CONFESSIONS OF A RELUCTANT WHORE by Christine Ma-Kellams

IMG_0623


The security at Webb School requires all cars to drive counter-clockwise; if you don’t, an ethnically-indiscriminate man will run after you with his walk-talky tangling from his hips like an uncomfortable erection. Josiah and you show up every Tuesday for classes hosted by a co-op on meetup.com. When you login in, you’ll find them next to the Valley Swingers Club and Cyber Moms, neither of which you’ve joined, though you’ve thought about it.

Peter shows up with his two albino children. By albino you just mean Standard White, but in matters of sex people tend to exaggerate. But don’t worry, there will be no sex with children in this story, because whores are always made, whereas pedophiles are typically born, and thereby less interesting.

The following Tuesday Peter is hosting a playdate. When you show up, Melanie’s son—Wolf—is sucking on his thumb while making centripetal circles on the carpet, dispersing Legos in concentric waves. A yellow one lands in the tunnel between Peter’s shorts and his legs. You offer to retrieve it, but no one hears you over the hum of Wolf’s fierce rug burn. You ask Mel how she does it, homeschooling her kids. She tells you it all depends on your teaching philosophy. You think about the hand job joke you told your undergraduates yesterday. You decide you must have a different teaching philosophy that may not work with children. For this reason your husband says you guys are “one and done.”

You married Luke for the sex; this much is certain. You were a virgin up until your brief courtship, so Luke always tells you that this otherwise enormous compliment to his dick lacks gravitas. You tell him he can always let you sleep with other men now to make up for your lack of experience and sample size. He smiles and says he would never stop you from what you want. For this reason you two still have the kind of sex that gives toe spasms and nerve damage. Still, even the best sex makes you wonder, what else is out there?

By Spring, Peter has started gunning for Josiah’s heart. At a pool party he shows Josiah how to swim, ignoring his own kids who are floating like centipedes in the shallow end. You sit with his wife and the other bikinied mothers, where everyone can tell each other’s worldviews based on the size of the Lycra triangles hugging their boobs.

By the Tuesday before Halloween, Josiah is referring to Peter as “Luke”; he refers to Luke also as “Luke,” and on occasion, “Dad.”  

“I want to meet this guy,” Luke says.

“Don’t embarrass me,” you say.

“I’ll be good,” he promises. You don’t believe him, but let him come with you to the Halloween party at Peter’s place anyway, because you too are an instigator.

When you and Josiah show up in matching Stormtrooper outfits, Luke asks if you can be any more of a whore. He is smiling though. You remind him this is the second Stormtrooper dress you bought and that the first one made this one look like a nun’s habit. He doesn’t believe you but only because he has never shopped for women’s Halloween costumes.

Peter and his wife are in matching homemade disguises, him, Bob the Builder and her, sexy toolbox? She is wearing short overalls and a large container hanging on her like a bib. Your husband will later refer to her as statuesque.

“Tell me something good,” Luke says to you when he is on top. You must devise  something that will make him leave you alone until you come, although you never take that long, and for this reason he calls you “champ.” Luke doesn’t like the scripted or the porno stuff, which leaves you with a limited repertoire. When he was the only man you had ever slept with, this made you mad because even the nastiest minds require inspiration. You drew your fiction from RedTube and the “missed connections” section of Craigslist. Now you can tell him what really happened. The only questions is: would he know the difference?

Your childhood dream of sex involved rolling around naked and kissing. In high school, your friend Karen informed you that dick and balls were two separate entities, which was news to you. In college you and your boyfriend held hands and listened to each other’s hearts beating before he broke up with you for not playing Halo with him. When you were twenty-three you finally googled g-spot on Thanksgiving eve, when all the other postgraduates had left for home and you were waiting for traffic to die down. It took you all of Thanksgiving break and a hand mirror for you to find yours.

After that, you started thinking you need to have real sex, pronto. Then Luke came along and you discovered that you were a fast learner.   

***

You and Peter make plans to go to the zoo with the kiddos on a Tuesday to ensure none of the other parents will join and cockblock your agenda. You arrive when the zoo opens, make the kids run laps around the lion’s den all morning, carbo-load them with two sandwiches apiece at lunch, and aim for a long, imperturbable nap on the drive home. When you pull into his garage, Peter tells you to leave the car windows open and come inside. You have your long game in sight. A good blow job is like candy that begs for a meal. You know this because Luke proposed to you after nine weeks and has stayed with you for seven years, even though you dragged him to Boston, where the weather rationed his golfing to three months each year, and even though you have a habit of brandishing kitchen knives during fights. Your mouth has bought you this leeway, and you intend to use it.

Only afterwards do you understand that it could have ended another way.


About the Author: When she isn’t writing, Christine Ma-Kellams teaches psychology. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Zyzzyva, the Kenyon Review, and Gargoyle, among others.

Gethsemane by Miah Jeffra

you are here


So, this is the house I’m most excited to show you. It’s a real jewel of the neighborhood. Built in 1900, it is what they call the Stick Eastlake style. You know what that is? It’s Victorian. I have no idea why it’s called Stick, though, but this is definitely Victorian—not one of those knock-offs trying to look Victorian with the prefab gingerbread that you see in the suburbs of Atlanta, or Western Massachusetts. This is the real deal. All original exterior crownings. Real wood. Look at this porch! Isn’t it something? And the stoop here? All marble finishes. Watch your step coming up.

What an entrance, right? And this isn’t even the living room. In these turn of the century places, there was always a receiving room. Some people refer to it as a parlor? Of course, we don’t have that kind of ceremony, anymore, where we call upon people with cards, and need to figure out if hats and gloves stay on or are removed in-hand. Now, we shake, we hug. So sweet, isn’t it? How intimate we’ve become? And now this space has no purpose, really. It’s a bonus room. Think of what you can do with it! Everyone likes a bonus.

The hardwood is refurbished walnut and ash throughout—none of that pine nonsense that gets all dinged, slashed, gashed up, gutted. Ash is what they make baseball bats from. Kid-proof. If you have kids, you won’t have to worry about them dropping dishes or scraping up the floor with their toys. Ah, no kids yet? But do you want them? How long have you two been together? Ten years? Well, it’ll happen, when the time is right. I’m sure you all are so busy. Careers, am I right?

Look at these ceilings. 11 feet 3 inches on the first floor. Doesn’t it make the rooms look even bigger? And this living room is to die for. Perfect for entertaining. I always prefer an oblong shape for parties, don’t you? That way not everyone has to face one another; so awkward. That over there is a fully functioning fireplace. It’s original, and, except when the previous owners blocked it up—don’t get me started on that—has burned wood for over 100 years. Isn’t that something? Imagine how many pieces of wood have burned up in that thing? And what else? Pocket lint, gum wrappers, discarded mail, postcards, receipts, letters from old lovers, important tax documents, divorce papers.

The kitchen is a real centerpiece of this house. Completely updated, modern, all granite countertops. The island? Oh, that’s not original. None of this kitchen is original, actually. But this is way better, you know, the modern kitchen design? The open concept flowing right into the dining room is Zen, gives you good Chi. So much better than those old, dark, closed in boxes that kitchens used to be. You know, those old kitchens were made like that to prevent fire from spreading too fast. You can imagine why that would be a big deal. Like, half of all our great cities were destroyed by blazes right around the same time kitchens were integrated with the main house: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Boston fire a year later, the 1906 earthquake fire that ended just down the street from here, the sewing factory fires in New York City, not to mention the one in Wisconsin that killed a whole township. Imagine how many people burned up in those things, how many bodies jumped from upper-story windows, only to shatter their organs on pavement below. They didn’t want to smell their flesh searing in the heat. Hell, I’d jump too.

When I was a little girl, I was terrified by the stove. No cooking for me. Oh, it was one of those things, you know, where one diddly memory will just ruin the whole shebang forever. I was trying to cook pancakes for my mother’s birthday, I must have been six. It was a small Cape Cod in New Jersey, white with black shutters. So typical. And, silly me, I didn’t know how to cook pancakes, but I was certain I could learn simply by looking at the pictures in the cookbook. As you can expect, I had flour everywhere. On the floor, all over the counter, in my hair. My father came home that morning—he worked the night shift at the trucking company—and saw the mess, like the whole kitchen had been whited out. You know he was tired. When he grabbed my hand and stuck it on the burner I hadn’t felt anything that sharp before. I had been stung by a bee, and had sprained my ankle playing freeze tag with my brothers, but nothing like this. A burn doesn’t feel like what you think; it’s more like a bread knife slicing your hand. And the smell? Like charcoal and hair in a curling iron, something like that. I remember the smell more than anything. To this day I still can’t abide the scent of a barbeque grill. Isn’t it funny how a single memory can do that to you? You know he was tired. Imagine coming home to that kind of mess after a long, grueling shift. I could never do a job that required me to work nights. Could you?

Just through this hallway is the master bedroom. You can see that a lot of care was taken to make this the epitome of luxury. When they refurbished the home they added the en-suite bathroom. Look at this 62” stone resin freestanding bathtub. What a dream. Imagine after a long day at the office coming home to this beauty. Light some candles, pour yourself a glass of pinot. Calgon, take me away! The double sink is a touch I particularly like. A must for a couple, to keep the marriage happy, am I right? And there is a rainfall shower with three heads. See, it comes from the top and from the sides. Look at this water pressure. And, big enough for two, to keep the marriage happy, am I right? With this shower, you’ll have kids in no time, you two!

This bedroom gets the best light. South-facing, with no bulkheads. One of the great things about San Francisco Victorians are the bay windows. The ones in this room are so deep you could have a little sitting area. Throw some pillows on it, grab a book, a perfect reading nook. This room is so much brighter than it was before the renovation. It was sad how dark the former owners kept it. They had painted it a navy blue. With brocade curtains, closed all the time. Can you imagine? Of course, the old man who died of cancer in this room probably wasn’t interested in seeing much of the outside. It took six years to take him. The esophagus. It couldn’t have been pleasant, the malignancy slowly lumping around his throat, cells replicating until it choked out his ability to swallow, sort of like marbles globbing his gullet until all he could do was pull blended Brussel sprouts through a straw. And then the metastasis, to his lungs, the white mutated nodes pulling on his alveoli like a boat anchor. Inhaling was a slow dry rattle, but exhaling was wet, like stewing molasses, until both stopped altogether, and there was only the body on the bed, and brocade curtains and closed out light. This bed? No, silly! This is all staging. His two grandkids, the ones who inherited the place, sold the bed in an estate sale, along with everything else. It was one of those lovely four-poster mahogany beds, but it had deep scratches on the headboard posts—have no idea where those came from, almost looked like animal claws. Such a lovely piece of craftsmanship. You’d think one of the grandkids would want to keep it, but maybe the scratches told them something they didn’t want to remember, or maybe they suggested something about the mystery of their grandfather. And the bed, like mystery—Hell, like memory!—could never be fully theirs, anyway.

Now, this staircase. Isn’t it dramatic? I love the way it ascends up to the second floor like a bird tilting westwards. Of course, it isn’t the original staircase, which would have been located along the parlor wall, like most Stick Victorians. It had already been removed when we bought the place. We had to completely replace the stairs. Can you believe that this house was turned into a church for a while? Gethsemane Baptist. Can you imagine? And Gethsemane obviously didn’t have much success in the way of a donation bucket, know what I mean? And not much imagination, either! They built these little clapper steps in the back by the kitchen, to make more space for the congregation room. Super narrow, just plywood boards. Who knows what they did with the staircase they removed. Probably a rich maple railing. It’s such a shame. You can just imagine how much a church setup would have ruined the architectural integrity of this place. It took so much ingenuity for the flippers to restore it back to any semblance of its original glory, what, with all the cut-ups and wall-chops. And what did the church do with the stairs!? Look, I have nothing against making a house of God wherever you please, but could they not use a little inspiration when they remodeled—if you can call it that—for worship? You should have seen how they gutted this baby. I’d show you pictures, but it’d ruin you for life, I tell you. Sure, the church was poor and needed to make due, but you don’t have to be rich to see the beauty in things, am I right? Can I get an Amen?

The second floor has three full bedrooms and two full baths, all with ample closet space, polished hardwood floors, and newly installed recessed lighting. This one on the left, though, is the most charming. Isn’t this adorable? The window alcoves are just precious. This was definitely a child’s room, for multiple generations even. When we first inspected the place the walls were purple, and then when we began stripping we discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder wallpaper, you know those Little House books? Apparently, that wallpaper was all the rage in the 40’s, so this must have been a girl’s room through the ages. It’s not a big room, but the closet is disproportionately large. Big enough to hide a full-grown woman, yes? In fact, that is exactly what it did, in various instances, from September 1951-March 1952. Sophie Mears, wife of Ernest, began to hide in this closet when her husband would come home drunk, convinced his lovely, amply built wife was sleeping with other men while he was out looking for work. He lost his job at the shipyard when the industry slowed down after the war, and it made him mean, you know, in that way that men were allowed to be back then. The very first time he came home drunk with the accusations, Sophie sported a generous shiner around her left eye that Ernest said guaranteed no man would look twice at her. It was their daughter, Rosie, who suggested her closet as a hiding spot. And, it worked. Ernest never did find her in there before he’d pass out, his anger always quitting once he fell asleep, but not before he stumbled around the house yelling her name, turning over chairs and slamming drawers. Sophie made a little nest of blankets and coats on the closet floor for these nights. It wasn’t too bad, at the end of the day. And when Ernest left for job-hunting in the morning, Rosie opened the closet door, and Sophie crawled out and made her and her daughter their ritual biscuits and scrambled eggs. Not a bad little cubby spot, huh?

Take a look at this attic. Isn’t it spectacular? The roof pitch goes up to nine feet at the center, so there’s lots of space to turn this into an office or study, maybe even a craft room. Unfortunately, because of the angle of the roof, the square footage can’t be included in the overall appraisal of the home. According to the American National Standards Institute, square footage can only be calculated if over half of the floor space is met with ceilings of at least seven feet. So, even though this is a functional 450 square foot room, the roof slant makes the room just shy of meeting that requirement. Isn’t that a shame? This standard is the reason why we don’t build houses like this anymore, with this kind of dramatic pitch. But this definitely served as a bedroom back in the day. Two folks met their death here: a woman died during childbirth in 1908, and a little boy in 1919, Spanish Flu. Did you know more people died of flu in 1919 than from the Great War? The woman and the boy were not related. Wouldn’t that have been tragic if they were?

Take a look at those beams. I bet you’re wondering—because you would be absolutely right; those indeed are redwood. In fact, the whole house frame is redwood. It’s the most durable. Many San Francisco houses were framed in it, especially before everyone got all environmental. The wood is naturally fire resistant—did you know that?—and is virtually termite and rot-proof. It’s the perfect material for building a city. But back then, it wasn’t an easy task to fell one of these giants, when all they had were men and axes. These are the tallest trees in the world, 300 feet tall, a dozen feet wide. The loggers would basically chop a pie wedge into the base of the tree, with the bottom cut perfectly horizontal. Then, to guarantee the tree fell in the right direction, they’d make sure the back of the face cut was perfectly perpendicular to the direction of the fall. Can you imagine getting the calculations on that wrong? Even just a hair off and that tree would fall over a hundred miles per hour across the forest floor. And, splat.

As a matter of fact, a man died felling the very tree that frames this house, including this beam here. His name was Burt Tyler. He was 21, with his first baby on the way. He and Dorothy moved from Indiana four months prior, lured by the logging boom. Sure enough, he was resting for lunch, smoking a freshly rolled-up cigarette on an old stump, when he heard screams from high up the hill, grown men shrieking high-pitched like women, and then the familiar thunder-crack of the tree splintering before the fall. You’d think it would have happened in slow-motion, you know, like the movies? But all Burt caught was the sound, then the metallic chill of his own veins, and then a flash of darkness, the hurled body of the giant tree blocking out the sun just before the more permanent darkness. And the other trees in the grove screamed, as well. No kidding! I’m serious! Redwoods have shallow roots, but they creep along the forest floor for hundreds of feet. And, different trees will link their roots together, like they’re all holding hands forming a chain. Biologists know now that once they intertwine, they communicate with one another, a sort of telepathy. So, when one tree is cut, they all feel it. And when we are cut, we scream. So. Isn’t that something? Screaming trees.

Have you seen the redwoods? No?! They are a must-see if you’re moving to Northern California. So impressive. Muir Woods is nice, but really touristy, lots of fanny packs and selfie sticks. I recommend going south to Big Basin in the Santa Cruz mountains. Much less people, you can really take some terrific pictures without being photo-bombed. No filter, am I right?

Watch your step coming on to the back porch. Isn’t this nice? So private. No one can see you back here. A little oasis, yet everything just beyond the wall-high wood fence—the most current design in sound deflection technology. It’s like you don’t even live in a city, right? You can enjoy the perks of what urban neighborhoods offer without exposing yourself to the unseemly elements, all while you enjoy your morning coffee.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The neighborhood is very safe. Back in the day, maybe not so much. When this property served as Gethsemane Baptist, let’s just be honest: it was rough. 30 years ago, no one wanted to live here, except for the artists and the gays. Well, others lived here, but, you know. Well, I mean, people did. It just wasn’t much of a market back then, is what I mean. Before the neighborhood was called NoPa, it was known as The Western Addition. Well, there still is a part of the city called the Western Addition, but that is way over there. It’s so different than this part of town. But back when this was still part of the Western Addition…well, let’s just say people like you wouldn’t be looking for a home here, know what I mean? And such a shame, right? These homes are beautiful! So, when people began noticing the potential—again, the gays; they always have their pulse on what’s hot, right? (my motto in real estate: invest wherever you see women walking around in combat boots, no matter how scary it is to drive through)—they thought to change the name of the neighborhood, to make it reflect the improvement taking place. I’m sure you know, there’s power in a name. Renaming a thing does something to it. Born again Christians do it. Women do it when they get married. Slaves before they were sold. Of course, we don’t do that anymore. Goodness.

Don’t worry, between you and me, only the right element is moving in. How do I know? The Dollar Store down the street closed, and the most adorable sportswear boutique moved in. On the corner, a gourmet coffee shop opened in an old auto-body garage. And did you see that really nice BBQ place opening across from the park, with the raw wood panels and the Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling? It used to be this ratty old restaurant called Da Pit. Can you imagine naming your restaurant Da Pit? Who would want to go there? See, a name change has power.

The value of this property will only increase, I guarantee, so you can maximize your upward mobility when you decide to move on to the next best place, and then the next best place. They say that cashing out here will be smart in about three years, and then you can buy a house in West Oakland, or maybe even in Portland or Austin outright with the profit! You could even do what we did here and flip it—a little gingerbread here and there—and make a killing. I mean, that’s what property is, right? An investment for your future? A killing?

Oh, don’t let the graffiti unnerve you. It’s merely vestiges of the old guard. I know what it says, but you can’t be intimidated by meager threats. Besides, they don’t know you personally, that you’re really nice people working for a living, just like everyone else. I mean, isn’t that tag sort of reverse racism? Don’t you think that’s a bit hypocritical? You know, so many people resist progress, even if the change benefits them. This neighborhood is so much safer now. And, there’s lots of great restaurants and shops. Before, we’re talking just ten years ago, no one visited this neighborhood. It was full of places that only the locals frequented. There was no allure, no intrigue, only people. If you’re going to buy property, you want it to be a destination, right?

The former residents? Oh, you can’t be thinking about that. I can tell you, the people who owned this house are lucky they could sell it in the first place, considering the shape it was in. And, they got a pretty penny, way more than they paid for it. They probably bought a big house in Antioch or one of those other outer Bay Area suburbs, probably welcomed the change to something quieter. They probably are swimming in their newly installed backyard saltwater pool right now. They wanted to leave. We didn’t put a gun to their head. They had a choice. You can’t be thinking about them. You need to think about your future. You know, progress. That’s how it works, right?


About the Author: Miah Jeffra is author of the essay collection The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic Press). Miah has been awarded the New Millennium Prize for fiction, the Sidney Lanier Prize for fiction, the Clark-Gross Novel Award, and a Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction. Residencies include Ragdale, Hub City Writers Project, Arteles and Red Gate. Miah is editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.

What We Become by Erica L. Williams


IMG_0669                  


 The walls in Dr. Michael’s office were the color of sunflowers, a mark of optimism deceptively covering them like glimmers of sunshine in a storm. Outside, the pop of lightening and deafening rumble from the downpour provided a more fitting atmosphere. Dr. Michael’s ceased talking when the thunder clapped, as if paying homage to a God of nature known for playing unfair in these parts of the Deep South.  Mom had insisted I stay in the room although Dr. Michael’s advised otherwise.  I was only thirteen-years-old, but Mom knew I could handle whatever he would say about Pops.  In our family there weren’t any secrets about who my father was, and who he had become.

“Winston is sick,” Dr. Michael’s said, flipping through the papers in his hand. “In the head,” he clarified, as if we didn’t already know.  Dr. Michael’s had evaluated Pops and sent him to take a battery of tests while he spoke with us. He inhaled deeply, then breathed out through his nostrils, forceful, like steam gusting from a tea kettle.

“This describe his episodes,” he said

Pops’ episodes had become as routine as King Cakes at Mardi Gras.  I thought of the time he’d holed up in the bedroom, refusing to come out.  Any interaction by Mom or I greeted with stares into nowhere, the smell of Gin coating his breath like Tic Tacs. When he’d finally emerged from the bedroom, Mom stood outside talking to our neighbor, Mr. Bill.  After all, how could Mr. Bill resist walking over to talk to pretty Mildred Sloan dressed in a waist fitting pink shirt and matching bottoms that snuggled her in all the right places.  Peeping through the window Pops saw Mom smiling as Mr. Bill complimented her on how lovely the philodendrons and tulips had blossomed.  Mr. Bill spouted off a few corny jokes in between, and Mom, ever so hospitable, laughed, while wiping the sweat cradling her brow, brushing her bangs to the side to do so.  Mr. Bill’s pot belly quivered as he chuckled at his own wit. Pops had busted out the door, still in boxers and a T-shirt, running wild-eyed, full speed at Mr. Bill.  Before we’d realized it he’d knocked Mr. Bill to the ground, alarming the neighborhood, screaming ‘stay away from my wife, you can’t take her from me, you can’t take her from me.’  

Mom convinced Mr. Bill to not file charges, explaining that since my brother had died, Pops hadn’t been himself, and of course Hurricane Katrina hadn’t helped.  Five years had passed since we’d moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and the neighbors still pitied us like refugees.

Dr. Michael’s studied his chart notes, talking to Mom, words like PTSD and trauma spewing out like bullets.  He stretched his long legs under the cherry wood desk that separated us. Black voluminous curls, with slivers of gray dotted throughout, spiraled from his scalp like a spider’s tentacles.  He looked up.  “Who’s James?”

“My son,” Mom said, her fingers clasped together in a praying position.  

He looked at me, knowing I was Winston Jr.

“My oldest son,” Mom said. “The one who died.”  

Pop’s latest episode happened a week ago.  He’d left the house and hadn’t returned for two days. Mom didn’t file a missing person’s report.  She’d said “To be found, you have to be lost.”  When Pops returned, he explained he’d went to New Orleans to play a gig.  He’d pulled five crumpled twenty-dollar bills from his pocket and placed it on the table as penance. Although Pops stood a little over six feet, that day, smelling like stale cigarette smoke, he slouched  in stature, contrite, dressed in a wrinkled blue long sleeve shirt and matching navy pants with ragged cuffs.  His eyes, flitting between Mom and I, looked empty, confused as he mumbled explanations about why he hadn’t called. When we’d lived in New Orleans, Pops would come home at all hours of the night after a gig, the fragrance of women’s perfume introducing him, the scent of Vodka seeping from his skin like crude oil.  After James died sometimes he didn’t come home at all.

Mom must wonder what happened to the man who’d bought her roses every day the first month of them dating.  The man who took her to picnics in the park on the Northshore, where they’d eat fried fish and fresh boudin with crackers, and drink hurricanes from the drive thru daiquiri shop where Pops would splash extra rum in his, and extra fruit juice in hers.  She’d acknowledged long ago that Pops wasn’t the same man she’d married in front of a justice of the peace twenty years ago at a dump in the French Quarter that reeked of urine and marijuana. The man she’d declared to love in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and worse, and worse, as he’d become.

Mom’s sister, Aunt Vivian, was the one who’d convinced her to take Pop’s to the doctor.  For some time now Aunt Vivian had urged Mom to leave Pops, insisting we come and live with her in Baltimore. I knew that Mom had considered it, especially after Pop’s latest episodes.  

“It’s something mentally wrong with Winston.  Didn’t the same thing happen to his mama?” Aunt Vivian had said, her voice vibrating through the speaker phone.

Mom had glanced at Pop’s penance and then regarded me. The creased muscles in her forehead told me she’d had enough and was ready to take Aunt Vivian up on her offer.  I’d held my breath, my face hard as a slab of concrete.  She’d picked up his atonement knowing it wouldn’t wash away his sins. As she’d accepted him back into the fold, I’d exhaled slowly.  I wasn’t ready to leave Pops. And I wasn’t ready for him to leave me.  

“This medicine we’re prescribing will help balance the chemicals in his brain,” Dr. Michael’s said, jolting me from the memory.

“What if he refuses to take it?” Mom asked.

“He’ll experience dark places,” Dr. Michael’s said handing the prescription to Mom.  “Some he may not be able to recover from.”     

 

When Hurricane Katrina approached Pops had insisted we stay in New Orleans, even after Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation.  Aunt Vivian in Baltimore, and Pops sister, Aunt Cathy, who’d lived in Baton Rouge, had offered places of refuge. The prior year we’d fled Hurricane Ivan, only to return to a few sprinkles.  Convinced that would be the case this time, Pop’s had proclaimed that ‘we’d ride this one out.’   Mom hadn’t wanted to leave Pops alone who still reeled from the death of my brother James.  Who knows what Pops would do all alone, left to his own devices, in the likes of a storm?  He’d insisted we would be okay, and initially, we were.  I remember Pops triumphantly beating his chest as if he was Tarzan solidifying his role as the king of his castle.  His victory was short-lived.  When the 17th St. Canal levee breached, we only had minutes to dash into the attic before water from Lake Pontchartrain consumed the house like a monsoon.   We’d survived off of bottled water and a box of crackers Pops had grabbed.  He’d hammered a hole in the attic ceiling allowing us to squeeze onto the roof where we hoped to be rescued by helicopters plucking people off like grapes from a vineyard. Pops had apologized nonstop to Mom who stayed unresponsive to his regrets. Daunting days tangled into long nights as we watched the ninth ward transform into the apocalypse.  Everything from televisions to mattresses to bodies floated down Claiborne Avenue like dead fish.   My classmate Anya who’d kissed me once and told me my hair was fine as a china doll, drifted in the water, looking like an eight-year-old life-sized doll.  Her kiss had shocked me so much that I didn’t even realize it had happened until she’d walked away, shyly looking back with a finger over her mouth.   

