Legs

The first thing that anyone would notice was the sign. It was supposed to be a tourist trap, but nobody seemed to have put much effort into attracting visitors. The sign was just a rotted out piece of wood lying flat in the grass, a broken off stump planted in the ground next to it. The only way to tell where you were was the mailbox, which was strangely large and a bit rusted. It said “Leg Farm” on the side of it, which was the name of the place. There was no address that I could see.

I like farms. There’s something nice about places that are dirty, but where you’re totally unafraid of germs. I parked my car outside the front of the house. I got out, stumbled a little, and stretched vainly at a knot in my shoulder.

The house was a log cabin style place, the tractor shed was right next door but I couldn’t see the field. The friend who’d told me about this place said you could just go up to the door and ask the farmer if you could see the hay bale legs, and he would take you out back and show you, say something about them or not. So, I went up to the door; the knocker was shaped like a woman’s leg, rounded and smooth, even the toes were detailed. I pulled back the leg and let it kick the door. After a few seconds the farmer came out, he was wearing a wool shirt with no pattern on it and jeans. He had a deep tan and he was very thin and a little bit shorter than me.

“You must have come to see the legs.”

“Yes, I have… is that ok?”

He angled his head to the side, considered all of his words: “Oh yes you may, not too many people come to see those legs anymore.” He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, towards the inside of his house, and then he put the hand into a pocket. “In the realm of agri-tourism, I am a bit of a one-hit wonder.”

He drank from his mug, looked at me, and said we should get to looking at the legs. He walked me out the back of his house.

The house had cavernous ceilings, a big open kitchen, and a giant window facing the road.

He walked towards the kitchen and asked me if I wanted coffee; I said no.

“Myself, I go through, seven, eight, nine cups a day, thirty years of farming and you start waking up at three in the morning all the time, and I never could get myself to bed at eight p.m.”

“This is a really nice house.”

“Thank you. My favourite part is how the upstairs is only half a floor, leaves you the living room ceiling way high, a bit like you’re in a cathedral.”

He looked up at the ceiling, and then used his French press to make a pot of coffee, poured some into a mug that didn’t have a picture or writing on it. He took a deep gulp, and didn’t make any of the various sounds people tend to make when they finish drinking.

“One thing about these wooden houses is they catch dust like you would never believe. Once when my wife was still around, we had this dog died, so I buried it in the yard over there. It was winter and the ground was really hard, so I only got the dog buried a little ways in. Well, come spring, I’m up early, I’m taking a leak and out the window I see a god damned bear digging up my dog. So, I go get my gun and I just lean out the bathroom window, because I have a clear shot there, I shoot the bear. The noise of that shot, the vibrations shook about… I’d say ten odd years of dust off every surface in the house. So, it’s a fucking sandstorm. My wife she was sleeping, she explodes out the bedroom, bursts through this dust storm in her own house, she takes a running leap right into my chest, knees out, kicked my ass good.”

We both laughed, he continued: “I got the bear though, perfect shooting. Mind you, Kathleen was not exactly impressed by that portion of it.” He moved his mouth around the word “portion” like it was a piece of wood.

He drank from his mug, looked at me, and said we should get to looking at the legs. He walked me out the back of his house. Outside he had a white plastic table on his porch and dirty white plastic chairs all around it.

I just had to lift my eyes a little bit to see the field. It was littered with hay bales. The rounded hay bale parts were smaller because he’d used the rest of the hay to make legs coming out the top. They weren’t at all what you’d expect a leg coming out of a hay bale to look like. They were all rounded and somehow almost looked smooth, more like rock than hay. The only thing that was inaccurate about them was that the toes were farther apart than a person’s toes. The feet maybe a bit wider, but still feminine, volleyball center feet. You could tell it was supposed to be a tall woman’s feet, and through their strange and painstaking details you could tell that they were all supposed to be one specific tall woman’s left leg.

All the way to the back of the field, these bales with perfect women’s legs coming out of the top. I couldn’t count how many there were and I didn’t really want to. All of a sudden it felt like something was crowding into my eyeball and it was hard to see. I kept trying to look at the field but all I kept catching were fractured, blackening pictures, disappearing. My legs were weak, and there wasn’t a cloud within miles, and sometimes unadulterated sky crept into my vision. The leg farmer eased me into one of the chairs asked if he could bring me a water. He came back with two mugs, his full of coffee, mine water.  He put the cup down next to me. I said thanks.

He sat in a chair across from me, leaned his chair onto its back two legs. I didn’t know what was going on with me. Nothing unexpected had happened, I knew about the legs in advance, but they’d still managed to overwhelm me somehow, just the visual fact of them had. I decided to try to at least be social. I pointed at the space under his chair.

“My grade five teacher told me I’d crack my head open if I did that.”

He nodded. “You were probably sitting near a bookcase, and in case you haven’t noticed there isn’t an edge for miles.”

I remember thinking that he was right, and trying to look at the legs, losing them even as I did it. He said: “I got another gun story for you. Kind of funny that I’d tell you both because they really are my only gun stories. My kid, he dances ballet now, out in Europe. When he was about twelve I took him to the skeet shooting tournament some of my friends hold every year. Well, my kid he’d never touched a gun in his life, I just took him because his Mom was out of the house and I wanted to go. So, anyways he starts shooting, and the kid is a prodigy. They fire one up and he nails it. They fire two up, he hits ‘em both. They fire three and bang, bang, bang. He ends up winning the whole tournament, first time he ever touched a gun. Afterwards we’re all walking up to the house and my buddy Dale. I’ll say that if you think I’m a redneck farmer… well you get the idea. He’s lived around here his whole life. And he sort of hates kids, so, when we’re all walking back he kind of starts walking with my boy and tells him he shoots well, and my kid says thanks. Then Dale asks: ‘So how often do you shoot?’ My kid says never, this was my first time. Dale is pretty stunned, so he asks what does the kid do? My boy he looks right up at him and says ‘I dance ballet.’ We just left Dale standing there looking after us, mouth all hung open.”

And I sat there quietly with him, as he chewed on what was either his lip or just air for a while. Then he rocked forward in his chair and said one perfect piece of nothing.

Andrew BattershillAndrew Battershill recently completed his M.A in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto under the mentorship of Pasha Malla. He is the Fiction Editor of Dragnet Magazine.  

Smith Hill

Gabrielle had never noticed how loud Friday mornings were. Now that she slept on the couch, she felt the trash truck barreling through the walls, destroying her home. Bolting upright, she’d hear men laugh, cans tossed, the truck move on. After a few weeks of fearing she might wake to the front bumper of the trash truck hanging over her head, she wrote a note, then taped it to the half-filled can.

Dear Sirs, 

                                    Please be more considerate when you pick up the garbage.                                                The noise is enough to wake the dead.

                                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                                    Mrs. Stephanos Pappas


The next morning, Gabrielle held still when the truck clanged to a stop, waiting for it to start up again, to move on. But there was a quick rap at the side entrance. She pulled her robe closed and opened the door.

“Yes?”

The man who stood before her was flushed and greasy. He had combed what remained of his hair over his shining head and held it in place with something equally shiny. He was short, not much taller than herself, and beefy: strong, with a solid stomach. His fingers were thick and pink. He looked like he could yell if he wanted to. Give me a break, lady. Don’t give me no grief. That was how people behaved in the neighborhood these days. You honked, and they stuck up their middle finger. You said, “I believe I was here first,” and they said, “Well, I’m here now,” then put their pack of cigarettes on the counter as if you didn’t exist.

“Morning,” the man said. “Mrs. Pappas?”

Gabrielle nodded, tensing.

“I’m Leon Federman, head of this crew. Got your note, and I’m real sorry we caused you any trouble. Me and the boys forget the rest of the world’s not up when we are. This is like ten a.m. to us. We’ll do better by you. Promise.” He dipped his head as if doffing a hat and trotted off.

The following Friday the truck eased up so quietly that Gabrielle, sipping coffee at 6:00 a.m., wondered if they had cut the engine. She lifted one of the slats on the front blinds to see a thin man raise her trash can, then tip it into the back of the truck like a dancer in slow motion. Leon Federman lowered his gloved hands in the air, directing the other man to set down the can without a sound. Then he turned to her house and waved. Gabrielle dropped the slat and sank back on the couch. Once the truck moved on, she chuckled about her small victory, how she had gotten what she wanted for once and found in the trash man the grace of a gentleman. She only wished she could repay his kindness.

Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers.

Gabrielle stepped onto her stoop the Friday after that and signaled to Leon. He wiped his brow, then hurried towards her.

“Mrs. Pappas, I hope we didn’t wake you.”

“The weatherman says it’ll be a hundred by noon, Mr. Federman,” she said. “Maybe you’d like some ice tea?”

“Please?”

It dawned on her that Mr. Federman couldn’t just step inside for a half hour while his men drummed their fingers, and she resisted inviting all of them into her home. She’d only thought of him. “Some ice tea is what I’m saying. Now or . . . later?”

Leon adjusted a piece of gum in his mouth. Then he said, “You’ll be able to fry eggs on the sidewalk by eleven. That’s when we knock off. A glass of tea would hit the spot about then.”

“Eleven,” Gabrielle nodded.

She put away her knitting, made a lemon cheesecake with a graham cracker crust, and slid a cloth over the wooden trim of her sofa and loveseat. Such a nice man, Mr. Federman. Not nice out of sympathy for her recent loss either like everybody else with their lasagna and chocolate cake and prayers. She felt safely wrapped within her husband’s name. Mrs. Stephanos Pappas. As far as Mr. Federman knew, Stephanos still hammered away in the basement at his workbench. He was alive to the trash man.

Instead of tapping at the side entrance, Leon knocked at the front door, his gloves off and shirt buttoned to the collar. Once inside, he again had the air of someone taking off his hat.

“Awful out there, isn’t it?” Gabrielle said.

“Sure is,” he agreed.

“I’ll get you that tea.”

Leon followed her into the kitchen.

“Can I help with anything?”

“For heaven’s sake, it’s just ice tea!” she said, her voice unusually high. “Please take a seat.”

As if he did so every day, Leon pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table.

Gabrielle had expected her awkwardness to evaporate, but it persisted, fumbling her fingers. She sloshed a glass before him and struggled through twenty minutes on the weather before he thanked her and saw himself out. As she ran water over the thin coating on the plate Leon had tried to scrape clean, Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed and she hummed. She had returned the trash man’s courtesy and gotten him out of her house, which he somehow managed to fill with himself in the short time he was her guest.

“You know who I had a nice conversation with?” she said to Connie that afternoon. Connie had come to fetch the tiny knitted outfits Gabrielle had made for the hospital. Her friend pronounced each one darling as she lowered it into a box.

“No, who?”

“Mr. Federman. Leon Federman?”

Connie looked up. “Leon who?”

“The . . . our . . .” Gabrielle couldn’t think of the right word. She knew there must be another name, something better than “trash man.” That couldn’t be what he put down on his taxes. “Garbage personnel” was all she came up with.

“You mean, one of those fellows who picks up the trash?”

“The head of his crew,” Gabrielle told her.

“You had a nice conversation when he got the trash?”

“Later,” she said. “He came back later.”

Connie put down the baby clothes and looked at her. “That’s nice, honey,” she said, then patted her hand. “Listen, you’re coming over tonight for spaghet. Nothing special. Family style. I’ll send Frank to get you.” Connie kissed her cheek and picked up the box.

“He’s very nice,” Gabrielle said. “Mr. Federman.”

“I’m sure he is,” Connie said. “Six o’clock, okay. You be ready.”

Gabrielle let Connie’s husband pick her up and let Connie joke over dinner about her “gentleman friend.” Apparently, Connie thought it was hysterical. Widows in Smith Hill did not have gentleman friends. They didn’t cloak themselves in black for the rest of their days anymore, but they didn’t go on dates either. They knitted booties for poor infants and worked the white elephant booth for St. Augustine. They were mothers, grandmothers. That was it.

But the next time Leon and his men drove up to her house, Gabrielle crooked a finger at him. He hurried up her walk. When he stood before her, she asked if he would like to come for dinner on Sunday. He said he’d like that fine, which she found reassuring: his easy acceptance made it seem less strange to invite a man to dinner.

“Can’t I show a person some common courtesy?” Gabrielle snapped at Dominique, who called her after talking to Grace, who’d run into Connie. “So what if he collects trash? It’s an honorable job.”

“I’m not talking honorable or dishonorable,” Dominique told her. “I’m not saying anything. I just wondered if you wanted me and Vick to help keep you company. We could barbecue. Let the men talk while we catch up.”

“I think we’re caught up,” Gabrielle said, which was the meanest thing she had said to Dominique since they were seniors in high school and she’d suggested that a silver anklet made her look cheap.

Gabrielle stuck two tapers in their star-shaped holders, then put them back in the drawer of the creaking breakfront. She turned on the radio, then turned it off. She put on lipstick and looked at herself. Her hair was too black for her age, she knew. Stephano had called her “a raven-haired beauty,” so she’d kept using “Midnight Blue” although a border of silver along her hairline strengthened after every tint. And now her lips looked too red for her face. But she thought her eyes, still the color of almonds, were pretty.

When she opened the door, Leon nodded at someone, who quickly drove off. Then he bustled inside, bearing gifts: a box of See’s chocolates, roses in plastic wrap, and a small bottle of gin. Gabrielle looked past him at the receding sedan. She had worried that Mr. Federman might show up in the trash truck and the whole neighborhood would know her business. Of course, Connie, Grace, and Dominique already knew she was making dinner for the trash man, so everyone would know soon enough anyway.

“I had my cousin drop me,” Leon said. “Damn car’s in the shop again.” Then he laughed as if it were New Year’s Eve and thrust his gifts into her hands.

“Oh, Mr. Federman, you shouldn’t have,” she said, meaning it. The chocolates and roses were too much, embarrassing. And the gin was just wrong. You didn’t bring a grandmother gin.

“Leon, Leon,” he said. “Mrs. Pappas.”

“Gabrielle,” she said softly, wishing they didn’t have to be on a first-name basis. Everyone was these days. Even the dental assistant, ten years younger than her Pamela, told her, “Gabrielle, a little wider, please. Gabrielle, turn your head to the left.” “Gabrielle” didn’t have the same significance as “Mrs. Stephanos Pappas.” She couldn’t hear her husband in it at all.

Leon smacked his lips. “Gabrielle,” he said, drawing out each sound. “Now that’s a name. I see Italian fountains and violins and moonlight in a name like that. Not like Esther. Or Ruth.”

“Those are nice names,” Gabrielle said. Leon Federman, she repeated in her head. A Jew? What was it they didn’t eat? Pigs’ feet?

He made a show of grimacing. “With them I picture chopped liver and whining. Ru-u-uth,” he said as if it were a sound a dog might make.

Gabrielle couldn’t help laughing at that. She walked into the kitchen, and Leon followed her, talking the whole time she unwrapped the roses, already dark at the tips, and stuck them one by one into the crystal vase Marcus had gotten his parents for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

“Some kids on Douglas Ave had kicked on the hydrant, and I felt like jumping in the water myself, I got to tell you,” Leon was saying. “Can’t wait for the heat to break, you know what I mean?”

“I made hors d’oeuvres,” Gabrielle said, gesturing towards a tray of small sausages wrapped in pastry. “But I don’t know if you . . .” She almost added “people,” but stopped herself.

“I eat appetizers, don’t you worry.” Leon patted his stomach. “Believe me, I’ll eat whatever’s put before me!”

He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“There’s wine.” Gabrielle grabbed the bottle’s neck, but she had no idea how to use the new opener that Marcus had said was the best.

“I’ll begin with some gin, if it’s all right with you,” Leon said and opened a cupboard, which made Gabrielle flinch. She felt as if he were looking in her medicine cabinet or under her bed. “Helps me to unwind,” he said. “Hope you’ll join me.” He got out two juice glasses and held one in front of her.

Gabrielle shook her head. She sipped water as Leon drank his gin “neat.” The alcohol didn’t change his mood. Already festive when he came through the door, Leon lavished praise on what he called her “piggies in blankies.” “Finger-licking good,” he laughed, then licked his finger and thumb as if to demonstrate his point.

They ate in the kitchen: kreatopica argostoli and tzatiki, both favorites with her husband, whose parents had come over from Greece. Gabrielle picked at the veal but drained a glass of wine—Leon tangled with the opener for her—and he had wine as well. He devoured the spicy lamb, the tangy feta, while he complimented the food as if it were ambrosia. Leon went on to admire anything else that caught his glance: the tiles of ships and waves above the kitchen sink, the green and gold wallpaper, even the oven mitts, one shaped like a dragon, the other a fish.

“From our son,” Gabrielle said of the tiles. “From our daughter” about the mitts.

Leon asked their ages, if they were married, had any kids, saying “Ah” at each piece of information as if her children had grown up to be missionaries and brain surgeons. “And your husband . . .”

Gabrielle gripped the edge of the table. “He’s passed on,” she said, alone with Leon for the first time.

“I know,” Leon said, covering one of her hands with his own. “Terrible thing. Heart attack shoveling, right? These winters, I’ll tell you.”

She frowned. Like everyone else, the trash man knew what went on in the neighborhood. Probably more: who drank too much, who didn’t cook for her husband.

“What was he like, your husband?”

For several minutes, Gabrielle couldn’t speak. She cut her veal into pieces small enough to feed a baby, then slowly poured herself a second glass of wine. She was to tell Leon Federman about her husband at his own dinner table? What would Stephano want her to say? “Mr. Pappas had a gift,” she said, surprising herself. “This talent for handling birds. He made a splint out of a popsicle stick for a swallow that broke its wing and the bird healed in a week, good as new. Then he caught a sparrow that flew into Maria Bugatti’s kitchen. When he whistled for Connie’s parakeet, Figarello flew onto his finger like he was St. Francis himself.”

Leon looked both saddened and amused by this story as he finished his wine. “My wife isn’t part of the picture any longer either,” he told her.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Gabrielle murmured.

“She moved to Atlantic City fifteen years ago. Fell in love with a blackjack dealer and ran off with him.” Leon shook his head as if he admired her nerve. “I should have known better. A skinny shiksa. No offense.”

Gabrielle had heard the word shiksa but didn’t know if it was vulgar like putz. Her face puffed up, ready to register indignation. “I don’t really think—” she said.

“Not one of the ‘chosen people’ is all,” Leon smiled.

“I see,” Gabrielle said, though she had assumed Catholics were the chosen people, and she knew by then that Leon wasn’t Catholic.

“No children?”

“No, no,” Leon said, waving the possibility of them away. “Just me and the missus. Until it was her and the blackjack dealer. She sends me a card every year. ‘Merry Christmas,’ she says. Not even ‘Happy Holidays.’ Hope you’re keeping your hands clean,’ she says. That’s her little joke because of what I do for a living.” He laughed, then pressed a napkin to his glistening lips.

Gabrielle shook her head in wonder. How did Leon Federman live? Did he rent an apartment? Eat frozen dinners? He might be a few years younger than she was, but not many. Surely, a man his age should have a wife, a home, some dignity.

“But it’s not a bad job,” he said, arching his back in a stretch. “Decent pay. Keeps you in shape. And you’re through by noon, so you have the whole day ahead of you.”

Gabrielle wondered how many times he’d said the same words, and to how many ladies. His line of work must have been something he’d need to account for in the dark bars men of his sort frequented. Otherwise, he’d have to go home alone to his awful apartment and heat his frozen peas and wash his trash man’s jumpsuit down in the basement in the same machine everyone else in the building used.

She poured two small cups of coffee and laid out two diamonds of baklava, waiting for Leon to finish both and leave. The wine and the cooking had heated her uncomfortably. She thought of a cool bath, of lying alone in her bed for a change and remembering Stephano, an image of perfection in contrast with Leon, who sweated when he laughed and laughed too much, laughed at nothing.

When Gabrielle stood from the table, reaching for the plates and cups, Leon stood too. He took them out of her hands and ran them under the faucet, then looked at her proudly, as if he had cleaned the entire kitchen.

“Thank you,” she said, lifting her leaden feet.

“My pleasure,” he told her.

Gabrielle walked to the middle of the living room, waiting for Leon to follow. “Do you want to call someone? Or I could give you a lift,” she added although she rarely drove at night. But there was the new Le Sabre, Stephano’s last indulgence, the black beast, squeezed into the garage. “My husband—”

Leon stepped forward and gathered Gabrielle in his arms, tipped her back, then pressed his lips against hers. He drew back and descended again as if he were breathing life into a drowning victim. Kiss, breath, kiss, breath.

Panting, she let him lead her to the master bedroom, where he sat her on the bed, then fell to his knees. He pressed his red face into the V of her knit blouse and sighed. While his hands and mouth moved over her body, he groaned as if she were the most delicious thing he’d ever eaten. He slobbered and smacked as he tore at her clothes, tore away his own.

Her own hands were like dead birds by her side. She felt mesmerized by the black hairs that blossomed on Leon’s chest, the wings of black hairs on his back. He had hair everywhere except the pink scalp that shone through the long black strands he’d combed over it. Finally, she placed her palms on his shoulders, and he stopped gobbling her body. But instead of pushing him off, she cradled him against her chest. Making love to the trash man, this sweating, red-faced man, she thought of Stephano. Somehow, in touching this living skin, she was loving her husband, that each pleasure was a prayer to him, Leon Federman a conduit to heaven, a place he probably didn’t even believe existed.

“I love you,” she whispered as he collapsed on top of her. “I miss you so much.”

“I missed this too, honey,” Leon told her, pulling himself up. “It’s been a while on my side also, I don’t mind telling you.” He padded out to the kitchen and brought another inch of gin to the bed.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, smelling the bite of alcohol, then slept like the dead. When she woke, it was dawn. She heard the sound of the garage door opening, the Le Sabre turning over. Maybe Leon was going to get bagels. That’s what Jews on Broad Street did on Sunday mornings: bought fresh bagels and thin slices of salmon. She’d brew some coffee, maybe make a coffeecake for after they ate his fish-covered bread.

She had poured the batter into a pan and sprinkled on a mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and pecans when she realized he’d been gone forty-five minutes. She understood that no bagels would be coming, no thin fish, no Leon. Well, he could have the car if he wanted, she thought. It didn’t matter. The man was a saint, no matter what. He had breathed life back into her and let her make love to her husband once more.

She offered up a thousand blessings on his shining head before she heard an engine turn off, the glad jangle of keys.

Cathleen CalbertCathleen Calbert’s poetry and prose have appeared in many publications, including Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, and The Paris Review. She is the author of three books of poetry: Lessons in Space (University of Florida Press), Bad Judgment (Sarabande Books), and Sleeping with a Famous Poet (C.W. Books). She has been awarded The Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Mary Tucker Thorp Award from Rhode Island College, where she professes.

 

The Postcards

On a chilly Saturday morning in October, Donald Shieffer found a mysterious postcard in the mailbox at his townhouse in Cincinnati. It pictured a swan in flight, white wings a blur, taking off from the surface of a gray pond edged with snow. The message read, “Poetry is made in the mouth.” The card had been sent four days earlier and was postmarked New York. His name, address and the message were written in careful block letters in blue ballpoint pen.

He read it out loud, tasting the words. Pondered the message. He couldn’t think of anyone he knew in New York.

As the week wore on, he found himself unaccountably irritated, sure the postcard was a comment on his reduced productivity as a poet. Lapsed productivity, to be honest. There had been a recent conference at NYU, hadn’t there, something to do with meta-poetry and alternative expression. He’d seen a short spoof about it in The New Yorker. Maybe this was someone’s alternative poem, an enigmatic message for him to decipher. Some rival from the past was snickering at his incomprehension.

The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?

Mona perhaps, the tall girl with the stringy red hair in his MFA program at Cornell. “Poetry is made in the mouth” sounded like her. He thought he half-remembered it from some poem of hers. “In the mouth/thought is/made in the south as the birds/fly/nought is/a cumulus cloud, whispered aloud.” Skeins of words tangled and knotted as he searched his memory. He hadn’t thought of Mona in years and it was unlikely she’d thought of him either. Surely she had published even less than he had. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her name in print.

He’d asked her out once. The night had been clear and cold, millions of stars twinkling overhead, more than he’d ever seen back home. They’d left the workshop and were walking down the broad steps of Goldwin Smith Hall when he said impulsively, “So are you busy Saturday night, Mona?” She looked him up and down and said, “Sorry, Donny. It just wouldn’t work.”

He’d completely forgotten the incident, and how he’d smarted at her reply. It still stung. She wasn’t his type: too tall, too theatrical. He’d asked her out on a whim. He was sure she thought he had a crush on her, and he went out of his way to appear neutral and indifferent after that. He was after all indifferent, but also incensed by her pitying glances. Bitch. A memory tugged at him. Yeats. Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats, read aloud in class by Mona in a breathy quaver. “For poetry makes nothing happen … it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth.”

The poem must have offered some consolation more uplifting than that, but he couldn’t recall the rest. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and yet without it he felt like a husk of a man, purposeless, his insides emptied. What is a poet if he doesn’t write?

He thought about the postcard as he went through his daily routine after work—picked up his dry cleaning, worked out at 24/7 Fitness around the corner, showered off his sweat, stopped for takeout at Chef Lau’s to eat in the kitchen at home, drank a beer as he watched the ten o’clock news before bed. He thought about it when the alarm went off in the morning. Soaping himself under the hot shower, he looked at the water running down the gold-flecked brown and yellow glass tiles and brooded, “Who even knows that I’m a poet? Who would send an anonymous postcard? Am I still a poet?”

He knew at this point in his life, in his mid-30s, he should have found other sources of meaning. Divorced, with no children, and a mid-level job at a mid-sized bank in a mid-sized Midwestern city selling mortgages, he hadn’t. His job was dull. He’d returned to Cincinnati for lack of something better to do, and his life in Cincinnati was dull. His parents had retired to Florida. His college friends had scattered. He’d bought a condo—a new two-story townhouse with a patio and small yard—but didn’t feel settled. He dated, but didn’t connect. He blamed it on the MFA experience, the expectations that came with the degree, without being clear about who or what was at fault. It was ten years since he’d dreamed of being a famous poet. Now he knew that even famous poets weren’t famous. “Yeats?” one of his blind dates had said.  “Isn’t he a mystery writer or something?” She was perfectly nice, college educated, with a good job at a software company. She didn’t read. Most people didn’t read. Not even fiction, much less poetry. He didn’t read much himself any more. He read The New Yorker, but some weeks he just looked at the cartoons and skimmed the poems. The New York Times, mostly for political news. Novels on the bestseller list if they won awards. He streamed Netflix more often than he read books.

A few weeks after receiving the postcard, he opened the Times at the breakfast table and read that Philip Roth, aged 79, author of thirty-one books, had announced the end of his writing career. He’d stuck a Post-it note to his computer screen, he said, on which he’d written, “The struggle with writing is over.” Each time he saw it he felt reinforced in his decision.

Donald spread jam on his toast and gulped down his coffee. He wished he had made a decision five years ago, instead of drifting into this state of paralysis. A Post-it announcing the end of his struggle might have brought him some peace. He thought about posting a note on his computer now, but the gesture felt false. He whispered it to himself, though, as if testing a new mantra, “The struggle with writing is over.” He rinsed his dishes and left them in the sink as he hurried off to work.

The second postcard arrived in late November. Also postmarked New York, written in the same block letters. The glossy picture was of a toad, spotted and brown, blending into a background of dry grass. The message on the other side read, “Poetry is the real toad in the imaginary garden.” This time Donald was sure of the literary reference, to Marianne Moore’s poem on poetry, but just as baffled by the postcard’s meaning. Was the grass another dig at his dried-up creativity? Or were his surroundings the sterile, imaginary garden that had killed his art? He wondered if he was being asked to re-evaluate the choices he’d made, consider what was real, what was imaginary, and what he’d given up along the way. But who would be interested enough in his fate to send two postcards? If not Mona, then another MFA student?

If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive.

He hadn’t kept up with any of them. Only one poet in the program had made a name for himself, an egotistical suck-up who always trailed after visiting poets, praising their work and asking them questions. Peter LeBlanc. No one had liked him. They should have known he’d be the one to make it, with all the ambitious networking he’d done. After graduation, Peter’s poems kept popping up in little magazines with editors he’d cultivated, and then bigger magazines. Some were dedicated to well-known poets. Then he started showing up in the back pages of Poets & Writers as a judge for contests. His adjunct position became tenure-track. Where was that? Somewhere in the Northwest where it rained a lot. Peter had never shown any interest in Donald, not even when his poems were praised in workshop. His sights were always set on bigger game. No, it wouldn’t be Peter.

The question of the mystery sender gnawed at Donald as he filled out forms and checked credit reports and thick mortgage packets and met with clients at the bank. The phone rang and he fleetingly wondered if it might be her. A name on an e-mail in his in-box looked unfamiliar and he wondered if it might be him. He sorted and stapled, put tiny blue stickers with arrows where clients had to sign documents, ran his index finger down checklists to verify that everything was complete. If there was poetry in his work, he’d never found it. He thought about Wallace Stevens’ insurance job in Hartford, and T.S. Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank in London and wondered how they’d kept their inspiration alive. London would have helped, and a circle of famous writers and artists that he saw daily. Even just one friend like Ezra Pound, ready to transform the heap of poetic fragments Eliot handed over to him into a masterpiece.

Rifling through a box of old papers at home, Donald pulled out a folder of poems he’d accumulated in the first few years after the MFA. The file, marked MISC., contained a jumble of rejection letters for poems from his thesis, drafts of new poems he’d never revised, beginnings of new poems he’d never completed, ideas jotted on scraps of paper he’d never followed up on. He sat down on his heels in front of the hall closet, absent-mindedly waving away the dust motes in the air. There was no incipient masterpiece here that he could see, waste but no “Waste Land.” The MFA thesis was better, an assemblage of some thirty narrative poems, divided into thematic sections and bound in red hardcover, but he’d been dissatisfied with it at the time, sure he could do better. He hadn’t. He returned the thesis and folder to the box and stowed it on the closet shelf again, pushing over a carton of old yearbooks and a pile of winter gloves and scarves.

He’d been checking his mailbox with growing anxiety each day, not sure whether he was relieved or sorry to find no postcard, when the third arrived in January. This one was postmarked in Austin, Texas. Was the sender traveling? Who?

Donald thought about frozen beginnings and his own blighted growth as he studied the picture of green grass glittering with frost crystals, but this time the image was clearly a tongue-in-cheek reference to the author of the quotation: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” Donald had always liked Frost’s dictum, which seemed to express the effortless grace of the great poem. How its unfolding felt inevitable and carried the reader along with it, leaving him changed. The quotation sent him to his crowded bookcase and spurred him to leaf through Frost’s Collected Poems for a few hours. He read some of the poems aloud in the impersonal privacy of his townhouse. He savored the closing lines of “Directive,” and recited them twice. “Here are your waters and your watering place./Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” Uplifted, he paced the carpeted living room, looking out the picture window from time to time at the lights in the complex across the street. So many lives. Surely they weren’t all as barren as his. He wished he had someone to talk to.

On Saturday morning he ran into the mailman on the snow-dusted sidewalk outside and asked him if there was any way to trace the sender of a postcard.

The mailman was polite. “No sir, not really. Has someone been harassing you?”

“Kind of,” Donald mumbled. “Not really.”

“There’s a USPS form you can fill out. You can also refuse mail.” The mailman brushed snow off his gray coat with gloved fingers.

“Thanks. I was just asking.”

In fact Donald was beginning to think that the postcards were intended as inspiration rather than indictment. He’d started to read poetry again, and was browsing literary magazines online and considering subscriptions to one or two. For a long time the prospect of running across Peter LeBlanc’s name, or another fellow MFAer’s, had soured him on contemporary literary magazines. He saw he’d been needlessly depriving himself of something that nourished him.

He waited eagerly for the next postcard, afraid that January’s might be the last.

His boredom at work increased. How many more years could he do this? He was good at his job—friendly, orderly, precise. He’d once taken pride in that. But he was beginning to think that a competent sixth-grader could do as well. What was it all about, these contracts for colossal sums, insurance policies against catastrophe, title insurance underwriting claims to plots of land? Why commit to thirty years of monthly payments for the privilege of residing in a fragile structure that a tornado could reduce to rubble in a matter of minutes? He began to pity the bright-faced young couples that sat across from him at his desk, so eager to own their first homes. And the middle-aged couples refinancing their mortgages, ready to spend thousands to remodel kitchens and bathrooms that were perfectly serviceable the way they were. “We’ve been just dying to do this so long,” one suburban matron confided. Her double chin quivered as she nodded. “I’ve been looking at colors and tiles for years.” Donald bit his tongue, tempted to answer, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Didn’t they all, himself included, have something better to do?

It was shortly after Easter when the fourth postcard arrived, a pale pink sunrise over gray waves and a sandy beach strewn with seaweed and glittering shells. There was no indication of the location of the beach on the reverse side of the card, which was postmarked Atlanta.

“Ridiculous the waste sad time/stretching before and after.” He recognized the lines from Eliot’s Four Quartets, about mystical moments that transcended ordinary reality. He’d found them in poetic creation, and in the poems he loved best. Moments, as Emily Dickinson said, when the reader felt like the top of his head was coming off. There was nothing like it, at least nothing so far in his life. Some people might say sex, he supposed, but he’d never had sex that mind blowing. Maybe he’d never actually loved his wife Dorothy, who was beautiful but critical, impatient with his literary aspirations. “It’s just great that you got the MFA and all,” she said after a couple of years of financial struggle. “But don’t you think it’s time to grow up? Write poems if you want, but it’s not really a job, is it?”

So he’d tried grown-up life. He’d probably taken it out on her, the boredom of grown-up life and his sense of failure. It was just as well that they’d postponed kids. But if his life went on like this, the most he could hope for was a series of promotions at the bank, a heavily mortgaged house to replace the condo, and marriage to another Dorothy—blonde, beautiful, athletic, boring. He couldn’t recall what he’d thought they had in common. He’d written poems about the curve of her neck, her rosy knees, her enigmatic smile, and she seemed to enjoy them. He liked to look at her and write about her but couldn’t summon a single memorable conversation they’d had.

Dating since his divorce had been more of the same. Nice women. Pretty women. Competent women. Interchangeable women. He’d offended some of them with his inattention, but he found it hard to keep track of their names and the particulars of their lives—where this one worked and that one had gone to college. Who had the brother who was divorced, or the friend who was having trouble with her husband, or the mother getting chemotherapy. Who was allergic to shellfish.

A married colleague had fixed him up with the latest, an outgoing paralegal named Judy. She was cute, with an upturned nose and freckles. She liked to play tennis. She was a lot more interested in his job than he was. “I would just love working with people taking that wonderful big step, buying a house. Half of our firm’s work is with divorces, so I see couples falling apart, not building their lives.” Judy had a lot to say about local real estate, and her inability to find a townhouse in a complex with the right kind of tenants. “Rentals just don’t attract the sort of people you’d want as your neighbors.”

They were in bed when it came to him. The dark blue sheets were tangled; light from the street lamps outside filtered in through the partially closed vertical blinds. The slats looked like bars.

Judy had been impressed by the stack of poetry books by his bed. “Isn’t that just wonderful! I really admire someone who reads like that. I mean, how do you find the time?”

It was clear she’d never read a poem in her life.

“And all those bookcases. If only I could find a nice place, I’d like to get bookcases and books too, and settle down and read more. Maybe I’d do up a cozy reading nook, in chintz, with a standing lamp. I just love your condo, Donald. It’s one of the nicest I’ve seen. So spacious. Great for entertaining.”

“Do you want to rent it?” He was idly stroking the soft skin inside her arm, wondering if she’d go to sleep soon so he could go downstairs and read. He hadn’t planned on saying it. The words formed in his mouth as if his unconscious had suggested them.

“Do you mean it?” Judy almost squealed with glee, then seemed to remember she was supposed to be unhappy about his departure. “I’ll miss you of course. Are you being transferred?”

“I’m thinking of going away. I’ll give you a good deal.”

“Done! I’m so excited! How soon are you leaving? I’ll need to take some measurements. Get some curtains if you don’t mind, maybe with a swag for the picture window in the living room. Nothing you couldn’t take down if you came back. Do you know whether you’re coming back, by the way?”

“Probably not. We could write up a lease for a year, and then see. Maybe a rent-to-own lease, if you’re interested. You’d get the money accumulating toward your down payment back if I return, but I doubt I will.”

The next day Donald quit his job. A colleague was just back from maternity leave, so the bank was satisfied with two weeks’ notice. “We’re sorry to see you go, son,” his boss Stan said. “I guess you’ll be earning more in a bigger city, though.”

Donald wanted to quote Wordsworth, “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” but instead he shook Stan’s hand and said, “Something unexpected came up,” leaving Stan to surmise whatever he wanted to.

Judy took over the sale of his car and furniture on Craigslist, and had a real estate friend draw up the lease-option documents. He put the rest of his belongings in storage, including his business suits. Less than a month had passed when he arrived in Manhattan with a laptop and a suitcase full of old poems and weekend clothes. He had some money in the bank. He’d calculated his rent and living expenses, and if he was careful, it could last six months. The housing market, still not great, was picking up. There might be as much as another year in the profit from the condo when Judy was ready to buy. He didn’t know how he was going to make a living when his money ran out, but he didn’t plan to wear a coat and tie again, whatever he ended up doing.

The room Donald rented in a single-room occupancy hotel in Brooklyn was dingy and small, not much bigger than his kitchen in Cincinnati, but it was cheap, and he liked it. Divested of the weight of unnecessary obligations and possessions, he felt buoyant, ready to begin a new life. He bought a set of sheets, a warm blanket, one plate, one bowl, cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and two glasses, in case he had company. He was in no hurry to find other poets and artists. Just knowing they were there was enough. He planned to scout out some readings, though, on the off chance he’d spot the mystery sender. The first two postcards had come from New York.

Donald’s neighbors in Brooklyn Manor struck him as battered survivors—rheumy-eyed alcoholics, ex-addicts, gamblers down on their luck, hopeful refugees from far-off countries. The walls were thin and he could hear them coughing, swearing, fighting, making love, singing in different languages to music on the radio. At night when he lay in bed, light from the streetlamp seeped in through the crooked venetian blinds, and he heard glass breaking in the street, revelers leaving the bar down the block, snatches of conversation. He didn’t have an alarm clock. Every morning he rose to the sound of garbage cans banging on the sidewalk below his window and the whoosh of traffic. He made coffee and ate a bowl of cereal, listening to NPR on his laptop. Taxis honked. Fire engines wailed. He began a sequence of poems he called “City Music.”

He was rusty. At first he just made lists of sounds, and transcribed overheard dialogue. He gazed intently at the computer screen, willing himself into a trance, and finally the music began. His fingers flew over the keys, lines shaped themselves and flowed. Stopped. Started again. Stopped. The poems entered his dreams, and often he switched on his bedside lamp in the middle of the night to jot something down, or to spend time at his computer, sometimes until gray light and the stir outside signaled the dawning day. He’d forgotten what it felt like. There was nothing comparable to the sheer exhilaration of this struggle.

Being alone in his room felt completely different than being alone in the hushed sterility of his white-carpeted condo. Alive to the sounds and smells of the city, he tasted them in his mouth as he translated them into words. He began to take long walks into unfamiliar neighborhoods, invigorated by the contact of his feet on the pavement, the stream of humanity around him. Lines of poetry unrolled as he strode the sidewalks. He kept a small notebook in his pocket and wrote them down. One day he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, reveling in the sun and wind on his face, the infinite blue sky above, the choppy gray water below, the cries of the circling gulls, the faces in the cars that sped by. He thought of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried …

In July an oversized postcard arrived, buried in a batch of mail forwarded from his old address. The picture was a collection of thumbnail-sized photos of well-known poets. Donald’s address was handwritten, but this time the message was pre-printed in small italics.

“We hope you have been enjoying the Postcard Project, created by poets Lynn Bollinger and Alex Nightingale. We are two recent MFA graduates from Cornell and Columbia, living in the Big Apple, trying to get a new poetry zine up and running online. As a former MFA graduate of one of those programs, you were selected, along with over two hundred poets like you, to receive our postcards. We are proud to announce that the first issue of Posted Poetry is now ready to be unveiled! Check us out at www.postedpoetry.com. We urge you to read us online, submit your work, and join our nationwide crew of volunteers posting poetry postcards. Keep poetry alive!”

Donald stared in disbelief.

He lowered himself onto the stool at the kitchenette counter and read the message again. He looked at the pictures of poets, noting the faces he could identify. Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Bishop, Lowell. Sharon Olds? W.S. Merwin? The poets on the bottom row, probably newer, didn’t look familiar at all.

His face had become hot. For a moment he felt queasy.

There was no mystery sender. It had never been about him. He’d been a fool, duped by a marketing ploy.

He watched a cockroach crawl across the counter in search of crumbs and shook his head. He sat for a while until his stomach settled and then stood up and washed his coffee cup and cereal dish, annoyed by the lukewarm trickle of water in the sink. Another cockroach climbed up the wall behind the faucet. Donald dried the dishes carefully and returned them to the small cupboard, taking out a roach motel. He tore off the cellophane packaging and set it on the counter. He could call Judy and try to persuade her to break off the sublet. He could reapply to Wachovia, even take a job somewhere else if there was no opening in Cincinnati. But he knew he wouldn’t.

Instead he sat down at his laptop in front of the window and looked at the buildings across the street. A middle-aged man in an undershirt was smoking on his fire escape. A housewife watered a red geranium. A couple at a kitchen table gestured, miming an animated conversation he couldn’t hear. He tried to guess what they were saying. A slender girl opened her curtains and leaned out the open window, greeting the day with a joyous smile. Donald began to type. After an hour he stopped and stretched, a good long stretch, and decided to go out for a cup of coffee, maybe stop by the library to borrow a copy of Leaves of Grass. It almost felt like old Walt was right in the room with him (“Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”), about to accompany him on his walk through the neighborhood. Donald locked the door behind them and put the key in his pocket.

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. Her work has recently appeared in South Dakota Review, Front Porch Journal, CRATE, Ninth Letter online, Thin Air, and Frontiers. She has creative nonfiction forthcoming in Birkensnake, New Plains Review, and South Loop Review. Visit her here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

The Recluse

Minny Glorious was well aware that many fervent readers of her client, Billy Benson, would probably apply the term “recluse” to the author’s public persona. While the term wasn’t used explicitly (perhaps out of politeness) in the letter that currently sat on the edge of her dark mahogany desk, she nevertheless read the official fan club’s letter as a sign of growing frustration among the author’s most dedicated admirers. The letter nearly pleaded with the PR woman to convince the reclusive Billy into eschewing his ways and making an appearance at one of their official readings of his work.  Though Minny imagined the small club to be a sad group of bored housewives, all in their early forties, who used the nausea-inducing erotica of Mr. Benson to get their kicks, she also recognized that such opinions should not and could not interfere with her reputation as a smart, talented businesswoman.

Minny didn’t understand recluses. She had come to believe through the forging of her own career that showing strength of character and forming a respected reputation was how one succeeded in life. She prided herself in her job as a PR woman, a determined, persuasive person who could use her talent to promote others and deliver the product that people wanted to see. Billy, however, was on a different wavelength. He never made public appearances, refused to have a Twitter account, Facebook, or personal website. There wasn’t even a photograph on the back of any of his books. Billy had made it increasingly more frustrating for Minny to do her job, the thing that she felt probably most defined her.

And there was a new wrench being thrown by Billy into the otherwise smoothly-running machine of Minny’s career. The author had recently shocked his agent, editors, and the rest of the staff at Snodgrass Press by presenting his next work as a children’s book. But what Minny found even more shocking than the bizarre twist of a lowly author of erotica writing a book for children was that it was good. The editors in the office were thrilled, already proclaiming Billy as the next Robert Munsch. It was that good. The marketing staff were caught up in the hype too, floating around some crazy idea of selling Billy’s books as a two-for-one deal for mothers—the erotic fiction novel for the mom and a picture book she could give her kid.

The book, titled Salmon Ella, was a cautionary tale for children about properly preparing food, and due to the protagonist being a young salmon named Ella, was garnering comparisons to the movie Finding Nemo. If it really was going to be as big as everyone was saying, Minny was going to have the problem of denying even more requests for appearances by the recluse behind the tale, not to mention the problems she’d have controlling the wildfire of rumours that would start about a man that released no information about his life. No doubt, the little fan club had heard about the new release and their frantic letter was reflecting anxiousness to meet the author before he became even bigger in the eyes of the public.

