The Day

“Come on, Daddy. Wake up! It’s time for our Saturday walk.”

“Okay, okay, I’m waking up.” He opens his eyes expecting to see a child, but the sunlit room is empty. Where is he?

He sits up, puts his feet on the floor, then looks around.

Nothing looks familiar. Not right. Name things. Start naming. “Bed. P… pillow. Sitting, no… chair. Picture. Table… no, not table, dressing… dresser.”

“Dresser.” He picks up the picture. The woman’s hair is long and dark. She’s wearing a blue dress… Think, Charlie, think!

“Charlie. I’m Charlie Johnson.”

“Charlie? Did you call me?” A voice from the doorway of the bedroom.

I know her, but what’s her name?

“Are you all right?” she asks. When she steps into the room, he notices a cast on her leg.

“What happened?” he asks. He points at her leg.

“I fell down the front steps three days ago,” she says, “and I broke a couple of bones in my foot.”

“I remember,” he says. You don’t really remember. “Yes, I do.”

She hugs him. “I believe you, Charlie. You called 911, then went with me to the hospital. You stayed with me the entire time. You took good care of me.”

Annie. He hugs her. “Annie. You’re my wife, Annie.”

He feels her body tense. “Yes, sweet Charlie. I’m your wife, Annie. And you, sir, have been my husband for thirty-six years.”

She’s smiling, but something’s wrong.

“Tell you what,” she says brightly, “you take a shower, and I’ll fix us breakfast.”

“Good,” he says. He looks around the room.

She points to a doorway. “The bathroom is there.” They walk to the doorway and he looks in.

“Be sure to wash your hair—it’s sticking up in the back like a haystack.”

He looks in the mirror over the sink. “What if I like it this way? Maybe it’s a new style I’m trying out.”

She smacks him lightly on the arm and smiles.

“Do you need any help with the shower?”

“No. I’ll be fine. I’m not a baby.”

She picks up a spiral-bound tablet on her nightstand and thumbs through several pages. “I’ll wait until you’re finished with your shower. Would you like some toast with your eggs?”

“Sounds good,” he says as he strips off his pajamas.

After his shower, he feels fully awake. The foggy feeling has gone. He sits on their bed, pulling on his socks, when the tablet catches his eye. He picks it up and opens to the first page.

The word “December” is written at the very top. “Morning, Afternoon, Night” are spaced on the top line from left to right. The days of the month run down the left side. Checkmarks are scattered on the page. He counts them: ten. The next page has eight, and the page after that has fourteen. May has eighteen and June has twenty-five, with checkmarks in the morning, afternoon, and night columns. He does not know what this means, but his heart is beating faster as he thumbs through July, August, and September. More marks. October has even more marks, sometimes several in a day. The last mark is in the morning on day 23. He looks at the calendar on the wall next to the dresser. October is in large print at the top.

His stomach twists into a knot. He is breathing faster, and it’s hard to take a deep breath. He rushes out of the bedroom, through the living room, and into the kitchen.

“Annie!”

Anne jumps and drops the knife she is using. “What’s wrong?”

“What’s this?” he asks, waving the tablet at her.

She takes it from him, then says, “This is how I record your ‘lost time.’ That’s what you call it, ‘lost time.’ You asked me to keep track.”

“Oh,” he says. He tries to remember, but his memories are like small fish that he can see but cannot capture. He feels dizzy, so he sits in one of the chairs at the small table in the dining nook that faces the oversized kitchen window.

She sits in a chair next to him. “It was early in December when you asked me to keep a log. We were sitting here, at this table.” She puts the tablet down and rests her hand on his.

“You asked me to do this because your doctor said there would be more daily episodes just before you… before I lose you.” Her voice becomes softer.

He picks up the tablet and turns to the last page. He studies the page for almost a minute, sorting through his jumbled thoughts to make sense of the marks on the page.

“This says October. We’re in October, right?”

“Right. This is today’s date.” She points to the 23.

He points to the previous week. Every day has at least two marks under “morning” and “afternoon,” but three or four in the “night” column.

“So they’re becoming more fire… first…” He shakes his head.

“Frequent?”

“Yes.” He points to the mark she made this morning. “I’ve already had one… today?”

“Yes.” Frown lines appear between her eyes.

“So it can happen any time. I could lose time, like this morning, but never come back.”

Anne’s lips compress into a straight line as she nods. Her eyes glisten.

“I’m scared,” he says softly.

“Me, too.” She scoots her chair closer to his. He feels the weight of her arm on his shoulders.

He closes his eyes. Clock is ticking. I feel Annie breathing. That smell… that’s Annie’s soap.

I’m home. This is home. Annie is here.

“How about breakfast?” Anne asks. “We’ll feel better after we eat.” He nods.

As she works, he stares out the window as pictures of his mother squeeze into his brain. She was in the end stage of Alzheimer’s, lying in her bed, silent and mindless. This is his future. Acid rises in the back of his throat.

A movement outside snaps him back to the present. A black squirrel scurries through the deep green grass of the vacant lot that sits between his house and the neighbor’s home.

They’ve lived there a long time, but I’ve lost their names.

More movement. The trees lining the street are dropping their leaves. Single leaves flutter to the ground, but when a breeze passes by hundreds fall in a blizzard of color.

He leans back in the chair and sighs.

It’s so pretty.

Two small children are playing in the vacant lot. He hears their thin, high voices through the closed window.

Jimmy…

He is grading papers in his home office when Jimmy interrupts him.

“Come play the troll game with us, Daddy.”

Soon he is lurching between the trees waving his arms and growling about eating little boys. They shoot him with finger guns as they yell “Pow!” He staggers as the imaginary bullets strike him, but doesn’t fall. Boyish sopranos yell and scream as they evade his waving arms.

He reads Dr. Seuss books to Jimmy at bedtime. Each character has a different silly voice. Sometimes they act out the story until Annie appears in the doorway.

“Jimmy, if you get your daddy too riled up, he won’t be able to go to sleep tonight,” she says. Jimmy laughs at her joke. But sometimes she can’t resist, and piles on the bed with them.

Jimmy loves the Saturday walks. He would—

“Charlie?”

“Huh?”

“Breakfast is ready. You’ve been looking out the window for several minutes, and I’m a little worried that you’re gone again.”

“I was feeling nas, nostro, astro… ”

“Nostalgic?”

“I was… I was thinking about the Saturday walks that Jimmy and I used to take. Do you remember?”

She sets their eggs and toast on the table. “Yes. You and Jimmy would go off together on Saturdays, and, according to Jimmy, I was not allowed to go along. ‘Saturday walk time is just Daddy and me,’ he said.” She pours coffee for both of them.

“It was not unusual for both of you to come back from your walks with mud on your shoes and clothes, and bits of leaves in your hair.” She smiles as she shakes her head. “My boys.”

He hears her voice catch. Tears run down her face, and she uses a napkin to dab them away.

“What’s wrong?”

For a moment, she says nothing. Then, “I miss him.”

“Who?”

“Jimmy. That’s who we are talking about. Our son.”

He nods. “Of course. Jimmy. He woke me up this morning.” He looks around. “Where is he?”

She takes his hand. “Charlie, Jimmy died a long time ago. His heart just stopped one day.”

His eyes grow moist, and his voice shakes as he asks, “How old was he?”

“Twenty,” she says softly.

He pulls his hand away. “I’m sure I heard him this morning. Am I going crazy?”

“No, Charlie. The doctor said there would be a time when you would have… when you would be seeing or hearing things.”

“Where is he… his body?” he asks.

“He’s not in a cemetery. He was cremated.”

“Cremated?”

“Do you remember what ‘cremated’ means?”

“Burned up. I can remember some things, weird things.”

“We scattered his ashes in the little brook that runs beside Hancock Park.”

“Is that the park I see on my walks?”

“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!”

“Yes. You and Jimmy had a lot of nice times on your walks there, and he loved playing in the brook. When I took him, he would spend hours there floating dead leaves and small twigs.”

She wipes her eyes with her fingertips, then says, “We should eat now. Our food is almost cold.”

Charlie has no appetite, so he only picks at his food as images and sounds tumble over each other in his mind. His heart beats faster and his hands shake. He looks over at Annie, and sees her looking back. She has a puzzled look on her face.

“What’s going on, Charlie?”

“I’m afraid, Annie.” His fork and knife clatter on his plate. He reaches for the coffeepot, but Anne stops him.

“Let me,” she says as she pours some into his cup. “What are you afraid of, Charlie?”

“How could I forget that Jimmy is dead? I’m hearing things that aren’t there, and I even forgot your name for a while this morning. I’m losing big chunks of my life.

“And I’ve been thinking about those marks in the book.” He picks up the tablet, turns to the last page, then lays it on the table so she can read it. She covers it with her napkin. He reaches for her hand; she pulls away.

“What are you trying to say, Charlie?”

“Annie, I… ” He looks out the window. “Time has run away from me. I don’t want to leave you, but…”

He tries to catch her eye, but she will not look at him. Her face is pale and rigid.

“I need to go,” he says. “I’m afraid that if I wait much longer—”

“You don’t know how much longer you have before—”

“This book,” he says as he points to the tablet, “this book says it is happening soon. And think about what I’ve already forgotten. I’m afraid that if I wait another day—”

She throws the tablet on the floor. He is shocked into silence.

She shakes her head, stands, starts to speak, but stops. Then, with agitated movements, she picks up their dishes and puts them in the sink. A butter knife clatters on the wood floor; she picks it up and tosses it onto the counter. With her back to him, she puts her hands on the sink and stands stiff-armed as her head falls forward. Her shoulders are shaking. He stands behind her.

“Please, Annie. Please don’t cry. I’m sorry. I’m afraid. So much is gone. I have to—”

With a raspy, gasping sound, she turns, wraps her arms around him, and buries her face in his chest. Her shoulders heave as her tears dampen his T-shirt.

She says something.

“What did you say?”

She looks up at him. “When? When do you think you’ll… ”

He pulls away from her. “Today. I’m afraid to wait any longer.”

Her body sags. He holds onto her, helps her sit down. She rests her elbows on her knees and holds her head in her hands as he kneels beside her. He lays a hand on her back, but she shrugs him off. His insides are churning, and his knees are hurting. He sits on the floor with his knees drawn up. The silence feels long and heavy.

“Annie,” he says. She does not respond.

“Annie, I don’t want you to see… I don’t want you to see me like I saw my mother.”

