Undone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art History

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

Art Gets a Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Lou

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

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

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

“Yeah, Lou, so what’s new?”

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

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

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

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

Lou Gets a Woman

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

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

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

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

“Mama, was my father an educated man?”

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

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

America

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

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

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

Fedir gets to know Art

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

“Uh, yeah…Can I help you?”

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

“OK. So what can I do for you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fedir tries his hand at painting

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know…what is there?”

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

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

“I don’t know…what is there?”

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

Yet another psychotic adult…

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

Fedir shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ.”

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

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

Lou goes fishing

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

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

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

Oksana comes knocking

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

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

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

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

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

Workers’ Compensation

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

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

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

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

“Щедрик, щедрик, щедрівочка

Прилетіла ластівочка

Стала собі щебетати

Господаря…“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

“Fed Ex! How the hell have you been?”

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

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

“No, no painting.”

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

“Uh, sure, yes, I would like that.”

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

Placement, or The Sound of Caves

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

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

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

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

“Who’s your worker?”

“Mr. Sheldon.”

“You have to ask him.”

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

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

“He took off.”

“You’ll have to wait.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did he say when he’ll be back?”

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

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

“If you don’t mind.”

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

“Can’t I come with you?”

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

“I’m hungry.”

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

“But what if you can’t find him?”

“Go back and wait.”

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

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

“What about lunch?”

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

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

“Why aren’t you in school, buster?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wedges a hand, creates space.

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

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

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

“Mr. Wert.”

“What’re you doing here?”

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

“What happened?”

“I ran away.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“I wanted a cigarette.”

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

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

“I’ll look next time.”

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

“Sure, honey. I’ll see you soon.”

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

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

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

“Looking in the mirror.”

“You aren’t supposed to be in here.”

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

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

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

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

“Looking for mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m good,” he says and eats quickly.

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

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

“Mr. Sheldon call?”

She shakes her head without looking back.

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

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

“Ms. Tern?”

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

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

“Did you ask the receptionist?”

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

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

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

“You ran away, didn’t you?”

“Who told you that?”

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

J. laughs. “Like a guardian angel.”

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

“My forever family in Naples.”

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

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

“I didn’t kill the cat,” J. says

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He may not show up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish I could see you.”

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

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

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

“We have snow.”

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

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

“But I can come there, right?”

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

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

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

“I’ll be staying in Idaho.”

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

“Where’s Idaho?”

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

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

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

Five boys piled into the truck bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not my worker,” J. said.

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

“Can’t I go back to Mr. Wert?”

“No.”

“I’ll apologize.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I really haven’t looked, J.”

“I don’t think he’s coming.”

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

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

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

He stares at the leather bag on her arm.

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

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

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

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

Me After You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Works for me,” you said.

 

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

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

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

And I said, “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cat Psychic

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

“Well, they suit you,” I replied.

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

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

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

“And you are?” I asked.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Roscoe looked up at me and meowed.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“So who am I?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Palsied

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

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

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

Sarah.

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

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

Everyone decided to cry.

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

The table chews, moans, and ponders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

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

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

And he wakes in his old room, yeah he did have a great room, with posters, Nerf basketball, and trophies, yeah, a few things have happened now, and in a paralysis he lies there, awake but palsied, only feeling the movement in and about the eyes.

Rob Sobel graduated James Madison University (2012) where he received a degree in English Literature. He was given the Departmental Award for Creative Writing, Nonfiction, and has publications ranging from fiction to film criticism. He is currently working with special education students at Washington Elementary School in Hawthorne, New Jersey, and is—by night, weekend, holiday, and any other miscellaneous minutes he can find—writing and revising a first novel. He lives in Northern New Jersey.

What Happens When Something Happens

Grandpa started having headaches the summer the tree fell on our house. Missy likes to joke that it was the tree that caused the headaches: that it somehow knocked loose something in his mind. I think part of her believes it. She certainly believed it back then.

He came to live with us when Grandma died. Grandpa took her death in stride.

He didn’t move in because he was wracked with grief or because he was feeble. I’m sure he was upset, because he was a kind man, but he’d always been something of an optimist. And he certainly wasn’t weak of body. I’m sure part of the reason Mother brought him in with us was because she could use the extra help around the house. Our father’s alimony checks provided some financial support, but they couldn’t fix a leaky faucet.

I was twelve that summer, my sister seven. When Grandpa moved in, we were forced to share a room. I hated it—she loved it—which meant our extremes cancelled each other out, and we got along fairly well. The tree came down in the middle of the night, during a strong windstorm; people would later say it was a tornado, though the sirens never sounded and no sightings were confirmed.

I remember being sound asleep, probably lost in a dream about Joanna Sanderson—truth be told, I still occasionally dream about her—and then suddenly awake, out of bed and screaming before I even know why. Missy was right there with me, and our mother was at our door about three seconds later. Only Grandpa took his time, and when he found us, he started laughing. There I was thinking our house was falling apart, or there’d been an earthquake, my sister seeing monsters and ghosts, my mother perhaps imagining the Second Coming, and Grandpa was bent over, laughing so hard he broke into a hacking cough. Only when it subsided did he tell us what’d happened.

Mother joked a few times that in old age Grandpa was suddenly starting to care about the world. He would smile and say he didn’t care about anything except a good night’s rest and maybe a cold beer…

That was the first time, you see. Grandpa had no way of knowing for sure, he’d had no time to go outside, and it’s not like the tree broke any windows. It struck the back of the house where there weren’t any bedrooms, just our father’s old study, which our mother had converted into a makeshift library. He couldn’t possibly have known, Missy would tell me. No way, José.

Of course, there were a hundred explanations—common sense being the most prominent. But I couldn’t convince Missy of that, and I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical myself. Not right then, of course. None of us really thought about Grandpa’s deduction much until a couple months later, after a few other occasions presented themselves. But yes, for a time there, I wondered myself how he could have known. I don’t now, at least not during the day. Sometimes, when I’m in that nether region between sleep and consciousness…but then, the mind does tend to wander, doesn’t it?

We got the house patched up—not much damage, considering the size of the oak that struck us—and summer resumed. Missy spent her days at daycare,  doing chores and hanging with friends when I was done. Mother worked, and Grandpa lurked around the house, doing odds and ends, reading, watching soap operas. Occasionally he’d go to a movie—I went with him a few times—or just drive around. I never joined him during the latter. Grandpa’s stories were occasionally interesting, but never after the third or fourth time. His younger self couldn’t create new stories, so he just recycled the old ones. I think he even told them in the same order.

A few weeks after the tree came down, our dog went missing. Sparkles—blame my sister—was an unfortunately-named Yorkshire terrier, a cunning little bastard who liked to piss in shoes and chew on the drapes, no matter how much discipline he received. We all loved him. Some dogs have that way about them—mischievous brutes, but they give you one look and your heart melts. Sparkles could chew through the electrical wiring and burn the house down, and we’d still keep him.

One morning he was there, and in the afternoon he was gone. We had a doggie door leading into the fenced backyard, but the gate was always closed. No holes dug under the fence, and no way could Sparkles jump over it. He simply vanished while Missy was at day care. I was smoking a cigarette beneath a bridge on the edge of town, and Grandpa was fast asleep in front of Maury Povich.

“He was kidnapped,” Missy said later, when her tears had stopped.

“Dognapped,” I corrected her.

“No one would want Sparkles,” Mother said. “He’s such a handful.”

The three of us were at the kitchen table hovering over a tray of cookies Mother had baked to ease our grief. Sugar helped back then. Not much helps now. Kids have it right: growing old sucks.

“He slipped under the fence,” Grandpa said. “Like someone rubbed him with butter. Whoosh and he was gone—took off after a rabbit that was bigger than him.”

His voice was so confident that all of us looked up. He was in the living room, feet propped up in the recliner, rubbing his temple like he had been doing lately. His eyes were glued to the evening news. He’d started doing that recently, too. Every evening he’d watch the national, then local, news programs. During the day, I’d occasionally find CNN on, sometimes even Fox News or MSNBC. Mother joked a few times that in old age Grandpa was suddenly starting to care about the world. He would smile and say he didn’t care about anything except a good night’s rest and maybe a cold beer, but he’d watch the news intently, as though he were waiting for something to happen.

