Review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

 

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Chemistry
by Weike Wang
Published 2017 by Knopf
$24.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731748

By Noah Sanders

At face value, Weike Wang’s Chemistry could be very well one of “those books”—the quirky, style-over-substance variety that reads well, but evaporates like an errant sugar high moments after consumption. In the early goings, Wang’s narrator—a failed Chemistry PhD on the edge, and in the midst, of a mental breakdown—reads like the epitome of urban cuteness. A first-generation Chinese-immigrant, she approaches her world—Boston—and her small group of friends, with a worldview that’s almost perfectly off-center. Her pithy explanations of basic scientific theories become her primary way of understanding her interactions with her co-workers, students and friends. In the opening portions of the book, Chemistry rests neatly on the line between engaging beach-read and idiosyncratic character study. Wang’s clipped sentences are both engaging and often times amusing, drawing the reader in to what could be vacuous fun, but when she’s got you hooked, she springs the trap. Though framed in an enjoyable and easily digestible style, Chemistry is not only a fascinating character study, but also a deep dive into the legacies our families leave us and what it takes to come to grips with them.

As Chemistry starts, Wang’s nameless narrator’s life is, in her view, spinning out of control. She’s realized that the science experiment that will make or break her PhD candidacy is never going to come to fruition and her scientist boyfriend, Eric, has left her, and their dog, when she’s unable to commit to a married life together. Without the columns of science and Eric to support her, Wang’s narrator is forced to analyze her own existence—past, present and future. Wang bounces between the different time periods with ease, incorporating the narrator’s memories of her time with Eric along with her time in the lab and her childhood with two aloof and verbally abusive parents seamlessly. The book never breaks from its eccentric styles and the plot is never dragged down by weighty exposition. As the book gets closer and closer to the end, and as the narrator starts to pull apart her own life with the help of cuckolded best friend and a therapist, the reader is drawn closer and closer to the truth in ever-tightening spirals.

The reader experiences the small, but heart-breaking revelations about the narrator’s family and the long reach of her upbringing in what feels like real time. Like atoms ricocheting off into the great unknown, each small, peculiar moment—an interaction with a student, a walk with her dog, a bike ride in the frigid Boston winter—sends the narrator down into a previously unexplored universe of self, which in turn pulls her down into another, on and on, until the layers of discovery cross time and space.

This is a book at its big beating heart about family, and the way we are defined by our mundane histories, and the narrator’s act of exploration into her own past becomes centered on her mom and dad and their relationship with her and each other. When we first encounter her father and mother, they are typical pushy immigrant parents—her father a self-educated tyrant, her mother a dramatic primadonna prone to throwing things—but Wang dips back into their back stories as well, slowly stitching their past with the narrator’s past before showcasing the marks they intentionally and unintentionally left upon their daughter. The descriptions of the narrator’s interaction with her family are some of the most keenly observed in a book full of amazing observation, but Wang, a talent everyone should keep an eye on, through the eyes of her narrator, lets us see the arc of time, how one event or action or way of thinking continues on down the line, shaping the people we become.

What’s most impressive about Chemistry though is how it’s always an enjoyable, buoyant read. As dark as this book gets, Wang never the flighty and over-analytical way her narrator thinks and speaks. You can flip to any page in Chemistry and find not only a quotable line, but one that begs to be dissected further, all of them imbued with an off-kilter, often times hilarious, wisdom. “There is no such thing as a perfectly still molecule,” the narrator says, “Even in solids, the molecules keep moving.” Or, “I find it interesting how often beauty is shown to make objects around it feel worse.” The quickness of thought on display is marvelous, and it grabs the reader upfront and pulls them, with haste, into the life of this bizarre, fascinating, in the end, wonderful character.

Wang’s debut novel is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is the rare combination of original style and original thought that doesn’t get bogged down in either. The author is able to evade the pitfalls of quirkiness, instead using it to her advantage in crafting a character that exists on her own plane of uniqueness. If Wang stopped there, this would be still be a book to devour, but she doesn’t. The oddball stylings of her narrator become the fuel to power a book, and a character, that reflects soulfully on the triumphs and travesties of our childhoods. And in doing so, Wang has written one of the best books of the year so far.

Review: Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim

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Dear Cyborgs
by Eugene Lim
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$14.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374537111

By Noah Sanders

If you’ve ever spent a single moment in a writing class, you’ll have probably heard the one platitude that seems to stretch throughout all: “Show, don’t tell.” It is, of course, the idea that in writing, you should trust your reader’s intelligence enough to just dump the guts of your book—its theme, its character development, its narrative arc—directly on to the page. Instead, authors, to varying degrees of success, bury their ledes in symbolism and plot and the interactions of their characters through dialogue in the hope that their readers will be experienced enough to find, or decipher, meaning within.

Dear Cyborgs, the experimental work of science fiction by Eugene Lim, holds to this maxim with a death-like grip. Lim’s short, sometimes satisfying, novel is a nesting doll of vignettes, both broadly science-fiction and emotionally intimate. There are definite themes to which Lim is addressing—art, revolution, the concept of invisibility—and in various forms they make themselves known, but the author’s means of delivering these themes is so abstract, reading Dear Cyborgs becomes a chore of literary detection. We, as readers, are tasked at so many times—with so many characters and plot points—to, well, figure out just who’s who and what’s what, that the themes Lim has artfully buried become overly difficult to identify.

To describe the plot of Dear Cyborgs—a scant 163 pages—isn’t an easy task. There are four main narrative lines as the book begins: two childhood friends lose contact, a group of four friends meet nightly to discuss the philosophical bends of their lives, a super spy meets the same villainous woman over and over again, and this same villainous woman abandons her family to try and find meaning in her own life. Dissecting the philosophical meanderings of any of the four main plot-lines (not to say the smaller, stories-within-stories that comprise each of them) is a task within itself. His quartet of artists-cum-philosophers are the most blatant in their philosophical noodling—their conversations act as reflections and prompt for the ideas in the more opaque sections—but even within them, Lim seems reticent to just lay out what he’s trying to say. One character, speaking of another character’s decision to use fast food chains as her place of meditation, speaks to the shortcomings of doing just that, nicely summing up a bigger idea in the book: that just existing within the corrupt means of society might not actually be that bad. “Maybe Muriel,” he says, “should use [these shortcomings] to proceed with her own desires—at least those desires that she can somehow maintain as her desires, as somehow independent and free and not deformed by these humiliations and degradations.” The response from the listeners is an awkward silence, as if the author himself, suddenly aware of laying his own cards out on the table, can’t fathom the possibility.

It becomes frustrating, because Lim has written a book rife with interesting ideas. Each of his plot-lines run, somewhat, parallel to each other, all of them asking a similar question: what do we sacrifice for our art, for our own form of revolution? And Lim, in his own cryptic way, answers these questions, but the work to dig out these answers, dust them off and put them on the shelf, is too much. It’s a book that demands a second read—even a reading guide, if one was available—but finding your way down its labyrinthine path once, may be enough.

The final chapter of the book is the decoder ring for everything that’s come before. It’s Lim’s attempt to throw back the curtain, and show just how the magic trick was pulled off. And yes, it does clarify, somewhat, that there was method to Lim’s madness, but it doesn’t make the process of getting to that point any more enjoyable. And perhaps, this is exactly what Lim hoped, that by challenging his readers up to the very end, that his ideas would transcend his plot. That in writing a book about art and revolution and their limitations, he would have to create his own work of art with its own limitations. Perhaps an ‘enjoyable read’ isn’t what Lim was reaching for, instead, maybe, he wanted to craft something that somehow, as it exists on the periphery of genre, felt familiar enough for readers to want to decode, even if failure was the inevitable outcome. Regardless of what he intended, the book loses itself in its vagueness, the occasional burst of understanding a life-preserver to cling to as the reader hurtles forward. Sometimes, just sometimes, a little bit of telling, just makes the show a little more bearable.

At the Old Babar by Jan Steckel

brb by Kat Bing (www.katbing.com)



At the Old Babar

The poet cements her dentures in
before she approaches the open mic
for a semantically anarchic address
to hipsters in their thrift-store best.
Her cream-colored cable-knit cap
looks like her exposed brain.
Sea cucumbers taste like bitter tires,
she informs the members of the bar.
Many are cold, but few are frozen.
Chickens don’t have tits,
so it’s kosher to fry them
in their own eggs.
When the sun goes down,
giraffes begin their low humming,
the only sound they ever make.
Tuvan deep throat singers intimate
it’s time to drape that canary.
A blind woman wearing a fascinator
sits in the front row of the reading,
blocking the poet from view.
A former virgin, she chews
blackberry-hyacinth Gummy Pandas,
her ankles an archipelago of insect bites.
Trapped deep in Greenland’s ice,
88 yellow rubber ducks wait for the thaw
to form their synagogue under the sea.


 

About the Author: Jan Steckel is a former pediatrician who left the practice of medicine because of chronic pain. Her poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards for LGBT writing. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, Bellevue Literary Review, BiMagazine, Red Rock Review and elsewhere.

Artwork: Kat Bing

The Last Gabbeh by Mira Martin-Parker

artifact1_Ryan Buell


Okay, so I was driving a little fast. I had a new Porsche. I had just gotten a divorce. So I was speeding a little. So what?

I happened to be in Bakersfield visiting a client—an old farmer with over a hundred acres of prime agricultural land who had recently managed to get himself into legal dispute with one of his neighbors. It seemed the boundary between one man’s cotton fields and the other man’s orange groves had been called into question, and rather than settle the matter with a deer rifle, old Mr. Paulsen wisely decided to give me a call. I had known him for years, so I felt obligated to pay a personal visit.

However, I did not feel obligated to like the place. The people in the Valley are big as refrigerators and the towns, if you can call them that, are made up entirely of strip malls, fast food chains, and auto dealerships. It’s also hotter than shit in the summertime. So that afternoon, after a pleasant lunch with Mr. Paulsen, I decided to drive out on one of the old farm roads and rev my engine a bit, just for fun. Take the edge off. Get some steam out of my system. I was feeling edgy, not having had a decent cup of coffee since I left Berkeley. I was also slightly miffed at myself for promising to see the old man again the following day, hence, forcing myself spend the night in a stucco motel next to the freeway.

I had just flown past a lovely old almond orchard when up in the distance I saw a faded Persian kilim draped over a wooden fence. Next to it was a hand painted sign reading “Antiques.” I slowed down, and just past the sign, slowed down and pulled into a gravel drive.

Soon I found myself parked in front of a modest 1920s stucco cottage. A large shade tree stood next to the garage dropping hard berries on the numerous pieces of rusted turn-of-the century farm equipment scattered about beneath it. I was about to enter the small fenced in yard surrounding the house when an English mastiff sprang out of nowhere and started barking like crazy. Before I had time to dart back to my car, the screen door swung open and out popped a skinny bearded man wearing Bermuda shorts and a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt.

“Shut the fuck up, will you!” he yelled, grabbing the dog by its collar and quickly leading it to a gated area on the side of the house. “Sorry about that,” he said, returning a few seconds later. “I usually keep him chained so he doesn’t eat somebody. Excellent guard dog, that one, but I have to keep an eye on him. Mark Anderson,” he said, extending his hand.

“Saw the kilim on the fence and thought I’d stop in and have a look around,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Oh, that old thing—picked it up in a village in Iran years ago. It’s a real beauty, with nice age. Four hundred—cash—and it’s yours. Come on inside, I was just making coffee.”

Oh God, coffee. What I wouldn’t do for a decent cup of coffee, I thought.

 

***

I should probably stop here and briefly mention a thing or two about my fondness for Middle Eastern carpets. My wife got practically everything in the settlement—the cars, the house, the furniture—but I got the rug collection. I insisted on it. And if I didn’t get the rugs in court, I would have packed them up in the middle of the night and ditched the country. I have over fifty hand woven tribal pieces—most of them from Southern Iran—and each one is precious to me. I don’t consider myself a terribly materialistic person (the car is a recent aberration, a mere concession to middle age), but I love rugs. I love hand woven nomadic textiles like most men love women. I love them bad. Real bad.

***

Mr. Anderson’s house was completely cluttered with early Americana—old oak tables and chairs, turn-of-the-century glassware, vintage eggbeaters and other miscellaneous antique kitchenware. While he finished preparing the coffee (it smelled fucking divine) I looked around a bit, peeking inside cabinet drawers and examining the bottoms of old glass jars, pretending to be interested. In truth, though, I really don’t care for early American antiques. They remind me too much of my wife, and she was the last thing I wanted to be reminded of. Not that she’s a bad person, or anything. She’s not. She has her good qualities. I just didn’t want to be reminded of right then, of what she did—that whole mess with the dentist—no, I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to forget it. I needed time to process everything. To take it all in. I needed to heal.

Okay, so before I go any further, I may as well get this off my chest as well. I married too young. No sooner had I finished law school, then I up and tied the knot. I was practically a virgin. I never screwed around in college. I never had a one-night-stand with a legal aide during any of my internships. I never went to a party, smoked pot, and jumped into a hot tub naked. I never did any of that. And I should have. I really needed to.

Instead I married the first girl I ever asked out on a real date. And we had only been seeing each other for three months when I bought her a two-carat square cut in a platinum setting from Shreve & Co. and popped the question. The following summer we went the whole nine yards—a beautiful church wedding and all that crap.

We got along okay at first. Two years later came the baby. She was a good mom. Had some German blood on her mother’s side. Kept a nice house. Ran it like a goddamn railroad—up in the morning at six, a sack lunch for the office, dinner at five—sharp, sex once week, and so on. We prospered. Eventually I opened my own firm. But, oh God, there were times when I wanted to just toss everything in the fucking can and run off with one of the pretty young things I hired to answer the office phone.