“You’re going to kill yourself for you, not for me,” she snaps. Her hands are balled into fists. “I’m willing to take care of you for as long as you live, even when you don’t know who or where you are. You can’t put this on me!” Her face is white with anger as she hugs herself and goes to the window. He uses the chair to leverage himself to his feet. He wants to walk away, but it might make her mad. He wants to go to her, but she might tell him to leave her alone.

Stay? Go? “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.” A small sound escapes from him, followed by another, then another as he breaks down.

He feels her arms around him, holding him up.

Her voice is soft. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Charlie.” He opens his eyes and sees she is crying.

“I knew this day would come,” she says. “I know you’re scared, and I’m scared, too. When you brought that notebook to the table, I knew what you were thinking. I knew it would be soon. Part of me was hoping you might forget those damn helium tanks you bought. But another part was afraid you would forget them, or you would wait too long and not know how to use them, or—”

“I’m getting confused,” he said, pulling back so he could look her in the eye. “I can’t think fast enough to understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m confused, too. I don’t know what I want.” She smiles as she wipes her eyes. “I know you have to do this. I hate what you want to do, but I understand. I know how terrible, how awful your future is. I know you are afraid of ending up like your mother. I’m not afraid of that, but I am afraid of how I’ll feel two, or five, or ten years from now when your body is alive but you’re gone.” Her voice breaks. She hugs him hard. “You’re doing this for both of us. I love you for that. I’m not mad at you, but I’m furious that this damn disease is taking you from me.”

She looks up at him. “Now am I making sense to you?”

No.

“Yes,” he says as he takes her hands and kisses them. He sits and pulls her onto his lap. They kiss, then she touches his face and hair. She looks at him like she is memorizing each gray hair, each wrinkle, each blemish. They remain like this a long time, breathing in each other as the sun pulls its rays from the room and rises higher in the clear blue sky.

Charlie comes out of their bedroom in his walking shoes, long pants, and a T-shirt under a fleece hoodie. He stops at the closed door of the guest room, takes a breath, then opens it. Two helium tanks, connected by a short hose, are standing at attention beside the bed. A longer hose snakes from one of the tanks to a breathing mask that lies on the bed. Charlie shivers at the sight. This is why Annie keeps this door closed.

A single page of lined yellow paper is on the bed next to the mask. In his handwriting, there are the three simple steps that will end his life: 1. Turn the handle on tank #1 to “on.” 2. Turn the handle on tank #2 to “on.” 3. Put on the mask.

Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. Turn on the tanks, put on the mask. He squeezes his lips together as the chant plays in his head.

“Charlie. You have your walking clothes on.” Anne is in the living room. She steps toward him but stops when she sees the guest room door is open.

“Are you going for your walk?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“But why?”

“I want to keep my routine.”

“But I can’t go with you because of my foot.”

“How many years did I go on my walk alone?”

“I’ve walked with you for the past year. Well, until three days ago. But why today… if you’re going to—” She covers her mouth with her hands as she takes several deep breaths.

“Look,” she says as she drops her hands. “Rachel can be here in ten minutes.”

“Rachel?” I should know this.

“My sister, Rachel?”

Sister. “Yes, Rachel.” What does she look like?

“Rachel can go with you.”

“I’m feeling fine. I want to go alone. I want to keep my routine.”

She shakes her head. “But why today?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know why… I guess I want to say good-bye.”

“Good-bye? Who will you say good-bye to?”

He opens the front door and steps onto the cement stoop. He looks around at the autumn colors of the trees against a deep blue sky, and a lump forms in his throat. Wordless, he opens his arms, then turns back to Annie.

She starts to say something but stops. Her eyes are full of tears.

“Wait just a second,” she says as she thumps back to their bedroom. When she comes back, she hands him a phone. “All you have to do is touch this button, and you can call me.”

She sounds nervous.

“Annie, I’ll be just fine. I’ll take the same right—”

“Route?”

“Route. I’ll take my usual route.” He slips the phone into his pocket.

“I’ll call Rachel so that she can be with me…” She presses her lips together, then kisses him and walks quickly away. He pulls the door closed.

A light breeze and cool air bring a chill. He zips his jacket to his chin, pulls his hood over his head, then steps down from the stoop onto their short walkway. He turns left on the broad sidewalk. Annie stands at the front window. He waves. She waves back, then turns away.

Splinters of golden autumn sunlight pass through the colored leaves of the large maple and oak trees, casting narrow, uneven patches of light bordered by shadow onto the sidewalk. He turns onto Arnold Street with its long blocks of shaded streets and modest, red-brick houses sitting behind their leaf-covered lawns. Several families are already out, clearing their lawns. Young children are jumping over, into, and onto piles of crinkling, multicolored leaves.

Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate.

Charlie remembers pictures that Annie took of Jimmy and him. They showed two sets of legs—his and Jimmy’s—stuck out from piles of leaves. He smiles at the images as the aroma of leaves under his feet brings back childhood memories of autumn days.

He remembers the feel of the rough bark as he shimmied up a tall maple, his favorite tree in the woods near his house. He loved the way its thick branches were swayed by even a light breeze. On windy days, he would sit on the moving branches and imagine he was holding on to the mast of a great sailing ship as it plowed the ocean.

He notices that large trees on both sides of Arnold Street have thrust their branches over it, creating a long, leafy cathedral with ever-shifting light. They stand like silent giants, extending their arms over him in a rustling benediction as he passes beneath them. When he reaches the corner of Arnold and Hancock, he turns around. He touches his forehead in a loose military salute.

“Hail and farewell,” he says. The trees, moved by a passing breeze, wave back.

After a lingering look, he turns. He is about to cross Hancock Street but stops. Nothing looks familiar.

Names—start naming. “Street sign, trees, houses. I came from that direction.” He points along Hancock Street. “Or maybe I came from that—” He’s startled by a car horn, then he realizes he’s standing in the street.

The car pulls closer, and the driver rolls down her window.

“Doctor Johnson?” she asks.

“Y—yes.” Who are you?

“You probably don’t recognize me. I’m Patricia Ferris. I was an English major twenty years ago. I took every one of your classes and learned so much from you.”

“That’s nice,” he smiles. I taught English?

“Are you all right?”

“Yes. Well, maybe not. I want to get to the uh, the uh… Trees. Lots of trees. Post. Park. I’m looking for a park. It’s around here somewhere.”

“It’s right there—Hancock Park,” she says, pointing. He follows her finger.

“Well, damn,” he said. “I guess I got a little turned around.”

She smiles. “Just a senior moment. I’ve had a few of those, and I’m still in my forties. Oops, I better move. There’s another car coming. Nice to see you, Professor.”

“Nice to see you as well,” he says. She drives away, and he steps onto the curb.

“So I was a teacher,” he says as he walks toward the park.

He leaves the sidewalk that curves into the shifting shades of the trees. I think I used to know what kind they were. Every breeze makes the colors ripple, hundreds of leafy flags break apart and flutter to the ground.

“It’s raining leaves!” He laughs and turns in circles as they fall on and around him. He is drawn deeper into the woods as he tries to catch some of them.

“We have to catch at least one before it hits the ground, right, Dad?” a man says.

“Right,” Charlie says. He catches one by clamping it to his chest. “Got it.”

“First one of the fall,” the voice says.

Charlie turns in the direction of the sound. The man darts around, chasing the falling leaves. He is tall and skinny, with dark hair. He stops moving and grins as he faces Charlie.

“Jim?”

“Hi, Dad.”

“But I thought you were dead.”

“I am dead.”

“Are you a ghost?

“No, Dad, I’m not a ghost. You’re having a hallucination. You had one last week, remember? In that one, I was eight years old.”

“No, I don’t remember. I have Alzheimer’s, you know. But how can you remember something if I can’t?”

Jim shrugs and smiles. “I thought you might need some company on your last walk,” he says as he walks by Charlie. They wend their way among the trees and come to a grassy area beside a shallow brook.

“I’ve always loved this spot,” Jim says. “I’m glad you and Mom brought my ashes here.”

Charlie sits down with a grunt. “I forgot that you died, and that we brought your ashes here. Annie told me this morning. I’m sorry I forgot.”

Charlie sits in silence for several minutes, listening to the brook.

“What’s it like?” he asks.

“What?” Jim asks.

“Dying. Did it hurt much?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m your hallucination, so what would you like me to say?”

“I’m scared, Jim.”

“I know, Dad. Killing yourself is scary, but you don’t have to do it. You could let nature take its course.”

Charlie shakes his head. “I can’t put Annie through that.”

“You have these little tricks, like naming things.”

“But that won’t work much longer. I know.” Several leaves drift along on the brook. I wonder where they go? It would be so easy to just float away.

“Daddy?” A boy’s voice.

“Jimmy!” Charlie smiles at the boy sitting beside him. “You woke me up this morning, scamp.”

“How did you get so old, Daddy? I thought you were old, but not this old.”

Charlie chuckled. “Hell if I know.”

“Daddy, you always told me life was just one adventure after another. Why are you scared about this one?”

“I’ve never died before.” Charlie picks up a small stone and tosses it into the brook. Jimmy does the same.

“Can we do the leaf pile again?” Jimmy is on his hands and knees.

“Sure can.” Charlie hauls himself onto his knees and gathers armfuls of leaves. It is not long before he is on his back under them with some of them pressed against his glasses, backlit by the sun. Their intricate, tiny veins amaze him, just as they did when he was a kid. His eyes are watering.

“What’s the matter, Daddy?” Jimmy is lying beside him.

“I don’t know, Jimmy,” he says. “Something about all these leaves dying made me sad, I guess.”

“Oh,” Jimmy says. “Let’s be quiet and pay attention to what’s around us. That’s what you told me to do when I felt sad.”

“I told you that?”

“Yeah, a lot of times. Sometimes it even helped.”

Charlie takes a long inhalation through his nose, bringing the sweet, earthy smell deep into his body. Then he closes his eyes and listens to the leaves’ dry whispers as they move against each other with each breath. A stray fly buzzes past; a cricket calls for a mate. Charlie smiles as he catches the scent of grape-flavored bubblegum.

“Daddy, look at the light and colors,” Jimmy says.

He opens his eyes into narrow slits like he did when he was a kid. Everything is slightly out of focus, and sunlight twinkles through the tiny openings between the leaves. It is almost as if he were floating.