Pop’s friend, Dale Allen, planned to evacuate to Atlanta to his daughter’s. But Pops had reminded him of the hullabaloo made over Hurricane Ivan and he’d stayed.  When Pops saw Mr. Allen’s body wafting in the water he’d dropped his head in his hands and sobbed.  

“The decision to stay was ultimately his,” Mom had said, breaking her silence towards Pops. “As was mine.”

We gained the attention of a Coast Guard helicopter after being stranded for two days.  I refused to open my eyes as they lifted me up in the rescues basket. Instead, I pretended that I was drifting on a ride at Disney World. Pops had promised to take me and James one day.  I could still go if only in my dreams.    

 

The day after Pop’s saw Dr. Michael’s he was headed out the door when Mom insisted he take me with him.   I believe it was her way of assuring his return.  When Pops didn’t convince her otherwise, he’d barked at me to put on my tennis shoes.  We zoomed down the I10 interstate, driving across town navigating the Louise Street exit into the heart of Old South Baton Rouge, the neighborhood known as The Bottom.  The Bottom stood shoulder to shoulder with Louisiana State University in distance, but was as far away as the east from the west. The first bus boycott in the civil rights movement had sprouted in The Bottom, a neighborhood that housed McKinley High School, the first black public school in Baton Rouge.  Once a blossoming core in the city, The Bottom quickly became a rotten apple, destroyed when city officials built an interstate through its heart upending homes and businesses.  Now dilapidated shot gun houses and run down convenience stores plagued the neighborhood like cancer.  Pops parked in front of one of those shot gun houses.  He reached into the glove box and pulled out a bottle of cologne, spraying two whiffs on his shirt and underarms.  I recognized the outdoorsy odor mixed with the smell of the sea as the cologne Mom had given him for Christmas.  He placed the bottle back in the glove box and dropped a mint in his mouth.  

He smoothed out the wrinkles on my shirt and then placed the palm of his hand on my head. “Time for you to get another haircut,” he said.  Pops and I mirrored each other. Our skin, the color of caramel. Our noses, broad, prominent. Eyes, light brown tinged with green when reflected by the sun.      

Pops hands couldn’t keep still, fidgeting with my shirt once more, then my hair.  Mom reckoned his twitching a side effect of the medicine.  He looked in the mirror and smoothed out his shirt and hair, then reached across my seat and opened the door.  

The wet air stuck to my skin like a magnet, causing August to feel more like a damp May. An eerie lopsided smile formed on Pop’s face as he knocked on the door.  A woman wearing a red satin robe, tied around the waist, opened the door.  A mass of curly red hair with black roots peeking through sat atop her head.     

 “How’s my BeASStrice?” Pops said so steamy the ss’s got caught in his throat.  She let us in, giggling like the stupid girls at school.  Pops hugged Beatrice, I’d learned was her name.  Although we’d never met, she hugged me tight and said, “You will be tall and handsome just like your daddy.”

 ‘Living Just Enough for the City, by Stevie Wonder blasted on the stereo.  Scented candles of citrus odors lined the counter like an altar.  A picture of a black Jesus hung above on the wall.  His hands folded, his eyes red as if tired of bearing our burdens and picking up our crosses.  A bottle of Smirnoff Vodka sat in the middle of the kitchen table. Pops pulled out a glass from the cabinet and helped himself.  He acted like the man of the house, handing me a soft drink and shooing me towards the living room.  They stayed in the kitchen, siting knee to knee, so close their foreheads nearly touching. Mom was cooking a pot of Camilla red beans when we left.  She’d told Pops not to tarry long since the beans were almost done, having soaked overnight.  Pops talked so low his mouth barely moved. Whatever he’d said made Beatrice turn the color of her robe and caused her to flash all of her teeth. He glanced in my direction, and I looked at the TV as a rerun of The Cosby Show played.

Yesterday, Aunt Vivian had told Mom about the schools in Baltimore.  “They’re better than the one’s down there,” Aunt Vivian had said referring to the Baton Rouge schools overrun with charter systems.  “And Baltimore have some of the best debate teams. I know you heard of Central High.”

A year ago Mom had told me that she and Pops were separating, and we were moving to Baltimore.  We were sitting outside Poor Boy Lloyd’s restaurant in downtown.  She’d said it as she chewed on her roast beef po’boy.   

I bit into my shrimp po’boy, and let the remains digest before speaking.  “If we move I will kill myself,” I’d said.  The words rolled off my tongue as calm as the waves of the Mississippi River, shocking us both.   

“You don’t mean that,” Mom had said, placing her sandwich down, drippings from the roast beef fixed in the corners of her mouth.  She’d tried to stay calm, but her trembling lips and water that settled in the slits of her eyes hadn’t let her.  

She’d clasped her fingers together and cupped her bowed head.  Mom’s prayers rivaled a Baptist preacher.  She’d asked the Lord to give me clarity of mind, strength, and then blurted out a few unintelligible words, which I’d recognized as her speaking in tongues.   

The next day she’d taken me to a therapist, Dr. Smithers, a petite lady with a distracting overbite, who stood no taller than five feet.  Mom’s eyes were bloodshot as Dr. Smithers prodded me to discuss my feelings.  I had little to say except that Pops wouldn’t make it without us.  He’d barely made it with us.  Mom never spoke of moving again.  

 

On the ride home from Beatrice’ Pop’s explained the Man Code was in effect.  “Tonight is to stay a secret between just us men.”  The veins in his temple bulged.  His eyes begging.

“Man Code, you got it,” he said.       

My heart pounded as hard as his pleadings. This was the first time he’d ever spoke of such a code.  “Got it,” I said.  

At home Pops sped past Mom, his cheek grazing her stuck out lips.  He went into the bathroom, closing the door.  

“Winston Jr. where have you and your father been all this time?” she asked. We’d left at noon, and it was a half-past six o’clock.  Mom stood a little over five feet. Her flesh carrying more firmness than fat.     

 She only called me Winston Jr. when she meant serious business. Otherwise she called me Winston and referred to Pops as Winston Senior.    

I looked towards the closed bathroom door.  I heard water running.  

“Don’t worry about your father,” she said loud enough for him to hear.  “I know you’ll tell me truth.”

The bathroom door now slightly opened, water no longer running.  The whiff of red beans and hot water cornbread causing the hunger pains in my stomach to flip flop.     

“We went to Mr. Eddie Lee’s house in The Bottom and watched the football game.”  Pops had already rehearsed me on what to say.  Usually when I lied my eyes blinked nonstop.   Mom knew this and stared a hole through me.  I attempted to glare back, wide-eyed. Had she asked me what game, I would’ve fallen apart.

She pursed her lips.  “Fine example he’s setting for you, bringing you around his no-good friends.  Go wash up for dinner.”

At the table Pops sopped his cornbread in the red bean gravy before dunking it in his mouth.  Every question Mom asked he answered blade sharp.  That weird smile plastered on his face, him nodding in my direction, thanking me for honoring the man code.   

 

Pops’ father James “Jimmy Red” Sloan helped organized the first bus boycott in Baton Rouge along with Reverend T.J. Jemison.   Pop’s often told stories of how Jimmy Red would say ‘The boycott in Montgomery might’ve been more famous, but it wasn’t the first.’  A large, gangly man with personality to boot, Jimmy Red’s skin tone matched the color of the clay dirt roads he’d grown up on in Avoyelles parish.  He’d graduated from the historically black college Southern University and had expected Pops and Aunt Cathy to do the same.  No kid of his would ever attend the majority white Louisiana State University, he’d vowed.  ‘They act like LSU is the only college in Baton Rouge,’ Pops often mimicked Jimmy Red.  Pops argued that when LSU won the national championship, and Southern won the national black championship the same year, LSU had received the majority of coverage from the local press.

‘You would’ve thought Southern didn’t even win a game,’ Pops had said.  Pops believed the media’s treatment of the two colleges represented a miniature version of the city at large.

Anything of minority importance relegated to the sidelines.  

 Baton Rouge had flailed as a city until the early 20th century when Standard Oil constructed a refinery in the river town causing a prosperous resurgence lasting for decades.  Now, unofficially divided into southern and northern territories by a street bearing the same name as the sunshine state, the southernmost part of the city near LSU housed some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city.  North Baton Rouge consisting mostly of minorities had experienced rising crime and a steady decline in neighborhood upkeep, largely ignored by city leaders who focused more on developing downtown.  A city slick with more than just oil, Pops always said.

Pops learned to play the trumpet at seven-years-old.  Jimmy Red hoped that Pops would attend Southern University and join Southern’s world renowned Human Juke Box band.  But Pops had gone to Xavier University in New Orleans, flunking out after two semesters, spending more time playing in French quarter dives than studying.  He’d met Mom in one of those joints.

“And the rest is history,” he would say, while re-telling the story with a grin on his face as wide as the mouth of the Mississippi River.      

Pops had wanted me to take trumpet lessons, but I was more interested in playing basketball until I’d met Trevor Mitchell, founder of the Urban Debate Club.  After hearing me read a book report in the sixth grade, Trevor had convinced me to give up basketball and join his debate team.  

Pops would sit in the back of the auditorium, the brim of his wide brown hat tipped below his eyes when he’d attend my tournaments.  He appeared sleep through most of the rounds, but he’d later discuss with me in great detail the arguments I’d made.  He especially liked the debate on who was a better boxer: Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson?  Pops loved boxing.  He often argued with his friends, contending Ali’s speed and defense overshadowed Tyson’s power and menace.  He knew I’d used some of his views and had grinned so wide I could see his molars.  

Unlike our competitors who’d practiced debating flimsy current events such as ‘do beauty pageants do more harm than good?’ or ‘should certain foods have warning labels,’ our team argued topics such as ‘who was to blame for the inefficient handling of Hurricane Katrina: local officials or George W. Bush?  Or was it necessary to turn the schools over to the state after the hurricane, or should it have remained under local supervision?’

Although Trevor taught American History, he was also a licensed counselor and could understand what I was saying, even when words escaped me.  Usually it was after one of Pops episodes.  Trevor would slice through the silence telling stories about his boys, seven and nine years- old.  He’d talk of their trips to Disneyland or Southern University football games.  I remember Pops, James and I going to the Bayou Classic, the famous football game between Southern and Grambling State in New Orleans.  Pops loved the battle of the bands, the halftime showdown between the rivals, always reminiscing on the times he’d gone with Jimmy Red.    

Once, I’d asked Trevor if he’d established a Man Code with his sons.  His eye lids had tightened, his lips pressed together when I’d explained the meaning.  He’d switched into counselor mode, persistent with questions about the secrets Pops and I shared, becoming frustrated when I didn’t answer.     

Considered handsome by most girl’s accounts, showed by the silliness they’d display when finding out he would be their teacher, the tattoo on his left forearm read survivor.    

“You ready for nationals, son?” Trevor asked.  He called the boys on his team son.  

He and I were in the practice room. I was one of two members from the team chosen to compete at the national tournament in Atlanta three weeks away.

“We could have it today,” I said half-bragging.   I had proven to be a worthy debater. I was only in the seventh grade and private high schools and colleges were scouting me.

“I like that confidence young man,” Trevor said slapping me playfully on my back.

When I’d joined the team, he’d given me a stack of books to read written by the likes of James Baldwin and Malcolm X, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, the purpose he’d said to expand my mind and vocabulary. Pictures of famous philosophers including Plato and Aristotle, and the likes of Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, and Malcom X covered the walls in the practice room.

During practice Trevor liked to pitch a topic, one he’d have me research prior.  Today it was if juveniles should be tried as adults.  He beckoned for me to stand straight and pretend as if I was speaking to an audience.  

“Just because a kid committed a crime doesn’t mean it will lead to a life of delinquency,” I said flipping through index cards, reciting facts from research and memory as if I was spitting fire. Trevor smiled. I knew I had made him proud.  I spoke of my friend Bobby.  An A student whose life changed after his parents divorced, and his father moved to Houston.  He hung out with the wrong crowd and ended up in a gang.  At fifteen-years-old he robbed and shot a rival gang member.  The guy lived, and Bobby was charged with aggravated robbery, attempted murder, and possession of drugs.  I argued that if his father had stayed in his life, maybe things would’ve turned out different, reasoning that with the right rehabilitation measures he could still become a productive citizen.  

I took mental notes as Trevor opposed me.   Speaking as eloquent as Barak Obama with the poeticism of Tupac Shakur, he argued that a crime is still a crime no matter the age of the perpetrator.  He’d cited an equally compelling example of a teenaged friend who’d murdered a mother of three in cold blood over a dare.  The friend, tried as an adult, received life in prison. “Rightly so,” Trevor had said, nodding to a fake crowd for emphasis, “Rightly so.”

On the ride home Trevor and I listened to Max 94.1 radio station, nodding our heads to All I Do Is Win by DJ Khaled. Pops usually played CD’s of Thelonious Monk or Charles Mingus when in the car.  Or he kept the station on Q106.5 which played everything from melodious rhythm tunes to hard core bluesman such as Bobby “Blue” Bland.  Trevor pulled into the driveway, hugging me as I exited the car. “Take care son,” he whispered in my ear.  

Pop’s image reflected in the front window of the house.  He pulled the curtain half back.  A Newport cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he wore a white sleeveless T-shirt, the one he’d referred to as a wife beater.  

When I opened the door the aroma of a ‘poor man’s gumbo greeted me. Typically the creole dish was chock full of fresh seafood like shrimp and crab, and oysters.  But when money was scarce Mom substituted the seafood with chicken and sausage instead.  The other day I’d overheard Mom tell Aunt Vivian that Pop’s had stopped taking his medicine.  “It might be best for us to come that way,” she’d told Aunt Vivian, refusing to meet my stare.       

“Why didn’t you call me to pick you up?” Pops said, cracking open a Bud Light.  Based on his glassy eyes, and heavy tongue, I could tell it wasn’t his first.  

Trevor always dropped me off after practice.  I reminded him of that.  

“Next time call me,” he said. He punched his chest for emphasis.  

Mom glanced in his direction and then filled the bowls with steaming rice before saturating them with gumbo.  She set crackers on the table.  Even though she wore no makeup, except for shiny pink lip gloss, Mom radiated beauty.  She worked as a baker’s assistant, taking on extra shifts, going in at seven in the morning, sometimes working eleven or twelve hours.      

Of late she’d hinted for Pops to apply for disability.  Pops hadn’t been able to keep steady employment, due to his constant quitting to take a gig somewhere.  At least it would provide income, she’d reasoned, and since he’d gotten an official diagnosis of PTSD, the paperwork should be hassle free.  

“Who the hell disabled?” Pop’s had yelled.  To prove a point he’d taken his medicine and emptied the pills in the garbage can, yelling “I don’t need this shit.”

 Mom had tried to grab as many as she could before they’d landed in the trash.  It hadn’t helped that on that same day the local news had reported an officer had killed a black boy on Florida Street.  Any shooting of a black man by a cop brought up grim memories of James.

I ate my gumbo while listening to the music from the AM 1460 gospel station Mom kept it on.   A pleasant breeze circulated through the window screens, carrying the smell of fresh cut grass and the melody of crickets with it.  

“You talked to Cathy yet?” Mom asked Pops.  

The muscles in his face tightened as he crumbled crackers in his gumbo.  

“What did she say?” Mom asked, her voice anxious.  

“What she always say?” Pops said, placing a spoonful of food in his mouth, then chasing it with a swig of beer.      

“When you going?” Mom asked.     

“When I damn well please,” was Pops reply.    

 

The following day Pops and I walked up Aunt Cathy’s driveway as beads of sweat dotted his face, although fall had now ushered temperatures languishing in the seventies.  Aunt Cathy lived in the Plantation Trace subdivision, off of Highland Road, a stone’s throw from Louisiana State University. She opened the door and hugged me as if both of our lives depended on it. She wore sweatpants comfortably fitting her full figure, and an oversized LSU T-shirt. Like Pops, she stood tall, square shouldered.    

“Hey Brother,” she said to Pops, casually rubbing his shoulder.  Her black, afro hair twisted out into springy coils.  A gray spot sprouted in the front like a patch of snow on otherwise green grass.  Dimples so deep they looked like carvings set on both sides of her cheek.  She focused her attention on me, commenting on how handsome and tall I’d gotten, jabbering non-stop, asking about everything from the debate team, to girls, to school, barely waiting for an answer before moving to the next question.  Pops took in the place as if his first time there.  His eyes landed on a painting in the living room of Aunt Cathy that my brother James had painted.  She’d framed it years ago telling James, then ten-years-old, that it would be worth money one day. In the picture her soft curly afro flourished.  Her dimples, looked deep and magical, transporting you into her soul.  I envisioned Pops removing it from the frame, touching, even smelling it.  Aunt Cathy would understand.  That’s the only painting we had left from James, the other’s destroyed in the hurricane.   

Self-taught, he’d started painting at seven-years-old, the same age Pop’s had taken up the trumpet, Pop’s had always boasted.  By the time James was twelve, patrons were commissioning him for his work.  James had specialized in making your imperfections perfect.  In his paintings the mole on Mom’s right cheek became regal, the scar under Pops eye mysterious.     

A week after James’ twelfth birthday he’d went outside to play with his friend David, who’d lived at the end of Claiborne Street.  On the way out the door, he’d hugged me and kissed the birthmark on my forehead. Usually his only form of affection towards me was a punch in the arm.  He never made it to David’s.  When we’d arrived at the scene, two blocks from the house, James’ looked as if he was sleeping, his body draped by a white sheet, lay in the middle of Claiborne Avenue.  Sirens and Mom’s screams morphed into one.  Pops fought through the army of officers and yellow tape to get to James’ blood soaked body.  We’d learned that a police officer had stopped James because he fit the description of a young black male who’d just robbed a store. When James tried to run home, the officer shot him in the back, never indicted for the murder.

 Pops eyes shifted across the rest of Aunt Cathy’s place.  Although she’d appeased Jimmy Red before he’d died by getting her bachelor’s degree from Southern, Aunt Cathy had gotten her masters and law degrees from LSU.  Her house could’ve served as an LSU exhibition.  Her degrees adorned the wall like cake toppings.  Purple and gold knick knacks graced open spaces along with pictures commemorating LSU’s national championships.   

“Jimmy Red is turning over in his grave,” Pops said to Aunt Cathy, shaking his head staring at the purple and gold spectacle.   

Aunt Cathy glared back at him.  “Yes he is,” she said emphasizing each word, eyeing Pops top to bottom.   

A dog no bigger than my forearm greeted us with a growl better suited on a pit bull.  Aunt Cathy smiled and nuzzled the beagle she called Tyrone.  The wood floors gleamed as if newly waxed. Everything from African art to family pictures hung in perfect symmetry in the living and dining rooms.  The cream-colored furniture bore no stains, the pillows on the sofa looking untouched.  Mom had always complimented Aunt Cathy on her tidiness.  Pops would look as if he’d bitten into a lemon.    

“I bet the areas you can’t see are a mess,” he always told Mom on the ride home.

“At least she has the decency to hide her junk,” Mom would say back, scowling at Pops, “unlike some who leave theirs wide open for the world to see.”  

Aunt Cathy had picked up Chinese takeout, insisting we help ourselves. She sat plates on the wooden kitchen table, topping glasses with ice and Coca-Cola.    

“You been taking care of yourself, Brother?”  She said, digging her fork into the shrimp fried rice. No doubt, Mom had given her the latest on Pop’s episodes.  

Pops hadn’t come for food or small talk, but knew it was the price he’d have to pay.   

“As well as I can,” he said, adding, “Could always be better.”  

She waited for him to ask how she was doing. When he didn’t she said, “I’m good, business is good.” He didn’t have to ask.  He knew how Aunt Cathy was doing.  With her fancy lawyer friends. Always in the paper’s society section, attending board meetings and whatnot at LSU.  Kissing white folks behinds every chance she got.  Yes, she was doing just fine.   

Appetites gave way to silence until Aunt Cathy said, “Remember how Mom would be so

excited to see us when we visited her at Oakwood?”

I looked at the photo of Pops, Aunt Cathy, Jimmy Red and my grandma Maggie that hung on the wall. Pops never spoke of his mother.    

Aunt Cathy pulled a pan of banana pudding from the refrigerator and sat it on the table.  

“Remember when you meddled the man at Oakwood who spoke in tongues nonstop and Daddy made you apologize to him back by speaking in tongues to make sure he understood you?”  Aunt Cathy teared up from laughing so hard. “The made up gibberish that came out of your mouth I still remember to this day.”   

Pop’s jaw went slack, his lips forming into a smile, at the memory.

Oakwood Hospital, located right outside of Baton Rouge, I’d learned was a hospital that people with mental problems went for treatment.  The hospital Grandma Maggie had died in. The hospital where people went in and never came out.   

“I was ten,” Aunt Cathy said, “so you must have been…”

“Thirteen.”   Pops said, looking at me, his smile fading.  

Aunt Cathy walked to the cabinet and returned with three bowls, placing nice helpings of banana pudding in each.  “Then if we got back to Baton Rouge in time Jimmy Red would take us to Fun Fair Park,” she said.   

“What was Pops like as a kid,” I asked dipping my spoon into the pudding.   

She looked at Pops.  Her face lined with confusion.   “He argued, well debated everything, even as a kid,” she said.  “He should’ve been a lawyer.”  

Pop’s face hardened again.

“If you said the sky was blue he’d prove it was red.  Or if you hated cats he’d find a million reasons you should love them.”  She piled more banana pudding in her bowl.  I guess you can say you got your debate skills honestly.”  She chewed the pudding as if pondering what to say next.  “He always acted as if the world was against him, but so did Mom.” She hunched her shoulders.  “We never knew why.”

Pops scrunched the muscles his face, looking as if he’d burst a blood vessel. I finished the last eggroll, washing it down with a gulp of coke, deliberately making a fake mustache from the liquid.

Aunt Cathy reached into her purse and pulled out four one-hundred dollar bills, placing them in the palm of Pop’s hand.  She placed hers on top of his and squeezed it tight.  

“We gonna get this back to you in a weeks’ time,” Pops said, removing his hand from Aunt Cathy’s embrace.  “I got a gig coming up this weekend.”

“I don’t need it back,” she said.   

Pops frowned.  He’d never paid her back, but she didn’t have to be so got damn smug about not needing it, I’d supposed him thinking.  

“You’re going to get it back,” he said, his voice rising an octave.  “Gigs in Baton Rouge not like they are in New Orleans. Nobody hires trumpet players.”

Aunt Cathy rolled her eyes.  “I have a friend that works at Exxon Chemical Plant,” she said. “I can make some calls.”

Once, Pop’s had said that New Orleans smelled of energy, and guilty pleasures, and boudin.  

“What does Baton Rouge smell like?” I’d asked.   

“Purple and gold,” he’d said.  “And oil.”  

Pops cut his eyes at Aunt Cathy.  Having to borrow money was humiliating enough.  He was the big brother who should’ve been helping her out, not the other way around.

“I already put in an application at the casino.”  He drank the coke in his glass in one swallow.  

“Casino money doesn’t compare to oil money,” Aunt Cathy said. “Mildred told me she working at the bakery ten, twelve hours a day now.”  

Pops let the sting of what Aunt Cathy said digest before saying, “You got a man yet other than Tyrone?”

Aunt Cathy bit her lip in anger.  Pops always told Mom if Aunt Cathy would get the stick out of her ass and learn how to have some fun she could keep a man.  

Pops stood.  He hadn’t planned to stay this long.   

Aunt Cathy embraced me. She turned to Pops. “Good to see you, Brother,” she said, hugging him.  “You’re looking good.”

As Pops walked out the door, to no one in particular, she said, “Then again, looks can be deceiving.”    

   

 

At home Pops handed Aunt Cathy’s crisp hundred-dollar bills to Mom.  Relief flooded her face as she’d tucked away the money she would hand over to the landlord in her purse.     

“What’s all this?” Pop’s asked.  Mom and my clothes were stacked in piles across the living room.  

“Spring cleaning,” Mom said, averting her eyes from anyone’s gaze.      

“In September?” Pop’s asked.   

“Never too late to start,” Mom said.  She turned to me.  “How was your visit sweetie?”

I glanced at our belongings, neatly folded in stacks, and then noticed the suitcases tucked away in the corner.  When Pops walked into the bedroom, I said, “I’m not going anywhere,” my voice occupying a bass I didn’t know existed.  

Mom stood in front of me. Her gaze, solid, distant.      

“I’m glad you saw Cathy,” she said. “You need to visit your aunts more often.”       

 

The next day as Calvin, my teammate and I, were finishing up practice Pops walked into the debate room.  

“I came to pick you up,” he said.  His shirt half tucked in his pants as if he’d rushed.

Trevor looked at his watch, then walked over to Pops extending his hand.  Pops, sporting a sour look, left him hanging.  

“I was going to bring him home, Mr. Sloan,” Trevor said, his hand now dangling by his side.  “You didn’t have to come.”

Pops scanned Trevor from bottom to top, starting with the black Converse Chuck Taylor’s he wore to the tan fedora hat that sat atop his head.  

“You can’t have him he’s my son,” Pops said so low Trevor had to lean in to hear him.   

When Trevor remained silent Pops repeated it, this time for the world to hear. Startled, Trevor stumbled back so hard his fedora fell off.      

“Calvin call your Mom and tell her to come pick you up,” Trevor said, looking around the room haphazardly, then picking his hat up off of the floor.   “I will take care of the Sloan’s.  Mr. Sloan doesn’t appear to be feeling well,” he said gradually, glancing over Pops, his eyebrows cocked.   

