Quilting Will Improve Your Health

Ultimately, our mother was made to realize her error. You would have thought she would have noticed it herself at some point, looking at the boldfaced headline from The Herald News. Quitting was the first word in both the headline and the article, one that she clipped from the paper and affixed by magnet to the refrigerator. “Quitting Will Improve Your Health.” Had she read the article, she would have realized sooner that the whole article was about cigarettes. By the time my sister, Ginger, announced her discovery that the article was all about “quitting”, our mother had already been to the craft store on Route 17 numerous times. A large plastic bag holding “her quilting gear” had, according to our father, “taken up permanent residency” in the dining room, next to the mirrored curio, which contained most of my mother’s rarely used wedding china.

That bag contained colored broadcloth and batting, but that was nothing compared to what had been laid out on the dining room table. These she had categorized, separating the quilting tools, her frames and hoops, a cutting mat, and seam ripper from what she described to us as her quilting notions, the adhesives, quilting clips, and tape measure. And these items hardly amounted to the entirety of her supply of quilting paraphernalia; there was a large basket containing the miscellaneous items, and this she had begun to carry with her from room to room.

“What’s in there, Peg?” our father wanted to know.

“Stuff.”

“Really? Couldn’t figure that one out by myself. What kind of ‘stuff’?”

“Don’t think I don’t know where this is going.” My mother shot him a look of slight disgust. “Like you haven’t been mocking my quilting since I took it up.”

“I just want to know a little about your project,” he demurred.

“It’s not my project. It’s my hobby.”

Curiously, my mother did not remove the news clipping from the refrigerator even after learning of her error. The correct wording was pointed out to her by Ginger, who was at the house to pick up some winter clothes she had left in the attic following the move to her own apartment, an excuse that she called a family visit. Casey, my other sister, was there as well, so that the whole family could serve as Ginger’s rapt audience, her well-manicured nails splayed against the refrigerator while she reviewed the headline.

“I never had a hobby before,” my mother told Ginger and everyone else in the kitchen in response to Ginger’s observation.

“So really, what do I care? As long as it improves my health.”

There was no evidence, at least not in the newspaper article before us in the kitchen that morning, to indicate that quilting actually would improve my mother’s health, but she was making at least a pound of bacon at the time, so that drew most of our attention.

As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room.

I had to wonder about Ginger, who had been alone in the kitchen with my mother for almost an hour but never mentioned the article until the rest of us were there to hear her. Something in her manner suggested to me that it was really Casey she was addressing, when pointing out Mom’s mistake. I should have said something to her on the phone when we spoke later in the week, as we sometimes did in the evening. Ginger was the ideal of an older sister, the one who had successfully moved out. She doled out “healthy” connections to Casey and me in sparing phone calls, so I chose not to mention the timing of her observation.

*         *        *

Because the air conditioning in my car was leaking water and probably other chemicals, I had to borrow my mother’s car the day after Ginger’s visit. It was the car I used when Casey needed a ride to work. My sister who, at age twenty, still did not drive. Casey heaved a bag with apparently more quilting material out of the passenger seat before she got into the car.

“What is this stuff?” she asked. “I thought quilts were like material and cotton stuffing. That was heavy, you know, for just cotton balls.”

“I didn’t look,” I told her as I backed out of the driveway, my head turned over my shoulder so I could avoid the large oak tree whose roots were infringing on the edge of our property.

“I think it’s more of her quilting material. Maybe there’s some notions underneath.” Casey rolled down her window and lit a cigarette, thoughtfully blowing smoke in the direction away from me.

“You don’t mind, do you?” she asked after she had smoked the cigarette three quarters of the way down and flicked the remainder out the window.

Casey is my twin. We are not identical, although we have a stronger resemblance than most sisters. Someone once told my mother that we were a hybrid of sorts, the kind that share an unfertilized egg. The egg splits in half and each is then fertilized separately so only half of our DNA is identical; the DNA of our mother. I looked this up after my mother told me the story and found out the whole thing about the unfertilized egg is just a theory. We don’t really know if it’s true.

So we are not identical twins, but when Casey turned her face forward, just staring at the windshield with nothing to occupy her but the road ahead now that her cigarette was gone, I could swear it was my profile.

“When did you stop wearing a uniform?” I asked, concentrating on the navy sweater she had matched with pale blue pants, a sweater that was mine. I had last seen the sweater cleaned and folded neatly in my drawer.

“I do medical billing.”

“You always wore a uniform, even when you worked for Dr. Margulies,” I told her.

“That was a small office. I sat at the front desk with the nurse.”

Casey had left Dr. Margulies’ office three months earlier when she didn’t even have another job. “Because it was boooring,” she had told us. Now she was working at Rutherford Pediatrics, located in the Medical Arts Building on Berkery Avenue. She had been there for less than two weeks. This was the first time I had seen her in non-uniform attire. My sweater was stretching uncomfortably over the folds of skin that draped the waistband of Casey’s pants. Casey did not even pretend to diet, the way some people do. I turned onto the one-way street that led to the parking lot.

“Let me off here,” Casey said quickly. “I like to get coffee from Jerry’s.” She leapt out, slamming the passenger door.

I sat for a while in the car next to the convenience store, which offered better coffee than the “swill” that was brewed in the back office space of Rutherford Pediatrics. I wanted to catch Casey buying the packaged baked goods that I knew she was stockpiling. I sat watching nothing at all pass by out the window. Customers parked and walked into Jerry’s Minit Stop, one after the other. They all came in different cars and trucks, except the last two who worked for the same refrigeration repair service. The men held the door for each other. There was still no sign of Casey even after several of the men I observed walking in had come out minutes later holding cardboard cups of coffee and matching logoed paper bags. I called my mother to see if she needed the bag that Casey had thrown into the back of the car, deciding not to wonder what Casey was doing in the Minit Stop. Not caring if she ate an entire box of cinnamon frosted donuts while pretending to peruse the magazine rack, as she had once been caught doing when Ginger had agreed to drive her home from Dr. Margulies.

When my mother answered the home phone, I explained in detail the items we had found in the rear of her car.

“That’s just some extra cotton, dear.”

“You don’t need it for your quilt?”

“Not now. You can just leave it in the car.”

That was the first feeling that my mother was hoarding her quilting material. Purchasing quantities beyond her ability to stitch her squares together. Spending money on cotton fluff and gold lacing that she did not want my father to know about. I moved the plastic bags from Marcia’s Crafting Attic to the trunk of the car when I got to my part-time job at Healy Dry Cleaning. The bag would be there for my mother to find, should she need the materials, which I began to doubt that she would. I had left while Casey was still in the convenience store and tried not to wonder about that.

My mother had begun a pattern entitled “Crossroads,” she told us over dinner.

“It took me a while to think about which quilt I should start with.” She lifted the lid off the butter substitute that she spread over a roll she had peeled open.

“I almost did “Monkey Wrench” because, to tell you the truth, it’s a pretty pattern. I just couldn’t get past the name, Monkey Wrench.” She balanced her grease-smeared knife on the edge of her plate. “Monkey Wrench. The woman at Marcia’s told me it’s an all-time favorite, but in the end, I just couldn’t go for it.”

Casey eventually picked up the thread of conversation that my mother had left hanging for us to gather.

“I’m sure that Crossroads will come out fine.”

“Well, I just want to do some justice to the pattern,” my mother announced.

“Justice?” Even my father could not ignore that clue.

“The woman, …Bonnie,” my mother began, turning her attention away from the remains of her second roll, “is a member of the American Quilter’s Society. And she says that it makes a wonderful story, even if no one can actually prove it.”

“Are we still talking about quilts?” Casey asked.

“There is evidence,” my mother informed us with as much authority as she could infuse into her voice, “that quilt patterns, such as Crossroads and Monkey Wrench, were part of a code.”

We thought that she had paused for dramatic effect, maybe she wanted us to pull the information from her, as she teased us along. Her attention was focused on a portion of string bean casserole on her plate until one of us interrupted her gaze.

“Code.” Casey used her facial expression to make this a question.

“In the underground railroad. Quilts were used as codes, hung on a line, left on a fence, so that the escapees would get information they needed.”

“Information? From a quilt? What kind of information are we talking about, here?” my father asked.

A long sniff emerged from my mother.

“The kind of information that an escapee would need when they were making an escape.” After her triumphant reply, she repeated several times that, as Bonnie had mentioned, it was a wonderful story.

The structure of the Crossroads quilt occupied my mother. Its construction, its supposed meaning. Left, in various stages of completion in our family room, it occupied all of us as well, mostly because we were constantly moving bags of material from couches, the passenger seat of my mother’s car, anywhere a plastic bag full of batting could possibly be set down. As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room. All that remained was for my mother to actually complete the quilt.

*         *        *

And while she continued to speak often about the Crossroads pattern and its specialness, my mother never told us the quilt’s secret meaning. It was my guess that she did not know. That remained curious to me. During a break from class, I wandered into the computer room of the library. The equipment was not intended for personal use, there were warning stickers on every computer. But most of the staff at Ramapo Community College was tolerant, as long as you were discrete. I sat at a terminal and typed in “quilt codes.” After scrolling through various websites, I was led to a page with eight distinct patterns, the illustrations depicted in black and white. There they were. Monkey Wrench and Crossroads. There were others as well. Log Cabin, Bowties, Flying Geese, Drunkard’s Path, North Star, and Tumbling Blocks. Each had its own paragraph in justified text. The secret codes revealed. Crossroads, a block pattern quilt, spoke of travel. Travel onward to Cleveland, Ohio! Cleveland having been the crossroad of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the “secret codes” were not very secretive at all, although Bowtie was said to have meant “choose a disguise.” There were instructions on how and when to leave. And what to do once on your way. Particulars, like follow the birds north to Canada (Flying Geese). Or go “zigzag” (Drunkard’s Path). Of all the coded meanings, my mother had chosen Crossroads, often described as simple, a “quick block pattern. No doubt that simplicity figured most into her decision.

I swiped my student ID and printed out the page with the eight quilts and their secret codes. I printed the page and placed it in my binder even though I had seen other websites claiming there was no proof from oral history or otherwise that the quilts were used as codes along the route of the Underground Railroad. Many claimed that some of the quilt patterns had not been designed until the early Twentieth Century.

*         *        *

Another of Ginger’s phone calls came when no one else was home. She must have planned it that way.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

When I asked Ginger how things were going for her, she began to speak rapidly. I held the phone slightly away from my ear, thinking how much better my room would look with lavender walls. Changing the color of my room was something I had been considering for a while. That, and moving out entirely. All of the books on my desk would have to be cleared off and boxed so I could store them in the basement. If the choice were painting my room.

“She needs to stay away from the carbs!” Ginger was yelling into the phone. “Are you listening to me? What are you keeping in the house? Doughnuts? Is that what they’re eating?”

“I don’t, I mean, I’m not sure. Doughnuts?”

“Yes. You’re the one that can talk some sense into them. I’m not there and Dad, he’s, I mean, really. Do you think he gives any thought to carbs?”

“Okay.” I answered. She barked a list of approved fruits and vegetables into the phone, demanded to know whether I was writing all of her instructions down. Ginger was good at giving advice, letting us know exactly what she thought. I had a harder time of it. Casey would see my weakness, ignore my best efforts to keep her off doughnuts.

It was Casey, after all, who was stronger than I was. She was the sister I admired most when we were younger. Not Ginger, to her immense disappointment, although she did not have to wait long to reclaim her rightful spot as older sister, as the boss of the family. As the boss of me. But for a brief moment, it was Casey who I adored. Casey, with her blonde, confident wedge haircut, the one that I copied shamelessly. Her bold stance as catcher on our softball team. Casey could hit the ball, could throw it. She could do everything. At night, we would talk, as sisters do, going over the days events, what we thought of our neighbors, the Nichols family, the first people we ever knew to get a divorce.