“It’s like little pieces of sunshine,” Jimmy says.

“Jimmy, will you remind me about this today when I’m dying?”

“Sure. I’m not afraid, Daddy. I’ll stay with you.”

The sound of an old-fashioned phone ringing startles Charlie. Leaves scatter as he sits up.

“Hello?”

“Charlie, are you okay?”

“Annie, I’m fine. I’m in, um, the tree place, lots of trees, and a stream…”

“Hancock Park,” Anne says. “I can see it on my phone.”

“On your phone? How?”

“I put a tracker on your phone last year.”

“A tracker?”

“Are you lost? You’re normally home from your walk by now.”

“Oh.”

“So, are you lost?”

“No, I’m not lost,” he says. “I just can’t remember the name of the, the park. Jimmy and I have been having a good time.”

Anne gasps. Then she says, “Charlie, we just talked about this. Jimmy died—”

“I know it’s a halo, hollow, hal—”

“Hallucination?”

“Hallucination. It’s nice to pretend. We came here on our Saturday walks.”

“I know.” After a pause, she adds, “Rachel’s here. Would you like her to come get you?”

“No, I’ll walk. It’s a beautiful day. Maybe we could play in the leaves when I get home.”

“I would like that,” Annie says.

“I’m coming home. G’bye.” He slips the phone into his pocket. “Jimmy, I have to go.”

The only answer is the sound of breeze-blown leaves and ripples in the brook. He looks around, sighs, then sets out for home.

Everything seems clearer, the contrasts sharper. He likes the feel of his running shoes on the ground, the cool air on his face. The scent of a wood fire from a neighbor’s home makes him smile.

Several minutes later, as he turns the corner on his street, he sees Annie and Rachel on the stoop, waiting for him. He waves, and they return the wave.

I’m almost home. Not much longer now.

“Daddy, I’m coming with you.”

“Jimmy? I would like that.”

“It’s been a nice day, hasn’t it Daddy?”

“It sure has, Jimmy. The best.”

Timothy CaldwellTimothy Caldwell served in the Army as a chaplain’s assistant in Vietnam in 1970. He began a career as a singer and teacher in higher education in 1972, a career that lasted almost forty years. In 2009, he published his semi-autobiographical novel, The Chaplain’s Assistant: God, Country, and Vietnam. Since then, his essays and short stories have appeared in literary journals such as the Blue Lake Literary Review, Crab Creek Review, Storyteller Magazine, and now Lunch Ticket. He has decided he would like to be known as the Grandma Moses of authors.

Warmbloods

My new boss is a zombie. I do not mean one of those overworked and sleep-deprived corporate types; I mean rotting flesh, back from the dead, eat-your-family-at-night sort of beings. Think Night of the Living Dead. See Re-Animator. She is, however, gifted with speech.

At our first staff meeting, she stood at the head of the conference table and said, “Listen up, pussies. I’ve read over your performance reports. It’s time to get your asses in gear. From now on, no more fondue Fridays and no more pajama-fucking-Mondays. Got that?” she said and slammed her fist on the table, whereupon it snapped off at the wrist and lay there limply.

Overhead, the lights flickered. Bonnie Bonnie shrieked.

“Why are you all still here?” Zombie said. “Get to work.”

As we scurried from the room, I was certain that not one of us in our entire lives had ever been so quiet. That day we worked straight through lunch and second lunch. And what about wasabi Wednesday, you ask? No, we did not dare. For the rest of the afternoon we worked in silence, disturbed only by the sound of Jimmy’s breathing.

*     *     *

We do not know where Zombie came from, nor where Kevin, our old boss, went. All we know is that one day there was Kevin, and the next day there was not Kevin. Instead there was Zombie … I am at my desk; looming over me is Zombie. She is saying, “So you’re at your desk, see? The phone rings—ringringring—the phone’s ringing, you shit. Answer it.” Zombie smells like a well-used porta-potty that’s been abandoned alongside a highway on a hot summer day. I am choking; nevertheless, I answer the phone: “1-2-3  Delivery and Storage. How can I help you?” I say and look to Zombie for approval. Her face is a paroxysm of anger; unless I am mistaken, it seems there is a creature living inside her mouth, and my body begins to feel as if it’s retreating into itself. “You’re supposed to tell them, ‘it’s a wonderful fucking day,’ you dumbass,” she says. “Again—ringringringring.” “1-2-3 Delivery,” I say. “It’s a wonderful fucking day. How can I help you?” There is a slight popping sound; something falls into my lap. I look down—there is Zombie’s eyeball, laying in the fold of my crotch. “That’s it!” she says. “All of you get out. We’re done for the day.”

… Bonnie Bonnie, Jimmy, and I … we are walking to the vehicle—the vehicle we share—to ride to the house—the house we share—on the other side of town. We walk past warehouses A, B, and C; 2A, 2B, 2C; 3A, 3B, 3C. It is a long walk, long enough to aggravate Jimmy’s asthma. “She made me redo (wheeze) the inventory report (wheeze) seven times!” he says. Poor Jimmy. He has been working so hard for so long. All he wants is a honeymoon for himself and Bonnie Bonnie, to somewhere nice, like Jersey Shore or Rome (NY). Unfortunately, as she told me last week in bed, Bonnie Bonnie has given up all hope in this, not to mention all hope in love, generally speaking. “When you think about it,” she said. “What is love, actually? Moreover, what is life?” But all she says now is, “Don’t push yourself, Jimmy,” as we overtake the last of the warehouses and our rusty, four-door Chevrolet swings into view across a sea of concrete.

*     *     *

As we pull into the driveway of our split-level home, I am filled with dread—further down the road, beneath a billboard that says Hoogland Realty – People You Can Trust, I spot my mother’s compact car, and instantly my mind goes to all the things left undone: the tower of dishes sitting in the sink, the laundry spread in disarray across the floor.

And for once—just this once—I don’t want Bonnie Bonnie and Jimmy to go quickly up the stairs into their apartment and leave me alone. But what could I say—I had nothing to offer, and they had nothing to (willingly) give.

So when I enter my apartment, there she is, on the couch—my mother. “I thought you were going to fix the lock on that door,” she says. She is like a violent force that laughs in the face of all your fortifications and promptly knocks you down. “Have you seen this?” she says, as she rises and advances towards the kitchen counter, atop which rests an old bowl of cereal and milk. She turns the bowl upside down, yet nothing comes out. “Is this how you want to live?” she says.

“Would you believe me,” I say, “if I told you that was part of a magic trick?” and I laugh. My poor mother. Has anyone ever stood beside me as long and as diligently as she? Was it not she that paid off my hospital bills and dragged me through my senior year of high school? And yet, not once has she thrown this in my face. She is, like, a fucking mother of grace. So I cannot look her in the eyes now and say, “I’m coming up short on this month’s rent, nor do I have enough to make my car payment.” Because she will say, “How much do you need?” and I will tell her; and she will say, “You don’t have even that much?” and I will proceed to bury myself with shame.

I am thinking, “How will I salvage this?” when through the ceiling comes the sounds of Bonnie Bonnie and Jimmy moaning, prompting my mother to say, “I’ve had all I can handle today,” and leave.

*     *     *

Not two weeks ago, I met Kevin in an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of town. It was already dark when he arrived in a black Escalade. “How does it gleam like that in the night?” I wondered. I have dreams about cars like that.

After parking the car, he comes to me, bounding over tufts of grass peeking out through cracks in the asphalt. “Here’s the plan,” he says, and begins speaking very quickly. “You give me the money. Tomorrow, when the shipment comes—it belongs in warehouse A. Instead, we put it in 3A. When the guys come to pick up at the end of the week, they’s all ‘Where’s our shipment?’ We’s go, ‘What shipment? We ain’t got no shipment.’ Ensue scandal. I vamoose with the money. That’s when you step in. You’s say, ‘Hey, we’s check 3A?’ And there ‘is. You’s the hero; you’s the new boss. Bam—got yourself a new future; sky’s the limit. But first step—you give me the money.”

Kevin is out of breath. Behind us menaces the boarded-up storefront of a defunct K-Mart.

“Okay,” I say, and give him the money—all of the money; my meager savings; my poor savings. And at the time, I so badly wanted to believe that by the end of the week I would be a manager, maybe even a district manager, because to that point, my life had been so full of failures it only made sense that, by some cosmic rule, I was due for something good.

As he drove off in his Escalade, I remember thinking to myself, “One day I’ll have a set of wheels like that,” and that was the last time I saw Kevin. He did not come to work the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. The shipments came and went without the slightest hitch. To this day, what I remember most clearly about that night are the clouds—how they hung low and immobile, as if to say, “This is how things are.”

*     *     *

If I had a backup plan, now would be the time for it. Alas, I am not the sort of man who, jumping into action, thinks: What if this? What if that? I saw an opportunity, and I moved to seize it; for that, I cannot be faulted. That will be the epitaph on my tombstone.

If I had a backup plan, now would be the time for it. Alas, I am not the sort of man who, jumping into action, thinks: What if this? What if that? I saw an opportunity, and I moved to seize it; for that, I cannot be faulted. That will be the epitaph on my tombstone.

As I pace about my living room, I think of all the things I will not do. For instance, I will not hold out for the return of Kevin, unbidden and miraculous, who will not show up at my desk and say, “You know, you are a solid and hardworking man. Here is your money.” Such fantasies are for lesser men, and I, for one, do not seek redemption where there is none to be had—that is what I am thinking when there is a knock at my door.

It is Jimmy—Jimmy! He is out of ketchup. Of course he can have ketchup! I have always thought of Jimmy as a sort of father figure in my life. I tell him as much, and that it is only natural for a son to come to his father in times of need. He will help me! But at a cost.

“I’m worried about Bonnie Bonnie,” he says. “Lately, she’s been so lethargic.”

I follow Jimmy up to his apartment. The living room is dark; the shades are drawn. There is a singular piece of furniture—a bed, covered in thick purple blankets—positioned in the center of the room. Atop it rests a scantily clad Bonnie Bonnie, laid out like a wife of a Turkish sultan.

“Good news,” Jimmy says. “He had ketchup.”

“Oh, how wonderful,” Bonnie Bonnie coos.

I am still in the doorway when Bonnie Bonnie waves, and I register, in some corner of my mind, that I’m to come closer. Mortified, I sit on the edge of the bed.

“I should get my inhaler, just in case,” Jimmy says and leaves the room.

