Laundry Lessons

We were the only Latinos on the wet side of town and the only power-washed house on the block. Ma reminded Pops to rent the machine every year. While Pops blasted strips of filth off our vinyl siding, Ma was inside spraying our dog with Febreze. She fixated on scorching everything clean. Ma was self-conscious around white women in department stores, generally avoided my school events. She’d send Pops, light-skinned and affable, in her place.

What I knew about our history, I’d learned while doing laundry. In Puerto Rico, Pops had been in and out of jail, on and off the streets. A charitable old man let Ma stay rent-free in an isolated shack near the Isabela coast until he could sell the property.

“That’s where I went into labor with Steven,” she’d said.  Alone that night, Ma had to climb the narrow and unkempt path into town, that’s how she got the scars on her feet, her thin chanclas catching broken glass. All I could imagine were hungry predators, man and animal, watching my mother as she groped in blind search of safety. Ma’s only worry had been to keep Steven from being born on the ground and left there to be found screaming and covered in ants, as she had been.

Steven ended up with his own problems, but Ma and Pops were doing it right this time, with me. “God gave us a second chance,” she’d said.

They came to Newark, where I was born. Pops got clean and saved enough money to buy a narrow bungalow on the wet side, densely-populated and so named for its vulnerability to the Sandy Hook Bay.

When I got mad at Pops, she’d say, “You got it good, Miriam. Your father used to be a different man.” Meaning, things were not bad now, even with Steven dropping out of high school when I was eleven and disappearing for days, weeks at a time. That’s the way it was with Steven, in and out, occasional paranormal visits.

White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business.

When we were younger, he’d race me to wherever Ma was in the house. “Whoever gets to her first,” he’d say, “is loved the most.” We’d hold hands and go scouting the town’s debris for plastic soda bottles, the labels of which we’d pull off for reward points toward branded fanny-packs, boom-boxes, mountain bikes. We never won anything, but it felt productive to keep searching, imagining potential in our streets.

Just a few weeks back, I’d sat with him on the couch. “What are you watching?” I asked. He stared at the blank TV; an earlier storm had knocked out the cable. The screen reflected the sunlight behind us and cast our silhouettes like witnesses who didn’t want to be identified.

We sat close. I knew Steven heard me, but he didn’t reply, and the next day Steven was gone, along with our TV.

*     *     *

I’d been helping Ma with laundry and was about to toss a white tee in with my darks when she snatched the shirt out of my hands, nearly shrieking. “You don’t want Leann’s family thinking you’re like the white trash around here. All their whites looking dirty.”

White trash was poor, she said, and what’s worse, they acted poor by drinking and cursing, beating up on each other, letting everyone know their business. I did not tell her Leann Pacholski’s white training bra was mop-water gray.

“Go ask your father what he wants for dinner,” Ma said. They weren’t speaking—they’d been fighting about kicking Steven out for good—but Ma’s work ethic endured and our meals were always prepared, resentment expressed with overcooked rice. The problem was, Pops wasn’t speaking to me either. I’d misplaced his favorite hairbrush, failed to put it back exactly as I found it, to the right of the kitchen sink.

I found him rooting through the backyard shed, a glossy new structure out of place in our cramped backyard. Pops wasn’t a man with hobbies—only emotions as forbidden to me as his personal belongings—but for a homeowner, the shed was a necessary upgrade.

“Ma wants to know what you want for dinner. I’m going to a barbecue at the Pacholskis today.”

“Who?”

“My friend, Leann. There’s gonna be a lot of people. Ma said I could go.”

Pops considered it without looking at me. Maybe Ma was wrong when she told me in secret that Pops’s love had conditions. Maybe his love was constant but withheld until we were good again.

“Tell Ma to take you,” he said. “And she can pick something up on the way back. I’m changing the locks today.” He’d never met the Pacholskis, didn’t even ask me for their number, but changing the locks had to do with Steven. I took advantage of that and ran back to Ma.

*     *     *

Leann also lived on the wet side, and we attended the same day camp for middle schoolers at a park down the road. I sat at the arts and crafts table most of the time, where I wouldn’t be expected to imitate everyone’s enthusiasm for life, disappoint myself and God when I couldn’t. An older boy once teased Leann for latch-hooking with me instead of playing kickball, and she shot back, “Why don’t you suck my dick?”

Leann’s father, Roy, was popular for his Hulk Hogan impressions—he tied back his thick blonde hair and had a stocky build. He was always first to pick his kid up from day camp. The crunching of the gravel as his faded blue sedan pulled in signaled to the rest of us that we’d finally be home again—our energy and optimism revived, fights were forgiven, amends made. Usually, Roy would grab a juice box or soda from the backseat and toss it through his window while Leann headed toward his car. She caught it each time with both hands, as casual as if she’d been tossed a beer from a cooler, this routine like a commercial for Hawaiian Punch.

At the barbecue, Leann and I role-played fantastic scenarios, taking turns as witches or maiden victims. I’d met Leann’s mother, Sheryl, first thing, an unexpectedly bubbly woman in tight acid-wash shorts. “We have soda, do you want one? Let me get you one,” she’d said to me, but then got distracted by arriving guests. Now she was on the patio, having a drink for every drink she served and raising the volume on Bon Jovi, yelling about being ready to party.

“Looks like you’re already partying,” Roy yelled over her.

Once Leann’s cousins came around, she and her younger sister, Kat, kicked up dust tearing off for other games. I walked the edges of their yard looking for bottles, mostly finding half-buried Newports.

In chase, Leann leapt over a muddy Barbie jeep like a track hurdle. Her foot, bare and suspended, reminded me of when Ma’s crashed through the stoop of my own dollhouse, a wooden toy Victorian I’d been painting on the sidewalk path leading to our front door. She’d been chasing Steven around the house and he’d come out the front door before her, tripping and smacking the ground before me. He looked at me, the first in a long time, an acknowledgement that felt like apology. Then he was off and down the street before I could tell him he was loved, which maybe would have made him stay.

Ma came after him and the stoop of my dollhouse shattered with a croak I heard over her yelling “Coño carajo!” and falling to her already scarred-feet. One of many times I sat in my closet, tight and dark as a womb, solace when our house sometimes offered none.

He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left.

There was one bottle. Lying face up and waiting in the sun. Without noticing it uncapped and a quarter full, I grabbed it, tore the label off, a rare 4-points, a clover. Only then did I feel the warm liquid seeping through my white Keds, a soda stain more unforgivable than grass or soil.

I’d never crossed a yard so expansive on the wet side—enough distance for an oak tree, a tire swing even. But the inside of the Palchoski house seemed unprepared for company; the floors were cloudy with grime. Upstairs, black mold lined their bathroom sink, where I’d taken off my shoe to run a low, cold stream over the toe. Something about their home, I thought, might lead to a deeper, inaccessible truth that would explain what made me so uncomfortable around my peers—that people could be this dirty and poor and still have more than we did.

A crash downstairs, Roy shouting: “Get the fuck up, Sheryl!”

Halfway down the kitchen stairs, I saw Sheryl on the kitchen floor next to an upturned folding table of snacks, laughing and sticking out her tongue to lick potato chips off her face with as much delight as a kid in snow.

“Nice, Sher. In front of the girls,” Roy said, softer, cleaning up around her. At the back door, Leann and Kat watched on with the spooked bewilderment of feral children.

People outside began to leave, and I followed the girls upstairs. In their room, Leann slumped on the edge of her bed. “Mom and Dad are gonna get a divorce.”

“No they aren’t,” Kat whined, kneeling down at a pile of dolls tangled up and maimed. She separated them until she came up with one that was whole.

“They told you that?” I asked.

“Yup,” Leann said. “They’re just waiting for us to graduate.”

Kat began to cry, wiping pale streaks through the dirt on her face. Leann looked out the window with a troubled squint, as if she’d seen everything.

I sat next to her, my chance to show I was a good friend. “Doesn’t that make you sad?”

“No,” she said. “They hate each other.”

Still, I couldn’t relate, though I’d only seen my parents kiss once, quickly. A cozy Friday night when I playfully asked if they loved each other and begged them to prove it.

Leann’s dad stood awkwardly at the door, portable phone in hand. “You wanna give your parents a call, Miriam?”

“Sure,” I said, taking the phone and dialing, but no one answered.

“No problem,” Roy said, nodding toward the girls. “We’ll take you home.”

*     *     *

Leann and I sat in the backseat of Roy’s car and Kat took the front. Kat kept crying and asking what happened. “Is Mommy okay?”

Roy ignored her as he grappled with his seatbelt, growing irritated.

“Are you guys gonna get a divorce?”

Roy stopped. “Who told you that?” he asked.

“Shut up, idiot,” Leann said, reaching up to pinch her sister, hard enough to make her squeal.

Roy twisted around as if going for a juice box. Instead, his hand clamped over Leann’s skinny upper thigh so tightly she buckled over, shrieking.

“What, you don’t like that?” Roy shouted. His fingertips and her skin went bloodless as he tightened his grip, emitting a low, satisfied growl. Leann lost her voice, all agony, but her mouth still hung open as a line of drool dipped down, touched his hairy knuckles.

Kat screamed at Roy to stop, batting his arm with the futility of a child’s fist until he finally released Leann and started his engine.

The ride back was silent. We kept our faces to the windows, all ashamed in our own ways.

Once I told my parents about the Pacholskis, they’d never let me back. In fact, I looked forward to the conversation, asking them innocent questions about what I’d seen, like when I asked about Steven, where he went, what he was doing. They were always quick to soothe, so I stopped wanting honest answers, only comfort, something Leann clearly didn’t have with a drunk mother, cruel father, divorce.

We reached my block and Roy stopped short. I was about to tell him I lived further when I saw the disturbance up ahead—two cop cars in front of my house, an officer trying to calm Ma, who was frantic, crying. Another talked to Pops, who stood calm and justified.

Steven was being pushed up against a car, hands behind his back, skinnier than I’d ever seen him. But he still looked like Pops, and Pops saw himself in Steven, too. He couldn’t allow that back into his life, afraid of destroying what was left. Pops couldn’t see, as I saw now, that what was left was catastrophe in the past tense, wreckage that still needed cleaning.

Neighbors formed clusters on the broken sidewalks, eager to know more. My vision blurred as I realized I didn’t want to leave their car, that I was scared.

“Someone’s getting arrested!” Kat said, leaning over the dashboard.

“What’s going on?” Leann asked, straining to look. A bruise was already forming on her thigh, but it could have been from any childish accident.

Roy put the car in park and twisted around again with an opportunity to be gentle, concerned.

“I’d better let you out here, hon,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you and Leann to see each other again.”

 

Jerilynn Aquino received her MFA from Temple University, where she was fiction editor for TINGE Magazine. She now works with Philadelphia Futures to provide low-income teens with resources for college success.

Photo Credit: Michael DeLeon

Again Undine

The house sat alone in a patch of swamp in a world her husband called Louisiana. When her son finally came to her there it wasn’t as she had expected. On the screened porch that looked out over the water, frogs called like poorly suited sirens under the midnight moon, and she crouched beside the camp bed like something hunted. A profound loosening, and the baby slid into her waiting hands. She leaned against the bed and clutched him to her, lay him, wet and wriggling, across her swollen middle. She watched, mesmerized, as he dragged himself toward her breasts like a fish out of water. She gathered him up and brought him to rest on her shoulder.

I know just how you feel, she told him.

Her husband clamped and cut the cord, snatched the baby up and held him high, whooping and hollering like he did when she led him to a spot of ocean where the shrimp exploded from the sea beds like confetti. The baby’s legs kicked, one two, they curled like parentheses. He swallowed a lungful of air like it was the most natural thing in the world.

A new pain ripped through her body and something else slid from her while her husband paraded the baby—squalling now, and red—around the empty house. This was her husband’s concession, to let her labor at home. No hospitals, no certificates—on this she’d been firm.

