Fruitvale Is by Rohan DaCosta

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Fruitvale Is

I know a place held together
By a level stretch of road
Two expressways
And a perfect myth
Where the houses are pastels
Broken Easter eggshells
Scattered about the chewed up hills
I know a dog named Bunny
That gets loose and chases pigeons
On the downward slope of Manzanita
I know a woman named Jackie
With a voice like a secretive canary
That bird only knows one tune
She hobbles over fissured slabs
Through the “murder dubs”
With a light in her heart
And Jesus across the chest
Fruitvale is on fire
Like that car melted in half
Clothes spilling out the back of an exit wound
Like every hunk of metal
Every gold-toothed grin
Like that temple riveted on high
Just briefly tanned in an tangerine syrup
At the breaks in conversation
The BART hums a thing soothing
Sings a note familiar
Wails a tale wretched
At the top of one hill
Live three wise men
Pacing well into the evening
A witch whose cauldron bubbles over
The finest solvent for miles and miles
I know baristas quite like Paul Revere
That tell me the skittish are coming
We won’t shoot until we see the apples on their Macbook pros
But Fruitvale is on fire
Like glow in the eyes of JKF
Like coal in the throat of PCR
I know a neighbor with an electric chair in her living room
I know a food truck like a medic
Like an answer
Like a second chance
I know a woman who whenever a seam came loose
Out of being either too wet or too damn reckless
She made it a rope to tie this place together even tighter
Dropping and rolling means stopping
And none of us can afford that
Fruitvale is on fire folks
Who the fuck is gonna put us out?


About the Author: Rohan DaCosta (MHDA) is multi-disciplined creator and curator out of Chicago. His work includes photography, clothing design, literature, and music production. Rohan DaCosta is the founder of GRACEGOD The Collective. You can see more of his work at gracegodcollective.com

Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé by Alvin Orloff

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I couldn’t find a boyfriend, so all I could do was eat – mostly strawberry ice cream glacé, my own invention. I made it by pouring ruby port wine very slowly over ice cream so that it froze a little. A small drizzle created an elegant glassine crust, though I often ended up with something more akin to a Slushie as I’m exceedingly fond of wine. A bowl or two of the aforementioned magically allowed me to forget – if only temporarily – the crushing absence of boyfriend following me around like a malevolent void.

One morning my alarm snatched me from the arms of a particularly delicious dream-boyfriend and I decided to break my no-booze-before-sunset rule by enjoying a bowl of the aforementioned for breakfast. I was drinking strong black coffee too, so my mind began doing backflips and loop-de-loops even as I slid into the soft, pink, painless cocoon of inebriation. I felt so good I put on a record and sang along – So what difference does it maaaaake? Then I had to stop because the lady next door started banging on the wall. I didn’t let this unconscionable infringement of my personal liberty upset me since it was time to leave for work anyway.

Getting to work meant trudging half-a-mile up the gravelly side of the highway to an ocean-side hamlet and aspiring tourist trap by the name of Saint Dymphna. I used to drive, but I’d lost my license three years previously. I’m actually a better driver once I’ve steadied my nerves with a few drinks, but try telling that to the killjoys of the California Highway Patrol. Normally I resented the extra half hour walking added to my commute, but that morning I felt too good to care. A delicate ocean mist kept the temperature mild, the air smelled pine-y fresh, and sunshine fell on my body like warm honey – a favorite, if unexplored, sexual fantasy.

The first part of my shift, waiting tables at the Sandpiper Cafe, passed painlessly thanks to the aforementioned pink cocoon, but by mid-afternoon I felt even more wretched than usual. The retirees with their unquenchable thirst for iced tea, the road-tripping families with their demonically bratty children, the college boys I dared not look in the eye because they were so damn sexy, all of them worked my nerves. I desperately needed a nap – and a job that didn’t involve quite so much repetitive groveling. A few discreetly pilfered glasses of rosé helped me endure until quittin’-time, but the prospect of my long trek home had me longing for death… and not just my death. I craved death for my slave-driving manager and boring coworkers, the penny-pinching under-tippers at the Sandpiper, my acoustically over-sensitive neighbors, my miserly parents, everyone I’d gone to school with, the California Highway Patrol, the Internal Revenue Service, all politicians and titans of industry…

“Spare a dollar?”

I glanced down at the sidewalk to see who’d interrupted my misanthropic ponderings and beheld a young man, maybe twenty or twenty-two, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of a wine bar. His hairless, sun-browned body was so lean you could see every muscle (the exact opposite of my own hairy marshmallow physique) and he would have been perfect if not for some serious acne scarring on his cheeks. My loins stirred, my nerves prickled, and – I’m fairly sure – my eyes bugged. Then came the familiar panic. Everyone’s pretty tolerant around here, but there are still straight boys who’ll call you faggot and want to punch your face if they catch you ogling. Then I took a closer look at the kid and un-panicked. His long, sandy-blond hair was braided into a pair of pigtails and he wore a tangle of necklaces supporting a dharma wheel, a green ceramic pot leaf, and a crystal. Clearly a peace-mongering hippie.

I usually ignored requests for money – I can only afford groceries, booze, and rent by shuffling my obscene debt load between several nearly maxed out credit cards – but the boy had me mesmerized. I pulled a mass of tips from my pocket and handed over a dollar bill, then another, and then another. The boy flashed a smile, revealing small, ferret-like teeth, and said, “Thanks.” He lifted a tiny, pink origami crane out of his lap and held it out. “For you.”

“Thanks,” I said, taking the crane. “I’m Dwayne,” I added, unable to help myself.

“I’m Truthstar,” said the boy, flashing a guileless smile.

“Truthstar?”
He chortled good-naturedly. “Yeah, you got it.”

“Cool name,” I heard myself say, though I was thinking the exact opposite.

Truthstar’s lapis lazuli eyes, which had been focused right on me, defocused. “Well. See you around.”

Trudging homeward I experienced a nauseating wave of self-reproach. What kind of fool was I? The sort of forty-two-year-old man who drools over guys half his age, that’s what kind. And how loser-y to be walking home with a crushing hangover headache! Perhaps starting the day with strawberry ice cream glacé hadn’t been such a brilliant idea. Perhaps I was the world’s biggest loser. Perhaps it was time to suck it up and sober up, take night classes to become a dental assistant, web designer, or CPA. Then I could move to some city, find a boyfriend, adopt a couple wiener dogs, and live in a nice apartment full of Ikea furniture. I could picture this glorious future in my mind ­– could see the boyfriend, the dog, the apartment – but somehow I couldn’t see myself in the picture.

Back at my apartment I collapsed on my bed for my usual post-work nap, but couldn’t sleep for thinking about Truthstar. What a guy like me could do with a kid like that! I hadn’t had sex in four years and my libido was getting antsy.

I – WANT – SEX! it commanded.

“But libido, nobody wants me! I’m a fat, ugly old queen and a pauper to boot.”

MUST – GET – SEX!! countered my libido.

“I live in the middle of nowhere and I don’t have a car,” I explained.

SEX – SEX – SEX!!! roared my libido.

Of course I hadn’t always been a pitiful celibate. Throughout my twenties and thirties I’d often made the ninety-minute drive down the coast to the gay bars in Guerneville. Even back then, before I fell in love with strawberry ice cream glacé, I was chunky. Still, I was popular enough. I had my share. But… as the rosy bloom of youth faded from my cheeks, I started becoming a bit invisible. Then a lot invisible. I’d sit around with my back-slapping buddies drinking myself happy and ogling boys, but the hookups and dates became fewer and fewer. As sex disappeared from my life, I replaced it with cocktails (as one does), which led to that unseemly business with the California Highway Patrol.

For the first few months of my carlessness I stayed home and caught up on my internet browsing. There are a lot of pretty, pretty boys on the internet. Then I started catching rides to Guerneville with Kyle and Zack, the polyamorous bear couple who run Cakeaters Bakery, next door to the Sandpiper. Driving down the coast they were good fun, joking and gossiping like real party boys, but at the bar they became terse businesslike as their eyes scanned the crowd for someone to drag home for a three-way. If they scored a date, their jolly demeanor returned for the ride home. If not, they’d stare morosely out the window or snipe at each other.

One night after striking out they lured me to home their house with the promise of a nightcap, then pounced on me. I was feeling horn-dogish so, despite misgivings, I tried to get into it. Tried and tried. I blamed my sexual dysfunction on the demon alcohol, but in truth the guys were just too old and hefty. My sexual equipment only becomes operational for waifs. Being men of the world we all tacitly agreed to forget the incident, but I still quit riding with them and determined to find romance in the modern fashion with phone apps and dating websites.

Disaster. As a youth, I’d made up for not being sexy or successful with bubbling vivacity. Unfortunately, bubbling vivacity doesn’t translate well onto the internet. I did my best, but the guys who hit on me were always either senior citizens or super-freaks. The former just didn’t flip my switch; the latter were incredibly flakey. They’d show up three hours late, or on drugs, or not at all, or – this was the worst – they’d show up and lose interest on seeing me in the flesh. It was obvious why. I was by that point, as one rude young man put it before fleeing my door, “Hella blubbery.” After that little humiliation I swore off men. Once I’d resigned myself to spinsterhood, my life became quiet. “Drama free,” I told myself, as if that were a good thing.

But the day my eyes chanced fall on Truthstar, my libido would not be denied. I spent two hours trolling for dates on Adam4Adam, Grindr, and Scruff… without luck. In desperation I phoned Kyle and Zack to suggest a trip to Guerneville, but they were busy redesigning their pumpkin empanadas. Defeated and demoralized, I spent the rump of my evening alternating between strawberry ice cream glacé, self-love, and season four of American Horror Story, none of which satisfied.

The next few days I took to wandering around Saint Dymphna after work. I saw the spare-changing girl with an angry pig tattooed on her neck, the boy who walked around wearing socks but no shoes, and the guy who talked to his dog like it was a child (That’s a postbox, Scout, that’s how humans mail letters), but I didn’t see Truthstar. This wasn’t too surprising. The dozen or so scruffy, wayward youths who loitered around town appeared and disappeared at irregular intervals. I tried to put Truthstar out of my mind, but he had a way of popping into my fantasies unbidden and doing the most wonderful things.

Several weeks later, I was just leaving work when a police car pulled up to the curb several yards in front of me. A cop leaned out of the window and exchanged words I couldn’t make out with Truthstar, who was sitting slumped against the front of Cakeaters beside a giant, grubby backpack. Truthstar said something back to the cop, then stood and hoisted the backpack onto his thin shoulders. He was wearing a sleeveless tie-dye tee shirt that hung loose on his lean torso, cut-off denim short shorts revealing long, deeply tanned and moderately hairy legs, and muddy hiking boots with thick socks. I hadn’t realized it at our first meeting, but he was at least six feet tall (being only five-five myself, I always notice other guys’ height) and slender enough to look weedy. I half expected the backpack to topple him over. As the cop glared, Truthstar sauntered down the street with an indolent slowness that seemed like a rebuke not only to the cop, but all of Western Civilization with its manic pace and neurotic uptightness. As the police car drove off I quickened my step to catch up my quarry. When I finally did, I found myself struck dumb because the only words echoing around my brain were “I love you.”

Truthstar turned to me, his pretty face contorted with grievance, and said, “I just got evicted from what is supposed to be a public sidewalk.”

“That sucks,” I said, hoping the “sucks” didn’t make me sound like I was trying too hard to be hip and young. Nothing’s more ridiculous than wrinkly middle-aged men aping juveniles.

“If I were black he probably would’ve shot me. Because of my white privilege I just get told to ‘move along.’”

Without forethought I asked, “Where are you move-alonging to?” Miraculously this came out like a perfectly natural question rather than a pick-up line.

“I’ve been staying with an old buddy over on Birchwood, but his girlfriend’s giving him grief about my being around so much, so…” His voice trailed off.

“I’m heading back to my place. Want to come over and hang out?” I wanted to kill myself. Surely I’d moved too quickly and scared him off. And did kids still say, “hang out,” or had it gone the way of “groovy” and “gag me with a spoon”?

“Where do you live?”

That Truthstar hadn’t recoiled in horror filled me with hope. “Just south of town. Like, a twenty minute walk.”

“You don’t have a car?”

“No,” I said, fabricating quickly. “You know, the environment and all.”

“That is so cool! Most people around here just slap a ‘Save The Earth’ bumper-sticker on their gas-guzzler and leave it at that.” Truthstar looked right at me and smiled.

I panicked. Could the boy detect my roiling excitement? Could he tell I was gay? Was he gay? Were his legs not the most beautiful legs that had ever strode God’s Green Earth? Had he noticed me staring at his legs? I hadn’t spoken in twenty seconds. I had to say something, preferably something environmental. But what?

“Oh, I recycle and everything.”

Truthstar kicked a small rock off the sidewalk. “Actually, nothing any of us do as individuals will make any difference as long as governments set policy based on the needs of corporations instead of people.”

I nodded vigorously. “Right.”

“Kropotkin says that humanity will eventually get rid of private property and competition to embrace the ideals of mutual aid and cooperation, but I wonder if we’re going to do it fast enough to save the planet.”

The name sounded familiar. “Is he the guy who ran for lieutenant governor on the Green Party?”

“Nineteenth-century Russian anarchist,” said Truthstar without condescension. “Prince Peter Kroptokin.”

“He was an anarchist and a prince? Is that even allowed?”

Truthstar smiled at my quip. “He wasn’t a Romanoff, so his title was mostly just a formality, and anyway he didn’t like people to use it.”

I hate politics and If I’d been with a friend I might’ve made a joke about “Crack-pot-kin.” Instead, I just switched subjects.

“So are you from around here?

“I was down in the Emerald Triangle for the harvest, then I went to visit a friend up in Eureka. Now I’m heading down to Oakland where my buddy Pete is setting up an intentional community based on Kropotkinism.”

“But you grew up where?”

Truthstar giggled. “Grown up? Ya got ya boy Peter Pan right here, yo!”

We walked in silence after that, but it didn’t seem to bother Truthstar. Eventually I felt calm enough to pry some more. “So your friend in Eureka…?”

“Kind of a girlfriend,” said Truthstar. “Though not really ‘cause I’m Free Love all the way.”

My heart sank at the mention of a girl friend, but the Free Love business sounded promising. “Don’t want to get tied down, eh?”

“I have a lot of love to give,” said Truthstar with a silly, randy little grin. Then his brow knit. “What’s it like being gay in a small town like this? The hetero-normative atmosphere must be totally oppressive.”

It didn’t shock me Truthstar had clocked me as gay – I have one of those voices – but “hetero-normative” took me by surprise. I hadn’t taken him for a college boy. “Well, yeah. A lot of people, guys especially, get locked into their role as heterosexuals.”

Truthstar nodded. “Sure. It’s a privileged identity.”

“They’re afraid to express the homoerotic desires that everyone has. I mean… we’re all bisexual, right?”

“We’re all divine sparks of cosmic consciousness operating meat-machines on a blue marble spinning through an infinite universe,” said Truthstar. He looked heavenward. “Fuck!”

Then I felt it too. Raindrops. “’Fraid I didn’t bring an umbrella.”

“I got a poncho in my backpack, but it’s way at the bottom. Let’s just hurry. It’s only a drizzle.”

We quickened our step so that Truthstar was puffing mildly and I felt like I having a heart attack. Then, just as my grimy tan stucco two-story apartment building came into view, the sky let loose. “That’s my place, run for it!” I hollered. We both ran, Truthstar so bent under his backpack he looked like an ant hauling a giant crumb. By the time we’d scurried under the building’s narrow awning we were both drenched. This felt lucky to the point of miraculous. I well knew (from back when porn movies still had plots) that wet clothes are more conducive to gay sex with random straight boys than anything except possibly pizza delivery or swimming pools. Trudging up the exterior cement staircase I was already rehearsing the obvious lines in my head. “Let’s get you out of those wet clothes!”

We burst into my apartment and I flipped on the overhead lights. Truthstar shut the door, wriggled out of his backpack, and looked around. I live in one room with a kitchenette, but it’s fabulously decorated with mid-century modernist kitsch: boomerang coffee table, orange swag lamp, queen-sized bed covered by an op art bedspread, purple butterfly chair, and not one but three Margaret Keane prints of big-eyed waifs adorning the electric orange walls. Ignoring these treasures, Truthstar beelined for my vintage stereo console.

“Whoa! That is freaking awesome! Does it work?”

“Sure.”

Truthstar went over and lovingly ran his hand along the console’s dark wooden surface. “This must be from, like, the nineteen sixties.” He opened the console’s center door and saw my records. “Oh my God, I love vinyl. Can I put something on?”

“Sure,” I said. “But first wouldn’t you like to get out of those wet clothes.”

Ignoring me, Truthstar fell to his knees and flipped through albums, reading aloud as he did. “The Human League. Echo & The Bunnymen. Culture Club. Adam & The Ants. The Smiths. Who are these people?”

“I collect album from the 1980s,” I said, not mentioning that I’d also collected the albums in the 1980s. “Have you really never heard of The Smiths?”

“Well, I think maybe,” said Truthstar. “What should I put on?”

“Try the Smiths. Perfect rainy day music.”

Truthstar reverently removed the disc from its cover and placed it on the stereo. As Morrissey crooned “Reel Around The Fountain” he cocked his head and closed his eyes like a serious aficionado before delivering his verdict. “Interesting.”

I re-popped the question, “Wouldn’t you like to get out of those wet clothes?” This time it came out like a corny line of movie dialogue. I expected Truthstar to laugh in my face, but instead he looked down at himself and nodded.

“Yeah, I better. Actually, could I take a shower? It’s been a couple of days…”

The mental image of water streaming down Truthstar’s lean, naked body hit me like three slugs of whiskey. “Of course.” I pointed to the bathroom. Truthstar picked up his backpack and went in. Following him inside felt intrusive, but I did. “There’s shampoo and body wash there,” I pointed to the plainly obvious items on the side of the tub, “and if you need aspirin or, uh, anything else, the medicine cabinet is there.” I pointed to the completely obvious medicine cabinet.

“Gotcha,” said Truthstar. His rigid posture implied he was impatient for me to go.

“Would you…” What to say next? “Uh… how about I fix us some snacks?”

“Absolutely,” said Truthstar. “Thanks.”

I left the bathroom and changed out of my own wet clothes into an oversized tee shirt (to hide my paunch) and a pair of gym shorts (to look athletic). Then I went into my kitchenette and downed a shot of bourbon. Thus fortified, I prepared two bowls of Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé, set them on the coffee table, and draped myself over the couch in a casual, dude-ly position. Then I waited. And waited. As five minutes became ten, I put the ice creams in the freezer so it wouldn’t melt. As ten became fifteen, I flipped the record. As fifteen became twenty, I considered knocking on the bathroom and asking if everything was OK. Would that seem creepy? Before I could decide, the shower stopped. I pulled the bowls from the freezer, set them back on the coffee table, and resumed my casual position on my sofa.

What would Truthstar imagine I’d been doing all this time? I picked up the Barbara Stanwyck bio I’d been reading from coffee table and tried to look engrossed. A minute passed, but still no Truthstar. Another minute. What was he doing in there? If it was something sexy I wanted to see. I stood with the intention of peeking through the keyhole, but suddenly felt repulsed by my own lechery. I sat back down and picked up my book just as a damp Truthstar emerged from the bathroom.

I looked up with an un-lecherous smile. “Hey there. All clean?”

“Yup. Thanks.” Truthstar now wore jeans and an oversized long-sleeved plaid shirt, but his feet were quite bare and as beautiful as any feet I’d ever seen. The boy could’ve been a foot model, if such things exist.

“Fixed us a little something,” I said, gesturing to the Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé, which I didn’t name for fear of sounding un-sexily bourgeois.

Truthstar plopped down on the sofa next to me, put his beautiful bare feet up on the coffee table (had he been raised in a barn?) and picked up a bowl. “What the hell is it?” Without waiting for an answer he took a bite. “Ugh!” He put his bowl down. “Sorry, don’t think I can eat it. I’m a little hypoglycemic.”

“No worries,” I said, whisking our bowls into the kitchenette and stashing them in the freezer. I inventoried my cupboard. “Do you like Mac ‘n’ Cheese? Tomato soup?”

“Both would be excellent. And if you happen to have any sandwich fixings….”

“Sure thing.” While I assembled our snacks Truthstar pulled out his phone and began texting. Was he one of those kids who can’t stop fiddling with his phone? Who paid his bill? Who was he texting? When I brought the food in, Truthstar put his feet on the floor and assumed a civilized position for dining. He did slurp his soup a little, but only a little. I sat beside him and we ate in silence, both of us staring at the wet, green world outside my window. There’s nothing more melancholy than eating soup alone in the rain, but a second person makes it cozy.

When Truthstar finished he leaned back with a big, relaxed smile. “Thanks, that was awesome.” Then he leaned forward and peered at the framed photos on the wall directly across from him. “Is that one on the left your mom? You look just like her.”

I laughed. “That’s me.” He was looking at a shot from a few years ago when I’d gone down to SF Pride dressed as 1970s Cher in a satin-y dress with a plunging neckline and suede thigh boots.

Truthstar looked genuinely interested. “Oh, are you gender-fluid?”

The answer was no, but in case Truthstar found gender-fluidity sexy I opted for ambiguity. “Well, that depends how you define the term.”

“The whole binary gender system is so medieval,” said Truthstar. “Just an invention of patriarchy. Male… female… what does any of that shit even mean?”

I nodded in agreement. “Nothing. It’s all nonsense. Male, female, straight, gay… we’re all just animals with animal thoughts and animal needs.”

Truthstar turned from the photo so that he faced me. His eyes were the frosty blue of arctic glaciers. “I was gonna hitch down to Oakland this afternoon, but it’s getting late, and what with the rain… D’you suppose maybe I could crash on your couch tonight and take off tomorrow?”

“No problem whatsoever,” I said. “But you don’t need to stay on this lumpy old sofa. I’ve got a queen-size bed…”

Truthstar examined my face with a quizzical expression that turned slowly into resigned disappointment. “Yeah, well, if that’s part of the deal, I guess that’s cool. We can get it over with right now if you want.” He plumped himself onto my bed, sitting at an angle so he wasn’t facing me, and started unbuttoning his shirt. The forlorn look on his face dampened my ardor a bit, but as his shirt fell to the floor, the sight of his taut, golden young torso rekindled my animal passion. While he shimmied out of his pants and dingy underwear I flipped off the overhead lights, lowered the window shade, and turned on the blue Christmas lights I’d strung along my ceiling for mood lighting. Then I gazed down with reverence at the blue-tinted body splayed out on my bed ­­–­ a porn star, a mysterious drifter, a brave rebel, a wild animal, a Greek God.

I sat on the bed gently and lifted my hand with the intention of running it across Truthstar’s perfectly formed chest. Then I froze. I willed my hand to land on him, but it refused. My conscience was in open revolt against the whole proceeding.

You’re taking advantage of him. He won’t enjoy your pawing. To him you’re just a lecherous old geezer.

“I won’t hurt him,” I told my conscience. “He might even enjoy it… at least little.”

Probably not, replied my conscience. And even if he did, forcing someone into sex he doesn’t really want is still sort of rape-y.

“I’m not forcing him.”

Maybe you’re not. But circumstances are.

“We’ll just see about that!”

I spoke aloud to Truthstar. “You’re very, very beautiful, and I’d do my best to make you feel wonderful, but if you’d rather we didn’t… I mean, no pressure…”

Truthstar sat up and smiled with a warmth that enveloped my soul like an electric blanket. “I think maybe I’m not in the mood.” He leaned over and kissed my cheek, then started putting his clothes back on.

An awkward moment of silence followed during which I felt terribly noble and absolutely miserable. I expected Truthstar to leave, a prospect that filled me with dread. Another lonely night would be insufferable after such a close brush with human intimacy. Once he’d dressed, though, Truthstar plopped himself back onto the sofa with a clear intent to stay put. “Do you get Netflix?”

At Truthstar’s suggestion we watched a long documentary about environmental degradation in the Amazon. When my friends and I watch movies we chime in with witty commentary and sexual innuendo, but Truthstar remained seriously mute throughout. Bored and frustrated, I consumed both bowls of Strawberry Ice Cream Glacé and a bottle of Merlot. Instead of a pink cocoon, however, the booze plunged me into a blue funk. Truthstar’s days were filled with the freedom and adventure on the open road while I spent mine chained to a dull routine of exhausting and humiliating wage slavery. Where had I gone wrong? What could I do about it?

Around midnight, Truthstar dropped off to sleep. Then he began snoring like a chain saw. Unendurable. I only refrained from smothering him with a pillow because I could still feel his kiss, soft as rose petals, on my left cheek. I think he really meant that kiss. Knowing sleep wouldn’t come naturally I popped a couple of pills and quickly drifted into a narcotized slumber. When my alarm beeped me awake the next morning I leapt out of bed immediately instead of lying under the covers groaning for ten minutes as usual. Truthstar wasn’t on the couch. I checked bathroom. Nope. Then I saw a note on the coffee table. In chicken-scratch handwriting it read, “Thanks for letting me crash here. Take care! Truthstar.”

“You’re welcome,” I said aloud to no one at all.

 


About the Author: Alvin Orloff is three novels: I Married an EarthlingGutter Boys, and Why Aren’t You Smiling? He is currently working on a memoir about the impact of the AIDS crisis on shiftless no-account queer club kids during the 1980s & ‘90s.

What is Male Entitlement? by Meg Johnson

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What is Male Entitlement?

Please give this poem a chance
even if you despise the title.
I love men. Most guys are superb.

This poem is not about a first-rate
guy. This poem is about my ex
boyfriend masturbating in the
woods and ejaculating on a tree.

Imagine the serenity of nature
and then Once I was by myself

out here and I was horny.
I walked up to this tree
and lowered my pants. It felt
great coming on the tree.

 The bark transforms into
a sad pair of eyes, a head
in hands, a stone.


About the Author: Meg Johnson is the author of the full length poetry collection Inappropriate Sleepover (The National Poetry Review Press, 2014). Her second book, The Crimes of Clara Turlington, won the 2015 Vignette Collection Award and was recently published by Vine Leaves Press. Both books were NewPages Editor’s Picks. Meg’s poems have appeared in Hobart, Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Puritan, Sugar House Review, Verse Daily, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in BUST and Ms. Magazine. Meg started dancing at a young age and worked professionally in the performing arts for many years. She received her MFA in creative writing from the NEOMFA Program. She is the editor of Dressing Room Poetry Journal and has taught writing at Iowa State University and University of Akron. Visit her at: www.megjohnson.org

An Apologia (For the Beastliness of Carol) by M.J. Nicholls

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PART ONE: REUNION

On a thermal night at ten past ten Carol swaddled her firstborn in a bath towel and laid him on a step outside Flick-Picks video shop. A screening of Françoise Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine was taking place inside and up to four people had arrived for the event. The salival softening of popcorn and hushed swallowing was the only perceived sound, inaudible beneath the film’s frenetic dialogue. Having abandoned her firstborn and taken one hundred footsteps towards the bridge, she attempted a crossing as the panic buckled her knees and rendered her incapable of walking or breathing. She staggered back to the video shop to find her firstborn and bath towel gone. Interrupting Truffaut: “Where is he? Where’s my son?” David, bulbous with surprise: “What? You have a son? I never knew you were pregnant.” Carol: “Give him back to me, you psycho, or I will outright fucking murder you.” The unwanted firstborn had been taken and remained untraceable for the following five years.

Her brother Bill was teaching a class on strategic Twitter-bombing as part of his marketing broadsweep programme for the Media Studies MA at Canberra University when he received an SOS text from his mother: YR SIS ND HLP. CM PLS. Reluctant as ever to interrupt his important teaching duties (how little she knew), she had used the same all-caps telegramese as when his father had passed: YR FTHR HD HRT ATTCK. DID NT SRVVE. PLS CM HM. Carol had been in a state of post-traumatic shock since the incident and had been subsiding on a diet of citalopram, vodkatinis, Lion bars, and Natrasleep, attending public roundtable mope-and-grope sessions where she discussed the various short-lived suitors that squirmed under her sheets and the ghost babies that visited her in the night with their sobbing faces and spumes of sick. His mother’s text was a plea that he return and help drag her from the metaphorical ledge upon which she was dangling (and the literal: she had moved into an old fisherman’s cottage that was sinking into the water below Bridgeloch Hill).

Bill left his condo in Canberra and the class of cooing co-eds burning love poems into his fragile heart, and returned to the village of Bridgeloch whence he was whelped. He had dropped his childhood friends to forge a sham living in the land of mid-summer winters and bouncing bandicoots, and from his condo viewed their woebegone Facebook photos: freezing in their shorts at rain-logged football matches, holding their plump offspring to the camera, posing in seven inches of slap in nightclubs, each status ribboned with Martian lolspeak and childish emoticons, bearing no emotion or sentience whatsoever. Sometimes the faces vanished into football insignias, as if their fanatical and pedestrian attachment to The Game had absorbed their personalities in toto, leaving little left except a sequence of short-wearing ball-kicking kid-squeezing nobodies from the sad and trivial past.

He hadn’t spoken to his sister since the loss. Her intolerable drama and dependence on his stable and yielding heart had been one of his prime reasons for buggering off. Apart from the mutual exchange of platitudes in Xmas cards (spiked with the usual barbs—“hope the shrimp are simply delish this year”, “have a GREAT Xmas on the beach”) and his mother’s telephone updates on which local sucker she had bumped and dumped, what medications had misfired this month, and her latest sexually provocative anti-Labour tattoos. He respected her through fraternal obligation, hoping for the sake of the bloodline she might find an end to her torments, although his resentment was too strong to permit real concern. Their relationship had been antagonistic from the beginning. She had hogged the parental limelight, nudging him aside with dismissive remarks on his dim-witted nature (he had been smarter and more talented), his revolting face (he had been handsome from age seven up), and his dependence on her love (he had never loved or depended on her for anything).

In the absence of an upper hand, she used her working-class local-girl status as a bludgeon. She claimed to pride herself on being “Bridgeloch born and bred” (no sane person would use this as a boast), and default defended all Bridgelochers in spite of their long and impressive list of idiocies. She had supported a purse-snatcher, citing his skill at algebra in school as a testament to his character, and among her other defences: a serial groper—his well-turned out appearance; a heroin addict and robber—his persistence to pursue his passions; a neo-nazi convicted of a double murder—his careful planning and moral convictions. There was no bent Bridgelocher she wouldn’t leap to defend.

He returned on November 28th. Apart from the repainted post office and the pawn shop’s expansion (a self-checkout corner had been installed where a computer would scan and value the pawned tat), the village was the same as in 2009. An unexploded bomb had taken out the optometrist’s office in 1987—this had been the last change to its infrastructure since the war. He walked along the pavement where strips of moss burst through the slabs, and performed his childhood ritual of remaining within each paving slab and never letting the moss touch his shoe. Bob the barber offered the same nod and question: “How’s your mother?” Bill blinked. “I haven’t been here in over five years.” Bob nodded in response and asked after her, even though she lived four minutes away.

Carol resided in a building with an expelled member of the Bridgeloch Advanced Knitting Circle, whose revenge tapestries hung from her windows bearing the message SOD YOU ANNE AND LESLEY; Vice President of the Depressed Teddies and Assorted Moping Mascots Club, whose suicidal koalas and pandas sat in the kitchen and bathroom windows clutching razors and knives; lead singer in a Blonde Redhead tribute band, whose rendition of ‘The Dress’ earned a round of applause at the YMCA; and a balding late-middle-aged man who cleared his throat over two hundred times an hour and masturbated to episodes of the sitcom New Girl with an abstracted and melancholic air. She buzzed him indoors and appeared with a headdress made of barbed wire around her beehive coif. Her outfit aimed to provoke: she had a T-shirt reading I ATE MADELINE MCCANN, sported tats of violent executions and murders, and wore barbed wire necklaces on her wrists, drawing trickles of blood down her arms. Her first words: “What’s the shrimp like down under, mate?” She flopped on the couch and and plunged a heroin-filled needle into her arm. Bill said: “Hello, Carol.” She replied: “Do your pet bandicoots disapprove of recreational drug use?” Bill said: “If I ever see a bandicoot, I’ll be sure and ask him.” Carol vanished into her pleasure cloud.

He returned twelve hours later.

Their first face-to-face conversation in half a decade encompassed her new fondness for German thrash metal bands The Bremen Bukaki Boys and Thongclamp; her selection of Cthulhu back tats; her assorted nipple and lip rings and the volume of her screams during the perforation procedure; and her fondness for porridge oats. An hour later she opened the file of recriminations, accusing him of hogging the rubber duckie during their infant baths, spooning overmuch mash at Xmas dinners, and overshadowing her Kylie Minogue karaoke by reading P.G. Wodehouse in the corner. She was explosive on the topic of her lost child, flinging a cup at his head after the first insinuation. He suspected not-knowing to be the root of her berserk behaviour—had an infant corpse presented itself she might have taken the sacraments and signed up for membership of the Bridgeloch Advanced Knitting Circle—so planned to stop in later at the library (pared down to two bookshelves and a computer) to conduct research on the thin but relevant history of infant losses down the decades.

“Sister! Might we attempt a civil confab for our third meet?”

“How’re the dingos?”

“Humorous!”

“I was being civil. You poked a vinegar-soaked stick into open wounds.”

“Mother sent me here. I can’t have the death of a sister on my conscience.”

“You have a conscience now?”

“Tell me the real reason for this lunacy.”

“Listen, my roo-riding brother, I am beyond saving. You can’t help a woman chained to a starving sabretooth.”

“And you can’t say why?”

“It’s a matter for me to ponder in the pits of Hades.”

“Christ. Overegging much?”

“Nope.”

“I will endeavour to find out.”

“Don’t tell mother, ever.”

“You making me swear to that?”

“Yes. Even if I die.”

“Please don’t die.”

“I can’t swear to that.”

 

PART TWO: A PSYCHOGEOGRAPHICAL RAMBLE IN EXPLORATION OF LOST PARENTAGE

 

The Bridgeloch Inn

 

The three fathers: Tom Green (59), who in 1977 during the minor cultural eruption (a Slits tribute band performed two numbers in someone’s garage before the police arrived and put an end to punk), conceived a child with a Catholic girl whose morals had fled when she saw a picture of Sid Vicious. One night the kid was left in an ice-cream truck during an all-night Teenage Jesus & The Jerks marathon, and had disappeared the next morning. Gerald Harper (39), who in 1997 during the minor Britpop eruption (a Pulp tribute band had performed on the grass outside someone’s house before Furious Freddie arrived with his rottweiler and ate Jarvill Cocksure’s blazer), conceived a child with a girl terminally indifferent to the direction her life was heading, up until the point she realised she was pregnant and this was not the direction in which she wanted her life to head. The child went missing after being left on the bench outside Darling’s Chippie. Ian Kirk (19), who in 2013 asked a girl he liked up to his room and impregnated her. The child vanished from its mother’s arms as she slept.

All three mothers had left Bridgeloch soon after to eke out lives of regret and recrimination and vermouth, while the fathers had remained to eke out lives of bewilderment and vagueness and lager. Bill brought the fathers together in the pub and after four pints of bitter suggested an exploration around the sites of their respective losses, and a deeper excavation of the region’s missing infants in history, with the hope that some detective work might unearth a pattern around these disappearances. He sketched a walking route around the village and the three fathers agreed to meet on Sunday.

 

 

Bridgeloch Close—The Stone

 

“I left school aged sixteen to sell paperclips in Troon. I went door to door asking semi-comatose housewives in their dressing gowns if they wanted to purchase high-grip paperclips to bind their documents or favoured the bendier plastic to twist into all kinds of exciting curves and straight lines. No wonder I longed to dress in cut-offs, sprout a mohican and tell Ted Heath to go fuck his sister.”

The Slits tribute band had performed at 3 Bridgeloch Close in Simon Quinn’s father’s garage. Gina Marsh dressed as Ari Up and Fiona Bright as Viv Albertine, while two lads in drag provided the bass and drum support. Tom and the nine others tried thrashing to the various semi-reggae and jangle guitar numbers, finding relief when the band covered ‘God Save the Queen’ and brought the bite of punk. The house was now owned by Paula Dunne, a schoolteacher who lived for her cheese and nibble evenings at the Castle Hotel, whose Nissan sitting in her whitewashed garage hid the one remnant of that evening—a large dent caused by Gina swinging her guitar and cracking the wall’s cavities. The dent had been re-filled several times and an unsmooth cloud of Polyfilla was still visible.

The walk wound along Bridgeloch Close, past the prefab houses with their council-splashed cream licks of late and their reverse-louvre windows that permitted rain and refused air. The stone-chip facades had lost ten percent of their stones, and new stones had been added during the repaint process to combine an off-puke colour scheme, a depressing aesthetic throwback to the seventies, and random stones plastered to the walls for kids to break their skulls on. The street curled round in the shape of a policeman’s helmet, prior host to large bulb of grass on which the kids amused themselves, now a car park crammed with Mum’s Ford and Dad’s Nissan and Eldest Son’s Skoda. Behind these houses, the large pitch for football matches and Bridgeloch gatherings, including the fair and the gala day, had become water- and bog-logged. At the centre, a sump of mud had formed into which people flung their unwanted furniture and deceased pets. In the rainiest season, cabinets, chair legs, cat paws, and hamster heads could be seen bobbing about the sump that became a swamp.

Gregor the Ice Cream Man used to park overnight on the grass if business was to be resumed in the morning. Ian’s girl had left her unwanted child there, placing the swaddled bundle beneath the milk lollies and, having failed to tell Ian she was pregnant up until her panicked change-of-mind and frenzied run back to the van, left him no chance to rescue his never-seen son after the never-seen birth or before the never-seen theft. The local priest Father Him (short for Himm) insisted that women shouldn’t spoil young men’s promising careers with their pregnancies, and to raise the children themselves until the fathers had a stable income, at which point the father might offer to support the children (but also reserved the right to refuse help due to the girl’s looseness in the first place). Father Him had held the moral reins for over six decades, and had died in 2013 aged 93. A swift funeral followed. At the end of the pitch was a large rock with the misleading local moniker The Stone.

“Lovers used to carve their names into The Stone with a hammer and chisel. We should be on there somewhere,” Tom said. Bill and Ian checked The Stone while the others fiddled with their phones (promises of beer and lunch were all that kept them), finding a well-chiselled if faded TOM & ANNA. Beneath, someone had chiselled VANTOS and underlined. “Who the fuck is Vantos?” Tom asked. “Might be that van rental place,” Ian said while zapping space-weasels on his latest app. “That’s Van-Tows,” Tom corrected. “So-called because the owner ran over some dude’s toes and thought that providing a towing service might increase his revenue and help the compensation payments.” Other theories were that two lovers had mashed-up their names to save time and effort chiselling—Vandross and Tossle? Vanuatu and Toshiba?—or that the names were a mash-up of their initials.

 

 

The Stone—Darling’s Chippie

 

“I had embarked on a nightclub romance with a coke-keen tearaway named Pauline Gert (most of the Pulp-cult had been Gert-stuffed), who intended to complete her HND in Ethical Hacking despite the drug love. She came from Troon, so viewed herself as the upper-class equivalent to me as in the song ‘Common People.’ We would visit supermarkets and she would pretend to be poor, laugh, and then try to fuck me on the sprouts.”

The group headed for Main Street where the shops were, passing into Scott Avenue—an interzone that had been burned down in a wartime Bonfire Night prank (one ex-soldier added several blocks of TNT to aid ignition and one hundred were incinerated). A complex network of weeds had overgrown the old tributes and flowers. A sign read Please do not litter. Be respectful of the dead. This did nothing to prevent teens from hurling crisp packets and Irn-Bru bottles into the weeds, or from urinating on the memorials after nights out. The interzone also acted as a venue for street brawls and various neighbourly duels. Criminals used the space to deposit their weapons or the intended recipients of their bullets. Two corpses had been found in the weeds, one from a gangland whacking in Weymss Bay, another from a local firm that operated out a boarding house for two weeks before the owner turfed them. (She ate a bullet and her corpse was dumped in the weeds).

The Pulp covers were performed in a flat above Scotmid (a supermarket that encompassed both Scottishness and middling produce), with Gerald’s friend Mark as Jarvill Cocksure, and three people from school he never spoke to as the other members. The setlist comprised material from Different Class until Furious Freddie and his equally unpleased rottweiler arrived to cap the encore. Gerald dived with Gert into the bedroom as the dog feasted on Jarvill, where they had swift and painful sex on the loo cistern. Gert had her child and left the bundle on a bench outside Darling’s Chippie. Quite why a bench had been placed facing the chip shop was a matter for debate—few people in life liked to watch drunks queuing up to order battered fish and chips—but the bench was used for eating and drunks slept there after forcing down their food and depositing the upchuck on the pavement beside. Gerald had carved their names into the bench with a pen. He checked again. GER & GERT 4 EVER, and below again VANTOS. “Fucking hell—Vantos again!” Tom said.

Bill bought the lads fish suppers and speculated on the nature of Vantos. He was surprised that no one had noticed these carvings. The lads explained that they had jobs (except Ian who had been weighing his options since leaving school and concentrating on his game-playing) and didn’t have time to inspect stones and benches. The owner of the chippie, Dick Darling (a name that had earned him derision and mockery from the youngsters, to which he responded by threatening to fuck off—after that they referred to him as Sir Dick), had seen the name Vantos carved onto the bench. “I seen that name carved onto the bench,” he said, adding: “Is there anything else you wanted to order?” Bill blinked. “No.” Dick made a motion that he fuck off out the door in that case and he’d have their custom again he hoped.

The last of the lads to lose their child was Ian. The loss had been welcomed by his girl Cass and himself (Cass sought to concentrate on her career in the sportswear industry). Their kid had disappeared from Cass’s arms as she slept in his bedroom. A quick check behind Ian’s bed revealed the word VANTOS.

 

 

PART THREE: BACKSTORY

 

On a thermal night at ten past ten Carol swaddled her firstborn in a bath towel and laid him on a step outside Flick-Picks video shop. A VANTOS operative in a civvies arrived a moment later, scooping up the bundle and laying him a pre-prepared crib in the back of a Transit van. He drove away after scoping the streets for witnesses or onlookers, leaving Carol alone where she lost her nerve and made a scene with the father in the video shop. The next morning she met the VANTOS operative as agreed at the rendezvous point (a disused café) and quizzed him on the fate of her discarded kid.

“Goes to Azerbaijan. Or Kabul.”

“To do what?”

“Put into foster homes. Learns, erm . . . becomes a Muslim.”

“Safe?”

“Yeah.”

To bring her in some ill-perceived way closer to her son, she applied with success for a post in the VANTOS organisation. Their purpose was to remove for a fee unwanted children from doorsteps, having been instructed where to collect the bundle by the abandoner, and rehouse them in safe untraceable locations (removing chance of reunions or last-minute regrets). Having struggled with her conscience, not wanting a soul to know (accusing the father to avert suspicion), she shared a deep empathy with indecisive mothers, those forced to have their babies (either through religious beliefs or leaving it too late to abort), ones left by the fathers, or those unable or unwilling to raise their produce. She helped with the administration and practical care aspect, helping keep the babies fed and watered before being shipped abroad. She worked at the West Highland office, where the “abducted” children in her area were stored before being flown overseas to their new homes in Asian countries.

After nine months working at VANTOS, Carol fell for shipping clerk Adams Grantham. She was attracted to his insouciant manner, native Northumbrian banter, and beautiful thick lips where she found a new home inside the beaming folds of his soothing smile. She began an erotic odyssey, helping her to forget the ever-nagging dismissal of her unwanted child the year before, making love on desks, mantelpieces, and ping-pong tables, until the passion cooled and she felt comfortable in the arms of her Anglo-Saxon lover enough to impart her secret. He reacted in horror. “My God, how could you do that to your own child?” he asked. “What do you mean?” Carol snapped. “You know where they send them, don’t you? They are sold into slavery in child labour camps, as workers or helpers, and treated as expendable.” Carol was stunned. “No. I was told they are rehoused with wealthy families. Given a fresh start.” Adams was silent for an unacceptable period. “And do you really believe that?”

Carol poked her nose a little deeper into the firm’s paperwork. She was unable to consult her son’s shipping documents, as information was not retained past two weeks per child in case the parents tried to track their kids or police sniffed round. She opened strangers’ files, read the names and addresses of the new parents. Names such as Mr. & Mrs Jung-Il or Mr. & Mrs. Eun-Jin appeared, although the locations seemed suspicious, e.g. 2 New Harbour (Street), or Old District (Street)—“street” appeared to have been added in brackets in order to present a false image of security. A quick look on Google revealed these places to be on the outskirts of town, nowhere near the cosier suburbs as advertised, but warehouses blurred from Google street view, so more likely to be places where the sold worked to make trainers and toys for western kids on a diet of rice and water for sixteen hours per day.

She took to vodka. One day, sneaking into her boss’s office while he was out to lunch, she logged onto his computer, accessing a spreadsheet that contained the name, precise location, and year of abduction for every client. She knew a police confession was death sentence, the firm having strong connections in organised crime syndicates at home and abroad, so she took to staggering around the town drunk, carving the company name at the abduction spots in the hope someone might do the detective work. It was this chronic alcoholism that would end her life prematurely some years later.

 


About the Author: M.J. Nicholls is a writer from Glasgow. He is co-editor at Verbivoracious Press, and his novel, The House of Writers, will be released in 2016.

For Jake: by Hanna Pesha

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For Jake:

energy flows like a blue dragon through your life
snaking through the time of your days
fast and bright as fireflies

magic birthright
blocked only by unwillingness
to feel the anger that is yours

nothing is wrong with plunging
a knife violently
into a lie


About the Author: Hanna Pesha lives in Oakland, CA. She has been published in Arcata Free Press and Steelhead Special. She has been a teacher with California Poets in the Schools, artist in residence at the Mendocino Art Center and has taught a workshop through Poets and Writers with domestic violence survivors. She has read at the Crow Show and Bay Area Generations.

Brunch by William Auten

 

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One of the things he loves about his cousin is her out-of-the-box, unique approach to life, novel things to try and novel places to go, most often spurned on by reviews she’s read in the Post or on the Web, especially the food and drink reviews. And lately their get-togethers coincidentally happen when their respective lives change, either signaling what’s ready, what will be, a harbinger, or what has been, what has happened, a celebration. Rachel invited Mikey to a Mad Men–themed party in a former dry-goods warehouse in Falls Church, where, in the middle of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” her then-boyfriend, now fiancé, proposed to her on one knee. Last month, just before Mikey was laid off from his job, it was One-Eyed Billy’s near the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, serving over thirty microbrews, including Barack’s Not Quite Bock with its floral, dry, bitter hops; complexity of bready malt flavors; hints of banana and cloves and honey swirling in dark amber; and pairing well with goat’s milk cheese, roast chicken, and Mexican food. And in September when they got together before Rachel went off to her first real-world job working for a private consulting firm near Pentagon City, she and Mikey ate dinner at The Shire, a Tolkien-themed restaurant and pub, complete with a map of Middle Earth and compass in the bottom right corner, under which lay the words There and Back Again gilded in calligraphy on a tan-green scroll, Smaug flapping his thorny wings in the distance behind the mountains, all hand-painted on the main wall upstairs, the menu chock full of beer from local breweries, including an oatmeal stout from One-Eyed Billy’s, wild-game meats, and multi-colored starches, as well as lasagna, pizza, and chicken nuggets for the “real hobbits.”

So today, on this sunny Sunday in April, the first after a series of heavy spring rains that, along with the slow melting of a recent snowstorm, keeping the sky grey, the flowers and cherry blossoms delayed, and the ground soaked, they are off to one of DC’s favorite drag-queen brunches at Heads and Tails, an open-air sports bar and grill for open-minded people of all walks of life. Mikey is ready for anything, and the more they walk in the light that is charging the morning air, the clouds having moved on, the more he’s pulled into it, a hamster stepping into a wheel.

Brunch in the District has become cutthroat, a Darwinian mode of survival for many of the establishments, as competition and the number of restaurants serving brunch have multiplied over the past few years, and specialty brunches, such as rustic French countryside, Cali fusion, or surf-and-turf, have started to emerge as brunch offshoots scrapping their way to the top. Comfort food and home-style cooking to signal the end of the weekend and to usher in the start of the new workweek isn’t enough anymore, and drag-themed brunches have become the most talked-about and most popular destinations. But H&T has decided to turn it up a notch: The ladies perform and serve, and the positive online reviews are increasing as word spreads about this unique twist. According to Yelp, it’s the best place for laughs, memories, and pie. “A bit pricey,” Katey L. from Dorchester, MA, reviewed, giving it four stars on her trip earlier this year, noting the $45/person reservation for brunch, “but so worth the free first round of mimosas. And the ladies are ah-ma-zing. I loved Madonna, she brought back so many memories of my childhood, and I loved Queen Mary, the only one who sang Broadway classics. She said she ‘blew in’ from Long Beach. LOL. Deffo check it out if you get the chance. Will be back for sure.”

Situated on a corner a few blocks down from a Metro stop, with its neon purple and yellow sign, upstairs outdoor deck, bright white, tear-shaped lights strung from the large canvas canopy’s posts, white painted exterior with exposed red brick and the old rafters from the days when it was a salon in the mid-1800s for DC’s intellectuals, the restaurant’s glass front bustles with activity and glows along the street’s homeless population and LEED-approved buildings starting to pop up between the Afro-Caribbean bookstore, Syrian grocer, and Eat Your Greens farm-to-table salad shop, the second location in the metro area.

Mikey pauses a little longer in the light, feeling it cling to him. He stops outside the heavy oak front door to look at some fliers next to the menu and drink list, both of which are affixed to the outside wall. The Federal Triangle Triangles Sports Club and DC Roadrunners have partnered for a training program for all runners at all stages for a July 4th 10K. DC United midfielder Bart Gomez and goalkeeper John Jordan will be there signing autographs after the home opener on April 11th, and on May 24th, both Jane Ire and Mad Maxie Pad from Capitol Headache Roller Girls of the Atlantic Division will be manning a table out front, providing information, answering questions, and promoting the All-American Roller Girls League. And Don’t Forget Our Delicious Apple Lime Pie w/ Real Key West Limes says the front door’s broad neon-green-and-yellow-letter banner flapping in the wind under the American, District of Columbia, and rainbow flags, all three translucent with the morning light shining through and onto the damp road and the metal grates of the gutters rumbling with thaw.

In they go: Rachel; her fiancé Captain Patrick, Iraq War vet finishing his undergrad degree at American U; Sarah, grad student in international affairs at Georgetown and Rachel’s friend from a summer internship at Dolenz & Hill; and lagging behind but hoping for a real tasty treat this morning, Mikey, Mike, Michael Dennis Tucchi, second-gen Italian-American, hoops fanatic, having lived, breathed, and played basketball for the majority of this life, often being the only Caucasian on a team. Nicknames included White Mikey, M-Dud, and No Game. He had one semi-serious girlfriend between the ages of seventeen and eighteen: Bethany Abrams, Jewish princess. Great hair and body, super smart, but big nose, he always thought of her. Mikey told her he loved her during the last slow dance at the senior prom. Dru Hill’s “These Are the Times.” He never saw her again after she went out of state to Princeton, but that didn’t matter, and neither did her nose in that dress she wore. And today, pushing thirty-five and not exactly dangerously obese, but medically overweight, certainly not zipping around life with lean muscle mass, stuck like a ball between the rim and the backboard, Mikey is four months into his Thanksgiving announcement that he and Melinda have separated, which didn’t surprise his mother, and that he now earns slightly above minimum wage as a sales associate hanging and folding, folding and hanging, and helping customers make cool artistic decisions at Urban Outfitters after a company-wide layoff at BridgeOver, a startup software company in NoVa’s tech corridor that will continue to grow without Michael Tucchi’s computer science degree and three-fourths of the developer department. His supervisor, who maintained his position, helped fuel Mikey’s exit with an increasing concern that Mikey was easily distracted, that a three-step process, mediated by HR, of (1) having Mikey take initiative (“own it,” the report encouraged) and self-track his work vs. personal (i.e., Internet) time; if this didn’t rectify the situation, then (2) having this time automatically monitored by IT; and as a final tactic, (3) removing Internet connection all together from Mikey’s computer did not resolve Mikey’s focus or to create, as Bob Huggins wrote in last quarter’s write-up, “a serious atmosphere of sacredness and ritual at Michael’s work station.” Mikey wouldn’t have put it that way, and after those words sunk their stingers in for a few below-freezing days, he understood it but still didn’t appreciate that Bob threw Mikey under a bus that Bob was riding, helped motor it towards and flatten Mikey, and then drove off into the sunset, paycheck and job and stock options firmly in hand.

So after hitting this series of new lows, he’s doing everything he can to make his life feel that it’s an open suitcase waiting to be filled again with new journeys, the two halves snapped shut, and carried away in another direction, preferably back up, but leveled out at the very least. This is also draining for him, and having hit play again on his once-paused Catholicism, all the prayers and hopes and pleas and asking God or the saints or even the search engines and message boards on CareerBuilder.com tire him out, so much so that he’s reached a point of enjoying what he cannot change at the moment, that he can’t fix everything all at once. Besides, adulthood for Mikey has remained like a giant magnet swinging between his actual life on one side and the heap of movies and sitcoms and pop culture on the other side; picking up scraps from each side as it oscillates; and solidifying fictional and nonfictional events into one giant mass of images, characters, outcomes, and songs.

What’s left of Mikey’s receding hair is brushed back, limbs of dark chestnut brown here and there, a once-thick forest peeking through flesh-colored fog, and he’s a little grumpy this morning, partly because of his hangover. A few hours of solo time after closing the store and five Presidente margaritas at Chili’s did him in last night. The skillet-fresh fajitas and warm tortilla chips with gauc did not soak up anything in the añejo tequila–soaked vat that quickly became his stomach. His liver and sludge-filled intestines feel hand-twisted like a balloon animal, and he’s hoping this morning’s nosh and entertainment will lift his spirits. The warm, bright light flooding the waiting area of the restaurant seems to be helping.

But he’s mainly grumpy over a text from Sean Weinman, his longtime college pal and go-to buddy in their fantasy basketball league, who said that with OKC’s win last night over the Knicks and the triple-double put up by Durant moves Wein-n-Dine81 past WarEagleInTO for the current standings. Booyah! says the text. How’s first place feel? Just ask me. Mikey’s dry tongue claps on the bottom of his dry mouth and behind his fuzzy, dry teeth. Mikey starts to text back, but Sean is beating him to it, the ellipsis bubbling in the bottom left of Mikey’s phone. You talk to Mel this wknd? bursts the next line, which is fine on one hand because Mikey has always confided his marital and personal joys, fears, and problems with Sean ever since they roomed together at Maryland and came close to defeating Kappa Sig at the beer pong tournament two years in a row, the two years they had to work at Beltway Plaza Mall in College Park after graduating and lived across the street from the frat.

Mikey grimaces at the Melinda question before re-texting. No. She said she was ‘in a mood’ w/ the divorce option but willng to talk “soon” bc I’m a really good example of a country song right now.

Dude, the phone buzzes back, we got that couch in the b’ment. Just say when, Im your huckleberry

will think about it, Mikey replies. R wants me out but wont say.

She still hot. Legal in the South, Sean quickly texts.

GI Joe wants me out like yesterday

ROFL hang in there

In addition to the framed photos of Heads and Tails’ ladies and patrons enjoying a birthday or brunch or a Nats or Orioles game, the interior décor is heavy on sports memorabilia and flat-screen televisions, and all the plastic and glass surfaces sparkle with the morning light, which, as the day has lengthened, has become the centerpiece, a sun in the middle of the room around which the crowd orbits.

The pager in Rachel’s hand rumbles and twinkles, and the greeter leads to them to a long table angled along the main floor. “Your server will be here soon,” she says, as she turns back towards the front door where, seconds later, a group of six has arrived, more behind them.

Several tables are full, and the barkeep is prepping an assembly line of mimosas, pouring OJ, pouring champagne, topping off the glasses with tiny floral umbrellas. Mikey looks around and is, at first, disappointed, because the young Asian woman who greeted and showed them to their table wore a lot of foundation on her face but was not in drag. But then he sees Marilyn Monroe sauntering up to the bar and loading her tray with a mimosa, two bloodys with celery stalks floating inside, and an Irish coffee, and he is pleased. Beyoncé makes her way to the chrome counter separating the dining area from the flame-lit kitchen. She leans on the counter and throws her hands up in the air, one of them gripping an order ticket. “Come on,” she exasperates to the short-order cook re-reading the ticket and shaking his head, steam rising in front of him.

Mikey watches Sarah bend over a chair to pull it out, her empire waist pushing up and expanding her cleavage, and from underneath her blue-smoke eye-shadow, the grad student catches him looking at her two bulges. He smiles, blushing, “Yeah, Sunday brunch,” he croons in a raspy voice and says to her, “I’m technically still married.” By that point his eyes have at least reached hers, and he’s aware that last night’s festivities remain camping out on his tongue and no amount of mint toothpaste or mouthwash could dissolve the odor drifting towards Sarah’s smooth, blunt face. The brunette with square-frame glasses nods, lifting the pencil-eraser-sized mole on her chin into the morning light, a humpback whale coming up for air, and makes a slight snarl on the left side of her mouth. Quickly covering her upper torso with her red sweater, standing up, and moving towards another empty seat, she sits back down, further from Mikey, scoots towards the table, turns to Rachel, her shoulder and arm blocking any and all space between Mikey and her, and asks if she’s heard about Lynanne’s news that Raytheon not only renewed her analyst contract but also promoted her. “No, I haven’t,” Rachel responds, her eyes opening wider as she leans closer to Sarah, but then her eyes give Mikey a look of reproach baked inside disappointment. “She did, so awesome too,” Sarah chimes.

As silverware clings on plates and Liza Minelli and Bette Midler appear at two tables on the other side of the room, the fog in Mikey’s head breaks apart a little more, and the bits of broken-up sentience floating in his head float a little closer together, touching just enough for him to realize he’s now directly across the table from Captain Patrick Ochester, six-feet tall, hazel eyes, dirty blonde, twelve percent body fat. Mikey sighs, assuming where and how this’ll end, but his attitude is picked back up by the arrival of the pint-size drink of Diana Ross, welcoming them all and saying she’ll be their server for the first half of brunch, but following that, she and the other ladies will be performing.

Mikey sits up straight when Ms. Ross hands him a menu and tells the table about today’s brunch specials. “How about huevos?” Mikey asks, smirking and hoping for a witty reply.

Honey,” Ms. Ross exhales, “have we got huevos…rancheros, that is,” and Ms. Ross spins in a tightly wrapped ball of purple sequins towards the coffee pot that her Crossfit-defined arms cradle. “Coffee?” she asks, and all of them say yes to this. “Room for cream? I’ll top you off. Just say when,” she winks at Mikey, who smiles back, blushing and huddling over his menu and downing his first mug.

As Rachel and Sarah pass some breakfast ideas back and forth between them, the Captain drowns himself in the three-tiered menu handed to him by Ms. Ross. Cutting through the eggs, sweets, specialties, a la carte, gluten-free and vegan options and knowing exactly what he wants (2 x 2 x 2), Mike closes his mouth and tries being chipper with fake small talk. “So…Pat…what’s new?” He asks this but then the synapses in his brain reach full connection, firing one clean shot before relaxing again under the weight of residual alcohol and a douse of mimosa, and he realizes he lives with the guy who’s engaged to his cousin, thanks to whom he is not homeless. “I mean, since you know…school or whatever…this week,” his voice fades into a mumble.

The Captain keeps his hazel eyes scanning each line item. After a few seconds, reaching the lower part of the menu, he scratches his baby-face. “Not…too…much,” his staccato breath breaks apart each word. “I had that paper I had to write…turned it in Friday afternoon.”

“Right…” Mike perks up, leaning into the Captain’s hospitable reply and the image popping into Mikey’s head of the Captain riding his official Le Tour, all-carbon Felt on the way to campus in order to drop of this research paper before hitting the road for a fifty-kilometer bike ride before dinner. “Got it all done, huh?”

“Yes, sir, I did,” which the Captain says with more vocal force and rhythm, emphasizing “sir,” looking up at Mikey, and slapping the menu shut. “Hard work pays off.”

“What the f…,” Mikey catches his words and quick-fire temper.

Rachel casts a blue-eyed buoyant look towards Mikey, and smiles.

“Here we are,” Ms. Ross sashays minutes later.

The table nods their heads in approval, as the light pouring in through the windows balloons the room’s brightness.

Mikey looks up at Ms. Ross as she slides his sunny-side-up eggs, two chocolate-chip-banana-walnut waffles, two sausage links, and OJ fresh-squeezed in front of him. Diana Ross made me breakfast, he texts Sean. In bed replies his buddy.

“Cheers, everyone,” Rachel lifts her mimosa, and their glasses clink. “So glad we get to do this.”

“Did you hear back from anyone this week, Michael?” asks the Captain, not looking at Mikey, scooting toast off his plate, and handling it like it was pulled from underneath wet garbage.

Sighing inside himself, but not defeated, Mikey shrugs. “No, but I folded all the Bob Seger shirts when they came in on Wednesday. Had a day to it and got done early.”

The Captain smirks as he slathers his steak with a butter cube and plops his eggs on top, keeping the roasted veggies in their own little circle of oil and crushed pepper. Fork in mouth, the Captain looks at Mikey, sets his fork down, stares a little longer at him and then stares at the edge of his plate, and finally nods, shrugging his shoulders at this information and carving out another piece of steak. “You can do better, Michael,” Captain says. “I believe in you, and I’m not the only one.”

Rachel makes eye contact with her fiancé, wiping her face with her napkin and cutting off her conversation with Sarah. “Something will catch…if you go after it,” Rachel mediates between the two simmering men.

“Look, at this point I’m just happy I have something,” Mikey sighs. He leans back and looks at Rachel who is stirring almonds into her oatmeal. “Actually…,” the synapses in his brain reloading thanks to a fresh batch of caffeine, his second mimosa, and a burst of warm sunlight on him, “I’m all right where I am. I’ve accepted that this is just how it is for now.” Mikey grins, cutting into his layer of eggs, sausage, and pancakes, chocolate chips and maple syrup oozing down. Behind him the window shades buzz as they are automatically drawn, and the artificial lights over them dim. The greeter leaves her podium by the front door and tightens the window shades more, as best as she can, but the light finds it way into the room through the narrowest of openings.

“And now,” booms the PA speaker, “let’s welcome the loveliest ladies in the District, starting with a classy lady everybody knows, Miss Marilyn Monroe! Any birthdays out there?” One hand goes up in the grey light, a pudgy middle-aged man with glasses, and Ms. Monroe points her ballroom white glove to him and sings happy birthday like he was JFK, eventually sitting in his lap and kissing him on his cheek. The man claps and laughs, turning back to the rest of his table, who are snapping photos, clapping, and laughing along with him.

“Let’s give it up for Marilyn Monroe!” After the crowd’s clapping dies down, the PA continues, “And now how ‘bout a lil’ country for your morning meal!”

And out she saunters, tall, disproportionately top-heavy, and says, “Hoo-ee, I think need a partner for this little number.” And Dolly Parton shakes her perfectly manicured shape in her yellow dress and tapping the tips of her bedazzled cowboy boots to her song’s intro that’s looping until she is ready.

“I so know this song,” Mikey says loudly but not rudely, buzzed, confident, unaware of how loud he says it, but proud that he knows it, facing his cousin and the Captain and nodding to Sarah who refuses to acknowledge his existence.

Ms. Parton glances over at him and drifts his way, a canary sparkling in the spring light, humming and laughing and glowing. She puts her hand on Mikey’s shoulders that are pumping up and down like a pumpjack. His brown eyes grow large. “What’s your name, good lookin’?”

“Uh, Michael. Mike. Mikey,” he qualifies one more time.

“Lots of names there,” she giggles, teeth aglow. “You know this one?

“Yeah I do,” he replies, almost offended that Ms. Parton would even ask such a thing.

“Well, come on then, good looking, sing with me,” she beams and shares the mic with him in this light that continues to break into the room, the sun nearly at twelve o’clock, pouring in over them all from the open-air deck above, this light that can’t be ignored so that the things within it are glowing like buds on trees, that the eyes cannot look anywhere else but into that bright space. And they begin to sing about something going on that can’t be explained, pain going away because peace is becoming known, so much love and connection that it requires no conversation, the world rolling along, no one in between, nothing standing in the way, islands in a stream.

Is this it? a small hopeful part of Mikey sits up inside him. Are you my angel with a sign? he wonders, looking at Ms. Parton who, at this point, wrestling back the mic, completely ignores him as she retakes command of the song, her over-bleached hair curling and lifting like wings in the light behind her. Have I found you or have you found me?

And the light expands in Mikey’s thoughts of what could be, what could happen next, what could come of what’s happening in front of him, suspended in this very moment, that he could quite possibly make a career as a Kenny Rogers impersonator, moving to Atlantic City or Vegas or wherever he needs to be, or that he could start a Kenny Rogers–themed restaurant featuring the best brunch on the Eastern seaboard, thanks to The Gambler, a cheeseburger omelet with all the fixings and seasoned hand-cut sweet-potato fries on the side. He looks at Ms. Parton again out of the corner of his eye, squints at her, can’t help but wonder if she is indeed a messenger, that maybe she’s bringing something just outside of food and drink to him, something just for him that won’t change much but will change a little over time, once he finds its purpose and gets it going, something that won’t make him happy but happier, that he’s this close to precision, a minimal requirement to begin, and it is everything.


About the AuthorWilliam Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost (Black Rose Writing, 2016), and his work has appeared in District Lit, Drunken Boat, Notre Dame Review, Origins, Canada’s Saturday Night Reader, Sliver of Stone, SunStruck Magazine, and other publications. He has work forthcoming in Red Earth Review and Sequestrum and has read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review.

Control Group by Heikki Huotari

jimi-evins
“Painter” by Jimi Evans

CONTROL GROUP

The ingredient in question
is extruded, pressed into
the shapes of animals
and offered to the criminals,
but not the kind we like.
The kind we like are put up in hotels
and given new identities,
careers and social skills. They can
have anything they want delivered
to their doors for their last meals.
Their catwalks are square circles
so whichever way they turn
they’re headed home.


About the Author: Heikki Huotari is a retired professor of mathematics. In a past century, he attended a one-room country school and spent summers on a forest-fire lookout tower. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Poetry Northwest and Crazyhorse. A chapbook is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Artwork: Evins paintings are filled with vibrant colors and shapes that are alive with energetic movement. Evins states that his works are created to convey the acts and joys of “making marks”, what he calls the signature of the artist.

Jimi graduated with High Distinction in painting from California College of Arts (Crafts). Since then, his work has been influenced by his travels to Nigeria, Jamaica, Mexico, and Europe. He has been a multi-year CAC Artist in residence, worked on various collective mural projects in the Bay Area and was the site coordinator and lead artist for the initial phase of 100 Families; Arts & Social Change Project in Oakland.

Jimi has been awarded the Jan Hart-Schueyer Achievement Award, The Ebony Museum Pioneers Award, California College of the Arts Center for Art & Public Life Community Arts & Education Award, and the Alameda County Artist Leadership Award. Jimi recently received an Individual Artist Grant from the city of Oakland Cultural Arts Program.

Jimi has exhibited at the High Museum in Atlanta, GA., Oakland Museum of California., San Francisco Art Commission, Oliver Hyde Gallery at CAC., Canada College in Woodside, CA.,

 

 

Pickwick Bowl (Burbank, CA) by Justin McFarr

pickwick-bowl-art


“I’m sorry, Vernon, I really am. I just wasn’t… you know, expecting it to be that much.” The father opened the door to the Pickwick Bowl. Light streamed into the darkened entryway as he led his son toward the service island forty feet down the carpeted hall.

“It’s okay, Dad. No big deal.” The boy walked a few paces behind and to the side of his father. The sound of crashing pins and upraised voices joined together to drown out the boy’s words.

“Horses, seemed like a good idea, a fun thing for us to do together. Jesus, it’s so expensive, though.” The father’s shoes still carried dust from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center that sat across the street from the bowling alley. His mind lay scattered back there, where the money he’d earned and the money he now carried was not enough to see his son hoisted up onto the back of even the most basic training horse. The embarrassment, the humiliation, brewed slowly and methodically into an unnamed and cruel anger.

“Dad, I don’t mind. Bowling is fine. It’s—”

“It’s not fine! Dammit.” He paused, caught himself. “Let’s just… I’ll teach you how to bowl, okay? Your mom never took you bowling, did she?”

He shook his head no, then said, “But I want to learn.”

“Then I’ll teach you everything I know.”

The father led his son up to the counter where an overweight, fiftysomething man with a dark blond mustache and a weathered smile rented them shoes and charged them an hourly rate on the lanes that was far more affordable than an hour on horseback.

 

#

 

Vernon Taylor Gray was barely six years old when his father Nathaniel Bryce Gray packed his old high school football duffel bag and walked out of the boy’s life with no intention of ever coming back. Nate left the pink slip of his fifteen-year-old Honda next to a half-assed farewell note, written with an unsharpened pencil, on the kitchen counter. He removed half of their joint savings from the branch two blocks from where the boy’s mother, Sandy, worked, and hopped a bus to a train station two cities over that offered destinations anywhere and everywhere. He disappeared, the overall shock of his decision not hitting the thirty-year-old until the Amtrak was halfway across Arizona on its way to North Carolina.

There was no one moment that helped form his decision to abandon them, merely a slow, insidious building of resentment and anger for his wife and for their only child together. He felt physically suffocated, unable to breathe at intervals that became increasingly frequent. Conversations between himself and Sandy were strained to the point of monosyllabic exchanges. “Yes” and “no” and “uh” formed the majority of their vocal interactions. Both of them knew their relationship was in trouble, had been faltering for some time now, yet neither one had the intellectual or emotional means to do anything remotely constructive about it.

Sandy, to her credit, had tried to explore the root of their problems, had shown the insight to recognize the oncoming collapse of their marriage if something wasn’t figured out between them soon. But she was blindsided when, two years ago, she came home to find that her husband had discovered that he was unable, or unwilling, to break the cycle of abandonment that his own father had brewed up inside him. It had taken six years for the patriarchal genetic code to be activated, but despite the delay of time, the result was ultimately the same. Another fatherless child, soon to begin wondering what he’d done to make his daddy leave him. To begin blaming himself, hating himself, but never quite knowing why.

 

#

 

“All right! Excellent. You’ve got them all set up for a spare. Now just… wait for your ball to come back and finish them off.”

The bowling alley was crowded now, an hour after Nate and his eight-year-old son Vernon had arrived. The lanes were taken up by league players and Saturday afternoon amateurs, with teenagers playing video games in the entertainment hall and early drunks haunting the bar. The noise of the pins exploding into the back wall of the lanes whenever a player hurled an eight- or ten- or sixteen-pound ball down the center of the buffed parquet floor could be deafening. Which is why Nate found himself speaking so loudly at Lane Twelve to his only child.

“Here comes the ball. Grab it and do just like I taught you, okay?” Nate took a pull on his bottle of Bud as his boy shyly nodded his head in acknowledgement.

The Day-Glo-decorated eight-pounder swiveled and swirled at the gaping mouth of the ball return, before slamming onto the track and flowing down the narrow chute until it rested in the U-shaped middle. Vernon pushed at the ball with his heel until the three finger holes appeared, upright. He nudged his father’s sixteen-pounder over to his right, allowing room for Vernon to fit his fingers into the ball and wrench it upwards onto his lean, bony chest.

The boy—dressed in a button-up, starched and pressed white shirt, tucked into black slacks with creases down the middle, and outfitted in the Pickwick Bowl’s size five-and-a-half two-tone shoes—took a step up onto the alley floor. He planted his feet, his chin chucked under the ball. His eyes moved swiftly back and forth between the 8-9 pins at the end of the lane, his feet, the ball, and the middle-aged guy creeping up to his own lane on the right. Then he registered the young, pretty mother staring sweetly on his left, scanned back to his feet, the ball, and finally, squarely, on the pins.

“I don’t know, Dad. I’m not sure if I can hit them.”

Nate paced a few feet behind him, pulled on another sip of the beer bottle. Wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just concentrate,” he said, his voice raising in volume to compete with the noise of the place, “you can do it.”

Another ten seconds of contemplative eye-balling of the pins, then Vernon took three steps, his right arm arced behind him, came up again, and released the ball just behind the painted line where the lane began. It hit the parquet floor with a loud thump, traveled single-mindedly straight down the middle of the lane until it got about three-fourths of the way down. It slowly began to veer to the right, where it skimmed but failed to knock over the nine pin before colliding with the hard wall at the rear of the lane.

As he turned to walk back towards his father, the young mother, now on his right, sent a smile his way. “It’s okay, baby, you’ll get her next time.”

Nate stood behind the computerized scorekeeper, one hand resting on the back of a red plastic chair, the other wrapped around the top of his long-neck. He struggled to find words for the boy. “Good try, Vern. You know, you tried. What counts, right?”

Vernon sat on the small bench behind his father, his eyes pointed downward. “I did it like you taught me. What did I do wrong?”

Nate stared at his son, whose eyes were focused far beneath the floor, into some unknown chasm of disappointment and shame.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. I just… I just taught you wrong.”

#

Nate’s father, Big Nate his mother always called him, never taught his son anything. He had married Nate’s mother on what seemed later as just a lark. The burly, gruff, uncultured man stuck around long enough to see his son take his first steps, then he vanished without a word or a care. His mother did the best she could for her son—nurtured him, kept him fed and clothed, in school and out of trouble—but it wasn’t enough. The father had left a mark that wouldn’t rub out. A burned spot in the middle of the young boy’s psyche that had tried to camouflage itself first with denial and later through muted acceptance, but it was always lurking, waiting for those emotionally delicate moments to come undone, emerge in anger.

Nate the boy promised himself that when he was Nate the man, any child he had would be loved, cared for, and never abandoned. It was the promise of a scared, hurt, righteously-inclined child who ached to be normal. Ached to have a mother and a father, both. A child who became an adult who discovered how to create rationalizations that would negate those promises, twist them into just and acceptable alternatives to doing what was truly right. As a man, he knew he was doing wrong by everyone involved, but he convinced himself otherwise. They were both better off without him.

#

The day waitress from the bowling alley bar leaned over the rail above Lane Twelve and got Nate’s attention. “I get you two anything else?”

Vernon looked up from his seat, where he chewed on a piece of ice from his empty glass of soda. “Can I have another Coke, Dad?”

“Nah. If I send you back to your mom with a major sugar-high, I’ll get hell for it.” Nate turned to the waitress, Peggy it said on her name tag. “Bring him a water, will you, please? And I’ll take another Bud.”

As Peggy straightened up and moved down the carpeted floor to the next lane, Nate stopped her. He eyed Vernon peripherally, saw a look of dejection in his face. More disappointment. “Um, Miss? Another Coke would be fine. And, uh… how about you bring me two Buds instead of the one. No telling how long it’ll take you to get back by this way. Okay?”

Peggy nodded, jotted it all down on a damp writing pad that sat in the middle of a slightly wet serving tray, then moved off. Nate finished the beer in his hand and looked at the scorekeeper in front of him.

“So, Vern, that makes three games. I got you two to one, but I see you improving with every frame. No lie. I figure we go best of five, this could be a nail-biter. What do you think?”

Vernon didn’t respond, but scratched his neck, a gesture that Nate had seen enough in the past few weeks to recognize as one of Vernon’s nervous tics. Why he was still nervous around Nate, when they had been bowling together like a true father and son for the past two hours, the older man couldn’t understand. A tinge of anger hit him at that moment, the word ungrateful came to the front of his mind and he looked quickly away from the boy before he gave voice to the thought and ruined the whole day. He had worked too hard to blow it now.

#

Nine weeks ago, over two years since he had left without a word, Nate appeared at Sandy’s job unannounced, his figurative hat in hand with a desire to see his son again. To try to repair what he had damaged. It had taken so little effort, so little thought or intent to turn Sandy and Vernon’s life upside down, sideways and all asunder. It would take a monumental effort in order for all of them to move on, move forward. A flood of apologies and mea culpa from the once-husband and father. A steady job and residence in the same town as his son. Hours and hours of phone calls before even face-to-face contact could occur, then only as supervised visits at their apartment. This outing at the bowling alley was their first together, alone, and Nate had had every intention of making the day as special as he possibly could. No matter what might happen or how he might manage to fuck it all up.

#

Nate took a pull on his fifth beer of the day, the evidence of the empties hauled away by Peggy the day waitress on her semi-frequent rounds past Lane Twelve. It was almost three p.m. according to the position of the blazing red hands on the blue neon clock that hung over Lane Fourteen. The boy had to be back at his mother’s apartment by five at the latest. Twenty minutes’ drive time, tops, from their current spot in Burbank to her place near downtown Glendale. That gave him an hour and a half to either sober up completely or keep drinking until the decision to bolt again—this time for good, no more allowances for a guilty conscience and some sense of patriarchal duty dragging him back a second time—was made all the easier.

Fear, Nate had found over the course of his life, was a much more powerful force than love ever could be. Love was strong, he thought as he watched his son roll his eight-pound ball down the lane on its way to a perfect strike, but fear was invincible. It had a force that demanded not only obedience, but full devotion to its sonorous calls of fight or flight. The call to anger, etched out of fear, was answered without thought. Immediate and destructive. The flight took courage, took denial of a better self, a greater moral foundation, and fewer men could give up the constant offerings of the stand-and-fight in exchange for the ultimate sacrifice of the cut-and-run.

But Nate had done it. Doing it a second time would, in a way, be easier than the first. The pain, however, would be greater—somehow he inherently knew this—for both of them. If the pattern was repeated after the promise of permanency had been presented and accepted, neither one of them would recover from the betrayal.

Nate saw Vernon’s feet leave the floor, a wild and impulsive jump of triumph after the last pin dropped and the strike registered on the computerized scoreboard. The boy turned away from the lane, a wide smile on his face directed toward his father.

“Dad, did you see it? You didn’t miss it, did you?”

“That was amazing, Vern. You really knocked the snot out of those pins.” He placed the half-full bottle of Bud on the seat beside him. Looked at the clock. Measured the weight, the power, of the fear at that moment.

“How you holding up?”

“What do you mean?” Vernon was still standing in front of his father, smiling from his recent triumph.

“I mean, how’s it going, you know. Between you and me. Today. Right now. How are you feeling?”

Vernon’s smile faded. He scratched at his neck. Looked off into the distance. Away from his father.

“I want you to be honest. I want us to be honest with each other.”

“Can I… Can I ask you a question?”

Nate looked at his son’s face. Glanced down at the beer by his side. He made eye contact with Vernon. Nodded.

“Why did you leave? Was it because of me?”

Nate’s left hand fell to his side. Grazed the long neck of the bottle. “What did your mom say?”

“She said it was because you’re a selfish… well, she used a bad word.”

“I can guess the word. You don’t have to say it. Did she tell you that we had problems? Me and her?”

“I guess. Kinda. She said it wasn’t my fault why you left.”

“And do you believe her?”

“I don’t know. Was it my fault?”

The hand gripped the bottle. Brought it up to Nate’s lips. He took a quick swig.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault but mine. Blame me. Never blame yourself.”

“I don’t blame myself.”

“Trust me, you will.”

Nate finished the rest of the bottle, got up from his seat and placed it between his sixteen-pound ball and his son’s eight-pound ball, which had just rolled back from the return and onto the holding track. “Let’s go play some video games. I’ll grab us some quarters.”

#

Vernon was positioned inside a racing game, his arms moving wildly as his hands spun the hard rubber steering wheel and his foot pumped the gas pedal. The on-screen Ferrari went into a tail-spin and crashed against a concrete wall at the same time the timer ran out. A scroll of text alerted him that the game was over.

Nate leaned down beside Vernon. Gave him a handful of quarters.

“I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Don’t go anywhere, just stay here and play. I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll go with you, Dad.”

“Do you have to go? You have to pee?”

Vernon paused. “No.”

“Then just stay here and play. I’ll be back.” Nate straightened up and walked out of the entertainment hall, knowing that Vernon was watching him leave.

Inside the bathroom, Nate finished at one of the three urinals, zipped himself up and took three steps to his left, meeting his face in the scratched-up mirror over the sinks. He washed his hands with the powdered, chalky soap that came from the dispenser by the towels. He dried his hands, wiped his face and then stared into the mirror and through his own reflection.

Minutes passed before his eyes pulled back focus onto the glass and registered his own face. He looked back, over his shoulder. Saw that the two stalls were empty, the doors open and swung wide. He entered one, locked it behind him and put his feet up onto the half-eaten-donut-shaped toilet seat and crouched into a sitting position over the bowl.

The fear was thick in the stall, surrounding Nate in a hot blanket of suffocating responsibility and duty. The beer that remained in his system did little to dull the anguish he experienced, the shame and regret and sense of disgust he felt all over. Could he just walk out on his son again? How could he walk out, just leave an eight-year-old boy alone in a bowling alley playing video games until the realization that his father was never coming back to get him finally struck him and he was forced to find his own way back to his mother? What kind of a morally corrupt, selfish son-of-a-bitch was he? Had his own father’s abandonment taught him nothing?

It had taught him everything. It defined him, formed him, corrupted him. And now it was set to do all of that and more for this little boy—with his love and trust and an abundance of forgiveness—who had given Nate a second chance. The cycle would continue, the arc of Vernon’s life would follow predictably as Nate’s own had. Painfully, uncontrollably. An unstoppable future of repetitious acts of unkindness handed down from father to son as legacy. Nate fought back tears and tried to find courage from his intoxicated state.

He heard the bathroom door open and a tentative voice call out. “Dad? Dad, are you in here?”

Nate froze. Stopped breathing.

“Dad?” Crying. Fear. Pain. “Dad?”

Nate listened to his only child, his son, crying outside the door of the stall. He listened and struggled against his own fear. The fear that expected obedience, that demanded fidelity.

Vernon was crouched under the sink, tears streaming down his face, when Nate spoke to him. “Vern, hey, I’m right here. Your dad.” He picked him up. Awkwardly pressed the young frame against his own.

Small but strong arms latched around Nate’s neck. The father lifted his son off the cold tile floor and tenderly draped his own arms around the lean back.

“I thought… I thought…” Vernon struggled for breath. For words. “I thought you were gone. That you went away. Again.”

Nate felt the fear, but he refused to let it take over. He felt the sadness of a boy without a father, a man without a conscience. He forced back his own tears and found a reserve of strength that he was surprised still existed within him.

“I’m not going away, okay? I care about you. I’m going to look out for you.” He stroked his back. Firmly. Gently.

“I’m sorry, Vernon. I really am.”

 


About the Author: Justin McFarr was born and raised in the Bay Area. He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and his master’s degree from USC’s MPW program. Prior work has appeared in Scribendi Magazine, Flask and Pen, AlienSkin Magazine, and Verdad. His story “Aggressive Fiction” appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of The East Bay Review. His novel about 1970’s-era Berkeley, The Bear Who Broke The World, will be published in 2017 from Wheeler Street Press, followed in 2018 by a collection of short work titled Controlled Chaos.

COURTS-MARTIAL AND INCARCERATION: THE TRAVIS AFB ECSTASY INTERDICTION AND ITS AFTERMATH by Charles Von Nordheim

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COURTS-MARTIAL AND INCARCERATION: THE TRAVIS AFB ECSTASY INTERDICTION AND ITS AFTERMATH

Midnight is when we cast our net at the base’s main gate
Seeking hints of a pill with an X from a Berkeley rave
Every third car popped with a written golden flow order
Unless dogs provide cause by alerting on an odor

Seeking hints of a pill with an X from a Berkeley rave
First sergeants arithmetically tag schools of airmen
Unless dogs provide cause by alerting on an odor
Emitting from cannabis ashes beneath the back seat

First sergeants arithmetically tag schools of airmen
Flop-sweating court-martial should their debauch be detected
Emitting from cannabis ashes beneath the back seat
Gleaming from non-consensual semen stains on panties

Flop-sweating court-martial should their debauch be detected
Young airmen detour to vacuum rugs and burn evidence
Gleaming from non-consensual semen stains on panties
They forget the golden flow order’s specified timeframe

Young airmen detour to vacuum rugs and burn evidence
Consequences of discovery making them tremble
They forget the golden flow order’s specified timeframe
OSI agents duly databased their tardiness

Consequences of discovery making them tremble
Even though only their pee sample could betray them until
OSI agents duly databased their tardiness
Suspicious that missing gaps spoke of a guilty conscious

Even though only their pee sample could betray them until
The minutes spent at their cover-up attempt made the cops
Suspicious that the missing gaps spoke of a guilty conscious
Raising enough doubt to justify more investigation

The minutes spent at the cover-up attempt made the cops
Collect witnesses who recalled the girl’s hesitation
Raising enough doubt to justify more investigation
The Oakland girl only spoke if not asked how much she toked
Collect witnesses who recalled the girl’s hesitation
In front of a panel of young commanders, even if
The Oakland girl only spoke if not asked how much she toked
Guilty without exception is the board’s finding

In front of a panel of young commanders, even if
Military lock-ups overflow like clogged toilets because
Guilty without exception is the board’s finding
Equals three months for bad pee plus assorted repentance

Military lock-ups overflow like clogged toilets because
Every third car popped with a golden flow order
Equals three months for bad pee plus assorted repentance
When we cast our net at the base’s main gate


About the Author: Chuck served in the US Air Force for 22 years as an F-4 radar mechanic and a paralegal from 1987 to 2009. His duty stations included Clark and Kunsan Air Base, a TDY stint at the US Embassy in Baghdad, and stateside assignments at Eglin, Edwards, and Travis Air Force Base. Currently an MFA candidate at CSU San Bernardino, his work has appeared in Poetry Quarterly, the Five Two, Illumen, Northridge Review, and Statements Magazine.

The Escaped Air by Natasha Patel

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Shaila paused at the door before entering the hotel room. She leaned against the frame to prevent it from closing, letting only the tips of her toes cross the threshold. The Lovely had upgraded them to the Honeymoon Suite, as a token of gratitude for the six hundred and eleven wedding guests she had brought.   Even the florist had provided an extra hundred marigolds at no cost. Only the catering staff expressed displeasure, particularly when the older guests failed to use utensils during their meals. No hotel in city had ever booked such a large wedding. Special caterers were hired to cook the distinctive curries, tandoori chicken, and rice-milk sweets. The hotel’s profit margin for the quarter had been achieved by this single event.

Ravi had already taken a tour of the suite and settled comfortably into the sofa, his legs propped on the glass coffee table. Shaila surveyed the room from her perch at the door. It boasted eleven-foot French doors that opened onto a terrace overlooking the pool. The king-sized bed, though draped in down pillows and silk sheets, appeared intimidating.   Ravi perused the twenty different movie offerings on the gleaming fifty- inch flat screen television. Papayas, mangoes, and kiwi, flown in from Australia and arranged to look as if they had accidentally spilled out of a basket, decorated the dining table.   A bottle of Dom Perignon glistened in the silver ice bucket on the cocktail bar. Shaila presumed the card tied around its neck by the velvet red ribbon read, “May your future be filled with everlasting happiness. Best Wishes, The Lovely.” Even with every luxury the hotel had to offer, she thought the room was missing the essentials.

“You’re letting the cool air escape,” Ravi said to her as she continued to hold the door open. The city was in the midst of an energy crisis, and to conserve, the hotels only cooled the interior rooms. Acquiescing to pleas by Shaila’s mother, the management had agreed to keep the air conditioner running in the banquet hall throughout the day. In spite of their assurances, though, the air was turned off during the reception, turning the room into a pressure cooker. While her father and sister attempted to pacify the complaining guests and her mother argued with the manager, Shaila had watched in amusement as the guests attempted to cool themselves with floppy fans made from dinner napkins.   Now, standing at the door, she preferred the warmth of the hallway to the coolness inside the room.

“Let’s open the bottle,” said Ravi and raised the champagne bottle high in front of him like a trophy.

“In a little while,” she replied, finally relinquishing her position from the doorway. “Let me change first.”   The door lagged for a second, as if giving her a moment to be certain of the decision to walk inside. Then it shut behind her, securely.

“Good idea,” still admiring the bottle as he set it down. “My shirt is soaked. Do you mind if I shower first?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked into the bathroom.

Shaila sat down at the dining table and stared into the lacquered table, unable to see her face. Her countenance had been replaced by the portrait of a newlywed; a woman wrapped in all the elegance India had to offer. The red and white sari draped over her head exposed only the luster of dark lashes and ample lips. Her thick black hair, for most of her life cut just below the ears, was grown long for the occasion and pulled into a low bun just below the nape of her neck. Carefully arranged ringlets swept over her eyebrows and gave the demure suggestion of innocence.   With one pull of a pin, she unraveled the bun that had taken an hour to wrap, and ironed the ringlets with her palms until not one flirtatious curve was left.

From the bathroom she heard the sound of Ravi reciting material for his dental school final exam next week, the reason their honeymoon was a weekend at The Lovely Hotel.   Her disappointment had virtually passed. In college she backpacked with friends through Europe and only two summers ago she had gone on a safari in Tanzania.   But while she had initially imagined that she and Ravi would have sailed from one Greek isle to another or hiked the trail to Macchu Picchu, Ravi’s allergies made it impossible to travel far. She was married now and understood that this yielded a new life of compromise—a simple, relaxing weekend without the hassles of delayed airplanes, lost luggage, or uncomfortable accommodations was probably fitting.

One by one, Shaila removed the pieces of wedding jewelry bought during a trip to India taken especially for the wedding. She had never worn more than a pair of small silver hoop earrings before and the nearly ten pounds of gold weighed on her frame. The extra weight had made it difficult for her to circle the fire four times during the ceremony and her body sighed with relief as each piece was removed.   The two silver and gold-plated rings slid easily off her middle and forefinger, leaving only the wedding band on her hand. The diamond was almost unnoticeable, she thought, feeling cheated and yet relieved. She rubbed her arms with soap and water to remove the arm bracelets nearly glued to her skin. With a quick tug she took all twenty off at once. She then unfastened the gold anklets adorned with little bells that had pinched at her heels during the first dance. As a child she would wear her mother’s pair at every opportunity, even to perform menial chores, just to hear them clink while she dusted or swept.   But as she grew older, to her mother’s disappointment, she refused to wear them even to Indian dances and celebrations. The chimes had grown into a nuisance; she found them unnerving, as if they were intended to announce her arrival before she was prepared.

The infection in her right ear had nearly subsided, alleviating some of the pain as she unscrewed the gold earring weighted with rubies and diamonds. She traced the outline of its exquisite double teardrop shape with her thumb and stopped at the precious half-carat in the middle. “The piercing needles these people use in the shopping malls are not large enough for our earrings,” her mother had said when she doused the gold screw with Vaseline, allowing it to glide into place. Gravity prevailed as the ceremony commenced that morning, and the precious family jewel, ordinarily a privilege to wear, became the burden she had borne until now. Shaila began to rub the diamond, gently first, then with increasing speed, as if hoping to wake a genie from his slumber, only to be disturbed by the ring of the phone instead.

“Hi mother,” Shaila answered, knowing it was her before she picked up.

“Beta, can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Can you hear me?” her mother repeated. “We are finishing downstairs and will be leaving soon. Do you need anything?”

Amid the clamor of the last wedding guests’ farewells, Shaila could hear the robust laughter of her father in the background. As a child she had been embarrassed by its resonance, particularly at school musicals when it echoed at inappropriate moments, like Dorothy’s invocation of “no place like home.” True, in a Hindi film a plea for the return to domestic life might be considered amusing, but home in West Eatonton, Georgia meant something delightful and gratifying, especially to the audience at West Eatonton High School. Now, though, the dissonant rise and fall of her father’s laughter brought her comfort she had not realized she needed.

“Mother, I’m fine.”

“And Ravi? Does he have his allergy medicine? ” A reminder she had someone else to think of.

“Yes mother. I packed it myself. We’re great. The hotel gave us a bottle of champagne and we’re just about to make a toast.” Shaila stared at the uncorked bottle still in its holder.

“Okay beta, I will talk to you tomorrow. Good night.”

“Was that your mother?” asked Ravi from the bathroom door. The towel wrapped around the lower half of his body revealed a broad, brown chest and defined shoulders. His wavy black hair had thickened due to the humidity.

“Yeah, she wanted to make sure you hadn’t forgotten your medicine.”

He grinned appreciatively. “I love how the Darshan ladies take care of me.”   She thought to clarify that it was her mother who had remembered and not she, but realized the distinction might be lost. Instead, she watched as his sinewy frame, in its usual confident saunter, approached her from across the room. Standing just above six foot, Ravi towered over her five-two frame.   While many women found his build dashing and strong, in the past she had usually preferred someone closer to her own size, lithe and agile. Ravi’s bulk and strength often swallowed her, making her feel barely even five feet tall. “He resembles a God,” her mother had exclaimed when she first saw his smooth, sculpted face with dark, wide-set oval eyes and high cheek bones, likening him to Lord Krishna or Rama. The excitement on her mother’s face had been palpable, knowing that her grandchildren would be tall and handsome.

“I’m no longer a Darshan. It’s Shah now.”

“Yes. Yes it is.” He nudged her into an embrace and kissed her lightly on the mouth. Then he began to caress her back, his hand moving up and down her spine, gently massaging the tightened muscles. But her body remained rigid and apart, and its response went unnoticed. She wanted to squeeze him tightly in return, to reach for the towel and pull it off his body. For a moment, while she played with the threads between her two fingers, the idea that she could muster the passion, the impetuous excitement every bride should feel on her wedding night, seemed possible. She gently tugged on the towel, watching as it began to unravel, the downy whiteness floating its way to the floor like a snowflake, light and transparent, and not made to be caught.   But it fell into her open hand just before its final drop to the floor. She tucked the edge of the towel back into place.

“You should get dressed,” she said and unlocked his arms.

“And you need to get undressed,” he teased.   She searched for a clever response, but her mind went blank.

It had been easier with David, she thought.   She could still visualize the neon lights from the Cactus Shade Lounge that had shined brightly into their Super 8 motel room. They had strung a bed sheet over the window to block the intensity of the orange and blue, which unexpectedly filtered the neon into a hue of soft violet. Lubbock, Texas had been the fifth rest stop on their drive from Boston to Los Angeles, and the sweltering August heat forced them to sleep with wet towels to compensate for the lack of an air conditioner.   The humidity had been oppressive, and in the few moments David had stood in the bathroom doorway after showering, his thin, lanky body had already become wet with sweat. Shaila thought she had never seen anything sexier.

When she first began to date Ravi, there had been no physical affection. That wasn’t strange, given that the first few months they spent together had been only on telephone. A relative, maybe a cousin or aunt of Ravi’s mother, she couldn’t remember, had seen Shaila at her sister Rina’s wedding.   At her mother’s urging, particularly her emphasis on “he was born here in America, raised here in America, like you,” she had let her mother provide the relative with a number. A few weeks later, Ravi had called. The conversations were awkward at first. Having always favored the concept of chemistry and first attraction, she had never thought of herself as a person who could date someone she hadn’t met. Yet, her sister had married her husband that way, and because her relationship with David had ended the summer before, she decided to oblige her mother this one time.

After a few conversations, she found out that it was not unusual for Ravi to begin his relationships over the telephone—Shaila was his third attempt at telephone courting. She had been a first year internal medicine resident in Bakersfield, California, and the grueling hours left her no time to meet anyone. Even if she had had the time, though, Bakersfield had a dearth of prospects. Ravi called with a persistency to which she was not accustomed, every day at the exact time he said he would. At the beginning, she was annoyed, finding him too confident and assertive for her taste, but after a while, she began to look forward to his phone calls, and eventually rely on them.

Her roommate Alice had been confused about their relationship. The night before she drove to Los Angeles to meet Ravi for the first time, Alice expressed surprise that she didn’t even know what he looked like.

“Why didn’t you ask for a picture?”

“I wanted to see him first in person. And besides, pictures usually lie.” He had had the courtesy to not ask her for a picture, and she would extend the same.

“What if you don’t feel anything when you do?”

Shaila didn’t answer. After three months of daily conversations, Ravi had suggested they meet. She knew from her sister’s experience that this was an important turning point in the courting ritual; a first meeting set them on the path to engagement.   Later that evening when she returned, Alice peppered her for details as to his appearance—the name of the restaurant where they ate, the music that played on the radio as they drove around the city, even the sound of his laugh. By the time she got home, she had forgotten these particulars, not even sure whether she had noticed them in the first place. Now, watching him pull a sweater over his body, she tried to answer the questions Alice had asked over a year ago. Her memory still refused to cooperate.

Only the memory of her first encounter with David seven years ago grew more vivid with time. It was a cocktail party at the student center thrown by the professors for all pre-med students. She had been reluctant to go, as she wasn’t friendly with the other students in the program, but Alice wanted to meet with a particular professor over a grade in Biochemistry and thought an occasion where alcohol was to be served was just the right forum. David had approached her towards the end of the evening as she was gathering her coat. He claimed to have noticed that she never spoke up in any of their classes, and asked why. His voice was so soft and unsure, and unlike any she had heard from a man. Later she found out that he had noticed her on the first day of class, but couldn’t think of a clever opening. They talked for a few minutes, ordinary small talk between two people who had just met. When he tried to pour her a glass of wine, he fumbled with the wine opener, accidentally letting the cork drop into the bottle. They drank the flecks of cork in wine for the remainder of the evening.

“Shaila, honey, aren’t you going to change?” Ravi asked.

“Yes. Yes I am.” She kissed him on the mouth, ashamed that her thoughts had wandered to another man.

“I’ll make us something to eat while you shower.” As Ravi strode into the kitchen, she observed how he moved with ease. He sliced a loaf of French bread into perfect symmetrical shapes. In the refrigerator he found various cheeses and sampled each one.   “They even gave us a slice of brie,” he reported. “I’ll bake it for us,” he added, placing it in the oven. Next, he lightly scrubbed the skins of the papayas and mangoes, smelling the aroma of each fruit and tossing those that didn’t pass muster. Then he began to juice them. With each half cupped by his large hands, he squeezed every bit of pulp from the skins until not one fiber remained.

As she slid into the warm water of the bath, the images of the squeezed mangoes drifted from her mind and her thoughts traveled to a pleasant place, where tiny bottles of lavender oils lined the edge of a tub. The smoothness of the bathroom’s marble tiles soothed her aching feet, and the porcelain tub wrapped her body like a blanket. She rested her toes on the opposite edge of the tub and leaned back against the bath cushion. Her family adored Ravi. There were many reasons why, but she knew his enthusiasm for the enormous family gatherings was high among them. He actually looked forward to them.   The nieces and nephews were always charmed by his card tricks, the Hindi film star impersonations, and his own children’s version of the Ramayana. He had even taught Shaila about India’s ancient history, explaining nuances from the Mahabharata that she had never bothered to learn. Even now on occasion she would converse with her family in Hindi, a language she had not spoken since childhood, and while her pronunciation might be off, her mother’s beaming face would make it clear that it didn’t matter. She dribbled a few drops of the lavender oils and lay back. Perhaps a warm, soothing bath was all she needed to relax.

When she returned to the sitting area she found Ravi shaking on the sofa, beads of sweat outlining his face. He glanced up at her and pointed to a prescription bottle unopened on the coffee table. “It’s the wrong medicine,” he muttered. “There were pine nuts on the fruit.” The brown face turned redder, but her legs stayed rooted, instead of rushing towards him. A dream or nightmare, she couldn’t tell which, was being staged before her eyes and the performance was not to be interrupted.

“Where’s the Lymocane?” Ravi gasped. His eyes pleaded with her. His lips had begun to swell. She wanted to answer, but her own throat felt swollen and no air could pass, as if she was the one with the allergic reaction.

“Shaila, where’s the Lymocane?” he repeated, this time louder. She could hear him wheezing and sensed the urgency in his voice, but the phone, which lay just on the side table, seemed out of reach. Her arms betrayed her as she tried to lift her them, growing numb themselves. Sweat began to stain his shirt at the heart pocket and she watched, mesmerized as it enlarged into a near perfect circle.   Ravi continued to call her name, but her eyes remained focused on the stain.

“Shaila, honey, find the damn Lymocane.” She touched the back of her hand against his face. His damp face felt refreshing against her dry hands.

“What the fuck is wrong with you!” He managed to muster before he slumped towards the ground.   The sound of the oven bell broke her reverie. The brie was baked. Ravi’s toppled frame finally came into focus.

“Oh no!” She threw his arm around her neck and supported him from the sofa. “I’m so sorry. So sorry. Sorry.”   His legs shuffled across the hotel floor and his eyes were half-closed. “What happened? What just happened?” This time it was her who pleaded and Ravi failed to respond. By the time they reached the car he fell unconscious.   She knew that he had one hour to be resuscitated. She arrived at the hospital in less than 10 minutes.

The emergency room attendants responded quickly and admitted Ravi to the ICU. She paced in near empty hospital waiting. Why hadn’t she responded as quickly as these complete strangers? She was his wife. His wife!  Wife. She continued to repeat the word, slowly as if she was learning it for the first time.   It rhymed with knife.

She noticed the vases at the nurses’ station were filled with wild flowers. This was in stark contrast to the hospital that she had grown accustomed to during her residency, with its institutional white walls and spotless linoleum floors. Here, however, her nose did not itch from the lingering smell of bleach. A young man, probably not over seventeen, was her only company. He inserted coins into the coffee machine, one by one, waiting until each one dropped to the bottom before inserting the next. Finally, a paper cup fell into the holder and bitter, watery coffee spilled into it. She thought he was too young to be drinking coffee. Her own habit had not developed at least until medical school. His shorts rode low and unbelted around his waist and his white t-shirt was two sizes too large. The dark circles under the eyes and a slightly furrowed brow suggested a maturity belonging to someone at least twenty years older. As he walked back to his seat he gave Shaila a smile, one that seemed to recognize her transgression.   She turned around to avoid him.

At the nurses’ station two women bickered about the possibility of a marriage proposal on a popular television show.   The blonde nurse recited statements made by the bachelor in a magazine interview as support for her position. The other refused to listen.

“Excuse me?” Shaila asked the blonde when she approached the desk. The nurse tossed her magazine to the floor and stood up from the chair.

“Yes?” The brassiness of the blonde hair pulled tightly into a ponytail was a result of home care coloring and the premature wrinkles around the corners of her eyes and lips revealed a smoking habit that probably started in her teens.

“Is the Doctor nearly finished with his examination?”

“I’m sorry. But who are you here to see?” replied the nurse.

“Mr. Ravi Shah.” The nurse flipped through the papers on the clipboard.   As the only other person in the waiting room, Shaila thought it was surprising that the nurse had no idea who she was.

“Oh. Here it is. Mrs. Shah, is it?”

“Yes. Well, actually it’s Dr. Shah.”

“Dr. Shah.” She continued to stare at her clipboard and twirled a pencil between her fingers. Suddenly the twirling stopped, and the eyebrows perked in a flash of memory.

“Dr Shah!” she repeated, with greater enthusiasm. “My mother’s doctor’s name is Dr. Shah. Do you have a brother in Canton, Ohio? Is that your brother?”

“No. I don’t have a brother. It’s a common last name.”

“What is?”

“Shah,” she explained. “It’s just like Jones or Smith.”

The nurse appeared confused.   Her blue eyes turned a shade grayer. She sat back down in her chair, turned to the other nurse and from the corner of her mouth said, “The doctor will be out to see you shortly. Why don’t you just have a seat in the waiting area?” She resumed the discussion with her colleague about whether Amber or Jessica would be the ultimate winner on the show.

By now it was nearly 2:00 a.m. and Shaila knew she would be at the hospital for a while. She scoured the bottom of her purse for enough change to get a cup of coffee. Ravi had always told her to organize her money. He would explain that how she treated money reflected her respect for it, and each time, to his annoyance, she would agree.   She caught a glimpse of the young man in the corner. He rested his legs over the back of the chair in front of him and leaned his head against a rolled-up green sweater supported by the wall. He’s been here before, she thought.

She stood in the entryway to the waiting room on lookout for the doctor. Ravi had to be in stable condition by now, if not nearly fully recovered, she thought. The sound of the young man blowing bubble gum began to grate on her.

“Who are you waiting for?”   The young man asked.   She wanted to avoid answering, but realized a response would end the conversation quickly.

“My husband.” she replied. The words flowed from her mouth with a surprising certitude. This was the first time she spoke those words aloud. My husband, she repeated to herself. She had thought she would never get married.   She and David always spoke of living together as life partners, without the need of a ceremony to solidify their love or cement their commitment.

“Why’s he here?” He continued to blow bubbles. This particular one eventually hid his entire face. She resisted the urge to come over and pop it. Did she really need to confess that she was the reason her husband laid in a hospital bed? Did she have to explain how she had just watched as he gasped for air and called her name? How his eyes had pleaded with her and she couldn’t even move?

She slumped in the chair across from the young man. His face appeared more empathetic than before. He looked as if he would wait as long as it took for a response and that he would understand whatever the response may be. She tried to speak, but instead shook her head and just glared at the coffee machine. She had had dreams too; she wanted to say. Only her fantasies were different from those of most women she knew. Hers involved a man who was clumsy and insecure, and who made her laugh with impersonations of cartoon characters she’d never heard of. A life with two dogs, a greyhound named Marlo and a dachshund named Buddy, and no children.   A small Spanish bungalow in the hills outside Los Angeles and a pick-up truck for carrying antiques.   The fantasy differed from those of others: children, a big house in the suburbs, and a four-door Honda.   Had her dream blurred with that of her mother, sister, aunts and cousins? The two dogs morphed to two children, a boy and girl to be precise; the Spanish home enlarged into a five-bedroom house on the outskirts of Atlanta; the pick-up truck upgraded into a four-door Lexus. Or, had she just borrowed their dreams?

“Mrs. Dar-shan?” The doctor asked. He was a distinguished man with neatly trimmed gray hair, the type for who even the elderly gave up their seats. He had pronounced her name as if it was a hybrid of two unfamiliar words rather than one.

“Yes.” She rose immediately from the chair and felt comforted by her quick response. “Actually it’s Shah now and, well, it’s Dr. Shah.”

“Dr. Shah, your husband was touch and go there for a while, but he’ll be fine now. We’ll need to keep him under observation for the night, though.” He quickly thumbed through the papers on the clipboard, as if looking for the next person he needed to speak with.

“It was just an allergic reaction, right?”

The papers fell from his fingers and he looked up at her. “Yes, but as you are probably aware, the reaction was exacerbated due to the delay in bringing him in.” She felt his eyes scrutinizing her for the reason her husband was lying unnecessarily in a hospital bed.

“I know.”

“It’s a good thing your husband noticed it was the wrong medication. Otherwise it would have been much worse,” the doctor added.

“Yes.” Ravi always made the right moves, especially in important situations.

“Mrs. Dar-shan? I mean, Dr. Shah.”

“Yes?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know when you can see him?” He suddenly appeared much taller.

“Of course I would.”

“We are moving him from the ICU and he’ll be ready shortly.”

The chair felt colder when she sat back down, despite the lingering body heat from her occupancy. It was her fault Ravi was in a hospital bed. It was her fault David had left. She had let him walk out after telling him their relationship had no future. He was never able to fully comprehend her need for seeking her mother’s approval, or her reluctant desire to live in a nearby town, or her obligation to attend every family event even if it was the first birthday of a baby she’d never seen. In spite of her parents’ tacit approval, she knew that their passion would not be enough to sustain them in the years ahead.

David had been upset with her ambivalence, especially when he sought a commensurate response to his grand gestures of affection.   He regularly questioned her feelings, and although she would assure him there was no need to worry, the assurances were often directed at herself.   It was only while on her first date with Ravi, as she watched him cut into his roasted duck, that the words flowed from her mouth so quickly and unconstrained, like a waterspout that had been unplugged after a long winter. Within an hour of meeting him in person, she had told Ravi she loved him and he had not questioned its authenticity. He never did

She noticed the young man’s chair was empty. The nurses’ argument had turned to the wedding dress the chosen bride would eventually wear.   Names of designers went back and forth—Vera Wang, Cynthia Rowley, Donna Karan—though neither could properly pronounce their names. Shaila’s mother, in turn, never understood why American brides wore only white.   “White is the color for funerals,” she said.

This time the doctor returned and explained that she could now see Ravi.   Nervousness consumed her, as it had during the drive to Los Angeles before her first date with Ravi.   She treaded down the corridor two steps behind the doctor. He paused at the room on the right and he glanced at his chart. “Wrong room.”   She patted the sweat from her forehead and continued to follow him around the corner. He stopped again and scanned the chart. This time he pushed open door and allowed her the first walk through. “He’s sleeping, but is stable and will be just fine.” She met the doctor’s eyes, whispered

“thank you,” and walked into the room without hesitation.


About the Author: Natasha Patel is a writer and counselor living in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s studied writing at Sackett Street Writers Workshop with Julia Fierro and Ted Thompson and an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She writes fiction and plays, when she is not serving as an adjunct professor at Mercer University. Her short play “Diaper Relay” was produced last summer at Onion Man Productions annual summer harvest festival. This year Onion Man will produce her feature play “Cul-de-sac.”

If Grasshoppers Could Shoot Me by Nancy Kangas

 

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If Grasshoppers Could Shoot Me

or bite me venomously I would
not cut off their heads with scissors
as I currently do


About the Author: Nancy Kangas writes a poetry column, “Slides (Interpreted by Nancy),” for the online journal Ohio Edit, and a monthly humor feature for the children’s magazine Muse. For over a decade, she edited the internationally distributed Nancy’s Magazine. Organizations that have sponsored her poetry residencies and workshops include the Ohio Arts Council, The Thurber House, and The Wexner Center. She is currently producing a series of short animated films entitled “The Preschool Poets,” based on poems composed by the four-year olds she wrote with in a recent poetry residency. Nancy is also a librarian and flower grower.

The Ride Back Home by Kimberly Reyes

 

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I prayed the thin white wires hanging from my ears would serve as sign, a signal saying: “Better to ask someone else for directions, or for the time. My time.” As a native New Yorker, I’d learned at a very early age how to erect invisible boundaries.

 

I was studying the Eiffel Tower through a scratched Metro window. With the Seine in clear view, a warm, marmalade light entered the car as the train surfaced from below. This was the first time I’d spotted the calm river and its flanking tower since arriving in Paris. Although this wasn’t my first time visiting the city, my heart raced just as it had exactly ten years earlier.

 

The Parisian riders seemed coolly unaffected, the way I was when the D or N train rattled over the Brooklyn Bridge howling at our pointy and sparkling brown and silver city. I smiled and nodded to this territorial ambivalence as the train doors opened and closed, and I collapsed into the Chili Peppers throbbing through my earphones.

 

Taking in my surroundings was always easier this way, with bass and separation. Plus I was about to move to California when I got back to the States, so it was fun to fantasize about Anthony Kiedis, and what we might do together in Paris if I was his Dani California. He was so creative, excitable, unstable, conflicted, scarred, addicted, recovering, and, more than likely, emotionally detached. Sweet imperfection. Just like my last love in Paris a decade ago.

 

The train filled at the next stop, Trocadero, where we’d found that addicting, orange-filled macaron café years ago. My nostrils flared, and I flashed back to the citrusy zest as I dropped my head against the window.

 

I didn’t wonder if he was happier now as much as I wondered what that meant.

 

Ready to disappear into melancholy and the anonymity of the crowd, I felt two sets of eyes on me. A couple, brunette, in their twenties, carrying a large bag that read “Paris” in a serif font mimicking the design of the Eiffel tower. He was holding the center car pole, and she was grasping onto him for balance. Both studied me. Wide-eyed, not communicating to each other or to me why they were staring, but eerily fixated.

 

This would’ve driven me nuts back home, and I would have returned a squinted, slow and deliberate gaze to show my annoyance. But this wasn’t a NYC-subway stare. This was nonthreatening and innocent, friendly, even before our wide eyes met and they simultaneously cracked half grins. They were happy to see me, giddy almost. Their excitement and concentration were so palpable that I almost smiled back, but my reflex to turn away kicked in first. Their four brown eyes were so glued to my movement that the mouths below them automatically started to mirror my grimace.

 

What was it about me that caught their eyes? They were obviously American, with their eagerness, blue jeans, Chuck Taylors, and tourist tote full of travel bounty. But what made me stand out as familiar and amiable to them on this busy train?

 

This wasn’t Tokyo or Melbourne, where my copious melanin and head of exploding curls always gave away my alien status. There were people of every shade and design on this train, so it had to be more than that. Was it the way I was dressed: a black, peplum-collared raincoat, black leggings and black ballet flats? Doubtful. This was Parisian camouflage.

 

It pained me to consider, but I wondered if they’d recognized, in me, the fresh-faced naiveté I detected in them? Or maybe the distinct American tension that comes from the compulsion for companionship mixed with the juvenile need to be exceptional, to stand apart?

 

I’d come to Paris to embark on a vision quest of sorts, alone. I wasn’t committed to staying that way, and hoped to meet like-minded people, maybe even give the love thing an honest try again, but I was proud to walk the streets without the armor of constant company.

 

At least I thought I was. Had they seen through my ruse, sensed my insecurity? Felt the terror they’d just awoken, or worse, the long-dead hope?

 

As the train stopped they moved toward two matted cloth seats, unbalanced, clinging onto each other for dear life. I felt exposed, fraudulent—and immediately grateful the two open seats faced opposite mine.

 


About the Author: Kimberly Reyes began her transition to creative writing after receiving her MA from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2013. She’s since been a post-graduate journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation in 2013, a Callaloo fellow in 2014, a Watering Hole fellow in 2015, and she is currently a William Dickey Fellow and MFA candidate in poetry at San Francisco State University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, Time.com, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Alternative Press, ESPN the Magazine, Jane, Honey, NY1 News and The Best American Poetry blog. Her poetry has appeared on The Feminist Wire, The Acentos Review and in Belleville Park Pages.

I Want to Drink Like Don Draper by Alison Moncrieff

 


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I want to drink like Don Draper

—from an Old-Fashioned glass, all day long and a TV hangover. Safe in my starched white shirt, soft & thick in the shoulders. Easy in my creased American pants with their careless power, my missing self gently folded behind this drama-mask hairline, behind my 5 o’clock shadow & my gorgeous boredom at business as usual.

I do not mix drinks anymore.
since I left the children alone one night
to drive up the hill for a pale blue bottle of gin
that deadly hot summer when I pegged the laundry
on the line in rainbowthetical order
and waited to have my skull sawed open.

I filled their bright, shallow pool,
replenished their stacks of practical sandwiches,
stirred cans of tap water into concentrated fruit juice
while hovering police helicopters ate
the neighborhood’s weekday peace,
and 5 o’clock came earlier & earlier.

There’s nothing quite like pinning down a whole life
using just a glass & some liquor.
Nothing like watching antennae lose their signals
and panicked wings struggle less and less
against the heavy edge.

Everything’s more awkward now
since I ran out of drink tickets,
and I say the privilege of knowing that
and other feelings is a kind of power.

Still, when I watch him pour a fat glass of rye at any old time of day — he’s riled, victorious, bored. He’s broken-hearted with being — when I watch him rushing numb from his car-crash afternoon, his decent body, his fake freedom, and another brand of freedom moves in to stake its claim in the space of his heart, that’s when I want to drink like Don Draper.


About the Author: Alison Moncrieff writes and raises chickens and children in Oakland, her home of 30 years. Her work appeared most recently in Bay Area Generations, and she has a poem forthcoming in broadside from Little Red Leaves Textile Series. She is currently developing a series of sacred garments to boost the superpowers of 21st century people. Find her playing in the intersection of stitch and poetry at woolontheradio.tumblr.com.

Model Home by Marléne Zadig

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Respectable people assume that they can perceive the danger in a place proportional to the level of rust and decay afflicting the objects inhabiting a property. Barbed wire, warped and twisted into a rats’ nest of tetanus; corrugated iron, bleeding down rust from the bullet wound of a screw hole; rusty nails sprouting out of a fence post, looking to them—and by them I mean respectable people—like lethal metal weeds, physical manifestations of the pain and suffering that surely must reside in such a downtrodden place. But the fallacy contained within such assumptions occur because people want to compartmentalize their danger. Danger is a place, Danger is dangerous people. When really, both you and I know that danger is everywhere. It’s in people’s refrigerators, in their baby formula, in their priests and schoolteachers. Danger prefers to dress up nice and say good morning, to not call attention to itself; it is a paragon of respectability.

But what they also fail to recognize is that the most dangerous kind of danger dwells within them, in the assumption that they can rely on the trappings of society and propriety to keep them safe rather than on themselves. It is an advice column, a therapy session. A suicide prevention hotline. The neighborhood watch group. Danger is weakness. It is atrophy. Decay—yes—but of the self. Danger is Darwinian; it is divine.

You want a confession? I’ll make you a confession. This was not about revenge; this was about justice, and not any of that eye-for-an-eye bullshit. It was about somebody getting what’s due, repaying a debt, so to speak. In the moral universe there are times when a person has to cut off a part of herself, to kill a part of herself, in order to fulfill what is good and right in the world, to restore an equilibrium, and that is how you know you’re doing the right thing, because you are making a sacrifice.

Well, I’m sure you know by now that he was traveling to the Philippines so often it was like he was commuting there. Head of an NGO needs to keep up relations with the locals, maintain community support and secure a continuous flow of donations. That was his justification anyway. But, you know what? The bed was getting cold with him gone all the time, and one of those times he waited just a little bit too long to respond when I asked him what was on his itinerary, his answers just a little too vague, his voice a little too high in the telling of it.

So I did what any wife of the head of an NGO would do, what with all that time I had on my hands with him gone all the time, and I looked up how to install monitoring equipment on our computers and internet traffic. Kept the equipment in my lingerie drawer, knowing he’d never bother to take a peek in there. People are generally morons when it comes to technology, but he had the proper precautions in place, randomly generated passwords sent to his cell phone which was password protected in and of itself. Still, I suppose he figured I didn’t have enough suspicious tendencies to run actual surveillance on him, and it’s not like he had to worry about me hiring a private eye to follow him around the world; we didn’t have that kind of money. Or maybe he simply assumed my mind was as ineffectual as my law degree, framed as it is in Norwegian spruce and mounted on the wall of the foyer—purely decorative.

I don’t ever want you to have to work again, he’d said after the baby we’d tried to have together was stillborn, alive until the very moment he was born. People don’t think that happens here anymore, but it does. Miscarriages, sure, people are aware of those, but carrying a baby all the way to term, having to go through the whole ordeal and be ready and waiting, only to have fate respond with on second thought, I think we’ll pass.

I wasn’t good for much for awhile after that, as you can imagine. I managed to graduate but didn’t attend the ceremony; it seemed so full of false promises. For years, I brooded around writing bad poetry, but eventually it evolved into half-way decent poetry and I published a few collections. Troy encouraged all of this, claiming to prefer to grieve through his newfound charity work, and sure enough, he worked his way all the way up to the top. Take as much time as you need, he’d said. You should never have to work again.

You know what men think they have over women? Gravitas. You ever hear anyone describe a female as having gravitas? No. You know why? Because we all know it’s a lie, and we couldn’t even pretend. You’ve been Tasered I’m sure, right? Police Academy and all. Ten bucks says you screamed like a girl and crumpled to the floor in a fetal position, am I right?

Try getting tazed in your pelvis every two minutes for 36 hours straight, try getting torn up from the inside out from your ass to your clit as you shit onto the bed and vomit repeatedly in front of your spouse while some nurse chimes, That’s perfectly normal, in the background. You think you’re better than us because you think you’d handle it better than we do. You see us writhing and screaming and think, Woman, hold it together. Men have an imagined sense of dignity; women know that dignity is a made up thing, that it is absurd.

Anyway, he made enough money from real estate back in the day and the NGO stuff more recently to buy us a model home in a development with precision trimmed lawns and hedges and those god-awful lilies of the Nile. But it’s what I wanted because both real beauty and true ugliness made me ill. For instance, a crumbling sidewalk section with serpentine cracks pointing every which way out of the crater of a pothole once drove me to an outright sobbing fit while out for a run one day through the neighborhood. Step on a crack / break your mother’s back. Peonies, I also couldn’t stand the sight of, so fragile when damp, so fleeting. I had to have something both plain and perfect to live in or I would sublimate entirely and be gone. Vapor.

When I was a kid, my folks, they wanted me to avoid the houses at the margins of the neighborhood when it was time for trick-or-treating, the ones with torn and disintegrating improvised curtains, bent-up blinds, and broken glass scattered on porches for days on end, daring someone to give a damn. But that’s because my folks were confusing the signs of danger with evidence of exhaustion.

There was this one house around the corner that was always perfectly composed no matter what the season. Had a real flagpole, pristine American flag, impeccable grass, fountain always on, always clear of debris, and tasteful, timely decorations for all the seasons and holidays—no plastic, no flaws. That was the only house that I couldn’t bring myself to approach on Halloween, cheerful as it was with its magazine-cover arrangement of miniature pumpkins and gourds on the doorstep. Even then, I had the intuition to know that life was messy, and to spend that much time on appearances meant that the people who lived there were compensating for something, were lacking in something that was necessary for decency to thrive.

Now, I’m telling you all this from memory, but the thing about memory is that it comes in degrees. First there is the memory of a thought that you have had. That has the least impact to you as a human being, so it’s on the lowest rung. It is a reflection of a shadow. Then you have the memory of something you have seen which you know to be fiction, such as a film or a television show. This is distinguishable from the memory of something seen which you know to be real, such as a nature show, a news segment, or a history program. When you see the historical footage of a man being shot in the head execution-style in Vietnam, you know that man to be dead, really and truly, in a way that could not affect you if that man were an actor in a film. Then on top of all that, you have real life experience, where you are both physically present and a witness, and the images that you have access to, both real and imagined—for we know eye-witness accounts to be tremendously flawed—from such an event is often inseparable from the self; the self is made up entirely of the accumulated conglomeration of these images.

So what I’m about to tell you, you can imagine it, sure. You can picture it in magnificent Technicolor detail, examine it with a mental microscope or what have you. But it’s not going to have the same impact as seeing it for real; it’s not going to change you or become a part of you because your mind’s eye is comparatively dull, as if suffering from cataracts or macular degeneration.

So here I’m thinking about what I’m going to find on this monitoring equipment, which you know had to be a slow process for me to even use. I’m a poet, not an IT guy. I’m thinking he’s got a mistress maybe, or even a separate family. More likely, he was looking into sex tourism. Heading over for some Cambodian prostitutes in some foreign red-light district where he thinks he’s outside the realm of the authorities—of you guys. I was preparing myself for all of it, or at least I thought I was. Sometimes you can be worse than right; you can consider what you think to be the worst scenario imaginable, and then it turns out to be even worse than that, and you learn what it means to be a fool.

All I had was logs, transcripts at first, but what I found made me have to get more sophisticated equipment to record what he was doing on the screen, so I could see it in real time. So yeah, he’s chatting online with Filipino madams, that I had almost expected. We didn’t really do it anymore, not since he’d been gone so much, so that was plausible. But there he was, ordering up children. Boys, some as young as five. Babies. He was gone all the time half-way around the world to be with—to mess with—somebody else’s babies. And I could see them there on the screen. They had them all lined up against a cement-block wall, hanging on to their binkies and blankies and everything, so he could choose. They were real, more real than our dead child, who would’ve been the same age as some of them by now but who only existed in my imagination and so was merely a fragment of a thing.

And tell me, Lieutenant, what would you have done in such a circumstance? You’re married, I can see. What would you do if you caught your wife on the nanny cam with the neighbor’s kids? Tell me, would you call the authorities? You’d pound her straight to hell, wouldn’t you.

People think they’ve got choices, but sometimes it seems like we’re all just stuck in a colossal Rube Goldberg machine. Don’t even get to pick which way we fall. What’s the sane response to insanity? What can your conscience do when faced with the unconscionable? Exhibit A, Lieutenant. You’re looking at her.

So yeah, he came home from work the next day and I didn’t say a thing. I mean literally, I didn’t say a word to him when he came in the door. I brought out handcuffs, which he assumed was part of something kinky I’d gotten myself up to, and he played along. I blindfolded him, all the while, never saying a thing. Brought him into the basement, handcuffed him to the metal folding chair which I’d chained to one of the support poles down there. He knew something was up by then—we only used the basement for storage, and it was not a welcoming place to be—but it was too late for him to do anything about it, and I still hadn’t said a thing. I never did, though he went on and on about how sorry he was, and how it was because he was sick from the loss of our child. That’s why I eventually duct-taped his mouth shut; he didn’t get to explain. There was no explaining that. I never said a goddamned thing.

You basically know the rest. I transformed him into the little girl he seemed to want to be. I took his blindfold off, made him watch me do it. Sure, I drugged him up first—I was after justice, not anything sadistic. But I made him watch because I was really in top form, so serious, so composed. Gravitas. Turns out it’s an actual thing. Who knew?

He was down there like that for three weeks before you all found him, and nobody would’ve ever suspected a thing in that house, looking like a catalogue inside and out. But I guess I forgot to lock the basement door one day when the cleaning crew was due to come by, though I suppose you could psychologize and say I subconsciously left it open intentionally because I wanted to get caught, to show the world what a monster he was. I’ll leave you to your theories, but I do know that the world will judge me to be a monster right along with him, that they’ll say we were a freak show of a marriage, and that’s fine. Like I said, sometimes you have to kill a part of yourself to do the right thing, and maybe that makes you a monster, maybe not.

The one thing I do regret, that I feel very badly about indeed and will take to my grave, is that the cleaning people had to see what they did, because it was real, and those are the things that once seen cannot be unseen. But you? You’re only hearing about it. Ambulance had already taken him away before you got there. Sure, you’ll see the pictures, but then you’ll go home to your wife, kids, maybe give them an extra tight squeeze tonight, smell their hair and hold the scent of them in your lungs a little longer than usual. But you’ll sleep well tonight. You’re gonna be just fine.

 


About the Author: Marléne Zadig wanted to be an astronaut but she studied ecology in the Kenyan bush and then became a writer, mother, and teacher instead. Her short fiction made Longform’s Top 5 list of Best Fiction in 2015 and has appeared or is forthcoming inJoylandSlice MagazineGreen Mountains Review OnlineBlunderbuss MagazineThe Adirondack Review, and elsewhere. She’s a 2016 storySouth Million Writers Award nominee, a 2015 Best of the Net finalist, and the runner-up for the 2015 Fulton Prize for Short Fiction. She lives in Berkeley and online at marlenezadig.com.