While he is gone, Bonnie Bonnie leans in. “I’m so excited,” she says. “I’ve read about things like this, you know, in books and stuff.” She takes part of the blanket in her fist and rubs it in my face. “It’s aubergine,” she breathes.

And in that moment I find it so impossible to say, “Bonnie, wait. Before—I was lonely and afraid. It didn’t mean anything to me.” She is already unbuckling my belt when Jimmy returns, naked, with his inhaler in one hand and the bottle of ketchup in the other; and immediately I am flooded with disgust and regret. I am thinking, “Not one shred of my dignity will survive this,” and the entire time Bonnie Bonnie is squealing: This is the life. This is how to live.

*     *     *

The next day I am ready for a fight. As I charge into Zombie’s office, I am prepared to offer her two hundred pigeons (dead or alive) or my cousin’s youngest son, who nobody likes, if she will graciously step down and promote me. For just such an occasion, I have been saving up all my powers of persuasion; I am about to unleash them, when I find Zombie hunched over her desk. I believe she is crying—yes, she is crying. Little green tears streak her pocked cheeks.

She does not get up, but says, “What do you want?”

I thought I’d come prepared for every possible scenario—in my back pocket is a flask of holy water; a silver-tipped shank is tucked inside my shoe—but never had I imagined this, and all I can manage to say is, “What is wrong with you?”

Sobbing, Zombie rises and says, “I can’t find my arm,” and it’s true. Where her right arm should be there is only a stump. “It was there this morning…”

And at this point it is so unclear to me what the best course of action would be. I hesitate and say, “Well, I guess you’ll live without it.”

She looks at me. “Is this a joke to you?” She gesticulates towards her stump with her remaining limb. “Do you think this is funny?” She moves out from behind her desk and advances towards me. “I do not have a single moment of peace. My mind is an opera of fiscal confrontations: revenue versus overhead; services versus salaries; inflation versus profits. My home is a veritable collage of P&L statements. Do you think I was born this way? I wanted to raise horses!”

As her stench closes in, my body is torn between the forces of fight or flight; phrases like “moment of truth” and “point of no return” crystallize and take on new meaning right before my eyes; the weight of impending action is bearing down on me, when suddenly Zombie’s leg breaks off at the knee, and she falls to the floor.

I feel deflated and robbed. I say, “Listen, Zombie—”

“Not Zombie—Sharon!” Zombie wails.

And looking down at Zombie, I cannot help but feel there is some deeper meaning to all this, but the only thing I can understand is that life can be cruel and rarely works out the way we want it to; and I catch myself thinking, “If only I could reach a younger version of myself.” I would know exactly where to find me—leaning against a chain-link fence behind the gas station downtown, listening to Jeff Hoogland, my very best friend, say, “I’m gonna to be an astrophysicist when I grow up,” to which my young-self replies, “Shit. You don’t even know what that means.”

I want to push that kid down and say, “Shut the fuck up. Get your shit together; you’re going to college one day.” And when my young-self says, “You’re not the boss of me.” I’ll say, “Yeah? Well, you should know… there are things in this world that you never get back. And Jeff,” I’ll point to Jeff, “Jeff is going to go into real estate. He’s going to be able to afford a house with a door that locks and a car of his own without a spot of rust on it.”

That’s when I notice something smacking my shin, and I am pulled back into Zombie’s office. She has retrieved her leg and is using it to strike me repeatedly from her position on the floor. “Saddlebred, Standardbred, Thoroughbred, Clydesdale, Warmblood, Mustang, Jutland, Gypsy!” she says, her teeth popping out of her mouth, skittering across the floor. “Where do we stand on the next shipment? We need to be ready!”

Thomas CardamoneThomas Cardamone is currently earning his MFA at the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. His fiction has previously appeared in Necessary Fiction and decomP.

 

Death Roll

“Is it dead?”

I turn towards the tiny voice beside me. Moments ago she was spinning in circles with arms stretched wide. Her little pink skirt flying above the asphalt. She’s alone. I’m not sure who she belongs to.

“It’s not dead, sweetheart,” I say. “It’s just not moving.”

I grip the fence in front of me and pull myself forward. I close my left eye and center the right in one of the diamond shaped openings in the chain link. Just past the moat filled with stagnant water and dead leaves, a single sparse tree grows in the center of the habitat. Thin roots spread away from its trunk like sickly spider legs before sinking down into the earth a few feet from the concrete-lined pond. If it weren’t for the two eyes sitting like black marbles, I would have mistaken the alligator for a chunk of dead tree.

I am an expert in dead or just not moving. With an alligator, it’s in the eyes. With an alcoholic mother, it’s looking to see if the chest is still rising and falling.

I point a finger at its tail and trace the rows of spikes rising like tiny mountains on its back, then follow the outline of its body. Its tail long enough to touch my chin. Armor ending in claws. I am an expert in dead or just not moving. With an alligator, it’s in the eyes. With an alcoholic mother, it’s looking to see if the chest is still rising and falling.

“Do you want to come see the giraffes?” the tiny voice asks.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” I say. “I have to leave in a minute.” I look at my watch. I should have been gone already.

A pair of angry flip-flops come clapping towards us. “Abby! Don’t run off like that!” The twirler’s mother takes her by the wrist and begins to pull her away.

I call out, “Excuse me. Do you know if this is the same alligator from twenty years ago?”

If you hike higher up in the hills, you can sit amongst the eucalyptus trees and look down upon the city. From way up there, you feel the same size. For once, you can look the city right in the eye.

But this is the new zoo. A woman walks by pushing a stroller. Boys with baseball hats. Little girls with pony tails swishing behind as they bounce along with soda cups so big they have to hold them with both hands. Moms. Dads. Families. They all know how. How to cook a turkey.  How to set a table and pay their bills on time. How to take their Christmas lights down by New Year’s instead of letting them bake in the sun well into summer. They know which foods you can eat with your fingers and which require a fork. They know leaves that change from green to red to orange to yellow and baby blades of grass rising up with the warmth of spring.

I know how to say “I’m sorry” when it’s not my fault. I know how to make it better and pretend it’s okay. I know how to hold on tight and not let go.

My pocket vibrates. I pull out my phone and see Steve’s picture on the screen.

“Hey.”

“Hey. Have you seen my gym bag? Did I leave it at your place?”

“Maybe. I don’t remember seeing it, but maybe.”

“Could you check?”

It’s too hot to be wearing pantyhose. I don’t know if people even wear them anymore. “No, I can’t check. I’m going to visit my mom. Remember?”

There were worse. The one who never had a job. The one who called me a baby every time I cried. The one who didn’t tell me it was a shoes-free house. I walked across the white carpet to meet his parents with my big toe poking out of my sock. The one I thought I loved even after I caught him sending out dick pics while lying next to me in bed.

“Shit. I forgot. I’ll just swing by and check later on.”

I wait for more. Nothing. Five seconds of silence. I give. “How are you?”

“Okay. Work is shit. They have me coming in tomorrow and Saturday. Boxer threw up again last night. Guess I should take him in. I’m not paying for all those tests again though.”

It’s too hot to be at the zoo. Too hot for any of this. “Don’t you want to know how I am?”

“Really? Again? How many times do we have to do this? Why do you have to wait until I ask and then get pissed if I don’t? If you want me to know how you are, just tell me.”

Six months ago, I picked up Steve at the airport. I watched all the lonely people pull their luggage behind them as they exited the baggage claim. They weren’t calling anyone to say they’d landed safely. At least with Steve I’d have someone to call. “I’m sorry.”

“Okay. Tell me.”

Only I can’t. I don’t know how to tell him that I came here to remember dipping paint brushes in old coffee cans filled with water and painting stars and smiles and perfect square houses with triangle roofs on the fence and watching the summer sun erase them. Letting me crack the eggs and lick the spoon. This little piggy went to the market and this little piggy had none. Gentle kisses on bruised knees. Banana pancakes. Cartoons. And I don’t know how to tell him how hard it is to breathe with the weight of what came after standing on my chest. The times I couldn’t wake her up. The times I had to walk home alone like I wasn’t afraid because she forgot to pick me up. All the times I tried to make her love me enough to quit.

I don’t tell him I withdrew all my savings. I don’t tell him that she did it again. I don’t tell him I’m going to bail her out. All I say is, “Tell Boxer I hope he feels better.”

The first time I came here I was ten. Sweat glued my legs to the vinyl seats as we drove down the highway. She was happy. Her hair was still wet and wrapped like a snail shell on the back of her head. The music was loud and she turned to me. Elsa, this song was playing on the radio the day I left home. I listened to her sing. I tried to pick out the words that would tell me who she was before me. Sunny days. Canyons. Yesterday morning. Closing his eyes.

She brought me here because she thought I was scared of alligators. I couldn’t sleep after I heard a group of boys talking about a man fishing in Florida. He was only in the water, shin deep, casting out his line when an alligator snapped its jaws and wouldn’t let go. Took him down into a death roll. Ripped him apart. When they found the alligator that did it, they sliced it open and found an entire arm inside. The watch still ticking on his wrist. I remember how much I thought about that watch ticking. I wondered if it had been a gift, if he had worn it every day. I remember thinking that if the man ever lost the watch he would feel so sad about it, and I remember it made me so sad to know that the watch didn’t care at all about losing the man.

I don’t know how to tell him that I came here to remember dipping paint brushes in old coffee cans filled with water and painting stars and smiles and perfect square houses with triangle roofs on the fence and watching the summer sun erase them.

My mother took me to the alligator first. She crouched beside me and told me that they had been around since the dinosaurs. They are good mothers, she said. Sometimes they hold their babies in their mouth to keep them safe. Maybe she’ll open up and show us, she said, but I could already feel her hand begin to shake within mine. Don’t worry, Elsa. This is the only alligator in California.

A week later she was arrested for crashing into the neighbor’s parked car on her way home from work. When I got home from school, her car was against the curb with a buckled hood and bits of broken headlight were spread across the asphalt. I was glad the other car was gone so I didn’t have to see its wounds.   

Some people don’t know about the mountains around Los Angeles. Big and beautiful and sometimes covered in snow. Most of the time they are invisible. They vanish behind a heavy curtain of dust and haze for so long you forget they’re even there. Then, one day, the winds come to wipe the sky clean and there they are again standing tall against the blue sky.