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny crossed one high-heeled foot gracefully over the other as she sat at her desk in the office building on Clancy Street that consisted of the headquarters for Snodgrass Press. She wore bright red lipstick and her dark brown hair was pulled up elegantly. She puffed thoughtfully on a menthol cigarette. Like all the other office buildings in the city, this was a non-smoking one, but Minny guessed correctly that none of the male editors who had desks in the nearby vicinity were of the kind bold enough to challenge the confident PR woman. So she sat there puffing idly, musing to herself about the Billy Benson problem. She slid a thumb over Billy’s fan club letter, feeling the paper as she thought. Then suddenly in one quick jerk, she crumpled it under her fingers. She’d had an idea.

Quickly, she stalked over to Bruce Therrien’s desk, surprising the stocky man.

“H-hey, Minny. What’s up?” he said putting down a sandwich of peanut butter and pickle.

Minny looked disgustedly down at his lunch. “I need to contact Billy Benson,” she said. Having tried to reach Billy in the past, Minny knew the phone number the publishers had for him would no longer be in service. He had no email. Friends who might know where he was? Forget it. She knew he mostly communicated by letter, but that would take too long this time. However, she assumed that one of those letters would have an address at which he could be found, and if anyone had a copy of one, it would be Billy’s editor of six years, Bruce Therrien.

From behind thick glasses, Bruce looked her up and down curiously. “Good luck with that… You know we only hear from him when he wants to talk to us.”

“Well, I need to talk to him now. I can’t wait around.”

“Okay, I’ve got the address where you can send your letter.” He started to dig around in his desk but Minny cut him off.

“Thanks. I’m not sending him a letter, but I’ll need the address to find him anyways.”

“Oh, you won’t find him at that address. Sure, he writes his letters from there,” said Bruce, scratching his goatee. “But it’s just a cover. I think one of his relatives lives there. A little old lady answered the door last time I tried it. Probably his grandmother or something.”

“So where does he live, Bruce?” She was getting impatient. Who did Billy think he was?

The editor just shrugged, now fiddling with a horrible mustard coloured tie. “Like I said, he just comes to us.”

Minny was aware of this too. For a moment she remembered the last time he’d come into the office. He was always wearing some dopey clothing, probably as a disguise. He was afraid of being recognized by “the masses,” and when asked why would mumble something like “Look at the way John Lennon went.” It was like he was a bad undercover cop, one who was completely oblivious to the fact that his camouflage just made him look more conspicuous. She remembered once he’d come into the office to see Bruce and had been wearing a hat with the largest brim she’d ever seen. The thing flopped messily in every direction. It looked like he’d bought it in a costume store, and he’d kept batting it around and shifting it this way and that on his head so that he could see. On top of that, Bruce had once told her that Billy mentioned he often did his shopping dressed as a woman.

Shaking her head at the ridiculous memory, Minny suddenly snatched the letter, which Bruce had produced from one of his desk drawers. She was going to find Billy, and at the very least this letter would provide a start.

Forty-five minutes later, Minny found herself in the dark, musty hallway of an old apartment building on Park Street. The door to 734 was faded, patches of dark green paint peeling off onto the grimy orange carpeting beneath. She could see Billy being here after all. Wouldn’t a reclusive author like to stay in a place like this where normal people would think twice about stepping inside? Well, whether he lived here or not, as Bruce believed he didn’t, this place had some connection to Billy if he was sending and receiving his mail here.

Minny straightened herself up, wishing, as always, to appear as professional as possible, and knocked firmly on the door.

Sounds arose from within, like that of a small dog or maybe mice scurrying around on laminate floors. She heard fumbling with a chain and suddenly the door swung open in one swift motion. There stood a very short elderly woman. Her eyes were slits and she was stooped in a way that craned her head towards the floor. Minny wasn’t even sure that the woman had looked at her.

“Come in, come in,” she mumbled.

“Uh… Alright.” Surprised, Minny took a cautious step into the doorway.

“Can I make you some tea?” the dry voice crowed at her. The face rose now to meet hers, but it was covered in such thick layers of wrinkles, Minny was apt to think there was no face there at all.

“Actually, I’m just here on a quick bit of business, you see.” The apartment inside was sparse; a green sofa with that plastic covering that old people kept on, scratched floors, no T.V., the smell of boiled vegetables.

Some of the wrinkles seemed to drop and widen. “Business?”

Minny suddenly realized how strange this meeting was. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Minny Glorious.” She wondered why she’d been let in without even being asked that. Maybe the old woman was senile and thought she was someone else, or maybe just lonely and overanxious to have some form of company. “I work for Snodgrass Press, a publishing company. Do you happen to know Billy Benson?”

The old woman stood perfectly still for a moment, long enough that the fear she had had some sort of stroke began to fill Minny until she finally spoke.

“Billy? Are-are you his wife?”

“Oh-uh. No, no,” Minny stuttered, trying to stay clear of the mental picture that would conjure up. Minny wasn’t inclined to ever try to marry, though she could find men easily enough. Any husband would threaten her focus on her career, let alone Billy Benson. “Not his wife. I’m … just on business, like I said. So you know Billy?”

“Humph … He wouldn’t tell me if he was married anyway,” her voice came out low, like a strange growl. “I’m his grandmother and he won’t tell me anything.”

Taken a little off guard by the dawning accuracy of Bruce’s hunch, Minny pressed on.

“Well! You must be very proud of your grandson’s successes as a writer.”

“Humph … successes. Dirty … dirty. Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, that kinda trash wouldn’t get published,” mumbled the old woman.

“Do you see him often?”

“Comes here now and then,” she picked up a broom and began sweeping idly, though it was in a haphazard way that merely resulted in pushing a few existing piles of dust back and forth aimlessly.

“Picks up some mail. Never has any groceries for his old grandmother though. Won’t come and sit with me. Not an old bat like me. Doesn’t want to hear old Granny’s stories, just wants to write his dirty porn stories. Don’t know what’s wrong with the young people these days …” she lifted her face again, and Minny felt as though she were being stared at accusingly. She fought off the urge to appease the old woman and take a cup of tea. She wanted to get out of here as soon as possible.

Then suddenly Billy’s grandmother said, “Don’t know why he can’t pick up his damn mail at the hotel …”

Minny leaned forward anxiously. “Sorry, where’s that?”

The old woman’s small peepers seemed to close more tightly now as she scrutinized her guest. “Well … he don’t want visitors you see …”

“Oh, ma’am, I assure you Billy’s privacy will be respected. But I am on urgent business from his publishers and need to see him immediately. Would you mind telling me where I can find him?”

“Hmm … well what do I care, after all? No good grandson,” she mumbled again, continuing her sweeping. “Billy lives in a hotel on Solitaire Boulevard. Only child. Inherited some good money when his dad passed, see. His father was a tycoon in the board game business. He was such a schmuck …”

She continued to babble some inaudible nonsense about the father when Minny interrupted. “A hotel? What room? Can you tell me?”

“Huh? Oh, don’t know honey, don’t know. You’ll have to ask the manager. Billy says he’s the only one who’s in the know.”

The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses.

In another twenty minutes, Minny was outside Hotel Solitaire. She had haggled only for a moment with the manager, who initially pretended not to know who Billy was. But once Minny flashed her business card, explaining that the situation was of dire importance, and using her God-given charisma on him, the manager decided promptly that it was his duty to help this damsel in distress and show her to Mr. Benson’s quarters.

Minny was led down the brightly lit hallway of the eleventh floor, passing a few identical heavy-looking blue doors with gold trim until they reached another emblazoned with the number 1103. The manager seemed to hesitate for a moment with the key in his hand. Was he questioning his loyalty to the author that resided inside? But what respect did he owe to a man who wouldn’t even share his life with his grandmother? He was probably just afraid of losing business, Minny decided.

“Maybe we should knock first?” Minny suggested.

“No,” said the manager, seemingly distracted by thought. “He won’t answer if you knock.”

Finally, the manager sighed, seemingly resigned to the action he was about to take and plunged the key into the lock, turning the handle at the same time. The door opened just a crack, but no light was emitted from the room behind.

“I almost forgot,” said the manager quietly, casting a nervous eye towards the crack. “You’ll need this.”

Out of the pocket of his jacket he pulled a small flashlight and placed it in Minny’s hands. Then quickly, he withdrew the key again, winked to Minny and skipped off down the hall.

Minny watched him go and then took a breath. With one hand, she slowly pushed the door further in. What emerged was only more blackness, and Minny began to understand the manager’s insistence on the flashlight. But no, wasn’t this nonsense? Billy was probably taking a nap and would turn on a light when he realized he had company.

“Mr. Benson!” she called. “Billy!”

Not wishing to intrude by venturing further, she knocked on the doorframe.

“What’s going on here?” a voice suddenly bellowed. “I thought we had an agreement, Kostopolous? Kostopolous?”

A great crash sounded next and Minny hastily fumbled for the switch on the flashlight. The sound of bare feet slapping and something being kicked accompanied the sudden appearance of light.

There were heaps upon the floor. Heaps and heaps. The glow of the flashlight caught it all, slowly. Broken bottles, furniture piled upon furniture, trash, dirty clothes, books. It was like a war-torn battlefield littered with corpses. She realized this was the home of someone who rarely left. A terrible smell assaulted Minny’s nose and she now found herself running her hands up and down the walls, frantically looking for a light switch.

She found one, finally, and the great mess of the room suddenly became altogether more real. She stumbled back a pace towards the door, which she’d let close behind her. There stood, among the mounds of rubbish, like the ruler of some decrepit kingdom, Billy Benson holding a blanket in front of what was his otherwise naked body, his skin white as a ghost against the black curtains that kept out any intrusion of daylight.

Minny screamed, throwing her hands over her mouth.

Billy looked at her, eyes bugged out. A long, mangy beard shot out tufts in wild directions, and his hair appeared to function by the same code.

“Who are you? Where’s Kostopolous?”

“Wh-who?”

“The manager. He’s the only one who could have let you in!”

“I-I told him I had to speak to you. I’m Minny Glorious, I do PR for authors with the company who publishes your work, Snodgrass Press. We’ve met before, once or twice maybe.”

Billy narrowed his eyes. “We’ve never met. I’m going to have to have a good chat with Kostopolous …”

“Right, uh… okay,” Minny shook her head clear and straightened up. What way was this to conduct business? “Mr. Benson, would you put some clothes on please? We need to discuss your career.”

“I told them I only discuss business by letter.”

“This needs to be taken care of now.”

Minny’s tone made Billy freeze, look at her, bushy eyebrows raised. There was silence for a moment and then he said, “Fine,” and took a seat on the couch behind him, indicating for her to find a piece of furniture to do the same.

Minny moved further into the room now, stepping carefully around the rubbish that lay around. She went through a stack of old chairs which were piled close to Billy’s couch, looking for one that had all four legs fully functional. Finally she found one and pulled it out, seating herself across from Billy, who looked particularly ridiculous, watching her with his hands folded over his lap, which was in turn covered by the raggedy yellow blanket he held.

Minny tried to smile but the ridiculousness of the situation, her incredulousness at the person who sat across from her, not to mention the smell, made it impossible to do so.

“So,” Minny began, taking a breath, trying to focus. “Mr. Benson, you’ve delivered us a new book. A children’s book… They say it’s going to be big.” She gestured with her hands. Every word, every movement felt silly right now. She couldn’t take it.

“How,” she tried to stop herself. “How can you live like this?” she suddenly blurted. “How do you expect this new book to be a success when you live like a disgusting, filthy—do you not care what they think about you? What anyone thinks about you? This new book is going to garner you a whole new fan base, there are fans already who are nearly pleading with me to meet you. But I can’t—” she gestured towards him. “I can’t show them this. Hell, they don’t even need to meet you. They just need something. Give them something. Give me something.”

A slight smile was forming in the corners of Billy’s mouth. It was hard to tell under the beard, but it was there.

“Let me explain something to you,” his voice was quiet, low. He looked deep into Minny’s big dark eyes, heavy with eyeliner and shadow. His own eyes were puffy, red around the edges, crusted with sleep in the pockets that were carved close to the bridge of his nose. “We all exist in the world as two people: the person who we know ourselves to be and the person who others think we are. It is my belief,” and he held up a finger scientifically, “that if you let the latter dictate who you are, ‘you’ actually cease to exist.”

“Now,” he continued calmly, and Minny stared at his grimy blanket disgustedly. “There are those who spend a lot of time wishing to have their identity validated by others, who feel the need to live the way others do…” He gestured around him at the dilapidated den, indicating that he was the opposite of such people. “Who feel the need to share everything about themselves ‘out there,’ as if their thoughts and feelings aren’t real unless somebody notices them. These are the people that want a Facebook page, or a Twitter account. What those people really need,” he leaned forward and his grin became broader, more apparent beneath the scruff, “is a fucking diary.”

He settled back, satisfied it seemed, crossing a leg across the other one and opening the blanket just a tad too much for Minny’s comfort. “So the answer to what you’ve come here to ask me, to plead with me to do some sort of publicity for my latest work, is no. I’m quite satisfied to remain an anomaly. People can think what they want about me. But I have no need to feed them facts about my life. For what purpose? For them to distort those facts? For them to dig so deep into their conception of my life, that I end up heeding them and losing my own conception of myself? Absolutely not. It’s not worth it.”

There was a stack of ratty-looking books amid a tower of old take-out containers next to Minny, and she picked one of the books out with two fingers, trying not to touch it too much.

“Well Mr. Benson, if that’s your choice, then all right. I have another idea that perhaps you’ll be okay with. The other choice is that you publish this new book, Salmon Ella, under a pen name. Then you let me control that name. I’ll create the person behind it, make up their likes and dislikes, make them a website, offer some fan trivia. Of course, that man won’t make any appearances either, but at least this way there’ll be some control to what I can do with their public image and it won’t be your life being put out there. It’ll be some imaginary figure. You don’t have to be involved. Just give me your consent, and you’ll have your book published and get your royalties without having to deal with any fame, since that’s not what you want. Right?”

Billy looked at her for a moment. “If that’ll make your life easy, ma’am, then do it. I couldn’t care less.”

Minny got up, anxious to leave the stench and filth of the room. She held the book in her hands still, a copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had one more thing to say before she left this cuckoo’s nest.

“Thank you for accepting, Mr. Benson. I’d like to say, also, that your philosophy is very interesting, but don’t you too feel the need to live like others? I mean all this,” she gestured around the room, “All this is just to look the part so to speak isn’t it? To look like the mad artist, the reclusive author? Like Salinger, or Proust, or Pynchon? I think you do care about what people think. I think that you want them to think of your reclusiveness as some romantic mystery, as some sign of genius.” She threw the book down onto the pile she had pulled it from, and the whole thing toppled over.

“Goodbye, Billy.”

*     *     *

The pseudonym plan began well at first. Billy had written to the publishers that he wished for Salmon Ella to be published under the name “Eric Yahtzee,” and Minny went to work creating a website and short biography for the “new” author. No one in the office suspected Minny had anything to do with Billy’s choice to publish the story under a different name. It made sense considering the marked contrast between the nature of this new work and his previous books.

After some time, however, Minny found herself exhausted at trying to form the character of Eric Yahtzee. She had Twitter accounts, social networking pages, and she was finding it difficult to come up with new things for Yahtzee to say. She became aware of inconsistencies with the types of attitudes he displayed. She began to liken herself to an author writing a character sketch and finding it impossible to make the person rounded, interesting, or real. It was more work than she’d bargained for. She tried to get into the history of her author, thinking of what kind of family he might have grown up with, when she suddenly began thinking about Billy’s poor old grandmother. And she had a new idea.

It was then that she began visiting the old lady at her cramped little apartment in downtown, pretending to be paying friendly visits, saying how she felt bad for her that Billy never visited and that she was so lonesome. And while she was there, she would ask about Billy, what his life was like growing up. From these visits, she built the biography, the character of Eric Yahtzee. Granny was feeding her the material the whole time, and Eric Yahtzee truly did start to become Billy Benson.

Minny was feeling good, the promotion for the new book was doing well and her pride in her cunningness and in her career was refreshed. She smoked happily at her desk on Friday afternoon, congratulating herself on a job well done. Stretching her shoulders and neck satisfactorily, she settled back in her chair, planning to take it easy until 5’o clock, a gift to herself.

Suddenly there was the sound of frantic feet rushing behind her, and, springing up to fix her posture, Minny quickly swiveled around on her chair. It was Bruce Therrien, sweaty, mouth quivering. “You’ve got to fix this!”

“What? What?”

He looked at her, eyes big. He began pacing. “No, no … This was supposed to be a big one. A big seller. You haven’t heard?” He stared.

A knot formed in Minny’s stomach. “Heard what?”

“Billy tried to publish a short story with a men’s magazine…”

“Right. So? He’s writes erotic fiction.”

Bruce started pacing again, glanced at her nervously now and then. “You didn’t hear? Well, it looks like Billy sort of combined his talents for erotica and children’s tales into one story … the magazine was outraged. Called it a monstrosity of nonsense and pedophilia. And the worst part … he tried to publish it under Eric Yahtzee …”

Whatever had formed itself in Minny’s stomach now plummeted to the bottom.

“They recognized him as the author of the much-hyped Salmon Ella, and they’re badmouthing him in the press. For a children’s author, this is devastating.”

Minny stared. She felt defeated.

“Billy wrote. Probably trying to explain. It’s for you.” Bruce handed over a thin piece of lined paper filled with Billy’s spidery handwriting.

She read it over. Billy had a reason for his blunder, but Minny was sure it wasn’t the ridiculous one she saw in front of her now. Billy claimed to have mixed two stories he was working on, sending them to the magazine one late night after ingesting LSD because “that’s something Ken Kesey would have done.”

The book she’d thrown at him. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was a clue. She’d been sabotaged. He probably didn’t like her using the bits about his own life for Eric Yahtzee’s character. And how had he known? Paid poor Granny a visit finally? Or had he been keeping tabs on what she was writing?

It didn’t matter. She had damage control to do.

Matt FournierTristen Matthew Fournier grew up in the frigid environment of Yellowknife in Canada’s far North. Finding that typing warmed his numb and frost bitten fingers, Fournier set out to be a writer of prose fiction and poetry, exploring human nature while blending humour and philosophy. This led him to study at Concordia University in Montreal where he has completed a degree in creative writing. He has previously published with Buttontapper Press.

 

The Yin-Yang Market

I sip my black coffee, peering up at her. I have offered her a cup of café phin―slow-drip coffee. She palms the cup with both hands. Head lowered. The cup raised to her lips. First sip. Gingerly. Her brow furrowed.

It’s so peaceful around here, she says, her partially-tilted face leaning into the morning light which glints on the fine downy hair at the base of her neck.

We live a slow life here, I say. I’m sure you’ll forget everything here by the time you go back to America.

I keep things I learn―things I select to remember.

Like what?

Like the drip coffee, she finally says, chuckling. But I’m fascinated with those rivers and canals around here. And the lives that depend on them.

I catch her gaze over the cup’s rim, serene eyes, elongated and pretty, the brow not creased this time, perhaps she is now getting used to the bitter taste of the café phin, this orphan child having been displaced to grow up into a comely girl, always exuding liveliness and consideration.

She came to my inn in the Mekong Delta with her American mother who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.

The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone.

She keeps the cup uptilted, partially covering her face, as she tells me about the place she came from. Her words now paint images from her photographic memory, and I begin to see the one-story L-shaped tin-roofed, mango-wood walled house that sheltered nine orphans, four to ten in ages. Behind the orphanage was a fish pond, then a plot overgrown with banana trees whose fronds the nuns would cut and wash and later wrap foods in. In that banana grove, caught by a sudden late-afternoon thunderstorm, the head nun held her tight against her bosom, both crouching to hide from the lashing rain. The nun broke the fronds at the stems to screen themselves, then took off her headscarf and wrapped it around the little girl’s head. A streak of lightning at ground level, like a sudden flash out of a mirror, then an ear-splitting thunderclap rending the air. She plugged her ears just as another crash shook the ground, the earth rumbling in the soles of her feet, the air now thick, acrid smelling, and the sky wrinkling and pulsing with far-off lightning. Out in the open the hummingbird trees bent and snapped back and leaves flew fluttering like birds. The rain pockmarked the pond’s water and the wind blew the rain across the pond and water hyacinths scurried in their crowded mass throwing up their petals pale blue and lavender and spun and wind-born and gone. Then a blinding white flash across the pond. It seared a hummingbird tree in midsection. The tree snapped, loud. The girl could smell the burned smoke on the wind. She said, sobbing now into the nun’s chest, I don’t want to be here, and the nun cradling her in her arms drew her against her own chest and said cooing, We’d better stay for a little while and I promise nothing shall hurt you my dear. She held still, smelling a warm, sweaty smell on the nun’s blouse just as the nun squirmed, her hand touching her blouse here and there and her voice sounding panic, I’ve got something under my blouse. The nun eased herself out and her hands came up unbuttoning her blouse. The little girl stared, saw a black thing snatched away from the nun’s chest. A caterpillar. Across the air suddenly flashed a jagged line. Then an explosion so loud her ears rang. She mashed her face in the nun’s bosom, the nun shielding her now with the open fronts of her blouse. Eyes shut, she heard the nun cooing in the manic sound of the rain. She felt the flesh warm and abundantly soft, smelling like wet leaves, and she felt raindrops trickling down her scarf-covered head to her lips, her neck and the nun was humming a lullaby. The thunder came less and less now and soon rolled into the distance and then just the rain clattered on the leaves, the smoky smell now gone from the air, and it felt dank in the susurrus of the wind. The nun gently pushed her away from her chest. It’s safe to go now, child, she said. The girl wiped rain from her cheeks, following the nun’s fingers trying to match a button against its buttonhole. She kept gazing at the ample flesh of the nun’s bosom, then at a pink ridge of a scar astride her breasts. She didn’t ask. But it had stayed with her.

*     *     *

Dawns she would rise to help the nun in the rear kitchen, sitting on her heels on the packed-earth floor, stacking up coconut leaves, brown and dry, then stripping the leaves of the stiff midribs, then tearing each leaf from its stem, and the nun would light the leaves and feed them into the hearth and then when the flames spurted quivering she poured a bowlful of rice husks into the fire. The hearth crackled, the husks exhaling acrid smokes, and the flames rose in blue tongues. She would save the midribs and the stems for the nun. The children would tie the stems together into a multilayered fan-shaped bundle into which they would fit a midriff for a handle. And that was how they made brooms. The nun would let her pour rice flour evenly onto a white gauze that screened a wide-bottomed pot, the square cloth stretched and held down drum-tight by the weight of four bricks strung from four corners of the cloth, the pot steaming with boiling water and the rice flour―a creamy white mixture of sugar and coconut extract and sesame seeds―was spread out in a round layer and the nun then lidded it with a cane cover. Like a wonder, she would stare at the rice crepe after the lid was removed shortly after, the crepe so thin now it was no longer cloud-white but opaque-white hazing from the steam. She watched the nun slide a wide wooden blade under the crepe, lifting it gently so it hung flapping, round-shaped and wet and paper-thin, and dropping it on a palm-woven sieve. As the nun bent to scoop up rice husks with a bowl to add to the fire, the girl could see the nun’s breasts through her collarless blouse, the long scar, braidlike, across her chest. They had to use up the flour just before the sun had burned off the morning mist so they could put out the sieves for the crepes to dry in the sun. By noon the crepes would dry. The children took the sieves back in and they stacked the crepes by tens, tied them down and wrapped them in brow papers and a nun would later carry them to the local market and sell them on consignment. By then the girl had forgotten about the scar.

*     *     *

A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation.

Then the flood season came. It came one morning after a three-day rain when she woke and saw floodwaters rising to the doorsteps. By noon rain had slackened and the water was coming into the house. She could no longer see the long table where they would sit eating, only the tops of  the straight-backed chairs that told where each chair was. The nuns put the children in three canoes, the long, slender canoes always tied to the trunks of the hummingbird trees behind the house, and now with the children safely together, all bunched up in their clear-plastic raincoats, the nuns began paddling away. The plain behind the house was a steely white sheet of water brimming to the horizon. Markers of boundaries between landowners’ paddy fields were the yellow-flowering riverhemp bushes, their crowns mirroring themselves, yellow on yellow, in the gray water. She could tell where they were by the familiar sights of things―clumps of half-submerged flatsedge fringing a pond―the pond now rising with cloudy water and on it floating white waterlily and blue waterlily. The head nun handed her the short paddle and reached out for a blue waterlily. She gave the girl the flower and took the paddle back. The girl asked if the nun’s arms were tired from rowing, for the nun had taught her how to row, how to paddle with the cây dầm, much shorter than an oar, made of thingan wood, polished and always light. The nun shook her head, rowed on. They would stop when they spotted small crabs taking shelter on a floating quilt of water hyacinths so the children could pick them up and play with the mottled-brown crabs that always camouflaged themselves with the color patterns of their surroundings. Sometimes late in the afternoon when the water had stopped rising, the nuns rested, the canoes now leaning against the crown of a young bushwillow with its trunk, at least two meters tall, submerged in water. Neighbored by nothing but gray sky and white water, the nuns began setting the fishing poles, fitting their butts into a bored hole in the upper side of the canoe, the poles arching over the water watching the lines plumb the water’s depth. The children ate rice balls out of their banana leaves. The girl, too, chewed a rice ball, long-grained and sticky with ground, salted sesame seeds. She could smell its bursting roasted aroma in her mouth. Eating, she touched a bushwillow’s leaf, still damp, feeling its downy hairs. Her mind grew dreamy. A boy her age was shaking a bushwillow’s branch until a cluster of its four-winged fruit fell tumbling to the water and she watched them drift away until their pale green blended into the water’s desolation. They caught several perches. One hand holding the line, the head nun held up a perch, its dusky-green body quaking in her hand, and as the children gawked told them this fish could walk. The children giggled and asked how. It used its tail and fins, the nun said, to move over land. The girl remembered that. The walking perch. They rowed on, the nuns stopping at times to untangle feathery roots of water lettuce from their paddles. Passing an earthen dike with only its top above the water, gapped in several spots, the head nun pointed toward a paling of cajeput stakes, closely joined, and asked if anyone knew what the barrier was for. The girl said it was to catch fish. The nun said, You’re very smart, child, but this isn’t fish weir. Then as the canoes came alongside the wet, battered-looking paling, the nun told them to look down into the water. Fish weir, she said, has stakes with a fair distance between them, and with horizontal wattling between stakes to trap fish. Do you see any wattling down there? The children said no. The nun said, This paling is to protect the dike from further water damage. You as my children live your protected lives in the house, but out here people’s lives depend much on the waterways and sometimes water encroaches their habitats and so their work never ends, the year-round mending of things in the delta. Then beyond the fence, the dike, they came around a hummock rising above the water like an elephant back. The nuns shipped the paddles, docked the canoes, and led the children up the knoll. Twilight was falling, spreading a fan-shaped glow across the water, luminous water swelling to the sagging sky. They walked under cajeput trees, between their thin pale trunks into a gloom harbored by their damp leaves, green now turned black and still dripping rainwater, then out in a clearing. A stilt hut sat three feet above the ground. Flanking the steps were clay vats, lidded and waist-high. Beneath the stairs sat a skiff covered in a moss-green plastic sheet. Outside the hut sat an old man on the bottom step. The girl recognized him. Leathery, sun-spotted face. Gap-toothed grin. He was the janitor who helped fix things around the orphanage. He built all the furniture―tables, chairs―and one time made a pen nib for her. She remembered one morning seeing him on the doorsteps pounding a leaf of gray metal cut out from a milk can. She sat by him. Making you a new pen nib as she told me to, he said, referring to the head nun, as he cut the metal into a sliver. So you can write again, he said. You write, eh? How old are you? She said, Four. He looked at her, head to toe. I don’t even know my age, he said, but I can count good with my fingers. Then, with the tip of his tongue protruding between his lips, he began hammering the metal sliver. Now he raised his hand to greet the nuns. So this is where he lives, she thought. In the ash-blue twilight beyond the clearing where bushes grew wild, she saw humps of graves plagued by needle grass and false daisy. The white, small flowers glimmered. She saw them around the orphanage. When they followed the old man up the steps and into the hut, she could hear from behind the hut the hens clucking and the throaty gargles the ducks made in their pens. The old man lit the kerosene lamp hung from a hook on a cockroach-maroon post. The hut glowed eerily in the trembling light, the corners full of shadows. The floor, lined with shorn boles of cajeput, glowed with a bone-shine. She could see a lute hung next to the lamp. Odd-looking lute, its body round as a coconut. The hearth crackled now with a fire going strong, the old man feeding the fire with cajeput wood, then dropping dry cajeput leaves onto the flames that smelled foul. Keep out them mosquitos, he said to the children sitting around the hearth. She followed a nun outside to get away from the smelly smoke. The nun knelt on a flagstone by a vat and with a knife began gutting a perch. Watching the nun prepare the fish, the girl heard heavy wings up in the dark tangles of cajeput trees. Then she saw white storks and white egrets coming home to roost for the night. The twilight stillness broke by the incessant, raw beating of wings. Someone was coming out of the hut. It was the head nun who said to her, Are you hungry, child? She nodded, Yes. How long are we staying here? The nun said, Till the water goes down, then we go back home and start cleaning up. I’ll be back shortly. The girl asked, Where’re you going? The nun pointed toward the gloom beyond the clearing. The girl saw the humps of graves now just blurred swells. What’s there? she asked. The nun looked down at the ground, then lifted her gaze again toward the graves. My daughter’s grave, she said. The girl said nothing. A sense of separation between two people came to her like a fleeting thought. Can I go with you? she asked the nun. The nun patted her head. Yes, child. And they walked in the rustles of wings to the graveyard. The small grave sat on the rim of the knoll before it sloped and disappeared into an overflowing canal now lambent with the twilight glimmers. The ground felt soft around the grave, matted with toothache plant. Aren’t they pretty? the nun said, bending to pluck a handful of the plant’s flowers. The girl asked, What’s this plant? The nun gathered the long-stemmed flowers, each shaped like a yellow-colored eyeball with a red dot in its center. Cỏ the, the nun said. Like its name says. It tastes like mint, strong enough to numb your gum. The nun placed the small bouquet on the grave. The girl gazed down at the restless water rushing headlong as though the earth was tipped, a dank smell rising from the turgid canal three meters below. Then a sudden wing rush. A pond heron shot up, coming over them so low she could see its brown-streaked plumage as it sailed into the dark vault of trees. She looked at the nun who was standing, head bowed, forming words with her lips in her prayer. Then she crossed herself. The girl imagined a presence in the grave. Forever out here. Heat. Rain. Why she died? she finally asked the nun who now took a sharp breath and then slowly exhaled. She drowned in the flood, the nun said. Something seized the girl’s mind so suddenly she found no words to say. She remembered stories about drowned people who would always float back up, bloated and blue-cold looking, after three days in the deep. So she just gazed up at the nun whose face was shadowed now by dusk with only tiny glints in her eyes. The nun said softly, Since then I’ve been always prepared for the flood, so you children shall always be safe with me. Then she patted the girl’s head, said, She was only your age. The girl couldn’t help but notice the small grave, small enough to be overlooked had it not sat alone on the tip of the knoll. She imagined the nun’s daughter then said, But this grave is so small. The nun nodded, the corners of her mouth wrinkled as if she tried to smile, then she said, It is small, my child. Just a grave. Nothing in it. I could not recover her body. But I want to remember her, that’s my wish. The girl felt the nun’s hand squeeze hers. The vegetation-damp smell coming up from the water below then reminded her that she would always be safe on a high, dry ground like this. Then the nun still holding her hand turned and led her back toward the hut. Walking the nun said, She had eyes like you. The girl looked up, met the nun’s gaze when the nun said, You have the Virgin Mary’s eyes, my child. The girl kept pace with the nun until they came to the water vats where the nun sat down and took a washcloth she kept in her blouse’s pocket, soaked it in the vat and started washing herself. From inside the hut drifted a thick smell of smoked fish. The fire in the hearth made shadows in the doorway. Leaning against a broken vat, the girl stood watching the nun clean her neck. Then unbuttoning her blouse, the nun began washing her chest. In the yellow glimmer, the girl gazed at the abundant flesh, the hand that rubbed it that went with the shadows so the flesh went from dark to alabaster. Then the hand went away, the flesh bare, milky, and across the ample flesh was the long ridgelike scar.

*     *     *

Now she hovers her hand over the cup, then closes her hand trapping the steam in it. Long, tapered fingers. Unpainted fingernails. I try to picture her as a child. I imagine hearing her gentle voice spoken in Vietnamese by a little girl. I try in vain to conjure up the child. I say to her, Maybe someday you’ll find the nun.

I think so, she says. I will come back here.

That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam.

This morning she wears a scarlet, collarless blouse. The top of the round neckline, held by a button,  opens out in a small V. A lock of raven-black hair curls over her clavicle. Something comes back to my mind.

The nun, I finally say to her, how did she have such a scar?

From a rape, the girl says.

I draw back. The chair creaks. During the war? I say.

Yes. She fought him and he cut her with a Bowie knife.

Who did?

An American Marine―when they raided her village.

What village?

One in The Plain of Reeds, where she ran her orphanage.

Where you were raised.

Yes.

Her daughter was the result of the rape?

She nods.

I raise my cup, bring it to my lips. When was the last time you were with her?

It was after she agreed to have my American mother adopt me. I cried when she told me the news. She held me a long time and when I stopped crying she told me it was the right thing to do. For me. That I shall have a future. That such a future will allow me to grow as a free spirit. That night she woke me before midnight and told me to go with her. Said to me, I want you to see something in person that you won’t ever see again once you leave Vietnam. I said, What is it that you want me to see? She said, A marketplace. I said, But it’s night now. She said, Yes, child, it’s the hour that matters with the event. I said, But why a marketplace? She said, You’ll see, child, it’s called ‘The Yin-Yang Market.’

I interrupt her. Do you mean Chợ Âm Dương?

Yes. Then she flicks a smile. I had the words translated in my head before I told you, because I didn’t want to say it wrong.

I know what it is.

Do you? What is it then?

We had it in the North. It’s hard to explain to the outsiders what it is.

I want to know if we’re talking about the same thing.

In the North, in this particular village in Bắc Ninh Province in the Red River Delta, there was this marketplace called ‘Chợ Âm Dương.’ It opened only once a year on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year.

Chú . . . She cuts in. Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.

I pause, peering at her, and take another sip of coffee.

The nun, she says, perking up now, was born in the North and came to the South in nineteen-fifty-four when Vietnam was separated into North and South by the Geneva Accords. She said the people who started this yin-yang market in the South were Northerners, the anti-communist Catholics. She stops, smiles at me. Now you can go on.

It makes sense, I say, drawn by her riveting gaze. And so they said the location of this marketplace used to be a battlefield back in the feudal time, centuries ago. So many had died their tragic deaths there they said the yin force just shrouds the place. So on that day, just past midnight, the market opened. Nobody carried a lamp. In the dark people then came to buy things. It was for the dead to come back and buy things from the living. Then the market closed before first light.

Yes, chú, she says as she palms her cup in her lap. The market she took me to was outside our district. It was near a river. An empty tract of land with stilts standing but no houses atop them. The nun said, There used to be a village here ten years ago. In just one day it was gone. She said the Viet Cong took cover in the village to ambush the Allies and the Allies counterattacked and shelled it to ashes. Nobody survived. The Viet Cong and the innocents.

Now she pauses, sips, her lips puckered as she sets the cup down in her lap. It was past midnight, she says, when we got there. A new hour that began a new day on the fifth of the Lunar New Year. There were no lights. I asked the nun, Why it’s so dark? She said, Just follow me, child. So she held my hand and we found our way in the dark, walking on the bare ground, stepping between people who sat with baskets and bins in front. I could hear my footfalls in the dead stillness. And wisps of murmurous voices. I could smell the steam of rice porridge, the rich odor of beef broth they used to brew porridge with. Then white steamed buns, rice balls, bánh lá—the leaf-wrapped dumplings―laid out on the sieves. Then the familiar odor of beef noodles. Finally the nun found someone. A turbaned woman who sat with a tray at her feet. The nun made me sit between her and the old woman. I bent to see better what the old woman had on the tray. What are those? I pointed at the tray and whispered to the nun. She said into my ear, Betel leaves and areca nuts. Then she picked up a betel leaf, tore it halfway and held it at my nose. I wrinkled my nose at a dark, spicy smell. That old man, the janitor, always chewed this sort of leaves with a sliver of areca nut. We the children were fascinated at how he prepared his chew as he dropped the slice of areca nut in the center of the betel leaf and brushed the leaf with wet white lime. Then he rolled the leaf into a tight quid and eased it into his mouth. He spat a lot after he chewed. I flinched the first time I saw him spit. I thought he spat blood. His spit was red. His lips too. When he grinned―he had no front teeth―you could see his tongue, his gums like they were bleeding badly. Now I thought this was some strange market but I didn’t know what to ask. It was chilly. The nun held me against her side and I rested my head on her shoulder. Blurred shapes in dark and light garments sitting all over the ground in an eerie stillness. I could smell the river in the breeze, its old muddy smell. The sky was low and moonless, so dark you could see neither stars nor lights. I didn’t know how long I had fallen asleep on the nun’s shoulder. Then someone spoke, someone answered and I woke. A woman wearing a conical hat was standing before me. She was folding a betel leaf into a quid and then worked it into a pouch in her mouth. The oyster-gray skin of her palm-leaf hat glimmered, it covering most of her face, her bà ba blouse so white she seemed to glow. She handed the turbaned woman a coin, then turned and walked away. The whiteness of her blouse sank into the blackness. Like stepping into a dark doorway. There were more people now, shuffling about, indistinct, shapeless, their attire dark-colored, the bà ba blouses, the wide-legged pantaloons. They sat down, eating from the vendors’ bowls. I could hear the slurping noise they made. The air felt cold. It felt damp on the skin, a shivering dampness not there before. I snuggled against the nun and she put her arms around me. Who’re these people? Where’d they come from? I wondered, as I rested my head on the nun’s shoulder. Around here there were no habitations. But I didn’t ask the nun. Nobody spoke. It was like seeing things in a dream, black-and-white, soundless. Someone came for a betel chew, then another. Older women. When they came the air would feel colder, like when you open the door and the rain-damp air came in after it had rained all night. I fell asleep on the nun’s shoulder and when I woke the market vendors were packing up. Now some vendors had lit their kerosene lamps, the glows painting amber lights and shadows on their faces. The turbaned woman had sold out her betel-chew condiments. The nun said something to her and she began emptying her blouse pockets onto her tray. Wrinkled arrowroot leaves, dried-up banana leaves, holed seashells, pebbles round and square. Like child’s things. Why d’you carry them in your pockets? I asked the woman. And she looked down into my eyes, about to say something when the nun said, These aren’t hers, child. They came from the people who came here to buy things from her. I glanced at them again and said, Are they worth anything to give to somebody? The nun shook her head, said, No, child. Themselves they aren’t worth anything. But they were money when those who came here paid her and other vendors. I said, They are not money. The nun said, They were money when those people were here. Then picking up a round pebble, the nun put it in my hand, said, This was a money coin when they paid her. Now she picked up a dried arrowroot leaf, said, This was paper money when they gave it to her. You see, child, those people aren’t living people, like us. They had been dead for many years now. They came back from their yin world into our yang world, this marketplace, so they could enjoy again our worldly pleasures even just for one brief moment. There was no bargaining, no asking about the prices of things in this market. They came, bought things, paid for them. It was real money when they paid. The coin money, the paper money. Only after they have left to go back to their yin world did the money then turn back to its true origins. The nun then patted my head. Now, do you understand why I said that you shall never see anything like this again after you leave Vietnam? I stood looking at the pebble in my hand. A child’s thing, like when children play buy-and-sell. We’d use seashells, pebbles, cutout papers for money.

Khanh HaKhanh Ha’s debut novel is Flesh (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.  He is at work on a new novel. His short stories have appeared in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, and forthcoming in Glint Literary Journal (2013 Summer issue), Zymbol (2013 September issue), DUCTS (2013 Summer issue), and The Long Story (2014 March anthology).  www.authorkhanhha.com

Heimlich

The thing about Danny MacIsaac was that he was average. Average weight,  average height, average brown hair. He played hockey and baseball but he was never captain of the team or Most Valuable Player or anything. At school he half-slumped in the middle of the middle row, as if to mirror the position of his grades on the bell curve: most teachers (hell, most people) forgot about him as soon as he left their field of vision.

Danny’s family was also considered average. He had a younger brother named Ian. His father Billy D. was lazy and he liked his beer, but not more than most men, and his mother Willena was a regular mom: she worked, cleaned the house, cooked dinner and played bingo.

Danny liked being average. Some people wanted to stand out but not him. When you stood out, people talked about you and gave you stupid nicknames. He knew. It had happened to him once.

 * * *

A spring evening just like summer near the end of Lent. Danny and his mom were walking home from his grandmother’s place at the units, where he had tried to sell some tickets for a cellophane dinner for his hockey team. They stopped in at Footsie’s for a loaf of bread and a treat. Danny looked longingly at a bag of ketchup chips (he’d given them up for Lent) until he spotted the pink plastic ice-cream cone leaning behind the counter. But as Footsie’s didn’t have any ice-cream yet he settled for one of the two root beer popsicles left over from last summer.

They walked in the just-like-summer evening, he and his mom, past houses whose windows were still propped open with bottles and sticks and whatever else was handy. Which is why they heard this as they arrived at the door of their company duplex:

“I made the friggin’ thing; you eat it.”

“You know I hate fuckin’ onions.”

“I’m not askin you to fuck ’em, just to eat ’em.”

She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids.

Donnie Pepsi and his wife, Joleen. Now there was a pair. Donnie was a liar and a crook but Joleen was the real entertainment. She had a voice like the horn on an eighteen-wheeler and if she wasn’t going up one side of Donnie Pepsi and down the other, she was hollering on the phone or at her kids. In the summer, people knew exactly how many times a week the Pepsis did it because you could hear Joleen clear across the street. They were as good as Days of our Lives. And Danny’s mother could not get enough of them.  She watched all their comings and goings and analyzed every twisty turn of their complicated existence.

‟There was a woman over there today with a briefcase” she’d say to Billy D. over the shake and bake chicken. ‟Looked like Tony Cameron’s sister, the one works for the welfare. Three o’clock in the afternoon and Herself  still in her nightgown. Josephine is staying with them again. The old man must be on a toot.”

After dark Willena often took her knitting upstairs and sat on a chair beside her bedroom window. With the lights in the room turned off she could see right into the Pepsis’ kitchen and living room (they never closed the curtains or washed them that she could tell) and during the warm months she could sometimes even hear what they were saying. So when Danny came home with his root beer popsicle that night, he gave its twin to Ian, dropped the bread on the counter and went straight upstairs.

“Don’t be drippin’ that all over the couch,” Billy D. said to Danny, not taking his eyes from the television screen. And after a few minutes‚ “Where’s your mother at?”

“I dunno.” Danny said.

When the next commercial came on, Billy D. pushed down the lever on the La-Z-Boy, hoisted his big belly out of the chair and made his way up the stairs. Danny heard the toilet flushing, the creak of footsteps in the hallway and down the carpeted treads, the refrigerator door opening and closing.

“Tell you what, Bud,” his father said when he returned to the living room. He was twisting the cap off a bottle of Keith’s. “How would you like to make a loonie?”

By suppertime the next day it was all over town how Danny had gone up the stairs quiet like, pushed open his parents’ bedroom door, stuck in his hand and flicked on the light switch. Hard to say who was more surprised Joleen or Willena or the kid himself. He must be some stupid, I guess. Willena’s mad. Don’t think Billy D’ll be getting any for a while, ha ha ha.

The name Danny Lightswitch was floated for a day or two but then someone set fire to the canteen at the arena and both the incident and the nickname were forgotten. Since that time, Danny did everything he could to stay under the radar.

So here he was, eight uneventful years later, so normal, so unremarkable, so friggin’ average that he was practically invisible as he stood on the crumbling sidewalk  in front of Cornell’s Insurance after school. He was with Jonathan MacDonnell and Corey Deveau, smoking, hawking gobs of spit and talking about the semi-finals and horses and stuff. It was bright and sunny and warm and the whole town was outside. Cars and pick-ups and the same two motorcycles went up and down Central Avenue and parked in front of the liquor store and the Co-op. Pairs of girls paraded by in sandals and shorts and summer tops.

Danny was coming down with a cold, so in between Export A’s he sucked on some cherry cough drops. He had just popped one in his mouth when three things happened: Collie MacMaster stopped to bum a smoke, a pulp truck went by in a blast of dust and flying bark, and Joleen Pepsi appeared at the end of the street.