But my wife did bake excellent pies and her roast chicken wasn’t bad either, so I remained faithful. I stuck it out and never messed up. Not even once. Then six months ago, less than a week after our daughter left for college, I come home from the office to find her standing at the door with her bags packed. She said she was leaving—running off with the fucking dentist, of all people—the motherfucking dentist! (And all this time I thought he way gay!)

So that was that for that. Twenty years and bye bye, adios, ta ta, and I never even got to fuck around with my god damned receptionist.

***

“Please, have seat,” Mr. Anderson said, motioning me towards a small dining area connected to the kitchen. “The coffee will be up in just a few minutes.” He was standing at the counter pouring boiling water into a French press. The freshly ground coffee reminded me of home, and I suddenly felt as if I’d known Mr. Anderson for years.

As I sat waiting, I glanced around at my surroundings. Other than an overwhelming amount of early American furniture, there seemed to be no consistent theme to the contents of Mr. Anderson’s house. Resting on the floor, not far from where I sat, a large engraved brass Turkish tray leaned against a wall, and above the door to the living area was a California license plate that read “YA ALLAH.” In the back of the kitchen there was a wooden-topped pastry table with a heavy iron base. Above that hung numerous antique copper pots, along with a collection of turn of the century cherry pitters, apple peelers, and eggbeaters. Adding to the jumbled nature of the décor were several brightly colored plastic toys—a Japanese robot, a Gumby doll, a rubber Dumbo elephant, all lined up along on the kitchen windowsill. And hanging on the wall directly across from me was a brightly colored Huichol string painting.

“I’ll take that kilim on the fence,” I said. “And I’d love to look at any other pieces you have. I’m sort of into rugs.”

“Well, unfortunately you’re about twenty-five years too late,” he said. “I used to own hundreds—had a shop on Solano Avenue in Berkeley back in the day. Oh God, those were the days! I traveled the globe buying merchandise for that shop. Remember those round-the-world-tickets you could get back then? I’d be gone for three months at a time. My wife hated me for it.“

I could tell Mr. Anderson was one of those people who enjoyed listening to himself talk. Even when he occasionally paused and asked a question, my answers always ended up leading the conversation back to him. Which was perfectly fine with me. Listening to his adventures in North Africa and the Middle East was the perfect distraction. We sat chatting for two hours or more, until finally, I asked him once again if he had any other carpets.

“Well, let me think. Humm…I do have one last Gabbeh. Now where did I put it? Let me go and see if I can find it for you.”

While he was away, I sat staring blankly out the front window. There wasn’t much to look at, just an occasional big rig passing on the highway, and every now and then an old beat up Toyota, probably driven by a meth-head. I was lost in thought, when a 1970s Buick, with darkened windows and chrome rims slowly began making its way down the gravel drive. The car parked next to mine, and a few seconds later the driver’s side door flung open and a young girl emerged. The dog didn’t bark, even when she entered the gate, and she opened the screen door without knocking.

I could tell right away she wasn’t a local. First of all, she was thin and her hair wasn’t frosted. She also had a tattoo on her forearm—an East Indian symbol of some kind—and numerous large silver hoops in each of her ears.

“Anyone home?” she called. “Dad, you here?”

Mr. Anderson returned just in time to save me.  

“Hi honey, what a surprise! Come in, I was just showing this nice gentleman my Gabbeh.”

She gave me a quick glance, but I felt as if she didn’t quite see me. I could tell she was thinking hard, and this thinking was interfering with her vision.

“But you promised me you weren’t going to sell that rug. You said it was your last, and you weren’t going to sell it.”

“Easy there, girl. I’m just letting this nice man have a look. Relax, will you.”

She tossed her purse on the table and sat across from me.

“So where do you live?” I asked, attempting to extend an olive branch.

She said nothing, and sat admiring her hands. She had long delicate fingers adorned with silver rings—all Indian, of course, no doubt purchased from a street vendor on Telegraph. But they looked nice on her. Anything would have looked nice on her. Or nothing at all. Yes, nothing at all would have looked especially nice on her.

“She lives in Oakland,” Mr. Anderson said. “And usually she’s polite, aren’t you sweetie?”

Mr. Anderson bent down and unfolded the carpet on the floor in front of me. It was clear from the way it moved that it was soft as a blanket. The border was simple in design, the dominant colors mostly red and tan, with a little white here and there. It had an emerald green field with exceptionally nice abrash, speckled with small, awkwardly woven stars and flowers. A magnificent diamond was woven in the center.

I got up from the table and bent to examine the rug.

I walked around its perimeter and flipped over a corner to inspect the knots. I checked teach of the ends for wear. As I did all this, he girl sat scowling, not even bothering to look in my direction. Then something cruel took possession of me.

“It’s a beautiful rug,” I said to her. “I can see why you’re so fond of it.”

She continued ignoring me.

“Name your price,” I said to Mr. Anderson.

If her dad weren’t there she probably would have gone at me with those lovely little claws of hers. (Oh, how I would have enjoyed that!). Instead she just sat there glaring at me like a wild animal.

“You really are an asshole, aren’t you?” she said, getting up from her chair.

“If you’re going to be nasty, go take a drive and cool off,” Mr. Anderson said.

She obediently followed his order and grabbed her purse.

“Nice meeting you, ” I said as the screen door slammed behind her. Once she was safely out of her father’s sight, she flipped me off.

I smiled and waved back.

“What a lovely daughter,” I said to Mr. Anderson. “An absolute doll.”

“She has her own mind. I’ve never had any luck trying to control her. Smokes way too much dope. Does massages for a living, can you believe it? I try to keep an eye on her, but it’s no use. She’s too much the Taurus.

“Will you sell me the rug?” I asked.

“Does a bear shit in the woods?”

“How much?” I asked.

“Six grand, cash.”

“Deal.”

Mr. Anderson and I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening together drinking wine, as I sat and listened to his stories. And there was a lot to listen to—from what I could tell, he had had at least five wives of various ethnicities, had begotten an entire tribe of children, each with a different mother, and had had five extremely acrimonious divorces (we lingered on this subject for quite a while). He also told me his tales of Berkeley back in 60s, of his extensive hallucinogenic drug use and corresponding mystical experiences, as well as his interest in the occult sciences—Mr. Anderson had certainly led an exceptional life.

At around nine o’clock, Mr. Anderson apologized and said he was too tired to stay up any longer. I was welcome to sleep in his spare room, if I wished.

I thanked him, since I was in no condition to drive, and agreed to stay. He yawned and wandered off to bed, and I went out to my car to fetch my overnight case. Thank god Mr. Anderson’s dog was still locked up on the side of the house. It barked a couple of times, but clearly lacked any interest in pursuing the matter. As I reached behind my seat to grab my bag, I heard a car slow down on the road and turn into the drive. I quickly went back inside, grabbed the Gabbeh, and headed for the spare room.

Not more than five minutes passed before there was a gentle tapping at my door.

                  ***

When I made my appearance the following morning Mr. Anderson was standing at the kitchen counter pouring hot water over freshly ground coffee beans.

“I hope that stupid rooster didn’t wake you,” he said when he saw me.

“Not at all, I’m an early riser.”

“Looks my girl ran off with your rug last night.”

“Actually, I locked it in the trunk of my car before going to bed,” I said.

Mr. Anderson made us a breakfast of fried eggs and toast, and after eating we drove into downtown Bakersfield together and went to a Wells Fargo bank. I pulled out six thousand in cash, and when I dropped him at his place and handed him the money, he told me he hoped I enjoyed the rug. I assured him I would and said goodbye.

You have no idea just how much I enjoyed it, I thought as I backed out of the drive. It was worth every last dime.

 


About the Author: Mira Martin-Parker earned an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in various publications, including the Istanbul Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Mythium, and Zyzzyva. Her collection of short stories, The Carpet Merchant’s Daughter, won the 2013 Five [Quarterly] e-chapbook competition.

Artwork: Ryan Buell

 

We’re not in Five-one Land Now by Wendy Breuer

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A room filled with grey emeritus professors, husbands led by the hand to their seats by wives in sensible shoes. They are the wilting flowers of cultural appreciativeness in this university town. The musicians take their seats, women in long black skirts, and the men tuxedoed.  A few minutes of discordant practice and then the disciplined tuning of heirloom instruments. The conductor enters with his usual avuncular bounce, bows, and raises his baton. Mozart. A violin concerto, The Turkish. The pace is nimble, just shy of frenetic. Communication between the soloist and the conductor is impeccable, and the first movement comes to an end with the classical resolution of dominant to the tonic, the five to the one. In a less culturally trained audience, this finality always brings applause and the embarrassed disapproval of the cognoscenti. I hold back my applause, but I admit it takes restraint. I wonder every time if this polite self-discipline is what Mozart expected. It always feels like a Puritan church service. Tonight, we are a good audience and keep our impulses under control.

This evening the protocols of concert etiquette irritate me. Trump decreed his ban on Muslims from seven countries only yesterday, and this afternoon I found myself at a spontaneous demonstration at San Francisco airport, yelling slogans again. Yet my husband and I got home in time for our subscription concert.

This audience of elders has most likely done their share of yelling slogans and carrying placards. Some of them survived McCarthy, loyalty oaths, and the Reagan years. Some of them, no doubt, risked their lives during Mississippi Summer or were hauled out of the administration building by police during the Free Speech Movement. They are frail. Getting to their assigned seats is a stressful effort.

The soloist injects sensitivity and humor into her playing. She has a joyful affect. I know that with music you must give yourself over to a mental state that is more than just mindful or meditative. In practice or performance, you must be present in every muscle and nerve ending. If you split your concentration, you will lose the ineffable. I have had a split-screen feeling ever since the election. I need to compartmentalize and focus on the music, but I am overwhelmed.

These days, middle class everyday life is encased in the complexity of danger: an aunt goes into a nursing home, a friend has a knee replacement, a daughter plans a wedding, we calendar a trip abroad, negotiate conflicts with siblings, buy new shoes. The supermarket stays open and the shelves are stocked with products. The homeless man who is always outside the drugstore needs to plaster himself under an awning to stay out of the winter rain. Everyday life doesn’t change, but the splitting penetrates all its strata.

History feels like an extra sense. “What would I do?” “What would I have done?” “What should I do, now?” Ideological platitudes don’t reassure though it would be comforting to have those explanations now. My arthritic knee longs to jerk in that direction.

The graceful audience for Mozart slowly dies out. I had a piano teacher who used to say, “When you play Mozart, remember, you’re in Five-one Land.” But scapegoats have been chosen. The survival of the earth is threatened by greed and subterfuge. Mozartian resolution clashes with atonal vigilance.  We’re not in Five-one Land now.

 


About the Author: Wendy Breuer lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and cats. She’s been a waitress, office temp, visiting nurse, and has an MPH and a late-life MFA. She fights feelings of political despair by practicing the piano and teaching English to adult immigrants who affectionately tolerate her pedagogical improvisations. Her prose and poetry have appeared in print and online in Literary Mama, Inkwell Journal, Rattle, NOÖ Journal, and Calyx Journal.

 

Crocus by Halina Duraj

Art for Crocus (untitled_uncredited)


 

Crocus

J. and I

eat ice cream bars

on the front porch.

I am moving in

soon.

 

Somewhere, a shovel

scrapes dirt. Today

feels like spring

but isn’t yet.

 

Purple crocuses

grow thick and low

by the porch steps.

I put my face in dirt

to smell them.

 

It seem right,

greeting spring like this:

getting on the hands,

getting on the knees.

 

Yesterday

J. and our poet friend

stayed awake all night,

writing.

 

Our friend wrote

a book-length poem

about the crocuses.

He called them cups of light.

 

J. will design the book’s cover. Vellum.

Translucent as a bridal veil.

Red birds and clocks.

 

Later, the poet will burn all the copies.


About the Author: Halina Duraj‘s fiction has appeared in The Harvard Review, The Sun, The 2014 PEN/O. Henry Prizes, and is forthcoming in Ecotone; her poems have been published in Bat City Review, Cimarron Review, and the Poets of the American West anthology. Her debut story collection,
, was published by Augury Books in 2014 and was a finalist for the 2015 Council of Literary Magazines and Presses Debut Fiction Firecracker Award. She teaches literature and creative writing at the University of San Diego.

 

Girl in Fulton Street by Sergio A. Ortiz

fall2 by Kat Bing (www.katbing.com)


Girl in Fulton Street

 

They’re not really strangers
reflecting off the windows,
they’re men afoot on a crowded street.
I am one of them, a girl in drag
abating the neon lights.
Clearing my way through a wilderness
of leaves, dry and quiet rhymes
without stretch marks,
on the banks of a wistful sea of cocks
where metaphors grow old.

 


About the Author: Sergio A. Ortiz is the founding editor of Undertow Tanka Review. He is a two-time Pushcart nominee, a four-time Best of the Web nominee, and 2016 Best of the Net nominee. 2nd place in the 2016 Ramón Ataz Annual Poetry Competition sponsored by Alaire publishing house. He is currently working on his first full-length collection of poems, Elephant Graveyard.