Over time, the conversations would change. At night, Casey would tell secrets to me about the girls in school that she hated, how they were mean to her. How they secretly avoided her in the locker room, rolled their eyes, “accidentally” bumped into her in the hall. When we reached high school, I understood, then I understood, that Casey was not sharing secrets with me. She was telling me all of the reasons to avoid her. All of the reasons I should enroll in drama after school, the student newspaper. Anything except softball with Casey. I began to model myself after Ginger. Taking the time to groom myself. Growing my hair out of the wedge. Like all of the other girls, who wore those long, silky layers.

At some point, a package arrived from The Basket Factory, a local store for shoppers looking for knockoffs of better quality home goods. Inside were four really good-sized baskets with lids. My father opened the cardboard crate with the utility knife he retrieved from the bottom kitchen drawer. It was a dull paring knife we kept only for slicing tape off of deliveries. He left the baskets for my mother in the family room, and when she came home that afternoon, she placed her still-in-progress quilt in one, the plastic bag from Marcia’s Crafting Attic in another. The other baskets were soon filled with Mom’s quilting notions and fluff. They looked good in the family room, the varying shades of rattan soft and unoffending. The baskets were useful as ottomans. No one cared if you put your feet on them while slouching on the plaid couches that formed our conversation circle.

The college library was often noisy and there were only a few carrels. I preferred the family room where I could study on the couch with the new basket/ottomans for my books. On a Wednesday afternoon shortly after the quilt had been put away, I heard the tiny click of the rear door returning to its place against the jamb and looked up, expecting to see my mother, who sometimes came home for lunch. Casey was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. It was almost 1:00 and I was due to pick her up from Rutherford Pediatrics at 5:30.

“Don’t you have work today?” I asked.

Casey had most of a muffin pressed into her mouth.

“Ummm.” She kind of nodded along with that answer.

“Work. I thought you were working today.”

She added a half shrug to the information that she had already provided.

It felt like we might have the exact conversation as when she left Dr. Margulies. At any moment, she might look at me and say, “It was boooring.” Or she might say nothing this time and just leave me with her little shrug. If I were to pursue a better answer. Of course, her means of transportation, how she had wandered home, remained puzzling.

There was not a lot of room to hang out in our house. The spaces were small, our rooms too narrow and confined for us when we were in high school, and we were older now. Young adults encased in bedrooms that barely fit our twin size mattresses. Casey moved a plastic bag filled with shiny ribbons onto the floor and sat across from me. It was, I noticed, the lone bag that had escaped enclosure into the baskets. I also noticed that Casey seemed to have swallowed her muffin. Her speech was much clearer.

“Did you get a flu shot this year?” Casey asked.

I moved my yellow highlighter across a portion of text that explained the cycle of water being absorbed into the atmosphere. I heard a noise coming from Casey’s direction. It sounded like marbles. I used my highlighter to underline another sentence. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air.

“Here,” Casey said. When I looked up her arm was outstretched, a few vials resting on the palm of her open hand.

“What?”

“Flu shots. I got them from the office.”

“They gave those to you? What, I mean . . . why? Why would they give you flu shots like that? Don’t you need a nurse to give you the shot?”

“I’m a technician,” Casey announced.

“Right. I know. Right. But you don’t do that at the office. I mean, you file and stuff like that. Right? You file.”

“So? You don’t need to be a genius to give someone a flu shot.”

Casey looked around. The lid was off one of the baskets, revealing the partially constructed quilt that our mother was producing, the pattern that may or may not have once told an important story. “You want one?” she asked.

“No thanks. I got one at the pharmacy. They started giving them in the back near the reading glasses around October.”

“Oh.”

I would have to remember to go to the pharmacy and get my flu shot there, something I had been meaning to do for a while. That was preferable, not having to tell Casey what to do with her flu shots, that she was only a barely competent technician who just made her way through six months of training. We had that conversation once before, when she was in school, at a time when I could not leave her failure alone. Casey was missing her classes, leaving books that had their bindings perfectly intact in the kitchen, not doing any of the assignments. One afternoon, I just had to tell her.

“You never read these. It’s so obvious. Look at this book. It’s never been opened.”

I picked up the book and opened the cover, a stiff movement of paper.

“How do you know what I do? And why do you care?”

“You’re going to get thrown out of that school, you know that? Thrown out.”

“They don’t do that when you’re paying, you know. They never throw you out of school when you pay them.”

“Really? I think they do. When you don’t show up, when you don’t do any of the work, I think they do.”

And it was because she looked so much like me, her cheeks the same as the ones that I brushed with pink bronzer, it was because of those cheekbones that I choked on those words. But apparently she had been right because she had earned her technician’s degree and now here she was with a handful of flu shots and most likely syringes as well.

She was wearing sweatpants and a matching long sleeve tee shirt. Her office attire. Perhaps there were other drugs that she stole from her new office, from Dr. Margulies as well. Maybe that was why she left his office, before she even had another job. Most people took pain killers, things that you wanted but could not get for yourself easily, things that you could sell. Casey took flu shots and wanted to administer them to her family. Would my parents let her? I could picture my mother, holding the little vials close to her face, her eyes squinting behind her glasses. They could be tucked away with the mounds of quilting material, just disappear and Casey would never get into trouble for stealing them. Lost among the notions and the barely remembered tape measure.

Here is the thing about the quilts and their secret meanings. We used to see drinks listed on the placemats at Valley Forge Restaurant with names that hinted at more. Those names, Singapore Sling, Sloe Gin Fizz, Caribbean Rum Punch, suggested dark mystique. Nothing unfathomable, nothing beguiling existed in names like Bowtie or Log Cabin. But if you did your own research, found out a little more on your own, then it all came out. Beyond the quilts, beyond the small paragraphs and their meager information. Then it all flew right at you.

The code name for Cleveland was Hope. There, on Lake Erie’s shore, someone might reach Hope. That was the message of the Crossroads quilt. Nearing the end of a long journey, with Port Stanley, Ontario just across the water. Port Stanley. Code name “God be Praised!” Surrounded by dark woods, no one to trust but some quilts that may or may not have been imbedded with secrets that you had to rely on. Secrets coming from total strangers whom you had been told to trust like the family you never really had. Around you is a kind of darkness no one has ever seen before and now you are alone and in danger and desperate for the North Star. True North. The truest star in the night sky. The quilt told you one thing, inspired and encouraged you at the start of the journey but how could you trust everything that they told you. How did they know? This is what you would wonder, about the Crossroads quilt, whether its message was real.

And then the faintest sound of water. So tiny a sound at first that you might think it was just a soft rain getting ready to fall a little harder. But the water is rushing, you hear it now as a river now that you are nearer. It starts to smell of cardinal flower and swamp rose mallow and dampness itself and everything wet and cold but it is Lake Erie and you rush forward, as fast as the river. Maybe faster. It’s there across the water. Port Stanley. Waiting for you to cross. God be Praised!

Imagine that.

Or imagine our home that afternoon. Surrounded by our mother’s new baskets and never-to-be finished quilt, snoring in an easy chair on a Wednesday afternoon, there was my sister, my twin. The ugly plaid of the family room, the ottomans, none of it large enough for all the misplaced strips of gold quilting, the more often than not flawed stitches, nothing to make all of the flaws and imperfections disappear, or at least unknowable. How I longed to not look at her. Or maybe just once to see her differently. With long, silky layers of blonde hair.

*         *        *

Melanie AnagnosMelanie Anagnos is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and the current nonfiction editor of LUMINA. She was awarded the Kathryn Gurfein Writing Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence for her short fiction. Her work has appeared online and in Ozone Park Journal. Melanie lives with her husband and two children in Haworth, New Jersey and is completing a collection of linked stories.

Hand Job

It is Linda’s first night home after a four-day sales trip that takes her from Connecticut to Maine and back home again to Connecticut. She goes out on the road every other week. On the first night home after one of her trips we stay home, order in, get wrecked and do sex—mostly in that order. Tomorrow we will go out alone for dinner and on the third night we usually get together with friends. Somewhere in this scenario is at least one argument. Linda and I can argue over how the other says hello.

She sells specialty stuffed bears—mostly to card and gift shops in hospitals. Bears are still number one in the stuffed animal world. The company she works for is called, Physically Imbeared. It specializes in stuffed animals that are impaired in one way or another. She says that it’s a great niche market for kids with physical limitations. For example, her biggest seller is Bear With Glasses. The animals can be ordered with any of the following: glasses, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, wheel chairs, iron lungs, walkers, or the biggie which is Bear In The Bubble.

I take the night off from my bar and hope that my manager doesn’t become my partner. She’s new, been with me only three weeks, so I chance she won’t start stealing yet.

We are in the Jacuzzi eating Chinese. Linda is having the only thing she ever orders—a Number Three. That’s a combination egg roll, pork fried rice, and sweet and sour chicken. She still won’t even taste anything else after six years of my trying to broaden her food horizons. I guess it shouldn’t, but this angers me. There’s a series of things that Linda does to anger me. This is one and she knows it. Won’t even take a taste of something different. Never does. I don’t understand her lack of curiosity. I’m having one of their specials—Wonderful scallops in most delicious and unusual surprise spicy sauce with lichees.

Linda is looking at her hands, holding them out in front of her, turning palm up, palm down—sometimes empty handed or with whatever she has in her hand at the moment—chopsticks, a joint, a bar of soap, the carton of white rice. She’s been doing this since she got home. It’s another one of her habits that angers me. Instead of coming out directly with what she wants to say or discuss, Linda would rather put me through the torture of twenty questions. I’d like to start my own line of bears and call them Emotionally Imbeared.

I sit in the tub and look at her, the heart-shaped face and high forehead that I always found attractive, and still do. She changes hairstyles often, but not color. Tonight her hair is hanging straight—almost to her shoulders and she has wisps of bangs splayed across her forehead.

I’m not going to ask her what she’s doing because I know it’s driving her crazier that I’m not asking. I’m just hoping for a fortune cookie that will let me segue into an argument that will lead to her moving out of my house and back to her apartment in the next few weeks—by Thanksgiving. She’s got to be out before the Christmas season begins. I have to make the argument seem real—not contrived. That’s for my benefit. She knows it’s going to happen—she expects it, but I just can’t come right out and tell her the real reason. It would be cruel and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. The less said the better.

“Did you ever notice my hands?” she finally asks in a tone as if the thought just entered her mind. “I have hand model hands.”

“No kidding,” I say. “What does that mean?”

“It means that I have very special hands—thin and well proportioned—the kind of hands that hand models have.”

“Oh?”

“I can make a living modeling my hands,” she says proudly.

“Someone will pay you to show them your hands?” I ask.

She gives me her look. “It’s not only the hands, it’s what they are holding and how you use them. See what I mean?” she asks, showing me her hands as she holds the egg roll in her wet left palm and points to it in a showy way with her right pointer finger. “I have the right shape hands and the long thin fingers that are in demand,” Linda says, sounding like a pitchman for the Acme Hand Models School.

“Did you ever notice my hands?” she finally asks in a tone as if the thought just entered her mind. “I have hand model hands.”

“Pass me the egg roll,” I say, “and let me try.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “You don’t have hand model hands.”

“If you have them, I want them too.”

“Your fingers are too wrinkled and short and you also have scars on your hands.”

“So?”

“So, you can go to all the modeling agencies in the world and you’ll never get a hand job unless they happen to need someone with wrinkled, short, scarred fingers.”

“Where do you fit in this world of hand jobs?” I ask.

“I fit in well, thank you—and I just happen to have an appointment with a photographer who specializes in models to do a hand portfolio for me this week.” Linda says.

“How do you pay him? With money or a hand job?”

“Maybe both. Everything’s a joke with you,” Linda says. “For your information I was told by an agent who represents people in commercials that I have perfect hands. Can you imagine making big money just because you have perfect hands? I can give up the bears and stop traveling by car. Models travel first class.”

“Where did you meet this agent?” I ask suspiciously.

“What difference does it make? I met him.”

“Was it in a bar?” I ask.

“Yes,” Linda says. “As a matter of fact it was the hotel bar in Newport.”

“You sound as if there is an ‘and’ coming,” I say.

“There is no ‘and’ coming,” she says.

“Really?”