“Well, Grandpa,” Mother said. “If you saw him take off, why didn’t you stop him?”

He shrugged. “‘Cause I wasn’t sure it’d happen. Can’t know something’s gonna happen until it happens, can you?”

Missy and I tuned out, but Mother watched him for a few more seconds, a half-eaten cookie in her hand. Whatever she’d been thinking, it must not have made sense, because she shrugged and finished eating. We went out to dinner that night, a rare treat. Sparkles never came back.

Don’t let the Surgeon General fool you: when you’re a teenager and you smoke, you look cool, just not by grown-up standards.

A few weeks later, I finished cleaning the bathroom—easily my least-favorite chore—and went to the garage to get my old bike. I was meeting my friends Rory and Jake at the skate park. None of us skated, but there were a few cute girls—yes, Joanna Sanderson among them—who did, and they didn’t wear much except helmets and safety pads when they did so. Even at twelve, you’re old enough to know the best things in life are free. We’d smoke a cigarette and watch the girls, thinking we looked cool. Hell, we did look cool. Don’t let the Surgeon General fool you: when you’re a teenager and you smoke, you look cool, just not by grown-up standards.

Grandpa was waiting for me in the garage. I knew he was waiting, because he was standing next to my bike, arms crossed, not doing anything but watching the door. His appearance was so surprising I almost missed the stair and fell flat on my face. “Listen, Devin,” he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. The other hand was massaging a spot just behind his left ear. “I want you to do me a favor today.”

“Yes, Grandpa?”

“Don’t go to that damned park.”

I wasn’t aware that he’d been following me or how he knew where I was going that day. When even I hadn’t known until half an hour before, when Rory called. Had Grandpa been listening in?

“Let’s see a movie,” he said. “There’s an old Steven Seagal showing at the theater. I can get you in. The girls there love feisty old men.” He winked.

“Sorry, Grandpa,” I said. “Rory’s got a book he wants to loan me.” In reality, it was the latest issue of Playboy, and the only way I’d ever get to peruse it was with Rory standing right beside me.

He smirked a little, as though he knew what I really meant, and then nodded. “Guess it was a fool’s hope. Foolishness comes with age, Devin. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Kids are way smarter.” His face became serious. “But do me a favor and avoid Grant. Come home a different way. Beg your friends if you must. Just avoid Grant. And blue pickups.”

“Blue pickups?”

“Blue pickups. It’s a terrible color for a truck.”

It wasn’t the strangest thing he’d ever said, so once I was on my way I shrugged it off.

Joanna Sanderson wasn’t at the park that day, only two girls were, and they were from the community college, and when they caught us watching them, they cursed us until we went away. But Rory had the Playboy, so we spent a while going over it, and then we went for frozen yogurt. Afterwards, Rory wanted to go back to his house, which was on Hayes—one block south of Grant.

The conversation with my grandfather had entirely slipped my mind. And, if you want to know the whole truth, which is all you’ll get from me, even if I’d remembered the warning, I wouldn’t have paid it any heed. Why would I? It was nonsense.

The truck that hit me was baby blue, the worst kind. The driver looked away for a split second, like they always do, and his bumper caught my front tire. I remember falling in slow motion, thinking, Christ, why didn’t I wear pads? Mother always tells me to wear pads, even though she’d stopped such chiding years before. I had an entire conversation in my head, the kind that would take almost half an hour in real time. And then my left arm struck the pavement, there was a flash of pain, and the world went black.

“I just knew,” Grandpa said, when I asked him afterwards. “Wasn’t a vision or anything fancy. I just knew it, like I knew what’d happen to your dog, except of course I didn’t know because it hadn’t happened yet. The dog running away, that’s no big deal, right or wrong, the world keeps spinning. You getting run over, that’s something worth worrying about.”

I didn’t tell anyone about my conversation with Grandpa that day. Not until later, when Mother and Missy were both in on it. I had the feeling Grandpa wanted to keep it a secret, a childish thought, but Grandpa didn’t care if the whole world knew. It just wasn’t a big deal to him.

Over the next few weeks, Grandpa began to mutter while he watched the news, fingers almost always kneading his forehead. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what he was doing. Grandpa was seeing things, like he’d seen me getting hit by the truck, and was watching the news to see if any of them came true. I would’ve given anything to know what he saw in visions—he protested to the word, but I couldn’t think of any other term for it—especially the ones that made him watch the national news. When there was a school shooting in Sacramento in September, I watched Grandpa’s face, to see if he’d predicted it, but his eyes held nothing but the normal level of sorrow and surprise. Maybe his visions didn’t extend to outside of Chelmsford or maybe Illinois in general. Maybe he couldn’t see anything west of the Mississippi. I don’t think I would’ve understood it even if Grandpa had explained it to me.

Mother and Missy found out about it on Halloween. Mother had taken notice of Grandpa’s headaches by then, and encouraged him to see a doctor—which was basically like trying to get an elephant to cross a road by swatting it with a piece of string. He wouldn’t even laugh about it. “Hell no,” he’d say, “just give me another Tylenol and be done with it.”

On October 31, Grandpa woke up at five in the morning screaming. Mother and I raced to his room; Missy, thank God, slept right through it. We found Grandpa upright and pale, sweating. He looked at me, and I knew what’d happened. I also knew it was much worse than the blue truck.

“I don’t know his name,” Grandpa was saying, distinctly but quietly, not talking to us, but to himself. His eyes settled on me and he said, “Not you, it’s not you, thank God,” then he went right back to his mantra. “I don’t know his name, I don’t know his name.”

Mother got him a warm cloth and put him back to bed. I couldn’t go to sleep, so I went downstairs and watched infomercials. Never understood why anyone would want to buy that crap. Even now I don’t. But I watched, because it was mindless entertainment, and I didn’t want to have to think about anything.

When Grandpa came down to breakfast at the normal time, he was still pale. Missy joined us, and she immediately noticed Grandpa’s condition. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Mother said.

“I don’t know his name,” Grandpa said.

“Damned if I know,” I summed up. Mother didn’t even scold me.

We went to school, Mother went to work, and Grandpa probably sat in his recliner all day glued to the news, repeating that single sentence. He had stopped by the time school let out, thank God, but dinner was far from normal. Grandpa didn’t say a word, except grunt occasionally when Missy or Mother said something to him. I knew better. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, but if he noticed my observation, he gave no sign. Instead he just stared at the table, taking small bites of casserole.

I took Missy trick-or-treating that night. It was a school night, so the city imposed an early curfew. I half-expected Grandpa to bar the door and keep us inside; instead, he just gave us a wary glance. I remembered what he’d said—It’s not you—but took little comfort in it.

The next morning we found out. The local news wouldn’t be on until nine, so Grandpa turned on the radio. We had to listen to four country songs before the news bulletin came on.

Police are reporting the disappearance of a Chelmsford child. Last night, between six and eight o’clock, Gregory Clemens vanished. He was last seen on Harrison Street, in the company of his older sister, who stopped to talk with a group of friends. Gregory was last seen wearing an all-black ninja costume. Anyone with information regarding Gregory’s location or this situation is urged to contact the Chelmsford police immediately.”

Mother and I turned to stare at Grandpa, who slowly turned the radio off. He looked up, and his eyes met mine. I saw guilt in them. I don’t know his name.

“Grandpa,” Mother said. She spoke as though each word were forced from her lips. “Can you tell us what is going on?”

He swallowed. “Not in front of the kids, Miranda.”

“Devin, take your sister upstairs.”

“I’m not done yet,” Missy said.

I took her hand. “Come on, kiddo. I’ll give you a Twinkie.”

We went upstairs. Mother never called us back. We wandered back downstairs when it was time to leave. She and Grandpa were huddled over the radio. Mother looked up at us, and I swear for a moment she didn’t even know we were there. Her eyes were distant, tearful. I quickly turned Missy away so she wouldn’t see.