Artwork: Kat Bing

Seattle by Peter J. Stavros

Uncredited_Untitled for Seattle


 

The call came early in the morning, impossibly, ungodly, early, with the sudden shrill ringing of the phone first echoing in my dream, whatever I was dreaming about, and then shattering the stillness of the bedroom. I opened my eyes, blinked to focus, to see Ashley sound asleep next to me – sometimes I thought she could sleep through anything – lying on her side in one of the frilly lace nightgowns she had brought over to my condo, along with shopping bags and suitcases of her other clothes and belongings, make-up, toiletries, various lotions and ointments and powders, so many shoes, and things I didn’t even know what they were or what they did, secret, unexplainable, women’s things I dared not ask about, that she kept spread out on the counter and shelves in the bathroom and stacked away in the bedroom closet and stuffed into my dresser since she refused to take the dresser in the spare bedroom for whatever reason, I guessed because she wanted to feel like she belonged, and she did. Ashley still rented a house near the park with three of her girlfriends, but she was at my condo more than she was there, and that was okay with me, this middle ground between fully committing and having fun with no strings attached, although there were strings attached, and we both knew it, we just didn’t admit to it, at least not yet, but I was getting closer. I had made a few more trips to the jewelry store of Eddie’s Derby ticket scalper, only without Eddie these other times because I needed to concentrate, I needed to think. I needed to do this on my own. And I was getting closer.

It had been a month since the incident at Stan’s party. Ashley and I had made up, even if it was difficult for me to totally forget that night, and it was not just about the pot smoking. I had been around pot smoking before. I wasn’t some innocent. I had had roommates in grad school who smoked pot, who would pass the bong around to each other every night while we watched old movies on TV. I tried it once, but the debilitating headache that followed persuaded me to never smoke pot after that, and I never did. So I forgave Ashley for the indiscretion, and she promised it was only a onetime deal, and would not happen again, and I believed her. Stan even apologized to me at work that Monday, as he must have sensed something going on between me and Ashley despite my attempt to mask my displeasure when we left the party. He corroborated Ashley’s version that it was mostly only a contact buzz, and blamed the rest on the night staff secretaries’ boyfriends, said they had knives and he was afraid they would cut him if he didn’t smoke with them. But it wasn’t just about the pot smoking. I could live with the pot smoking if that was all it was, if not for the shock of seeing Ashley in that condition, high and giggling like a stoned idiot in a child’s playhouse which, despite the whimsical decor, or perhaps because of that, looked like the sleaziest place on earth, with low lighting and a miasma of marijuana and strangers milling about in the shadows. It was like stumbling upon someone I had not seen before, like walking in on an entirely different person from the one I knew, and that was the toughest part to get out of my head, with all of these fears and uncertainties that swept over me, and the stupid thing Al had said about Stan and “that girl in Marketing” that would not leave me be.  

I never raised it with Ashley, what Al had said to me, because I had assured myself that it was utter bull shit, and it had to have been, and I wanted to believe that it was not true, that it absolutely was not true, and I had no reason to believe otherwise. I still felt I could read people, and Ashley had never said or done anything to make me distrustful of her, to make me suspect that she and Stan had any kind of a history together – even with the playhouse, she said she had just wandered in there looking for me, and Stan confirmed that as well – and I didn’t want to push her on it, I didn’t want to cross-examine her, I didn’t want to examine her at all. I wanted this to work with Ashley, and I wanted to trust Ashley, and I wanted to avoid the issues I had had with every other woman I ever dated, so many issues that I often questioned if maybe I was the one with the issues. Perhaps I would need to call that therapist. I refused to allow anything to get between me and Ashley, especially some outlandish off-the-cuff remark made by a boorish client.

So I let it go, and Ashley and I had made up, and I tried every day to shove the memories of that one night back further into the recesses of my mind, and we were getting along and going on as normal. We had been out, with our group of friends, to a black tie event, a charitable gala to benefit the heart association or childhood obesity or something like that, then the obligatory after-party, drinks and dancing at a jazz club on Bardstown Road where the trumpet player, a smarmy guy with a waxed mustache, coaxed Ashley up on stage, finishing with Bloody Mary’s at the Outlook Inn and cabbing it back to my condo, and had not been in bed for very long when the phone rang, and I looked over top of where Ashley was sound asleep next to me, to the glowing red lights of the alarm clock that illuminated four-thirty-seven in the morning, impossibly, ungodly, early, particularly after such a late night.

The phone continued ringing, in patent defiance of me trying to ignore it. Whoever was calling would let the phone ring until the answering machine clicked on, then would hang up, without leaving a message, and would call again, right away, the phone ringing and ringing, at four-thirty-seven, and four-thirty-eight, and then four-thirty-nine in the morning. It was never going to end, refused to allow me to sleep through it or to ignore it or to wish it away. The phone continued ringing, demanding my attention, insisting that I pick it up, screaming at me until I picked it up, and finally with a “fuck” and a “dammit,” I gave in and stretched my arm out to the night stand to answer it, as Ashley rolled over onto her other side, burying herself beneath the comforter, black ribbon from last night still, barely, by a strand, in her hair.

“What,” I could scarcely get the word out, my throat like gravel, the taste of stale beer and cigarettes.

“Jim,” the voice on the other end whispered, with an urgency, “you awake?”

“Jesus,” I mumbled, annoyed at such a question, at four-thirty-nine, four-forty, in the morning. “Who is this?”

“It’s Stan. I’m in a bit of a bind, bud, need your help.”

I lifted my head, slowly, heavy, peeked over at Ashley, still asleep, deep, then went back to the phone, to Stan, in my own urgent whisper. “What is it?”

“Now pay attention,” he continued, and I strained to listen, sitting up and rubbing my eyes. “Remember that female limo driver in Seattle I told you about?”

“Uh-huh,” I said, trying to remember, trying to discern between the various stories Stan would tell about the business trips he took without me, his “road reports” as he labeled them, which we billed the clients for, part of our “case discussions.”

“The hot Russian one,” he added, before I could respond.

“Um, yeah,” I stuttered, and then I did remember Stan telling me about a Russian limo driver when he went to Seattle last month for depositions, when I was in Boston for a hearing, how she took him from the airport to the hotel, and they hit it off so well, “that accent of hers” he said, that she returned later that evening and drove him around the city, to show him the sights, landmarks and tourist spots and whatnot. Although he was his usual excited self when he recounted that to me, Stan had been oddly vague on some of the details, and I thought then that there might have been more to the story, and I had a feeling now that maybe there was.

“Well she’s married to a Russian mobster and he’s pissed at me.”

And there was.

“What for?” I asked, more urgent, more awake.

“Don’t worry about that right now,” he said abruptly, as if he were expecting me to ask that, and why the hell wouldn’t I, but he sounded like he was in a hurry, could not be bothered with such minutiae. “Right now I just need your help.”

“Sure, what do you need?” I quietly slipped out of bed, and went into the other room, sat down at the desk in my study, rummaged around for a pen and paper.

“I need fifty thousand dollars or else this fucker is going to cut off my head.”

I dropped the pen.

“What?” I said in my loudest whisper, the loudest possible whisper without waking Ashley in the next room.

“Yeah, I know, it’s fucked up, believe me I know,” Stan said, a touch of panic evident in his voice, “but we’ve got the money,” and when he said that, when he used “we” like that, it made my stomach knot and the muscles in my lower back clench up, just at the thought of me being somehow included in this, whatever this was, whatever was going on with him, which did not seem good. “You need to get it for me and bring it out here.”

“What? How?” I asked, picking the pen back up and steadying myself to write, regretting ever having answered the phone, longing to be in bed with Ashley sound asleep next to me, buried under the comforter with her.  

Stan told me he had that much money, in cash, in a leather satchel in a drawer in his filing cabinet at the office, payment from a client, one of many, who only paid in cash. He wanted me to arrange with the Fentz travel office for the first flight out to Seattle, gave me the client code on how to bill it, then I was to go into the office, pick up the satchel, and bring it with me. As he was telling me this, explaining this as clearly and concisely as he would any other assignment, he was also a bit breathless, a bit harried, somewhat concerned, which I had never heard from Stan before – no matter what, he always seemed in control – and that made me understand that this was real, that this was serious. I told him okay, and that I would do it, trying my best to convince him, to convince me, and I would do it, because he was my boss and he was in trouble, and he obviously had no one else to turn to if he was asking me, but even so, what the fuck?

Once I received my instructions from Stan, I hung up the phone and tiptoed into the bedroom to get dressed in the dark, being careful not to disturb Ashley. As I made my way out, I whispered into her ear, lied, that Stan had forgotten something for court that he needed, and I was flying to Seattle to take it to him. She didn’t question it, didn’t ask for details, didn’t say anything, just reached up to put her lips to my cheek, a sleepwalker kiss goodbye, and fell back into bed, back to sleep. I grabbed my billfold, keys and cell phone from the night stand, then headed for the office. On the drive over, I called Fentz Travel, the twenty-four hotline, and booked my flight to Seattle, which left at seven and arrived around noon. It would be cutting it close, but I could make it if I hustled, and I hustled. I was wide awake now.

My ID badge got me into the building, and Stan had already given me a key to his office for emergencies – but I never thought he meant something like this, this kind of emergency. I unlocked the door, and pushed it open, guardedly to not make any noise although the floor was empty, the support staff and early arriving attorneys, mainly junior associates who had deadlines to meet, would not be in for at least another hour. I made a beeline to the corner of the room, to the black metal filing cabinet, and the bottom drawer, where Stan had told me to go, and pulled the drawer out to reveal a brown leather satchel, scratched and marred and crammed inside, barely fitting. I yanked at it, twisted and pried and maneuvered it, to eventually free the satchel from the drawer, and placed it on Stan’s desk to make sure I had the right one – I wondered, or maybe I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t, how many leather satchels full of cash Stan had stashed in his office. I could hear Eddie, as clear as if he were standing next to me, his hoarse laugh, cautioning me about who I hooked my wagon to. I unzipped the satchel and knew instantly that I had the right one, could see the stacks of money rubber banded together like green bricks.

I zipped it back up, and got out of there, closing the office door, locked, and down to the parking garage. At my Land Rover, I threw the satchel into my larger overnight bag, and sped off for the airport. My ticket was waiting for me at the counter. I checked in, easily enough, then rushed to security, but before I could marvel at how smoothly this was all going, I stopped short, instantly deflated, when I saw there was already a line, at this hour. I was hoping I could just scoot by, like it was nothing – wishful thinking. I could feel the moisture pool into the armpits of my white cotton Oxford as I stood waiting to pass through the metal detector and have my bag x-rayed. In those moments, those long and endless moments, I debated to myself if the bricks of cash would show up on the x-ray and, if so, what kind of red flags they would raise to the screener, what kind of a shit storm that would bring down upon me. Would I be whisked away to a separate room and interrogated and strip searched and then taken off to airport jail? Would they call the firm, the Partnership Committee? Would Stan back me up on this? Would Stan even still be alive? A single bead of sweat curled down the side of my face as I inched my way through the line, everyone around me oblivious to what I had in my bag, a bag full of money. What the fuck? What would my story be? How could I explain this? I was an attorney so I needed to have my defense prepared. But my mind went blank, all I could picture was Stan being held in some dank and musty room somewhere in Seattle, exposed bricks, leaking pipes, with a burly Russian mobster in a three-piece suit and crew cut sharpening an axe. What the fuck?

Time seemed to stand still, and I was becoming nauseous. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath, placed my bag on the conveyor, and focused straight ahead, without making eye contact with the security agent, without looking at anyone, just straight ahead, off into the distance, as I walked under the metal detector without incident, no beeping or buzzing or any indication that I was involved in questionable conduct, then waited for my bag. I could see it jutting out of the x-ray machine, so close that I could nearly lunge and take it and be on my way, and for a brief instant, with my pulse somewhat returning to normal, I felt I had done it, that I had gotten one over on them, that I had managed to pull this off, when, to my absolute disgust, the agent who had been staring at the x-ray screen made a face, dour and fretful, hunched over, squinted, and then reversed the conveyor to send my bag disappearing back inside the machine.

My heart resumed its triple-time beating, and I feared I might hyperventilate. I looked about, mouth agape, eyes darting, precisely like a man who had something to hide, to plan my escape, spotting out exit signs and the escalators, figured I could make a run for it and let the chips fall where they may. I started to get lightheaded, bouncing at the knees to keep from passing out, twisting at the waist to limber up in case I really would need to hurdle over the rope barriers, all the while watching the agent peer intently at something on the x-ray screen. I was convinced beyond a doubt that I was fucked, that I was completely fucked, that this was it for me, that this was the end. I was going to prison and Stan was losing his head. I could imagine his wife Patty getting a call late at night, the Seattle police, that they had found Stan’s decapitated body in a ditch somewhere near the Space Needle, and she characteristically not reacting at all, her icy, distant self, just an “alright, well thanks.”

Then out of nowhere, shattering the tension in the air, an alarm bell went off that almost caused me to piss my pants, and chaos ensued several rows over in another security line. All attention turned to where someone was trying to break through that line with something. The agent who was examining my bag through the x-ray screen sprung up, poised in the direction of the commotion. He was plainly torn between what to do, what the proper protocol was, the gears in his brain churning, contemplating the potential outcomes for each impending problem, if he should see what I had going on, or rush to the more immediate security breach. Tick-tick-tick, thinking-thinking-thinking, and then with a shake of his head, and a bite down on his bottom lip, thwarted, he hit a button that moved the conveyor belt inches forward so that my bag reappeared and I was able to snatch it and leave right before he shut down the line and ran over to assist whatever was going on at that other line.

I moved through the airport determined, head up, shoulders back, full strides, with a defined purpose, holding on to my bag as tightly as I could, forcing myself to breathe, dabbing the perspiration from my face with the back of my hand. I maintained a consistent pace, walking rapidly but not too fast, not stopping, not turning around, not wanting to draw any attention to myself, nothing suspicious about me – just an attorney with fifty thousand dollars in cash on my way to Seattle to ransom my boss’ bald head. It was not until I got through the gate, and onto the plane, with my bag pushed safely under the seat in front of me, and the plane was in the air, the cityscape of Louisville replaced with nothing but soft billowing clouds out the window, that I could relax, somewhat, to at least dip below the redline of stress I had been operating at all morning, and what a long morning it had been already.

