.

*     *     *

Sometimes Ms. Lucca brings in real world problems to make math relevant. “What are your chances of finding love?” she asks one morning.

Miss Whitfield—who is grading papers while her students write an essay answering the question: “Do Romeo and Juliet really love each other, or are they just infatuated?”—lifts her head and listens.

“What does this have to do with math, you ask?” Ms. Lucca laughs heartily. “I’ll show you. Raise your hand if, one day, you want to find love.” There is a long silence. “Oh, come on now. Don’t be shy. Everyone needs love.”

Miss Whitfield is tempted to raise her hand. She had love once. Was it love? Or infatuation? Why does she think was and not is? She looks out at her students; one has given up and has fallen asleep. Do any of them know the difference between real love and infatuation, and if not, how can they possibly answer the question?

“Have you ever looked around, at your school and your various other communities, like church groups or athletic teams, and wondered, how many potential girlfriends or boyfriends might be in that particular pool of people?” Some of Ms. Lucca’s students titter and Miss Whitfield guesses that they are looking around the room nervously, assessing each other. Perhaps they have already picked someone out. Her own students are quiet today, even the loud-mouthed boy who said he didn’t believe in love at first sight. “That’s just damn stupid,” he’d said when they began the play. “Like you might want to do her, but it don’t mean you want to marry her or nothin’.”

Ms. Lucca’s voice is crisp, confident, almost rehearsed. “We’re going to use a tool called The Fermi Estimation to arrive at a number of potential partners.” Enrico Fermi, Ms. Lucca tells them, was an Italian physicist, known for his ability to make almost accurate calculations with no real data. “What we call educated guesses,” she says.

On the notebook she has dedicated to writing down Ms. Lucca’s gems, Miss Whitfield starts a fresh page. She can always finish grading later that night on her balcony on the eighth floor—the highest floor—which she has, lately, begun to regret. If the cowboy ever came back and stood underneath, calling out her name, his voice wouldn’t make it past the fifth floor.

Ms. Lucca clears her throat. “Let’s start with a basic question: how many intelligent, sophisticated women are there for me to date? Because I don’t want to date just anyone off the street.” She sighs audibly. “Real Talk: I want someone with a college degree, not some dumbass who can’t read subtitles once in a while.” Dumbass, another one of her favorite words.

Miss Whitfield walks between the aisles with her notebook, pretending to read over her students’ shoulders, but really she is concentrating on Ms. Lucca’s voice, which sometimes goes in and out depending on where she is standing.

“So I have to break the big question down into smaller components. The first question, then, should be: how many women live near me? In Sacramento, that would be about 200,000.”

Miss Whitfield writes, 1. How many men live in my area? She frowns. Her area. It is not such a simple concept. What is the radius of her area? And how far is she willing to go? She thinks of her mother in her hometown, 500 miles away, who called to tell her about a new neighbor, a lonely widower with a young daughter. The cowboy is more than 1000 miles away; his area includes rivers, mountains, and plains. Only open spaces for him, he has decided. No cities, no roads, no possibility of roadside bombs.

Ms. Lucca claps her hands. “Next question: how many people are in the right age range? Without giving my exact age away, I’m looking for someone between the ages of say… thirty-five and forty-five. Let’s call that twenty percent of the female population. So about 40,000 women.”

Miss Whitfield writes down 24-29. About ten percent. Can she afford to be that conservative? Is she being, as her mother accuses, too picky?

“Now, how many of the people in my age group are single?”

No married men, no men with girlfriends!!! Miss Whitfield writes. No men with dead wives either. The loud-mouthed boy has begun to snore. She crosses the room, taps his shoulder and waits for him to sit up.

“So the first three questions are pretty universal, right? It’s question four that matters most.” An urgency has crept into Ms. Lucca’s voice, that special tone she gets when she wants students to sit up and listen. Miss Whitfield abandons the boy and moves back to the front of the room, just in time to hear Ms. Lucca say, “It’s question four where your values come into play.”

Miss Whitfield writes, Question 4 reveals values. Then she underlines and circles values. Proximity is not a value, she reminds herself.

“My question four is: how many single women in my area have a college degree? Remember, intelligence was one of my criteria. So let’s say, based on college retention rates, that about thirty percent of those eligible women will have a degree. So 12,000. That’s still a big number. I’m feeling hopeful.”

Returning someone’s phone call is a value, isn’t it? Doesn’t it reveal character?

Tonight, on her balcony when it is dark, she will find not the brightest star, which is probably burdened with a million wishes, but a smaller, more modest star, one usually overlooked and therefore free to focus all its astral energies, and make an extravagant wish on Ms. Lucca’s behalf for a beautiful, smart woman who likes foreign movies, big hips, and straight talk.

Ms. Lucca is moving quickly, her heels clicking across the linoleum. “Of the 12,000 how many will be attractive?”

Miss Whitfield scribbles the question down. It stumps her. It is a mystery—this question of beauty—a sacred mystery. When Romeo first saw Juliet, he whispered, “She hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” but the boy who read the line read it with a fake Texas drawl and everyone laughed, so Miss Whitfield stopped the class, turned on the movie, and made them watch Romeo’s reaction to the beautiful girl in the rich, velvet robes. “They should get some ugly actors to play the parts,” said that boy, “then everyone could see how ridiculous it is.”

Ms. Lucca chuckles ruefully. “I don’t need to date a supermodel,” she says. “Lord knows, I’m not one. So let’s go with twenty-five percent, which is how much?”

“Three thousand,” someone says.

“Right.”

The cowboy is not handsome, but something about the way he used to grin, that crinkle by his eyes, the hint of a dimple, made Miss Whitfield’s heart leap.

“Conversely,” Ms. Lucca continues, “I have to consider how many of those women that I’m attracted to will like a brunette with wide hips. And because many people are pickier than me, let’s say ten percent, so 300. Boy, the number is getting smaller isn’t it?”

How many men will find Miss Whitfield’s curly brown hair electric and not merely frizzy? And her eyes, which are round and inquisitive, but maybe a tad too close together? She wishes her lips were fuller. She wishes she were taller.

“And because relationships are not just about location and looks, my last question is: of these remaining women, how many will I get along with? Would you guys say I’m friendly? Easy going? The nicest teacher you ever had?”

Ms. Lucca is grandstanding and her students reward her with hoots and hollers so loud Miss Whitfield’s students sit up and listen. A girl in the back yawns, revealing a silver stud in her tongue and says, “Man, I wish I was in that class. They always have fun.”

“So… five percent? Ten percent?” Ms. Lucca asks. When they continue to yell, “higher, higher!” she laughs and says, “Okay. Fifteen percent, but no higher. So what’s the final number?”

“Forty-five,” someone shouts.

“That’s right. So according to Fermi’s Estimation, there are forty-five women in Sacramento who might be a good match for me.”

“That’s it?” someone asks.

“Well, I suppose I could change my criteria questions. That might open up more possibilities.”

There is a long silence until finally, a girl says, “But you can’t really confirm that number, can you? I mean these are just guesses.”

“Funny you should ask. I’m on a couple different dating websites and this number is really close to what eHarmony gave me. Guess their number.”

“Forty! Thirty-nine! Thirty-eight!” The kids shout.

“Forty-three potential girlfriends. Isn’t that amazing?”

Miss Whitfield marvels at the number. Forty-three women for Ms. Lucca to love. But how to find these women? Where are they? Who cares if the number is three or 103 if you can’t meet even one?

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ms. Lucca says. “You should minus the number of people you’ve already dated because obviously that didn’t work out.”

Miss Whitfield turns back to her notebook and writes, -1. But when and why do you decide to give up on that person? What is the criterion for saying goodbye?

“I hope you find someone,” another kid says. For once, Miss Whitfield cannot hear Ms. Lucca’s response. Yes, Miss Whitfield thinks, I hope you find someone special, too. Tonight, on her balcony when it is dark, she will find not the brightest star, which is probably burdened with a million wishes, but a smaller, more modest star, one usually overlooked and therefore free to focus all its astral energies, and make an extravagant wish on Ms. Lucca’s behalf for a beautiful, smart woman who likes foreign movies, big hips, and straight talk. She will not wonder if the cowboy, tucked in his bedroll, is looking up at those same stars and thinking of her, or if he is remembering a different set of constellations over the deserts of Iraq where he seems to have left a part of himself. Probably the part that loved her.

The bell rings. Miss Whitfield’s students slam their books shut and hurry to the door, half of them already gone when she calls out, “Finish the essay for homework.”

At lunch, she locks her door and draws the curtains. It is question number four that she must figure out, the question of values. Is the college degree what matters? Five years ago, the question might have been: has he read Romeo and Juliet? Can he recognize iambic pentameter? Has he ever written a poem, even a bad one? Then, a year ago: does he love his mother? Does he want children? Does he like to laugh?

Now she writes:

Can he ride a horse?

Can he deliver a calf on a moonlit night?

Does he have dirt under his fingernails?

Does he live within distance of a cell phone tower?

What she wants is to write a question so specific only one man will be the answer.

*     *     *

“What does it mean when the rate of change is zero?” Ms. Lucca asks one morning. No one answers, so she asks the question again, punctuating each phrase with her characteristic dramatic pauses. “What does it mean… when the rate of change… is zero?” Miss Whitfield freezes at her podium, listening.

The cowboy has not answered his phone in a month. He might be on top of a mountain. He might have taken a vow of silence. He might have allowed the wind and rain and sun to whittle him down to nothing.

One of her students, a boy who is at least eight pages behind, lifts his head from Romeo and Juliet and asks again, “Is there a translation? Can we get this in English?”

Miss Whitfield sighs. “This is English. Look at line 97, when Mercutio says, ‘Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.’ Or the next line, ‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love.’ What is he really saying?”

Some students seem to ponder the question, their brows furrowed as they reread the lines. “Don’t be such a pussy,” says the loud-mouthed boy. The girl with the tongue ring raises her hand. “If love hurts you, you gotta hurt it back?”