“I hear how you call my son, son,” Pops said breathing as if he’d completed a hundred yard dash.  His eyes empty, lethal.  I’d seen this look before.  The one that made him unrecognizable.  Dread covered Pop’s face, as if wishing whatever was about to overtake him would stop, because he couldn’t control its impulse no matter how destructive it made him become.  He lunged towards Trevor with a barrage of punches causing Trevor to hit the ground instantly. I didn’t move. Instead, I watched, blow after blow, Trevor wincing with each hit, any attempt to block them thwarted by quick, vicious jabs.  When finally free, Trevor stumbled across the room and picked up his cell phone.  But Calvin must’ve called the police and Mom because little time had passed before a swarm of cops and first responders arrived. Pops mumbled incoherently, perhaps trying to tame the demons that haunted him.  Mom rattled off short, static sentences to the cops and EMS technicians: “not taking his medicine, PTSD, breaks from reality, unexplained bouts of anger.”

At that moment she looked at me.  I knew then that our bags were packed and we’d be in Baltimore before long.   

“I meant what I said,” I told her, watching as they lifted Pops onto a gurney.    

Tears streaked her face.   “I will get you some help,” she said.  “Like your father.”

Pops lay still, straps doubled across his chest and legs.   His eyes darting back and forth, but not seeming to notice anyone.

“Where are they taking him?” I asked.  

Mom sighed and lightly touched my cheek.  “Oakwood,” she said.


About the Author: Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from  Kansas City Voices,  Necessary Fiction,  Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Blood Orange Review.  She tweets @ EricaLWilliams3 and Instagrams @ ericalwilliams3.  She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Mental Ward: A User’s Guide by Laura A. Zink

IMG_0663


When the intake nurse asks you for your shoelaces and your belt, do not look surprised. Hand them to her calmly. Doing so will lower her suspicions about you. Lower. Not erase. After all, she’s not the one getting committed.

When the nurse hands you off to the orderly, do not show any sign of resistance. The situation, ostensibly, is quite awkward for him too, so avoid conversation. And crying. You definitely do not want to cry in front of him. Any emotional outburst could lead to a dose of Midazolam or Haldol. If you don’t feel like a mental patient already, you definitely will after a shot of one of those.

You notice that the walk to the ward is rather long and circuitous. As you progress, the doors start to require key card swipes, codes, large keys, and other kinds of advanced unlocking mechanisms. At the seventh door, the orderly picks up a phone and requests entry. There will be a loud buzzing sound when the door opens. Don’t let it startle you. They keep notes of everything here.

See? They are already taking notes. The nurses and the orderly pass various papers back and forth. After scratching down a few words, the orderly leads you to the final door. It is white with a large steel latch. It reminds you of a meat locker. The nurse presses a button, and the door opens. You step through and hear it close behind you. It’s not particularly loud or ominous sounding, which you feel is strange given the circumstances. Maybe even a little disappointing.

Either way, you are now officially a patient in a mental hospital.

Try not to take this personally. Whether you ended up here because someone sent you, or the police forced you, or the court ordered you, or you answered the suicide question wrong on the rehab intake form, it doesn’t matter.

Really, this situation says more about them than you. Think about it. You have to be pretty BAT SHIT to want to be in a mental hospital. They work in one. By choice. Now, that is crazy. So basically, you are being told you are crazy by crazy people. You find this to be crazy. It’s ALL crazy…

But now, you stare down the grey and white, door-lined hallway, and you realize for the first time that this is your home. And for how long, you have no idea.

Only two concerns remain:

  1. Finding out as much as you can about your roommate, and
  2. Planning your sleep schedule.

You ponder this as the orderly leads you to your room. He tells you your roommate’s name: Betty. You want to know her diagnosis, but don’t ask the orderly. That will seem weird. There are not many personal effects in the room either, so you will have to get the information from Betty herself. Ask her a question that elicits a revealing answer. For example:

Is there anyone here I should look out for?

You may get answers like:

  • “Everyone here is stupid. The rules are stupid. Oh, and fuck you.” – Sociopath
  • “I’m going to leave now because someone is trying to kill me.” – Schizophrenic
  • “You can trust me.” – Psychopath
  • “You’re sick with something, aren’t you? AREN’T you!?!” – Hypochondriac

You get the hypochondriac. Go to the staff window and ask for something innocuous, like diarrhea medication. When the nurse turns her back to check your medication schedule, crane your neck to view the staff “notes” (usually on a whiteboard on a side wall way behind the main desk). You notice that something about your room requires the staff to look out for “eating utensils.” When the nurse turns back around, appear disinterested. Swallow the medication – Pepto, Imodium, whatever – and walk back to your room.

You find Betty sitting on her bed. Something is peeking out from underneath her mattress. Small. White. Plastic. It is a spork. She notices you eyeing her bed. She doesn’t seem to like this.

You are one big germ to her. Accept it. She hates you.

AND she will try to defend herself. This could interfere with your sleep schedule. You should not sleep while she is awake. In fact, you should not sleep at all if she is in the room. You think about the fragility of your eyelids. Thin. Stretchy. Indefensible against the prongs of a spork. Betty eyes you, hand hanging over the side of the mattress by the little piece of protruding plastic. She fingers it. Take this threat seriously. She is not going to wait until you sleep. She’s probably psychotic. Paranoid.

Germs. Psychosis. Paranoia. You must prey on her weaknesses.

But she can’t know. Act casually.

Sit on your bed and start scratching yourself. Stare at her intently while you do this. Tuck your chin into your chest and smirk. If you can raise just one eyebrow, do so now. Then, cough. Loudly.

Cough. Hack. Cough. Cough.

She pulls in her limbs like a dying spider. She tenses. Growls.

Brace yourself.

Betty thrusts her hands under the mattress. They come out with sporks. Fists full of sporks. Sporks scattering across the linoleum floor. Use both hands and forearms to block the incoming spork missiles. As they peck and scrape at your arms, you hear squealing. Grunting. Feet pattering back and forth in furious pacing and then…

…silence.

You look up. She is empty-handed. And terrified.

Reach down and pick up two sporks. Scratch your neck and head with one of them. Stick it down your pants and scratch. Front or back, it doesn’t matter. Both sides are a plague to her. Put the other spork in your mouth. Alternate between licking one spork and scratching yourself with the other. Take two slow steps toward her. Wave the sporks as close to her face as possible while maintaining an arm’s length distance. Don’t take your eyes off her. Keep watching. Keep waving. She’s effervescent. Vibrating, throbbing, gnashing her teeth, bursting into tears.

Toss sporks at Betty and run to other side of the room. Cower in the corner with your arms covering your head.

Scream once.

You hear the sound of moving furniture. A metal bed scraping against the linoleum. She is barricading the door. The orderlies are coming. Hearty pounds come from the other side of the door.

Scream, “help.”

The door bursts open. Appear as helpless as possible. Shiver for effect. Watch Betty fight the orderlies. Watch her writhe as they grab her limb-by-limb and pin her to the ground. Watch them inject her. Watch her go limp. Watch them heave her sack-like body in a wheelchair and roll her away. You watch ALL this happen.

But one orderly remains. He asks you what happened.

Using phrases like “from out of nowhere,” “unprovoked,” and “by complete surprise,” blame everything on Betty. When he asks you if you need to see a counselor, listen carefully to the tone of his voice. It is soft. Almost whispery. This means he believes you.

Shake your head weakly in response. When he offers his hand, take it and stand up slowly. Keep your eyes down (you ARE the victim here). Pout a little and thank him for his concern.

He turns and walks out of the room. You hear his sneakers padding against the linoleum. He’s down the hallway. A little echo. A tiny squeak. And then, he is gone.

Walk over to your bed. Lie down. Place your spork-scraped hands behind your head and savor the silent solitude.

Congratulations. Your eyelids are safe. You can close your eyes. Now, you can sleep.

Enjoy it while it lasts. Another roommate will come. And when she does, check the staff “notes” and plan your sleep schedule accordingly.


About the Author: Laura A. Zink lives in Oakland, California. She is a Beast Crawl Literary Festival organizer and an editor for MARY: A Journal of New Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Broad River Review, Full of Crow, sPARKLE & bLINK, Naked Bulb 2016 Summer Anthology, and Literally Stories.

 

For Lucky by Brendan Stephens

IMG_0668


When I was twelve, every Sunday my mother and I visited my grandfather. He lived on the other side of the mountain. I was his only grandchild. As often as I could, I put off homework until minutes before my mother came to get me, hoping that she’d let me stay home because school work trumped almost everything for her. Everything but family. My plan never worked.

Those visits were a blur of pictures of golf courses, casual racism, and ginger ale. The shag carpet at my grandfather’s looked like moss, and the air smelled stale and swirled with dust. He sat in his recliner. Whenever he left the chair, I stared at the cracked, stretched leather, imagining that some specter of him lingered seated. My mother sat in what was once my grandmother’s chair—the blue fabric bunched where the cushions had worn down. They watched game shows. I brought over a Gameboy, hoping they’d ignore me so I could ignore them.

Once, during a commercial promoting a vacation to Las Vegas—the screen flickering with cash payouts in tall stacks of hundreds—my grandfather asked my mother, “Did I ever tell you about the time Lucky and I gunned down a fleet of Kamikaze? Not a single one hit their mark.”

“Yeah. You told us earlier,” she said. For most of his life he refused to talk about the war, but after my grandmother passed, he forced every memory onto us.

I wished she would have pretended it was the first time hearing the Lucky story. It seemed more humane to treat each repeated story as a dress rehearsal. That’s what I would have wanted.

“Really?” he said.

“Yes.” She glanced over at me. There was the faintest up-turn in her lips, as if to say forgetting is funny. “We’d love to hear it again.”

He blinked hard, trying to conjure up the memory, but nothing came to the surface.

“You can tell us.”

“No. No. I don’t want to be the old fart that tells the same stories over and over.”

I didn’t quite believe him. All my life I’d heard the same stories. Once, I had my mother in hysterics repeating word for word, the same comic timing, my grandfather’s story of the hiding he took for napping in the men’s room during church back when he was a kid.

I felt his gaze land on me even though I never looked up from my small square screen. He said, “Josh, is there any fighting in that game?”

I said, “Yeah.” I was actually stacking Tetris blocks, but I knew where this was headed regardless. My only choice was whether I wanted to get to the point fast or slow.

“You like those killing games, huh?”

“I guess.”

He turned to my mother and said, “And you allow this?”

“It’s just a game.”

“No, it’s not. Everyone forgets that. Those games aren’t going to teach you how to respect life even when you have to take it.” I didn’t look up, but the chair creaked from his wild gestures. “Say what you want about the Kamikaze, but they knew a thing or two about life and death. I’ll give them that. But that didn’t mean that me and Lucky could just let them crash into our aircraft carriers. They fell like hail,” he said, bringing his hand down on his armrest with a thud. “Most of the time one or two would sneak past the defenses, but there was one time where Lucky and I managed to get each one. It was like—”

“Dad, you’ve already told us that story today.” She looked over at me with her eyebrows peaked. His memory lapses before this were over the course of weeks, but never before had he blanked before the end of a commercial break.

I let the blocks in my game pile off the screen. All three of us triangulated our gazes, but never quite looking anyone in the eye.

He blushed, his ears turned brick red. “You know this old gray horse ain’t what he used to be.”

Whenever he said that, I imagined a horse with droopy jowls, joints swollen with arthritis, moon-like cataracts swirling in bulging eyes—a near-death show horse now only good for glue. Yet, my grandfather still seemed young. At the driving range, he’d rocket golf balls further than I thought possible. He still had a Playboy subscription and didn’t even need reading glasses. Age to me meant physical deterioration, and it seemed to barely touch him. How could he be on the decline?

That night, my mother called a family meeting even though it was just the two of us. Around the kitchen table, with the lights turned low, I knew what was coming. Off and on, they’d talked about the day when it’d no longer be safe for my grandfather to live alone. My mother was still shaken by his forgetfulness. She asked me to vote whether to put my grandfather in a nursing home or in the guest room. I voted to take him in. Even at that age, I knew that my vote was symbolic—she’d made the decision long ago, so why bother?

#

My grandfather’s new room, previously a guest room that went years between uses, was separated from mine by a narrow hallway. Nothing felt normal anymore. He spent his time napping on the living room couch, inquiring about his next doctor’s visit, sneaking handfuls of chocolate chip cookies between meals, watching James Bond movies he taped from cable—complete with commercials. Neither of us had grown more comfortable with the other. Every day felt like an expectation, as if an uncomfortable silence was waiting to be broken, but we lacked the words, as if we were trying to ignore a hanging scab.

Before, when the visits were weekly, I could get by just being in the same room. Now I felt like I was either going to enter a self-imposed exile into my room or we’d have to build some sort of grandson-grandfather relationship no matter how flimsy. When I couldn’t handle it anymore, I went over to his room and knocked on the door. He answered wearing a yellowed undershirt, his belly bulging over his slacks. He gave me a hug as I just stood there. I never understood how his ballooned-out stomach felt so muscular.

“I’m bored,” I lied, “Do you want to play checkers?” I hadn’t played him in years because within our family he was a checkers legend. He’d never lost a match as far as my family was concerned. It sucked all the fun out of playing, but I knew he’d enjoy it.

He said, “You think you can take down your Pap?”

“Maybe.”

I took time assessing moves, picking the red plastic circle up and hovering it over a square before putting it back where it had been. All the while he whistled big band melodies. The second my finger left a piece, he’d make his own move, slamming it against the cardboard so hard that all of the pieces shifted millimeters. Then he’d go back to whistling.

He gloated after he won. I expected him to win by a landslide, but he barely beat me. I wondered if he was really as good as I remembered, if I was just better, or if the misfired neurons made his legendary gameplay more human.

Later, from the dinner table, when my grandfather noticed the checker board on the counter, he said, “Checkers—now there’s a game I haven’t played in years.”

#

Over the next few months, my grandfather kept forgetting, and he grew more frustrated with forgetting. Every time we played checkers he won by shrinking margins.

That autumn I spent a lot of time piecing together plastic model kits of different anime mechs. It helped distract me from wondering whether a moment could slide its way into his long-term memory.  Sure something would stick for a day or two, but in the end it was defragged in no-time. Repetition didn’t even work. I found myself wanting to make an impact that would stay. Something between us that he’d remember a week later. Was it too late?

“You like models?” my grandfather asked from the hallway. He peered in through my cracked door.

I said that I did.

He wandered off to the living room where he watched Family Feud until he fell asleep, drooling, on the couch.

When I got home from school the next day, I found a large model airplane kit in my room. My grandfather had recently had his driver’s license revoked. He must have had my mother pick it up for him. A P-51 Mustang, the type that really flew. The models I had built were pre-painted plastic bits; after an hour of connecting the pieces, it was just a few stickers and then it was finished. The P-51, the fuselage was just a few pieces. Yet the instructions seemed too sparse to complete the electronics. I’d need a set of watch screwdrivers and a crescent wrench, and I didn’t know what either was. The only piece that came intact was the remote control to pilot it. Before even trying, I gave up.

“What do you think?” my grandfather called from his room across the hall.

I stammered for a bit and said, “It’s great. Thanks.”

“When you finish it, we’ll go out to a field and fly it.”

“That may take a while.”

“I got time.”

That night, just to confirm it’d be as impossible as I thought to put together, I pulled out all the parts. Each piece was sealed in shrink wrap. Using a rusty X-acto knife, I made a pile of parts and useless plastic bags on my bed. Using the instructions, I pieced together some of the fuselage until I came to a step that required soldering. I put everything on my desk.

Later my grandfather asked, “What’s that?”

“The P-51 you got me.”

He narrowed his eyes, trying to claw up the memory. Instead, he said, “God damn it.”

I’d never heard him curse before.

“I can’t keep doing this. Anymore, thinking feels like I’m breathing through a wet towel. I get just a little air and a lot of water.”

I didn’t understand quite what he meant. He shook his head and ran his hand down his face.

He picked up the wing and, with frustration still in his voice, said, “This isn’t right. The silver, it’s wrong. Too dark.”

“Looks fine to me.”

“You always say that, Lucky.”

I didn’t correct him. I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny or had slipped into the past, merging me with his old partner.

“Whatever happened to me?” I asked.

His face twitched as if something had short-circuited.

“To Lucky?” I said.

My grandfather gulped a few times and said, “He died, didn’t he? Like everyone.”

“When?”

“Disappeared in a storm. We didn’t have visibility. His radio had been acting up, and then it went silent.”

“Maybe he landed on an island somewhere.”

“That sort of thing doesn’t happen in real life.”

Later, I had my mom buy a couple of different shades of silver paint for him to compare, and I coated the plane.

After school, I worked on the model until I finished the final step of the instructions. I was too afraid to fly it though. Too many things could go wrong: electronic malfunctions, robin collisions, lightning strikes, acts of God. Even after the P-51 was finished, I spent days reading the manual trying to wrap my head around radio frequency, adjusting the high-speed needle, and how to nail a landing.

One Saturday, my grandfather said, “Are you going to fly that thing or what?”

I tried to determine if he even remembered that he bought it for me, but I couldn’t.

“The conditions aren’t right,” I said. It was too wet and foggy.

“It’s always going to be something. Come on.”

My mother drove us down far enough down the mountain that the fog that had blotted out the sky had become low hanging clouds. She pulled into the sparse driveway of a one-room church that’d been nothing more than a historical marker for as long as I could remember. She waited in the car listening to songs on the radio that were fuzzy with static in the valley. Before liftoff, he picked up a blade of grass and dropped it. It drifted lazily without a single gust of wind pushing the blade off its downward course.

Now that we were out here, I had trouble trying to remain calm. The uncertainty and recklessness of leaving the ground was like a shot of pure adrenaline jammed into my heart. I used the rough blacktop road as a runway. The sound of the model’s engine sounded like an electric toothbrush, but it slid from the blacktop into the air as if flight was effortless.

He mussed up my hair and said, “Who would have thought you’d get that pile of parts to fly?”

I flew the plane in tight figure eights in the clear below the looming stratus clouds. Despite my excitement, I wanted to enjoy it more than I did. With all the theoretical freedom of the atmosphere, the blanket of fog ceilinged the tiny plane in. In minutes, I grew bored, like I was watching a fly trapped between a screen and a closed window—predictably flying from corner to corner without variation.

“Do you want to try?” I asked.

He chuckled without smiling. “Are you sure?”

“Sure.”

With my eyes still to the fog cage, I gave a tutorial. A tutorial I repeated in full three times.

I passed the receiver off to him. It quivered in his hands, made more noticeable by the dancing of the two foot antennae. Overhead, the plane sputtered erratically like a cricket in a snake pit. If flying a plane with his grandson didn’t drive an icepick into his long term memory, I doubted anything would.

“What do I do?” he said, looking down at the controller as if he didn’t understand how the plastic with all its buttons and levers ever got into his hands. He thumbed the buttons and levers with increasing frustration.

And then the plane vanished with a puff into the fog. I pulled the controller from his hands and tried to steer it back into the clear, but all I heard was the buzz of the motor growing fainter. I should have known this would happen. The back of my throat burned, and it felt impossible to swallow.

When I couldn’t hear anything anymore, I said. “Let’s head home.”

“When are we going to fly that plane?”

#

Within a year, he passed. Over that time, I couldn’t determine whether my grandfather’s decline came fast or slow, but still he declined. He slept more than he was awake and forgot who we were for long stretches, even forgetting he was ever a father. Bad days eventually outnumbered good ones. I never built another model; he never even mentioned it. Occasionally, we’d still play checkers. I beat him more and more often as he attempted more illegal moves. When I pointed them out, he’d grow so frustrated that he’d swipe the pieces off the board rather than lose. The memory of the model plane he seemed to have forgotten entirely and to me it already seemed distant and fuzzy, like something from a movie that I couldn’t quite place.

Later, I was stuffing his clothes into garbage bags when I found in his closet a cardboard box. Inside the box, wrapped in a bathrobe, was the P-51 covered in scratches, held together with big globs of super glue. It felt delicate and liable to fall apart. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend the hours he must have spent searching. To me, the model was like all the other tchotchkes and mementos of his that I’d thrown out. I stuffed it into the trash bag with the over-starched clothes, with the pictures I found of him and Lucky that had yellowed with age: two uniformed pilots, young and smooth, smirking invincibly in front of their Mustangs, overcome with confidence that their lives were bound together for long years, unable to fathom the future, the fog.


About the Author:

Fuku by Sayuri Yamada

Amber Parker


Oh, thanks. I’ll have a pint of Foster, please.

    Yes, we had an international student, called Fuku, staying here for a while. Her real name was Fukuko and that means a lucky child, she told me. Isn’t it nice? We called her Fuku. My small daughter, Cathy, couldn’t pronounce it and started calling her Fuku, which stuck to us as well. No, she didn’t mind at all and even said, ‘You can call me whatever you want.’ Wasn’t it nice? So generous. Yes, she was a nice lady, gentle and kind, too.

     Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yes, everybody knows about her somehow. She was the only survivor in the hideous bus accident. But I don’t want to talk about such a bad thing right now, if it’s all right with you.

     She cooked for us one day. Fried eggs and rice. She explained to me that the fried eggs were layers of a thin fried egg and the rice was sticky. She broke the eggs, stirred them and put a bit into a frying pan and almost right away rolled it to the end. Then she put a bit more and rolled it, starting from the first one, so that the two were rolled together. Then she put another bit in and rolled it in the same way. She repeated the process several times until all the eggs were used. It was such an intricate cooking method. I thought it was a special meal for a celebration or something, but she said it’s a very common breakfast. Can you believe it? Could you cook that in the morning with our eyes still bleary and the hair sticking up every which way? She was surprised that I was surprised.

     Then she measured rice and water, which were the same amount. You know, we put a lot more water when we cook rice, or rather boil rice. But she said her way would make the rice sticky.

     You know, she paid for the room and two meals a day, but she spent her own money to buy those ingredients. I was touched.

     We’d had some international students before, but she was the best: so generous and gentle and kind.

     Do you know Eric, a friend of my son, Ben? No? He isn’t around anymore. He moved to a different city, well, just before Fuku left for back home. He was fifteen when Fuku was with us. I think she had a crush on him. I sometimes noticed her watching him when he visited Ben. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to embarrass her. She was such a delicate lady. If I’d told her, she might’ve cried or something. Eric was a neat-looking boy. I think it was her first time abroad and he must’ve been the first young man who talked to her. You know, when she first came to our place, Eric happened to be there and offered jokingly, ‘Can I take your bags to you room, Madame?’ She got red and just nodded. It was kind of natural for her to have feelings for him. It could’ve been somebody else, you know. I didn’t tell her that he had a girlfriend then. She might’ve, no, would’ve been hurt a lot. She was so vulnerable like a Victorian lady. I wanted her to stay and be happy at my place from the beginning to the end. You know, she was staying with us only for six months to study English. His girlfriend, Portia, had noticed and told Eric, who told me. They, Eric and Portia, didn’t mind. They were rather amused that a foreign lady had a crush on him. Of course I told my husband and Cathy overheard it, or rather eavesdropped on our conversation. Cheeky one, she was. I gravely told her not to tell Fuku that we knew. So, although everybody in my family knew about her crush, she didn’t know that we knew.

     When we were watching TV one evening when Eric was there (he often came to our house and he was like our second son), Fuku started sneezing and couldn’t stop. I don’t think she had any kind of allergy, but she just sneezed and sneezed. Then Eric stood up and asked her if she wanted some water to drink. She said, ‘Yes. Thank you,’ with a red face. When he gave it to her, her hand was trembling and she said, ‘Thank you very much. Thank you very much,’ bowed to him many times. You know, nobody thanks people that much nowadays. She knew how to appreciate other people’s kindness. We were lucky that we had such a nice lady at home.    

     Yeah, the English school was five days a week, just like all the other ones. She went there every day, never skipped a day. I knew Ben did a couple of times but Cathy hasn’t done it so far. She is only ten. I hope she’d learn from her.  

     Fuku did homework every day, right after coming back from school. She kept to herself in her room and didn’t come until it was done. She was a great example to the students.

     You want a top up? What was it? Carling? All right. I won’t be a sec. Woops. I’m a bit tipsy already. I’ll get some crisps as well.   

     And she helped with the housework. She didn’t have to do it at all. But she cleaned her room every now and then. She even helped with the washing-up sometimes. I said, ‘Oh, no. You don’t have to do it, Fuku.’ But she said, ‘It’s all right. Don’t worry,’ and kept drying the dishes I’d washed. So generous of her time after working hard at school and the homework in her room. She sometimes, only occasionally mind you, dropped a dish on the floor. It wasn’t intentional or anything. Oh, no. Nice Fuku wouldn’t do such a thing. When she first did it, she apologised in tears. ‘I am sorry. I am very sorry.’ ‘Don’t worry. It’s just a cheap plate. Don’t touch it. I’ll get a dustpan,’ I said and cleaned it up. It was actually one of the dinner set my best friend gave us for our twentieth our anniversary. But never mind.

     Oh, I know, you wanted me to tell you about the bus accident. Yeah, your face has been yelling it since the beginning. All right, all right, I’ll tell you some of it, but only a bit for now. I’ll skip how the accident happened, because you must know very well by now from all those TV reports and radio news and papers and gossip. While Fuku was still in hospital after the accident, she had lots of presents from her classmates and my neighbours and even some strangers. Around her bed in her hospital room with other five patients were teddy bears and flowers and boxes of chocolate and cards. It was like a bright gift shop in sterilised hospital room. Every time a nurse brought a present to her, she looked as if she wanted to hide under the bed or disappear into thin air. The first time, she was happy like a small kid, all smiles and laughter and everything. But after the second present, the third one, the fourth, the fifth, she became different. I asked her why. She said, ‘It is not good that I am the only one who gets presents. The other five people don’t get so many. It is not good.’ It was a bit of strange logic. It wasn’t her fault that she had so many presents, you know. The accident had been broadcasted on TV and radio, so everybody knew about it. I suggested that she should give some of the presents to the other people in her room. But she said, ‘Oh, no. They might think I look down on them.’ It was another strange theory. I don’t know much about Japan, yes that was where she was from, haven’t I told you? Anyway, We’d had homestay students only  from European countries. She was the only one out of the EU. It’s not that we avoided other countries. It just happened. So, as I said, I didn’t know much about Japanese culture, but it was very, very strange to me. I didn’t say anything to her about it. She was such a delicate lady, easily hurt. She begged me to take to the presents to her room in our house and I did.   

