Vacancy by Melanie J. Cordova

Untitled by Emma Rae


At best, the words were vestigial, parts of speech that had atrophied in the womb. When the “rescue party” searched for the hiker lost in the Jemez Mountains, it had been anything but lively. The faces in the van driving to the campsite were somber, nervous, hands wiping at noses and scratching the backs of necks. Gina had been tapping her foot against the floor with such force that another volunteer sitting in front of her turned around and asked in a whisper if she’d stop.

“Sorry,” she’d whispered back. It was five in the morning, the van speeding down the dusty highway toward Jemez Springs. The hiker had told his camping buddies that he wanted to find a lookout point off-trail. Twenty hours later, here they were.

Gina wondered if the response time would be as swift for her now that she herself was lost. She’d been hiking all her life with her step dad and little sister, and never once had gotten lost. Early that dark, dry morning in Albuquerque, she left her house and drove to the La Cueva campgrounds. She wanted to challenge herself and hike as the crow flies from there to Fenton Lake, where she’d camp for the night and head back. It was now early afternoon, and the most she knew about her whereabouts after hiking up the mesa was that she was vastly off course. Just letting herself admit that she might be lost was as confusing as the sun rising from a direction her compass said was south. She became disoriented. Every tree and rock started to look the same. The plant life in New Mexico had a ragged look to it, the trees clutching with roots deep in the ground, their limbs and posts uptight and tense. Gina’s sister always said that if the trees here could sweat, it wouldn’t be because of the heat, but because of the stress.

“Their life is one constant stress test,” Natalie had said on one of their hikes together, her high-volume ponytail bouncing at the crown of her head. “I bet if they were human they’d have ten panic attacks a day just thinking about water.”

Natalie liked to personify the nature around her. She called things Mr. Boulder or Mr. Hawk or Lady Squirrel. If Gina didn’t know her, she would never have pegged her as outdoorsy. Her little sister liked dressing up in six-inch heels and to redo her lipstick and contours twice before going to work in the billing department of the university’s hospital. She’d gone to Texas for her undergrad and lost her New Mexican accent, which convinced their step dad Barry that she’d never go hiking again—that she’d lost her passion for wilderness as well. She hiked more than he did, however, and could read the sky and weather and trees better than either of them. She just did it in smoky eye and pink leopard print, that’s all.

“Well, get an eyeful of that,” she’d said to Gina upon summiting a mesa west of the city a few weeks before. The afternoon sky stretched before them and it seemed at that moment like the earth was much smaller, like the air was pushing it, smashing it, swallowing it to make room for the sky. Natalie gestured northeast to Taos, where a dark spotted place highlighted the unblemished blue. “But we have Mr. Grumpy Clouds coming our way. Probably shouldn’t stay up here longer than an hour if we want to stay dry.”

That was the hike when Gina told her sister she’d signed up as a rescue volunteer for a northern New Mexico NGO affiliated with the Red Cross. “Well you should know all this stuff, then,” Natalie had said, shoving her sister in the shoulder. “You keep your head down too much, Gina. Look at that sky. It’ll tell you a lot more about where you’re at.”

Gina did in fact have to pay for a few classes before being called up on that first mission to find the hiker in the Jemez Mountains, but it was the important basic stuff—CPR, how to keep in contact, call signs and codes, lost person behaviors. The last training session was mostly maps, names, desert and mountain vectors charted on the projector. They even had a retired border patrol agent drive up to give them the basics on signcutting. It was mostly just shoes versus animal life, but Gina had been fascinated. It was much more interesting than memorizing codes for the walkie-talkie.

That last day of training classes Gina had sat next to the agent during the sack lunch. She found out he’d been part of the Yuma 14 rescue operation and retired two years later. When she’d read in the newspaper about the deaths of those men and boys in the Arizona desert in 2001 it hadn’t felt as close and frightening as it did when he reluctantly told the story from his end: proud coyotes taking people north across an unfamiliar border and leaving them to die. Bodies scattered across the Sonora as if the sun had tripped in its course and spilled them out from the sky. More than anything else in the training course, that conversation had been a lesson to her that not all search and rescue parties were successful.

“Things are different up here in the highlands,” he said with a mouthful of potato chips, “but the principle is the same. I like to help out at these sessions when I can.”

She’d nodded, too horrified to eat her turkey sandwich. From then on she made sure that Natalie and her step dad did all the right things before departing for a hike. More water than you think you need, tell people where you’re going, when you’re expected back. Make sure your phone is fully charged in case you get service out there. Don’t go alone.

Natalie had been so happy for her. “You have a real knack for hiking. This’ll be so good for you.” They perched on top of the mesa watching the northeastern clouds carefully creep their way toward Albuquerque. “Gives you something to work toward.”

Gina blanched. It shamed her to think this was true, that what gave her aimless life purpose was waiting for others to endanger themselves. She only had focus when men and women and children wandered from their campsites. And she didn’t rely on the sky as much as Natalie told her to. Most of the rescue parties she’d been in took place in the forests where she couldn’t even see past the leaves. She thought about this as she wandered in search of Fenton Lake, lost in the early afternoon. She hoped she wasn’t about to give someone else a purpose.

She’d done almost all the right things—everything but going alone. Gina found a rock under one of the trees and sat to rest her feet. She set her backpack down on the dirt and unzipped it for her water bottle. It was getting chilly earlier and earlier now that it was November, but she was every bit as thirsty as she was in the summer. When she was done drinking she pulled off her thin gloves and slapped them against her pants. Little puffs of dust emptied from the cloth like ghosts.

The area around her was familiar in that much of the plant life was the same as the trail she had meant to hike. How long until someone realized she was missing? Gina pushed the panic deep into her stomach. No, don’t think about that, stupid. She would find her way back to the main path soon enough. She just had to keep a level head and watch her step. Tripping over loose rocks was one of the reasons the people she’d searched for couldn’t get back to their camps. The border patrol agent said as much during his training session—adding an injury to disorientation was often fatal.

She remembered fanning out between trails during that first search in the Jemez Mountains. She and her partner were told to look for the most likely spots, for a picturesque lookout point, that maybe the hiker had fallen. It took them a few hours, with other pairs within personal hailing distance, to find the man’s body. He was lying there on his side as if he’d curled up for a nap. His left arm cradled a rock to his chest like a teddy bear. It lessened the blow when they rushed to his side and discovered he was dead.

He’d only been missing for a day—one single day. When she radioed in the code that they’d found him and the medics bounded to their location with the stretcher, she thought of this man planning his trip the week before. Carefully laying out what clothes to pack. Packing the chocolate chip bars instead of the peanut butter ones. Dropping the cat off at a friend’s house, remembering to switch off the air conditioning, thinking how the leftover soup in the fridge probably wouldn’t last.

Their hike back to the van was less urgent and hurried. She kept the TV off for days in case the news did a report on the man. The thought that maybe he had a little sister like she did, that maybe he called her to promise pictures of his trip, frightened her with its likelihood.

#

The sun set in the west. She knew that much. She hated all these trees, knew she’d be so much better off emotionally if she were in the desert itself. She was beginning to feel claustrophobic with them crowding around her. Gina knew the plants and landscape of the desert better, had basically learned to walk on the deserts around Albuquerque. While Natalie had spent her time looking up at the stars, Gina focused on the ground beneath her feet in search of a place for herself. It was nearly impossible to avoid the sky out there, but she did it, kept her nose in the dirt, busy looking down at the plants and the rocks. Only Nat could get her to raise her head.

Her step dad Barry used to call her a bloodhound because of the way she explored the terrain as a kid—a hand on every rock, her face in the bushes. “How’s my Nose?” he’d ask.

When she was thirteen being called the Nose was a huge deal. “God, don’t call me that,” she said when he’d hollered for her out the window of their Honda Civic in front of school. She knew he meant it affectionately, but it gave the other kids an excuse to tease her. Gina the Nose didn’t lose her nickname until she grew breasts.

“Everyone makes fun of me because of you,” she’d said to Barry a few weeks later. “You’ve ruined my life.”

Barry’s face twitched, clearly trying not to laugh. It infuriated her. “You can’t pick me up from school anymore, and I’m not going to the movies with you today either.”

“What?” He spread his hands. “Gina, we always go to the movies on Sundays.”

“Not this week. Not ever again.”

“You can’t break tradition just because I made a mistake.” He gave a half-smile, hopeful in his tan square jaw. His dark hair was already starting to pepper from the stress of bringing up two little girls as a single dad. Their mother had died when Gina was nine.

“Mom would never have called me that in front of my friends. I can’t believe you.”

Barry’s face sagged at this comment and Gina’s outrage tempered. For the last few weeks they’d been going to the movies to see Toy Story 2—this Sunday would be the fifth week in a row they sat in the back and mouthed the lines to each other, giggling and scarfing down popcorn. They had seen countless blockbusters and flops together over the last two years. This time had been precious to her and she didn’t realize it until the moment Barry nodded and said, “Okay, if that’s how you feel. We can watch your sister at practice instead of the movies today.”

He didn’t call her the Nose again. Sometimes Natalie did but it was rare and usually after eggnog at Christmas.

Gina took a sip of her water and looked around the forest, feeling like she’d woken up in a fairy tale, deposited by magic in an unfamiliar landscape. The sun, from what she could tell through the leafy greens above her, was nearing noon. How could I have been this stupid? she asked herself, pulling her phone from her pocket and turning it off airplane mode. It was something Natalie had taught her—keeping her phone in airplane mode made the battery last longer, especially out here in the wilderness where it searched for service like a puppy for its mother. When the phone reoriented itself, there were no new icons indicating a phone call or voicemail. Not good. Maybe it couldn’t reach service to even check. When she first realized she was lost and that her compass was broken, Gina had called Natalie, but her sister was working and didn’t pick up. By habit, Gina hung up when her sister’s light voice told her to leave a message. Now when she called she didn’t even connect, didn’t get a chance to leave a voicemail. She should have remembered that. I’m such an idiot.

Natalie was probably on her lunch break now, or nearing it, she reckoned. She’d keep her phone off airplane mode and on the loudest setting just in case Natalie got through. She stood and took a deep breath, looking around: trees, vegetation, clutter. If she went northwest she’d hit the scenic byway and could follow the road from there. She hoped she hadn’t overshot the lake. It was a good plan if she hadn’t overshot the lake. Lake Fenton was only a few walking hours from La Cueva after all. Gina wanted to take out her broken compass and smash it with the heel of her shoes. She tried to find a clearing where she could orient herself to the march of the sun.

At first she had been pretty excited to suddenly have time for exploring when she lost her job. Her first thought when she realized the photography studio where she worked the front desk had phased her out of the schedule was not disappointment, but relief. It was surprisingly stressful, mostly due to customers who panicked when they got the bill for their glamor shots. Her boss coached her on how to handle those phone calls.

“It’s not hanging up on them if you say ‘Goodbye,’ ” Nancy told her. Nancy was part owner and ran the administrative side of things at Dazzle’s. “Even if they say one little cuss word or get a little loud, that’s all you have to say: ‘Please call back when you are calmer. Goodbye.’ ”

That’s how Nancy dealt with her employees, too. Instead of outright getting rid of people she simply reduced their hours week by week until nothing was left. Gina saw her hours diminish like a sunset and had been glad the day was over.

Yet even before this she felt untethered. She felt weak, inconsequential. Right out of high school she’d landed a good job at a dental office and decided to forgo a four-year degree and its attendant debt. But then the office reduced its staff and she was forced to work in retail until something better came along. By that time Natalie was off in Texas working hard at growing into an adult. Gina started to feel younger than her little sister, dumber and ignorant when she came home for holidays. Natalie seemed full of purpose.

After Natalie’s first semester in college she came home for Christmas and the two of them hiked the easy paths around the Sandias.

“Everything’s so different,” she’d said.

Gina laughed at her. “What are you talking about? You’ve only been gone for four months.”

“It just feels changed, you know?”

“It’s colder than when you left.” They rounded a corner and started their ascent up the trail.

Natalie pursed her lips and followed after her sister. “Yeah sure, maybe that’s it.”

“Or maybe you’re the different one.”

Her sister had scoffed at this, but Gina could spot the difference as soon as little Nat had popped enthusiastically off the Greyhound with her leopard-print bag. It was in her eyes, the way she seemed to notice things for the first time—that fire hydrant, the Brazilian restaurant on the corner, the hubcaps on the cars that whipped by, true colors. As if her eyes had two outlines, one of eyeliner and one of vision.

“I want to take something back to Texas with me,” Natalie said when they reached the high point. The sisters stopped and dropped their packs.

“Like what?” Gina asked. Together they walked over to the vantage and saw a smoky little Albuquerque blinking away in the late afternoon. Points of light at street corners became more visible even as the sun still shone bright on the far side of town.

“I don’t know,” Natalie said, “I only—”

Gina saw her sister totter in the air for a moment, saw her take a step too far. Her sneakers slipped with a soft crunch and a moment later Nat tumbled feet-first down the slope.

Gina screamed even though the angle was soft and she ran, slipping and sliding, after her. Natalie groaned to a halt next to a larger rock and tree.

“Ugh god,” she said, rolling over.

Gina’s hurried flight caused more rocks and dust to fall over her sister, who cringed. “Are you okay? Nat, can you hear me?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “But my hand kind of—ouch!” A pinky finger was broken. She brought it up to her eyes and laughed shortly. “Not bad for my first visit back home.”

Gina helped her to a sitting position. She was dusty from head to foot, leaves in her hair and sticks clutching her sweatshirt. She wished there had been snow to break her fall.

“So gross.” Natalie was trying to move her finger, which bent pathetically in the opposite direction.

“Did you hit your head?” Gina moved her shoulders around for signs of blood.

Natalie shrugged her off. “No, I’m fine, really. Just my finger. Help me up.”

Together they trudged back up the slope, Gina leading her by the elbow. Natalie started limping. “My foot hurts. I think I broke a toe on that rock.” She groaned and spat out the dirt in her mouth.

Gina scraped sand over the spit with her shoe. “Dad’s going to freak out.”

“No he won’t. Don’t be so dramatic.”

As they made their slow way down the Sandias Gina hooked her sister in her arm. Natalie limped along. They paused halfway down to rest and Natalie blinked out at the late afternoon view. “Would you look at that sky? Gorgeous.”

Gina couldn’t see the sky in the forest where she walked northwest—or what she thought was northwest, lost in the trees. Feeling the sun move farther in its course made her move at a trot, panic blossoming on the ground where her feet hit. The fear of staying lost was one thing, but Gina didn’t think she could take much more of being so empty and treadless if she ever got back home. The idea that she’d live to be eighty was daunting. She wondered what her life would be like if she’d been the one who got on the Greyhound and headed back to school.

 

Now Gina knew she certainly had overshot the lake—she must have. She would have arrived there hours ago or run into the road otherwise. But how was that possible? Wouldn’t she have crossed the river at some point? Was she just wandering around in circles like an idiot? Maybe she had been going southwest instead of northwest. She pulled her compass out of her back pocket and threw it with a grunt into the trees. It made a tinny clink when it landed in the gravel and leaves.

“I just can’t see anything,” she whispered. It occurred to her that it wasn’t the desert that was dangerous; it was the trees. Trees blocked everything and gave hikers the illusion they weren’t alone. It was claustrophobic being in those trees, as if her eyes had sprouted cataracts. At least with the desert you knew where you stood.

“God damnit!” She kicked the base of a pine tree, grabbed a branch and shook it with all her might. “Damnit!”

She should have just gone out to the mesas as usual, trekked the paths rock climbers used. These trees were a death trap. Gina felt for her cell phone again. The battery was warm from its constant search for service. If Natalie could just get a call through, Gina’s nerves wouldn’t be so taut. Just thirty seconds—that’s all she needed. Natalie would know something was wrong.

Their sisterly connection was one Gina used to downplay in their teens. Being a year apart was for some reason embarrassing to her, and the notion of even having a “sisterly connection” ridiculous. But Gina was admittedly uptight. Even now with all her search and rescue training, Gina was the delicate one, ever the dainty sister.

“You have no sense of humor,” said Natalie the summer before she left for college.

Gina had shrugged. “Okay.”

Her sister gaped at her, the Dr. Pepper can halfway to her mouth. “Don’t you need one?”

They had just returned from a morning walk around the Petroglyph National Monument, where Barry was more impressed with how high up the tourist graffiti had managed to get than the actual petroglyphs themselves. Her step dad was helping her make sandwiches while Natalie took a sip and stretched out her cramped feet. That was the last summer the three of them really spent together-together. Things always felt choppy and rushed during the college breaks Natalie came home, not normal, almost false because they knew she’d turn right around in a few weeks and head back to Texas. It was also the summer Gina walked into the living room and found Natalie making out with her boyfriend on the couch.

She stopped and mumbled, “Oops—sorry,” as he pulled his hand quickly out from under her sister’s skirt.

Natalie blushed beet red and Gina hurried into the kitchen. A few weeks later Natalie broke up with him. “But I did it over ice cream,” she said, as if that would soften the blow. She clicked her acrylic nails on the table. “I even paid for his.”

Gina still slept on that couch. It was one of the few things left over after Barry moved a few years before. She didn’t have to pay rent, which was great considering she didn’t have a job anymore, but she had to keep the Spartan home clean for when interested buyers wanted a tour from the realtor. She hadn’t even bothered to buy a mattress. At one point that summer she simply pitched a tent in the backyard and peed in the rock garden if the need struck her in the middle of the night.

God, Nat, please try to call. It had felt like a genuine reunion when Natalie announced she got the job at the university hospital. It would be back to regular lunches and real conversations. She loved Barry, but having a sister was something different than having a dad.

They’d had one lovely year together when Natalie returned as part of the actual Albuquerque workforce, “the trifecta reunited” as Barry said, before a firm in Trinidad gave him a job offer he felt guilty refusing.

“College ain’t cheap,” he said to Gina when Natalie was in the other room. “I took out the loans in my name so your sister wouldn’t start out life in debt, but I’m just swimming in it.”

Three months later he put their childhood home on the market and they helped him move into the dinky one-bedroom apartment across the border in Colorado. “It’s the sex-change capital of the world,” Barry said. “How bad could Colorado really be?” When Gina had walked across the threshold of his new apartment she sniffed—no, it wasn’t a smell. She paused and set down the box of movies and other odds and ends on the floor. It was a feeling, a watery feeling.

“Anything would feel damp if you’ve lived in Albuquerque as long as you have,” Barry said to her, holding one end of a mattress and backing in. Natalie followed with the other end.

They had dinner at a Chili’s that night, where over chicken parmesan the trifecta made a pact to have phone dates every Sunday. Maybe that’s when the alarm would go out, Gina reasoned. Sunday morning when she didn’t call Barry he’d worry and ask Natalie about it. Then maybe a search party would set out for her. Now that the sun was advanced on its downward course she was quickly losing hope that she could find her way out on her own.

She stopped and leaned her hand against a tree. It felt brittle and chilly beneath her gloves. I can do this. Okay, the sun is going toward the west. Find a place where you can see the damn thing and orient yourself. She did so. It took a few minutes of searching but she found a tiny clearing, sucked in a breath, and looked up in the desperate way she used to look down.

There it was: the sun, peering at her between pine branches at her ten-o-clock. Put it on your right, and walk south until you get out of the trees and hit the desert. You’ll be fine if you hit the desert. It was a frantic choice, one that struck her a few minutes later as ludicrous. She could be fifteen miles or more from where the trees even started to thin. “Then what am I supposed to do?” she asked the noiseless whisperings of the trees around her. Gina shivered. Out on the rangelands it often felt just as quiet, Gina just as abandoned as the land by the rest of the world—too dry, too bare for eyes that associated the open range for sight with emptiness and death.

She decided to go straight north. She’d either hit the road or a river, which she’d follow in whatever direction she felt like. She just had to find something first. Anything. A sound, a sign, a footprint. These trees were as vacant of animals as the Jemez Mountains had been when the search and rescue party went after the lost hiker, as if the animals absconded at the first sign of death. After shaking hands with her partner, Gina had watched the medical team carry the dead man through the trees on the stretcher. His arm fell loose over the edge, dangling against their steps. Low-hanging tree branches whacked against his palm like he were high-fiving from the grave. Or maybe he was trying in a ghastly way to reach back into the forest to take back what life he’d left there. Is that what Natalie had wanted when she said she’d like to take something from the desert? Had she felt like she’d left something behind?

Gina’s chest began to hurt. I’m so tired. I need to rest.

People want to find the easiest ways across land when they’re injured. That’s how they’d find her, if she went downhill. “I’m going downhill,” she said. “I’ve always got to go downhill.”

Eventually she realized that it wasn’t her imagination—she really was going downhill. Her flashlight bobbed as she stumbled over her own feet, hurrying along. She could feel the trees thinning about her. She knew how thick night could be out in the desert, but among the trees it was almost unbearable. Gina rushed toward that feeling of expanse: north, north, faster.

And then she saw it—blinking lights. A car in the distance.

“Oh my god.” She sucked in a breath and stopped short when she saw the little pinpoints move from east to west. “I found the road.”

A few more minutes of stumbling through the darkness brought her near the edge of the mesa. She gave a cry as she swept out toward the open air. One last tree pressed against her as she passed, branches catching on her pack and pulling her backwards. She ripped out of its grasp with a shout. Her heart pounded and her eyes welled with happy tears. Gina felt like Snow White happening onto the dwarves’ house after her flight through the forest.

The road was maybe two hundred feet below her. I’ll hike down in the morning. She smiled a grin like the one carved from Death’s skull. I’ll just pitch my tent here and hike down in the morning. Oh my god.

Gina dropped to her rear, feeling weak with relief. She slipped off the pack and stretched out, laughing weakly. She heard a car drive by and laughed again. As she lied there on her back, looking up at the unobstructed stars, she thought about how she’d been busy as an ant crawling up and around these trees. It was much better to be here, she thought, stationary. Look at that sky. She took off her gloves and patted the dirt beneath her fingers, fanning it like the trailing dust of an alluvial fan. Jesus, look at that sky.


About the Author: Melanie J. Cordova has stories out or forthcoming with The Columbia College Literary Review, Ghost Town, Blacktop Passages, Red Savina Review, Whitefish Review, The Oklahoma Review,Yemassee, and various others. She is the Editor of The Santa Fe Writer’s Project’s journal The Quarterly. You can follow her on Twitter via @mjcwrites.

Artwork: Emma Rae

NOW, FOR REAL by Paul Corman-Roberts

Hayden Martin_Untitled


NOW, FOR REAL

–   For Richard Loranger

Manners and mind games and mind games and manners matter more than mind games matter in the never ending I you we, I you we, I you we times three is all I need to get through this poetically selective gallery of vowels and/or processing to

you know

find ourselves or at least find myself confused & unable & unavailable & inaccessible & unclosable with marbles hemorrhaging out of my eyes, ears, nose, mouth and it’s not so bad, calming even; it helps with the healing from being stood up when you didn’t know you had been stood up.

It isn’t just drugs that are wasted on the young, it’s the privilege of living in a pause button DADA media interface context where there used to be a consensual reality. Seriously, who am I supposed to go to for help with this shit? Oh hell, I’m not rich enough to even ask that question in the first place.

I used to know what all these alpha-numeric symbols represented until the visions came and blurred them into shapes I couldn’t remember much less recognize. I need to get away. I may need to invent flight. But I don’t want to invent flight. Dwelling on the past should come with a mandatory cooling off period.

These are days when only the periphery holds, when I need something outside the tether of my own flesh and blood to demonstrate for me why a hot slug of metal boring a nice smooth canal through the center of my gray matter isn’t the best answer because for all the authenticity of truth and beauty they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be now are they?

I’m not saying I need you to have an answer but I may need you to drag me over to the next page and assign me a simple task like finding a hair brush or putting my shoes on or at the very least some kind of prompt for daily life but please I beg you, leave the affirmations at the door; those are what dragged me into this quagmire in the first place.

If the truth will set me free, and freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, then dedicating myself to truth must mean I’ve truly hit some kind of bottom at the end of my socially sanctioned rope and even then one can’t be sure the truth they’re getting is the really pure, un-stepped on shit; shouldn’t we all be doing background checks on all our truth dealers?

And who has the time for all that shit anyway and it’s late and it’s dark and all this truth and baggage is wearing me out. I’m tired of lying even though I feel completely unprepared to be emotionally honest with myself so I guess I’m not tired enough yet, huh?

Would you be willing to hang out with me if we just had a cup of tea? I think it might be getting close to time for me to shut the fuck up, to take a nap, to breathe slow and be patient enough to take a little time to inspect all my little creative spaces.

At least I know what to expect from a cup of tea, or a nap, or a slow breath. These things behave consistently, while things like caring and patience and listening require so much more work for so many of us. I’m not saying I don’t want to talk, I’m saying that at the moment I’m unable to talk like a rational entity. Later I will want to talk, but later is always too late.

Please just hang here with me for this cup of tea which I promise will not spiral into a cup of coffee, which will not spiral into an espresso, which will not spiral into a glass of wine, or shots, or a cigarette, or a joint, or a line of blow, which will not spiral into a three finger molly scoop, or Angel Dust or Heroin, or Jimson weed, or mushrooms or…

…well, wait.  Maybe the tea can spiral into mushroom tea and maybe then we can read the tea leaves and maybe that can all just happen later and maybe this is the right time for me to shut the fuck up now, for real.


About the Author: Paul Corman-Roberts is the author of ‘We Shoot Typewriters’ from Nomadic Press (2015) and is the co-founder of the Beast Crawl Lit Festival. He edits fiction for Full of Crow online and spent the night of the Rodney King riots barricaded inside a Circle K convenience store because he had a really great boss at the time.

Artwork: Hayden Martin

 

 

Burn Up On the Mountain by Becky Mandelbaum

(Untitled)_Adam Loewen


“Here’s the problem,” the German is saying. “You say you want to be alone, and then I turn around and find you with another guy.” He’s standing above me, holding onto one of the bus’s overhead straps. His nails are dirty, a thin smile of darkness at the end of each finger. The lights of Vancouver shoot by in the windows behind him.

“I told you, he came up to me.”

“You didn’t have to accept the drink.”

“It’s not like you were going to buy me one.”

He stares me down, his eyes red and unattractive. “You’ve made it very clear you don’t want anything from me.”

He’s mad because I won’t sleep with him. This morning, he found me sleeping the wrong way in the hotel bed, my feet touching the place on his head where he’ll be bald in a few years. I explained to him that it was a matter of getting rest—I couldn’t stand the sound of his breathing, the oniony smell of his breath.

“I invite you on holiday and this is how you thank me—by flirting with other men right in front of my face. You’re a spoiled American. That’s what you are.”

Before I can retaliate, a man boards the bus. He’s drunk—dunker than either the German or I—and it’s obvious he’s ready to make a show. He’s a biker type, with a leather jacket and a faded paisley bandana, thin but for the fact that he’s nine-months pregnant with a beer baby. He’s recently dyed his hair. Cute, I think. Such useless vanity. He takes the seat across from me, lets his legs fall open in the way men do. When an ambulance goes by he says, “There goes the meat wagon!” He looks at me, hungry for engagement. I look down, clean my fingernails with a paperclip.

Above me, the German sighs. He’s always sighing, like a dying balloon. He does not want any distractions, not when he’s in the middle of making some point that might win me back or, at the very least, hurt my feelings. He doesn’t know it’s too late, that even the powder smell of his deodorant now turns my stomach.

“Don’t you just hate riding the bus?” the biker asks, looking at me.

“I do,” I say. “There’s a complete lack of privacy.”

“That’s exactly it,” he says. “No privacy. No freedom. Anyone in their right mind would rather be on a bike. I recently lost my license—for technical reasons—but any other night you couldn’t pay me to ride the bus. It’d be just me and the road. Me and my bike.” He grins, revealing a mouth of bad dental work. “Hey,” he says. “Ask me how I got my first bike.”

The German clears his throat. “Listen, friend. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“No, I want to hear the story,” I say. “Go on.”

The biker doesn’t notice there’s tension between the German and me—he’s too excited to have an audience. “All right. So my wife, or my ex-wife or whatever, she and I had just gotten back from our honeymoon cruise. We had all this money from our wedding—checks and envelopes just stuffed with cash. We did the math and decided we each got to pick one big thing. She bought a big King-sized bed that went up and down with a little remote. I got my chopper. Only three grand and some change. Can you believe it?”

“Wow,” I say. “I almost can’t.”

He keeps on, despite the German’s sighs. “I remember my first ride, coming down from Whistler, just burning up. Pulled up to the station with smoke piling out behind me. How embarrassing. Just burning up on the mountain. Didn’t know a thing what I was doing. I was so young, eh? Just a kid. A little baby on wheels. All smoke and no fire. Just like you,” he says, and points at me. “How old are you, dear? Seventeen? Eighteen? You couldn’t be a day over twenty, eh?”

“I’m twenty-five,” I say, the annoyance clear in my voice. Our stop is still more than half an hour away, on Barnaby Mountain, where the hotels are cheaper. This city is all about its mountains, the complete opposite of Kansas, where the German and I met. Here, the land rises and gathers around the edge of the city, a silhouette of hunched gangsters. Going blue to black to white.

Meanwhile, the German’s knee keeps bumping into mine. Every time, an avalanche of disgust.

“Sounds like you’re a bit of a sour-puss,” the biker says, loud enough that the whole bus can hear. “What’s there to be sad about on a night like this? We’re going up a mountain, if you didn’t notice. We’re alive on God’s green earth.”

“She’s sour because she hates me,” says the German.

“That so?” the biker says. “Well then give her a little kiss, eh? Cheer her up!”

Before I can say anything, the bus stops and everyone must rearrange. The German steps toward me to make room for a group of girls to pile out. I make a mean face at him, but he’s not looking. He’s watching the people, who are all bursting with kindness. It comes easily here, at little cost. The Canadians are all please and excuse me and sorry, sorry, sorry. People get off the bus and call “Thank you!” to the driver. Incredible.

There’s a scuffle at the back door, which isn’t opening. When it finally does, a girl walks through and everyone on the bus goes quiet. She looks like death come to retrieve us. White makeup gone grey around the eyes. Shaved head. Face so gaunt you could sharpen a knife with her jawbone. Her body is loaded with silver hoops and hooks, like a trout on a bad day. In a way, she’s quite beautiful. Big, watery eyes and a small red petal mouth. Skin like week old snow.

“Hey, what do you think about a girl like that?” the biker asks the German.

The German looks annoyed, then seems to reconsider. “She probably has more of a pulse than this one,” he says, gesturing toward me.

The biker roars. “Woah! That’s hurtful, man. She must really have your nuts in a bind.”

“You can all go screw yourselves,” I say, and scoot down a few seats, so that I’m next to the skeleton.

“It’s true,” the German says. “I don’t even know what I did. One minute everything’s fine. She’s kissing me. Saying she’ll miss me when I leave for Germany. And then next she’s like ice. I did nothing. Nothing to deserve this…this…meanness. Like I’ve dragged her here by the hair.”

It’s true, he didn’t drag me here by the hair. I agreed to this trip because I had nothing better to do—no job or obligations until school starts in the fall. If nothing else, I figured I could escape the heat in Kansas, where I have to sleep naked with a portable fan roaring beside my head. I figured that in Canada, the German and I could keep the windows open. It would be all cool breezes and maple leaves, poutine fries and moose. We were barely off the plane when I really saw him: the shock of his thin, dry lips—like two dead grubs rubbing bellies. Sideburns. Glasses. He’s smart, smarter than me, but in a bookish way that screams academia. The best thing about him is where he’s from, even though seventy years ago his people tried to eradicate mine. We joked about it in the beginning—his grandparents shouting Achtung! at mine. It was, after all, his accent that first got me. I have a thing for voices, for language. I’ve been known to sleep with men because of the way they pronounce the word photography. The German’s not nearly as bad as some of the other foreigners: the Israeli who slept with a knife, the Ukrainian who wouldn’t kiss me on the lips because he found my mouth unsanitary. Anybody would agree that the German is a good catch. He’s nice, opens doors, pays for things—like this trip—but at the end of the week he flies back to Germany, and I will likely never see him again. I’ve talked about visiting, but I know it will never happen. Whether he thinks it will is none of my business. Either way, our fling has a deadline. Maybe because of this, he’s started to let loose his English, shaking off words like they’re mosquitoes. Just this morning he referred to a bagel as a muffin. Once he said it, I could barely share his coffee without feeling sick.

An ex-boyfriend once told me I have a heart that changes sizes. I’d dumped him on his birthday, via text message. I try not to think of this now, with the German. It’s totally different. I’m older, the German is the German. He keeps on, telling the bus that I’m selfish and a prude. I look over and see the skeleton smiling at him, her red lips twitching.

“Is that your boyfriend?” she asks me.

I’m surprised that she speaks—I imaged her voiceless, that if she opened her mouth a spider would crawl out instead of words. But her voice is smooth and kind, something that could sell bubble bath on commercials. I say, “No, but he probably thinks he is. We’re just travelling together.”

“He’s beautiful,” she says. “I like his nose. Makes him look like a professor.”

“He is a professor.”

“You’re kidding. How funny.” She smiles to herself, like she’s guessed the correct number of jellybeans in a jar. Maybe she’s high. Who cares.

“You can have him if you want him. But just so you know, he has an expiration date. He goes back to Germany on Monday.”

“That so?” She looks down to her lap, where her hands lay one on top of the other. She has nice hands. Long, slender fingers with round nails. They’re painted with a layer of clear polish.

“Come give your man a kiss, eh?” the biker is saying to me. “Make the world right. It’s a beautiful night for love in Vancouver!”

I give him the finger. He’s amused to see me angry, like I’m a zoo monkey hurling my own shit.

“Come on, sweetheart!” the biker sings. “Give our man a kiss! Look how sad he is! Kiss him! Kiss him!”

It takes a minute, but eventually the whole bus is chanting. Everyone’s drunk and I’m burning up, my face a flame. I think of whether I can transfer hotels, maybe sleep in the lobby. Could I change my plane ticket? Maybe get a direct flight back to Kansas City? The bus grows louder, and I wonder why the driver doesn’t say something. Perhaps he does, but we can’t hear him over the chanting. Kiss him, kiss him!

Beside me, the skeleton rises. “Watch this,” she says and then moves toward the German. She walks like an insect, fluid on thin legs. Crawling toward him. The biker doesn’t seem to see what will happen, but I do. Her red lips on the German’s thin, dry mouth. They move together. A flash of pink tongue. I’m not completely disgusted. It’s a good kiss. Tender. His giant hands move to the small of her back, where a silver chain hangs loose from her black mesh vest. I notice yet another silver hoop, at the bottom of her spine, where her back becomes her butt-crack. How does that even work?

The biker goes wild as the kiss continues, going deeper and deeper. I’m frozen between anger and laughter. We are coming to a stop now. A small crowd of people are gathered near the doors. They’ve missed everything. Poor them.

When the skeleton pulls away from the German, the bus erupts into applause. I do not clap, but I hum, a single note that gets lost in the commotion. It’s moments like this that I wish I were something other than a writer—a dentist, a janitor, one of those people who give change at a tollbooth. Anything to feel productive, to have something to lean back on and say: It’s all right that I’m humiliated, because at the end of the day, I’m doing good work in this world.

I catch the skeleton’s eye as she grabs the German’s hand and leads him off the bus. Where is she taking him? To a party with strobe lights? To her home? What does a girl like her look like at home? What kind of pajamas? I’m thinking little cotton skulls and crossbones, tiny red swastikas, but that’s probably too obvious. Maybe she sleeps naked, or in a ratty white t-shirt. I picture the German’s long arms around her, enveloping her. They will sleep well like this, entwined. A breeze will cough through a window above them.

When the bus pulls away, I’m left with the ugly image of myself that the German will wake up with tomorrow morning. Emotionally, everything feels like static. Practically, I do not have a key to our hotel. I cannot even remember the room number. I’ve been following the German the whole time, blindly trailing behind him like the tail of a comet. What now?

The biker gets up and takes the seat beside me. A smell of alcohol radiates from his body as he puts his hand on my knee and squeezes. “Rough night, eh?”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t deserve to be alone—a pretty girl like you. He’ll come to his senses, I’m sure. In the morning.”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s moving. And I don’t like him.”

“Well then.” He smiles, pats my knee. “Aren’t you the smart one?”

The bus stops and he rises, totters toward the doors. He flashes me a smile before stepping off. “Thank you!” he calls to the driver, who waves a hand in the rearview mirror.

For a moment, everything is still. Then the doors close, sealing me in.


About the Author: Becky Mandelbaum is from Kansas but is currently pursuing an MA in English at the University of California in Davis. She is the winner of the Lawrence Arts Center’s 2013 Langston Hughes Award for fiction, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Dakota Review, Midwestern Gothic, and Kansas City Voices.

Artwork: Adam Loewen

 

 

Backstreet by Anne F. Walker

Lorenzo Tianero_Service for the Sick


Backstreet

The ambulance sloshed
by today
siren cut and re-ordered
by leaves.

The harder you have to think
the simpler
the answer must be.


About the Author: Originally from Berkeley, Anne F. Walker grew up in Toronto, Canada.  There she began her writing and publishing career, studying with bpNichol, Frank Davey, and Susan Swan while earning a BFA in Creative Writing from York University.  She returned to California for her MFA from Mills College.  At the University of California, Berkeley she earned her PhD, studying with Alfred Arteaga, Lyn Hejinian, Hertha D. Sweet Wong, and Robert Hass. Her published collections include Six Months Rent (Black Moss Press), Pregnant Poems (Black Moss Press), Into the Peculiar Dark (The Mercury Press & The bpNichol Foundation), and The Exit Show (Palimpsest Press). American Urban Poetics is her published poetics book.  She directs the graduate writing program at Holy Names University, Oakland, California, and her new chapbook, when the light of any action ceases, is available through Finishing Line Press in spring 2016.

On The Field Of Play by Anthony Ausiello

Chris Solano_Untitled


Our ten year-old annual sponge ball game always ends the same way. Al wins. He switches around to bat lefty to give me what he would call a fair chance. He’s cocky even when he’s down 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth. He thinks his string of victories will go on forever, like DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak. He waves to his girlfriend, Amy, sun-bathing in the outfield.

“Stop waving and bat right,” I shout. I hate when he does this. She has no business being here. Al also leads in girlfriend stealing 1-0.

“You gonna throw strikes?” He spins little circles at me with the bat in his outstretched arm. He wants to swing.

“Don’t worry, you just bat right.” He switches back around.

Must be past noon now. The sun peeks around the schoolyard wall to my left. No more shadow.  No more shade. Concrete burns through the soles of my sneakers, and my hair is boiling in a stream of sweat running down the back of my neck. Schoolyard feels like a desert. Even the pigeons deserted the rows of windowsills for cooler perches. But, the sun’s in the batter’s eyes now. Just have to put it over.

I turn and watch three little kids zip across the basketball courts on miniature racing bikes, all candy-apple red. The first cradles a basketball carefully in one arm like it’s a giant dinosaur egg and steering one-handed, loops a trail of invisible circles that the other two follow. They dismount at the court nearest Amy.  Metals frames clang against the ground. Amy looks up startled and gives the kids an annoyed look.

I turn back and pitch. Strike. Not bad. First one in ten pitches, but not bad. Count is 2-1 with men on first and second. In the top of the ninth, Al tried to groove one by me and I took him downtown (downtown being past the foul line of the third basketball court that serves as our home run marker). The look of shock on Al’s face reminded me of Mike Torrez’s facial expression after he hung that slider to Bucky Dent in’78.

Next pitch. Another strike. Again, Al doesn’t swing. He’s still “taking a strike.” I love the expression. It has a nice rhythm to it if you’re whispering it to yourself while up at bat—taking a strike, I’m taking a strike. But, I’m not up at bat. I’m on the mound. Well, I’m on the white chalk mark I scratched onto the cement. In Brooklyn, that’s a mound, and the big crooked rectangle I drew over the graffiti-stained, rusty-red brick wall is a strike zone. Same rules of baseball apply here: three strikes you’re out, four balls a walk, etc. After that, the specifics of the schoolyard dictate what’s fair or foul. Might sound random, but every MLB field is unique too. Yankee Stadium’s outfield dimensions look like a stumbling drunk drew them.

Having rediscovered the strike zone, I quickly scoop up the ball as it rolls back to me. I bring myself set, about to pitch, when I hear a car horn shriek through the air. Across the street, I see the shadowy outline of Cathy Izzo’s bouffant hunched over the steering wheel of her husband’s new Cadillac, pressing both hands against the steering wheel. She rocks back into the leather interior for a second and peers out the passenger window, as if to see if the sound waves have pushed away the appliance delivery truck double-parked beside her, blocking her escape. Disappointed, she leans back into the horn. It echoes between the four-story walls that border our infield.

Nine years ago to the day, the hum of the downstairs bell droned through my family’s second floor apartment. Late morning, I lay stretched out like a corpse across my parents’ green and brown sectional, still in pajamas, ignoring The Partridge Family rerun playing on the television opposite me. I didn’t want to “Come On, Get Happy.” I knew it was Al ringing the bell, wondering why I hadn’t met him at this same schoolyard like I did every morning that summer. My mother must have buzzed him up because from above me I hear him ask, “You sick?” I pointed down to the morning’s Daily News, still resting where I’d dropped it on the gold-checkered linoleum floor. He read the headline, understanding washed over his expression: Mickey Rivers, my favorite Yankee, had been traded to Texas, along with three other players to be named later for Oscar fucking-giant-afro Gamble. I’d never again see him fly around the bases again or twirl his bat like a baton on a swing and miss. Or worse, if I did, he wouldn’t be wearing the pinstripes. I was crushed.

I sensed Al still looming over me and glanced upward.  He stood nodding like he was just told a secret. I mumbled that I didn’t feel like playing today. He wouldn’t hear any of it. He sat down beside me, laid his hand on my shoulder and asked me if I thought Willie Randolph or Lou Pinella wasn’t going to play today because a teammate was traded. Was Thurman Munson, the captain, going to drop his catcher’s mask and mitt and just sulk in the clubhouse all day? Of course not. Batter up. Let’s play ball! Eventually, I relented because I knew how stubborn Al was. He wasn’t leaving without me. On the way to the schoolyard, to make the game more interesting, Al grabbed a black marble notebook from his house, suggesting we keep a scorecard of the game. I was up 4-1 in the top of the third when I realized Al was lobbing his pitches. I yelled at him to play the right way. He denied the accusation, but went on to win 12-5. Still, I felt better, renewed.  My parents let me stay up late that night and I watched the Yankees win 9-1 behind seven scoreless innings from journeyman Don Hood. I went to sleep smiling. The game would go on. The next day Thurman Munson died in a small plane crash.

“I move, I move it,” screams a skinny Puerto Rican man in blue overalls who comes flying out the front door of the house next to Cathy’s, but she doesn’t let up on the horn until he pulls away. I stretch my arm and twirl it like a slow windmill blade to loosen up the shoulder as the Cadillac screeches away. I squint up to see the sun stretch yellow across the whole sky.

“Hey. Let’s get a pitcher on the mound,” Mr. Barello squawks, gravel-voiced, from the outfield side of the chain link fence that split the concrete of the inner schoolyard and asphalt of the basketball courts. The horn must have woken him up from his midday nap. He adjusts both pant legs and reclines back into his folding chair he carries from his porch across the street. A retired sanitation worker, he used to ump little league games. Sill has eyes like a fighter pilot but his knees are shot. If he’s awake and sees kids playing ball, he’ll amble across and plant himself behind the fence. Schoolyard rules are he has final say on any close calls. I give him a respectful nod and step back to the mound.

I wind up from the stretch, pitch, and Al is way out in front, smashing the ball off of the near wall (and our left field foul line). It ricochets across the infield just short of the opposite wall (our right field foul line). Still strike two. Can’t strike out on a foul ball, just like baseball. I jog after the ball.

This morning, Al was quick to remind me that this was the tenth anniversary of our game. Leafing through the notebook, he noted from the summary page he updated after each game that his average margin of victory was now 6.2 runs. He was also just three strikeouts short of one hundred, a milestone he’d reach in the third inning. He leads in every category except losses. He smiled his big cheesy smile at me and handed the notebook to Amy.

It’s not like we just played once a year. We played all the time growing up. But after Munson died, we made sure we played this game every year and kept record of the stats. It’s what we loved most about baseball, the records, the history of the game – its tradition.  Sure, Munson and Rivers were gone (Mickey’s still alive, my uncle sees him at the dog tracks in Florida every winter) but the game endures. The Yankees endure—Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Berra to Mantle to Munson, and now to Mattingly. Nothing says tradition like the pinstripes.

Next pitch. Crack. The ball zooms over my head towards right field and lodges between one of the diamonds on the steel-wired fence. Got to hit it hard to make it stick like that. Ground rule double. One run scores. Men on second and third, still no outs. But I’m still up by two. Three outs and I win.

Extracting the ball from the fence, damn, he crushed that pitch, I see Amy scribbling into the notebook. I can’t believe he has her keeping score. I taught her how to keep score for Christ’s sake. She scribbles in the last hit and leans back against the green and white plastic looped beach chair, arching her back, pointing her breasts straight up at the sky. She looks good.

Almost two years back, the start of our high school senior year Al and I were riding the B4 tossing baseball trivia questions back and forth to pass the time like every morning. We heard a female voice behind us call out, “Who has the most RBI’s as a Yankee?” We spun our heads around and looked down, eyebrows furrowed, at some girl, Amy, her auburn hair, red lips, legs crossed under a plaid skirt, tiny tanned knees. After letting us stare dumbfounded for half a minute, she repeated the question.

“Ruth,” Al blurted and I nodded in agreement. The “Sultan of Swat” was the all-time HR and RBI king until Aaron came along. Attractive girl, we both thought, but she should leave the baseball trivia to the men.

“Wrong,” she replied melodically. Al immediately started to argue. I watched her eyes slide back and forth, him to me, her lips tight together like she was trying to suppress a smirk. As Al started reciting the top ten RBI leaders in order, he was a savant with baseball stats despite almost failing algebra twice. I thought for a moment, and then smiled at her.

“Gehrig,” I declared.

“Smart boy,” she said, letting her lips stretch into a bright smile.

Al gazed back at me, his eyes shrunken into little black dots. I told him it was a trick question like what pitcher had never won the Cy Young has the most lifetime victories. Answer: Cy Young, of course. The award named in his honor didn’t exist when he was a player. Before I could elaborate, Amy added, “Babe Ruth had 224 RBI’s as a Red Sox and 12 with the Braves. Gehrig had 21 more RBI’s as a Yankee.  Al’s expression softened in admiration; His eyes rolling back, I could tell he was cataloguing the question to test others with another day. I wasn’t sure the question would be as tricky without the catholic schoolgirl uniform behind it. Her dark brown eyes sparkled as the bus made its sweeping turn onto Fourth Avenue as Al and I swayed clutching the silver support pole. Just under her left eye, below a thin layer of cover up, I thought I saw a faint purple and blue blotch that could have been a bruise.

Back on the mound and set now. Al flashes his “I’m gonna take you downtown” smile. People say Al is very handsome. I believe gorgeous was the word Amy often used. And he’s rich, well off at the very least. I’ve worked at his father’s restaurant with him since I was twelve. I wait tables, bartend, cook, clean, pick up inventory, part great bodies of water and perform whatever else is required. I fashion myself as kind of a utility infielder. Al’s lazy at work, which drives his father, Big Al, crazy. Big Al says his son has two speeds, slow and dead.

I miss with my next two pitches, one high, and the other way outside. That last hit threw me off. Al’s holding the bat like a club, biceps flexed. He has a hitter’s count, eager to crush anything close to the strike zone.

“Time,” Mr. Barello calls out from behind. Al slams his bat into the ground, shouts, “C’mon, you gotta be kidding me.”

Just coming into view from behind the wall are an elderly couple pushing their respective shopping wagons filled with brown paper bags stacked side-by-side three high bulging with groceries. With each shuffle of their feet, the wagon wheels roll half a turn. She looks like she’s 80 and he might be old enough to be her father. Both are zipped up in winter coats despite the ninety-degree heat. I sweat more just watching them. They hold up their hands in both a sign of thanks and apology and shuffle forward. I return the gesture, nodding they should take their time. They wave again, and shuffle forward. I wave back. Wave, shuffle, wave. This goes on for two minutes and they’ve only advanced ten feet. I smile hearing Al cursing under his breath facing the wall.

Turned out Amy’s parents had enrolled her in St. Helen’s high school to get her away from the punks she was dating in public school. The most recent was rough with her, but she wouldn’t tell me that until months later. The three of us rode the bus to and from school every day, talking baseball (her grandfather was a huge fan before he passed), ragging on Met’s fans who crawled out of the woodwork since they won in ’86— wow, two whole World Series wins in the club’s existence. Yanks won their first two World Series before my father was even born. After Al got his license, we’d ride to school in his new Lexus, a birthday present from his parents. Amy sat in the front passenger seat; I’d lean forward from the back seat into the space between the two until we dropped her off.

It takes me until late July, after we had graduated, to work up the courage to ask her out on a date. Al had been dating the same girl his cousin from Staten Island set him up with the previous summer. She was smoking hot but wouldn’t know a double play from a Double Stuff Oreo. I told him I was going to ask Amy out. He eyes widened. We debated the pros and cons like we had the Rick Rhoden trade, sure Drabek had some promise but the Yanks hadn’t made the series in five years. But was it worth risking the friendship for going all the way? I thought what would Steinbrenner do? The next day I call her and ask her out, clarifying, “You know, just you and me, with out Al.” There was a long pause, but she said yes.

“Let’s go,” Al shouts as Mr. and Mrs. Methuselah finally clear the field. His knuckles clench white around the thirty-six inch Easton aluminum. He wants to end it with one swing. I hear the Mr. Softee truck ringing up the block with its promise of sweet frozen vanilla custard cones and rainbow sprinkles. I want one. The truck pulls over by a fire hydrant and the little kids drop their ball and grab their bikes to rush home and plead with their mothers for some money. I pitch.

“Ball Three,” he shouts. Way high, I thought to myself, think strikes, throw strikes. I gaze over my shoulder into the outfield; see the sun glistening off her oiled shoulders, legs stretched out, bare feet rubbing together.

Into my windup and…crack, Al smashes it but the ball rockets directly into the faded leather pocket of my glove.

A disgusted look immediately twists Al’s face as he stomps around, flailing his arms like he was performing some exotic island dance. I smile at my glove. Love this glove. Al bought his glove the same day I did, seven or eight years back. We rode our bikes down to Joe Torre’s Discount Sporting Goods on Thirteenth Avenue. He bought the more expensive one, of course.

“You’re so fucking lucky!” He shouts, “Why don’t you open your eyes next time.”

“C’mon, Al. I had it all the way. You got to step into your swing more. Get some power into it, so you don’t hit me those easy pop-ups,” I chide. The ball almost took my head off. Regardless, one out, two to go. I jog over to grab a sip of orange Gatorade from the bottle sitting just behind the wall.

Four months ago Amy and I broke up. Maybe things had become strained between us. I was putting in a lot of weekend nights at work, trying to save for a car. She missed the attention, but who wouldn’t. She always complained about going out in my father’s old Buick. It was no Lexus, I guess.

Two months ago, I’m sorting vegetables in the walk-in fridge when Al entered and tapped me on the shoulder. He told me he broke up with his girlfriend and Amy and him had gotten together. It felt like I was trying to field a routine grounder, and instead of rolling into my glove, the ball flared up and hit be square between my eyes. I asked since when? He assured me it was well after we had broken up. I nodded silently then turned back to my box of peppers, fishing out the ones that had started to turn. Maybe it was always Al she was after and I was just practice, like spring training, something that didn’t really count.

Our friends anticipated a big fight. That’s the problem with Brooklyn people in general, always anticipating, always ready for a fight. I hated fighting, even in baseball, like when a batter charges the mound after getting hit by a pitch. You want to get even, hit a home run. Settle it on the field.

I’d lost girlfriends before. I’ll probably lose more than one more. So, I just ignore the wrenching in my stomach whenever I see them together; see him stroke her hair, her soft skin. What’s done is done. Not worth throwing punches over it. Friendships should be unbreakable, like Maris’ 61 home runs or Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games played.

I walk the next batter on four pitches.

Al steps out of the box and studies the bat like a knight regarding his sword, spinning it in his grasp, sun glistening off its barrel. He’s swinging now. I have to be careful. Bases are loaded, so I can’t be too careful. I won’t walk in a run. Let him earn it. Into my windup, a white chalk cloud sprays a strike off the outside corner.

I have to cut my hair. It’s too damn long and curly in this humidity. Amy always bothered me about it. She’d say, “Short hair is in now,” as if that’s a reason to cut it. Sweat’s dripping down, stinging my eyes. I can live with it. The best is she has Al’s old JV Jersey draped over the back of her beach chair like a towel. I guess she packed away the Mattingly Jersey I bought her last Christmas.

“Let’s go,” Al shouts. He wants to end it with one swing. I pitch.

“Ball,” he shouts. That was way high. Think strikes. Throw strikes.

“Ball Two,” he says.

“I know.”

Al has the advantage of a decade plus of little league and JV baseball under his belt. His body still remembers most of the natural reflexes even if he hasn’t played real baseball in a few years. He snapped his ankle junior year coming down a staircase and that was that. Still can’t put his full weight on it for long stretches.

I played little league in third and fourth grade. I got my first hit in my first ever at bat and my second and final hit in my last at bat the second year. Went into a little slump in the middle. My father never had the patience or inclination to take me to practice, but he could sit for two hours studying the entries at Aqueduct.

None of that matters. Today, I’m gonna shove Al’s decade of sponge ball excellence up his ass and right in front of Amy’s face.

I pitch. Strike, right by him.

“Don’t hurt yourself out there,” Al says smirking. That was about as fast as I can throw, and I don’t think I can do it again.

I wind up and send one sailing about five feet over the box. My problem is mechanics. My shoulder doesn’t come through like it should. My foot doesn’t drag the right way. I’ve been told my fastball has some natural movement, whatever that means. Whatever skill I have doesn’t translate outside the walls and fences of the schoolyard.

Next pitch, he smashes a high chopper, but it’s just to my left and I field it cleanly. Two outs.

I glance over at Amy. She’s standing behind the infield fence now, fingers coiled around the silver diamond links. I miss those fingers.

“Let’s go,” Al growls. Maybe Al is starting to think this is the game I’ll take. Maybe he told Amy not to come and watch us play. Maybe he’s realizing that if a girl can dump one guy for another once, she can do it again. Whatever the case, it’s not my problem now.

My shoulder grates out the best fastball I have left, and Al swings over it. He’s too anxious. He should have clobbered that pitch.

Go inside on him now. You really don’t aim the ball or watch where you’re throwing. You just glance where you want it, go into your windup, and keep that spot in your mind. Works sometimes. Sometimes I break a second-story window.

The ball catches the corner. Strike. Al backs away from the box, paces, grunts, eyes bulging. He goes back into his stance.

“Oh and two,” I say with a smile.

“I know,” he replies.

I wish I had a curve. Al can’t hit a curve. I can’t throw a curve. Al can throw a curve.

“Let’s end this,” Al says. Stepping back to the mound, I feel Big Al approaching like the edge of a storm. His nose emerges first from behind the wall’s edge. Al and his father have the same nose. It juts out continuing the slope of their foreheads, extending to their protruding jaws. Big Al stomps through the recently clipped jagged opening in the fence—I don’t know why they even bother making doors—almost forgetting to duck under the support bar. He looks like he has something on his mind in a menacing way. I never actually saw steam shoot out a person’s ears until I started working for him. I thought it was only possible in cartoons. He’s a pretty good guy, don’t get me wrong. He just has a tendency to explode like Mount Vesuvius if someone drops a piece of bread on the floor.

His mouth opens, “What the fuck are you guys doing…It’s a busy week…We have a system…Get with the fucking program…Work comes first…” He’s pacing, cliché-ing, pouncing around all red-faced and bug-eyed. The sky goes gray, trees bend and sway, dogs and cats whine in the distance. He turns a step as if he’s done, then pivots and repeats the same verbal explosion. He looks like a gangster from an old Cagney movie. I could picture him in a pinstriped suit and fedora. He sees Amy standing behind the fence and points to his son.

“And you’re spending too much fucking time with that jeejee of yours. You can forget about Friday nights off.”

I know to remain motionless and just let the brunt of it roll off my shoulders. He’ll run out of gas soon enough and be all buddy-buddy again. Everyone knows to do that, except his son. I’m not even listening at this point, but from the deepening shade of red on Big Al’s face, I can tell Al just said something really dumb. After another minute of shouting, the crossfire fizzles, and I interject, “I just need one more out.” Big Al looks surprised. He’s a competitive man like his son. Made him a successful businessman, I’m sure.

“Okay boys, just come around when you’re done. I don’t like to yell at you two. I expect you both to set an example.” He always says that. He knew we had this afternoon off. Probably just needed to yell at someone, and we were closest.

He starts to walk away, but stops outside the fence a few yards over from Mr. Barello to watch the outcome. I bet he doesn’t think I can beat his boy. The stats back that up. He’d hate to see his son lose, bad reflection on the family business.

“Let’s play ball, you mutt-faces,” Big Al shouts. He smiles and waves a hello to Mr. Barello, who nods back. Both are intent on the next pitch.

Al gets under it, and the ball spins back foul. I miss the box with my next two pitches. I’m over-throwing.

He rips the next pitch hard, but he’s out in front of it. The ball bounces foul off the wall to my right and rolls to the fence. While picking it up, I notice three guys taking a shortcut through the schoolyard. Typical punks. They sway, pivoting their hips when they walk, their shoulders dipping with each stride. Necks weighed down by gold chains, they fashion themselves strutting sentinels of the neighborhood. Assholes.

The sour look on their faces turns my stomach. You can tell these three watched The Godfather too many times. That’s what I hate most about this place, everyone has an attitude— everyone wants to hit the other guy with a baseball bat. Neighborhood gets worst every year. I go back to the mound. They’re not worth a second thought.

I make a mistake and put the next pitch down the middle. Al’s all over it.

The ball blasts over my head and bounces hard off the threshold of the opening between the fences. I yell, “Single,” thinking it nicked the concrete infield first. Al shouts, “That’s a double,” positive it struck down on the blacktop.

Big call. I’m either up one or the game is tied. Tracking the ball, I see it skip up off a pebble or crack in the ground and graze the leg of the short punk who seems to be the leader of the triumvirate. He spins around like he heard a gun go off, cocks his head to one side, his lower lip hangs, ready to flap, “You got a fucking problem?” I look back at Al still shouting, “Double! Double!” We both look to Mr. Barello for the call.

Mr. Barello scratches his knees then cups them both in his hands. He tips his head back and regards the open gateway as if an invisible dotted line marked the ball’s trajectory.  My eyes dart back to the three idiots, still staring back at me like I threw the ball at them on purpose. Shorty’s right hand clenches in a fist, he scratches his crotch with the other. Punk like this would probably shoot me over this if he had a gun tucked away. Mr. Barello ruffles in his seat like a bird just trying to get comfortable in his nest. He raises his right hand, and holds up one finger. Single.

Al slams his bat into the ground. Big Al channels Billy Martin and starts screaming, red faced, at Mr. Barello, “What are you blind…that ball was past the fence…put on your goddamn glasses.” Mr. Barello springs out of his chair like he’s a teenager and gets right in Big Al’s face, “Don’t you tell me how to call a game, that ball was short…” and they shout and jab their fingers in each other’s faces while the three punks are still staring right at me, shrugging their shoulders like apes in the wild.

Big Al finally stomps away from Mr. Barello in frustration muttering to himself. Mr. Barello sits back down in his chair and dusts off his pants as if dirt had been kicked on him during the argument. Those little kids, back from their ice cream break, ride through again, and thankfully, the little red-headed one oblivious to the violence percolating behind him, circles the ball, scoops it up without dismounting, and fires a bullet directly into the ground. Eventually, it rolls back to me, and I wave my glove in thanks. One of the taller punks finally puts his arm around Shorty and eases him back towards their original direction. Shorty turns back for one last menacing sneer. I walk back to the mound.

Al is waiting by the box talking to his bat, “Goddamn ninth…I was getting hot.”

Big Al, just noticing the three punks now, grumbles over to Mr. Barello, “Lousy punks. Should be working, not gallivanting around the neighborhood,” in attempt to reestablish good community relations. Mr. Barello ignores him.

Set, I check back once more and see the three punks watching still from behind the opposite fence, not too far from Amy, checking her out. I see Shorty mouth, “nice tits,” to his friends who chuckle. I’m pretty sure Amy flashes a smile back at them. I must have been right, because when I turned back to the plate, Al looks like he’s ready to smash that bat against someone’s skull.

The score is six to five. Bases still loaded. Just need one more out.

Al strangles the grip of his bat. He didn’t expect this much competition. Didn’t expect it to be a game today. He stares at me, then his father, then over to Amy. I stare into the empty space inside the chalk rectangle.

Five quick pitches, no swings, and the count is full.

Al breathes in deeply through his nose like a bull. Sweat pours off me now. Air tastes like bus exhaust. Everything seems to be moving closer together, melting, swirling. I forget about never beating the man at the plate before. I forget about Big Al, the three punks, and Amy. I take a deep breath, wind up, pitch, and Al golfs the ball straight up into the sky. I peddle backwards watching it climb like a rocket. I squint, trying to shade my eyes with my glove. The pink balls streaks higher and higher, and shrinks into a black dot that dissolves into the blinding yellow and white glare. I see nothing. Its return path is invisible until it is falling just out of reach and I lunge back and fall right on my ass. Flat on my back, I reach my right hand inside my glove, wrap my fingers around the ball, and raise it high above my smiling face. I win.

I hear a roar of anguish from Al, like a pained animal, as I climb to my feet.

Big Al is the first to trot over. He pats me on the back and says, “Good job. That’s how you keep Al on his toes,” then he jabs his finger accusingly in his son’s direction, then at Amy. She consoles Al, strokes his arm. The three schmucks, having graced us with their presence for far too long, shrug and walk off unimpressed. Amy walks over to me, puts her hand on my chest, not looking up at me, and says, “You did so good.” Al finally trots over, having regained his footing in reality, shakes my hand and says, “Great game.” It was.

Big Al shouts walking away, “Good game boys—now get your asses back to work. Mutt-faces!” He laughs loudly and waves at Mr. Barello folding his chair to retreat back to his porch.

Al extends the notebook to me and says, “You want to do the honors of updating the won loss standings.” I say sure, why not?  He starts to stroll off with Amy, one hand holding hers, the other securing the bat slung over his shoulder like a recently fired rifle. He asks if I want to walk with them back to the restaurant for some lunch. I say I’ll catch up as they walk off.

Alone, I gently toss the ball in a high arc towards the strike zone, like I’m shooting a basket. It falls just short. I lean against the cool brick wall and open the notebook to the pages the pencil rests between. I trace the final score 6-5 with my finger. I flip to the back page where Al had scribbled, “Official Standings” in the top margin years ago. Grinning, I erase the zero below my underlined name, blow away the pink eraser shavings with a big puff, and proudly carve the number one into the page. I start to flip back through past games. Last year’s game was called after seven innings due to severe thunderstorms. Al was up by 5 anyway. Two years prior, I lost 7-3 but hit a line drive right smack back into Al’s groin. Our third game when Al wouldn’t accept my forfeit because I turned my ankle trying to chase a grounder. Limped home leaning on him for support, arm around his shoulders. We finished the game a week later. I flip all the way back to our first game and the first home run I ever hit. I can still picture that home run; I remember watching it sail high over the fence.  I don’t hear the rapid footsteps racing at me until it’s too late and the tallest punk crashes his fist into the back of my head. I collapse to the ground and try to focus as the world spins sideways. Sprawled across the concrete I look up through watery eyes and see Shorty pick up the notebook, fallen a few feet from me, propped open on its edges like a small tent. He stares at it blankly for a moment, like a Cro-Magnon discovering his first rock, then rears back and fires it at my head.


About the Author: Anthony Ausiello is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is a reader for the The Literary Review. Anthony also received a BA in English from The Pennsylvania State University and was a winner of the Katey Lehman Fiction Award. Between PSU and FDU, Anthony successfully navigated through corporate America for almost two decades before departing to search for the Promised Land. He lives happily in Westfield, NJ with his wife, Talia, and children, Anya and Eli.

Artwork: Chris Solano

Who Ate Fire by Brynn Saito

(Untitled)_Ona Estapé Cortès


WHO ATE FIRE

I’ve seen the best men of my generation made starving
and small, made dust
by the thumb of oppression. I’ve seen the best women
of my generation
tend lonely to the men who claim to love, plant bombs
in their own throats for slow
exploding. What is the way of structural suffocation?
What is the howl
of one body taking out on another body his rage
against whiteness?
When you came calling me a corrupted sexual object,
I ate daisies. I ate sadness
hot as sun in a jar when you came into my life
like late lightning
from another sky. I silenced myself with myself. Sisters silence
themselves and swallow
their silence, protect the men who look like their brothers
because they look like
their brothers. Cradling that fire gets you nowhere.
Following that flash
across the southern desert gets you further from the sea.


About the Author: Brynn Saito is the author of The Palace of Contemplating Departure, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award from Red Hen Press and finalist for the 2013 Northern California Book Award. Her second collection, Power Made Us Swoon, will be published in April, 2016. Born in Fresno, CA, Brynn now lives and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Artwork: Ona Estapé Cortès 

Like Dinosaurs by Leah Tieger

Untitled Art for Tieger


Like Dinosaurs

We ran out of beef in Texas and the women
are chewing their boots, hawking silver

and turquoise for lamb. They use their hats
to catch the neighbor’s chicken. They’re feeding

children hops and cornmeal mash, anything
the cows would eat. We slice the bison so thin

the marble becomes stained windows
and when there’s nothing left to look through

we come for the horses. The fajita plates are empty.
The barns are empty. We trade the saddles

and cast iron for deer. The grass is so high
the fireflies have taken over, and when the kids

run off the porch into fields, they emerge
like christmas trees blinking, decked and waiting

for the savior’s birth. The pastor said if they pray
his angels will bring us hamburger and ribeye,

but Mom and Dad don’t think that helps. They point
to the hide beneath the table and say remember?

We nod our heads even if we don’t. The kids ask
what were they like, and we tell them like dinosaurs.


About the Author: Leah Tieger is a graduate of Bennington College, a freelance writer, and a fiction and poetry reader for The Boiler. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Thank You for Swallowing, Menacing Hedge, and Off the Coast.

 

Interlude by Alyssa Oursler

Untitled Art for Oursler


He was a big fan of silence, except when he wasn’t. He was a big fan of Chipotle too. Over a burrito bowl one day during lunch, Dom talked about Berkeley tee shirts. He had graduated from the school but declared that he would never wear one because he didn’t want to flaunt it.

I think that’s called a humble brag.

He wasn’t only better than everyone else, but he was better than everyone else who was better than everyone else because he didn’t have to show it. Except when he showed it.

 

Dom always seemed to be declaring, even through his silence, that he was different, and yet he was ending up in exactly the same places.

Dom and my ex Don were one letter, two time zones and all the words apart—Don too insecure and chatty, Dom too cocky and quiet—but each just one story.

Their names alone made me laugh.

 

The opposite of Don’s neverending game of 21 questions—I’m not sure Dom ever asked me one question. Correction: I remember one text that read: “How’s home?” It was a classic example of setting the bar so low that skipping over it seemed like an Olympic feat.

 

The other time Dom was quite talkative was when he was talking about how everyone else talks too much. It was sparked by the fact that he refused to answer the most basic questions and I refused to let it slide.

I don’t always mind silence, and I really just wanted the sex, so I didn’t bother telling Dom that I’d had the same conversation with Don at the beginning, the roles reversed, the outcomes so different and yet really, technically the same.

In the beginning, Don was always running his mouth while I theorized that two people were only cool when they could share silence comfortably. And we got there.

Around Dom I was always running my mouth because we were nowhere near that level yet he insisted we start there and stay there anyway—the most forced foreplay.

His rant about talking continued, climaxing with him sneering not at the world at large but directly at me: “Everyone just has to hear what you have to say, huh?”

“Okay,” I replied.

Then I probably laughed.

We didn’t have sex that night.

 

Dom knew I was a writer. He probably didn’t know that the insignificance of my perspective was something I thought about far too often. But then again, he never asked.

I had nowhere to be but I also had nothing to say, so I left the next morning before he woke up.

His fantasy, I assume.

 

Later that day he texted me the link to an article sporting the headline “Why We Speak” but I didn’t read it or reply. Then I left San Francisco for a month—the trip during which he texted me to ask how home was. The night I got back to the city, he texted me an emoji.

 

A few days later we again had Chipotle—or at least that was the intention. I had convinced myself there was a difference between being quiet and being rude, and maybe I shouldn’t sleep with Dom.

Over burrito bowls we talked about writing.

Did I mention that he was a writer too?

I remember his articles about music—his superfluous vocabulary describing and applauding up-and-coming artists. He showcased people making noise, people who thought the world should hear what they had to say, via word choice after word choice that would put a Berkeley tee shirt to shame.

A tee shirt is just a piece of cotton—not necessarily a badge. Someone could wear it because they were a fan or family member, because it was really a piece of nostalgia, even simply because it was on sale.

Words are all we have.

 

I laughed again.

 

Perhaps he didn’t mean it, perhaps he was being sarcastic, perhaps he was being intentionally ironic as only the best among us can do, but I realized I indeed preferred it when he didn’t speak.

We still had sex that day after Chipotle. Then I texted him some small talk, I think it was a day later, to which he never replied. I guess that means I got ghosted.

Choices are curses anyway, I thought. And then I laughed.

I would write that we never spoke again, but I think it’s more accurate to say we never really spoke at all.


About the Author: Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She covers tech, travel, gender and money and has written for Forbes, Business Insider, The Bold Italic, 7×7, Mental Floss and more. Her work also placed second in the 2015 Litquake Writing Contest is forthcoming in Luna Luna Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books and others. You can find her at http://www.teainacoffeeshop.com

 

what if we knew by Georgie Abel

Untitled Art for Georgie Abel


what if we knew

i wonder if the haters
would still gossip
if they knew
i would probably make out with them
after hanging out three times.
it wasn’t always this way.
i used to believe in their words,
in whatever i heard,
in the tangles of lies that they spurred,
and in their lists of things
that were rumored
to make me
unlovable and unfuckable.
but now,
now people love me and fuck me
because of those things
and now,
i wrote poetry
in hopes of diplomacy
because god,
this shit is too short.
it’s late april.
since when it is not january.
because god,
prince just died,
and here we are,
because god.
what if they knew i wasn’t mad.
what if they knew i have defended
them
in conversation,
that i would give them a bobby pin
that i wish we were friends
and that i get uncomfortable when
their name is attached
to the word
asshole.
what if they knew it took one exhale
for me to fall in love with them
not because i’m all enlightened,
but because they heighten
my sense of self
and who does that anymore.
thank you.
and if you listen
closely
all of this shit-talking is mostly
a cry for poetry
in this supposedly
art-rich country
because god, how else can we ask for it
on this touch-starved
planet.
haters are howling for the wounds of their mothers,
howling for the anxiety of another
moment lost.
but they cloak their words in something other
than truth. because god,
we weren’t taught any other way.
and all of their words are
an attempt to smother their shudders
and cover these feelings of otherness.
because god,
i know this.
and i’m howling too.
i’m howling for something so basic
i can barely say it—
kindness.
because god,
WHERE IS THIS
i’m tired of being called a hippie for this
feminist for this (call me that all you want)
pacifist for this
as if those labels are evidence
against my intelligence
and my worthiness
because god,
when did benevolence
become so lame.
what if they knew i know i’m no more right than them.
that i’m only doing all of this
because god,
what if this is what we become.
what if this is what we already are.
what if we have forgotten that there is an end.
what if i didn’t want to make out with anyone
ever again.
what if they knew that this is the poison
that keeps our hearts frozen
that this is just another practice in
preventing human connection
because god,
we are sick
and we need your medicine.
because god,
what if the haters only knew this,
if we all only knew this
if this was as unforgettable
as our own names and this, what if this
was how we moved
and the ways in which we spoke about each other
became evidence of our luminance
and what if this
instead of violence
was how we defined what being human is.


About the Author: Georgie is a writer, yoga teacher, and rock climber from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of Modern Redpointing, a handbook that applies the principles of yoga and psychology to rock climbing performance. To learn more about Georgie and follow her adventures, check out her blog.

 

Inevitable by Michael Overa

Cole Carter_Untitled (2015)


Sara stands at the kitchen sink rinsing her cereal bowl, and as the water goes from white to milky pearl to clear she is already up on her tiptoes and craning her neck to see over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. She shuts off the water and sets her bowl beside the sink, leaning farther forward, pressing her bony hips against the kitchen counter.

“What’s he doing?”
The smell of coffee permeates the room, and, behind her at the table Sean folds the newspaper over into precise fourths, snapping the pages into place.

“What’s who doing?”
When she doesn’t answer right away Sean sets the paper on the table and crosses the room to stand behind his wife, laying his hands on her shoulders. He follows her gaze and looks over the fence to where their aging neighbor, Charlie, is scooping shovelfuls of sod from the yard, creating the ragged edge of a pit. By night it would seem ominous, but by the direct light of day, where everything is revealed in stark reality it seems nearly innocuous.

“Maybe he’s digging a pool?”

Sara continues watching but her head moves left to right and left to right.

“Who for?”
“Himself? Who knows?”

For a moment—before he catches himself—Sean is going to ask whether or not Charlie has grandkids. And then he realizes that she is just as unlikely to know as he is, and that it would, more than likely than not only remind her of the doctor’s visit two months back when they had learned that she would never be able to have children. The doctor had used a phrase that stuck in his head like a piece of glass embedded in his palm: Lutean Phase Defect. As he stands behind her now he can’t imagine his wife has a defect; she is so healthy and strong. But it’s not a phase. It’s not something she’ll grow out of.  And so, with this thought in his head he simply makes a little noise meant to signify he is both perplexed and still interested.

“Maybe the guy is snapping,” he says.

His hand comes to rest on his wife’s belly and she almost immediately covers his hand with hers and half turns towards him, so close he could kiss her.

“Past tense,” she says, “has snapped.”

Sara turns slightly left and he takes a step back, knowing that she wants to move away from the window and he gives her space, letting her move out into the kitchen.

“Maybe he needs somebody to talk to.”

Sean thinks about mentioning that Margaret only left three months ago, but again he remembers that it is too closely in line with the fateful visit to the doctor’s office and he thinks better of it.

“Maybe,” he says.

“Go talk to him.”

“Me?”
“Why not? He could probably use someone to talk to. Maybe it’s only because he’s lonely.”

The thought itself doesn’t make any sense to Sean, but he doesn’t want to argue. The man is not digging up his once manicured back lawn because he is lonely or because he needs someone to talk to. Maybe he’s digging for some as yet unknown purpose. Maybe he’s digging and doesn’t want a lot of people coming around asking him why.

“Sure, maybe, look I’ll talk to him. Just not right now.”

Sara gives him a look that says: if not now, when? And already Sean is beginning to cave; before the end of the day he will be standing in his neighbor’s mutilated back yard.

*

At the grocery store Sean buys two steaks, the best that he can find, decent and well marbled. Twice he puts the steaks back and picks them up again. He gathers up a couple ears of corn and baked potatoes. In the beer aisle he peruses the contents of his basket and looks at the variety, struggling to identify what his neighbor might drink. He searches back into his memory to decide what the older man would want, but he can’t think of a single instance of seeing the older man with a particular brand or style of beer. Stout is too heavy, and the cheap stuff is too cheap. Then there is IPA and pale ale, and those seem almost too obvious. In the end he settles on an innocuous sounding beer—something local that is just neutral enough to work.

*

By the time Sean gets back to the house it’s already late afternoon and he can hear the chunk and smack of dirt hitting the fence as he climbs out of the car. He doesn’t bother to go into his own house, and, instead, heads straight for the side gate of his neighbor’s house and reaches over to unlatch it, knowing that it’s nearly identical to his own. As he rounds the end of the house he sees Charlie panting as he leans over the shovel. He’s suddenly, irrevocably, and acutely aware of the man’s age. He waits for Charlie to turn around and notice him, pausing with rustling plastic bags in hand. He waits, almost too long, standing at the corner of the house frozen. Sean is uncertain but curious and when Charlie finally does turn around, it isn’t the violent acknowledgement Sean has half expected, but something simpler and more honest, as if the older man was waiting for him.

“Sean,” he says, “what brings you by? Afraid the old man here has finally lost what remains of his marbles?”

Sean gives a little laugh—an attempt to ignore the question. The air around them is laced with the earthy smell of sweat and dirt.

“All this work you’re doing. Thought you might be hungry.”

“Hey? What you got there?”

“Steaks, potatoes, corn.”

“Bring any beer?”
“Of course.”

“Give me a minute to get cleaned up.”

Sean waits on the back patio as Charlie slips out of his shoes and disappears into the house. For the moment he’s on his own, in the unfamiliarity of his neighbor’s backyard, and he knows for a fact that if Sara were to crane her neck to the left and angle her eyes out the window she’d see him sitting at the patio table with the grocery bags in front of him.

*

Charlie returns wearing a fresh shirt and pauses momentarily at the side door to slip on a pair of battered loafers as he smirks at Sean.

“Sorry to leave you out here. Didn’t even think to ask you in.”
“No worries.”

“Wife sent you over to find out just what the heck old Charlie’s doing tearing up a perfectly good backyard, hey?”

Charlie sits as if drawn quickly downwards by an unseen force. As he combs his snowy hair with his fingers Sean can see the shiny pink of the man’s scalp. Sean reaches into one of the bags and snaps two cans from their plastic rings. Charlie must be digging himself a pool.

“Not exactly,” Charlie says, “it’s a fallout shelter. Well. It will be by the time I’m done.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Never know when the fit hits the shan.”

Sean glances at the pit; the ragged edges could easily be the set for any of the bad horror movies of Sean’s misspent youth. Surely the guy has to be kidding. But if he’s cracked he might actually be dangerous.

All those people that shoot up grocery stores and malls—they’re like Charlie, aren’t they? It’s always the ones you don’t suspect, or so they say, and for a moment Sean is worried. As he watches Charlie heave himself up from the chair he realizes how silly he’s being. The guy has to be pushing seventy and it isn’t as though he’s fit for his age. He’s your run-of-the-mill, skinny, old man that lives alone. Charlie makes his way over to the barbecue parked beneath the eaves of the house and rolls it several feet away from the side of the house and reaches down to open the valve on the propane tank.

“We’ll get this thing fired up and let her get up to temperature. Take it your wife isn’t coming along.”

“Had some things to do.”

There’s a stuttering click as Charlie holds down the button for the electric igniter and then the whoosh of the flame when it finally catches.

“You think old Charlie’s cracked.”

“Cracked?”

“Nuts. Bonkers. Certifiable. Padded Cells. The whole shebang.”

“Nah.”

“It’s understandable,” Charlie says, “Heck. You’d be nuts if you didn’t think I was nuts, and it’s fine. Really. I like the company, and it might just be your lucky day.”

“Come again?”
Charlie sets his beer on the patio table and gestures for Sean to follow, and makes his way to the sliding door, kicking off his shoes as he steps inside. Sean reaches down to unlace his shoes, thinking maybe this is how the guy lures people into his dungeon. At a half-head taller and with a good twenty or thirty pounds on the guy, Sean reminds himself there’s no need worry. After all, Sara knows where he is. Inside the house is dim and there is a vague musty smell that mingles with this morning’s coffee and fried eggs. The carpet has been worn down, and Sean can see where the man has treaded, shuffling, perhaps in half-sleep from living room to kitchen and then down the hall to where the master bedroom must be.

Part way down the hall Charlie stops and turns gesturing through the open doorway. Inside the room Sean can see that two computers have been set up—or maybe one computer with two screens. On the wall an oversized map of the county is bordered by various newspaper articles pinned in a loose column.  Sean nods, taking it all in. The blinds on the window are closed to slits, and other than the map and the articles the walls are bare.

“This is command central,” Charlie says, “which’s a figure of speech, by the way, it’s not actually command anything. Just where I work. Look. You know what algorithms are? Type of thing they use on Google, all the Internet search engines. I worked with things like that the last few years of the career. Turns out it isn’t too difficult to set one up to do a little searching of its own. Set the right parameters; let the thing run itself.”

Charlie leads the way into the room and sits down in the rolling chair and taps the keyboard, the displays come to life, an intricate matrix of maps and headlines.

“I guess this isn’t helping any. You came out here to find out I’m not a nutcase, and this only proves it, right?”

“Are you, Charlie?”
“He asks the question. Good for you. Has Charlie lost his marbles? Well, maybe.”

“Maybe?”
“Would I know if I had?”
Despite himself Sean feels a smile crease his face but he’s uncertain what to say, as if any comment might spark the dry tinder of Charlie’s precarious paranoia. How’s he to know that the wrong word or phrase might cause Charlie to snap and pull a gun from the desk drawer.

Although his beer is empty he holds onto it, because it’s something to do. Something to occupy himself with. Eventually it might be an excuse to get out of the room. Charlie presses a key and the screens go black as he rolls back his chair and stands up, leading the way back through the dining room to the sliding door.  He’s thankful to be outside again, in the still warm air. The cross breeze prickles the skin at the back of his neck. There’s a fine rope of smoke coming from the lid of the barbecue, and they can smell the charcoal layer burning off of the grill. The men stand there watching the flames tickle the metal grate and Sean retrieves two more beers from the bag, forgetting that Charlie has left a barely touched beer on the patio table. Charlie ducks back inside for tinfoil and a plate and utensils to start the potatoes going. Saying they’ll need a while to get going.  Once they have rolled the potatoes in foil and set them on the grill the two men stand in a prolonged silence.

*

“Come on,” Charlie says finally, “I’ll show you the other part of this whole deal.”

Sean’s worry is melting into curiosity as he follows Charlie around the side of the house to the garage.  Inside he can see that there is no longer room for Charlie to park his old pickup, which sits leaking its daily dose of oil onto the driveway. Charlie has lined the walls of the garage with metal shelves and there are two large folding tables set up in the middle of the room.  Sean can see without asking that the shelves are laden with enough canned food to stock a corner store. There are large jugs of water and what looks to be fifty gallon drum of fuel.

“This is only part,” Charlie says, “I have to keep the rest of it a secret. Never know. The fit hits the shan and you might be knocking on my door for help. Or, you might be knocking on my door to take what I’ve got.”

“I don’t think I’d do that.”

“Exactly. You don’t think you would, but desperate times, desperate measures.”

“You expecting some sort of apocalypse?”

“Weren’t you ever a Boy Scout?”
Sean shakes his head and imagines circular merit badge emblazoned with a fiery mushroom cloud. Charlie makes a gesture and leads them back out into the driveway before pulling the door down and waiting for it to click.  They walk back around the side of the house and now, finally, Charlie’s beer is empty and he reaches into the bag and grabs another for himself.  They return to their seats at the patio table.  The smell of the barbecue and the late spring evening and the beer are putting Sean in a decent mood. He hasn’t spent an afternoon like this in longer than he can remember. Sean and Sara’s friends are all well-intentioned, but they seem to spend more time concerned about construction on I-5 or housing prices to ever worry about something like this.

*

“Ask you a question?” Charlie says after a long pull on his beer.

“Shoot.”

“You have car insurance.”

“Sure.”

“Fire. Earthquake. Life? Same thing.”

Charlie explains that after Margaret left he had more time to spend looking into these things. Sure it had been part of what had made her leave. All those years of marriage and it just went out the window because she thought that he had finally lost it and she couldn’t stand to be in the house with him anymore. She was worried that he was going to completely lose his mind, and the arguments had tunneled beneath the once sturdy walls of their relationship and when it was thoroughly compromised the whole thing collapsed.

The whole time that the relationship was eroding Charlie was monitoring the news: an outbreak of West Nile in Florida. Civil War in the Congo. Flesh eating bacteria in a New York hospital. Then there were the historical events. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1989. Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Katrina. Chernobyl. Fukushima.

Even if it wasn’t a nuclear holocaust that ended the world as we know it, he wanted to be able to survive. He’s old, he knows that, but that doesn’t mean that he has to resign himself to death. The two men sip their beers and Charlie finally gets up to put the steaks on the barbecue, tearing into the plastic package with his fingernail.

*

By the time they finally pull the steaks off of the barbecue the sun has set in brilliant oranges and pinks and the sky is drifting steadily towards the muddy blue- gray of night. By now Sean has a good solid buzz going, and he knows Charlie has been matching him one-for-one since they started, and he has to admit that the older man seems in good spirits; he’s becoming even more talkative.  Their silverware catches the glint of the back porch lights and the steaks practically sparkle.

“Tell you the truth,” Sean says as he finishes his steak, “you do seem a little bit nutty.”

“There you go. Good man. Honesty.”

“Nutty but maybe a little realistic. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“I get it,” he says, “Trust me. If anyone you know is bound to understand that it’s me.”

“What did you expect your neighbors to think?”

Charlie looks at him in the half-light and smiles, shrugs, “life insurance.”

“And your pit here?”
“That there is the platinum membership.”

Sean pulls himself up from his seat and walks to the edge of the ragged hole. The sod is frayed and uneven at the end, and he can see the larger rocks where he has begun to pile them in the center.

“You have some sort of blueprint, I imagine.”

“Designed it myself.”

“Looks like this project’s going to take you a while.”

“If fit hits the shan before I can get her done, so be it.”

“I meant alone.”

“He’s coming around, folks.”

*

It’s just after midnight when Sara rolls over in bed and realizes that Sean isn’t home yet. She glances at the glowing red numbers of the alarm clock and momentary panic stalks through her veins. Throwing back the covers she slips on her robe and pads softly down the hallway to the kitchen, pausing there scrutinizing the silence until something, instinct maybe, leads her to the kitchen window. On tiptoes she cranes her neck again, just as she had that morning, peering over the fence into Charlie’s backyard.

It’s so incongruous that it takes her a moment to recognize her husband’s body as the muscles of his back move like hinges in sweat gleaming moonlight as he digs a shovel into the earth and flings earth towards the fence. Nearby, standing knee-deep in the pit beside her husband is Charlie, alternating movements with Sean. A strange choreography of pick and shovel.  She hasn’t heard the noise—but now she can hear it through the window—the distant chunk swish of the shovel. Sarah leans over the sink and begins to cry.


About the Author: Michael Overa was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. A 2010 graduate of the Hollins University MFA program, he currently lives in Seattle where he works as a writing tutor and is a writer in residence with Seattle’s Writers In The Schools program. His work has appeared in The Portland Review, Writers Block Magazine, Husk, and Fiction Daily, among others.

Artwork: Cole Carter

Crossroads by Jenifer DeBellis

Gabriel Bernal_Untitled


Crossroads

Hours after last call, after bars
send their last groggy-eyed patrons
home with a goodnight & hope

to see you soon, a man dressed
in black stands in the intersection
of the divided highway, shouting

obscenities at cars that slow
once they realize the shadowman
in the road is real. His pale face

& bare legs & feet glow in nearing
headlights the way trouble does
during fevered sleep. You’ll all pay

for what they done to me, he says
into our open window as we pass.
Pay with your pathetic lives. I have

seen his madness before in the eyes
of a loved one, seen the same darkness
consume pupils till the only light

left is the chaos glinting through
a roadmap of expanded blood
vessels that graph the way to hell.


About the Author: Metro Detroit writer Jenifer DeBellis is Pink Panther Magazine’s Executive Editor and eBook Editor and Poetry Reader for Solstice Lit Mag. She’s a Solstice MFA in Creative Writing graduate and Former Writer-in-Residence for the Meadow Brook Writing Project. JDB teaches creative writing for Baker College and Oakland University’s Meadow Brook Writing Camps. Her poetry and prose appear or are forthcoming in publications such as AWP’s Festival Writer, the Good Men Project, Literary Orphans, Sliver of Stone, and Solstice Literary Magazine.

Artwork: Gabriel Bernal

World Peace Part I by Emily Kiernan

chocolate-1185815_1920 copy


August 6th, 1945. Berkeley, CA

The roast was nearly finished, and the beans would go into the water as soon as she’d set it to boil. Linda wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and stretched her neck to one side and then the other, feeling the crackling with a burst of pride—she’d worked hard. The floors were mopped and the carpets vacuumed. Ricky’s old room was done up with fresh linens and new curtains that looked better with the paint—airier. She’d even weeded the front garden, though, she’d hardly planted anything that spring worth saving now.  She glanced at the chair before sitting, then glanced up to see if anyone was watching, though Larry had gone to the airport to meet him and she didn’t expect them for another thirty minutes at least. She sat, sighed, and turned towards the radio, but did not move to turn it on.

She had made an icebox cake that morning, because it had always been his favorite, and he’d asked for it at every birthday and every picnic since he was small, but now she wasn’t sure it had been right. The day had stayed cold, coated in a morning fog that never burned off, and she wished she had something warm and heavy for him, something that would make him feel homey and cared for. An apple pie, a pan of brownies, a little whipped cream piled up on top. Maybe even a cup of coffee with a little whiskey splashed in with the milk, because he was a grown man now, and she was proud of him even for the ways he worried her. She worried she would disappoint him, would allow his return to be drab, would allow him to remember that he’d been forced home by his failures, back to this place where August could be as cold as February. She thought for a moment about the lilies that had just begun to blossom and wondered if they’d make it through the week with so little sun, but there was nothing for it, so she let it go.

She’d thought “failure” just then, had let herself use the word, and wanted to take it back. She didn’t want to think of it that way—to let him see her thinking that. She thought that he’d taken on so much. And in its own way that was success. To even get halfway, a quarter, to even dream up the kind of wild, noble things he’d always had in his head, that was something to be proud of. But she didn’t know if he’d gotten halfway to what he intended, or a quarter, didn’t know really, even, what it was he’d meant to do when he ran off to that little country halfway across the world. (Which one was it? She had to ask every time, and it bothered him, but she couldn’t keep it in her head. Paraguay, Panama, Peru. It was Peru, she thought.) He hadn’t told her much. He’d used to call home once a week, from a hotel he’d walk to every Wednesday, where he could use the phone for a half an hour, if he paid a few dollars, and of course he called collect.  But the calls had grown less frequent as the year wore on, and he seemed to say less each time, or less that told her anything she wanted to know. She’d thought for a while that he told his father about his work, that when they were on the phone (twice as long as he’d stay on with her before saying, “hey, put Dad on the line, I’ve got something he’ll want to hear,” she’d noticed that too) that this was what they spoke about. But finally she’d asked Larry to tell her whatever it was that he wouldn’t tell her himself, and Larry said there was nothing, that Ricky talked and talked but never told anything, and of course that had worried her, had allowed words like “failure” to come creeping in where they weren’t wanted.

There was a jumpy feeling in her legs and her fingers that had been growing all throughout the day, the week really, and she didn’t know why she was so anxious. It wasn’t as if he’d never gone away before, never come back. Certainly it could be no worse than that disastrous first Christmas home from school, when he’d stuffed himself so full of new ideas that he’d had to get rid of all of her old ones to make room, and had done nothing but harangue her for being so old and silly and voting for Roosevelt instead of that socialist he was always on about, Thomas, which she’d only done because Larry had told her to, but saying that had only made things worse. And it had all come to a head when the Turner’s had come to visit and Bob Turner had told him that his new hat made him look like a communist and he couldn’t believe he could find one to fit that big head, and Ricky had stood right up and said that he was a communist and that Bob Turner looked like a fat bastard whether he had his hat on or not, and then he’d gone stomping out into the night and slammed the door behind him, probably to go driving with that girl he was sweet on then. Lauren. Lauren Horsen. Big blond thing with horse teeth. She’d always thought that last name was so funny—unfortunate, no way they could have known, the parents looked normal. Everyone thought she was very intelligent, which was probably what Ricky thought too.

That had been bad. But it had been worse for her than it was for him—he was so young and fresh and drunk on the energy of having grown so much (and often simply drunk, she knew that too) that even feeling as angry as he did must have felt good somehow—like he was stretching a muscle that was new and sore. She saw young men like that all the time at the college, strutting around, all excitement under their scowls, all set to change the world, which she knew they wouldn’t, most of them (but he would, her boy would). His anger she could take, she was strong enough to hold herself up to that, to be proud of him right through that. Now she worried that the anger had given way to something else, something that she couldn’t so easily see and take hold of; she would rather she could take whatever it was on herself, where she could manage it better.

She thrummed her fingers against the table, glanced at the stove, which did nothing, continued in its slow work. She was no good at setting, hadn’t been when she was young and wasn’t now, though for years she’d learned to do it, when Ricky was small and any moment she could find to sit and rest would be a gift, a drink of water on a hot day, and half the time she’d fall right to sleep in her chair. But now she couldn’t even last two hours at her desk before she’d feel like she would burst if she sat there any longer, and would have to ask one of the other girls to watch the phone while she took a quick walk around the campus. And maybe that’s what she needed now. As soon as she thought it, she couldn’t get the want of it out of her mind, noticed how hot the house had gotten, how stuffy, and felt like she’d rip the door down just to get out into that crisp evening air. The clock had only budged a little. She might have enough time, though she didn’t want to think of missing him when he arrived, of having him walk into the place all quiet and empty. Well, she’d be quick about it, just once or twice around the block.  Her cardigan was hung across a chair in the living room, and she picked it up as she went out the door, but didn’t put it on yet—she wanted to feel the little prickles of cold on her skin.

Mrs. Hendricks was in her yard as she passed, clipping at roses with her fingers shaking on the handle of the pruner. Now and again she probably just lopped one of their heads right off. She was getting too old to live alone—one of her girls would have to move back. Linda waved but did not stop. She hadn’t told anyone that Ricky was coming home—she was storing it up—and she didn’t want to talk about anything else. She’d almost let slip a few times at work, but had decided it wouldn’t be worth it. Most of the old crowd, the ones who had known him when he was a high-school boy in a too-big coat trying to attract the attention of the intellectuals in the quad, had moved along. When Dr. Oppenheimer had left most everyone had gone with him. It had even been hinted that if she’d wanted it, they’d need phones answered and letters opened wherever they were off doing whatever it was they were all off to do, but she’d laughed at the whole notion of it—at her age, picking up and moving to goodness knows—and no one had brought it up to her again. The new people were nice—nicer, even, some of them—but new, and she was too old to meet so many new people all the time. Dr. Lawrence would still come and lean on her desk once in a while, though, once or twice a month, saying “So Mrs. Evans, have you solved the equation yet?” It was an old joke between them, that she was always on the verge of some big discovery to put them all out of work. “Closer every day,” she’d say, or “It had slipped my mind, but I’ll get right back to it.” And he’d smile and rap his knuckles against her desk like he was knocking on a door, though this meant he was leaving, not coming in.

She’d been thinking lately that she ought to retire. She’d been sitting at that same desk for a well over a decade now, since the day that Ricky started high school, not to mention the years before she was married. She’d liked working, had longed for it, even, when Ricky was too young to be left alone so much, and had been glad to go back, but it was a long time to do any one thing, and she was more tired now than she’d ever been in her life, which was just the way things would be now, she supposed, that she was getting older. But it had been a good place to raise a child, had been good to let him get close to all those bright young men and women, to inspire him towards something. Larry was a good man, and Larry had always taken such good care, but he had his limits. As a role model he had his limits.

 

Now that she’d started walking she felt like she’d never want to turn around. It felt so good to be moving through the air, to be breathing it in and warming it up and letting it back out. She thought about the time, then made herself stop. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice. Maybe they’d come right in, laughing already, and Larry would yell up the stairs, “Linda, I picked up a bum at the airport and he says he wants dinner,” but then he’d put the keys down on the table by the door, and start fixing Ricky a drink, and they’d forget all about her until she came slipping in the back door a few minutes later, and just wandered in and set down by them as they were talking, and there wouldn’t even be a need to say hello, to show him all the ways she’d arranged it for him.   She granted herself a few more minutes, another block or two.

Where the road dead-ended into the park, she turned left and crossed down two streets, detouring around the Turner’s place, automatically, as she’d done for years. As far as she knew, the Turners were the only friends they’d lost due to Ricky’s “unconventional views,” as Larry called them, or, more recently, his “unconventional activities.”  And sometimes she thought that whole incident had just been a way for them all to bow out of something that hadn’t been worth any of their time anyway. It had been nice when their kids were young, to have neighbors, people to help, but, well, they were just different types of people, that was all. They were different than they’d once been too—Ricky had changed her, and time had. “That’s right, Mom,” he’d said, a few days before he left, when she’d gotten angry at something in the newspaper, some lie from the governor or the president, “I’ve radicalized you.”  And she’d been a little angry at that, actually, because she was the mother after all, and helped him to become who he was, and she thought after working at the college so long she’d earned the right to think for herself. But she didn’t say any of that, because he was leaving, and she didn’t want another fight about why he’d dropped out of school, and what she thought of that, and now so many months later she didn’t even feel it anymore, had seen in his absence the ways that, yes, he did influence her. And Bob Turner was a bit of a fat bastard, always had been.

Motherhood had overtaken her in ways she hadn’t guessed, had made her love this quarrelsome, contentious boy. It wasn’t what she would have chosen for herself. She believed in kindness. She believed in loving people for their flaws—it had made her susceptible to him, and suitable too. She’d chosen Larry for his kindness. She’d told everyone that, when they’d asked her. She’d gone to meet him once down at the shop, their second or third date. He’d meant to be all washed and ready for her, but he was running behind, still changing out spark plugs on Mr. Garrison’s old Chevrolet when she’d arrived, and so she’d sat in the office and he’d made her a little cup of coffee to sip at and gave her a magazine to look through as she waited. There was a big window that let her look into the garage, so she’d sat there watching him instead of drinking her coffee or reading her magazine, and she’d liked how careful he was with everything, the slow and thoughtful way he moved. And when he was done, he’d stood up and stretched out his arms, and gave the Chevrolet a little pat with his hand, like he was saying ‘you’ll be alright now, old girl,’ and it wasn’t the moment that had made her love him, but she’d felt something tender when she saw it, something like pity, like what she’d imagined back then it would be to love a child, before she’d had one.

In thirty years there had been plenty else, but he’d always been kind, kind at his heart and his core. It was in that way that she had chosen, and in that way that she had chosen well. But Ricky sometimes made her wonder if she was a fool, and not only because he told her she was. The way she loved him was never something he could return—she wondered how she’d come by him, how he could be hers, though there was nothing truer to her than the knowing that he was. She spent much of her time trying to explain him—imagining a conversation with someone who would ask (though who would—who would imagine she wanted them to?), sometimes Lesley Turner, who was more intelligent than Bob, and quieter, and sometimes her mother, who was dead, and sometimes it broke down altogether and she would know she was talking to herself. This was one of those times, but she didn’t mind it as she walked through the cooling air several blocks from the Turner’s doorway, telling herself the stories she liked to tell.

When he was four he’d gotten very angry one day. It had been a screaming, hitting fit. She’d done what they say you should do with these sorts of tantrums; she’d stayed very calm, very reasonable, not fed it at all. She’d asked him what was wrong, but he wasn’t able to say, said he didn’t know, and then the not knowing became the problem, and he yelled “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know” and then the asking became the problem and he yelled “don’t talk to me don’t talk to me don’t talk,” and nothing she could do would right it, and nothing she could say calmed him, and he raged and raged until he was so exhausted he had to sleep. And she wasn’t sure it had stopped even then, wasn’t sure it ever had.

He grew up of course, and changed, but there was something he’d been born with, something she now imagined she’d felt from the beginning, from the way he kicked at her in the womb. When he was in Junior High he used to run away. It happened more times than she could count, but she worried every time like it was the first. She never learned where he went, what he did, knowing that even now this wasn’t something she could ask him, far less expect him to answer. But he’d slip away sometimes—every month or every other, sometimes more, and there would never be any warning or any reason, and it didn’t seem like running away so much as forgetting to come home (but who’d ever heard of such a thing, in a child?), except he’d always come home angry, come home rolling his eyes and clenching his jaw at them and at whatever it was that had brought him back. She told him how this hurt her, but he looked at her with his eyes all flattened and glassed, and for as much as he’d grown still couldn’t tell her why, would only blame the asking. He was never gone more than a day.

It had been such a relief when he’d met those boys at college and decided he was a revolutionary. It was like a camera lens sliding into focus, and suddenly he knew what it was he had been so angry at all along (or believed he did) and it wasn’t her, exactly, wasn’t only her. And when, fast on the heels of that first revelation, he decided he was a pacifist as well, she didn’t say a word to object—didn’t mention the years of schoolyard scuffles or the temper that had nearly gotten him expelled after too many barroom brawls. She thought maybe he knew more of violence than most, and could make less use of it. She worried what would happen if they tried to conscript him, but it never came to that. She’d never been happier than when he’d come home and told her she should quit her job at the college because it was full of warmongers and capitalist whores because it was the first time he’d ever told her what she could do to please him, though (perversely, perhaps) she would not. And when they sat together over the paper, those months he stayed with them before this last time he left, and he would say, “What do I care about their wars? What do I care which rich tyrant drinks the blood of Europe’s poor?” she would feel like any other old woman with any other young man, his opinions and hers, balanced between them. And maybe that is what it was with children, when they’d grown, and maybe she loved him differently, maybe less.

The sun was setting, and she felt an evening dew slipping over her skin on its way to the ground. She lived in the place she had lived all her life. In front of her a group of wild turkeys was scratching at the dirt of someone’s garden (someone new, young, she could picture the woman’s face but not the man’s), and others were spilled out across the sidewalk, waiting their turn with a strange patience, all facing the same way. As she walked they made room for her without fear, shifting to the edges of the lawn, or stepping into the street, seeming not to notice her at all, reacting with a chilly nonchalance, an un-animal disregard for her human movement. As she passed she noticed the sheen of their feathers, the iridescence.

 

She came into the house by the backdoor, and it wasn’t as she’d imagined it. She’d thought he’d be sitting in the big chair to the left of the television, with a glass perspiring in his hand, or at least his hand balanced on his knee by the wrist, ready for the drink to land in it as soon as Larry had finished his ministrations. Instead he looked like he’d just walked in, was still holding his bag in his hand, still had his hat on his head. Larry was behind, shuffling him inwards. She closed the door behind her, and they were looking square at one another across the room, his eyes just level to the tips of her highest hairs.

“Oh gracious,” she said, patting her hands together, “I wasn’t ready for you.”

He said nothing to that, really, but came and hugged her and took off his hat and let it sit on the table, with his bag kicked beneath.

“It’s good to see you, mama,” he said. She was listening to his voice and looking in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure, she just wasn’t quite sure.

Her men sat in the living room while she boiled the beans and pulled the roast from the oven. As she set the table she could hear them talk, Larry telling too much about the goings on at the garage and asking too little about anything else, though they talked a little about the flight. Some little plane, the way the engine sputtered—she felt a shot of anxiety at hearing it, even now that it was all over.

He ate like he’d had nothing in years, though when she asked he said he’d just missed her good cooking, he’d eaten just fine. Too much beans and rice, he said, too little meat. But he looked the same. Really looked just the same. She was looking too hard and thinking too much, and it made him look strange, sitting there as if the year hadn’t passed, surrounded as he was by all the little shiftings the year had brought—a new tablecloth where the old one had been stained with cherry juice that spring, her father’s old cuckoo clock moved across the room to accommodate the portrait they’d had taken on their thirtieth anniversary, the thin, black mildew line that had formed in the corner because of a drip they could not find the source of. A few more gray hairs on Larry’s head, a little more bulk around his waist—and her own body, well, she didn’t want even to think of that. All around him was the evidence of the way they’d gotten on without him, and in the midst of it he seemed not to notice that he was the only piece left unchanged and unbelonging, and she wondered just when he had become a visitor in her home.

“So what’s your first stop?” Larry said, pushing himself back from the table. They were in the stage of dinner she called ‘settling’—plates scraped and napkins balled, considering desert.

“What’s that, Dad?”

“Your plans, I mean. What do you mean to do with yourself now that you’re back?”

He laughed, a bit too sudden and a bit too loud—like he really was surprised.

“To tell you the truth, Dad, I’d forgotten to even think about it.” A mood crossed his face and disappeared. “The last few months were pretty wild. Just getting back here was enough to think about.”

Larry didn’t ask him what he meant by that, and she felt that because he hadn’t that she couldn’t either, but what a thing to say, what a piece of worry to hand your mother with no explanation at all. She imagined fires and floods, thin roads over crumbling bridges, rabid dogs and gunshots.

“Oh Ricky,” she said, “I hope you kept yourself safe.”

“Well I’m sitting here aren’t I?” he said, and his voice had the old snap in it, the familiar growl. “It wasn’t anything like that, mama. It wasn’t dangerous. It was just sad, really. There was a lot to be sad about there at the end of things.”

He didn’t sound sad as he said it—his voice had dropped down into some other register, and he sounded propped-up, ranging about for something.

“The people I worked with there. I came to realize they weren’t serious. They brought me down there with a lot of big talk, telling me that the place was ready for change, that there could be a different kind of revolution, no guns, no blood, a true uprising. I believed in that, in what they told me.”

“There’s never been,” she said, but he stopped her with a look, or she stopped herself when she saw the look in his eyes—the way the skin crumpled like he was pulling and pulling on something that wouldn’t come loose.

“It was no different than anywhere else. I would walk down the streets and there would be children in the dirt, living like animals. And no one would even look at them—they would walk past with their heads held up high, pretending they were blind.  My friend there, the one who told me I had to come, who told me everything we would do, how we would host the workers in our houses and feed their children as they organized, who said he knew men in the government who would be sympathetic to our cause and that he would give his life for change—I hated him by the end. Can you believe that, mama, that I really hated him?”

She shook her head because it was what he’d asked for, and because the new tone in his voice, the new expression on his face had resolved into something she could now identify as fear. Her boy was afraid. Sitting in her kitchen, eating the food she cooked for him, surrounded by all the home and family he’d ever had, and he was afraid. She glanced at Larry but he didn’t see it, leaned back in his chair with his fingers clasped across his stomach, nodding, but smiling. I’m making too much of it, she thought. Why must I always be seeing what isn’t there?

“His father ran the bank. Everything he said was to make his dad ashamed. But there was never any action, never anything to cut off the money his father gave him. He’d go out at night and come back with his breath full of wine, and I knew whose food he had been gorging on, all the while needling the old man with stories about the work he was doing, the people he knew, about me, when anything I asked him was answered with ‘well, you must understand, you must be patient, you must be reasonable.’ And outside the window people were starving. People were being shot in the streets. He was for the war in his heart, they all were. I realized it at the end.”

“A lot of good people are,” Larry said. He did this sometimes, wading in, voice so calm and detached. “After all the violence the Germans did. Lives are being saved by it.”

Ricky shook his head, stabbed his fingers into the wood of the table, like he wanted to pound his fist, but wouldn’t. He was looking at her, though she’d said nothing.

“Violence unto violence. The whole world is glorying on blood. And if you can have someone else cast the first stone, make you seem righteous, all the better. Is that right? Is that what the papers say?”

Larry let his head back, laughed.  “Hardly.”

Ricky pushed back from the table and stood up, stretching out tall, and for a moment she imagined—well, she wasn’t sure what she imagined. Something caught her, caught in her, and she took a breath.

“It’s not my world,” he said, his voice like she hadn’t heard in a long time, since he was very young. “It’s just not.” He put his hand up, ruffled it through his hair. “Excuse me,” he said, and headed towards the bathroom too fast. She shrugged at Larry and he smiled back—nothing was so different, really, so changed. He grabbed her hand between their chairs and swung their clasped hands together, three times back and forth, and then he stood up walked to the radio, turned up the knob so that the sound of the evening news drifted into the room, a calm voice she didn’t listen to at all. She got up as well, and took the icebox cake out of the refrigerator and cut off three large slices, placed them on three small plates. For a while they heard water running in the bathroom, the shifting of a body, the occasional sigh. Then it was quiet for a bit. When he came back to the kitchen he looked composed, smiling, forced or not. He caught sight of the cake on the table and laughed—a real laugh, and said, “Mama you didn’t have to,” in a way that made her glad she had. He kissed her right on the top of her head as he sat down, which surprised her and made her think of how they could still surprise her, these people she loved. He held up his fork and lifted his eyebrows, and all three of them clinked their forks together like wine glasses before they ate, and on the radio they said there would be a statement from the president, and outside the fog was rolling in across the bay.


About the Author: Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014). Her short fiction has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, Redivider, Conium Review, Eleven Eleven, and other journals. She is a prose editor at Noemi Press and a fiction editor at Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks. More information can be found at http://emilykiernan.com