Small Packages

Paul hates talking on the phone so Connie’s the one who calls his daughter-in-law once a month to catch up. She doesn’t mind calling Vicky. She likes hearing about the grandkids growing up too fast in the new house in Simi Valley where they’ve never been invited. Emily’s ten and Noah is almost eight.

“He’s right here if you’d like to say hello.” Connie holds out the phone but when Paul shakes his head no she puts it back in her ear. “He says to give the kids a hug.”

“We’re taking the RV up to Santa Barbara this weekend for Noah’s soccer tournament,” Vicky says. “My parents are coming with us.”

“How nice,” Connie says. “Maybe we could meet up with you guys somewhere.”

“Sure,” Vicky says. “I’ll talk to Robert and let you know.”

Her voice carries through the receiver and Paul rolls his eyes, slides open the screen door to the balcony and goes outside. Connie can predict the future. They won’t hear back from Vicky or Robert and then they’ll see pictures of the other grandparents on Facebook.

When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence.

“I found a band for Paul’s birthday,” she tells Vicky. His sixtieth is coming up and she’s talked him into a party at the Elks Lodge. She’s hired a taco truck and Trina, her best friend from work, is baking a cake. “They sound exactly like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”

“Paul’s going to love that,” Vicky says. “Robert too.”

Tom Petty is one thing Paul and Robert have in common. When they get together they act more like acquaintances than father and son. They shake hands instead of hugging. They quote football scores, compare mileage on their trucks, agree on the weather and then let Vicky and Connie fill in the silence. Men can be like that, Connie supposes. Maybe there’s nothing really wrong. Maybe whatever it is will work itself out.

She watches the sun sink through the black web of electrical wires and palm fronds behind their apartment building and smells garlic from their neighbors cooking dinner downstairs and the sticky-sweet scent of the joint Paul has just lit out on the patio. She wishes he’d quit. He’s already a quiet man and getting stoned doesn’t help his conversational skills.

They haven’t been married long, thirty-four months next week. She believes in celebrating every milestone and she’s got Paul in the habit too. He’ll stop by the Mini-Mart to buy her flowers and a card. She’ll pick up something special to eat on her way home from the nursing home where she works. She’s never been much of a cook, not like Paul’s first wife, Sheila.

Connie was married before too, a long time ago. Her first husband died young, in the accident she tries to forget but can’t help remembering every time she looks at herself in the mirror. She’ll be fifty-eight next year and almost made peace with her face and the fact that she never had children. When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

“They coming to the party?” Paul asks when Connie joins him on the patio.

“I think so.” The sun disappears behind the San Gabriel Mountains. She imagines a photograph of the grandkids with Paul, something she can frame and put on top of the dresser in their bedroom. Someone else could take the picture so she can be in it too, as long as she’s in the back and slightly out of focus.

*     *     *

The night of Paul’s party is warm for October and the air-conditioning at the Elks Lodge takes a while to cool the room down. The guests eat tacos out in the courtyard. Robert and Vicky and the grandkids are the last to arrive. Robert shakes Paul’s hand and glances over at a table piled with gift bags and cards. “I have something for you I didn’t want to bring,” he says. “I’ll get it to you soon.”

When she met Paul and he didn’t mind the scar or the way her eyes don’t quite line up together or that she can only cry out of the left one, she saw a chance for grandkids.

 Robert and Vicky go inside with the grandkids and sit down at an empty table near the stage. Connie wonders why they don’t mingle. It’s hard to believe they’re shy. Vicky sells real estate; surely she’s good at conversation. Robert’s an investment broker, he makes his living convincing clients he knows what he’s talking about. They’re a little overdressed for this crowd. Robert wears a silk shirt and Vicky has on a linen sheath and three strings of pearls. Connie means to go talk to them but Trina needs plates for her cake and someone else wants to know where the bathroom is. She looks around for Paul later, planning to get a picture of him with the grandkids but the lead singer from the band asks her to unlock the door behind the stage so they can bring in their equipment.

One of Paul’s cousins is sitting with Vicky when Connie returns with the key. They have empty wine glasses in front of them and don’t notice Connie heading behind the stage towards the back door. Robert’s turned away to talk to the cousin’s husband and Emily and Noah stare down at their phones.

“Connie’s eyes make me nervous,” Vicky tells the cousin. “I can never tell if she’s looking at me or not.”

It’s not like Connie’s never heard this kind of thing before though it’s usually from strangers and not from family. She can’t remember the cousin’s name which is not like her at all. Remembering names is one of her strong points.

“Grandma Connie’s creepy-looking,” Noah says.

“She’s not our grandmother,” Emily says in her clear, young voice. “She’s only Grandpa’s wife.”

The door to a van slides open behind the building and someone knocks. Connie’s feet are blocks of cement in her uncomfortable heels.

“That’s enough,” Robert says. “Show some respect.”

“You don’t need to yell at them,” Vicky says.

Connie doesn’t realize she’s been holding her breath until she exhales and finds she can move her feet after all. She swings the door open and the band brings their equipment inside.

Later, when she cuts the cake, she makes sure Robert gets a corner piece. Vicky says she just wants a taste. Connie cuts a small slice and dumps it on a plate, frosting side down. Since no one is watching, she spits on her finger and cleans off the knife, flicking the cake debris to the side of the plate with her thumb. She sucks the frosting off her fingers. Her fingertips are slightly purple from the way the red and blue Happy Birthday Paul letters have bled into the white frosting.

“Vicky,” she says, holding out the plate. “Is this a small enough piece?”

*     *     *

“We never got a photo of us with the grandkids,” Connie says later as they lie in bed. “They left early.”

“I’m surprised they came,” Paul says. “It’s a long drive for them.”

“It’s your birthday. Of course they came.”

“I could have been a better father.”

Paul’s said this before. “You’re a different man now.”

“I worked all the overtime I could get and sat on a bar stool every night until closing time. Robert’s lucky Sheila had enough sense to divorce me.”

Connie finds the place under his arm where her head fits perfectly. “What do you think his gift is?”

“I don’t know.” He pulls her closer. “Something too big to fit in the car, maybe.”

“Something nice to look forward to.”

*     *     *

Paul’s back goes out the week after his party. He can barely sit much less drive and he has to lay off work for a while. He worries about the loss of his paycheck even though Connie tells him not to. She makes enough at the nursing home to cover the rent although there’s no health insurance or retirement plan.

A month goes by and Paul seems to have forgotten about Robert’s gift. Connie hasn’t. She decides to forgive what was said, putting the blame on too many glasses of wine, and calls Vicky to check in.

“When can we get together?” she asks.

Vicky itemizes their activities. Emily has cheer practice on Wednesday, guitar lessons on Friday. Noah plays soccer on Mondays and Thursdays and his games take up the entire weekend.

“It’s a lot,” Vicky says. “I worry sometimes it’s too much for them.”

“Kids need time to be kids, I guess.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Vicky’s voice sharpens. “Let them stay home alone and play video games? I’m closing on three houses right now, and Robert’s under a lot of pressure at work.”

“Maybe you could take some time off.”

“My job’s not the problem. You don’t understand. You’ve never had to juggle kids and a career.”

“You’re right,” Connie says. “I’d like to understand.”

“I love my job. And the kids are fine. I’m just tired. I’m sorry. I should let you go.”

“Robert mentioned he had something special for Paul,” she says and waits.

“I’m not sure we’ll be down there anytime soon,” Vicky says after a moment. “Maybe you could pick it up next time you’re in the area.”

As if they’d ever be in the area. It’ll take hours for them to drive back and forth to the Simi Valley from Santa Ana. Even though Vicky’s probably hoping she’ll drop the subject, Connie can be persistent when she needs to be. She’s simply holding Robert to his promise.

“What would be a good day for you?”

“I’ll need to check my calendar.”

“I can wait. How about next Tuesday? Didn’t you say Tuesdays are good for you?”

“Did I?” Vicky’s annoyed. “We don’t get home until after five-thirty.”

“We’ll see you then.” Connie hangs up before Vicky can say another word.

“They want us to come up there,” she tells Paul later when they set up the folding tables in front of the television.

“You mean to their house?”

“Tuesday night,” she says, putting down plates of microwaved macaroni and cheese. “They get home from work around five-thirty.”

“You know how much traffic there’ll be at five-thirty?”

“I don’t mind driving.”

I mind. Robert promised he’d bring the gift to me.”

“They’re busy. It’ll be nice to spend time with the grandkids. See the new house.”

They eat and watch television for a while without speaking. “Maybe we could sleep in their RV,” Paul says during a commercial.

She knows he’s kidding. “Let’s splurge and get a motel. We can always cancel it at the last minute if we need to.”

*     *     *

Every time Connie has to pass a truck Tuesday afternoon, she murmurs part of the rosary and grips the steering wheel, feeling her shoulders hunch tight towards her ear lobes. Twice she has to get off the freeway because the lane ends and she can’t get over. Paul puts “Free Falling” by Tom Petty on the CD player. She asks if he wouldn’t mind turning it down. She needs to concentrate.

They still arrive at Robert’s house too early. It’s a huge place, three-car garage, basketball court on the side. A dog barks behind the cinderblock wall. No one is home. They get out of the car and walk around, stretch their legs. It’s hot. Robert and Vicky finally get home around six o’clock, kids in the back seat. Vicky and Robert go upstairs. Paul and Connie sit on the couch and watch the grandchildren watch television.

“How’s school?” Paul asks Emily.

She shrugs and stares at the television like she’s hypnotized. Connie sees Noah take secretive glances at her face.

“I was in an accident a long time ago,” she says.

“I know,” he says.

“It doesn’t hurt or anything. It’s just a scar.”

“Oh,” he says, staring at her openly now. “I scored a goal last week.”

“How about if we come see you play sometime?” Paul asks.

“That’d be okay.” Noah grins. He’s missing a front tooth.

Paul squeezes her hand.

Robert comes downstairs and says he’s taking them all out to dinner. Vicky’s right behind him in a cloud of perfume and an angry expression. Connie and Paul follow them in their car to a Mexican place. The food’s all right but the kids are antsy and Vicky’s not in a good mood. “It’s hard for us on a school night,” she says. “The kids still have homework.”

Paul limps as they walk back to the car after dinner. “My back’s killing me.”

She almost suggests they go straight to the motel so he can smoke and she can take a hot shower. “We won’t stay long,” she says instead and they follow Robert’s car back to the house.

Vicky takes the kids upstairs and Robert brings out a small gift bag. “Here you go, Pops. A little something I thought you’d like.”

“Good things come in small packages,” Paul says.

He tries to take his time unwrapping whatever it is even though there isn’t much tissue paper in the bag and there isn’t a birthday card either. Connie can see right away it’s a Laker’s cap, a give-away item. She’s seen the photos on Facebook of Robert, Vicky, Emily, and Noah sitting courtside wearing the same exact hat and matching team jerseys.

“Thanks, son. This is nice.”

Connie clears her throat. Robert gives her a quick glance and she realizes she’s glaring at him. At least he has enough sense to look embarrassed.

“I guess we’ll take off,” Paul says.

Robert follows them out. “Emily and I are going to see Tom Petty at the Forum next week.”

“You and Emily,” Paul says.

“Yeah, since she started playing guitar she loves the Heartbreakers.”

“The Forum,” Paul says.

“Orchestra seats. I can’t wait.”

Connie gets in the car.

“I imagine you’ll see your mother for Thanksgiving?”

“We’ll go to Santa Ana for lunch with her,” Robert says. “Then Laguna for dinner with Vicky’s parents. Our holiday tradition. Drive all over Southern California and eat too much. Maybe we could get together with you guys on the weekend.”

“I’d like that,” Paul says.

“I’ll talk to Vicky. We’ll let you know.”

Paul says goodnight and angles himself in the passenger seat. Connie starts the ignition and Tom Petty sings on the car stereo, “I Won’t Back Down.”

“His first solo album,” Paul says as she pulls away.

“I know,” Connie says. “You’ve told me before.”

*     *     *

While Paul smokes in the motel parking lot, Connie cries in the shower and dries herself off with a thin towel. Even though she can’t see her face in the fogged mirror she knows her left eye is weeping. The doctors say the right tear ducts might unclog someday and if they don’t it’s nothing to worry about.

Trina claims happy tears come from one eye and sad tears from the other. It’s something her grandmother told her although Trina can never remember which eye is which. Tears are tears, Connie thinks. She’s pretended she’s not sad for so long she’s not sure she’d know the difference.

*     *     *

The only tickets Paul can get last minute are nosebleed seats. It costs twenty dollars to park in the Forum lot and the T-shirts are thirty-five each. Paul says he doesn’t like the designs and doesn’t want one. At least his back’s a little better, Connie thinks, as they climb the stairs up to the last row of the Forum. The opening act is Steve Winwood. The sound’s a little distorted up so high but they can almost see the big video screen. When Winwood finishes, most of the people in the seats around them head down the stairs.

“You want something to drink?” Paul asks. “I’m buying.”

She imagines him negotiating the stairs down and back up again. “I’ll have to pee. I don’t want to miss anything.”

They watch the crowd and wait for Tom Petty. A young couple standing at the bottom of their section seems to be staring at them. Connie automatically puts a hand across her face. The boy has a crew-cut and wears thick glasses and the girl has pink highlights in her hair. Connie wonders what it would be like to be so young and stylish with money and energy to spare. The girl runs up the stairs, two at a time, in heels no less, straight towards her and Paul, the boy right behind her.

“We’re looking for the people with the worst seats in the building,” the girl says.

“That would be us,” Connie says. She can feel the shock on Paul’s face. She doesn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but their seats are terrible.

“Here you go.” The boy hands Paul two tickets. “They’re down in the pit.”

“No thanks,” Paul says.

Connie elbows him. “How much do you want for them?”

“Nothing,” the girl says. “They’re free. We’re going to Winwood’s party. We wanted to give our seats to someone who’ll appreciate them.”

“We’re fine where we are,” Paul says.

Connie stands and hugs the girl thanks.

“It’s probably a scam,” Paul says when the couple is gone. Connie takes the tickets from Paul’s hands and heads down the stairs towards an usher. “Go down and keep going,” he says. They take two flights of stairs and then three more and finally they are on flat ground. Another usher motions them forward and points towards a group of folding chairs set up in front of the stage. The lights go down and the Heartbreakers walk out.

Connie’s never thought Tom Petty’s voice was particularly good, but tonight he sounds wonderful. The lyrics are crystal clear, the guitars ring, the keyboard slinks through the mix; the drummer brings everyone to standing. A woman next to Paul lights a joint and passes it to him. He takes a deep drag and Connie tries not to breathe in. She already feels lightheaded. She takes a picture of Paul with the band in the background. Someone taps her shoulder and she sees panic register on Paul’s face. When she turns around, it’s a large man, motioning for them to stand closer together.

“Let me get the two of you,” he says.

Afterward, they walk circles around the Forum trying to find their car.

“This building looks exactly the same on all sides,” Paul says.

“It’s round.” Connie laughs. “You’re stoned.” Her feet hurt from dancing. “Stop for a minute.” She adjusts the toe of her sock and pulls out her phone, brings up the picture of the two of them with Tom Petty in the background.

“That’s good,” he says.

“I’m posting it.”

“It’ll seem like we’re showing off.”

“Too late,” she says. “It’s done.”

*     *     *

Paul’s phone rings the next morning. “Hey, Robert,” he says and puts the phone on speaker, lays it down on the kitchen table between their bowls of oatmeal.

Connie can’t remember the last time Robert’s actually called Paul instead of texting or messaging or having Vicky call her.

“I’m impressed,” Robert says through the speaker phone. “You were down in the pit?”

“Someone felt sorry for us,” Paul says. “Great show, right?”

“We left early. This asshole kept smoking pot right next to Emily. How’d you get those seats?”

“We were up in the rafters and this couple picked us out of the crowd.”

“If I’d known you had those kinds of connections, I would have asked you to get me tickets.”

“We got lucky for once.” Paul clenches and unclenches his fist. “Is it so hard to believe your old man might have a bit of luck once in a while?”

Connie touches his arm.

“What are you pissed off about?” Robert asks.

“You could have invited me to go with you and Emily. You know how I feel about the Heartbreakers. It was my sixtieth birthday. Kind of a big deal.”

Robert’s voice bristles through the speaker. “We came to your party. We gave you a gift.”

“You did. A hat.”

Connie sucks in her breath. Paul’s never sarcastic and immediately he backs off.

“A nice hat. Did you think any more about Thanksgiving weekend?”

“Turns out Vicky has to work on Friday. And Saturday we’re heading up to Pismo with a bunch of friends. Taking the sand toys. We’re giving Noah Emily’s ATV and buying her a new one. It’s going to be a blast.”

Connie shoves away from the table. The chair legs scrape the floor. She lets her bowl and spoon clatter down in the sink and turns on the kitchen faucet full blast.

“Maybe Christmas then,” Paul says.

“I’ll let you know.”

Paul hangs up. “That right there is an example of why I don’t like to talk on the phone.”

Connie takes a few deep breaths until she feels calm again. “I don’t know about getting together with them for Christmas. It’s our anniversary.”

“Three years,” he says, and manages a smile.

He’s a good man with a big heart she might not deserve. “I was thinking of buying a pie from Marie Callendar’s. They usually have them on sale around Christmas.”

“Cherry,” he says.

“I know, it’s your favorite.”

*     *     *

On Christmas Eve, Connie waits in line at Marie Callendar’s and tries to decide if she should buy one pie or two. She couldn’t talk herself into calling Vicky this month, so she’s not sure what their plans are. If she and Paul end up going to Robert’s house, they’ll need to bring something. She thinks about how much money there is in her purse and when it’s finally her turn at the cash register she says, “One cherry pie, please.”

“There are some almost ready to come out of the oven,” the clerk says. “I’ll be right back.”

“Why don’t they have more people working the register?” a familiar voice says behind her. “It’s Christmas Eve, for God’s sake.”

Connie glances over her shoulder. Paul’s first wife Sheila is in line a few customers back. Although Santa Ana is not a small town she can’t help running into Sheila once in a while. When the clerk comes back with her pie Connie hands him a ten-dollar bill and waits for her change, then turns towards the door. Sheila’s impossible to avoid. She’s gained a lot of weight since the last time Connie saw her picture on Facebook. She’s no longer plump; she’s fat.

Good, Connie thinks and feels momentarily guilty about being so mean-spirited until she notices the smirk on Sheila’s face as she sizes up Connie’s old Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings, the same ones she wears every year.

“This line is ridiculous,” Sheila says. “I still need to go to the market. I’m making tamales tonight with the grandkids.”

“They’re spending Christmas with you.”

“Christmas Eve anyway. Vicky will insist on leaving first thing in the morning to go to her parent’s house. At least I get to do Santa Claus this year.”

“Well,” Connie says, attempting a smile that feels more like a grimace. “Enjoy it. I’d better get back to work.”

“I thought you’d retired already.”

“Not yet. I like my job.”

Sheila smirks again. Connie wants to take the pie out of the box, smash it in Sheila’s face and watch the red cherry juice run down her cheeks and collect in the folds of her triple chins. Instead, she blurts out a quick, “Merry Christmas,” and flees towards the door. She places the pie box carefully on the floor of the passenger side. Her hands shake a little, so she decides to sit there for a minute and calm down. She won’t mention seeing Sheila to Paul. It will only upset him.

It takes all the strength she has not to run into Target and buy him something special. A complete set of those “Die Hard” movies he likes so much. New speakers for their CD player or even a few packages of socks and underwear. They’ve agreed not to exchange gifts this year but she’d do anything to fill up the big gaping hole Sheila has ripped through her holiday spirit.

*     *     *

When she gets home from work and plugs in the tree it doesn’t cheer her up like it usually does. It needs presents. She finds some Christmas paper in the hall closet and wraps up some old games for the grandkids. She doesn’t have any ribbon though and the gifts look like orphans underneath the tree so she puts them on the top shelf of the closet. The kitchen table is too fussy, she decides, with the six Santa Claus placements and the evergreen candle in the center. She takes four of the placements off the table and stuffs them in the closet on top of the gifts.

When the phone rings, Connie barely recognizes Trina’s voice. “I hate to ask,” Trina says after she finishes a coughing attack, “but could you work for me tomorrow? I’m running a fever and I can’t keep anything down. I know it’s your anniversary.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Connie says. She can use the extra money. She’ll ask Paul to come with her. They’ll make a day of it.

*     *     *

On Christmas morning they eat cherry pie for breakfast before they leave for the nursing home. Paul wears a Santa Claus hat and she puts on the Christmas cardigan and her ornament earrings. Someone brings in a spiral-cut ham and there’s red and green Jell-O salad and too many store-bought cakes.

Paul plays card games and helps the residents with jigsaw puzzles. He sees her watching him and smiles from across the room. Someone’s grandson picks out Christmas carols on the piano and she hears Paul’s tenor singing harmony.

They’re both tired when they get home and find a box propped up next to their front door. Paul brings it inside.

“It’s from Robert and Vicky,” he says. “The kids even signed the card.”

There’s no good reason to feel guilty. “Too bad we missed them,” she says.

“They could have let us know they were coming.” It takes him a minute to loosen the ribbon and open the box. He unfolds a black leather jacket, holds it out in front of him and turns it around so she can see the embroidery. The Heartbreakers logo, a red heart pierced with a Gibson Flying V Guitar.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says, trying it on.

It’s a little too big for him. It’s more Robert’s size. “I’m sorry I made you go to work with me today.”

“Are you kidding? I had a blast. It was a great way to spend Christmas. And our anniversary.”

“You could have stayed home and been with your family.”

“I was with my family.” He crosses the room and wraps his arms around her. “They should have brought something for you.”

“I don’t need anything.” She buries her face in the soft leather, feeling the tears start. “You should call and thank him,” she says, hoping the jacket muffles the choke in her voice.

“I’m busy right now,” he says, kissing the top of her head, holding her tight against him. She wants to stay there forever but she needs to blow her nose and wipe her eyes so she won’t ruin the jacket.

“How about a piece of pie?” she asks, pulling away and trying to turn her head so he won’t see the tears.

“Are you crying?” He holds her face gently with both hands, his brown eyes worried. “Did I say something wrong?”

“I’m fine,” she says. She goes in the bathroom to blow her nose. She’s at the point now where she can inspect the scar on her face and not flinch. She never was a beauty, not even before the accident. Something about her reflection tonight though is different. The scar seems diminished in comparison to the crow’s feet stamped around her uneven eyes. She’s older, of course, and she’s tired. She looks her age. She wipes her nose again and sees what’s changed. She’s crying out of her right eye.

“You sure you’re okay?” Paul calls out from the living room.

“I will be.” She smiles at herself in the mirror and turns off the light. “How about some ice cream with the pie?”

“Sounds good,” he says.

He opens the patio door and lets in the noise from the freeway. A steady stream of cars heads home from family parties, trunks full of presents, kids asleep in the backseat, parents looking forward to taking them up to the snow tomorrow or what about Disneyland? What about New Years? Super Bowl’s coming up, then Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s and Easter and suddenly it’ll be summer and the grandkids will be another year older.

She’ll call Vicky in the morning. She’ll ask about their Christmas and thank her for Paul’s jacket. She’ll suggest they meet somewhere special for lunch next week, their treat. Some place convenient, just off the freeway, halfway in between.

Mary CamarilloMary Camarillo’s fiction has appeared in Extracts: A Daily Dose of Lit and The Ear. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories. She lives in Huntington Beach, California with her husband and their terrorist cat. She is a recovering CPA and a lifelong music lover, frequently found stalking Los Lobos across the country.

The Grey-Haired Man

The grey-haired man was back again today. He sat there for a few minutes, which isn’t very long for him. Then he looked out across the street and started the engine.

He always pulls out carefully though there’s hardly any traffic. People don’t drive down our road because it doesn’t lead anywhere. If you came here, you’d probably be visiting someone who lived in one of the long row of identical houses. The houses were built on only one side of the street so each house gets a nice view of the field on the other side.

The other people who come here are dog lovers. They park near the gate to the field. It’s an exciting moment when the boot opens and the dog jumps out. Mum and I used to try to guess what sort of dog it would be just from looking at the car. In general, the smaller the car, the smaller the dog. But oddly, people with small dogs tend to have two or three. So their total dog volume is about the same. We called the game “What Dog?” Mum would have been sad if I had lost, so I tried to win to make her happy. But it always seemed to turn out a draw. We would watch together as the owners walked politely around the edge of the field while the dogs ran across the middle and went to the toilet on the crops.

*     *     *

He doesn’t do anything. He just sits very quietly with his big driving-gloved hands resting on the steering wheel. He’s not really looking at anything and not making any noise. In fact, that’s the most striking thing about him. Even in a quiet street like ours, he is the quietest thing.

When a car engine stops it’s not usually the last sound you hear. Usually, there’s a car door closing at least and possibly voices, then a garden gate or a front door banging shut. But when the grey-haired man pulls up and stops his engine, that’s all he does. And the bits of your brain that connect to your ears are waiting for something else.

Then he sits there. How long he sits there can vary, sometimes it’s a couple of hours. But what he does is always the same. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t fidget or look bored. He doesn’t pick at things with his fingers or stroke the wood on the dashboard. He doesn’t look round if a door slams or another car parks close up behind him.

*     *     *

Mum spent the morning tidying my room. It isn’t untidy. It’s very neat these days, Mum has tidied it several times already.

She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away.

My room is at the back of the house. It’s the best room because it has a multi-coloured light shade. It looks quite small but it has cupboards built into the wall along two sides. If you took them out it would actually be quite a big room. The cupboards are very useful for putting things in when they have been on the floor too long. They are also good for security, for storing things that you don’t want other people to see. The top cupboard is best for this. All my personal projects are stored up there. It’s not very convenient but at least other people can’t steal your ideas. I kept other things up there too. I kept my fossils and my Doctor Who swap cards. I collected sixty-two Doctor Who cards and kept them in good condition. I made some good swaps, there are a few valuable cards in there. If anyone ever gave me money for birthdays or Christmas I always spent it on swap cards.

The walls in my room are plain blue. We painted it with a roller because this gives the best finish. I did have a poster of the TARDIS and a map of the ancient world. The map, which was still quite large even though it was on a scale 1: 40 000 000, peeled off the wall in the night. It left a terrible mark.

The drawers are built-in too. There are two large drawers underneath my sporting equipment shelf: the shirts and T-shirts drawer and the jumper drawer. That’s what Mum was tidying. She took everything out of my shirts and T-shirts drawer and unfolded them all, one by one. She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away. She looked through some of my other clothes that were hanging up in the wardrobe. She especially looked at my big jeans that Nanny brought me back from her holiday in America. They had buttons on the fly. They were for growing into.

*     *     *

He never comes in the evening when Dad’s at home. He usually comes at lunchtime and he can stay until about three o’clock when the kids get out of school. Not that there are any kids on our street, which is a shame. It’s mostly old people, Mum and Dad are probably the youngest people living here now.

Having said that he doesn’t ever do anything, he did something. He moved. That was all, it was just a movement. But he is usually so still. It had been a cold, boring day, not windy or rainy. The sun was white and fierce, poking out of the sky. It must have been coming at him through the front windscreen. He reached up and pulled at the visor. Then he watched his gloves as they came down again in front of his face.

He has bright cheeks, as though he’s been burnt by the wind. They hang off his face covered in a dry pink crust. Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

When his gloves fell back to the wheel he stared at them. Then he pulled them off and looked at his bare hands.

*     *     *

Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

Mum was doing some cooking. The main difference between when Mum cooks and when Dad cooks is that Mum never uses a book. Whereas, Dad is constantly checking the instructions. There are other differences too. Dad needs to have a drink when he cooks and he needs music on and no one to come in and ask him questions. You can’t ask him questions about anything, not even about what he’s doing. Especially not about what he’s doing. Mum would let me join in. I had special jobs and she would call me in to help her. The thing I was best at was tossing the salad. Even Dad said he could really taste the difference when I’d tossed the salad.

Dad came in and saw Mum cooking. He looked relieved to see her bustling to and fro in the kitchen, throwing things in a bowl. She never weighs anything out. She always guesses but she guesses exactly right. And if she guesses wrong it just makes it taste different but better. Then she tries to remember what she did wrong so she can do it on purpose next time. Unlike Dad’s experiments which have to be thrown away.

Dad gave her a little kiss on the cheek and then he left her to it. Recently, most of their meals have been from the freezer. Nanny cooks lots of the same meals and brings them round in plastic containers. She says they have to eat.

Dad smiled at Mum’s back as she was cooking. His smile faded when he saw what she had cooked. She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

That was one of my other jobs, laying the table. I always made sure everything was lined up very neatly at exactly ninety degrees. That’s what Mum did. She made right angles with the spoon just touching the top of the knife and fork so the food couldn’t escape before it was eaten. Then she served it up, fish fingers with fried potatoes and peas. Nice little garden peas like green sweets and a piece of buttered bread so you could make a fish finger sandwich. In the oven she had hidden a syrup pudding. It was waiting there for the ice cream. Most people assume boys like custard best but that’s not the case. Mum always gave me ice cream. It’s quite like custard but it’s really helpful if the syrup is too hot.

“I made all his favourites,” Mum said and smiled down at her plate.

“I can see that,” said Dad.

*     *     *

He has had to change his parking spot because Mum saw him. She was walking to the post box. She usually walks the other way, to the shop across the main road.

I liked going to the shop with Mum. I wasn’t ever supposed to go there on my own. She would give me coins so that I could buy swap cards. Going to the shop always put Mum in a good mood too. She would buy a chocolate bar and we’d break up all the squares and share it fifty-fifty. She told me not to tell Dad and although I never did, Dad had a way of finding the empty wrappers and getting to the truth.

Mum had a letter to post. She was feeling for the letter in her bag as she walked along and eventually she had to stop walking and look for it properly. She stopped right in front of his car. As she pulled the letter out, she saw him. He was watching through the windscreen. He was wearing his thick black coat with white flecks on the shoulder. Mum turned around and walked quickly back to the house with the letter still in her hand. He could have jumped out of the car and run after her down the street. He could have caught up with her before she reached the house. Later, when Dad got home, Mum didn’t tell him that she’d seen anyone.

*     *     *

Mum seems to have got worse since then. She spends a lot of time in the bath. Last Monday she stayed in the bath all afternoon. She was still there when Dad got home from work. Dad went into the kitchen and clattered the breakfast dishes into the sink. He switched on the radio and turned the volume up loud. Then he switched it off again. Then he ran upstairs and leaned his forehead against the bathroom door.

“You can’t carry on like this.”

But she just stayed there, she wouldn’t get out.

She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

Then Dad looked really tired. He went downstairs again and stood in the middle of the lounge with his hands in his pockets. He walked over to the window and looked out at the field. There was the outline of a man and his dog balancing on the path that led across the top of the hill. They didn’t seem to be moving. Dad scratched the stubble on his cheek and looked to see if there was anyone else out there but there wasn’t.

He walked over to the telephone and dialed Nanny’s number. Dad left a message on her answer machine. It took him a while to get going after the beep sounded, so when he did start talking there wasn’t much time.

“Hi, it’s Stewart. It’s us. It’s difficult. Could you come round?”

Mum stood behind him in her towel. “What did you have to call her for? She’s upset enough as it is.”

“Well, I had to do something. Things are getting worse.”

“How could things get any worse?” Mum asked. Dad didn’t know the answer to that.

*     *     *

He’s been here every day for the last couple of weeks. He just sits very quietly. He never brings a book but recently he has the car radio on sometimes. He listens to the type of music that doesn’t have any singing, just lots of violins. It’s a very gentle noise. It’s good music for sitting quietly and it means he’s not completely on his own. He has a noise with him. The music can grow though. At times it gets bigger and bigger and pounds on the car doors.

I like him. It surprised me when I realised it. But I do quite like him. He’s got a kind, saggy face and he moves slowly. I wonder if he’s got a wife, like Mum but a bit older probably and not as pretty. She must wonder where he is all the time when he’s sitting parked up in our road with his driving gloves on. She is probably thinking he should be at home helping her around the house.

*     *     *

Nanny came round, it was raining and she’d had to walk from the bus stop. She gave Mum a special long hug and her umbrella dripped onto Mum’s trouser leg making a damp patch. Dad was still holding onto the latch and hovering in front of the door, as though Nanny might turn around and try to leave. When Nanny let go Mum was still leaning in to her like she couldn’t stand herself up again. Dad was looking at Nanny, straight at her without looking away or blinking. Nanny looked about in a general way and then said.

“Hello, dear. How are you?” She kissed him nicely on the cheek.

“We’re managing,” said Dad and he found the confidence to let go of the front door.

“You might be,” said Mum.

“Would you like a cup of tea, love?” said Dad. The question seemed too simple and that made it difficult to answer.

“I think we should have some tea,” Nanny said, to help her.

Dad went into the kitchen. He lined three mugs up in a row. He made normal tea for himself and Nanny, fruit tea for Mum. It made the kitchen smell of jam. Dad put the kettle down but he didn’t let go of it.

While he was gone Nanny and Mum waited for the tea to come. They didn’t say anything. They could talk about the tea when it arrived.

Dad put two mugs down on the table and went back to the kitchen. Nanny looked up and watched him go. Then she asked quietly, “Why don’t you come and stay with me for a bit, dear?” But he heard her from the doorway and turned round.

“Why don’t you, love?” Mum looked at him as though he had offended her.

“Right, I’ll go and pack my stuff then.” She went upstairs without her tea. Dad stroked his finger round the top of Mum’s mug. He seemed to know not to look straight at Nanny now.

*     *     *

So, Mum went to stay with Nanny for a few days. She took her to the seaside and on a shopping trip but Mum didn’t buy anything. I wish Mum had stayed there longer. Nanny is good at looking after her, much better than Dad. Even when he is trying really hard to be nice he sounds a little bit like he is telling her off.  Nanny strokes Mum’s hair as though she was a little girl.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

Since she got back from Nanny’s she has barely stepped outside the house. She used to love little walks, even just around the block. The leaves are on the floor and there’s conkers now. Mum is good at conkers.

She always noticed things when we went for walks. “Look at that silly duck!” I tried to point out funny things too. We did it to make each other smile. Dad didn’t point things out so much. He would just grab me and hold me upside down. I quite liked it but I couldn’t do it back to him.

Mum spends her days inside the house, sorting through drawers, especially photographs. She endlessly rearranges the photographs. She writes long descriptions on the back. Where we were, how we got there, who was with us, how long we stayed, where we ate our lunch. Everything she can remember. She files them in date order.

It’s getting to the point that there aren’t many left to organize. She’s slowing down, taking longer over every detail. Added to which, she’s losing concentration. She’s getting distracted. She lays the photos out on the bed and then just sits next to them and gazes out of the window. She watches the local cats patrolling. She watches the postman’s legs marching along driveways. She looks out over the field on the other side of the road and watches the farmer shuttling up and down.

*     *     *

Mum was watching yesterday. She had seen him long before he rang the bell. Perhaps she recognized his car as it parked up right outside. He didn’t get out straight away. He sat in his car looking over at the house. It took quite a long time for him to finish doing that. He ran his hand over his hair.

His hair is definitely grey but only overall. On average his hair is grey. If you looked at the individual hairs they are actually lots of different colours. Some are still thick, coarse and black. While others are fine white hairs that look like they would fall off in your hand if you touched them. It is cut very short so you can see the fold of flesh at the back of his skull where it settles onto his neck.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

When she saw him from the upstairs window she sat back on the bed. She didn’t go running downstairs but when the doorbell eventually rang Mum was standing behind the door. She clicked the latch on the mortice lock and held her breath. The grey-haired man was moving on the other side. She edged away from the door. As she slid across the mirror in the hall she watched herself, creeping backwards. She stopped and looked for a moment. He rang the doorbell a little bit so it didn’t make too much noise, as if trying not to wake a baby. But there was no baby.