Even from a distance Danny could tell it was Joleen. Years of hanging out on the corner had taught him that everyone in town had a gait and posture that were as recognizable as the features on their faces. With Joleen there was also her distinctive shape. Today her round middle was packed into tight white jeans and her stiff bleached hair was pouffed high on her head. Joleen and Danny were no longer neighbours. She had  moved into a low-rental after Donnie was sent to Dorchester for bank machine fraud. Now that he was back, they maintained what was known as a back-door relationship; living apart so they could both get welfare. So nothing linked Danny and Joleen anymore except that long-ago incident, now a blip in the collective memory of the town.

“I can get John L. to get the booze, but it’ll cost,” Corey was saying. Danny was about to answer, had just opened his mouth in fact, when, slick as a smelt in your hand, the cherry cough drop slid down his windpipe.

Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster.

At first he didn’t understand why he couldn’t breathe. And when he did, he realized that, having also been rendered mute, he was alone with the awful knowledge. His friends just kept laughing and horsing around: he could croak right there in front of friggin’ Cornell’s and none of the bastards would notice. Gasping, he gave Corey a shove and  pointed to his throat. Corey said later that his eyes were googling out of his head like Colonel MacKinnon’s and that his face was as red as a lobster. But still he did nothing, just stood there like the dense friggin’ idiot he was until Danny pulled the package of Vicks from the pocket of his hoodie and grabbed his throat.

“Holy fuck!”Corey said. “He’s chokin’ on a candy.”

Behind Corey, like something slow-motion on TV, Joleen’s potent white thighs pumped against the cindery duff of the sidewalk. The turquoise globes of her breasts bobbed up and down like lobster boats on their way back to the wharf. She drew up beside them, took one look at  Danny (Elsie Rankin was just walking out of Cornell’s, she saw everything with her own eyes) stuck her big jugs up against his back, put her meaty arms around his middle and lifted him clear off the sidewalk. The candy blasted out of Danny’s mouth like a slapshot across the ice.

His life was ruined.

* * *

At first the focus of the story was on the Heimlich manoeuver. That it actually worked was judged to be remarkable. That Joleen Pepsi knew how to perform it was nothing short of astonishing.

“Where in hell did she learn that?”

“Beats me.”

“Must have been at one of them job-finding clubs.”

Then people began to dwell on how lucky young Danny had been. On what a tragedy this could have been for the family. For the whole town, in fact. (The latter not being entirely true because nothing bonded the townspeople as much as the untimely demise of one of their own. But anyway.) On how you never knew when your time was up.  Imagine, just sucking on a candy.

The next day, the teachers and students and janitors all seemed to be looking at Danny for one or two more seconds than necessary. There was interest and curiosity in their eyes. But most of all there was amusement.

So instead of chilling with the guys as he usually did after school, he went home, ate three hot dogs with ketchup and plugged in the Nintendo. He was after beating the second level of Golden Eye when he became aware of his mother’s presence in the doorway.

“Phone, Danny,” she said. ‟It’s a woman.”

Now this was unusual. But as James Bond was 110% occupied freeing hostages just then, Danny just said:

“I’ll call ‘em back.”

Returning a few seconds later, his mother leaned in the doorway and said:

“It was Joleen Dennison.” Danny had never heard her use Joleen’s real name before. “She said she just wanted to know how you were.”

He looked at his mother’s face and she looked at his and then they both looked away. On the television screen a curtain of blood signalled that he had lost the game.

* * *

He had to stop hanging out on the corner with the guys because if anyone spotted Joleen they said:

“Hey, it’s Danny’s lifesaver.”

“I’ll bet she wouldn’t choke on nuttin’.”

“It would have to be a lot bigger’n Danny’s little candy anyway.” Or something like that. And then one night he was pissed at his brother for eating all the Rocky Road ice-cream and putting the empty container back in the freezer and he had him pinned to the floor good, he was really owning him when Ian said:

“Let me go, Heimlich.”

“Wha?” Danny said.

“That’s what they call you now. Know what that makes me, fucker? Know what that makes me? Thanks a fucking lot.”

He was thinking about this the next day as he stood at the kitchen sink shovelling milk and Fruit Loops into his mouth. Rotten fucking luck he’d had choking on that cough drop. And now the name. He’d be stuck with it for the rest of his life.

The telephone rang.

“Danny?”

It was a woman. The voice was smoker-rough, sexy.

“Yipper,” he said.

“It’s me, Joleen.”

He remembered her breath on his nape, the softness of her big breasts against his back, the sweet release in her arms. His heart began to knock against his chest.

* * *

Late on a Sunday night. Danny is slowly pedalling his bicycle on the dark quiet streets of the town. He is smoking a cigarette. The bike makes long lazy arcs on the damp pavement. He almost feels like a character in a movie. Older. Mysterious. Someone who has his own apartment.

It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”

He turns onto Campbell Street. Joleen had told him her house was yellow with a white door. He sees it. The light is on in one of the windows. Frilly yellow curtains, must be the kitchen. Rosie said all she had to was call the welfare and she got all new curtains. Maybe she is putting the kettle on, making herself a cup of tea. (But Joleen never drinks tea, she drinks Pepsi, what else? With ketchup chips.)

It is his fate, his karma, what he was born to be. Darth Vader’s voice, deep in the cavern of his mask: “Luke, it is your Destiny …”

* * *

Danny was not a virgin when he leaned his bicycle against the back of Joleen’s house. But only technically. The girl was completely wasted, it had lasted maybe three and a half minutes, and the next time he saw her she had looked at him as blandly as she ever had.

But Joleen.

In her silky embrace—he had watched her from the bathtub, floating a pink lotion, then a scented powder over her breasts and belly and arms—or next to the fragrant satiny insides of her thighs, he felt as he did when he left his friends on the beach and swam out into the ocean alone, far far out, the deep water holding him up like the hand of God.

He’d been after swimming like this for almost a month when a car drew up beside him on the highway as he walked home from Corey’s place late one night. The front doors opened and Donnie Pepsi and Mild Bill MacInnis got out. Danny began to run.

“Come here you little cocksucker,” Donnie said.

Danny ran up and up the bridge hill he was huffing and puffing it was the smoking he had to quit smoking and those Colt 45’s he just had didn’t help that Mild Bill was way too fat to run this fast he was one scary fuck as big as a truck he wished someone would drive up just now even the Mounties that would give those dicks a scare they sure must look funny all three of them running to beat the band—

They broke his nose and one of his ribs.

“I hope you learned your lesson,” his mother said as she drove him home from Outpatients. His father said:

“Time to move on, Buddy. Lots of good-lookin’ girls in town.” He winked: “If I was twenty years younger …”

His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off.

But Danny didn’t listen. He didn’t even hear. He was living in a kind of dream, where things he had once thought important, like taking Lila Murray to the Grand March and maybe getting into her pants afterwards; or seeing a Habs game on home ice; or riding a motorcycle up and down Central Avenue with Lila Murray’s boobs against his back, well, they meant little or nothing now. His application for community college stayed at the bottom of his locker with Romeo and Juliet and a blue baloney sandwich. When asked about his plans for the future, he said he was taking a year off. Lots of people were taking a year off because everyone knew that if you got your stamps the unemployment would pay you to take a trade.

In June, his uncle Lauchie got him on a grant at the nursery. All he had to do was drive a ride-on mower so he still had tons of energy when he came home. The grade-twelve parties were still going strong, in rec rooms and garages and on the beach. On the way home he’d stop in at Joleen’s. He was getting laid almost every night.

* * *

And then one damp evening at the end of August. Danny was sitting in a booth at the Grill with Corey and his cousin Kayla. They had just smoked a couple of fat ones at the bandstand and everything around him was coming into sweet sharp focus: the clink of a fork on a plate, the bass line of a song on the radio above the pie cabinet;  the smell of frying meat and hot salty gravy and ketchup, of cigarette smoke and wet sneakers. He noticed things. The way Corey looked at Kayla’s boobs when she got up to get the ketchup. A sad expression on a woman’s face. He felt  insightful and wise.

He was after wrapping his hands around a double-cheeseburger-with-the-works when the door opened and Joleen walked in. Alone.

There was a ripple in the air. A kind of disturbance in the Force. People seemed to sit up a little, pay attention. This could be good.

Joleen didn’t stand at the entrance and look around the way most people did when they entered the restaurant. She marched up to the cash and started talking with Lynn Ann. This meant she was getting take-out. She leaned on the counter as she waited for her order. She was wearing a baby-blue sweatshirt on account of the rain and a pair of tight cut-offs that dug into her butt crack. A gold chain twinkled on her ankle as she shifted her weight from one tanned, shapely leg to another.

Danny felt the eyes of the room. Going from him to Joleen and back. As if they were waiting for something to happen. He realized that he was holding his breath. That he was waiting, too. He looked at his burger. A mustardy slice of onion had slithered out between the meat patties. (He had specifically asked Lynn-Ann for no onions.) He raised it to his mouth anyway.

Joleen spotted him just as the first mouthful of soggy bread and meat went down his throat.

“Hey Danny,” she said. Looking surprised and pleased.

All over the room, chicken fingers and slices of pepperoni pizza and forkfuls of poutine paused on their way to open mouths. The waitress and the cashier stood still. The only sound in the place was the spit and sizzle of a basket of frozen french fries sinking into the deep-fryer in the kitchen. And, from the pie cabinet, Don Henley singing ‟… swear I’m gonna find you / one of these nights …

A bark exploded into the stillness. With a shock, Danny realized that it had erupted from his mouth. He tried to stop the second one but he couldn’t. It tore through his body like it had to make way for all the others coming right behind it. He coughed and coughed and coughed. And coughed some more. Finally, in a daze of pain and embarrassment, he swung his legs over the side of the bench, gripped the edge of the table with his ketchupy hands, stood up and walked to the can. There he put both hands on the washbasin and leaned in. He was probably going to die.

Corey came in then, closing the door behind him quick like some bad guys were about to bust in and said: “Hey man, you okay?” Danny nodded to him in the mirror above the basin. He caught a scary glimpse of his own face: purplish red, his nose running, his eyes pissing water.

“Did you choke on something?” Corey said.

“No!” Danny coughed, and Corey left as fast as he had entered.

When it was over he felt weak but grateful. Like that moment at the end of a stomach flu when you realize that you’re done throwing up. He blew his nose, splashed water over his face and bloodshot eyes. Had a piss. Held his hands under the tap again. When they stopped shaking, he pulled hard on the bathroom door (the hinges were loose and it dragged on the sill) stepped onto the mudwet floor of the Grill and walked out. He didn’t pay for his double-cheeseburger-with-the-works and his Pepsi.

And no one said a goddamn thing.

“Well, thanks for the memories.” Joleen smiled.

She was sitting cross-legged on her bed in a red-and-black slip, lighting a cigarette. Danny had to laugh. He had known she’d be all right. There would be others. And Donnie Pepsi still wanted her.

His parents drove him to the bus depot in Hawkesbury. His father offered to take him all the way to Halifax but Danny refused.

“Make sure you do the dishes at Wendell and Joann’s,” his mother said for the third time. “And pick up after yourself.”

But when she came back from the counter with his bus ticket she began to cry.

“Come on, Ma.” he said. He squeezed her in his arms. It was something he had not wanted to do for years. But today it felt good.

It made him feel like a man.

Anne LevesqueAnne Lévesque’s fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have been published in Canadian and international journals. She lives on Cape Breton Island.

Take It From Me, Kid, I’m a Clown

Listen kid, I know it’s your birthday and all, that you only turn ten once, and that this is your special day, but, come on, you’re crying over your balloon animal because you wanted a giraffe and you got an Irish Wolfhound, which you say looks retarded, and that I’m retarded; please, give me some respect here—even though I go by Bozo the Clown, I’m no bozo, just part of the franchise—this is my career, my profession; sure, I studied English literature in college, discovering a love for Dante and Milton, and upon graduation I couldn’t find a job anywhere, even in my local strip mall Barnes and Noble or in any of the dozen coffee shops run by the evil empire, Starbucks, and yes, I went a little crazy snorting coke in dive bar restrooms and drinking rail whiskey in the mornings, and my mom kicked me out of the house and I lived with this hooker, kind of acting as her john until she overdosed on Methadone and her dad took her away, placing her in some upscale treatment center, and yes, I continued to squat in that shit-box apartment for a little longer, waking up in my own vomit and just existing for the hit, for the adrenalin pop of making a score, but I cleaned myself up, kid, and my mom eventually agreed to take me back in, though in the basement this time and I had a curfew and I had to promise to stop the drinking and the drugs, and so you have to believe me when I tell you I’ve been to that dark void, that negative space where rock bottom fights back, slaps you over the head, and tells you to get a grip, and kid, really, you should take my advice and stop bugging your mom about wanting a giraffe because she was the one who hired me and I only charge seventy-five bucks for the entire afternoon, which includes entertaining you and your little snot-nosed friends with magic tricks, miming man-trapped-in-a-box, and singing the entire Justin Bieber back catalogue; I have a feeling you don’t know what it takes to make it in this industry: it’s competitive as hell, and I have rivals who undercut on price (but also quality) and sport junk-ass names like Melvin the Magnificent and Chachi the Womanizer and one of these jerks I even mentored for a while, teaching the punk things like the necessary clown poise to juggle flaming torches and how to throw custard pies without blinding the victim, but I didn’t teach him everything—I had to keep something in reserve, like that unusual balloon animal (I mean who else can make a recognizable Irish Wolfhound?), which is one of my specialties, my calling card, if you will, but actually I have to give credit to this street performer, Gregor the Great, or something alliterative like that, who was a world-class twister, and seeing him model that air-filled rubber into all those wondrous taxonomies led to an epiphany that I could shape my own future, and, in fact, Gregor’s the one, even more so than my mom, who helped me pull through the DTs and the projectile vomiting, who called me when I was low—close to breaking—and told me it would be hard and I tell you it was hard for a couple of weeks, but I got my shit together and enrolled in night classes—method acting, circus skills, and contemporary dance—to reinvent myself, to give me a shot at something new, perhaps even take the clichéd route and be an artist and emigrate to Paris, and yes, kid, it took a while and I financed school with a part-time job stacking shelves at Walmart and also a life model gig at the nearby community college, letting those old folks sketch my thin wretched body for $8.50 an hour, and then later on stare at me oddly when they see me stacking incontinence pads in the aisle, but I found a girl, a real blue-eyed blonde named Val, who was a cashier and had a pierced conch, and we dated, the way I always saw couples do in movies: romantic encounters brimming with candle-lit dinners, French waiters, and fancy red wine, which I could never pronounce and never drink (for fear of reverting to my old habits), but would tell her to finish her glass, and then, by midnight, after we kissed and I left her by the bus stop, I could smell only her cherry-red lip gloss, and I went out of my mind and proposed and we got married at the town hall the next year and my mom even came and cried all the way through the ceremony, and though the marriage was annulled, as Val hooked up with Randy in Electronics, I carried on, eventually met someone else … what I’m trying to say, kid, is that it’s all right things didn’t turn out the way I hoped, or expected, as, in many ways, my life’s better and I have a son of my own now, around your age, and he’s nerdy, into board games, particularly he enjoys thrashing me at Hungry Hungry Hippos, but I still love him, apart from the crying, that’s why you should stop, celebrate life, because you have it all in front of you, even though I know you’ve been through some shit, like your mom told me on the phone she was worried about you, that your dad left a year ago, that he moved in with a slut redhead named Babs, and this is your first birthday without him, and I know that’s tough—I never met my father: he ran off after mom told him she was pregnant with me, which led to zero alimony or child support, no visiting me on Sundays, or him in the stands watching my Little League games—but you’ll survive and attend college, like I did, snag a job where you can make ends meet and make good with your mom, maybe even move across town to the suburbs, which, by the way, aren’t that bad, but are a great place to think, even read some of those college books you’re going to skip; so, come on kid—what’s your name anyhow: Tom? Bill? Phil?—your mom’s here with the cake and it looks kind of tasty, chocolate sponge, I bet, smothered in white vanilla frosting; you should get closer, yeah and I’ll sing “Happy Birthday” and cheer you on; there you go you’re almost there, the big ten-o and now, for God’s sake, blow out those fucking candles.

Christopher LinforthChristopher Linforth has fiction published in Southern Humanities Review, Gargoyle, Denver Quarterly, and other magazines.  christopherlinforth.wordpress.com

Dunn

I heard the following ghost story one February evening when I was buttonholed in a corner of a tavern where I’m a regular and go to drink and read or take in hockey games I don’t especially like, no matter I was born in this country. The man (his name was Dunn) was imposing, long haired and thickly built with a dark, challenging expression in his face, and not somebody you can easily avoid indoors, though that was my first intention. Fortunately I had drunk enough and—with no clear avenue of escape—found it prudent to hear him out amid dreary conversations at nearby tables and the sound of the big screen TV. In over an hour he unburdened himself of his demons and this is what he told me.

The first time Dunn saw the apparition was at his apartment on a Friday night when he was shit-faced. He insisted it wasn’t a question of fear—he of ferocious temperament and deadly fists, though not the wild man he once was when he hung around and partied with a notorious motorcycle gang whose clubhouse was in that end of the city. With his hair grown to the waist and tied in two pony tails, Dunn himself resembled a biker and earned a wide berth by everyone. He’d spent enough time in jail to garner the reputation of someone you didn’t dare cross, though that alone might not guarantee safety since he was also a bad drinker, prone to violent outbursts for no reason. I couldn’t help thinking of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Dunn had the same kind of eyes, eyes that seemed to resist light like those animals you find run over on the street. At any rate, it was unnerving gazing into them. Later I became aware of uncomfortable rumours he killed a few guys long ago; as a favour to his biker acquaintances or at their instigation, I could only guess. To put it succinctly, nobody who wasn’t insane fucked with him.

To round out his biography: employed in a lumberyard measuring and cutting up wood before it went bankrupt and since had been a drywall contractor for businesses that weren’t completely legitimate, while selling drugs on the side. These enterprises allowed him to have a one-bedroom apartment in a rundown building owned by a pair of shady Russian brothers who sometimes waived the rent in exchange for some muscle work from him. Occasionally he screwed a prostitute or a stripper who needed to get high. Nobody ever knocked on his door or visited. The bikers he had known were dead, in hiding from other gangs, or had gone straight and wanted no trouble.

So on this particular Friday night he was smoking and drinking. The television was on as it almost always was, since (I gathered) silence was not only not a virtue there, it was held in distrust by the occupant. He had nodded off already once or twice. A bottle slipped from his grasp and beer spilled over the linoleum floor which, Dunn admitted, was never swept or washed and was incredibly dirty. (I have lived in these same shitty apartments where numerous cracks spider everywhere like crazy hieroglyphs).

When he opened them a man was suddenly standing in front of the television, his back to him. Confused and not a little startled, Dunn could only stare in surprise.

He relaxed on the sofa and closed his eyes. When he opened them a man was suddenly standing in front of the television, his back to him. Confused and not a little startled, Dunn could only stare in surprise. Then he composed himself, yet not without hesitating—partly from the beer and partly from the shock of an absolute stranger appearing out of nowhere:

“Who the fuck are you, man?”

The other did not answer. He was no more than five feet away, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt.

“I asked who you are, man. What are you doing here?”

Still he ignored Dunn. Though there wasn’t anything actually malicious to it, Dunn suggested. It almost was as if he didn’t know he was there. Whether because of the brazen audacity of the man or simply that he couldn’t see the television, Dunn raised his voice:

“Don’t fuck with me, man. Get the fuck out. Don’t make me get up.”

Then slowly the stranger turned around, as if only now realizing someone was behind him. He studied Dunn with wonder, maybe even outrage, as if Dunn was the one in the wrong, intruding on the man’s own personal space in a way that was wholly unacceptable. He leaned across the coffee table which was littered with matches, cigarette ashes, and beer bottles.

“Arsehole!” he snarled.

Without a word Dunn swung at the man, swinging through air and landing across the coffee table which cracked and splintered in two. Bottles scattered everywhere. Dazed, he lifted himself and swore angrily. In a mania, he rushed about the apartment trying to find him. When he couldn’t, he searched the hallway. Then he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t all an hallucination caused by the booze. He kicked aside the wrecked coffee table. The television was on a channel about African safaris. Dunn looked at the door a few times, believing the man was on the other side. But he didn’t bother going to check. He went to the fridge for beer. Hours later he passed out on the sofa.

He said the next few days he kept an eye on the other tenants but didn’t recognize the person who’d been in his apartment. He made a round of the floors without success and inspected the lock. There was no sign of tampering. He began thinking of his brother who lived in another city. A onetime biker who succumbed to alcoholism. Though it was a long time since they’d met, Dunn remembered the former biker’s shocking transformation into an out-and-out drunk panhandling for change near the local Beer Store, shuffling like an old man though he was two years younger. Mumbling like an idiot and completely fucked. The parents were drunks so maybe it was hereditary.

Weeks passed and he forgot the incident with the intruder. The drywall business was going slow with no work in some time. One night he entered a bar to meet his dealer who never showed up. He learned the next day he’d been arrested in a police raid, a crackdown on drugs that was in the newspapers and on television. Without much money he wasn’t doing anything when the two Russian brothers came to him.

Apparently no one knew if they were émigrés or cast outs from the Russian mob. They appeared five years ago when they took over the building with its long history of mismanagement. Nothing was ever repaired, least of all the furnace which, inexplicably, was on the roof. The elevator was so unreliable only unwary visitors used it. The new owners didn’t change a thing, and to any complaint merely shrugged and said the rent wasn’t very high, so how could they bother them with anything?

The older brother, Arkady, a fat man who came across as a horticulturist or an oenophile, told Dunn someone owed them money. They wanted him to go and retrieve it. He mentioned a sum they would pay and they would forgo the rent for next month as well. It was a good deal, wasn’t it? The younger brother, Sergey, smiled though visibly frightened of Dunn.

“Yes, it’s a good deal,” he agreed. Arkady glanced at his brother who was near the door. He stood to one side of the sofa where Dunn was smoking.

“What if he doesn’t have the money?” Dunn smiled.

Arkady held out his hands indicating how unnecessary the question was. He obviously knew what was required of him “You handle it, my friend,” Arkady said in conclusion. He wrote out an address. They hoped to see him again shortly.

Dunn said he opened a beer, the last one in the fridge. He put the bottle on a kitchen chair that replaced the coffee table. The apartment was cold and he was almost broke. He finished the beer in a bad humour, called a taxi, and left.

Two hours later he was back with a bag, inside which were stacks of bills. The guy he met, a Russian, believing Dunn was the vanguard of a gang of bikers armed with baseball bats, quickly made a few calls and within an hour placed the money in Dunn’s hands. He counted out the denominations to prove he was on the up-and-up which only annoyed Dunn.

“Don’t ever fuck with me, man,” he said. In the taxi, Dunn felt unbelievably thirsty. That one beer only made him irritable. At his apartment he phoned the Russians who were there in minutes. Arkady gave the money to his younger brother to hold. He paid Dunn and thanked him. Then the brothers were gone.

Dunn remembered looking at the fold of twenties on the chair and wishing he had asked for more. Still, the rent was taken care of for next month. His thirst became more urgent. He decided to go to a bar around the corner; once a pickup joint, but with the deaths of a few women who’d frequented it, it became just another watering hole. He dressed and went out.

According to Dunn he got pissed on rye. Several times he was at the point of punching people he suspected were eyeing him. After a few hours the bartender refused to serve him anymore. He said something. The bartender left and came back with the owner and bouncer. The owner knew Dunn and didn’t want a disturbance. He sure didn’t want the cops. He explained the situation and invited him back another time. Dunn glared at the bouncer but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. When he got to his apartment he called a place that delivers beer and alcohol. His order was dropped off within a half hour.

He said he drank beer and watched Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian. He was certain he could knock the movie star’s head off. Everybody in Hollywood was a faggot. He laughed when he thought this. Then he went to the washroom. When he came out, laughing to himself, the chair which he still was using in place of the coffee table was pulled away and the same man who’d been there before was sitting on it, watching the television.

Dunn did nothing for thirty seconds. Then he carefully shot the deadbolt on the door to the apartment and fastened the chain lock. There was no way he could get away quickly now. He took two beers from the fridge and slammed the door so hard bottles fell over inside.

He finished the first beer in minutes and tossed the drained bottle onto the sofa, even dirtier than the floor. Now he held the other beer and scrutinized the man with a malicious gleam in his eyes, a predatory kind of glee (at least this is how I imagine it). But, like the previous, occasion the man did not seem aware that Dunn was there. He wore the same short-sleeved blue shirt and jeans. The movie was at the scene where the girl jumps to her death at the bidding of the cult leader played by James Earl Jones. The stranger laughed. Dunn laughed too, then said:

“Did you think that was funny, man? After I’m done this beer I’m going to kick the shit out of you. You’re dead meat.” The man ignored Dunn, who didn’t know if the other heard him. He repeated what he said. “You fucked with the wrong guy, man.”

Then with a swiftness Dunn said he could not have foreseen the stranger leaped out of the chair. He was astonished as the man sneered and, with his thumb and finger, made the sign of the arsehole over Dunn’s forehead.

Dunn jumped up and threw himself at him, but crashed into a vacant chair that fell over and slid across the floor. Enraged, he thrashed about drunkenly, cursing horribly. He raced to the door. The deadbolt and chain hadn’t been touched. Foaming at the mouth, Dunn took in the apartment. To the left was the small kitchen. He searched the cupboards where an adult could not have crouched anyways. He checked the bathroom and shower. He peered into the closet where his coats hung. The only place left was the bedroom. Dunn smiled. This was the last spot and the game was almost over. But the man was not in the closet or beside the bed or even under it. Befuddled, he went to the living room. That was when he realized there was one hiding place he hadn’t considered: the balcony—but that seemed out of the question. The door was locked for the winter. He unlocked it and a mid-February wind blew against him. The balcony was deserted as he knew it would be. He closed the door and got to the sofa.

If it was a wet brain from all the boozing he’d done in his life, that would explain everything. That might be more comforting than the idea someone could just appear and then disappear. A chill shook his body. The apartment was cold. The goddamned Russians wouldn’t call anyone to look at the furnace that kicked off all the time. Conan the Barbarian was over so he changed the channel until he found another, John Carpenter’s Halloween. He drank without paying much attention to it. He drank himself insensible and fell asleep on the sofa. But his sleep was restless, whether from the cold or uneasy feelings about what had happened, he couldn’t be sure.

He said he didn’t awaken until noon the following day. He finished off the beer and then phoned for more. He drank until evening with the television on, then closed his eyes and a dream began.

In it, he was sitting cross-legged on grass in the presence of a huge lion whose breath stank. They were in a clearing in a wooded area that Dunn wasn’t familiar with. It didn’t look like a jungle. It could have been a park. But all the trees were dying. The leaves were dried up, falling off, and branches and trunks were split and rotting. As if to show it had eaten, the lion opened its mouth. Dunn could see bits of flesh trapped in the teeth. Blood darkened the jaws. Then a fly settled on one of Dunn’s arms. It was the biggest fly he had ever seen. The fly wandered up and down like a green shadow. Then another fly landed, followed by another and another. Soon Dunn was overrun by thousands of them, covering him like a garment. Flies crawled over his face obscuring his sight. They filled his mouth. He couldn’t raise his arms to strike them away, the weight of all of them pinned him down. He couldn’t move and was choking. He screamed and woke up in the cold apartment.

He wasn’t accustomed to fear. Abruptly he got to his feet, pacing the living room, throwing his arms up in the air and grinning, like he used to in jail when showing off in front of the other inmates. He was laughing and talking to himself. Maybe he was crazy.

He wasn’t accustomed to fear. Abruptly he got to his feet, pacing the living room, throwing his arms up in the air and grinning, like he used to in jail when showing off in front of the other inmates. He was laughing and talking to himself. Maybe he was crazy. He began to pant and slumped on the sofa. Whiskey and beer were stacked in front of the sofa. The chair was still where it was from the previous night, upended in a corner. The television was turned to a medical drama. A doctor was informing a young woman that her cancer had spread, despite their best efforts to stop it she had only a short time left to live. She nodded but tears swelled in her eyes. The woman was incredibly beautiful.

A noise came from the bedroom, like someone had bumped against something. Dunn looked in the room. It was a mess as he had left it, the blankets thrown everywhere, pornographic magazines all over the place, a lamp knocked over. No one was there. Unsteadily he returned to the living room. To his amazement he made out a figure now squatting on the floor. It was the intruder again, watching television. As quietly as he could, Dunn crept up and put a hand on his shoulder. It was like plunging into a bowl of jello. Stunned, he pulled away. He collapsed on the sofa and grabbed another beer.

For the next half hour Dunn observed the man. He hadn’t changed clothes at all. He must have been middle-aged. Nothing out of the ordinary. An average guy. Just as he thought an average guy, the man crooked his head and stared. He seemed agitated or on the verge of speaking but, instead, came over and sat beside Dunn. For the life of him Dunn couldn’t understand how this could be happening. He glanced out of the corner of his eye at the man who now was firmly fixed on the television. He said he searched his memory but couldn’t remember ever meeting the guy before. He was a total stranger, an unknown.

The two stayed side by side until the medical show ended with the woman’s death. The man laughed.

“Why did you laugh?” Dunn asked, puzzled. The man didn’t know.

“Who are you, man?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. Then he asked Dunn to see what else was on. Dunn flipped through the channels until deciding on a B movie he’d never watched. A woman in a house was hiding from a man while he stalked her with a grimace of determination. You knew he was going to kill her.

“You don’t know who you are?”

“What does it matter?” the other finally answered. Maybe he had seen the movie before but he seemed bored or uninterested in it. He shifted a bit on the sofa.

“Where are you from, man?” Dunn asked.

“I might be from here. I think so,” he said.

“You mean you used to live here?”

“Yes, I think so. But actually I’m not sure. No, probably not,” the stranger conceded.

“Why do you keep coming?”

The man shrugged.

“How do you get in here and then get out?” Dunn asked.

The man shrugged again. He just did and that was all.

Dunn drank whiskey straight from the bottle. He knocked over several beer bottles which rolled and struck the wall before coming to a halt. The girl in the movie managed to elude her pursuer by pushing him down a flight of stairs. Now she was pleading with another man that someone was after her. The man didn’t believe her, arm around her, squeezing one shoulder. She was sobbing. All this happened in a restaurant where the waiters wore black and bowed with elaborate decorum while serving couples and families. It was very loud and the dining room was full of cigarette smoke. The man told the woman she was mistaken. It was all in her imagination. The recent death of her father had pushed her over the edge. She needed rest.

Dunn said he began laughing. Maybe this was all in his imagination.

“Are you a ghost, man?” he asked.

The man didn’t know. And what exactly was a ghost? he ventured to ask. What was the exact definition? There were things nobody understood no matter what they said. He sounded sad. Dunn laughed. He wasn’t sure if he was laughing at the man or because he was so drunk. Again he put a hand on him. The sensation of jello, of something fleshless and alien like garbage, made him recoil. Then as on the previous occasions the man just disappeared—now before Dunn’s very eyes. Faded was the better word, he said. He faded like a shadow when a lot of lights are gradually turned on. Dunn was left alone in the frigid apartment.

For the next week he drank non-stop. The apparition which didn’t have a name came every day now, sharing the sofa and once in the morning when he awoke Dunn spied him on the edge of the bed, looking with curiosity at him. They had conversations that went nowhere. In the building the other tenants began whispering of the strange occurrence: they could hear Dunn talking as if someone was with him. He was boozing too much, they said. He had lost it.

No matter how often Dunn questioned the man he was never able to get a definite answer. He might have been an HVAC technician once or a poet. He couldn’t be sure. As for questions about the afterlife, the immensity of space or its solitude, the man offered little information. He liked to watch television, that’s about all he could confirm to Dunn, drooling on the sofa going from one drunk to another with his phantom companion surfing the channels.

And then one morning the Russians appeared. Sergey stayed at his post near the door. The older brother who at first figured Dunn had been partying waded through beer and whiskey bottles scattered on the floor. The place was a mess. He cast a suspicious smile at Dunn who hadn’t shaved or bathed in over a week.

“How are you, my friend?” They needed Dunn’s services again. Another account was overdue. It wasn’t a great sum of money but of course there was the principle of the matter. He wrote the address on paper and slipped it to Dunn.

“Let us know when you get back,” said Arkady and they left.

“They want me to get their money,” he said. Without being aware of it, he was speaking as if the other was with him. “This dump is freezing and they won’t fix the heat but they want their money.” He finished off the last of the beer and cleaned up, staggering to the bathroom where his reflection in the mirror didn’t inspire confidence. He shaved and showered and caught a taxi.

At first the man, another Russian, denied owing anybody any money. Dunn said he had no patience. He grabbed the man’s throat and began kicking him, vicious kicks that left him screaming. The man relented and pointed to a desk. Dunn found an envelope stuffed with twenties. He couldn’t understand why he would have denied owing such a small amount of money, barely two thousand dollars. His hands started shaking. He needed a drink badly.

There are choices fraught with dangers that tempt everyone and I include myself in this. He did not call the Russians. He went to a bar and bought cocaine from someone in the men’s washroom. He used it himself and drank rye all day. A woman wearing too much makeup sat on the stool next to him and they started a conversation. They went to her place. She snorted coke and they ended up in bed. In the evening Dunn left the woman, still sleeping, and visited several bars. He bought more cocaine and other drugs at all of them. He returned to his apartment and ordered beer and whiskey. Suddenly he began sweating. He opened the door to his balcony. The temperatures had been warmer the last few days. The phone rang but he didn’t answer. It rang minutes later and several times after that. Then it didn’t ring again.

This was as much as he told me that night. He said he had come here to get away for a few hours. He looked terrible, beat up and worn down. There were distressing indications he was out of control. Once he eyed me like I was an enemy or a rival who’d strayed without permission into his territory. Another time it was like he had just woken out of a long sleep, maybe the sleep of death, and seeing me was a reminder of something terrible or prophetic. He seemed to black out and I worried what he might do with those enormous hands that lay ominously on the table. When he finally went to the men’s room, I made my escape, relieved to get away. But there was more to come. Based on what I read in the newspapers in the upcoming days (articles that hinted at foul play and that the deceased was known to the police) I have tried to piece together what could have happened. I admit I might be completely wrong. This is how I will end it.

For the next two days he spends all the money he should have given to the Russians. He buys as much cocaine as he can and beer and liquor. He goes through the money quickly. Does he hear knocking on his door without going to it? He will have to square it with the Russians somehow. It isn’t good what he has done.

On the evening of the second day Dunn’s resident apparition steps from the balcony. He doesn’t go to the television. He looks worried or is there something else Dunn detects, some cunning possibly hinting at a joke?

“You’re in trouble,” he says.

Dunn grins.

“You screwed up this time. They aren’t going to let you do this to them. They will come for you with help.”

Dunn mumbles. The other stares intensely. Or is he smiling? Dunn doesn’t like it.

“Don’t fuck with me, man,” he says. But the man won’t stop staring, his eyes seeming to get bigger by the second. Dunn warns him a second time. Who does this asshole think he is to fuck with him? To tell him his business? To come to his place and watch his television?

He gets up, swaying a bit, but sure of what to do. His cold apartment is an extension of himself and now the apartment is going to evict someone. The man is at the open balcony door. Dunn runs at him in a clumsy fashion, stumbles out onto the balcony—into the February night—and, unable to stop his drunken charge, tumbles over the railing. He falls thirty feet.

His body was discovered next morning. His head had hit against a dumpster and then a concrete partition in the parking lot. He had been dead for hours.

Walter Gary RobinsonWalter Gary Robinson lives Ottawa, Ontario, Canada where he writes poems and short stories. His poems have been published in Canada, the UK, and India. He recently finished his first novella.

This Once, My Story

My secret is not for show, not yet, my uterus no more on display than my kidney or my spleen. I am a private person, my feelings hard to plumb, and has Jimmy ever asked? He cares that I’m a pretty thing, that I eat what’s on my plate, that I listen to his crazy stories and, more of a stretch, that I believe them. What he sees when he greets me at the door—small smile on my lips, simple wave of my right hand, noisy sparkles from the charm bracelet I consent to wear—seems to be his regular girl, and I have never wanted to be anything else. Jimmy wipes his hands on his apron, takes my wrist and pulls me close, and I, seduced by his wide smile, nearly spill my secret in happiness, forgetting that my happiness must wait its turn.

Jimmy nudges me toward the dining room. He puts his hands over my eyes. A dozen odors decorate the air, and I name them. Lemon, garlic, and butter are easy to pick out. Hazelnut. Fennel. Lavender. I even pick out mahogany and orange oil: my fingernails have dug into the dining room table’s grain before.

Jimmy whispers the details of tonight’s feast. Oysters. Pate. Chevre. Golden rustic bread. Wild salmon filleted by a jackknife. Fava beans scented with fennel. Honey wine to clear the palate, and a lavender cake for dessert, with silver charms swimming in the glaze, which I will be expected to lick clean. Each dish tells a story, and as Jimmy’s hands slide down to my waist, knotting my pink dress in his thick knuckles, I hear about Turkish markets, Napa wineries, Italian truck farms upstate. The stories end in a silver shop in Buenos Aires, where an old tinker in Gitano garb sells demitasse cups of coffee and dishes of candied pistachios. My eyes closed, I can picture it all. Leaning into Jimmy’s arms, I’ll take this ride. Jimmy whispers, “Open your eyes.”

The owners of this fine house beside the sea, when they return from Provence, or Bali, or Fifth Avenue, or wherever they’ve gone, they’ll sniff the spices in the air, they’ll count up the china and crystal and silver that bears their monogram, and they’ll sigh, bamboozled again.

It’s pure bull. How many favors does Jimmy owe, how many kitchen doors has he begged from, how many chefs and waiters pity my sad, sweet boy as much as I do? His goodwill spent, how many lies must he cook up? The owners of this fine house beside the sea, when they return from Provence, or Bali, or Fifth Avenue, or wherever they’ve gone, they’ll sniff the spices in the air, they’ll count up the china and crystal and silver that bears their monogram, and they’ll sigh, bamboozled again. I don’t know where Jimmy gets his money. I don’t know all his debts and obligations, but I know his stories, the ones he’s laid on me. And I know that I love my boy.

We gaze at the table. “Well?” he asks.

“Oh, Jimmy.”

He smiles.

I try to see how I’ll fit among this crowded array, my head and shoulders bumping against the butter plate, the fingerbowls of jasmine water, the salt cellars, the salad and bread and cravat of cool honey wine, the salmon filet. How does my secret fit among his tales?

He says, “Tonight I have a special surprise.”

My charm bracelet jingles as I bring my hand to my belly, the pull on my wrist not so heavy as to weigh me down. “So do I, Jimmy.”

“Hush.”

Soon it will be plain. Soon he’ll parade me around the old places along the ocean road that still grant him a tab, handing out Swishers and yelling “Look what I did!” But not yet. I keep my secret jammed under my tongue. Last night I dreamed that I opened my lips to tell, but before I could say a word, the ocean spilled into my mouth.

Jimmy pulls out my chair. He lifts my dress from my skin. I prepare to be filled.

*      *      *

I want to tell him everything. I would begin with a memory: when I was old enough to be alone on the beach, I came upon a body, a woman in a pretty blue dress, her face placid with eternal sleep, wet hair stuck to pale skin. My kindness was to take the stones from her skirts and to sing a lullaby until the next wave floated the cold, pretty woman away. That night, I slept with those stones hugged to my belly, and I dreamed of carrying them in golden light with no shadow. I awoke to the starry night drifting on my bedspread, the ocean pacing outside my window, and I went back to my dream. I knew what it meant: that I could lighten anyone’s load, that there was space in my heart for sadness, that anguish was something I could receive as a still ocean received a pebble tossed by a child. Since then, I have taken Jimmy’s hand, I have eaten Jimmy’s food, I have listened to his thousand lies. He comes back from Newfoundland or Panama or Dubai, comes back from somewhere, and adds to my bracelet’s jingling charms. I have felt his tongue in my mouth, his dick in my crotch, his simmering seed inside. His gifts I have taken to be kind, but do I expect anything back? His arms around me? Clenched hands that I unknot again and again? Any gift he places around my wrist, on my lips, champagne on my tongue, I take, not with gratitude but with quiescence, waiting for him to whisper, Thank you, on my cheek. The hand that clenches my hair more firmly than I’d like: thank you. The fucking: thank you. His weight against my pelvis. I’ll bear him up. I’ll fatten like an onion for him. I want to tell him You’re welcome. But he is the one who must start the conversation. Thank you.

*      *     *

He feeds me oysters on a tiny barbed fork and daubs the lemon juice from my chin. A crust of bread follows, and a swipe of patè. Jimmy’s hand closes my lips around a bite. He raises a wine glass to my mouth, sweetness swimming in my nose until he takes the glass away. He lifts me from the chair to the table, my fingers finding the beveled edge to grip. He offers a slice of pear and goat cheese, and it’s delicious, and when he offers another, and another, I realize he’s feeding me to clear space on the table to lay me down. Jimmy slices the salmon fillet, gathers the tender flakes. His fingers find my mouth. I suck off the lemony juice in time to receive a morsel from his other hand. And another from the first. And another. Jimmy spins a story from the boats, the year in Dutch Harbor on the Bering Sea with the Russian crew. He recites twelve Russian words for fuck. I listen for my chance, a silence long enough for my story. Jimmy’s so close, he’s whispering, and I smell his words, and wine on his breath, and garlic and lemon on his lips. He gathers my hair in a greasy fist and lays me back. My head settles among noisy plates. I want to cry his name, but his fingers drop fava beans into my mouth. The sweep of dishes and silver. The sputter of beeswax candles. Wet spots bloom on my back. Bits of sauce stick to my skin. Utensils I cannot identify dig into my sharp bones. My fingers find mahogany grain, and I press hard, dig my nails in, tiny dents that a millionaire’s wife will puzzle over when she returns.

*      *     *

When Jimmy was a boy, his dad owned a joint in Greenwich Village. The grill was behind the bar, and Jimmy’s dad held forth, and people came to watch the sizzling action and to raise a glass to the man blackening New York steaks and spinning yarns about the meals he had cooked for kings and queens. People crammed tips in the jar, and the tips were not for the skinny punk in the t-shirt who shifted greasy plates from the polished walnut bar into a grey plastic tub. Jimmy’s life was prep work during the day, dishes during the evening, and a mop in the middle of the night. When Jimmy turned sixteen, his dad, manning the grill and rattling two skillets in each hand, did not even pause his story to note his son’s apron hanging on a hook, the tip jar cleaned out, the back door swinging in the night. Maybe he expected it. Jimmy did what he had to do. Maybe his dad had done the same. I cannot say Jimmy misses the old man. His rootlessness has only become another story. He fended for himself out of dumpsters behind four-star restaurants in Manhattan. He worked his way across the country, cooking in a dozen kitchens, always volunteering to lock up, then sleeping in darkened booths after the rest of the staff had gone home. When he reached California, he cooked in the Army. After they caught him fencing sides of beef, he cooked in the clink. He’s worked both sides of the Bering Sea. He can banter in Tagalog, Portuguese, and Greek. Too many times, I’ve heard about the night in Panama, the fever brought on by the odd pinched bottle, the cobwebbed brew, smelling of anise, that tempted his tongue. Every story ends in a fight, a bitter parting with someone who did him wrong, and Jimmy forging out on his own, with pockets empty and head held high. It’s been an easy life, he claims. Plenty of folks leave doors ajar, dumpsters unlocked, delivery trucks untended; Jimmy is not the only soul walking a crooked mile. From the names that decorate his stories, I gather that plenty of pretty girls were willing to take in a pretty boy. Beatrice. Alice. Lyudmila. Melanie. Names as sweet as seventeen kinds of sugar. Honey. Agave. Cane. I don’t mind. It’s my skin he kisses. It’s my wrist he shackles with jingling charms of love, my mouth he feeds, my body that bears his seed. When he shudders with pain at a thousand failures, only I console him. I massage his scars and tattoos. I smooth the tremor in his hands. His trembling lips on my ear whisper stories that I want to believe. Sometimes, when he comes, he whispers my jittery name.

With tonight’s menu, he’ll dazzle kings and queens. He says so. He sops up juices with a piece of bread, drizzles the greasy ragout into my mouth, and calls me Your Majesty. Of course I want to believe him.

He’s got big plans, he says. With tonight’s menu, he’ll dazzle kings and queens. He says so. He sops up juices with a piece of bread, drizzles the greasy ragout into my mouth, and calls me Your Majesty. Of course I want to believe him. Riding the mahogany table, Jimmy’s weight upon me, Jimmy’s words crammed into my ear, I do not moan. I grit my teeth and hold on. I swallow back the lemon juice and wine pushing up in my throat.