On the bus ride to school, I briefly explained the situation to Missy. I didn’t go into specifics—except with the blue truck; I figured that wouldn’t be too dramatic—but she immediately picked up on it.

“He dreamed about that boy, didn’t he?”

I didn’t know if his visions-that-weren’t-visions came in dreams or not, but I nodded. “Yeah, he did.”

Missy was matter-of-fact. “He’s dead, isn’t he? That boy. Otherwise Grandpa wouldn’t be so sad.”

I don’t know if they ever found the boy’s body. I moved away from Chelmsford when I went to college. But I know, in the six years that followed, nothing ever turned up. Not one eyewitness, not one fingerprint or scrap of clothing. The boy had simply vanished. Grandpa never told anyone, except maybe Mother, what he saw. I doubt he knew who had taken the kid. He would’ve spoken up about that. The theory I’ve come up with is that Grandpa knew what’d happened, but not who’d done it. And that half-knowledge haunted him.

The headaches got worse. Mother eventually forced him to see a doctor, who found nothing wrong. “Stress,” the doctor said, but didn’t even prescribe any medication. He just told Grandpa to take it easy. As if he could.

There were more visions. He told them to me, occasionally. Most of them weren’t bad. One of them was actually good. He told me one of my classmates who had cancer would go into remission; a week later, she did. He predicted a fire at the abandoned shoe factory—”Arson, but don’t ask me which brats are gonna do it”—and plenty of snow for winter. For Thanksgiving, he told me our father wouldn’t be able to make it, but he never said why (turned out, Dad was involved in a minor motorcycle accident, which, Mother said with a relieved smile, was just what he got for riding a motorcycle in November). Several of Grandpa’s predictions didn’t come true; he didn’t tell me everything, but he told me enough so that I understood that they were random. A hurricane in Florida; an earthquake in Oregon; a gunman at a Dallas Wal-Mart. He said he knew the winning lottery numbers, but that only a thief would buy a ticket. He also predicted that I would grow up to be a successful doctor, which he only said because I got queasy around blood.

Missy became fascinated. Whenever Grandpa started rubbing his temple, she’d get him a Tylenol and a glass of water. She stayed by his side, asking him constant questions. I could tell he was sometimes annoyed, but he did his best to put on a good face. I doubt he ever told her anything truthful, at least as far as the negative predictions went. “I see a little girl who won’t get presents on Christmas if she doesn’t go to bed soon,” he said a couple of times, but Missy would laugh and say that Grandpa was no match for Santa Claus.

Christmas came and went—Missy got plenty of presents—and then the New Year. Grandpa appeared a little weaker, but he always had during the winter. “Ice and old bones don’t mix,” he’d say, using it as an excuse not to leave the house. There was one night where he woke up screaming again, and stayed glued to the news for an entire week. He never explained, not even to Mother, what he’d seen, but after seven days had passed without any major story breaking out, he seemed to relax a little.

Spring Break came, and normally we’d take a short trip somewhere, just two or three days, but Grandpa’s headaches had been occurring more frequently, so Mother thought it best to stay home. “Sounds great,” Grandpa said. “We’d probably just go see that old son-in-law of mine anyways, and I’d have to listen about his damned fishing trips. How interesting can bass be?”

I spent the week hanging with Jake, because Rory’s family went to Ohio for some reason. We didn’t have a whole lot to do without Rory prodding us along, so we basically played video games at Jake’s house. Grandpa watched Missy, and without much complaint; lately she’d taken to simply sitting beside him, waiting for him to have one of his predictions. I guess she’d figured out that constant yammering didn’t help any. Nor, of course, did her silence, but no one saw any reason to tell her that.

I came home about three o’clock that Thursday. I usually waited until four when Mother got home, because being alone in the house with Grandpa and Missy, him in his recliner and her in a child-sized folding chair beside him, was kind of creepy. But Jake had beaten me pretty bad at Call of Duty, and I was in a sour mood. So I took my bike home—still avoiding Grant, I remembered the pain of my arm breaking all too well—and put it safely away in the garage. Then I went out to the mailbox, grabbed the mail, and went in through the front door.

Grandpa was in his recliner, of course, back to me. Missy, instead of beside him, was sitting Indian-style on the floor in front of him, looking up at his face. I was so surprised to see this change of scenery that I stopped in the doorway. A gust of wind came in from behind me and tore the mail from my hand. It fell to the floor and scattered with a hiss.

Missy glanced up. “Hey, Devin,” she said.

“Hey, Missy.”

“He had another vision. I’m waiting for him to tell me what it was.”

“Just tell her, Grandpa,” I said. “She won’t leave you alone until you do.”

“Shut up,” she said.

Grandpa made no response, and Missy went back to watching him. And I knew. It’s not the kind of knowledge you act on, of course. Because even though you know, you don’t want to admit it. It goes against instinct. Can’t ever know something’s gonna happen until it happens, Grandpa had said, which applied to most people, if not himself. He could easily have said, Can’t know something’s happened until you already know it’s happened. But that last one wasn’t always true.

I walked to the recliner slowly, keeping my eyes on Missy. She was smiling sweetly up at Grandpa, such a charming smile, and for a moment I thought, Come on, look how happy she is, can you really be thinking what you’re thinking when she’s that happy? But I could, and I was, and I wasn’t wrong.

Grandpa’s eyes were open, but he wasn’t seeing the TV. He wasn’t seeing anything. I stood over him for a few seconds, fighting the urge to poke his arm and try and wake him up. Come on, Grandpa, you’re scaring Missy. Get up, dammit, wake up, have one of your headaches, start screaming, just do something you old man.

Instead, I took Missy by the arm and hauled her up a little too roughly. She protested, trying to twist out of my grip, but I tightened my hand and said, “Go upstairs. Right now.”

No.”

“Yes. Do it. You can take one of my Twinkies.”

“I don’t want—”

I shoved her towards the stairs. “Now, Missy.”

She knew better than to argue with me.

I called 911 first. Then I called Mother. I don’t know which conversation was the hardest; the 911 call was the longest, and I had to describe the situation in more detail. The call to Mother was short, straight to the point: Get home. Right now. It’s Grandpa. But those six words didn’t come easy, because by then my throat was pretty much dry, and when I hung up I began heaving. Nothing came up except a couple flecks of blood.

There was an autopsy. No discernible cause. “Which isn’t as rare as you may think,” we were told. “It happens to people his age. Rest assured, his death was in all likelihood quick and painless. He may not have even known it was happening.”

I didn’t buy that. I couldn’t help but think that, one way or the other way, his other way, he’d seen it coming.

By unspoken agreement, Mother and I stopped talking about Grandpa’s visions. It didn’t seem right with him gone. Missy learned not to talk to Mother about them—two quick bouts of tears, followed by a half-hearted spanking, provided a good lesson—but she’d still occasionally mention them to me late at night after we’d gone to bed. I wouldn’t say anything, just let her talk. I think that’s all she needed.

Like I said, part of Missy still believes it was the tree, even though it came down on the opposite side of the house. The place she shares now with her husband has no trees around it. There was one when they moved in, but Missy refused to sleep there until it was taken down. The last time I visited, her son lamented how wonderful it would be to have a tire swing. “But you need a tree for that,” he said to me, “and Mom hates trees.”

There’s a tree next to my house. In fact, it’s right outside my window. We had a strong storm pass through last week, and the branches shook, scraping against the window. My wife and I woke up in the middle of the night, and she said, “We need to take that tree down, Devin. One day it’s going to fall on us.”

I nodded. She was probably right. The only thing I didn’t know for sure was…whether or not I wanted the tree to fall.

Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. He is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com or on Facebook.

It Ends the Way It Always Ends

Tell me why you are here.

Because my parents sent me here.

And why did they send you?

To help me “handle the situation.”

And the situation is. . .

My brother.

The death of your brother.

Something like that, I said.

 

You seem uncomfortable.

This chair’s okay.

Uncomfortable with me.