She didn’t look like she was going to move.  She looked like she was going to do “pretending not to be in.” But there are criteria that must be met for that. For instance, you mustn’t have the telly on and you should turn the light off in the hall. It’s best if you haven’t left a bike on the front lawn.

Today, Mum was meeting all the criteria. She could have stayed on the bed or even crouched down on the other side by the wardrobe, just to make sure. That is a very secret spot. I used to jump out at Dad from that spot and he was always really surprised. Once I did it and he nearly died of a heart attack.

But she gave up really quickly. He only rang the bell that once and then just stayed in the porch. He didn’t look irritated and keep pressing the bell like Mum did when we went to visit people who weren’t home. Looking back, they could have just been pretending too. They could all have been in the upstairs bedroom lying behind the bed with the telly off. Mum might have realised this, which would explain why she got so irritated.

Then she cleared her throat, so they would both know that she was home. He moved his shoes around. Mum unlocked the door and opened it. He lifted up his hand to show her that he was holding a box of chocolates and then he lifted up the other hand which held a bunch of big white flowers.

Mum looked beautiful, standing there with the sun coming through the coloured glass chimes and twinkling onto her face. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. The grey-haired man dropped his hands, so the flowers were all hanging upside down.

“Do you want to come in?” Mum asked, without making any room in the doorway.

“Thank you,” he said. Then they stood there in silence and it was a very silent silence. Mum pushed the door closed a little.

“Please…take these,” he said, waving the flowers about a bit. Mum put out a hand and took them. She didn’t say thank you or give him a smile. She closed the door and the grey-haired man stood in the porch. He was still holding the chocolates. He walked back to his car as though his legs were tired.

At teatime, Mum told Dad about it. “He was here.”

“Oh Christ,” said Dad.

“He brought flowers.”

“Flowers? Jesus, can’t he see how creepy that is?  He’s unhinged.”

“He’s just sad.”

*     *     *

The grey-haired man did look sad, leaning forwards, his head resting in his hands. That’s what he was doing that day when Mum first saw him. He was sitting on the side of the big main road just past the shop. A policeman was talking to him. He had his head in his hands. His legs were shaking. His car was parked on the verge and he was sitting beside it.

He was especially quiet today. He really didn’t stay long, just a few minutes. A gull was barking at him from a gate post. After he’d started the engine he looked over at the field. Then he checked the mirrors and tugged his big car awkwardly away.


Alison GibbAlison Gibb lives in Brighton, England with her husband and two young sons. She has previously lived and worked in London and New Zealand. She is a Doctor specialising in the care of vulnerable and homeless patients. She completed an MA in Creative Writing and Authorship at Sussex University.

The Do-Over

When the ruddy-faced doctor at the Joshua Tree Medical Clinic announced, “It’s back,” Vera nodded, picked up her old purse from the floor and tucked it under her arm. She was still nodding when the pleasant red-headed receptionist called out, “Have a nice day,” as she exited through the sliding glass doors of the clinic. The dry heat hit her like an oven. Nice day, unlikely.

The air conditioner in the Buick spewed a lukewarm stream. On either side of the two-lane highway that beautiful shimmering floor of ancient trees beckoned to an ancient sea. On certain mornings, Vera swore she smelled its salty breeze. She longed to plunge into a water so cold it could erase everything. A semi behind lay on its horn and she turned in the direction of the green blinker on the dashboard. In the shade of the K-Liquor Mart sign, Vera shut off the engine. She took a deep breath. Frank hadn’t yet spotted her through the store window. She gripped the wheel, watching her knuckles turn white.

There was the issue of Rain.

*     *     *

Six weeks ago, her daughter Stevie the-queen-of-heartaches had showed up unannounced with a surprise at their new motor home. “Her name is Rain,” Stevie informed them, dropping a sleeping child into Frank’s recliner.

“Why not Thunder or Lightning?” Frank asked under his breath.

They’d been in a middle of a game of Scrabble and Frank hated to be interrupted when it was his turn.

“I just need you to watch her,” Stevie snapped. The circles under her blue eyes were darker than Vera remembered from the last time.

“Vera, did we put a babysitting ad on craigslist?” Frank asked.

“She’s not mine, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Stevie challenged.

“That wasn’t my first thought,” Frank replied. “But it was in the top five.”

Three in the afternoon on a Thursday, a year since any communication and already they were at it. Vera laid a hand on her husband’s broad shoulder. It wasn’t Frank’s fault that he’d inherited Stevie at sixteen when it was too late to change things.

Stevie skulked to the fridge, opened the door and peered inside. “She’s three, no wait, four, I think. She likes oranges, Cheerios, bacon, not bananas.” She pulled out a Coke and opened the can. “Oh, and be careful, she’s got this weird thing for cotton balls. Really packs them in.”

“I hardly ever serve cotton balls anymore,” Vera joked, but nobody laughed.

Stevie took a swig of Coke and scanned the room. “Not bad. Hey, where’s Bob?”

“Hit by a UPS truck,” Frank said.

“Jesus,” Stevie sighed. “I warned you.”

Frank grunted and slid his big frame out of the dining nook. “Good to see you, Stevie.” He walked to the door. “Call your mother more often.” It slammed hard behind him. They listened to his heavy boots descend the metal steps and walk the gravel path to the Mart.

“He never liked me,” Stevie said, sliding into Frank’s seat at the table.

“Bob loved everybody,” Vera replied, and her daughter laughed.

One day, the blind basset hound had pushed the unlocked mobile home door open with his nose and found his way down the stairs, around the store parking lot and onto the warmest patch of sunin the middle of the highway. Frank had buried Bob down deep where the coyotes couldn’t get to his body. Now dog food commercials left him as misty-eyed as Christmas movies on Hallmark.

Stevie moved the Scrabble tiles around, her stringy blond hair shadowing her face. “He has the Q and the Z, but no U.”

“It’s good to see you,” Vera said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Everything all right?”

Stevie shrugged, “Peachy.” She grabbed a handful of Frank’s jellybeans from the candy dish on the table. “I thought he had diabetes,” she said, spilling out the syllables one by one.

“I can scramble you an egg.”

Stevie returned her gaze to Frank’s Scrabble tiles. “I’m clean, mom.”

Vera listened to the wind pick up, scattering bits of leaves and trash across the yard, surprised to feel a spark of hope ignite. “That’s good,” saying the words easy and slow.

“He could spell qi,” Stevie said.

“Qi?”

“You can spell it c-h-i or with a q and an i,” Stevie said, moving Frank’s tiles around. “It means inner life force.

One day, the blind basset hound had pushed the unlocked mobile home door open with his nose and found his way down the stairs, around the store parking lot and onto the warmest patch of sunin the middle of the highway.

It’s Chinese. Every person is allotted a certain amount each lifetime. When it runs out, you’re out. But then you get a new life with more. I think I believe it.”

“Qi,” Vera repeated. In her religion, you only got one life and then it was up or down. “I like it. But, don’t tell Frank. I’m winning.”

Stevie pulled the curtain aside and peered out the window. A Camaro with darkened windows waited near the mailbox. Vera wondered if Frank had bothered to stop and inquire, probably not. A while back they’d agreed: they didn’t have any more money to spend on rehab or any inner spirit left to recover from heartache. Where Stevie was concerned, it was better for their marriage to assume that things wouldn’t get better. More than likely Frank was walking up and down the aisles inside the Mart getting rid of a slow burn.

“I could make you and your friend pasta for dinner?” Vera suggested.

“Jesus, stop,” Stevie said, sliding off the bench. “I gotta pee.” She disappeared down the short hall, sliding the bathroom door closed behind her.

Once, she’d been a pleasant person. Her name was Stephanie then. Stephanie was a bright, pretty kid who’d taken to water like a fish. “Stephanie has talent,” her junior high swim coach, Mr. Ambrosia, had told Vera. “UCLA, maybe even Texas A&M. Real potential.” And real curves and a sweet disposition.

After they won the lawsuit against the school district, Vera moved them to the desert. Yes, she’d been single and working two jobs, but she was the only line of defense against the ugly in the world. Why hadn’t she noticed sooner? They tried child therapists, family therapists, and various medications. Vera apologized until her face turned blue and capillaries broke in her eyes but no one could resuscitate the daughter. Frank appeared solid and steady, but Stevie wasn’t interested in a good male role model. She’d escaped into the wrong crowd with the right drugs. Would it be smack or meth or the needle? It was a marvel a heart still beat in her tortured body, that it would continue once Vera’s had silenced.

“Stevie, there’s something we need to talk about,” Vera started.

“Oh, hey, Mom, can you spot me some cash?  I lost my ATM card somewhere in Colorado. It’s a fucking mess. You won’t believe this. I went to the bank, but they needed my driver’s license. It’s expired, whatever, I don’t carry it on me. I can’t drive. They made me call an eight-hundred number and some woman with a seriously heavy accent said the bank could only mail a replacement card to my address on file. But I’m in-between places. Rick moved that bitch in, whatever, we have to be in LA tonight.”

And there it was. The longer the story, the bigger the lie. Vera reached for her wallet and pulled out forty dollars. Not enough to buy real trouble.

Stevie stuffed the twenties into the front pocket of her jeans. “Thanks.”

“How long do we have to watch Rain?” Vera asked, feeling the return of the hard edges.

“I gave her dad your number,” Stevie replied, draining the last of her soda and setting the can on the counter instead of putting it in the recycle bin.

“Good to know you still have it.”

“I’m sorry.” Stevie threw her bony arms around her mother’s neck, “I’m such an asshole.”

Vera took a deep hungry whiff, hint of beer and cigarettes, and yes, the faintest trace of sweetness. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. She tightened her jaw to stop the unconditional from rushing out and pried her daughter’s arms from her body. “Enough, Stevie. Enough.”

As the dark Camaro peeled out onto the highway, Stevie’s arm shot out the window in salute. Vera gave her the finger. To grieve the loss of the dead was too unbearable.

A while back they’d agreed: they didn’t have any more money to spend on rehab or any inner spirit left to recover from heartache.

A short time later, Frank returned with orange juice, milk, and Cheerios because he was a good and reliable person. The little girl devoured two bowls and fell back to sleep on the pullout sofa without a single question. Frank and Vera finished their game of Scrabble without a mention of the word qi, but Frank won anyway.

*     *     *

Now, six weeks later, everything had changed.

Frank caught Vera’s attention through the front window of the Mart. Quite a few customers were lined up at the cash register. She faked a smile and gave him the thumbs up.  He held both up at her. Her hand shook as she unzipped her purse, pulled out a gold tube, and carefully applied cherry red to her chapped lips before returning to work.

Later that night after a dinner of cold fried chicken and pork ‘n beans, Vera washed the dishes while Rain, emotional, recounted a children’s story about a lost kitten.

“It was white,” Rain repeated at Vera’s side. “But it had a black spot. And it was lost. In the big city.”

“Honey,” Vera assured her. “I read that book to Stephanie when she was little.  In the end, the mama kitty finds her kitten and they all live happily ever after.”

Rain wiped her nose with the back of her small arm. She stared at Vera with big saucer eyes. “Truth?” she asked. The kid was way too smart. She ran to Frank, sitting in his recliner watching a ball game. He pulled her up onto his big lap. “I don’t remember that ending, Pa Frank.”

“Rain of the forest. Rain of the sea.” Frank sang in deep baritone. “Rain, the dark-haired beauty queen of the desert.”

It was a miracle, each day that passed without a phone call. At church people assumed she was Stevie’s. Folks had prayed on her troubles, so the delusion fell easy. At first, they’d been afraid of what Rain might say, but the girl acted like they were her real grandparents. Every day, Vera meant to bring it up to Frank, but the days kept passing, and in all fairness, Frank hadn’t mention it to her, either.

He carried Rain to the sofa bed. “We will never lose you in the big city,” he said.

“You have to say, promise,” Rain said, looking up at him. “Twice.”

“Promise. Promise,” Frank said. “Promise, three times.”

Vera pulled the covers up under the child’s chin, examining the defined cheekbones, the jutted chin, the dark hairline that grew low over her forehead. Where was the mother?

*     *     *

One month later, the well-tanned cancer specialist at the Palm Springs Clinic pronounced “metastasized.” While he rattled on about the minimal benefits at this stage of chemotherapy, Vera traced the hardened crescent moon of the old wound across the taut skin where the right breast had once lived with the left. Frank had spread aloe and kisses across her old road map of a scarred chest. She grabbed her big white bra with the foam prosthesis and stuck it in her purse. “To hell with appearances,” she said, but the specialist rattled on.

A brown-skinned receptionist quietly handed Vera a scribbled prescription for oxycodone, one of Stevie’s favorites, on her way out. She rode the noiseless elevator down to the sparkling empty lobby and called Frank from her cellphone. “Store busy?”

“Nothin’ me and Burt can’t handle,” he said, over the din of after-school teens loafing near the register. “Everything all right?”

“Peachy. I’ve decided to stop wearing a bra,” she announced. When he didn’t respond, Vera added, “Sign me up for Beer & Brawl’s white t-shirt contest.” That at least got a laugh.

At church people assumed she was Stevie’s. Folks had prayed on her troubles, so the delusion fell easy. At first, they’d been afraid of what Rain might say, but the girl acted like they were her real grandparents.

The sky was bright blue, the 10 freeway shimmering ahead. She shivered and rolled down the window. It was hot, but she didn’t feel warm.

Inside the Dairy Queen, Vera picked a booth near the back. She slowly spooned cold sweet vanilla into her mouth trying to fill the emptiness and watched the people in line. A short man held the hands of two small fat boys. Three teenaged pimply girls giggled behind a tall handsome boy. The boy pretended not to notice. Sweet young boys and budding teenage girls with promise. Vera unfolded the map and spread it across the table. It was a three-hour drive to Lake Havasu. They’d leave Burt in charge and the mobile parked behind the Mart so as to not arouse suspicions. With the camper on the truck, they could enjoy themselves until the weather turned.

“Planning a vacation?” Betsy asked, sliding her wide frame into the booth across from Vera.

Vera jumped. “Jesus.”

Betsy laughed and set a small milk carton down, sloshing white liquid across the table. “Sorry, sorry, but I am clumsy.”

The woman reeked of cheap drugstore perfume. Vera blotted the wet map with a napkin, trying not to show her irritation.

“I told the leader at Weight Watcher’s this morning, ‘You don’t understand the power of my drive,’ but I resisted and ordered a small two-percent. Hopefully, my lactose intolerance won’t act up.” She stared at Vera’s sundae. “You should join Weight Watchers, Vera. We could be buddies.” Betsy turned her focus to the map.

“Havasu. Frank wants to teach Rain to swim.”

“Take her to the Y.” Betsy shivered, holding up the stump of her left arm as evidence. “Less dangerous.” A boating accident one summer in Wisconsin.

Betsy smiled. Vera smiled. Once, they’d been friends, not the best, but good enough. Ah well, old age showed unattractive in different ways. Vera scraped the last bite of fudge into her mouth.

“Wanna split a dog?” Betsy asked, slurping down the last of her milk.

“No, thanks” Vera started, but stopped at the word MISSING stamped on the side of the cartoon. Underneath was a black and white photograph of the child living in their house.

“Must’ve been quite a shock finding out Stevie had a kid,” Betsy said, slowly crushing the carton with a fat, pink palm. “She’s good-looking, no offense, but she doesn’t look like either of you. What is she, half Mexican? Excuse me, Latino, whatever it is they wanna be called these days.”

Vera quickly refolded the damp map. “Sorry, Betsy. But I promised I’d make mac ‘n cheese for supper.”

“It’s only three-thirty.”  Betsy stared into her eyes. “Vi, are you all right? You look a little drained of color.”

“It’s the air-conditioning is all,” Vera said, standing. She picked up the smashed carton. “Let me recycle this for you.”

“Huh?” Betsy asked, a look of confusion crossing her face as Vera jammed the evidence into her purse. “All right, thanks.”

“No, thanks” Vera started, but stopped at the word MISSING stamped on the side of the cartoon. Underneath was a black and white photograph of the child living in their house.

“Good luck with Weight Watchers,” Vera added, then quickly left before the idiot said another word.

*     *     *

After two weeks at Lake Havasu, Frank looked well-rested and Rain looked well-fed. In the mornings while it was still cool, Vera sat in a lawn chair under an old beach umbrella and read her romance, while the two, well-slathered in sunscreen, waded out into the shallow reddish waterFrank wearing swim trunks, a faded Dodgers t-shirt stretched over his thick middle, and Rain, skinny with a protruding girl belly, in a new pink suit she’d picked out herself from Walmart.

Frank balanced the shrieking girl on his shoulders and slowly lowered himself blowing bubbles underwater. Rain shrieked and the two laughed so hard it was like chords of music to Vera’s heart. He’d married her sans uterus and never complained once about not having his own family. Now, twenty years later, she watched her lumbering husband patiently make circles with his arms in the water and a little girl’s mirror in unison. She’d always suspected that Frank loved children. His never having mentioned it made her love him all the more. What had she done to deserve such goodness? Suddenly, a rolling wave of tiredness coursed through her body. She felt a little frightened over the imminent.

Rain Gomez was snatched from a small town named Cortez down near the four corners in Colorado. Three months ago. In broad daylight. By a “skinny white woman with stringy blonde hair wearing a black leather jacket.” In almost every case on the missing children’s website, the words “Taken in broad daylight,” were near the top paragraph, as if children were only safe under the dark of night. Vera remembered how easily Stephanie would slip through her fingers under a clothing rack at Target, behind a tree in the park, and recently, a Camaro with darkened windows. She’d known Stevie capable of many things, but never child-stealing. Funny to learn that kidnapping was in the family genes.

“Ma Vi!” Rain called out. The child dunked under water, then popped up, sputtering and coughing, wet strands of hair clinging to her cheeks. “See my can hold my breath as long as my want to!”

Today several fellow-vacationers had looked more than once in the little girl’s direction. And a woman with binoculars had been enough to arouse Vera’s anxiety. “I can,” Vera called back. “I can hold my breath as long as I want to.”

Later that night in bed, Vera suggested, “I think we should drive on.” There were dozens of small towns along the RockiesDurango, Buena Vista, even down into Cortez, the four corners, where history got interesting.

“All righty,” Frank said, patting her bottom. “Lots more fun to be had.”

If Frank knew about the black and white photo on the milk carton, which she’d destroyed with garden shears back home, he showed no signs of wanting the party to end.

*     *     *

The third week they stayed in a faux-chalet motel in Durango with a pool and cable television. It was hotter than normal for Colorado. They spent a lot of time when they weren’t in the water napping on the queen beds in the air conditioning. They ate dinner each night at Denny’sRain’s favorite, always fried chicken. The waitresses fawned over the girl wearing an oversized pink sunhat to hide a new, very bad, haircut. Even though she was nauseous, Vera tried to eat enough so as to not arouse Frank’s suspicion.

By the end of the week, they had poked in and out of art galleries and shops in historic downtown, eaten ice cream and buffalo burgers, and were ready to move on. But before they did, Frank wanted to take Rain on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

“The train departs at eight-fifteen, so we gotta get a move on! Oh, Rain, but it will be beautiful, traveling along the winding Colorado river with you, Rain of the forest, Rain of sea,” he sang. “Rain, the beauty queen of the desert.”

Vera declined with a headache. She was having a hard time waking up over the weak coffee Frank had brought up from the motel lobby. After the door closed behind them, Rain chattering away, Vera lay back against the headboard and tried to take in a deep breath. She may as well have been sipping air through a straw. Maybe it was true what Stevie said about chi because Vera could feel it draining from her body.

For the first time since they’d left Joshua Tree, Vera dropped the façade. She took an oxycodone, then lay back on the bed in the dark, the air blowing ice cold across the sweat beads on her skin. So, this was bone-tired. Against the dark pain, she cried out for Stevie the queen of the heartaches, whose cell phone had been disconnected. I’m sorry. I love you, still and always. I see. I see it now, this life, this life offers beauty and pain up to its very edges, take it, take it.

Hours later a voice brought her home, “Ma Vi! Ma Vi.” Rain wrapped her arms around Vera’s neck, planting little kisses across her check. Vera struggled, clawing her way back. “Settle down, gracious,” she snapped as Frank flipped on the light by the bed.

“We got pizza for dinner,” he announced, holding a large box in his hands.

“Roni with cheese,” Rain said, jumping on the bed. “Cause we all like it.”

Vera shook her head. She reached for her glasses on the nightstand. “I must look a fright.”

“You sleep all day?” Frank asked, a worried look on his face.

“What time is it?”

Rain interrupted, holding up Frank’s phone. “Ma Vi, lookey,” she said, sticking the screen in Vera’s face. “My took a selfie. And drank a Shirley Temple. But don’t worry, it isn’t real, only make believing.”

In the photo, Frank and Rain sit in the train’s dining car under a plastic dome. On the table, maraschino cherries sparkle inside two glasses of soda. They grin for the camera. Rain’s little body leans against Frank’s, pink sunhat pushed back from her smiling face. They could be related.

“It’s the funniest thing,” Frank told Vera, biting into a slice. “A woman on the train recognized Rain.”

“What?”

“She had a weird finger,” Rain said.

“It was in a splint,” Frank explained. “She swore up and down that she recognized Rain.”

“I said my name was Susan,” Rain jumped in.

And so Vera told them about the MISSING girl on the milk carton.

    *     *    *

Cortez. The four corners. Land of the Anasazi. Canyon of The Ancients, the ancestors, tall silent red rocks which had stood the test of time.

“This is a cute little town,” Vera declared, trying to sound joyful but ending flat.

Frank pulled the truck alongside the curb. “It’s nothing more than fast food, a drive-thru liquor, and a hardware.”

Rain sat quietly between them.

Vera grabbed the AAA travel book from the dashboard and opened to a cornered page, trying to steady her shaky hand. “Rain, did you know that your town features real live stagecoach rides?”

The child pondered Vera’s false cheer. She climbed up onto her knees to get a better view through the windshield. “My going to be lonely,” she prophesied.

“No such thing as alone when you’ve got people who love you,” Frank said.

Vera could hear the tight pain in his throat. She took the child’s small hand and squeezed it.

Rain bit her lower lip, fighting back big tears. “But, you love me.”

Frank worked his jaw hard. He reached over and placed his hand on theirs. It was heavy and hot and felt all right. The three stared through the front windshield at a Ruby’s Diner just down the street.

“First,” Frank said. “I could use a slice of pie.”

“I like cherry,” Rain announced. “But only with white ice cream.”

In the distance, dark ominous clouds threatened an afternoon storm. Frank helped Vera down the sidewalk to the diner. Her legs felt like jelly and they took their time, Rain hiding at the edge of his left side. Once inside they ordered three slices of cherry pie with vanilla ice cream from a young man with angry acne across his forehead and listened to the thunder growing closer. There were only two other customersan old man in a cowboy hat sipping a cup of coffee, and a young woman with a pierced eyebrow eating a greasy burger.

On her way to the ladies’ room, Vera spotted the MISSING poster with Rain’s face. She ripped it from the wall and took it into the ladies. In the disabled person’s stall, she sat down on the toilet and closed her eyes against the stabbing pain. Relief, relief what in the hell was this life about anyway? She opened the poster and saw the number scratched in red ink with a name. Five, four, three, two, she grabbed the sticky metal bars on either side and with a grunt and stood. Thunder bellowed nearby. Rain, likely.

The payphone by the emergency exit was keyed with four letter words. She took a Wet Wipes from the pack in her purse and cleaned off the numbers as she dialed.

He answered on the fifth ring, voice thick with sleep. “Yeah.”

“Is this Dylan Gomez?”

“I ain’t got your money,” he yelled, slamming down the phone.

Back at the table, Vera flattened the crinkled poster.

“Rain, can you show us which way?”

Rain stuck out a small arm and pointed west, her dark eyebrows knitted together.

The waiter gave them a suspicious glance as he set down the check, but then it could have been Vera’s imagination. By then, her fever was one hundred and four.

Rain lived in a clapboard house of peeling green paint and old furniture on the front porch. A brown muscled dog in the yard lunged as they approached, but his leash caught up short. “Get back, Harley,” Rain commanded. The dog whined and sat back on its haunches. Vera and Frank each took a small hand and they walked shoulder-to-shoulder up the concrete steps and across the squeaky wooden porch to the front door. Vera had to stop twice to catch her breath.

Rain let go of their hands and peered inside through the locked screen door “D?” she called out. A TV blared a news program inside. A young man appeared. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. “Girl?” he asked, peering out, and not in a way that seemed excited or relieved, but more like he wondered if he were still stoned on the sagging couch in front of the television.

Rain nodded her small head. “Yes,” she whispered.

The winds picked up in the cottonwood tree and the dog growled low.

Dylan Gomez stepped outside. He wore faded jeans but no shirt. His chest was shiny brown and shrunken. His dark hair grew past his shoulders. He had her eyes. But his were rimmed in red. The heavy pit in her stomach told Vera that she had made the wrong decision. He reached out and grabbed the little girl by the arm. “Where in the hell have you been?”

“Easy,” Frank said, his voice steady. “She’s back now.”

“I’m sorry, D,” Rain whispered.

“Girl?” he asked, peering out, and not in a way that seemed excited or relieved, but more like he wondered if he were still stoned on the sagging couch in front of the television.

Dylan Gomez’ fingers gripped her arm turning the flesh under his tips white. “Cops been lookin’ for you.”

Frank took a step toward him. Dylan couldn’t have been more than five-seven. He looked up at Frank. The dog barked, straining at its leash.

“Let go now,” Frank said. “Let her go.”

Ignoring the warning, Dylan jerked Rain closer. “Do it againI’ll give you somethin’ to be sorry about.” Dylan turned to Frank and Vera. “You with child services? Did the cop catch that bitch?”

A shiver ran down Vera’s spine and she grabbed the back of a rusted chair to keep from falling.

The dog lunged to the end of its leash, barking with fury. “Come on, girl. Inside.” He jerked her toward the door.

“D, don’t,” Rain cried. “It hurts.”

“I said let her go,” Frank commanded.

“Fuck you,” Dylan said. “She’s mine.”

And so, Frank cold-cocked him.

*     *     *

The sky cleared without a warning just outside of town, the storm leaving traces of dark wet pavement and small puddles in its wake. They drove to Monument National Park. Frank paid the fee at the ranger kiosk and drove into the park.  He found an empty campsite off the main road, far from any facilities or tourists, and parked beside a large boulder. The last of the day was sinking soft pink light toward evening.

After he made Rain an impromptu treat of cheese and Cracker Jacks in the cab to keep her occupied, he joined Vera in the back for their conversation.

Vera said she was glad that she’d done it the way she had and hoped that Frank wasn’t too mad. The sheets of pain made it hard for her to sufficiently explain her reasons, but they had loved each other long enough to let misunderstandings slide. She wouldn’t go into hospice. It was best to give things their proper respect. They’d lived in the desert under stars their whole married life.

Frank wiped the tears from his face. He gave her a pain pill. He pulled the quilt over her shaking frame. “Your daughter finally did it,” he said, kissing the top of Vera’s head. “Get some rest.”

As night passed, Vera flew, circling over the canyon of red arches while her husband seated in the cab of a truck below stared out into the darkness and made plans for the small peace offering curled in sleep beside him.

In the morning, Frank’s voice carried through the heavy fog. “Thought we’d head on down to El Paso, then through the Franklin Mountains down into Chihuahua, Mexico.”

“My has never been to Mexico,” Rain sang, patting Vera’s head a rat-a-tat-tat with her small hand.

Peachy, Vera thought, feeling the pills enter her blood stream. Maybe there was chi and maybe there wasn’t. Maybe it was one time and that’s all you got, no matter how badly you screwed it up, oh well, it was all just water flowing underground until it reached the ocean. And then . . . cold refreshment.

Staci GreasonStaci Greason is the author of The Last Great American Housewife. Her essays have appeared in Brevity (Jan 2017), Slate, Angel’s Flight Literary West, the Huffington Post, and many others. She also coaches fellow writers at The Write Muse. www.thewritemuse.biz.

Broken Horns

Yeah, so, they give us these little bathroom breaks every hour or so, cause it’d be a real shame if Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, pissed his fluffy purple dress pants in front of these little whiney-ass children. Their parents, many in the death throes of potty training the little imps, would certainly be nonplussed.

It was that time again, so me and Rhonda Hornblower, who silently encased my buddy Dave, would smile (always the same flat, toothy grin) and wave at the poor souls who would now have to wait in amusement park purgatory for fifteen blistering, immobile minutes. I always felt sorry for Jimmy, the poor old sap who worked the line, trying to be firm and cheery at the same time, delivering the bad news.

“Okay, everybody, thanks for your patience. The Dancing Rhinos are so happy to see all of their favorite little fans. We’re just gonna take a short break so Rudy and Rhonda can get a quick drink.”

Man, I loved that part, seeing contempt and despair simultaneously ooze down the faces of those sweating, irritated parents. This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.

“Don’t worry, Daddy, it won’t be that long. I’ll be real still.”

I did feel sorry for the kids, though, because some of them were pure, selfless in their devotion to the caped, purple-bedazzled Hornblowers.

This was when the parents and the children switched places, the grownups pouting and the children trying to cheer them up.

Rudy and Rhonda had been created for daytime children’s television to educate children, in a fun way, on the dangers of animal extinction. It’s all happy and nice, comes at it from a preservation side, you knowpositivedonate, raise awareness, etc., but I like to research my acting parts, so I dug a little deeper.

The real story is quite brutal, so the show has to seriously cut out the gore and violence, you know, the tranquilizers and bullet holes, the de-horning with axes. Most people think Rhinos are tougher than nails, but they’re easy marks for poachers. Black Rhinos are super aggressive, but White Rhinos (Rudy and Rhonda are White Rhinosthe most numerous and easily recognized) usually run from danger, but then stop when they get tired and need something to drink. But then they lose sight of the hunters and forget. That’s just the threat on the ground from locals, doesn’t account for the professionals who tranquilize the creatures by helicopter and then land, lopping off the horns and letting the animals die from drug overdose or blood loss while they fly away again, taking only the lucrative horns. It makes me sad to think of those massive bleeding hulks dying slow, then being torn apart by scavengers or left to rot. And I wonder about the lonely calves.

Well, enough on that depressing crap, let’s get back to the jolly theme park.

So, anyhow, on the Saturday of spring break, you know, the busiest day of the whole season, Dave and I were taking our three o’clock break, and I got a call on my cell. Now, I wasn’t even supposed to have it on me. I’d already been warned when it happened before.

See, one day it started ringing, and this crazy-eyed four year old with red hair and chocolate ice cream smothered hands started running laps around me, patting down Rudy the Rhino in all of the uncomfortable places, searching for the source of the screamed, repetitive, “Turn down for what?!” while his younger brother awkwardly head-bobbed to the muffled electronic warbling, “eh-eh-aah-eh-uh-ooh!” By the time the ringtone ended, the grubby little monster had smeared so much chocolate on my suit that it looked like poor Rudolph Hornblower shit himself.

So this time I ran to our private little crapper for characters and disrobed fast, hoping no one would hear the phone. I was out of breath and sweating profusely when I said hello. The voice on the other end was distant, as always.

“You still dressing up like a douche bag Rhino?”

I can only guess that Pops was mean so he wouldn’t feel.

“Yeah I do, Pops. Thanks for the annual telephone call; it’s always so nice to hear your voice.”

A long pause, and I was starting to get irritated, needed to pee, for real, and get a drink, you know, chill a second before going out to face the endless adoring throng of maniacal children and perturbed parents.

“Pops…?”

His voice was nearly a whisper.

“So, anyway, I got bone cancer, got it bad. Two months is all…”

It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he camea long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest. I leaned back against the locker just as Dave silently walked in, and I was glad I’d been sweating, the moisture all over my face.

“Yeah, so, I just wanted to tell ya. All right then.”

Click.

Pops had a way of always avoiding everything, missing each tender moment.

It was like I’d been plowed by the Black Rhino, like I was in a protracted swirling tunnel and here he camea long thunderous run, a thudding crash and two horns to the chest.

He never wiped a tear, never read a page, never threw a ball or came to watch a game. He ignored every real and imagined pain, letting mom do the best she could until she finally got sick of his shit and called it quits, took me far away, on a permanent cross-country road trip. That was fifteen years ago, and he’d seemed happy to let us go, hadn’t come around, not even once. No presents, no cards. Few calls, most of them a few weeks after my birthday or Christmas, to sort of apologize. I say sort of, because he never really said he was sorry. I guess making the effort to call was good enough in his mind.

And I learned to make it without him, without the strength or direction, the protection and kindness that a kid needs from a father. And though I hated him very much, I never lied to myself, pretending like it didn’t matter. I couldn’t change my life, but that didn’t mean I had to act all Zen about getting screwed by the guy who should have loved and cared for me.

And I always hoped for something, the smallest grain of good.

Two months.

Not enough time, even if he wanted to try to make it right, and clearly, he didn’t.

I leaned over, looked to make sure Dave wasn’t paying attention, and then took a deep draught from the flask I had secreted in my bag. Evan Williams, he was my daddy, the one who hugged and punished, who put me to sleep at night and then pounded my head in the mornings. I took some consolation from his wisdom that afternoon and then washed my face real good and popped in a Lifesaver. Can’t walk back out smelling like Rudy the Whino, right?

Anyhow, one of the good things about being an oversized cartoon character is that you don’t get to talk. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to talk for days without crying, and frankly, I wouldn’t know the words. The other benefit of that giant Rhino head is that no matter how shitty you feel, no matter how disastrous your life becomes, you can and in fact do, always smileone big, incredulous, cheesy grin.

So there I went, hand-in-hand with my buddy Dave, back to the anxious children and their tortured parents, to renew the happy and ridiculous farce. I trudged through, shaking hands, hugging, posing, and signing books.

I was fatigued, the terror of permanently incomplete closure looming, and Rudy started becoming lethargic. The line was moving too slow. Even Jimmy, the old dude who monitored the crowd, started urging Rudy to move a little quicker. Rhonda kept looking over with that goofy smirk, waving her arms in exasperation.

Then I heard it, the conversation between the man and woman and boy, maybe four families back. The dad was pissed, was just staring off in the distance, folding and unfolding and folding his arms again, huffing and puffing. Under his breath I heard him curse (by the way, Rhinos can’t see shit, but their hearing is superb) asking why in the hell they should keep waiting in this forsaken line. The mother just smiled, patted the eager son, Bobbie, on the head. She spoke placidly, saying how much it meant to their boy.

Suddenly, a memory surfaced, circa six-years-old. I had a glove and a ball, my Pops was sitting in his La-Z-Boy, watching a Phillies-Mets game. I’m sure if I could fly back in time and see everything clearly, I might notice that Phightin’ Phils were getting their asses beat, and Jimmy Rollins had just dogged it half way to first base after a bad first-pitch swing on a low fastball out of the zone, the result not a homer as he hoped, but an infield popout, a bad play, a selfish play. I don’t recall any of that. I just remember wanting, more than anything in the world, for my Pops to go get his glove down from the top corner of his desk in his office. I asked and asked. If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.

Finally, I guess my questioning blew his top and he leaped up, snatched my glove and ball. He marched outside, and I was a kid, so like, I kind of thought that even though he didn’t have his glove, maybe he was going to bare-hand catch or something. Naw, he chucked the ball in the creek behind our yard and tossed my glove on the roof. Didn’t even look at me. Just turned around, went to the fridge and grabbed another MGD, then sat back in his La-Z-Boy. Never spoke a word.

By now Rudy was a statue; I was drowning in a hopeless feeling, staring at little Bobbie. And he was staring back at me, concerned.

If I was an adult, I might have seen the signs, understood that something inside him wasn’t right and that it was starting to boil, simmered a little hotter every time I called his name.

“Hey, momma, is Rudy okay, he seems kind of sick or something.”

Then I heard the dad again, grumbling that I was an asshole.

“That’s enough, Will!”

The mom gave a sharp look while the family I had largely been ignoring moved along, and the unhappy family of three moved a step closer to bliss. The dad’s face was all red now, but he was silent, had been rebuked by the mom, who was clearly in charge. Little Bobbie was becoming a bubbling ball of happy. He turned to his father, and his face was shining, all sweaty and hopeful.

“Hey, Dad, we’re almost there, see?”

The dad didn’t look at his son or acknowledge him, but instead spoke to the mom.

“Sheila, I can’t take any more of this shit. When you guys get done, come find me over at the Wild Safari Brewing Company around the corner. I gotta get a beer.”

No one saw it but me. Not Sheila, whose eyes were following her husband with disgust, and certainly not Will, who was already gone. Bobbie was crushed, wiped a tear, set his jaw. He wanted to see Rudy the Rhino, sure, but he really just wanted to be with his mom and dad, to hang out for a little bit on his terms, in his little, simple world, where Rhinos get to dance and smile because there are no poachers roaming about.

They say the Black Rhino is aggressive, will charge any threat, has been known to pose a real danger to people on safari if they get too close. Will had gotten too close, had stomped on my wound, and my soul was breaking dark.

We all want to right things that are unfair, and I’m no different. The next family had moved forward, three bouncing little girls bearing pink notebooks adorned with smiling, twirling images of Rudy and Rhonda. They also had those big fat purple Sharpies.

The smallest girl handed me her Sharpie and I patted her on the head, walked off set, and followed Will around the corner to the Wild Safari Brewing Company. I, or rather Rudy, was all smiles.

Jimmy and Dave, well, you know, Rhonda, just stared after me for a second, didn’t understand that the dam had broken through, the sorrow was over the banks, and there was no turning back.

Will was putting back one of those fancy micro beers, a semi-hoppy golden ale or some bullshit. I guess he thought he deserved a break, had literally been pushed too hard, had earned the several dollar mark-up by his paternal exertion.

Rudolph Hornblower, the dancing Rhino, charged, attacking with the fat Sharpie until it exploded and bled purple all over the unconscious body of Will.

Then Rhonda finally reacted, ran over and pulled Rudy off poor Will quick enough to save his life, but not quick enough to salvage my job. Oh, well. Rudy was still smiling when security took him away.

And hey, don’t worry. That dull father is going to wake again. And when he does, maybe he’ll remember his son.

See, a Rhinoceros horn completely severed never grows back. But sometimes, when a horn is only broken, it still has the chance to heal, to grow again.

Blake KilgoreBlake Kilgore lives in Burlington, New Jersey, with his wife and four sons. People there treat him with kindness, and he is at ease living among the old and tall forests of the Garden State. His lingering accent, however, verifies that his heart is still Texan and Okie. Blake’s writing has appeared in Forge, Midway Journal, The Stonecoast Review, The Bookends Review, OxMag, and other fine journalsTo learn more, please visit blakekilgore.com.

Golem

“Please don’t misunderstand me.” She is barefoot and wearing a robe, all soft and white.

This is in the nineties when we live in the house on Taney Avenue, about twenty-five miles from the edge of Harrisburg. She names herself Zephyr and our parents amiably allow it, granting her this little teenage rebellion. I want to change my name too, but I can’t think of anything so I keep it for now.

“Please don’t misunderstand me,” she says. She is seventeen and when she laughs it comes out in a rush like wind. “I’m not crazy.”

Earlier that day, Marla throws a stick at my bedroom window and when I look down, she whispers-screams, “Avette, your sister has lost her mind.”

I want to say, “What else is new,” but don’t, instead climb down clutching the rain gutter. This is all just for show. On the way down, I spot my parents through the kitchen window and they both give me a wave. My mom motions for me to zip my sweater.

We have the type of parents who allow us to make our own bedtimes and to do our chores on whatever time frame we see fit and to set our own punishments when we get out of line, and perhaps this is why my sister and I end up the way we do, although our parents also taught us to take responsibility for our own actions, so perhaps not.

Once I reach the ground, Marla hugs me tight, her body shaking. We are not like this, Marla and I. I try to think of a way to disentangle myself. Eventually, I pretend I’m having a sneezing attack, and she releases me.

“What’s happened?” I ask when I’m freed. “I thought she was with you?”

My sister Zephyr often disappears, from home, from school, from my life, and then pops back up again with a new haircut, or a nose ring, or a venereal disease as she does later when she is twenty-seven and needs me to take off work and drive her to the clinic. She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.

Marla sniffles. I notice then that her nose is quite large. “She was but then she just kinda lost it, and went running out, talking about fixing things. You know how my parents are moving us to Cleveland tomorrow. I think she went over to Flanders Park, over by the hiking trail?”

I sigh, roll my eyes, but inside my heart is a hammer. Zephyr’s world is like mine but only louder. I have to take advantage when I get invited in. “OK, let’s go find her,” I say.

Marla’s got her bike there. It still has purple and white streamers coming down from the handle bars even though she is seventeen. I am embarrassed for her, and then for myself as I hop on the back and we glide down the street. I hope I don’t see anyone from school, even though I remember nobody cares so it’s not a big deal. I’m too quiet at school, it freaks people out. The only kids I hang out with are the ones who read fantasy novels during lunch. And Zephyr, of course. But even though I know no one would care, I’m embarrassed anyway because I’m riding on this silly bike with a girl who is wiping tears and snot from her face, and it’s really just the principle of the thing, I guess.

When I am seven, Zephyr is ten, and she is not Zephyr but another name that I am not allowed to say anymore. She shaves both my eyebrows with our mother’s Lady Bic. She does mine as an experiment to see how they look before she does her own. The Powerpuff Girls don’t have eyebrows. It doesn’t occur to her that number one, their eyebrows are probably just covered up by their bangs, and number two, they are cartoons. My mother explains this to her right after Zephyr finishes with me.

She likes to try out different Zephyrs and I love to watch and wait for her to turn and ask me which one I like the best.

They try to draw some eyebrows with markers, but it ends up looking worse. In the end, I go around looking like some kind of alien and at school I freak the other kids out a little. Zephyr starts calling me E.T., but whenever she says it she puts an arm around my shoulder and gives me a squeeze so I don’t mind as much as I should. Still, it takes months for my eyebrows to grow back. You don’t realize how much eyebrows do until you don’t have them anymore. It is worse when it rains. I can’t keep the water from my eyes.

This is not the last time my sister uses me like I am a toy. She dresses me like John Oates to go with her Daryl Hall costume. I hate the mustache she tapes on my upper lip; it itches the bottom of my nose and sneaks into my nostrils whenever I inhale, but I stick with it because she would look ridiculous in her blonde wig without me. I should be more bothered when she uses me how she likes, but I can’t ever help but feel like I am helping her.

On the bike, I look down and see Marla’s got greasy hair. I wonder if Marla even knows. Maybe it’s a fashion statement, shows she’s committed fully to that grunge look, like Kurt Cobain and his hair that’s been dipped in sweat. It would be almost too sad, I think, for Marla to be walking around all day with hair like that and not even realize it. I see she’s got one earring that’s a white cross and one that’s a gold moon. They’re cool, I think, against my better judgment. I wonder if Zephyr’s seen them, though of course she has.

I know Marla’s parents don’t like my sister and they will not be the last ones to feel like that. I’m not surprised. She’s a hard one to like, honestly. She wears these combat boots that we found in my grandfather’s attic after he died. They are two sizes too big, so there’s this loud clomp whenever she puts her foot down and then an accompanying drag when she picks her foot back up. You can always hear her coming from a mile away. She lives her life noisily and doesn’t know any different. When I move into my first apartment after graduating from college, Zephyr crashes at my place for two months and while I am away at work, she leaves a burning grilled cheese sandwich on the stove and doesn’t pay much attention when the fire alarm goes off. “I had my music on,” she tells me, “and you won’t believe how well a fire alarm goes with the beat. It sounded seamless.” The wall next to the stove needs to be redone and the landlord is ready to sue, and even after Zephyr talks him off the ledge by offering some cocaine she just has lying around, I still decide to move out a few months later when my lease is up.

Marla and I ride down the street, then round the corner. I’m impressed with how fast Marla is going, despite having both our weight on the bike. It is the very launch of fall, so when the cool breeze whips at our faces, it feels nice, not punishing. The leaves on the asphalt look like they’ve been painted from fire.

“Whose homeroom are you in this year?” Marla calls back to me.

I grip her shoulders tighter as we ride over a speed bump in the road. “Willoughby’s,” I reply. I don’t want to talk more about it. School is only two weeks in, but I have a feeling that eighth grade will be just as terrible as everyone promises. I ask Zephyr if she has any tips on how to survive middle school, and all she does is roll her eyes and tell me that in the grand scheme of human suffering, middle school ranks considerably lower than global warming and genocide in the Sudan. Zephyr should not write an advice column, I have come to realize.

I could have skipped to tenth but my parents think my social age isn’t quite that advanced, whatever that means. My locker is right by the English wing staircase, so people are always bumping into me on their way to class. In Phys. Ed. we’ve been doing an archery unit, and my arms are so weak that I can’t pull back the bow string. I get out of Home Ec., though, by saying I am so terrified of needles that the sight of them immediately causes me to vomit and faint, in no particular order. My mother even signs off on the note herself and I spend my third period on Tuesdays and Thursdays filling out crosswords in the nurse’s office. So I have that going for me, I guess.

“Cool,” Marla says and I grunt back. If I ask Marla about how to survive middle school, she will probably tell me just to lay low. I think she might have more concrete advice than Zephyr. I consider Marla’s greasy hair and have a feeling eighth grade was no picnic for her.

We reach Flanders Park and she slows to a stop. She walks the bike over to a bike rack and locks it up, although who would actually want to steal that silly thing, I don’t know. “She’s by the hiking trail?” I ask.

Marla shrugs. Her eyes are wide and too large. “I think so. She said something about needing to find virgin earth.”

“Of course she did,” I say, and stifle a chuckle. Marla looks really worried, but she doesn’t know Zephyr like I do. When I am eleven she refuses to talk to me for a week. I wrack my brain for reasons why she’s mad at me, I wonder what I’ve done wrong, if it is because I took the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, but at the end of the week she tells me she just decided to take an oath of silence to see if she could do it. Zephyr says things, does things, but most of the time doesn’t actually mean anything by it. My mother calls her, not unkindly, “a well of false profundity.” At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth, and by punching Tommy Enzo square in the nose at the bus stop when I am in fifth grade, the day after he calls me a whore for taking his seat on the bus, hitting him over and over till he starts to spurt blood all over his yellow polo shirt, till he begins to whimper like a hurt animal, till I have to hold Zephyr back myself while I let him wiggle free towards safety. She is like that.

We walk along the hiking trail, our eyes peeled for Zephyr. When she is eighteen she will have midnight-colored hair but now at seventeen she’s got this bleached blonde look so I hope it will be easy to spot her through the trees. I keep looking past the dark for the flash of light that is my sister. “So she ran away because you’re leaving?” I ask Marla.

When she turns thirty, Zephyr disappears for a little over a week. My parents say she’ll turn up, but I am concerned, and keep calling her cell phone until her voicemail is full. I go to her place but a neighbor tells me she doesn’t live there anymore, and when I peep through the windows, I see only the sun falling in through the glass, flooding with light the empty rooms where my sister used to be. When she finally returns, she laughs and shoves some poker chips in my cupped hands and tells me she went to Atlantic City for a break, just a little getaway is all she needed, and maybe she can stay with me for a while, but when I look down at the poker chips they are made of cardboard, like she got them at a dollar store or something, and when she tells me she is sorry she made me worry, I don’t believe her.

Whenever she runs, I can’t understand why. Marla shrugs, sighs deep. “She was over at my place and my parents wanted her out. They don’t know I’m here. I’m not allowed to talk to her anymore.” She pushes her hair behind her ear and I spot that gold moon glint in the sunlight. “They said they’ll rip up a letter if they find one in the mailbox.”

Early this summer I walk out to the back deck and they are there kissing on the steps. I am not surprised by it really, but rather by the way Zephyr looks at her afterwards, like she wants to swim inside her skin. I don’t understand because Marla seems so utterly ordinary.

At twelve, she leads an environmental protest at her middle school, but forgets to turn off the bathroom light at home. Even so, she protects me in her own way, like by making me smoke cigarettes when I am thirteen, until I learn how to do that cool trick of puffing out smoky little rings with my mouth…”

I have never seen my sister’s eyes look that way, like they could chip in an instant. Usually they are like tiny boulders and I have to be careful when they roll my way to keep from going under.

I guess Marla’s parents want to move away so they can escape Zephyr, but they don’t know that you can never escape my sister. “I used to love them a lot more,” Marla says quietly. “Before.” Before Zephyr.

Finally we see my sister’s bobbing blonde head through the fall foliage. She is a few yards from the hiking trail, standing in a big expanse of dirt. When we get close, we make sure we don’t step on any sticks. There is something in both of us that doesn’t want to make any noise and scare her away.

Zephyr is wearing all white, this ivory-colored robe that makes her look young. I recognize it from my closet. When I am nineteen, she borrows my very first car, a Dodge Neon, to road trip to a Dave Matthews concert. She crashes it after one too many but doesn’t pay me back.

Out near the trees, her feet are bare and black from the earth. Her eyes are closed and she’s got her hands folded together like she’s praying, and I’m surprised. Never before have I seen her pray and I won’t see it again after this.

Her eyes are still closed when she turns to us and says, “Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not crazy.” Her voice rings in the surrounding stillness.

She says the same thing to me soon after that mysterious trip to Atlantic City. Only this time she is not standing in a mess of trees, but lying in a tangle of sheets at the hospital, her eyes a dry red, wild and wide.

I don’t say anything to her that time, but now I ask, “Zephyr, what are you doing?”

“Relax, guys,” she laughs. She is calm. “I know it’s silly, but it just felt right, coming here. You remember, Avette? The golem?”

I remember, but am surprised Zephyr does. There are times I don’t think she’s listening when in fact she’s picking up every word. The golem comes from our dad. He tells us stories sometimes from his mother, who dabbled in Kabbalah every now and again. “You mean the man of clay?”

“What man?” Marla asks.

I think back to what our father told us. “The golem, it’s this man you make out of the earth. You need to have a pure heart and you need to know some word to write on his forehead before he can come to life, and then he’ll be there.”

“To protect you,” my sister adds with a knowing smile.

“He’s just a myth, Zephyr,” I say. “Just from a story. He’s soulless, this Frankenstein thing.”

Marla steps closer to her. “Who is he coming to protect?”

There is a silence that is loud because it is Zephyr’s and she says it without saying it: Us.

I can’t understand. It is not that she wants to create a man out of clay, but rather that she wants to do it for someone like Marla. My sister, who at nine tries to teach herself German and only remembers key phrases, like “Where is the bathroom?” and “I have a headache.” Who draws a comic strip of a feminist superhero named Super Bitch who goes around throwing thunderbolts of enlightenment at every misogynist she sees. Who is the only person I tell after I pee my pants at Pammy Lytle’s house and throw my dirty underwear out her bedroom window where it lands in a tree. She hangs out with Marla nearly every day after school but sometimes I see her twirling her hair at Anthony Slimner at the bus stop. Sometimes she talks to Jennifer Ypsilantis on the phone at night and I overhear her say honey. Why the golem now? I’m not sure of this sister standing in front of me wearing white.

“You’re not making any sense,” I say.

When she is in the hospital for the first time, she holds up her hands to me and asks me if I see all the thousands of pixels in them, how those little boxes of light make up her body and cover her whole, but I don’t see a thing, just skin stitched over veins. I tell her she’s got to stop mixing her medication with coke.

Zephyr stomps one foot on the forest floor. “Avette, your negativity’s bringing me down,” she snaps. Her face is tight. “I know it’s stupid, it won’t work, but it just makes me feel better. You know what I mean?”

We don’t reply. It wouldn’t matter if we did. She tells us we can stay if we want but we are not allowed to help. Marla wrings her hands and leans against a tree, never taking her eyes off Zephyr. I crouch in the dirt, write our names on the ground with a leaf.

She begins and we are witnesses to it all. Grabbing clumps of dirt, sifting through till the sticks and rocks and leaves are thrown out, sprinkling drops of water from an Evian bottle she’s brought, she crafts a man out of mud, with eyes of earth, muscles made from mounds of soil. I wonder how she can stand it, she who’s never had the patience to finish a full game of Monopoly.

I think about my father’s stories. They never end well. “You can’t play God, Zephyr,” I say, but it isn’t true. She’s been playing God my whole life.

Zephyr doesn’t reply. She is busy sculpting the face, with its square chin and wide full nose. It looks a bit like Bruce Springsteen. She presses her thumbs sideways to make indents for the blank eyes.

“Z, let’s just talk for a second, okay?” Marla says. She is hugging herself like she wants to climb inside her own skin. Zephyr stands, shoots Marla a crushing glare meant to level her, and then turns back to her dirt.

When she is done he lies there flat on the ground and Zephyr towers over him holding a stick like a blade. She carves something onto his forehead. “What is it?” Marla asks, but Zephyr doesn’t answer. A secret word.

By this point, her hands are black with soil and her white robe is stained. She looks down at herself a moment and then takes the robe off. She is above him in her underthings, a matching Tweety Bird set that makes her look younger than she is. Her hip bones jut out sharply, she looks scrawnier than I’ve ever seen her. I could take an arm and splinter it like the stick that’s in her hand. I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.

She stands over him and waits.

I feel like her body will flutter away in the wind and I want to cover her with leaves to keep her warm, like I do that day when we are older at the hospital, tucking that soft white sheet up to her chin while she trembles underneath.

Marla goes over, tries to hold her hand but she pushes her away. She doesn’t look at her, but down at him. Marla chokes back a sob. I wish I could tell her to wash her damn hair once in a while but I feel like that would just be embarrassing for everyone involved. She returns to her tree and slumps to the dirt, her head in her hands.

Later when she is in college, Zephyr buys a yellow lab pup on a whim and keeps him until she gets sick of him peeing on her rug. The pup goes to my parent’s house, where I am finishing up high school. I master staring down the dog right at the exact moment when he’s about to pee on the carpet, till he’s so uncomfortable that he learns to go outside in only two weeks. My parents don’t mind having him, but it’s me who ends up taking care of him, just because I can’t ignore the begging, the need that’s embedded in every muscle of his body. There are times when I look at that dog and am reminded of Marla, in more ways than one.

“Babe, stop it,” Zephyr says. “Please. You know why I’m doing this, but I need you to stop crying. I’m trying to concentrate.” Marla quietens down. I think she’s got a future in drama club, except for the fact that her nose is too big. She’d only get bit parts playing dancing trees with her face all covered so you couldn’t even tell it was her, which is kind of tragic if you stop to think about it.

The sun tumbles down the sky slowly. My stomach growls and I wonder what’s for dinner at home. I wonder how long we’re supposed to stay here before we realize what won’t happen. I wonder if I can get away with skimming chapter six of Lord of the Flies before the quiz tomorrow.

At nine, she constructs a lemonade stand out of my dad’s old poker table and parks it at the corner of our street. We spend all day making the product and she swears we’ll be rich, but we only get three customers, bringing our grand total to seventy-five cents. But she insists that it will happen, people will come, so we wait until the air cools and it has grown dark. We wait until the flies swarming around our lemonade pitchers have all gone to sleep, until my arms are pocked with goosebumps, until I use my sugar-coated hand to loosen her clenched fingers and hold onto her disappointment, until my father walks over and says the time has come for us to go back home.

From my spot on the ground, I can see the golem’s thick stomach, looking much like a pillow packed hard and full with flour. I wait, watching, and it is just like the day when I am all grown and I sit on the floor of Zephyr’s bathroom, where she lies sprawled, and I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness, because I know if I will only be patient, it will happen.

There in the woods, I look at the golem and I wait for his stomach to rise and fall.

She tells me often how she dreams of me before I am born. As a toddler, she thinks up my hair, each brown curl, my eyes, one slightly rounder than the other, the lone freckle on my nose. I am her blank canvas.

When I am a young child, our bedrooms are right next to each other and the walls are paper thin, so I hear when Zephyr cries out from her nightmares. Our parents want us to soothe ourselves, so they don’t come running, but I do. I sneak into her room, and by then she is awake, and she is crying, and holding her hands out for me, and when I squeeze them tight, she whispers to me that she dreams she is in heaven being made, constructed from scratch, but there is a clog somewhere on the assembly line, and so when she tumbles down to earth, there are a few parts of her that haven’t been put in just yet. In the morning, she turns my sleepy face to hers and says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t mess up with you. You’re all finished.”

She sees me entire, imagines every particle, tries my name on her tongue before I am even a kernel of life in our mother’s womb. She tells me I am a creation of her own heart and I believe her when I am a young child chasing after her in the grass and I believe her even still sitting now in the dirt.

When the time comes, Marla tells us she needs to leave. Her parents are waiting for her, they’re probably livid that she’s snuck out. “I wasn’t allowed to come out, you know,” she says to my sister. “But I wanted to see you one last time.” There is a note of hope in her voice that makes me wince for her.

She pecks Zephyr on the cheek, and Zephyr flashes a lazy smile, still standing over the golem. Marla waits, expectant but only for a moment. I wonder if she’s thinking about her parents and the way they look at her now. I wonder if she’s worrying about starting over in Cleveland, where there probably won’t be someone who finds that greasy hair charming. I wish she had known before she started with Zephyr, I wish I could have warned her not to love this girl who can’t even give her a goodbye after shaking up her entire life.

Marla doesn’t look at me when she leaves. There will be more days, September and October ones, yet she is only temporary. There will be more hers to come, but despite Zephyr’s little cruelties, I am here for the long haul, all the way until she decides she cannot endure the noise of her life any longer.

Zephyr is shivering now in the wine-tinted air. I tell her to put the robe back on. She shakes her head no, but after another moment she does. She stares at him still. “What do you think he’ll say?” she laughs. It is a sharp sound in the silence we have been sitting in. It crashes against the trees around us and slices its way to my eardrums. I would not be surprised if she’s forgotten Marla entirely by now, but that only makes me want to stay here longer, to make sure she remembers me.

“He can’t talk,” I tell her. “He’s an unfinished man.” I stand, creep closer to her but she doesn’t move. When I am near enough, I crouch down to see him better. Even in the dimming light, he looks like he is only sleeping.

“That’s right,” she nods. She looks down at me. “Isn’t that sad, Avette?” Zephyr pulls her hair back into a ponytail. I don’t answer. I am suddenly touched by the crude life in front of me. I want to reach forward and grip his hand but I know that it will only crumble and that Zephyr will smack me for it.

My sister sighs. “Sometimes I feel like the biggest idiot on the planet,” Zephyr says. “I thought he could help me. I just didn’t want things not to be real this time. But it’s always the same, Avette. Things are never real.”

I am hunger and fear solid enough that you can hold in your hand. She is all sound and sheen. She is made of splinters that crack down to her very marrow.

I clean up her face and scoop up the pills that have escaped from her meds tray and I flush the coke down the toilet and I wait, staring at her strange stillness…

I say, “Things are real enough. And at least you know you’re not made of dirt, like this guy.” She kicks my shoe, but it is not as hard as I think it will be, and that makes me want to give her my jacket and carry her all the way home. And the part of me that doesn’t love her hates her because I know she will not let me, she will never let me. But despite all those times she disappears from me, from those small moments when we are children until that last final hour, I never want to stop trying to hold her still, to push my own air into her lungs whenever she thinks she can’t keep on breathing.

We wait. The park will close soon and we will make the trek back home in the night. She will convince me tomorrow to go vegetarian with her because she’s been reading about cruel practices in the livestock industry. She will confess how much she likes Celine Dion and beg me not to laugh. She will want to know what I think about Marla’s earrings and I will be oddly grateful when she doesn’t say anything about the greasy hair. She will ask me to follow her and I will, anyplace.

But now, here in the plum dark, we wait for the golem. She says, “Tell me a story. Anything. You talk and I’ll listen. I just want to hear you talk.” I place my hands in the dirt and when I open my mouth, I don’t even know how to begin.

Taylor Kobran

Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the 2013 recipient of the Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. She is interested in literacy education and is from New Jersey.

 

 

I Don’t Know if I’m Dealing Very Well with Everything That’s Going On Right Now

“We’d be in more danger driving down the 101, Amanda,” Brandon says as we sit on the New York D train. “Statistically, you are literally one thousand times more likely to die in a Volvo after drinking half a glass of chardonnay.”

As he talks, the subway hurtles into Brooklyn. Warm and oxygenless air presses against my throat and thighs as Brandon and I squash into the D’s orange seats. The dark outer world, flickering with small starships of light and featureless faces, whirls past the grimy windows. The dirty floor is barely visible for manifold shoessneakers, black boots. Men in jeans and smirking, pretty-lipped women crush alongside us, insult-flirting with each other. Have you seen Lawrence of A Labia? It’s a really good movie. Shut your dumb mouth. Or else they just slump over, like the homeless-looking woman in a Mets cap sitting next to me. Ugggggghhbbbbbb. I can’t tell if people are upset about the headlines, or the election. Everybody seems fine.

“I see your point,” I say, nodding.

I move my knees to the right as the Mets-cap lady kicks out her legs, and give myself a gold star for not saying, But I wouldn’t have gotten killed in a Volvo, Brandon, because as you know I only take public transportation so as to not participate in the oil-economy time bomb that is detonating as we speak. I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies. I came here for other, diametric reasons, which relate to personal happiness and the prospect of encoupled stability.

I did not fly five hours to the East Coast so that I could self-destruct my new relationship with Deleuze-citing rants about georacial heteropatriarchies.

I am from Studio City, California. I am a media strategist who is also an artist, or a former artist. Brandon is a lawyer from Culver City. He is not a hyphenate or a former hyphenate. We have traveled to New York for our first vacation as a romantic couple. It’s not exactly a romantic time, though, since Orlando happened yesterday.  I’m aware that as a heavily leveraged thirty-eight-year-old single woman, I need to say simple, economical things like, “That’s terrible,” or, “What a tragedy” about the Pulse massacre, but not act unnervingly bizarre in front of my beloved Brandon. In the three months that Brandon and I have been “hanging out,” he has so rewired my neural system with the unlikely astonishments of love that I now (yet again) believe in impossibilities like soulmates and other halves.

However, as I have learned from my roster of failed relationships with both men and women, the preservation of such exquisite passion mandates the attainment of a strangely mundane status: Regardless of how much your boyfriend or girlfriend initially enjoyed your “intensity” and “authenticity,” they must ultimately regard you as a potential real partner. Attaining the coveted status of a real partner requires more than Brandon witnessing my radiant soul as it shines out of my eyes and penetrates the shadowy layers that have accumulated around his heart. He must additionally see me as a healthy and attractively productive person.

Healthily attractive productive people do not, as I have in my not long-ago past, go to Yaddo to make arte povera out of baby clothes and napalm to illustrate the environmentally doomed prospect of childrearing. They also do not use their Slamdance Grand Jury award money to publicize their relationally aesthetic hunger strike protesting the acquittal of Michael Brelo. And they do not have elongated nervous breakdowns when fundamentalists of whatever stripe gun down minorities and queers. Instead, they must be able to demonstrate that they can do things like hold a job, attend social events without getting drunk, safely drive potential future offspring to and from various extracurriculars, and also organize fun vacations that remain unpunctuated by savagely panicked responses to the New Normal.

“Anyway, I’m not worried about being killed by a terrorist,” I say.

That’s why Brandon and I are on one of the sightseeing excursions I planned two weeks ago, to prove myself as a solid and dependable person. I had never developed an “itinerary” before but found it an interesting challenge: I decided almost immediately on a New York art history tour, since that would play to my strengths. So, the day before yesterday Brandon and I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, where in 1989 Diamanda Galás participated in the mass “Stop the Church” Act/Up demonstration. I stood by the Lady Chapel and sang her You Must Be Certain of the Devil (“Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord”) until a praying woman wearing a collaborationist I’m With Her T-Shirt brusquely asked us to go. “That was pretty interesting,” Brandon had said, as we hustled out. Then, yesterday, I took him to the Town School Library on East 76th Street, where Audre Lorde was head librarian from 1966-1968. We saw a lot of children’s books there, and I recited a part of Lorde’s The Erotic as Power (“I find the erotic such a kernel within myself”) until told to leave by a male guard. Brandon liked that, too. He bought me a caramel vanilla ice cream cone from a food truck and hugged me while I talked about Sister/Outsider.

But then we found out about the shooting early this morning when I saw the Google Alert. There was also news about Donald Trump tweeting, “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.” I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord. Brandon just cleaned the shattered glass, though, nodding as I read Mother Jones tweets out loud while crying and standing on the bed wearing nothing but his Stanford sweatshirt. I said I wanted to go home. He kissed me and said that we should stay, that I should distract myself with the Weird Artist Tour and not be sad.

And so that’s what we’re doing. Tonight we have plans to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City at the Lucy Lortell on Christopher Street, but for the larger part of today we’re going to stalk the ghost of one of the nation’s greatest artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat, on the D train.

“Then why did you have a meltdown last night?” Brandon asks-yells over the thwaka thwaka thwaka commotion of the subway. He has buzzed off his blue-black hair, an austerity that gives him an Air Force elegance, though he went to UCLA law school and works for a left-leaning firm called Miller & Watanabe. We met at a Ralph’s.  Today he wears a dark blue insignia-less polo shirt and khakis. Humidity bronzes his high cheekbones, and I’d like to sink my teeth into them, then bite lightly yet firmly onto his jaw so that he can’t escape from me.

“I just needed a reboot,” I say. “I slept, I feel fine now.” I hold Brandon’s hand and look down at my lap. I have black hair, brown eyes, and am a medium-dark brown Xican@. I’m wearing a green flowered dress that I allowed him to buy me yesterday at Forever 21 on Broadway despite F21’s Uzbekistan slave labor problem. My black cotton backpack that I bought in Argentina sits at my feet. I’m also wearing leather huaraches that I purchased four years ago in Mexico City, which was when I endured a couchsurfing/homeless period that finally got resolved at Yaddo. Inside the backpack are my phone and my wallet, the latter of which harbors Chase Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover credit cards. I obtained these economic passports on the strength of my new and astonishing $76k annual salary, as I am done gifting my art to the sacred space that exists beyond the cares of capitalism. In the last half year I’ve become a platform whisperer for Snapchat, which means that I discover trends through campaign-wide analyses and execute strategies to optimize campaign performance and company metrics. At night, I calm myself down by writing criticism for frieze and making collages using a personal Fun Tools app that I designed a few months ago.

“You were really out of it, I was worried,” Bradon says.  

I found my maintenance of the “real partner” hygiene rituals difficult to maintain after that, and accidentally smashed one of the wineglasses that we had gotten from room service along with our Lover’s Delight dine-in smorgasbord.

He looks across the car to where a woman with painted-on eyebrows and a frilled purple dress, an Anglo skater punk in a green beanie, and an old black man in a khaki jacket all busy themselves reading newspapers. Eyebrows in the purple and the old man both hold subway-crumpled copies of the New York Times that bear the headline “The Orlando Shooting Victims” and selfies of happy-looking men and women. The skater punk’s reading a trashed Post that reads “Gay-Club Attack On Our Freedom.” Eyebrows is taking little bites out of a shedding almond croissant as she scans the articles. Brandon starts raking through his hair with his fingers and gives me a crooked smile. “I’m not saying I’m upset that you got so wigged out.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re not upset,” I say in a strangled voice that is not in keeping with the magnanimous and emotionally composed way that I want to conduct myself on this trip.

Brandon plays footsie with me and tickles my knee. “Babe, life is for living. I just don’t get why it’s better to scream yourself to sleep at the Regis when you could just get up, wash your face, and deal with it like other people do. I mean, who are you helping?”

Or maybe you’ve seen Battlestar OrgasmicaI look up to see a tall, bearded man standing to our left teasing a pretty, petite woman wearing shorts and gold earrings.

Weak, she says, giggling.

“I’m not helping anybody.” I stare at Brandon for one beat, two beats. Thwaka thwaka thuds the subway. “Jesus Christ.”

“I’m seriously asking. I want to know,” he says.

I look down at my huaraches again. When I bought my shoes I worried about maquiladoras all the time and was also going deep into animal rescue. I had no health insurance and was so lonely that I would follow attractive men and women around D.F. taking pictures of them like a lugubrious Sophie Calle. I don’t want to be like that anymore. “Okay, so I forgot to bring my lavender oil and my lorazepam and things got a little out of control.”

Brandon leans back in the orange plastic of his seat and tilts his head at me, cracking up so that I can see the tender pink of his uvula. Then he gets serious.  “Look, I get it. Something terrible happened. And I want to know how you feel about it. I’m not some douche who came here with you just to get into Sushi Zo

“Sushi Zo . . . ”

Brandon smushes up his face and shakes his head. “It’s a hot New York restaurant that you try to impress your girlfriend with.”

My diaphragm twinges, from a cramp caused by the strangely similar sensations of stress and hope. “Girlfriend,” I say.

“It was totally booked except for the rez I got for last night. I was online for two hours. Seriously, if I were a Washington Post reporter I’d have a better shot at getting into the Trump bus.”

I make a shrugging gesture, rolling my eyes, but not crazily. “Trump.  What a guy, right?  He sure is something.”

Brandon enfolds my hand with his and makes little circles on my wrist with his thumb. “The thing is, I’m not some complicated art person with the sexy political depression that I’m starting to worry you might be more drawn to.”

I grip onto him, hard. “No, you’re perfect. You’re beyond perfect. You’re cyborg perfect.” I smile at him. “Sexy depressed artist people just wind up stealing your camera equipment because they’re on meth and then they want to have a foursome with the Martinez sisters but then they don’t even look at you until it’s time for a ride home.”

Brandon tilts his head at me. “How do you know that?”

I shrug. “Not from books.”

Brandon looks up, sternly, as if he’s doing math in his head. “I mean, I like UFC. I shop at The Gap. I don’t always look at the labels to see if my underwear’s made in Bangladesh.”

“Uzbekistan.” I shake my head. “But you do civil rights cases.”

“Yeah, but I can turn it off. I’ll go home and eatwhat did you call it? ‘Blood chocolate.’ I get my clothes dry-cleaned. I sit under outdoor heat lamps at restaurants in the winter. I play ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ I know that the Republicans are very Marine Le Pen right now. I’ve read The Fire Next Time. But I don’t get upset like you do.” Brandon puffs out his cheeks and exhales, thinking. “I switch off CNN and play web poker.”

I jerk, looking over at the woman in the Mets cap, as she has just nudged me in the ribs. She’s sticking her elbows out as if doing some kind of seated calisthenics that keep up the bone density. She’s also chewing on invisible food. She smiles as if she recognizes me.

“Hello Ma’am,” I say.

Brandon lifts my hand up to his mouth and kisses it uncertainly. Then all at once he blurts out: “Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation

The D makes a stop and there’s a humid tumult of people exiting and entering the car. The lady in the Mets cap stays put, though, as does the bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings who are joking around. Eyebrows stands up, molting almond croissant flakes and tossing her paper on the seat. I see all at once that Eyebrows’s face is red, puffy, and wet. There’s a stress bubble of saliva on her lower lip. 

“Do you want to have kids? Or are you one of those girls who’s like, global warming, it’s the apocalypse, why inflict it on a new generation

Then she disappears, along the Skater Guy and Old Man. Their places are taken by a trio of T-Shirt-wearing teenagers who stare at their phones.

“Do I want to have kids?” I blink, blink again, then make myself focus on Brandon. “Why are you asking me that?”

Brandon blushes so that a stripe of burgundy crosses his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. A thin glimmer of sweat slicks the right side of his face. Almost a full minute of silence passes between us.

I liked White Men Can’t Hump, the girl with the gold earrings says to the bearded guy.

That was a shitty movie full of stereotypes, he says.

“No reason,” Brandon eventually sighs. He looks up at the subway ceiling. “What are we doing here again?”

I’m still holding Brandon’s hand. It’s warm, brown, and has knobby knuckles like baby antlers. Two weeks ago these hands cut and buzzed my hair. Brandon and I were both naked in my bathroom, covered with my fur, and laughing. “It’s our art tour,” I chirp anxiously. “We’re doing 1980s neo-expressionism today.”

Brandon nods. “Oh, yeah. Basquiat? Baskweeat? That artist guy you were talking about.”

I peer closely at the subway walls, looking for any signs of Basquiat’s famous graffiti, while Brandon plays with my foot some more, gently nudging it with his Timberland. There’s no sign of Basquiat’s Kilroy, though: The interior of the car discloses only scuffed gray paint, which is cross-hatched with so many words and scratch marks that it looks like a Cy Twombly.

I wish I had something to show Brandon for today’s tour. The Diamanda Galás and Audre Lorde outings were somehow melancholicly cheerful.  But now I’m distracted, and am starting to feel as if I’m being unstitched. And I don’t know what exactly to tell Brandon about the unhappy tale of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

I could tell him how Basquiat used to tag the D in 1978, 1979. That’s why I brought us here in the first place. At the beginning of his career, Basquiat went by the street name SAMO©, which stood for Same Old Shit. He’d spray crazy little sayings on these very walls before he started painting on canvas and got famous. SAMO© Saves Losers, SAMO© as an end to 9-5. Basquiat was a genius, a snappy dresser, a ladies’ man, and a junkie. He had these long dreads that he would tie up into a spiky crown at the top of his head. He created in a frenzy. He would listen to Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie on his earphones and emblazon the back wall of a liquor store with red starbursts and stuttering phrases like Mississippi Mississippi Mississippi. He sketched skeletons, policemen, dogs, and jazz men in small ringed notebooks, purchased for thirty-five cents. He became friends with Andy Warhol and ultimately showed at the Gagosian. He dated Keith Haring. He dated Madonna.

But that’s not why he was special enough to put on our itinerary. Basquiat felt things. It made his life sort of unbearable. He couldn’t cope, for example, with the death of his friend, Michael Stewart, who was a black graffiti artist, too. In 1983, Stewart was arrested by a group of Anglo police officers for tagging a subway station wall on First Avenue. The police killed him, and listed the cause of death as a heart attack, though an independent pathologist said he succumbed to strangulation.

So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.

There’s a picture that photographer Virginia Liberatore took of Basquiat and Madonna around ’83. They were in love. In the image, Madonna is gorgeous and sharp-boned, with spiky blond hair and a tilted, pointy face. Even back then, Madonna understood Market Forces, which require that you at all times remain both relatable and aspirational and not get derailed by emotions. Madonna is relatable and aspirational in the picture as she makes a cute cat’s claw and pounces at the camera. She’s already a star, though her self-titled monster album hadn’t even come out yet. Basquiat, on the other hand, does not understand Market Forces. He looks sad, with a soft smile and wide-set, inconsolable eyes that reflect the terrible truth about Michael Stewart.  He can’t handle the same old shit. You can see what a winner at life Madonna is and what a mess Basquiat was going to be. She broke up with him not too long after Liberatore shot the image.

But, no, I don’t want to tell Brandon about all of that. Once, I had this girlfriend named Xochil who left me after she started eating meat again, “for [her] health,” and I had re-explained in gentle if graphic detail the ethics of factory farming. She, along with Madonna, are just two of the reasons why I will now keep my comments meaningful yet playful, interesting yet not too dark or so deep that they verge on Schopenhauerian pessimism.

“My favorite Basquiat is called Horn Players,” I finally say. “It has Dizzy Gillespie in it, and teeth, and all these crazy scribbled words, and Charlie Parker.” I smile at Brandon, admiring his dark, swashbuckler’s eyes. Brandon’s half ethnic Chinese, though his parents were born in Brazil.

So Basquiat’s world was kind of like today’s, except that now we have Orlando and Ferguson and Trayvon Martin and San Bernadino and Antonio Zambano-Montes and Sandra Bland and Charleston.

For a second, I look across the aisle again, at those T-shirted kids playing with their phones, and see one of them has picked up the busted-up Times that Eyebrows had been reading.

“Teeth?” Brandon asks.

“Basquiat had dental problems. Drug problems, really.”

“I love Charlie Parker. In law school, I downed a beer bong and did this crazy sort of romantic spider dance at a party when ‘I Didn’t Know What Time It Was’ started playing on Pandora.”

“What’s a romantic spider dance?” I start laughing.

“It involves a lot of kissing, having eight legs, and being extremely unsober.” He nuzzles my head with his. “That was a long time ago.”

Brandon and I now have our arms around each other. The fluorescent lights in the car shimmer on his wide white teeth so that he looks like a toothpaste model. He smells like cinnamon. The bearded guy and the girl with the gold earrings have started listening to the same song on his iPhone, sharing spindly white headphones. The kid reading the paper across the car is invisible behind the Times, except for his feet, which are huge and encased in light blue Vans.

Brandon runs his hand through the long part of my hair, tenderly touching my scalp. “You’re so beautiful.”

A small sun begins faintly shining inside of my belly. As we sit there, I begin to feel better, less unraveled. After a minute or two, I realize that I actually am starting to feel happiness approaching me. It feels easy, softer. It feels good.

I start singing, quietly. I’m singing that Charlie Parker song:

I didn’t know what time it was
Then I met you
Oh, what a lovely time it was
How sublime it was too.

The song floats between us. My lips are on Brandon’s cheek. I touch his throat and feel his pulse. I think of how he held me last night at the expensive Regis hotel, after I’d stopped quoting the Mother Jones tweets. I remember the tender things that he whispered to me in bed.

You’re all right, you’re ok, he’d said.  I’m here.

But then I make a mistake. Because when I ponder Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub. And instead of gazing sweetly at Brandon like a solid life partner with whom he can share headphones, playful obscenities, and the morning news, I look across the aisle again. I stare at the kid in the blue Vans studying the paper with a placid face. I hear something all at once, a hacking sound. I look up to the left, and notice that beyond the couple who had been joking about made-up porno movies stands a short, heavy, white, bald man wearing glasses and a yellow button-down shirt. He is also looking at the kid with the Vans. The bald man’s round, apple-shaped face is bulging and trembling as he looks at what the kid is reading. His lips have turned white.  People are staring at him, the bald guy; a young black woman with red beads in her hair and a Latino man wearing a black tank top also start crying. And then, to the right of them, I see a white guy with piercings and a Stonewall T-shirt look at Blue Vans’ NYT with this dead face, and dead eyes.

I shift my gaze again, staring at the kid’s Times the way they are. I see the Orlando victims’ selfies that splash across the front page.

There’s a picture of a woman about my age, with buzzed dark hair. She’s wearing black-rimmed glasses, and a turned-around baseball cap. Her mouth opens wide into a punky, happy grin.

There’s another picture of a guy, who looks like he’s in his late teens, and might have been transitioning. He’s got a wispy little mustache and close-cropped beard, and these doe eyes, and he’s wearing those earlobe extending earrings. You can see that he’s trying to look beautiful for the camera.

And there’s a guy who’s leaning back on a pillow, smiling, so that his dimples show. He looks Latino. They’re all Latina or Latino. He has groomed eyebrows, and maybe cornrows? He’s got frosted tips and a soul patch. And he looks like he’s not thirty-five years old.

But then I make a mistake. Because when I think of Charlie Parker’s what a lovely time it was, I think of the day before yesterday instead of right now. The day before yesterday was a lovely time because no one outside of Orlando had even heard of the Pulse nightclub.

Brandon kisses me on my cheek, gently, and then smack-kisses me, playfully. “So, what happened to Basquiat?”

I rub my upper lip with my index finger and feel my mouth shaking.

“Um, he died,” I say.

I lean back, put my elbows on my knees, and then rest my head on my thumbs, like a more freaked version of The Thinker. I look down at my huaraches once more, my black backpack. I can hear the bearded guy and the lady with the earrings softly scatting to the song they’re playing on their iPhone. The lady in the Mets cap is grunting again and flexing. I can feel Brandon watching me, confused. My face is wet and I’m making an eeeeehhhhhhhhh sound.

“Bon don da ton ton ton ton, bon ta ta ton ughghggh,” the lady in the Mets cap sings.

Brandon puts his hand on my arm, squeezing it gently. “Amanda.”

I’m still making that animal noise. I try to stop. I wipe my cheek with my shoulder. I reach down, opening my backpack and pulling out my iPhone. I switch the phone on. I get on Chrome and begin searching on Orlando and clip the photos of the smiling woman in the baseball cap, the guy with the wispy mustache, and the guy with the dimples.

I feed them into my Fun Tools collage app. I begin to make a small, shifting, indigo assemblage of their faces. It’s no Horn Players. It’s kitsch. I erase it and start again.

“I – I – ” I shake my head. “Why?”

“Amanda,” Brandon says again, taking his hand off my arm.

I change the collage’s color to orange-violet. I can barely see. Tears drip down my chin. The world looks red. The subway racket is a rapid heartbeat. My hands shake but I press and slide the pictures, press and slide, the woman, the transitioning kid, the man.

I need to get myself to a march or a memorial that must be happening today. I’ll stand in a crowd and cry and it won’t help anybody and it will be better than this. I’ll take Brandon along with me. I hope to God he doesn’t say anything like it’s too depressing.

“No, I don’t want children,” I manage to say.

Yxta MurrayYxta Maya Murray is a writer and a law professor living in Los Angeles.  She is the author of six novels, including The Conquest (2002).  She won a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1999.

 

Since I Got Here

Since you always wanted to know. Since you’ve been asking me ever since I moved here.

I had lost my job and she had lost her mother. We were great at losing things. She asked her therapist, how could we lose all these beautiful things in a small world? Where do they go if we live in the same house, barely leave town? There was no good answer I ever heard. She stopped seeing the guy after he suggested we break up. No way, she shook her head. I can’t lose anything else. He can’t lose anything else. There’s no sense in that, she screamed. She got led out of there by a rent-a-cop.

We sat for hours at the kitchen table, going over the same bills, plucking magical money from the sky. I drank gin and she drank milk as The Band played on our old record player, like a haunted old quartet that roamed the narrow nearby dirt roads. The same piles of dust appeared on our cabinets and duvets. I put a hand on her shoulder and she said, don’t tell me it’ll be all right, I’m just not in the mood to hear that right now. I said, what are you in the mood to hear? She just shot me this pathetic smile and said, this dumb old song on the record player. So I took my gin outside and watched a few hawks fly back and forth in the dark ugly air.

I think what really started it is that her fucking brother showed up one day. He carried this old Sears & Roebuck luggage bag and started asking for money. He was missing a few teeth and was growing this biker beard, much different than the college know-it-all that he was when I first met him. My wife gave him the royal treatment, letting him sit down in my chair, even, and I told him he couldn’t until he shaved off that ridiculous beard. A small fight broke out. I knocked over the lamp. He got me in the kidney with a decent hook. My wife screamed at us to stop and I made sure to put a hand on her shoulder this time to tell her I would be all right. She said something and I said something and her brother did leave and he never got his fucking money. Which is all I wanted in the first place. That takes a real coward, to walk into a house of confusion and ask for something. I never did see him again but I’m sure she ran after him days later when I was off looking for work.

And I did look, too. I tried warehouse and farm work. I even tried the goddamn diner as a fry cook but nothing ever came out of it. Most days I would just sit with a six pack of Shiner and a pack of Parliaments on a park bench and watch the same dark ugly air. This entire place was just coated with the stink of everyone’s lives. I knew the end was coming and I tried to blanket it with as much beer and smoke as I could, as most people around these parts do. 

I drank gin and she drank milk as The Band played on our old record player, like a haunted old quartet that roamed the narrow nearby dirt roads.

I know this story isn’t exciting. But you asked.

So about a few weeks later, what I was waiting to happen finally did happen. I caught her sneaking around. I had come home in a haze and I found them necking on the back porch. He was drinking my gin and they had Blue Cheer on the record player. I tried to be stealthy but all I did was grab the motherfucker by his neck and throw him down and kick him in the ribs. My wife just sat there. Didn’t say a word. Which was surprising. I threw him down in the yard and he tried to run but I caught him down by the marsh and grabbed a big clump of mud and rammed it down his throat. I let him go after. I saw him stumble off towards the ridge up far ahead and those same damn hawks were flying, watching us, watching him, thinking what fools we were, more than likely.

I went back up to the porch and she didn’t say a word. Is it all right now, I said? She sat there, silent, happy probably, in a stupid tiny kingdom. I said, I’m gone. Still nothing. I went in and threw everything I could in a few trash bags. I stood in the doorway then, all these shadows of us and other things dancing around, trying to settle. I called her name and said to kiss me goodbye but she sat there, just listening to the music. I left and took the truck, figuring it’d be a good damn idea to strand her for a while.

Well, it really didn’t end there. Because she found me soon after. It really was a small world. Remember when I said how could we lose such things in a world as small as this? We never lose them. Not finally, anyway.

I moved back home with my mother. She wasn’t doing very well. I did all the housework and was getting it ready to put up for sale since I knew she didn’t have long. I didn’t have much desire to sleep in the same room again, drink gin in the same basement. So it had to go. Everyone would have wanted it that way, I think.

Well, one day my mom was at the doctor’s office, and I came home quick to eat lunch. I was out in the front yard, about to get the mail, when this taxi pulls up and my wife gets out. In this big old white sundress and this ridiculous hat, like she was First Lady or something. Guest speaker at the church bazaar, I guess. Well, she took a long deep look at me, and I held out my arms, as if to say, make your move, this is a boxing match now. She started to weep and I didn’t know what to do so I started to turn back to the house when she grabbed me by the arm. I turned and I finally saw the grief in her eyes. All the sorrow she had conjured in full plain view now. But I didn’t give in. I said, go find the man with mud in his mouth. Go run to him and sing Rock Me Baby, maybe he’ll come by and make you feel sixteen again. She acted like she was going to slap me, but instead just turned and went back into the same taxi. I guess she told him not to leave. She stuck her head out of the window and told me that if I ever changed my mind, I would know where she was. I just spat on the ground and they drove away. I got the mail. Everything became ordinary again.

A month later my mother did die. I guess she just had a bad doctor. I buried her, sold the house, had a yard sale, left everything that didn’t sell in the small dead yard. I posted signs all over wobbly telephone poles and grimy phone booth walls, but no one came biting. No one wanted the things I had, even for free. I expected her to come by, to rifle through all the dust and gin-soaked pieces of my life, but I guess she had enough of seeing the dots and blurs and marks of our ridiculous time spent. I left it all in a box for the trash man and I went to go find another place to live. What I had fit in the trunk of the car. I went to a diner, asked to see a phone book, picked the first town that I thought sounded even halfway welcoming, which was here. Got back in the car, drove down, knowing full well that even though I had a wife I guess I could go home to again, she wouldn’t be able to accept my dust, and I wouldn’t be able to accept the bullshit silence she gave when I beat her lover to an inch of his stupid, rotten life. I couldn’t live with someone who didn’t appreciate what I did for them. I can’t even live with myself, barely. It’s enough to make a man sick.

One day I know she’ll find me, she’ll have to. She’ll search for an address just like I searched for money or reasons or even another glass of something cold to drink. You’re given things throughout your life and you can choose to hang on or you can choose to lose them, only to find them and touch them again. There’s plenty of chances for someone—even if you’re pathetic like that guy who drank with my wife—to find what you want, to find what you need. Right now, I have no reason to get up off this stool and go hunting for something that’s just an ugly piece of an old nightmare. Especially not now, when this town looks the way it does. It’s better than the old ugly air that I saw before, many times, many nights, when I knew that life could get better than what I had.

I’m rambling, I’m sorry. But you wanted to know. You’ve been asking me ever since I got here. Tell me your story, now. Come on. I’ll buy you another beer and we’ll take a table and you can tell me the best story you ever heard or the worst one you ever heard. I promise to listen. I promise not to talk over you.

That promise I can keep, this time.

Kevin Richard WhiteKevin Richard White is the author of the novels Steep Drop and The Face Of A Monster. His short fiction has been previously published by Akashic Books, Tahoe Writers Works, Crack The Spine, and Cactus Heart Press. He is also a contributor to the indie music magazine Manifesto Of Sound, and is the head editor of Viewfinder Literary Magazine. He lives in Pennsylvania.

 

Don’t Say Anything

One month alone, and Jesse was still getting used to things. He was filling a saucepan for tea—Anna hadn’t let him take the kettle—and when he touched the stove and the faucet at the same time, he got a jolt up his arm. His arm jerked back and the saucepan flew off the stove and clanged on the kitchen floor. The old heap must have been ungrounded. Jesse swore. He curled into a corner of the kitchen floor and rubbed his aching arm. His heart thumped a fast, funny beat.

Anna and Henry were playing in the vacant lot outside. Through the window, Jesse could hear their laughter as they, unaware of his accident, chased a neighbor’s cat around. Anna had brought Henry’s overnight bag and his teddy bear, and now Jesse wished Anna would just bring in Henry, say her goodbyes, and leave. The oven contained a cake for Henry’s birthday, and Jesse figured that he and Henry would eat it all themselves. Jesse had never baked a cake before, and the kitchen smelled surprisingly good, but he didn’t want to touch the oven again. How to get the cake out…

A young woman came down the fire escape outside his window. Jesse saw her bare feet picking spots on the iron grate. The woman peeked in the window, her fingers folding around the sash. She said she lived upstairs. She had heard all the clatter. Was anything wrong? Jesse sat up from the floor and kneeled, still gripping his arm. The woman climbed in the window.

She helped him wipe the water off the floor. She wore a sundress, yellow with red polka dots. The hem of her dress skimmed the wet floor as she squatted down. Her feet left small wet prints on the old linoleum. She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that. She wiped the floor.

She asked, “So what’s your major?” She looked at Jesse and waited for his answer. She had beautiful brown eyes.

Jesse shook his head and held up his hand. “Uh, parenting.”

“You don’t go to the U?”

“No, but obviously you do.”

The young woman smiled. She stood, gathered the ends of her skirt, and climbed out the window. Her arched feet stepped over a dish of cat food on the landing, and she was gone. Jesse’s hands trembled. He left the saucepan in the sink. He didn’t want tea anymore. He was shaking. His body remembered the stove.

She tucked back her hair, looked up from the puddle of water, and said her name was Jessie. Same as his. They laughed about that.

From the kitchen window, Jesse watched Anna and Henry chasing the cat in wide circles in the grass. The sun cast long shadows across the vacant lot. Fairy rings had sprouted in the open spaces, but college students had worn a path among them. Cars whizzed by. Jesse saw the pink sunset, and he heard his son’s laughter and Anna’s voice, and from the upstairs apartment window he heard dishwater splashing, and the girl, Jessie, singing a tune, “One, two, three, four…” From another window came the sounds of a couple having sex. Jesse closed his eyes for five long seconds. His heart still rattled about.

Wearing a hot-mitt, and using just one hand so as not to complete a circuit, Jesse opened the oven and took out his son’s cake. His hands were shaking as he spread a can of green frosting. Henry had asked for green. The frosting melted on the hot cake, pooling along the edge of the pan. Should have let it cool. Anna would remark about that. She should have left already. He stuck four candles in. Bought them himself. He had never bought birthday candles before. He didn’t know where to put the extra candles. Hadn’t thought of that. A drawer? Above the stove? Fucking stove.

Matches. He had forgotten matches. The neighbor, Jessie, maybe she had some. He wiped his hands on a towel, lifted the cake, and climbed out to the fire-escape landing. Climbing the stairs he heard Jessie on the phone, her voice through her kitchen window talking and laughing, “Dude, that’s so awesome!” Never mind. He turned back, stepped over the dish of cat food, and carried the unlit birthday cake down the iron stairs to his wife and son.

Long light combed through the grass. It was end-of-summer light. End-of-a-good-day light. The sun lit the cottonwood leaves, and the empty lot glowed with pink light through the leaves. Jesse was happy to have this light. Every night, sitting on his fire escape and watching the pink light, he didn’t have to explain anything to anyone, which meant he didn’t explain anything hurtful or bad. The night would come later, hard and alone, but evening was a beautiful time if you could stand the cold. It was always cold. It was Missoula, the northern Rockies, and it was always cold in the evening. You wore a sweater. Anna was wearing a blue sweater. She looked good in a sweater.

Jesse’s little boy was chasing the cat around the lot. Anna sat at a picnic table that the college students had dragged over from a city park. The long light of a Montana summer evening made Anna’s skin look pink and warm. She was drinking wine from one of Jesse’s plastic cups. She frowned as Jesse laid the cake on the table.

“It’s not lit,” she said in her slow sleepy voice. She wasn’t mad.

“I don’t have matches.”

“Jesus, Jess.” She dug through her purse and found a lighter.

“What the fuck,” he said.

“None of your business.”

“So if my son starts smoking and dies of cancer, can I never forgive you?”

Jesse took the lighter and tried to light the candles on the cake. His hands still shook, and the flame danced around the wick. “Uh, I got a little jolt from the stove.”

“The stove? What about Henry?”

“He’ll be fine as long as he’s not grounded when he touches it.”

“Oh good, explain that to a four-year-old.”

“The knobs are just his height too. It’s a funky old—”

“I don’t like it. I don’t like any of this.”

“He likes it. I like it. He likes the fire escape, and the Murphy bed, and he likes that stray kitty. Besides, it’s only for a while.”

“Until what.”

“Until I-don’t-know. Heck, I haven’t even told you about the airshaft. See, there’s this little door that—”

“No.” Anna put her hands over her face.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry about what, Jess?”

Jesse sat at the picnic table, and Henry ran over and sat in his lap. They sang Happy Birthday and ate warm pieces of cake. Green frosting stuck on their fingers. Jesse’s heart slowed to a placid pace.

Henry asked why he was getting this second birthday cake.

Anna stepped away from the table. Her face shone in the light. Her shoulders were tight. Her jaw was tight. She must have been cold. Jesse scooted from under Henry’s weight and went over to stand by Anna.

Anna stared into the pink sun, then she looked down. Her sleepy voice. “He thinks I’m spending the night too.”

“You didn’t tell him?”

“He wouldn’t come if he knew.”

“What the fuck. This is my night. My first night. His and mine.”

“There’ll be hitches. It’s okay. I can take him home. I got nothing else to do.”

They walked farther into the grass and into the light. It was cold. Arms touching.

“Damn it, Anna. This is a fucking undermine.”

“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”

“Happy?”

“And then I’ll go, okay?” Anna started to cry but the muscles in her face fought it back.

Behind them came a clatter. The neighbor girl, Jessie, stood on the fire escape. She was putting out a fresh bowl for the cat. She wore an Icelandic sweater over her sundress. It was cold in Missoula. She understood this. She was smoking a cigarette on her landing. So she did have matches. Didn’t matter anymore. That’s the way it was.

“Look at the light.” Jesse was pointing at the apartments. He was thinking about the light on the girl’s long loose hair.

Anna’s voice. “So Jess, I was thinking….”

“What?”

“About his preschool…”

“Sure. But just look at the sunlight. It’s only for a moment.”

“Listen to me.”

“Okay, I’ll stay and tuck him in. When he’s asleep, I’ll leave. We’ll put him in the bed and hope he doesn’t wander out and touch the stove or fall down the airshaft or climb the fire escape. Happy now?”

Jesse didn’t listen. He ran back to the picnic table and played with his little boy. Crumbs and frosting smeared Henry’s face: Forget about cleaning that up. They chased the cat. The cat was just a kitten and it stayed close to them, but when Henry and Jesse began chasing each other the cat lost interest, ran through the bushes, and was gone. No matter. Jesse picked up his boy and swung him around and around, matting down the grass. All the things he had wanted from life felt like they weren’t going to happen now. Where could life go? It didn’t matter. They played in the small empty lot and hid in the grass. The cars hissed by.

Two girls came around the front of the apartments and across the worn path. One of them stepped off the path and bent over a fairy ring, picking flowers with her right hand while her left hand held back her hair. The other girl knelt beside her and picked flowers too. They spoke Ukrainian or Russian. The girls stood close, touching. Each girl held a fist of weedy flowers and tucked them into the other’s hair.

“What are you looking at?” Anna stepped up to Jesse and Henry.

“They’re Pentacostal, or something. Their fathers won’t let them see boys. They touch each other because that’s all they have.”

Anna snared Henry in her arms. “Seems to be a lot of pretty co-eds here.” She wiped Henry’s face with a cloth. She looked tired. She still had her ring on. Her fingers looked old.

Henry said, “What’s a co-ed, mommy?”

“Um, I don’t know, a girl.”

“That’s silly.”

“Your mom was a co-ed.”

Anna kicked Jessie.

“A what?”

“A beautiful co-ed.”

Anna laughed and rolled her eyes. She took the wine bottle and refilled her plastic cup. Jesse sat with Anna on the picnic table and drank wine and watched Henry spend all his playful energy running around. Get him good and tired before bed.

Henry stopped and watched them. Puzzled.

“It’s short for co-educational.”

Henry cackled but surely did not understand. Oh well. This would be all right. But it would not be all right. That’s what the marriage counselor had warned. It would not be all right, but what could you do? Poor Henry.

Jesse led Anna and Henry in. They climbed the fire escape, left the cake and the wine on the fire-escape landing, and entered through the window. Inside, while Anna tidied up the kitchen, Jesse tried to demonstrate that he could get it right: changing Henry into a pull-up, brushing his teeth, helping him go pee, singing all the right songs. Henry found the airshaft’s little door right away, but Jesse blocked it with the heaviest box he could find. Good thing he hadn’t unpacked the boxes. Henry bounced on the bed and asked about his mom. Jesse said she was cleaning dishes.

“This is a mess,” she yelled in. “You need some paper for the cabinets. You just do.”

Henry kept bouncing on the bed.

Anna came into the main room. Jesse and Henry began a tug-of-war with the Murphy bed, pushing and pulling the bed into the wall and out again.

“He’ll squish his fingers!”

“Everyone likes it.”

“Everyone? I didn’t know you had so many friends in bed.”

“Knock it off, Anna.”

A voice came from the kitchen. The girl, Jessie, had come into Jesse’s apartment from the fire escape. She peeked around the corner, smiled, and held up Jesse’s serving spoon inquiringly. Then she was gone. Scampered away. Her footsteps made little pings on the iron landing.

“What was that all about?”

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing. He held his son tight and rolled on his back.

“I said, Who was that? Your concubine?”

“I think her name’s Jessie. She goes to the U and—”

“What the fuck is this place?”

“Well, there’s a ton of students, okay? She’s borrowing a spoon. A spoon. She’s probably stoned, watching TV, munching Häagen-Dazs, getting fat.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“I guess.” He and Henry rolled the other way.

“Don’t ‘I guess’ me. You know it. How many other hotties live here?”

“What’s a hottie, Dad?”

“Will you just get on with things? I’ll wait outside.” Jesse climbed off the bed, into the kitchen, and out to the fire escape. He drank wine from the bottle and dangled his legs into the last violet light before dark.

The key to happiness was the light. The last light. It was private, and he wished Anna would go. She was in there, putting Henry down, and he wished to sit alone and say nothing and watch the light’s slender swords slide between the cottonwood leaves, longer, longer, until the night allowed the dark to stay. Loneliness would set in, but Anna would be somewhere else. He could handle loneliness alone. With her it would be too much to bear. He closed his eyes.

Jesse opened his mouth to say something, but there were no words. It was nothing, a neighbor girl borrowing a serving spoon, and there were no words for something when it was nothing.

They had been fixing up a rough-timber house on five acres along the Clark Fork. It backed against the river. Half their property was flooded in the spring, but the house was above the water line, and it was beautiful. Swallows nested in the eaves, and at night they circled over the water. Every night, Jesse drank wine in the kitchen and listened to the river whispering. Through the small kitchen window he would watch the swallows fly their long circles. The low sunlight made the fog pink and glowing, and that window became a little box of color, and Jesse swore on the light through that small window: He was going to replace that window with something big. Then Anna would come back from her shift at the hospital. They’d sit in their kitchen and gaze at the small window and think different thoughts. They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over. When the darkness was so complete that the window shrank to nothing, Jesse wandered into the bedroom and the bright light. Anna busied herself knitting. Jesse dreamed of a happier time. He closed his eyes and dreamed of it hard. He couldn’t tell her. There wasn’t supposed to be a time happier than this.

A police car zoomed down the avenue. Everything that was wrong seemed far away.

The Ukrainian girls were sitting at the picnic table, kicking each other’s feet. A man’s voice yelled from a block away. It was time to go. They leaned close and walked the worn path. Their arms brushed. They got to the sidewalk, but they couldn’t hug, and intimacy had to be a game that meant nothing, one of them wrestling and tugging and falling into the other, then giggling and helping her up and smoothing her long hair, and then it was over. One girl ran, her hair lifting back. The other girl ran too, far from this, her fingers clenched around her hair.

Anna came out. The fire escape rang with her steps. She took the bottle of wine and poured two cups, and together they sat on the fire escape and drank the wine. Someone in the apartments was playing Bob Marley.

“I should go.”

“Yeah.”

Anna looked at the wine bottle. “I have to drive. That fucking house.”

“You going to sell it?”

“Did he tell you we saw a cougar? Your little boy saw a cougar. I didn’t believe it until I went out there and saw the tracks by the swing set.”

Jesse poured himself more wine. Plastic cup.

“It’s going to be so dark. I hate that. I hate that house. I hate it there.”

“You should get a gun.”

“Fuck you.”

“Just be civil. This is good wine. Like in Taos. Remember?”

“Yeah.” She poured another cup.

“So, you were saying about his preschool…”

“Shut up about his preschool. I’ll just send you the bill.”

They ate cake. They drank wine. It was cold, and they sat close together.

Anna said, “What the hell are you going to do, Jesse?”

“You know. This is what I do.”

“And it’s fucked.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Fuck you.” She leaned against him.

Her arm felt warm against his, and it felt familiar, and her shoulder fit the way it always did, and her sweater hugged her body the same as always too. Jesse put his arm around her, and her shoulders tensed, then gave, and her head rested on his chest. She was close and warm. She didn’t say anything.

The purple sky of a long northern summer evening held out.

They leaned in and kissed. He pushed back her hair.

“Jesse.”

“No. No. Don’t say anything.” 

They fought about money and time, and after Anna stormed off, Jesse had sat in the long slow fading light and knew it was over.

*     *     *

They fucked like old times. They moved Henry’s little body to the Goodwill sofa, and they fucked on the bed that folded into a wall. Fucking was always something good that they had. They knew how to be tender. Maybe they were used to being cruel, but they put that aside, and they spent the little tenderness that was left. They knew how to please each other decently. The right touches down the muscles along the spine. Finding the contours of the hip bones and pressing together. And all the time, Jesse knew that there would be another girl, someday, but there would never be this. There would never be this again. Did Anna know it too? You didn’t ask those things. They nestled together long after any hope was left, but Montana summer nights did not last long, and dawn was already seeping into the room, and Anna’s wavy hair was tangled, and she pushed it back with the heel of her palm and squinted at the bluing sky. They woke up adrift in the middle of the bed.

Jesse and Anna didn’t say anything. A long time ago, words had broken the ice, opened the heart. Standing beneath aspens on a hike in Taos, Jesse had told her, “You are so beautiful.” She had said, “No, you’re beautiful.” But this time, it would not be words. There was nothing to explain. When the only choice lay in deciding who would break whose heart, you didn’t say anything.

It was Jesse’s turn. He got up. The air against his skin felt cold. The wall hummed with water in the pipes. Someone was singing and taking a bath. You could hear it through the airshaft, a Joni Mitchell tune. Jesse looked at Anna. She looked at him the way she always did in the morning, a smile, only today it was wry and pained.

Jesse went to the window. There was the long lovely light, from the east this time, the shadows slicing the other way. Last week he had seen a coyote. The fairy rings, heavy with dew, slumped over. The Ukrainian girls were in the lot. They sat on the cold wet edge of the picnic table, shoulders touching. They each wore a T-shirt and shorts, and they must have been cold. Later they would leave, and Henry and Jesse would play in the grass. Hide-and-seek and fairy villages. They’d have a picnic. Then the long shadows Jesse loved best would collapse across the grass, and Anna would come back to pick up Henry, and Jesse would watch the sunset alone and make his life go far, far away. He turned.

“This is my time,” he said. “So go.”

“I am going. You don’t tell me.” Anna shoved her hair back and looked around the bed for her clothes.

“So go.”

“I am.” She yelled.

“Shh.”

Henry began to stir.

“He can’t hear me.” She gathered up her things, shuffled to the bathroom.

“Shh… just shh.” Jesse looked away. Don’t say anything. Make it hurt less. When you break a heart, don’t say a thing. Jesse put on shorts and a yellow New Mexico T-shirt. Anna emerged from the bathroom and left quietly. The front door made a soft click.

As the sunrise lit up the room, a girl’s singing floated from the airshaft. A new tune that Jesse did not know. Henry woke up, and he and Jesse played on the bed. Jesse served leftover cake for breakfast. Henry kneeled on a chair at the table and ate two pieces of cake. Small pieces. The bare bright light cut through the trees on the eastern side of the lot. The bare light of a hot day.

A girl passed the window. Those slender feet again. Jessie. She wore a baseball T-shirt and a printed Indian skirt. Wet hair. She peeked in, her fingers on the sash.

“Jesse?”

“Good morning, Jessie. This is my son, Henry.”

Jessie peeked into the main room and smiled sweetly at the boy. Henry did not look up from his cake.

“Hey, Henry. My name’s Jessie too.” She turned. “I brought back your serving spoon. I’m sorry. I’m still getting set up.”

“Me too.”

She leaned against the kitchen counter. “Have you seen my kitty? He didn’t come in last night.”

“Not since then. Do you want some breakfast?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” The girl looked down. She fidgeted her bare feet. She finger-combed her wet hair.

“Please. We have cake.”

“I mean…”

“Don’t say anything. Just eat.”

She smiled. She looked down again, but only for a moment. She looked at Jesse, resting her eyes there, and she smiled. Jesse didn’t know what to say. He liked her, but come on… He wanted to tell her there would be sorrow, hope and abundant sorrow, and someday she would understand. But not today. He wanted to tell her about the light, the beautiful light in the evening, but he did not. He didn’t want words for anything, gazing at the pretty girl who smiled back at him the longest time. She was not shy, but maybe a little, because she kept combing her fingers through her wet hair, and her bare wet feet shifted around, but her gaze was solid on his eyes—until she rested her wet hand on that funky old stove and it happened, the electricity, 220 volts, hard and sharp, seized her muscles and shook her, and she twisted away.

She cried. She sank down, her body balling up, her skirt sticking to her wet skinny legs. She was trembling from her fingertips to her spine.

Jesse kneeled and held her. Henry came running as far as the doorway and watched. “Stay back!” Jesse yelled. He held the wet barefoot girl and stroked her long wet hair, and it took all his strength to say, “Shh.” His breath was spent and dry when he tried to say, “The light in the evening.” And when the girl looked up at him confused as a child, Jesse didn’t have enough breath to whisper, “Don’t say anything.”

Evan Morgan WilliamsEvan Morgan Williams’s collection of stories, Thorn, won the Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). The judge was Al Young. Williams has held an AWP Writer-to-Writer mentorship and a residency with Writers in the Schools. He has published over forty stories in such magazines as Witness, Antioch Review, (The) Kenyon Review, and ZYZZYVA. “Don’t Say Anything” is his second story in Lunch Ticket. www.evanmorganwilliams.wordpress.com