“It’s no big deal. We both had business in Boston the next night and met for dinner. We discussed my hands and he told me the benefits of having an agent.”

“Let me guess,” I say. “He offered to be your agent.”

“Yes, he did.”

“That kind of says it all,” I say, recognizing an opening when I hear one. I get out of the Jacuzzi, “I can’t trust you on these trips. I always knew it.” I wrap the towel around my waist. “I won’t fuck you again without a health note,” I tell her.

“That’s why I don’t tell you everything. You are a sicko and I won’t fuck you even if you have a note from your mother.” Linda turns on the loud Jacuzzi jets to end the conversation.

While lying in bed reading and waiting for her, condom on the nightstand, Linda walks in dressed and says, “What’s the big rush this year? I was planning to move but it’s not even close to Thanksgiving. You’re getting to be like Hallmark—moving the season up a little earlier each year.”  She walks out and I hear her car drive off.

She’s right. It is earlier than usual. It’s only the beginning of November and I usually start “the argument” right before Thanksgiving.

This has gone on for most of the seven years we’ve been together. It was our third year together when Linda moved in and we stayed together right through the holidays. I swore never again. It was the Christmas tree. I grew up with menorahs and latkes in December, not a dead tree with tsatskes and flickering annoying lights dominating the living room.

I didn’t know how to tell Linda that I couldn’t deal with Christmas in my house. No more trees and the best way to have no more trees was to have no more Linda. I was marking time with her, I would never marry her but I was too much of a coward to tell her.

All those years ago, with her husband away on business, when we first made love, Linda asked me—right out—then and there—if her not being Jewish mattered to me. Not having thought about it before and not wanting to lose the moment I told her, “No, of course not.” As I said it I realized that it did matter and during all these years I never corrected myself, and she never brought it up again. Linda used that brief exchange as an excuse to get out of a bad marriage. She hung in with me for her own reasons. Love? In all of our years together, sober or stoned, in bed or out, neither of us used the word or was courageous enough to chance the question.

Over the years when she moved back into her apartment I would drive by nightly until I saw the lit tree and then I’d call her. I’d buy her Christmas presents, apologize, and court her again. We’d end up spending New Year’s together and then sometime before Valentine’s Day Linda would move back in. Some might call this a sick relationship, but it’s no different than the games that married people play for far longer periods of time. I knew Linda wanted to get married. She never spoke about it and I certainly never brought up the subject. The real problem was comfort. We became comfortable in this scene and before we realized it seven years had passed. I wanted to get married too, but not to Linda. The trouble was that wishing wasn’t going to find me a new mate—action was—but wishing was easier. I’m sure she thought the same.

I keep driving past Linda’s house and never see any signs of life much less a Christmas tree in her window. One of her girlfriends tells me that she went to stay with her parents in Florida for the holidays.

I overhear Candy, one of my waitresses, telling the bartender that her husband is away on a business trip until after Christmas. She is happily married but not adverse to a little adventure now and then. I wait for an opening and then I offer to take her to Bermuda over Christmas. She is silent for a minute. Finally she gets off the stool, says, “Wait,” and walks over to talk to the bartender. On her way back he gives me a look that says, “I’m going to steal double while you’re gone for moving in on me.”

“You’re on,” she says. She tells me she’s excited about the trip. I’m excited about Candy. She has the girl next-door looks with a dazzling smile. Her hair is short and brown and I’m enamored with her rich, full lips.

Bermuda is better than either of us expected. As the plane is taxiing for takeoff she whispers in my ear that she’s so nervous she forgot to pack or wear any underwear. I look at her. Candy’s dazzling smile sets the tone. The beaches are great, the lovemaking better and, for the most part, I put Linda out of my mind. Candy and I arrive home on the twenty-seventh with neither making promises to the other. We shared a great few days with lots of laughter and gossip and we both know that it may or may not happen again. “Merry Christmas,” I say as I drop her off at her car. “Back to you, big guy.”

Pulling up to my house after dropping Candy off I’m floored. It’s decorated. There are Christmas lights in trees and around the door; an illuminated Santa stands defiantly on my roof. Inside, I find the decorated Christmas tree. I feel uncomfortable in my own house. The strong smell of pine adds to my discomfort. There’s a box under the tree wrapped in Christmas paper. Linda knows I don’t like getting gifts wrapped in Christmas paper. It’s another thing she does that angers me.

I pick up the box to open it and all of a sudden realize that I’m in a lit-up house and thoughts of my friends driving by gives me a panic attack. Rushing to the bathroom, I grab an anti-anxiety pill from the medicine cabinet and then run outside to turn off the lights. I yank on Santa’s extension cord so hard he comes crashing down into my bushes—but at least he’s no longer glowing. Running from tree to tree I manage to get all the lights out and decide that I’ll work on removal in the morning. The blinking lights around my door surrounding the mezuzah are the final straw. I yank the cords and smash the bulbs. Spent, I sit on my stoop and then it dawns on me that one of my neighbors might come by and say something. I dash inside and pick up the phone—but I’m not sure who to call or what to say.

Sitting on the floor, facing the darkened Christmas tree I rip open the box. Inside is a framed section of the local newspaper showing an ad for menorahs. The ad shows a very beautiful silver menorah resting on a glass table. It has a full complement of new unlit candles. There is one hand gently holding it on the side and the other hand is pointing at it. I recognize those long skinny fingers and their position. It’s the same way Linda pointed to the egg roll in the tub. She really does have hand model hands. I flash back to an earlier memory—one of our sitting in a restaurant and I’m looking down at her hands resting on top of mine while we talk. I nostalgically remember how good those hands made me feel—their lightness and their warmth.

Paul BeckmanPaul Beckman has had over two hundred stories published in print and online in the following magazines, amongst others: Connecticut Review, Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, PANK, Literary Orphans, Blue Fifth Review, Flash Frontier, Metazen, Boston Literary Magazine and The Brooklyner. He’s had a novella and three collections published, the newest, Peek, by Big Table Publishing in February of this year. His published story website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com.

 

Full of Foxes

Summer jobs are supposed to be fun. Earn a little money to help save up for a car or maybe college. There’s a whole bunch of movies about the people working for carnivals or as life guards. Even if they’re miserable, they still have adventures and get to make out a little bit.

I work at the Milwaukee County zoo. Next to the elephants. And I’ll be honest, there is nothing romantic or adventurous about standing next to elephants all day. They smell, they’re loud, and nobody cool ever wants to hang out around them. I wear a stupid uniform and a little plastic name tag: Carlos. The money I make doesn’t go into some fancy savings account. It helps keep the lights on and food on the table. I don’t even have a cool job like feeding the animals or helping with demonstrations. I sell ice cream from a cart at the corner of the exhibit.

Early morning is bad for ice cream sales. Parents like to save it for an after lunch or going home treat, so I spend most mornings on my phone, tucking it away before a supervisor can see me. It’s against park policy to be on a phone at work, but everybody does it.

I’ve checked the weather, my email, and texted David about six times already this morning. He hasn’t answered. It’s not a big deal, though, because his job is pretty important and I’m just bored. Other than the group of Girl Scouts that came by earlier, it’s been quiet.

Off to the side, there’s a movement that catches my attention. I see this funny line of little ducklings charging along the sidewalk, like they’ve got somewhere to be, and behind them, David. Like most of the zoo staff, I look ridiculous in my uniform: unflattering colors against my awkward teenage limbs. I’m too tall for the shorts to look good and too narrow in the shoulders for the shirt to sit right. David, though, looks like he’s just stepped out of a jungle and onto a TV set, all tan arms and legs, his dark hair pulled back and glossy in the sun. Even at a distance, his light blue eyes make my mouth dry. I grab a handful of crushed peanuts from the cart and throw them in the path of the ducklings so they’ll stop.

“Hey,” I say as David catches up.

He’s taller than me, with permanent dimples I want to press my fingers into while I hold his face. “You shouldn’t feed them.”

All I can think about is David standing over the ducklings. He’d been so protective of them, watching out for dangers, keeping them safe. But it’s a lie, he’s not trying to protect anything, he’s a predator.

I shrug and try not to feel like I’m one of the kids in his exhibit that he’s just scolded. I met David because I needed a tutor for physics. Mom couldn’t afford to hire somebody, but he got extra credit in another class to help out. He was nice when he wasn’t around his soccer friends and he said I made him laugh. We got close as the school year ended but since summer started, it’s like we’re not even dating.

Not that we are. Dating, I mean. Not really. We hang out and we’ve messed around a few times when his parents weren’t home, but it’s not like we hold hands in public or he tells his friends he’s going to spend the weekend with his boyfriend. Mom thinks he’s keeping me a secret, but that doesn’t make any sense because the whole school knows he’s gay. He says he just wants to keep me to himself, and I don’t mind.

“Did you get my text?” He might have missed it. He’s real particular about following the park rules.

The ducklings aren’t going anywhere until they’ve eaten every last peanut, so he clips his walkie back on his belt and crosses his arms. “Yeah, about that—”

“Cause I thought we could do something Saturday since we’re off.” It’s not cute to stalk the employee schedule, but he forgot to text me his hours for the weekend. “If I don’t make plans now, my dad will try and drag me out across the state to see the world’s biggest penny or some shit.” Dad’s trying to make up for lost time, I guess, from when he wasn’t around when I was little and mom says I should let him.

He picks these weird trips for the two of us, the windows rolled down in his truck because the air busted three years ago and he’s never gotten it fixed. We’re supposed to be building memories, I think. Of something other than sitting around his trailer watching reruns.

David won’t meet my eyes. I move a little so the sun isn’t directly behind me, but he’s still shifting his gaze between the ducklings and looking over at the elephants. “Maybe you should. You don’t get to see him that much.”

“I get to see you less.” I swallow against the tight feeling in my throat. He won’t look at me, he didn’t smile when he saw me, the way he’d smiled when we crossed paths at work before. Every time I edge a little closer to him, just to draw in the scent of his woodsy cologne, he leans back or waves off an imaginary fly.

It seems like he’s going to say something, so I lean in. But the lead duckling picks up the last peanut and then darts off like he’s late for an appointment. The rest of the ducklings follow their leader and David steps away, breaking the last illusion of intimacy between us. “Sorry. I have to go. They got separated from their mom and we’ve been trying to get them back all morning.”

He walks off, following the birds, his shoulders back and his posture perfectly aligned as I hunch in on myself. Something’s not right, but I can’t tell what it is. David didn’t even answer me about Saturday. I wish there was a way for me to wait for him at his car after the end of my shift, but he usually leaves before me. I don’t start until the park opens and he’s here an hour or two before. I pull out my phone and send him a text to call me when he’s done, even though I can still see the shape of his broad shoulders in the distance. I think his head dips and I tell myself he’s smiling at my message.

The sun’s creeping up, so I duck back under the cheerful striped umbrella that does a terrible job of keeping me cool. An older man comes up to my cart, though his attention is on the same outline of David and the ducks. He’s in slacks and a tie, like he’s on break from a meeting, a little girl with pristine blond hair at his side.

There’s a faint smile on his face when he finally turns away from the ducklings. “Hi,” he looks at my name tag, “Carlos.” I hate it when they do that. “Could we have two vanilla cones, please?” He speaks slowly, like because I’ve got brown skin and look more like my Chippewa mom than my white dad I won’t understand him.

“I want sprinkles.” The little girl doesn’t look at me, but to be fair, she doesn’t look at him either.

I start to pour the cones from the soft serve machine. “Sorry, we don’t have sprinkles.”

She turns to me. I’ve got her attention now. “But I want them.”

“I could add peanuts.” She shakes her head and I hand over the cones. “That’ll be eight dollars, please.” I expect some kind of comment about how expensive it is, but the guy just hands over a twenty like it’s nothing, doesn’t even bother checking the change when I hand it back.

In my back pocket, I feel the quiet vibration of my phone. I bet it’s David. I can’t wait to get rid of this guy so I can check. David’s probably sorry for how little time he got to stay. I understand. Keeping after the ducks is part of his job.