When it’s over, my Jimmy cries and cries. Above my head, his fist smashes a millionaire’s pretty saucer of goldleaf and pink flowers. I will be the one to pick the shards from the Persian rug. The closest I come to voice, I release my fingers from the edge of the table, stroke Jimmy’s hair, and sing cooing notes, the syllables of his name.

*      *      *

We met on the beach. I was picking up rainbow-blue mussels, turning them over for the gulls to pick apart, and here’s my pretty boy sitting in the sand. He was wrapped in a blanket. I knew the look on his pretty face: I’d seen that same look when I found the woman’s body on the shore. I pulled Jimmy’s blanket away and removed sixteen stones from his pockets. I said, “Tell me the story that brought you here.” I wanted to lift that burden from him too.

His eyes tested mine for disbelief, but I was busy with my task. Stones from his pockets. Pebbles from his socks. A stone the size of a bread loaf cradled to his belly. After these, I loosened the stones from the hard hunched muscles of his back. I smoothed the knots in his neck. I learned the truth from his tattoos and scars and dusty cheeks etched with tears, and this truth aligned with his words. What a sad life. What a failure. His words, that day, were absolutely true. Except for this: he’s never thanked me for that day. Never spoken Thank you. Never.

Maybe now.

*      *      *

The empty dishes glide easily around the wet table top. Salmon skin scraped clean. Lemon rind squeezed out. Oyster shells rattling in butter and lemon. Bread crust floating in oil and vinegar. My pretty dress is stained seven shades of brown. I gather myself from the tinkling scraps, and I dangle my legs off the table. I wince hard. It should not be pain that stirs in my belly. I should be the happiest girl.

Jimmy has buckled his pants and taken my chair. The final course is a lavender cake on the sideboard, and Jimmy reaches for the cake and brings it around to me. A small thing, no wider that the span of my sticky fingers. Heart-shaped. So sweet and flowery it might dissolve into the air like perfume. I can’t eat it. Maybe it was true that I receive Jimmy’s gifts as the ocean receives a stone, but what happens when the ocean is filled to bursting? I need space for breath to expel my words. This once, I need to unburden myself of my story.

Jimmy strikes a match and lights a candle on the cake. The jittery flame steadies, and Jimmy cups the small, flickering, hopeful thing. He blows out the match. His slow pained exhalation lifts away. I wave my hand through the smoke, rattling my charms. The charms sparkle in the candle’s glow, announcing places I’ve never been. Jimmy holds the cake out to me, and I breathe the smoke. To speak, one must first inhale the sting.

“Jimmy, I have—”

Jimmy’s finger presses my lips. Hush. He makes his pretty girl promise silence. Harder. I bite my lip till it bleeds salt on my tongue.

The candle flickers in Jimmy’s shaky hand.

Jimmy’s chest inhales. His finger presses harder against my lips. With his other hand, he presses the cake platter against my belly. Presses harder. Harder.

If I mouth any words, let them be these: No harm can come to me. No harm can come to the thing inside me. I remember the woman in the water. When I let her go, I told myself she was going to grow wings. She was going to live forever. She was going to stay pretty. She would never cut her hair. Her body would not harden. She was going to hear music, and ocean, and conversations exactly right, ringing with accord, accord, the waves, the waves, and I was not the only one who dreamed perfect dreams, unperturbed by death, and who struggled now to remember them, feeling only the betrayal of my own hard senses. Acid in my mouth. Oil stuck in my hair. Crumbs on my dress. Sticky crotch. Noisy charms on my wrist. I cannot get away from the noise!

“Jimmy, listen.”

“Hush.”

I am a crow wealthy with shiny things. Frivolous charms. Luminescence. Tall tales. The waves at twilight. Touch. Texture. Heat. Light. Taste.

It’s like clenching through a scream. I have borne every tale. I have imagined the weight of seventeen girls’ sugary names in my ear. I am a crow wealthy with shiny things. Frivolous charms. Luminescence. Tall tales. The waves at twilight. Touch. Texture. Heat. Light. Taste. Pretty boy.

It is time. I am so close. My sweet boy pressing a cake to my knotting guts, his sad face, his eyes wide, he has to know right now. He has to say nothing at all.

“Jimmy.”

“The cake.”

“No, Jimmy, please. I’m not hungry anymore. I’m really full.”

“Damn you, eat the cake.”

“Jimmy. I want to tell you—”

His hands break through the frosting and into the cake. He combs through the cake violently. “Eat this. And this. Eat it.” He keeps going until he finds it—a gold engagement ring—and he holds it to me. “This! This!” A greasy, sweet, shiny this.

His hand shakes. The ring sparkles. “What do you want to tell me? What do you have to say to this? What do you have to say at all?”

“Jimmy.” I begin to sob.

He tells me a story about the Gulf of California. He was working on a cruise ship for a Norwegian line. One night, Jimmy, smoking a cig on the crew’s deck near the water line, saw an orca, marked it by the scars on its dorsal fin, and for two nights Jimmy threw scraps over the side. And Jimmy had friends, a chef’s always got friends, and no one says no to my pretty boy, so he asked around for a harpoon. One night, one single improbable shot went home, and the tension in the line sang with the orca’s anguish and pain. The orca’s spout turned red, and from there it was only a wait for death to take its turn. And when he cut open the orca’s stomach, he found this ring of turning gold. For me.

I take the ring. The story is bull, but the ring’s the real deal, even if it did come from a pawn shop. A glowing hoop that Jimmy’s expansive mind would assay at twenty one carets. I hold the ring up to the light. There’s a small world through there. Twisting the ring, I find words on the inside. Surely they do not say I love you, they do not say his name, not mine, not forever and always. But I’m used to Jimmy crying another girl’s name.

I clench the ring in my fist and look away to hide my tears. Peering through small spaces is not the only way to dream. Jimmy’s eyes track me in the candle light. He mumbles something about gazing at an angel. I slide from the table and try to run, but I stumble. He stumbles after me. We crash.

Jimmy finds the ring in my fist, and he forces it onto a finger.

“Jimmy, please. You’re hurting me.”

Too light and loose on my finger, the ring tests one finger and then another.

“Jimmy, no. I have to tell—”

He jams the ring in my mouth and clamps his hand over my jaw. Words simmer there. A burr. A metal flavor, bitterness mixing with everything I want to say.

*      *     *

            I am not beautiful. I am not brilliant. I’m not a saint. I’m not confident. I’m no more special than any girl who’s dreamed, who’s stayed up late to ponder stars, who’s soaked up promises, and who’s hardened solidly, her feet upon the ground, arms tight around her ribs, for warmth and to have something to hold.

My sweet boy’s head is nestled in my skirt. I look to the French doors for the pale morning sky over the water, but it doesn’t come. They say that someday the light from the farthest stars will be here, and the night will be as bright as day. We won’t dream anymore. I’ll be ready.

Dishes float on the mahogany sea. The dregs of a meal for a queen. I picture the woman’s body drifting on the gray water. And gulls descending, picking over her. And in a way whereby a feeling becomes a knowing, hard and certain, I know there will be no baby. Soon it will expel into the messy world, a bloody discharge sharing space with ragout and oil and wine.

My tongue slides the engagement ring to my cheek like a wad of gum. I clear my throat. This once bear me up. This once let me say my story. This once receive my words.

“Jimmy.”

I take his sleeping heavy hand. Jimmy raises his head. He looks at me and closes his eyes again. He nestles into my skirt. He is already back to his masterful sleep when his mouth mumbles, “Was there something you wanted to say?”

Evan Morgan WilliamsEvan Morgan Williams has published over thirty stories in such magazines as Witness, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and ZYZZYVA. Recent or forthcoming work appears in Digital Americana, J Journal, and Zymbol. The bearer of an ancient, tattered MFA from the University of Montana, he welcomes inquiries: www.evanmorganwilliams.blogspot.com.

 

Undone

When I grabbed at her hand to keep her from going again, a tiny tip of her pointer finger came off. I clasped it tightly as she ran in velvet high heels down 42nd Street, almost tripping over her hair. It was still warm against my palm, and I could almost feel a rhythm, like a tiny fleshy drum—a hint of heartbeat. I pocketed it and forgot it was there until I picked up the slacks from the cleaners two weeks later. I discovered it when I slipped my wallet inside the neatly pressed pocket on my way out the door to work. I pulled it out, studied it. It was a bit gray in color but it was odorless and the fingernail polish was still a bright orange. I threw it into the cheap china dish on the small round table by my front door where I kept the neighbor from 4A’s spare keys. I forgot about it there, crooked edged and solitary, until I managed to get the rest of the finger.

She didn’t even notice the sound of her hair anymore, but I heard it. The clattering of lost change in it, bits of lint and dust balling at the ends.

I wasn’t expecting to run into her again, not since the way she split the last time I called out her name from across 42nd, standing outside a small doughnut shop, a bit of powdered sugar speckling my chin. Her hair was dragging on the floor then, sweeping the streets, grabbing up old newspapers and empty water bottles with its tentacle-like ends. She didn’t even notice the sound of her hair anymore, but I heard it. The clattering of lost change in it, bits of lint and dust balling at the ends. Her eyes were so white that I lifted my hand to block the light of them. That’s when I yelled out her name, dropping my doughnut and falling into a sprint to catch up to her, just to speak to her one more time.

But then there I was, just a few weeks later, at the DMV when I heard a familiar clattering, a clinkering, a jingling, and I knew it was her hair. This time, I didn’t call out her name. I didn’t even breathe. I stayed as invisible as possible until she slowly clambered past me, a bit of her hair sweeping across my face, locking itself into a trembling eye lash. That’s when I grabbed her hand. She recoiled, immediately recognizing the touch of my skin, but I held on to it fast. She didn’t say a word, just yanked her hand backwards, and that’s when the entire finger came right off. This time, we both noticed immediately. She stared at her finger, alive and pulsating in my hand and held her four fingered hand to her chest. I didn’t mean to, I started, but she turned, wounded and afraid, her hair running after her.

When I got home, I tried to glue the tip back to the finger, but they no longer fit together as one whole piece. They were two parts now, and I had to accept that. So I kept them together in the cheap china dish and checked on them each day before and after work to be sure they were both still there. Until once, in middle of the night, when I was tossing and turning, imagining her hair rolling me up into a blonde cocoon; I heard the finger tapping, but it was a blunted sound without the tip of the finger. It tapped out a tune on the edge of the china bowl, and I found myself waking hours later from a dreamless sleep. After that night, I moved the bowl to my night stand.

I hugged the end of that braid like a life saver and she felt me on her. She started to run through the streets, her braid trailing, dragging me against the pavement, over the potholes and the sewers.

A year went by before I saw her again, and this time her hair was in a braid: one very giant and lengthy braid. It was a whip of fine hair that slapped any innocent passerby in the face if she turned her head too excitedly to get a glimpse of a store front or quickly-moving advertisement on the side of a bus. When it hit me, the wind from my chest blew off the leaves of the tree next to us. It knocked me to the ground, and I saw stars in the sky, but I grabbed on fast. I hugged the end of that braid like a lifesaver and she felt me on her. She started to run through the streets, her braid trailing, dragging me against the pavement, over the potholes and the sewers. I felt myself bleeding, felt scrapes gaping and widening, but I climbed up that braid and grabbed on to her shoulder, resting my lips close to her ears. Please. I was losing breath and holding on too tightly. The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of an intersection, trucks screeching to a halt, engines burning, horns blaring, with the length of her arm from the socket of her shoulder to the tips of her four remaining fingers, tightly clasped against my chest.

The fingers on the arm twitched the whole walk home. At one point, I thought, they were trying to pick-pocket me, but then I realized that was someone else. I came home and used the third arm to slam the door shut. I tossed the arm on the couch and went to address the cuts and bruises in the bathroom. By the time I was done with the shower and ordered and devoured a whole pile of Thai food from up the block, I noticed that the fingers were no longer twitching, but had managed to ball themselves up into a fist. I took out the other finger and tried to glue it back on, but it stubbornly refused to curl like the other so now I had three parts of her: the tip of her index finger, the whole of her index finger and the entirety of her left arm. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted her.

My luck was running dry. Two years passed since I secured her left arm. Since then I have stored it beneath my kitchen sink, right behind the water pipe. Sometimes weeks go by and I forget it’s there and when I open the cabinet to pull out another sponge or some Windex, I jump back as it falls forward to shake my hand. But then I laugh, remembering it was only her arm and tuck it back behind the pipe and continue on with the dishes.

It was my thirty-third birthday when I saw her next. I almost didn’t recognize her with one arm less and her hair now gathered up and balancing on her head like a magnificent golden beehive. It was a karaoke bar and I was already four drinks in. The Led Zeppelin song I was singing with my friend was milky and sweet and drifting when I spotted her in the crowd, holding her glass of purple wine with her right hand. Two eyes peered out from the center of her hair and I noticed a baby bird had gotten itself trapped in her locks.

I stepped down from the stage, beer still in hand, and walked towards her. She must have forgotten me momentarily because she spread those licorice lips of hers, thin and ropey and red, and smiled. I’ve been waiting a long time for you, I smiled back, and blushed because I forgot what it felt like not to be chasing her. But then her smile dropped and her eyes sunk and she remembered. Please don’t go. She tried to run but the bar was thick with the breath of alcohol and sticky with the sweat of swaying bodies. I fell to my knees to beg. I grabbed hold of her leg, and she tried to shake me like a disease, and I clung, from so much practice, from so much want, I clung to her. She pulled at the bodies next to her, trying to swim her way out, but I wouldn’t let go. At first she moved slowly, stretching forward like taffy, but then she began to rush like water, and I was left with her silver boot and her entire right leg with it.

I didn’t know what to do with the leg. There was no way I could attach a right leg to a left arm. So I hung it up in the coat closet next to the ski jacket I never wear. For a few nights, the leg kicked at the door. The noise was louder than the tapping finger, so by the end of the week I had to remove the closet door completely and was forced to look at a gaping closet stuffed with winter wear, broken umbrellas, beach chairs and lopsided cardboard boxes filled with forgotten junk. I didn’t like the naked closet, but I disliked the kicking more. It didn’t take long to realize the leg was lonely, and so was I.

The day after I got engaged to a sweet girl who sat at the front desk at work, I saw her again, feeding the birds at Central Park. This time, I watched her a little while. Her hair was loose and in the breeze it would lift upwards and ripple like water. I had an intense urge to sit and brush it with nothing but a plastic comb. Instead I ran my hands through my own short hair and bit nervously at my fingernails. A gentleman passed her and the birds, commented on the weather, and she stood up to embrace him. That was enough to get me to move from my hiding place behind a tree. I ran to her and tackled her. My shoelaces got tangled with some of her hair and we rolled over the leaves making a pulpy mess of fall. This time I didn’t say anything. I wanted to hear her speak. It was time for an explanation.

I grabbed at her mouth, and with barely a scratch of my nail, her lips came off. If she wouldn’t speak, I’d have her listen. I clawed at her ears, and they slipped off like clip-on earrings. No, I yelled. We rocked and rolled and tumbled, and the earth was melting beneath us. The dirt turning sodden and runny, like a child’s nose, and her right arm draped across me. I wasn’t sure if she was embracing me or choking me, but with one swipe of my hand the arm rolled off into the distance, the birds fluttering towards the palm, hoping for more food. Now I didn’t know what to grab at, she was coming undone. Her leg was kicking at me and I remembered those kicks, remembered the sound against my coat closet door those nights, and I was driven mad by the memory of that lonely sound, and I grabbed at the leg to reunite it with the other. By the time we were through, there was nothing left whole except those long weeds of hair.

Talya Jankovits, a Los Angeles native, holds her MFA from Antioch University. She has been published in The Citron Review, Recovering the Self, 52/250 and other literary magzines. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters, where she balances motherhood, a full-time job and writing. Currently she is seeking representation for her novel.

Art History

When Grandmother Gasse passed, Art got access to the trust account. The very next morning, he quit the radio station by calling his boss and suggesting he shove it. Dropping the phone, he tossed his head back, flung his arms high, and howled. The boy would devote himself to painting, hereafter, as he had dreamt of doing since a teenager. With his first draw on the account Art bought easels, brushes, palette boards, knives, a rainbow selection of mid-quality oils, two gallons of turpentine, a bolt of linen and a bucket of gesso. He tried his first painting in the living area of his apartment and ruined the coral shag carpet in under an hour. Besides, the light was wrong; the apartment was nothing like a garret; and his upstairs neighbor Gary, who worked the graveyard, whined about Art’s music blasting through midday. That busted it: Art needed a studio.

Art Gets a Studio

No one could see him here. No one would hear his music. The place was flooded with flickering green light, perfect for painting. And he could get it for a song.

Three buildings, deeply derelict, on half an acre of waist-high grass, inhabited by several species of urban wildlife, against a backdrop of towering firs, implacably black and busy with bird cry. “For Sale.” Art was smitten. He swerved the truck into the potholed dirt parking area, staggered out into the brush and sat, hidden from the street, in the shade of an overgrown black pine. No one could see him here. No one would hear his music. The place was flooded with flickering green light, perfect for painting. And he could get it for a song.

The house in back was charred by a latter-day fire and was sinking in a sea of blackberry; raccoons had made a palace of the pink shack on the property line, but up front, there was promise. The green-shingled garage, still sound, had operated variously in the service of auto repair, rock and roll, marijuana cultivation and, more lately, the manufacture of meth. Art hauled away three truckloads of accumulated dreck, repaired the roof, ran off a family of pit bull squatters, and moved in his easels.

So he painted, in feckless bliss. And he got fairly good, or, at any rate, better. His style would have to be characterized as dark: heavy impasto brushwork of olive nudes emerging out of a circumambient miasma of burnt sienna; distorted grey-green bottles on a brown table against a black wall. But Art felt a kind of bliss, deep down, notwithstanding. He was free of wage slavery, free of supervisors, transcendent even of the judgment to which he would otherwise have been subject by Grandma Gasse, as she was dead and safely buried in Connecticut.

He was a painter, by God. The painter rose each morning from his greasy sheets, never later than 11:00 am, took a shower under advisement, stopped at Kroger’s for a 1.5 liter bargain Chardonnay, and beat it to the beloved studio. At the door, possibly seven feral cats greeted him with hungry petulance; he called each its name and fed them with dry food and a dollop of wet Friskies. He pulled the filthy curtains from the limed windows, poured himself a beaker of wine, lit his first cigarette; cranked up flamenco on the obsolete stereo, grabbed a brush, and got to work. And, for the first time in forty-four years of onerous living, he felt upon his ass the whispery kiss of promise and spiritual fulfillment. Art, the artist.

But, as we know, into each Paradise there is likely to slither a viper.

Enter Lou

Art’s neighbor across the broken-down fence in the southeast corner, in a jerry-built pre-fab in a patch of vegetation only slightly better groomed, lived Lou. An ex-Marine, Lou had issues: with authority, with his mother, with cats.

Each winter, he shipped out into the Alaska fishery to catch king crab, king salmon and ling cod, risking his neck on the slippery deck to make his annual bankroll. He spent the rest of the year on his porch, sucking Jack Daniels out a mug of ice cubes and shooting cats in the grass with his pellet gun.

“Hey, hippy, I got a bone to pick with you.”

“Yeah, Lou, so what’s new?”

“I’ll tell you what’s new: Your fuckin’ cats are killin’ the birds at my feeder. What do you think you’re doing, spawning all these wild cats; they’re killin’ everything that moves around here.”

“No, Lou, that’s why I feed them. They aren’t hungry; I’m sure they aren’t killing the birds…”

“I’ll tell you what, you bleeding heart queer hippy motherfucker, you lay off the wild cats or I’ll shoot all of them! And then I’m comin’ for you!” Lou rose unsteadily from his vinyl chair, raising both thick arms in threat, and lurched off the porch.

Retreating, Art protested: “I’m not a violent asshole like you, Lou, but you better not hurt my cats…I’ll get the law on your ass, as much as I hate to involve the Gestapo, you fucking Nazi!”

Lou Gets a Woman

There were other encounters, but Lou seemed to mellow. Truth is the honest fisherman determined that he wanted a woman. At the age of fifty, the indelicacy of prostitutes had begun to weigh upon his virility. He wanted a real woman. With the help of a library computer and several thousand dollars, he sent for and received a lovely Ukrainian girl. And she was more than he could have prayed for: blond and zaftig, like a porcelain vase, thirty-three years old, short but strong as a heifer, stink with sex drive, and gifted in the braising of organ meats. She had simply gotten asphyxiated by Christian Socialist servitude. She wanted opportunity, fun, money, pretty clothes, a car…America. She got Lou.

…she was more than he could have prayed for: blond and zaftig, like a porcelain vase, thirty-three years old, short but strong as a heifer, stink with sex drive, and gifted in the braising of organ meats.

And, into the bargain, Lou got a son. In his frenzy over the arrival of Oksana, he had more or less forgotten that, in the immigration contract, she had quite explicitly required that her benefactor accept her fourteen-year-old son into his home, as well. And this was Fedir.

Fedir’s father had been an intellectual, in a sense only Europe understands. He had talked about the failure of socialism and the senescence of art, smoked black market cigarettes, impregnated luscious Oksana, and promptly died of cancer.

“Mama, was my father an educated man?”

“Yes, my Fedchuk, he was educated in idleness and the seduction of innocent farm girls. His education left me with a pretty baby and a bag on the street.”

The early going with Lou was not pretty. It was a honeymoon, nonetheless. At the airport, Lou’s unrelenting leering attention to Oksana embarrassed the entire facility, while Fedir was baggage. At their new home, frozen pizza got microwaved and served, standing; Fedir was shown his room; and the adults, dizzy for different reasons, staggered upstairs to Lou’s perfumed lair.

America

Within two weeks, unlicensed, Oksana was driving Lou’s ’98 Camaro. His brief tutelage had featured inarticulate pointing, panicky shouting, long sullen silences punctuated with slaps to her head or thighs, when he wasn’t grabbing the wheel to avert one kind of death to veer toward another. Like all immigrants, the Slavic girl was absolutely innocent of the American genetic mapping of car and driver instincts. But she was determined to pilot a car in the New World; let the more skilled natives take to the road at their own risk. In September, Mama drove Fedir to Eastside High School, dropped him off with a wet kiss and persistent misgivings about scholarly pursuits, and disappeared down 122nd Avenue to find another Ross’s Dress for Less.

Fedir got accustomed with English learned from TV, and was dispatched to home room with the other new arrivals under the guidance of Mr. Repin, the Russian Antichrist. Early on, it became clear that Fedir would do well in school, despite his language deficit: teachers liked his European manners and sensed his intelligence; he made instant friends of several Slavic immigrants like himself; and the cafeteria food suited him just fine, particularly the meatloaf.

Back in his new home, Fedir was witnessing altogether too much marital bliss. Between bouts of screaming and virtual fistfights, the newlyweds were upstairs banging away at several sessions of quotidian intimacy. For Lou it was a god-sent sexual renaissance in mid-life, with an honest-to-goodness centerfold straight out of the Kiev Playboy; for Oksana, it was a healthy outlet undeterred by her repugnant respondent, while all around her the new world percolated with near-future possibilities. For Fedir, it was torture. Jesus, he even had to smell their smells when they came downstairs to prepare and consume dinner in their dumb animal contentment between intercourse and the next imbroglio.

Fedir gets to know Art

One rainy summer Saturday, Fedir simply had to escape the house of horny people. Out on the porch, he heard familiar music pulsing out of the shack across the overgrown adjacent lot. He felt strangely compelled to investigate, stepped over the collapsed fence and stalked cautiously toward the percussive guitar and plaintive singing. Art startled up from his canvas when Fedir appeared in silhouette at the open door.

“Uh, yeah…Can I help you?”

“Oh, uh…sorry, Mister. I live at the next door. I am called Fedir.”

“OK. So what can I do for you?”

“No, you are not to do for me. Sorry, I am going.”

“No, wait, kid. Come on in. Do you live with those crazy people across the way? Pull up a chair.”

There, in Art’s studio, Fedir found refuge. With elaborate juvenile courtesy, he audited Art’s lectures on aesthetics, the profligate habits of the Surrealists, the evils of capitalism and its instrumental military-industrial hegemony. He was equally careful of Art’s long, sullen silences. He began to do his homework at a spare table most afternoons, as Art labored on his dark canvases. He texted friends on his newly acquired cell phone till late in the evening, as the gypsies of Art’s flamenco CD collection wailed away. He helped Art feed the cats, who adopted the boy instantly, slept in his lap or across his shoulder as he consummated the elegance of an algebraic equation or spun out English rhetoric with accelerating facility across the pages of his spiral notebook. At times, he would gaze across the studio in wonder at his pony-tailed, fortyish friend, a cigarette dangling from his lips, singing in corrupted Spanish as he slathered paint on his latest caliginous masterpiece.

So much had happened in such a short time in this new place, after the eternal tedium of Dnepropetrovsk. This was not the America he had imagined; it was fascinating and repellent at the same time; dynamic, electric with possibility, but always seeming to teeter at the edge of some unpredictable disaster. His high school colleagues were black, Asian, Hispanic, East Indian and European of every stripe: the boys were capable of capricious violence, they drove fast cars and experimented with drugs; the girls were bold, tough-minded, their beauty was exotic, wildly diverse—so unlike the insipid similitude of Ukrainian beauty, though he had no argument with the girls of his race. Fedir still felt vulnerable, but America was beginning to grow on him.

Lou threatens to strike Fedir, and nearly dies in the attempt

One sweltering afternoon at the tail end of summer, Lou stormed into the kitchen, where Fedir sat at the little breakfast table as Mama sang an old song over dinner preparations.

“What was my pellet gun doing in your room, boy? I’ve been looking for this goddam gun for weeks. What the hell you think you’re doin’, taking my personal shit and hiding it?”

“I was not hiding it, Mr. Lou…I wanted to shoot it.”

“Don’t you lie to me, you little fucker! You were hiding it so I couldn’t shoot those feral cats you and your queer hippy boyfriend are rounding up over there in that godforsaken shack! I’m gonna’ wrap this thing around your head, you little scheming liar!”

Before Lou could raise the gun fully overhead, Oksana flew at him from across the kitchen, berserk, got way up in his face with an eight-inch kitchen knife, pointing it sideways inches from his left eye. Her little red fist clamped his t-shirt and a harvest of chest hair in a death grip at his throat. His right hand braced against her shoulder, his left clutching her blouse beneath the upraised death-dealing arm, he held his breath and froze. He knew that in her rage she was capable of skewering his brain. Oksana hooted hoarse Slavic imprecations, her eyes round with hate as she jabbed the knife tip nearer, drawing blood at his temple. Her tirade dropped into a slightly lower arc as she saw a kind of animal admiration rising in his little pig eyes. She flipped the knife, slapped him hard with the flat of the blade above the eye, once, twice, and once more twice as hard with a final oath that he would die if it ever happened again.

Feeling safe enough to draw breath, Lou protested, “Alright, OK, you crazy bitch. I won’t touch the little bastard.”

Oksana released her grip, flung the knife onto the floor, and turned to the stove to do further violence upon her stew, still muttering in the Old Language.

Fedir stared at the erstwhile combatants from the hall doorway, stupefied by their monumental strength and commitment to impulse, the raw carnality of their engagement. His mother was magnificent, and absolutely alien. How could he be her son? Even Lou was inert for a while, still leaning against the cabinets across the kitchen, sweat and blood down his hairy thick neck, gazing at his wife’s furious backside. After a while, he stepped cautiously to the fridge, pulled out a cold beer, and, as he tossed the bottle cap at the trash and crossed the room to leave, clapped Oksana on her bountiful ass with his cupped right hand. She shook her head, continued muttering. Lou strutted across the living room to his recliner and the Blazers on TV, psychosis pretty much intact, horny and even boyishly hopeful about his prospects for later that evening.

Fedir wobbled out the back and down the stairs; the screen door slammed with a final violent punctuation.

Fedir tries his hand at painting

Leaning at the open door of the studio, the kid was clearly shaken, sobbing quietly. Art rose from his easel at the back of the room. “Hey, Fed, what sorry shit has happened over there, now?” He dragged an old back-up easel from the corner, stood it near the table strewn with paint tubes, and shooed a cat off a stool to pull it up to the makeshift painting station.

“Grab one of those smaller boards with that wretched still life and bring it over here. I want to see what you can do with oil paint.”

Fedir hesitated, heaved an emptying sigh, crossed queasy to the easel.

Art turned back to his corner of the studio, then stopped abruptly: “Oh, wait. What are you gonna’ paint?”

“I don’t know…what is there?”

“OK, we got black and white in these big tubes, every color ever imagined in these little ones… go easy, they’re expensive. No, I’m kidding…use lots of paint, throw paint on the board. Work with the big brushes. Fuck those little pointy ones. Work fast. Don’t be thinking. Use your eyes and your gut and your hands…leave your brain in the classroom. Now, get to work.”

Art turned back to his corner of the studio, then stopped abruptly: “Oh, wait. What are you gonna’ paint?”

“I don’t know…what is there?”

Art checked up, his bushy eyebrows arched high in amazement, then busted his best laugh, wrapping his arms around his broad shoulders, almost choking with existential glee, partly in honest amusement …“What is there?”…but also in full catharsis, fairly convulsed with laughter, emptying his soul of anguish and anger and abiding sadness. Fedir observed, shell-shocked.

Yet another psychotic adult…

“What IS there? What is there NOT? Oh, my friend, that question has stumped even the great ones, despite the argument otherwise of this teeming world. Tell you what: When a subject is hard to come by, you know what we all do?”

Fedir shrugged.

“Self-portrait, baby! Sadly, there is always You. Grab that mirror by the sink and go for it!” Still laughing, his heart lighter by tons, tears all down his bearded cheeks.

They worked in silence on their projects for nearly two hours, with the gypsies keening remorselessly through the big cheap speakers, alternated with Sam Cooke and Tom Waits and Baroque Italian theorbos. Art was strangely happy. He drank a great deal more white wine than usual, and that was a great deal, indeed. He glanced occasionally at Fedir; the kid was working assiduously. It was clearly a therapeutic exercise. Art was happy that he had been able to help the boy, at least momentarily. He was happy that the studio was a refuge for the child now as it had been for him for several years. Yes, while life was generally a bitter stew of disappointment, betrayal and failed revolution, it had its moments, after all.

Outside, the heat rose from the rotting pavement into the dusty pines. The cats retreated to the shadows, catatonic; the birds had long been silent, as the air dropped motionless among the weeds. Art stumbled to the short couch, draped with oddments of towels and torn linen, and fell into a sweaty sleep like death, troubled with dreams of childhood at the lake with his sister.

Fedir set aside his brush; shook his head. His mind gradually clambered up and out of the frenzied business of painting: brushing, wiping, scraping, arching back to see and understand, leaning in again to paint. He was tired of the subject, tired of the medium, its spastic gestures, tired of the ancillary vision. The act had become obsessive, distasteful. He was reminded of his Mama and the dirty base man across the lot. He turned to regard Art, snoring enormous on the little filthy couch in the punishing heat beneath the sliding glass doors that constituted the greater part of the east side of the studio. Trickles of sweat decorated Art; he twitched grotesquely.

“Adults are gross,” he could not help thinking.

Fedir rose, walked to the end of the studio, and pulled the stained curtain across the glass doors to shade his master.

Hours later, Art awoke with a painful snort. Fedir was gone. The artist stood over his protégé’s little paint-saturated board in astonished silence for the longest time.

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

The kid was good. He had a natural gift, no doubt about it.

So they painted, between homework and cat chores and gypsy caterwauling, all through that fall, as the light declined with the temperatures, and the rain came long and steady, and Fedir’s artistic attention turned from an early fascination with light-filled landscape to dim still-life and imaginary female figure studies, stylized and generally innocent of anatomically explicit details, while Art’s repertoire remained relentlessly dark.

Lou goes fishing

Meanwhile, Lou prepared to fly north to his brief annual interlude in the Alaska fishery. The king crab season could hardly be called that; it was really just a matter of days of mad scrambling in the mountainous Aleutian seas to harvest several tons of the brute crustaceans, the big muscular boats awash with surf and hail raking sideways and gales that could lift a man off the deck, line bights that could snap him in half, and prostitutes ashore that could really do some damage. If you survived the crabbing, and found a place in Kenai to stash your profits, you were off to the king salmon season in Yakutat Bay, where the catches were equally munificent over long dark hours of gut-wrenching labor and punishing weather that descended precipitously into Arctic winter. Then, if all had gone reasonably well, you were back on the plane, pockets stuffed with cash as more than adequate compensation for a few months of misery and mortal peril.

As Lou threw his duffel bag into the trunk of the Camaro, he took a long hard look across the fence into the neighboring lot. Not sure what to think of what he was thinking. He drew a deep breath, farted robustly, turned to the door and bellowed for his bride. Oksana bounced out and down the step to the car. She kissed Lou square on the mouth and slapped him soundly on his demined butt, customary preliminaries to lifting her own white butt with a waggle and a moan; but this time, instead, she slid behind the wheel, fired up the 350, and hit reverse. Down I-5 to the airport, Lou drew a 9mm semi-automatic from the glove box, cradled half naked in its blue velour bag, and instructed her in its use with intruders.

“And, by the way, you sexy little Russky, if some asshole manages to get the jump on you, just go ahead and use this tool on yourself, afterwards. You understand me?”

Oksana comes knocking

Before Lou’s plane touched down on the runway in Anchorage, Oksana made a guest appearance at the door of Art’s studio. Precisely why she was wearing a raggedy little bathrobe over nothing but 130 pounds of alabaster pulchritude will never be known – ostensibly, she was seeking the whereabouts of her son, when she knew damn well he was starting his school day several miles across town. At any rate, the robe promptly got lost in the shuffle, as Art and Oksana got to know each other in a profoundly Biblical sense.

October marked the beginning of the artist’s Slavic Period. His palette was never so exuberant, just verging on joy. In the ensuing weeks, Art produced dozens of extravagant full nudes, busts, focused figure studies, and portraits. They all featured the same blowsy blond, arching across a scatter of pillows with a suggestion of silken hair beneath upraised arms, serenely aware of her feminine power and smirking in nicotine light. Despite their frequent breaks from posing and painting, for yet more fornication, Art was never so prolific.

The exercise, perhaps, was salubrious. He even had less time for cigarettes and wine.

One day the rain hammered so relentlessly on the corrugated steel roof that the lovers hunkered for hours, lights out, by the little electric heater under quilts and towels and lengths of linen. Art’s little man could not be roused, and Oksana, approaching her period, might have confessed, if pressed, her gratitude. They drowsed in each other’s arms; the music droned low, until the CDs finished their cycle and the only sound was the rain. At some vague hour in the afternoon, one of the cats cried to be let out, and Oksana rose to oblige him. She flung open the door, watched the cat flash along the floor and out, and then raised her eyes, to Fedir.

He had come because he was hungry; he was always hungry. And he knew where she would be, and he would be certain to knock, discreetly, and loud. And his knuckles were still raised to do just that. But suddenly, there, before him, in all her glory, was his Mama.

Workers’ Compensation

Lou limped from the cab, in a mood that was foul even by his standards. Beneath his overalls, his destroyed left knee was tightly wrapped to keep it rigid. Midway through the Chinook season on Yakutat Bay, our boy had slipped on some salmon guts and executed the splits that Olga Korbut might have envied. The orthopedic doc in Juneau said he suspected a ruptured ACL, whatever that was, and serious damage to the collateral ligaments. He wrapped the knee, told Lou to take the next flight home, and to ask the stewardess for ice –not for Scotch, but for his knee. He should arrange for surgical repair as soon as the swelling was more or less under control. Meanwhile, he signed off on a workers’ compensation claim that would pay Lou a small portion of his expected seasonal earnings, and cover the costs of surgery and rehab. On the flight home, Lou ruminated on his bad fortune. The crab catch had been a disappointment, too, so the cheated fisherman figured he was out over $50,000 for the season.

Lou needed a drink, bad. But nobody answered when he pounded on the door. He had not called ahead—why should he have to call ahead? How much shopping did that little broad need, anyway; she looked best without clothes. Well, all that was going to end right now. There was going to be a tight budget around here, the rest of this sorry-ass year. Furious, he shuffled to the bottom of the duffel bag, finally dug up his cell phone, pressed the only speed dial he had ever messed with and distinctly heard Oksana’s quirky ringtone –on the other side of the door! The little bitch had left without her phone. Where was she?

Lou knew there was wine over there. He could probably tap into that with the sad story of his destroyed knee and the fishing debacle. That would hold him till the good stuff wandered back home.

Across the lot, Art’s eternal music was yowling away. Maybe the hippie had seen her leave, and when. At any rate, Lou knew there was wine over there. He could probably tap into that with the sad story of his destroyed knee and the fishing debacle. That would hold him till the good stuff wandered back home. As he approached the studio, it began to dawn upon him that the music was not Art’s usual plaintive racket. In fact, it was somehow familiar, a woman’s low seductive voice accompanied by some kind of stringed instrument. He reached the door, stopped, and tilted his head to make out more clearly the tender crooning:

“Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка

Прилетіла ластівочка

Стала собі щебетати

Господаря…“

With a bellow of wrath, the doubly injured fisherman blasted open the door to reveal his bride in the arms of the artist. All across his peripheral vision, Lou witnessed the walls plastered with tributes to her beauty, surrounding the central image of her actual nakedness. Her innocent concupiscent form had once again betrayed her, and this time things were going to get truly ugly.

Lou pulled her by her dangled ankle from the mattress on the floor. She jumped up to implore him for mercy, or to fight, we will never know. He clubbed her to the slab with a massive right cross over her ear. Oksana was down for the count. He turned his attention to his rival.

“You’re gonna die, now, hippie. Then, I’m gonna take care of your whore.”

“No, listen, Lou…she doesn’t like you. Let’s discuss this like grownups.”

Lou swung with all his hefty might. Art took several howitzer shots to the head without raising his hands. He was no fighter. Still, his genes instructed his big vulnerable body to advance under assault. Lou retreated before Art’s greater stumbling mass—still firing hay-makers from the hip that bounced off Art’s bony head, his thick shoulders and chest—as they backed out the door and into the weeds. Finally, weeping frantically in pain and humiliation, Art reached out, grabbed Lou by his shoulders, and twisted his smaller assailant with relative ease into the rain-drenched grass. As Lou went down, his deconstructed knee went sideways, and he howled in agony.

“Stop, now, stop, you crazy asshole…stop, Lou! Let’s talk this out!”

But Lou had somehow laid his calloused hand on a broken steel fence post, wrested from its tangle of grass and blackberry. Eyes clouded with pain and fury, he rotated his shoulders to raise high his rusty weapon, set himself, and charged. From out of nowhere a pint-sized Brunhilde, buck naked, descended across his broad back, and with tits flopping and both chubby hands braced, blew “Bang, bang, bang” three rounds of 9mm copper-point projectiles through his skull and spine. Just as instructed.

Epilogue

The police and district attorney found it was self-defense. Oksana took a fancy to the real estate agent who helped her to dispose of Lou’s house and furniture and the old Camaro. She and Fedir moved into his spacious McMansion across town, and Fedir had to change schools. The cats recovered their composure and Art returned to his…well, art.

One fine Saturday morning in early spring, as the sun chased among the clouds and the blackbirds cheeped in the fir trees, Art filled the cats’ outdoor bowls with food and fresh water. Gypsy voices lamented through the open door of the little green studio. A fresh uncorked bottle of Pinot Grigio breathed on the counter. Art straightened up in time to watch a kid on a brand new bike pedaling tentatively toward him from across the road.

“Fed Ex! How the hell have you been?”

“Good, Art, good. Things are going well. Mama is going to have a new baby.”

“Whoa, that dude works fast! So, have you been painting?”

“No, no painting.”

“Well, what do you say, do you want to paint?”

“Uh, sure, yes, I would like that.”

“Well, get off that goddam bike and get in here, Picasso. We got work to do!”

Placement, or The Sound of Caves

The drumbeat of his brain, a cave dweller sonata; birch branches pounded on scorched log; the curvature of myelin sheaths, the upper elevations of intelligence, the emergence of the bipedal stranger in the dark night gazing at the moon like the flat face of the clock that reads 4:07.That has read 4:07 for the past two hours. Here in the office where he’s been told to wait. To wait for Mr. Sheldon, who never comes. Who may not exist. Who may be a ploy to subvert him. No place to go. No place at all. And he waits on the slimmest of hope. The possibilities wire thin, like the silver lines routing from his ears into some secret location in his pants where he keeps his iPod.

He slouches. In loose clothing looking like a large Hefty someone’s tossed onto a chair and forgotten. He taps his fingers. Eyes are always scanning movement, wary of danger, sharp for survival. If only he could tell the difference.

He twirls the metal stem of a paperclip in his mouth. Eyes focus in on the doorway. Ms. Ginger’s voice comes around the corner. He groans to attract her attention. She stops at the opening. Files piled on an arm. Car keys bunched in hand. “J.?” She looks surprised. “Doing all right?”

He removes the metal from his mouth and works it back into his ear. “When is my court date?”

“Who’s your worker?”

“Mr. Sheldon.”

“You have to ask him.”

“He said you could tell me when my court date was.”

“I’m not your worker any more. You have to ask him.”

“He took off.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

“Why do I have to be here? I’m bored.”

She motions, come, come with me. He offers to take files, but she declines. She angles around the corner with J. straggling along. A large marker board on the wall is divided into sections. The names of the workers in the foster care unit are written in green, the gridlines dividing the names are red, and the magnetic dots beneath IN and OUT are black.

“Where’s Mr. Sheldon’s name?” J. asks.

Ms. Ginger stares at the board. Dentist occupies her destination column. She erases the word and checks her box IN. “I’m not sure,” she says. “He must not’ve put his name up yet. It should be there.”

Others who are IN are really OUT and vice versa. J. smiles when seeing Ms. Upton’s name. Her dot is between IN and OUT. He feels hopeful when he sees the dot is more IN than OUT. She could help him find Mr. Sheldon. Or maybe a place herself.

Ms. Ginger asks the receptionist if she knows where Mr. Sheldon has gone. She says he had court in the morning and then errands to run and then home visits afterward.

“Did he say when he’ll be back?”

She sneaks a look at the open magazine flat on her desk and shakes her head. “He didn’t say.” Ms. Ginger looms over. The receptionist lifts her eyes. “Do you want me to page him?”

J. stares at the marker board. He rubs out the k from Martha Penesk.

“If you don’t mind.”

While the receptionist is brightly mumbling, “Not at all,” Ms. Ginger turns to J. and motions, calm down. “You’ll have to wait here till Mr. Sheldon comes back.”

“Can’t I come with you?”

“Got things to do. You’ll have to wait.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Mr. Sheldon’ll get lunch when we find him. Go back to the office and wait.”

“But what if you can’t find him?”

“Go back and wait.”

“Did he tell you what happened at the foster home? Do you know why I can’t go back? Mr. Wert was cool. Think I can go back? What do you think? About going to Mr. Wert?”

“I have to go. Wait for Mr. Sheldon. He’ll deal with it.”

“What about lunch?”

J. stretches out on a chair in the empty office. Feet propped on boxes that fill the room. Some boxes hold diapers foster care workers take to families. Some contain child restraint seats. Toys overflow others.

J. stretches out on a chair in the empty office. Feet propped on boxes that fill the room. Some boxes hold diapers foster care workers take to families. Some contain child restraint seats. Toys overflow others.

“Why aren’t you in school, buster?”

J. removes the ear-buds and twists onto his hip and stares up the double chin of Ms. Sandy. “Have you come to get me?”

Children roost on her hips. Elephantine legs lunge from green shorts. “Where’d you get a fool idea like that?”

J. spins around. Feet drop on the floor. “They won’t let me stay anywhere, unless you take me, you could tell them.”

One of the children raises a runner of hair and peers into a globular ear. She sputters like a blown tire. “Oh, don’t give me that.”

“Go ask if you don’t believe me.” He boxes himself forward, dangling wires around his neck. “You could do it.”

“Give me a hug.” Her voice booms. The children fall from her hips like paratroopers. She sweeps forward and smothers him. He falls on her, face moonwalking on her breasts.

“Who’s your worker?” she says. “Mr. Franks?”

She wedges a hand, creates space.

“No. Mr. Franks was last year. Then Ms. Burns and then Ms. Upton, and then I think

Ms. Hollis after that and then Ms. Ginger and—Mr. Sheldon’s my worker now. Have you seen him? He was supposed to find a placement for me. I want some lunch, too. You got anything to eat?”