For you, he said smiling, and handed her the baby to nurse.

It had been eighteen months since her husband caught her in his net. She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins. Her legs revealed themselves, came unstuck from one another with a sick squelching sound and a smell like fresh-killed fish.

Shock, her husband told her later. Shock was what got you, and it was me that saved you; brought you straight home and warmed you up.

The next thing she remembered after being hauled from the sea was this house on the swamp, a slender band on her newly un-webbed finger. Her gill slits closed up, just faint pink scars beneath ropes of hair. Her mind and mouth crammed full of words.

Even before her belly swelled, her husband took her out on the water only when he needed to: at times when he had taken the boat out and dropped his test trawl in ten, twenty, thirty spots only to find nowhere worth unfurling his nets. Shrimping was bad, he told her, and getting worse; she saw guilt in his eyes when he said this, oceans of it. Still, at those times he decided it was necessary, he slathered her with sunscreen, sat her in the bow, and followed her directions.

Again and again, she led him straight to a patch of water where his test trawl came up overflowing; he came to trust her, even as she led him deeper and deeper out, even as she struggled to trust herself. Perched at the fore of his rusted boat, she imagined wrestling him over the edge, holding him as his body shuddered and stilled. She tasted salt and her mouth wetted. The longer they were out there—waves smacking the boat, ropes groaning, their own shallow breath whistling through their chests—the more her husband tensed, watched her from the corners of his eyes. She gazed loosely at the horizon and pretended not to see. Always, he filled a couple bags at the place she led him to, then marked the spot on a map and ferried her home. He took his crew back out to finish the job. This was a waste of fuel, but he didn’t like her out on the water, he didn’t like it at all.

She had struggled then, tangled and panicked, and by the time he managed to pin her down and cut her free, her skin had dried, the scales fallen from her tail, clicking over the deck of his boat to shine in the sunlight like counterfeit coins.

In that way, she lived with the man who called himself her husband. When he left on his boat for days or weeks at a time, she walked the mile each day to the public library. She sat in a cool dim room before one of the computers. The glow of the screen like underwater. Her varied names spelled out before her: Atargatis, Thetis, Sirena, Thessalonike, Merrow, Selkie, Rusalka, Ariel, Undine. Each got it wrong but the wrongness failed to matter; each tugged a bit of her to the surface and toward the sea. She read the stories, and before came to her in a flush of blue and fractal light. It came to her in an undifferentiated swell that broke across her skin in goosebumps and hummed deep in her chest, something those stories and their thin words couldn’t touch, but in their proximity, wakened. By the time she reached the driveway to her husband’s house, the feeling faded. She turned, invariably, and went inside, nameless, powerless against the tides that moved her.

When she learned that she carried an infant in her new and awkward body, she ate hamburgers and milkshakes and swelled to a shape that she had to remind herself was acceptable—there was no need to be streamlined here; there was nowhere she was trying to go. She felt the child flip and flutter and paddle around in her belly, and she ate while her husband worried over money, over the state of the shrimp. He was too scared to take her on the water with him, scared for the baby. He admitted to her, his face twisted with guilt and regret, that he thought it was nearly over for them, his whole family’s livelihood for generations: Would there be anything left for their boy? He looked her in the eye as though she could absolve him. He told her the truth for once: He’d poisoned the water and stripped it bare.

*     *     *

The night their child was born she swaddled him and placed him in a basket beside the marriage bed. She had fed and settled him and cleaned herself up, had drifted almost to sleep, exhausted, when her husband whispered, his breath hot on her neck:

Tell me about before.

Her eyes snapped open.

She reached behind her and picked up her husband’s hand to buy time, rubbing her thumb across his palm in a way she knew soothed him. What could she afford to give him? She’d lost so much in the first invasion, the onslaught of language that came to her whole cloth, chafing her memory.

Since then, she’d only lost more.

She could never afford to give him, for instance, the seam in the water where it’s weight overcame you, the depth at which you begin to fall rather than float and, in so doing, take flight. She would never give him the midnight zone, where she used to spend days at a time, drifting, listening, holding out her tongue to catch whatever floated past, unseen. The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved. Even diluted by naming, these things were among the most precious.

She had been quiet for too long but lay there still, frozen.

I heard stories about you, he said, breathing heavily now. When I was a boy. I heard stories I figured weren’t half true, but then—

The baby squawked and quieted, and they both flinched at the sound.

She took a deep breath and began to speak. She painted a picture of grottos, colonies of merpeople, chaste interludes with fisherman lost at sea, bits of the stories she’d read and now braided into a rope for her husband to follow, sated, into sleep.

She waited a long while, then nudged him gently to quiet his snoring. He grunted and rolled away from her. She gnawed her fingernails and spit them on the floor beside the bed.

In the days after his birth, she checked the baby, with neither forethought or expectation, for signs of gill slits in his neck. She turned his face on his weak and spindly neck this way and that. She cradled him in the crook of her arm so that with her free hand she could stroke the smooth skin below his seashell ears: had ridges or rifts emerged there? But there was no sign, nothing except the webbing between the big toe and its neighbor on his left foot. Inconclusive at best. And here again was the unexpected, because her love for him was untouched by his deficit; it blossomed in her chest like a wound; it grew.

Weeks passed. She tried once to go back to the library, but the baby cried; he wouldn’t settle. She sensed he didn’t like the cold and sterile air, acclimated as he was to their swamp. People looked coldly at her until she took him outside.

On the long walk home the baby grew hot and red and squalled like an abandoned bird. With all the strength he had, he produced a sound at once meager and overwhelming. She walked faster, breasts and eyes leaking. The skin on his soft skull burned to a livid red and in the days that followed, it blistered.

So she spent her days in the house, sandwiched between a wooded yard and a swamp that spread to the horizon, teasing her. The swamp was briny, and alligators basked with their eyes and pebbly skin showing above the surface. Herons stood on stalk legs or took off, lumbering over the cypress trees and out of sight. Tadpoles swarmed the shallows, and none of it moved her.

She slept when the baby slept, curled at her breast; together they dreamed of the sea. She dreamed the two of them alone, the baby contracting his body, propelling himself through the water, clutching handfuls of her hair, clasping himself to her to nurse then flitting away again. In the dream, she broke the surface of the water. The baby in the waves beside her, and when she looked around there was nothing else in sight: no land, no boats, no men.

On those past occasions that her husband took her out on the water, he blindfolded her for the drive to the docks. When he seated her at the bow of the fishing boat, he tied her to the railing, ever so loosely, ever so gently, with soft strips of cotton he tore from old towels. He was afraid she’d drown, he told her. So overcome was she by the sight of the ocean, she might dive back in and forget her new body: she’d take a deep breath and never emerge. She knew better. She knew that was not the shape of his fear.

Sometimes when the water was low and the salinity high in the swamp behind their home, she’d wade in up to her knees and feel the pull of the tide. The baby clasped tight to her chest, his heart fluttering against her own. She’d stay until the sun sank down and the moon shone overhead like a wishing coin. In its trick light she saw the shine of scales at her ankles, where the bones protruded and the skin stretched tight. She’d step out of the water slowly, walking backwards with high steps like the marsh birds. But invariably the scales fell and stayed behind, glinting in the moonlight as they sank to the muddy bottom, vanishing, maybe never there at all.

When the baby was a month old her husband left for what would be a three-week trip. He kissed her on the mouth—My undine, he murmured—and kissed the baby on the crown of its head—My boy. He climbed into his truck and disappeared around a bend in the long dirt drive.

The felt distance between sound and source, substance through which she sang to everything she’d ever loved.

Of course, she said to herself for comfort, she could find the marina if she truly tried. She could smell the sea from here, pungent as camellia blooming in their yard. Sometimes she wandered down the driveway beyond the bend; she stood at the side of the road and stared in the direction where she sensed the marina. But always she turned back to the house, herded by an unnamed force.

With the baby in her arms, she stood in the yard until she could no longer hear the rumble of the truck in the distance. Back inside, she lay the baby on a blanket on the wood floor. There was no library for her anymore, no cool click of plastic under her nails, the eerie glow of the screen and the letters arranging themselves into story after story with versions of herself at their core.

It had rained for a week straight and the water outside their back door was weak as winter twilight, practically potable. The baby kicked its legs and made a mewling sound, searching her out with its voice. She went to him and lay down, curled around him on the blanket and watched his hands clench and unclench reflexively. His eyes were still muddy and half-blind, rarely open. When he fussed she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled him to her breast and they fell asleep like that.

Days passed.

One morning as she poured a bowl of cornflakes a bolt went through her heart: It jolted her to the floor where she shook in a rictus of electric pain: She made noises she couldn’t control and drooled over the front her shirt. When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.

She pulled herself to her feet and breathed deeply, filling her lungs to ease the ache in her chest. The sea was three miles south and she could get there easily on foot; she knew this now, knew exactly where it was and how to make the journey. It was as though an invisible net had vanished from around her, and she moved quickly in terror of its reappearance. She lifted the baby from the playpen and lay him, still sleeping, over her shoulder.

Outside it was sticky and hot, and the bugs cried like they did all day. She ran down the steps off the screened porch to where the water mixed itself with marsh grass and mud. Here was a pool of sorts in the shallows, smaller than a bathtub and about as deep, filled with cool clean water from the recent rain.

She peeled the clothes off the baby and he opened his eyes to watch. His breath hitched in his chest like it sometimes did on either side of sleep. She whispered to him, begging, and cradled his head, rubbed her thumb over the smooth skin of his neck. She lay him in the shallow water and held him there, felt his small body float, his gaze almost meeting hers but sliding off and away, diffusing like a puff, a cloud.

When she let go, crossed her arms across her chest, held her breath, the water covered him, shimmering. A bird called in the distance and another answered and together they took flight. Ripples broke the surface, a stream of bubbles.

Her pulse throbbed in her temples and the heat pressed her feet into the mud. She scooped him up. Flipped him onto his belly and thudded him between the shoulder blades with the heel of her palm. A long moment passed, stretched itself thin as fishline—snapped when his cry came, red and angry. She held him like that, letting the water drain from him, patting his back while he wailed in protest.

Inside the house she swabbed him clean, fed and dressed and comforted him. She put on shoes and shouldered a bag of his belongings and made her way to the county road. For the first time, she turned left, toward the water. Their nearest neighbor was a half hour walk, and when she reached the mailbox she turned down the drive. She ignored the pain in her joints and her chest. She breathed heavily: from the heat, and from the slight weight of her child, and the weight of all the things she knew he’d need. On her shoulder, he slackened into sleep. She imagined him growing, unfolding in a proliferation of cells that shaped themselves into a man, a man on a boat, a man with muscle that roped his arms and clenched his fingers around a net. A groan caught in her chest.

There was a car in the neighbor’s driveway, and when she reached the front stoop she heard noises from inside the house. She spread a blanket on the concrete slab and lay the baby on it. It was shaded and cooler here. She stroked the fuzz on the baby’s head, fingered the webbed skin between his toes and he flinched; his face screwed up and he smacked his lips before sinking back into still sleep.

She rang the doorbell and left him, hurrying back up the drive. She broke into a jog, sweat coursing down her back.

She ran all the way to the marina, down the stairs to the pier; she sprinted to the end and leapt, swan dived into the oily water and swam with all her strength into the deeps.

When the water grew cold and the flavor of engine oil faded, she allowed herself to slow, drifting on the waves and staring warily back toward the marina. There were boats coming in and out of the docks, and though the closest to her now was at least a hundred feet off, it was likely she had been seen. She undressed, fumbling with buttons and wet jeans.

She went under and relished the saltwater filling her eyes; she stared at her blurred limbs, at her long legs scissoring under the water, painted with light, her pointed toes, her delicate fingers. Then, an exquisite pain clenched her middle, and she curled around it. She felt her face stretch into a terrible grin; had she been able, she’d have drawn a lungful of seawater, but the pain sucked the air from her lungs along with the will to replace it.