     She taught Cathy how to count in Japanese. One morning, she, my Cathy, came running to the kitchen and said one two three in Japanese with Fuku behind her, smiling. Isn’t it nice? She gave my daughter a free foreign language lesson. I don’t quite remember what she said. It was something like itchy for one and knee or elbow for two, and well, son for three, maybe. Isn’t it a funny language, Japanese? I don’t think Cathy still remembers it now. She has to study hard to get good marks, so her brain doesn’t have room for a language that isn’t to useful in this country. We had a French boy at home before, but he didn’t teach French to Cathy or Ben. Oh, well. Never mind.

     Oh, thanks. I think I’ve finished this pint a bit too quickly. But so what? We’re here to drink, aren’t we?

     I didn’t say what she’d cooked for us was good, because it wasn’t. It was actually a disaster.

     The fried eggs ended up something like a yellow blob and the bottom of the rice burnt and stuck to the pan. I had a very hard time to get rid of it. It wouldn’t come off. It was like cemented there. Anyway, both were still edible and we ate them. The taste? She’d forgotten to add salt to the eggs, so they actually had no taste. Still edible and still fried eggs. The rice was, well, we had the un-burnt part. It was all right. Fuku apologised in tears. ‘I am so solly. I am so solly. When I cooked zem before, zey were fine, but I don’t know what happened today. I am so solly.’ She bowed over and over again. Such a sense of responsibility! She was a nice lady. We all had to console her, patting her back, saying they were all right, smiling, and so on. Still, or rather because of that, she started crying in earnest. We didn’t know what to do. Nobody in this country at her age cries like that in front of people. She was from a different culture. Maybe, it’s a normal thing to do in her country. Anyway, when she finally started hiccuping and showing signs of subsiding, I said, ‘Well, let’s eat the food Fuku cooked for us. It must be very delicious.’ We ate, swallowed, chewed, swallowed, munched, swallowed. We ate everything. Well, Cathy couldn’t eat much of the rice. I just gathered it into a plastic bag under the table while Fuku was looking down and later I threw it into the bin. The kitchen was a smoky from the burnt rice. But never mind. It had cleared some time later. Fuku nibbled some and said, ‘Sank you. Sank you. You are bery kind. Sank you. Sank you.’ She didn’t eat it all. Well, I thought, we didn’t have to eat all either, then.

     You see, she had a strong accent and pronounced things wrong. But still understandably, usually. Sometimes we had to ask her to repeat it. Sometimes she couldn’t make us get what she wanted to say at all. But usually we could communicate.

     While we were eating the food, the kettle whistled. Fuku jumped up from the chair and upset a glass salt pot, which fell on the floor and broke. ‘I am solly. I am solly. I will pay for it. I am solly. I am solly.’ Fuku started weeping again. I hurried to her side and said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it, all right?’ I patted her back and got her to sit down in the chair. ‘I am solly. I am solly.’ She kept saying for a while. I went back to my chair. I was sick of hearing, ‘I am solly. I am solly.’ Why did she apologise so much? Was it her culture? Was she normal in Japan? I didn’t know and I still don’t and I don’t care. She’s gone now. But at that time it was annoying. Every time, every single time, she did something slightly wrong, she said, ‘Solly. Solly.’ And was often crying with a runny nose. She was thirty four then, for God’s sake. Grow up, I wanted to shout at her. But, you know, she’d cry harder and apologise more if I’d yelled at her, I knew that.

     Yeah, at that time her eyes were red and her nose was running. Some mucus started dangling from her nostrils and was about to reach her rice. She breathed it in noisily and it went all the way back her nose. It was amazing to see how her small nose could hold that much mucus. After that she kept breathing in the mucus to keep it in her nose. If it were Cathy, I’d send her to the bathroom to blow her nose. It was actually disgusting while eating, especially the food she’d cooked.  

     And she was so meek like a stupid sheep. Every time I asked her to do something, she did it right away as if I were her master and she were my slave. I thought it was nice at first, you know, she was so obliging. But gradually I started feeling strange. She was staying with us in our house and paying for her board. But that didn’t mean she was beneath us, you know. Still she acted as if she was. She never said no. Not once. She was like a small dog that was always ready to please people with its tongue out and its tail wagging. When she first came to our place, I asked her not to drink milk directly from the bottle. You know, I never allow my family to do that. The mouth of the bottle should be kept clean all the time. When I asked her about it, she said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ So naturally I believed she’d understood me. Then after for a while when we’d been talking about food, she asked, ‘Is it all light to dlink some milk flom the bottle?’ I couldn’t say anything for a second or two. I thought, ‘She actually didn’t like what I’d asked her and just pretended she’d understood me.’ It was a bit offensive, you know. But I said nicely, ‘No. Please don’t do it.’ She said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ I wasn’t sure if she’d got it. Later I realised that she often said, ‘Yes. Yes, Yes,’ even when she didn’t understand what she was asked. Like a couple weeks later, I asked her not to open the window while I was making cake. You know, it was very windy outside and the mixture of wholemeal flour and white flour I was using would be blown away if the window was open. But she opened it saying, ‘I am hot.’ The flours flew everywhere in the kitchen. I yelled, ‘Fuku! I told you not to open the window! Why did you do that?’ I couldn’t help it. And naturally, she started crying and apologising, ‘Solly. Solly. Solly.’ The same kind of things happened again for a couple of times. After that I had to get her repeat what she thought she’d understood, or she might have caused disasters, you know.

     Once when I was trimming the front hedge, she came back, crying. She was crying on the public street in broad daylight. She wasn’t a six-year-old kid but a thirty-four-year-old adult. I asked her after she’d calmed down. Can you believe what’d  made her cry walking in the street? She’d gone to her classmate’s house. A son of her host family, about twenty five, opened the door and said her friend wasn’t home, but she could wait for her inside and invited her in and said she looked nice and kissed her hand. That made her cry, she said. Can you believe it? A thirty-four-year-old woman cried when she was kissed on her hand. I know, that man wasn’t quite proper, but I was sure he was joking, you know. She cried walking in the street as if some kind of the end of the world was coming. Her friend’s place was on Woodside Avenue, so she’d been walking and crying all the way to my house on Munro Close. It was a quiet afternoon, but people were out walking everywhere. A couple of my neighbours asked me after her later. I was too embarrassed to tell the truth.

     Oh, almost forgot. I did have a non-EU student before her. She was a married woman from China with cute small nose and cute little dark eyes. She was also modest, but firm; she said no when she wanted and didn’t cry. She cooked beautiful Chinese food for us one evening. It was so delicious. You know, China and Japan are the same Asian countries, but they are so different. Amazing.

     Yeah, the accident. On the way back from the church retreat. She was the only survivor. All the others died, including my Ben. He was only fifteen. He went to Sunday school every Sunday and prayed every night. He wanted to study theology at uni. But he’s gone. And Fuku came back. I don’t know if Asians can be real Christians. They’re different people altogether, you know. She cried for Ben with me, but I was sick of her tears and stupid voice. I felt his death was dirtied by her crying. I didn’t visit her only once while she was in hospital, I was too much to do and I had too much to think about. My Ben.

     When she came back, I told her her room was occupied by my niece, so we couldn’t take her anymore. I just couldn’t have her in my place. Her stupid tears and her stupid face. My Ben’s smile wouldn’t come back. I just gave her her bags and all those presents in a rubbish bag at the door and shut it on her. I don’t where she went after that. Who cares?  

     Do you want one more round?


About the Author: Sayuri was born in Japan and came to England in 2003 after searching a country to live permanently in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and French Polynesia for ten years. She finished studying Creative and Critical Writing in a postgraduate course at the University of Winchester in September, 2011.

Artwork: Amber Parker

Of Age by Kwan Booth

Untitled

 


Your hands are cuffed behind you and your world is turned sideways as you lay cheek to concrete beside the door of D’s two-toned Dodge Aries. The police helicopter spotlighting your right of passage. Your big night. The first time that it happens to you.

Shortly before you’d been leaned back in the pleather seat of D’s brown hooptie, blasting The Friday Night Mega Mix as you made the usual rounds around your small city. Now there are flashing lights and neighbors huddled on their porches, clutching 40’s of OE and fanning themselves against the muggy ass Virginia night. Watching as you’re baptized into an all too familiar congregation.

You both knew that blowing the horn at the cop car was a dumb idea as soon as D did it, as soon as the foul sound ripped from his rust bucket and hung in the air between the cars like a fart.  

You knew that on the wrong night the distance between life and death was no further than the space needed to pull a trigger.

That the distance between the truth and what made it into the police report could be as wide as the river flowing through the middle of the city. And just as likely to hide skeletons beneath the murky surface.

There was ongoing beef between what really happened and the official statement and you could rattle off the names of heads who’d been caught in the crossfire.

You knew to tread lightly. 5-0 were as regular as roaches in the hood and heads got hemmed up all the time for crimes no more serious than breathing. You knew this. These truths had been ingrained in your heads and re-enforced like scripture.

But you were 17, and it was the summer after graduation. And there were prom photos and college acceptance letters for your mothers to brag about on their bus rides to work in the morning.

Your days are all 100 degree scorchers and sweat. Your nights all possibilities and adrenaline. Your world revolved around debates on east vs west coast MC’s and lies about the girls you’d smashed after church service on Sundays.

Dumb ideas were as common as blackheads and as necessary as Air Jordans and lunch room freestyles.

And to be fair, you’d been sitting behind those two cop cars for like a whole 5 minutes. How hard would it have been to just pull one of their fucking cars to the side of the road and let you pass?

They weren’t doing any kind of debriefing. There were no updates on suspects or incident reports. You saw bared teeth and laughing as they ignored the glare from your headlights. Two cops shooting the shit. Neither even bothered to look your way as their dirty black and whites blocked both lanes on the narrow street like grimy glaciers.

After the horn and a long pause the cruiser in front of you had slowly moved to one side and D inched past as careful as a pallbearer, as solemn as a funeral.

You let out a huge exhale as you rounded the next corner and pulled in front of D’s house. You don’t mention what just happened. You knew you’d just escaped something dangerous and don’t  want to rouse the demons you were sure you’d just narrowly slipped past.

But you were black. And you were also in The South. And you knew that escape had never been as easy as running away and pretending the monsters didn’t exist.

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the approximately 30 seconds it took you to go down two blocks and round the corner to sit idle outside D’s 4plex was also the exact same time that it took to call in reinforcements from what seemed like every single police station in a 3 county radius.

One second you’re taking measured breaths and venturing nervous relief, the next you’re thrown to the ground and handcuffed. Guns drawn, an army of officers searching your car and radioing in your social.

They are running your pockets and looking for reasons. They’re asking you questions and taking no shit. They are teaching you important lessons for the future and they expect those lessons to stick.

You feel what happens when your hopes and dreams are knocked out of you like the wind.   

D learns the timbres of his mother’s wails and memorizes her mask of panic as she watches her son become a statistic.

After what seems like forever you’re lifted up and released. The officer who’d moved his car for you earlier comes over and removes the metal restraints from each of your wrists personally.

He is all smiles and laughing while he uncuffs you, with no mention of a citation or court summons. His point had been made. The lesson had been learned.  Order had been restored.

“Ya’ll boys be good now.” he says as he slides into his driver’s seat, the shotgun tucked back into the wrack behind him.

And for the first time you feel true weight of the shackles he’s left you with, tightening and squeezing and making it difficult to catch your next breath.

“I’ll be watching” he says driving away. His headlights fading, the night withering and dying around you.

 


About the Author: Kwan Booth is an award winning writer and strategist focused on the intersection of media, technology and social justice. He spends his days at a big tech company teaching people how to make money on the internet. At night he writes fiction, articles and essays that often detail the dangers of big tech companies and the ridiculous ways that people try to make money on the internet. It’s strangely satisfying. He’s the editor of the anthology “Black Futurists Speak: New Black Writing” and his journalism and creative writing have been published in anthologies, journals and news sites including The Guardian, Fusion, “CHORUS: a literary mixtape”, “Beyond the Frontier: African American Poets for the 21st Century”, the Journal for Pan African Studies and the Oakland Review. His awards include a Sigma Delta Chi Award from The Society of Professional Journalists and a Pushcart Prize nomination for fiction. He recently joined the board of directors for Nomadic Press and has developed media projects for organizations including the Knight Center for Digital Media, The Kapor Center for Social Impact, The National Conference on Media Reform and The International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. More info at Boothism.org

 

Love in the Digital Age by Elison Alcovendaz

Untitled (6)


The morning the silent agreement began started much like the last 1,095 mornings of the Peabody marriage. Beth woke up at 5am to her internal clock, rubbed the crust out of her eyes, showered, ironed, then kissed Jeff on the cheek as she went off to her job as a news anchor. Jeff had always been a light sleeper. Every morning, when Beth slid off the bed as light as a ghost, Jeff had already been awake for an hour but kept his eyes closed until he felt the familiar coldness of her lips on his cheek, heard the steps down the stairs, the garage door opening, the garage door closing.

Jeff was a novelist. He wasn’t sure if his wife’s lips really were that cold or if he had invented a metaphor for the state of their marriage. He made a comfortable living making connections like that, though his last novel had been a failure. After failing to sell half of the initial printing, and even worse e-book sales, his publisher warned a similar showing would mean the axe.

This led to the silent agreement, which Jeff considered to be one of his best ideas yet. After another quiet lasagna dinner followed by a couple of DVR’d sitcoms, Jeff rose from the couch and suggested to Beth that they not speak to each other for an indefinite period of time. Something about needing to save his words for his new book, to get back on track, to reconnect with the war and sex-filled historical romances that had made him a New York Times bestseller in the first place. No talking, he said. To Jeff’s surprise, there were no questions, no tears. Beth simply stared and nodded. They agreed to start in the morning.

It was 7am. Jeff slid on his slippers and walked across the hallway to the den. He plopped into the leather chair and flipped on the computer. The word document appeared just as he left it: empty, the cursor blinking at him from the corner of the page. Outside, the late winter rain fell, hard and cold. He wondered if Beth brought her umbrella. He minimized the screen and checked his instant messages. She always IM’d him when she arrived at work. I’m here and safe! she’d say. Or: write well today! She was signed on but hadn’t messaged him. He set his fingertips on the keyboard and stared at the blank Word document on the screen.

 

At 8am, Jeff went downstairs. A plate of runny eggs and soggy bacon strips awaited him on the kitchen counter. He dumped the food into the trash compactor and microwaved some old pizza. Beth had never been a good cook, yet the first thing she’d wanted when they moved into the house was a new kitchen. For weeks they stood side by side, laughing as they swung their sledgehammers through the rotting wood cabinets and the particleboard countertops. Soon they were building a new front porch, retiling all the bathrooms, repainting all the walls. Building their future with their own hands. In the evenings, bodies aching and coated in dust and sweat and paint, they rolled around on the carpet with no breath for words.

Jeff tossed the box back into the refrigerator, grabbed the TV remote, and clicked on the morning news. A close-up of Beth’s face appeared on the screen: light green eyes, pink lips, a pale face made paler by powder. Jeff thought she looked spectral. She reported that one in five divorces could now be attributed to Facebook… a symptom of the new world, where relationships could be forged and broken by a few words on a status update… She said this with dimmed eyes, glancing at him in a way he’d almost forgotten, as though attempting to reach him through the screen. He changed the station and flipped through the channels for a while. Then he turned the TV off and went back to his computer.

 

At 11am, the doorbell rang. A UPS driver stood in the rain with a package for Beth. The deliveryman was young and muscular and carried a large Amazon box on his shoulder. There have to be at least thirty hardbacks in there, Jeff thought. Beth detested the Kindle and refused to get one. Jeff shut the door and struggled to set the heavy box on the dining room table, wondering what would happen if he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and sliced open the box. Nothing, probably. Beth would most likely break their silent agreement and tell him about all the wonderful new authors she’d discovered. Then she would go on talking, first about the affair between the meteorologist and the cameraman, then about how her father was doing much better in the new convalescent home, then about how her back pain was really starting to worsen. He decided he didn’t care what was in the box.

Back upstairs, Jeff checked his phone. Noon had come and gone, and usually he would’ve had three messages and a voicemail from Beth by then. Hope your day is going well, she’d say. Or: Keep writing! He punched HELLO? into the text box then erased it. She was probably busy with an urgent story. A ten-car pile-up. A hostage situation. The death of a celebrity. Something.

Jeff set the wireless keyboard on his lap but no words came.

 

*

Two hours later, Jeff signed onto his Facebook account and checked Beth’s page. A year ago, the station had insisted she make a public Facebook page, and since then strange men sent her Facebook messages and posted thinly veiled sexual comments. Every time Jeff would express his displeasure Beth would say it’s harmless and kiss him on the cheek and call it a day.

There was one new comment on her news feed, some steroid-freak named Dirk who stood shirtless in his profile picture thanking her for her constantly honest portrayal of the news. Beth responded with a quick thanks, he rejoined with a no really it’s amazing work you’re doing, she answered with a I really try and appreciate the compliment, and then he said you’re beautiful, and she responded with a ☺, and after that, Jeff stopped reading.

He stared at Beth’s thumbnail picture. It was one of his least favorites, a stoic, official, in-the-photographer’s-studio snapshot the station used on their website. She had been voted the second hottest newswoman in Sacramento by a local online magazine last year, but that was a long time ago. There had been a time when he couldn’t see a picture of her without getting aroused, but that time was unreachable, and he no longer felt guilty about wanting to masturbate more than he wanted to put in the work required to get Beth into the necessary romantic mood.

He took the keyboard off his lap and set it on the desk, leaned back his chair, and clicked back to his Facebook page. He had fans too, mostly middle-aged mothers who connected with his ill-fated heroines. Sometimes Jeff liked to scroll through their pictures and photo albums and concoct fantasies, some of which ended up as scenes in his books. There was one woman in particular, Julia from upstate New York, whose profile photos were filled with cleavage-revealing shots. They had emailed a few times, and though they never spoke, Jeff thought of Julia’s soft voice as he scrolled through her Facebook photo album with one hand while he stroked his penis with the other.

Twenty minutes later, after signing onto a live webcam show, then watching various orgies on a porn site, then going back to Julia’s photos, then closing his eyes tight and trying to recall Beth in the early days, when they slept naked and talked dirty, Jeff glanced down at the still limp penis in his hand and cursed at the computer.

4pm. Jeff checked his phone again. Nothing. At that time Beth was usually sitting in traffic, Bluetooth in her ear, complaining to him about how she should be on the nightly news team. Jeff googled traffic information. All freeways were relatively clear for a rainy day. He checked her Facebook page. He checked his email. Then he moved his chair to the window and watched the cars roll up and down the street.

 

5pm. Jeff dialed the station. A man answered. Jeff listened to the noise in the background, of people shouting across a room, but none that sounded like Beth. The man said hello a few times, uttered a curse word, and hung up the phone. Jeff listened to the dial tone, and when he was tired, put it on speaker to drown out the rain.

 

At 7pm, the garage door opened. Jeff quickly pulled up an old story to replace the blank screen. He tiptoed to the door and nudged it completely open, so she would have no excuse for not seeing him. He listened to the clacks of heels across the tile, the creak of the closet door opening, the familiar crack of Beth’s knuckles. Jeff banged on the keyboard, writing nonsense, so she could hear him working, so she would know he’d been right, that the juices were flowing again. He turned his ear towards the open doorway in anticipation of her footsteps, but he only heard her pressing buttons on the microwave and the familiar voices of a TV sitcom.

 

At 10pm, Jeff tiptoed to the hallway and leaned over the bannister. The lights were off in the living room, though the muted TV sent flashes of stale color across the dark walls. He could hear her in the dining room. He stood there for a while, waiting for her to pop out her head and smile. What would he say? Hi honey, how was your day? Or: who’s that Dirk asshole? He cleared his throat once, then louder. No movement. He walked to their bedroom, slammed the door. Ten minutes later, he opened it again and stomped across the hallway, stopping at his previous spot. Still nothing.

He stood there for half an hour. The same commercial played three times. A car alarm blared outside for a few seconds then died. He grabbed his phone and checked her Facebook page again. In the last two hours she’d made one new status update: Leftovers for dinner. Yum. Five likes. Was this a message for Jeff? That he should’ve made dinner? He hadn’t thought about it, but maybe he should’ve. Leftovers are the best, he commented. He stared at his phone, watching other people comment, waiting for her response. After half an hour, she’d liked every other comment but hadn’t touched his.

 

11pm. Jeff rocked back and forth in his chair, staring at his phone. He’d texted her three times. He shut off his computer and tiptoed to the bannister again. He hadn’t seen it before, but there was Beth’s phone, sitting on the coffee table, flashing in discord to the changing hues of the television. What was she doing? For a moment he thought about yelling, but he realized he’d never done that before, and maybe she would take it as a sign of disenchantment, or that he was a hypocrite for breaking their agreement. He thought about what he would say if she suddenly appeared on the steps, looking up at him in the way she had on the television, an expression he could no longer interpret. Maybe if he just said I love you, she’d forget the last year, forgive his aloofness, ignore the nights he preferred to hunch over his laptop instead of listening to her little complaints, eschew the general malaise that had settled on their marriage like mold. Jeff decided he would go downstairs.

He stepped lightly on each step, attentive to each creak. The carpet felt old and crusty underneath his feet. He reached the bottom and stopped, turning towards the dining room. From his vantage point, he could barely see the back of her body, her hair tucked into the crevices of an old hoodie. If she was aware of his presence, she made no acknowledgment. Her breathing remained slow and constant. He thought about coughing, making a sound of some kind, but she looked at peace or deep in thought, and he didn’t want to disrupt her or make her think he didn’t value her alone time. Did she want to be alone? He wondered if it had been her the whole time. No. It had been him.

He slid his phone into his pocket, then walked across the foyer and watched her from across the family room. She did not turn around. On the table, the Amazon box lay flat and folded. Beside it, in five neat piles, were thirty hardback editions of his latest novel, Love in the Digital Age.  The story followed two lovebirds in an online-only marriage—they shared an online bank account, ran an eBay business together, communicated and made love via video chat—and over the thirty years of marital bliss, never met in real life. Apparently the bodiless state of human relations scared Jeff’s readers.

One copy lay open in front of her. He stood there for nearly an hour, watching her read his words, lick her fingers, turn the page. She bent her neck side to side, rotated it in small circles, and he remembered how she would lean her head towards him when he would massage her shoulders. He listened to her bones crack. He studied how her knee bounced up and down under the table. She turned another page.

 

At midnight, he walked across the family room and stopped right behind her. She raised her head, and in the reflection of the window in front of her, they stared at each other. Her eyes looked different then they had on TV. Pulsing. Alive. And Jeff Peabody knew then that they still knew each other. He began to say many things—Beth, I’m sorry, I love you, Beth—but she raised her finger to her lips, so instead he swallowed his words and wrapped his arms tightly around his wife.

 


About the Author: Elison Alcovendaz‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gargoyle Magazine, The Portland Review, Psychology Today, and other publications. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State and sometimes blogs about Justin Bieber and other important things at www.elisonalcovendaz.com.

Execute Eric Smith by Bill Carr

Untitled_Deanna Crane - Copy

 


The euphoria didn’t last long. In fact, it was the most fleeting euphoria of Eric Smith’s professional career. He’d just gotten off the phone with the Algogenics marketing manager. Build price: $0.79. License fee: $3.97. Retail: $5.99. Not the greatest margins, Marketing had said. But we’ll sell a ton of them.

Which is exactly what Eric had been claiming for E-retrieve all along. No more stolen cars. No more lost cars. No more lost keys. No more stolen or lost anything. Of course he hadn’t pitched exactly that to the development VP. Significant reduction in theft and loss. Should retail for almost one-fifth the cost of the original find-my-keys tile, with over ten times the capability.

So why this sense of foreboding? Everything had been going incredibly well. He’d met the love of his life, granted she’d been discovered on the second time around. Good relations with his ex. A beautiful and talented daughter who remained devoted to two parents who discovered after fifteen years of marriage that they didn’t really like each other. No financial worries. A rent-controlled, Upper East Side apartment that most New Yorkers would kill for: two bedrooms, two baths, living room, full kitchen, and, as Val liked to call it, the “everything” room: a vaulted-ceiling, twenty-by-thirty-foot room, serving as an office, conference room, and gymnasium, with a picture-window view of Manhattan and a 150-inch flat-screen TV, called a telescreen, on the wall. Always pleasant in the apartment regardless of the season, with a state-of-the-art centrally located climate control system, adjustable by the tenant for each room.

So tell me, Eric said to himself, what is the problem? There is no problem. Normal letdown after a huge success.

Chimes. His daughter Valerie on the telescreen. He clicked connect.

He had to admit he felt a little like Captain Kirk on the bridge of the starship Enterprise when looking at that huge screen. At least the visitors were friendly.

“Hi, sweetheart. How are things in sunny California?”

“It’s sunny in Sunnyvale. Not so much here.”

The background was her office at Teraffic headquarters in Palo Alto, not her home in Mountain View. She was beautiful, just like her mother. Dark hair, dark eyes, beautiful smile. He’d never quite figured out if she was also headstrong like her mother. She certainly wasn’t with him. But what was her personality like at work? He couldn’t tell. They never discussed anything about work.

Maybe that was one problem. Father and daughter, both successful product developers, and unable to talk about their work experiences. At least not until announcement. Be careful what you put in an email. When you delete them, they don’t go away. Were telephone conversations monitored? You just didn’t know.

After getting the MBA from Stanford, she got so many job offers. She chose Teraffic, the big West Coast networking company. After three years there, her yearly salary was higher than he’d ever made.

“You’re in the office today,” Eric said.

“Had to come in for a presentation. And you’re at home in the everything room?”

He smiled. “Everything, if you don’t mind occasional rearranging.”

“Dad,” she said soberly, “you look a little pale. Why don’t you try to get out more?”

“Well, you know I work completely at home now.”

“But you don’t even get out on weekends,” she persisted. “You know, here at Teraffic, if you work at home, you don’t have to be working every minute.”

“I know.”

“Why don’t you give Mitch Rayburn a call and play some tennis in the park? And think about coming out here for a while. The air is very good out here.”

“I will, sweetheart. I promise.”

After they disconnected, he realized she was right. He had trouble recalling the last time he’d left the apartment. It was over to Kristin’s place, but that might have been three weeks ago. A recent survey found that more activities were performed at home than ever before: work, entertainment, exercise, medical checkups. Maybe he was being paranoid, but in his case it seemed every time he went out, even if it was just over to Madison Avenue to pick up some groceries, he invariably developed some bug two days later that took two weeks to get rid of.