I thought you’d look like my mother.

Why is that?

She listens.

And your father?

He doesn’t want to hear it.

What does your father want?

For me to man-up.

Which consists of—?

Cracking your knuckles and keeping your mouth shut.

As opposed to—?

Sitting in this chair next to a box of tissues marked PUFFS.

 

It’s all right.

It’s not all right.

There’s no law that says boys can’t cry. Help yourself to a—

Fucking PUFF.

Tell me something about your brother.

He’s dead.

Something about when he was alive.

Once we tried to catch a fish. With our bare hands. But it was big and slippery and got away.

 

How did your brother die?

Kissed a girl.

Your brother kissed a girl.

I just told you that.

Your brother kissed a girl and

And got meningitis.

Did you want to kiss that girl, too?

No, I wanted to grind her so deep into the ground we’d both end up in the grave.

Grave is an interesting word.

Grind is even interesting-er.

 

Why didn’t you kiss—or grind—the girl?

He got there first.

And you were used to going first?

I was older.

By how much?

I don’t know. Eight, nine minutes. How much longer do we have to keep talking?

Why are you so anxious to leave?

Your artwork is ugly.

Why do you say that?

It doesn’t have any people in it. Just colors. So you can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be about.

 

What do you think life is about?

Being happy. I guess.

Were you happy before your brother died?

Most of the time.

And now?

Everything’s fucked.

 

What did your brother look like?

You know.

I don’t know.

You have to know. It’s written. Right there. In that file.

Yes, but I’d like to hear it from you. Start like this: My brother looked like. . .

Me.

My brother looked like me because. . .

Because he was my—

It’s all right.

It’s not all right.

There’s no law that says boys can’t cry. Help yourself to a—

Fucking PUFF.

 

In your file, it says you’re having trouble sleeping. Concentrating. And that the precipitating incident—

What does that mean?

The thing that led you here.

My parents made me come here.

–came when your father was trying to teach you how to shave, is that right?

Maybe.

What happened that morning?

Cut myself.

How?

I wasn’t looking. The way my dad said I should.

How were you looking, then?

Like . . .like I wasn’t myself. Like I was getting pulled through the glass, to the other side.

Did you tell your father that?

Sorta.

And what did he say.

Get it together.

Why do you think he said that?

He thinks I’m losing it. I heard him on the phone. I heard him tell you, I just want my son back.

Which son do you think he was referring to?

I don’t know. My brother. Me. Both of us, I guess.

You don’t think he was worried about you? Concerned about your well-being?

You talked to him. So why do you keep asking me this stuff?

I want to know your thoughts. Your perspective. Your feelings.

 

Why do I have to feel something about everything? I don’t want to have feelings. They don’t get you anywhere.

Where would you like to go, if you could go anywhere?

Antarctica. Or someplace so cold you couldn’t feel your own feet.

Where would you live?

An igloo.

With whom?

Myself, I guess.

What about your parents?

What about them?

Where would they be?

Left behind.

Do you feel left behind?

No.

No because. . .

Because I don’t want to go where my brother went.

 

How did you feel seeing your brother in the hospital?

He looked gray. Like a Weimaraner.

And in the coffin?

He looked like an oboe. Or some weird instrument that I don’t know how to play.

Did you say anything to him?

It wasn’t him.

Did you touch his body?

My mother put a blanket over him. She said she didn’t want him to be cold in the grave.

Do you want to tell me something about that blanket?

It was brown. One of the ones she was knitting for us to put on our beds when we went to college.

Did they match?

Everything matched. Except our sides were switched. What I had on the right side, he had on the left.

So when you looked in the mirror you saw both him and you?

Something like that.

 

You keep looking at the clock.

An hour here isn’t really an hour, is it?

Our session is fifty minutes.

So aren’t you going to say it?

Say what?

I’ve seen the movies. It starts the way it always starts: Tell me why you are here—and ends the way it always ends—I’m afraid our time for today is up.

Yes. Well. I’m afraid our time for today is up.

 

Mom had dropped me off. But Dad was the one waiting in the parking lot. Staring out the windshield. Like the car was never going anywhere ever again.

He blinked—and looked away—when I got in.

Well? he asked.

I tried to figure out what my father really meant: Are you cured? or Was the shrink worth looking at?

Mom’s prettier, I told him. Because that seemed man enough.

Rita Ciresi is the author of four novels (including Bring Back My Body to Me and Pink Slip) and two award-winning story collections (Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket). She is professor of English and director of the creative writing program at the University of South Florida.

Balkan Voodoo

Bina floated her finger over the cup like a magician with a wand, making circular shapes and crosses in the air. “Here it is, you see? It’s a grave, and a cross, you see, on it? That line here cuts through this one, and blends into this one.”

Mira extended her eyeball muscles, stretching her lids, and pinned her nose into the cup until it touched the rim. She felt grainy, cold matter on it, smiled at herself, and tapped her right nostril twice, removing the black muck.

“Look, if you don’t see it, you don’t see it. I see it. You believe me or not? That’s why I do what I do!”

Mira smiled again, uncomfortably. “Of course. Tell me again what that means?”

Bina pulled the cup out of Mira’s hands. She put it down on the table in front of her, and it fit almost perfectly into a white ring.

She suddenly realized that she was watching Bina’s mouth move but no sounds were coming out it. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, she thought, just not at all funny. A Charlie Chaplin horror movie.

Mira cradled her knees and pushed into Bina’s dirty carpet with her toes. Her knees hovered an inch over an old coffee table and her chest rested on her thighs. She bowed over a coffee mug, trying to see the shapes Bina was talking about.

Bina reached her right hand across the table, with her long, red-painted nails and two golden rings—the engagement one, thin with a big cubic zirconium on her middle finger, and a thick, plain gold band on her ring finger. She used her index nail to point at something, and spoke with conviction.

“You see it now? Here it is! So clear! I don’t see this every day. It’s written, can’t be undone.”

Mira looked up at the long, skinny face of a thirty-six-year-old woman with thin blonde hair, brittle and damaged from bleach, tied in a ponytail, and bangs falling to just above her eyebrows. She wore no makeup and wasn’t pretty. Mira often thought Bina’s face looked like a horse’s. Bina had strong “smile” wrinkles framing her mouth and thin, pale lips.

Put some lipstick on, for God’s sake, you look like a corpse, like a dead horse, she thought then smiled uncomfortably, worried that Bina might be able to read her mind. She can read Turkish coffee, how far could a mind be?

Mira peered into the cup again, a small, espresso-sized porcelain cup, with an ornamented and slightly chipped handle she felt scratching her right index finger when she finally lifted it up, tilting it toward the window.

“I must be blind.”

Such is Serbia, she thought. We’ll never get into the European Union trusting fortune-tellers and avoiding work like the plague.

She didn’t see, she just couldn’t see it.

Bina sighed loudly, got up from her wooden stool and leaned over Mira and her cup from behind. Mira was startled by Bina’s long, sharp claws and cold hands as they gripped her shoulders and pulled them as far down as physically possible.

Bina’s index nail glistened again.

“Hmmm, I see some good news, too. If what I said before was not good news. Just saying. I see you’ll be fine, your daughters will be fine, you’ll survive it, move on. Both of your daughters married good men,” she said and went back to her seat with the cup in her hand.

Mira wasn’t looking at the cup anymore. She was looking at Bina’s elongated white face, too white for a healthy person, she thought. She wondered if she were pale herself, having heard what she’d just heard. She cradled her neck in her hands, began touching her face with her fingers, looking for warmth. The room they were in was drafty, and she felt the air in her stomach. She suddenly realized that she was watching Bina’s mouth move but no sounds were coming out it. It was like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie, she thought, just not at all funny. A Charlie Chaplin horror movie.

Bina lifted her blue eyes and darted them into Mira’s.

“So, what do you think? What will you do?”

“What? About what?”

“About what I just said. Will you do something? Or leave it to God’s will?”

God’s will, Mira thought. Yes, I could do that. Wasn’t that what I was doing all along?

“I’m not sure,” she said.

“Well, I am. You will be a widow. So, prepare yourself. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been one for years, and it’s hard at first, but then you get used to it. Plus, it’s better than being divorced.”

Mira smiled one more time. “Thank you,” she said.

“Don’t! You know you shouldn’t thank me for reading your cup. It’s a custom.”

The two women were now standing on each side of the coffee table. Mira bowed to pick up her cup and bring it to the kitchen sink, but Bina said: “Don’t. Leave it. I’ll do it.”

Mira pulled her spine straight back and retracted her arm, slowly, like a marionette, hung her purse on her right shoulder and walked toward the door. Bina was right behind her.

“Then…I’ll see you. Pleasant!” Mira said absently.

“Pleasant!” Bina said and quickly closed the door behind Mira, who was suddenly swallowed by the darkness and dampness of a marble and concrete hallway. She felt her way toward the opposite wall, smooth and cold, until she found a thick plastic light switch. The light bulb was so strong that she squinted and had to cover her eyes for a few seconds, still holding on to the wall. Then she slowly walked down, feeling every step with the balls of her feet, as if she still couldn’t see.

She walked into a cloudy day, and was grateful for the lack of sun. Her home was fifteen minutes away, and she looked at her watch. It was 2:45 p.m. Her husband might already be home, and she needed more time alone, to think. He usually worked until three p.m. but would often get off work early. Such is Serbia, she thought. We’ll never get into the European Union trusting fortune-tellers and avoiding work like the plague.

She knew she shouldn’t trust Bina. But there was something in her bones, or the left side of her brain, that just couldn’t resist going to her, and asking her to read her future from a drained cup of Turkish coffee. Maybe it had to do with her grandmother Dika believing in this magic, this Balkan Voodoo, actually knowing a lot about it, and knowing how to make it, and how to make it work. Then her mother believed in it, too, to such a degree she disowned her mother-in-law for the use of this magic, claiming she found a bunch of her hair and fabric from her clothes tied together in a deliberate manner and thrown into her backyard. After that, her mother persuaded her father that Dika hated her and wanted her ill or even dead. Mira’s father then shunned Dika, his own mother, from her own property, and she spent the rest of her years crying in front of her child’s green iron gate. Mira tried to reason with her mother but deep down there was something that prevented her from saying: “Mother, this is ridiculous! Magic doesn’t exist. Voodoo doesn’t exist. You are delusional!”

The whole village she grew up in believed in voodoo. All those people, thousands, mostly older. There must have been something to it. They had the experience. They must have seen it working.

Mira walked home along a street that had no sidewalk. She would occasionally stop to make sure the car driving toward her could pass her without running over her foot or brushing against her body. When she reached the railway crossing, she stopped, looked left and right while leaning forward, listened, and then crossed, despite the fact that the ramp was up.

Those things can be broken, she remembered her grandmother saying long ago. Stop, wait, look. And she always did. She always listened to everything her grandmother said, then her mother, then not much later, her husband.

She walked parallel to the railway tracks, again on the street, wide and long, with a weed and trash-covered area on the right that was supposed to be planted with flowers and grass. She never understood how people could throw trash on the ground; why couldn’t they wait until they found a trash can? Aren’t they bothered by living among trash? Ever since her girls learned how to speak and walk, she taught them not to litter. And now they were happy, away from her, in Austria, both married to German diplomats. The good life, she thought, something she always wanted for them, even though she missed them every minute of every day, sometimes so much that she felt as if her flesh were falling off her bones.

And she was now alone with her husband.

She began to realize that she didn’t have to put up with his temper and his infidelities any longer. Their children had flown high out of their nest, never to come back, and she once again had an opportunity to be free.

She only wanted to make sure, before she did anything drastic, and that’s why she’d gone to Bina.

And now what? Everything was spoiled.

How can I leave him if he’s going to die? I could never live with myself, Mira thought crossing the street, continuing along the dirt path by the tracks.

She knew that her daughters would laugh at her. They didn’t believe in fortune-telling. They were both worldly. And they’d both wanted Mira to leave their father years ago, when they were in college, when they’d caught him making plans with another woman, their age, while Mira was at work. She knew she couldn’t tell them she gave up on leaving him, once again, because the fortune-teller told her she would be a widow.

She suddenly stopped, as if planted in the ground by some sudden force from above, no more than fifty feet away from her home. This was the day she was to announce to him that she would be leaving. Or that he should leave and let her stay in the house. Go, move in with one of his girlfriends, she didn’t care, not anymore. Not after twenty-six years.

She knew he would deny it. She knew he would say no. “What girlfriends?! You’re crazy, you’re delusional, you’re irrationally jealous…”

He would never admit it! Admitting it would make it final. This way, there was always a small chance that he actually never cheated, that it was all in Mira’s head. It could never be proven unless he confessed.

But now, what if she left, and something terrible happened to him? And she’d been warned? She could never live like that! She could never forgive herself. He was her husband, her children’s father. The only man she’d ever been with. She’d fallen in love with him when she was eighteen, loved him still, she thought. At least, that’s what she thought love was.

She freed herself from gravel and dirt and walked onto the concrete again, eyeing their house—white, three-leveled, with a big backyard and a marble fountain, the house filled with antique furniture and old paintings. She was proud of her house, her handpicked things. She made sure all the pieces, from the curtains in the living room to the coffee cups in the kitchen, were special, rare, and well-taken care of. No stains, no chips, no breaks. Everything matching, as in the latest home decoration catalogue—arm chairs and carpets, tablecloths and china. She’d also made a small shrine to her grandmother in one corner—an old, heavy, rusty iron and an ornate golden-colored coffee grinder on hand-woven, white-laced doilies.

She was at the tall iron gate, looking for her keys in her purse, when their fourteen-year old dog barked, came to her, licked her hands through the gate and began wagging his tail. She pushed her way into the corridor, shooing him away so he wouldn’t, by accident, slide by her. He ran manically around her, trying to woo her to play with him, chase him, throw the ball for him, but she ignored him. She opened the massive wooden door to the outside hallway she’d added to the house after they bought it, so the shoes wouldn’t smell inside her living room, and, through a window, from the hallway, saw her husband on the sofa watching TV. She closed her eyes for a second, her back pressed against the wall, so he couldn’t see her, and thought of what her life could be, would be, if she would say “enough” now, this minute, as she’d been planning to do for months.

Why did I go?

Her breath deepened and she began taking her shoes off in slow motion, to buy time, her eyes still closed.

It’s written, it’s can’t be undone; it’s written, it can’t be undone; it’s written it can’t be undone, the words buzzing in her ears until she couldn’t hear any other thoughts.

“Mira?” her husband called from the living room.

“Yes?”

“What took you so long? What are you doing in the hallway? Where were you, anyway? You know I hate when I come back from work and you’re not here!”

She opened her eyes, breathed out and said: “I had coffee with Bina.”

“You went to see that witch again? Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want you to see her anymore? We’ll discuss that later. Now, I’m hungry. Did you make dinner before you left?”

She stepped inside their living room, looking at his back. He was still watching TV, a soccer game was on. The sounds of whistles and horns filled the room. She smelled sweat mixed with alcohol. He didn’t turn around, he didn’t even look at her. He was mesmerized by the ball on TV. Like a dog, she thought. How could I have fallen in love with someone like that?

She was looking at the bald round spot on the top of his head with its thin dark skin, then his small ears, his wrinkled, saggy neck, his tiny shoulders. When she met him he’d had long curly dark hair and moustaches. He was riding a motorcycle. He was charming and seductive. She’d stood no chance.

Five months later, she was pregnant and engaged. Two years after that, she was married with a toddler and a newborn. She wasn’t even twenty-one.

“Mira, dinner, I said. How many times do I have to say I’m hungry? And bring me another beer.”

A vein on her temple began pulsating. She felt hot, so hot that she took her cardigan off. Her chest and stomach felt tight, and the tightness spread into her hands and legs, itching and tingling.

“I want a divorce,” she said, quietly and pulled her head and neck down into her shoulders.

He didn’t say anything. A referee on the TV blew into his whistle.

“I want a divorce,” she said more loudly, and hugged herself, as if she were cold.

“Huh,” he said. “Don’t make me laugh, I had too much beer.”

Her eyes landed on a crystal vase with dried red roses she had bought herself five days ago at the green market on the corner. The last time he bought her flowers was when their second daughter was born. A month later, she heard he was having an affair. He was seen with another woman, walking, drinking in kafanas, smiling. God knows what else, Mira thought.

The vase was behind his back, on a small glass coffee table, messy with his pieces of paper—scribbles on them, names, numbers; beer bottles, and a few peanuts left in a bowl. He bought her this empty shell of crystal for their fifth anniversary. It was delivered with a card: I have to work late. Happy anniversary!

She walked to it slowly, like a cat and pressed her right palm against the cold crystal, half-filled with yellowish water, and closed her fingers.

“Mir..?”

He finally turned around. She hugged the vase into her chest.

“What the hell are you doing? What got into you?” he said, his eyes wide but thin, like a snake’s.

The cheering sounds began filling the room.

“What?! Did I miss…I miss a goal because of you, bitch. Move your fat ass,” he said getting up.

Mira shook. Her body felt feverish.

“No. We need to talk.”

“What is wrong with you, move I said. We can talk after the game. MOVE, NOW,” he said. “Move, I’m warning you, don’t make me get up. I will wipe the carpet with you!”

Mira stepped to the left. He started swearing at the TV. She was still holding the vase.

 

The water from the vase was mixed with blood on her white Turkish carpet, and for the first time she didn’t care. She looked at his distorted face, and on it she could read horror, disbelief and pain. His right hand was clenched above his head, like a paw, pointing toward her, accusing her, threatening her. His mouth was moving but no sound was coming out of it. She knew what he was saying: If I survive this, you won’t.

Then she was hit by a wave of unexpected pain that completely shut her body down. She bowed forward, as if something collapsed on her from above, her face hovering above her knees, her head hanging upside down, cradled by her hands. The tears began dropping simultaneously from her nose and her eyes onto the floor. She was afraid to look at him again.

The dog was whimpering and banging at the door.

She finally lifted her torso up and looked at the immobile body on the carpet. His dark eyes glassed over and looked brighter. His hand was still clenched into a fist.

He did not look peaceful.

Mira fell on her knees next to him and pressed her head to his chest. It was still warm but silent. She rocked back and forth, like a cradle, her body squeezed in a tight ball.

The water from the carpet seeped onto her pants, and she began to shiver. She started pulling her hair out and gasping for breath.

The pain seemed like a beast now, swallowing the whole house, as if it were a bubble that threatened to burst and destroy all her memories, twenty-six years of her life, sending it to hell.

She finally released her muscles, lay flat on the wet carpet, the glass and blood, and like a beaten doll, with her heavy head on his chest, she closed her eyes. She could hear the wind howling and the dog’s cries. But then it all quieted down, as if someone had pressed the “off” switch. The only sounds were coming from the TV. She opened her eyes and looked at the green screen with black and white, and red and white dots running around. Then, up-close, the men hugged and kissed, and the red and white clothed audience jumped and screamed in joy. The black and white clothed ones dragged themselves out of the stadium, their heads bowed. The black and white team was the one her husband was obsessively rooting for, ever since she met him. She knew that if he could, he would be swearing and shouting at the TV now.

But he couldn’t. Not anymore.

She slowly lifted her head, as if she’d been in a coma and was learning once again how to control her body, pushed the carpet away and lifted herself up. She looked at her red and white palms and pulled two shards of glass from them, then picked up the remote from the sofa and turned off the TV. She stuck her tongue out and gently bit it, then pulled her wet shirt with three of her right-hand fingers, and mockingly spit three times inside of it, into her chest, then stepped outside of the spot she was in, deliberately, to the right. She stood motionless, on a fresh spot on her carpet, unstained by yellow water and blood, as if waiting for the time to pass. She then rubbed her arms and walked to her purse slowly, pink water drops trailing behind her. She dipped her hand into it, and rummaged around. Coins, makeup and pens rustled.

Was it 92 or 94? she wondered for a second. Then she dialed ninety-two, and put the phone against her right ear.

“Hello? I need to report an accident.”

Marija Stajic is a writer, journalist and linguist. She has written a collection of short stories placed in Yugoslavia from beginning of the 20th century until today. She also blogs at belgrade-dc.blogspot.com. Her fiction and poetry have been published in The New YorkerThe Writing Disorder, Imitation Fruit, Orion Headless, Inertia, Gloom Cupboard and The Burning Word.

Edenfield

Dear Sirs,

I got your letter some time back and I’m sorry for being so slow on the responding. I have given it a whole lot of thought these months now and decided to write you back. I wasn’t, but now I have (obviously). I’m not going to sign my name to this because I don’t want you to ever know my name. I reckon you can figure it out if you are inclined to anyway. I’m not going to say on it but what is here. You can use this for any reason you want except don’t expect me to ever speak at any hearing or law proceeding of that nature. I don’t want to do it and won’t. The past is past and should better stay that way. This is my opinion and I hope you can respect it. But I will set down a few words here concerning Mr. Edenfield as was asked for.

I read all you sent me. Yes it rings bells. I read a lot about the boys said they was traumatized. I was brutalized but not traumatized. At first it bothered me that I hadn’t been traumatized. Several of you guys was traumatized and brutalized. Reason being I wasn’t traumatized is because I was already in shock, a post-trauma from my daddy’s death and sudden aloneness and responsibility. This is my best explanation. See, I was pretty pissed off at the world in those days, enraged at my daddy, and then his dying on me, and then at God and Christ. I cussed them and raged against them for most of my early adulthood. I was a thing to behold. But I look back nowadays and I see that Christ was there for me all through. He loved me even when I didn’t love Him. I didn’t see it then, and there wasn’t nothing outside of me that could hurt me more than I was already hurting, but I see now the Holy Spirit was there with me every step I took. My daddy told me once that there’s always a place for God, the only question being whether He is in that place. God wasn’t there for the old man at all (even at the end he said how he had all them Baptists to die for his sins anyways) and I reckon he never satisfied his curiosities in that regard, but He is there for me today and this is a serious comfort in life.

That one could pack his lunch in a punch and man could he ever cut with his knuckles too. I still got all the white scars on my eyebrows, one under my lip, a tooth less than I ought.

Like I was saying, I wasn’t traumatized. I was just brutalized and maybe not even that. I had a big brother back then and we used to swap licks with each other all the time. That one could pack his lunch in a punch and man could he ever cut with his knuckles too. I still got all the white scars on my eyebrows, one under my lip, a tooth less than I ought. I held my own though and gave him as good or better than I got. All my brothers had a lot of anger similar to me. So I was maybe traumatized more by my own kinfolk than the cottage fathers. This is maybe a thing has given me perspective but you like as not don’t see it that way, which is fine.

I was a guest in Clinton and Mr. Edenfield was the ruler of that cottage, along with his assistant Bull Munro. (Mr. Edenfield was for sure the cottage father at Clinton and not Mr. McClair as some have claimed in the statements they done. I don’t see how some have such clear recollections of things that far back but can go getting names of people mixed up that way). Seemed like Edenfield drove a black ’57 Ford that looked like a cop car. He had seen just about every kind of kid there is and was completely untrusting of most, but I never minded him. He wasn’t the worst by a long chalk (I’ve scraped meaner off my shoe) and he treated me fine overall. Within that group was a certain comradeship and competition to being the best flogger. They took pride in busting a butt in under ten strokes sort of thing. McClair, Voss, and Dunlap was the best of the bunch. Some assistant cottage fathers got into the inner group rivalry, like Munro. The one with the one arm couldn’t get the balance/leverage to be in the top group but he was in the group right under. Not to say he wasn’t a slouch. Mr. Campbell was another wanted to be top ranked but with the one leg he couldn’t turn the paddle at certain angles and it became rigid-like and sliced wrong. I think you needed all your limbs to do it right, which is true of most things in life probably. But Edenfield never took it up personally. He might have had some qualms. I can’t say I ever asked. It wasn’t a thing me and him talked about.

It’s a long time ago. Life just flies don’t it? I had a ducktail hairstyle then, listened to ‘devil music’ (Elvis, Fats, Jerry Lee), wore Levis, penny loafers and had a leather jacket. It was a good jacket that and I don’t rightly know what came of it. Must have lost it. I was all bad and worse. Right feisty. But for all I raised hell I should never have stole anything. I knew better and done it anyway although I wouldn’t do it without I got drunk first. I got more sense than that. But I got stinking that night and it got done and I wasn’t exactly on the righteous path back then and I didn’t know God from diddly.

Two Statesmen come for me and I can see them still clear as water in their white shortsleeved shirts, black slacks, funny short argyle socks. Can see the blacklaced shoes of them shining polished in the sun (it being sunny like as if to mock me). They put me in back of the State car. My brother didn’t look too copacetic standing there in our yard that morning. He felt bad, staring in the dirt and making little mountains of it with his boot. Mainly because he was the one had put me up to the thieving in the first place and was thinking about his contributing to the delinquency of a minor and if I’d keep my mouth shut. It was copper wire was all it was. We had chickens then, but they didn’t amount to much. They were in the yard too as if to say goodbye, which is why I mention them. I remember the chickens being there but not really participating in the scene much.

In other circumstances the scenery might have done me good but that day the highway just give me a long cold shoulder and a big moon came up new white as the face of an applehalf when we drove on in there, and looked mournful as I felt.

The door handles was took off the back of the car in case. We drove northwest out of Apalachicola on Highway 98. The light yonder came clicking on the water like silver dimes and glinting also off of the saw grass. Up there is some of the biggest pines I ever saw then and since. I had never been drove so far. Then north on 71, out of Port Gihon through Wewahitchka along the Dead Lake. You all must have done that when coming. In other circumstances the scenery might have done me good but that day the highway just give me a long cold shoulder and a big moon came up new white as the face of an applehalf when we drove on in there, and looked mournful as I felt.

I was up three weeks before I gave them the chance to straighten me out. I had worked part time at a Morrison’s and so asked to work in the kitchen. After a week there came an opening as cook helper. I was an older boy (fifteen) so I was placed there (only the older bigger boys worked in the kitchen you’ll recollect, except some younger dish washers). My main job was cracking open cartons of eggs, prepping for the cook and staff cook who was also over the boys and whose names I forget. The staff cook had a face looked like a chewed cabbage, which feature made him memorable. They had a rank system and the lowest rank was Grub and if you was a Grub and you did anything wrong you had no rank to take away so you went down. But I had rank and went down anyways. I guess I had a talent for upsetting the natural order of things.

One big thing was we was never allowed to talk to the black boys when they come by to pick up the swill cans to take to the hogs. So this one time while we was loading the swill cans in the midden I was fixing to pour when I let slip a can and some of the swill spilled over the top and got on one of the black boy’s shoes. I said, “I’m sorry man I didn’t mean for that to happen.” This black boy had had his cheek laid open by a knife and looked mean as a snake and wasn’t a person you’d look to aggravate ideally. But he says “it’s O.K, don’t worry about it” and I said “thanks.” That was the all of it. But then one of the other boys, I never knew who, wish I knew what snake-in-the grass did for it still bothers me some, heard me and puked to Munro I was talking to the black boys and being of a conversational bent. Munro come and asked me what was said between the black boy and me and I said God’s truth I never said a word. He smiled that way he did and took me into the office, wrote me up for lying and made me sign it.

Next morning I was took to Edenfield and he looked sad as suffering Job, told how disappointing it was to see me sitting there in shame because I had been doing so well and he had high hopes. This lapse of honesty was going to cost me dear, at least another six weeks stay down the line. But he was going to give me a choice though I didn’t deserve it. I could accept the drop in rank (get moved out the kitchen) or I could have the write up (I can’t remember what it was called when you was written up, it was called something) paddled off. And I said to him the paddling off was fine by me. I figured I could handle their beatings given my family history and such and come up smiling like a rose.

I could not stand the thought of them waking me up and taking me to it. I had heard things about those got took there. I suppose the waiting is always worst.

But that night I lay on my bunk after light out staring at the door, waiting for it to open. I could not stand the thought of them waking me up and taking me to it. I had heard things about those got took there. I suppose the waiting is always worst. It must have been two hours before I see Munro open the door a chink and with him was the one armed man. I don’t remember his name though I knew it then. It had more vowels in it than is usual I think. I stood up next to my bunk and Munro waved me to them with a face like a bulldog chewing wasps.

At some point your mind goes to a blank place though and the thought of what is going to happen can’t get in.

I was took to a waiting car. There was another boy from a different cottage in the car but we didn’t look at each other as they drove us over to it. The boy looked crazier than a run over dog anyway and had I believe larger than average ears. Didn’t know him from Adam though. There was a short pine tree-lined road went past the kitchen back to it. I don’t recollect it being white, like everyone says it was in the statements. To me it was more biscuit coloured. It was Fall so maybe the brick was just wet though. There was a big rack of black clouds troweled up in the sky that night and no stars or moon and leaves come scattering at the car like poured coins out the dark. I could hear a train a ways out, all that liquid clicking and the shunt and clatter that trains have.

“You boys just sit there for a minute,” Munro said.

Then Gipe it was come out. This is the important thing, it not being Edenfield. Gipe you remember had this white bulldog with a big red flannel tongue was always about his legs (the dog). He signed the papers and took some keys from out his pocket, unlocked the door, and disappeared himself into the dark. Then he was back at the right side of the car and had to reach through the front window to unlock the rear door. “You can get out now,” he said. “You boys get on in there.” I always remember him saying that, about the getting out and getting in because of how confusing it was a minute.

“What happened to your other watchdog, Milton?” says the one-armed man.

“I do believe someone done stole it, Blake,” Gipe said, big grinning it. Blake was the one-armed man’s Christian given name now I think on it.

The three of them all laughed fit to bust at Gipe’s crack. I remember thinking it wasn’t that bad a one myself but I wasn’t of a very humorous disposition just then.

There was a whitewashed corridor six feet wide, eight feet high, estimate, and the walls of this corridor was lit by a bulb in a twisted case of wire. Three quarters of the way down the corridor was two rooms, one on either side. The other was the Colored Boys room. Word had it the only difference was in the number of strokes given, which makes you think. I was prejudiced then and still am but it still makes you think about things in general. In that other room where we got took was nothing but this rusting GI- green army cot. The cot had an uncovered striped mattress and pillow. The mattress was all dark with liquid stains also like it had been spattered with thrown ink.

Thinking of it again I can come near to smelling the damp cement and the mildew stink off the mattress and the dirty pillow with blood spots from boys that bit so hard. Funny thing it is that way in memory you practically scent things almost all over. We was told to sit so we sat. Gipe asked us if we knew why we was there. Munro kept himself in the small hallway behind. We said yes. Then the one armed man come and took the other boy outside to wait his go round. I figured it was better to get it over with and not to get to listen and have thoughts to think.

“All right now, boy,” Gipe said. “It’ll go easier on you if you do right as I tell you. You’re to lay on that cot there on your belly with your face to the wall. If I were you, I’d stuff that pillow in my mouth. Once we get started here you don’t turn your head, understand? Not for love or mercy. You don’t cry out or scream or we start it all over again. You hear me, boy?”

I just nodded. Wasn’t much else to do in that situation.

“Place both hands on the cot frame and keep a tight hold of it,” he said. “If I were you I’d try to stay as relaxed as you can. You’re less likely to be hurt.”

Of course, Gipe weren’t me though he kept suggesting it. He was choosing a strap as I was being instructed. He said to lower my pants on account of how fabric threads thrashed that hard into me might cause infection. But I kept my underpants on due to embarrassment and so on. Thinking back there was a kind of rubber mat ran the side of the cot so the person swung the paddle could take a baseball pitcher type of approach to it.

“You best do as the mister said and stick the corner of that pillow in your mouth,” said the one-armed man. He was watching the procedure. Observing. I suppose one of them had to watch too, as maybe a witness per regulations, see it got done right.

I got a big mouthful of pillow and bit down on it and waited, and Gipe shouts “hit the fan.” Then there comes the awful roar of a big blower at the corridor’s end. Must have been Munro switched it. It filled the little room until the fan was all the sound there was. It didn’t make the air any cooler, just a little more lively, and I was sweating already like two rats fighting in a sock from the heat and fearfulness.

First thing you heard was the strap hitting the ceiling then the wall then your rear. (Gipe was a very tall man and the room was very small)… I came to wait the second between the scrape on the ceiling and the impact and tightened my lower back, ass, and legs, so as just when it landed on me I would go limp.

First thing you heard was the strap hitting the ceiling then the wall then your rear. (Gipe was a very tall man and the room was very small). I believe he held the paddle in his dexter hand (maybe a southpaw). I don’t know what I was expecting of the hurt but the pain blew up in my head bang like a sizeable bomb going off when the skin split across my buttocks and the force of the hit drove my whole body down into the bunk, which springs squeaked. I came to wait the second between the scrape on the ceiling and the impact and tightened my lower back, ass, and legs, so as just when it landed on me I would go limp. Every bone in my body had gone to jumping like they’re going to come through my skin and I felt this numb gritty feeling on the back of my teeth from where they were getting some grinding done.

Somewhere between that first lick and 24 licks later I stopped thinking about it all over much though.

I do agree funny enough that before each lick you did hear Gipe’s shoe pivot on the sand on the mat and I recollect also the same funny scratchy sound been reported. In writing this I remember something else about that first time. This being the one armed man saying, “Boy, I told you to stuff the corner of that pillow in your mouth and keep it there. I don’t want to have to listen to none of your crying and bawling.”

But I wasn’t crying given my sentiment that tears are for pussies. I was praying. And I said as much to them.

“Well boy,” Gipe said, stopping and looking disagreeable, “You just do that, but you’d better do it a lot quieter, else you’ll have a lot more to pray about, hear me?”

But looking back from the place I am now it was the first workings of Providence in me then, for the Lord moves in mysterious way it’s true, true in all my experience anyway. And thinking on it some more I am almost grateful now for what happened that night and the times after as it went some ways to the opening up my heart. You have to wonder sometimes why things happen like they do. But there’s a reason.

I couldn’t get up when he told me to.

“I said, get on up,” he kept saying, coming across a bit peevish overall.

I was trying to move my legs, to turn myself around, but nothing worked. My body was like something had been disjointed and put back by drunken surgeons.

“If you don’t get up off that cot like I told you, we’re going to start on you all over again,” Gipe said. “Now get you up.”

So I did.

There was bits and pieces of my undershorts got embedded in my skin (they was right about that) and I tried to pull as much as I could out later in bed but not much on account it hurt too bad to touch. Next day my buttocks felt like a big black crust and I could only take steps about 6 inches long and didn’t do the swilling (which was just as well given the earlier circumstance). I swear my ass was black as a crow for a week.

The other details you inquired about I am on the hazy side. I do believe that the strap was made of an old-time leather conveyer belt. The strap was cut from the belt and had a wood handle with holes to decrease the wind resistance (I guess) and also be able to create blood blisters except I don’t know why you’d want to do that. As to the numbers question, there was one father to whip, one father to witness and watch the inmate on the cot and any inmate previous been beat and then a father to stay with the inmates waiting to be whipped. Given all, it would take a minimum of three staff members to escort a group of boys over there. Seems like when they would take four guys at a time over there I was told they would also have four staff members but I might be recollecting wrong. I only had to go there three times myself in all that time.

The other boy there that night with the ears was more resistant. He observed how Gipe had a face like a bagful of chisels at one juncture I recollect and asked the man with the one arm why didn’t he give him a round of applause also. I best remember he didn’t make out too well. In my mind I’ve always reckoned it’s best not to insult the alligator before you cross the stream.

But I can’t say I ever saw any of the fathers taking any pleasure in what they done over there. Matter of fact they seemed sad and mournful at the time, like they’d rather be about something else. Nor was there anything queer about the procedure as has been set down by some in their testimonials. Most of the men were married as I recollect and their wives lived on the place and tended gardens and did chores around the place. I liked watching the ladies hang the white linen on the line in their blue aprons and how it billied there and they smiled a lot and seemed pretty happy considering. Many of the wives were nice to us and one gave me a poke of apples one time sweet and juicy as anything (the apples) and as I wasn’t nice myself I appreciated that. There was some said Mr. Edenfield who wasn’t ever married was a bit light in the loafers, but I never saw any of that in him. He was always good to me and fair and gave me privileges. They had some mean hombres to deal with in those cottages remember and it wasn’t all rosy and Paradise and I suppose you cut your cloth to suit and so on.

Like I said, I got nothing more to say about it. In my case, I was brutalized and not traumatized. I have seen some terrible things in my life too. Saw a woman hit by a tire iron on the head round back of the Harris Lee Parcus rest stop in Arab, Alabama. Kept right on talking as if nothing happened, as you might always suspected a woman might. Also saw a cat light a man on fire once (on accident). That was something too. I’m now 60 years old and I have finally gotten my life together. I have been married for the last 18 years to a wonderful lady and I am finally now sharing this awful past with her. I have had a lot of problems in my life with booze and relationships. I would never trust anyone, as many of you can relate so well. I have recently rededicated my life to Christ and we have joined a wonderful church (Right Hand Fork United Methodist) and I aim to share this story with some of the congregation directly except many of them (deacons included) seem to be on the sensitive side and don’t much care for hearing about the sins of others in general. I have to think God is using you all and your wonderful gift of writing the stories of abused children to help even older children like me get over the hurt and fear that was beaten into us long ago and I agree what ought to be ought not to be so hard. But as I was saying I wasn’t traumatized personally and think many of the details I have read have been wrong, and others mixed up, but some right. As I get along in life I also forget lots of things regularly, mainly being car keys and spectacles. This is also likely to be the case with others in my experience. You all are getting along in life. But I also have become considerable more easygoing as I’ve gotten older and my philosophy now is that the same rain falls upon the just and also on the unjust (but like the fella said mostly it falls upon the just because the unjust has likely made off with the just’s umbrellas).

I hope this helps some. Anyway, it’s all I got.

 

This is the place I would sign my name regularly if I was to.

P.S. Last thing I want to speak of was the blanket parties we had back then. Do you all remember those? I remember it like it was yesterday. If you don’t that was when the boys would wait till you were asleep and throw a blanket over your head and beat you about it with soap wrapped in a sock. First time, one of the other boys told me which night it was supposed to happen and I sat upright in my bed all night on account of being scared shitless and the party never took place. But it did another night. I’ve never forgot the pain and fear I felt, not being able to see, being hit at that hard. Some nights I wake up thinking I’m back in the dormitory, sweating and crying and so on, and my wife cries too when she sees me carry on like that. If you puked to a father about getting a blanket party you were called a snitch or rat and no one had anything to do with you so no one ever spoke up. But it was done to me and now I’m not even sure some of you wasn’t the boys did it to me, or even me to you, in which case I hope you forgive me, for I forgive you all, and am working on moving on to a place where such memories don’t bother me no more. But I know Mr. Edenfield didn’t know about any of that and if he had I think he’d have made us quit because he was at heart I think not a bad man and not the same as I recognize from my reading in these materials sent and is not a person would have done most of those awful things make me feel sick to my stomach. He wasn’t capable is my thinking and opinion and if he was, well, so was we all.

Robert Smith’s fiction has appeared in U.S. magazines like Gettysburg Review, Fugue, StoryQuarterlyBarrelhouse and Other Voices, and in European magazines like Chapman, Versal, Gutter, Warwick Review and Barcelona Review. He is a previous winner of the Scotsman Orange Short Story Award.