When she was able, she crawled to the playpen where the baby slept, sprawled on his back, his chest rising and falling steadily under thin fabric, ribs showing like the closed petals of a flower.

The worst of it passed, leaving a fresh throbbing in her body. She took off through the water, propelling herself with her newly fused legs, a tail again, a lobed fin that sped her toward the open ocean, away from the marina and the sounds of engines that assaulted her. She breathed deep and true. The world beneath the waves was crisp and clear in her new eyes, and nearly empty, nearly all open space.

Soon she had arrived. She was some miles out. Her husband’s fishing boat, some small distance off, muscled through the waves and back toward the marina with all the haste its engine could manage. She saw the men on the deck, her husband’s crew; they scanned the horizon for help that was already too late.

She dove beneath the waves and swam alongside the vessel, listening to the conversations that reached her through the metal hull of the boat. Her husband’s heart had stopped over an hour ago. His body grew chill and grey. And what had that been? the men wondered. When the pain first struck and he struggled to draw breath, what was the bucket he hauled from below deck, full of dull scales, flakes of something dead that he dumped into the sea before collapsing, closing his eyes, his face twisted against the end?

They spoke of these events over and over, repeating them like a spell against the passing of time, the steady death of cells, and as they spoke, she trembled, with rage, with unexpected grief.

How many stories had she read, and never discovered this most important bit of lore? The bucket of her scales, returned to the water, that was all it took to gain her freedom. How many times had she contemplated leading him to dangerous waters, sending him to fish where she smelled a storm on the brink? How many times had she found herself unable? In the end it was this: a simple accident of the body, an inadequate twist and flicker of guilt. She stroked the side of the boat with her webbed hand and then she swam away.

In all the old stories, mermaids are horrible people to have as family. Their only loyalty is to themselves, their whims, the sea; their loyalty is to no body. They kill the men who yearn for them, bring storms upon their villages; they tangle unwary swimmers in their hair and drag them to the depths; they bring destruction; they are destroyed; they bring empty promises hidden in their bodies like half-formed pearls; they bring nothing at all. The myths were wrong and they weren’t; they weren’t to do with her anymore anyway and they were all she had left. They weighed her down from the inside, those alloys of knowing.

Days passed, then months. The pain in her body never lessened or left; she was poorly outfitted in her new skin, and her misery formed verses in her mind that played on a loop. She checked her torso for evidence of the sucking wound she felt there. She swam slow circles just above the ocean floor, around the vent that was her favorite space, the water here a kind of dark that carried weight, syrupy and cloying. The water so hot it soothed the pain in her joints and her core; so hot it would scald her son’s sweet skin off in an instant. She thought of him as he would be now, of the hair that might have grown and the sunlight that might play through it, of a new brightness behind the eyes, shining through the accordion folds of his iris. She swam slow circles around the vent and wondered who held him at night, what they whispered in his seashell ears; she swam and waited for his coming.

 

Devan Collins Del Conte is a queer femme writer living in Memphis, Tennessee. She received her MFA from University of Memphis and now works for a food justice non-profit and as a nanny. Devan’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart Online, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. Find her at  devandelconte.com

Making Reubens

In the tiny pop-up trailer we have two toaster ovens, a roaster full of meat, and a cooler with the rest of the sandwich fixings. It’s just enough to keep up with the line of customers. Mama has been wanting to make Reubens for the rodeo and powwow for three years, offering something different than the usual Indian tacos, so I said I’d come up from Omaha for the weekend to help assemble sandwiches with sauerkraut and Russian dressing.

“Two more,” Mama calls, then coughs into her elbow. Her asthma and allergies have been acting up worse than usual; then she had chest pains and was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus. She won’t tell me about medical bills. I’ve avoided poking through the piles of papers stacked around the kitchen and living room in her trailer.

Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.

Mama moved to the reservation when I started university, after years of summer trips to visit an old college friend who lived here. Mama was in love with the space, the wide hills, and over ten years found a job and a husband who was more committed than my dad. She and Papa have been married for fourteen years, and I’ve visited often enough to make their trailer home-ish. Papa took me as a daughter minus a formal adoption. He’s eleven years older than Mama and can be persnickety, but they joke together at breakfast and worry over each other’s health. Papa calls me with her new lists of medications, asking if I can look up the side effects on the Internet.

“I don’t do computers,” he reminds me.

Mama starts another coughing fit, which makes my chest hurt.

“You need to sit down,” I say. I feel like I’m always reminding her to take care of herself. She tries to shake her head and say she’ll be fine, but starts another coughing fit.

Papa has been sitting outside on his lawn chair and chatting with friends, but he pokes his head in the door. “Everything okay in here, Daughter?” His brown eyes hold the same concern as mine. I say Mama needs to take a break, eat a Reuben.

Mama says, “Well, maybe a half.”

I say Papa can handle the money for a bit.

Mama converted to vegetarianism when she was in her mid-twenties, so she raised me on a meatless diet. After moving to the reservation and moving in with Papa, she started eating steak.

“I could only stomach so many salads and baked potatoes,” she says, but Papa likes macaroni with cheese melted on top and the eggplant parmesan that Mama makes. Mama said she didn’t realize how much she’d missed a good Reuben, though, and since it didn’t seem like anyone was going to open a Jewish delicatessen on the reservation, she figured on bringing one to them.

I make a half Reuben for Mama, then Papa takes over her post at the cash box. Mama slumps on a red camp chair in the corner. Papa and I exchange a glance. Mama has been working as a secretary in the humanities department at the tribal college for ten years, but Papa says that a couple weeks ago her boss called him to say she’s forgetting things—to send e-mails and letters and make copies.

“She said maybe your mama should make a doctor’s appointment,” Papa told me on the phone. “She was nice about it, but she sounded worried. She doesn’t want to let your mama go.”

I understand that could happen. I haven’t told Mama about my own dilemmas at the grocery store where I manage the front end, how I’ll have to give Nikki her walking papers for tardiness next week. I know her story—she has two kids and a second job and not the most reliable sitter, but I’ve made all the excuses I can to my boss, who is sympathetic but has corporate over her head. Corporate doesn’t have to give Nikki the news on Monday, kindly allowing me to fire a sweet and agreeable if harried person, but I went up for the promotion to front end manager last year and knew I’d have to hire people and train them and let some go when they ran out of chances. Mama would have never taken a job like that, or she’d quit in protest, but she’s good at sacrificing herself.

When I was twelve and we were walking downtown, we saw this black-and-white beagle mix run out into the middle of the street. Mama didn’t hesitate to sprint after it because a car was coming. She left me screeching at her from the sidewalk, afraid of being orphaned. The car stopped and a guy cussed at her and drove on. Mama picked up the dog and we took it to the shelter and Mama told them to call her if they couldn’t find the owner, but they did two days later.

On the drive home Mama realized I was being quiet and apologized, saying she really hadn’t seen the car since she was so focused on the dog. I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked. But as I slather Russian dressing on another slice of bread, I worry what will happen if the asthma gets worse, if the arthritis gets worse, if she could go on disability or if it would be better to have Mama and Papa move closer to me, though neither of them would want to leave here, but what if something happens and she winds up in the hospital—

I believed her enough to forgive. Mostly. That was how my mama worked.

Still, I need to get to the dentist because I know I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep, and I should get to the OB/GYN for my yearly checkup, and monitor my blood pressure on those machines at the pharmacy, and figure out why I have the three-day migraine every month, but I think that’s job stress.

“Good sandwich,” Mama says. “I’m going to use the port-a-potties.”

I nod and watch her ease down the steps, but then she walks more quickly and trips a little but doesn’t fall, and I think Mama, why do you have to move so fast? I turn back to the toaster oven to make sure the bread doesn’t burn, then I hear a woman scream outside and run to the door and see Mama and another lady on the ground and oh God, she fainted, but no, she’s leaning over the woman, rolling her to her back, and I wonder if it’s heat stroke or diabetic shock and if I have hard candy in my purse, which I grab from under the camp chair along with a bottle of water.

By the time I get there, Mama has the lady sitting up, blinking, breathing. She coughs to one side. I hand her the bottled water, and Mama asks if she’s hurting, if she feels dizzy, if she might need insulin. The lady says she hasn’t been drinking enough, it was a dizzy spell, give her a moment. She sips the water and in a second they’re talking about the fair and parade and I remember the bread and go back to the trailer to find it on the cusp of burning, but I pop the lever up in time.

When the sandwiches are finished, I return to Mama outside who lets me offer a hand to help her and the lady off the ground.

“Oh-ho-ho, my knees,” Mama says, smiling to let me know that sometimes she can admit her own frailties. I yell to Papa we are going to the restroom together.

“Don’t you ladies fall in,” he calls as Mama and I walk with my arm around her shoulders.

“She needed to hydrate, I think that was it,” Mama says as we wait outside the big blue boxes. She rubs one hand over the other to soothe her arthritis. “You make a good Reuben.”

“We’ll have to do this again next year,” I say, wanting to think about that more than I want to think about tomorrow, projecting us surely forward in time when there will be more scorching summer days in that tiny trailer making sandwiches, aware that we’re standing on the cusp of fates, but knowing the secret is not to look down.

 

Teresa Milbrodt received her MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. She is the author of two short story collections, Bearded Women: Stories (Chizine Publications), and Work Opportunities: Stories (Portage Press), a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People (Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection Larissa Takes Flight: Stories (Booth Books). Her stories, essays, and poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. Read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/

Photo Credit: Jeff Wasserboer

Bandar

A beautiful man with a rich beard and a nose sharp enough to slice a tomato stood ahead of Viju at the Falafel cart. He looked a lot like the man he’d seen Gita with at the cinema house last week, his Gita, at least she used to be. Viju grunted before he could catch himself. The man turned but looked away, scrunching his nose as if he were near a heap of garbage.

Viju knew everyone was looking at him now: the hurrying locals, the dawdling tourists, taxi drivers, haggard-faced passengers in the bus nearby, everyone. It seemed to him as though they were pointing at the rust-red lumps on his face and laughing at the way they covered half of his left eye, most of his mouth. Such that when he spoke, he had to speak slowly to make himself clear, especially to the customers at the shop where he ran the photocopiers.

He shrank further into his t-shirt and left the queue. He started for home, choosing not to take the bus. He didn’t want to give people another opportunity to stare. He was used to it though, from when he was ten, the kids in his lane wouldn’t play with him, instead they teased him, called him names.

He was twenty-six now and the teasing hadn’t stopped. They chased him, called him bandar, because of the redness of his face: “Aiee, bandar, here’s a rupee, dance for us;” “Want a banana?” They laughed, aping the walk, the mannerisms of a monkey. When it bothered him too much he raised a hand and lunged at them as if to slap them. They scattered away, giggling.

He crossed the road, into the barking traffic boiling with the heat of those heading home to fuck, to die, to sleep, to lick, to live, the thick of their wrists shoving the horn. The pedestrians snaked on the pavement, stepping around vendors and beggars. But when they saw Viju approaching, they leapt out of the way willing to give their lives to a passing lorry or a car than grazing against him, not wanting any part of his on them. Even the raggedy girl begging for bread, for a rupee, didn’t look at him, digging her back into the electric pole on the side of the pavement. But the second his shadow hissed past her, she started again, Sir-sir, Madam-madam, one rupee pliss. Gita leaving him was no surprise, he always knew she was going to.

When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges. 

He walked on the edges of the road where the street-light wouldn’t fall directly on him, driving his chin deep into his chest, a headless man. He walked past the railway tracks, the tiny paan stalls, grocery store, the cemetery until he got to Wadi, the slums, alleys after alleys of small, identical tin shacks on either side, so close to each other no one had any secrets: Baloo’s daughter had run away with the sweeper; Bimala died in her sleep; Amir the truck driver had AIDS.

