Find Your Happy Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now look what this clothing choice had made happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That one,” she said.

Joanne shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad still a no-show?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her phone dinged. I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl with the Hofstra sweatshirt took them both.

“Uh, thanks?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian scooted out from the table.

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

What did this asshole expect? Actions have consequences.

He grabbed the last two napkins on his table.

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

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

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

 

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

Photo by Ali Lanenga

Success Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But three?”

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

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

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

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

“How much?” he asked.

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Not too bad this time.”

“I didn’t give it to her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what kind is that?”

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

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

“How’d you pay for it?”

“And that’s your business?”

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

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

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

“I don’t want it.”

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

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

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

She never turned around.

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

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

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

“And you gave her the money?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stood up. “Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I just couldn’t go.

 

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

Dominoes

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

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

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

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

I’M A BOMBShell.

ALL BROWN SKIN AND NO BOMB.

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

I better do my breathing exercise.

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

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Atlantic. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

LOL in my head! That was good, right?

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gas. Gas was what it took to save him.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sounds of Separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His weight shifted away again. “Yeah.”

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

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

“Are you safe?”

“Most of the looting is up north.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Will we make it?”

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

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

“We made it this long.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sarah Kuntz Jones

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

Photo by O. Jones

Arroz y Dulce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“MAMA!” I cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Put it on,” she said.

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

“It’s stuck!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello?” a voice said.

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

“Where is Gloria? Gloria!” he called.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me get dressed and we will go.”

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

“Hi Tío!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye! Ponlo acá,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, what’s going on?” she asked.

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

“Who’s this?” Carlos asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” said Vero.

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

“Look what?”

“Mexican,” Carlos said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chur like this,” Carlos said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re welcome,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You give up already?” Tío Leo asked.

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

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

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

“I have an idea,” she said.

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

Un regalo, from us.”

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

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

 

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

The Black and Invisible Butcher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yea, it sure is,” James added.

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

“Oh God, please!” he exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

La Garroba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“El mar es sabio,” he’d say.

Everyone nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We all had problems.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lo siento,” I said.

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

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

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

“Do you love me, Marcos?”

“Sí,” I said. “You’re good to me.”

“Would you miss me if I left?”

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

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

“Sí. No te vayas.”

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Qué trágico,” said another voice.

“Pobrecita,” another one.

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

*     *     *

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

They played their game in silence.

“I’m hungry,” I told my mom.

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Andres Reconco

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

Photo by Casey Curry

Stages on Life’s Way

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

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

“What’s going on with her?”

“She’s not well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The police came,” the old man said.

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

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

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

“Of course, that was inevitable—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

“What other things?” the old man said.

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

“I don’t, what is that?”

“You know, for strength.”

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

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

“Strength where? For…?”

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

“Do what?”

“What?”

“Do what?”

“The deal, when you want to score.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One thousand, sir.”

“Bring it, you have change?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I did, I’m in a bus.”

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

“I just woke up.”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

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

“I know that, yeah I know that.”

“Where are you right now?”

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

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

“I wish I was, but no… Just sleepy.”

“You’re weird.”

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

“You should go back to sleep.”

“I don’t feel like sleeping anymore.”

“Okay… Have you told her about me?”

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

“Okay, bye.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What university are you in?”

“I’m a graduate.”

“Oh wonderful! Where did you go to?”

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

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

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

“No, I moved back.”

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

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

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

“Because I grew up here.”

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

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

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

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

“Are your parents still alive?”

“No.”

“Do you have a job here?”

“Not really, I’m a writer.”

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

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

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

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

The old man shook his head and fell silent.

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

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

“Respectfully sir, I disagree,” Enitan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Enitan said.

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

“Oh, sir, I can’t take that.”

“I insist.”

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

“Keep it,” the old man said.

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

“I made it myself,” the old man said.

“Are you a tailor?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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