The thin, craggy, tanned face of Mitch Rayburn appeared on the telescreen. Working at home also. Mitch was one of those wiry people with boundless energy. They’d been playing tennis on and off for about twenty-five years, ever since their families met. Both couples had moved from Brooklyn to the city after the kids were grown.

“Hey,” Mitch said, “how are things at the Utopian Arms?”

“Confining,” Eric replied. Mitch and his wife Linda were one of the few couples to make a sustained effort to socialize with him after the divorce.

“Want to hit a few?” Mitch asked.

“Exactly my intention.”

“Meet you at the park in half an hour?”

Eric paused. “Problem is I don’t have time to get to the park and back. I have a meeting at two. How about some SuperPong?”

Mitch frowned. Eric knew he really didn’t like Pong. But Mitch agreed.

“King Pong it is,” Mitch said.

“Let me just move some stuff.” It didn’t matter. Indoors or out, he never got more than a game or two off Mitch.

He had the sofa bed on casters so it could easily be moved sideways against the wall and out of the way. Special tennis slippers so the downstairs neighbors didn’t complain. Sensor-equipped racquet. All set. Serves were okay because both players had high ceilings.

The avatar of Mitch wearing a white tennis shirt and black shorts appeared on the telescreen on the other side of a net. Mitch started a rally. The ball came at you almost as if you were on a real court. Sensors on the racquet calculated the pace of the ball, its spin, where it would hit on your racquet, and the direction, pace, and spin of your return shot. At last. Video games for the older generation.

“You really like this better than a game outdoors?” Mitch called out.

“No way,” Eric replied. “I just prefer the tennis slide-step to the treadmill.”

During a break, as both players sat in their desk chairs in their home offices, the screen showed their avatars seated by the side of the court as if during a changeover.

“Did you have any water damage from Hurricane Karl?” Eric asked.

“Just some stuff I had stored downstairs. How about you?”

“Nothing. I think the tenants here are getting overconfident. Some feel the flooding wouldn’t dare reach East 82nd Street.”

“They may be in for a rude—or wet—awakening.”

“I think you’re right.”

As play resumed, a horsefly settled on the rim of Eric’s racquet. He waved the racquet, but the fly wouldn’t budge. “Damn,” he muttered, turning the racquet face down and taking vicious swipes at the air. “I’m having enough trouble with my strokes without close-up spectators.” The bug flew off, but was right back as he prepared for the next point.

“Your game’s not on today,” Mitch said, at the next changeover. “Better off playing outdoors.”

“There’s this fly that’s been driving me crazy.”

Mitch feigned amazement. “A fly? That’s the lamest excuse I ever heard.”

“Did you think I was doing my world-famous interpretation of John McEnroe attacking cups on a watercooler?”

“It did cross my mind.”

A quarter to two. No time for a shower. Maybe one of the benefits of isolation. He said good-bye to Mitch and clicked the Meeting of the Minds 2.0 icon on his desktop. A hologram of a conference room, with table and chairs, appeared to his left. Holograms of his team began filing into the room. His own image greeted them at the door. Janice, always bubbly, greeted him. Robert, the best designer he’d ever had, looked dour as usual. He hated meetings, in person or via hologram. Each participant could control his own actions via his laptop. It was like making a collaborative movie on the fly.

“Okay,” Eric said. “Let’s get started.” He had to admit he was looking forward to announcing the good news.

Bud Crowley’s image filled the telescreen.

“Rick, can you excuse yourself for just a minute? I’ve got to talk to you.”

Bud Crowley. Heavyset, balding, late fifties. Seated behind his office desk. Crowley didn’t like working at home. He preferred a corporate environment. They’d worked together for twelve years. At Algogenics, Crowley was first line when Eric was a software developer. Crowley made him lead developer. When Crowley made project manager, Eric became first line. They’d always had a good rapport. Adjacent levels of the hierarchy must support each other. Crowley had an excellent reputation as a development manager who could get projects out the door, on time and under budget.

“Can’t I get with you in an hour, Bud? We just began this meeting.”

“It’s important, Eric. It won’t take long.”

He sent Robert his notes. “Robert, take over for me, please. Just follow the agenda on your laptop.” Good managerial strategy. Let the guy who hates meetings run the meeting. Especially with good news.

The hologram disappeared. On the telescreen Crowley looked edgy. Still wearing the ever-present vest. “I need to schedule a mid-year with you,” Crowley said.

Did you really interrupt my meeting for that? Wait a minute.

“A mid-year what?”

“Evaluation.”

“Evaluation? I just had one four months ago.”

“That’s why it’s called a mid-year, Eric.”

Chills ran up Eric’s back.

“Bud, mid-years are for people about to get the boot.”

“Eric, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. I really don’t know what this is all about. There’s a new VP of development, and he wants mid-years.”

“Did you get a notice for Callahan?” Callahan was the planning manager, the weakest of all Crowley’s first lines. Crowley had spoken to Eric about replacing Callahan and returning him to staff.

No response.

Eric felt his anger rising. “Did you get a notice for any of your first lines? Did Jameson get one for you?”

No response.

“Eric, you know, even if that happened, I could not share that information with you.”

But there was a time when he shared all information like that. When Eric still worked at the corporate offices, Crowley would review with him who had to go in response to the latest round of cuts. He remembered Crowley escorting some poor slob who had worked all his life for Algogenics back to the guy’s cubicle. One hour to clean out your office and surrender your badge. Everyone else trying not to look, their expressions like they were attending a funeral. “This is tough on everyone,” Crowley had whispered to Eric as he passed by.

“Can you show the notice to me?”

“Eric, you know I can’t do that.”

“Can you at least give me some idea of what the issue is?”

Reluctantly, Crowley studied his desktop screen. “It doesn’t say much. There’s one interesting word, though.”

“What’s that?”

“Goddamn it,” Crowley exploded, “if anyone’s monitoring this call, and they probably are, I could be shit-canned myself for telling you this.” Crowley slumped back in his chair. “I’m sorry, Eric. That was a poor choice of words.”

“What’s the word in the notice?”

“Associations.”

It was Eric’s turn to become furious. “Valerie,” he muttered. “Let me tell you something. If someone’s concocted a story that I’m leaking confidential data, I will sure as hell file a wrongful dismissal suit. Val and I are painfully careful about never discussing anything about our projects. We can’t even have a normal father-daughter conversation. ‘Did you work on anything interesting today, Dad?’ ‘Can’t tell you that.’”

“Calm down, Eric. It’s not your daughter.”

“Then who is it?”

“I honestly don’t know. We’ve got a little time before the review has to occur. How about trusting me to get to the bottom of this.”

Eric turned off the telescreen, monitor, and computer. Not sure whether the quiet was good or bad. He sat at his desk, leaning forward, hands on his chin, watching the blank screen.

His smartphone vibrated. He clicked on the computer and the telescreen. Kristin’s image appeared on the telescreen. No sense in telling her yet.

“Eric! What’s wrong?”

So much for concealment.

Wisps of blonde hair down the sides of her face. Soft, soothing. So different from Meredith, who was glamorous and intense.

“It’s probably nothing, Kris. Crowley called before and said he had to schedule a mid-year evaluation for me.”

Did she have to go through that bullshit? Probably not. She was a tenured associate professor of sociology at Columbia.

“Don’t you usually do pretty well at those?”

“I do. At least I did. I just had a real good one four months ago. But mid-years are usually for guys on probation.”

He really didn’t want to say canned, fired, given the boot. And he realized how much he needed to be with her tonight.

She looked worried. “Eric, that’s bizarre. There must be some mix-up. Did you ask Crowley about that?”

“I did.”

“We’ve got to talk about this,” she said quietly. “I’m coming over tonight.”

“Don’t come over, Kris. You’ll just have to go back uptown tomorrow. I’ll be okay.”

Maybe it was just a mistake. A transposition of serial numbers. Effuse apologies tomorrow. How could you think it was you?

“Eric, listen to this,” Kristin said. “Maybe this is fortuitous. Instead of class, we had a speaker today.”

But the way Crowley described it, a mistake seemed unlikely. New jobs were really hard to find now. How could he afford to stay in this apartment? He’d get a severance package for sure. How long would that last? He’d have to move in with Kristin. Well, that’s what they said they both wanted. Solve the problem of living apart.

“Did you ever hear of Sterling Davis?”

Sterling Davis. “It sounds familiar.”

“He’s the publisher of the Sentinel.”

Of course. New York Sentinel. Good reporting, little advertising. Not a major player in publishing.

“He’s very, very interesting,” Kristin said. “I mentioned your name to him after the talk. He knows all about you. And he wants to meet you.”

“I’ll get him on the telescreen.”

“That was the good news. The not-so-good news is that he wants to see you in person. He said he’d be available tonight at five.”

* * *

The offices of the New York Sentinel Publishing Company were in a gentrified section of the Lower East Side, not too far from the New York City Tenement Museum. The building was brick and glass, located near the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge. Eric heard that apartment rentals in the area were closing in on $3,000 per month, although the steep rise had abated somewhat as a result of the latest flooding. Three thousand a month, Eric mused. In the early twentieth century, with the mass immigration from Eastern Europe, tenements used to rent for $10 a month.

The layout for the New York Sentinel Publishing Company seemed normal enough, with the presses hidden behind a reception area, and the news and editorial areas on the second floor. The only abnormal thing was the location of the office of the publisher. A receptionist directed him one flight down.

As he descended the carpeted staircase, Eric realized he had no idea what this meeting was about. The secretary with whom he’d made the appointment simply said, “We’ll see you at five.” Maybe he should have tried to get more information from Kristin. But he had the feeling that was all the information there was.

This pretty much had to be a job interview. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to have something in reserve, something temporary, in the event of a worst-case scenario at Algogenics. What would I do at a newspaper? Probably write a technology column. I could handle that. Best not to mention the situation at Algogenics. It’s been a long time since I went for a job interview. Always easier to get another job while you’re still employed at the old one.

The lower level of the New York Sentinel publishing offices had a small reception area with no one there. The room was furnished in various levels of brown: tan carpet, dark mahogany desk, and walnut paneling on the walls. Secretary must have gone home, Eric thought. Through a half-opened door to the main office, he saw floor-to-ceiling bookshelves cluttered with papers and books; there was a large black man seated behind a desk and reading a report. Among the papers and books on the desk was a black computer monitor. Eric quietly approached the entrance. Above the doorway was a sign with large black block letters: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Not very welcoming for job seekers, Eric thought as he approached the doorway. This was going to become nothing more than an amusing adventure to talk about with Kristin. The shelves on the far wall contained mostly books on the upper shelves, and stacks of reports and old newspapers on the lower ones. Piles of other papers were on the floor surrounding the desk. When the man behind the desk rose to greet him, Eric saw that the Sentinel publisher, Sterling Davis, was even larger than he’d imagined—about six-foot-seven, but with a soft, rounded face. Davis wore a wine-colored warm-up suit.

“Mr. Smith, I presume,” Davis said, looking down from glasses perched on his nose. He extended his hand. “Right on time.”

Eric shook Davis’s hand. “I had no trouble getting here,” he said. “The sign above your door stunned me a little.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Davis said. “We’re moving part of our operation upstate. Some of our senior editors have complained about having to give up their plush New York apartments.”

“Well, my apartment is utilitarian but not plush,” Eric replied. Stupid thing to say. He hasn’t even offered me a job yet. I’m not even sure this is a job interview. Change the subject. Quickly.

“Kristin—Professor Meyers—thought your presentation today went quite well.”

Davis smiled. “Ah, Professor Meyers at Columbia. Lovely woman. Now, is she your wife?”

There was no good term to describe their relationship. “Partner,” Eric said. He wanted to make a joke about their not getting married because neither wanted to give up their rent-controlled apartments, but decided against it.

“I thought the talk went well,” Davis said, “in spite of the usual harassment.”

“From students?”

“Not the students. Horseflies.” Davis studied Eric. “You look intrigued.”

“No, I mean there must be an infestation of them,” Eric said. “It’s very unusual for them to get into our apartment building. Yet earlier today, to get some exercise before a meeting, I played some indoor tennis. This horsefly just settled on my racquet and wouldn’t get off.”

Davis smiled. “I can understand that, although your situation is a bit different from mine. You’re so squeaky clean that the handler probably got bored, and tried to goad you into using your racquet as a flyswatter.”

“What?” What was this guy talking about?

“It wouldn’t have worked. You can’t swat the damn things. If you trap them they’ll self-destruct. Poof, like matter meeting antimatter. I actually managed to disconnect the receiver on one before the handler could send the signal.”

Puzzled, Eric stared at Davis.

“NAV 5,” Davis said. “And that’s not a mutual fund price. Nano Air Vehicle 5.”

“A drone?”

“Exactly. But they can’t hurt you. They’re just there to snoop.”

“You’re saying the government is using drones to spy on its own citizens?”

“Oh, not the government,” Davis said, “although I wouldn’t put it past some congressmen doing it in return for large campaign contributions. Besides, the government has largely become a bunch of fund-raisers. They spend most of their energies trying to get elected. They don’t have time to devote to legislation. So who do they hire to write the laws? Companies like yours. No, I suspect the little emissary perched on your racquet was from your own company.”

Eric seriously considered the possibility that Davis was nuts.

“But let’s get down to business,” Davis said, leaning forward. “I’m going to make you a job offer.”

An offer, Eric thought. After a very brief interview.

“I appreciate that,” Eric said. “But, you know, I’m still employed at Algogenics.”

“Mr. Smith—Eric—can I call you Eric? I’ve been accused in the past of being insensitive. I can be the diplomatic Davis or the straightforward Davis. Which do you prefer?”

This was definitely the weirdest job interview Eric had ever experienced. “The straightforward Davis,” he said.

“Your job at Algogenics is finished. Kaput. History. I feel guilty about that, because I’m probably the cause.”

“That’s impossible,” Eric said, before realizing that this could be a trap. “I mean, there was some mix-up at work, but that was before I even met you or knew anything about you.”

“Tell me, in this ‘mix-up,’ did the word ‘associations’ come up at all?”

Eric could not believe what he just heard.

Davis looked genuinely concerned. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes the straightforward Davis is not appropriate.”

“No, no,” Eric rallied. “But how did you know that?”

“It’s not complicated. They’ve got horseflies, but I’ve got human contacts.”

Eric tried to remain calm. “Let’s assume you’re correct. Let’s assume I’m about to get fired. How is that your fault?”

“Associations,” Davis replied. “Your company, and virtually all other major companies, have a morbid fear of associations. I give talks on what is really going on in the world. Professor Meyers is one of my biggest supporters. And Professor Meyers happens to be your partner.”

To Eric, it just seemed too bizarre.

“Look,” Davis said, “let me give you some background on what we’re up against. Our institutions began as instruments. At least, that’s what Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s old sociology professor at Georgetown, called them. They were entities created to fulfill a societal need. Weapons manufacturers who produce arms that enable the country to defend itself. Oil and gas producers to provide the country with energy. Doctors to keep people in good health. Banks to help companies get started and individuals to buy a home. Unfortunately, at some point, these entities deviate from their original intent and take on a new primary goal: their own survival. At this point, Quigley claims they become institutions, and once their survival seems assured, they strive to become more powerful, subverting their original purpose. Arms manufacturers don’t care how many innocent people get killed, as long as their companies sell more guns. Gas and oil producers don’t care how much they pollute the air and water, as long as people buy more of their offerings. Health maintenance organizations care less about the welfare of their patients and more about increasing their profits. Banks develop complex schemes to bilk other institutions and individuals out of their money.”

“It’s almost like you believe they’re alive,” Eric said.

“Quigley didn’t think so, and neither do I. But in their struggle for survival and then to become more powerful, they certainly exhibit lifelike characteristics—with their life-blood being money. The problem is because they are so gigantic and indistinct to us, their bodies—their corpus—are difficult to deal with. Especially when they incorporate us as their cells. The sad part is we created them as corporate structures, with the idea of their protecting us as individuals. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We’ve created these primitive behemoths who shit all over the globe, corrupt our democratic institutions, and really don’t care whether we live or die. We are all just another cell that can be replaced.”

Davis turned to his desktop monitor. “Take a look at this,” he said.

A scholarly-looking paper entitled, The Growing Sophistication of Corporate Scams: from S&Ls, to Enron, to Goldman Sachs, appeared on the screen. “It establishes a link between financial scandals centered around sophisticated financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations,” Davis said. “I show it to you because this paper had about as much effect on the public psyche as the exposés I ran in the Sentinel.

“The problem is, how many people read and understood this? I think my own post-2008 analysis in the Sentinel did better as far as readership was concerned, but both were after the fact. Each scandal occurs, worse than the one before. Sometimes the perpetrators are sent to jail, sometimes not. The institutions don’t care. These cells can be replaced. Governments struggle to recover. New regulations are put in place. Gradually the economy does recover. Then the most interesting phase occurs. The industry starts calling for less regulation. They can’t function with this stifling oversight. The economy is growing too slowly. It should be expanding faster. That marks the birth of the newest phase of financial disaster. The problem is we’re always playing catch-up. And that,” Davis said, “is where you fit in.”

Ah, Eric thought. The exciting climax to this interview.

“We need a program that, information-wise, keeps us ahead of the curve—very similar to the way the FBI tries to stop terrorist attacks before they happen. This program must be able to handle multiple streams of input data and alert us to impending financial disaster—a kind of economic warning system. As you may gather, I have a wide range of information sources. Usually their data is quite accurate, but sometimes not. Financial reports from various government agencies tend to be more incomplete rather than inaccurate. They get only what the financial industry wants them to see. Your software must enable us to determine what is the truth.

“A starting point is a recent article by a financial analyst named Paul W. Ackerman. Its title is ‘The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters.’ Unfortunately, copies of this report have been disappearing from the cloud—and even from personal computers.”

“Really?” Eric said skeptically.

“That seems to be the case. But I have a printed copy, and I’m making duplicate copies upstate.”

“Is that where I’d be working?”

“Yes. The air is much better there, and I have an expert team of exterminators to handle the horsefly problem.”

Eric smiled. Corporate information drones? I don’t know.

“Here’s the offer,” Davis said. “Both you and your partner would be very valuable additions to my company. Even though when I spoke to her she deferred to you, I think she’s interested. I can’t quite match your salary at Algogenics, but I can pay her more than she’s making now. As for E-retrieve, I’m sure you’re aware that everything you’ve developed belongs to your company. You will get a small monetary reward for your accomplishment, which I’m willing to match as a sign-on bonus. Think about it, discuss it with your partner, and let me know.”

They shook hands as Eric rose to leave. “One more thing,” Davis said. “I would not try to get the Ackerman report off the Web just yet. I should have my printed copies available tomorrow.”

In the cab going back to his apartment, Eric tried to make some sense of what he had just experienced. Sterling Davis is an evangelical kook. Kristin seems to have a lot of respect for him, but Kristin is a hopeless idealist. That’s one thing I love about her. I’m intrigued at how much information Davis has access to. But I’m also intrigued about the case of the disappearing report.

In his apartment, he found the low hum of his computers and the air-conditioning relaxing. It was seven o’clock. Should give Kristin a call. First, let’s see what I can find out about Mr. Ackerman’s report.

He used the desk monitor. Let’s see. “Paul Ackerman tsunami financial disasters.” Well, there they are. All sorts of links. Try one. Hmm. “404 message not found.” Try some others. All the different variations. “Oops! Page not found.” “You 404’d it, gnarly dude.” The links were all there, but the content was gone.

Of course it may not exist in the first place, he thought. Time to break out my own mega-browser. Not that much better than standard browsers, but it does have the ability to access remote crannies of the Internet. The name I’ve given it, Eric_Smith, is somewhat narcissistic. Let’s give it a try. Execute Eric_Smith.

He saw one entry that he hadn’t seen before in the list of links, and clicked on it. Voilà! There it was. “The Coming Tsunami of Financial Disasters,” by Paul W. Ackerman. He clicked on “Print.” Pages started spewing from the printer on the small table next to his desk.

He grabbed the first couple of pages and started reading. Powerful. Really powerful stuff.

“Mr. Smith, this is an emergency. Please turn off your printer.”

He had no idea where the voice was coming from. He looked around the apartment. No one there. He looked toward the door. Locked. This was New York. You always locked your apartment door. His monitor still showed the print window. He hadn’t turned on the telescreen, and it was still blank. He physically disconnected the system speakers.

No effect whatsoever. “Smith, this is an emergency. Turn off your printer!” The tone was more urgent.

A man was in the room, not on the telescreen, but in front of it. If someone were sent to break into his apartment to prevent his printing a sensitive document, Eric expected that person to be a cross between someone from the Mafia and an FBI agent—fiftyish, dark suit, dark glasses, muscular. This person was muscular, but younger. Early forties, no glasses, light tan sport shirt and dark brown slacks.

“I don’t understand,” Eric said. “How did you get in here?”

“I’ll explain that later. Now turn off that printer!”

The man, so realistic, still had a gossamer quality. “Hologram!” Eric realized. The unannounced accompaniment to Meeting of the Minds 2.0. He can’t hurt you, and he can’t actually do anything, Eric told himself. It’s just light and air. That’s why he tries to scare you into aborting that print. Still, it’s best not to challenge him.

“Smith! Turn off that goddamned printer!”

“All right. All right,” Eric said, rising from his chair. The print had to be almost complete. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, stumbling forward toward the printer table. The flop hurt him more than he expected. As he tried to get up, he heard a deafening crack, like lightning had scored a direct hit on his apartment. The room went dark, all humming sounds ceased, and smoke began to fill the room. He staggered toward the door, unlocked it, and stumbled into the smoke-filled hallway.

All his neighbors were in the hallway, stunned looks on their faces—shadowy faces he could not recognize. Some pounded on the elevator button; others started streaming toward the stairwell door. Smoke alarms squealed all over the place. A siren sounded from outside. Strangely, the exodus was orderly—no real panic. What the hell caused this? “Probably some knucklehead left his stove on. They should kick him out of here before he gets us all killed.” The descent down the stairwell was almost robotic.

Call Kristin when I get out. Is it all right if I spend a few nights at your place? She may just want to cast our lot with Davis. This may be a first. Driven from homes for reasons other than accidents, natural disasters, or military madness. He felt fortunate knowing he had somewhere to go. He studied the faces around him. Probably true of everyone else—for now, anyway.

 


About the Author: Bill Carr’s short story “Exquisite Hoax” was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He received his master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College and currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism.

Artwork: Deanna Crane

Boy on a Rope by Julia Poole

Untitled


 

Powell woke to the sound of knocking. Disoriented, his eyes flicked around the murky room. He zeroed in on a lava lamp, the source of the empurpled veil covering everything. His body detected the comfort of a mattress, the softness of a blanket and comforter. Mouth dry, the sweet taste of alcohol-laced fruit punch lingered. He licked his upper lip. Strawberry. No, cherry.  Kristina’s lip gloss. Techno music reverberated from a room below. Booming bass matched the throbbing in his head. The room smelled of perfume, pot, and sex. Familiarity. Powell sat up, reached for a box of tissues on the nightstand. A couple of used condom wrappers – one chocolate flavored, one ribbed with lubricant – lay amongst a pile of wadded tissues on the floor at the side of the bed. After wiping his belly, he dropped the sticky clump, adding to the pile.  

Knocking resumed, louder, urgent.

“Hey, whoever’s in there…time’s up already,” said a guy from behind the door, voice pleading. Powell imagined a girl clung to him, hands playfully feeling him up, giggles turning into groans, maybe her tongue tickled his ear.

Powell stood, pulled on underwear and jeans. Nothing new on his phone. He flipped through a few birthday messages from yesterday. Seventeen. Fuck, he was old. No message from Lauren, Powell’s twin. He tried recalling last year’s message. Some funny shit about how she had struggled hours to make his passage into the world easy. “Happy BD, lazy ass! Party w/me tonight?” Lauren always reminded Powell she was the first-born by two minutes. He swallowed hard, twice, and put the phone in his jeans pocket.

Twenty, maybe twenty-five, minutes had passed since he had closed and locked the bedroom door. He spotted Kristina at the end of the bed, topless, curled up like a kitten, purring atop a furry blue pillow. Crouching low, Powell gently brushed long, blond strands from her face that reflected a soft purplish glow. She looked pretty good. The contour of neckline, flushed cheeks, delicate hands with slender fingers that worked him a bit quicker than he liked. Her breath warm against his skin. Green eyes, attentive, accepting. He liked the way she looked at him with approval. Voice soft, asking what he wanted, telling him she wouldn’t go all the way. Apprehension vanished. He no longer thought it foolish to be in a bedroom with a stranger just a week after Sonja had screwed him over. No guessing, no frenzied, awkward race to climax typical of hook-ups. Instead, a weird sensation, one that rushed through him the way he imagined currents traveled through wires. It was like that. Electric. Blistering. An unexplainable awareness, like she connected to him – Powell, the person, not just his body. The urge to accept this unspoken invitation overwhelmed, but it disappeared after he came and she withdrew her hands and mouth.

Strange, that feeling. It filled something absent, an emptiness. No, wrong word. It was bigger, vast, something that affected everything. Epic-void. Was that one word or two? Since Lauren’s death it was as if a part of himself no longer existed. Briefly, with Kristina, that spirit, that something was alive again.

Powell straightened and adjusted his jeans.  Not a stunner, Kristina, but unblemished, attractive enough. Yes, his friends would agree, she was attractive. A comforting realization. Like eating Mom’s chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven, filling him with warm. yummy gooiness. Calm. Peaceful. Satisfaction. He couldn’t remember the last time Mom had baked.

The guy in the hall pounded and shouted, “Get the fuck out!”

Startled, Kristina opened her eyes, legs unfurled. She propped herself up and for a second appeared unaware of her surroundings, fearful, ready to pounce. Her vulnerability was tangible, refreshing. Averting Powell’s gaze, she covered exposed breasts with one hand while fumbling through pillows to locate her bra and top.