One of those homes was Viju’s. The door was open—it always was—and just as he entered, bottom-exposed children chased a shrivelled chicken into the street across the alley. The kerosene lamp in the corner licked long black lines into the wall and shed wavy shadows. Coughing on the cot was his father, his body half raised. He rushed to comfort him, patting gently on his back, but the dry, wheezing cough persisted. Some nights it was so intense he spat blood. Viju gave him some cough syrup and when the coughing subsided, he turned the radio on to listen to old Hindi songs. His father’s yellow lifeless eyes were on him, awake yet lost.

He leaned against the wall waiting for his mother to return from the market and make dinner. She came back with two plastic bags of vegetables, a weary smile and held the door frame to catch a breath. They are used to seeing me like this. Viju wondered if he went away for a long-long time and returned one day, will his parents shriek in horror or embrace him; will they ask him where he had been, if he had had something to eat?

The adjoining room where he slept doubled up as the kitchen—a kerosene stove, a small wooden cabinet with a handful of vessels was next to his head. The holes in the corroded metal sheet ceiling threw sharp lines of moonlight on him. Lying on the thin straw mat, he could hear his parents snore in the next room. He traced his face with his fingers counting the number of ridges and Gita’s beautiful face appeared before him, like it had every night for the past year.

*     *     *

When he turned twenty-five, life had almost been kind to him. A customer at the shop said he knew of this miracle baba near his village who could definitely treat him. Up until then no doctor, no priest or swami had been able to help with his condition. The customer said baba had divine powers to bring the dead back to life, cure cancer. In his presence the blind saw and the lame walked.

Thrilled and full of hope Viju made all the arrangements, booked his train tickets, borrowed money from neighbours for the treatment. But days before he was to leave, his father fell from the sixth floor at the construction site he was working in and broke most of the bones in his body. Viju cancelled his trip to take care of him. To him it was a sign: nothing good will ever happen to him.

It was during that time that Gita, a nurse at the local government hospital, started coming to their locality once every week. She had long, black hair and smelled always of coconut oil.

There were rumours that she’d been fired from the hospital a month ago as a patient had died under her care. But she continued to wear her nurse’s outfit: her cap, apron, the dress tight at the chest, going from home to home asking if anyone was sick in their family. And since she didn’t charge, no one thought too much of it.

Viju liked it when she came, the gentle way in which she spoke to his father. When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.

Up until then he’d only been in love with cinema actresses: Katrina, Deepika, enjoying the goings-on in his pants each time their songs came on the colour TV at the shop, when they moved seductively in the rain or a strong breeze exposed their low blouses. But he fell in love with Gita immediately, imagining dancing with her like those heroes, holding her close, his lips grazing her smooth neck, her face, his fingers passing through her long, soft hair.

Friday evenings when she visited, Viju returned early from work, showered, lathered himself with talcum powder and put on a clean shirt and trousers. And when Gita looked at him or asked him a question, those brief moments he even thought himself as attractive. He’d stand close to her, bring her things she asked for: cotton balls, dettol, bandages, medicines, thermometer. He’d listen to her instructions, nod along: “You will have to change the dosage of this medicine; you should often ask your father what he wants, check if he’s thirsty or hungry, or needs to go to the bathroom. O.K.?”

He noticed also the way his mother was around her—shoulders curved, always smiling, always agreeing—poor woman wanting for her son a bride; she wanted to see him married, have a family. And to have such an educated woman as her daughter-in-law would make her so happy. His mother’s desire, too, made him look at Gita differently.

There was really no need for her to visit. His mother took his father to the government hospital for check-ups, pushing him in the wheelchair Viju had managed to buy from a thrift store. But because Gita continued to, Viju started to believe that she liked him too. The way she smiled at him, or when their fingers touched when he brought her a glass of water or handed her his father’s medical reports. He even started believing that his father’s accident was a blessing; that if his father hadn’t fallen, Viju would’ve left to see the village baba and not met Gita.

“Take care.” She’d smile before leaving, her smile, he thought, was a secret shared just between the two of them.

One day she came home in a yellow salwar kameez and looked so different it took a moment for Viju to realise it was Gita. He felt that maybe she’d dressed this way to do away with the formality a nurse’s uniform created between them. Maybe this was her way of saying, Let’s be more.

“Ma has gone for the Vat Poornima puja,” Viju said when she asked about his mother.

A stream of women in red saris and glass bangles walked past their door carrying fruits, coloured threads, brass pots with water, pieces of red cloth and clay idols. A current of joy passed though his body as he thought that after becoming his wife, Gita too would observe fasts and pray for his well being like other married women. But in the very next moment, he felt a wave of grief knowing that this was just a hollow dream, that if she learned what was on his mind she’d hit his face.

“How’s uncle?” she asked.

“He sleeps through the night now. His pain has gone down.”

“Good, good.”

He made her his special tea with crushed ginger and cardamom. When she took the tumbler from him, their fingers touched as usual. He stood in the semi-dark room, watching her quietly have her tea.

That night he pictured Gita naked.

*     *     *

In the morning, a customer with a chin carved out of butter: big, shiny, ample stared at him as Viju repeated his order: three copies, front and back?

“Yes-yes,” he said, trying not to gape.

“Page won’t photocopy well because it is worn. The copy will be darker, O.K.?”

The fat man had a French beard, a toilet-brush sticking out of soft dough.

“Dark page is alright?” Viju asked again.

“Okay-okay.”

The page was illegible, but the man only blinked twice and left with the blackened sheets of paper.

Chutiya. The idiot didn’t even ask for his change.” The owner laughed and scratched the webbing between his toes.

Viju noticed the owner’s daughter; she was parking her two-wheeler. The afternoon light illuminated the bleached blond hair along the edges of her jaw. Every Monday, after her computer classes, she came to the shop to collect her pocket money. Five hundred rupees for the week. Viju’s blood turned black just watching the owner hand her the money and the girl taking it mechanically, as if she deserved it, when Viju had to work the entire month for much less.

“Be right back,” he said, wishing to be away.

“Again? Didn’t you just go to shake your dick minutes ago?”

“Before I went to get your gutkha, now I want to go to the toilet.”

Acha. Bring two more packets on your way back.”

He went to the washroom on the lower level of the two-story building, ahead of the row of shops: mobile repair, compute spare parts, ATMs, stationery. The weak tube-light hummed a few seconds before flashing to life. He used the commode and washed his hands at the basin. He looked in the mirror with dark spots around its edges. What’s the point? But still he splashed cold water on his face and dabbed gently with his handkerchief. And hoped like he always did to have a regular face when he looked in the mirror again.

He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided.

“Hi, handsome,” he said aloud and laughed bitterly. He thought of Gita and how he must appear to her. Surely she saw something in him he couldn’t. How much he had enjoyed her touch, and soon had a bulge in his pants again. He imagined caressing her and was about to pull his pants down but there was an urgent knock on the door. Quickly fastening his buckle, he opened the latch and pushed the door open. The man waiting outside, desperate for a piss, jumped back as though afraid. Viju could tell he was reconsidering using the toilet now knowing Viju had been in there. The man decided against it and walked away.

*     *     *

Week after week, Viju waited desperately for Gita, wishing secretly, guiltily, for his father to remain sick. Each time his mother reported back wearily what the absent-minded doctor at the hospital told her—bones are still weak, not healing fast enough, maybe six more months—Viju tried to mirror her emotions. But when the temperatures peaked in the summer and his father grunted in pain or in frustration from the incessant itching on his toes or calves, places he couldn’t reach because of his casts, Viju’s selfishness pricked him.

The next time Gita came, she left her sandals with their silver straps in the corner and walked to his father’s cot by the only window in the house.

“Eat chicken soup to strengthen your bones, Uncle,” she said and his father nodded with half-closed eyes. Viju sat on his haunches beside them, and wondered where the money for the chicken soup would come from. He watched Gita take his father’s pulse. His mother was in the kitchen cooking and from inside asked how her day had been. Gita said, “Busy as usual, Aunty,” and smiled. The sight of her white, uniformed teeth titillated Viju.

She rested her hand on the railing of the cot, a dainty golden-dial watch on her wrist. It took all of Viju’s self-control to not grab her hand and rub it all over his face, kissing it till her palms turned red.

“Viju, do you want to learn how to take his pulse? Here, let me show you,” she said, taking his quivering hand in hers. “You place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — I mean on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel the pulse, count the number of beats in fifteen seconds. Then multiply this number by four to calculate the beats a minute. Got it?”

*     *    *

Viju tossed in bed, staring at the rays of silvery light streaming in through the ceiling, wishing for the week to pass quickly so that he could see her again. This was all new, these feelings he was experiencing, his dreams wet and sticky, a swelling desire to dip his tongue into the taste of tomorrow.

The week after, Gita came home on a Wednesday, just after Viju’s mother had left with his father for his check-up. As if she knew. This was the first time they had been alone and a fear gripped him; what will people say? Will they wonder what an eligible woman was doing with a man like him when there was no one else at home? Will they complain to his mother? But Gita entered without care, asked him how his father was. He offered to make her chai, she accepted. After finishing her drink, she reached out and touched his face. Viju took a sharp intake of air, which made her giggle. His mind went blank, the pulsating beat of his heart knocking behind his eyes. She blew gently and a rush of her cold, sweet-smelling breath brushed his lips, his cheeks.

This went on for days. She’d come home when his parents left and stayed till just before they returned. He’d weave his fingers through hers and relish the wetness in his pants, the world forgotten; for once someone just for himself; the weight and heat of another body pressed against his. He latched on to her like a child to its favourite blanket, cautious, worried someone was after it.

She allowed him only to play with her fingers; he sucked on them, kissing them one by one. If he tried to do anything else, like touching other parts of her body, she’d leave. He was afraid if he said something, if he protested, she’d put an end to it. Why was she like this with him? He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided. A bone, a soggy biscuit, he’ll take it.

*     *     *

At work, finding him unusually talkative, the owner snickered. “Wah-wah today your voice is coming loud and clear. What’s the matter? Someone blow you?”

Viju whistled as he photocopied an entire grade 12th physics book for a student. Two girls who passed by eyed him. He smiled then waved at them. He held his head high and proud, feeling O.K. with the way he looked, even a little love for himself, returning in his mind again and again to his encounter with Gita.

He wanted to be with Gita, like the couples he’d seen outside his shop sharing golgappas out of the same leaf bowl, laughing, looking with love at each other, sharing a joke; or like the ones he’d seen kissing in parks behind thick bushes, the girl’s dupatta over both their heads, a delicious intimacy between them. He wanted to tell Gita how he felt about her, but each time he said aloud things he planned on telling her, his throat closed and he found it hard to breathe. What if she slapped me? What if she told everyone what I said to her and they all mocked me? What a chutiya, they will say.

That night in bed, he recalled the goose pimples on her smooth skin, her scent. But that feeling didn’t last long as unease wrung his innards; made him sit up and wonder what she was doing with someone like him? This was just a phase, this affection was temporary. Any day now she was going to realise how hideous he was and tell him, “Stop touching me, bandar.” Once when he asked her if she wanted to go to the park with him, she said, “What’s wrong with spending time here?”

*     *     *

These days it surprised him, the insistent, pressing urge to masturbate—there was no other way of satisfying this creature—that came upon him often and at the most unlikeliest of times: on the bus to work, or while the photocopy machine whirred under his hands; when eating dinner—one flash of Gita and blood thrummed in his groin.

These impulses soon started interfering with his life, his work. Unable to focus, he was frequently messing up the instructions customers gave him, half-listening, worried his erection was showing. He’d make too many copies or forget to start the photocopier. Once the owner’s daughter caught him rubbing himself against the machine, and the owner who would’ve usually laughed off something like this, fired Viju.

*     *     *

Back in his lane, children trailed him, snickering: Bandar, oi bandar, where’s your bandariya today?” He kept walking, not engaging them. His mother met him at the door.

“Everyone knows,” she said and gave him a surprised laugh.

“Why are you yelling?” Viju said. “Go inside.”

“So it’s true? You and Gita….”

“Yes.” Although it seemed like a lie to him; what were they, Gita and him?

“She likes you?” she stared at him. “She’ll marry you?” but immediately she lowered her eyes as though ashamed by her question. He could sense her relief but also her scepticism that a woman was interested in him. She cupped his face between her hands.

“I already have bangles and earrings for my bahu,” she said proudly.

Now he just had to find another job, as a man about to get married rightfully should.

*     *     *

On the bus, going from shops to offices, looking for work, any kind of work, his lower abdomen purred. If he ignored it, it will go away, not bother him, not today, not now, but when had it ever listened to him?

He found an empty seat at the back and because it was crowded, he had to be discreet, quick. He slowly slid his hand inside his pants, keeping one leg over the other and spread his handkerchief over his lap. He was nearly done, eyes closed in concentration when a woman shouted. “See-see what he’s doing? Stop him, stop him,” she yelled and Viju realized his kerchief was on the floor. The passengers and the conductor got hold of him, dragged him out of the bus and kicked and punched him till he blacked out. When he woke up he was in jail.

The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape.

He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but he saw his mother kneeling at the inspector’s feet, begging him to release Viju, her face weak and crumbling. Finally, after calling Viju and his mother names and laying a fresh, loud slap on his cheek, the inspector let him go. She was silent on the way, her hands fists.

Viju and his mother got out of the rickshaw. The sky was bruise-purple. As soon as they entered the alley they heard stray dogs howling. He smelled it even before he heard the neighbourhood women wailing at the mouth of the lane, pallus drawn over their faces, beating their chests. They were standing outside Amir’s house. Viju saw the truck driver’s ammi by the doorstep, her expression frozen, hair frazzled, sari falling off her chest exposing sagging breasts. Viju’s mother pulled him roughly by his sleeve, demanding he come home with her.

“Please, son, please,” Amir’s mother cried suddenly on seeing Viju, collapsing at his feet. “Please take him to the graveyard, no one else will. They refuse to touch him.”

Viju’s heart thumped. The neighbourhood men stood at a distance and their women, the edge of their saris between their teeth, stood next to them.

The old woman was caressing Viju’s face, taking his hands and pressing them into her bosom. He looked at Amir, most of him eaten away by the disease, pale, a white ghost.

Viju went home with his mother, ate the food she served. But he couldn’t sleep, not because Gita kept him awake, it was the sight of Amir, his neglected body, the old woman’s tears.

He walked back to Amir’s house, the woman was still at the doorstep.

Viju bent, picked up the corpse and followed the curved narrow street. The woman didn’t follow him, just kissed her son’s toes and wept. A few dogs walked after him, some growling, some curious. The air was muggy with the smell of sewage, the lane lightless and quiet.

He remembered how once when he was young, he was playing on the road when a scooter had knocked him down. Bleeding from his head, he laid there alone and hurt. The kids playing with him had run away. People stood and stared, or walked away. It was a long time before someone finally took him to the hospital.

The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape. The man in his undershirt stepped back and put a hand on Viju’s shoulder. The skin on his face was dark and dirty, alcohol on his breath. He spoke slowly in a gravelly voice, “I have buried hundreds here but I don’t have anyone to lower me into the ground.” The man was crying slowly, lost in sadness.

Viju made up his mind; he wanted to be happy, why shouldn’t he be? He deserved it and would fight for it if he had to. The sun was starting to light the sky; he knew what he had to do. He was going to ask Gita to marry him. He’d joke that his mother already loved her bahu more than her own son. He was thrilled by these thoughts.

He enquired of shop owners, people in her neighbourhood walking down the street with their families; rickshaw drivers. “Know where Nurse Gita lives? Do you? Do you? Do you?” After hours of seeking, a man finally pointed him toward her building.

Gita wasn’t home. But he was happy to be there, to walk the same floor her feet too had touched. In the dank, cold corridor, sitting by her door, he could almost taste her: coconut oil and rose-scented perfume. Someone had spilled milk in a corner and a swarm of red ants were gathered around it, drinking with their small mouths.

He imagined her house, what it may look like from the inside: neat, clean, nothing out of place; white walls, small colour TV, white curtains with red flowers on them. She’d call him into her bedroom and pull her kameez over her head, remove her pyjamas, take off her bra and underwear. She’d lie down on the bed and beckon him. He felt excited by the thought of being naked with her, she opening her legs at his touch.

He heard footsteps and before he could react or duck, a heavy wooden staff whacked him on the side of his thigh. His flesh stung, burned. He cried with pain. It was the watchman.

“For one second I leave and scum like you get in. Get out before I break your head,” he said. “Go, go,” the guard shoved him, digging the stick deep into Viju’s back. “Bloody cattle-class.”

As Viju limped out, stroking his femur, he saw a woman in yellow salwar kameez, the fabric shimmering, her backside swaying left-right-left-right. It was Gita he was certain. He started following her, yelling her name, waving, jumping. “It’s me, it’s me, I love you,” he shouted. But she didn’t turn. He followed her until he lost her in the crowd.

 

Kailash Srinivasan was born and raised in India. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and currently resides in Vancouver, BC. His writing has appeared in a number of journals including OxMag, Santa Ana River Review, Going Down Swinging, Regime, Tincture, Bluslate, and Them Pretentious Basterds. He is currently working on his first novel.

Do You Wanna Dance?

Dolores stood beside Ruth in the two-car garage, their polarized trifocals not yet adjusted to the darkness. Dolores wore a sun visor from the 2010 New Mexico Bowl game where the Lobos had lost miserably. Ruth had on her fishing hat with numerous fishing flies dangling from it. She was so tall and skinny she looked like a floor lamp. Above the buzz of the flickering fluorescent shop light that hung from the ceiling there was another buzzing sound.

“What’s that smell?” Dolores said, crinkling her nose, but she already had a feeling she knew. Ruth had caught something.

Ruth pointed to the Hefty trash bag lying on the concrete floor. A few large horseflies were buzzing around it and the smell of wet mud, algae, and a wound that needed a dressing change rose from the green bag.

“Is this why you called me?” Dolores asked. She made the common Navajo “tsk” between tongue and teeth and shook her head. “I knew you were up to something,” she added in their native tongue.

She said this because normally Ruth didn’t call for Dolores to come over to her house. Usually they went somewhere together, basketball games, the casino. Once in a while Ruth, who had retired several years earlier, would meet Dolores for lunch at the university hospital cafeteria. She was fond of the liver smothered in greasy onions and the peach cobbler.

Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.

So, when Ruth had called her around lunchtime that day and asked her to stop by, even though Dolores lived nowhere near Ruth, she knew something was up. When she arrived, Ruth was standing in the doorway to her large ranch style house. She waved her long thin arm above her head and left the door open for Dolores to enter. The teakettle whistled and steam filled the yellow sponge-painted kitchen. Ruth had already placed two coffee cups on the orange Formica countertop.

Ruth smiled at her friend and said, “How are you?”

“Fine,” Dolores said, as she placed a Safeway shopping bag on the counter and pulled out Little Debbie sweet rolls. Ruth got out two plates and Dolores cut them each a generous portion.

“How was your trip to Bloomfield?”

Dolores’s granddaughter played in a summer softball league. Her team had made it once again to the state tournament played near her granddaughter’s home in the Four Corners, near Shiprock. Ruth poured water into each cup and held up a box of Christmas Spice tea, even though it was August, and a red container of Folgers instant coffee. Dolores pointed with her lips towards the coffee and Ruth set it down on the counter beside two spoons.

“We came in second.”

Dolores’s grandkids always came in second. Second in the girl’s 2-AA District basketball tournament, second in the elementary school spelling bee, second in the fancy dance contest, even Dolores had come in second in the quilt show at the county fair. “We got beat by the Bloomfield Sunflowers,” a team of freckled faced farm girls whose team was sponsored by The Future Farmers of America. The Shiprock Screaming Eagles were sponsored by Mo’s Transmission Shop and the Chat n’ Chew.

Dolores picked up a spoon and a plate with a frosted sweet roll and followed Ruth to the kitchen table. The sun streamed in the window that faced south and their trifocals became lightly polarized. The window, wide and low, looked out across what used to be a back lawn, a dirt alley that used to be an irrigation ditch, into Sophie Martinez’s yard, and quite nearly into her house. But they could stare into Sophie’s house all they wanted, because she was blind. She’d been going blind when Ruth and her family moved into their newly constructed home nearly forty years ago. Now it was Ruth who was going blind. She had been told a couple months ago she had the beginnings of glaucoma. She was keeping it a secret from everyone including her nosy daughter.

“Is that Junior?” Dolores said, then took a big bite of sweet roll as she looked out the window at a thin man hoeing two rows of corn. Bent over, his shoulder blades seemed to be pointing at them from across the barbed wire fence.

Ruth didn’t even look up from her cup where she was bobbing her teabag. The doctor had told her to stop eating so much chocolate and drinking so much coffee due to her ulcer. “That’s Junior.”

“He’s getting too skinny,” Dolores said and looked over her glasses at Ruth, meaning she, Ruth, was getting too skinny, too. “Here eat one of these.” She pushed a plate towards her friend and continued to stare at Junior. “He’s no future farmer,” she said and took another bite as he continued to hoe and Ruth continued to bob.

Ruth pointed to a centerpiece display on her cluttered kitchen table. It was colored Indian corn, four pieces tied together with a string so that if she wanted, she could hang it on her front door. “He made me that.”

Dolores held it up. Each cob was hardly larger than the size of the corn in Chinese food. She said something in Navajo about him not planting the seeds deep enough and then put it back on the table amidst newspaper clippings, crossword puzzles, a horoscope book, a doll’s dress Ruth had begun mending two years ago, and a racing form.

Ruth opened a pack of Sweet and Low, stirred it into her tea, and said something that wasn’t discernible above the rattle of the swamp cooler.

Dolores began to mix some instant coffee. “What?”

Ruth slid a newspaper toward Dolores and pointed at the headline with one long brown arthritic finger. She then held her hands tightly together in front of her as if she were a child saying a desperate prayer. Clutching her hands was the only way she could keep her long fingers from moving like the legs of a spider and her arms from flying open as if she were conducting an orchestra.

Dolores picked up the paper that was dated several weeks past and read, “Prosthetic Leg Found in Corrales Ditch.” This was not news to Dolores. Ruth had come by her house early last week. In fact, she had driven all the way into town just to tell her about the leg that had been found in the ditch near her home. But, more importantly to tell her that she thought she knew who it belonged to.

“Who?” Dolores had asked.

“You know. He was in the hospital. The one that was in the rodeo.”

Dolores closed her eyes and saw him, a good-looking, tall, young man who rode bulls. He’d been thrown, not from his bull, but from the back of a Ford pick-up truck. The x-ray of his femur looked like bone that had been broken into new galaxies. He had cried like a child when they dressed his wound following the amputation. “I can’t ride bulls anymore,” he’d told the two nurses that saw their sons, both born and unborn, in him. “I can’t dance.”

Dolores looked up from the paper and back out at Junior. He was working on the next row. She briefly wondered if Ruth had forgotten that she already had shown her this, but she knew better as Ruth’s fingers began to tap the table, the vein on the back of her hand moving side to side like a snake. She took another bite of sweet roll, chewed slowly, sipped loudly, and trying to sound uninterested said, “Did they find the rest of him?”

Ruth slid another paper towards Dolores and tapped a column on the left-hand side of Page B-6 next to an advertisement for Discount Tire. The prosthetic leg had indeed been identified and indeed did belong to a Navajo male who lived in the Albuquerque area. However, local law officials were unable to locate the owner.

That’s when Ruth had stood and without asking Dolores followed her through the laundry room with the sweet smell of dryer sheets and Tide to the garage, and there they stood now, looking at the Hefty trash bag. “It’s his other leg.”

“How did it get in here?”

“I caught it in the ditch last night—with a Zwiggler.”

The Zwiggler was a fishing fly named for a friend Ruth had met at the casino, Alfred Zwiggler. After losing most of their money, she and Alfred would sit in the coffee shop at the casino and talk about fishing. He showed her how to make a lure that could catch anything. It had the iridescent colors of a fly’s eyes, aqua blues and greens. “Nothing can resist it,” he’d told her as he held it up in the light of the coffee shop at two o’clock in the morning.

“When did you catch it?”

“Last night,” Ruth said. She’d made the fly with feathers and copper wire. And even though she’d heard coyotes barking on the mesa, she went out into the cool summer night with her dog and cat following behind her.

“Where did you catch it?”

“You know the place.” Where the ditch gurgles around that slight bend. Where the brown water feeds the roots of the oldest cottonwood tree. “It gave quite a fight.” It had nearly dragged her and her dog, who held to the back of her pants, into the ditch.

“Does it have a shoe on?”

“A boot. A Tony Lama. Size 13.

Dolores saw the young man the day he was leaving the hospital. He had lost weight and his once tight Wrangler’s were baggy. He pulled on one cowboy boot. It was still dusty from being a rodeo star and a projectile. The other boot was in the corner holding up his prosthetic leg.

“What about the rest of him?” Even though neither one of them said anything more, they both knew that Ruth had barely been able to retrieve his leg from this world that wanted to devour everything. “What are you planning on doing with it? Are you expecting some type of reward?”

A smile briefly crossed Ruth’s face, then disappeared like a hawk diving behind that same cottonwood tree where she’d caught the leg. “I’m taking it to the family. If this was your son, wouldn’t you want his leg?”

“You know where they live?”

Ruth took a piece of paper out of the front pocket of her loose jeans and handed it to Dolores.

It was in an older neighborhood in Albuquerque. Houses constructed of cinderblock in the 1960’s, near where Ruth and her family had lived before they had moved next to the blind Martinez’s. The place she had wanted to leave to try and keep them safe from this sort of thing.

“Will you just leave it? What if a dog carries it off?”

“I’ve already called them. They’re expecting us.”

“Us?” Dolores said, along with something else in Navajo followed by a headshake and a “tsk.”

Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.

Ruth hit the button for the trunk of her Ford Taurus and it flew open like the lid of a casket. Together they put the bag inside and drove across the river toward town.

The house was on a street named after the home of another lost son and one of Ruth and Dolores’s favorite recording artists, Graceland. They pulled up and both got out. The mother and father must have heard the car doors slam, because as Ruth and Dolores approached the house, they could see a big bear of a man standing behind the thin screen door. He towered over the two older women dressed identically in navy blue windbreakers with the IHS/PHS logo, elastic waist jeans, and New Balance athletic shoes. Without speaking the two women led him to the car and what was left of his son.

His son who had taken first place in every roping competition he’d been in since the age of seven and had been the champion bull rider for four years straight at the Navajo Nation Fair. He’d worn a huge belt buckle stating he was a champ over his thin hips and was about to start a career in the PBR rodeo circuit.

Ruth pushed the button of the trunk as the mother still behind the veil of the screen door began to wail like only a mother who has lost a child can. The leg, that was triple bagged, still had the odor of a wound. Ruth took the Zwiggler lure off her fishing cap and placed it on the bag. The Zwiggler she’d made from the feathered earrings her daughter had left behind when she moved out, earrings made of peacock feathers, which are supposed to be good luck.

The man picked up the trash bag as if he were lifting a newborn out of a crib. He carried the leg like that same delicate newborn toward the cinderblock house painted the color of sand in the wash in Canyon de Chelly. The mother opened the door and let her husband and what was left of her beautiful son into the house.

Dolores and Ruth returned to the Ford Taurus, closing the heavy doors. Ruth sat behind the big steering wheel and Dolores held to the door handle as they both looked towards the mesa where the volcanoes called The Seven Sleeping Sisters laid under a darkening sky.

The Sleeping Sisters who that night dreamed of a boy who became a man, a bull rider and a fancy dancer, who won all the powwows and the heart of a woman who became his wife. Together they had a hundred children, formed a dancing troupe, and traveled the country, the world, the universe, dancing and laughing and dancing and laughing.

 

Cynthia Sylvester is a native of Albuquerque, NM. In her work she explores the visible and invisible lines and borders between “worlds.” She is a graduate of the University of New Mexico and currently a student in The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She was the recipient of the Native Writer Award at the 2012 Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. Her fiction and flash fiction has been published in As Us Journal, bosque—the magazine, and The Best of Dimestories.

Photo Credit: Annabella Johnson

Walking Down the Grain

The Bretspars lived in a tumbledown Cape Cod, but they were a long way from Massachusetts. The sky was the color of faded denim, not New England grey. The land green and yielding, not hard and unforgiving. The blood red and pumping, not Brahmin blue.

A shelterbelt screened the Bretspars’ home from the road, spared passersby the sight. Cataracts of grime on the windows. Termite-ravaged siding. The place could’ve used a coat of paint, or five. Maybe a bulldozer. All that held it together was glue and prayer.

With one hand he gripped the table and with the other he brushed aside circulars, bills, catalogs.

The one man who could’ve made the necessary repairs but didn’t was Mason Bretspar. He was busy. Mason sat in his Naugahyde recliner molding the fiberglass socket of his prosthetic leg with a hair dryer. Damn tech made the fit so loose it rubbed his leg to rawness and blisters. Sweat drenched the seat of his pants. Previous sweats left a salt rime in the fabric. It was so hot these days hens were laying hardboiled eggs across the county.

The portable phone lay on a TV tray next to Mason’s chair. The hair dryer nearly drowned out its ringing. He would’ve missed the call if not for the tray’s tambourine rattle.

He clicked off the dryer, rested his leg against the chair, and answered the phone.

“Yello?” he said.

“Mr. B? It’s Tye. Tye Zophres?”

“I know who you are, son.”

“You gotta come quick. Done checked on Hayden. He’s . . . he’s . . .” The boy gulped then said, “Just a glove floating on the corn. I hauled ass down that ladder, shut off the auger, and ran for my dad. Told me to call you.”

“What? Hayden? Something happen to Hayden?”

“There’s . . . I mean . . . Come quick, Mr. B. I gotta go,” and Tye hung up.

“Shit.”

No time for a liner. Mason crammed his stump into the semi-molten socket. He pressed the black valve on the side and expelled the air. The cup squeezed his thigh.

Mason launched himself to his feet with a flip of the recliner’s lever. Put weight on his prosthesis. He wobbled then straightened. A slight twinge in the ball of nerves tucked under the skin. Mason went for his keys.

“What the hell?” Clara said, coming into the room.

She’d been doing laundry and smelled of lavender. A permanent frown mangled her face, a valance of skin hung down on the one side. It hadn’t always been so. The neuroma changed that. CAT scan revealed a white dot suspended in the wrinkled butterfly of her brain. They peeled her scalp, sawed bone, and poked around. Damaged some nerve. Hence the face.

Clara fixed her husband with a look. “What now?” she said.

Mason swayed. With one hand he gripped the table and with the other he brushed aside circulars, bills, catalogs.

“I didn’t hear you.”

“Didn’t say nothing,” Mason said.

“Well, something wrong?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.”

“Is it Hayden?”

“I don’t know. Maybe . . . Yes.” The wrinkles on his face mapped his frustration. “Where’re my damn keys?”

Clara reached under a pile of torn envelopes and withdrew Mason’s key ring. She jangled them like he was a dog waiting to be walked.

“Thanks,” he said and snatched them.

“You’re welcome,” she called as he stumbled out the door.

*     *     *

Mason zoomed through the down-and-going outskirts of town. Past the Dairy Queen and the bait shop, the Masonic Lodge and Flyby’s Diner. Mason slurred out of his turns. He screwed stop signs and the lone traffic light that stood between him and Skip Zophres’s farm.

How many roadside shrines did he pass out here? Deflated balloons and spent candles, teddy bears secured to posts with baling wire? How many nameless crosses, sun-bleached and rain-washed, tamped in the ground?

There was something about the cut of Skip’s jib that never sat right with Mason. Perhaps it was the story his father told him about Skip’s father, Bill Zophres, who betrayed his best friend by sleeping with his wife. How the friend found Bill nailing her in the shack were he used to cook moonshine. How that friend let them live for some reason despite the hatchet in his fist. How the friend torched the shack. Mason’s father said everybody was stunned but not surprised for the same reason you’re stunned but not surprised when the sun punches a hole in the clouds.

But when Tye offered Hayden a chance to earn some money over the summer, who was Mason to say no? Mason sucked Uncle Sam’s teat ever since his now missing foot slipped a rung on that ladder and he tumbled to the pavement below. Leg amputated just below the knee. Body held together with more pins than a bowling alley. So what if Skip Zophres wanted to hire Hayden? At least the boy could work, and the pay beat minimum wage.

Hayden was only supposed to sweep up, pitch in here and there, but there were days when Hayden came home looking like the Jolly Green Giant. It took Clara no less than two hand-washings to get his clothes halfway normal, the drains and traps choked with plants.

“The hell happen to you?” Mason asked.

“Green chop,” Hayden said.

Mason had never understood why Skip didn’t just let his cows graze. It would’ve been cheaper what with diesel as high it was, but the son of a bitch preferred mowing his fields with a flail harvester and feeding the silage to his herd in the barns.

“I hope he’s being careful,” Clara always said.

“He ain’t no dummy,” Mason said.

All those near misses. Mason didn’t traffic in omens, but he couldn’t help thinking he’d neglected some warning or other.

He turned off the main drag and onto the drive leading to Skip’s farm. His tires settled into two ruts worn in the earth. A strip of grass wound down the middle. Mason crested a bend in the road that counted as a hill in those parts, and there was Skip’s place. A sprawling, low-slung complex stretched over one hundred and fifty acres. Distant machines and outbuildings iridescent in the sun.

The last-minute howl of brakes. Heads turned. A hodgepodge of rescuers. They scrambled like a kicked-over anthill. Word had spread and summoned all comers. Even seventy-year-old Harris Wasco ventured out of his tarpapered shack.

Someone had cut holes in the curved wall of the grain bin and pried the panels free with a chain and tractor. The cough of a diesel engine. A tsunami of corn. Dust plumed into the sky.

It was too late to go in with a cofferdam. That might’ve helped if they’d shut the auger off in time. So they went to work with hands and shovels, pitchforks and hoes. They formed a bucket brigade and double-timed it. This was something they could reverse. They hadn’t given in to the fruitlessness of it yet.

A strange heaviness roosted in his chest. His heart these last sixteen years had been running around inside his son, and now it stopped. Then a new feeling. As sudden as the first. He jerked to enter the fray. Skip pressed a hand to Mason’s chest.

Sheriff Gatson was there. Made pygmies look tall. He lollygagged around his cruiser. His thumb was not up his ass, but it was in the neighborhood. You’d have thought Gatson was Barney Fife and not a fifteen-year veteran what with that green face of his. Never had the stomach. A running joke in three townships. All this was above his pay grade. So he did his part comforting the Zophres family. Beryl, Skip’s wife, was a plain, small-boned woman, and she hugged her daughter Gwen who covered her face with her hand. The girl could’ve been the milkman’s daughter. Her red hair jarred with the rest of the family’s dark brown. And Tye paced back and forth, his face the product of a meat grinder, a mass of fear and confusion.

Mason saw these things and didn’t see them at the same time. His truck slid to a stop in the courtyard. Scarred the ground with tire tracks. Skip was front and center orchestrating things. He glanced, saw Mason, and bee-lined to intercept him. Mason hobbled out of his cab and limped toward the excitement. Kicked up a wall of dirt.

The herd lowed in the barn. The smell of dung stabbed Mason’s nose. Silage tarps bellied in the breeze but stayed, weighed down with scrap tires. Sweet and foul juxtaposed.

Skip’s trot came to a halt. He was a lank man with a small upthrust of hair. Skin the color of tarnished silver. He had a chapped crease for a mouth. It opened.

“We’re working to get him out,” Skip said, but Mason kept going.

Skip jogged alongside Mason who eyed the chaos before him and knew Hayden was dead. Mason’s arms hung at his sides. A strange heaviness roosted in his chest. His heart these last sixteen years had been running around inside his son, and now it stopped. Then a new feeling. As sudden as the first. He jerked to enter the fray. Skip pressed a hand to Mason’s chest.

“Might be best if you stay back,” he said.

Mason’s forehead wrinkled. He stared at Skip’s fingers. Skip had a woman’s wrist in spite of all, the upper body strength of a gnat. His fingers would’ve snapped easily. But Skip removed his hand, and Mason made like a statue.

How many roadside shrines did he pass out here? Deflated balloons and spent candles, teddy bears secured to posts with baling wire? How many nameless crosses, sun-bleached and rain-washed, tamped in the ground?

*     *     *

Day inherited the night. Laid a strip of red in the sky. Sheriff Gatson trained his cruiser’s spotlight on the crush of activity. He eighty-sixed the ambulance and radioed the coroner. Skip switched on his generators to power floodlights. Halogen bulbs sizzled. The lamps sapped their faces of color. Mason’s mouth was a glue trap. He didn’t ask for water.

“A foot!” someone cried. “I see a foot!”

There was no hurry, yet Mason hustled over all the same. He saw the cracked and worn boot. One of a pair Hayden owned.

Mason dropped to his knees and paddled the corn out of his way. The grain shifted and slid. He unearthed a leg, two legs, motionless. The rest of him followed. Hayden’s body was all out of whack. Legs one way, torso another. A half-solved Rubik’s cube. The crotch of his jeans was soaked. Lips blue. Skin bruised. Jaw swiveled to the left.

Mason didn’t realize until the men pulled him away, but he was yelling, cursing, shaking Hayden. Shaking him so hard. His face was a mess of tears and spit and snot. He tried to speak, but his voice was worn down to nothing. He struck the ground, furrowed the dirt with his fingers. Bowels a knot of sinew. Everything hurt.

Mason thought of the day Hayden was born. The doctor buzzed about a C-section. Then this linebacker of a nurse pushed down on Clara’s stomach and Hayden gushed out wailing. He remembered pacing for hours, Clara’s exhausted face. None of that stayed with him quite like the look his son gave him when he held him the first time. It was the look to end all looks. Devastating and sustaining.

*     *     *

The coroner stuffed Hayden’s body into one of those black bags. A silver zipper stitched him inside. They placed him in the van, and the engine labored down the dirt road.

Mason crouched in the dust, back against the door of his truck. Skip’s generators sobbed. The babel of onlookers walked to their vehicles, whispering. They wiped their hands on their pants, forearmed sweat from their brows, and gave him that there-but-for-the-grace-of-God look.

The glossy toe of Sheriff Gatson’s shoe emerged from the shuffle of work boots. Mason looked up. Tie yanked down and to the right, top button undone. Gatson’s collar stood open. His Adam’s apple rose and fell with each swallow. He breathed, ready to speak, but held off.

Gatson squinted, lifted his glasses to the light as if candling an egg. Then he buffed a smudge from the right lens with the tip of his tie.

“I know you don’t want to talk now,” he said, glasses back on his face. “Or ever. Some other time. I’m . . .” Mason’s face collapsed into a mute, red fist. Gatson changed his tone. “Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mase. Real fucking sorry.”

And since Gatson knew what was good for him, he joined the exodus of cars.

Sometime in the night Clara must’ve come here and made his bed and straightened his things. Sunlight poked through the curtain. The furniture waited the way all sad things do. The blunt pencil on the desk. The toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.

The clouded glow of taillights dotted the dark road. Exhaust and grit hazed about. Mason coughed and heaved himself out of his squat. Skip crossed the yard with a slow, nervous gait. He moved as if obeying some code he’d rather not. They stood apart, silent. Mason could’ve cleared the space between them in three steps. Shadows sketched the ground. Skip’s mouth sputtered. Mason didn’t help him.

Skip clubbed his head with his fist, but the words wouldn’t come. Mason’s eyes started to fog. He knew better than to grab a blade and disembowel him. He liked to think so at any rate. Restraint made the fury worse. Mason saw the whole thing: cracking Skip’s skull, some noise—a gasp, a snap—him down on all fours, the heel of his boot on his skull, blood bubbling through hair and bone.

Before anything could happen, Mason climbed in his truck and stomped on the gas.

*     *     *

Mason didn’t want to scare the bejesus out of Clara. Hard enough being the bearer of bad news. He didn’t have to worry though. Slower than the speed of sound, the thump of his prosthesis announced his arrival well in advance.

He dragged that crippled thing he called a body into the kitchen. The fluorescents up under the cabinets shone on the counters. Clara sat slouched at the table, a basket of folded laundry by her feet. She did not look at him, but she saw him all the same. Clara brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and scratched her arm.

Mason pulled out one of the chairs. Had a butt-shaped scoop molded into the seat. The details some people worried about. Mason sat not knowing what else to do. His tongue knotted itself. Stillborn sentiments. Clara was quiet.

Then she said, “Mary Wendell called about an hour ago, told me what happened.”

Clara wove her fingers through the coiled wire linking the telephone handset to the wall mount. She looped the cord over and over. Plastic tacky in the heat.

He’d expected something more, but the more would never come. The dark hid the lopsided half of her face. She lowered her eyes to the floor. Clara looked younger for a moment, but only a moment. Then her eyes lifted and searched Mason’s face. Now she looked at him, but did she see? Mason saw the two parentheses that circled her lips. Same woman. And Mason saw a small him in her eye. His whole body stopped working. Then he tucked his lip between his teeth and skinned it. The twinge reminded him he was alive.

Clara turned away. She hadn’t found what she was looking for—or maybe she had. She stared out the small window above the sink. Through that window shone the moon. Swollen like a pregnant belly. Clara tipped her chin up and made a face like she remembered something she’d rather forget. Then she stood and left the kitchen.

*     *     *

Half a day later. A not-quite dawn reddened the sky. Four hours of sleep tops. Mason yawned and hoped it had been a dream, but he remembered. He rolled over. Clara lay on the bed beside him as though nailed to it. Mason fell back to sleep. Warmth pressed his shoulder. The Earth continued around the sun. Hard to believe.

He got up. Clara was missing. He looked out the window. The world was blue and white and green. It was so beautiful, and all the questions and answers were intertwined and didn’t matter anyway. It was a privilege to go to bed and wake the next morning.

Everything felt smaller and lonelier. Like that time he called the IRS helpline but worse. Mason had thought he knew what hell was. He heard the jangle of music, smelled bacon. Clara, breakfast. He’d have to face her eventually, but not yet. Mason went to Hayden’s room. Sometime in the night Clara must’ve come here and made his bed and straightened his things. Sunlight poked through the curtain. The furniture waited the way all sad things do. The blunt pencil on the desk. The toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.

Mason stood in his son’s doorway unsure how he’d face the rest of that day or any of the days to come.

*     *     *

So Hayden entered the cold, dark ground—the earth never satisfied with the bodies it had—and not once did Skip or his ilk stop by. Not once did they call or send a card or bring food. Not that Mason would’ve tolerated any of it, but it would’ve been the Christian thing to do.

Wal-Mart granted Clara a leave of absence, but they needed the money, and she needed out of the house even if it meant standing eight hours a day, a smile pasted on her slack face. She bore the taunts and name-calling of teenagers, the stares of adults, the finger-pointing of children. But that was as before.

But Clara’s stare harpooned him. It was like she held a rope that could tug all his guts out. Mason’s heart thrashed around. Could she hear it? Could she hear it crash in the pit of his stomach?

Clara came home, feet swollen, every breath a sigh. She complained about her boss, how he smelled like instant coffee and Pall Malls. She talked about Terri who manned the checkout, how her trips to the hairdresser cost more than a down payment on a house. And there was Jimmy who wrangled the shopping carts and hotboxed his Camry.

Clara continued these conversations they weren’t having. Mason stared at the bridge of her nose and smiled. This was life without Hayden. No high school graduation. No college. No job. No serious girlfriend. No wife. No grandbabies. It was just the two of them, their lives now suddenly jam-packed with nothing to look forward to. But he went along with the lie that everything was fine or would be in time.

Mason loafed around as before. He followed the transit of the sun across the sky, watched birds take flight like darts tossed in the air. He studied the floaters in his eyes and ate peanut butter with a spoon. He squeegeed sweat from his face with the back of his hand, wanted to bite off the faucet and guzzle the spray.

*     *     *

Two, three weeks after the accident, Clara suggested they see Harry Knorr.

“He’ll just talk until he’s blue in the face then charge us for all the air he breathed,” Mason said, sitting in his chain in a pair of Hanes and an undershirt.

Clara blocked the TV. She made an excellent wall. She wouldn’t move and stared at Mason until he squirmed.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“S’all a load of bilge water,” he said.

“Stop,” she said.

“Ahhh.”

But Clara’s stare harpooned him. It was like she held a rope that could tug all his guts out. Mason’s heart thrashed around. Could she hear it? Could she hear it crash in the pit of his stomach?

Clara stepped toward him and stood beside his chair. She grabbed Mason’s wrist and moved her thumb across the back of his hand. She begged him with her eyes. A new look. Neither hateful nor loving. It said only that she understood.

Mason’s voice had burrowed down inside his chest, but when it returned he said, “I’ll think about it.”

The thought of visiting Harry’s office filled him with dread. How what little remained of his thinning hair sat on his head like a brown pillbox hat. His bloodshot eyes and bowties. The most lawyerly lawyer Mason had ever seen. The Latin-inscribed diplomas on the walls, the way he spoke in paragraphs. A real college boy busting out fifty-centers just to prove he’d read all the books on his shelves.

But then a convoy of trucks swollen with grain rumbled by the Bretspar house. Their fury shook the blinds, flashed code like an Aldis lamp at sea. Then the trucks returned empty. There was no doubt whose trucks they were, or that the corn was now in the wood-cribbed grain elevator outside of town, or that Skip Zophres was happier than a pig in shit. So Mason agreed to see Harry Knorr, even humored Clara by wearing a tie.

*     *     *

Harry Knorr’s office did not jell with the surrounding area. The fact it existed at all was a miracle. Located on a down-at-the-heels stretch of Main Street, vacant storefronts flanked Harry’s practice, their windows covered in brown paper. The old hours still stenciled on the glass. Defeat was everywhere. Inside wasn’t much better. A change without improvement. Harry’s office was, in a word, beige. Beige carpets, beige walls, beige ceiling tiles, beige secretary, even a beige fern.

Out of this floated Harry’s beige face, the texture of hardened oatmeal. The usual shaking of hands. Harry ushered the Bretspars into his office, closed the door, and asked them to sit. He sat and ran his hands along the edge of his large wood desk. Like he was stroking the neck of some prized horse.

At last he said, “I guess I don’t need to ask what brings you in today.” He had bags under the bags under his eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Clara said like nothing at all. She looked at Mason.

Mason’s throat began to swell. He feared they’d hear tears bubbling in his voice. He thanked Harry with a nod.

Clara explained things as best she could. Then Harry plunged into some interminable monologue about tort. The elements of negligence: duty, breach, causation, damages. Clara dutifully scribbled notes on one of those steno pads made by proud blind Americans.

A human stench spiced the air. The musk of unbathed men and whore’s perfume. More smoke than a tire fire. Cigarettes smoldered like votives. Unanswered prayers.

Mason knew what Harry’s words normally meant—except for “tort”—but he also knew lawyers used words as a way to seek advantage. Everything was a power play with them. And so Harry talked about special relationships, duty to rescue, OSHA, negligence per se. He had this way of speaking, a certain waspy gravitas that made even the simplest pronouncements sound like the wisdom of a Supreme Court justice. Mason was fixing to punch Harry in the mouth if he didn’t get to the point.

“It’s what’s called a wrongful death action—”

Mason laughed. “Damn right it was wrongful,” he said. “Skip was the one sent Hayden in there. No harness, no safety line, no plan B.”

Clara stared at Mason like he’d farted in church. His laugh petered out. His tie suddenly felt as wide as a bib, covered in all his misspoken words. Harry coughed and directed his attention at Clara.

“Of course you could file a complaint with OSHA, but the most they’d do is fine him.”

“How much?” Clara asked.

“Hard to say. Five figures perhaps. Maybe six. But that’s pushing it.”

“I see.”

“And there’s always criminal charges,” Harry said. “Involuntary manslaughter, that is. Have you talked to Ray Brooks?”

Ray Brooks, the D.A. who chewed a cigar but never lit it. Teeth brown as chaw. Hand jangling the coins in his pocket to no end. A dartboard in his office plastered with the faces of his slain enemies. Glad-handing with the masses in the checkout lines.

“No, no we haven’t,” Clara said, her voice suddenly wavering.

Mason kept silent. Harry and Clara talked like he wasn’t there. Mason felt sorry for Harry, saw his whole life laid out with headings and subheadings, Roman numerals and bullet points. The kind of man who was insulated against the myriad and dire circumstances of life. Probably had a tidy whole life policy and a separate AD&D. His wife would make out best if he was mowed down by a drunk driver. Or drowned in a vat of corn. Did she know that?

Mason clenched the arm of his chair with the same vigor as he had the pistol-grip of his M-16 when he was hunkered down in his foxhole waiting for some pajama-clad slope with a Chicom AK to peek over the rim so he could send his ass to Valhalla. Just then the air was the same sticky-sour of rice wine he’d smelled for months in 1971.

Mason could see the whole ordeal unfold like an endless skein of paper. How it would end in dissatisfaction. Yet he couldn’t let Skip Zophres get away scot-free. Only so many places an uncivil shit could be.

Mason stood, leveraging all of his two hundred and sixty pounds. He grunted farewell and left the office. Furious but silent, Clara smiled wanly in apology and hurried out behind her husband. And even though they had Harry’s information, she nonetheless grabbed one his business cards from the holder on the secretary’s desk for good measure.

*     *     *

Mason sped past chain-smokers waiting for AA to start in St. Luke’s basement. Fritz’s Bakery came up on the right, its windows bleary with lard. He turned off the main drag and rolled up on Flamm’s tavern. The weather-beaten wreck didn’t have a proper name.

Wheels crunched gravel. Brakes yelped. Mason’s hands were red-hot. The steering wheel would’ve caught fire if he’d held it much longer. Mason took one look around that cosmos of trucks and SUVs and spied Skip’s Ford. Idiot still had a Farm Aid bumper sticker on his tailgate.

Mason shivered as he stepped over the scuffed and sole-worn sill. Red neon rubied the windowpanes. A human stench spiced the air. The musk of unbathed men and whore’s perfume. More smoke than a tire fire. Cigarettes smoldered like votives. Unanswered prayers. Years of blood and vomit varnished the floor.

Skip sat on a stool. Flamm Burke, owner and proprietor, stood before Skip. He was an old, dewlapped lizard. Scars laced his hands. Skin inked with names. Flamm set a bubbling pint before Skip who rubbed his nose with his finger and used the oily tip to stir the head, killing the carbonation. He swigged once, twice, twisted his glass.

No one paid Mason any mind. He came up behind Skip and kicked the stool out from under him. Skip’s chin connected with the lip of the bar on his way down.

Mason grabbed Skip by his collar and lifted him to his feet. He muscled him outside. Spectators ambled out behind them. Bored eyes took in the violence as Mason shoved Skip to the ground. Skip’s hands sought purchase in the sifting gravel.

A busted bike chain lay on the ground next to the shards of a bottle. Mason picked up the chain. He passed the links through his fingers. Said the rosary, or something like it.

Skip stood and turned as Mason swung the chain. It slashed diagonally left to right. Split Skip’s brow, his cheek, destroyed his nose. Blood gushed from the center of his face. Skip wailed.

Mason balled his fingers. Knuckles sapped the color from his skin. He punched Skip’s face. Punched it again. His hand exploded like a powder keg, but he didn’t quit. He pinned Skip against the hood of a car and dislodged a few of his teeth. His flesh preserved the shape of Mason’s fist. Skip hollered through a gurgle of bloody spit. Mason’s hand was now the size of a catcher’s mitt. A cold snap had burst the plumbing in his heart. He was drowning.

Mason used his fist and that bike chain and taught Skip a lesson he recited in tongue-tied pleas. Satisfied, Mason’s hands dropped to his sides. Skip writhed on the hood. He vomited suds. A groove in the steel fed his liquid to the ground. But he wasn’t finished.

Skip kicked out hard and fast. His real leg connected with Mason’s fake one, and the prosthesis came loose. Mason landed on his ass. Skip tackled him. They wormed on the ground, breathed the other man’s carbon dioxide. Mason flung out a hand and felt for his leg. He found the cool metal of his double-action joint and walloped Skip’s head with the socket. The joint flexed and creaked. Mason battered Skip’s head until all the fight was knocked out of him.

Skip crawled a few feet and slumped against the rocker panel of an old Chevrolet. Mason hoicked himself up on his elbows. His heart pounded so hard he couldn’t differentiate the beats. The show was over. The crowd melted back into the tavern.

Skip staunched the blood from his face with a handkerchief. His skin was redder than the spoken word of Jesus. Mason fussed with his pants and reattached his leg. Skip stood slowly. Mason followed suit. He stumbled upright and slapped the grime from his clothes.

“Got anymore plans for that chain?” Skip’s words sprayed through snaggletoothed gaps.

Mason looked down. His hand still held the busted bike chain, blood and dirt and grease to the quick. His mind and body disagreed. Sickness and loss and memory and gratitude flowed. Yes, even gratitude. It startled him what he could do at the drop of a hat, and sometimes there wasn’t even a hat, but now he knew what he was incapable of. Mason might’ve laughed or cried if not for the heavy weight rooting him where he stood. He dropped the chain.

Mason stared at Skip. A car laid rubber several streets over. A spray of sound, then nothing. The top and bottom of Mason’s face pinched together. His pulse drummed in his ears. He was lost in his own heads-or-tails confusion.

Sunset cracked the sky like a pomegranate. Spots of red and purple and blue. Mason wanted to get home before Clara finished her shift. He needed to cook up a lie so she wouldn’t get all flustered. His desire to hurt Skip sank. If it surfaced again the same or something else, so be it.

“I forgive you,” he said, and repeated it to himself, and did not believe.

 

Spencer Van Dyke lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared in TINGE Magazine, Bluestem, and elsewhere; however, this appearance in Lunch Ticket marks his first publication in several years. He attributes the lull to attending law school from which he graduated in May 2018. He currently clerks for the Orphans’ Court Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. And no, the court has very little to do with actual orphans. As with most legal jargon, some long-dead Englishman is to blame for the confusion.

Photo Credit: Ashley Shaw

In the Yard

Ahsan opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. He inhaled deeply and broke into a cough. The air was thick, murky and filled with an unrelenting stink—as if a gang of motorcyclists had fired up their engines and aimed into the yard. Ahsan covered his mouth and walked out farther. His mother had explicitly instructed him to play in his room with the air filter on. He tried to keep himself busy but none of it felt right. He needed the wickets.

Roobi had gone into her bedroom to take a short nap but had fallen into a deep sleep. The conversation from the night before continued to circulate in her head.

Someone did this, Layth said over dinner, his words filled with spit. The guy was a religious fanatic and all the neighbors knew it.

Roobi didn’t respond. If it wasn’t this, it was some other gripe about work or neighbors or parents.

Some guy, pale as the white sand, lights a fire leaving half of the state to burn and all they call him is an arsonist. A goddamn arsonist.

All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.

Roobi shushed him.

Goddamn, Ahsan repeated and laughed.

Don’t use that word, Layth said in a scolding tone.

Ahsan’s face dropped. Roobi glared at her husband. His harshness had grown since they’d moved to the Villa compound. They had left their life in the city for Ahsan. Their crew of friends—rising editors, media-makers, producers—were all about outdoing each other with their weddings, home purchases and now their children. But with Ahsan, Roobi suddenly didn’t fit in. She found herself shutting down when they talked about how quickly their children were walking, swimming, or riding horses. The schools and the doctors pushed Roobi to put Ahsan on an alphabet of drugs but she resisted. She found a special program near the Villa compound. She realized Layth had acquiesced to the move but not fully agreed.

Can I see the red balls of fire? Ahsan asked.

No, Ahsan. It’s not something to see, Roobi responded.

But what about storm tornadoes?

It’s not here, she said.

Then where? he whined.

Just finish your food, Roobi said curtly, then regretted her tone.

Back in the bedroom, Layth continued to complain. I’m sure they’re going to cancel our fire insurance. Why wasn’t this in the brochure when they sold us the perfect community—prone to fire damage.

We should leave, Roobi said.

What do you mean?

Evacuate. We could rent a place back in the city for a week or two.

They’ll tell us when to go. The river protects us. Plus, the weather is cooling down.

I’m surprised you’re not jumping at the opportunity to move back to the city, she said.

What about Ahsan’s school?

Roobi felt her anger rise up. All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.

Layth didn’t respond. He was in bed and on his phone. Roobi left the room and sat at the kitchen table. She pulled out her laptop and searched for short-term rentals. The next morning, she and Layth barely spoke. He left for work even though it was a Saturday and she spent the morning with Ahsan. By mid-afternoon, she was exhausted. She instructed Ahsan to stay indoors and went to her room.

Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth.

The wickets were lying flat on the ground. Ahsan picked them up and stuck them into the dirt. When they’d gone to Pakistan the year before, he’d seen the kids playing cricket in the streets and wanted to join. His father told him he couldn’t and Ahsan was devastated. Later that day, Layth came home with a cricket set. The bat was too heavy so they created their own version. They set up the wickets in the grass and Ahsan threw a football until they fell down. When they got back home, his father played with him every weekend. As the year passed, Layth made excuses and soon, Ahsan was playing on his own.

Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth. Leave, leave now, get out, run. The winds had shifted, the fire had taken a turn, jumped the river and was heading towards them.

Still disoriented, she felt a stillness in the house. Then she realized, she couldn’t hear Ahsan. She called out his name, running from room to room. She looked out the back window and saw red storm clouds rising across the horizon. Down below, she saw her son.

Ahsan threw the ball and the last wicket went down. Now, his day would be okay. He looked up at the sky. It was bursting bright crimson, as if the sun had descended down on earth. Ahsan was mesmerized, he was finally seeing the fire tornadoes. Then, what was cities away was right on top of him. He heard his mother scream and felt her grab his arm, and they were running.

 

Saba Waheed won the 2016 Water~Stone Prize in Fiction and was a finalist for the 2018 Reynold Price Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, Hyphen Magazine, Cosmonaut Avenue (fiction prize shortlist 2016), and others. She co-produces the radio show “Re:Work,” winner of a Gracies by the Alliance for Women in Media. Saba works as the research director at the UCLA Labor Center using research as a tool to elevate community stories.