But today there are no mountains. Today the sky is thick and brown. A pool of sweat is forming between my breasts. Underneath my pantyhose, an itch is spreading from my toes to my belly button. I want to rip them off and feel the air on my bare skin. I take my map and crease it, and flip it, and crease it, and flip it until it’s a fan I’m waving in front of my face and on the back of my neck. Families in various stages of sunburn come and go and the alligator still sits, unmoved. I can’t remember if they have eyelids.

I pull a soft pack from my purse and give it a few shakes until a cigarette falls through the slot. “Hey, have you ever seen this alligator open its mouth? Is it even a real alligator?”

A teenager wearing a customer service t-shirt stops, broom in one hand and a dust pan connected to a long handle in the other. “You can’t smoke here, lady,” he says and starts sweeping again.

I look around for a smoking section. A white box on wheels filled with ice cream for sale. A few trees tired of standing and a wooden sign with an arrow pointing towards the restrooms. I put the cigarettes back in my purse. I whistle, but it still doesn’t move. Ten more minutes. Then I’ll go.

Last night we had dinner. I said I’d drive even though she said she had put together seven days sober. A car was stalled in the right lane so we were stuck behind the green, red, green, red, green, red. I tried to make some jokes. Tried to make her smile and keep her from frustration. Keep her from a reason to drink.

We don’t like new, so we went to the chicken place. Same menu. Same lady with the penciled-on eyebrows and a ring on each finger working the register. Same red laminate table tops. As we ate, she apologized. Said she wasn’t herself. That she was just tired, that’s all. I smiled because I wasn’t sure if I was myself either. We talked about things that happened years ago and laughed at things we had laughed at years ago. Pretended that most of the past twenty didn’t exist.

After dinner we wanted to walk along the LA River like we once did, but it was already dark and the path seemed scary. We hugged when I left. “See you soon?” she asked.

“See you soon,” I said and watched her walk all the way inside and close the door behind her.

In the morning I got a phone call. An inmate from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department is trying to contact you. Are you willing to accept the charges?

I told her I’d be there, but I’m here instead. I scratch my ankle, my knee, my thigh. I scratch until I rip through the pantyhose. I pinch the nylon above my knees and yank until I feel them pass the curve of my hips. I keep yanking until they are just below my knees. I slide my heels off and release each leg. I quickly shove the hose in my purse. I’ve never seen a lightning bug or sipped sun tea while sitting on a back porch. I’ve never skipped rocks across a creek.

My phone shakes. I accept the charges.

“Elsa! Where are you? You said you’d get me out this morning! You have no idea what it’s like in this place. I can’t take it!”

“I’m trying, Mom. I’ll be there soon.”

“Hurry, Elsa. All these people here are crazy. I can’t be here anymore.”

“Remember when you told me that alligators are good mothers? Do they really hold their babies in their mouths?”

“Seriously, Elsa? What are you even talking about? Why aren’t you here yet? Quit fucking around and get me out of here!”

I’ve never seen Tennessee or a one stoplight town. I’ve never made footprints in freshly fallen snow.

“Mom, don’t you want to know how I am?”

“Jesus, Elsa! What’s wrong with you?”

I pull my arm back and throw my phone as hard and high as I can. I watch it cartwheel over the fence and into the pond. The alligator seems not to notice.

They say they’ll let me go if I don’t come back. I tell them I won’t, and by the time I leave the sun is setting. You can see some pink in the sky if you squint. The cement is cool on my bare feet and I spread out my toes as I walk to feel the air between them. As the tires roll towards the invisible mountains I know are there, I feel like I’m in a movie. I am the girl that drives away. I am the girl that gets out.

J.D. ShoemakerJ.D. Shoemaker is a sixth-grade English teacher living in San Pedro, CA. Her mother gave her a typewriter on her tenth birthday. It is the best present she has ever received. Her fiction has appeared in Blue Skirt Productions and Microfiction Monday Magazine.

Real Talk

Through the thin wall between the two classrooms, Miss Whitfield can hear everything Ms. Lucca says.

“If you get married before you really know yourself, there’s a good chance you’ll end up divorced. Look at me! I married a man!”

Ms. Lucca calls her advice “Real Talk” and the kids love it. So does Miss Whitfield who sometimes worries that advice for teenagers shouldn’t sound so profound.

“Girls, it took me thirty years to love these hips. Whatever you think your flaws are, learn to love them now.”

“Boys, don’t be jackasses—I say that to you from my heart. Girls, don’t be afraid to dump that jackass’s ass.”

Ms. Lucca likes to call people jackasses, but she does it with love, and Miss Whitfield suspects that’s why they like her so much. If she were more like Ms. Lucca, she would tell her ninth graders that her jackass, who has not called her in weeks, has a scar on his ass where he was once gored by a bull on his uncle’s ranch. Once, she traced the jagged mark with her finger and even kissed it, but he said the skin was dead there and he couldn’t feel a thing.

He has other scars too, from the war, but those he wouldn’t let her touch.

Eventually Ms. Lucca gets around to math. “What’s the standard deviant?” she asks, and Miss Whitfield imagines a petty criminal with piggish eyes and a polyester tracksuit. Math is not her thing, but she has begun to enjoy the language of mathematics. When Ms. Lucca says, “the axis of symmetry,” Miss Whitfield pictures a secret mountain top location where world leaders in shiny unitards negotiate peace treaties. And when Ms. Lucca mentions the coordinate planes, Miss Whitfield almost cries; the coordinate plains are where her boyfriend—is he still her boyfriend?—herds his uncle’s cattle under a dusty sunset.

*     *     *

Sometimes Ms. Lucca brings in real world problems to make math relevant. “What are your chances of finding love?” she asks one morning.

Miss Whitfield—who is grading papers while her students write an essay answering the question: “Do Romeo and Juliet really love each other, or are they just infatuated?”—lifts her head and listens.

“What does this have to do with math, you ask?” Ms. Lucca laughs heartily. “I’ll show you. Raise your hand if, one day, you want to find love.” There is a long silence. “Oh, come on now. Don’t be shy. Everyone needs love.”

Miss Whitfield is tempted to raise her hand. She had love once. Was it love? Or infatuation? Why does she think was and not is? She looks out at her students; one has given up and has fallen asleep. Do any of them know the difference between real love and infatuation, and if not, how can they possibly answer the question?

“Have you ever looked around, at your school and your various other communities, like church groups or athletic teams, and wondered, how many potential girlfriends or boyfriends might be in that particular pool of people?” Some of Ms. Lucca’s students titter and Miss Whitfield guesses that they are looking around the room nervously, assessing each other. Perhaps they have already picked someone out. Her own students are quiet today, even the loud-mouthed boy who said he didn’t believe in love at first sight. “That’s just damn stupid,” he’d said when they began the play. “Like you might want to do her, but it don’t mean you want to marry her or nothin’.”

Ms. Lucca’s voice is crisp, confident, almost rehearsed. “We’re going to use a tool called The Fermi Estimation to arrive at a number of potential partners.” Enrico Fermi, Ms. Lucca tells them, was an Italian physicist, known for his ability to make almost accurate calculations with no real data. “What we call educated guesses,” she says.

On the notebook she has dedicated to writing down Ms. Lucca’s gems, Miss Whitfield starts a fresh page. She can always finish grading later that night on her balcony on the eighth floor—the highest floor—which she has, lately, begun to regret. If the cowboy ever came back and stood underneath, calling out her name, his voice wouldn’t make it past the fifth floor.

Ms. Lucca clears her throat. “Let’s start with a basic question: how many intelligent, sophisticated women are there for me to date? Because I don’t want to date just anyone off the street.” She sighs audibly. “Real Talk: I want someone with a college degree, not some dumbass who can’t read subtitles once in a while.” Dumbass, another one of her favorite words.

Miss Whitfield walks between the aisles with her notebook, pretending to read over her students’ shoulders, but really she is concentrating on Ms. Lucca’s voice, which sometimes goes in and out depending on where she is standing.

“So I have to break the big question down into smaller components. The first question, then, should be: how many women live near me? In Sacramento, that would be about 200,000.”

Miss Whitfield writes, 1. How many men live in my area? She frowns. Her area. It is not such a simple concept. What is the radius of her area? And how far is she willing to go? She thinks of her mother in her hometown, 500 miles away, who called to tell her about a new neighbor, a lonely widower with a young daughter. The cowboy is more than 1000 miles away; his area includes rivers, mountains, and plains. Only open spaces for him, he has decided. No cities, no roads, no possibility of roadside bombs.

Ms. Lucca claps her hands. “Next question: how many people are in the right age range? Without giving my exact age away, I’m looking for someone between the ages of say… thirty-five and forty-five. Let’s call that twenty percent of the female population. So about 40,000 women.”

Miss Whitfield writes down 24-29. About ten percent. Can she afford to be that conservative? Is she being, as her mother accuses, too picky?

“Now, how many of the people in my age group are single?”

No married men, no men with girlfriends!!! Miss Whitfield writes. No men with dead wives either. The loud-mouthed boy has begun to snore. She crosses the room, taps his shoulder and waits for him to sit up.

“So the first three questions are pretty universal, right? It’s question four that matters most.” An urgency has crept into Ms. Lucca’s voice, that special tone she gets when she wants students to sit up and listen. Miss Whitfield abandons the boy and moves back to the front of the room, just in time to hear Ms. Lucca say, “It’s question four where your values come into play.”

Miss Whitfield writes, Question 4 reveals values. Then she underlines and circles values. Proximity is not a value, she reminds herself.

“My question four is: how many single women in my area have a college degree? Remember, intelligence was one of my criteria. So let’s say, based on college retention rates, that about thirty percent of those eligible women will have a degree. So 12,000. That’s still a big number. I’m feeling hopeful.”

Returning someone’s phone call is a value, isn’t it? Doesn’t it reveal character?

Tonight, on her balcony when it is dark, she will find not the brightest star, which is probably burdened with a million wishes, but a smaller, more modest star, one usually overlooked and therefore free to focus all its astral energies, and make an extravagant wish on Ms. Lucca’s behalf for a beautiful, smart woman who likes foreign movies, big hips, and straight talk.

Ms. Lucca is moving quickly, her heels clicking across the linoleum. “Of the 12,000 how many will be attractive?”