I drank a couple Amstel Lights on the plane, and poked at a breakfast of microwaved scrambled eggs and bacon that tasted like nothing and a stale English muffin with butter and grape jelly, all sorts of concerns swirling in my head – would I be an accessory to some crime Stan had committed and was hiding from me, was there really a pissed off Russian mobster and had I just become his next target, did any of the other associates at Fentz have to deal with shit like this? I asked myself if this was worth it, if any of this was worth it, and I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know anymore. I had my doubts. Maybe I needed to consider, to seriously consider, parting ways with Stan – something I had already been pondering lately. I was becoming more agitated the more I thought about everything, the circumstance I had found myself thrust into, and I knew I had to settle down or I would be no help to anyone. I watched the in-flight movie without the headset, some romantic comedy with Jennifer Anniston looking befuddled, and after another Amstel Light – and I was going to order one more after that but the flight attendant gave me the stink eye – I dozed off.

When I awoke we were landing on an unusually bright and sunny day in Seattle. I bolted off the plane and called Stan, who was clearly relieved when he heard that I had made it in with the cash, even joking, typically crude, about whether any of the stewardesses served “bearded clams on the flight.” He gave me an address, and I jumped in a cab, and when we pulled up to where Stan had directed, it was a strip club on the edge of town near the industrial section, and from the looks of it, not one of the “high end” strip clubs that Stan preferred, and I would not have even thought it was open, would not have been surprised to learn that it had been condemned by the health department, or the sanitation department, if Stan had not said he would be in there, and I triple-checked the address anyway. I paid the driver, asked him to wait for me, but as soon as I got out of the cab with my bag, he took off, tires squealing. I watched him drive away, accelerating through red lights, and with no other option on the deserted street, and I had come this far and what else was I going to do, I reluctantly stepped inside the club.

From the burst of daylight that streamed in when I opened the door, I found Stan seated alone at a table in the back, a few other tables occupied, with hardened men, probably having just come off their shifts, shifts somewhere, shifts of something, slumped over beers and smoking cigarettes, wrinkled dollar bills at the ready, but the place was mostly abandoned, early afternoon, dim and dismal and sad. There was a dancer, paunchy and sagging, in orange bikini bottoms and no top, on stage, just kind of moving her hips, back and forth, slack, disinterested, an empty gaze, with a DJ shouting something, indistinguishable, over the music, Motley Crue or Warrant, whoever sang “Cherry Pie.” Stan’s face brightened when he saw me, and he waved me over.

“Holy shit, you did it,” he said, as surprised I had made it as I was, beaming, with a greasy paper plate of fried chicken fingers drenched in hot sauce and a Styrofoam cup of water with no ice in front of him. “You got the satchel?”

“I got it,” I said, sitting down next to him, one of the legs on the wobbly wooden chair missing, balancing myself, still jittery from my adventure, the longest goddamn morning of my life, with no clue of what I had walked into.

“Great,” he said, then motioning with his hands, “gimme, gimme.”

I reached into my overnight bag, and pulled out the crumpled leather satchel, and handed it to Stan under the table. He unzipped it on his lap, peaked in, ruffled through it, then quickly zipped it back up. He laughed, then patted me on the back, harder than usual, like a man whose head had just been saved.

“Okay,” he said, “now get out of here – I don’t want you involved in this.”

What? Was he kidding me? Was that a joke? I fucking already was involved in this, whatever the hell this was. But before I could get angry, angrier, before I lost it with Stan, my rational side kicked in, and it occurred to me that Stan was right, and I did not want to be involved in this, not any more than I was. So without questioning it, without another word, I got up to leave, and when I did, any joy of liberation vanishing as quickly as it came, I heard someone shout out, “There he is, over there!” I turned, and it was a women, older, fiftyish maybe but who looked older, a lot older, worn and harsh, a mop of crimped bleached white hair with dark roots, spackled make-up that was both cracked and runny, barely dressed in a gold lamé half-shirt that provided no support and micro denim shorts, pockets longer than the shorts. She was scurrying out of the back, clumsy in high heels, pushing aside the faded and stained purple velvet curtain that separated the general public club area from who knew what went on behind the stage, presumably dressing rooms or heroin dens, with a large man, an outlaw biker type, greasy mohawk, goatee and shiny black leather jacket and black leather chaps over his blue jeans, who looked every bit the part of a strip club bouncer, behind her, pointing at Stan and hastening in our direction.

“Shit!” Stan leaped up, knocking his chair backwards to the floor with a crash, and clutched the satchel to his chest. “Let’s go!”

I stayed seated for a second or two, unable to move, unable to fully comprehend what was going on, not believing any of this was going on, the longest morning of my life that just fucking kept going, before I grasped the situation, and my overnight bag, and took off out of the club behind Stan, and down the street, the two of us running as fast as we could. I thought I heard a gunshot, although it could have been a car misfiring or a garbage can being knocked over, and I prayed it was only that. I didn’t check to see what it was. I just kept running, Stan and I, running down the street in some sketchy part of town, running as if our lives depended on it, and sadly they probably did, running block after block, passing dilapidated store fronts and vacant lots, running and running until we figured it was safe, safe enough, until the area around us seemed safe enough, at least safer than the area by the strip club, until we could tell there was nobody chasing us, no more heavy footsteps or scuttling about behind us, until we could no longer run like that, until we had to stop.

“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” Stan was yelling, part-laughing, part-astonished, bending forward, hands on his knees, panting, glancing back to make sure no one was coming. “That was crazy. Holy shit!”

I was bent over too, coughing, choking, trying not to throw up, my beers with breakfast. I dropped my overnight bag at my feet and put my head in my hands while I caught my breath. I could hear Stan continuing to laugh, and asking me how I was, and slapping at me, but I had my eyes closed, still bent over, wanting with whatever I had left to compose myself, wanting to be anywhere else, until I was able to say, after Stan’s persistent prodding, “I’m fine. I’m fine, Stan.”

“What the fuck, Jim,” he grabbed at me, and I looked at him, and he was back to his hyperkinetic self, not the worried near-victim of a beheading who had called me earlier when it was still night outside, when I was safely in bed with Ashley, which seemed like ages ago, a distant memory, a dream perhaps, and he was smiling, his body shaking the way it did, and he appeared practically ecstatic that this was happening. This was happening. “Was that just the craziest…”

“What’s going on, Stan?” I interrupted, in no mood for a celebration, in no mood for Stan.

He straightened up, wiped his face, his mouth, sniffed, ran a hand over his bald head, regained his demeanor, his boss to my employee demeanor that he would use when he had to, to let me know that he was still in charge.

“I want to keep you out of this, Jim,” he answered, stern, in the way he just switched it on and off like that.

“I’m kinda already in it, Stan,” I said, frustrated.

“I know, bud,” he nodded, held his hand out, trembling, “but trust me, the less you know, the better.” And then slower, and firmer, “I mean it.”

I let out a long exhale, and swallowed hard, and shook my head, and wiped away more sweat from my face, dripping from my hair, with both hands. I looked up towards the Seattle sky, which had turned to its more standard gray and ominous, and it began to rain, which felt refreshing in a way, to cool me as I was well overheated, in a lot of ways, and to maybe wash off some of the stench from that club and from everything else that had gone on this day. I closed my eyes, and paused like that, with the rain lightly hitting me, waiting, for something, for some kind of guidance, from somewhere.

“Fine,” I said, and picked up my bag. “Okay.”

“Thanks, Jim, I won’t forget this.” Stan grabbed my shoulder, as we moved on. “Trust me.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have anything to say. I just wanted to leave. I went with Stan, as he walked me to a nearby hotel where there were several waiting cabs. He opened the door of the first cab, and ushered me inside. He leaned in and told me not to mention this to anyone, which I wasn’t planning on doing, and who would believe me anyway, and said that he would see me back at the office in a few days, and that everything would be alright, and not to worry. And he kept repeating that last part, about how everything would be alright and not to worry, and I wasn’t sure if he was saying that for my benefit, or for his, but he kept repeating that. Then he tossed the driver a hundred dollar bill, and shut the door, and the cab pulled away, to the airport.

During the redeye flight home I tried to process what had happened, to make some sense out of any of it, but I couldn’t, no matter how much I replayed the events of the day over and over and over in my head, watching some romantic comedy without the headset, Kevin Costner looking perplexed. When I got into Louisville the next morning, I went straight to my condo, got undressed, got into bed, got under the covers and fell asleep, without any hesitation, without any tossing and turning, just fast asleep. Sometime later, several hours, Ashley came over, crept into bed with me, rested her head on my chest and put her arm across me, kind of like she knew, like she knew what I had been through, even though there was nothing to tell me that and I didn’t know how she could. It just seemed like she knew. But I didn’t think anymore about it, I was too tired, I was still too beat. I just fell back to sleep, effortlessly, hoping that maybe tomorrow would be a better day, that maybe tomorrow I would understand some of this.


About the Author: Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Juked, and Literary Orphans, among others, and featured on the podcast Second Hand Stories. More can be found at www.peterjstavros.wordpress.com

 

The Pickle Shelves by Holly Day

Untitled_Uncredited


The Pickle Shelves

this bomb shelter is packed with corpses, jars
of heads line the walls as if waiting
to be used as some sort of accompaniment
to mutant fresh vegetables picked from radioactive soil
in some post-apocalyptic orgy to celebrate
an anniversary of the end of it all.
white eyes stare calmly

out through the glass, watching nothing, dreaming
of nothing, just waiting for the day when the metal lids
will be uncorked, the contents of the jars overturned onto
gigantic platters held by grubby hands
for the salted flesh to be poked at with tarnished fork tines
for inevitable consumption. until then

the heads will sit on these shelves, undisturbed
wrinkled skin filling out, growing smooth in the brine
swelling to fit the smooth confines of their jars
like old sponges left in the sink for too long.


About the Author: Holly Day has taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota since 2000. Her published books include Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar All-in-One for Dummies, Piano All-in-One for Dummies, Walking Twin Cities, Insider’s Guide to the Twin Cities, Nordeast Minneapolis: A History, and The Book Of, while her poetry has recently appeared in New Ohio Review, SLAB, and Gargoyle. Her newest poetry book, Ugly Girl, just came out from Shoe Music Press.

Night Shift by Stephen D. Gutierrez

Untitled_Uncredited-2


He had always wanted to fuck a corpse, and now that he had done it, he didn’t feel so great. He sat in dejection next to the stiff, who looked the same. He had this night job cleaning up. He had work to do in the psychological department. He began to dance with the corpse in his arms, saying, “Don’t blame it on my mother, don’t you dare say she made me a monster.” He put her back on the table and rearranged her gown and fluffed up her hair right.

“My God,” he thought, “I do feel better.” Then he began to laugh, uproariously, in the room with the corpse he had just serenaded.

“Nothing is as bad as anybody says,” he thought. He stared down at the beautiful corpse tucked carefully under the pale blue sheet again, just as he had found her. He wouldn’t condemn himself because of one small act.  

“No way,” he said. “Who wouldn’t, given the circumstances?”

And he began to talk to her. “Honey, I’m sorry. I barely know you.”

She moved a shoulder in response.

“That’s okay,” he heard. “I was kind of lonely myself.”

So he pulled up a chair next to her and began talking more.

“My name is Mike. I work the night shift. I don’t have many friends. I do know a guy named Willis who seems okay with me, not like I’m the world’s biggest loser. I’m not. I’m just a pimply, gangly love machine. Oh, shit. I didn’t mean to offend you. My attempts at humor are pretty lame, aren’t they? He lives in my apartment complex, Willis. He says, ‘Hey, dude, how’s it going?’ when I see him in the parking lot or walking down one of the paths. He’s got a name patch that says Willis. Can I hold your hand? I’m going to hold your hand, baby. I think I love you.” Brushing her hair back, he loved her more than ever.  

“Yes, I think it’s real, forever, eternal.” He began crying, softly, holding her hand in his.

“She never gave me a chance.” The sobs came out harder and harder, uncontrollably, until he got up and breathed out calmly. He needed to go outside. He needed some air.

He left the door open in case the corpse decided to get up and join him outside for a cigarette, a midnight smoke leaning up against the wall, right by the two hearses parked under the stone archway in the wide driveway. It wasn’t creepy to him, none of it was. It was his life, being a janitor in a mortuary, a nobody-guy the dead could haunt and bother only to a certain degree. He had the upper hand. He had the nights to himself.


About the Author: Stephen D. Gutierrez‘s most recent work has appeared in [100 word story], Catamaran Literary Reader, Under the Gum Tree, The Los Angeles Review, The Manifest-Station and the Pact Press anthology Speak and Speak Again. A short story is due in the summer issue of Permafrost online. He teaches at California State University East Bay. www.stephendgutierrez.com

Bird Song by Kaily Dorfman

two2 by Kat Bing (www.katbing.com)


 

Bird Song

oh we’re done with heaviness

let’s get some light between these ribs  

 


About the Author: Kaily Dorfman is from Santa Cruz originally and did her undergrad at Berkeley. She spent some time in Salinas working as a literacy tutor for underprivileged K-4th grade students, and more recently got an MA in literature from UCSB. These days she’s a grad school dropout living in Alameda and working at a bookshop in Berkeley.

