The Secret Life of David McLiddy by Jacqueline Doyle

PE - secret life of david mcquiddy


“David.” His wife’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Did you call the plumber?”

Shit. His fantasy evaporated abruptly. E. had been bent over his desk, sundress pushed up around her back, panties on the floor, legs splayed, and he’d been fucking her from behind, plunging into her warm, wet pussy, hands cupping her ass cheeks to spread them wider.

“Can you hear me?” Sarah’s voice was getting closer. She must be walking through the dining room to his study.

“Yeah. I left a message on his voicemail.” He’d call the plumber now.

E was a checker at Trader Joe’s. Pear-shaped, with a generous ass, long brown hair she wore in a braid, and a friendly smile. She wore faded jeans and Sierra Club t-shirts and he imagined her life was simpler than his. She probably rented, for one thing, and didn’t own so much crap that had to be fixed all the time. She rode a bike to work. He’d seen her once on the boulevard, legs pumping as she pedaled up an incline, her braid hanging down her back under her helmet. Her quadriceps must be something.

“Maybe we should call someone else. Tell them it’s an emergency.” Sarah was standing in his doorway and he tried to focus. “I’ll get on it,” he said, closing the composition book he’d been writing in. He slid it onto the desk and put a pile of student essays on top of it.

“Damn, I’m really swamped,” he said. He made a wry grimace, inviting Sarah to commiserate with his workload. She didn’t look sympathetic.

“Have you got any ideas for dinner? I’ve got to pick up Tommy at tee ball practice in ten minutes. I’ll stop by Safeway. Can you put the wash in the dryer while I’m out?”

David didn’t have any ideas for dinner. His shrinking hard-on stirred. What if he said, “Fuck dinner. Let’s ball.” She wouldn’t be amused. There was Tommy. And the stopped-up toilet.

“I don’t know. Mac and cheese? Frozen lasagna?” There were only a few entrees that Tommy would eat without complaint.

Life with E. would be different. He’d write. She’d give him full body massages and cook healthy meals without bothering him about what he wanted for dinner. Quinoa, kale, lentils. Once in a while they’d barbecue a steak and laugh about it. She’d walk around the apartment naked reading Whitman aloud. He pictured her small but firm white breasts, marbled with faint blue veins. Pale pink nipples.

Sarah wrinkled her nose. “I’ll take a look at the deli counter.”

He pulled out his notebook after she left and jotted down some notes for his prospective novel. “E. Pearly pink nipples. I Sing the Body Electric. Bike rider. Likes sex on top?”

*

David sat in his cluttered office at Crown Country Day nursing a hangover. He’d taken two aspirin and gulped down three cups of coffee but it didn’t seem to be helping. Keith Aldrich lounged in the chair by his desk, eyes wide and guileless. Keith was his best writer, and lazy as fuck. He hadn’t looked at the short story manuscript marked up in red that David held out to him.

“Hey man, plagiarism is like kind of a strong word for it. You know I’m a good writer. Why would I do that?”

At the moment David didn’t really give a shit. He’d plagiarize from Bukowski too if he thought he could get away with it. Right now his writing was stalled. All he did was jot down scraps of ideas in notebooks.

“It sure seems that way, Keith. How about this paragraph where you forgot to change Henry Chinaski’s name?

“Ever hear of a mashup? I mean probably you’re too old to know about mashups.”

David was miffed. “Of course I know about mashups. I taught Reality Hunger when it came out. This is not a mashup, Keith.”

David prized himself on being avant-garde, something of a maverick. A popular teacher, he invited his students to call him by his first name and said “fuck” and “balls” in the classroom. The administration tolerated him because none of the boys’ parents had complained. They’d asked him not to teach Naked Lunch again, which secretly pleased him, as it added to his outlaw rep. They hadn’t objected to Reality Hunger, a manifesto that had completely confused his writing class, though his students had gleefully cut pages 210 to 218 out of the book, as the author instructed. He’d been wondering ever since if that was the way to go. Quotations stitched together. Attributions that you could simply cut out of the book. He could do that. He’d started saving quotations. But the fashion seemed to have passed already.

“Whatever. I mean that’s just your opinion.” Keith crossed his arms in front of his skinny chest, his expression sullen. “I’m going for early admission at Stanford and I need an A in this class.”

“I want you to go home and think about this,” David said. “Bring me a new story next week and we’ll talk some more. If it’s A work, I’ll think about giving you an A.” Let the kid squirm a little.

Keith didn’t look too worried. None of the sons of privilege in this overpriced prep school ever worried about anything their English teacher could do to them.

Later that afternoon David saw Dori Rinner in the hall.

“I’ve got an academic dishonesty thing I need to run by you,” he said. His mouth felt like cotton. His head was throbbing.

Dori had sent out a lengthy memo on academic dishonesty in September. “Consult me immediately before proceeding to the penalty phase. We need to be on the same page here!”

While she’d reiterated Crown Academy’s no-tolerance policy for plagiarism and cheating, Dori’s memo had not been about penalties, but about how to head off academic dishonesty so they didn’t have to deal with it at all. “Distribute more than one version of your test so students can’t look at their neighbors’ answers. Vet successive rough drafts of essays. Be sure to run your students’ last rough drafts through our Turnitin plagiarism service before they hand them in!” Students weren’t penalized for plagiarism in the rough draft, just warned they would be penalized if they handed the paper in that way. Consequently there were few or no plagiarism cases because plagiarists were warned in advance of their infractions. Crown students worked on elaborate paraphrases of papers that had flunked the Turnitin plagiarism detector test. “We’re proud of our boys’ integrity at Crown,” Dori wrote. “Let’s keep it up!”

Dori’s features sharpened. She looked up and down the hall, leaned toward David, and lowered her voice. “Who was it?”

“Keith Aldrich.” He watched her face relax. Clearly Keith wasn’t going to be in trouble no matter what he’d done. He wasn’t one of the “troublemakers” or one of the scholarship boys. His father had made a generous donation to the fund for the new theater. The Aldriches were on the sports booster list in the “Angel” category.

“Was it in your AP class?”

“No, creative writing.”

“Well, an elective. A creative class. I hope you warned him not to do it again.”

Dori smiled. No parents to placate. David smiled. No paperwork to fill out. The little asshole was off the hook and so were they.

*

“A Bukowski mashup?” David wrote in his notebook. “Bukowski meets Henry Miller in Paris and has threesome. Do mashup with three authors, one female. Anais too obvious a choice? Buk lifted her skirt and jammed two fingers up her cunt. I swooned, breathless, shivers passed through my body. I hate broads who talk too much, Buk said to Henry.”

He leafed backward through the notebook, looking for the Henry Miller quotation from Tropic of Cancer he’d copied. Maybe he should use note cards instead of composition books. Then he could lay them out in different patterns on the desk, really study them. He finally found it. “You can forgive a young cunt anything. A young cunt doesn’t have to have brains. They’re better without brains. But an old cunt, even if she’s brilliant, even if she’s the most charming woman in the world, nothing makes any difference. A young cunt is an investment; an old cunt is a dead loss. All they can do for you is buy you things. But that doesn’t put meat on their arms or juice between their legs.” Under the quotation he’d written, “Misogynist yes, but HONEST in a way p.c. contemporary authors are not. What man doesn’t dream of the young cunt with juice between her legs?”

He imagined slipping his hand down the front of E.’s jeans.

Maybe he should do footnoted commentary in the novel. Or footnoted mini-scenes.

The door to his study was closed but unlocked. He wasn’t sure whether Sarah was going to call him for dinner or not. She was still pissed off about the wet laundry on Sunday. Well screw that. He couldn’t remember everything. He’d gotten the oil changed, hadn’t he? He’d picked up Tommy at school twice this week. And made three shopping trips to Trader Joe’s.

*

It was February 14, and unseasonably warm for Northern California. David hadn’t forgotten Valentine’s Day. He’d bought a joke card for Sarah, and some chocolates that he’d probably eat himself. He’d gotten Sarah a pair of transparent red lace bikini panties that she wasn’t going to like, but if he was lucky she’d wear them once. Now he was at Trader Joe’s for roses.

The store was fragrant with flowers. Everyone bustled about pushing their carts, lots of old people, and middle-aged boomers in Birkenstocks. Sarah said Trader Joe’s was too expensive, but hey, it’s cheaper than Whole Foods and it’s healthy, he told her; we can’t spend too much on Tommy’s health.

He angled to get into E.’s line, even though two others were shorter.

“Roses for your wife?” she said, her smile cheery.

Her nametag read E. Gardner. He still hadn’t mustered the courage to ask her name. He kind of liked the anonymity of E. Like a naughty eighteenth-century novel or The Story of O.

“I’m old school,” he said. “A romantic.” He paused. “So what have you got planned for Valentine’s? Big night out?” His tone was too hearty, forced. She didn’t seem to notice.

“I don’t know. My boyfriend and I are going hiking on Mount Diablo in the afternoon.”

“Hiking.” Of course she’d like hiking. Of course she’d have a boyfriend, a young girl as gorgeous as E. He pictured a strapping mountain climber and grimaced.

“Maybe he’ll buy you roses too.” David winked, and immediately felt like an old fart.

“I’m not much for cut flowers,” she said, handing him his change.

Of course not. She was in the Sierra Club. She wouldn’t want cut flowers. David cursed himself for not thinking of that. Sarah liked flowers, but, come to think of it, she didn’t like red roses. Too late. He had them now.

“Maybe I’ll run into you on the trails some time,” he said casually. “I like to hike, read a book in the sun, get away from it all.”

He’d need to practice, do some walking in the neighborhood. Maybe he’d take off some pounds that way. What if he invited her some afternoon, just off the cuff. “I’m going to Lake Chabot later. Maybe we could go together when you get off work.”

“Let me guess your name,” he’d tease her, when they set off on their hike. “Emily? Eileen? Ermengarde? Eve?” His innocent temptress, bagging apples.

The car was hot. By the time he got home the roses were already wilting.

*

“Daddy, can we get pizza?” Tommy jumped up and down in excitement. “Pepperoni, pepperoni, pepperoni.”

“Daddy’s on a diet,” he said. “Let’s think of something healthy. Remember the food groups game you played in kindergarten?”

“A diet?” Sarah looked at him curiously. “Since when are you on a diet?”

She was wearing sweat pants and a baggy t-shirt. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a scrunchie. As far as David could see, she’d given up on losing weight and switched to wearing oversized clothes instead. She was stockier than she’d been before Tommy was born, but not really overweight in David’s opinion. She thought she was.

“You’re the one who said I’m getting a paunch,” David said. “That’s the word you used. Paunch.”

“Since when do you care what I think?”

“Jeez, Sar. Can I do anything right?”

“Well if you want to go on a diet you could start by cutting out the booze.”

*

Notebook entry. “A man misunderstood by his wife finds solace in mountain hikes. ‘He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.’ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

*

David had taken to wearing hiking boots all the time, which were surprisingly uncomfortable. Hiking boots, newish jeans, black t-shirt, casual sport coat. A Bay Area look, like a young Berkeley prof. He admired himself in the rest room mirror, sucked in his gut.

Keith had turned in his second story and they were slated for another conference. As if there wasn’t enough bullshit involved in teaching without this.

Keith was waiting in his office, slouched by the desk, when David got back from the bathroom. He looked bored. David handed the story to him and said, “Read the first paragraph out loud please.”

“The girl jumped up on the coffee table. Her jeans fit tighter than ever. I could see the slit in her crotch. She flung her long brown hair from side to side. She was insane; she was awesome.” Keith was clearly into it. He raised his voice a notch. “For the first time I considered the possibility of actually fucking her. She began reciting poetry. Her own. It was very bad. My buddy tried to stop her, ‘No! No! No rhyming poetry in this house!’ ‘Let her go,’ I said. I wanted to watch her wiggle her ass. She strode up and down my parents’ coffee table. Then she danced. She waved her arms. The poetry was terrible; the body and the madness weren’t.”

David had circled “the girl, I could see the slit in her crotch, awesome, fucking, my buddy, wiggle her ass, my parents” in red marker.

“The circled words are yours, Keith. The rest is from Bukowski’s Women. Good book. Not yours.”

“I don’t get it,” Keith said. “I could see the slit in her crotch is fucking perfect. What do you want, man?”

David sighed. What did he want? What did he want?

“What do I want? I want you to write a goddamn story.”

He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Now get out of here. Write something.”

*

The meeting with Keith had interrupted David’s newest notebook entry, and he hadn’t had time to finish before class.

“Imagine living in a bungalow in Berkeley with E., overgrown yard, roses by the door. We sleep every day until noon, drink black coffee in bed, read poems to each other. Fuck like rabbits. Study a tantric sex manual and try everything. If Sarah and Tommy were suddenly to die, would E. leave her boyfriend for me? I think she might. If I quit my job, could I write my novel? With E. behind me, yes.

“Dreamed we did it on the checkout counter at Trader Joe’s on Valentine’s Day. Night-time. No one there but us. Smell of roses. No condom. She gasped as I …”

*

David chose his own readings for the creative writing class, but AP American Lit had a set list of texts. Red Badge of Courage. The Scarlet Letter. A handful of classic twentieth-century short stories. Today’s was “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Not what he would have chosen.

“The pounding of the cylinders increased,” he read out loud: “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” David prided himself on reading with dramatic flair.

“What literary device is Thurber using here?”

Kippy, the smarmy ass-kiss in the front row, raised his hand. “Alliteration?”

“No, not alliteration exactly. Good guess, Kippy.” Crown faculty members were encouraged to give positive feedback as often as possible. Dori Rinner had a handout on “Building Your Students’ Self-Esteem” that she distributed every September at Faculty Orientation.

“Repetition?”

“Well, there’s repetition, that’s true. Anybody remember the term we use for words that sound like what they’re describing?”

Their faces were blank.

“Onomatopoeia.” He wrote it on the board and dusted chalk off the sleeve of his sport coat. “Come back on Wednesday with four examples of onomatopoeia.” He knew they’d just Google onomatopoeia to find their examples, but it would keep them busy.

He remembered liking Thurber when he was a kid, but now Walter Mitty’s daydreams seemed hopelessly jejune. Surely kids of this generation were too cynical and sophisticated for Mitty’s heroics, though the henpecking wife got some laughs. Who dreamed of performing miraculous surgeries or piloting a Navy hydroplane? Maybe piloting a plane with a naked girl in your lap, legs straddling your waist, tits brushing your face, moaning in your ear. “Walter. Walter.”

*

He did the dishes without Sarah asking. Score one point. Took out the garbage. Two. Read a bunny story to Tommy at bedtime. Three. Only drank one beer. Four. David was feeling pretty good when he locked himself in his study. He arranged the essays he had to grade in two piles, opened the short story anthology to tomorrow’s reading, and rummaged through his backpack for his notebook. No notebook. He felt around again, and then dumped the contents of the pack onto the floor. The notebook wasn’t there. He unlocked his desk drawer, just in case it was there, though he was sure it couldn’t be. It wasn’t. Had he left it at work? He’d written in it that morning, his Berkeley cottage reverie. He remembered that. He tried to picture it on his desk at school. Had he shoved the notebook in the file drawer? His backpack? Did he pull it out at home? Had Sarah been in his study before dinner? She hadn’t been. She never came in his study, not even to clean. His heartbeat had accelerated and he breathed deeply to slow it down. He knew he was worrying too much. He’d check at school tomorrow.

He jotted down some ideas on a scrap of paper. “Add to notebook. Man hiking alone happens on girl who’s been bitten by rattler. He smashes snake with large rock. Slashes snake bite on her bare leg with his knife, sucks venom from wound. Licks her skin. Slowly moves his tongue up her inner thigh to crotch of her tight shorts. Picture E. here, strong biking legs, soft white skin, braid down to her ass.”

*

Keith’s newest story was on the floor when David unlocked his office door early the next morning.

There was a note at the top. “Hey David. I’m going for one of those 100-word flash stories you were talking about in class. Using all the senses. Also, could you write me a letter for Stanford? Form is attached.”

He plagiarized, then wanted a letter of recommendation? The gall of these kids. David skimmed the page.

“It was past closing time at Trader Joe’s on Valentine’s Day. The smell of roses overpowered the faint odor of rotting vegetables in the produce section. Pyramids of toasty oats loomed, ghostly in the semi-dark. E. had turned off all the lights and stripped off her clothes. She pushed D. down onto the checkout counter and lowered herself onto his bare cock. ‘I sing the body electric,’ she gasped. He didn’t care that he could lose his wife and kid. That he could lose his job. All that mattered was this moment. Hot, wet, all consuming. It was worth it.”

David’s gut clenched. Jesus Christ. He took a deep breath. Jesus.

He should have just flunked the little shit for plagiarism.

Was Keith threatening to take the notebook to his wife? Did he know where David lived? What if Keith told Dori Rinner? Could he really lose his job? He probably wouldn’t lose his job. He hadn’t actually done anything wrong in the classroom. But there was a morals clause in the contract. They could fire him for pretty much anything if they wanted to. Years of his disparaging remarks about the principal and board weren’t going to help.

His vision of the shared bungalow in Berkeley was fading. E. wasn’t going to take him in after this. They weren’t going to lounge in bed reading poems to each other. She probably didn’t even like poetry. Nobody was going to take him in. Nobody was going to hire a forty-something English major who’d been let go from Crown Country Day with no references. He’d end up working at McDonald’s to make his child support payments. He’d see Tommy two days a week if he was lucky. He’d live in a grim efficiency apartment somewhere in industrial Hayward, in a converted motel with sagging balconies and peeling paint.

Even in the midst of his panic, he couldn’t help but admire “the faint odor of rotting vegetables.” The kid had potential. He’d managed a finished piece from jottings, which was more than David had accomplished lately.

His stomach churned, and he put his hand on it, trying to still its gurgling.

Maybe all the kid wanted was the grade.

“‘A’ work,” he scrawled on the bottom of the story. “I knew you could do it, Keith. I’ll get to that letter today.”

He sat at his desk, looking at the story, and thought about how trite his sexual fantasies were, laid out on the page. This was going to be about more than the grade. The notebook was a gold mine for a wily bastard like Keith. How many more stories could Keith manage out of the notebook entries? Would he pass it on to his friends? Would they pass it on to the next generation of Crown students? Would he be reading this crap for years? They probably wouldn’t tell the principal. Why ruin a good thing?

“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck a duck.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Dog turd. Puppy biscuit.” He was losing his mind. Damn Walter Mitty and his puppy biscuit. He sniggered. “I am really up shit creek now, Walter.” Wherever that expression came from. Was there an onomatopoetic word for how he felt? Finito. Done for. Fucked.

When he’d taught the end of Walter Mitty he’d mentioned Hemingway’s “grace under pressure.” Okay, it was just Walter Mitty’s fantasy, but there he was, a hero in front of the firing squad, “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” He refused the blindfold. He had some dignity. David imagined a crowd of spectators, E. sobbing among them, and straightened his shoulders. That’s how he would play this. He raised his chin and narrowed his eyes.

But there was no firing squad. There were no spectators but himself and a snotty teenager. Walter Mitty was still in fantasyland at the end of his story. Maybe he and E. would laugh about it all later, but David was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. He needed to buy another notebook. He pulled a memo pad out of the drawer and started to write. “The night was dark, but a streetlight shone through the window and he could see them in the faint illumination. She was sprawled on the desk, her long braid brushing one of her milky white breasts, her muscular legs wrapped around the boy’s ass. The boy’s red and white Stanford t-shirt was drenched with sweat as he pumped vigorously, butt cheeks clenching and unclenching. Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. ‘K.,’ she gasped. ‘E.,’ he moaned. ‘You’re awesome.’ Yes, it was E. And it was too late to do anything but write about it.”


 

About the Author: Jacqueline Doyle lives in the East Bay with her husband and son. Her fiction has appeared in The East Bay Review, Confrontation, Bluestem Quarterly, Toad Suck Review, Monkeybicycle, Tampa Review Online, Vestal Review, and is forthcoming in PANK. Find her online here: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

 

 

 

Just Black by Jan Steckel

PE - just black (final)


 

 

Just Black

Machine-gun-fire rain
on the zinc roof.
I wheezed like a calliope.
The cats’
eyes guttered
with the kerosene lamp.
They stalked me,
tails twitching.
Always want to sit
in the allergic person’s lap.
The succubus story:
a cat perched
on a man’s
chest, sucking his breath.
My abs burned.
The river was high.
I couldn’t get to the hospital.
I saw black spots,
then just black.

Police surrounded the big man.
He denied selling cigarettes.
What would an asthmatic
do with cigarettes?
It stops NOW, he cried,
waving his arms.
The officers moved in,
hands twitching.
One came up behind him.
Don’t touch me!
Please, don’t…
He fell like a sequoia, rolled
over a Lilliputian in blue.
Cops sat like cats on his
four-hundred-pound back.
A forearm pressed his throat.
He saw black spots.


About the Author:  Jan Steckel’s poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and her poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards. Her creative writing has appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, Bellevue Literary Review, Red Rock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Her work has won various contests (most recently the Goodreads Newsletter Poetry Contest) and has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in East Oakland.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

Personal Injury by Kenneth Radu

PE - personal injury


Late for work like that frigging rabbit, except he was late for the Queen’s garden party—off with his head—and wouldn’t that solve some of her problems except decapitation was neither viable nor amusing. People would object, and her heart grieved for the poor men who had been beheaded in Iraq insofar as she could grieve at all for total strangers. She hadn’t cried when Princess Diana perished in a car crash and certainly hadn’t offered so much as a tear when Michael Jackson or Robin Williams died. We all died, and it was enough to deal with her own family and friends without phony lamentations over public figures, as if she had any attachment to them. Why did television commentators assume a mournful air and cobble together a hagiography of lies when a celebrity died? She had watched the spectacle of public grieving often enough on television, thousands delighting in sorrow of questionable purpose. Don’t get her on the subject of Facebook friends who wanted to inform everyone about each and every operation and pain and demise of their pets and parents. She had often been tempted to post notice of her own death just to see what the hundreds of total stranger-friends would say and who would delete her profile from their list of stranger-friends. It was about time she cancelled Facebook altogether as she had ceased caring one whit for postings or statuses. She hadn’t even bothered to log on this past month. Really! Could this train go any slower? And it was beginning to smell of passengers packed—no, she wouldn’t resort to the proverbial sardine analogy—she quite liked sardine and onion sandwiches with a bit of pickle; although, she’d never take them to work for lunch. One’s breath, after all, and no one she knew ate sardines and onions, at least not in public, not in a world of salads, sushi, and Mediterranean fusion.

Late, late, late: her supervisor had advised, advised was the word he used, that her lateness aroused concern in the office. Whose concern? Was it anyone else’s business except her employer’s that she was late? Last week it was indeed three days: ten minutes on the first day, and a half hour on the two other days, and neither bit of tardiness could be attributed to the subway train, not like today. And it wouldn’t have been much faster driving all the way downtown to work, getting choked in highway traffic and paying exorbitant parking fees. The kids had been especially difficult getting ready for school on the first day. She had misplaced her car keys on the second day, and had rushed up and down the stairs three times searching for them. In the Toronto Transit parking lot she had driven between dozens of rows of cars on the third day until she eventually found a spot, the farthest distance from the subway entrance, and then broke a heel as she scurried through the doors. Damn! She bought a cheap pair of shoes—if $100 could be considered cheap—during her lunch hour from which she was late returning to work, inducing a scowl from her boss, a man who had once wanted to date her years ago, and even now; although, it couldn’t really be called harassment, by look and occasional shoulder touch intimated possibilities if she was keen—a forty year old mother of two raucous pubescent boys—a husband often conveniently away on business trips—convenient for him because where was he when she needed help—if she was keen, indeed. She did her work well, but chronic lateness affected attitudes and led to consequences. If she were to die suddenly on the spot, wouldn’t that interfere with her boss’s plans of seduction? She had half a mind…well, keep to the sunny side of the street except she was underground and still breathing.

She had lost five minutes this morning waiting for the train at her station because it was running late, and then there had been a delay of several minutes a few stations down the line, and now this! Exiting from the tunnel and entering the station, the train had braked fiercely like some kind of rampaging dragon who at the last moment had changed its mind and wanted to reverse direction. Adam, her younger boy of twelve, spent hours on some sort of computer dragon game, which she should really stop because there were other things in life besides stupid games, but it kept him occupied, and somehow, although she didn’t check, the homework got done. The doors didn’t immediately slide open and she could see the crowd on the platform turning its collective head and surging en masse towards one end of the platform rather than push forward to the yet unopened doors of the train. Then the announcement blared forth: the train could not proceed. Passengers would have to disembark and take a shuttle bus to another station because a personal injury had occurred.

Everyone knew what that meant. She heard a groan rumble through the densely packed car like some kind of subterranean creature stirring in the bowels of the earth. Where on earth did she get these analogies? Rabbits and dragons and bowels: her sons watched Lord of the Rings repeatedly. She had tried to, but wizards and elves, however cute, failed to maintain her interest for long. The orcs always reminded her that she needed to take out the garbage or scour the toilet bowls. God forbid Jason, who at thirteen knew how to make a mess, should volunteer to do the laundry. She issued commands to the heedless, then entered into a verbal fray, winning in the end, but her brain had twisted itself into knots. Why would he fight her so? They didn’t act that way with their father, when he was home, less and less it seemed, and if she didn’t know better, she’d suspect him of having a bit on the side, delaying his return by, say, someone like Jasmine in her office, a pretty thing who never wore the same shade of nail polish two days in a row. Nonsense, of course, she trusted her husband, and anyway, what she didn’t know didn’t hurt. But she could use help with the boys and the garbage, and a cleaning woman cost too much, and all the frigging fairies and elves in the world were not about to offer assistance. She knew some women who paid for domestic help, but she couldn’t abide the thought of a stranger in her house when she wasn’t there. Better to live in chaos than risk privacy. Well, what did she have to hide aside from unused sexual gizmos in her night table and a couple of porn discs her husband had brought home from Germany during which she had fallen asleep while watching?

Poor soul, sad, tsk, tsk, there goes another one, she heard various comments as passengers crushed their way off the train and up the stairs to the shuttle bus. She didn’t know who the soul was—that information wouldn’t be immediately available, and she wasn’t a vulture gawking over the edge at whatever bloody remains remained—or whether the person suffering the personal injury was poor or wealthy or even had a soul. She never gave the question of soul much consideration and didn’t know what people meant when they talked soul or spirit, but their smarmy self-congratulations set her teeth on edge. Look, I have a soul, I am spiritual, don’t you know? And why should people really care about a total stranger? It made no sense. Everyone and her sister clucked their tongues over catastrophes and decapitations and offered, as the saying went, “thoughts and prayers.” She gave a passing thought, but no prayer: prayer to what, for what, to what purpose? As far as she knew prayer never changed the weather or made the world run on time. What on earth could it do to save a man’s head? She had seen nothing of the incident, felt nothing, knew nothing. Except someone’s personal injury had exacerbated her mood and lengthened her delays and she could have screamed.

Why did people make such public nuisances of themselves if they were miserable enough to jump in front of a subway or any other train? Was she heartless? Had she no care? No compassion? She had as much compassion as the next person, donating money to a shelter for the homeless every Christmas, and joining the anti-Cancer walkathons in her hundred and fifty dollar jogging shoes. She had allowed a friend to stay at her place for an entire week while finalizing her divorce papers, too upset to live in the cramped condo on the lakeshore alone. Who wouldn’t be upset, living alone in 500 square foot space with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, eighteen floors above a polluted lake and a congested thoroughfare? She, for one, would have leaped off the balcony, and fortunately she didn’t have a balcony because temptation always, well, tempted. Who would care? Her sons no doubt would put on glum faces like Hallowe’en masks and walk behind her coffin the way Princess Diana’s sons had impressively walked in their mother’s cortege. Her husband, yes, yes, they still loved each other, and she admitted that she missed his presence in bed even though he could learn to undertake household chores with something approximating—she almost said soul but chose the word willingness instead. Some friends would also grieve, friends whose lives were as choked up with busyness and children and computer games and work as hers. Where was the time to sit back and read a book, the one she tried to read every night in bed when Boris wasn’t home, a prize winner, won a lot of money, so it had to be worth one’s time, everyone said so, although boredom soon crept in as she tried to get involved in a convoluted plot and endless analysis about nothing in particular and she began dozing off after fifteen pages, and she had three hundred more of them to wade through.

Already late, extracting herself from the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, she decided to walk as her office was just minutes away from the museum, a ten walk stroll from the St. George station out of which she emerged in a blast of cool September sunlight like Persephone getting up from the underground bed she had shared with Hades, that dark, alluring lover, and climbing to the surface for a bit of fresh air. If she remembered correctly from her university days—and the university campus spread across the street—it was hardly a love affair, since the girl had been carried off against her will. How closely related the words rape, rapture, and enraptured, the rape of Proserpina or Persephone, whatever her name. Did they all come from the same source? She’d have to investigate, and who would do a better job than she because research and fact verification was her job at the professional editing business where she clicked at three computers searching the world wide web simultaneously while she also flipped through pages of encyclopedia and answered phone calls and verified the work of her colleagues who were not quite her equal—her office depended upon her expertise. She decided to find the origin of all three words that moment as she waited on the corner of Bloor and Avenue road for the light to change, directly across from the monumentally angular glass addition to the museum, and remembered a painting she had seen in art class. The word rape meant “seized” and “carried off” as much as it did sexual violation, an obvious consequence of Sabine women being carried off by Roman soldiers on horseback who had more than mere canters and companionship in mind. When she had mentioned such a likelihood in class, her art professor had sniffed that her speculation lay outside the realm of the canvas, and proceeded to expound on the remarkable, diagonal muscularity of horses and arms and other compositional glories. She could have violated the professor then and there, smacking the side of his condescension with her hefty Jansen’s History of Art.

With children’s activities, shopping for groceries, a fridge crammed with condiments like mango-peach chutneys and tamari sauce or truffle flavoured Dijon mustard, half of which she threw out anyway, charity walks, commuting to and from work, housekeeping because someone had to sort out the mess which challenged even her own laissez faire attitude, visiting poor mom with galloping dementia in the nursing home, precious little time remained for art. She couldn’t remember her last visit to the Ontario gallery, even when she wanted to see a special exhibit, because her life from day to day didn’t allow it. Boris had promised to take her to New York for a weekend when they could find someone to stay with the kids for that period, one of the casualties of moving away from parents. Boris’s parents and her dad all engaged in being active seniors on the go, which seemed to entail snow birding in RV’s to Texas or wearing baseball caps and pastels on a golf course like her father, ignoring their grandchildren except for the fussy and formal Christmas visits. And don’t let her get started about Christmas when she had Thanksgiving to survive yet. They all expected dinner at her place. Except for poor mom, of course, who might as well be dead as her brain had effectively turned to stone, or some such thing. Last night, after the boys reluctantly kissed their grandmother’s cheek then resorted to the lounge where they blocked themselves off from the boring world with their digital devices waiting for their mom to finish her visit, she had spent a half hour holding the old woman’s hand, trying to feed her soup, wiping up the mess on her chin, and talking as if her mother understood—everyone said of course she understood—yes, well, really?

Stepping off the curb, her eyes riveted on the piercing glint of the glass building jutting out from the corner, she was startled by the car horn. Did it matter that pedestrians enjoyed the right of way. What cab driver gave that a moment’s thought in his frenzy to make a right hand turn, almost running over her toes? She should have worn steel-toed boots, had chosen open toe heels instead, a bit cool, given the weather, but the morning sun had suggested a light touch in her general wardrobe, and she had selected a print cotton dress, belted, with a matching sweater. Sunlight streaked across the glass museum addition and she remembered the controversy about how inappropriate the design was for the exhibits inside exposed to the ravages of light, so they mounted specially designed blinds to block it out as if the dinosaur bones would melt under the glass. The last time she had visited the museum, her boys had scurried about the corridors and exhibits like demented gremlins, and she even lost them for fifteen minutes as the small-headed brontosaurus caught her fancy: such a big body and minuscule brain, great lumbering, grass-eating sweetheart. Traffic, traffic, and people pushing into her, even though several apologized, because in all their furious rushing they hadn’t forgotten common courtesy, not all, but some had, and she begged one’s pardon if she happened to jostle a stranger. Was there such a thing as sidewalk rage? In her neighbourhood, she could walk three blocks without greeting a single person, just lawns and trees, as if the population had been sucked up and vaporized in space. She didn’t mind that at all. What was not to like about sauntering down the street without bumping into bodies? Without having to dodge cars? Without risk of personal injury?

She was late and her boss sat on her desk, the three monitors each bright with their individual screen savers, the orange and blue phosphorescent fish glinting and swerving being her favourite, his arms crossed over his pink Italian silk tie. The man bought his clothes in Bloor Street and Yorkville boutiques, the kind that did not display the price tags in the window, and she was certain that he dyed his hair because what man over the age of fifty wouldn’t be either balding or greying? Had he ever really forgiven her for rejecting his advances: not that they amounted to harassment or snatching in any Roman sense of the word, but his flirtations had been laced with expectations and assumptions, and heavily perfumed with a belief in his own irresistibility. And she couldn’t imagine any rapture as a consequence of submitting, but men didn’t take refusals lightly, did they? She’d have to consult a magazine or website to verify that generalization. The other workers all ceased doing whatever they were doing as soon as she entered, and they stared. Sweet Jasmine with lime green nail polish had stopped preening herself in the computer monitor, turned her swivel chair, and fixed her eyes like a statue in a temple alcove.

She knew what was coming. Well, in her defense she could have recited any number of reasons why, not least the incident of personal injury in the subway, some miserable soul had flung or leaped or fallen into the way of the oncoming train. Surely her boss must have experienced such an event himself; he’d understand the ensuing delays. Even he used public transit for all his designer labels. But what was the point? Someone please tell her, what was the frigging point? Why had her life evolved in such a way that regardless of her abilities and desires to do something utterly remarkable—no, not bring joy to people’s lives or discover the formula for world peace, she never desired to be a beauty queen spouting inanities from a glitzy stage—but to be more than a fact checker, a glorified reference librarian in an editorial house that corrected other people’s work and even signed ghost writing contracts for athletes and quasi-moronic celebrities who actually took themselves seriously as artists—everyone was an artist these days—and they sounded off, being all of twenty-three and ready to publish a first biography. What on earth did they know about anything except hotel suites, drugs, and camera angles?

She left without clearing out her desk: photos of the boys, a package of spearmint gum, a gold compact, a little teak box in which she kept stamps and paperclips, a paperback copy of Jane Eyre, which she had read a dozen times since high school. She admired Jane who at least had the courage to find her own way, poor child, and suffer the consequences, and who also recoiled from sacrificing her passion on the altar of the sanctimonious missionary, St. John Rivers, smart girl, and she had always thrilled to the story of the madwoman in the attic and the house catching fire and all that money dropping like a deus ex machina to improve everyone’s life.

Even though she had lived a good life, no money manna had fallen on her head. She refused to buy lottery tickets. They lived beyond their means, oversized house, vacations, activities for the boys, and restaurants when Boris bothered to take her, and her own wages barely covered weekly groceries and subway tokens. Boris’s income, larger of course, still did not meet all their expenses. Sure, they’d managed well enough on credit cards and juggling of payments. They could cut back on their monthly cell phone and cable television bill, they weren’t about to be thrown out on the streets, and she still dropped loonies in the hats of beggars in the subway, being no where near their state of poverty. With her expertise and experience, she’d find another job, but she could feel blood rise in her cheeks as she quietly shut the office door behind her, regretting that she hadn’t at least taken the picture and the teak box, a memento from a trip somewhere—where on earth had she bought it?—What were the chances of being rehired? Even if she promised never to be late again—well, promised to try not to be late very often—because after all life did not run on a boss’s office schedule, did it? No, it damn well didn’t. Sometimes the train had to stop in its tracks unexpectedly

The metaphor rumbling through her head as she crossed the intersection reminded her of the subway this morning, the cause of her dismissal. Perhaps not the sole cause, but if she hadn’t been late this morning, she would not have been fired. The personal injury of a total stranger had an impact on her life, or was that impacted her life? She always believed that “impacted” had something to do with dental work and remembered the cost of braces for her boys because perfectly straight teeth as white as polished pearls seemed to be some sort of universal law she had to obey. It cost a fortune to meet the beauty standards of advertising and she wished she had not been so susceptible because, really, what did it all amount to? Everyone would rot in their grave sooner or later: to this favour, you will come, if she remembered Hamlet’s words correctly, even if you paint an inch thick. She applied her own cosmetics with a light hand because she wanted to appear as attractive as the next woman, and how on earth would she get a decent job if her looks failed her?

Digging out her last token from a purse that had cost more than she gave to charity, she inserted it in the slot and pushed through the turnstile of the Museum station relieved that the cause of this morning’s delay had been removed, and everything had returned to schedule. At the bottom of the stairs, she flipped a few loonies into the yellow margarine tub of a beggar who seemed to be dressed in two or three of everything, as if he spent the day wearing his entire wardrobe, no single piece of which, given her eye for detail and fashion, blended or matched with another. She hated the oily lankness of his hair, but presumably beggars did not have immediate access to daily showers, and his smile revealed the need for dental work. She didn’t care if he was a con artist or not; he could well be suffering from chronic alcoholism or drug addiction or mental problems, for all she knew. He could have been kicked out of an institution that had closed because of government cut backs, or perhaps he had lost everything of value in his life for one compelling reason or another, including a supportive family if ever he had one, and he was doing what she herself was doing, trying to get by. Begging was work as much as tapping computer keys or pushing products no one needed, and in all probability he was no more manipulative or dishonest than bankers and brokers and advertisers, all with their hands in her purse in one way or another. She didn’t envy him, whether mendicant or mendacious, standing or sitting for hours in a subway station, depending on hurried and harried throngs of people for a few coins. Hardly a wise career choice, not a very profitable use of one’s time if he was scamming, which she didn’t believe he was, so his options were limited.

On the subway platform, standing between pillars designed to look like Egyptian pharaohs, she could have cried from utter exhaustion over being who she was and what the rest of the week, month, and year could possibly be like. It loomed large—she loved the phrase—it loomed large, the future, like a putrid Orc hovering over a bridge she needed to cross. Her boss didn’t even have the courtesy of firing her in private but made a public example of her tardiness.

Remembering that she had to drive her sons in the family van to their soccer game after supper of frozen lasagne heated in the microwave filled her with such instant and ravishing horror that she stepped to the edge of the platform, and stared down at the brassy and black tracks, trying to think of alternatives. Images of Anna Karenina at a wintry train station in Russia gathered together like a computer game of building blocks, not the novel which she hadn’t read, but the movie versions: first Greta Garbo, whining for Count Vronsky’s love for whom she had renounced respectability and her child, and who had clearly grown bored with her, the prick; then Vivien Leigh playing the same role a decade later, and just last year Keira Knightley’s rendition of the lady’s struggle to live a life of passion rather than mere convention and numbness. In the end, confronted with betrayal and desertion, the utter dissolution of what she had sacrificed so much for, Anna heard the train approach as if in a dream, just as the wind blew out of the subway tunnel as it always did and the subway train rumbled into the light and the tracks glowed like bars of fire glinting in Anna’s eyes as she fell.

Electrocution would not have been an issue on the 19th century Russian tracks. Times had changed. Wasn’t the entire world electrified these days? If she flung her body to hit the tracks, would it jolt and jerk as electrical charges sparked through her muscles and exploded her veins? She knew so little about how things worked. The shock would be momentary, an evanescence consumed by the ravaging train and ensuing darkness. Maybe it was mere fancy of the moment or the force of the wind blasting out of the tunnel, but she saw herself, the sole audience of her private drama, she saw herself just drop down, not even expending the energy to fling or leap or jump, just drop down and end all the shocks which flesh was heir to. Taking a deep breath the way she had learned in her Yoga classes, she checked her wristwatch out of habit, its clock face surrounded by miniature zircons. Jostled, she begged someone’s pardon, and stepped aside to let passengers out before she entered the almost empty car and the door slid shut.

II

Although he had occupied his begging post, as he privately called it, since early morning, he hadn’t witnessed the plunge over the edge or noticed anything amiss. He rarely raised his eyes above knee level and he liked to huddle as if wrapped up in a kind of invisible cloak with his own thoughts to keep him company. The thickening and thinning of crowds, the brush of bags and briefcases against his shoulders, the heady combination of scents and sweat, the infinite variety of boots and shoes: all these concentrated his view. Besides, that little girl had stood and stared in front of him, her running shoes glittering with pink and green lights when she moved, until her mother yanked her aside with the words, “stay away from that man.” The train’s shuddering to a stop and the doors not immediately opening didn’t break into his comfort zone until he heard the official announcement about a personal injury. The double doors parted to release a collective gasp and he looked up. Another one, he thought. Who could tell which of the passers-by, which of the hundreds and thousands of commuters had chosen this moment, this place, or if it had been someone who had first dropped a coin in his tub before tipping over the edge?

He lowered his eyes again because what did it have to do with him? He had enough troubles and he had learned through experience and a fist in the jaw that eye contact could provoke an attack. Suffering a bloody nose and broken incisor the last time, and robbed three or four times in the past couple of years, he had not been recently assautled. A few people emerging from the train paused long enough to flip coins in the tub, so that was okay. When the police and transit authorities arrived at the scene of the personal injury, he decided it was best to decamp. Two officers first stood over him and asked him questions, but he convinced them that he knew nothing, had seen nothing, and they let him go.

Climbing the stairs, his back slightly hunched, he could smell his own body odour like old cabbage with a hint of curry, probably the residual aroma from last night’s curried cabbage at the kitchen where he had also eaten mashed potatoes, lumpy gravy and leathery liver, not his favourite food, but, hey, beggars couldn’t be choosers. He should have stayed long enough to shower, but there had been a line up, and he had showered four days ago. Well, maybe his clothes reeked a bit of the St. Vincent de Paul bins, that, and body sweat because he found it more convenient to wear his three shirts and two pairs of shapeless wrinkled khakis and two suit jackets, the outer one brown with the shiny elbows two sizes larger than the snug inner tweedy one with frayed cuffs. The September mornings could be cool, and this way, he didn’t have to cart a shopping bag full of old clothes, although he admitted a bag of some sort would be convenient like any of those black cases or satchels so many train passengers carried. He could stuff all sorts of useful items in it, but it would be an item to watch over and maybe arouse unfriendly curiosity.

Anyway, his stomach grumbled. Emerging from the underground, he pushed through the door to the street, then counted his take, nine dollars and fifty-five cents collected in two hours, not bad, and the day was far from over. He began his daily quest for a meal, at least something edible to stave off hunger until the evening. He coughed, spat out a wad of phlegm and wondered if he was coming down with bronchitis again, a recurring problem. He had actually quit smoking a few years ago because of the expense and also because of the chronic coughing. The sun, warm despite the chill in the air, refreshed his lungs, and his legs gained strength as he trudged along Bloor towards Spadina where he enjoyed a good chance of finding food. Behind the back of sympathetic restaurants, he waited for a friendly waiter to dump the kitchen trash in the big cans, often consisting of food left on customer’s dishes. A few restaurants had a hostile policy of chasing him away, a few others sent boxes of the day’s unused food to a couple of shelters for the homeless, but that was at the end of the day and he needed something to eat before then, having missed breakfast. He could have slept at the shelter. There had been an available bed, but he preferred to spend as little time around the Sally Ann soldiers of Christ as possible. Not that he cared one way or the other about Jesus, don’t get him wrong, he just liked to keep to himself in the morning and not be hustled or advised in any way, even if it meant finding a deserted shed or bench or church porch and missing the shelter’s breakfast of hot porridge. Couldn’t remember the last time he had bacon. In winter he’d have to compromise his personal taste because no beggar wanted his balls frozen.

He didn’t hold his tub out on the street and took a dim view of fellow mendicants who approached pedestrians for a hand-out. They always aroused his suspicions in any case, something about their attire, their general look, he couldn’t put a finger on it. Not all of them, because a couple of gals in the shelter said they preferred to work the street rather than station themselves in one spot where the likelihood of being hassled was all the greater. People moved along on the street, whether they stopped to give a coin or brushed past you, and no one had ever given them a hard time on the sidewalk: oh, sure, harsh words now and then and if they paused too long in front of a store, owners harangued them away. That went with the occupation and they all joked about it in the shelter before going out again. A few had been saved by the Sally Ann, cleaned up, instructed, and changed their lives for the better, including former friends who disappeared from his life as if he had never existed, as if they had not flushed the same toilet in the shelter or scraped the bottom of the porridge bowl at the same table. Not one to judge, what right had he in any case? Locating his favourite restaurant where the waiters had been kind in the past and the owner didn’t mind his presence and waited just steps away from the assemblage of trash cans. He used to thread his way among the fruit and vegetable stalls of Kensington market, picking up an apple or orange or even a Jamaican paddy, but he preferred the quiet of the back doors and a fully cooked meal of left overs.

After getting food he’d return to the subway, hoping things had returned to normal although he could choose another station except he didn’t want to tread on a fellow beggar’s toes or invade someone else’s territory. In the tunnel at that station, whoever had sustained a personal injury must have been pretty desperate, he figured, and sympathized because he had imagined how easier life would be if he simply blanked out. Vanished. Feel nothing at all, especially not the ache in his sides after prolonged coughing. He dredged up another gob of yellowish phlegm just as the back door opened and out strode a whistling young waiter in tight black pants and blousy white shirt carrying an orange garbage bag held away from his body as if he didn’t want to come into contact with the contents. The beggar had never seen him before and the waiter ignored him as he dropped the bag in a large dented can, and then went back in. Not so much as a how do you do. He spewed out the phlegm and decided that he had to buy a coffee and bottle of water before returning to this station. Maybe cough drops.

He had been young himself once, and even had a job at the railway yards, and other places, for it had always been difficult to keep a job for more than a few months. A gaggle of sharp-beaked thoughts screeched and beat against his eardrums, or he slipped into a semi-coma from tedium and lost track of his place and purpose, until they fired him. He also had friends who found jobs, their wages not much better than his own weekly earnings, so here he was opening the lid of a garbage can, sorting through the garbage in the orange bag and extracting not only partially eaten, barbecued chicken breasts and legs, but also a soft roll that had been nibbled, a large handful of greasy fries, clumps of vinegary coleslaw, other still edible tidbits on which, as no one was looking, he gorged himself, maybe eating too fast, but one didn’t linger over one’s meal by the garbage can. There had been so many roads and byways, detours taken, dead ends met, hopes deferred, decisions soured, that he wouldn’t have been able to chart the how and why of his journey from the moment he had run away from home at fifteen to this moment here, gnawing on a still useful chicken leg standing above a trash can.

Not prone to nostalgia, he nonetheless regretted the loss of a room on Gerrard Street, which had a sink stuck in the wall, a toilet in a closet, a bed, a table and chair and two burner hot plate, within walking distance of a library that had allowed him to sit in the reference room as long as he read a book. That had been no pain at all, because even if he had difficulty focusing on the page and following the sentences from beginning to end, he could pretend for a few hours, and it was a relief from harsh winds and icy temperatures. He couldn’t remember why, but the landlord had evicted him, even though he was sure he had earned enough money to pay the rent, even though it was getting harder and harder to make ends meet until one day it seemed they were so far apart he might as well stop trying. Which reminded him that he had better hurry and get back to work. The more time he spent eating, the less money he collected. Other beggars could steal his place if he stayed away too long. The Sally Ann was well and good, but money improved one’s options. He had enough wit to understand that, and people shouldn’t assume that because he was sometimes confused he was also stupid. He knew how the world worked, fuck, you didn’t live on the street without learning how the world really worked, something he probably knew better than all those thousands of passengers spewing out of the trains every morning. Except Sundays it was quiet and he preferred, weather permitting, to spend time in the parks if the cops didn’t hassle him, buy a bun and coffee from a vendor, and walk and sit for as long as possible before thinking about where to go for a meal and a bed.

It didn’t take much to buy a clean bed at another shelter about a mile from here with no Christ in it, on the other side of the Don River, a kind of half-way house for the homeless. He never understood what half-way meant. He was either in it, or out of it, he didn’t straddle the threshold. He needed a bed all the way, maybe he was missing something here. One old geezer, now dead, said you weren’t supposed to be spending all your time time here, like it was a place only to stop a bit until you found something definite. Definite? He didn’t know about definite. What was definite? He had thought his room on Gerrad Street was definite, even one of his jobs, which one he couldn’t remember, but they had all disappeared anyway. That place on the other side of the river, the one with pots of flowers on the porch, charged a very modest fee to help ends meet, and cooked one mean stew most days. Good people, too. He remembered that he’d have to take a streetcar, although not too certain of which street, but hell he’d find his way if he walked.

Crossing the intersection, he refrained from spitting on the road, ignoring a mail van beeping its horn and another car braking suddenly and also beeping, such fuckin’ ear-crunching noise. Inattentive to the lights, he had crossed on a red, something he didn’t realize until he looked up, then hurried to the other side. Would it have mattered if either vehicle had hit and knocked him flat, maybe crushed his skull? As long as it didn’t hurt. No, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered. People perished by the second and who’d give a fuck for a shabby stranger? Anyway, he reminded himself to pay attention because he didn’t want to die. If he did, why would he bother begging in the first place and trying to gather a few coins to make his day easier? Now that person this morning in the subway would have suffered a similar personal injury and he wondered how much pain a shattering head caused. But such thoughts entered and fled his whirligig of a brain, along with the sounds of brilliantly feathered birds and whispering caterpillars on mulberry leaves and whiskey bottles bursting open because someone had thrown themself against a wall and radio DJ’s nattering like lunatics. At least he wasn’t one of those, for he couldn’t stand too many words at one time, and what the fuck were they talking about anyway? People looked at him like he was crazy. He knew he wasn’t, but life on the streets over the years had compromised his appearance and attention span, and he simply didn’t think anymore like the rest of the world. He wasn’t crazy though, shit no, for he knew what he had to do in this town to get a buck and how quickly it could be taken away. Basic economic facts: he he could survive as long as no one beat the shit out of him and stole the day’s earnings.

He strode into a pharmacy to buy Buckley’s cough drops, the only thing that soothed his throat, and as soon as he entered he became aware of being watched. Not by the store mirrors hanging like saucers from the ceiling, or the cameras catching every move in every aisle, but by the cashier, two customers waiting to pay, and a blue-smocked clerk who stopped stocking the shelf when he slipped by in the cold remedy section. The glaring whiteness of the store’s fluorescent lighting system eliminated shadows and shadings, emphasizing facial flaws so customers, regardless of complexion, looked bleached or shell-shocked. He had read in the library reference room that fluroescent lights had been first used in morgues, allowing pathologists a clear view of deathly pallor. The condition of his skin, marked by spidery red filaments and brown splotches, no longer troubled him. What fifty-year old man living on the streets worried about his looks? If he wandered among the shelves too long, he knew he’d arouse suspicions, but he was able to find what he wanted, including a cheap box of tissue, without having to ask for help. They wouldn’t have looked twice at him if he wore a suit of clothes like the ones displayed in Bloor street shop windows, even though he knew as well as anyone the real thieves of the world dressed to kill. He read about them daily in newspapers retrieved from subway trash bins or left on park benches. The clerk scanned the bar codes and announced the total. Consisting of purple and green streaks, her hair reminded him a a bird he saw once at the Riverdale Zoo. Her lips covered in a black glaze parted as if surprised by his five dollar bill, but she dropped the change on the counter and not in his outstretched palm.

Finding his familiar spot in the station, he sat cross-legged, leaning against the wall, wishing he had bought a magazine from the pharmacy and a bag of humbugs, his favourite candy because they lasted. He couldn’t remember the last time he had visited a dentist and, despite brushing at the shelter or rinsing his mouth out several times a day with water from a public fountain, he winced over the: pain cutting through his gums when he least expected it. He was already sucking on a medicinal lozenge, which seemed to suppress his coughing for a time. His reading, though, of a new magazine, put people off. He sensed their disapproval even before they made it: if he read, he was probably educated, a man who could get a job, he was a con artist, or some shit like that. Well, he had a job. As much as anyone on the train: he got up in the morning no matter where he had slept, and found his way to work, and stayed there to acquire sufficient funds for his needs, then went to his home or half-way house, or spent the night in a park, and he returned the next day. No one suffered because of his work. He didn’t lie, cheat, steal or grasp after gold, and was not controlled and shaped by bosses and maybe, if he had been inclined to pursue the thought, he’d even say he enjoyed a kind of freedom on the bottom rung. Sometimes he felt a kind of sympathy for all those other workers who didn’t do what he did, because it must be difficult to get up every morning, knowing you had to do a thousand and one things before stepping out the door, then facing the crush on the trains, scurrying about all day, or, worse, confined to a chair, and now and then have everything come to a halt and your entire day just collapsed in front of your eyes. His day never collapsed because it already lay there at his feet like a crumpled sheet, so with no expectations he experienced no disappointments.

That woman dropped a few loonies in the tub. He had raised his face and smiled a thank you although she probably didn’t see because no one really looked at him, not even if they gave him coins. Hoping for another five dollar bill, as the loonies added up, and so did all the quarters and dimes, he sensed that people weren’t in the giving vein today. That one woman with the open toe shoes seemed to be in a hurry, not bad looking he noticed through carefully raised eyes, and he’d do her if she had given him half a chance, but that wasn’t likely. Couldn’t remember the last time he got laid, but there had been a time, fuck, what time, when, where, who; he hadn’t always been sitting on his haunches or leaning against the tiled subway wall with an empty margarine tub begging for coins. He didn’t always smell of musty clothes and cabbage. Some days the police hustled him out of the station, depending upon their mood, sometimes they left him alone. He didn’t perform like buskers with their nerve-crunching violins or accordions who got official approval to perform. They usually made more money than he, but they weren’t homeless: a couple were music students, so they told him when he struck up a conversation. Seemed friendly enough but they kept their distance as if proximity to a real beggar exposed them to contagion. He didn’t want anyone getting mad at him or causing any kind of hassle and arousing the attention of cops who popped out of commuting crowds when least expected.

He stood up to ease the tension in his legs and then he resumed squatting, for interior positions elicited more generosity than equal stature, which he had learned some people thought presumptuous, and it must be getting late because his stomach growled as it had earlier and he wondered where he should eat. Sardines:his mother used to unwind the lid of four Brunswick sardine cans with a key, remove the fish, roll them on a plate of flour, then quickly fry them. A treat. The last time he had looked for sardines he couldn’t find the tins with a key attached, so he’d need a can opener. For the sake of balanced nutrition, he should buy an apple and banana and a carton of milk, and a whole wheat bun or two. He no longer substituted drugs or booze for food, that was a saving grace. A struggle, and his body had hell to pay, but aside from a toke, if available, if offered by any one he knew, he didn’t do drugs, and he had stopped drinking, not even a beer anymore. Some fruit would be a good idea. Prevent scurvy, he chuckled, worried about his teeth and gums. People died from bad gums and rotting teeth, he had read.

Merchants in Kensington market sometimes threw him an orange or apple, but he didn’t care to walk there today. Of course, there were a few soup kitchens and the Sally Ann, but he had a mind to wander this evening, perhaps in the ravine cutting through Rosedale where he could stare up at the lights of the splendid homes of the wealthy as if they were spaceships glinting through the branches of trees inhabited by alien beings. Unless hustled out by authorities, he could stroll inside the palatial Union Station, and later cross a bridge over the Don River where a half way house stood to give him a hot meal. Maybe play cribbage with a friendly resident, maybe get a bed. Not all doors were closed to him.


About the Author: Kenneth Radu has published fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including his first collection of stories, The Cost of Living, shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Award. His second collection A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is now working on a new manuscript of stories, which will include Personal Injury, and continues to live out of the lime and other dimmer lights on the outskirts of an obscure village.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

Beach Town and August, Adolescence by Leland Seese

PE - adolescence (draft)

 


 

 

Beach Town and August, Adolescence

Flotsam from a vessel sunk a half a century ago
Sunburned afternoons surveilled by the owner of the general store

Subtle as raccoons around a trash can as we sticky-fingered
Ads in black and white at the back of hot rod magazines

To glimpse the montes veneris of the models peddling
Shocks and mufflers in their bathing suits

The locals’ lives marooned there through the winters
The older brother’s t-shirt stars and bars and sleeves with cigarettes

He’d slingshot rocks at beachcombers, kick children’s
Pails full of bullheads back into the bay

And tossed me in along with them the day after the sister always
Lurking like the seagulls near the fish and chips stand on the pier

Hiked her dress behind the pilings to let me see
That nothing

But a stale breeze probed the clefts and sea moss as my pals
Above us wondered where we were


About the Author: Leland Seese began writing poetry after living for 50 years and wrestling with cancer. He is a social activist, pastor, and foster/adoptive/biological dad of six great children. He and his wife, Lisa Konick, live in Seattle. His poems have appeared in The East Bay Review, Pyrokinection, The Christian Century, and other journals.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

The Water or the Wife by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

PE - the water or the wife (final)


Justine’s feet burn in the wrong shoes—the lucky red boots with turquoise tips, boots that usually tempt the fates, call on rain gods to drench the soft leather. She couldn’t bring herself to wear sandals in winter.

“Never seen a February look like July,” says the farmer, reaching up to touch the curling edges of a peach tree, clucking, shaking his head. The heat baked hills shimmer, yellow as though with fever, the land gaunt and thin under the abnormal sun.

Buds like new breasts peek between leaves. “Peaches fooled into coming on early.” He inhales hard. Then rubs the still-green nubs, a sweep with the thumb, not too rough. “No damn rain to keep them alive.”

Heat lines glaze the horizon of trees, as though this orchard is a mirage. Stone fruit were always her favorite in summer, oozing their juice, staining summer dresses pink.

“Miss? You have questions for me?”

Justine shakes herself like a dog after a bath. “Sorry. First day back on the job after a year.” Her voice sounds hoarse, still scraped with lack of use. Communication at home with Nate happens in whispers and grunts, their own sign language of least contact.

He chuckles softly. “Doesn’t bother me. I talk to trees and goats more’n people. You took a sabbatical? An illness?”

A stab of surprise at his bold asking. “An accident. Lost someone.” Her throat feels sliced from the saying so, first time aloud to a stranger in a year. For a moment she can’t swallow around that hurt.

“That’s a damn shame.” He cocks his head skyward. “Too much damn loss.” He looks up at the tree overhead which reaches down new leaves like a lover tickling his scalp.

She realizes he’s giving her a moment to herself.

A man of good humor, Justine thinks. She’s forgotten what it’s like to be around one. Focus, she prods herself. Feels the slender recorder in her pocket; pulls it out. Digital now, none of the heft of the old machines. She holds it up toward him slightly, as though offering a cigarette.

He leans in, his lips close to the silver box. “I may be out of a job end of this summer.” Dark green eyes fold into furrows of brow. “Family’s had Stone Fruit Orchard seventy years. Survived blight, competition, some minor droughts and even a fire. But now the county’s going to end a legacy by taking our water away.”

“Water district told me you have wells,” she says. No taking sides. Just the facts, Justine reminds herself, though she’s already stepped over the dry line toward her subject. He’s wearing blue and white plaid shorts in February, flip-flops. His calves are ropey and browned; she suddenly yearns to see them flex, climb a ladder up into the waiting trees. She sleeps as far as possible from her own husband at night, two castaways on separate continents, but now, here, she wants to slide her arm around this stranger’s shoulder, knows how the soft jersey knit t-shirt will feel beneath her fingers. She imagines he’ll smell like hay and plums.

His laugh is an amused bark. “We have wells. We live on one—water for the house, the animals, and so on. The other hasn’t been used in thirty years. What it’ll cost just to see if it even works, hell.” A vigorous shake of the head dislodges a leaf from his thick brown hair. He laughs again.

“So what does that mean for your orchard?” A reporter’s job is to ask stupid questions, so the subject will provide good quotes, yet every word exhausts her. All this talking to talk.

Now the easy smile slides away. He squints up, eyes like the green flash at sunset. “It means I gotta choose between keeping my orchard or my wife alive. Can’t afford a well and her chemo, both.”

A gust blows pollen straight up her nose. Her sneeze explodes, so fierce, so fast she can feel the pause of her heart. At last, a subject she’s conversant in: death.

“I’m sorry,” Justine says. It’s the thing you’re supposed to say in the face of deathly things, though she knows too well it’s less than a band-aid, but you say it because it’s better than the things you really want to say, like fuck cancer or no, I don’t feel better.

His eyes stay tight but that grin returns. But then his jaw locks up, subterranean veins pulse beneath the stubble of his beard. Justine recognizes the stoic pose you take to prevent tears, to still emotion back into its lair.

“Sorry, yeah, aren’t you.” Voice hunkers down to a whisper and he turns only his eyes to look at Justine. “You know what my wife said to me? ‘Hal you just let me go my own way. I know a way, I won’t feel no pain. A sip of this, a swallow of that. Just need someone to help.’”

Justine can barely breathe. Any sound might scare him back into talking at the surface. Here’s a topic she understands. Willing death in. Seeking its escort to a place beyond pain.

“Can I meet your wife?” Her hand sweats around the recorder. Moisture beads up at the back of her neck and trickles between shoulder blades, too. It’s got to be eighty degrees out here.

He raises an eyebrow, bites his lower lip, exhales. “Ohhh.” His limbs shifting, shuffling. “She’s not really up to seeing folks. Don’t think she’ll be much good to your story.”

Justine turns the recorder off, jams it back into her pocket, holds out her hand, as though in prayer, beseeching. “I don’t want to talk to her about the story.”

She holds his gaze so long it almost hurts, waiting to be understood without having to make more words.

At last the coils of his face release, his eyes glaze with little clear pearls. “First, let me show you one more thing.”

They walk in silence up a fat hill. She enjoys the pleasant, rhythmic exertion of her thighs, thin excuses for former muscles that hang and flap when she stands naked before the mirror. Breath burns in her lungs but feels good, too—she remembers this from the Time Before, when she and Nate did laps to nowhere on side by side treadmills at the gym, chasing that high in that perfect life that needed nothing else.

At the top, Hal stops and pivots out. Awed breath gathers at the edge of her throat. The whole town spreads out below them, a sweeping silent valley of matchboxes, beveled in yellowed hills with dark green berets—all those ancient oaks. She can almost feel their thirst from here, see them curling brown at the edges.

“I used to see a pretty vista, stars twinkling at night, a sunlit paradise in a lush valley by day. Now? I see my livelihood dribbling away.” He plants his hands on hips, an almost womanly gesture. “You know what really nuts me up?” He doesn’t wait for any confirmation that she’s listening. “Thinking of all the water wasted all over the damn place that nobody knows a thing about, can’t stop or fix. Dripping faucets, and little kids flushing toilets over and over for laughs, and some drunk asshole forgetting to turn off his bathtub, and sprinkler heads broken and shooting water into cement parking lots, not to mention all those athletes wasting waters in showers at the health clubs. It keeps me up at night, all that water that could be mine, that could keep this orchard alive, but there’s nobody watching, nobody to catch it…”

Nobody to catch, to keep an ambitious child from tall ladders. A wind whips through Justine; she flings arms around herself, chilled.

Hal tilts his head back and up, closes his eyes. “Best damn thing I’ve felt in months, a breeze.”

Justine’s teeth are chattering.

***

What does Justine expect of Hal’s dying wife? Perhaps the same sorts of false impressions people expected of her in the Time After—a glowing, vogue version of decay with natural make up: How natural death looks on you! What a great fitness regime is grief.

But instead, a ragged woman, thin to bone except for the bloated face, a patchwork of bruises and greenish hues. The skin around her eyes and lips flaking, a body in drought to match the landscape. Skin thinned to nothing at the edges but swollen like a pregnant woman.

The wife sits propped in a ratty green recliner, watching the news. Medical paraphernalia clutters the edges of the space, things made of grey plastic bowls for catching vomit and spit; cups of liquids, half-consumed.

The wife frowns, shakes her head, makes a quick scoop of magazines into a half-tidy stack. “Ah Hal, couldn’t you have let me know we had company, tidy up?”

Hal jams thumbs into belt loops, looks at the ground like a chastised child. “Reporter lady, uh, is doing a story for the Merc on our water situation.”

The wife’s lips compress, “I can see she’s a lady. What’s her name?”

“Justine.” She moves closer, puts out a hand.

The wife looks at her own hands, puffy and mottled, inexplicably bruised. She clutches them close but smiles, nods. “Diane. Sounds a lot like dying, don’t you think?”

Justine laughs, easy to do when it’s someone else’s sorrow.

Diane focuses on her with Malamute blue eyes, the pale orbs of a person who has little use for sight for much longer. “Why you writing this story? Think it’s gonna bring awareness? One little orchard goes out of business because it doesn’t rain enough—who’s gonna care? It’s not gonna stop teenagers jerking off in forty-five minute showers. Or Los Gatos ladies from watering their ornamental gardens.”

Justine’s legs feel weak; but sees no other chair. She squats, then drops to the ground, legs betraying her.

“You okay?” Hal suddenly speaks.

She can tell he’s a good husband, the kind who tends his wife’s every need—needs he likely never signed up for on “I do;” beyond the dignity any woman hopes to be revealed in.

“Fine,” Justine says.

“Oh go on, Hal, you never let me have any fun.” Diane winks at Justine. “Let the ladies talk a while.”

Justine likes the ornery fire of this dying woman. “I’ll get your quotes on my way out, Hal,” she says.

Hal shrugs as if waiting for Justine to come around, remember who she’s really here to interview, then shuffles off like a banished teen, all hangdog eyes and hunched shoulders.

Justine leans in close enough to Diane to smell the sweet funk of a body that can’t be washed as often as would make for polite company. “I can help you.”

Diane shakes her head, slight, more an action of eyes and lips. “Newspaper stories don’t offer much help. Lots of words lost on a bored public. We can’t afford to get the second well running.”

“No, I mean…Hal told me what you want to do, well, because of your illness.” Justine grapples for how to say this. “To help you. I have, supplies, more than enough, I lost…”

How to explain the excess of drugs, vials, and bottles of pain-numbing medications never put to use, never needed before they flipped that ever so final switch?

But Diane’s hairless eyebrow rises, a punctuation mark of mutual understanding. “Oh.”

A pause of synchronized breathing; Justine feels herself rough at the edges. Conspiratorial stillness settles between them, so intimate Justine feels as though they have just kissed.

Then Hal returns with glasses clinking full of icy tea where there should be steam, hot cocoa for a wintry afternoon that is, instead, hot as summer.

The entire time Hal sets down glasses, offer sweetener, props his wife’s pillows more firmly behind her neck, Justine and Diane don’t break eye contact. Justine hasn’t felt so alive since, well, since the three month mark when the doctors assured her the fetus had passed that anxious point, beyond the fear of sudden loss (such silly doctors, with their false certainties. No talk about what will happen to a fetus in the years beyond the womb, as if life is any certainty of safety).

“Well now,” Diane starts when Hal is gone, then sips her tea, circles a square of ice around inside her mouth until it clinks hard against teeth. “It’s not so polite to offer death to a stranger.”

Justine lifts her glass, which sweats like a woman in labor. Her eyebrows rise, involuntarily. She takes in Diane again—looks through the illness to the woman beneath. Sees the kind who once cracked the whip on that kind-hearted husband, who ran operations, birthed an orchard into bloom, picked and packed and cradled fruit, fuzzy and fresh into crates. “I’m sorry, Diane. I haven’t got anything else to give.”

“You a nurse or something in your off time?” Diane sips, then spits out ice again. “Ice makes my mouth ache, he knows that. He’s wearing down under my illness, the drought, the crisping orchard; not that I blame him. The water or the wife—that’s horns of dilemma right there.”

Justine shakes her head. “Medicines were for my daughter.”

Diane holds her gaze. “She didn’t make it?”

There’s no whisper, no careful treading over the fact of this loss. Not exactly a scab removed, but maybe a bandage loosened ever so slightly to let in air.

The words trip out of Justine’s mouth like bumbling kids at a first dance. “She didn’t.”

“I never had any,” Diane says. “Wanted them, but we thought we had time, and then we had ovarian cancer.”

Justine pushes out a half-hearted smile, a “well this has been nice” kind of forced grin, ready to rise and run from this whole day. This day of being back to work in the world was supposed to show everyone how fine Justine has become, how healed.

Diane plants her palms to thighs, lightly, though she winces all the same. “Justine. Well then. You come on back. Bring your medicines, you hear?”

Justine blinks, throws back her tea before her mouth makes some kind of mischief she can’t justify. “Okay.”

Diane puts out a hand. The fingernails are already too white, bluish half-moons rising beneath purple skin, clammy against Justine’s arm. “You can’t tell Hal. Come next Friday, he will be gone.”

Here’s what gives Justine pause; a man deserves the right to say goodbye, to prepare. He’s still fighting for this half-gone woman. She likes Hal and his soft-spoken, good humor. The way he touched the too soon buds of plums when he showed her the orchard like they were all there was to love in the world. The way he looks at his woman like she’s everything she no longer is.

Diane tilts her head, sparks a smile. “Come on now. Men don’t give us permission to go so easily. I’m betting you know that already.”

Justine’s husband Nate rises up in mind, a hunched and patient sentinel at a cold white bedside, the voice of reason, begging her to reconsider the miracles that only ever happened in movies, not in forlorn hospitals over ravaged families. How she pressed both palms down upon his shoulders to make him hear her. “She’s gone.”

“Friday. I’ll be here.”

***

A cold beer slides down the bar before her. She hates beer, or did, Before. There were lots of Befores like never eating poppyseed bagels, or running, because it knifed aches into her knees.

The third beer goes down just as smooth as the first two, but hits her stomach like a dense slice of bread. Her head, a gyroscope flicked too hard. She leans her forehead to the tacky surface of the bar just a moment. How long since she’s had a drink?

“Hey, hey don’t get sick here,” the bartender, a boy really, all bulging muscles sprouted beneath a thin black tee, echo of goatee, gently pushes her head up.

She’s up and stumbling when she sees Nate—still life of Husband Come Upon Wife Making a Scene—the wavering frown, the disappointed eyes; the unbeered parts of her brain know there’s a full face beneath it, a man in a suit just off work, meeting his wife at the bar for a drink. All she sees are those orbs of accusation.

He grips her arm. “You’re drunk? What’s going on?”

She shoves out of his arms and pushes past him, past ladies in sparkling thigh-high dresses—a bachelorette party, a celebration of singleness?—with Nate chasing after calling, “Heeeey.”

She pukes on the curb.

“What’s gotten into you?” Nate yanks her away from the puddling green evidence of her self-disgust.

“I’m helping a woman to die.” Her words come on delay, like a bad dubbing in a foreign language.

“Jesus, Justine, not this again.”

“I’m not talking about myself!” She flings off his attempted grasp, and thinks on Hal’s fingers stroking a tiny green peach. Nate’s palm closing over the fist of their newborn’s head. The warring images make her gorge rise again.

“You can’t do that. It’s illegal. What are you even talking about?”

She walks, too fast for the wobbly way her head attaches to her shoulders, and trips over a lip of cement.

“Jus.Tine.” He kneels beside her. Suit jacket unbuttoned, tie an open space she wants to close up tight.

“The farmer’s got no water. His wife has got no life.” Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean. “They can’t afford her medical bills and a new well both. She wants to die. She’s close, too; her body’s all rot and decay…” Her words, she hears, are more sobs than speech.

Nate squints at her with familiar fear. “God damn it, Justine. Let’s go home.”

***

She leans into him on the way into the house, with its strange slate sliding recalling a sarcophagus in the low light. Alcohol slides through her seams and wakes up old desire. Nate smells of bay rum, a musky sweetness that used to linger on her skin long after making love.

He slips an arm around her waist, and for once in a long time, it’s supple, not steel bands between them. She’s caught, remembering the farmer Hal’s strong calves, his soft shirt she wanted to touch, patience and pain in his eyes as he looked at his wife. Is that how other women look at Nate? See the long-suffering champion of the grief-torn woman? What a miracle, really, that their limbs are entwined without one or the other pushing away.

She teeters into him, still swimmy. And before this sudden yearning is gone, she yanks open his tie, rips the buttons right off his shirt, the gasp of fabric splitting open reflected in his startled eyes. He leans in and strips her of her blouse in a gust of air. They don’t kiss—vomit still lingers in her mouth—but knock into each other, their bodies gawky. His mouth remembers her nipples need a little scrape of teeth, but her hands guide him out of necessity—she’s a long since visited city—crashing together, barely enough lust to succeed. Until they’re both gasping on their backs, fish gnashing at air that won’t come.

In the dark of the unused living room, the only light is the blinking red voicemail button. Later, she will wish she had left it unpressed, its words unknown, nurtured this tiny bud of trust between them; mended one seam.

But now, why not press it? What is left but small calamity?

Still nude, her finger lingers over the sleek black box. She hears the voice of the speaker as she imagines Nate must hear it, for the moment the words “This is Jason, from Three Palms Morturary” slide out, she glides free of her body, rises above the scene.

Nate sits up, spine rigid, but Justine collapses, a folding crane, dizzy again under extreme gravity.

A courtesy call, the voice says. As if it could ever be considered such a thing. “After a year, we move all cremains to the county facility.”

She doesn’t need to look to feel Nate’s hard eyes. “You said…” Rage chokes off his words. “You said you’d pick them up.”

Them. Particles and pieces disassembled, rent from the space of their daughter’s body and scattered into impossible plurals. How could he expect it of her?

***

Bottles rattle a familiar music she hasn’t heard in a while. In the Time After, she preferred life inside that parabola of smooth edges, everything round and blurred by drugs with their sweet, soft padding—Ativan and Xanax, aliens from the planet Forget-Your-Woes. But only a few months in, Nate moved them from their regular spot, no more little soldiers in the bathroom cabinet reporting for duty. Her doctor didn’t feel it was in Justine’s “best interest” to keep so numb. Young doctor with too-smooth cheeks, what did he know about what and how much pain a person should bear? And Nate, she is quite sure, it was his only revenge; though the patting, petting friends and mothers all said the same stock line—it could have happened to anyone—they both knew this wasn’t true. Not Nate. He’d never have fallen so deeply into distraction; he’d never have looked away.

What he never gathered up are all these other, tinier bottles of pain pills that had to be crushed into puddings for the week her child’s mouth and throat still worked, and then the vials full of opaque fluid, medicine meant for a person departing the planet, tucked in the back of the bathroom cabinet behind tampon boxes and old make-up. She is surprised to feel relieved to put it all to use; these bottles have taunted her with an easy release too many times.

***

Dust coats the edges of Justine’s car. Their lawn is a crisped square, no longer green. Still too warm, no need for a jacket. Clouds come and go, mostly tease with their fat white edges, skirts full but never dropping. Only evergreens are green, while the city trees, meant to make her suburban streets seem lush and full, stand bare and hard, refugees clustered in a too-hot camp with no relief. It reminds her of her own childhood—prone to chest infections that left her stuck in bed, gasping, coughing, kicking off covers—everything around her seen through a yellow sheen of heat. Maybe it will never rain again.

The bottom of Hal’s Stone Fruit Orchard sign is layered brown, from all those wheels kicking up dirt. She wonders if there will be any fruit to share come summer. Strange to find herself salivating at the ghost of a firm, ripe nectarine between her teeth. She only eats when the rumbling of hunger pounces hard enough to make her notice, which isn’t often.

The front door of the little green house is open. But Diane isn’t in her living room recliner. Hal’s there, instead, eyebrows drawn together tight, fingers locked together.

“How could you?” He seems a taller man as he stands up and faces her. “Do you have any fucking idea what you’ve done?”

The head of one rib seems to poke her heart, sharp things bloom in her chest. It’s Nate’s voice all over again. How could you look away? How could you?

She shakes her head, hands out. He moves toward her like fire, with intention to consume.

“You said she wanted help.”

His smile is a leer, teeth breaking through. “I was just talking, telling you my pain. She’s my wife.”

“I know, it’s just…” How glad she is now she brought no frills—made no party of this moment.

“—I don’t understand how you could even think of such a thing. You don’t know us. You come in here meaning to write a story and then you just…insert yourself!”

“Hal!” Diane’s voice, so small from the back bedroom.

His shoulders cave in, but he shakes one last fist. “You had no right. I was trying to keep her looking up. I’d raze this place to the ground for her.”

Justine turns—she can’t quite leave, that’s like escaping from a criminal scene. Breath fills her with the power of sobs wanting to unleash, but she chokes them back. “I need to use your restroom.”

Once inside, she pops in the lock, presses her back against its cool frame like a horror movie teen in temporary reprieve from the zombie horde. Outside, Hal and Diane are murmuring words, not quite shouting. The shower holds a bench and railings, the toilet framed by a caged portable potty, its basin half full with a deep orange urine.

She would like to put her fist through the glass, but then she’d have to look at the gaunt woman there, her eyes gilded with bruised half-moons, the ill-fitting black dress that once hugged curves…what overcame her to wear black? She sets down her basket of death. She turns on the faucet to muffle the clatter of the bottle and its little white pills.

She swallows one without water. Droplets swirl down a white basin. Hal doesn’t understand. Thinks he’s saving his wife something, thinks there’s something left for her, but Justine knows different. She’s been at the end and seen what’s there. Let the medicines work. Let the body stop its hurt. She could keep this tap running, just walk out of the house and let it pour and pour, be just another asshole wasting his water.

She shuts it off. Steps out. The living room is empty. Voices momentarily stilled. She leaves, slow and quiet, Goldilocks slinking away after trashing the place.

***

The garage door is open at home and Nate’s trunk, ajar. Inside it, big white bags piled in, plump and bursting like spider sacs. Out of the pursed mouth of one hangs a small pink sleeve with tiny pink pigs.

A gut punch. The hangover of Hal’s anger has her brittle at the edges already. Nate bustles out of the house, eyes sudden lamps of surprise. “You’re not supposed to be home.”

“What…are you….doing?” Her voice lacks weight, comes out all whispers.

He tosses a last bag in the trunk, closes it hard, has to really push to make it click, but doesn’t look at her when he speaks. “It has been a year, Justine.”

The weight of her name in his mouth feels mean, like poking a finger into her heart just because he can.

What’s a year, she wants to say. Days, really, moments collected and ticking, only substantial in the quality of their having been lived; she wants to argue that such time without fullness, lacking in love, is nothing. Some people grieve for decades before returning to their functions in the world. But Nate, apparently, has filed his grief in expandable folders—tucked it away and carried on.

What she says instead is, “You always pushed. Pushed and pushed and made lists and bought books. You married me knowing I didn’t want children.” Spit gathers at the edges of chapped lips. No breeze whips in around their legs, the dry air raising hairs and static, her dress adhering to her thighs.

Nate’s dark eyes are full of storms, his mouth purses in tight. “You didn’t want children? You had a child. You loved a child. But you looked away, and she died and now you can’t even say her name. Is that how you treat life? Casually? You look away from your own child but you will walk face first into a stranger’s death, hand it out?”

She’s not entirely numb—his words wedge in between ribs and settle there, sharp if she breathes too deep. She lifts her chin, refuses to be like one of the beaten down members of a jury. She wants to beg him to open that trunk just one last time, lift out the tiny pink sleeve. But what’s the point? This is the end of pretending.

She drives, all those numbing medicines clattering in their glad little basket on her passenger seat. She drives and drives, the stab in her ribs growing stronger, like a thorn working its way out. Past the pre-school their girl never got to attend; past the urban park where Justine made herself into monsters to chase her curly-haired pixie; past the library where she held her girl, a circle of limbs in the clutch of her lap for storytime.

And at last, she reaches her child’s final home. Outside it is an advertisement for false paradise—those three fake palms and a too-green lawn. A water fountain of cascading angels, tumbling down a bluish spray of piped in water. The pill bottles clustered together remind her of nothing less than the ones that once held her own mother’s milk, expressed in painstaking hand-cranked pumps to a backdrop of Scrubs reruns. At first, the pumping had been painful, squeezing out harsh surprised breaths, the same way the baby’s clamped lips would elicit a gasp. And then, over time, brought relief. A stone breast became flesh again, released.

She takes one pill. Then another. With fastidious fingers, she readies a shot of Demerol, needle in so neat, sucking up fluid like a straw. She tests its tip on her finger; still sharp. Watches it squeeze out two tiny milky drops, like breast milk in reverse.

***

By the time she walks inside, the world has been drugged into rounded corners—there are no edges, just suggestions of a giving horizon that bends on forever. The mortuary scent is sort of peaches and cream.

A woman sits behind a desk, sleek blonde hair in perfect strands around a long neck. A magazine sits on her lap, spread wide, salacious with gossip about Demi-gods of Hollywood and their slattern ways, until she spots Justine and then it slides to the floor with a rude-sounding slap.

“Can I help you?”

Justine’s mouth feels sure and firm but the words slink out like drunk girls slipping home in stocking feet. Something about remains.

The woman’s brows crease in tight. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

“Really? You think anyone who comes here is okay?”

The woman’s fish-gape stammer makes static prickle in Justine’s hands. She can feel Medusa’s snakes coil on her head with the urge to strike.

“I only meant, ma’am that you seem a little…woozy, like maybe you want to sit down and rest.”

“Give me my daughter,” she says, her words beginning to slither. “My damn daughter, what’s left.”

“Uh, uh of course.” This blonde lady smoothes her skirt. “Your name please.”

Dates and details, the power of a name she hasn’t spoken in a year, afraid to conjure spirits. Standing there, awaiting this final slap, she sways, hips tilting from one wall to the other. Just like those early days, even two years in, when in line, waiting to pay for food, she cradled gallons of milk, slung ice cream cartons to sleep. Her knees refuse this ungainly gravity when the tall man in his black suit emerges from down the corridor. He carries this important package with straight-armed respect, rests it flat upon his palms, as though it bears a golden samovar.

Not a few steps left till he’s at her side, her knees collide with tile, palms slap down to keep herself from a face plant.

“Oh!” One single word jerked from his lips, he rushes toward her, this stranger, bearing all her love, distilled to ash. Torn for a split second, the blonde woman, who has resumed her reading, flings the magazine to the ground.

***

It is a foolish move in a string of such folly to drive to the Orchard, from which she was so recently rejected. But it is closer than home and she has taken too many pills. The sun is setting early, the only hint of winter in the time the light goes down.

A moment of memory, her daughter, aged two, cradled in the hammock with a summer fever, just like the land is now—only happy under the open air, a cool cloth pressed against her head. The heat of her ailing child between her legs like the heat of the love that made her, like the volcano of her birth.

The ashes look like dirty snow, slippery between her fingers. Dense with bone shards, not delicate. She lets them rain onto her legs, rubs them in, these stardust fragments of her little girl, these particles of everything. These ashes to ashes. Another pinch, like salt to spice a stew. Like the glitter her sweet girl sprinkled on clumps of glue, those projects pinned in unexpected nooks.

A year doesn’t seem so long. A year of never mores and sudden starts, certain her child’s voice has beckoned from the end of the hall. How many times she’s traced a swath of skin, edges and elbows, expecting to grasp her small hands. That sense of a face peering around a corner, only not there.

She reaches in, takes a real scoop, silty and soft between her fingers. It seems inevitable to bring the fist to her mouth. The pills have worked too much softening, the world now crimping, film curling in against flame. So simple to pinch an inch of fat, plunge that Demerol needle in, too. Instead she eats a fistful of ashes, swallows with effort, like sand. Eats some more, the promise of relief in that tiny white syringe still resting in its basket in her car. The ashes choke; spit pools up and mixes it to a sludge she can’t swallow. Again, like labor, she pushes, though this time in, swallowing and gagging until her body says no more.

On her knees again, just like the first few weeks when the baby’s presence asserted itself, everything rises—the bile and little bits of food, and nested in it, all those partially digested white pills. She curls into her knees, lying down on hard earth.

***

A sound startles her awake. Hal above her, monolith of man framed by fresh stars. She shivers against the settling cold, expects a tirade, to be escorted off by sirens and uniformed police.

Instead, he kneels beside her, brows pulled tight, the glazed eyes of disbelief, green eyes taking in the gray dust. “What’s going on here?”

Justine shakes her head, absent of words.

He squints. “I didn’t mean to yell. Didn’t matter anyway. Should have let you stay. Diane’s gone. Said she needed me to go away, but I wouldn’t go. So I went to check the taps were all tight, and when I came back, she was gone.”

Justine clutches the black plastic box that holds the rest of her girl and lifts it slightly toward him. “I’m sorry, Hal. Maybe it won’t take you so long. Took me a year.”

Hal tips his head to his fingers, reaches up and brushes away the dust at the edges of her mouth, exhales a tear-filled sigh. “What was her name?”

“Mira. It means sea, sort of.”

Hal puts his face into his hands. “The body is seventy percent water,” he says without looking up. “Never really got that, but I see it’s true.” A quick tilt of the head toward her lap.

“What will you do now she’s gone?” Justine asks.

“Leave it behind. Lease it out. Let someone else make that new well start pumping. Go see a few things.”

Her fingers still laced with ash she’s sure will leave a trace, Justine puts a free arm around his upper back. In the gloaming before the lights blink on in the valley below, the land below, dark and dense, offers the illusion that it is lush, for just this moment quenched.


About the Author: Jordan E. Rosenfeld is the author of seven books, most recently the novel, Women in Red, and A Writer’s Guide to Persistence. Her work has been published in Alternet, Dame, Marin Magazine, The New York Times, Ozy, The Pacific Sun, The Rumpus, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and many more.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

 

Disintegration by Richard Pacheco

PE - disintegration (final)


Disintegration 

Along the shore the seagulls break formation,
dive like kamikazes
scrape the water’s tip
furrow wave tops
then loop skyward sun-masked
dimly conspicuous as ·ghosts.


 

About the Author: Richard Pacheco is an award-winning playwright, poet, artist, journalist, filmmaker and educator. He was a finalist in the grant competition in playwrighting for the Massachusetts Artists Foundation (1976) and recipient of an ARTA (American Regional Theatre Award) best new play award in 1986. He is a member of the Dramatist Guild, Playwright’s Platform. His plays have received staged readings and performances at Culture Park and other venues. He won the best actor Award from the New England Russian Plays festival performed at Boston Playwrights Theatre. He has acted in over 30 plays and in film and television as well. He is a member of SAG-AFTRA and member of the local (New England Board). He holds a BFA in painting and an MFA in art education/printmaking from U. Mass. Dartmouth. He lives in New Bedford, His poetry book, Geography, was nominated for a 2015 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by D’Arcy Fallon

PE - rock paper scissors (final)


I.

I’m calling my new husband from a pay phone not far from Pescadero State Beach on a wind-blown summer afternoon. It’s 1985 and the clouds are drifting in. Dunes and cliffs and wildflowers and cattails and buckwheat and pebbles. Driftwood logs and kelp and oh sweet Jesus lots and lots of rocks. I lean into the phone booth as the raucous wind pulls at my lady reporter clothes. His voice on the phone, melodic, sensible, sane, full of good will and kind humor, keeps me from falling off the edge of the continent. I’m sad for some reason—maybe it’s the wine I had for lunch or the feeling of being lost I feel whenever I come to the end of the world.

We don’t know yet about the baby to come or the houses we’ll inhabit or basil we’ll plant in the high, unforgiving soil. We’re innocent about the dogs we’ll leave behind, buried under the lilac and rose bushes. Still ahead, wrapped like fragile Christmas ornaments in tissue paper, wait our grown up, complicated lives: endless drives through Kansas cornfields, Colorado’s sudden snow days, camping trips in the rain, marathon salsa making sessions in the fall. All I know is what’s before me: the salt-tang smell of anchovies, the raucous gulls, the battering wind.

Pescadero in Spanish means “the place to fish.” I’m thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, someone with a notebook and a job and a car, fishing for stories on this stretch of fickle coast. All the days in the world break against the shore, one after another, dissolving and regathering in a long tidal sweep.

Decades later, becalmed in Ohio, a fish hook in my heart, disconnected, unmoored, I will swim untethered. But for now, I look down at the waves and the birds that run at the water’s edge, car keys in hand, hoping to beat the traffic home.

II.

Thirty-two years later, it’s ledges and edges again. The papers have been filed. In a month, we’ll be divorced. All summer it has rained. Thunder rumbles through this wet valley. The swimming pool has barely been used. What had we been thinking when we built an in-ground pool? The house smells close and moist, doggy. I will leave this domicile and he will stay—until it sells. I try not to take it personally that we haven’t been flooded with offers. In fact, we haven’t even received one. The dogs know something is up. We aren’t really talking, except in telegraphic barks. Doors open, slam shut. Boxes multiply.

What happened to July? It’s gone, baby, spent, wasted, done, over. I order books for next semester’s classes, he trolls through the want ads. We’re both trying to start over. What’s mine? What’s his? The dog-eared geology books belong to him, everything by John McPhee and Stephen Jay Gould. I get custody of the fragile hand blown vase that survived a three-day train trip on the California Zephyr. What else will we take into the future? Wind chimes, crock pots, ski poles, salad bowls? All these possessions tell stories. They want to plead their case. Morning glories tumble hungry and wild over the front fence, twisted tendrils seeking anything to grab on to and live.

III

The wedding quilt my husband’s mother made is the soft baby green of fresh grass, Easter bonnets, tiny seedlings nodding on narrow stalks. I remember Johanna’s big bethimbled fingers working the voile cotton, stitching in and out, lamplight glancing off her glasses. She was taciturn, with an ample bosom and Midwestern reserve, a woman who raised six kids by herself. One year I gave her a sign for her kitchen that said: “Got more time for misbehavin’ since I started microwaving.” The joke was on me. Johanna made everything from scratch.

Who could she count on? What did she know to be true? She sewed as she watched her daytime soaps, piecing paisley to geometrics, or broadcloth to calico, always her hands busy. I was a coastal girl unused to inland ways. Baptisms, wakes, deer hunting, homemade wine. I was grafted onto the tribal tree, stitched into the family by default, simply for showing up. Oh Johanna, your wedding gift, that quilt, is folded in the linen closet, smothered beneath the heavy Indian blankets, crocheted tea towels and cool pillowcases. I never understood you. You had so much give, so much selvage and stretch in your hands. You sat in your Barcalounger and rocked and sewed as the familiar stories unfolded. All My Children. Days of Our Lives. As the World Turns. Your quilt meant family, acceptance, you’re one of us, in for the long haul, even if you seem a little strange.

I see your face before me now: head bent, mouth pursed, sewing basket on the shag rug. I see your steady hands, those working fingers, calmly keeping the thread taut at all costs. There was tension in those stitches, knowing just how hard to tug, plumping cotton into shape, knowing when to give. Quilt, guilt. You are long dead, but I still think of your shiny silver scissors, tiny in your white hands, flashing like wing beats, sure as Guiding Light, knowing when to make the final cut.


About the Author: D’Arcy Fallon was born in Monterey, California. She was a journalist for nearly twenty years, working for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Colorado Springs Gazette. She now teaches journalism, English, and creative writing at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Her memoir, So Late, So Soon, about living in a remote Northern California Christian commune, was published by Hawthorne Books in 2004. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, North Dakota Quarterly, and other publications.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

Condolence Call by Sandra Kohler

PE - condolence call backside (final2)


Condolence Call

H___T___’s cock
paid me a condolence call
when I was sitting shiva
for my father years ago,
called home from college
by his death to the apartment
I’d never seen before –
his, my stepmother’s –
they’d sold our house that fall
when I left, were waiting for
a new one to be ready, living
in temporary quarters.
My father’s last on earth –
temporary indeed.

It was January.
H___T___, high school pal,
not my boyfriend, was home
on semester break. After sitting
stiffly in my stepmother’s
living room, we went out
to walk in the frigid night
in some park I can’t name
or place now, the neighborhood
one I didn’t know, have never
gone back to, sat down
on a park bench.

Did his comforting me,
that brotherly arm around
my shoulders, slide
accidently into what
followed or had he
planned it? He took

my hand and slid it
into his opened fly
– my god how cold
that hand must have
been ­– I felt something
whorled, roped,
a corkscrew not
the round smooth
knob I expected,
something
writhing,
alive.

Was this an attempt
at comfort?
For me? Or himself?
As if this was
what mattered:
here – here!
something alive.


About the Author: Sandra Kohler had three collections of poems published: Improbable Music, Word Press, 2011, The Ceremonies of Longing, U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2003, and The Country of Women, Calyx Books, l995. Her poems have appeared over the past 35 years in a wide range of journals, including The New Republic, Beloit Poetry Journal and Prairie Schooner.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

Whisper to a Scream by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

PE - whisper to a scream


 

The comments poured in steadily, and though she never responded to them right away, sometimes taking up to a week so as not to look too eager, Raina always read them almost as quickly as her viewers posted. She ignored the inevitable N-word, monkey, and black-fetish cracks, some of the main reasons for her mother’s opposition to Raina’s “hobby,” and blocked those users. But the eighteenth comment, “Can u where ur Dorsey uniform in the next 1?” made her close her laptop for a moment before she could bring herself to reopen it. No avatar accompanied the screen name, Sir_Pix_Alot, but she knew it must be Kevin or one of the other guys in her class again. No matter how many times she blocked them, they always reappeared with new names and the same line of trolling. “We know it’s you, Raina. How come you never talk like that to us at school?”

She closed the laptop again and carried it from her bedroom to the bright kitchen where her mother had left two notes on the oversized refrigerator: “At the salon. Heat the leftovers around 6:30,” and, “Finish your algebra 2 before you get on Youtube.” Raina crumpled both notes into the trashcan and reset the magnets—one advertising her father’s car dealerships and one for the family dentist—that had held the notes to the fridge. The scrunched paper made a satisfying sound that her viewers would enjoy. Her mother had hidden or thrown out the good bread again. “Fiber will help you with some of that belly,” Carmen said the week before on her way out to some event with the other ex-wives, focusing her eyes on Raina’s midsection for longer than necessary.

Over her snack of baked corn chips with hummus and dried cranberries, Raina replayed the video. “Hi everyone,” her video self-whispered from the kitchen table, as her hands stroked alternately a feather and a children’s anthology. “Today, I thought I’d”—she ran her fingernails over the cover of the book—“start with some scratching sounds and then tell you a story.” She had carefully edited out the two-second frame in which she cleared her throat, fearing it too jarring a sound, despite the six or so requests she’d gotten for “more rasp.” She had briefly considered deleting the three-second accidental shot during which she adjusted her breasts into her top, but she kept it for her mother’s sake, and for Dom’s, deliberating only as long as it took to hit “finalize.” She liked leaving Carmen little surprises here and there, sometimes to keep her on her toes, sometimes to force her hand. Last week it was a pendant necklace that grazed her cleavage. The week before, she decided on the hint of a lacy bra under a v-neck shirt.

She guesstimated that Carmen was responsible for seven of the 300+ views the video gained in its first hour after publication, because just as her mother could check Raina’s browser history—which Raina always cleared, along with her cache—Raina could check the age and gender stats on her viewers, a detail that Carmen did not seem to understand. Her mother must have watched the video from the salon and was probably preparing her lecture. Dom hadn’t seen it yet, or he would have called; though, at 4:30, it was still a little early.

A year ago, when Raina started making ASMR videos, she assumed that keeping her head out the frame would preserve her anonymity at some level, prevent the sorts of dramas that resulted from the makeup and hair videos she started in eighth grade. With only her voice and torso as markers, she believed her classmates would not be able to identify her, but someone always did. It wasn’t as though she could start over with a new online identity every time they caught up with her; her viewers wouldn’t know how to find her, and if she gave them clues, Kevin or the other guys would find them, too. Why should she lose her growing number of subscribers or the stats on her videos because of a few jerks with too much time on their hands?

“Because it isn’t right, the whole thing,” her mother said barely a week ago. “You don’t want people to see you as one of those nasty girls, do you.” Carmen phrased it as more of a statement than a question.

“What’s nasty about helping people sleep or calming them down?” Raina had said, regretting it almost immediately.

Her mother adjusted her freshly straightened hair—it was always freshly straightened, because Carmen didn’t allow it to become un-fresh, kinky, even wilted—and continued, “We both know that’s not what most of the people are using the videos for. It would be different if you weren’t whispering and trying to make your voice like that,” Carmen said, emphasizing the last word, “or if your whole head were in the video.”

Raina had tuned out the rest of the lecture, which involved one iteration or another of the same. Why don’t you reconsider plus-size modeling if you want to be in videos and make money? You could try my agency again. Or at least go back to doing hair and makeup tutorials so people can see how pretty your face is, instead of just looking at your chest jiggle while you talk? You said yourself you don’t feel safe with those perverts and racist folks on there.

Safe was the word that Raina actually heard each time the lecture ended. It bothered her that her mother felt more concern over anonymous perverts or racists typing lewd comments from remote places than she felt for the bullies down the block, the ones at school. Raina did not feel safe, not with Kevin still tracking her online or near the school lockers. She had never felt completely safe at Dorsey since fifth grade, when Kylie S. said that first through fourth grade, sleepovers, and years of after-school ice-skating lessons didn’t matter anymore. She could no longer hang out with the only black girl because her dad said it was, “Kind of like the fox and the hound, how they had to go their own ways eventually.” Even with her handful of friends, Raina felt exposed at Dorsey. Her chest protruded past theirs; she stood out in the lineup.

*

At 4:45, she put on her headset with the 3D microphone and called Dom.

“Hey, sorry, I was finishing something up,” his torso said.

“Hey,” Raina said, too loudly before correcting herself. “Hey, she half-whispered, half-spoke.” Dom preferred her onscreen persona—no head—and she tolerated his requests for faceless chatting, though she occasionally got a glimpse of his neck or the faint dark scruff on his pale, almost translucent, chin. “What did you think?”

“Hmm, it was good,” Dom said after a hesitation. “The story part was. Rapunzel was a good choice, but if you’re gonna do something like that, I think you should show more of your hair next time.”

Raina was trying to transition her hair from relaxed to natural, though she kept it flat-ironed in her most of her videos. She had tried scrunching the burned-straight ends to blend them with the three to four inches of ingrowing coils and kinks at her hairline. But that made her hair only chin-length instead of shoulder length, and Dom speculated that that her views decreased when her hair was not in the frame or the thumbnail preview for the video.

They had met, really started chatting, first through text and then on camera—after he commented on a few of her videos. She only had 57 subscribers then, but with Dom’s suggestions, little things, like telling stories on camera or changing the video tags, she had grown her own brand to over 20,000 subscribers in a little over five months, even making some advertising revenue.

“Ok, more hair,” Raina whispered. “Anything else?”

“Meh, I like the whole fairy-tale theme. I think more videos like that, especially if you dressed up.”

“Like a corset?”

“Yeah, something like that.” She thought she heard Dom chewing something.

“I’ll think about it,” Raina said, her mind already working out the details of her mother’s reproof. Costumes were especially offensive to Carmen and more evidence of impropriety or kink, not simply roleplaying or fantasy. In her regular voice, Raina said, “Dom, have you thought about what I said, about the next level?”

Dom shifted in his chair, his white hands fluttering towards the top of the screen and out of the frame, probably running through his hair. He was definitely chewing. “I just think it might change things, like, too much,” he said, after a long pause. “I like things the way they are now.”

“I do, too,” Raina said, slowly, back in her gentle whisper voice, “but if you’re really my boyfriend, it would make more sense to actually see each other, or at least more of each other.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said. “My dad’s texting me, gotta go. I’ll call or something tonight.”

Raina didn’t hear his phone buzzing, but she said bye.

*

Knowing her mother would not be home for another two hours at least, Raina checked the comments.

 

Earthworm366: Dude, you seriously just gave me a brain orgasm. Didn’t now that was possible

168 thumbs up

AnimeAniME: Comment hidden due to low rating. Show Comment:

U gave me an actual orgasm

147 thumbs down

RhiRhi#1Fan: RIANWHISPER YOU NEED TO GET ON HERE AND AND MAKE

SOME MORE VIDEOS SO I CAN SLEEP. U HAVE THE BEST TRIGGERS!!

ALL TINGLES ALL THE TIME

37 thumbs up

NiceGirlFinishFirstorSecond: love this. one request: can you make a

roleplaying vid about rolling cigars???

12 thumbs up

Lalalalalaland: Why is it that this video is most popular with men and boys ages 18-64? SMH. Just saying.

80 thumbs up

She appreciated the positive feedback, but sometimes Raina felt, briefly, that everyone only wanted or saw a piece of her, not a whole, that she was mere flesh, a series of keywords to help identify her:

ASMR whispers breasts cleavage rain tingles black African American African-American full thick DDs long-hair-don’t-care natural curly massage soft spoken binaural bob ross water sounds storytelling hair brushing gentle role play adenoids spa day fairy tales tapping mind massage autonomous sensory meridian response

As she deleted one of the latest offensive comments, which were fewer and further between this round, her eyes found another post, clearly from Kevin or one of his sidekicks, maybe Adam or Michael.

SmexyandIKnowIt: I want it you got it lemme get come on wit it Raina.

This one was probably Michael’s work. His punctuation was always the worst of the three guys, even though he had been in Honors English in eighth grade and sat three seats to the left of Raina in AP English now. Kevin was their sort of leader. He had been nicer in elementary school, though his mean edge was present if you crossed him. Raina almost liked him then, admiring his short brown hair and the way his green eyes contrasted with his tan. But he became really mean around sixth grade, to a lot of the girls, not just Raina, though he often made comments about the size of her chest. It was only when he tried to feel her up on a class trip to Catalina that they became enemies. She had pushed him into a row of kayaks, causing him to knock them over. She used the chance to run off crying; he told his friends—and subsequently the entire class—that Raina was a slut who had flashed him her boobs.

She blocked SmexyandIKnowIt before looking at the recent uploads from some of the other ASMR channels. Raina was one of only a handful of black ASMR providers, and so far only one other black girl had more subscribers than she did, but that girl was older and had been making videos longer. Raina hoped to compete with the non-black majority of ASMR makers, some of whom had hundreds of thousands of followers and videos with millions of views. If she counted her previous two Youtube names, she had a total of 3 million views—though at least 1,000 of those were probably from Carmen. Under her current name, Rainwhispers, Raina’s most-watched video was at nearly 900,000. Her income from the videos meant she could bypass her father and buy herself the 3D headset she used with Dom and in her videos, but she didn’t make big purchases often.

Her mother never relented in her disapproval of the means, but she approved of Raina’s profits and agreed that a money market account would help Raina secure her future, without having to depend on a man, even her father. “All of this, this lifestyle, isn’t just from the settlement,” Carmen reminded Raina regularly, pointing around the house. “I was on the payroll. Always make sure you’re on the payroll.” She wondered if her mother knew that it wasn’t her father’s money that burdened her, but the way her mother showed it—Dorsey, the towncar, endless luncheons and benefits. Raina vowed to send her own kids to public school, somewhere where they’d never be the only one of anything, and to be home when they were, at least some of the time.

*

Carmen blew in through the house around seven, her hands full of large brown and white paper bags with twine handles. She filled the room, despite her thin frame. “Did you eat?” she asked Raina, who was seated at the kitchen island half watching a reality show and half thinking about what Dom said.

“Just finished one chicken breast and the Brussels sprouts you left,” Raina sighed. She was still hungry and planning on raiding the freezer for whatever stevia-sweetened sorbet or other low-carb snacks she could find once her mother was out of the room.

“Good. The family commercial is coming up in two weeks, don’t forget.”

“I know, you’ve told me three times and left a note.”

“I never know if you read them or just throw them away first,” Carmen said, smoothing one of her brown bags off the counter. “I picked a few things out for you. How was your day, by the way?”

Raina shrugged. She debated telling her mother about Kevin, again, but instead said, “Fine. We had a sub in English today, so I got my homework done during class. The video is doing pretty well so far.”

“Hmm,” Carmen said, her lips pinched together. “I wish you had left out the boob shot, but the story was cute. I’m thinking this blue one is the best dress for the commercial; your father will be in blue, though I’ll probably wear gray or green—I haven’t decided.”

“It looks too small,” Raina said, getting up to feel the fabric of a navy-blue A-line dress with a narrow rhinestone belt attached to the waist. “It’s a 10/12,” she said more loudly than she planned, though she could never control her voice with Carmen. “I’m a 14. You know that.”

“Yes, but you have two weeks,” Carmen said, smiling a little and pointing to another bag. “They’re all twelves. At least look at them. I spent, like, an hour of my day looking for pieces that would be flattering.”

“I’m supposed to be calling Dom soon,” Raina said, and left for her bedroom.

*

Raina sat on her bed, turned on her television, and considered using her trump card: “I can go stay with Dad, then,” but this battle didn’t seem worth it, yet. Maybe if Carmen pushed again about Raina getting the edges of her hair touched up, Raina might invoke the idle but still useful threat. Her dad didn’t exactly approve of the videos either, but he said they weren’t harming anything as long as she kept them clean. She wasn’t sure if he had seen many of them, but when she opened the money market account, he joked, via text message, that Raina was a budding young businesswoman after his own heart and that maybe he’d let her write and direct one of his commercials eventually. He never followed through, even after Raina presented him with a script. “That’s so cute, honey,” he had emailed. “But we have a professional guy who does that. Love you. Listen to your mother ;)”

Raina hated posing for the commercials. She hunched awkward and chubby against her mother’s tall thinness and blended into her father’s roundness, their features melding together while Carmen’s jutted, smug. Raina inherited her father’s bug eyes. “Sad she takes after him,” she overheard a tipsy aunt say once at a holiday party.

The biannual commercials for her father’s car dealerships stopped being cool after about first grade, when she transferred to Dorsey, where the kids of CEOs were not impressed. She tried to laugh it off when Kylie S., and even Megan and Liz, her two friends, joked about the silly slogan her father insisted on. In homage to a DMX song fluffed and smoothed out into R&B, her father sang, “What’s our name? Tyson Family Motors. If you want it, we got it, come and get it, our cars are with it.” The song came out the year Raina was born, when they still lived in the foothills of Rancho Cucamonga, and her father, fresh out of undergrad, had inherited and rebranded his parents’ dealership, turning one location into four and beginning her family’s ascent—really their move west—from one house in the Inland Empire to one in Westwood and a vacation condo in Aspen. They didn’t ski. Her father lived in Woodland Hills, about 30 minutes away, with his girlfriend Manda, a blonde twenty-something who basically treated Raina the same way Carmen did, only she thought Raina’s hair, “Looked so cute that way, with all those little curls.” Raina saw them about six times a year, plus the two commercial shoots, which her mother still participated in four years after the divorce, because she and Raina’s father both agreed that, “The family brand is different from the family.”

Scenes from the family brand: Manda standing with a plastered smile, off to the side, off camera; a montage of Raina, Carmen, and Carl Tyson huddled together at the intersection of each dealership and each of her father’s billboards; a family existent only in cuts; her dad making promises in a voiceover; the theme song playing over their poses.

Dom didn’t answer when she tried to call him for a video chat, but he texted five minutes later and said he would call in an hour.

“How do you know this Dom guy is even a real person?” her friends had asked, sounding exactly like Carmen, for a change. “Catfish?”

Raina knew Dom was real and close to her age, though once he had said seventeen and once he had said fifteen. They had never hung out in person—Dom lived in Connecticut—but she had seen his whole face early on in live video chats, when they used to talk like normal people. It was only after her popularity increased that he started asking her to make it, “More like an ASMR video,” quiet and without her face. She would wait another day or so before she asked him again about chatting the old way. Anyway, he was supposed to be in California for a summer program, only five months away, he said; at very worst, they’d see each other then.

Carmen knocked on her door, “I’m sorry about the twelves, Rain. How about we’ll take you to my pilates class tomorrow, so you’ll feel more confident? We can go shopping at the end of the week and you can pick something you like, fourteen, twelve, whatever.”

*

Raina started outlining a new video. She usually wrote a script and storyboard first and improvised her actual monologue once she began filming, sometimes taking three days for a single concept. She sat in front of the camera, with her 3D microphone nearby, but she quickly abandoned her notes. With her whole head in the frame, she spoke in her natural voice, softened so that Carmen would not hear her. “Today, I’m not going to tell you a fairy tale, but something I’ve been thinking about, about myself,” she began. She might have been crying, her voice, sharp and cracking, would not modulate. She persisted until she felt spent, emptied as though after a deep purge.

She deleted the footage and started over. Editing was the easiest part; she worked best in short frames, slivers, fragments. Everyone said so.


 

About the Author: Nafissa Thompson-Spires is a native Californian and a Visiting Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in ComposeBlindersFLOWThe Feminist Wire, and other publications. She is currently polishing a young-adult novel manuscript. 

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series in Berkeley, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

 

A Perfect Line by Yume Kim

PE - a perfect line (final)


A Perfect Line

When the mother was young,
she grew up in Busan, South Korea.
One day, she was happily chatting with her friends.
Suddenly, her teacher slapped her face.
“Learn to write better,” he scolded her before walking away.

Many years later, in Baltimore, Maryland
the doctor informs the mother that her three year-old daughter
will be a slow learner. Because her child had curvy handwriting.
Instead of perfect, straight lines. Afterward, the mother takes her daughter home.
She leads her daughter to her desk.
And instructs her to write out the letter ‘A’ in a perfect, straight line.
Yet, the child’s tiny hands can only produce ‘A’s’ in squiggly lines.
“Write better!” her mother screams, smacking her daughter’s hands.
She then is able to write her letter in a perfect line.
However, the A’s left side is longer than the other.
This infuriates her mother.
She screams and slaps her child’s chubby cheeks.
Her daughter then cries. Her mother begins to cry too.


About the Author: Yume Kim is a recent MFA graduate from SFSU’s Creative Writing program. Some of her works can be found in sPARKLE + bLINK, gesture, West Wind Review, and Sugared Water. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she attempts to somehow utilize teaching as her source of income.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

 

Rabbit Outside by Carol Park

PE - rabbit outside (final)


Nicholas leans in close to the two photos he grips: himself at graduation from eighth grade and, four years later, high school. In both, his blue eyes are set between a pale forehead and high cheekbones. Something is different about his look. Something more than the length of his straw-colored hair. What he really wants to know is how Marie sees him. He needs to know. She’s the first girl he’s hung out with outside of classroom walls.

Nicholas didn’t wonder about what others saw in his face until last year. But during his last year at Redwood High School, his brother, Benjamin, started going there too, in his special ed classes. Nicholas sometimes glimpsed him with the Special Needs kids all together. Chins sticking out and eyes set deep.

Nicholas glances at Benjamin slouched next to him on the couch, absorbed in kids’ cartoons. His brother makes a throaty noise, perhaps a chuckle. They used to routinely watch the Saturday morning shows together, but with starting community college a month back, Nicholas feels beyond that. He’s only here because Benjamin took him by the hand and brought him.

Marie is coming. He’d better warn Benjamin.

“I’m going out soon.”

Benjamin moans and folds over.

“What’s wrong?” Nicholas doesn’t expect an answer. His brother can say: Hurt. Tired. Hello. Bye-bye. Yummy. Yucky. Hungry. Bunny. Need potty. And not much more. “Mom and Dad will stay. You can keep watching.”

His grunt is a happy glide and Benjamin sits up.

For years they didn’t know if he’d ever talk. Every July they’d leave the traffic of the Bay Area and drive through fields or empty land to the Downs Syndrome conference. Mother would return smiling and hopeful and try new ways to get Benjamin to talk or move, but things would eventually go back to the usual.

Nicholas lifts the photo higher, so the light cast by their floor lamp brightens his face. He’s gotten special accommodations since testing in third grade (an IEP), but he’s always looked like most other guys. Since his voice changed, he wonders if his face has been changing too. In the photo his brows seem more forward, or maybe his eyes have moved backwards.

“Are you ready?” Mother booms from her bedroom.

Nicholas jumps up, steers past Benjamin’s knees and the rabbit cage near them. At the window he spreads the drapes and looks past their porch and yard of brown stalks to check for Marie. A huge black pickup has parked across the street, but no faded Chevy, no Marie.

Suddenly he wants to touch his rabbit. Wheeling around, he jostles the spout of a watering can and the large metal thing quivers. Lucky—it stays put! The watering can tops a two-foot-tall stack of magazines and what a mess if it all came crashing down. This pile, standing there between window and door, particularly bugs him. In the past he’s toppled the National Geographics. Now he steers clear, but he wishes that Mother would take it all away. Dad complained last night, they’ve been there a year. Made Mother mad. A school could use them.

He takes Skyler out and sits her on his lap. His fingers travel down her tawny rabbit fur. His own soft thing. Her fur is softer than their cat’s and Skyler never claws, not like Calico. He wishes she could stay out and hop around, but their cat could claw her and, if his house wasn’t so embarrassing, he’d show Marie his sweet thing. Years back, when Auntie came to care for them while his parents were gone, he heard how others view their home. She said, “How can you live in this?” and hauled away magazines and papers. It was nice, for a while. Piles are back and stacks of big plastic bins make it even worse.

A car backfires. Benjamin jerks, then leans back. Nicholas slowly stands while pressing Skyler tight to his chest.

“Bunny?” Benjamin holds his hands up to plead.

“I have to put her away.”

A moan.

“I can’t help it. I’m leaving.” Nicholas presses his teeth into his lip as he focuses on not falling onto the cage. There, Skyler is safe again within her wire walls.

Going to the kitchen, Nicholas passes a brown grocery bag. Cat food and cereal boxes fill it. Mother always says, it was a bargain! And so their cupboards are jammed. When younger, Nicholas would push apart the piles, sometimes by mistake, sometimes not. Most days he manages to not see them, while still avoiding them, but today is different. Marie comes! So the breakfast plates with pancake bits on the table leap to his notice, as does Mother’s pile of catalogs and school notices all askew on the china hutch shelf. He notes the stack of church bulletins topped by God’s Book, as his old teachers called it, and the rolled-up poster he made last year, atop the china hutch. He’d tossed it, but it came back from the trash.

His sweatshirt covers a chair’s back. He grabs it.

Dad scrubs Friday night’s skillet. He’s tackling the build up from the week. “About time for your friend to arrive?”

Nicholas nods.

“Have a good time!”

Dad does physics research in the radiology lab at UCSF. During the week his chores pile up, but it’s Saturday. After breakfast today, instead of rushing out, Dad read the Bible—Nicholas likes it when Dad reads God’s words out loud. It still makes him feel shivery good, as good as he feels stroking Skyler, though he doesn’t like the church program for those his age. Before, the leaders were real adults, and nice, even if kids weren’t. But from middle school on the leaders were young themselves and made jokes and liked rock. Nicholas didn’t laugh, hated loud music and no one noticed him. He started attending only the early services because that’s when the choir sang. Dad has a Ph.D. and believes what the Bible and the sermons say, so Nicholas thinks it’s true, but he wishes God would talk to him more. It only happened once, when he was sad and mad and alone.

Through the window Nicholas sees Marie’s car pull up. A bike hangs off a rear rack. He cracks the front door just wide enough to launch himself through and down the cement walking path splitting their small yard.

“Hi!” He makes a point of smiling wide. At his counselor visits when he complains about having only online friends, Lisa reminds him to grin big and explains others social skills. Watch his face and imagine his feelings, she said last time. He couldn’t tell her that his new in-person friend was a she. Of course he didn’t admit the throb he feels when he sees her two breast peaks.

Marie grins back and her face, the color of coffee after Dad adds cream, heats him up inside. Her purple-pink plaid shirt looks like the flannel kind Dad wears on cold mornings, its fuzzy feel so soft and warm when Dad puts an arm around him.

“Where’s your bike?” Marie asks.

His Schwinn stands in their backyard. If she went with him there, the weeds, the rusty bathtub and a preschooler’s climbing thing would all be on display. His face burns.

“Uh, I’ll get it. You wait. In your car.”

“Why?”

“You can’t see our backyard.” As soon as he says can’t, he wonders if Dad would call that a lie. Because, really, he was able to show Marie. The truth: I don’t want you to see our yard.

Marie’s face pinches up, a bit like Mother’s face does. Has he annoyed her? She goes back to her car without a word. He walks past their van, parked in the driveway since it stopped working years ago, creaks open the gate, and wheels the bike out. He hears the groan of the front door and clenches the handlebars. It’s probably Mother with her tummy sticking out, what caused Grandmother to tell her once, You swallowed a ball!

He pushes his bike past Mother on the porch. “How about an introduction?”

“She’s in the car.”

“I’m in my housedress. Ask her to come on up.”

“I don’t want to,” he whispers. Saying No to Mother feels strange. He’s trying it because Lisa told him, It’s better than ignoring or yelling.

Mother’s brows come together into one solid line. “What? When will you be back?”

“Don’t know.” He has almost reached Marie.

“Find out!” It’s her troll voice, what comes out when he’s played too many games on his computer. “Call and tell me.”

Something fuzzy and urgent rises from his belly to his throat, wanting to get out. He looks back at her with a nod, so she won’t repeat herself. The front door bangs shut. Relief rings.

As he draws near Marie’s boxy-looking car, she steps out. Her eyes are bright as the North Star Dad showed him through a telescope. “Didn’t want me to meet your mom, did you?”

Nicholas nods and inspects the sidewalk cracks.

“Here, let’s hoist it on.” She grabs hold of the bicycle’s front stem. She points to the rack. “Ever used one of these before?”

“No.”

Marie heaves the Schwinn on and wraps bungee cords through its wheels and around the frame. Finished, Marie and Nicholas climb inside. This feels different from school. They first talked when they met at a bike rack minutes before a class they shared. She suggested walking to CompSci together. By the time they got there, he knew its homework was hard for her. From then on he helped her with it almost daily.

Once Marie is driving on the highway, they discuss their return time and he reports home.

He stores his phone and Marie volunteers how her dad, a contractor, brought them to Redwood City a few months back since construction is booming there. Since her work at Burger King was no longer needed, she restarted school.

“I’m older than you.” She stares in his eyes as she says this, as if those four years were important. “I’m studying Special Ed, remember?” Actually he’s not sure he’d known. “Most students take off for jobs or stick to their old friends after classes.”

He makes agreeing sounds.

“So I’ve got time to do stuff together occasionally. Besides, it helps me understand my field better.”

Bees whiz around within Nicholas’s stomach. He wonders, as Lisa puts it, what the words beneath her words are. It’s hard to figure out. Does she like him or not?

“Good.” Maybe she does need friends like him.

Marie asks why there are so many dead plants in pots on their porch. “Well, Mother likes flowers and their colors a lot. So she bought them, but there’s a drought.” Her look at him is long and he thinks it means his words don’t make sense. “I think it’s because her back hurts, so she doesn’t get around to doing anything with them.”

The sticky silence stretches thin, like the taffy he once watched being pulled in a candy shop. He hasn’t traveled down this way for months, hasn’t seen the fields, empty except for a few wide-armed oaks and the hills rising up behind. They wear September in brown, but remain round and peaceful. Behind him lie Mother’s piles and advice. Out here everything feels okay. Within this space stretching, it feels almost like when he escaped into their backyard, through a back door seldom opened. With his home’s walls, it was hard to breathe—he was furious with Mother. Outside, he examined the wild grass—some upright and green like raw asparagus. Some arched over, faded and heavy with seeds like open mouths.

Then something happened. The street’s noises paused and a voice came, a tender tone. Almost a whisper, You are my son.

The words somehow gave new meaning to himself. A feeling like he could stretch and expand floated over him. A kind of rising up.

Marie fingers the radio knob and rock music booms. Nicholas yelps. “Oh, sorry.” She turns it off.

Marie exits at Black Mountain Lake and the road slopes down, curves, and ends in a parking lot. A sign reads, Recreational trail. “It circles the reservoir,” she explains.

Nicholas watches her unhitch their bikes. The sun glares off the many cars and makes him blink. Women walk by wearing swimsuit bras and a cluster of bikers in skin-tight shorts whiz by. Can he do this ride? He’s so slow.

Marie hands him his bike, then stares at his jiggling arm. “All kinds bike here. Don’t worry.”

At the trail’s start he can see across the blue water stretching far. Dark trees border it on the other side. By their trail stand wild grasses in summer’s gold and curvy oaks. Marie swings a leg over her bike. He manages to follow her by replaying Lisa’s words. “Good. You’re venturing out!”

After some easy going, a hill rises before them. Breathing feels hard. His legs and chest ache and Marie cycles ahead. More and more walkers and bikers crowd the trail, making it hard. He has to weave around people walking. Then the path slopes downhill and he coasts. Marie passes a woman pushing a stroller and speeds almost out of sight. He tries to pass too, but his front tire veers off the asphalt and onto dirt. It slips, turning sideways. He jerks the handlebars and feels the bike turning, slanting more, and then the slow topple, his elbow crashing into the ground and his hip next. He yelps.

“Are you okay?” The stroller lady comes near him.

“I guess so.” He sees gravel clinging to his arm and red. Blood oozes. A troll voice inside speaks, You’re too clumsy—what he used to hear when he lingered near recess games and hoped to be asked in. His standing up is unsure and wobbly.

“Oh, Nicholas, I’m sorry.” It’s Marie, returned. “That sucks!” She takes wipes from the stroller lady and cleans his arm. Her touch sets off shivers.

 

It’s a few weeks after the bike trip when Nicholas sits next to Marie at a movie and munches buttery popcorn from a red carton. He wants to cover his ears from the awful ad noise, but she’d think him silly.

“Can I have a handful?”

“Sure.” He pulls some out and extends his cupped hand, white puffs poking up.

Marie stares at the kernels. “Hand me the carton, please. I’d like to take it out myself.”

So hands her the carton and he feeds his handful to himself. Hearing what’s behind the words is so tricky.

“You’re like my cousin—the way you take things.” Marie leans close. “Do you have…” He takes another long swig of his Coke. The start of the movie saves him.

It’s the story of flying dragons and people who ride them. He loves it, but after a while the press of his bladder grow strong, then stronger. Despite the darkness, Nicholas has to go. He squeezes by Marie and another person, but next someone’s knees stick out. He wobbles and there’s nothing to grasp. His teeter turns into a fall—on a woman’s lap. She cries out.

“Sorry, sorry,” He feels eyes on him. At least no one sees his face.

The return goes better. The movie ends and they go next door for cream puffs. “Can I call you Nick? It’s not so—” Marie pauses. “It’s more natural.”

He’d say yes to anything she asks.

 

Summer term ends, a few weeks of vacation pass quickly and then the new semester starts. Marie takes a CompSci class with him again and he can still help her in the cafeteria afterwards. The golden leaves of the tree shading the bike rack brown and crunch underfoot. Marie says she’s looking for a job so she can travel and she looks worried after a CompSci test. She doesn’t return to class. Three weeks pass. It can’t be sickness. He texts her.

“Sorry. I took a job,” she replies—nothing more. When he tells Lisa, his cheeks grow wet.

One Friday afternoon, after finals, he swivels his bike’s padlock, trying to turn the tiny numbers into the right position. A familiar greeting brings his eyes up to take in Marie’s gap-toothed grin and lovely walnut eyes. His arm shakes.

“I’m sorry I disappeared. I was so stressed.” Marie holds her bike.

That’s all it takes for Nick to forgive her. The bees within happily flit.

“The CompSci class was too difficult—I dropped it but kept my other two. Then with the job I got and the nasty weather, I started driving. I lost my cell and didn’t know your number.”

Nick nods acceptance. Her orange tee fits more snugly than usual. The round mounds of her top seem higher than usual. He wonders if they’d feel soft.

“Nick!”

There’s a question floating in the air, waiting for him to answer. He manages to capture the words waiting for his attention, Want to come to my house?

“Uh, yes!” Mother might say no, but Lisa’s words rescue him. Trying new things is good. That’s how you make friends.

So he sets out, coasting down the long hill after Marie, she leaning forward and he with his eyes on the bit of mocha flesh bared between her pants and top. Her hips are not too wide, but just right. They pass the turn he normally takes to his home, then turn left, and after a few more blocks, Marie stops in front of a small store. She tells him to pick his favorite from the freezer. At the register she pulls out cash for the peanut butter fudge ice cream. The grocery bag with its heavenly contents swings from her handlebar as they continue on.

“Here’s home!” Green grass grows and flower shrubs front the porch. Her door opens to living room with a couch, TV, armchair and coffee table, but not large like at the church parties they’ve gone to. Yet, with no piles or stacked boxes, it feels big enough. She pulls back drapes and sunlight floods in.

“I like your house.” He follows Marie into a tidy kitchen with no dirty dishes in sight and he tingles with the pleasure of wandering far from walls crammed with stuff.

“That’s enough.” He stares at the four scoops Marie’s dished him. He’ll eat more than even on his birthday. While sitting on the couch eating, they’re silent, at first.

“Do you like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? I got the DVD.”

“I haven’t seen it.” He hates saying so, but lying would bother him.

“Have you seen any of the Indiana Jones movies?”

“No.” What does the drop of her chin mean? Is that tightening in his chest from all that freezing cream that slipped down his throat? Or maybe it’s her eyes focused on him? Her long look means something. “It’s because my brother can’t take much stimulation.”

“Oh, yeah. My cousin doesn’t watch action movies. Do you know how to dance?”

Nick shakes his head.

“I’ll teach you!” She springs up. She slips a CD into a player and music throbs, but he tolerates it because Marie moves her hips and gestures to him. He stands. Her flowery fragrance draws him closer. Her head is thrown back and her brown waves toss. Her skin is paler, under her chin. Her breasts quiver too, but she seems oblivious to him, lost to the aching melody.

A vibration comes from the phone in his pocket and the bees start up. He goes to the kitchen.

“Where are you?” Mother demands that he return. In the silence, Mother’s short, quick breaths unnerve him. He see-saws between attraction to Marie and fear.

“Her house, on Hudson.”

“Come back, immediately.”

He pockets his phone and goes back to watch the swirl of Marie’s hips slowing with the song, while the newness in himself also ebbs away.

Her eyes flick around as if uneasy as she grows aware of him again. “Oh, sorry. I got taken with the music. Who was that?”

“Mother. I got to go.” He hates surrendering, but slings his backpack over one shoulder.

She shrugs. “I’ll ride you part way.”

She leads as far as the intersection where she took him down a different road than normal. Nearing home, he sees the trees have become flat and the air thin.

Mother stands on the porch, elbows jutting out and hands on her hips. “It’s near dark! And you alone with a girl in a home—I’ll have your dad talk to you.”

Nicholas rescues his rabbit from her cage.

 

On Saturday Dad warns him about girls and drives of the body overcoming good intentions. On Monday Nicholas returns to college and looking for Marie in the school cafeteria—sometimes before, sometimes after class. On the rare day that he finds her, they don’t chat much before she leaves for work, or says she has to study.

Tests, winter holidays and school’s restart brings more classes and little of Marie, more rainy days and rides from Mother to and from school. Then on a Friday of all sun, a day of warmth that feels like April instead of February, as he bends to free his bike from its chain, his name is called. His look up reveals only a group of students talking and laughing. No one looks his way. Loneliness bears down on him.

“Nick! Here!” She’s in the opposite direction from where he gazed, near the restrooms. She stands alone, holding her bike.

He goes to her. He knows what he must reply to her suggestion. “I can’t go home with you for ice cream.”

Marie sighs. “Let’s go to the fro-yo shop.”

She leads the way and he follows her hips, not the turns, as they wind their way. Sweat wets his back and neck. He hates frozen yogurt, but within the shop he finds ice cream too. Marie leads him out and off to the side of the shop, where he sets down his bowl on a table draped by a willow. Sweat dries in the shady cool. He sees something painted in red on the shop’s wall of white concrete—huge lips flare out. He compares them to Marie’s.

“So what do you think?” Marie asks.

He shrugs and feels his face heat.

Marie’s mouth twitches. “I meant your ice cream. Good?” He nods. “How were things at home after our last adventure?”

“Dad told me I have to be careful with girls.”

“No one yelled or hit you?”

Nick shakes a no. His chest feels tighter than ever. The breeze has gained strength and pushes a willow strand close. Nick looks through its leaves, tiny, having just come out. “I punched my pillow.” He doesn’t tell Marie that he prayed or how he eventually went out back and hoped to hear again that whisper of comfort, calling him, “Son.” Only the whisper of the wind.

A holler sounds. Marie’s focus changes.

Nick follows her gaze across the street to where guys in baggy jeans wait at the light. Is one of them pointing at him? “Oh, no.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Those guys were in my high school. They’re mean.” Nick’s spoon trembles.

“Don’t worry. I’m here. I’m for you.”

What does she mean? He liked that for you. Lisa would ask him, what does Marie’s face say? Her lashes are long, like the willow. Her freckles like stars. He’d like to touch her. If not now, when?

Marie clicks her nails on the table and he rests his hand near hers. Don’t assume Marie shares your feelings, said Lisa. Move slowly. He inches his fingers forward. Then, he does it. He brings his hand down on top of hers.

Her shoulders jerk, but she doesn’t pull away. “What are you doing?”

A branch, pushed by the breeze, prickles his face but he ignores it. “I’m holding your hand.”

Loud laughter sounds and Nicholas turns to see that three of the bullies now lean against the shop door. “Look! The weirdo scored.”

A volcano fires up Nicks’ legs, all the way through his chest, making his face so hot. He turns back to Marie. Her lips are pressed inward and her eyes narrow—like Mother’s when something’s wrong. He loosens his grasp, but her hand stays in his.

“Forget them—they’ve gone inside.”

“But why did they say that?” he whispers.

“’Cause they’re stupid. Not nice like you. Just ignore them.” Her smile is thin.

He can’t figure out what her eyebrows—so squiggly with wrinkles between them—are saying. And he still wants to know why they picked on him. Can everyone see he has Asperger’s?

“I mean, is it my face? Can they tell I’m different?”

She looks at him and then away. “I don’t think so. You’re average-looking, pretty much, but they went to your school. People talk.” She pulls her hand back.

He tries to bat off the swarm buzzing up from his gut, but her words sting. He wishes he could hold Skyler.

“You’re like a brother to me. Hanging out with you is fun, but that’s all.” She leans over the table, bringing near her lips red and full as on the wall. “I thought you understood. You know I’m four years older and studying Special Ed, but I see it wasn’t clear.” Her lower lip puffs out. “I can’t be your girlfriend.”

Nick jerks his chair back. He has to get away.

“I’ll find you at the bike rack sometimes.”

“Yeah, sure.” The willow strands scratch his face as he stands and he whips them back.

“Know your way home?”

“Don’t bother with me. We’re done.”

“No, no, I don’t mean that.”

He stalks to the cement wall and hurls his fist at the lips. His knuckles scream and the ache blisters down his arm, shutting down the ache inside.

“Nick! Don’t do that!” She’s come near him and speaks softly, but intensely.

He wants to yell, but in facing her he sees her eyes stretched wide. That means fright. She gestures to the shop where the bullies remain. He presses his lips shut.

Nick stamps to his bike, spins the padlock, but can’t see anything, can’t unlock it. So he drags his Schwinn around the corner and further from Marie. His breaths come out fast and shallow. What now? He doesn’t know the way home and Mother would be there. He’d shout at her. Not good. Though the time—4 PM—accuses, he can’t call her. He can’t stand to hear her troll voice.

A breeze puffs, a coolness that feels like a gift. He wipes his eyes with his sweatshirt so he can spin the right numbers. He prays a one-liner and Lisa’s advice comes back to mind. Slow your breathing when you’re upset. Bring air up from your stomach. All the way up and all the way back down, slow and steady.

The idea comes. Dad once gave his number is for emergencies. This is, kind of.

 

With Dad’s directions, he only has to backtrack once. Mother comes out while he’s walking his bike through weeds to the backyard gate. “Why are you so late?”

“Didn’t Dad call?”

“Yes, but he didn’t explain.”

She stands near, blocking his way and he wants to push her aside, anything to get away from her wanting to know more. His heart rattles in his chest and the bees swarm.

Stand up inside, Lisa’s words.

Head down, he keeps on and squeezes past the heat of her breath and her wanting gaze.

“I can’t tell you.” His voice is not a yell, but it’s not timid and soft. She leaves.

Once his bike leans on the backyard fence, he pushes open the front door, greets his brother and pulls Skyler out. Mother calls from the kitchen, “What are you doing?”

He walks down the hall to a rarely used exit out back. “Taking Skyler out!”

He doesn’t understand her reply, but figures she’d say, Be careful or That’s not safe. The back door is difficult to budge. His right hand secures bunny and his left tries to force it open. The door finally gives way. As it swings towards him it pushes him backwards. He almost falls and Skyler twists from his grasp, springs to the floor, and jumps out onto the landing. Her white poof of a tail quivers on her behind. He crouches and puts two hands around her soft body. He wonders how she’ll like this new place.

Together they step down and out. In summer Dad mowed and raked away the weeds. Dirt and flattened brown stalks remained and winter rain has started more growing. A yard with lawn and chairs is what he wants. What he gets is a lean back on the huge faded plastic orange and green thing he used to climb as a toddler. He relaxes his squeeze on Skyler. The sun warms him and a breeze mellows his sulking anger. No voice whispers, but he recalls it.

Skyler’s feet push into his thighs and belly, enabling her to leap down. He slowly steps down and in front of his darling. Her pink nose twitches. He gazes at her eyes. The clear curve of each lens arches over the pink rims with hazelnuts in their centers. Long white strands of her whiskers tremble—alert for danger. Nick watches with her for crows or cats, his hands ready. Learning new things, Lisa would say. He likes being out together.


About the Author: Exploring various geographies occupies and delights Carol. To celebrate a recent milestone birthday, she journeyed to an off-the-grid chalet and enjoyed long hikes at Sequoia National Park. The many cultures of the SF Bay Area bring Carol more venues to explore: tasty cuisines, fascinating friends and tutoring fun with non-native speakers. Her graduate studies in Creative Writing were through Seattle Pacific University. Her work has appeared on a Hollywood stage where actors performed dramatic readings. The upcoming anthology Irrational Fears includes her flash fiction.

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

Here Are Instructions for Removing the Scissors by Kelli Allen

PE - instructions for removing the scissors


 

Here Are Instructions for Removing the Scissors

Take the bribe offered and just plunge your entire
arm, full past the twist of elbow, into the cool muck.

Take this moment as opening of determined appetite—
the blades are yours once pulled into the grass. Yours.

Take whatever weird laughter you hear behind your shoulder
as balm, a resolve for how far you can open, can exhale, and search.

Take slippery weeds, darkening further down, lightening as they snake
up your wrist into the fading day, as a message—everything feeds, waits.

Take dense mud around your fingers and pull tightly the looped handle
as you dislodge the entirety of silver from this reeking, shallow pond.

Take every opportunity to own and wield the weapons for cutting, as every-
thing begs, at some sharp moment, to be severed, to be made sweetly clean.


About the Author: Kelli Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies in the US and internationally. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has won awards for her poetry, prose, and scholarly work. She served as Managing Editor of Natural Bridge, is the current Poetry Editor for The Lindenwood Review, and holds an MFA from the University of Missouri St. Louis. She is the director of the River Styx Hungry Young Poets Series and founded the Graduate Writers Reading Series for UMSL. She is currently a Professor of Humanities and Creative Writing at Lindenwood University and teaches for The Pierre Laclede Honors College at UMSL. Her full-length poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books in 2012 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.www.kelli-allen.com

Artwork: Paul Ebenkamp is author of The Louder the Room the Darker the Screen (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2015), “Four Colors for the Based God” (The Equalizer: Second Series, 2014), “Seizured in the Ease” (Mondo Bummer, 2013), and everything at afterundisclosedrecipients.blogspot.com, and is editor of a few books including Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology (Counterpoint, 2014) and Particulars of Place by Richard O. Moore (Omnidawn, 2015). With Andrew Kenower he curates the Woolsey Heights reading series, and with strings and devices makes music as Position.

 

SO WE SAT DOWN AND SAID by Steffi Drewes

Allen Forrest for Steffi Drewes


SO WE SAT DOWN AND SAID

Rise and shine Guanajuato, Sebastian’s got five tongues
to your one, odds and ends the acrolinguist flings into

his breakfast banter. Not just the number of bricks it takes
to build a church or trips to Peru before he stopped eating papaya,

tell me how to launch a comeback that steals his morning thunder
—this is high stakes choreography with a mathematical accent.

Here I am climbing a cabeza de piedra to feel closer to history
and here my funnybone exposed under a cactus, underlining all

the parts about silver tunnels and mountains, rebel monuments
that fade and flash. So raise a fist to greet the day block out the sun

and sweep your rival, all muscle and gold sky. Sold two flicks of flint
to unroll a funicular steep on a hillside—feel the weight of

your limbs, the change in elevation, every arched window
an eye unfolding. Half-notes shimmy from a kitchen floating O’s

what a bunch of white rabbits down a hole, what a mouth making its own
magic show or bronze hero come to life. Did you miss the punchline?

Pause for selfies? Wake up, Quixote! We can see you counting tiles,
chasing tides. If you can say it better, go ahead and write my lifeline

in all caps or A minor, in any case think of the chords that can’t be spoken
running an instrument through your veins. Here you are with a piccolo bird

in your head or deep in the jungle coughing up leaf scum. Bit by breath
pushing tongue against teeth what licks the air and starts to howl.


About the Author: Steffi Drewes is author of the chapbooks Magnetic ForestCartography Askew, and History of Drawing Circles. Her work has also appeared in 6×6Zen MonsterEleven Eleven, and the anthology It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland. She organizes Featherboard Writing Series and manages the Writer in Residence program at Aggregate Space Gallery in West Oakland.

Artwork: Graphic artist and painter Allen Forrest was born in Canada and bred in the U.S. He has created cover art and illustrations for literary publications and books. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection. Forrest’s expressive drawing and painting style is a mix of avant-garde expressionism and post-Impressionist elements reminiscent of van Gogh, creating emotion on canvas.

Art website (paintings for sale):
Twitter account:
Portfolio: published works

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Having No Tits by Suzannah Weiss

Seann McCollum for Weiss


 

On having no tits: a feminist interlocution of Douglas Harding’s “On having no head”

 

Proposal of the Theory of Tit-Eyes
Eyes, Tit E.
University of Boobsborough
Quarterly Journal of Tits and Ass, Volume 36D

“There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head. It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.”

-Douglas Harding, “On Having No Head”

Douglas Harding has no head. He looks through his eyes, not at them. This is the experience of a man.

The experience of a woman is painfully capitated. She tries to look through her eyes, but with layers of mascara blocking the view, only looks at them. Her eyes see themselves seeing, and hence don’t see.

His eyes, on the converse, see but don’t see themselves seeing. Since he does not see his own head and he believes in the world as he sees it, he feels headless. The photograph and mirror image, which capture a woman’s full identity, are unable to do justice to the great void on a man’s shoulders that holds every beach, museum, and woman he has ever looked at.

Background

Scientists have investigated the role of sex chromosomes in rostral cephalization and found no significant correlation between the Y chromosome and headlessness. Several alternative theories remain. Here is a brief review of the literature, followed by an original theory that this paper proposes.

1.  Men gain the status of headlessness by looking at the heads of women (i.e., they look at women to avoid looking at themselves). Men appear to have heads, but if you took a magnifying glass to their “heads” you would find images of women. They have heaps of women where their heads should be, and pile more and more women onto their beds to avoid considering that they have heads. When they start to believe that other men have heads, they yell “no homo” and look away, relocating their gazes onto chicks, bitches, sluts, etc. (Snoop D. O. Double G et al.).

2. Decapitation may be a symptom of castration, given that all men have been castrated at some point in their lives, whether by emasculating, machismo fathers or Nicolas Sparks film adaptations or a taste for appletinis, but women have nothing to castrate. I reject this ad ignorantiam theory, arguing instead that a woman’s “nothing” is in fact something that is always already castrated. Castration means loss of the phallic power so exalted in our society. It means losing a whole world above a man’s shoulders that captures and defines all the mountains, valleys, seas and women he has seen, and replacing this nothingness that holds everything with a head. It means looking at rather than through oneself. It means flattening. It means having four eyes, and I’m not talking about childhood teasing, though that plays into it. I’m talking about a split consciousness, a self above a woman’s shoulders and a self always a few steps ahead of her, gazing backwards at her head, reminding her that she has a head, and of the duty to provide a head for decapitated men—the duty to perform her envy and castration according to his projection, and maintain the illusion that he is not the castrated one.

3. In the master-slave dialectic, the slave/woman loses power and is left only with the beliefs of her oppressor and a head. The master/man is left with a slave/woman, which affords him the title of master/man. He needs no head—nobody can look at him. His gaze is the final answer. The world is as it is through his non-eyes: the floating globes that contain the earth. For her, these non-eyes are mirrors in a funhouse world. She sees her head reflected in these multidirectional gazes—needy gazes, shaming gazes, belittling gazes, lascivious gazes—and orients herself in relation to them—as Madonna, as whore, as child, as sexual receptacle.

4. A woman’s second set of eyes is located on her tits.

Let us pause on this last, original theory, which requires further investigation.

It is important not to be phallocentric and assume that women’s second set of eyes must be on a head just because men’s eyes are on heads.

For there are other parts of a woman. Yes, there are the cheekbones and hair and other features located on her head, but these are usually accompanied by a second important feature: tits. Said tits are so detailed in her occipital visual cortex that, this theory proposes, they must have their own set of eyes just to look at themselves.  Others have noted that many men seem to mistake tits for eyes, requiring women to remind them that “my eyes are up here” (Urban Dictionary et al.), and their intuition may not be so far off. In fact, the neologism “titties,” as well as its variation “tit-ays,” may subconsciously refer to a woman’s tit-eyes. See Appendix A for examples.

Here is the model I put forth: The protrusion angle of the tits allows the tit-eyes to watch the head—keep an eye on it, so to speak—which leads to the question, which eyes will watch the tit-eyes? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?). This paper proposes a positive feedback loop between the tit-eyes and head-eyes, which watch each other and mutually relay information from the outside world.

To illustrate: as a woman walks down the street, her tit-eyes detect the gaze of a lecher. The tits transmit this information to her head-eyes, which follow the stranger’s gaze down to the tits to make sure they are not being stared at for an embarrassing reason (funky colorful bra under white shirt; temperature-related nipple rigidity, etc.). The tit-eyes inform the head-eyes that they look silly staring downward, and her day goes on.

Both sets of eyes project their gaze onto another (real or imagined) passerby in order to look at themselves. Women need this gaze of another person in order to see, the way a female pigeon must see another of its species in order to grow genitalia. It is a human instinct, present from infancy in familiar interactions, to follow the gaze of others. At earlier points in our evolution, this alerted us to salient information in the environment. Little did evolution know that humans would abuse an adaptation made to connect them, designating part of humanity as holders of the gaze and the second part as objects of it (see theories 1 and 3). Evolution also did not anticipate that humans would get out eye trackers and fMRI machines to re-stage the scenes of male voyeurism and female masquerade they have written, then call it “natural” selection since electrodes poking into brains don’t lie, and eyes that linger longer on white women don’t lie, and it all starts so young, and what besides nature could possibly explain Toddlers in Tiaras? Soon doctors will be dressing female infants in tiaras, straight out of the womb, and papers will explode all over PubMed speculating on the genetic basis for tiaras on toddlers.

Not only has the patriarchal imaginary made women victims of “nature,” it has also made women nothing more than pertinent information in the environment that nature initially intended them to look at. The male gaze has become so influential as to make women part of nature. Nature has never been thought to have a mind—that is reserved for men—but it has heads of sorts: molecules under microscopes, taxonomies in textbooks. Women are examined similarly under spotlights and in men’s fierce debates over “what women want” (Freud et al). They are seen not as subjects with their own ability to articulate desires but as objects worthy of only receiving desire and scrutiny. Like fickle weather, women are discernable only through the eyes of men who must chart their courses through Mother Nature’s wicked winds and raging seas and raging hormones. This chaos has no rhyme or reason, they say, but let’s get some barometers and see what we can do. Let’s get some wood and build shelters from the storm. Let’s get some tight clothes and see if we can contain her. Let’s flatten Mother Earth onto a map we can sell and purchase so that we can claim expertise on her and carry her with us at all times.

Perhaps because they fear the hills have eyes, men have made an extra effort to ensure that women’s twin peaks belong to them alone, an effort some anthropologists cite as the invention of tits. Biologists, however, are unconcerned with tits’ “invention,” viewing them as natural, and instead have focused their efforts on cataloguing tits’ defining features:

–         They exist on this earth for the eyes of men.

–         They possess a biological allure so strong that it claims to be outside cultural constructs of beauty.

–         They are incomplete without being topped with male sexual fluids (it’s like the icing on the cake).

–         They are best when they are bouncing all over the place and causing discomfort.

–         They require bras only the way a pot roast requires a platter.

–         The best ones are gigantic ones that add to this discomfort and stand out perkily, pleading for male attention, even though there is no size requirement for breastfeeding (look at other mammals, they just have little nipples).

–         They are public property and can be stared at by anyone.

–         They like to be bitten and kneaded like dough and dug into like meat. They demand consumption, not just oral but also monetary and visual. They should be collapsed into a man’s non-head.

–         When touched, they evoke obnoxious whiney noises of pleasure.

Experiment 

If my theory is right, and tits give women heads by making them observe themselves, what might the world look like if women had no tits? My hypothesis is that they would also cease to have heads: according to the model of mutual tit-eye and head-eye feedback, one either has four eyes or has none.

To test this hypothesis, I went about my day-to-day activities with full eye removal (see appendix B for enucleation procedure) and documented the experience in ethnographic fashion. Below is the manuscript.

Results

Day 1

I have no tits. But nobody seems to know this, and the world continues to go on as if I do. When the man on the subway groped my chest, I asked him what he was looking for because — sorry to disappoint — I have no tits. When the hobo following me on the street mumbled something about “titties,” I also had to tell him that I’m terribly apologetic but I don’t have any. But their illusion is too persistent to eradicate simply by informing people of its falsehood. These men actually see tits on my chest! And since they are the headless masters, and we are the capitated unspoken slaves, their eyes hold the Truth that philosophers are so keen on, and their illusions are the ones I have to deal with in my daily life.

Day 4

Or maybe it’s my illusion that I don’t have them. But why get rid of this illusion? It’s no worse than men going around pretending they have no heads. There, I said it! The heretical fact: I see heads on the shoulders of men! Call me crazy, call me schizophrenic, call me delusional, I still see them! The way they see my tits!

From these irreconcilable positions, I’ve concluded that there two types of vision, looking through your head and looking at it, which will never be simultaneously experienced. It is healthy to consider oneself headless and consider others to have heads. It means you are in tune with your own subjective experience. In your experience, it feels like your mind is the only mind that exists! Think of how hard it is to teach the contrary to children.

Think of how hard it is to teach the contrary to girl children, who must go from believing that the world is inside their minds to believing that they are a mere piece of the world inside boys’ minds. Think of how hard it is to think the world as you see it matters, only to realize all that matters is how the world sees you. Think of having your own ability to see contended. Think of feeling crazy because you still believe in your own subjectivity, of being told you are crazy because you don’t believe the theories about your innate vanity and narcissistic sexuality. Think of your body being a political controversy, of men treating it like land on which to fight their battles.  

You can treat me like an object, but you can’t take away my subjectivity. You can tell me I have tits, and I understand that through your eyes I do, but I have the right to my own eyes as much as you. 

Day 13

Now that I have no tits or eyes or head, I was curious as to whether or not I would grow a penis. I did not. My external genitalia, at least from my vantage point, has not changed. But I do have new sensations. Rather than two lips folded shamefully inward, I have desires between my legs that erect themselves, asserting themselves into the world without concerns about their reception. The energy shoots out so that if I dance, I can feel a thing swinging around down there as I shake my hips. But if I look, there is no thing, just an experience — precisely like my non-head. 

Day 17

My vision has gotten much sharper without the view of my tits and head clouding it. Sometimes I don’t know what to stare at when there are people in front of me. I see your face, I see your nose, I can assess your features and their relative sizes and shapes, now what? This has made me quite socially awkward at parties, where people can’t pinpoint me as the man gazing or the woman posing for him.

Day 19

I’ve thought of something to do when I am stuck looking at other people: listen to their words and the intonation of their voices. I was so used to looking at, rather than listening to, myself that this was how I assumed one should respond to other people. Now I see how men have accomplished all their wars and treatises and financial transactions in so few years, and I see why they have not included women. It seems men are capable of listening to men because they are not so preoccupied with the gaze, but when they encounter women, their ears become stuffed with heads and all they can do is stare like the drooling fucktards that heads give rise to.

Day 23

My stomach is less distended; without my tit-eyes I have no way to look down and see it swelling. It used to impede my motor functioning with its unsightly protrusion and insistence on bumping tables in a café or desks in a classroom. Now, similar to my non-head and non-genitals, my non-stomach has gone from an object to a swirling sea of desires. For the first time I feel hungry, full, and nauseated. It has become less and less compelling to starve or stuff myself. Even exercising becomes a hassle when one has sensations, and all my skin products have begun to sting. When my face felt like a mask, my body like a suit, sitting through these ordeals was easier. Plucking my eyebrows — not to mention waxing — is excruciatingly painful. And deceptive, now that it belies the fact that I have no head.        

 

Day 25

Without tits I can wear more comfortable, less fitted clothing. I cannot believe I had convinced myself I actually enjoyed wearing tube tops and mini skirts. My eyes enjoyed them, not me, because my eyes were not mine. They were the eyes of men, showing me what men see, which just happened to be attached to my head and tits. I had corneas and lenses and optic nerves and all, but I didn’t see; I was seen, and I replicated what others saw. No wonder blindness feels so familiar. I never had eyes.

Day 27

This experience has taught me that our heads and our tits are products of our delusions. Even after ocular restoration, I feel that my tits are as poor a description of my experience as Douglas Harding’s head is of his. If Douglas Harding can claim to have no head, surely I can claim to have no tits. (Given what biologists say tits are, it is especially hard to believe that I have them). Everyone is entitled to affirm their own delusions and consider others’ ridiculous. And yet, I can feel someone watching me now…

Appendix A

“Eighty on the freeway, kissin’ on some titties.” – 8 Ball

“When I bust, titties come out.” – Red Man

“Don’t say my car is topless. Say the titties is out.” –Nas

Appendix B

Enucleation procedure includes anesthesia, isolation of the levator muscle, peritonomy, muscle identification, neurectomy, preparation of tenon’s capsule, and implant insertion (not to be confused with tit augmentation implants).


About the Author: Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Bustle and xoJane and a feminist blogger at dwfdatingwhilefeminist.tumblr.com and noorigin.wordpress.com. She holds degrees in Gender & Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University, which she uses mainly to over-analyze trashy television and argue over semantics.

Artwork: Sean McCollum 

 

Irreversible by Peycho Kanev

Lynae Cook_Sparrow_for Kanev

 


 

Irreversible

The body of the dead bird
soon enough
becomes dirt
where the worms live
which soon enough
become food for
the newly hatched birds.

I picked a flower and smelled it –

Spring, death and
             swallows’ wings.


About the Author:Peycho Kanev is the author of 4 poetry collections and two chapbooks, published in USA and Bulgaria. He has won several European awards for his poetry, and he’s nominated for the Pushcart Award and Best of the Net. His poems have appeared in many literary magazines, such as: Poetry Quarterly, Evergreen Review, Hawaii Review, Cordite Poetry Review, Sheepshead Review, Off the Coast, The Adirondack Review, Two Thirds North, Sierra Nevada Review, The Cleveland Review and many others.

Artwork: Lynae Cook

 

 

Kîlauea and the Curtain of Fire by Ryan McKinley

hawaiian


The week started with a volcanic eruption and it continued with a death. Kîlauea volcano burst and Kelsey Araki, a sixteen-year-old sophomore at Kohala High School, was murdered. Both events hit Detective Achilles Naluaka. He was assigned the case of the murdered girl the same day lava started flowing toward his home. The house and the land had been in his family for three generations. At the same time the newspapers were following the murder case as if it was a football game, waiting for Naluaka to slip because he had solved all his previous cases, a curse of the undefeated. Distracted by the lava, and at his wits end with the case, Detective Naluaka, or Nalu, as he preferred to be called, pulled a Hail Mary play. He picked up a local criminal named Sumo Glen, a butterball of a man with a topknot haircut. Despite his teddy bear appearance, he was a low-level enforcer and sometime killer.

They drove on the coastal highway that encircled the Big Island of Hawai`i. In the passenger seat Sumo Glen yanked on the chains that were locked on his wrists and ankles.

“Glen,” Nalu said. “If you keep rattling those chains, the day is not going to end well.”

“What law was I breakin’, Dick-tective?” Sumo Glen asked.

“Your waist is breaking the laws of physics.”

Sumo Glen waited a moment to deliver the best comeback he could find. “Fuck you.”

“Sorry, that costs money.”

Nalu glanced to the distance where Kîlauea volcano loomed large, its lava flowing toward the Pacific. Sumo Glen looked out the window at the rising smoke. “Police station’s the odda way,” he said.

Nalu nodded.

Not far away steam was rising off the land. The lava was burning through trees, lakes, homes, erasing everything in its path. Nalu switched on the windshield wipers to brush away the falling ash. The smell of sulfur entered the sealed car.

“Shit, we going to your ranch,” Sumo Glen said. “That whole area going be covered in a few hours.”

“It’ll turn.”

“What?”

“The lava, it’s going to turn pass the area by.” Nalu had to keep repeating that. A child’s dream; if he said it enough it would come true.

“You lolo or what? —screw dis, stop dis car. Brah, dis against the law; stop dis car right now—”

“Shut up, Glen. If I stop the car, all that’s going to happen is I’m gonna throw you in the trunk. So just sit there and shut up.”

Sumo Glen sunk into his seat and stared out the window. He mumbled something that Nalu couldn’t hear, and didn’t care to listen to. Nalu slowed down as he drove around a roadblock. A sign on the blockade read, “Danger: Road Closed.” Nalu repeated in his head, “the lava will turn,” and he hoped the volcano goddess was listening.

 

When they reached his ranch Nalu dragged Sumo Glen into the plantation-style house. Nalu dropped his prisoner into a chair in the den. In the center of the room Kelsey Araki’s case file was laid out on a folding table. As the sun set, Nalu cracked the seal on some Black Label Scotch and finished a few glasses before it was dark.

The night was black except for the orange glow in the distance. The lava was coming and it left Nalu in a crimson mood.

“Let’s try again,” Nalu said. He emptied the last of the scotch into his glass and opened a second bottle.

“Brah, the whole island knows the same thing,” Sumo Glen said. “The girl is dead, could have been her teacher, her pops, boyfriend, some random wahine; I don’t know nothing. So let’s go. Let’s get outta here.”

Nalu sipped the scotch and knelt a few feet from Sumo Glen’s chair. “Well,” Nalu said. “We’re going to stay here until we figure it out.”

“Damn it, we gotta get out of here. We going be burned alive…” Sumo Glen continued his monologue, but Nalu tuned him out. He sipped his scotch as he paced in circles looking at the den. He thought of all the work it took to create it. Before big machinery the house was built by hand. Filipino and Chinese immigrants worked for Nalu’s great-grandfather, hammering every nail, molding every piece of material until it fit the structure. He wondered who carved the maile pattern in the stone edges of the walls.

Everything those people had worked for was going to be erased. Nalu wondered what the men in his family would do if they were still alive. They probably would have picked up the land, let the lava pass by, and then put the house right back where it was.

“Eh, detective, you hearing me?”

“I stopped listening a while ago.” Nalu filled up his glass again and drank it just as fast. He leaned over the folding table. Sweat fell from his forehead, splattering the case files. It was getting hotter; the lava was closing in.

Sumo Glen pulled at the chains. “I said, I feeling claustrophobic in here.”

“That’s just because you’re fat.”

“Shit, seriously, it stay a hundred degrees in here; the walls is closing in.”

Nalu ignored Sumo Glen, but the heat was affecting him too. The scotch was probably not helping. Nalu moved the case files around the table, rereading every statement. “I’m missing something,” he said.

“Ch-yeah, one brain.”

“Shut up, Glen.”

Outside the lava hissed in the night, overconfident of its power to wipe the land clean. Louder and louder the hissing grew. Sumo Glen started laughing. The heat was getting to him. “The murder magician: any case, Detective Naluaka will solve it.” Nalu leaned on the folding table. The second bottle of scotch was empty. He swore it must have evaporated in the heat. The lava’s hiss was growing. Sumo Glen’s eyes glazed over and he laughed hysterically. “Kelsey Araki still dead. We going be burned. We going be dead.”

Sweat rolled off Nalu’s face. It hit the table in rhythm, drip—drip—drip. “We going be dead,” Sumo Glen laughed. Nalu stared at the evidence, and he could hear Kelsey Araki laughing at him too. The hissing started to crackle in the air. Nalu’s head pounded, his blood burning. The night was pounding. Louder and louder, closer and closer. The lava was coming. Nalu could hear his grandfather laughing at him, his father laughing at him. The bones of the house were creaking. His heart pounded. His head pounded. His ancestors were laughing at him. The island was laughing at him. The room started spinning. The hissing roared. The lava was coming. The lava was there.

Nalu screamed and flipped the table. The room stopped spinning, and for a moment the papers looked like falling leaves. He pulled his revolver from his belt holster and clicked the chamber open. Six bullets. He spun the cylinder and snapped the chamber shut. Sumo Glen stared at the gun as Nalu moved toward him. Nalu grabbed the chains, pulled Sumo Glen out of the chair, and shoved him out the door onto the ranch’s plains.

The orange glow was a midnight sun lighting up the hills. Lava cut a curtain of fire through the darkness. Nalu walked toward the lava, pulling Sumo Glen behind him. The air, thick with sulfur and heat, battered their bodies. The short walk felt like a mountain trek, and they almost crawled up the embankment. When they reached the property line Sumo Glen fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Nalu stood watching the lava. It didn’t flow or roll; it stalked like a wild animal.

Nalu cocked the revolver, raised the gun, and pulled the trigger. The gunshot did little more than make noise as the bullet disappeared into the flames.

“What the hell you doing?” Sumo Glen shouted. Nalu fired again. Sumo Glen grabbed Nalu’s leg. “I know who killed the girl. I’ll tell you, just get us out of here. I know who killed Kelsey Araki.”

“No,” Nalu said. “You don’t.” Again he fired. “Turn,” Nalu whispered. “Come on turn.” The lava beast was a hundred feet away, seventy feet away. He cocked the gun and fired three shots.

“Wait,” Sumo Glen said. “Just unlock me. I’ll show you who killed Kelsey Araki. I’ll show you where she died. Shit, I’ll show you other bodies.”

Nalu grabbed Sumo Glen’s chains and pulled him up so they were face to face.

“I don’t care anymore about who killed the girl. I don’t care if there are bodies buried right here. I only care about the land. My grandfather worked this land until he could afford to buy it back from the sailor who took it from him. And my then father turned it into the biggest ranch in the islands. Now they’re both dead, and I’m the only one left to protect it. And I’m letting it get taken away in another fucking story of the native lands.” He let the chain go, and Sumo Glen fell to the ground.

The lava was forty feet away. Sumo Glen screamed and put his hands in front of his face as if that would protect him.

Nalu held the revolver with both hands and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked empty. The click was louder than any gunshot. He dropped the revolver and stared at the beast barreling toward him. Twenty feet. Nalu shut his eyes. Ten feet. Then there was silence, a deafening silence. The heat vanished and he stopped sweating. He suddenly felt a kolonahe breeze drifting around him, sending a shiver through his spine. He wondered if he was dead.

Slowly, he opened his eyes, and a few feet in front of him the wave of lava had cleaved, split into two small rivers that flowed around Nalu, flowed around his family land, his family home. His land, his home. When the two rivulets passed Nalu’s property they rejoined into a singular giant flow. It created a kîpuka, a breath between the lava rocks and the hard places. It was no longer a stalking beast, it looked like orange water, but it still glowed like a midnight sun.

Sumo Glen peeked out from behind his hands. Nalu clapped him on the back, “I told you the lava would turn.” Nalu said it with all the confidence he could muster, but he was just as surprised and relieved that they were still alive.

Sumo Glen looked up from the ground. “Great, I don’t give a shit, you crazy son of a bitch.”

“Don’t piss me off, Glen. The night is young, and I got more bullets in the house.” Sumo Glen returned his face to his hands.

Nalu looked at the Kîlauea volcano in the distance. Sparks jumped and lava splattered from the caldera. Against the night sky it looked like a volcanic Jackson Pollack. Nalu looked to the land, the lava, and finally back to Kîlauea. And silently he said, “Mahalo nui loa, me kea aloha pumehana.” It was the best way he could say thank you.

Nalu tapped his foot against Sumo Glen side. “Glen, I think I just figured out who killed Kelsey Araki.”


About the Author: Ryan McKinley is from Honolulu, Hawai`i and a graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California. His work has appeared in Ka Leo O Hawaii, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Booma, and The Lamornida Weekly. He loves the Pacific Ocean, a good mystery, listening to the world around him, and writing detective fiction.

Artwork: Ryan McKinley

Moles by Helga D. Stroya

 

moles_all_FINAL

 


 

About the Author and Artist: Helga D. Stroya draws comics at her kitchen table in Portland, Oregon.  You can see more of her work on her new website at http://helgadstroya.com/ or follow her on Instagram @helga_d_stroya.  She also has a tumblr page which she rarely updates under the same name.  Helga D. Stroya can be found on Facebook if you wish to contact her.  She is considering setting up an eBay or Etsy account to sell some prints of her work, but hasn’t gotten around to it yet.  Helga does not use Twitter or Snapchat.

 


 

Dual Income by Nadeem Zaman

Monirul Alam_07092014 [ Daily Life ] Garment workers Protest in Dhaka


Maruf was against Salma returning to work, but not because he thought she was incapable. He was, simply put, old-fashioned. Salma had been fine with being a housewife. Fifteen years had passed since she was teaching, a decade and a half during which they had two children, a military government came to an end, religious fanatics returned to the frontlines of Bangladeshi politics, democracy got tossed around like a piece of hot coal no one could handle, and Maruf’s prospects of a major promotion after ten years in the same non-management position turned into a pay cut.

“Mergers,” said Maruf, “it’s code word for murder, because that’s what it does to the real working people. In broad daylight, bleeds them out. And Americans love mergers more than they love their families.”

Maruf’s bank had been taken over by an American investment firm, and over the last six weeks, representatives had been arriving every other day—spiffy, young, smiling faces torched and ruddy from the Dhaka heat but maintaining grace—spending interminable hours behind the locked door of the conference room with the chairman and CEO Mr. Moazzem, who also faced strong prospects of becoming a menial employee. Mr. Moazzem had asked Maruf if there was anything he could do to help. He actually meant it. After a few days’ thought, and a conversational tangent with Salma that became serious, then caused them to bicker, Maruf begrudgingly asked Mr. Moazzem for a lead.

“It’s against my choice, sir, but times are…”

“I understand, Maruf.”

Mr. Moazzem delivered. One of the top industrialists in the city had opened a new office, and administrative positions were open but filling fast.

As soon as Salma excitedly mentioned her CV, Maruf said that it needed to be updated, no matter that she hadn’t had a job since the school. For a firm of this caliber it would have to be close to perfect and make up with appearance what was lacking in substance. A proper cover letter needed to be drafted. She would need a quick course on basic computer use, emailing, searching the web, none of which, Maruf grumbled, could be added to her skill set.

“That part will have to remain un-updated,” Maruf puffed his cheeks and exhaled. “We could possibly fatten the administrative background from your teaching days with stress on organization, timeliness, accountability…” the words swam into each other in Salma’s ears. “…even if most of these positions are little more than office boy-type work, with all due respect to Mr. Moazzem. At least the firm has a name and reputation.”

He went through a checklist as if evaluating his own prospects for the job. He stopped and asked her if she was really prepared to go through the headache. The headache, she told him, seemed only to be his. She was fine. They needed this to work. Maruf’s pride thus knocked, he resumed advising.

The city was different from when Salma was last part of it on a daily basis. There were more cars, more buses, more trucks, damned more rickshaws and scooters, more people, more accidents. Once a week at least Maruf saw a deadly crash or a bus hitting a scooter or a rickshaw and killing a family. Then there were the student thugs and the religious fundamentalists that needed absolutely no reason to unleash violence on whoever they decided was the day’s target; there were young cretins that had no respect for women and touched and groped and tried to rip their clothes off out in the open. Dhaka was not what it used to be.

There was a time, Maruf elaborated, with an almost eulogizing sadness in his tone, when children and women could walk freely, unmolested through any street at any time, and men were protectors, husbands, fathers, and respectful heads of households, not recreants leaguing with other recreants in the name of religion and solidarity and politics and righteousness to turn the city into a jungle.

When he reached the end of his ruminations, he said, without making eye contact with her, “There’s time still to think about it. These things happen in every job. I know people who have gone through worse. Some are doing even better than before.”

“I’m happy for those people.” Salma was on her feet, knowing well enough that the next installment would tie in his tirade about the shameless leasing out of the country to the West.

“But not for me, that won’t happen so easily,” Maruf added, his bitterness simmering. “And that is not a reason to think the problem doesn’t exist in the fundamental attitude of the West when it comes to the Third World…”

 

Salma resurrected the old CV from the depths of a trunk that had been stowed away in the storeroom since they’d first moved into the flat five years ago. She had drawn out the file like a fragile relic. Besides the dust and the mothball smell it looked fine, no different than the day she’d wrapped it in the plastic bag and set it under a stack of books from her teaching days. She locked up the trunk, brought the file to the dining table, and untied the string that held it shut.

She could hear Maruf talking in the bedroom while he changed his clothes. Adil’s running footsteps banged along the veranda in the back. Shama’s Bollywood music leaked out of her room and around the flat like a chorus of mosquitoes. The cook came out and asked Salma if he should set the table for dinner, and Salma gave him an absent-minded nod.

“No one has faith in the country anymore,” Maruf was saying as he walked in. “Why wonder when outsiders and foreigners think it’s theirs for the taking as they wish?” He came to the table and took the CV from Salma’s hand. Holding it at arm’s length he started laughing. Salma snatched it back, and tucked it into the file.

“Item One,” he snorted, “bringing that thing from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century.”

“Dipu downstairs is good with computers,” said Salma. “He is a smart boy. He can do it.”

“Are you mad? Letting a child do the work of a professional? Seriously, Salma, where does your mind go to pick up these foolish ideas?”

The cook began setting the table and bringing out dishes of food.

“For a job with a firm like this, you cannot be careless,” Maruf said. “Everything has to be spotless and perfect. Believe me. Things are not what they used to be. All that flimsy, cobble-together-what-you-can attitude history. Now the firms have trained people they hire just to look for mistakes and discrepancies in everything. Including cover letters and CVs.”

Salma put the file down on the chair next to her. Maruf walked over and picked it up.

“Perfection,” said Maruf, eyeing the frayed file. “My god,” he chuckled, “I don’t think they even make files like these anymore.”

He smacked the file against his palm. “There is no point messing around,” he said. “If we’re going to do something, it should be done right. I will take this with me and have Pranab prepare the new ones. It will be a few days; things are very busy at the bank, but at least it will be done properly and responsibly.”

Maruf spoke on, circling the dining table, hands clasped behind him, deep inflections in his speech on specific points he thought needed more stress than others or else his wife just could not fathom their seriousness. He stopped at the head chair on the opposite end of the table from her, leaned on it with both hands, and said, “No ‘I beg to apply for the position’ nonsense from the times of our fathers. Only direct, professional courtesy, and confidence in the applicant’s potential as the best candidate for the job.”

Salma saw the deep circles under his eyes, the doubts buried under the confident stare, and heard the rasp in his breathing that had gotten worse instead of better because she knew he was still smoking.

“I will leave it to you,” she said. “Whatever you think needs to be done.” She called for the children to come in for dinner.

Later that night, when Maruf would long have been asleep, he nudged Salma in bed. She had been trying to sleep for the last hour, but could do nothing more than count the things she would need to arrange for and rearrange if she got hired.

“Are you awake?” Maruf asked.

“What are you doing awake?” said Salma.

“I was thinking.”

“Okay?”

“You can really make something of this position if you do it right.” He turned around. Salma still kept her back to him. “It’s a new branch of a major firm with international presence, and you’re coming in at a good time, at the beginning.”

“That’s good.” Sleep suddenly hit Salma. Her eyes grew heavy.

Maruf was silent for several minutes, and Salma drifted off.

“But don’t overwork yourself,” he said. Salma jolted awake. “You know? If they make you stay late, tell them you have a family. If they insist on overtime, then they will have to pay for it. You know? But it’s best not to get ahead of ourselves. Nothing has happened yet. You know? Are you hearing me?”

“Hmm.”

He shifted his position again, onto his back.

“Bastards,” he murmured. “Bastards.”

Three days later Maruf brought home the newly made cover letter and CV. He made a ceremony of sitting down in the living room, calling the children out, having Salma sit formally across from him, then presenting to her the documents, which were paper-clipped and encased in a smooth, clear plastic folder. He gave them a light tap with his palm for good measure.

“Well?” said Maruf. “Are you going to look or what? Even the paper is the good stock, used specifically for official documents,” he pointed out. “See for yourself,” he said, as if she had challenged him.

“Where are the originals?” was the first thing Salma could think to ask.

“What originals?” Maruf frowned. “Those old things were useless. Open it, take a look.”

The folder was heated from the sun. It leaked its warmth onto Salma’s lap. Salma popped the clasp, reached in, and slid out the new documents. They made her sad, reminding her of the time her late father had had the old ones made.

“What do you think? Sky and earth difference, no?” Maruf sat back, smiling, triumph back in his bearing.

Salma gave a cursory nod, and replaced the documents back inside the cover, with care as if they belonged to someone else.

“What is it for?” Shama asked.

“Yes, what is it for?” Adil repeated after his sister.

“Nothing for you two to worry about,” Salma replied, placing the documents in their plastic folder on the coffee table.

“Go inside,” said Maruf, standing. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”

Adil tore away from the chair before his father spoke again, tugging Shama by the sleeve of her kameez.

“What’s the matter now?” Maruf asked.

“What did you do with the old papers?”
“Seriously, Salma? All the trouble I go to and you’re worried about some old documents that were lying god-knows-where until few days ago? I don’t understand you.”

“Trouble? You took them to the bank and someone else made them, and you brought them home.”

“Unbelievable!”

“My father had them made.”

Maruf exhaled noisily.

“Some days I don’t know what gets into you people in this house.” He sat back down, stretched, and began untying his shoelaces. He pulled off one shoe and tossed it to the side, paused as if considering a new strategy with the other, then sent that one the same way. The socks he peeled like they were damaged skin that had to be carefully removed.

“Did you throw them out?” Salma asked.

“Throw what out?”

“Maruf, you know what.”

“I don’t know. I gave them to Pranab, he needed them to work from to make those,” he pointed at the new documents. “I don’t know what he did with them. Are you having second thoughts now?”

“No.”

“Because if you are not one hundred percent sure you want to apply for this position, tell me. There is no turning back once you do. Not with a firm like this. Anyway, you should get those sent off immediately. This is not any Tom, Dick, and Harry firm, and they’ll have a line of people begging for a job any given day. Unless you want me to take care of it?”

“No,” Salma picked up the plastic folder again. “No.”

Two weeks after she sent the cover letter and CV, Salma had as good as forgotten about it. Maruf grumbled about it offhandedly, and mentioned he wasn’t really surprised, given Salma’s lack of experience, and for a time the matter was at rest. When the phone call came, Salma wasn’t there to answer it because she was downstairs on the first floor haggling with the chicken seller. Shama had taken the call, and shouted for her mother down the stairwell.

A crisp, young female voice verified Salma’s identity in English.

“Yes, I am Salma Karim.”

“Are you able to come for an interview next Tuesday? Ten o’ clock, sharp?” She added the “sharp” as if she knew Salma to be compulsively tardy.

“Depending, of course, on things being peaceful in the city,” she added.

“Yes.”

“Good. My name is Anika. Just ask for me at the reception. And if anything should change between now and then, we have each other’s information.”

Salma set down the receiver. Her heart was pounding, and she felt stricken with worry.

“That woman was rude,” said Shama. “Are you going to work for her?”

Salma cupped Shama’s chin. “I don’t know. Maybe. Adil? Come out here.”

With the two children, Shama went downstairs and knocked on Mrs. Mahbub’s door.

“Who is it?” Mrs. Mahbub’s voice floated from the back of the flat.

“Mrs. Mahbub, it’s Salma, from upstairs.”

There was silence, followed by approaching footfalls. Adil recoiled behind his mother, and Shama stood at Salma’s side. The door opened. Mrs. Mahbub popped her head out. Her hair was gleaming with oil, and pulled tightly back, giving her an expression of perpetual shock. Pockmarks covered her cheeks. Over the thin line of her mouth was a fuzz of hair. She smelled of sandalwood and laundry soap.

“Yes, yes, how are you?” said Mrs. Mahbub. “It’s been ages since I saw your face last. Come in, come in.”

“Yes, I know. Busy times, Mrs. Mahbub. And how are you?”

“You know how it is,” Mrs. Mahbub said, opening the door wider, releasing a drift of cooking smells.

Mr. Mahbub had left two years earlier for the daughter of an associate from work to whom he was now married. His conciliatory gestures were to buy his son an iMac with a 27-inch monitor, and a printer and scanner unit, and transfer ownership of the flat to his ex-wife—whom he never legally divorced—while he kept making the payments on it. Mrs. Mahbub did not file for divorce, and believed that Dipu’s father would eventually return.

“Mrs. Mahbub, I wanted to ask you something, is this a good time?” said Salma.

“Oh, yes, yes. Come inside first. Hello children. Shama, you are going to be taller than your mother next time I see you. Dipu? Turn off that computer and come say hello to Salma auntie and the children. All day he is glued to that thing.”

The dreary living room, the entire flat, was depressing. The shut windows, drawn curtains, and the complete lack of natural light gave the place a crypt-like chill. It was cold, too, almost frigid, as though the air conditioning had been running round the clock full blast. Most of the furniture was in need of maintenance, if not replacement. The sofa that Mrs. Mahbub gestured for them to take had holes, small ones, but large enough for puffs of bright white cotton to peek out. On a table next to the sofa was a framed picture of Dipu in his school uniform, holding up a certificate, the corners of his mouth drooped, his eyes half closed. Mrs. Mahbub flipped a switch, and the sudden glare of the uncovered light bulb overhead laid bare brilliantly the room’s drab gloom.

Dipu, still in his school uniform, ambled into the room. He was pink-cheeked and fat. The hair on his head was like fine porcupine quills. His knees knocked, and he dragged his feet when he walked. Like his mother he wore thick glasses, behind which his eyes were two tiny dots. Without regarding the guests, he went by his mother’s side, and stood looking at the ground.

“What do you say, Dipu?” said Mrs. Mahbub.

“Sla-malikum, Auntie” Dipu croaked.

“How are you, Dipu? How is school?” Salma asked.

Dipu didn’t answer. Mrs. Mahbub offered to make tea, but Salma asked her not to go to the trouble.

“Do you children want Coke?” Mrs. Mahbub asked.

“Coke, yes!” Adil shouted.

“No. And be quiet.” Salma clasped and tightened her arm around him. Shama said she didn’t want anything.

“I might be getting a job, Mrs. Mahbub,” said Salma.

“Things are bad at the bank with your husband?” Mrs. Mahbub asked.

“A little extra income would be good, yes,” said Salma.

“When times get bad, they get bad.”

“I know you know, Mrs. Mahbub.” Salma felt awkward after making the comment.

“Do I know,” Mrs. Mahbub sighed. She swept a hand through Dipu’s hair, which he dodged. “Every day I know.” Dipu gave his mother a sideward frown, which she did not see.

“I only have the interview,” said Salma. “God willing, if I get the position, will it be all right if the children stopped by here after school?”

“Yes, yes, of course, you don’t need to ask even.”

“Thank you. Dipu? Is it okay with you?” Salma asked.

“Dipu? What do you say?” Mrs. Mahbub touched her son’s plump cheek. Dipu flinched and pulled away. “It will be nice for him. All the time he’s home he’s on that thing,” she waved in the direction of Dipu’s room, indicating the computer.

“Also, if I get this job, I will need to know about computers. Dipu, would you like to be my teacher?” said Salma.

Dipu smiled. Two dimples poked into his cheeks. “Okay.”

After a short silence, Salma thanked Mrs. Mahbub, and promised to keep her updated. Mrs. Mahbub offered tea and refreshments again, but Salma had pushed to her feet without realizing, which made her feel a little embarrassed and opportunistic. She promised to stay for some next time.

Mrs. Mahbub saw them out and locked the door, and then they heard her call Dipu’s name and her voice fading toward the back of the flat.

“That place makes me feel strange. It’s such a sad home. No home should be sad like that,” said Shama, bounding up the steps two at a time. Adil sprinted up behind her, slipped, knocked his knee on a step, and howled. Salma picked him up by an arm, and he dug his face into her shoulder. She couldn’t help agreeing with her daughter.

 

After Salma told him about the interview, Maruf became thoughtful, and sat at the edge of the bed staring at a point in front of him for several minutes before saying, “Well, it’s just an interview, probably one of several. Times are different. These days, firms like this especially, go through many rounds before making selections.”

“I thought you would be pleased,” said Salma.

Maruf craned his neck around like he was doing an after-workout stretch. “Pleased? About what? They probably have a hundred interviews lined up for just that one position.”

“Even for jobs that are no better than office boys?” said Salma.

Maruf made to reply but stopped.

“Tuesday, huh?” he said. “And that crazy woman downstairs, you want the children to stay with her?”

“She is not crazy, Maruf. Don’t say that.”

“Why else would her husband run off? And that poor boy, with nowhere to go but stuck with her day and night.”

“Shama and Adil will not stay with her. They will only let her know when they come home. Just so someone knows. Cook will be busier with me gone.”

“Hmm, well,” Maruf, done taking off his shoes and tucking his socks into them, took them to the clothes rack and dropped them next to the others. His shirt was damp with sweat. He peeled it off and hung it on the rack. In his undershirt he looked small and defeated, like he had just been badly beaten and humiliated by an opponent, lost everything, and was hanging up his armor for good. “I’m glad they found the documents acceptable,” he grumbled.

He didn’t want dinner. Salma and the children ate in silence. Afterward Salma spoke to the cook for a few minutes, telling him that there was a chance she was going to be gone during the day starting soon.

In the bedroom she found Maruf staring at himself in the mirror attached to the adjoining bathroom door. Seeing her, he quickly grabbed his shirt, and threw it over his head.

“Are you worried about your figure?” Salma chided. “Is that why you didn’t want to eat?”

“No,” Maruf said, curtly, and picked up the folded newspaper on the ground next to the bed. “It’s good to be a little conscious,” he said, after shuffling through the paper for a few minutes. “These young Americans that have been coming to the bank, you should see them. Their bodies and their health, and the women look stronger than the men. No wonder they, that whole country, is devouring the world in every way. Who can go against them when they’re that well-fed and well-built?”

Salma got into bed, and Maruf kept reading, or rather snapping from page to page, until she couldn’t help being irritated by it.

“There is every chance that they won’t like me,” she said, without turning to face him. “Is that what you want?”

She heard him fold the paper meticulously and toss it on the floor.

“What nonsense are you talking?” he said. He slid down under the covers, gave them a pull to release them out of the mattress at the foot of the bed and drew them up to his ears. Salma raised her head just as he was turning over.

“They sound like a place that I will not be qualified for,” she said. “Even for a job no more than an office boy’s. There are other places I can look.”

“It’s too late now. You have an appointment, and they’re expecting you. My name is on the line. Last thing I need on top of everything else is my wife making me look like a fool.”        “Then you should have thought of that before.” Salma looked at the bald patch at the top of his head, the hair around it sprouting like grass on the edges of a poorly maintained lawn. He moaned as he slipped away, gave a short grunt, and began snoring.

 

The morning of the interviewwas warm, with a brisk wind rising and falling every few seconds, carrying hints of the rain to come in less than a month. The sky was a dull slate gray. Maruf flagged two scooters, one for him and the children and one for Salma, and Adil wanted to go with his mother. Maruf ordered Shama to hold on to her brother, and wait in the other one. He then peeked his head into Salma’s scooter.

“Keep this,” he brought out a hundred-taka note. “Do you want me to go with you?”
“No. Just get the children to school.”

“Listen. It is what it is. Don’t try to show yourself off as something you’re not.” He waited, and then said, “Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Here, keep my mobile, too. Just in case.” Before she could respond Maruf placed the phone on her lap. He gave her another fifty-taka note, and scolded the scooter driver with the directions to where she was going as a measure against the driver charging a higher fare by taking a longer route.

Mrs. Mahbub and Dipu came out of the building. Mrs. Mahbub was talking at her son, and seeing her upstairs neighbors pulling away in the scooters, waved enthusiastically. Dipu was hustling toward a rickshaw he was flagging down at the same time.

On Shama’s lap, Adil was sniffling against his will. Maruf squeezed in next to them and addressed their driver in the same harsh tone as the other. Shama caught a glimpse of Dipu as the scooter engine revved under her seat, miserable and numb to his mother, scrambling onto the rickshaw as soon as it pulled up, while Mrs. Mahbub talked on.

The office was on Motijheel Road. Despite the driver’s age and innocuous appearance, Salma was skeptical that he would follow Maruf’s instructions, but it became evident soon that per Maruf’s orders he had taken Maulana Bhashani Road to get to the Motijheel area via Shahbag. The driver’s trepidation, however, became evident as soon as they entered the Shahbag area. He slowed the scooter, pulled to the side of the road, and turned to Salma.

“Madam, I cannot go anymore, the way your husband told,” the driver said. He was in his seventies. His eyes were watery and looked blinded with cataracts. The cloth cap on his head was tilted to one side like someone had smacked it out of place. The grimace on his face gave Salma the fear that the he had suddenly become ill.

“Why not?” she asked.

The driver pointed ahead. Salma leaned to one side to look past him through the windshield. She could see nothing more than the usual, clots of people, buses, rickshaws, scooters, more people. Thinking she was missing something Salma kept looking, and the scooter driver, like a tutor that was waiting for the pupil to catch on to the obvious, sat fidgeting. After another couple of minutes, Salma heard the chanting, but couldn’t understand it. It was concerted, unified, loud, and within moments the natural assembly of people and vehicles on the busy intersection grew into a dark wall of bodies. The scooter driver finally turned to Salma. When he opened his mouth to speak Salma saw his teeth were destroyed by pan and betel nut.

“Madam, please, there is no way to keep going,” he said. “Forgive me. I won’t take your money, but I cannot risk it. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t. I will take you back to your home.”

“Is there another way to go?” Salma asked.

The driver’s anguish deepened. He lowered his head, and brought it up again.

“I cannot, Madam. Forgive me.”

Salma wondered why Maruf had failed to mention a possible demonstration. If anything, it would be the first thing he would highlight, above all else, above even the interview, before going on to lambaste the government and work himself into a sweat before huffing off petulantly as if it were all Salma’s fault.

The sound of his complaints droned in her head. A stone grew in her stomach, heavy, oppressive, like it did not want her to stand on her feet again, would not allow it. Salma sat quietly with her eyes closed. The chanting from the demonstration grew louder. When she opened her eyes she noticed flags, their green as rich as rain fed grass, and the ball in the heart of the green the red of arterial blood. They were flying on bamboo poles, large and small, waving and fluttering.

“Madam, I beg you, let us turn around.”

“No, I will get out here.” Salma handed the driver the fifty-taka note, and climbed out. The scooter made an immediate turnaround, its engine whirring painfully to the angst of its driver, and buzzed away like a fading swarm of bees.

Salma draped the strap of her handbag diagonally across her body from opposing shoulder to waist, and headed toward the demonstration. Soon she was trotting, as if rushing to catch a departing bus, her heart hammering in her chest. Her lungs started to burn, but within minutes her head felt light and detached from the rest of her body. She couldn’t tell if the mass of bodies was moving toward her or away, and she didn’t care. She suddenly found herself propelled toward the crowd, for what reason she didn’t know, but for the fact that even if she tried to stop and turn she would be unable. Whether the demonstration had advanced or Salma had gotten closer, she was near enough to see individual faces now. Faces painted in the colors of the flag. Faces pulled and stretched with fervor that Salma envied. Young faces, down to boys and girls no older than Shama and Adil, with banners raised, flags aloft, and chanting. The banners called for the punishment of war criminals.

The war crimes tribunals had been going on for a few years at the Bangladesh High Court right here in Dhaka. Controversy over them had recently reached a critical mass with supporters of the trials calling for the hanging of collaborators that had sided with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War, and with opposing Jamaat-i-Islami hardliners calling the trials a blasphemous, anti-Islamic witch hunt.

When she was within ten or twenty feet of the demonstration Salma eased her pace and moved along the side of the road. The crush of bodies looked like it wouldn’t afford a single inch for her to pass through. She also saw that the demonstration was not moving forward, or moving at all, and that it was rigid and solid as a wall. They were shouting for justice, calling for death. Happily, jovially, they were demanding heads in nooses. Salma saw the name of the man currently on trial scrawled in Bangla across a banner that was bobbing up and down in the center of the crowd, his face next to his name circled within a noose. She saw a small opening between a few bodies, and plunged forward. Her shoulder bumped with a young woman’s on one side, and grazed the bare arm of a middle-aged man on the other. She caught a glimpse of an old couple holding the black and white portrait of a young man. Must be their son, murdered by the Pakistan Army. A girl, three or four, sat on the shoulder of a man clutching a flag on a stick.

A terrific din arose from the very heart of the procession. The young woman Salma had bumped into turned and gave her a big smile, and shouted a word of solidarity, getting Salma into the spirit of the demonstration. Salma’s heart thumped wildly, but she felt calm, unthreatened in the midst of the crowd.

Riot police trickled out from places Salma couldn’t see. Helmets, batons, shields, vests, guns. Their boots crunched, and, like the demonstrators, they moved by their own unified rhythm. The demonstrators didn’t oppose the presence of the police, and neither was the police making threatening gestures at the crowd. Salma had her handbag clutched against her with one hand. She reached inside with her other hand and felt Maruf’s mobile phone.

A great surge swept through the crowd, pushing it forward. Salma felt it against her back, and she went forward with it. Within seconds the demonstration moved ten feet, almost in a rush. The police seemed unperturbed, even calm. Salma felt the hand of the young woman beside her take hers and thrust it upward, like Salma had just won a boxing match. The woman shrieked so loudly that her words became incoherent, her voice a shredded and piercing clot of phlegm and grit in her throat. A huge response rang out of the crowd. Salma gripped the young woman’s hand and filled her lungs with air to shout.


About the Author: Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up in Chicago. He is currently a PhD. student at the University of Louisville. His fiction has appeared in The Copperfield Review, Eastlit, China Grove, 94 Creations, and is forthcoming in The Milo Review and the Roanoke Review.

Artwork: Monirul Alam