Miss Whitfield nods. “Yes, good.”

Beat love down! It is not such bad advice; had Romeo listened, he might have lived.

Maybe over her summer break, with nothing better to do, she will write a Real Talk version of the play, the whole thing boiled down for their impatient, modern sensibilities. Romeo, love-sick and moping over a different girl, will not say, “Love is a smoke made with a fume of sighs.” Instead he will say, “Dang, love stinks.” Benvolio will tell Romeo, “Chill, dawg! They’s plenty otha bitches in the sea!” And to prove it to him, he will use Fermi’s equation. The whole outcome of the play would change. Romeo would not let his eyes linger on Juliet. So what if she teaches the torches to burn bright? So does that lady, and that one over there.

What Romeo needed was a physicist, not a friar.

Miss Whitfield is not supposed to take her cell phone out in class—it sets a bad example—but she does it anyway and scrolls through her contact list until she finds the cowboy’s name in glowing white letters. She hesitates, her thumb poised over the delete button—is she being rash? Should she give him one more week? One more day? She wishes she could ask Ms. Lucca for advice, but though they have smiled at each other in the hallways, they have never actually spoken. Then Ms. Lucca’s irritated voice cuts into the room again. “We’ve been over this a hundred times. What does it mean when the rate of change is zero?”

It means it is time to do something drastic, Miss Whitfield thinks. It means you have to beat love down. Her thumb sinks down and the cowboy’s name is—blip—gone! “Twill serve,” she whispers, putting the phone away. “Tis done.” It is not very Shakespearean, no sword fights, no poisonous dram, no public brawl, only a rising residue of regret, but that she will beat down, too.

Nicole SimonsenNicole Simonsen lives in Northern California with her husband and children. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Raleigh Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She teaches at a public high school. Links to more of her work can be found at: nicolesimonsen.com.

Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story

In the ’90s you could be whatever you wanted—someone said that on the news—and by 1998 Fatima felt ready to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black, black like the elbows and knees on praying folk black, if only someone would teach her.

Up to that point, she had existed like a sort of colorless gas, or a bit of moisture, leaving the residue of something familiar, sweat stains, hot breath on the back of a neck, condensation rings on wood, but never a fullness of whatever matter had formed them.

The week she met Violet, Fatima had recited “An Address to the Ladies, by their Best Friend Sincerity” before her eleventh-grade AP English class. She blended her makeup to perfection that morning, but the other students barely looked at her, instead busying themselves by clicking and replacing the lead in mechanical pencils or folding and flicking paper footballs over finger goalposts—even during the part she said with the most emphasis: “Ah! sad, perverse, degenerate race/ The monstrous head deforms the face.” They clapped dull palms for a few seconds as Fatima sulked back to her desk. But they sat up, alert, when Wally “the Wigger” Arnett recited “Incident” and said the word that always made the white kids pay attention.

“You know, I identify with Countee Cullen and all,” Wally, with brown freckles and a floppy brown haircut, finished up. “He was a black man, and he was, like, oppressed for who he was and stuff.”

The hands pounded a hero’s applause as Wally headed back to his seat next to Fatima, looking like he expected a high five. She rolled her eyes at him, but she couldn’t articulate her wrath into something more specific. Later in the morning when Wally asked her for the fourth time that semester whether she listened to No Limit rappers, she nearly lunged at his face. Mrs. Baker sent her to the principal to “cool down” before Fatima’s fingernails could scratch off any of Wally’s freckles.

It wasn’t fair, Fatima thought, that Wally was praised, even mildly popular for his FUBU shirts and Jordans with the tags still on them, yet Fatima was called “ghetto supastar” the one time she outlined her lips with dark pencil. Nor was it fair that she should get a warning from Principal Lee for “looking like she might become violent” when Wally said “nigger” and got applause. She was still thinking about Wally when she first encountered Violet.

They met at the Montclair Plaza, where Fatima had been dropped off by her mother, Monica, along with the warnings that she better not: 1. spend more than she had, 2. use her emergency credit card for non-emergencies, or 3. pick up any riffraff, ruffnecks, or pregnancies while she was there. Number three was highly unlikely—and Fatima knew Monica knew it—but she said it anyway as easily as “stand up straight,” because she had to.

Fatima moped near the Clinique counter with her heavy Discman tucked in a tiny backpack and her headphones wrapped around her neck, trying to decide between one shade of lipstick and another. The college student behind the counter ignored her, chatting with another colleague. In situations like this, Fatima usually bought something expensive just to show the store clerk that she could. A blonde girl with a short bob sauntered up next her and said, “The burgundy is pretty, but you could do something darker.”

When a black girl with natural green eyes and blonde hair and a big chest and bubble butt that wiggle independently of each other tells you that you, with your sable skin and dark hair, are not black enough, sometimes you listen.

Fatima peripherally saw the hair first, so she didn’t expect the rest of the package. A voluptuous—really, that was the only word that would work—girl with a wide nose and black features stood next to her. Fatima had a friend with albinism before in preschool who wore thick red glasses and blushed almost the same color when she wet her pants at nap time once. She recognized in Violet similar features.

“But you could get the same stuff at Claire’s for cheaper,” Violet said. “It’s not like old girl’s trying to help you anyway.”

The clerk, not chastened but amused, moved back to her post and said, “May I help you” in one of those voices that means “get lost.”

“I’m still—” Fatima started.

But the blonde girl spoke again, “We’d like some free samples of some of the lipsticks, that color,” she pointed, reaching over Fatima, to a pot of dark gloss, “and that one.”

“We only give samples,” the clerk said, “to—.”

“To everyone who asks, right?” Violet finished.

The clerk frowned, looked back at her colleague, looked at Violet and Fatima, and frowned again. “I’ll get those ready for you,” she said.

Fatima considered putting her headphones back on and trying to float out of the department store, away from this loud girl with the jarring features and booming voice.

“Here,” Violet said, handing her the dark gloss in its tiny gloss pot.

“You keep it,” Fatima said and started trying to vaporize towards the shoe department.

“It’s for you,” the girl said, following her.

And like that, they were friends—or something to that effect.

*     *     *

It was Violet’s appraisal, “You’re, like, totally a white girl, aren’t you?” that set Fatima into motion. They were eating dots of ice cream that same day at the food court after Violet showed Fatima how to get samples from Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and MAC. Fatima felt a little like a gangster holding up the reluctant sales girls for their stash, but she had a nearly full bag of swag by then—perfume, lip-gloss, and oil-blotting papers—without spending any of her allowance. It was already too good to be true, so she didn’t feel sad when Violet said “white girl,” but almost relieved by the inevitable.

Fatima had been accused of whiteness and race traitorism before, whenever she spoke up in Sunday school at her AME church or visited her family in Southeast San Diego (Southeast a universal geographical marker for the ghetto), or when a cute guy who was just about to ask her out backed away saying, “You go to private school, don’t you?” It was why she didn’t have any black friends—and why, she worried, she would never have a boyfriend, even a riffraff, to upset her mother.

The allegations upset her but never moved her to any action other than private crying or retreating further into her melancholy belief that her school, Westwood Prep, and her parents’ high-paying jobs had made her somehow unfit for black people. She usually turned her Discman up louder, sinking into the distantly black but presently white sounds of ska and punk, and sang under her breath, “I’m a freak/ I’m a freak” (in the style of Silverchair, not Rick James). At the moment she was especially into listening to Daniel Johns whine, reading Charles Brockden Brown, and daydreaming of a sickly boyfriend like Arthur Mervyn, for reasons limited omniscience can’t or won’t explain. If black people wouldn’t accept her, she would stick to what she knew.

But Violet’s judgment held more heft in her critique—a possibility for transformation. When a black girl with natural green eyes and blonde hair and a big chest and bubble butt that wiggle independently of each other tells you that you, with your sable skin and dark hair, are not black enough, sometimes you listen.

“It’s not that I’m trying to be white. It’s just that’s what I’m around.”

“You don’t have no church friends? You adopted? Your parents white, too?” Violet didn’t seem to want a response. “Where do you stay?”

“With my parents,” Fatima wondered if something was wrong with Violet for asking such a stupid question.

“I mean where do you live?” Violet said.

“Upland,” Fatima said.

“They got black people there. My cousin Frankie lives there,” Violet said, chewing the dots of ice cream in a way that upset Fatima’s teeth. Violet wore a tight white top, cream Dickies, and white Adidas tennis shoes.

“Yes, but not on my street.” Fatima wore a pink cardigan, black Dickies, and skater shoes, Kastels.

Violet paused her crunching and talking for a moment. “You have a boyfriend?”

Fatima shook her head. “Do you?”

“I’m in between options right now. Anyway the last one is locked up in Tehachapi.”

Fatima nodded. She had a cousin who had served time there. He called her bourgie, and she kicked him in the face once, delighting in his fat lip and his inability to hit girls who weren’t his girlfriend or baby mama.

“I’m kidding,” Violet said. “We don’t all get locked up.”

Fatima stuttered.

“I can see I’ma have to teach you a lot of things. You ready?” Violet meant ready to leave the food court, but Fatima meant more when she said, “Yeah, I’m ready.” And thus began her transformation.

*     *     *

If only Baratunde Thurston had been writing when Fatima came of age, she could have learned how to be black from a book instead of from Violet’s charm school. Even a quick glance at Ellison could have saved her a lot of trouble, but she wasn’t ready for that, caught up, as she was, in the dramas of Arthur Mervyn and Carwin the Biloquist and all of them. With Violet’s help, Fatima absorbed the sociocultural knowledge she’d missed, not through osmosis or through more relevant literature, but through committed, structured ethnographical study.

She immersed herself in slang as rigorously as she would later immerse herself in Spanish for her foreign language exam in grad school; she pored over VIBE Magazine and watched Yo MTV Raps and The Parkers, trying to turn her mouth around phrases with the same intonation that Countess Vaughn used—a sort of combination of a Jersey accent and a speech impediment. When she couldn’t get into those texts, she encouraged herself with old episodes of Fresh Prince that played in constant early-morning and late-afternoon rotation, feeling assured that if Ashley Banks could, after five seasons, become almost as cool as Will, then she could, too. Her new turns of phrase fit her about as bulkily as the puffy powder-blue FUBU jacket she found in a thrift store in downtown Rialto.