Miss Whitfield scribbles the question down. It stumps her. It is a mystery—this question of beauty—a sacred mystery. When Romeo first saw Juliet, he whispered, “She hangs upon the cheek of night as a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,” but the boy who read the line read it with a fake Texas drawl and everyone laughed, so Miss Whitfield stopped the class, turned on the movie, and made them watch Romeo’s reaction to the beautiful girl in the rich, velvet robes. “They should get some ugly actors to play the parts,” said that boy, “then everyone could see how ridiculous it is.”

Ms. Lucca chuckles ruefully. “I don’t need to date a supermodel,” she says. “Lord knows, I’m not one. So let’s go with twenty-five percent, which is how much?”

“Three thousand,” someone says.

“Right.”

The cowboy is not handsome, but something about the way he used to grin, that crinkle by his eyes, the hint of a dimple, made Miss Whitfield’s heart leap.

“Conversely,” Ms. Lucca continues, “I have to consider how many of those women that I’m attracted to will like a brunette with wide hips. And because many people are pickier than me, let’s say ten percent, so 300. Boy, the number is getting smaller isn’t it?”

How many men will find Miss Whitfield’s curly brown hair electric and not merely frizzy? And her eyes, which are round and inquisitive, but maybe a tad too close together? She wishes her lips were fuller. She wishes she were taller.

“And because relationships are not just about location and looks, my last question is: of these remaining women, how many will I get along with? Would you guys say I’m friendly? Easy going? The nicest teacher you ever had?”

Ms. Lucca is grandstanding and her students reward her with hoots and hollers so loud Miss Whitfield’s students sit up and listen. A girl in the back yawns, revealing a silver stud in her tongue and says, “Man, I wish I was in that class. They always have fun.”

“So… five percent? Ten percent?” Ms. Lucca asks. When they continue to yell, “higher, higher!” she laughs and says, “Okay. Fifteen percent, but no higher. So what’s the final number?”

“Forty-five,” someone shouts.

“That’s right. So according to Fermi’s Estimation, there are forty-five women in Sacramento who might be a good match for me.”

“That’s it?” someone asks.

“Well, I suppose I could change my criteria questions. That might open up more possibilities.”

There is a long silence until finally, a girl says, “But you can’t really confirm that number, can you? I mean these are just guesses.”

“Funny you should ask. I’m on a couple different dating websites and this number is really close to what eHarmony gave me. Guess their number.”

“Forty! Thirty-nine! Thirty-eight!” The kids shout.

“Forty-three potential girlfriends. Isn’t that amazing?”

Miss Whitfield marvels at the number. Forty-three women for Ms. Lucca to love. But how to find these women? Where are they? Who cares if the number is three or 103 if you can’t meet even one?

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Ms. Lucca says. “You should minus the number of people you’ve already dated because obviously that didn’t work out.”

Miss Whitfield turns back to her notebook and writes, -1. But when and why do you decide to give up on that person? What is the criterion for saying goodbye?

“I hope you find someone,” another kid says. For once, Miss Whitfield cannot hear Ms. Lucca’s response. Yes, Miss Whitfield thinks, I hope you find someone special, too. Tonight, on her balcony when it is dark, she will find not the brightest star, which is probably burdened with a million wishes, but a smaller, more modest star, one usually overlooked and therefore free to focus all its astral energies, and make an extravagant wish on Ms. Lucca’s behalf for a beautiful, smart woman who likes foreign movies, big hips, and straight talk. She will not wonder if the cowboy, tucked in his bedroll, is looking up at those same stars and thinking of her, or if he is remembering a different set of constellations over the deserts of Iraq where he seems to have left a part of himself. Probably the part that loved her.

The bell rings. Miss Whitfield’s students slam their books shut and hurry to the door, half of them already gone when she calls out, “Finish the essay for homework.”

At lunch, she locks her door and draws the curtains. It is question number four that she must figure out, the question of values. Is the college degree what matters? Five years ago, the question might have been: has he read Romeo and Juliet? Can he recognize iambic pentameter? Has he ever written a poem, even a bad one? Then, a year ago: does he love his mother? Does he want children? Does he like to laugh?

Now she writes:

Can he ride a horse?

Can he deliver a calf on a moonlit night?

Does he have dirt under his fingernails?

Does he live within distance of a cell phone tower?

What she wants is to write a question so specific only one man will be the answer.

*     *     *

“What does it mean when the rate of change is zero?” Ms. Lucca asks one morning. No one answers, so she asks the question again, punctuating each phrase with her characteristic dramatic pauses. “What does it mean… when the rate of change… is zero?” Miss Whitfield freezes at her podium, listening.

The cowboy has not answered his phone in a month. He might be on top of a mountain. He might have taken a vow of silence. He might have allowed the wind and rain and sun to whittle him down to nothing.

One of her students, a boy who is at least eight pages behind, lifts his head from Romeo and Juliet and asks again, “Is there a translation? Can we get this in English?”

Miss Whitfield sighs. “This is English. Look at line 97, when Mercutio says, ‘Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.’ Or the next line, ‘If love be rough with you, be rough with love.’ What is he really saying?”

Some students seem to ponder the question, their brows furrowed as they reread the lines. “Don’t be such a pussy,” says the loud-mouthed boy. The girl with the tongue ring raises her hand. “If love hurts you, you gotta hurt it back?”

Miss Whitfield nods. “Yes, good.”

Beat love down! It is not such bad advice; had Romeo listened, he might have lived.

Maybe over her summer break, with nothing better to do, she will write a Real Talk version of the play, the whole thing boiled down for their impatient, modern sensibilities. Romeo, love-sick and moping over a different girl, will not say, “Love is a smoke made with a fume of sighs.” Instead he will say, “Dang, love stinks.” Benvolio will tell Romeo, “Chill, dawg! They’s plenty otha bitches in the sea!” And to prove it to him, he will use Fermi’s equation. The whole outcome of the play would change. Romeo would not let his eyes linger on Juliet. So what if she teaches the torches to burn bright? So does that lady, and that one over there.

What Romeo needed was a physicist, not a friar.

Miss Whitfield is not supposed to take her cell phone out in class—it sets a bad example—but she does it anyway and scrolls through her contact list until she finds the cowboy’s name in glowing white letters. She hesitates, her thumb poised over the delete button—is she being rash? Should she give him one more week? One more day? She wishes she could ask Ms. Lucca for advice, but though they have smiled at each other in the hallways, they have never actually spoken. Then Ms. Lucca’s irritated voice cuts into the room again. “We’ve been over this a hundred times. What does it mean when the rate of change is zero?”

It means it is time to do something drastic, Miss Whitfield thinks. It means you have to beat love down. Her thumb sinks down and the cowboy’s name is—blip—gone! “Twill serve,” she whispers, putting the phone away. “Tis done.” It is not very Shakespearean, no sword fights, no poisonous dram, no public brawl, only a rising residue of regret, but that she will beat down, too.

Nicole SimonsenNicole Simonsen lives in Northern California with her husband and children. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Raleigh Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. She teaches at a public high school. Links to more of her work can be found at: nicolesimonsen.com.

Fatima, the Biloquist: A Transformation Story

In the ’90s you could be whatever you wanted—someone said that on the news—and by 1998 Fatima felt ready to become black, full black, baa baa black sheep black, black like the elbows and knees on praying folk black, if only someone would teach her.

Up to that point, she had existed like a sort of colorless gas, or a bit of moisture, leaving the residue of something familiar, sweat stains, hot breath on the back of a neck, condensation rings on wood, but never a fullness of whatever matter had formed them.

The week she met Violet, Fatima had recited “An Address to the Ladies, by their Best Friend Sincerity” before her eleventh-grade AP English class. She blended her makeup to perfection that morning, but the other students barely looked at her, instead busying themselves by clicking and replacing the lead in mechanical pencils or folding and flicking paper footballs over finger goalposts—even during the part she said with the most emphasis: “Ah! sad, perverse, degenerate race/ The monstrous head deforms the face.” They clapped dull palms for a few seconds as Fatima sulked back to her desk. But they sat up, alert, when Wally “the Wigger” Arnett recited “Incident” and said the word that always made the white kids pay attention.

“You know, I identify with Countee Cullen and all,” Wally, with brown freckles and a floppy brown haircut, finished up. “He was a black man, and he was, like, oppressed for who he was and stuff.”

The hands pounded a hero’s applause as Wally headed back to his seat next to Fatima, looking like he expected a high five. She rolled her eyes at him, but she couldn’t articulate her wrath into something more specific. Later in the morning when Wally asked her for the fourth time that semester whether she listened to No Limit rappers, she nearly lunged at his face. Mrs. Baker sent her to the principal to “cool down” before Fatima’s fingernails could scratch off any of Wally’s freckles.

It wasn’t fair, Fatima thought, that Wally was praised, even mildly popular for his FUBU shirts and Jordans with the tags still on them, yet Fatima was called “ghetto supastar” the one time she outlined her lips with dark pencil. Nor was it fair that she should get a warning from Principal Lee for “looking like she might become violent” when Wally said “nigger” and got applause. She was still thinking about Wally when she first encountered Violet.

They met at the Montclair Plaza, where Fatima had been dropped off by her mother, Monica, along with the warnings that she better not: 1. spend more than she had, 2. use her emergency credit card for non-emergencies, or 3. pick up any riffraff, ruffnecks, or pregnancies while she was there. Number three was highly unlikely—and Fatima knew Monica knew it—but she said it anyway as easily as “stand up straight,” because she had to.

Fatima moped near the Clinique counter with her heavy Discman tucked in a tiny backpack and her headphones wrapped around her neck, trying to decide between one shade of lipstick and another. The college student behind the counter ignored her, chatting with another colleague. In situations like this, Fatima usually bought something expensive just to show the store clerk that she could. A blonde girl with a short bob sauntered up next her and said, “The burgundy is pretty, but you could do something darker.”

When a black girl with natural green eyes and blonde hair and a big chest and bubble butt that wiggle independently of each other tells you that you, with your sable skin and dark hair, are not black enough, sometimes you listen.

Fatima peripherally saw the hair first, so she didn’t expect the rest of the package. A voluptuous—really, that was the only word that would work—girl with a wide nose and black features stood next to her. Fatima had a friend with albinism before in preschool who wore thick red glasses and blushed almost the same color when she wet her pants at nap time once. She recognized in Violet similar features.

“But you could get the same stuff at Claire’s for cheaper,” Violet said. “It’s not like old girl’s trying to help you anyway.”

The clerk, not chastened but amused, moved back to her post and said, “May I help you” in one of those voices that means “get lost.”

“I’m still—” Fatima started.

But the blonde girl spoke again, “We’d like some free samples of some of the lipsticks, that color,” she pointed, reaching over Fatima, to a pot of dark gloss, “and that one.”

“We only give samples,” the clerk said, “to—.”

“To everyone who asks, right?” Violet finished.

The clerk frowned, looked back at her colleague, looked at Violet and Fatima, and frowned again. “I’ll get those ready for you,” she said.

Fatima considered putting her headphones back on and trying to float out of the department store, away from this loud girl with the jarring features and booming voice.

“Here,” Violet said, handing her the dark gloss in its tiny gloss pot.

“You keep it,” Fatima said and started trying to vaporize towards the shoe department.

“It’s for you,” the girl said, following her.

And like that, they were friends—or something to that effect.

*     *     *

It was Violet’s appraisal, “You’re, like, totally a white girl, aren’t you?” that set Fatima into motion. They were eating dots of ice cream that same day at the food court after Violet showed Fatima how to get samples from Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and MAC. Fatima felt a little like a gangster holding up the reluctant sales girls for their stash, but she had a nearly full bag of swag by then—perfume, lip-gloss, and oil-blotting papers—without spending any of her allowance. It was already too good to be true, so she didn’t feel sad when Violet said “white girl,” but almost relieved by the inevitable.

Fatima had been accused of whiteness and race traitorism before, whenever she spoke up in Sunday school at her AME church or visited her family in Southeast San Diego (Southeast a universal geographical marker for the ghetto), or when a cute guy who was just about to ask her out backed away saying, “You go to private school, don’t you?” It was why she didn’t have any black friends—and why, she worried, she would never have a boyfriend, even a riffraff, to upset her mother.

The allegations upset her but never moved her to any action other than private crying or retreating further into her melancholy belief that her school, Westwood Prep, and her parents’ high-paying jobs had made her somehow unfit for black people. She usually turned her Discman up louder, sinking into the distantly black but presently white sounds of ska and punk, and sang under her breath, “I’m a freak/ I’m a freak” (in the style of Silverchair, not Rick James). At the moment she was especially into listening to Daniel Johns whine, reading Charles Brockden Brown, and daydreaming of a sickly boyfriend like Arthur Mervyn, for reasons limited omniscience can’t or won’t explain. If black people wouldn’t accept her, she would stick to what she knew.

But Violet’s judgment held more heft in her critique—a possibility for transformation. When a black girl with natural green eyes and blonde hair and a big chest and bubble butt that wiggle independently of each other tells you that you, with your sable skin and dark hair, are not black enough, sometimes you listen.

“It’s not that I’m trying to be white. It’s just that’s what I’m around.”

“You don’t have no church friends? You adopted? Your parents white, too?” Violet didn’t seem to want a response. “Where do you stay?”

“With my parents,” Fatima wondered if something was wrong with Violet for asking such a stupid question.

“I mean where do you live?” Violet said.

“Upland,” Fatima said.

“They got black people there. My cousin Frankie lives there,” Violet said, chewing the dots of ice cream in a way that upset Fatima’s teeth. Violet wore a tight white top, cream Dickies, and white Adidas tennis shoes.

“Yes, but not on my street.” Fatima wore a pink cardigan, black Dickies, and skater shoes, Kastels.

Violet paused her crunching and talking for a moment. “You have a boyfriend?”

Fatima shook her head. “Do you?”

“I’m in between options right now. Anyway the last one is locked up in Tehachapi.”

Fatima nodded. She had a cousin who had served time there. He called her bourgie, and she kicked him in the face once, delighting in his fat lip and his inability to hit girls who weren’t his girlfriend or baby mama.

“I’m kidding,” Violet said. “We don’t all get locked up.”

Fatima stuttered.

“I can see I’ma have to teach you a lot of things. You ready?” Violet meant ready to leave the food court, but Fatima meant more when she said, “Yeah, I’m ready.” And thus began her transformation.

*     *     *

If only Baratunde Thurston had been writing when Fatima came of age, she could have learned how to be black from a book instead of from Violet’s charm school. Even a quick glance at Ellison could have saved her a lot of trouble, but she wasn’t ready for that, caught up, as she was, in the dramas of Arthur Mervyn and Carwin the Biloquist and all of them. With Violet’s help, Fatima absorbed the sociocultural knowledge she’d missed, not through osmosis or through more relevant literature, but through committed, structured ethnographical study.

She immersed herself in slang as rigorously as she would later immerse herself in Spanish for her foreign language exam in grad school; she pored over VIBE Magazine and watched Yo MTV Raps and The Parkers, trying to turn her mouth around phrases with the same intonation that Countess Vaughn used—a sort of combination of a Jersey accent and a speech impediment. When she couldn’t get into those texts, she encouraged herself with old episodes of Fresh Prince that played in constant early-morning and late-afternoon rotation, feeling assured that if Ashley Banks could, after five seasons, become almost as cool as Will, then she could, too. Her new turns of phrase fit her about as bulkily as the puffy powder-blue FUBU jacket she found in a thrift store in downtown Rialto.

Still, she was happy when Violet looked approvingly at it. Pale Violet became the arbiter of Fatima’s blackness, the purveyor of all things authentic. Though she was barely 5’1 and chunky by most standards—nearly obese by Fatima’s—you would think Violet was Pamela Anderson, the way she walked, like a hula doll on a dashboard swinging hips and breasts.

She lived in Fontana, and the distance between their respective houses was fifteen minutes, but only seven if they met halfway, Fatima borrowing her father’s alternate car (the 1993 Beamer, so as not to look ostentatious) and Violet getting a ride from one of her brothers or occasionally driving her mother’s old Taurus. They never met at each other’s houses, lest Fatima’s upper-middle opulence embarrass Violet, and because there was no space for Violet to carve out for herself at her house.

Violet made Fatima a study guide of the top-ten black expressions for rating attractive men, and they worked over the pronunciations together.

  1. Foine
  2. Dang Foine
  3. Hella Foine
  4. Bout it, bout it [as in “Oooh, he bout it, bout it.” This phrase especially required the Countess Vaughn intonation and often included spontaneous bouts of raising the roof].
  5. Hot Diggity, said with a scowl
  6. Dizam!
  7. Hot Diggity Dizam
  8. Ooh, hurt me, hurt me
  9. Phat
  10. Ooohweee

Fatima’s suggestions that “Heavens to Murgatroid” and “Oh my gosh, he is so hot” be added to the list as numbers 11 and 12 respectively, were met with a frown and a threat from Violet that she would revoke Fatima’s study-guide privileges if she persisted with lame interjections. Fatima stifled her joke about the rain in Spain falling mostly on the plains and practiced on, assured that Violet’s tutelage would confer upon her, like Carwin, “a wonderful gift” of biloquism.

Glossaries soon followed.

  1. Hella = a more intense “hecka”
  2. Hecka = a lot/ really; Fatima preferred this to “hella.”
  3. Fisshow = for sure, or as Fatima used to pronounce it, fer shure.
  4. Crunk = crazy, as in “we bout to get crunk up in here.” [Fatima already knew what this meant from an *N’Sync chatroom, where she lurked while girls discussed Justin Timberlake’s frequent use of the term.]
  5. A grip = a lot, as in “I just found a grip of marshmallows in the cupboard.”
  6. Peeps = those cute little marshmallows and also people/ folks
  7. Whoadie = ? [Violet wasn’t sure either, but you were supposed to say it.]
  8. Shawty = like, your girl, or your boo
  9. Boo = your shawty or your girl
  10. Playa = One who gets a lot of women or men [Fatima thought this was a beach, at first].
  11. Playahata = Wally the Wigger
  12. **Nigga = [a word Fatima could not bring herself to say or embrace, no matter how much Violet, VIBE, or others insisted that it was positive, or reappropriated.]
  13. *Gangsta = cool. But also gangster, as in “You’s a gangsta/ No I’m not/ You’s a gangsta/ No I’m not/ You’s a gangsta.” [Not as in “So You Wanna Be a Gangsta” from Bugsy Malone, which Fatima and her younger brother and sister used to sing around the house.]
  14. Ride or Die = a friend who’s down for anything and will stand up for your cause, even unto death.

“So basically,” Fatima summarized, “you want me to turn good things into bad things and vice versa.”

Violet said, “Mostly.”

Fatima tried pumping her shoulders in a brief Bankhead Bounce, but it was obvious she lacked the follow-through and wasn’t ready for dancing yet.

And it was almost like any romantic comedy where the sassy black person moves in with the white people and teaches them how to live their lives in color and put some bass in their voices, only Steve Martin wasn’t in it, no one was a maid or a butler or nanny, and the romance was between two girls, it was platonic, and they were both black this time, but one didn’t look like it, and one didn’t sound like it consistently.

*     *     *

“They racist up at that school? I can’t stand cocky white people,” Violet said one day while they sat at their usual table, near the flower divider in the mall’s arboretum. Some white guys from Hillwood sat across the way, laughing loudly.

Fatima didn’t like to talk about her school, but everyone in the Inland Empire knew Westwood and Hillwood, their analog and football rival. “I don’t think so,” Fatima said.

“What do you mean you don’t think so? Either something’s racist or it’s not.”

No one at school poked out his tongue and called her that, like they did in the poem Wally read, but Fatima thought about Wally, his affectations, and Principal Lee.

“It’s not always comfortable,” she said. “It can be real awkward, but I’m awkward.”

“You sure are,” Violet laughed, and Fatima laughed, too. She was learning to do more of that, and to wear a kind of self-assuredness with her side-swooped Aaliyah bangs.

Even with her usual levels of discomfort in place, most interactions were easier with Violet. Violet understood things. When she told Violet, for example, the history of her name and how its spirit hovered over Fatima like Jiminy Cricket or a mirror of unholiness—even without an accent or an “h,” wedging her between two religious worlds, both agreeing on her need for chastity and immaculate conduct—Violet said, “Word, that’s deep,” and explained that she, too, felt the weight of her name, because the Johnson family was all single moms and dads with eight kids and three jobs and no peace, and she couldn’t end up like her mother, even if it meant she had to run away and start a new identity one day.

Violet confided that, despite her confidence, she had a complex about her albinism. She could call other black people like Fatima white, but to be called white herself pushed Violet to violent tears. Just ask her ex-boyfriend and her ex-friend Kandice from middle school, who had called her Patty Mayonnaise in a fit of anger and gotten a beatdown that made her wet her pants like Fatima’s preschool friend.