Powell turned his back. The space in the bedroom now seemed smaller, confining. Air stagnate. Too hot. He resisted the urge to fling the door wide. Instead, he cracked the window and breathed. Autumn coolness. City noise. The fryer smell of a nearby restaurant. More door thumping, muted. The sound grew louder, the rhythm faster, a husky groan, and a high-pitched pant. God, couldn’t they wait? This house was Tyler’s. A guy Powell knew from playing lacrosse. A few days ago, Tyler posted the rager on Facebook. Everyone welcome. Parents out of town, probably in the Hampton’s. He wondered whose bedroom this was. The lava lamp perched atop a desk strewn with pamphlets from Planned Parenthood, Environmental Defense Fund and PETA, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a stick of pink deodorant, a few Hershey’s kisses and crumpled up foil wrappers. Draped on the desk chair was an Obama t-shirt, inscribed Hope below the presidential candidate’s red, white and blue striped face. Tyler must have a sister. Bohemian. Probably a tree hugger. Maybe Tyler’s sister was the girl grinding with the guy on the other side of the door.

Above the desk, a poster hung on a slant. Powell tilted his head and read aloud, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”

“Kurt Vonnegut,” said Kristina.

“Yep.”

Powell’s stomach growled, a reminder of his earlier plan to meet Max tonight. It didn’t seem fair to leave Kristina so soon after hooking up. Such a consideration had never crossed his mind before. There had been lots of party hook-ups – blow jobs, hand jobs.  He often listed hook-ups in chronological order. Tallied faces and bodies, pleasing images that frequented his dreams. The race to fill every moment of the day with something had left Powell exhausted.

The hallway bonking intensified. The door jolted. Hinges rattled. Powell piped up, “We’ll be right out.” Too late. The bam-bam crescendo ended with one freaking intertwined moan. Animalistic and uncontrolled. Sounded like every post-coital scream he had heard. A sly smile curled. Whiffing out sexual acts from behind closed doors was an instinctive gift that began years ago, when, as a child, he used to sit, sometimes huddled in a blanket with Lauren, to listen to his parents screwing in the shower. A frequent occurrence given Dad’s healthy libido and Mom’s propensity for cleanliness.

Powell decided Kristina would never act so whorish as the anonymous girl in the hallway. At least, this was what Powell wanted to believe. Kristina’s sexual experience was of no consequence. He imagined a future moment with his arm wrapped around Mom when he reassured her that Kristina was a virgin. Mom would believe it, just like Mom believed Powell’s sexual experience consisted of a few PG-rated make-out sessions. When Powell turned fifteen, Dad had supplied him with a box of condoms. The good kind, Dad whispered, speaking with that tone of voice that declared he knew what he was talking about.  Only the best for Powell. Life broken down into a few simple rules. Sex was an experience not unlike getting the oil changed on the Mercedes every three thousand miles or drinking a dry Pinot Gris with salmon salad. The box of condoms, unopened and probably long expired, laid in the bottom of his underwear drawer. Mom followed the rules and expected others to do the same. Mom seethed about Powell’s transgressions – he knew by the exaggerated sighs, the cupboard slamming, the way her lips pursed forming a thin, pink line – but she never spoke harshly to him. Never argued about the late hour he returned from parties or questioned his study habits. Never mentioned the wet dream underwear messes. She provided Kleenex and hand lotion on his nightstand and picked up the cum-filled balls of tissue from his bedroom floor, sometimes yelling at Cheetah, the scruffy mutt terrier for carrying the stinky wads around the house.

Powell looked over his shoulder and caught sight of Kristina smoothing out her hair and sweater. She tugged on a loose string of yarn, but it wouldn’t give. To conceal it, she twisted the string around her index finger. Her attempt to right what was out of place seemed innocent, almost sweet.

“Parker…just wanted to say…that was nice.”

So she wasn’t the smoothest person. Powell could live with that. The positives outweighed the negatives. Kristina would make a perfect first girlfriend. It was a moment they could look back on someday, laugh together, like it was an amusing part of their story, one just beginning, one he hoped lasted a long time. He tossed her the tissue box. “Better wipe your face.”

 

Powell hustled from the NYC West side home toward the Lincoln Center subway stop. Sprinting by Church of the Blessed Sacrament, he heard the pipe organ, thunderous and low, playing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” He thought of attending St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he was a child and how freaked out he was by the sound of the organ. Even more frightening was the ringing of the bells. Grandpap tried to calm him, tried to tell him the bells were holy, blessed. He said the bells had names like St. Joseph and St. Michael. Powell had envisioned men stuck inside the bells. He screamed. Mom carried him from the pew leaving Lauren on Dad’s lap looking sad and confused. It wasn’t the first time the twins were separated. It wouldn’t be the last. It was months before Powell could sit through mass without shrieking, and only later, with Lauren’s hand in his, would he avoid a fuss.

Powell sidestepped to avoid a pile of dog shit. He always left Cheetah’s poop on the sidewalk or on the grass in Central Park, where he knew the dog preferred taking a dump but he rarely took the time to walk her there. He was pushing it, breaking the poop law. Fact was he took pleasure from getting away with breaking rules. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t. Who would admit such a truth? No one he knew.

Powell skipped down the steps into the entrance of the Lincoln Center subway station, swiped his MetroCard as he had done a thousand times before, pushed through the turnstile and paced the platform waiting for the downtown train. A few people – goth teens, middle-aged couples, and a few shady-looking characters – stood around or leaned against the mosaic wall. Powell loved that mosaic. The Nefertiti-like goddesses and lithe dancers formed by small, brightly-colored tiles. The gold ones shimmered in the otherwise dank tunnel. Powell imagined Kristina as his Queen Nefertiti and the words flowed:

How did it come? Feeling attracted from the first look on.

Be united, though free, like each other, though free!

He repeated his inventive prose aloud. Poetry, his secret passion. He remembered one night lying under the covers, rubbing the silk trim of his red blanket. The nightlight glowed, spreading a fan of honey-gold against the wall. Grandpap hummed as he entered the bedroom, the edge of the mattress dipped when he sat on it. Gray stubble dotted his chin, and he smelled of pipe tobacco, smoky and sweet. He cradled a poetry book, thick, the spine cracked in several places. Grandpap pushed the horn-rimmed readers up his nose and read, his voice soothed and rolled like faraway thunder:

I was in the darkness;

I could not see my words

Nor the wishes of my heart.

Then suddenly there was a great light –

“Let me into the darkness again.”

Who was that poet? Keats? Frost? The downtown train approached. Powell smiled, waiting to hop on the train.

At Columbus Circle, Powell transferred to the C Line. Plenty of seats on the train. He slid into one and closed his eyes. Doors shut. The train chugged forward. “Next stop, 50th Street,” said the bored conductor’s voice. Powell reviewed Saturday night’s events thus far. It started with swigging his parents’ vodka to get an early buzz. If Mom knew, she expressed no disapproval. Arrived at Tyler’s home on the Upper West Side an hour after the party started. Grabbed a drink, thanked Tyler for inviting him. Surveyed the plentiful array of girls. Powell considered himself above average in the looks department. On a scale from 1-10, a solid 8.0, maybe 8.25. He always targeted girls for hook-ups who scored a notch lower – never lower than 7 and never, ever above. Stunning babes were almost always stuck-up bitches who didn’t put out with guys like Powell. No use pining over what he couldn’t have. Number 7 girls, thankful for the charming, attentive interest of a Number 8, put out in the hand and blowjob department.

Next stop, 42nd Street, Port Authority.

He had spied Kristina chatting with a small group of girls. She wasn’t as tall as Powell liked – he didn’t look good dancing with short girls – but there was something about her, the way she laughed like she meant it, the rhythmic motion of her hands when she spoke, a flair for the dramatic, he didn’t quite know. After grabbing a fresh drink, he entered their conversation. Learned the girls were sixteen and seventeen, from the same school as Tyler. Within 15 minutes, Powell coaxed Kristina to a corner of the dining room. Engaged in small talk. Fetched her a fresh drink and inched closer. She was unattached, hinted that there was someone interested, played volleyball, a vegetarian (surprise, not a vegan), liked Coen brothers and Wes Anderson movies (who didn’t), Broadway shows, English Lit, but math and science not so much. Her style was a bit frumpy: oversized sweater, cheap boots, too much drugstore perfume. She emigrated from one of those funky sounding Russian countries when she was eight. Her English perfect, he detected no residual foreign accent. Mom would hate her. Kristina lowered her chin, looked up at him as if he were the only person in the universe and batted her eyelashes splotched with too much mascara. Powell made his move, his favorite part of the hook-up prologue. He brushed a kiss across her cheek, and she snuggled closer. His arm snaked around her shoulder. A few playful tugs and she nestled into his embrace, melting. He whispered in her ear, his rugged nose nudged her cheek. Body heat merged, lips locked, tongues danced. Unspoken negotiations over, Powell led Kristina, giggling and tipsy, to an upstairs bedroom.

Afterward, they exchanged phone numbers. For Powell, uncharted territory. Not typical modus operandi, but a necessary step if he wanted to see her again. They hugged and kissed before parting. Reckless, kind of exciting, dizzy-like. Shit, when was the last time he felt happy? He couldn’t remember.

Next stop, 34th Street, Penn Station.

Powell shifted, spied a piece of lint on his jeans and picked it off. It was possible, hell, why not? He imagined a future when he and Kristina trusted each other well enough to say anything. Intimacy on a whole new level. Free to say whatever you wanted. Knowing you would be heard, understood. The way Lauren always treated him. Hadn’t she known how much she meant to him? Hadn’t she trusted that sometimes his words meant nothing, that teasing her was just a joke? He teased because he loved and trusted her.

Indescribable trust. That’s the quality he most wanted in a girlfriend. It was part of the epic-void. It was a quality he thought he had shared with Sonja. A line by Neruda came to mind: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” A lie, all of it. There had been no love with Sonja, and if he lived a hundred more years, he wouldn’t forget. Powell grimaced and looked at his watch. One block to the Starlight Diner. He was fifteen, maybe twenty minutes late. Max would be waiting. The train screeched, jerking to a stop. His headache ratcheted a notch higher. Powell stood by the door, and before it opened completely, he dashed through, next climbing the stairs two at a time.

 

“She wants me to bang her,” said Powell. He had taken a seat in the booth across from blond, blue-eyed Max, who, as usual, looked tidy. Clean-shaven. He wore slim jeans and a black t-shirt. Slouchy clothes were too hip-hop. His hair, Max’s crowning achievement, was styled with just the right amount of gel to appear like you could run your hand through it without spoiling the look. Hair nirvana. Max swept bangs off his forehead and sighed. He pulled a few paper napkins from a dispenser and placed them elegantly in his lap and tapped his fork on the Formica tabletop further adding to the cacophony of thrumming in Powell’s head. Countless drinks aside, Powell blamed the hanging lime green lights that stung his eyes like lasers.

“Where’s our server? I’m starving,” said Max. He picked up his phone and scrolled. Powell hated when Max ignored him. There was a lot about Max that Powell felt pissed about, the new friends he chose to hang with, his new habit of smoking cigarettes and joints, the way he spent much of his time alone. Truth was, Powell envied the way Max chose to do nothing as if being alone took no thought at all, like breathing, eating or whacking off. Powell worked hard filling every day to avoid being alone. He equated alone with the possibility of the epic-void opening beneath him, sucking him into the abyss. Since Lauren’s death, being alone was fucking hard work.  

“Back to Kristina. She wants me. Isn’t it great?”

“Surprised you know her name,” Max sniffed, rolling his eyes.

“Hey, I never let a girl blow me unless…”

“Unless you know her name. I know, I know.”

“I’m serious. I’m going to grant Kristina’s wish. She’s the lucky one. My first. I’m gonna do it with Kristina.”

Blow jobs and hand jobs were just making out. It meant having real sex. It was a rite of passage, a decision to take seriously and remember with a smile for years to come. No more hook-ups, no time wasted finding somebody to do something with, no more loneliness. Max had done it last summer with a girl he’d met at summer camp. The sketchy details left Powell doubting.

Max waved to a waitress busy wiping a counter. Looking at Powell, he said, “I don’t get it. Why mess around with the party hook-ups of the world when you’re so tight with that senior, Sonja? Heard she loves dicks,” Max’s eyes narrowed. “Even one like yours.”

Sonja.

Powell didn’t tell Max everything. Some things you don’t say aloud. Like how Powell thought Max a pussy for letting his mom cut his fingernails.

Sonja.

Like how Powell masturbated while watching Penelope Cruz movies.

Sonja.

Like when Powell, invited by Sonja, showed up at her house last Friday night after hanging at an Oktoberfest party where he downed vodka shots because it took too long to get buzzed from drinking beer, so drunk he couldn’t feel his sneakers touch the black and white marble tile in her family’s foyer and she kissed him, and he kissed her back, fantastic, like shooting up with 4th of July sparklers, and the solitude faded, disappeared. They ended up in her bed, clothes on the floor. She giggled, said she had never seen one like it and started licking. Powell told her he loved that, please don’t stop. He was on his way to getting the best blow job of his life with the hottest-looking girl.  They were friends. Powell trusted her.

That’s the way it could have ended. Should have ended.

But Sonja inched higher, body slithering over him until her eyes, hungry, greedy stared into his. Chocolate with flecks of bronze that glowed. Those eyes. He hadn’t seen that look before. She slid atop what she had been kissing. No accident, she closed her eyes, stole control and shut him out as if he were no longer there. But Powell was there. He felt a surge of adrenaline. His heart raced, like the time he stole a Prada scarf from Saks and a security guard followed him, nowhere to run, but Powell kept cool and walked out, escaped. There was no exit from Sonja. He tried turning, attempted to brush her off, but she wasn’t drunk like him. Her hands clamped down on his elbows, hard, her weight and determination crushed. He groped to speak but he was too fucked up, mouth dry, words shriveled. Everything moved too fast. His dreams of having sex for the first time, his way, the way he had dreamed about doing it a thousand times, died. Sonja’s groans grew louder, quicker. The bed spun. Powell fixated on the round ceiling light, dimmed, which reminded him of the moon and his speck of existence on Earth, because if he closed his eyes he would fall into a dizzying spiral, the epic-void yawned wide. Uncontrolled pleasure couldn’t mask the humiliation of being used. Fists clenched, he fingered the smooth ridge of scars that crisscrossed his right palm. This moment was real, like when he smashed the bathroom mirror after Lauren died. His eyes moved slowly from the ceiling to Sonja’s face, and he watched as she fucked him like she was proud of getting everything she wanted. Powell came, and it was a relief because, at last, he knew she would be off him and in his mind, he screamed, Stop, get the fuck off, you didn’t ask, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.

Sonja.

There’s a price for not saying words aloud. What if I had been sober, what if I had told her what I wanted, what if I had said no clanged like a gargantuan church bell rung by a boy, inexperienced and naïve. There weren’t any saints in that tower. Only Powell, weak, hands grasping, burning and chafing as they slipped on the prickly, thick rope. Powell no longer heard his thoughts. Max’s face snapped back into focus.

Smells, a comforting mixture of coffee and grease, hung in the air. Top 40 tunes floated from ceiling speakers. Taylor Swift sang about some guy. Sweet love gone sour. Same crap. The waitress arrived and poured coffee. Powell listened to Max give his order: gyro, no onion, tzatziki sauce on the side, fries, extra crispy, diet Coke, no ice.

“I’ll have two packs of aspirin, a cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake. More coffee, too, please,” said Powell.

“Sure thing,” said the waitress.

Awkward, the lack of conversation with Max. Powell uncrossed his legs and planted both feet on the sticky linoleum floor. He wanted to kick a hole into it. He wanted to bury himself. Maybe he’d drag Max with him. Maybe there, secreted away, he could tell Max what had happened and not be judged. How could he explain what he didn’t understand?

Powell surveyed the people in the restaurant, a compulsion he shared with Mom. And there she sat, he couldn’t believe it – Sonja, sitting in a booth with her besties near the front of the restaurant. How could he have walked right past her? His heart pounded as if it were trying to bust through his chest. He checked his watch and breathed. Powell imagined Sonja’s entrance: her hair styled the same as the others, long, sleek, parted down the middle, shaking her mane as if to say, Hey, look at me, I’m here, I look good, I’m hot. Sonja, her perfect breasts shimmying with every slinking step, her perfect pink lips framing perfect white teeth. Sonja, her ass sashaying just so in her perfectly fitted jeans, flopping into the booth with a bounce. Sonja’s eyes locked on Powell. Grinning, she tossed a quick wave. Her tribe stared at him and laughed. Powell acknowledged them with a nod.

Max droned about some dumb Netflix movie. A waitress wearing tight yoga pants zipped passed. She carried a tray loaded with breakfast food – eggs, bacon, waffles with melting dollops of whipped butter – and dinner food – cheeseburger with fries, matzo ball soup, liver and onions with boiled potatoes, and a gyro so loaded with fixings a large toothpick barely held the sandwich together. Wearing yoga pants was a privilege, not a right. After a second look, Powell decided she was privileged. He imagined Kristina in yoga pants, embracing her, his hands squeezing her ass.  

Max, Kristina, yoga pants, there was no diversion big enough to eliminate thoughts of Sonja. Gorgeous Sonja. Funny Sonja. Smart Sonja. She was a full nine, bordering on nine and a half and Powell had felt flattered by her attention. Sonja, older, savvy, a person plunging into adult life with all the confidence he wished he displayed. The intimate conversations, the way Sonja detailed her many sexcapades. She favored beefy, athletic types, liked experimenting with positions and places. Powell had listened, fascinated by every tryst. He dreamed of having sex with her but realized he didn’t stand a chance – too skinny, young and inexperienced. Mom said, “That Sonja, what a delight. Beautiful and so polite. Comes from the right family. You two have so much in common. Why don’t you ask her out sometime?” How could he have missed it? A proclivity for virgins, Sonja was like an express train barreling down tracks. He should have known. He should have kept his pants on. Hadn’t he tried? Not exactly. He said yes. At first. But hadn’t he said no? Powell seethed.

The waitress brought the food. Powell ripped open the aspirin packets, popped the four pills into his mouth and swallowed. The pounding in his head paled to missing Lauren, the ache constant, no matter what he did to fill the hours. Powell wanted to tell Max how much he missed Lauren, how sorry he felt for yelling at her that day. Stop complaining about your weight. Cut out the bag of chips you scarf down every day, and you’ll be fine. Repeating the awful words to Max wouldn’t change a thing. Like reverberating bells, Powell would forever hear those final words.

Max finished the gyro and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Half the cheeseburger and most of the fries remained on Powell’s plate. His headache reduced to a dull throb, Powell gulped the last of his coffee, lukewarm, bitter. Loose grounds grazed the bottom of the cup.

“You boys want anything else?” said the waitress.

Max and Powell shook their heads. For the last ten minutes, Powell had hoped Sonja and the girls would leave. They hadn’t. Sonja gestured a hearty come-on-over. Powell looked away and caught his reflection in the mirror that hung over the booth. The profile of his nose looked big. He feared, later in life, his nose would appear grotesque. The way old men had shrunken faces with gigantic noses and cartoonish ears. He noticed a few stray hairs, dark and pointy, the beginning of a unibrow. He made a mental note to pluck them later. He smiled, and for a moment Lauren’s image blurred into his. Tell me everything will be fine begged Powell. She dissolved. Alone again.

Powell estimated the walk to Sonja’s table would take fifteen steps, eighteen at the most. Dad advised proper asset management. Know your risks. Don’t overestimate your potential for gains. Evaluate losses. Most importantly, plan and execute with confidence.

Powell pictured himself moving, one foot after the other. The diner was quiet. Half of the tables were empty. The door bell twinkled. Four guys wearing Rangers gear sauntered in and took seats at the counter. Hockey game must have finished at Madison Square Garden. The men’s subdued demeanor signaled a loss. No surprise. Powell ran his hand through his hair and stood straight. Head high, he breathed. Be cool. Max faced the front of the diner, waved at the girls and walked. Powell followed, eyes locked on the door.

Sonja had posted on Facebook how great Saturday night had been, mentioning his name, crazy bitch, how he was like an erupting volcano. Powell responded with some positive shit he knew she would like. Thanks, Sonja! Great night! Fanjizztastic! A few days ago, in the school cafeteria, Powell had met Sonja and said, “Let’s be friends. No sex.” Whatever it took to get himself back from her, to get far, far away from the sad, pretty thing in front of him named Sonja. “Too bad, we get along so well,” she said, “could be a nice way to celebrate your birthday.” Her fingers, cool and soft, stroked his forearm. She whispered, “I know what to do, you know, to not get pregnant.” Smiling, she blew a kiss and walked away.

And now, Powell heard Sonja giggle. He wished he didn’t know her laugh so well. He fingered the scars in his right palm. He hoped Kristina would answer his text, the one he planned to send after he left the diner. She really was attractive. He imagined a time, soon, he hoped, when Kristina would spend the night with him in his bedroom. If she were a serious girlfriend, Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind.

Max stopped at the girls’ booth. Powell stopped, too. Sixteen steps. The voice of Lady Gaga crackled “Poker Face” through a damaged speaker. Powell looked at the girls. Their words and giggles pelted like freezing rain: went-to-Connor’s-party-you-shoulda-been-there-it-was-so-hype-Jack-did-a-bong-hit-Alice-puked-on-the-carpet-she-was-so-turnt-haha-Maranda-hooked-up-with-a-college-guy-you-shoulda-been-there…

Powell concentrated on the reflection in the window. He saw Sonja and the girls and Max talking, laughing. He saw a peek of Sonja’s fuchsia bra as she leaned across the table and flirted with Max. He saw himself, smiling and joking, elbows pinched, unmoving, a man suspended, like the suspended luminosity of the green lamps in the diner, like the suspended moonlike glow of the ceiling lamp in Sonja’s bedroom, like Lauren’s suspended hair floating above her submerged body in the claw foot tub. Like the boy in the bell tower, bells smashing metal on metal, deafening. You’re so difficult. I hate your drama. Why can’t you be more agreeable, like Powell? Mom’s last words to Lauren. Staring deeper into the reflective mirror, Powell sensed this could be the beginning of a fall into oblivion, an unknown place where Lauren may be, where the coveted and elusive something may exist. Fearful, he leaned, slipping. Yet something rose – a blaze of light, searing, but at the same time – calm, Almighty.

Max nudged Powell’s arm. Powell blinked and searched for the dazzle of light. The reflection had vanished leaving night’s muted darkness and the soft glow of a street lamp, the post of which appeared tilted like a car had struck it. Something had been there. My light. I saw it. A surge of relief enveloped Powell.

“I said, see ya around,” said Sonja. The girls laughed.

“Yeah,” said Powell. Like fucking never.

And then Powell was through the door, inhaling deep, the city’s oxygen pure and new.

Powell and Max walked east on 34th Street toward Penn Station.

“God, that Sonja is screaming hot. Remind me again why you don’t want to be with her?” said Max.

“I think she likes sex too much. I’d rather take the lead with someone like Kristina.”

Max nodded; he didn’t question. It felt like the old days when he and Max understood each other and life seemed predictable, almost easy. Powell’s strides were long and quick. His body relaxed as the distance widened from Sonja. Everything about tonight meant something. First, Kristina, and then the light, and then moving past. Powell felt empowered by an unexplainable peace. It was the same self-possessed calm that blanketed him as a child when Grandpap tucked him in at night and recited poetry. Grandpap said poems were as good as prayers. Powell was a whiz at memorizing. Once he heard a poem, he could repeat the lines word-for-word, even though he didn’t understand them.  

Powell and Max waited for the light to turn at 9th Avenue. A bus cruised through the intersection. A poster on the side of the bus advertised: “West Side Story – See the Broadway Revival of the Leonard Bernstein – Stephen Sondheim Tony-awarding winning show!”

“Stephen Crane,” said Powell.

“Who’s Stephen Crane?”

“A poet. Grandpap loved his poems.”

Max nodded. The walk light appeared. Crossing 9th Avenue, Powell wondered if Kristina had seen “West Side Story.” Even if she had, maybe she would go with him. He typed a message to Kristina, pressed send and out it traveled into the epic-void.

 

 


About the Author: Julia Poole is a speech-language therapist and writer of fiction, memoir, and essays. She has published in MOON Magazine, Dime Show Review, and Motherlode – Essays on Parenthood. To learn more, visit her website at JuliaPooleWrites.com

Sex Worker by David Stromberg

Amnon Ben-Ami, Woman with Two Heads, oil on paper, 2008


 

It was a miserable April in Paris. The temperature hovered just above freezing and there was a constant threat of rain. I’d flown from Boston for an academic conference asking scholars to present “notions of proliferation” in “historical pragmatics.” Someone on the organizing committee had read my article on “tragic foresight” in Harold Laski’s Liberty in the Modern State and invited me to speak. The organizers had a “global vision” and welcomed any American that would fit their agenda.

At the reception, the evening before the conference, I ran into Thomas Neuerdorf, a recent doctoral graduate I’d met at the last pragmatics conference in Norway. I found him less self-important than the other so-called scholars and went over to say hello. He smiled when he saw me and raised his wine glass.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said to him. “I’ll have someone to drink with at the end of these boring days.”

He laughed.

“Why do you bother crossing the Atlantic for this?”

“The department pays for my ticket.”

As we clinked glasses one of the keynote speakers, Rolf Gerhardt, came and greeted Thomas in German. Rolf was wearing a shiny light gray suit and sporty black-framed designer glasses. Thomas and I wore muted pants and sweaters. I’d seen Rolf at the conference in Norway too—a hotshot from Tübingen who’d coined the term “irrecorded history.” It was supposed to describe histories that had been first “recorded” then “wiped out.” I’d argued two years ago that we had plenty of words that already said the same thing: suppressed, censored, erased, denied, revised. But the term caught on and there was no way of dissuading anyone from using it. I’d told Thomas that I hoped it would go out of style by the time we met in Paris. Instead Rolf was giving a plenary talk on the continuing evolution of “irrecordedness” in pragmaticist theory.

After a few German pleasantries Thomas introduced me to Rolf – who merely smiled from behind his black framed glasses and nodded with his round cheeks before going off to say hello to someone else.

“What a jerk,” I said to Thomas as Rolf walked away.

“You didn’t like him in Norway either.”

“What’s to like? He’s trapped in his own ideas.”

“You think so? I’m not so quick to judge.”

“It’s obvious,” I said. “He’s trying to convince you of something he barely believes himself.”

“Are any one of us really convinced of what we have to say?”

 

The reception ended early and most people went back to their hotels. The conference was at the Cité universitaire at the edge of the city but I’d rented a small room in the center of the Latin Quarter—so I could experience a little bit of Bohemian Paris. On the way back, watching people on the metro and streets, I thought about what Thomas had said. In a way, he was right, and none of our ideas were really convincing. Tragic foresight was actually no better a concept than irrecordedness since no one in the real world cared about theories. So-called experts like us were as ignorant as anyone else. It’s just that we pretended to know more than we really did. The least we could do was to admit that history wasn’t about the hidden meaning of form and syntax—that it was about human experience.

The next morning I decided to scrap my prepared talk and focus on what history was really about: people. After a long day of lectures, about everything from Mongolian Tengrism to postcolonial expansionism, I got a chance to present my position. I used my panel to say that if we, super-educated professionals, couldn’t find a way to connect to a larger part of society we would kill the humanities for ourselves and for generations to come. I said that we had to rethink our entire methodology and put the human being at the center. We had to find a language that would preserve our scholarly integrity while making it accessible to people who really cared about history. If we were so smart, I said, we had to find a way to speak about all these important events without losing the interest of those we were serving—the public.

Of the four aging professors who’d come to hear my presentation only one deigned to respond. He told me I was missing the entire raison d’être of scholarly investigation and said my intransigent blindness was an obvious symptom of American ignorance and hypocrisy.

“May I ask when you last visited the insignificant and inferior American continent?” I asked him.

“I wouldn’t waste my precious research time,” he said. “It’s enough to hear the echoes of arrogance from every American publication that reaches me right here in Paris.”

I politely suggested to him that as a rigorous researcher he would perhaps recognize the value of seeing things for himself.

That more or less ended the session. Everyone went out to the hospitality table to pour themselves coffee. I went out into the hallway thinking about how things always got mixed up. I’d spoken from the heart—and all it had done was instigate hate and anger.

I looked up and saw Thomas holding two paper cups.

“Coffee?” he asked.

I took the coffee and said the session had been a disaster. He apologized for not attending and explained that his doctoral adviser had been speaking at the same time. I told him it didn’t matter—the whole thing had been a shouting match. He asked what I’d said and I explained the gist of my presentation.

“You came to a conference on historical pragmatics and said that theory doesn’t matter?”

“I said what I believe. I’m a person. Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“Not at a scholarly conference.”

 

Thomas and I went to the day’s last panel together. As we came out he said he was having drinks in the Latin Quarter with a few conference participants—mostly doctoral students and postdocs—and asked whether I’d like to join. After my presentation I wasn’t sure I could contribute to any conversation. But since it was on the way back I figured I’d tag along for a quick beer and then call it a night.

We ended up going to an English pub just next to the Panthéon and by the time we arrived the others had already grabbed a booth in the back. The place was crowded—it was happy hour and the cold evening brought everyone inside. I sat at the end of the booth next to a German doctoral student who introduced herself as Janne. Thomas sat across the table next to a Dutch postdoc named Marleen. There was also a French research assistant named Jacques who’d helped organize the conference, a British postdoc named Lawrence who’d suggested the pub, and a young American professor named Betty sitting in the far corner.

“I didn’t know there were any other Americans at the conference,” I said across the table.

“Either way,” Betty answered, “we’re surrounded by Continentals.”

“I’m not Continental,” Lawrence said, “and I’m also not American.”

“So you basically don’t have allies,” Jacques said.

“In our country,” answered Lawrence, “we call that a state of distinction.”

“In ours we call it independence,” Betty countered.

“In my country we don’t really think those things,” said Marleen. “We keep to ourselves and try to respect others.”

“And expect others to keep to themselves too,” said Thomas.

“Naturally,” said Marleen. “Don’t you?”

“We’re not really in a position to decide about others,” said Janne. “We’re focused on respecting people’s rights.”

“In the most efficient way,” Thomas added and started laughing.

 

At some point a waitress came over to take our order. I asked for a beer and I remember that Thomas did the same. I don’t remember what everyone else had except for Janne—who ordered white wine. I also remember that the drinks arrived quickly.

Janne asked me what I’d presented at the conference and I told her about my speech. She laughed and said she’d heard someone at the hospitality table complaining about me. Apparently they said I’d ranted incoherently for twenty minutes and then insulted the only person who was trying to give me constructive criticism. I said that to me it felt like I’d tried to present some personal beliefs about the future of the humanities and had been attacked for my national affiliation. She laughed again and said it sounded like my interlocutor and I had attended two different presentations.

Most of us had finished our first round and Betty suggested we stay for dinner. I was hungry so I agreed—as did the others. We ordered our food and Betty said we should all do shots together. Without really waiting for any response she told the waitress to bring us seven shots of rye whiskey—which she said was what they drink where she came from. When the shots arrived she stood up.

“I want to make a toast,” she said. “I think it’s only fair that we all acknowledge, together, what makes us historical pragmaticists. And that thing, I believe, is our shared instinctual tendency to face history where it really happens—not on the level of extraordinary worldly events, which are all outer show, but in the internal realm of language, which is always soft, engulfing, and mysterious. It’s what brings us together and also what will change the way that history is taught and understood. Cheers!”

Betty raised her drink, downed the whiskey, and slammed the glass on the table as she settled back into her seat. The rest of us followed suit—raising our shots, crying Cheers, and drinking. The whiskey burned and I was glad we’d ordered food.

 

I asked Janne what she was presenting at the conference. She said she’d spoken earlier that day and that her research involved rape testimony, specifically the way that linguistic structure reflected trauma. Her main claim was that the way women spoke about rape—and not only the things they said—could tell us about their experience. She believed her research would be relevant to police investigating assaults and to psychologists working with domestically abused women. In her opinion too much attention was put on the details they told and not enough on the language they used to convey those details. Her hope was that this research would introduce language analysis into rape historiography across the world.

I was bowled over by the compassionate and thoughtful tone Janne used to speak about her research. I’d have expected someone working on a topic like this to be angry at the very existence of the crime.

I said this to her and she smiled faintly.

“I do get angry,” she said. “But I’m not a policewoman. I focus on ways that I can help—and I’ve found that after something like this happens women need to be understood. That means that the people listening need to be more familiar with how women talk about their experiences.”

“I’m very sorry I missed your talk,” I said.

 

We finished dinner and had several rounds of drinks. I looked at Janne—she had pale skin, straight dark hair pulled into a short ponytail, and piercings up and down her ears. There was a tiny black star tattooed onto the nape of her neck. Her brown eyes projected a combination of strength and caution. I was about to ask her whether she would be willing to email me her presentation when Thomas waved his hand to catch my attention.

“Betty says she has some wine up at her hotel room. She invited us to come up. What do you think?”

“It’s just around down the street,” she added from the corner.

I hadn’t planned on drinking into the night—but I was enjoying Janne’s company and didn’t really think I’d go back to the conference in the morning.

“Do you feel like joining?” I asked Janne.

“I’m staying across the hall from Betty,” she said.

 

Everyone paid their bill and we all went outside. At the door Lawrence and Jacques said they wanted to get some sleep before tomorrow’s long day at the conference.

“Sleep when you’re home,” Betty said with the ring of alcohol. “This is Paris!”

“I happen to live in Paris,” Jacques said.

Lawrence raised his eyebrows.

“And I happen to like sleep.”

They left and the five of us headed downhill: Thomas, Betty, and Marleen walking up ahead and discussing something loudly while Janne and I lagged behind. She asked me why I’d decided to change the topic of my talk that morning. I told her it had to do with questioning myself. I said I wished I could think in more practical terms, like she did, but that my mind worked differently and always made things abstract. She said she didn’t think one way of thinking canceled out the other and that they were both important. I thanked her for indulging me but insisted that there her project was probably more convincing to most people than my mad hatter speech.

“The mad hatter isn’t supposed to convince anyone,” she laughed. “He’s supposed to make people ask questions.”

“Which makes him annoying.”

The others had reached the hotel and Betty turned around.

“Come on you two!”

We caught up with them and entered the lobby.

“So which would you rather do?”

Betty was looking at us waiting for an answer.

I wasn’t sure what she was talking about so I glanced at Janne—who seemed to also be lost.

The five of us packed tight into a tiny elevator and started going up to the third floor.

“Do about what?” I asked.

“Did you miss the whole conversation?”

“It seems we did. “

“We’re asking a hypothetical question,” she said. “If you had to choose between begging on the street in the middle of the day and working as a prostitute at night—which would you choose?”

The elevator stopped and we all tumbled into the hallway toward Betty’s room. It was a small space with a bed and two chairs. I stepped inside and stood next to a window overlooking the street while Thomas walked over to the sink to uncork two bottles. Janne went to her room to bring a few extra courtesy cups. Once the bottles were open, Betty, Thomas, and Marleen spread out across the bed while I sat on a chair in front of the window. Janne came back and sat in the second chair next to a small writing table. We filled our cups with wine and toasted to the success of our conference.

“So!” said Betty. “Which would it be?”

I’d forgotten the question.

“Prostitution or begging?”

I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. I wasn’t sure it was worth answering. I looked over at Janne and hoped to find her as disinterested as I was. But she seemed lost in thought.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’d prefer to be a prostitute.”

I was taken aback by Janne’s answer.

“And you?” Betty asked.

It felt like a trick question.

“Can I have more than two choices?” I asked. “Can I be a street musician?”

Betty refilled everyone’s wine glasses.

“You have to choose one of the two,” she said.

She lay down on the bed next to Thomas and began caressing his leg with her hand.

“I’m not sure,” I said and turned to Janne. “Why would you choose prostitution?”

She shrugged.

“It’s less humiliating,” she said. “You’re not on the street in the middle of the day.”

Her answer didn’t seem to fit with everything she’d said about trauma.

“What about you?” I asked Thomas.

“Definitely prostitution,” he said with a smile.

There was sarcasm in his voice—he clearly wasn’t taking the question seriously. I also noticed he had his arms around Betty’s waist.

“And you?” Betty insisted again.

I wish I could have taken things lightly too—producing a wry comment and making everyone laugh. But something stopped me. The same thing that had made me change my topic that morning. It was a sense that people should stand up for what they believe matters.  

“I would never choose prostitution,” I said.

Betty produced a big grin and took gulp of wine.

“Why?”

I took a deep breath. I knew that I should probably not tell the truth. I could see from the faces around me that whatever I said would be misconstrued. And yet I just couldn’t stop myself from saying what I believed.

“It’s simple logic,” I said. “You’re pushed into either prostitution or begging because of some extreme difficulty. You need a way out but you want to avoid public humiliation. So you choose prostitution. You think that this way you won’t feel ashamed in front of others. But you haven’t really solved the problem of humiliation. Because you’re a person too and you can’t hide from yourself. The shame’s still there.”

Betty gulped the rest of her wine.

“And what if you have a baby that you need to feed?” she asked.

“Then you probably shouldn’t be putting yourself in compromising situations,” I said.

“Who do you think you are?” she said and slammed her cup down on the table.

“Excuse me?”

“You think you can dictate what’s shameful to other people?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “It was Janne who said she’d choose prostitution to avoid humiliation.”

“So you appropriated her answer and turned it on its head for your own moralistic purposes.”

“No,” I said. “I simply pointed out the oversight in that particular logic.”

“Because you obviously know what feels more humiliating to someone else.”

I looked at Janne hoping for support but she had a strange expression on her face. It took me a moment to realize it was disappointment.

“You agree with her?” I asked.

“Your attitude is a little patriarchal,” she said.

“She asked me a question. I gave her an answer. I was just trying to be logical.”

Janne looked over at Betty.

“I think he’s trying to put himself in someone else’s shoes and saying that prostitution would be humiliating for him.”

“What he’s trying to do,” said Betty, “is put his shoes on someone else.”

I looked at Marleen sitting silently on the corner of the bed. She was the only person who hadn’t said anything.

“Do you agree with them?” I asked.

“Actually I don’t know if I’d choose prostitution either,” she said. “But your logic isn’t very considerate from a feminine perspective.”

I looked at Thomas—whose legs were entwined in Betty’s.

“I wasn’t thinking about feminine and masculine,” I said. “I was thinking about human.”

“Your human,” Marleen said, “is male.”

Betty sat up on the bed and pointed her finger at my face.

“As a former sex worker,” she said, “I would like to assure you that your perspective is anything but human. I got myself through graduate school showing men how I masturbate online—and it also put food on the table for my daughter. So don’t talk to me about shame or logic. Talk to me about responsibility.”

Betty lay back down on the bed and Thomas caressed her shoulders and head. Marleen sat silently in her corner. Janne crossed her arms and sat back in her chair. Whatever affinity had grown between us over dinner was obviously extinguished.

I looked at my wristwatch. It was nearly two in the morning and I suddenly decided that I didn’t want to skip the last conference day. I’d come all the way here and managed to alienate just about every person I’d met—the least I could do was to go and listen to my colleagues talk about their work.

“I think I’ll go,” I said. “We have a long day tomorrow.”

Thomas looked surprised.

“Already?”

“There are some panels I wanted to hear.”

“What for?” Betty asked. “You’re learning more here than you ever will at the conference.”

I got up and started putting on my coat.

“We didn’t mean to gang up on you,” Janne protested. “It was just a conversation.”

I finished the wine in my cup and put it down on the table.

“It was a very interesting conversation,” I said. “But I think I’ve had enough.”

As I got up I saw Thomas raise his hand to get my attention.

“Wait for me,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

For a moment I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. He and Betty had their hands all over each other. They were already in her bed. I’d assumed he’d spend the night.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Wait for me downstairs,” he said.

Betty scowled. Not only had I offended her honor but I’d also ruined her seduction.

I lowered my eyes and walked out of the room without looking anyone in the eye.

 

I took the elevator downstairs and waited in the lobby. I was about to give up when I heard the elevator called upstairs. A few seconds later it came back down and when the doors opened Thomas stepped out.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t you want to stay?”

“I’d better go,” he said.

We walked out of the hotel and stood in front of the building.

“Aren’t you staying somewhere nearby?” he asked.

“On the other side of the hill,” I said.

“I’ll walk you.”

We headed up back toward the Panthéon in silence. The streets were deserted. The air was cold and dense. Paris held none of its famous charm. It was just a cold city at night. I looked over at Thomas and saw tears streaming down his cheeks.  

I didn’t know what to say so I put my hand on his shoulder. I wanted to reassure him that he wasn’t alone.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

I removed my hand and we walked in silence.

“What happened back there?” I asked.

“I was being passive,” he said, “to see how far it would go.”

“Did you want anything to happen?”

“I think I just wanted a little attention.”

A few minutes later we reached my building. I offered Thomas to sleep on the futon. It was nearly three o’clock and his hotel was near the conference venue at the edge of the city.

He shook his head.

“I like to walk alone at night.”

He’d stopped crying and I shook his hand goodbye. Neither of us had gloves and the handshake was cold.

Thomas continued down the street and I went into the building. As I began to climb the staircase it suddenly occurred to me that he was mourning someone he’d loved dearly. And I couldn’t explain the feeling but the higher I climbed the stairs the more I got the sense that whoever it was had killed herself.

 

In the morning, despite myself, I went to hear Rolf Gerhardt’s talk on the evolution of irrecordedness. When I got to the main auditorium I looked for Thomas. But he wasn’t there. I took a seat in the back where there were less people. Looking toward the front I saw Janne sitting with Betty and Marleen. Someone nearby smelled like old sweat and I considered changing seats. Instead I took shallower breaths.

After an enthusiastic introduction and round of applause Rolf got on stage and began his talk. He spoke with a serious and pleasant voice—measured but not too heavy. His ideas were simple and clear. There wasn’t anything risky about what he said. He gave an overview of what he’d proposed in his early articles and then surveyed how those ideas had been applied by others in their work. The whole thing lacked any controversy. With each word he preserved and extended his place in the scholarly community—making himself one of them without challenging anyone’s position. He managed to get up in front of a hundred people, say very little, and elicit a sense of common purpose that earned him another round of applause. It was brilliant.

When the talk was over I went out to the hospitality table. Janne was standing there pouring herself a cup of coffee. And so was Thomas, who noticed me walking over.

“You’re here!” he said.

“I looked for you,” I answered. “Were you inside?”

“I was up front,” he said, “just next to Janne.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“Join us for coffee?” Janne asked.

“I guess so.”

She and Thomas stepped over to one of the round bar tables while I went to pour myself a cup of coffee. When I rejoined them they were talking about the presentation.

“I was just telling Janne about our conversation at the reception,” Thomas said.

“Which part?”

“About your assessment of Rolf,” she said.

“Listening to him today,” Thomas continued, “I suddenly understood what you were talking about. His ideas don’t exactly come together. He has one or two insights into the way that history is told, and then he gets lost in generalities. When you criticized him in Norway I didn’t understand what bothered you so much. Even at the reception I thought you were being harsh. But after hearing him today I realized you were right. There’s something fraudulent about his brilliance.”

I sipped at my coffee and looked at Thomas, suddenly remembering the tears that had flowed down his cheeks the night before. He seemed cheerier now, less bothered, but in the corners of his eyes I could still sense the loss that had appeared on his face.

“I’m not sure I was right about anything,” I told him. “And if I was, I’m not sure what good it does.”

 


About the Author: David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. His publications include four collections of single-panel cartoons, including BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), which  The Los Angeles Times called “fantastic.” He has published translations in The New Yorker, Partial Answers, and Asymptote, and fiction in Ambit, Atticus Review, KGB LitMag, and Chicago Literati. He is author of Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer (University of Delaware Press, 2017) and editor of In the Land of Happy Tears: Powers of the Yiddish Soul (Delcorate/Random House, 2018).

Artwork: Amnon Ben-Ami

Second Act by Chad Koch

Untitled (ohgodi'msosorry)


I’m unzipping my pants when it really sets in that I’m about to have sex with a furry. The man I’ve met on a furry dating site stands in front of me adjusting the Velcro on the crotch of his fur suit. He’s dressed in what looks like a Mickey Mouse costume except softer, like one of those giant stuffed animals won at a carnival. I studied biology in college, but I can’t recognize what animal he’s supposed to be. I think some sort of gazelle, but the fur is purple, so it could actually be a fantasy animal like a kirin or one of those unicorns that have psychic powers.

“I’m going to do your back first,” he says and has me lie on the massage table. He removes his paws or hooves and struggles to pour oil onto his human hands without getting any on his suit. His studio apartment is freezing and all I can think about is draping his animal body over me. The suit even has the smell of fur, a mixture of BO and steamed rice.

For my part, I’m dressed-up in a fluffy tail that represents a Siberian tiger, a t-shirt with a tiger face on the front, and my baby blue boxer-briefs, which have nothing to do with tigers. I’m just a beginner. If I knew when I started exploring the furry scene that I’d be here two hours later, I would’ve at least bought white mittens beforehand, like I’ve seen on the internet. All I had in the apartment was one tarnished gardening glove under the sink, and when I put it on I looked like a Disney Afternoon cartoon parody of Thriller era Michael Jackson.

“Remove your shirt,” he says, and then reassures me with, “I won’t bite.” I don’t have a response that involves an animal-based pun, but I’m trying. I slip out of my shirt, and the hair on my neck rises when the oil touches my back.

“How’s that feel, Toby?” he says in a Barry White deep voice, obviously not his voice, his fursona’s voice. Toby is my fursona name. Toby the tiger—I thought that was pretty clever. Fursona is like the inner spirit animal they talk about in yoga class, but is enhanced in that you are the spirit animal. He rubs the back of my shoulders, the oil heating with friction from the opposable thumbs he shouldn’t have.

“It feels puurrrrfffect.”

As he makes his way over my shoulder blades, I think about how I ended up in half a furry costume whispering animal noises to a complete stranger. The short answer is that I have begun my second act. You know, the second part of your life. The thing parents say to you when you’re thirty-two and still working at In-N-Out Burger—“don’t worry son, you still have your second act!” But my second act isn’t as interesting as having arrested development and playing Call of Duty in my parents’ basement.

My second act began when the partner of my life, the man I graduated college with, the man I got my first real apartment with—the one with the dishwasher and laundry—left me for another man. My second act began when the man who taught me how good a tongue feels between my toes, the man who stayed overnight on our first date telling me “I’ve been waiting for you all my life”—appeared at the bathroom doorway ten years later and said instead, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” My second act began when the love of my life left just one of his work shirts when he moved out, and I wear it, even though it’s two sizes too big and has a coffee stain on the cuff. It smells like him, not the cologne he wears, but the thin smell of his skin, of his life—faint, but enough. That’s the kind of second act I’m in.  

“A little harder,” I say to my playmate. “I want to feel some pain.” It sounds awkward as it echoes off the unpainted walls. It sounds like porn which eases my shoulders so that they rest on the table. For a moment I think I’ve chosen wisely by trying out this furry thing. That my desires to be with someone decked out in soft fur, something warmer than my lonely body, is the perfect remedy, the safe haven where only pleasure is allowed. For a moment, there’s total relaxation, and my jaw slackens, a bit of drool slips out, and a soft grunt escapes my lips. I’ve finally found something I can enjoy again.

At least until he starts punching my spine. I wonder if I’m being a bad playmate with this stranger. I wonder if being new to the scene is making me selfish and naïve and only concerned about my own orgasm. So I moan out his name. “Ooohhhh.” But I don’t even know his name, so I stop moaning. He moves to my side and lights four small candles on a table in front of me, like a birthday cake.

My ex never forgot my birthday. He planned it months in advance, and took the day off to clean the apartment and get me little gifts—a chocolate truffle, movie tickets, some sexy underwear—like the twelve days of Christmas. On my last birthday, I’d gotten an email from my ex. I was so surprised I couldn’t open it until lunch. It didn’t say happy birthday or, as I’d hoped, I miss you. Instead he asked me to repay the security deposit.

“You need to get out of your headspace,” my furmate says. The kneading of his fingers is intense now like the weight of a steaming iron as it smoothes out a twisted bed sheet. The kneading hits something, like a bruise, or a pimple, or cancer. I imagine him continuing to rub this spot. He’ll say “I feel tension here” or “this is the center of all your pain.” I’ll think back to when I returned to an empty apartment with a pile of keys on the table, a plastic cup flipped in the sink, a single stray button. I’ll say “yes” to my furmate and the pain will cause my eyes to well with tears, an obvious metaphor for the disintegration of, not just my relationship, but my life. Then he’ll press down hard on the tumor, I’ll beg him to press down harder, until there’s a sharp pop and we share a long sensual howl.  

But it doesn’t happen. He passes over it a second time and then moves on to my ass. He asks me to lower my underwear and slaps my rump. And then he pauses. I feel his breath on my ear and he says, “I’m going to do your thighs now. Lift up your tail for me. Let yourself go.”

And I really do try. I growl and grind my thighs against his polyester covered chest, hoping to create a static charge that flashes through us both and sets off wild orgasmic ecstasy. He thrusts back giving me everything he has to offer. But the shock never comes. My arms give out from under me and my voice breaks into a whimper.

 


About the Author: Chad Koch is a founding editor of Foglifter, a queer literary journal. He recently received his MFA from San Francisco State University, where he was editor-in-chief of Fourteen Hills. He’s the recipient of the Leo Litwak fiction award from Transfer Magazine. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Transfer Magazine, Sparkle & Blink, The North American Review, The Madison Review and Eleven Eleven Journal.

The Last Gabbeh by Mira Martin-Parker

artifact1_Ryan Buell


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Anderson returned just in time to save me.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She continued ignoring me.

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

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

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

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

She obediently followed his order and grabbed her purse.

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

I smiled and waved back.

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

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

“Will you sell me the rug?” I asked.

“Does a bear shit in the woods?”

“How much?” I asked.

“Six grand, cash.”

“Deal.”

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

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

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

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

                  ***

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

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

“Not at all, I’m an early riser.”

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

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

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

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

 


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

Artwork: Ryan Buell

 

Seattle by Peter J. Stavros

Uncredited_Untitled for Seattle


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was.

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

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

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

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

I dropped the pen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Night Shift by Stephen D. Gutierrez

Untitled_Uncredited-2


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

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

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

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

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

She moved a shoulder in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Something in the Way by Andrew Gordon Rogers

 

untitled_by @boradaexplorer



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

Kurt Cobain, Something in the Way

 

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

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

He mouthed, I can’t hear you.

Once the horn stopped, I asked again.

“Should we do anything?”

Charlie shrugged. “What can we do?”

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

“What are you doing, man?”

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

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

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

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

“Get off the fucking track, dog!”

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

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

 

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

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

“Hide it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“So what did you do last night?”

I blew out smoke.

“Just hung out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you read this book?”

She held it up.

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Yep,” he said. “We’re all clear.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s a regular masterpiece.”

“Isn’t it?”

“I guess.”

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

“Fuck you.”

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

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

“Yeah, it’s alright.”

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

“You know,” Charlie started.

“Here we go.”

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

I handed it back to Charlie.

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

“I wish.”

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

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

“You see that light over there?”

Charlie took another hit; he glanced out toward it.

“Yep. Guess it’s time to go.”

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

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

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

I kept walking.

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

“No money either.”

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

“Yeah, what a life,” I smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever.”

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

“Same thing tomorrow?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“What? You got plans or something?”

“Me? No, I just…we’ll see…”

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

“Cool,” I lied.

“Cool.”

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

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

“Thanks, Charlie.”

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

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

“What’s up, Buttercup,” she answered.

“Hey there. What are you up to?”

“Nothing really. Are you watching Conan?”

“Yep. And eating a sandwich.”

“Is your mom there?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I see. A sappy sucker movie?”

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

“Ah, I see.”

“So you wanna?”

“I wanna.”

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

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

“What time is this Kaufman flick playing?”

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

“Deal. Can’t wait,” I replied.

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

“I gotta go, my love.”

“Sounds like it. See you tomorrow.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, Mom, I know.”

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

“It smells good.”

“Thanks. Bacon should be about done.”

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

“Should I make some coffee,” she yawned.

“No, I got it.”

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

“This is great, son. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

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

“Have you always drank coffee?”

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

“I don’t remember you drinking coffee.”

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

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

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

I continued to watch the television.

“I doubt it,” I said.

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

“I don’t know. I’d rather not.”

She looked at the ceiling.

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

“Enjoy.”

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

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

 

I was napping upstairs when I heard my mom:

“Your friend’s here.”  

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

“Wake up, Buttercup.”

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

“I didn’t know you were coming over.”

“Now you do,” he laughed.

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

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

“A skate spot?”

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

“Yeah, where at? When?”

“It’s out by Chamber Park.”

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

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

“I don’t know, man.”

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

“I’m supposed to do something tonight.”

“Something?”

“Yeah.”

“Something gay, I’ll bet.”

“I have to help my mom clean tonight.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think?”

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

“I don’t know. Probably.”

“Can I go check?”

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

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

“Don’t forget that,” he howled.

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

“What the fuck, man?”

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

“You’re an asshole.”

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

“Really. I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. When should we go?”

“We need to wait until it’s dark.”

 

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

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

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

“Wait,” I coughed. “What?”

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

“So, where to?”

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

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

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

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

“You think it’s safe?”

“Safe as it’s gonna be,” he mumbled.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

She dropped her phone on the counter.

“What the hell happened to you?”

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

“Just got back from a rave.”

“Some rave, I guess?”

“Can I please use your phone?”

“What for?”

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

“Does it fucking matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

“He didn’t answer.”

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

“You could just give me your keys?”

“Are you even old enough to drive?”

“I’ve got my license, yeah.”

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry,” I began.

“I’m sure you are.”

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

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

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

“I did want to go. I just…”

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

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

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

“You have a phone now?”

“It’s Shannon’s. Charlie’s sister.”

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

“Will you please just listen,” I pleaded.

“What?”

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

It was too quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lucky?”

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

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

He stared, his mouth wide.

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

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

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

“Jesus.”

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

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

“Wait. A party?”

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

“What? You went to Stevenson’s?”

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

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

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

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

“Can you just take me home?”

“Home? If you want…”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“How’s your knee?” asked Sam.

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

She continued to gaze into the flowers.

“You were right. It’s unbelievable.”

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

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

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

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

“Did I tell you about the postcard?”

“Yeah, you told me. Greece, right?”

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

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

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

“Sometime. I guess that’s true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

 

Beaks by Kim Magowan

Untitled (no artist)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“What are you drinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how’s…” Freddy trails off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Playdate?” Gin mouths.

 


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

 

 

The Educator by Sarah Melton

FOR SARAH MELTON


An MFA right after undergrad and straight into a paid position. Not bad, right? But you won’t find my book in the storefront. No Pulitzer, not even a “Joel’s staff pick” sticker thrown on the cover. When I was hired I fantasized about National Book Prizes and intimate literary gatherings at George Saunders’ house. I pictured a big paycheck alongside evenings of writing novels. I didn’t expect long nights, weekends, and lunch hours sorting through twenty-somethings’ muddled thoughts about drinking on rooftops and dysfunctional families. I also didn’t expect that I’d enjoy it. When my students submit work it’s like they reach down into some messy space between their heart and their liver, grab whatever they can, and throw the viscera onto the page. I play surgeon and help clean up the blood. I make sure the organs are aligned, everything’s flowing in the right direction, then I sew it up and throw away the gloves. When I do my job well, I don’t leave a trace, and my students are grateful.

 

Carole’s writing, of course, rarely needs it. Sure, it’s rough in parts, but whenever a deadline rolls around, she starts whispering to me about mismatched socks strewn on the floor and the groveling hand of a clock. She writes about the penmanship of her brother’s grocery lists, the hem of her father’s pants hitting cement tiles on the way out, and I’m the one left gutted.

As I read her work, I picture her. I see her pull at the edges of her curly brown hair, the way she takes her sweater off and I want to be there. I’d bring her a coffee and watch her nose wrinkle as she writes jokes. Eventually, I’d get restless. I’d close her computer, pull her out of her chair and push her up against the wall. The day after class deadlines, images of her surge through me until I can’t take any more. I build up the courage to do something about it.

I plan instead of sleep. When I’m not working, I devour graphic novels and Billy Wilder films, so unless the woman is both a 12 year old boy and a 60 year old man (preferably in neither of those bodies), they’re not going to be wowed. When it comes to not waking up lonely, I’ve learned to strategize. I look up university protocol and find vague condemnations. Nothing that’s not maneuverable. I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve wrapped my arms around warm curves, or had someone to watch Firefly with.

Every Tuesday at 4, I have office hours – she comes with specific questions. Is this sentence too long? How can I fix the pacing of my first paragraph? She arrives on time, the cutest grin plastered across her face. My desk, empty except for a small stack of papers, sits like a lifetime between us.

“I’m actually a bit busy right now, and don’t really have time to meet with you. Not that I don’t want to,” I tell her. She crosses her legs then uncrosses them, about to say “ok,” and leave. Just like that. I picture myself sitting there, paralyzed, my heart dribbling on the floor, watching as she stomps out, dragging her feet through the heart puddle as she goes. It would cling to the underside of her shoes, other professors would wonder how it ended up on clean carpets.  But I know what I’m doing. I recite my line exactly as practiced.

“So I was wondering if you might want to have a meeting tomorrow over lunch instead?” I look right at her.

The small freckle above the corner of her lip inches upwards and her face turns the pale pink of her nail polish. She doesn’t freak out.  If anything, she’s confused, which is fine. She isn’t sure if I’m suggesting lunch out of convenience or because I want to spend time with her. I’ve got her thinking about me. And her. And me and her together.

Her eyes search mine for an explanation, then scan the bookshelf for something else to focus on. My heartbeat bounces off the corners of the room but I only hear her soft, shallow breaths as she doesn’t say anything. Women love to make you wait. Then finally, she says ok. OK. Okay. I wonder if she is saying yes because she wants my feedback, or to be polite, or because she is picturing shirts on the floor. I suggest a time and place I’ve already decided on.

When I get there she is already sitting at a corner table. I like that she’s a bit over eager, like in class. At first she is more shy than in my office, and we eat to a soundtrack of small talk. I ask her about her life, her hobbies, I know she likes hiking from one of the pieces she turned in, and she steers the conversation towards her work. Fine with me, I could talk about writing all day. An hour later, there are papers thrown between us and she is still directing us towards craft. I make fun of the typewriter tattoo I got in grad school, and she laughs, her eyes lighting up as they meet mine in the crossfire of the joke. Since childhood, when girls learned to point out my pale arms, I’ve become practiced in confident self-deprecation. Before she leaves, I suggest we have lunch again next week,instead of office hours, and she pauses. But only for a short tiny minuscule moment, and she says “sure,” and I exhale.

Perhaps she is treating these lunches as a mentorship kind of thing, so I make my intentions clear.  “I admire your writing.” I tell her. “I’m obsessed with that piece about you and your ex.” That one really got me going, but of course I don’t tell her that. She doesn’t know how to respond so she acts like she doesn’t hear me.

At the second lunch meeting, instead of asking about sentence structures and paragraph lengths, she asks if the characters are likable, if she deals with loneliness in cliche ways. I steer the conversation into the ideas themselves. I slip in a detail about my sister who hates me, and how I feel insecure I’m not living up to my potential as a writer. Relationships, I know, are give and take.

“Do you have thoughts on the ending?” she asks about her last story. She sent it to me last night, my inbox spinning from zero to one and back to zero within 5 seconds. “I’ve re-written it a hundred times, and it always falls short,” she says. I suggest she takes out the last sentence, and shorten some of the others. I give her my ideas to fill the silence, and she smiles and writes them down. She does not realize her charm. I rest my hand on her shoulder and she flinches a little. Not upset or uncomfortable, she doesn’t move away from me, she’s just surprised.

As we meet for our third lunch date, it hits me. This is happening. This is really happening. I’ve laid the groundwork and I’ve actually gotten to this point, so now I have to take the final step.

“I like spending time with you,” I tell her. “I want to ask you something.“ She doesn’t smile. She was smiling and then her teeth jumped back behind her lips and her skin fell as loose as a 20 year old’s skin can.

I want to stop talking, but it’s too late now. If anyone is worth the suffering they cause, she is, so I finish what I started.

“The situation might seem weird, but I don’t think it should. Just act like you would with any other man approaching you in admiration.” Her eyebrows wrinkle and she struggles to keep her features in place. I act like I don’t notice. “I think we have great chemistry.”

I know to an outsider this might verge on unprofessional, but understand I don’t see her as my student. She is a fully grown woman. She looks 25 at least. And if she tells me I am being inappropriate, if she throws her notebook at me or cries or calls me an ass, I would apologize immediately. I would tell her to forget I ever said anything, and assure her that I could still be a worthwhile teacher. But she doesn’t. She sits in silence, and I know I have a chance.

“Maybe we can have some wine, and talk. Not about writing. Well, I’m always happy to talk about writing, you know me. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you pretty well these past months. You can read some of my work if you’d like. Watch a movie. You know, just spend time together.”

My guts roll around on themselves like my organs are a broken roller coaster. It’s like this every time I ask a beautiful woman for a date. Whether they’re interested or not, they become coy, just because they can. They smile sheepishly into themselves, and decide whether they will let you admire them a little longer, or will rip you apart like your lego sculptures, tiny bricks on the ground beneath their feet.

I have to remind myself that I’m not terrible looking. I’ve published an entire novel and several chapbooks of anecdotal vignettes and lyrical essays and some women find me endearing. Carole makes me forget these things. But no, I am not crazy to think she might be as interested in me as I am in her. To think she might even look up to me.

She bites her bottom lip, ripping a little of the skin off.  A drop of blood forms so I lean in to help, but she moves. Her spine cracks against the back of the chair and I think she might fall out of it. I asked too early, I should have waited. She could have made the first move. After we break the world record for awkward silences, she says she will come and she finishes eating and grabs her papers and leaves. I don’t mean to make her nervous, but she makes me feel that way too.

***

I sweep my floor, and then I mop it. I look out the windows, and then I sit down. I take out a couple books, ones she would like, and place them to look forgotten on the table. I get up and check the windows. Lakes form under my arms and leak onto my shirt, so I change into a new, loose-fitting outfit. I keep the curtains closed so she does not catch me standing there. I glance at my watch. That groveling hand of my clock. Ha. I pick up one of the books and try to take in the words. I let out the stomach I’ve been sucking in for 20 minutes.  

At 7:23pm she’s on my doorstep. I pour a glass of cabernet sauvignon and guide her to my couch.

Just relax. Both of us. Questions work well to get her comfortable. She answers them and does not sit still. I want her to talk but I wish she didn’t talk so much. Every silence that sneaks up on us, she rushes to fill by asking me something. When she finally pauses, I reach out slowly, deliberately, to brush the hair away from her eyes. Before my hand travels the chasm between us, she tucks the loose strands behind her ear. So I’m left sitting next to her on the couch, hand chilling mid-air like an idiot. Like I am doing a bad ET impression. I’m so close to ruining everything and my hand is practically at her face so I see no other option but to move it to rest on her cheek. From there, I lean in, and I kiss her. She squirms. She is restless, like me. Together, we are nervous writers in a dangerous world. I keep kissing her, and she starts pulling away. I know I should stop, but this is my moment. I finally have her, here, in my arms, like i’ve thought about every night. I run my fingers through her hair, then down her back and under her clothes and it’s better than my fantasies, better than the musical episode of Buffy, hell, it’s even better than seeing my book published for the first time.

I stop for a second and the eyes in front of me belong to a fox at gunpoint. I lean back, to take in this untouchable woman, and she begins to gather her things. With one hand through her coat sleeve she says “well, I should get going,” the distance between her and the couch, between me and her, increasing with each word. Did she think that was a goodnight kiss? I knew I was going too fast. I do not want to scare her away, so I go along with it. I can’t stop smiling as I walk her out.

I’d say it was a lovely night.

***

In class, nothing is different. I try to catch her eye and she stares into her notebook like Cirque du Soleil is going on in there. As much as I want a glance, a glimmer of a smile, I know we can’t let others catch on. Instead, I make my feedback as poetic as I can. A secret, coded, love letter. I email her for conferences to discuss her work – her writing has gotten noisy and abstract. I find her number in the college directory and call to ask why she’s been absent. She doesn’t answer. I try not to come across as desperate, but I don’t care if she has the power, I want her to talk to me.

 

Carole,

When can we meet again? I had a lovely time with you. I read your work over and over and I can’t wait to get to know that person more. Do you know how many girls in the class have crushes on me? But I only think of you. Allow me to make you happy. We could have something great. We can’t just leave things like this.

forever yours,

G.

 

I write her terrible letters. Truly awful stuff. I try to be poetic and it sounds false. I try to be straightforward and it’s cliche. Tender and vulnerable? Nope, just pathetic.  What kind of writer am I if I can’t even create a goddamned love letter? Carole obviously agrees because I get no response.

I look up this ex-boyfriend of hers. I find his first name from her story, and then I check facebook. I find a photo of her snuggling with the moron, Jack Fernagie, who could never deserve her. I look him up in college records and get his address. This information isn’t public, of course, but it’s not difficult to access. I start going for walks in the area. I learn he’s on the basketball team and studies chemical engineering. I do nothing with the information, except dwell on it. Why would she be with someone like that? She should be with an artist.

After making me wait out the distance of the universe, she gives me the time of day. In a curt email she tells me it was all a mistake. She is not interested. She asks me to forget it, to leave her alone. I know I’m a writer, but I can’t describe how that made me feel. Like a marching band trampling on my heart. Like an entire freaking parade jumping up and down on it. So I only send a couple more letters asking her to reconsider. I leave them with gifts outside her house.

***

Stan, the head of the department arranges a meeting. This happens often to talk about a new book or figure out class schedules, I think he sees a younger version of himself in me. But he addresses me with a sternness I’ve only heard him use once before, while dismissing a student accusing him of racism,  and I know it’s bad.  How did he figure it out?

The university can access my emails, but would they pay attention to random writing feedback between a teacher and his class? I step into Stan’s office, closing the door behind me. I ask about his wife.

“It’s come to my attention there may be something inappropriate going on between you and a student,” he says.

Carole told me herself how uncomfortable Stan makes her. Female students would want him fired for sexism long before they’d find a problem with me. He’s lucky if 2 or 3 stick around to be ignored in his workshops. Who does he think he is? I call him a jealous prick. No I don’t. I take a deep breath and smile at him, I hope it looks confident but not smug.

He talks a lot, which gives me time to decide how to respond.

“I will not have my department tarnished.” he says. “I have worked hard for my position and respectability. The students have been protesting the university’s handling of sexual assault for months. You know damn well we’re under a magnifying glass here. One misstep and we’ll be dealing with slanderous articles, pissed off alum and budget cuts. Don’t put me through that, George.”

I could tell him the things she writes in her assignments. Say that she was interested at first, but she changed her mind, and we’ve come to a mutual understanding.

“If a student goes public with accusations, at that point it will be out of my hands. We’ll have to let you go. For now, it’s just a concern, so what your step. It could be the difference between a meeting with the ethics committee and your job.”

I know to be deliberate. Another deep breath, I hold my hands in my lap to keep them still. I stay quiet. Whatever I say will be meaningless. I need Carole. She has to be the one to tell them what happened, to defend me.

***

I ask her, once again, to come over. If she speaks on my behalf it could save my job. The administration are not actually worried that these romances happen, but about negative press, so if Carole proves there’s not a problem, there won’t be.  She knows I’m not a bad guy, after all. She said so once in an email. But she doesn’t respond so I have no choice but to go to her house.

When she opens the door, she takes a step back, hovering, not sure what to do. But she lets me in and before I say anything, she apologizes. She says she knows I was only trying to be nice, but it was too much, and she got scared and she regrets it. Then I realize. It wasn’t my coworkers suspecting something – she reported me.  If I lose it now she’ll never forgive me. Any small glimmer of a chance thrown out the tiny, lego window that she’s already grinding into the floor with her heel. I focus on my breathing.

“Carole, are you serious? I like you so much. How could you do this to me?”

I take deep breaths, in and out, the way one does when the walls turn white and start to crumble. I mean to be calm, but writers are passionate people. I raise my hands and come towards her and I throw every word I can think of at her, emotions rising and being released, swelling in anger and then exhaled.

“I could lose my job, do you realize that? Take it back. Please. You came to my house, didn’t you? What did you expect? You know there’s something between us. And you don’t think this will hurt you too? You think employers will rush to hire someone who is going to seduce the boss and then sue them?”

I let go of her shoulders, realizing I have been shaking her. She’s so disoriented she can barely stand, her eyes have doubled in size and are wet. I reach out again to steady her, to stroke her hair, to calm her down. Before either of us realize what is happening, she grabs a knife sitting on the kitchen table and it flies through the air. She slashes it, without thought, in my direction, with little control over what her hand or the knife are actually doing.  And like that, my pinky falls. It bends a little at the joint when it hits the ground.

Not a metaphorical pinky or figurative knife. Not stabbing a broken, pathetic man in his feelings. If only. She stands for a moment watching it happen until her knees slam the floorboards and she exhales like there is no air left in her body. It is a full second before the pain registers and it’s the kind of pain of teeth being ripped out with pliers, of spoons removing eyeballs from their sockets, of a pinky being cut off with a kitchen knife, resting on sticky hardwood floors. In the midst of the action, the bottle of wine I brought was knocked over, the ground is stained with two shades of red.

She calls 911 but does not come in the ambulance. The doctors are able to re-attach the pinky, and tell me that once it heals it will be almost, but not quite, perfectly functional. Neither of us press charges. A doctor’s report is the only one filed – nothing with the school or police.

I think she feels guilty, but she doesn’t reach out. I wish things were different. I wish we walked away with memories of being goofy at the movies, of drinking and dancing in my living room. Instead, she drops my class, and takes a leave from university. It’s her loss, I tell myself. But I miss watching her freckle move as she talks. I know I am better than the mess she reduced me to, so I refuse to let her destroy me. I do pinky stretches and pinky weight exercises every morning before my first cup of coffee. I write a new chapbook – a series of sketches about fingers and fingertips, and it wins an award.


About the Author: Sarah Melton is a new writer who studied creative writing at Brown University. She used to write for the arts and culture magazine, Motif, but currently works at NPR Books.

 

THINGS WE SHOULD’VE SAID by Angie Walls

FOR ANGIE WALLS - by Lorenzo Tianero


It’s October, but I have no idea what day it is. I am still a ghost of myself. The sky is hopelessly black, with only a couple dim streetlights to shine the stairway up the hill to Lo Coco’s, where I’m meeting Pete. I find myself stumbling on the way to the restaurant, the one I know by heart but just can’t bear to show my face. Here, we had been happy once.

Pete is sitting at the table I would’ve picked, closest to the exit. I take my place across from him, preserving the wide-open distance between us, although this means I’ll have to lean in to be heard. He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes; I know he’s silently cursing me for being thoughtlessly late. He’d left messages for me all afternoon, but I couldn’t bring myself to listen to them until it was already past seven o’clock.

“You want some wine?” Pete says sharply, with his head is buried in the menu. I never liked the sweetness of rosé, but I let Pete order a glass for me anyway. His face looks pale, rough, and unshaven since I last saw him. My mind traces back to our last encounter at our friend Kelly’s wedding this summer, back when we were pretending we weren’t dead broke. I was playing the tired old charade of happy wife, and he was giving the toast about how to make marriage last. It was weeks later before I could bring myself to confess my deception to my friends, after I’d spent so long spinning this story of my enchanted existence.

There’s a little sip of watered-down whiskey he saves in his glass, refusing to get another. Out the corner of my eye, I can see his long fingers tracing the rim of the glass. I can tell he’s thinking, maybe about what to say next or whether to make meaningless small talk to fill the time. The failure in finding the right words, it’s always hanging between us. I think about the things we should’ve said in the beginning, when there might have been time to change.  

I feel so childish burying my hands under my legs, but I have to brace myself for what’s coming. The trembling in my limbs eventually subsides, my fingertips become

powerless and sweaty. Being numb is the closest thing to comfort, not much more than an ice cube for a broken bone. It was unintentionally cruel of him, and cowardly of me, to agree to meet like this. He made it look so effortless, leaning his arm on the back of his chair, taking his time. Pretending we hadn’t been eating here every Friday night the first year we got married, drinking and dreaming endlessly in each other’s arms. It was our best Christmas, ages ago it seems, when we had everything. He whispered the words “marry me” gently as a secret in my ear. We drank expensive champagne. He led me by the hand to his hotel room overlooking the bay. I fell into the deep satin sheets, the long days wrapped up in his gentle and beautiful hands, the calm of his heartbeat. I realized how easily I could slip into such a new and perfect life, rewriting my old one, just by saying yes.

“I’m tired, Amy. We have been talking around this forever, and I know you want to wait,” he pauses, waiting for me to meet his eyes for once. “Look at me. It’s time, we should get this over with.” I let the words rush over me in one crushing wave, trying not to show how painful it was to hear. He looks away, as if he’s taken back by his own abrupt words.

“I don’t know. I keep thinking that I can’t remember the last time I was ever happy.” Pete is leaning in close to me, his hand almost touching mine. Did he really say that? The darkness is swallowing me whole now. I can only sink into it without a fight. I think of the times Pete had been happy, all the good days when I’d look over at Pete, so I would know I wasn’t dreaming and he had been happy and in love too. If only I could find that precise moment, for the both of us, when our life together fell apart before it had really begun. Slowly, I glance up to see his face, the weariness that has replaced joy. I know he wants me to finally give in, but I can only muster the strength to walk away.

In my bed I lay on my back, watching the slow motion of the fan blades above me until I drift off. I dream about the summer we met. I was almost eighteen, pale-skinned and freckle-faced, with raven-black dyed hair tied on top with a rubber band. I was incarcerated in a small beach town with my vile parents, whose years of malice toward each other only spread like a disease in my adolescent years. I was sneaking out late every night to smoke cigarettes and get drunk on Malibu rum, while the rest of the town slept. We were the farthest from home, back in the Oklahoma panhandle, the last place on earth anyone would want to be. I’d had so many fleeting moments where I could just slip out in the dark to a new life, any life other than mine. Flat on my back, I instead covered myself with sand head to toe, helpless as the stars and the sky spun slowly around me. Pete was down the shore from me, strumming his ten-dollar guitar and letting the salty ocean water wash up to his knees. I closed my eyes, held my breath as he continued to play, so I wouldn’t disrupt this dream—a dream so pure and seductive, it made me all the more determined to latch onto a man I hardly knew.

***

It’s a few weeks later, when Pete is filling up my life with emails and voicemails again. I know him better than myself by now, and he’s not the sentimental type except when he’s writing. The first few start out very dry and factual, like a shopping list for separation, and I can’t see the point of responding. But he’s thinking about me, which is the closest inch of compassion to make me fall back into my old self. I poke cautiously, as I am curious to know what happened after he left me behind. Somehow he’s decided to take the deplorable teaching job with Robert at the Guitar Emporium, the first of many concessions he swore he’d never make. We’ll see how it goes, he says. I am at a loss on what I should say, shocked that he would tell me, of all people.  

I’m digging deep down in the bare cupboards of the apartment, there’s just some ramen and cheap canned tuna. My life isn’t all that changed since I was twenty-one, living in our tiny studio in northeast L.A. Except now that I’ve sobered up, I am waking up to a very different reality, stuck in the driest corner of the central valley close to the desert. The air is hostile and dry, and it’s so much worse than the dust storms back in Oklahoma. And between working fast food graveyard shifts and scrubbing toilets at the strip club, I barely piece enough together to pay rent.

It’s hard to imagine how we carried on for so many months, burying ourselves in debt so quickly after we left the east bay. With all our credit cards maxed out, we hardly had any friendships left where we hadn’t squeezed out every last favor, even if it was only five bucks. I figured it out first, but convinced myself that we had plenty of time to make up for our extravagance. Pete was playing odd jobs, hole-in-the-wall bars that paid his band in peanuts, but we were happy. He was writing again. Even if we had to scrape together every nickel and dime to make the life he imagined, I still couldn’t bear to leave his side. I can’t really say for sure which had burned us out of L.A. first—between the Santa Ana’s merciless winds, the brush fires that hit our block first that summer, or the creditors hounding us.

I don’t wanna fight anymore, Pete began saying all the time, after we had to head farther away from the coast, and into the brown, lifeless landscapes past the Sacramento Valley. He wasn’t a famous rock star yet, and I still smelled like french fry grease at the end of the day. The tips of his fingers got soft again, the calluses from years of guitar playing were practically gone. Once, I regrettably introduced him to my friend Robert, who had recently abandoned his rock and roll life to sell kids’ guitars at the Emporium in Modesto. I was desperate to find a single thread of inspiration to help him become himself again, but no matter what I said, I was pushing his dream away from his grasp. I didn’t have the nerve to ask about his guitar. Whether it was lost in the fire or he sold it at a pawn shop, I’ll never know.

Christmas comes back around, and it’s the worst one. Pete arrives at the apartment to take away his last few boxes, the few things we hadn’t managed to sell, have stolen, or lose in the fire. He’s here to call it quits, and I wish I could’ve seen that moment he first knew he’d be giving up on me. I manage to answer the door without falling apart.

“So what now?” I wrap my arms around my stomach, leaning in the doorway. “Where will you go?” My legs are weak again, and I don’t know how to fix this feeling that I am falling, with no ground below to stop me.

“I don’t know,” he says. I can tell he means it. He’s digging with both hands in a box filled with CDs, the Beatles at the very top. He goes for the white album, his favorite.

“Are you moving again?” I am watching how he turns the CD over in his hands, with incredible tenderness. I wonder if he still hears the music, feels it playing in his fingers after all this time. Hopefully, some things are too sacred to change.

“What do you want to keep? Maybe you should go through these first.” Pete is looking at me, when a rush of uncertainty suddenly hits him. “You want the Dave Matthews? Or The Doors?”

“Oh, it’s OK. Whatever, if you don’t have room for them.” I take one small step to get a closer look in the box.

“What about Pearl Jam?” He pauses for a long time. “I guess I don’t know what you liked.” I don’t know the answer either.

 


About the Author: Angie is a short story writer, novelist, and screenwriter who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, near the Ozarks. Many of her stories explore contemporary themes of identity, isolation, and helplessness in the Midwest. She is the award-winning screenwriter and director behind “Redmonton,” a new web series inspired by her hometown, and has published stories in various journals including Cutthroat, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Helix, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, The Griffin, and Stirring. Her short story “Things We Should’ve Said” received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train. In early 2017, she will be releasing a new book of short stories, Anywhere But Here. To learn more, visit her website at AuthorAngieWalls.com.

 

Artwork: Lorenzo Tianero