Still, she was happy when Violet looked approvingly at it. Pale Violet became the arbiter of Fatima’s blackness, the purveyor of all things authentic. Though she was barely 5’1 and chunky by most standards—nearly obese by Fatima’s—you would think Violet was Pamela Anderson, the way she walked, like a hula doll on a dashboard swinging hips and breasts.

She lived in Fontana, and the distance between their respective houses was fifteen minutes, but only seven if they met halfway, Fatima borrowing her father’s alternate car (the 1993 Beamer, so as not to look ostentatious) and Violet getting a ride from one of her brothers or occasionally driving her mother’s old Taurus. They never met at each other’s houses, lest Fatima’s upper-middle opulence embarrass Violet, and because there was no space for Violet to carve out for herself at her house.

Violet made Fatima a study guide of the top-ten black expressions for rating attractive men, and they worked over the pronunciations together.

  1. Foine
  2. Dang Foine
  3. Hella Foine
  4. Bout it, bout it [as in “Oooh, he bout it, bout it.” This phrase especially required the Countess Vaughn intonation and often included spontaneous bouts of raising the roof].
  5. Hot Diggity, said with a scowl
  6. Dizam!
  7. Hot Diggity Dizam
  8. Ooh, hurt me, hurt me
  9. Phat
  10. Ooohweee

Fatima’s suggestions that “Heavens to Murgatroid” and “Oh my gosh, he is so hot” be added to the list as numbers 11 and 12 respectively, were met with a frown and a threat from Violet that she would revoke Fatima’s study-guide privileges if she persisted with lame interjections. Fatima stifled her joke about the rain in Spain falling mostly on the plains and practiced on, assured that Violet’s tutelage would confer upon her, like Carwin, “a wonderful gift” of biloquism.

Glossaries soon followed.

  1. Hella = a more intense “hecka”
  2. Hecka = a lot/ really; Fatima preferred this to “hella.”
  3. Fisshow = for sure, or as Fatima used to pronounce it, fer shure.
  4. Crunk = crazy, as in “we bout to get crunk up in here.” [Fatima already knew what this meant from an *N’Sync chatroom, where she lurked while girls discussed Justin Timberlake’s frequent use of the term.]
  5. A grip = a lot, as in “I just found a grip of marshmallows in the cupboard.”
  6. Peeps = those cute little marshmallows and also people/ folks
  7. Whoadie = ? [Violet wasn’t sure either, but you were supposed to say it.]
  8. Shawty = like, your girl, or your boo
  9. Boo = your shawty or your girl
  10. Playa = One who gets a lot of women or men [Fatima thought this was a beach, at first].
  11. Playahata = Wally the Wigger
  12. **Nigga = [a word Fatima could not bring herself to say or embrace, no matter how much Violet, VIBE, or others insisted that it was positive, or reappropriated.]
  13. *Gangsta = cool. But also gangster, as in “You’s a gangsta/ No I’m not/ You’s a gangsta/ No I’m not/ You’s a gangsta.” [Not as in “So You Wanna Be a Gangsta” from Bugsy Malone, which Fatima and her younger brother and sister used to sing around the house.]
  14. Ride or Die = a friend who’s down for anything and will stand up for your cause, even unto death.

“So basically,” Fatima summarized, “you want me to turn good things into bad things and vice versa.”

Violet said, “Mostly.”

Fatima tried pumping her shoulders in a brief Bankhead Bounce, but it was obvious she lacked the follow-through and wasn’t ready for dancing yet.

And it was almost like any romantic comedy where the sassy black person moves in with the white people and teaches them how to live their lives in color and put some bass in their voices, only Steve Martin wasn’t in it, no one was a maid or a butler or nanny, and the romance was between two girls, it was platonic, and they were both black this time, but one didn’t look like it, and one didn’t sound like it consistently.

*     *     *

“They racist up at that school? I can’t stand cocky white people,” Violet said one day while they sat at their usual table, near the flower divider in the mall’s arboretum. Some white guys from Hillwood sat across the way, laughing loudly.

Fatima didn’t like to talk about her school, but everyone in the Inland Empire knew Westwood and Hillwood, their analog and football rival. “I don’t think so,” Fatima said.

“What do you mean you don’t think so? Either something’s racist or it’s not.”

No one at school poked out his tongue and called her that, like they did in the poem Wally read, but Fatima thought about Wally, his affectations, and Principal Lee.

“It’s not always comfortable,” she said. “It can be real awkward, but I’m awkward.”

“You sure are,” Violet laughed, and Fatima laughed, too. She was learning to do more of that, and to wear a kind of self-assuredness with her side-swooped Aaliyah bangs.

Even with her usual levels of discomfort in place, most interactions were easier with Violet. Violet understood things. When she told Violet, for example, the history of her name and how its spirit hovered over Fatima like Jiminy Cricket or a mirror of unholiness—even without an accent or an “h,” wedging her between two religious worlds, both agreeing on her need for chastity and immaculate conduct—Violet said, “Word, that’s deep,” and explained that she, too, felt the weight of her name, because the Johnson family was all single moms and dads with eight kids and three jobs and no peace, and she couldn’t end up like her mother, even if it meant she had to run away and start a new identity one day.

Violet confided that, despite her confidence, she had a complex about her albinism. She could call other black people like Fatima white, but to be called white herself pushed Violet to violent tears. Just ask her ex-boyfriend and her ex-friend Kandice from middle school, who had called her Patty Mayonnaise in a fit of anger and gotten a beatdown that made her wet her pants like Fatima’s preschool friend.

“Why Patty Mayonnaise?” Fatima said.

“You know, from Doug; she was the black girl on the DL who looked white, and mayonnaise is white. It’s a stupid joke.”

“Patty was black?” Fatima said.

“Girl, a whole lot of everybody got black in them,” Violet started.

Fatima had heard some of Violet’s theories before. It was a game they played sometimes on the phone. The list included Jennifer Beals, Mariah Carey, and “that freaky girl from Wild Things,” Denise Richards, and now apparently, Patty Mayonnaise. When Fatima suggested Justin Timberlake, Violet said, “Nah, he’s like that Wally kid at your school.”

The nuances of these and other things Fatima’s best friend since first grade, Emily, just couldn’t understand, no matter how earnestly Emily tried or how many questions she asked, like why they couldn’t share shampoo when she slept over, “What does ‘for us, by us’ mean,” and why Fatima’s top lip was darker than her bottom one.

The thing about the brown top lip and the pink lower one, Fatima had learned after moving between Violet’s guidance and her school life, was that you could either read them as two souls trying to merge into a better self, or you could hide them under makeup and talk with whichever lip was convenient for the occasion.

Fatima picked up some theories on her own, too, without Violet or the literature. The thing about the brown top lip and the pink lower one, Fatima had learned after moving between Violet’s guidance and her school life, was that you could either read them as two souls trying to merge into a better self, or you could hide them under makeup and talk with whichever lip was convenient for the occasion. At school and with Emily, she talked with her pink lip, and with Violet, she talked with her brown one, and that only created tension if she thought too much about it.

Fatima passed the time at school by imagining the time she would spend after school with Violet, who promised to teach her how to flirt better on their next excursion and to possibly, eventually, hook her up with one of her cousins, but not one of her brothers, because “most of them aren’t good for anything except upsetting your mother, if you want to do that.” Fatima did not want to do that.

Now at school when Wally the Wigger looked like he was even thinking about saying something to her, Fatima made a face that warned, “Don’t even look like you’re thinking about saying something to me,” and he obeyed. In her mind, she not only said this aloud, but said it in Violet’s voice.

She didn’t mind the laughter in her parents’ eyes when she tried out a new phrase or hairstyle, because it was all working. There was something prettier about her now, too, and people seemed to see it before Fatima did, because a guy named Rolf at Westwood—a tall brunette in her history class, with whom she’d exchanged a few eye rolls over Wally—asked her for her phone number.

Without pausing to consider anything, she gave it to him.

It might seem, up to this point, that Fatima simultaneously wore braces, glasses, and forehead acne, when you hardly needed to glance to see the gloss of her black hair or the sheen on her shins, with or without lotion. Fatima knew this truth instinctively, but buried its warmth under the shame of early childhood teasing and a preference for melancholy self-pity. It was more romantic to feel ugly, modest to pretend she couldn’t hold her head just right, unleash her beautiful teeth and make a skeptical man kneel at her skirt’s hem. She just didn’t have the practice, but she was hopeful that she might get it, with Rolf or one of Violet’s cousins, hopeful that the transformation had taken hold.

*     *     *

She had just returned from a movie with Violet—where in the space in front of the theater, not one but two guys had asked for her phone number, though three had asked for Violet’s, pronouncing their approval of her “thickness” with grunts, smiles, and by looking directly at her butt—when her mother said, “You got a phone call, from a boy.”

It couldn’t be one of the boys from theater already; that would make anyone look desperate.

“Who is Rolf?” her mother smiled, “and why didn’t you mention him before?”

Fatima nearly floated up to her bedroom. She thought about calling Violet but called Rolf back instead, waiting the appropriate hour she had rehearsed with Violet for a hypothetical situation such as this.

By now, and with some authenticity, Fatima could intone the accent marks in places they hadn’t been before, recite all the names of all the members of Cash Money, Bad Boy, No Limit, Wu-Tang, Boyz II Men, ABC, BBD, ODB, LDB, TLC, B.I.G., P-O, P-P-A, Ronny, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, Johnny, Ralph, Tony, Toni, and Tone, if she wanted. But when she called Rolf, all they talked about were skateboards and the Smiths, in whose music Fatima had dabbled before Violet.

“The Smiths are way better than Morrissey,” Rolf said. His voice was nasal but deep. Fatima imagined that he was at least 6’7, though she hadn’t stood next to him yet. When she did, he was 6’1.

“You can barely tell the difference since Morrissey’s voice is so overpowering,” she said with her pink lip.

“No, but The Smiths’ stuff is way darker,” Rolf said. “You should hear the first album. Then you’ll get it. I’ve got it on vinyl.”

“Okay,” Fatima waited.

She noticed that he didn’t invite her over to listen or offer to lend her the album, but he did call back two days later and ask if she wanted to hang out over the weekend, “like at the mall or something, see a movie?”

Fatima counted to twelve, as per the rules (the universal ones, not just Violet’s) and said, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” She almost left the “l” off the end of the word, but caught herself. “Which mall?”

“Where else?” Rolf said. “The Montclair Plaza.”

This would be her first date, and though that was the kind of thing to share with a best friend, especially one with more experience, Fatima felt—in some deep way that hurt her stomach—that Violet didn’t need to know about Rolf, not yet at least. She would keep her lips glossed and parted, her two worlds separate.

*     *     *

The week leading up to the date, Fatima tried to play extra cool, asking Violet more questions than usual when they spoke on the phone. Neither of the guys from the movie theater had called Fatima, but one of Violet’s three had asked Violet out, and she was “letting him stew for a while before I let him know. Anyway, we’re supposed to check out Rush Hour this weekend.”

“This weekend?” Fatima said.

“This weekend.”

“I told my parents I would babysit this weekend, I forgot,” Fatima lied, feeling a bit like a grease stain on a silk shirt.

“Since when?” Violet pushed.

“We can go next weekend, or during the week,” Fatima said, and changed the subject.

Before they got off the phone, Violet said, “I guess I’ll call Mike back then, and tell him I’m free after all.”

*     *     *

Fatima wasn’t embarrassed of Violet or of Rolf, but she wasn’t good at managing.  She was relieved, then, when their first and second dates went without a hitch—and ended with a gentle but sort of blank kiss—and even more relieved that Rolf was okay with seeing each other during the week so that Fatima wouldn’t have to explain to Violet why she suddenly had other plans on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Tell me more about your other friends,” Rolf had said on the phone one night, when Fatima was starting to think she might love him. He knew Emily from school, and he knew about her family and had met her parents and siblings by then, though she still hadn’t met his. He knew she went to an AME church. He knew she was black.

“I guess my other best friend, besides Em, is Violet,” Fatima said.

“Violet,” Rolf repeated. “Cool name. She’s not at Westwood, is she?”

“No, public school.”

“Ah,” Rolf said, in a tone which Fatima interpreted as neutral.

“She’s my girl.” She stopped herself from saying Ace boon coon. “We hang out a lot on the weekends, actually.”

“How come you never mentioned her before?”

“I don’t know,” Fatima felt her mouth lying again, moving somehow separately from her real voice. “She’s kind of shy. She got teased a lot.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Rolf said.

“They called her Patty Mayonnaise,” Fatima said, and she didn’t know why she was still talking.

“Don’t tell anybody this, but I always thought Patty was cute on Doug,” Rolf said and shifted to talking about all of his favorite cartoons. Fatima exhaled.

Over time they grew to joke, a little awkwardly, about Fatima’s position at school, as one of two black girls. She asked Rolf if this was a thing for him or if she was his first black girlfriend, because they had labels by now.

“I don’t see color,” he said. “I just saw you. Like, one day there you were.”

Violet would say that colorblind people were the same ones who followed you in the store and that Rolf’s game was hella corny. Fatima remembered the lifelessness, before Violet, of feeling like a colorless gas and tried, in spite of a dull ache, to take Rolf’s words as a compliment.

*     *     *

The conventions of such a transformation dictate that a snaggletooth, broken heel, or some other inconvenience threatens to throw the recently realized heroine back to her former life. That snaggletooth, for Fatima, was either Rolf or Violet, depending on how you looked at things, and Fatima wasn’t sure how she did.

When she saw Violet, on April 4th—after hiding her relationship with Rolf for three months—approaching from across the Lobby of Edwards Cinema with Mike’s arm around her waist, Fatima’s first instinct was to grab Rolf’s hand and steer him towards the exit. But Violet was already calling her name.

This wasn’t the natural order of things, for these separate lives to converge. Other factors aside, the code went hos before bros, school life before social life, family before anyone else. But Rolf was both school and social, and Violet both social and nearly family, and Fatima’s math skills couldn’t balance this equation.

“I knew I saw you,” Violet said to Fatima once she got close. “Who is this?”

“Rolf, Violet. Violet, Rolf,” Fatima said, “and Mike.”

Mike smiled, and Rolf smiled, and they shook hands, but neither young woman saw the guys, their eyes deadlocked on each other.

“Ha, so this is Violet,” Rolf said, ignoring or misreading Fatima’s firm grip on his arm. “Even your black friends are white, too,” Rolf laughed.

“I was gonna tell you—” Fatima started to say to Violet.

“Wait, Patty Mayonnaise, I get it now,” Rolf said aloud, then, “Oops, I,” and both women scowled at him.

Fatima made a sound that could be interpreted as either a guffaw or a deep moan.

Then she turned back to Violet, she couldn’t make any sounds, only open and close her mouth several times. She didn’t mean to hurt her; some things had just come out, and other things she hadn’t told Violet because she wasn’t sure which lip she was supposed to use, her voice was over there and then over there, and she was ventriloquizing what she’d learned all at once, but from too many places and all at the wrong time.

Violet didn’t say anything or make Fatima wet her pants—and perhaps one of those options might have been better for Fatima; she just grabbed Mike’s arm and walked away.

And like that, Fatima was a vapor again, but something darker, like a funnel cloud, or black smoke that mocked what had already been singed.

Nafissa Thompson-SpiresNafissa Thompson-Spires earned a PhD from Vanderbilt University and an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Her short story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” won Story Quarterly’s 2016 Fiction Prize, judged by Mat Johnson, and is forthcoming in the magazine’s winter issue. Her work has also appeared in East Bay Review, Compose, Blinders, FLOW, The Feminist Wire, and other publications. She currently works as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and African-American Studies at UIUC.

Quilting Will Improve Your Health

Ultimately, our mother was made to realize her error. You would have thought she would have noticed it herself at some point, looking at the boldfaced headline from The Herald News. Quitting was the first word in both the headline and the article, one that she clipped from the paper and affixed by magnet to the refrigerator. “Quitting Will Improve Your Health.” Had she read the article, she would have realized sooner that the whole article was about cigarettes. By the time my sister, Ginger, announced her discovery that the article was all about “quitting”, our mother had already been to the craft store on Route 17 numerous times. A large plastic bag holding “her quilting gear” had, according to our father, “taken up permanent residency” in the dining room, next to the mirrored curio, which contained most of my mother’s rarely used wedding china.

That bag contained colored broadcloth and batting, but that was nothing compared to what had been laid out on the dining room table. These she had categorized, separating the quilting tools, her frames and hoops, a cutting mat, and seam ripper from what she described to us as her quilting notions, the adhesives, quilting clips, and tape measure. And these items hardly amounted to the entirety of her supply of quilting paraphernalia; there was a large basket containing the miscellaneous items, and this she had begun to carry with her from room to room.

“What’s in there, Peg?” our father wanted to know.

“Stuff.”

“Really? Couldn’t figure that one out by myself. What kind of ‘stuff’?”

“Don’t think I don’t know where this is going.” My mother shot him a look of slight disgust. “Like you haven’t been mocking my quilting since I took it up.”

“I just want to know a little about your project,” he demurred.

“It’s not my project. It’s my hobby.”

Curiously, my mother did not remove the news clipping from the refrigerator even after learning of her error. The correct wording was pointed out to her by Ginger, who was at the house to pick up some winter clothes she had left in the attic following the move to her own apartment, an excuse that she called a family visit. Casey, my other sister, was there as well, so that the whole family could serve as Ginger’s rapt audience, her well-manicured nails splayed against the refrigerator while she reviewed the headline.

“I never had a hobby before,” my mother told Ginger and everyone else in the kitchen in response to Ginger’s observation.

“So really, what do I care? As long as it improves my health.”

There was no evidence, at least not in the newspaper article before us in the kitchen that morning, to indicate that quilting actually would improve my mother’s health, but she was making at least a pound of bacon at the time, so that drew most of our attention.

As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room.

I had to wonder about Ginger, who had been alone in the kitchen with my mother for almost an hour but never mentioned the article until the rest of us were there to hear her. Something in her manner suggested to me that it was really Casey she was addressing, when pointing out Mom’s mistake. I should have said something to her on the phone when we spoke later in the week, as we sometimes did in the evening. Ginger was the ideal of an older sister, the one who had successfully moved out. She doled out “healthy” connections to Casey and me in sparing phone calls, so I chose not to mention the timing of her observation.

*         *        *

Because the air conditioning in my car was leaking water and probably other chemicals, I had to borrow my mother’s car the day after Ginger’s visit. It was the car I used when Casey needed a ride to work. My sister who, at age twenty, still did not drive. Casey heaved a bag with apparently more quilting material out of the passenger seat before she got into the car.

“What is this stuff?” she asked. “I thought quilts were like material and cotton stuffing. That was heavy, you know, for just cotton balls.”

“I didn’t look,” I told her as I backed out of the driveway, my head turned over my shoulder so I could avoid the large oak tree whose roots were infringing on the edge of our property.

“I think it’s more of her quilting material. Maybe there’s some notions underneath.” Casey rolled down her window and lit a cigarette, thoughtfully blowing smoke in the direction away from me.

“You don’t mind, do you?” she asked after she had smoked the cigarette three quarters of the way down and flicked the remainder out the window.

Casey is my twin. We are not identical, although we have a stronger resemblance than most sisters. Someone once told my mother that we were a hybrid of sorts, the kind that share an unfertilized egg. The egg splits in half and each is then fertilized separately so only half of our DNA is identical; the DNA of our mother. I looked this up after my mother told me the story and found out the whole thing about the unfertilized egg is just a theory. We don’t really know if it’s true.

So we are not identical twins, but when Casey turned her face forward, just staring at the windshield with nothing to occupy her but the road ahead now that her cigarette was gone, I could swear it was my profile.

“When did you stop wearing a uniform?” I asked, concentrating on the navy sweater she had matched with pale blue pants, a sweater that was mine. I had last seen the sweater cleaned and folded neatly in my drawer.

“I do medical billing.”

“You always wore a uniform, even when you worked for Dr. Margulies,” I told her.

“That was a small office. I sat at the front desk with the nurse.”

Casey had left Dr. Margulies’ office three months earlier when she didn’t even have another job. “Because it was boooring,” she had told us. Now she was working at Rutherford Pediatrics, located in the Medical Arts Building on Berkery Avenue. She had been there for less than two weeks. This was the first time I had seen her in non-uniform attire. My sweater was stretching uncomfortably over the folds of skin that draped the waistband of Casey’s pants. Casey did not even pretend to diet, the way some people do. I turned onto the one-way street that led to the parking lot.

“Let me off here,” Casey said quickly. “I like to get coffee from Jerry’s.” She leapt out, slamming the passenger door.

I sat for a while in the car next to the convenience store, which offered better coffee than the “swill” that was brewed in the back office space of Rutherford Pediatrics. I wanted to catch Casey buying the packaged baked goods that I knew she was stockpiling. I sat watching nothing at all pass by out the window. Customers parked and walked into Jerry’s Minit Stop, one after the other. They all came in different cars and trucks, except the last two who worked for the same refrigeration repair service. The men held the door for each other. There was still no sign of Casey even after several of the men I observed walking in had come out minutes later holding cardboard cups of coffee and matching logoed paper bags. I called my mother to see if she needed the bag that Casey had thrown into the back of the car, deciding not to wonder what Casey was doing in the Minit Stop. Not caring if she ate an entire box of cinnamon frosted donuts while pretending to peruse the magazine rack, as she had once been caught doing when Ginger had agreed to drive her home from Dr. Margulies.

When my mother answered the home phone, I explained in detail the items we had found in the rear of her car.

“That’s just some extra cotton, dear.”

“You don’t need it for your quilt?”

“Not now. You can just leave it in the car.”

That was the first feeling that my mother was hoarding her quilting material. Purchasing quantities beyond her ability to stitch her squares together. Spending money on cotton fluff and gold lacing that she did not want my father to know about. I moved the plastic bags from Marcia’s Crafting Attic to the trunk of the car when I got to my part-time job at Healy Dry Cleaning. The bag would be there for my mother to find, should she need the materials, which I began to doubt that she would. I had left while Casey was still in the convenience store and tried not to wonder about that.

My mother had begun a pattern entitled “Crossroads,” she told us over dinner.

“It took me a while to think about which quilt I should start with.” She lifted the lid off the butter substitute that she spread over a roll she had peeled open.

“I almost did “Monkey Wrench” because, to tell you the truth, it’s a pretty pattern. I just couldn’t get past the name, Monkey Wrench.” She balanced her grease-smeared knife on the edge of her plate. “Monkey Wrench. The woman at Marcia’s told me it’s an all-time favorite, but in the end, I just couldn’t go for it.”

Casey eventually picked up the thread of conversation that my mother had left hanging for us to gather.

“I’m sure that Crossroads will come out fine.”

“Well, I just want to do some justice to the pattern,” my mother announced.

“Justice?” Even my father could not ignore that clue.

“The woman, …Bonnie,” my mother began, turning her attention away from the remains of her second roll, “is a member of the American Quilter’s Society. And she says that it makes a wonderful story, even if no one can actually prove it.”

“Are we still talking about quilts?” Casey asked.

“There is evidence,” my mother informed us with as much authority as she could infuse into her voice, “that quilt patterns, such as Crossroads and Monkey Wrench, were part of a code.”

We thought that she had paused for dramatic effect, maybe she wanted us to pull the information from her, as she teased us along. Her attention was focused on a portion of string bean casserole on her plate until one of us interrupted her gaze.

“Code.” Casey used her facial expression to make this a question.

“In the underground railroad. Quilts were used as codes, hung on a line, left on a fence, so that the escapees would get information they needed.”

“Information? From a quilt? What kind of information are we talking about, here?” my father asked.

A long sniff emerged from my mother.

“The kind of information that an escapee would need when they were making an escape.” After her triumphant reply, she repeated several times that, as Bonnie had mentioned, it was a wonderful story.

The structure of the Crossroads quilt occupied my mother. Its construction, its supposed meaning. Left, in various stages of completion in our family room, it occupied all of us as well, mostly because we were constantly moving bags of material from couches, the passenger seat of my mother’s car, anywhere a plastic bag full of batting could possibly be set down. As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room. All that remained was for my mother to actually complete the quilt.

*         *        *

And while she continued to speak often about the Crossroads pattern and its specialness, my mother never told us the quilt’s secret meaning. It was my guess that she did not know. That remained curious to me. During a break from class, I wandered into the computer room of the library. The equipment was not intended for personal use, there were warning stickers on every computer. But most of the staff at Ramapo Community College was tolerant, as long as you were discrete. I sat at a terminal and typed in “quilt codes.” After scrolling through various websites, I was led to a page with eight distinct patterns, the illustrations depicted in black and white. There they were. Monkey Wrench and Crossroads. There were others as well. Log Cabin, Bowties, Flying Geese, Drunkard’s Path, North Star, and Tumbling Blocks. Each had its own paragraph in justified text. The secret codes revealed. Crossroads, a block pattern quilt, spoke of travel. Travel onward to Cleveland, Ohio! Cleveland having been the crossroad of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the “secret codes” were not very secretive at all, although Bowtie was said to have meant “choose a disguise.” There were instructions on how and when to leave. And what to do once on your way. Particulars, like follow the birds north to Canada (Flying Geese). Or go “zigzag” (Drunkard’s Path). Of all the coded meanings, my mother had chosen Crossroads, often described as simple, a “quick block pattern. No doubt that simplicity figured most into her decision.

I swiped my student ID and printed out the page with the eight quilts and their secret codes. I printed the page and placed it in my binder even though I had seen other websites claiming there was no proof from oral history or otherwise that the quilts were used as codes along the route of the Underground Railroad. Many claimed that some of the quilt patterns had not been designed until the early Twentieth Century.

*         *        *

Another of Ginger’s phone calls came when no one else was home. She must have planned it that way.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

When I asked Ginger how things were going for her, she began to speak rapidly. I held the phone slightly away from my ear, thinking how much better my room would look with lavender walls. Changing the color of my room was something I had been considering for a while. That, and moving out entirely. All of the books on my desk would have to be cleared off and boxed so I could store them in the basement. If the choice were painting my room.

“She needs to stay away from the carbs!” Ginger was yelling into the phone. “Are you listening to me? What are you keeping in the house? Doughnuts? Is that what they’re eating?”

“I don’t, I mean, I’m not sure. Doughnuts?”

“Yes. You’re the one that can talk some sense into them. I’m not there and Dad, he’s, I mean, really. Do you think he gives any thought to carbs?”

“Okay.” I answered. She barked a list of approved fruits and vegetables into the phone, demanded to know whether I was writing all of her instructions down. Ginger was good at giving advice, letting us know exactly what she thought. I had a harder time of it. Casey would see my weakness, ignore my best efforts to keep her off doughnuts.

It was Casey, after all, who was stronger than I was. She was the sister I admired most when we were younger. Not Ginger, to her immense disappointment, although she did not have to wait long to reclaim her rightful spot as older sister, as the boss of the family. As the boss of me. But for a brief moment, it was Casey who I adored. Casey, with her blonde, confident wedge haircut, the one that I copied shamelessly. Her bold stance as catcher on our softball team. Casey could hit the ball, could throw it. She could do everything. At night, we would talk, as sisters do, going over the days events, what we thought of our neighbors, the Nichols family, the first people we ever knew to get a divorce.

Over time, the conversations would change. At night, Casey would tell secrets to me about the girls in school that she hated, how they were mean to her. How they secretly avoided her in the locker room, rolled their eyes, “accidentally” bumped into her in the hall. When we reached high school, I understood, then I understood, that Casey was not sharing secrets with me. She was telling me all of the reasons to avoid her. All of the reasons I should enroll in drama after school, the student newspaper. Anything except softball with Casey. I began to model myself after Ginger. Taking the time to groom myself. Growing my hair out of the wedge. Like all of the other girls, who wore those long, silky layers.

At some point, a package arrived from The Basket Factory, a local store for shoppers looking for knockoffs of better quality home goods. Inside were four really good-sized baskets with lids. My father opened the cardboard crate with the utility knife he retrieved from the bottom kitchen drawer. It was a dull paring knife we kept only for slicing tape off of deliveries. He left the baskets for my mother in the family room, and when she came home that afternoon, she placed her still-in-progress quilt in one, the plastic bag from Marcia’s Crafting Attic in another. The other baskets were soon filled with Mom’s quilting notions and fluff. They looked good in the family room, the varying shades of rattan soft and unoffending. The baskets were useful as ottomans. No one cared if you put your feet on them while slouching on the plaid couches that formed our conversation circle.

The college library was often noisy and there were only a few carrels. I preferred the family room where I could study on the couch with the new basket/ottomans for my books. On a Wednesday afternoon shortly after the quilt had been put away, I heard the tiny click of the rear door returning to its place against the jamb and looked up, expecting to see my mother, who sometimes came home for lunch. Casey was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. It was almost 1:00 and I was due to pick her up from Rutherford Pediatrics at 5:30.

“Don’t you have work today?” I asked.

Casey had most of a muffin pressed into her mouth.

“Ummm.” She kind of nodded along with that answer.

“Work. I thought you were working today.”

She added a half shrug to the information that she had already provided.

It felt like we might have the exact conversation as when she left Dr. Margulies. At any moment, she might look at me and say, “It was boooring.” Or she might say nothing this time and just leave me with her little shrug. If I were to pursue a better answer. Of course, her means of transportation, how she had wandered home, remained puzzling.

There was not a lot of room to hang out in our house. The spaces were small, our rooms too narrow and confined for us when we were in high school, and we were older now. Young adults encased in bedrooms that barely fit our twin size mattresses. Casey moved a plastic bag filled with shiny ribbons onto the floor and sat across from me. It was, I noticed, the lone bag that had escaped enclosure into the baskets. I also noticed that Casey seemed to have swallowed her muffin. Her speech was much clearer.

“Did you get a flu shot this year?” Casey asked.

I moved my yellow highlighter across a portion of text that explained the cycle of water being absorbed into the atmosphere. I heard a noise coming from Casey’s direction. It sounded like marbles. I used my highlighter to underline another sentence. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air.

“Here,” Casey said. When I looked up her arm was outstretched, a few vials resting on the palm of her open hand.

“What?”

“Flu shots. I got them from the office.”

“They gave those to you? What, I mean . . . why? Why would they give you flu shots like that? Don’t you need a nurse to give you the shot?”

“I’m a technician,” Casey announced.

“Right. I know. Right. But you don’t do that at the office. I mean, you file and stuff like that. Right? You file.”

“So? You don’t need to be a genius to give someone a flu shot.”

Casey looked around. The lid was off one of the baskets, revealing the partially constructed quilt that our mother was producing, the pattern that may or may not have once told an important story. “You want one?” she asked.

“No thanks. I got one at the pharmacy. They started giving them in the back near the reading glasses around October.”

“Oh.”

I would have to remember to go to the pharmacy and get my flu shot there, something I had been meaning to do for a while. That was preferable, not having to tell Casey what to do with her flu shots, that she was only a barely competent technician who just made her way through six months of training. We had that conversation once before, when she was in school, at a time when I could not leave her failure alone. Casey was missing her classes, leaving books that had their bindings perfectly intact in the kitchen, not doing any of the assignments. One afternoon, I just had to tell her.

“You never read these. It’s so obvious. Look at this book. It’s never been opened.”

I picked up the book and opened the cover, a stiff movement of paper.

“How do you know what I do? And why do you care?”

“You’re going to get thrown out of that school, you know that? Thrown out.”

“They don’t do that when you’re paying, you know. They never throw you out of school when you pay them.”

“Really? I think they do. When you don’t show up, when you don’t do any of the work, I think they do.”

And it was because she looked so much like me, her cheeks the same as the ones that I brushed with pink bronzer, it was because of those cheekbones that I choked on those words. But apparently she had been right because she had earned her technician’s degree and now here she was with a handful of flu shots and most likely syringes as well.

She was wearing sweatpants and a matching long sleeve tee shirt. Her office attire. Perhaps there were other drugs that she stole from her new office, from Dr. Margulies as well. Maybe that was why she left his office, before she even had another job. Most people took pain killers, things that you wanted but could not get for yourself easily, things that you could sell. Casey took flu shots and wanted to administer them to her family. Would my parents let her? I could picture my mother, holding the little vials close to her face, her eyes squinting behind her glasses. They could be tucked away with the mounds of quilting material, just disappear and Casey would never get into trouble for stealing them. Lost among the notions and the barely remembered tape measure.

Here is the thing about the quilts and their secret meanings. We used to see drinks listed on the placemats at Valley Forge Restaurant with names that hinted at more. Those names, Singapore Sling, Sloe Gin Fizz, Caribbean Rum Punch, suggested dark mystique. Nothing unfathomable, nothing beguiling existed in names like Bowtie or Log Cabin. But if you did your own research, found out a little more on your own, then it all came out. Beyond the quilts, beyond the small paragraphs and their meager information. Then it all flew right at you.

The code name for Cleveland was Hope. There, on Lake Erie’s shore, someone might reach Hope. That was the message of the Crossroads quilt. Nearing the end of a long journey, with Port Stanley, Ontario just across the water. Port Stanley. Code name “God be Praised!” Surrounded by dark woods, no one to trust but some quilts that may or may not have been imbedded with secrets that you had to rely on. Secrets coming from total strangers whom you had been told to trust like the family you never really had. Around you is a kind of darkness no one has ever seen before and now you are alone and in danger and desperate for the North Star. True North. The truest star in the night sky. The quilt told you one thing, inspired and encouraged you at the start of the journey but how could you trust everything that they told you. How did they know? This is what you would wonder, about the Crossroads quilt, whether its message was real.

And then the faintest sound of water. So tiny a sound at first that you might think it was just a soft rain getting ready to fall a little harder. But the water is rushing, you hear it now as a river now that you are nearer. It starts to smell of cardinal flower and swamp rose mallow and dampness itself and everything wet and cold but it is Lake Erie and you rush forward, as fast as the river. Maybe faster. It’s there across the water. Port Stanley. Waiting for you to cross. God be Praised!

Imagine that.

Or imagine our home that afternoon. Surrounded by our mother’s new baskets and never-to-be finished quilt, snoring in an easy chair on a Wednesday afternoon, there was my sister, my twin. The ugly plaid of the family room, the ottomans, none of it large enough for all the misplaced strips of gold quilting, the more often than not flawed stitches, nothing to make all of the flaws and imperfections disappear, or at least unknowable. How I longed to not look at her. Or maybe just once to see her differently. With long, silky layers of blonde hair.

*         *        *

Melanie AnagnosMelanie Anagnos is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and the current nonfiction editor of LUMINA. She was awarded the Kathryn Gurfein Writing Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence for her short fiction. Her work has appeared online and in Ozone Park Journal. Melanie lives with her husband and two children in Haworth, New Jersey and is completing a collection of linked stories.

Hand Job

It is Linda’s first night home after a four-day sales trip that takes her from Connecticut to Maine and back home again to Connecticut. She goes out on the road every other week. On the first night home after one of her trips we stay home, order in, get wrecked and do sex—mostly in that order. Tomorrow we will go out alone for dinner and on the third night we usually get together with friends. Somewhere in this scenario is at least one argument. Linda and I can argue over how the other says hello.

She sells specialty stuffed bears—mostly to card and gift shops in hospitals. Bears are still number one in the stuffed animal world. The company she works for is called, Physically Imbeared. It specializes in stuffed animals that are impaired in one way or another. She says that it’s a great niche market for kids with physical limitations. For example, her biggest seller is Bear With Glasses. The animals can be ordered with any of the following: glasses, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheel chairs, iron lungs, walkers, or the biggie which is Bear In The Bubble.

I take the night off from my bar and hope that my manager doesn’t become my partner. She’s new, been with me only three weeks, so I chance she won’t start stealing yet.

We are in the Jacuzzi eating Chinese. Linda is having the only thing she ever orders—a Number Three. That’s a combination egg roll, pork fried rice, and sweet and sour chicken. She still won’t even taste anything else after six years of my trying to broaden her food horizons. I guess it shouldn’t, but this angers me. There’s a series of things that Linda does to anger me. This is one and she knows it. Won’t even take a taste of something different. Never does. I don’t understand her lack of curiosity. I’m having one of their specials—Wonderful scallops in most delicious and unusual surprise spicy sauce with lichees.

Linda is looking at her hands, holding them out in front of her, turning palm up, palm down—sometimes empty handed or with whatever she has in her hand at the moment—chopsticks, a joint, a bar of soap, the carton of white rice. She’s been doing this since she got home. It’s another one of her habits that angers me. Instead of coming out directly with what she wants to say or discuss, Linda would rather put me through the torture of twenty questions. I’d like to start my own line of bears and call them Emotionally Imbeared.

I sit in the tub and look at her, the heart-shaped face and high forehead that I always found attractive, and still do. She changes hairstyles often, but not color. Tonight her hair is hanging straight—almost to her shoulders and she has wisps of bangs splayed across her forehead.

I’m not going to ask her what she’s doing because I know it’s driving her crazier that I’m not asking. I’m just hoping for a fortune cookie that will let me segue into an argument that will lead to her moving out of my house and back to her apartment in the next few weeks—by Thanksgiving. She’s got to be out before the Christmas season begins. I have to make the argument seem real—not contrived. That’s for my benefit. She knows it’s going to happen—she expects it, but I just can’t come right out and tell her the real reason. It would be cruel and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. The less said the better.

“Did you ever notice my hands?” she finally asks in a tone as if the thought just entered her mind. “I have hand model hands.”

“No kidding,” I say. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I have very special hands—thin and well proportioned—the kind of hands that hand models have.”

“Oh?”

“I can make a living modeling my hands,” she says proudly.

“Someone will pay you to show them your hands?” I ask.

She gives me her look. “It’s not only the hands, it’s what they are holding and how you use them. See what I mean?” she asks, showing me her hands as she holds the egg roll in her wet left palm and points to it in a showy way with her right pointer finger. “I have the right shape hands and the long thin fingers that are in demand,” Linda says, sounding like a pitchman for the Acme Hand Models School.

“Did you ever notice my hands?” she finally asks in a tone as if the thought just entered her mind. “I have hand model hands.”

“Pass me the egg roll,” I say, “and let me try.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “You don’t have hand model hands.”

“If you have them, I want them too.”

“Your fingers are too wrinkled and short and you also have scars on your hands.”

“So?”

“So, you can go to all the modeling agencies in the world and you’ll never get a hand job unless they happen to need someone with wrinkled, short, scarred fingers.”

“Where do you fit in this world of hand jobs?” I ask.

“I fit in well, thank you—and I just happen to have an appointment with a photographer who specializes in models to do a hand portfolio for me this week.” Linda says.

“How do you pay him? With money or a hand job?”

“Maybe both. Everything’s a joke with you,” Linda says. “For your information I was told by an agent who represents people in commercials that I have perfect hands. Can you imagine making big money just because you have perfect hands? I can give up the bears and stop traveling by car. Models travel first class.”

“Where did you meet this agent?” I ask suspiciously.

“What difference does it make? I met him.”

“Was it in a bar?” I ask.

“Yes,” Linda says. “As a matter of fact it was the hotel bar in Newport.”

“You sound as if there is an ‘and’ coming,” I say.

“There is no ‘and’ coming,” she says.

“Really?”

“It’s no big deal. We both had business in Boston the next night and met for dinner. We discussed my hands and he told me the benefits of having an agent.”

“Let me guess,” I say. “He offered to be your agent.”

“Yes, he did.”

“That kind of says it all,” I say, recognizing an opening when I hear one. I get out of the Jacuzzi, “I can’t trust you on these trips. I always knew it.” I wrap the towel around my waist. “I won’t fuck you again without a health note,” I tell her.

“That’s why I don’t tell you everything. You are a sicko and I won’t fuck you even if you have a note from your mother.” Linda turns on the loud Jacuzzi jets to end the conversation.

While lying in bed reading and waiting for her, condom on the nightstand, Linda walks in dressed and says, “What’s the big rush this year? I was planning to move but it’s not even close to Thanksgiving. You’re getting to be like Hallmark—moving the season up a little earlier each year.”  She walks out and I hear her car drive off.

She’s right. It is earlier than usual. It’s only the beginning of November and I usually start “the argument” right before Thanksgiving.

This has gone on for most of the seven years we’ve been together. It was our third year together when Linda moved in and we stayed together right through the holidays. I swore never again. It was the Christmas tree. I grew up with menorahs and latkes in December, not a dead tree with tsatskes and flickering annoying lights dominating the living room.

I didn’t know how to tell Linda that I couldn’t deal with Christmas in my house. No more trees and the best way to have no more trees was to have no more Linda. I was marking time with her, I would never marry her but I was too much of a coward to tell her.

All those years ago, with her husband away on business, when we first made love, Linda asked me—right out—then and there—if her not being Jewish mattered to me. Not having thought about it before and not wanting to lose the moment I told her, “No, of course not.” As I said it I realized that it did matter and during all these years I never corrected myself, and she never brought it up again. Linda used that brief exchange as an excuse to get out of a bad marriage. She hung in with me for her own reasons. Love? In all of our years together, sober or stoned, in bed or out, neither of us used the word or was courageous enough to chance the question.

Over the years when she moved back into her apartment I would drive by nightly until I saw the lit tree and then I’d call her. I’d buy her Christmas presents, apologize, and court her again. We’d end up spending New Year’s together and then sometime before Valentine’s Day Linda would move back in. Some might call this a sick relationship, but it’s no different than the games that married people play for far longer periods of time. I knew Linda wanted to get married. She never spoke about it and I certainly never brought up the subject. The real problem was comfort. We became comfortable in this scene and before we realized it seven years had passed. I wanted to get married too, but not to Linda. The trouble was that wishing wasn’t going to find me a new mate—action was—but wishing was easier. I’m sure she thought the same.

I keep driving past Linda’s house and never see any signs of life much less a Christmas tree in her window. One of her girlfriends tells me that she went to stay with her parents in Florida for the holidays.

I overhear Candy, one of my waitresses, telling the bartender that her husband is away on a business trip until after Christmas. She is happily married but not adverse to a little adventure now and then. I wait for an opening and then I offer to take her to Bermuda over Christmas. She is silent for a minute. Finally she gets off the stool, says, “Wait,” and walks over to talk to the bartender. On her way back he gives me a look that says, “I’m going to steal double while you’re gone for moving in on me.”

“You’re on,” she says. She tells me she’s excited about the trip. I’m excited about Candy. She has the girl next-door looks with a dazzling smile. Her hair is short and brown and I’m enamored with her rich, full lips.

Bermuda is better than either of us expected. As the plane is taxiing for takeoff she whispers in my ear that she’s so nervous she forgot to pack or wear any underwear. I look at her. Candy’s dazzling smile sets the tone. The beaches are great, the lovemaking better and, for the most part, I put Linda out of my mind. Candy and I arrive home on the twenty-seventh with neither making promises to the other. We shared a great few days with lots of laughter and gossip and we both know that it may or may not happen again. “Merry Christmas,” I say as I drop her off at her car. “Back to you, big guy.”

Pulling up to my house after dropping Candy off I’m floored. It’s decorated. There are Christmas lights in trees and around the door; an illuminated Santa stands defiantly on my roof. Inside, I find the decorated Christmas tree. I feel uncomfortable in my own house. The strong smell of pine adds to my discomfort. There’s a box under the tree wrapped in Christmas paper. Linda knows I don’t like getting gifts wrapped in Christmas paper. It’s another thing she does that angers me.

I pick up the box to open it and all of a sudden realize that I’m in a lit-up house and thoughts of my friends driving by gives me a panic attack. Rushing to the bathroom, I grab an anti-anxiety pill from the medicine cabinet and then run outside to turn off the lights. I yank on Santa’s extension cord so hard he comes crashing down into my bushes—but at least he’s no longer glowing. Running from tree to tree I manage to get all the lights out and decide that I’ll work on removal in the morning. The blinking lights around my door surrounding the mezuzah are the final straw. I yank the cords and smash the bulbs. Spent, I sit on my stoop and then it dawns on me that one of my neighbors might come by and say something. I dash inside and pick up the phone—but I’m not sure who to call or what to say.

Sitting on the floor, facing the darkened Christmas tree I rip open the box. Inside is a framed section of the local newspaper showing an ad for menorahs. The ad shows a very beautiful silver menorah resting on a glass table. It has a full complement of new unlit candles. There is one hand gently holding it on the side and the other hand is pointing at it. I recognize those long skinny fingers and their position. It’s the same way Linda pointed to the egg roll in the tub. She really does have hand model hands. I flash back to an earlier memory—one of our sitting in a restaurant and I’m looking down at her hands resting on top of mine while we talk. I nostalgically remember how good those hands made me feel—their lightness and their warmth.

Paul BeckmanPaul Beckman has had over two hundred stories published in print and online in the following magazines, amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, PANK, Literary Orphans, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Metazen, Boston Literary Magazine and The Brooklyner. He’s had a novella and three collections published, the newest, Peek, by Big Table Publishing in February of this year. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com.

 

Full of Foxes

Summer jobs are supposed to be fun. Earn a little money to help save up for a car or maybe college. There’s a whole bunch of movies about the people working for carnivals or as life guards. Even if they’re miserable, they still have adventures and get to make out a little bit.

I work at the Milwaukee County zoo. Next to the elephants. And I’ll be honest, there is nothing romantic or adventurous about standing next to elephants all day. They smell, they’re loud, and nobody cool ever wants to hang out around them. I wear a stupid uniform and a little plastic name tag: Carlos. The money I make doesn’t go into some fancy savings account. It helps keep the lights on and food on the table. I don’t even have a cool job like feeding the animals or helping with demonstrations. I sell ice cream from a cart at the corner of the exhibit.

Early morning is bad for ice cream sales. Parents like to save it for an after lunch or going home treat, so I spend most mornings on my phone, tucking it away before a supervisor can see me. It’s against park policy to be on a phone at work, but everybody does it.

I’ve checked the weather, my email, and texted David about six times already this morning. He hasn’t answered. It’s not a big deal, though, because his job is pretty important and I’m just bored. Other than the group of Girl Scouts that came by earlier, it’s been quiet.

Off to the side, there’s a movement that catches my attention. I see this funny line of little ducklings charging along the sidewalk, like they’ve got somewhere to be, and behind them, David. Like most of the zoo staff, I look ridiculous in my uniform: unflattering colors against my awkward teenage limbs. I’m too tall for the shorts to look good and too narrow in the shoulders for the shirt to sit right. David, though, looks like he’s just stepped out of a jungle and onto a TV set, all tan arms and legs, his dark hair pulled back and glossy in the sun. Even at a distance, his light blue eyes make my mouth dry. I grab a handful of crushed peanuts from the cart and throw them in the path of the ducklings so they’ll stop.

“Hey,” I say as David catches up.

He’s taller than me, with permanent dimples I want to press my fingers into while I hold his face. “You shouldn’t feed them.”

All I can think about is David standing over the ducklings. He’d been so protective of them, watching out for dangers, keeping them safe. But it’s a lie, he’s not trying to protect anything, he’s a predator.

I shrug and try not to feel like I’m one of the kids in his exhibit that he’s just scolded. I met David because I needed a tutor for physics. Mom couldn’t afford to hire somebody, but he got extra credit in another class to help out. He was nice when he wasn’t around his soccer friends and he said I made him laugh. We got close as the school year ended but since summer started, it’s like we’re not even dating.

Not that we are. Dating, I mean. Not really. We hang out and we’ve messed around a few times when his parents weren’t home, but it’s not like we hold hands in public or he tells his friends he’s going to spend the weekend with his boyfriend. Mom thinks he’s keeping me a secret, but that doesn’t make any sense because the whole school knows he’s gay. He says he just wants to keep me to himself, and I don’t mind.

“Did you get my text?” He might have missed it. He’s real particular about following the park rules.

The ducklings aren’t going anywhere until they’ve eaten every last peanut, so he clips his walkie back on his belt and crosses his arms. “Yeah, about that—”

“Cause I thought we could do something Saturday since we’re off.” It’s not cute to stalk the employee schedule, but he forgot to text me his hours for the weekend. “If I don’t make plans now, my dad will try and drag me out across the state to see the world’s biggest penny or some shit.” Dad’s trying to make up for lost time, I guess, from when he wasn’t around when I was little and mom says I should let him.

He picks these weird trips for the two of us, the windows rolled down in his truck because the air busted three years ago and he’s never gotten it fixed. We’re supposed to be building memories, I think. Of something other than sitting around his trailer watching reruns.

David won’t meet my eyes. I move a little so the sun isn’t directly behind me, but he’s still shifting his gaze between the ducklings and looking over at the elephants. “Maybe you should. You don’t get to see him that much.”

“I get to see you less.” I swallow against the tight feeling in my throat. He won’t look at me, he didn’t smile when he saw me, the way he’d smiled when we crossed paths at work before. Every time I edge a little closer to him, just to draw in the scent of his woodsy cologne, he leans back or waves off an imaginary fly.

It seems like he’s going to say something, so I lean in. But the lead duckling picks up the last peanut and then darts off like he’s late for an appointment. The rest of the ducklings follow their leader and David steps away, breaking the last illusion of intimacy between us. “Sorry. I have to go. They got separated from their mom and we’ve been trying to get them back all morning.”

He walks off, following the birds, his shoulders back and his posture perfectly aligned as I hunch in on myself. Something’s not right, but I can’t tell what it is. David didn’t even answer me about Saturday. I wish there was a way for me to wait for him at his car after the end of my shift, but he usually leaves before me. I don’t start until the park opens and he’s here an hour or two before. I pull out my phone and send him a text to call me when he’s done, even though I can still see the shape of his broad shoulders in the distance. I think his head dips and I tell myself he’s smiling at my message.

The sun’s creeping up, so I duck back under the cheerful striped umbrella that does a terrible job of keeping me cool. An older man comes up to my cart, though his attention is on the same outline of David and the ducks. He’s in slacks and a tie, like he’s on break from a meeting, a little girl with pristine blond hair at his side.

There’s a faint smile on his face when he finally turns away from the ducklings. “Hi,” he looks at my name tag, “Carlos.” I hate it when they do that. “Could we have two vanilla cones, please?” He speaks slowly, like because I’ve got brown skin and look more like my Chippewa mom than my white dad I won’t understand him.

“I want sprinkles.” The little girl doesn’t look at me, but to be fair, she doesn’t look at him either.

I start to pour the cones from the soft serve machine. “Sorry, we don’t have sprinkles.”

She turns to me. I’ve got her attention now. “But I want them.”

“I could add peanuts.” She shakes her head and I hand over the cones. “That’ll be eight dollars, please.” I expect some kind of comment about how expensive it is, but the guy just hands over a twenty like it’s nothing, doesn’t even bother checking the change when I hand it back.

In my back pocket, I feel the quiet vibration of my phone. I bet it’s David. I can’t wait to get rid of this guy so I can check. David’s probably sorry for how little time he got to stay. I understand. Keeping after the ducks is part of his job.

The guy starts to wander off, headed to the elephants, or maybe the giraffes, but the girl lingers by my stand. She takes a slow lick of the cone and sneers at me. I’ve never seen a nine year old sneer like that before, and I’ve got, like, a million cousins. “You should really have sprinkles.”

I shrug. “Okay.”

“Who was that boy?”

I look down at her, then off after the missing space of David. “He’s a friend.”

She grins and it might be a sweet look on some other kid, but on her it’s wicked. “Are you dating? Is he your boyfriend?” Her voice takes on a sing-song quality, high pitched enough to draw attention. “He didn’t seem very interested in you.”

The guy gets a little farther away and doesn’t seem to notice that she’s not with him. “You should go keep up with your dad. You don’t want to get lost.” I try to shake her words off, shooing her in his direction.

“Oh, he’s not my dad.” She takes one more lick of the cone, then dumps the half-eaten thing in the trash. “He’s my mom’s assistant. He’s supposed to keep me busy while she has an affair with our gardener.”

Jesus. I don’t know what to say, but she doesn’t seem to expect an answer, just curls her lip at me and wanders away. How hard must it be to know that kind of thing? I’d probably try to pick fights with strangers, too. Better not to have parents together at all, like mine, than to see them break up when you’re still young enough that juice boxes are a highlight of your day.

Once she’s gone I check my phone, the happy face at the top of my screen lets me know I have a text and I smile back in response. I open the message. The smile is a lie. Instead of an apology, David’s message is brutal. I don’t want to see you anymore.

No one’s waiting for ice cream, and even if there was, I don’t think I would care. I take two steps away and dial his number. It goes right to voice mail, so I hang up and try again. After the fifth time, he answers. “I’m working, Carlos,” he hisses. His voice is echoey, like he stepped into a bathroom, maybe.

“What do you mean?” I stutter over my words, my tongue thick and caught on my teeth.

“I was pretty clear. I’m sorry if you’re hurt, but I thought you understood when I saw you earlier. It’s just,” he pauses and I can hear him suck in a deep breath. “This year is going to be a big year for me. Scotty Harmon got a full ride last year and coach says I’m a better player, easy. I can’t have,” he stops again and I want to see him so badly I start to walk toward the bird sanctuary, “distractions.”

I remember his flushed face, tucked against my neck. “I thought you liked my distractions.” I hate how young my own voice is in my ears, how far away he sounds. I’m gripping my phone so tight that it’s slippery in my sweating palm. If it crashed to the ground, at least the conversation would be over.

“You’ll understand when it’s your senior year.”

I breathe into the phone, unable to speak. All I can think about is David standing over the ducklings. He’d been so protective of them, watching out for dangers, keeping them safe. But it’s a lie, he’s not trying to protect anything, he’s a predator. I want to warn the little leader, to scoop up his soft, warm body and hold it close to my chest. Watch out little duck, the world is full of foxes.

“I have to go back to work. And you shouldn’t be on your phone in the park.” He hangs up and it takes all of my strength not to hurl the phone into the elephant enclosure where they could stomp it to pieces. Sweat is falling off of me and the sun feels like it’s going to set me on fire.

I want to go home. Mom won’t be there for hours and I can sit in my room with the music as loud as I want, no matter how hard Mr. Henderson bangs on the wall. I need the soft edges of my blankets, the rounded corners of my windowsill, and space to breathe. The precisely placed sidewalks and manicured lawns of the park are too sharp against my eyes. But we need the money. I can’t just walk out. I can’t.

The only reason I took this job, twelve miles away eating up time and gas, was so I could be close to David. I could have worked at the Pick ‘n Save in my neighborhood instead of coming all the way out here every day. The cart mocks me, standing empty, waiting for me to slink back over and take my place. I’ve never walked out of a job before and the thought of it makes me sick. My hands are shaking at just the thought, but I can’t make myself do it. David is friends with everyone in the park and he’ll know that he made me leave.

I don’t understand what happened. Is there someone else? I bet it’s one of his teammates; he and Amir are always together. David ditched me more than once to hang out with Amir, but he said it was for soccer.

One of the elephants trumpet. Informational tours come by sometimes and if there are little kids in the group, they always talk about how smart the elephants are. How long their memories last. Elephants who spent a day together can remember each other after twenty years. Twenty years from now, would they still remember my humiliation?

I pace back to my spot because I can’t make myself leave. But I can’t stand still so I roam around the edges of the cart, my breath high and short and hands shaking for almost half an hour. I torture myself by reading his last text, butted right up against others: I had a good time, ur funny, send me another pic.

I take a picture of my middle finger, but I don’t send it.

A little while later, just before families start coming by for their afternoon treats, I see the little girl wander back by, only now she’s got a balloon tied to her wrist and a cuddly monkey wrapped in her arms. The price of her silence, I guess. I feel almost bad for her until she slides up to my cart.

She looks me over, the way people with money look at cashiers in grocery stores. How did she learn that look so young? “They’re laughing about you, you know. Over in the bird sanctuary.” She pouts a fake lip at me. “Poor Carlos.”

I shake my head and look around for the guy she was with, desperate for him to take her away. “No, they’re not.”

“We followed them all the way back to the birds. That boy you were talking to said he doesn’t know why you won’t leave him alone.”

He wanted me. I know he did. It couldn’t all have been a lie. “What else did he say?”

Her eyes light up the way a normal kid would for ice cream. “I shouldn’t tell you. It’s not very nice.”

I want to play it cool and not get taken in by a kid seven years younger than me, but if David won’t talk to me, I want to know what he said. “I don’t care.”

“He said you were—“ Her mom’s assistant calls her away before she can finish. She doesn’t hesitate to run after him and I’m left with nothing. She probably did it on purpose. I bet she thinks it’s funny.

All the anger comes flashing right back at me, and I’m shaking again. Of course he’s talking about me to his friends; he worked at the park for three summers and I’ve only been around a couple of weeks. Of course they’ll take his side. I didn’t need that little girl to tell me what David said, I could imagine it well enough on my own. I turn, like I can see through the trees and exhibits and see right to where David is standing. He’s probably laughing right now.

“Hey!” A guy is standing at my cart; I don’t remember him coming up. He’s got money clutched in his hand while his kid bounces around his legs. “I said I want two cones.”

How does this guy not know? How is it possible that there are any people in the world who can look at me and not see the way David ate through my heart? My chest hurts and I wonder if I’m too young to have a heart attack.

I take a step back, out from under the useless umbrella. The surprise on the guy’s face is pleasant, but it’s not enough. He’s still just seeing the uniform, the way my dad sees lost opportunities, the way David only ever saw a diversion. I place my hands on the side of the cart. The metal is hot under my fingertips and I can see the guy move away, clutching at his wife and kid. I might not be as built as David, but the cart is cheap. First it wobbles, then tips with surprising ease as I shove against it. The ice cream spills out in lazy, looping swirls. Behind me, the little family starts shouting.

The dad waves his hands at me. He sees me now. “What the hell are you’re doing?”

It’s the question of the day. What am I doing? I try not to think about David on the other side of the park with his cluster of friends, of the paycheck that will be half as much when it comes through next week, of how hard it’s going to be to replace this job already halfway through the summer. But I can’t stand here another second and pretend everything is all right.

I open my mouth to respond. If I was in that summer job movie, I’d know what to say, but all my words get stuck in my throat. Instead, I rip off my name tag and throw it on the ground. My car is waiting in the parking lot and I have a long drive home.

Keely CuttsKeely Cutts holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and has work published in Jersey Devil Press, Crack the Spine, Front Porch Review, and Inaccurate Realities. Originally from Florida, she now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her wife and two terrible cats.