“Why Patty Mayonnaise?” Fatima said.

“You know, from Doug; she was the black girl on the DL who looked white, and mayonnaise is white. It’s a stupid joke.”

“Patty was black?” Fatima said.

“Girl, a whole lot of everybody got black in them,” Violet started.

Fatima had heard some of Violet’s theories before. It was a game they played sometimes on the phone. The list included Jennifer Beals, Mariah Carey, and “that freaky girl from Wild Things,” Denise Richards, and now apparently, Patty Mayonnaise. When Fatima suggested Justin Timberlake, Violet said, “Nah, he’s like that Wally kid at your school.”

The nuances of these and other things Fatima’s best friend since first grade, Emily, just couldn’t understand, no matter how earnestly Emily tried or how many questions she asked, like why they couldn’t share shampoo when she slept over, “What does ‘for us, by us’ mean,” and why Fatima’s top lip was darker than her bottom one.

The thing about the brown top lip and the pink lower one, Fatima had learned after moving between Violet’s guidance and her school life, was that you could either read them as two souls trying to merge into a better self, or you could hide them under makeup and talk with whichever lip was convenient for the occasion.

Fatima picked up some theories on her own, too, without Violet or the literature. The thing about the brown top lip and the pink lower one, Fatima had learned after moving between Violet’s guidance and her school life, was that you could either read them as two souls trying to merge into a better self, or you could hide them under makeup and talk with whichever lip was convenient for the occasion. At school and with Emily, she talked with her pink lip, and with Violet, she talked with her brown one, and that only created tension if she thought too much about it.

Fatima passed the time at school by imagining the time she would spend after school with Violet, who promised to teach her how to flirt better on their next excursion and to possibly, eventually, hook her up with one of her cousins, but not one of her brothers, because “most of them aren’t good for anything except upsetting your mother, if you want to do that.” Fatima did not want to do that.

Now at school when Wally the Wigger looked like he was even thinking about saying something to her, Fatima made a face that warned, “Don’t even look like you’re thinking about saying something to me,” and he obeyed. In her mind, she not only said this aloud, but said it in Violet’s voice.

She didn’t mind the laughter in her parents’ eyes when she tried out a new phrase or hairstyle, because it was all working. There was something prettier about her now, too, and people seemed to see it before Fatima did, because a guy named Rolf at Westwood—a tall brunette in her history class, with whom she’d exchanged a few eye rolls over Wally—asked her for her phone number.

Without pausing to consider anything, she gave it to him.

It might seem, up to this point, that Fatima simultaneously wore braces, glasses, and forehead acne, when you hardly needed to glance to see the gloss of her black hair or the sheen on her shins, with or without lotion. Fatima knew this truth instinctively, but buried its warmth under the shame of early childhood teasing and a preference for melancholy self-pity. It was more romantic to feel ugly, modest to pretend she couldn’t hold her head just right, unleash her beautiful teeth and make a skeptical man kneel at her skirt’s hem. She just didn’t have the practice, but she was hopeful that she might get it, with Rolf or one of Violet’s cousins, hopeful that the transformation had taken hold.

*     *     *

She had just returned from a movie with Violet—where in the space in front of the theater, not one but two guys had asked for her phone number, though three had asked for Violet’s, pronouncing their approval of her “thickness” with grunts, smiles, and by looking directly at her butt—when her mother said, “You got a phone call, from a boy.”

It couldn’t be one of the boys from theater already; that would make anyone look desperate.

“Who is Rolf?” her mother smiled, “and why didn’t you mention him before?”

Fatima nearly floated up to her bedroom. She thought about calling Violet but called Rolf back instead, waiting the appropriate hour she had rehearsed with Violet for a hypothetical situation such as this.

By now, and with some authenticity, Fatima could intone the accent marks in places they hadn’t been before, recite all the names of all the members of Cash Money, Bad Boy, No Limit, Wu-Tang, Boyz II Men, ABC, BBD, ODB, LDB, TLC, B.I.G., P-O, P-P-A, Ronny, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, Johnny, Ralph, Tony, Toni, and Tone, if she wanted. But when she called Rolf, all they talked about were skateboards and the Smiths, in whose music Fatima had dabbled before Violet.

“The Smiths are way better than Morrissey,” Rolf said. His voice was nasal but deep. Fatima imagined that he was at least 6’7, though she hadn’t stood next to him yet. When she did, he was 6’1.

“You can barely tell the difference since Morrissey’s voice is so overpowering,” she said with her pink lip.

“No, but The Smiths’ stuff is way darker,” Rolf said. “You should hear the first album. Then you’ll get it. I’ve got it on vinyl.”

“Okay,” Fatima waited.

She noticed that he didn’t invite her over to listen or offer to lend her the album, but he did call back two days later and ask if she wanted to hang out over the weekend, “like at the mall or something, see a movie?”

Fatima counted to twelve, as per the rules (the universal ones, not just Violet’s) and said, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” She almost left the “l” off the end of the word, but caught herself. “Which mall?”

“Where else?” Rolf said. “The Montclair Plaza.”

This would be her first date, and though that was the kind of thing to share with a best friend, especially one with more experience, Fatima felt—in some deep way that hurt her stomach—that Violet didn’t need to know about Rolf, not yet at least. She would keep her lips glossed and parted, her two worlds separate.

*     *     *

The week leading up to the date, Fatima tried to play extra cool, asking Violet more questions than usual when they spoke on the phone. Neither of the guys from the movie theater had called Fatima, but one of Violet’s three had asked Violet out, and she was “letting him stew for a while before I let him know. Anyway, we’re supposed to check out Rush Hour this weekend.”

“This weekend?” Fatima said.

“This weekend.”

“I told my parents I would babysit this weekend, I forgot,” Fatima lied, feeling a bit like a grease stain on a silk shirt.

“Since when?” Violet pushed.

“We can go next weekend, or during the week,” Fatima said, and changed the subject.

Before they got off the phone, Violet said, “I guess I’ll call Mike back then, and tell him I’m free after all.”

*     *     *

Fatima wasn’t embarrassed of Violet or of Rolf, but she wasn’t good at managing.  She was relieved, then, when their first and second dates went without a hitch—and ended with a gentle but sort of blank kiss—and even more relieved that Rolf was okay with seeing each other during the week so that Fatima wouldn’t have to explain to Violet why she suddenly had other plans on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Tell me more about your other friends,” Rolf had said on the phone one night, when Fatima was starting to think she might love him. He knew Emily from school, and he knew about her family and had met her parents and siblings by then, though she still hadn’t met his. He knew she went to an AME church. He knew she was black.

“I guess my other best friend, besides Em, is Violet,” Fatima said.

“Violet,” Rolf repeated. “Cool name. She’s not at Westwood, is she?”

“No, public school.”

“Ah,” Rolf said, in a tone which Fatima interpreted as neutral.

“She’s my girl.” She stopped herself from saying Ace boon coon. “We hang out a lot on the weekends, actually.”

“How come you never mentioned her before?”

“I don’t know,” Fatima felt her mouth lying again, moving somehow separately from her real voice. “She’s kind of shy. She got teased a lot.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Rolf said.

“They called her Patty Mayonnaise,” Fatima said, and she didn’t know why she was still talking.

“Don’t tell anybody this, but I always thought Patty was cute on Doug,” Rolf said and shifted to talking about all of his favorite cartoons. Fatima exhaled.

Over time they grew to joke, a little awkwardly, about Fatima’s position at school, as one of two black girls. She asked Rolf if this was a thing for him or if she was his first black girlfriend, because they had labels by now.

“I don’t see color,” he said. “I just saw you. Like, one day there you were.”

Violet would say that colorblind people were the same ones who followed you in the store and that Rolf’s game was hella corny. Fatima remembered the lifelessness, before Violet, of feeling like a colorless gas and tried, in spite of a dull ache, to take Rolf’s words as a compliment.

*     *     *

The conventions of such a transformation dictate that a snaggletooth, broken heel, or some other inconvenience threatens to throw the recently realized heroine back to her former life. That snaggletooth, for Fatima, was either Rolf or Violet, depending on how you looked at things, and Fatima wasn’t sure how she did.

When she saw Violet, on April 4th—after hiding her relationship with Rolf for three months—approaching from across the Lobby of Edwards Cinema with Mike’s arm around her waist, Fatima’s first instinct was to grab Rolf’s hand and steer him towards the exit. But Violet was already calling her name.

This wasn’t the natural order of things, for these separate lives to converge. Other factors aside, the code went hos before bros, school life before social life, family before anyone else. But Rolf was both school and social, and Violet both social and nearly family, and Fatima’s math skills couldn’t balance this equation.

“I knew I saw you,” Violet said to Fatima once she got close. “Who is this?”

“Rolf, Violet. Violet, Rolf,” Fatima said, “and Mike.”

Mike smiled, and Rolf smiled, and they shook hands, but neither young woman saw the guys, their eyes deadlocked on each other.

“Ha, so this is Violet,” Rolf said, ignoring or misreading Fatima’s firm grip on his arm. “Even your black friends are white, too,” Rolf laughed.

“I was gonna tell you—” Fatima started to say to Violet.

“Wait, Patty Mayonnaise, I get it now,” Rolf said aloud, then, “Oops, I,” and both women scowled at him.

Fatima made a sound that could be interpreted as either a guffaw or a deep moan.

Then she turned back to Violet, she couldn’t make any sounds, only open and close her mouth several times. She didn’t mean to hurt her; some things had just come out, and other things she hadn’t told Violet because she wasn’t sure which lip she was supposed to use, her voice was over there and then over there, and she was ventriloquizing what she’d learned all at once, but from too many places and all at the wrong time.

Violet didn’t say anything or make Fatima wet her pants—and perhaps one of those options might have been better for Fatima; she just grabbed Mike’s arm and walked away.

And like that, Fatima was a vapor again, but something darker, like a funnel cloud, or black smoke that mocked what had already been singed.

Nafissa Thompson-SpiresNafissa Thompson-Spires earned a PhD from Vanderbilt University and an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Her short story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology” won Story Quarterly’s 2016 Fiction Prize, judged by Mat Johnson, and is forthcoming in the magazine’s winter issue. Her work has also appeared in East Bay Review, Compose, Blinders, FLOW, The Feminist Wire, and other publications. She currently works as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and African-American Studies at UIUC.