Artwork: Kat Bing

Something in the Way by Andrew Gordon Rogers

 

untitled_by @boradaexplorer



Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling

Kurt Cobain, Something in the Way

 

We missed it when we heard the whistle and climbed up, but from the hilltop we saw the train coming towards it. The beacon of light from the engine shined brighter and brighter as it neared with deep darkness behind it and an elbow of forest blocking the train’s end; the lights of the mall were in the distance, over the other side of the tracks, beyond where the end would be. The lights of the town glimmered past that with scattered stars like reflections above them. I stared back down at the yard and the animal. Charlie ducked down behind a shrub to the left of me.

“Should we do something?” I asked him. The horn blew as I asked; he lifted his hands to his ears.

He mouthed, I can’t hear you.

Once the horn stopped, I asked again.

“Should we do anything?”

Charlie shrugged. “What can we do?”

I searched around for a rock. The bluff was smooth but some gravel had been driven up from the train yard. I plucked the largest stone I could find from the ground, about the size of a golf ball. The bottom of it was muddied; it adhered to my fingers as I took aim at the track.

“What are you doing, man?”

I chucked it. I missed the animal, but scared it. It moved down the track, but still stood between the rails, chewing on the bone it had been working on since we noticed it. The train sounded the horn again, twice, deafening the noises of everything — the crickets, its own clacking.

“Maybe that dumb thing deserves it,” screamed Charlie.

I grabbed another rock and threw it towards the animal. No luck. It didn’t move. The ground beneath us began shaking and the light was almost parallel. The dog finally looked up, first glancing up at us then towards the light. In the brighter light, you could tell the dog was not full grown, still innocent and dumb. Its coat had almost no shine, matted and gray and filled with dust, and its ribs cast strange shadows down its backend.

The dog reached back to grab its feast, tried dragging it away with its head down. I yelled down as a last resort.

“Get off the fucking track, dog!”

The howling train was right in front of us now; we could see the graffiti on the side of the boxcars. The breaks of the train began squealing just as the dog looked up one last time and we, Charlie and I both, turned our heads to look away. Charlie pulled his hood over his head.

The collision below did not make the expected noise. It was no louder than a slap, a slightly audible tick above the sound of the squealing, tapping breaks of the train. We turned around, looking first at each other then towards the tracks. The light had passed and the spot of the collision was dark, but it looked like nothing more than a puddle, a mud splatter caused by a heavy train pushing through water. The train pushed forward, slowly, shaking.

 

That summer I would get my first car, but until then, I spent most mornings carpooling with Charlie or my mother to school. I rode with my mother the next morning. I rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, looking at all the identical trashcans lined up along the passing driveways, a never-ending row of green block containers.

“So, you’re just not even going to hide it anymore, huh?”

“Hide it?”

“I don’t think I said you could smoke in here.”

I ashed out the window; I blew some ash from the windowsill.

“It’s only a cigarette,” I commented. “I could be lighting something worse?”

“Okay. Fine. But you should really watch it with those.”

We pulled up to a stoplight. The blinker clicked-clicked-clicked.

“So what did you do last night?”

I blew out smoke.

“Just hung out.”

The sun was peeking behind my mother’s head; the tip of her pointed nose shined and she squinted her big eyes pinched into slits. She searched around for her sunglasses. Her hair had been recently permed and the blonde curls that stuck up from the top of her head looked like white yarn in the glowing light. The stoplight turned green and the car slowly inched up until Mom was able to turn right onto Mulberry. I saw my school, up two lights, and wanted to be inside. Once I was inside, I’d want to be out.

“Just hung out, huh? What does that even mean?”

I flicked my cigarette out the window and, knowing my demeanor at that time, I likely rolled my eyes. I don’t remember exactly, but I remember what my mother said next. She said:

“You know, your brother never talked to me either and then he left.” She looked over to me, “Could you please just humor me?”

We pulled up to school and I grabbed my backpack from the back seat. I closed the door on my mother and walked into the building with my eyes pointed at the ground.

Inside school, Sam was sitting against my locker, her feet on the ground and her knees up, hiding her face and helping to hold the book she was reading. She didn’t look up until I was right in front of her and my shadow overtook her undersized body. She raised her head, pushed her dark hair to one side of her face and tucked it behind her ear. She smiled when she realized it was me. I shook some change in my pocket and unzipped my sweatshirt.

“Charlie’s dumbass was by here looking for you earlier,” she smirked.

She pushed herself off of the ground and I grabbed her hand and helped her up. She stood up on her toes, her ballet flats bending and falling off her heels, and she leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. A group of younger kids walked past us.

“Have you read this book?”

She held it up.

“Nope.”

“You should. I’ll give it to you when I’m done.”

I looked at the paperback, the spine cracked and webbed. It was the first time I’d heard of Salinger. I opened up my locker, took the keys and change out of my pocket and put it in a Dixie cup I had taped onto the top shelf of the metal cabinet. Inside the cup were three dinars my brother had sent me and a few Advil. I fished out the Advil and asked Sam if she had any water. She pulled out a bottle from her backpack and I swallowed the pills, finishing almost all of her bottle.

“Shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to drink that much.”

“No big deal. I think I can find more water.”

 

Charlie parked his car under the concrete bridge, hit the lights, and we grabbed our supplies and walked towards the trains. The moon was high and the railroad tracks shimmered underneath its light. As we walked, our backpacks swayed and the ping of metal spray cans hitting one another echoed in the night, the balls inside the cans sloshing the paint back and forth. Charlie walked in front of me, balancing on the track, his shoe slipping off the mirror every five steps. The gravel grinded and slipped under my shoes with each stride. A train sounded its whistle far off beyond the line of trees to the east; it faded into itself and quieted.

Charlie and I arrived at a train and kneeled down beside it. We were quiet for a minute or two, looking around for any other life, any rumblings, any people. The warm wind pushed against our cheeks, rushing from the tunnel ahead. The smell of burnt paper and grease.

Charlie stuck his finger in his mouth and raised it into the air, looking up at the tip of it.

“Yep,” he said. “We’re all clear.”

He smiled and pulled his backpack toward his front and unzipped it, searching through the bag for his white can; Charlie always started with white. I pulled open my bag and found the black cap, held it up into the light to double-check its color. I pulled my sketchbook from the bag and opened to a page I’d recently created, examining the corners and each letter, determining a starting point. Charlie shook his can. The hiss of the spray paint began as Charlie tested the white on the train’s wheel. The paint sound became more consistent and, for the next twenty minutes, we stopped only to step back and see what we missed. A cloud formed around us, backlash bouncing off of the train car steel, swirling down the line above the reflective tracks.

When Charlie was done, he stepped back. Pleased with himself, he chucked his spray can into the creek bed down below the yard. I was done already, but still thinking of something to add, something to make the train stick out. I gave up and joined Charlie on the empty track across from our tags.

“Man, I’m getting pretty fucking good, right?”

I looked over at him; he stared at his work and reached into his pocket. He pulled out his pack of Camels and a red Bic lighter.

“It’s a regular masterpiece.”

“Isn’t it?”

“I guess.”

“It’s better than your fingerpainting over there.”

“Fuck you.”

Charlie smirked and pulled a joint from his pack. He held it up into the light and smiled wide, his teeth white in the darkness. The joint was rolled in rainbow rolling papers. He twisted it in his fingers, put it up to his mouth and lit it, puffing smoke until the end was an even orange.

“I’m just kidding, you choad. Yours looks good, too.”

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

Charlie passed the weed to me. I took a few hits, held the second one in and stared at Charlie’s tag across the way.

“You know,” Charlie started.

“Here we go.”

“I was just thinking. They should be paying us to do this shit.”

I handed it back to Charlie.

“It’s a service,” he said. “Here they have these ragged-looking trains, all corroded and beat up, and we put a mark on them and make them noticeable.”

“I wish.”

“Seriously, man. And they should let us paint whatever we wanted — as long as there’s no dicks or anything, you know, keeping it appropriate — and keep these trains looking fresh.”

Charlie hit the joint again. He opened his fish-mouth wide and blew out thick, oval smoke rings into the dark. I watched the smoke move down the yard and up into the atmosphere. Down the track, beyond the trees, I saw a light move. I squinted towards the glow. Homeless men wandered around down by the tracks and, as I watched the faint light bounce behind the line of brush, I assumed it was one of them.

“You see that light over there?”

Charlie took another hit; he glanced out toward it.

“Yep. Guess it’s time to go.”

He handed the joint to me. I took a hit and it burned my fingers. I put it out in the gravel and handed it back to my friend. He blew on it, making sure there was no more cherry, and he stuffed the roach back into his pack of smokes. He looked at our tags once more.

We returned our backpacks to our shoulders; they were much lighter now but more audible in the deep night. The clink of the cans grew as we walked back towards the car.

“These bums that live out here have the life.”

I kept walking.

“No one to report to. Sleeping under the stars every night. Probably drunk and high all the time.”

“No money either.”

“They don’t need money. They don’t have rent and shit to pay. They sure as hell aren’t paying rent or anything. They can get out of Dodge anytime they want.”

“Yeah, what a life,” I smirked.

We arrived at his car and I tossed my pack into the backseat. We slid inside and slammed our doors shut. The clunk echoed against the cement pillars and retaining walls beneath the bridge. Charlie started the car and drove off with only his parking lights lit until we reached the main road. He looked both ways, turned on the headlights and drove on.

We listened to music on the way home and when we pulled up to my house the music was still loud, and his windows were down, so I reached over and turned the knob to lower the volume.

“You’re such a pussy,” snarked Charlie.

“It’s late, man, and I don’t want my mom to wake up and give me shit.”

“Yeah. Don’t wanna wake your mommy,” he mocked.

“Whatever.”

I got out of the car and opened the back door to grab my gear. I waved to him, more of a salute and nod than a wave. Charlie popped his head out of the window.

“Same thing tomorrow?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“What? You got plans or something?”

“Me? No, I just…we’ll see…”

“Whatever’s clever, nerd. I’ll just call you tomorrow.”

“Cool,” I lied.

“Cool.”

“Hey,” I added. “Could you bum me a few smokes?”

He had an older sister who worked at the Phillips station and she provided him with cartons weekly along with a steady supply of pretzels, soda, and, sometimes, if Charlie bribed her with God-knows-what, six packs of beer. Charlie pulled out his Camels and fished out three cigarettes and presented them out the window.

“Thanks, Charlie.”

He put his car into reverse, turned up the music and backed out of the driveway.

I went inside and the house was dark and the air conditioning was blowing loudly in the silence. I turned on the kitchen light, threw some bread in the toaster and took out some turkey and sliced cheese and made a sandwich. I was eating and watching Conan and the phone rang. I picked up and it was Sam.

“What’s up, Buttercup,” she answered.

“Hey there. What are you up to?”

“Nothing really. Are you watching Conan?”

“Yep. And eating a sandwich.”

“Is your mom there?”

I wiped my mouth with a napkin, crumpled it up and threw it away in the kitchen trashcan. There were several cans of Shiner Bock crumpled in the bag. I looked in the fridge and there were three beers left from a six-pack. I pulled one from the plastic rings and popped it open.

“Nope, she’s not here. Surprise, surprise.”

“Yeah. My parents are out tonight, too. Hey, what do you have planned tomorrow night?”

“Not shit, really. Why? Wanna hang out?”

“Well, there’s this movie I really wanna see playing at the Madison.”

“Oh, I see. A sappy sucker movie?”

“Maybe a little bit,” she laughed. I could almost see her. “I mean, not too sappy, I hope. It’s the new Charlie Kaufman flick”

“Ah, I see.”

“So you wanna?”

“I wanna.”

I pulled my wallet from my back pocket. I opened it and fingered out two crumpled dollar bills. I took a chug from the beer can.

“Okay, great,” she exclaimed. “Oh, shit. My brother’s crying.”

“What time is this Kaufman flick playing?”

“I think 9:30. Should I swing by and pick you up around 9:00?”

“Deal. Can’t wait,” I replied.

She grunted, muted, like she was holding the phone away from her mouth. I heard her say, Alright, alright. The background noise suddenly grew louder and there was crying in the background; she was walking up the stairs.

“I gotta go, my love.”

“Sounds like it. See you tomorrow.”

We hung up and I took another drink of my beer. The cold rushed to my head. I threw my wallet onto the counter and collapsed onto the couch and pictured Sam pushing her short hair behind her ear, her deep blue eyes smiling at me from someplace beyond any place I knew.

 

Sometime before noon, I woke up and made a quiet breakfast trying not to wake my mother. I peeled apart a package of bacon, threw the strips onto a cookie sheet and placed it in the cold oven. I cracked six eggs, threw them in the black frying pan. I scrambled the eggs, cooking them a little too long. They were dry so I added the last handful from a bag of shredded cheddar cheese; the eggs were orange and yellow and steam rose up from underneath the fluffy chunks in the pan. I slid bread into the toaster and pushed down the handle.

There were no plates clean in the cabinet so I pulled two plates from the pile in the sink and rinsed them off. I split the eggs between the two plates and sat down at the kitchen table to wait for the bacon. Across the kitchen, the shelf was lined with my brother’s old trophies, shiny plastic baseball players and baseball gloves mounted to slick black bases. A few metals hung from red, white, and blue striped ribbons. I got up and walked over to them and grabbed the smallest trophy with the star on the top; it was the only one that was mine.

She walked down the stairs without me knowing and entered the kitchen from the opposite doorway, standing by the oven behind me.

“He was once a good kid, you know,” she mumbled.

I turned around to see my mom there in her sweatpants and old church sweatshirt. She rubbed her eyes. I put the trophy back on the shelf.

“Yeah, Mom, I know.”

My mother pulled her hair back into a ponytail, her curled blonde streaks split at the ends. She looked at me like she does. She wanted to say something else.