The guy starts to wander off, headed to the elephants, or maybe the giraffes, but the girl lingers by my stand. She takes a slow lick of the cone and sneers at me. I’ve never seen a nine year old sneer like that before, and I’ve got, like, a million cousins. “You should really have sprinkles.”

I shrug. “Okay.”

“Who was that boy?”

I look down at her, then off after the missing space of David. “He’s a friend.”

She grins and it might be a sweet look on some other kid, but on her it’s wicked. “Are you dating? Is he your boyfriend?” Her voice takes on a sing-song quality, high pitched enough to draw attention. “He didn’t seem very interested in you.”

The guy gets a little farther away and doesn’t seem to notice that she’s not with him. “You should go keep up with your dad. You don’t want to get lost.” I try to shake her words off, shooing her in his direction.

“Oh, he’s not my dad.” She takes one more lick of the cone, then dumps the half-eaten thing in the trash. “He’s my mom’s assistant. He’s supposed to keep me busy while she has an affair with our gardener.”

Jesus. I don’t know what to say, but she doesn’t seem to expect an answer, just curls her lip at me and wanders away. How hard must it be to know that kind of thing? I’d probably try to pick fights with strangers, too. Better not to have parents together at all, like mine, than to see them break up when you’re still young enough that juice boxes are a highlight of your day.

Once she’s gone I check my phone, the happy face at the top of my screen lets me know I have a text and I smile back in response. I open the message. The smile is a lie. Instead of an apology, David’s message is brutal. I don’t want to see you anymore.

No one’s waiting for ice cream, and even if there was, I don’t think I would care. I take two steps away and dial his number. It goes right to voice mail, so I hang up and try again. After the fifth time, he answers. “I’m working, Carlos,” he hisses. His voice is echoey, like he stepped into a bathroom, maybe.

“What do you mean?” I stutter over my words, my tongue thick and caught on my teeth.

“I was pretty clear. I’m sorry if you’re hurt, but I thought you understood when I saw you earlier. It’s just,” he pauses and I can hear him suck in a deep breath. “This year is going to be a big year for me. Scotty Harmon got a full ride last year and coach says I’m a better player, easy. I can’t have,” he stops again and I want to see him so badly I start to walk toward the bird sanctuary, “distractions.”

I remember his flushed face, tucked against my neck. “I thought you liked my distractions.” I hate how young my own voice is in my ears, how far away he sounds. I’m gripping my phone so tight that it’s slippery in my sweating palm. If it crashed to the ground, at least the conversation would be over.

“You’ll understand when it’s your senior year.”

I breathe into the phone, unable to speak. All I can think about is David standing over the ducklings. He’d been so protective of them, watching out for dangers, keeping them safe. But it’s a lie, he’s not trying to protect anything, he’s a predator. I want to warn the little leader, to scoop up his soft, warm body and hold it close to my chest. Watch out little duck, the world is full of foxes.

“I have to go back to work. And you shouldn’t be on your phone in the park.” He hangs up and it takes all of my strength not to hurl the phone into the elephant enclosure where they could stomp it to pieces. Sweat is falling off of me and the sun feels like it’s going to set me on fire.

I want to go home. Mom won’t be there for hours and I can sit in my room with the music as loud as I want, no matter how hard Mr. Henderson bangs on the wall. I need the soft edges of my blankets, the rounded corners of my windowsill, and space to breathe. The precisely placed sidewalks and manicured lawns of the park are too sharp against my eyes. But we need the money. I can’t just walk out. I can’t.

The only reason I took this job, twelve miles away eating up time and gas, was so I could be close to David. I could have worked at the Pick ‘n Save in my neighborhood instead of coming all the way out here every day. The cart mocks me, standing empty, waiting for me to slink back over and take my place. I’ve never walked out of a job before and the thought of it makes me sick. My hands are shaking at just the thought, but I can’t make myself do it. David is friends with everyone in the park and he’ll know that he made me leave.

I don’t understand what happened. Is there someone else? I bet it’s one of his teammates; he and Amir are always together. David ditched me more than once to hang out with Amir, but he said it was for soccer.

One of the elephants trumpet. Informational tours come by sometimes and if there are little kids in the group, they always talk about how smart the elephants are. How long their memories last. Elephants who spent a day together can remember each other after twenty years. Twenty years from now, would they still remember my humiliation?

I pace back to my spot because I can’t make myself leave. But I can’t stand still so I roam around the edges of the cart, my breath high and short and hands shaking for almost half an hour. I torture myself by reading his last text, butted right up against others: I had a good time, ur funny, send me another pic.

I take a picture of my middle finger, but I don’t send it.

A little while later, just before families start coming by for their afternoon treats, I see the little girl wander back by, only now she’s got a balloon tied to her wrist and a cuddly monkey wrapped in her arms. The price of her silence, I guess. I feel almost bad for her until she slides up to my cart.

She looks me over, the way people with money look at cashiers in grocery stores. How did she learn that look so young? “They’re laughing about you, you know. Over in the bird sanctuary.” She pouts a fake lip at me. “Poor Carlos.”

I shake my head and look around for the guy she was with, desperate for him to take her away. “No, they’re not.”

“We followed them all the way back to the birds. That boy you were talking to said he doesn’t know why you won’t leave him alone.”

He wanted me. I know he did. It couldn’t all have been a lie. “What else did he say?”

Her eyes light up the way a normal kid would for ice cream. “I shouldn’t tell you. It’s not very nice.”

I want to play it cool and not get taken in by a kid seven years younger than me, but if David won’t talk to me, I want to know what he said. “I don’t care.”

“He said you were—“ Her mom’s assistant calls her away before she can finish. She doesn’t hesitate to run after him and I’m left with nothing. She probably did it on purpose. I bet she thinks it’s funny.

All the anger comes flashing right back at me, and I’m shaking again. Of course he’s talking about me to his friends; he worked at the park for three summers and I’ve only been around a couple of weeks. Of course they’ll take his side. I didn’t need that little girl to tell me what David said, I could imagine it well enough on my own. I turn, like I can see through the trees and exhibits and see right to where David is standing. He’s probably laughing right now.

“Hey!” A guy is standing at my cart; I don’t remember him coming up. He’s got money clutched in his hand while his kid bounces around his legs. “I said I want two cones.”

How does this guy not know? How is it possible that there are any people in the world who can look at me and not see the way David ate through my heart? My chest hurts and I wonder if I’m too young to have a heart attack.

I take a step back, out from under the useless umbrella. The surprise on the guy’s face is pleasant, but it’s not enough. He’s still just seeing the uniform, the way my dad sees lost opportunities, the way David only ever saw a diversion. I place my hands on the side of the cart. The metal is hot under my fingertips and I can see the guy move away, clutching at his wife and kid. I might not be as built as David, but the cart is cheap. First it wobbles, then tips with surprising ease as I shove against it. The ice cream spills out in lazy, looping swirls. Behind me, the little family starts shouting.

The dad waves his hands at me. He sees me now. “What the hell are you’re doing?”

It’s the question of the day. What am I doing? I try not to think about David on the other side of the park with his cluster of friends, of the paycheck that will be half as much when it comes through next week, of how hard it’s going to be to replace this job already halfway through the summer. But I can’t stand here another second and pretend everything is all right.

I open my mouth to respond. If I was in that summer job movie, I’d know what to say, but all my words get stuck in my throat. Instead, I rip off my name tag and throw it on the ground. My car is waiting in the parking lot and I have a long drive home.

Keely CuttsKeely Cutts holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and has work published in Jersey Devil Press, Crack the Spine, Front Porch Review, and Inaccurate Realities. Originally from Florida, she now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her wife and two terrible cats.

The Parable of Nick Burns

Nick Burns died a gruesome death, and when they found him he looked almost serene, seated such as he was in his beloved, careworn La-Z-Boy with his hands folded over his round belly. There was tea on the stovetop, more than enough for a man living alone. Both of his companionable blue eyes were gone, each extinguished by a single, deliberate bullet, his tongue, a source of comfort and understanding to so many of us, removed and pinned carefully through the breast of his crisply starched black shirt, speared by a toothpick, displayed pointedly over his stilled heart. And still he was at peace, as though without changing his church clothes he’d brewed that black tea beneath the lazy hum of the oscillating fan in the kitchen, waiting quite patiently for death to rap lightly on the door of his unassuming one-bedroom apartment, at last settling comfortably in his nearly bare living room and greeting his visitor with a weary yet hospitable smile that lingered still. A stained poplar crucifix standing sentry cried wooden tears; a faded replica fresco, St. Paul, looked down and away; a dog-eared TV Guide three months old lay askew on the otherwise bare coffee table.

The men who knocked on Nick’s door were never found. Four people saw them that day, to my knowledge. Three of us lived, and we lived in silence. Cal’s father made sure of that, for all our pleas otherwise. It had to be that way, probably—men like that have a way of coming back. Those faces have occupied my thoughts for the better part of these twenty years, and I know they’ve remained with Cal, even changed his life, perhaps. I can’t say he wouldn’t have gone into the church. I can’t claim to know for certain that the natural progression of his life wouldn’t have led him there. But the respectable clergyman, when that day plodded into that afternoon, was an irreverent, arrogant, foul-mouthed boy, kicking a bottle in an alley and cursing his luck for being born so bored and unimportant.

The men who knocked on Nick’s door were never found. Four people saw them that day, to my knowledge. Three of us lived, and we lived in silence.

“Didn’t break it, did I?”

“Not yet,” I rejoined. “You got lucky.”

The tea-shade bottle fishtailed on its invisible glass axis, narrowly skirting a large rusty trash bin. I pushed my bangs from my eyes and cringed.

“Watch it!”

Cal rolled his eyes and gave it a hard kick in my direction. I laughed and leapt aside.

“Damn, just about bagged me a pussy!”

Caleb (Cal, to everyone but his mother) had an inexplicable way of cursing quite casually while at the same time avoiding detection. I cringed and waited.

“Jesus, Akin, come on.”

He was often impatient, and sometimes rightfully so, but I was our acting conscience, and as such, I looked out for trouble while Cal looked for it with his unorthodox vulgarity.

“Fuckin’-a ‘Kin, what’s the problem?”

I shrugged. He really was operating on an encrypted frequency. I aimed a kick, perhaps a little harder than I would have had my thoughts not lingered on his relative freedom from persecution, and I actually whooped when the bottle skidded like a rogue pebble over a choppy black pond and struck him in the shin. He yelped and hopped back, teetering on one leg as he tugged at his pant leg to appraise the carnage. I stopped laughing at once.

“Holy shit,” he said. “You cut me, you red-peckered whore! Jesus God that hurts.”

“Keep it down,” I hissed. “It’s not that bad.”

He lurched toward the bottle, which had trickled to a lethargic, southward necking stop and stooped for it. I backed away.

“Just stop it, Cal. I didn’t mean to cut you.”

“Christ, come look at this.”

“Uh-uh.”

Cal shot a perplexed look my direction.

“Huh? No, not that. Never mind that. Look.” He’d retrieved something from atop the heaping trash. He held it aloft, studying it closely. It was a magazine page, ripped jaggedly along the seam and folded and unfolded so that it went limp in his hands. He grasped firmly the sides and held it taut.

“What is it?” I asked.

He’d forgotten his grievance.

“She’s bare-ass naked, ‘Kin! Holy shit, what dumb redneck threw this out?”

It was a page from a smut book, apparently good enough for some stranger to save for a time, disappointing enough to later discard. To Cal it was gold. Frantically, he stalked back to the trash and upset several oily rags and empty cans.

“Shit. That’s it I guess, but man, Cal. Look at her.”

“That’s rot, Cal. You don’t know who had that thing before.”

Cal’s incredulous appraisal, an expression I know well. “You’re not even gonna look? Shit’s wrong with you, ‘Kin?”

“Fine. Lemme—”

“Boys?”

“Shit,” Cal mouthed, folding the page along the previous admirer’s creases and hiding it away. His father rounded the front corner of the store.

“Hell, what are you doing back here?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Akin, you told your mother about the phone, right? I don’t need to catch hell today.” Without fail, my mother would call the store for me on Wednesday afternoons, for no other reason than to remind me not to forget church, which I never had. The phone in the station had been down since Sunday and Mr. Reed hadn’t bothered to see about it yet. Besides, he assured us drily, Akin’s the only one around here that uses it. “You reassured her, I expect?”

“Yes sir, I reminded her and told her I wouldn’t forget. Thanks, Mr. Reed.”

“Uh-huh. See how he talks, Cal? You should take a page out of his book.” The irony wasn’t lost on us. “I need you up front.”

Cal trudged toward the front, his hand still lingering near his back pocket. As we emerged from the alley a long, sleek black car crept down Rosemary and turned into the lot.

“Alright. Cal, there’s a broom inside with your name on it. Akin, you about ready to head out?”

Cal interrupted. “Aw, can’t I go to church with ‘Kin? At least once?”

Mr. Reed grimaced and expelled a considerable wad of brackish phlegm. “Go inside and do what I asked you. We’ll talk about that when I’m done.”

With that, he stepped briskly off to meet the newcomers. I lingered. It was rare to see out-of-towners pass through and even rarer to see a car like theirs.

“Fuck.” Caleb spat through his teeth, resentfully tramping to his waiting broom.

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Mr. Reed called.

The pair wore cleanly pressed suits that should have left them sweltering and yet the driver didn’t appear in the least bothered by the heat. He wore crisp pin stripes, thinly interwoven threads of white. Expensive. He looked quite at ease, in fact, as he nudged the car door shut with an index finger.

I watched through the dusty plate glass. It was a polished Ford Galaxie XL—a land cruiser, a long, sleek glider. The driver looked about Mr. Reed’s age, late thirties or early forties, clean-shaven, tall and lean but not gaunt, he moved with a deft litheness that unnerved me even from the shelter of the store. His eyes were dark and glinted hungrily above his affected smile. A paper-thin scar, barely visible, cleaved his left cheek from his eyelid to the fringe of the dry, deep parenthetical wear-line that framed his thin, pale lips. Perched aloof in the corner of his mouth was a sharp, dry toothpick. Their voices carried easily.

“What can I do for you?” Mr. Reed asked without trepidation.

“Well, I suppose we could do with a fill-up, right Jack?” His colleague, a much younger man in a less impressive suit, returned a stiff nod and stepped to the rear of the car, lighting a cigarette without the least display of interest in the proceedings. I thought, even then, that he wasn’t there to talk—not like the driver talked. Almost too quick to follow, the toothpick flicked reflexively from one corner to the other and back again. He would’ve fit nicely in a funeral home, an austere, patronizing curator, or in a used car lot as a cunning, predatory salesman. But he was neither of those things—he was something lower, something worse. I knew it then and I think Mr. Reed knew it too, but leaning against the pump with the oily rag clutched in his hand like a talisman and speaking calmly to the man whose eyes did not smile, he didn’t betray the slightest unease.

“I think that’ll do fine,” the driver continued. His voice had a slightly sharp, nasal quality. “I think we’ll do just fine with a fill-up, and I wouldn’t mind the key to your facility.” The toothpick darted beneath his crooked eyebrow and the implacable smile seemed to flirt with scorn without actually touching.

“No problem, gentlemen. The bathroom’s right around the side there, unlocked. I’ll get you taken care of, check your fluids and wipe your windshield too. No problem.”

The driver waved dismissively. “Just the fill-up, today Mack, if it please you.” He clapped Mr. Reed on the shoulder and strolled over the spider-webbed concrete. The heels of his polished black shoes clicked noisily. The young man watched Mr. Reed work without comment. Normally, small talk would accompany his work, but not today. The passenger smoked and watched the narrow residential street free of traffic and quiet.

Watching the driver pass the open door of the little shop, I was gripped with a surreal, nightmarish certainty that he would stop and turn those glinting, black eyes on me, crouch down with the toothpick working back and forth, and smile that uncanny smile, but no. He walked briskly past. If he knew he was being watched he didn’t concern himself with the attention of a child. He probably doesn’t even see me, I thought, not in the way that other people do.

“What’s your problem?” Cal said petulantly. “What’s so goddamn interesting?”

He aimed a jab at my shoulder. I absorbed it without comment. He faltered, considered a moment and looked out the window.

“Holy shit,” he said. “Look at that thing. I bet she purrs like a jungle bitch, ‘Kin.” He lingered a moment and then stalked away. The ruffling of the page, again. “I can’t believe it. Who would get rid of this thing? Good thing I found it before they got here.” That was the extent of Cal’s investment in the proceedings, for the moment.

Minutes passed, and Mr. Reed replaced the nozzle with a heavy clunk.

“Good man, good man,” said the driver, his brisk heels preceding him. “Here, this should cover it, with my gratitude.” He slipped a folded bill into Mr. Reed’s shirt pocket.

I relaxed. That was it, then. But Mr. Reed reached for the bill, balked, and his posture changed. He stood straight and indicated slowly with the bill, a universal gesture of incredulity. “What’s this about, fellas?”

I held my breath and cursed Mr. Reed’s stubbornness, but the driver only feigned glibness, flashing his eerily pearlescent teeth. “Why, you topped her off and I paid you for your services. The veritable quid pro quo of commerce that makes this sorry weary spin round, Mack.” He whistled and whirled his index finger near his temple.

“That would be just fine but this is more than what I’m charging. Around here—or anywhere, as far as I know—people don’t give out something for nothing.”

“Don’t I know it?” said the driver, pausing, his eyes searching Mr. Reed’s face. “I certainly meant no offense to you or your business, you understand. And, much as it pains me to do it, I am bound by honor to hereby concede your point and validate your suspicion. But if you give me one moment, you’ll see that what I ask is really not anything at all. Harmless little thing, really.”

Mr. Reed remained static. Briefly, I thought, there passed behind the driver’s eyes a betrayal of what he really was, perhaps a warning flashed and gone in the same instant. He winked, the toothpick working. “It’s just that myself and my associate are in town looking for an old friend. Family, in fact, our cousin, you see. Angling for a little family reunion. It’s been a long time. I was just hoping you might be able to give us a nudge in the right direction, is all. To our shame and regret, one of us hasn’t exactly been as assiduous in his efforts to correspond as our longstanding familial bond warrants. I’m sure you understand.”

Mr. Reed wiped his brow and cleared his throat, spat on the cement. He held out the bill. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

But the driver smiled heartily, seemed almost about to laugh even, his eyes ever cold and piercing. “Come now, I’m sure you know him, small town like this. Older guy, must be gray by now, tattoo of a dame riding an anchor on his left forearm, here. About this tall, I’d say, real thick, bushy eyebrows.” He elucidated with a long thin index finger through his own brows that were razor thin. “Maybe even has a bit of an old-fashioned, Mid-western accent. A trace, perhaps. Chicago, maybe. Nick Burns, he used to be called, our old cousin. You may know him by something else, but the important thing is that you know him, am I right? I’m not good at much in this world, Mack, but I can read a fella’s face. That I can do. So, am I right?”

Mr. Reed’s voice faltered. “Listen, fellas, I don’t want to get mixed up in anything, here. Just take your money. The gas is on me. Really. Please. Here.”

Like a patient desert predator, the driver didn’t flinch, leaning in giddy anticipation for a protracted moment. At last he sighed and shrugged, gestured to the younger passenger, then beamed at the gas station owner. He held his palms outward at his waist. “Hey, no skin off our ends, Mack, we’re not looking for trouble either—just our old, mangy cousin, the lovable derelict he is.” He retreated back around the smooth steel bumper of the black Ford, winked at Mr. Reed, and pulled the driver’s side door open smoothly. “As for the money, my friend,” said the driver, nodding at his partner, who returned the curt gesture and entered the opposite side, “I must insist that you hold on to it. Like I said, for services rendered, with my untarnished gratitude.”

Mr. Reed lowered his hand feebly. Relief washed over me.

“Have yourself a pleasant day, Mack. We’ll be seeing you.” The driver ducked into the car and it roared to life, a smooth, velvety purr. Mr. Reed watched the car ease carefully out of the lot, heading west on Rosemary, trundling slowly into town like a black serpent swallowing dust.

Cal, who’d approached the window without my noticing, quickly darted away and began sweeping. He stopped when his father trudged through the open door without acknowledging us, his eyes fixed on the crisp bill. I saw it clearly. It was a fifty-dollar bill. I’d never seen one before. He seemed to have forgotten us for when he looked up; his eyes swam then suddenly focused. He stowed the bill in his breast pocket, cleared his throat and crossed the store to the counter.

“Right,” he said, placing the dead phone back in its cradle with an uncharacteristic air of resignation. He looked down at his feet and we waited. Even Cal was disconcerted, the broom forgotten against the wall.

“Right,” he said again, more resolutely. He considered me directly, a strange gleam in his eye. “Akin, you can take Cal to church after all, if you don’t mind the company. I’ll apologize to your mother later for not warning her.” He emerged into the open floor of the shop, near the window where I lingered. “Cal, come here. Now listen, I want you boys to do something for me.” He gazed out the window, as if reevaluating.

“What is it?” Cal asked.

“Right,” his father repeated, sighing heavily. “I need you to go straight to church. I need you to walk fast, but don’t hurry. You understand what I mean when I say that? You sure?”

We nodded, not sure at all, in fact.

“When you get there, go straight to Father Callahan’s office and tell him that two men came by the store looking for Nick Burns. Old friends. Family, they said. You understand that?”

We nodded, and he said no more, just looked again through the streaked glass window. After a minute, Cal spoke up.

“Is Mr. Burns part of the church?”

“Cal, that doesn’t matter. If not, then Father Callahan will know where to find him, anyhow. This isn’t a game. Go straight to the church, tell Father Callahan what I told you to tell him, and then go find ‘Kin’s mom and go to church. Cal, I’ll be there to pick you up. I’d go now, God knows, instead of sending you boys but I can’t close down right at the moment. Not….” he rubbed a hand along his stubbly cheek. “I don’t think it would be wise to close down right at the moment.” We nodded. “Now repeat it back to me.”

We did. He nodded along.

“Now go. Remember what I said. Walk quickly but don’t hurry. You’ll be on the main street with everyone else going to church, so you won’t…. Anyway, go on.”

We passed out into the hot afternoon. Despite Mr. Reed’s reassurances, I couldn’t help but fear the suggestiveness implicit in the trust he’d extended two children—adults so rarely speak to each other like that, let alone us. Something bad was happening, or was about to.

“Think they wanna pop this guy, Burns?” Cal asked as we cleared the street, a safe distance from the shop.

Instead of the old frustration, I deliberated. “Yeah, yeah I do.”

“Why don’t we just go tell him ourselves, then?”

I slowed, perplexed, then remembered Mr. Reed’s words and quickened my pace. “What do you mean?”

“Short, bushy eyebrows, tattoo of a naked chick on a rocket? Sound like anyone?”

“No. What are you talking about?”

“Mr. Mallard, you damn idgit.”

“Who?”

He gestured impatiently up the street. “Brick house, always yells at kids to get off his lawn, never comes out for anything else. Real prick, that guy. Probably has it coming, but we should warn him anyway. Christian thing to do an’ all, now that I’m a church goer.”

With that, he resumed studying the creased photo, smoothing with his thumb a fuzzy crease that partially obscured the model’s right breast.

“Put that thing away,” I shot. All around us, families filtered into the sidewalks in their church best.

“You’re a pussy, you know that, ‘Kin. A first rate….”

“Mr. Mallard is bald, you stupid asshole. His eyebrows are thin. He looks nothing like the guy.”

Silence, but Cal recovered quickly. “Well, these guys haven’t seen him in years. He could very well be bald and gray.”

Dammit if he didn’t have a point, though. “Let’s forget about all that. You heard Mr. Re… your dad. Father Callahan knows this Nick Burns, and we don’t. He will tell him what to do. Not us.”

“Oh, what does that fucking crony know about it? He’s just gonna end up getting Burns killed, sending us to the middle man.”

I resolved to ignore him. The austere, uppermost steeple of the church rose steadily over the green caps of the rank and file oaks.

“Why doesn’t your dad send you to church?” I asked, suddenly curious.

“He says it’d be hypocritical. Fucking phony.”

“What does he mean?”

“I don’t know. He just needs the slave labor, is all.”

I shrugged. What can you say?

“I still think we should just go tell him ourselves.”

“Shut up, Cal.”

 *     *     *

Father Callahan was at his desk. The door was open. Shuffling feet beyond the wall, early comers filing into the main hall.

“Hello boys. Akin, Caleb. What can I do for you today?” His eyes were warm and gentle, the genuine antithesis of the driver’s black eyes. His office was lined in musty, faux-wood paneling. Pictures hung in scattered clusters.

“We have to tell you something,” I said mechanically, suddenly nervous. “It’s from Mr. Reed.”

“Oh! And how is your father, Caleb?”

“Good, I guess.”

“Good, good. Glad to hear it.”

I swallowed and blurted it out all at once. “He told us to tell you that there were some guys asking about Nick Burns. Guys in suits….”

“Really nice suits, in a really nice car!” Cal interrupted.

“He didn’t tell us to say that, Caleb.” I said, more sharply than I intended. I composed myself, then appealed to our elder. “That doesn’t matter. Does it, Father?”

“Well, I can’t say for sure, Akin. You never know. So Mr. Reed sent you boys here to tell me that?” They nodded silently. “Hmm, curious.”

“He figured you’d know what to do.” Caleb offered, somewhat defensively.

Father Callahan nodded curtly. “He figured right. Is there anything else he said to tell me?”

“No, Father,” I said.

“We know who he is!” Cal cried. “He’s that creepy old man in the brick house that yells at everyone! He’s in trouble now, isn’t he?”

I reddened. Father Callahan looked sternly at us both.

“Rest assured boys, I know Nick Burns very well.” He looked at Caleb directly. “And if you don’t know someone, then making dramatic assumptions regarding his character can serve only to get you into trouble, Caleb. You’d do well to remember that. Both of you.” I started to object but fell silent. I’d been the reasonable one, and I was getting reprimanded right along with him.

Father Callahan was apparently satisfied that we had nothing left to say. “If that’s all, then I think it’s time you ran along to meet your mother, Akin. I’m sure she’s worried sick. Will Mr. Reed be joining us this evening?” I blinked, realized he meant Cal, who nodded. “Ah, perfect! Well, think no more about this matter. Consider it resolved. Now you boys run along.” He stood and gestured. I remained, hesitant, unsure even as I asked whether I should.

“Father?”

“Yes, Akin?”

“I know it doesn’t matter, I mean to say, it’s not our business. But, what do you think Mr. Burns will do when you tell him?”

“I suppose only Nick Burns can make that decision, Akin. Either way, it’s nothing you need to worry about. Mr. Reed sent you to me for good reason. Nick Burns and I go way back. I have no doubt that with the good word on his side,” he said, delicately hoisting the leather bound bible and brandishing it in the air, “he will make the right decision. Fair enough?” There was an uncharacteristic, even sardonic spirit in his theatrics.

We agreed in unison.

“Good lads, off you go.”

Something was wrong with Cal, I saw. He was quiet. A few paces down the hall, he paused, turned, and went back. I followed, praying he didn’t have another disrespectful outburst in him. But he approached Father Callahan’s desk somberly, head down. He dug into the back pocket of his shorts and produced the folded magazine page. The pastor let it settle on the desk, untouched.

“I found it,” he mumbled. “It’s bad. Don’t look at it. It’s just… I shouldn’t have picked it up. Akin was right. I shouldn’t have.”

Father Callahan considered Cal, then bent, collected the wastebasket beneath his desk, and dropped the folded page into it. “Then it shall trouble you no more. Consider it absolved.” His face was weary with large bags bedding his lower lids, but when he smiled it was genuine, whole. Cal shrugged uncertainly.

“Don’t I have to….”

But the Father waved his hand. “No, no. This one’s on the house. Run along, boys.”

We departed in reflective silence.

After a minute: “What was that?” I was stunned.

“Nothing. Let’s go.”

I finally felt it, relief. We’d done our job and maybe helped Nick Burns, wherever he was. My happiness was short-lived. My mother intercepted me in the parking lot with a frown.

“Mom, I…” but she held up her hand.

“You’re not in trouble.” She shook her head. “I just wish you weren’t dressed like pigs in a sty, is all.”

We filed in through the center aisle. The town was amassed in full and open seats were scarce. I felt eyes on me and burned red—I hadn’t thought of my clothes until now, sweaty and streaked with dirt. Cal remained silent. He simply followed in tow, his head slightly bowed, as if deep in thought. We sat down one minute before the bells were set to toll.

Six o’clock. The congregation stirred. Someone coughed and a child whined. The stirring of restless feet and the rustle of starched clothing. No bells.

One-past-six. We’d done something wrong. We’d gotten Father Callahan mixed up in trouble, somehow. It was our fault.

Still, no bells.

At five minutes past and still no Father Callahan, the restlessness of the worshippers mounted. Several more coughers, less restrained now. Buzzing murmurs, “What are we waiting for?” from the back, a little girl with pink ribbons in her hair, unabashed. But she was simply echoing the sentiment of the anxious mass.

The thick front door opened and slammed against the frame with the subtlety of a shotgun blast in the quiet chamber. The echo died down and we all turned to see who’d entered late—all but one. Cal remained slumped.

It was Mr. Reed. The congregation gaped, having never seen Thomas Reed in church before. He stood at the rear of the church, hat in hand, scanning the crowd. His eyes seemed to linger on the empty podium.

My heart palpitated. This isn’t right. It can’t be. Knowledge like a terrible plague, and Cal knew it first, knew it when the old man smiled goodbye.

Mr. Reed swayed on his heels. He dropped his hat to his side, a gesture like mourning.

Danny JudgeDanny Judge is an ex-Marine attending Simpson College on the G.I. Bill, where he is nearing his BA in English. He does little else with his life but read and write, and is particularly enthralled with Nabokov, Faulkner, Kafka, Morrison, and Roth. His short fiction has spanned multiple forms and genres in eight literary journals, including Burningword, Referential Magazine, The Quotable, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He’s self-published two short collections of fiction and is the founding editor of a new journal of literary fiction and poetry, The Indianola Review. He lives in Iowa with his wife and son.

 

“The Parable of Nick Burns” is listed as a Notable Story in the 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award. Congratulations to Danny Judge!

Want Cokes?

Since sophomore year, the crew walks three blocks to the bakery with the bitchy lady at the counter. Sometimes we get the cheese-filled dough beuregs, but sometimes we get the ground-beef flatbreads for only two bucks each. You can smell the cheese wafting through the smog on Broadway, and it meets the sweet smell of nazoug cookies from the pastry place across the street. The crew thinks it’s better than the Chinese place since Owner lets us sit there until Vartan picks us up. At least Ashot thinks it is, and we all care about what Ashot thinks because he’s fuckin’ Ashot–the only guy that can pull off a collared shirt without looking like a wimp.

One time, Owner said some shit like, “Tghek, do your homeworks.”

“You don’t need to graduate to start a business, aper,” said Ashot.

“Right. Back in Armenia, I graduate for music and was composer. What you want to be?” he said, wiping his hands on his sweaty apron.

Ashot said, “Rich. I want to be fuckin’ rich.” All of us busted out laughing, including Owner.

Ashot always knew what to say. Since the seventh grade, he always fucking knew. His dad beat him up with a belt almost every day which made him a smart ass, but he would move up in life as a loyal one too. When we were in the eighth grade, I got caught touching Maria’s tits because I didn’t really know how to ask her out. He didn’t even know me well, but he followed me to the principal’s office and told him that he dared me to do it.

We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us.

He told the principal, “They mentioned it in biology class and I wanted to know how it felt. Consider it a lab.”

I remember asking him later on why he did it. And he just shrugged. They gave him detention. But we stayed best friends.

“Do your work to be rich,” Owner said. “Want Cokes?”

We never want Cokes. We just go out on the sidewalk to smoke a pack instead.

Ashot says, “Kobe killed it last night. I love him, man. If only I could be him.”

Standing behind him, I can see a scar near his collar.

“Fuck yeah,” I say. “Who doesn’t?”

*     *     *

I actually like Maria. I’ve liked her since the incident with the boobs, for the last four years. The crew calls her a slut because she hangs out with the other Mexican girls near the football field at lunch and because there’s a rumor going around that they slept with the same guys in the soccer team. I didn’t really care if she did, because I knew she wasn’t dumb. I had English class with her, and one time, she read a poem she wrote about a car crash. It made me feel wack–like someone had pulled out my gut for a second.

The glass windows slide deeper into my heart. And I can feel me rip apart with each painful toss–hoping to be loved and pulled together, she’d written.

After class I said, “So you write poems?”

“Yeah,” she said, fixing her shirt. I could see her tits.

“It was cool,” I said and walked away. Her sharp, green eyes followed me out the door.

*     *     *

The football field where she hangs out is Latino territory, and one time, Ashot got busted for kicking a guy named Juan in the dick because he hit on Ani, the hottest girl in the school–and Ashot’s childhood friend. She has black, straight hair and rarely smiles, kind of like those Russian dolls–the ones Mam likes to collect to put over the fireplace. Ani moved here when she was four, same as Ashot. I don’t think Ashot liked Ani, but I think he just likes to protect the girls in the crew from older guys, mostly Mexicans.

“No one’ll want to marry her if she fuckin’ sleeps with that Mexican,” he said.

“What if she actually wants to sleep with the Mexican?” I said, unwrapping my burger.

“I don’t give a shit,” Ashot said. “There’s no way in hell she’s gonna do that shit. And if Vartan isn’t gonna do anything, then I am.”

“Let her brother handle it,” I said. “Why you gotta get involved and get us all in this?”

“Because we have to,” he said. “Because we’re the Armo fuckin’ corner.”

And then he sent a note to Juan through Marco, the half-Armenian half-Mexican kid to have him meet the crew up in their territory at lunch the next day. Juan showed up with five other guys, and Ashot kicked him in the dick. Everyone got pissed and started fighting each other–even me. It was messed up because Ashot got suspended and the rest of us had to do community service for a few months.

When the counselor called me in, she asked, “Who started it, Armen?”

I hate how counselors use names to make something sound more serious. The small waterfall on her desk chimed and echoed the sounds of rushing water. What the fuck?

“They started it,” I said. “Juan and his guys.”

“That’s not what I heard,” said counselor.

“Isn’t that called hearsay or something,” I said. Her face didn’t get soft.

“I’m just messin’. Listen, Juan asked us to be there ‘cause he had to talk to Ashot about something and then he just attacked him.”

She eventually let me go after firing off questions about why my math and science grades had dropped.

*     *     *

When I come home from school, Mam already has dinner ready for us–us being me, Pap, my three aunts, their husbands, and two single uncles.

“Of course Obamacare is a bad thing,” says Uncle Khachik. “They want our tax money to pay.”

“It’s for the greater good,” says my other Hopar.

“The Soviet Union was too,” Pap says.

“Greater good is capitalism. That’s all I know,” he says.

“So you vote democrat but aren’t one,” says Hopar Khachik.

After a pause my dad responds, “Of course, it’s California. And we like welfare.”

Everyone laughs, but I don’t really think it’s funny. The women don’t speak much and Mam doesn’t even work, but she has the smile of a woman who isn’t a fucking house wife–one that reminds me of a picture she has as a girl in Tzaghgatsor. She’s standing in front of a field of flowers in a skirt almost to her ankle, holding a set of books. As a kid she would tell me that the blooms in Tzaghgatsor were unlike any other, that they were caused by the beauty of Armenian’s most beautiful goddess, Anahit. The fields of flowers spill over into green, rolling mountains, almost like magic. I imagined, as a kid, that she was the goddess in some way, although her eyes have wrinkles around the edges and her hair is kind of faded brown. She dyes it blonde, probably to cover it all.