The children hide behind her legs. Pink hands are over knee knots. “I wish I could take you in, honey,” she says. “I’m full now. Anyway I thought you were with—what’s that man’s name?”

“Mr. Wert.”

“What’re you doing here?”

“I want to go back and live with him. But they won’t let me. Will you tell them for me, talk to someone?”

“What happened?”

“I ran away.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“I wanted a cigarette.”

“Honey, you have to do better.” She scoops up the children and backs like a truck into the hallway.

“Hey, don’t go. Will you look at something? I drew some stuff.”

“I’ll look next time.”

“Tell them I’m hungry, OK? Come back and see me when you’re done?”

“Sure, honey. I’ll see you soon.”

The child on the left strokes Ms. Sandy’s face as if it’s a balloon. She wheels around and disappears.

J. wanders into a counselor’s windowless office; navigates a passage between the sled-based guest chairs; beneath bleary slim-line lamps. He plays with small cartoon characters standing on a shelf filled with glossy textbooks. Lavender and baby powder float in the air. He spies on the desk a picture of Ms. Upton. Three beaming children surround her on a jungle gym. He eases open a cabinet and thumbs through files. He goofballs at himself in the wall mirror.

“What’re you doing in here?” Ms. Upton drops heavy files on the desk.

“Looking in the mirror.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here.”

“Your mirror’s dirty. All covered with dust.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “No one looks in it. Where should you be?”

“Water and paper towels clean pretty good. Want me to get some?”

Ms. Upton closes the file drawer. “What were you doing in my files?”

“Looking for mine.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here looking for anything.”

J. smiles and sinks into a guest chair. “Remember when we went to Disney together?” His hands slide up and down the molded oak frame. “A long time ago? Remember? And we had a good time?”

She crosses her arms, stares down at him. “I don’t know who you are.”

She scans the room, appears to itemize office details. She crosses behind the desk and rearranges the cartoon characters.

“You were my caseworker for over a year,” he says. “Com’on. You know who I am.”

She shakes her head. “I’m certain I don’t. I have hundreds of cases every year. I don’t remember anything unless the case file is open on my desk and I’m looking right at it. And even then I’m distracted by other things I need to do. You need to leave this office. Now.”

The receptionist brings pizza on a paper plate. Three slices curl like lava over the sides. She hands the plate to J. and sets a soda on the desk. She asks if it’s enough.

“I’m good,” he says and eats quickly.

She’s barely gone when he runs to the doorway. “Can I get another soda?”

“In a bit.” She’s shrinking toward an exit sign.

“Mr. Sheldon call?”

She shakes her head without looking back.

He steps into the hall and then around the corner. Posters stapled every few feet down the corridor. He pokes the large eyes of the child on one that reads, “I’M NOT A BURDEN. I’M A CHILD.”

J. opens his eyes. 4:07. He rubs the cuticle he took too much skin from earlier. He removes ear-buds and puts them in his pocket and stands. Turning one way and then the other like a goldfish in a bowl, he floats across the confines of the office. He steps into the hall and then around the corner. Posters stapled every few feet down the corridor. He pokes the large eyes of the child on one that reads, “I’M NOT A BURDEN. I’M A CHILD.” Workers glance as he passes their doorways. A gray-haired woman facing a computer screen.

“Ms. Tern?”

The woman spins in her chair. “J.,” she says and smiles. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m waiting for Mr. Sheldon. I can’t find him. He’s supposed to find me a placement.”

“Did you ask the receptionist?”

“She says she called him but that was hours ago. Can I sit here a minute?”

She wears a black sweater that makes her look small and deformed. A faint citrus odor wafts from her skin. “Of course. What happened with the Werts?”

J. arranges pens on her desk, sorts them by color and then by length. “They wouldn’t let me go with my sister.”

“You ran away, didn’t you?”

“Who told you that?”

Ms. Tern clasps her hands. “I know everything about you, J.”

J. laughs. “Like a guardian angel.”

“Like an adoptions worker,” she says and taps an index finger on the desk, an indication for him to put the paper he’s just lifted back down. Then she says, “You have to help yourself, J. Remember the Bobbles?”

“My forever family in Naples.”

“That’s right. You were there six months before you blew placement.”

Randy Bobbles was an engineer for a company that contracted with the military. His wife stayed at home and cared for their three-year-old daughter. They had a Manx. They lived in a gated community.

“I didn’t kill the cat,” J. says

“J.,” she says, narrowing an eyebrow, a tone like pulling teeth.

“I get blamed for everything, Ms. Tern,” he says. “That’s why no one wants me.”

“And what happened to the Flextowers’ dog? Nothing to do with that?”

J. shakes his head, shoulder to shoulder. “I can’t remember. He was hit by a car or something.”

Ms. Tern eases back into her chair. The AC grumbles and blows dusty streams of air over their faces. “The dog’s head was crushed. You know something about it.”

His lip curves a little. Then his face assumes a pale mannequin expression. “I can’t remember.”

Ms. Tern folds her arms. “The Flextowers really wanted you, J. They were crushed. You didn’t give them a chance.”

“They had too many rules,” he says. He removes the paperclip from his ear. “And their dog was mean.”

“J., it’s no canyon jump.” Her lips are like orange slices in a baking sun. “No one’s trying to hurt you anymore. Stop fighting.”

J. reinserts the paperclip. His head toddles and a grin forms. “I won’t do that when I find Mr. Sheldon. You’ll see.”

“He may not show up.”

J. sticks his hand up. Air from the vent blows cold over his skin. “Mr. Wert would let me come back. He trusts me.”

How’d he get here? J. lived with the Werts for nearly eight months, the longest placement he’d kept since entering foster care. Ms. Ginger was his worker but she was replaced halfway through by Mr. Sheldon who never came to visit. Very few visited the rural location. The Werts lived in a trailer slowly being converted into a house. Walls were cut, rooms added to accommodate more boys. Four others lived there with J. Half the roof was topped with shingles, the rest with tin. The side of the hill caused the floors to slant. A portion of their land was swamp, feeding a large lake, around which stood several homes.

He lived fine there. Fishing from the shore; exploring the swamp; shooting bottle rockets over the lake; taking an ax to a tree just to watch it come apart; hauling wood for bonfires. He fought with the other boys, but Mr. Wert set things to right, holding them to the wall and threatening to beat the shit out of them if they ever went at it again.

One day J. received a call from his sister in Idaho. The last time they lived together was with their mother and step-father in a trailer with a large hole in the bathroom floor.

“It is so good to hear from you,” she said for the third time.

“You should come here and get me,” he said. “There’s a lake and everything. You could live here.”

“I wish I could see you.”

“They won’t mind. There’s an empty room.”

“Maybe you can come here, you know, when you turn eighteen.”

“Maybe now, maybe you could send a ticket.”

“We have snow.”

“I can get them to pay for it. When can you come?”

“It’s almost time for me to go to work. I love you, J. Call me again, OK?”

“But I can come there, right?”

“Of course,” she said. “Sure. Let’s talk about it next time, OK? Got to go.”

His “love you” died against the device. He folded the phone. He found Mr. Wert in the kitchen. “My sister says she wants me to visit.”

Mr. Wert popped the microwave oven door. “That’s great. Tell the boys to get in the truck.”

“I’ll be staying in Idaho.”

He set the plate on the counter. “Right now we’re going to the market. Get ready.”

“Where’s Idaho?”

Mr. Wert closed his lips over an apple pastry, consuming it in three chomps.

J. leaned against the jamb. “Near Arkansas?”

Bustling up, Mr. Wert bellowed. “Ya’ll come on. We’re going for some fish.”

Five boys piled into the truck bed.

Coming back from the market, Mr. Wert saw Mr. Simmel closing the hardware store for the night and swerved the truck filled with boys and fish into the sandy parking lot and jumped out. “You said one twenty five.”

“That machine’s worth two twenty five and that’s what I told the wife.”

“That ain’t what she said. Now I give the money and I want the machine.”

“Until I see two twenty five it stays in the store.”

During the scuffle J. lifted fifty dollars from an envelope in the cab of the truck and ran for the bus station. Past yellow painted curbs, up concrete steps protected by slick red guardrails, and over the crosswalk to the park. He watched under cover of fat hornbeams. Someone whistled, and cowboys hollered across the street. His hand covered wet knees, panting out full dreams. Idaho near Arkansas dreams mashing his skull. Not long at all now. Dizzy elation down to tingling fingers clutching green bills. He saw the tumbleweed brick building, and figured out his lines, calm exposition. Sure speech. Feet burning like hot crayons. Moving across the lawn; carrying him inside.

An hour later a deputy arrested him and he spent the night in detention. Ms. Burns picked him up in the morning.

“You’re not my worker,” J. said.

“Mr. Sheldon had things to do,” she said. “You’ve blown placement. He’ll be back later and find you a place to stay.”

“Can’t I go back to Mr. Wert?”

“No.”

“I’ll apologize.”

“Mr. Wert said under no circumstance. He can’t abide a thief. That’s what he said.”

J. saw the black Hefty in the back seat. “You got my iPod?”

“Everything,” Ms. Burns said. “All of your clothes and your iPod. Sit back and relax. It’s a long drive.”

She found a vacant office and left him there. When he glanced at the clock it read 4:07.

Ms. Tern walks J. to the staff kitchen and buys him a soft drink. He tries out a lounger, feels his way over the cool vinyl. “Can I sit here a bit?” he says. She nods. “You’ll tell me if you see Mr. Sheldon, OK?” She pulls the loose ends of her sweater together and nods again. He sinks into the cushion. Ear-buds empty Butthole Surfers into Heschl’s gyrus. He examines the ends of his sneakers down long stretched legs. Gray matter climbing over the white rubber toes of his Chucks. He works on the cuticle. A smile spreads. His chest heaves with soft laughter. Mr. Sheldon is just like me: a real good joke. They probably made him up while figuring out what to do. He’s not on the board. Not on the phone. Can’t find him nowhere: a real good joke. Forty minutes later Ms. Tern comes in. A crushed soda can rests by his feet. He rises quickly. “Bet you haven’t found him.”

“I really haven’t looked, J.”

“I don’t think he’s coming.”

She sits and crosses her legs. “Court can take hours. Some other child might need immediate attention. Traffic. A hundred other reasons he’s running late. He hasn’t forgotten you, J. He’ll be here.”

“No, he forgot me,” J. says. “He went home or something and forgot me. He could call. At least he could do that. He could call and tell me where I’m staying tonight. I’d be better off with my sister. I’m hungry. Do you have anything to eat?”

“I’ll check on food before I leave,” she says, rising.

He stares at the leather bag on her arm.

“Who’s staying with me? Are you staying? I thought you were staying.”

“Ms. Burns and Ms. Penesk are working late. I have families to see. I’ll check on you tomorrow.”

People trickle out of the building and cleaning crews empty the trash and mop the floors and pick up the crumpled can. Ms. Penesk brings J. half a sandwich she’d ordered at lunch but couldn’t finish. He chews the brown bread and listens, hooking to every footfall, every door swing, every sucking vacuum, every buffer rotation, every emptied plastic container. There’s swish of fabric. He rushes to the doorway. Frowns as housekeepers in union blue pass by with gray trash bins sporting push brooms and dusters raised high. Waving like battlefield colors. The ingredients soak into the bread, damp and cold on his teeth. The kitchen is quiet. A noise startles him. The AC blows overhead. Then he sees past it; past the chrome fixtures; past the laminates and particle board. The eerie drainage of time on the savannah. The sound of caves just before black blooded meat is dragged inside. A cerebral cortex smell rising from the crusty midden. The brooding silhouette of loneliness on a distant hill. A deep terrifying breath. There’s J. running over the field. A despairing rabbit with no hole to drop into.

D. E. Lee’s work appears or is forthcoming in Emerald Coast Review, Alligator Juniper, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Broad River Review, Mixed Fruit, and Prick of the Spindle

Me After You

In the interest of being honest, I fucked someone else fifteen minutes before we met.  In the pay toilet at the Peace Park, room for only me, this guy, the squat toilet, the sign that said Gyōgi yoku shi nasai – Mind your manners.  He laughed at some half-formed joke I made and turned me around.  I was tan from a summer spent lying on the deck of the Eco-Hotel near Ganne-Moon Beach.  Remember when Tony didn’t care how long you laid out or whether you ordered a single thing, as long as you were gaijin, in a bikini, and talked to everyone as if you really, really, truly missed home?

This was not for traditionalist young men with short haircuts and polo shirts like I might have favored at home.  Japan was a sexual minefield, and by then I already had a well-trodden path.

But the bathroom guy was Kenji. He was one of my night students and he had no clue how much I liked him.  He had heard rumors that I was leaving Japan, so he met me in the park, which was near his office, and then, you know.  His eyes were lined a faint grey, like he’d put on makeup and then tried to rub it off. He’d said “Good girl,” like he was my grandpa and I’d finished all my cooked cabbage.  I know he didn’t mean it that way.  That’s the thing about language: If you listen for what you want to hear, the words themselves don’t matter.

And you know about Hiroshima.  It was easy to flummox some men.  If I pouted my lips, if I exposed a bra strap, if I tugged my bangs across my forehead, just slightly obscuring one eye.  If I stood very close and whispered “Sumimasen” and crawled, two-legged, off the bus.  This was not for everybody.  This was for salarymen just off work, tired old pachi-puro, kinky otaku types.  This was not for traditionalist young men with short haircuts and polo shirts like I might have favored at home.  Japan was a sexual minefield, and by then I already had a well-trodden path.

This was before I knew you, of course.  Before you found me that afternoon in the Peace Park, you on your welcome tour, me drunk on Tennesssee whiskey at three in the afternoon (6,000 Yen for one modest bottle).  Cassie Corko introduced us, didn’t she?  She said, “Here is your future wife, Dumb-Dumb.”  I didn’t pay much attention after I saw your whiteboyness.  It’s like Cassie would say, What’s the fun?  Pretty soon he’ll realize that because he’s blond, they think he looks like Brad Pitt.

But then you said, “You’re cute when you’re fucked up.”

“I don’t know what to say to that,” I said.

“Works for me,” you said.

 

For dinner, we went to Petit Moulin.  You liked it then, even though you try to pretend that you never did.  You ordered sazae for both of us.  I told you that when I worked in Kochi, my boss used to go diving for sea snails off the city pier. He would come home soaked, his wet suit pulled halfway down, his big belly glinting like a gem. He’d present us a plastic bag full of clacking snails.  And his wife – she was so nice, so deferential to him – would boil them and teach me how to spear the innards with a toothpick and pull them out for consumption.  It put me off shellfish: that chewy texture, that watching them watch you absolutely hate this piece of their culture.

Like I said, this was before you.  Before garlic dipping sauce and glugged sancerre and your thick eyelashes pulling focus.  Before you joking that we could dine and dash.  Before me saying that the management wouldn’t know how to describe us to the police except to say, “Brad Pitt and a girl –big eyes, big chest, too fat.”  Before we stopped by the bathroom on the way out and you pulled me in with you and kissed me with hot, mint-sweet breath.  Before you said my name, “Veronica,” letter-perfect, like you’d known how to say it your whole life.  Before you locked the door behind us and I tried to remember when I stopped missing home, when I became an “outside person.”

And you might not remember, but you said, “Have you ever done this before?”

And I said, “No.”

Then you said, “What’s wrong with being a little crazy?  It’s like we’re on vacation.”

And I wanted to say, “This is the fourth year of my vacation.”  But instead of that I hugged you hard, wanting our bodies to fuse into one innocent self.

After that I made us leave, amidst you saying something about other girls you knew and how they might’ve reacted to your spontaneous hard-on, to an otherwise empty bathroom, to a date that had gone so well so far.

We walked home the long way, around the perimeter of the Genbaku Dome, me pretending I was the only thing real and permanent left in the world.  You put your arm around my shoulder, even though I didn’t expect it.  It was like you forgave me, but I hadn’t done anything wrong.

You said, “It’s beautiful here.  I kind of feel like we own the city.”  And I looked up, just past the top of the dome, the exposed lattice of its ceiling.  I didn’t think about my job or my family or my sadness or planes flying over just this spot dropping fire.  I only thought about you and how much you had to learn.  I felt small but safe, bound in place like a child tucked in tight.

Erin Kilian is a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at Illinois State University. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arizona and a former Fiction Editor of Sonora Review. Her work has been published in Barely South Review.

The Cat Psychic

I’d never seen a cat in a cardigan before. I liked the alliteration of it, though. It made some sort of sense that a cat would wear something buttoned rather than, say, a turtleneck. Plus, the soft turquoise really did accent the orange striped fur nicely, and I’m normally not one for mixing cool and warm colors.

“I’m a cat psychic,” the man behind the animal said. I hadn’t even noticed a man sitting there before, in a matching turquoise sweater. They were on a stoop-I learned that word shortly after moving to New York City. People don’t have porches here; they have stoops, cement steps you sit on when the humidity spikes or when you just want to people watch while enjoying a nice breeze. The cat was on the bottom step, the man two up, but his legs reached down to the feline. Besides the sweater, the man was wearing cut-off jean shorts with ragged threads hanging down, a pearl necklace, and flip-flops that matched the sweater. He had a nice pedicure. I learned long ago not to talk to strangers, but the stranger the person the more I wanted to talk to them. Call it a character flaw.

“Meaning you’re a cat that’s psychic or a psychic that specializes in cats?” I said. The cat sneezed, shaking its head in the process.

“I can tell you what your cat is thinking,” the man said. The cat was cleaning its whiskers. Licking its paw and then wiping them over its face, flattening its pert ears and pulling white whiskers down, squinting as it did so.

 

My boyfriend, Nathan, has taken to speaking only in Post-it notes. He leaves them all around the house. I go to the fridge and see, “Don’t cry over spilt milk, try water with your cereal,” and, “Why must you insist on bacon?”

My boyfriend, Nathan, has taken to speaking only in Post-it notes. He leaves them all around the house. I go to the fridge and see, “Don’t cry over spilt milk, try water with your cereal,” and, “Why must you insist on bacon?” On the table there is a note saying that chartreuse is an overlooked color and on the empty coffee pot a reminder that it just upsets my reflux anyway. There’s even a Post-it flaking off the cat saying she needs to be brushed, meaning can I pick up a brush later. On my underwear is a reminder of our anniversary and on the mirror a note that I should love myself as much as he loves me. I’m beginning to think that note is not as encouraging as he means it to be. He stopped talking a few weeks ago, saying it would improve our non-verbal relationship. I blamed it on his brother’s death. That meant my boyfriend was the last survivor of his immediate family, and I thought his nightmares would finally stop.

I met Nathan at Coney Island. I was there with someone else—an accident. I taught night classes at City College and one night, not wanting to be alone, I asked the secretary if he’d like to go to Coney Island with me. I hadn’t been there yet. He immediately said yes. I thought we were friends, but on the subway ride down he told me how his dreams had come true. I’m not what you call a stunner, so didn’t think he would have fantasized about me; I guess he had low expectations when it came to women. The night went from awkward to even more so when he put his arms around me while playing mini-golf, even though I was winning. Nathan was the freak in the “shoot the freak” game, and the secretary was a bad shot. I, however, was not. The secretary’s infatuation with me made me bold. I picked up a rock and wrote my number on it—I always carried a Sharpie. I threw it and it hit Nathan in the head, drawing blood. The secretary and I ran and then my cell rang. I walked the secretary to the subway, apologizing for the confusion and insisting he was a nice guy, and met Nathan for dinner at Nathan’s—he was corny like that.

 

My cat doesn’t need a psychic. That’s what I thought when I heard the man speak. She’s perfectly happy, purrfectly if I want to be corny. Nathan dotes on her, and she, on him. She follows him through his morning routine–bed, bathroom, shower, breakfast, and then he puts her on his shoulder while he reads the paper. He still does that, reads an actual paper newspaper. She rubs against his cheek, his head, stretches her paws out to push the paper away, and hangs her tail in front of his face, and the whole time she’s just all purrs. I don’t get in the way of Nathan-Rowein time. Sometimes she stares at me when he kisses me goodbye—he leaves first because it’s a long train ride from Inwood to Coney Island. But the minute he’s gone she snakes through my legs, purrs, waits for me to feed her, and then leads me to the litter box and waits for me to clean it before begging for a scratch. Then I leave for the day job and shut the door on her sweet, innocent face. She’s a cream point ragdoll or something, just a soft white with peach on her face and ears, all fluffy and blue-eyed feline. If Hitler had championed Aryan cats, she would have been his ideal.

 

“Your cat is not happy,” the psychic said. The cardiganed animal looked up from its cleaning, as if acknowledging my presence for the first time. It smirked and then curled its tail around the front of its body. I saw the tip moving back and forth, up and down. “I can tell you this now, she is conflicted about you.”

The old man got the gender right, but that’s a fifty-fifty guess. I wondered how he could tell me anything about Rowein, anyway. Did he read cat fur like tea leaves? Did the way it fell across the cuff of my jeans show frustration and jealousy?

“There has been an upheaval in your life,” he continued. Another easy guess. I knew about cold reading and was getting tired of just standing there.

“You got room on your stoop for one more?” I asked. He scooted over and I sat down next to him. The breeze was pretty good there. This was my first time actually sitting on a stoop. I had decided to take the day and walk through Harlem, never having been there before. I was supposed to meet Nathan for dinner at Coney Island. That’s what a Post-it asked at least. Dinners weren’t as fun without him telling me about his day. I began to miss his stories. They weren’t the same boiled down to messages that fit on little slips of paper. Being a freak wasn’t exactly fun and games. He dealt with a lot of assholes, but to me it was still enthralling.

The man’s cat curled around my feet. I reached down and scratched between his ears.

“You’ve got something stuck to you,” the man said, reaching over. He pulled off a Post-it note.

 

Nathan’s story was an episode of Law and Order; hell, it was an entire season’s arc. Except the cops never came. He covered those childhood scars with tattoos to try and reclaim his pain. In that he was like another story, the way he wore his life on his skin. I had never meant to fall in love with him. I was the straight-laced college graduate that owned suits and shirts with buttons. The most I’d ever rebelled was when I left to go to New York in the first place, ignoring my father’s pleas that I work in his office, and forged my own life instead. Not that I talked to them anymore, suburban angst is an easy road to hatred.

Nathan was estranged from his family with extreme prejudice, but through the joys of the Internet he kept tabs on them. They kept sending him letters and reminders that whatever happened to him, they owned him body, mind, and soul. Well, his father did at least.

The first to die was his father, followed swiftly by his mother. The letters used to come like clockwork–each month on the twelfth–even after he moved in with me and everything was in my name. Then the letters were addressed to both of us, and I was pretty freaked. After four months of no-letter bliss, or anxiety waiting for something worse than a letter to come, a quick Google search showed they had passed.

 

Rowein was a giant tattoo on Nathan’s back. He found her meowing on the boardwalk one night after work, a couple of years before we met. He insists she was his first savior, showing up like that all bedraggled and in need of care at a time when he thought he couldn’t care about anything anymore. He took her in for shots, grooming, spayed her, and then brought her to his little hole-in-the-wall place he called home. She gave him something to do besides mope—he could throw little wadded-up balls of paper and watch her roll around batting them. He played tag with her, and still does, running around the apartment like it’s bigger than a glorified studio. She took up the last place of real estate on his back, some thin slice scars blending into her cream fur. A burn mark makes up the pupil of one of her giant blue eyes, staring back at me when I massage him.

 

“I like your pearls,” I told the man. He reached up and fingered them.

“They were my grandmother’s,” he said. The cat had fallen asleep on my shoes. I resisted the urge to move, although whenever I’m immobile, I suddenly have to go to the bathroom. “My grandfather gave them to her instead of an engagement ring.”

“Well, they suit you,” I replied.

He smiled and I saw that his teeth were perfectly straight, the perfection that comes with veneers–with no spaces between his teeth and just a tad too big for his face.

“What does your cat think of me?” I said, reaching down to scratch it once more. It rolled over, soft belly exposed where a button was undone, and batted at me with one sleepy paw.

“You bite your nails, it shows signs of stress and makes for uneven scratching. Also, his name is Roscoe.”

“And you are?” I asked.

“I’m Ferdinand,” he said, reaching out a hand. “And it’s nice to meet you, Jenny.” I shook his hand before realizing I hadn’t told him my name.

 

I wanted there to be more humor in the way Nathan’s father died. I wanted him to be able to laugh at it, to see it as fitting. But he died from a blister. Nathan found the story in a newspaper. His father had decided he needed to atone for his sins and so started walking. Just walking. His feet blistered and bled and he kept going, the blood crusting and cracking and crusting over again and still he walked on, not stopping for water or food or even to go to the bathroom. His pants were pure filth and waste and his skin desiccated, but his toes, they were moist with maggots and disease, the ultimate cause of his death. It was a story the newspapers loved. They spoke to his bereaved widow, the one son they could find, and sent out a plea that his estranged son forgive him.

The cat shifted positions again, pushing the top of his head into my ankle.

“Is he saying something?” I asked, now reading into every movement Roscoe made instead of enjoying the warm fuzz against my leg.

“You’re a good person,” Ferdinand said. “You’re sitting here on a stoop talking to a lonely old man and his cat.”

It was the worst thing that bastard could have done to Nathan, have others ask for his forgiveness without knowing the story of his life, only of the old man’s death. They judged Nathan for not giving his father peace; they never judged his father for what he had done to his children.

 

“My boyfriend has this tattoo,” I told Ferdinand, contented cardiganed cat sighs cascading up from Roscoe while I spoke. “It’s on his calf. He tends to be literal, so on one calf he has this sad calf, all huge doe eyes like those old paintings, but that’s not the one I’m talking about. I’m told it hurts a lot to tattoo on the calf because of the muscle. Anyway, he has this one tattoo that always makes me cry. And I don’t know why. It’s sunflowers, Van Gogh’s sunflowers right there on his calf and they’re so vivid, so bright I cry. The painting doesn’t do it to me, but there on his leg the artist did a really good job.”

The cat shifted positions again, pushing the top of his head into my ankle.

“Is he saying something?” I asked, now reading into every movement Roscoe made instead of enjoying the warm fuzz against my leg.

“You’re a good person,” Ferdinand said. “You’re sitting here on a stoop talking to a lonely old man and his cat.”

 

Nathan’s mother’s death was too kind for her. I held more anger in my heart for Nathan’s parents than he seemed to. Heart attack in her sleep. She already had diabetes, but she never suffered. She hadn’t lost any toes or fingers. She hadn’t slipped into a coma and been raped by the nursing staff of some third-rate hospital. She lay in her bed, alone because her husband had died, and then simply passed on.

 

“Why do you love me?” was a note Nathan had left on the fridge. I turned around and he was there, waiting. I didn’t know what to say immediately which, in the movies, is a bad move. In the real world he understood I didn’t like being caught off guard, especially when it came to how I felt. I yelled when confronted with emotions because they confused me. I usually settled down quickly. This time I felt the tears come.

“I don’t think I ever said I did,” I replied and he embraced me. He loved me for my honesty, at least that’s what he said, so that’s what I believed. I seldom gave him answers to his questions, even when I really wanted to.

 

“I’m supposed to meet my boyfriend for dinner,” I told Ferdinand. Roscoe had moved his way up into my lap where he seemed asleep, but the minute I stopped petting him would nudge me until I started again. We each had some fresh ice tea by our sides, we being Ferdinand and I. He had reapplied his lipstick, a soft coral pink with a hint of orange. It smudged on his glass and I wanted to pick it up, to see if perhaps I could read the man from the lipstick stain, to see if the creases and folds told his story.

“But you’re unsure,” he said. Again an easy read. I was sitting on a stoop with a strange guy and cat rather than heading home to change for our anniversary. Dating, not marriage.

“His brother died,” I said instead. Avoidance is always on my menu.

Roscoe looked up at me and meowed.

 

Rowein watches us sleep. She’ll sit between us and just stare, never blinking. It freaks me out. Every night, me not being the best sleeper—especially beside a guy who thrashes when his past attacks—I’ll turn over and breathe in a pile of fur, and she’ll be there, watching over Nathan but turning to eye me for disturbing her.

It’s worse when we try to have sex. I can’t take the staring so put her out and close the door. She’ll just scratch and scratch the whole time. She never meows, never lets out any sound except for her paws at the door. In fact, save for when she purrs, she never speaks and now, here I am with a mute love. And I do love him.

 

Nathan has tattoos covering everything but his face and the soles of his feet, and that’s only because the ones on his feet wore out. Where he doesn’t have tattoos some scars are visible, although light. The ones on the bottom of his feet are tough for me to see, thin white lines of past pain. There are pox marks on his nose and forehead. His pinkies were broken and healed wrong. I can even feel scars over his heart when I lay my head on his chest and listen to him, even with Rowein watching us both, one eye judging me, the other loving him. He’s a seven-year-old boy at the same time he’s fifteen, twenty-two, forty-seven. I forget his ‘real age’, the one on his driver’s license. He wants to see the world through innocent eyes and is wizened at the same time. When we go walking he points out manhole covers.

“They’re the museum of the street,” he says, telling me the history.

He cooks vegetarian meals and makes me realize I will never like okra or brussels sprouts but do in fact like beet greens. He takes me on late night jogs through the park and knows the names of all the wildlife we see. We go on salad hikes through Central Park, and I never imagined anything in New York could be edible. He has a scar I kiss every night and have since the first day we met. The one just on the edge of his hairline where the rock hit.

When we got the news via certified letter that Nathan’s brother had died I yelled. He knew I would.

“Stop crying, you should be so fucking happy,” I screamed. “You’re free now! There’s no one left,” I yelled. “What the hell! It’s over, you pitiful ass,” I said in what was several decibels above anyone’s speaking voice. And he just sat there head in hands. He cried himself to sleep that night with me right there, berating him, trying to understand in the loudest way possible.

 

“Rowein is a conflicted soul,” Ferdinand said. He was still playing with his pearls.

“She’s my boyfriend’s guardian,” I replied, “and he hers.”

“There’s more to it than that,” he said, sipping his tea.

“How did you become a psychic?” I asked.

“Oh, I had no choice,” he said. “It’s who I am.”

“So who am I?” I asked.

“I know cats,” he said and I sighed, taking another sip of tea. Ferdinand lived in a good neighborhood for people watching. It’s amazing just how many people populate every part of New York. That’s part of why I liked where we lived–it was still slightly wooded. There were as many birds as people in Inwood, and not all the birds were pigeons.

“There’s this other tattoo,” I said, wishing I could find meaning somewhere. “It’s just hash marks. Four lines and then the fifth crossing them out. The inside of both wrists. He won’t tell me what they are, not like he’s talking now anyway. I think it’s the number of times he wanted to kill himself. There are a lot of hash marks there. They scare me, yet the pattern is really nice–like a basket or something woven there on his skin.”

“Rowein wants to trust you,” the man said. “It’s hard, she’s all knots inside. Fear and worry and love and a shred of indeterminate hatred, like all cats have. She wants you to have a reason for being there but you’re loud. You can be so very loud.”

Roscoe shifted then and stood up on my lap, yawning. He reached a paw up to my face and touched my chin, lightly. My eyes met his deep orange ones and I saw them, Rowein and Nathan, fighting for a place in the world together and yet alone.

 

Nathan’s brother was a suicide. That’s what really worried me when he stopped talking. He was a gunshot, loud and abrupt and final, with his kid–Nathan didn’t know he was an uncle until the letter arrived–a two-year old sitting in a truck at the gas station. When Nathan’s brother walked in with a gun, I bet people thought it was a hold-up. I bet they thought, “Shit, some redneck is going to shoot us all just to take some smokes and booze.” I bet they thought nothing about him and then he screamed for attention, had people come up around him, kneel down, and shot himself spraying them all. Performance art. Post-modern robbery, where you leave your brains all over everyone instead of taking their wallets. He just wanted to matter, I’m sure, and having a child wasn’t enough.

 

“I have a gift for you,” Ferdinand said. He went inside. Roscoe climbed off my lap and began to clean himself. He nudged me a few times in the process, just pushes with his body. I wondered if he needed his cardigan unbuttoned, but didn’t feel I knew him well enough to take off his sweater. He continued to nudge me, so I stood and he shook his head. I wondered if I did the wrong thing. I picked up the ice tea glasses and went through the open door. I met up with Ferdinand in the hallway, which was good because I didn’t know which apartment he was in. He handed me a cat brush and took the glasses.

“Brush Rowein,” he said. “Brush her, only you, not your boyfriend. And talk quietly. Tell her the truth. And wait right here.” He walked up the stairs and out of sight. Roscoe curled through my legs–a weird sensation–sweater mixed with the familiar soft of fur.

He came back and handed me a stack of Post-it notes. “Speak to Nathan on his terms,” he said. “And only write answers.”

I dug out my Sharpie and wrote “Meow” on a slip of yellow paper, showing it to Roscoe. He meowed back and swatted at it. I figured it worked, and tonight would be one interesting dinner, our table covered with yellow squares of paper. Maybe they would be an answer, or at least help us find ours.

Victorya Chase currently teaches surgeons to write fiction and poetry under the theory that it helps them connect both to themselves and to their patients. Her works have previously appeared in ASIM, The Mothman Files Anthology, and A Cappella Zoo, among other places. She is currently working on a novel about Nathan, Jenny, and Rowein.

Palsied

When she was born they cried, and they all knew they would.

She came out crying too. This was normal enough; there was a baby in a hospital crying. She cried and looked skyward. Her mother, that is. Linda. A neck falls limp on its spine.

She cried and didn’t know what it all meant. The baby girl, that is. They’ll name her

Sarah.

The father cried with clenched fists, one hand clasped with his wife’s.

They cried in the room in which Sarah was born and they all cried out in the lobby.

Everyone decided to cry.

There was a baby boy, however, six months old, in his mother’s grasp a few feet removed from the crowd, Ronny, a baby, six months old. Yes. And this was the only person that day who did not cry.

*     *     *

They gave him a train birthday. They hopped on the NJ Transit and called it a birthday. And the kids caught the train coming in with serious faces, pink October cheeks and eyes transfixed on uncertainty, the impossible roar, the wolf-whistle of the iron horse coming in hard. Their faces were faces taking something loud and threateningly boisterous in for the first time in their lives. They could only half-understand that this thing would not plummet into them. They could only half-trust the train coming forward.

There was a birthday cake, but beyond this it was only the train. Out of a lake town, humming southward towards Secaucus, before the junction, towards tighter homes, gibbous pavement, double-parking; habit smokers outside corner taverns with names like “The Station,” puffing smoke in the falling light. A train birthday, kids on the brown seats eating cake.

Ronny would turn, on knees looking the wrong way, hands on the seatback, looking at children and mothers attending his party. He would turn back around and flop on his ass and then rise up again—he’s exactly three years old—and he’d look at his party and then he’d sit back down. The train’s moving into a Jersey afternoon, stopping at stations—large parking lots, small towns, men in old wooly jackets holding coffees in check.

It was a train birthday and on Monday his mother would send him into school with a box of Munchkins to pass around, two each, and some would take three, and some would tell Ronny happy birthday, and others would give him a jealous glance, puerile anger—massive and forceful anger—with jelly and powder strewn about the chin and lips.

*     *     *

He had stopped caring about his weight since the day his clenched fist fractured a bone in his wife’s hand. The woman gives birth to a child and the husband then breaks her hand. They never talked about it. They only got it fixed.

Now he’s got a gut ripping through space. He is a man who sidles into his chair at dinner; he does not sit or make his way or plop down on his chair at the head of the table; he sidles.

He sometimes has to stand and cough something out his system, some pent up conglomeration amidst entrails, padded and clouded over, dismissed or forgotten about through the fat and belly. He rises in the middle of conversations and bellows over the kitchen counter, his own personal history of dust and cigarette ash and coffee grounds spewing from sodden areas of his gut.

They’re here—Aunt Renee, Uncle Gordon, and Ronny, now ten years old—for a holiday dinner. They talk about the food, about the daily swing of agenda’d existence, about current life.

“We’re thinking about suing,” the man of the house says.

The table chews, moans, and ponders.

“The back surgery—this is a result of the spine procedure. I am sure of it.”

They are family like Italians are families, no, not as in organized crime, but in the somehow beautiful way that a man becomes a girl’s uncle, and she a niece, because it seems to make sense, there is some ineffable wavering in the air calling for them to be of relation.

Ronny’s eleventh birthday is in a month and this is all he could think about. He wears a brown bombardier jacket at the dinner table. He likes wearing it everywhere around this time of year. He feels like he blends in with the leaves.

They have dinners together, the two families, quite often. They come into each other’s homes with smiles, sometimes gifts, hugs and kisses on cheeks, in a summer languor or a wintry bustle. They enter each other’s foyers quite often.

They try finding the good. A pleasure-pulse somewhere in between something; Renee does most of the pleasure seeking, bringing up a rare positive tidbit from the papers, an engagement notice, a school grant, one of those feel-good stories of the year. But she tries keeping it removed, the pleasure announcements, nothing personal, no, nothing about Ronny or the raise she may get or Gordon doing better than ever. She brings up the stuff of the world.

They come together for dinner quite often but they are not technically family. They are family like Italians are families, no, not as in organized crime, but in the somehow beautiful way that a man becomes a girl’s uncle, and she a niece, because it seems to make sense, there is some ineffable wavering in the air calling for them to be of relation. No, they weren’t technically family, but they would call them Aunt and Uncle, they’d say to her, “Who’s coming? Auntie Renee and Uncle Gordon? Yes. That’s right.” She’d make a sound and you’d have to know her to realize it’s a sound of the deepest pleasure. “And Ronny, yes, yes, of course,” they’d tell her, “You only have eyes for Ronny.”

*     *     *

When he saw the pit bull asleep on the ground—emaciated naturally it seemed, a healthy emaciation, all rib cages, close hair and heavy breaths—he knew something would happen that night.

He was told to make his way into the basement when he arrived and he stepped hastily around the languid animal on the floor. He heard music, quite loud, approaching him on each step down. The voices of school folk, the classroom voices here on a weekend.

He had a flip in his hair, gelled up, and this meant he knew what was in.

A couple things did happen that night. That night stepping around the pit bull, the pink nose, the pinkness of the thing, this made him feel something would happen. It was an animal his family would never conceive of owning. An animal that most families would agree not to consider, but here it was, before the steps, and he knew it was a night he would spend a lot of time thinking about afterward.

It was an unfinished basement, large and incredibly unfinished, gray support columns, board games, hectic clutter, ancient rugs dotted with red spills, the girls and the boys from class, fifteen years of age and they’re drinking adamantly out of Poland Spring bottles.

When they chanted Ronny on his final steps into the basement, a few girls’ faces going blush, he felt a heat and heart-flutter somewhere deep in his soul. High-fives for the guys, cold shoulders for the girls, and there’s Vinny, already fat for life, telling him what he’s missed, sweating and smiling and laughing through a story, and Ronny half listening, wondering what the hell everyone is chugging out of those water bottles.

There was Nina, who had great breasts already, and this was exciting for everyone. They passed Ronny a water bottle with a clear-liquid dreg and he smelled it, sniffed it, pondered it, and drank it down. The heat of first things began to plow over him, nearly pummeling him to the floor, that knocking, that heat-flash and sway, the basement going lucid out the corners of your eyes.

A few things did happen that night, you can say that for sure. And there was Maggie who was two years older and had a goddamn license and how absolutely asinine that seemed, how preposterous a fact this was. And there was Nina with the breasts and cleavage right before us like how can this be.

And when he was home he felt the stereo bump and throb on his temples, alone in his room—he’s got a great room with posters, Nerf basketball, and trophies—the slam and fall of old noise heavy on his head, and he thought of the pit bull asleep on the floor, of Nina lifting her shirt up to a raucous applause, and Maggie taking his tongue into her mouth.

On his bed he couldn’t remember if he stepped around the pit bull on the way out the door, running through a cold wind into his mother’s car.

*     *     *

He is talking about suing this time for sure. No doubt about it. She has gone through enough at this point. Every subsequent surgery is a result of the previous. We are suing this time for sure, and it’s Thanksgiving 2009.

Ronny looks at Sarah, gives her a look like how much longer we have to sit through this dinner and she smiles in the tilted way she smiles and makes that noise, everyone turning to look at her, conversation stopped to watch the girl. She laughs in the wailing way she laughs and they all smile at her.

Ronny is back from college. Yes, a couple more things have happened. And it was the night of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction that he put smokeless tobacco into his mouth for the first time, clasping the unhinged pouch in between lip and gum, but it got away from him without him knowing, the eight shots of cheap vodka fuzzy and stocky in his throat, walking to a destination with friends in the chill of Virginia’s September. He realized at some moment, though, he was in a momentless state. That the tobacco had disappeared in his mouth and the sidewalk began to bounce and spin on him with the lights of a college city remaining sharply in place. Yes, a thing or two has happened. And it was when the police officer was seemingly less than a centimeter in front of him, noses touching, like the cop’s face somehow became your own, that he knew he’d remember this moment if none other.

He woke face down the next day on his apartment couch, plush leather brown, the quiet hum of noon, only the band and cheerleaders up for school spirit preparation, all faint murmurs and croons. And there, look at that, two beer cans in his back pockets, still in these goddamn jeans. And then ten feet away his own room, his own queen-size bed where he’d take a few women, yeah, a few things have happened now, but he’s on this damn couch instead, I guess let’s call it laziness.

And the ticket in a front pocket, see you in court mid-October, on his twenty-first birthday, would you look at that, and for a second he feels the world crashing down on him. He cracks a warm beer from his pocket, hears the rustlings of roommates at the snap, a rustle somehow evoking so much meaning, yes, I like where your head is at, let’s get started. And then he remembers Michael Jordan’s induction and it’s like his whole childhood getting bronzed and statued, and he asks himself why in God’s name did he pack that lip.

The ceiling fan spins on its axis and Ronny thinks to himself, taking tepid sips of the old back-pocket can, how interesting a life like this really is.

*     *     *

He was driving into Jersey, a rented Malibu from Hertz, he’s running late and he knows it.

They decide to eat, glancing at clocks and watches, where‘s Ronny and I hope he is alright is what they’re saying.

He’s doing just fine, as long as he gets through the West Side Highway in a jiff and on over the GW without any hindrance or accident. He decides to go lower level at the last second, a second outside of decision-making, an instinctual second, and he hears one honk burp at him in his dust.

She’s making a sound and you’d have to know her to know that it was a sound of the deepest dissatisfaction.

He hums under the bridge effortlessly—silver watch, Movado, yeah, and the suit, still tight on his limbs from a hard day’s work. Did he eat today is what he wonders now, taking the minutest glances left and right. The bulby yellow-orange lights of this underworld providing a noirish element to the day, a scuffed-up and rugged interim into Jersey.

They nibble, ok, they don’t eat. Twenty-some-odd years and look at this, the kid’s got a job. He’s a young city slicker now. We can’t expect him on time anymore. “He’ll be here; he’ll be here,” the man of the house says, “these women, so worried, he’s a guy working his way up a New York City company. He should be late. If he’s not, what kind of company is he working for?”

And she makes the sound again when her father is done talking, and you’d have to know her. They look at her. She is in a tilted stupor; all wondering the same thing; can she understand us or not.

Ronny is making his way on just fine, riding through Jersey side streets now and he squints the whole way. A lightless world compared to the city. And when he pulls up in front and parks on the street he thinks about how much he’s going to eat. He’s realized he’s only had a blueberry muffin with his morning coffee.

They decide to eat as Ronny approaches the house—he’ll be here in five seconds—and they decide, ok let’s eat.

When they hear his steps smacking along the walkway they all pause and wait for him. Sarah’s got her head tilted way back, trying to get a view of the door best way she can, and her eyes just barely have it, but they’re there. And he enters and sees only Sarah from the door, a girl with a turned head, and he smiles at her and then, well you’d have to know her with the sound she makes.

And he decides to approach from this distance with opened arms, yeah, he’s going to make his way straight toward Sarah, not his chair, and he’s going to lay on her the wettest kiss he can muster, hugging her at the same time.

He’s coming at her with opened arms and a smile bigger than hers. The people on the fringes are saying, “Ronny, Ronny, Ronny.” And, let’s be honest, she’s not one hundred percent sure what this moment means, she can’t quite fathom what Ronny’s going to lay on her, and when he does it’s the most shocking volt she’s felt in her life, the wettest kiss on her forehead. His chest close to hers, and he tells her how much he’s missed her and, let’s be honest, she understands the words just fine.

He sits down in the same chair he’s been sitting on since he was a kid and he tells the table how hungry he is, only had a blueberry muffin today. His mother admonishes her baby boy about health, is it so hard to eat something every now and again.

But Sarah’s making this noise still. She’s howling and rocking back and forth. They watch her and try to pinpoint the sound, and it’s only rising. She howls and lets out intermittent sighs, rocking back and forth, back and forth, smiling in the tilted way she smiles. Nobody is saying anything; they just watch the girl. And she rises and falls, a howl from the deepest part of her gut, and her father has to take hold of her arm to keep her from jumping out of the wheelchair, holding her tight and keeping his eyes on her.

Everyone decides to watch the girl, to keep their stares in place. They all decide, nonverbally, to let this thing ride out. Let it find its downward swing; let it fall on its own. And nobody will say anything about it afterwards.

*     *     *

It was the first time he had ever heard Linda referred to as “mom.” She walked into his bedroom in tight jeans and a maroon halter top. She said to him: “Ronny, let’s go already.” And he could tell by one look at her that this was Sarah. This fact was undeniable. And it wasn’t the way sometimes in a dream someone can completely be someone else. No, this was her. The bone structure was there; the freckles on her face. That nose that runs in the family, maybe larger than most noses, but it brings such wonderful and seemingly necessary character. She’s beautiful. Of course she is. And she’s telling Ronny, “Let’s go already, before my mom gets home.” And it takes a moment before he can respond “where are we going?”

“Where are we going? The bar. C’mon. I don’t want her to know I’m drinking tonight.”

It was her and no one else. The body movements; these were hers somehow; the mouth; the hands; the skin. The way you can picture them, the way you can see them just if…

And he wakes in his old room, yeah he did have a great room, with posters, Nerf basketball, and trophies, yeah, a few things have happened now, and in a paralysis he lies there, awake but palsied, only feeling the movement in and about the eyes.

Rob Sobel graduated James Madison University (2012) where he received a degree in English Literature. He was given the Departmental Award for Creative Writing, Nonfiction, and has publications ranging from fiction to film criticism. He is currently working with special education students at Washington Elementary School in Hawthorne, New Jersey, and is—by night, weekend, holiday, and any other miscellaneous minutes he can find—writing and revising a first novel. He lives in Northern New Jersey.

What Happens When Something Happens

Grandpa started having headaches the summer the tree fell on our house. Missy likes to joke that it was the tree that caused the headaches: that it somehow knocked loose something in his mind. I think part of her believes it. She certainly believed it back then.

He came to live with us when Grandma died. Grandpa took her death in stride.

He didn’t move in because he was wracked with grief or because he was feeble. I’m sure he was upset, because he was a kind man, but he’d always been something of an optimist. And he certainly wasn’t weak of body. I’m sure part of the reason Mother brought him in with us was because she could use the extra help around the house. Our father’s alimony checks provided some financial support, but they couldn’t fix a leaky faucet.

I was twelve that summer, my sister seven. When Grandpa moved in, we were forced to share a room. I hated it—she loved it—which meant our extremes cancelled each other out, and we got along fairly well. The tree came down in the middle of the night, during a strong windstorm; people would later say it was a tornado, though the sirens never sounded and no sightings were confirmed.

I remember being sound asleep, probably lost in a dream about Joanna Sanderson—truth be told, I still occasionally dream about her—and then suddenly awake, out of bed and screaming before I even know why. Missy was right there with me, and our mother was at our door about three seconds later. Only Grandpa took his time, and when he found us, he started laughing. There I was thinking our house was falling apart, or there’d been an earthquake, my sister seeing monsters and ghosts, my mother perhaps imagining the Second Coming, and Grandpa was bent over, laughing so hard he broke into a hacking cough. Only when it subsided did he tell us what’d happened.

Mother joked a few times that in old age Grandpa was suddenly starting to care about the world. He would smile and say he didn’t care about anything except a good night’s rest and maybe a cold beer…

That was the first time, you see. Grandpa had no way of knowing for sure, he’d had no time to go outside, and it’s not like the tree broke any windows. It struck the back of the house where there weren’t any bedrooms, just our father’s old study, which our mother had converted into a makeshift library. He couldn’t possibly have known, Missy would tell me. No way, José.

Of course, there were a hundred explanations—common sense being the most prominent. But I couldn’t convince Missy of that, and I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical myself. Not right then, of course. None of us really thought about Grandpa’s deduction much until a couple months later, after a few other occasions presented themselves. But yes, for a time there, I wondered myself how he could have known. I don’t now, at least not during the day. Sometimes, when I’m in that nether region between sleep and consciousness…but then, the mind does tend to wander, doesn’t it?

We got the house patched up—not much damage, considering the size of the oak that struck us—and summer resumed. Missy spent her days at daycare,  doing chores and hanging with friends when I was done. Mother worked, and Grandpa lurked around the house, doing odds and ends, reading, watching soap operas. Occasionally he’d go to a movie—I went with him a few times—or just drive around. I never joined him during the latter. Grandpa’s stories were occasionally interesting, but never after the third or fourth time. His younger self couldn’t create new stories, so he just recycled the old ones. I think he even told them in the same order.

A few weeks after the tree came down, our dog went missing. Sparkles—blame my sister—was an unfortunately-named Yorkshire terrier, a cunning little bastard who liked to piss in shoes and chew on the drapes, no matter how much discipline he received. We all loved him. Some dogs have that way about them—mischievous brutes, but they give you one look and your heart melts. Sparkles could chew through the electrical wiring and burn the house down, and we’d still keep him.

One morning he was there, and in the afternoon he was gone. We had a doggie door leading into the fenced backyard, but the gate was always closed. No holes dug under the fence, and no way could Sparkles jump over it. He simply vanished while Missy was at day care. I was smoking a cigarette beneath a bridge on the edge of town, and Grandpa was fast asleep in front of Maury Povich.

“He was kidnapped,” Missy said later, when her tears had stopped.

“Dognapped,” I corrected her.

“No one would want Sparkles,” Mother said. “He’s such a handful.”

The three of us were at the kitchen table hovering over a tray of cookies Mother had baked to ease our grief. Sugar helped back then. Not much helps now. Kids have it right: growing old sucks.

“He slipped under the fence,” Grandpa said. “Like someone rubbed him with butter. Whoosh and he was gone—took off after a rabbit that was bigger than him.”

His voice was so confident that all of us looked up. He was in the living room, feet propped up in the recliner, rubbing his temple like he had been doing lately. His eyes were glued to the evening news. He’d started doing that recently, too. Every evening he’d watch the national, then local, news programs. During the day, I’d occasionally find CNN on, sometimes even Fox News or MSNBC. Mother joked a few times that in old age Grandpa was suddenly starting to care about the world. He would smile and say he didn’t care about anything except a good night’s rest and maybe a cold beer, but he’d watch the news intently, as though he were waiting for something to happen.

“Well, Grandpa,” Mother said. “If you saw him take off, why didn’t you stop him?”

He shrugged. “‘Cause I wasn’t sure it’d happen. Can’t know something’s gonna happen until it happens, can you?”

Missy and I tuned out, but Mother watched him for a few more seconds, a half-eaten cookie in her hand. Whatever she’d been thinking, it must not have made sense, because she shrugged and finished eating. We went out to dinner that night, a rare treat. Sparkles never came back.

Don’t let the Surgeon General fool you: when you’re a teenager and you smoke, you look cool, just not by grown-up standards.

A few weeks later, I finished cleaning the bathroom—easily my least-favorite chore—and went to the garage to get my old bike. I was meeting my friends Rory and Jake at the skate park. None of us skated, but there were a few cute girls—yes, Joanna Sanderson among them—who did, and they didn’t wear much except helmets and safety pads when they did so. Even at twelve, you’re old enough to know the best things in life are free. We’d smoke a cigarette and watch the girls, thinking we looked cool. Hell, we did look cool. Don’t let the Surgeon General fool you: when you’re a teenager and you smoke, you look cool, just not by grown-up standards.

Grandpa was waiting for me in the garage. I knew he was waiting, because he was standing next to my bike, arms crossed, not doing anything but watching the door. His appearance was so surprising I almost missed the stair and fell flat on my face. “Listen, Devin,” he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. The other hand was massaging a spot just behind his left ear. “I want you to do me a favor today.”

“Yes, Grandpa?”

“Don’t go to that damned park.”

I wasn’t aware that he’d been following me or how he knew where I was going that day. When even I hadn’t known until half an hour before, when Rory called. Had Grandpa been listening in?

“Let’s see a movie,” he said. “There’s an old Steven Seagal showing at the theater. I can get you in. The girls there love feisty old men.” He winked.

“Sorry, Grandpa,” I said. “Rory’s got a book he wants to loan me.” In reality, it was the latest issue of Playboy, and the only way I’d ever get to peruse it was with Rory standing right beside me.

He smirked a little, as though he knew what I really meant, and then nodded. “Guess it was a fool’s hope. Foolishness comes with age, Devin. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Kids are way smarter.” His face became serious. “But do me a favor and avoid Grant. Come home a different way. Beg your friends if you must. Just avoid Grant. And blue pickups.”

“Blue pickups?”

“Blue pickups. It’s a terrible color for a truck.”

It wasn’t the strangest thing he’d ever said, so once I was on my way I shrugged it off.

Joanna Sanderson wasn’t at the park that day, only two girls were, and they were from the community college, and when they caught us watching them, they cursed us until we went away. But Rory had the Playboy, so we spent a while going over it, and then we went for frozen yogurt. Afterwards, Rory wanted to go back to his house, which was on Hayes—one block south of Grant.

The conversation with my grandfather had entirely slipped my mind. And, if you want to know the whole truth, which is all you’ll get from me, even if I’d remembered the warning, I wouldn’t have paid it any heed. Why would I? It was nonsense.

The truck that hit me was baby blue, the worst kind. The driver looked away for a split second, like they always do, and his bumper caught my front tire. I remember falling in slow motion, thinking, Christ, why didn’t I wear pads? Mother always tells me to wear pads, even though she’d stopped such chiding years before. I had an entire conversation in my head, the kind that would take almost half an hour in real time. And then my left arm struck the pavement, there was a flash of pain, and the world went black.

“I just knew,” Grandpa said, when I asked him afterwards. “Wasn’t a vision or anything fancy. I just knew it, like I knew what’d happen to your dog, except of course I didn’t know because it hadn’t happened yet. The dog running away, that’s no big deal, right or wrong, the world keeps spinning. You getting run over, that’s something worth worrying about.”

I didn’t tell anyone about my conversation with Grandpa that day. Not until later, when Mother and Missy were both in on it. I had the feeling Grandpa wanted to keep it a secret, a childish thought, but Grandpa didn’t care if the whole world knew. It just wasn’t a big deal to him.

Over the next few weeks, Grandpa began to mutter while he watched the news, fingers almost always kneading his forehead. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was doing. Grandpa was seeing things, like he’d seen me getting hit by the truck, and was watching the news to see if any of them came true. I would’ve given anything to know what he saw in visions—he protested to the word, but I couldn’t think of any other term for it—especially the ones that made him watch the national news. When there was a school shooting in Sacramento in September, I watched Grandpa’s face, to see if he’d predicted it, but his eyes held nothing but the normal level of sorrow and surprise. Maybe his visions didn’t extend to outside of Chelmsford or maybe Illinois in general. Maybe he couldn’t see anything west of the Mississippi. I don’t think I would’ve understood it even if Grandpa had explained it to me.

Mother and Missy found out about it on Halloween. Mother had taken notice of Grandpa’s headaches by then, and encouraged him to see a doctor—which was basically like trying to get an elephant to cross a road by swatting it with a piece of string. He wouldn’t even laugh about it. “Hell no,” he’d say, “just give me another Tylenol and be done with it.”

On October 31, Grandpa woke up at five in the morning screaming. Mother and I raced to his room; Missy, thank God, slept right through it. We found Grandpa upright and pale, sweating. He looked at me, and I knew what’d happened. I also knew it was much worse than the blue truck.

“I don’t know his name,” Grandpa was saying, distinctly but quietly, not talking to us, but to himself. His eyes settled on me and he said, “Not you, it’s not you, thank God,” then he went right back to his mantra. “I don’t know his name, I don’t know his name.”

Mother got him a warm cloth and put him back to bed. I couldn’t go to sleep, so I went downstairs and watched infomercials. Never understood why anyone would want to buy that crap. Even now I don’t. But I watched, because it was mindless entertainment, and I didn’t want to have to think about anything.

When Grandpa came down to breakfast at the normal time, he was still pale. Missy joined us, and she immediately noticed Grandpa’s condition. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Mother said.

“I don’t know his name,” Grandpa said.

“Damned if I know,” I summed up. Mother didn’t even scold me.

We went to school, Mother went to work, and Grandpa probably sat in his recliner all day glued to the news, repeating that single sentence. He had stopped by the time school let out, thank God, but dinner was far from normal. Grandpa didn’t say a word, except grunt occasionally when Missy or Mother said something to him. I knew better. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but if he noticed my observation, he gave no sign. Instead he just stared at the table, taking small bites of casserole.

I took Missy trick-or-treating that night. It was a school night, so the city imposed an early curfew. I half-expected Grandpa to bar the door and keep us inside; instead, he just gave us a wary glance. I remembered what he’d said—It’s not you—but took little comfort in it.

The next morning we found out. The local news wouldn’t be on until nine, so Grandpa turned on the radio. We had to listen to four country songs before the news bulletin came on.

Police are reporting the disappearance of a Chelmsford child. Last night, between six and eight o’clock, Gregory Clemens vanished. He was last seen on Harrison Street, in the company of his older sister, who stopped to talk with a group of friends. Gregory was last seen wearing an all-black ninja costume. Anyone with information regarding Gregory’s location or this situation is urged to contact the Chelmsford police immediately.”

Mother and I turned to stare at Grandpa, who slowly turned the radio off. He looked up, and his eyes met mine. I saw guilt in them. I don’t know his name.

“Grandpa,” Mother said. She spoke as though each word were forced from her lips. “Can you tell us what is going on?”

He swallowed. “Not in front of the kids, Miranda.”

“Devin, take your sister upstairs.”

“I’m not done yet,” Missy said.

I took her hand. “Come on, kiddo. I’ll give you a Twinkie.”

We went upstairs. Mother never called us back. We wandered back downstairs when it was time to leave. She and Grandpa were huddled over the radio. Mother looked up at us, and I swear for a moment she didn’t even know we were there. Her eyes were distant, tearful. I quickly turned Missy away so she wouldn’t see.

On the bus ride to school, I briefly explained the situation to Missy. I didn’t go into specifics—except with the blue truck; I figured that wouldn’t be too dramatic—but she immediately picked up on it.

“He dreamed about that boy, didn’t he?”

I didn’t know if his visions-that-weren’t-visions came in dreams or not, but I nodded. “Yeah, he did.”

Missy was matter-of-fact. “He’s dead, isn’t he? That boy. Otherwise Grandpa wouldn’t be so sad.”

I don’t know if they ever found the boy’s body. I moved away from Chelmsford when I went to college. But I know, in the six years that followed, nothing ever turned up. Not one eyewitness, not one fingerprint or scrap of clothing. The boy had simply vanished. Grandpa never told anyone, except maybe Mother, what he saw. I doubt he knew who had taken the kid. He would’ve spoken up about that. The theory I’ve come up with is that Grandpa knew what’d happened, but not who’d done it. And that half-knowledge haunted him.

The headaches got worse. Mother eventually forced him to see a doctor, who found nothing wrong. “Stress,” the doctor said, but didn’t even prescribe any medication. He just told Grandpa to take it easy. As if he could.

There were more visions. He told them to me, occasionally. Most of them weren’t bad. One of them was actually good. He told me one of my classmates who had cancer would go into remission; a week later, she did. He predicted a fire at the abandoned shoe factory—”Arson, but don’t ask me which brats are gonna do it”—and plenty of snow for winter. For Thanksgiving, he told me our father wouldn’t be able to make it, but he never said why (turned out, Dad was involved in a minor motorcycle accident, which, Mother said with a relieved smile, was just what he got for riding a motorcycle in November). Several of Grandpa’s predictions didn’t come true; he didn’t tell me everything, but he told me enough so that I understood that they were random. A hurricane in Florida; an earthquake in Oregon; a gunman at a Dallas Wal-Mart. He said he knew the winning lottery numbers, but that only a thief would buy a ticket. He also predicted that I would grow up to be a successful doctor, which he only said because I got queasy around blood.

Missy became fascinated. Whenever Grandpa started rubbing his temple, she’d get him a Tylenol and a glass of water. She stayed by his side, asking him constant questions. I could tell he was sometimes annoyed, but he did his best to put on a good face. I doubt he ever told her anything truthful, at least as far as the negative predictions went. “I see a little girl who won’t get presents on Christmas if she doesn’t go to bed soon,” he said a couple of times, but Missy would laugh and say that Grandpa was no match for Santa Claus.

Christmas came and went—Missy got plenty of presents—and then the New Year. Grandpa appeared a little weaker, but he always had during the winter. “Ice and old bones don’t mix,” he’d say, using it as an excuse not to leave the house. There was one night where he woke up screaming again, and stayed glued to the news for an entire week. He never explained, not even to Mother, what he’d seen, but after seven days had passed without any major story breaking out, he seemed to relax a little.

Spring Break came, and normally we’d take a short trip somewhere, just two or three days, but Grandpa’s headaches had been occurring more frequently, so Mother thought it best to stay home. “Sounds great,” Grandpa said. “We’d probably just go see that old son-in-law of mine anyways, and I’d have to listen about his damned fishing trips. How interesting can bass be?”

I spent the week hanging with Jake, because Rory’s family went to Ohio for some reason. We didn’t have a whole lot to do without Rory prodding us along, so we basically played video games at Jake’s house. Grandpa watched Missy, and without much complaint; lately she’d taken to simply sitting beside him, waiting for him to have one of his predictions. I guess she’d figured out that constant yammering didn’t help any. Nor, of course, did her silence, but no one saw any reason to tell her that.

I came home about three o’clock that Thursday. I usually waited until four when Mother got home, because being alone in the house with Grandpa and Missy, him in his recliner and her in a child-sized folding chair beside him, was kind of creepy. But Jake had beaten me pretty bad at Call of Duty, and I was in a sour mood. So I took my bike home—still avoiding Grant, I remembered the pain of my arm breaking all too well—and put it safely away in the garage. Then I went out to the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and went in through the front door.

Grandpa was in his recliner, of course, back to me. Missy, instead of beside him, was sitting Indian-style on the floor in front of him, looking up at his face. I was so surprised to see this change of scenery that I stopped in the doorway. A gust of wind came in from behind me and tore the mail from my hand. It fell to the floor and scattered with a hiss.

Missy glanced up. “Hey, Devin,” she said.

“Hey, Missy.”

“He had another vision. I’m waiting for him to tell me what it was.”

“Just tell her, Grandpa,” I said. “She won’t leave you alone until you do.”

“Shut up,” she said.

Grandpa made no response, and Missy went back to watching him. And I knew. It’s not the kind of knowledge you act on, of course. Because even though you know, you don’t want to admit it. It goes against instinct. Can’t ever know something’s gonna happen until it happens, Grandpa had said, which applied to most people, if not himself. He could easily have said, Can’t know something’s happened until you already know it’s happened. But that last one wasn’t always true.

I walked to the recliner slowly, keeping my eyes on Missy. She was smiling sweetly up at Grandpa, such a charming smile, and for a moment I thought, Come on, look how happy she is, can you really be thinking what you’re thinking when she’s that happy? But I could, and I was, and I wasn’t wrong.

Grandpa’s eyes were open, but he wasn’t seeing the TV. He wasn’t seeing anything. I stood over him for a few seconds, fighting the urge to poke his arm and try and wake him up. Come on, Grandpa, you’re scaring Missy. Get up, dammit, wake up, have one of your headaches, start screaming, just do something you old man.

Instead, I took Missy by the arm and hauled her up a little too roughly. She protested, trying to twist out of my grip, but I tightened my hand and said, “Go upstairs. Right now.”

No.”

“Yes. Do it. You can take one of my Twinkies.”

“I don’t want—”

I shoved her towards the stairs. “Now, Missy.”

She knew better than to argue with me.

I called 911 first. Then I called Mother. I don’t know which conversation was the hardest; the 911 call was the longest, and I had to describe the situation in more detail. The call to Mother was short, straight to the point: Get home. Right now. It’s Grandpa. But those six words didn’t come easy, because by then my throat was pretty much dry, and when I hung up I began heaving. Nothing came up except a couple flecks of blood.

There was an autopsy. No discernible cause. “Which isn’t as rare as you may think,” we were told. “It happens to people his age. Rest assured, his death was in all likelihood quick and painless. He may not have even known it was happening.”

I didn’t buy that. I couldn’t help but think that, one way or the other way, his other way, he’d seen it coming.

By unspoken agreement, Mother and I stopped talking about Grandpa’s visions. It didn’t seem right with him gone. Missy learned not to talk to Mother about them—two quick bouts of tears, followed by a half-hearted spanking, provided a good lesson—but she’d still occasionally mention them to me late at night after we’d gone to bed. I wouldn’t say anything, just let her talk. I think that’s all she needed.

Like I said, part of Missy still believes it was the tree, even though it came down on the opposite side of the house. The place she shares now with her husband has no trees around it. There was one when they moved in, but Missy refused to sleep there until it was taken down. The last time I visited, her son lamented how wonderful it would be to have a tire swing. “But you need a tree for that,” he said to me, “and Mom hates trees.”

There’s a tree next to my house. In fact, it’s right outside my window. We had a strong storm pass through last week, and the branches shook, scraping against the window. My wife and I woke up in the middle of the night, and she said, “We need to take that tree down, Devin. One day it’s going to fall on us.”

I nodded. She was probably right. The only thing I didn’t know for sure was…whether or not I wanted the tree to fall.

Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. He is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com or on Facebook.

It Ends the Way It Always Ends

Tell me why you are here.

Because my parents sent me here.

And why did they send you?

To help me “handle the situation.”

And the situation is. . .

My brother.

The death of your brother.

Something like that, I said.

 

You seem uncomfortable.

This chair’s okay.

Uncomfortable with me.

I thought you’d look like my mother.

Why is that?

She listens.

And your father?

He doesn’t want to hear it.

What does your father want?

For me to man-up.

Which consists of—?

Cracking your knuckles and keeping your mouth shut.

As opposed to—?

Sitting in this chair next to a box of tissues marked PUFFS.

 

It’s all right.

It’s not all right.

There’s no law that says boys can’t cry. Help yourself to a—

Fucking PUFF.

Tell me something about your brother.

He’s dead.

Something about when he was alive.

Once we tried to catch a fish. With our bare hands. But it was big and slippery and got away.

 

How did your brother die?

Kissed a girl.

Your brother kissed a girl.

I just told you that.

Your brother kissed a girl and

And got meningitis.

Did you want to kiss that girl, too?

No, I wanted to grind her so deep into the ground we’d both end up in the grave.

Grave is an interesting word.

Grind is even interesting-er.

 

Why didn’t you kiss—or grind—the girl?

He got there first.

And you were used to going first?

I was older.

By how much?

I don’t know. Eight, nine minutes. How much longer do we have to keep talking?

Why are you so anxious to leave?

Your artwork is ugly.

Why do you say that?

It doesn’t have any people in it. Just colors. So you can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be about.

 

What do you think life is about?

Being happy. I guess.

Were you happy before your brother died?

Most of the time.

And now?

Everything’s fucked.

 

What did your brother look like?

You know.

I don’t know.

You have to know. It’s written. Right there. In that file.

Yes, but I’d like to hear it from you. Start like this: My brother looked like. . .

Me.

My brother looked like me because. . .

Because he was my—

It’s all right.

It’s not all right.

There’s no law that says boys can’t cry. Help yourself to a—

Fucking PUFF.

 

In your file, it says you’re having trouble sleeping. Concentrating. And that the precipitating incident—

What does that mean?

The thing that led you here.

My parents made me come here.

–came when your father was trying to teach you how to shave, is that right?

Maybe.

What happened that morning?

Cut myself.

How?

I wasn’t looking. The way my dad said I should.

How were you looking, then?

Like . . .like I wasn’t myself. Like I was getting pulled through the glass, to the other side.

Did you tell your father that?

Sorta.

And what did he say.

Get it together.

Why do you think he said that?

He thinks I’m losing it. I heard him on the phone. I heard him tell you, I just want my son back.

Which son do you think he was referring to?

I don’t know. My brother. Me. Both of us, I guess.

You don’t think he was worried about you? Concerned about your well-being?

You talked to him. So why do you keep asking me this stuff?

I want to know your thoughts. Your perspective. Your feelings.

 

Why do I have to feel something about everything? I don’t want to have feelings. They don’t get you anywhere.

Where would you like to go, if you could go anywhere?

Antarctica. Or someplace so cold you couldn’t feel your own feet.

Where would you live?

An igloo.

With whom?

Myself, I guess.

What about your parents?

What about them?

Where would they be?

Left behind.

Do you feel left behind?

No.

No because. . .

Because I don’t want to go where my brother went.

 

How did you feel seeing your brother in the hospital?

He looked gray. Like a Weimaraner.

And in the coffin?

He looked like an oboe. Or some weird instrument that I don’t know how to play.

Did you say anything to him?

It wasn’t him.

Did you touch his body?

My mother put a blanket over him. She said she didn’t want him to be cold in the grave.

Do you want to tell me something about that blanket?

It was brown. One of the ones she was knitting for us to put on our beds when we went to college.

Did they match?

Everything matched. Except our sides were switched. What I had on the right side, he had on the left.

So when you looked in the mirror you saw both him and you?

Something like that.

 

You keep looking at the clock.

An hour here isn’t really an hour, is it?

Our session is fifty minutes.

So aren’t you going to say it?

Say what?

I’ve seen the movies. It starts the way it always starts: Tell me why you are here—and ends the way it always ends—I’m afraid our time for today is up.

Yes. Well. I’m afraid our time for today is up.

 

Mom had dropped me off. But Dad was the one waiting in the parking lot. Staring out the windshield. Like the car was never going anywhere ever again.

He blinked—and looked away—when I got in.

Well? he asked.

I tried to figure out what my father really meant: Are you cured? or Was the shrink worth looking at?

Mom’s prettier, I told him. Because that seemed man enough.

Rita Ciresi is the author of four novels (including Bring Back My Body to Me and Pink Slip) and two award-winning story collections (Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket). She is professor of English and director of the creative writing program at the University of South Florida.

Edenfield

Dear Sirs,

I got your letter some time back and I’m sorry for being so slow on the responding. I have given it a whole lot of thought these months now and decided to write you back. I wasn’t, but now I have (obviously). I’m not going to sign my name to this because I don’t want you to ever know my name. I reckon you can figure it out if you are inclined to anyway. I’m not going to say on it but what is here. You can use this for any reason you want except don’t expect me to ever speak at any hearing or law proceeding of that nature. I don’t want to do it and won’t. The past is past and should better stay that way. This is my opinion and I hope you can respect it. But I will set down a few words here concerning Mr. Edenfield as was asked for.

I read all you sent me. Yes it rings bells. I read a lot about the boys said they was traumatized. I was brutalized but not traumatized. At first it bothered me that I hadn’t been traumatized. Several of you guys was traumatized and brutalized. Reason being I wasn’t traumatized is because I was already in shock, a post-trauma from my daddy’s death and sudden aloneness and responsibility. This is my best explanation. See, I was pretty pissed off at the world in those days, enraged at my daddy, and then his dying on me, and then at God and Christ. I cussed them and raged against them for most of my early adulthood. I was a thing to behold. But I look back nowadays and I see that Christ was there for me all through. He loved me even when I didn’t love Him. I didn’t see it then, and there wasn’t nothing outside of me that could hurt me more than I was already hurting, but I see now the Holy Spirit was there with me every step I took. My daddy told me once that there’s always a place for God, the only question being whether He is in that place. God wasn’t there for the old man at all (even at the end he said how he had all them Baptists to die for his sins anyways) and I reckon he never satisfied his curiosities in that regard, but He is there for me today and this is a serious comfort in life.

That one could pack his lunch in a punch and man could he ever cut with his knuckles too. I still got all the white scars on my eyebrows, one under my lip, a tooth less than I ought.

Like I was saying, I wasn’t traumatized. I was just brutalized and maybe not even that. I had a big brother back then and we used to swap licks with each other all the time. That one could pack his lunch in a punch and man could he ever cut with his knuckles too. I still got all the white scars on my eyebrows, one under my lip, a tooth less than I ought. I held my own though and gave him as good or better than I got. All my brothers had a lot of anger similar to me. So I was maybe traumatized more by my own kinfolk than the cottage fathers. This is maybe a thing has given me perspective but you like as not don’t see it that way, which is fine.

I was a guest in Clinton and Mr. Edenfield was the ruler of that cottage, along with his assistant Bull Munro. (Mr. Edenfield was for sure the cottage father at Clinton and not Mr. McClair as some have claimed in the statements they done. I don’t see how some have such clear recollections of things that far back but can go getting names of people mixed up that way). Seemed like Edenfield drove a black ’57 Ford that looked like a cop car. He had seen just about every kind of kid there is and was completely untrusting of most, but I never minded him. He wasn’t the worst by a long chalk (I’ve scraped meaner off my shoe) and he treated me fine overall. Within that group was a certain comradeship and competition to being the best flogger. They took pride in busting a butt in under ten strokes sort of thing. McClair, Voss, and Dunlap was the best of the bunch. Some assistant cottage fathers got into the inner group rivalry, like Munro. The one with the one arm couldn’t get the balance/leverage to be in the top group but he was in the group right under. Not to say he wasn’t a slouch. Mr. Campbell was another wanted to be top ranked but with the one leg he couldn’t turn the paddle at certain angles and it became rigid-like and sliced wrong. I think you needed all your limbs to do it right, which is true of most things in life probably. But Edenfield never took it up personally. He might have had some qualms. I can’t say I ever asked. It wasn’t a thing me and him talked about.

It’s a long time ago. Life just flies don’t it? I had a ducktail hairstyle then, listened to ‘devil music’ (Elvis, Fats, Jerry Lee), wore Levis, penny loafers and had a leather jacket. It was a good jacket that and I don’t rightly know what came of it. Must have lost it. I was all bad and worse. Right feisty. But for all I raised hell I should never have stole anything. I knew better and done it anyway although I wouldn’t do it without I got drunk first. I got more sense than that. But I got stinking that night and it got done and I wasn’t exactly on the righteous path back then and I didn’t know God from diddly.

Two Statesmen come for me and I can see them still clear as water in their white shortsleeved shirts, black slacks, funny short argyle socks. Can see the blacklaced shoes of them shining polished in the sun (it being sunny like as if to mock me). They put me in back of the State car. My brother didn’t look too copacetic standing there in our yard that morning. He felt bad, staring in the dirt and making little mountains of it with his boot. Mainly because he was the one had put me up to the thieving in the first place and was thinking about his contributing to the delinquency of a minor and if I’d keep my mouth shut. It was copper wire was all it was. We had chickens then, but they didn’t amount to much. They were in the yard too as if to say goodbye, which is why I mention them. I remember the chickens being there but not really participating in the scene much.

In other circumstances the scenery might have done me good but that day the highway just give me a long cold shoulder and a big moon came up new white as the face of an applehalf when we drove on in there, and looked mournful as I felt.

The door handles was took off the back of the car in case. We drove northwest out of Apalachicola on Highway 98. The light yonder came clicking on the water like silver dimes and glinting also off of the saw grass. Up there is some of the biggest pines I ever saw then and since. I had never been drove so far. Then north on 71, out of Port Gihon through Wewahitchka along the Dead Lake. You all must have done that when coming. In other circumstances the scenery might have done me good but that day the highway just give me a long cold shoulder and a big moon came up new white as the face of an applehalf when we drove on in there, and looked mournful as I felt.

I was up three weeks before I gave them the chance to straighten me out. I had worked part time at a Morrison’s and so asked to work in the kitchen. After a week there came an opening as cook helper. I was an older boy (fifteen) so I was placed there (only the older bigger boys worked in the kitchen you’ll recollect, except some younger dish washers). My main job was cracking open cartons of eggs, prepping for the cook and staff cook who was also over the boys and whose names I forget. The staff cook had a face looked like a chewed cabbage, which feature made him memorable. They had a rank system and the lowest rank was Grub and if you was a Grub and you did anything wrong you had no rank to take away so you went down. But I had rank and went down anyways. I guess I had a talent for upsetting the natural order of things.

One big thing was we was never allowed to talk to the black boys when they come by to pick up the swill cans to take to the hogs. So this one time while we was loading the swill cans in the midden I was fixing to pour when I let slip a can and some of the swill spilled over the top and got on one of the black boy’s shoes. I said, “I’m sorry man I didn’t mean for that to happen.” This black boy had had his cheek laid open by a knife and looked mean as a snake and wasn’t a person you’d look to aggravate ideally. But he says “it’s O.K, don’t worry about it” and I said “thanks.” That was the all of it. But then one of the other boys, I never knew who, wish I knew what snake-in-the grass did for it still bothers me some, heard me and puked to Munro I was talking to the black boys and being of a conversational bent. Munro come and asked me what was said between the black boy and me and I said God’s truth I never said a word. He smiled that way he did and took me into the office, wrote me up for lying and made me sign it.

Next morning I was took to Edenfield and he looked sad as suffering Job, told how disappointing it was to see me sitting there in shame because I had been doing so well and he had high hopes. This lapse of honesty was going to cost me dear, at least another six weeks stay down the line. But he was going to give me a choice though I didn’t deserve it. I could accept the drop in rank (get moved out the kitchen) or I could have the write up (I can’t remember what it was called when you was written up, it was called something) paddled off. And I said to him the paddling off was fine by me. I figured I could handle their beatings given my family history and such and come up smiling like a rose.

I could not stand the thought of them waking me up and taking me to it. I had heard things about those got took there. I suppose the waiting is always worst.

But that night I lay on my bunk after light out staring at the door, waiting for it to open. I could not stand the thought of them waking me up and taking me to it. I had heard things about those got took there. I suppose the waiting is always worst. It must have been two hours before I see Munro open the door a chink and with him was the one armed man. I don’t remember his name though I knew it then. It had more vowels in it than is usual I think. I stood up next to my bunk and Munro waved me to them with a face like a bulldog chewing wasps.

At some point your mind goes to a blank place though and the thought of what is going to happen can’t get in.

I was took to a waiting car. There was another boy from a different cottage in the car but we didn’t look at each other as they drove us over to it. The boy looked crazier than a run over dog anyway and had I believe larger than average ears. Didn’t know him from Adam though. There was a short pine tree-lined road went past the kitchen back to it. I don’t recollect it being white, like everyone says it was in the statements. To me it was more biscuit coloured. It was Fall so maybe the brick was just wet though. There was a big rack of black clouds troweled up in the sky that night and no stars or moon and leaves come scattering at the car like poured coins out the dark. I could hear a train a ways out, all that liquid clicking and the shunt and clatter that trains have.

“You boys just sit there for a minute,” Munro said.

Then Gipe it was come out. This is the important thing, it not being Edenfield. Gipe you remember had this white bulldog with a big red flannel tongue was always about his legs (the dog). He signed the papers and took some keys from out his pocket, unlocked the door, and disappeared himself into the dark. Then he was back at the right side of the car and had to reach through the front window to unlock the rear door. “You can get out now,” he said. “You boys get on in there.” I always remember him saying that, about the getting out and getting in because of how confusing it was a minute.

“What happened to your other watchdog, Milton?” says the one-armed man.

“I do believe someone done stole it, Blake,” Gipe said, big grinning it. Blake was the one-armed man’s Christian given name now I think on it.

The three of them all laughed fit to bust at Gipe’s crack. I remember thinking it wasn’t that bad a one myself but I wasn’t of a very humorous disposition just then.

There was a whitewashed corridor six feet wide, eight feet high, estimate, and the walls of this corridor was lit by a bulb in a twisted case of wire. Three quarters of the way down the corridor was two rooms, one on either side. The other was the Colored Boys room. Word had it the only difference was in the number of strokes given, which makes you think. I was prejudiced then and still am but it still makes you think about things in general. In that other room where we got took was nothing but this rusting GI- green army cot. The cot had an uncovered striped mattress and pillow. The mattress was all dark with liquid stains also like it had been spattered with thrown ink.

Thinking of it again I can come near to smelling the damp cement and the mildew stink off the mattress and the dirty pillow with blood spots from boys that bit so hard. Funny thing it is that way in memory you practically scent things almost all over. We was told to sit so we sat. Gipe asked us if we knew why we was there. Munro kept himself in the small hallway behind. We said yes. Then the one armed man come and took the other boy outside to wait his go round. I figured it was better to get it over with and not to get to listen and have thoughts to think.

“All right now, boy,” Gipe said. “It’ll go easier on you if you do right as I tell you. You’re to lay on that cot there on your belly with your face to the wall. If I were you, I’d stuff that pillow in my mouth. Once we get started here you don’t turn your head, understand? Not for love or mercy. You don’t cry out or scream or we start it all over again. You hear me, boy?”

I just nodded. Wasn’t much else to do in that situation.

“Place both hands on the cot frame and keep a tight hold of it,” he said. “If I were you I’d try to stay as relaxed as you can. You’re less likely to be hurt.”

Of course, Gipe weren’t me though he kept suggesting it. He was choosing a strap as I was being instructed. He said to lower my pants on account of how fabric threads thrashed that hard into me might cause infection. But I kept my underpants on due to embarrassment and so on. Thinking back there was a kind of rubber mat ran the side of the cot so the person swung the paddle could take a baseball pitcher type of approach to it.

“You best do as the mister said and stick the corner of that pillow in your mouth,” said the one-armed man. He was watching the procedure. Observing. I suppose one of them had to watch too, as maybe a witness per regulations, see it got done right.

I got a big mouthful of pillow and bit down on it and waited, and Gipe shouts “hit the fan.” Then there comes the awful roar of a big blower at the corridor’s end. Must have been Munro switched it. It filled the little room until the fan was all the sound there was. It didn’t make the air any cooler, just a little more lively, and I was sweating already like two rats fighting in a sock from the heat and fearfulness.

First thing you heard was the strap hitting the ceiling then the wall then your rear. (Gipe was a very tall man and the room was very small)… I came to wait the second between the scrape on the ceiling and the impact and tightened my lower back, ass, and legs, so as just when it landed on me I would go limp.

First thing you heard was the strap hitting the ceiling then the wall then your rear. (Gipe was a very tall man and the room was very small). I believe he held the paddle in his dexter hand (maybe a southpaw). I don’t know what I was expecting of the hurt but the pain blew up in my head bang like a sizeable bomb going off when the skin split across my buttocks and the force of the hit drove my whole body down into the bunk, which springs squeaked. I came to wait the second between the scrape on the ceiling and the impact and tightened my lower back, ass, and legs, so as just when it landed on me I would go limp. Every bone in my body had gone to jumping like they’re going to come through my skin and I felt this numb gritty feeling on the back of my teeth from where they were getting some grinding done.

Somewhere between that first lick and 24 licks later I stopped thinking about it all over much though.

I do agree funny enough that before each lick you did hear Gipe’s shoe pivot on the sand on the mat and I recollect also the same funny scratchy sound been reported. In writing this I remember something else about that first time. This being the one armed man saying, “Boy, I told you to stuff the corner of that pillow in your mouth and keep it there. I don’t want to have to listen to none of your crying and bawling.”

But I wasn’t crying given my sentiment that tears are for pussies. I was praying. And I said as much to them.

“Well boy,” Gipe said, stopping and looking disagreeable, “You just do that, but you’d better do it a lot quieter, else you’ll have a lot more to pray about, hear me?”

But looking back from the place I am now it was the first workings of Providence in me then, for the Lord moves in mysterious way it’s true, true in all my experience anyway. And thinking on it some more I am almost grateful now for what happened that night and the times after as it went some ways to the opening up my heart. You have to wonder sometimes why things happen like they do. But there’s a reason.

I couldn’t get up when he told me to.

“I said, get on up,” he kept saying, coming across a bit peevish overall.

I was trying to move my legs, to turn myself around, but nothing worked. My body was like something had been disjointed and put back by drunken surgeons.

“If you don’t get up off that cot like I told you, we’re going to start on you all over again,” Gipe said. “Now get you up.”

So I did.

There was bits and pieces of my undershorts got embedded in my skin (they was right about that) and I tried to pull as much as I could out later in bed but not much on account it hurt too bad to touch. Next day my buttocks felt like a big black crust and I could only take steps about 6 inches long and didn’t do the swilling (which was just as well given the earlier circumstance). I swear my ass was black as a crow for a week.

The other details you inquired about I am on the hazy side. I do believe that the strap was made of an old-time leather conveyer belt. The strap was cut from the belt and had a wood handle with holes to decrease the wind resistance (I guess) and also be able to create blood blisters except I don’t know why you’d want to do that. As to the numbers question, there was one father to whip, one father to witness and watch the inmate on the cot and any inmate previous been beat and then a father to stay with the inmates waiting to be whipped. Given all, it would take a minimum of three staff members to escort a group of boys over there. Seems like when they would take four guys at a time over there I was told they would also have four staff members but I might be recollecting wrong. I only had to go there three times myself in all that time.

The other boy there that night with the ears was more resistant. He observed how Gipe had a face like a bagful of chisels at one juncture I recollect and asked the man with the one arm why didn’t he give him a round of applause also. I best remember he didn’t make out too well. In my mind I’ve always reckoned it’s best not to insult the alligator before you cross the stream.

But I can’t say I ever saw any of the fathers taking any pleasure in what they done over there. Matter of fact they seemed sad and mournful at the time, like they’d rather be about something else. Nor was there anything queer about the procedure as has been set down by some in their testimonials. Most of the men were married as I recollect and their wives lived on the place and tended gardens and did chores around the place. I liked watching the ladies hang the white linen on the line in their blue aprons and how it billied there and they smiled a lot and seemed pretty happy considering. Many of the wives were nice to us and one gave me a poke of apples one time sweet and juicy as anything (the apples) and as I wasn’t nice myself I appreciated that. There was some said Mr. Edenfield who wasn’t ever married was a bit light in the loafers, but I never saw any of that in him. He was always good to me and fair and gave me privileges. They had some mean hombres to deal with in those cottages remember and it wasn’t all rosy and Paradise and I suppose you cut your cloth to suit and so on.

Like I said, I got nothing more to say about it. In my case, I was brutalized and not traumatized. I have seen some terrible things in my life too. Saw a woman hit by a tire iron on the head round back of the Harris Lee Parcus rest stop in Arab, Alabama. Kept right on talking as if nothing happened, as you might always suspected a woman might. Also saw a cat light a man on fire once (on accident). That was something too. I’m now 60 years old and I have finally gotten my life together. I have been married for the last 18 years to a wonderful lady and I am finally now sharing this awful past with her. I have had a lot of problems in my life with booze and relationships. I would never trust anyone, as many of you can relate so well. I have recently rededicated my life to Christ and we have joined a wonderful church (Right Hand Fork United Methodist) and I aim to share this story with some of the congregation directly except many of them (deacons included) seem to be on the sensitive side and don’t much care for hearing about the sins of others in general. I have to think God is using you all and your wonderful gift of writing the stories of abused children to help even older children like me get over the hurt and fear that was beaten into us long ago and I agree what ought to be ought not to be so hard. But as I was saying I wasn’t traumatized personally and think many of the details I have read have been wrong, and others mixed up, but some right. As I get along in life I also forget lots of things regularly, mainly being car keys and spectacles. This is also likely to be the case with others in my experience. You all are getting along in life. But I also have become considerable more easygoing as I’ve gotten older and my philosophy now is that the same rain falls upon the just and also on the unjust (but like the fella said mostly it falls upon the just because the unjust has likely made off with the just’s umbrellas).

I hope this helps some. Anyway, it’s all I got.

 

This is the place I would sign my name regularly if I was to.

P.S. Last thing I want to speak of was the blanket parties we had back then. Do you all remember those? I remember it like it was yesterday. If you don’t that was when the boys would wait till you were asleep and throw a blanket over your head and beat you about it with soap wrapped in a sock. First time, one of the other boys told me which night it was supposed to happen and I sat upright in my bed all night on account of being scared shitless and the party never took place. But it did another night. I’ve never forgot the pain and fear I felt, not being able to see, being hit at that hard. Some nights I wake up thinking I’m back in the dormitory, sweating and crying and so on, and my wife cries too when she sees me carry on like that. If you puked to a father about getting a blanket party you were called a snitch or rat and no one had anything to do with you so no one ever spoke up. But it was done to me and now I’m not even sure some of you wasn’t the boys did it to me, or even me to you, in which case I hope you forgive me, for I forgive you all, and am working on moving on to a place where such memories don’t bother me no more. But I know Mr. Edenfield didn’t know about any of that and if he had I think he’d have made us quit because he was at heart I think not a bad man and not the same as I recognize from my reading in these materials sent and is not a person would have done most of those awful things make me feel sick to my stomach. He wasn’t capable is my thinking and opinion and if he was, well, so was we all.

Robert Smith’s fiction has appeared in U.S. magazines like Gettysburg Review, Fugue, StoryQuarterlyBarrelhouse and Other Voices, and in European magazines like Chapman, Versal, Gutter, Warwick Review and Barcelona Review. He is a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.

Acrocomia aculeate

Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them…They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.

— Jeremiah 10:5

Power Lines, Andrew R. Ko

Power Lines, Andrew R. Ko

The resort guard, who protects whites and other rich people on the island, leans against the beach access gate and pulls his cap low over his face to watch me with eyes I can’t see. If I was really in prison and if I did have the choice, my last meal would be a glass of Sancerre and a soupe de poissons with the little garlicky-Gruyère and rouille dipping toasts sinking slowly as they absorb the spicy orange broth. But I have three weeks left of vacation in the DR and the air conditioning doesn’t work anywhere on the island. It’s too hot for soup. Hortense, the nude sunbather with wrinkly breasts who sits near me, tells a story about a chica who beat a guy with a crow bar because he put a dent in her new white truck with gold rims. When the police got there, chica beat the cops even harder.

Olivier, my French husband, whose body is covered with red, swollen bumps, lies beside me slapping away mosquitoes. He’s been waiting six hours to see a doctor who makes house calls on the beach. My sweat sends me sliding off the plastic chair every time I move and I’m afraid to fall on him. But I can’t go anywhere. I can’t get out. Sketching palm trees does keep my mind off Trujillo sometimes. But this Dominican dictator had been short with a puffed chest and the palm trees are tall and slender.

I draw the trees like every tourist who has drawn them here before. At first I believed they were different from the paintings sold in the village market by Haitian refugees. And indeed, Hortense took them for pot leaves with scraggly stems and asked where to buy some for her bad, sagging knees. The last time I smoked pot was in the middle of a busy Parisian street with a self-exiled Bosnian Serb artist in a tracksuit, who claimed he only guarded a door for Milosevic during the war and never saw any Muslims. I was trying to impress him so I could get an interview and make him see. The gendarmes arrested me and finally let me go because I convinced them that I was conducting university-funded research.

I am trying to forget the dissertation I just finished on dictators, a prison of sorts where I still feel at home.

The doctor may never come. Mosquitoes hovering and humming above Olivier’s eyelids lull him asleep. Here, I don’t let myself nap or sleep because I don’t like thinking about my insomnia. This dictator haunts me in life but kills me in my dreams. The guard smokes and writes a text on a phone with a cat-whistle ringtone.

No one looks as I take out the forbidden books I’ve rolled into my only towel that smells of dirty, salty socks. It’s how, at age twelve, I snuck Lady Chatterley’s Lover down to the pool and devoured it right in front of my aunts, who were reading the latest Reader’s Digest Condensed volume. Each time I got to a part where Connie ran to the gamekeeper’s cottage for sex, I dove in and did front and back flips in the water until that foreign, hot itchy feeling between my crossed legs went away. But I didn’t need to hide much of anything. Raised by my grandparents, no one noticed me at all unless I got sick, and it only counted if I had a fever. I could be a victim of something beyond their control, nature’s inflictions on my body as a sore throat for example, but they were too old and tired to deal with the rage adolescence played against those corporeal parts my grandparents didn’t want to know about. Hypochondria, how I had contracted various deadly illnesses was my obsession until I started to learn about dictators.

I read the first lines by this forbidden writer, taking comfort in feeling like the self I am not supposed to be here in Las Terrenas. A few pages in, I get to the part about Trujillo’s assassination and my throat, my chest tighten. I close the book and cover it with the towel over my lap. I sketch, I sketch a palm tree for my life.

It wasn’t my fault that the unsuspecting bookseller back in Atlanta happened to be from the DR. I went in looking for tourist guides. After he had shown me a few, I couldn’t help it. I confessed my dissertation because it was what I had always done with booksellers when I wanted the latest work on some dictator to feed a chapter. To this short, fat man whose cell phone lit up blue as it rang silently in his breast pocket, I tearfully admitted that I was bored without my diss. I missed things like the adventures of Gaddafi’s traveling tent. Happy to feel useful in a bookstore where he was usually asked about self-help books, he led me to fiction.

“These are very, very interesting and very, very beautiful tales,” he said with one hand on his cell phone-covered heart, the other clasping a book by Alvarez, “on the DR’s very, very bad pain, on Trujillo, the dictator, so, so much suffering. Dios mio!” He began each sentence as if singing and ended them with whispers.

On the way out to the car that already glimmered with Atlanta’s parking lot heat before noon, I remembered the tourist guides I’d abandoned as I clutched my forbidden purchases. My second time at the cash register, I tried not to be annoyed by the bemused smile lurking in the bookseller’s crinkling eyes. My new companion’s name was Trujillo.

Olivier wakes and looks up and me, rattled by the violence of a snore interrupted and lies back down. He stretches his hand out to me and massages my foot. I give a little groan to tell him it feels good and he smiles.

“Nolia, if I could to kill mosquitos and sand fleas, I am in the heaven,” Olivier murmurs, shading his eyes with his other hand, “cannot we stay here and to be happy forever?” And he could. Like all French, he is obsessed with having the real five-week French experience of les vacances. Since living with me in the US for two years, he’s suffered through one-week sprints to the beach and back. The rule that nothing gets accomplished during August is so sacred in France that my father-in-law put his sick mother in the hospital with the hopes she wouldn’t die before la rentrée in September. While not on vacances, everyone talks about les vacances at every coffee break, dinner party, or play date. The average Voltaire-spouting Parisian’s head fills with air en vacances. Les vacances, les vacances, les vacances. Olivier, triumphant, is finally en vacances.

This is why he tolerates his sand flea and mosquito bites. But I don’t. From head to toe, I apply the aloe and other creams that relieve his itching three times a day, a ritual that takes an hour. I say this to him because I have to: “Oui mon amour, let’s forget everything and live here. And be happy.” He kisses my hand. The faint odor of calamine makes my stomach turn.

While Olivier marvels at his ever-deepening tan, chaotic scenes from CNN International I saw on my wedding day compel me to live like the dark tropical rain that falls unannounced in the middle of afternoon sun here in Las Terrenas. Six months ago, I got married on the same day of the great Haitian earthquake, which I blame on dictators. Trujillo’s grandmother was, after all, Haitian. A French husband and a Bordeaux village wedding made me the envy of the few friends I had left. As they sprayed my hair and polished my toes, I watched the news and tried to seem interested in bridesmaid chatter of blue garters and champagne. The day after we got married, I told Olivier the honeymoon would have to wait. I needed the time to develop a chapter on weather patterns and their influence on dictators. When I published this as an article in a prestigious journal, I carved out my place as an expert in the field.

And here I am now, on the other side of Hispaniola in the DR, just to the right of six months ago. Papa and Baby Doc play over and over in my mind like memories of my first kiss.

A blue pick-up truck blasting Bachata from speakers rigged to its roof pulls up to the terra cotta columns of Bonita Resort’s entrance gate. A group of guards wearing white polo shirts and navy blue caps descend from the bed carrying steaming Styrofoam containers. The guard watching us takes one and they all sit on the beach to eat their lunch of rice, pasta, and chicken neck, the same meal they’ve been eating all week. A new guard takes his place. His ringtone sings Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

I can’t stop sweating and I can’t go in the water to cool off because my husband must not see the books. They start sliding off my lap, but I catch them.

“Mental and emotional rest,” my doctor prescribed each time I went to him with one of my chronic bellyaches, secretly hoping for a chance pregnancy to save me from finishing my dissertation on dictators. Perhaps I would be like one of Ceausescu’s heroine mothers with ten children. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Tito, Mao (at a certain point my advisor told me I needed to shift my focus away from Europe), Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il, Papa and Baby Doc, Mugabe, Gaddafi, Castro, Al-Bashir, Pinochet, Jiang Qing, and along with their victims, had become perverse but loyal companions. I did try to make real friends when I went to archives in Berlin, Rome, and Belgrade. But as soon as they began inviting me to parties, out shopping, or to their parents’ country house, I would disappear. It was too hard picking out mini-shorts at H&M or hunting for truffles with Gerlinde, Francesca, or Miljana while trying to guess whether or not their grandparents collaborated with Hitler, Mussolini, or Tito. The real problem with getting close was not that I wanted to find out more about dictators; it was that I, for no reason that any therapist could make me understand, wanted to get close enough to feel like a victim. I dreamed about drinking Mateus Rose from Hussein’s secret wine cellar stockpile while he wasn’t looking. There was nothing Stockholm about my condition, protested I.

Olivier was going to take me back to Paris as a graduation present, but the last time I spent my time alone there drinking Sancerre with soupe de poissons at the Hotel Lutetia, 45 Boulevard Raspail, watching the little toasts sink to the bottom. One thing I do love about France is that it’s a country where talking about dictators is an everyday sport, encouraged by the consequential intellectual public. In America, I’ve discovered, people who talk about dictators do big things like make movies or build museums. At the Lutetia, Hitler’s Parisian abode, for example, I interview a long-retired waitress who served champagne to Picasso, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel, the Gestapo, and Jewish refugees as they all made this hotel their home sometime in the 1940s. It’s in that sandless rainy city where I sometimes think I have a chance at being happy.

Olivier changed his mind about Paris when we last went to the doctor. “Sunshine, clean air, and reading for pleasure only. Try women magazines,” the doctor wrote as a joke on his prescription pad that he gave, chuckling, to Olivier when I finished. Like my grandfather, another doctor, this one didn’t think antidepressants could help anyone who willed herself into darkness. Olivier’s graduation present to me was this trip to Las Terrenas, a book about palm trees, and a sketchpad.

Michael Jackson sings out of the guard’s cell. The doctor’s arrived and he takes Olivier’s temperature.

Still on the beach, the doctor finishes his examination of Olivier by checking for bumps between his toes and cleans his hands with Purell. “Mon amour, I must to go to the village because my bumps are very, very bad,” Olivier says, rubbing my neck, “I must to do cortisone injection.” His eyes rest on my face, suspecting nothing.

Almost forgetting the books, I start getting up to go with him, but he insists that I stay on the beach and go swimming because he sees the sweat dripping on the sand under my chair. Ever thoughtful Olivier.

Oui, mon chéri. I’ll be here relaxing and drawing.” I show him my sketchbook and he smiles.

Très bien, mon amour.” He presses some pesos in my palm for the bar. I’ve taken a liking to Ron Barcelo caipirinhas.

Mon cheri!” I call out to him, remembering not to get up as he walks with the doctor to his jeep.

He turns around and nods because he knows what I am going to say. “Oui, mon amour. I get it for tonight for our freedom night.” I’ve been asking Olivier to rent a four-wheeler for a couple of days so we can get away from the resort restaurant to eat beans, rice, and fried plantains with the locals, who probably don’t use white linen napkins with each meal. We were going to, as my grandmother, a belle from rural Georgia, would say went I went on a research trip, “get down and dirty with the natives.” By natives, she meant black people and she wondered why I traveled around the world to talk to them. I don’t think she quite understood that the black help, who still had to ring at her back door instead of the front well after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, weren’t exactly “natives.”

Olivier can’t wait to drink cheap beer. I can’t wait to interview “native” Dominicans about Trujillo when Olivier goes out for a piss, too drunk to notice me.

In between these sketching sessions and exorcising dictators, I’ve been drinking in the Dominican cure of sun and rum and now I am bored with the balmy air and French tourists who can’t get over that I speak their language perfectly. Americans only speak English, Hortense instructs me. Hortense’s last business trip to Atlanta had been a disaster. “J’ai rien compris du tout, du tout!”

I look to make sure Olivier is gone with the doctor, grateful to be alone and free of his sensitive skin. I don’t feel like waiting for our four-wheeler and Olivier may not drink as much beer as I hope. I wrap the books in a towel and walk away from the resort’s clean lines of green lounge chairs and umbrellas towards the dilapidated pinks and blues of the village.

I come upon children in nothing but dusty underpants shrieking in Spanish as waves lap their feet. Some older boys have swum out to the sandbar with shotguns to impale fish, pesos that will feed them for days. As I follow women with plastic totes tied to their heads, weaving in and out of the motorcycles and four-wheelers parked by the beach vendors selling T-shirts with American labels, the antiseptic of the resort dissolves into color and life. Two shirtless girls gnawing on bits of sugarcane, twins maybe, look at me with expressionless eyes while their legs dangle in the fresh water of the rio that slices across the sand from the ocean to the main road of the village to a music I can’t hear. A man cracks open a stack of stale coconuts, swiping off the tops to sell their water, which I can see has dried and turned Styrofoam-like as he walks to tourists sun-bathing at the resort I left behind. Once the water has dried like that, no one would buy the coconuts.

I swear to learn Spanish so I can ask them all about el Corte of 1937, Trujillo’s greatest and most secret accomplishment. They don’t understand my Italian the way I understand their Spanish. I was more interested by Mussolini than Franco. I, in fact, understand everything, but my tongue won’t form the questions. I’m a mime, trapped by my gestures that reduce me to a clown. I may as well be my grandmother.

Dizzy from hunger and heat, I sit down at a restaurant hiding behind fishing boats, whose names painted red have almost peeled away, their identity now illegible. I unroll my towel and put the books on the table, happy to see them released from their damp terry cloth prison.

But Olivier could be here any minute. I have to do something to stop myself. I take out A Guide for Palm Tree Lovers, but all the words lead back to Trujillo.

Qu’est-ce que vous désirez Mademoiselle?” asks Paco, twirling a dirty dishtowel over his shoulder. He’s the French owner, one of those that had inhabited the island for years and whose face was wrinkled and yellowed like the rest of the Gringoes, who had forgotten, in spite of themselves, that their skin was different from the Dominicans. He, like all the others, had stopped using sun cream long ago, as all the red left in his body was the blood in his veins and in spider-web capillaries on his nose and legs. I order a pulpo guisado and a Presidente beer listed on the chalkboard mottled with eraser marks.

Without much trouble, Olivier could indeed find me here. I don’t really know how long I’ve been gone. In this place of few clouds and scarce shade, with no street names and clear water, clocks seem to tick without hands or numbers.

Beer and steaming octopus s

téed in tomatoes, cilantro, and spices from the little yellow Maggi packets sold in every mini-market on the island arrives. A pile of rice browned in onions and red peppers fills the second plate. A chubby adolescent, my dissertation years have whittled me into a breastless stick in spite of all the take out I ordered. I must eat and eat, the doctor says. I also must drink and drink. I take a swig of the Presidente as my eyes sweep the beach like nervous crabs. Except for the kite surfers, the lingering late afternoon heat empties the beaches. Paco relights the stub of his cigar. My beer’s gone, the green glass stops sweating. Paco, without asking, brings me another.

I try to forget, but the beer softens my will. I stare, I stare at the palm trees, which cut up my view of twilight’s orange beginnings like jail cell bars. I’m behind them.

Several rounds of beer and the blurring colors of twilight make it hard to read, hard to think and my body wants to move. The words are silly, hollow, fleshless. Some fishermen, after selling their catch to Paco, stay to drink Presidente and dance the Bachata, coming from a cell phone. I leave my flip- flops in the sand and accept the drunken trance that pulls me to them. No real words from them, but holas and broad smiles. No, I didn’t want to buy any pescados. I just want to say it, to find if they can help me understand the T word regime. The boys who had been spear fishing from the afternoon joined our dance, their small feet gently pummeling the sand in time with the music. I pronounce the word, I hear it pour from my mouth. It comes again and again, but I don’t hear it anymore.

When I was eight, I locked myself in my grandparents’ upstairs bathroom when they were throwing a party for a senator. I didn’t know at the time that he was the one who closed public schools for seven years because the state refused to integrate. So no one heard me above the music and chatter as I screamed for help. I finally lost my voice and crumbled into the quiet a child cannot stand unless already asleep. It is the tear-dried despair of these moments that forces only a child’s genius to take hold. An adult finds a solution or gathers herself. A child makes a game. I was a pirate lost at sea and like a message in a bottle, I unrolled toilet paper under the door. I discovered many years later that I had been released when the senator’s drunk mistress tripped on it looking for the tryst-appointed bedroom.

Now I’m yelling silence and I’m no longer a child. I say it again with a French accent to the Haitian man who passes without looking at me. He sells rolled up paintings and blow-up parrots. I wonder if he’s related to Trujillo’s grandmother or to someone who was macheted to death in 1937. I watch him make his way down the beach, his head hung low to avoid the off-season absence of clientele.

I return to my table, not because I look ridiculous mouthing a dictator’s name that no one seems to recognize, but because I know this is what I should feel. I know because I feel my grandmother watching. My beer has been refreshed again. I decide I am just warming up to test my broken Spanish for interviews about Trujillo with the dancers. I want to go in deeper.

Smoking another cigar, Paco’s been watching me. In the way that only French men can do, he’s permitted himself to study me without once averting his beady, alcohol-swollen eyes. Purple splotches cover his yellowed skin that glistens with abundant sweat. Something about Paco reminds me of my grandfather as he used to drink his evening cocktails with a handful of salty peanuts. Paco’s conversation with me had already begun in his head and it is only a matter of minutes before he finds the chance to spring upon me with his loneliness.

He doesn’t bother with pardon as he sidles his chair up to mine and says in English, nodding towards the dancers “The Dominicans, they learn to do dance before they can to walk.” A Haitian waitress in tight white shorts and high heels brings him a grande Presidente in a bottle holder made of bamboo. He doesn’t say her name, he doesn’t say merci.

Because I can’t shake the good manners that have been instilled by my southern upbringing in Georgia, I condemn myself to give Paco a minimum of what my grandmother calls, emphasizing the vowels, “human decency.” A little polite conversation never hurt anybody, she said in her debutante drawl. “What history do you mean?” I pause and stammer. “You mean, you mean…Trujillo?”

White bits of spittle cake the rims of his lips except for the place where he held his stubbing cigar. “Précisement. Trujillo.” A pedantic gleam crossed his face. Radiant, he finally has my attention. He clears his throat, preparing for his lesson. I see my grandfather in his rocking chair on the porch staring at humid sunset, his fingers tightening around his Jim Beam with one tiny ice cube. I sit beside him, young, my hair in pigtails, made to listen all summer long out of human decency.

Paco talks. He runs a newspaper about French expat life in Las Terrenas, the cabaret parties, the French school end-of-year carnival, the businesses of real estate and aestheticians, the ins, and the outs of island living. He travels back to Haiti and brings cancer patients to Santo Domingo for chemo. He hunches over me, his shoulders losing their form, his white belly covered with gray hair spilling out of the plaid shirt he’s forgotten to button at the bottom.

He chuckles at me with recognition and nods towards the dancers. “Quelle belle histoire, celle-là. Yes…that was, just that – how do you say – history.” History. Yes, that was what my grandfather called the stories he told me. Lest we forget, doomed to repeat.

Or has Olivier perhaps embedded spies all over the island whose job it is to keep me from discovering Trujillo?  I shouldn’t have been so careless. In addition to the Palm Tree Lover’s Guide, Olivier had bought me a snorkel and mask for graduation. Each night, I have been so meticulous about rubbing sand and salt water into them so he would believe that I spent my days admiring coral. I hung it to dry every night along with the bathing suit I soaked in salt water and sand in the sink. There must be cameras in the room.

But, no, poor man, my husband trusts me. And this journalist, Paco, poor man, is too withered to follow anything but the doings of other withered expats in the village and the tourists that cross his drunken path. My grandfather too, he was harmless although I tried to hide from him each evening as he went through it all again. The Battle of the Bulge, holding the brains of his best friend on a snow covered, blood covered field in France, holding out a cigarette to the emaciated Jew at Buchenwald, who was killed by another cigarette-hungry prisoner right before my grandfather’s eyes, holding on to the silver spoon he found in the Eagle’s Nest, holding out when he could have shot the German deserter right between the eyes. Then there was letter he wrote me once a week when I was in college, outlining how he would have systematically killed Hitler, torturing him cell by cell. My grandmother thought it was sweet that her husband liked to have me, one of fourteen grandchildren, as his cocktail companion and never really asked what we talked about. She told me to make sure and save his letters so that my children could read them someday.

Paco shakes so hard I worry that he may be getting sick. But it’s just the prelude to an eruption of a deep, raspy laughter. He waves his splotchy tobacco-stained hand at the dancing fishermen and boys. “Regard them. The Dominicans are people of the present. They have no memory at all. Look at that boy there.” He points his finger to the small child who stops dancing to eat a slice of coconut that a plump woman has been pounding a rock. “He sells a plastic toy to a tourist. He takes the money home to his parents. They buy food with it. He eats this food and isn’t hungry. Then he can to dance again because there is nothing in the future but the plastic toy he must to sell tomorrow. The past is the one he sold earlier today.”

Paco hadn’t finished.

“And they dance and dance. History is just that, history. It doesn’t to exist. They are people of the present. They don’t want to make history. Only money.” He settles back into his chair, shaking off his laughter. As if just now recalling the point of his own joke, he sits forward again and asks, “Why do you interest yourself in Trujillo? There is nothing here. Nothing. Take horse to the El Salto del Limon and regard the waterfall. It will be to you pleasing.” I say nothing.

He raises an eye and leans in closer. “Why, mademoiselle, why?”

I am shaking too with an unprecedented cooling of my ambition and, for the first time, a relief I feel in knowing precisely pourquoi. I now so want to believe that all has really been forgotten here. I want to believe that I too, can forget. Paco is perhaps a denier, a colonialist, a collaborator, a perpetrator, and every other vocabulary word I’ve used in my dissertation. Or perhaps a stinkin’ Kraut, as my grandfather would say. But the fishermen smile and dance without hearing the name that spells their tragic history. I’ve come to some kind of end. I, I cannot, for the life of me, say or ever again, write a word.

Paco gets up to leave. He sways, but he doesn’t seem as drunk as I thought. “Au revoir Mademoiselle.” His eyes rest on my breasts. “Passez un bon sejour a Las Terrenas.” He puts on a cap and disappears behind the restaurant’s tin walls. I was sure to have been the first to leave. I run back to the hotel in the sand pinkened by the sunset. I don’t take the books.

When I got back, Olivier told me that we would have the four-wheeler the next day. I tell him, for the first time of our marriage, about my grandfather and the plan for cell-by- cell destruction of Hitler. Olivier never knew his grandfather, who was executed in 1944 against a wall in Paris that now bears a sign with his name, along with other French Resistance fighters. We have a chip of that wall in a frame at home in his office. “Do you think you grandfather would have been saving mine?” he asks, half joking, half crying. I tell him I hoped that it would have been the other way around. My grandfather needed saving.

During dinner that night at the resort, a less-swollen Olivier grabs my hand under the table as he talks about differences in his life in the US and in France to a new French group of dining partners. They change every night. He has perfected these stories he’s told many times, each one has become a performance. The laughs, the gasps, and nods always come at the same places, as they if they have a rhythm to which even the Dominican fishermen on the beach could dance and clap. I usually try not to doze during this show. But this clasp of tenderness, this sign of his own boredom with the rhetoric that seems to sustain, and imprison, him among his friends, moves and stifles me as it must have moved and stifled me to listen to my grandfather for years. I am sustained, and imprisoned, by dictators and the humid sunsets, salty peanuts, and the Jim Beam cocktails of my youth. For Olivier, it’s the ups and downs of a French guy in America. I decide I love him for this and promise myself to love him enough tomorrow and the next day so I will not go back to Paco’s for the books.

We make love for the first time in months, and afterward we make whispered plans to spend the afternoon tomorrow on a rented boat away from the sand with a picnic of fried shrimp sandwiches and a chilled thermos of Cuba libras. Sunburned and still-drunk, our lovemaking in the boat is without abandon because I am now a tourist in a country with a history that doesn’t concern me for once. For now.

Olivier’s doctor has told him to not let any sand touch his skin for several days. On the way to dinner the next evening, I wrap my arms tightly around him on the four-wheeler and rest my head on his shoulder. It’s hot, but he wears jeans, socks, a long-sleeve button-down shirt, a scarf around his neck, and a hat to protect him from sand fleas. The perspiration coming from his back leaves marks on the front of my dress. I say to him, teasing, that he looks like freshly-arrived colonialist and I thank Paco for my lightheardtedness. We laugh tonight and drink cheap rum cocktails. Dominicans who smell of sweat and lime juice dance to the Bachata. We order appetizers of fresh calamari and pulpo carpaccio. The rum lets Olivier stop scratching. We realize we’ve forgotten about beans and rice as we stumble out of the Mosquito bar kissing.

The four-wheeler is gone. In its place stands a group of Haitians leaning against a fence. They smile at us under the fluorescent street lamp as they deny the theft. We give them a few pesos. They tell us where the police took it. For a few more pesos, we hail a motoconcho, the island’s taxi service, to bring us to the station. In my head, I begin to turn the pages of my forbidden books and see a sunset, humid with words of war and bourbon.

Three men dressed in khaki uniforms lounge in the parking lot and stroke their rifles. I can tell Oliver is scared, itching himself madly. With a force that I had never seen in him, he pulls me off the motorcycle and tells me to sit in a plastic chair. I wait as he disappears into the dingy building.

Olivier comes out of the office and places a stiff hand on my shoulder. “If we give them a thousand pesos and keep them our passports, we could to get the freedom four-wheeler back tonight.”

In fact, there was nothing illegal about where we had parked. It was how the police supplemented their meager salary and calmed their boredom. It was how only a few Haitians survived El Corte, by paying off the more charitable of Trujillo’s soldiers. But we had spent all our money on cocktails and the passports are locked in the hotel safe. The men stroke their rifles. I am, at long last, a real victim, the object of attention about something other than my hypochondriac daydreams.

I approach the guard and stand on my tiptoes so I can reach his face as I slap it. I move in slow motion, but the slap itself is quick and loud.

The lounging men in uniform stand up and run toward me. Olivier holds his face as if I had struck him. The men shine their flashlights in my face, which I feel streaked with mascara and sweat. They move closer.

“Trujillo!” I scream it and I scream it again.

“Trujillo!” I pronounce it slowly and hear it echo off the walls of the parking lot.

“Trujillo!”

The people in the street, who had been dancing and talking stopped. The police freeze. It’s the first time I hear complete silence on the island. I can make out the sound of the waves crashing on the beach across the street.

Then, they all laugh. Only Olivier glares at me in disapproving disbelief. The sound of the laughter, the uproarious choir of men and women, the sopranos, the baritones, the sweet melody of the children all have a rhythm to it like all things here that have silenced me.

As I run and run, the laughter never diminishes. I kick off my shoes and run on the beach. Olivier, who stays on the sidewalk for fear of sand fleas is probably calling after me, but I hear nothing but the laughter and my heart pounding in my temples. Without the four-wheeler, he can’t keep up. In this flight over darkened sand and water, I, for the first time, know and fear that I might be able to forget everything as long as I keep running from my own capture. A resistance fighter and a face-slapper of corrupt police, I will live a secret, underground life with or without a four-wheeler, without dictators, and without my grandfather. This frees my body to move lightly without tiring. I get away as the palm trees lining the sidewalk whisk past me, their soft rustle urging me on.

Jennifer Orth-Veillon received a PhD from Emory University in Comparative Literature. A Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the Department of Literature, Communication, and Culture, she teaches courses on war, human rights, and multimedia representation. She has also translated the work of French playwright Bernard Marie-Koltès. She is writing her first novel based on the intertwining lives of WWII veterans and their families.

This Is Chicken Country

In the dusk of cool November that signals the winter to come, two boys and their mama stand at the tracks and ponder the ghost of a train. The younger brother catches a sudden chill, but instead of pressing up to one of the other two for warmth, he stands there, teeth chattering a little. The mama, whose big idea it was to return here in the first place, now feels shame that she thought her firstborn son might be a little off, so she says a silent prayer to the God she knows saved him. And the boy that they’re here for, Lendall, limps along the wooden ties of the tracks where people say the train hit him, and he thinks about a non-existent friend and the Jews and what he pretends he’s forgotten.

***

Lendall sat at the kitchen table reading his book while his mama fixed supper for him and his brother. He finished a chapter and laid it down with a sigh.

Mama pulled a fryer chicken from the fridge and carried it over to the sink to run it under the water. “What’re you reading?” she asked her son while she waited for the water to run clean with no blood.

“A book on the Holocaust.”

“Another one,” she said and shut off the faucet. “It for school?”

“Naw. Just because.”

His mama squinted at him. “All that death,” she said. “And violence.” She wrenched the legs off of the chicken, and Lendall could hear the bones cracking. “Now the King James,” she went on, pointing the chicken leg his direction, “you should read it. Nothing wrong with the Baptists at all.”

Lendall tried not to giggle and nodded his head in agreement.

Just then, his younger brother came through the door from where he’d been playing outside, making the most of the nice October evening. Sweating and smelling like a boy, Lendall thought.

“Guess what,” he demanded.

“What?” Lendall asked, like he didn’t really care to know at all.

His brother lunged at him and said, “I wasn’t talking to you, fart face.”

“Uh uh, Jerin,” their mama cautioned.

Jerin was clearly too excited to care about getting in trouble. He wasn’t the type of kid to mind such things. “The black people are moving in down the road,” he blurted out.

“Well, that’s something,” their mama said and went back to her chicken.

Lendall perked up. It’d been the talk of school ever since word got out that a black family was coming to town. Black people didn’t live in Polk County, and if they did, they didn’t stay long. It wasn’t so much that the locals drove them out, as they didn’t feel comfortable surrounded by all that whiteness. Supposed to be a girl around Jerin’s age and a boy in Lendall’s eighth grade class. For a kid who didn’t keep too many friends, Lendall was interested in somebody who might be treated different.

“Want to go check it out?” Jerin asked his brother, who was surprised by the invite. Sensing he’d manage to be left out as usual, Lendall quickly grabbed his book to take with him.

“Y’all stay out the way,” their mama called to them. “And be back in time for supper.”

They were both already out the screen door and running across the yard.

Four blocks later, the boys crouched behind a yellow-leafed mulberry tree in the yard of 2314 Crenshaw Road. Lendall was heaving, and it took him a minute to catch his breath. He stood hunched over with hands on knobby knees. “I thought,” he sputtered, “you said … was … just down the … road.” He coughed a little, and Jerin glared at him to keep quiet.

“Jeez,” his brother whispered, returning his gaze to a Ryder truck that sat in the driveway like it was cemented there, “you’re such a wuss.”

Lendall didn’t feel the need to comment.

Jerin reached over and grabbed the book out of Lendall’s hand and chunked it behind the mulberry tree. “What’d you bring that stupid thing for?” he asked, but before Lendall could protest or even ask what his problem was, Jerin had made a dash for the house and had disappeared behind the back of the moving van.

“Crap,” Lendall muttered and waited a second to see if his brother would reappear. He didn’t. There was no telling what Jerin was doing; one thing Lendall knew for sure was that it was something that would get them both in trouble. He took a deep breath, glanced at his book laying open on the grass, and stepped out from behind the mulberry tree. A few yellow leaves floated to the ground in delayed motion. Like a butterfly trying to find a place to light, Lendall thought as he walked toward the house.

The house was nicer than theirs, but it wasn’t anything too special. Red brick. Small garden beneath the front window. Garage. Lendall stopped and nearly fell over. Jerin wasn’t digging through the back of the Ryder truck like Lendall feared he would be; the kid was standing in the carport, chatting up a storm with some man.

“Hey,” Jerin called to his brother, and Lendall stepped cautiously forward. The man was tall and black and wearing a baseball cap with an ‘A’ on it. He somehow looked different than Lendall thought he would.

“Mr. Darvin, this is my brother, Lendall. Lendall, Mr. Darvin,” Jerin said, making the introductions as Lendall stepped into the garage. It was cooler in there, and boxes lined the walls. Jerin was being so fake, Lendall thought, but he couldn’t exactly call him out on it in front of Mr. Darvin.

“Nice to meet you, sir,” Lendall said, sticking out a hand. Mr. Darvin’s was large and warm and he had a firm shake, one of the things Lendall’s mama was always preaching to him about.

“Likewise,” said Mr. Darvin. “I’m sorry you boys can’t meet my children today. They went with my wife to get enrolled for school.”

Jerin nodded as if he knew all about that.

“Do you play baseball?” Mr. Darvin asked, looking at Lendall.

Jerin laughed too loudly. “He reads a lot.”

Mr. Darvin smiled. “Well, that’s great. World needs more readers. My son, Anthony, he’s your age, and he really likes baseball.” The man paused like he was trying to find something more to say about it. “Course, if he read as much as he thought about ball, maybe he’d be a little better student. You’ll have to help him out with that, Lendall.”

Lendall brightened. “Yessir.” He was getting the feeling like they were in Mr. Darvin’s way and was about to suggest heading home, when a maroon mini van pulled into the driveway behind the moving truck.

“Speak of the devil. There they are now,” Mr. Darvin said and took off his cap to rub his shaved head.

The three of them walked out to meet the minivan. A young girl stepped out first, looked to be smaller than Jerin and not nearly so dark as her dad. She seemed shy to see the strange kids in her new driveway, so she held back a little. Lendall wondered if she’d been adopted, then felt embarrassed when he saw her mother.

“Hello,” the woman said as she walked up to their little group. A couple of full Wal-Mart sacks dangled from her hands. She looked Mexican. “Have you made friends already, Johnny?” she asked her husband.

“We’re the neighbors,” Jerin blurted out. “I’m Jerin, and this here’s my older brother, Lendall.”

“I see,” she said as she looked over her shoulder to locate her kids. “Danielle, say hello. And Anthony’s back there somewhere.” Mrs. Darvin shifted the bags in her hands. “I’m going to run in and put these groceries away.” She started for the house but swung back around to the boys. Lendall thought she was the most graceful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. “You boys are welcome to stay for dinner. We’re grilling burgers.”

Lendall caught his brother’s eye to remind him their mom had a chicken on.

“Raincheck, ma’am,” Jerin said. “Our mom wants us back for dinner.”

She nodded. “Another time, then.”

Mr. Darvin tipped his cap at them and said he’d better help his wife. “You keep clear of trouble, now,” he told the kids.

Jerin turned to Danielle. “How old are you?”

“Ten,” she replied in a tiny voice that somehow sounded very confident. “I advanced from fourth to sixth this year, so I’m a year ahead.”

Jerin rolled his eyes a little. “I’m in sixth, too.”

“What grade are you in?” the girl asked Lendall as she squinted at him.

“Eighth,” he said, though it sounded shaky.

Jerin picked at a scab on his arm. “Does your mom work for Tyson?” he asked Danielle.

“Excuse me?” she said, placing a small hand on her hip. “Who’s Tyson?”

The scab started bleeding some, and Jerin put his mouth to it to suck the blood. He looked over at Lendall and gave him the nod like Danielle was slow or something. He dropped his arm at his side. “You know, the chicken plant over in Grannis.”

“Why would she work there?” Danielle asked.

Lendall hurried to stop Jerin from saying anymore. “My brother’s just confused is all,” he explained. “This is chicken country. He probably thinks everybody works at Tyson.”

Fortunately, the van door slammed shut right about that moment, and Anthony sauntered toward them. He had his father’s height and his mother’s looks, and once Lendall got over the initial disappointment of him not being very black, he knew he and Anthony had to be friends.

“Hey,” Anthony said to them, nice enough. His eyes were brown with flecks of gold.

Jerin made the introductions again, and when Anthony found out he and Lendall were in the same grade, he asked, “You like video games?”

“I do!” Jerin practically shouted, and Anthony looked to size him up.

“Y’all come over sometime when I get my game cube hooked up,” Anthony said halfheartedly.

Danielle shook her head. “Great,” she muttered. “We’d better get in and help put things away.” It sounded more like an excuse.

Anthony shrugged, and they started in to the house. “Catch you at school, Lendall,” he called without looking back. Lendall stared after him, his own name said aloud echoing in his head. His heart swelled like it might burst through his rib cage.

When the boys got home, their mama ordered them to wash up because it was almost dinnertime. In the bathroom, Lendall took his time lathering the soap and thoroughly cleaning down to the spaces between his fingers. Fastidious, a teacher had called him once when she’d found him sweeping pencil shavings from his desk, one by one, onto a coarse brown paper towel to neatly wrap up and throw away. Lendall looked the word up later. He didn’t like what he found.

Jerin just ran his fingers under the water real fast and stood there watching. “He don’t want to be your friend, you know,” he said, looking at his brother’s reflection in the mirror.

Lendall rinsed the suds down the drain. “We’ll see.”

At the dinner table, their mama said grace then went through her usual dinnertime conversation routine. “So, how was school today?” she asked as she folded her napkin neatly into her lap and commenced to cutting pieces off her chicken leg.

Jerin fidgeted.

“Fine,” said Lendall.

“What are you learning about?”

Jerin stabbed at a carrot with his fork. “Same old stuff,” he said, shoving orange into his mouth.

“Mmm hmm,” said mama. “What about you, Lendall?” Her knife poised in mid air.

“Short stories in English. Osmosis in science. The Civil War in history.”

Mama shook her knife at him. “Now there’s a war to learn something from. You learn all about General Lee and what he did for the South, baby?”

Lendall sucked in his breath. “Sure. I guess.” He took a bite of mashed potatoes and let their warmth slide down his throat.

Finally, their mama got around to asking. “So, how are the new neighbors?”

“They’s two kids. The dad’s black, and the mom’s a wetback,” Jerin announced as he heaped some more mashed potatoes on his plate.

“Mama!” Lendall said. “Do something about him.”

Mama laughed then covered her mouth with her napkin. Lendall couldn’t believe it.

Jerin tried to look all innocent, like he didn’t know what ‘wetback’ meant. “Now son, don’t be using that word. You know they like to be called Hispanics.”

Lendall pinched at the tip of his nose and closed his eyes.

“That’s something that might be hard for her these days,” mama said, looking sympathetic as she started in on a lecture, “being married to a black man. It’s hard on children being mixed.”

“So’s divorce,” said Lendall. Jerin’s eyes widened.

Mama quietly placed her napkin beside her plate. “You’re done with your supper,” she said.

Lendall got up and left the table.

Once he’d had a bath, pulled on pajama pants, and settled down to do some reading, Lendall realized his book was still laying there on the ground in front of Anthony’s house. He slid out of bed and slipped down the hall, tiptoeing past mama’s room, where he could hear her T.V. going. When he made it out the back door, he saw there weren’t any shoes out on the stoop, but instead of going back in and risking his mama discovering him, he decided to make the walk barefoot.

The houses were spaced pretty far apart because not many people wanted to live near the tracks. It was too noisy. Lendall knew this was true because as long as he could remember, the midnight train would come through and jar him awake. As he walked in the dark, he thought of Gerda, the Jewish teenager he’d been reading about who was saved by a pair of snow shoes that her daddy had made her wear when she was sent to the work camp. The dried out grass crunched under his feet, and Lendall took some pride in thinking that not even bare feet could keep him from his mission.

The book was still there beneath the mulberry tree at Anthony’s house. Lendall bent to pick it up, then slid all the way to the ground and leaned against the tree trunk. He watched the house. The faint glow of a light from somewhere deep within showed through the front window. Lendall wondered if it was Anthony’s room, and he stayed there with the bark of the tree jabbing into his back and waited to see if something might happen, holding his book against him.

At school, Lendall anxiously awaited each class period to see if he shared it with

Anthony. By lunchtime, they’d had no classes together, and Lendall knew the boy he’d pegged for a new friend played sports, so he doubted they’d share any in the afternoon.

In the cafeteria, Lendall stood in the shortest line, something with some sort of meat patty

shaped like a teddy bear. He held the tray in front of him as he walked around in search of

Anthony. The heat and noise of restless children made Lendall slightly nauseated. And the smell of fatty meat mixed with dirty mop water odors didn’t help. The same old fear of having to be around so many people he sensed cared nothing for him crept up, but Lendall kept looking for Anthony. He figured he’d be at a table by himself, so Lendall was surprised to finally find him sitting with a group of eighth graders, talking and laughing. Lendall waved at him, but Anthony just gave him a head nod. Someone said, “Who’s that?” and Lendall, who’d long ago realized his mark as an outsider, took off, afraid of the response of someone who knew him.

All week was the same, Lendall on the lookout for Anthony, only to find out Anthony didn’t need looking after. He seemed fine in the popularity department. People accepted the new boy, and it made Lendall want to scream because he’d found him first. They should stick together, no one else. He was so worried about Anthony that he’d abandoned the book about Gerda and her boots and moved on to one called Inside the Vicious Heart, about when the Americans came and liberated the war camps. It had pictures.

***

Halloween night, Lendall was curled up under an afghan on the couch, reading. Like most Halloweens, it’d come the first cold snap of fall, and like most Halloweens, Lendall was inside, alone. Jerin had gone out trick-or-treating with buddies, and their mama was off at Wal-Mart. She’d left the porch light on so Lendall could hand out goodies, but he wasn’t surprised that no one had come by. He was reading the section of the book where Curtis Mitchell, a photographer, visited Bergen Belsen for the first time since British control. When Mitchell saw the mass graves, he grew sick, then came to think those dead Jews weren’t people anymore. “You had to keep saying to yourself, these are human beings,” Lendall read aloud. He flipped back a page to look at one of the photographs and tightened the afghan around himself. It was a picture of a mass grave, bodies piled on top of each other so you could hardly tell what was what. But one man reclined gape-mouthed in the middle of the pile, the only body fully facing the camera. He was naked, where most had on clothes to hide their thinness. And there was something about the way he stared out that Lendall couldn’t shake, like the skeleton of a man was trying to stand up and say something.

When the doorbell rang, Lendall was almost relieved to take a break from those pictures. He bookmarked the page, unwrapped himself from the afghan, and went to the door with a plastic dish of the orange and black wrapped peanut butter candies mama had left for him. To his shock, he opened the door to Anthony and his sister. Danielle was wearing a number on a card around her neck and carrying a trophy. Anthony looked normal in jeans and a sweatshirt.

“Hey,” Anthony said, peering around Lendall. “Whatcha doing? Why aren’t you out trick-or-treating?”

“I’m a little old for that, don’t you think?” Lendall asked nervously.

“I hear ya,” said Anthony. “I’m just taking Danielle around because my dad said I had to.”

“I’m the Scripps spelling bee champion,” the girl explained.

“Surprised you’re not out with all your new friends,” said Lendall.

“The ninth grade guys on the team are throwing a party at the old mill. Mom would shit a brick if I went.”

Lendall laughed, and Danielle glared up at her brother. “I’ll ignore that if we can just go,” she whined.

Anthony made a noise through his teeth. “Anyhow, my mom told me to see if you and

Jerin wanted to go trick-or-treating with us, but if you’re busy, that’s okay.”

“No,” Lendall said hurriedly. He tossed a few of the peanut butter candies into Danielle’s sack, and she made a face. “I mean, I was only reading. The Jews just got liberated.”

Anthony raised an eyebrow. “So, where’s your kid brother?”

“He’s already out. We’ll probably run into him.” Lendall held up a finger and started walking off. “Let me get my coat.”

“Hurry up,” Danielle called after him.

In his bedroom, Lendall grabbed his only coat, a too-small leather jacket lined with sheep’s wool. He glanced at himself in the mirror, tall and gangly, his white wrists showing before the short sleeves. Then he ran out to meet his friend.

The threesome walked along in silence for a while, Danielle’s pace quickening to urge them to nicer neighborhoods. Lendall kept his hands shoved in his pants pockets. When they got to the first home with a porch light on, Lendall and Anthony hung back while Danielle went to the door.

“So,” Anthony said, breaking the night’s silence. “How come you’re reading about WWI? It for class?”

Lendall looked at him and grinned. Nobody’d ever noticed what he was reading, even if Anthony did have the subject matter wrong. Mama was the only person who ever said anything, and that was just because she didn’t understand. “Actually, it’s WWII, the Holocaust,” Lendall explained.

“Oh, right,” said Anthony. Danielle walked toward them with her loot.

“And it’s not for class. It’s because it was the greatest atrocity ever committed against people.”

Anthony turned away from Lendall. “Hey, Dan, what’d you get?”

“Snickers,” she said, sighing. “Want it?”

“Hand it over.” Anthony unwrapped the bar and broke it in half. Caramel strands connected the pieces, and he had to stretch his arms out so the gooey yarn curled around the ends. He handed a piece to Lendall. “Here you go, man. Don’t know why I have to take her trick-or-treating. She doesn’t like much candy, anyway. Weird kid.”

Danielle was already making her way up the drive of the next house. A witch and a princess walked by to join her. After letting the weight of the candy rest in his hand for a moment, Lendall raised it to his mouth and bit into the bar. The sweet chocolate and caramel glued to his gums as he chewed.

Anthony looked thoughtful. “History’s cool,” he said with his mouth full. “But I don’t see why you’d read about it for fun.”

Lendall swallowed. “It’s not exactly for fun. It’s so it doesn’t happen again, I guess.”

As they chewed their chocolate and waited on Danielle, a truck full of boys, some hanging off the tailgate and whooping it up, drove by. One of them hollered, “Nice girlfriend, Anthony.”

Lendall felt something smack his back and slide down his jacket. He looked at Anthony while he reached behind him, and as his fingers hit what had to be yolk, his friend just stood there, not saying a word.

***

The next day was Saturday, and Lendall was shoving stuff in a bag for his monthly visit to his dad’s. He’d had to throw in a couple of old sweatshirts, since the egg-stained jacket lay in a useless heap, stinking like sulfur on his bedroom floor. He put Inside the Vicious Heart on top of everything and was zipping the bag up when mama called, “Lendall, that neighbor boy’s here to talk to you.”

She poked her head in the door. “He finds out who threw that egg and ruined your coat, you tell me. They’ll pay money for it, I guarantee.”

When Lendall got to the door, Anthony was picking at the leaves of a plant on the porch. “Hey,” he said, letting green fall to the ground.

“Hi,” said Lendall as he stepped out, pulling the door to behind him. He worried that his mama was going to come up and say something embarrassing. “What do you want?”

“Uh, well, I didn’t say much last night, but I figured I should tell you I was sorry about what happened to your jacket. I didn’t have any part in it.”

Lendall stayed quiet, the weight of his bag pulling his arm at the socket.

“You going somewhere?” asked Anthony.

“Yeah, to my dad’s in a while.” Lendall dumped the bag on the concrete porch.

“Your parents divorced?”

Lendall looked over to his shoulder and stepped off the porch. “My dad won’t be here for another hour, so I could go on up to Texaco for a Coke or something. Want to come?”

Anthony hesitated. “Alright. I mean, I guess.”

It was pretty nice out, the sun warming the air from the night before. The boys walked along the tracks, skipping gravel against the rails and watching the crows gather ahead of them then fly off when they got close.

“How long your parents been split up?” Anthony asked.

“A year.”

“Must be cool to go to two different houses.”

Lendall sighed. “I guess. We don’t really see my dad all that much. He lives outside of Little Rock.”

Anthony walked astride of him, just slighty ahead, and Lendall could smell the boy’s deodorant.

“Do you ever think about being somebody else?” Lendall asked.

Anthony kicked at the gravel. “What do you mean?”

“You know. Ever wish you could be somebody that other people won’t let you be?”

Anthony shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess. I mean, like, my dad wants me to read more and shit.”

Lendall flinched, and Anthony saw.

“Hey man, not like you’re not cool cause you read.” He playfully punched Lendall’s arm, and the contact surprised and delighted the boy. “It’s just not for me. You feel?” He bent to pick up some small stones.
Lendall did. He looked in Anthony’s soft eyes, and he thought he finally saw what he wanted. His mouth opened before he could stop the words from coming out. “Are we friends?” he asked.

Anthony stayed quiet for a few seconds. He tossed the handful of gravel at the tracks, and they made sharp pings when they hit the rails. “Sure, man. Course we are.”

In that moment, Lendall didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to show Anthony how much he cared and how good it felt to finally fit somewhere. Without totally realizing what he was doing, he reached down and grabbed Anthony’s hand, lacing his fingers through the boy’s.

“Faggot,” Anthony said, quickly and lightly—as if it meant nothing to him—then he

wrenched free and ran away.

Lendall sat down slowly on the tracks, where the cool of the steel rail seeped through his pants and ran up his spine. He was aware of the cold, but seemed to not know how to move. Chalky gravel dust coated his hands, and he didn’t attempt to wipe it off. Anthony was long gone, out of sight. Finally, Lendall stood from the rail. He felt numb as he walked the tracks. Then he grew embarrassed, and finally scared. He knew Anthony would go home and tell his dad what had happened. Everyone would know. Surely mama and daddy would be ashamed. Jerin would probably find some kid to beat him up. Worst of all, Anthony would hate him.

When the noon train came blasting through, Lendall didn’t move from the tracks. A big old crow lit on the rail ahead of him and opened its beak to holler “Caw.” Still, Lendall kept on his path. That train was calling his name. And suddenly, in the middle of that hurt in his brain, all he could think of was the Jews. The last sound he heard before the world went dark was the squawking of the crow over the squeal of the brakes.

***

A miracle, they say, two weeks later. Doctors pat each other on the back. Mama tells the newspaper about all the cards and letters Lendall got while he was in the hospital, some from kids who didn’t even like him. Anthony had signed the card from the seventh grade class, and under his name had simply written, “Nice knowing you.” Daddy bought him a used Playstation and a war game at a pawn shop, let him keep it at their mama’s house, though Jerin was the only one who’d actually played it. Back at the tracks for the first time since what folks call the accident, Lendall’s mama and brother wait to see how he’ll react. A stranger drives by and rolls down his window to holler out, “Y’all get off them tracks. It’s dangerous. People get killed that way.” Mama looks at Lendall then waves off the man and smiles nervously. Jerin wraps his arms around himself and walks twenty feet away to a couple of indentations in the ground, roped off by police tape. “Guess this is where your shoes hit,” he says, lightly tapping the earth. In fact, it’s not. It’s where Lendall’s body smacked the ground, bounced, and hit again, leaving two small craters. But Lendall doesn’t care to look because he’s busy walking along the tracks with his arms outstretched, softly calling “Choo, choo.”

Originally from Arkansas, Jessica Pitchford holds an MFA from McNeese State University and a PhD from Florida State University, where she was awarded a University Fellowship to support the completion of her dissertation, a novel titled Can’t Walk Out. Recent fiction appears or is forthcoming in Extract(s), Gris-Gris, storySouth, New Delta Review, and the Arkansas Review. She teaches creative writing at Wayne State College.

Feng Shui

You decide to walk home from work. Make it a habit. Maybe a good habit will replace a bad habit. Karma. Karma. Karma. Why do people enjoy warning everyone about karma? Attribute everything to karma. Perhaps it’s better than blaming everything on god.

What is feng shui? Maybe that’ll replace karma. Maybe Asian traditions will replace American routines. But, what is feng shui? When you first heard it mentioned, you thought it was something you ate, and said, “Yeah, it’s good.” You had no idea if it was a noodle or a slipper.

You notice a truck pulled over on the side of the road. A man leans on the truck door. He seems to be in trouble. You walk over and notice he’s covered with blood. Your first thought is that he’s been shot.

He tells you he just left the kidney dialysis clinic. “Something’s wrong,” he moans.

You walk him to the passenger side of his truck and ask him how to get to the clinic.

The front seat is covered in blood. You are covered in blood. The blood keeps gushing out of the man’s arm.

The people at the clinic hardly react when you walk the bloody man into the building. You wonder if everyone returns with this much blood after something goes wrong with a treatment. The man is whisked away and you are left standing there, wondering what you are supposed to do next.

You explain how you just met the man, and then ask if he has family that can be notified.

“Oh, yeah. We’ll call his house. Don’t worry, you can leave.”

They want you out of there.

They see you looking at the man. It’s hard leaving him in the hands of these people. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. You go on,” the receptionist says, walking you to the door.

You step outside. The air rejuvenates you. The walk home will be much longer now. No one asks why you are covered with blood. They just step aside when you approach them on the sidewalk.

When you return to your apartment, a neighbor runs over. She sees the blood and shrieks. You explain that you weren’t attacked. She looks momentarily relieved. Until you tell her about the man. “You may have AIDS. That was careless.”

That thought has never crossed your mind.

She takes you by surprise when she grabs the garden hose and sprays you down. You stand there covering your head. “I hope this works!” she yells. “What were you thinking? “

You were thinking about feng shui, wondering what in the world is feng shui?

Diane  teaches creative writing at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals. Her most recent publications include:  Marco Polo Arts, The Newer York, New Verse News, and Oklahoma Review.

Flash Pieces

The Soft Hearted Girl

Momoko has turned into a giant crab balancing the world on her back. The world, in turn, has shrunk to an ellipse the size of a fish bowl. Behind the glass are people as islands who once pretended they were important as continents. “Don’t drop us,” screams a girl, scrunched-face and toothy, nose pressed to glass, “it’s a shitty deal, but the only world I have.” The Harajuku Girls, the Goth Lolitas, the Hung Diffidents, and the wind-up drummer clowns sing slow-burning love songs or make faces at me. I imagine that Momoko means nothing to them even though its their weight on her back. Some don’t even bother to shrug.

“Jimihen,” Momoko says, (her way of nicknaming me Jimi Hendrix), “my back is breaking. Never again will I lie face up for the Salarymen, the muff-dealers in rocking-horse Mary Janes. In my dreams, I am stripped by their invisible webs. I always wake with a taste of metal. I want to spit out my blue heart.”

For a moment, Momoko looks away, distracted by a jumping spider. The world rolls off her, crashes. Everything is the color of post-earthquake, of falling between. With eyes open and her darkness within me, I cry her name. Night sleeping next to night, history turning to nitrogen and inorganic trace, screams swirl between my ears then fade. But I can still hear her voice. So tiny, like a firefly.

City of Love #2

In a locked ward, an old nurse with grainy voice, feeds her warm oatmeal cookies, weans her from IV liquid dreams. In her hazy malaise, she thinks her breath is fetid, the inside of a dead woman. She tells the psychiatrist with Chevron mustache and stripe taupe tie that five Chinese stock brokers will commit suicide by choking on junk bonds. She’s misdiagnosed and returned to her apartment on 10th street with a generic brand of Yellow Forgetfulness, 300 mg. B.I.D. At the new club in Noho, a man with Alice and looking glass obsession speaks in over-inflated balloons. Later, he pins her against the mattress. She pops and becomes another liquid dream. After he leaves, taking his hollow needles with him, she discovers her bloodstones and white sapphires are gone. Her spine is missing too. The cell phone sings an old Depeche Mode. A man in garbled voice keeps saying something about the safest investment is in herself. She shuts him off. On the long and crowded city blocks, she thinks about the man last night, about shrinking him to a plug in her throat, about swallowing hard.

Manga Girls Need Love: Demons and Girls

In a room three flights up from dense summer she shows the boy she names Baby-Face her mother’s collection of antique lamps & lanterns. Some have pictures of fat Buddhas or cats with wide sloppy smiles. Her nickname is Misfit Girl, given spotty love by the mother who sometimes melts away, who is herself a child of parents whose faces she cannot see. Misfit Girl says to Baby-Face, Do you want to see how we can make a god? He says that there are only demons. She makes strange shadow plays across the wall. The same shadow stays with each after they have left. One night, following another of her mother’s breakdowns, Misfit Girl imagines being sucked in by a gigantic vacuum cleaner, of living in a dust bag forever, breathing in her own exhaust. She calls Baby-Face & tells him that she is suffocating along with the mother who can’t love her own shape & that he must be strong for her, that he is her god. He says he has purged his demons, released them into a hand-drawn darkness, that he can see her shadow everywhere he goes. He says the shadow expands, has strange ways of working. No one will die of suffocation, he says. The shadow agrees. The night they sneak out & sleep together, Tokyo has a black-out.

Machine Gun

For weeks I carried the contorted whines, the amplified soarings into space, the machine-gun like feedback, the image of Jimi Hendrix yanking a whammy bar. In the Saigon hospital, the nurse gave me instructions with pursed lips and a set of vacant eyes, “Take these blues twice a day, and the white ones only after breakfast, but the doctor is quite certain that the humming in your head will remain.” In New York, I was greeted by Her Royal Modal Majesty-Queen Cacophony herself–the sirens and the blat of fire trucks, the screeching of black and yellow cabs, the wails of food vendors near the park where pigeons could get a free meal and some crumbs of camouflaged love. I was to take the next bus to Dover, New Jersey. There, I would meet my sister, whom I surmised had grown into a flower of poisonous beauty over the last year. I had not written her, or anyone for that matter, often. On the street, crickets chirped underfoot, helicopters fell from rooftops, crashed in mid-air, women offered tinsel smiles with one or two missing teeth, and I made the mistake of stepping into a yellow puddle. Someone threw the egg at the stripes of my uniform. Perhaps it was because everyone had longer hair than I. That old feeling of being ambushed returned and I ran for blocks, into the doors of Port Authority, past the cops and the needle-eyed beggars, into the stall of a public bathroom upstairs. I crouched low, must have been there for hours, meditating on the scrawled code written diagonally on the inside of the door–Call Sami for a good hand job. I knew that in her hands I would explode.

Kyle Hemmings is the author of several chapbooks of poetry/prose: Avenue C, Cat People, Tokyo Girls in Science Fiction (NAP), and Anime Junkie (Scars Publications). His latest ebook is You Never Die in Wholes from Good Story Press. He is a big fan of 60s garage bands. He lives and writes in New Jersey.

Knuckles

I meet Sparky in February, the week Nixon visits China. We’re backyard neighbors, separated by woods and a sagging wire mesh fence. We might as well be America and China. On Sparky’s side of the block, houses are built any which way—homemade additions, leaning-over garages, all clinging however they can to the steep grade. My street, Edgehill Road, forms a wide, flat bench in the middle of the hill. Three-story Victorians with deep back and front yards on one side. On the other, behind a tall, black iron fence that runs along the sidewalk, grass and trees and God at the top—the divinity school campus.

I’m not supposed to be home yet, so I can’t go inside my house. It’s cold, there’s snow on the ground. Voices are coming from the woods at the back of my yard. In my boots and parka, I walk around the house and across the back yard. Head down, I part the overgrown brush with my arms and push forward. Sparky and his sisters—twins named Carla and Darlene—look up at the swishing sound my parka makes against the branches. “I told you a girl lived there,” one of them says.

That year, the year I’m in sixth grade, I decide there are two ways of knowing: the kind that has no edges, that seems like you’ve always known it; and the sudden kind. My father’s story is the first. No one ever sits me down and says, Paloma, your father was the only one in his family to get out of Austria during the war. Just like no one ever tells me he’s dying. Sparky, though, he didn’t exist, and then I pushed down the fence and climbed over, and he did.

The kids are playing some card game, sitting in rusty lawn chairs around a spool table. “Why are you playing out here?” I ask.

“Our dad’s sleeping. He—” The girls both have the same ratty, dark brown hair that falls over their faces. I never learn to tell them apart. One of them says it.

Sparky cuts her off. “It’s an outdoor game.”

“What’s it called?”

“Knuckles.”

The boys in my school play this game when the teachers aren’t looking. I don’t know the rules, only that the winner gets to hit the loser. “I’ll play,” I say.

Sparky gathers up the cards, scrapping the round they’re playing. My bottom sinks too low in the chair he offers me. He deals, thrusts his hands in his pockets to warm them a minute, and then takes up his cards. “It’s like Old Maid, only the one-eyed jack is the card you don’t want to get stuck with,” he says.

When Sparky takes one of my cards, he smiles a quick, secret smile. His front teeth turn in, like he’s been punched. He doesn’t smile at his sisters.

I pick the jack from his hand one turn before he goes out. I have a two, a seven and the jack. The twins go out one after the other.

“Now what?” I look at Sparky.

“Cut the deck. The card tells how many times I hit you.” Sparky has a big, round face and small eyes. When he says this, his eyes narrow.

I  keep staring at him while I shuffle the cards and cut. The card I turn up is the king of clubs. The twins ooh. Sparky says, “Black means I hit hard.” I hold out my hand, my right hand.

The force of his hand pushes mine down when he hits me and I feel a sharp, cold sting. After Sparky hits me the eleventh time, I raise my fist for more. “All the face cards count eleven,” he says. I want him to keep hitting me.

Inside my house, Mrs. Shepler, my piano teacher, is talking to my mother on the phone, telling her that I’ve missed two lessons in a row.

Ever since my father stopped going into his office at the university, I hate playing the piano. I feel him there, listening to me, and the notes get tangled up. It wouldn’t be so bad if he’d criticize me. But that’s not how my family is. The first time I slept over at Allison’s house and heard her father light into her—about her math test, about not doing her chores—I was shocked. But now I understand it’s my parents who are different. The last time I played, my father got up from his chair and stood by the piano a full minute to catch his breath. “You must hold your hands above the keys—” he demonstrated with his own stiff hands “—like this.” My father pronounces each word deliberately. He was a piano prodigy before his hands were frostbitten during the war.

I lose two of the three rounds of Knuckles we play. The twin who beats me doesn’t hit as hard as Sparky, and it’s only five.

My mother’s waiting for me to get out of my parka and boots and open the inside door to the house. “I’ve cancelled your piano lessons,” she says as soon as I do. “We won’t have the money for that kind of thing.” My mother’s edgy since my father got sicker. The future tense means after he dies. As I start to go upstairs, the tea kettle whistles. “I want you to take your father his tea,” she says.

My father looks up from some show about China on the public television station. “Maybe someday you will return to the piano,” he says. “You have my fingers, so long and graceful.” When I set the tea down, he catches my hands in his. His fingers touch the dried blood on my knuckles, and he turns my hand so he can see. “Child, child,” he says.

***

That I’m not allowed to play with Sparky. That Apollo 16 has landed on the moon. That Allison Langdon says I’m a weirdo. That China gave us two giant pandas, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling. That Betsy’s father moved into an apartment with one of his students. These are things I don’t know and then I do. That my mother has started going to church, that she doesn’t want my father to know. That I will go to a new school next year. That no one notices whether I play with Sparky or not. These are things I just know. At night, when I can’t sleep, I try to decide which way my father dying will be. Nurses come to the house. He refuses to go to the hospital. Sometimes I get out of bed and sneak into the room that used to be my playroom but is now my father’s sick room. I listen to to him breathe. I can’t tell if he’s asleep or awake. One night he whispers, “Paloma” and I whisper back without thinking, “Vati.” It’s what I called him when I was little. Once I started school I insisted on calling him “Dad” like the other kids. He asks me to start the record on the turntable. “Turn the volume very low,” he says. It’s The Emperor Concerto, his favorite Beethoven. When I was much younger, I would sit in his lap while he played his records. The music was his way of talking to me. Now, I don’t know whether to stand by the bed or sit. I stand there for a few minutes. My father says nothing more. Before the Allegro finishes, I tiptoe out.

***

Every day after school, three girls from the high school at the bottom of the hill chase me down Edgehill Road. It’s a game, I guess. Their black legs are as long as I am tall. To them, I’m a white kid from the private school. I run as as far as the gate in the black iron fence. Once I step onto divinity school property, the girls turn back.

***

Sparky’s house smells of beer, dust, and cat pee. His mother doesn’t live there. It’s the first time I’ve been inside. I stare at his father, who’s sitting at the table drinking beer. “What’re you looking at, Girly?” he says. I look away.

“Her father’s got cancer in his bones,” one of the twins says.

Sparky shoves her. “Get lost,” he says.

The father drains the last of his beer. He tells the twin to get him another one. Sparky pulls me down the hall and into his bedroom. They all must sleep there. There’s a bunk bed and a twin mattress on the floor. Sparky closes the door and sits on the mattress. “Don’t just stand there. Come here,” he says.

I sit.

“Fifty spacecraft have crash-landed on the moon,” he says. “Apollo 16’s sub-satellite will make 51.”

We’re studying the Middle Ages in school. Mrs. Gulliver reads to us from The Fairie Queene every afternoon. You can’t listen the way you listen to an ordinary story. You only get the meaning if you listen sideways. That’s how Sparky talking about spacecraft is too.

He moves closer to me. He says my name, “Paloma.” My name doesn’t sound like me when he says it. When I told him and his sisters my name on the afternoon we met, one twin said it was funny. But Sparky repeated it to himself—“Paloma, Paloma,” rolled it in his mouth. Now he says my name again and draws his fingers through my long hair. His hand feels like a mitten.

“Lie back,” he says. He puts his hand under my shirt. It’s cold. It hurts when he pinches one nipple. My breasts have just started to develop; I don’t wear a bra yet. I lie still, and he switches to the other one. Then he climbs on top of me. His weight is like when he hit me with the cards; I can’t resist the force of it. His breath smells like hot dogs.

A twin bursts in, making kissing and groaning noises. Sparky jumps up and chases her out of the room. He’s slapping her when I walk out the door.

***

My grandmother, Nonna Rosa, has come to stay with us. She squeezes my face in both hands and hugs me until I can’t breathe. My father’s recliner has been pushed to the corner to make room for the hospital bed. Nurses come every day. He calls me Analiese sometimes. My mother thinks it’s a sister. My mother has decided to finish her dissertation on New England meeting houses from twelve years ago. She was my father’s student before they got married. When she got pregnant, she quit. She doesn’t ask where I’ve been.

***

“Get your bike,” Sparky says to me. It’s the middle of May, two days after George Wallace was shot. The kids at my school say he deserved it. Sparky’s dad says he had the right idea.

We pedal all the way down the Canner Street hill. Air rushes past me, balloons my jacket and blows my hair back. For two minutes, three minutes, I am motion and wind, not Paloma. I won’t brake until Sparky does. I fly. A few feet before Whitney Avenue, he stands up and stomps on the brake. We both overshoot the corner. A car swerves to miss us, pulls up short and the driver comes out yelling. “You kids crazy? You could have got yourselves hit—. ”

Sparky turns his bike in the opposite direction. “Come on, Paloma,” he says, bumping up the curb and heading down the sidewalk along Whitney. I follow, let the man’s shouts fade into the noise of the traffic.

“Where we going?” I ask.

“You’ll see.”

We rattle down the sidewalk and then Sparky turns to cross Whitney, a busy four-lane road, without waiting for a cross walk or even a red light. Then we’re on streets I’ve never been on before. The air here smells like exhaust, seaweed, and dead fish; above us cars zoom over entrance and exit ramps to the interstate. When we get close to the train tracks, Sparky hops off his bike and drops it beside a bush.

I lay my bike next to his and run to catch up to him. He darts across the tracks.

“Hurry up.”

My toe catches on a rail and I stumble, scraping the palm of my hand on the rock chunks between the ties. I lurch forward, and then we’re across. Sparky turns left, walking along the tracks, picking his way through the litter.

“Should we be here?” I ask

He gestures ahead. “Just a little further.”

All I see is the highway overpass running perpendicular to the tracks.

Sparky tilts his head up to the sun that’s a dull lemon against the colorless sky, already low above the city. I’ve never seen the city from this angle. It looks dingy. “Come on,” he says.

At first, I think he’s brought me here to see the graffiti on the concrete walls beside the train tracks: “MAKE WAR NOT LOVE” painted over the picture of a man shooting bullets out of his thing. But then he strides to the middle of the wall and plasters himself against it. The wall is no more than ten feet from the tracks. “Hurry, Paloma,” he says, and I join him, flatten myself against the wall.

We wait, maybe five minutes. We don’t speak. The wall vibrates as cars drive across the overpass.

When I get home, the ambulance will be in the driveway. Nonna Rosa will rush out of the house in tears and hold me against her as the paramedics carry out my father’s sheet-covered body and load it into the ambulance. Nonna Rosa’s hand will move in the air. I won’t be able to see her, but I’ll know she’s making the sign of the cross. We’ll move. I’ll go to public school. I won’t ever see Sparky again.

I feel the train before I hear it, a hum that comes up through my feet. Just before it arrives Sparky says, “My mom, you know . . . .” Then the train is there and the world is sound, air, motion. It’s different from the slap of the cards because it goes on and on and I can’t tell when it will end, if it will. It’s now and always. Maybe I’m dead.

And then the train is gone, air fills the tunnel again. Sparky takes my hand and leads me out. I can’t hear the cars above us, or our feet kicking the debris.

Jenny Dunning writes short stories and essays and is currently revising her novel–from her desk with a view of the Mississippi River in Wabasha, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, The North Dakota Quarterly, The Tusculum Review, Beloit Fiction Journal and Talking River Review, among other publications.

A Dry and Level Space

They gazed across the highway’s gravel shoulder at the gas station, a beacon of light in the howling darkness. A November storm spattered their faces; its bitter wind cut through them. The kid inside the station smoked a cigarette and watched a flickering black-and-white TV, his feet propped up on the desk, the pump island empty.

“What do ya think?” Elliot asked.

Rudy shrugged. “It’d be easy. But the heat’ll catch us if we try stealing anything.”

“Yeah. It’s not worth it, and there’s nowhere to run.” Elliot stared up Highway 101 at the cloud-shrouded forest that surrounded the town of Willits. “We gotta find a place to crash, and soon.”

“Why? We could catch a ride to Portland, Seattle, or even Vancouver and be done with it.”

“You’re dreaming. Not tonight we won’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Look at us. I wouldn’t give us a ride, would you?”

Rudy grinned. “Nah, probably not.” The rain made his brown face look slippery silver in the blue station light.

The hitchhikers watched the oncoming headlights, their arms and thumbs extended, their ponchos flapping in the wind and barely covering their backpacks. A logging truck roared past. The spray from its tires drenched them. They cowered near the ditch, cursing. The kid inside the station clicked off most of the neon then padlocked the front door. He walked around the building. His flashlight beam danced in the blackness. It swept the highway and stopped on the two young men. Rudy and Elliot pulled the poncho hoods off their heads and moved toward him. The kid took a couple steps backward then stood his ground.

“He’s big, probably plays football,” Elliot whispered.

“Ah, we can take him,” Rudy replied.

“Let’s not and say we did.”

“What do you guys want?” the kid called as they approached.

Rudy muttered, “Jeez, his Mama musta ironed that uniform.”

“We haven’t looked that good in months.”

The two stopped and slipped out of their packs, groaning. The kid’s flashlight beam moved between their bearded faces. He grinned nervously. “It’s a little late for you hippies to be hitchhiking through.”

“Yeah. Does it always rain like this?” Rudy asked.

“Pretty much, until April or May.”

“Remind me to fire our travel agent,” Elliot said.

The kid laughed but his smile faded quickly. “So what do ya want?”

“Lots of things,” Rudy said. “But we’ll settle for someplace dry to sleep.”

The wind picked up and blew the rain sideways, wetting the concrete under the pump island cover. The kid pulled his yellow slicker closed and buttoned it, never taking his eyes off them. “There’s nothin’ much around here. You’ll get wet if you stay under the canopy…and the sheriff will run ya in.”

“What about north?” Elliot asked, dragging a hand through his long tangled hair.

“Nothin’ but trees and more rain.” The kid shifted from foot to foot. “So why are ya going north this time of year? Most of you…you guys passed through this summer.”

“It’s a long story,” Rudy said.

“How far north are you going?”

“Far enough,” Elliot said.

“Yeah, I figured. Ya know, it’s raining just as hard in Canada.”

The hitchhikers stayed quiet. The kid continued to bounce from foot to foot. “Me, I’m gonna go west.”

“Where, Hawaii?” Elliot asked.

“No, Vietnam. I’m enlisting in two weeks.”

The gale hammered them. They ducked their heads and pulled on the hoods of their rain gear. The hitchhikers gripped their backpacks to their bodies, bent over, rivulets of rain pouring onto the asphalt. A coughing fit shook Elliot. He staggered, went down on one knee, gasping for breath.

“You okay?” the kid asked. He bent and helped the hitchhiker to his feet. Elliot swayed on spindly legs and smiled weakly.

“My friend’s got the flu or somethin’,” Rudy said. “We really need a place to crash.”

“Sorry, but I can’t help ya.”

Elliot shook his head and clamped his arms around his shuddering body. Rudy grumbled something before asking, “So why the hell are you joining up?”

“It’s just my time, ya know.”

“Good luck with that,” Elliot croaked.

“Yeah, thanks. But how much worse could joining the Army be than being sick and hitchhiking in this storm?”

“They have more than rain in Vietnam,” Rudy shot back.

The kid nodded. “Yeah, but I try not to think about it.”

“How can you not think about it?” Elliot asked.

“I just, ya know, focus on what I’m doing right now. The rest will play itself out without me worryin’.”

The hitchhikers stared at each other and laughed. “Man, you’d make a great hippie,” Rudy said. “But we gotta get outta this rain.”

They pulled on their packs and moved toward the highway. With so little traffic, they heard the rain rattle on the slick blacktop that stretched south to their homes and north toward something else. Elliot took a deep breath, beat his chest with clenched fists, then coughed – a throaty gurgling sound soaked up by the sodden landscape.

“Hey, wait a minute guys. I got an idea,” the kid called. “Come on back.”

They joined him at the station office where he retrieved a ring of keys, then followed him to a row of U-Haul trailers lined up against the side fence. The kid groped around in the dark until he found some concrete blocks and propped them under each end of a 10-footer. He keyed the padlock and opened its rear door.

“What do ya think?” he asked, breathing hard and grinning.

“It looks like the fuckin’ Taj Mahal,” Rudy said.

“Yeah, this is great.” Elliot said.

“Now look, you guys gotta get out of here early. The owner shows up around six and will call the cops if he finds you.”

“We’ll split before then,” Rudy said.

“Lock the door when you leave…and good luck.” The kid walked away.

“Yeah, you too,” Rudy called after him.

The fully-enclosed trailer smelled like it had been used as a kennel. After taking a leak, they climbed in, peeled off their wet clothes, and unrolled their sleeping bags. In the darkness, they shared a soft banana and crackers. Elliot popped some aspirin, washing them down with metallic-tasting water from his canteen. He lay back and pulled the sleeping bag under his chin, shivering.

They didn’t talk, had done that all day and had come away with few answers. Sweat dripped into Elliot’s eyes. The inside of the trailer felt stifling and he unzipped his bag and folded back its top cover. The cold air chilled him quickly and in a few moments he shivered and bundled up again.

“Hey Rude, I think I got a fever, man.”

“I know ya do, your face was all red. Did ya take some of those aspirin I gave ya?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. Just lay back and keep wrapped up. Maybe it’ll break tonight and you’ll feel better in the morning.”

“Yeah…in the morning….” Elliot’s teeth chattered. He wiped his eyes and stared into the blackness. A downpour pounded the trailer’s metal roof, sounding like a row of snare drummers doing a fast roll, like the military bands that paraded up Main Street in Huntington Beach on the Fourth of July.

He thought about past summers spent in Huntington as a boy – the hot sand, the bodacious girls, the surfers, that life before all the chaos closed in around them. He couldn’t keep the confusion out of his head. Thoughts came and went at light speed. Like an undertow, they grabbed him and pulled him down toward crazy delirium. But he remembered what the kid had said, “I just focus on what I’m doin’ right now….”

Elliot rolled onto his side, drew his knees to his chest, and thought about where they lay: the dry level floor, the chilling air, the drum of the rain, the wind slamming the trailer, the sound of Rudy snoring, the smell of dog, the taste of banana, the hiss of each breath he took. Over and over he savored each of those things. After a while he stopped shivering, his muscles relaxed, and he slept.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one plump cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his poetry and short stories have been accepted by more than 160 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Picayune Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal and Boston Literary Magazine. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his short story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

The View

Now I’m embarrassed about how the lady’s face is buried between her friend’s legs, and how they moaning and how it was making me feel fore Momma walked in. I was watching it straight-eyed before she came in and took control of the whole thing—made it a punishment before the whooping. Now I got to watch the rest with her. After that, she gone whoop me. I know she is.

“That’s called gay—Sodom and Gomorrah,” she says without looking at me. “God ain’t no where in that, boy.”

I wish I had somewhere else to look, but she said, since I was looking at it fore she came in, I better look now. Said wrong got to be righted.

When she first stuck her head through the door, rollers in her hair and tired lines on her face, I was sure she wasn’t gone be in here long. I tried to change the channel fore she caught me, but I think that move is what got me caught. Trying to act natural don’t never really work. Natural caught her attention. She went from head-in-the-door to “what was you watching, Naught?”

“I work two jobs,” she say. Her eyes still on the T.V. Now a man standing behind the woman. She still got her head buried in between her friend’s legs and the man moving in and out of her, but I don’t even care no more. I ain’t even taking notes in my head no more. “I don’t work for this kind of mess. I don’t work hard like I do for you to be worried about this kind of mess.” She sound sad. Hurt or something.

I don’t know what to say. I know she think I’m going down to the devil for watching, and I really don’t understand why she making me watch the rest. I guess she done gave up on me and heaven. I wonder if this’ll make me fall deeper into the fire. I was only gone watch a little bit. I was only gone be in a little bit of trouble when it was time to stand fore God. Now I’m in trouble with the God and with her. I wonder if she know she might go to hell for watching it with me. I want to ask her, but the lines around her mouth tell me that ain’t a very good idea.

A few days ago she came in the kitchen, and her gold skin turned bright red when she saw me eating corn flakes from her mixing bowl. I wouldn’t have never ate my cereal out of that bowl if we had some more clean ones—if she would’ve washed them the night before. She didn’t fuss at me for it or nothing. I thought she was going to, but she didn’t say nothing.

All she did was let her beat-up purse slide off her shoulder and onto the counter. She took off her plaid coat—the one she bought from the second-hand store—and laid it on top of her purse. She reached up over her head, and pulled a bigger mixing-bowl from the cabinet and poured the whole box of off-brand corn flakes in it. After she poured a whole lot of milk in the bowl, she picked it up and placed it in front of where I was standing, eating from the smaller bowl.

“Since you woke up feeling all long-eyed, boy. Don’t care nothing bout how hard I work for every box of cereal I bring in here. You eat the whole damn thing, Naught. Just eat the whole damn thing.” And she stood there and made sure I ate every flake. When I was done, I thought I was gone throw up I was so full. She told me to go to her room and bring her the only thing she kept when she took Ruke’s stuff to my granny’s house, the thick leather belt with the snake as the buckle.

“Naught,” she call my name like she panicking or something, but she still don’t look at me. Her eyes still glued to the T.V., and I can’t help but wish the girl on screen shut up with all that hollering. “Anybody ever touch you like they ain’t supposed to, violate you, son?”

“Huh,” I say. I know what she asking. She done asked it before. She been asking me about being touched ever since she taught me to call my dick Mr. Wang. I learned real quick that a dick is a dick when I started P.W. Dastard Middle School, but Momma still call my dick Mr. Wang. Last week, she woke me up to catch the trash man cause I forgot to put the trash out the night before. My dick was standing straight up and she told me flat out, “Fix your Mr. Wang before going out that door, boy. Nasty self.”

“Have anybody ever touched your Mr. Wang, boy?” she ask. I stare at the side of her face for a minute. Her jaw is twitching, and a tear is sneaking down her cheek. I feel bad about the movie. I don’t want to hurt my momma.

“No, ma’am,” I say, letting my eyes drop the scratchy wool blanket covering me from the waist on down.

“You sure? ” she ask, twisting her head to face me for the first time. Her eyes is watery and tired like two wet, rusty pennies, but she still look kind of pretty cause I can remember her smile. I look into them rusty pennies and drop my eyes again. I shake my head but don’t say nothing.

“Cause I can understand this problem if that happened. Just talk to Momma. Tell me if somebody done hurt you, Naught. Pastor’ll pray with us, and we’ll get rid of this old nasty demon.”

I don’t say nothing. Just sit there wishing for all this to be over. Wish I didn’t have no dick and no momma. I wouldn’t wake up wet after them nasty dreams sometimes and wouldn’t be no whoopings. Never.

“Well, I don’t get it then, Naught,” she say. Then she just sit there for a second. “This Ruke fault. I wish I’d have been smarter than to let his dope-dealing self get me pregnant with you. Should been smart enough to know he couldn’t never be no daddy,” she say, turning back to the television. “That on that screen,” she say, pointing a lazy finger at the small screen on the rickety dresser. “Ain’t nothing you need to worry bout.”

I just nod my head and think about the whooping that’s coming.

“Go out yonder and get you a baby, how you gone feed it?” she ask, without looking at me. I lift my eyes and look toward the screen. Then I move them to a crack in the wall above it when I see the man holding his dick over one of the women’s mouth. She holding her tongue out beneath him to catch his juice.

A roach crawl out from the crack and start crawling down like it’s gone go behind the T.V. I wonder if Momma see it, or if she looking at the man juicing in the woman mouth. She hate roaches, but we can’t seem to rid of them on the count of our neighbors. Momma say them folks nasty, and roaches follow nasty.

“I been working extra hours to get you a new bike. Get you out this house some time. Thirteen-year-old boy need to be doing something. Idle mind be all the devil need to do something like this,” she say.

I think about my last bike and try to remember if it was powerful enough to make me forget about my dick. Maybe so. I didn’t think about girls and wake up hard and wet when I still had it. I was ten back then. I fixed that bike up all on my own. Before she brought that old sorry looking thing home from the thrift store, I had almost gave up on the idea of ever having a bike of my own. I bought things one at a time. The sandpaper to get the pink paint and princess power off. The gray paint because I like that color. The seat. The pivotal. Didn’t have no manual or nothing. Took me a whole year to get that thing rideable. I built that bike from the ground up, and then somebody from this old raggedy complex stole it off the back porch. Momma whooped me. Said she spent ten dollars on that thing, and I should’ve had better sense than to leave it outside and give it away.

“This how you say thank you. While I’m working, you letting sex demons in my house,” she say, standing up. She looking at the roach now. I can tell by how still her head is, and how mean her voice done got. He done stopped like he listening to her fuss at me. All things go quiet when Momma speaking.

The arms of her wool housecoat is cut off cause it used to be mine. She had to cut them off to make the housecoat fit her. When it was mine, I wouldn’t never wear it. She wear it every night. It’s been washed so much it look paper thin. The blue look dull and ashy. She look dull and ashy. She still pretty though. To me she pretty and smell like cinnamon, and she good at helping with my math. Even when she don’t know nothing bout it, she try.

She stand in front of the T.V., and I can’t see it no more. The man moaning loud, and that’s almost as bad as me being able to see him.

She look around the little room. Her eyes don’t even touch me. She turn her body and squeeze through my bed and the wall toward my closet. I think about the belt hanging up in there. All of sudden I want the movie to last longer, but words is running up the screen. I fix the cover on me. Make sure everything that need to be covered is covered. Make sure I won’t feel a thing.

“Where you get that shit from, Naught? Who give you something like that to watch?” she ask, bending her upper body toward the floor of my closet. I’m scared cause Momma don’t never cuss. She pray hard and loud, specially at church. She got a mean shout, too. Almost look like she dancing on Soul Train or in a Big Daddy Kane video. She be moving like she free and done forgot everything. She holy. She talk tongues. She don’t cuss.

I think about pushing her into the closet, and jumping off the bed and running away. I grew taller than Momma last year. She always say Ruke tall, but I never really paid attention. He was always sitting down when we used to visit him at the pen in Lamesa. Even when we stood up to take pictures, I ain’t notice. Everybody was taller than me the last time I saw him. Everybody was tall to me back then.

I think about what I’m gone do when I make it out the house, after I push her down in the closet. What I’m gone eat. Where I’m gone live. I wonder what she gone do without me here. I think about her smile when she give me stuff. When she gave me the housecoat she wearing, she was proud. Told me bout how she ain’t never have one when she was a girl. How she want me to have more than her. Be better than her. I stop thinking bout pushing her. I stop thinking bout running.

My heart start beating fast when she stand up with my size ten converse in her hand. She whooped me with shoe when I was ten. I peed in the breezeway of the G building, and Ms. Meddalton caught me. Ms. Meddalton whooped me with a switch cause Momma was still at work when she caught me doing it. Momma got me with a shoe when she came home. Said just cause the breezeway already smell like pee don’t mean I got and make it stronger. That whooping hurt worse than a switch, or a belt or a extension cord even. She couldn’t hit me how she wanted to cause of the grip she had on the shoe, so she hit me in the head, on the back, everywhere.

But she don’t even look my way now. She stand up and get in front of the T.V. again. She short, and her body wide and flat in the back. Her hair smashed like she been laying on it, and I can see some of her scalp through her thin hair. She moving her head around like she looking for something, and that make me remember the roach. It make me itch, and I want to pull the covers off of me to make sure ain’t none in my bed. Sometimes they climb up here and wake me up, and sometimes they already chilling in my bed fore I get in it. I don’t. But I ain’t pulling nothing back long as she got that shoe in her hand.

I hear a crash and stop thinking about the roaches under my cover.

“Thought I didn’t see you, didn’t you?” she say, looking around the dresser. She done smashed the roach and dropped the shoe. “There you is,” she say. Then she just drag herself out my room on her old house shoes. She don’t even look at me.

I look at my shoe laying on top of the VCR and think about jumping out my bed and hiding it. I think about closing my door and getting under the cover with the other roaches. I think about not getting no whooping at all. I hear her sliding back to my room. When she come through the doorway, she got a wad of tissue in her hand. She headed toward the VCR, and my eyes is on her. She notice and stop right where she at. She looking at me, and I’m looking at her. Her lips start quivering, and her eyes get real watery. I drop my head.

“Look at me, Naught,” she say. She sound soft and not at all like my momma. I look at her. I’m ashamed cause I’m nasty, and I can’t control it.

“Stop. Just stop. Okay?” she say, nodding her head. “This kind of stuff is so ugly, baby.”

I nod my head and feel like I’m gone cry.

“I mean… if you have a question that you need to ask me, I’m here, Naught, but baby…” she stop talking, and I look up at her. She grabbing her lips with the tips of her finger. Tears is really coming down her face and when she open up her mouth again, I can hear them in her throat. “Baby, you can’t want to do stuff like this. This is the devil’s mess.”

I nod my head, and she start looking blurry to me. Momma tears always bring mine. “I won’t do it no more, Momma. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I do this kind of stuff.”

She nod her head and wipe her eyes. She start making her way back to the T.V. She clean up the dead roach with tissue and eject the tape from the VCR when she finish. She put the balled of tissue down on the dresser and open the flap on the videotape. She start pulling out the film like a mad dog or something. She toss the destroyed tape on the edge of my bed.

“Return that to whoever you got it from,” she say. Ain’t no more tears in her voice.

Momma turn back to the T.V. and pick up the tissue paper. Then, she reach over and grab the shoe off the top of the VCR. I grip the edge of the cover and get ready to scream. I always start screaming fore she even hit me. On her way over to the side of my bed, where I’m getting my tonsils ready for her, she put the balled up tissue in the grocery bag I use for trash hanging on the inside of my doorknob.

She stand directly in front of me and do something that really shock me. She just drop the shoe—drop it right there on the floor.

“Momma,” I say. “Wh—”

“Maybe you got questions that need answering, Naught. Maybe you do. But sex ain’t okay, you hear?” she ask. “I’m gone give you this one time to know everything you need to know cause ain’t nobody never do it for me. After this, don’t you never bring up this nasty mess again,” she say and look at me like she waiting for me to say something. “You bet not close your eyes, and you bet not turn away,” she finally say, messing with the knot on her robe-belt. “You loose my baby, Satan,” she scream as loud as she can, making me jump a little bit.

She start chanting it over-and-over again, and I get nervous cause she got the same look on her face that she get when she start shouting at church. She close her eyes and keep saying, “You loose my baby, Satan. You can’t have him.” She still saying it when her belt come untied, and she still saying it when she begin to ease the robe off her shoulders. She still saying it when her robe hit the floor, and she standing there naked. And she still saying it when she open her eyes and look me in mine.

I’m too scared to close my eyes or look away. She got a serious look in her eyes. I can’t keep looking in them, so I drop my own to her breasts. They long and flat against her chest. My eyes trail down because her sand-dollar nipples pointing that way. Below her belly, which look big and jiggly like the inside of a bucket of pork chitterlings, is a thick, tangled afro. I think about how much I hate chitterlings and afros and whoopings.

She getting blurry to me again, and my eyes burn like somebody chopping onions. After a while, she stop chanting and bend down to pick up the old robe. She wrap it around her and tie it back up.

“That demon ought to be gone,” she say. “Don’t let it back in my house, boy.”

She walk out the door and leave me sitting there. When I hear her shoes sliding down the hallway, I slide down from my bed onto the floor. I kind of ball up on my knees and have a real good cry. Then, I get in praying position next to the bed.

And I pray for myself long into the night.

LaToya Watkins holds degrees in literary and aesthetic studies from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her stories have appeared in Specter Magazine and Kweli Journal. She is the author of two novels. LaToya lives, teaches, and learns in Texas.