“It smells good.”

“Thanks. Bacon should be about done.”

The timer counted down the seconds. The seconds took longer than seconds take. I walked over to the oven and opened it and removed the tray. The oven door squeaked as I shut it. My mother took a seat at the table, her elbows on the edge, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands.

“Should I make some coffee,” she yawned.

“No, I got it.”

I took two cups from the cabinet and poured coffee from the pot. I put two scoops of sugar into my mother’s cup, one in mine. I took the coffee and the food over to the table and the two of us sat chewing our food and slurping our coffee.

“This is great, son. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

I stuffed a piece of bacon into my mouth and washed it down.

“Have you always drank coffee?”

“I haven’t always, but I have for awhile.”

“I don’t remember you drinking coffee.”

“I don’t remember you caring whether or not I drank coffee.”

She looked up at me from below her lashes; she shook her head. She took another drink and another bite of her eggs and she wiped her mouth with her napkin. She placed the napkin over her plate and leaned back in her chair, stretching her long thin arms up over her head and then dropping them back into her lap. The television was on in the background — the sound muted — and I watched a news reporter stand on a lawn in front of a flood rushing down some street in some place, the brown water pushing and turning white against a street sign in the middle of the charging river.

“I think I might go to Mass tomorrow. Will you go with me?”

I continued to watch the television.

“I doubt it,” I said.

“You doubt it? What does that mean?” she asked. “You don’t have to go. I’d like you to, but you don’t have to.”

“I don’t know. I’d rather not.”

She looked at the ceiling.

“Well I’m going to go. It’ll be good for me, I think.”

“Enjoy.”

She got up and grabbed our dishes from the table and went and placed them in the sink. She walked back upstairs. I stood up and made my way into the living room, still watching the television without noise. The newscaster gestured towards some people on a fishing boat, paddling in the current with a single oar. There were two people in the boat, a man and a woman, and the man had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the filter hanging onto his lower lip, while he pushed the oar into the earthy broth. The cameraman zoomed in on the boat and the woman in the back was half-asleep, perhaps sick, holding onto both sides of the skiff. The man stopped paddling for a second, long enough to ash his smoke, then continued to paddle out of the shot.

I clicked the TV off. I went out the front door and sat down on the porch. The sun was almost at its apex, high in its daily ascent, and the air was thick and humid. I pulled a cigarette from my pocket and lit it and watched the kids from down the street ride their bikes in circles around one another, their laughter bouncing off the blacktop in the hot sun.

 

I was napping upstairs when I heard my mom:

“Your friend’s here.”  

I sat up in bed and heard someone coming up the stairs. The visitor knocked twice on my door, swung it open.

“Wake up, Buttercup.”

Charlie was wearing the same zip-up sweatshirt he wore last night. He wore a grey t-shirt under that, with Kansas across the chest in red block letters, and camouflage cargo shorts with specks of white paint trailing down the left side. He sat down on the end of the bed. He reached over to my dresser and grabbed a Rolling Stone and began flipping through it. He was smacking his gum, slapping through the pages.

“I didn’t know you were coming over.”

“Now you do,” he laughed.

He stared down at the magazine; he flipped the pages. He turned to the last page then closed the magazine and threw it down on my bed.

“I was talking to Danny earlier and he told me about this new spot on the other side of town.”

“A skate spot?”

“No. A spot to paint,” he explained. “Interested?”

“Yeah, where at? When?”

“It’s out by Chamber Park.”

“Well, we could do that next Friday? I’ve got…”

“No, we’re going tonight,” he interrupted. “It’s gonna be perfect. My sister even got us some beer.”

“I don’t know, man.”

“You don’t know? What don’t you know?”

“I’m supposed to do something tonight.”

“Something?”

“Yeah.”

“Something gay, I’ll bet.”

“I have to help my mom clean tonight.”

Charlie glared over at me with one eyebrow raised; he shook his head and walked over to my bookshelf, fingering through a stack of magazines. He snatched up my sketchbook and sat back down on my bed. He tossed through the pages, most of them smeared with gray pencil marks. I got out of bed and opened up my closet and pulled a shirt from a hanger.

“Whatever, man,” he smirked. “I can get you back in time to play housewife.”

I pulled my shirt over my head and brushed my hair from my eyes.

“I have to be back here by around 9:00. At the latest.”

“You’re lame. But yeah, that’s cool,” he said, looking down at the book. “You should paint this one tonight.”

He held up my sketchbook and nodded his head, pointing to the small drawing I had done. I squinted to look at it even though I knew it well.

“You think?”

“For sure, dude,” he affirmed. “Hey, your mom got any more V?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”

“Can I go check?”

“She’s downstairs, you idiot. At least wait a little bit.”

I pulled my backpack from inside the hard guitar case in my closet. I knelt down, unzipped it and checked its contents. As I was taking inventory, something sharp hit the back of my head. It fell hard to the ground next to me. My ears rang and Charlie erupted with laughter.

“Don’t forget that,” he howled.

My sketchbook was next to my knee. I checked the back of my head for blood. He was laughing.

“What the fuck, man?”

“I’m sorry,” he quieted. He took a deep breath and tried to hold back his giggling. “I only meant to hit your arm or back.”

“You’re an asshole.”

I grabbed my sketchbook from the floor and stuffed it into my backpack. Charlie hung his head and lowered his eyes, fumbling with a string hanging off the end of his shorts.

“Really. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. When should we go?”

“We need to wait until it’s dark.”

 

It was on the other side of town; I hadn’t been there since I was a child. When I was younger, the park was in decent shape, before the highway construction had scared away the wildlife and before the City, underfunded and preoccupied, had let it go to neglect.

As we drove into Chamber Park, Charlie reached over and turned the dial on the radio then leaned opposite and rolled down his window. I looked at the playground equipment. The jungle-gyms and swing sets were faded into a chalky baby blue, paint peeling away from the metal, impaired by streaks of brown and flecks of rust. Most of the lights around the park were burnt out and spiderwebs made their way across the grey trees. The pleasant silence that I remember had evolved, too. The new highway on the south end of the property produced the purring sound of cars fading in and out, echoing in the overgrown forest beyond the playgrounds and baseball fields.

“You hear those cars,” Charlie asked. “That’s where we’re painting.”

“Wait,” I coughed. “What?”

Charlie just smiled. He turned into the parking lot beyond the last dusty field. We pulled into the innermost parking spot in the lot, under a broken streetlamp. Charlie turned off the car, opened his door and got out. I followed him. We got our things out of the backseat. Charlie pulled out a pack of smokes from his sweatshirt pocket and lit a cigarette. He took a few drags and passed it over to me.

“So, where to?”

“Through here,” he said, pointing toward the broken woods in front of us.

I took a long puff from the cigarette. It burnt my throat and I handed the smoke back to Charlie. We walked towards the trees with a sharp crescent moon shining above us, a slight breeze pushed against our backs. Charlie stepped into the trees and I followed him in. Leaves crunched beneath our feet, the fattest maple leaves tossed alongside their slim cousins; cicadas squealed and chirped all around us. The moon cast shadows at random across the vertical lines of trees and the floor below was dark and moonless. Charlie threw down his cigarette, the ash glowing red on the black forest floor. I stomped it out; I broke a large branch and it whipped me in the calf. I reached down to rub it and then continued on.

Charlie stopped before me and reached back and held up his hand. We were to the end of the treeline, where the Chamber Street crosses over the highway. Beneath the overpass, on our side of the highway, there was a hill that lead up to a large cement structural wall, an oversized triangle of concrete above the embankment. From the highway, the concrete wall was visible at the edge in its entirety, only the arbors of smaller oak and cedar trees giving it some cover. Above the wall, steel I-beams reached across the highway to the other side; above that, a brushed metal guardrail glowed under the moonlight.

We bent down and unzipped our packs. We waited and scanned the highway in front of us. We watched the headlights of two cars come towards us and then move on. I looked at Charlie; his eyes were wide and focused on the wall. He pulled his hood over his head. I glanced back to the highway. My hands were wet and my mind full of everything and nothing at all. The highway went dark.

“You think it’s safe?”

“Safe as it’s gonna be,” he mumbled.

He pulled out a can of paint and yanked off the cap, the pop echoing in the woods. He sprayed a pile of leaves next to him. The pile slowly turned darker and glossy. He looked at me with a crooked smile, his eyes still wide, and jumped out onto the open hill. My heartbeat moved to my ears. The smell of new paint.

I grabbed a can of green paint and went out to the wall. Crouched hunters, delicate in our stepping and in our work, we started spraying the wall. I finished a letter and looked over at Charlie; he studied his can, puzzled. There wasn’t a dot of paint on the wall in front of him. I looked back at my letter and heard the hissing sound of spray finally coming from Charlie’s side. I shook my can and began to spray my next letter. A car’s headlights shined on the bottom of the bridge and we both looked backwards and crouched down further, doing our best to resemble boulders. The car continued forward, the lights growing above us, the roar of its engine unsetting the quiet of the overpass. We held still as it drove through and under the bridge and onward down the highway.

We returned our focus. Another car passed beneath us, we paused and then went back to our labor. The cloud of overspray grew up over the edge of the bridge. The hooded figure next to me shook his can, sprayed, stepped back, resumed painting again. I turned my head to look down the highway. Another car’s headlamps shined on the black pavement below, made its way toward us. I held still again, staring at the paint dripping on the wall. The headlights seemed to last longer than the ones before, but I continued to wait.

The lights did not pass like the others. I heard the car slow down behind me. The sound of tires on gravel. Then there was the sharp sound: a horn, a siren. Charlie and I both looked back as a spotlight came on and lit up the ground beside us. Before the bright beam hit us, we were gone.

 

“Goddamnit,” I heard through the sound of our stomping feet. We tore through a gathering of trees. I thought, drop to the darkness. No, climb a tree.

I kept running; the woods were not thick enough to hide us. I pushed on, my hands in front of me, ducking under the limbs. I kept on, slashing through the leaves and sticks under my legs; my shoes rolled over mounds of dirt, over other things. I tried to follow Charlie through the slivers of light coming through the trees. Images blurred, moved behind me as I passed. Panic smelling of mud.

We darted out of the dark forest cover into the parking lot. We pounded the pavement, past the tattered baseball field, into the playground area. We heard a car coming around the bending road. I panicked, ran towards the only hiding place I saw. Charlie ran straight. I threw myself into a line a bushes past the jungle gym. I crouched and crawled halfway underneath the shrubs. The needles poked my legs, my back. My breath was heavy, my heart beating above my shirt. Sweat dripped into my eyes. I found a spot that I could look through the brush. My shoes were soggy and the bottom of my jeans soaked. I heard my breath, my pumping heart and the sound of slow-moving water in the creek behind me.

A car pulled into the parking lot in front of me; it turned in and neared Charlie’s car. Headlights came on. Blue and red lights swirled in the dark sky. The spotlight clicked on and lit up the entire lot. I could hear the static voice from the police radio.

I held my breath; I cursed myself. The spotlight drifted near me; it shined over me. The leaves beneath me still crunched without motion. The bright light continued to move and I let myself breathe, letting the air leak in and out, slow and steady. I did not move; I did not look up. Red, blue, white illuminated the ground. Tires popped and turned and the engine purred and the car continued onward. The rubber rolled on the gravel and the car turned out of the lot. I remained still; my lungs pushed against the ground. The engine dissipated, echoed in the playground, the baseball fields, quieter every second.

I waited several minutes. I stared at an unfinished spiderweb in front of me, a spider unmoved in its corner. Sweat dripped from my brow, my chest and armpits; my feet were heavy and wet. I closed my eyes, calmed my heartbeat. Questions and doubt swirled inside. The doubt and the questions of every sin resurfaced, a rush to the head of all the bad decisions.

The urge to move became too hard to hold. I reached for my cell phone, contemplating whether or not to call Charlie. It was not in my pocket. I sat up and padded myself down. No lump; no phone. I looked over to Charlie’s car and then around the park in front of me. The park was mostly dark and quiet; the highway was soundless. Two swings on the playground, light and bare, made slight movements with the wind.

My legs were sore when I pushed myself from the ground and dusted off the front and rear of my pants. I walked to the car in its dark corner. I tried the door and it was unlocked so I got in and looked around. I searched in the center console and the glovebox. I searched again for Charlie’s phone. I came up empty and I punched the dashboard. I hung my head, a sigh and laugh escaped.

I waited for an hour, sitting again behind the bushes, anticipating that the cops would take another turn. I have never been a man to wear a watch but then I looked at my wrist several times. The bottom of my jeans and my shoes were caked with mud. My shirt was sprayed with something, too. The slivered moon above me was bright and a few clouds, thin and staggered, moved slowly through the night sky.

I got up and walked into the forest again, looking down for any sign of my phone, Charlie, our things. When I got back to the wall I saw no evidence except for the first three letters of two incomplete words, written but unwritten. The cops had taken our bags. I turned around and went back the other way, staying in the shadows at every chance. I walked along the edge of the park, smelling the damp air and the earth. Before I got to the edge of the park, just on the other side of the entrance, the police car came back. This time, they saw me.

Off I went, running again. The cop was shouting at me; he urged me to stop. He began after me. I could hear the stumbling behind me; I could hear the gear on his belt clicking and thumping against his legs. I pushed through a field, a line of trees, hopped over a fence. I could hear nothing now but my own heavy lungs and the stomp of my cement feet. I was tiring fast. I ran into another open field, recently cropped, the high lumps of dirt tripping me and keeping me off balance until I reached another row of shadowy wood. I needed to rest and I prayed my lungs had outlasted his. I dropped down behind a tree, a thick maple, red on one side and black on the other.