“Of course the United States will recognize the genocide,” Pap says. “The democrats will do it.”

“It’s a lie,” says my uncle Khachik. “They want us to vote like you.”

A pile of Asbarez newspapers sit face up on on our TV stand. Pap’s horn rimmed glasses shift lower on his nose. And no one can hear a thing.

My dad slams his hand on the table, “They raped our women and exterminated our people–the democrats actually give a shit. Armen, get us some cognac glasses.”

I bring him the glasses, and he says, “How was your school?”

“Good,” I say.

“Doctor or lawyer? Decided yet?”

“Not yet, Dad. One of them, though,” I say.

I go to my room. I like to think about Maria or watch porn or read. I stare at my Transformers poster sometimes or just watch trailers. Sometimes we even meet up at the parking lot near the Starbucks in La Cañada. All the guys from all the high schools meet up there to smoke–too young to have cognac anyway. We stare up at the sky and try to figure this all out. The moon just looks back laughing with us. Ashot rarely comes except for one night.

He sneaks out to join us. He’s wearing a stupid baseball cap, and he asks for a stog.

“What’s up with the hat?” Vartan says. “Vibin’ white guys, huh?”

And I see it then–the right side of his face all blue.

“What the fuck dude,” I say. “What the hell?”

“He just made a man out of me,” he says, smiling.

“Fuck man, you okay?” I say.

“Yeah, aper, yeah. Let’s have a smoke, and I’ll be good.”

“Should we tell the cops or call Counselor or something?” I ask.

“No, I’m good. I’m tight. I promised him I would get my grades up.”

“Yeah man, we should,” I say.

“We will. But let’s have a smoke first.”

“Fuck yeah,” I say, looking down at the pavement.

Talar MalakianTalar Malakian graduated with a degree in English and an emphasis in Fiction from the University of California-Irvine. She works in digital marketing but really hates Twitter. You can find her in Los Angeles, usually with a book, an Apple product, and a cold latte.

Intervention

On Monday, the neighbor’s kid is late coming over. When I hear her on the stairs, I call out, “Hey, you’re late. Nothing much is on.” Since returning from rehab five months ago, Syd’s been coming over to watch TV with me in my attic. Her parents asked me once if I’d mind keeping an ear open for anything going on. Seemed easier to tell Syd I had satellite dish and let things unroll from there. Except for weekends, she’s over here all afternoon. And except for Thursdays, when she’s seeing her shrink.

Syd tosses her bag onto her corner of the futon and snakes her hand into the open bag of Doritos. She’s got a nose ring sticking out of her face that wasn’t there on Friday. I want to ask about it but don’t because Syd’s the kind of kid that gets shitty when you ask too many questions. She takes the remote and sees what my TV’s been recording. “Oh, let’s watch this,” she says and begins the A&E show Intervention, one of our favorites.

Syd likes to bite her nails, giggle, and say, “I did that shit,” as we watch the addicts spiral down and the families cry and blame themselves. I like to get high and tell myself I’m not as sad as those people.

Syd plays with her nose ring and glances over at the notepad I tossed onto the couch when she came up. “What’s that?”

“New project,” I say glancing at it. “I’m supposed to be drawing up a marketing ad for that new burrito place downtown. Buddy’s Burritos. Heard of it?”

She shakes her head. “I stopped going downtown. I’ll just make bad decisions.”

That’s Syd’s way of saying her parents won’t allow it. She glances at the notepad. “Can I see?”

I hand it to her. So far, it’s just covered in a bunch of crummy sketches when it should look more like what will eventually be painted as a mural on the side of the Buddy’s Burritos building.

“What’s the theme?” she says.

“Theme?”

“Yeah. You know, do they do a Southwest menu or is it like a Thai burrito place or a veggie place or what?”

“I dunno,” I say. “Southwest I guess.” I hand her the menu and a brief but melodramatic history of the franchise written by one of the owners.

She’s looking closely at one of the things I’ve drawn—a spindly cactus with a cartoonish cowboy trying to sleep in the tiny shade it throws. There’s a burrito tucked into his arm like a sleeping baby except it looks more like a massive joint. “Make this bigger,” she says, tapping the cactus, “like those fat round cactuses. I think they’re called Segourney’s—”

“Saguaros,” I correct.

“Whatever. A bunch of them, and leave out this stupid ass cowboy. The cactuses eat the burritos.”

“Cacti,” I tell her.

“Hmm?” She’s twirling her nose ring again, picking at some crust growing on the outside. It’s getting red.

“The plural of cactus is cacti,” I say again. “And stop messing with your nose. You’re making it all red.”

She flips me off, smiles and says, “Icepick did it.”

During that break where you learn how great these people were as babies, I roll another joint. “You pierced your nose with an icepick? Are you fucking nuts?”

She laughs again. “No, his name is Icepick.”

We’ve come to the point at which Syd is throwing out a carrot which she will retract as soon as I go for it, making me feel stupid and out of touch in the process, so I say nothing and pick up the lighter. I can never figure out the etiquette for this sort of thing, so I let my open hand with the pipe and full, green bowl hang there between us for a second.

“Nah,” she says, like always, “weed was never my thing.” She readjusts herself, tucking up her legs. “Weed’s not really the kind of thing you sell your ass on 82nd Street for, you know?”

Sometimes she says things like that, things that make me wonder what the hell she’s getting at. Her mother Diane once hinted to me that Syd had gotten caught up in some “fast things.” That’s what she calls the months Syd disappeared into the fray of homeless teens living around the Square and the ensuing year in rehab. But Diane’s the type of person to say stuff like that, like saying she needs to tinkle instead of take a piss. It’s hard to tell how bad it got. And you can’t really believe Syd either. One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue….”

Halfway through the second episode, I ask her, “What do your parents think about you coming over here every day?”

She spits a bit of nail onto the floor and shrugs. She says too quickly, too offhandedly, “Oh they don’t care,” which tells me they have no idea.

Around seven, she slides off the couch. “You know,” she says, “you should get married. What kind of life is this for a guy in his forties?”

“I’m thirty-three.”

“Still.” She takes a business card from her bag and hands it to me. “Did you call her yet?”

“For Christ’s sake, Syd,” I say, refusing to take the card, “I’m not desperate enough to ask your therapist on a date.”

“Oh come on, she’s desperate too!” she says and her voice is high and whiney. What must it be like to get this kid to load the dishwasher? “She’s really cool. You’ll like her. She wears a lot of leather. I think that means she’s into SM.”

She leaves the card on my table and disappears downstairs and out the door. A minute later, I hear her front door open and then, through the tiny window in my upstairs room, I see the light in Syd’s room come on, her shadow passing back and forth. Syd paces when she’s on the phone, which is what she’s doing now, probably calling Icechest.

No fucking way, I say to her window and leave the card on the table when I go downstairs for the night.

 *     *     *

One time she told me her father ran over her cat with the car on purpose. Another time that her mother had put the cat in a black bag and tossed it in the Willamette. Both stories began, “Once, I had a cat with one brown eye and one blue…”

But on Thursday, I’m sitting at a table in a bistro wearing a too-tight sports jacket and asking myself what made me come down to the Pearl. I remind myself of the leather and take a deep breath.

Mimsy, Mimsy, Mimsy, I say in my head. I heard once that if you repeat a name or a phone number or whatever seven times, you’ll have transferred it to long-term memory. I also heard that a child needs to be told something around seventy-five times before it sticks, which reminds me of how Syd’s mom is always exclaiming, “How many times do I have to ask you to pick up before I get home?” Seventy-five, Diana.

The whole time I’m waiting and drinking cocktails, I’m wondering why I agreed to meet a woman whose name makes her sound like the kind of person voted most likely to show up to my mom’s Friday evening book club. But when she arrives, she’s nothing like what I pictured at all. She’s young, short, and cute. Skinny but not athletic, her arms and legs like four cigarettes sticking out of her body, what my sister calls “skinny-fat.”

She sees the three empty cocktail glasses on the table and says, “Well, I guess you’ve been waiting a while.” She puts her leather jacket over the back of her chair and slides into her seat. Her skirt is leather and the chair is vinyl, so they stick together and make a farting noise as she scoots in. We both pretend not to hear.

When the waiter comes, she orders a bottle of wine. After her third glass, Mimsy reaches across the table, aiming to clasp my hand, but misses and grabs onto the side of the table, her cleavage almost landing in her pasta. “Do you think it’s bad boundaries to date the neighbor of your client?”

I consider things for a minute, decide that yes, it is bad boundaries—for both of us—and conclude to treat this like the “does my ass look OK in this?” question.

“Yes,” I say, “your ass looks great in that skirt,” and swallow the last of my fourth drink.

Mimsy looks at me a little puzzled and then laughs. “You’re weird,” she tells me. “Weird is good.”

As we’re leaving, Mimsy struggles to get her left arm into the left arm hole of her jacket and drops her miniscule purse in the process, the contents of which dump out onto the floor of the bistro’s lobby. I stoop down with her, hand her tampons and feminine wipes and a cracked tube of mascara.

I lead her outside and aim her in the direction of my car. She tries to pull away from me. “I’m parked that way,” she says and begins patting the pockets of her jacket to find her keys.

As soon as she pulls them out, I take them away. “You don’t need to be driving,” I say.

“Oh yeah?” She lurches toward me. “And who’s going to stop me?”

As I pull up to the light, I look over at her, waiting for her to tell me which way to go. Finally, I say, “Well, which way?” but she’s fallen asleep with her head against the glass.

So I drive us back to my place. I told her about the 70” flat-screen up in my attic, so of course she asks to see it. There’s a lot of other things up there too—an ashtray full of roaches, a glass pipe in the shape of a baby’s hand, and my college bong made from a two-liter pepsi bottle attached to a WWII-era gas mask. I’m excited to see what happens when she sees it, hoping it’s like one of those cartoon moments where the terrified lady runs screaming through the front door, leaving behind a cut-out in the shape of a flailing woman.

“Follow me,” I say and lead her through the living room, down the short hall to the small, cluttered spare room in back. I point to the closet and say, “In there,” and amazingly she goes right in.

Halfway up the narrow staircase, she turns and asks, “Did a skunk die up here or something?”

“Almost there,” I tell her and nudge the back of her thigh.

She stops dead in the middle of the room. I slide past and fall onto the futon, dig under a pillow for the remote.

“What. . .” —she starts. She picks up the gas mask and the Pepsi bottle nearly spills.

“Hey!” I say, “Careful with that. I’ll have you know that won an Honorable Mention at Hempstalk ten years ago.”

Mimsy places it back on the coffee table. “I had no idea,” she says. “You’d think I could have been able to tell.” She swivels her head back and forth, peering through the small dormered windows on either side of the room. “So which house is Sydney’s?” she asks. Then she says, “No, don’t answer that. We shouldn’t talk about Sydney.” When she says this, she flaps her finger from herself to me as though to remind me which two people are off limits talking about Syd.

But she keeps looking, probably trying to discern which of the houses meets Syd’s descriptions, so I say, “The green one.”

“They’re both green.”

Finally, Mimsy takes a seat beside me. She sits very rigidly upright, but I know she’s still drunk from the way she sways back and forth, like a stick stuck in the dirt on a windy day. “I haven’t smoked this in years,” she says and picks up a pipe, sniffs it, and makes a face. “You know,” she goes on. “I don’t really think weed is a problem. Only when users are too young or when their dealers push harder stuff.”

I ignore the term “users.”

“What does your boss think? Your mom and sisters?”

“My sister’s cool, but it’s not really something I talk about at work.”

“I see. So you’d identify yourself as functional?”

“Functional?” I turn off the TV and stand. “You know, I don’t need this from you or anyone else. Functional, my ass.”

“Wait.” She pulls me back onto the futon and kneels in front of me. “I didn’t mean it that way.” She gives a lopsided grin and starts to unzip my pants.

Sure you did, but I don’t say anything else.

 *     *     *

On Monday, Syd shows up with a drugstore bag around her wrist. “Can I dye my hair in your tub?” she asks.

I heave off the futon and follow her downstairs.

Syd takes the box out of the bag and tears off the top. She dumps the contents into the sink. The picture on the box shows a teenaged rocker-girl with jet-black hair holding a purple electric guitar that matches the purple of her eyeshadow. Raven the box says in big black letters.

I sit on the toilet and smoke a cigarette while Syd clips the top off the bottle of grayish looking liquid, places her gloved finger over the hole and shakes. She glances from the corner of her eye, “How was your date?”

“What date?” I say.

“I know things.”

“Your nose is looking really red,” I tell her. “I think you need an antibiotic cream or something.”

“Nope,” she says, “Icepick says you have to let the body win the war.”

“Yeah well, tetanus is no joke.”

“You sound like my dad.” Now she’s standing bent over the tub mixing the dye into her hair. Her jeans, which she wears too low anyway, show the top of her ass and I look away sharply, focus on the pattern of mildew forming near the top of my shower and try to make out shapes. The only sound is Syd’s fingers working the dye in, the slick squish-squish of gloved hands on scalp.

While watching another episode of our favorite show, Syd and I get talking about the questionnaires the families fill out and read from during the actual intervention part. They always start, “Your drug abuse has negatively affected my life in the following ways. . . .” This is normally the least exciting part of the show because everyone is crying and sometimes the addicts run away, but they always come back, and they almost always go to treatment, so we’d just rather not watch the crying part and skip to the ending credits where the producers tell us how long the addicts stayed clean and what they’re doing now, where they’re living, et cetera. Mostly, they’re living with their parents again, doing what they were doing before the camera crews showed up and made promises about how beautiful life was going to be.

“If we were having an intervention for me,” I say, “what would you say?”

Syd thinks about this for a minute, smiles and says, “Well, I guess I’d say that I’m glad you’re mostly high when I come over because I don’t think you’d like me very much if you weren’t.”

“Aww,” I say, “that’s so sweet. You don’t get many of the ‘you should stay on drugs because’ speeches. But I’d still like you anyway, infected nose ring and all.”

“What would you say,” Syd asks, “at my intervention?” She has curled herself even tighter into the corner of the couch.

“I’d say that you are an amazing, beautiful person and I hope you never touch the poison again, because if you did, I’d throw a brick through my TV and sneak into your house to shave your head while you were sleeping.”

Syd laughs. We go back to watching our show and making fun of the people on it.

Before she goes, I talk to Syd about Mimsy. I tell her that Mimsy is pretty militant when it comes to appropriate boundaries, that I said I hardly knew Syd at all, we just wave sometimes passing by. I hint that things could get awkward for us both if Mimsy finds out. “Don’t worry, Steve,” Syd says, “If you can’t lie to your therapist. . .” and she gives me a knowing look and nods.

 *     *     *

Mimsy refuses to come over until after dark, and even then she parks her car around the corner and slips in the back door wearing a dark hoodie and enormous sunglasses like some second-rate celebrity.

She likes to walk around my house picking up things, turning them over in her hands, and putting them back down again. On the mantle, she finds my sketch pad, the pages grey with smudged drawings that still haven’t formed themselves into the image my boss hovers around my desk waiting for.

“Do you like it?” I call from the kitchen, where I’m adding cheese and basil to a frozen pizza. “I’m going to make the cacti eat the burritos. Cut out those stupid-ass cowboys.” Mimsy’s head tilts to the side as she thinks. “I’m not sure anthropomorphizing the cactuses are the way to go,” she says, “They’re so prickly, and coarse, and phallic. Not what I want to look at while I eat.”

Mimsy goes upstairs to wait for the pizza. I walk to the foot of the stairs and call up to ask how the hell I’m supposed to get a whole pizza, two plates, and beers upstairs on my own. I hear my lighter clicking, and then she calls back, “You mind? I’ve got a three-day weekend.” But before I can answer, I already smell the sickly-sweet smoke drifting downstairs.

It’s not easy lugging all that food plus beers up those stairs and I make a big show of it when I take it up.

But Mimsy doesn’t notice. She’s lying on the floor with her shirt and jeans off, naked except for a pair of black tights. The toe-seam of her tights snakes around her foot and I want to bend down and straighten it out, make it run along the tips of her toes, but I don’t because her feet look strange in tights with no shoes. Like a fragmented sentence.

Mimsy wants me to eat the pizza off her stomach.

“Are you crazy,” I say, “I’ve just taken this out of the oven.”

“Oh, I bet it’s nice and warm.” She pats her belly again.

I set the pizza pan on the floor and place the palm I used to hold it on her stomach. She pushes my hand away, saying, “Eww, eww, it’s too hot.”

We watch TV while we eat, another Intervention, which is one of Mimsy’s favorites too. Often, I have to watch the same one twice, once with Syd and then save it for Mim. There is an intricate process by which I have to completely rewind the show so she doesn’t know I’ve already seen it. During pauses when one of us goes downstairs to piss, she gives advice on what the families should be doing differently. She takes a hit, then says things like, “This family, you can tell they’ve never bothered with rules. Now they want to tell their kid how to live and why should he listen?” Soon, she’s talking during the rest of the show too. Which would probably be annoying if I hadn’t seen it already.

The interventionists are never the therapists for the people they intervene on, probably because they have to fly all over the country, leading cry-fests in hotel rooms. Mimsy seems to like her job, but when I say so, she merely shrugs.

“It can be hard sometimes. A lot of therapists are former users which gives them an edge but also makes it hard when they have to hear how much their clients miss getting high. You wouldn’t believe how many of us fall off the wagon.” Then she corrects herself, “I mean, I’ve never been on the wagon, so. . . .” She looks down at the pipe in her hand.

“Maybe I should become a drug counselor,” I joke.

She hands me the pipe and stands. “This is cashed,” she says and goes downstairs to sleep in my bed.

 *     *     *

Syd’s got a Band-Aid over her nose the next time she’s over, but from how it bulges, the ring is still in.

“It smells different up here,” she says.

I point to the candles placed about the room, one on almost every flat surface, including the top of the TV. “Mim says it smells like shit up here.”

“It does,” Syd says. “Now it smells like shit and apple pie.”

Once settled on the couch, Syd rummages in her purse, eventually finding a pack of cigarettes, lighting one and handing the pack to me. “I have two things to tell you,” she says. She readjusts herself on the couch. “Well, actually one thing to say, one thing to ask. First is, I sort of relapsed this weekend.”

I’m not sure if this is another carrot, but I take a chance and say, “What do you mean, sort of?”

She lets out an exasperated sigh and rolls her eyes. “Well, I went downtown to hang out with some friends.” She pulls her ankles up. “I thought everyone was clean, but, you know. . . .”

I try to hand her the remote but she crosses her arms. “So what,” I go on, “you did drugs or something?”

She bites off some skin around her thumbnail and chews on it. “Gawd, you sound like an after-school special. Did drugs,” she repeats. She goes on chewing, then finally, “Yeah, I did drugs.”

“You smoke crack? Shoot heroin? Snort cocaine?”

Syd shakes her head, “No, nothing like that. Just a little crystal.”

“Are you fucking nuts?”

Syd gives me a withering look, says, “Oh, go smoke a bowl already. Give yourself some perspective.”

“Fair enough,” I say. Syd is quiet next to me; it’s clear she doesn’t want to leave. How could she with her body wound around itself like a pretzel? “So what did you want to ask me?”

Immediately, the mood shifts. She drops one leg to the floor and hugs her other knee against her chest. The leg on the floor swings up and down giving me a brief glimpse of Syd as a real child, not this nether-region not-girl, not-woman. “Will you take me to get my eyebrow pierced? My dad won’t sign for it,” she touches the Band-Aid over her nose, “and I want it done right.”

“Sorry,” I tell her, “but I can’t. Those things are practically legal documents. Besides, I think they’ll know I’m not your dad.”

“But you could be,” Syd goes on. Her voice is picking up in excitement, getting nasally and I can sense a whine imminent in the room. “I mean, you could have had me when you were, like, sixteen, you know?”

“But I didn’t.”

“Come on,” she goes on, “What’s the big deal? I’m paying for it, I just need your little signature. Maybe some initials.”

I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. “I said no, Syd. Why don’t you have Icebucket do it?”

“Icepick! Icepick!” She begins to unfold herself, starting arms first, then legs. Next she’s standing over me glaring at the eyebrows-raised, questioning look on my face. “You’re just like everyone else,” she says.

“That’s right,” I tell her. “I am just like every one of the other six billion people on this earth. How’s that for perspective?” I expect her to say something more, to go on begging me to sign the paper, or to maybe admit that perhaps she was a little over the top. But she doesn’t. Just grabs her bag and clomps downstairs.

 *     *     *

The next day I hope Mimsy says something about Syd. I expect at least for her to look troubled but she doesn’t.

“How was work?” I ask.

“Fine,” she says, “long.”

“Anything interesting happen?” She doesn’t answer. “Tell me about your day.”

I offer her the pipe, but she shakes her head. I don’t know what to make of things because all appearances point to Mimsy being in the dark about Syd’s relapse, and Mim’s not one to play her cards close to the chest. One of her favorite things to do is recount her craziest client stories while we lie in bed, me smoking, her taking a few hits now and then. Sometimes I recognize which stories are Syd’s.

“Syd’s mom thinks she’s doing well,” I say. Just the other day, Diana popped her head over the fence to say, “Doesn’t Syd seem to be doing great? She’s like a whole new person.” Then she offered me rosemary from her garden, which I took even though I have no idea what you do with it. “She gave me some rosemary over the fence.” This doesn’t bring much of a response so I go on, “Just thought you’d like to know.”

“Have you ever tried to quit smoking?” she asks. “You know, permanently.”

I offer her the pipe again, but she still shakes her head. “I’ve thought about it,” I say jokingly but she doesn’t laugh. “Look, I could quit if I wanted to, if I thought it was a problem, if it interfered with something.”

“But it doesn’t,” she adds.

“No,” I say, “it doesn’t. I go to work everyday. I get my projects done on time and usually under budget.” I pat my belly. “I could lose a few pounds, sure, but who couldn’t?”

Again I offer her the pipe. “Come on,” I say, “something’s bothering you. This will help you relax.”

 *     *     *

On Friday, the boss holds me over for a little cocktail hour with the Buddy’s Burritos guys. They wear goof-ball grins and exclaim over and over, “The cactuses eat the burritos. Who would’ve thought! A marketing dream,” they say. Plants and animals appeal to diners, they repeat. And the subtle pot reference, they crow, pointing at the joint-like burrito. Brilliant! What I’m wondering is, doesn’t anyone know the fucking plural of cactus?

When I get home, Mimsy’s upstairs with Syd. Mimsy and I weren’t supposed to see each other tonight.

Syd stands. “Sorry. I saw the light on and thought it was OK to come over. Thought you were home.” She looks at Mimsy who slouches limply on the couch. Syd gathers her bag and heads for the stairs.

“Wait,” I say, “don’t go. Intervention was on marathon this week. Watch it with me?”

“I have to go meet someone.” She starts down the stairs but stops after a few steps. “It’s not a comedy, Steve” she says, “These are people’s lives.” She casts a glance at Mimsy to be sure she heard, to be sure Mimsy knows where allegiances lie, where the demarcations have been drawn. I thought it was me and Syd all along, but that only shows how much I know.

This leaves Mim and me alone in the attic. She opens her mouth and closes it again, does this a few more times, like a fish just jumped from the bowl, lying on the floor, tired of flapping, just breathing heavily, wondering if there’s any way back where it belongs. She stands and paces the floor. She picks up a candle and holds it to her nose, breathing deeply, calming herself. Syd’s door slams and Mim’s eyes flash to the window facing her house, at Syd’s shadow pacing back and forth, and then Syd stops. And there’s the shadow Mim can see from my house, and the shadow Syd can see from hers, but where I am is just a whiff of nothingness in the corner of the attic, a swirl of dust and smoke and ash, and then gone.

Amy Foster MyerAmy Foster Myer writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.  She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.  Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Prime Number, Blue Lake ReviewEunoia Review, Jersey Devil Pressand others.