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.