He had fallen behind. I tried to listen but my heart was in my eyes and ears and my lungs exploded from my chest, threatening to release themselves from their cages. I heard no follower. I blew out air, sucked it in. My vision was blurring. I sucked in, I wheezed out.

He had outsmarted me. I caught sight of him in front of me. He had a round, red face and the shiny objects along his belt were glowing against his dark suit. I froze in my sweat, the hair stood high on my arms. He scanned the area. His eyes met mine, and although it was dark, he saw me.

“Stop,” he demanded. “Don’t fucking move.”

Against my better judgement, I did not listen. I pushed hard against the floor; I tripped. He began running towards me. I jumped up and started running, my legs unknown to the rest of my body. I wheeled around tree limbs, rushed towards the last field I had visited. I pushed on; I pushed on. He followed and followed. I reached another line of trees, tripped again and a sharp curl of pain slid upward into my chest. My leg twisted under my knee. I got up and limped onward. He slowed behind me. I kept on and on, all earthly things — mounds of soil, piles of leaves, green puddles — appearing and disappearing under my vision.

I fell a third time attempting to hop over a small canyon carved by an old creek. I slid down a hill and slipped into a dried-up stream and jumped into an embankment and, again, stumbled into a flat expanse. I was upright again but my legs were unable to continue; my knee was another heart far below the proper one. I reached another field beyond the last and dropped into a high crop growing within it. I pushed leaves aside until I couldn’t anymore. The stalks were thick and green and the high leaves blocked the moon from my sight. I stopped running. I collapsed underneath the shadows of the carnivorous plants, eating away my breath and blood and leaving me without sight. I was lost without loss. I was all I knew. I was dizzy and shook beneath the hairy limbs around me.

“I give up,” I huffed. “I give up. Just take me.”

There was only the sound of crickets and frogs, barking loudly above my heartbeat. Pumping and chirping, chirping and croaking, breath, in and out. The darkness of the plants and the night listened only to my hard, heavy heaving. I turned and coughed and tears formed in the corners of my eyes.

The earth beneath the tall plants was cool and it welcomed my surrender. My body sunk deeper and deeper into the soil.

 

It was midnight when I walked into the Phillips 66, my hair and clothes ragged. Charlie’s sister was behind the counter on her phone, she paused all movement when she saw me. She roughly chewed her gum. Her red polo shirt clung tight to her breasts; her dark hair lay on her shoulders.

“I have to go,” she said into the phone. “I’ll call you right back, okay?”

She dropped her phone on the counter.

“What the hell happened to you?”

I roughed up my hair even worse and pushed it from my eyes. I looked down at myself.

“Just got back from a rave.”

“Some rave, I guess?”

“Can I please use your phone?”

“What for?”

I stared at her. I looked around the store for other patrons.

“Does it fucking matter?”

She shrugged, shook her head. She chomped her gum.

“Here you go, Buttercup. Knock yourself out.”

I grabbed the phone and called Charlie. He didn’t answer. I waited. The cool air inside the store was sent from God. I looked through the shelves and eyed all the bags of chips, beef jerky, the small rectangular packages of gum in every bright color. I grabbed a candy bar and asked Shannon if I could eat it. She obliged. I tore it open and devoured the chocolate tube in seconds. I could have eaten four more. I handed the phone back to Shannon.

“Any chance you could give me a ride home?”

“Why can’t my brother come pick you up?”

“He didn’t answer.”

I crumpled up the paper from the chocolate bar and shot it into the trashcan behind the counter. It landed inside and bounced back out. Shannon gave me a look of disgust and picked it up and threw it away.

“You could just give me your keys?”

“Are you even old enough to drive?”

“I’ve got my license, yeah.”

She stared me down and laughed, her mouth tight but her teeth exposed.

“Yeah, right. You can wait until my brother calls you back.”

I was tired and didn’t care what she said. I pushed out the doors of the gas station and sat down against the edge of the building. I placed my head between my knees and closed my eyes. I looked down at my muddy shoes, the line of moisture on the bottom of my jeans. I went back in and asked for the phone. I tried three different numbers before I reached Sam. She was crying.

“I’m so sorry,” I began.

“I’m sure you are.”

I walked back outside. Two older men pushed past me into the gas station.

“I almost got arrested. It’s been a night. I didn’t mean to ditch you, okay? I lost my phone and I had to run and everything.”

“You could have just told me you didn’t want to go.”

“I did want to go. I just…”

I could hear her sniffles stunted by an arm or a heavy tissue.

“I waited for you. I could have gone without you but I waited.”

“This isn’t an excuse, I seriously got stuck. And I don’t have a phone.”

“You have a phone now?”

“It’s Shannon’s. Charlie’s sister.”

She hung up. The phone went black. I cursed and kicked the trash can. A pain shot up my leg into my chest and head, ears ringing. I sat down and dialed her again. It rang several times. She answered.

“Will you please just listen,” I pleaded.

“What?”

“I’ll make it up to you, okay? I really need you to be…I need you to trust me.”

It was too quiet.

“Fine, we’ll see. I’m not picking you up though. Call me tomorrow.”

She hung up again. I leaned my head against the store window.

A few minutes later, Charlie pulled into the parking lot and got out of his car and started walking into the gas station. He opened the glass door to walk in and saw me, a bewildered look on his face.

“Holy shit,” he said. “What the hell happened to you?”

He looked untouched, not a scratch or speck of dirt on him save his usual appearance. I stood up and leaned against the store. He walked over to me. We exchanged stories about what had happened: which way he ran, which way I ran, how the cop had tracked me down a second time, how he had ran to the closest neighborhood. He smiled the whole time; I told my story unamused.

“That was nuts,” he screamed. “We got lucky on that one, right?”

“Lucky?”

“Hell yeah. We got away without a scratch.” He looked at me, up and down. “Well, without much.”

“I guess. All I know is that I’m not going there again.”

He stared, his mouth wide.

“Seriously? We gotta finish those tags, man. Adds a nice challenge, don’t you think?”

“Why don’t we just tag the police station while we’re at it.”

“We should,” he smiled. He slapped my shoulder.

“Jesus.”

“Hey, you wanna go back to this party with me?”

I was kicking at some trash on the ground. I stopped.

“Wait. A party?”

“Yeah, dude. House party. At Stevenson’s, not too far from here. I went there after I grabbed my car from the park. Bitches everywhere.”

“What? You went to Stevenson’s?”

“Yeah. What else was I supposed to do?”

He smiled and stuck a piece of gum into his mouth. He began chewing it and looked around at the bugs flying around the light above us.

“I’m gonna grab some beer from my sister and go back. You game or not?”

I watched the small insects swirl above us, run into the glass and bounce off and return to the air.

“Can you just take me home?”

“Home? If you want…”

“Come on. You can just drop me anywhere on our side and I’ll walk.”

“I’ll take you to your house,” he responded. “Just give me a minute.”

Charlie walked inside the gas station and argued with his sister for fifteen minutes until he stomped out empty handed.

“Let’s get the fuck outta here. Hey, can I grab a few beers from your mom?”

“Whatever. If there’s any left, they’re all yours.”

 

Sam kneeled down and tied her shoe before we began our hike through the forest. The woods before us were in their most green, boundless trees and bushes and weeds popping out of every spare inch. It took me a few minutes to find the path; the greenery had pushed into the cleared ground and left only a space wide enough for one leg.

My knee had swollen to the size of a bowling ball by the time we reached the field. The sunflowers were bright yellow and tan forever, the tall stalks blowing in unison like the waves of a great amber lake. Sam pushed aside a tree branch, ducked under it and dropped herself onto a fallen log and gazed out onto the yellow expanse.

“How’s your knee?” asked Sam.

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “What do you think?”

She continued to gaze into the flowers.

“You were right. It’s unbelievable.”

I ducked under the same branch she had earlier and sat down next to her. The look she had was one I wouldn’t see again until much later in my life I took my future wife to the ocean for the first time. A stare beyond all other stares; the deepest kind of gaze, where her eyes had created their own blinders and nothing else was visible, just the flowers and the sky and the way the tips of the yellow petals reached out into the blue. I was not even there; I did not matter. She floated above the field and stayed there then she cried and came back down. She laid her head on my shoulder, wrapping her arm around mine and grabbing my hand.  

From where we sat, the flowers all seamed muddied, planted haphazardly together, unorganized and dirty. But as our sight moved outward through the field, lines began to form and by the end of the line, we could see the green stalks and the rows of dirt between the tall line of earthy soldiers, their yellow scarves the only touching parts in an organized madness.

“Have you heard from your brother lately,” she asked.

I let one side of my mouth move and shook my head.

“Did I tell you about the postcard?”

“Yeah, you told me. Greece, right?”

“Yep. That was then. I’m sure he’s having a grand time somewhere else now.”

She looked up at the sky, squinting. She looked over at me.

“It won’t last forever, you know. He’ll have to come back and face it sometime.”

“Sometime. I guess that’s true.”

A large, dark bird took off from a tree beyond the field. The bird’s long wings pushed once in the air and then held still, gliding among the lowest hanging clouds. The flowers below moved with the wind, the yellow ocean shifting back and forth. The sun was dropping each passing minute.

Sam pulled out her phone and took a photo of the field then turned her camera to me. I turned half a smile and stared into the camera as the flash went off.

“Good one,” she said, looking at the phone.

She looked up, smiled at me; I smiled back. She rose and asked if I wanted to go; I grabbed her hand and she helped me get up. I slid down the hill and plucked one of the smaller flowers from the plants. I crawled back up and held the sunny bloom in front of me.

“For you,” I said. “They were all out of roses.”

She laughed and grabbed the flower. She put it to her nose, inhaled, and then threw the flower back at me. Seeds from the flower’s center went down my shirt; I shook them from me.

 

Shannon got me a job at the Phillips station stocking shelves, emptying ashtrays, taking out the trash, etcetera. I took one week off to go see my father in Wichita and welcomed the first night back on the job. After my shift I climbed to the roof with a tall can of beer in a paper bag and looked out onto the fields and houses around the town. The tar on the roof was soft and tacky. I watched cars pull into the pumps, get their gas, and drive on. The back end of the parapet and its upper edge were tagged with Sharpie, a handful of names written in hieroglyphic letters. The moon hung above me. I drank my beer and smoked until the cherry of my cigarette became grey and cold beneath my nose. I smothered the cigarette under my shoe and watched insects cling to the lights and canopies below, crawl around the ground in a panic. I finished my beer and climbed back down. The air was thick and tasteless.

I pulled my car around and filled up my tank and drove home. The late night radio was playing track after track of songs that I did not know, but liked, so I turned it up and rolled down the windows. I wasn’t paying attention and I missed the turn to my own neighborhood; I hit the brakes too late and continued on until the next stop and U-turned back towards my street. As I turned onto my street, I saw my mother pull out. She didn’t see me; she was in the process of rolling down her window and smoke was billowing from the crack.

I turned into my street and drove down the hill and turned into our driveway. She had left the garage door open so I pulled my car into the garage. I sat in the car and listened to the radio before going inside. My shirt was heavy with sweat, especially damp in the armpits.

Upstairs, I took my shirt off and lay down in bed. The ceiling fan was spinning, the wind from the blades lightly lifting the edges of the paper on my walls. To the left hung a bootleg print of Jasper Johns’ Flag. On the opposite wall, there were a few new sketches I had made, hung with masking tape. One of them, an open field and a weathered barn, was painted with yellow and blue watercolors. The other drawing was a line of train cars, sketched out in black and white. I kept the former for a long time, framed it even at my place in college; the latter ended up lost somewhere in the shuffle.

 


About the Author: Andrew Gordon Rogers writes poetry and short fiction, both of which have appeared in various publications including Counterexample Poetics, First Stop Fiction, Commonthought and Meniscus Literary Journal. Rogers graduated from the University of Kansas with a BA in creative writing and he now lives and works in Kansas City, Missouri.

 

 

TOUGH GUY LOOKING FOR TOUGH GIRL, MUST HAVE OWN BRASS KNUCKLES by John Grey

Image - Chelsea Moore (Instagram ww_chelsea)


 

TOUGH GUY LOOKING FOR TOUGH GIRL, MUST HAVE OWN BRASS

KNUCKLES

 

Model yourself
on the young Robert Downey,
only with more tattoos,
cuss and spit,
form out of nothing but your heart
and your image in the mirror,
a brutal package.

It will help in your relationship
with the one
who dotes on real bastards,
who’s aching for a bad guy,
can’t wait to go public with him.
She likes to live dangerously.
You need to be dangerous enough.

You haven’t met her yet
but she’s out there somewhere,
warding off the too-good-to-be true,
hungry for someone who’ll stop at nothing.
Be whatever it is
will more than satisfy
whoever she is.
Remember, the road to true love
is lined with other wannabe lovers.
So beat up some guys along the way.


About the AuthorJohn Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Stillwater Review and Big Muddy Review with work upcoming in Louisiana Review, Columbia Review and Spoon River Poetry Review.

Artwork: Chelsea Moore

Beaks by Kim Magowan

Untitled (no artist)


Crouching in the ugly paisley armchair in the Littlebrooks’ den, facing the front door, Trish seethes. Her job is to stand guard. If Mrs. Littlebrook comes back from wherever she is (book club? Crochet group? Gin was vague, typically dismissive), Trish is supposed to give a signal. “Oh hi, Mrs. Littlebrook!” Inflate her voice to a golden bubble that will float across the den and pop against the door of Gin’s bedroom, where Gin and Freddy are fucking. She is supposed to signal, and of course to stall.

Gin has presented this as some fun task, and Trish understands Gin’s self-concept: Gin the queen is getting banged in her royal bed, and once King Freddy dismounts to do something regal—hunt a white stag, heckle a court jester—Trish the handmaiden will demurely slink in. She will hand Queen Gin, stretching on her silk coverlet, a scented handkerchief to delicately sop up—what? Sweat, semen? The bed, in Trish’s fantasy of Gin’s fantasy, is draped in gold velvet. Handmaiden Trish dabs the queen with lavender water. Maybe she fans her with peacock feathers, or halves her a fig.

But handmaiden is not Trish’s mental image of herself, as she crouches on this hideous chair, arms wrapped around her knees. No, she pictures herself as a gargoyle, perched on a rampart. Her hands are gnarled talons, her nose a beak, sharp enough to scoop out an intruder’s heart.

And this is no fun Trish-and-Gin conspiracy, like when Trish kept Mrs. Littlebrook distracted by demonstrations of dance steps (“This is an arabesque!”) while Gin, age twelve, hastily scrubbed off make-up. That was fun, something they were in together. In this current scenario, Gin and Freddy are in it together—more precisely, Freddy is in Gin—and Trish has nothing to do but watch the damn door and brood over Gin’s many injuries and slights, to examine each inflicted humiliation like a gold ball on her add-a-bead necklace.

Sometimes when Trish is really pissed at Gin, a condition which occurs more frequently since they started eleventh grade and Freddy Noble became a fixture, she talks herself off the ledge of irradiating rage by recalling some incident of Gin’s vulnerability.

For instance, that time when they were at Skylake Camp, the summer after seventh grade, and the other girls in their cabin, who went to the same fancy middle school, so they were a tight, enclosed loop, as impenetrable as a knot, started what their ringleader Paula Hoberman called a titty fight. Gin cowered behind one of the bunk beds, refusing to take off her tank top. “Because you have no tits!” Paula jeered, her voice sharp and elongated like a crow’s.

At sixteen, Gin still barely has any tits, but she has turned this into her Twiggy aesthetic. Certainly Gin’s recent trajectory has been to reduce: first her name, Virginia, to lop off its bookend syllables and present herself as only the core. Furthermore to persuade Trish to do the same, to stop being Patricia. When Trish thinks of their middle school selves, Virginia and Patricia, best friends since age eight, now morphed into Gin who assigns Trish degrading tasks, she feels sad for those girls. She wants to warn them not to shed the soft and rounded sides of themselves.

When Gin was twelve, when she was Virginia, she had been so full of promise: smart and polite, beloved by adults, to whom she always remembered to say “Please.” While Trish still can imagine a path for Gin to things that once seemed inevitable givens (U Penn, and down the road, becoming a famous cardiovascular surgeon, or an epidemiologist), that course seems increasingly beset by obstacles. It’s a labyrinth with monsters behind the hedges. Yes, Gin might still get to medical school, but now there’s unplanned pregnancy to worry about, or addiction, or hospitalization if Gin keeps using laxatives. Gin sees herself as powerful and free—“We’re so liberated!” she cawed an hour ago, handing Trish the bong—but Trish sees her as imperiled.

It’s like Trish is a clairvoyant from one of the King Arthur fantasy novels she and Virginia used to share, and she can see what no one else can: invisible black birds, beaks hooked and strong as pliers, circling Gin. Sometimes she feels like grabbing one of Gin’s sharp elbows and pointing out the birds. But she knows Gin will roll her eyes and say. “Stop being crazy.” Or, “Stop being a pussy,” a word prudish Virginia (not just flat-chested but so modest in the old days. Even at Patricia’s house, she’d always change into her nightgown in the bathroom. That titty fight had been real torture for her) would never have used.

Trish appeases herself by thinking about the coming weekend. When Gin will be away with her mother and brother on a camping trip, because Mrs. Littlebrook wants family time, and though Gin complains about how uncomfortable and corny camping is, Trish knows some suppressed piece of her (Virginia, Trish names this softer, discarded self) wants to be licking sticky s’mores off her fingers. Gin will be away, and Trish will put into action the plan she’s been hatching for the past month, ever since she slept over at Gin’s house in April. She was washing her face when Freddy walked in behind her. They looked at each other in the steamy mirror, and Freddy put his hands over her breasts—she was wearing her crew team tee-shirt but no bra—and softly squeezed.

Because Trish and Freddy have this in common, though Gin is too wrapped up in her own self-evolution to notice: they are the two main recipients of Gin’s endless shit. Because Freddy is sexy. Because Trish is sick of being a virgin, it’s like everyone else has taken rocket ships to colonize the Sex Planet except for her. Because Freddy said to her earlier tonight, when Gin was in her bedroom looking for her bong, “Can you come over this weekend?” and she could tell by the hushed way he said it exactly what he was proposing. It’s the clairvoyance again, except instead of invisible black birds it’s bobbing, disembodied breasts with nipples like red gumdrops. Because fuck this handmaiden-slash-gargoyle shit.

***

“What are you drinking?”

“Bourbon. Maker’s Mark, one cube of ice.”

Freddy heads to the bar to order drinks, while Gin takes in his retreating form. He’s not as handsome as he was. Men who age well have good bones, and Freddy’s looks were always about the surface. There is something blurry about him at thirty-one. It’s another reminder, one Gin has frequently experienced since moving back to Harrisburg nine months ago, that the past is only recoverable in diminished form.

Still, if she doesn’t study him closely, Freddy is good-looking, and his attention as warming as coming into the heated bar from the wintry air. Harrisburg in November takes getting used to; Pennsylvania is inhospitable to women with no insulating fat.

“So how’s the family?” she asks, when Freddy sits back down and they clink glasses. She notes he’s copied her, gotten bourbon too. This is also warming, a reminder of how in high school Gin led the way and Freddy trailed after her, carrying her brocaded train.

“Okay. Patricia is getting pretty sick of her job. Gus loves third grade, Lydia…”

Gin tunes out, though she dutifully inclines her head to look at the picture Freddy shows her. Trish, she notes, is plump—she always gained weight in her face. Gin avoids looking at the two kids. They are too tangible a reminder of the inexorable way time, that boulder, rolls on, and what little Gin has to show for it.

“And how’s…” Freddy trails off.

“Kevin,” Gin says, and plucks out her own picture, of her fiancé, arm around his amphibious daughter. It’s like her prior scrutiny of Freddy: if you don’t look too closely, Marie registers as a pretty, blonde six-year-old. A sharper glance exposes her oddities—skin so pale you can see blue threads of veins, bulbous eyes, sticking-out ears. Gin has no reason to be vain about Marie, who is Kevin’s daughter, not hers, but her fingers itch to retrieve the picture.

Of course Freddy is more interested in studying Kevin than his near-albino daughter. “How old is he again?”

“Thirty-eight,” Gin says. She’s calculating how long they need to small talk. Before she dropped out of college, she took a linguistics class, and she remembers Roman Jakobson’s term for this category of conversation: phatic speech. Not insignificant after all, Jakobson claimed, because it was “channel checking,” maintaining social niceties. “Think of how unsettling it is when you say ‘Have a nice day’ to a cashier, to have them not respond,” her professor said. Joseph Keppler: Gin gave him a blow job in his office.

Gin will not be able to transport Freddy to her apartment until they go through at least half an hour of catch-up talk, and there is after all information to be gleaned. About Trish, for instance—Gin registers that she has reverted to Patricia—and why she doesn’t like her job. Plus she could use another bourbon, to loosen and relax before she takes Freddy home and gets him to fuck her in that old way she still conjures up when she masturbates: Freddy standing at the edge of the bed, holding her hips.

Gin feels no guilt about Trish. Why should she? Trish stole Freddy the summer before senior year, when Gin was in California visiting her father. She returned to find her best friend and boyfriend a couple; she spent the first half of senior year lonely and furious, trying to present herself as indifferent. Once she said “Trish is welcome to Freddy and his tiny, tiny dick,” and someone—Colleen, she thinks—said, “I thought you said he had a huge dick.” Gin was aware then of a kind of electric current travelling through the girls, and the impossibility of recovering her dignity and gravitas. No, she’s not the least bit guilty about plump, sneaky Trish.

As for Kevin, it’s hard to know what he’d be more aggrieved about: her sleeping with another guy, or her drinking with him. Gin met Kevin a week after moving back to Harrisburg at AA, and he’s a zealot. He made her quit bartending (“How can an alcoholic bartend?”), though that was better money than waiting tables; he made her readopt Virginia (“How can an alcoholic call herself Gin?”). At this juncture it’s too late to explain that AA was just a persona Gin was trying on, in her endless adoption of different identities (vegan, Buddhist, punk). It was her latest carnival mask.

Fiancée and stepmother are personas as well, and they hold a certain allure: having an instant six-year-old for whom to heat up chicken nuggets makes the last dozen years seem less of a wash. She likes being in Kevin’s neat, pretty kitchen, sponging the soapstone countertops. Kevin makes her feel secure, if overregulated. And clearly, Kevin is attracted to fucked up women. His ex is a basket case, not just a drinker but an Oxy addict, and inflicted lasting damage on their strange daughter (Gin Googled “fetal alcohol syndrome” the other day).

Why risk things by arranging this drink with Freddy? Why hold the furled paper to the flame? Gin reflects briefly, then bats the question out of her mind. She rests her hand on the table top for Freddy to pick up if he wants—she will leave the advance up to him.

***

Patricia is running late, as usual; she thinks of the White Rabbit consulting his pocket watch. She forgot until lunch that she had promised Lydia’s teacher she would help supervise the ornament project. Patricia hates this sort of activity—q-tipping glue onto blank CDs, helping kids stick on sequins and class pictures of themselves—but Lydia is a pro guilt-tripper. “You never do art projects or reading tables. All the other moms do.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she tells the teacher, Ms. Applebaum. Patricia hangs her parka in the coat room, feeling more cumbersome than ever in that closet scaled to six-year-olds, Gandalf among the hobbits. Lydia has spotted her and looks both aggrieved that Patricia is late and thrilled that she showed. Patricia feels similarly twofold—resentful, needed.

And fuck, Gin is here, sitting one table over next to that weird stepdaughter of hers: Marie, with eyes like a fish. Patricia hasn’t gotten used to Gin being back in town, never mind the strangeness of them having kids in the same class. Of course Marie isn’t really Gin’s kid—Gin and the father are not married. What’s-his-name: Kevin. Sanctimonious, hairy. Gin used to hate body hair on guys.

Unlike Patricia, the unwieldy, hefty human in this classroom scaled for elves, Gin looks elegant in her tiny chair at the too-low table. Her knees are hitched up, but she looks (typical Gin) whimsical. She waves to Patricia.

Funny how seeing Gin makes Patricia feel more loving towards Freddy. Just yesterday, Patricia found herself thinking about her marriage, “Well, it could be worse,” and all day this thought followed her around like Pig Pen’s dust cloud: it could be worse! What a way to think about one’s marriage! Not the life to which her sixteen-year-old self had aspired. Back then, Freddy was a gem-encrusted chalice to be stolen from careless, full-of-herself Gin. Patricia still remembers that August fourteen years ago, lying on Freddy’s bed, her fingers on his moist cock, saying, “What are we going to tell Gin when she comes back from California?” And registering, in Freddy’s blank face, that he had not intended to tell Gin anything at all.

Patricia unscrews the cap from the Elmer’s glue. If the kids handle the glue, chaos will ensue: glue in hair, sequins everywhere. Across the room she sees Gin hand an uncapped glue bottle to Stevie, a freckled, anarchic child. Gin doesn’t realize you can’t let a six-year-old alone with glue. Trish opens her mouth to warn her, then decides it’s not her problem. This is what happens when a woman thinks motherhood is something you just put on like a coat.

And there’s something wrong with that kid Marie. Patricia has seen Marie stick her hair in her mouth and suck it. She doesn’t envy Gin her situation (isn’t she waiting tables? Wasn’t that what Colleen McKibbons told her? “You won’t believe who waited on us at Diaggio’s”? So much for being a famous doctor).

It’s funny, because before Gin reappeared last year, Patricia thought of her often, sometimes warmly—the paper doll beauty contests they used to have, they spent hours drawing with markers on card paper and then cutting out tiny bikinis, off-the-shoulder evening gowns—sometimes bitterly: the way Gin would make her stand guard while she fucked Freddy. Even when they were eleven, Gin’s paper dolls always won those beauty contests.

Yet it’s intrusive to have the real Gin come back into her life. Gin belongs in the past, not Patricia’s thirty-one-year old, harried, it-could-be-worse present. What’s she doing here? She doesn’t fit, any more than Patricia fits in this ridiculous plastic chair.

Patricia looks back at Gin and sees Ms. Applebaum hurrying over with a washcloth. Sure enough, glue is smeared on the table, and Stevie (onerous child, at Lydia’s birthday party he deliberately trod chocolate frosting onto the carpet) has glue on his cheek. Patricia feels (again, a double feeling) both guilty and gratified. And then surprised: Gin isn’t blushing and wretched like the kid cowering behind the bunkbed at Skylake Camp. She smiles at Patricia, a wry, what can-you-do smile.

“Playdate?” Gin mouths.

 


About the Author: Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her fiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, The Best Small Fictions 2017, and Best of the Net 2016 and long-listed for Wigleaf‘s Top 50. Her story ‘Why We Are With the Men We Are With’ was recently republished by The Literary Review as part of the TLR Share project. Her fiction has been published, or is forthcoming, in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Broad!, Cleaver, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, descant, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split, The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, JMWW, Literary Orphans, Moon City Review, New South, Oakland Review, Parcel, Sixfold, SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot.